Awareness comes to Charles in careful increments, components of color and feeling-- not the usual remorseless thrust from dreaming at all. It presents itself slowly, as shadows of the future might rise in a scrying bowl. Indeed, he has seen such phantoms take shape when tooled by his magick, though water is not the element of his Gift. He might mistake this for a premonition, if not for the poignancy of color and the soothing white mists that moving to embrace this thoughts.
There is no darkness, here, those insubstantial tendrils whisper, all loving coils and careful murmurs, as a guardian might shield their precious charge.
Here are his hands, which lay still and stunned in his lap. Here is the shape of the red cushioned chaise and its fine ebony frame, as they cradle the careful ivory of his own spine. A shaft of mulled amber dusk falls through the west window, casting warmth on his cheek and light on the manuscripts in front of him, which he must have been in the process of illuminating.
He has just woken, though-- he's sure of it. Accusations of daydreaming are not unfamiliar to him, but the prince is far less prone to them than his teachers would like to believe. Rather, he closes his eyes to block out the choreographed movements-- all the painful little ceremonies of elegance which are the Court's lifeblood!-- of those around him, that he might consult the darkness of his own inner mirror.
No matter the Element of their gift, all mages require stillness, an almost unholy quiet, in the center of the self if the chaos of the outer world is to be faced. Sorcery is a type of second sight, and therefore dependent on mortal imagery. The well of one's manna has always been a unique and powerful organ; he has heard it described as the heart of a glacier (Emma), a volcano's forge (Jean), or a great, ponderous library (Hank, of course). These are generalized images and may not, strictly speaking, be entirely true. He's such approximations with his students and a few like-minded scholars, but the Source is generally a very private thing. Charles himself is guilty of dissembling, though he is not completely aware of it.
At his own center there is a mirror, yes. But it is not bright or made of glass, as other's might assume. Like obsidian polished to brilliant midnight, it has been his cherished treasure and necessary weapon all at once. The bare, gilt edge of it is a snatch of cradlesong in a boyish, cracking voice; the frame is metal worked by inexpert but loving hands. It is the magick of intuition-- of vaguely glimpsed shadows-- that guides him in these moments, though he sometimes does not understand (or allow himself to remember) what he has seen.
Charles breathes in and out slowly, a half-conscious meditation exercise. Every moment that has come before this one has vanished. He may as well have sailed to the rim of the world, peering over into waterfalls cloaked in their own white spray. He must have just wakened, and from a sleep that saw his spirit wandering far from its material husk. All the strange images of prophecy and nocturnal rest are too readily available. Is he not aware of that snag, that skip in the weave of consciousness? The young scholar feels as though he has fallen-- briefly, but with great velocity-- between the spheres of the cosmos, which is always a danger when one traverses their dreams.
A wildness grinds in his chest, suddenly suggesting the later. His memory lacks immediacy, steeped in unnatural calm. The very lack of fear and suspicion breed, in this child of the Court, those very same anxieties. He looks again at his hands, which are unharmed but somehow strange; the left adorned with a ring of silver lacing and incredible, blazing blue. His tongue has that weighty, determined feeling, as though it wants to speak some terrible truth he has forgotten in his sleep.
('I promise… everything… little maus…')
It won't come, whatever it is. Charles bites down on the recalcitrant organ, gnashing his teeth until his temples ache, but he cannot for the life of him remember any event which has preceded or caused him to be where he is now.
It is evening, in chambers familiar to him from the time his infant's eyes could focus. Walls of polished quartz and marble, a mosaic of sea-glass tiles beneath his
feet. Across the way, his bed dominates the room with its totem-pillars and rough-woven winter silk hangings. Books and pots of herbs and bottles of luminary ink, in such profusion that they must find homes in shelves built even into the high platform and great headboard. Beyond that, the glass-latticed window Erik so often climbed up (or coaxed Charles down) is thrown open to the great Imperial piazza below.
It frames the full glory of Chryse Planitia in the final, autumnal rays of the sun.
