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Nine Eleven Ten

Chapter Text

The days were getting shorter, the nights becoming even colder, when the time of the Chosen came round again.

Charles Xavier, youngest ever admitted to Oxford Before, head teacher-in-residence After, cast his thoughts across the frozen field. Pale gold leavings of hay, silver frost, a cold cloudless sky and the waning moon only just visible in the growing daylight. His mind flew like a bird. Bright needle in a haystack; where was she? It was almost eight, and well past time for them to start walking.

Come home, come home. Raven, Raven fly away home – and then ...

“There you are.” He smiled at the feather-light touch, the flashes of hello – love – and the flickering image of a creek bed flashing by. “Hurry up please - it's time. If we’re late, they’ll notice. You know that.”

It didn’t take long for him to hear the crunch of boots, running across the field. His sister was laughing - her hair streamed out behind her as she ran toward him. She thumped the fence as she came through the gate and a row of birds scattered into flight, calling and croaking in protest.

“Ravens! How many, Charles? Quick – count!”

It was easy enough to see them spiraling skyward, black against pale blue – far easier, though, to brush them with his mind. Crystal stone skipping over water. “Seven – eight? No. Seven.”

“Seven is a journey.” She caught her breath, grinned, and then put one gloved hand into his. They started walking.

“Don’t tell me you still teach that rhyme.” Charles smiled, watching his words puff white in the air. “The children take the silliest things quite seriously indeed.”

“One for bad news, two for mirth, three is a wedding, four is a birth,” Raven chanted. Then she shrugged. “I like it, and so do they. And with classes just starting, I have to cheer them up somehow.”

“Why not the story of the ravens at the Tower?”

“Fine.” Her smile was wide, crinkling her eyes up at the corners. “That’ll be next week.”

“Next week,” Charles agreed.

He had tried to keep his voice light, but of course she noticed. He felt her hand squeeze his, hard.

“It’ll work, Charles. We’ve planned it, we’ve practiced it, we’ve gone over it a hundred times. It worked already. It’ll work again.”

He squeezed her hand back. It worked already. The Takers came once every three years. His powers, even kept dampened - every hour, every day, always - had been enough to shield her from their notice. They had come to the school, they had performed their tests, and they had gone. Just his luck that she didn’t turn twenty-one for two more weeks. Why the hell couldn’t they have started with Cambridge this time?

He, of course, was exempt, being well over twenty-one. The standard assumption was that anyone over twenty-one and not Chosen was not strong enough to be of any ... what? Account? Importance? Use? He shoved the last thought aside; he knew his own use, teaching. Those not Chosen were either not strong enough or already in the grave. Life had grown exponentially more difficult since the war, and even leaving aside the first generation of deaths, there just weren’t that many people anymore.

Which meant fewer for the Takers, of course. Which was just as well, since ... once chosen, no Chosen was ever seen again.

None came back, from wherever they had gone. Almost nine years, now, of pouring drinks down strangers at the bar, winding strands of thought out of their minds with his, and he still hadn’t the slightest idea of what the hell the Chosen were chosen for –

“Hey.” Raven cuffed him on the shoulder. “Snap out of it.”

“Beg pardon.” Charles made his voice light, as he began the ritual that led off every hour of the day – check, dampen, veil – the image of veil after silken veil, gossamer-thin, floating down to shroud his mind. There would be no trace remaining of his call to Raven by the time they returned to Oxford.

Oxford. He had been a freak of nature, a wunderkind: devouring mathematics before he could read; reading the classics before he could ride a bicycle; memorizing Mendel by ten, Darwin by eleven. His parents had been overwhelmed with pride when Oxford had made a covert offer to have him start reading sciences there. The war had started not a year later. After, Oxford had tried to rebuild – in the neighboring villages, then gradually further afield. He taught a mix of everything, now; too much material for too few students.

He had found Raven on the first Oxford mission to London. He had been seventeen; she had been six. Charles had taught her to read, taught her maths. He had taught her to hide what she was, and to hide it extremely well.

And it was just as well that he had. The Takers had first come just before her twelfth birthday. He had been twenty-two. And now ...

One more Trial, and she would never need worry about them again.

“Bloody hell, Charles, you’ve a face as long as a wet week. Race you back!”

He couldn’t help the smile as he watched her run, her boots kicking up the gravel of the road. Twenty years old. One more Trial, and then they would be safe. Once more - and, speaking of which, it couldn't hurt to remind her of her name one last time that morning.

“Mallory!” he shouted. “Wait!”

Even with the veils, he could feel her laughing at the name, as she always did. This time with the image of a bird, flying bright and clear at the front of her mind.

Years later, Charles would remember that day. Sometimes he would wonder if he could have changed anything; other times he would despair over what he had since become.

But he would always hold the image in his mind: Raven, laughing, and his thoughts soaring alongside her on strong wings, silver-gold through the winter air. Once upon a time.


One for bad news,
Two for mirth,
Three is a wedding,
Four is a birth,
Five is for riches,
Six is a thief,
Seven, a journey,
Eight is for grief.
Nine is a secret,
Ten is for sorrow.
Eleven is for love,
Twelve – joy for tomorrow.

- Old English Rhyme -

Chapter Text

Classes began at nine o’clock, precisely. Charles gazed out the window at the clock tower, waiting.

The Takers had arrived, he knew. Seven is a journey, Raven had said.

"No ravens here ..."

He had not spoken loudly; merely to the glazed window. Charles stared out across the quad. The pale green grass was already fading to brown, less and less of a contrast with the tan stone of pillar and pediment. The graveled walkways were empty, as befit the hour; except ...

He squinted. A fellow professor, in academicals, was running - and tripping, and there went a cascade of paper. White hair frizzed out, for there went her cap. Benson, then, the Poet Laureate. Charles smiled. Raven liked Benson. He made a mental note to ask her to their house for tea - it had been too long since they had spoken.

And there went Benson's briefcase. For tea, yes; but perhaps with the second-best china ...

Charles blinked away from his woolgathering as he heard the first peal of bells.

He always set his father’s old pocket watch by that clock tower. But that morning, as Charles flipped open the steel cover, a distant part of him noticed that his hands were sweating.

“Settle down.”

The milling students took their seats quickly – he had made his voice sharper than usual. Not my fault, because … already? … there was a tiny needle of pain jabbing at his temple.

It worked before. It will work again.

The intervening three years had made him forget the stress of it, though: keeping his own mental signature muted while eluding the chattering minds of most of the students and focusing on his sister, wrapping her in the gossamer veils. He sent calm and love you to her, even as he caught brief flashes of the hall the Takers had chosen, and the other students there ...

Then he dragged his mind back to his duties. You're a teacher. So: buck up and teach. Charles surveyed the lecture hall, cataloguing and calculating, as was his mind's instinct. So few students, in Oxford After ... that what would ordinarily have been a speaker holding forth in majesty, and dozens of listeners frantically scribbling had turned into a forlorn cross between lecture and tutorial.

Well. Perhaps not so forlorn in actual number. A score ... no. Nineteen, today. Charles made a note to inquire after MacLeod. Forlorn in the number that were determinedly not meeting his eye. Ha. There was a disadvantage to having even a covert telepath for a teacher - namely: one could not get away with failing to prepare - but he didn't even have to use a flicker of power to catch the don't-call-on-me coming off his students. He could almost smell it.

Well. Even if it was a Monday, even if this wasn't his specialty, even if this wasn't a private tutorial ... the pain had increased into a prickle of white-hot pins at the base of his skull, and he would take it out on -

"Avery Major." The boy gave a guilty start, eyes wide. Charles sighed. “Everyone, please open your texts to page two hundred three. Mr. Avery, read aloud and translate.”

Avery cleared his throat and started in on Plutarch.

Charles felt his head throb at the first sweep of ... whatever the Takers were using. He had never dared focus in on it when he had shielded Raven before. It was something crystalline, though.

Something powerful.

He corrected mispronunciations and mistranslations as Avery stumbled his way through the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Made a note to himself: take Avery Major aside after class, order him to prepare a good portion of the Life of Lycurgus individually, and lay a bet with his fellow professors on whether or not the next tutorial would be a rout. Carthago delenda est.

The second sweep, half an hour later, was more powerful – Charles broke into a sweat. It prickled beneath his jacket and shirt; his undress gown felt suddenly heavier. Seven hours to go. It worked before. It will work today. But then another sweep, and another ... with less time between them ...

Six sweeps later, it was crystal clear that something was different. He was not panicking – don’t panic don’t panic – but there was a pressure there that hadn’t been there three, six, nine years ago. He didn’t know how it was done, not completely. Raven had been tight-lipped about the whole experience, and Charles had always refrained from deeper forays into her mind if he didn’t have her permission. In any case, it was probably because she just didn’t want to hurt him.

- hurt -

Charles staggered, and grabbed the side of his desk.

“Professor!”

He righted himself, waving off the few students who had risen in their seats. “It’s fine. It’s fine – go back to –”

But then he felt another wave of it – a white-hot bloom in his head, unfolding petals edged in pain – and he heard Raven screaming – my sister screaming -

“One moment,” he choked to the class. “Continue reading; I’ll return momentarily.”

“Professor, are you –”

“Sit down!” Charles snapped. Had he stayed in the room, he would have seen Avery’s younger brother instantly obey; as it was, he was running down the hall, gown flapping round him, before he could think better of it.

It had worked before. He had taken the brunt of whatever was being done to Raven before, but it had never been this bad, never – and why were they doing it? What were they doing? The whirlwind of his thoughts propelled him through a labyrinth of corridors almost without his notice.

But then he faced an immense set of double doors, their handles chased in iron, and he knew his sister was on the other side. Charles flung out a thought – not close by, no, since the hall was so large. On a – table? A trestle table of some sort on the other side of the hall. She was chained down - and there was something being done to her –

He placed one palm flat on the door, and the other against the side of his face. There could be no hesitation. Instead, he allowed his power to uncoil and brush past one of the veils – only one – the rest in place would shield him … but his sister was screaming, and before he knew it he had found her mind and wrapped her in a blanket of calm and it’s all right – and he found her pain receptors and shut them all down.

Her crying stopped. Thank god – but it was difficult, to keep his feet on the floor, when so much pain from her was still echoing through his own mind, when his power was bubbling like mercury. Charles focused on the door, the intricate wrought iron patterns. Calm, he sent to his sister. Calm.

By the time her heart rate had gone back to normal, he himself was calm.

So calm, in fact, that when the door opened in front of him, he didn’t even think to step back from the woman standing there.

She was of middling height, dressed conservatively, and with an icy blonde beauty that would have launched a thousand ships, three thousand years ago. As it was, all that she launched was a wave of –

– my god that’s cold –

- ice at the threshold of his mind, in his mind, and he gasped and dragged his power back to himself as quickly as he could –

But the ice had turned into delicate shards, probing and inquiring. Then the shards whirled and refracted into a diamond. The diamond multiplied into a strand, a strand that flared with something …

Joy didn’t convey its sharp, icy edge.

Charles might have felt joy himself, at the touch of another telepath’s mind, if the woman had not said:

“This one.” The diamond blazed, a blinding crystal light. “Take him.”

Both doors were thrown open and people seized him - and Charles almost staggered from the pain and fear that crashed into the hallway. He saw students that he knew, staring at him - he caught sight of his sister, sitting up on the table, eyes wide with shock.

This shouldn't be happening, he thought, and – Raven – before someone jabbed a needle into his neck and everything went black.

Chapter Text

Darkness covered his thoughts, with the occasional flash, like bursts of fire over a black river.

– the woman’s eyes, diamond-bright and glittering, and the taut line of her throat as she turned to look to the side – she was saying something, but he didn’t understand –

– a man’s skin – a man? a devil? but devils don't exist - bright red, and blood-red mist tangling around him – he said something and squinted, but Charles still didn’t understand –

– and another man’s face, pale and spare, cheekbones prominent beneath green eyes. Or were they blue? Green or blue, they were remote and he was expressionless, and he didn’t say a single word.

Then darkness again, and nothingness.


When Charles next opened his eyes, his first thought was of how his entire body ached. He cautiously eased his head from side to side; wiggled his fingers and his toes. An attempt at flexing one arm sent pain lancing up through his biceps; he winced and hissed out a breath despite himself –

“The drugs do tend to have that effect.”

Charles felt his heart jump into his mouth as he whipped his head to the side. It was that woman from the doorway, in Oxford. She had the same immaculate features and calculating eyes – she was a telepath, he remembered, and – telepathy – I didn’t sense her here -

That new fear joined in the torrent centered on his sister, a torrent now whirlpooling out of control. He felt light-headed. Had his powers been taken away? And what would he do, if they –

“Ah.” The woman smiled. “You may have noticed the muting effect of this room.” One manicured hand descried a circle in the air. “We usually take precautions with telepaths and empaths. And since I was the one to recruit you – shall we say, past your time – I feel as though the duty of explaining things to you belongs to me.”

His head was still spinning as he cautiously stretched out a thread of thought. She was telling the truth, Charles realized, the panic in him widening into a yawning chasm of fear. Except – wait – he knew she was telling the truth, because he could sense it, the faintest sound of truth echoing from her. It felt as though the mercury in him was torpid and sluggish, cold in the chill of the room and not quicksilver as usual – but he could feel her thoughts – hear the truth of them – and there was not even a flicker of diamond to defend her mind …

Charles reeled back his thoughts as quickly as he could. He swept them under all the veils, and, acting on sudden instinct, groaned and put a hand to one temple.

“It will hurt if you try.” The blonde’s smile did not touch her eyes.

“You – too?” he croaked.

“Yes, actually. The only reason I am here is – as I said before – to explain to you the situation in which you currently find yourself.”

She rose from her chair. Before he knew it her hands were on his shoulders, pushing, and pain throbbed as she made him sit up. She placed a pillow behind him, but so clinical was the motion, compared to when he had been sick with the flu the previous year, and Raven had taken care of him … Charles felt tears sting his eyes.

“Hm.” She sat back down. “You are rather an open book, aren’t you?”

“Situation,” he replied, ignoring her jab. “The situation in which I currently find myself. That’s a very dispassionate way to convey the fact that I have been kidnapped and tortured –”

Her laugh cut him off. “Tortured? Oh, Professor Xavier –” and it was her mocking emphasis on his title that made him lash out.

“You don’t think it’s torture to be deprived of your power? You don’t feel tortured right now?”

Silence fell.

“Tortured?” Her voice was light. “Hardly.”

Charles concentrated on his own breathing. He felt it hitch as she continued, casually, “I don’t think you know what torture is, Xavier. Not yet.”

The woman opened a leather dossier and took out a sheaf of paper, started flicking through pages. The leather had been dyed a beautiful shade of red; it practically glowed against the white linen of her skirt and jacket, the rose silk of her shirt, the platinum-blonde fall of her hair. Charles looked around. The room was stark and bare, with gleaming metal walls and not a single window. He tried shoving his feet against the steel frame of his cot, flexing his toes. Shite. Where were his shoes? And where was the light coming from? Electricity in Oxford was rationed to such an extent that he hardly remembered what a light bulb looked like – perhaps it was gas light? He twisted to try and find its source.

Then he looked back at the woman. She was watching him, comfortable in her chair of plain metal, head tipped to one side. Smiling. “My, we are curious today, aren’t we?”

Charles felt like a specimen on a slide. He grabbed at the first topic that came to mind. “What day is it? How long –” he swallowed. “How long have I been asleep?”

“Long enough.”

“But what day –”

“Now, Xavier, you are going to listen to me, and I will permit you to ask questions later.” She straightened the papers. Charles saw light gleam off the bracelet on her left hand – diamond-studded steel.

“You have been recruited –”

“Chosen,” he corrected automatically.

The woman’s stare could cut glass. “I know the rubric of academia must be rather ingrained by now, Xavier … but you do not interrupt me. Not here. Not ever.”

“Or what?” Misery made him reckless. “Your power are gone in here – too,” he almost fumbled before remembering – yours are too, you idiot – veil veil veil “So what can you do to me?”

She sighed, then slid a syringe out of her jacket sleeve. “Another long sleep, Professor? Perhaps a nap will make you more cooperative?”

“No.” His throat felt thick as he swallowed. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Good.” She slid a paper to the top of the pile and scanned it briefly. “Charles Xavier, professor at what was formerly the University of Oxford. Thirty-one years old. Parents, dead in the Third World War; siblings – siblings?” The woman looked up at him. “We left in rather a rush, I’m afraid, and the records from the registrar’s office did not contain many personal details.”

Every instinct in his mind rang like a bell. They’ll take her if they know. Lie. “No siblings – well – I mean, I had a sister. She died during the war – she was visiting London with relatives ...”

Charles met the woman’s gaze. He pulled up the memory of his cousin, black-haired and brown-eyed, five years old forever since she and his uncle and aunt had been living in London when the bombs fell. He made a mental note: she’s your sister now, and wrapped the memory in a silver cloth, easily noticeable and easily tugged loose. When he got out of this room, after all – and I will, I will – the woman would be able to read his mind again.

At the same time, he wrapped Raven round and round in a silk shroud and watched her sink through his mind, down into the deep – burial at sea. He would protect her at all costs.

You already have, his mind whispered, and he felt his eyes prickle with tears again.

“I’m very sorry,” the woman murmured, looking at the next paper. She didn’t sound sorry at all – she sounded bored.

“You have taught at Oxford since you were sixteen years old. Recruitment began there, by treaty between Great Britain and the EBS, when you were twenty-two – a pity.” Those eyes glinted at him. “Off by one year. We could have been working with you for quite some time. You must understand: I would have found you immediately, if you had been interviewed.”

Charles opened his mouth to speak; remembered. Then he met her eyes, lifted his eyebrows, and raised one hand with a sardonic little flourish.

The woman’s mouth twitched. “Ask away.”

“You said the EBS – what is that, exactly?”

“The Eastern Brethren and Sistren.”

Charles blinked. Then he put two and two together – his mind froze, as he said: “Is that – is that the same as,” he fumbled, “the Brotherhood?”

An exasperated sigh. “It’s still called that, is it?” Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, Xavier – they are one and the same – and as you may have noticed –” she gestured at herself – “it contains women. Thus, the Sistren.”

He hardly heard her. The Brotherhood rebounded through his mind, a whirlwind of fear howling louder and louder. The Brotherhood - the Brotherhood -

The Brotherhood held power in the eastern half of what had been the United States of America, Before – and most of Canada as well – his mind flashed to his own map, sketched on a chalkboard – control stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and edging past the river in fits and starts. Engaged in an all-out war with the Free West – leader: President Stryker, capitol: Denver, model: democracy; the Brotherhood, leader: unknown, capitol: unknown, model: absolute dictatorship – the stories his students had repeated, and his own words, strong and stern: fear will get you nowhere.

Fear. Fear would do him no good, if the Brotherhood had him. He straightened his shoulders and met the other telepath’s gaze.

She stared back at him for a long moment. Then: “Good.” A smile. “Very good. It adds credence to the argument that we should recruit older individuals. Children from abroad usually have hysterics.”

“Oh, how very disagreeable for you.”

Her jaw tightened at his tone – the syringe came out of her sleeve and Charles flinched, “Sorry – I’m sorry. It’s just … I was surprised.” And terrified, his mind added, but: “Surprised.”

“I’ll let your insolence pass this one last time, Xavier.” She replaced the syringe. “But you must understand: you are a new recruit, and as such there will be no talking back, no questioning unless permitted, no communication with our enemies, no leaving the grounds – no escaping,” she finished, voice flat. “There will be no escape for you, ever, so please do put the thought out of your head.”

We’ll see, Charles thought fiercely, but tilted his chin down in what he hoped looked like a cowed expression. His mind flashed to his students, when they hadn’t completed their homework –

And this time he could not stop the tears. Just one – no, two – but the woman threw the dossier and papers on the cot and stood up from her chair.

“So much for adult recruitment.” Her eyes held nothing but amused contempt. “Feel free to read your file. Someone will bring you some food, and your shoes are in there.” She gestured at a steel cabinet in the corner. “You are under constant surveillance, but if you behave well, you will be moved to the Manor.”

“How long will I be here?” Charles croaked, and, “ – the Manor?” What’s that? his mind finished, as he remembered: no interruptions, no questions – that bitch

She crossed her arms over her chest. A ring gleamed on the middle finger of her right hand – bright metal, with a diamond in the center. Just like the bracelet, and her necklace. His mind catalogued, as it always did; while it did, he met her icy stare.

“You will be here as long as I choose to keep you here, Xavier.” A cold smile. “But really, you didn’t think we kept children in an environment as unpleasant as this – did you?”

She walked away without letting him answer. Charles heard a door open and close, and lock with a click, before he thought to spring up and run after her. His palms hit the unforgiving steel, and he choked down a twist of fear – anger – pain – before turning to look at his metal, thought-killing cage.

The Brotherhood had him. Their leader – every instinct told him it was so – was a telepath as powerful as she was vicious. And he didn’t even know her name.

Chapter Text

Charles stared at the ceiling of the metal room. Then he flicked his eyes down to his father’s watch – held open above his sternum, circled by his fingers. Six days, five hours, thirty nine minutes. And counting.

There were no bells, no sounds – nothing but silence. So he had set the watch arbitrarily, marking the moment the woman had left the cell as twelve noon. Since then, he had done nothing but sleep, catalogue every dent and scrape in the metal walls, and run dozens of mental exercises. That, and walk a rut in the floor. He was surprised he hadn't yet worn through his shoes.

The first thing he had done was take those shoes out of the steel cabinet. He had slipped them on, then had tried to straighten the wrinkles in his shirt. No luck. He had still been wearing his suit jacket - but there had been no sign of his undress gown. Raven had it, Charles had decided. There was no way Oxford would have let him be taken peaceably; in the struggle, someone must have taken his academicals, and that same someone would have given the gown back to Raven.

Charles stared at his shoes. Then he stared at the panel outlined in the door. The first time it had clanked, five and a half days ago, Charles had almost jumped out of his skin. Then curiosity had overcome instinctive wariness, and he had walked over and pried at the panel’s edges until it opened. The inside showed a catch mechanism that, once pressed, revealed a flat button on the outside – he only noticed that later, though, since in the deep recess someone had placed a tray – a tray holding food.

He had almost leapt at it, before controlling himself. You are under constant surveillance, he remembered, and he’d be damned if he would give them the satisfaction. So he had set the tray on the cot, closed the panel, and surveyed the room again. Then he had started tracing the walls with his fingers. If there was one thing that opened, surely there’d be another, since they didn’t expect him to wash his hands with saliva. Did they?

Memory had made him clench his jaw. He was hardly a stranger to hardship – days of searching on the Oxford missions, nights of alternating the watch, irradiated water and rotten food … He knew how to piss in a corner. But – he winced – somehow, it would be more humiliating in this metal box than in some ruin of a house.

His patient exploration of the walls paid off, though. A taller panel, when pressed at waist height, folded in half lengthwise – and revealed an austere lavatory, with a sink and soap. Triumphantly, Charles had washed his hands. Then he returned to the cot, took the tray, and sank to sit cross-legged in one corner, so he could see anybody that might come in the door.

Nobody came in the door.

He had cleaned the tray in the sink and held on to it. He had thought to use it as a weapon, since the metal chair was bolted to the floor at the foot of the cot. But then no food appeared for twelve hours, and he gave up and placed the tray back inside the recess in the door. And the door had to be at least a foot thick, damn it, and he didn’t hear anyone reply when – at the clatter of another tray, he had shouted … half question, half curse.

The food was simple but oddly good – there were spices that he had almost forgotten existed. The lights dimmed and brightened on a twenty-four hour cycle. But nobody spoke to him. He didn't hear a sound except the tick of his watch and his own breathing. And nobody came through the door.

And even though the water was amazingly, blessedly hot – one had to build a fire waist-high in Oxford to achieve anything of the sort with the boiler in his college house – he could only take so many showers before tiring of the sight of his lobster-red toes.

So when he wasn’t sleeping or pacing, Charles lay flat on his cot, folded his hands, and ran through one mental exercise after another. Calculating pi, reciting Plutarch and Virgil, analyzing every last expression of the female telepath, calling up all his memories of the Brotherhood …

… and trying, very subtly, to gauge just how hampered his power was by the muting properties of the room.

And how the bloody hell did those properties work? Charles set a tendril of thought to tracing the lines in the ceiling, inching carefully along, checking for any triggers or tripwires. He would give anything for a sheaf of blueprints – and not only because he had memorized his Oxford file in the first half hour of his imprisonment and had nothing else to read. Blueprints, a schematic – hell, an outline scribbled on a cocktail napkin would suffice, as long as it –

Clang.

Charles bolted upright, the watch clattering to the floor. He found his footing, grabbed the watch, darted for the corner – all while yanking his power back to himself. It was like reeling in yards of fine silk from off a clothesline – awkward, all the more awkward because of his heart thumping at such an absurd rate.

The door thumped, and something rattled in the lock. Straightening, his back to the corner, Charles crossed his arms over his chest. He would not show fear – never –

– even when the door swung open and someone who could only be described as a hoodlum strolled inside.

A hoodlum with a cigar.

“You found the food,” the man said, watching the cigar twirl between his own fingers. Then he sniffed, overly loud. “And you found the can, thank god, because I drew cleanup. Good kid, smart kid –”

Dark eyes met Charles’ blue ones, and the strange man blinked. “Whoa - a big kid. Damn. You radioactivated or something?”

Charles stared back at him, keeping his mouth shut.

A broad grin. “A big, polite pretty kid – Frost sure can pick ‘em, fuck me.”

“No, thank you.”

“No talking!” the stranger roared. Charles flinched and ducked beneath an outstretched arm – and the other man dissolved into laughter. “Shit, that gets ‘em every time. Name’s Logan.” He extended a hand. “What’s yours?”

Charles kept his arms pressed behind his back. His heart was hammering – and only started to slow when the man continued: “Take it easy. With me, a lot of those rules is bullshit, O.K.? So talk away, mock away – just do it when Frosty the Snow Bitch isn’t home. Now: what’s your name?”

One last hesitation - then he took the plunge, and took the man’s hand. “Charles Xavier.”

“Xavier – nice to meet you.” Logan had a grip like a wine press. He dropped Charles’ hand, though, after only one shake, and turned to shout over his shoulder: “Hey McCoy, catch your ass up –”

“I’m here,” said a younger man in a white coat, walking inside. He fixed Charles with a nervous look, his eyes made all the more prominent by his glasses. “All ready?”

Charles’ stomach lurched. “Ready for what?”

“Moving day.” Logan flung open the cabinet and grabbed its only contents – papers and the red leather dossier.

Charles’ instincts flared. Even though it was only paper, and a carrying case … still, it was his. “I’ll carry that –” he said, but:

“No you won’t.” A smirk at him. “You’re done with this old info – you’re done with your old life, so it’s going back to Frost, and you’re going … huh. McCoy?”

“Yes?"

“Where’s he going? They really sticking him in with the kids?”

Slender hands dusted off the white coat’s immaculate front. Charles saw the metal bracelet on his wrist glint, but he – McCoy? – was saying, “He’s a new student.”

Student?! flared indignantly in his mind; he almost didn't notice Logan's frowning: “Yeah, but –”

“Orders.”

Logan shrugged, then ambled out of the door, gesturing at Charles to follow. “C’mon, c’mon, time’s a-wastin’.”

“Don’t worry,” McCoy murmured to Charles, as they stepped outside the cell. “He looks like bad news, but he’s not. Not here.”

His inflection sounded … Charles didn’t know. Empty? No, “empty" was too strong. Perhaps like a bad joke looking for a punchline it had lost.

“Besides, for real bad news?” said Logan, tromping ahead. “You should've found the vidscreen in there. It’s behind another panel. Too bad you didn’t – you must've been bored out of your chess club mind.”

Charles hardly heard him. He looked everywhere, as fast as he could, cataloguing materials and directions and possible ways to escape. They were walking down a sterile hallway of the same metal. There were no markers, no signs, but the two men seemed to know where they were going.

Except then they stopped. Charles almost ran into Logan’s back, and a hand from McCoy on his own shoulder made his skin prickle, because there was an intent he could sense …

He tried his best to concentrate – hurry hurry – what is it … The dampening field, area, whatever-it-was – it was still in full effect, and even though his power was still there – numbed and sluggish but therehe didn’t know whether or not to tip his hand and wrest the two under his control and get the hell out –

A long whistle from Logan interrupted his thoughts. “Heart’s going a mile a minute, and –” another pronounced sniff – “damn, you’ve really started to sweat.” He gave a mocking grin. “You wouldn’t be thinking of doing anything really, really fucking stupid, would you, X? You mind if I call you X?”

Charles gritted his teeth, cursing himself for being so transparent, but then: “Logan,” McCoy sighed. Sighed, and held out a length of cloth. “Mr. Xavier, I’m afraid you have to be blindfolded for this next part.”

“Don’t know what good blindfolding a telepath’s going to do –”

“We’re still within the boundary,” McCoy cut in. “And once we’re out …” He looked at Charles solemnly. “We’re going to take you to where you’ll be living, and training, for the foreseeable future. But – and this is beyond my control, Mr. Xavier – if you try anything, there are security measures in place that will end up with you being, well, dead.”

“And I’ll be out a new punching bag.” Logan gave the cigar an exuberant chomp. “Which would be a shame. So be a good sport, O.K., kid?”

“I’m not a kid.” He felt the energy draining out of him, leaving a chilly numbness. “I’m thirty-one years old.”

“Oh …”

Turning, Charles saw McCoy staring at him, eyes luminous – pain hurt sorry – from behind his glasses. Then the boy – Charles made an effort to drag his mind back to the name, since he had automatically substituted the word – offered him a tentative smile, the metal ring on his right hand glinting as he tightened his grip on the cloth. “I’m actually only twenty. So it’s … it’s nice to have you here.”

“Thank you.” Charles turned his back on McCoy and bent slightly at the knees, Raven’s age – my god … His mind was still buzzing from the emotion that had lanced through even the protection field. “If you must, you must. Justice was blindfolded too, you know.”

“Yes.” The cloth wrapped around his eyes; fingers worked to make a tight knot in the back. He welcomed the cool darkness; it gave him space to think. McCoy’s grip was light on his left elbow. Charles smelled Logan’s cigar and heard his clomping stride echo ahead of them. Think.

He was being moved to another location, one to which, presumably, the suppressing field did not extend. He would take inventory of his prison immediately, he would gauge just how he could control the thoughts of his captors –

Doubt suddenly passed through him, like a cloud in front of the sun. He didn’t know how many there were – he didn’t know who they were: whether or not the other telepath – Frost? – would be within range …

And for that matter, he had never locked down another individual’s mind before. He had influenced minds – usually to ease attention away from Raven. Influenced, yes; detected lies and truth, yes … but some things were sacrosanct, and to him, the autonomy of the mind was the greatest of those same things.

Was he capable of it? Could he do it?

Charles kept pace with the other two, down long echoing hallways and once in what felt like an elevator – forgot what an elevator feels like – while trying and discarding plans on one level of his thoughts, and cycling through doubts and scruples on another … A third part, one keeping relentless track of their movements, wrested his attention to the fore when much chillier air suddenly hit his skin.

And then he took one step forward, and – his power returned to him.

It was like stepping into a blast of sunlight. For one instant, Charles felt his breath catch in his throat; another instant, and he had sent his thoughts flying like a bird – one quick circle spiraling out – Logan – a rough-edged impression of anger and coiled energy on a tight leash – McCoy – what felt like a fractal, and a bizarre impression of bulky strength behind a door painted blue.

Then he felt a hint of cold, and he flung his own thoughts to ground, like a hawk dropping out of midair. Frost – she was here, somewhere, and –

- he sensed something that felt like a wash of diamond-sharp edges and snow, and he yanked his power back to himself and –

- wait –

This was his chance to try something.

I hope I don’t regret this …

Charles rolled out three hints of thought – one a rugby ball, one a billiard ball, and one a marble, all tethered to him with silk – and then he braced himself.

- oh god -

Frost’s power hit him with a smack-crash, like a wave of icy water. Charles staggered; he registered Logan’s attention snapping to him and McCoy’s gasp. “What is it, Mr. Xavier – do you –”

Here it goes. Play it to the hilt; out-Herod Herod; trippingly on the tongue – go -

“No –” he slurred, falling to his knees, slapping his right hand to one temple. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry –” He made as theatrical a show as he could, of retreat and run away – like a circus elephant lumbering into a game of hide-and-go-seek. “Stop –

It wasn’t hard to fake a greater pain; the nausea twisting his gut and the glass-sharp jabs at his thoughts were bad enough. Escape, he thought, and made it as loud as an air-raid siren.

Don’t even think about it, Xavier!

Charles did his best imitation of delirium tremens. “Fine – fine, just let me –”

Frost had found the rugby ball thought, and he flinched in real pain as she whipped it back at him, sharp as a shuriken. All of it, she somehow sent to his mind, like shards of ice. Draw it back, now.

He obeyed, reeling in the rugby ball. Making a show of winding its thread around itself … picturing one of his students, defeated on the sporting field, nose dripping blood and eyes red from weeping.

Charles was aware of being on his knees – of the weave of his own trousers, rough beneath his fingertips. McCoy was saying something, but he focused all his attention on Frost.

She was prowling round the boundaries of his mind, rippling a diamond-edged searchlight over and around, illuminating the surface. He kept all his veils as opaque as he could, letting out his memories of the metal cell, his impressions of Logan and McCoy, the memory of his cousin masquerading as that of his sister – and he felt her snag the silver cloth he had wrapped round the black-haired girl, and she pulled the thought to herself effortlessly.

But she didn’t find the billiard ball.

Or the marble.

Charles kept his thoughts as quiet as he could. Surprise, later. Elation, later. Planning – later later keep it secret –

Do not try anything like this again. Ever. Do you understand me?

He made his thoughts babble – yes yes I’m sorry yes – and, with disbelief surging beneath the veils – god damn it stay put – he felt Frost withdraw, her power folding in on itself like a ice-crystal fan.

Only when he was sure she was gone did he allow himself to speak. Well – grunt, really. “Ungh.”

“Yeah, no shit.” Logan’s voice was strangely … taut. Strained. “Fucking A, bub, you are gonna be some fun. Not every day you see a telepathic smackdown. She hasn’t done that in years. Remember Betsy, McCoy?”

McCoy’s voice cracked. “Never mind.” Unsteady hands pulled him to his feet. “Mr. Xavier, I don’t know what you tried, but please don’t do it again.”

Charles drew in breath to ask, but then froze.

With his newly unrestrained power, he suddenly saw the image as clear as day: the young McCoy, crying, spread-eagled on a table.

With all his fingers broken.

Another wave of goosebumps prickled over his arms, his back. His throat felt thick as he said, “Fine. I’m sorry – I just.” Breathe: in and out. “It won’t happen again. You don’t need to worry.”

The image of the crying boy faded from view. Charles allowed himself to be tugged along, his triumph at eluding Frost’s power tempered by something else. An ache, like he had been punched in the stomach.

And all that, he realized, without the blindfold being taken off.

Charles fought to calm himself again. Time enough later, to reflect on what had happened. For now, he needed to keep track of where he was being taken, to put together a mental map.

The tap of shoe soles on metal was no longer there. He heard a door shut, then a slight rumble and click. He smelled a different sort of tobacco than Logan’s cigar – and something else. Dust, perhaps. Old carpet. He heard the snk of a match being struck, caught a quick whiff of sulfur, sensed the tiniest hint of warmth from a candle - no, from two.

And the next door opened and shut with a creak and clack – it was obviously made of wood. Biting his lower lip, Charles tried something physical, not mental.

“What do you do here, Mr. McCoy, if I may ask?” – and yes, his voice was echoing slightly in the way it had in hallways in Oxford – off wood and what could be carpet, or cloth hanging on the wall.

“May he ask?” Logan rasped, mockingly. “You may. Whether or not we answer is – well, huh. Is our day-to-day classified, McCoy, or what?”

“Never mind,” McCoy said. He sounded exhausted.

Silence fell, except for the sounds of their progression through a series of rooms – enclosed air smelling differently in each. Until Charles drew in a breath of bookbinding glue and leather, and said excitedly: “Is this a library?”

There was a pause. Then Logan growled, “How did you know that?”

“He knew that because he’s actually opened a book more than once in his life.”

“Up yours, you lab rat –”

“I just,” Charles interrupted, “It just smelled like the reading room. At Oxford.”

“Did you enjoy working there?” McCoy’s voice was neutral, but his grip on Charles’ elbow did not let up – and then a door opened and closed and they were in what sounded like a hallway.

He had no reason to feel disappointed, Charles told himself, swallowing the ache in his throat. He kept his answer light. “Yes. Very much.” A pause, then: “ I don’t suppose you can tell me what, exactly, I’ll be doing here?”

Silence fell again. It lasted until they had walked down a shallow set of stairs, and another door had opened and shut.

“You can take off the blindfold now,” McCoy said, quietly.

Charles did not allow his hands to shake as he felt for the knot. The fact that he practically ripped the fabric away, he told himself, was mostly due to the fact that that same knot was too tight. Then it was off, and he could see.

McCoy and Logan looked back at him, expressionless. Candlelight made their features glow.

Charles looked at them, warily, then looked around. He was inside a room of middling size, with a bed in one corner and a wardrobe next to it. There were three arrow windows set high up in the wall to his right and a door to his left. He turned around and saw … a bookshelf. He suppressed a twinge of disappointment as he saw that it was empty. There was a fireplace in the center of the bookshelf’s wall – the grate was dusted with ashes but the bricks of the hearth had been swept. A metal fireback glinted from behind the grate.

The overall impression, with the off-white plaster walls and the red-and-yellow blanket on the bed – even as shadowed as they were – was one of … warmth. Charles blinked. Warm. He hadn’t expected that.

“This is your room,” McCoy said. “There are only a few rules that you have to keep in mind. You’re in an old manor used as a training center. You can’t go outside the house without one of the supervisors,” he held up his left hand and shook the bracelet on his wrist. “Follow the schedule you’re given, stay out of the west wing at all times, and observe the eight o’clock curfew.”

“And for the love of fuck, don’t set the place on fire,” Logan growled. He put his candle on a rough-hewn mantel above the fireplace, then paced back to lean one shoulder against the door. Charles didn’t need telepathy to pick up on the vibration of let’s go let’s go.

“The schedule you mentioned.” He kept his voice calm. “When, exactly, will I be given it?”

“All students get one on their first day – what?” McCoy frowned at him.

Charles made an effort to control himself, reining in his half-hysterical laughter until it was a sputter. “It’s only – professor one day, student the next –” he massaged his temples, “You know. Whiplash.”

McCoy had relaxed into a smile, albeit a wry one. “I could have phrased it better. It’s just – everyone’s usually much younger, you know. Everyone is younger. You’ll meet them tomorrow. I suppose you could be called,” he thought a moment, “a novice.”

“An acolyte,” Charles replied.

McCoy grinned. “Apprentice.”

“Gentleman scholar.”

"Tutee."

“Holy shit, I think I just felt my balls drop off.” Logan rolled his eyes. “See you around, X.” He grabbed the doorknob.

McCoy turned to leave as well – and Charles held out a hand. “Wait – what’s tomorrow?”

“Testing.” His smile had gone. “Learning. It’s different for different people.”

“And what’s in the west wing?”

The ring on the middle finger of McCoy’s right hand flashed as he gestured with the candle he was still holding. “Just don’t go in there.”

“But what –”

“What it is,” Logan said, deceptively gentle, “is absolutely none of your fucking business. But don’t worry.” His mouth twisted as he opened the door. “It’s none of ours, either. You are not alone.”

“Except that you are, here,” McCoy muttered – so quietly that Charles instantly knew he hadn’t been meant to hear it.

“Yeah, well.” Logan sauntered out. “Sweet dreams, kid.”

McCoy stared at the floor for a long moment, then said, quietly, “Good night, Mr. Xavier,” and left.

Charles was left alone, staring at the door. He heard a key turn in the lock, and footsteps, and then nothing.


He stared for a long moment. Then he turned on one foot and stared at the room. The one candle provided only the feeblest light – the shadows it cast reared high against the plaster walls.

Charles took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He thought of Raven’s favorite marble, won during a tea break game at her first class at Oxford … She had been eight years old. It had been a blue cat's-eye, cracked across one side.

That was one tiny fraction of his power – a marble he sent rolling under the doorway and down the hall outside. There was nobody there.

Charles gave it five minutes. All things considered, he was proud that it only took him five more, and the leverage of one of the wardrobe’s hinges, to break his belt buckle. And only one more minute to pick the lock on the door.

He opened it, and followed the marble – cat's-eye cat-feet – down the hall. He took another marble from his mind, orange-red – two are still smaller than the billiard ball, yes? God, he hoped so. He turned the marble into a hummingbird and sent it flying outside. Logan’s mind and McCoy’s mind, feather-light touches – and then what they saw as they walked across what must have been the manor’s grounds, which was: an imposing building, a good four stories high – and one window with the faintest bit of flickering light, on the third floor. A window just below and to the right of a tower.

Their right, my left, Charles thought, and sped up, and called the hummingbird back to himself. It zipped around his head as he found a door that felt correct, and eased it open. He ran up a winding staircase. Quiet quiet stay quiet –

There was a door with a rusty handle where the stairs ended. Please be open – please – and it was, and the cold night air on his flushed face felt like a kiss, like the last kiss he had from his mother …

Charles didn’t realize he was gasping, half-sobbing, until he made it to the tower’s edge and grabbed hold of one of the merlons. He stared out at the night sky through a hot haze – his mind was reeling. And all it reeled round was: escape.

Frost could be evaded, if he kept his mind under tight control. The two who had given him a room could be deceived. But what was he going to do – a prisoner of the Brotherhood, with images of violence, torture, coming at him from all sides –

What were they going to do to him?

And – he buried his face in the rough tweed of one coat sleeve, shuddering. He was shaking his head back and forth; he felt the gritty scrape of stone on his brow. Raven. His sister – what must she think? What was she doing?  Would he ever see her again?

How could he find her?

Charles yanked his head away from the merlon. The hummingbird would not do; it was too small. He had the blue cat's-eye, though - Raven's favorite. He felt his eyes sting as he wrapped power round it, crushed the whole together and reshaped the resulting darkness into a raven in truth. Charles watched the bird raise its head and flutter its wings, small and black, smaller than the black eight-ball – you can’t see me in the night – He sharpened it until it had an arrow’s point, and shot it into the sky.

He found Polaris and sent the raven north – north and – east? West? The flight widened into circles – wide, dizzying loops, because he didn’t know where he was, he didn’t know how to find Raven, and everything was dark and empty.

Everything. The raven was flying back to him, weaving half-drunkenly through the air, because it was tired. Everything’s dark.

When it lit back onto a branch in his mind, he stroked its feathers and let it fall into nothingness. Then, for a long time, all he could do was stare over the tower’s edge into the night.

Tomorrow. Frost could be evaded, and – he felt a grim resolve, cold and sure – everyone could be deceived. He had never counted himself as arrogant, but he knew his own intelligence, and he knew what he could do. And if everyone could be deceived, then …

Then he could find a weakness, a flaw in the diamond, and he could follow that flaw to his freedom. Freedom from the mockery of being lumped together with students –

Charles closed his eyes. Shook free of his own ego, and concentrated. Freedom to fly to his sister; freedom from the Brotherhood.

Freedom to find his way home.

Until then, all he could do was stare from the tower into the night: dark, and cold, and empty.

Chapter Text

Tap tap.

“Hey.”

Tap tap.

“Hey, new fish.” A lighter voice, unmistakably female. Tap tap. “Move it – breakfast in ten.”

Charles stared at the ceiling, plaster dappled the palest gold from the dim morning light. As deep as his exhausted sleep had been, the knock had woken him instantly. But he found, staring dully, that he didn’t want to move.

He heard footsteps, booted, going down the hall; another knock. Then another, further away. Doors opening and closing, a few different voices – children’s voices. He gritted his teeth. Memories of Oxford, of his students, all crowded to the forefront of his mind and jostled for a turn, at twisting the knife a little deeper –

He passed a shaky hand over his face. That twist to his stomach had to be hunger. The last tray in the metal prison had been perhaps two days previous. Standing on the tower in the chill for two hours extraordinary, flinging his thoughts at the sky again and again, even after his first failed attempt – all had left him ravenous and parched. But going for a drink of water would require that he move, and that, he didn’t want to do.

Which left him where he had started. Charles idly wondered if he would be sent back to the cell if he refused to get up. Literal, not figurative detention.

The voices were getting louder, more raucous. A girl shouted something and there was a stampede in the direction opposite the tower stairs. Probably another stairway. Raven would do that, on weekend mornings and holidays – take a running start down the longest hallway of the college house, fling herself down and coast on a pillow, shrieking all the way. Charles squeezed his eyes shut at the memory –

When he opened them again, Raven was standing at his bedside.

What–”

Charles threw aside the bedclothes and grabbed her hand before he knew it. One word from her and he would know how she got here; one thought from him and she could tell him everything –

– except he yelped as that same thought careened straight into what felt like a smooth and polished wall. She yanked her hand away.

Charles focused – breathe in, breathe out – and only stopped breathing when the illusion disappeared and a small child stood in front of him. She had to be five years old, perhaps six. Auburn hair brushed her shoulders. Her eyes, when they met his, were a clear and remote grey. Then they flickered, and he saw a large conch shell, glistering white and pink and orange; polished and unyielding.

The child was a telepath. He felt the first hesitant beginnings of a smile tug at his mouth.

“Good morning.”

She stared at him.

“My name is Charles Xavier,” he continued, keeping his voice gentle. “What’s yours?”

The girl said nothing – but he felt something brush against his mind. Charles stretched out another silver thread of thought, and caught glimpse of a small thing – an animal? – peeking out from the shell. It darted back in, quick as a wink, but he was left with an image pristine and as bright as a photograph from Before.

A group of children seated around a long table. A plate holding bread and cheese. And wound around the image, like a plain frame for that same photo, was: breakfast, friends, late – who?

“I’m someone very much like you.” He smiled, and found a memory of himself, groggy in pajamas and fumbling for a coffee carafe, one long-gone New Year’s morning in Oxford. He got to the moment when he poured salt instead of sugar into his cup and took a loud sip – he focused on the image of his spluttering reaction and Raven’s hysterical laughter.

One corner of the girl’s mouth curled up, like the smallest tendril of a fern.

“I don’t suppose they have any coffee down there?” Charles swung his legs out of bed and raised his eyebrows at her, exaggerated. “You’re probably all too young to drink it. Well, let me get some clothes, and I’ll –”

His eyes caught on the door to his room. It was open.

“Did you do that?” He blinked – it had been rather more difficult to lock the door again with his mangled belt buckle, but he had managed. He had not wanted anyone to discover his escape. “How did you do that?”

Charles turned to look at the girl. And there, wobbling at the level of his hands, was a cup.

He stared for a moment, then took it. It dropped into his hand, heavy, and water sloshed over the brim. The girl looked up at him, her head tipped to one side.

“Well.” He felt a bit blank. “I was thirsty. Thank you very much.” At the fern-smile, again, he took a drink. When he stood up, she took a rather abrupt step backward, so he gentled his voice again. “And you did that all by yourself?” Telekenesis as well as telepathy. And how old is she?  

She nodded. Another photograph – the children again, the table and plate, all in brighter colors. Framed by: late.

“Right.” Charles strode to the wardrobe. “Give me two minutes. I don’t think shaving is quite necessary, is it? What do you think?” He sent another image – himself, unkempt and snaggle-toothed, roughing up his own hair with his fingers and jumping from the bites of fleas.

She gave another image in reply – himself, considerably foreshortened, as seen from below. Slightly scruffy, but glowing in a bright and clear light, gold streaming down from the arrow windows.

Framed by: I like you.

He swallowed against a sudden tightness in his throat, and smiled down at her. “Why, thank you. Run to the hall and stand guard – I’ll be out as fast as I can.”

There were several changes of clothes in the wardrobe; plain colors and of a plain make. He tossed on the first that came to hand, folded his own clothes and tucked them under his pillow, made his bed as quickly as he could, and hurried out to the girl in the hallway. “Lead on.”


The chatter of many voices sounded the same as that of Oxford's boarders, even from behind a thick wooden door. What was different was the way this group fell silent the instant he opened the door and stepped inside.

Carefully, making no sudden movements, Charles surveyed them all. He sent the smallest tendrils of thought out for complete impressions. A girl and three boys. The girl looked to be in her early teens; she had dark skin and eyes, and black hair shot through with – white? At her age? And her mind had been a clear sky, but he saw – clouds on the horizon who the hell is that where’s Jean? A lightning flash –

He reeled his thoughts back in and stepped to one side, saying, “Thank you for the directions –” with one touch on the younger girl’s shoulder. He catalogued her tiny flinch – filed it away for later with a thread of – find out why – even as he dropped his hand and she edged around him. “And good morning to all of you. My name is Charles Xavier.”

Silence. He didn’t need telepathy to sense the defensive wall that had gone up. The silence stretched. The dark girl broke it, with: “C’mon and eat, Jean – hey.”

A macchinetta was scraping across the range; he turned to see the small girl’s puckered brow and outstretched hand. He caught the image – this one with a patina that could only mean memory:  himself, sitting on the bed, rumpled – with a frame twining into words: I don’t suppose they have any coffee down there?

“Jean, you know the rule.” The other girl’s voice was firm. “No powers in the kitchen.”

“And that coffee’s mine,” the brown-haired boy said. He, and two other boys – one with red hair and freckles, and the other, slightly older and blond – were glaring at him.

“Well, thank you for the thought anyway – Jean, is it?” Charles kept his voice light as he strolled over to the range. He felt the glares stabbing into his back. “Hostility to the interloper: as homey as fresh-baked bread. Sehr gemütlich.Speaking of which: is there any? I caught a whiff of it, outside, and I’m rather famished.”

A pause, and then: “In the wooden box,” the blond muttered, and: “What’s gemoo – gemooty – whatsit?” asked the redhead.

Gemütlich – or, rather: Gemütlichkeit. It’s German for “the quality of being at home, among friends – cozy, warm, accepted.” Charles threw a grin over his shoulder, covering his own flash of confusion – he really couldn’t think why he would have come up with something German, and now, of all times. “It’s also me showing off. I tend to do that in order to get caffeine.”

The children stared, some more flummoxed than others. And – he smiled to himself as he fished the remnants of a loaf out of the breadbox – he could almost feel the hostility starting to melt into curiosity.

He examined the bread. “I don’t suppose there are any knives here?”

The brown-haired boy snorted. That was answer enough.

Charles looked around the kitchen. It was a long, narrow room, with an ancient double range on one side, a counter perpendicular – he was leaning against their join – and a sink across from him. The door was rather massive, with one of the iron circle-handle jobs that reminded him of Oxford. In fact … he turned the thought over in his mind, as he tore off a piece of bread. The entire room reminded him of Oxford – a return to older tech out of necessity, not desire, what with the rationing of gasoline and electricity, to say nothing of the equipment required to keep more advanced machines running.

So it was back to wood-burning stoves and ranges, there. But here: the cell … the cell had been nothing but metal, requiring advanced tech to work, given how thin and flexible some of the panels had been. And artificial light, on a twenty-four hour cycle … Why the stark difference between that room and this kitchen?

“Are you going to eat that or what?”

Charles blinked, coming back to himself. The children were still staring at him. The older girl looked especially serious.

“I –” he looked down at the piece of bread, which he was methodically shredding. “Oh. Yes.”

“Because we don’t waste food, here.” She held his stare longer, then looked away. “Give Jean some.”

He saw, with a flicker of guilt, how the smaller girl’s eyes were fixed on the bread. “Ah, of course.” He swept the crumbs into his palm. Where were the plates? Another look around – new territory – and Charles sent his mind skipping across theirs instead, a quiet silver pebble on water. There were plates in a cupboard – he took two, one for Jean and the other for his bread. There was cheese, sliced, and a ceramic jar of milk in a box with ice, next to the sink – he took them out. There were two jars on the countertop – he took them, flicked the memory of their contents out of the dark girl’s mind, and held them out to Jean. “Raisins or apricots?”

Jean smiled at him. Sent him raisins, with the frame yum

“Raisins it is –” he said.

“How did you know that?”

He had started putting cheese on bread – but at the older girl’s voice, Charles paused, turned. Her eyes were fierce, locked on his; the boys were equally tense.

“Oh.” He shrugged, and set the bread and cheese on the stovetop. It was hot as blazes; melting the cheese shouldn’t take long. “I’m a telepath. Like Jean.”

There was a long pause. He could almost hear their glances, darting to each other – reworking their assumptions – speculating – and then:

“You know what?” the redhead said, excitedly. "That’s actually great. Because Jean – and I like you Jean, you know? But,” back to Charles, “she doesn’t really talk, so she needs to tell us stuff with her mind, and sometimes it can be all – wham. Like last Christmas - I mean, Fourth Quarter.” He grinned at the younger girl, who dimpled back. “Remember, Jean? The chocolate? Me falling down the stairs?”

He mimed a spectacular pratfall. The darker boy snorted into his coffee; the blond smiled. The redhead soldiered on in the face of the older girl’s glare. “So with another telepath, Jean can tell us stuff without giving us migraines, and –”

“She tells me plenty,” the girl snapped. “And there’s no powers allowed in the kitchen – you know that.”

“Except for John keeping the fire going, me keeping the icebox going, and Jean using her pictures.” The blond gave her a long look. “So why don’t you go ahead and ask Jean how she wants to communicate, instead of telling her?”

Charles winced to himself. Ten minutes and he had put his foot smack dab in the middle of their routine, their power structure. Given the unavoidable round of meetings at Oxford, he had always prided himself on being able to read a room, telepathy or no. Just because these were children was no reason to throw diplomacy out the window.

The cheese had melted. Quickly, he took a handful of raisins and pressed them onto the soft surface. Then he took the plate to Jean, and set it and the milk in front of her with a flourish.

“If you want that, tuck in. If not, send it back my way, because that cheese smells delectable. It’s a cheddar, hm? We have cheddar in England, but not this color.” In the midst of the chatter, opening the icebox, he caught a strange mental ripple ... from the children.

He turned and looked.

Jean was staring down at her plate, smiling. She touched one of the raisins embedded in the cheese. Then she looked up and her smile widened.

Another photo, in a frame – his image, leaning against the counter – but this frame was made of solid gold and smacked into him full force: I LIKE YOU

“Ngh,” and he pinched the bridge of his nose. The sensation was remarkably similar to another vivid New Year's memory: namely, Raven dropping a book on his head from the upstairs landing.

When he opened his eyes again, though, some of the children were grinning at him. “Damn,” said the brown-haired boy, and the redhead snickered, “I felt that one, and I’m all the way over here.”

“You need some ice on that?” the blond asked. He flourished his fingers and – Charles felt his eyes widen – there was a ball of ice. How did he just – that’s fascinating

“Bobby, quit it.” The older girl rolled her eyes. “And move over – make room. What’s your name again?”

“Charles Xavier.”

“Make room for Mr. Xavier.”

“Oh, really, you may call me –”

The girl’s glared. “Mr. Xavier: sit down. I’m Ororo. These guys,” and she pointed, “are Sean, John, and Bobby – and you’ve met Jean.” She tipped her head at the smaller girl – Jean was tucking into the bread and cheese with gusto, and Charles saw Ororo’s eyes soften. Then Jean looked up at her. Charles sensed the distant flicker of thought.

“Actually,” Ororo said, “before you sit, please get Jean a cup for her milk. And get yourself some coffee, because John is sharing this morning. Aren’t you, John?”

“Yeah, O.K.,” the darker boy muttered. “It’s kinda strong.”

“Believe me when I say: that’s quite all right.” Charles knew his voice sounded fervent – he gave Jean a cup without thinking and stared at the macchinetta, fingers twitching. Coffee – and before he knew it he had burned himself on its metal.

“Might want to use a cloth, dude –” and before John finished snickering, Charles picked up the image of himself pouring salt instead of sugar that New Year’s morning, and drinking; framed with funny.

Did she just send that to – Sure enough, the other children began to laugh.

“Oyez.” He poured himself a cup. “Jean, that’s my memory – you can’t just go giving it to all and sundry because it’d make a good conversation piece, or – ah.”

Frost.Her power felt like a sharp icicle, needling at his skull. As quickly as he could, stomping down on his rush of fury, Charles reeled everything in – even the smallest room-reading tendrils of his power – and tossed them beneath the veils. The pain turned into a distant itch.

“Jean,” he said sharply. The small girl looked up, alarmed. He caught the image of a small animal vanishing inside the conch shell, framed with a question, and he gritted out: “Yes, do it now. Quickly.”

Jean blinked – once, twice. And then her face was opaque as it had first been, in his room.

“Mr. Xavier,” Ororo began, “was that –”

Suddenly, all the children yelped. Some hands flew to temples, others flattened out on the tabletop. John had only just dropped his mug, to dig his fingers into his hair, when Charles felt the itch intensify into an ache. Bobby gasped, Sean pressed his face into the table – Jean whimpered –

– and then the pressure stopped.

For a long moment, there was only the sound of their breathing.

Then Sean muttered, “Ow ow ow …” and Bobby, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes, said: “Yeah.”

Charles felt his pent-up anger twitching in his jaw. “Anyone want to tell me what that was?”

Ororo’s voice was flat. “Wake-up call. Are we all awake, children?” She pasted a saccharine smile on her face, and broadened it into a rictus at the dismal chorus of: “Yes.”

“Is that a regular occurrence?”

“Welcome to our world, Mr. Xavier.” Ororo had put an arm around Jean. “And yeah. Usually every morning –”

“– but usually not that goddamned strong,” John spat.

“Watch your mouth in front of Jean, man.” Bobby took his plate and cup over to the sink and nodded briefly at Charles. “You want coffee, Mr. Xavier, you’d better hurry up. After the wake-up call, the monitor'll get here in five minutes, tops.”

The other children started in on their remaining food like a pack of wolves. Charles stayed where he was, staring at the door.

She had caught him completely off guard. His mind flew back to his resolution – Frost could be evaded – and anger almost choked him. Frost could be evaded? He hadn’t seen this attack coming – not at all. How was he supposed to focus on evading her, deceiving her – his escape, his offensive – if he couldn’t even twig to something as simple as a wake-up call?

Unless he wanted to give her that impression.

Charles took a deep breath, stepped away from his anger and considered. The weaker she thought him, the better. Perhaps a focus on his gifts as an empath – perhaps the idea that he could prepare the veils quite well if given enough advance notice. After all, no telepath would send the first blow in a battle by registered post – so surely she could be led to believe him exceptionally weak in that aspect. Her will against his: let him cave in like a sand castle to a wave. Let her believe that their clash of yesterday had undone him for weeks. Let her believe that. She had missed the billiard ball, the marble …

Now that was a strategy. Deceptive weakness, and practice, his mind whispered to him, practice your stealth, and your veils, and cripple her when she least expects it …

Frost could be evaded. Everyone could be deceived.

A crash of plates and, “Sean, you idiot!” snapped him out of his reverie. Looking at the children squabbling for a place at the sink, washing their dishes, Charles felt a momentary twinge of conscience.

Everyone could be deceived ... Did ‘everyone’ include them?

Then the door swung open, and Charles tabled the matter for another time. Tabled it, and covered the table – an ugly, splintery one, the opposite of gemütlich – with a veil.

Time now to face both the day and the person who had just walked into the room.

Chapter Text

“Good morning, good morning,” a girl – no, woman – caroled as she strode to the table.

She was short, and on the delicate side, with thick black hair tumbling over her shoulders. Her boots made a confident clack; the boots, Charles realized, that he had heard walking down the hallway earlier.

He catalogued: high boots, plain dark trousers. A ring glinted steel on her right hand, like the bracelet round her left; he caught only a glimpse of a necklace. It was difficult to see the latter under, of all things, a ragged sweatshirt. It was not a particularly good fit; the cuffs were folded over twice and there were two large rents in the back. And he could hardly read the faded CORNELL on its front –

Charles took a scalding sip of coffee to cover his brief start. Cornell. His mind clicked over facts – university, New York, Ithaca, Iroquois League, Finger Lakes – he found the memory of a map, and flagged it in brilliant red – but could it be that simple? Surely not; surely they wouldn’t hand him such a crucial piece to his escape on his very first day unrestrained …

But she was saying something.

“… and it’s getting cold, so the sweats’ll be coming out sooner rather than later. All right: same assignments; you all know where to go. Except for you!”

She had turned to Charles, grinning. Then she held out a hand. “I’m Angel.”

He took it. “Charles Xavier; a pleasure to meet you.”

“Yeah, right. But at least you’re not crying, which is more than could be said about some people. Right, Bobby? For about a month? Wimp.”

“Shut up.” Bobby’s eyes were flat.

“Two months, and that’s no way to talk to an official Monitor of the EBS, is it?”

“Ugh.” Ororo swatted Angel on the arm. “Give it a rest. Otherwise we’ll have to start blowing trumpets every time you come in –”

“She can blow my trumpet –” John started; Sean snickered and Charles sighed. Adolescent hormones. Perhaps it was too much to hope that imprisonment would change human nature.

“John,” Ororo started, but: “Can it, Johnny-boy.” Angel flipped a folded piece of paper out of one pocket. “Here.” She held it out to Charles. “Your schedule.”

He unfolded it. Typed – which means a working typewriter somewhere – at the top of the page was:

Morning: McCoy

Afternoon: Logan

Evening: Ø

“Um,” he began.

Angel interrupted him. “McCoy will meet you in the workroom; Bobby, John, you show him the way. And Logan’ll come get you when you’re done there.” She slapped her hands together. “Clear out! C’mon, Jean.”

The children filed out of the door without another word. Startled, Charles made a quick job of drinking the rest of his coffee and rinsing the cup in the sink. The thrum of let’s go let’s go buzzed at the edges of his mind like a hornet.

He turned to see Angel tapping her foot, watching him. “You know, Chuck – can I call you Chuck?” She smirked. “You’re lucky it’s me here and not Alex. ‘Cause if you don’t hop to and move when a commander says – well. Alex shocks people. I just sting, and I’ll be nice and let it go this time, cause you’re new, and kind of old, and everything. Old fish new fish.”

Brat fish. Keeping his face neutral, Charles brushed past her and walked to the boys waiting for him. His mind clicked over everything, storing images – a chilly stone hallway, with stairs leading back up to the students’ rooms. The other children had already gone further down the hall; he caught a glimpse of Sean’s red hair before he disappeared around a corner.

“Just ignore her,” John muttered as they started walking. But: “No talking!” rang out merrily from behind them. Charles looked back over his shoulder. Angel gave them a cheerful salute, a piece of cloth dangling from her hand, and then walked away – with Jean.

The surprise made him think of his - worry - as quick as light. It bounced off the cool and closed conch shell.

Jean stared back at him, eyes solemn, before turning to walk up the stairs. And Charles didn’t know precisely how to catalogue his reaction when he saw that she could hardly reach the banister.


Bobby and John were silent on their way to – the workroom, Angel had said, so Charles kept a careful track of their route. Hallway, right, then left, up another flight of stairs, and right again. They left him at a door, with only a muttered: “Good luck.”

“Now just what,” Charles said to himself, alone, “is preventing me from leaving right now? Strolling out the front door and straight to the nearest town?”

Perhaps the fact that he didn’t know where the front door was, or if one even existed. And he still didn’t know where he was, geographically … although if he were in the Finger Lake region of New York, then the disconcerting chill of an early September day could be explained easily enough. The weather had been far worse immediately after the war, of course, what with two years of nuclear winter - but high on the endless list of aftereffects was “regular” winter’s new norm: early to come, late to leave, and bitterly, unbelievably cold. At least, in the higher latitudes.

Charles had only once or twice considered leaving Britain for climes further south. Then he had found Raven, and soon after that the equatorial ozone depletion figures had been published. And then Britain in general and Oxford in particular had to deal with an influx of refugees, when they had expected the opposite problem –

He took a quick step back as the door opened in his face. There was McCoy, blinking at him from behind those glasses. “Mr. Xavier – I didn’t hear your knock.”

“That’s because there was none,” Charles replied. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I was woolgathering for a moment.”

“No problem.” McCoy stood to one side. “Please come in.”

The room was plain and stark, with whitewashed walls and dark timbers slanting across the high ceiling. And – Charles inhaled, walking towards them – windows on one wall. They were clean enough to shine. Through them, he could see a middling-sized strip of green, bounded by trees. No, not just trees: a forest. He squinted, but could not see any other green, or a hint of lake, or –

“I forget that you haven’t had a view yet.” McCoy gave him a half-smile. “We’re in the middle of the woods.”

“And which wood might that be?” Charles tried, only to see the half-smile quirk into a full one.

“You know I can’t say.”

“Hm.” He tipped his head, considering. McCoy looked happy, not especially suspicious … perhaps the tiniest bit of pressure? Charles stretched out a tendril of share with me, and said: “No, I didn’t know. Why can’t you say?”

“Rules.” McCoy’s voice was distant. Charles narrowed his eyes, turned the tendril into a ribbon – Raven’s favorite ribbon, wide and red, edged with lace – with share share share

McCoy shook his head. “Huh. Why can’t I …”

There was a flash of cold, and Charles yanked his thoughts back and veiled them. Feeling a drop of sweat roll down his back, he kept all his senses trained on the glacial sensation of Frost’s touch, an inquiry, casual – like a shark gliding by, made of ice. A glint of diamond teeth …

Then she was gone. Shite. He watched his hands, ordering them not to tremble. Can’t try that here – or, at least, not on my first day …

“I can’t say – only because, well, there are rules.” McCoy hadn’t noticed a thing.

Charles exhaled shakily. “I don’t suppose there’s a rulebook?”

“Ha – and, no. Well, not until you graduate.”

The incongruity of him, a professor, being treated like a student by someone a decade younger … it hit Charles again, like gravel flung into his eyes. He gritted his teeth. Were McCoy not a perfectly innocuous young man, he might hate him a bit. Just a tiny bit. Even if his smile was wide and bright.

“Sit – please sit, sir. I can’t tell you how much it means to me, that you’re here.”

Charles found an empty chair by one of the three long trestle tables, all strewn with wires, various bits of electronics and paper – and sat. McCoy shoved aside a stack of books. “I’m working on a whole set of experimental projects, and I’ve been hoping for someone with a bit of my skill set to come along. I don’t know how much training you had in a lab setting –”

“Some,” Charles cut in. “Not much.” Not much, with Oxford struggling as it had, and with the requisition of most equipment by the British government in its consolidation efforts, but with a bit of my skill set stuck in his thoughts with a venomous twist, before he sent himself the firm message: He doesn’t mean it. “I only had a few classes before the war.”

“Before – oh. That’s right. It’s weird – I mean, I was only two when it started. But luckily my mom and dad got into a bunker. And then I got to finish school early, since we lived in the Research Triangle.”

“North Carolina, then?”

“Yeah – and when the EBS, um, recruited me and I came up here, I didn’t mind so much. I mean, the chance to work with what they have, and –”

McCoy’s mouth shut with a snap. Charles filed the information away – north of the Carolinas. He kept his voice mild: “‘What they have’, you say. What do they have? Curious minds wish to know …” He tried a sly smile.

“I’ll bet. I suppose you could just go in here –” McCoy tapped his temple – “and dig it all out, right?”

“I wouldn’t want to damage you somehow.” Which is the truth. “I’m really not sure of how strong I can be.” Which is slightly less truthful, perhaps. Stronger than Frost blazed across his mind like a comet, and he veiled the thought in a flash.

“So if I say: ‘I’m thinking of a number between one and ten …”

Charles bit back a smile; McCoy was bellowing ONE at the top of his mental lungs. “I’d say: 'what a coincidence, because I’m thinking of how, interestingly, that number itself is identical to one of its three cubic roots.' ”

“Sweet.” The grin was getting ridiculous. “Complex numbers.”

“Yes. But McCoy –”

“Call me Hank.”

“Hank, then.” Charles bit down on his lip. Tread carefully. “You said, yesterday evening, about there being tests?”

“Oh yeah. I almost forgot. I know this is going to sound dumb, but …” Hank pulled a packet from beneath a book and gave it to him. “Here. An I.Q. test.”

“An … I.Q. test.”

“I know.” A rueful smile. “And then some other aptitude things. Would you mind? I know you’re brilliant, and you know you’re brilliant, but some people need it in triplicate before deciding what to do.”

“It’s no trouble.” Charles kept his voice neutral, although he was losing the fragment of good humor he had recovered earlier. McCoy seemed to have forgotten that some people could undoubtedly have them both lined up against a wall and shot. “Then what?”

“Well, usually these take all morning, but – oh.” His glasses magnified the blink. “I guess we could, um, sort the books? Or clean up a bit –” he waved at the chaotic workplace, “or talk about stuff. I don’t know.”

“I’m sure we’ll think of something.” Charles took the pencil held out to him and set nine-tenths of his mind to considering which ‘stuff’ might be the most strategic. The remaining tenth dutifully opened the packet, noted that the tests really hadn’t changed since his seventh birthday, delegated them to the medulla oblongata, and went off to join the plotting.


Three hours later, they had cleaned off one and a half of the three tables. McCoy had been chattering to him about the technicalities of the telepathic dampener. Charles had been intent on memorizing every single word, despite the first jabs of a headache – when he caught a whiff of cigar smoke.

“Hey, you know you’re not supposed to smoke inside.”

“Shut up.” Logan grinned at them from the doorway, a cigar lit and clamped between his teeth. He took it out, to enunciate more clearly: “Shut up, egghead. You got the papers mostly stacked, so there’s no worries, yeah?”

“Mr. Xavier,” McCoy said, turning quickly towards him. “You have to go with Logan for the afternoon’s tests. But I am really excited that we get to work together, and – ”

“You never know.” Logan strolled inside, with a curl to his smile undoubtedly meant to intimidate. “They might decide to put him in edge weapons instead.”

“Edge weapons?” McCoy squawked, but: “Huh. You’re probably right.” Another puff on the cigar. “Egghead through and through. Egghead One –” a head tilt toward McCoy, “and Egghead Two. Egg cups not included. Or required.”

Logan flicked some ash at him. Charles refused to look away. “Charmed, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, you are charming today.” A head tilt, and then Logan slowly and deliberately put out the cigar in his own palm. “So I am really, really excited that I get to run your ass into the ground, little X.”

McCoy winced. “You know, you don’t have to be such a –”

“Less talking. More moving.” He took two strides and then clipped Charles on the shoulder with one square hand. Charles bit back a grunt, because it was far heavier a blow than he would have thought possible. Then fingers dug into his biceps. “You hear me, Xavier? Come on, move.”

“See you tomorrow, Mr. Xavier, and we’ll –”

His voice was cut off as Logan slammed the door shut. Not an easy feat, Charles decided – solid wood and metal ornaments to boot. Much the same as the rest of the doors in this place – doors that were moving by at a rapid clip as Logan jogged through the hallways, clearly expecting him to keep up.

Another door opened, and Charles gasped. It was cold –

Outside. They were outside, and he hadn’t even kept track of the way there. He frantically double-checked the last minute in his mind; good, because the steps were there – just subconscious, and he would have to unravel them later –

“Huh – I heard that.”

Charles half-jumped. It wasn't enough that Logan was a tosser - he had to be a telepath, too? But ... Logan was smirking at him. He abruptly realized that his stomach was growling.

“Didn’t eat a lot this morning, did you?”

“Um.” He cast his mind back. That must have been the reason for his headache; one cup of black coffee, and a cup of water, so he was dehydrated as well as hungry. “Uh, no.”

“Uh, no? Uh – guess what, X-boy: days you train with me, you eat anything you can get your pretty hands on, because you. Will. Need it.”

Charles held his ground, watching their breath puff white in the air.

“And the last thing I need is you passing out on me.” A critical look. “Or getting pneumonia – would it kill you to wear a sweatshirt?”

“Apparently it will kill me not to.” Clamping down on the anger that was beginning to build, he bent to double-check that his shoes were free of pebbles – his leather dress shoesoh, no. “But Angel only just said that they would be given us tomorrow.”

“Oh.” Logan shrugged. “O.K., whatever. So, there are rules –”

“Yes, I've gathered that –”

Rules, Xavier. But the only rule with me is: keep up.”

Charles stared back at him, anger simmering.

“Well, that and do what I tell you. And don’t die.” A madcap grin at him. “C’mon, c’mon –”

And Charles had been keeping the veils up all day, so he couldn’t say why Logan's we’re going to run to move to run made his own energy surge. He was normally unaffected by the thoughts of others, but now –

– now Logan had sprinted away from him, and Charles swore, and ran to catch up.


Jean came to him as the sun was beginning to set.

Charles caught the brush of her mind against his – his own image from that morning, Mr. Xavier and where? He sent a reply, a bird as pale and small as he could manage, and tried to cough the news at Logan.

Who grinned down from where he had braced his arms on Charles’ knees. The weight – the pain from the weight – would have been ridiculous even if he hadn’t been exhausted from running. But take those hours into account, and add a few tree climbs and then endless goddamned sit-ups, and Charles had long since consigned every single part of his body to the fire. Especially since he would not give the bastard the goddamned satisfaction of his turning off the pain receptors -

“Two hundred ninety – c’mon c’mon, you can do it. I believe in you – nine, hell yeah!” Logan slapped his knees; the force of it rattled his bones. “Turns out Mr. X has a muscle or two after all! Now: one last one! Make it an even three.”

But Charles was staring up at the blue sky, at the way it was darkening. Darkening, but also turning purple with red spots – and then there was Jean’s mind again, thank god.

“Jean’s coming,” he croaked.

“What?” Logan frowned at him. “How do you –”

“Happens.” A cough; he didn’t have any moisture in his mouth left to swallow. “When I’m stressed. Things,” he pointed to his temple, “get a little odd.”

Which wasn’t precisely true, but he was not about to tell anyone that he could hear Jean walking toward them from a mile away – no, twenty feet, and she was almost there.

And Angel was with her. Charles coughed, wincing at a stabbing in his chest.

“Angel, baby!” Logan shouted. “Look what I’ve made!”

“A mess?” she trilled, but then: “Holy shit, Logan!” Charles heard footsteps start to sprint, then her voice cracking: “How did – what did you –”

“Actually I lied: didn’t make a thing. He did it all by himself. I thought he'd be a wimp for sure, but the crazy fucker would not admit defeat. Remember when you came, girl, and I had you crying for your mommy before two miles?”

“And then I fucking flew away, you bastard.”

“And then the boss dragged your sorry ass back, yeah, chained you up by the leg - scream, baby, scream.” Logan’s grin flashed … colder? Charles blinked, woozily – there had been a hint of something ... but it was gone.

“Shut up, sir,” Angel choked, and: “Can he stand?”

“He’ll be O.K.” Strong hands beneath his arms, lifting. “I think.”

“Could have fooled me,” and why did Angel sound so – upset? Worried? What were the words? He seemed to be forgetting words. There were words washing all around him, more and more of them.

Then he felt a frantic push from Jean’s mind, and Charles saw his own image. Logan holding him up; himself limp and spent, skin parchment-white in the dusk and hair black from sweat. Pain pain what’s wrong

“It’s all right.” He coughed, and cracked his eyes open. Gave Jean an attempt at a reassuring smile, and pushed calm and love at her as forcefully as he could. Habit, from Raven – his head was spinning – Jean’s grey eyes were wide and shining with – tears? Don’t cry, he sent; but then picked up … love … in return.

Charles blinked.

Then he held out his free hand, and Jean took it.

“Better,” Logan conceded, and: “You here, Xavier? Stay with me, O.K.? Stay with us.” He adjusted Charles’ arm where it lay draped over his own broad shoulders. “Uh, maybe I overdid it a bit.”

“Maybe” Angel hissed, but Charles took a deep breath and rasped out: “Wimp.”

There was a moment of silence.

Then: “Well,” Logan said, and Charles could feel the – fucking Abubbling up from his thoughts, woven through with amusement. “Well. Fuck me.”

“Can’t you think –” a gasp, “of something –” another gasp, “original to say?”

“All right: Fuck you

“Logan, Jean’s right here.” Angel’s hand, small and strong, squeezed Charles’ free shoulder. “Let’s just get him inside. Get some food into him, some water.”

Charles used the slow, limping walk back to confirm, dreamily, the route that he had mapped that morning.  Before he knew it Angel and Logan had opened the wooden kitchen door and set him down on one of the benches; there was a flurry that must have been the children making room.

A jumble of voices, and then the two loudest were gone. Silence spread in their wake.

Then: a touch to his mind – food.

Charles opened his eyes and met Jean’s. Then he looked down. Saw a bowl of soup in front of him. “Oh,” he said, and, “Thank you.”

“No problem, Mr. Xavier.” Sean’s voice was hushed.

Ororo's was even smaller: “Do you want some bread? Or cheese?”

“No thank you, Ororo; not just now.” He picked up a spoon and aimed it carefully. “How was your day? Bobby? John?”

“Um.” Bobby’s voice was rough. “We’re kind of – not allowed to talk about what we did.”

“No … but that doesn’t mean you can’t tell me how you are. So. How are you?”

There was another pause.

“O.K., Mr. Xavier.” Bobby cleared his throat. “I’m O.K. Um. How are you?”

A muffled slap that must have been Ororo cuffing him; Charles ignored it, and considered. “I think I’ll be all right, Bobby; thank you. I hope so.”

There was a gust of – relief ouch I hope so too – from around him, strong enough to ruffle his veils. He focused on the soup. And the children kept the bowl full, and returned his spoon whenever he dropped it.

Chapter Text

The children were subdued during supper. Charles kept a vague focus on their quiet conversation, surprised at their good manners. Then again, he had seen it before. After an Oxford mission that had made the monthly news, and his stay in the infirmary to have shrapnel dug out of his legs, his students had been the epitome of politeness. But only for the first few days - it had worn off within a week. He was curious to see how long the courtesy would last in this environment.

Or he would be curious, were he not so tired. He caught himself nodding downward into his soup bowl for the third time in as many minutes, and heard Bobby’s huff of laughter. 

“C’mon, Mr. Xavier.” There was a clatter as Bobby took the bowl and spoon. “You should probably go upstairs.”

“But it’s hardly even – wait.” He fumbled at his pockets. “What time is it?” And where’s my watch –

“Dunno,” Sean said. Charles hardly heard him; a sliver of panic jabbed through his daze. The watch, my father’s watch – I left it beneath my pillow with my clothes

He got to his feet, and yelped at the pain from bursting blisters. The collective wince that puffed from the children’s minds like a smoke signal made him smile, with an effort. “Nothing to worry about. I just – these shoes weren’t the best for running.”

“Yeah.” John’s voice came from beneath the table. “You need sneakers or something.”

“Do we have any that would fit?” Ororo asked, and: “He can have mine for now,” Bobby said, and the bubble of talk and sparks of thought – find shoes, find a first aid kit, fix Mr. Xavier – at least broke their anxious quiet.

The watch. He bit his lip. Were clothes usually taken away? “Bobby – where should I wash this?” He plucked at his shirt, sweaty and grass-stained. “Or what should I do with it?”

“You kinda have to wash them in the tub. At least, there’s always soap.” He could hear the shrug in Sean’s voice. “And we don’t mind if people smell a bit.”

“Except for you, dude, when you wouldn’t take a bath after you got here, for like – three months. Nothing worse than a stinky Mick –”

John,” Charles snapped. “No ethnic slurs.”

A frozen pause. Then John muttered: “But he calls himself that –” 

“As a member of the group in question, that is his prerogative.” His feet throbbed. “But unless you are all in the mood for a lecture on the hegemony of the normative in a post-apocalyptic context, I must ask you please to refrain from any language of the sort.”

The pause stretched longer.

“Hege – wha?”

“Never mind, Sean.” Ororo sighed. “No powers in the kitchen, no bad language in the kitchen, and new rule: no ethnic slurs,” she shaped the words carefully, “in the kitchen. O.K., Mr. Xavier?”

“Yes, fine,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry – I … my feet –” He felt fluid seeping into his socks – blood or pus, and please let them have antibiotics, because the last thing he needed was septicemia –

“He can use my first-aid kit,” John announced. “It’s in my room. I’ll go get it.”

“Nah – we’ll bring him upstairs, all of us. Come on; let’s go.”

There was a scramble for the small candles – one each - left in a box on the counter. They lit Ororo’s with a spill from the stove. Then the children clustered round him as a group, and before Charles knew it he was being propelled toward the stairs. He gritted his teeth past the pain of each step, and allowed them to steer him to his room, where he sank down onto his bed.

But as soon as they had scattered to their own rooms, he dug beneath his pillow, frantically – his suit jacket and shirt, his trousers, and there in the trouser pocket: the watch. Oh, thank God.

Charles poured the chain into one palm. The puddle of steel links warmed, gradually, and blurred as he stared. He didn’t realize he was gripping the piece as tightly as he was, though, until Jean touched a small finger to his white knuckles.

“Oh.” He smiled at her, shaking off the reverie. “Sorry about that.”

She tipped her head, wistfully. Charles held out the watch. “This was my father’s. Do you like it?”

The steel case glinted in her pale hands, its flat gold scrollwork catching in the feeble light. He cast an instinctive eye at the candle she had brought in and set on the floor. There must have been a holder in her room – its size was perfect for her, its iron loops of an intricate, surprisingly delicate craftsmanship. Where did she –

The other children came back in, drawing his attention away from the puzzle. Ororo blew her candle out. “Jean’s is lit,” she explained, and: “you only get one for the night, so we try to save them.”

Bobby held Jean’s candle at a better angle. Ororo took off his shoes, then peeled off his socks – Charles bit down hard on the inside of his cheek. The children hissed in sympathy. "Man, you are insane," Sean said, and Bobby half-laughed: "Who needs sanity?"

“Here.” John crowded in with a scuffed white box, a faded red cross on its top. “Here’s the kit.”

“The Red Cross.” He couldn’t say why it made his throat hurt. Perhaps because he had mostly seen kits of the sort in material recovery missions – Raven, trying to trade one for food – he quelled the memory and forced a smile. “Thank you, John.”

“No prob.” John took out a length of bandage. “Although you should probably get your own. If you write that down and give it to Alex tomorrow morning, he’ll bring you one."

“He didn’t bring me any chocolate,” Sean grumbled.

“That’s ‘cause you don’t need chocolate. Save it for Quarter Gift.” Ororo gave the socks to Jean. “Run some water in the tub, O.K.? Put these in, and – you got anything else that needs to soak, Mr. Xavier?”

“Quite a few things, I’m afraid.” He made his voice humorous. “But nothing I’m going to take off in front of you children.”

The boys snickered. “Right. I almost forgot - sorry.” Ororo got to her feet, and held his candle to the flame of Jean’s. Then she wedged it into the holder that Logan and McCoy had left … had it only been last night?

Charles stared at the candle, his exhaustion making the light shimmer. The water plashing in the bathroom sounded hollow. It was hard to believe that so much had changed, and in only a day … a week …

“Good night Mr. Xavier,” Ororo said. The other children joined in chorus; Bobby added: “I left you a pair of my socks.”

“Good night, all. And thank you.”

Jean joined them from the bathroom, sent good night to him – and they all trooped out, closing the door.

------------------------

Charles ran a hand over his face. Then he gritted his teeth again, and pushed up off the cot. Took his clothes from yesterday, limped over to the wardrobe – god damn it that hurts – and retrieved a looser shirt and a pair of sweatpants. Someone had been in there, he noted, leaving – and he counted – three pairs of sweats, and three jumpers. He poked through the pile, and his spirits lifted at the sight of blue knit. Dark blue – he took it automatically. Sank his fingers into the soft wool.

“We have a winner.” His voice sounded tired, even to his own ears. “Even if you are unraveling.”

The blue was the same color as Raven’s scales, the last time he had seen her without her disguise. The rose-cheeked English mask she wore; the innocuous English name – Mallory – she wore … he squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the choking knot in his throat. “Damn it.”

Charles took all the clothes and limped to the bathroom. As far as he could tell in the candlelight, the water in the tub was already murky. He stripped, put his old clothes (your real clothes, they captured you in them) and the day’s sweat-stained articles in to soak.

It was chilly in the bathroom. He looked in the rough cabinet beneath the sink; found a toothbrush and a washcloth. Cleaning himself off was the business of two minutes – he had made do with fewer resources on the missions. Ducking his head beneath the tub faucet – feeling the water wash the sweat out of his hair – that was an indulgence.

Then he made his way back to the cot, wearing what were now (and will be forever, world without end, Amen) his night clothes, and collapsed in a heap to take care of his feet. There was rubbing alcohol and a tin of salve in the kit.

Five minutes and several lengths of bandage later, he felt considerably better. Charles tugged on Bobby’s socks – thick and warm, obviously home-knit. He had just rolled his shoulders against the ache in his back, and considered some stretches –

– when he heard footsteps, and the click of a key in the lock. And: “Night, Xavier. Sleep well.”

Angel.

Her steps went down the hall. He heard the same words, muffled; and then the distant clump of a door shutting. Just like he had heard, that very morning.

Except it was more difficult to hear now, because his ears were practically buzzing with his own rage.

Locked up like a goddamned child in a dormitory – curfew, his mind snarled, and sleep well, and student - I.Q. test - my skill set. Who do they fucking think they are?!

Charles took a deep breath; exhaled. "The Brotherhood, that's who." The Eastern Brethren and Sistren, specialties: kidnapping, imprisonment, assault, child abuse and – undoubtedly – brainwashing. And underestimating people - people they should not treat like children …

Like him.

He checked his watch; wound it carefully. Listened for five minutes, and sent out tiny flickers of his power to stand as warning beacons on the stairs, at the doors.

Then, calmly, coolly, he walked to his door, picked the lock, and set out for the tower again. Just like last night, except that now he had a blue knit sweater, a mental map, and anger coursing through him instead of fear.

------------------------

Well ... Anger, and a sense of dull fatigue. Even though it had been easy enough to retrace his steps to the tower … Charles stared at its door, thinking of the winding staircase, and felt his feet throb. Walking, and walking quietly, had been bad enough.

He could climb the tower again, of course; turn off the pain receptors and power through, send his mind out flying once more … to find a nearby town or city. But …

Charles sighed. While he could tell himself that strategy was the best option – retreat, regroup, and plan how best to use his mental energy – he could not help but consider that a defeat.

“Well.” His own whisper was reassuring in silence, in the darkness. He had left the candle in his room. No need to send light flickering through the windows – the high arrow windows, he noted, through which moonlight was streaming. Perhaps he could figure out his latitude from the moon’s position, somehow? From its phase? Turning around, Charles tiredly called up memories of astronomy tutorials – but a bigger window, he’d actually need to see the damned moon before he could calculate anything.

Where to find a bigger window? Someplace that needed light – the workroom, or the library.

Charles froze. The library.

Not even twenty-four hours ago – himself, blindfolded, being walked through a series of enclosed rooms, silent as a tomb. The smell of books and leather and what he realized now had been wood smoke – a library.

His mind raced back through memory: the library, a door, a long hallway, a set of shallow stairs and then the door to his room. And then the blindfold came off.

Before he knew it, Charles had ghosted back along the hallway that led to the tower. Further, and he turned a corner and there were those shallow stairs that led to the dormitory – might as well call it that. He had turned left, he remembered – their right my left – so … he turned in place, back to the dormitory. And looked right.

Nothing, except – and his heart thumped in his chest – a dark opening, which stretched out into another hallway. He hesitated once, then started walking down it as quietly as he could. Accounting for the different sounds of shoes and socks, it was the same hallway – wasn't it?

He closed his eyes to check. Yes, it was the same … although when he opened his eyes again, there wasn’t much difference, since there were no windows of any sort. His vision rapidly adjusted to the darkness. It surrounded him, holding him in black velvet hands.

So soft, so dark … so pitch black, that the shimmering light outlining the door at the hallway’s end looked like the purest gold.

Charles stopped in front of the door and bit his lip. There was a light in there. Enough to be firelight, or maybe – could it be electric? He couldn’t tell from the quality. Not precisely. He’d have to go inside … His hand just barely brushed the wrought iron of the door’s handle –

And he felt a sudden chill.

He snatched his hand back from the iron. Goosebumps raced up his arms, over his neck. For some reason, and all at once, he knew he was being watched.

Charles closed his eyes, stretched out his mind. There was no sign of Frost. The faint presence of the other children – all sleeping, he noticed, amused – registered as the tiniest sparks in the eye of the red-orange hummingbird. The alert beacons, the bird – he catalogued them all – still less than the billiard ball; good. He sent the bird darting through the door in front of him, and ahead. No sign of anyone.

A giddy excitement rose up in him. Now or never. Try it. Because really, Charles thought, as he grabbed the handle and tugged the door open – if they were going to treat him like a disobedient schoolboy, he was going to act like one.

------------------------

Charles eased the door shut. And let out one shaky sigh – nerves? Excitement? … Pleasure?

For the room in front of him was beautiful.

There were books on carved shelves lining the walls, stretching up to the ceiling. There were a few scuffed chairs and a round table with papers spread over it; a carpet and a desk at one window, a desk with an entire dark array of pigeonholes; and three windows actually, each with thick curtains drawn back. Charles darted over to one and found the moon; made a note of its phase and – he checked his watch – of the time. Then he turned his back to the window, and gazed at the rest of the room again.

The light was electricity - warm, though, golden and low. He couldn't see its source. There was another door opposite the one he had come through. The fireplace in the middle of the adjoining wall held nothing but ashes. Two chairs were drawn up close to it. And by the chairs: one table with a candelabrum, and one with –

Charles felt a grin split his face. Was that a chess set?

Carefully, he walked closer. It was. The pieces were set up for a game, and – Strange. White was made of – what was it? Steel? He picked up a knight. No; it was heavier than steel would be – it had to be silver. He saw tarnish creeping up the horse’s mane, though the rest was polished to within an inch of its life. He nudged a black pawn with one finger – just about as heavy, so it must be iron, or lead ...

And Charles gasped as the white knight vibrated in his hand.

What

He set the knight back down, hurriedly. Stared at the other chess pieces.

They were still.

But then the candelabrum – wrought iron – clattered suddenly on the other table. Charles whirled, touched it in disbelief. Then he stretched out his mind –

– and he froze.

Not literally frozen, his thoughts raced, not frozen, you can move, because it’s not Frost, it’s not Frost

It felt different from Frost. Much different – whatever it was. It wasn't attacking him, for one thing, although he felt a solid, weighty attention zeroing in ... on him? No, on something else - like a screw vise tightening, and – he flinched – making the chess pieces shiver on their board.

What was it?

Charles stared at the other door, his feet rooted to the floor. He shifted his weight. You can move.

He felt, of all things, one of his blisters pop.

He heard a distant boom-thud – was that another door slamming? and where?

Clenching his teeth against their clatter, he sent the red-orange hummingbird flying through the library. Through rooms, through doors that he only remembered as sounds from behind a blindfold – down hallways and into a –

The hummingbird’s wings flashed as it collided with something.

Something immense: a solid, seething coil of darkness.

And the darkness was running towards him.

“Oh, fuck,” Charles gasped, and shite shite RUNHe ran for the door, wrenched it open and pelted down the hallway. Get away get away The sting of blisters popping and hot fluid in his bandages, and there was the open entrance – he wheeled right and raced for the dormitory.

A crash rebounded down the library hallway – he sensed the darkness poised at the threshold, sending a wave of something after him – Charles found his room, ran inside and slammed the door so hard that its lock and handle and hinges all shook.

It shook. He shook. He was shaking so hard that he could hardly hold onto his watch – the steel trembled in his fingers as he flipped it open. He stared at the time, squinting in the dim light of the candle. Forgot to blow it out; what a waste, a waste

Not even five minutes, since he had looked at the moon. Not that long …

But apparently long enough to have his life flash in front of his eyes. Fuck. Charles slid to the floor, his back to the door, as the watch slipped out of his nerveless fingers. He cradled the steel in his sweater; wrapped the chain around his wrist and pulled. The sting of metal on flesh brought him back to himself.

“What was that?” he mumbled. The inside of his mouth tasted metallic; fear. “God.”

He reached out a thread of thought; extinguished the warning beacons as quietly as he could. No sense in leaving anything out, to give him away. He flicked the thought out, further …

The darkness – whatever it was – had disappeared.

Gone; vanished into the night. Perhaps it couldn’t move past the library door? Next time he would have to be more covert, just so he could see –

Charles felt a cough itching, so he coughed, and it turned into a ragged laugh. Next time. Because he knew himself – schoolboy or scientist – well enough to know that there would be a next time. Locks and doors, self-preservation and all sanity notwithstanding.  

"Who needs sanity?" he whispered, and felt the laugh turn genuine.

Chapter Text

Tap tap.

“Hey.”

This time, because Charles was listening intently, he caught the scrape and click of a key in the lock. It was a male voice, this morning, and more weight was being shuffled from foot to booted foot outside his door, as the voice said:

“Time to get up. You got twenty minutes.”

“Right.” Charles kicked off his blanket and got out of bed. It was easy enough to slip out of the sleeping clothes and into another set, although it took extra effort to focus on anything but the twinges from his feet. He carefully placed his watch in a shirt pocket, grimaced at the grime coating the bathtub from where his old clothes had been soaking all night, gave them more water, took John’s first aid kit, and padded into the hallway as quietly as he could. He needed time to think; time, food and coffee.

A wisp of thought confirmed which room was Jean’s. Charles eased the door open and stood at her bedside. She was curled up in a ball underneath a blanket. Her forehead was knotted in sleep, and her small hands had the soft fabric in a death grip.

“Jean,” he whispered. Sent out images, soothing ones. A flower, the sun rising, a punt on the river Cherwell ...

She sent nothing in return.

Charles decided to let her sleep, and made his careful way downstairs to the kitchen. He set the macchinetta to work, searching the cupboards for coffee, then assembled a hasty breakfast. He filled a glass with water and drained it. Then another. It would be best to stay hydrated. That and his stomach had roared at him when he had seen the cheese and bread. Fill up on water, and he’d be less likely to eat everything in sight. The children needed to eat, too …

“And speaking of which …”

He smiled as the boys came crashing down the stairs. Well, technically it was only Sean crashing. The other two followed with less noise.

“Mr. Xavier!” Bobby led the way inside and set John and Sean to different tasks. “How are you feeling?”

“Much better, thank you. John, I have your first aid kit – thank you – and I’ve brewed coffee.”

John said nothing but: “Hngh,” as he stared blearily at the macchinetta. Bobby grinned. “He’s like that every morning. Here.” He held up a foot, encased in a ragged trainer. “We can switch shoes – I know I said I would, yesterday. Don’t know if you’re running today or not.”

“Mm.” Charles ate a dried apricot. “Let’s wait and see, shall we?”

Then there was nothing but the sounds of morning, familiar to him from so many days at Oxford – though here on a much smaller scale. He took his thoughts away from the clatter and chatter, though – carefully paced himself, eating, and cast his mind to the library mystery. Item the first: he had only touched the door handle, the windowsill and the chess pieces; Item the second: even given his discretion, something had chased him out; and Item the third: he had been scared out of his outstanding Oxonian wits.

How to solve the mystery? He took a meditative sip of coffee; John had sloshed an unhealthy amount into a cup for him. He couldn’t ask the children – he didn’t want them to get in trouble or, even worse, get ideas of breaking curfew themselves. They couldn’t run as fast as he, and they didn’t have …

A prickle on the back of his neck was the first warning of Frost’s probe. Charles only had time to say, “Best put down anything breakable,” before the wake-up call went needling into all of their minds.

“Ow.” “Ouch.” “God, I hate that bitch –”

“No bad language in the kitchen, John,” Sean said in a high-pitched voice. Then he frowned. “Where’s Ororo, anyway? Not as much fun if she’s not here –”

“To hear herself be mocked; really, Sean.” Charles kept his tone mild. “For that matter, where is Jean?”

The kitchen door creaked open; a young man – boy? – with a strong build and close-cropped blond hair took one look inside, then turned around without a word.

