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Let Them Talk

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I.

"You're looking for death, Logan," Erik said quietly, all cold, calm logic, not so much intimidation or malice but brutal honesty, and Charles bit down hard on his lower lip, sharp enough to taste copper.

Logan sniffed at the air, his semi-feral eyes catching his for a moment, all assessing, then he smirked. "Someone's confident. Hurts my feelings, it does. But you know me, I ain't ever gonna pass up on a punch-up, even if the other guy's twice again as tall as me or shits laser beams. 'Sides," Logan lowered his voice, pitching it menacingly soft even as he took another step closer, "I ain't wearing a lick o' metal on me, right now, bub. Maybe you could pin me full o' forks and spoons, but do you want to bet that I can't give you a real close inspection o' my bone claws before you do enough damage for me to pass out?"

Charles had heard the stories, heard the rumors; Logan's healing factor was phenomenal, matched only by his ferocity in battle, his fearless berserker-like rampages. His mutation wasn't flashy, wasn't explosively destructive, wasn't elemental in scope like Erik's, but in a close up battle between the two, Charles would hesitate to bet his coin.

"You planned this," Raven murmured, with a quick glance at Logan, who rolled his broad shoulders into a careless shrug. Raven held Charles' eyes, thoughtfully, her gaze flicking down to his abused lower lip, and then she smiled, secretive like the way they did when they were children, playing hide and seek with the help in their house. "Law's the law, Magneto."

"I don't want anyone to get hurt," Charles said plaintively, only to flinch and cringe back against his sister when Erik silenced him with a flat, warning stare.

"We could play cards or dice for you, I s'pose," Logan conceded, if grudgingly, "Your call, Mags."

Charles could almost hear Erik assessing the situation, the way everyone else in the club was watching them with avid fascination, the way it would look if the world's so-called most powerful mutant lost to someone with a mutation as comparatively weak as self-healing. Logan was indeed wearing no metal at all - even his buckle and buttons were horn, he was fast, vicious, and more importantly, had a long list of impressive kills, consisting of mutants on power scales that should have been far off his own. It was, after all, why Erik had let Logan into his inner circle in the first place, tolerated Logan's insolence and his loose cannon nature.

Erik could fight Logan, close up, where Logan was at his best, risk death, grave injury or at the very least, a blow to his social standing - or he could get rid of the sub that he'd never wanted. Put that way, Charles wasn't entirely surprised when Erik's lip twisted, almost into a sneer. "Cards, then."

Logan turned to face the crowd, clearly unconcerned about showing his back to Erik. "Anyone have a deck o' cards?"

A murmur that seemed almost apologetic rippled through the crowd, and even Raven rolled her eyes. No one would come to an exclusive, invite-only club like Genosha with a card deck, after all... but even as Logan snorted, someone sidled through the crowd - a boyish, tall mutant with a shock of dark brown hair, and disconcerting eyes that were all black, with pupils that were faint pinpoints of red, sleek in a suit and fingerless gloves.

"Perhaps I may be of service, mon ami," the mutant said, palming a deck of cards from his suit pocket and tossing it to Erik.

"You're..." Erik paused, but only for a moment - Charles knew that he never forgot a face, or a name. "Gambit, aren't you. Kinetic energy manipulation."

"That's me," Gambit nodded. "And that's my favorite deck that you're handling, so give it back t'me when you're finished, oui?"

Erik tossed the deck's box back to Gambit and inspected the cards - as far as Charles could tell, it was a standard deck, with no marks or tricks. "And now?" Erik asked Logan, his voice laced so thick with disdain that Charles felt himself freezing up against Raven. Hidden from the crowd by her body, she squeezed his fingers lightly, reassuringly.

"We each pick a card. Aces low, Kings high. Highest card wins. Suits don't matter. Three rounds." Logan shrugged. "Unless you want to play fuckin' Solitaire or something fancy."

"Anything more difficult may be unfairly taxing for you," Erik replied, with studied condescension, passing the cards to Raven. "Shuffle the cards, Mystique."

Charles knew that Raven was watching him out of the corner of her eye as she did so, betraying her tension in the line of her slim shoulders, even if outwardly she remained expressionless. She fanned out the cards, face down, between them, and Erik and Logan both picked a card. Erik held his up first - an eight of spades. Logan's was a ten of diamonds.

"Your round," Erik said, a slight frown marring his brow, as they handed the cards back to Raven as she shuffled the cards again. This time, it was Erik's five of clubs to Logan's two of hearts.

"Best o' three." Logan bared his teeth, not quite in a smile, and Erik narrowed his eyes. Charles knew that look, the way Erik's stance was shifting; it was anger in every breath, every gesture, and when Erik got like this, Charles knew better than to stay within sight.

Now, however, he was rooted to the spot, as Raven shuffled again, lips pursed, fanning out the cards. Erik held a jack of spades, and a murmur rippled again through the crowd; heart in his mouth, Charles could see Armando leaning forward, behind Logan, Alex gripping the arm of the couch that he was sitting on, Sean tip-toeing beside Gambit...

And then Logan turned up his card - a king of diamonds, and it took a long, stunned moment, past even the whisper that shot in a harsh crescendo through the club, for Charles to realize how much his world had just upended.

For a moment, he saw a muscle twitch, in Erik's jaw, heard the faint rattle of the metal fittings of the light fixture behind him, then Erik passed his card back to Raven with a terrible, studied politeness and slouched back down into his couch. "Get him out of my sight."

Charles had heard that said often enough that his heart no longer felt like it was cracking along the edges, but he ducked his head and let Raven lead him passively out of the alcove; dazed, he saw her return the cards to Gambit and march him out of the club, through the parting scrum of mutants, until he was blinking dumbly in the back alley behind the club, breath puffing in the chill air.

"Hello? Earth to Charles?" Raven waved a palm before his face.

"Raven, I..." Charles' brain caught up with a sickening lurch, particularly the bit that noted, with a sort of muted horror, that it was cold and his sister, despite all sense of common propriety, was effectively naked, and he hastily stripped off his jacket, putting it over her shoulders.

She rolled her eyes at him. "Honestly, Charles. You know that mutants with visible mutations like mine are encouraged to flaunt them."

"You're my sister," Charles protested, and thankfully was saved from having to explain, yet again, how incredibly awkward it was to know what one's adult sister's bared breasts looked like, however covered in blue scales, and have Raven laugh in his face for being 'old-fashioned', when Logan strolled out of the club behind them, smoking one of his foul cigars.

"That went well."

"It was just luck," Charles said, light-headed, far too much still in shock to sort it all out, the lingering heartache, the uncertainty, the lurching sensation of teetering on the edge of a precipice.

"Yeah, you could say that," Logan grunted, "If I'd picked out anything lower than a Jack, I would'a gutted him in the next second."

"And then you would have died," Raven said dryly.

Logan eyed her, then he snorted. "Wouldn't put money on that, girl. C'mon, Charlie. I'll show you the digs. It ain't much, though, so don't get your hopes up."

"I... my things," Charles said, his eyes on his feet, even as he moved instinctively to Logan's side when beckoned. "They're at Erik's place."

"I'll get them for you," Raven said soothingly, though she continued to watch Logan with narrowed, considering eyes. "Your clothes and your papers, your books. Don't worry."

"Thank you," Charles managed a wan smile, as a big hand splayed warm and firm at the small of his back. He couldn't help the flinch, the sense of wrong that cut briefly through the whirling fog in his mind, but he breathed out, slowly, and leaned into the touch. It wasn't like he wasn't used to another Dom's touch, after all, thanks to Erik.

"Hey," Logan said mildly, breathing out a thick cloud of acrid smoke, "If you'd rather go with your sister, that's fine by me. I can pick you up tomorrow. There ain't no rush."

"No, no, I'll..." He'll what, exactly? He'd just left the Dom that he had imprinted on, for God's sake; he would never see Erik again, save perhaps by chance - he would never touch Erik again, match wits over a chessboard. Part of him wanted to go back into the club, to throw himself at Erik's feet and beg him to pretend that the last hour had never happened.

And yet-

And yet the last inch of him, the stubborn part of his soul that Erik had long tried to quell, the one that spoke out of turn and carved out a niche for his own life, his studies, in the crushing weight of the twisted length of chain that choked him to Erik, the one that sometimes thought, in the silence of his mind, as small as it could, that no one deserves this - somehow held firm. He breathed out, slow and ragged. "I'll go. With you."

"All right," Logan's big hand slid over to his elbow, and gave it a gentle tug. "My ride's that way."

"I'll see you in the morning," Raven offered him a smile, even if it didn't quite touch the worry in her eyes. "First thing in the morning."

II.

Compared to Charles' mansion in Westchester and Erik's sprawling fortress villa in the Upper East Side, Logan's 'digs' were... tiny, to say the least. Logan lived in an open-plan apartment on the outskirts of Brooklyn, the entire floor space of which was probably only a fraction of the ground floor area of Charles' mansion.

There was a kitchenette skulking in a corner that looked sadly unused, a scratched couch and a small television in another, and an unmade bed next to the balcony, with a pile of unsorted laundry beside it, slumped against a half-open wardrobe with a disturbing array of flannel shirts. A closed door to Charles' right probably led to a closet of a bathroom, and the remaining corner was taken up by a set of dumb-bells on the ground and a worn-out boxing bag dangling from the ceiling. The room smelled, defiantly, unselfconsciously, of Logan and socks.

Old socks.

"We're gonna have to work something out," Logan scratched absently at his jaw as Charles edged around him and hurried to open the sliding door to the balcony. "You ain't gonna be able to sleep with me." At Charles' quick, anxious glance, Logan snorted. "I get bad dreams, bub."

"I wouldn't, I mean, I-"

"And then I tend to wake up with my claws out," Logan interrupted.

"Oh." Charles said, uncomfortably, "Ah, I could sleep at your feet, sir." Erik had tried that, at the very beginning of the sad state of mutual torture that passed as their relationship, and it hadn't worked well. No matter how large the bed, Charles would either end up sprawled with his legs over Erik's, cutting off circulation, or rolling off the bed by accident. Logan's bed was small compared to the one in Erik's home, and-

"We'll work something out. And, first rule," Logan said, stripping off his shirt and tossing it into the pile of laundry, yawning and heading towards the bathroom, "Tradition's tradition, but I ain't looking for any of that fuckin' 'yes sir' and 'please master' sort of shit from you, understand? You know my name, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, Logan." Charles tried the word - the name - in his mouth. Other than Raven, he had never addressed another Dom by name before - had never been allowed to; it felt alien, and he warred briefly between drilled knowledge of what was proper and the inbuilt wish to please a Dom.

"Make yourself at home," Logan said absently, and shut himself in the bathroom. The moment the shower came on, Charles took in a deep breath - and then his brain remembered where he was, and he started coughing, eyes watering, and had to rush to the balcony and gasp gratefully like a beached fish.

When Logan emerged from the bathroom, Charles had managed to sort and bag up the offensive heap of clothes in plastic bags, into whites, colors and 'burn with fire' into the farthest corner of the balcony, the bed was made, and he had rolled up his sleeves to wipe down the dirty glass of the sliding door and make headway on scrubbing out the more... interesting... stains on the kitchen counter. He was fairly sure that the dark stains nearer the sink were not blood. Fairly.

"I wasn't looking for a servant, Xavier," Logan commented, one thick eyebrow arched, as he sauntered over to the wardrobe, ragged towel slung over his broad shoulders and otherwise extremely naked. There was a low, rough chuckle, when Charles blushed and dropped his eyes. "And you've seen my rod and tackle before."

"Oh God, please don't call it that again," Charles muttered, now never able to look at an innocent fishing reel the same way, ever, and then he froze, chewing again on his lower lip, as logic caught up over the edge of surrealism and noted that he had just mouthed off to a Dom and-

Logan, however, merely snickered, the sound ugly but not unkind, and fished some boxers out from the wardrobe. "Pardon me, princess, I'm so sorry about offending your fuckin' sensibilities."

"It's not... I'm not... you're awful," Charles said, at Logan's smirk, and he managed a watery, tentative smile, eyes darting everywhere but Logan's feral, steady gaze.

Logan was fast; Charles flinched and swallowed a yelp when Logan reached over the kitchen bench, cupping Charles' chin with gentle, firm fingers and running a rough thumb over the edge of his mouth. "That's better," he said, as Charles caught his breath, then he said, gruffly, "Hey, hey now," when Charles lowered his head and let out a rattled sound, like an abortive sob, surprised at himself, the gentle touch sharply unnatural, unsettling; it felt more like a blow than anything that Erik had ever meted.

Vision blurred and dizzy, Charles wasn't really sure how they ended up on the bed, with his head tucked under Logan's unshaven chin, back pressed up against what felt like a wall of solid muscle; Charles was curled, foetal, and, to his mortification, was crying in shaky, heaving sobs, while Logan murmured words he couldn't catch and awkwardly patted his flank, big fingers skating over his crumpling, expensive shirt.

He had known - oh, he had known - that Erik loathed him, but to be traded away in a banal game of cards... once, Charles had been guiltily thankful for the supposed brain chemistry behind imprinting; it meant that, whether he liked it or not, Erik would still want him, deep down. It was obvious now that he had far, far underestimated Erik's hatred, and the knowledge hurt like a blunt knife twisted deep within his soul. No matter how kind Logan was to him, no matter what he made of his life from now onwards, the wound would fester and never heal; hell, Charles knew that if Erik showed up, now, and ordered him to return to his side on his knees - Charles wouldn't even hesitate.

And he would blame it on biology, but he would know better. He was pathetic about this and he was Erik's, and eventually, all the Doms who borrowed him in any of Erik's games always gave him back. "I'm sorry," Charles managed to choke up, when he finally managed to stop himself from bawling like a child all over Logan's sheets. "I'm sorry."

"About what?" Logan asked, and Charles shuddered and bit down on an anxious whimper at the thick thread of violence in Logan's rough tone. "I'm beginning to think I made a mistake, agreeing to cards. Should'a just bled that cold bastard."

"No, no no no," Charles hiccupped, shivering again. He could imagine that, all too well, Erik bleeding out from the puncture wounds in his stomach over the black polished floors of Club Genosha, and it made him sick to the very core. "I'm sorry, Logan."

"Yeah? About what?" Logan asked again, and from the way Logan's jaw set against his skull, Charles could tell that his patience was growing thin; anxiety raked its cold fingers up his spine and made him tremble more violently.

"You said that you wanted a partner. I don't know... I can't do anything for you," Charles admitted, his voice raw from the embarrassing bout of blubbering and his growing exhaustion. What would a sometime member of the mutant militia need of a human genetics professor? He didn't even have much property to his name any longer, other than his books... "I don't have money - I transferred as much as I could without bankrupting myself on taxes to Raven, the moment that we found out that she was a Dom... that was before, when I was still alone, I thought that I'll imprint on a human, didn't want to take the chances that he'll cut her off..."

Doms, after all, automatically became legally entitled to a Sub's property - admittedly, not so much out of a wish to exacerbate the divide, but as an inbuilt tax-exempt way to share properties without getting charged an arm, a leg and a kidney's worth of stamp duties. Raven had resisted the transfer for a long time, they'd fought for weeks - but she gave in, eventually, if with ill grace. Despite the Civil Rights Act passing into practice, old prejudices were still rife, and humans were still in the vast majority. Charles had been so afraid that he would imprint on a human who would be repulsed by Raven's blue-scaled skin, afraid that the moment he imprinted he'd no longer have the will to protect his sister.

Some irony that had turned out to be.

"Charlie," Logan murmured, his tone pitched low and steady, cutting through the mire of old memories. "Breathe with me."

Charles obeyed, instinctively, forced himself to match the intakes of his breaths to Logan's slow, even keel; it was wet and his breathing still hitched, but at least for the sake of what was left of his wretched dignity, he'd stopped crying and babbling. "I'm of no use to you at all, why did you want me?"

"Hey, hey. Fuck," Logan muttered, easily turning him around to press his cheek against the hard line of his shoulder bone; Logan radiated heat, like a big animal, and Charles pressed himself against him with a low, wrecked moan, even as Logan rucked up his shirt and began rubbing a sandpaper-rough palm up and down his spine, until he stopped shaking, until his breathing slowed further, into stuttered, soft gasps. "This ain't about using each other."

Charles frowned, confused, twisting to take a quick peek upwards, but Logan's gaze was fixed in an angry glower at the harmless headboard. "Then?"

"It's... fuck this," Logan growled, rubbing his free hand over his face. "I'm no fuckin' good at words and I'm pissed off and tired. Either go and wash up or figure something out about the bed, I didn't go to all that effort to turn you into a pincushion in the goddamned morning." When Charles didn't move, fingers twisting into the sleeves of his own shirt, Logan added, dryly, "At least get your shoes off, princess."

"Oh, ah, yes," Charles flushed, all too abruptly aware of how little Logan was actually wearing, with only a thin pair of briefs riding low over surprisingly narrow hips. Logan's muscle ran to bulk, compared to Erik's sleek, toned frame, and with his coarse abundance of body hair and his swarthy, unshaven features, it seemed a far cry from just the night before; he'd watched Erik strip for a shower, and hadn't been able to help but watch, hungry and admiring. Beyond biological impulse, Erik was a very handsome man, ruthlessly confident, with an air of electric charisma that Charles suspected would have sucked him close, even had he never imprinted.

Heart heavy within his chest, Charles unlaced five-hundred-dollar tailor-made shoes and arranged them off the bed, then he glanced back at Logan, who had edged over to the other side of the bed, frowning at the bagged clothes at the balcony as if he couldn't figure what the third bag was about. "So?"

Charles flinched, startled. "I beg your pardon?"

"Solutions, Charlie. I heard you've got smarts."

"I could sleep on the floor," Charles said doubtfully, mentally calculating reach and arc trajectories. "I've done that before. It was one of Erik's-"

Logan's famous bone claws did indeed make a definite, wet sound whenever extended, knife-sharp in the sudden silence, three long, deadly spurs of ivory bone, then Logan abruptly sheathed them, with a grunt that was surprisingly... eloquent.

"Does that hurt?" Charles asked, after an uncomfortable silence, scientific curiosity overriding his anxiety.

"Yeah. But it's a good hurt."

"Could I...?" Charles wiggled the fingers of his left hand, shyly, and Logan rolled onto his back, extending his right palm towards Charles. Carefully, Charles rubbed a thumb over the ridges of flesh between the metacarpals. The claws were nestled in between, sheathed in Logan's flesh down over the lunate and scaphoid bones to rest parallel over the radius and ulna. Logan's wrist was stiff when rotated, due to the position of the claws over the joint, but it didn't seem to cause him any discomfort, up until Charles felt gently over the now-sealed skin above the usual exit points of the claws, and Logan went very still.

Charles looked up quickly, but Logan's eyes were closed. Experimentally, Charles rubbed the tips of his fingers over the same spot again, and this time, Logan clenched his fist tight and jerked it away. "Tickles," he muttered, his voice oddly uneven, then Logan cleared his throat and cracked an eye open. "I'll pull up some old quilts and sleep on the floor. You sleep on the bed."

"Oh no, this is your house and-"

"And I make the rules," Logan interrupted. "Right?" Charles nodded, reluctantly, unable to meet Logan's steady gaze. "Also, the pants are fine, but you're getting rid of that shirt. It stinks," Logan clarified, when Charles blinked at him.

Charles was fairly sure that the shirt didn't smell of anything but expensive cologne... ah. Yes. Enhanced senses. Embarrassed, Charles unbuttoned his shirt, even as Logan pushed himself off the bed and ambled over to the wardrobe to drag out a set of clearly disused quilts from the top shelf, dumping it against the bed - and then he made a low, rumbling sound, like a growl.

Charles flinched back when Logan's hand shot forward, then he ended up flushing instead in guilty embarrassment at the misunderstanding as Logan merely picked up a few links of the unbroken metal chain around his neck between one thick thumb and forefinger.

"Not yours, is it?"

Logan's tone was casual, but his eyes were dark and unreadable, and for one wild, frozen moment Charles was tempted to disagree, to keep the chain-collar, Erik's metal, each perfect link hand-crafted with gorgeous precision, the first and last 'gift' that Erik had ever made for him, and then only because of legal necessity. Logan, Charles knew, uncomfortably, wouldn't question him, and it would be unfair to him, but the situation was still too new, the wounds too fresh. Part of him still couldn't - wouldn't - accept it, not yet.

When Charles started biting on his lower lip, Logan sighed, and moved his hand up to card thick fingers carefully through Charles' hair. "Don't have to tell me now," he said, settling down on the quilts beside the bed, rubbing a palm over his eyes. "Get the lights for me and don't stay up, I'm going to get some shut-eye."

"Logan, I really don't think..." Charles trailed off, weakly. "It's your bed, and I'm a sub, and..."

"Yeah?"

"What would people say?" Charles asked, tiredly. What would people say? He'd chosen to leave his imprinted Dom - something that was probably unheard of, for... for someone whom he wasn't even really friends with, from an Upper East Side villa to a one room flat that wouldn't even fit part of his library. He had left everything.

"Fuck them," Logan shrugged, rolling over. "Let them talk."

III.

Logan swore thickly and angrily to himself as whoever it was continued knocking sharply at the door, sitting up and yawning. Charles stretched on the bed, blearily; he hadn't gotten very much sleep at all, he felt like a wreck, and the sun hadn't even edged past the horizon yet. He did, however, drag himself into a more or less upright position when Logan stomped over to the door and sniffed, then he sat up sharply when Logan growled, "What the fuck, Darkholme," and opened the door.

"Well, that took you bloody forever," Raven shot back, wearing her blonde bombshell form as she edged into the apartment, prim and proper in a white blouse and a gray pencil skirt, dropping two cardboard boxes heavily onto the ground, nearly missing Logan's foot. Logan growled at her as he closed the door, but rubbed his eyes and stormed off to the bathroom instead of saying anything further.

Raven edged around the boxes and approached the bed, her eyes flicking down to the rumpled quilt, then to the metal chain that was still around Charles' neck, and sat down beside him with a low sigh, hugging him close.

I'm all right, Charles wanted to tell her, but he didn't like lying to his sister, so he said, instead, "Thank you for the books."

"I would have taken more if I could," Raven muttered, "That was all that I could sneak off before I got caught." When Charles pulled back a little to shoot her a startled glance, Raven made an unladylike snort. "Someone thought that it was a waste of time and effort."

Someone? Charles frowned. "You mean..." Erik?

"He said," Raven said carefully, her gaze searching, "That you were going to come back to him eventually, anyway."

Charles stifled the low moan welling in his throat with some effort, but he could help his stinging eyes or his shaking shoulders, even when Raven curled both her arms around him and buried her face in his neck, waiting, squeezing him tight against her. Dimly, through his pain and his desperate grief, he noticed the tension strung tight in her, Raven's harsh, sharp breaths against the nape of his neck. It took a few deep breaths before he managed to say, in a small voice, "Did you get into trouble? I'm-"

"If you say that you're sorry, I'm going to shake you," Raven threatened, if half-heartedly.

"You're not going to do something silly, are you?" Charles asked, anxious.