All of these things-- loved and known and non-threatening-- present themselves unwaveringly before Xavier's eyes. Every angle, every hue (amethyst night, copper fields, carmine trapped in reflection) firmly insist on their reality. They put Charles at ease (and why shouldn't they?), but they also seem to rekindle the firestorm held in potentia, within the prince's very bones.
(mages often die, when unwillingly bound)
The room is warm, despite the open window-- there is a brisk fire in the hearth and plenty of hangings along the walls to trap the heat. Never the less, a thin finger of dread marks its way down Xavier's spine, lingering as a harpist would over each and every vertebrae. It suddenly seems very important that he seize the book on the table before him, complete-- discover?-- what is written in its pages. The tome is much larger than those he usually works with, and already in its thick leather casing. The leaves cannot be laid on the slant of his fine scrivener's desk, where they might be seen more easily. Charles has just put both hands out to cup and lift the bindings, when a strong hand comes to encircle his wrist.
At first, he does not recognize the large yet elegant fingers. It is his own voice, startling and far away, that seems to drive home the idea that the tall form behind him is, in fact, his childhood friend. The warmth is the same, though it seems silly to think that a person's natural heat might have texture and flavor. Never the less, it envelopes the prince, followed swiftly by Erik's aura. Together, these powerful impressions mute the world. The 'ki' of the fire and stone in the room, which Charles had begun to reach for seem suddenly pale and unimportant.
"I didn't mean to scare you," Erik says, keeping possession of the elf-prince's wrist, making a bridge of their arms as he moves fully from where he has been leaning over the back of the chaise. His smile is slight, a mere quirk of an angle. Charles bites his lip, torn between fondness and the fluttering of something within the bone-cage of his chest.
Yes, Lehnsherr startled him, but the scholar would never have said as much aloud, for there was a time when he would have been confronted with the rolling thunder of his friend's laugh. Erik delighted in making him jump, sometimes-- tackling him in the soft lawns behind the palace gardens, or scooping him over his shoulder as though the younger boy were still an infant in his charge. 'Too slow!', he'd say or, 'Don't fly away, now' and then hold Charles too tightly, as if he could anchor him to the earth. As ever, the Xavier heir leaves his feelings for Erik largely unexamined, like light seen through glass-- it seems merely bright until close examination, and specific mirrors, separate out each fascinating blend of color. He calls this thing between them 'affection' because, from the very beginning, both their families had named it so. Brothers under the skin. Tender guardian, playful adversary, secret-keeper… these cannot be parsed from one another.
The Erik before him is almost an unknown; familiar eyes and boyish smile set in the features of a grown human male. A warrior, half dressed for battle. No gauntlets or scabbard (and certainly more clean-faced), but with a thick dragon-hide breastplate and thick maroon cape. The prince is not surprised to see his friend thus, but he is not relieved, either. It seems right that they should be here, together and now grown, but also like a blessing that has been mislaid. Within the space of heartbeats, his friend has joined him on the low couch, drawing Xavier close with unselfconscious ease. Charles finds he fits-- much as he once did-- just in the curve of Erik's strong shoulder, so that he can feel the beating of that metal-forge heart. He puts his own hand against it, so involved in this minute but essential proof of presence that it takes him a moment to realize Erik has done more than draw him into a friendly embrace.
"Where did you come from?" Charles wonders. He must have spoken aloud, because that same cello baritone answers him.
"Charles, when did I ever leave?" Spoken with infinite calm; Erik's eyes and boyish smile set in the face of a man. Iron-green and gray, powerful and churning as those storms that draw lightning from the very ground.
(I knew you… I knew you by your eyes. And your eyes, too, gave the lie away.)
Lehnsherr continues, the twist of his lips wry but fond, "How could I be parted from you? I could no more wander this sphere without my heart in my chest."
