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Love Like Winter

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(In folk tales, each hero is clever. He is young, or she is unworldly, but they do not go into the vastness beyond the fields they know unarmed. The boys in Edie's stories-- those mismatched brothers-- were swift-footed and quick-witted. They braved the forest with a single-minded determination. They did not get distracted by minutiae, and they definitely didn't step off the path.
For the forest is full of wolves, wearing the faces of friends.)

 

Charles needs time to think, to strategize. This will never be a matter of simple personal preservation, for he has mired the fate of his students in these dark waters with his thoughtless reactions and sentimentality. He tells himself to look at the situation calmly, that is is just a lock-and-puzzle box, a nested mirror-globe, or any number of odd training artifacts from his childhood. Even when his instincts misled him, enough effort and precisio ensured that he would at last see the pattern or the path through those little magical tests. He just needs to center himself and think. Erik, however, returns far more quickly than the prince had anticipated.
A good thing for his physical health, and a bad one for his peace of mind.

 

A reminder, too, that this foe can keep him off balance. Charles has never been one to play off the cuff, be it Castles, Hounds and Jackals, or even the gem-and-die games of the faey. Erik used to play with ruthless efficiency, and Charles had seen the same signature in the Dark Lord's sudden change of tactics, though he had woefully failed to put a name to it. Lord Shaw aimed for maximum devastation, a disciple of the 'scorched earth' concept. Erik is no longer a boy frowning over ivory game pieces, but Charles can see he still operates with dry practicality, compensating for losses with increased force in some other, unexpected quarter. Charles is always one to plan two or three moves in advance, with is devastatingly effective when one can calculate their adversaries' options. It's far, far less potent when the battlefield is obscured.

(Erik's odd guilt in the catacombs, so shocked by the sight of Charles' maimed back: "I should not have let them know I wanted you at all. Charles, Charles… There's more going on here then you know.")

The prince's pride rankles; it feels like the phantom crawlings of pain he still wakes with, in the night.

He's been operating in the dark for far too long.

 

In the handful of minutes he is alone, it does occur to Xavier to escape. He doesn't know the location of their encampment in relation to the mountains-- or, indeed, any familiar landmark-- but that is hardly the highest trump against him. He'll never get far enough for it to matter, unable to take aggressive action to avoid recapture or include his students in the escape. An exercise in futility, for what could veil the brilliant flare of his aura? It is clear Erik made that his signal-fire long ago, and will follow across any terrain-- physical, metaphysical, and everything in between. Even as a token gesture, it's worthless. The last thing Charles wants is to be brought back to an enemy outpost like a recalcitrant child.

Rapidly considering these factors, it also occurs to him that the tent is surprisingly tranquil. One might assume Erik's forces had found a box canyon or relatively hospitable plateau for their outpost, but even then there ought to be wind to buffet the shelters or grass to creep under the tents. The packed earth floor is solid, blemished only by long-encased rocks and, of course, the magickal debris he and Erik provided. Charles cannot hear even a breeze, much less the ambient noise expected from livestock or cavalry. Some mundane activity is definitely audible, but even that is muted, and the prince seems to detect an odd, almost musical dripping or trickling underneath. Almost as soon as he's decided that a peek from underneath the tent canvas would not go amiss if done covertly, Erik returns with company in tow.

 

The mere scent of nourishment is like a physical blow and, for a moment, it is the only thing Charles can focus on. Both Erik and his new companion carry trays, showcasing a variety of preserves and dried meat-cakes favored by armies in the field. Heated or steamed, the fragrance is enticing to a degree reached only in profound hunger. He's overextended himself in the extreme-- three days of defensive spell-weaving with Emma prior to the battle, the struggle for Acidalium itself, and then his embarrassing display of wild magick. He checks himself once more for his unbecoming pride, but he's still not sure if he's more chagrined by his lack of control or by the fact he practically collapsed in Erik's arms once the binding ring was on his finger. Time has slipped through those same fingers during his fugue, and-- how charmingly apropos!-- his nightmare illustrations were wrought on the utterly unremarkable surroundings of a standard soldier's tent.