“Alex!” Sean’s voice cracked. “We felt the call. I bet Ororo and Jean are upstairs – it’s not like they would try to –”

“Yeah, got the message,” the other boy - Alex - called back as he took the staircase two steps at a time. “Give me two minutes.”

There was a pause. Charles looked at Sean’s freckles, standing out like a pox on his suddenly white skin. “Sean? What would they … not try to do?”

Sean looked down at his plate. “Escape. Because,” he mumbled, “I mean, Angel –”

“Shut up,” John snapped.

“Really,” Charles felt tolerably blank. “You can trust me, you know.”

“Uh-huh. Last adult to tell me that hit me with a tranq the second my back was turned –”

Bobby reached out and gave John a gentle punch to the shoulder. “Chill, man. And Mr. Xavier, it’s not that we don’t trust you. It’s just not the best thing to talk about. At breakfast, I mean.” He gave Charles a lopsided smile, with less warmth in it than usual.

Charles did not even attempt to break the silence that followed. He busied himself instead with preparing cheese and bread for Ororo and Jean, since he refused to admit that they would not be coming downstairs in just a moment, right as rain –

“And here they are,” he finished. Jean had sent him a picture – curiously wavering – of her neatly made bed. He felt them on the stairs, and then outside the door – “Are you hungry?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Ororo’s voice was flat; she held Jean in her arms. “Thanks.”

She sat with difficulty: Jean refused to let go. Charles hardly had time to send a brush of what’s wrong before the young man – Alex – tromped into the kitchen.

“You guys know that doesn’t fly, right?” He shut the door, grunting at its weight. “Not that I care what stupid shit you try to pull when Angel’s here, but when I’m here it’s my neck on the block. So –”

“I’m telling you,” Ororo said, quietly furious, “she’s sick. She has a headache. Right, Jean?”

Jean hadn’t touched her food; there were shadows under her eyes. She nodded.

Alex shrugged. “Not my problem – not your problem either, Storm, so you should really keep out of it, you know.”

“You don’t know much –” she lashed out, but: “Storm?” Charles asked.

Alex flushed. “Never mind. So. You must be Charles Xavier.” He mispronounced the last name, affecting a hoity-toity accent. “I can call you Charlie, right?”

Charles fixed him with an impassive look. “I’d just as soon you not. Even though I am in this dormitory, I’m considerably older than you are. Mr. Xavier will do.”

Alex's jaw had dropped. Charles refused to look away. He saw a flush spread down Alex's neck and turn darker, and then: “O.K., Mr. Xavier, you know what happens if you mouth off a Monitor?” A crackle of energy ran over the ragged shirt, somehow – where the hell did that come from? – and the other children flinched.

In for a penny, in for a pound. Do it.

Focusing his thoughts into a sharp point – still less than a billiard ball - good – Charles pictured a scalpel, slicing, and quickly, quietly, he flicked the last minute out of Alex’s mind, like a magpie nipping up a silver string. Then he tossed mild-mannered complacency over the rest. Fine cheesecloth over a bowl of quivering gelatin –

“Huh.”

Charles gritted his teeth, pulling back all the power and sinking it as far down as it could go. Veil. He had never actually tried an excision before. The magpie had been eager, white and black with sparkling eyes - but now it was gone. Odd, to have a bird appear and then vanish. But, “There's a first time for everything,” Charles muttered to himself, and waited for Frost’s icy touch, for Alex’s eyes to flare, for –

“Mr. Xavier?” Ororo’s voice was hushed. “What do you mean?”

“Just a moment.” He watched Alex carefully. “Wait and see if –”

Alex shook his head, then blinked. “O.K. You know that doesn’t fly, right?”

John’s eyes widened; Bobby said: “Yeah, we know, Alex. We’re sorry.”

“Good.” Alex’s brow was furrowed. “Anyway, you know your schedules – all the same as before. I’ll be back in five. We’re off to a bit of a late start, so eat fast.” The bracelet on his left wrist winked as he ran a hand over his buzz cut. “Yeah.”

He turned on one foot, and left.

The door had hardly closed when all eyes flew to Charles. “Wow,” breathed John, and Bobby’s voice was uneasy: “What was that?”

“Well –” Charles felt an abrupt wash of dizziness. “Um. It’s nothing I’ve tried before.”

“And probably nothing you should try again.” Ororo stared at him, intent. “You know … Lady Frost can take anything she wants from us, from our minds. Even from Jean’s."

Out of the corner of his eye, Charles saw Jean shake her head no. Ororo did not, though, as she was focused on him, and continuing. "So if she sees that you went ahead and messed with Alex – without him noticing … geez, Mr. Xavier.” She bit her lip. “Please don’t do that again? At least, not with us watching?”

“I – I hadn’t even though of that …” The dizzy spell had gone. Now he just felt ill. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s O.K.” But her voice was small.

“No, it is not O.K., because – haven’t you heard, Ororo?” Sean waggled a finger. “No powers in the kitchen.”

Bobby laughed. The solemn mood was broken. The boys finished and cleared the plates and cutlery; Ororo coaxed Jean to eat a few bites. Alex breezed back in. “All set?”

“Yeah,” John said, but: “Almost forgot.” Bobby crossed his arms over his chest. “Alex, Mr. Xavier needs a few things. A first aid kit, some tennis shoes, and – anything else, Mr. Xavier?”

“A bottle of Scotch,” Charles muttered. Alex snorted. He had ferreted a scrap of paper from one pocket along with stub of pencil, and was writing in a laborious hand.

“I’ll rustle those up, Mr., um, Xavier? Am I saying it right?”

“Yes. And some laundry soap, please.” He herded the children towards the door, noting with a twinge Ororo’s worried look, directed at John and Sean’s gleeful grins. “Let’s go.”

“Yeah, let’s.” Alex tapped Jean on the shoulder. “C’mon.”

They went their separate ways. It took him a moment to switch shoes with Bobby, so Charles had time to see Jean slowly leave Ororo’s arms. Her head was hanging so low that Alex could hardly manage the blindfold. Then Ororo was following the rest of them, jaw set and lips pressed into a thin line, and Alex and Jean were walking up the stairs.

He took all of his worry, and what he sensed of Jean’s pain – from meters away, my god – and secured them under the strongest shields he had.


The morning with McCoy ran along similar lines as the previous one. Charles made noises of interest as McCoy chattered about his work, oddly manic. He helped finish clearing the tables, then helped unroll sheet after sheet of blueprints. His interest was finally piqued – the project looked more complex than any that had ever been possible in Her Majesty’s government. And even when he had been asked to consult, his teaching duties had made participation from Oxford rather difficult.

After a long hour of discussion, Charles hadn’t realized that he had fallen silent until McCoy cleared his throat. Wait – no, he hadn’t cleared his throat. He had made a strangled sound, and was clutching the ring on his right hand. Odd. What had they been talking about? Charles retraced his thoughts: he had explained his one visit to a pre-War particle accelerator; McCoy had wistfully expressed a desire to see one; Charles had recommended asking for vacation pay, and McCoy had laughed, and then gone to stare out the window –

Charles didn’t know what to make of it. Could Frost sense them taking as much as a two-minute tea break? Without the tea? Ridiculous.

“Sorry, Hank – sorry.” He smiled. “Just slightly wonderstruck. Where will you get the power to run this? And honestly –” he pointed at a separate schematic – “is it a variation on an MRI, or a cryogenic tank, or what? And how will you use it?”

McCoy was still staring.

“Hank?”

McCoy shivered, then jerked his eyes away from the window. He fixed Charles with a look. “I’m not going to use it. All I do is the engineering.”

“All? You say that as though it’s something small. It’s really not.”

“Yeah, I’m so glad you’re here to tell me that.”

Charles stared. Of all the things he hadn’t expected, McCoy snapping at him - growing a spine, his mind whispered - after all of forty-eight hours’ acquaintance … well. That was first and foremost on the list. McCoy had picked up on his surprise, though, because his shoulders slumped.

“I’m sorry. It’s just … I’m just …”

“Just what?” Charles kept the prompt gentle. Years of working with alternately sullen and hormonal students had left him able to pinpoint the moment a secret would slip its restraints.

McCoy tipped his head back. Light from the windows picked out the frames of his glasses. “Mr. Xavier … I already like working with you. I mean, I think we’re going to get a lot done … but …”

“… ‘But’ what?”

McCoy darted a look back and forth, almost as though he were – checking for eavesdroppers? Why on earth – but he was whispering: “Tell them not to talk about it.”

“Beg pardon?”

Escape – tell them not to talk about it.” The sunlight gleamed off McCoy’s necklace – steel links, Charles absently noted. Above that necklace, the jump of an Adam’s apple, the clench and unclench of other muscles in the throat. “You have to be careful when you’re here, Mr. Xavier, because if you even put a toe out of line, you –”

“Hank.” He made his voice neutral, quietly curious. “It was one passing remark, and made hours ago to boot. Why on earth need we censor our conversations to that extent? And what do you know about people escaping?”

“Maybe I – maybe I know what happens, if you do,” McCoy said. “Just don’t think about it.”

Charles blinked. “What happened to you?”

Sweat had beaded on McCoy's forehead. “I can’t tell you about it.”

“Just like you can’t tell me what sort of machines are used here; what this machine,” Charles pointed at the schematic, “does; where we even are, for pity’s sake –”

“Oh, that?” McCoy’s jaw clenched. “We’re in what used to be New York State. North-ish – up by Ithaca.”

Charles had a moment to process the surprise – his mind caught fire with elation I knew it I knew it – before McCoy continued in a miserable rush: “Because who cares if you know? What are you going to do, honestly? You put a foot over the estate line and they’ll know; there’s not another person for miles and miles; and they catch you and … and do things to you.”

“Things. What sorts of things?”

Things. You know what, Mr. Xavier?” McCoy stabbed a finger at the blueprints. “This is for a telepath, a goddamned telepath.” He looked wild; Charles, suddenly uneasy, had the impression of wheels spinning off a tricycle, a tricycle with a child still on it. “They’ll screw you into it and make you scream, so if you even think about escape, you –”

“Escape?” A deep voice cut in from behind them. “Who’s thinkin’ about escape?”

They both whirled. Logan stood behind them, leaning casually against the door. “’Lo, Xavier. McCoy.”

“Logan -” McCoy was suddenly babbling, “Logan, I didn’t mean to say anything, you know I didn’t – you know I –”

“Yeah.” Logan sounded oddly gentle. “I know.” He tapped the door with the heel of one heavy shoe. “Let’s go, X man. And McCoy – you need to stop work. You need to go take your pills and lie down. O.K.?”

Charles had no idea what was going on; there was nothing he hated more. “Really, I don’t think –”

“Nobody asked you what you think, Xavier.” Logan’s voice was still gentle, but underneath it was coiled something with no give whatsoever. “McCoy had a rough night –”

“I didn’t have a night. I didn’t sleep, I can’t sleep -”

“ - and this is a bad kind of day for him. So. McCoy, do as I say. And you,” Logan quirked an eyebrow at him. “C’mon.”

Charles followed him, feeling his knees wobble. “What the hell was that?” he hissed. “We were just discussing a project, and then he falls to pieces all of a –”

“X,” Logan breathed, quietly, “you ain’t hearin’ another word inside. That lab has cameras everywhere. Every – fucking – where. You don’t think they let that much tech just sit on its ass, do you?”

“Too much of an asset –” Charles said, glib.

“Ha ha.” Logan pushed open the outside door with a grunt, and took a deep breath of the cold air. “Good weather.”

“Good weather for running?”

Logan broke off from his intent scan of the treeline. “Oh hell no, X. You see, I had it from a reputable source yesterday –” dark eyebrows waggled, “that you might, in fact, be absolutely positively bugfuck crazy.”

“It’s possible,” Charles agreed. “Jury’s still out.”

“Didn’t know they had juries in jolly old England.”

“Well. There are differences, and similarities, and –”

Logan wasn’t listening. He was staring at the trees. Then he quirked a wry smile, hooked a thumb at himself – “Judge” – spread out both his arms – “jury” – and waved a hand at the forest – “and executioner.”

Charles hid a shiver. “Who’s the executioner?”

And – had that been a movement, at the treeline?

What’s the executioner, you mean. That forest, there.” He jerked his head. “Or if not that forest, the cold. Or if not that, agents of the Free West who pick you up and squirrel you away in Colorado for their experiments.”

“… What?”

“Not that that’d happen, because: we protect you, Xavier. Someone gets hit with the stupid stick and decides to run away? They get tracked down and brought back before other people – who are less nice, by the way – can grab ‘em. So it’s for your own good.”

“How very comforting.” His jaw was beginning to ache, where he had clenched it. “Is that the party line?”

“God damn it, X, be careful.” Logan hissed out a breath; it puffed white in the air. “Don’t say that shit out loud.”

“Logan: what has brought this on?” Charles kept his voice level. “Ororo and Jean were late to breakfast this morning, and now McCoy has a panic attack in the laboratory, and you start intimidating me in a markedly cozy fashion –”

A snort. “Give me a break. You honestly don’t feel it?”

Charles frowned. “Feel what?”

Logan had stopped, mid eye-roll, and was now looking at him askance. “You – you don’t feel it? Really?”

“Feel what ?” A tendril of thought – oh – he’d have to drop the shield he’d had in place since leaving this morning, to cover his own incursion on Alex’s mind –

An ice-cold prickle spread over his entire skull, and Charles felt his stomach lurch. It felt as though he were wearing some bizarre, unpleasant sort of electric cap. Blinking, he looked at Logan. “What the hell is that?”

“And now he feels it. Well.” A shrug. “You get used to it, on days like this – and I don’t know what special telepathy shit you were pulling to keep yourself from a migraine … but. Whenever something weird happens – people late for things, y’know … Anyway. The watch is doubled.”

“Oh.” Charles felt faint. Frost. “Well. Don’t mind me if I pull it again.” And he put the shield back up; reinforced it. The ache faded into a distant buzz, then nothing.

Logan wasn’t listening. “It’s just so we can make sure nothing weirder happens. Like: people getting stupid ideas and doing stupid-ass shit. Like making a break for it.” His eyes were narrowed, focused on the trees.

Charles squinted; he could have sworn something had moved. But dropping the shield to find out would mean a headache, so –

“Anyway.” With a shrug, Logan reached beneath his leather jacket. “Let’s get it out of your system.”

And then Charles could do nothing but stare, as Logan held out a gun.

“Take it.”

He felt his mouth opening and closing. Like a fish, came the distant thought, and an image: the Oxford public library and their iridescent fishtank; Raven pressing her palms against the glass, and fat Mrs. Berkis the librarian: don’t smudge that, lovey

“Xavier.” Logan’s voice was hard. “Take it, and shoot me. And then run.”

“I can’t –” He knew his eyes were wide. “In cold blood? Really, I –”

Logan pressed the gun into his hand; wrapped his fingers around it. Some type of Browning automatic - worn, well-used. The clip was placed correctly. The safety was on.

“Shoot me, Xavier, and run. That’s a direct order.” He grinned, showing white teeth. “And in case you’ve forgotten, I’m one of the bastards keeping you locked up. Poor little baby, so far from home –”

The jibe stung, but schoolyard taunts were beneath him. When he had supervised the free hour of Oxford’s students, after all, he had –

Charles felt his thoughts slow. Free hour, and Oxford. Free. Free.

They had all been underestimating him, here. He looked into Logan’s dark eyes. Those eyes were … smirking at him. And for all his rough attempts at camaraderie, Logan was standing there, right there, between Charles and his freedom. Escape. You’re not like the rest – you can escape ...

“What’s the problem? Here’s a hint: you point it at what you want to kill.”

Charles felt his thoughts turn very cold.

He could escape. Logan was in the way. But he could put Logan out of the way, with one shot.

“C’mon, X man.” An eye roll. “While we’re young, huh?”

And if Logan thought he’d pull the shot, somehow – aim deliberately wide, or in the air – well, then he had another think coming. Escape. Everyone can be deceived – Logan can be shot and you can escape –

Shoot him. Shoot him and run. Escape.

“But –” Charles kept his voice stammering, and faked a wobble in his wrist. “But I don’t really know how to use a gun – I mean, I mean –”

Logan made a sound of contempt. “Why am I not surprised? O.K., X boy, take off the safety – yeah, with your thumb, like that. Don’t use both your thumbs, you moron.”

“Um, then what?”

“Then you –”

It was extremely satisfying, Charles thought, to take Logan with a shot between the eyes - and right as he was beginning to roll them.

He fell like a sack of bricks. Before he had even hit the ground, though, Charles was sprinting for the woods. He ignored the flaring pain from his feet; the weight of the gun in his hand. Make it to the trees he thought, cold and removed – just like an Oxford mission - make it to the trees and then duck and weave, and get another shot ready

He made it to the trees. He felt his own breath rasp in and out of his lungs, tight and controlled, as he hid behind a tree, coiled himself up to sprint again, and leaped out –

– and he was hit from his blind spot, hard, by something that felt like a wrecking ball. A fast wrecking ball.

Charles kept himself limp, dropped with the weight, and tried to roll – but a hand – was it a hand? knocked the gun away and wrenched one of his arms behind him, trapping it; then the same happened to the other and there was a knee digging into the small of his back, god damn it.

“Logan,” he croaked. “Logan – how the hell did you get up from a shot like that? I swear I hit you – I swear it.”

There was no answer.

The air was suddenly cold on the back of his neck. “Logan?”

No answer.

But Logan – no, the something crouched over him was breathing, and … it had human hands. One of the hands had moved to his wrists, pinning them together, right in front of its knee. The other one had tangled in his hair and mashed his face down – shite – right into the leaves and bracken. Definitely human hands. They were warm.

And its breath was warm.

Charles tried to struggle; the hands clenched mercilessly and he yelped in pain as a thumb found a pressure point and dug in hard. “Logan, this isn’t funny –”

“I know, right?” Logan’s voice, from a distance; Charles heard the sound of jogging. He frantically tried to move, to escape, squirming – but he couldn’t see, couldn’t catch a glimpse. He couldn’t break free –

Logan was still talking, coming closer. “I didn’t think you had it in you to kill me like that. Damn, Xavier. My mighty heart is breaking.”

The crunch of footsteps, and there were Logan’s boots, right next to his head. “All right,” he heard Logan mutter, and, “I think he gets it.”

The grip tightened, somehow, and … was that a growl?

Logan breathed out, long. “He gets it. Enough.”

For a long moment, Charles swore he felt a glare boring through the back of his skull.

Then he felt a puff of hot breath, and the crushing weight was gone.

Charles lay still, gasping. Logan’s voice rang out. “Where’s the gun, man?” His footsteps crunched some more. “Oh wait – here we go. And – oh, oh, the safety’s off,” he tsk'ed. “You coulda shot your eye out.”

“I didn’t have time to check it.” Rolling to his back, Charles stared up at the tree canopy. “What was that?”

“Oh, that? Forest spirit. I used to say the Wendigo, but since the Ojibwe are further north -”

“Come on.”

“Need-to-know basis.” Logan moved into his line of sight and gave him a manic grin. “And all you need to know is: that is what catches and eats all the little boys and girls that don’t behave themselves.”

Charles stared at him. Logan arched an eyebrow. “Now. Are you going to behave yourself, Mr. Xavier? Hm?”

“Why not?” he said, faintly, and stumbled to his feet.

“Great. Then start behaving yourself by telling me: where’d you learn to shoot like that? You had me going for a minute, you really did.”

“Oxford missions,” Charles replied automatically – and then remembered. “Wait – how on earth did you survive? I swear I got you –” His stomach lurched. "Bloody fucking hell, Logan, I shot you ..."

He didn't realize he had stopped and bent over, hands tight on his knees and head swimming, until he felt Logan pat him on the back. "Easy, Xavier."

"I tried to kill you." He fought back a wave of nausea. "God - I tried -"

"Key word: 'tried.' And no word in this world's gonna make your breakfast taste any better coming up than it did going down. Deep breath. Deep, cleansing breath, c'mon."

"Sorry," Charles mumbled, tasting bile.

"Nothing to be sorry about. You were just following orders. 'Shoot me and run,' I said - and you did. And right between the eyes, too.” Logan tapped his forehead, grinning. Then he uncurled the fingers of one square hand and showed him a mashed and flattened bullet. “No harm done. Pretty good party trick, if I say so myself.”

“Your mutation – oh.” Charles exhaled, straightening, and stared. “Healing … regeneration … That’s amazing.”

Logan visibly preened. “I know, right?” He clapped Charles on one shoulder. “Let’s go back inside. Party’s over – and I want to hear more about these mission things. You have to do recon, or they put you on active duty?”

“A mix.” Charles massaged his shoulder. It still hurt, where he had been tackled by - what in blazes was that thing, anyway? He kept talking while darting glances around the forest. What had it been? Where had it gone? “And do all your parties involve guns?”

“Yeah, guns or shit blowing up. What can I say? We’re a fun crowd. C’mon.”

Following Logan back to the manor, Charles turned over the entire incident in his mind. His heart was still hammering; his thoughts were scurrying back and forth like mice. He felt terrified.

He didn’t like feeling terrified.

So, carefully, he took down his shield and – even more carefully – sent a small, drab sparrow flying through the weave of Frost’s telepathic net. 

Its wings fluttered against something tracking rapidly deeper into the woods: a seethe of roiling iron - like a cloud of shrapnel – then: rage – and Charles yanked the bird back, breathing fast.

It was the same as last night. The same mind. The same thing.

And now he was ten times as curious.


If anything, the children were even more subdued at dinner than they had been the evening before – small wonder, Charles thought, what with Frost’s field hanging over them like malevolent humidity, all day long. He took the first aid kit, soap, and trainers from Alex without a word, and gave the other set of shoes back to Bobby. Bobby returned his loafers. Charles spared them a glance – the soles were ingrained with gravel, and a piece of what looked like sea glass - odd - had embedded itself in one heel.

Well. He would consider that later.

Just as he would consider Jean … later. She looked just as pale, just as tight-lipped as she had that morning. The shadows under her eyes were darker. But Charles didn’t have time to engage in chat beyond the ordinary – and even that chat was only answered by leaden mumbling. Not that Jean would chat. But he sensed he could draw the answer out of her, with his mind … it would just take planning, and trust, and care.

Not the work of one evening, in other words. What could be done in one evening? The library ... He bit down on his own excitement – the something, whatever-it-was, could move around outside, but how was it confined when inside? He would have to find out.

Time flew by. Before Charles knew it, each had taken a candle and gone to bed, and Alex had locked them all in their rooms. The slightest mental touch confirmed that the children had fallen into the heavy sleep of exhaustion. He had killed some time by scrubbing his dirty clothes with the soap; now he hung them up to dry off any projecting bits and pieces he could find. There weren’t that many. They probably didn’t want anyone committing suicide – easier to pare down protrusions than to take away any and all pieces of cloth. Though, really, one could manage with a shoestring and the doorknob. He had taken his obligatory guard shifts in Oxford’s prison; he had seen it done –

Charles shook off the morbid thoughts and peered cautiously out of his room. He set up tiny flares of mental awareness as he walked to the shallow stairs; up them and to the long, dark hallway. He walked down it as quietly as he could – easier, since he had left off his shoes and socks in favor of bare feet – towards the distant rectangle of golden light. Tiny thoughts; the smallest alarms – less than a billiard ball – and really, that’s getting to be automatic by now …

Carefully, he unrolled the sleeves of his blue sweater, and gripped the metal handle of the door. It was possibly keyed to body temperature, to the sense of skin – he couldn’t be sure, but he was taking no chances.

The library was just as he remembered, inside. If anything, it was warmer and even more inviting than it had been before. There was a couch that he hadn’t remembered, with a low back, upholstered in a warm red material. And on the table ...There were the maps, but what was on them?

Charles bit down on the temptation. Better, first, to make sure of what might be coming, and coming soon. A thought the size of a bird, rolled thin as pastry with a silver rolling pin, and then thinner … such a thought could be unfurled like a hall runner and cast out the other library door, and sent coasting over a great distance. Charles did so.

Then – carefully, quickly – he picked up the maps and gave each one a look. He could recover the information later.

And it was only because he was watching the table, he realized, that he saw the steel nib of a pen … quiver.

Right. Here we go. He strode over to the chess set, stared down; then made up his mind. Picked up the black king – take the bait, whatever you are – and cupped it in his hand.

He waited – and his power … stretched as thin as gossamer over a good chunk (at least, he hypothesized) of that part (whatever part it is) of the manor … waited.

“Come on, you,” Charles muttered. “Come on. Where are you?” Acting on an impulse, he held the black king above his head and let it fall.

It landed on a chair with a soft thud.

And the guarding field of his power – so thin … all of it went up in a blaze, crisped in the heat of a burst of something else’s fury.

Oh there you are –” he gasped, and took off running. Run – run! The same mind, creature, thing – human? – as in the woods, as last night: a whirlwind of metal barreling down the hallway even goddamned faster this time – “Fuck –” Charles panted as he darted into his room. “For the love of …”

It only took a moment to lock the door again, from the inside. Getting better at it … He regrouped his power, fluttering back to him like flakes of ash. Sent it spinning out, and ramped up the power of the flares on the walls, on the flagstones, at the door …

So he felt the instant the creature stepped over the library threshold.

And when it started walking down the hall.

“Oh.” Charles gulped. “Oi. You can’t do that. Can you – can you do that?”

And it wasn’t walking, really – it was … prowling.

It only took one flash of awareness from the flares – a lean shadow, dark even in the gloom of the hallway – folding down to its feet and sniffing the stone – it only took that glimpse for Charles to start feeling less clever, and more terrified.

He looked down at his feet.

“… oh no.”

Some of the blisters from yesterday had torn again, in his sprint. And as he watched, blood welled up from one of the biggest, and dripped onto the floor.

Charles’ heart thumped hard in his chest, as he took in the blood spatter that led to his door. His door, and back down the hallway, back to the threshold, back to the creature …

Tiny flecks of crimson in the candlelight. Hardly enough to – oh God, the candlelight

Charles ran for the candle; blew it out and dove into his bed. For a long moment, he could only hold the blankets to himself, and shiver. It was ridiculous, to be sitting straight up and staring, like a child afraid of the dark. Or of starving, or of imprisonment – of nuclear war, of men and monsters … of everything turned out to be true, a true thing in this brave new world ... and no hideous fairy tale …

He almost bit through his lip when he sensed the creature turn down the dormitory hallway. The door is locked, his mind whispered, reassuring, and you’re safe – you’re safe

The doorknob turned.

Frozen, Charles stared at it. It’s locked – it’s locked

And he heard a rasping creak, and a rattle – and then the mechanism of the lock clicking open.

Charles had found, in certain moments of his life, after the war, that he could rely on a combination of adrenaline and the most potent fear to slow down his movements. To make them silent. So it was easy enough to lie back, close his eyes, and pretend to be asleep.

Too late to pull up the blankets; too late to avert his face. He had to face the door, and breathe deeply – in and out, in and out

A floorboard creaked. The creature was walking inside – two steps, three and Charles felt a whisper of movement above him.

And then he felt a warm breath, wafting over his face.

He didn’t dare bring all his flickers of power back from their places in the hallway – what if this thing were a telepath? What if it could detect the flares, the alarms … what if it knew he was awake? …

Then, for a brief moment, he felt nothing. Had the thing gone? Had it - Charles bit down hard on his tongue as he heard a scrape, and smelled the faintest trace of something charred.

There were the footfalls again. And the warm breath -

- drawing closer. Closer. A puff on his cheekbone.

Don’t panic. Charles swallowed the metallic taste of fear – don’t open your eyes.

Another breath. And a finger, tracing through a lock of his hair that fell sweaty over his brow – a warm touch –

It was a relief to channel his flinch into a sleepy stir and mumble. Charles almost heard the finger being snatched back – he definitely felt another exhale – and was that a growl? No, it was a shuffle, and …

… and something oddly … hot? Heat near his hair, and two drops - three - falling in soft plips onto his pillow.

Charles felt his mind race what is it what is it, but only gasped and sat up again, heart pounding, after the creature had left – after it had passed the threshold of the library and slammed the door. He almost heard the reverberation – strong and heavy as cold iron.

Stop it,” he told himself. Charles scrubbed his face with his hands. Then, cautiously, he felt his pillow. There was something on it – something …

He stumbled out of bed and held the pillow up, up to where moonlight glimmered through the arrow windows.

Shite,” he breathed.

Wax. Three hardened drops of wax. And four fingertips' worth of blood.

And not just in moonlight. Charles turned, skin on his neck prickling, to stare at the candle resting on the mantelpiece.

To stare, because it had been lit again.

Charles didn’t sleep much that night. And it was only when he woke, and went to the mirror to talk away the remnants of his fear, that he saw the streak of blood on his forehead. Vivid red on white, beneath a dark brown-black, above wide and staring blue.

Chapter Text

Raven.

Charles was sitting cross-legged on his bed when Angel knocked on the door. He had taken a quick bath and dressed, re-bandaged his feet, scrubbed the floor of his room and, when all was done, stared into the mirror again. You are strong. You are powerful. Everyone can be deceived. “I’ll get out of here,” he had whispered, and: “Raven, Raven …”

If Angel was surprised by his immediately opening the door at her knock, she did not say so. Instead she gave him a shove between the shoulder blades. “Go get some coffee, Mr. Xavier,” and: “How are your feet?”

He made vague sounds in reply. But on the way down to the kitchen, and during the entirety of breakfast, he repeated the name to himself. A talisman. He had been taken to this cold place in his sister's stead; he would escape it just as she would, were she here. Charles knew Raven, so well; like the freckles and scars on the backs of his hands. She would never give up; she would never give in …

The monster in the library could keep to itself. He would turn to the tower instead. All his power, all of his mind brought to bear on escape, and Raven.

John and Sean were in high spirits; Bobby and Ororo less so. And Jean … Jean looked even worse than she had the previous day. As Frost’s icy touch passed over them all, he saw her squeeze her eyes tightly shut.  Charles took in her wan features and her wince, and decided: some of his power would be focused on Jean. Unraveling the mystery there.

The glee of the younger boys was explained when Angel almost skipped inside, saying: “Quarter Gift! Quarter Gift in approximately one week, ladies and gents, so tell me what you want!”

“Chocolate!” Sean yelped; John talked over him, and the babble sent a twinge through Charles’ temple.

“O.K., enough.” Angel grinned. “Let me rephrase that. Write down what you’d like, on these pieces of paper –” she let a handful of paper scraps float to the tabletop, “and with any luck, you – will be a winner!”

At Charles’ raised eyebrows, she explained: “Quarter Gift, Mr. Xavier. Four times a year, students are permitted to ask for something; whether or not they get it depends on security, of course, but something usually gets given, and it’s good. So even though you’re totally an adult, and probably above such things …” She gave him a wry smile. “Feel free.”

“Not quite free,” he murmured. “I suppose a complete survival kit and a pair of skis is out of the question.”

Angel shot him a sharp look. “Watch it, Mr. Xavier. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a repeat of yesterday.”

“Like ‘Duck, Duck, Goose,’ only with electricity,” John snickered. “Like freeze tag,” Sean added. Ororo gave them a tired glare, her arm around Jean’s hunched shoulders.

“Like neither, when you consider.” Charles kept his voice level. “Anything but a children’s game.”

Angel shrugged. “Child’s play to Lady Frost. So anyway …” She held out pencil stubs. “Let’s have it.”

Charles considered asking for hard liquor, but wrote: reading material/books – various subjects, advanced levels, including any available histories of the Free West and the EBS, and of their conflict. His mind turned the topic around while the pencil was still moving. Quarter Gift Quarterand: four times a year … of course. Some aspects of human culture never changed, it seemed, even with nuclear war and dictatorships. The system was undoubtedly structured on the seasons - well, what had been the seasons; he would bet his life’s savings that next week was thus the autumnal equinox.

He handed his slip of paper to Angel without thinking. For his mind was working: 23 September 1969 … which meant that today was 16 Tuesday, and he had been brought to the students’ quarters on 13 Saturday … That night, the night of the thirteenth, he had fled to the top of the tower and sent his mind flying to Raven …

Raven

Pulling his thoughts away from his sister, Charles felt a shiver skate down his spine as he realized: he had been taken out of the cell on the sixth day of his captivity. Thus, he must have awoken, and met Frost, on 7 September. But the Takers – the EBS – had found him in Oxford on the first of the month …

Even accounting for transport … he had been sedated for a week.

His skin crawled. What had they done, while he had been unconscious? They could have done anything -

“All right, everyone.” Angel jammed the paper scraps into the front pocket of her sweatshirt. “Let’s go. Oh, and Mr. Xavier, you’re doing your afternoon stuff all day today. Morning guy’s out sick.”

Charles remembered McCoy’s wide-eyed panic of the previous morning. His mouth suddenly tasted bitter, like he had eaten ashes instead of bread.

The taste didn’t leave for the rest of the day. Logan was his usual self, dogging his heels during their endless rounds of the manor, steering him into tree stumps in the woods, making him dodge random punches. “That’s for shooting me, right in the head,” and, “That’s for being such a damn good shot, X man,” and, “That’s just for shits and giggles.”

If anything, the bitterness had tripled when Logan was through with him. But Charles chalked it up to anaerobic excess.

------------------------

For the next few nights, Charles picked the lock on his door and made his silent way to the tower. The first night there had felt strangely familiar, as though his efforts at sending forth his thoughts had left a ghost of himself to haunt the battlements. His ensuing efforts continued along the same pattern as the first: no success. But, Charles told himself, you're getting more accurate. And it was quite difficult, to fling forth such a small portion of his power, to control it over such a distance. It would be unreasonable to expect results so soon.

Two nights before the equinox, though, his raven found Syracuse.

He had shot it towards the North Star, then sent it angling slightly east. After all, he had those images of the library maps preserved in his memory. It was only a shame that he had paged through them so quickly, for certain details were missing. On a certain black-and-white map, there had been a red stripe lying to the north of a blue dot, and three more concentrated areas in red strung along the stripe like beads of blood. So he took a guess – made a hypothesis – and had flown north by northeast …

From such a height, the town looked like nothing more than a sprinkling of silver dust.

Charles had spiraled down through the air, his pulse leaping in his ears. There were lights – not numerous, though, and quite weak. Were they gas lamps? Electric? He could not tell, but he could send the raven winging up what had been a silver thread from far above, what turned out to be a main street – it was so small, this hamlet, and he hardly knew what had happened when he crashed into a person, until a panicked flash of hey something in my head! made him gasp and flutter free.

Then, with an unfathomable sensation – as though he were crashing through one spiderweb sort of wall after another, with a thwack, thwack, thwack rhythm that he realized was his pulse – Charles opened his eyes wide and saw: he was back at the top of the tower.

He lay there for a long time, grinning from ear to ear. He rifled through the person – boy’s – thoughts: out after curfew – games start tomorrow – Syracuse will win – and a sense of mine and pride making that same name glow …

Syracuse. It could be done – the raven could find settlements; hell, he could find people. “Could I talk to them, I wonder?” Charles had said, and: “Damn,” because his voice was rasping, as though he had been shouting for an hour.

Charles had sat up. Then he had been promptly and spectacularly sick – but even that, and his crushing migraine, could not dampen his high spirits over the next two days.

Then the Quarter Gift was given, and his mood … well.

His mood changed.

------------------------

McCoy had been back at work for a few days; Logan had been consistently and cheerfully relentless. Charles found that even as his thoughts ranged wide and free over the diagrams in the morning, and flew far from the tower at night – his body was becoming less loose, less free. More knotted. On the morning of the 23rd, he was scrubbing himself as quickly as he could in the chill of his bathroom when he noticed the changes. His muscles were more taut, yes – even though training for the Oxford missions had ensured that he could run and fight at a bare minimum of competence … but his ribs … Charles felt his own sides, and swallowed against a hot knot in his throat. He was rapidly losing weight.

He had never been indolent or overfed, but this … Charles shuddered. His students were all told – Raven was told, as a child, and even he had picked up an echo of the earnest government programmes – the gaunt faces and emaciated bodies of the victims of fallout, of starvation and disease … watch for them, and watch that you yourself do not become so. If there was food, eat it; you’d never know whether there’d be any the next day.

But he ate the food here. There was just … not enough of it. The elation of finding Syracuse had obscured the constant hunger that made his body vibrate; the ensuing migraine – only just wearing off, thirty-six hours later – had eclipsed the low-grade headache he had every day. Each and every day, no matter how much water he drank.

Charles tugged a sweatshirt over his head. He looked in the mirror – his jaw, strung tight, was sharper, and his cheekbones had a more pronounced jut. He wasn’t sure he disliked the effect – his eyes looked, if anything, larger and more blue, and he knew just how effective they could be in charming women and men – anyone legal – into his bed –

He cut off that line of thought with a snort. Imprisoned with a gaggle of schoolchildren. It was just as well that he was being run ragged by Logan every day, that he drained his mental energy flying off the tower each night. Otherwise he’d be reduced to wanking like an adolescent. After all, he was goggling at himself in the mirror like one.

He checked for the watch in his pocket, and went down to breakfast

Making it through that day was no more challenging than any other day. The thrum of excitement from the children – even from Jean, who had been losing weight herself – made him smile, both at the breakfast table and the dinner hour. And then, when they had washed the last dishes … with a wry twist of amusement, he noticed how his own footsteps were quicker than usual, even as the children cannonballed up the stairs before him.

There were two large cardboard boxes in his room.

Charles unclenched his fingers from where they had knotted in his sweatshirt. Then he took his time, changing into his sleeping clothes and – to give it a sense of ceremony – winding his watch before dropping it back into his shirt pocket, beneath the blue sweater. He always did so before a new class, each year … and this was something new, after all …

He knelt before the boxes, and carefully opened them. His heart leaped at the sight of books. So many books: there had to be at least three dozen.

Sean’s whoops from down the hall sounded very loud in the silence. Charles heard his own unsteady breathing. He had a sudden memory of Raven, tearing into the first of her Christmas presents, the first year she had lived with him …

He swallowed against the tightness in his throat; willed the tears away from his eyes. Tried to keep his fingers from trembling as he lifted out the first of the books.

Charles took his time, gloating over each volume. Most were American classics of fiction and poetry. He had hoped for the most recent works of genetic theory; unreasonable, he decided, since they really couldn’t be expected to read his mind. That includes you, Frost. Perhaps he could ask McCoy. He grinned at the complete volume of Shakespeare, but felt that grin change to a grimace at the sight of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and De Profundis. Someone in the EBS high command, it seemed, had a nasty sense of humor. 

But his satisfaction at having something to read – anything to read – made the flash of frustration vanish. Until, that is, he got to the bottom of the second box.

There, Charles found a thin but sturdy book. He drew it out.

Freedom Rising! blared the cover. A bizarrely orange eagle stretched its wings wide over – was that a bonfire? It was all red-orange, against a blue background. He blinked, flipped the book open. Freedom Rising! The Story of the Free West. Charles turned the pages. Bright colors, solid lines, stalwart soldiers, smiling mothers and rows of rosy-cheeked, beaming children.

There was a vocabulary building section, at the back.

And the entire thing was typed in a god damned thirty-two point font.

He heard the blood rush in his ears. Odd, this feeling – a sort of light-headed dizziness. Charles supposed it was rage.

“Mother fucker,” he heard his own voice hiss. “Those bastards.” Any available histories of the Free West and the EBS, and of their conflict, he had written, and they had given him a god damned children’s book.

He must have thrown it, for he heard it hit the wall with a thwack. He rose to his feet.

And then Charles stood staring at the door, every new fiber of muscle in his body drawn tight and aching. They wouldn’t give him a history? They would bloody well patronize him? Then he knew exactly where to go, and what to do.

He waited for Angel to lock them in, for all the children to fall asleep – each one happy, some more than others. Then he picked the lock in less than a minute and strode down the hall in the dark. His shoes were still on; his heart was pounding. To the library, Charles thought, and he made his footsteps loud.

------------------------

By the time he made it to the library, though, Charles had changed his plan. Since he hadn’t seen any sort of card catalogue, earlier, and he didn’t know the system in use – if indeed there was one – he decided that it would be better to take a more thorough look at the maps. After all, he could come back for a history any time he wanted. Charles edged into the library, stealthily, keeping his power on high alert. The room spread out before him, warm and inviting, and there were the maps on the table …

Something was different. His shoulders stiffened, and he looked round carefully. There were things he hadn’t noticed, even on two visits – a metal catwalk nine feet up the wall, rendering another floor of books accessible. There was a spiral staircase in the shadows of one corner. And there –

That was the difference.

Charles’ eyes fixed on the fire crackling away in the fireplace. Someone had been here, and recently … His skin prickled. No time could be wasted in sliding the silver cloak of his power under the door, rolling it down the hallway, unfolding it into the nooks and crannies of the darkened manor. “Stand guard,” he whispered to himself. Then he snatched up the iron candelabrum and placed it on the edge of the long table, weighing down the flimsy maps. “Stand guard for me …”

For a long moment, Charles watched the wrought iron, his throat completely dry. He touched each distant flicker of his power, cupped them in the palm of his hand, in his mind. Small flickers … so small in the gloom of the manor house, the vast darkness of his prison. So small

He felt nothing. Saw nothing. And so, with a carefully controlled eagerness, Charles turned to the maps.

He flattened out the topmost. Its edges and creases were well-worn, some almost falling to lint. One edge was much rougher, though – perhaps it had been part of an atlas, quite some time past? Charles’ mind clicked away, cataloguing. It was a city in the mountains; the contour lines ran thick in certain areas. “Oh, of course,” he breathed, because he could just glimpse a faded DENV- in one upper corner. Denver. Capital of the Free West. Charles checked another corner of the map – and there was a faded, near-invisible 1949.

The map was covered in markings: various hatchmarks, thick daubs of ink in different colors, line after line of what looked like code. And there was the occasional note, in a strong slanting hand. But he had never called himself a graphology expert. Damn and blast. Charles bit his lip, searching for a key of any sort – there was none. But: “Ah,” and he grinned, pulling out another map. The original marks were being transferred, in all their accumulated detail, onto another topography of Denver. The paper of the new map was much thicker, with brighter colors and cruder lines. Perhaps the Free West had had to scale back their printing efforts. For there in the corner was: F.Y. 19.

Free Year 19. The world’s new hodgepodge of dating systems always gave his students unquantifiable grief. The 15th year of Elizabeth II Regina; 1969 in the Kingdom of Britain and Unified Europe; 1388 hijri – or was it 1389 yet? – in the New Caliphate; 4605 in Zhōngguó and who knew what in various other corners of the world. And Free Year 19, in the Free West.

Nobody in Britain knew what system the Brotherhood used. Nobody … Charles grinned. Nobody except him, now. For the map he turned over next, the third one, finely worked in black and white, had 1969 for a header – as clear as day.

“Odd,” he murmured, twiddling the fine paper. Given that reports of its governance had ranged from absolute dictatorship to outright cult, one would expect the Brotherhood to have its own dating system. An opportunity to bring the world into orbit around itself, as such régimes tended to do. But it would seem the Free West had the idea first, on this continent …

Though the printing was black and white (and a fine print – they must have a more advanced system) the third map was also color-coded. Charles checked the key. Blue bars indicated … fortifications? Why on earth … Arable land was colored green, predictably enough; vivid orange and pink marked off irradiated and contaminated areas; certain cities were outlined in red. And there was the red line – a road, connecting Buffalo to Syracuse and Albany, passing north of their current location … Charles let his finger fall on a dark blue X – “X marks the spot.” Ithaca, and the manor ...

How to get to the red-marked road? He bit his lip, checked the key, then measured as best he could. Sixty miles from Ithaca to Syracuse, angling north by northeast; perhaps less, as the crow flies. The raven, his mind whispered. And were those tiny red hatchmarks spreading north from Ithaca ... towns? Villages? Or settlements of some sort? One could hoard enough food for a journey of such great length, but winter’s descent would make it exponentially more difficult …

He sighed to himself. “You’d have to act quickly.”

Then a distant spark of his power flared.

Charles jerked his head up. Act quickly – now might be an excellent time to do so –

 He narrowed his eyes, carefully probing with his thoughts. The feeling of that cloud of metal – yes, there it was. Moving – Charles focused – moving towards the library. But slowly, this time. He bit back a harsh laugh. As though it were trying to sneak up on him.

“No rattling; no give-away tonight ...” He smiled a tight smile. “Well done, old chap. I – whoops

Something had rattled after all. Blood thumping in his ears, Charles turned around. Round and round – he looked, but couldn’t see what had moved …

But the creature was still advancing. Slowly.

“Good of you to give notice. Well,” he tore himself away from the maps, “better be getting back.” He stepped quickly to the door and turned the handle.

Charles froze.

Nothing had happened.

He pushed at the iron ring; tried to twist it and turn it. Nothing. The door stayed firmly shut.

Charles heard his own ragged breaths; high-pitched, almost strangled. He dropped to one knee, frantic; pried at the lock – it had changed, somehow – melting, or re-forming – fused to the plate, to the doorframe –

“Oh god,” he mumbled, heart thudding. The creature had turned a corner or something, for the full brunt of that steel-strong awareness was corkscrewing tight, closer and closer on the room, on him –

Hide – his mind shouted at him: HIDE

“But where” Charles jumped to his feet and glanced up, around, desperately. There – the spiral staircase in one corner, and an iron catwalk branching out from its head. The catwalk joined the stacks up there. They could hide him - he could hide in the shadows between them.

There was one such recession directly above the other doorway – the door that led further into the manor. He'd hide there, and then he’d get a glimpse of the thing, and he could spring the lock after it had left. That was the only possible outcome. Other possibilities did not bear consideration, and would not happen.

Even as he thought, Charles started running, not caring as he knocked the table, jarring the board and sending chess pieces pattering to the hearth. He practically flew up the stairs and crouched down low in the shadows between two of the stacks. He drew all his power back and wrapped himself in veils. You’re invisible, nothing can notice you … It was close - closer ...

The door beneath him creaked.

Charles only just remembered to use the sound as cover for a desperate gulp of air; he held his breath and squeezed his eyes shut.

So he saw it in his mind’s eye, instead; the dark and sullen mass of fragments – nails, shrapnel, steel wool and barbed wire – edging into the library and looking round. Staring.

Charles focused on keeping his sips of breath silent. Perhaps, if he kept his eyes shut – I can’t see you; you can’t see me … A memory flashed: Raven, giggling uncontrollably at a roly-poly barn kitten hiding behind a sack of oats. Its head and body had been concealed, but its tail had been in plain sight, whipping back and forth as it prepared to pounce.

He reached out with the tiniest thread of thought. Then Charles bit down hard against the panic, and the fear, his teeth digging into his lower lip. The creature’s presence had filled the entire room, like cold water would a metal bucket. Or molten metal would a pond. That awareness, that focus –

He thought of the kitten, lashing its tail. Cat, Raven had chirped, cat – she had only just begun to talk, six and a half years old … Curiosity killed the cat, but surely a telepath was exempt from that adage. Charles peeked –

And stared.

He was almost disappointed. The creature, monster, thing … was just another human.

------------------------

Charles blinked. He had had visions of a robot, a deadly machine, some sort of siege engine or juggernaut – but here it was, only human. Male, perhaps six feet, eleven or twelve stone. Red-brown hair and a slender build. The only thing that tallied with Charles' earlier imaginings was a strange vibration – a sensation of coiled wire – of a certain tension in the shoulders, in the back.

Charles breathed out, in a tiny sigh – oh shite quietbecause the other man had inclined his head and turned.

Don’t panic. Better not panic. Far better to slide a hand over his own mouth and bite down on one finger, hard. Quiet, quiet. The man was slowly turning in place, eyes methodically moving over the room, flicking between the first and second levels. Charles was too far away to see any details, but had the passing impression of stark features, a tight-lipped mouth –

He flinched at the quiet tsk – it might as well have been a gunshot to his strung-tight nerves. The man was walking over to the table; no, prowling – that image had been accurate, too – and staring.

Oh no the candelabrum

Then Charles’ jaw dropped; he felt his own breath moist against the hand that he had clamped over his mouth. The wrought-iron implement was floating back to the table by the fireplace. It came down to rest on the marble top, silently.

The back of his neck prickled. More mutant gifts – this one an affinity for metal, some small-scale telekinesis – how did it work? The idea was fascinating – but save the fascination for later, damn it. Charles wedged both hands into his hair and tugged, trying to focus on being quiet. He peered through the catwalk grille. The man was in profile; he looked like he belonged on some pre-War coin. The only sounds were the fire’s pop and snap, and the rustle of the maps as the creature, thing – man – examined them.

Go away, Charles thought, fiercely. Go away; let me get out of here. He kept his power muted. No sense in running any risks. The fact that he was here in the first place: treed like a cat on a kitchen shelf, in a corner of an opulent library, in his own goddamned prison – surely that was risk enough. Charles pulled at his own hair, harder. Save the hysterics for later

And the fire was all the way down the stairs. It was ridiculous to sweat. Nerves, he thought, and: fear. Well, less fear now, just: stay still, stay hidden; don’t move or breathe … He swiped at his damp forehead; sweat was beading and moving on his neck, oddly chilly. And his heart thumped, as though it was being hit with a weight –

Charles ran his fingers down his temples, wiping away the sweat. Down further –

wait -

That’s not sweat.

It was the smooth steel chain of his watch. It had risen out of his shirt pocket, like a snake from a basket. Now it was undulating over his skin.

And Charles had only one moment to stare, and think: how interesting.

Then the steel flashed a cold loop round his throat – he gasped, too loudly – and he could only think: just made some noise, so might as well breathe now and what a shame I can’t – I can’t – can’t breathe

------------------------

Sounds. There was the sound of shoes – shoes with rubber soles – kicking against the thin metal of a floor, against the wood of a bookshelf. There was a grating, wet rasping noise – not any known language. There was a louder sound – clang clang clang – footsteps on metal stairs.

Someone had a line of fire slicing his throat; and a coppery taste flooding his mouth. Someone saw everything turning black, black and red, in fiery, spreading rings –

Oh. That someone was himself, Charles’ mind realized. It would appear he was being strangled. It would appear he was going to die. Such an unpleasant business.

He felt threads of his power leaving him. The raven floated up to the library ceiling and looked down. His fingers had gotten scratched in the woods that afternoon, running with Logan – they were clawing at the steel chain now. There was blood on his neck. His skin was white; the blood looked black.

Glossy black feathers were falling from the raven’s wings. They drifted down onto his body where it arched like a bow against the floor. And they landed on the back and shoulders of the other man, as he leaned down and grabbed in one fluid movement, as he took Charles by the shoulders and slammed him against the wall.

The raven heard a sick crack.

Then the raven saw something sparkle in the darkness. Curious: the wall wasn’t made of wood, not completely. Part of it was metal. One steel panel, in the entire library, and of course Charles had chosen to hide in front of it. Silly Charles. The raven tipped its head to one side, watched the taller man drive a fist into Charles’ gut – watched the steel chain slither loose and fix itself to the panel –

And the raven melted into air, into thin air – air, breathe – and liquid copper was welling up and flowing from his mouth –

Charles gasped for air; he felt it rattle through the blood in his throat. He reached up, found the strands of steel chain on each side of his neck, affixed to the metal behind him – his watch was heavy and stuck to the panel, he couldn’t pry it loose. But he could breathe, now, and he could say:

“Stop,” he choked, “stop –

Another crack – white lights flashed in front of his eyes as his skull hit the steel panel again. Then there were fingers coiling round his throat, slipping on the blood before digging in tight. Charles cried out and started to thrash – he landed a kick on what felt like a shin and then doubled over, almost retching in pain, as the man kneed him. A hand on his shoulder pushed up, as did what felt like a thigh, thrust up between his legs – his mind catalogued away, neutrally, and noticed how he had coughed blood on the other man’s face, now that they were eye to eye.

The blood made the man’s eyes look very green.

“Stop,” Charles gasped: “stop – please –

The man’s eyes glittered. And the grip on his throat loosened, just slightly.

Charles gulped for breath, staring. He couldn’t move. He was being propped up, yes, but held in place by one hand on his shoulder – and if he struggled, he knew the other hand would choke him again. So he settled for just staring.

Those eyes narrowed. The man – creature – monster – spoke.

“Why did you come here?”

Words. Words meant things, his mind offered, helpfully. Why did you come here? Charles tried to think, tried to remember.

“Didn’t come,” he choked. “I was – taken here –”

The man bared his teeth. So many of them - strong and even, and all really very white, Charles thought, even as a distant part of him heard his head crack against the steel for the third time. And now it appeared he was going to vomit; it made sense, the body reacting to trauma –

A snarl, and he was being thrown from the wall onto the floor. Charles broke the fall with his palms and then stared down, down at the blood and vomit dripping through the grille. Not on the books, his memory sighed, and Raven, you know better than to bring tea into the library

“You were told never to come here!”

Charles felt a white-hot crunch on one side. He fought not to pass out; caught at a shard of his power from where it lay splintered, shaped a dart and threw it at the other man’s mind. A glancing touch showed an inferno of anger, but with pre-marked fire lines, and the lines were blazing into the other side – an arm – a wrist

A strong grip wrenched one of his arms behind his back, and then Charles felt a pop at the base of one of his hands, and he had to scream.

------------------------

He must have passed out, at least, for a little while. For when he opened his eyes again, he could feel the tight pull, where blood had dried on his chin. He heard nothing but the rattle and rasp of his own desperate breaths.

Except then he heard a grunt, a rustle of cloth and then the creak from the catwalk. A rattle of steel.

“Get up.”

Charles flinched away from the voice; curled in on himself. A mistake – his ribs sent up a wave of pain; he retched, but there was nothing left –

“I told you to get up.”

“’m sorry,” he slurred. “Can’t.”

“Really.” And Charles flinched again – that grip had returned, and one of his own hands was being held … between two other hands. Those hands were warm. But the voice was cold as it said: “Which finger?”

He fought to focus. “What?”

“Charles Xavier. Professor Xavier. Professors like to write. So. Which finger?”

“I don’t –” He gulped. “I don’t –”

“It really is not that difficult, Professor. Each time I give you an order, and you disobey, I break one of your fingers. So. Which one?”

Oh my god …

I have to … Charles exhaled, rattling. Do it. He scraped together all the power he could, sent it flowing through his body to find all of his pain receptors – all of them – and turned them off. Easy.

Then he stood.

There was a pause. Then the other man gazed up from where he crouched; uncoiled to his feet. He hadn’t let go of Charles’ hand.

“Very good.” Those eyes glinted green at him.

Charles swayed where he stood, but returned the look with what he hoped was an expression of mild curiosity. He tried lifting an eyebrow. Blood stretched, tacky, on his forehead; he let the eyebrow relax. Maybe not just now.

The other man raised his own brows in reply. “Walk,” he ordered.

He blinked, or at least he tried to. His eyelashes were gummed together, in a few places. Charles asked, “Where?”

Those eyes were narrow on his. “Down the stairs. Now.”

Charles made it down the stairs easily enough, only losing his footing twice. Both times, the man caught his arms and held him up. Then, “Out the door,” the man – creature, thing – growled, and Charles thought: But I hadn’t finished with the maps.

He decided not to say that out loud, though. It seemed the wrong time for it.

The dark walls in the hallway were rippling, strangely – and then, there was the raven again, flitting above his head. It watched him walking down the halls, weaving on his feet. The taller man beside him seemed nothing more than a bad dream: a shadow in the shadows.

The raven was a shadow, too. It could hide very well.

So it watched from the rafters as the creature left him at the door to his room. It watched over him as he slept. Then, quite some time later, it saw Alex walking up the stairs, and flew down to his bloodied head with a warning cry.

Charles tried to open his eyes. He really couldn’t. So he only heard a gasp, “Mr. Xavier, holy shit –” and then running footsteps. Then there were many feet running, and hands trying to move him, and voices – “Careful, careful,” “Oh my God –” “Damn it, McCoy, if you’re gonna puke, do it in a corner –”

“Don’t …” His voice was almost gone. “Don’t let the children see.”

“God, Mr. Xavier,” Angel was crying. “Can you stand up? Get up –”

“Tired,” he said. Or had he said it? Had he thought it? Tired. The other voices were fading away.

Then the raven tucked its head under its wing. It was tired as well. So tired ... as though it had flown to Syracuse, to Albany, to London and back, time and again ... Raven … Charles felt oddly sad. His power flickered; he felt soft pieces of it drifting to the ground, feathers or ash. He saw the sparks going out. He loosened the power’s grip on his own body, with a sigh. Part of him saw all the pain receptors flaring into fire, burning like beacons in the night. Raven

And then it seemed that the best thing to do would be to pass out. So Charles did.

But not before he realized: the monster had kept his watch. And, somehow, that seemed the saddest thing of all.

Chapter Text

The darkness was different, this time. Silent and cold. Too cold. The days were getting shorter, the nights even colder. He needed to get home – he needed to make sure Raven knew that the cold was coming.

“Raven …” He heard an echo: it sounded like his own voice. “Raven – where are you?”

Come home, come home. Raven, Raven fly away home …

It was so dark. He couldn’t see her anywhere. Except: there … there she was, golden and laughing, hair streaming out behind her as she ran toward him. Golden hair, bright against the darkness. He knew it was morning, somehow.

So why was it so dark?

“How many, Charles? Quick – count!”

The ravens spiraled upward, silver against the blackness of the sky. He frowned, feeling a stab of pain through his head – and silver made no sense. Ravens were black; the sky was blue. But there were seven silver birds, and – “Seven is a journey,” Raven said, not smiling now. She put her hand in his. “Don’t go.” Her eyes were wide, and filled with pain. “Please don’t go …”

Why was he crying?

Perhaps because Raven was crying too, wedged against him in an armchair, staring at her blue-scaled hands, trembling. She was so young, and the Takers were coming to Oxford the very next day.

“Try again,” he heard. The echo of his own voice cracked. “I know, I know it makes you sad, but if they find you – Raven, dear heart,” he held her close. Her tears were hot on his neck. “What would I do if you were gone?”

“Find another sister,” Raven choked, skin changing – blue – pink – grey – blue – and: “No. You’re my sister.” Why did it hurt to speak? “You’ll always be my sister; I’ll always be your brother. I’ll protect you. Don’t be afraid.”

“But it’s so dark,” she wailed. And it was. How had it gotten so dark? “It’s so dark.” She put her hand in his. “Don’t go.” Her eyes were wide, and filled with tears. “Please don’t go …”

Why was he crying?

Perhaps because the music was so beautiful, delicate and ringing silver off stone.

He bare him up he bare him down / He bare him into an orchard brown.

Raven sitting at his side, at a Lessons and Carols service – and even though it was dark in Christ Church cathedral, somehow pitch black, he could see the vivid colors of the stained glass, floating in front of his eyes. And the music: it was Britten, a melody woven round with the shining-silver line of: Lully lullay, lully lullay / The falcon hath borne my make away.

“What’s ‘make’?” Raven whispered, and he whispered back: “It’s archaic. For ‘mate.’”

“Oh.” A pause, then: “What’s ‘archaic’?”

He felt his own smile, crinkling the corners of his eyes – an echo of a smile, like it was long gone – and it was so dark in the cathedral. Why? “‘Archaic’ just means ‘old,’ Raven. It’s a very old song.”

“Oh.”

“Shh – listen.”

In that orchard there was an hall / That was hangèd with purple and pall.

“Charles?”

“Yes …”

“Why is it so dark?”

And in that hall there was a bed, / It was hangèd with gold so red.

“I …”

Why, indeed? It was cold, for that matter – getting colder, as well as dark. It was the bleak midwinter, he knew – snow lay piled high outside, on earth as hard as iron.

Lully lullay, lully lullay / The falcon hath borne my make away.

So cold, so dark. The wind was wailing, mournful and lost, around the high stone walls. Raven put her hand in his. “Don’t go.” Her eyes were wide, and filled with sorrow. “Please don't go …”

In that bed there lieth a knight, / His woundes bleeding day and night.

Charles felt a shudder pass through his body. He was lying on something; there was blood in his mouth. And somehow, Raven was older now. Twenty.

By that bedside kneeleth a may / And she do weepeth both night and day.

Twenty, and a teacher – he was so proud of her. He had forgotten to tell her that … But how to tell her, now, when she was gazing at him from so far away?

Lully lullay, lully lullay / The falcon hath borne my make away.

Far away: a golden spark across a dark and empty field – no, an expanse. A vast spread of cold darkness; a chasm deeper than any he had ever seen.

“They took me away. I didn’t tell you –” he said, weeping. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you. I love you. It will all be all right – I promise you.”

Don’t go. He saw her shake her head. She was crying, too. Please.

Then he saw her – no, he didn’t, she was fading from view – but he somehow knew she was preparing to jump. To fly … to fly and find him. And they’d find her, he knew. Every instinct he had told him they would find her –

No!” Charles screamed into the wind, desperate – it was picking up, darkening into a howl. “I promised to protect you. I love you, do you hear me? I love you –”

But the wind was too loud. It shrieked against his ears, cold and relentless – he gasped for air, he couldn’t breathe and it was dark, so dark, and there was a sudden sharp pain in the crook of his arm –


Charles groaned, and opened his eyes. He was lying on a bed, and staring at a white and grey ceiling. He blinked, then shifted up slightly – just high enough to check his surroundings.

And then he felt a rush of relief, so strong it left him dizzy. There was McCoy – McCoy looking pale and washed out in the harsh white light. And the pain in his arm was from an I.V. that had just been placed.

He tried to speak. “… Hank?”

McCoy whirled, almost knocking over the I.V. pole. “Mr. Xavier! Can you hear me?”

The words were too loud, clanging against his skull, but Charles didn’t want to tell him so. “Yes,” he said, instead. He blinked owlishly. “I can hear you perfectly.”

He hardly needed any of his power to read McCoy’s emotions – joy relief regret with a thrum of fear pain but mostly joy – they were practically coming off him in waves. “We thought – you had a concussion, and we thought you might be out for quite a bit longer.”

A concussion. Memory swirled to the surface of his mind: his own head, ricocheting off unforgiving metal. And before – they had kept him sedated for a week.

Charles broke into a cold sweat. “How long?” He swallowed. “How long have I been … out?”

“’Bout eighteen hours, all told.” Another voice, and Logan’s face appeared above his, looking grim. He tugged a pillow up behind Charles’ head, propping it at a better angle. Charles looked round as discreetly as possible. An infirmary of sorts? His mind started to catalogue. No windows, basic hospital bed – a heart monitor and an I.V. drip – and a machine in one corner … that he didn’t know. How could he not know it? It had electrodes, and a round band of ... plastic? Something synthetic. Charles frowned – the tech was advanced here, yes, and Oxford had been so primitive that perhaps it was understandable, but still –

Logan had kept talking. “Eighteen hours, all the kids in a tizzy – didn’t I tell you not to pull any stupid-ass shit, Xavier?”

“I didn’t pull anything,” Charles said, dignified. “I –”

But Logan’s face went still as he looked to the side, his eyes dark and gleaming. “Heads up,” he muttered to McCoy, who turned and swallowed hard.

Then Charles only had time to hear the authoritative click of shoes – before he was blinking up at Frost.

He had forgotten. The leader of the EBS … the sheer power that she wielded. Even if she had missed the billiard ball, the marble. Veil veil veil, he thought, desperately – and even though it gave him a twinge of headache, he did. And he did so just in time to meet Frost’s eyes, and to note, dispassionately, that she was calmly, icily furious.

“Mr. Xavier.” Her voice was crisp. “It’s been some time.”

“Mmm.” Charles tried to sound agreeable. And stupid, his mind whispered. Pretend you’re still concussed. Pretend you don’t know anything.

“Do you remember what you did, Mr. Xavier?”

“Um. I … I actually don’t remember. No.” He blinked up at her. “Sorry.”

Frost’s eyes widened for a split second; then narrowed, and … god.

He had almost forgotten how it felt: that moment on the threshold of the Takers' hall; their skirmish his first hour out of the cell. That icy power focused on him, running its cold crab claws over his mind, testing for weaknesses, probing and prying … He kept his veils firmly in place, and released one squid-ink jet of pain – the memory of his skull crashing against steel –

He felt her mind flinch away, and the diamond-edged control that immediately smoothed over the surprise. Ha – but she was speaking:

“ 'Sorry',” Frost said, ice cold. “ 'Sorry' … Well, Mr. Xavier, you should know that such regrets now are nothing in comparison to what they will be if you trespass again. There are rules here.” Frost tilted her head to a different angle; Charles had the sudden impression of a raptor eying a mouse. “Rules that you will follow, with no exceptions – or you will be punished. And only your current state –” she curled her lip at the I.V., “prevents me from showing how exactly how, and showing you right. Now.”

Charles kept his eyes lowered. Aren’t you clever, he thought, viciously, rhyming like that – but then: veil, veil, keep it veiled …

He heard rather than saw Frost turning to leave – a rustle of well-tailored linen. “And it might interest you to know, Mr. Xavier, that since monitor Angel was the one responsible for securing you in the evening, she has been punished too.”

Charles felt his stomach lurch. “What?” His mind went over her words, disbelieving. “What – that’s not fair – she didn’t do anything. I did –”

But Frost had gone. He sensed the icy echo of her power, click click click-ing down the hallway.

Mutely, he looked up at McCoy and Logan. McCoy was still standing, as rigid as the I.V. pole and just as thin. Logan moved off the wall with a grunt.

“Logan,” Charles said carefully, and, “McCoy – that’s not right. Angel didn’t do anything wrong.”

Logan’s eyes looked like smudges beneath his heavy brows. “Take it up with her, then.”

“With Frost?”

“No,” McCoy said quickly. “With Angel. And really, she should understand.” He grimaced. “I mean, I got punished when she tried to escape, so you can always try telling her it’s karma or something –”

“McCoy…” Logan cut him off. He sounded weary. “Leave Xavier to it. And X man … Don’t even bother trying, with Frost. Hell,” he gave a half-smile, with no warmth. “Don’t even think about it. There’s rules here, there’s the way things have been since this whole op started … And that’s the way they’ll stay.”

Charles felt his temper flare. “Rules. What sort of rules land me with – what do I have, Hank?”

McCoy rattled off the information. “Concussion, four broken ribs, broken wrist, hemorrhage in the strap muscles and laryngeal tissues attendant on ligature strangulation –”

Strangulation – god. Charles gulped, hard – then frowned. “So … how am I even able to talk? For that matter,” he flexed both wrists, and blinked. “One was broken. How … after eighteen hours? What level of tech do you have here?”

“Not tech,” McCoy began, carefully, but: “Classified, yeah?” Logan growled.

“Maybe.” McCoy’s voice was quiet. “But he’ll know eventually. He might be able to help with the synthesis – the duplication, you know?”

“Duplication of what?” Charles heard the avid curiosity in his own voice.

McCoy jerked his head toward the I.V. pole. “That.”

Charles frowned. It wasn’t saline, of course – the liquid’s bizarre color was the obvious giveaway. “Um. What is that?”

“Blood.”

“Blood?” He felt his eyes widen. “What the hell kind of blood is purple?”

“Archangel’s.”

“Well whoever Archangel is, I hope he, she, or it is O-negative.”

“I know what I’m doing, Mr. Xavier. Archangel’s one of us – I mean, in the EBS high command –”

“Stationed on the front.” Logan wasn’t looking at McCoy; he was examining his own fingers instead. His jaw was tight. "Here's hopin' he keeps his ancient ass there this time."

"Logan, really -"

"You know what I think, Doctor."

"Not all of us can heal ourselves," McCoy snapped.

Charles thought it best to jump in. "The blood has healing properties, then?"

"... Yes," McCoy said.

Logan glared at his own fists.

"And he tops off our supply whenever he does his rounds," McCoy said, quietly, "and we gave you some.”

“Well.” Charles blinked. “I’m grateful. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome."

“And you’d damn well better be grateful, Xavier, because I may bitch, but that shit’s worth its weight in gold –”

“Oh that’s right – I mean, if everything’s pretty much healed –” With one quick twist of his hands, McCoy tied off the I.V. and unhooked the blood pack. He walked out of Charles’ peripheral vision – there was a puff of cold air and then the thud of a small door closing.

“As I was saying,” Logan gritted out, “You’d better toe the straight and narrow from here on out, X man. Every drop of that stuff that you get means one less for others, after the next battle. And when I say ‘others,’ I mean: everyone who’s been promoted out of training, everyone who fights. We’ve got ten-year-olds on the front. Fuck: we’ve got a shapeshifter down by St. Louis who’s only six, you know? Six, and air-dropped into god damned Denver every other week.”

“I’m sorry.” Charles hunched his shoulders. Shapeshifter – his mind flashed to Raven – veil veil veil. “It won’t happen again in future. Who knew? …” He tried to lighten the tone. “My mother always told me to read books, when I was a child – ‘for my own profit,’ she would say. Who knew that a trip to the library would turn out so expensive?”

And he knew, instantly, from the way McCoy and Logan froze in place – that he had said the wrong thing.

“The library?” McCoy said. His voice wavered.

Logan’s voice was rough. “Which library?”

“I …”

“Tell me, Xavier.” Logan’s teeth were bared. “Tell us. Now.”

Charles couldn’t help his shiver. “The library you – you took me through. When I had a blindfold.” He spoke in a rush, before he could stop himself. They had healed him. They deserved the truth. “I remembered the directions, and I –”

He really didn’t expect it – so Logan’s knuckles growing, somehow, lengthening into three long and shimmering metal blades - but no, not his knuckles, they're coming out from between his knuckles - fuck ... Heart pounding, Charles only realized that he had pressed back into his pillow when Logan had to take a step forward to touch those blades to his throat.

“We told you not to go into the West Wing.” The blades – claws – were sharp. He felt their edges whisper against his skin. But Logan was still speaking, in the quiet, reasonable voice that Charles had come to recognize as a preamble to making him run until his feet bled. “So. Why did you go into the West Wing, X man?”

“I didn’t know.” Charles looked Logan straight in the eye. “I had no idea where the West Wing is, or how to get there.” Which was a bit of a lie, he realized; he had seen the moon through the windows – he should have realized he had walked almost due west. Damn it. “You never told me.”

There was a long pause.

Logan’s gaze did not waver. But then Charles saw a corner of his mouth twitch. “Huh.”

And as the metal slithered back into Logan's hand – how the hell did he do that? That’s fascinating – Charles heard McCoy exhale, loud and shaky.

Then Logan gave him a half-smile, oddly self-conscious. “I guess you got a point there.”

“Fine, then. Point of information.” McCoy launched into busy work – trying to change the mood, Charles realized - the sudden surge of adrenaline made him pick up every single flutter of the white coat, each nervous twitch ... McCoy was rolling away the I.V. pole, speaking quickly. “The library’s in the West Wing – it pretty much starts at the door. There are lots of rooms in the West Wing, but you can’t go in any of them, O.K.? Especially not the library – I mean, geez, Mr. Xavier – you went in the library. I honestly thought you were just caught wandering the hallways or something –

“Broken bones, concussion, ligature strangulation …” Charles kept his voice light with an effort. “Is that the standard procedure for bad behavior at night?”

Freudian slip, he thought to himself, wryly – but they didn’t pick up on the innuendo. Instead, he saw them exchange long looks.

“Classified,” Logan said quietly, and: “Just – don’t do it again,” McCoy said, even more quietly.

“Right.”

Charles watched them put the room back in order. He felt oddly blank.

He had just been beaten half to death by a … mysterious stranger. You will meet a tall dark stranger, he thought, and bit back a jolt of hysterical laughter. He had been given a miraculous cure. And McCoy and Logan were acting as though the entire situation were commonplace.

He made his voice clear, and carrying.

“Who was he?”

There was no way to miss their shoulders stiffening.

“Don’t know who you –” Logan began, but: “Nonsense,” Charles said, calmly. “If the library is so important, then surely you know exactly who gets to use it. So. Six feet tall, reddish-brown hair, blue or green eyes, about my age or perhaps a little older – and a homicidal maniac. Who was he?”

McCoy was looking at the floor, twisting the bracelet around his left wrist.

Logan fixed McCoy with a look Charles couldn't read. Then he turned back to Charles and said, voice flat, "You told Frost you couldn't remember."

"Funny how the mind works, isn't it? Who was he?"

“Need-to-know basis, Xavier. Don’t ask again.”

Charles had a flash of the intuition that had always served him in good stead, “‘Need-to-know basis’ – you’ve used that phrase before. So, is he the same man who tackled me in the forest last week?”

He saw McCoy flinch. Logan, in contrast, glared at him. “Why don’t you just pop it out of our heads, X man? Oh wait. Because you can’t do shit. You don’t know shit. You don’t know who the fuck you messed with, and you don’t know how lucky you are to have a body to put back together.”

“… And you can’t tell me? Truly?”

Logan looked away first, and: “No,” McCoy said, clear as a bell. “We can’t.”

It was ridiculous, Charles thought, to feel his throat tighten the way it did, and his eyes sting. It was all a ridiculous sham.

“Almost as though there were some sort of magic spell afoot.” He let his mouth twist with the contempt he felt. “A fearsome curse; a mighty geas – and not a hope of breaking it. I must say: that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Tell it to Lady Frost, then.” McCoy’s voice was low. “She loves a good joke.”

“Hell, I have a good joke.” Logan grabbed Charles’ foot and tugged. “Get up, Xavier. Knock knock, McCoy.”

A sigh. “Who’s there?”

“Frost.”

Lady Frost. Lady Frost who?”

Bzzt.” Logan waggled his fingers.

Charles shook his clothing out, deliberately not thinking about the blood staining his blue sweater. “I don’t get it.”

“Not if I’ve erased your memory, you don’t,” Logan agreed. “And then I can tell it again, and it’ll be just as funny. Again and again and again. C’mon.” He held out a length of cloth. “Blindfold goes on. And we’re going the outside way – just so you don’t play detective with any more room smelling. I shoulda known, what with your ‘Oxford Reading Room’ bullshit.”

“Why don’t you just slice my nose off?” Charles snipped. “With those – things in your hands, you could probably do it.”

“If by ‘probably’ you mean ‘definitely, you jackass’ – then: yeah.”

“That would make no grammatical sense.” The cloth was wrapped tightly around his eyes; to take his mind off his prickle of anger – not despair, he was not giving up hope – Charles asked what was in the forefront of his mind. “And how did you come by them, anyway?”

There was a long pause. He heard a door open, and McCoy’s light footsteps tap ahead of them. Then a growl from behind, as Logan shoved him between the shoulder blades. Charles winced – his ribs still felt bruised.

“Move it,” the gruff voice ordered.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

A longer pause. Then: “A present. A gift, you might say.” There was thick rage in Logan’s voice, in his thoughts – congealing black as dried blood. “From the Free West.”

Charles felt his thoughts race; then froze as he felt six sharp points slice through knit and cloth, and jab into the flesh of his back. I didn’t even hear –

“And if you ask me any more questions about ‘em, X, I’ll re-gift them - straight through your skull. Understand?”

“… Understood.”

It was not long until a door clanged shut behind them, and they were outside. The air was intensely chilly – Charles instinctively turned his face, searching, but could not find the sun. He called up his hummingbird, sent it fluttering against the minds of the others. Yes, it was night. They were both angry – well, Logan was angry. McCoy’s mind was a whirlpool of … fear? And: odd – he was hyper-focused on his ring, his bracelet –

Wait. They were walking faster. Why, Charles wondered, why would we be …

He sent the hummingbird flying.

And recoiled, with a choked-off gasp, as he felt the raging cold and rusted bloodstained metal cloud – distant, but there – they were walking toward it. Why? he thought wildly. Why the hell walk toward it?

Him, Charles corrected himself. They were walking toward him. It – he – was a human - well, a mutant. A man, though. And … and he was watching them. Oh. Of course. He was in the manor – he was watching them from … from high up? Charles didn’t know where. He shivered as the hummingbird came flying back to him, huddling against his neck – shivered, and –

His heart shot into his mouth, he almost tripped over his own feet.

"Watch it," Logan said. A strong arm wrested him back upright. "Careful."

Charles hardly heard him over the frantic buzz of his own mind. What he had felt - oh my god …

Only when a wooden door creaked shut behind them did he breathe again, shuddering. And when Charles had been put back in his room with the door locked behind him, he didn’t even bother to take off his clothes before walking to the bathroom, stepping into the tub and turning the water as hot as it could go. He crouched there until he was soaking wet - and imagined, in the darkness, the dried blood unfurling from his blue sweater in rust-colored clouds. He stayed there a long time.

It was only when he was safe in bed, under the rest of the clothes from his wardrobe – piled high, because it was cold – that he named his own thought - feeling - I don't even know ... Dragged it out in the light, and named it.

Fear. A particular, and particularly sickening, stomach-twisting fear.

Because even though the other man’s gaze had been an iron weight on his neck ... for only a second, Charles had brushed against his mind. And that mind was seething with rage and rusted with blood, yes … but for a flash, there had been the image:

- his own face, drained white; his neck strung round with steel; and blood. Blood smeared around Charles’ mouth, blood staining his lips and his teeth, blood clotting on his tongue …

There had been that image. There had been rage.

But there had also been … want.

Chapter Text

Charles hardly slept. Without his watch he did not know the time, and there was little moonlight. He lay flat on his back and stared up into the darkness, keeping a small part of his power flickering in the hallway and a larger flame burning at his door. Because … and he had forgotten earlier, but it had come rushing back in full force when he had heard something creak in the hallway outside – the creature – the man … could undoubtedly force any lock in existence. Although, really, if it – he – prowled into the room – what could Charles possibly do? Hide behind the door and brain him with the Shakespeare? God.

So he lay awake, listening and gritting his teeth at every sound. He tried not to think about the shrapnel cloud of rage, the white-hot spike of want that had slammed through his temples. Far better not to think about it.

Instead, Charles methodically catalogued the images from his dream, the memories of Raven, the flickers of emotion on Logan and McCoy’s faces. All of their words. He tucked everything away, and moved on to recite Hamlet. Then Macbeth, King Lear, Othello … He had something to check them against, now …

And because of his power standing sentry in the hallway, he felt it the instant Angel came to wake them up. Angel … He had been unconscious for a day, so he must have missed Alex as monitor.

Guilt twisted through his stomach. What did they do to her? Charles kicked off the blankets and clothes and got to his feet. There was only one way to find out.

Angel only got one knock in before he opened the door and said in a rush: “I’m so sorry.”

She blinked. “Well. Good morning to you, too.”

“No, Angel,” Charles stared into her face. What had they done? “Frost told me you had been punished for my being outside my room. So I wanted to tell you: I am sorrier than I can say.”

For a long moment, she was quiet. Then she shrugged. “That’s all right. I mean, you got pretty smashed up. It could have been worse for me. At least … I think it could have.”

“… What did they do?”

“You know?” A line appeared between her eyebrows. “I don’t think I remember.”

Then she shook her head. “But I do remember that I have to wake these kids up. You’ve got twenty minutes.”

Angel looked up, and met his eyes. And for one seemingly endless moment, Charles heard her in his mind.

Screaming.

Aghast, Charles watched her walk down the hallway. She knocked on one door, then another. Then she crossed the hall and worked her way back up. When she had finished, she turned on one heel to face him. “Still here?”

“Angel,” he whispered. “What did Frost do?”

Her face looked weary. “I don’t remember. And it makes my head hurt – so stop asking questions and go eat your breakfast, Mr. Xavier. Please.”

Without another word, Angel walked back down the hallway. Charles watched until she had turned the corner, and then slammed the door of his room behind him. “That’s – I can’t –” The words stuck in his throat. He couldn’t think. All he could do was breathe in, open his door and slam it shut again.

“Hey, knock it off, John – oh, Mr. Xavier!” A red-haired blur ran down the hallway at him. Before Charles knew it, he was half knocked off his feet. He winced at the stab of pain from his ribs – not enough of that Archangel’s blood, I suppose

“Mr. Xavier, Mr. Xavier,” Sean chanted. He had wrapped his bony arms around Charles’ torso, as high as he could reach. “You’re all right!”

“We thought you had – been taken away.” John’s voice, uncharacteristically quiet.

Charles smiled at him. “I suppose I’m rather like a bad penny.”

“Huh?”

“I always turn up.”

John frowned. “I don’t get it,” and: “What’s a penny?” Sean asked.

He squeezed his eyes shut, tightly, then opened them again. Of course. Post-nuclear bartering systems. “Never mind. Come – let’s go downstairs –”

No,” Sean interrupted. “The others want to see you too. Jean was really upset. I mean really really upset –”

“Yeah, she kinda looked like a sick mouse instead of just a mouse mouse –”

Other doors opened. He heard: “He’s back!” and, “I told you they wouldn’t –”

But Charles didn’t listen. Instead, he let a thought flit out to find Jean, sent her an image of himself – in the hallway, arm draped over Sean’s shoulders, greeting Ororo and Bobby, radiating good health and good cheer. Not quite true, but it will suffice for now. He tied the image with a silver cord: I’m back, Jean.

He expected a reply – and smiled at the one he received: a picture of him tipping the macchinetta to pour, and love wreathed round it like flowers.

Jean opening the door straight across from his and tackling him with all the force she could – that, he hadn’t expected. Charles hugged her in return. And when Ororo told him to carry Jean downstairs, he tried sending the image of himself as a pony – just to hear Jean laugh.

------------------------

The image of happiness was not hard to keep sending, what with the warmth of the children's welcome. Underneath it, though, Charles’ mind clicked away over what had been done to Angel; sorting through her expressions and words, and skating round the dark black void of rage want – he wasn’t going to think about it –

He didn’t think the children noticed anything wrong with Angel – except Jean. He saw her brow pucker. It stayed that way through breakfast, and didn’t smooth out even when Angel blindfolded her and took her away. So. It was something telepathic, obviously – a memory wipe? Or an excision, like the one he had performed on Alex?

Charles kept the matter forefront in his mind during a tedious morning and afternoon of sorting files with McCoy. Logan was away, he told him, and: “You know I can’t say where, Mr. Xavier. How are you feeling?” Neutral replies and automatic alphabetizing sufficed. With his own relieved chatter as background noise, McCoy didn’t notice anything different.

Charles stayed just as removed and observant in the evening. Sean expounded at great length about the quality and quantity of the chocolate he had received for Quarter Gift. John and Bobby had an argument about some aspect of their training. Ordinarily, Charles would have eased into their conversation and wrung as much information out of them as he could … but that evening he merely recorded their words, resolving to examine them later. Ororo was quiet, and Jean was so tired that she dropped three half-spoonfuls of sliced potatoes three times.

Angel was quiet, too, as she led them all upstairs to their rooms, and locked them in for the night. Charles did not imagine her checking and double-checking the lock on his door. But soon enough she had gone, and quiet descended on the entire dormitory.

Charles sorted the books that he had left on the floor the previous night – no, he corrected, two nights ago. Using his private shelving system should have made him happy. But his thoughts kept flying to Angel – what had been done to her?

Flying.

“Oh.” And he had hardly spoken all day, so his voice was unexpectedly loud. But: “I could – I could …”

Really, he needed to find out if he could. He needed to know whether or not he could stay in people’s minds, a discreet guest, from a distance – after flying to them. The child in Syracuse had felt him immediately … but that had been miles and miles away. And as long as Angel slept near the manor … and he wanted to help her, he really did …

Charles made up his mind and made himself comfortable on his bed. Then he closed his eyes and fashioned a bird with grey wings – wings made entirely of down. Like an owl, only its eyes were veiled, its body was veiled … it could not be seen, not be noticed, and he could fly to Angel and see …

He found her mind within five minutes.

A small part of Charles caught fire and blazed. It had been easy, it had been so easy– but the greater part of him focused on keeping things quiet and small … smaller than a billiard ball. Perhaps the white-grey cue ball, dented and worn, from the Rose in Bloom – an Oxford pub where he would bet on games with friends, friends who had once been his students …

The soft grey owl floated over the mist of Angel’s thoughts, looking down at her mind just as the raven had looked upon Syracuse. Eyes closed, lying on his bed … Charles drew in a breath of delight when he realized: he was flying through the mist. He had to dodge the occasional kaleidoscope of butterflies, all of different colors.

Different colors. Charles frowned. The white mist was shading into red.

Then his owl flew out of the redness and hovered over a city street. And Charles heard an echo of himself on his bed, far removed, gasping.

It looked like there had been a street festival. Colored streamers hung from doorways; booths and tables lined the sidewalks. There was a dance floor and a bandstand …

But most of the streamers were tattered. The booths and tables had been overturned. There were plates of food dumped next to empty chairs – and on the distant stage, musical instruments lay smashed and broken.

And everything was covered in ash.

His owl was pale against the reddish-black sky. It swooped low and flew along the street. Then it perched on a dusty railing. Charles coughed – what was in the air? Was that ash as well? He fanned in front of his face, and realized – oh my god

He was there, in Angel’s mind. Not just as a bird. As himself. He stared in disbelief, as the owl fluttered to his shoulder and perched.

“Do you think …” Even his whisper sounded loud. He bit his lip. “Do you think Frost can sense this?”

The owl hooted. Then it plucked at his neck.

Charles looked down – looked, and stared, and bit back an astonished laugh. “Of all things …”If he had had to consider, he might have thought: academic regalia, or tweed. Perhaps a sweater vest. But here …

Here, in Angel’s mind … it would appear he was a knight in shining armor.

“A knight.” He couldn’t help his own smile. “Ridiculous. Too much of the Round Table, I suppose …” He flashed back to his Oxford office; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Parzifal, Tristan und Iseult, all dog-eared. The false name for Raven, lest someone remember a half-wild shape-shifter by name and track her down … Malory, for Sir Thomas of that name. She had curled up against him as he had read Le Morte d’Arthur, and had chosen Mallory.

Charles started walking, experimentally. The armor was silent – it was light, and of a strange silvery iridescence … Like his veils, Charles realized excitedly. It had become second nature, so long ago, to veil … it had become habit, and it appeared the habit had become armor, here in the mind of a stranger.

“Well,” he said. “Not quite a stranger.”

For he knew Angel, somewhat. The way she had exclaimed over Quarter Gift; her teasing the other students. The street festival must have been vibrant and alive, something living and lovely, before someone attacked and burned it to the ground.

It was lovely, Mr. Xavier.

Charles whirled, heart in his mouth.

But I only saw it once.

There was –

“Oh my god.”

A girl in a white robe stood staring at him. The white robe had a gorgeous red and gold bird in flight embroidered on its front. Her hair was dark red; her eyes were grey. She looked at him intently. What are you doing here?

Jean.” He felt the words stumble over his tongue. “Jean, is that you?”

Yes.

“What are you doing here? How did you come here?”

The same way you did, I think. Projection.

“Projection …” Charles felt like laughing in glee. He settled for grinning like a madman. “An excellent word for it. And you communicate so clearly here, Jean.”

She wasn’t speaking – but her voice was somehow in his head – well, mostly in his projection, he supposed. Charles knew that his body was fielding sensations too, even as he lay distant and inert on his bed in the dormitory. But it was different, her communication, here in a third party’s mind rather than between themselves. Jean’s words were no longer a frame for a picture. Instead, they floated into his mind like golden calligraphy touched with fire … but gentle, not burning.

“My lady!” Charles swept an extravagant bow; Jean’s mouth curled up at one corner. “Behold, the Knight of … Well. I’m not sure what I’m a knight of.”

The order of the coffee pot.

“No, no, that’s not dignified.”

Macchinetta, then.

No. We’ll think of something later. But for now … Why are you here?”

I saw how she had been burned. Angel. This morning, at breakfast – and at dinner too. You can see the burn from outside.

“Ah.” Charles fell into step as she picked her way carefully down the rubble-strewn street. “I’ve been a little leery of looking. I’m not quite sure what Frost can sense and what she can’t. And when.”

And he paused – for at that name, Jean had stopped walking. Her eyes fell shut. For a long moment, she looked like nothing more than a statue. Or flattened – like a painting, Charles thought. Perhaps a pre-Raphaelite painting of a child … one who had died too young …

Then she sighed.

Lady Frost won’t be looking tonight. She used the machines all day.

“Machines?”

For the war.

Charles felt the back of his neck prickle. Of course … well, he hadn’t expected Frost to be completely occupied with frightening students and torturing the innocent all day long. Of course such a telepath would be busy with the war effort. He wondered how, exactly. Supervising? Relaying messages? … Coördinating attacks?

“What’s happening with the war?” he asked, cautiously.

Jean shot him a serious look. I’m not supposed to tell you.

“Surely you can. We’re friends. I am your knight, Lady Jean,” Charles shook out his hair, “and I was your pony this morning. Surely you can tell me …”

He gilded his voice with persuasion and friendship and love tell me tell me

And he felt a stronger prickle of shock when Jean smiled up at him.

There’s a plan – to take Dallas. St. Louis is as far west as the EBS has reached, so far, and if they can get Dallas, then the Free West gets pressure on the southern front, and the mouth of the Mississippi River is completely under EBS control. And then maybe Mexico would become an ally, and the attack could proceed from the south, north over the border to California and Arizona. And the Free West would be pressed on three sides instead of just two.

Charles felt dazed at the sheer amount of information – he covered his hesitation with a broad smile. It felt strained. “How very informative, Jean.”

I heard Lady Frost talking.

And that explained her curiously adult tone. With an effort, Charles made his voice lighter. “Well. I thought Mexico was mostly uninhabited in this day and age.”

Lady Frost talked about – psychological warfare. Jean enunciated the words carefully. Propaganda. Mexico is a Free West tributary state. The EBS can offer those tributary states better things.

“Better things – like what?”

Jean gave him an opaque look. Freedom.

Charles swallowed against a surge of bitterness, pooling in his mouth. “Freedom. Freedom to be imprisoned; freedom from the Free West – that’s … That’s absolutely absurd.”

Lady Frost said –

“Let’s not talk about what she said, then,” he interrupted. His conscience was rapidly reasserting itself; he let his voice shed its persuasion and tell me like scales from a snake. “Have you been in Angel’s mind before?”

Just once. She only asked me the one time. It was fun. There was a party.

Asked … Charles was suddenly aware of the heaviness of his own body, lying distant on his bed. His stomach had just lurched.

He spoke through the discomfort. “I see. Well, I came here to see what had happened … to find out what Lady Frost had done.”

And to fix it? Jean’s face was hopeful.

“You know … with your help, I believe I could. We could.”

How?

“Let me think.”

They had reached the head of the ruined street. Charles stared over the wreckage, reaching up one gauntlet to stroke the grey owl perched on his shoulder. He considered. Then: “Jean,” he said, slowly, “would you mind standing guard?”

Just standing guard? Her lower lip stuck out; Charles flashed to an image of Raven, sulking over her first essay assignment, and he fought the urge to laugh. I can do more than that, Mr. Xavier.

“It’s not unimportant.” Charles looked up into the sky of Angel’s mind. Red-black clouds throbbed down at him. “I do not know Frost’s powers –”

Lady Frost.

I call her Frost. That’s her name, isn’t it?”

… But you’re a knight.

“Oh.” Charles blinked. “Oh – I hadn’t thought of – well. It can’t hurt here, I suppose. Lady Jean,” he said grandly, “yon Lady Frost’s powers are unknown to me. Therefore, fairly, verily, higgledy-piggledy –” Jean was smiling ear-to-ear; he grinned back at her and continued: “Please, my lady. I need you to watch over the street, and the clouds – and call out to me the instant you feel even the slightest hint of Lady Frost’s power. Or anything else that feels – not right.”

Sure. Jean’s smile was bright. I’ll see you.

Then … Charles felt his jaw drop. For Jean held out her arms, and floated graceful as a bird – away from him. Into the sky.

“What next?” he whispered to himself. “… What next?”

Well. He quirked one eyebrow at his owl; it tilted its head back at him. “Perhaps a nice little clean-up job.”


In the end … it was easy. Charles might once have thought: disturbingly easy – but he was a knight, his mind was unfettered and free, and his powers whirled and rebounded up and down the street in Angel’s mind, as he set everything to rights. And he only used his power - the silver and mercury of his mind, flashing from his hands like lightning. He didn't even have to move a finger.

But for all his energy and eagerness, he was surprised to feel himself tiring by the time the tables were cleaned and the steps washed off, the food picked up and the instruments repaired. Charles hadn’t felt tired at all, before – but perhaps something could be said about adrenaline. Now that everything was fixed, all cleaned and sparkling, perhaps he could open one of the brightly painted doors and explore a house, or two … or ten ...

He cast an eye out for Jean. No sign of her.

Do it.

Cautiously, feeling giddy excitement spiral up his throat, he walked up the stairs to one of the brownstones. Charles placed a hand on the door –

Mr. Xavier!!

- and jerked it back as though it had been scalded. “What?” he shouted to the sky. “What is it?!”

Jean was a white light, flying faster and faster to him, until she landed and she was running up the street. It’s Angel – she’s coming and she’s mad – I don’t know why –

She was gasping for breath; the whites of her eyes showed stark even against her pale face. Charles retreated from the door and walked to the middle of the street. He looked left and right, then up – stiffened, and stood in front of Jean – my god -

And just in time, too – as a flash of brilliant iridescence half-blinded him, and a whir of wings came to a stop before them both.

“¡¿Qué están haciendo aquí?!”

Charles blinked. He only had the smallest bit of Spanish –

“¡¡Hijo de la gran puta !! ¿¡Quién les dijo que podían venir aquí?!"

- and she was talking too fast -

Angel shrieked and spat – he tossed up an arm, sheer instinct, and felt something crackle and fizz over his armor.

"Angel!!" Jean screamed, and Charles shouted. “Angel – stop! We came to help – we came here to help you!”

She paused. Charles heard the thrum of her wings. Then she said, in a small voice: “… Both of you?”

“Yes.” He lifted his chin. Unbelievable – amazingHer wings were long, thin and  delicate as a dragonfly’s. She could flygod – and she could spit what smelled like hydrochloric acid. How on earth does she do that without burning her throat? How does she –

“Well,” Angel said, shakily. “Thank you. I guess.” She exhaled, stared down the street. Her throat worked as she swallowed. “It’s beautiful …”

“What happened?” Charles made his voice soft. Persuasive.

“Lady Frost happened.” Angel swiped at the tears just beginning to fall from her eyes. “I like this memory – it was my quince, you know. Back home. I always told myself afterwards – at least I had a good party, before I got recruited. At least I had that. And then Lady Frost set it on fire, and I didn’t have it anymore.”

Jean had put her arms around her, hugging gently. “Oh, baby,” Angel choked. She held Jean tight. “Thank you. Just – don’t come in here again without asking me, O.K.? It’s not that I don’t appreciate it – I do. It’s just that you promised me. Remember?”

But Jean had stepped away. She stared up at Charles. Her face had gone dead white.

Charles flicked his eyes back to Angel; spoke quickly. “We probably need to leave. I haven’t the slightest idea how long Lady Frost will sleep – and I have less than the slightest idea of how much power this took.” He put on a sly grin. “And I’ll need to be up on time in the morning.”

“Right.” Angel had dried her tears. She smiled at him in return. “Thanks for this, Mr. Xavier. Sorry I hocked a death loogie at you.”

“A … what?”

“Alex’s words. Not mine. But – oh …” The smile vanished, and she bit her lip. “What’ll I do if Lady Frost takes another look? There’s no way of hiding this.” She gestured towards the brightly lit and festive street – towards the sky clearing of smoke.

Charles hesitated. “Let me – let me think –”

But Jean walked in between the two of them. She looked up into Angel's eyes. And then she gave her something.

Charles craned his neck. He couldn’t see … what is it, I wonder

“Oh, awesome.” Angel grinned at Jean. “I remember these little guys. So, just hold onto it tight and say the magic word, and –”

Jean had taken Charles’ hand in a tight grip. And before he knew what was happening, they were rising through the air.

“Goodbye!” A flash of brightness from beneath them. “See you day after tomorrow – or tomorrow, really – what the hell time is it, Mr. Xavier? …”

Her voice faded away. And though most of Charles’ thoughts were set on taking in the clouds, the shimmering expanse of Angel’s mind … on keeping his grey owl close, and on trying not to laugh in glee at Jean’s power … one small part of him remembered, and wished for his father’s watch.

------------------------

The euphoria vanished the instant he hit his own body.

