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Love Like Winter

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(Sometimes, there is more safety in story than in memory.

Stories provide delineation. One begins at the beginning; events follow in sequence, a design emerging from conflict, revealed at last in the dramatic climax. At its close, the weave of any good tale is tied off with a neat, if intricately inscrutable knot. They lived ever after, the curtain closes. Amen.

Memories might have more beauty-- or terror-- but they were ever so difficult to grasp. Like a flash of colored light in crystal, or tiny pieces of stained glass. Ephemeral, but possessed of more than one sharp edge.

"It's all right, little one. Don't be afraid."

That young contralto voice _cannot_ be Charles' first recollection, but it comes very close. More arresting, certainly, than the pallid disinterest on his mother's face, or the diffident professional touches of the nannies that preceded it. Oh, he was not a neglected infant-- he was heir to the House Xavier! There was a cradle of woven silver, the finest swaddling, fairy gifts bestowed upon his Name Day, and lullabies recited dutifully when he fussed. At almost a year old, Charles had never the less become quite accustomed to not being seen. Instead, he was _observed_; an objet d'art, or some bauble from an exotic land. He knew this, with the intuitive knowledge of a being growing mostly in the quiet of their own head, and he learned to slip away from his minders without quite being aware of of what he was doing. He had no particular aversion to their company… it was only that the outside world was wider, more full of sound and color, than the quiet nursery with its endlessly dripping water-clock. The surrounding gardens were a riot of shape and shade, endless forests of flowers to his tiny frame. His mother's sprawling chambers, too, had many corners and crevices in which an enterprising toddler could hide.

Then came a single, playful mishap. The memory is so vivid partly because it springs initially from fear. The infant Charles was also very used to the safe, antiseptic environments prepared for him. It's just a little pin-prick, though. The bitter makes it sweet, for there came the voice that spoke and the solemn green eyes that finally _saw_.

"Where did you come from, Little Maus? Are you lost?")

 

 

Now that same, beloved voice is speaking, burnished with time and strength, but still known in the very fibre of Xavier's being, "You see, Charles, I _am_ the Dark Lord."

That such a beautiful sound should cause such pain! Distantly, the young scholar is aware of the cool stone against his back, the crumbling mural and the star-shaped mechanism giving way breath his fingers. His instincts were correct, it seems. Like the beauty of that fabled princess, the regal austerity of the great hall hides its own bloodthirsty secrets. He doesn't know what exactly he has set in motion and, at the moment, he doesn't quite care. If simple oblivion opens to swallow him whole, at least it will stop the prince's pain.

 

His heart hurts. The Lady Sharon, never shy about sharing her opinions, had always maintained that the notion of a 'broken heart' was itself the height of foolishness. She never had much patience for romanticism, but that sentiment she found offensive in the extreme.

A pity, Charles thinks presently, for he knows now that she was wrong. Feels it in his gut, with all the horrifying intimacy of the fatally wounded. The breaking is a process, an on-going act, catalyzed by those dreadful words, and Erik's inescapable calm as he pronounces them. Not a tearing or a rending, but a thunderous crack, as living flesh shatters when frozen solid in one ruthless instant.

"Erik…" There is a faint groaning in the stonework floor, but Charles barely hears it. His own voice is a pained hiss. "Erik, no."

 

His old friend shakes his head slightly, strong fingers gently skimming through Xavier's hair. His touch is so careful, as if he is trying to trace the hints of auburn in each lock… the very antithesis of destruction. His other hand rests against the short hem of Charles' robe jacket, grip hot and pulsing even through the brocade. Soothing but implacable, as one would hold the wings of some rare and priceless bird.

"You lie," Charles says. It should be an accusation, but it comes out as a plea. And isn't that a story, too? Deny me once, twice, but only the truth-- that charmed third-- counts.

 

"Why should I lie," Erik murmurs, "when the truth already hurts so much?" His lips quirk in a tired smile, but he is calm and unrepentant. He takes a breath, seems about to speak again, but the words are lost as Acidalium shudders with another grievous blow. The walls of the gallery shudder, even as the echo of the cannon dies. Over his captor's shoulder, Charles can see a huge stone dais, rising from its concealment in the mosaic floor. It is roughly half the height of a grown elf, and it is exactly what the prince supposed; an altar for sacrifice, and thus of no help to him at all. Still, he nurtures a faint flicker of hope-- he can still hear the sound of stone scraping against ancient stone, echoing from the far reaches of the hall. If this is where the princess laid out her victims, there must also be an entrance for her monster to feed.