 

Charles starts to rise, if only to maintain some vestige of high ground, but he aborts the motion in sheer startlement as Erik folds his own form to sit on the cushion-strewn floor. Adulthood has graced Lehnsherr with all height and power promised by his lanky frame in youth, and it is more than a little jarring to see him sink so effortlessly and unselfconsciously into what many would consider a subservient position. Setting his tray between them, Erik motions for the newcomer to approach. The bearer of the second tray is a lovely-- and somehow familiar-- young woman with an aquiline countenance. A faey of the dark court, if the ebony sheen of her hair and gold tattoos are anything to go by. She hardly looks like a servant, dressed in serviceable trousers, bishop's mantle mail, and a shirt hastily cut to accommodate her wings. As she turns slightly to hand her commander a large jug, Charles catches sight of them-- durable despite their illusion of delicacy, and faintly evocative of a dragon fly. At rest, the appendages curl gently about her shoulders, giving the impression of a glittering, exotic cape.

It is then that the prince recognizes her, even as he tramps down the unwilling envy in his heart. She is the same faey he and Ororo downed outside the wards with their combined spells. To say the memory feels like the life of someone utterly alien now is trite, but only because the phrase is so relatable. The truth is often repeated until it seems meaningless. They lock gazes for a moment, and the girl gives him a faint if somewhat distant smile. She recognizes him too, clearly, though it seems the only thing disturbing her equilibrium is the incongruity of the ash-strewn floor. Irrationally, Charles feels a bit embarrassed. Distracted by this, he does not resist when Erik leans near to drape one of the discarded furs about his shoulders. He rears back a little just before the older man pulls away, but his captor is quick to ply him with the food. There are balls of rice and sesame seeds rolled in thin jerky or stuffed into a sort of dumpling stew, a few cuts of meat that must have been slaughtered on-site, and a little plate of candied plums he knows came from the palace stores in Acidalium. He carefully avoids the last delicacy and, for a few blessed moments, focuses solely on the satisfaction universal to all creatures having obtained nourishment.

 

The feeling quickly fades, though. Bolstering his drained manna helps, but he still feels a considerable amount of trepidation about the sheer wild strength of his earlier sorcery. Sakanagi-- that is, magickal backlash-- is typically only a concern if one violates the three-fold rule that binds all mages; 'Do as thou will, if it harm none.' His lack of restraint complicates matters, however, and he doesn't know if any of the damage extends beyond the tent itself. Well into his second rice cake, Charles sneaks a quick glance up at the man he once know so well, long ago. Practitioners of the dark arts have, by necessity, found ways of redirecting backlash onto more innocent parties but, in spite of everything that has happened today, he can't quite bring himself to picture Erik employing that level of sadism.

'You're a fool,' he thinks, slashing the words into his own mind. 'If Loki is the least offensive of his allies, how can you possibly think _anything_ is beyond him?' Considering the new bond and Charles' own hand in today's mass suffering, there's no way of telling how these consequences might be shared.

 

"I told you, Charles-- no harm will ever come to you," Erik says, uttering the first words in what had been long minutes of scraping utensils and cutlery. His voice is taunt, almost offended, and it deepens further when he says, "And I am the only one who pays my debts."

Though his tongue feels like an unwieldy sword, the scholar says, "I fear I value evidence over words. In the interim, I'm sure you'll forgive me my understandable doubts."

No verbal response. The tight set of Erik's jaw is somehow revealing, but the captive makes himself look away and study the reaction of the girl instead. The Dark Lord reads him easily-- not exact thought, thankfully, but general intent. It's not an aspect of the bond he wants to contemplate at the moment, and the stranger's reaction to her master's distemper will be far more telling than anything Charles could sense from that familiar-foreign mind. Will she be aghast and cringe from the the dark mage in fear of an explosive temper, or will her glance be the covert kind of one long subjected to more subtle violence? Surprisingly, she does neither, merely handing a jug of spiced cider to her liege when he motions for it.

"A tart drink for your tart tongue," Erik says, handing Charles a cup with more gentleness than his words imply. Despite the years apart, the scholar knows exactly what Erik sounds like when he's offended. Or rather, annoyed with himself for being offended. Xavier has to fight down the habitual urge to placate. It was ill-done of him, in all likelihood, but he hardly feels he should have to admit that.