The first and last time he had lost control like this around Raven had been the first time Erik had 'lent' him out to another Dom; Riptide had been silent, solicitous and he hadn't been rough but, touch-starved even as he was, Charles' shock at the entire ugly situation had made it thoroughly unpleasant. He hadn't told Raven what had happened, even when she had resorted to screaming at him, but she had found out, somehow, and then she had walked right up to Erik while he had been holding court in the villa's garden and had slapped him across the face. Charles had intervened before things had escalated out of control, by begging Raven to apologize, and in the end, at least in public, Erik had brushed it off with paternal amusement.

Raven had seethed for months.

"Depends," Raven said, with deceptive blandness, "On whether you agree with him."

"I don't know," Charles replied, miserably, and Raven sighed.

"I guess that's a step. In the right direction. Maybe. I didn't really look closely at what I took, though. For all I know it could be all grocery bills or something."

"The papers from my desk in the study?" Charles asked, his mind latching gratefully onto the topic of work.

"Yeah, and all the books on the floor next to your chair, and the closest spare clothes in reach from your room. If you want anything else, it's not going to be a problem for me to go in and get it."

That should be enough to keep him occupied for at least a week - not that Logan's apartment had anywhere that he could actually write on, other than the kitchen counter. Raven seemed to have come to the same conclusion, running an eye over the apartment with evident disapproval. "You could move back to the mansion."

Charles shuddered, and shook his head. The mansion was too large and too empty just for two, even with a housekeeping staff, filled with far too many memories of loneliness; it felt like a halfway house, where he had never quite belonged. "This place is fine."

"Maybe I'll just buy out this floor and we could join all the rooms together. Or just the adjoining room," Raven amended thoughtfully, when Charles frowned at her. "Don't give me that look, you need the space. For your books, at the least. And your money's been doing nothing in all those banks but making more money from the interest."

"It's your money," Charles corrected.

"Same thing."

"I'll let you know," Charles conceded at Raven's firm tone, if evasively.

Raven stared at him oddly, then she pressed her forehead against his, her voice dropping a register. "Charles... Do you know why I stayed so long with the Hellfire Club, making nice to Lehnsherr?"

"You said that you were doing it for me." Charles noted cautiously. Sometimes, when Raven was in one of her Moods, Erik became a prickly subject; it wasn't uncommon, in any regard, for there to be friction between Doms in a tight-knit group, particularly when personalities clashed. Often, however, she seemed friendly enough; Erik always sought to be charming to her regardless of how she treated him. Raven had a highly visible mutation in her natural form, after all, and such mutants were Erik's favorites; he thought them beautiful.

If only Charles had been born with... horns, or something, or blue skin like Raven's, or even a tail-

"I was hoping that someday, one of the other Doms who had even a slim chance of besting Erik in a brawl - Alex, maybe, or Ororo - would challenge Erik for you, and if they did, I was going to be there to make sure that you got out of the shitstorm in one piece." Raven let out a short, harsh laugh, when Charles blinked at her, surprised. "I didn't really think that it was going to be Logan, though. I mean, what the fuck, he only has a healing factor, and I didn't even realize he liked you. I thought he didn't like anyone. Besides, I don't think I've ever exchanged more than twenty words with him, ever, before all this happened."

"Erik wasn't always that bad," Charles murmured defensively.

After all, it wasn't as though Charles had been cut off from him altogether. Sometimes Erik spoke to Charles about his research, particularly whenever it involved mutant genomes, like a genuinely interested, intelligent observer - he had the intellect to quickly grasp difficult concepts despite a lack of relevant study, and there was chess and... and besides, it wasn't Erik's fault, really, sometimes, the way he acted; they'd just both had the terrible luck to be forced into an untenable, seemingly permanent situation. Charles had been brought up privileged, he'd never had to serve anyone in his life until Erik - he was certain to have made a lot of mistakes that had to have just exacerbated the situation.

He didn't hate Erik the way Raven sometimes seemed to... in fact, Charles missed Erik, like a dull ache that seemed to resonate through his core of self, like withdrawal; but it wasn't an unfamiliar pain. Before yesterday, however, Charles had never been the one to initiate separation. Thinking about that only made his throat start to clench up in self-doubt, and he drew in another deep, shaky breath.

"You deserved better," Raven retorted, squeezing at his shoulders, even as she slipped what felt like a credit card into the back pocket of his pants. "I have to go. Call me if you need me."

"I will," Charles said gratefully, even as Logan chose that time to come out of the bathroom, stretching and yawning but thankfully semi-decent in boxer shorts and a ratty bath robe, ambling towards the kitchen to open the fridge. Raven rolled her eyes, rising to her feet and leaving the apartment briskly, without so much as a backward glance at Logan.

"Okay," Logan said dryly, pouring himself a glass of juice from the fridge, "How did I piss her off?"

"She's protective."

"Could'a fooled me," Logan glanced at the chain at Charles' neck, pointedly, then he finished the juice and ambled over to the wardrobe before Charles could scramble to defend his sister. "I've got shit that needs to get done, I'll be back in a couple o' hours or so. It ain't all gonna be on the straight and narrow, so you don't have to come if it ain't gonna be your thing."

"All right." Charles said softly, uncomfortably.

Logan frowned. "Are you gonna be fine here by yourself, or do you wanna come with me anyway? I'll leave you some cash."

"I'll stay." Charles didn't really feel up to following Logan around on what was probably going to be fairly nefarious and possibly illegal 'business', not right now, and besides, he was going to have to unpack, and clean up the apartment. At the least. And do something about the clothes.

"Right, then." Logan was pulling on a flannel shirt, eyeing him thoughtfully. "Don't do anything stupid, yeah?"

"I won't," Charles managed a wan smile. "I'll, um, see you later, then."

Logan nodded slowly, buckling on a worn belt, and then he took a step forward, as though about to approach Charles; then his gaze dropped to the metal chain again, and he turned away instead without any further comment. Once Charles was alone in the apartment, he closed his eyes and pressed his palms over his neck, against the warmed metal, until the links began to bite into his flesh.

IV.

Charles located a laundromat around the corner of the block and had figured out how to use it via trial and error, albeit cosseted by other chatty, friendly probable-subs who had been also been using the machines, all humans. Brooklyn was mostly a human suburb, if Charles recalled, from the demographic maps that were tacked up in one of the staterooms in Erik's villa, filled with the so-called lower working-class and poor. He stood out, with his accent and his soft hands and his tailor-fitted pants and handmade shoes, and on hindsight it was probably a miracle that he had managed to get back to Logan's apartment without getting mugged.

By the time Logan finally returned, Charles had made ham sandwiches, scrubbed the apartment, changed the sheets on the bed, folded the quilt on the ground, reordered the wardrobe and was busy arranging the box of papers from his desk into some form of order, cross-legged beside the punching bag. From the looks of it, Raven had simply shoved whatever she could find into the box, and as well meaning as that had been, the loose leafs were now a disaster.

Absorbed, Charles flinched violently, yelping, when Logan said, behind him, "Hey. No, don't get up."

"You're back," Charles said, inanely, and mentally kicked himself, instinctively expecting an eye-roll or some gesture of contempt, but Logan was helping himself to the plate of sandwiches, pulling off his bomber jacket and tossing it onto the bed. There were grease stains on his elbow, dust over his boots, but other than that, nothing outwardly suspicious.

"These aren't too bad," Logan said, indistinctively, looking around himself, then over at the sink. "Did you just clean up?" At Charles' cautious nod, Logan snorted. "I said that I wasn't looking for a servant, Charlie. Some o' those stains were like old friends."

"I'm sorry," Charles said quickly, flushing with guilt - he knew he should have sought instructions. "I'll, ah, find a way to-"

"That was a joke, princess," Logan cut in, his eyes narrowed and dark, then the banked violence was shuttered away as he picked up another sandwich. "Lighten up."

"All right." Lighten up? What did that mean, anyway? Confused by the slang and resolving to ask Raven about it later, Charles decided to try and change the topic. "How did your... business... go?"

"I didn't kill nobody, if that's what you meant," Logan said dryly, and as Charles frowned, puzzling out the double negative, Logan clarified dryly, "Meaning that no one died, Charlie. I get gigs sometimes. My contact wanted to give me a heads up for next month."

Logan, Charles had heard, was a mercenary - Erik had once called him a killer who loaned out his services to the highest bidder. It seemed at odds with all the gentleness that Logan had shown him so far; unsettled all over again, Charles nodded slowly, biting on his lower lip. "But you do sometimes kill people."

"Is that gonna be a problem?" Logan sounded - curious, amused, even, so Charles decided to forge onwards.

"Killing people never fixes anything, Logan."

"I ain't ever had an interest in fixing things."

"Then..." why, Charles wanted to ask, though he hesitated, unsure whether pushing Logan would annoy him, like last night - Logan had gotten angry at Charles' terrible lack of propriety and his incessant babbling, he was sure of it. It was usually the reason why he got punished.

Logan reached for another sandwich. "Long time back, I killed a man in Utah. I wasn't paid for it, and I didn't know him, he didn't know me. I just was passing through the town when I saw him belting his wife - his sub - in the middle o' the street, within an inch o' her life, while she was crying and begging him to stop, she'd wet herself and she stank of fear, and her little tykes were just watching, just a stone's throw away, their eyes dead like anything."

"So I walked up to him and stuck my claws up through his ribs." Logan ate the sandwich unhurriedly, swallowing with a gulp. "Got run out o' town. 'Sheriff, that man there killed mah husband!'" Logan mimicked, with a twist to his mouth, "Like I done her wrong. And now that I think o' it, maybe I did. The law won't string up a man for beating his sub, as long as she don't die from it. Maybe there wasn't gonna be any other way she could bring those two tykes up. Anyway, it was the last time I tried to fix anything with my claws. I'm saying that you're right, by the way," Logan elaborated, with an arched eyebrow, "So you can stop gawping at me now, Charlie."

Charles dropped his eyes quickly. Logan had just... Logan had just talked about a random murder of a total stranger, matter-of-factly, as though he had been discussing the weather, and... and the professor within him had only one, burning question. "How long ago was that?"

"Mm." Logan scratched absently at his jaw, the way he did whenever he was thinking. "'Bout forty, fifty years ago, give or take. It was before the last big war. Never really been back to Utah ever since. I doubt that there's a standing warrant for my arrest, if that's what you're getting at."

"Forty...? How old are you?" Charles asked, fascinated now - Logan's mutation had to be the key. Constantly regenerating cells would, effectively, make Logan immortal.

"Can't remember," Logan said, in a tone that indicated that he definitely did, but didn't want to discuss it. "I've been around."

"And you've never met anyone suitable?"

As far as statistics went, roughly half the world's population was successfully imprinted. It did mean that popular mythos of the Dom-Sub relationship being 'fated' was clearly incorrect - likely, Subs imprinted on Doms that were biologically appropriate, and upon the imprinting's pheromonal correction of both the Dom's and Sub's brain chemistry, neither party would become anything more than physically attracted to others, if at all - the natural effect of 'mating for life'. It was a throwback from an earlier evolutionary cycle. Doms that were long-lived, or travelled often, were far more likely to meet a matching sub. For Logan to be alone all this while-

Logan shrugged. "Nope. Once, a friend of mine said," he continued, polishing off the last sandwich, "That it wasn't gonna be possible."

"Really? Why's that?" Social niceties warred a brief, bloody struggle with scientific curiosity and lost - Charles scrambled for his notepad and a pen.

Thankfully, Logan didn't seem to take offense. "Healing factor," Logan tapped at his head. "I don't get drunk, I can't get gassed, I've been shot in the head and I've survived it. My friend said that imprinting won't take, because my brain ain't ever gonna change."

"That's very interesting," Charles scribbled notes frantically. "If your friend is available for a chat, I'll love to meet him. I'm writing a research thesis on genetics and its effect on the imprinting process, and I'm always really interested in-"

"He was an army surgeon in my regiment during the last big war," Logan cut in, circling around the kitchen bench to pour himself a glass of water. "You ain't gonna be talking to him unless you don't mind chatting up his gravestone. Landmine got our truck," Logan elaborated, when Charles froze up.

"I'm... I'm truly sorry to hear that."

"Lots of good people died, he was in decent company." Logan drank deep, his thick throat working, expressionless. "Happens a fuckin' lot when there's a war."

There wasn't any heat in Logan's tone, only the same, flat acceptance, but it did suggest a reason behind Logan's challenge. Solitary Doms sometimes became protective of Subs, even those which had already imprinted or which were not biologically suitable - he'd seen it to varying degrees around Erik, after all. A few of the young Doms around Erik, particularly Alex Summers and his companions, tended to make an effort to be friendly, especially when Erik wasn't around.

He had never heard of a Dom outright challenging another over an imprinted Sub, however, at least, not recently. The practice of challenge was an ancient and rather antiquated law, back from when racial and class lines still ran deep, and often the Dom that started a challenge was an outraged brother or a father, looking to correct a socially inappropriate match.

"Do you do that often? With the woman in Utah," Charles asked cautiously. "And with me. Challenge other Doms."

"Can't save someone who doesn't want saving," Logan said, and even though Charles had been careful to hide the chain under his button-up shirt, he knew that Logan was thinking about it. He didn't know if any of his uncertainty became obvious on his features, but Logan sighed, out aloud. "Second rule, Charlie. I ain't gonna expect anything from you, but if you want something from me, you're gonna ask me for it."

"I don't understand."

"If you want me to do anything for you, just talk to me. Don't think about whether it's 'appropriate' or whether you're gonna piss me off, shit like that. You want something, you ask. Yeah?"

"All right," Charles said, doubtfully.

"And you're not going to ask for shit that you think that I want you to ask for," Logan continued slowly, "This rule is for things that you want for yourself. Understand?"

"Yes." Charles quickly swallowed the instinctive sir, frowning to himself. What sort of rule was that? Still, it wasn't going to be difficult to follow-

"Also," Logan added, "You're gonna ask me for at least one thing, everyday. Starting from today. Could be anytime, but I'll prefer it, just saying, that it ain't first thing in the morning or in the middle o' the night."

Charles blinked. "Subs don't give Doms orders."

"Let's just forget that entire sorry fuckin' business for now. My house, Charlie, my rules," Logan reminded him, with a quick smirk.

"Are you sure that you're a Dom?" Charles asked, confused enough to retreat behind attempted levity.

"I haven't ever felt the urge to kiss up to anyone's ass, if that's what you mean."

"In that case, um," Charles thought wildly for the most neutral thing that he could ask for, "I'll like a glass of water, please."

Wordlessly, Logan poured a glass of water from the jug that Charles had boiled earlier, and walked over in his loping stride, handing it over. "Wasn't hard, was it?"

Charles took a sip from the glass, shaking his head wryly. "I don't think that I'll ever understand you, my friend."

"Maybe it'll keep you on your toes."

V.

Somewhat to Charles' exasperation, Raven blithely bought out the apartment next door and had an adjoining door installed, possibly in breach of local council bylaws or something similar. Logan had been amused - he had just made some sardonic comment about Raven's 'restraint' and the fact that she hadn't tried to buy out his apartment as well. Money greased the wheels of the gods of interior decoration, and soon it looked like a transplant of his old office in Oxford, complete with the antique timber bookshelves, the mahogany desk and the overstuffed chairs. Spare cabinets and a wardrobe in a corner seemed incongruous, but they were a necessity - Logan's apartment wasn't really for two.

"The others want to have lunch," Raven said casually, when the fit-out was complete, and she was helping Charles stack books onto the shelves; there were four more boxes from the villa to sort through. Logan seemed to have left them to their own devices, having disappeared from the vicinity when Raven was still ordering the workmen around.

"The others?" Charles hesitated, with an armful of books about imprinting algorithms.

"You know. Alex, Armando, Sean, Angel?"

"Oh." Charles shot his sister a sidelong glance as he slotted the books alphabetically along the shelves. "Did you have something to do with that?"

"No." Raven looked far too innocent about it. When Charles sighed, she added, somewhat sulkily, "All right, maybe I got tired of them taking me aside to ask after you, and I suggested that we could just all have lunch sometime, and they can come and see for themselves."

"Erik won't like that," Charles said instantly, without even thinking, going back to the boxes for another armful of books, then he asked, "What?" when he nearly walked right into Raven.

"Erik isn't your Dom any longer," Raven pointed out, again with that deceptive mildness that crept into his sister's tone whenever she was on the verge of one of her Moods. The sorts that Charles mentally labelled as a 'keep calm and make yourself scarce' situation. "Honestly, Charles," Raven was struggling to keep her tone gentle, "Is it really that... you keep acting like Erik's just around the corner! Like you'll run back to him if he just crooks his fucking finger!"

"Language," Charles murmured automatically, his eyes fixed on his feet.

"Screw that," Raven snarled, raising her voice sharply, "I have waited years for you to finally get tired of the way he treated you and now you're acting like your world just ended! I can't believe you, Charles. You've seen how other pairs work. You've known all along that whatever you and Erik were going at, it was fucked up! If I thought for a second that I could best him in a fight I would have challenged him for you years ago."

"You're my sister and-"

"Not by blood. It's allowed. I got two different sets of legal opinions on that." Raven said grimly. "I just didn't want to try since I knew that I didn't have a chance in hell. After all, if I died, nobody else was going to be there for you and... and... okay. Okay. Let's not fight." Raven hugged him tightly, and Charles realized, dimly, that he was shaking uncontrollably. "Okay. I'm sorry I shouted at you. I'm sorry."

Charles carefully held his sister close, his head buried in her bright red hair, until the familiar scent and warmth calmed his breathing, the anxiety slowly fading, then he said, in a murmur, "What do you think of Logan?"

"What do I... why?" Raven drew back, her hands clenched on his arms, her amber eyes narrowed. "What did he... did he do something to you?"

"No, no, he's been perfectly..." Charles wanted to say kind, but amended, awkwardly, "Strange."

"What do you mean, 'strange'?" Raven asked, suspicious, and Charles ended up spilling everything, including the odd rules, the way Logan insisted on sleeping on the goddamned quilt every night, even the story of the woman in Utah, the half-sorted books forgotten at their feet.

"I don't understand him," Charles finished off, as he began to stack the books again. "I don't know what he's trying to get me to do for him."

"Oh, Charles." Raven's eyes were soft now. "If you don't even know that, then it must have been worse than I thought. I never should have forced you to go to that party with me."

Raven, Charles knew, used to harbor a lot of odd guilt for being the reason that Charles had met Erik in the first place. Mutants were a minority, and uncommon in Westchester - she had been very interested in meeting more of her kind, and in the end, Charles had caved, using his family's connections to get them both invited to a charity gala in upstate New York, which funded mutant scholarships and further education. Raven had worn her blue form, if nervously at first, as she entered the ballroom upon Charles' arm, and they had then been promptly invited into a private function room by the so-called, separatist Hellfire Club there. Where they had met the White King, the famous Erik Lehnsherr.

All in all, the night had been a thorough disaster, but his imprinting had never been Raven's fault. Not even Erik blamed anyone for it - imprints were often random, after all, and it was unusual for mutants to imprint with humans. No one could have predicted what could have happened. "I'm happy to have it clarified for me, by the way."

"A proper Dom-Sub relationship is about power, you know," Raven said, intently. "Both sides have power over each other. Subs are partners, they're not property."

"It's not prescribed," Charles said automatically, having looked into this himself during the first, rocky few months of his imprinting. "A Dom's legally well within his rights to punish his Sub however he sees fit, as long as he doesn't do murder."

"Some things are worse than murder," Raven muttered, though she started picking up books again. "But it's good that we had this talk. I'm a little less concerned now. I mean, that's if you don't mind being around Logan."

"He's confusing, but I think that he means well," Charles was all too aware that he sounded terribly stilted. "I don't like the uncertainty." Uncertainty made him anxious; it meant that he was walking among tripwires, never certain of what he was going to set off. "Also, I don't think that he's even, well, that interested in me. Sexually," Charles added reluctantly, with a grimace, when Raven arched both her eyebrows. "The, um, that time that Erik lent me to him, he didn't, well, he didn't finish." Logan had gotten hard, but Charles - guiltily - didn't quite remember if he'd come; Charles himself had been so touch-starved that day that he'd been blind to anything but those big, warm, rough hands, the texture of the stubble under his cheek, Logan's gruff words.

"That's too much information, thanks," Raven muttered. "But that works out for now, doesn't it? You're not interested in him, are you?"

"Well, no," Charles admitted, with a sigh.

He had long been conditioned - biologically, at the very least - to desire only one person, and that person was not Logan. He could manage a physical reaction if Logan ever touched him - that much he had ample proof of - but Logan wasn't the one whom he longed for when he was alone. Charles wasn't sure if that would ever change - from the research, it seemed unlikely, but his situation, as far as he knew, was unique. He'll have to look into it sometime, for the sake of his thesis, but personally, Charles was... relieved that Logan had made no further advances, even though it was baffling. If Logan still desired him, that would have made his situation so much clearer. Desire often undercut rational behavior, after all.

"Pity." Raven pressed her hand below his throat, over the chain hidden under his shirt, for a brief moment, then she pursed her lips and let her hand drop. "I was hoping... it would have been easier for the both of you. So, about that lunch?"

Under Raven's intent stare, Charles caved, as he always did. "Well. Any time that you're all free. I don't want to impose on anyone, so please don't force them to come."

"Good! I'll get it organised." Raven pressed a quick peck to his cheek. "And, Charles? You might want to play along with Logan and his rules, even if you don't understand them. He's your Dom now, after all."

"Yes. Yes, I know." The thought was still a miserable one, but the fact of it, and the future itself, now seemed - perhaps - a little less bleak than it had before.

VI.

The days settled into a comfortable routine that Charles gratefully embraced, alongside a third rule that seemed as equally mysterious as the previous two: if Charles wanted Logan to come into the new apartment, he would need to give Logan a specific reason to do so. Charles had been anxious about the new rule at the beginning, enough to find a public payphone and call Raven about it when Logan had disappeared the next day.

It was obvious, he told her, close to wringing his hands, that Logan hadn't liked the idea of Raven buying up the apartment next door and knocking a hole in Logan's wall to connect them up, it had been rather awfully presumptuous of them both, after all. Raven had merely said 'Hmm', in the somewhat irritating way she had sometimes, in their childhood, whenever she was keeping juvenile secrets from him, and had blithely ignored his concerns, and went so far as to tell him not to worry about it. Careful study of Logan over the next few days had indicated that Raven was right, after all: Logan didn't seem bothered in the least that his apartment had just effectively doubled in size - but Charles was wary of taking it all for granted.

As it was, other than the glaring lack of Erik in his life, the rest of it was now rather more satisfactory, if Charles had to admit it. Logan had no restrictions on what he did all day, or the visitors he could receive or for how long; greedily, Charles proceeded to spend hours each day with Raven whenever she visited him, simply talking, and after the first, entirely awkward lunch with Alex and the others within which it was obviously clear that everyone had been shanghaied into going by Raven, lunch became a weekly occurrence that he was starting to look forward to.

"Sean said that he found something new yesterday," Charles told Logan, seated on the bed and watching Logan smoking a cigar at the balcony. "He could knock people out by pitching his voice into another frequency. I suspect that it might affect their eardrums. They would feel awfully nauseous, at the very least."