This seems at once eminently reasonable, and the very height of folly. But that's the way the story goes, isn't it? Every iteration, every twist of the tale as told by Edie or Charles, always kept those two little boys together. They were not meant to be apart. Where else would Erik be, if not in Chryse Planitia, at Charles' side?
Seemingly satisfied with having reaffirmed this truth, Erik falls silent once more. Certainly, Charles can sense it is the pivot on which his world turns. Though the prince, too, feels their friendship necessary as breathing, there is a taint of sadness in his own thoughts which he cannot quite ferret out. Erik's hands are strong, but achingly gentle as they caress the smaller form; hands that know well how to temper metal and magick to their will. He strokes along the line of Charles' shoulders, then over the expanse of neck to where the scholar's pulse is increasing to a pounding gallop. Xavier finds himself observing this touching and scrutiny almost as if he is outside his own form-- only the thin thrill of pleasure, the seeping warmth of that strange/familiar body anchor him in. Erik is slow and careful, and may in fact be holding his breath. They cannot have been apart long,
(it has been forever)
yet the older man's attitude is that of an idolator long held away from his shrine. The tightly reigned avarice does not make sense to Charles; it jars against what (he wants) those white mists encourage him to believe. Erik has always been indulgent with him, particularly when he was very young, but it was always accompanied by half-belligerent rivalry. As if, though far smaller, the young elf somehow had the power to force his friend's hand.
In this same, half-awed manner, the metal mage lifts a single finger to trace the shell of Xavier's ear. Slowly up the curve that has no practical difference from that of a human, up to the elegant tip that is such a marker of the Elvish race. Charles' own ears are somewhat less narrow, owing to his faey mother. One war-roughened thumb drags over the wall-tapered cartilage point, and the prince's entire frame shivers like struck crystal. The ears of an elf are quite sensitive, even in youth; as an adult, such caresses are decidedly erogenous. With a separate will, his own hand comes to trace the shape of Erik's more human lobe. The other man laughs-- a sound filled with genuine fondness-- and thus immediately shatters the meditative silence in which they have been examining
each other. Charles shifts, mostly to distance himself from his own confusion, but Lehnsherr will not let him go. He throws his arms around the prince-- the bear-hug of old-- and and tumbles them both back against the cushions. Now their hips are flush, but opposed; Erik holds Xavier so that his own body offers Charles a place of relief and respite, rather than the chaise itself. The intimacy of this touch, and the sudden awareness of all those that preceded it, bring quick flames of blood leaping to Charles' cheeks. His friend seems fascinated with this, petting the warm flesh with the back of a single knuckle.
"Promise me something," Erik asks, less a spoken question than words kissed against the princes' temple. His free hand encourages Charles to stay right where he is, stroking faintly at the stems of his wings.
Charles shudders, suddenly cold. He remembers his bare, almost-frozen feet; a black tree hung with snow whiter than the alabaster spires towering above. He bites his lip harshly, and the pain gives him something to focus on. There should be pain, for he has scarcely been without this constant companion for more than half a dozen moons.
"Promise me you won't hurt yourself," Lehnherr's embrace has grained fervor-- not painful, but very firm.
Very much intending to question the odd request, the prince instead finds himself murmuring agreement; "I promise."
He's almost warm again, now. If he burrowed closer to his friend, if he rested his eyes for just a moment…
"Promise me you will not fight or harm those I set to protect you."
This is ridiculous, and frightening all at once. It isn't right, but it's not wrong, either. Erik is at once the most safe and terrifying thing he has ever known, and he cannot reconcile the two without focus.
"I promise," Xavier hears himself say. At the same time, he rears up, grinding his well-kept nails against his temples. Focus; the pain is focus. That's something Emma taught him. To ride that sharp edge, that impossible space between blue flame and candlewick. She'd smiled at him, with that mix of derision and sympathy, and asked him what they were, without their scars.
Strong hands grip his wrists-- they work so hard to be gentle, but they cannot hide their intimate apprenticeship with war. Erik is calling his name, panic quavering underneath caring entreaties. Charles opens his eyes to find himself looking over Erik's shoulder, rocked closely in a way that may comfort the older man more than himself.