"A sharp tongue and a dull sword," he says instead, with a self-deprecating little huff of laughter. His quarter-staff is still propped against the tent's one small table. Even if it weren't covered in overly-theatrical red jam, he wouldn't want it. It reminds him of his failure and, at any rate, the grip is adamantium. If possible, he must acquire something of pure wood-- or perhaps behemoth-tusk-- instead. He should at least be able to trust his weapons not to betray him to Erik, even if he cannot trust himself.

"Sharp but sweet," the other mage says, seeming to relent in favor of dragging Charles' back from his inner turmoil. Erik has shown himself to be a graceful fighter but, seated as they are, there is not way for him to sidle closer to his prisoner and make it subtle. The scholar himself coughs awkwardly under what can only be described as possessive scrutiny. "The drink," Lehnsherr clarifies, though the other mage does not for one moment believe him. "Please, it will warm you."

 

The cider is exactly as described, a cloying nectar with a hidden bite. Charles forces himself to sip at a civilized pace, ignoring the strange, persistent sense of deja vu. On cold Chrysian nights, Edie used to let them eat on the floor like this, the meal spread out on blankets in front of the fire. When Jakob was away, encamped as master mason on whatever new Evlish monument was being reared, she even joined them. Like Erik, she had been beautiful in an iconoclastic sense. No classicist's dream, with her small mouth, sharp chin and oddly wide doe eyes, she'd never the less been remarkably lovely. She would sit beside them on the quilts in her plain, homespun dress and play complicated games of faey dice with Charles, while Erik sharpened his knives in a calm and almost religious devotion.

Without thinking, his gaze meets Erik's, and the discordance between memory and real-time increases. Briefly, impressions from the bond usurp the present, bleeding out imagery and information even as the prince tries to center his own mind. The sound of phantom wind roars in Charles' ears.

(Wind so cold it cuts like a knife. Night dripping over sand dunes, white as snow under a naked demon moon. Knives-- real ones-- here scalpel, here lancet, here fearsome angled retractor. They gleam in martial, orderly rows on Shaw's ornate, almost ceremonial tray.
'I want the name,' the warlord says, and the wind screams. She screams. Now and forever, for all time henceforth, the wail of any storm will be her agonized voice.)

 

The vestiges of memory are so powerful that Xavier starts violently, spilling his drink. Lehnsherr is no mental-mage or spiritual adept; when he slams down on the memory, its like a gorgon barreling full-tilt through rosebushes. Everything jerks and stops, enraged manna on the verge of physical expression once more. If they were not already so drained, Charles would fear for a reprise magick loosed by his grief and Erik's unquenchable desire to avenge. Reflexively, the scholar brings a hand to his aching temple, though that is of course only where his body thinks the pain is.

("Shaw thought he'd killed the only person I ever cared about.")

Nausea threatens to undo Charles' perhaps overly enthusiastic repast. Of course she's gone; Erik said as much, and he'd hardly be the Dark Lord of Nod if Edie were alive to knock some sense into him. The prisoner's eyes sting, and he scrubs at them with one hand even as he blindly gropes for his cup with the other.

 

They all must look a comic picture, for his own head nearly collides with the faey maid's as they both reach for the dropped earthenware. Erik seems to be attempting to place an arm around Charles' shoulders while simultaneously staring fixedly towards an uninhabited corner of the tent. Shrugging enough to dislodge his captor, Xavier begins apologizing to the girl even as she hands him the vessel.

"I'm sorry," he says, wincing at the near collision. "I'm sorry--" This close, of course, he cannot avoid seeing the abrasions on her cheeks and jaw, most likely from her earlier uncontrolled descent. He looks at her, blinking as he gropes for etiquette.

"Think nothing of it." It is her turn then, to flush with embarrassment and, under his continued scrutiny, she adds, "Such is the way of things, when we take up arms."