 

Charles reaches up a seemingly tentative hand, as if to return Erik's caresses, and then quickly drops to his knees. The move is very sudden, and it works only because the wall itself prevented the other man from completing their embrace. He rolls to the side with the kind of agility gained only through years of practice-- it is more a move of ritual dance than combat, but he isn't in a position to be picky. The silk of his robes slips through Erik's fingers, but the older man is just as fast and clever.

The solider abandons the attempted grip, instead crouching briefly and springing upon his smaller prey in a tackle. It's powerful-- knocking the wind from Charles' lungs-- but very controlled. Erik lands on his back, cushioning the fall even as he tightens his hold. In another heartbeat, he has Charles rolled underneath him, pinned with solicitous arms, legs, and the firm weight of his hips. Distantly, there is one final loud thud of basalt masonry. The scholar tries to crane his head, ascertain which shadow might hide his new and only escape.

"Clever," Erik grins sharply, having absolutely no right to sound so pleased. "Doubly so, even. I thought you always swore you'd never dance for the Court."

Of all the damned things, Charles flushes, caught. "We say many things when we're young. We don't mean half of them."

"Perhaps," the older man concedes. "But then, the more things change… the more things stay the same. Your penchant for secret passages, for example." He's created a very neat shelter-- or cage-- for Charles with his own body, and the prince is suddenly very much aware of just how much strength and vitality adulthood has bestowed upon his friend. Erik is like the sleekest of rock-cats, smooth and watchful, all coiled muscle and power. The diffuse winter daylight plays through the tiny windows high in the gallery, so that he looks beautiful and arrogant and every inch the continuation of the boy who used to wrestle Charles with such ease.

 

'Bad choice,' the scholar reproves himself faintly. Through those same windows, he can hear the sounds of more trumpets-- the Elvish bowmen are signaling to fall back and hold the final line. The wards have fallen, and now probably the outer mortar walls as well. Charles reaches for the well of tranquility inside, the pool where his magic lies still and ready, trying to feel for other mages nearby. Surely Hank sees the immediacy of the threat, and will assist the children without waiting for Charles to show. The lightning-song of Ororo is still in the eyrie, but there's a brilliant ruby flicker of Jean's spirit--

 

(The impression is instant, and utterly visceral; as the fluidity of water packed into a powerful wave. It is a story, yes-- one he's heard in many voices, facets of the same gem. Edie told it, of course, but also Jakob, and even Lady Sharon. The later was always more than willing elaborate on Charles' eccentricities, how exasperating he was as a child. Even before he could walk, he was such a fast little thing-- and here, she would roll her eyes. Always scooting about, wobbling on hands and knees, slipping away from his minders and out of sight.

Edie's version lacks that implied rebuke. Her voice is one of fondness, humor and-- though it took Charles many years to realize it-- a hint of earnest sadness.

"Poor little thing. Who do you belong to?"

There he is, barely bigger than a fox's kit, wedged in the intricate railing of the garden balcony. Lady Sharon's chambers are quite a ways away from the main palace in Chryse Planitia-- even as Brian's wife, there was an air of 'mistress' in the way she was discretely kept to the side. Charles is alone, having crawled far further than he meant to in pursuit of delicate, wind-blown leaves. He's caught and struggling, only making it worse in his infant's fear and pain.

"Shh, I've got you."

The warmth he felt then has not dwindled with time. It is sewn into the very folds of his heart, the kinship and affinity. Erik is the first-- and perhaps the only-- truly voluntary friend he's ever had. A kindness given without motive, ambition, or deceit.

Later, Edie will playfully remind Erik that the little elf is not a lost kitten-- he does, eventually, have to go back home.

This isn't a memory, it's a story. Therefore, it's impossible for Charles to remember the very young Erik whisper against his own plump cheek;

"I don't see why not. I found him, after all.")

 

Erik's magic is all around Charles, veiling him away from every other mystical impression. It should feel as though he's been dropped unceremoniously into some foreign environment-- a fish trying to swim in fire-- but the lack of fear and pain is perhaps the most surprising aspect of all. Instead he feels safe, calm as a dreamer waking naturally from a deep and fulfilling sleep. This is no geis, no mere thrall spell meant to coax or seduce. So much more powerful; a remnant of the heathen past, the decadent blood-wedding communion of gods and heroes.