"Gonna hurt all his friends as well if he ain't careful," Logan said thoughtfully. That was another thing about Logan that Charles appreciated - Logan was a patient listener, even if it was obvious that certain topics bored him, and he usually tried to contribute. Erik had little patience for anything that wasn't in his scope of affairs, but Logan seemed immune to Charles' chattering.

"Yes, I did remind him of that. Perhaps he could practice with Armando - that's the young man with the ability to adapt; he's the least likely to get hurt, though I'll be curious to see what his mutation would come up with, against Sean. The results could be interesting for the both of them."

"Didn't realize that you were interested in teaching kiddies, Prof," Logan had come up with a new pet name for him after Charles had self-consciously put up his framed degrees on a spare wall of the study at Raven's insistence. He had been allowed to display them in his study in the villa, but Erik preferred not to mention them, if at all; he didn't like people noticing (or worse, praising) Charles any more than was really necessary.

"I find the development of mutations fascinating - I once considered writing a term paper on it. The mutations that the X-genome manifests all seem to be all unique, or if they are not, they seem to be paired with unique secondary mutations. It's akin to a fingerprint. If I could correlate that with a wider data pool, that would be perfect," Charles said wistfully, then he realized that Logan was watching him intently. "Yes?"

"I might know someone with access to that sort of information."

"Really?" Not even Erik had that kind of data at his disposal. "How's that possible?"

"Let me talk to this guy first, see if he's interested in giving you clearance," Logan said evasively. "What would you do with that sort o' intel? Write a book?"

"Write a paper, yes," Charles said, puzzled. What else would someone do with such a wide data pool? "I have a doctorate in genetics. What else would I need this sort of data for?"

"I'll talk to him. No promises though," Logan warned, when Charles brightened up visibly.

"Thank you so much, Logan, it would be a great help to my research-"

"I said no promises. Don't get excited."

"Even so," Charles murmured, shyly, "You've been very kind to me, and I haven't really been able to reciprocate."

"You cook and clean," Logan pointed out, with a quirk at his lips. "And you're easy on the eyes. Man can't ask for more."

"And you keep telling me that you don't want a servant," Charles shot back. "What do you want from me, Logan? You can tell me. I want to know. I'll try my best."

Logan breathed out, and even from the bed, Charles instantly wrinkled his nose at the acrid scent of cheap cigar smoke. "I've told you before, this ain't about what you can do for me."

"Rule two," Charles said quickly, before he lost his nerve.

Logan opened his mouth, possibly to protest that Rule two didn't consider cross-examination in its scope, but he smirked instead and took another drag of his cigar, rolling it absently in his thick fingers, then puffing out another murky cloud of smoke. "I want you to pick yourself up, Prof. You're being carried by others now, your sister, for one, but the fix won't take until you start walking forward on your own feet."

Charles frowned. Logan was being cryptic again. "I don't know-"

"And then," Logan continued, as though Charles hadn't even spoken, "When I think that you're ready, I would'a liked to teach you how to kiss."

"Oh," Charles said, so very intelligently, and much to his mortification, he could feel a blush creeping up from his neck. Kissing, caresses and other lover's touches were intimacies that Erik eschewed; after imprinting, the only lover's kiss that he'd ever received had been from Logan, come to think of it, and it had been very good. However, he didn't quite see what Logan would get out of it. "Is that... is that all?"

" 'Is that all', he asks me," Logan muttered, as though to himself, his gaze growing hot for a moment as he raked his eyes over Charles, then he turned up his chin to blow a cloud of smoke upwards. "If we ever get to that point, I'll let you know, Prof." His tone was idle, but rough with ample promise.

Charles' blush had climbed determinedly to his cheeks at the frank appraisal, even as the rest of him relaxed. It seemed that lust was the reason, after all. That, he could understand. Erik had once told him rather acerbically that he hadn't the faintest idea why solitary Doms occasionally asked Erik for a loan of Charles, and Charles had to agree. Sure, Logan hadn't been the first Dom to tell him that he was 'pretty', but Charles usually disregarded the compliments as empty words. After all, they weren't spoken by anyone whose opinion he truly desired.

Now, however... he wasn't entirely sure, and there was nothing quite so gratifying, Charles realized, as knowing that someone whom you valued wanted you. It was a little of a confidence boost, if anything. "How... where could I start?"

"You really can't figure it out?" There wasn't any pity in Logan's tone, only a genuine curiosity.

"Logan," Charles said wryly, "I think I'm in a rather unique position right now. Though, you've lived for centuries, haven't you? Maybe you've seen the like before?"

"Nice try, bub," Logan drawled, "And no more fishing for my age, thank you kindly. Yes, I've seen cases like yours before where Subs had to leave their Doms, though not many, thank fuck; it's always a goddamned sorry business all round. No, there's no fixed starting point, but in your case, I'll give you a broad hint." Logan traced one thick finger around the base of his neck, where a chain would sit. "Understand?"

Charles could kick himself - that much had been glaringly obvious: the first step would be to let go of the past. So much for his vaunted intellect. He nearly brought his fingers up to the chain, to touch it the way he did whenever he was uncertain, but he clenched them in the sheets instead, with a slow breath. It had been weeks, with no word whatsoever from Erik, there had been a valid challenge, legally speaking, and if he had to think about it, the dull ache of separation and rejection was little different from the norm, when he had still been at Erik's side. It had been there even when they had been in bed together.

Raven was right - what he and Erik had was a broken thing, wrong and fractured. Perhaps this severance was good for them both, after all. There was no real use in hoping for reconciliation when it was very unlikely to come - Charles was fairly sure that Erik would rather take a mortal wound than come to Charles and tell him to return: after all, it would in effect be admitting that he needed a human by his side, even if he made Charles crawl back to him.

And as to himself - although he suspected that should Erik call him back to his side, he would return, Charles no longer entertained thoughts of returning to Erik out of his own free will. He was a little more at peace now than he was before, even if his circumstances were still measured in degrees of misery. Viewed in that way, the chain was now an anachronism.

"Take it off me, then." Charles said, as casually as he could, even though his hands were white-knuckled on the sheets, and Logan flicked his gaze down at his hands, then at his neck, and snorted.

"When you're ready, sure."

"I'm ready. Rule two," Charles said again, slowly this time, forcing himself to meet Logan's eyes.

"Huh," Logan said, though he stubbed out his cigar on the balcony rail, exhaling, and came closer, until he was sitting beside Charles on the bed, smelling strongly of smoke and ash. "Sure?"

"I'm sure," Charles said tightly, though he trembled a little when Logan reached forward and hooked the chain out from under his collar with one thick finger.

"There's no catch. I'll get a-"

"Use your claws," Charles cut in, before his newfound nerve failed him, and it seemed that he finally said the right thing - Logan's feral eyes dilated, and he tensed, wetting his lips with a flick of his tongue, then his expression smoothed to neutral, and he held up his free hand, extending a claw a couple of inches past his knuckles, carefully hooking it under the chain. The metal links caught, then snapped at a flick of Logan's wrist, pulling briefly tight against his neck, then Logan was dangling it in the air, a long length of gleaming metal, twisted at the ends, still and broken like the life he had had ever since his imprinting.

"What do you want me to do with this?" Logan asked quietly, and the air around them seemed to thicken, time growing slow around the lightheadedness that seemed to have infused Charles' mind, like a shot of pure sensation, like inevitability. This was a first step forward, and oh, but he ached at taking it, swimming upwards against a tide, as though a part of him was being wrenched free and burned to ashes.

It was a good hurt, Charles thought. Or it would be, in time.

"Charlie?"

"It's not something of mine any longer." Charles said slowly, tasting the words as they came, and Logan nodded, stalking over to the window and tossing it unceremoniously out of sight. Charles strained his ears, fancied hearing it tinkle somewhere on the asphalt where it fell; it'd be scavenged overnight, if he knew the neighbourhood. Good.

"Also," he added, when Logan sat back down again, "Do I, ah, get something from you? Not that I want to presume or anything, I meant, I think it's customary, and it doesn't have to be much, or-"

"Do you want something from me?" Logan interrupted his babble, his gaze intent.

"I..." Charles hesitated, and Logan misread his silence, turning to look back over at the balcony.

"No rush. And I ain't much for customs."

"I meant, if you want to-"

"I asked a simple question, Prof. It's a yes-no answer."

"Then," Charles said helplessly, awkwardly, "Yes." Some of the tension strung tight in him faded even as he said so, though the anxiety remained, a cold weight in his belly. Collars were comfort items to Subs, after all, marking tokens symbolic of a link. Even if he and Logan would never imprint, Charles found that he did want something of Logan's, for the reassurance, if nothing else. Besides, it was all merely symbolic at this point - legally speaking, he was already Logan's, since Club Genosha and-

"Don't think." Thick fingers curled carefully over the nape of his neck, pressing rough pads briefly over the reddened mark where the chain had briefly pressed tight against him. "Wait. Breathe."

Charles blinked, the whirl of self-justification within him grinding to a halt, and then he blinked again, more slowly, as they ebbed into a warm, tranquil blank. Logan's lip curled up at the edge into a lopsided sort of smirk, as though he was pleased, his thumb a light, welcome pressure over Charles' pulse. "You're so easy, Charlie. That's a good thing," he added, when Charles tried to frown. "I want you to sit here and count your breaths in your mind. Don't speak. Got that?"

Charles nodded slowly, and Logan pressed the flat of his palms over Charles' knuckles until his fingers flattened and splayed on the bed. One, Charles thought, then two, three. Logan had pushed himself off the bed, circling around to his wardrobe and rummaging within it, but it seemed like a distant echo in his now self-enclosed reality. He had reached twenty-two when a dip in the bed beside him told him that Logan was back, and big fingers were clasping something heavy over his neck - another chain, his mind told him, but anxiety couldn't quite reach the serenity in his mind. Thirty, Charles counted, as he noted the thicker links, the weight at the end; the chain was also metal but it was rougher, heavier, and he had chosen to wear it. It was Logan's. It was his.

"I want you to count back down from wherever you are," Logan said quietly, "And then you're gonna come back up for me."

Twenty-nine, Charles thought, dreamily, then twenty-eight.

After the count of one, Charles rubbed at his eyes, stretching, before looking down. The long chain was stainless steel, and it was heavy enough that Charles was going to need to get used to wearing it. The weight at the end was a pair of what looked like army-issue dog tags. "Wolverine," Charles read out, then he traced a thumb over the etched numbers: 458-25-243.

"I'm not one for collars and shit," Logan shrugged. "I think they're fuckin' tacky. The way I figure it, if I give you something, it might as well be something of mine."

"But this is so..." personal, Charles wanted to say, biting on his lower lip. "What if you ever meet someone suitable?"

Logan snorted. "We'll take that day if it comes, Charlie. Do you want the chain, or not? Your choice. I s'pose it might be a bit too heavy for you."

"No, no, I want it." Charles looped his fingers in the long chain and pressed the tags into his palm, warming them against his skin. "Thank you sir. I mean, thank you, Logan."

Logan didn't seem to notice the slip. "Right, then." The big hand was around the back of his neck again, a thumb pushed up under one of the heavy links as if to contrast the color of it against Charles' pale skin, but before Charles could try to lean into the touch, Logan drew back, fishing in his pockets for another cigar. "Might want to get some rest."

VII.

"We're here. That means that you can let go o' me now," Logan said, his voice thick with amusement.

Charles pulled off the helmet that Logan had thrust into his arms this morning and scrambled off Logan's bike with relief. The motorcycle was a Harley, and from the way Logan treated it, it was obviously his pride and joy; a monster of a machine, unselfconsciously noisy, bulky and brash - rather, Charles noted, like its master.

Logan had gone through a security checkpoint into what looked like a private compound of warehouses, all rows of dull, rust-red single-storey buildings. The bike was parked in the shade of a tree, close to a motley array of other cars, mostly dusty vans and old Fords. "It ain't your first time on a bike," Logan observed dryly.

"Yes, but I'm fairly sure that you didn't go that fast the last time," Charles said, bent with his hands on his knees and trying to control his breathing. Not that he had been in any state to think about very much at all the first time he had been on Logan's bike, outside Club Genosha; he couldn't even recall very much at all of the route. "Not all of us have healing factors in the case of emergencies."

"Princess," Logan accused, though he smirked, hooking the thumb of his right hand into a jeans pocket, circling around to press the flat of his other palm against the small of Charles' back. "C'mon, then. Our other ride's waiting."

After giving him the chain, Logan was far freer with casual touches; he would often reach absently for Charles if Charles came within range, but it was always nothing more than light grips on his arms or shoulders or a touch low on his back. Charles wasn't entirely sure what to make of it, or whether he wanted more; Erik had never been a particularly tactile person, even with his closest circle of friends. It wasn't unpleasant, and he had observed similar behavioral patterns in some of the other Dom-Sub pairs, both mutant and human, but he wasn't certain how to... react. Any attempt at reciprocation would look awfully stiff and forced; he'd been trained to keep his hands to himself unless instructed.

He was still thinking this over when Logan brought him past the line of warehouses to a circular platform, upon which, of all things, was a small black helicopter. Startled, Charles looked over to Logan. "Where are we going again?"

Logan didn't answer, helping him into the craft and squeezing in after him, strapping down and hastily pulling a pair of earmuffs over his head, then fitting on a pair for Charles and strapping him in place when Charles merely gawked at the cockpit. The helmeted pilot glanced back over at Logan, started up the engines after a curt nod, and soon they were pulling up into the sky. Charles craned his head to take a look at the scenery falling down fast beneath them, with the roar of the blades scything above him, amazed.

"This is so exciting!" Charles turned to Logan with a broad, delighted grin, only to note that Logan was hunched against his seat, eyes resolutely closed. "Logan?"

"Shut it, we're on the ground," Logan growled tersely, his voice faintly audible through the earmuffs and the drone of the blades, and it took a moment for Charles to put his finger on the problem.

"You're afraid of flying?" Logan? I-done-killed-a-man-in-Utah Logan? Logan, who had walked blithely into Club Genosha to challenge the most powerful mutant in the world? "Logan, look, even if we crash, you'll survive it. You have a healing factor."

"You're. Not. Helping," Logan grit out, growing a little pale.

"You've been in the wars... you do 'gigs'... I'm sure that you've flown hundreds of times," Charles said, as soothingly as possible. "There's nothing to be worried about. Statistically, you're more likely to be run over on the street than killed in an aircraft accident."

There was a badly stifled snigger from the cockpit, even as Logan groaned. "If I throw up, I swear that I'm gonna throw up on you, Xavier."

"Don't be silly, there's definitely a paper bag around here somewhere." Charles scrounged briefly, twisting in his seat.

"Just shut it, Xavier. Now."

Charles hid a grin, though he obeyed. Under his shirt, the heavy chain shifted as the helicopter banked, lifting higher with a lurch, and Logan grimaced, shrinking back further into his seat, a perfect picture of suffering. Below, Manhattan sprawled, its skyscrapers reaching like silver fingers into the sky, and Charles drank in the sight greedily until Logan grunted and started swearing under his breath. Wordlessly, Charles reached over, pressing his forefinger and middle finger against the underside of Logan's right wrist, then drawing the big hand towards him, clasping the sweating palm with his left hand and stroking his thumb over the exit points of the claws with his right.

As he hoped, Logan stilled instantly, frowning, though he didn't open his eyes, and eventually, his breathing also slowed from its heavy rasp, calming down. Encouraged, Charles kept it up, drawing small circles on the rough skin with his thumbs, pausing only when the helicopter abruptly drew level with a massive black aircraft carrier, far larger than any commercial jet or tanker that Charles had ever seen, forging through the clouds in a heavy rumbling drone of its eight gigantic propellers, circling high over the huge flat landing strip, heading for an unoccupied helipad.

Charles didn't have much time to marvel at the incredible sight; with a neatness that had to be born of practice, the helicopter banked and landed on the marked pad, ground crew approaching when the rotor blades stopped spinning, and Logan was out of the small aircraft in a flash, rubbing a palm over his face and making an obscene gesture at the pilot over some comment that Charles couldn't catch.

The wind caught and pulled at his jacket and hair as Charles slowly looked over the gigantic landing strip with undisguised curiosity. Other helicopters were landing and taking off from other helipads, and to his left, jet planes lined in a neat row, surrounded by ground crew. Beyond and around them was a filmy sea of clouds, and below, to his right, the sprawling metropolis of Manhattan.

"Beautiful," Charles breathed. Where were they?

"C'mere," Logan was suddenly at his side, tugging him firmly along. "They don't like it when visitors start gawping."

"Where are we?" Charles obligingly allowed himself to be pulled after Logan, keeping pace with his long strides as they headed towards the bridge. "Are these the people who give you gigs? Is this strictly legal? Is this a government organisation? Did our taxes really build something like this?"

"Shush," Logan said dryly, as a couple of ground crew shot them puzzled glances, and he slipped one big palm up to press it briefly against the nape of Charles' neck. "Later."

Charles swallowed his barrage of questions instantly, with a blink, his cheeks growing warm, even as the ground crew politely averted their eyes. They were in public - granted, in public on what looked like a black ops aircraft - and Logan had just asserted his place, easy as you please, the way more established, secured pairs tended to. Ducking his head to drop his eyes as Logan led him through a door and downwards, below deck, Charles drew the dog tags out from under his shirt, clasping them tightly in his palms for a moment before leaving them visible, over his clothes, his heart beating faster even as he did so.

Erik had not allowed him to wear the metal chain visibly, even if it had to be obvious to any observant newcomer who Charles' Dom was. It wasn't something that bothered him, not then; it was the very least of a long list of privations, and it had never occurred to him to want to wear it visibly, not since Erik's first command that he leave it hidden. With Logan, however, wearing the tags openly felt right, somehow. If Logan made any comment, Charles had Rule two, which Logan had unquestioningly honored to date, and knowing that was slowly making him bolder.

Logan glanced at him as they reached the bottom of the steep flight of steps, his gaze dropping to the dog tags, then tracking back up to Charles' face, and instead of a rebuke, his eyes went narrowed and dark again, hungry, and even as Charles straightened with an intake of breath the sound of someone's footstep below them made Logan turn.

"The Director is expecting you. Starboard observation room two." The security guard who greeted them at the foot of the stairway was heavily armed, decked out in black kevlar like a SWAT guard, holding a rifle in his hands, a black visor hiding his eyes as he let them through a thick, double-reinforced steel door into the narrow corridor beyond.

Logan seemed to know his way around, taking sharp corners with confidence, though he ignored anyone that they passed, keeping their pace brisk through the warren of sterile, steel corridors. This place would sing to Erik, Charles thought, for a brief moment, then he had to suppress a shudder. Whatever this facility was, the majority - or all - of its crew that Charles had met to date were visibly human. Erik could wreak a lot of damage in here if he wanted to-

"Hey." Logan paused before a closed steel door, turning to Charles. "Listen. Once we're in there, until I say that you can talk, you're gonna let me do the talking, all right?"

Charles nodded quickly. If whoever it was that they were going to meet had the data that Charles needed for his research, Charles was going to agree to any protocol that Logan wanted.

"Good." Logan pressed his palm over a small blue screen of glass to the right of the door, which glowed for a moment.

"Identity verified. Codename: Wolverine," a disembodied female voice said in a monotone. "Authorization: gamma-three."

Charles wasn't sure what to expect, but a large, starkly empty room with monochrome tile hadn't been factored anywhere in his imagined possibilities. The observation room was longer than their apartments combined, and the side facing outward into the clouds was all panels of glass. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood before it, arms crossed behind his back, dressed in a dark brown trench, black gloves and combat boots, and as he turned to face them, Charles noted with a blink that he was African-American, of indeterminable age, his head a shaved dome, sporting an eyepatch over his left eye.

"Logan." The Director said, by way of greeting, glancing over at Logan, then at Charles, his eye flicking down to the dog tags briefly, then tracking back to Logan. "Congratulations. I thought that you couldn't imprint."

"I didn't." Logan shrugged.

The Director frowned. "And you said that you were bringing Xavier."

"I did."

The Director's eyebrows rose, and the look that he shot Charles was far more calculating, tracking his features as though memorizing them. "What the flying fuck, Logan."

"I thought you knew," Logan frowned, straightening up almost imperceptibly, his big hands loose at his sides. Combat-ready, Charles thought, and shuffled a step closer to Logan, just in case violence was about to break loose.

"I heard that you shacked up with someone, possibly a Sub, but I didn't know who. And we've never been able to get a mole into the Hellfire Club, so we don't have any good recent photographs of Xavier due to the magnetic field that Lehnsherr gives off." The Director retorted, glowering at Logan. "I guess I should have known that the entire fucking fiasco of the last few weeks was your fault after all."

"What fiasco?"

"We got intel that Lehnsherr's been appearing at mutant-focus events without his Sub," the Director shrugged. "There's been a rumor going around that he was challenged for Xavier and lost. Given that Lehnsherr's the most powerful S-class mutant around, and all the other S-class mutants of imprinting age on record are already paired up, that meant that there would have had to be another new S-class around that we weren't aware of. Or so we thought."

"The second possibility, and one which I thought was the more likely one, seeing as that bit of Manhattan hasn't been turned into a blast zone," the Director added flatly, "Was that Lehnsherr had finally snapped and killed his human Sub. I can tell you that the President was hoping that that wasn't the case."

Charles sucked in a sharp intake of breath, but Logan was already talking, his tone sharp. "How's that?"

"I have a lot of reports on Lehnsherr, and all of them agree that it wasn't sunshine and fucking daisies with his human Sub. Political nightmare waiting to happen. Could be another civil war if the cards didn't pan right: we have a healthy number of humans who like mutants as much as Lehnsherr likes humans. If Lehnsherr had killed his Sub, we'd have had to arrest him for murder, and I doubt that'd have been a walk in the park. So. Xavier's alive. That's good. Fucking weird, but good."

"This is Nick Fury," Logan told a rather shell-shocked Charles blandly, if belatedly. "Director of SHIELD. I can never remember what that stands for."

"I like the way you spew confidential information like there's no tomorrow," Fury growled, stalking over to shake Charles' hand firmly. "Well? Can't he talk?"

"You can talk, Charlie," Logan muttered, hooking his thumbs into his hem of his jeans.

"I'm pleased to meet you," Charles said quickly, with as friendly a smile as he could manage. "I must say, I'm surprised that the government put a Sub in charge of a black ops military operation. Things must be very progressive now... what?" Charles asked, blinking, as Logan stared at him. "What did I say?"

"Well, fuck me," Logan said slowly, eyeing Fury up and down.

Fury pinched at the bridge of his nose. "Logan, must you always bring a goddamned circus onto my ship?"

Logan ignored him. "How did you know that, Charlie?"

"I have a doctorate in genetics," Charles frowned at Logan, rather stung by his doubt, "I've spent the last few years studying imprinting, with its myriad speech and behavioral patterns. It's rather clear when you know what to look out for, though I think that the Director's taken pains to correct most of his default habits."

"Who's your Dom, Fury?" Logan smirked, when Fury merely scowled at them both. "I'll never have figured this."

"Weren't you going to ask me for a favor?" Fury growled.

"It's Dugan, isn't it? Bloody hell."

"That's classified information."

Logan's smirk widened. "Does he spank you? Make you wear a collar?"

"Fuck you, asshole, what's your goddamned problem?"