"The very truth," Xavier nods,tempering the flash of dark humor with a humble nod of acknowledgement. As complicated as things are with Erik, he has no real ill-will towards this woman. It would be the height of folly to apologize for defending himself, but he does not enjoy jeopardizing others-- on the battlefield, or within the equally dangerous confines of the Court. If at all possible, it is his daily goal to avoid deliberately causing others pain-- though he is as flawed as any in this sphere, and often fails. Many human religious sects place great emphasis on selflessness and good works but, while these things are very necessary and admirable, so much could be avoided if all beings merely made a conscious effort to curb their viciousness even in the most paltry of interactions.

"Little Maus--"

"Don't call me that!" Charles snaps. Well, not vicious unless deliberately provoked. He wonders if he will ever stop feeling so raw, or so hypocritical. Flatly, he adds, "We need to get this bond under control."

 

This is what he gets for trying to put off unwanted chores. It's impossible to know how their nascent connection has functioned all these years, but it's almost immaterial now. What was once subconscious or deliberately hidden has now become a union of two unabashedly vital (if somewhat protesting, in his case) souls. His academic mind damns him to desire a full explanation of all the mechanics, but one thing is already abundantly clear: Erik may be more familiar with their sharing, but Charles has the strength and finesse of training.

'You can block him,' he realizes, slipping the thought quickly under a calm-and-mirrored portion of his mind. 'Not just a little, not just emotions, but almost completely.' It will take work, and it will never undo the bond itself or free him from his oaths. Yet it will give him privacy, a place to stand. The metaphorical one hand free of the restraining stockade.
It's amazing what one can do with a single free hand.

This concept has given him literal pause but the girl-- bless her-- hands him a rag, and he begins dabbing at his leg the hem of his breeches. Most of the cider merely spilled on the dirt floor, but some of it did splash his foot. It gives him something to do besides respond to the once more conciliatory sweetness flowing-- faint but sure-- from the man beside him. How *does* Erik manage to be irritated, possessive and pleading all at the same time?

 

"We need to get shoes for you, Charles." Dark Lord says, having decided to share Charles' focus rather than distract from it. The use of the prince's name is deliberate, and also a little sullen.

"You might have to lace them an extra time or two, but Johnny has boots that might fit him," the faey woman suggests.

Charles looks down at the clothes he's been wearing for… powers only know how long. While plainer than most Court attire, the garments are hardly made for rigorous living. The thin material of his tunic, now torn and stained, is half-hidden by the furs wrapped around his shoulders. While he's grateful for the added warmth, the scholar is still fairly shivering. He's not sure if its from cold, exhaustion, or simple shock.

"That will do for now, I think," Erik says to the faey maid, giving her a permissive nod.

She turns towards the doorway, then holds back. "General Mystique wishes to remind you…"

"The general will bide," the Dark Lord says, some irritation creeping into his tone. "There will be plenty of time for reunions later. "For now," and here he helpfully hands his captive a bowl of dumpling stew, "our gust must eat and recover."

The prince knows his derisive huff is heard, even if Erik chooses not to address it. Instead, Lehnsherr critically eyes the fine brocade tunic and velvet knee-breeches of the 'guest' in question.

"Warmer clothes too, I think," Erik says, piling another fur around Charles' shoulders, and then one on his lap for good measure. "Check my trunk."

"Right away, my Lord," The dark faey sketches a quick bow.

Partly because he dislikes being discussed like
(an invalid)
a child, Charles pipes in with a small bit of thanks, allowing the upward infection to remain an expectant question.

"I am called Angel, m'Lord," At the prince's acknowledgement, her smile becomes a less perfunctory, and he can sense just a bit of wry, worldly humor underneath. He forces his own expression to remain open and friendly, though it must certainly be clear to everyone by now that he is a captive, and no longer anyone's lord.

"I'm Charles." An unnecessary introduction, to be sure, but civility shores up the foundations of society. Or, in terms more familiar to his Elvish teachers, 'ritual for the sake of verifying reality'. Impossibly, exhaustion settles even more deeply into Xavier's bones. He longs to be alone for, without company, he is free to define himself.

"An honor, your grace." One last bow, and Angel disappears beyond the white canvas confines of the tent.

 

Without meaning to, Charles sags a bit against Erik, who seems to interpret this as a reason to ply him with the plate of candied plums. He waves them away, focusing on the soft dumplings and the blessed warmth as they slide down his throat.

