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Love Like Winter

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(The older a story is, the stronger it gets.

'Once,' said Edie Lehnsherr-- Edie, who had herself accepted the divine punishment for loving a mortal man. 'Once when all the world was green and young, there lived two little boys…'

Two little boys, then. In the forest, hands linked as each footstep takes them further from all that is known. Here they are on the borderlands, which appropriately blur with thick shadows and the endless dappling of emerald glow.

"And what happened next?" was Erik's ritual question, posed first to his mother and then, as they grew older and the thread of the story passed hands, Charles himself. Edie had always smiled slightly, eyes deep and knowing like the sphinx, reflecting only a portion of the myriad secrets within. Charles would bite his lip, pondering, knowing his friend expected wonders, and more wonders still.

The boys have passed into the kingdom of Other, where there is nothing you do not bring with you; the great blank scroll left when one falls off the map of the world.

"What do you think happens?" the prince learned to ask, tilting his chin up at the boy he considered his brother; the friend whose only distance lay in not being cleaved from the moon-round flesh of the same woman. The young scholar would wish, in the silence spinning out from his challenge, that these blood ties could be true. Erik, sitting by the hearth in his own modest home, or leaning against the window seat in Charles' vast bedchamber, would keep his own counsel. Ruminating over his next narrative dare, gaze never wavering from the cyan eyes so unlike his own.

The boys pass through great deserts, where winged foxes burrow in the sand; jungles where there grow great blue vines that taste like licorice; wastelands in which ogres argue over diamonds the size of grown oxen.

"A moon-bog full of werewolves!" Erik might suggest. A necropolis peoples by cannibals, a mine haunted by ghosts. Charles would take these brilliant beads of inspiration and weave; the story was always different but, because the two boys were together, it was also always the same. The young prince might frighten himself a little, on occasion feeling the sharp edge of his own vivid imagination as he conceived such tales, for his friend had grown taller and was known to expect a certain level of gruesome flare.

"Yes, but *how* to the bandits intend to execute them?" the blacksmith's apprentice might ask, pressing Charles close to his side. "How is he going to kill a demon that lives in a mirror?" Always close, coaxing, and-- though the prince well knew Erik wasn't truly scared-- letting Charles' shivers pass into him, echo in his own form.

"Fear not, Little Maus-- I'm right beside you. Tell on.")

 

 

Charles is grown now, and he knows the fabulous lands of any fable are really only a reflection of the strangeness found within oneself. Never the less, he is struck by a powerful sense of both deja vu and alienation, as though seeing something intimately familiar bent backwards and over itself until it is almost unrecognizable. Which is odd, in a way, since he could never have imagined the true nature of the Free People's camp.

To be sure, the first impression is simply one of overwhelming visual discordance. But Xavier is a child of that massive, vanished capital, Chryse Planitia. He summered in the warren-city of Phelgra in better days, and had thought Acidalium-- increasingly crowded with refugees and drowning in its own infrastructure-- would be his tomb. Large crowds are not unknown to him, nor is he much discommoded as long as he is amongst the organic mass and not

(on display, keep up with the tempo, they're watching, next they'll want to check my teeth)

involved in elaborate ritual. There are a great many beings in the enemy's encampment, a fact made more disturbing by the knowledge that a good number more must be billeted on the other side of Acidalium. A convergence of conquerers from all sides-- and to think they'd fancied themselves able to estimate the Dark Lord's resources at all!

While the camp itself is similar to many others, half-way staked in the changeless country of the caravansary, it is quite creatively situated and the Free People themselves dizzyingly varied. Within the confines of the tent, Charles had judged the time closer to dusk despite the hour Erik reported. He'd based his estimate solely on the limited ambient light and noise, and the fires whose outlines he had been able to discern despite the thick linen and canvas. It seems, however, that the enemy has found something far better than a box canyon to shelter themselves in, and they have done so with conspicuous silence.
They have partaken of Erik's audacity and made camp in an ancient, prodigious cave.

 

The ceiling is well nigh higher than many of Acidalium's jasper and marble towers, and its cyclopean dimensions are such that the variegated overhang and distant depths merge in that particular confusion usually seen only where sea meets sky. The more the scholar gazes on the subtly disquieting angles, the unnaturally harmonious arrangement of stalactites and outcroppings, the less he likes the place. There is an odd element of utility and… appropriation… in what is also obviously a natural, if rather large, geological formation. Xavier recalls, shudderingly, the whispers of Alhazred and the few others foolish enough to trespass near Leng and lucky-- or damned-- enough to survive. Shaw, Erik had said, had sought leavings-- not without reason, for there is just enough literary evidence to suggest something had once lived or out posted in the fearsome peaks. Involuntarily, the prince casts a leery glance over his shoulder, craning to see past the tent, and is relieved to see a distant but definite irregular archway of light. The mouth of the cave; leading to places as unknown as the viscous darkness, but presenting at least a far more traditional escape.