"I was told," Charles cut in quickly, as Fury and Logan seemed to square off, radiating equal amounts of testosterone and menace, "That you might have access to a database of mutations, sir, for the purposes of my research paper. If you need a favor from me in return, please name it."

"Well," Fury said thoughtfully, after a pause, "I do need a mole in the Hellfire Club."

The sound of Logan unsheathing his claws was very loud in the room, and he took a menacing step forward, a low growl rumbling in his throat. Fury smirked nastily, even as Charles hastily caught Logan's arm. "Logan!"

"You deserved that," Fury told Logan, unrepentant and clearly unafraid. "I was kidding. Xavier doesn't look like he could lie his way out of a shitstorm, and he'll have the same problem as the rest of our moles - the White Queen's a goddamned decent telepath. So, out of curiosity, how the hell did you get Xavier?"

"Card game." Logan said shortly, sheathing his claws and pressing a hand over Charles' spine, just beneath his shoulder blades.

"Huh." Fury said, and shook his head slowly, though he looked thoughtful again. "You probably could have taken Lehnsherr in a fight, if you got close and didn't have any metal around."

"That's what I was prepared for."

"I would have sent you a fucking Christmas card if you did that. Would have cleared a lot of work off my desk."

"He didn't want any blood-letting," Logan grunted, jerking his chin at Charles.

"And you actually listened? Well, I'll be," Fury drawled, "Any more revelations and I'm going to have to lie down. And Xavier, I can't think of anything that I want from you that you're able to give, so Logan's going to be paying your debt."

"Figured." Logan said, clearly unsurprised. "What do you want now, Fury?"

"That's unfair," Charles protested quickly. "I could get money-"

"There are only three things that SHIELD is interested in, Xavier. Tech, muscle and intel. You're not in any position to provide me with any of those. Logan, on the other hand, is a fairly decent operative when he actually listens to orders-"

"Thanks," Logan noted dryly.

"-though he's fucking picky about his gigs," Fury concluded, ignoring the interjection. "I've got something lined up for you, once I get the details sorted out. I'll let you know. It'll probably be babysitting duty," Fury added, with a malicious smile.

"Great." Logan said, sounding resigned. "Charlie, you better milk the fuck out o' his database."

"One other restriction," Fury continued, "As you can imagine, the information is private and confidential. There are a lot of people out there who for their own reasons would prefer not to be outed as mutants, understand? So before you publish your paper, it's going to have to be approved personally by me."

"I'll agree to that, of course," Charles nodded, "But Logan, I really... you don't have to do this for me."

"I don't," Logan said mildly, if firmly, "But I want to."

Charles devoutly hoped that the flush creeping up from his neck wasn't visible; gratification seemed to pulse in a warm beat of slow pleasure within him, unfurling and tight. "I... I don't know what to say."

"I do - if the two of you start screwing on my carpet I'm going to kick you both out from the top deck," Fury said, his tone acerbic. "What the fuck, Logan, are you making up for lost time or something?"

"Please show me the database now," Charles said quickly, when Logan growled.

VIII.

"The Director told me to prepare a terminal for you. Here's your username and password." Fury had shunted them both off to a young, anxious-looking Sub by the name of Hank McCoy, lanky, tall and eternally hidden behind a pair of unfortunately large black round spectacles that crouched on his nose like a bulwark. "Um, so you log in like this, and then it should go straight to the... yes. Here we are."

Charles felt his eyes began to water at the white text that began to scroll up the small black screen of the terminal. "I've never seen a computer like this before."

"Oh, yes," Hank said, somewhat deferentially. They were all squeezed into a small, cubical office room with foldable furniture that had obviously been hastily set up and no windows; a thick cable snaked from the computer terminal into the closest wall, and like the rest of the helicarrier, the room hummed with a constant, background drone that was probably annoying to Logan's enhanced hearing. "It's a little misleading; the system's not actually that small, of course, it's not possible for it to be on our current level of technology. The actual mainframe's in the next room. The cabinets with the central processing units take up most of this floor."

"Most of the floor?" Charles blinked, impressed. That was a lot of processing power.

"It's all actually StarkTech, just like the helicarrier itself," Hank admitted, "But I've tried to make some improvements here and there. It's not really necessary, though, so usually I just run maintenance with my team and attend to my other, original projects in the rest of my time."

"I've met Stark the elder," Logan commented, lounging against the doorway, arms folded. "He was an asshole. Damned good pilot, though."

"You met Howard Stark?" Hank brightened up visibly. "What was he like?"

"I just said, kid."

"He's a genius, he and his son, I mean, some of the more experimental forms of StarkTech engineering in the helicarrier, and its propulsion array, it's far beyond anything else that I've seen," Hank gushed. "I would have loved to talk to him about his theories about subatomic alloys and-"

Charles mentally tuned out Hank's excited chattering. The database was sorted into impersonal fields: Number, Gender, Last Known Location, Capacity, Class and Status, and much of the actual information was all in abbreviations. "I'll need a key. A legend," Charles clarified, when Hank peered quickly at the terminal. "For all of these letters."

"Oh, yes." Hank sorted quickly through the clipboard that he was hugging protectively to his chest, and handed Charles ten pages of densely typed notes. "Here. You can run a search like this... it'll take a while though... say, for example, if I wanted to look up all the, er..."

"Telepath?" Charles offered.

"Telepathic mutants on record, that's 'Capacity/TP'. Here we go."

There were, surprisingly, only eight telepaths on record, and Frost was immediately recognisable despite the lack of a name. "TP, IN - Invulnerability." Charles glanced through the thickly clustered legend. Status HC - Hellfire Club. The others were mostly 'TP', with one 'TP, TK', and all were marked 'OP' under 'Status'. "OP?"

"Operatives," Hank said uncomfortably.

"In SHIELD?" That was... astounding.

"Not just SHIELD... Meaning some government organisation, somewhere in the world. Telepaths, as you can imagine, are really useful for a lot of work. Um. Just as a suggestion - I won't look into or mention those files in your paper, if I were you. The Director said that you were only to get basic access, so it'll all be anonymous, but you should be careful about those anyway. Sorry. I hope that's helpful."

Hank, Charles noted wryly, was one of those Subs that needed a Dom in his life for stability. "It's very helpful, thank you for your time."

Hank visibly relaxed. "I'll be heading back to my lab. If you need help, just tag one of the techs on this floor."

Logan remained silent until Hank had squeezed past, then he closed the door firmly, ambling over to rest his elbows on the back of Charles' chair, making it creak alarmingly. "This gonna take long?"

"Weeks. Maybe months. There's so much data," Charles said happily, then he turned in his seat quickly to regard Logan when he heard a snort. "That is, if I'm able to, and I don't want to have to have you keep paying my way and... I could get a print out and work from the apartment... if it's not too much trouble..." Charles murmured, when Logan merely watched him, inscrutable. "I don't want to presume."

"Just right then." Logan pressed the pad of his thumb briefly over the edge of Charles' mouth. "Smile like that again, princess."

"Like... like what?" Wanting to please, Charles tried a quick smile that probably turned out as a grimace, now that he was slowly growing anxious again. He should have known that such a database would be extremely time consuming to peruse, let alone absorb and analyse, and Logan definitely had his own life to lead, and... "Um. Are you going to wait here the whole day? You'll probably be bored."

"Can't leave you alone in here."

"I'm an American citizen, and this is a government facility, I'll be perfectly safe," Charles said, as reassuringly as he could, even as he felt sweat prick down between his shoulder blades at the thought of being left alone somewhere unknown, with nothing familiar around him, with so many strangers. It reminded him far too much of one of his prevalent and oldest fears, of being left alone and abandoned. Logically, Logan wouldn't do that to him, and he needed space to look at the data anyway. Resolutely, Charles surrounded himself with rationality and tried to control his breathing.

"Famous last words, for some," Logan said dryly, as though he didn't notice Charles' internal conflict, idly hooking the heavy chain with the dog tags with a thick finger. "Don't mind me."

It felt abruptly like all the air had been sucked out of the room; Charles froze where he sat, as Logan rubbed the links between his thumb and forefinger and smirked lazily as though he knew exactly what this was doing to Charles' brain, against all logic. He wasn't even touching Charles and yet Charles felt, abruptly, hyper-sensitive to the faint tug of the heavy steel against sides of his neck, the rasp of metal, the shifting pull of the tags against his chest.

He was beginning to grow lightheaded under Logan's steady, assessing stare, feeling rather than watching Logan slowly count out the links between his fingers like a rosary, the gentle slide of metal over his skin strangely pleasant... sensual, even. Charles was pulling his fingers into fists over his primly crossed legs, and he was all too aware that his lips were parted, like an idiot, barely willing to breathe as Logan rested his cheek against the palm of his left hand and picked up the tags with his right, the steel rectangles clicking against each other.

Charles found himself fixated on the slow, slick-smooth movements of Logan's big fingers, rolling the tags between them in clinking rasps and small, gleaming arcs of blurred imprints and silver, the long chain in a loose loop of steel between them. Then he swallowed thickly with a gulp for air when Logan chuckled, dark and rough, but before he could forcibly pull himself back to the terminal and its database, Logan pulled the tags an inch in his direction, and Charles found himself leaning forward to follow the movement, all unthinking.

"Hn," The sound turned into a rumbling, back of the throat sound as Logan brought the tags back, pressed the filed edges against the swell of Charles' lower lip, then his eyes went dark and hard when Charles instinctively pressed his tongue out, to lap up over the steel and the etched grooves of Logan's code name, higher, to the big fingers and the salty warmth of Logan's skin.

Logan splayed out his fingers, save for the thumb and forefinger holding the tags in the air, and encouraged, Charles shifted in his chair, lapping a stripe up the root of Logan's index finger to the tip and back down, flicking his tongue briefly on the soft skin between the ring finger and the index, then brushing his lips over the tip of the ring finger and tentatively doing the same, slower now, using the tip of his tongue. He'd seen a Sub do this before to his Dom, in Club Genosha, swirl his longer-than-human, forked tongue up the ring finger and apply a playful little nip to the pad of the finger, then swallow down the middle finger, inch by inch, holding his Dom's gaze as he did so.

Charles wasn't sure that he'd committed himself as well as the mutant had; it wasn't as though he had practice - but from the way Logan's jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed, his performance was probably passable. He moaned as Logan rubbed his callused finger briefly over his tongue, and pressed the flat of it hard against the digit as he dipped back up, then back down again as Logan growled, deeper this time, almost an animal sound that made his heart jump. The tags were next again, the metallic taste strong on his tongue as he explored the press of Logan's fingers against the metal, lapping, breathing shallowly as he did so-

Logan's control breaking was marked by a liquid snarl; Charles found himself pulled up bodily onto his knees, on the chair, and dragged down for a crushing kiss, Logan taking his mouth confidently, tags swinging back to thump against his chest as Charles wriggled and moaned, embarrassingly loud and needy. He was clutching at Logan's bomber jacket, scraping over the old leather as Logan slowed himself down, wrapped a big hand around the back of Charles head and pressed his tongue deeper into Charles' mouth, stroking wet and sloppy before pulling back for a breath and a nip over Charles' lower lip, their breaths stuttered and hot between them.

Dazed with pleasure and greedy, Charles whimpered and tried to wriggle closer, but Logan brushed a slow, almost chaste kiss over his mouth and muttered, "If we do anything more, I think Fury will really kick us off his damned ship. Not that I give a fuck about what Fury thinks or does, but didn't you want to write your paper?"

"Oh... oh," Charles said, being his best attempt at coherency, then he cleared his throat. "Maybe, maybe a print out, if Hank could manage that, um." It wouldn't have the search function of the SHIELD terminal, but Charles was never going to be able to concentrate with Logan in the same room, and Logan clearly wasn't going to leave him alone here.

"We'll see if we can get that." Logan said absently, and Charles thought, we, belatedly, then plural personal pronoun, with a curious and utterly embarrassing curl of warmth. Thank God Logan didn't have telepathy. "In the meantime, I'm gonna get another chair so I'll have something to fall asleep on. No, don't get up," Logan added quickly, when Charles instinctively tried to rise. "I'll be just outside."

"All right," Charles reluctantly turned his attention back to the terminal as Logan ambled over to the door and let himself out of the room, though his original, overarching conceptual premise that he'd intended to outline was now shot to sorry pieces. Trying to navigate past the last fifteen minutes to what he had originally begun to envisage, Charles sighed to himself and pressed his elbows to the table, rubbing the edges of his palms over his eyes. The tags, pressed in a wet patch against his dress shirt, seemed warmer as he chased the taste of salt and steel in his mouth and breathed slowly outwards.

IX.

"Your boss takes this idea o' revenge very seriously."

Charles looked up from his desk at the sound of Logan's drawl, and circled around to peek out of the room just in time to see Logan barring entrance to a slim, fussy-looking man in a sharp suit with a cardboard box in his hands, filled with thick bound printouts, mousy-brown hair in a sleek comb against the receding arch of his forehead.

"I assure you that I am looking forward to this assignment as much as you are, Wolverine," the man said mildly, pushing the box into Logan's hands, then noting Charles's tentative approach and strode over, putting out a hand for a firm handshake. "And this must be Professor Xavier. I'm Agent-"

"Dickwad," Logan supplied, even as the Agent continued, unruffled, "Coulson. The printouts you requested in that particular range are in the box."

"What did you do to piss off Fury, Coulson?" Logan nudged the door closed with his foot, dumping the box on the kitchen counter. "You running mailroom errands now?"

"I'm actually here to debrief you for the upcoming mission," Coulson said primly, "Though I am beginning to wonder exactly what I might have done to offend the Director recently, yes." At Charles' startled blink, Coulson sighed. "Wolverine and I tend to get along like... a house on fire. By way of napalm, I'm afraid."

"The upcoming mission?" Charles repeated, with a worried glance over at Logan, who shrugged. "If this is the one that you're taking on because of me, I want to help."

"No," Logan said shortly, even as Coulson's eyebrows rose a fraction.

"It's a babysitting mission, isn't it? I've been told that I'm quite good with children," Charles wilted a little under Logan's curt tone, but he forced himself to stand firm. He had already prevailed so much on Logan's good graces - he couldn't keep doing that. No matter what Logan had said to date, if Charles was just a leech on his resources, eventually even Logan's considerable patience could run thin, and besides, it didn't feel right to keep presuming.

Logan snorted, though Coulson's carefully friendly smile seemed to freeze, his eyes crinkling a little, as though in humor. "That's one of them... what's that word for it..."

"Euphemisms?" Coulson suggested delicately.

"Yeah. It means that I'll be playing bodyguard, ain't nothing to do with walking kiddies around a park. Or so I hope. I wouldn't put it against Fury, actually, when he wants to piss people off he can be fuckin' creative." Logan muttered something ugly under his breath, fishing a used cigar out of his pocket and sticking it into his mouth, then fumbling for a match. "Who's the mark, anyway? Or is that classified?"

"Given the nature of the circumstances, no," Coulson said wearily. "And you've met him before, or so I've been led to believe."

"Yeah?" Logan lit up, the ragged end of the cigar glowing cherry red for a moment. "I've met a lot o' people before, bub."

"The venue's in a couple of weeks, the Stark Expo. Understand?"

Logan stared at Coulson, and Charles recalled his words in the helicarrier, to Hank. "Fuck."

"Precisely. As you can imagine, it'll be a security nightmare, given the usual crowds, the possible vantage points, the huge venue and the mark's penchant for unnecessary stage theatrics - something which I've been told that you're quite familiar with. You'll have myself and a team on support and reconnaissance-"

"Tell Fury that I gave him my word, I don't fuckin' need supervision."

"-because Stark's going to unveil a set of new inventions that's going to pull him a world of trouble," Coulson blithely ignored the interruption. "Suppression bracelets. Once worn, they deactivate a mutation."

"How's that possible?" Charles asked, astonished. It sounded like science fiction to him, an impossibility to a genetics professor who had been studying the so-called X-genome for well over a decade.

"Don't ask me, I'm just the guy on mailroom duties," Coulson said dryly, as Logan frowned and chewed absently on his cigar. "Stark's a capitalist at heart. Those bracelets are going to change the way war has been fought for the last decade since mutants started being recognised by governments as a valuable minority. Depending on the types of other suppression devices that Stark's come up with, it's going to be an arms race yet again. With Stark Industries back in the kingmaker's seat."

"Fury must be thrilled."

"Last I heard, the Director was threatening him with anything from treason to serious bodily harm if he didn't turn over the patents, manufacturing plant and blueprints to SHIELD custody."

"The Director's a class act when he wants to be."

"It's possible that a situation would only develop after the Expo," Coulson noted, with a sigh, "But we can't avoid the possibility of any incidents at the Expo. Even if Stark has refused to accept full federal protection, he's at least conceded to the necessity of a private rehearsal and the necessity of a security presence, for the sake of the Expo's civilian guests, if nothing else. That way, we'll be able to sort out when an attack is most likely to happen, possible escape routes, the best areas to take cover, the works."

Logan breathed out, then wedged the cigar in the other end of his mouth. "Who else knows about the bracelets?"

"The rumor in the tech community's been persistent that Stark Industries has been working on a suppression device ever since mutants started being encouraged to openly enlist. It's not good for business when the other guy can pluck your missiles out of the air and toss them back to your friends. But as to whether anyone else knows that Stark's come up with working bracelets - your guess is as good as mine."

"Fingered any leads?"

"We're working on that."

"Means no," Logan sounded resigned. "Fury's the only competent asshole in a bag o' fuckin' asswipes."

"We'll be prepared for the usual suspects," Coulson observed, unperturbed, even as Charles winced at Logan's blunt assessment. "The Hellfire Club, for one."

Charles straightened quickly, but Coulson was watching Logan carefully, and didn't seem to notice. Logan had an excellent poker expression. "Yeah? What about them?"

"The Director has a remarkable amount of confidence in you," Coulson said mildly. "I'm still trying to decide whether there's something he hasn't told me, or if there's been an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment on his part."

"Spit it out, Coulson."

"You're affiliated with the Hellfire Club. You've taken work from Lehnsherr."

"I've taken work from a lot o' people, bub, including your boss. Doesn't mean that I kiss up to any of them. Also, Lehnsherr and I ain't on speaking terms right now," Logan drawled, even as Charles realized that he had clenched his hands so tightly that he could feel two arcs of biting pain in his palms.

"So I've heard." Coulson didn't, however, even turn around. "Still, color me skeptical."

"You can suspect me o' anything you like, pal. Just don't get in my way." Logan plucked the cigar from his mouth and breathed out again, this time in Coulson's direction, but the agent didn't even flinch as the gray, gritty cloud of smoke and ash floated over his sleek shoulders.

"Pick up will be at the usual place in two days, for the rehearsal. I'm assuming that you want to scope out the grounds before the event."

"Door's way over there, dickwad," Logan jerked his thumb none too politely at the exit.

"Have a wonderful day," Coulson said, in the same, blandly unconcerned tone, then he turned to Charles and inclined his head, his voice turning a shade friendlier. "And I'll be interested in reading your paper when it's completed, Professor."

"Thank you." It was a miracle that his voice was steady; the moment that Coulson left the apartment, Charles took a shaky breath and hugged himself tightly, trapping the tags between his chest and his folded arms, noting the tremble in his fingers and the cold sweat prickling down his spine distantly-

"Hey." Logan's big arms curled around his waist, and Charles found himself dragged back against the solid wall of Logan's bulk. "Breathe with me."

Obediently, Charles did so, concentrating on the heave of Logan's broad chest and matching it, the anxiety slowly fading, ebbing into a low background ache at the edge of his consciousness, all his concerns about Logan having to possibly go up against the Hellfire Club, the desperate hope that nobody would get hurt, the knowledge of how furious Erik would be if he ever found out about Stark's invention, whether Erik had already found out about it...

"Charles," Logan said quietly, firmly, and Charles took in another slow breath, his mind shading into a warm, gray blank, even when the skewing lurch to the world around him told him that Logan had picked him up as though he weighed nothing, walking over to the bed and letting him down on the quilt; the cigar had been unceremoniously stubbed out at the kitchen counter, probably leaving a burned scar on the otherwise immaculate surface. Charles stared up at the off-white ceiling and brought his hand up with a struggle of conscious effort to wrap his fingers around the tags, holding them tightly until the edge of panic had fully faded.

"You're good at this," Charles murmured, the words a little slurred, genuinely curious. "It's... you have a lot of practice, don't you? With Subs." Broken Subs, Charles wanted to add, but the words stuck in his throat and ended up swallowed. Logan's patience and the way he seemed to automatically know what to do to calm Charles down, to make Charles feel secure - it seemed all too practiced.

"Yeah." Logan shrugged, seated on the edge of the bed with his big fingers loosely threaded together over his knees. "I been through three, four wars, and two of those were the big ones. People die. The people they get hooked up with don't always take it so well. Everyone learns how to deal if someone's falling apart. That, and like I've said before, I've been around."

"And you've taken care of others? The way you have with me, for the long term?"

Scientific curiosity overtook anxiety for a moment. Charles had always had a nagging conviction that his and Erik's situation was unique because of what Erik had once suffered at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz; that only hatred born from one of the most singular atrocities of the centuries could have warped a Dom-Sub bond. Logan... Logan had mentioned the woman in Utah, and...

"No," Logan conceded, after a long moment, then, as the silence began to stretch again, "Not for this long, not before." A big hand closed gently over his throat and stroked over his pulse when a bubble of panic at the possibility of being abandoned in the near future began to well slowly up, and Charles took a calm, deep breath, blank again. "Sometimes I wish I hadn't walked away, before. Still, you live as long as me and you'll collect a lot o' regrets."

Who was Logan looking at, Charles thought, light-headed, when he held Charles through one of his shakes or endured his chatter? Who - or how many - had Logan given up upon, walked away from? "You'll have tried your best," he attempted to say, if through a whisper. "You always do."

"Not always." Logan was hunched over, and Charles could only see the hard, angular line of his back. Four wars, Charles thought, and tried to sort backwards through what he still remembered of his private schooling. If Logan had fought through 'two of the big ones' where wars were concerned, then he would have gone through the First World War. 1914-1918. Logan was possibly, at the very least, at least in his mid to late sixties. The thought was staggering.

"You're working out my age again, ain't'cha." Logan sounded amused.

"Sorry," Charles said, though he smiled tentatively. "It's a character flaw. But that particular side effect of your mutation is remarkable. You're a living version of Methuselah. So much has happened over this century, and you've seen it all."

"I seen a lot o' people I cared for grow old and die."

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

A roughened thumb pressed briefly over his lower lip, silencing him, then Logan drew back his palm to rest it flat against the bed beside Charles. "Yeah. You didn't."

Charles looked down, at the tags held in his fist, then at Logan's big, wide fingers, and asked, hesitantly, "Can I ask you a question?"

"Go ahead."

"Yesterday, when we came back from the helicarrier... I thought that you were going to... that we would..."

Charles had been all but floating, all the way back to their apartment, high on intimacy and the taste of Logan's mouth, but once they were back, instead of kissing him again, or doing anything at all, Logan had stared at him for a long moment, and then he had gone to the balcony to smoke. Abashed, Charles had retreated to his study with the few printouts that Fury had allowed them to take 'pending further clearance', and had immersed himself in his work to stave off the keen sense of disappointment and self-doubt.

