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In Arms

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"And then," said Jean-Baptiste in rapid, haughty French, "I asked her what chef would consider such dishes cuisine? Cooking, yes, I will give their food that bare designation, but surely only the most provincial palates would consider that fine dining."

Large social events always felt to Khan like black-tie dog shows, where he and the other Augments were the objects of fascination as the members of their respective governments milled around them, doing everything short of measuring their ears and cupping their genitals. There were twenty-six Augments at the gala that evening, the tall and beautiful axes around whom the whole room rotated. A full twenty-five of them had even been invited.

The twenty-sixth, having spent most of the evening letting the general discontent of the room warm him like sunshine, sipped his champagne. He hadn't had this many white faces staring at him with decorous masks plastered over their hatred since ... since he couldn't remember, in fact, which meant this might have been a first. How delightful. Not, of course, that he wished to draw out ill feelings -- to the contrary, he went out of his way to be pleasant and accommodating with even the most intractable of opponents -- but if they were going to be there regardless of his actions or intent, the only recourse left to him was to enjoy them.

"Well, since you have appointed yourself the arbiter of fine tastes, I suppose those of us in the world without a spare thousand francs to spend on every supper will simply have to eat what we like in the knowledge that our plates will never match up to your exacting standards." Khan punctuated his sentence with another polite drink, letting his gaze flicker to the man whose plus-one spot he filled this evening.

Augments were not supposed to like one another. Perhaps inherent affection amongst them had once been the design, to make a finer tomorrow from the shared efforts of each nation's finer people, but nationalism and xenophobia had quickly put that universalizing notion to rest. Those from within the same country were expected to cooperate (when, of course, they weren't trying to cut one another's throats to assert individual internal supremacy), but a healthy distrust let each nation believe that when this better world finally came around, it and its own people would be standing on top of it. Fortunately for Khan, not all Augments were fond of what they were supposed to do.

John Harrison stared ahead, his face unreadable to everyone in the room -- everyone, that was, except for Khan himself, and that only because Khan knew by now where to look. The rage hiding beneath that perfect poker face pitched higher as Jean-Baptiste elbowed John with false cameraderie.  "I heard you took a little Bombay vacation, eh, friend?" Jean-Baptiste smirked at John. "Tell me, did he make you eat any of the colorful messes they call meals there?"

Playing to their shared heritage and inherited xenophobia to form an alliance against showing how terrifying the outsider in their midst really was; Jean-Baptiste was a jackass, but he wasn't an idiot. John, however, was having none of it. "I had a fine trip to Mumbai," he said, the correction pointed.

"You know, I have heard their finest restaurants serve, in fact, French cuisine!" A flick of Jean-Baptiste's hand smacked John's shoulder with perhaps more genial force than was necessary. "Or was your host so rude as not to show you any?"

They'd taken most of their meals in Khan's sprawling second home there, though during this most recent visit, they'd ventured out through the streets to back-alley stalls serving lassi and vada pav and bhaji; John had summoned up the courage to try everything Khan had put in front of him and had not been shy about asking for more of what he liked best. The John that smiled as old ladies lectured him in Marathi about the proper way to prepare masala chai might as well have been a different person from the John who stood ramrod-straight in his fine tuxedo and white vest, still as though someone had carved him from ice for the occasion. "I pride myself on feeding my guests well," said Khan, as though he'd taken no offense because none had been intended.

Bitterness curved Jean-Baptiste's smile, darkening his milk-pale face. "And of course your guests would never be so rude as to impose on your hospitality without an explicit invitation." His eyes darted to the kirpan at Khan's hip, daring him to use it, daring him to give the countries represented there a single reason never to let him back within their borders again. Khan's fingers didn't so much as twitch in that direction.

"He was invited." John's fingers tightened around the stem of his wineglass. "He is here as my guest."

Jean-Baptiste didn't bother to disguise the contempt he felt at their exploitation of that technicality, though it was certainly not the first time Khan had provoked that reaction that evening, and he doubted it would be the last. "Of course, of course. Surely you did not think I meant otherwise. I hope," he said to Khan, giving a little bow, "you were not slighted by the unfortunate omission of your name from the guest list. I am certain the planners simply made a careless mistake."

Only the most credulous person might have believed such a thing, but as it was polite to pretend, Khan only smiled. "Europe is filled with so many parties and social events that surely in the midst of all this decadance, it slipped someone's mind."

"But I must hear more about your trip. Tell me, about the beggar children there," said Jean-Baptiste, speaking to John while staring Khan down. "Did they come up and ask for money from your white hands? Or were you there so long you browned and those wretches mistook you for one of their own?"

He'd stayed out in the sun so long his pale face had been a galaxy of freckles by that evening, and he'd blushed and even laughed as Khan connected constellations with his fingertips. "When I was young," said Khan, "my teachers told me never to look down upon those whose lot in life it was to clean up after the messes I'd made."