 

Charles isn't going anywhere, of course, save the few feet to where Erik awaits him. He doesn't need to look to feel the full weight of those piercing eyes, as sure as a hand at the small of his back or the purposeful encircling of a wrist, and so he takes his time. A true politician, as Lady Mother so often said, reconnoiters more thoroughly than any soldier. Indeed, Xavier is struck with an unexpected nostalgia for her; throughout much of his life, Lady Sharon has been the only other faey within the royal keep, if not the city itself. After they fled the capital, she was the only pureblood not of Elvish stock in their community, something even her son could not claim. She was a source of great contention and, like any exotic and thorn-bearing flower, she thrived on it. She swept through a room as though carelessly parting invisible swaths of the dislike directed at her; she had a way of smiling faintly that was worse than condemnation, and it seemed she must have been born with those hazel eyes narrowed in assessment. Her obvious difference

(she kept her wings, though she bound them-- contriving to artfully display their stems as though they were an ornamental part of her gown)

was a matter for open disapproval, though rarely expressed to her face. Those in the Court said Kurt kept an exotic whore, that he might couple next with a faun or gnome, powers help them! Yet those who did confront Lady Sharon herself would be met with an expression of polite inquiry, as though she thought they had said something foolish but, perhaps, had not quite heard. 'Always ask them to repeat themselves,' she would tell Charles, frowning over needlework she did not have the patience for. 'Most aren't brave enough to volley the insult twice.

 

Just standing mere steps from the canvas threshold, Charles can spot three other faey making their way through the aisles between tents. The first is a red-headed youth, gamely carrying a sack of barley and a precariously balanced clay jug in his arms. His wings-- the color of old ivory, mottled with veins of brown-- twitch in that slight, unconscious motion seen also in cat's tails. He's of the Dark Court, like Angel, if the broad swirls of tattooing visible beneath his leather armor are anything to go by. As is the woman lovingly cleaning her sword nearby-- hair and wings red like flame, the latter ragged and tipped with ebony. Then, following the youth in a far more stately manner, a dark-skinned male with wings like polished steel. At first, Charles is surprised, thinking it odd to find a southern fay so far from home. As his gaze lingers, that astonishment turns to shock, for he sees the solider has also a basilisk's tail.

Of course. Shaw's crusade for purity applied only to humans, the race least disposed to natural magickal talent. It was their blood he wished to wipe from Jord, to breed out of his soldiers, though he was a hypocrite when forced to chose between principle and raw skill. Erik's own father was human, the celestial elements of his mother proving (unsurprisingly) far stronger in the mix, endowing her untried infant with powers many human man worked a lifetime to attain. The Elves, too, were despised by Shaw-- though not for sorcerous disposition. For centuries the kingdom of Jord stood between the Lord of Nod and total domination of all known lands; it was said that the grandfather of Charles' grandfather was the first hold the border when Shaw, then a mere bandit-mage, waged his first attack. But the foe himself was not averse to a mixture of their blood. Of any blood, indeed, that might help him cultivate stronger soldiers and slaves.

A few moments in the busy camp-compound are proof enough of that. By the fire, there stands a sturdy elf-man whose feathery hair and beak of a nose betray griffin heritage. The teamster directing horses, arassas, and manticores is another dark-skinned basilisk whose collar does not quite hide the vestigial gills of a nereid. Two dwarves, one with the hairy hind-quarters of a sphinx, seem to be arguing over the placement of barrels. Darting by, swift as you please, comes a dryad maid with satyr's horns who seems to be chasing a reddish wolf-creature with a streak of white in its tail. Charles could spend hours observing these beings-- many of whom he has only read about-- but he does his best to take in the whole of the setting without staring at anyone in particular. It is a courtesy he always takes care to extend; now more than ever, because he longs for it so much in return.

Everyone goes about in an unnerving manner of vague expectancy; the ordinary business and bustle of camp carried on with all typical action, but with a dampening of sound that makes it all seem unreal. He has never before encountered such a quality of quiet boisterousness, a dependence on the animation of language rather than volume. The few snatches of conversation that do drift towards him are couched in a patois that appears to be as much a hybrid as those who speak it-- a mixture of Jord's common Low Tongue, with a smattering of faey, elvish, and a guttural speech Charles can only assume is some kind of dwarvish or ogre dialect. The gestures of those communicating-- decisive, dynamic, but by no means expansive-- seem to fill in the gaps between spoken language, involving not just hands but tails, wings, and the occasional puff of flame. As if to underscore this, yet another wolf trots by, seeming to actually 'bark' orders at a few foot soldiers lingering by the fire.

 

"You have werewolves in your midst," Charles says wonderingly, having reached Erik's side. A minimal distance, to be sure, since the Dark Lord has all but planted himself, arms crossed and stance at half parade rest, by a neighboring tent. There are dozens of other's rank and file behind it. Lehnsherr seems to have chosen it for the virtue of being directly within eyesight of his 'guests' accommodations and-- from the rustling and brief glimpses of eyes behind canvas flaps-- there are quite a few youths beside themselves with terror or honor. Given what Charles as seen so far, it may very well be both. Mystique, standing beside her leader, managed to look proud, while simultaneously rolling her eyes.

"Aye," she says, sharp grin making itself known once more. "After Liberation, our Lord was able to broker a treaty with the wolves. They were impressed by his strength and honor. 'Tis the Howlett clan you see here-- their contribution to our efforts."