"Rule two, Charlie," Logan said, watching him carefully.

If he wanted something... "You want me to beg?" Begging irritated rather than aroused Erik, but Charles had seen how some pairs rather enjoyed the process. "I can do that."

"No."

"Then I don't understand." That came out far more plaintive than he had intended.

"You want something from me for yourself, you ask," Logan said, slow and patient as though reading out from a book to a child, and the line in the sand still wasn't one that Charles could fully compute.

"So you're not even going to kiss me unless I ask you to?" Charles winced - in the current drift of his mental state, that had come out far too blunt, as though he was being a petulant child, but Logan's expression didn't change.

"That's right."

"But in the helicarrier-"

"You want something from me," Logan interrupted, "You start the ball rolling."

Oh. Oh. "Ah," Charles said, feeling small and slow again. "I see."

"'Sides," Logan added, as an afterthought, "We'd better... do you know what a safeword is, Charlie?"

Charles was left to puzzle his way through his rather limited knowledge of slang. "Some sort of password?"

Logan muttered something ugly under his breath. "Pretty sure that was in the pamphlets."

"All right," Charles said, in the vague tone of someone who had never read most of the government-issued pamphlets save those detailing the biological and chemical changes to do with imprinting. He had certainly never read those about... sexual practices, as he had thought them irrelevant for his purposes prior to meeting Erik, and then had avoided reading them, afterwards. Reading pamphlets about 'normal Dom-Sub' behavior, prescribed practices and such had seemed pointless when it was clear from the start that his Dom hated his very existence.

"It's a code word that allows you to tap out of whatever we might do," Logan explained, with a sigh. "A lot of pairs don't use them, the bond's meant to make the Dom risk-aware, but... we're going to have one," Logan amended, at Charles' blank expression. "Rule four. Three colors - green, yellow and red. Green is 'okay', yellow is 'slow down', red is 'stop altogether'. Get that?" At Charles' slow nod, Logan continued, "If I ask you what's your color, you tell me. Or if you want to slow down or stop at any time, you tell me. And you don't hold back just to please me. Understand?"

Charles' response was another blank look, and Logan sighed out aloud, stroking his palm over his face. "Now that's why I wasn't gonna go further on my own steam, Charlie. Nothing we do is gonna be safe until I'm sure that you'd tap out if you need to."

"I trust you," Charles tried.

"No, no you don't," Logan retorted, "And why should you? You ain't ever had anyone treat you right. You won't ever tap out because you ain't ever learned that you should'a had the right to. It ain't gonna be right for me to try anything with you, because you go under way too easily and even if you didn't, you're far too fuckin' eager to please."

Charles tried in vain to sort out Logan's conflicting statements, then he murmured, tentatively, "So, er, to clarify, if I ask you now for even a kiss, I'm not going to get it?" Asking for something that Charles knew that he wasn't going to get tended to exasperate Erik.

Logan's scowl slowly faded into one of his lazy smirks. "Ask."

Charles nearly voiced it, but instead, he pulled himself to his knees instead, leaning awkwardly over, and when Logan merely watched him silently, Charles closed his eyes, gathered himself up and slanted their lips together, flicking his tongue tentatively over Logan's lower lip until Logan opened his mouth and dipped a hand up over the back of Charles' skull, steadying him. When Charles tried to slip a hand up Logan's denim-clad thigh, however, Logan caught his wrist quickly and brought it back up to his broad shoulders.

"I'm asking," Charles said, breathless; Logan tasted of cigar smoke and whisky and Charles wanted him, wanted to try more - it wasn't with the same, consuming lust with which he wanted Erik, but a wavering thing, slowly strengthening and unfurling.

"When you're ready," Logan disagreed, catching his wrists again when he tried to pull back.

"Please. Rule two, I'm asking you."

"That ain't meant to be used like that," Logan said, though the edges of his mouth quirked. "Look. This is gonna be slow. Humor an old man, will you?"

"But we'll get there in the end?" Charles tried humor - Logan had reacted positively to that in the past. "Within this decade, maybe?"

"However long it takes." Logan brushed a kiss over his mouth, then a slower, lingering one, over the pulse on his neck. "We'll get there in the end."

X.

Charles had been chirping away at Raven over the progress in his research as they walked together through the park three blocks or so away from Logan's apartment when the fragile peace that had settled in a light blanket over his new life was rudely shattered.

The park was pleasantly warm, and at this time in the afternoon, usually fairly quiet, save for the sandpit and its swings in a corner. A haphazard array of wilting trees bracketed a winding, cracked gravel path marked at intervals with rusting garden benches and over-full trash cans, and on occasion, under a tree, a tent of newspapers and a trolley of assorted junk indicated one of the many, slumbering people of Brooklyn who had fallen further through the cracks.

They had been cresting a gentle rise on the gravel path, coming up in sight of the next garden bench, when Raven abruptly gripped his elbow tightly. Charles jerked to an abrupt stop, to his surprise - he had never quite been able to register how his sister's mutation made her stronger than he was, even in her so-called 'crowd pleaser' blonde form, and even as he was about to protest, the person lounging on the bench straightened up, lowering the morning's copy of the Times.

It was Erik.

Sleekly fashionable as ever in a dark turtleneck, pressed gray dress pants and the polished gleam of hundred-dollar shoes, Erik looked exactly the way Charles remembered, heart-stoppingly handsome, marred only by the shadow of a frown, his eyes uncompromisingly cold as his gaze swept over him, softening a fraction when he regarded Raven. His heart was hammering against his ribs, fit to burst, panic twisting through with anxiety as his gut curled in an ugly, cold knot; under it all, under it all yet he felt a tiny kernel of traitorous hope.

"Come here, Charles," Erik said curtly, without even a glance at the dog tags that Charles was wearing over his shirt, and Charles took a step forward, exhaling in a rush, only for Raven to jerk him back to her side. His elbow was going to bruise and purple from the force of her grip, and the pain snapped the soft focus of conditioned imperative and bracketed his desperate, ingrained wish to please, the sick lurch he felt whenever he thought Erik will be angry.

"What a surprise," Raven said, her tone syrupy. "Does Logan know that you're here?"

Logan. Charles took a deep breath and clenched his free hand, concentrating, drawing out the sensation of orderly peace that he had enjoyed for the last few weeks and holding on to it in his mind until his breathing stopped stuttering. He could do this. With Raven, he could walk away.

"Logan is precisely what I have come here to speak to Charles about," Erik replied, patting at the space on the bench beside him. "Come here and sit down."

The tug of command in Erik's tone - in the voice of his imprinted Dom - made Charles start to shake, swallowing the whine in his voice, gasping for breath when Raven dragged him another step back. "I don't think that Charles wants to talk to you, Lehnsherr."

"Of course he does," Erik said quietly, holding Charles' gaze, and as always, no matter how much hatred he recognised in there, it was electric. "Don't you, Charles?"

"I... I can't." Charles said desperately, and it seemed like he had a thread of dignity left within him after all. "You're not my Dom any longer."

"As much as we might both like that to be true," Erik said, with the same, deceptive stillness, often the flat dead calm before a storm, "The verdammt bond is still there, is it not?"

"You're stronger than it is." Charles replied shakily, instinctively defensive. "You always have been. You could walk away."

"Wolverine's insolence is fairly legendary," Erik mused out aloud. "I was not aware that it was also contagious."

"Look-" Raven started, angrily, then she abruptly sagged, dead weight as Charles hauled her against himself in a panic, almost tipping backwards, her blonde form flickering into blue.

"What did you do?" Charles demanded, and there was anger there, under all his fear; he held on to it grimly, forced himself to breathe. "Raven wasn't even going to hurt you!"

"I had the White Queen persuade her mind that she was asleep. Mystique will wake up unharmed after we have had a civilised talk," Erik said, unruffled. "Or you could try and carry her as she is now, back to Wolverine's apartment, over three blocks inhabited by the dregs of human bigotry, and see how far you can both get."

Gritting his teeth, Charles considered his options. Logan didn't live in a very savory part of Brooklyn, and although Charles and Raven hadn't encountered any problems to date, Raven had never openly worn her true form... and... even in Westchester, or the far more policed boroughs populated by the upper middle class, Charles knew that Raven had always encountered at the very least verbal abuse. The Civil Rights Act may have passed into law, but some habits were hard to break.

And besides, Logan was away right now, on SHIELD business; even if they reached the apartment, it might not be the end of their problems.

Carefully, Charles pulled Raven's arm over his shoulder and circled over to the bench, placing himself between Raven and Erik even though he knew it would be useless if Erik chose to hurt them - they were sitting on a metal bench, after all - and he curled his arm around Raven's waist, leaning her head on his shoulder, clenching his free hand in his lap.

"What do you want, Erik?"

"Your newfound bravado," Erik made a tsking sound, his eyes narrowed when Charles didn't use any honorifics. "We both know that it's an act. All your family's wealth and your intellect, and all of my gifts," Erik didn't move, but a perfect sphere of gleaming metal about the size of a marble peeled away from the armrest of the bench, circling around Erik in a slow orbit. "Still hostage to Nature's whimsy."

Charles recognised moods like this - usually, he welcomed them. Erik in a philosophical mindset was far less likely to try and work off the edge of his hatred of Charles' species on Charles. "It's a by-product of evolution. There's plenty of that in all of us. Useless organs and hair that still tries to stand up on end when we're cold."

"With rather more damning side effects than a useless organ or two."

Charles was about to go on about the effects of appendicitis, but Erik's steady stare silenced him, and he averted his eyes quickly, to his feet. He didn't know what Erik was trying to get at, and if Raven wasn't pressed in a warm, solid weight against him, Charles would have gotten into a full blown panic by now. "I suppose so," he said instead, as neutrally as he could. "And yet, the impulse is clearly controllable. You don't see mated pairs of animals try to hurt one another."

"We've evolved past being animals," Erik said mockingly, "You don't see animals lock their subspecies up in camps and gas random selections of them, rape them, starve them, or remove the gold fillings of their teeth for money."

"Lucky us," Charles replied evenly, though he didn't lift his eyes. Mention of the Holocaust meant that Erik's mood was beginning to deteriorate, and usually this would be a broad hint to Charles to stay quiet and/or get out of sight. Erik had nursed his hatred for nearly two decades, now; it was a black, irrational beast of a monster, and Charles had long given up trying to look past it. "You wanted to talk about Logan?"

"I've heard word that he is working for SHIELD," Erik said, again with that deceptive calm, and Charles clenched his free hand more tightly. So that was why Erik was here - of course.

"I don't see why you have to keep up the semblance of conversation when Miss Frost is probably reading my mind at this very moment."

"So she is," Erik inclined his head. "And what she tells me is most remarkable. This database, for example, where mutants are numbered like subjects. Or the suppression bracelets by Stark Industries. It does sound like you humans are gearing for war."

"You can't possibly think that," Charles said, far too incredulous to pay any heed to self-preservation or latent panic, "The Civil Rights Act is law. The riots were years ago."

"And a mutant with visible mutations, walking down a street," Erik's lip curled, "Would still take a fair risk of having half a brick thrown at him or her."

"And the person who threw the brick would have broken the law and would be arrested."

"I'm sure that that would be a comfort to the mutant in his coma," Erik drawled, clearly unconvinced by the vagaries of the legal system. "Still, the Hellfire Club will need to do something about these bracelets. Perhaps even that database."

Erik had never discussed anything with him that hadn't had to do with Charles' research or his 'human', personal failings before. Warily, Charles asked, "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because although Logan has his flaws," Erik said impatiently, "He is still a mutant and one of my kind, and should there be a war, war has long been his element. He would be useful in one, and even was he not, I would still be very sorry if he had to be taken out of the picture during his duties to SHIELD. Duties that he had taken on only because of a human, defending a human invention that suppresses mutations."

Charles took in a long, shaky breath, managing to control the crest of panic that broke upon Erik's raised voice. "He won't break his word."

"Persuade him, then." Erik shot back, merciless. "He does seem rather attached to you, so far. And if you can't," Erik slipped a velvet pouch from under his sleeve and placed it on the bench, "This should make him sleep for a few hours, at the least, even with his healing factor."

Charles made no move to touch the pouch, swallowing hard. "That's a... that would be a betrayal."

"Would it? He's not your Dom, Charles, a card game changed nothing on that front," Erik gestured, and the orbiting sphere melted back into the bench. "Logan is a lone wolf. He doesn't enjoy social interaction, he doesn't even particularly like company. What he does like is violence. You might think otherwise, looking at the way he lives, but money isn't a problem to Logan; he's lived long enough and accumulated enough in banks to be able to survive comfortably on the interest for the rest of his very long life. He takes mercenary work because he has to work off his bloodlust now and then or turn feral. Why would someone like that stay with someone like you for the long term?"

And why? Charles thought, even as he shrank back against Raven, silently willing her slumbering form to wake. "I can't do that to Logan."

"Do you think that Logan hasn't had Subs before, Charles? The Hellfire Club has a rather extensive file on the Wolverine, and I think that you'll find it interesting reading - I certainly did. Once he gets tired of you, he'll walk," Erik predicted, grimly, getting to his feet. "If you stand by your 'principles' and do nothing, I can assure you, he will not survive the event. If you ensure that he doesn't attend the event, perhaps he'll forgive you, perhaps he won't, but he'll always leave in the end. He won't age, after all, but you will. So in the end, you'll be alone, either way. Except that in one of those scenarios, you'll have saved his life, and if you extend that courtesy to one of my kind, I'll view it positively when you return to me."

Charles bit down hard on his lower lip, his next breath forced out as a choked sound, and Erik added, in the same, flat tone, even as his footsteps began to recede, "Raven will be awake in five minutes. I trust that you'll be able to talk her out of going to the villa and making a scene."

XI.

Charles did in fact manage to persuade Raven not to storm the villa, but it was a near thing, and he'd had to first go over everything that had happened, twice, and then relinquish the velvet packet. It had contained a small bottle of pills, which Raven had flushed down the toilet, and then she had snarled at Charles when he had meekly suggested that flushing potentially illegal anaesthetic drugs down a toilet wasn't a safe method of drug disposal.

In the end, Charles was far too exhausted to feel anything, even anxiety, stretched out on the bed with his adopted sister sprawled over his stomach, which was possibly Raven's motive in the first place.

"Those bracelets," Raven said finally, after a while, as Charles matched his breathing to his sister's, "Are they real? I mean, of course they're real, but how well do they work?"

"I don't know. I haven't seen them in use. I hadn't even heard of them until a few days ago."

"You know," Raven continued, after a long moment, listening to each other's breathing, "If they work a hundred per cent, shunt out all of a person's mutation... I know a few of us - that's to say, us mutants - who would kill to get their hands on a pair of those."

"Yes," Charles murmured unhappily, recalling the evident thrum of Erik's temper in the park; it had been tightly reined in for the whole conversation, but Charles was more than capable of recognising the warning signs. "Erik was rather upset-"

"No, I meant... nevermind." Raven sighed, folding her hands behind her head and ignoring Charles' attempts to squirm into a position where it didn't feel like his belly was being inexorably crushed. "Stark Expo, huh. That's always held in Flushing Meadows. I made you take me there all the time when we were kids."

"Every year," Charles recalled wryly. They'd always held hands tightly in the crush of people, straining to get close to the stage, to watch the latest blast of pyrotechnics and light-shows and Stark Industries' dapper, charismatic CEO take the stage, usually accompanied by increasingly skimpily dressed blonde bombshells. Flying cars, complex prosthetics, humanoid robots, faster-than-sound aeroplane flight, fusion energy; every year never failed to feel like science fiction come alive.

They'd stopped going to the yearly Expos when Charles had imprinted. Erik had little to no interest in so-called 'human' technology, and he tended to restrict Charles' travel, keeping him shut away as much as possible in the villa, as though hoping that the rest of the world would forget that Charles existed as his Sub. Raven's first, semi-public clash of wills with Erik had involved the Expo as the last straw.

"I had this massive crush on Howard Stark," Raven said, somewhat more dreamily, before Charles could start spiralling further inwards into darker memories.

"I remember that. And the awful posters you used to put up in your room. And the rather regrettable and unladylike way you used to squeal whenever he came onstage with all his... women. He's married. And imprinted." Charles reminded her dryly. "And old enough to be your father. And before he got hitched, he tended to keep a string of mistresses as long as Oklahoma."

"Yes, well." Raven reached over to pinch Charles smartly on the arm in rebuke. "He's also handsome, ridiculously rich and intelligent. And you're exaggerating about the mistresses."

"I was not, it was always in the papers. And besides, you have all of his good qualities already," Charles massaged his arm ruefully, having never quite understood Raven's infatuation with Stark - or, in fact, any of the squealing women who tended to attend the Expos and rush the stage in a perfumed stampede whenever given the chance.

"His son's about what, fifteen? Sixteen now? He's probably a proper picture of his daddy."

Charles choked a little at the thought, horrified. "That is far too young, Raven, even assuming that he's a Sub, he won't show until he's at least twenty-one."

"Spoilsport." Raven grumbled resentfully, ignoring the incredulous look that Charles shot her way. "So. About this expo-"

"Azazel," Charles said suddenly, swept with an ugly revelation. "The moment Mister Stark gets on that stage, he'll die." Azazel could easily bypass security and dodge anyone getting close with a bracelet, and Charles had heard rumors about some of the work that the Red King performed for the Hellfire Club. He was Erik's messenger - and also his enforcer.

"I'm sure that Logan and his Secret Black Ops Friends have figured out the Hellfire Club thoroughly," Raven pointed out, though she curled a wisp of her crimson hair around a blue-scaled finger and nibbled on the tips - a nervous childhood habit that she'd never been able to break despite Charles' best efforts. "Logan knows how all of them operate. He's immune to telepathy, so it'll be him against Janus, Azazel and Erik."

Those weren't good odds - even if it was just Logan against either of the three, Charles would be worried. Logan was fast, and he could heal, but he'd have to dodge wind funnels and fight against an enemy that wouldn't ever be in the right place - and this was already discounting Erik, the most powerful mutant in the world. The Stark Expo would have plenty of metal.

"He knew that they would come. SHIELD said that the Hellfire Club is expected to make an appearance. Logan didn't seem concerned."

Neither did SHIELD, come to think of it. Charles began to feel a fraction better about the entire enterprise. From his brief encounter with Fury, and from Logan's semi-compliment, Charles was certain that the Director was very good at what he did. Perhaps Fury had a solution for the security nightmare that the Expo would become.

"I don't think he has it within him to be concerned about anything," Raven pointed out. "Don't you know how he got his nickname? Wolverines aren't afraid of anything. He might even survive it all. Not sure about Stark, though."

Charles wished that he had Raven's confidence. "The healing factor doesn't make him invulnerable."

"It doesn't, but it's pretty damned close. He's a survivor."

"We still have to do something. Somehow," Charles said, miserably. Even if SHIELD had some sort of solution, Charles didn't want to leave it to chance. Not with Erik's grim determination to take out anyone in his path - even other mutants. He couldn't let that happen. "I mean, even if SHIELD knows that the Hellfire Club is coming, even if it's prepared, we need to do something."

"Like what? You're human, and I'm just a shapeshifter."

"Wait. You said that you knew people who wanted the suppression bracelets," Charles tracked Raven's conversation past the last few minutes. "There might be mutants out there who'd want the bracelets to get into public use?"

"Sure," Raven's tone turned edged. "What Erik said about the half brick? It actually happened, a week or so ago. That girl, she just had scales over her shoulders, sort of like a crocodile. Someone threw a brick at her from the back. She hasn't woken up since. The Hellfire Club's been investigating, but the police don't have suspects and there haven't been any witnesses."

"Jesus. That's horrible," Charles closed his eyes briefly. This was part of the reason why Erik would never let go of his hatred. Sometimes the world just kept validating his black anger.

"Yes, well," Raven muttered, "And knowing all that, the bastard still knocked me out in a park in the fucking ass end of Brooklyn just so that he could try to bulldoze you into doing what he wanted. Son of a bitch."

Charles wisely decided to change the topic. "Maybe..." He murmured, as he nibbled on his lower lip, "Maybe we could get a group of those people together. They could talk to Erik, and then we could negotiate some sort of agreement with SHIELD and Stark Industries-"

"Yeah, right," Raven drawled. "And pigs will fly and the sky will turn purple. You're assuming, firstly, that Erik will listen at all - he's all about 'mutant pride', remember? He'll be against the idea of mutants wanting bracelets to hide their mutations, for whatever reason. Secondly, what do all of us have to bargain with, against a mega-corporation like Stark Industries? Do you really think that they're going to just give out the bracelets for free? This Coulson cat said that there was going to be an arms race. That's what Stark Industries does. It makes weapons."

"Maybe we could threaten them with Erik's continued presence in the immediate vicinity?" Charles hazarded wryly, and he chuckled at the thought, even as Raven sucked in a quick breath and squeezed at his hand tightly.

"That's good. You're... that's good."

"What?" Charles asked, puzzled.

"Usually," Raven noted, with careful neutrality, "When Erik talks to you like that, I'll have to end up coaxing you out of your study, or you'd be hiding in there by yourself for days, shaking. This is like the beginning again, when you refused to take anything seriously and drove everyone up the wall." Softly, Raven added, "I missed that."

"Ah."

During the first few months or so of their relationship, they'd clashed wills, and Erik had been very thorough where discipline was concerned. Charles had come from old money, and he'd never been treated the way Erik had treated him before, with such hatred and contempt; he had refused to accept the situation as it was, even when he had learned more about Erik's history, about the Holocaust and the continued persecution that Erik had suffered afterwards during the skirmishes that only after decades of bitter struggle had led up to the Act being signed into law.

Sometimes Charles still regretted that, those months of denial and disobedience, and wondered whether things would have been any different had he been a perfect little Sub from the beginning. Maybe Erik would have reconciled himself to having a human Sub, if he hadn't been so rebellious. Maybe he should have read those pamphlets after all-

"But I think you're on to something," Raven continued, cutting through his reverie. "Can you imagine what would happen if the Hellfire Club crashes the party and kills Howard Stark? Erik's a household name, and so is Stark."

Charles shuddered - he could easily recall Fury's words. "All too well."

"A lot of us don't want that. I mean, for a lot of us, the Civil Rights Act has been good. You still get the occasional asshole - hell, don't I know that - but for most of us, we've been able to get jobs, even respect. Live normally. There aren't many people like you, but humans aren't all hiding a half brick behind their back. A lot of us know that." Raven said, meditatively. "We don't want that peace broken for us."

"You're going to set up some sort of... counter effort? Against Erik?" Charles asked, incredulous, then when Raven nodded grimly, he added, "Oh no. Then everyone is going to get hurt."

"Or maybe we could persuade him to stand down if he realizes that a lot of other mutants disagree with him," Raven said stubbornly.

Charles shuddered, recalling Erik's grim words in the park. "I really don't think so, Raven."

As usual, Raven blithely ignored him. "I already have people in mind. This is a great idea, Charles."

"Whenever you tell me that, something awful happens. Look, Raven, maybe you're right. It is theoretically viable," Charles said slowly, thinking quickly when Raven began to scowl. That usually meant that she was going to do things her way, come hell or high water; and here, the stakes were far too high for Charles to wash his hands if Raven's mind was already set. "But you're not going to do it alone."