"You love candied plums," Erik says, sounding faintly-- ridiculously-- hurt.

"I love them when they're not stolen from my own city's storehouses," the prince corrects. That, at least, inspires a more familiar expression in his companion. Once, Charles loathed that look of tolerant, superior humor-- but its better than this strange and intimate solicitude.

"Shall we quibble over every small detail, then?"

"No," Charles says decisively. "No, I shall have answers, instead." Given Erik's silence, he continues, "I told you, we need to get this bond under control. I don't appreciate being ignored."

Lehnsherr looks caught, but insists, "I was simply focusing on practical concerns--"

"That is a practical concern. Too much emotion, on either side, and we'll be treating innocent bystanders to whatever wrapped reflections happen to be foremost in our joined subconscious--"

 

(Edie's voice, quietly advising him in the aftermath of some half-failed magical task. He remembers her gentle grip on his shoulders, the way she leaned close to his ear in spite of his tutors' frowns. Reminding him of wishes like unruly weeds behind the heart, and the strange shapes they take when exposed to light.

"There's a gap between what you truly believe and what you tell yourself you believe." Yet it had been clear both sides of *her* belief included confidence in Charles and his abilities. "When you are still within yourself, breathe out. Try again.")

-- and then, in a truly surreal moment of mnemonic vertigo--

(Erik, having just finished a time-out, trooping out to his mother's garden to apologize. No Charles this evening, what with the lights of the palace ablaze for some Court function or another, and Erik's bottom still hurts from his father's swatting.

"I'm sorry I ruined the candlesticks, Mama," he says, sincere despite the fact he appears to be addressing the hydrangeas.

"I expect you to make me new ones, as soon as I can afford the ore." She kisses his forehead and then, kneeling, lifts his chin to study his face. Her eyes are dark, focused-- he can see his own reflection twinned in those perceptive orbs. "I worry about you, mossik." She taps his chest, right over his heart.

"It doesn't feel hollow," he says, meaning that metaphorical breeding ground of wishes. All the village teachers-- and the students who mock him for his stoicism-- make it sound like a proper mage should be some sort of tin cup, rattling around with nothing. He feels his difference from them the way one senses and sometimes fears the dark side of the moon. Erik squirms away a little, uncomfortable with his mother's scrutiny.

"Not for you it isn't," she agrees. In the even-glow of twilight, she is at once familiar and infinitely strange; the heavenly creature who, for the sake of a simple stone mason, willingly accepted exile to earth. "Whatever you're hoarding back there… oh, my dear one, take care.")

 

Presently, Charles sucks in a deep breath, fumbling for his train of thought in the wake of such visceral sharing.

"Or," he finishes, after too long a pause, "we might show the other things we wouldn't want anyone else to see." The conclusion is a bit lame, having lost steam in the emotional conflagration, but Erik seems to take his meaning. Amazing what a little practical, if accidental, demonstration can do.

 

 

For a time, there is no sound save that of the cutlery, and the almost audible thickness of Erik's sudden gloom. It's abundantly clear that Edie is gone, yet Charles still cannot find a way to absorb the concept. Sweet heavens, how many times had he pretended-- if only for a few brief moments-- that she was his mother?

At last, the scholar murmurs, "You said there was much I didn't know about the politics behind the war." To himself, he wonders if history shouldn't actually record two struggles-- the one spearheaded by Shaw to enforce his bizarre purist rhetoric, and the conflict Erik continued for his own only half-fathomable reasons. A paltry consideration at the moment, and certainly of no consequence to those slain on either side, but Charles cannot change the twists and turns of his academic mind any more than he can erase the decades worth of ink stains from his fingers. Narrowing his eyes, he says aloud, "You implied I was being deliberately mislead." Since one expects such behavior from the enemy, he sharpens the emphasis with, "By my own people."

He scoots away from the dark mage, needing what little physical distance he can get. He hopes whatever intellectual distance achieved will be exponentially greater. The bond itself wants, if not consummation, then at least the balm of proximity. The bond can drain him physically and play on his emotions but, mercifully, it cannot touch his mind. Charles refuses to indulge it.