“Ugh,” Charles groaned. “Oh …”

He felt less nauseated and pained than he had after Syracuse, but just as dizzy. Rising carefully from the bed, he wobbled to the bathroom and drank a cupful of water. Another. He splashed water on his face.

Then he carefully reached out a tendril of his power to Jean, in her room across the hall.

Charles blinked.

He brushed his power against the white and hard conch shell. Jean? … Jean, are you there?

No answer.

He tried flicking his thoughts again, like a tiny spark-ended flail. Jean?

The smallest movement at the opening of the shell – Charles caught at it. Jean – what’s wrong?

And he reeled back, gasping, as a picture crashed full force into his mind. Angel’s face, tear-stained, against the red and black cloud of her mind. Framed with a copper wire don’t come in here again without asking me, O.K.? – melting and hardening into a sharp obsidian YOU DIDN’T ASK.

Charles heard his own ragged breaths. “But …” he said, voice shaking. He echoed the words in his thoughts, projected them to her. “I didn’t know – what do you mean? I didn’t know to –”

YOU DIDN’T ASK.

“I’m sorry,” he snapped. She was a child, and … He bit down on his lower lip, hard. Jean knew more about some aspects of telepathy than he did. Presumably she had been learning to use it, here with the EBS. So he should not feel injured, really – but she was a child, and he could only repeat: “I didn’t know to ask, Jean.”

There was no answer.

Charles took a deep breath. Then he sent her an image: himself, arms crossed over his chest and head hanging: apologizing to Raven for sending a friend of hers away on a school night. “I’m sorry …”

There was no answer.

Cautiously, he stretched out his thoughts again. He only saw the beautiful hard shell … and the tiniest flicker of an animal, disappearing inside it. Then just the shell, gleaming at him coldly.

“Jean?”

When she didn’t answer for a third time, Charles lay back down on his bed. He stared at his candle. Even though he had sorted and shelved his books, and spent such time in Angel’s mind … it hadn’t burned out yet.

And in its flickering light, he felt absolutely alone.

------------------------

The loneliness did not go away in the morning light. Alex woke them, the usual breakfast mayhem occurred, with a more removed touch than usual from Frost … and Charles, doing his best to make Jean smile, was greatly disconcerted by his consistent and persistent failure. Ororo fussed over her, trying her best to coax her to eat. But Jean went off with Alex without a smile or nod – or mental message – to anyone: pale and stooped and silent.

Another long day of busy work with Hank, and the scenario repeated itself at dinner. By that time, Charles had turned from worry to … a more introspective worry. All of his life, he had known that he could charm his way out of almost any social faux pas committed … was it the fact a six or seven-year-old was the person meeting his eyes with such grave displeasure, that had him so deeply uneasy?

Charles didn’t know.

The entire problem with Jean – which he heard Ororo and Bobby discussing, worriedly, on the way up to bed – had taken his mind off the memory of rage and want. That latter had faded somewhat, like a bruise might after two days.

Of course, then he had a nightmare and spent the entire next day on edge.

The first night in days that he had hoped for a good sleep … Charles focused numbly on transcribing notes, using an ancient, clattering typewriter given him in Hank’s workroom. Spending time in a concussed coma did not count as sleep. Thus, given his return late to his room – and his petrified vigil – Wednesday night, his guilty insomnia Thursday, and this nightmare … It was Saturday, Charles realized, staring dully at the notes. Back in Oxford – home, his mind murmured – if he felt this horrible on a Saturday, it would be due to a hangover.

No hangovers in this cold prison, though. No alcohol, no sex, and – Charles hunched his shoulders, turning the typed sheet over in the machine. No sex. Not for over a month.

That had to be the reason for the nightmare – himself, choking, tasting blood in his mouth, falling with a crash and sharp pain to the metal grille of the library catwalk. But then, instead of snarled words and a rib-breaking blow to his side … there had been the sensation of eyes on him, a stare running up and down his body and that dark want spiking hot and urgent into his mind … And then, a hand clamping on his upper arm and another twisting in his hair, hot breath on his neck and the man slamming his face against the grille –

And … Charles did not want to remember the rest. Suffice to say: he had woken up, gasping, in a cold sweat.

Post-traumatic stress, he had told himself in the morning at breakfast. He had hardly eaten, feeling dizzy and nauseated. His mind was processing recent events; dispersing their effect via dream imagery. He had had those sorts of dreams before, Charles had told himself, threading the typewriter in the workroom. After certain Oxford missions. And in Oxford, he would call a mission friend and get drunk, or go to the Rose in Bloom and deploy the blue eyes – not letting Raven know, because really there was no need to –

Guilt, he had told himself while typing, halfway through the morning. His brain had associated the guilt he felt from Jean’s disapproval with Raven’s imagined disapproval, had his sister cottoned on to his own tendency to work through trauma with sex and alcohol. Not that Charles was a prude; far from it. But one didn’t necessarily share the details of the rake’s progress with a younger sibling. So: the nightmare was due to stress and guilt. Perfectly comprehensible.

It was when a headache had started pulsing in the afternoon, and Charles realized it was Saturday, that he came to an unhappy conclusion. Stress and guilt, perhaps; trauma, certainly. But his crutches had been taken away – no alcohol, no sex – and thus his brain went and manufactured a solution, working with the imagery from the earlier assault. Damn it.

Charles finished typing the sheet, laid it face-down in a pile with its fellows, and put in another piece of paper. Then he stared at it.

Slowly, Charles relaxed his shoulders. He tried massaging some of the tension out of them. He had been hunched up all day, he realized – typing and cringing like a Quasimodo of the secretary pool. Jumping at McCoy’s smallest movements. Fearful.

Hardly like a knight.

Charles set his jaw and went back to work. He was not afraid.

Disconcerted, he told himself, walking back to the kitchen that evening. Not afraid – just slightly disconcerted by the way his mind took the memory of his vicious beating and expanded it to include sexual assault. The mind, he told himself at dinner, was a unique and mysterious thing. And, given how it had gone from a vicious kick in the ribs to a hideously strong body pressed against his back – no, he wasn’t going to think about it – perhaps his mind was somewhat unpredictable as well.

That night, staring up at the darkness after he had extinguished the candle … Charles performed different deep-breathing rituals, telling himself to relax. Relax. Go to sleep. Don’t dream.

“And perhaps …”

He listened to instinct, reached out with his power. He sent his sparrow flying through the manor house, touching on Bobby John Sean Ororo and a gentler brush against the cold opaque shell of Jean. Then further; there was Angel. Further, further … a glowing red mind, sullen, that felt like Alex, walking into the forest. And …

There were other glimmers of minds – dozens of them, Charles realized with a slight shiver. Congregated in what felt like a large open space, deep in the forest. What on earth …

But his sparrow felt the chill of Frost’s mind, there, and winged away. Save the curiosity for later. Be safe.

The sparrow did not find him anywhere. No metal; no rage. No … want.

Charles sighed as the bird landed back in his mind and nestled warm and safe against his other thoughts. It couldn’t be hoped, then, that the dream had been the other man’s. No, it was his own. Ridiculous and unhealthy – but could he help it, given traumatic stress?

Tired, and tired of thinking, he had fallen asleep. And of course he had to dream.

And this time, when he woke in another cold sweat the early hours of Sunday morning, he only just made it to his bathroom before being sick.

The same dream: the same crack of his skull against metal, the clatter as he fell to the catwalk and coughed blood through the grille to the shelves below. And those eyes, that want – hands taking rough relentless hold of him even though he struggled –

But this time the man had yanked Charles’ head back by the hair and –

“No,” Charles croaked, in the dark silence of the bathroom. The rough plaster of the wall was cool against the side of his face. He thumped his forehead against the plaster, softly. He wasn’t going to think about it.

Fully awake on a Sunday morning, his stomach empty again and his head pounding, he had washed his face in the darkness. Stumbled his way back to bed; collapsed in it and tried his best to get back to sleep. If he dreamed again, he didn’t remember anything.

When the knock came that morning, though, and he needed three tries to get out of bed, Charles was relieved to hear Alex confirm that he was actually rather ill. That explained the dreams; fever would do that to a person. That didn’t explain why he was sent to work with McCoy again, after Alex had given him a few aspirin and a bluff, “Sorry, Mr. Xavier. Hope you feel better soon.” McCoy, however, gave him a glass of water and let him sleep on the workroom’s cot. And when he left at the end of the day, McCoy gave him something stronger than aspirin.

What to do? ... Charles drank a bowl of broth and thought to himself, dreamily, at dinner. If he were a medic, he would prescribe sleep, for the nervous exhaustion; aspirin and liquids, for the fever and nausea; and perhaps a series of regular and boring wanks, to take the edge off the stupid imagery that his hindbrain was proffering by night.

Because the actual memory of that want want… had almost completely faded, now. He wasn’t afraid of the man; he did not fear Frost or starvation or torture. He was worried about Jean – she had been silent and withdrawn at every meal. Charles hadn’t yet come up with a plan for how to help her.

But he knew exactly what to do, to show he was not afraid of monsters or men.

So … and Charles hummed, sleepily, as he wove his way down the hallway. So: he felt perhaps less fear than he should, walking back towards the library on Sunday night, 28 September. Or perhaps he was still sick. Fever, his mind snapped, would explain something so spectacularly stupid. Or: drugs, it wailed. What did McCoy give you?

Whatever it is, it’s lovely, he thought, and: “Don’t touch any metal,” he sing-songed out loud. Charles kept his breathing regular. Don’t touch any metal. Keep alert. Tiny flames of his power placed along the dormitory hall, and flickering through the library and into the West Wing beyond …

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he said under his breath.

You could die, his mind screamed at him, and: “Yes.” Charles stopped outside the library door. “That’s why I’m going to be careful. But I’ll be damned if I show him I’m afraid.”

Charles stared. The glinting curlicues of metal were only just visible in the moonlight from the arrow windows. Before, the mass of oak and iron had seemed only a particularly ornate door.

Now, of course, he knew it was a death trap.

Carefully, Charles knelt. He took a folded piece of paper from one pocket. He had nicked a pencil from McCoy’s workroom, earlier that day, and had loosened an end page from the Shakespeare. And on that thin paper he had written:

I would like my watch back, please.

He checked one last time. There was no dark and menacing presence lurking in the library – and he had made sure not to touch any metal.

So, Charles slipped the note underneath the library door.

For one long moment, he knelt there and stared. Half of him – well, more than half – expected metal to slither off the door, to whip round his body and crush the life out of him … Or to hold him there, wrapped up tight like a meal for a spider. Until the door would open and –

Charles shook himself and stood, feeling his flesh crawl as the thoughts slinked away into the darkness of his mind. Frost can be fooled. He can be evaded. They can all be deceived. Dinner for a spider - nonsense. He didn’t plan on dying that way.

Besides, he thought as he walked silently back to his room – spiders had the good manners to stun their prey before eating it alive.

And having felt that intense rage and want … Charles didn’t think that the man watching from his metal web would have a spider’s courtesy.

Chapter Text

Charles felt much better in the morning. Even Frost's usual telepathic jab did not unsettle him. Perhaps it had been the medicine McCoy had given him; perhaps it had been a good night’s sleep. Perhaps it was due to his success: he had dared the lion’s den and lived to tell the tale. Well, the door of the den, technically. And not so much “dared,” as “skipped down the hall whilst high as a kite.” Charles smiled to himself, sipping his tea. Best of all: he hadn’t had any dreams. Angel had needed to knock twice that morning to wake him.

They had run out of coffee, so John was sulking. Sean was humming at a strangely high pitch. Bobby and Ororo were both watching Jean. And Jean … Charles bit his lip, feeling a stab of conscience. Jean looked as badly as he had felt over the last few days.

“Jean, dear," he said. “Have you ever had tea, to drink?”

Jean looked up at him, her grey eyes dull and flat, deep sunken in her face.

“She’s …” Ororo swallowed hard. “I’ve always said that she’s too young.”

“For caffeinated beverages, perhaps.” Charles rose and walked to the jar containing those hideous what-had-been-American-style tea bags, picking up the hot water on his way. “What John and I have been drinking is, by its taste and smell, chamomile. It's completely herbal.” He kept up the soothing flow of words as he poured out a cup. “Matricaria recutita, or chamomilla of the same genus. German chamomile, not to be confused with the Roman type – brewed through human history, to help with insomnia, anxiety, and headaches. And you –” Charles held out the cup to Jean, “are having your first taste of it, today.”

Bobby half-smiled. “Walking, talking encyclopedia; that’s Professor X.”

Charles felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle. “Professor?” he asked, lightly. “Why call me that?”

“Um.” Bobby made a show of getting up and clattering his dishes in the sink. “You just sounded like a teacher or something, kind of. So, Jean, you like your drink?”

Jean had closed her eyes, breathing in the steam from the hot tea. “Blow on it,” Charles advised, “wait for it cool down a bit.” 

“Yeah, Jean, blow on it,” John mocked, and: “John, that is inappropriate!” Ororo thwacked him with the flat of her hand. “She’s six years old!”

“Who cares?” John stomped to the sink beside Bobby, poured out the tea in his mug, and let it drop. He looked as though he wanted it to break; he glared when it didn’t.

Charles dismissed John’s mood as caffeine deprivation, moving his eyes back to Jean. She was staring into the depths of her cup, as though trying to read the future in it.

“Drink it,” He sat back down, took a sip of his own, and reached out to touch her hand. “It will help.”

She drank. Sighed. And gave Charles a picture, a wash of miserable grey and painful orange – but grey and orange slowly being edged with cool green, and – Thank you.

“Thanks, Mr. Xavier.” Ororo’s eyes were dark and serious.

“No trouble at all.” 

Silence stretched, punctuated only by the sounds of Bobby and John washing dishes, until Sean left off humming and eyed Jean’s cup, wistfully. “Mr. Xavier?”

“Hmm?”

“Can I have some tea too?”


Sean had only just finished quaffing his cup – “Ew, weird,” – when Angel came in. She gave Charles a bright smile. “Same routine, everyone,” she said, clapping her hands. “Except: two new things. First: it’s the first of the week after fall quarter day, so you get to start collecting firewood for your rooms. Half an hour before dinner. And John, they’ve decided that you can help with the fires this year, O.K.?”

“All right,” Sean crowed. Bobby quirked a smile; Ororo clapped. John looked oddly divided between keeping up his bad mood and swelling with pride.

“So. Logan’ll meet you all when you’re done with your afternoon training. Right outside the double doors. O.K. Second: starting tonight, there’ll be random nightly checks of all you guys. Just to make sure you’re staying put.”

The children fell absolutely silent. Then, one by one, they all turned to look at Charles.

He met their stares, evenly, and drummed his fingernails against his tea mug, clink-clink-clink-clink. He pitched his voice at a reasonable tone. “Might one ask why?”

“Nope.” Angel gave him a good-natured shove to the shoulder. “Just stay in your room, like a good little student. Because you are all good little students. Right, Mr. Xavier?”

“Right,” he sighed, and: wrong, his mind corrected, coolly. But there was no need to tell Angel that. And – Charles made a careful note to himself – there was no need to get her in trouble again. He would devise a way to circumvent the new surveillance, and he would do so while finishing his dull-as-ditchwater typing for McCoy that morning.

The typing was, in fact, so dull, that Charles had come up with a plan after approximately ten minutes and four single-spaced pages.

------------------------

He wasn’t surprised to see Logan back; Angel had all but announced his return that morning, after all. What did surprise Charles, though, was the smile that spread over his own face as he clomped inside McCoy’s workroom. McCoy hastily moved a pile of blueprints out of Logan’s way; Logan himself tossed a battered leather dossier on a table and sat down with a creak on one of the table’s benches.

Charles blinked at the dossier. “Well. This is new.”

“Why thank you, Mr. X – I’m fine. Yeah, bit of travel. Nope; nothing interesting. How are you?”

“I’m getting out of the habit of asking questions, Logan,” Charles said in a dry voice. “I would have thought you’d be pleased.”

“There’s questions and there’s common courtesy, X –”

“Courtesy? Doesn’t that have one too many syllables, for you?”

“Well, we are feeling better today, aren’t we?” Logan grinned. He pulled a cigar from a pocket of his leather jacket, and lit it, ignoring McCoy’s reproachful cough. “I heard you’d been sick, but I don’t see it. I’m almost tempted to make you run the steeplechase, Xavier, but –” he exhaled smoke and flipped open the dossier, "I’ve got somethin’ new for you instead.”

“What is it?”

“Strategy, Mr. X. With maps. You do know what maps are, don’t you?” Logan pulled out a thick stack of paper, folded over and over. He focused on unfolding them, smoothing the sheets out – Charles was relieved, because that meant Logan had missed his guilty twitch.

“Mind if I keep working?" McCoy indicated the blueprints.

“Yeah, no prob." Logan flattened the topmost map with one sweep of a burly forearm. "This is for Xavier. So, X man. Scenario number one.

“Here’s the good news: you’re in command of a decent sized group; say three brigades, and some artillery support. Only two fighter jets though. Your target city's here,” he stabbed a finger at the map, “and here’s the bad news: that city has entrenched defenses, anti-aircraft guns, two divisions of your enemy’s army, and – rumor has it – a nuke all ready and rarin’ to go. And – here’s the really bad news – you’ve confirmed the rumor. Hello, nuke; goodbye your entire army and then some. Ayoille et câlice de crisse ..

French – no, Québecois. Charles mind quickly filed the tidbit away; he kept an expression of polite attention on his face.

Logan’s dark eyes narrowed as he peered down. “Other points of interest: the city has two airports – one big-ass one here to the northwest, mostly defunct; another one, a military one, here – also to the northwest, but closer – still operational. Got a river running through the whole shebang; it forks a few times. Oh, and there’s a nuclear power plant sixty miles to the southwest.” 

“Hmm.” Charles narrowed his own eyes; then got up to pace round the table and sit on its other side, next to Logan. He nudged him; with a huff, Logan moved over. Charles rested his elbows on the metal tabletop. He thought. 

“What are my objectives?”

“Good question.” Logan took a puff on his cigar. “Objective one: secure the city and keep it as functional as possible for your own use. It’s an industrial powerhouse. Objective two: even if it's only a pathetic little bit of uranium, you find that nuke and secure it for yourself – before, repeat before they light it – hey,” he glared at Charles’ snort, “you wouldn’t believe what some of the kids assume about shit like this. ‘Why would they use a nuc-ular bomb, Mr. Logan?’” he whined. “‘Nuc-ular bombs are bad.’ And so on.”

Charles breathed out a laugh. “The innocence of youth.”

“I know, right? So. Objective three: grab your enemy’s aircraft before said enemy can retreat with ‘em. And just to let you know, there’s some good shit there – and the more of that shit you get, the less they get to use on you, so ‘s good all around. Objective four –” he frowned. “Aren’t you gonna write these down?”

“No.” Charles smiled absent-mindedly, looking at the map. “I’m listening.”

“Ri-ight. O.K. Objective four: rumor has it the commander of your enemy’s whole army – not just the two divisions, the whole army, is in town. You happen to know that the rumor is true. And since he’s there and within your reach, he needs to bite it.” Logan slapped the table. “So, X. What’re you thinking?”

Charles zeroed in on the map; his eyes ran over contour lines, colors and codes, making a careful record all the while. Most of the names were blacked out, but he saw one – an italicized name, which could perhaps explain how been missed. Love Field USA, so: Dallas, Texas, his mind concluded, cool and focused. What a coincidence.

He looked up at Logan. “I’m thinking I have few more questions.”

“Hit me.” Another puff on the cigar.

“First: intelligence. Do I have any agents in the city? Do I have any plants in my enemy’s army? Do I have any taps on the commander’s communications? And – most importantly – if I do have any, or all, of these … how reliable are they?”

“Good questions. Assume you have all three. You have sympathetic civs, and some of ‘em are networked under five good agents, loyal ones. You have approximately ten saboteurs in the army, three of which are with the artillery – all ready and awaiting orders. And – and this is the peach – the commander’s head secretary is your operative, and one of your best.”

Charles whistled, but: “Wait,” Logan drawled. “There’s a catch. Assume that the enemy is gonna have its military telepath cranked up to full power when shit starts going down. So your agents have only a few moves, if they’re gonna be using their abilities. And even if they don’t, you still have to –”

“No, you wait.” Charles knew that his jaw had dropped; he closed it with a snap, and then spoke: “Military telepath?

“Yeah.”

Logan paused, dark eyes intent on Charles’ face. “They do that, you know.”

“Do what?” He felt faint.

“The Free West. Let’s just use them as a hypothetical, O.K.? Say we’re talking about the Free West. They got a pretty decent telepath – he’s wired into some gizmo that lets him focus in on what everyone’s doing, within a certain area. All the time. Everyone. And we assume that the gizmo’s rigged to pick up mutant activity double-quick. Now we’re trying to build something similar, but we’re working at a big fucking disadvantage … since am not about to suggest that Frost shave her head, stick needles through her skull and get a cable drilled up her -”

McCoy cleared his throat. Charles blinked in surprise; he had forgotten McCoy was there.

"Spine. Spine. Why, what did you think I was going to say?" Logan grinned. “Couldn't happen to a nicer -”

Logan,” McCoy snapped, and twirled one finger in the air.

“Right.”

“What?” Charles asked.

“Recordings!” Logan boomed. “Recordings, Xavier. As the commander of your army, you’ve done some flybys, you’ve done some spying. You have recordings of strategic planning sessions! This commander’s been in the field for upwards of twenty years – mostly the Pacific Theatre in World War II. So you know him, and you know his game.”

“Surely nobody is that predictable.”

“Well, this guy’s pretty dumb. And by ‘pretty dumb,’ I mean: your operative is leading him around by his dick.”

Charles did a double take. “What?

“You heard me. She’s good.”

“All … right. Well, then she might be able to get the nuke’s location out of him.” Charles raised an eyebrow.

Logan’s grin was narrower, this time. “Very good, Xavier. Assume that she already has.”

“So I know where it is – that’s good. That saves me considerable time.”

“All well and good, maybe, Mr. X – but what do you do when things start to get crazy and Commander Dumbass decides to light it?”

“Oh, no.” Charles smiled. “I should have it well in hand, by then.”

“Is that some Brit speak, like: you’ll have things under control? Or: you’ll actually have the nuke? Wrapped up with a bow on it, just for you because you’ve been such a good little boy, ho ho ho?”

“The latter.”

Logan crossed his arms, one hand brandishing the cigar. “Tell me how.”

Charles felt his smile widen. He hadn’t done this in years. Oxford had pulled him off his tactical team and put him into the field as the more senior officers – those who had been active before the mandatory iodine and inoculation régime – had succumbed to radiation poisoning or the plague. So: he was rusty. But he still remembered some of his favorite shortcuts.

“Terrorist groups,” he said, crisply. “Which ones feature, in this city?”

“Wait.” Cigar smoke, exhaled in a cloud – it almost looked as though it had puffed from Logan’s ears. “How do you know –”

“Oh come, you’re not that naïve, Logan, surely? Every country has them; and usually one to several cells in major cities. Which groups, in my target city?”

“Um.” Logan scratched his head. “You’ve got some drug cartels –”

“Not interested. They may have similar tactics, but I’m looking for a group with an ideology – preferably an eschatological one.”

“Escha-what?”

“Aiming for the conclusion of human civilization, usually coincident with the glorious appearing of any number of deities.” 

“Translation: major hard-on for the end of the world?”

“Exactly.”

“O.K., uh … try Washed in the Blood. Not quite as big as the Heirs of Aztlán, in your city, but they’ve got an agenda and they love sharing it. Usually with explosives, but they’ve recently branched out into assassination. They’re really big on the suicides. And they’re pretty pissed their brand of Jesus didn’t come back when the bombs dropped, so they’re all for ringing up the world’s curtain. Again.”

“I see. So you must see how simple it is.”

“Damn it, Xavier.” Logan glared. “What am I seeing that’s simple?”

“Staging the theft of the nuclear device by Washed in the Blood. If my city agents are any good, they’ll have their fingers on the local cell’s pulse – where the meetings take place, how often, with whom. My agents will take the device, leave WB literature or an appropriately deranged ransom note, and – this is critical – they’ll either hold important WB operatives hostage and feed them lines to give to the enemy’s commander in turn … or they’ll replace them outright.”

“Replace them outright? You’re talking about infiltrating a terrorist group at the highest level in the space of one month

“Am I?” Charles blinked innocently. “I thought this was all hypothetical.”

Logan’s glare intensified.

“And you said ‘abilities,’ earlier. I assumed that my agents are all … well … mutants.”

A hard drag on the cigar. “You assume correctly.”

“Then since this would initially be interpreted as a terrorist operation and not a military one, it is quite possible that the enemy’s military telepath would not be deployed in time to catch them. Especially if he were otherwise occupied – an attack on another city as a diversion, perhaps. And you yourself told me, in the infirmary, that you have a shapeshifter in St. Louis. Why can’t I get him or her?” Charles gave Logan a sleek smile. “You must admit, it would make infiltration quite easy.”

“Well, he’s six, Xavier. He can only come up with so much on the fly.”

“I’m not asking that he replace the enemy commander. I’m asking that he replace a terrorist only a few people know – one with a rhetoric drawing off known source material. A rhetoric that can be memorized beforehand.”

Logan sighed, deeply. Stared at the map.

Then he shook his head. “Table that one. And with few more shapeshifters, it might be possible, but – yeah. Table it. We’ll think about it.”

“You mean I’ll think about it.” Charles trailed his fingers over the map. “I quite like this sort of thing - strategizing. I miss doing it.”

“Well, today is your lucky goddamn day, Mr. X, 'cause you’re getting this for homework. What are your objectives again?”

“One: secure the city, keeping it functional if possible; two: find and secure the nuke; three: capture the enemy’s aircraft; and four: assassinate the enemy commander.”

Logan gave him slow, mocking applause. “You can take that map back with you tonight; hang onto it this week. We’ll talk this scenario again later. I got a few other ones –” he indicated the pile of papers – “and we’ll hit ‘em now. Any more questions, before we move on?”

“Questions – oh,” Charles grinned, self-conscious. “I had several. I suppose I got sidetracked on the intelligence one … Well. Most importantly, and perhaps relevant in future as well: military casualties, civilian casualties.” He flicked a scrap of paper off the map. “What are my parameters?”

There was a pause.

Charles saw McCoy lift his head from the blueprints and look in their direction.

With a strange twist to his mouth, Logan took a final puff on his cigar. “Always relevant, Mr. Xavier, and always the same. Try to keep civilian casualties as low as possible. It’s good propaganda – you want ‘em on your side, and you want the world to know you have ‘em. That, and you don’t have much time for clean-up. And we really can’t spare the lime, these days.”

Skin prickling, Charles waited. Then he prompted Logan: “And … the military?”

“Military?” Logan’s smile was cold. His voice was colder. “Here are your parameters, Xavier: no quarter, no prisoners, no hostages, no negotiations. You kill them. You kill as many of them as you can, because you want to wipe the fuckers out. Clear?”

Charles could have heard a pin drop, in the workroom.

Logan’s eyes were dark. “Clear?”

He tried to shrug, tried to fold up the map. His hands, suddenly, were trembling. “It’s strange to hear you put it that way. I remember my mother … She was a diplomat. She had high hopes for the ratification of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

“1949, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well.” Logan ground out his cigar on the metal tabletop. “I don’t know if you got the memo, X man, but Geneva? Got nuked.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Charles saw McCoy look back down at his blueprints.

“Here now.” Charles jerked his attention back – Logan had pulled out another map, one mostly blue. “Scenario number two. Your enemy’s got an island. You’ve only got a boat. But here’s the good news: it’s a really big motherfucking boat.”

------------------------

He walked out with Logan to meet the students as the sun was setting. The other students, Charles reminded himself with a grimace; no need to get above his station. Let them keep underestimating you. In fact … he touched the folded map, where it rested in a pocket of his jeans. Perhaps it would not do to show too much intelligence about strategy. Well. It was probably too late, now. And he did enjoy mental exercise – it had been in short supply, recently. He didn’t count his incursion into Alex’s and Angel’s minds – the former had lasted all of ten seconds, and the latter had felt more like adventure than exertion.

“All right, everybody line up!” Logan’s voice carried. Charles grinned as he saw the children pelting out the double doors – no, Bobby and John out the doors. Ororo and Sean were running from around another corner of the manor house.

“Line up!” Logan bellowed again, and then, in an undertone: “that includes you, Xavier.”

“Right; sorry.” Charles jogged over to join the children, feeling a flush on the back of his neck. They underestimate you. Everyone can be deceived. “Where’s Jean?” he asked Ororo, and she replied: “She went to bed early. Still sick.” Charles began to reply, but Logan’s voice steamrolled all competition.

“All right, everyone – I know you, you know me, and you know what you hafta do here. But there are rules! What are these rules? In summary: no stupid-ass shit; but specifically … Rule number one – no running away! Rule number two – no hitting each other with sticks! And rule number three – the most important rule of all, for when you get back inside, is … is …” Logan grinned his madcap grin. “What is it? Rule number three –”

The children shouted, in ragged chorus: “Don’t set the place on fire!”

“What was that?”

“Don’t set the place on fire!!” – Sean was laughing; even John was grinning ear to ear. Charles smiled despite himself.

“Exactly! For the love of fuck, children,” Logan boomed, “do not set the place on fire! If you set the place on fire, I will be sad. And when I get sad, I cry. And when I cry, it makes me want to kill things. So don’t set the place on fire – and who am I lookin’ at?”

“John!” the children yelled, and: “Me!” John shrieked, gleefully.

“John, John, Johnny boy.” Logan strolled over to him, thumped him on the back. “Do not –” “I know –” “– set the place –” “– I know –” “– on fire!” “Okay, Mr. Logan, I get it.”

“Good, good. All right.” And Logan squinted skyward. “You got thirty minutes. Three-two-one go!

The children ran for the woods, whooping. Charles stared after them. Then he stared at Logan. “Um.”

“Yeah?”

“What, exactly, am I doing?”

“Collecting firewood, Xavier. When it starts getting this cold, you get a fire at night – you only burn what you collect, though.”

“I thought as much.” Charles smiled, and strolled toward the wood.

“Hey,” Logan called after him, but: “I know.” Charles waved a hand over his shoulder, not turning. “No escaping. I promise.”

“You keep that promise, Xavier. Monsters in the woods, remember?”

Charles bit the inside of his mouth. His amusement at the children’s antics faded with the darkness of his memories. A hand on his neck, fingers in his hair, and later – rage want – The fever-dreams of his illness, the nightmares ...

“Firewood,” he whispered, picking up the pace. And perhaps a candidate for a nice, sharp stake.

------------------------

Even though the evening was quite cold in the light of the setting sun, Charles stripped off his sweatshirt early on. He did so to carry back extra wood – for he wasn’t sure what the rules were, but if nobody else thought of it, Jean would have no fire. It turned out the other children were ready to contribute a few sticks each – they did so after dinner. All were happy, though, that Charles had managed much more than they could have alone.

Charles assembled a standard log cabin fire in Jean’s fireplace, since, according to Angel, they had, “Ten extra minutes before bunking, people, build ‘em fast!” It wouldn’t have the best convection, but it would be less vulnerable to collapse. He tried sending Jean an image of her fireplace, and how warm the room would be … and felt nothing in return but the hard conch shell. Charles sighed and went to look for a match, for a lighter, for – He frowned. How the hell were they all going to light these things, anyway? 

He heard a knock at his own door and poked his head out of Jean’s. 

“Hey, Mr. Xavier.” John turned to look at him. “Are your sticks ready?”

Charles blinked. “Not quite. I built a fire for Jean, though. Are you on match duty or – what are you doing, exactly?”

John padded into the room, took a lighter from his pocket, and grinned up at Charles. “Check this out.”

A click and spark, and there was a tiny flame. And – Charles felt his eyes almost bulge out of his head. John held the fire in his hand, flicked his fingers –

His jaw dropped at the flames that had leaped up in the fireplace, burning away full tilt in a hungry blaze – in less than five seconds.

“Oh.” Charles blinked away his disbelief. “That’s – that’s quite a talent you have there, John.”

“Thanks.” John’s grin widened. “I don’t usually get to use it in this part of the house. Well, sometimes to light the stove – but I need a match, or this,” he brandished the lighter, “or something. I can only control it. I can’t create it.”

“‘Only’ … there’s no ‘only’ about it. My god, John, how do you –”

“Don’t worry,” and John rolled his eyes. “I won’t set the stupid place on fire; geez.”

“Hm.” Charles smiled. “I believe you, you know.”

"Really?”

“Of course.”

John swallowed. Then he looked away and shrugged. “Whatever.” Charles could feel his emotions close back up. “So, am I lighting anything for you, or what?”

“Oh – yes please. If you wouldn't mind.” Four steps and a swoop down, and Charles was rapidly building a tipi fire in his own room. It did not take him long before he heard John whistle, tossing the lighter back and forth between his hands. “You’re pretty good at that, Mr. Xavier.”

“Thank you, John. I only wish my colleagues and I had had you along on some of our rounds. Remind me to tell you about how we were called, once, to drive a polar bear out of Banbury.”

“The Banbury Bear?” John set the fire to burning with a flick of the lighter and a twist of his hand. “Sounds cool.”

“Too cool, really. Cold.” Charles stared into the flames. “Very cold.”

He listen to the fire’s comfortable snap and pop for a long minute – and then smiled up at John. “And in that case – as in so many – I think that a little fire at hand would have gone a very long way. Thank you for this one.”

------------------------

He heard John give the lighter back, whining, “Do I have to?” and Angel’s dry, “C’mon, hand it over. Idiot.” A thwack. “But anyway: good job, kid. Go to bed.” Then: “Night, everybody!” she yelled.

Charles heard her footsteps click down the hallway. He stared into his fire, and thought.

Individual heat: an excellent change. Random checks: not so excellent a change. He sighed. Whether or not it had anything to do with his note of the previous night … well. Charles would be willing to bet that so-called ‘random’ checks would be a check, singular, and would happen on the earlier side of the night rather than the later, since the monitors had to sleep as well.

And he had a plan, formed that morning. Carefully, Charles called forth his power and set a thought spinning into flame with his fingers – he thought of John and smiled. Then he placed the thought-fire in the middle of the hallway outside his door. As soon as anyone walked through it, the flash would be enough to wake him from sleep.

Sleep … With a fire like this in his room, it would be unpardonable to pass up on the chance to wallow in warmth. Charles sank back onto his bed, smiling, and closed his eyes – and reflected, before falling asleep, on how for the first time in a very long time, he felt the tiniest bit of happiness.

------------------------

His mood got a boost when the thought-fire performed perfectly. In his sleep, Charles vaguely sensed Alex walking down the hall, noisily, but felt a warning spark in his mind as soon as Alex set off the alarm. He opened his own eyes – stared at the ceiling and started to wait the monitor out. It did not take long. Only a few loud, clomping footsteps, and Alex disappeared down the stairs.

Charles sighed. Now – what did he want to do? He was awake, so he might as well … do something.

He rolled over in bed, stared down. There, lying just between the frame and the wardrobe, was the thin children’s book he had thrown at the wall, days ago. Freedom Rising! The Story of the Free West. Charles grimaced as he picked it up. He wasn’t going to read it, no, but … Like called to like, perhaps. He plucked the map of Dallas from the pocket of his jeans, and placed it in the book for safekeeping.

Then he stared at the book for another moment – without seeing it. He had thrown it at the wall and stormed off to the library … the library, where the man had taken his watch ...

My watch 

Charles sighed at the ceiling, setting the book down. Nothing had happened the previous evening – unless one counted this ensuing ‘random check’ business, he thought, frowning to himself. Which – if he were going to place another note – because he could, can and they’re underestimating me … he should probably try it tonight. First, Alex was on duty, so Angel would not be punished if he were caught – and he wouldn’t be, really, because he knew now – “Don’t touch any metal,” he whispered. Secondly, the checks would probably be at their most haphazard in the very beginning. So when, really, would be a better time to start … than the present?

Besides, the fire had given him courage.

Charles carefully tore another page out of a book – a dusty yellow scrap, from the back matter of Crime and Punishment. He slipped his pencil out from where he had tucked it away in the thick spine of the Shakespeare. And he wrote:

I would like my watch back, please.

Folding the paper up, he slipped it into a pocket of his jeans, picked the lock on his door before he could think twice. The pick was on its last bend, he thought to himself, frowning – the metal was considerably warped, and –

Oh.

Oh.

Charles swallowed hard. Metal. He deliberately placed the pick in a crack between two flagstones, outside his door. He checked his sweatshirt – nothing – and then his jeans – the rivets;  damn … Shivering, he ducked back inside his room and exchanged the jeans for sweatpants, transferring the note to another pocket. No metal. He checked his shirt – two metal buttons at the collar;  fuck – took off his top layers, and tossed on a clean T-shirt and his lucky blue sweater instead.

Charles bit his lip. Not lucky, actually. Not consistently. Certainly it had been lucky last night, when nothing had happened to him … but he had been wearing it when the man had beaten him, strangled him, almost killed him ….

Really, he had only just gotten the bloodstains out.

He slipped the ragged cuffs over his hands, and stared into the small, dusty mirror set inside the wardrobe door. Normally, at night and with only a candle, he could see nothing. Now, with a fire, he saw his own pale face, the dark blue line of the sweater and the lighter blue of his eyes, wide and staring. And …

Charles saw his eyes widen in consternation. He tilted up his chin, then swallowed, hard. The weal from where the chain had throttled him was still there – less pronounced, but visible. It even rippled with the muscles of his throat as he swallowed again, as he clenched his jaw. He didn’t think it would scar, but … people could see it, if they knew to look. McCoy might have been looking at it; Logan too. He saw the blue of his eyes shimmer; he bit his lip again, harder. His mouth was very red.

His knew his own blood was red – it had looked black, though, that night in the library. From the bird’s eye view of his own near death.

But – Charles narrowed his eyes. He had gone to the library the night before, and had won. His sweater was not the luckiest, perhaps … but its dark blue reminded him of Raven.

Raven …

His sister would not have been afraid of anything. And neither was he. Before he could lose his nerve, Charles shut the wardrobe, slipped off his shoes – nails in the soles; so sorry to spoil your fun, you bastard – and headed off for the library door.

------------------------

He called the thought-fire to him and sent it flaming down the hallway to the West Wing, into the library and through it, cascading into individual flickers and casting their light as far as he could reach. Alex had gone, yes, but just in case, Charles left tiny flames burning at regular intervals behind him, down the dark and narrow hallway.

He stared at the door, then knelt quickly and shoved the note under it. “Do svidaniya, Comrade Dostoyevsky. You go to a better place.” Then he half-smiled, and added: “No, not really. Lying. Sorry.”

He paused. “… And I’m talking to a page – from a book.”

Charles sighed. It was not as though he had the excuse of powerful painkillers this time. Perhaps, though, flippancy was the better part of valor: a show of courage in a prison as dark, cold and draconian as this one. Or a show of defiance. Defiance. Deliberately, he reached out a finger on each hand and traced the wood – oak – between the iron decorations. Because I can. Perhaps he could –

The tiny flame furthest from him, at the very end of the hallway, ignited in warning.

Something moving and Charles whirled where he stood, with a gasp -

Wait …

Something small, moving. He blinked. What on earth?

At the end of the hallway, he saw what looked like spark – but what must have been a lit candle. Halfway up the wall, flickering in the shadows.

Charles tipped his head to one side, his mind racing. He would have remembered a torch, certainly. Even though this light was considerably smaller – it cast a new circle of light - it was almost … floating? “How –” he heard himself whisper, and that’s very interesting, his mind said, cautiously. He felt one side of his mouth quirk. It wasn't enough that this was a prison – was it haunted as well?

And why was the light getting brighter?

Then realization hit him like a wave of ice water. The light was getting brighter, because it was coming towards him. Floating towards him.

In … and he knew it, instinctively. Even though he couldn’t see it.

In its metal holder.

Oh, no.

Charles felt his breath coming faster, panting. No – no … If the metal were moving by itself – and setting off flame after tiny flame of alarm, advancing at a slow and steady speed towards him – that meant that the person manipulating the metal was surely nearby, and –

Where to hide With a strangled gasp, he grabbed for the door handle to the library – and stopped, his fingers inches from the worked metal.

Stop. Think.

The last time he had tried to hide in the library; he had failed. The man had sensed the metal on him and had found him, and tried to kill him. The man had sensed the chess piece falling, the candelabrum moving – he had fused the lock shut: and all from a distance. So if Charles were to touch the door’s metal handle –

“He’d know I was here,” he mumbled to himself, and “oh god...”

I don’t want to die. I really don’t want to die. “Not when I just got my room warm enough,” he whispered, and choked back a laugh. Something was stinging in his eyes – and it wasn’t the light from the candle –

The candle, Charles realized, which was floating a foot away from him, in mid-air.

Then it drifted to the flagstones of the hallway floor. The wrought-iron holder settled, with a scrape and clink.

Charles held his breath. Had that been – a footstep?

He listened more carefully. There was another. And another – and: yes. It was. Someone was coming. He knew  who was coming.

Closing his eyes, Charles stepped away from the door – standing perpendicular to it, his back to the stone wall, melting back into the shadows. He had checked … he wasn’t wearing any metal, which meant that the man could not sense him, as long as he shielded himself from view …

Desperately, he reeled back in all of his power – flickers of fire from everywhere. Then he closed his eyes and pictured a veil – veil veil veil - but a real one this time, not just for his mind. A veil in the real world – a shroud – draping over him and obscuring him from even the sharpest gaze.

God, I hope this works, Charles thought bleakly – and then he had no more time to think, because he was looking just slightly to his right, and there, stepping into the dim circle of candlelight on the floor, was the man who had tried to kill him.

------------------------

Tried and failed, Charles told himself. You're alive.

And it was, perhaps, the most horrible thing in the world … to be a foot away from someone who had tried to kill you, and to be trying, the entire time – agonizingly … trying not to breathe.

Don’t let him sense you, Charles’ mind whispered. Be still. Be silent; be still.

But what was he doing?

Charles could only watch. He stared at the man’s profile. This close, he could trace the lines of a strong forehead, nose and chin, a taut jaw – like a coin, he thought, he belongs on a coin – and: you thought that the last time you saw him, his mind screamed, and: you’re going to die – do you realize that?

Carefully, Charles turned his head completely to the side, and breathed out through a completely open mouth. Then he breathed back in, and shut his lips tight. Even that, it seemed the man could sense – there had been the flick of those eyes to the left, and a slow tilt of the head …

Charles wished, more than anything, for his own hand to be at his mouth. That way he could at least bite down on a finger in order not to scream.

But the man had stopped. He hadn’t seen him – he hasn’t he hasn’t seen me …

Instead, he was leaning forward and sniffing at the door. Why the bloody fuck – oh 

Charles’ skin crawled as he realized: the man was sniffing where his fingers, Charles’ fingers, had traced between the whorls of iron, over wood. The man’s bony jawline tilted, and then those long-fingered hands came up and flexed against the door – and Charles bit down on his tongue to keep from gasping, as the metal tracery came to life.

My god  

It would have been beautiful, had he not been so terrified. The man pressed his hands against the door and tilted up that stark line of chin and jaw – almost as though he were greeting the metal. And the metal replied – vibrating, almost purring and twisting down and around the man’s fingers.

Charles heard a scrick-ck, from down the hallway.

And he choked back another gasp as the man whipped round and threw a handful of metal down the hall in a molten flash.

His fingers had almost brushed Charles’ face.

Then, distantly, Charles heard the squeak of a mouse, and the tiny scratching sounds of it running away. 

It seemed that the man had heard it too, for Charles – fascinated – saw a corner of that thin mouth quirk up. Then the man closed his eyes and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids. Rolled his shoulders, dropped his hands, tilted his head back, swallowed. He bent his head from side to side – Charles stared at it …

The line of his throat was very elegant. So: monsters had to relax. Could it be true?

No, obviously, his mind gibbered, not true. Look now - see?  The man had turned round again and was glowering at the door. The metal thrown down the hallway had floated back to him - he let it undulate down his hand, like a ribbon, and then trailed a finger along one of the door’s iron bands – and the metal flowed back into place with a faint quiver, as though it had come home.

Then the man turned on one heel, and began to look round, slowly, in a complete circle. His eyes rested on Charles for a second or two – and Charles held his breath, bit his tongue, and tried not to think about how – from this close – he could see shades of grey, blue, and green in those eyes …

The man’s gaze passed over him. Charles closed his own eyes; turned his head completely to the side. Breathed out. Then breathed back in.

Then he turned his head back, opened his eyes again -

And almost screamed, as he saw the man’s eyes staring directly into his own. Only inches away.

This close, Charles could see individual striations of grey in the irises. In the dim candlelight, though, green was dominant. Especially given that the man’s hair was a coppery color, though brown as well – the slight red undertone in his eyebrows made the green stand out –

His mind clicked away, cataloguing, as adrenaline poured into his system, leaving him giddy. It was as though he himself were a cobra, unable to take his gaze away from a snake charmer – or perhaps a milksnake, Charles thought. In fact, the man might be a cobra, but he, Charles, was an innocuous milksnake. Milksnakes were picture-perfect reflections of poisonous coral snakes, though … And he had his own defenses. Didn’t he?

Charles tightened all of his mental veils – and the new thing, the real veil. Look away – nothing to see here –

Was it working?

… oh my god. Yes. Yes, it’s working, because the man had flicked his eyes to the left, frowning – looking away – and Charles could turn his own head to the right and exhale silently; inhale again and then again because he had been so short on air …

But then Charles froze, as the man took a one casual step forward.

His breath was hot against Charles’ jaw. Charles didn’t dare move.

For, if he moved his head a fraction of an inch back to where it had been, he would actually … his mind stuttered. His lips would meet the man’s mouth and then oh god not going to think about that and want and the fact that the man was so damn close.

That mouth. It was almost resting on the hinge of Charles’ jaw. Why? oh god no Charles tightened the veil, the real one you can’t see me go away 

But then a slight movement out of the corner of his eye, and it appeared the man had leaned closer, because – and Charles’ heart gave one thump, and stilled. His mouth was dry as a bone. Because somehow … the man’s lips were pressed in the hollow of his cheekbone, and Charles thought wildly that someone must have shaved him in the infirmary, because those lips didn’t catch on anything besides the mildest stubble – except then they paused and moved – because the man was speaking.

Well. Whispering, really. And what he was whispering was:

“… Professor ....”

The left a sibilant trail of heat across his cheek. Charles bit back a scream – he wasn’t going to move, no, because the man couldn't see him, and –

“Charles Xavier …” 

Then strong hands traced down the stone wall, before pressing against his shoulders, fingers digging in, and Charles knew the game was up.

“Charles Xavier,” the man said, quietly, “you have a metal filling on the left side of your mouth. Upper jaw, back penultimate molar. Here.”

Those lips pressed against his cheek, moving with the words, felt different from - was that a flick of tongue on his skin? Yes. Yes it was, because there it was again. The man was having a taste. And had that been a rumble in his chest? Oh my god – 

“Right. Here. Did you not remember?”

Charles closed his eyes. Opened them.

“Answer me.”

Charles couldn’t find any words.

A hot exhale against his cheek. “Answer me.”

“No …” His own voice sounded like sandpaper. “No. I didn’t remember.”

“Hm.” Strong fingers flexed into his shoulders, and Charles bit down hard on his tongue, tasting blood.

“Please,” he gasped. “Please don’t …” Please don’t hurt me, his mind finished. He wasn’t sure if he had said it out loud.

But he must have, for the man made a soft sound in the back of his throat.

“If you hadn’t wanted to be hurt, Professor … perhaps you should not have gone wandering by night.”

“I …” It was impossible for Charles to speak – his throat was completely dry.

The man stood there for what felt like an endless moment – just breathing against Charles – strong hands on his shoulders, warm lips in the hollow of his cheekbone.

And then those same hands grabbed and shoved, and Charles choked back a scream – he was not going to scream – as his back hit the library door, and as metal jumped eagerly to his ankles and wrists, his arms and legs, twining around his hips and his torso and – his neck 

“Hush,” the man whispered. His voice – clotted with darkness. “You’ll wake the children.”

For Charles had been trying to breathe, trying, but it was loud and difficult – somehow caught in his chest, but if he could only get enough air he would cry out and wake everyone, see if he didn’t –

Shhh …”

Frantically, Charles pulled against the metal. The tendrils writhed like snakes around his wrists and arms. He saw the man’s eyebrows fly up and those green eyes spark – and Charles’ panicking thoughts flashed back to the memory of a spike through his mind – want –

He froze. Again. Don’t moveStopStay still.

Even immobile, though, he could keep his eyes locked on the man’s face. Charles heard his thoughts cataloguing away, thrumming with adrenaline. He felt metal twisted round all of his limbs – one particular strand coiling around his throat – god – don’t panic – He saw the golden light from the candle, forgotten at their feet. He observed the man’s clothes – dark and ordinary, making his spare frame look like a shadow stepped from the blackness of the hallway …

And those eyes, glittering at him.

Charles deliberately looked away. He thought he heard a sound – hissed out between teeth? He couldn’t tell; couldn’t place it. But the man was speaking.

“So. I have been told that you are a telepath, Professor Xavier.”

Ridiculous, not to have thought of it before – Charles kept his face blank, turned away, as his mind rapidly cycled through possibilities: soar like he had into Angel’s mind, and change the man’s thoughts; slice like he had into Alex’s, and change the man’s memory; punch like he so desperately wanted to with Frost’s –

Frost. Shite. Try something and she might not just wake – she might see, know exactly what he could do, and any hope of escape would vanish. Unless he were to strike her first, and could you? With practice, it might be possible 

He called up his hummingbird, slowed it to such an extent that its wings flapped like a vulture’s. The hummingbird glided to the man’s thoughts – just a quick pass …

And Charles flinched. The bird had flown straight into a sharp-edged maelstrom of metal – shards, nails, spikes – which whirled at it like an angry circle saw. A flash and an agonized chirp, and the hummingbird was flailing back to Charles’ mind, bleeding.

“Well …” And the voice was still so quiet. “Well ... I felt that. You’d do wisely to stay out of my head, Professor.”

Charles could hardly breathe; horror had sent a wave of nausea roiling straight up from his gut to his mouth. He swallowed against the foul taste. The man was smiling, just slightly – his teeth white and even and somehow – Charles stared, feeling his flesh crawl. Those teeth. There seemed to be quite a lot of them, glinting in the candlelight.

“What did you see?”

A pause.

Then: “Nothing,” Charles choked, “nothing – I didn’t, there was –” For he could sense something edged with red, or blood, welling up at the edges of the silence. Oh god I don’t want to die –

“And now?”

A tendril of metal nudged at his chin, and Charles had to tip his head back to keep its edge away from his throat. He caught a flash of sharp amusement, crackling along the silence – but then he sensed those eyes caught by something, snapping to the line of … fixing on –

Oh no. N... There was that – want – drifting from the other man’s mind like a dark mist. And then there was one finger, warm, trailing over the weal on Charles’ throat.

“Professor …” And warm breath on his throat. “What do you see now?”

“I don’t –” he said, rapidly, “I can’t see a thing. It’s too dark.”

“Not with your eyes. What do you see in my mind?”

But Charles didn’t want to look. The want was thickening in the air, like a haze of chlorine gas.

“You told me to stay out of your head.”

“And you always do as you’re told?”

Charles gritted his teeth. “Do you torture all the children this way?”

A pause. Then that voice, low and mocking: “Do you consider yourself a child?”

No, Charles thought, wildly; he must have shaken his head by instinct, because there was a pause, and then he felt a warm puff of breath against his throat. “No. I thought not.”

Then the metal was gone from his chin, and Charles could let his head fall forward – could breathe, could clench his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering, could avoid the man’s eyes.

But not his voice.

“You’re not a child, Xavier. You’re a teacher, you’re a strategist, and you’re a mildly competent telepath. Or so I’m told. You have tested off the intelligence charts, such as they are. And yet …” and there was a finger at his chin, inexorably tipping his face up. “And yet, you disobey. Why?”

“Because,” Charles met the man’s eyes as bravely as he could. “I would like my watch back, please.”

Those teeth flashed in a smile. “Yes, I’m sure you would. But I took it, Xavier, to punish you. And since I can’t take it twice …” The green eyes glittered. “How shall I punish you now?" 

Here it comes. Charles bit down hard on the wild rush of despair fury I’m sorry Raven – and let his eyes fall shut. 

A soft tsk. “Look at me.”

He kept his eyes closed. And hardly needed to use any power to feel the roil of anger anticipation want coil in on itself and knot into rage.

“Disobedient.” The voice was still calm; the contrast with the seethe of emotions beneath the surface was enough to make Charles light-headed with fear. “Too dark to see, you say, and now you won’t open your eyes …”

- what -

Something had brushed over his eyelids. Not a finger, though – a wire, or wires – thin lines of metal rustling along his cheekbones and over his eyebrows.

“… And so I must conclude – that you don’t really need them.”

One of the wires jabbed. Charles gasped and opened his eyes wide, staring at the man’s own – blue-green-grey – so close to his, so sharp and merciless. “No –” he heard his own voice, strangled and desperate, “no – don’t –”

“Why not?” The man crossed his arms over his chest. “Give me one good reason not to take your eyes. And give it to me now.”

Charles felt his thoughts race; another jab made him open his mouth, heedless, and gasp: “I need them to read, I need them to help the children. I need them to – to look at maps, help McCoy with his work – for my work here – I –”

The man said nothing; merely stared, a slow smile curling the corners of his mouth.

Charles felt his thoughts drifting away, like a bird – Raven – fluttering to the massive door’s lintel. The raven saw the knots of rage tightening around the other man and drawing him closer to Charles – and then heard more words, frantic and fast: “It would be traumatic for the children – the infirmary might not be able to spare medical supplies presently – and, and it would be rather inefficient, wouldn’t it? when I can accomplish more with them – with – please, I need them – don’t –”

In the midst of his babbling, the raven left its perch. It flew silent and swift to the man and perched invisibly on his shoulder. It was dark enough – invisible, veiled – to look calmly into the lethal blur of metal and see:

- an image: Charles’ eyes, thin metal coils and loops spiraling over the line of his cheekbones, pooling in the sockets and caressing his eyebrows. The metal – iron – dark and dull, and his skin white from fear … and his eyes: so blue. Blue, wide and staring – and there, there, vibrating from metal and running hot and urgent through the man’s mind: want

“… Oh.”

Charles hardly recognized his own voice … as the stammering words tumbling out of his mouth trailed off into a soft, “Oh …

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Yes?”

The fear left Charles light-headed, but: try. “A good reason.” He swallowed. “I have one.”

A pause. Then: “Yes?”

“My eyes.” Try it. Charles breathed in, out, carefully. Do it. “I’d hate to lose them. Because – I’ve been told … they’re very beautiful.”

Silence.

Charles held his breath. The other man was staring at him, eyes glinting green. Charles tried to look away, but could not. Trapped, with a monster staring at him - eyes pale green jewels in the dark. Like those of a dragon - not, Charles told himself, that dragons existed, of course, but -

The man bared his teeth - and with that horrible gleam, the illusion was complete.

Fuck.

Charles didn’t need his powers to sense the same want pouring off the man like steam, coiling around him tighter than metal ever could. But the raven fluttered to the high and darkened ceiling anyway, watching as the man smacked a palm against the door and made the metal fly off Charles and snap back flat against the oak. Charles had no time to catch his breath as the other grabbed his upper arm and dragged him, stumbling, down the hallway, into the darkness. He could hardly keep up – his mind was racing, because he didn’t know what was going to happen, and some of the possibilities turned the sweat on his neck freezing cold.

Before he knew it, Charles’ back was pressed against the door of his room. The man was glaring at him, he could tell – the raven, gliding, saw want twisted with rage into a hideous tangle. Of course, Charles himself couldn’t see a thing in the darkness. He only felt harsh and hot breaths, gusting over his face. 

Then a strange, tiny scraping sound. Then a hiss, and a strong hand clamped over his mouth –

– and Charles screamed against the hand as something sharp twisted into his left thumbnail, and corkscrewed red-hot down into the nailbed – it was excruciating and he squeezed his eyes shut against tears – then, instinctively, he bit down hard on the hand and heard the man snarl a curse, felt him let go.

He couldn’t speak, he could hardly breathe – even though he wasn’t being strangled – it felt as though he had had the thumbscrew in Oxford Prison – and it was worse, then, as whatever-it-was ripped its way out of his thumbnail, god, and coiled around the knuckle, flexed and tightened –

Du. You do as you are told from now on, Xavier –” the man hissed. “And never, ever touch my mind again, or your eyes will only be the first thing that I take from you. Do you understand me?”

Yes, Charles wanted to say, hyperventilating. But he didn’t have a chance to say anything, before the man ripped open the door of his room and shoved Charles inside. Then there was the sound of the door locking, faster than seemed possible in a raging scrape and crunch of metal.

The fire was still burning. Charles staggered over to the hearth, fell to his knees and stared at his door, through the door as his raven sensed the man storming back to the West Wing, raging, wanting –

His hand, his hand – what had been done to it? His palm was red, in the firelight. He squinted –  his left thumbnail was shredded; blood coated the digit, and Charles could not see what had happened … Frantically, he sucked the blood off, but his teeth caught on something. Something metal.

Charles yanked his mouth away, stared at his thumb. And he felt his jaw sag.

His improvised lockpick – carefully left outside his door. On its last bend, he had thought, earlier. But then, he hadn’t thought it could be bent into anything more.

Certainly not into the ring now twisted around the base of his thumb. A metal ring: silver in the firelight, red with his own blood.

Chapter Text

“You O.K., Mr. Xavier? You look like shit.”

“John! No bad language in the kitchen.”

“You know, do you think you could come up with another one, Ororo? ‘cause the same old same old is getting really old, and it’s gonna be even older in December –”

John.” Charles spoke against the red and black of his own closed eyes. “That is quite enough.”

Perhaps the children were not used to his iciest voice. That could explain their sudden, absolute silence. Then again, Charles thought, wearily, he had only ever used his coldest tones on students who had greatly misbehaved … perhaps it was not quite fair to –

Sod it. He gritted his teeth and opened his eyes, staring down at his left hand. The slightest movement of his thumb sent pain lancing down his palm, up his arm. His thumbnail had been ripped off, or nearly so, and his thumb was throbbing with each heartbeat – and he had to keep it shielded from everyone, lest … Charles frowned, muddled. Lest what? What would have against people finding out that he had broken the rules again? Alex would be the only one punished, and he deserved it, with his loud: “Time to get up, Mr. Xavier,” when he hadn’t slept – again

He shook the pain-tinged thoughts aside. Adversity bred viciousness only in the least mature of minds; he would not let that happen to him. Rather, he would view it as an opportunity to practice his new discovery. A veil in the real world: diverting attention from something obvious, taking a wisp of his power the size of a marble and wrapping it like cotton round the wound, the dried blood, the bruising –

– the ring at the base of his thumb …

Charles stared at the metal, feeling his flesh crawl. He had to focus on the ring, coiled tight, to keep at bay the memory of how he had got the damned thing in the first place. The steel of his lockpick, thinned and twisted in upon itself, into an implacable circle … implacable, because he couldn’t pull it off. He had tried last night – tried, doing his best to tug, and then biting down on the panicked urge to scratch and yank until his flesh tore again – anything to get it off –

His bruised thumb was pulsing round the metal. Charles bit his lower lip, thinking of how to obtain some antibiotics –

“Mr. Xavier?” Bobby’s voice was hesitant. During all of breakfast, he had been humming what had sounded, bizarrely, like hymns. He had stopped when Ororo and John had started to fight. “Is everything O.K.?”

No, Charles thought fiercely, but: “I’m only – tired, Bobby. I’m having some trouble sleeping. Saturday night was fine, but last night – last night I –”

He trailed to a halt at the first touch of Frost’s morning probe. All the children winced. Charles squeezed his eyes shut against the chill in his mind, then opened them and frowned. “Ororo?”

“Yeah?”

“Where’s Jean?”

Silence stretched again. Charles looked from face to face – then focused on Ororo. Her eyes were strangely bright, and oh, he realized, she’s trying not to cry

“She’s upstairs.” Ororo blinked hard.

Then Sean said in a rush: “And Mr. Xavier – we’re all really worried. About her, I mean. She’s never been this sick before, and she’s getting worse and worse –”

“Why is she so ill? Can anyone tell me –”

No!” – and - “... No.”

Charles stared at Ororo and Bobby in consternation. “But why ever not? This secrecy is ridiculous – especially if a child’s health is at stake.”

“Then take it up with Lady Frost.”

All stared at John, who had a look of defiance on his face. “Yeah, I said it. Talk to her. She knows what she’s doing.”

“… John, shut up,” Bobby said, voice cracking, but: “And how would I do that, precisely?” Charles kept his own voice calm. “Call her? Write a note? Ask for a telepathic appointment?”

“Maybe just keep on breaking the rules, man.” John’s eyes burned. “Or are you gonna tell us that you aren’t the reason we’ve got bed checks every night now?”

The flesh of his thumb throbbed; the ring felt as though it were two sizes too small.

Charles met John’s stare. “I may have done some – foolish things since being placed here, John. But let me tell you all, right now,” he rested his eyes on each of them in turn, “I will never, ever do anything to harm you. Whether through my own actions, outright, or through my agency acting on others. That is why I ask about Jean: I want to help her. Not hurt her.”

The children were silent.

“I want to help you all. I want to keep you safe. I promise to keep you safe. But I can’t do that if you don’t trust me.”

John was the first to drop his eyes. The other children looked down at their plates soon after.

Another paused stretched, and then: “Ororo?” Bobby’s voice was quiet. “Your call.”

“I think …” Ororo’s voice was just as hushed. “I think we … can.”

And … Charles felt his eyes go wide, as trust ... trust – and even - love ... unfurled from the children’s minds into the silence of the kitchen: four buds joining into a gorgeous flower.

He saw Ororo look at Bobby; he saw her take a deep breath to speak –

And Alex threw open the door. “Regular day for everybody. Let’s go.”

The moment was lost.

Charles sighed to himself in frustration as he walked out with the children. But: tonight, he resolved, tonight, you’ll speak to them again. They’ll tell you what you need to know. They know they can trust you.

Later, of course, he could only tell himself what he would have said, had he known; what he would have done differently. Hindsight was infallible, after all.

Had Charles known that Ororo and Bobby, John and Sean would be gone by that evening … he would have at least hugged them good-bye.

------------------------

“You don’t look very well, Mr. Xavier.”

Charles shrugged, giving McCoy a rueful smile. “I’ve been having some trouble sleeping. Nothing serious.”

Tentatively, McCoy returned the smile. “Not like that ‘flu last weekend, huh?” He turned back to his work.

Charles stayed focused on his own project: sorting, prefatory to filing. Alphabetizing notecards. It was not the glorified secretarial work that had him gritting his teeth, he told himself; rather, the fact that he could hardly move his left thumb. It was tricky enough that he had to keep the injury and ring shielded from McCoy, with such detailed work. But he needed to use that thumb, damn it, and …

… And if he had more challenging work, he thought, feeling the grit turn into an outright grinding of teeth – his mind wouldn’t bring up memory after memory.

Memories. He had kept them at bay during breakfast, during most of the morning. But now … Charles wiped away sweat on his temple with one hand – the ring brushed his left eyelid, and his stomach lurched –

Give me one good reason not to take your eyes, the man whispered in his mind. And give it to me now.

That voice, like gravel, and those eyes, green-grey and glittering in the low light …

My eyes … Charles had replied.

And even though he knew his voice had almost cracked in that moment, the night before – in this memory, now, in the humid workroom … the words somehow became low, low and soft. My eyes … his own whisper, caressing: I’ve been told they’re very beautiful …

And green, glowing in the candlelight, rapidly devoured by black, and Charles smashed and sent reeling by a tidal wave of want

“Put a name on it,” Charles ordered himself under his breath, sweating in McCoy’s workroom. “What the hell is going on in that bastard’s head?”

Want. But: what sort? Charles flicked through the notecards in his hands; flicked through the memories in his mind. His thoughts, cataloguing, had noted different aspects of the want: the hollow sucking quality he remembered from children at the communal soup kitchen – hunger; the wafting, incense-cloud quality he remembered from the monthly Oxford dances – desire.

Hunger. Desire. Charles felt sweat trickle down his back. What had been most disconcerting about the human qualities to the man’s want …was that they had been edged by a crimson thread of – prey catch it – kill it. Charles had only ever sensed that crimson from Oxford’s barn cats … and once from a solitary wolf that had caught sight of him on patrol ...

Dominating them all, though, had been black-red magma roiling beneath the surface and sending up hisses of steam to twine out around Charles’ limbs … the quality he remembered uncurling from behind closed doors at the Rose in Bloom, pulsing from the slick clenching slide around him with his first woman, burning from the hot bitter spurt down his throat with his first man –

Charles swallowed, hard. Very simple; very human. Ordinary, really. Lust.

The man’s eyes had been so wide and dark – and … Charles felt the back of his neck prickle at the memory. There had a small scar, lying halfway between the right side of the man’s mouth and his nose. And Charles remembered this because the man had pressed his lips together, staring at him hungrily, and the scar had moved just slightly –

Charles cursed, and peeled off his sweatshirt. And his hands, he told himself, were not trembling.

“Something wrong?”

“No, Hank – not really. It’s just –” he licked his lips, “it’s just a bit hot in here. Isn’t it?”

McCoy shrugged at him. “Sorry. The heat in here gets cranked once the first snow falls – and last night –”

But Charles’ attention had flown to the windows. “Snow?”

“Yeah. Look.”

Charles walked to the window, and looked. Sure enough: there was a dusting of white across the grass. “It’s not quite October, is it?”

“October first – tomorrow.” McCoy had moved to stand next to him. “But even before the war, first snowfall here was usually around October twenty-fifth or so. So it’s not that the time is messed up beyond recognition, or anything. What’s wrong is that the ground’s not warm enough to melt it, these days. So from the beginning –”

“It sticks.” Charles sighed. “Yes. It’s the same in Oxford. A little better now that the Gulf Stream has picked up again –”

“Yeah – did you guys like that, over there?” McCoy’s grin was blindingly bright. “It took us five years to figure out how to fix it, and then two more to actually do it –”

“Wait –” Charles’ thoughts stumbled to a stop. He turned, to stare. “What do you mean, fix it?”

McCoy looked, if possible, happier. Light glinted off his glasses, his smile, his steel necklace.

“Hank …” Charles blinked with an effort. “That’s impossible." With the nuclear winter, convection in the north Atlantic had slowed to such an extent that … It had been a freak of nature, thermohaline circulation increasing. A stroke of luck - a godsend - and admittedly it made everyone in Britain ecstatic, but ...

“You’ll catch flies with your mouth open like that.” McCoy walked to the file cabinets lining one wall, a spring in his step. “We talked it over with Britain’s Queen, and then we got together everybody who could cool things, and everybody who could heat things, and added Volcana and some other people – and crossed our fingers – and: boom!” He slapped one of the metal cabinets. “About one ton of research – most is on microfilm, now. Seven years of work and … Gulf Stream back on board. Not too shabby.”

“Hank. That’s impossible.”

“Not impossible. Just really fiddly. And it took forever, because our people didn’t have a lot of time to devote to it. Even before the war got going, you know? So we had to do the whole thing little by little.”

“This was – how long ago, then?”

McCoy’s smile turned wistful. “About thirteen years ago, now. It was what we brought to the table – the biggest thing, I mean – for our treaty with Britain. The fix was done before my time, but I get to keep tabs on it. Except now, with the war going the way it is, it looks like I won’t be able to get down to the Caribbean to check –”

But Charles’ mind had slowed. We. We, McCoy had said. As though he, Charles, were a member of the EBS – as though his work was for them … his allegiance to them …

He turned to look out the window again. There was Logan, striding into the woods. Charles let his mind free associate. Logan. Firewood. “Why isn’t this room heated with a fireplace?” His lips felt numb. “The dormitory rooms are. The kitchen is.”

“My work – our work – gets a priority. I suppose the reasoning is that we’ll concentrate better if we’re not thinking about how cold we are. But –” and the voice turned shy, “don’t you want to know about how we – I mean, with the Gulf Stream – I could ask for you to see the files, and you could …”

Charles’ intuition told him that McCoy wanted to brag. He suddenly felt very, very tired.

But he tried for a smile. “I would love to see them, Hank. Better yet –” and he waved a hand at the notecards on the table. “I’d like some more challenging work.”

“I know, Mr. Xavier.” A grimace. “And I’m sorry. But they have to know that they can trust you. Before you get to see more important stuff.”

“Aren’t I eminently trustworthy?” Charles tipped his head to one side, deployed the dazzling smile that had got him out of duty with the stifling Board of Trustees.

“Going into the West Wing? I should level with you: that set you back about a month.”

He tasted bile, but kept his voice casual. “What a shame.”

“Sorry.”

They worked silently for the rest of that day – McCoy intent on his blueprints, Charles divided between sorting and seething. He watched the angle of sunlight change, creeping across the room. And through the whole day he tried not to remember. Tried to keep the heat of the room a background annoyance, and not such a horrible trigger: the steam-coiling darkness of hunger, desire … lust … The hazy image of his own blue eyes, metal twining round them. The twisting red prey – thereriding a sudden black surge of touch him grab him pin him –

Charles shook off the memory; swallowed another rush of sickness. He asked McCoy about Logan; McCoy shrugged, replying: “He’s busy this afternoon.”

But he wouldn’t meet Charles’ eyes when he said it.

Finally, when the sunlight in the windows had dimmed, Logan himself came to meet Charles. He left the notecards – good riddance – and a silent McCoy; fought to keep his legs steady as he walked out of the room, locked memory away behind the strongest door he could find.

Leaving the humid heat of the workroom made him feel better, step by step. He matched the Logan’s pace as they walked down the hallway. Odd, because Logan usually made an effort to leave him in the dust. Charles peered at Logan, curious: his eyes looked oddly smudged beneath his thick dark eyebrows, and his hair stood on end. He looked as grim as he had when threatening Charles in the infirmary, when discussing military casualties, when – oh.

“A good thing we didn’t strategize today,” Charles said ruefully. “I left the map in my room.”

“Bring it tomorrow.” Logan’s voice was curt.

“Yes, of course. I’ve come up with several additional ideas this afternoon alone. I look forward to discussing them with you.”

“Great.”

It was odd; Logan’s voice had trailed off into almost nothing. He was glowering at the door to the outside. Then he opened it with a slam of one shoulder. “Just fucking great, Xavier.”

They walked across the dead grass. Charles grimaced down at the feather-light cover of snow. So deceptively soft, beautiful … it would only get worse from now on. Any wood picked up from the ground would be damp. At that thought, he glanced around, puzzled. Where were

“All right.” Logan stopped, jerked a thumb at the forest. “Go nuts.”

Charles blinked. “Pardon?”

“Firewood. Gather what you need, Xavier. I’ll get some for Jean.”

“Wait …” He felt a chill, and not from the outside air. “Where … where are the children?”

“Jean’s in bed.” Logan lit a cigar; jaw tight. “Put her there myself. Kid’s sick.”

“Yes, I realize that.” Charles’ voice was strained; he knew it, and didn’t care. “I meant the other four. Ororo and Bobby – John, Sean … where are they?”

Logan was silent, staring off into the trees. The fading light of day picked out lines on his forehead. And Charles felt his power, veiled as it was, and small, surge to full alert – picking up the thrum of weariness and worry from Logan … and something … more – sorrowful?

Logan plucked the cigar from his lips. Turned it over in his fingers, and exhaled a blue cloud of smoke. “Deployed.”

For a long moment, Charles could barely breathe. Then: “… What.

“You heard me, Xavier.” The cigar went back between clenched teeth; his next words were muffled. “Shipped out to the front today.”

“Oh, I heard you.” He didn’t bother to hide his fury. “I just didn’t think you could possibly be saying what you said – they are children, Logan! What the flying fuck are you doing, sending them into a war zone?”

“EBS business.”

“Of course! The almighty, sacrosanct cause of the ever-noble, great and powerful Eastern Brethren and Sistren. So noble that they kidnap; so great that they beat their victims to a pulp; so powerful that they send children to fight and die for them –”

“Fuck you, X,” Logan growled. “We all fight. We all die. The only reason you didn’t get sent with them is that we don’t need a sniper; not at this point.” He flicked ash at Charles and gave him a poisonous glare. “That and Command trusts you just about as far as it can throw you.”

“I’d like to see her try to throw me,” Charles said in a vicious undertone. “Why aren’t you at the front, with those years younger than yourself?”

Logan didn’t take the bait. He gave Charles a flat look. “They’re just getting the ball rolling, down in – down there. I’m usually tossed in when the real fighting starts.”

“Dallas, correct?” He felt a vicious thrill of satisfaction when he saw Logan’s mouth twitch. “The strategy we were discussing. That’s what’s starting, right now.”

A long, cold pause. Then: “Have you been digging through my head, Mr. Xavier?”

“Not at all.” Charles raised his chin. “You just didn’t do a good enough job – censoring the map. Blotting out the names.” He smirked. Love Field. “You missed one.”

“I didn’t miss one. It wasn’t my idea to give it to you in the first place.” Logan gave a jerk of smile, with no warmth in it whatsoever. “But I’ll pass the word along. Yeah, Xavier: Dallas. Command liked your Washed in the Blood idea. The metamorphs’ve been moved there ... the other infiltrators-to-be have been briefed – it’s a go, as of this evening. Which means that next week we lift that little nuke, so we have to focus on getting Jean better ASAP. Go get your firewood.”

He felt confused; he hated it. “What does Jean have to do with anything?”

“Need-to-know basis,” was the reply, and Charles felt rage claw at his throat – felt it, gave in to it, and threw a punch as hard as he could.

Logan dodged it effortlessly and punched back. Charles staggered and fell – fuck that hurt – but turned the movement into a drop and roll, and lashed out a foot at Logan’s shins.

And of course he dodged that one, too. “Really, Xavier?” Charles looked up – Logan was bouncing just slightly on the balls of his feet, eyes dangerous. “I could use a bit of stress relief. Your ribs all back to normal, is that it? You want ‘em fucked up a bit more? ‘Cause I’m happy to oblige.”

The snow was melting into his trousers where he sat on the ground. Suddenly, Charles felt tired again – tired and hopeless. He dropped his eyes to his shoes. “No.”

“Yeah, didn’t think so.” A snort. “Get up, X man.”

“Why?” He slumped back against the dead grass; the snow prickled at the back of his neck. “What’s the point? I’ll eat and go to sleep. I’ll get up tomorrow and sort whatever fucking file is next on McCoy’s list. I’ll do whatever you tell me to, and then I’ll go to bed again, and – I’m never god damned getting out of here. Am I?”

A long pause.

“No, Xavier. You’re not.” Logan’s voice was quiet. “Once you’ve seen HQ ... That’s where you are, you know? Why else do you think security’s so tight? Why do you think you’re punished for putting a toe out of line? This is the highest-up –” a mocking gesture with the cigar – “this is where the magic happens. The best recruits are sent here.”

Charles resisted the flattery. It wasn’t as though Logan had done it intentionally - he was about as subtle as a block of cement. “The wilds of what was New York, Before. What the hell kind of place is that for a command center?”

“Safe within EBS territory; far away from most physical threats. And where things started. Ancient history. We’ve got labs and tech sunk underground; had to divvy up the critical projects and the aircraft, though. Decentralize it, yeah? Security.” Logan stared off at the forest; then shook his head. “The point, bub, is that you’ve seen things nobody from the outside has seen. And once you see those … you end up either a loyal part of the EBS, or –”

“… Or?”

“I dunno.” Logan gave the cigar a casual puff. “Mindwiped. Dead. Depends on what you do to piss them off – whether or not you can be –” he mockingly enunciated each syllable: “ – rehabilitated.”

Them. Don’t you mean: us ? I think you’re more just a foot soldier to them, Logan.”

“Fine, then: us. And stop thinking you’re the shit, Xavier, because you’re not – especially prancing around after curfew like a goddamned idiot. I don’t suffer fools lightly –”

“The more fool you. You’re torturing children, Logan: you realize that?” Charles knew he was prodding a hornet’s nest; he could see the tension in the other man even from where he sat on the cold grass. “Mind -" he stumbled over the word - "mindwiping a child before returning him to his parents; killing her because she’s seen what she’s seen – that’s absolutely inhumane.”

“What parents?”

Charles blinked.

Logan watched him, then continued: “Most of them are orphans; they jump at the chance for a few hots and a cot. And – and those lucky enough to have a family – McCoy, for example. They’re recruited, and they want to come – to help the cause. It’s an honor to be chosen, Xavier. McCoy’s family is proud of him.”

“I suppose they know that he was tortured for Angel’s escape attempt?”

“That’s the way the system works, Xavier.”

“A system that involves killing children –”

“No. We’ve never killed a child.” Logan’s eyes were shadowed. “Everyone has been –”

“ – rehabilitated.” Charles curled back his upper lip. “That’s disgusting.”

“That’s what works. This whole system, Xavier.” He stared into the distance. “It works. The kids come out of this … as loyal as anyone could possibly be. To the cause. They know how much worse it can be – will be, if the EBS is …”

Charles watched, narrow-eyed. “Defeated,” he finished.

Logan threw his cigar butt to the ground. “Damn. Now I need some wood to knock on. Let’s go get that firewood, Xavier; c’mon.”

“No.”

“Then at least stand the fuck up. You get frostbite on your ass - yeah, McCoy'll fix you up. But he'll take a picture and frame it. Blackmail, you know?”

Even though he felt sick to his stomach, Charles couldn’t help snorting out a laugh. Then he took Logan’s outstretched hand and got to his feet.

Logan let his hand drop, then looked at him intensely. “What do I gotta do to convince you, Xavier?”

“To convince me of the EBS’ greatness and benevolence?” Charles spat into the grass. “Build a time machine; send me back in it to Oxford a month ago, and leave me the fuck alone, maybe?”

Logan said nothing. Kept watching him.

Charles swallowed back the bitterness. “You can’t convince me, Logan. So … don’t try. I look at you and I see some enforcer that chases down children – I remember, you know: scream, baby, scream –

“Not my style, X man. Maybe other’s, not mine.” Logan’s voice was rough. “Angel and I are good now, anyway. She was lucky.”

“Lucky?” Charles laughed, half-choked with anger. “Lucky to be caught –”

“Lucky to be caught by us – and not the Free West.”

It was the gathering darkness, Charles told himself, that made goosebumps prickle down his neck, over his arms and back. “You know …” He kept his voice casual. “One of these days you’ll have to give me a bit more detail on the Free West. I’m too old for the monster-under-the-bed trick.”

“You got a book, right?”

Charles snorted.

“I’m serious: take a good long look at that book, Xavier.” A flash of teeth. “Or can’t you motherfucking read?”

“Oh, shut up –” but: “I knew it!” Logan crowed. “Knew all those big-ass books were just for show. Come on X – get your firewood before it gets too dark – I’ll race you.”

------------------------

Logan had distracted him deliberately, Charles acknowledged, washing his dinner plate in the sink. Perhaps he was more perceptive than he appeared. He put the plate and silverware away. The scrape and clink was all the more noticeable in the kitchen’s utter silence.

The children’s absence felt like a physical ache.

Charles left the kitchen, holding his bundle of firewood under one arm; shoving the other hand in a trouser pocket. Then he winced, drawing the left hand out. The veil had worked – all day, he thought, with a flash of pride – and the swelling had abated somewhat, but the skin around the nailbed was an angry blue and purple. Well. He would treat it with the first aid kit tonight. And do the same tomorrow.

He walked down the dormitory hallway. No scampering of the children; no slamming doors or calling voices. Where were they right now? What were they thinking? Ororo and Bobby would be calm, Charles decided; John would be alternately excited and aggressive. Of all the four, Sean was the most likely to be frightened – to be crying himself to sleep that night. He was the youngest, after all …

… and Charles tried Sean's door; blinked when it opened easily. The room looked like a squirrel’s nest. There were clothes scattered on the floor. Charles sniffed the air and grimaced wryly: some of the clothes were obviously cleaner than others. Oxford or Ithaca, the Kingdom of Britain or the EBS … children were children, it would seem ...

His eyes caught on a flash of gold paper on the rickety bedside table. He didn’t have to cross the room, or even enter, to know what it was. Sean’s chocolate. He had left without it. No, Charles corrected himself, angrily, Sean had been taken away without it –

“Hey, X man.” Logan’s voice, behind him; a long arm reached past and pulled shut the door to Sean’s room. “Not your turf.”

Charles gave a sullen shrug; trailed along in Logan’s wake. Perhaps with the children gone, he thought, he felt more like a surly adolescent than he otherwise would have – wait – no. Not all the children were gone – Jean was still there, and –

– and Logan was taking firewood into her room. Charles dumped his armload by the fireplace in his own room and then walked right in behind. Whatever Logan had said about not mistreating children – he, Charles, would watch over Jean and make sure that what he had said was true.

He watched Logan build a fire, keeping his own arms crossed over his chest. His movements were brisk, efficient. Jean was barely visible in her bed, curled up unmoving beneath blankets.

He saw Logan fidget more and more, until: “Damn it, Xavier,” he growled, lighting the tinder, fanning flames over the kindling – glaring at Charles. “What kind of sicko do you think I am?”

“Your thought, not mine.”

“Whatever, bub. You’d rather I stroll on off without helping a sick kid?”

“You could help her by stopping – whatever’s happening to her.”

“If I could, don't you think I would have already?"

The fire crackled into the silence. Charles watched Logan rise to his feet and dust off his hands. “Damn, I wish my girl was here. She could fix up Jean in a second.”

“I would think Archangel’s blood would be a better idea.”

Logan's lips thinned. "Hell, no. Big op coming up, we have to hang onto that shit. But I’m here, and if I had Marie with me, she could heal her, double-time. Suck out my mojo and give it to the kid –”

Charles raised his eyebrows at Logan. “You do know how that sounds, don’t you?”

“Your thought, not mine.” He walked to the door. “And I’ll have you know: my baby can take my power – anyone’s power – take it and do what she wants with it. She’s good. She’s really good. And she’s almost as soft on kids as you, so she’d do it no questions asked.”

He leaned against the heavy door and motioned Charles out with a jerk of his thumb. Charles gritted his teeth but obeyed. “Where is she now?”

“Marie?” Logan closed the door – making an effort to keep it quiet, Charles noticed. “St. Louis. She’s got a standing gig in Denver. Drawing down their telepath, bit by bit.” He walked to Charles’ door. “Maybe I’ll get to introduce you guys, sometime. I think you’d like her.”

Then he stopped, and pointed.

Charles stared at Logan, then stared at his door. He blinked, thoughts racing …

Racing so quickly that he hardly sensed Alex walk down the hallway to meet them. “Hey, kid,” Logan said, quiet, and: “Hey.” Alex looked miserable, but muttered at Logan: “Did you tell him yet?”

“Nope.” Logan moved the finger he was pointing, to jab Charles in the shoulder. “You see what that is, Xavier?”

Charles’ tongue felt thick in his mouth. He managed to say: “A bolt.”

And it was: a steel bolt - a heavy silver slash at eye level on his door.

“Yep. And just in case you didn’t get the memo, you stay. In. Your. Room. At night. X. Clear?”

Fury was making his head swim, but: “Yes.”

“Good. You want a fire, Xavier?” Logan tossed a lighter from palm to palm. “Better put it together quick.”

“You can take your fire,” Charles said, quietly, “and shove it up your arse.”

A long, frigid pause, and then: “Not my style,” Logan drawled. “Right. Get in.”

Charles stomped into his room; Alex shut the door with a thump.

“Keep it down, bub –” Logan’s voice, muffled through the wood, was irritable. “Jean’s sleeping. And Xavier –” he raised his voice enough to carry. “I know you’re listening. Bring that map tomorrow – and if you’re thinking about getting back at me, don’t think you can do it by playing stupid, yeah? Bring some good ideas; help the kids get home safe. ‘N sleep well.”

Logan wasn’t mocking him, Charles realized, distantly, as he heard the lock click and the bolt slide home. He was gruff and sarcastic, but – as far as Charles could tell – he seemed to think that life could be boiled down into simple formulae. Action, reaction. Rule breaking, punishment. The cause was just; the EBS was the best of all evils in an evil, twisted world; Logan was dedicated to safeguarding the children and achieving victory over the Free West …

Or he was just completely and thoroughly brainwashed. 

Charles went through the motions of his nightly routine; this time in the dark. He gave his teeth a cursory brush, splashed water on his face, and got into bed fully dressed. He shivered only once before clamping down ruthlessly. He had rejected a fire; he wouldn’t notice the cold. Any response to his own actions he would take upon himself.

Yes, he would accept their responses to his actions … Charles traced the unfeeling metal ring in the darkness. He would curb his behavior, somewhat – be more covert – to ensure that he stayed alive. But … and Charles made his resolve just as cold as the night air. He would keep track of all the pain, all the punishment, all the petty cruelties and injustices.

If he were vindictive, he would resolve to make the EBS pay for every single one of them. As it was, he would watch, and keep track, and plan. Not for himself, though. Charles swiped at his eyes with his right hand, not his left - avoiding the cold touch of the ring.

No, not for himself. He would plan for the children. He had promised to protect them, before they had been taken away ...

And if he could, Charles thought, staring into the darkness ... If only he could: he would send all of his power flying south and west, like birds before winter - flying to find the children, to keep them safe. To see them safely home.

Chapter Text

My eyes …

Charles heard his own voice – low and soft, a sensual caress. I’ve been told they’re very beautiful …

They are. You are … Warm, strong hands framing his face … so beautiful … you – let me – will you –

And Charles heard himself gasp, felt the arch of his own back, up up into the tense thrumming heat of the man’s body against his own – taut and strong, pushing him back against the wood and iron of the door. You’re beautiful– a rasp, and then he felt something wet and hot trailing over his neck – oh, Charles thought, dreamily: the mark from the chain – the chain of my watch – the man was licking it, daubing his tongue over it like an animal – and Charles heard a high-pitched whimpering sound – oh, that’s me – as the heat moved to his Adam’s apple, as the man mouthed at it, then growled.

His own whimpers were changing to delirious moans as the man’s growl vibrated through Charles’ entire body, where he was pressed against all that coiled and predatory strength. Charles tossed back his head, felt his skull hit the wood with a gentle thunk as steel-strong fingers took hold of his chin, as that mouth brushed the hollow of his cheek and pressed into the hinge of his jaw – Charles was writhing, caught so close and trying to get closer and he felt – wet and hot and he was, oh, he was going to –

And Charles sat up in bed, gasping.

He could only just see his breath, wisps of white rapidly dissolving, in the chill of the room. “Shite, shite, shite,” and he kicked the pile of blankets and clothes away from him … and … “Fuck.”

So to speak, his mind observed.

Charles stumbled out of bed, stomach knotted tight. Shivering, he pulled the bedclothes off, dragged them to the tub and set the water running as cold as it could go.

It was cold, so cold in his bathroom, but: good, Charles thought, desperately. Anything to emphasize to his body that: no, nocturnal emissions concerning a sadistic bestial madman were not appropriate –

“Although technically,” he said into the chilly air, “it’s morning. So. Not quite nocturnal –” His own half-hysterical snicker cut off the would-be joke – for one horrible second, Charles thought the laughter would change to tears, or hiccups. But: no. He hadn’t regressed quite that far into adolescence – at least, not yet.

“That bastard. This is – the body reacts to stress in different ways,” he heard his own voice, in a tinny parody of lectures long given to his own students, “some less obvious than others. And – no sex in a month, so … this is normal – if somewhat … bizarre.”

I’m not crazy, he thought wildly, I’m not. “No sex in a month – a month and a half,” he corrected himself. Not since mid-August … a wild night at the Rose in Bloom after the yearly meeting of the Oxford and Cambridge teachers. Charles remembered it well. The last, he had thought, drowsing the next morning in the summer sun, sending warm and languid pulses of his power to tease away the remnants of his hangover. The last, until after the Takers have come and gone. Focus on Raven, now, he had told himself. You can survive for three weeks.

“You can survive,” Charles mumbled. “If you had only known just what you’d have to survive –”

He dragged his mind back to the problem at hand. So to speak, his mind added, helpfully, and: “Shut up,” he growled. So: sex. Reverting to a schoolboy, sheepishly cleaning his own sheets the next morning … except at present he was less sheepish and more horrified. But it was normal – “normal,” Charles repeated, desperate, when the only adult physical contact he had had in a month and a half had been Logan shoving him around playfully; McCoy helping him to a cot when he had felt ill -

– the man’s mouth pressed against the hollow of his cheek: thin lips moving and a whisper of hot breath – You have a metal filling on the upper left side of your mouth – here and a wet flick of tongue –

“No,” he gasped. Charles buried his right hand in his own hair, pulled until he felt his scalp tingle. “Stop it.”

The memories subsided.

Charles clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering, went to the bathroom door and leaned against the frame. Dim light filtered in through the high arrow windows; it shone pale and wan over the dirty firewood he had left in a pile on the hearth, over the clothes on his bed – now scattered every which way …

It had been so cold in the middle of the night, Charles remembered, that he had emptied his wardrobe again, piled all his clothes on top of himself. He had stripped to keep from sweating too much, and had snuggled down to sleep like a mouse in its winter nest. And he had slept so well, it would seem, that the mouse had thought to spice things up by dreaming its way into a slow and sensual tryst with a god damned snake.

Charles wheeled on one foot and walked back to the bathtub. Then, before he could change his mind, he dunked his head under the frigid cascade of water.

Ow, ow – hell,” he gasped, but it had worked. Just as insurance, he grabbed one of the sheets from the tub and dragged it over his chest, down his body. The cold made his eyes sting and his skin crawl, but he scrubbed away – everything. He scrubbed until he was clean again. “Right. Problem solved.”

He shoved the sheet back underwater, turned off the faucet, and stepped to the sink. In the mirror, his eyes were blue and staring.

very beautiful

“More importantly,” Charles said to himself, white-faced in the mirror, “they’re mine, and they’re going to stay in my head. Focus on that, why don’t you.”

He stared for another long moment. He hadn’t shaved – or been shaved – since his stay in the infirmary a week past. Charles sighed. He hardly cared for the patches of ginger that would come in, erratically – he had never kept them around long enough to see if they would develop into a beard. So now he looked even more like an adolescent. Damn it. Perhaps, he thought, rubbing his left hand over the scraggle on his chin, they would let him have a razor? Charles snorted. Doubtful. Perhaps Logan would lend him one, even if only for ten minutes –

The ring brushed his skin of his jaw.

And Charles froze, eyes widening, as he caught a whiff of the scent on his left hand –

Without stopping to think, he grabbed the soap and turned the hot water tap. Soap, a lot of it, and quickly, and he wouldn’t have to smell – Charles gritted his teeth, scrubbing away the feel and the smell of his own come, on his left hand, which meant that if the man could sense the metal of the ring, he could very well have –

“No,” Charles whispered, fiercely. Then he scooped up water in his cupped palms. Washed the hollows and contours of his face and the line of his neck. “He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t possibly do that.”

His fingers caught on an angle of cheekbone … one somewhat sharper than before. Charles swallowed, looking in the mirror. He watched water trickle down his face, drip from his jaw. He was still losing weight.

“Bloody hell, who cares?” he breathed. He ran one hand through his hair, standing it on end. “Shirt. Clothes. Now.”

Because he was not going back to sleep; not that morning, at least. “Happy god damned October,” he snarled at the clothes on his bed, before throwing them back into the wardrobe in a fit of foul temper.

------------------------

Charles had been considering the map of Dallas in the morning light for at least fifteen minutes. Angel had not yet knocked on the door – so, he reflected, sharpening the pencil with his right thumbnail, it was earlier than he had first thought. For the thousandth time, he regretted the loss of his watch – then he sighed, and put his regrets away.

His bad temper hadn’t lasted – especially in the face of the useful pain that had flared from his left thumb, when he had dipped the nail bed in rubbing alcohol and bandaged it all up tight. Placing a veil around it had been easy in comparison. Then Charles had carefully sequestered the memories of his dream; he was not going to think about anything, now, except strategy. 

Because … and Charles chewed his lower lip, squinting down at the map. Because Logan had said something interesting, the previous evening. Bring some good ideas; help the kids get home safe. It seemed that even if EBS command did not trust the source, they – she – would still make quick and efficient use of any decent strategy brought to their attention. The idea to steal the nuclear device … implemented within twenty-four hours of his broaching it …

“Maybe they’re desperate,” he said, snide, but his mind replied: Or maybe they know how good you are.

“Best prove it, then.” Charles jotted a note in a margin. For it was true: a good strategy would help the children. The faster the EBS made with their petty victory over the Free West, the faster Ororo and Bobby, John and Sean could come home.

“Home …” He tugged a spare sweatshirt tighter around his neck – it was still chilly. And it was strange, to call such a place ‘home’.

He hardly ever thought of his own home, from before the war. A renowned diplomat for a mother; an amiable and harmless inebriate for a father … and a mansion in the country. Estate, he corrected himself, smiling wryly. The Xavier family – an old and honored one, with a name highly esteemed and traded upon … His smile faded. Much good it had done them. His mother and father had been visiting London, his mother to speak to Parliament, his father to meet friends. He himself had been still excited about his new rooms at Oxford, when he had kissed his mother goodbye that morning … and the first bombs had fallen shortly after noon …

Charles remembered crying – jagged, wrenching sobs. Twelve years old, being bundled into a fallout shelter. Pressed against all the sharp planes and angles of older students: some laughing hysterically; others trying to keep order; still others completely shitefaced. The smell of alcohol, of vomit, the sound of shouts and hoarse curses, the hot runnel of his tears down his own face …

He had been weeping for his pet rabbit. Of all things.

Charles closed his eyes, remembering. Twelve years old. He hadn’t even considered that his parents were already dead – incinerated – when he had tugged at a proctor’s hand, desperately, and told him he wanted to go home, to find his pet rabbit. To keep her safe.

But the proctor had been weeping, too. And hadn’t answered him.

Charles couldn’t recall that man’s name, he realized, as he opened his eyes and stared up at the arrow windows. A weedy but inoffensive chap – killed in the first gang attack two months later. One burst of fire from an AK-47, and Charles, watching from the rough new perimeter wall, barbed wire and concrete, had seen the man’s gut explode into mincemeat. Oxford had plenty of antibiotics in those early days, so it had taken the proctor two weeks to die.

Charles shook the memories away. At least his parents had died quickly. He had figured it out afterwards – half past noon, and his mother would have been in an anteroom preparing for her speech. Parliament had been near the epicenter – she would have been vaporized by the first bomb. And his father had loved her … He would not have missed her speech. He had never missed a single one, drunk or sober.

Two dead parents; one looted and burned estate; one dead rabbit. Or: three, if he counted the rabbit’s kits, which he usually didn’t. “Well.” Charles flicked eraser leavings off the map. “Rest in peace.” Pets and families … children and parents …

He had never asked, he realized with a wince, whether or not the children here had families. Relatives who worried about them, actual homes to visit … except – no, the EBS surely would not allow any leave to do so. “Can’t have the brainwashing interrupted, can we?” He jabbed the pencil viciously; it left a hole in the fragile paper.

Charles sighed. Then he bent to retrieve the children’s book – Freedom Rising! – and started folding the map, to place it back inside. He finished folding; then looked at the cover.

“Might as well.”

He opened the book.

Freedom Rising! The Story of the Free West blared from the title page. And there was that bizarre orange eagle, spreading its wings wide over a fire, and: “Oh,” Charles grunted, disgustedly. “They think it’s a phoenix.” The iconography was all wrong. A child could create a better one – indeed, he realized, Jean had created a much better version of the immortal bird … embroidered in red and gold, on her white robe within dreams.

He turned the page. “Dedicated,” he read, “to all Free victims of all wars, and to all Humans, everywhere.” Charles felt his brow knit. “Charming.”