Charles nods slowly, both to hide his alarm at this news and to stall the questions leaping to his lips. The scholar in him is writhing to a fever-pitch, for the causes and transmission of lycanthropy, while shrouded in mystery, are only the least of those secrets concealed by fiercely loyal covens. Packs which, throughout Elvish history, have been tortuously isolationist.

 

If Erik registers the flattery from his second, he gives no sign. His gaze is predictably fixed on Charles, and an old smile graces his lips-- a sort of boyish accomplishment.

"There," he says, reaching out to adjust the sable-gold fur against Xavier's neck, as if the collar hadn't been positioned quite well enough to keep the prince warm. "I have little use for such finery, but it looks very well on you."

Somewhat prepared for this, the scholar is able to level only a cool glance at his new bondmate, rather than coloring. The paleness of his skin makes even the faintest blush seem vivid and is-- as Lady Mother so often pointed out-- an unfortunate chink in his poise. It had been obvious, before he even donned the changsan jacket, to whom it must belong. Or to whom it would have been in tribute, more likely-- as Lehnsherr said, the uses for such luxury on the battlefield are few, no matter how sturdy the workmanship. A broad, horizontal swath of the garment has been sown of shimmering ebony samite, embroidered with gold and silver dragons in the midst of a picturesque dispute and giving the impression of a wide sash. The rest is of violet satin quilted over rich wool-- the shoulders of the jacket far exceed Charles' own, and the sleeves could probably be rolled up twice more, if not for the fact they're keeping his hands warm.

He's left his tunic on underneath, carrying the ripped sash bundled in his arms. While not of ideal material, the rags might be used for wrapping wounds later; at the moment, they assist him in concealing an additional prize. Charles has contrived to drape these remnants casually over one arm, though a part of him now wishes he'd chosen the sturdy boots for a hiding place instead. The borrowed footwear rises a good way up his calves and, thanks to the length of the jacket, it and his knee breeches are enough to protect his legs from the pervasive chill. Given Erik's pleasure at the current attire, Charles is in no hurry to borrow anything more than necessary, and trousers would be high on that list. He's well aware, though, that pride will doubtless war often with practicality if the rest of the environs are this cold.

 

For all the disquiet the cave causes Xavier, he's grateful for the shelter against any possible wind. There are a number of fires and torches arranged in the aisles intersections but, beyond their more temperate radius, he can see individuals whose conversations are interspersed with small, mostly white plumes of breath. Charles' heart sinks lower still, a feat in and of itself, for his current location is now as certain as the packed earth beneath his feet. The cold, the cave… The brilliance of the light filtering from the far-off mouth is damning too-- not just the brightness of day-sky, but the magnification of sunlight reflecting on snow. He had so hoped he was wrong, that fortune might favor him a little even in the face of all the evidence. The heaviness of disappointment is almost embarrassing.

"The Forbidden Mountains," he says flatly, startled because he did not necessarily intend to speak. He supposes the odd muffling of mundane noise is perfectly sensible, now. If he had not been so

(wrapped up in this heathen thing, a blood bond of all things! for years Erik twined himself in the oblivious, accepting waters of your under-mind-- but it's worse than that now, isn't it? his darkness blazes so enticingly, he is the only thing you can see)

focused on the tumultuous events and revelations within the tent, he might have noticed earlier-- there is a ward humming, faintly, against the outermost reaches of his magickal awareness. The camp must be large indeed and the protections themselves oddly subtle, for they are not as easy to divine as others Charles has encountered. As with Erik himself, once the prince realigns his mind's eye to encompass the dizzying layers of perspective and mirrored, contradictory dimension, it becomes difficult to believe he missed the obvious picture to begin with. Perhaps that is it, the influence of the Dark Lord's manna in wards that he would have led his mages in casting. All things authored by Erik's hand are not more difficult to see, by virtue of being as intimate and unconscious as the tide of blood in Charles veins. Even the blasphemous mage could not have authored all the ward himself, but even this brief exposure to Lehnsherr's personnel shows he would have no lack of sorcerous talent at hand.

"Just so," Erik nods. It's a paradoxically comforting confirmation, mostly because Charles would not put it past the Dark Lord to camp in Leng proper itself. This boldness aside, at least his army seems cognizant of their trespass. Their quieter operations are less likely to attract the attention of anything that might linger in the unlighted reaches here, of which ghosts would likely be the least worrisome. The enchantments, which seem to quiver away even as Xavier's psyche surreptitiously attempts to trace them, do not quite mask the sense of heaviness the cave itself engenders. There is a psychic 'wetness' to the atmosphere, as of something sodden pressing inexorably downwards, that inspires instinctual caution as well.

"You're a brilliant strategist, Charles," Mystique murmurs, apparently in a generous mood towards all. "You warned Marko's Council of an attack from behind moons ago, to say nothing of the uncharted catacombs."

"Would that I had never conceived of it," he returns quietly. There is no accusation in the words, if only because they are already too crowded with regret. He casts his gaze to Erik, narrowing it to avoid any appearance of pleading. "Who can say if the notion did not leak from my mind to yours?" Shuddering to have said it aloud, Xavier tells himself he may yet have cause to doubt such a concept-- if Erik could read from him consciously, what need would there have been for a spy? Perhaps in time such evidence will dilute the guilt, though there will be no consolation.
And certainly never any absolution.