 

"Political discussion rarely makes a pleasant aperitif," Lehnsherr says, making as if to draw the young prince back. Charles holds up a hand and-- whether because of the oath or his own discretion-- the Dark Lord subsides.

"I fear my manners are greatly influenced by the rustic surroundings." Xavier smiles faintly at his own poor joke, before withdrawing behind the serene mask of court intrigue. "I'll not dally on this."

"If you say so, let it be so." It is very unfair that Erik's adult baritone lends itself to naturally to faint implications of doom. Taking a deep swig of his own cider, Lehnsherr then stares into the empty cup as he begins to speak.

 

"About eight moons ago, near the Festival of the Gorgon-Slayer-- what the elves fear as Algol Eve-- the war had come to an approximate stalemate. Only the river stood between my armies and the hamlets north of Phelgral once we cut off the farms, the city itself would be an easy siege. Marko's forces were tenacious, though. We couldn't get near the river--"

"One of our last major supply lines," the prince says faintly. And because there's no use hiding it now, he adds, "That hurt us almost as much as losing Phlegra itself."

"All waterways are strategic," Lehnsherr says with an air of one reciting by rote. "Both sides had significant troops encamped on the line over the winter which was, as I'm sure you know, as hard as any Jord had seen in years. However, as the spring thaw came, I thought it likely a new push would succeed. The Elves were flagging, where as my armies had all the resources of prior conquest to draw from."

Charles smile is faint, but not very kind, "So you do help yourself to the spoils of victory."

"We take tribute from the lands under our protection. Twice a year, in whatever form they wish-- livestock, harvest, goods, cloth…" Erik trails off, sounding far too tolerant. As well he might, for he and Charles both know Kurt demanded frequent tithes in coin, precious metals, or gems. Occasionally he could be bribed with exotic spices or some other rare bauble, but in his heart there rooted a lust for gold which put the Midas of legend to shame. "Other than that, we leave them alone." Seeing that the scholar has no further comment, Erik resumes the thread of his tale. "A fresh push from my forces would likely turn the tide, and I thought Marko knew that as well."

 

Oh, indeed, the Elf-King had, Charles acknowledges as privately as possible. Lord Stepfather been in a great rage, holding forth long tirades about all the compensations Phlegra would owe for their defense, and how many of Acidalium's forces were being 'wasted holding the lines holding the lines when the sod-munching Phelagrans ought to be able to do it themselves'. If not for the fact the region was the essential breadbasket of the remaining Elvish Kingdom, Mark would have quite happily sacrificed Lord McTaggart's lands if he thought it would buy his own royal districts more time.

The entire political season-- traditionally reaching its height during the winter months-- had been a disaster. Acidalium, once a winter retreat for those wealthy or well-connected enough to escape the cold, had become their enforced refuge, and no one traveled unnecessarily since the war itself was so close. Those amongst the nobility who relished hunting season had already been grumbling about the reduced lands and game to which they would have access. Even the most out-of-fashion robes were being revived, and certain delicacies were disappearing from the banquet table. Charles, who had very quietly suggested moderate rationing, was very sternly taken to task for attempting to incite panic. To make matters worse, Lord Stryker had returned in defeat, having failed to quell an uprising in one of the last human villages within Elvish borders. The Great Empire had been dwindling to an island amongst unfriendly and ambivalent neighbors, and that island had been sinking with each passing moon.

 

"I sent Marko an offer to broker peace," Erik says. His voice is not loud, but it is very earnest. He pauses, storm-green eyes staring at Xavier unabashed as he waits for the scholar to absorb this latest revelation.

With an effort, Charles stems the hot denial that immediately springs to his lips. Any offer of peace, no matter how untrustworthy or incredulous, would have sent the Court into absolute chaos. Kurt had overruled the Council of Elders once too often, and it had been only the violent-- and sometimes fatal-- methods of supporters like Stryker, Kelley and Trask that allowed him to maintain his grip on the throne. Cain, who knew that any hope of his own power lay inheriting his father's regime, had similarly employed a system of bribes and blackmail within the martial class. For all the Elves' fanatical devotion to elegance and surface lacquer, the core of their society had become almost glaringly cancerous. They were living on borrowed time. What in the red heavens of hell could Erik's treaty-- supposed treaty-- have stipulated to make it so unpalatable?