At first he merely skimmed the pages. It seemed to be a standard child’s primer of American history: the Revolutionary War; the Civil War; noble presidents and stern generals with all their accoutrements. The illustrations, he conceded, were very well done. Much more convincing than the cover.

Then the first and second World Wars – America fought for freedom, against the Evils of Fascism and Communism; and against the Mutants.

Charles felt his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. Mutants had not been known anywhere until the year after the first bomb had fallen. That horrible summer of 1951 … when the Weathermaker had revealed himself and brought a month of much-needed rain to Ethiopia. He was alive and revered today … but why rewrite history?

America won two Great Wars. And then the Reds began the Third.

Debatable, Charles’ inner historian observed, even as he paused to take in the artist’s gorgeous interweaving of red, orange, and yellow. Subtle shades, vivid colors, depicting the fire of nuclear war. Because of the breakdown of communication systems – which had indeed exacerbated initial confusion and triggered more attacks – nobody possessed any record of what had happened in late November, on what had been the Korean peninsula. It was quite clear that the Soviet Union had touted the necessity as propaganda; had worked feverishly, night and day, to construct a nuclear bomb; had detonated their first on 29 August 1949 – even as the United States had been stockpiling more and more of their own.

What was unclear was: how, exactly, the Soviets had obtained enough fissile material to respond with the force that … well. Charles stared at the lurid illustration, brooding. Had it been the Soviets, who had responded? Or the Chinese, who had launched their own offensive into Korea in October 1950? Or … and Charles knew some historians who were convinced of the most awful hypothesis – had it been friendly fire? An American bomb, misdirected straight into the United States’ Eighth Army, on the banks of the Ch’ongch’on River … 25 November 1950 …

Whatever the origin of the first bomb, enough had followed suit to decimate Korea. And then, as the world had reeled in shock – as the speeches had begun, as the fallout had crept east to Alaska … somehow, America and the Soviet Union had deployed enough nuclear bombs to eradicate most major cities on both continents. With plenty left over, Charles remembered bleakly, for terrorists to steal and detonate in other major cities, all around the world. “No sense in making it invitation-only,” he sighed, and: “Poor Mum.” That had been his mother’s intended speech: a plea for Britain’s intervention – calling on “a voice of sanity to calm the world …” And full insanity had descended in a rain of fire, and Britain’s revels then were ended.

But no historian knew how it had been accomplished – how such an extraordinary amount of weaponry had even been produced. And due to failures in record-keeping, breakdown of governments worldwide, and the normal backstabbing and secrecy amidst intelligence agencies … it seemed that none would ever know.

Charles shook off his grim thoughts, and returned to the book.

For many long years, the American People suffered. Cities were drowned; farmlands were burned. Traitors and Mutants came into the land, and the Reds invaded the East.

“What?” He felt baffled. “What on earth …”

Nothing he had seen of the EBS – admittedly, little enough so far – nothing had indicated that it was a Soviet colony of any sort. The children’s book was making no sense.

Patriots from the East traveled West. President Stryker was elected freely. The Free West was born: and all began to fight the Mutants of the East – to fight for peace and freedom.

“Bully for you,” Charles muttered.

Here are the Protectors. Here are the Heroes. Here are those who fight for you.

And this picture was a strange blend of the totalitarian and the charming. A stocky man with a goatee extended his arms in benevolence. Dozens of tiny figures surrounded him: generals and builders, policemen and athletes, doctors and scientists … pretty much every profession, Charles noted, except for the arts. All men, though. Strange.

He turned the page and read:

President Stryker protects you. The Free Army protects you. They will defend the Free West!

There, in perfect formation across the double-page spread, marched dozens of soldiers. Charles touched a finger to the smiling mothers watching them; traced it across the rows of rosy-cheeked, beaming children. They were all waving flags.  

And there was Stryker, saluting the army. Charles flicked his eyes to the bottom of the page, and read:

The President and the Free Army fight for you. They will defend you. They will protect you from all of the Mutants.

Charles turned the page. And sucked in a breath, despite himself, at the horrible beauty of the illustrations.

They will protect you from the White Queen.

“Oh …” He stared at the image. 

A woman, gorgeous and glittering in white, sat on a diamond-cut throne – all angles and light. The design was very cleverly done – beautiful and terrible at the same time … It was as clear, glowing and lovely as a stained glass window.

“Perhaps it’s Frost,” Charles murmured – and his intuition flared into certainty. Of course it was Frost. The greatest threat to the Free West – enthroned in diamond majesty. Although – “Dear, dear,” he mocked, “the company you keep.”

For Frost’s pristine beauty on one page faced the sheer ugliness of – something, on the other. Above it, the words:

They will protect you from Erik the Red.

A black shadow outlined in crimson – lean and savage, brandishing two rather ridiculous – swords? Knives? Could it be Logan, perhaps? Erik Logan – a strange name, but Charles had heard stranger ...

Except: “No,” he thought aloud. The blades were gripped in hands, not springing from knuckles.

And besides, the monster had no face. Just angled shadows in the place of features. The background was quite well done, though – a bizarre, twisting interplay of silver and black and red. The chessboard in the library, Charles thought – it would look similar, with blood spattered on it. He grimaced and turned the page.

And then he swallowed as he read: The Mutants will be defeated. The Mutants will be destroyed.

He peered at scores of individuals in miniature, intricately drawn. All sizes, all shapes – some with wings, some with different colored skin and fur and scales – his mind flashed to Raven and he shivered.

And all of those mutants faded into grey shadow as they ran across the bottom of both pages – ran from soldiers of the Free Army, also in miniature … Like stained glass turned alive, but running straight into white nothingness on the right margin.

Charles turned the page. Almost the end, thank god. As far as artistic standards for propaganda, the book was quite well done – but it was propaganda, and his stomach churned at the idea of a child reading it. Looking at it … Hearing a teacher read it aloud …

The Free West will have victory! The Free West will reclaim America – and all Humans will live together in freedom and in peace. There was a beautifully detailed rendition of a city on a mountain – green grass, white snow, and a blue sky.

All that was missing was a rainbow.

Charles slapped the book shut, lip curling. The little children’s primer told far more than one might expect – at least, to those who had an eye for subtext. Logan had made a good point – again. Charles drummed his fingers on the cover. It would not do to underestimate that one. For all his cigars, and all his bluster, he displayed flashes of a canny intelligence.

And – “Finally,” Charles breathed. There were Angel’s footsteps. Hurried, urgent –

Tap tap tap

“Mr. Xavier?” Her voice was uneasy. “Can you –” the bolt clacked, a rattle of key in lock and the door opened. “Can you come help me? Please?”

Charles shoved the map inside the book and left both on his bed. “Of course, Angel – what is it?”

“It’s Jean.”  

Charles kept his footsteps quiet as he walked out of his room; followed Angel into Jean's. He knelt at Jean’s side, frowning. She was lying curled up, unmoving. Sweat was damp on her forehead.

Angel had continued: “She won’t get up, and – and she really needs to start eating again.” She bit her lower lip. “There are things that are going to happen – coming down the pipe … and she needs to get her strength back. She’s important.” 

“And what do you want me to do?”

“Mr. Xavier … You helped me, after Lady Frost took away my quince. It hurt, you know – what she did. It burned. But after you had gone, all the pain had gone too.” She hesitated. “Can’t you do that for Jean?”

Charles grimaced. “Not without asking her permission.”

A flash of a smile, but Angel’s eyes were sad. “I know how seriously she takes that; yeah. But … McCoy says that he doesn’t have any stronger pills – for her headaches, I mean. Nothing that would leave her conscious. And she hurts so much, Mr. Xavier – can’t you do something?”

Charles took in a deep breath. Then released it. “Let me try." 

He sank to his knees next to Jean’s fireplace, then sat down in the ashes on the hearth. Folded his hands over his brow and relaxed. His mind, focusing, caught the details of Jean’s room in sudden brilliant clarity: same wardrobe, same bed frame, same blankets as the rest of them – same bookshelf … but on that bookshelf rested: a few battered plastic horses; a Rubik’s cube; Jean’s child-sized candle holder, its delicate iron loops glinting; a glass jar full of marbles, sparkling in the morning light …

Charles sighed, remembering Raven and her marble collection. Her favorite cats-eye: blue, cracked across one side. And thinking of Raven, he called one up, made it gentle as a dove, and sent it soaring over Jean’s mind – circling on an curiously warm eddy –

Jean …

There was no response: only an unpleasant, prickling sensation – like static shock on a winter day.

Jean. It’s Mr. Xavier. He smiled to himself; let his thoughts reflect the smile. Sir Charles, of the Order of the Coffee Pot. Are you there?

And all of a sudden the cold white conch shell appeared, looming up out of grey static. Charles felt an immediate shiver of unease; he could not say why. Perhaps because it felt, oddly, as though the shell were edged in electricity.

Are you there, Jean?

Then he heard a faint voice. Yes.

… May I speak with you?

The voice sounded slightly warmer. Yes.

I’m here in your room, with Angel. Will you open your eyes and come down to breakfast? I’ve missed having breakfast with you.

A pause. Then: It hurts.

What hurts?

The shell thrummed, strangely; Charles called the raven away from it; the bird beat a quick and silent retreat.

My mind. My head. My thoughts.

He cast about for a solution. If you like, Jean – I could send this bird along with you, today … You see? He made the raven glitter, black and fine and sharp against a mental representation of the sun. I might be able to take some of the hurt away, as it happens to you.

Another long pause. It was almost as though Jean were deliberating. And then:

No, Mr. Xavier. But thank you. I’m waking up now.

Charles felt his eyes snap open as the bird fluttered out of Jean’s mind. For a brief second, it had been burned into his retina with a hoarse croak - a strange aftereffect. Charles shook his head. It was absurd, at that moment, to remember the folk rhyme his sister was forever chanting – numbering her namesake, telling the future. One for bad news. Bad news … What was being done to Jean?

Jean, who was sitting up in her bed. Watching him solemnly.

“Oh good – there you are, sweetie!” Angel reached the bed in two long strides and plucked Jean out of her cocoon of sheets. “Ándale – let’s get you clean clothes and breakfast, O.K.?” She hustled the child to the wardrobe. “Can you go make breakfast please, Mr. Xavier?”

“Of course,” Charles murmured, and slipped away down the hall.

He blinked at the coals in the wood stove. Stoking them took more than a moment – a practical reason to regret John’s being away. Quickly, he made the cheese and raisin melt that Jean had so loved his first morning here. No coffee, again; Charles grimaced and brewed them both a cup of chamomile tea instead.

Angel came in and set Jean on one kitchen bench. “I’ll be back pretty soon – running late, this morning. Eat up, Jean.” She gave the bread an impish smile. “And thanks for that, Mr. Xavier.”

Charles blinked as the door shut behind her. Then he looked back at Jean.

She was looking up at him, grey eyes wide and stark against her pale face. And there … there was an image of Ororo Bobby John Sean – the four of them tugging what looked like a jar of jam – back and forth, back and forth. Laughing hysterically, and loudly ... at least – that was what Charles assumed. For the thought was silent. Silent, washed in the patina that he knew meant memory … and framed by: Gone?

He met Jean’s solemn stare, and nodded.

Her lower lip wobbled; her eyes filled with tears.

“Hush – shhh, now,” Charles reached out his hands, took one of Jean’s and pressed her fingers. “They’ll be all right. They’ll come back – don’t worry, don’t be sad –”

He had always felt a wrenching helplessness when Raven wept as a child; this was even worse, since he saw Jean’s tears on her face and in her mind, falling in an dark violet patter on the frame: gone.

“Jean.” He swallowed. “You have to take care of yourself. Eat your food, drink your tea.”

What could he do? What could he do - to help her stop crying, to get her to eat? To keep her safe, his mind whispered: and Charles, acting on instinct, spoke.

“Eat your food, Jean. And leave the others to me. I’ll figure out something – a plan – to bring them back.”

A flash of brilliant gold from her mind – and he yelped as he heard, ringing through his thoughts: You will?!

“Yes.” Charles covered his daze in a fierce smile. “But I need to have energy to do it, so I have to eat –” he grabbed his bread, and waggled his eyebrows. “And that means … I’ll race you!”

Jean’s eyes were brilliant as she tore into her own slice. No need for good manners, Charles thought, but then: “Just – careful, Jean, be careful. Chew and swallow.” He hid a grin as he watched her slurp her tea, cram more food into her mouth, and start chewing like a woodchuck.

When Frost reached out with her morning wake-up call – much more powerful, this time; almost like an icy slap – he gritted his teeth and threw a veil over Jean's mind, so she would only feel the smallest touch of pain. Just enough to let Frost – the White Queen, he thought, bitterly – know that Jean was there.

And then … drinking his tea, watching her mouthfuls carefully, Charles let his small opponent win the breakfast race.

------------------------

Angel had collected Jean and gone; Charles had worked on a blueprint for what looked like a greenhouse all morning. Then Logan sauntered into the workroom, and Charles grabbed Freedom Rising from the table and took out the map.

“You like that book?” Logan grinned.

McCoy butted in: “Hard to believe people can swallow that tripe.”

“Indeed.” Charles gave them both a sharp smile. “But the illustrations are really quite well done. Does the EBS have a similar propaganda artist?”

“Why bother with 2-D when you can send dreams, Xavier? Dreams, visions, nightmares: in full and living Technicolor, brought to you by –”

“By Frost, I suppose.”

“Nah.” Logan pulled up a bench to the table, with a screech of metal on metal. “She’s got bigger fish to fry. Nope – we’ve got a few smaller-scale projectionists at the front. And Betsy. Gotta give the Free West’s telepath somethin’ to do when it’s not date night, yeah?”

Charles filed the information away in his mind; rolled his eyes for Logan’s benefit. The other man took Freedom Rising, though, and flipped through it – and held up the page starting Here are the Protectors. “You catch him, there, X man?”

“Who?”

“Their telepath.” A rough finger jabbed at the page. “See?”

Charles peered at the page. He felt his stomach twist.

There, in the center of a gently glowing circle, in a corner – to the upper right of the benevolent, over-sized President Stryker, was … what looked like … a torso? No, he corrected himself: a torso and a waist – but: “Where are the arms?” He heard his own voice, tense. “And legs?”

“Not deemed necessary. You don’t use it – you lose it, y’know?” Logan gave him a ghoulish grin. “There but for the grace of God, Xavier.”

His stomach rebelled, but: “God is dead,” Charles bit out, controlling himself. “Signed: Nietzsche.”

McCoy snorted. “Nietzsche is dead – signed: God.”

“Ha - nice one, Hank. You been saving that up for a while?”

McCoy had walked to Logan’s shoulder. “Who else here knows who Nietzsche is, huh?”

“Oh, another joke about how I am an Epic Dumbass – it makes me so sad to hear you say it,” Logan mocked. “C’mon, Xavier, let’s cook up some plans –”

“That’s not true.” Charles heard his own voice, shaking; he had interrupted Logan and he didn’t care. “They haven’t – not to their telepath. Tell me that it’s not true.”

The workroom fell almost silent. The only sound was the hiss of heat escaping from a radiator somewhere. Charles felt sweat pooling in the small of his back as he watched Logan and McCoy exchange long looks. Logan lifted his chin.

McCoy spoke. “It’s true, Mr. Xavier. They don’t – they only use a few of, um, of us. Mutants, you know? And only ones they know they can control.”

“There’s a camp outside Dallas, you know.” Logan’s voice was soft. “We take Dallas, we set them free.”

“Camp?” Charles’ lips were numb.

“Sleepaway Mutant Camp: Dallas Division. Come for the lanyards, stay for the genocide. Yep.” Logan rolled his shoulders; Charles saw muscles in his neck flex. “We think Stryker got the idea from Germany – he deployed to the Battle of the Bulge, you know, and saw the end of it all. Second World War.”

Charles’ mind brought up the exposés, the newspaper articles, the Nuremberg Trials … he had only been seven, but all the images lingered. Then, of course, the third war had charred the world and the history books on all wars previous had been closed.

“So he’s not …” He took a calming breath; closed the children’s book with a whup; stared at the map. “He’s not the commander you had mentioned, on Monday. You had said – that commander was in the Pacific Theatre, in World War Two.”

“Good memory,” Logan said. He gave Charles a fierce smile. “And yes. Our man in Dallas is MacMurphy. A great strategist at sea – but on land? Well. He’s been getting older, he’s been butting heads with Stryker, and – hell – he really, really deserves to die.”

“Why so?” Charles said, coolly. “And who are you to judge?”

“Why? ‘Cause he was the one to press the button on most of China Before, after Truman got assassinated.” Logan flexed his shoulders again; cracked his knuckles. “And I - and none other - am the one to judge, because I am an especially good judge of character, Mr. Xavier. Aren’t I, Hank?”

“Especially good,” McCoy murmured, not looking up from his blueprints.

“Thanks. And my especially good judgment is: MacMurphy is the mother of all douche-canoes. Thus: death,” Logan drawled. “Any other questions before we start?”

Charles sighed. “May I have a drink of water? It’s hot in here.” But at least, he told himself, you’re in control. None of the memories had resurfaced to trouble him that day. Perhaps, he thought with grim humor, it was due to that morning’s dream. And perhaps that was why he felt so parched.

“Oh.” Logan blinked. “Water – yeah, sure. I’ll go get you some.”

------------------------

The days passed, each one marching on the other’s heels, bringing similar routines. Charles took on Ororo’s responsibility of getting Jean prepared for each day. Their conversations at breakfast were all conducted telepathically; he watched her like a hawk for any sign of additional trauma. But her color was gradually returning … so perhaps whatever she was doing was … stopping? Charles didn’t know.

Every day, Logan spread out the map of Dallas and asked him a barrage of questions. Charles requested wind charts, the weather forecast up through the end of the month, population statistics and records of local superstitions – all to keep Logan talking, spilling crucial tidbits of information.

On one day: “So you see,” and he had pointed to the map. “A larger airport, however defunct, is the logical place to hide the most important aircraft. And I’d be willing to bet that the smaller, official airport will be the bait in a trap.”

“Huh,” Logan scribbled notes. “Interesting thought – file it under objective three, and we can send a few spies to case both joints twenty-four hours out …”

On another day: “There,” and Charles had pointed at another place. “Make a false feint towards the nuclear power plant or drop intelligence to that effect ahead of time. With the majority of the winds blowing to the north and northeast, any threat of a meltdown will make them panic. They’ll pile resources into defending it, and they’ll waste time ascertaining your plans for it – and all you have to do to achieve the same effect of force diffusion is: start a wildfire,” he traced a red line, “here. Southeast at forty-five degrees; and you’ll keep the forces at the plant separate from those in Dallas proper.”

“Fire'd have to be real damn big,” a mutter, but Charles made his reply brisk: “Put John and a few like him in a crop duster, and you’ll have it.”

And he turned his back, faking a cough, so Logan wouldn’t see him squeeze his eyes shut. Be safe, John. Be safe, be safe, be safe

“Objective one …” And Logan scribbled some more.

And on yet another day: “As regards objective four, the enemy commander –” Charles stifled a yawn. He had been putting himself through a strenuous routine of calisthenics each night – to stave off dreams. Combined with daily cold showers, it seemed to be working; the régime didn’t leave him feeling any better rested, though. “To assassinate MacMurphy, I’d recommend a sniper.”

"A sniper; huh." Logan raised an eyebrow. “Why not just poison him?”

“He’ll have a food taster." 

“Car accident?”

“Do you want to risk your operative, in the car with him?”

“Hm. ‘S all moot anyway, because the thing is, Xavier,” and Logan’s brow creased. “There’s been a little change in objective four. MacMurphy still has to die … but … Command wants him taken alive. Kill him on their own time, y’know? Squeeze some info out of him, take a few pics. Propaganda.” 

“Savage,” Charles muttered, but: “Fine. You’ll need to lure him to a remote area, and kidnap him,” his stomach twisted, “from there.”

“And how to lure him, you think?”

The idea came to him in a single flash: “The rumor of an important mutant, a powerful one.” Charles tried a shrug. “How old is this military telepath anyway?”

Logan looked at McCoy, who listening attentively to their discussion – as he had been over the entire week. McCoy thought, then said: “No older than thirty.”

“Hm. Well, if he’s truly just a limbless trunk,” Charles let his voice convey his distaste, “he cannot be in outstanding physical condition. I’d set up the rumor of another telepath, to lure MacMurphy to the remote location of its capture. After all, surely he’d love nothing more than to oust Stryker from leadership of the Free West – if they have been butting heads, as you say – and what better way to do that than by bringing in a defense weapon upgrade?”

“A telepath, huh?” Logan gave him a look, from beneath half-closed eyelids. “So to make the scenario as convincing as possible, we’d have to put that telepath on location … Huh. And which one do you suggest be the bait, Xavier? I wonder.”

Charles grinned. Hopeless, but it had been fun anyway. “Why: yours truly, of course.”

“So you could run off, yeah,” Logan said, rolling his eyes, and McCoy smiled ruefully. “You’d be caught before you made a mile.”

“No I wouldn’t.”

“Yes you would, X man; damn.” Logan got up and stretched. “Stupid-ass shit, running away. But speaking of running – we’ve been poking at these maps all week. Let’s go do fun things with guns, shall we?”

Charles looked at McCoy, who pulled a face. “You do that. I’ll clean up here.”

“C’mon, man.” Logan practically bolted for the door. “I got two rifles. What with the heat wave, we might get a rabbit or two, or somethin’ –”

Good idea, Charles thought, as he followed Logan outside. Hunting for food, after a few days of unseasonable warmth … it made sense. And it appeared to be necessary. For the third day in a row the bread had had weevils in it and the cheese had tasted sour. It had been difficult to persuade Jean to eat. Charles took the rifle that Logan tossed to him; deliberately distracted himself by checking its action. It would not do to think: how would they survive a six-month post-nuclear winter, if their food was going bad not a week into it?

“Now don’t you go shooting me, Xavier,” Logan sing-songed. “You remember what happened last time you did, right?”

“How could I forget?” Charles muttered. “Besides, I’d rather shoot …” he stretched out a billiard-ball thought, flattened it into a net. Stretched it, spread it, threw it …

There. One bright flicker of consciousness, deep in the woods to his left. “A deer. Ten o’clock … maybe half a mile in?”

Logan was staring at him, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. Charles smirked at him.

He made no other reply than to shut his mouth with a snap, and huff: “Telepathic party tricks. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Then try to keep up,” Charles said with a smile, and set off running as quietly as he could.

------------------------

He had a good build for hunting – lithe for silent running, light for careful stalking – and after only fifteen minutes, he took the deer with one shot to the heart.

Charles spared a moment to thank the animal - for its beauty, for its clean leap out of the thicket into his rifle's sight – and to hope that its death had been clean as well. It seemed to have been. And that was important; at least, according to how he had been taught.

A particular hunting culture had emerged in Oxford after the war: one of economy of resources and respect for the actual act, with or without rituals attendant upon it. It really wasn’t surprising, given that it was a bunch of academics doing the hunting in the first place. The one ardent classicist left on staff had had Diana and Actaeon tattooed on her back - after she had taken the first bear of winter, beating the most arrogant of her male fellows to the kill.

In any case, Charles had learned how to hunt, and how to hunt well; and it gave him a twist of satisfaction to see how thoroughly he had surprised Logan.

Logan had stared at the deer, where it lay weltering in its crimson blood. He had looked oddly ravenous – and his strange metal claws had come out of one hand with a shink, and: “Oi,” Charles had said, sharply. “Stop right there. We need to check its rad level. The last thing I want is to eat a liver full of plutonium.”

“Part of a complete and balanced breakfast,” Logan had snickered, but: “Fine.” He hoisted the deer onto one shoulder. “We’ll set up shop in the stable.”

The stable turned out to be a roughly-hewn stone building, set in a clearing deep in the woods. Perfectly ordinary, except for the absent horses; the missing leather, straw and hay, and … Charles shivered, skin prickling. And the lack of any sign that it had ever been used as a stable in the first place.

Logan flicked a few switches on a rusty panel, and electric lights crackled on. There were several rooms on the ground level, and a flight of rickety stairs going up to an attic. Each room had a drain in the center, and a floor set at a slope. And … each ceiling sported one bare lightbulb, controlled by the panel outside ... and several hooks - some with chains dangling. Charles caught a glimpse of a few pairs of gleaming pliers, in one room, before he slammed the door shut.

He did not want to catch any echo of any thought that had drifted through the stable recently. So Charles deliberately muted all of his power as Logan slung the deer from a hook, unsheathed his claws, and went to work. Those claws were capable of surprisingly delicate cuts. Charles watched, jaw set, for a few long moments; then checked in the attic, found a bucket, filled it at the pump outside the stable, and worked on sluicing away the blood.

After the fourth bucket, Logan paused to think. “Huh. With it being warmer like this – even for winter … well. I can’t be sure this meat’ll freeze solid outside, overnight. Tell you what. I’ll drop some off for you in your kitchen, and send McCoy to check it. Then I’ll get the rest to a freezer downstairs, and you’ll have it the next few weeks – if the rad levels check out, that is. O.K.?”

“Downstairs?” Charles asked, and: “Need-to-know basis,” was the only reply.

“Right.” He watched the steam rising from the blood on the floor. Then, fetching another bucketful of water, he had a sudden thought; Logan had looked so hungry … So, back inside, pouring out the water over the stone floor, he kept his voice casual. “Don’t you want any venison? If the rad levels check out, that is?”

A long pause. Then Logan said, gruffly: “Nah.”

“You’re not fooling me, you know. You looked like you were going to go for a bite when it was still draped over a stump.”

“Maybe so, Xavier – but you shot it. It’s yours. Yours and Jean’s, if you want to share – but you don’t share with me. Students get first dibs on the food – that’s the rules.” He flicked a forearm over his brow. “’Cept for Lady Frost, of course.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Charles muttered. Then: “Wait …” He frowned. “Truly? I assumed that the opposite would be the case.”

“No.” The other man’s voice was fierce. “It’s hard enough for you all, here. I believe that, most of the others believe that. So the majority voted it in – and that’s how the rule came to be: students get first and best food. Period.”

“So if I haven’t had any coffee for the last week or so,” Charles breathed, and: “Shit – coffee?” Logan half laughed. “I’d crawl and beg for coffee, X man; hell, I’d bang Frost, and she could snap my dick off, no question. Here, hand me that bucket. Let me get you a steak or three.”

“I’ll rinse it out, first.” Charles went and did so, returned, and watched Logan make a few choice cuts.

“Right, let’s go.” He sheathed his claws, clapped one bloody hand on Charles’ shoulder and gave him the bucket. “I’ll get back here before the night is out. Where’d you put the guns?”

“Outside.”

Outside

Oh god … Charles thought to himself, numbly god.

He had had any number of chances to slip away, when he was filling and refilling the bucket at the pump. Run away with a gun, into the darkness of the woods. He might have been able to get to Syracuse before the sun had risen …

Logan sniffed the air. “Cold front’s coming,” he announced, picking up the rifles.

Perhaps you knew that, subconsciously, Charles’ mind whispered, anxious to reassure. You're staying for the children - you promised them, remember? 

But Charles set aside his own intelligence, his promises. He ignored Logan’s banter as they walked back. He felt numb, and removed – removed from everything but his realization, clear as the night sky:

This could have been his best chance at escape. Perhaps his only chance at escape. But whatever sort it had been - best or only ... he hadn’t thought to take it.

Chapter Text

McCoy had brought a strange piece of tech to the kitchen, after Charles had been only a few moments alone. “Bit of an improvement on the Geiger counter,” he had offered, without being asked. Then he had tested the meat and concluded: “Looks fine, Mr. Xavier.”

Charles had grunted, searching in the cupboards for what he needed. When he turned back, though, holding vinegar, oil, and a jar containing what looked like half-dried catsup … McCoy was still there.

His intuition flickered. “Would you like to stay?” Charles gave him a reassuring smile, reaching for a bowl from another cupboard. “There’s going to be plenty.”

“Um.” A bob of the throat, and McCoy had fixed one hand on his steel bracelet, stroking it. “I’m not really supposed to. Stay, I mean.”

“How long has it been, since you were a student here?”

A shrug. “Five years or so.” 

“You were – promoted, is it? You were promoted when you were fifteen?” 

“‘Sworn,’ really … but: yes.”

Charles mixed oil and vinegar, thinking quickly. The other seemed almost desperate to spill information – with a little judicious prodding, some reassuring words … “Then you’ve had many meals in this kitchen, haven’t you? Surely you can stay, for old times’ sake?” 

A pause. Then he heard McCoy’s soft laugh, almost sad. “I really … I don’t know.”

“Take a chance. It’s odd …” Charles frowned. “Usually the monitor swings back in the early evening – but I haven’t seen Angel yet. Nor Jean, for that matter.” He scraped some catsup flakes into the oil and vinegar. “Where could they be?”

“Tonight – um. Tonight is … pretty important, Mr. Xavier.”

All of Charles’ instincts caught at his tone, caught and flared. “Really?”

“Yeah.”

“And why might that be?”

McCoy hesitated – and then Charles cursed to himself, as Logan barged into the room. “There you are – c’mon, you know the rules. Move it, move it, move.”

Really, individuals’ comings and goings in this manor were all too fortuitous. Charles decided to seize the bull by the horns. “No,” he said, forcefully – “Stay.”

He didn’t think that he had wrapped the words in any power, so it was strange to see Logan blinking at him – hesitating? McCoy’s mouth was open; he shut it tight, but not before Charles saw him look beseechingly at Logan, those eyes wide behind his glasses – pleading … But then Logan’s face closed. Hiding his frustration, Charles turned away – another strategy, perhaps? Try for humor.

“I mean it.” He grabbed the venison, slapped it onto the kitchen’s one cast-iron skillet, poured the rudimentary marinade over it. “You both have been eying this meat like it’s ambrosia. And if Jean isn’t coming to dinner,” he bit back a stab of worry, “then I can hardly eat all of it by myself.”

A lie, he knew – Charles was pretty sure he could devour every scrap. But something was happening, that night, and he wanted to know what it was.

Take a risk.

“If it would be of any help,” he said quietly, “I could shield this memory from Frost.”

There was no mistaking the look the other two exchanged. “Really,” Logan said, dangerously; and McCoy’s voice wavered: “You’re kidding …”

“I’m tired of petty and stupid rules – those that say you can’t eat with someone of a different rank, for example.” Charles kept his tone low and even. “But who knows: a little latitude with the most pointless rules, and I might toe the line on the hard-and-fast ones.”

He raised his eyes from the meat. Logan’s face was stony; McCoy’s – worried. Damn. Oversharing hadn’t worked, nor had negotiation. Try outright sentimentality.

“I just wish … Logan? Hank? Please share this with me. I’d like to share it with you.”

Logan bit his lip. The indecision shading his features was so foreign to them that Charles had to keep his own carefully blank, to avoid showing his own thoughts: yes yes he’s bending he’ll break

“Of course, I do have an ulterior motive.” He flicked marinade off his fingers. “I need salt and pepper; some garlic and onions. Perhaps some Worcestershire sauce. And I have none.”

“Oh, we have salt and pepper,” McCoy said, quickly. “I’ll just go get them. And I’ll check for the others, too.”

And he ran out of the room.

“Nice job, Xavier.” Logan glowered.

Charles smiled at him. “What do you say?

Logan sighed.

Just one more push …

“Honestly, Logan? Of all the members of the EBS that I have met, I believe you the most likely to have a hip flask. And let me tell you: at this point, I would crawl across cut glass for even a drop of alcohol.”

It worked. Charles felt a fiery pulse of elation as Logan rolled his eyes to the ceiling and walked to the door. “Right, Xavier – back in five.”

“Oh,” Charles said urgently, “And could I borrow a razor, please? I look like – well. Like –”

“Like you got your breakfast on your face, yeah. Fine. Razor and booze.” A serious look. “Don’t make me regret trusting you."

Logan took one step, but then peered back over his shoulder. “And speaking of which: for the love of fuck –” his face split in a grin, “don’t set the place on fire.”

------------------------

Charles’ elation dimmed when he discovered that the main door was locked, firmly, with no way that it could be picked. Shite. Turning back, he gave himself a bitter smile – at least, this way, he could show that he was trustworthy. Damn Logan; damn them all …

And he only just made it back into the kitchen before McCoy returned, bearing pepper – “We’re out of salt, Mr. Xavier; sorry –” and onions and garlic. So Charles set his frustration aside, and focused on making the venison taste as interesting as he could given the ingredients at hand. He brewed tea; set three cups on the table. Finally, as Logan returned and folded himself onto the bench, Charles took the razor he held out, poured some hot water into a bowl, and – sighing blissfully, despite himself – shaved with the kitchen soap. 

“Looks better already,” McCoy offered, and: “Huh. Not that big a challenge. Oh, Xavier?” Logan gave him a mocking smirk, and put a finger on his own stubbly chin. “You missed a spot.”

Charles rinsed the razor, set it out to dry and made his way to the stove. “I wouldn’t talk if I were you.”

“Oh, I’m hurt,” Logan whined. “Besides, this?” He ran a palm along one sideburn. “This needs a god damned lawn mower to keep in any sort of order. So cut me some slack."

"Consider it cut.” Charles gave the two of them the rest of the bread from the box, while waiting for the built-up fire to produce a good bed of coals. Logan and McCoy ate like starving wolves – and, blinking, Charles thought back to his breakfast with Jean, now several days ago, when he had to watch carefully to make sure she wouldn’t choke on her bread and cheese. “Bolting one’s food,” he murmured, “it’s not just for children anymore." 

As soon as decent coals had formed, Charles placed the skillet in the stove. Five minutes later and Logan was jabbing his claws at the meat – far too hot to touch with fingers – and licking grease and savory juice off metal.

“Easy,” Charles had said faintly, but Logan had rolled his eyes almost back into his head, practically tossed the skillet onto the table stone, and pounced on his share. There was no other word for it. McCoy, more decorous, still held knife and fork far too tightly, and chewed as though he hadn’t had food for days.

Charles had thought to cut them all slices of apple, but then, inspired, took the two that had been placed in the ice box, cored them and shoved raisins into them, and placed them in the skillet to bake. One hour later, he knew, and Logan would be jabbing claws into fruit instead of meat.

“Holy mother of God, that’s good.” Logan sighed, then brought his plate up to lick it clean. “Wish Marie was here for some.”

“I don’t,” McCoy said, witheringly. “Your table manners are atrocious.”

“Oh, you know you love it.” At Charles’ chuckle, Logan grinned and continued. “The best EBS shindigs are the ones when we have enough for a food fight –”

“Like we ever do.” McCoy yawned. “And like we ever would. Food fight, I mean. Azazel would win every single time.”

“True."

“Azazel?” Charles kept his curiosity casual.

“Teleporter,” Logan grunted, stretching. “Damn good one, too. Wish he was here, except …”

McCoy coughed. Charles narrowed his eyes. “Except?”

“’Cept he’s off in Dallas.” Logan’s grin was almost manic. “You’ve done it, Xavier – you’ve bribed me into spilling my guts. Congrats to you." 

“Um. Thank you, I think?”

“What he means to say,” McCoy offered, swabbing his plate with a piece of bread, “is that the Dallas operation is going on – right now.” He ate the bread; spoke through a full mouth. “As we speak.”

“Which operation?”

“Objective two, Mr. X: find and secure the nuke. We got all our little platelets clotting up Washed in the Blood, and tonight’s the night they rip off the scab. Here I go, spilling my guts – and I’m not even drunk. So, to help with that, and in commemoration of the mission: here.” Logan set a bottle of vodka on the table with a clack. “This is to get us going – and this,” he brandished a hip flask, “is to keep us going, starting now.”

Logan would hear no arguments for restraint – he poured the vodka into their empty tea mugs. They each slammed back a good four fingers of the stuff, all at once. McCoy immediately doubled over in a fit of coughing; Charles, heroically, limited himself to pounding one fist on the table. Logan just laughed.

“Hot damn, that’ll put hair on your chest."

McCoy gulped in air. “By your logic, Azazel should be a bearskin rug. And he’s going to be angry you took his alcohol."

“Who says he ain’t already, Hank? To both things.” Logan waggled his eyebrows, then turned to Charles. “You get a chance to have some booze before a mission, if you want it, but Azazel was god damned responsible this time. Must be the kids. Or maybe he figured he’ll get drunk after.” Then he cleared his throat. “On the topic of him, and everybody else … Let’s remember all our people in Dallas. Let ‘em get the job done tonight, ‘n bring that nasty little cupcake home. God help us all. To their health!” And Logan took a swig from his hip flask.

McCoy took the flask next. “Their health,” and sipped. Then he coughed again, and wheezed.

“Poor baby,” Logan chuckled – then arched an eyebrow at Charles. “You asked for my flask in the first place, bub. Drink up.”

Charles took the flask. “Their health.”

The alcohol burned going down – it was whiskey, and strong, with that delectable smoke that the vodka had so notably lacked. He relished every drop. “Oh god, that’s good –”

“Give it back –” “No!” “Come on, X.” “No – no, please, let me – oh …” and Charles caressed the flask, took another swig. “Oh, that’s lovely ...”

“Damn, who knew you were such a lush?” Grinning, Logan snatched the flask back; drank. “’S mine, X man.”

“Thanks ever so.” Perhaps it was his decreased body weight, Charles thought, happily, or the fact that he hadn’t had alcohol for six weeks. For whatever reason, the whiskey had followed the vodka’s path in blazing straight to both his stomach and his brain. He felt wonderful.

Mmm. Tell me more about the plan to get the nuke. Is it – is it what I suggested, earlier? It is, isn’t it?”

“Don’t get cocky,” Logan snarled; then burst into laughter: “But – yeah, it is. You’re a wily little bastard, you know that?”

“Oh yes.” Charles beamed. “But it’s nice to hear it confirmed. So who wrote the ransom note?”

McCoy raised a hand with a smile. “And I hope you’re happy, Mr. Xavier. We had to steal a concordance – and from a church, too."

They had another round, savoring the taste. Then Logan split the rest of the vodka. Then they passed the flask again, and Charles shook his head after his sip, blinking hard. Even though the vodka was helping, the whiskey was ridiculously strong.

Logan saw him. “You like?” He grinned. “Friend of mine – Paige. She’s got relatives with a distillery, hell yeah. Bless you, Paige, oh, and here now – ” he straightened up. “A toast!”

He raised the flask. “Here’s to my Marie: bless her heart, bless her soul, bless her god damned gorgeous body, bring her home safe. Santé.” He drank; tapped McCoy on the shoulder, passed the drink along.

“Cheers to my family.” McCoy was starting to look bleary-eyed; he only just touched the flask to his lips and passed it to Charles.

“To …” To my sister, Charles thought, suddenly shivering. To Raven. He shut the swell of memory away; raised the worked metal. “To family.”

“Family … You got any living, Xavier?”

“No. Not anymore.” The lie slipped easily from his lips; he saw Logan incline his head and McCoy assume his best look of sympathy. He didn’t do it well; Charles assumed that he was past tipsy and well on his way to drunk. “Before, I had my parents – and a little sister. But they died in London. February 1951.”

“Sister?” Logan blew out a breath. “Huh. I had you tagged as an only. You know. Up here, in my head.” He tapped slowly at his temple; then he missed and hit an eyeball. McCoy laughed. “Shut up,” Logan said, swatting at him. “And what do you think? Doesn’t Mr. X strike you as … unique? Brought up in a castle somewhere: a chosen heir, a privileged scion, a –”

“You look up those words all by yourself?” McCoy snickered.

But Charles fought to focus – Logan was skating dangerously close to the truth. Damn him; half sloshed and still unnervingly canny. He cast around for a subject change, and then: “Another one,” he said, holding out the flask.

Logan peered at it, eyes just slightly crossing. “Don’t have another one. Marie gave me this one, and it’s enough for me.”

“Another toast, I mean.”

“Nah – you go ahead.”

“Right.” Charles lifted the flask high and began to sing. Loudly. “God save our gracious Queen / Long live our noble Queen / God save the –”

“You never told us about your mutant power of yodeling,” McCoy said, fingers in his ears, and: “Ah, shit, give that back.” Logan grabbed the flask and wagged a mocking finger at him. “You’re EBS now, Xavier.” He made a toast. “Down with the Free West – forever!”

“And ever!” McCoy said. Then he hiccuped. “And here’s to my cohort. Shadowcat, Jubilee – from dorky old me: here’s to you. Stay safe, even though you’d punch me for saying so.” He took a swig. Passed the flask.

“Shadowcat?” Charles blinked. “Jubilee? What kind of names –”

“Need-to-know basis,” and Charles could tell that Logan had kicked McCoy in the shin. It wasn’t exactly subtle – the dishes on the table rattled and McCoy yelped.

“Fine.” He sighed, and raised the flask. “To all of my cohort, with their relatively ordinary names: Ororo, Bobby, John, Sean, and Jean. Their health. And here’s hoping Jean gets better soon.” He drank. It tasted just as good the fourth time.

But the taste immediately turned sour, as Logan grimaced. “Damn straight. The way Frost has her rigged up, wired up – it’s sick is what it is.”

“What do you mean?” Charles felt his warm mood vanishing, like fog beneath burning sunlight. He knew his own voice was sharp. Too sharp, because Logan threw him a puzzled look.

“Baby Jean is Frost’s protégée – you didn’t know that?” Logan squinted. “Fuck, Mr. X. I thought you were smart.”

“What … what does Frost do to her?” Charles’ lips felt numb.

McCoy looked down at the tabletop; replied: “Training, mostly. But on nights like this – and for the practice ops leading up to them – Frost draws off Jean, for backup power. For the machines.” He took the flask from Logan, drank deeply this time. “I don’t envy her that job one single bit.”

“Yeah, me neither.” Logan shook the metal container; scowled. “Way to chug it, Hank.”

“Sorry,” McCoy slurred. “Kinda lost track there.”

“I guess. Here, Xavier,” and the flask was held out to him. “Finish it off.”

Charles stared blindly at the kitchen door, then tossed back the alcohol with one sharp jerk of his wrist. He gulped it down; passed a hand over his face.

“Somebody’s a bit sleepy, I think.” Logan started to mock, but then his jaw cracked in a yawn. “And I guess it’s me. Come on, McCoy – let’s wash up. I’m callin’ it.”

McCoy cleared the table, and waved Charles to his seat when he tried to get up and help; he accepted the good-natured rebuke and sat, staring. Staring, and thinking desperately. Jean, wired up to the telepathic machines, for the war, she had said, quietly, in Angel’s mind … god. What had he done, to let that pass unnoticed? How could he have been so blind?

“Hey, Xavier. Upstairs – let’s go.”

He obeyed, stumbling slightly in the wake of the other two. He brushed a thought against Jean’s door – she wasn't there. Charles tried to reel the power back in carefully, but his hummingbird – cooing, bizarrely, and flying in happy loop-de-loops – brushed Logan, who growled.

“Oh hell no, not now. You can fiddle with our heads –” Logan waggled his fingers, “tomorrow. When we’re all sober. If everything goes well, Frost’ll sleep in; if it goes tits-up, she’ll have more things to worry about than just us eating steak and boozing. In you go.” He shoved Charles on the shoulder, propelling him into his own room. “Night. Oh, and here.” He gave Charles a heavy metal lighter. “Start your own fire. Just don’t set – don’t set the place – yeah, you know what I mean.”

Logan pulled the door shut with a thump, and a: “Sleep tight.”  Through the wood, muffled, Charles heard McCoy slur – “Good night, Mr. Xavier. And thank you so much – the meat was really good –” – and then the slide of the bolt and click of the lock.

Charles stared, sluggishly, at the wood of his door. Heard footsteps recede down the hallway. Then, sitting on his bed, he remembered that he had left the apples in the stove. They would be gone by morning; burned and charred … Fire …

He built a fire with the wood he had brought in, and not used, the previous day. Then Charles lay back on his bed, and built another sort of fire: flames of thought on the flagstones of Jean’s door. The instant someone brought her back, he would know.

It was difficult to start the thought-fire, though. Grimacing, he set his power to work dissipating the warm haze of alcohol permeating his mind. A pity, but when Jean woke him, he would be ready – for there was no one else to help her.

------------------------

He felt the instant Jean was returned to her room.

It was Alex, Charles realized, holding himself motionless in his bed. He stared up into the pitch black darkness; the small fire in his fireplace had long since gone out. And there was the thump of his footsteps, the sound of a door closing. Charles felt sick worry coil up from his stomach. He wished it had been Angel. Angel, at least, would have stayed a moment – to get Jean a drink of water, if she needed one, or to build her a fire. Alex just walked away.

Charles sent the hummingbird flying – tried to get a quick read of Alex's mind. He touched on a complex bubble of emotions … oh. That was why he was in such a hurry. There was a small celebration, somewhere … Charles focused.

Somewhere in the woods. He saw a bonfire, flashes of faces – none he recognized. Beneath it all pulsed something – something Alex was avoiding …

Charles blinked as the stable swam into his mind. Dark – he could hardly see it – oddly tinged with red …

But not important now. Charles shook off the images, drawing his power back to himself. He got out of bed; walked on steady feet to his bathroom and took a long drink of water. Then he sat down cross-legged, on the warm hearthstones, and carefully reached for Jean.

He felt … his power felt … nothing.

Charles stared into the darkness, frowning. He knew Jean was there. There had been the impression from Alex’s mind – a slight weight in his arms, then nothing and a door closed and go go go to the woods.

He tried again. Thought of something small but strong: a tiny, crystal-clear diamond of a bird – like his mother’s old brooch. He remembered how it had sparkled on her lapel as she had bent to kiss him that February morning in Oxford – goodbye – I love you – goodbye – the sapphire of the bird’s eye had winked at him and the diamonds had glittered –

NO!

“God – what –” Charles clamped both his hands to his skull, dug in with all ten fingers. The diamond bird had flown straight into a white-hot wall of pain and – NO. And – he scrabbled frantically in his mind. Where was the bird? Where had it gone? His skin crawled – a tendril of his power, gone. Had it been incinerated? Crushed? Whatever had happened, it was gone from him, and that had never happened before - had it? 

Charles drew his knees up to his chest; crossed his arms over them. Stared into the darkness. There had been the cheeky magpie, black and white, appearing and then vanishing when he had taken time from Alex ... But he had not felt any diminishing of his power. Not like this.

He would be justified, he thought, listening to his heart thud in his chest. Justified in going to bed, leaving well enough alone. If Jean were eradicating any interlopers in her mind, then he’d be a fool to try again, even if she were in such pain …

Pain. Charles squeezed his eyes shut, and sighed. He knew himself better than that.

Cautiously, he called up another bird. A gentle one, this one: a fluffy pigeon. Round, glassy eyes. Somewhat stupid? Except nothing belonging to him could be stupid. He changed the pigeon into a gentle white dove. Peaceful; that was better. Harmless.

He sent the dove soaring into the air, in his mind. Wafted it over to Jean. For he felt her, now – a pinpoint of brightness in her room. Bright enough to hurt his eyes.

Brighter than she had been this morning. Had it only been this morning, that he had asked – May I speak to you? – Will you open your eyes? – What hurts? He had sent a raven, Charles remembered calmly – a raven made gentle as a dove, but here was the white bird in truth, brushing up against Jean’s mind as softly as it could.

“… Jean?” Jean? Hello?

The brightness was knotted as tight as a cable – one from Before, turned in and twisted upon itself from the fires of the war, melted into a tangles of black or silver. He remembered them, from Oxford’s first London mission.

When he had found Raven.

The memory made him swallow hard; his own feelings nearly as tangled as the cables – a heap of them at the base of a toppled electricity pylon. There had been a scrape, there, made by someone. He had wandered away from the team – your funeral, Xavier; keep an eye out, yeah? – eating an apple, and had seen the nest of tattered blankets, flush against the remnants of a concrete wall.

Hello? he had said. Is anyone there?

… hello …

Charles started up from the hearth, almost falling back over. He hadn’t remembered Raven saying anything. She couldn’t, at that point; she only learned to talk months later.

There had been a scrabbling noise, and a blonde head popping up from the blankets. It had been incongruous; he had almost laughed, except then he had seen the stark terror in the blue eyes – and then blue skin, and yellow eyes, and blonde hair smoothing into a sheet of copper. His jaw had dropped –

But Raven hadn’t said anything. Not like this – the small voice somehow resonant in his mind …

Then he knew.

Hello, he repeated; this time towards the bright knot. Jean – it’s me. Mr. Xavier. Are you all right?

Silence.

He bit his lip. May I speak to you?

A mental quiver. Then: … Yes.

Are you all right? What’s happened?

There was no answer. But then the bright knot dimmed, instantly, glowing through the white bulk of the conch shell. It snapped into abrupt focus in Charles’ mind, looming just as large and ominous as it had that morning."

How in god’s name could a shell be so big? And glowing as it did … Staring at it, Charles felt his neck prickle. The brightness from within amplified the uncanny feeling of electrification – new and strange ... 

Just as strange as the sight of Raven had been, a vivid, glowing blue against the dirty grey blankets, the pebbly concrete. What are you? he had gasped, and she had tensed to run away. He had wondered if something had happened to her, to make her that way …

What happened, Jean? Are you sick?

Sick … he heard, echoing from within the shell. It hurts.

What hurts, Jean?

My head.

Charles walked to his door; pressed his palms against it. Can you walk to your door, Jean?

Focusing as hard as he could, he sensed stirring, and a wobbling movement. Yes.

I’m at my door, too. Listen. I’ll tell you a story.

He had soothed upset children at Oxford with stories. And: Mr. Xavier, Mr. Xavier! had always been the first choice of clamorous students in the common room, on New Year’s Eve, when they would gather together in front of the immense fire built there. He would tell them stories, winding his voice around them like a golden thread, quieting them and calming them 

He had even calmed a wild Raven, holding up his hands – one still gripping the apple –and saying: I’m sorry – don’t be afraid … I’ll just sit on this side of your wall. And then, pitching his voice to carry around stone: Who are you? My name is Charles Xavier. I’m from Oxford – and on and on, a wave of meaningless words in a soft clear tone, until he had heard the fear recede from her mind and had seen there, vivid and intense, an image of the apple he was still holding in his hand – just visible from around the corner of the wall. 

A wall, a door. Raven on the far side of one – two of the other, separating him from Jean. But he could tell a story.

“This is a story, Jean, from the ancient Greeks.” He heard his voice echo from his mind to hers. If he thought it and spoke aloud he could convince himself that it was October in Oxford. That he was telling Raven a story before she went to bed – even though … He felt a twist of sadness. Even though she was long since grown, and a teacher and storyteller in her own right … and more than a month gone from him.

“Once upon a time,” he began. Once upon a time …

“… in a land far, far away, there lived a great inventor named Daedalus. Now, Daedalus was not like you, or like me – Daedalus was a genius, and thrilled queens and princes, boys and girls, with the works of his mind and of his hands. But his life was not an easy one; no. He had been exiled from his home, and had built wonders for King Minos of Crete. He built a wooden cow as large as life; he built the great Labyrinth, and – when Minos’ monstrous son, the Minotaur, was slain in that same Labyrinth, Daedalus built wings that let himself and his son Icarus flee the king's fury.”

Through his closed eyes, Charles sensed Jean walking forward. How? The door of her room was locked ...

But no matter. He continued with the story.

“How they flew, and how Icarus the son of Daedalus fell, is another story for another time. But Daedalus ended his wanderings in the court of Cocalus, in Sicily. Now, King Cocalus had two daughters that he loved deeply. And Daedalus made toys and gifts for the children as wondrous and amazing as anything he had ever made.”

Jean was still walking forward. Very much the same, Charles thought, as Raven had, round the crumbling wall outside London. He had not met her eyes, but had kept speaking – low, soft – and had held out the apple.

Raven had taken it. And Jean was still listening.

“It so happened that King Minos was searching for Daedalus, because of his great desire to revenge himself for the death of his monster son. And when he heard of King Cocalus’ inventor, he knew that it was the man he sought. So he disguised himself as a merchant of great wealth, and went to the court in Sicily, and asked for a royal audience.”

Jean was now sitting on the stone floor – he could sense it. Charles kept on with this story, whispering the words to himself; projecting them as soft as birdsong into her mind.

“And King Minos said to King Cocalus: 'Such a challenge I have here, that no man living can answer it. I have in this hand a shell' – and he held it up. 'I have in this hand a golden thread' – and he held it up. 'And I tell you truly: to the man that can pass this thread through this shell, I shall give riches unimaginable.'

“Now, King Cocalus had no need of riches and would have sent the merchant on his way. But his two daughters cried, ‘We know! We know the man who can work this wonder.’ And they took the shell, and brought it to Daedalus.

“Now, Jean …” Jean … he heard his voice whisper in her mind. “Do you think that can be done? Do you think it is possible? That a thread should pass through a shell?”

His dove settled into the dust outside the conch shell, and waited.

Then Charles heard: Yes. And I know how.

“Really?” He opened his eyes and saw the dark wood of his door. Pressed his fingers against it and felt a splinter.

Yes.

“So much for my story.” He let his rueful sigh echo through her mind. And was that a faint reply of – laughter? Was she laughing? No … but Charles sensed that she was smiling, and that was enough.

It’s all right, she said. It’s a good story.

“Yes.” He let his dove tilt its head to one side and warble – and there was a small laugh. Good.

But the laughter stopped, and he caught a ripple of something electric – and then Charles yelped as his mind was hit by a white-hot flash –

Sorry! He heard a sob. Sorry, sorry Mr. Xavier, but it can’t – it won’t –

Charles sent the dove flying up, up in widening circles. The shell was trembling, fracturing at the edges.

He swallowed hard. “It’s all right, Jean. Tell me …” and he heard a golden tell me echo through his voice into her head, and wind around the shell. “How did Daedalus solve the mystery?

He – he tied the thread to an ant. Jean’s voice was thin and pained. And he put a hole in the close end of the shell, and – and honey there – and he put the ant in, and it found its way through

“Because it wanted the honey – exactly right.” He waited, tense. Then: “And a shell can be a very strong thing, Jean – like a fortress. Like a labyrinth. Did you ever hold one up to your ear, at the ocean?”

… No.

“Well: I’ll tell you – it makes this sound.” He projected the shh-shh noise of static, waves, whispers that he remembered. He had held a shell to Raven’s ear – a gift from a fellow teacher, a naturalist – and then to his own, smiling down into his sister’s round eyes.

“It whispers. Like it wants to say something …”

Silence.

“And I know you have a shell, there, Jean – in your mind. It’s very strong – I can’t see a way through it. But do you –” he took a deep breath, and projected with all the – love –and – trust me – he could: “Do you want let it say something … to me?"

Still silence. And then: But it will hurt you, Mr. Xavier …

He bit his lip. “That’s all right. Jean – dear.” Charles swallowed. “I’d rather have it hurt me than hurt you.”

He waited for a moment. Then another.

And he had no warning when the shell dissolved into a blue-white, blinding light – and he was hit by a wave of pain with a brutal smack – a sledgehammer to his skull.

“God,” Charles gasped, sinking to his knees, “my god, oh -” Nausea bubbled up in his throat; he clapped one hand over his mouth as he saw – hands – holding him down, coiling wires around his arms – Frost staring down at him, smiling and saying something, her steel and diamond necklace glittering with her eyes – cold being swabbed on his temples, the sharp smell of rubbing alcohol, and then the tang of ozone and a buzz –

He doubled over with a grunt. The pain – it was unbelievable, roaring through his mind in a torrent of electricity. Distantly, he heard Jean sobbing, sorry Mr. Xavier – sorry –

It went on for – well. He lost track of time.

------------------------

Charles stared at the floor, blinking. He had lost track of time, and he could smell that his nose had bled. Huh.

Shakily, he rolled over. Then he sat up. The headache was bad, but – but the fit – the pain – whatever it had been, seemed to be over. And the residue was quite manageable … certainly far less than his migraine the night he had found Syracuse.

Cautiously, he sought the power he had expended – and … there. The dove winged into view, feathers fluttering - looking a little dazed and battered, to be sure ... but otherwise fine.

“I’m fine,” he told himself, and: “Jean?” he croaked. Jean? … Are you there?

Yes – yes, I’m here. The voice had been projected from a place in the middle of the hallway – how was that possible? Charles’ thoughts felt muddled. Had Jean’s projection somehow been caught in the thought-fire that he had set, earlier that night? Had he misplaced something? Had the pain from her mind scrambled his sense of direction?

No, Mr. Xavier – I’m just. I just wanted to hear you better.

“That’s fine.” He sent the dove flying to Jean. It landed – oh ... 

Charles felt a thrill. There was a beautiful tree in Jean’s mind – its slender limbs resplendent in leaves of red and orange and gold. The dove perched happily a branch, cooing – then jumped and scuttled to one side as some of the leaves morphed and changed into a large bird. A very large bird – with plumage as beautiful as a fire in full blaze. And with an equally fiery eye. Its beak looked sharp, and its powerful talons sent up smoke from where they held the branch –

The dove warbled anxiously, then looked down as it heard a laugh waft up from below. And there stood Jean – red-haired, grey-eyed, in her white robe.

Don’t worry, Mr. Xavier. He won’t hurt you.

“Oh. Well ....” Charles had a bizarre sensation of vertigo – the voice was his, but he was nowhere, there in Jean’s mind … except perhaps in the dove. He gave a mental shrug; saw his dove quickly preen its feathers and dart another glance at its imposing neighbor. “It’s very lovely, Jean. Is it yours?”

Yes.

“Ah.”

Mr. Xavier? Jean tilted her head – and there was no mistaking it. She laughed again. Aren’t you supposed to be a knight?

He saw the dove puff up in indignation. “This is how I am – in your mind, Jean. I mean – I hadn’t asked, so I didn’t know if …”

Oh – but you did, earlier. She gave him a sweet smile. Thank you for asking.

“You’re welcome. I also don’t know if Frost could sense my full presence, here.”

Lady Frost.

“If I were a knight, perhaps; surely you’ll excuse a bird such rudeness."

Oh, Mr. Xavier. Jean’s smile had turned sad. She won’t sense you. She used the machines all day … so she won’t be using her power anymore. Not tonight. A pause. She was happy about something.

“Was she?” Charles knew his tone was astringent; he didn’t care. Instead, he let down his guard … and with a sigh, he held up one hand in Jean’s mind. He smiled, as he saw a familiar silver gauntlet. Charles surveyed himself – oh. He was holding a large, shining shield – that’s new. He looked around – green grass, everywhere, and in front of him the majestic tree, soaring up into the blue sky.

Hello! Jean’s voice sounded delighted – and relieved. I’m so glad you’re all right, Mr. Xavier. I wasn’t sure if – if my memories would hurt you.

“Oh, I’m fine.” He smiled at her. “There’s no headache in this world that chamomile won’t cure. And this is your mind, Lady Jean?” Charles sketched a bow; the shield got in the way and clipped him on the forehead. He rubbed his brow ruefully as he straightened; Jean’s smile stretched from ear to ear.

Yes.

“It’s quite lovely. Very – very peaceful.” Charles did not have to hold out a hand – he sensed the dove fluttering down from the tree, landing on his shoulder.

Thank you.

He ran his gauntleted fingers over the dove’s feathers for a long moment, staring with Jean out over the broad meadow surrounding the tree. Then he took a deep breath. “Those were memories, then, that you were guarding … What happened, Jean?” He kept his voice quiet. “Rather: what have they been doing to you?”

Jean’s profile was still – from where he looked down, he saw her brow as smooth as pale porcelain.

It was … it is Lady Frost, Mr. Xavier. She uses the machines for the war. And she uses me to help her.

“… Help her?"

I don’t know how they work. Jean sighed. Charles had a sudden blurring sensation of whorls of wire; a switchboard with dozens of buttons; levers and pistons and cranks. I know that they’re for the war, though. Searching, and shielding. Things like that. And I know that Lady Frost needs my mind – to help her power them.

Charles felt an echo of that electric pulse; he shivered. It was like a wave, a sweep of crystal power that left him nauseated – it felt strangely familiar …

He set it aside to examine later. “You do have a very powerful mind, Jean. I remember how you flew through Angel’s thoughts.”

Jean looked up at him, serious, and he hastily added: “I apologized to her – for going into her mind uninvited, I mean. It won’t happen again. I’m sorry.”

That’s O.K, now. As long as you said sorry.

Absurd, how the tables in life could turn. Charles felt like a student called up to the head professor’s office; fixed with a stern look from behind a desk strewn with books. “I did.”

And I should say sorry, too. When you first called me, just a little while ago – there was a bird. I thought it was Lady Frost again.

Jean held something out to him in her small hand. It was the diamond bird with sapphire eyes. With an unsteady sigh, Charles took it. He had called it up out of memory and sent it flying to Jean - and if it shone with even half the light it showed now, as it reflected his silver armor up at him in dazzling brightness, small wonder she had panicked.

“It does look like something of Fr – of Lady Frost’s, doesn’t it? But it was my mother’s, you know. Her brooch. I remember her wearing it the last time I saw her. When she bent to kiss me goodbye it touched my cheek.” He touched his cheekbone, remembering. “I always thought it was the bird giving me a kiss, too.”

I’m sorry. Jean looked up at him, miserable. It’s very pretty, really. It’s like your father’s watch.

Charles winced at the thought; to make them both feel better, he smiled: “Don’t fret, child. And … look!”

He held the bird close to him - focused on its reflection in his armor. Wonder if this will work - ah ... The reflection peeled away, wavering, and then fluttered its wings. The brooch bird watched. If jewelry could have an expression, Charles would say that the diamond and sapphire looked nonplussed, as the pale double fluttered its wings and turned larger, became solid and puffed out – oh shite – he tried holding on to it with both hands, but it squawked and pecked him.

So Charles set the fat penguin down on the grass.

It squawked. Jean’s grin spread from ear to ear.

Charles grinned back at her. “I didn’t know any bird could get so heavy.” The dove warbled and preened on his shoulder; the brooch edged close to his neck, pressing diamond-sharp and cold into his skin. The penguin glared.

Bending to pat it on the head, Charles had to dodge another peck. Still glaring, the penguin started rotating its flippers. “Well. Best take it back. The grass here is very pretty, but I think it would like water better."

You’re probably right.

Charles took in a deep breath; let it out in a sigh, and reached out to touch the penguin on the head. He watched it shimmer and dissolve into thin air. It didn’t hurt at all. Instead … it felt like a relief. A small part of his power, clicking back into place like a puzzle piece.

I like that bird, Jean said. You should come back with her – come back and visit. I’ll show you where there’s a pond.

“Thank you very much.” Charles smiled down at her. “And perhaps your bird could come along, too?”

Jean looked up into the tree. He likes it best up there.

“That’s fine, then.”

Charles felt oddly peaceful, in the cool shade of the tree. But he knew that for him, it was late, so for Jean … she had to be exhausted. She needed rest.

“Well Jean – it’s late. And I think you should go to sleep.”

She grimaced. I don't want to go to sleep.

Charles fought not to smile; he was reminded of the youngest of his students. “I mean it. Tomorrow’s another day. We can talk at breakfast.”

She looked up at him again, serious. You don’t mind, Mr. Xavier – about the memories? I have to keep them shielded from the others – her voice wavered – Ororo and them. But … could you … can you …

Charles heard her unspoken question. He knelt, and looked her in the eye. “I’ll help you with them. I can take any amount of that pain to myself – I’m older, much older –” he gave a theatrical sigh, and saw her smile, “and I can cope with headaches very well. Token of a misspent youth.”

… A what?

He grinned. “Never you mind. I’ll help you, Jean. But now it’s time to go to bed.”

Good night then, Mr. Xavier.

“Good night,” he said aloud; then felt his eyes widen as a layer of darkness descended – one thin one, then another and another – as though he were seeing the tree and the bright grass, and Jean, through sheet after sheet of carbon paper. It was Jean’s way of showing him the door, he realized with a shiver … and …

Charles lifted up his brow from the splintery wood of his door. And it was really very well done. Very subtle.

Very … powerful.

He stared ahead at his door, and thought. Frost was using Jean for her power – draining her; doing horrible things. He had to bite down on a rush of fury. To do that to a child …

Then a knock on his door made him almost jump through his skin.

Charles gasped for breath, fighting to slow his heartbeat. “Who is it?” he asked aloud; his voice cracked.

A picture of Jean shimmered into his mind, smiling at him from beneath the tree – and then a wind picked up, and leaves blew around her. It was framed with It’s cold in my room.

“Oh.” Charles felt blank for a moment; then he felt the lighter in his pocket. “Well, I can build you a fire, Jean, but –” and he felt like kicking himself. “I’m locked in.” He rattled the door handle, for emphasis.

No you’re not.

And Charles heard the lock click and the scrape of the bolt being drawn back.

Cautiously, he opened the door. There was Jean, eyes gleaming impishly in the dim light from the hall’s arrow windows.

“Why … oh.” Telekinesis, he remembered. “Why, Jean. Did you do that yourself?”

She nodded.

Charles shook his head, mournful. “You’re going to get me into so much trouble.” He grimaced at the unintended irony, flicked a look down to make sure his left thumb was veiled from her sight. It was. “Well: lead the way.”

Jean practically skipped ahead of him to her room. It opened easily – she must have done for the lock there as well. Laying a fire carefully, Charles double-checked. “You can lock me back in my room, right Jean? It wouldn’t do, to get Alex into trouble.”

He heard her - yes - projected clear as a bell. “That’s very good, Jean – I didn’t need a picture, that time.” Charles smiled back at her over his shoulder. “Try that some more. It could be like speaking, for you, as opposed to singing.”

Only if you do it, too.

He focused on the flames leaping round the kindling. Like this?

Yes! He felt her delight. Like we did this morning.

Very well. It will be good practice, I think. Of course, feel free to send me pictures if you’d prefer.

She sent an image of herself, tearing across the grass into the forest with the other students. Charles felt a prickle – it was wood gathering, like he had seen done and done himself … but she was even smaller in the image than now, so … he sighed. It must have been autumn of the previous year. She had been here a year, and even though the patina of memory was burnished and framed with – fun - … he felt sad.

“Well.” Then he straightened from the hearth, and went to tuck the blankets round her chin. “I’d tell you a bedtime story – but it seems you know mine already.”

Jean projected the image of herself on a chair, with a huge book open in her lap. Sorry.

“Ah.” Charles smiled. “Another one! I didn’t know you could read, Jean – I learned to read young myself, when I –”

But: no, Jean sent.

The – no – framed a face …

Charles felt his blood freeze.

The face was … the man’s. The monster. A slight smile curling the corner of that thin mouth, as he turned from the chessboard and held out the book –

Charles only realized his back had hit the opposite wall when he felt it – a hard thump. His heart was pounding; he couldn’t catch his breath.

“Jean,” he choked. “Jean – where did you read that book?”

He fought to control his own trembling as Jean sent an image of herself … herself: running.

Framed with – I’ll race you!

And then Charles could only stand there, frozen in place, as Jean jumped out of her bed and ran out the door.

------------------------

“No,” Charles breathed. He stared at the open door, mumbled: “No, Jean no come back

Then he heard a strangled sound from his own throat, as his legs burst into action almost by themselves. He ran. No! She couldn’t go to the library – she couldn’t think of going into the library, she would be found, she would be killed –

Jean was lightning-quick on her feet. Charles pelted after her, heart jolting into his mouth. He couldn’t see her, he couldn’t see, as he rounded one corner right, then another corner left and raced down the long dark hallway –

Too lateNo,” he gasped, as golden light flared at the hallway’s end – he saw Jean easing the huge door open, and then the beam of light turned into a line again as the door closed. Charles skidded to a stop before he hit it. The solid oak of the door loomed and the lines and coils of metal leered at him – he threw one desperate look down at the metal handle – sod it – grabbed it and wrenched the door open.

Jean, where was Jean? Charles gasped as he saw her, small in front of the huge fireplace, extending her hand to the carved mantelpiece.

A book there inched out from its fellows, little by little, and then pulled free and floated down to her. She looked at him, curiously, as she walked to one of the chairs in front of the fireplace, and hoisted herself into it.

Charles felt his teeth chattering, as she held out the book to him, and sent an image. Herself, leaning against him, Charles turning a page, framed with read to me? And what’s wrong?

“N-nothing,” he croaked, “nothing, Jean – I – I –”

And then the ring on his thumb moved.

Charles gasped. He stared down at it.

The metal bent, just slightly. It shifted, as though considering … and then it sent up a throb of heat.

Charles grabbed his left thumb with his right hand, covering the ring as he felt the veil waver and fall, as sweat broke out on his brow.

What’s wrong? he heard from Jean – but he couldn’t reply, because the ring flared. Then it started turning, tightening like a vise – biting into his flesh as though it had sharp metal teeth - the pain shot from bad to excruciating, and Charles bit down hard on his own tongue, trying not to scream.

What’s wrong, Mr. Xavier? Is it my memories?

It wasn’t, it wasn’t, he tried to say back to Jean, but his thoughts were splintering and he tasted blood. He shielded the pain from her instead, using his strongest veil. Then Charles carefully knelt, and sat, so he wouldn’t startle Jean too much when he passed out. Because he was going to – he could feel it, he knew it – his mind was wailing it at him –

It is, isn’t it? I’m sorry. Jean’s voice was mournful. I’ll read to you instead.

Focusing through waves of dizziness, Charles saw each of her movements as though separate from the sequence of the whole. How she set the book down at her side and scooted off the massive chair. How she turned to pick up the book again and bumped the table. How chess pieces fell over on the board. Just a minute, she thought at him – it oozed into his mind slow as treacle – and she began picking up the pieces and putting them back in place.

The ring stopped tightening.

Charles stared down at it, disbelieving. Touched it. It was still hot, burning … but it no longer felt as though it was trying to sever his thumb.

He hardly registered Jean’s walking over to him, nestling at his side and carefully placing the book into his lap. Here. She opened the tome to a leather bookmark. Then she sat and stared at the page for a long moment; looked up at him, and turned the page over. Gravely, with great import, to the right. Then another, to the right. Backwards, a distant part of Charles’ whispered, amused; the greater part was occupied in staring at the door – the door he had never opened, the door through which he had sent the dove flying as fast as it could, to see …

The dove had seen the metal cloud instantly, whirling dark and sharp with rage, where it prowled – three turns away from the door, two, one

It was on the other side of the door. It – no, Charles thought to himself, bleakly. He.

After all, the distant part of his mind pointed out. You know it’s a he. Recall your dream, in which

“No,” he whispered to himself. “I won’t.” He didn’t want to think about that – insanity, himself writhing around a monster – just before the monster killed him.

You won’t what? Jean asked.

Charles licked his lips to reply; didn’t take his eyes off the door.

So, for one instant, he could picture what the man saw as he slowly opened it and, even more slowly, walked inside the library. Himself – Charles – blank-faced with terror, staring at the door. And Jean, looking up with bright and happy inquiry, turning a page in the wrong direction.

------------------------

Then: Oh! he heard from Jean.

And, disbelieving, Charles stared as she got up, turned to smile down at him, and said: Watch!

She lifted the book with one hand, then let go. It floated in midair. And she extended her small fingers, and the book floated across the room, wobbling slightly –

Charles could almost hear the moment the man took control of the book’s studs and clasps.

It snapped into his hand with a thunk.

Those hands were very large. Long fingers pale against the book’s crimson cover. Charles knew he was staring. He couldn’t help it, really.

Jean’s smile had faded. She seemed puzzled; then her eyes widened and she hung her head.

Jean. Charles thought to himself. Oh. I hope he doesn’t kill me in front of Jean.

He heard an echo of – I’m sorry. It’s late, I know. Jean’s thought – directed differently, directed away from Charles – opposite – it was like listening to something said underwater – an obscured burble …

Then he shut his thoughts and emotions down, shut them tight under his veils. Because: the man had closed the door. One hand’s long fingers were curled around the book. The other hand … had reached into a pocket, and pulled out his watch – and Charles saw the steel shine as the man turned it to look at the time –

Fast Mitternacht.”

Charles felt befuddled at the German. His mind scraped together the will to translate - almost midnight - as slow as molasses. It could be because that voice had been very quiet – and those eyes were glittering at Charles from across the room.

Jean must have thought something at the man – perhaps: that’s Mr. Xavier’s watch! Because the same low voice drifted from behind those teeth, gleaming in an almost affable smile … the words:

Nicht mehr, maidele.”

Not anymore.

And Charles was feeling many things, but chief among them was fury.

Thus, the veils. It would not do to upset Jean.

But Jean wasn’t upset. She was watching the man, head tipped to one side, as he prowled across the room to the fireplace, stared at the chessboard … then lifted the table it rested on, gently, and – moved it … behind one of the chairs? Why would he do that?

Jean must have asked the same question. Because the man looked back at her – and Charles’ blood curdled at the sight of that smile. “Das macht nichts.”

His thoughts moved at a fraction of their normal speed - sluggish. It had to be shock, or fear ... for Charles was not quite fluent in German, but - a memory wavered into his mind: Oxford, tiny cups of bitter coffee with Weiss from Philosophy, a moment of unexpected clumsiness - Das macht nichts, Karl - her laugh as he scrambled for the cup, fallen to the floor - never mind, Charles ...

He shook off the memories; focused desperately. The man had walked across the room to the ornate, carved desk. And now - he had crooked a finger at Jean, and Jean was walking towards him and Charles half-started from his feet, thinking to run after her, pull her away, save her –

The ring flared and yanked – his hand was wrenched behind his own back, and he stumbled back down to the floor, gasping.

He tried to focus his eyes. The man had put the book down on the desk’s blotter. He reached out to one of drawers; opened it. He placed the watch inside, and took out – Charles widened his eyes to see.

It was a small syringe.

“Oh god, no.” He licked his lips to try and croak: “Jean – come back here” but he couldn’t find the words.

Charles could only feel the tightening band of pain around his thumb, as he watched Jean sigh and hold out her arm. As the man – god, was that a sedative? Let it be a sedative, not poison, because Jean was wobbling on her feet and then she would have flopped onto the floor in a heap if the man had not caught her.

He did, though.

He gave her a shot, his mind said, distant, and let it be sedative, and don’t let him hurt her - The man wasn't for now, but who knew if that would change? He placed her on a chair by the fire. Then he walked back to the desk.

One gesture both shut the drawer and melted its handle around and into wood, creating what looked like an unbreakable lock.

The next gesture sent Charles reeling to one side and dragged across the floor – wood and carpet – yanked by the ring to the fire’s iron grate – held there, immobile and gasping, his head frantically twisting to try and see a way to escape.

He saw the dirty soles of Jean’s feet, from one corner of his eye. He saw the stones of the fireplace; the carpet’s fringe. And a distant part of his mind observed: oh. That’s why he moved the table. More room to work. Makes sense –

And then the man loomed into his vision, face twisted with rage, and Charles – too late – his mind thought – gasped and flung his right hand behind him to grab something, anything to throw at him –

“No,” the man hissed – flung out a hand, and a poker flew to his palm with a thwack. “You were told never to come here – I punished you for coming here. Now …” and he leaned over, spread his hands in front of Charles’ eyes, and Charles felt his mouth go dry in terror as the poker flexed and melted, and twisted through those long fingers like an iron serpent. “What, exactly, have you failed to understand, Professor?

Charles stared up into those eyes – more grey, this time, his mind observed, and: insane. The iron was slithering round the man’s knuckles, thinning to the width of a chain –

a chain my watch

the bastard kept it

And Jean was unconscious. Distantly, Charles brushed a thought across her mind to check. Just to be sure. It would not do, to have her see him die.

Then he drew back his lips, bared his teeth, and spat in the man’s face.

A snarl of rage – and it wasn’t iron around his throat, it was a hand – two hands – and he’s going to strangle me – and I’m going to die now, Charles thought.

He sensed the raven fly up to the mantelpiece. Look down … at where he had brought his own right hand to his throat, at how he tried to reach the man’s eyes, tried and failed –

It was just like it had been when the man had first found him here. Well. Fingers instead of a chain.

The raven sighed, watching as that right hand faltered, fell back to the hearth with a thump. Strange noises. Almost as though he was fighting Frost again, mind-to-mind, and making a show of agony, except this time it was real –

Frost.

Jean had said that Frost was not using her power. Not tonight.

She was happy about something, Jean had said.

She would be happy, to see him dying.

dying …

Charles could not say whether it had been the will to survive, or something else, that made him do what he next.

All he knew, later, was that his struggles had been ceasing, that he had been dying, when he called the raven to him –

- gave it one last command -

- and flung it into the man's mind.

And Charles did so with absolutely all of the power he had left. 

Chapter Text

When Charles opened his eyes, all he could see was darkness.

“Hello?”

His voice was hoarse, as if he had been screaming.  He swallowed; tried again. “Hello? … Is anybody there?”

The air was hot, close and acrid; he coughed on a gritty particle of – well. He didn’t know what. It was so hot he was sweating. And Charles could smell something burning. 

“I can’t see,” he choked – and then he blinked as the sun came up. Or came out … really, he didn’t know which. And it couldn't be the sun, in truth - it was a different quality of light. Reflected?

Who knew? All he knew was: it had been pitch black, and now it was light. A wan, watery and grey light … as though the moon were shining from behind thick clouds … but it was light. He could see. 

And he could see that he was in hell.

“Oh …” Charles breathed. He stared out across a bleak and desolate landscape. “Oh my God.” Horrible. There were mountains, with snow on their caps – except they were somehow bubbling and hissing steam. And a strange black runoff was flowing from them, down into the dark river wending at his feet. He looked closer. 

The river was choked with dead bodies.

“Well.” He swallowed bile. “How very unpleasant. And … well,” he shivered, “I was going to say undeserved, but who knows? Did I deserve hell? Who can say?” The air was hot, but at the same time everything felt brutally cold. “I died, and I’m in hell. Damn.”

He waited for his mind to add – so to speak.

But there was nothing. It was as though his thoughts had been struck dumb. 

God, it was cold. He struck his arms against his body – wait … 

“Wait a minute –” 

Charles stared. His armor – he was wearing that iridescent silver armor … the armor of thoughts. Of dreams. Of his veils … He stared at his feet, wildly. There was the shield – new this evening, from his brushing Jean's mind ... 

And lying next to the shield … 

He picked up both shield and sword. Tried to swallow. “Right. So … I’m not in hell – I’m in … his oh God I’m in his mind.” He bit his lower lip, tasted blood. “Where’s my raven? Hello?” His voice rebounded, panicked echoes ringing strangely off the mountains, “Where are you? Come back – I don’t want to leave you –”

Something rumbled, in the distance. Charles felt his head snap around; he stared wildly. The river, he saw, had started to glow - in a particularly horrible shade of green. “Shite,” he yelped, and wheeled on one foot. 

He stopped, and stared again. 

There was a wood there, almost in front of his nose. Just one stretch of dark sand away from the river. A forest. And the trees … Charles stepped closer. Were they birch? Or ironwood? Something grey or silver … 

Ironwood. Iron

The forest was made completely of metal. 

Something rumbled again. Closer. Charles whipped his head back around. The river had started to foam and bubble, moving the corpses up and down, up and down, until he thought he would be sick at the sight. 

A flash from the river’s horrid green glow lit up all the water for one split second. Charles froze.

There was something in the water, almost on the other shore. The river was wide, so he could hardly see … something moving – not dead – something half-submerged by the corpses, and then less than half, because it was straightening. And he knew that shape … 

It was a monster. No, he thought faintly, it was the man. The man, and he had held out both his hands – and metal flew from the corpses and became two swords – and he was wading through the water. 

Coming towards Charles. 

“Oh God,” he choked, and turned to run. He made it two leaps into the woods – 

– and cried out, as a sharp metal leaf whipped across his brow. 

First he felt no pain, then a sting and a throb and he could almost taste the flood of adrenaline. “God damn it –” Charles gasped. Metal vines were creaking from around the trees, slithering out towards him. Like the door, he thought wildly, and no, no, I won’t let this happen to me –

He raised the sword high, and brought it down. It flashed in an arc of silver fire. A vine snapped and crumbled to the ground, turned to dust. 

Charles turned at the sound of something loud - not far enough away from him. Water, still sloshing – the monster – man – was still in the river. 

Metal rustled around him. Whispering. Hissing. 

Charles gritted his teeth. “I’m not going to die here.” 

The leaves clinked together. The sound they made resembled nothing as much as mocking laughter. Another leaf slapped him in the face. 

“Really?” he snarled. “Really?! Then I accept your challenge.”

Charles raised the sword in a salute. Then he brought it down hard, and did so again and again, scattering shards of shrieking metal right and left as he ran deep into the forest.


He could hardly see out of the sweat in his own eyes when he stumbled into a clearing. Really, he almost didn’t realize it was a clearing, until he had taken several more strides and marveled that the vicious trees and vines were parting so smoothly – 

“Oh,” Charles sucked in a breath, coughed, bent over. The shield pressed against his knees. “Right.” He threw a look over his shoulder; behind him, the forest twisted and steamed, hissing. Shuddering, he turned back – and then heard himself gasp.

An immense castle loomed up before him. It seemed to touch the dark sky.

“My God …” he murmured. Somehow, a quiet voice seemed appropriate. “It’s … it’s …”

Huge, his mind supplied, and: … beautiful, the tiniest part of him whispered. “It’s really very – very grim.” Charles nodded to himself, trembling. “Grim. More of a fortress.” Bulky, massive, made of huge blocks of stone.

He couldn’t stop shaking. It was adrenaline, he told himself, or perhaps nerves. Every sense was strung out taut, giving his mind an overwhelming amount of information – where’s my raven, he thought, desperately – I don’t see it, I can’t hear it

But he did hear movement, from behind him – and Charles thanked every combat instinct he had, for making him throw himself to the side, and dodge the slash of two hideously sharp swords. 

He knew they were sharp, even though made of … was that black metal solid iron? How was that possible? God … They sliced grey grass and tore up sod in their downward sweep; they made the air vibrate with an ugly sonority. And the man holding them was strong, he knew … Charles swallowed, bringing his shield up. Very strong. And raging at him, teeth bared – whipping the swords around and up for another swing – 

Charles blocked with his shield, parried with his own sword. 

And felt his jaw drop, as the shining silver blade sliced through iron as though the heavier metal were butter.

The man was left holding two hilts. Charles blinked at him, over the rim of his shield. He looked just as shocked as Charles felt. 

“Oh …” Charles’ voice caught. “You weren’t – you weren’t expecting that to happen. But how did I –” 

The man bared his teeth again and drew a dagger out from a high black boot – he was wearing all black, Charles saw, distantly, and he really was excellent with edge weapons, because the dagger was coming right for his face

He raised the shield, and felt the metal shatter into a thousand fragments. 

Charles gasped, peered around the shield again – at the man’s staring eyes. “And you weren’t expecting that to happen, either.” 

His thoughts raced. If his blade could slice through iron, and his shield shatter the same, then what if … 

Charles darted out with his own sword. The man dodged it – but his hands shook, and the iron hilts dropped just slightly – Charles narrowed his eyes, pressed the attack. The man raised the shard of a sword to parry, and Charles cut through it and felt the silver blade bite into flesh -

The man jerked away. Dropped the hilts; clapped one hand over the other forearm … 

Charles stared at the blood welling up through those long fingers, dark in the dim light. A distant part of his mind thought: that must be how I looked. Every time the man had drawn blood. Fingers white-knuckled, eyes staring in disbelief … 

Then he saw every movement clearly – as though slowed down. He saw the man toss out a bloodied hand and gesture. Then he saw vines spring from each fingertip, oddly – how strange … springing from them and flying out to the pieces of iron on the ground – 

Until Charles sliced them into ribbons with his sword and they crumbled to dust on the ground. 

The man's eyes went wide. In surprise? Shock

“Oh …” Charles breathed. “You really weren’t expecting that to happen.” He stared into the man’s face. “Any of that. Were you? So, then.” Charles took a step forward; the man stepped back. Another step, and the man stumbled as he retreated. Charles’ heart was hammering. “What will happen … if I do – this?” 

He leaped, feinted high, and then brought his sword around and up, slicing, and - he should have heard the man scream in agony, since his head tipped back and it looked as though he were howling - but there was only the rustling of the metal trees, a strange static. As the man tried to keep from falling, blood now running freely from him, Charles felt an instinctive cringe of horror, but – he deserves it – and that carried him through the overwhelming surge of nausea he felt as he ripped the blade out from the other’s side – as felt a grate that could only have been ribs. Shuddering, he whipped the blade round fast, caught the man in both shins, and drew back, panting, as the other stumbled to his knees. 

He deserves this. All of his memories of the abuse the man had visited upon Charles crystallized into one thought, clear and pitiless: he deserves to die.

Charles took one long step forward, and set the tip of his sword at the man’s throat. “I ought to kill you,” he whispered, breath coming in harsh gasps. “I ought to kill you for what you’ve done. I ought to kill you for what you are.” 

He stared into green-grey eyes – still the same strange mix of color, he thought, distant, even though they were wide, and … was that fear? 

A hot breeze buffeted his face; perhaps it came from the river, for it brought the stench of corpses. And the fear – fear – in the creature’s eyes lit an unholy spark of glee deep within him. Charles felt a vicious laugh bubble up from his throat. “Oh, are we afraid now?” 

He brought the sword up, set the flat of it against one stark cheekbone. Then he brought it back and slapped the man, meaning to sting – the angle must have been wrong, for an angry mark instantly started dripping blood. “Can’t say I’m sorry,” Charles murmured, tracing the blade back to the man’s throat – more blood beaded on skin, started trickling down. “Really, I can’t. This couldn’t happen to a more deserving –” 

He heard his raven cry aloud. 

Charles wheeled, gasping. 

The cry was somehow ringing from all sides – everywhere, vibrating into his ears – echoing from the distant mountains. Those mountains, Charles thought, dazed, were doing truly bizarre things to sound. The raven cried out again – and the sound came from the castle, this time. 

“Oh,” Charles cried out, “where are you?” It was his raven, he knew it, and it was here, somewhere. He couldn’t leave it, not here in this hell – 

The smell of corpses was overpowering – his stomach lurched and twisted. Then a rustle from behind him made him bare his teeth. He turned, fast as he knew how, and – I knew it – saw the man bending forward, stretching out his power for the shattered blades. 

So Charles kicked him in the face. 

He felt something crunch under the force of the blow; saw a crimson spurt. And still heard ... nothing, which was bizarre. There should have at least been a gurgle or a groan, for the man knelt, face in his hands. More blood was welling through his fingers, running down to his wrists. 

“You’ll excuse me,” Charles said, breathing hard. “I have to go find my Raven. Wait, no – not that Raven, not my sister Raven – I have a bird,” he said, words tumbling out one after the other, “and it’s here, but it’s not my sister, even if it is a raven – God.” He felt dizzy. “Why the fuck am I explaining anything to you? I’m going to find my raven, you bastard – and if you come after me there –” 

He gestured with his sword at the castle. 

And then he felt the tumult of his thoughts go quiet – quiet and focused, narrowed on one vicious point. 

“That,” Charles said thickly. “That castle is your mind. Isn’t it?” 

The man looked up.

“Well. I mean: this is all your mind. But that.” He jabbed with his sword; swallowed hard. “That has your thoughts in it. Your secrets …” 

The man’s eyes were very green, wide and staring. Compared with the red of his blood, and the ashy pallor of his face.

His face, that had drained of absolutely all color.

Charles smiled. “Well then.” He brought the sword back round; trailed it over the man’s fingers. “You won’t mind if I take a look. Hm?”

He feinted for the eyes; laughed as the man jerked his head back and away. Then Charles took a deep breath; leaned forward … and bared his teeth. Like an animal, he knew, but the rage in him was almost overpowering – and he needed to show the man how much he bloody well hated him.

“Go back to your woods,” he whispered harshly. “They suit you.”

He turned his back on the man; turned, and walked to the castle’s gates. There was an immense portcullis, wrapped round with chains. Charles tested the chains with his sword – he could make short work of them, but, “Why expend the effort?” he said, airily. He found a tiny gatehouse door and cut its metal handle and lock in two.

Then Charles kicked down the door and walked straight into the castle. He walked through the darkness of the gatehouse, blinked at the strange brightness of that bizarre unlight reflecting, dizzying, off harsh angles of steel – angles of something raised, something strange, in what had to be the courtyard – bailey, he remembered. And there was the keep – its immense double doors looming up in front of him. He stared, shivering. Those doors could not be kicked down. 

So Charles took hold of a heavy wrought-iron handle, and opened one door. And he didn’t look back to see if the man was following him; no. He looked back to watch the wan light from the sky fade, as the darkness of the keep closed round him.


With the light went a good deal of his bravado. Charles stepped forward, the sabatons on his boots ringing off stone. 

It was dark inside, but not so dark that Charles could not see. Gloomy, rather. Charles stared. He was in a huge hall, unbelievably huge. He could hardly see to the other end; he was shivering, even in his armor. “I’m not afraid,” he told himself fiercely. “Find the raven. Come on, come on –

He picked up the pace, striding across black and grey flagstones, the grey stained with – he didn’t want to think what. Long banners trailed down from above – they were tattered and torn. Charles squinted up. He couldn’t see the ceiling; he couldn’t see from what the cloth hung. The effect was oddly insubstantial, sending a chill creeping up his spine. 

The banners were mostly red. Charles was almost running, now, towards the Imperial staircase at the end of the hall. He fought not to panic; the gloom and the vast scale of everything felt at the same time empty and relentlessly oppressive. As though an immense stone was lurking, biding its time, waiting for the right moment to fall and crush him. Red banners, red tapestries flew past him as he ran; it looked as though the dark were oozing blood.

Oh, there’s a silver one. Lovely.” He stopped in his tracks, heart hammering; made his way over to where a tapestry covered the wall behind a dry, silt-clogged fountain. Calm down. Take a moment to calm down. Charles peered at the tapestry. It glimmered in the darkness – oddly … lovely. He bit his lip. Silver threads twined and twisted round turquoise and dark blue, to make a gorgeous backdrop – background for the image of … a unicorn, pure white and beautiful, chained to a silver tree. 

The unicorn’s eyes were … 

Charles stomach gave a nauseated little lurch. Those eyes were human

And they were very blue. 

“Stairs,” he said, faintly. “There might be something at the top of the stairs.” Charles turned from the chained unicorn and made a run for it. “Get to the top of the stairs and breathe again - oh God - why did I come in here?” 

He kicked up dust from the ancient carpet with every step as he pounded up the stairs. First up from the right towards the center landing and then – Charles chose to go to the right when the stairs split again. He did not turn around to look … he had the horrible sensation that he would see his mirror double, charging up the opposite staircase away from him. 

Coughing, he reached the top. There was a balcony to his right, overlooking the entrance hall. He ignored it – there were only gargoyles there, perched on the railing and holding up the arcade. Charles shoved open the rusted door lying directly ahead of him; jogged through. And there was a hallway, stretching away to his right – it must parallel the balcony, he thought, behind it – indeed, there was a false arcade on one side. And on the hallway’s other side there were doors, nothing but iron doors - some ornamented with more iron, wrought fine, and others glittering strangely - stretching out as far as he could see ...

But then he felt a draft. 

Charles whirled, looked to his left. There – there was an opening. A door shape, the stone built around it – but with no actual door, wood or iron. Instead, a rusted yett was the only thing separating him from – “Air,” Charles gasped, and, “there’s the sun, oh. Wonderful.”

He pushed the yett open; it gave with a spine-tingling screech. Charles stepped outside. The air was hot and gritty, still, but at least it was moving – at least he could breathe again. 

Charles paused for a moment, just breathing. He stared down into the bailey. From this distance, the steel something glinted dangerously in the grey light; he gulped at the wave of vertigo that swept over him. 

How had he gotten up so high? He had only climbed two flights of stairs, but had walked out onto what appeared to be almost the very top of the keep. Dazed, Charles looked up and around, squinting in the half-lit gloom. There were two bartizans on each corner of the keep that he could see – he was standing on a tiny balcony below, and halfway between them. Stone stairs branching behind him led to each corner. 

He picked one stairway; jogged up it. Another smaller stair led from the bartizan to the main bastion; Charles doubled over to breathe deeply before continuing. All of his running with Logan, and yet a few sets of stairs had him winded. Perhaps it was the heat, in the man’s mind, the rasping catch of each breath in his lungs … 

The raven's call echoed out over the bailey. 

Charles gasped, then ran up the stairs. There was his raven, wheeling round the battlements and soaring to the highest point of the keep. He ran and ran, finally leveled out onto flat stones – took a deep breath of air, somehow cleaner, this high up, and laughed. “It’s you – come on, let me get you, we’re going –” 

Raven - no, the raven drew its wings close to its body, angling in to land with another loud crahk. And Charles blinked as he saw where it perched. 

On one of three statues, set at the edge of the bastion. The one in the center, set on a wide, shallow pedestal, thus taller than the other two. Even though it would have been taller anyway, if it were taken off the pedestal and set on the flagstones with its fellows, since it was ...

He knew who it was.

The raven ran its beak over glossy black feathers, then beat its wings just slightly against the stone shoulder of the man.

Wait … 

Charles walked closer, staring. 

Was it really him?

The statue was just as tall, but it looked younger, somehow. Still with the same profile … He had once thought it suited to a coin, but it was equally striking in stone. 

Hesitantly, Charles stepped in front of the statue. He stared into the man’s face. Fewer lines, and – Charles peered closer – the scar between his nose and lip was gone. There was a certain quality to it: nobility, perhaps. Charles blinked. The sculptor had not been skilled enough to convey it fully, though, since there was no emotion there. 

He sheathed his sword, and reached out to touch. Then had to smile to himself - or begin a smile, anyway, since it slipped away. There was no real sensation through his gauntlets; of course not. But what if ...

Tentatively, Charles leaned forward. He touched the hollow of his cheek to the statue’s chin

Then, self-conscious, he stepped back. He couldn’t say why he had expected it to be warm; it wasn’t, of course. It was cold, and with the rough texture of cement. He brushed his own armored fingers over the man’s hands. They were the same size as they were in reality – folded in front of him, over the hilt of a sword. 

If anything, he looked like a statue on a crusader’s tomb – taken out of the crypt and propped upright as a castle guardian. 

His eyes, staring into the distance, were empty. 

Charles sighed, set his shield down at the statue’s feet. He held out one gauntlet to his raven. “Here …”

He couldn’t say why he whispered. Perhaps to hear the clink and scrape, as the bird stepped gravely onto his hand. He stroked its dark feathers as he brought it to his own shoulder, sighed again as it ran a beak through his hair. 

Then he turned to look at the other statues, one on each side of the man. And almost fell over in shock. 

God. One of the statues was obviously Frost. Staring at ... what? Charles turned to look - to see what she saw. It had to be what the statue of the man stared at, too.

The view consisted of the terrible mountains: white snow steaming at their peaks, but poisonous runoff turning their sides black as obsidian. There was a red glow on the horizon, gleaming off the sluggish roil of the river. Moving slowly, Charles remembered, because of all the corpses. He blinked at a sudden hot gust of air – it smelled like ashes, and stung his eyes.

Charles bit his lip; looked back at Frost's statue. Her face had been carved with great attention to detail: and – Charles shuddered. She was smiling. 

A diamond was inlaid on the hollow of her throat. It connected to the carved line of a necklace. Charles stretched out a hand to touch it; it was just within his reach. Then - "Ow!" - the raven pecked him in the head. 

Oh, right.” He gulped. “Mustn’t risk – breaking anything. Or … there might be traps, here. Mazes, snares - traps for the unwary.” He turned to stare into the bird’s dark intelligent eye. “Thank you for the reminder.” 

He gave the other statue a quick glance. It was another man – older – and no one Charles recognized. He had blunt and weathered features; he held in his hands a strongly carved helmet. The guards for nose and cheek had a swooping, curved line; Charles found them strangely unsettling. “Because it’s impractical,” he told himself, firmly. “An arrow could punch right through his philtrum.”

And because the older man was smiling broadly at the very same mountains, just like Frost ... and Charles pictured that smile coming from beneath that helm, and felt his skin crawl. 

There was a gem placed on the helmet, in the spot of the mystical third eye – fiery, the size of a pigeon’s egg. Perhaps a ruby. 