 

The Dark Lord seems poised to speak on the matter when the entire trio is suddenly accosted by a brief gust of wind. Or rather, the unnatural displacement of air. A young woman has materialized at Ra-- Mystique's-- side, wisps of shadow disbursing around her form. At the sight of Erik, she bows deeply, casting a nervous but rather awed glance at Charles.

"My Lord?" she asks, lashes lowered. Her eyes are dark, each with their own oval of flashing brilliance, like the tiger's eye stones of the south. Their gaze alights quickly and away, making a composite of glimpses rather than indulging in an open stare. Her awe does not outweigh her curiosity. Now that the wake of her shifting has cleared, the prince can see that she wears armor of patched leather and dragon-hide much like Mystqiue's, complete with vibranium chest-plate. The symbols etched on hers are more angular, the simple runes of a novice spell-caster. The hilt of a wicked kris glints bloody from where its belted to her side and her broadsword, strapped to her back, is nearly as long as her torso itself.

"My consort requires your services, Kitty," Lehnsherr says, once more immensely pleased by possessive pronouns. "You must show him to the Healer's tent-- he wishes assure himself of his students' safety amidst… barbarian hospitality." The tone is more indulgent than mocking, but not without an edge of suspicion. If he wishes to make light of Charles' worries, let him. Certainly, the prince himself is far too diplomatic to phrase them quite that indelicately. He takes more issue with the other implication; the way the Dark Lord speaks of him as though Erik himself is a mother particularly-- and needlessly-- protective of her single chick. It's a parallel many a contemptuous courtier drew when they were children, and doubly absurd given their present situation.

"A legitimate concern," Xavier says, adopting the breezy tone of a summer garden party. "Given that we have, as yet, no official treaty."

"No treaty?" Erik asks, perhaps a bit of genuine surprise leaking through his commander's mask. "What, then, are our oaths?"

 

Charles bites his lip for a moment, disliking how complicit that sounds… how intimate. For a moment, all he can think of-- all he can feel-- is the embrace he and Erik shared on the divan, in the dream of a future whose true possibility died long ago. Such a cruel tapestry his old friend had woven for him, a mirror world in which they had grown together like twining branches rather than diverging at rapids too swift and distant to ever meet again. Gently, all violent ardor held willfully at bay, Erik had cradled Charles in a way that seemed like a natural echo of their affection, extracting promises the prince was not truly cognizant enough to make.

"I speak of statecraft," he returns, choosing not to address more… personal aspects of conquest, or lack thereof. "Your victory is indisputable, but you have taken more than another strategically valuable outpost." Not without a hint of pride, he finishes, "Acidalium is the final seat of the kingdom."

"Well I know it," Lehnsherr says, and Charles sees yet another constant echoing down through the years. How irksome Erik often found it when-- rightly or no-- the prince's education was implied as a vast advantage. There's a familiar sharpness to that smile, like the smell of bitter herbs. "Such negotiations are difficult to arrange when the titular head, that which would have called itself a king, has eschewed mortal justice out of cowardice."

 

'All spectral powers,' Xavier thinks before he can stop himself, 'Is he dead? Do monsters of childhood hallways and adult pressures die so easily?' Kurt Marko has been, despite his oafishness, a colossal figure almost from the very inception of Charles' memories. Certainly, he is more vivid and possessed of impact than the ever-fading, watercolor images of the prince's true father. A lost creature, the dethroned king, whose face and name were erased from monuments as even the ever-meticulous Elves bowed to the hubris of his usurper and mentioned their former ruler only glancingly in chronicles. Charles has never seen a painting or bust of his father, cannot even lay claim to shades of eye or hair. The only description or comparison the Lady Sharon ever made was the general distracted intelligence of her first husband and only son, a sort of fastidious contempt for the abstract nature of their studies. Couched within this courtly hauteur was something far more dire, a cutting glance from faey-brown eyes; 'And look what happened to _him_.'

Charles' earliest memory of Marko, on the other hand, is a full sensory image-- exactly the lasting impression the new king intended to make. The traitor's ring, a heavy black opal, swooping down with a vulture's alacrity to collide with his own toddler's cheek. Such stones are considered unlucky, but Kurt wore his to defy the fates and-- as a happy coincidence-- inflict rather damaging blows. It had left a bruise on the young prince's cheek not unlike itself, mottled black purple-blue with a citrine aspect. Fickle stone and fading bruise contained yet one more association still, lasting far longer than the wound or even the ring. That same heavy be-jeweled hand had torn at his mother's bodice, revealing a pale breast from which the prince had never once suckled; it had rucked up Sharon's skirts while Marko showed the 'faey doxy' exactly what his lenience cost her. She had endured it silently, seemingly unmoved, but the frightful scene required no screams for punctuation. Terrified by the sight of his remote and statuesque mother in such disarray, Charles had wobbled forward on both unsteady legs and wings, with no plan in mind but to reach her.