The prince does not allow the question to reflect on his face. He can feel the nourishment at last unfurling throughout his form and, with it, the return of strength and equilibrium. He corrects his posture-- as much as one can while sitting on the floor-- and regulates his breathing. While careful not to look directly at Erik for long periods of time, he also makes certain to look down only with his eyes. One must always keep the chin level even when looking down, Sharon often advised, or else the neck looks weak.

 

"What did this hypothetical treaty offer?" Charles asks, taking a purely perfunctory sip of cider. He watches Erik struggle not to rise to the bait; the needling implication of fallacy.

"I sent my most trusted general," the Dark Lord intones. "A Chimera of great talent and stealth. I had very few spies within Marko's court, but they did exist."

"Indeed, my stepfather believed I was one of them." Said during a seemingly distracted survey of his hands-- the right one, at least. He has no desire to study the exotic yet elegant weave of metals on the bonding ring.

"I am sorry for that," Lehnsherr says, with such unvarnished remorse that it causes his captive to look up briefly. One strong hand lifts towards Charles again, clearly intending to stroke along his back. The flinch requires no theatricality-- even just four moons after the
(torture)
surgery, he'd clocked Hank square across the jaw when the other scholar came up and touched him from behind unexpectedly. Kurt, in a fit of paranoia, had begun insisting that Charles be locked in his room at night. While his stepfather had clearly intended it as punishment, the Xavier heir had found it to be quite a boon. He'd slept secure then, knowing no one could undo the locks and wards-- and disable the discrete warning spell he himself had woven into the threshold-- without waking him.

Thankfully, Erik abstains from touch once more, but the temptation of even that small closeness is almost as great as Charles' fear. A brief smile tugs at his lips, and let Lehnsherr think the gesture meant to appease him. In truth, Charles is thinking of the embrace they shared in the illusionary Chryse Planitia; of his old friend's devoted caresses to phantom wings. How very droll, that Erik should have fought so hard only to find his supposed treasure so maimed.

"Charles!" the other mage says sharply, face darkening as suddenly as the sky of a summer simoon. He takes the prince's slim shoulders in both hands, grip iron and just short of punishing. Though Charles stiffens and will not drop his careful courtesan's mask, Erik's own arctic gaze remains pleading. "My dear one, I never loved you for your wings!"

Warm arms enfold him, tucking him neatly against that firm, drumming warrior's heart. The stoneless pendant is a breath away from Charles' nose, gleam shifting ever-so-slightly as Erik hushes and rocks, smoothing the scholar's hair. Absurdly, they fit together even more perfectly than when they were children-- as though cleaved from the same piece of ivory.

 

'Traitorous bond,' Charles seethes, remaining as ungiving and limp as a slack marionette. He loathes his own exposure, and the fact Erik's clearly very fervent emotions do not seem to imply the same vulnerability for the Dark Lord. It's like a cascade of warm rain; a hopeless tangle of Lehnsherr's regret and adoration, guilt and love, sluicing against every numbed corner of Charles' soul. Taking one of the prisoner's limp hands, Erik guides it to rest against the precise and horrible scars his own chest bears.

"Charles," he says again, pressing a cheek against the younger being's hair, "What they have done to you-- what they have done to both of us. My poor darling." Xavier clenches his free hand into a fist to ensure it will not latch itself somewhere in the folds of Erik's clothing, seeking its own succor. He cannot fathom how one whose presence crackles with dark magick, whose very aura burns at the edges with its nothingness, can feel so flame-bright and enticing.

"Let me go," he says after too long a moment. It takes so much effort to speak the words that he is in fact astonished by the sound of them. Lehnsherr complies, just as the oaths ensure. He will always have to retreat at Xavier's word, at least in this. 'You will treat me only as your brother'-- the problem is, they were always very affectionate brothers.