Dismissing him, Charles turned back to stare at the man one last time – not the older man; rather – his man – the thought whispered through his mind before he could stop it. “Just distinguishing between the two,” he gabbled, flinching. The raven croaked on his shoulder. “Don’t laugh,” Charles snapped. “One more look, and we’re going. Just – because …” 

And he paused, staring. Then he frowned, and reached out with one finger of his free hand. 

There was the hint of a groove in certain places on the man’s hair. Chalky dust clogged most of it, just as it did the stylized carving of the curls. But it looked as though there should have been a circlet there. 

“A diamond to your left,” Charles murmured, “and a ruby to your right. Why don’t you have anything? No torc, no crown; no jewels for your sword.” Charles moved his own lips in a ghost of a smile; he couldn’t say why he felt so sad. “It doesn’t seem fair.” 

Impulsively, he laid his armored hand against the man’s face; traced one stark cheekbone with his thumb. “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” 

A shriek from the raven made Charles jump in place. The bird flew off his shoulder, circled once, and returned to him. Feathers floated down, down into the bailey – and – 

“Oh, shite. There is the beauteous majesty of Denmark.” Charles gulped. “Fuck me, we’ve got to get out of here.” 

A dark silhouette, doing … something … to the steel thing in the middle of the bailey. He wasn’t afraid, Charles told himself; not at all. He could kill the man here with his new sword … He just wanted to leave – to escape this hell of metal and ash and supremely unsettling statuary. “Right.” He checked for the raven on his shoulder, stepped down from the pedestal, unsheathed his sword and grabbed his shield. Took a deep breath. “Hold on tight; we’re going.”


Going was easier said than done. Charles walked down the two flights of outside stairs, pushed back the yett, then made his way down the Imperial staircase. The mammoth, dark and horrible keep – he breathed carefully, trying not to choke on the clogging dust. And once his mind had started in on how he was not afraid, it promptly presented him with one problem after another. Would he have to fight his way back out through the woods? What would he do to get out, once he had? Jean had flown out of Angel’s mind, he remembered wildly – could he fly? How could he get past the man in the courtyard? 

And – Charles stumbled to a halt at the bottom of the staircase. How could he make the man forget this?

He dragged in a long breath. “And how long have I been in here?” 

A wave of fatigue made his head spin – or was it … a strange wave of heat, from outside? Clenching his teeth, Charles firmed his grip on his shield, transferred his sword to that hand, and cautiously opened the keep door. 

The raven squawked. And Charles flipped the sword back to his right hand only just in time to parry the iron bar swinging to smash his head. 

“God damn it,” Charles gasped, as he felt the smash-grate as the silver blade turned the iron to splinters. The raven flew off, gracefully; perched high up on the wall overlooking the courtyard. “What the hell does it take for you to – to –” 

Surrender? his mind asked. Give up?  What did he want, anyway, from the man’s thoughts – why had he even come here? 

One small part of his mind whispered: I didn’t even mean to come here. I just … 

“I just didn’t want to die.” 

Charles swallowed against the dryness in his throat, staring at the man’s glittering green eyes. He was an arm’s length away; body taut and fingers splayed for attack; face twisted in rage. 

“Can you understand me?” Charles said, hoarsely. “I don’t want to die. I – I want you to let me go. Let me go home.” He raised the sword; the man stepped back, baring his teeth. 

Charles saw the dark bruises on that face; blood smeared down from nose to chin. There was a cut on one cheekbone; a line of blood on his throat, and – Charles’ stomach gave a guilty twist – a dark and matted stain on the side of his black shirt. From the sword blow to his ribcage … 

But: “Why do I even feel the slightest hint of guilt?” he snapped. “You started this. You took me from Oxford – you took me away from home, from my sister.” The man’s eyes flashed; Charles soldiered on. “I shouldn’t feel bad at all, for hurting you. I – I don’t.” 

The man merely stared at him. Then – Charles frowned – then he backed away further; turned and jogged over to – 

– to the massive steel plates, flashing in the dim light – Oh, Charles thought. That’s what it was. A bunker. 

He followed the man, cautious but curious as well. A bunker: squat and ugly, almost flattened … and it looked to have a set of doors set at an incline – doors that could slide open. The man was trying to open them now. They looked to be welded shut, though; locked in several places and wrapped round with heavy, strangely glittering chains. But they had been opened at least once – Charles saw scorch marks, scoring and dents, places where the metal had warped ... 

“What is that?”

The man ignored him, whipping strands of power at the chains and tugging, pulling as hard as he could. 

“What’s in there? What …” Charles’ eyes narrowed. “What’s so important to you, that it’s – chained up and buried in a bunker?” 

The man wheeled to glare at him. Charles adjusted his grip on his sword; saw the fear flash across the other’s face, and … perhaps try something different … “Here,” he said, quietly. 

And he laid his sword on the ground. 

“Here …” Charles wove as much calm and soothe and tell me into his voice as he could. “Tell me: what’s in that bunker?” 

Staring down at the sword, the man flattened his lips into a white line. And then the raven’s cry was the only warning Charles had, as the man leaped for his throat. 

“Stop!” Charles hit the ground with a thud and clank of armor; he cursed and brought his shield up into the man’s jaw. The fingers on his throat fell away. Charles followed up on the punch and rolled, pinning the man beneath him. 

The man glared; pushed with his elbows to sit up. Charles shoved him in the shoulder – he thumped back down into the dust. Then he twisted his body, trying to wrench away – Charles countered the move by tightening all the muscles in his own legs … and … and why was it difficult to swallow, all of a sudden? Charles couldn’t say. Except to say that his mouth was very dry. 

He stared down into those … those eyes. They really were very … very –

“Green,” he said. “Or grey. More grey, here. In this place.” He knew his jaw had fallen open slightly, his own eyes were wide; he didn’t want to think of the picture he made, gazing down at the man … 

The man, who was staring right back up at him. And in his eyes: fear. 

Charles breathed in and out, carefully. “Here now … what have you to be afraid of?” 

He brought one armored hand up; eased it to the man’s face – those stark features were immobile, frozen – as Charles touched the bridge of his nose. It was starting to bruise, horribly; Charles realized he must have broken it with his kick. He swallowed. “I’m …” 

I’m not sorry, he thought, fiercely – but there was so much blood, and he had been so angry before, in the clearing outside the castle. “But why shouldn’t I be angry? I hate you,” he hissed down at the man, “I hate you for what you’ve done – for what …” 

For what you are, he had said. Charles traced his armored fingers over the man’s brow, loosening one lock of auburn hair from where it lay stuck to skin with blood. Then, suddenly – because it felt too heavy – Charles let his shield fall to the ground. He fumbled at the gauntlet on his right hand, trying to find fastenings, clips or hooks or buckles or – “How the hell does this thing come off?” he mumbled to himself. His fingers felt clumsy; his voice hoarse. “Just – get off, come on …” 

His raven screeched at him. Charles ignored it. 

The man lay frozen beneath him. Staring. He didn’t even blink when Charles brought his right hand, bare, back to the stark line of cheekbone and jaw. As Charles touched him, fingertips catching on drying blood. 

He was so warm, Charles thought, distantly. Body heat like a furnace, radiating through the armor from where Charles straddled him, heating his fingertips like embers … “You’re – you’re …” He couldn’t find words; there was a strange heat turning all of his thoughts warm and thick, like porridge with honey. Charles spread his palm against the man’s cheek – and his eyes flew to that bloodied line of throat as the man swallowed, hard, with an audible click

Charles breathed out. “You … let me … Will you let me.” He wasn't asking; not really. The words; they weren’t there. He couldn’t – he mustn’t – 

But he did. 

And perhaps Charles closed his eyes so tightly because he knew how wrong it was. How wrong: to lean down further; to feel another’s body beneath his, trapped – another’s breath warm and quick – frightened – on his lips; to find the man’s mouth, and to kiss him. 


The raven was shrieking at him. But it was easy to ignore. Because of the kiss. 

In his dreams … Charles drew in a shaky breath through his nose … in all of his own dreams, he hadn’t yet had this kiss. The man had beaten him, bitten him, licked his neck and mauled him in the darkness of those dreams … but had never kissed him. 

Unless he counted that press of lips on the hollow of his cheek, that night by the library door. That hadn’t been a dream, though. And he didn’t know if the man had intended it as a kiss. Not as Charles intended this one. 

Charles squeezed his eyes more tightly shut. It was wrong. Wrong to taste the blood on that mouth, wrong to flick at those lips with his tongue; wrong to bring his hands up – one armored, one bare – and press at that sharp line of jaw, angling, until the man had to open to him; wrong wrong wrong to drag another deep breath through his flared nostrils and almost smell himself getting hard. 

He felt pressure … there, down where the man was shifting; trying to break free of Charles’ hold; small movements of legs and hips, and then they grew more frantic, and even as he moaned into the man’s mouth and pressed himself against him harder, Charles felt something strange. It would have been a half-strangled noise, if it were audible. As it was, something was vibrating against his mouth.

And then a hand on his brow, pushing, fingers trembling – Charles released his hold on the jaw, on one side – grabbed the man’s wrist with his own gauntleted hand; grabbed, held it back down and twisted one armored thumb into bone just so – his tongue, where he was running it over the man’s lips, licking at him and then delving inside again, felt that hot slickness vibrate as the man struggled harder. 

One thigh snapped up against Charles’ armor, desperate, aiming for – Charles gave the man a warning bite. Then the man’s free hand, scratching at his throat, trying to push him away, trying and failing – Charles deepened the kiss even more and ground down harder, because he was stronger and he would take this kiss even if the strange vibrations turned what felt like a rattle and the man’s grip was slackening, turning limp – and all those delicious movements of hips and legs were stopping.

Oh – wait.

Charles’ eyes flew open; he jerked his mouth away and sat back – and the man dragged in air and started coughing hard. Silently ... It was bizarre - but Charles' attention was caught, and he stared at blood flecking liquid black in the dust. Of course – he had broken the man’s nose, so he couldn’t breathe through it … which meant that he, Charles, had … 

“Not so pleasant, being strangled. Is it?” He made his voice cold. “Do I need to demonstrate again?” 

The man’s eyes flew back to Charles’, wild; he lunged and shoved, struggling like an animal in a trap. Charles batted the blows away easily with his bare right hand; kept him pinned with his weight, leaning into his grip on that wrist. It was strange … As he gazed down at him, feeling the hot thrum of desire thick and heavy in his own blood, Charles felt the same rage from their duel trickling back into him … but darkening, somehow. 

He, Charles, had intended that kiss. And that kiss had been wrong. And anything else would be wrong.

Especially if you intend it to be so.

He hesitated. The raven really was making a good deal of noise; he didn’t know why. 

This is his mind, after all … If you keep behaving in this way – it’s not you. It’s him. It’s his influence; it’s his mind; it’s his fault. He deserves this.

“Well …” he whispered. The man’s eyes flew back to his face, from where they had been staring at Charles’ left hand; the gauntlet there. Charles spared a glance for their intertwined fingers, too – the silver armor was already leaving bruises. He looked back to the other’s face, and smiled – a deliberate baring of teeth. “So. Tell me: what’s in that bunker?” 

No answer. 

“I know you can understand me. So I’ll tell you right now – you’re going to tell me everything I want to know. I can do things to you that will make you beg to tell me. And no, nothing involving physical pain.” Charles grinned. “I think you have that angle sewn up. No … another sort of … pressure.” He moved his hips, just so – the man’s eyes shot down, then back up – Charles saw their whites flash, panicked. 

“Shh …” He leaned forward, feeling his smile slip away. “Don’t be afraid. It doesn’t have to hurt. Just be still. Here …”  

And he brushed another kiss over the man’s mouth. Slow, lingering and warm – and not nearly as forceful as before. Giving him plenty of space to breathe. 

He drew back. The man was still staring. And if he had been fearful before … now he looked absolutely petrified. 

“Here …” Charles kissed him again, trailing the fingers of his right hand over cheekbone, jaw. This time he tried a flick of tongue over those lips, slightly parted as they were – 

The man jerked back again, the back of his head hitting the ground so hard that it raised a puff of chalky dust. 

“Well, now. This won’t do.” Charles released his grip on wrist and jaw, leaned back and considered. Then he got to his feet. It was odd – in reality, his knees would have twinged, he knew – but in the man’s mind he felt strong. He put the gauntlet back on his right hand – far easier the second time dealing with all the catches. Charles watched out of the corner of his eye as the man cautiously sat, muscles tense – he felt giddy with the adrenaline and desire flooding him – and he knew he was quick enough to reach out and snap his left hand around the man’s biceps as he sprang up to run – 

“No.” He yanked on the man’s arm; retrieved sword and shield with his right hand. “Come on. Move.” 

A silent stare. The green eyes were very wide, but not glittering any more. Instead, they looked almost murky against the dead white of that face. 

“I said move. To the keep. Now.” Charles raised one eyebrow. “Unless you want to tell me what’s in that bunker?” 

Silence. Charles tightened his hand, pulled, and the man took one stumbling step. Then another. 

It was strange, to see him graceless. Charles thought back, dreamily, to the number of times he himself had been wrested round and thrown, tackled and mauled by the monster from the shadows – whether in dreams or awake. And now the tables were turned. 

Charles couldn’t help throwing a glance over his shoulder as they walked into the keep. The bunker gleamed steel at him, ominous. He had lost sight of his raven, he realized with a twinge. But: there … it was perched on top of a crenelation, high up above the bailey. Watching him. 

“Stay there,” he called. “Stand guard. And if it opens –” he threw a sharp smile at the man, “when it opens … come and fetch me.” 

He turned his back, ignored the raven’s screech, and walked with the man into the dust-clogged darkness of the keep. Charles watched out of the corner of his eyes, narrowly, as the other lifted his chin. The banners and tapestries stirred – 

– and Charles dug in his armored fingers; felt the man try to tug away. “Don’t try anything,” he said, softly.

He swallowed against his own nausea as they passed the silver unicorn tapestry. He deserves all of this. The man’s footsteps hesitated, then began to drag as they got closer and closer to the Imperial staircase. “Now,” Charles murmured to himself, “if I know minds – and where people put the thoughts they find most deeply private … I believe that – if a mind were a castle, I would find them in a cellar. Or a dungeon.” He avoided the flights of stairs, kept walking straight, and: “Ah. Sure enough.” 

Between the divided flights, supporting the landing where the stairs met before dividing again, there was a stone wall. There was only one thing hanging on it – a strange cloth. It was black and silver, threaded through with crimson. It glinted at him, ominous – and when he reached out a hand to touch it rippled as though it were alive. It was strangely heavy. 

But Charles drew it aside anyway; hooking it onto a catch in the wall. He watched the man as he did so. Green eyes staring dead ahead, lean jaw gone tight. The profile marred by him biting down hard on his lower lip. 

In an alcove behind the cloth there were three things. Charles eyed them curiously. Resting on the bottom of the alcove, there was a red bowl, filled with what looked like shards of glass. Hanging from the top of the alcove was … was that a mezuzah? It must have been: there was the letter ש.It looked to be of silver, though tarnished – its intricate filigree was blackened and stained. Perhaps from age, or from a fire … 

And in a small stone outcrop, jutting out in the alcove’s center, there lay a single bloody coin. 

Charles didn’t know what to make of it. He looked more closely at the coin – his stomach gave an unpleasant twist as he recognized the swastika. 5 Reichsmark. Hardly enough to be blood money … 

Under the grip of his left hand, the man’s right biceps was drawn tight as a steel cable, flexing. Charles shook him lightly. “No. Now: show me the way inside.” 

The man stared at him, eyes flat. Charles did not need to hear a voice – or use any power whatsoever – to read the: No

Power … 

He felt a sudden wave of dizziness – the raven was croaking, or his ears were ringing – and the man was watching him, teeth bared, like a wolf waiting for the first sign of weakness. 

How long have I been down here? Charles’ mind reeled, but: “Do it now.” He threw the man away from him into the stone wall just to the right of the alcove. Hastily, he slung his shield over his back. Then he pointed the silver sword at the man’s throat. “Open.” 

The energy and fury, everything drained from the man’s face. Charles shivered. The other looked as blank and empty as his statue on the bastion. Emptiness, leaning forward, touching the mezuzah with long fingers. Then the man kissed those fingers, closing his eyes … and a hidden door swung open. Skin prickling, Charles gestured with the sword – and he followed the man inside. 


This is wrong

Charles gritted his teeth against the thought stabbing at the base of his skull. This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong – but: “He deserves it,” he whispered, hoarsely.

It was hot, down in the depths of the keep – a wet heat, though. Probably due to what lay at the end of another stairway, one that began a few yards in front of him, on the other side of a roughly hewn stone entrance. The stairway was steep, and looked to be carved out of the same stone.

And it ended in what looked like a pool of blood. 

Charles fought to keep from screaming. He had been here too long pain was thumping at his temples. The lust and anger that had carried him this far was wearing off. He was trying for breath, and couldn’t seem to find it. The air was too hot; hot and wet ...

The pool of blood lay directly ahead. He walked closer; stared from the top of the steps. The pool stretched far into the distance; he could not see its end before it vanished into darkness. It was a narrow rectangle. Charles squeezed his eyes shut - it looked familiar, there was something about it that pulled at his memory, hard ... Reflecting ? Something to do with a reflection? But - no - the thought was gone.

At the very top of the steps was a square table. Topped with - marble? What material was it? Charles could not say. It did not matter, though ... since all of his attention was riveted to the crown that rested there.

An iron crown.

It looked heavy. It was only a thick band ... simple enough, if roughly made and dark - with several jagged collets spiking up from it. The collets were roughly the same size. Except ...

Except for the one which was slightly larger. It was the Ouroboros, wrought from iron thorns that spiked inward. Charles peered at the crown, biting his lip ... The large collet looked as though it were intended for a round jewel, or a piece of metal ... those thorns could hold another piece of metal ... if that metal were a circle ...

... that coin ...

His headache was getting worse. It was so damp and hot, and the smell of blood was everywhere ... and there was pressure: the darkness of the man’s mind, closing in on him like a vise.

Charles backed away from the pool and the stairs; the table and the crown. He looked away from the center stone frame, examining the wall curving on both sides and round his back. There was a splintery wooden door to his right. It had a scrape above it, marking where the mezuzah had obviously been torn away. 

Charles touched the door. A horrible cascade of images – pain fear blood sorrow – a gaunt woman, eyes both kind and despairing, alles ist gut, mein Schatz, alles ist – and the crack of a gunshot – and he recoiled with a cry. 

The man hadn’t moved. He was staring through the open stone frame in the center of the circular wall. Through it, into the distance: staring at the pool of blood. 

Charles swallowed thickly. “Right. I mean, not the door on the right, no. This one.” All of his intuition, instinct, led him to the door on the left – made of ebony, with sleek and understated lines. He touched it – and there was nothing but a feeling of … “Oh God.” He choked back a horrified laugh, feeling his mouth flood and his chest tighten. “This is it.” 

He strode to the man, ignoring the thrum in his own mind – this is wrong - grabbed his arm and dragged him over to the door. Threw it open. “Well,” and he felt a grin split his face; hot and vicious against wrong wrong wrong– “I knew you had it in you.” 

Charles tossed shield and sword in one corner of the room, feeling a strange heat pulse at his temples, a heavy warmth pool in his gut. He swallowed hard. “No sex for a month and a half – and see what your reaction is, to a cheap imitation of a bordello? Oh, for the Rose in Bloom.”

The entire room was dominated by an opulent bed in the center, draped in silk and velvet. Charles could hardly see the color of the luxurious materials – he glanced up. And up. The only source of light for the entire room was a far distant window. And heaps and heaps of candles, their wax dripping down their crystal holders and pooling on the floor. 

He stared into the fragments of mirror after mirror, lining the walls – glass shards still caught in their heavy gold frames. Someone had shattered all of them. In one of the largest fragments, Charles caught a glimpse of two people writhing on the bed – he choked back a gasp of surprise. Frost and … the man he had seen as the other statue. The man he didn’t know, smiling out at the destruction beyond the castle’s walls. 

“So. They came to this room, wherever it existed in reality, to fuck. And you – did you see them, at one point? Perhaps from behind a mirror? Perhaps you were a child,” he mocked, “and traumatized. How very sordid.” Charles’ head throbbed. He turned just in time to catch the man clawing for the door handle – “I told you,” Charles snarled, “you’re going to tell me everything. Who is that man?” He pointed at Frost and the stranger, twisting together on the bed, in the mirror fragment. 

No answer. 

“Fine. What is in that bunker?” 

The man’s eyes looked desperate. A distant part of Charles told him: this is wrong and then told him that he had gone too deep. That he was too deep in the man’s mind, and there would be no escape if he – 

Charles put an armored hand in the middle of the man’s chest; shoved. The men stumbled back onto the bed. With a growl, Charles followed him, pouncing and pinning him. Then he sat up into a straddle, staring down. The blood on the man’s face looked almost black, he was so pale; wild-eyed and starting to struggle. An arm flew free before Charles caught it again; the same with a leg, bunching the silks and sending something to the floor with a metallic clatter.

For a split second, he wondered what it was.

But then the man shoved up again, almost crazed, desperate to get away. So Charles jabbed the other's shin with a sabaton toecap and pushed forward viciously. Resistance, but then the sharp point must have cut deep, because the slide was easy -

The man's head jerked back. He kept struggling; writhing. The rustle of the bedclothes was very loud.

Charles kissed his neck; licked up to his jaw and sucked at the dried blood on his chin. Kissed the man, bit his lips and his tongue and used all of the new found strength he had in dreams to keep him still; trapped and open to the kiss, open to everything that he poured into it – Charles’ own anger and want and guilt … guilt for breaking this far into a mind, guilt for wanting the sadistic bastard in the first place – and guilt for enjoying everything that he, Charles, was doing to him. 

Every last thing. Pressing him down, having him, tormenting him – Charles caught a glimpse of his own eyes in a mirror fragment: wide and dark with lust. For one wild moment, he felt that he could enjoy this – every last thing – forever. 


Charles might never have found his way back out, were it not for his raven. 

A distant cry had made him draw his head back from the man’s chest, where he was biting and sucking bruises into the skin. That shirt had been the first to go, and Charles had had no compunction about digging his armored fingers into the wound on the man’s ribs – feeling something spasm, there: now you know how it feels, you bastard – 

“You like this?” he had panted, watching goosebumps race over the man’s arms. Perhaps from how Charles’ hot breath felt against the slick of saliva he had left as he worked his way down … “You must like this. Or you’d tell me what’s in the bunker and I would stop.” 

But it was strange - the man had gone still. Charles looked up: and saw that the man had brought a hand to his mouth. He was biting down on it, eyes squeezed shut. 

And … was that … 

For a moment, he wasn’t sure he saw it. The candlelight had been steadily dimming for some time. But …

Charles felt his jaw sag. There were tears tracking down the man’s face. Leaving rust-colored traces from where they ran over dried blood, as they wended their way down, down … 

This. Is. Wrong

The shout from his mind left him dazed, ears ringing – no … it was his raven. Calling out for him. 

And Charles realized: 

He had thought the raven was guarding the bunker; but: no. It had refused to come with him, deeper into the man’s mind. It had flown instinctively to the highest part of the castle, to where the air was clean. To the shoulder of the statue that looked so empty … and sad. Charles had not wanted to admit that the man could possibly look sad. That would mean that he would have to admit that what he was doing … everything he, Charles, was doing … 

Everything that he had been doing … was wrong. 

Charles let his head fall onto the man’s chest. “Oh God …” he slurred. 

Suddenly, he wondered if he himself would weep. “I’m too far. I went too far in – I can’t –” he gasped and started to hyperventilate, “I won’t be able to get out …” 

The ornate room with its shattered mirror walls rippled – was it starting to constrict? The raven’s cry was desperate. 

“I’m here!” Charles shouted, voice hoarse. He backed away from the bed; grabbed his shield and sword from the corner of the room. He stared at the man, lying there – still halfway dressed, yes, but bruised and bloodied and wrecked, staring up at nothing. 

“Help me,” Charles whispered, staring. He felt tears catch in his throat. “Get me out of here. Get me out, let me out let me out – I don’t want to be here anymore –” 

The mirrors rippled again – the shards melting together and reforming; fuck, was that Frost, staring from them, smiling? “God,” he choked, and then screamed: “Help! Get me out!” 

There was a hoarse crahk from above – Charles looked up and gasped at the raven flying down to him, fast as light from the distant window. 

Charles felt a distant thrumming, growing louder and louder – he didn’t have to see in order to hear and to smell, to know that there was blood from that pool trickling in under the door. The raven catapulted into his shoulder, crying out. He held tightly to it: “The whole place,” he gasped, “it’s going – something’s wrong, we have to get out – but how?” 

The raven fixed him with its glittering black eyes. 

“Oh,” Charles croaked. He tried a smile. “If an owl can do it, you can do it? Is that it?” 

It made no reply except to spread its wings. Charles didn’t expect it to … And he put aside all expectation, all thoughts of how he would look stupid, doing this – the raven squawked encouragement and he took a deep breath, and said: “We’re going now.” 

And he held out his arms – like Jean. Like his raven, spreading its wings. And like them both, he flew away, as around him in the depths of the man’s mind all the candles went out.


Charles gasped and opened his eyes. 

He was, oddly … warm. Even though he was lying in the ashes of the fireplace, in the library, and he should have been cold.

“The library,” he croaked. “I made it back.” 

He tried to move his head – a headache instantly flared into being and he winced. Then he tried to move his hands. The right one was perfectly fine; the left – 

He groaned. The left had that ring on it, and the ring was affixed to the fire grate. And only the man could detach them … 

The man, who lay draped across Charles, like a blanket. A … warm blanket. 

“Oh.” He heard his own voice, faint. “Oh, dear.” 

Cautiously, he stretched out a tendril of thought into the man’s mind – just brushing it. Don’t go back in; don’t get caught don’t get caught … 

The man’s thoughts, half asleep and without any sense of the rage and want of the metal blur … were ordered, strangely enough, in repeating patterns on the surface. Almost like a blueprint, if a blueprint could be silver or steel. Charles caught a hint at enough turmoil beneath, though, to make him wince. 

“Upbraid yourself later,” he said. “Get out of here now.” 

Tiredly, feeling as though his head would burst, he painted a simple silver-gilt command on a ribbon. Wake up

He sent it to the man.

And watched, shivering, as those green eyes blinked open. 

Charles felt a deep sense of unreality. That face … he had last seen it broken and covered in blood; blood and – his mind flinched away from – tears – And here the man was, looking as he ever had. Much like the statue now ... though not empty. There was a sense of warmth about the eyes. Perhaps it was the way they were lined beneath; maybe it was the smallest hint of crow’s feet.

Yes, he was older than the statue. And there was that scar … 

Charles sent him another ribbon. Hold still for a moment

Then he leaned up, and pressed his lips against the scar. A kiss - a gentle one. Careful. The man’s skin was so warm … not like the statue at all. And he hadn’t shaved that day – Charles drew in a shuddering breath – not like he had, in the kitchen, out of a bowl of hot water and with soap … Charles moved his mouth. He could kiss him deeper here, in reality, and it would be – 

He drew back. The man was looking at him; if a description could be made of his expression, it might be: mildly curious. Or: warm. 

Charles closed his eyes on the guilt, stabbing into his gut. If he kissed the man now, the way he had in the other's mind, it would still be a lie. Wrong, he thought. This is wrong.

Suddenly he felt nothing other than fatigue. He lay his head back down. Sent a thought. You don’t have to hold still anymore

Nothing really changed. The man blinked a few times. He looked tired as well. Then – and Charles shivered as he did so – the man lay his head back down. He rested one side of his face on Charles’ sternum. Charles could feel that hair tickle beneath his chin, lightly – 

He exhaled, feeling his stomach twist. “This – I can’t.” It was so warm, and if he didn’t break away now he never would.

“I’m done here. Done with this.” He sent a command, bright gold on the ribbon. Separate my ring from the fire grate

The man did. 

Bringing his hand back down, Charles flexed his wrist, groaning. Then he had a flash of inspiration, and: Yes, he thought to himself, fiercely. “Do it …” 

He held out his left hand. Take this ring off

Leaning up and away from Charles’ body, the man obeyed, blinking sleepily. The metal uncoiled from around his thumb with a twinge – but, once free of it, the abused flesh almost breathed a sigh of relief.

The man held the ring in the palm of his hand. Then he slipped it on his own left thumb. 

“What – no - get rid of it, destroy it –” It would give the whole deception away, its presence there. Charles sent a panicked ribbon, twisting and knotting in on itself: destroy that ring! 

A dim, sleep-fuzzed reply. No. And: mine. 

The man sighed out – a gust of heat on Charles’ face – and … Charles froze, as the other nuzzled into the crook of his neck, sighed again, and gave every indication of settling down to sleep. 

“Fine, then.” Charles sent – forget about how you got that ring; everything to do with it – wafting it into the man’s mind. “How can I do this?” he muttered. “How? I’m not going back in there …” 

So Charles called up his raven – feeling, despite his fierce headache, a burst of happiness to see the black silhouette of its wings. He gave it the ribbon, and had it tie forget about the ring around a tree in the metal forest. A small tree. One close to the edges. 

The man huffed out another breath, and tightened his grip on Charles. 

He really was very warm. And his face looked … peaceful.

"Until he wakes up," Charles said to his raven, shivering, "and realizes what I've done."

Unless, of course, something else could be done. Charles stared down at the head on his shoulder, feeling bleak. Peace. 

“I can give you peace. Or … I can try.” 

With one last flicker of power, he painted silver words on a gossamer thin banner. Forget about this night. Forget about everything that I did to you this night. Forget that I was ever in your mind this night. … Forget. Forget. Forget. 

He paused, and added one last command. And sleep now. A good sleep. With a good dream. 

Then he gave the banner to the raven. The raven flew above the silvery woods; released the banner and let it expand to cover a vast swathe of ground, of memory. Given a good sleep, it would unfurl itself to fill the man’s entire mind, and Charles would be safe. 

“And you’ll be safe, Jean.” He spoke to her dirty soles. “I’m going to talk to Frost tomorrow.”

He had promised Jean, after all. There would be another day, to slip under the man’s defenses and give him the order: set me free. Set us all free. And now he was so tired … so tired that he could almost sleep here, draped in the man’s warmth.

The raven was warm too, as it wafted back to Charles' mind and faded away. 

Charles carefully got out from under the man; turned him over, laid his arms down at his sides. Left him dreaming there, on the hearthstones. And took Jean back to her room, and went back to his own … to prepare for the next day, to sleep if he possibly could.

It turned out that he couldn't sleep. Nor could Charles forget. All he could do was stare into the ashes of his own fire until morning came.

Chapter Text

Charles knew he was brave. He knew he had courage; dedication and – dare he say it – valor. Angel had made him a knight; Jean had given him a shield and a name. His actions in the man’s mind - newfound sword notwithstanding - had tarnished that armor … but Charles knew he was brave. One had to be, in this world, to face down death, and pain, and fear.

Of course, that was when he thought he knew fear.

It took only just under thirty hours, from the moment of his leaving the man on the library hearth to sleep, to realize that: no - he had never really known it. Not in truth.

At least, not before the night of the sixth of October, and the morning of the seventh. 


Charles did not eat anything the morning after his escape from the man’s mind. He stared into his mug of tea, instead, thinking. 

Mr. Xavier? Jean projected, eyes wide. She sent an image. Charles, his face ashen, looking down into his tea. Are you sick?

“No, dear.” He took a long swallow. “I’m not sick. I’m just thinking.” 

I fixed the locks this morning

“Yes, I saw.” Charles gave her a smile. “Very good work. I’m glad that Alex won’t get into trouble.” 

Me too. She crammed a piece of bread into her mouth. 

When Alex came into the room, Charles stood to accompany him and Jean out the door. He followed them to the base of the stairs. Then up the stairs. 

“Um, Mr. Xavier?” The boy looked confused. “McCoy’s workroom is that way.” 

“I need you to take me to Lady Frost, Alex,” he replied, calmly. “I must speak with her.” 

Charles did not put any power into his voice. All he did was repeat his words, over and over, until Alex was persuaded to get another blindfold and take him through with Jean. In a way, Charles was glad for the blindfold. However foolish he thought it, the cloth shielded him from the disbelieving hope in Jean’s eyes – and a love for him, shining from her face, that he did not think he deserved. 


“So you see,” Charles finished, “Jean is too young. Her mind is malleable – a positive, yes – but too much trauma now could damage her irreparably.” 

“And so you take it upon yourself to suffer in her place?” Frost’s tone was mocking, delicate, diamond sharp. 

Charles breathed out, carefully, and met her eyes. “I only point out, madam, that you have two of us, now; where before you only had one. Even splitting the burden would take some of the stress from Jean’s mind.” 

She’s only a child, he thought fiercely; forgot to veil, such was his fatigue, and saw Frost give a moue of distaste.

“Such sentiment, Mr. Xavier. As you have gathered by now, the EBS makes demands on all of its people. Children are not excluded.” 

He felt every bit of his weariness, bone-deep. “I know this. I just … Lady Frost,” he said, voice low, and saw her eyes gleam with vindictive pleasure. “She’s a child, and as such - her brain is still growing, and developing, and any damage you do - any damage done now might not be able to be undone, later.” 

“Hm.” Frost toyed with the letter opener lying on her desk.

Glass, Charles thought. Or crystal, but that would be prohibitively expensive. He hardly registered the other elegant and beautiful objects in her office. They were walled off by opaque glass from an immense and lively workroom – one thrumming with energy, electricity, activity. Mutants he didn’t know had fallen silent as he had walked through, holding Jean’s hand. Jean had waved at some of them. 

So many new faces; so many machines and things to learn … but Charles’ mind refused to catalogue. He felt too tired. 

“This issue, Mr. Xavier, is that you are, to be frank, singularly untrustworthy. Why should I give any of this work to you?” 

“Because, Lady Frost: if you do, I will prove myself trustworthy. If it means that Jean will be kept alive for a few more years.” 

Unexpectedly, Frost looked pensive. “You think the situation that serious? Really, she has an MRI every month, and nothing has been discovered that –” 

"I have worked with children for over fifteen years. I know what accumulated stress, sleep deprivation, and mental trauma can do to one of them. Even if she doesn’t have an aneurysm, she’ll fade away from lack of nourishment. Or,” seeing Frost about to retort, Charles played his trump card, “knowing Jean, and knowing Jean’s power – she is perfectly able to will herself to go to sleep one night, and never wake up.” 

There was a long silence. 

When Frost spoke again, her voice was soft.

“Well. When you put it that way, Mr. Xavier … I suppose you may have a point.” Her eyes stared at him, cold. “We shall use you in the Finder today, and see how you fare. If all goes well, we shall repeat the process tomorrow.” 

She smiled. “And in between, we shall discuss my definition of ‘trustworthy.’” 


The Finder, Charles decided later that evening, was … unique. It would have been exhilarating, had it not been so painful. As it was, two mutants he didn’t know had to help him undo the straps and buckles before he could wobble up off the plastic incline. A third mutant - feathers, how strange - brought water to sluice the plastic clean. In another life, Charles reflected distantly, he might have felt humiliated. Now, he didn’t care. 

“We’ll have another made, molded to you.” Frost’s eyes had glittered. “I commend you on your excellent idea, Mr. Xavier. And we shall see how we might best occupy Jean in her new schedule.

“Now.” Another smile. “Go wash yourself, change your clothes, and eat. Christopher will show you the showers.” She gave the mutant with water a brisk nod; he nodded back. 

Charles didn’t have to talk to this feathered Christopher person, which was just as well. He was deposited in a shower stall, given a change of clothes, and left alone.

He had finished showering and was sitting on a bench, staring, when – “Hey X man …” came in a whisper. 

“Logan –” he looked up, tried a smile. “How are you?” 

“Well, pretty damn good, since we ourselves got a brand new nuke and nobody got killed … but, really? About a hundred times better than you, I bet.” Logan was staring. “Seriously, Xavier: the Finder? What the fuck?” 

“For Jean,” Charles said. He closed his eyes. “I did it for Jean.” 

“… Right.” 

Silence, then Logan cleared his throat. “You’re a good man. You know that, X?” 

Charles blinked up at him tiredly. Logan’s face looked drawn in fierce lines: lines of sadness … but also pride. And when he spoke, his voice was gruff.

“You ever need me to do something for you: you tell me. All right?” 

“All right.” 

Logan shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Water from his shower dripped onto his broad shoulders. “And I’m not just saying that cause you almost drank me under the table last night.

"And speaking of which, Xavier – a bit lame to ask you for a favor just after offering to do you one, but … You know you mentioned … fiddling with our minds? About last night? Well, could McCoy and I – uh, have that done, I guess?” He gave a tight smile. “Frost hasn’t checked yet – she had something else mental to fix, a big job … but she’ll check tomorrow.” 

Charles hadn’t the foggiest idea what he was going to do, but: Jean, he remembered. Jean had given Angel a token, the night they had restored her quince. He would ask her to give one each to Logan and McCoy. 

“Stop by tonight, quickly. Dinner hour. Before we go to bed. We’ll take care of it then.” 

The mutant with the water – Charles had already forgotten his name – came to collect him then. And Charles could only walk slowly away. 


Dinner was soup. It tasted oddly metallic - though that didn't matter. Charles had no appetite. 

Jean had watched him with hero-worship in her eyes all evening. She had tried to apologize for the library incursion; he had smiled, and told her to think nothing of it. More true than she knew – the last thing he wanted to do was think anything of it. 

When Charles asked her for two tokens, for Logan and McCoy, she beamed, and invited him into her mind. And there, in the shade of the immense tree, she showed them to him. Charles held up the delicate stones – two separate ones, each on its separate golden chain – and admired the way they gleamed with fire. 

You put it around your neck, in your mind. You say a word you decide on earlier – a special one. And the memory will stay in your mind for only you, until you say the word again.

“What if you say it accidentally?” he asked. 

Well, she huffed, that’s why it has to be a very special word. 

“Right.” Charles smiled at the glimmering pendants. Then he made his voice casual. “Can you make these, Jean, for someone who mustn’t know that his or her memory has been erased? Do you think that’s possible?” 

Jean’s eyes had gone solemn. I’ve never done that, Mr. Xavier

No, Charles thought to himself with a sour twist of shame. No. Of course she hadn’t. 


Logan and McCoy came inside the kitchen, ostensibly to drop off the grille for inside the stove, taken out for cleaning when the apples had proven difficult to scrape off. Charles sent his owl winging into each of their minds with the pendant and instructions; Logan gave him a grin and a thumbs-up; McCoy, a squeeze on the shoulder, and: “I hope we can still work together some, Mr. Xavier. I’ll miss you.” 

In the silence after the men had left, Jean offered: I think he really will miss you, Mr. Xavier. 

“Yes,” Charles said, emptily. “And I’ll miss him, too.” 

Jean bit her lip, looking woebegone. Then she sent him an image: herself, holding out the pendant, framed with I can teach you how to make them –

“Tomorrow, perhaps. All right?” Charles swayed to his feet; smiled down at her with an effort. “Right now I need to sleep.” 

He wove his way down the hall, to his room. 

And froze as he opened the door, and saw Frost, Alex, and Angel standing there. 

“Well,” he started. “Good evening.” 

“Good evening, Mr. Xavier.” Frost smiled at him, broadly – he shivered. Charles saw that Angel had been crying; her eyes were red. Alex looked an odd cross between mutinous and ill. 

“Mr. Xavier, I had mentioned, earlier today, that we would be discussing trustworthiness this evening. Since you are an academic, and undoubtedly given to teasing out new levels of meaning in any number of words, I thought to make my definition of 'trustworthy' absolutely ... concrete. So there can be no misundertandings between us.” 

She stepped to one side. 

And Charles saw, attached to an iron ring newly set in the wall by his bed …

… a chain and shackle. 

He breathed in. And out. Focus. Just breathe. 

“What is this, exactly? I – I don’t understand.” 

“I find that hard to believe, Mr. Xavier. This is all there is to understand: you are going to be chained in this room, every night, so you do not go wandering anymore. Whether in your sleep or wide awake. So. Feel free to brush your teeth. Ms. Salvadore, you are dismissed. Mr. Summers – build a fire for him, and leave. Mr. Xavier and I have one more item to discuss.” 

Charles knew he had to be in shock. He should have been screaming, shouting and fighting the humiliation of being chained in his own bed – “Chained,” he whispered to himself in the mirror, “in my bed– that’s – that’s absolutely inhumane. Not to mention: ridiculous.” 

“I heard that,” Frost’s voice rang out, crystal clear. Laughing at him. 

The door had closed after Angel and Alex, so Charles knew he would be alone with her. But he was not afraid. Head held high, he strode out of the bathroom and walked over to his bed. Sat. “Just get it over with,” he gritted out. 

One perfect eyebrow arched. “Of course.” 

Charles looked around the room, to take his mind off the sensation of the shackle closing around his ankle, the click of the lock. Alex had built him a roaring fire. His room was in perfect order; excellent, since he hated visitors seeing a mess. Frost tugged at the chain to test it; it clanked, far too loudly. 

The metal was ice cold around his ankle. 

“There.” 

Charles didn’t look at it. Refused to look at it. Instead, he gazed up at Frost. “If that is all, perhaps I might be able to sleep?” 

“I certainly hope so, Mr. Xavier. For, you see … I have one more item to explain to you.” 

Frost slowly paced to the hearth. Backlit by the fire, her diamond brightness turned to the blackness of an eclipse, even in the dark room. 

“Namely: that my definition of ‘trustworthy’ also encompasses knowing what you, as a budding telepath, get up to in other people’s minds.” 

Charles’ heart went still. 

“Quite some time ago, now, you excised part of young Alex Summers’ memory. Quite well done, if I may say. But you did not know how to cover your tracks well.” She paused. “I let that excision remain – it being sixty seconds at most. But …” 

A long pause. 

“But, Mr. Xavier … imagine my surprise when, this morning, my very dearest colleague – one who has always been like a son to me – walked into my presence trailing … banners, of all things. Flags. Giant signs, to another telepath – at least, to one of my ability. All reading: Forget. Forget ...” 

Her voice slithered out of the darkness.

“… Forget.” 

Charles did not say a word. 

He was conscious, of all things, of a chunk of toothpaste left in one molar. He probed at it. It dissolved into a burst of mint. 

Then he swallowed, swallowed hard and started to speak – 

Frost cut him off. “Understand this: I do not know what you did to him or why; nor do I care, precisely. My prince is an adult and well able to handle himself. Indeed, as soon as I had reversed your little commands, he paid the front a visit – and I am told that he handled three entire platoons of Free West soldiers. Alone.” He heard the smile in her voice. “The darling boy has such a temper." 

Charles’ tongue felt too big for his mouth. He swallowed around it; said the first thing that came into his mind: “How many soldiers are in a platoon?” 

“I’m sure I do not know, Mr. Xavier – military specifics are beneath me. No, my point is … I do not know what you did. But he does, now. He remembers everything. He knows.”

She walked to the door. 

“And I want you to know that he knows.” 

A pause. “And, of course, to sleep well. Good night, Mr. Xavier.” 

The door closed behind her. The lock clicked, the bolt slid home. 

And Charles, there in his room, chained to the wall, realized: he had not known fear, before. Ever. 

Not compared to the fear he knew now. 


Thus, it was a surprise when he woke up alive the next morning. Alive and unharmed. “The surprise of my life.”

His mind added – but timidly, and only after a long moment – so to speak

It wasn’t a surprise that he had slept. Charles had thought, at first, that sheer terror would keep him awake all night … but the Finder had drained his mind so completely that all he could do, eventually, was fall into a deep and exhausted slumber – even with the new weight chafing on his ankle. He hadn’t heard a single sound to wake him. 

Angel came in and practically ripped the shackle away, cursing in Spanish. Her fierce imprecations on his behalf accompanied him downstairs; he joined Jean at the kitchen table. 

Jean, he noticed with a start, looked pale. 

“Jean, what’s the matter?” He knew his voice was sharp; he didn’t care. “Do you feel sick again?” 

She shook her head; gave him a curl of a smile. Sent him a picture: herself, yawning over her cup of tea, framed with: tired … 

“Oh, I see.” Charles stared at the table. A distant part of his mind felt relief. 

Jean gave him a cup; projected the image of himself, weary from the Finder, drinking the tea down – and her giving him another cup. She had made the frame as golden and rich as she could; a statement: LOVE

“Thank you, Jean.” He took a sip of the hot drink. “Now, why on earth are you tired? Did you have trouble sleeping?” 

Those grey eyes fixed on his, and Jean nodded. Then she sent him another image. 

Charles almost choked. 

The image was … as seen through Jean’s door, only just cracked open a fraction of an inch: 

A lean, dark shadow; standing rigid in place. Standing right outside Charles’ door – his door – 

my door, he realized, mouth going absolutely dry, despite the tea. 

A shadowed hand, reaching for the door handle. For the lock. Then ... pulling back?

And then … the shadow exploding into motion – slamming its hands against the wood and clawing; looking as though it wanted to do nothing more than smash the door to smithereens and burn it in a fire.

An undercurrent in Jean’s memory: the sound of snarls, ferocious and bestial – and the wham of a fist against wood, slamming again and again and again – 

Jean looked at him intently. She framed the image with a question: 

Love?

Charles closed his eyes. Opened them; looked back at her. And managed to say: 

“Not really, dear."

He managed a smile. "Now: eat your breakfast before it gets cold.” 

Even though he himself felt cold. Frozen. Frozen in fear – his blood turned to ice in his veins.


End of Part I

Chapter Text

Dark and cold; cold and dark. Everywhere, fires had gone out, burnt into cold ashes. Breathe. In and out; out and in. Charles breathed. He needed to get home – he needed to tell Raven something; something important … 

“Raven …” He heard an echo: it sounded like his own voice. “Raven – where are you?”

Come home, come home. Raven, Raven fly away home …

And there she was … her arms raised, as though she were lecturing her students. Speaking to them, teaching them: a bright flicker of gold in the class hallway … standing still and patient and … not running?

Charles frowned. She should be running; laughing. Golden hair should be streaming out behind her as she ran toward him.

Except now, she looked up from her students and stared at him. Directly into his eyes.

It was so dark. He couldn’t see her anywhere. Except: there she was, staring at him. Golden hair, bright against the darkness.

Wake up, Charles.

“What?” he croaked. “Raven – where are you? I can hardly see you …”

Somehow, she was so far away. A golden spark on the fringe of a unfurled banner of nothingness: old night unrolled into the corners of the world.

Wake up, Charles.

“I’m tired.” And he was – he didn’t understand. He couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was staring. “I don’t want to wake up, Raven.” His own voice, Charles knew, sounded exhausted. “I’m tired.”

Charles. Count.

His golden sister stretched out her hands. Something black flickered against her brightness – a speck, that turned into a dot and expanded; a thread, that thickened and unfolded into a twist of black cloth … that unfurled tiny wings and began flying toward him.

“Oh. A raven.” Charles smiled. “Lovely.” 

How many, Charles?

“Just one.”

Count.

“I told you. Just one.” He blinked, slowly; the bird was flying with steady beats of its wings. Closer, now; he could see it clearly, even against the darkness of the carpet keeping Raven from him.

The raven was very ... large. Strange.

His sister’s light glimmered around the edges of its wings, dimming as the shadow bird grew even larger.

Wake up, Charles.

“One for bad news …” Charles shivered. “What – Raven? Can you hear me?”

Silence. Then:

Wake up, Charles.

“Right.” He folded his arms across his body. “Right, I will – I just –” Charles tried to take a step –

– and realized that his feet were rooted in the ground. He couldn’t see, in the dark, to find out if they were real roots or not; in a dream, he was just as likely to turn into a tree as anything else. He looked back up.

The raven was huge, he realized, eyes widening – and flying silently. He couldn’t see Raven anymore. Charles focused on the bird again; watched its pitch-black feathers beat up and down - and its beak was so sharp and its eyes glittered and gleamed at him … hungry. It wasn’t his raven, he realized with a panic: it looked wrong. It had filled his entire field of vision. And it smelled wrong. It smelled like … dry rot. Like blood.

Like death.

Wake up, Charles – the last flash of the golden spark – wake up wake up wake up

And Charles jerked upright in his bed, gasping.

It was cold in his room, as usual. October was pressing onward; the days were getting ever shorter and the nights freezing cold. He was tangled in his sheets, as usual – fully clothed under them all, and sweating. Everything smelled slightly unpleasant. He would have liked to wash his bedding somehow, but sheets hung in the bathroom during the day ending up marked with slivers of ice by evening.

Charles stretched out his power to the thought-fire set to burn in the hallway, as he had every night since …

He shuddered.

There was a shadow on the other side of his door.

Again.

As there had been almost every night since he first had the shackle put round his ankle.

It was funny, Charles thought distantly: how the mind could become accustomed to the most vivid and terrible fear, given enough repetition. The first night after Jean had relayed her memory to him, he had stayed awake as long as he could. He had set the thought-fire only when he had to sleep, and only after considering other options. A flock of birds, watching over him while he slept; an impenetrable tapestry, woven over the door in silver threads … or a fire set to burn, to wake him. So he would be aware, alert …

It had worked. He had jolted awake as soon as he had sensed the first slow slide of the shadow through the fire. Charles had sat up and stared at the door, heart pounding into his throat, as he sensed it – him, the man – leaning close, unfolding two strong hands against the wood, flexing his fingers …

The door handle had rattled, slightly. Charles had jumped, immediately ashamed of his own strangled whimper. Then the chain had clinked – and sounds from his own throat dried up in fear as he sensed the man’s power, slithering through the room like a brood of metal vipers. All that brutal animal awareness … focusing in on the shackle round his ankle … like a drill bit, a sharp corkscrew turning and turning …

“Go away,” Charles had whispered, low.

The shackle had grown warm. One pulse, two …

No –” He gritted his teeth fiercely, and jammed one finger into the space between metal and flesh, behind the sharp bone of his ankle. “Go away!”

Any minute the shackle would tighten and the pain would start. His heart raced; his mouth tasted metallic – fear. So Charles had given in to the panicked flurry of instinct and sent his sparrow winging towards the door, towards the man’s mind, carrying a brilliant blue banner: go away go away as large as life –

In retrospect, Charles realized that he might have expected it. The first night he had been awake to sense the shadow, though, he hadn’t been thinking clearly.

And then all he had felt was the shock and pain of metal slicing, stabbing the bird. A whirl of shrapnel, like a deadly kaleidoscope of grey and black and silver, caught one wing and … Charles felt jagged flashes of pain rebound through his skull. He had seen a wood chipper, once, in Oxford – the town carpenter had one that ran on propane – and the way the wood disappeared into its maw with a crunch was very like this –

Very like. And the sparrow flew jerkily through the room, back to him … trailing blood and making faint chirps of pain. Charles felt his mind reach out and gather it close. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry – I didn’t know …” That this would happen. That he would be prepared with – something … What was it?

The presence at the door had taken one step away. Then another. One flame of Charles’ thought-fire had licked, cautiously – shoes and dark slacks, and the lines of bone and tendon at his ankles – only touched long enough to receive a few sensations, before flickering down into embers; hiding …

There had been that want, again, of course: the seething tangle of desire-hunger-lust-prey … But there had also been a wild, dark surge of satisfaction.

“‘I’ll show you,’ hm? Something like that? ‘I have defenses ringed about my mind, and you only caught me off guard the once’ – fine. Do you feel better now?” Charles had spat at the door. “Then don’t come back.”

------------------------

But the man had come back, the next night. And the next, and the next. 

Charles hadn’t wanted to risk any more injury to his power; it had taken the better part of a dream to heal the sparrow. That hadn’t happened with the hummingbird, the only other time he had run into the perimeter defenses of the man’s mind … Realizing that, Charles had felt a twist of anxiety, one that had nothing to do with the lurking shadow. He didn’t know enough about how his power worked. He needed to know more.

So he would keep the thought-fire burning. He would open his eyes each time he felt the man stop in front of the door. Charles would wait, tense, until the shadow prowled away. Sometimes that would be all. Other times there would be scraping and the scritch of fingernails on wood; the clatter of the bolt; the cold sounds of the chain scraping, where its length pooled on the floor … like a snake making itself comfortable in its nest.

But sometimes the shadow would just … leave.

Charles didn’t understand. If the goal was to frighten him: “Congratulations,” he croaked into the chill of his room, the first time. If it was to make him lose sleep: “Good work,” he mumbled into the pressure of his hands on his eyes, a week later. But it happened again and again and again … so, he reflected, shivering, on the night of Saturday 18 October, if the goal was to drive him absolutely insane …

“It’s working.” His laugh was high-pitched and ragged in the darkness; he could only just see his breath puff white. “It’s bloody well working, you bastard. Now go away. Go away. I want you to leave.”

And the shadow left.  

If only it all could be so easy. Charles squeezed his eyes shut. I want you to leavea want expressed, and the monster left – with only one flicker of the fire to mark its passing.  

And left without a sound – or. Well. Perhaps that slight noise that had made the fire flare had been … the scuff of a shoe, retreating. It could have been a whispered word, or a laugh. 

Anything but a growl, Charles thought, desperately. 

Because if it had been a growl, with a hungry edge … it had been quiet.

So quiet ... that there was no chance it could wake Jean from sleep. 

Chapter Text

Even if Angel hadn’t demonstrated that she was now used to the sight of his chain – flourishing its key each morning with aplomb, wincing in sympathy at the scrape on his ankle turning into a callus – her happy smile that morning, as she ushered Charles downstairs, would have been … unseemly. Really, Charles thought, dull, trying to stoke his mind into full wakefulness. What could prompt such a mood, in such a place? 

Small things, perhaps. Jean beaming at him, and a cup of tea on what they had established was his side of the kitchen table. Charles went to fetch dried fruit for them both, and bread. There was no more cheese – there hadn’t been for a week. 

“Here, Jean.” He set a plate in front of her. “Eat up.” 

Then Charles blinked at the image that glowed into his mind, like sunlight. Ororo, her white-shot black hair, her dark skin and eyes, smiling down at Jean – and the whole framed with: We get a present! 

“A … present?” Charles knew he looked confused. “What are you talking about?” 

As if called by his words, Angel came into the kitchen, carrying a cardboard box. “Ta-da! You are the lucky winners!” 

That present! Jean’s thought hit his mind like a bag of cement; he winced, and she immediately looked contrite. Sorry, Mr. Xavier – 

“Don’t worry. If I may ask, Angel –” Charles gestured at the box with his mug of tea. “What’s all this?” 

“Well, Mr. Xavier: there’s good news and there’s better news. The good news is: Ororo’s been Sworn.” 

“Beg pardon?” 

“Oh, sorry – I forget that you don’t know. ‘Sworn’ is basically your promotion to ‘full responsibilities and privileges.’” Angel’s voice took on an oracular tone. “So Ororo’s not a student anymore. And when she gets back, she might replace me as a monitor – yeah, sweetheart, that’d be cool, wouldn’t it?” 

Angel had turned to Jean as she set her slender hands to work opening the box. The ring on her right hand glinted; the bracelet on her left flashed. Charles hardly noticed them. 

Sworn. Ororo, perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old, now a fully-fledged member of the Brotherhood. Charles corrected himself bleakly: the Eastern Brethren and Sistren. She was on the front, perhaps in Dallas … and even if she lived, they might not see her again ...

The box was open; and Jean’s squeal of delight was so unexpected that Charles gave a start. “Why, Jean – I never heard you make a sound … before.” 

No, his mind interjected – he had. The hair on the back of Charles’ neck prickled as the memory flickered into being. Jean had cried out in Angel’s mind, shouting Angel's name …

But he had not heard her speaking voice since. 

Charles made a mental note to review the details of his visit to Angel’s mind – his thoughts shied away from his visit to – don’t think about it – and he told himself to consider Jean’s selective muteness as well. Then he turned to look at the box. 

It contained a motley assortment of … things. Jean was lifting each out, her eyes wide and her small hands careful. She had placed a large book on the table already. Next to it was a stack of thick paper – colored pencils strung tight to it with string. Charles watched Jean lift from the box a smaller box, perhaps the size of a loaf of bread, decorated with an intricate design of criss-crossing wires. 

I gave her that box, Mr. Xavier. Charles could feel the warmth from Jean’s thoughts. 

Did you? he replied. It’s lovely. 

Jean gave him a fern-curl smile. You’d better talk out loud, since Angel is here

Very well, and: “Angel,” he sighed. “You said there was better news?” 

“Oh yes.” Angel grinned at him. “When someone is Sworn, the other students keep his or her things. We don’t like to waste stuff – and you’re not supposed to carry anything with you, when you make your vows.” 

“So …” 

“So that means: unless you want me to throw it all out, you and Jean get to divvy this up!” She gestured at the cluttered tabletop. “Is that all, Jean?” She nodded; Angel continued, “Good. Then I’ll just leave you to it – back in ten.” 

Charles hardly noticed her going, until he heard: “Oh, I almost forgot. Sworn are allowed to pass on words of wisdom, inspiration, blah blah blah – only the one time. So: feel lucky, Mr. Xavier, because …” She presented him a square of paper, with a flourish. “You have a message.” 

He stared at Angel for a long moment. Then, shakily, he took the piece of paper. It was flimsy; there was what looked like typeface on one side. “Thank you.” 

“No problem. I assume Ororo means it for Jean, too; baby can’t read yet, so maybe you can read it to her?” With a smile, Angel left. 

Charles ignored the inner voice that reminded him – you’re not likely to forget that she can’t read, hm? – and unfolded the note with trembling hands. It was handwritten – the typeface, he realized, meant that they only had scrap paper left over. “Shall I read this aloud, Jean?” 

Jean nodded eagerly. Charles cleared his throat, and began; 

Dear Jean and Mr. Xavier,

All four of us are fine. No injuries but it is hard work here. Sorry so choppy but not a lot of paper. Jean: I LOVE YOU – stay strong. I think of you every hour, every day. You can make it. Listen to Mr. Xavier; he will watch out for you. 

Charles paused, in order to swallow past a lump in his throat. 

Mr. X, he continued, please do that. I know I can trust you. Thank you for everything – I am glad you are with us

“With us?” he breathed, half-choking. “And what have I done for you? Oh, Ororo –” because his mind was full of images of her fighting in battle; shot and killed; captured and tortured, and not even Raven’s age – 

Jean sent him an image: himself, smiling down at them all, macchinetta in hand – framed by: you love us.

“Well.” He swiped his sleeve across his eyes. “To conclude.” 

Both: help yourselves, but I would like Jean to have my wall hanging. & Mr. X: have my book. It helped me grow a backbone; it might help you too. 

Love, (always always, Jean bean) - Ororo

“… Grow a backbone?” 

Charles blinked hard. “What the hell – oh, sorry Jean.” Ridiculous, to feel put out by a teenager’s jibe; he had heard worse in school, but why would Ororo of all people – and in such a note, too … 

Frowning, he hefted the book. Let Rain Come Down: the Life of Haile Zänäbä. An elegant portrait on the cover; a man dressed in pure white, with dark eyes, skin and hair, and a lion – how very understated, truly – reclining at his feet. “Well,” Charles said to himself. “Not unambitious, certainly.” The tome could serve as a doorstop, and – he flicked through it – it had hardly any pictures. It was written in what looked like dry, academic prose. “Really, Ororo, I wonder … ” 

His ears caught a small crinkle. Charles’ eyes flew to the spine of the book –

– the spine – 

“Oh, Ororo – backbone, spine,” he whispered, “of course.” 

Was that a frayed edge to the binding? The last few pages of backmatter hanging somewhat more loosely than the rest of the book? Already his fingers were itching to take the volume apart; with an effort, Charles controlled the urge. Angel might return at any moment; it would not do to have her discover whatever was hidden there. Because he knew, Charles thought, feverishly. Surely something was hidden there. Ororo, hiding something this entire time … What could it be? 

To distract himself from the prospect, he turned to look at Jean – turned and bit back a laugh. She had almost disappeared under a swathe of brightly colored fabric. “Is that the wall hanging she mentioned?” 

He saw the fabric move in what must have been a vigorous nod. “Very well,” he continued, tone light. “This book is mine –” his fingers did not tremble as he moved it to his side of the table; he was perfectly self-controlled. “And that hanging is yours. Now – what else would you like?” 

A distant part of him called to mind the image of a carrion bird, picking over a bejeweled corpse. He shook his head: nonsense. Ororo was alive, and surely she would be fine … And this was part and parcel of a fine human tradition: keeping belongings in the family. Family. Charles smiled wryly. “Choose what you will, Jean. I’ll have whatever you don’t care for.” 

Jean let the cloth drape her shoulders. Wide-eyed, she picked the paper and colored pencils. She sent the merest pulse of inquiry to Charles. 

“It’s fun, isn’t it, when no words are necessary?” He smiled at her. “And yes: of course.” 

She carefully set the paper and pencils to one side. Then she looked at Charles, then at the assortment still remaining, then back at him. 

“Go ahead, Jean.” His thoughts were thrumming with the book the book the book– “I have what I want.” 

Jean shook her head, frowning; and Charles suddenly saw – he guffawed, despite himself. A pig, sitting at the table and wrapped in the bright wall hanging, surrounded by all of the gifts, and: it’s your turn. 

“Oh, Jean – I don’t think you could be selfish if you tried. But, Miss Piglet,” he raised his eyebrows, “why don’t you pick one for me?” 

She blinked, considering the items left. Then she smiled her small curl of a smile, and pushed the metal box toward him. 

“Why, thank you.” Charles opened it – the lid fit perfectly. Inside were … “Oh dear.” Inside were several pots of makeup, and certain other toiletries. “Well, Jean – I’m probably not going to wear lipstick, but –” he caught sight of her trembling lower lip, “but, I’ll treasure this always.” 

For: surely, Charles thought, surely there was something in there he could use. Lip balm, perhaps, or moisturizer – the cold, dry air left everything exposed feeling chapped. He closed the lid again, firmly. “And you gave this to Ororo? When was that?” 

Last year. I asked for a pretty box for my Fourth Quarter Gift, and then I gave it to her. She had been talking about how her things were going everywhere when she would open the bathroom cupboard … 

“How kind of you.” Charles returned her smile; he made a mental note to ask for something that could be re-gifted, come December. He ran his fingers over the braids and curlicues of wire twining round the box. “It’s quite finely done. I wonder where –” 

An image, in his mind: the man – the man oh my god him him– seated cross-legged and holding up a plain metal box – 

Charles jerked his hands away from the metal, as if it burned. 

– still in the image: those stark features unchanged except for one quirk of the mouth, a glint to the blue-green eyes – as the man extended both index fingers with a flourish … and as wires shot from somewhere to twist and coil around the box’s sides – 

Charles’ bench had made a screeching sound as it skidded backward over the stone floor; it had almost drowned out Jean’s: It’s pretty, isn’t it? 

For a long moment, he only heard his own breathing. Charles stared at the box as though it were a bear trap; he only just caught a glimpse of Jean’s brow puckering. Isn’t it, Mr. Xavier? Don’t you like it? 

“Oh,” he croaked. Then he cleared his throat. “Oh, yes, it’s very pretty.” 

It’s yours now.

“Oh, well, the thing is,” and he thought, desperately, “ah – the thing is, it’s far too pretty to be just for me. In fact …” and Charles emptied out the metal box as quickly as he could, “I’ll keep these lovelies, and we can keep this even lovelier lovely downstairs. Here. In the kitchen.” 

Because one could not pay him any amount of money to have that thing in his room. He might as well sleep with his neck in a garrote. Staring at the decorations, Charles remembered metal twisting and coiling round his eyes – he shuddered. 

That’s a good idea. Jean had brightened. Where in the kitchen? 

“Um.” Charles cast around for something, anything, but then Jean scrambled over to the counter. She raised one hand; the jar containing teabags wobbled into it. She returned, and began to transfer teabags from jar to box. It’s just right for these! 

And that way, Charles realized, gritting his teeth, he’d have to look at it every single bloody time he wanted a hot drink. All the more reason to make good on his every-lurking thoughts: escape escape escape. Frost can be fooled. He can be evaded – defeated. And they can all be deceived. And Charles would be gone – gone home to Oxford, with coffee to drink, he thought to himself, caught between a laugh and a sob at his own pettiness. Coffee to drink, Raven to talk to – no

He’d talk to Raven and Jean. 

For, watching Jean press in the last teabag and try her best to shut the overflowing box, Charles came to a stark conclusion. If he were to escape, he’d have to make his plans for two. There was no way he would ever leave Jean here. 

In the meantime, “It was a good letter of Ororo’s, wasn’t it?” He took the box from her, firmly – I’m not afraid – and shut the lid tight. “And I take her words to heart. So, Jean …” 

And Charles gave her a stern look. “No powers in the kitchen.” 

Except for talking, Jean sent, brightly. 

“Well, yes.” He put the box in a dark corner of the counter. Out of sight; out of mind … “Now that it’s just the two of us.” 


Just the two of us, Charles thought, staring at the back of Jean’s head as the blindfolds were taken off. Her hair gleamed copper in the unforgiving fluorescent light of what he had started to call ‘the Hive’. It was the vast workroom he had first seen … how long ago was it, now? Almost two weeks, he realized: twelve days since the seventh. And every day of that twelve, he had seen mutants he didn’t know, rushing in and out of the room … all with purpose to their steps. All had a role. All knew what to do … 

As if reading his mind, a mutant with a shock of purple hair whistled. “Hey, everyone. Whose turn is it?” 

“Denise, I think –” 

“Let me check.” A stocky, brown-haired woman consulted a clipboard, affixed to the railing that circled the entire room. “All right, sweetheart.” She walked up to them, gave Jean a smile and held out one hand. “You get to help me today. Psychometric dynamics,” she murmured, giving Charles a half-smile, too. “But she can draw some pictures, I think.” 

“I’m sure she’ll be no trouble at all.” Charles knew his voice sounded reserved; he tried to smile in return, but his face felt like wood. All of these mutants – all of them, he thought – had watched Jean get strapped down and tortured … every day? Well. However many days per week Frost had felt so inclined. 

“Speak of the devil,” he murmured. There was Frost, striding along the upper level of the Hive. Her shoes clicked as she walked past door after door. 

Those doors … Charles’ curiosity was almost a physical ache. Surely all the doors opened onto unique and invaluable things, since the Hive was the hub of the EBS’ command wheel. He had caught a glimpse of a long hallway behind one of the doors – and since he hadn’t seen any evidence of a panopticon from his brief forays outside, Charles concluded that they were underground. And the daily use of an elevator, that he felt while blindfolded … surely that confirmed it. 

The Hive had an upper level, then the level on which he was standing, and then another sunk even lower. Staring down, Charles felt his spirits sink as well. At the lowest point of the lowest level stood the Finder. 

He swallowed back a surge of bile. He really had thought so much of himself, his first visit here, thinking that he would be placed in the Finder. He had assumed thus from Frost’s words – not considering that when she said she would use him, she had meant it. Frost had made use of him. 

And he had let himself be used. 

The Finder was straightforward enough: a metal rail at waist height – or a little higher – twisted into a circle three quarters closed. It looked very much like the Hive, albeit simplified, with open walls, and in miniature. It had a component for the head: something that looked like a crystal crown mated to a jellyfish. 

Next to the Finder proper was an accessory: a long sheet of plastic, two inches thick, complete with what would have been a built-in straitjacket had it sleeves to cross in front instead of straps at the wrists. As it was: there were two such plastic sheets now. One had been Jean’s … and the other … 

Charles sighed. The other was his. 

“Good morning, Mr. Xavier.” 

Charles could hardly control his twitch. His power hadn’t sensed Frost coming downstairs; he had only just twigged to the clack of her heels on the metal floor in the last twenty seconds. He needed to know more about how his power worked; hell – he needed to know the ins and outs of Frost’s abilities. To find some weakness in the ice bathing his mind; to find a flaw in the diamond of her inmost thoughts. 

“Come along. It’s past time.” She led him to the swooping metal staircase; held up with wires, wending its way with the curve of the walls and going down to the Finder. Charles followed, held out his hands to be wrapped and submitted to having his temples daubed with rubbing alcohol. The smell was already becoming familiar. 

He turned his head to watch Frost, as she carefully eased off her shoes and drummed her fingers on the Finder’s railing. She murmured to one of the technicians - Charles didn’t know who - only knew that he had feathers instead of hair. And Charles had only seen McCoy on this level once, tinkering with one of the panels. He had shut it with a few sparks and spoken excitedly to an androgyne working at his side – then had seen Charles and given him a thumbs-up. 

Charles hadn’t returned the gesture; his hands had been occupied at the time. He tightened his own grip on the metal conducting rods now. The wrapping helped with the heat. “Jean never needed those,” someone had said, dubious - and Charles had started at an English accent - or was it Irish? Was he - he half sat up to look, but then Frost had cut across his line of sight with a smile: “Jean does not have this much raw power, yet.” 

For he remembered her words.

“You have a good deal of power, Xavier.” Frost had taken him into her office on his second day at the Hive – 7 October. She had not inquired into his activities the night previous; except for a cold brush against his mind – one that had him unfurling his strongest veils, and her smiling a secretive smile. Charles had been standing, rigid, as unmoving as the statue of the man … the statue standing tall between the other two. 

My prince, she had said to Charles, of the man. My prince. If she were the White Queen, then she truly had a beast for an heir – a fierce and slavering attack dog on a chain. Even though the dog in question could manipulate metal. Charles had given himself a moment for consideration: what would bind someone – something – like the man, to someone like Frost? 

After smirking at him for some time, she had waved Charles to a seat. She controlled him easily enough, it would seem – but how did she control the man? What power had she over him? 

Too many thoughts, his mind whispered, and: why come back here? Do you want her to turn your brain into porridge? As he had taken the chair across from Frost that second day, Charles had felt many things. He had been less occupied with nerves and with the need to make his case, and more concerned with riding the fearful tide of a shadow, lurking at my door all night; aching from his first go with the Finder – having the occasional flash of waking dreams – a haze of colors and images and a unicorn with blue eyes … 

With his mind as murky as muddy water, Charles had been able to listen calmly as Frost had continued: “A good deal of power, but very little idea of how to use it. Which is just as well. If you prove yourself trustworthy, perhaps I shall teach you a few things in time; in the meantime, however, you are admirably suited to the task at hand.” 

Said task at hand being: lying back on his sheet of plastic; allowing techs to strap him down; and letting crystal pulses of pain throb through his mind, slowly; only once in a while – at least, lately – reaching white-hot and fast. Electrodes at his temples; the hideous jarring sensation of the occasional needle scraping his skull after piercing his scalp; careful hands and intent eyes of the technicians …. Blue eyes, brown eyes; eyes with cat-slit pupils. The feathered tech had one brown eye and one yellow, and fluffy down instead of eyebrows. His name was Christopher, Charles remembered. It seemed he had been given a promotion: jabbing with needles, rather than washing with water. Bully for him.

"Hold still," Christopher murmured. And there - the needle was placed. "All right?"

He had been the one to speak before - he had an Irish accent. Charles sucked in breath; opened his mouth to speak - but the bizarre eyes narrowed at him and the feathers whisked away.

Something to follow up on - perhaps. Except then he heard Frost's voice. “Do you need anything, Mr. Xavier?” 

I need you to let me go, Charles thought. It was sequestered behind his strongest veils. A good deal of his power was as well – sent to the bottom of the ocean, like cold water sinking. There lay his memories of Raven – burial at sea … and for now, at least, most of his power would lie there with her. 

“No,” he said. “Just thinking.” 

She curled her lips in what might have been a smile. Then she turned back to the railing and placed both her hands on it. 

And before his head was gently moved by a tech, working to affix the electrodes and deciding where to put the needle … Charles looked at Frost, and remembered her statue in the man’s mind. Cold beauty in stone, carved in impeccable detail, with a diamond blazing at the throat. 

The crystal crown flared into light. Charles bit back a grunt as the first wave hit. He would play the tributary for now – a creek hinting at a placid pond, hidden behind trees, trickling into an ocean. No need for Frost to know that there was an ocean in him, too. 

An ocean. The Finder was – and Charles squeezed his eyes shut, gasping. The sensation was almost impossible to describe. Similar to what he had felt with his raven flying to Syracuse – except faster, a hundred if not a thousand times faster. Frost’s mind clattering its diamond claws down the Eastern seaboard, across the southeast – already there, Charles’ mind marveled, and … how far could I go with this? 

Veil, he reminded himself. Veil veil veil 

He kept his veils up in Frost’s presence; up and at full strength, always. Even linked to her through the mechanism of the Finder, he tried his best to veil. And Charles thought that – in this case – his best was sufficient to deter her from poking around in there too greatly. 

Sufficient, until she found a large group of mutants in northern Mississippi and called upon much more power. Charles felt himself gasp at the sight of the icy wall that she built. It was similar to what humans might have seen at the edge of a glacier, during the last Ice Age. Or anyone ideally placed to watch Greenland’s ice shear off and cascade into the sea shortly after the war. 

The Finder gathered all the mutants together. 

Then the crystal power darted from one individual to another, conveyed greetings, passed along plans – a disgorging of information that left Charles feeling like a funnel. The icy jabs, one for each mutant, were much on the same level as the wake-up call for the students here. Well. For Jean and himself, that is. Was it the same principle, on a much larger scale? 

“… Yes.” 

Frost’s voice, echoing in the lower chamber of the Hive, sounded detached, and a different kind of cold than usual, but … Charles shivered. She had heard his thoughts.

Veil, he told himself urgently; veil… He had to hide his thoughts … 

The Finder left the mutants in Mississippi, and Frost’s power flew west … to Texas …

“Double it,” he heard her say, crisply. There was a click clack of buttons. 

And as he listened to the high-pitched buzz from the machinery, Charles considered. Frost had a diamond shell; the man had a steel bunker. Surely he, Charles, could come up with something better, to hide his secrets. 

Something to build, at least, he thought – almost sad … as the Finder swept through him and dragged power out of him in its wake … intent on search, for now; and, undoubtedly – destroy, in future. 

Across from him, a tech was turning a dial. Charles gripped down harder on the conducting rods, and closed his eyes. The flash could be seen through his eyelids, though: he heard and smelled the crackle of electricity … and it was such a small thing to be proud of – but he held it close to himself nonetheless: no one and nothing here could make him scream. 


Frost dismissed him early that day. It was just as well the muscles on one side of his face seemed a bit slack; he couldn’t smile back even if he wanted to. A tech blindfolded him; and such was the cacophony in Charles’ mind that he didn’t notice Jean had come along until the blindfolds were taken off, and they were left at the door of McCoy’s workroom. 

“Oh, Jean – hello.” Charles felt slightly drunk. He leaned against McCoy’s door; rapped with his knuckles. “Have you had a good day so far?” 

Jean looked up at him solemnly; presented the image – herself scribbling industriously on a piece of paper with a pencil, frame – yes … but then the picture melted into one of him, Charles, limp against the door, looking as though someone had clocked him over the head with a brick. 

Charles focused in on the image. Was he dribbling from one side of his mouth? “Oh, for –” He swiped a sleeve over his lips, only just caught the frame: are you all right? and answered briskly: “Yes, of course I’m all right. And now it appears that we get to work here for the rest of the afternoon – I haven’t seen Hank in a while, now, so this will be fun.” The effects were wearing off; his smile to Jean came easily. 

Then he stumbled away as McCoy opened the door – “Sorry, Mr. Xavier!” – and Charles felt Jean’s small hand in his own as they walked inside. 

“You want the cot, Mr. Xavier?” McCoy's eyes were anxious. “You look a little – um. Tired.” 

“Oh no, not at all.” Charles sat on a bench, smiling at Jean scrambling to sit across from him. “I’m quite all right. What shall we do this afternoon?” 

“I hadn’t really planned – huh.” McCoy scratched his head. “Come to think of it, I’d like to know how the Finder’s working, these days. I’ll ask you questions, OK? And you answer? And you can just sit there.” 

Charles made a neutral sound, acquiescing, and: “Could you please give Jean something to do, though? Perhaps some paper to draw on – and a pen? Or a marker?” 

“Oh! Sure.” 

McCoy’s bustle was pleasantly distracting; Jean’s falling to, happily, with paper and three markers of different colors, even more so. It was easy enough to answer McCoy's barrage of questions, and to feel as though he, Charles, were back in Oxford; watching one student color and fielding the academic inquiries of another – all the while hung over from what must have been a spectacular night out with friends. 

Jean gave him a picture: two stick figures, the smaller with red hair; the taller with brown. The clothes they wore resembled nothing in Charles’ experience … but surrounding them both were birds. Soaring around and around, and off the page. 

Charles smiled at her, then folded the picture to put in his pocket. “Thank you – it’s very pretty,” he said; but thought to himself: Someday. Someday soon – we’ll both fly away from here. 


Logan fetched them from McCoy’s workroom before the daylight had started to fade. “Well, Jean,” Charles said, pushing the bench back, “you get to meet everyone today.” 

“We’ve met already,” Logan growled. He dropped to his haunches, abruptly; Charles had a moment of surprise before he laughed. Jean had jumped down from her seat, reached out, and scrubbed her hands through Logan’s hair. Already askew, the dark tufts looked even more so after she backed off with a giggle. “She’s my stylist, you know?” 

Charles found himself grinning. “I hate to break it to you, Logan, but that’s a losing battle.” 

“You can’t break anything about me, X man.” Logan straightened. “C’mon – it’s tree time.” 

They parted from McCoy – “Thanks, Mr. Xavier” – and walked down the hallway. Charles kept a careful eye on Jean, skipping ahead of them. 

“A bit early today, isn’t it?” 

“Yeah well. Sun sets kinda quick, now. And I thought I’d give you time to gather my recommendation for the day, Xavier: approximately one and a half metric shit-tons of firewood. Don’t know if you’ve noticed? But it’s kind of getting cold out.” 

Charles readied a retort, but as they stepped outside, the cold hit him with the force of a punch. He hissed out a breath between his teeth. 

"Told you.” Logan clapped his hands together. “You know the rules,” he bellowed, “go Jean go go go! And she’s off,” he said, lower, as Jean raced into the woods. “Looking better these days, too.”

“Mm.” 

“C’mon, X – I’ll help you get some sticks together. Don’t say that you don’t need help. But don’t worry – it’s not because you look like someone scraped you off the floor, although: news flash – you look –” 

“Like someone’s scraped me off the floor; yes.” Charles paced towards the woods. 

“It’s not that, though.” Logan loped alongside him. “It’s that I was serious about the amount – you might need some for a few days, ‘cause a blizzard’s comin’ in tonight.” 

“A blizzard?” 

“First of the season; yep. We got lucky this year. Last year one tap-danced in around the end of September; lots of long faces then, believe me. As it is –” and he easily hefted a large dead branch from the ground, and broke it into pieces with his claws, “we’ll hole up for a few days – maybe play some gin rummy – and afterwards,” he cocked an eyebrow at Charles, “you and I can go hunting again. Might catch a bear that didn’t make it to a tree trunk.” 

But Charles was still stuck on, “… gin rummy?” 

“Well. Move that shit around, and you get ‘my rum’ and ‘gin’ – which are my two best friends on blizzard days.” 

“Oh, Logan.” Charles made his voice gently patronizing. “Did you think that up all by yourself?” 

“Bite me, X man.” Logan kicked a log out of the way. “And: no. McCoy did.” 

“At least you’re honest.” 

“You know it.” 

They gathered wood without another word, but the silence was not a hostile one. For Charles, as he picked up sticks, listening to the puff of Logan’s breath, the splintering of branches under his claws and the rasping of his occasional curse was oddly peaceful. It could have been because the forest was so quiet, too. He glanced up at the bit of sky he could see between trees. Lowering, with thick clouds … it resembled nothing more than a pewter plate. Charles shivered. It was a relief to reach a clearing. 

“When do you think it will hit?” 

“Early morning's my best guess.” 

More gathering, and then: “Hey, hey, keep your shirt on, man.” 

Charles had been preparing to strip off his sweatshirt as a firewood carry. “Why, Logan …” and he made his voice coy, “I didn’t think you so modest.” 

“Yeah, first off? Hell, no, and not just cause Marie’s said she’ll gut me if I fuck around on her. You’re not that pretty, X –” 

“Break my heart –” and Charles gave a theatrical sniffle. 

“Boo fuckin’ hoo. More to the point," said Logan, scanning the clearing's edge, "I’m not risking any of you getting sick. Pneumonia, yeah?” 

"... I’ve been fine with it off before.” 

“I’m not kidding, bub. First blizzard means you get all the winter gear; pretty fucking cool – but in the meantime, you’ve got me to help you carry.” Logan tucked his branches under one arm; jerked his head. “So keep your clothes on, and let’s go.” 

With a mental shrug, Charles got a better grip on his armful and followed Logan back towards the manor. 

“Where’s Jean? Shit, I shouldn't have let her out of my sight – where did she –” 

“One moment,” Charles murmured. He called up a sparrow, sent it flying – a twinge from the back of his skull made him wince. But there was Jean, and he sent Jean – we’re going back inside. Shall we meet you on the lawn? Can you see it from where you are?

And he smiled at the image of her reply – the immense double doors, clear as day. 

“She’s at the door,” he told Logan, and: “Nice,” Logan returned. “Good trick, Xavier; c’mon.” 

They met Jean on the front step. She was looking up at them with a smile that could only be described as … smug. Charles was puzzled – until he saw the huge stack of firewood beside her, and blinked. “Jean – how did you do that?” 

For one horrible moment, he had a vision of – of him, the man, striding alongside Jean and helping her carry, but: no … he would never do that. Far more likely to be lying in wait in the woods, lurking – and his mind presented him with the image of a monster leaping out, pouncing, and sticks and branches scattering – 

He was almost tempted to ask – did you meet a wolf in the forest, Jean? but Logan gave him a grin, and an explanation. “Telekinesis. Right, kid?” 

Jean nodded importantly. 

“And that is why she’s my hair stylist, Xavier. I only choose the best. Right?” 

Jean nodded even more importantly. Charles’ lips twitched. “Then I might take her up on it, myself. Jean dear –” he shook his head to move his hair, now grown down his neck. “I desperately need a haircut.” 

“Nah, X – it’ll keep you warm in winter.” Logan gave him a long look. “I can lend you my razor again, though – cause – and I hope you don’t mind me speaking freely …” 

Charles rolled his eyes; then blinked as Jean gestured and the immense doors creaked open. 

“… looks like you’ve got your lunch on your face.” 

“You've made that joke already. And besides - we don’t eat lunch, here.” Charles’ voice was absent; he was following Jean inside, watching her firewood follow her like a splintery comet’s tail. 

“Picky picky, Xavier, god.” As they reached the kitchen, Logan dumped his armful outside the door and brushed off his hands. “Be right back. Oh – and you still have my lighter. Don’t you?” 

Charles blinked, remembering. “Right. It’s in my room – on the mantelpiece.” 

“I’ll just stop and get it, then.” 

Logan left. For a moment, Charles fought a prickle of indignation – that room was his space, and for Logan just to waltz in as if he owned it … But: no. Charles sighed, and busied himself boiling water for tea. Really, as far as Logan was concerned, he didn’t mind that much. And it wasn’t as though he had anything to hide. 

He let Jean fetch the teabags, keeping his eyes determinedly off the box. 

The thin soup – he caught several chunks of venison, perhaps from his deer – heated through fast enough. It seemed no time at all before Charles set a bowl in front of Jean - and blinked at Logan, as he stomped in and slammed the door, and almost threw the razor. 

“Um.” Charles poured some hot water into a bowl and plucked out a dishtowel. Whatever his bad mood, Logan was not going to stop him shaving. “What is it?” 

“I was just in your room.” 

“Did you find the lighter?” 

“Yes,” Logan bit out. 

Silence stretched, punctuated only by Jean’s slurping her soup. Charles gave some thought to correcting her; then shrugged. Imprisoned, soon to be snowbound in a glorified charnel house in oppressive wasteland; at the mercy of a sadistic telepath and a ravening monster – he shivered. Table manners seemed unimportant. 

But this silence was oppressive. 

He finished shaving, rinsed his face and the razor, and offered the latter back to Logan - who glared before swiping it out of his hand. 

Charles frowned. “Whatever is wrong, Logan?” 

More glaring. 

He tried again. “Would you like some soup?” 

No.” 

By now, Jean had picked up on his tone; she was looking at them both, worried. Charles sighed. “You’re making her nervous. What is it?” 

Logan’s face twisted; from anger to – shame? Perhaps disgust? Charles wasn’t sure, but that didn’t matter anymore, since he heard, “Let me see your ankle.” 

“… What?” 

“Your ankle, Xavier. Let me see it.” 

Charles stared back at him. Then, chin high, he tugged up the left side of his trousers. Pulled down his sock. “Voilà.” 

Tabarnak,” Logan growled, and Québecois, Charles remembered – but he was saying: “Now the other.” 

Charles bit his lip. “Why?” 

“Because I said so, that’s why. Right ankle, Xavier. Now.” 

He obviously knew, Charles thought, bleakly – he had seen the chain and shackle, and now he knew, so a physical veil would do no good. Just as well – he could hardly spare the energy. Instead, he lifted his right trouser leg and showed Logan the weal there. It was hardly as bad as it had been – and even then, it had not been anything serious. Just a scrape, widening and spreading, and now forming a callus. It wasn’t as though it were infected.

“Mother fucker,” Logan breathed, eyes wild.

"Language," Charles said sharply. "Jean's right here."

“I – I –” 

He seemed almost incoherent. Charles was taken aback – but a removed, distant part of him said, coolly: Use it. 

“Surprised?" 

Logan had gone still; at Charles’ words, his shoulders twitched. 

“Really, this is the EBS. Alternating training and exercise with recreational sadism and the occasional tea break.” He pitched his voice to cut. “I don’t see how you could have a problem with this.” 

“I didn’t know, Xavier.” 

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Well. Need-to-know basis, I suppose.” 

And at those words, Logan glared. His jaw clenched; Charles was distantly surprised that he couldn’t hear the sound of teeth grinding together. But he kept his tones cool. “I don’t suppose you can do anything about it?” 

“No.” He sat still for one moment. “… and I didn’t know. I didn’t tell anyone, Xavier – about us and – and the dinner we had, you know?” 

“Oh.” Charles blinked. “Oh – Logan, this isn’t about that.” His own anger evaporated. “Really, this is only Frost showing her controlling tendencies.”

A blink. "She put that on you?” 

“Yes, of course.” A pause. “Who else would?” 

Logan’s eyes were wide and dark. For another minute, he stayed still – but then in a split second he had gotten up and turned away. He flipped his lighter out of his pocket, shoved it back inside and then took a … was that canister? It had fit into the pocket of Logan's leather jacket. Charles felt a spark of interest as he looked closer. It was made of wood, with particular stylized carvings. Some paint and varnish; not much – and a good thing, too, because the carvings were beautiful. 

“What is it?"

Logan took off the lid. “Bear grease. Rendered it last winter.” 

“Oh. I meant the container.” 

“You like? Then you should see a totem pole, sometime. It’s Haida,” he explained, “a tribe way out in the west of Canada Before. I traded for it.” 

“And … you’re showing it to me … because?” 

“Because I want you to have it, Xavier.” Logan replaced the lid, and shoved the container into his hands. “Grease’ll help with that chafe.” 

“Logan, I can’t take this from you.” Charles bit his lip. “It’s lovely, but …” 

“‘But’ what?” 

“But I have nothing to give you in return.” 

“Stuff it,” Logan snorted. “You’re helping Jean; that’s enough for me. Keep it or I’ll hurt you.” 

“Right,” Charles murmured, placing the container on the table. Jean beamed at them both – and he caught the echoing burble of a thought – present was prominent, and me too … Then Jean got up from her seat, and scurried to fetch the worked metal tea box. She showed it to Logan. Charles heard a dim reverberation of what must have been a deafening: See? 

“Yeah. I see.” 

Charles gave Logan a sharp look, saw how jaw had clenched tight again, and how he crossed his arms over his chest. 

Then – and it sent a disconcerting prickle up his neck. If there was one thing Charles was not used to, it was the sight of Logan looking … vulnerable? Perhaps it was the way he had hunched his shoulders. Strange … 

Dark eyes flicked away from the box and back to Charles. “Put some grease on that ankle every night, X. Or whenever it gets sore.” A muscle in his jaw twitched again. “I’ll dump all this firewood upstairs. You two stay warm.” 

And he stomped out the door, before Charles could thank him. 


Angel had taken them to their rooms. All the while, Jean had been chattering excitedly to Charles about presents, and Charles had dealt with the wash of words through his mind by … smiling and nodding. He would have felt sorry for tuning out the little telepath, but he had a headache. 

And he had things to think about. 

Presents. He stared at the things left on his bed. Angel had lit the fire he had built, chained him up with an affectionate grimace, and locked and bolted the door behind her. The fire was high; he could see everything well enough. 

Carefully, Charles considered each item. He gave the bear grease a sniff – though pungent, its smell was not strong enough to cover the spicy scent of the wood. Cedar. And Charles smiled at the carvings. Different animals – a bear, a wolf, an … otter? He wasn’t sure. It could be a weasel, or a marmot. He did not know which animals were native to the continent’s upper west coast … whether before the fallout, or after … 

Charles shook off the thoughts, and touched one finger to the last carving: a bird. It was easy enough to dredge up what mythology he could remember – only because he knew so little of it. It could be a thunderbird, or an eagle … Perhaps even a raven. 

He carefully set the container on the floor; slid it underneath his bed. 

Then: Ororo’s cosmetics. He inspected each one. Some he had no intention of using – he’d give them back to Jean – but others would be helpful. Some moisturizer, some lip balm. And … a relief: all the cosmetics, useful or not, were contained in plastic. 

Charles put them all next to Logan’s gift. He set down the incense sticks that Jean had insisted he take; then he laid next to them the set of wooden combs. 

And then, with trembling hands, Charles picked up Ororo’s book. 


He bypassed the cover and contents; went directly for the spine. The leather and cloth of the binding was loose – it was as though someone had tried to mend it, and failed. Charles remembered, vividly, quiet afternoons spent in the Oxford reading room – a pair of sharp scissors before him, a container of heated glue and a needle and thread … but this mending was a shoddy job. A good thing too, because it seemed it had not been intended to repair so much as – to conceal … 

Charles exhaled roughly. To conceal the folded papers, snug against the book’s spine. 

He caught at them, and drew them out using fingernail and thumbnail. Of his right hand – it seemed his vision was hypersensitive, for Charles saw the firelight glowing on the papers – and the tendons on the back of his hand casting shadows – and his left hand, wrapped round the top of the book. That hand showed golden in the firelight, too, with tracery of vein and tendon … but with a scar at the base of the thumb, and a rough, thick new growth of thumbnail … 

He unfolded the papers, carefully. He heard them crackle; some, it appeared, were rather old. And Charles could hear, of all things, the uneven thump of his own heartbeat, loud in his ears. 

There were eleven pages; no – twelve. Each had a date in the upper left-hand corner. Charles scanned them eagerly. They were – “oh,” he breathed – “it’s a map.” All carefully drawn, and just as carefully tinted – Ororo must have used her colored pencils.

Charles heard his own half-breathless laugh, as he tried to make sense of their order. Perhaps by date? The oldest sheet – 1963: June July August September – had in its center a wobbly rectangle. A rectangle with a few semi-circles added to it – and, “the manor,” he whispered, because there was an arrow pointing to a circle, and tower written in red. 

Then Charles paused. “Nineteen sixty-three …” 

Ororo had been at the manor for six years. 

Six years. The papers rattled as he breathed out, unsteadily. At least six years, his mind corrected. For: who knew how long she had been imprisoned, before she had started drawing? 

And … Charles frowned. For that matter, how had she drawn it so? For he carefully, logically assembled all the papers … in a grid, four by three ... and his mind could not come up with an answer. They were crafted with such attention to detail that the entire was as good as topography … 

All done from above. Like an aerial photograph. 

“How did you do this, Ororo?” 

There was no answer, obviously; Charles shook his head. He tabled the mystery for another time. Then, feeling a strange lump in his throat, he looked for the most recent sheet. 

1969 – Q1 2 3. It was in the upper right-hand corner of the grid. It was only halfway full – but cut in half, diagonally, by a stark line. Charles’ eyes flicked back to the line’s origin: dark green, and heavy, running from the manor through an assembly of circles and squares labeled ruin and OK and tower and stadium.The line ran north by northeast, and ended in the most recent sheet – ended in an arrow, and … TOWN? 

“Town,” Charles murmured. 

Written in red. And circled with such force that the colored pencil had torn the paper. 

The lump in his throat was suddenly hot; he tried to swallow, and couldn’t. Carefully, Charles checked the date of the last sheet once more. 

“Nineteen sixty-nine. Quarter – one, two, three …” 

Ororo’s handwriting had completely changed, from the 1963 labels on the manor. Small wonder. Six years’ worth of writing practice, and a child’s penmanship would improve in leaps and bounds. He remembered seeing such, from the essay books of his own students. 

And: north by northeast? There was no key on the map, no way of gauging distance … but Charles hardly needed that to know which town it was. “Syracuse, isn’t it?” His voice was shaking. “It’s Syracuse, Ororo – and – and –” 

And she had worked on the map for years.

Searching, searching – perhaps she had gotten out of the manor at night? Was part of her power night vision? or increased stamina, or speed? But: “six years,” he choked – six years to itemize every single hiding place in a five-mile radius – he saw cave labels, and even an occasional tree trunk – and one that wasn’t a hiding place, surely, for it had been circled in blue: waterfall – *Jean – with the date next to it: 1968 Q3

“Did you take her there, I wonder?” Charles felt his eyes stinging. “To cheer her up, perhaps. She would have thought it lovely … oh, Ororo; oh child …” 

Six years’ worth of searching. Searching for an escape. 

“I could have helped you,” he whispered. Charles touched one hand to the dark green line, almost a shout of color on the blank half of the paper. “I would have helped you – I told you – I promised you …” 

And Ororo could have helped him, he realized. “Truly.” He was not so puffed up about his own finding of Syracuse to think that he and only he would have brought anything to an escape attempt. The map was so detailed … Ororo knew the manor and its environs like the back of her hand. 

But now she was Sworn. And it would seem that the map was his. 

“Twelve sheets,” he murmured. “Twelve – joy for tomorrow. Well.” He swiped a blue sweater sleeve across his eyes. “We can only hope.” 

Then, taking deep breaths, Charles angled each sheet to the firelight – one at a time. He focused on every detail, inscribing each one into his memory. 

It took quite some time. 

When he had finished, though, he carefully folded the sheets again, and replaced them in the book’s spine. That book went under his bed with the other gifts. And Charles lay back on his bed, himself – not bothering with covers. He folded his hands over his heart. Then closed his eyes. 

And he did not bother with a thought-fire, either, as he sent his raven flying out from his mind and across the manor grounds. All of the details from Ororo’s map could be combined with his own – and then his raven would see everything. The all-seeing bird, part of his mind whispered; Charles, dreaming, thought to Odin and his ravens, those who saw all, knew all, flew everywhere … For now, for the next short while, he would fly closer to home - but he would go further, and become stronger, until he could fly forever. 


It was exhilarating, letting the raven fly so. As he called it back from the forest, flitting like a small black shadow across the moonlit grass, Charles was reminded of the Finder. His own Finder – he was his own Finder. The same principles could apply, perhaps: flinging power out into the blank distance – searching and communicating. He could only improve, from now on out. He would have to practice. 

The raven flew through the downstairs door, past the kitchen and into the dormitory hallway. Its intense focus on detail allowed him to see the grain of wooden doorways; the dust gathered between flagstones; the slow white puffs of Jean’s breath in the chill of her room. Charles allowed himself a small prickle of relief – there was no shadow at his door. He hadn’t wanted his power to coast into it. It was unsettling enough to experience that nauseating concentration of rage and want from the other side of a door, and with the smallest bit of his awareness ... even with the smallest touch, his raven's focus would have magnified the sensations a hundredfold – 

– as it did – 

It did. That want sucked at him like black quicksand, as his raven shrieked and landed in his mind in the blink of an eye –

– as Charles choked, and gasped, and rolled up on one elbow to stare at his fire. 