"What--?" he gasps, but the shock is all intellectual. Emotionally, he knows this, and his own manna soars, rising to twine with that of his captor. He feels more vibrant and _present_ than he ever has in his life.

"Thank you for your attention, dearest." The soldier only sounds half-teasing when he adds, "You know I do not like to be ignored."

Charles flexes his power frantically, trying in vain to collect enough presence of mind to begin the weave of a spell. Most humans-- and lay Elves-- think magic is supernatural, somehow above the regular order of existence. In truth, it is exactly the opposite, for the ineffable power is what remains from the very act of Creation, imbued in all the vessels of the world. Even inanimate objects have a faint echo-- a 'ki'-- like the faintest outline in a very dark room. The whole of the world is a tapestry; strands of living power, dim impressions of majestic mountains and streams, and the bright threads of those initiated in the Art. That is why so many weaving metaphors have worked their way into occult jargon. It is simply the easiest way to visualize what lay just beneath the surface of 'reality'.

 

Neither plane is truly present for Charles right now-- he is cocooned only in the warm, ardent sense of his friend, who has grown more powerful than he ever could have guessed. It's not simply Erik's gift, but the whole scope of his sorcerer's education and the very spirit animating his being. This is what Charles teachers meant, when they whispered-- fearful and scandalized-- of one wizard consuming another. It _should_ feel alien, terrifying, the blackest despair and the yellowing of an infected soul.

Truthfully, Charles is a key, embraced by the lock it was made for. Thrumming audibly with the pleasure of sliding all the way home. The depth of that rightness is staggering, wholly and terrifyingly beautiful. A darkness brighter than light.

 

(For one breathless heartbeat, he sees the calm, copper strata of Erik's mind. An endless labyrinth of shapes and angles which, despite their ruthless order, adhere to no physical or geometric law. The nexus is bright, shining bronze and gold, familiar as the lines of fortune imprinted on his own wrists. Newer growth branches from that incandescent core, though, augmented with new spires of chill silver and merciless steel. For one absurd and thrilling moment, the scholar thinks of yet another story-- the ironwood hedges surrounding Briar Rose. Many tried their hand to save her, but the brambles would only part for one. Instinctively, Charles knows this intricate morass of metal would do the same for him, sharp edges blunting and pathways smoothing at the slightest touch of his hand. All of it is polished to painful gleaming, and the prince sees his own face reflected therein.

'I found you that day,' Erik's voice murmurs, sounding just as it did then. Wandered off while Mama was tending the Lady's precious yellow roses. You and I were were always rootless, restless-- at first alone, and then together."

"Yes," Charles can't help but answer, This is their own internal language, and there is no word for 'lie'. He was never so happy as when he roamed the marshes, Erik by his side. Sometimes it felt as if they could walk the length of the entire world. Sole citizens and rulers of vistas far as the eye could see.

I knew you were special," Erik answers him with a rush of possessive affection. "I'd never seen anything like you."

 

And here is the little Elf-babe, tiny wings attempting to flutter in distress, face red from crying. Erik could have ignored those sobs, gone to fetch someone, or even turned away

--never!--

at the sight of a creature with misshapen-- if oddly lovely-- faey wings. Instead, he approaches Charles like a young buck caught in a snare. Soft, careful words; a flow of reassuring nonsense, until fascination with the stranger makes the younger child forget his fear. As he calms, the muscles of Charles' wings contract enough that, with Erik's careful assistance, he is able to slip free from the trap. There's perhaps a hands-width between the riser and the marble walkway, and the prince drops with unexpected ease, landing on his bottom. He looks up at Erik with such an expression of perfect bewilderment, as if this is simply the final indignity that can be borne. Laughing, the older boy-- the halfing, son of the stone mason and an unearthly gardener-- kneels to reassure his new friend.

He speaks-- then as now, innocent and mature tones mingling, "See? I told you it would be alright.")

 

The scholar closes his eyes, ashamed of the saline that wells up under his lashes.

"By all the demons in all their hells," the swear is rough, wet itself with tears. "Erik, _why_?"