"And mine taught me to be thankful for those who had brought me enlightenment and civilization, whether I realized at the time I wanted it or not." Jean-Baptiste's drunken, angry volume carried his words above the noise of music and other conversations, until even the string quartet nearby bowed softer so that they too might hear what came next. "You and your band of children might do well to meditate on the meaning of gratitude. A little advice from those of us from proper cultures might do well to see you up from your grass huts and mud streets."

Khan turned to the alabaster pillar of fury standing beside him and simply asked, "John, would you please?"

In a way, it was a test, not one as those given in school, with a correct and an incorrect answer, but a scientific test: apply stimulus, observe reaction. Perhaps John would have led him to another part of the room, or even out the door of the museum that had been so gracious as to host this thirtieth-anniversary celebration of the Augment programs, a celebration to which no Augment from any continent but Europe had been invited. Such would have been acceptable, and certainly more predictable. Instead, John's open palm shot out and up from under, his heel slamming into Jean-Baptise's perfect aqualine nose and driving it back into his face in a spray of blood. John was as tall as he was handsome, and his arm crossed the distance too fast for the untrained eye to see while his feet barely shifted in his fine leather shoes. A blow like that would have killed a lesser man; as it was, Jean-Baptiste staggered back and howled in pain, clutching his face. As a rule, Khan never wanted to condone violence as a solution, but here he was forced to admit, it could be very effective.

The rest of the room had gone deathly still, save for Jean-Baptiste's wails, which turned into sobs as he fell to the floor. Any contempt Khan felt for him was not because of this; he had sustained no small injury, and the pain had to be considerable. He turned instead to John, who stood there holding his bloodied hand to his chest, letting it smear red on his shirt and vest. "I think I've grown tired," he said in English, establishing his presence on John's native linguistic soil. "Might you be so kind as to show me to my accommodations?"

"Of course," said John, who turned to the door with no further comment or explanation. People parted as though a lit torch were being carried through their midst, and Khan followed in that wake, calm and regal, out of the bright ballroom and into the darkness. Winter would soon be upon them, said the chill in the high mountain night made colder still by the cloudless blanket of stars that stretched above them.

Had he been the one to act in response to what no dignified person should have been forced to endure, Khan knew he would at this moment be pinned to the ground by no fewer than three private security forces, guns trained on every inch of him. But John, covered in blood, walked free across the plaza that stretched from the museum entrance to the door to their hotel. He stayed a step ahead of Khan all the way, never once looking back, and Khan suspected he must be indeed a sight to behold like that, stern and exhaling great white plumes of breath, begging, just begging someone to give him a reason to do it again. No one did.

The doorman at the hotel took one look at them as they approached and turned ash-white; he jumped aside to let them in and asked no questions of how their eveing had been. Khan stopped only to gather their key from the desk, smiling at the clerk in a way he hoped offset at least some of the weight of John's fury. The elevator operator practically whimpered as they stepped into the car behind him, and he pressed the button for their floor with trembling fingers. This was not how Khan wanted to be regarded, but right now he had more on his mind that the polite comfort of a few well-meaning Swiss hotel employees.

Their suite was one of three on the floor, a collection of rooms capable of housing an entourage far larger than that which John brought with him these days. It was empty now, of course, as they'd left everyone behind at the event, including the handful of people sent to keep an eye on John in the guise of attending to his needs. That one of the rooms was now Khan's no doubt stuck in every one of their craws.

After the door shut behind them, John just stood there in the small foyer, hands balled into fists at his sides, every muscle in his body a bowstring drawn taut. Khan had seen houses of cards less precarious, soap bubbles in sunlight less ready to burst at the slightest touch. One blow had barely eased the pressure boiling beneath his skin. He stared straight ahead, eyes wide and lips pressed into pale lines, chest barely moving with each breath.

"Come," said Khan, walking toward John's room and the bathroom attached to it, and John followed.

After the dark of the Genevan night and the dim after-hours lighting of the hotel, the white bathroom tile refracted the light from the bulbs into a brilliance that made Khan's eyes ache as they adjusted. He took off his kirpan and sherwani and hung them on the hooks over the door meant for wet towels, then rolled up his sleeves. He didn't mind blood, but he minded that man's blood.

John started as Khan reached for his right hand, but Khan took it anyway. "John," he said softly, and John did not relax, but he stopped fighting. He'd made such a mess of himself, between the dots of splattered red all over his white clothes and the smears of browning blood everywhere he'd touched. Flecks even freckled his pale cheeks, an ugly contrast to the ones the sun had once teased forth. With a sigh, Khan ran a washcloth under the hot tap and rubbed it across John's skin. John closed his eyes, allowing this, and as he did, the tension in his body at last began to ebb away. He had such lovely features, strong and striking, and where Khan made contact with his bare hand instead of the cloth, John leaned into the touch.

When his face was scrubbed pink but clean at last, John held up his bloodied hand in the way an obedient dog might offer its master a paw to shake. "I'm sorry I spoiled the party," he said, his voice soft and young.