"You were hurting me," he bites out, accusing. Not pushing Erik away, the scholar never the less lets his hands go limp at his sides, no longer returning the embrace. The room has changed in subtle ways-- little things that make it more terrifying and alien. The hearth is dead, as if the fire had never been; the marble walls and pillars have become horrible glass tessellations, sharp to the touch. Charles can see the imperfections in the dripping, blasted sand; his own sense of vulnerability, willed to take a weaponized shape. While the divan itself remains unaltered, a thick, impossible layer of soot has come to coat everything, as if some great
(engine of destruction)
fire has been at work.
"I'm sorry," Erik says, over and over again. It is heartfelt and frightened, the second apology the prince has heard in a very short period of time. Once, it might have won him over, given Lehnsherr enough space to build the illusion again.
Charles, however, has spent over a decade in a garden choked through with weeds and lies. There is a thing within him that cannot be broken, trained, or coaxed. Has he not had to fight, be twice the scholar and twice the sorcerer, in order to gain a fraction of the approval so freely given to his purebred peers? Be charming and demure, to compensate for your eccentricities; be humble and amusing so as not to intimidate with your intelligence. So many imperatives! Like dancing in a hot, crowded ballroom; passing from hand to sweaty hand until you cannot find your own point in time and space.
(I am the one telling this story!)
He is not this Charles, whole and unscarred amongst the glow and riches of his kingdom's stronghold. He feels Erik attempt, once again, to pet at his wings were they lay folded beneath his silk tunic, but this is a lie. There are no nerves there to react with the faint shivers of pleasure the prince _seems_ to feel. There is no curve of muscle tapering to hollow, keratin-lined bone. A phantom, as beautiful as it is merciless.
The true Charles is wiser; used and having learned, defensively, to use in turn. He has been chipped and throttled by hands that said 'this is best' or 'because you are one of us'--
(and when it seemed they could pinch and squeeze and stifle no more, they cut…)
-- that promised no harm and then did it anyway. These were supposed to be his own people, his own family. Yet he had refused to do anything but care for them in return, convincing himself that anything else would only give them more power.
Charles is fully capable of ending this story right now. Lehnsherr may be more practiced, less scrupulous, but it is the scholar who possesses the raw power. Having flung himself away from Erik, he lies sprawled on the floor amongst the cinders. The scrivener's desk has been over-turned, glass bottles shattered and book face down in the dust. With a glancing thought, he could bring this whole sorry illusion up in spiritual flames. Xavier is angry enough in this moment to destroy both himself and his
brother, venomous enough against the concept of his own helplessness. The fact that he was played, and thrice at that.
"I did not mean--"
"Silence," the prince orders. He draws himself up, just as battered and ill-clad as he was in the courtyard of the carrion tree. Self-murder, and all the collateral damage, is not an unattractive prospect, nor one he is unfamiliar with since the loss of his wings. It is ironic, then, that Erik has now made this option doubly impossible.
(you've bound us both, now)
A whistling fills the room, a wind that has nothing to do with air. For this inner world bows to Charles' hand just as much as it does to his adored foe. Not an illusion, or not merely an illusion; it is a bridge between two psyches. The most terrifying thing about magick is that any creation the sorcerer wills into being-- no matter how beautiful, seductive or grotesque-- must still have its roots in the truth. He is a learned enough scholar to understand that he is just as culpable, that Erik could never have come to be such an integral part of Charles unless, on some level, the mage had invited him in.
(Long ago and far away, yes… but isn't it silly too, now, to pretend? Because Hank frowned and fretted and tried to grind new herbs; Emma looked uncomfortable and vaguely guilty, working at a soothing bedside manner-- but none of that was what you wanted. Your students were kept safely away, your own _mother_ never lifted a finger. So you lay there, on the healer's white palliasse, staring at the stained glass window until the blur of pain made the black lines look like dungeon bars. Don't lie, there's no need for that here. There was one name etched in your soul long ago, but you laid there and deepened the grooves as though writing your own epitaph.