"You called to me, and I came," the soldier says. A simple statement of fact, as though his is describing the motions of stars in their set paths. Charles shakes his head against the caressing hand, body trying to find traction, a place to begin levering himself free. Erik matches every move, curbing the attempted violence, making the struggle into something far more intimate. The smaller form goes limp, unwilling to let his fight be made into some sort of dance or coupling. He won't open his eyes or look at Erik, still as a wax effigy. There's a hot whisper against his ear; "You did not forget me-- how else would I have survived Shaw, and the darker demons of Kadaath? I would not be half so powerful without you, my love. Your thoughts, you manna… every time you wove a spell for me, wished for my safety or justice in my name, you were giving me a little piece of your heart. That is a kind of power Shaw could never fathom."

"Oh--," Charles chokes. He wants to blaspheme, take the unspeakable name of some Old One in vain, in hopes of being struck down. As soon as the words leave Erik's mouth, he knows it's true. Sympathetic magic-- the magic of the unconscious, which is the most dangerous kind. He has been feeding Erik's power almost constantly since they've parted, shielding Lehnsherr with his thoughts, fervent prayers and affection. Is it any wonder the Dark Lord's power outstripped even the most skilled wizards in the land? For it is not the strength of one talented sorcerer, but two. Charles himself-- an acolyte of pious Elvish studies-- has been practicing dark magic utterly without being aware of it. Was not his deepest and most selfish wish for Erik's well-being above that of all others?

 

The soldier gathers his captive up, lifts him so they are once again both standing. The bindings of the elf's robe have come undone in their struggle, and the sash falls to the floor, unnoticed by either. Charles teeters a little, faint with the knowledge of what he's done. He is the traitor Kurt has always scathingly implied him to be, a signal fire drawing their enemy on with an irresistible pull. An unwitting source of power, and beacon, and heaven knows what else. He didn't sense Erik's presence earlier any more than one would sense the movement of their own lungs.
Only if you're looking for it, only if you already know.

"Mikol libi," Erik murmurs, in the language of his father's fathers. "I'm here now." He kisses away a few small renegade tears, then the delicate eyelids closed against him, only stopping when Charles utters a harsh, barking laugh.

 

"I--" Frantically, Charles tries to shove the sound back down. It isn't real mirth, it is fear and hysteria, guilt mired in the deepest quicksand. The other sorcerer only holds him more closely, and they sway a little, another dance. Blue eyes open involuntarily when Erik tilts up his chin, and the scholar has a moment to register the verdant concern in the other's gaze, before he is soundly kissed again. It is and is not like the first-- an event which Charles is still having some difficulty believing. Close-mouthed still, yes, but slower, conciliatory, something like the way Erik used to pet at his wings after a fight. A melting ardor, less vehement only because the perpetrator is more sure. Arms lax at his sides, the prince stands awkwardly in the embrace, stunned at the delighted way his traitorous body sings. Kurt was right again, he thinks with a wild sort of cynicism-- the Dark Lord indeed intends to swallow him whole.

There's no doubt that Erik's aura yearns for completion, and a part of Xavier wants it too. It is in the emotional undertone of the kiss, the taller mage sending coaxing whispers of power, trying to persuade his captive to surrender and uncurl. Indecent and dangerous, and more tempting than Charles could ever have imagined. Almost of its own accord, he hand slides up to trace the curve of Lehnsherr's strong neck. There's some small needy sound-- it can't possibly be him-- and Erik groans as if in pain, the barest tip of his tongue darting out to play against the other's lips. Those wide, artisan's hands steal under his open robe, sliding around his back. The prince has a handful of seconds-- perhaps three drips of a water-clock-- for the realization to sink in, but it is already too late.

 

It really is like drops of water-- deafening in the silence of his own mind, creating a ripple in the mirrored surface.

One.

At first, Erik's hands merely fumble-- he's doubtless expecting the silk wrappings Charles had begun wearing when they'd seen each other last. His maidservant did them up each morning, binding Charles' wings as female warriors bound their chests. It was only to keep them out of the way, was his mother's reasoning. They weren't strong enough for flight, anyway-- it was nothing. Really, he was lucky. Didn't he know that to the South, fairies of the islands bound their maidens' wings and feet?

Two.