He'd been felled moments later, ears ringing as Kurt laughed and 'got on' with things, and later he had not even been required to parrot excuses for it. Rather, his new stepfather took public credit, declaring to one and all that the 'mouthy little whoreson' had been dealt with mercifully, and would henceforth know his place.

These phantom-sharp thoughts coalesce only in a small, dry noise that barely escapes Charles' mouth-- the sound of a branch snapping. He almost forces himself to voice the question, 'Kurt Marko is dead?', but there's really no need. The look on his bond mate's face is firmer than spoken word, as is the obvious degree to which Erik is berating himself for having delivered the news so bluntly. There isn't a flinch in that commanding marble visage, but Charles can see it anyway. The jaw clenches, for Lehnsherr would always have anger rather than sorrow, but his eyes hold the well-worn question, 'why did you never _tell_ me?' Which, the prince is relieved to note, the Dark Lord does not actually give voice to in their current mixed company.

 

Resolutely, Xavier turns his gaze on Mystique. "How did it happen?" And silently to his mate, hoping to be heard and half-fearing the same thing, 'I am not weak. Do not dishonor me with such cautious handling.'

"Nothing 'happened'," the Dark Lord interjects quickly, "save the final act in the life of one who knew himself to be a parasite." The remote pronouncement is well at odds with the emotions behind it, and Charles knows his very specific message has been received. The bond is a meeting place of sea and sky, elements far more changeable than firmament, and more given to bleed into one another. The confusion assaulting the scholar lies not in visualizing this magick, but in determining his role. Is he the calm sea, opaque liquid chalcedony against the raging violet fire of Erik's thunder heads; or is he the placid veil of moonstone clouds over a choppy black ocean whose shards of ice bob dangerously no matter how much the waves themselves warm? The competing concepts grate against one another in his mind, making the cave-dirt tilt and Charles long to reach out and steady himself against something. Or someone.

"Something a little more substantive, if you please?" the scholar requests dryly.

"He cut his own throat," Mystique provides, proving far more useful. "Our Janissaries had blocked him in the Inner Keep, and their orders were to take him alive. The swords and bows of his own guard were long gone, and many fled themselves rather than fall to give Marko his time. Yet he made it into his treasure house, amongst all he'd acquired without labor, and spilled his blood in lieu of sweat." Her smile, an indigo flower with its white, white teeth, isn't just sharp-- it is rich with the satisfaction of someone who had known Kurt personally. A witness not merely to the posturing tyrant, but to a familiar and indiscriminate tormentor.

"Perhaps he meant to curse the gold," Kitty adds, with the brash timidity of those youths incapable of stilling their tongues. "But our Lord's power is unimpeachable, and we need fear nothing." A moment later, her face colors oddly, flushing with the realization of her enthusiasm and actual speech.

 

Lehnsherr glances at her briefly, before giving an oddly lenient nod. But the weight of his focus is on Charles, curling about the prince more securely than any winter mantle. The others step back just slightly, almost unconsciously, as if the Dark Lord's intensity requires safe distance for all but its object. Erik moves closer, taking Charles' elbows gently in each hand. At the same time, he turns both their forms just slightly-- a trick of angles Xavier would credit more to a politician or courtesan than someone as forthright as the Dark Lord. Neither one of them is completely obscured from their audience (which, given the curiosity inherent in all beings, must subtly include all in the vicinity), but it provides the closest thing to privacy in such an open space. The scholar notes the move faintly, as though marking some obscure horticultural detail in his mind for later research. All feels distant, unreal.

"He shan't hurt you again," his old friend murmurs, voice penetrating the numbed haze of Charles' dismay. A low, honeyed hum in the prince's ear, followed by the gentlest of brushings against his brow. A war-roughened knuckle traces the almost imperceptible white fissure-line of a scar further obscured by Charles' hairline. Impossible to find, perhaps even for a healer, unless one knew where to look. But well should the dark mage know, for he dabbed at it with Edie's special tincture himself, sitting beside Charles on the bed and insistently plying him with soup directly after. Not a smith's apprentice yet, too young even to mount a horse, Erik had never the less been coiled in anger that seemed to render him the size of a demon-prince, a giant bat-winged warrior of Dis. But then, he was always rather grim, that Lehnsherr boy; focused, possessed of a great many teeth. Whenever their little circle of children-- Erik, Charles, Raven, and sometimes Bobby or Gabrielle-- played tag-and-dragons, Erik was always the fire-breathing beast.

 

("You didn't wake up for _days_," he says repeatedly, pressing a cool cloth to the knot forming on his young friend's head. The light in the room, which belongs to Erik, is dim and the sand-shutters closed against the brilliant Chrysian day. Charles can't make out the older boy's expression, and the blur of his own pounding head makes the whole world itself seem to ripple. Erik found him in his room after the King himself stalked out, small form bleeding where he'd fallen against the (thankfully unlit) hearth grating. Beyond the sight of angled wainscoting rushing relentlessly towards him, all memory of the actual incident has fled the prince, but the stark fear in those green eyes as he roused again is still vivid. "There was so much blood…"

"Head wounds bleed a great deal, my loves," Edie murmurs quietly, kissing them both as she passes. Then, to her patient, "You're young yet, my prince-- you'll heal with nary a mark to show for it, like as not." But her frown, and the ferocious foreign syllables she mutters whilst mixing ointments, belay the soothing words.