Erik. Erik. ERIK.)
"You won't hurt me," Lehnsherr says as the soot and debris stirs around them. He seems to have regained some of his mental footing, in spite of the powerful aura amassing around the younger man. He stands from the chaise, which attains a brief copper color and then quickly erodes into rust. They had been so intimately entwined before, and Erik's skin had never felt anything but healthy and whole. Charles can see the lines and ridges of scarred stitching as they slowly reappear on the warrior's chest-- that terrible surgical 'Y'.
"Are you so sure?" Xavier asks archly, as if his heart is not aching. He can bluff if he has to, even-- and maybe especially-- with his dearest friend. His aura manifests about him as a phoenix's wings, blazing. He is not a mage of fire though… and it is funny, the way he always specifies what he is _not_. A learned behavior, to deflect what makes others uncomfortable. Not fire, nor water; not earth, wind, or Erik's beloved metal. Charles is a mage of that sixth and highest point, the seal that Solomon used to brand upon all demons his will.
It is often, over-simplistically, called spirit.
"I am," Erik replies calmly, with a faint sadness the scholar will not acknowledge. "Because I couldn't hurt you."
"You certainly tried."
"It was not my intention--"
"All hellfire upon you intention! That is only a third of magic, and you know it!" A royal, if somewhat practiced sneer, flickers across Charles' features. "Would you have taken me as you did your lands of conquest?" His own complicity falls by the wayside, a casualty of his quest to wound. "Held me as some enchanted trifle, violated--"
"Enough!" The snarl on the other's face is clearly directed inward, at some memory, but it frightens Charles never-the-less. The metal-mage's umbra is also coalescing; it is the faint impression of a dragon's taloned wing-span, as if drawn in smoke and acid. Less coherent, but full of a menace that is not Lehnsherr's alone. It is not in Erik, but it is with him; curling, superficial yet intent, about the edges of his manna. Feeding on the distemper, as vines choke the life from trees, or grind great stone monoliths.
"No man who dared-- no man who ever tried to touch you so would live." The spoken words are accompanied by a crack of thunder, and something not unlike a shapeless roar. It occurs to Charles, distantly, that Erik never did anything beyond the almost adolescent fumblings, which they had both seen illustrated in even in puritanical, Elvish woodcuts. "No man," the dark mage reiterates. "And that includes me."
"Prove it," Xavier presses, ordering himself not to be squeamish when the wound has already been made.
"By your command." The wave of Erik's hand is at once sullen and defiant.
"You extracted Binding promises from me." A deep breath, though for calm or resolve the scholar knows not. "I'll have the same from you in kind. I won't negotiate, as we did before, so you can hold the--" he doesn't quite catch himself, "--other things I love as hostage." He locks his gaze with those green eyes, wishing those orbs had somehow had the decency to change with time in the same manner as height and hair. It would be easier, for he still sees the darling boy he so adored and resented within. "Prisoner or no, we'll be equals in this."
An eerie quiet has overtaken the ruins of what once appeared as Charles' old rooms. Shards of glass settle; ash drifts down in the air as mournful snow. Outside the now-warped lattice window, Chryse Planitia has been given over to an endless wasteland of white, brooded over by mountains whose horror is palpable even at this extreme distance.
"And…" Charles says, kneeling barefoot in the cinders. He studies Erik's face carefully, before reaching out to scoop up the tome he'd had-- in all aspects of the illusion-- right at his finger tips. It's just a prop, like the room and the phoenix wings, and even his own internal mirror. Magick is ephemera; ether, psychic emanation, and all manner of things one cannot name. It isn't a key, but why should it be? He's been so often betrayed by keys and locks, and he doesn't have do more than look in Lehnsherr's eyes to know the same is true for him.
Xavier opens the book-- and thus his true eyes-- and leaves the ruins of their shared dream.