There aren't any bindings-- there haven't been, not for a half a dozen moons. You can't bind what isn't present, and Charles' shoulder blades always feel plucked clean these days. His stomach turns, then drops. He is ashamed of himself, and afraid. Long, firm fingers find the raised lines of scars. The healers promised, swore up and down they would heal cleanly, but they never did.

Three.

Erik tears out of the kiss with a disbelieving snarl. Instinctively, the young prince tries to shrink away, as if warding off a potential blow. There's not much room to move, however. The embrace is almost painfully tight now, and he can feel his old friend's eyes on him. Charles looks away-- thats easier-- because he remembers how the one serving girl gasped, how subtly wrong he felt the first time he looked in the mirror. He's made his peace with this, he tells himself. He always tells himself this, and will keep doing so until the day he finally believes it. Nothing was done to him that he didn't allow.

 

"Charles." There's no anger in Erik's voice, not at first. Just an aching sadness, like torn veins bleeding out into nothing. The older man sounds as if someone has reached roughly into his own gut. "Oh, Charles… what have they done?"

"It is well." Said quietly, and with rote patience. He says it enough in his own mind. "_I_ am well."

"'Well'!?" The grip becomes punishing-- Charles flinches, and Erik relents. He actually takes a step back, curling his fists as though they are mallets he intends to use for hammering steel. Those green eyes blaze, and another rumble ripples through the disused gallery.

 

At first, Charles thinks the enemy is just heaping on another onslaught, but it is not a blast from a cannon. It is deeper, far more fatal. Acidalium may be renowned for its white marble towers, great parapets carved into the limestone mountain, but the catacomb foundations are basalt. A dark contrast, and a highly magnetic one. The very seat of the keep entire is trembling with Erik's rage-- a fine but terrifying shudder. Not enough to bring the heavy arches down upon them, but Charles has no doubt many books are falling from their shelves, and warriors stumbling to find their feet. Behind Erik, even the altar seems possessed-- tiny chips of paint are peeling off the detailed sun mosaic, red and yellow, quivering as they hang suspended.

'Ochre,' Charles thinks, looking at the flaking pigment in frank astonishment. Erik's control has achieved an almost godly precision. His own quarterstaff-- which he had so foolishly discarded due to its adamantium grips-- begins to hover as well, shaking at the same speed as Erik's fists. He realizes, with a sudden numbness, that all the dragon-gates and hidden tunnels in world are laughable in terms of escape. He could run, yes. Perhaps if he were quick enough, clever enough, he might even make a little progress. It would all be meaningless in the end, just slack on a fine golden leash. Erik Lehnsherr-- his friend! his compatriot of marsh rambles and wooden sword fights!-- could bring the whole of the palace down around their ears. Leaving the people Charles has tried so hard to serve-- in spite of them and himself-- trapped under the rubble. Dead, to the last man, woman and child. By the heavens-- what if Hank has the children in the tunnels now, enacting their last-ditch plan?

 

"Who committed this… sacrilege!? Who had the audacity?" the metal-mage demands. His voice is the deathly calm of the still air before a storm. For a moment, the mask of anger cracks, "Charles, your dear little wings--" Whole swaths of red and yellow are curling up from the altar now, from the murals on the walls. "Give me a name," he demands. "Give me a name and I will erase it from this sphere, so that none will ever speak it for fear of the same fate!"

Mute, Charles shakes his head. There's a quiet terror in him, and more than a little self-hate. He was considered somewhat comely before (the kindest comment often being 'exotic'), but he is definitely mangled now. Without realizing it, he brings his own arms up in that now habitual self-hug. Before he can blink, he is back in Erik's arms. Charles buries his face against the firm chest and soft dragon hide tunic, responding instinctively to genuine empathy and sorrow. "They were useless--"

"They were _yours_!"

"There was an accident, you see, and--" The words come, without even a pause to breathe. "It wasn't done to-- it was supposed to show that I--"

"Charles," Erik croons. He's holding his young friend much the way he used to, long ago. What Edie called a bear hug-- as if he can hide Charles, or act as some sort of shield. "You must tell me who did this. It makes it much, much simpler, you see."

Charles blinks up at him, trying to process yet another spark of nonsense in a day that has turned his whole world on its head.

 

"If you don't," the Dark Lord continues reasonably, sounding almost sweet. "I will have to assume that everyone is guilty-- by action or indifference-- and I will hear their screams as I rip Acidalium from the very face of this mountain."

.