The young prince, blearily drifting in and out of those sleepy fog-banks which are also home to strange perceptions and a constant thrum of pain, utters a denial as pitiful as it was intended to be forceful. "Please, you cannot…"

"I seek only to treat your wounds, Charles," Erik's mother assures him, dark eyes further clouded by helplessness. Indeed, what can she do? She understands the boy's plea even if her son does not. It is a man's right to correct-- however harshly-- within his own household. To say nothing of Marko's unassailable license as king. The tiny prince cannot bear to lose this, his brother and the woman he wishes had borne him, as would be the only result of even the faintest attempt at reproach. "We all do what we can," Edie says, directing a mutinously silent Erik towards herbs which need grinding.

Her hand squeezes Charles', oddly strong for its long and delicate fingers, and her eyes show no surprise when her patient whispers back, "And _only_ what we can."

Erik comes to sit on the end of the bed with mortar and pestle in his lap, zealously pounding roots and leaves, and repeats, "_Days_, Charles. You barely moved.")

 

It feels to Xavier as though a fine sheen of frost has overtaken his form, banished only in those brief places where Erik's skin comes into contact with his own. If not for the magnitude of his own disbelief, he might take to quivering free from his own bones. Lurking below this, below the compassion he feels (at times unwillingly) for even the most irksome stranger, there lurks a sense of guilt and damnation which will rise to engulf him soon enough. The oaf, the monstrous meaty tiger of casual slaps and unpredictable rages-- dead by his own hand! Was Marko that much of a coward, as Mystique said?

'You are quick to speak ill of the dead, are you not?' the damning portion of his mind murmurs, clad in Cain's voice. At least it isn't mimicking Marko… not yet. 'My father swore he nursed a viper at his breast, that you longed all your simpering, scholarly life to take his throne by subterfuge, as you could not in a true fight betwixt males!'

As if to reinforce this notion, Lehnsherr continues silkily, "So, you see, you are now well-placed to represent your ungrateful people. The crown is, at last, returned to the Xavier heir." Then, so that their companions may also hear, "If it is a death-geis Marko sought, I can easily fulfill his wish. The gold is not his to curse, but I would be delighted to summon his soul back to rotting corpse, and set it to wandering in these snowy wastes."

Mystique and the space-shifter exchange glances far too nervous for the obvious hyperbole of their leader's threats, and Charles yearns to upbraid Erik for mentioning such black arts. Indeed, his tongue is writing in his mouth, seeking something to sink its sharpest edge into, but his lips are too numbed to part for the venom. Chastising his captor-- for that it what Erik is, and _all_ he is-- over trivialities accomplishes nothing, and how could he even begin to approach the issue truly at hand? Should he say that he doesn't want this, any of this? He is no ruler, even if Lehnsherr seeks only a symbol to engrave the final formalities of surrender, or a pretty title for the bondmate he has obtained through trickery. Charles is a teacher, often one for planning infrastructure or advocating for justice, but he prefers the masses he serves stay safely outside his tower. At the end of the day, it is only amongst his books and herbs and carefully chosen companions that his efforts might be recognized as accomplishments, rather than pathetic attempts to curry favor or presumptuously condescend.

None of this can be articulated, especially in mixed company, so it's just as well Mystique adds, "Trask is dead, as well." Said from deep in the throat, husky with bloodlust?

"Indeed," the Dark Lord agrees, though he shoots another pointed glance at his second. Xavier's ice-numbed disbelief is gives way to sudden terror, and an instinctive concern for certain of his students that could prove more deadly still. He cannot master himself completely, instead abandoning the threads of thought and focusing, despite the unpleasantness, on his own guilt. Erik's hand creeps to the small of Charles' back, but the support is somewhat absent-minded-- may all gods and uncharted heavens be praised. Lehnsherr's shoulders are set taught beneath their dragon-hide lames, betraying his irritation. Xavier has the sudden, incongruous image of Erik reacting as he once did when Raven failed to follow his lead in some child's game or another, though of course there are now no golden braids for him to tug on in reproach. Edie or Charles-- often both-- would fuss at him then, warning that it was not always his place to say just how things would be.
Now, the prince thinks with no small bitterness, Lehnsherr has achieved that status in full.

 

After a beat of silence, Charles realizes Mystique's continued gaze is an expectant one. She is offering him this, holding Trask's death out like a gift because--

(She knows. She knows who came in the oily torchlight, clad in black like a foreshortened shadow when the hours were small and the pain so great. Somehow, in her quicksilver deceptions, she has discovered how the shadow-thing said, "You must let us help you, my prince". It held forth water which tasted just slightly astringent, but Charles was thirsty and tired and, when the stone floor and the pallet upon it began to tilt, it was too late to fight off the seeming multitude of curious, merciless hands--)

'No, she cannot know,' his reason argues, crowding out once more those thoughts for his students, which at all costs must remain unread. The babble of panicked memory is nauseating, but useful enough as a shield. Mystique said she slipped away from Acidalium before any of that happened, taking her hoard of knowledge back to the Dark Lord just after Eostre Eve. She and Erik can only suspect which sadistic artist took their lancet to Charles' wings and back-- though certainly Lehnsherr will not require solid proof to act. But now the prince, fool that he is, has confirmed it via a lapse in his own mask-- mental and physical.
(Better that than… hush!)