For the shadow had not been outside his door. 

Instead: it was crouched by the hearth, its back to the flickering flames. Silent, unmoving. 

Watching him.

Chapter Text

“What –” 

Charles dragged in a breath; licked his lips. He was parched. He had been flying for so long and with such intense focus, that he could only croak: “What are you doing here?” 

No answer. 

He clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering. In the golden firelight, he could see the strong lines of the man’s shoulders and arms; the latter wrapped round his knees. The man was resting his chin on his forearms. And staring. 

Charles could feel the intensity of that stare – he didn’t have to see the other’s eyes to sense it. And he couldn’t see them, anyway. The man was backlit; his face in shadow. 

“What do you want?” 

No answer. But a slight shift of the man’s body, this time; and a ripple to the want, wafting through the room like the fire’s smoke. No; worse than the smoke. The chimney had always drawn quite efficiently. Charles felt his breath coming faster, uneven; he used his left elbow to shift his weight back and away – he felt for the plaster of the wall with his shoulder blades. Get away get away from him – He moved his legs – 

– the chain clinked 

And he heard a soft growl, one that stopped almost as soon as it had started – 

Charles felt fear grab his gut and squeeze. “What do you want?” he snapped, harshly. “Tell me – or, or get out. Hell. Get out anyway. Get out of here –” he shoved himself up to a sitting position – “get out. Leave me alone. I don’t care what you – just get out –” 

“No …” 

Charles froze, listening. 

Silence. 

“What do you mean, ‘no’?” He stared at the man. Don’t show him you’re afraid. “What do you want?” 

“No …” the man whispered. 

Silence stretched again. Charles waited, tense. 

There was a glint of something that might have been teeth, in the fire’s light – as the man said, quietly, so quietly:

“No … The question, Professor Xavier, is: … what do you want?” 

“What –” Charles knew that his jaw had dropped. He didn’t care. “What do I want? I want you to leave. Is that not clear? Or need I use smaller words?” 

“You wanted things from me …” It was as though the man had not heard him. That low voice was rough around the edges … but the words floated to him with a dreamlike cadence. “In my mind.” 

Charles felt his stomach turn to ice. 

“In my mind, Xavier – some time ago, now … you wanted things from me.” A pause, then: “I haven’t forgotten, you know.” 

“Well.” He fought down the surge of nauseated fear. “I’m afraid I have forgotten. Completely forgotten. All I know now, is that I want you to leave.” 

He waited. Then added, tightly: “Please.” 

“You’ve forgotten?” That voice was dark, somehow mocking. “How disappointing. And with all of my elaborate thoughts on what to do to you, for your little excursion. Hm?” The man uncoiled to his feet; rested his back against the mantelpiece – a lean, dark silhouette against the firelight. “Care to have a look? Would you like to see?” The man laid one long finger against his forehead. 

“No.” Charles fought to keep from trembling. “No, thank you.” 

“And you’re sure you don’t remember?” 

“No. I don’t.” It wasn’t a lie, not entirely. He did not remember much. Most of what he’d done, almost all of what he had said ... gone. What remained to him were images: the statues, the tapestry – and sensations – the heat and damp and want … the man’s tears – god – 

"I remember, Xavier.” That whisper slinked over from the fire and slithered into Charles’ ears. “You wanted several things. You wanted to know certain … secrets. You wanted –” Charles only just caught the slight crack in the man’s voice, “– you wanted to touch me with your mouth.” 

A pause. Then: “… And.” 

Charles felt cold – he remembered, the man remembered everything. His mind presented him with a memory of – of all things – the salt of the man’s sweat; clinging to his own tongue as Charles licked over his collarbone. God. He wrested his mind away from the memory; replied: “‘And’ what?” 

“And you wanted me to let you go.” 

Charles drew in a quick breath. The man must have heard it, over the pop and snap of the fire, for Charles heard dark amusement coiling beneath his next words: “What if I told you … that I would let you go, Professor?” 

He kept his own voice cold. “I wouldn’t believe you.” 

“Really?” 

“Really and truly. Not for a second. Now, get out.” 

“No, I don’t think I will.” And that lean figure prowled – there was no other word for it – over to Charles’ bed. Charles jerked his legs up and away to one side, as fast as he could – for the man sat down. Sat down – the bed creaked – and gave him a mocking smile. 

Charles thought his heart would smash through his own chest, racing as it did. “Don't,” he croaked. 

The man raised both eyebrows. “‘Don’t’ what? Don’t let you go? Because I will.” 

Then Charles stared as the man’s left hand slid beneath the ribbed neck of the sweater he was wearing. It was dark green, he noted; dark green, of a close knit – with a hole over the heart and a ragged edge at the bottom. It made the man’s eyes look very green, reflecting the firelight. But there was a delicate, silvery chain draped over those long fingers, now, and – 

He sucked in a breath, despite himself. The man had pulled out, from beneath his sweater … a jewel on a chain. It was – a crystal, or a diamond, perfectly round and glittering in a silver filigree. About the size of a thumbnail. 

A thumbnail, Charles reminded himself sharply, that hadn't been ripped away. It would not do to be enthralled by the beauty of the jewel, or to allow himself to look too long at the duller glint of the metal ring wrapped around the man’s left thumb. The jewel’s chain brushed over the ring; Charles dragged his eyes from them both and stared at the man’s face. 

“I will let you go, Xavier. I swear it – by my lady’s token.” 

Frost’s. “Fuck your lady’s token,” he muttered to himself, and lifted his voice: “Don’t bother. I still don’t believe you.” 

The man bared his teeth in a smile; let the jewel fall. “Take a look, then.” One long finger tapped his temple. 

Charles swallowed hard. 

“Only briefly, Xavier – and only to distinguish truth from lie. And know you this … if you even try to go further … well.” The smile widened; those teeth gleamed. “You will not care for what you find there.” 

Charles didn’t bother to reply. Instead, he sent his brave raven flying out – winging to the man’s mind … and there ... there was a beam of light, almost. A clear path, shining through the maelstrom of shrapnel, the first barricade. The raven flew down it, silently. 

And it landed on the far side of the river. The river, guarding the man’s thoughts … 

There was a figure on the far shore. In front of the metal forest. 

What do you see, then? … The man’s voice ... it was not coming from the distant figure. Which made sense, Charles supposed ... the creature had not said a word the only other time he had met him. But that voice, whispering in the chill of the room where Charles himself remained, reached the raven ... and made every single scrap of metal vibrate. The bird saw a bayonet quiver, below, where the metal was clotted with blood … twisted through tendons in a corpse’s neck, lying in the river. What do you see, when I tell you: I will let you go … ? 

Charles had done this before. True or False would reverberate – in, and from, another’s mind. Not in terms of sun or moon – darkness or light – any of the tired dualities. No. The closest Charles could come to describing it was … in the sense of music. In tune, or out of tune. A lie was a discordant jangle, though the exact intensity of the dissonance ran the gamut, depending on how much truth - if any - remained twisted into the falsehood ... Truth, though: truth would make all the overtones of the mind ring out together in perfection.

Say that again, he sent, in the other’s mind – and the words had not even made it across the river before Charles heard once more ... the whisper reaching him from where the man sat on the bed: 

I will let you go. 

But then: he had hardly needed to hear it twice to recognize the chord: perfect, and shimmering through both of their minds with the sound of absolute truth. 


Charles hardly remembered calling the raven back. He was gasping, staring at the man – at the smirk playing around the corners of the other’s mouth … Something was wrong, a warning bell was clanging in his head, but he didn’t care, he didn’t care, because: 

“You’ll let me go?” His voice cracked; he didn’t care about that either. 

“… If.” 

“‘If’ what?” 

“Four things.” The man held up his left hand, splayed wide ... then slowly curled the fingers down, leaving the thumb extended. Charles saw the glint of the ring. “Four very simple things.” 

“Name them.” This could go so wrong, his mind gasped, panicking, this is a terrible idea, but Charles shoved all fear and logic and objection aside – the man had told the truth – “Name them. I’ll do them – anything, I’ll do anything.” 

Why, why did you say that? his mind shrieked, but: “That won’t be necessary,” the man murmured. He brought his left hand back; slid those long fingers underneath the chain round his neck, and – Charles’ skin prickled. The man took off the ornament, and carefully draped chain and jewel over one of the bedposts. 

“Four things, Xavier.” 

“Name them.” His mouth was very dry. 

“First: that you keep absolutely silent … until I leave this room.” 

“All right.” 

The man fixed those eyes on him. In the firelight’s glow, Charles thought, they looked like emeralds set in gold. 

“Starting now.” 

“All –” Charles gulped the word back; nodded instead. 

One corner of the man’s mouth quirked up; then flattened again. “Second: that you stay out of my head.” He glared. “Not even a touch. Am I quite clear?” 

Charles nodded. 

The man drew in a deep breath; let it out in a sigh. There was a strange look on his face. Smug? No, not quite – perhaps … watchful – with a thick coating of the want that had long since filled the room like steam would a sauna. And … 

Charles blinked. Was that a hint of – fear? 

The man’s eyes narrowed, and the emotion – whatever it had been – vanished. “Third,” he said, softly. “Third, Professor … I want your full attention.” 

Easy enough. Charles nodded again. 

And almost choked as, in one smooth motion, the man caught hold of the bottom hem of his dark green sweater – and peeled it off. 

And there was – oh – oh god - Charles was staring at lean muscle, at lines of ribcage and sternum – at – were those tattoos? Yes, his mind offered, faintly, and scars and terrible, terrible idea … But Charles heard nothing. The rush of blood in his ears had drowned out any thought except – he drew in a shuddering breath – except the memory of how that all of that muscle and skin had felt, pressed beneath him and slick with sweat in the darkest part of the man’s mind –

“Your attention, Xavier.” The man snapped his fingers in front of Charles’ face. “Up here.” 

Charles dragged his eyes up from the line of hair, golden in the firelight, disappearing beneath the waist of the man’s trousers. He blinked, staring; he knew his face was flushed – and the other saw it, damn him, because that sardonic smirk had come back with a vengeance. 

Then the man gracefully folded his legs up from off the side of the bed and in front of him, and he was on his knees, but then on his hands and knees, leaning forward whip-thin – like a god damned cat preparing to pounce, and – oh no Charles could feel hot breath trailing over his own face. He jerked back as far as he could. The chain rattled as it pulled taut – he saw the man’s eyes flick to the side, then back. 

“Now,” and that voice sent goosebumps up his arms. “Fourth thing.” 

The man smiled at him, teeth glinting in the firelight. 

“Take your shirt off.” 

Charles’ heart shot into his mouth. He froze. 

“Do as I say.” The voice was soft, hypnotic. “Shirt off. Now.” 

Then … Charles fought past the thrum of adrenaline; fought not to smile. He’d do as the man said. And he’d show him just how stupid that order had been. 

Carefully, he brought his arms in from his sleeves; hugged them to his chest, beneath both sweater and T-shirt. He hooked the hem of the T-shirt over his elbows, shoved his arms back through the sweater sleeves … pulled the T-shirt off through the sweater neck. Held it out over the floor, with a flourish. And then let it fall. 

Then he looked back at the man, and raised his eyebrows. 

The other’s expression … Charles bit back a laugh, because even with his freedom on the line, the temptation to snicker audibly was almost irresistible. The man’s face had gone from intense and focused, eyes glittering – to confused, to angry, and had settled on that narrow-eyed glare. 

Really, that last seemed to be a favorite. 

But: “Now, take off your sweater,” the other said through clenched teeth. 

Charles made a regretful face, held out four fingers, and waggled them. 

The man hissed, grabbed at Charles’ neckline with both hands – fast, too fast to stop with a slap – and – Charles felt his heartbeat thudding in his throat, hot and thick. Suddenly it didn’t seem funny anymore. Nothing did: and the sensations from his incursion in the man’s mind were flooding back, again – that skin, the sweat and heat and the way the other had pushed and writhed beneath him … 

Fingers tightened, and Charles heard a rip. His mind winced away from the sound – this was his favorite sweater, the blue one – Raven’s color – and before he knew what he was doing, he had clapped a hand over one of the man’s wrists, and tugged.

The other paused. 

Charles stared at him, trying to put every bit of the pleading he felt … into his eyes. Please don’t tear that. It reminds me of my sister – except: no, he would never breathe a word of his sister to anyone, and thank god he wasn’t actually projecting those thoughts -

“You like this one, then?” The fingers of the man’s other hand uncurled from Charles’ neckline; traced four lines of heat across his throat. Charles swallowed hard. “Its color? Your eyes … it makes them …” 

The man was staring into his eyes. Charles let them go wide. The other’s breathing stopped. 

A distant part of his mind made a note of it. 

But the rest … Charles bit the inside of his mouth. He had made his point, but he had his pride – he didn’t want to strip for this – thing. Creature. Even if heat was pooling in his gut; even if his breath was coming short – he only had to obey four commands, and he had. 

Then the man leaned forward, and – Charles let his eyes fall shut – he pressed his lips above those fingers on his neck, right on his pulse – flicked with his tongue and Charles felt his own desperate gasp rattle through his throat. 

“I knew it.” That voice sounded like gravel. “I knew it – let me. Here.” Both hands moved to the hem of his sweater. “Let me do this – it doesn’t –” a scrape of teeth over his pulse, and Charles shuddered, “it doesn’t have to hurt ...” A slow, inexorable pull – and Charles gave in, held his arms out in front of him – bent up so he wouldn’t touch the other’s chest. The man’s mouth at his throat vanished – Charles gulped while he had the chance, and while his head was stuck in the sweater and he couldn’t see – 

– and then the man had stripped it off him, and all those muscles tensed – his staring eyes gleamed – and he moved forward like a panther, framed Charles’ face in his hands and kissed him. 

Charles focused on breathing. In and out. The pressure on his lips was so light – warm and – fluttering? What the hell? He let his eyes blink open, waited for the man to deepen the kiss. 

But that mouth moved away and trailed up his jaw. 

Blinking into the dim light, hyperaware of strands of hair tickling his cheek, of a sharp line of cheekbone almost touching his own mouth … Charles told himself he was not disappointed.

Just surprised. 

The yank of the chain on his ankle was a more predictable surprise, though, and before he knew it, Charles was flat on his back on the bed, staring up at the man’s face. Those stark features were twisted in that same strange expression as before … he couldn’t get a read on it. So Charles settled for staring. 

The man’s lips thinned. Then he rasped: “Not a sound. Understand?” 

Charles nodded. It wasn’t that he was afraid; no. He just … didn’t know what to expect. 

Certainly not the man leaning forward, braced on his forearms, and brushing his lips across Charles’ cheekbone. Then across the other. Then breathing onto one earlobe – Charles shuddered – and nosing into his hair. Then tracing down to his neck and touching his tongue to – oh that’s right, the mark from the watch chain – he remembers it, even if it’s faded …

It was easy, then, to corral his thoughts, even with his blood racing through his body and desire turning his mouth dry. This, Charles reminded himself: this was the man that had almost strangled him – twice. That had threatened to gouge out his eyes. 

And that had told the truth when he said I will let you go … 

And even though those lips were tracing over his collarbone with more confidence, now, Charles laid hold of his power, and sent it to – let’s see ah. To the impulses that controlled his vocal cords. He simply stood a guard round them, and then let his breath out in a silent rush. Do your worst.

The man couldn’t hear that thought, Charles decided. For he was still coasting his mouth over skin – lightly, carefully. Almost as though he were exploring, rather than acting outright on any desire. It was … strange, Charles thought again. Oddly soothing, though. Relaxing. Perhaps it was because the man was so warm. Every inch of that skin sent heat into his own, where they touched. If he could make a sound, Charles reflected, he would be moaning right now. Moaning encouragement, maybe, as the other moved those lips back to his mouth, and – 

Charles huffed out a breath. The man just stayed there. Immobile – well, perhaps moving the tiniest bit. Really, though, it was due to the fact that he was nosing at Charles’ face – perhaps trying to pick up a scent? Who knew? But nose was moving more than mouth, which, frankly, was intolerable. 

In for a penny. Charles carefully brought his own hands up, and rested his fingers on the man’s cheekbones. 

The other flinched back, eyes wide and staring. 

Charles looked up at him. Tilted his head, just so. Tried a careful hint of a smile, and stroked gently with his fingers. 

Then he tipped up his chin, and – oh, he can be taught – the man followed the cue as naturally as breathing, and pressed Charles’ lips with his own again. Right. Lesson two. Charles parted his mouth and tried flicking his tongue out, running it across the man’s lower lip and retreating. The other stiffened, and stayed tense for a long moment … but then mirrored Charles’ own movement. And on the third repetition – god, what is this, table tennis? – Charles anticipated him and sent his tongue out to tangle – yes yes– 

– and the man gasped and jerked away. 

Really. I didn’t think it was as bad as all that. Charles tried to convey the thought with one raised eyebrow. 

“… You did that to me.” 

The man’s voice was hoarse, and his eyes … his eyes … 

Charles felt his skin crawl. Don’t flinch, his mind told him, urgently, don’t look away, whatever you do – 

Strong fingers clenched into his shoulders and shook him. “In my head!” the man snarled. “You did that – why?” 

Because I wanted to, Charles thought wildly – and settled for staring back in bright-eyed defiance, and making the most obscene motion with his tongue that he knew. 

Those eyes flashed, and before he knew it, Charles was being crushed back into the bed by what could have been a machine press – one made of steel, god – he had forgotten how bloody strong the man was. Only a small part of his mind could remind him of that, though; the rest was occupied in fielding one sensation after another: fingers clenching and relaxing in his own long hair, keeping Charles’ head at an angle – flexing in the same rhythm as a hot tongue stroking into his mouth, and the same rhythm lower, where – oh my god–the man was hard, hard and only just rocking into Charles’ hip – 

Charles raked his hands down the man’s back and caught at the loops of his trousers. No belt – a distant part of his mind observed, but the rest of him told the catalogue to shut it and tugged at the fabric in order to get the man over, so at the very least there’d be something between his own legs to thrust against, like that – oh – thank god for his paralyzed voice, because he would have moaned like a whore as he shoved himself up against the man’s thigh, just like that – 

Another gasp – almost a yelp – into Charles’ mouth and the man jerked away, again. Charles felt like slamming his own head against the wall. What was the problem? Besides you being completely and utterly ruled by your own stupid cock at this point, Professor – have you forgotten what – but: 

“What are you doing?” the man gasped. 

Charles blinked up at him, completely confounded. 

What the bloody hell do you think I’m doing, you moron? Snogging you – a bloodthirsty psychotic bastard – within an inch of your life – or – oh god – because the man had bared teeth down at him, and thrust down hard against Charles’ hip, and – really rather more than an inch, sorry -

The hands twisted in his hair shook his head sharply; the man shoved at him again, harder. “Just like in my mind, Xavier … but you – you, now.” The man’s face was twisted in rage; he was almost spitting. “Tell me to stop. Beg me to stop.” 

Then he brought his mouth down again. And thrust - hardest. 

Oh.

Charles blinked into space, realizing … this was the man’s idea of payback. Well. He ran his hands over the broad shoulders, feeling muscles flex. Honestly, Charles would consider weeping and begging, because he’d always been an excellent actor … certain scenarios at the Rose in Bloom came to mind … but. Not only was there his freedom to consider, but ... also?

It was difficult for him to be intelligible with another’s tongue jammed down his throat. 

Not much finesse, he thought, rolling his hips up and smirking at the choked moan that vibrated through his own mouth. But points for enthusiasm. Let me see … He sucked on the man’s tongue, and – god – the other went wild. That grip in his hair would draw blood, soon; and there was really no polite way to explain the grinding pressure at the juncture between thigh and hip except: dear god, if we were actually fucking – and he were topping - that cock might actually stand a chance of hurting me. Me, Charles Xavier, the Oxford Casanova – 

One particularly vicious thrust left him gasping against the man’s mouth – and Charles tossed his right leg up and hooked it behind the other’s knees, pulling – 

The chain clanked, and the man pulled off Charles’ mouth with a snarl. 

“Why – why don’t you beg me? You … you knight.” 

Charles blinked. That had definitely just been spit, on his face, with the t. No matter. He’d had more interesting things spatter him during sex. 

A detached part of his mind considered. The man looked enraged, eyes wide and staring – with … he shivered. With that desperation lurking behind them … and that hint of fear … 

It would not be intelligent to gloat at this point. But … Charles’ blood was thrumming, his heart racing … And: payback? Really? I’ll show you payback … 

A whisper of thought: you had your payback already … He shoved it aside. There could never be enough. Never. As long as he was a prisoner, the scale would be unbalanced, the world out of joint ... 

So Charles looked the man dead in the eye. Widened his own eyes, slid his tongue over his lower lip. Canted his hips up … and … he let a grin curl one side of his mouth, ran his hands down from the man’s shoulders to his nipples … circled them, touched them … and squeezed the tiniest bit – 

The other choked – and had that been a … whimper? Ha, Charles thought, and how the mighty are fallen. 

“But –” a hoarse whisper. “How can you …” Those hands in his hair – they were trembling. Charles exhaled hard; let the grin widen. 

The man’s jaw dropped. His eyes were wide; disbelieving, desperate. “Why aren’t you crying?” 

Charles stuck out his lower lip mockingly, and brought one hand to his right eye. And then he followed the trail of an imaginary tear, slowly, with one fingertip. 

And he saw the other’s face go absolutely white. 

Not fear. Charles’ mind observed. … Rage

That tear, Professor. The voice of his thoughts was so quiet … 

That may have been a mistake. 

But the man was … caressing him. And with such gentle fingers. Massaging up his neck, tracing his jaw, rubbing such tiny, careful circles beneath his ears … 

Warm fingertips glided up to the hinge of Charles’ jaw. Rested in the hollows beneath his cheekbones. 

Charles blinked, remembering. He had thought, once … the man had pressed warm lips there. On the left side. Almost kissing him. 

And the memory of the man’s voice … 

… you have a metal filling on the left side of your mouth … 

Charles felt his heart stop.

… upper jaw, back penultimate molar. 

The man’s eyes glinted. 

Here.

And – 

– he had silenced his own voice, a distant part of him remembered. That was good. 

Because all of him – all of him – every single part of Charles ... screamed as the man ripped the filling out of bone and rammed it straight back in. 


The metal of his filling – shattered and reformed into a needle … it was twisting into the root of his tooth, like an excruciatingly slow drill, one point of agony sending spears of pain from his mouth to his eyes, his ears, his brain – 

Brain. Pain receptors. Squeezing his eyes shut against the tears – the man had caught both of his arms as they had lashed out, instinct, and shifted a thigh to straddle him completely – god, he couldn’t move – Charles pulled some of his power from voice, and sent it to pain receptors pain pain pain. And even – god … 

He felt tears run hot down his cheeks; he breathed in hard through his nose, and almost couldn’t, because his sinuses were full and overflowing ... Even with the receptors dulled - it was so powerful, corkscrewing through the bone of his upper jaw, now, little by little, ripping through marrow … the pain was still horrible, and he redirected more power, more and more – 

All Charles could taste was blood. It was filling his mouth. He turned to spit it out – but there was more, welling up; pouring into his throat and choking him. He heard himself gasping, crying – 

Charles’ eyes were shut tight. So he didn’t see the man lean forward, slowly … but he felt his breath, now wafting cool over hot tears. 

And then the man started licking up his tears, like an animal, and Charles’ eyes flew open – he screamed and broke free of that iron grip to throw a punch – 

The man tossed back his head and laughed. Laughed and laughed – it was horrible, it was cruel … 

… and it wasn’t as loud as his own scream had been. 

“No,” Charles gasped, and – yes – that was the sound of his voice. “No.” 

“Yes.” 

The other had stopped laughing; his voice had been a growl. And now he stared down at Charles, pinning him with his weight on his hips, holding him still … 

Those eyes were dark, and feral – and they flashed before the man swooped down and kissed him again – except there was blood, there was too much blood and kisses weren’t supposed to sound like a shoe sinking into mud and filth, with sucking and plashing noises – 

Charles gasped and pulled at the man’s hair, yanking, trying to get him away. It didn’t work. He bit the man’s tongue where it was lapping at the blood inside his own mouth – god – and the man only growled and pushed his hips down, hard – 

He was hard, Charles realized, horror surging through his gut. The other man was still hard – and rocking against him, again, in that same rhythm … Then speeding up, as he slid his mouth away and tipped his head back just slightly, jaw slack, gazing down into Charles’ eyes. 

Blood and saliva had mixed; viscous strings of it fell gently onto Charles’ lips from the man’s mouth, hovering right above his. The man’s breath sounded wet, hot and urgent and then he shoved his face into Charles’ neck – Charles felt a smear of warm wetness on his throat – blood, his own blood – but then – his stomach twisted and roiled as he felt the man shudder against him, grind his hips down – and … and there was warm damp there, too, a little, and then more, spreading, because – 

Fuck,” Charles gasped, choking back blood and sickness roiling up through his throat. The bastard had just come. Had just come, had gotten off on the blood, the pain and tears – “You – you –” 

For a long moment, he couldn’t move. And he couldn’t speak. All he could do was feel – the heat, the rasps of their uneven breaths, the quiver of muscle against him. He had to say – had to – Charles coughed. Monster, he had meant to say. You unholy, inhuman monster. But the words stuck in his throat. He dragged in a breath; coughed again on his blood … 

“Hm?” The man’s voice vibrated against Charles’ throat. 

“Get – get off me –” and, Charles hated the sound of his own voice – high-pitched and tearful, cracking – “please -”

A warm breath against his neck; a kiss to his Adam’s apple. “Say that again.” 

“Please,” Charles choked. “Get off me please –” 

“Mmm.” Another growl, almost contented – Charles started to struggle, and shove, and twist his hips – it only pressed him closer to the wet patch. He jerked to one side, brought up one of his hipbones – jutting, he knew, because they had been starving him – and jabbed hard where it might just hurt the bastard – 

It worked. The man hissed, just slightly, and shoved himself up on his forearms. He gazed down at Charles, his eyes heavy-lidded, a flush on those cheekbones. He gazed ... for a long time.

Then the man ran his tongue over his own upper lip, tasting the blood still there … Charles caught a glimpse of that lower line of teeth, and – he couldn’t help it – he started shaking. The adrenaline had caught up; his pain receptors were still off and thank god the metal had stopped moving in his jaw – 

The metal. “Get it out,” he gasped. “My filling – take it out –” 

The man stared down at him. “Again.” 

For one agonized beat, Charles’ mind went blank. “What?"

“Your mouth.” Those teeth were coated in a slick of blood; Charles saw it as the man smiled. “Put your mouth on mine again, Professor, and I’ll take your filling out.” 

He bent, and his lips – bloodstained – were right … right there … 

Charles knew that the strange distance to his own thoughts … had to be shock. 

That was why he didn’t break away, why he didn’t take all of his power and shatter the man’s mind like a sledgehammer would a lump of coal. That was why he dragged in another wet and choking breath, and tipped his head – just slightly – tilted his lips up and gave the man a kiss. 

It was chaste. Just a brush of lips. And the other drew back, breathing hard. And those eyes glowed down at him, blue-green and bright in the fire’s fading glow, as the man trailed long fingers over his jaw, touched his lips – tapped once … 

The metal slithered out of the bone of Charles’ jaw, cracked the rest of his tooth … the man quirked an eyebrow and Charles felt something twist and tug. All the pain receptors were off, his mind reiterated, dull. There was no hurt; not anymore. 

And that, he realized as the metal floated from his open mouth into the man’s cupped palm … That was another reason. Why he hadn’t used his power to fight back. It would mean taking it away from the pain receptors. And he knew … Charles felt tears well again, felt the man’s fingertips trace them … It would be unbearable, when he did … 

“There.” That voice was warm. Charles only dimly saw the man press the tiny metal nugget into the ring on his thumb. “There now. Better?”

Warm words, and so quiet. Especially compared to the laughter, the screaming ... 

Charles spat out more blood – and had that been a fragment of bone? “Jean – what about Jean?” he slurred. “She ... I’m sure she heard us –” 

“She didn’t.” The man smiled. “She’s sleeping.” 

Charles raised his head, just slightly; spared a flicker of power to check. A ghostly imprint of a sparrow flew to check on Jean … it was true. Her mind had the warm, sluggish quality that he had only ever sensed in the drunk and the drugged. 

The bird dissipated before it could return to him. Charles let his head fall back. He didn’t say a word. 

The man was still staring down at him; eyes glittering green in the firelight. 

“Good night.” 

The whisper snagged on blood, where it was drying in whorls and patches on Charles’ face. He said nothing. 

“Professor Xavier …” The voice was lulling, caressing; god. His stomach churned. “Good night. And thank you ...” 

Charles closed his eyes. “You’re quite welcome.” 

The man hadn’t expected that. Charles felt him go still. He dragged in another breath, and continued: 

“And just to let you know: if you ever, ever do anything like this again …” he clenched his jaw, then finished: “I’ll find some way to end this. To – just to die. I’d rather die than have you touch me again. Do you understand?” 

He looked up into the man’s eyes. Those eyes were wide. Something was glowing in them – confusion? … hurt? Holy fuck, he thought with a surge of rage crashing against the remove of shock, you have got to be joking – but: “Do you understand?” he gritted out. 

“I understand,” the man hissed. “I understand perfectly. You, good sir knight.” And that spatter had to be blood, and two fingers jabbed into Charles’ sternum. “Knight of the Silken Shield. You have no courage. You have no strength. To lay you down and die -” 

“Better than laying me down and humping someone’s leg,” Charles spat. He had listened to instinct – hurt him hurt him, bring him low and hurt him. “You have no staying power. You: the great and terrible,” he curled his upper lip, “adolescent. Pathetic. And you’ll have to inflict yourself on someone else, because, if you ever touch me again –” 

Those fingers touched his mouth. Charles stiffened. 

Then, a rasp: “I heard you the first time.” 

And then … 

Charles felt his palms go clammy at the expression in the man’s eyes. As he tipped his head, considering … as he took his hand away from Charles’ face – reached and – unbuttoned? – oh god what is he – 

As quickly as he could, Charles turned his eyes away. 

But he really couldn’t miss the sensation of a strong hand smearing come onto his face. 

It was a difficult thing to ignore, really. His mind catalogued the heat, the smell – and Charles shunted the information away and did his best to stay absolutely still. Over his cheekbone, down to his jaw… and then more, rubbed slick and warm into his throat … 

The man wiped his hand off on Charles’ collarbone. 

“Remember me, won’t you?” A bloodstained smile. “Think of me … from time to time.” 

Silence. Then: “Good night.” 

And he bent, slowly, and kissed Charles’ cheek in farewell. 


Charles didn’t hear him leave. When he blinked, and tried to raise his head, to look around … well. It took him three tries. But he finally sat up. 

He kept the pain receptors muted. 

“What do I need to do?” he mumbled to himself. Almost gargled, really. The gap where his tooth had been – he probed it with his tongue – was still bleeding. But … all of the shards and splinters of bone had been removed. “’S good. But …” 

Antibiotics, Charles thought, distantly. He would figure out a way for McCoy to give him some. And … 

“A veil,” he sighed. “Physical. Real.” 

Because – he stared at shackle and chain. He had no way of washing himself, before Alex came to unlock him. And he was covered in blood. 

Blood and come. All drying, tacky and sticky, respectively, on his skin. 

He could smell it – Charles’ stomach lurched, and he choked back the urge to vomit. He couldn’t reach the bathroom, and he didn’t want to become even dirtier … 

But: “I’m not dirty.” He exhaled, ragged. “This wasn’t me. This was him.” He plucked the T-shirt from the floor. “Fuck him.” 

And he did his best to scrub off what he could. 

Then Charles took careful aim, and threw the shirt in the fire. It landed perfectly. Caught fire, and burned. 

Don’t set the place on fire – he heard the echo of Logan’s voice, and he drew his knees up to his face and choked back a cry. “Oh god – I –” 

You have friends, he told himself, fiercely. Friends. Allies. And he – Charles wiped his face on the fabric covering his kneecaps, ignoring the jab of bone. He had driven the man off. Hopefully. Hopefully permanently. 

He had no intention of dying, of course; not here, and definitely not by his own hand. But for all the sick glow in that creature’s eyes, it didn’t know him at all. It wouldn’t know to call his bluff. 

Him, his mind corrected. 

“No,” Charles replied. He felt tired. “It.” He stared at his shirt as it unfolded into ash on the hearth. Then he stared at the bedpost. The chain and jewel were gone. The green sweater was gone. Good. No traces, no evidence that the monster had anything approaching a human body. 

None except that drying on his face, where he hadn’t managed to scrub it away … 

But Charles closed his eyes. “Sleep,” he told himself. “Plan in the morning. Think in the morning.” 

He rolled to one side, peeled the covers back and crawled in between them. Then he reached down – and took, from beneath his bed, Ororo’s book. Logan’s carved container. 

And Charles eased Jean’s drawing out of his pocket. 

He looked at them all in the fading light of the dying fire. 

And then – only then, holding them all close – did Charles fall asleep.

Chapter Text

The low moaning had been going on for quite some time – a background thrum in his troubled dreams – but Charles only woke when the outside wind spiked into a shriek. 

He stared at the plaster ceiling, then cautiously eased himself upright. A book and container on his lap thumped to the floor; he stared at them muzzily. Then Charles let Jean's drawing, crumpled in his hand, fall to the floor as well. 

He drew his legs closer, tucking them beneath each other. The chain made soft clinks, hardly audible under the sound of the wind. Pale morning light seeped through the arrow windows. In those watery beams, Charles could see dust motes swirling. It was intensely cold. 

Shakily, he exhaled. Watched the white plume of his breath dissipate. For some reason, the cold felt even more intense on the inside of his mouth – 

Charles blinked, remembering. “And really …” He nudged around his mouth, experimentally, with his tongue. “How would I have forgotten? 

“Unless it’s the pain receptors – still off, I suppose. Jolly good, old man.” Charles felt that some small amount of congratulation was in order, to build himself back up after the tears of the night previous. His tongue found the new gap in his teeth – “hello there, you,” – and – 

“Oh,” he mumbled. And the new hole in his gum. He tongued it; gave it an exploring jab. Felt nothing. “Just as well,” because the edges were ragged, and the scab there did not hold for more than ten seconds of prying. “Bugger.” He tasted copper, again; and one hand to the left side of his face confirmed that flesh was swollen and unnaturally hot, throbbing with his pulse … 

“You need antibiotics,” Charles told himself, calm. He considered. “And you might be in shock.” He held up his hands to the light – pale, tinged blue around the fingernails, and clammy. “Correction: you are in shock. 

“And what do we do for shock? Well.” Had he only been training his students for the field two months ago? Not even two months. Charles shook his head and dismissed thought and memory, inched down on his mattress instead. He propped his ankles on the metal railing at the bed’s foot. The shackle would be pinching, he supposed, but all his pain receptors were off, so: “Proceed. We elevate the feet, to encourage blood flow to the heart and brain. Then we ensure warmth and insulation,” he snuggled deeper into his blankets, “monitor the pulse,” he laid two fingers against his jugular, “and find immediate assistance.” 

The words fell into the chill of his room. His very empty room. 

“Hm.” 

Charles looked at the shackle. It had fallen down his leg, slightly; it was cutting white into the already-pale skin of his calf. “… Really, I was thin enough, before I came here. Well. Svelte, perhaps. The sleek and beauteous body of a seal.” 

He crossed his right ankle over his left and wiggled his toes. “It’s too much to hope that you’ll fall off magically,” he said to the shackle, “so … perhaps Jean could take you off for me?” 

He called up his hummingbird. It was pale, insubstantial … weak … but Charles sent it fluttering across the hallway nonetheless. He bit his lip. Weak. He wasn’t weak. He had been mauled and covered in assorted bodily fluids the night previous – which he would consider at another time, when he had less pressing matters occupying his attention – and he had writhed, and screamed … but he was not. Weak. 

The intense cold and sharp wind were enough to sap his hummingbird’s energy. It only had power enough to brush against Jean’s sleeping mind once … before dissolving into thin air. 

“Huh.” 

Charles gnawed on his lower lip, considering. Too cold for his power to fly very quickly, then? Or maybe it was the way his vision seemed to be blurring and sparkling round the edges. That, and Jean was still working through the effects of – of whatever drug she had been given, then night previous. 

Why had she been drugged again? 

Oh

“To keep her asleep,” he told himself, “while – that thing happened. To me.” 

The … thing. There it was. It was a monster, prowling out of the darkness of his memory, baring sharp teeth at him … It had the lean grace of a puma, the glittering eyes of a wolf … 

“And all the self-control of a jackrabbit.” Charles snorted and shoved the monster away in his mind. “I’ll think about you later,” he told it; it growled, and he slurred: “Later.” 

Then he stared at his toes a little while longer, humming. “You’re really not much help,” he told the shackle. “But … help. I need to send for help. Which shall it be?” 

Charles flicked through the possibilities: hummingbird, sparrow, dove, owl – ravenAnd then he smiled, remembering. “Likes cold weather; steady, plodding pace. We have a winner.” 

He summoned his penguin, matched it glare for glare – “I’ll be fine” – and sent it waddling out his door and down the hallway. 

The penguin was only mildly fazed by the steps; it tucked its flippers into its sides and slid down them in a thumping cascade. It had a bit more trouble standing up again. “You’re really very fat,” Charles said, and: “All right – blimey, I heard that from up here.” 

The penguin marched past the kitchen and down one hall; then took a turn and marched down another. “Let McCoy be in his workroom,” Charles mumbled, “please …” 

Luck was with him, it seemed. He could almost see the shimmer of the room’s heat, compared to the chill of the hallway, as the penguin walked straight through the door and waddled to the pale blue flicker that must have been McCoy. His mind looked rather like the flame of a Bunsen burner. 

“Get his attention.” 

The penguin took gleeful aim, and then unleashed a storm of pecks. “A peck of pecks,” Charles laughed to himself, as all of McCoy’s thoughts sparked and flared in reaction. 

Languidly, Charles wafted a banner into McCoy’s mind. Please come help me. I need you – and sent an image of his own face. Not the way it currently looked; no. For that matter … 

“How do I look?” 

Charles blinked, back in his room. “Huh.” 

Where had his penguin gone? Frowning, he sent out a spark of power – only just caught the impression of the black-and-white bird standing, chubby and irate, at the bottom of the steps. It squawked at him. 

“Oh. Well …” he was starting to feel woozy. The spark flickered and died. “Hang on there, and grab McCoy’s foot when he comes round, how about … 

“Now.” He ran an exploring hand over his face. “That doesn’t feel right.” It was sticky – he sniffed at his fingers. Blood and come – “I remember that,” he mumbled – and the monster in his mind … purred

“Shut up,” and Charles dragged up enough power to put a veil around himself – “a real veil,” he whispered, “in the real world ...” And he’d have to somehow stage his injury, he realized – before McCoy reached him. The penguin was getting louder and louder in his mind … closer, squawking, clinging to a trouser leg. 

It was easy enough. All he had to do was stand up and try to walk. 

“Mr. Xavier?” McCoy’s voice, at the door; there was the click and rattle of bolt and lock. “Are you all right?” 

“No,” he slurred from his heap on the floor, and: “Help, please.” 

The door opened. He heard McCoy gasp. 

“’Lo Hank.” Charles looked up and smiled. Left just enough blood around his mouth, and dripping down the pale skin of his throat, to convince. “I hurt my tooth.” 

“How?” McCoy stammered, kneeling. Charles closed his eyes and breathed out in relief as his penguin flopped back into his mind. It was tired. He was tired. 

“Had a bad dream. Then I woke up and jumped out of bed – and I tripped, and my lower tooth's stronger than the upper one … I don’t know. Can I have some antibiotics please?” 

“Of course.” The words were high-pitched. “Let me just – oh shit.” 

“‘Oh shit’ – wha’?” 

“I don’t have a key. To your – um.” 

“Chain? This is a chain.” Charles rattled it. “It’s heavy."

“Wait here, just – wait here and I’ll go get one; I’ll be right back.” 

“’M not going anywhere,” Charles said to the floor, exasperated, and heard McCoy run out the door. 

The penguin was back. All the birds were nesting down; going to sleep. So his grip on the pain receptors should not have faltered. 

Charles gasped – coughed out, dragged in another harsh breath through his nose. No no no 

He saw the monster yawn – all those sharp white teeth – and stretch, and get up to walk towards him. It raised an eyebrow. And smirked. 

When had it become a person? 

“Go away,” Charles hissed, and wrested all of his power to the pain receptors; clamped down as tightly as he could. The monster shimmered in his mind’s eye; vanished in the middle of a growl … 

“Good riddance.” 

Then all he had to do was stare at the floor and wait for McCoy to return. 

Which he did, less than ten minutes later. Charles made McCoy wait for him to change into clean clothes. Not that he told him why they were dirty; oh no. 

… And not an hour after that, Charles was safely ensconced in the familiar infirmary bed. It was heated, there, and – even in a daze – he had taken a hot shower, scrubbing hard. McCoy had run an I.V. into his left arm; there was a clear bag of antibiotics dripping into his veins. And then McCoy – bless his naïve little cotton socks – had given him enough oxycodone to fell a rhinoceros. 

It made him sleep. But before Charles did so, he considered something. In the one trip he remembered from the infirmary to the manor, they had walked outside – and there had been want watching him from above … he suppressed the memory. This time they hadn’t put a toe outdoors. And just as well, he thought, since McCoy had nattered on and on about the blizzard as he had helped Charles stagger down stairs and through hallways. 

Without a blindfold. 

Charles smiled at the cold white ceiling. In his panic and dismay, McCoy had forgotten to blindfold him. 

And even with his power thrumming in distracting overdrive … or perhaps especially because of that same power, all of it, brought to bear and electric in his mind … Charles now he had a complete record of the entire route. Safely in his memory. 

He would retrieve it upon waking. For the moment, though, he let go of all his pain receptors, and let his power – and himself – sleep. 


Charles felt much better rested the second time he woke. Perhaps especially because he blinked awake to the scent of … fried eggs

“Oh,” he said, urgently, and sat up in a rush. 

“And good morning to you too.” From across the room, Logan grinned at him. He was draped in a chair, leaning it backwards against a wall. One booted foot was planted square on the bed’s railing. “Slept a while, Mr. X. Hank’s gonna be pissed with you – he’s the one been sitting here this whole time,” Logan hooked a thumb at two books lying on a steel table in one corner, “and he only just took a break for a nap. But … you know what that means?” 

“I don’t know what that means,” Charles said in a rush, eyes glued to the plate – the steaming plate – placed next to the books. 

“Means: more for you.” And – oh god oh god – Logan took the plate and held it out to him, with a fork. 

Charles stared. Twenty years of Oxford etiquette, and he was perhaps ten seconds away from diluvian drool. Eggs – was that pepper on them? – and shredded cheese, and bread on one side, and there was – 

“Logan?” 

“Yeah?” 

“Is that an orange?” 

“What are you, color-blind?” 

“No – I mean –” Charles gulped. “Where did you get it? I haven’t had an orange in … in –” He gave it some thought. In Oxford, apples and pears had been the staples, along with strawberries in their season. The greenhouses were guarded closely by the botanical staff, on the understanding that, if the Queen were to come down from Coventry, she would be offered citrus. Lemon, orange, grapefruit – Oxford over Cambridge, now and forever – “By their fruits ye shall know them,” Charles said, staring, and – why am I rambling about an orange, for god’s sake – 

“ ‘In’?” Logan prompted. 

“In at least a year.” Charles shook off the memories. Then bit down hard on the inside of his mouth and held out the plate to Logan. “This is lovely, but would you –” 

“Nah, X man – I had some already. And that’s how I got McCoy out of here in the first place.” A grin. “Blatant bribery. The beanpole took off like a shot, and not just cause my baby’s wearing a halter top.” 

Charles hardly heard him; instead, he was focused on moving his tongue through the new gap in his teeth. He felt cool flesh – well, perhaps some heat, but smooth toughness where a wound had been … perhaps something of a scar. 

“Logan,” he interrupted. “How did this heal so quickly?” 

“You don’t remember? Archangel’s blood, X. We had just enough left over from – that is to say,” Logan dragged in a deep breath; exhaled sharply. “You just needed a bit. Pretty basic – tooth out, some tearing, bit of infection starting up … but you’re all set, now, as good as we can get you. Might ache for a little while. 

Charles felt removed from himself, his thoughts carefully cataloguing, as he took inventory of the new sensations. Chewing, he thought to himself – chewing would be different, now … but he could focus on the right side of his mouth, or: 

“I’ll have to invest in a bridge.” He quirked a smile at Logan. “Perhaps you might recommend a dentist.” 

“Hell, I wish. There’s one up in Albany, but he’s a civ, so we try not to drag him down here too much.” Logan gave him an assessing look, eyes dark. “You did a bit of a number on it.” 

“Mmm.” Charles stared down at his plate. 

“I took a peek, an’ McCoy did fine digging the rest out. I’ve seen some teeth knocked around in my time, and those splinters can get nasty.” 

McCoy didn’t – part of his mind pointed out, and Charles kicked the memories aside. He would focus on breakfast. 

“Right.” A deep breath. “And how long have I been asleep?” This time, his mind added, snide. And even with his control, Charles couldn’t help avoid the anger that surged in him. It seemed to be a pattern: get brutalized, get drugged, get some refreshing sleep – only this time there was an omelet at the end of it. Joy

Logan sighed. “Tuesday today.” 

Twenty-four hours, then. Charles picked at the orange, casting round for a subject of conversation. “And has the blizzard stopped?” 

“Just a while ago, yeah. Didn’t turn out to be that bad … but there’s still quite a bit on the ground, which gets me down.” 

“Why so?” 

Logan huffed out a long sigh. “No walkies.” 

“… Pardon me?” 

A broad grin. “The look on your face, Xavier; god. Eat your food, c’mon. And by: ‘no walkies’, I mean that my Marie and me have to confine ourselves to the great indoors. Which ah, kind of – crimps my style, you know? I –” 

“Logan.” A new voice … and Charles, looking at the door, saw a brown-haired woman stroll in before he sensed her with his power. Ten hours’ worth of controlling the pain receptors must have weakened him more than he thought. He should have realized, though: my baby’s wearing a halter top, Logan had said … and, in retrospect, the lewd tone had indicated that he had not meant Jean. 

Charles covered his confusion with good manners. “Good morning, Miss – um.” 

“ 'Miss' nothing.” Logan’s grin got even bigger – and the woman interrupted him with a swat to his tufted hair. 

“Quit it. I can speak for myself –” 

“I know it –” 

“– you know it, and if you don’t shut your big mouth for maybe half a minute, I’ll have to hurt you, and: hello Mr. Xavier.” She held out a hand – a hand clothed, Charles noted, in a peach-colored, elbow-length glove. The glove’s lace looked somewhat worse for wear … and its mate, he saw, didn’t match. She was indeed wearing a halter top – over three layers of other shirts, though. “My name’s Marie.” 

He took her hand and shook it heartily. “Lovely to meet you,” 

“Likewise.” She had a low voice – almost with the hint of a croak? Or perhaps it was the accent. He knew it from classic films he had occasionally shown his students … Deep South, United States Before – but Charles was fascinated to hear it in person. She had a pleasant face and a friendly mouth that quirked up at the corners. 

“Is there another chair?” she was asking Logan.

After a deliberate look around, Logan sighed: “Nope. There is no other chair. Damn; I coulda sworn there were at least three –”

“ – before you moved them into the closet. You’re lucky I’m feeling lazy.” Marie smiled as she sat down in Logan’s lap. As gracefully, Charles noted, as if she were Britain’s Queen. 

“Aren’t you going to eat, Mr. Xavier?” 

“Please, do call me Charles.” 

Logan glared. “Why don’t I get to call you Charles?” 

“Well …” He blinked. “I’m afraid I was trying to be charming.” With a shrug, Charles took a bite of egg … and social niceties disappeared as he felt his eyes roll heavenward. “Oh god, that’s good –” 

“Thank him,” Marie said, tipping her head against Logan’s. “He made it.” 

“Nah, thank her.” Logan bumped his chin against her cheekbone; Marie smiled and shook some of her hair out over her skin. “She brought the stuff all the way up from Dallas.” 

"I figure, I'm going back to Denver? I can take supplies with me."

“Thank you – both of you,” he said fervently … but. Even though his mind was still sparking off the taste of eggs and – butter, pepper salt – and vegetables, sautéed … he still wasn’t that distracted. “Dallas?” 

“Yeah.” Marie sighed; then returned Logan’s elbow jab with interest. “Leave off – he’ll find out in the morning.” 

Charles set down his fork. “Find out … what?” He stretched out his power – it flickered, and he drew it back to himself with a wince. Rest, Charles thought. Rest, and recover … 

“In the morning,” Logan agreed. “Don’t worry, X; ‘s nothing too bad. Not for you, at least.” 

Marie sighed, and interlaced her gloved fingers with Logan’s. The two of them watched him eat. It would be disconcerting, Charles thought, were it not for the sense of peace in the room – quiet, warm like the blanket on his legs. Strange. Logan was one of the least peaceful people he knew, here. John as well, perhaps, and … 

Charles carefully controlled his memories; daubed at his plate with a piece of bread. He sighed. 

“Good?” Logan sounded amused. 

“More than good. Wonderful.” Turning back to the orange, Charles finished peeling it and began methodically nibbling away the albedo. “Is there a special occasion?” 

“Other than my girl visiting? Nah. Well, maybe just to make you jealous. They eat like this at least once a week down there. Not bad.” 

“Ah.” Charles carefully set aside the remaining peel, then offered Logan and Marie a section. They accepted. “And one for Jean,” he muttered to himself, placing it in the pile of peel – “where is Jean, by the way?” 

“Camped out with some of the techs. Not much work gets done on snow days, usually … although the way things are goin’ down, this might be the last free day for a while.” Logan shrugged. “Enjoy it while you can.” 

Marie leaned back against him, her eyes falling half-shut. “Mm-hm.” 

The two started whispering to each other. Charles pretended not to hear. It wasn’t that difficult – the first taste of fruit had almost made him moan. He savored it, chewing slowly, catching every last drop of juice. 

All too soon, it was gone. He sighed. “Any chance of a napkin? Or something to carry these?” He indicated the pile of peel and Jean’s piece. 

“Sure thing; come on.” Marie scrambled to her feet. She gave Logan a hand; tugged him up. “Oof – I swear to god, every time I touch you you’re heavier.” 

“Every time you touch me, baby …” Logan nuzzled her cheek. Then, “Whoa,” he groaned – and his skin … changed? Charles shivered, staring. What on earth – 

“Easy.” Marie slipped away from him. “Come on, Charles – we’ll drop your plate off at the mess, rustle you up a napkin. And you need your winter gear, too –” 

“Got a change of clothes for you in the bathroom, X man; go nuts. And also – Marie?” Logan crossed his arms in front of his chest. “He gets blindfolded for this part.” 

Marie stared at Logan. Then she stared at Charles. “You’re kidding me.” 

“Mm,” Charles said, and fled to the bathroom. 

He deliberately ignored all the up-and-down cadences of their argument while he changed; then walked back out into the thick of it. 

“Charles –” Marie snapped at him. “Logan tells me you’ve been hooked up to the Finder – how many times now?” 

“I’ve rather lost track,” Charles replied.

Logan growled – Marie overrode him: “Well. If you can be trusted with that much, I’m pretty damn sure I can show you where to put a god damn plate.” 

“Baby –” Logan began, gruff. 

“Nope.” Marie walked to the door, graceful as a dancer, albeit a tense one, and opened it. “I haven’t received any orders, directives, commands, or even suggestions concerning one Charles Xavier. Not on paper; not in my head. So I say he’s gonna walk without a blindfold.” 

“And I say he’s not.” 

“Then it’s a good thing I outrank you.” Marie stepped into the hallway “Come on, Charles – as long as …” Her brow quirked; suddenly self-conscious. “As long as I can trust you. Can I?” 

Charles hardly heard her. He was staring at the door. 

Then: “Oh. Oh, yes.” 

His voice was quiet – he did his best to make it heartier; tried a smile in return. “Of course. I’m the most trustworthy person I know.” 

“‘Cept Jean, maybe,” Logan growled. A weighty hand landed between Charles’ shoulder blades: Logan, shoving him out the door. 


Charles carefully held his orange peel until they reached the mess; Marie gave him a cloth, there, and he wrapped the remnants; shoved them in a pocket. Then, heart bounding into his mouth, he followed the other two through a series of austere hallways. All right angles; door after door after door … His mind clicked away, cataloguing. Time enough, later, to superimpose this information on that he had gathered on his walk with McCoy – and to calculate exact distances, given the length of one pace …

One Xavier-pace. His thoughts were gleeful. This could prove so important – knowing the inside of the manor as well as Ororo had known the outside – 

“Here we go.” Marie’s voice rang out loud and clear – echoing. She had opened a door and strolled through; Logan waved Charles ahead with a gesture of mock courtesy. 

Charles walked inside, and looked around. A large … locker room was the best word for it, perhaps. Nowhere near as welcoming as those of any gymnasium he’d ever visited, however. Light from long fluorescent bulbs – only one on at a time, as Logan flicked switches – and a cold cement floor. Partitions separated compartments; those same spaces opened onto double benches running to the far wall. There were at least five rows, back to back. Each partition was festooned with hooks – and in the occupied compartments, there were different things hanging from those hooks. Articles of clothing, drawstring bags and – his fingers itched to touch – certain pieces of tech that looked so interesting – 

“Winter storage back here – c’mon.” Marie’s voice was fainter. Charles dragged his attention away from the miscellany and jogged to catch up. Logan had disappeared. 

Marie flicked a switch, and a fluorescent light flared over a compartment three times as big as the others. It was filled with coats. The hooks on the partitions were full; two racks had been crammed in as well. On yet another rack Charles saw cloaks and scarves hanging. There was a battered plastic tub full of hats and another of gloves and mittens. 

“Try some of those on.” She hooked a thumb at the coats. “And I’m gonna look –” she fluttered one gloved hand – “for some more of these.” 

“Right.” Charles felt excited; chose to encourage the feeling. Rather that, after all, than gloom over his winter clothes left in Oxford. The fur coat he had obtained through trade; the wool one he had saved a full year to purchase at the Christmas market … Raven’s knobbly attempts at scarves … 

He gave a wry smile as he swirled a floor-length cloak off one hanger. It was of a hideous green broadcloth, and quite heavy. 

“What do you think?” he asked Marie; she took one glance and snorted. 

“I think that some flyer’d be pissed with you if you took it.” 

Charles blinked. “… Flyer?” 

“Yeah.” She went back to sorting through the gloves. “If they’re still refining their control, sometimes things like that help them glide. Not that they’d admit it to your face – ha!” Marie pulled a pink glove out of the box. “Not quite Georgia peach, but it’ll do.” 

Her bad mood had vanished. Charles watched for a moment as she looked in the box again. Georgia. Making a mental note to extract more information from Logan – it would not do to interrogate Marie here, despite the stark ambience – he went back to rummaging. 

Charles sniffed. The air was not musty, precisely, but there was the unmistakable sense, hanging round the coats, of their having been worn before. He found one child-sized jacket in light blue, with at least a dozen patches on each puffy sleeve. Charles smiled to himself and folded it up, wedged it down the sleeve of a hooded manteau. He’d take it back for Jean. 

After he had found three serviceable coats and matched them with as many scarves, hats and gloves as he could fit in the pockets, Charles followed Marie back out. 

“Logan?” she called. “Honestly,” a mutter, “you leave him alone for thirty seconds – Logan? Where are you?” 

He turned out to be in the corner diagonally opposite storage. “Heyo. And before you ask –” he grinned at Marie, and swished back and forth something looked suspiciously like a cask. “Need-to-know –” 

“ – basis; ugh. Your last batch could peel paint, remember? Why not just leave it to Paige?” 

“Are you insulting my manly ability to –” 

Charles tuned out their sparring. Turned on one heel, and stared. 

Something was making the back of his neck prickle. 

Something … was someone else in the locker room? He stretched out his power; nothing. Listened carefully; and looked in the compartment across from Logan’s. Nothing. 

He edged along the dividing bench. Two more spaces opposite each other; nothing. Two more … still nothing … 

The armful of clothing was bulky – he couldn’t say that it was making him sweat, though, because it was chilly in the room. But he was … a drop trickled down his back, beneath his sweatshirt. 

Sweat

The realization uncoiled from his stomach and slithered up back of his throat. He could smell – Charles sucked in a breath through his mouth, but the scent still clogged his nostrils – directly in front of him, to the left, and from here to the other wall … 

He could smell the man’s sweat. 

Man. Thing. Monster. “Whichever,” he said faintly, and leaned back against the edge of a partition behind him. His head was swimming; he didn’t know why. Shock, perhaps, or memory – especially himself, hooking his fingers into belt loops and yanking the man over by them, just to thrust up against one rock-hard thigh – 

“Oh, no you don’t,” Charles hissed to himself. “Think of something else – there. Look,” he spat at his thoughts. “Something shiny.” 

The space across was almost as large as storage had been. And in it, there was … 

Metal. 

Crowbars, ingots, random lumps and scraps scattered around canisters on one side of the compartment. There were two buckets full of metal casings; Charles would guess that boxes stacked high against one wall contained bullets. He dragged his eyes over the thick chains hanging as a partition, and stared in sickened fascination at the other walls. 

Some compartments in this locker room had coats hanging from hooks. 

This one had knives. 

Well. Knives, daggers, bayonets ... and one pair of … swords, curved and glittering in the gloom. The entire space glittered – like a deadly constellation, silver in darkness. Charles was shivering in earnest now. He breathed in through his mouth. In. Out. Focus on that. He focused. 

And noticed: to be fair, there were other things. There was a bucket in one corner. Charles looked in it – a sponge lay swollen and grey in a few inches of murky water. There were two stained towels by the bucket. There was a coat – dark and somewhat shabby – hanging from a hook. There was a scarf dangling out of one pocket, and – was that a hat on the floor? Something to wear in winter, he saw: cable knit and a dark color. 

A lifetime of haranguing untidy students made his response automatic. Charles shifted his own coats to his left arm. Then he picked the hat up. 

And dropped it, when he realized it was damp. 

His mind flew and catalogued; his power slapped him into realizing: the hat was damp, the towels – he felt them – were damp. All the cloth was soaked with sweat, cooling but not yet cold – is he here is he – The man’s scent reached out sharp claws from those bits of cloth, from the grimy water in the bucket; curled round his throat, choked him. His gasp sounded high-pitched and tinny; Charles didn’t care. He clung to his armful of coats and backed away. Get away – 

“Hey X man – come outta there.” 

“Right, of course.” Charles backed straight into a wall of solid muscle; yelped in surprise. “Sorry – sorry, I –” 

“You –” Logan looked past him, grimacing as his nostrils flared. “Yeah, come out. Come away. Those ain’t for show.” 

“What – whose –” Odd, to have to focus on deceiving Logan, when he, Charles, knew so well already … just whose those weapons were.  

Logan didn’t say anything more. Just herded him out of the locker room, with Marie on his other side. 

They met Alex on the way back to the dormitory. Charles, his power darting out in frantic fits and spurts – is he here is he here? – had sensed him in time for Logan to tie the blindfold. Alex had taken him the rest of the way; Charles had hardly said goodbye to Marie. 

He would regret that later, perhaps, Charles told himself as he sat on his bed, head between his knees. But he definitely did not regret that it had been Alex, and not Logan, who had locked him back in his chain. 

Alex merely said, “Whew,” fanned a hand in front of his own face, and gave Charles a smirk before leaving. In contrast, Logan would have smelled the blood and come, dried onto the sheets where Charles had rolled in his sleep, and … 

… what would he have done? What could he possibly do? 

Gritting his teeth – it did smell to high heaven, good lord: blood and come and the remnants of his own sweat - Charles tossed all of the orange peels into his fire, one at a time. Then, carefully, he folded Jean’s drawing away into Ororo’s book; slid all of his gifts beneath his bed. Logan had given him that bear grease, he thought, massaging some of it into his chafed ankle; he seemed to hate the idea of Charles being chained. But what he would do if he knew the other things … 

Charles closed his eyes. The heady scent of orange helped him concentrate, helped him steer his thoughts into different channels. 

And helped him conclude: even if his mind was not yet attuned enough to know how Logan would have reacted … it was still strong enough to overcome memories of a monster. 


Wednesday morning, Charles half expected to wake chained to the metal headboard and striped with ejaculate. Since that proved not to be the case, he already felt slightly more cheerful than he had for a while. Perhaps, he thought: perhaps the man had taken seriously his threat of self-harm. Which was ridiculous, of course – he had absolutely no intention of dying here. 

“None,” Charles repeated – under his breath, though, so Angel wouldn’t hear as she closed the door behind him. He strode downstairs to the kitchen. “He won’t kill me and Frost won’t kill me; therefore I certainly won’t kill me.” 

It was convenient, though, that, the night before – no – two nights ago, the man had seemed so completely and utterly convinced. Charles allowed himself to remember, briefly, those grey-green eyes widening, a ring of white around the iris – there had been sweat beading on the other's brow, he remembered … those eyebrows had been damp, and the eyelashes – 

“Enough,” he growled to himself, and opened the door. 

He had not expected to be left alone at night – the actual outcome was one positive of his morning. Two additional? The rainbow burst of joy from Jean – Mr. Xavier look look! – and … 

Charles’ jaw dropped. 

And Sean, sitting on the other side of the table, looking as though he had never left. 


“Hey, Mr. Xavier,” he croaked. 

“Sean!” Charles bounded around the table and wrapped him in a bear hug. “How wonderful to see you! How are you? How did you get home?” 

For a long moment, Sean was still. Then he hugged Charles back. Gave him an awkward pat. Charles felt a brief flicker of unease – Sean was bony, his shoulder blades jutting. 

“I got back yesterday.” Sean’s voice was hoarse. “How’s it been here?” 

“Perfectly well. Jean and I have been working together; we had a bit of a break, you understand, with the snow.” Charles kept his words light as his mind clicked along faster and faster, anxious. Sean’s red hair was dull; his skin looked papery around the temples. “I just met Logan’s Marie, and picked out some moth-eaten coats. How are the others? Ororo and Bobby? John?” 

Sean stared at the tabletop. “They’re good.” 

Even one touch of Charles’ power was enough to tell him that he had said the wrong thing. But why? 

“What’s the matter, Sean?” 

There was no answer. Charles flicked a look at Jean. She stared back at him, round-eyed – a whisper of Maybe he misses them too? 

“Well.” Charles softened his tones. “I’m glad to see you back. We both missed you very much. And I didn’t mean to interrogate you,” he waggled his eyebrows, “on your first day back, to boot.” 

“… That’s O.K.” Sean looked up at him – and there was a hint of a smile, thank god. “They just - don’t want me to talk much. I kind of hurt my throat, when I fell – so I have to take it easy,” he enunciated carefully, “for a little while.” 

How on earth would one make a connection between ‘throat’ and ‘fall’?It took a great effort to control his immense curiosity, but Charles managed it. Surely there would be more than enough time for questions later. “Then I’ll just make you some tea, shall I?” 

He split the section of orange between Sean and Jean, and then brewed three cups of tea, tensing up with each one he poured. For fear and pain and far too far to fall were wafting from Sean like clouds of smoke. And since Sean had no way of managing traumatic memories – Charles checked the locks on his own fear and pain and blood and come on my face, god – it would be far better to avoid any sensitive topics. For the next little while, at least. 

“Drink up.” Charles placed the mugs in front of the two children; sipped at his own. “Although I suppose you could have all the coffee you wanted, in Dallas.” 

Sean stared at the tabletop. “Not a whole lot, but John – John was happy.” 

Charles saw Sean's fingers, spindly and pale, wrap around the mug. The alarm he felt trebled - something was seriously -


“-wrong, Logan. And I'd like to know what."

Logan spat onto the snow. “You want the short version or the long version?” 

“Depends on which has the most information in it.” 

A harsh grunt. Charles resisted the urge to sigh. Logan had been as bad-tempered as a mule since Marie had left, “Tuesday night, Xavier,” and: “She says ‘good-bye.’ Unlike you.” 

Logan was continuing, though, gnawing on his cigar viciously. “Right. Short version. Kid took a real bad fall, broke his leg in two places. His, ah, mutation” Logan slanted him a look, “he didn’t tell you about it, did he?” 

Charles shook his head. 

“Hunh. Not like you to mind your own business, X.” 

“I have my moments.” 

“Yeah, whatever. Marie likes you, you know?" Logan's seeming non sequitur became clear, with, "And she says that you should know a helluva lot more than folks are letting on to you. Something about you being responsible," he drawled, "and kind, and all that."

"I'm flattered."

"No, she's flattered. You do that a lot, Xavier? Bat those baby blues and bring the ladies running? Well let me make one thing clear," and the cigar stabbed down to Charles' sternum, "X man? Stay away from my girl."

Charles paused, then snorted. "First, she's in Dallas; second, she's more than capable of taking care of herself; and third ... she's rather ridiculously in love with you, you know.

A pause. Then: "Really?"

"Bloody hell - if you need me to tell you these things, you should ask to be reassigned to Dallas. Spend time with her there."

"And miss our epic bear hunts?" Logan grinned, switching the rifle from his shoulder to beneath his arm. "Wouldn't dream of it."

Epic, my arse, Charles thought, grumpy. Mid-morning, and for all his telepathic gift winging through the woods in search of game animals ... they hadn't caught a thing.

"Anyway - Sean got a nasty broken leg, and his vocal cords got pretty ripped up because of all the screaming –” 

“Screaming?” Charles’ skin had begun to crawl – even though his winter coat was warm. The memories of his own screams plucked at his mind; he set them aside, gritting his teeth. It was only Wednesday; it had happened Sunday night … he just needed time to recover. 

“He’s got this sonic scream deal … uh. Kinda hard to describe? Mostly uses it to smash up glass’n’things, incapacitate people. Oh, and he can fly.” 

Silence. Charles closed his mouth with a snap. “… Fly?” 

“Yep. He trains with Angel. She’s been told to take it easy on him for a while, though. Even with Archangel’s blood …” Logan grimaced. “I don’t like those damn aches in the bones, you know, after you’ve healed it all up. And mine usually go away in an hour or so. Gotta be tough for that kid.” 

Such pain. He had left crawling skin for outright shivers some moments ago. Wrapping his scarf closer, Charles made a firm resolution: table any discussion with Sean about injuries; make sure he got plenty of food and stayed hydrated; pay quiet attention to him, but back off if unwelcome … 

Charles sighed. Young men were tricky beasts - and he himself had been viewed as a bit of an authority on troubled youth, at Oxford. How to reach out to Sean? Perhaps they should take him along on their next attempt at hunting – thought hopefully more successful. This one, Charles thought, checking the action of his rifle, was proving to be a bust.

Or perhaps he, Charles, would trust Sean to open up and talk in his own time. Confidences could not be rushed – especially if the confider was in pain.

Charles had taught and counseled for so many years ... that he was tempted to lay a bet with himself, or with Logan. Highest odds on Sean taking two weeks to warm up to him. Middling odds on his spilling his guts in less than a few days. Lowest odds on him refusing to talk, period. Charles knew children, and hardship, well enough; he knew that some secrets begged to be shared. Knew that the pressure would, eventually, be too much.

So, for all his knowledge, what happened later took him completely by surprise.

One final surprise, then – but not a positive one: what Sean actually did. Warming up, talking things through, confiding – and confiding in Charles? He did none of these things. 

Instead, ten days after his return, Sean ran away.

Chapter Text

In all fairness, Charles thought later … during those ten days, he had been distracted by things other than Sean. Chief among them: his own powers. 

Perhaps he had gotten somewhat carried away. 

Not truly carried away, though. If that had been the case - if his raven, for example, could have lifted his physical body, Charles would have told it to do so, and to fly him as far as it could: away, away. Into the rising of the sun; back to Oxford; as far and as fast as it could fly … from what eventually happened. 


The day after Sean’s return, Charles decided that Ororo’s map of the manor grounds needed a counterpart: an indoor one. Rooms and wings; twists and turns – to say nothing of its underground sprawl – all of these, he would map onto his mind. 

And he did. He had been working on it for over a week. 

“And maybe one day you’ll even write it down,” Charles murmured, making himself comfortable on his bed. “Perhaps like Ororo did …” He folded his hands over his heart, closed his eyes, and focused on making his breathing as deep and regular as possible. He had changed his routine just slightly, over the past week or so. No longer could he send his raven flying and remain above his blankets, waiting in a lucid dream, back in his room. It was getting too cold. 

“Not even November,” he sighed – watching his breath puff white. His fire burned bravely, but he had been almost too absent-minded to gather much wood that afternoon. Even Logan had remarked on it. “Hello, Mr. X?” – with a light cuff to the head. “Anybody home?” 

No, Charles would have said, my raven is flying and soon I’ll be gone. With Jean, of course – and – why the hell not – Sean too. Sean could literally fly, after all … so if worse came to worse, he could escape with Jean while Charles created a distraction from any pursuit. They could take any additional clothing they needed from storage; they could eat the meat that Charles and Logan had smoked, two days after Sean’s return.

Flying, Charles’ raven fluttered its wings, and gave him the memory: 


“‘Epic bear hunt,’ maybe not so much.” Logan had laid the carcasses to one side that Thursday, in the stable room where he had skinned them. “But nothin’ to sneeze at. Especially given our blizzard, yeah? I’d expect them to have been holed up.” 

Charles counted: two opossums, a rabbit and a skunk. Logan had done an exceptional job in keep the glands of that last from rupturing, thank god, but: “McCoy will have to test them all,” he said. “And we’ll have to cook the daylights out of those –” he winced at the – possums, Logan had called them. They weren’t native to Britain. “I can’t say I fancy eating that enthusiastic a scavenger.” 

“No worse than catfish,” Logan shrugged. “Meat is meat, and we’re going to run out of it by February. We always do. Tell you what: McCoy does his thing, and we can cut ‘em all into strips and smoke ‘em. I got a place for it.” 

And Logan showed it to Charles. A ruined house, somehow with half a chimney still standing. Logan shimmied up the crumbling stone to check the stoppage he had put in place earlier, then hung the meat inside and built a fire with green wood. It had taken them some time to gather the right sort, and in sufficient quantity – “for once, it’s gotta be wet too, y’know?” – and Logan had taken it upon himself to guard the smokehouse from coyotes overnight. “Though really, if they want to join the party – I’m not gonna say ‘no’.” 

The coyotes had not felt so inclined – a shame, Charles thought, since he could have used some fur to line the hood of his manteau. In his thoughts the next day, the memory of the compartment full of coats sparked something in him: escape, wafting at him with the odor of mothballs: escape escape

He chose not to remember the compartment full of knives. 

No, Charles had told himself, firmly. He wasn’t going to think of the weapons, wall after glittering wall. After all, winter would bring its own axe down on their necks soon: impenetrable cold and snow. He didn’t know how soon. But he did know that every single day he took, even to plan, was one day closer to bars of ice locking his cage – and locking it for another half year at least. 


That resolution had been Friday morning. At Friday’s dinner, Sean had been gone, but “In the infirmary,” Angel had told them cheerfully, and, “He’ll be O.K.” 

So Charles had taken that opportunity to have a long conversation with Jean. Had anyone walked into the kitchen then, he or she would have supposed them to be woolgathering, but … 

Immobile on his bed, dreaming, Charles smiled at the memory of that talk … now a week past. He was not ashamed to have a six-year-old for a teacher; far from it. No, Charles thought – only question about it was: why on earth had he waited so long – to ask her to teach him in the first place? She had offered. And he needed a shield – to ensure that Frost would never find out his plans … Frost can be evaded. Everyone can be deceived …

Especially if he made his own powers stronger. 

Raven … The all-seeing bird … It soared over the wooded hills surrounding the manor; darted round the landmarks Ororo had labeled so carefully. Then, smiling on his bed, his eyes still closed … Charles sent it flying north and east, soaring away from the waning gibbous moon. 

First Syracuse, he thought. Then Albany

For if he could make it to Albany with the children, then he could bribe someone to hide them. Or – Charles’ smile turned grim – he could find agents of another government – the Free West? Truly? his thoughts whispered, worried, but: “Whatever it takes,” he replied. He could bribe them – with information, if not his own abilities. 

Or he could use those abilities to … persuade. He was already planning on using them in every other aspect of his escape. To take one example: Logan had showed him the smokehouse. Ororo had marked it: house w/ chimney; used? on her own drawing. And his raven had presented him with the information, and thus with their exact location relevant to the manor, as soon as the house had come into his sight. 

Such knowledge … 

Knowledge of the house and grounds, Jean and Sean putty in his hands … Frost looking increasingly distracted over the past week, allowing him time back with Logan and McCoy at unpredictable intervals. It would be so easy to send a message covering his own tracks, telling one of the three that he was with one of the other … 

Would he ever have such an opportunity again? 

And so his raven’s flights: every night now, from Thursday 23 October to – tonight, the 30th. Tomorrow, Charles realized – tomorrow was the last day of October. Halloween, if one were to celebrate it. He did not, of course; but perhaps he could explain Bonfire Night to Jean. She would be so pleased at the idea of a party – perhaps as pleased as she had been when he had exclaimed over the pendants she had made … made of fire … 

His raven, soaring over the vast concrete walls of a stadium – Cornell’s, Charles decided, and four and a half miles away … his raven cried out and gave him the memory. Jean’s smile, and – 


Careful, Mr. Xavier

“I’m – um.” Charles tried extending his arm again, wincing. On his shoulder, his owl hooted. Its eyes were as wide as dinner plates. “I’m not sure it likes me, Jean.” 

The phoenix was staring at him from the immense tree at the forefront of Jean’s mind: staring, and hissing like a teakettle. 

Maybe … Jean sounded worried. Her brow was creased in a frown. Maybe if you just asked him again?  Charles caught just one glimpse of her milk teeth bearing down on her lower lip. 

“Be careful, dear. There’s no need to hurt yourself just because I can’t charm a phoenix. I suppose it must be immune to blue eyes.” 

I just – I’m not sure why he doesn’t like you. 

“Ah! Then you do admit it?” Charles smiled down at Jean, deliberately trying to lighten the mood. She had given him permission to visit her mind at the dinner table. She had seemed thrilled at the prospect of teaching him how to make a concealment token of his own – and Charles had admitted to being curious. Would those he created burn with the same fires as Jean’s? Or would they be different, somehow? 

He had not thought that the phoenix would behave the way it did. That it would refuse to land on his shoulder – and only slice at his arm with a razor-sharp beak. That it would then fly away and stay away, looking for all the world like a bonfire blazing on one branch of the tree. 

Looking at him with distrust. 

Charles sighed. “And here I thought I had a way with birds.” The owl hooted softly on his shoulder; Jean gave him a sweet smile. 

You do. He just – well. Maybe he’s just nervous. We could try again some time …

“Hm.” He adjusted a gauntlet. “I’m afraid I rather need to shield my thoughts from Lady Frost – and soon.” 

Why? 

Charles stroked the feathers on his owl’s head. “It’s … it’s a surprise. The less you know about it, the better.” 

Is it your plan?

His stomach lurched. How had she – “And what plan might that be, Jean?” 

Your plan to get the others back – Ororo, and Bobby and John. You already brought back Sean.

Charles thought back, in consternation, to the day the other children had left … oh shite. He had said that, hadn’t he?

Thank god for the Oxford missions: for adaptability and thinking on his feet. “Well, Jean, if that were the case,” he gave her a mischievous look, “you must admit you would be better off knowing nothing about it. That way Lady Frost won’t uncover anything in –” he waggled his eyebrows “– a surprise attack!” 

Jean dimpled up at him; Charles was about to grin back, but started and half-turned at the smoky hiss from the phoenix on its branch. “Oh dear.” 

Sorry about him being rude. She looked wistful. Maybe he’ll be happier to see you next time

“Perhaps.” Could the damn thing sense, somehow, that he was … slightly, only very slightly, concealing the truth from Jean? He himself could hear the dissonance of not true beneath the melody of his voice … but Jean hadn’t seemed to notice. Could a phoenix hear music? 

And really, when full disclosure of a plan to escape could get Jean killed, one would think the bloody bird would be grateful for this – the slightest of deceptions. Charles fixed it with a glare in return.

Here, Mr. Xavier. I can at least show you how I make them. 

“I would like that.” 

Except for the faint noise from the phoenix, it was peaceful on the threshold of Jean’s mind. There was a cool breeze that just barely ruffled his owl’s feathers. Charles had long since set down his sword and shield. He watched as Jean picked up a leaf that had wafted from the tree and held it, together with a strand of grass, cupped in her hands.

Find the parts of your power that are best. I have grass because it grows, and a leaf because it shades. When I put them together – Jean did, and Charles felt the back of his neck prickle. The yellow-orange leaf whirled in her hands and flashed into gold; gold threaded over the grass – beaded on it and stretched it out into a length of chain. When I put them together, I have the perfect place for one of his feathers. 

“And what do those feathers do?” Charles asked. 

It has to do with what he does, Mr. Xavier. He –

“Bursts into flame and burns to ashes; then rises from those ashes alive again – yes?” 

A smile. Yes

“The story of the phoenix is a truly lovely one. There are some fairy tales from Russia Before, I believe, of the Firebird – but it’s not quite the same idea. Rather, resurrection is a common theme in –” 

Mr. Xavier?

“Yes?” 

… Are you going to pay attention?

“Oh, dear,” Charles smiled ruefully. “Yes, of course. Carry on.” 

Jean smiled back at him; but then her face grew solemn. Then, when he gives me a feather, I put it in the leaf and – I see the burning part. Like looking into the sun.

“Mmm.” 

I tell the feather and leaf to burn away – and to come back.

“And this goes around another person’s neck … and he or she can control the burning and –” Charles puzzled over the correct word; ‘resurrection’ seemed far too weighty. “And the restoration?” 

Yes

“And can then connect that cycle … to a memory.” 

Yes. 

Charles felt another barrage of questions on the tip of his tongue, but Jean gave him another serious look. 

Watch. 

And he looked up to where Jean had stretched out her hand. The phoenix had flown close – silently, he noticed with a shiver – and had nestled in the grass to listen to their conversation. Charles had no doubt that it could hear her words. Its fiery eyes glittered at him fiercely, but with one – Please? – from Jean, it let one long feather fall from its wings, and flew back to the tree. 

I really don’t know why he’s so upset. Here – watch.

She placed the feather inside the leaf. And – Charles squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Even in her mind … she was right. It was like looking into the sun. 

Jean held out the pendant to him, with a shy smile. You can keep this one – take it into your mind, and see how it works. 

“Thank you.” He could feel the heat of the jewel, even through his gauntlet. Then curiosity struck him: “What does my mind look like to you, Jean? Here –” he stretched out his hand, “I see a tree guarding a forest. I’ve seen Angel’s neighborhood, and in –” Charles caught himself – “in other places, I’ve seen other things. Mountains, rivers … a castle, once.” 

Jean’s eyes widened. Lady Frost has a palace.

Charles stilled. “Does she?"

Yes. It’s in the air, on the clouds. I've only seen it - I haven't been there.

“Ah.” 

It’s made of ice. 

“Of course.” He felt his jaw tighten; then sought to lighten the mood – he could suss more information out of Jean later. For now, though, he was curious … 

But you’ve never asked me to your mind, Mr. Xavier

“Oh – well, you’re always welcome there.” With a twinge of conscience, Charles added, “Do please give me some advance warning, though.” Time enough to – to hide what she doesn’t need to know … 

Thanks. A smile. I like the curtains you have for it.

“… Curtains?” 

They’re shiny. Like sparkly sheets. A sudden image – Charles breathed in a gasp, for it was as though the tree had rustled all its leaves at once. A woman with red hair shot through with white, and a lined face, hanging pristine white sheets on a clothesline, bending to smile … 

“What's that, Jean?” 

It’s a good memory. It’s one of my favorites.

Charles had felt an ache in his throat throb up against the backs of his eyes; that was undoubtedly why they had stung so suddenly. 

Perhaps it had been the heat from the phoenix: it had flown down again and had fixed itself in the grass between the two of them. It hissed, eyes burning. 

“I have to go now, Jean.” He had coughed. “Tomorrow’s a busy day for both of us.” Even though their schedule had grown irregular, Frost had been dialing up the power on the Finder all week. Jean, though, had kept busy coloring an elaborate picture. Charles would ensure that she would stay busy doing just that. “I’ll expect you in my mind – some other day. I’ll make you high tea, shall I? And we’ll have a lovely time.” 

An eager smile. Thank you. I’ll see you.

Charles waved to her in farewell, gripping the pendant. Darkness fell gently, edging him out of her mind – 

– and then they had blinked at each other, across the kitchen table. 

Jean’s grey eyes had sparkled. That was fun, Mr. Xavier – but then Angel had come in, caroling, “Sleepy time for students,” and Charles had rolled his eyes, and the quiet moment had passed. 


His raven was coasting on an eddy, but: Go, Charles urged, fly fast – faster … The night was clear and cold – and there was Syracuse, on the horizon. On his bed, eyes closed, Charles nonetheless saw the faint lights and felt the wind on his face. Faster, further, he called, and the raven picked up speed – he smiled to see it fly with such joy. 

It called back to him, and sent him a memory: 


Late that Friday night, Charles had held up Jean’s pendant in his thoughts. It was so strange, to have a physical motion echoed in his mind … to see armor, and a token glimmering fire at the end of a golden chain … and to look down at his side on the bed, and see the sharp bones of his wrists and the frayed cuffs of his blue sweater. 

It had taken him forever to get it completely clean, along with the stained sheets – but Charles had done so. An he was hardly surprised to see the dark blue knit looking the worse for wear. 

… But in his thoughts … 

Charles tried to achieve the particular detachment of the lucid dream; one of his favorite pastimes from youth onward. He used the same dreaming when his raven flew … now, could he see inside his own mind? 

He knew he was seated. He raised an eyebrow at himself – he could see the iridescence of his veils, surrounding him, reflecting bright in the planes and angles of his armor. Odd, to be seated so comfortably in full battle gear … but this was his mind, Charles reflected with a smile. He could do what he liked. 

It seemed only appropriate, then, that the room that shimmered into focus around him … was the reading room. 

Charles breathed out a long sigh of pleasure. Specifically, Duke Humfrey’s Library, in the Bodleian, with its timbered ceiling and long tables, its balconies and arches and the smell of gilt and parchment … It was more beautiful, he thought, satisfied, than – than the man’s library. Far more beautiful.

Light glowed through the massive window behind him, falling golden and warm over the pendant in his hand. Without a second thought, Charles put it over his head; around his neck – 

He felt a line of fire lick at his throat. Nothing like the cold steel, no … it was powerful, but a power he could wield. Charles instinctively knew that to be true. Jean had gifted it to him – just the smallest flicker, but there. 

Closing one hand around the pendant, he called up a memory. One he’d never want Frost to see … “Just for practice,” he told himself. 

The memory of that kiss. 

He, Charles, had feathered his fingers over the man’s cheekbones. Then one tip of the chin had lured the other back from where he had flinched away. Odd, to think of … the man … as one to flinch. As … fearful … 

Fearful, and really not that bright. Charles smirked at the memory: the man’s eyes wide and green, staring at his mouth, then up at his eyes, then down at his mouth again. The strong line of his jaw, flexing, as Charles had reeled him in like a fish on a line … 

And that kiss … 

Charles had traced the man’s lips with his tongue, and eventually the other had lost the steel-tight tension in the lines of his shoulders, and had tried the same thing in response – and it had been tame, really, compared to the next – 

Charles touched his own lips with an armored finger, remembering. It had only taken one schoolboy taunt – a curl of tongue and a lusty look – and the other had gone from flinching to fearless in the blink of an eye. Licking at Charles’ tongue, over his teeth and almost to his tonsils – panting into his mouth like he was desperate for it – grinding heat down against him like a – 

“Ngh.” His voice felt thick in his throat. “That memory. Right, I command you,” he spoke to the pendant, “to make this memory disappear – and only reappear when I say the word, um, Kuss.” ‘Kiss,’ in German, he realized – and Charles frowned. Why would he have chosen that? Unless he were remembering the Klimt that his mother had so loved – Der Kuss – its lovers entwined in iridescence and gold … 

Kuss,” he said again, experimenting. And there – a flicker on a bookcase to his right. “Ah-ha.” Grinning, he walked over to the case; picked up a book with a cover dyed dark green. Charles opened it, and – oh – there was the memory. 

He blinked. He had almost forgotten just how the man’s fingers had twined into his hair – tightening, then relaxing, stroking through the locks and pressing warm against his scalp – stroking just as his tongue had uncurled hot and wet against Charles’ own … 

All the sensations sent goosebumps down his back; he snapped the book shut. Then said: “Kuss,” and opened it … “Amazing.” The pages were blank. 

Charles took a closer look. The book’s dark green leather cover now looked oddly dusty, opaque. “So,” he considered, “if I were to change my mind, and instead ask that this power,” he touched the pendant, “shield all of that – um.” Encounter? his mind offered, and then, slyly: … tangle? “All of that,” Charles said firmly. “Conceal it, and reveal it again when I say, ‘Küsse. Then …” 

Then the leather of all the books on one entire shelf of the case rippled and dulled. Fascinated, Charles tried again. “Küsse.” How interesting – all of the leather brightened and shone, obviously polished … from the dark green on the left, across to where the bindings turned slowly and slowly … red … ending with one cover of vivid crimson on the far right – 

And that was enough of that, surely. 

Charles walked back to the window. He ran one hand along the back of the ornate golden chair, touched one of the curtains roped off to one side of the glass, and considered. How could he make a token similar to Jean’s? He had made things, after all, in this room – repairing books with glue, and a needle and thread … 

Instinct made him look. And – sure enough – there on one of the tables lay his old tools. Smiling, Charles walked to the table. He sat. A pot of glue and a sharp pair of scissors; a needle and thread – beautiful silver thread – and plenty of paper. Paper in square sheets: more than he had ever had to work with at one time in the Bodleian, truly, and of a gorgeous creamy weave. 

Might as well experiment. “Hmm.” He cut one sheet into several equal squares. Then he folded the corners of one in to the center, making a small diamond. 

Jean had said something about the power he should use … The parts of your power that are best, he remembered. “Well,” and his words sounded loud in the silence of the reading room. “That means I need you.” 

He had only just finished speaking when his raven flew through the immense window, making the drapes flutter. It perched on the back of the ornate chair and tilted a proud head at him. Throne or, raven sable upon it – the effect of the whole was that of a coat of arms. “Show-off,” Charles laughed, and the raven squawked and fluttered over to him. 

“You see?” He showed it the folded paper; it croaked. “I think that if I put a feather from you in here, this token might have your speed, your intelligence, your … well. I don’t know.” 

One black piece of down had wafted to the tabletop almost before he asked, but at his last words the raven jabbed its beak behind his ear. “It’s not that you don’t have ability,” Charles said, exasperated. It’s that – I don’t know what this pendant would do, with your feather.” He frowned. “I want it to conceal. I want it to veil …” 

Oh

Heart in his mouth, he rose walked to one of the shimmering silvery drapes. Plucked at it – something made him reluctant to use the scissors – and breathed out in wonder as a scrap of the veil detached, and curled in his palm like a thrumming butterfly. I hope this works. Charles walked back to the table. He wrapped the black feather in the iridescent veil, tucked both inside the paper, glued the paper shut. Then he added a few silver stitches for good measure, and doubled up the thread to make a cord. Only when the raven croaked at him did Charles realize: he had been whispering as he sewed: forget … forget … forget … 

“Forgetfulness with every stitch? Well.” He picked up the small square token. “We’ll see – oh –” 

For at the touch of his fingers, the paper had flashed. 

Now, it was heavier in his hand. It shone bright as opal, with flecks of obsidian in its depths. And the thread had turned into a pliant loop of – not metal, thank goodness, but something like fabric, if fabric could have an electric quality. Wide-eyed, Charles touched the loop – and gasped at the shock that went through him. 

“Your speed, your intelligence,” he told the raven. “Your strength. And over it all … ‘forget.’” Forget, and … and what he remembered from his very first waking night at the manor: small and black – you can’t see me in the night – reaching out to Raven from the tower … And now, not two months later, he had this. 

Even looking at the token was fascinating. In the golden light streaming through the windows, it sent iridescent spots glimmering over the dark walnut of the table. “Oh, I really want to know if it works,” Charles had breathed. “But how …” 

The raven had fluffed its feathers, making no answer. But it didn’t matter. Tucking the token away into one gauntlet, Charles had already come up with a plan. 


And that plan … had worked. 

Flat on his bed, Charles sighed to himself. It had worked. He had done it. But he still was not sure if he should have done it. 

But: it was the night of 30 October – perhaps edging into the morning of the 31st. Charles’ raven screeched as it winged east – further and futher, faster … The night of 30 October. He had tested the token on the 25th, in the morning. And the next afternoon … 

Well. Sean had had five days, and the resilience of youth, to help his mind recover. Another screech and there was the memory: 


Saturday had begun like any other day. Jean had still been upstairs. Charles, walking into the kitchen, had gone automatically to begin brewing tea. He did not even flinch at the worked metal box anymore. 

But then he had caught the sound of quiet crying, and had turned slowly on one heel. Sean was resting his head on his crossed arms. His shoulders shook.

“… Sean?” Charles placed the mugs carefully back on the counter. “What’s wrong?” 

“N-nothing,” Sean gulped, and Charles thought back to his imaginary bet with Logan. Middling odds: Sean spilling his guts in less than a few days – ha – And then his heart caught up with his thoughts, and he winced at his own unkindness. 

“Sean,” he said quietly. Moved just as quietly to his side – though not so silently that he would startle him with a touch. Because that was what Charles did: just as for countless other students – crying for dead or dying parents, for burned or broken homes … or only for winter’s cold … Charles sat down next to Sean and wrapped one arm around his thin shoulders, holding him close. “Shh. Shh, it’s all right.” 

“No ‘s not,” Sean wept, but: “Shhh. Shhh-sh-sh …” Charles kept going with soothing sounds. He did not flinch away from Sean's pressing closer. Two shirts and a sweater – it was quite cold, that morning – and still the tears soaked through. “What is it?” 

A sob. “I c-can’t tell you.” 

“Can’t tell me? Or – won’t?” 

Sean gave a hiccup of a laugh. “Won’t.” 

“All right,” Charles murmured. “All right.” 

For a few long moments he just held Sean, letting him cry. Jean walked into the room; her eyes went wide, and Charles brought one finger to his lips. She did not even need to send an image; instead, she crept to the icebox, removed a withered apple, and left. Stretching out a thread of power, Charles felt her small back settle against the wood of the door. Good - she could slow down Alex when he inevitably returned. He sent her a wave of reassurance, and looked back at Sean. 

“Is there anything I can do to help, Sean?” He kept his voice quiet. “Anything at all?” 

He hadn’t done so for a while, but now he threaded his voice with gold: trust me trust me tell me … Charles inhaled slightly through his nose – it was more powerful, now; the gold glowing irresistibly. He could feel the thrum of his words, winding trust me around Sean’s thoughts … 

“I got hurt really bad in Dallas, Mr. Xavier. I –” Sean gulped. “I fell. An’ yesterday – I got taken to Albany, to the doctor there –” 

Charles waited. Made a quiet sound of encouragement. 

“They had to reset my leg,” Sean said in a rush. “And it really hurts now –” His face crumpled into tears again, and Charles sighed. 

“Oh, Sean. I’m so sorry."

He fell silent, then, and thought … It could work. It might be helpful, in fact. “Sean?” He kept the soothing and quiet tone foremost, wove trust me trust me through it – gold thread ... 

“You know that I’m a telepath. Would you let me look into your mind? I might be able to – to take the edge off some of them. To make the memories less vivid. Would you let me?” 

Sean snuffled for a long moment. Then: “Will it hurt?” 

“No.” Charles squeezed his shoulder. “It won’t hurt a single bit.” 

The reply came in a small voice, almost a squeak. “O.K.” 

“O.K.,” Charles agreed, peaceably. “O.K …” 

He had never truly understood that expression, he thought, distantly, as he sent his raven flying straight into Sean’s mind. It gave a hoarse croak – all clear, Charles thought, and stepped into Sean’s mind himself. It was usually best, though, to echo children’s words in times of great emotion. It soothed them. 

“You’ll be fine, Sean,” he whispered, holding up his gauntleted hands and staring into the beautiful water. Sean's mind was an aquarium – who would have thought it? With a small, closed-off area in the center – for observation, perhaps. Plenty of air to breath, surrounded by glass walls in the round … 

“Amazing …” 

Charles caught sight of the stingrays almost immediately. They were floating through a muddied area of the immense tank. “Fetch them,” he told raven – and almost laughed with glee as he saw it fly through water, glass and water, as though both were air. “Then why couldn’t my penguin climb stairs?” he mused, and: “Perhaps because that was a projection through actual space, not mental.” Charles paused, then shook his head. “Or perhaps it’s just stubborn.” 

The raven herded the stringrays towards the observation glass. The next thing Charles knew, they were flopping around at his feet, spreading wet onto the concrete floor. 

“Sean,” he called gently. “Will you come here, please?” 

A strange shriek, muffled behind the glass … and there was Sean, somehow propelling himself through the water. Charles didn’t bother to think about how he was doing it; he’d have more than enough time to consider Sean’s talent later. Instead, he pointed at the stingrays. “I just wanted to ask,” he said, “before I did anything. These,” and Charles checked, “are your memories of your visit to the doctor.” And indeed … all the pain fear and an array of medical equipment was patterned in the stingrays’ scales. “I’m going to take the edge off. Just a bit.” 

A shimmer, and Sean had passed through the glass and into the observation area – somewhat less gracefully, Charles noted, than his raven. Sean’s voice, in his mind, rasped worse than it had in the physical world. “O.K.” 

“O.K.,” Charles agreed. He drew his sword – “This won’t hurt,” he reassured Sean – and methodically removed each stinger. Then he ground the stingers under one of his boots. “That ought to help.” 

“Oh.” Sean stared. “That didn’t hurt at all.” 

“I told you, didn’t I?” 

“Yeah.” A shy smile, and a rasp: “Thanks, Mr. Xavier.” 

“No trouble, Sean. Now,” and Charles nodded at his raven, who started nudging the rays back through the glass and into the tank. “What are you doing today?” 

“Training with Angel," Sean said automatically; fascinated, Charles saw a cheerful orange fish flit by, gleaming in the water. “And then Alex and me are going to lift weights.” A sullen flounder, oddly red-colored, swam next to the glass – 

That one, Charles ordered his raven; it flipped the flounder through glass and onto concrete as quickly as it could. 

This would be harmless, Charles thought, wildly. An experiment, a quick one – and nothing would happen, nothing to hurt or harm. An inconsequential memory – he checked. Alex, glowering at Sean: Meet me at the gym at five o’clock – but a small orange sea lamprey, attached to the flounder, confirmed it: Sean croaking to Angel: I’m going to lift weights with Alex tomorrow; I feel fine – 

Far better to keep comfort than cold looks. Charles quickly detached the lamprey from the flounder; threw the former back into the tank. He held up the fish, and stared into Sean’s eyes. 

“Look at me, Sean.” Those eyes were wide – Charles sharpened his voice with obey. “Look at this jewel.” 

And Charles took out the opal from where he had concealed it in one gauntlet. 

“Look at it, and listen to me. You are going to forget about Alex telling you the meeting time,” the opal sparked, “and you are going to forget that I told you to do so, in the first place. Do you understand?” 

“… Yes,” Sean said. He sounded dazed. 

Acting on instinct, Charles touched the token to the fish. The actual, physical representation of a memory, and take it take it  he told the raven’s feather, its black quills sharp in the opal’s depths … The fish’s vivid red color turned a pale pink. 

In his waking dreams, Charles' raven found things – flew to them, relayed information back – saw everything that could be seen from high above … And its feather reached out power and jabbed at Sean’s memory – Charles bit his lip, amazed, feeling the words, strangely scrabbling – meetmeatthe five gym o’themeet – until the opal flashed. 