"Charles, I love you and adore you, but you're human."

"Exactly. If you don't want this... this... peacekeeping force to just look like some sort of counter insurgency and have it written up as a mutant-only brawl by the papers, you're going to need humans on the team. We would work with local law enforcement."

"Some of us don't exactly trust local police," Raven cut in.

"All right, even if we don't involve the police, we'll have to work with SHIELD, or we'll all be stepping on each other's toes. Agent Coulson seemed rather reasonable. I can help with that. He might not be willing to talk to anyone unfamiliar."

She sighed. "All right. You have a point there. You can come along, but once there's an actual fight or even the smallest hint of trouble, you're going to have to hide yourself somewhere and stay put."

"Scout's honor," Charles said solemnly, the way he used to whenever they made a pact in their childhood, and they shook hands, curled together on the bed.

XII.

Raven's peacekeeping force turned out to consist mostly of her minions friends, and from their casual dress in faded jeans, summer frocks and slippers, the rather terribly young group looked more like they were headed for a picnic on a meadow rather than gathered for a strategy meeting. Alex had even brought his little brother, a shy, gawky boy called Scott, who wore special government prescription sunglasses for his particular mutation.

After an awkward attempt to fit everyone into Logan's apartment, Charles had herded them all out to an empty basketball court down the block instead, and Raven had even 'graciously' treated everyone to hotdogs and lemonade. There were the Usual Suspects (or so Charles mentally termed them), of Alex-plus-Scott, Sean and Armando, a quiet girl who had introduced herself as 'Rogue' with a thick Southern drawl, and finally, somewhat to Charles' relief, another S-Class mutant, Ororo.

"Charles," Ororo greeted him gently, her pure silver hair cut in a sharp bob over her shoulders, as the others settled down in a rough semicircle over the packed ground, "Why are we here? I thought that we were going to have lunch at Matteo's."

Charles shot his sister a dirty look, and she smiled innocently at him. "Raven."

"In a week or so the Hellfire Club is going to murder Howard Stark and start off a war between mutants and humans, so we're going to kick their ass first." Raven said breezily, and took a sip of her lemonade even as Alex choked on his and Sean started coughing and wheezing, smearing tomato sauce over the back of his palms.

Charles pressed his palm over his eyes and counted to ten. "Thank you, Raven, for that very concise summary."

"But why would he do that?" Armando frowned. "That's illegal. I mean, everyone knows that Lehnsherr has this thing against humans... sorry Xavier... but as far as I know, he ain't killed anyone since the Act got passed."

"Stark Industries has apparently come up with a wearable set of bracelets that will suppress mutations." Charles explained, with a quick nod at Armando. "Naturally there are regrettable implications about such an invention, but Raven has told me that apparently there are also beneficial ones, but our main priority is to prevent an unfortunate incident from happening that will jeopardize human-mutant relationships."

There was a long silence, then Charles realized belatedly that everyone was staring blankly at him. Flushing a little, Charles attempted to recall a previous life as a genetics professor at Oxford and said, as professorially as possible, "Any questions?"

Rogue put up a cautious hand, if with a quick sidelong glance at Raven and the others as if to gauge whether Charles was merely setting up an elaborate prank.

"Yes?"

"So this Stark cat, he's come up with some bracelets that're gonna keep mah mutation down?"

"Er... we don't know if the bracelets work per se, just that... that's what I heard from a rather credible source... oh... oh my, I'm sorry, did I say something...?" Charles added hurriedly, as Rogue abruptly burst into tears, and hastened forward to comfort the girl. "Look, I'm sure that the bracelets will be used in a socially responsible manner-"

"Careful, Prof." Sean had caught his hand sharply before he had managed to put it on Rogue's shoulder, and even Raven had jumped to her feet.

"I didn't mean any harm," Charles said quickly.

"It isn't that. If you touched her skin by mistake, you could die." Raven said soberly, sitting back down again. "Rogue, c'mon. I told you about this earlier, didn't I? It's not a surprise. I mean, it's why you agreed to come here in the first place."

"Sorry. Sorry. I... I jes'.... I jes' didn't really believe you until..." Crimson with embarrassment and emotion, Rogue gratefully accepted a handkerchief, passed over wordlessly towards her from Ororo, and drew her knees up to hide her face, her shoulders trembling.

Wide-eyed and somewhat shaken by Rogue's rather violent response, Charles continued carefully, "Raven, when you mentioned mutants who would really want these bracelets, I thought you meant, ah-"

"Sure, I meant kids with visible mutations," Raven cut in, "But I also meant kids with uncontrollable ones, like Rogue's, or Scott's. Rogue hasn't touched anyone save by accident ever since she got her powers. Some days I don't think Scott remembers the color of his eyes."

"I'm sure that a less invasive way of assisting his control could be found." Charles had seen what Scott was capable of, once or twice, and guiltily, he hadn't thought about the problems that Scott would face without the government-issue sunglasses; as with all mutants that he'd ever been associated with, before, he had only felt a sense of envy. "But I see your point. Either way, whether the bracelets work, or whether they'd be put into general circulation like prescription devices, that's going to have to be secondary for now. We need to help to prevent an unfortunate incident."

"Meaning that we're going to take down the Hellfire Club," Raven supplied, when there was only another puzzled silence.

"Shit, Raven, that's not funny," Alex sighed. "I thought this was just another meet and greet - I brought my brother, for fuck's sake."

"I've seen Azazel work," Sean muttered. "That's one mean cat right there."

"I agree," Alex got to his feet, "Raven, you're cool and all, but going up against the Hellfire Club, that's way out of our league. You've already put us in a hell lot of danger by telling us this shit. The White Queen could just pick it out of our heads and work some serious trouble on us."

"Well, she shouldn't," Raven said sharply, "And we shouldn't be afraid of our own kind! Just because someone has stronger powers than I do doesn't mean that I have to listen to them!"

Charles flinched at his sister's outburst, and even Rogue looked up sharply, eyes reddened. Ororo cleared her throat, her thumbs pressed into the pockets of her jeans. "I agree with Raven and Charles. If the Hellfire Club mean to kill Stark, we have to stop them. We can't afford any more Black Saturdays. All of us here have B-class and higher mutations, we're capable of taking care of ourselves with our powers. There are plenty of us at C or lower who won't be."

"If a shitstorm happens, it won't be the Hellfire Club that suffers," Armando surmised glumly.

Alex sighed. "All right. Storm, if you're going to stand with Raven, then I'm listening."

"Actually," Charles shook his head slowly, "Raven, this is a terrible idea. All of you are barely past your teenage years, if at all, and it would be highly irresponsible to turn you all into soldiers."

Raven rolled her eyes, and Ororo chuckled softly even as Alex reddened a little. The resultant, uncomfortable silence was broken, rather surprisingly, by Scott. "And what are you going to do, Professor?"

"I'll come up with something." Charles said, as firmly as possible.

"But you're going to try something, aren't you? Even if you have to do it yourself?" Even through the sunglasses, Scott's gaze seemed disconcertingly honest.

At Charles' nod, Sean piped up. "You can't do that, you don't even have powers, and Lehnsherr's your mphth-"

Armando had clapped his hand tightly over Sean's mouth even as Charles froze up, hands clenched, but under Raven's anxious stare, he sighed and forced himself to relax. "Yes. But I can't stand by and watch him do this."

"Well, if you of all people are gonna take him on," Alex rolled to his feet, extending a hand in Charles' direction, "With no powers, no military training, and after all that shit he pulled on you, then I can hardly hang back, can I?"

Charles blinked at Alex in surprise even as he automatically shook his hand, wincing as Armando clapped him on the back and even Rogue pressed a brief, shy gloved hand on his elbow. "I still don't think-"

"You've got only a few days to go and nobody else who'd listen, Charles. We're all you have for your peacekeeping force." Raven gestured vaguely at the rest. "So what's the plan?"

Raven had probably already tried all the people she could trust, Charles thought - these, after all, were all of her close friends. They wouldn't have time to try and garner support, let alone weed out anyone who might be working for the Hellfire Club. It was irresponsible, but he had no choice for now.

"We'll have to go to Flushing Meadows to take a look at the site," Charles said, stifling a sigh, bending down and fishing chalk from a packet from the inner pocket of his suit, "But I've seen a map that Logan left in the apartment, and the layout runs like this..."

XIII.

The Stark Expo site was still under construction despite the nearness of the deadline, and seemed to be swarming with equal numbers of contractors, workmen and security. The thickset guards at the entry of the security cordon had firmly turned them away, even when Charles had attempted to namedrop SHIELD (never heard of dat, suh) and in the end, they had retreated a safe distance up an adjoining hill, under a large old tree, partly to re-strategize and partly to prevent Alex from 'blowing shit up'.

"We can see the rough layout from here," Charles said soothingly, as Raven scowled and glared daggers at the security cordon, "And I've brought biscuits and tumblers so we can all have a nice cup of tea."

"Are you for real?" Alex asked disbelievingly, only to be elbowed sharply in the ribs by his little brother.

Plastic cups of tea and biscuits dispensed, Charles studied the growing site works critically. The Expo seemed to be divided into several sections, dominated by a large central stage and several side shows with outreaching metal struts, that would probably be turned into fantastical projections, wonders of engineering combined with flights of utter fancy, characteristic of the Stark Industries Expos.

The metal struts and girders would also provide Erik with a lot of extremely dangerous ammunition. Couldn't everything have been made out of plastic? Blast.

"Emma could hide anywhere," Raven voiced his thoughts glumly. "Even if there weren't going to be throngs of people."

"Depending on what those things turn out to be," Armando pointed at the struts, "Sean could hide himself on one of them, maybe. Ranged support."

"I can be ranged support as well," Scott piped up, again to Charles' surprise. His initial impression of the boy as a shy one who always hid behind his larger, older brother was eroding quickly. Perhaps Scott was just reserved around strangers. "I'm small, I won't be noticed."

"Up until you take a shot," Alex disagreed instantly, "And it'll be dangerous. You can't aim when you're firing because you're effectively blind, and just like mine, you can set things on fire. If people start stampeding around, a lot of people are going to get hurt."

"Well, neither can you keep hidden and do ranged," Scott stuck out his lower lip, mulishly. "Yours is worse. You don't always hit the mark and besides, neither of us are going to open fire until the civilians have all been cleared out, anyway, it'll be too risky otherwise. I'm thinking that's going to be our priority, evacuating people."

"Whoah, how old are you again?" Armando asked, with a quick, playful grin. "And to think that I always just thought you were an extension of your brother's shadow. Color me surprised."

"Alex is right, people are very likely to stampede when panicked," Charles mused, when Scott visibly bristled anyway. "Crowd control is going to be difficult. People faint, and the unwary can get trampled. We'll need to guide them in an orderly fashion to the nearest exits. Or at the least, away from any blast zones."

"There're going to be SHIELD agents and vanilla security around, won't there? They can handle that, surely," Raven said dismissively, munching viciously on a biscuit as she studied the workmen swarming the stage. "Besides-"

"There's someone coming," Rogue said suddenly, and Charles looked quickly in the direction of her pointing finger, even as Ororo got to her feet, the scent of ozone abruptly intensifying in the air before fading just as suddenly.

A boy of around fourteen or fifteen years of age was trudging up the grassy slope towards them, eyes shaded under a bright red baseball cap, dark brown hair sticking out at unruly, odd angles, dressed in an oversized black jumper that sagged over gray jeans. He was short, possibly not having as yet hit his growth spurt, and he stuck his hands in his jeans pockets as he stopped a respectable distance away and grinned impishly.

"Great day for a picnic, isn't it?"

Raven eyed the boy with an unfriendly frown. "We're busy, squirt, get lost."

Charles winced, though the boy's grin merely widened. "Aww, chin up, baby doll, what's the matter? Pretty skirts like you should smile."

Charles cut in hurriedly as Raven took in a deep breath, reddening with indignation. "I'm sorry, this is actually, ah, a private school outing."

"Really? What school might that be?"

Charles hesitated, at a loss for words under the boy's direct query, and was saved by Ororo, who said smoothly, "The Xavier Institute."

"For higher learning, and stuff," Raven added, with a scowl.

"Operates out of Westchester. Very private." Alex chipped in, trying and comically failing to look supercilious. "This is our professor. Leave us alone, kid. Shouldn't you be at your school?"

"Mind if I sit in on a lesson then?" The boy asked cheerfully. "My name's Tony, by the way. So what are you guys studying?"

Rogue looked anxiously at Charles, who stifled a sigh. They were on public land, and he sensed that Tony was going to hang around and make a pest of himself or, worse, bring trouble. "We're studying strategy, Tony."

"Cool. I've read the Art of War." Tony sat down next to Rogue, who automatically scooted a foot away.

"What's that, a comic book?" Alex sneered.

"No," Tony smiled, blithely calm, even as Charles' brow furrowed a little. A fourteen year old boy had read...? "It was my father's copy."

Still... it was rather remarkable. Curious, Charles said mildly, "Our class today involves the tenth chapter. Would you care to give the class a bit of a summary?"

"Jesus, you're one of those teachers," Tony drawled, when everyone stared at him expectantly, with various degrees of curiosity or hostility. "All right. Tenth chapter, that's terrain, about the three general areas of resistance - distance, dangers and barriers - and the six types of ground positions that rise from them. Photographic memory," Tony added smugly.

"I'm impressed," Charles smiled broadly. "Perhaps you would like to lead the class, Tony?"

"Teachers like you cause kids to develop deep emotional scars, you know," Tony said mournfully, "Okay, what's the battle scenario?"

"You can't be serious, Charles," Raven said flatly. "He's a kid. Smart kid, maybe, but a child."

"Err," Charles addressed Tony hesitantly, as an afterthought hit him, "By the way, this might be an awkward question, but are you, um, human?"

"Well, yes," Tony looked surprised that Charles asked. "You mean you're all not?"

"Well," Charles hedged, even as Raven flickered into the image of one of the security guards at the cordon and folded thick hands over a now barrel-shaped chest. "Yes. And this ain't a place for a kid like you."

"That's a really bitchin' ability," Tony said, delighted, and startled by Tony's praise, Raven changed back to her normal blue form, then self-consciously to her 'crowd-pleaser' form. "Can you do Marilyn-"

"Yes I can, and no, I won't," Raven's scowl, however, was now half-hearted.

"What can everyone else do?" Tony asked, with a childlike curiosity for wonder, and this, Charles felt, with a surge of warmth, would be the product of the new world, once the Civil Rights Act settled, once people like Erik lost their hatred. Newer generations, born without memories of the skirmishes before the Act, without memories of the Black Saturdays, who would grow up and go to school with mutant children - to them, acceptance would be inevitable. And other mutant children born without the prevailing impression of self-superiority, without resentment-

"I can control the weather," Ororo said, with a faint smile, and following the S-class mutant's response, the others also gave short descriptions of their abilities, all but Rogue, who gave a half-shake of her head when Tony turned to her.

"Oh, come on, baby doll," Tony grinned encouragingly. "It has to be something far out as well, like everyone else's."

"Mine just kills people," Rogue said softly, as she curled her hands tightly over her arms, ducking her head.

"All right," Tony said doubtfully, his smile faltering for a moment, before he looked back over to Charles. "And yours must be, let me guess, maybe you can create fireballs? Fly? Read minds?"

"I'm human, I'm afraid," Charles said wryly.

"Ah," Tony raised his eyebrows, but instead of questioning this, he seemed to accept it as a fact that a human Professor could lead a group of mutant children. "Okay then, Professor. Shoot."

Charles looked over at Raven, who shrugged, having apparently given up on chasing off the human boy. "Ah... all right. To recap, our, ah, hypothesis, is a situation, mm, like the upcoming Stark Expo, where throngs of people will be crowded onto a space filled with atypical terrain," Charles waved a hand over to encompass the construction site. "In a possibility of an attack by... armed robbers, perhaps, or some sort of assassin, it's entirely possible that the crowd will panic. The objective is to ensure both that the crowd doesn't get hurt, and that the objective - Howard Stark - who will be up on that stage, does not get killed. Ideas? Armando?"

"Big space, we'll have to work together," Armando said, chewing on his lower lip. "I've got an adaptive mutation, I'll try and stay close to Stark. I can make my skin hard, take a few hits from daggers or something. Should be able to stop gunshots as well."

"I can provide air support," Ororo said, with a glance up at the sky. "There should be plenty of space. Sean, Alex and Scott can try to climb projections as ranged. Our priority would be to try and take out Janus quickly, and if possible, Emma Frost. Azazel will be a problem."

"Assuming the security staff do the crowd control..." Raven began, then at Charles' arched eyebrow, she sighed. "Okay, fine. I'll help the crowd control. I can shapeshift, that means I can coordinate different groups by shifting into the semblance of their superiors."

"I'll... I'll stay close to Armando," Rogue said, in a small voice. "If I ain't got no choice, I'll try and touch one of the, um, bad people. Few minutes and they'd just pass out with a bad headache. It probably won't have lasting damage."

"I'm not sure if that would be necessary," Charles said gently, already growing concerned about Rogue's ability. No one had been forthcoming about it, not even Raven, when he had asked her privately about Rogue yesterday.

"What about you, Professor? What would a vanilla human be doing?" Tony asked curiously.

"I guess I'll get a megaphone and do a lot of backseat driving," Charles tried for humor, though he was sure that it didn't quite reach his eyes. Discussing things now, on a warm meadow under the sun, was one thing, but if he actually had to face Erik down, he wasn't sure what he would do. Even thinking about it was beginning to make his stomach knot up and churn. Erik was his Dom. A few choice words, and Charles was more likely to panic or freeze up than be of any help whatsoever.

"This is a lot of firepower for a situation like the Expo, though," Tony mused out aloud, breaking his train of thought. "It's been running for decades with little to no problems. Usually it's just a case of inventions malfunctioning or people getting drunk and disorderly."

"That was a hypothetical," Charles said quickly, not wanting to startle the child, even as Alex drawled, "Well, when you drop a bomb on people like those mutant suppression bracelets, then you're gonna have to expect it to explode in your face. Lehnsherr's sure to be gunning for that Howard cat's blood."

Charles rubbed a palm over his eyes for patience, as Tony's eyes went wide and round like saucers. "Of course, this is assuming that trouble happens, and that the bracelets are what are getting announced, yes. Thank you, Alex."

"We're missing something, though," Ororo frowned, a brief scent of ozone surrounding her again. "What's to stop the Hellfire Club from striking earlier? Mister Stark travels a lot, I hear, and he's fairly high profile."

"Maybe they want to make sure that there are actually bracelets like that?" Armando suggested, if doubtfully. "The Hellfire Club only has one telepath, and Stark Industries has lots of labs. Emma's gonna have her work cut out for her. Lehnsherr won't start trouble on this scale for nothing. It'll be easier if they wait for the official announcement at the Expo, or earlier."

"Howard Stark wasn't the one who invented-" Tony began, only for Raven to get to her feet and squint down the slope.

"Holy shit. We're busted."

Logan was stalking up the hill, his expression decidedly stormy, and even as Charles blinked in surprise, everyone else - including Ororo and Tony - seemed to quietly shuffle behind him. "Good afternoon, Logan, what are you doing here?"

"I should be the one asking you that," Logan growled, with a sharp glance at the children huddled behind Charles, then his glare fell on Tony and his frown deepened further. "What the fuck, kid, get back over here. Gave your handlers the slip again?"

"Handlers?" Alex repeated, blinking, even as Charles took a belatedly closer look at Tony's face under the cap.

"Tony. You're Anthony Stark, aren't you?"

"What?" Raven screeched. "That little shrimp?"

"Yes," Charles said, deadpan, even as 'Tony' raised both his eyebrows, "I'm sure that he's a proper picture of his father."

Raven's glare promised creative vengeance in the future, even as Logan edged out a low growl, even as he chewed on the cigar in his mouth. "Charlie, what the hell?"

"We, ah..." Charles averted his eyes from Logan's instinctively, shifting his weight on his feet; Logan was clearly unhappy, and Charles should have known that - Raven's idea was going to run roughshod over the toes of both Logan and SHIELD, after all. They were going to get into far more trouble than they would solve and Logan would be angry and-

"Charlie. A word with you. Adult talk," Logan drawled, when Raven stepped forward as well. "You stay with the kiddies."

"It's all right, Raven," Charles said quickly, as Raven opened her mouth, red-faced. She closed it, her lips set in a thin line, but she nodded as Charles trotted quickly down the hill after Logan. He could feel the eyes of all the children fixed on his back as he hunched it, anxious again when Logan made no move to look at him or touch him until they were more or less out of immediate earshot.

"All right," Logan said quietly, reaching forward to rub the flat of his palm absently up over Charles' left hip, to his ribs, the casually intimate caress shielded from the kids due to Charles' jacket, "You wanna explain?"

"You're... you're not upset, are you?" Logan was difficult to read, unlike Erik.

"Doesn't look like you're working towards pissing me off or anything, no. Talk to me, Prof. I ain't gonna start yelling at you." Logan picked up the dog tags briefly, rubbing his thumb over the grooves of his name before letting the tags drop back down against Charles, and he took a breath, suddenly reassured.

"It was Raven's idea. She thought that maybe we could provide some sort of security support. The Hellfire Club is going to be a difficult opponent." I was worried for you, Charles wanted to add, but he could sense that Logan probably wouldn't take that very well.

"They're all kiddies," Logan pointed out bluntly. "What's going down, it ain't gonna be some sort of play group. People are gonna get hurt. You've got Storm, she's a good kid, but the rest of them are all wet behind the ears. They wouldn't even be able to take on one of the Kings or Queens, let alone the whole Hellfire Club."

"It's also for image," Charles said, though he wilted under Logan's steady stare, fighting the urge to shuffle his feet like a recalcitrant schoolboy. "If it looks like a group of mutants and human peacekeeping decided to help out during a, um, regrettable incident, it'll be less likely to spark off another civil war."

"I'm a mutant," Logan said dryly, as he breathed out a cloud of cigar smoke, "But I get your point. Don't mean that I like it, and I think Fury's gonna boot you all out of here soon as he hears of it, but I wouldn't mind using Ororo's help, at the least. Armando, maybe. Ain't so sure about the rest. I'm thinking that they'd just fuck things up and make things worse."

"Their heart's in the right place." Charles insisted.

"Good intentions ain't ever mean invulnerability, Prof. Usually, it's the other way 'round. Where were you gonna figure in this?"

"I'll help with the crowd control," Charles hedged uncomfortably. "I'll be useful."

"Lehnsherr's gonna be there," Logan said quietly, though his hand came up to cup the back of Charles' neck, steadying him easily as Charles sucked in a quick breath. He could feel the instinctive sense of disconcertment at the reminder, but it was at the back of his mind now, like a dull buzz, inconsequential under the rough heat of Logan's palm, stroking gently up and over the nape of his neck, breathing in the scent of cigar smoke.

"He's already been around, he found me and Raven just the other day or so." Charles said without thinking, calmed by Logan's easy touch, only to blink as Logan's grip tightened a fraction, though not enough to turn uncomfortable.

"What? When was that?"

"At... at the park near the apartment, when I was with Raven, after I had lunch with her... it was nothing... he didn't hurt us..."