Khan laughed as he wetted the cloth again before tending to John's palm, dabbing gingerly lest John have any closing wounds this might re-open. "Quite the contrary." Such lovely hands, John had, that one might be hard-pressed, seeing them at rest like this, to imagine what destruction they could bring down. "I'd say the last three minutes were better than the first three hours combined."

That brought a weak smile to John's face, but a smile nonetheless. "Only you would think that."

"Do you not agree?" Having cleared away all other mess, Khan could see that John's palm was indeed tender, but nowhere had he broken his skin. An impressive amount of blood indeed, then, for how it all belonged to someone else. The fine suit he was wearing was ruined, but the British Crown could bill the French for that, for all Khan cared. He took the sleeves of the coat and eased it back over John's shoulders, then let it fall to the floor in a heap.

Now that most of the fight had left him, John swayed gently on his feet as Khan undid both his tie and vest, then added them to the heap on the floor in succession. "All right. Only we would think that."

"And we are all that matter here." Khan unfastened the cufflinks at John's sleeves, then smiled as John began to undo the buttons from his throat downward. "Would you like something to drink?"

John's English politeness went to visible war with his exhaustion and lost. He gave a bashful nod, and Khan left bathroom and bedroom alike for the small bar in the center room of the suite. The selection was limited but fine, and Khan found a glass and ice, then poured over it several fingers of Glenfiddich. By the time he returned, John had divested himself of shirt, shoes, and socks, leaving him barefoot in only his suit trousers and undershirt in the bright bathroom, looking at something of a loss.

Khan set the glass on the counter beside the sink. "Why don't I draw you a bath?" He moved past John to the fine, claw-foot tub that stood against the far wall. "You can relax for a while before you go to sleep."

"You--" John lifted a hand of protest, then let it fall again. "You don't need to do this."

"I know I don't need to. I want to." Stopper placed over the drain, Khan turned the knobs to let the water rush forth. "Because I love you."

John lowered his head in the sheepish way he always did when Khan expressed his deep affection, but it was true and Khan knew it was good for John to hear. So many of their kind had been raised without even the slightest hint of affection, treated as laboratory curiosities and programmable machines instead of human beings with human hearts. Khan loved them all, and he loved John as one of them. "Thank you," muttered John, staring at the floor.

"Thank you." Khan stood, leaving the taps still running, and walked over to take John's face in his hands. They were the same height, though sometimes John needed convincing not to look up at Khan, but to see him eye to eye. "Brave Sir John, my knight."

That made John's blush deepen. "He should not have said those things about you."

"Or about you."

"He can say what he wants about me." John lifted his right hand, the one that earlier had been the bringer of such damage, and laid it over Khan's left with great tenderness.

"Oh, no doubt he's saying all those things at this very moment, to anyone who will listen," said Khan with a smirk, and that won another smile from John. "But he won't soon forget your injuries to him, while you may now feel free to go take your bath and drink your whisky and not spare him a thought this night or any other."

From the other room came the sound of the suite's front door's being opened, followed by English chatter, and Khan smiled even as John sighed. "I'll go tell them to piss off," he said, doing the last two words with his best terrible impression of John's accent, which startled John into a laugh. "I'll see you for breakfast tomorrow?" He took both coat and knife from their hooks and lay them over his forearm.

"Of course." John nodded, and Khan brought their faces together, pressing his mouth to John's in a gentle, dry kiss. Poor John struggled under the weight of so many things inherent to his nature -- his rage, his power, his fear -- that it seemed cruel how circumstances had forced upon him all the other burdens inherent to British decorum. What he wanted from anything, including from Khan, came second to his inability even to talk about such desires. Whether anyone knew they were not lovers or suspected otherwise mattered little to Khan, but had to matter the world to John. He quivered under Khan's touch like a startled bird caught in familiar hands, too frightened either to flee or to calm itself.

When Khan pulled back, John's eyes stayed shut and his lips stayed parted for a moment more, until Khan reached up and tapped him on the ball of his nose. "Pleasant dreams," he said, and then he walked out of John's room again, this time shutting the door behind him for the night.

After giving the English men assurances that John was both all right and not to be disturbed, Khan disappeared into his own designated room, but did not turn on the light. Instead, he lay his possessions down on the bed and slipped out of his shoes, then opened the door to the balcony. The wrought-iron grating felt like ice against his feet as he stepped out on it, as did the railing when he placed his hands atop it. He closed his eyes and breathed in the thin, high air and thought of home, where many of those whom he loved were already a day ahead of him. He'd be back there soon enough -- tomorrow for them, the day after tomorrow for him -- and John would travel west, back into the grip of those who hated that he had not become the monster they had planned for him to be.

No, he had become a different monster entirely, one who haunted himself far more than he menaced any potential enemies of the Crown, who hid under his own bed and in his own closet and would not let himself sleep. But perhaps tonight he might find rest. Khan looked up at the night sky, into the infinity of the immeasurable universe, and thought of the freckles hiding in plain sight on John Harrison's face.