Then Charles stepped forward, one step, and draped the token around Sean’s neck. 

Sean gasped – something sparked … the silver thread shot tendrils into his skin – 

And Charles breathed out in wonder, as both the jewel and the rippling silver strand from which it hung … disappeared. 

“Put that fish back,” he told his raven. 

A shriek was his only answer – loud and harsh, and – “Oi!” Charles cried out and just barely dodged a beak aimed at his eye. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

He could hardly hear Sean’s, “Um – everything O.K., Mr. Xavier?” over the cacophony. 

For a moment, he had felt powerful. But now, Charles thought, tossing the flounder back into the aquarium – it swam away slowly, off-kilter – and doing his best to dodge the raven’s swoops in what was an extremely enclosed space … Now, things had devolved into farce. 

“Everything’s fine, Sean. Let me just –” he closed his eyes, and focused – “get out of your mind, and into the kitchen –” 

The kitchen snapped back into view, its colors dingy after the vividness of Sean's mind.

Charles blinked down at Sean, tucked underneath one of his arms. 

“Hey,” Sean croaked. And then: “Hey, Mr. Xavier – you were right!” He laughed – first disbelieving, but then genuine. “I can remember … but it doesn’t really hurt anymore. At least, not as much.” 

“You’re welcome, then,” Charles gritted out, and: “Thank you,” Sean said, abashed. 

At that moment, Jean trotted back inside. She carefully poured the apple seeds into the wastebasket beneath the sink, then went to Sean. And she must have projected: All right? because he smiled back at her, and said: “Yeah.” 

“Good.” Charles made tea for them all, doing his best to focus past a sudden headache. And his curiosity … well, he couldn’t restrain it. And why bother? He needed to know if it had worked, after all … He steered the conversation around to their planned activities. “Jean and I,” he explained to Sean, “both work with Lady Frost, these days.” And Sean’s wide-eyed admiration must have made him in turn feel more confiding, because, when asked, he replied: 

“Today I get to train with Angel.” 

“And then?” Charles pressed. 

Sean’s brow puckered. “Then … oh yeah. Then I’m going to go lift weights with Alex.” 

“Ah. At what time?” 

Charles held his breath as Sean thought some more. “You know … I’m. Huh.” A blink. “I’m not really sure.” 

“Then you really should check, sometime before this evening,” Charles replied, throttling his own surge of elation. It worked it worked – I did it 

“That’s a good idea,” Sean agreed. “Thanks for everything, Mr. Xavier.” 

“No,” Charles said, grinning “Thank you. For everything.” 

“Me?” Sean tipped his head. “What did I do?” 

A slam of the door, and: “You got your ass sent back here, moron; move.” Alex plucked two blindfolds from his pockets. “Mr. Xavier, Jean – got these for you.” 

“Yes, thank you, but –” and “Hey, Alex, can I just ask you –” 

“No you can’t.” Alex glowered at Sean. “Everyone’s in a rush today, so,” and he yanked the blindfold around Charles’ head. “Go to your first assignment.” 

“But I –” 

“No buts. Go now.” 

And really, Alex was in a foul temper. Who knew why? Charles listened to the clatter of Sean’s footsteps and worried … just for one moment, though. Sean would just ask someone else, he was sure. 

In the meantime, he, Charles, had Frost to fool. 


The memory made him smile with cold pride, as his raven flew on and on. Frost had been fooled indeed. But Sean … 

Memory and dreaming wakefulness, and the thrum of energy coursing through his raven, soaring over the lights of another city … the shift and slide of the layers in his mind made Charles feel disoriented. But: “Albany,” he cried to the raven, giddy. “You did it! Well done!”

The raven cried out to the night sky in triumph. “Now,” Charles shouted, “south – south along the Hudson River –” a cascade of maps, globes, images from teaching and all his students. The Hudson flows south – its mouth empties into Upper New York Bay – now, our archaeologists cannot visit territory under Brotherhood control but perhaps in future – “Go,” he whooped, exultant, “go, find it, fly!” 

The look on Frost’s face, if she could see him now – Charles laughed so loudly that he hardly heard Raven’s answering exultant cry as it sent him the memory: 


“You - what?” 

Frost’s voice was diamond-sharp. Her eyebrows formed two perfect platinum arches, high up on her forehead. 

“I went into Sean’s mind.” Charles lifted his chin. “And I modified some of his memories.” 

Frost stared down at him, where he still lay strapped into the Finder. Her nose had been wrinkled from the smell; now her nostrils were flared.

“Mr. Xavier.” She gave orders in the manner of a queen. “You will tell me exactly what you did, and why you did it. Immediately.” 

It was a calculated risk, Charles told himself. He had to know, now, before he put even more effort into their construction – whether or not his memory tokens worked. And the only way to do that was to run it past the strongest telepath he knew, besides himself.

Something made his thoughts shy away from the idea of asking Jean.

Anyway, Frost would never suspect – since this, after all, was the equivalent of walking straight up to a shark, sticking one’s head into its jaws, and saying - do bite down hard, won't you? ah yes, there's a good chap -"

“I –” Charles licked his lips. “Sean was in such pain this morning. I went into his mind – it seems to be an aquarium, by the way. I found some of the most painful memories – stingrays … and removed their stings. I estimate that this has reduced the intensity of the recall by – seventy-five percent, maybe?” He gulped. At this point, it was not necessary to feign nervousness. Frost’s eyes were like chips of ice. “That’s all.” 

A long pause stretched. 

Then: “Ah.” Frost’s voice was cool, but not the cold fury of earlier. “I see.” 

“And I thought – well. I thought I would tell you, because I didn’t want –” 

“– me to find out and punish you again … yes.” Her voice crept over his ears; he shivered. “One chain is quite enough.” 

“Or …” She looked at him a moment longer. “Perhaps you are just trying to prove yourself – trustworthy.” 

Charles felt his jaw clench. “Perhaps,” he agreed evenly. “May I please get up now?” 

Frost glanced down at the sheet of plastic, her lips thinning. “Of course. Someone will escort you to the showers,” and, oddly, she took the straps off his wrists and elbows herself. “In the meantime, wait here.” 

Sitting up shakily, Charles worked the crick out of the back of his neck. Then stiffened, as Frost said in farewell: 

“I shall examine your doings in Sean’s mind, Mr. Xavier. And if I find anything other than what you have said – anything at all … well.” A cold smile. “You shall indeed be punished. Most severely.” 

Then all Charles had to do was sit and sweat until he was taken to the showers. After that, he sat and dripped, though clothed, in Frost’s office. Just until she returned. 

And he fought back a wild rush of elation when he saw: she hadn’t found the opal. Hadn’t found the erasure. Had been deceived

Just don’t wreck things now, his mind gibbered at him, and: “Lady Frost?” He kept his voice respectful.

“Well, Mr. Xavier.” Frost sat into the chair behind her desk with a sigh. Charles frowned to himself. She looked tired – and she saw him looking, for her back straightened. “It appears you were telling me the truth.” A mocking smile. “How very good of you.” 

He acknowledged the mockery with one wry twist to his own mouth. Then snapped to attention: Frost was continuing.

“Harmless, what you did – and effective, although somewhat crude. At the highest level, you see, one can persuade a stingray like that to take on a different form. You could have swayed it to become a square of concrete in that observation area. While the contents of the memory would not change, its placement in the context of the mind – to say nothing of its texture – would have rendered it ineffective as a trauma. And, incidentally, one far less likely to return to full intensity.” She paused. “Those stingers might grow back, you know.” 

“I didn’t know,” Charles admitted. 

“Of course not.” Frost smiled – she actually smiled. “How could you?” 

“How could anyone?” He thought. “You might throw a wrinkle into Platonic Forms with this –” 

“Oh, not Plato.” Frost gave a delicate shudder. “I find him insufferable." 

“Right.” 

Silence stretched. Then, hesitating, Charles asked: “The … changing.” 

Frost tipped her brow at him. 

He took the plunge. “Could you teach me how to do that?” 

“Could.” Her smile became sharp again, vicious. “But will not. No, Mr. Xavier – you do perfectly well as you are, presently."

The brief illusion of camaraderie – and how bizarre it had been, truly – came crashing down. A sour taste returned to his mouth with a vengeance, even though he had rinsed it half a dozen times in the showers. “Fine,” he snapped.

“Ah …” Frost motioned him to his feet. “Respect in all things, Xavier – something all of you students seem to be lacking, these days. Perhaps it is the weather …” She fixed him with a piercing look. “Regardless, for all your headstrong stupidity, you are useful in keeping the children well behaved. Do your best with Sean this evening, won’t you? It’s a shame, but some pains cannot be removed with a flick of the mind.”

Charles didn’t understand her, and didn’t want to try. Instead, he seethed all the way back to the kitchen –

– and stopped short as the tech who had escorted him pulled off his blindfold, and left.

Jean looked sad. And Sean was sporting an immense black eye.

“What?” He knew his mouth was opening and closing; like a flounder, he thought wildly. “What on earth?”

“Alex.” Sean shrugged; took a long drink of water. The glass went back on the table; the water left in it now tinted pink.

“What did he do?”

“I kinda forgot what time to meet him at the gym. And nobody else knew.” Sean gave a rueful laugh. “So he popped me one.”

“Oh Sean …” Charles sat down, heavily. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why? ‘S O.K.” Sean smiled at him. “You shoulda seen Angel: ‘there was obviously a miscommunication here, Alex,’ and then she punched him. It was great. And now they both have to train with Logan – today and tomorrow.” He took another drink of water. “Ha, ha.”

But Charles upbraided himself all through dinner, and as he walked upstairs. Saturday night was just as cold as Friday had been; he wrapped up tight in his blankets and called out for his raven.

It flew to him slowly, every sulky flap of its black wings sharply outlined against the fire. Logan busy being a disciplinarian would explain him not meeting the three of them, Charles, Jean, Sean, for wood gathering … The small, smoky fire of leftover sticks seemed like an appropriate punishment.

The raven gave a reproachful creeee.

“I know I shouldn’t have done that to Sean,” Charles whispered. “I’m sorry. I – I didn’t think it through. Even the smallest change …”

If it had been human, the raven’s inclined head would have been accompanied by a sigh. As it was, it merely flew to his armored shoulder – ah, Charles thought, I’m falling asleep

“We’ll focus on our flying,” he said, holding it close. “We don’t need to make those tokens any more. Maybe in the future –” the raven nipped him, “ow, all right – maybe not … but for now: flying.”

It spread its wings.

“Yes,” Charles smiled at it. “Syracuse.”


Thus went the night of the 25th. And the nights after, one after the other – his raven had flown … further and further …

And now … Charles lay on his bed, motionless, breathing deep. First Syracuse, then Albany. And now his raven was flying south – a black stone flung from a sling. So fast … so far …

Memory and dreams … the raven’s speed and power ... everything was jostling in his head. It was confusing. He knew his eyes had opened in his room – they were dry, so he was staring straight ahead … but his raven’s eyes felt nothing but the cold wind, as it looked, as it searched …

Sunday the 26th. He had trained with Logan, and with a sulky Alex and Angel. Lap after lap after lap – some in the knee-deep snow – and then they had fallen into pace next to a large truck plowing up the road that led to the manor.

Memory, flickering … Charles hadn’t seen a truck in months – fuel rations being what they were in Britain, and then he had been imprisoned at the manor, but: “Hey,” Logan had shouted at the driver, “Step it up, Kitty; damn!” and: “Give me a plane and I’ll step it up your ass!” the driver had bellowed back.

And Logan’s laugh, “That's who I missed! C’mon Kitty, switch up – I’ll drive, and you run these losers’ asses off.”

“With pleasure –” and the driver – a woman, Charles had noticed, with messy dark hair – hadn’t even stopped the truck as she jumped out. Logan swore and ran to vault into the driver’s seat as she watched and laughed at him in turn.

Except then she had turned to them, and grinned a wild grin. “Let’s go!” – and had levitated and zipped ahead and really, that hadn’t been fair at all. Angel seemed to agree, because she had started swearing in Spanish and hadn’t stopped until they had all collapsed half an hour later.

“I could have flown,” she had spat at Logan, and: “I could have kept from smashing that truck into a snowbank,” he had replied, with a virtuous look. “But I didn’t.”

And the driver – Kitty? – had shrieked with rage in the distance, and Charles had had to grin.


The raven flew on. Memories streamed from it, like so many particles in the solar wind …

Monday the 27th. Tuesday, Wednesday – all days of him powering the Finder. The sting of straps at his wrists, his elbows and ankles; the stale smell of his own sweat and the taste of sickness at the back of his throat. On Wednesday he bit his tongue by accident. The blood pooling in his mouth catapulted him straight into memory – he couldn’t help it, couldn’t help it, he screamed and they had to rip the electrodes off his temples as a panel exploded.

Frost’s eyes had been glittering more and more each day, but when he came back to himself that time, smelling smoke and hearing the snap-crack of live wires … the first thing he saw was her eyes glowing at him. Eager. Greedy.

Then – the smell of rubbing alcohol and her voice, retreating – “Reset everything; I want to try another pass,” and: Denver, he heard as a thrum through the other minds, gathered in the room – Denver Denver

When they carried him back to the dormitory Wednesday, he was dimly relieved that he wouldn’t have to sit in the kitchen. They had placed him on his bed. He hadn’t felt Alex locking the shackle; hadn’t heard anything from the door. Alex had been curt – but that was explained easily. As well as his own relief at skipping dinner.

In the kitchen Charles, would have had to see the new bruises on Sean’s face.

Logan’s discipline, it appeared, had not worked – and since Alex had been the one to carry Charles back to the room by the shoulders, with a tech holding the feet, Charles had dreamily catalogued the size, and the spacing, of the cuts from teeth on Alex’s knuckles. Children’s teeth. Poor Sean.

But he had slept like the dead, that night And Frost had not called him to the Finder on Thursday – had let him sleep. And Angel had brought him bread, unchained him briefly so he could shower and change … and then let him sleep more. Which had been lovely.

Because then he had been well rested for his raven’s flight. And memory had brought him to the present – the raven had flown through all the events of that week, and only now brought it to Charles’ attention: a fact. Its eyes on him, black and glittering, all-seeing. There’s something you haven’t noticed.

Something important.

The raven was flying so fast, so far up in the sky that Charles felt weak. Lower, he called to it – it was so far away – and it folded its wings and dived – looking, searching … For the past eight nights, every time it returned to him, his raven had slowed outside his door, searching, and had given the hearth a careful sweep with its feathers before winging back into Charles’ mind …

The man had not returned.

Good – the thoughts careened through Charles’ mind, good – wonderful. No abuse at that monster’s hands; no real problems with memory, since he didn’t count a fluke in the Finder; steps forward with his tokens and his own powers – his raven, flying everywhere … the only downside was the new and visceral antagonism between Alex and Sean. Odd, how children’s conflicts could spiral out of all control.

And his raven was spiraling downward now.

Despite himself, Charles caught his breath. The raven had been flying so high that it hadn’t seen the clouds. It flew down through them. Memory, thoughts and power all rushing together in a kaleidoscope. When he was young, Charles had helped with a sheep shearing near his parents’ estate, and this was it all over again – his raven a shadow blade, slicing through grey, damp wool …

The clouds parted, and he saw the sea.

But not just any sea; no. He had found it. Charles knew it – his power, radiating out through the raven like light from the moon, could sense it – whispers from the water, far below him …

And then, looming up out of the darkness …

Oh

Charles breathed out, on his bed, feeling every last inch of his skin prickle. The towers, gaunt and tarnished silver … some still stood tall. Tall enough to make grim-walled canyons of empty streets; proud enough to guard steel girders and beams, iron poles and coils of wire all rusted and curled. Tall and proud, but so desolate that even he, Charles, who had seen the wreckage of London and Paris both …

Where he slept, where he dreamed, he was crying.

The streets of New York City had long since been submerged. He was not sure if anyone lived there, if anyone could … with fallout and famine on top of the flood. His raven skimmed low; moved over the face of the waters. Charles felt tears trickle down his cheeks, hot into his ears where he lay flat. Moonlight on the surface of the deep, but light that only Charles could see ... his power - shining, searching ... The clouds lay low and dark. The raven saw no one, heard nothing – there was only ruin and silence.

Still, though: he had found it. New York City.

“You found it,” he whispered. “I’m so proud of you …”

The raven cried aloud. And Charles heard, in the sound, a worn and lonely echo. Too far …

His head swam. Had he gone too far? No, he said – projected – as warmly as he could, and: “You can make it back. Ithaca to Albany, Albany to New York City – now, complete the triangle. As the crow flies.”

Charles felt his raven give an indignant flick of its wings. Smiling in his waking dream, he sent as much power as he could manage – it was so far away, but: “You can do it.” He could do it. “Fly …” Charles whispered. “Come back to me …”

And the raven began the weary return flight. On his bed, Charles breathed deeply; let himself begin to fall asleep – with one part of his mind built into a bright, burning fire. A beacon to bring Raven home.

It would fly through the halls, check for the shadow at the door and on the hearth – and then nestle into his mind with no sound at all. He knew it would be too tired. But once Charles woke, Halloween morning, he would give his raven all the gratitude and reassurance that he could. He would congratulate it on driving away the man – clever thing, to think that it protected him … And he would find out – from its astute insight – what it was that had been lurking under his nose, all week.

Something important.

But even something important could keep for twenty-four hours.

Charles stoked the beacon in his mind for his raven’s return. It was like a lighthouse, blazing forth and making his stone cell shine. In the light, no darkness could be seen, no nightmares could be had … and – surely – Charles told himself, no monster could ever haunt him again. 

He waited for his raven. And only fell asleep completely when he felt it land in his thoughts, sigh … and dissolve into nothing. But Raven would be back the instant he needed it, Charles knew ...

It would be back. All he had to do was say the word, and it would come to him.  

Chapter Text

Friday dawned cold and clear. “Happy Halloween,” Charles mumbled to himself, rubbing his eyes. He stretched, feeling the satisfying pop of some of his vertebrae. “Raven …” Raven, raven, fly away home

Home was here, for the time being; strange but true. But not for long. He needed to make sure his raven had recovered from its flight the previous night – and perhaps consult it on escape plans. Charles rolled his shoulders, tipped his head from side to side – then shut his eyes and smiled as black wings fluttered in his mind.

His raven croaked at him.

“Good morning to you, too.” Charles took a deep breath; exhaled. He pictured the raven in as much detail as he could: its glossy feathers, its heavy beak, its eyes on him, black and glittering.

“That’s right,” he murmured to himself, remembering. “There’s something I haven’t seen – well. First things first.”

He reached out and trailed his hands over the beautiful black feathers. The raven fluffed itself out; then nudged one of his wrists with its beak in reply. Charles checked its pinions. “Everything all right?”

It croaked again, low and rattling. Charles couldn’t help himself – he smiled at its proud glance. “Nothing broken; nothing out of place. You’re right as rain … and after such a flight, too.” He brushed his fingers over the back of its head, feeling the jut of skull. “I am so very proud to count you as my friend. And ally, I suppose.” Charles raised his eyebrows. “Yes?”

Its eyes had an almost uncanny intelligence. They stared at him.

“Proud to count you as part of myself ...” Charles placed the raven on his shoulder; it ran its beak through his hair. “Although … maybe you think that I am a part of you. Who’s to say,” he leaned his head against one wing, “that you are not the dreaming one, and I a figure in your mind?”

The raven was silent. Then it pecked him – just a slight jab, but Charles laughed nonetheless.

“Too early for philosophy. Anyway, I wanted to ask: what was it? What was it that I haven’t seen?”

A loud crahk in his ear; he jumped as the raven flexed its claws into his shoulder and took off in a flurry. Charles waited patiently until it returned. It was holding something in its beak. He plucked at the hard black keratin until the raven relinquished – a Polaroid, Charles saw, smiling. He had been thrilled to have one of the first cameras of that type; his indulgent father had pressed it into his hands – now send us some good snaps of the dreaming spires, what? – before his move to Oxford. He had taken photo after photo until he had run out of film – and, years later, had found a cache in London and documented some of the Oxford missions …

This Polaroid was blank. Charles waved it through the air, briskly. “Mysterious,” he said to his raven, and: “Shall I guess?”

Its eyes were watchful.

Charles stared at the image as it began to coalesce. A dark background. A face … the hollows of eyes and cheekbones coming into view first, a pale blue-green … then the darkness of hair –

– his heart leapt into his mouth. It wasn’t – him, was it? Was this a warning, from the raven? Charles stared at the picture. Don’t let it be him – don’t let it be him – please don’t let it be him -

“Oh …”

His sigh of relief was shaky. It wasn’t the man. It was Sean.

“But … why Sean? Of all people?”

The raven shifted on his shoulder, with a low crrrrr. Charles looked at the picture again – it had changed, to: “… Alex.”

He thought for a moment. “Is this about their argument?”

It rasped another crrrrr, tapping its heavy beak on Charles’ cheekbone.

“Right.” Charles heaved another sigh. Wrangling sulky children once more; lovely. “I’ll get that sorted at breakfast, then – and tonight, you and I will take another flight … to plan our escape. Agreed?”

It was foolish to wait for a spoken word, Charles realized. But the raven could have at least fluffed its feathers again, or clacked its beak.

As it was, its dark eyes stayed fixed on his, somber.

Charles shook off the strange mood. “Goodbye – for now,” he murmured; then opened his eyes to face the day.


Alex unlocked Charles’ shackle roughly, pushed him out the door roughly, and responded with grunts to any and all attempts at conversation. But really, Charles thought, nettled – if he – a boy – thought to intimidate with snarls and shoves … well. Alex should take a lesson or two from a certain individual Charles could name.

Except that he couldn’t name him.

Charles blinked as Alex fumbled with the kitchen door. All of these weeks … all of his own … what would be the word for them? He had just considered this the night previous. Encounters, tangles, his mind whispered at him, but then tried: interactions? ... Meetings?

No. Nothing that smacked of a committee table. Memories from Oxford flashed before him – droning voices, lethargy … no. This was …

Charles sighed. He supposed that this was – a history. He was writing a history… and he did not even know the man’s name, to inveigh against in the margins – a furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine. Instead of the Northmen, and still declined properly: the man’s name.

If he even had one.

With a shrug, Charles walked into the kitchen. If he really wanted to know, he supposed he could always ask Frost. Even the thought made him snort – he hadn’t that much of a death wish. “Or a pain wish,” he muttered to himself. “And on that topic …”

Charles stepped between Alex and Sean. “I’d like to speak to both of you.”

Sean sulked and stared at the floor, bruises both new and old on his face standing out against his pale skin. Alex glared – acting like a child, Charles thought with spark of fury; but he smothered it and made his voice stern.

“Sean, Alex: I have been occupied with Lady Frost’s work for the past few three days, and sleeping for one – but I have seen enough of this situation to know that - in every respect - it is unacceptable. Whatever your disagreements, surely you are both capable of discussing them in a rational, civilized manner.”

Although: truly, he thought to himself – with what he had seen of the EBS as an example, there was an entire range to the definition of ‘civilized.’

“This is a - stressful enough situation we find ourselves in. Compounding that stress is unpleasant for your fellows, and unhealthy to you both. By this time tomorrow, I expect you to have resolved your argument – through conversation, not fisticuffs. Do I make myself clear?”

“What’s fisticuffs?”

“Physical fighting, Sean; blows with the fists.” Charles punched one of his hands with the other for emphasis. “Leading to skirmishes, leading to wars – leading to where we are now. So: please don’t do it.”

Sean looked shamefaced – but Alex had turned his poisonous glare on Charles instead. Charles met his eyes with equanimity, sighing inside. Alex had been polite to him in recent weeks, even after their rocky start. But now this … 

“A word with you, Alex.” And he took him into the hallway, out of hearing range of the others.

Alex crossed his arms over his chest, and didn’t meet Charles’ eyes. Coward – but he kept the emotion out of his tone. “What do you think you’re doing?”

There was no answer. Charles made his voice colder. “Alex. How old are you?”

A pause. Then: “Eighteen.”

“Eighteen. And when were you, ah – Sworn, as they put it?”

“Last year.”

“Last year. Hm. And … when did you come here? To this place?”

Silence.

“Answer me.”

“When I was ten, all right?” Alex’s voice cracked. “I came here in ’61. I worked my ass off to – to control my –” he gestured, and that strange crackle of red-white energy ran over his shirt – “to control this. I just got Sworn, and put in charge of – of all you guys, and now he’s mouthing off, and making me look like I can’t even deal with a student – and, and –”

“Alex,” Charles sighed. “Do you even know how old Sean is?”

"I - ”

“I would wager – twelve. Perhaps eleven – if he’s tall for his age. You remember being twelve, don’t you? Didn’t you test some bounds of authority, just to see what would happen?”

“No,” Alex snapped. “I didn’t, because if I did, I would get the shit beaten out of me –”

“All right.” Charles cut him off. Try another tack. “Do you have any siblings, Alex?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded reluctant.

“And how old are they?”

“Just the one. My kid brother – Scott. He’s, um. He’s eight.”

“Eight years old.” Biting down slowly on the inside of one lip, Charles had the sensation of his mind clicking away, putting together the pieces – “Will he be brought here, do you think? When he’s ten?”

Alex hunched his shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“If he were here, and he misbehaved – would you want someone to hurt him? To beat him? To leave bruises on his face?”

“No.”

“And you would never do that to him either. Would you?”

“No –” Alex's voice cracked again. “I wouldn’t.”

“Then it’s very simple.” Charles considered, then decided to take the plunge. He reached out a hand and gripped his shoulder, hard. Alex shivered.

“Alex,” Charles said, quietly. “Put yourself in his shoes. Treat him like you would treat your brother. Give him appropriate boundaries and rules, but for the love of all that’s holy, don’t beat him. Even if it was done to you – you can rise above it. Put a stop to the stupid tit-for-tat cycle, this ‘you hurt me and I’ll hurt you.’ It’s nonsense, and it wastes everyone’s time, energy, and goodwill.”

Alex was silent for a long minute. He stared at the floor. Then he looked back up at Charles, swallowing. “I don’t know if I –”

“You’re Sworn, Alex. That means they think of you as an adult, yes?”

“Yeah.”

“Fine.” Charles squeezed his shoulder, then let him go. “Act like one.”

“But Logan’s an adult, and he beats people up all the –”

“Does he beat up children?”

“… No.”

“There you have it.” It was chilly in the hallway; Charles crossed his arms over his chest to keep them warm. “You can pick a fight with one of the other Sworn, perhaps, if you feel like fisticuffs. I assume that’s what Logan does.”

“Yeah, he does – you should have seen him with Yuriko, yesterday. It’s like … knife-icuffs. Pretty awesome, the way they can move.”

“I’m sure.” Charles smiled. “So. Less punching, more talking things through. And make Sean run laps if he misbehaves.”

“Fly laps – and that’s Angel’s job.” Alex scrubbed one hand through his hair. “Yeah.” Then he gave Charles a tentative look. “’m sorry, Mr. Xavier.”

“Don’t apologize to me; apologize to Sean.”

A huff. “I don’t think so. I –”

“All right – maybe not now. But think about it, for the future. Sometimes an apology can go a long way towards building bridges.”

“O.K. Look,” and Alex plucked at the steel bracelet on his left wrist. “I gotta go do something. You eat breakfast and I’ll be back.”

Charles spoke before he could second-guess himself. “I’ve been meaning to ask: that bracelet, that ring …” He gestured. “That necklace. All steel, correct?”

“Uh –”

“What are they for, Alex? What do they do?”

Every instinct told him he was onto something; Alex's eyes were flickering back and forth. But then he grinned, and said – carefully and clearly. “Need-to-know basis.”

Charles glared. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“You just said to be more like Logan, man –”

“Logan? Logan’s idea of a fun afternoon consists of a marathon and raw rabbit liver –”

“Mm-mm –

“- and he smokes like a bad-tempered Canadian chimney, and really, I would pick a better role model for you if I knew one.”

Another grin. “Maybe you’ll get to meet some more. And … soon.”

Then Alex sprinted down the hallway, with a – “Go eat your breakfast –” echoing behind him. And Charles went back into the kitchen, and ate his breakfast. All two slices of it.


That afternoon, thankfully, Logan did not choose to run laps. “Wind’s really picking up anyway, Xavier,” he had grunted. “We’d do better to stay inside.”

“I didn’t realize you were so delicate, Logan.” Charles looked up from the map of Dallas.

“Delicate, my ass. I just don’t want to deal with frostbite right now. Not that I’ll have to for a little while,” he rubbed his hands together, with a madcap grin, “but that’s a surprise. Now, go on, X. Tell me. Enemy telepath’s incapacitated for twelve hours. What are you going to do in that time frame?”

“I’ve told you: confirm all of the enemy’s forces in Fort Worth –”

“The ruins of Fort Worth,” Logan corrected. “I’ve told you: they’ve long since consolidated in Dallas.”

“You know I haven’t been on the ground there. But I assume that even if Fort Worth has been abandoned, there is still a plenitude of wrecked buildings there, to conceal weapons, supplies, soldiers.”

“Not enough to make any difference –”

“Not in the long run, perhaps. But if they flank you as you try for the aircraft, then you have a serious problem.”

“Right,” Logan conceded. “Run it by me once more.”

Charles tapped a colored pencil on the map. “So. Here are the ruins of Fort Worth,” he circled it, “and, about sixty miles to the southwest, Glen Rose, where you have the functioning nuclear power plant. Now – you understand, Logan – this has to be exquisitely well-timed in order to work.”

“We’ll be exquisite as hell about it, X man. Spill.”

“It’s a risk.” Charles narrowed his eyes at the map. “Because in these twelve hours, you have to divide your forces into four parts. They each have a role to play. Your army has advanced from the east – make sure that those in Dallas see … hm.” He frowned. “Is there a way – a mutant’s powers, say – to conceal a fourth of your army?”

Logan was jotting down notes. “There’s a way, but the two who can do it only have enough mojo to sustain it for two hours. And that’s when they work together.”

“Two hours should be fine. Your forces are divided into four parts. Write this down – parts – no. Groups one, two, three and four. Group four must be concealed from the very beginning. Send out some fake orders, to be intercepted, redirecting them to – oh, I don’t know. The Gulf – to pick up a shipment of supplies, or something. Conceal them.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Move groups one, two and three around the city and to the north.” Charles scribbled 1, 2, 3, and drew a thick blue line. “Then: make a strike towards Love Field – the operational airport.”

“But you said –”

“I know what I said. The Free West has put several aircraft out there clear as day, as bait.” Charles riffled through grainy surveillance photos. “They want you to attack it: they’ve prepared it as a trap.”

“So we’re springing it?”

“Absolutely. Take the bait – and this is important … Take with all three, but hold it with One. Smash through their lines with all three of the active groups. I’m sure there will be countless soldiers lying in wait for you, concealed, around Love Field. When the armies engage, have your groups evenly spaced – and then disengage Two and Three, and make a run for Glen Rose.” He drew another blue line. “Now – that’s eighty miles from Dallas, so you need to give Two and Three your fastest transport. If you manage to get a plane at Love Field, send it flying with them.”

“Fastest transport – how many teleporters? Cause we’ve only got three capable of more than one person at once – and Azazel’s the best, and he can only do a platoon at a time, max."

“No,” Charles said softly. “No teleporters here. You need Two and Three to be absolutely visible as they go for Glen Rose. And One needs to be strong enough to hold off most of the Free West’s firepower – until they see …”

“Until they see?”

“Until they see Two and Three running southwest. You see, they will assume that you yourself have a two-pronged attack – that Love Field was one objective, but that the other is the nuclear power plant.”

“In Glen Rose.”

“Yes.”

“O.K. – aim for the nuclear power plant,” Logan said, looking at the map, “and once we get it, should we –”

“No, Logan,” Charles interrupted. “You see: it’s another feint. If you really wanted the power plant, of course you’d send in the teleporters, the saboteurs, and most of your firepower. This is just a feint – you want them to think that you’re going for it.” He smiled. “A little bait of your own.”

“Just hope they’re dumb enough to take it. 'Cause if you just said it out loud – if we re really wanted the plant, we’d hit it with everything – I’m sure they’ll think of it, too.”

“That’s a risk,” Charles conceded. “But you’ll have to hope that they see this as you hedging your bets. Hoping to split their own strength – occupy part of their forces with killing group One, and the other part with chasing Groups Two and Three. To say nothing of actually guarding Dallas proper.”

Logan chewed the end of his pencil. “All right. Feint for the nuclear power plant.”

“Yes. Move quickly enough to be urgent, but slowly enough that any concealed units in Fort Worth can move to attack you. And slowly enough for Free West Command to consider the numbers – for them to calculate how much firepower they can spare from their engagement with group One, in order to intercept groups Two and Three.”

“O.K., so everybody’s either stuck at Love Field or high-tailin’ it down to Glen Rose.” Logan fixed him with dark eyes. “But – what’s the feint for?”

This, Charles’ mind whispered. This. I love this. He felt a Cheshire-cat grin spread across his face. “The feint is to distract them from your real objective. Group Four. Group Four, concealed, moves as quickly as possible to capture the great majority of the Free West’s aircraft, where it’s actually been placed. The old airport – to the north.” He circled it on the map. “The derelict one – the one which, surveillance shows, has seen no activity in the past year, hmm?”

Logan grinned back at him. “No activity aboveground.”

“Mmm.” Charles smirked. “What a pity we have metamorphs and heat sensors.”

“For real. They’re about three stories down, there. Underground. How do you suppose we –”

“I’m not sure of your hand-to-hand combat capacities. Suffice to say that group Four should have the teleporters, the metamorphs, any spare saboteurs, and all of the pilots. You have to secure the old airport, and the aircraft there, as quickly as possible – without giving the alarm. Because … you see, once the majority of the Free West army starts chasing you to Glen Rose, MacMurphy will scramble his aircraft to bomb you. And when the call is not heeded – or when too few aircraft answer, the game will be up.”

Logan considered. “So we have to secure the aircraft before the run for the plant really gets going –”

“Yes.”

“– but not so soon that the alarm gets out.”

“Exactly.”

Logan drummed his fingers on the map. “Tricky. Like you said: it has to be timed really god damned well. But if it is, X man … if it is …”

“A double feint.” Charles smiled. “In the words of the immortal Sun Tzu: ‘Offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him.’ They think that they are luring you – well, their luring you is part and parcel of your luring them in turn.”

“Sun Tzu. The Art of War, right?” Logan paused to enjoy the look on Charles’ face – and then threw back his head and guffawed. “Surprise! I can read after all.”

“I never said you couldn’t –”

“But don’t worry, X. I only read that sucker 'cause Lehn - someone told me to. Boring as hell.” Logan gathered the pencils and snapped a rubber band around them. Then he folded up the maps.

Charles watched, feeling strangely bereft.

“I don’t suppose you can tell me …” he began. Then he fell silent.

“Tell you what?”

Charles shrugged. Digging for more details about the Dallas campaign would do little good, surely; Logan had resisted subtle hints and outright nagging all afternoon long. He cast about for another question.

“Whatever happened to the nuclear warhead that you stole?”

“Relocated.” Logan fished out a cigar; lit it. “Repossessed. Liberated. But not ‘stole’.”

“Hairsplitting.”

“Atom splitting,” Logan corrected with a faint smile. He exhaled a cloud of smoke. “But: actually using a nuke in war? For us: that’s a no-go.”

“Oh.” Charles blinked. For some reason, he hadn’t expected that. “I must say, with your policy of total war in regard to soldiers, I assumed that a nuclear weapon would –”

“We don’t do it, X. And we won’t. Not ever.”

“Why not?”

“Ancient history.” Logan’s voice was curt.

“All right. So …” Charles continued, cautious, “What are you actually doing with it?”

“It’s being picked apart by some scientists down in the Carolinas. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a few power plants up and running with the fissile material. But we need a bit of peace and quiet to do that.”

“And thus: Dallas.”

“Dallas,” Logan agreed. He looked out the window for a moment; sighed. “Where’d McCoy get to?”

“I suppose we bored him.” Charles got up and straightened his bench. The setting sun was painting McCoy’s workroom with a warm light.

“Nah, that’s right. Forgot – he’s on inventory.” Logan shot Charles a sly look. “Keeping track of all our shit. Fun things startin’ to happen, Xavier … and guess what you get to do? You get to go pick up sticks! C’mon,” and the mockery disappeared in a good-natured grin. “Let’s go.”


Following Logan out the door, through hallways and then outside – even with the sharp snap of the cold air into his lungs … Charles felt a curious sense of wellbeing. Perhaps it was due to his long sleep. Perhaps it was because – tonight, he would start planning his escape, and it would be perfect, with his raven ... He followed Logan to the treeline. Perhaps –

Logan!! 

Charles whirled, startled. Then he saw, flying towards them – flying, his mind gasped, and: incredibly fast – Angel.

She landed in a rush, sprinted the last few feet over the snow to them both, where they stood staring.

“Hey - hey, slow down, slow down, Angel – what’s up?” Logan stopped her with a hand on her arm. “What’s going on?”

Angel’s dragonfly wings whirred. She gasped for breath. “Sean, it’s Sean - have you seen him? Have you seen him anywhere?!”

“No,” Logan said carefully, voice tight. His dark eyes had gone wide. “No, I haven’t. Why?”

“He’s gone,” Angel choked. “I was supposed to take him to the edge of the low pressure system,” she waved a hand at the sky, “’s coming through, and –” she gulped, “and Alex said he was with Hank, and I went to see, but Hank said Sean’s schedule had him supposed to be with you all day, and – and –”

“And he’s not,” Logan finished.

Charles stared. Under the brown-black stubble, Logan's face had gone white.

Then he closed his eyes. Inhaled – Charles saw muscles clench in his jaw and neck – and exhaled. “Where’s Alex?”

“Searching inside,” Angel gasped.

“And Hank?”

“With Alex.”

“Go get Alex right now. Now, Angel.” Logan’s voice was quiet. “Tell him that I told him to meet me outside. Tell him that it is extremely important – that he meet me outside. Here.”

Angel’s eyes were huge; her breath was coming in fits and starts. She gulped; nodded.

Logan paused, and then ground out: “And tell Hank to sound the alarm.”

“I –”

But whatever Angel had meant to say was cut off – cut off, Charles saw in shock, as she gasped and doubled over, clutching at her left wrist. “Ow,” she squeaked, “ow ow that hurts –” and Logan slapped a hand to his brow with a yelp.

Then a wave of ice pulsed through all their thoughts – Charles only barely shielded himself from the worst of it, but the other two swayed where they stood. And then there was silence – only punctuated by Angel’s hitching breaths. Logan had pressed the heel of one hand against the bridge of his nose; gritting his teeth. He growled deep in his throat.

“Logan,” Charles started, “what –”

“Both at once. I’ll never get fucking used to that, god damn it – well.” Logan stared at the manor, jaw flexing. “That’s that. No need to tell Hank, but get Alex, Angel – right now.”

Before he had finished, Angel had jumped into the air and whipped away, lightning fast. Charles watched as she flew straight up and landed on a third-floor balcony of the manor. She landed running, and then vanished from his sight.

He turned to stare at Logan. “What’s happened?”

“What’s happened?” There was a bitter twist to his mouth. “Sean has pulled some stupid-ass shit – and run away. That’s what’s happened.”

Charles felt his breath catch. “Run away? How – how do you know that?”

“Roll call anytime but morning? You can’t have missed it. That only happens when someone’s run away – and it looks like it’s Sean. Done a bunk. God damn it.”

“Run away.” He had to repeat it; he felt numb, and not just from the Finder’s sweep. “I know he had been having trouble with Alex, but to run away ...”

Logan had tilted his head up and sniffed at the air. “And when we’ve got another storm comin’ in.” His eyes flicked back to Charles. “And this trouble with Alex – that’s what got the punk and Angel runnin’ laps with me, yeah?”

Charles nodded. “Yes. He – Sean, I mean – he missed an appointment at the gym, or something,” he stuttered, “last Saturday, and since then Alex has been beating him up.”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” Logan muttered. “Kid that insecure, of course he’s gonna see any question to his authority as far, far bigger than it is. Alex is new, you see,” he tilted an eyebrow at Charles, “new to EBS command, new to kid-wrangling.”

“And you’re an expert? Kid wrangler, I mean.”

Logan tossed his cigar into the snow; spat after it. “I guess not. Not when I didn’t see this one coming.”

“But – you won’t be …” Charles gulped. “Who’s going to be punished for this?”

“Sean, when they catch him.” A low growl. “And Alex, cause it was on his watch. I wouldn’t have thought Sean the type, to think it through that way – you wanna hit someone hard, of course you run. Ends up being much worse for those with the responsibility,” he gave the word a mocking bite, “to see that it doesn’t happen.”

“And what happens to those who run?”

Logan’s eyes were shuttered. “Not as much – but. But, Xavier. They have to watch – what happens to their Monitor.”

Charles’ mind flew back over what Logan had said to Angel; his blood went cold. “You called Alex here –” and he flinched from the sound of his own voice: accusing. “What are you going to do to him? Torture him? Maim him? The great and all-powerful EBS, torturing children

“God damn it, X, shut up!” Logan’s voice cracked. Charles stared at him, astonished; his face was twisted in pain. “You don’t know you don’t know –

“What don’t I know?”

“You don’t know shit, Xavier. I need to get to Alex – before someone else does. Try and protect him, I suppose.” Another bitter twist to his mouth. “And ain’t that a joke …”

“‘Someone else’ …” Charles felt his skin crawl. “Who?”

Logan looked over Charles’ shoulder. “Cavalry’s coming. Party’s starting. You need to get back inside.”

What?

“Back inside. You.” Another cigar, lit; it trembled until Logan stuck it between his teeth. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“Logan,” Charles hissed. “I’m an adult – I’m not just some child to be pushed around. I can help you. I can help find Sean – and quickly, too. You just said there’s a storm coming in – wouldn’t it help if I could find him?”

Logan stared at him for a long moment. Then he jerked his head in a nod. “O.K.” There were voices coming up from behind Charles; crunching footsteps. “My best guess: you’ve got five minutes. Go nuts.”

“All right.” Deep breath in; in and out. Charles rolled his shoulders, and stuffed his hands in his coat pockets. “Catch me if I fall over.”

“If you – wait, X –”

But Charles was no longer listening to him. Instead, he had leapt into the air with his raven. It called out to him – and he told it to fly and search. He would look at every spark of life with far more attention than he had the night before. One spark would be Sean – and once he found him, he, Charles, would decide whether or not to bring him in or better hide him.


Raven, Raven, Charles whispered – Raven … It was so fast, so beautifully shaped – pitch black against the darkening sky – and it could see everything – everything – the forest and the streams, rocks and stumps and caves, everything marked on Ororo’s map – including stadium and garage and houses – then on the road to TOWN? – past it – “past Syracuse,” Charles heard his own voice, mumbling – heard a gruff voice, “What?” – but he couldn’t pay attention to it, because the raven was flying around Syracuse in a huge circle – stretching out a net of gossamer – it can be packed into a marble it’s small so small a nanometer thick you can’t see it and no Sean – but ... there?

Sean? …

His raven screeched, so loud that he was sure anyone could hear it – Frost might hear it, and: “Shh!” Charles gasped, and jerked his head up –

– his head, lying on a rolled-up coat. And his back and legs felt freezing cold. “The ground, Logan?” he grumped. “Really?”

“You were drooling on me,” Logan replied. But when Charles made a move to sit up, he tossed out a warning hand. “Nostay down.”

Charles took stock of his surroundings. Simple enough: he was lying down behind a bush. “Logan?”

“Yeah.”

“Why – why’d you put me here?”

“Cause you aren’t supposed to be here, X.” Logan tipped his head to one side. Charles noted that he had tucked the cigar behind his ear. “Private party.”

Now Charles was desperately curious. “Let me up, Logan, and I’ll hide behind a tree.”

No.”

“Fine.” Ignoring Logan's warning hiss, Charles straightened and walked over to a massive oak. He leaned against it. “See? Nobody noticed.” A look out from behind the tree confirmed, indeed, that none was looking in their direction. None … out of … Charles felt his eyes widen.

There were at least ten mutants there. He recognized the dark-haired woman – Kitty – who had driven the truck … but he did not know anyone else. An even number of women and men, different colors and sizes – one woman’s hair was purple, and one blond man was – holy shite – at least six and a half feet tall. They were carrying armfuls of wood out of the forest, stacking them in a teepee shape.

He dragged his eyes away; gave Logan another reassuring smile. “Nobody’s paying any attention at all.”

Logan grimaced. “That’s only because –”

A swish and whirr cut him off – Angel landed in one swoop in front of them and gasped: “Logan –”

“Tell me quick.”

“I couldn’t find Alex – Hank’s with Lady Frost, but Alex – I – I –”

“All right. Take a deep breath, Angel; that’s it, good.” Logan folded his arms across his chest; looked grim. “Alex’ll just be doing his own thing, I guess – but you, Angel – you gotta find Sean first.”

“Oh, Logan …”

And Charles, with a strange feeling in his stomach, saw that Angel was crying bitterly, tears pouring down her face. “I don’t want to.”

“You have to.” Logan’s voice was gruff. “You know what happens if you don’t.”

Charles interrupted. “What happens?”

Angel hiccupped; she hadn’t seen him there. But Logan bared his teeth. “If we don’t find him? It’s not that he might freeze, although: news flash – he might freeze. It’s mostly because if he gets far enough away, the Free West will pick him up, pronto.”

“Can that happen?”

“Yes it can. They’ve got agents in Albany; they've got two working satellites for each of ours. And they’ve got a copter and a team somewhere around here – always on the move. We can go and take it out, and they’ll have another placed next week, the fuckers.

“It’s how we lost Yuriko – there.” Logan pointed at the milling group of mutants – indicated a slight woman with black hair tied back in a knot. “They got her and took her to Denver; stuck her in a lab. Only for a little while, though – I mean, it took her two years to break out of here, but only four days to break the fuck outta there. And she took about twenty of ‘em with her. Long story short? We brought her back, she finished up, and she got Sworn. The Free West made her more loyal to us than I ever could.”

“Who was her Monitor?” Charles asked, watching – Yuriko. His mind appended the name to her face; filed it away.

Logan grimaced. “Me.”

“Oh. I’m – sorry.”

“I’m not,” he shrugged. “She learned from it – she’s one of our best, now – and I bounce back really fucking quick. But Alex, and Sean … I mean, fuck. Especially Sean. His leg …”

Logan shook his head, and turned back to Angel. “You have to be the one to get him, Angel.”

“I told you –”

“And I’m telling you now. You’ve been working with him; he won’t run from you.” Logan's voice had softened, turned gentle. “And … better you than anyone else. You know? You can catch him – without hurting him.”

Another sob, quickly swallowed. Charles watched Angel wipe her hands over her eyes. She looked up at Logan. “Like you caught me?”

His smile was sad. “Yeah. I scared you – right? I jumped out from behind a tree –”

“‘Rraaargh’!” Angel hiccupped, and sniffed back her tears. “You sure did. How – how the hell did you catch up to me, anyway, when I was flying? I never did ask you.”

“Trade secrets.”

“No, really.”

“Really?” Logan waggled his eyebrows. “Drove out in a jeep with some of the others. Got within sight – and I had always wanted to try, so Marie tackled Jean-Paul - him over there, see?" He pointed at a man with long white hair. "Then she went and picked me up, and let me tell you: flying is the shit. I am so fucking jealous of you.”

“I would think –” Angel was smiling now, “I would think that you’d be too heavy.”

“I’m big-boned,” Logan said, injured. “It’s glandular. Or something. C’mon, Angel,” he turned serious again: “You make Sean piss his pants a bit; give him a lecture. Like I gave you.”

“But …” She swallowed, and whispered: “But afterwards …”

“I couldn’t help that.” A pause. “Hell of a person to run into on the road.”

Silence.

Logan broke it, with an attempt at a laugh. “Although – you know? I’ve always wanted to tell him. That big-ass sword? The really, really big one? Is fucking stupid. I mean, too big a swing and he could cut himself in half.”

A longer pause. Charles had watched the entire exchange keenly; his mind cataloguing at the speed of light. So he was hyperfocused on Angel’s face, especially on the horror lurking in her eyes, when she whispered:

“I still have bad dreams about it.”

Logan opened his mouth to reply –

– and Charles, still watching Angel, saw her flinch as her hands flew to the steel chain hanging around her throat –

It hadn’t choked her. Not like the watch chain choked you, Charles’ mind told him – but there was a thin red stripe on her neck, now, where the metal must have flashed hot.

So it came as no surprise when he hear a distant scream.

Then another.

“Where?” Angel choked, and: “On the roof,” Logan whispered. “Oh, shit.”

Charles stepped out from behind the tree. Squinted up – he could hardly see anything, since night was falling. Except … there.

There was someone running on the roof. And – someone else, running after. One shorter; the other tall – one half stumbling, and the other gaining, gaining

A red-white flash – half the mutants on the ground gasped.

“Stupid, Alex,” Logan gritted out – he sounded anguished. “You stupid, stupid kid – oh fuck –”

Another flash – and then a third scream, by far the loudest –

– and cut short.

Angel whimpered.

It was getting rapidly darker. Charles could hardly see anything. Just one shadow, looming over the smaller one … And then it stooped, and – “Damn it, I can’t see. Logan – Logan, what’s going on?”

“What’s going on?” Logan took the cigar from behind his ear; re-lit it with deliberate flicks of his fingers and lighter. “What’s going on, Xavier, is that we have maybe another five minutes – maybe ten – before the real party starts.”

“You keep saying that.” Charles forced a smile. “I’ve been disappointed so far.”

“Well, you’ll live with your disappointment – which is more than I can say if you get caught outside. So.” He blew out smoke; stared at Charles. “Did you find him?”

“What?”

“Before. When you did your thing –” he wiggled his fingers at his temple, “and conked out on me. Did you find Sean?”

“Oh.”

Charles felt his own eyes widen. He had almost forgotten – and he could swear, now, that he heard his raven’s reproachful croak – but he had found Sean. Hiding in what felt like some sort of … sports facility? Outside Syracuse.

But … should he tell? Or should you lie, his mind whispered, with: Can you trust them? They’re just going to bring Sean back – was that the truth about the Free West’s agents? And what happened on the roof – who who who was on the roof –

“Please, Mr. Xavier.” Angel’s voice was small. “Logan’s right. If you know where he is, please tell me, so I can go fly and find him …”

Charles opened his mouth to speak –

– and there was another scream – horrible, long and drawn-out – and –

– on the ground. On the ground, his thoughts shrilled, and: close too close-

“I’m not afraid,” he hissed, and sent his raven flying. It cried out and soared high – circling once, twice – and stayed far away from the actual figures crashing through the forest … but not so far that it missed who they were. There was the red-white pulse of Alex’s mind – flashing, though – erratic and – panicking? But he was being pulled, almost dragged through the woods, and by …

Shivering, Charles directed the raven away from the roiling cloud of metal – iron filings – sharp and vicious and raging. It had whipped into the woods like a chainsaw. It was storming away now, taking Alex to … Charles analyzed their trajectory, and flinched.

The man was dragging Alex to the stable.

Charles yanked the raven back to his mind; it landed with a squawk.

“Xavier -" Logan said – his eyes were wide.

Had he been saying his name for a while, now? Charles hardly knew. Instead, he licked his lips, and croaked: “Yes?”

“We were talking about Sean,” Logan gritted out. “Did you find him? Because we need to know where he is.”

“Please, Mr. Xavier,” Angel whispered, tearfully – and that decided Charles.

He met her eyes squarely, and said: “Outside Syracuse.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Charles saw Logan twitch in surprise – he hadn’t thought me capable of it; ha and remove his cigar. He ignored him and kept going. “He was in some sort of – well, not a bunker. But an enclosed space, cement, with one side open for viewing. Fences going to and from it. It was on the side of – of what looked like a diamond, where some type of sport is played.”

“Baseball diamond – a dugout,” Logan breathed. That explained it – Charles only knew cricket.

“Oh, Sean loves baseball.” Angel spoke over him. “I promised to take him to a game – after he was Sworn, I mean …”

“That would be too long to wait,” Logan said with a tight grin. “Tell you what: I’ll take you both to a game myself, after Dallas. All right? Baseball diamond outside Syracuse, Angel. You’ll know it when you see it – Xavier, can you give her a heading?”

“Pardon?”

“A sense of direction, man – then as soon as she’s got it –”

“I’ll go,” Angel whispered fiercely. “I’ll get him. I’ll bring him back safe, Mr. Xavier – I promise.”

“All right,” Charles said. He felt drained. “I’ll have to touch your mind.”

Instantly, Angel stepped closer. “Go ahead. I trust you.”

He let his eyes fall shut, and sent her the owl. So Raven can rest – although it was calling out to him … The owl fluttered above the clouds of Angel’s mind, and Charles considered. How best to do this? He thought a moment, and then attached a small magnetic compass to a ribbon. Then he fixed the compass on one point; fused the dial to the face … gave it to the owl.

And watched the owl drop it into Angel’s mind.

“Wow,” she breathed. Charles opened his eyes to look at her. She was staring at him, her mouth slightly open. “Mr. Xavier, that’s amazing – Logan, I know exactly where – I’ll just start now, and –”

“No."

“What ?"

“Not now, Angel. Too late. You’re gonna have to wait a bit more.” Logan’s voice was tight. “Or – at least ‘til you get a gun and hear a speech.”

Angel and Charles both followed Logan’s eyes. Charles heard the sound of Angel’s teeth chattering; he himself felt sweat break out in the small of his back. 

Because: there was the man. Striding out of the forest, wearing a shabby black coat, with a knit cap covering his hair. His face looked shadowed and stark, even in the firelight. It had been ten days since he had seen him, Charles knew. Ten days - and still ... his mouth went dry. 

From fear, he told himself. Fear. Nothing else.


One of his hands held a duffel bag. The other held a cigarette. Of all things, Charles focused on the red-bright ember at the end – its arc from one side to the man’s face, its flare and a cloud of smoke – 

The group of mutants had gone still. Even the huge one – the man with long blond hair – was motionless. 

Then the clank of the bag broke the silence – tossed on the ground, a good distance from the immense stack of wood. A tilt of the man’s head and the mutants started moving. Some went to the bag first – taking out what looked like middling-sized guns, checking the action, walking away and speaking to each other. Others … others walked up to the man and started talking and – how? Charles’ mind quavered. How do they just – do that?  But he was replying – Charles saw the white flash of those teeth – and a shorter woman with spiky black hair nodded, flicked her fingers – 

Electricity, Charles’ mind supplied, shocked – so to speak – or was it plasma? Whichever type of power, it hit the stack of wood with a whoomph. In less than a minute he felt the heat from the bonfire, even though he was standing at least thirty feet away. 

In its orange-red light, the man’s face looked like a skull. He offered the woman a cigarette. She took it; lit it with a spark of that same power, spoke a few words. The man nodded, and she walked off with a jaunty salute. Then, staring into the fire, the man plucked his own cigarette from his mouth and exhaled a long stream of smoke. With his skin starting to crawl, Charles saw something. 

Perhaps he was projecting. Seeing those hands through others’ eyes; others who were closer. However he was doing it, though … 

Charles saw that those fingers were bloodstained. 

“Getting a head start,” he mumbled, and: “Shit,” Logan hissed. “Shit – you can’t be out here now, Xavier. Get back – ah –” 

The big blond man was walking towards them. Charles almost felt his own eyes bug out – nothing that huge should be that graceful, but he was. Walking closer, and Charles didn’t have time to hide before he was in front of them. 

“Logan ... bonsoir bonsoir.” The new voice was a low rumble. “Long time no see.” 

“Not long enough.” 

“Mm.” The blond turned to Angel, then glanced at Charles. “Who’re these, eh?” 

“Fuck off, Victor.” Logan’s voice was cold. “Take your oh-so-frightening, oh-so-overgrown ass out of my space and away from my friends.” 

“Friends.” A grin. “Nice. And won’t your little friends be oh-so-happy when they know: boss wants you.” 

Logan tensed. “What?” 

“You heard me.” The blond – Victor, Charles thought. He catalogued the name, the powerful limbs and more powerful odor, the mane of hair and bizarre eyes. Victor smiled at Logan – shite, he had fangs. And he was still talking. “Gotta get you a gun, and have a little talk. I’m sure you can bring your friends,” Victor said graciously, “if you want.” 

“I don’t want,” Logan spat.

“Suit yourself.” Victor turned on one foot and strode back to the fire. 

Charles couldn’t help it. His gaze flicked from Victor to the lean figure of the man, taking a deep drag from his cigarette and watching the fire with narrowed eyes. “Logan?” he said. “I can go back inside now.” A swallow. “If you want.” 

“Not anymore, Xavier. Now they know you’re here.” And indeed, the Victor had lowered his head, was speaking to the man and gesturing. Feeling sick, Charles saw those eyes land on Angel, pause, then flick over to Logan – 

Then the man looked at him. 

And in any other world, at any other time, Charles might have been amused to see him start in surprise – almost … twitch. 

Because he did. 

And Victor looked at him, curious. 

But then Logan gasped; made a wrenched noise and doubled over. “Logan?” Angel’s voice was sharp. “Logan, what’s wrong – are you O.K.?” 

“No,” he wheezed. Sweat stood out on his brow. “My bones – oh fuck, I am pretty fucking far from O.K., sweetie –” 

“Don’t call me ‘sweetie,’” she snapped. “And if this is some stupid power play,” she glared over at the fire, “yeah, you heard me right, Victor – I called him stupid. C’mon, Logan. C’mon, Mr. Xavier.” Angel grabbed them each by an arm and tugged. “It’s cold here anyway.” 

“Angel,” Logan choked, but,

“It’s all right.” Charles kept his voice calm, though his heart was pounding up through his throat. “Logan, it’s all right – I’m an adult, not a student. I chose to stay out here. On my own head be it.” 

In far too little time, they were right by the fire. Logan, rubbing at one shoulder, growling; Charles determinedly staring into the flames. He could … feel the man – right there, right to his side at a ninety-degree angle, perhaps five feet away. Well. Perhaps ten. It was a very large fire. Angel had walked straight up to him, Charles saw, and taken two of the weapons from the duffel bag. 

“What does it take … to erase Angel’s fear?” He honestly felt confused. “Because … Well. Look, Logan.” 

The man was speaking to her, almost snarling … Charles looked out of the corner of his eye to watch a muscle in that jaw flex, strung tight as wire, and those eyes flash as Angel determinedly raised her chin. 

Logan looked. “Whew. Yeah, I wouldn’t do that if I was her.” He rolled his arms, winced. “But to answer your question: find someone she cares about and hurt ‘em. Then she’ll go from sweetie pie to kicking your ass in thirty seconds or less.” 

“She cares about you. That’s lovely.” Charles smiled. It was difficult to smile, with the fire burning so hot, so close. And with all of his power focused on keeping fear and panic at bay. He could practically taste the adrenaline being dumped into his system – run run run– 

“So tell me: do you have metal involved in your skeletal structure in some way? You mentioned your bones, and I’ve see your claws, and,” he gritted his teeth, “I know that – that man can manipulate metal, to some extent –” 

“You know,” Logan bit back a laugh. “I know you know, Xavier. Ever since he beat you to a pulp for going into his library, ‘n almost killed you with what I assumed was the pull cord of a lamp.” He gestured around his throat; he wore no steel necklace, Charles noted, distantly. Logan continued, snarling: “What the hell more did you do to get on his radar? What? Because – I mean, look. You look.” 

Charles did. 

It seemed the man had calmed somewhat. Angel was listening and nodding. She gestured – Charles flashed to Ororo’s map and found their current position. Angel had pointed north-northeast – Syracuse – and then pointed back at Logan and Charles – 

And Charles broke out into goosebumps at the sight of those eyes, vivid green and glowing in the firelight … at the way that gaze snapped to his own, and then he saw the lower line of teeth, bared –

“What did you do?” Logan’s voice was rough. “’Cause you’re on his god damned radar now, X – and believe you me, that is not a place you want to be.” 

“I ...” Charles swallowed hard. “I –” 

“Here you are.” Angel had walked back to them; she held one of the weapons out to Logan. “Standard stun.” 

Logan checked the action, sighted along the barrel. Kept his voice determinedly casual. “I figured. So what’s up?” 

“Lady Frost is coming soon. He –” Angel’s throat jumped; she raised her chin again. “He says that Hank’s coming with her – just making some adjustments to the Seeker.” 

“Right. You ask him if you could go already?” 

“Yeah, but he said I had to hear Lady Frost –” 

Charles only kept half an ear on their conversation; he stared into the flames. The adrenaline – fear, his mind whispered – was truly becoming ridiculous. His hands would be shaking, were they not clenched into fists in his pockets. 

“Well –” a low voice puffed against his ear, and he almost jumped out of his skin before seeing that it was the huge blond mutant. Victor Creed. “Well well well …” 

“What is it?” 

“Hm.” Creed grinned at him, slowly. His eyes were flat – completely black, Charles saw with a shiver, and those teeth looked very sharp. “Just wondering what sort of … person you are, friend. And your name. What’s your name?” 

For all his hideous looks, his voice was polite. 

“Charles. Charles Xavier.” 

“Hnh. British?” 

“That’s right.” 

“Well,” a drawl. “Pleased to meet you, Charles Xavier. My name’s Victor Creed, but you can call me Victor.” 

A huge hand drifted into Charles’ frame of vision; he bit down on his lower lip, shook hands as impersonally as he could. “Charmed, Mr. Creed.” 

“‘Charmed’ is right, Charlie. Whew.” Those strange eyes had gone wide; Charles saw pale eyelashes flicker. “... Merde.” 

“What is it?” Charles darted a glance to Logan and Angel – if Creed decided to attack, or anything of the sort, they were still talking and thus couldn’t help him – 

“‘What is it?’ I’ll tell you. Or – no … I’ll ask you. And what I ask is this, Charlie: … do you smell what I smell?” 

Creed dragged in a deep breath through his nostrils; exhaled gustily. “Well?” 

Charles sniffed. “I smell woodsmoke. There’s a fire,” he pointed, “right there. In case you weren’t sure about the source.” 

“No,” a drawl. “I don’t mean that smell. I mean ... well. Just watch.” He laid one massive hand on Charles’ shoulder; it took immense effort not to flinch away. Then Creed turned just slightly – enough to look at the man, Charles saw … and he looked, too – 

– and the expression in those eyes turned his blood to ice. 

“That smell,” Creed whispered. “’S my ability, you know – I got recruited for it. Superhuman senses. Yeah, some of Stryker's fucked around with my bones … but I could always see, and smell – and what I smell now, is –” 

“I know what it is,” Charles bit out. One brush of his mind – only the smallest tendril of power – and he had flinched away from that black sucking whirlpool of want

That was the man, Charles though, distant, who had held him down, on his own bed, not two weeks ago. Had held him down, had ripped out his filling – and had gotten off on the blood, and screams, and tears. And had marked his face and neck … with come. The memory of that scent hit him like a punch to the gut; Charles swallowed hard. 

“Oh.” Creed’s voice – still in his ear, damn it – had drifted upward. “Oh … hey. Now that’s interesting.” Back down to a whisper. “… Does he know about that?” 

“About what?” 

Creed sniffed – but at him, this time, Charles realized in horror. At his neck, then a little ways down – shite – to his armpit, and even though he was wearing three shirts and a thick coat, he was sweating intensely. And who knew what Creed was smelling, besides sweat? His stomach lurched; his throat felt tight. “Back off ” 

“’s O.K. – I’m just … checking something.” 

“Perhaps you didn’t understand me. Back. The fuck. Off.” And Charles laced the words with as much obey as he could, without alerting Frost. 

“All right, all right.” He held up his hands. “Stay cool.” 

“Get away from me.” 

“I’ll get away,” Creed said peaceably. Then added: “I might just let him know, though. That all right? Just – clear some things up for you?” Sharp lion’s teeth flashed in a grin. “Shall I do that?” 

“No –” Charles choked, but it was too late. He tried not to watch as Creed strode off, but couldn’t help seeing that he walked over to the man and started talking, low and confidential - oh god oh no – he shouldn’t look, he should look away … 

But Charles kept staring, strangely fascinated by the way Creed’s blond hair had caught on the man’s knit cap – by how the man’s eyes flickered between the two of them, by how the lines of muscle – visible even beneath that ratty black coat he was wearing – drew up tighter and tighter. 

Creed paused, tilted his head towards Charles, and whispered in the man’s ear. 

And Charles felt his eyes go wide as the man dropped his cigarette. 

Look away. Charles covered the motion instantly, looking back at the fire. He wasn’t going to stare from the corner of his eye, he wasn’t going to think about what Creed might have said … And that had been perhaps the only awkward movement he had ever seen the man make – in the real world at least. He had been completely clumsy in his own mind, when Charles had forced him onto a bed, and not thinking about that either – and besides, look at him now. Gracefully bending to retrieve the cigarette, beckoning Creed closer, and down – 

– and Creed howled as the man ground out the cigarette in his eye. 

He struggled, but the man had clamped a hand on the back of his neck. The snarls of pain sounded bestial; Charles couldn’t take his own eyes away from the sight. The other mutants had fallen silent too, and were staring. The man threw one hard glance round the bonfire and then pulled Creed away from it, into the darkness. 

The cries kept going, even when the man had stopped walking – just inside the treeline, from the sound of it. Charles stared into the fire, feeling sick. He couldn’t help but overhear the group to his left – 

“ – every fucking time, I swear.” A sigh from the woman with messy hair – Kitty, Charles remembered. “You’d think Vic would finally quit it.” 

“You think he has a memory beyond the short term?” The slightest woman – Yuriko. Her voice was matter-of-fact; its chill thus all the more striking. “But - it doesn't matter. Give Victor some time and a regiment to kill in Dallas and he will be content as a spring pig. Until the spring, perhaps.” 

“Right, you mention that to the boss, why dontcha?” The woman who had started the fire flicked her own cigarette butt into it. “I’ve done my job for the night. ‘Cept for this new one, of course.” 

“And I’m in the middle of mine. I’ve phased fucking half of Blue Group’s supplies – I was on schedule, damn it, even if I had to take enough meds to kill a horse. And now this runaway’s gone and fucked it all to hell –” 

“Sean,” Charles interrupted. 

The women stared at him. 

He tried a half smile, then let it fall. “His name’s Sean.” 

In the silence, the yelps of pain – ten feet away, Charles thought, and: please let it stop soon let it stop – sounded very loud. 

“Right,” one said, flatly. “And you are?” 

“Charles Xavier.” 

“Nice to meet you. My name's Jubilation; you can keep your opinion of it to yourself.” She put her hands on her hips. “And what do you do here, Charles? Why haven't I met you before?"

"Because he's been too busy running laps," Kitty said, under her breath.

Charles felt his face turn hot. “I -” 

“Contain yourselves, ladies. He’s a student.” Logan had broken off his conversation with Angel; his voice was harsh, carrying. “Not supposed to be here, I know, but he kind of insisted.” 

“The more fool him.” Yuriko’s voice was soft, and her eyes, in the firelight, were like hollows in her face. “Logan. He needs to be inside.” 

A gusty sigh. “Yeah, I know ” 

or he will have to join the Monitor in the stable. Is that what you want, Charles?” 

Charles’ mind flew to Alex – and Sean, soon to be chained in there together. He was under no illusions … he remembered the chains hanging from the ceiling, the tools, the drains set in the middle of every floor. “No, thank you,” he replied, faintly. 

“Then you should be taken back – ah.” Yuriko had looked to her left. “There. Young McCoy will take you, after Lady Frost has spoken. Shall it be so, Logan?” 

“Yeah, why the fuck not,” he began to growl, but,

“Logan,” Charles breathed out, urgent, “and Angel – don’t talk to me, don’t mention me –” and before the others could ask why, or snarl, or curse or do anything, Charles did what he realized he should have done long ago. Why didn’t you do it? his mind howled, and how could you have been so stupid? 

“Just – shh,” he muttered to himself. “Let me concentrate.” 

He summoned up a veil – a real veil, in the real world – wrapped it around himself, and focused all of its energy – so limited: smaller than a marble, a billiard ball – you can’t see me in the night any night this night. He wrapped the veil close, watched Frost, as she walked into the circle of light – and tried his best not to think, to feel, or to breathe. 


Frost was wearing gorgeous white furs. Her blonde hair shone like the palest gold in the firelight; her porcelain features were set and stern. She walked closer – almost to the edge of the fire – and fixed them all with a look. 

“Brothers and sisters ...” 

The group of mutants murmured a reply. Frost inclined her head and continued: 

“You know why you all are here. On this night, before the beginning of the battle so important to our Cause, we cannot afford to let even the smallest and weakest of us all fall prey to the Free West.” She kept her face impassive; her eyes burned. “Or to cold, or to hunger – or to anything else that we all face every day.” 

You don’t look cold or hungry, Charles thought, nastily – but focused on maintaining the strength of his veil. Beside him, Logan’s breathing was deep and regular … so regular that Charles knew instantly that he had to be controlling it. One of the mutants he didn’t know was gulping in air so quickly that he looked more like a fish than a human. And Angel wasn’t faring much better. 

“Thus: tonight. The child’s name is Sean Cassidy. Some of you know him; some of you do not. He uses his voice as a tool and a weapon; he can fly with it. He will have flown far. Find him before the cold can take him, before the Free West can take him … find him, and then rest easily. 

“The Finder confirmed that he is near Syracuse,” Frost continued. “I shall direct you.” 

And with that, she took a band - of some synthetic material – from McCoy’s hands. McCoy, who was standing right behind her, his face white. Frost held the band to her forehead; McCoy tied it in the back. 

It should have looked stupid. It didn’t. No, Charles thought: it looked like a diadem. 

Frost closed her eyes. 

Charles felt a small flicker of power; his physical veil shielded him from most of it. Then a stronger pulse. Another … He stared at the band. He had seen it before, but where? The infirmary, his mind whispered, the morning after – after that time the man attacked you. Well. After the first time the man had attacked him. And Charles had thought that strap part of the chair in the infirmary room … there had been wires running from it … 

It was a weaker – far weaker – version of the Finder. The Seeker, Angel had said – and indeed … Carefully, Charles sent out his dove, cloaked in shimmering veils. It began to fly along the path the Seeker was laying down, through the woods, up the road … 

Began, and then it had to stop. Charles frowned. It wasn’t that the dove was weak; it was that he could not maintain his veil and send something. Not without deploying more power … and then Frost would see him … 

His dove returned, warbling miserably. “It’s all right,” Charles whispered to it, shivering, and, “Come on.” 

The dove flew round the circle. It brushed against Creed, where he was lurking on the other side of the fire. Directly across, shielded from Charles' sight by the flames: an impression of hulking strength and a mind that smelled like an abattoir. Charles shuddered. “Come back. Come on …” The dove fluttered its wings; warbled again. It sounded afraid. But why? 

Cautiously, Charles sent it winging away from Creed and Frost, further around the fire – but it balked with an anxious chirp, beating its wings in a silent flutter. It took him only a split second to realize why. 

The man was standing directly behind him. Not as close as he had been – that one night … you have a metal filling on the left side of your mouth … but close enough for Charles to feel warmth on the back of his neck, faint compared to that of the fire, but there … 

“All right,” he whispered to his dove, heart pounding. “Just – just stay there for a moment.” 

Could the man see him? Surely not – the filling had been pulled, after all, and he wasn’t wearing any other metal – except. “Shite,” he breathed. Except the rivets of his jeans. He flattened his palms over the two on his front pockets – 

– and flinched as they grew warm against his flesh. 

“Not this,” Charles mumbled to himself. “Not this, not here.” For the dove had fluttered closer – “come back, I need you,” he whispered – and it saw the want – desire, hungry-prey lust slithering hands around him … warm hands … 

God –the man’s hands had been so warm, in his bed. Charles swallowed back a rush of saliva, shivering. So warm: brushing against his waist to strip off his sweater, twined into his hair and tugging, and gentle on his jaw and cheekbones – 

“Before he ripped out your filling,” he muttered, and: “pull yourself together. Fuck – fuck, come on. And come back here,” he ordered the dove, sharply; it chirped once and flew back into his mind. “There.” 

“There.” Frost’s voice was cold but exultant – and for one horrible beat, Charles thought she had heard him. But no … the Seeker had stopped, and just brushing the veils of Charles’ mind lay a bright and chilly beam of light. It stretched out, flat, into the distance. Charles knew without touching it that it would reach Syracuse; whether or not it would be of any use was another question. It was watery and wavering, even here … 

You could do better. 

“Shh,” he hissed at his mind – the owl in particular. Puffing itself up, and at this time of all times, the nitwit. “Wait ‘til she goes –” 

And Frost had raised her arms. “Go, with my blessing. Find him. Find Sean, and bring him back to me – and we will all fight tomorrow’s battle. Together.” 

The mutants murmured in reply, indistinct. 

What was distinct was the man’s voice, ringing out from behind him. Charles flinched, but kept the veil strong. 

“Flyers – go ahead. Runners – we’ll hit the main road first and then go through the campus. North by northeast, twelve degrees twenty minutes.” 

In the fire’s light, Charles saw Angel’s wings beat into a shimmer – and then she darted up and was gone. Kitty drew in a deep breath, exhaled – a strange vibration, and she was gone too. Jean-Paul – strikingly handsome, with chiseled features besides his flowing white hair – cracked his knuckles, smiled, and flew away as though it was natural as breathing. 

Perhaps it is, to him. His thoughts were getting tired; he only just registered Logan muttering, “You there, Xavier? Get inside ‘n I’ll see you when I see you,” before the he joined the other mutants – a bloodied Creed included – and vanished into the darkness. Charles heard distant snarls and curses, and the running crunch of feet on snow. 

Then he turned back and almost yelped as Frost seemed to look right at him. She can’t see me no no no she can’t – 

“My prince,” she whispered. 

Charles began to shiver. The man moved, behind him – dear god he’s close – and only just brushed one sleeve of Charles’ coat with his own, as he strode past him and – 

Charles blinked. The man had knelt down before Frost. 

She stared down at him, eyes glittering. Then she stretched out one hand, and placed it on the man’s head. She blinked – once, twice – her jaw tightened just slightly – 

And then she released him. Then man let his chin drop to his chest. Charles heard him drag in a breath and release it – what did she just do? his mind whispered, avid, and go go – touch him to find out – 

“No,” Charles said to himself. He felt heavy, all of a sudden – heavy and so tired …“I’ve done enough prying for one god damned week.” 

The man had risen to his feet. Frost was speaking to him, her voice low. Then she laid her hands on his shoulders; squeezed – smiled at him. And turned to leave. 

McCoy was right behind her. Charles saw the stiff line of his back – saw it get even more rigid as the man held out a hand, and said something. It was too quiet to hear over the crackle and roar of the flames. 

Frost had gone. So Charles was not as upset as he might have been, otherwise, when the man turned McCoy in his direction with a hand on one shoulder – and pointed with the other. Straight in Charles’ direction. 

Then he let his hands fall to his sides. Stared at Charles, darkly. Shivering, even with the huge leaping flames in front of him, Charles felt very much alone. 

Those eyes reflected the firelight … like those of a hunting cat. Charles swallowed. Or … and his mind wafted a memory to the fore: the man at the foot of his bed, tensed to pounce … firelight turning his skin amber, making his eyes glitter like emeralds set in gold … 

The man touched the ring on his thumb. 

Then he blinked, turned his head to one side – and Charles saw his profile for one brief flash, stark against the black of the night. Then he stepped from the light into the darkness, and footfalls crunched, faster and faster until the sound had faded. 

Charles made a noise in the back of his throat. 

Then he dropped his veil. 

“Wow,” McCoy gasped, “you really are there – that’s amazing! How did you –” 

“Nothing’s amazing, Hank,” he groaned. “Alex is caught, Sean’s going to be caught – the battle’s starting tomorrow, and I’m freezing –” He was caught by a fit of shivers. “God, I want to go home –” 

“Well, come on then.” McCoy skirted the fire, walking to him. He reached out an awkward hand; clapped Charles on the shoulder. “I have to take you inside.” 

Oxford home, he thought, miserable, but said: “And Frost?” 

“Lady Frost has gone inside already.” A grim look. “She’ll stay up until they get back.” 

Then he couldn’t use his power to break Alex free – although he couldn’t anyway, if Alex was chained ... he wasn’t Jean, after all. Charles caught his breath; coughed to clear his throat. 

“Come on, Mr. Xavier – inside.” McCoy sounded concerned. “You might get sick.” 

“No.” He tore away from the restraining hand. “No. have to see Alex.” 

“You – what?” 

“Alex. He’s in the stable –” 

“Oh –” 

“– and I have to see him –” 

“No, you have to go inside! You can’t break any more rules – I can’t break the rules, or they’ll put me in there again, and –” 

“Hank.” 

McCoy closed his mouth with a snap. Charles looked at him, bit his lip … but then – do it – he said what he knew could not be unsaid. 

“Are you really such a coward?” 

A muscle jumped in McCoy’s jaw. The firelight made his glasses gleam. "No.” 

“Then let me do this. Wait here and I’ll come back. I promise.” And it was truth, Charles knew – he heard it ringing from every word. 

No,” McCoy said. 

Hank –” 

“I mean: not by yourself.” Behind his glasses, his eyes looked terrified. “I’ll go with you.” 


The walk through the forest should have been more difficult, given that it was pitch black. But Charles used his powers to sense roots and rocks – his hummingbird flitting at his feet – and McCoy … 

“I can see in the dark,” he said, shortly. “Aren’t I lucky?” 

“Is that – your ability? Your mutation?” 

“Part of it.” 

Charles had made no reply to that. Hadn’t even considered what the other parts might be, until they reached the stable – an ominous shadow in the waning moonlight. And – “Shite,” Charles breathed, because of course the door was locked, and he couldn’t pick it – 

“Alex?” he called softly. “Alex – are you there?” 

They waited, tense. Then Charles heard a clank, and a shuffle. And: “Mr. Xavier?” quavered from beneath a barred window on the left side –

“Oh Alex,” he breathed, and ran to the window. It was not much of an opening – just a long horizontal stripe – and only just within his reach. He grabbed at the bars. Rust flaked onto his gloves. “Are you all right?” 

A pause. Then: “… No.” 

“But you can talk – you can hear me, Alex: is there a way you can get out? Can you blast the door, with your power? Or a hole in the wall?” 

“If he can’t,” McCoy murmured, “I can tear those bars out –” but: “Yes,” Alex said. 

Charles stared at McCoy, feeling his heart race. “If you can –” he hesitated. Then took the plunge. “Then do it, Alex. Knock this place to rubble,” his blood surged at the image, “and we’ll get you out of here. We’ll escape – we’ll all escape – tonight. Now.” 

McCoy’s eyes were luminous behind his glasses. Charles grinned at him. Then he waited for the first flash of Alex’s power – 

And waited. 

“… Alex?” 

“Thanks, Mr. Xavier.” Alex’s voice was dull. “But I can’t –” 

“‘Can’t’ nothing, Alex – you just said –” 

A gulping sob. “I can’t move. I have a chain on me.”

It clanked. 

Charles thought desperately. What would he do with that goddamned chain around his ankle night after night, if he had Alex’s power? Simple enough:  “Bloody hell, just blast it off. Aim for the links, keep the power away from your legs, and it should be –”

“No.” Alex’s voice cracked.

He kept going – “It’s on my arms. The chain, I mean – it’s on my arms. My ankles … my ankles …” And Alex started to cry. “He caught them with a crowbar, and they – oh god they look – he broke them -” 

It was a good thing, Charles thought, distantly, that he hadn’t eaten much that day. Otherwise it would all have come up against the stable wall. 

As it was, he just managed to choke back a dry heave, then another. He spat against the wall and coughed. “God. This place …” Charles leaned his forehead against the stone. “This place is hell.”  

McCoy, next to him, said nothing. But Charles could hear his teeth clattering together. He spared him a look – McCoy had only been wearing his normal clothes and white lab coat, all this time. His fingers were turning blue. “Oh, Hank … What are we going to … What can we do?” 

“I don’t know, Mr. Xavier.” He sounded as miserable as Charles felt. “We could carry him, or something –” 

“No.” Alex’s voice, from within the cell, was stronger. “No – don’t. I got – I got myself in trouble, with this. With beating up Sean. You were right, Mr. Xavier … I wouldn’t treat my brother that way. So this – this is –” 

“Don’t you dare say that this is what you deserve!” Charles felt rage hit him like a punch to the gut; he redirected it to his voice. “That is not true! This is just – sadism, pure and simple -” 

“But I’m – I’m in his shoes. Aren’t I? Sean’s – like you said. I hurt him. And now – I’m hurt … it hurts …” 

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Charles whispered, shuddering. He rested his head against the stone wall; he could feel tears hot on his cheeks. “Nobody should have to suffer like this. Like you children – all of you, oh god –” Memories: Jean’s pain and Sean’s pain; Ororo and Bobby and John tense and miserable at the breakfast table; Hank screaming as his fingers were broken; Angel weeping in the light of the fire … 

“You’d better go, Mr. Xavier.” 

“No, Alex, I’m not leaving you –” 

“Hey Hank? You there too?"

“Um.” McCoy cleared his throat. “Yeah.” 

“Get Mr. X back inside, will you? Drag him if you have to.” 

“I hope I don’t have to.” McCoy looked at Charles for a long moment. Then he bent, and – unlaced his shoes? 

“Hank?” Charles wiped his eyes. “What are you doing?” 

McCoy fished a bottle out of one pocket of his coat. Rattled it. “I’ve been giving Kitty painkillers for her migraine all day. I still have some.” He toed off his shoes. And – oh god, he had terrible frostbite, because his feet were blue – 

Charles stared. Then he had to blink rapidly, and stare ... up. Into McCoy’s face, now upside down, since he had executed a leaping sort of flip that let him grab the stable gutter with his prehensile toes. He passed the bottle from one hand to one foot, then eased the foot to one side, found the bars –

“Alex, I’m pushing some painkillers through. They’re pretty powerful –” 

“Wait,” Charles choked, “what if he takes too many –” 

“– and there’s only enough in there to knock you out for twelve hours – even if you popped them all at once.” McCoy nodded back to Charles: it’s true. “You want to space ‘em out – and not too quickly. If he comes back and you’re unconscious, he’ll know something’s up.” 

Silence, from inside the cell. 

“Just take one to start.” McCoy hoisted himself even higher; reached one arm through the bars. There was a rattle as the pill bottle dropped. “That’ll help with the pain right now. Take another –” he glanced to the west, “when the moonlight’s gone from inside, O.K.?” 

Alex croaked: “O.K.” Another rattle. “Here goes one.” 

“And – and when you hear him coming back, take all the rest and hide the bottle. He’ll start with you, and if he thinks you’ve passed out, he’ll stop.” McCoy paused. “It’ll be all right.” 

Straining his ears, Charles heard Alex … still crying. 

But McCoy was speaking right into the cell, face pressed against the bars. “C’mon, man. It’ll be all right. Hey – if an egghead like me can get through it, you can get through it. You’re tough. All right? 

Silence. Then: “Yeah,” Alex rasped. 

“All right.” McCoy paused. “We’ll see you.” 

“Yeah. I’ll see you guys, too. And – Hank? Mr. Xavier?” A pause. “Thank you. For – for coming here, I mean. I was scared.” 

He still was. Charles could almost smell the fear. 

Then it spiked from all three of them, as something snapped in the woods. “Just an animal,” McCoy gasped, and: “Ohgod,” Charles said, heart pounding. 

“You guys had better go. Get back to the manor. Oh, and McCoy?” 

“Yeah?” 

“Two bottles of bourbon says that Angel’s the one to find Sean.” 

McCoy didn’t hesitate. “You’re on.” He dropped to the snowy ground, found his shoes and began shoving his feet into them. 

“Alex,” Charles pitched his voice to carry. “I’ll tell you right now… You’re going to win that one.” 

“Ha,” from inside the cell, and: “Shit,” McCoy muttered. “Takes a telepath to know, I guess. Alex? See you –” 

“Get lost man, hurry up.” 

“O.K. – we’re going, we’re going.” 

And with a glance at Charles, serious, McCoy turned and began to trudge in the direction of the manor.

Charles gave the bars one last look. 

Then he tugged his coat tightly around himself, and followed McCoy, walking away through the cold snow. 


Only on the threshold of his room did Charles break the silence that had stretched between them. 

“With those feet of yours …” 

“Yeah?” In the dim light of his candle – they had stopped in his workroom for it – McCoy looked exhausted. 

“You could rip things apart. You could get out of here – if you’re locked in. Hell, when you came to get me when I was hurt? When I called you? You could have torn my chain out of the wall.” 

He was silent. 

Then he said: “I’m not locked in, Mr. Xavier. Not anymore.” 

Charles let his coat fall into a heap on his bed. Then he sat, dully, and watched McCoy close the shackle around his ankle. Lock it. 

“Mr. Xavier …” 

“Hm?” Charles didn’t feel like talking. All he wanted was sleep – without dreams. Because his dreams … well. They would not be pleasant. Of that he was sure. 

McCoy dragged in a deep breath. “I’m sorry. For – for everything. For not being more brave.” 

“Oh, Hank.” He sighed. “You’re brave. I’m brave, Alex is brave – hell, we’re all brave, just to keep on breathing in this place. But I should not have said what I said to you, earlier. You’re not a coward, Hank – and I don’t think you ever will be.” 

He heard the click of McCoy's throat as he swallowed. “Thanks, Mr. Xavier.” 

“Go get some sleep.” Charles tried a smile. He didn’t think it convincing, but the other smiled back. 

“Alex will be fine,” McCoy said, walking to the door. “We have one bag of Archangel’s blood left. I’ll have it ready to go for him tomorrow.” 

“Mmm. That’s excellent.” 

What was also excellent, Charles thought, was that he managed to keep his voice neutral. He felt sick to his stomach. He felt like screaming. 

Instead, he said: “Good night.” 

“Good night.” 

The door closed behind McCoy. He heard the scrape of the lock; the slide of the bolt. 

And Charles had time to stare at the ashes of his fireplace. To think. Sleeping was out of the question. So, apparently, was escape. At least for now, he told his raven, and: we’ll consider our plans later. All right? 

It made no answer. Just fluttered its wings on the golden chair, and stilled. 

Sean had pre-empted him – Sean, Charles reflected, bleakly, had had his own idea, of miscommunication and confusion, and had used it just as well as he himself would have. Except … “I wouldn’t have stopped flying. Or, well. Running.” 

Why had Sean stopped? Had he had second thoughts? No, Charles told himself – then he would have turned around and come back, perhaps even before he was noticed. Had he thought to spend the night in that dugout? Surely not … one could break into a basement in any town. Perhaps even a heated one. 

Had … Charles swallowed. Had his injuries gotten worse? Sean had wept for the pain in his leg as recently as Sunday. His voice had still been hoarse at breakfast. And if he used his voice to fly, then … if it gave out … 

A vision of Sean, weeping and in agony, swam into his mind. Charles gritted his teeth. “No,” he whispered fiercely. “I promised them.” All the children, he remembered with a sharp pain. He had promised to keep them safe, to keep them from harm. 

“I’ll watch, then.” He curled up onto his bed, searched his mind – called up … ah. Called up a nightingale. “Welcome to the aviary,” he said softly. It was plain brown, with a white breast and a reddish-brown tail. It flicked that tail at him, and burbled a few notes – “That’s right.” Charles gave it a tired smile. “You can sing, while you’re waiting.” 

He sent it flying out the arrow window – flying to the stable. It brushed against Alex’s mind – still that red-white turmoil, throbbing in pain … but muted, just slightly, by the drugs. That’s good, Charles thought, emptily, and: “Go ahead.” He sent the nightingale to the lintel above the stable door. 

It perched there, and began to sing. The sounds were really very beautiful. Almost enough to let him rest. Perhaps it would do the same for Alex. 

Charles closed his eyes, listening; then murmured: “Let me know when he – when Sean –” – and fell asleep. 


Charles woke up the instant the nightingale’s song stopped. 

Tense, he stared up into the darkness of his bedroom. Then he closed his eyes and reached out.

The nightingale had fluttered up into a corner of the stable. There was Alex’s mind – the red-white throbbing slowly, now – sluggish. And there – “Sean,” Charles whispered. His mind was a flicker, blue-green threaded with yellow … but if a light could flicker in a hoarse way – muted – that was what Sean’s was doing. Perhaps it was due to his injured voice. 

Or perhaps it was the power of the metal cloud, manhandling him into a cell on the other end of the stable, obscuring Sean’s thoughts. 

“The other end of the stable,” Charles murmured. “As far from Alex as possible, of course.” Heaven forbid the children comfort each other. No, that would be too civilized.

The nightingale sent him a trill of song. Charles refocused his attention. The rage of that mind had focused into a purpose – oh god don’t let him start now - Charles heard his chain clank as he got out of bed on unsteady legs – it will take me some time to get back there. 

Because … and the realization made him calmer, somehow. Because he was going back there. He would find the man; confront him. He wasn’t afraid of him – liar, sang his mind, but: “Shut up,” Charles hissed. He would interfere because he had promised the children. Because – and his stomach gave a guilty twist – because he had instigated this entire mess, fiddling with Sean’s memory. 

But mostly because he had promised … that they would be safe. 

Right. His thoughts were cool, controlled. How to do this? He called up – still less than a billiard ball, good … 

“Even though you’re very fat,” he told his penguin. It hissed. 

Charles smiled. “Go to Jean,” he said. “Wake her up – but gently; no pecking. I need to speak to her."

For once, the penguin was not recalcitrant. It waddled through his door and across the hall – flip flip flip – Then it walked to Jean’s bedside, and flapped its flippers. “A little louder, maybe,” Charles murmured - so it rocked from foot to foot; and honked. 

Jean woke. Mr. Xavier? she sent, sleepily. What is it?

“Good evening, Jean,” he said, projecting the words at the same time. Standing in his room, hands in his pockets – the chain a cold weight around his ankle. Any passerby would have thought him speaking to empty air. Charles sighed. “I need your help with something.” 

Is it the token?

“No, dear, the token works splendidly.” Even the memory of his opal, though, made his stomach twist in guilt. “I need something else.” 

What? 

Charles took a deep breath. “I need you to undo the chain on my leg, and open my door.” 

You have a chain on your leg?

He closed his eyes; laughed shakily. She didn’t know. He had forgotten that she didn’t know … “Yes, I do.” 

Why?

“May I explain later, please? This is very important. I don’t have much time.” 

A brief hesitation; but then Charles heard a click and scrape from the door. Unlocked, unbolted; good. “And the chain?” 

The metal on his foot wobbled. It’s heavy.

“Yes, I know. Can you try anyway?” 

Could I just break one of the little metal bits?

So he could walk to the man with a shackle around his own ankle – Charles bit back a hysterical laugh. “I’m sure you could, Jean. But I really need the shackle off.”

I’ll try – 

“I know you can do it.” He thought – and then inhaled. “Ask your phoenix for help, Jean. Say,” he swallowed. “It’s not for Mr. Xavier. It’s for Sean.” 

I’ll ask. One second …

A pause. 

Then Charles felt his skin prickle, as the shackle on his ankle creaked, opened, and settled gently onto his stone floor. “Thank you, Jean,” he breathed. “And thank your phoenix too.” 

He helped me – just like your birds help you.

“That’s right.” He staggered over to his wardrobe, shucked off the jeans – those rivets – in favor of sweatpants. “Do you like the penguin?” 

Yes.

“I’m glad. Is it all right if it stays in your room for a while? Just by the door.” To guard her, he ordered the penguin; its sharp beak clacked in reply. Guard her. Keep her safe –

It’s all right if she stays. A pause, and then: Mr. Xavier?

“Yes?” 

Where are you going?

He exhaled, shakily. Gave himself one last check – no metal anywhere – and replied: “I need to go check on Sean.” 

A pause. Then: He’s not in his room. Why isn’t he in his room, Mr. Xavier?

Charles swallowed – and took a moment to thank whichever tech had kept Jean from the alarm, the anger that must have enveloped the Hive, Frost’s office … 

“He had to fly somewhere tonight, Jean. I’m just checking on him, to make sure he’s all right. Now, listen to me,” he threaded his voice with listen and obey. “Stay in your room, hm? The penguin will keep you company – but it’s important that you stay there. Try to go back to sleep.” 

A longer pause. Then: You’ll make sure he’s all right?

“Yes.” Charles closed his eyes. “I promise.” 

Because – really, he thought, sliding his arms back into his coat – what was one promise more? Of all he had made since he had been brought to this place … of all he had broken … “But I won’t break this one,” he whispered. 

Good night, Mr. Xavier.

“Good night, Jean. Thank you. And sleep well.” 


Charles checked on the penguin. Guard her – make sure she stays safe. Half of him – well, more than half – expected the penguin to unleash the avian equivalent of a wet raspberry … but it just stayed at Jean’s door. Staring at him, beady eyes wide, like a stubby little sentinel. 

“Good,” he said. Then he cast out his mind to find the nightingale – 

“Oh, shite!” 

His nightingale twittered a question at him. It had a beautiful, lovely voice, but how did it not tell him that the man had left the stable?  Sean was there - he checked - and Alex … but the whirl of shrapnel was gone and that idiot of a songbird – 

It trilled mournfully. “Hurt feelings?” Charles hissed, “Are you serious?” He called the nightingale back – it sang out in sorrow –  “just what I need, a diva for a lookout –” and then, gritting his teeth, Charles summoned his raven. 

It launched itself from the golden chair in his reading room - shot out of his mind and straight into the sky. The back of his neck tingled at its power – “… God,” he whispered.  This was the part of him that had flown through the man’s dark and dour castle of a mind. This was the part that had found New York City. This was the part that would never be afraid. 

“Find him,” he told the raven, and it swooped down with the same gossamer-thin veil it had used in Syracuse … 

There

But … Charles shivered. Not outside. Not anymore. The man was … in the library. 

“But … why –” 

The raven was curious, too. It flew to the manor, glided through one of the library windows – soundless, a black shadow – and perched silently on the carved mantelpiece. Charles stretched out to sense the man’s mind … there was the rage and a sickening thrum of blood beneath everything, but … He blinked. Stamped on the whole, on the surface, was that orderly design. A repeating pattern, the silver-steel blueprint … 

And methodical movements, in the library. He was organizing something. 

“This is just – I don’t even –” Charles went to his door, bit back on his instinct just in time to keep from touching the metal of the handle – and looked closer, gritting his teeth. Jean’s opening the lock had sprung the catch, thank god, so he was able to swing the door open by gripping the wood. 

He started to walk down the hallway – but then – might as well be sure – he slipped out of his shoes and socks; left them tucked right inside his door with his coat. “Not going outside, after all,” he murmured, and: “this way you can be absolutely silent …” 

And he was. Treading carefully down the flagstones of the dormitory hallway, then the next one – the dark one. 

All too soon, it seemed, he was standing in front of the massive oak door. 

Charles probed at the gap in his teeth. No metal there, not anymore. He wasn’t wearing any, he hadn’t touched any … The raven crrrr’d, sly: the man was – at the table. Charles bit his lip. Writing something. 

“Surprised he’s even literate,” he whispered to himself. But, he read that book to Jean, his mind whispered back, and: “Quiet,” he hissed. 

Then, closing his eyes, Charles wafted the raven closer. It looped round the library, glided towards the man’s mind from a blind spot – please let it be a blind spot … And the same thoughts were there: ordered patterns, flashing silver now, a tight lid on the slow boil of rage and prey

He breathed a sigh of relief. There was no want, there. Not now. No desire, no lust – good. It would not do to have such a distraction. For – and Charles felt his lips quirk in a wry smile, despite his fear. He knew he could bring that want back in a flash: like tossing a match on an oil slick. The man would go up in flames, and Charles could cross his arms and watch, if he wanted to, with just one flutter of his eyelashes – if he wanted to – 

if you wanted to

Memory slid hot hands into his guts, and squeezed. 