 

Erik is gritting his teeth, pulling Xavier in as if to embrace him without care of who sees. Charles goes with the motion partially, but swiftly grabs the Dark Lord's shirt-collar, elbow planted in the warrior's breastplate to lever them apart.

"How far have you spread the tale of my misery?" he hisses quietly, uncaring that he sounds more vicious than any moon-mad lycanthrope.

Those eyes are the color of any deadly squall, filling with both anger and defensiveness, but the icy reproach masks a melting compassion, which is far worse. Charles bats away the callused comforting hand before Lehnsherr can decide where to put it, simultaneously wondering if he has gone too far with his trite defiance. Kitty's wide eyes and the increasing silence in the general vicinity certainly suggest as much.

"Dear one," his old friend murmurs, matching the secretive tone of the question. The warrior's smile is at once tender and faintly predatory as an arm successfully finds its way about the younger being's waist. "None know, save Mystique, and she only because I sought to ease my guilt--"

"Guilt?" Xavier asks, narrowly avoiding hysteria and the volume it would bring. "Surely such things cannot take root in the heart of the Dark Lord, much less thrive there."

"For you, Charles," Erik says reverently, as if mistaken self-flagellation is some sort of victory. Any chain of supposed logic that makes Lehnsherr responsible for a freak accident for which he was not even present is not exactly one Charles is in any hurry to untangle. The awe of the Free People and his impact on thousands of destinies have gone to the dark mage's head.

 

Charles almost says as much but he is well aware of the deeply curious gazes fixed on them by both Mystique and Kitty, not to mention the less-than-subtle tent-dwellers and those in the camp studiously avoiding staring at the tableau.

"Perhaps," the Dark Lord grits in a furious aside to the rustling canvas, "the problem of eavesdropping might be remedied by--" and his voice becomes a bellowing growl, while his face is turned carefully away from Charles, "-- removal of the offending organs!" The jolt that runs through all in their near-by audience, as well as the quick dispersal of persons and lavishly resumed bustle of work does little to mollify the prince, though it might be amusing under other circumstances. And with another principal player.

"You will tell no one else of this," Charles whispers, partially sinking his teeth into the demand. Lehnsherr, blast the man, lays his hand over the prince's, which still clutches a fist-full of shirt collar. Gently, he pries those fingers loose, looking for all the world as though his new bondmate is exhibiting sadness, rather than rage. As if Charles would ever, ever shed tears

(those few he's shed in the past six moons have not been seen. even as he was pared apart, almost gutted from behind, he screamed but did not weep. he will never nourish others, be they onlookers or enemies, with such a sight.)

for Erik to dry. Suddenly, the scholar feels a longing for the Dark Lord's answering rage or loss of patience-- a longing which is more powerful than thirst.

"I will not be paraded about," he continues, "as some unfortunate example of Elvish depravity. Another pillar to justify your crusade." A deep, ragged breath, "I say for the last time: the cause of my accident was as much a freak--" and he has learned well to keep his tongue from tripping over that word, "-- as I am now." Xavier feels his own flare of self-destructive triumph when Erik's grip tightens in tandem with the clenching of that strong jaw, but his bondmate is quick to rob him even of that.

 

Instead, after a pause just long enough to betray consideration, Erik gives a wry chuckle. A bitter thing, this sound-- not booming, though it does involve the toss of the head so typical in a soldier's merriment. "You are not freak," he states, irrefutable despite the dark humor. "Look around you, my prince. If mixed heritage and great misfortune are your criteria, then we are all freaks here." He gestures to the camp at large, but the sweep of his hand ends with their primary audience of two. On cue, the Dark Lord's second closes her eyes and allows brief feathering ripple of scales to reveal a large scar upon her cheek. It looks almost like an acid burn, a smooth topography of fissures arching upwards and stopping thankfully short of Mystique's left eye. Kitty, too, tilts her face up. With better light and a focused gaze, Charles can see deep pock-marks scattered about her pale cheeks and nose, as if someone poked hot needles there. And, of course, the pendant Erik so treasures is displayed proudly against the prongs of the 'Y' shaped scar-stitching on his sternum.

Almost mournful, as if bracing up under some heavy task, the Dark Lord adds, "You really don't know, do you?"

(The ring, ardently embracing Charles' finger, where it rests with such blissful warmth even at this moment. Third finger, left hand; silver metal resting against a vein which will draw blood right back to the prince's heart.
Erik on his knees in the snowy courtyard. 'I should not have let them know I wanted you at all. Charles, Charles… There's more going on here than you know.')

 

Shuddering, the scholar retorts quickly, "I'm not sure I could survive much more enlightenment today." It's true, but a truth too thin to the hide horrified and contradictory desire to know. To look into the face of the Gorgon without aid of intermediary mirror. What need has he of a looking glass when he can see himself twinned so perfectly the dark moons of Erik's gaze. Even without the aid of the bond, his old friend must know the seeds of unease have been successfully sown.