"Tell me," Logan said evenly, and as Charles took in a shaky breath, his hands clenching, as his heartbeat quickened, his stomach doing an ugly turn just at the memory, Logan growled softly in his throat. "Later, not now. When we're back. And alone."

"All right," Charles said, with desperate relief, and Logan tugged him forward gently but firmly until they were pressed flush together, the cigar hooked away by Logan's free hand, and Charles buried his face against Logan's neck, inhaling smoke and leather gratefully as he curled his hands in the collar of Logan's bomber jacket and listened to Logan's pulse under his skin. A slow breath, and another, matching Logan's steady breathing, and Charles was calm again, as Logan carded thick fingers slowly through his hair, and back down to rub slow circles down his back until Charles let out a soft, inarticulate sound and arched against his hand.

"Ready to go back?" Logan murmured, and pulled away when Charles reluctantly nodded, trying to collect himself even as his body protested the loss of a Dom's touch.

He was composed by the time that they walked back to the others, though Raven pulled a face at them. "God, that took forever. At least you didn't start making out."

"Gross," Scott murmured, then he quickly sidestepped behind Alex when Logan glanced at him.

"Wait till you grow up and get your own Dom or Sub, Scott," Ororo said, amused. "There are others coming towards us. Your friends, Logan?"

"Hardly," Logan snorted, as a small pack of suits, led by Coulson, marched up the hill towards them. Coulson was a little red-faced but otherwise perfectly composed, as he scanned their features as though memorizing them, stared hard at Tony, then settled on Charles.

"Professor Xavier. Was this a social visit?"

"Kiddie outing," Logan supplied, ignoring scowls from the 'kiddies'. "They want to help out."

"Absolutely not, it's going to be a security nightmare as it is without untrained powers and the under-aged running amok underfoot," Coulson said firmly. "This is a restricted area. I'm afraid that I'll have to ask all unauthorized personnel to leave."

Charles looked beseechingly over at Logan, but Logan shook his head. "SHIELD's running the show, Charlie."

"Actually," Tony cut in, "Stark Industries is running 'the show'. Agent Coulson, Professor Xavier and his cohorts are all, as of now, authorized personnel. I'm officially appointing them as interim security consultants," he added, with a brilliant grin that promised to be a heartbreaker in the future. "I trust that you will coordinate your efforts with them in due course. My father, after all, is already rather unhappy about SHIELD's continued insistence on a considerable presence at our Expo. We wouldn't want to step on each other's toes again, would we? Those shouting matches between my father and your Director are so disruptive."

Coulson took a deep breath, even as Logan snorted and Alex and Sean began to snigger, then the agent pinched at the bridge of his nose. "Fine. Professor, I trust in turn that you will keep your charges under strict control?"

"Of course, Agent Coulson," Charles said, with what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

Coulson sighed wearily. "I really need to find out what I did to offend the Director recently."

XIV.

Charles had been expecting an interrogation the moment they got back to Logan's apartment, but somewhat to his relief and surprise, Logan merely squeezed his shoulder absently when they were back, and went to the balcony to smoke.

"Don't worry 'bout it, you're too jumpy," Logan had interrupted gruffly, when Charles had conscientiously tried to remind him, and so Charles had spent the next hour in grateful silence, washing up, tidying his desk, then the apartment, and going over the day's tactical decisions with a notepad and Logan's map, cross-legged on the floor next to Logan's punching bag.

Absorbed in studying the surrounding topography, Charles only vaguely registered Logan padding back into the apartment, until he sat down beside Charles with a bottle of whisky and two glasses, pouring for Charles and then for himself. "I'm trying to concentrate," Charles said, though he smiled in thanks and took his glass, then he added, anxiously, "What?" when Logan tilted his head.

"Nothing," Logan said, after a pause, dark eyes fixed on the slant of Charles' mouth, and downed his whisky in a gulp, pouring another generous measure for himself even as Charles found himself distracted by the easy, animal grace of Logan's movements, compact and economical. "I ain't gonna get drunk, Prof," Logan said dryly, mistaking his silence for concern and startling Charles to blinking, then blushing when Logan smirked at him. "So you don't have'ta stare."

"Oh, no, no," Charles hastily looked back down at the map, even as he took a cautious sip of his whisky, the warm buzz edging down his throat as his mind latched on gratefully to the introduction of a favorite topic. "Your healing factor must be really useful. I mean, it's obviously useful, but, it's useful in other ancillary ways. You don't age, and you can't imprint, but you can still retain memory and impressions like the rest of us, so the way your healing factor accommodates this must be through exceptions, and... and I'm babbling, aren't I. Sorry."

Logan snorted. "Don't tell me that you can't handle your drink."

"Of course I can, it's just that your mutation is fascinating," Charles protested. "It's part of the Oxford experience. When I was in university," he explained, when Logan merely arched an eyebrow.

"Sounds like good times," Logan, however, kept the bottle out of reach when Charles downed his glass and reached for it. "And here I thought you went to them fancy places to get educated."

"Education happened as well," Charles said, then a huffed, "Logan," when Logan again pulled the bottle an inch away, and finished with a "Fine, rule two."

"Rule two ain't meant to be used to get drunk with," Logan drawled, though he obligingly poured Charles another glass.

"I don't get drunk," Charles disagreed firmly, "I just get ebullient."

"Is that a word meaning throwing up, Prof?"

"It means lively," Charles corrected, raising his glass. "I get enthusiastic about things and become talkative... er... more talkative than usual. Erik hated it." Charles was never allowed to drink very much at all over the last few years, come to think of it.

"Seems like Lehnsherr hated a lot o' perfectly good things," Logan observed, his eyes narrowing a little as Charles licked into his glass, chasing the taste of surprisingly good whisky.

Charles rather doubted it - on this point, sometimes even Raven could lose patience with him; she had done so before, a lifetime ago in Oxford, dragged him out of bars and poured him into bed, usually with ill grace. "Maybe," he murmured, then he added a quick, "He's not a bad person," when Logan growled softly.

Logan's rising eyebrows told Charles more eloquently than words what Logan thought of that. "Yeah?"

"He was in the Nazi's so-called Wechselbalg program. Himmler was very interested in mutations - he believed that mutant humans were, ah, 'changelings', non-humans substituted for children by other life forms. Aushwitz had a whole section devoted to the 'study' of the 'non-human'. The description applied only to the Jews and the other so-called 'sub-humans' who were already shuttled into the camps, of course. I gather the experience was horrific - they were not seen as human, so they were treated as such. It shaped him."

"We all got our choices to make," Logan shrugged. "I been around from before mutants became something that the government decided to recognise, Prof. Seen my fair share 'bout all that's fucked up about humanity, but that don't mean I got to hate the lot o' you. 'Sides, there's plenty o' them survivors from the camps. They ain't all twisted up."

"He said that he had to do tricks with a coin. Move it through hoops. Shape it," Charles said flatly, suppressing a shudder at the memory of the conversation, tracing his thumb around the rim of his glass. "When he couldn't do it, they'd hurt his mother. Electroshocks, or they'd stub cigarettes on her arms, sometimes they'd rape her. After a while, she killed herself."

"Can't say I know what that's like," Logan said, after an ugly silence, pouring them both more whisky. "But I can't say that I agree that it gives him a license to fuck innocent people over. Also," Logan continued, when Charles leaned forward, as if to interject, "I can't see why you had'ta take that on your shoulders."

"I didn't want to. Not at the beginning," Charles conceded awkwardly. The amplified sense of self-responsibility for Erik's black moods had only come later into their relationship, when Charles had accepted that Erik was his Dom and it would never change.

Logan nodded slowly. "I remember that. First time I saw you, was at one of those chin ups upstairs in that poker club. Before the big rally."

"The Danger Room," Charles recalled. "There were a lot of mutants there." It was a long time ago, in the first few months of his association with Erik, before the Civil Rights Act had come into law. The Hellfire Club was meeting with other community organisers, ironing out the last minute kinks in a plan for a peaceful demonstration next Saturday.

"Lehnsherr wanted people to respond with their powers if they were knocked about, with deadly force if necessary. Others disagreed, and it was going on into shouting and high words, and then you decided to butt in. Remember what you said?"

"Yes." It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time; he had been the only human present, and that had been out of necessity - it was early enough in their bond as yet that Erik, to his disgust, couldn't out of biological imperative bear to be out of sight of him. His skin would crawl, Erik had said then. He had learned over the years to control it. "I still agree with what I said. That only those on the moral higher ground can change the world. That nonviolence is not a show of weakness or naivety, but strength."

Logan nodded. " It was a pretty little speech and the room full o' mutants who'd just spent all o' their lives being fucked over by their human neighbours were eating it all up. Then Lehnsherr hit you. Knocked you clean off your feet, and you came back up grinning at him with your hands in your fuckin' pockets. You'd turned the other cheek, and you looked like you were daring him to hit you again, even though you said nothing."

"We left." Charles felt his stomach knot, and he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "Erik was very displeased." That was his strongest memory of that day; Erik's consuming fury. "It was actually the only time he's used physical violence on me."

"Probably because he saw what everyone thought of it. You'd left, but you'd already changed the mood in the room," Logan was watching him steadily. "Lehnsherr was winning when he started talking. By the time he left with you at his heels, nobody there agreed with him."

"Black Saturday still happened." Four mutants had died, followed by a series of ugly, hate-driven crimes, particularly in the border states. Erik had been in a black mood for weeks, convinced that it had been partially Charles' fault, and he had made that opinion utterly clear.

"Ain't nothing worthwhile that ain't been bought by honest sweat and blood." Logan shrugged. "But if Lehnsherr had his way, there would'a been murder done. We won't ever have gotten our law passed. So I remembered you; I was impressed. Was gonna check up on you after the walk, but Fury pulled me off to Rwanda, and when I got back, it took me a while to work back up the ranks. By that time, you were different."

Charles smiled wanly. "I suppose you could say so, yes."

"Didn't think that it was all gone, though. I'm glad to see that I was right."

"I beg your pardon?" Charles asked, puzzled.

"That spark," Logan tapped a forefinger on the map, "That made you stand up to Lehnsherr in a room o' mutants and preach to a lot o' people who saw you as an enemy. That took balls."

"Ah, well," Charles said weakly, rather blindsided by Logan's visceral language, "They were going to make a group decision that they would have all regretted, otherwise. I'm sure someone would have cut in with a voice of reason, even if I hadn't been there."

"Doubt it, but I'll drink to that," Logan said, pouring them both another shot. Charles was beginning to feel pleasantly warm; the whisky smelled nice, and so did Logan, cigars and leather, and Charles shuffled a little closer, pulling the map onto his lap and leaning tentatively against Logan, relaxing gratefully when Logan merely curled his arm around Charles' waist, big fingers splayed over the jut of his hip.

Logan allowed him to ramble on for a while about his ideas, stroking his hip, fingers lingering briefly over his thigh, making only brief, gruff observations whenever Charles bounced scenarios and possibilities off him, until Charles had murmured his way into a comfortable silence, cheek pressed against the angular cut of Logan's collar bone.

When Logan's breathing slowed further, as though he was about to sleep, Charles murmured, "About the park."

"Mm." Logan made a non-committal sound, and his breathing didn't pick up, but Charles could feel the arm around him tense up for a moment before relaxing.

Now that he had actually brought it up, however, Charles wasn't sure what to say next. He didn't quite feel like going into another description, particularly if Logan was going to react like Raven had, but he supposed that Logan needed, at the least, to be warned. "Frost read my mind. They know about Stark Industries."

"Yeah. Coulson isn't usually this careless." Logan said thoughtfully, scratching absently at his stubble. "Yapping about confidential missions in front of a civilian."

"Maybe he didn't think that Erik would actually come back with Emma and rifle through my mind."

"Maybe."

Logan didn't sound convinced - Charles' brow furrowed. "Surely you don't think that Fury meant this to happen all along?"

"You don't know Fury like I do." Logan muttered. "Could be that he wanted to force Lehnsherr to show his hand. Could be that he wanted to teach Stark a lesson. Could be anything."

"But people would get hurt."

"SHIELD is black ops. They're in the business of getting people hurt for some sort o' greater good," Logan drawled, his sardonic tone eloquent enough of Logan's opinion of Fury's agency, "Still, they pay good money and if you keep your nose clean and out of his business, Fury's fairly decent."

'Fairly decent' was probably high praise in Logan's books, Charles decided wryly. "Erik said that you didn't need the money. That you did it just to take the edge off your bloodlust."

"He said that, did he?" Logan sounded untroubled, but the arm pressed against Charles was tense again.

"I knew that it wasn't true-"

"Would you have a problem with it if it was?" Logan interrupted, and as Charles raised his head to look at him, startled, he noted that Logan was expressionless, other than the flat, hard gleam of his eyes.

"I..." No, Charles' training suggested, wanting to please, but what he actually said was, "I don't know."

"You're honest, at least." Logan finished his glass and poured himself more whisky. "So I'll be honest with you. I don't need the money. And I get moods sometimes. I don't need to work them off this way, but I'm good at what I do and I pick my targets."

"How... how often are these moods?" Charles asked uncomfortably, unsettled by Logan's blunt affirmation of Erik's description.

"They ain't regular. But they come. And if the world loses a drug baron or so whenever they come, I reckon it ain't worth losing sleep over." Logan's tone was low and quiet, and two weeks or so ago Charles would have ducked his head and murmured an apology.

Now he was tired, buoyed by whisky and a constructive day at Flushing Meadows, and Charles dared to rub the flat of his softer palm up over the knuckles of the big hand pressed over his hip, dared to meet Logan's eyes and say, "The next time you get one of those 'moods', maybe we could work something out. An alternative solution."

"Maybe." Logan had tilted his head again, studying him closely, then he said, "So what else did Lehnsherr bring up?"

"He wanted me to stop you from going to the expo. He said that you'd only die if you went."

"Did he now," Logan seemed amused. "And how did he think that you were gonna do that?"

Charles braced himself. "He gave me some pills. Raven flushed them down your bathroom."

"And if she hadn't done that, would you have used them?"

"If it would have saved your life? I don't know," Charles said, miserably. He couldn't lie, not with Logan watching him like that. "I'm sorry." Come to think of it, it had been very convenient that Erik had just happened to have the pills in his pocket in the park. Perhaps Emma had been keeping tabs on his mind for longer than Charles even realized.

"Don't be." Logan's big hands had drifted up to Charles', nudging thumbs under his tightly curled fingers to pry them open, rubbing the callused pads over the red crescents that Charles had made in his palms. "I shouldn't have asked you that. Wasn't fair."

Fair. The word had a trace of irony around it all, if Charles believed in karma; before he had met Lehnsherr, he had never known privation, never known suffering - his mother had followed his father into the hereafter within months, as some Subs tended to, and the Xaviers had left a very complex trust system behind to take care of Charles. As a trust fund baby, Charles had - with his adopted sister - grown up surrounded by privilege, and he had done nothing to deserve it. Fair - that hadn't been fair. Nor had Erik's treatment by the Nazis been fair, nor, noted the small voice deep within Charles' mind that he had once forgotten, had Charles' treatment by Erik been fair, nor had he, over most of that time, even thought that it was unfair-

"Hey." Logan was pulling Charles gently into his lap, tucking Charles' head under his chin, and Charles realized that his breathing was stuttered, his eyes stinging, as another part of him seemed to shake loose and crumble away.

He felt raw and vulnerable in the aftermath, squirming closer and sinking his hands tightly into Logan's shirt, and Jesus if he wasn't crying again, low, wracking sniffles this time as he tried to bite down on his sobs, and Charles felt rather more confused about it all than anything else; he wasn't even entirely sure why he felt upset and... and this was utterly embarrassing. He'd managed weeks without breaking down, he'd met and talked to Erik without shedding a single tear and now he was bawling again over nothing at all.

Logan didn't say anything, stroking his arm instead, waiting silently, and Charles was grateful for that even as he desperately tried to control himself, to calm his mind, racing through his research, through the day's worth of strategising, and finally, Logan's heartbeat, the loud, slow pulse, closure of the mitral and tricuspid valve, Charles thought, then pulmonary valve and his mind was settling again, his breathing slowing down until they were in sync.

"My apologies, I don't know what came over me," Charles said, a little indistinctly, the moment he could trust his voice again, but Logan shook his head and rubbed a thumb up over the base of Charles' neck, under the heavy chain.

"I shouldn't have been away this much," Logan murmured, as though to himself.

"You've done much for me," Charles disagreed quietly. "I can see that now."

"Nah. I read you wrong." Logan was toying with the chain again, and it was growing difficult to concentrate on his words. "I thought you would'a wanted space."

"I didn't want it, but I think that I needed it," Charles said cautiously. "Wasn't that what you were working at?"

"Kinda. Depends on the Sub," Logan shrugged. "Some need space. Some can't handle it. Must'a pegged you wrong."

Depends on the Sub... Erik did mention... "Erik... Erik said that the Hellfire Club had a file on you," Charles whispered.

"Did he now."

"He said that you've... you've had a lot of Subs, and... I know you won't ever grow old, Logan, and I will, and you've done so much for me when you didn't have to, if you ever wanted to-"

"Hey, hey. Shush." Logan tugged gently on the chain, and Charles swallowed the rest of his words with a wet gasp, eyes squeezed shut. "Charlie, up here. Look up here."

Reluctantly, his eyes swimming, Charles looked up, blinking until his vision stopped blurring, chewing on his lower lip as he forced himself to meet Logan's eyes. Logan was - Logan didn't look angry, though his jaw was set, and his mouth was in a thin, flat line. "I mean it," Charles managed to get out, though he didn't mean it, not really; he liked Logan, and the thought of being left alone scared him, as it always had.

"Charlie." Logan tilted up his chin. "I ain't a good man and I ain't ever given enough o' a fuck to be one. But I'll be with you for as long as you need me, you hear?"

"Promise?"

"It's a promise," Logan said solemnly, and when Charles leaned tentatively up to slant their mouths together, he curled big fingers into Charles' hair and rumbled deep in his throat when Charles reached up and dragged a soft thumb over the valleys between his knuckles.

XV.

"And this is the Tomorrow Room, name still under consideration."

The 'room' was a massive circular showroom, and judging from the struts and podiums that littered it in concentrating patterns, it was probably going to showcase the latest Stark Industries inventions. At present, the room was still littered with thick cabling that snaked in between the podiums, and the overhead lights hadn't yet been fully installed. Instead, blue lights ran around the bases of each podium in neat squares, bathing the room in an ethereal, pale glow.

The Expo was littered with security at present; it was two days to the opening day, and the Starks had both come by personally to inspect the progress of construction. Outside, Coulson and Logan were having an argument with Howard, surrounded by a fascinated bevy of contractors, SHIELD operators and the children, and Tony had dragged Charles away by the hand despite his protests.

"It's not very imaginative," Charles allowed, if with a quick smile. "And you might get into trouble with Disney."

"Fuck Disney, Dad took me to Disneyland once. Nobody there has a sense of humor. I made a tiny adjustment to Mickey's float... and you'd think that I'd burned the place down or something."

Rather appalled by the fourteen-year-old's use of vulgar language, it took Charles a moment to gear his brain into a response. "Anthony."

"Oh, c'mon, Professor, you're with that Logan cat, aren't you? I'm sure you've heard worse," Tony declared loftily, climbing onto a round, low podium. "The Expo's going to be special. I haven't had inventions up for show before, but this year I've cleared two with the board of directors."

"Congratulations," Charles said, with a warm smile. "Your father must be proud."

"Hah." A shadow crossed Tony's face briefly. "He told me that it was about time."

"What?" Charles blinked, surprised. "Tony, you're... you can't be older than fourteen."

"And I'll run his company some day," Tony swept a small hand out to encompass the darkened room, the shadows veiling his eyes, leaving only the sharp curl to his mouth. "Most of the machines up on these stages are going to be Dad's ideas. Mine will have to be better than his to get up here."

"You're fourteen, Tony. You should be... outside," Charles said helplessly. "With other children. Catching a movie, or playing awkward games of make-believe. Not working."

"Stark Industries is a public listed company, Professor. For it to still be a family business, my father and I have to be the best-"

"You're fourteen," Charles repeated, as vehemently as he could.

"It doesn't mean that I can't take responsibility," Tony jammed his hands into his pockets. "Look. Professor, Dad... hasn't told anyone about this, and he told me not to tell anyone, but I reckon... I reckon, what the hell, you're my security consultant, aren't you?"

"What's wrong, Tony?" Charles asked gently, as Tony ducked his head and sighed.

"Okay. The first invention that I cleared, it's sort of like a jetpack. Except lighter, and it's collapsible, and it'd take pretty much any sort of oil as fuel. Give me a year or so and I'll figure out how to make it take water as fuel, so it's unfinished, but the board said it was going to be good enough as it was for recon purposes, they were going to test it in the Sahara to see how it works when it's hot."

"That sounds interesting." Charles wasn't quite sure what Tony was trying to tell him. "It'll have practical application on rescues. Firefighters could use them to quickly evacuate people trapped on high floors."

"Yeah, well, Stark Industries don't figure that way, Professor," Tony looked uncomfortable. "It's all about profit, and the military budget's bigger than a city council's. Don't start on me, I don't have any say in who they sell it to. Anyway, you see, the second invention, Dad said I couldn't take credit for it, not publicly, and he refused to tell me why. Not even the board of directors knows that it's really mine. I was angry at first, I mean, I was still angry, all up until I met all of you a few days ago, and now, now I think I'm just a little bit scared."

Realization dawned. "The suppression bracelets."

"Yeah," Tony said, watching him steadily.

"Good God. You're truly a prodigy," Charles marvelled, wide-eyed, and looking startled, Tony blushed and scowled.

"Well, we all knew that," he said, trying and failing to sound dismissive, unable to fully hide his pleasure. "I'm a Stark, after all."

"And I'm not sure that you should have told me all this," Charles added, with a deep sigh, rubbing his palm over his face. "The Hellfire Club has a telepath who occasionally keeps tabs on my mind."

"I was going to burst if I couldn't tell anyone," Tony said mulishly, his jaw jutting out in a defiant pout, "And besides, I don't see why Dad has to be in danger over something that I made. Besides, it could be a good thing, the bracelets, I mean, I'm not going to lie, I did make it for the military, but people like Rogue, they need it, don't they? That day, she took me aside... she tried to give me money," Tony said, his eyes haunted, shoulders hunched defensively. "I promised to give her a pair for free, I don't know, make some adjustment so that she can flip it open whenever she wants to, and she started crying. I've never made a girl cry before."

Charles vaguely remembered Logan ambling off to look for a yet-again-missing Tony Stark and returning with Tony and Rogue, but he hadn't sensed anything off about either of them. Uncomfortably, he said, "We should at least let Logan know."

"What? No, he'll tell Fury, and then Fury will assign him to me full time, and then we'll both die," Tony declared, with a teenager's instinct for the dramatic. Charles chuckled despite himself, and had to hide a grin behind his palm when Tony scowled at him. "It's not funny, it'll be true."

"Logan's not that bad, Tony."

"Yeah, right, with you, maybe," Tony retorted, clearly unconvinced. "Dad said that he can't stand Logan. Never could, apparently. They go way back, too."