 

Charles takes a deep breath, struggling to dispel the lingering sensation of that simultaneously novel and familiar embrace. For the rest of his days, he will live with this temptation. It will be with him during every sunrise, every meal; it will be in the wine and in the warmth of fireside evenings. At night, it will curl close and devoted at his feet while he slumbers, ready to seduce should phantom dreams or phantom pains prick at his scarred flesh. His is a scholar, he tells himself, and therefore able to process cold facts without flinching. The enticement of comfort from his own brother's soul could easily lead Charles to retract his oaths, to trade his body in exchange for that addicting affection. He'd best find better ways of abstaining, of staying mindful always of Lehnsherr's crimes. Otherwise, he might forget to struggle, allow Erik to make blasphemous bargains and reorder the stars for his pleasure.
He will forget why he ever wanted his freedom at all.

Quietly, Erik persists, "Charles… Your wings do not define--"

"Just because you can sense things from the bond does not mean you're capable of interpreting them," Xavier says, with an amazing amount of confidence given the fact Erik has been right from the first. "It has been years since we parted. You have no idea what defines me." It is not difficult to affect an attitude of compassion, for it is true that Erik was always doomed to disappointment with his 'treasure'. Adding condescension takes a little more work, but Charles learned from the best. "Such a shame, my Lord. The boy you came to rescue no longer exists."

"Again, you lie." Erik's mouth sets into a thin pale line, jaw clenching angrily. "This is a union of souls, not merely of minds. I can feel you, little brother," the last said with a kraken's toothy, menacing and knowing smile. "These lies come to your lips so freely, I wonder if you've come to believe them yourself." Strange, to see the Dark Lord's eyes soften while his expression remains so hard. "I saw my old friend in the catacombs, when you ran to me of your own accord."

"I didn't know--"

"And, mark me," Erik continues, leaning in and lowering his voice to the merest whisper. He does not touch the scholar, but the words blaze in hot puffs against Xavier's sensitive ear. "I will have that Charles again by my side."

 

Even as the young prince begins fumbling for a response, it quickly becomes unnecessary. A new voice announces entry to the tent, shattering the the new bond-mates' tense and intimate tableau. Charles startles slightly, almost guiltily, as if he had been about to turn his head ever-so-slightly and transform the hushed argument into a biting kiss.

"My, my, Erik…" the light alto speaker intones. It is a woman's voice, playful and familiar in the way of vaguely remembered perfumes. Such sing-song teasing implies a great deal of latitude with the Dark Lord and, in the height of absurdity, the captive experiences a pick of jealousy. The unwelcome feeling is only partially soothed by the annoyance with which Lehnsherr greets the newcomer.

"General Mystique," Erik says, in a tone Charles has never heard from him before. It is the same commanding note of the battle horn; the sound of a man who brooks no excuse or refusal, and who has the power to enforce his awesome will. "I believe I asked you to wait."

 

The woman he addresses is a Chimera, dressed in all the vestments her spoken rank implies. Hide trousers, vibranium chest-plate and greaves, and dragon-scale boots as deeply black as her skin is blue. In her unvarnished state she is full of vibrant color; indigo flesh, slick red hair, eyes the envy of any golden lion. Strongly and forcibly, she reminds Charles of another such changeling he knew long ago, though he glimpsed her natural form so rarely he can't be sure…

"I've brought boots and fresh clothing for your new consort," the general says pleasantly. "You'll have all the return journey to consummate your bond-- surely you can spare a few moments now for an old friend."

Charles can't help but blanche at the ribald, congratulatory comment. That she should speak as though this were a joyous occasion, a unity bestowing peace and prosperity instead of one that had cost so many thousands of lives. The only peace to be had now is that of still carrion battlefields, and the weary silent marches of the vanquished. Yet he cannot stop staring at her, as if she is a wisp of shadow in a crystal which might shortly resolve itself into a concrete revelation. She smiles broadly at his regard, at once innocent and wicked, and then he is almost positive of her identity. In his own heart, he is not sure if he wants it to be true or not. That a childhood playmate might have escaped slaughter-- yes, of course! But that her hand, too, should be behind the authoring of Erik's strange and bloody crusade…

Frowning, throat dry and closing around memories, he asks, "Raven?"

.