"Your well-being is ever my concern," Lehnsherr says in seeming concession, and with far more gravitas than necessary. "And time to consider recent revelations would not go amiss, I think."

Charles opens his mouth to say that centuries of meditation will not persuade him to Lehnsherr's interpretation of events, but he forces himself to silence. He and Erik could stand here arguing in whispers before an increasingly curious crowd until the light from the cave mouth vanishes. There's precedent enough for that. Even as children, they could wrangle over which section of the marsh to explore or what diversion to seek until they lost half the daylight and Edie told them both to take their bickering out in the garden, hands thrown up in bafflement.

 

As he struggles with this self-censorship, Xavier registers some barely perceptible movement from the corner of his eye. In another moment the pungency of sulfur begins assaulting his nose and a faint cloud becomes visible, like the wake before before a ship-- reality parting for yet another creature's arrival.

"Your commanders have assembled, my Lord," a sonorous, accented voice intones. Once Charles' eyes adjust to the sheer vividness of the vermillion skin, he recognizes the being as his first foe in this sorry mess. The red demon, the space-shifter Erik sent as both distraction and scout. Up close, the warrior's face shows an incongruous patrician cast, all the more jarring for his uncanny likeness to the silly human notion of 'the Devil'. His tail twitches like a bored serpent, and Mystique bats at it with a gauntleted hand when it swings her way.

Yet she is smiling when she says, "You are very dramatic in your comings and goings."

The demon's grin is equally wicked, but he is careful to bow fully to both Erik and-- wonder of wonders-- Charles before he responds. Light, teasing, "Would my Lady not have me so?"

"I'm shocked your Lady has you at all," Lehnsherr says, giving his bondmate a look that invites the scholar to commiserate with his burden. Xavier himself is too surprised at this byplay, too scandalized by the mild but uncourtly liberties the demon's tail is taking in twining about Mystique's armored waist, to notice. He even fails to register the fact Erik still has hold of his hand.

"Charles," the Dark Lord says, sounding the model if propriety. "This is Azazel, whom you encountered--"

"I remember," the prince returns flatly. The space-shifter-- Azazel-- raises a sculpted eyebrow the likes of which Emma might envy, but nods amiably towards his commander while Erik introduces Charles with his new lengthy and unbelievable title. Inwardly, the scholar frowns, unable as yet to translate the curious mix of deference, camaraderie, and occasional awe with which the Free People seem to regard the Dark Lord.

"An honor." It's said with sincerity as Azazel places a fist over his own armored heart.

"Thank you," Xavier says reflexively, not minding in the slightest when the space-shifter's other eyebrow lifts in an expression of mild surprise. Lady Mother's advice proving useful once more; 'So many mistake grace and courtesy for passivity. The more carefully you cultivate these traits, the more blinded they will be by your viper's strike.' A creature of proverbs, of cool caprice, Lady Sharon of the Rosewood. If she had love in her, it had all been spent on the husband she chose over her people. Or perhaps she had loved Charles in her way, and had therefore armed her son with advice and exhortations when there was little affection to be spared.

 

"What is it you contemplate so fiercely?" Erik asks, leaning close and intimate once more. "I can almost…" Perhaps he too is bemused by the polite response, or perhaps it is only the look of abstraction-- that distant diplomatic mien he so dislikes seeing on his bond mate's face. His eyes narrow, and Charles feels a flutter of inquisitive avarice beyond the halo of his conscious thoughts-- that space where firelight gives way at last to the dim and dancing shadows. The prince bats him away, both physically and mentally, alarmed at the thought of intimate exposure before such a wide audience.

"Will you not see to your generals, then?" the scholar asks, loud enough for the others to hear. Part of this is defiance as well as defense, for he has spent several long moments with his hand lying distractedly quiescent in Lehnsherr's grip. Now the Dark Lord seems determined to keep possession of it.

"We both have our obligations," Erik acknowledges, examining the pale fingers he has trapped and cradled between both palms. The left set, of course. The sapphire's inborn star flashes in the flickering torchlight, set off against Lehnsherr's intricate working of the silver. Though he's not fool enough to kiss it, Charles' old friend does marvel over the flesh it adorns, as though that hand is some blushing creature collared for his pleasure. "I will see you very soon," the Dark Lord murmurs, releasing Xavier's hand at last. He punctuates this by dropping a chaste kiss on the prince's forehead.

When Erik steps back, Azazel puts a deferential hand at the warlord's elbow, shifting them both-- as well as Mystique-- away through invisible layers of space with only a puff of sulfur to mark their passage.

 

Charles is left staring at their abandoned footprints, pulse pounding. The impression of those strange-yet-familiar lips lingers, all the more disturbing for being exactly like those Erik bestowed when they were children. At parting or at nightfall, the older boy would take hold of him and press that brief physical connection, grip at once embarrassed and insistent. The same, or very nearly the same, even then.

 

The kiss-- evidence of zealous devotion too old to bear contemplation-- now feels hot and heavy on Charles' skin.
Like a brand.

 

.