“Oh.” Charles’ heard his own voice, just a whisper. It was faint. “Oh …” 

Want. The man wanted him. Badly. “Not just,” Charles croaked; his tongue suddenly seemed too big for his mouth. “Not just ‘badly,’” – no. Wanted him, with an edge of insanity to it, like fire. Like death. Even though – and the memories were cascading through him, the entire shelf of books in his reading room upended, the volumes falling open on the soft carpet – thudding like his heartbeat. Even though it seemed the man … had no idea of what even … to do. 

Oh god. Charles bit back a hysterical laugh. No idea what to do, only knowing half-crazed lust – if that wasn’t the simplest scrip for: ‘have someone canny shag you rotten, prefatory to leading you round by your cock – and call me in the morning, there’s a good lad,’ then Charles wasn’t standing on his two feet, one door removed from something that wanted him – wanted – 

He shivered. Pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. Could he do it, though? Could he do this sort of thing? Not in reference to technique, no … heavens no. That wasn’t the question. The question was … what did he, Charles, want?

“I want –” he croaked. Some control, perhaps. To not walk round in fear of being mauled. But … he had that, it seemed – Charles frowned to himself. He had threatened to end his own life if the man ever touched him again. And it seemed the brute had bought it, for he hadn’t so much as laid a finger on him in ten days … 

Except for his coat – his coat brushing your arm this evening, at the fire – his mind whispered, feverish. He was watching you there – did you see him? Did you feel that? Creed could smell it – and you could smell it too, even though you said you couldn’t – 

“I couldn’t – I didn’t – oh, stop.” Charles breathed through his open mouth; his throat felt dry. “Stop.” 

So: the man could be manipulated. He had been already; easily, too, with only that one threat. Charles blinked. ‘Easily’, if one overlooked the pain he had gone through to get to that point – he probed at the gap in his teeth. But … the way the man had gripped his hair and moaned, grinding against him and gasping – desperate … he had wanted so desperately. Wanted something ... something, it appeared, that he hadn’t known to exist. And that – that white-hot and clumsy a desire, that complete ignorance … 

… That would be so very easy to manipulate. 

Ignorance. For 'innocence' was the wrong word. Nothing that smeared come on a person’s face, and stared like it wanted to lick that come right back off, afterwards – nothing like that could be an innocent. 

Charles stared at the door. He didn’t need any observer to tell him that his own eyes were glittering like a raptor’s. Very easy to manipulate … He knew how good he was at it – at sex. “Fucking,” he whispered at the door, curling his mouth around the word; ending it with a slow slide of his tongue from the back of his front teeth out over his upper lip ... 

And he wasn’t a child. He was sick to death of being treated like one, lumped in with the other children … 

His raven croaked at him. Somehow, it had flown through the door. To his shoulder. And he hadn’t even noticed. 

It ran its beak through his hair. And in his mind’s eye, Charles saw Alex and Sean. Sean – and Ororo, Bobby and John … Jean. 

“Oh …” He sighed, and stroked the feathers on the raven’s head. It was right. This wasn’t about his own abilities, his own ego. And not about power, or control … 

Or, if it was, it would only be just enough control … to keep the children safe. An exchange. The man would promise not to hurt them. And Charles would promise to – 

“Go on, say it,” he told himself. He folded his arms across his chest. “You, the Oxford Casanova. If you can’t turn that man’s world on its ear in one night, then all of your years of practice will have been for nothing. So ...” 

Charles stared at the door. “He promises not to hurt the children – to keep them safe, when I can’t. Not to go haring off and ripping Alex and Sean limb from limb, to take just one example … He promises that. And you – well.” He swallowed. “You promise to fuck him six ways from Sunday. 

“Right.” He adjusted his shirt collar. Ran his fingers through his hair. Pinched above his cheekbones – except there was hardly any flesh left there to pinch, and, “Really, this is not a bloody staff party, you idiot – all right.” Charles fixed his raven with a look. “Time for you to go.” 

It tipped its head at him. 

“I’ll be fine. Believe me …” Charles smiled tightly. “In this? I know exactly what I’m doing.” 

Raven blinked, black eyes glittering. Then it nudged its head beneath Charles’ chin. 

He pressed his lips tight, swallowing at the brush of its warm feathers on his throat – and at the disappearance of that warmth, as the raven shimmered into nothingness. 

“Right.”

Without his raven there, the hall seemed very dark and cold. The metal on the door gleamed at him. 

“Right. Well,” he whispered. “It’s cold here. But – I’ll bet a sov it’s warm in there. So.” He straightened his shoulders. “Go on, then.” 

And – before he could think twice – Charles reached out and curled his fingers round the wrought-iron handle of the door. 

He swallowed hard, as he felt all of the blueprint’s silver-steel lines, and all the molten metal bubbling beneath it – snap to attention and focus on him. 

Charles waited, tense. 

Nothing happened. 

Nothing except: that awareness corkscrewed closer, tightening – and he clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering, told himself:  “Go on, do it,” and laid his other hand flat on the door. Flat against the cold metal coils and loops.

Then, quietly, he knocked. 

Silence. 

“Come on,” Charles breathed. “You’re curious, you want … You want me, come on. Open.” 

He hadn’t used any power in his voice. He had sent his raven to sleep. No … no power at all … 

But even so, Charles felt only resolve – resolve, not surprise – as the heavy door creaked open, and let him in.

Chapter Text

Part of Charles’ mind, that which always took note of his surroundings, observed: there was no fire in the fireplace. Also, a window was open. Which meant that it was rather cold. And a chill breeze was ruffling the papers on the table – maps, it appeared, and memoranda. 

That part of his mind, however, put paid to the catalogue within five, perhaps ten seconds – and moved on to something more pressing. Namely: escape routes.  

Escape routes within reach. 

He had sidled around the door, through the doorway, wanting to touch as little metal as possible. Then he had faced the heavy wood and pulled it shut. Thinking about how the whorls of metal looked different in the library’s light. Thinking about the weight of iron and oak. 

Not thinking about the gaze he could feel burning into him from all the way across the room. 

That is, until he turned around. 

Then … all his mind could say was: find an escape route, and: you closed that door yourself 

For even though the door had opened for him, Charles had tugged it shut with a soft thump. And now he couldn’t take his eyes away from … His mind reiterated: you shut the door yourself, and you did this to yourself, and it’s looking at you … 

It? He,” Charles mumbled inwardly. “Remember?” 

As if he could forget. As if he could possibly avoid remembering. The want had first spiked when he had bent his head to look at the door handle – Charles thought his hair was too long, now, to show any of his pale nape – to say nothing of his shirt collar … but perhaps it had been the line of his back, or shoulders, or something unquantifiable. 

His mind refused to catalogue it. 

And now the man was looking at him, and that same want was … well. There was no fire in the fireplace. But Charles could picture one burning on the other side of the room, its smoke curling round tables and chairs, undulating across the floor to twine around his wrists and throat ... to lick at his pulse ... 

Looking … Charles tightened his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. Instinct kept his fingers on the door handle, even though he had turned to face the room; then his mind caught up – metal handle – and he yanked his hand away.

The man raised one eyebrow. 

Tipping up his chin, Charles crossed his arms across his chest. Then he raised an eyebrow in return, and curled the corners of his mouth, a half-smile, half-smirk. Why not? 

A smile tugged at the man’s lips as well. 

Charles blinked in surprise – 

– and thus didn’t see the candelabrum flying from the fireside table until it had slammed around his throat and melded into the metal on the door. Oh. That’s why not.

He was proud that he hadn’t screamed, but his gasps were loud in the cold stillness of the library, as the wrought iron flexed and coiled round his neck. Just like a spider. No - not enough limbs to it, and could he count them? He couldn’t – and oh God – the man had uncoiled from behind the table and was stalking across the room towards him. Charles wet his lips, tried to speak. The metal wasn’t throttling him – not yet, his mind whispered – but the words dried up on his tongue as the man stopped not an arm’s length away. 

It was horrible. He could feel it – the force of that glare, hard and glittering as a knife's edge. Like the candelabrum – or the writhing mass of metal that had been a candelabrum – but sharp… 

Perhaps this hadn’t been the best idea after all. 

“Who was it?” 

And that voice was sharp, too. Icy. 

Charles looked away from those eyes, wrapped his arms closer to his own body. He was shivering. The open window, he thought. Nothing more

“For god’s sake, stop kidding yourself,” he muttered desperately, and: “What?” the man snapped. 

Charles’ eyes flew back to him. “Nothing.” 

“Then answer my question.” 

He swallowed hard. “Could you repeat it, please?” And when the man bared his teeth at him, Charles tipped his head to one side – only as much as he could, which wasn’t much. “Um.” Scrambled after the words; remembered. “Könntest du – bitte – wiederholen?” 

A low hiss. “Du. Du unverschämter Welpe –” 

Könnten Sie das wiederholen –” Charles gave the pronoun some force, even though his voice was trembling. “… bitte?” 

The man’s mouth twisted. “Who was it?” 

“I don’t quite – follow?” 

Herr Professor Charles Xavier … who brought you back to your room this evening? Because whoever did so obviously did not secure you – and thus,” a glint from those teeth, “is due an official reprimand.” 

“…. From Frost or from you?” 

“My lady sleeps.” Those eyes narrowed. “And you, Xavier … once more, you go where you are not meant to go.” 

Keep distracting him – oh god Hank, Hank He shrugged, though it took considerable effort to do so. “It was interesting. This evening, I mean. Outside.” 

“Mm.” The man’s voice had roughened. “You saw, then, what happens … to those who try to escape.” 

“I didn’t see Sean.” And as soon as he said it, Charles could have bitten off his tongue – but: too late, his mind groaned, and: you idiot ..

“So you did see the other one. Alex Summers. Didn’t you?” 

Summersa fine name. A name for a warmer time. The prickling in his eyes was from – he didn’t know. All Charles did know was that he would not say another word until he was sure he could control himself. Be careful, his thoughts hissed – and had he heard his raven? Watch yourself. It’s making you uncertain – the want, now clotting around him, hot and urgent – and you cannot. Be. Uncertain. No mistakes. 

“You saw him, didn’t you, Xavier?” 

Charles stared straight ahead. 

“And young McCoy was with you.” 

Don’t blink. He kept his breathing even. The man was watching intently, eyes glittering. Don’t give him a reaction. 

“I saw your footprints outside the stable.” 

Charles blinked. 

“Ah yes, Professor. All those footprints, in the snow. You really ought to pay more attention to covering your tracks.” 

His mind presented him with the image of his token – opal and obsidian, its iridescent band twisting around and into Sean, in the boy’s mind … Charles bit his lower lip. 

“Then it was McCoy?” 

“Yes.” His voice was hoarse. 

“Mm.” The man tipped his head to one side; the metal around Charles’ throat flexed and twisted; he fought not to panic and glared into those green eyes instead. How the hell was he going to seduce the brute if they were right back to the old ‘chasten Charles, chain Charles, choke and maim Charles –’? Stupid bastard

Those eyes were fixed on his. They had widened somewhat. This close, Charles could see the scar between lip and nose. It was not so much a mark as it was an absence of stubble. Red … Suddenly, Charles’ own chin and jaw started to itch. He gave in, reached up casually past the metal, and scratched. Look, you fucker … Not afraid of you

The man’s lips twitched. “Feeling all right?” 

That solicitous tone made Charles’ skin prickle. “I’d feel better if this were off,” he said shortly. 

“Well. Let’s see ...” The man brought one hand up and traced a finger through the air, a good half foot from Charles’ face – but one coil of metal loosened and twisted, and acquired a razor-sharp edge that scraped beneath one of his cheekbones – 

Charles jerked away, gasping; the other smirked. “No?” 

“I meant the chokehold, you bastard –” 

“Ah.” The smirk widened. “No – that stays on.” 

Charles could not think of anything to say. He settled for glaring, heart pounding into his throat. Could the man feel his racing pulse, through the metal? Probably. He couldn’t think of a way to use it – 

“It stays on – unlike your chain. Chain and shackle cannot hold you; lock and bolt serve no purpose ... What need I do, Xavier, to keep you in your place?” 

Charles stayed silent. 

The man’s voice was … Charles’ skin began to crawl, because he was speaking gently, even though what he said was: “Do I need to break your legs? And – order them kept broken?” 

A surge of adrenaline left him light-headed. “Like you did to Alex?” 

“Not precisely.” Another smile. “Those were his ankles.” 

Charles stared in horror. “You – you are an absolute sadist, you know that?” 

“Xavier …” and the man stepped forward. The line of his body was casual, but all of a sudden menace bristled between them like spikes. Charles bit down hard on his tongue as that voice, soft, continued: 

“Did you come here to favor me with your opinions? Or are you so careless of your own life that you would choose to return here, where you were told never to step foot again?” 

“I came here –” 

The man waited. Then: “… Yes?” 

“I came here to …” Charles squeezed his eyes shut. He could smell the rust from what had been the candelabrum; could feel his own sweat beneath it. His face itched, and the damp on his forehead was cold in room’s chill. 

“‘To’ – what?” 

Do it. 

“I came here to – ask you something.” 

Could the man detect a change in his own voice? Charles had thought it even. His heart, though … it was hammering away in fear and – and – I’m finally doing this –

Those eyes had narrowed into jeweled slits. 

Charles waited. And when no word seemed forthcoming, he licked his lips. “So. May I – ask you something?” 

The man lifted his chin. Even unshaven, the line of his jaw looked regal – not fair, Charles’ mind whispered. But, his thoughts catalogued, sour grapes – the illusion was broken, at least, by the rank smell of sweat. Charles felt his nostrils flare. The smell was almost palpable, this close – probably from running. The man had left off his shabby coat, and the knit hat was gone. He was wearing scuffed leather shoes now, instead of – what had he been wearing, for the chase? Boots? Cleats? Something other than those shoes, surely, but Charles hadn’t looked, and – 

“Well?” That voice was cold. “Ask.”

“Um.” Charles dragged his eyes up from the man’s shoes, back to his face. It looked carved out of granite. “To ask. Um.” 

That jaw tightened. 

A distant part of Charles’ mind sighed. This was becoming ridiculous. Just spit it out. What was the worst that could happen? He could die, admittedly … but he could have died any time this creature had touched him, and each time Charles had lived … 

Charles lifted his own chin. The man wasn’t touching him now. Hadn’t laid a finger on him. 

Say it, his mind urged. Wipe that arrogance off his face

So Charles made his voice low, and gave it an edge of … honey. If honey can have an edge, and: make it drip – do it – 

“My question is: Do you still … want things from me?” 

Silence. 

One could not say, Charles thought, that the man had frozen where he stood. He had been immobile before. 

No. What happened was: his stillness took on a – different quality. Those grey-green eyes, fixed on Charles … and all that attention, again, ratcheting round him – the power tightening like a vise – 

Charles looked away first, fighting not to shudder. Let him think you’re afraid, his mind said, and: good job. Very strategic

The metal against his throat was growing warm. 

“Say that again.” 

Do it.

Charles looked straight back into those eyes, let his own go wide. “Do you still want. Things. From me? Because,” and he ran his tongue over his lower lip, and saw the man twitch. Ha. “Because … I’m offering them.” 

“What,” The man cleared his throat. Glowered. “What do you mean ... things?” 

“Things … like that kiss. You remember that kiss – don’t you?” 

Even if he hadn’t seen those eyes gleam - like cat's eyes in the dark - he really couldn’t have missed the want slamming into his mind like a door might into his face. Charles huffed out a breath, sucked in another. “Do you mind?” 

“Mind what?” the man rasped. 

“You – your thoughts – they’re rather, ah, intense.” 

And he realized his mistake as soon as the man went white.

No –” Charles gasped – “no, I didn’t mean – I didn’t look – I know only because you’re projecting them really god damned loudly –” 

But the man had bared his teeth and stepped close, pressed his hands on either side of Charles’ neck. The wrought iron writhed and Charles swallowed hard, fought not to scream. “Stop,” he said, instead, desperate, “stop it –” 

“Only because my lady has need of you, Professor,” the man whispered. His breath was hot, so close, and his eyes ... Grey green blue, different colors, Charles thought, and all of them quite mad. “You think to taunt me? You, who in your bravery would rather die than have me touch you again?” 

“No – I didn’t –” 

“Then let me tell you something, Xavier. My lady has informed me that you are of some use to her. And thus: you must be left alive for the entirety of this campaign. After, though …” and the man clenched one hand into a fist, and slammed it against the door next to Charles’ head, “after, I shall ask for you to be given to me. And then …” 

The man drew in a deep breath; exhaled – then leaned close and whispered into Charles’ ear. 

“Then … I shall take you to that place you saw tonight … and I shall take my time, killing you.” 

A pause. 

“And, since you will die there anyway, you will die with me having touched you again. Because I will, Professor – I’ll touch you, I’ll taste you ... I shall take whatever I want from you, there – before I kill you. And believe you me: at the close, you will be begging me – to end it all. To end you.” 

Charles mind considered. Strange: the words seemed to be more of a hot, wet slither than anything with information attached. Or perhaps it was because he was lagging, in putting together the meaning. Words mean things. He’d consider them, but he was trembling … 

“Now,” the man whispered. “Do you have any other questions for me?” 

Charles couldn’t find the words. 

“Well? Do you?” A snap of teeth next to his ear, not touching but - too close – Charles flinched. “Do you?” 

“No,” he croaked. “No – I don’t.” 

The man leaned back. There was no smirk, now. His eyes stared into Charles’, glinting – his face looked, if anything … hungry. 

“Good.” 

And then – Charles blinked, dazed. He had turned his back – turned and walked back to the table … casually. How could someone be casual, having said – what he just said? How could someone just as casually release the grip of the choking metal, and move it back to its table – the iron twisting and re-forming into a candelabrum in mid-air – and let that someone else thump back against the door and slide down, gasping … 

Without asking, “Are you all right?” or: what’s wrong? … or: did I hurt you? Without asking anything; without saying anything … just going back to sorting papers, matter-of-fact. Placing some carefully in a carrying case; placing the majority aside in neat stacks. 

The stacks were weighted down with metal. Random pieces. Huddled on the flagstones of the threshold, his back pressed against the oak door, Charles watched the metal float as the man worked. 

It was one thing, to have Sean preempt his plan, however nebulous, for escape. Confusion, misdirection … deception … 

It was quite another, to have the man anticipate him – in this. 

But he hadn’t, Charles’ mind offered, shivering. The man’s words hadn’t been any stratagem. They didn’t form a plan. They just seemed to be – from his point of view – facts. Fact: the man would go fight in … or – lead? … the battle in Dallas. Fact: if the EBS won, the man would come back, and – ask Frost? For permission? Permission, to drag him, Charles, to a prison in the woods, chain him up, beat him, break his limbs – and intersperse those tried-and-true favorites with … rape. 

“Just to spice things up a bit,” he told himself, woozily, and choked back an hysterical laugh, “oh god.” 

“Xavier.” A growl. “Be quiet.” 

Charles flinched. The man’s voice was hardly audible over the rustle of papers. But – oh, Charles hadn’t thought he had spoken aloud. Suddenly, he didn’t feel light-headed as much as purely miserable – he drew his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around them, trying not to cry – 

Oh for fuck’s sake, he snapped to himself – his mind offered an image – the stable – chainsand he cringed. Not that, no – he needed to try to plan – Charles shivered. He could speak inwardly. Pretend he was talking to his raven. 

Or … 

Taking a deep breath, Charles closed his eyes. 

When he opened them again, he was in his reading room. Its light welcomed him – sun streaming through the vast window to fall gold and amber on the books. It was beautiful and warm. Charles sat down in his golden chair with a sigh. His armor made no sound. At least, no sound louder than the susurrus of many wings … fluttering, flickering, as his birds came to perch on bookshelves around him. 

“Well. Good evening.” 

They all looked solemn. 

“I know.” Charles sighed. “That really didn’t go well at all, did it?” 

A rustle through the room. Some of the birds swiveled to look at the owl; it hooted and shoved its head under one wing. 

“Oh, it’s not due to any one – person? Hm. Individual. It wasn’t any individual’s idea. I daresay we all came up with it.” 

This time the birds turned to look at the nightingale – who was craning its head to gaze into a tiny mirror, tucked in the corner of one shelf. And trilling. Loudly. 

“Mm. Almost all of us. But … now what? Now what should I do?” Charles shivered, even in the room’s warmth. “Any ideas?” 

Silence fell. Except for the nightingale, he noted with a sigh. Bloody bird couldn’t seem to take a hint. “But you don’t give up, do you?” Charles mused. “And even thought you can’t do much else … your music is rather lovely.” 

The nightingale stretched its wings, opened its beak and sang, rising into the air and beginning to glide round the room. “All right,” Charles said, and: “All right, thank you. No encores necessary,” and: “You twit, why don’t you just –” 

His raven interrupted with a loud crahk

Charles blinked. 

The nightingale fell silent, landed on a table, and looked at the raven – at the imperious tilt of the bird’s jet-black head. Then it flew over to Charles’ left shoulder. 

“You’re saying,” he began, carefully, looking at his raven. “You’re saying that I should –I should …” 

With one gentle flutter of its wings, the nightingale began to sing again. 

“Oh.” Charles gulped. “The voice. Golden words … words … well. What’s the worse that could happen?” He thought for a moment. “I suppose he could cut out my tongue – oh, hush.” The nightingale had broken off with a chirp, and shoved its head against the hinge of his pauldron. “It’s all right,” he said, soothing. “Shhh …” 

For a long moment, he just sat in the chair, thoughts quiet. “Shh.” He kept his armored hands as gentle as possible on the nightingale’s soft feathers. “He won’t hurt you … I promise.” 

The words caught in his throat. “I promise,” and his voice cracked. “I promised them. So: come on.” Charles blinked hard, trying to keep the tears from falling – one did, but no matter. “Come along with me, good Sir Nightingale, and we shall see if your song does – what my strategy hasn’t. So far.” 

Charles squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them again, he saw how all of the birds had gathered close. They fluttered over his armor and settled on the chair. And from his right shoulder, Charles’ raven brushed its feathers against his face. 

He inclined his head to the raven; tried to smile. “Thank you.” 

Then Charles lifted his chin. “All right. When I open my eyes again, I’ll be back in that library. And –” he touched his nightingale’s head, “we’ll do what we can do.” 


“All right?” Charles murmured, opening his eyes. 

“Xavier …” A cold drawl, from across the room. 

“Oh.” He blinked. “Sorry.” 

A snarl – and Charles looked over at the table. The man had thrown a steel-plated pen down on the wooden tabletop; it clattered. He was glaring poisonously at Charles now. “Only a few moments, and I will be at leisure to remove you from this room – but in the meantime … why are you talking?” 

“Why?” He considered. The fear and the man’s earlier threats were a distant background throb – but one that had to be pushed aside, now, or he would be left shuddering on the flagstones. “I – I wanted to speak to you.” He shrugged. “For a moment.” 

Silence. When Charles looked again, he saw that the man’s eyes were wide and furious.

And – interesting – there was a shade of confusion on his face. One that quickly cleared, as he snatched at the pen, viciously, and held it up. Its sharp point glinted in the light. 

“Why shouldn’t I send this through your throat right now?” 

“Change of routine?” Charles shrugged again. “ Or: Frost needs me alive for the campaign. Either should suffice.” 

A long pause. 

“And have you forgotten already, Xavier? What I told you I have planned for you, at the end of that campaign?” 

He swallowed. “No.” 

“No … Then, if that does not suffice to keep you silent – what else might I do to you?” 

“Well,” and Charles straightened, dusting off his sweatpants. Quietly, carefully, he let the nightingale fly into the room. Fly, fly – he whispered to it. Directed it to the carved mantelpiece – and sing – but quietly … Don’t let him know you’re there …

The nightingale obeyed. 

“Well,” he continued. “Why would you wish me to be silent? Remind me.” He put his hands into his pockets, and – oh god oh god – walked a few steps closer. 

This snarl was different, edging into a hiss – and the man’s shoulders were wound tight as steel cables. “Professor. I wish you to be silent, because – I have a battle to begin. In less than twenty-four hours.” 

“Oh.” 

Charles considered him. At one point, the man had obviously shoved both hands through his own hair – it was disordered. The smell of sweat had lessened, somewhat; the room had only gotten colder with the first of the three windows open. All the papers had been cleared from the table. He must have put the loose stacks away in the desk; the carrying case was closed. There was – oh why hadn’t he seen it before? There was a bottle of Scotch on the table, and a tumbler beside it. Charles’ mouth watered. There was some in the glass – just a sip – and he really really wanted it – 

He pulled his eyes from the alcohol with a physical effort. Looked at the only paper left on the table. 

Oh

The man had been writing on the map of Dallas. 

It was with a sense of deep unreality that Charles saw – scratches, from this distance – his own markings on the map. Had it only been that afternoon, that he had written them? The heavy blue arrows, the numbers. His own strategy, given enthusiastic form and scribbled onto paper. His excitement with Logan. This. I love this … 

The unreality turned into a leaden lump in his throat. The man had his, Charles’, plan. Suddenly, part of him wanted it back. It was his idea, and now the other would use it – take the credit for it – steal it – 

“Will you be in Group Four?” Charles asked. It was the most glamorous one. The most exciting. He pictured it to himself; breaking into an abandoned airport, knocking down defenses and flying the prizes straight into the sky – 

He heard the man make a quiet sound of contempt. Startled, Charles focused back on him. His lips were pressed tight; the scar showed, prominent. 

“That’s right …” A flick of the pen at the map. “You came up with this. Didn’t you?” 

“Yes.” 

“Very clever of you, Professor. Very clever indeed. Not quite thorough enough; lacking some imagination. But –” 

“What?” Charles felt his back stiffen. “What do you mean? What part of it isn’t thorough? And a double feint - how is that not –” 

The man’s teeth were showing, very white, as he grinned. And – truly, Charles thought, faintly – those teeth weren’t pretty. There were too many of them. 

“Let’s say you’re in command, Xavier, and you’ve just captured almost all of your enemy’s aircraft. And then they’re called up by the enemy commander. What will you do?” 

“If I’ve taken the aircraft?” 

“Mm.” 

“I – I will – um. Hope I’ve managed to transport them all by that time. One of the mutants – Kitty, isn’t it? She had mentioned ‘phasing,’ this evening – is that –” 

The man exhaled, upper lip curling. “You’re not supposed to know these things, Professor.” 

Charles had made it to the table; he shrugged. “One can’t help but overhear. Especially if someone is being very loud.” Kitty had been loud, he remembered. Perhaps it had been her headache … 

The man had narrowed his eyes. “I say differently.” 

“Ah.” Charles looked at the table. Then – carefully – he flicked his thoughts to the mantelpiece. The nightingale was singing and … he felt his breath turn unsteady. The golden threads of its song were weaving through the room, glinting in the light … twisting through the want. The want, Charles noted, that was still there. Still everywhere. But … and he looked back at the man out of the corner of his eyes. He appeared to have found some measure of self-control. The orderly patterns were flashing across his thoughts – the silver-steel blueprint … 

Bully for you, Charles thought, irritated. Of all times to keep from falling into a cauldron of lust – it would have to be the one time someone was trying to seduce him. 

Although … Charles knew he wasn’t really trying. Not yet. 

He tipped his head at the chair across from the man. “May I sit?” 

The other’s jaw dropped – just briefly, and then he closed it with a snap. “No,” he snarled. “Go back –” a swat of his hand in the direction of the door, then a vicious: “Go back to your corner, Xavier. Sit down there. Sit.” 

“Like a good dog,” Charles drawled, and watched the man’s eyes flash. It would not do to goad him too much – but perhaps some more spirit would not go amiss. What had being polite gotten him, after all? Nothing but blood and tears. And a bit of come, yes, but the whole point of this practical exercise was to obtain that through other – 

Charles slammed the door on that thought and told his inner catalogue to shut the fuck up, please – less analysis, more mindless flirtation – go

“You don’t know me very well,” he told the man. “I’m rather more like a cat. Curious. And I wonder – let’s say you’re in command, at Dallas. You’ve just taken almost all of your enemy’s aircraft, et cetera. What will you do, that I haven’t done?” He let his lips twist into a smile. “That I haven’t – already considered? Go on –” and ha, the man’s eyes widened at his tone. “Surprise me.” 

Silence, for a long moment. 

Then – in a low voice: “You don’t think I can, do you? You don’t think I can surprise you. You consider yourself so very brilliant, Professor, that you believe none in this blighted world could think of anything you haven’t thought of already.” 

The man’s tone was bitter. Charles clenched his teeth. Checked the nightingale – the golden threads were being edged by the want – with its strong undercurrent of rage, oozing dark as an inkspill … 

He looked back at the man and widened his own eyes. Caught the other’s half-blink. 

“I don’t know.” He made his voice low – just the tiniest bit throaty – and … Charles took a deep breath. Risk it. Do it. He leaned against the table. Edged one leg up. And, with one flex of his quads – all that running paying off, lovely – hoisted himself up in turn, to sit. 

All, he was proud to note, with only his right hand having to leave its pocket. Although … he supposed he was lucky it was an immensely heavy table. Solid oak. His penguin would understand. Penguin would sympathize. And the adrenaline was making his mind gibber, so it would be best to let years’ worth of practice at flirting take over – 

“I suppose I have my foolish moments.” Charles let his left leg swing, idly. “Like anyone else.” 

The man made no reply. 

Charles flicked a glance at him – and, unexpectedly, his stomach lurched. 

For, suddenly, the man looked strangely … young. Eyes wide and staring. Lips slightly parted. His hair tufted in one place, where he hadn’t smoothed it – a flush just starting on his stark cheekbones … 

Charles deliberately took his left hand out of its pocket. Stretched, kept the movement elegant – look at my wrist – took a corner of the map and tugged, just enough to slide the paper along the tabletop a few inches. The man’s fingers weren’t pinning it; in fact, the steel pen came along for the ride. 

Go ahead. Charles then shifted all his weight to his right arm, leaned forward. At that angle, the man should have a lovely view of his neck; perhaps even down his open shirt collar. He flicked his eyes to check, and – there, now … Those lips had parted further; the breath had picked up speed. 

“Well …” Charles made his voice even lower. “Tell me. Here you are –” he shifted his weight again, reached out and took the pen with his right hand. The man did not even protest. Smirking to himself, Charles scratched to get the ink flowing, then slashed one black line for – presumably – the EBS army. “Here you are, the scourge from the east. 

“And …” he tapped the pen on the old airport where he had circled with blue pencil that afternoon. “Moving forward, oh, an hour or so, Group 4 has made it here – unseen, and now –” he moved the pen between two fingers and flicked his thumbnail against the nib, hard. Ink spattered. “Now the aircraft are yours, Commander. So. What do you do with them – that I haven’t considered?” 

No answer. 

Charles looked at him. Kept his voice dulcet. “… Commander? Hello?” 

The man blinked. Then shook his head, hard, nostrils flaring. “Stop that,” he gritted. 

“Stop what?” 

“You’re in my head.” Grey-green eyes were snapping with anger. “Stop. Get out.” 

“Oh –” Charles huffed out a breath. “I’m not. Whatever you’re thinking, you came up with it – all by yourself. And speaking of which: what’s this imaginative idea? Go ahead. Surprise me.”

The man hissed a breath through those teeth – all clenched together. “My idea, would-be Commander Xavier? This.” 

And he shoved Charles’ left forearm out of the way – Charles only just caught himself – snatched the pen, and drew a vicious black circle near the old airport. A much smaller circle than the blue one, though. 

Charles waited. Then raised an eyebrow. “And what’s that?” 

“That, Professor,” the man said softly, “is the extent of the area in which my lady, through the Finder, controls people’s minds.” 

Charles felt a chill skate up his spine. 

“She has refined it to the point of: three hundred swayed, one hundred controlled outright. With you to draw off –” those teeth were bared, “she assures me it can be … six hundred. Six hundred, bowing to her suggestions … but absolute, total control – with you assisting – of two hundred.” 

His own heartbeat was thumping in his ears. Charles shrugged. It was difficult. “So what?” 

“So …” A drawl. “The Free West’s aircraft total roughly three hundred and fifty Xavier. Spies have reported ten in plain sight at Love Field. The remainder, we know, are underground. Thirty-eight of those are in poor repair, leaving only about three hundred able to fly. And when Black group takes the old airport … and with my lady in the Finder …” 

“The pilots.” Charles shaped the words with an effort. “The Free West pilots.” 

“Exactly.” The man leaned forward; those eyes glowed green up at him. “I have only a few mutants to fly them – and not even the best. Kitty will be phasing as fast as she can. But we’ve recruited civilian pilots from Madison to Montgomery. Seventy-five. Azazel will teleport them in. They’ll fly seventy-five planes; my people will fly twenty-five more. The Free West pilots of those aircraft – we kill. And the rest …” 

A shark-like grin. “My lady will control the rest.” 

“… And?” Charles’ lips felt numb. 

“MacMurphy will call the aircraft, and we’ll answer by bombing every single anti-aircraft gun he possesses. And perhaps some of the other defenses. Or the rearguard of his forces, on the road to Glen Rose.” A quirk of one eyebrow. “I have not yet decided.” 

Charles stared into the man’s eyes. This close, he could see flecks of blue in the green and grey … 

“Well, Professor?” Another grin. “Have I surprised you?” 

“Hm.” Charles pursed his lips; saw the man’s glance flick down to them; then back up. That’s right – I’m supposed to be seducing him – those pilots oh god “If I might offer a suggestion or two?” 

Green eyes narrowed; the grin had gone. “… If you must.” 

“Be careful, is all.” Casually, Charles reached out – curled his fingers around the pen and tugged. The man let it go – and Charles heard his throat click as their fingers brushed; yes – there now … He braced his left hand on the table, flat; pulled himself forward to hover over the map, as smoothly as he could. 

And if that movement brought his throat close enough to feel the man’s breath, hot on cool skin – well, who was Charles to object? 

“First … ” he murmured, and looked down into the man’s eyes. Those pupils – godit’s working it’s working 

“You see – with the Finder’s influence running only to this extent,” he tapped the pen on the map, “a good two hundred of your aircraft will be confined to a very small area. So if the Free West lands an antiaircraft shot or two, or ten, you are almost certain to lose more than one plane per round.” 

A pause. 

Then: “Oh.” 

The man’s voice sounded like gravel. 

Charles smiled to himself, then continued. “Secondly … you might consider what will happen to Groups 2 and 3.” He skated the pen down from Fort Worth, gave the man’s hand, blocking the pen’s path, one quirk of an eyebrow – then switched hands and reached over the other’s forearm to circle Glen Rose. “Admittedly, the Free West will be thrown into disarray by the volte face of their air force – but.” And Charles gave the man a serious look. 

It was wasted, he noted, amused. The other was staring at the pen, where Charles held it in his left hand. 

He cleared his throat. The man’s eyes jerked up to him. “But,” and Charles quirked a smile at him, “I’m sure I needn’t tell you: never underestimate the ability of a good fighting force to rally. MacMurphy might decide to cut his losses with the aircraft and throw everything into pursuing 2 and 3, and finishing them. I also assume the nuclear power plant is defended. 2 and 3 could be caught between Free West forces ... surrounded … so: be careful. 

“And third: Group 1 is going to get absolutely pulverized, on Love Field.” He raised one eyebrow. “So don’t put anyone you like in it.” 

The man was silent. 

“Here,” Charles said, gently. “I’ll just write you a reminder.” 

And he did, the steel nib scratching loud in the silence. The breeze from the window was freezing cold – a good thing, Charles thought, since he felt so god damned overheated. He worked to control his breathing – spared a flicker of thought for his nightingale – 

– and almost choked. The entire room was filled with gold threads of birdsong; thick as syrup and clinging to everything in sight. Perhaps, he thought quickly – perhaps that’s enough for now.

The nightingale chirped, and stopped. But, Charles told it: do start up again, if – ah. If you see the need. If you feel the situation is getting intolerable …

It warbled in agreement. He switched his thoughts back to the map. Finished the note with a flourish – and a deliberate smear over the wet ink – and signed it. C. X. 

The man was still staring. Charles tipped his head slightly, to try and meet his eyes. “Is something wrong?” 

“How …” His voice was rough. “You wrote with that – with that one, too.” 

“Ah.” Charles capped the pen, held it out to him. “I’m ambidextrous.” 

The man blinked slowly. “Oh.” 

“It’s really quite convenient.” He let his smile widen – look at my lips, come on. That’s it … “Except, of course, for the ink. With the left hand,” he explained. “It can smear.” 

And Charles brought his hand up to his mouth and deliberately tongued at the ink stain. 

A strangled sound – and Charles knew what it meant. He had heard it, after all, before. A catch in the throat like that – and eyes staring from across a table, a chair, a bed ... eyes gone that wide? 

It meant that all of the blood south of the man’s sternum had gone straight to his cock. 

Might as well ensure it. “Ah, curse.” Charles spat into his other hand, scrubbed at the ink stain. “I do so hate when that happens.” 

“When … what happens?” 

“Ink stains.” Charles widened his eyes innocently. “But it should be all right. Just as long as it didn’t get on my cuff. It didn’t –” and he held his left hand out, angled down as though he were asking for it to be kissed at a ball … wrist hovering just in front of the man’s chin. “Did it?” 

“I –” 

“Would you mind?” He tipped his head to one side. “Looking?” 

The man looked dazed. Then, with a visible effort, he focused on Charles’s cuff. “It …” His throat moved as he swallowed. “It looks – fine.” 

“Are you sure?” Charles purred. Slowly, he raised his hand – so that his fingers were poised to cup the man’s chin. Do it. But, his mind added – and if a mind could be breathless, his would be – do it slowly … time it carefully … gently 

He tipped his hand closer – just slightly … but: there … 

That stubble scratched. Charles had known that it would, but it seemed so oddly mundane that part of him wanted to laugh. And that part won out. More of a breath than a laugh … certainly not a snicker … for he was stroking the man’s jaw line with his own fingertips, and the other stared at him with half-lidded eyes, tipped his face into Charles’ palm and … rubbed just slightly. Like a cat. 

“Oh …” Charles breathed. “Well. What’s this, then?” 

“I …” The other voice was hoarse. “I don’t –” The man looked almost drugged – but closed his eyes when Charles stroked across his lower lip with a thumb. “Oh … wait.” 

“… Why?” 

For the blood was starting to sing in his veins, a thrum that said: it’s been too long – too longand: reel him in. You know you can. Do it. Do it – 

“Why wait?” Charles made his voice throaty. “What if I said I wanted you to kiss me? Right here?” He ran his tongue across his lower lip, watched the man’s eyes almost cross. “Right now?” 

“… But … you don’t.” 

The poor thing sounded confused. Charles let his own desire curl his mouth into a smirk. “Oh yes I do …” 

“No,” the man croaked. “No, you – don’t – Wait.” He flinched back, away from Charles’ touch. “Stop.” 

“But –”

“Stop!” A screech of the chair on wood; the man stumbled to his feet and stared at Charles, eyes wide. “You – you –” 

Then he sucked in a breath; hissed it out through clenched teeth. “You were in my head!” 

“No I wasn't,” Charles snapped, frustration coiling tight in his body. He could spring, perhaps, from here – get one foot on the floor, use the table as leverage. What had gone wrong? Irritably, he reached out for his nightingale – 

And froze. 

It was gone. 

The nightingale was gone – but where? his mind shrilled, and: oh. Golden tendrils looped and wafted out the window – the open window. Oh god oh shite. Had the bloody thing had gotten bored and gone out to sing to the moon?! 

Singing … He looked around the room – before his blood went cold. There was hardly any of the nightingale’s music left in the library; none of that seductive power … Only the red-black throb of want … and rage

He darted a glance back at the man. He wasn’t expecting him to look so furious: but ... those green eyes had gone wide: wild and dangerous. “I wasn’t,” Charles started. “I wasn’t in your head. You want this. You want me – that’s what you’re feeli –” 

No, he wasn’t expecting the anger, or  … the fear that he saw in those eyes. 

And Charles definitely wasn’t expecting the man to backhand him across the face. 

Not following the realizations: he’s angry, and oh god he’s afraid and following on their heels. So to speak, his mind added, but it couldn’t speak, because it hurt – 


“Oh god.”

After the ringing in his right ear had stopped, and the ceiling had solidified from a blur into plaster moldings, Charles eased himself up on one elbow. He moved his limbs experimentally. Unbroken, excellent; still unchained, good; still in the library, hm; and now staring at the carpet. 

“Why did you …” he began. 

“Shut. Up. Xavier.” 

Charles closed his mouth. The right side of his jaw hurt. If it had been the left, the space where his penultimate molar used to be might have been sore … but as it was, only the right was injured. And his dignity – but that didn’t matter anymore, did it? 

Nothing really mattered. That had to have been why he dismissed thoughts of the nightingale, of its magic, and of all of his other birds. Except – perhaps – Raven’s courage. 

With that last, Charles pushed himself to his feet and took two staggering steps, until he was right in the man’s personal space, where he had stepped back against the second of the three windows. 

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

Up close, the man looked astounded for a split second – then bared his teeth at Charles and leaned forward, threatening – but Charles did not budge, and hissed: 

“You - I cannot believe you! Here I have been trying to be polite, trying to engage you in a civilized conversation, and you conclude that I’ve been snooping inside your head? And swat me like a bug? What the bloody fuck is your problem?” 

“If you want a bloody fuck, Professor, then all you have to do is keep talking.” 

Charles’ mind flashed instantly to an excessively ghoulish image; he shuddered, shoved it aside, kept going: 

“You punch and choke; you take those weaker than yourself and torture them – you torture children,” he had to take a breath; did so; firmed his voice again when it had wavered, “Children. Do you have any idea, how disgusting that is? How … uncivilized? To break children’s bones, to use children in a war –” 

“And that is why I brought you here, surely.” The man’s eyes glittered, furious and dangerous. “To consult on etiquette –” 

“Civilization,” Charles snapped, “is not. Etiquette. It’s something – it’s perhaps mankind’s most noble idea. The idea that certain dog-eat-dog behaviors can be set aside, that torture and pain and death are not the be-alls and end-alls of humanity –” 

“The ideas that you put forth, in other words.” The man’s voice had turned icy. “This sounds so familiar, Xavier. ‘Civilized’ is what you say it is; ‘savage’ is what disagrees with you. Thus – thus eugenics, ja? Thus Britain’s precious empire – now tell me …”

And this time the man was the one to touch - taking Charles in hand, fingers clamped in an iron grip on his jaw. He shook, lightly. For one humiliating second, Charles’ mind gave him the picture: himself, as a pet, being chastised – but the man had murmured: 

“Tell me. How has your precious civilization benefited you recently? Perhaps your own queen’s treaty with us? In which she has signed away all mutants in her country – any my lady should pick … signed them away like cattle ... Merely because they are – not human, you see. Not worthy of the protection of your queen’s governance, of that most beauteous gift of civilization."

The man paused. When he continued, his voice was even lower, and his eyes were glittering. "Tell me: were you involved? In the studies, at Oxford, at Cambridge – that determined just how not human we mutants are? Before that treaty was signed?” 

Charles felt sick with shame, but: “No.” He jerked his head, trying to escape the man’s grip – the other held on, relentless. “No. I was too young. I was too busy, raising my – students,” he caught himself, “and teaching. Besides, I - I wasn’t on the committee.” 

The word clunked into the room; immeasurably petty and stupid. Charles heard its sound, and he blinked back a stinging in his eyes – especially when the man began to laugh, cruel. 

Committee. A committee on humanity ... perfection. But then again, who am I to hold it in contempt?” The grip on his jaw flexed down to his throat; Charles drew in a jagged breath and closed his eyes. “After all … it brought me you. Didn’t it?” 

“Yes.” Charles infused all the bitterness he could into his voice; even so, he felt the man’s hand twitch. “Brought here, where I can only sit back and watch, as you torture children.” 

“Why this worry about the children?” The man’s voice dropped into a whisper. “When you should worry, very much, about yourself, hm?” 

The hand at his neck moved round to the back of it; clamped like a weight. And – Charles’ breath caught in his throat, and he bit back an undignified whimper of fright as the man slid his free hand down … slowly … and – oh god – set it like another weight. In the small of Charles’ back. 

And forced him to step forward. 

So close – Charles gritted his teeth. So close, here really was no way to miss the man’s quickening breath. That or – or the way he was rather ridiculously aroused, and pressing against Charles, and … shite, the sensation made Charles both shudder and … somehow, crazily, fight not to snicker. Because if the man had been sporting this hard-on through their entire argument? Charles would have to re-evaluate his opinion of the other’s self-control, intelligence, et cetera – 

“And what’s so funny now?” 

That voice rasped across his nerve endings. What the hell. Charles gave in, bared his own teeth in a smile, and twisted closer himself. Set his hands at the man’s waist. He couldn’t miss the gasp – ha– and he felt the other’s pulse jolt as he placed his own mouth against that thin line of throat – 

Thin. Charles flexed his fingers. For all his strength, the man was really quite surprisingly … thin. Like a wire. “Wiry,” he mumbled against skin, and heard – felt – the other swallow hard. 

What.” 

“Nothing,” Charles murmured. He breathed out; felt the man twitch. “Just thinking.”

“Just like I’m thinking,” and the man loosened the grip on Charles’ neck – only to sling the same arm there, instead – catch Charles in the crook of his elbow and press him forward into his own throat. “What I want to do with you, when this battle is over." A sigh; Charles felt it buzz against his face. 

“Thank you for the thought. You’ve told me of it already” – but the man ignored him and whispered: 

“Civilization. Britain. Oxford and your queen. I will have to see … if I can make you weep for all of them. Hmmm?” He rocked his hips forward, and Charles had to gulp back a rush of saliva. 

“Indeed?” He spoke into the man’s jugular; that pulse was racing. “If it’s additional philosophical discussions, perhaps I should look forward to it.” 

A moment of silence, but then: 

“Oh, Professor,” the man breathed. “You think you’ll be able to speak? How quaint. How …civilized. You honestly think that I won’t have you blinded and gagged?” 

“Blindfolded and gagged, or blinded and with my tongue cut out. Be consistent.” 

“No …” 

That voice was low. Almost a ... purr. 

“No … You’ll keep your tongue.” 

When his mind caught up with the innuendo, Charles’ gut twisted. But: “Somebody’s actually gone and read a book, I see,” he said, vicious, and scraped his teeth along that neck. The man twitched. “Since we last discussed tongues.” 

A growl; Charles ignored it and brushed his lips up to that line of jaw. It was difficult. The crook of the man’s arm at the back of Charles’ neck meant that he had to nudge his face past those long fingers, splayed out near his cheekbone, in order to move at all. Whispered: “Did it have sufficient illustrations? Perhaps a diagram or two?” 

A pause. Then: “Do you want me to start now, Xavier? Do you have that much of a death wish?"

“Well …” The man’s stubble was rough against his mouth. “My death wish? It comes and goes.” 

Charles tried a flick of his tongue. In another life, he might have grinned at the man’s gasp. Here, though … all he felt was the fear that was threatening to break free the instant he lost control of himself. 

But for the moment, he had control. He did not need any help from any person – or bird – except perhaps his raven’s courage. Raven, his mind whispered, and he slid his mouth to the man’s and angled it in a kiss – 

Except the man snarled into his face: “Try it and I’ll have a few more of your teeth, Xavier –” 

“Now,” Charles interrupted, “that. Why even say that? Why threaten with violence, when …” he brushed his lips against that thin mouth, “when I’m offering this to you? Hm?” 

Their hips were still flush; Charles could feel every minute movement there. His words were having some effect. Very good, his mind concluded, cold; and he continued: 

“Whatever you’re thinking. Whatever you want to do with me – with me, not to me. Just to be very clear: I’m not talking about torture. I’m talking about sex. Whatever you want … I assure you, I’ve done it already. And I’ll do it with you.” 

He tongued at the corner of the man’s mouth. “I’m … offering. Just think. You wouldn’t have to ask your lady for permission to do anything; you wouldn’t be left alone,” he rocked his hips against the man, “and cold after you’ve finished killing me. How long would I last, hm? A week? Two? Tell me. Surely you’ve thought about it.” 

A pause. He felt the man swallow. 

Then: “I –” The man’s voice rasped in his throat. “I don’t know.” 

“Liar. You’ve calculated how long you could keep me alive, I’m sure. But let me tell you something about myself.” Charles let his head drop; rested his brow on the man’s chin. He could feel puffs of hot breath in his hair. “I know that ... personally? I would prefer a living body in a bed to a dead one hanging from a hook somewhere. And I know …” 

He closed his eyes. “I know that I don’t want to die.” 

“But how –” 

The man’s arm was a warm weight around his neck, one large palm was splayed over the small of his back. And that voice sounded ... uncertain, suddenly. Charles let his eyes flicker back open. All of his instincts flared. 

“But you said you’d rather die. Than have me –” the click of another swallow. “You said you’d rather die than have me – touch you again.” 

The penny dropped. 

“Oh my god, Xavier, brilliant,” Charles muttered to himself, disgusted. Then he leaned his head back. Said: “That’s what this is about. You honestly think that torturing me to death is the only way you’ll get to have sex with me – that’s it, isn’t it?” 

“I ...” The man sounded dazed. “What?”

“Oh, you fool,” and Charles gave the man’s waist a hard squeeze with his fingers. “You absolute idiot.” 

A pause. Charles felt a growl building. Rumbling into: “Professor –” 

“Sorry,” he said blithely, leaning back against the crook of that arm; giving the man a quirk of a smile. “But you do know that I was bluffing. Don’t you?”

“… What?” 

Reduced to monosyllables again; excellent, his mind whispered. He nudged his cheekbone against the man’s biceps. “Move this arm, please. Away. I need a bit of room.” 

Slowly, staring, the man obeyed. The stare went wider when Charles made a pleased noise, moved his own hands away from that waist – and draped both arms over the man’s shoulders. He interlaced his fingers, gave the other a coy look. “I was bluffing.” 

It looked as though it was beginning to sink in. Those eyes were wide, very green. “About?” 

“About death. ‘I’d rather die that let you touch me again!’” He imitated his own voice and rolled his eyes up; then flicked them back down and grinned. “Very well done, don’t you think? And you believed me. Which – to be fair – makes sense, because you really don’t know me very well.” 

The man looked concussed. “You were lying?” 

“Yes,” Charles drawled. “That’s what bluffing is, you know. Or – feinting.” He indicated the table with a tip of his head. “You understand it very well on a battlefield – it’s the exact same thing. Come on.” 

And Charles backed away, exhaling shakily despite himself, at the library’s cool air on the front of his sweatpants. It wasn’t as though he had come or anything – and, bless, the man hadn’t either – yet, his mind whispered – so it wasn’t as though things were damp, precisely – but the contrast of the room’s chill with the heat of their bodies pressed together was still striking. 

The other thought so too, surely, because he made a protesting sound in the back of his throat – and another, as Charles slipped his arms free. “It’s all right – come on, then,” he coaxed. “Come on.” A hand on the man’s back – lightly, resting lightlybe careful, his mind whispered – was enough to steer him to the chair. Charles pushed gently at one shoulder; the man sat. 

Charles gave him a minute, then hoisted himself back on the table. 

“What are you … What,” the man started – and … would he even remember any bargain made, fogged to this extent? His eyes were still dazed, and frankly, in his state, Charles was surprised he had even managed the short distance back to table and chair. 

“I thought I’d speak to you again here. We were having such a civilized discussion, after all,” Charles said brightly. Before he hit you so hard that you fell to the floor, his mind observed, coldly; Charles shivered, and shoved the thought – and the pain still throbbing in his jaw – aside. Focus on this. You can do it. Half an hour more – and, and perhaps some … things. And you’ll have what you want

“And that’s what civilized people do. They negotiate – when they both want something.” 

“Really.” 

“Yes. I want something. And here it is: I want you to promise me that you will not torture those children; not now, not in future. And you want something from me … Don’t you?” 

Silence. 

“And to arrive at a reasonable bargain – we negotiate.” 

Perhaps sitting down helped, Charles thought. The man looked more coherent now. Those eyes glinted at him; the daze was gone. “I tend not to negotiate, Xavier.” 

“Hmm, yes; I didn’t think you’d be the type – but.” Charles leaned back on the palms of his hands. “There’s a first time for everything. And it might be amusing to you, to try this – civilized a practice. The only thing that could make it more so would be to add the ultimate social lubricant –” 

And the innuendo flew past the other; no surprise there. Charles gave a mental shrug, and continued: 

“Alcohol. Which is to say – what say you we discuss this over a drink, like civilized people?” The Scotch was right there on the table beside him, after all. Charles could almost feel it, holding out its little amber hands. Waiting to be picked up. 

The man looked at him for a long moment – then a smile quirked up one side of his mouth. Charles couldn’t help it; he shivered. 

“Professor Xavier,” and the voice was a low murmur. It caught on each of Charles’s nerves and sent his skin prickling. “Don’t tell me that this was all a ploy to get a drink.” 

“And – what if it was?” 

The man, listening, let his smile widen; those teeth – god– Charles pushed past the visceral twist of fear and made his own smile wry. “It’s one of the things I miss the most. About Oxford, I mean: I did enjoy … being with friends. Drinking with friends, and talking about – things.” 

“We’re not friends, Xavier.” The voice was pleasant.

“Well, no, but we have been talking about things. Tactics, torture; sex and politics. We could try sports, perhaps; religion. Cooking. Men’s fashion. Or we could just have a drink and –” 

“I’m rather detecting a theme in your blather.” 

“Really, I can’t help the beauty of my own voice –” 

“Professor,” the man interrupted. “Having a drink is civilized, is it?” 

Charles snapped to attention. “Yes,” he said, fervently. “Yes, it is.” 

“Mm. Then perhaps I should try it.” 

And the man reached for the Scotch and the tumbler; poured himself perhaps three fingers’ worth – there was still some there, from before, Charles noted, and: oh god he could smell it – 

Then the man took a long sip, watching Charles. Charles blinked at him. He really didn’t know how to savor the stuff, he – 

“Well, that’s a drink. And I don’t feel any different.” 

“It’s not the actual alcohol involved – it’s the ritual. The – social aspect of it, perhaps. Involved in negotiation.” Charles’ fingers itched. “Here, let me have that glass and I’ll –” 

“Ah.” The man raised a finger. “This glass is mine.” 

Charles stared, mute. His face must have looked pleading, because the man’s mouth twitched. “The ritual of sharing alcohol is your epitome of civilization, then? As concerns negotiation?” 

“Yes.” He licked his lips. It was cruel, the way the man’s fingers rested on the tumbler, tapping. 

“Well. Then let me try a civilized gesture.” A narrow smile. “For you, Xavier.” 

Then he held the bottle out with his left hand – Charles stared – and deliberately moved it, and poured – oh

Pathetic, really, but Charles had to swallow hard. The waste of it, and the taunt … pouring alcohol on the floor when he wanted it so. Deliberately mocking him. He felt his shoulders hunch, just slightly. 

But he wouldn’t show that he was upset. Instead, he shrugged. “You know, there’s a special ring of Hell for people who waste good Scotch.” 

The man set the bottle back on the table with a clack. “Oh, I think I’m assured a suite in Hell by now, Professor. And for rather different reasons. But …” And his voice was affable. “Why do you call it a waste?” 

And he inclined his head towards the floor.

Charles blinked. 

The voice was still pleasant. “Go on, then.” 

“I …” Charles swallowed. “I don’t – follow?” 

“And you seemed so perceptive.” A smile. “Xavier – try on this civilized ritual, why don’t you? Walk over here, kneel down, and lick – up – every last drop of that alcohol. From the floor.” 

The smile widened. “And while you do that? We can – negotiate.” 

Charles knew that the thunder in his ears had to be from shock. He knew he had options: storm out, sneer, roll his eyes – 

call his bluff – 

That smile – a smirk, really … The man thought Charles would yield. He thought he would give up and back down and – oh fuck yes I will call your bluff, you arse. Just watch

“Hm.” Charles slid off the table and grinned. “You truly do not know me – not at all. For you understand,” and as he walked around the table, tapping his fingers on the wood, he watched the man out of the corner of his eye, “you must understand that – to my Oxford friends and companions, the first rule of dealing with one Charles Xavier is: never, ever underestimate what he will do for alcohol.” 

He reached the spot, looked down at the floor. Then at the man, whose eyes were wide with shock. You weren’t expecting me to do this – well. Just watch. Gracefully, he sank to one knee. Then added the other. 

Then he frowned. “You know? Although stone is worse, wooden floors still are not that easy on the knees. May I lie flat?” 

The man jaw dropped, just slightly – and then he snapped it shut. Blinked. And rasped: “Do what you like.” 

“Right.” And Charles smiled up at him, and lay down on his stomach. “Here I go then. Oh come to me, you nectar of the gods,” and it really was not difficult at all. The smell of the alcohol was lovely, and its taste was even lovelier, and the floorboards were clean. That must have been why the man had changed his shoes, Charles thought. He hadn’t wanted to scuff the floors. How civilized.

And on that civilized note, Charles took care to make his licks of the Scotch sound as loud and as filthy as he possibly could.

There were worse ways to get a drink ... especially one as lovely as this. Scotch, with a fine, woodsy aftertaste. Charles gave the floor a long, wet swipe of his tongue and, carefully - since he was curious, he might as well admit – he stretched out a tendril of thought. No sign of the nightingale. No other bird in sight. But then he reached for the man’s mind … 

Really, the fog of want in the room should have a hint. No more rage, no … or, at least, not as much of it. But in his mind … that want had reached the force of a wildfire or a gale. Given the season, perhaps ‘blizzard’ – but no, Charles thought. That wouldn’t be hot enough. 

He tongued at one of the cracks between floorboards, sucking, and heard a strangled sound from above. Charles pulled up his head, licked alcohol off his lower lip, and looked inquiringly at the man. “Negotiations?” 

The man didn’t say a word. He only stared. 

Charles smiled. “I’ll start, shall I? I’ll set out what I want first, and then – continue here,” he tipped his head at the floor, “while you reply. So.” 

He propped his chin on his hands – knowing that his eyes were wide and blue. “You’ve already locked up Alex and Sean for their egregious misdeeds. You’ve seriously injured Alex, and I don’t know what you’ve done to Sean. I want you to promise – not to harm them any further. No beatings, no torture, no nothing. Call what you’ve done enough for this misstep, and do not do anything more. Clear?” 

The man stared at him. “Yes.” 

That voice … Charles trailed his fingertips through the remaining alcohol; fought to keep them from trembling. “So. Now you say what you want. Go ahead.” 

“I want –” 

He waited. “… Yes?” 

The man dragged in a breath, exhaled in a rush. "You."

"What about me?"

“I want you – I want to –” 

Charles folded his arms under his chest. So much for not trembling. “You want to fuck me? Is that it?” 

Wordless, the man nodded. 

“Right. Fine. You can have what you want – just the once – and Alex and Sean go on their merry way.” 

He slanted the man a look, then went back to the puddle of alcohol. 

The man just sat there and breathed, rasping, for a long moment. Then, however, Charles heard: “But they have to go to the front.” 

And: “No.” Charles jerked his head back up. “Children in a war – it’s not safe, it’s barbaric – it’s –” 

“Uncivilized?” The man’s smile was grim, controlled – even though his voice was hoarse. “Un –” 

Or perhaps not so controlled. He had to grind the heels of both hands into his eyes, take deep breaths in and out, and stare into space – away from Charles – before he could continue. It took quite some time. Perhaps he had counted – up to fifty in English, auf Deutsch, Charles thought snidely – po russkiy – 

He frowned. Why had he thought that? But the man was speaking, and he said: 

“To you in Britain? Consider, Xavier: I have children in my army who can kill soldiers from twenty, thirty, fifty feet away. I have children who can electrocute, drown, incinerate, and even flay their enemies. Weapons, each and every one.” 

The man looked back at him, intent. “And you argue that I should let them play games on the grass at home? Just to be civilized?” 

“I – I –” 

It was deeply unpleasant, Charles thought, to be the wordless one. To have someone else watching him stammer, watching with the glittering eyes of a hawk. And really, he had just agreed to fuck him for the children’s safety – it wasn’t fair to turn and redeploy them at the drop of a hat. But what more could Charles do? How could he convey it? when, at the moment – starving and exhausted and buzzing from adrenaline and alcohol – he could not even articulate his thoughts to himself? 

He only knew that it was wrong. Deeply, unquestionably wrong. Sean’s pain, Jean’s clouded eyes … all the children, grim-faced and old beyond their years … sitting together in the kitchen the first morning he had met them. Huddled in a group, wincing from Frost’s icy touch on their minds … And this man was using them in a war, one that would warp their minds beyond anything he could do – 

Without thinking, Charles groped, blindly. He found the man’s left shoe, and grabbed at it. “Please,” he said. 

“‘Please’ what?” 

“They’re children – please. Just – just because they can kill, doesn’t mean they should. They’ll grow up …” Wrong, his mind said, but: “They’ll grow up not knowing anything else.” 

The man was silent for a long moment. Then he said, quietly. “Be that as it may – I cannot win this war without them, Xavier.” 

A pause. “That’s the way it is.” 

“It doesn’t have to be –” 

“Yes.” The voice was flat. “It does. Your kingdom of Britain has peace in its time – bought, I might add, with your person, and with those of others like you. There is peace there. I understand that they even have food in the winter.” 

There was a thread of something in his voice – was it wistful? No, Charles decided. Impossible. 

“But here … here there’s still fighting, and while there’s fighting, anyone capable will be at the front lines. Fighting, to keep the rest from dying.” 

Charles rested his brow against the shoe, felt his cheek against the cool floorboards. “And will we die, if we don’t fight?” 

“Absolutely.” The voice was grim. “Here’s something for you: when I return, you may read through the records.” 

Charles’ interest prickled. Reading, and: “Records?” 

“Of - camps we’ve liberated; people we’ve rescued –” 

“Liberated,” he echoed, bitter. “Rescued. In this glorious war of yours.” 

The man was silent.

“I'll give them to you to read, Xavier. And –” a faint sound that might have been a laugh. On any other night, in any other place, from any other person. “I won’t even demand anything for your doing so.” 

Charles closed his eyes. Suddenly, he felt so tired … But – what more could he do? What more could the man want? He had already agreed – his mind caught up. Oh god you agreed to fuck him. Of course – but hearing it echoed in his mind was – terrifying … 

Just the once, though, he reassured himself – and … 

wait. 

He swallowed. 

“What if,” he began. Then paused. He decided to roll on his back; look up ... but when he did, Charles shivered. His shoulder blades were flat against the floorboards, and he could feel the remnants of the alcohol dampen his shirt. Looking up, he saw where the man had rested his elbows on his knees, and was gazing down at him. 

Those eyes moved down from his face to his neck and chest … and stopped on his abdomen. A lower lip caught between teeth. That was unexpected. Charles glanced down. His shirt had ridden up just slightly – he could only just see a flash of pale skin. Who cares? Charles folded his hands and placed them right where the man was staring. 

Those eyes flicked away, back to his face. And then the other raised an eyebrow. Inquiring. 

Charles spoke carefully. “What if I asked you … not to keep them from battles; no. But – to protect them? To make sure they don’t get – hurt. To give them people to talk to; to counsel them. And what –” he finished in a rush, “ – what if I asked you not to make them do anything too.” He bit his own lower lip. “Too brutal?” 

A long pause. When he spoke, the man’s voice was quietly cutting. “Do you honestly think that I have time to coddle children in the middle of a war?” 

Charles clenched his jaw. “You could delegate it. Logan could do it – he’s good with children. Marie. There have to be others like them – others who care enough to – they could. They could all take turns.” 

A pause. But then the pause stretched. And Charles, darting a look up, saw the man’s face … closed off. Considering. Thinking – oh god it could work – be careful be careful– 

Charles hardly dared breathe. 

“There’d be no guarantee,” the man said, softly. “There’d be some risk.” 

“A compromise, then,” Charles replied. “Protect the children to the best of your ability, and I will accept an element of risk. As long – as long as that number includes Ororo, Bobby and John. And Sean, and Alex, and Angel. And Hank, here - you can't harm Hank -” 

“Anyone else?” The man’s voice was waspish. 

Charles' mind raced, and then stopped with a flash. His penguin, standing guard in front of a door ... The memory, the image made his throat ache, terribly.

“... Jean," he whispered. “Protect Jean.” 

A long silence. Then: “Jean Grey belongs to my lady.” 

What? But he couldn’t think about it now – Charles tabled the mystery for later, then sat up and turned, staring directly into the man’s eyes. “The others, though. Will you protect them?” 

“If I do, Xavier … If I agree to do as you ask …” Those green eyes were cool, half-lidded. “What will you do in return?” 

“Well.” 

Charles swallowed, tried to cough. His throat was dry. “Could I have some more, please?” he asked, pointing at the Scotch. 

Instantly, the man tipped some into the tumbler, held it out to him. But it wasn’t the alcohol that gave him a rush of courage, no, Charles thought. It was the slightest tremble in the other’s hands – one he hadn’t been able to hide. 

Charles did not even think of trying to gauge the want in the room. Surely he had the general idea. 

“What will I give you?” He drained the glass, then held it out. And when the other reached to take it, Charles snaked a hand around his strong wrist. “Anything.” 

The man stared. 

“Anything,” Charles repeated, in a whisper. “When you return. Whatever you want. Whatever you want … us … to do together. Whatever you’ve thought of, whatever you’ve ever dreamed of … We can do.” 

And at the wide, disbelieving stare of those green eyes, Charles felt a surge of triumph. He bit down on it, controlled it – only smiled, sleekly, and asked: “Might I have another drink?” 

Nostrils flared. The bottle scraped across the table. Then, eyes glittering down at Charles, the man held it out – 

– and poured a few fingers’ worth of Scotch over his left shoe. 

Charles’ feeling of triumph evaporated. No surprise there, his mind said, and, just: … oh.           

Because, no matter what he told himself, it was another level of significance – to lick someone’s shoe clean, rather than just the floorboards – 

“Go on.” 

Perhaps closing his eyes would help. Soft darkness, red-black. But that voice was in the darkness, too – just as soft: “Really, Xavier … if you can’t lick there, however will you cope with –” 

The voice fumbled. Charles cracked his eyes open. The man looked furious with himself, and flushed across his cheekbones, but ground out: “However will you cope with other things?” 

“It can be … vexing. Can’t it?” Charles said, gently. Curled his lips around the words: “When one finds one’s tongue is tied.” 

He paused, watching the man glower. Then he smiled, and laid a deliberate hand on a bony knee. Raised an eyebrow at the other's start, even though the man quickly controlled it. 

“Have you thought about this, much?” Slowly, Charles eased himself back to the floor – flat on his stomach, heart hammering in his chest, but: show him. Show him what he’s getting into, the bastard. Render him speechless, reduce him to a puddle, scrape him back together and make him do what you want  

“Have you thought about – wanting this? Wanting me down in front of you, getting ready to lick …” He lowered his voice. “Your shoe?” 

The man’s eyes were wide and staring. Charles waited for a reply. When none came – no surprise there – he gripped the man’s leg through his trousers, squeezed at muscle strung tight, moved the same hand down to his ankle. 

Then Charles took in a deep breath. You can do this. Bent his head, touched his tongue to the shoe; tasted leather and alcohol. Paused for a moment, looked up … 

And as soon as he was certain he had the man’s complete attention, he began.

One flick over the leather, then another; a longer lick, then a long and slow slide of the flat of his tongue … Charles heard the man’s breathing stutter to a halt, and he smirked to himself.

But he kept his voice cool, “Now …” and punctuated his murmurs with licks. “You’ve put me into a rather awkward position. Figuratively. You see: it’s so difficult to convey my thoughts in a polite manner - and using mere words, to boot.” So to speak, his mind squeaked, watching in horror, but Charles soldiered on.

“You told me to do this … but why, I wonder?” He swirled his tongue over the toecap - leaned back and, in a detached way, considered the way his saliva gleamed on the leather. Then Charles licked the Scotch off his lower lip, and slanted another glance up at the man.

“I’m curious. Why have me polishing up your footwear … when you could have me choking on your cock?” 

And that sound, he smiled to himself, was one for the ages. 

The man had turned his face away, squeezing his eyes shut. One strong hand had a death grip on the table’s edge; the other on the arm of the chair. Charles flicked that hand a glance; its knuckles were white. Thankfully, the chair was wood and not metal – although … he pursed his lips, thinking, even as he pushed himself gracefully off his stomach and moved forward on his knees. Although: it would be quite amusing – to see what, if anything, the man would melt, explode, shatter, or otherwise destroy when he, Charles, really got going. 

He gently shouldered his way in between the man’s legs, considered. Laid both hands flat on those thighs, felt the lean taut lengths of muscle. Charles raised an eyebrow, flexed his fingers. “You must be quite a runner,” and really, of all the juvenile lines to use, surely that would take a First – but – 

But. He grinned. The man’s arms were trembling and his shoulders shaking. Charles could almost hear the other’s neocortex shorting out. He stroked his fingers down to bony knees, exploring, then slowly massaged up, higher and higher, tracing his thumbs parallel and bringing his fingers together on the metal belt buckle. Which left his thumbs – hm. He pressed them in and down, right over the hard line of the man’s cock – and backed off, grin widening, as the other choked and gasped – 

“Well,” Charles said. “Now what?” He took care of the belt buckle with a flourish – although really, the more graceful gestures were being wasted here, with the other wild-eyed and almost hyperventilating. Charles touched the button and zip and – 

“Shite,” he hissed. The button had flashed hot for moment. He looked up at the man’s face. “What is it?” 

He paused. All he could hear was ragged breathing. Not his own – he was perfectly in control, but … 

Charles carefully looked at the white-knuckled hands gripping the table edge, the chair. Considered the rigid lines of the man’s jaw, the tendons in his neck drawn as tight as all of his muscles ... The cataloguing part of his mind started to think – while the rest of him sent up one hand to slip beneath the man’s shirt, stroke over the ridges and planes there. Hm. Part of him wondered what the problem might be; part of him kept the children and their fate – this bargain – foremost in mind … but if Charles were completely honest with himself, he’d have to admit that another part of him was just touching, stroking … like he might pet a cat … and that his mouth was starting to water. 

“What is it?” he murmured again. 

And Charles’ mind presented him with the answer: He’s afraid

“Oh.” He blinked. 

What to do? 

Thank a glorious life for experience, first – and second: deploy the soothing gentleness. Some of his lovers had been flowers more delicate than others, so all Charles had to do was reach into memory and try not to laugh. 

“Shh …” He leaned forward and rested his cheek over his hand – one above the shirt, the other beneath. Then he brought his free arm up alongside, sneaking between the man’s body and the chair – so that he could end up almost draped over that cock. “What is it?” Charles moved slowly with his free hand … gentle caresses up and down the other’s side. He frowned for an instant – he could feel ribs through the fabric – but then he shook off the distraction. “Talk to me,” he urged, gentle. “Say something. What’s wrong?” 

“I –” A shuddering breath, “I don’t – I haven’t –” 

“You don’t know what to do?” Charles kept his voice soft. “You haven’t done this before? Well. You are in the best of luck, aren’t you? And in the best of hands ...” He reached up and touched the man’s shoulder – gave a gentle squeeze to the hard masses of biceps and deltoid, passing over the bumps of bone – massaged down over a pectoral – 

The other groaned, from deep in his throat – sounding almost drugged. Charles saw those tight-strung shoulders loosen. 

“You don’t have to be afraid,” he said – and shite, that had been a mistake, because the man jerked upright and glared

“I’m not afraid of anything, Xavier. Not of – this,” he stumbled. “Not of you. I fear nothing.” 

Hm. Perhaps an experiment? Charles held those green eyes with his own gaze. Try it. 

“My fine fellow … I have a few souvenirs from a trip through your mind that say very differently.” 

Amazing – he could feel rage tighten up all of those muscles at once. And the man’s eyes had crystallized into sea ice, and Charles caught radiating from that mind: kill – 

But: “No,” he chided. Then he bore down on his left hand and rucked up the man’s shirt with his right, bent his head and swiped his tongue over hot skin in one swift movement. “No …” Charles breathed. “I can feel it, here,” he tongued over muscle, “You want to kill me for reminding you … of course you do. 

“But remember: I wanted things from you in your mind; I took them.” He skated his teeth over and down, then – ah, there – he saw the man’s left hand, clenched around the armrest, out of the corner of his eye. So Charles darted over and licked the ring on that thumb. “You wanted things from me, in my room … and you took them. And I’m not going to apologize, because I do not believe you know what an apology is – and until I receive one, I’m not giving one.” 

He paused, taking a moment to catch his breath. Concentrated … and: ha. The rage had gotten choked off in a welter of confusion: lust-prey-mine all twined round by: what-did-he-just-say? 

“So,” Charles flung back his head and enunciated clearly. “I’m not going to apologize.” 

Then he smiled – let it spark in his eyes. “I’m just going to suck you off. Now: sit back.” 

The man stared. 

“Sit back,” Charles told him. “Relax.” 

Those eyes had gone wide and drugged-looking again, and the taut line of jaw had slackened. Then, as though it was physically painful, the man let his back touch the chair. 

“More,” Charles encouraged – and suddenly the man let himself fall back in place, as though he were a puppet with its strings cut. “Good.

"That’s it. Relax. Relax. I’m not going to hurt you …” It was like luring a wild animal, he thought; a wild cat at the zoo. “Shh … This won’t hurt – not a bit.” 

Charles felt himself almost purr as he bent back to licking. The man’s skin tasted – not clean, unfortunately – but not too disgusting either. He must have washed at least a bit after the chase that evening, which was good … but not with soap. Perhaps he had just rolled around in the snow. That seemed like a thing he would do, the lunatic. 

While his mind was clicking away, Charles kept up the soothing cadences: “Just enjoy it. Relax.” Then he thought to direct a bit more. “Take a deep breath … In.” 

The other obeyed; shuddering. “And out,” Charles ordered, and the exhalation was just as jagged. “Again … and again … good. 

“Now – just keep breathing, there’s a good chap.” 

And there – that got a reaction. The man’s head snapped forward from where it had lolled back. He glared down at Charles, his eyes burning, snarled: “Don’t patronize me –” 

“Fine,” Charles murmured. “I won’t. As long as you …” he bent to lick the man’s abdomen again, and smiled to himself at the way all of the muscles went tight at once – “As long as you keep your promises … and …” 

“ – and - what?” 

Really, he sounded as if he were being strangled. And he, Charles, ought to know. Letting his mouth twist into a sardonic curl, he raised his head back up; looked into the man’s eyes. “And stop behaving as though you think I’m about to molest you. It’s not flattering.” 

“I –” 

“You are not very articulate presently, so I’m going to ask a few simple questions. First … do you want me to stop?” 

He laid a palm flat over the man’s trouser placket. “Yes or no?” 

“Nn … No.” 

“Then …” a caress, and the other almost whined, high-pitched in the back of his throat. Like a dog. Sit, Charles thought, viciously, and smiled to himself. “Then: you want this?” 

“... Yes.” 

“Say ‘please.’” 

A pause. Charles could almost hear the other grinding his teeth. “Go on,” he said, grinning. “Say it.” 

"Please.” 

“Fine,” Charles said brightly, and flipped open buttons, pulled down the zip. “Although really, this is metal. You could do this – oh ” 

He felt his eyebrows climb up his forehead. “You’re …” Charles peered up at the man’s face. “Are you Jewish?” 

“… What?” 

“Hm. Never mind.” Perhaps a subject to discuss later. Along with – no briefs? Really?  “That must chafe terribly,” he murmured, keeping his fingers busy – tugging cloth out of the way. “Unless … oh. You ran all through the forest and thought to do some paperwork before going back to your torture schedule – but we can’t have blood on our precious maps, can we? We had to wash, didn’t we? And no sense in having to do extra laundry, if you have to scrub yours in the bathtub too, and –” 

“I –” 

“Shh,” Charles breathed out; the man gasped above him. “I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking … to myself.” 

And – to be honest ... he sighed. To be honest: he was rather avoiding this issue at hand. Or the pending issue. At hand and mouth. Oh, stop it, Charles told his mind, annoyed, and – matter-of-fact – swirled his tongue over the head of the man’s cock. 

The man yelped, and – “Oof –” Charles took a knee to his ribs. “Oi,” he said, indignant. “Hold still.” He pinned one thigh under his arm, did the same to the other – then licked up and down, and felt the man’s body jolt beneath him. 

“Oh –” 

“Keep breathing,” Charles murmured, and took the other’s cock in hand, gripping tight round the base. Licked once more – and … Charles frowned to himself. This was not going to take long. In fact, it would be over exceedingly quickly unless – he squeezed where he gripped, and heard the man moan. Unless he did that, and a few other things.

He applied his mind to the problem as he casually sucked again – caught some pre-come and shrugged to himself, swallowing. What best to do? Bring him off quickly, get the entire thing over with? Or draw it out? 

Charles sighed around the man’s cock, eased forward so it only just brushed the back of his throat. He curled his tongue – and laughed at the strangled cry from above him. Just wait… but what to try first? So many options … And really, it wasn’t as though he had a discriminating audience, Charles thought, as he moaned deep in his throat and tipped his head to take it all at once – all, come on – he changed the angle – come on – and ... there.

Strange, because he had done this more times than he could count, and this was still – this – 

He drew his mouth off with a slurp. Everything was slick enough, so he started moving his hand in languid strokes, giving himself time to catch his breath.

That had been – well. Not odd, but … he hadn’t really expected – 

“Never mind,” Charles told himself. He twisted his hand – eased his mouth around it, tongued between his own fingers, just for fun, and hollowed his cheeks. The man had moved from groans to growls – but at that last, he rasped, “Oh please,” dragged up from his throat, and Charles smirked. One could stand to hear more of that.

He repeated the motion – another “please –” and he repeated it again – ha. He can be taught. And more than just the one word, Charles realized, skin prickling, as the gasps dissolved into a litany of pleading – in more than just English and German, how interesting – 

He did not come close to losing track of time, not as he had with more memorable lovers. But he stayed occupied for a few moments, keeping a disinterested catalogue of the man’s reactions – and noting the ever-increasing tang of his sweat in the air. More musk really, this far down – Charles hummed, let go where he was gripping to make more room for his mouth, and squeezed the man’s sides with his hands. Musk, and nothing but bone and … muscle … well. He supposed that this sort of arrangement could prove interesting, in the short term, provided fate wasn’t kind enough to arrange for the man to meet a gruesome end – after he had finished seeing to the safety of the children, of course – after finishing – 

Ah. Well. Not a respectable amount of time, by any means – but at least Charles had kept him from coming for more than thirty seconds altogether. He placed his own hands on the sharp hipbones to his right and left; pressed down so the man wouldn’t jostle him, and sucked as strongly as he could, took him deep – and … there

And: all right, his mind said. … All – right? 

Really. That’s quite enough. 

He was not surprised, Charles told himself. He wasn’t. It had just – been a few months, perhaps. He had squired mostly women in August, and of the one man, he hadn’t seen more than a pale and shapely shoulder … To be swallowing like this, now … gulping down come so that he wouldn’t choke – 

Charles hadn’t choked for years. And he didn’t now. Instead, after taking a moment to suck everything off, to lick things clean, he dragged his mouth away, breathing heavily. He was sweating – he could feel it trickling down his back – and he felt he could indulge himself the tiniest bit, for a good effort.

So he laid his cheek against the muscles smoothing down to the man’s waist, and just – breathed. Tried to get his own heart rate back to normal – it had been the effort. An excellent effort. 

Truly excellent, if the man’s breathing like a winded racehorse was any indication. That and – Charles cracked an eye and peered to the side. That and the hands, shaking as if palsied. And – he peeked up. 

There we are. 

That and the look on the man’s face. Poleaxed, with a side of awe. As though Charles were god on the seventh day. Bow before me, Charles thought, smugly, and yawned, turning to muffle it against the man’s abdomen. 

Then he pushed himself up, wincing as his knees cracked. He scrubbed at his mouth with the back of one hand. “There,” he told the man. His own voice was perfectly smooth and controlled, and as he leaned over, one hand on each armrest, Charles felt he could indulge in a smirk. Especially since the man was goggling up at him like a drugged spaniel. 

“Now … normally, that’s just a bit of a warm-up, but …” and he slid a hand down and palmed the man’s cock. 

Those eyes widened comically, and Charles’ smirk widened. “See? Fairly done in for a while, I think.” He leaned in close. “Now? I’d like to see you fuck me with that.”

For a long moment, they just stared at each other. But then the man tipped his head back, just slightly. His eyebrows climbed up; Charles saw the sweat at his temples, the red hair darkening to brown ... And then a glint of teeth, as the man exhaled, not quite smiling - with the rasp: “I thought I just did.” 

Charles stared. “You –” A short laugh. “You can’t think that –” How adorably naïve, was on the tip of his tongue, but …

Suddenly, the taste of the man’s come in his own mouth was intolerable.

Charles pushed off the chair, turned on one heel and grabbed the bottle of Scotch. Hands shaking, he poured the very last of it into the tumbler. Swished it around his mouth, to clear the taste – 

Rustles and other small sounds from behind him indicated that the other must be cleaning up. Trying to look presentable. There’s a losing battle, his mind hissed, and: bastard

Charles felt the instant that the man rose from the chair. There was a long line of heat at his back – closer, then closer. A pause. And then a finger traced down his neck, dipping into the back of his collar, and Charles wheeled round and swatted the hand away. “That’s enough.” 

The man said nothing. Only stared. 

Charles gritted his teeth. “I’m tired now.” 

Still no response.

A snarl of frustration clawed up into Charles' throat; he swallowed it. "I'll just go back to my room then, shall I?"

The other's voice was a low rasp. "I'll go with you."

“No, I –” 

“ – need someone to lock you up, yes.” The man indicated the door, tipping his head slightly. “After you.” 

Jaw working, Charles bit down on his anger – and … fear, his mind whispered. But: no. He was not afraid – not of someone who could be made to writhe with a single touch of tongue. 

He lifted his chin and walked to the door. Then straight out, and down the dark hallway. 

He heard those shoes tap behind him. His own bare feet were freezing, Charles realized, biting his lip. And – and the other was walking where he couldn’t see him … 

Charles turned and looked. 

The man was just a shadow, tall and angular. Watching him. And the barest hint of moonlight from the high arrow windows made his green eyes glow like lamps in the dark. 

“All right –” for all of his earlier fear and panic had returned in a rush. “Stop that.” 

“Stop what?” 

“Staring.” Charles lifted his head high; gestured imperiously. “Either come up here and walk by my side, or turn around and go back.” 

Those eyes glinted. Then the man walked up to him - this time keeping his shoes silent. He kept going, then half-turned, waiting for Charles to catch up. 

Charles took a few steps longer than normal, and then they fell into step beside each other. As if they were walking through a park. A park with stones for trees, stones for grass, black darkness and silvery arrow windows for a sky … 

It was with a sense of falling that Charles saw the door to his room. He edged through it, and stood awkwardly in the middle. Awkwardawkward nothing, he thought, furious. This was his space, and for the man to be sliding through the door behind him and easing it shut – well. It sent his heart hammering into his throat, for one thing. For another – what was he supposed to do? Change his clothes – while the other watched? Wash his face, brush his teeth? 

None of the above, he decided. He walked over to his bed, and flopped down on it. “I need to sleep, and you –” he sharpened his voice. “You need to fight a battle tomorrow. So … work your metal magic and piss off.” 

“You do need sleep.” That voice floated through the dark; the moonlight was almost gone, and there was no fire. Charles, listening tensely, heard the clink of metal. Then felt the shackle – and warm fingers – close round his ankle. 

“You don’t need to use your bloody hands for that.” 

“I know.” 

Charles’ feet were cold. Which made it all the more unsettling as the man pressed them between his palms. Enclosing one foot at a time, fingers curling round his toes - was he warming them? Fuck no

Wordlessly, Charles tugged his feet away. 

A small pause - and a rattle as the man tested the chain’s security. Then … Charles rolled over – instinct told him you’re presenting your back you’re pre – turn over and sat up. Crossed his legs beneath him – the chain pinched – and stared up into the man’s eyes.

Up – and then across, as the other moved silently, to sit on his bed - 

“No,” Charles snapped. “Not there.” 

“Fine,” the man murmured. He knelt by the side of the bed, and – stayed there. Looking up into Charles’ eyes. 

“Fine.” His own nerves were strung tight as piano wire. “Go away.” 

A pause. Then: “May I ask you something?” 

Charles almost burst into hysterical laughter. It took all of his control to rein it in, drain his voice of all emotion and, bored, reply: “Go ahead.” 

“Will you …” 

The man bent his head. Then he looked back up, and – Charles blinked. 

He was holding out the ring. 

“Will you wear this for me?” 

Charles gaped. “What? No – no, are you joking? Absolutely not.” 

“Why not?” 

“Because,” Charles hissed, “I’m almost positive it has pieces of my tooth in it.” And it did, he remembered, shuddering. He had licked over it, had licked that ring – earlier in the night. There had been little flecks of white embedded in the metal. His mind had catalogued them: ivory

“All the more reason for you to have it. Take it, as a token from me.” 

And here began the tripe of courtly love – how the fuck had the blighter latched onto it, anyway? ‘My lady’ this; ‘my lady’ that; tokens at every turn … 

“No,” Charles said firmly. “I don’t want it anymore. It’s –” he grimaced at the words about to drop out of his mouth: “It’s yours. You can wear it, and – and think of me.” He laced the words with bitterness. “Think of me – from time to time.” 

He saw the flash of white teeth in the dark. “I hardly need it, to think of you … Not anymore.” 

Charles chose not to favor that remark with an answer. 

The man held the ring up to the faint moonlight. “Although … I suppose it does remind me of you. Very beautiful. Very fragile –” 

“Fragile?” Charles spat. “I am not fragile. You try to break me, and not only will I not be broken, but I will hit back and turn your mind into rubble. See if I don’t.” 

“I won’t break you, Xavier …” That voice was lulling in the dark. “I promise.” 

“You had better keep all your promises.” 

“Mmm. Perhaps it will be easier to do so, wearing this ring. Because …” 

And the man rose up off his knees – just enough to lean in and reach Charles’ ear with his mouth. 

Tense, Charles waited. 

“… Because?” 

“Because … Ah, Lieber Professor, it reminds me of you in one final way.” 

Charles looked down as the other slid the ring back on, and couldn’t keep from hearing, couldn’t stop the words from slinking into his mind … as the man whispered to him, breath hot against his ear: 

“Because … it can be such a tight fit.” 

Charles mouth went absolutely dry, before he kicked out with his chained right leg. “Bastard.” 

The other had dodged the blow easily; his chuckle came from the floor – sounding rusty, unused. “Shhhh. Settle down – you need your sleep.” 

“And I’ll sleep so much easier knowing that you’ve – finally figured things out,” Charles spat. “You did find a book. A picture book, I’m sure. T for ‘token,’ T for ‘tight’ – did it have an index, then, or did you read the whole way through?” 

A pause, then: “No book.” 

“No book?” He let the contempt he felt spike out from his voice. “Then do please tell me. Where did you come by your oh-so-exhaustive knowledge of sex? I’ve been nothing but impressed with you, so far.” 

A longer pause. 

When he spoke, the man’s voice was quiet. "I've seen it."

"Seen it?" Charles let out a derisive laugh. "How adorable a voyeur you must have been. And where, pray, have you seen it?"

Frost, his mind supplied, Frost and the man you don't know - on the velvet bed. In the depths of the castle, in the darkest places of that mind ...

Charles waited, almost curious, despite himself.

But when the man spoke again - even more quietly ... all he said was:

“War.” 

A scoff: “What do you –”

And then Charles blinked. “… Oh.”

But – and he thought of what he could say. Soothing: that’s not all there is to it. Scientific: what did you see, anyway? Sarcastic: no wonder you’re such a sensitive person, my friend – 

Or he could meet the man’s eyes, and reply: 

“Do you see, then? Do you understand - why I ask you to protect those children? If they must fight your war?” 

Silence. 

Then: “I do.” 

Charles took a deep breath. “And will you? Will you promise me?” 

He stayed as still as he could, as he watched the man’s face – all pale angles in the dark. Charles watched it draw closer, then stop – where the man stopped, kneeling at the side of the bed. 

And the man said, quietly: “I will.” 

Charles swallowed. 

“Well,” he said. 

He bit his lip, and realized: he was so very tired. So tired that he didn’t put anything into his voice – emotion or power, or even much effort … when he said: 

“Then – think of me. From time to time.” 

Charles paused for a moment. Then … slowly, deliberately … he reached out with his left hand. Laid it alongside the man’s jaw – touched his thumb to the scar. 

And Charles leaned forward, and kissed him. 

It was nothing much. Positively chaste, compared to what his own lips had been doing … earlier. The man made no movement to deepen it; his eyes were closed. For a moment, Charles wondered – with the smallest spark of humor – had he forgotten? 

Charles tried flicking his tongue over the man’s lower lip and – ah, he hasn’t – was startled into the smallest gasp, as the man made a hoarse sound in his throat, opened his mouth and pressed closer – strong hands gripping the blankets at Charles’ sides, twisting. 

Charles kissed him back for a long moment, breathing deeply. Breathing, and – suddenly, blinking back the sting in his eyes. Trying to see in the darkness – any hint of light whatsoever. There was none. 

Carefully, gently, he placed a hand on the man’s sternum. Felt the angles of bone beneath the shirt. Pushed, and broke the kiss at the same time. 

Then he leaned back. And watched as the other kept his eyes shut, for a long moment. Closed … until dark lashes fluttered – and Charles saw the last bit of moonlight glint in the man’s eyes. His eyes, staring into Charles’ own … 

Someone dying, Charles thought, distant – would look like that. Would stare as the man was staring. As though he wanted Charles to be the last thing he would ever see. 

Charles closed his own eyes and sighed. He moved away from the edge of the bed; leaned back against the plaster wall. 

He only heard the slightest whisper of a click and scrape. Lock and bolt. 

When he opened his eyes again, the man was gone.


And when he slept, Charles dreamed.

His reading room was dark; he could hardly see the bookshelves. Long familiarity with the room, though, showed him those same shelves adjusting and shifting, moving in their own dream dance - as they tended to at night. From his golden chair, Charles saw a new shelf being prepared. Dark wood - walnut? Mahogany?

... growing out of the wall like branches from a tree ...

He sighed, and reached for the raven on his shoulder.

"The others are sleeping, too?"

A crahk.

"But you're here." He swallowed. "Thank you."

The raven ran its beak through Charles' hair.

Charles stared at the new bookshelf. At the volumes wafting through the air - sorting themselves into a row, starting in the lower left-hand corner ...

"I got the last word, I think," he told his raven. "But ..."

He gazed into the darkness.

"But I don't know if this will end up being a mistake. Or not."

The raven nudged at him again.

"Well," Charles said, sighing. "I have you. And your fellows - oh. How is -"

But he had been anticipated. Charles saw, dimly, an image of his penguin: standing stalwart guard at Jean's door.

"Good."

Another pause. Then he blinked, remembering. "And that nightingale - I swear," he felt a surge of anger, "it left me and flew to the forest, the idiot -"

The raven stroked its beak along the back of one of his armored hand, and Charles saw: the stable. Alex's mind, red and white; Sean's, blue-green threaded with yellow.

And on the lintel of the door ... his nightingale, singing - weaving gold and sleep around them in the night.

"... Oh."

Start up again, he had told it. If you see the need. If you feel the situation is intolerable … 

The nightingale had found one such, it seemed. And had begun to sing, to make it right again.

He closed his eyes. Felt his raven lean against his head.

"They'll be all right. Wherever they go, now ... Whatever happens ..."

Charles sighed, and let the dream fall away - like leaves from a tree; his raven flying with him to the dark of deeper sleep.

"...They'll be safe."

Chapter Text

They'll be safe. They'll be safe. They'll be safe.

Charles focused on the words – their shape and slant. Third person plural, future tense. Gender neutral; he had always wondered that, about English. No indication of age, or specific number in the group concerned. Group. It could be a group of as few as – two. "They" could be two people – two individuals like himself and – and ... the other, now gone off to Dallas and presumably getting ready to chop soldier after Free West soldier into mincemeat.

"You're going to have to fuck him when he gets back, you realize that?" Charles whispered. Then … he couldn't help it. He laughed. It rebounded off the lowest walls of the Hive; high-pitched and tinny.

"Really, Mr. Xavier. Control yourself."

Frost's voice cut like a blade through the electric hum of the Finder and the low static of the communication systems.

Shite. Shut up, Charles thought to himself, desperately. And: "I'm sorry," he mumbled.

Veil, for the love of all that’s holy. Sink the rest; sink everything deep …

Charles blinked away the sweat running into his eyes. He had been called to the Finder that morning, after what had felt like only the smallest moment of sleep. Perhaps it had been his … exertion, late the previous night, that had drained him so. Except, technically, the person who had been drained was – no, and he yanked his mind from that path, savagely. Don’t think about it. If Frost should find out –

… What would happen, really?

Charles took a moment to consider. She might not think anything of it. She had certainly thought nothing of unleashing her precious prince on him after restoring the memories Charles had suppressed … had it been not even a month ago?

"A little month / or ere those shoes were old / with which she dragg'd me from my home –"

"Xavier "

Sorry, he tried, but it came out as an inarticulate mumble. Charles squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn't help it. Stress brought out the strangest things in people: whether rearranged scraps of Hamlet – and really, one wouldn't use shoes to drag, Professor Xavier – or drooling gibberish, or thoughts about –

Charles stared at the reddened darkness of his own eyelids. Swallowed hard against the saliva pooling in his mouth; flashing to those eyes and the sharp line of jaw – hipbones jerking up against Charles' grip – the incoherent gasps as the other had come hard, heat pulsing against the back of Charles' throat. It would have been too much for anyone else, but Charles had been able to hold him down, control him and ride it out –

… What was he doing now? Those papers in their case, the map of Dallas tucked safely away … Charles let his eyes flicker open. How cold would it be, in what had been Texas, on November first of any given year? The man might have had to retrieve his coat and hat. Had they been in his compartment, near the storage area? Because if that were so, then the man had undoubtedly taken along those swords, and several crowbars, and daggers and knives and perhaps even a bucket of bolts –

A crackle from the Finder, and Charles arched his back, trying not to yelp. He quickly scanned the Hive – his hummingbird thrumming and electric, like everything else … Jean was not there. Thank God.

Jean had accompanied him, that morning; thus his worry. Charles had only just glimpsed a tech taking her by the hand before he had been strapped down on plastic, tied three times over on his shins, cuffed on his upper arms. He had not been able to move to get a good look – but out of the corner of his eye, he had seen the thin metal tiles of the lower level wall quiver and slide … and then they had clattered over and over, up and away, just like a train station timeboard …

The tiles had concealed what looked like a cold incarnation of one of Oxford's strategic planning areas. Memory had pricked at him like a knife. His students would always joke about the "war room" – a grand epithet for what had been nothing more than a seminar table piled with maps, wedged up against a chalkboard with different colored chalks, and a wireless and – in one corner – a squat water dispenser that someone had nicked on a visit to Cambridge.

In contrast, this war room – the EBS war room – possessed an ungodly amount of tech. Charles could hear it, could smell it even if he couldn't see it. He had glimpsed McCoy fiddling with an instrument, before the man with feathers had wrested his other arm to the plastic. Then McCoy had sidled up to Charles and squeezed his shoulder once, before going to answer someone's shouted question.

The war room was crammed with mutants, and even … Charles shivered. Even a human or two. Or three – no, he realized, blinking – more than that. He'd lost track of them – the Finder was slicing at the edges of his mind, like a paring knife at an apple –

"God," he gasped, and exhaled in a rattle as the crackle and buzz peaked, then abruptly faded.

"Five minutes." Frost's voice was sharp.

And everybody moved again – talking loudly, testing instruments, checking calibrations, arguing …

Nobody offered to untie him.

But, Charles considered, wearily … at least Jean wasn't there to see it.

Veil, he reminded himself. Veil … sink the rest, down into the dark of the deep …

A stranger had fetched him that morning. Blindfolded him, and marched him to the