"From the Second World War," Charles recalled. Howard Stark and Stark Industries had played a notable hand in the War.

"They all met during the War. Dad, Logan, Fury." Tony said, with a gusty sigh, "Dad's a pilot - his missions were all hush, or I'm sure he'd have gotten a medal. I want to be like that too."

"Run a company and be a hero in your spare time?" Charles couldn't help his grin, this time. "As a 'vanilla' human?"

Tony glowered at him. "Well, I can. I have some ideas-"

"All of which are very... creative. Rather unfortunately so."

Charles turned around sharply at the all too familiar voice, and pulled Tony off the podium, ignoring the boy's squeak as he tugged him behind his back. He could feel the edge of an old, habitual fear pulling at the edges of his mind, but Charles curled his fingers tightly around Tony's small hand and stood firm, forcing his own gaze up.

"Erik."

"Telepathy is quite a remarkable talent," Erik mused, stepping closer, all clean, long strides, dressed down today in a black leather jacket over a white shirt and gray trousers, "A little nudge to a child's mind, a few other suggestions in those of the others, and we create our own pocket of privacy."

Erik's expression was unreadable, thrown in shadow as he began to circle them, stepping neatly over cables that twined away from his feet, podiums that began to shift gently sideways. Charles could read the tension in Erik's jaw, the way his right hand was fisted in the pocket of his jacket, around what Charles knew would be a Nazi coin.

"What do you want to talk about?" Charles could be calm. He had to be. He couldn't back down, not when a child's life depended on him. "Erik, let Tony go. We can speak privately."

"How old are you, boy?" Erik ignored him.

Tony lifted his chin to meet Erik's cool stare defiantly. "Almost fifteen. You're trespassing on private property."

"So I am," Erik said mockingly. "Fifteen. Quite remarkable. And you would have had a long, rich life ahead of you, Anthony Stark, if you hadn't decided to turn your remarkable mind against my people."

"That wasn't my intention," Tony retorted, though he pressed against Charles for reassurance. "I have mutant friends too."

"Perhaps it wasn't," Erik tapped at his temple, "But your mind holds at least twelve different applications for the theory that created those damnable bracelets, and your inventions are marketed by a corporation infamous for its rapacious hunger for war chests."

"Stark Industries makes other tech, and it turns out that some mutants might need the bracelets-"

"And who determines 'need'?" Erik cut in, with a low growl, "Your majority, human government? It's the first step down a slippery slope. At first it'll be 'need'-based, and then perhaps they'll determine that the more 'troublesome' of us need collaring, and then we'll have lost all the progress that we've ever made."

"That's it. You're batshit crazy," Tony decided, and Charles hastily shushed him.

"Erik, you can't be thinking of hurting Tony," Charles said, as reasonably as he could. "He's a child. What will be done with his inventions is beyond his control."

"He is much more than a child, Charles." Erik's circular stalking came to a stop before them, and Charles could hear the steel begin to rattle ominously from the podium formations. "He is a means to an end."

"If you hurt a child," He could feel fear curling tighter now, ratcheting his tone a notch higher, but Charles grit his teeth and held his voice steady, "You'll polarize everything, even mutants. You'll lose a fair chunk of your current support base. And anything you achieve in the future will be stained by the evil of what you have done. You're better than that. There's some good in you, Erik-"

"You believe that?" Erik cut in, sardonic. "You?"

"I believe that no person is cut between lines of black and white. For all the cruelties that you have inflicted on me, for all of your hatred of my species, your reasons for helping other mutants have never been selfish, at their core."

"And yet again," Erik mused, condescending now, "You'll turn the other cheek. Sometimes I am not certain whether your verdamnt attitude reeks of foolishness or arrogance."

"It is neither foolishness or arrogance to look past what is merely personal towards the larger picture, Erik," Charles could feel his hands shaking now, an automatic reaction to Erik's biting tone, but he managed to keep his tone firm. "It is maturity."

For a moment, Charles could see metal coils twisting angrily behind them, around them all, then they slithered again to a slow twining, as Erik chuckled, dark and rough. "Preach to me then, Charles. Amuse me."

Charles sucked in a sharp, harsh breath. "Erik, even though the Civil Rights Act exists, there's still dissent. I don't think that the separatist approach is constructive - nor is spreading the view that mutants are superior and should treat humans as an inferior species. But mutants need a leader whom they can follow. Someone unselfish, someone unafraid to speak out. Someone," Charles continued, when Erik's lips thinned into a hard line, "Who will walk the right path."

"And who determines the right path, Charles? The majority? Some madman on a pulpit with the biggest army?"

"The consequences. And nothing but grief can come from the death of a child."

Erik turned his head to the side briefly at a sudden, sharp outcry from the outside, and there was a distant rumble of thunder, even as Charles flinched at the sound of one of Sean's sonic screams. It seemed that Emma had been discovered. "You preach the 'right path', yet you came prepared for war."

"Hardly." Charles focused on the warm points of Tony's fingers in his hand, the small form leaning against his back. "They're all children. They're no match for the Hellfire Club." Not when caught flatfooted. But Charles had to concentrate; he couldn't afford panicking over the battle outside. He could only hope that Logan and SHIELD could keep things under control. He had to trust in that.

Metal coils curled slowly in perfect, concentric circles around Erik's feet. "And you've turned them against me."

"Not me. You were the one who turned them against yourself." Charles said quietly. "As you will turn more and more of your own kind against yourself if you go further down this road. Walk away now, Erik. Please."

"Do you truly think that you can persuade me?"

"I think that you want to be persuaded," Charles pointed out carefully. Erik's mood was beginning to shift; his shoulders were pulling back, straightening, and possibly - quite possibly - Erik was going to relent. "Or you would have killed Tony and myself easily from the dark before we even noticed your approach."

Erik stared at them silently, the cables snaking in sibilant whispers of metal around them, his eyes flint hard as he flicked his gaze between Charles and Tony, lingering on the white-knuckled grip that Charles had on Tony's fingers, then he said, idly, "Boy. There is a child who lives in east Harlem. Her name is Nancy Slater. She lives in a sterile suit; her mutation causes her skin to blister and boil when she comes in contact with polluted air."

"I'll send her a pair of bracelets. Complimentary." Tony agreed, clearly determined to reflect Erik's studied neutrality, though his tone shook a little. "Anything else?"

"Not for now." Erik inclined his head, and looked back up to Charles. "It's a pity."

"W-what is?" Relief had shaken his voice, and Charles swallowed when Erik's eyes narrowed briefly, dangerously, before his expression smoothed to the enigmatic, cold mask that he usually wore around Charles.

"That you were born human," Erik replied quietly. "Very well, Charles. You win this round. Azazel? We're leaving."

Charles' knees gave out when the scent of brimstone began to fade, and he sank down, trembling uncontrollably, only vaguely registering Tony's awkward pats on his shoulders; he could see Tony's worried face, dimly make out Tony's anxious questions, and then there was a big, warm hand pressed confidently against the back of his neck, and he sighed out aloud, ragged and relieved.

"I'll take it from here," Logan said gruffly, and Charles clung blindly to him when Logan curled an arm under his knees and picked him up.

XVI.

"And that was a pretty successful wrap, if I do say so myself," Tony declared, plopping himself down on the bench beside Logan and Charles. The crowds were beginning to thin out as the expo neared its closing time, and Logan was on his third can of beer, ignoring disapproving glances from passers-by, an arm wrapped firmly around Charles' waist.

"Shouldn't someone be watching you?" Charles asked wryly.

He had been in a state of nervous tension through the expo, expecting Erik to change his mind, or perhaps some sort of alternative trouble to crop up, but the expo had been more or less terrorist-free. SHIELD had only had to contend with some unruly drunks, a few young men trying to impress their dates by climbing the metal projections, and a couple of misplaced children. Agent Coulson had to be over the moon.

"Yeah. Coulson's not very good at it, though," Tony glanced down at the fingers that Logan splayed over Charles' hip, and pouted. "Give me four more years and I'll show you a good time."

Startled, Charles burst out laughing, even as Logan grunted and finished his beer. "Beat it, kid."

"It's my expo that you're sitting in," Tony retorted, unrepentantly.

Tony had developed a rather inflated opinion of Charles after his first and hopefully last meeting with Erik, and had taken to following Charles around, ostensibly by insinuating himself into Raven's gang friends and self-enrolling into Charles' 'school'. Logan found it irritating, but Charles found it amusing. Tony was a brilliant child, but he was clearly painfully lonely, and a few friends his age wouldn't go amiss.

"It's your daddy's expo, brat. Go play with the other kids." Logan replied, unimpressed.

"Raven's run off with that tall kid with black glasses, the Summers brothers are trying to buy alcohol, I'm not sure where Sean is, someone's trying and failing to hit on Storm, and Armando and Rogue are still touring the exhibits. I'm bored."

"You can go and be bored someplace else."

"Logan," Charles said gently, "I'm sure that we could-npgh...!"

Logan pulled away and settled back against the bench only when Charles had begun to melt into the rough kiss, and he smirked when Tony pulled a face at him, even as Charles gasped, "Logan."

"Why don't you sit on my knee, Charlie?" Logan purred, twining the chain around one thick forefinger, and Charles shivered even as he obeyed, balancing awkwardly on one muscular thigh, bracing his weight with a palm pressed over Logan's broad shoulders and hiding his flaming cheeks in the crook of Logan's neck.

"We're in public."

"Yeah, and?" Logan nodded over at the other bench, set against the next exhibition tent, where a Sub sat at his Dom's feet, being fed chips rather messily from a take-out box.

Unconsciously, Charles licked his lips, and found himself tugged into another, slower kiss, sloppy and unhurried; he could dimly hear Tony make an annoyed sound and melt back into the crowd, and he was vaguely aware that they really should at the least walk the heir to the Stark empire back to his minder, but he couldn't move, couldn't breathe, giddy with pleasure and warmth from the simple intimacy as Logan licked into his mouth.

Charles was squirming breathlessly when Logan pressed a final, slow lick up over his swelling lips and leaned back, grinning and smug. "You're incorrigible."

"Anyone in their right mind with a Sub as pretty as you are is gonna show off as well," Logan drawled, pressing a thumb over Charles' reddened mouth and smirking when Charles automatically flicked the tip of his tongue out for a taste.

"You really don't like Erik."

" 'Don't like' is a pretty weak description," Logan scowled, though he lifted his chin up when Charles nuzzled tentatively over his neck, breathing deep. "If those brats had interrupted Frost sooner, I would'a popped him six new ones."

"I think that he's necessary. There aren't any other high profile, charismatic mutant leaders out there. Every movement needs a figurehead."

"Heard you convinced the Starks not to press charges," Logan said gruffly. "Personally, I think you should'a. Lehnsherr must'a fucked you over good when you were still his Sub."

Charles settled contentedly over Logan's warm bulk, hands curled under the bomber jacket, pressed over hard muscle. "He still walked away, when he could have killed us with a thought. I think that there could be progress. Erik's synonymous with the mutant rights movement, after all, especially the worst parts of it. If he can change... it'll be a big step towards constructive peace. A lot of mutants look up to him and try to emulate him."

"People like Lehnsherr don't build things, they break 'em. I prefer my theory," Logan growled, though he skated his left hand up over Charles' flank, his palm hot over the thin fabric of Charles' shirt.

"We'll have to agree to disagree on that point then, my friend." Charles suggested, too contented to argue.

"Seeing as SHIELD didn't push the fuckin' issue, I think maybe Fury might see your point," Logan allowed grudgingly, then he added, "Also, Fury asked if you wanted to work for SHIELD full time. Wouldn't recommend it."

"The Starks made me an offer as well," Charles said, with a wry smile, as Logan scowled again. "Don't worry. I'm happy perusing Fury's database and writing my paper. I think I've had enough excitement for the time being."

"It'll be a waste if you did that full time." Logan observed, but he pulled Charles down for another kiss when Charles opened his mouth to interject, and moved his hands down to grip Charles' wrists, lightly but firmly, rumbling low in his throat when Charles tugged experimentally against his grip and shivered when Logan didn't budge an inch, his hips stuttering forward.

"Oh," he whispered, dazed, when Logan let him up for air, the background noise of the winding down expo fading into a low buzz, Charles' world centring on the hard muscle under his arse and the unyielding fingers over his wrists. "Oh, oh please, sir."

"You're too easy," Logan drawled, though his eyes had grown intense, blown with want. "Not here. Coulson would probably blow a vein."

"Ah... ah yes, of course," Charles blinked rapidly as he registered what he had done, mortified at his loss of control. "Um. Perhaps we should locate the others. Find Tony before he gets into more trouble."

"Sure," Logan agreed, though he slipped a hand down to the small of Charles' back when Charles straightened self-consciously in his lap, digging up a cigar from a pocket of his jeans with his free hand and slicing into it with a flick of a partially unsheathed claw, putting it into his mouth as he fished out a battered lighter.

On an impulse, Charles took the lighter gently from Logan, thumbing it open, and cupped the flickering blue flame as he pressed it to the cigar. He closed the lighter when Logan took in a deep, gritty drag of smoke, and leaned forward to press the flat of his tongue carefully against one of the bone ridges of Logan's claw, a curve playing at the edges of his mouth when Logan's gaze turned hot and dark.

.postscript .logan

Logan would be the first to admit that he was old fashioned, fuck what the rest of the world thought about it, but he'd grown up in a time and place where the so-called 'dom-sub' system hadn't been about fancy theories or gimmicks. It had been about trust, and sometimes it'd been about making the best of a bad deal that nobody expected, but he'd grown up being taught that it was always meant to be safe, sane, fair.

The so-called civilised world had roundly fucked up what the Canadian frontier settlers in the 1880s had merely seen as another, occasionally inconvenient aspect of living with other people, in Logan's opinion, and on occasion he was still vaguely surprised that nobody else saw it that way. He'd been told that the evolutionary throwback had its silver lining - apparently, without it, the lobby groups of crazy people who hated other people born in different colors, or born liking other genders might have gained traction in its place. Logan rather doubted it. The prevalence of imprinting had never stopped people from killing each other over shit like random bits of land, after all.

And then sometimes, Logan ran into Subs like Charles, and seeing the hell that they got put through made him hate the world a little.

He was pretty sure that he could never imprint, and he'd made his peace with that a long time ago. On bad days, Logan was dimly thankful that he would never know what it was like to have that much power over someone, to twist them up and break them without any fear of repercussions. It made his fists itch, sometimes, watching Charles jump at shadows or shuffle instinctively closer whenever he saw a silhouette of someone tall and lean rounding a corner. It had made him wait, biding his time, ignoring Charles' fumbling attempts to move things past second base. If his long life had taught Logan anything, it was the value of patience.

And then, somehow, Charles cottoned on to the best way to drive Logan crazy. Logan's sense of smell was far sharper than sight or hearing, and the feral beast that he kept in lockdown as much as he could within him made him territorial. Somewhere along the line, Charles started wearing his spare shirts or jackets around the apartment, or taking naps in the quilt that Logan slept in, until Logan couldn't quite make out Charles' own scent without taking in a healthy dose of his own. It was maddening, and then one thing had led to another, and in the end, Logan had to concede that although there was much to be said in favor of patience, two people could play at the same game, and he'd lost at this one.

It was hard to stay annoyed at the fact, though, not when giving in to Charles now and then turned out to be so satisfying. Like having Charles kneeling beside the bed, between Logan's thighs, all gorgeous pale skin and a pretty flush on his cheeks, brilliant blue eyes dazed with pleasure and moaning from having Logan's cock stuffed down his throat. It was hot, it was wet and tight, and at a gruff, "Come on, darlin'," Charles whimpered and pushed deeper, so eager that it was sloppy, clenching his throat tight and fuck if this wasn't the hottest thing that Logan had ever seen. Lehnsherr had to be out of his tiny mind.

He let Charles bob up, sucking wetly with a wicked swirl of his tongue that made Logan growl and dig the heels of his feet into the floor, then Charles was moaning again as he took Logan back down his throat, taking another inch this time and choking for it even when Logan put a cautious hand down against the back of Charles' throat. Logan allowed Charles to work himself deeper, though he controlled the rhythm now with the pressure of his hand, felt Charles melt against it and make a desperate, muffled whine when Logan idly rubbed one roughened thumb down to press against the pulse at his throat.

Charles was panting in dry, harsh gasps when Logan finally drew back, pretty blue eyes wide and glassy as he licked his red lips and leaned forward to rub his cheek against the denim stretched over the tense arch of Logan's inner thigh. Charles' hands were clasped tightly together before him in an obscene parody of prayer, wrists bound carefully with one of Charles' red ties, and his swollen cock was dripping between his spread thighs.

"What's your color, Charlie?" Logan rumbled, drinking it greedily in. He'd lived a long time, and he hadn't been celibate by any measure of the word, but Charles did for him like none other whom Logan could remotely remember; he could barely recognise his own voice, and the thick scent of Charles' sweat and sex was making his mouth water.

"G-green, sir," Charles' voice was wrecked and hoarse, just the way Logan liked it, and a soft growl escaped him before he could catch himself.

"Come up here, then," Logan commanded, and Charles stumbled up on shaky feet, not a stitch on him but the slip of red silk at his wrists and Logan's dogtags plastered over his heaving chest, and he whimpered prettily when Logan hooked a finger in the silk and tugged him forward until Charles was straddling his lap, bared thighs pressed over denim. Logan pulled Charles' wrists over his broad shoulders, and smirked when Charles whined at being held in place, an inch too far to press their cocks together.

"You'll get three today," Logan said, as he pressed his fingers against Charles' mouth and narrowed his eyes when Charles immediately sucked them in, rubbing his tongue eagerly against calluses. "Get them wet for me, darlin'." He didn't have to ask, but Charles liked him to talk; Logan could feel the silk flex a little against his neck as Charles shuddered and squirmed, sucking on the fingers in his mouth.

Charles braced himself on Logan's shoulders and pushed himself up on his knees upon direction, though he shook and tried to spread his legs further than they could comfortably go when Logan worked the first finger into him nice and easy, breath catching at the quick, hungry clench of muscle and the way Charles wriggled and tried to sink down. Charles squeezed his eyes shut when Logan got his finger in all the way to the knuckle, and whimpered "oh, oh please," when he rubbed the flat of his thumb up against the twitching, wet ring of muscle clamping tight over him.

"Don't come," Logan warned, when he worked in the second finger and added, "That's good, Charlie, hold up," and began to pump, slow and unhurried and ignoring the abortive little bucks of Charles' hips, his open-mouthed panting and the tremble going up his gorgeous pale thighs. Charles' body lost resistance beautifully, opening loose and eager over his fingers, and as a reward Logan screwed them deeper, crooking them until Charles spasmed and keened.

"Oh! Oh, oh," Charles rolled his hips tentatively, then he bit down on his plump lower lip and let gravity sink him down hard on Logan's hand, scooting back up on his knees when Logan growled and squeezed at his hip with his free hand.

"Stay up and still, darlin'. You're doing just fine." His voice sounded thick to his own ears as he began to work in the third finger carefully, twisting and stroking and watching the slight frown that crossed Charles' face, waiting until it smoothed back into slack ecstasy, Charles' pretty blue eyes off-focus and fixed down on Logan's neglected prick. Charles' moans hitched higher when Logan began to rock his fingers into him, keeping up a steady, rough rhythm that soon had Charles rocking hungrily against him, his back curved in a wanton arch.

Charles always squeezed his eyes tightly shut whenever he was growing close, and he blinked them wide and open when Logan pulled away his fingers, his low, desperate whine stuttering into a moan when Logan tugged his chin down for a rough kiss, sucking unhurriedly on the tip of his tongue and holding his hips still until the trembling stopped.

"What's your color, Charlie?" Logan purred, when he pulled back to a sob, and he let Charles lean back in to rub his cheek blindly against Logan's neck, arms shaking where pressed over his shoulders.

"I'm, oh, I'm green," Charles babbled, nuzzling him wetly and wriggling again, "Oh, sir, please."

"You'll stay where I put you," Logan growled into his ear, and just like that, Charles blinked slowly, owlishly, and the trembling stopped with a low, whispery sigh, Charles' body going slack. Logan could feel the throb in Charles' cock as it pressed against his belly, but Charles didn't buck or wriggle, breathing out again instead, slow and steady.

Logan carefully unhooked Charles' arms from around his neck and rolled him down onto the bed, nudging his legs open; Charles didn't help him, staying exactly where Logan arranged him, those brilliant blue eyes tracking Logan's every movement with a warm trust so absolute that Logan's stomach knotted for a moment before he got a hold of himself and turned away. The boots came off first, then he dragged off his jeans and unbuttoned his shirt, thinking, trying to decide what to do next. He could take Charles apart with just his hands; Charles was so beautifully easy like this.

Charles tipped up his head with a raw, choking sound when Logan pushed his fingers back inside him, longer, deeper strokes this time, rocking hard enough to nudge Charles up against the bed, tugging one pale thigh up over his shoulder to admire the view, the reddened ring of muscle stretched tight over his big fingers. When he was like this, Charles made broken little animal sounds whenever something felt good, which in theory shouldn't sound as fucking hot as they did. It was as though the sounds pulled at the beast curled always deep inside Logan, made it hungry. Made it want a taste.

Charles hissed when Logan flipped him over and pulled up his knees, spreading his cheeks, then Logan was chuckling darkly when Charles jerked and choked at the first wet, slow lick up his cleft. Charles was shaking again and sobbing by the time Logan started to rub the flat of his tongue against twitching muscle, and when Logan drawled, "You can come now," and nipped him high up on his left inner thigh, working his teeth into it, Charles froze up with a thin cry and spent himself.

"Ah, fuck," Logan slurred, so turned on by the sight that he ached, and it took only a few quick tugs before he was coming all over the gorgeous arch of Charles' back.

Charles smiled crookedly at him when Logan scrubbed a palm over his face, trying to slow his breathing, the blue of his eyes in rich, unfocused cerulean. Once he had a hold of himself again, Logan reached over to rub a proprietary hand down Charles' sweaty flank before untying him and tossing the tie off the side of the bed.

"You're gonna count to fifty," Logan said quietly, "Then you're gonna come back up to me."

Logan had cleaned the both of them off with a towel by the time Charles stirred, blinking slowly, then he stretched and scooted up onto his knees for a slow, unhurried kiss, then bringing up Logan's right palm to rub his cheek over the knuckles, his eyes half-lidded and lazy. "That's another tie ruined," Charles commented, even as Logan gave up trying to find a cigar and allowed him to tug them both back down onto the bed.

"I'll buy you a new one, princess."

"Mm." Charles yawned sleepily, tucked in the crook of Logan's arm, and Logan could see the next question coming over the horizon. Charles always asked. "Why don't you stay up on the bed tonight?"

"You know why." Logan replied dryly, "You won't be half as pretty if you were a pincushion."

Charles muttered something ridiculous about worthy risk, and fell asleep mumbling something that even Logan's enhanced hearing couldn't quite catch. Logan shook his head, bringing a hand up to card the fingers through Charles' thick hair, hooking a finger possessively under the chain and watching as Charles' breathing hitched even in his sleep.

They wouldn't ever imprint, and so they wouldn't ever be 'complete' the way the rest of the world saw it. As far as Logan was concerned, however, the world could go fuck itself.