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Author: NWHS

A Hell's Kitchen Christmas

New York's LaGuardia Airport was definitely the wrong place to be two days before Christmas. As much as Ororo adored the glittering lights, the brilliant mix of diverse foods, music, and languages, even the hypnotically fast pace of its residents, the "Big Apple" on the eve of the biggest moneymaking and family gathering holiday, ranked right up there with having your legs waxed—a good idea until it begins. Then, well, then it's too damn late, and you either finish what you started, knowing the discomfort is transitory, or walk away, foregoing the sunshine hiding behind the rain cloud.

Yet as Ororo walked with a purpose through the bustling and deafening airport, there wasn't a rain cloud in sight. No, New York City was uncharacteristically rain and snow free. This year there would be no white Christmas, no snowball fights, or carrot nose snowmen, no child size igloos. In fact, much of the east coast was experiencing unseasonably warm weather, late December feeling more like early October.

Ororo smiled, tugging the straps of her leather carry-on bag up her shoulder, securing the item as she made her way through the throng of people, searching.

Yes, she was searching, blue eyes canvassing the crowd, strangers' faces moving in and out of view.

She hadn't been in an airport in so long, on a commercial flight even longer.

"I don't need a ticket; I can get there under my own winds," she'd complained, the webcam clear, the frown on T'Challa's face quite vivid.

He'd ignored her protestations, purchasing a round-trip e-ticket, sending it directly to her e-mail account. She would fly on his dime—first class no less.

And while she took no pleasure in the human traffic that was the Christmas airport rush, Ororo had to admit that flying under another pilot's power was indeed relaxing. A treat she rarely indulged, and flying in the X-Jet from one mission to the next did not count.

So she rested on the plane, surprised by how deeply she'd slept, her body melting into the reclined seat like a contented marshmallow over a crackling fire, her dreams of a former king and Black Panther.

His invitation. His request. So unlike T'Challa but oh, so appreciated.

"I know things are crazy there, with the Mutants and Sentinels, but I thought you'd like a change of scenery . . . some downtime." He'd paused then, his breath seeming to catch in his throat. Nervous? She'd wondered at that barely-there tremor, as if she'd turn down such a rare offer. The man really should've known better.

Then again, he had asked her not to come to Hell's Kitchen, refused her assistance over the past several months. Hell, he didn't seem particularly pleased to see her a couple of months back when Ororo had saved his life, catching him before he plummeted to his death, the water below dark and deadly, Kraven's poison attacking T'Challa's body, effective in a way Kravinoff's punches and kicks could never be.

Afterwards they'd spent the night together. It hadn't been enough time, not nearly enough. For him. For her. No, she'd wanted more. More time. More kisses. More caresses. More heat. More patience. Yes, lots and lots of patience.

"How much longer will you do this?" Her unspoken question had hung between them like a rotting apple on a beleaguered tree.

"Until I'm the man you and my country needs," was the silent response shadowed in his brown eyes, couched in a simple good-bye of, "Be safe and call me when you reach Utopia."

Utopia. He'd said Utopia. The island Ororo's current place of residence. Hell's Kitchen, T'Challa's current place of residence. Yet neither was truly their home, and he had understood that, his word choice squeezing an already fragile heart.

A heart that yearned for the home T'Challa refused to speak of; a home they could rebuild together if only he'd let her in and forgive himself. Not such an easy task for a man like T'Challa whose courage, intelligence, and honor knows no bounds except the ones formed by pride and guilt. Too much pride. A watershed of guilt.

Ororo waded through the ebb and flow of bodies, jostled by people too impatient for good manners, minds already on what they needed or had to do once they exited the human fog of an airport.

Then he was there, legs crossed, leaning against a wall, brown eyes fixed on her, lips gliding into a sexy subtle smile. Black leather shoes, black dress pants, gray button-up shirt, and a black leather coat held by two fingers, swung over one broad shoulder, turning more than Ororo's head, his laid-back GQ pose making him stand out against the congested Christmas crush.

In that moment, the scene slowed, persistent noises and rambling feet dulled, then faded to black until all Ororo saw was him, only ever him.

"T'Challa," she choked on a whispered gasp, heart speeding from the sight of him, throat tightening when he took that first step toward her.

Then another. And another. And another still until he stood mere inches from her, freshly shaved face handsome, dark chocolate skin flawlessly delectable, cool, assessing eyes drinking her in, sending a current of feminine heat through Ororo.

How long had it been since they'd last seen each other in person? Since the Kraven incident? Ororo gave a mental shrug, the answer—Too damn long coming on silent cascades of bliss when T'Challa wrapped his long, muscular arms around her, pulling Ororo tight against his fortress of a chest. A hug, Ororo realized, she craved more than her next breath.

"I see you made it." His thick, husky voice skated over Ororo's ear, the familiar cadence penetrating, full lips tickling the earring pierced lobe. And she held him tighter, breathed in deeply, never wanting the embrace to end, the scent of soap . . . and man tickling her nose, drawing her in closer, making Ororo dizzy with lust and love.

An indelicate shove against her right side, and then a brusque, "Do us all a favor; take it home, buddy, so the rest of us can get by."

The moment was broken, T'Challa releasing her, his eyes suddenly stormy, jaw working with agitation. So much so Ororo knew what he was contemplating, even if he hadn't turned to glare at the rude man's back.

Taking hold of her husband's hand before he acted on whatever was brewing in his head, Ororo said, "I'm fine, honey, and he isn't worth it."

That solid jaw continued to work, compelling Ororo to hold him that much firmer. "I don't care how long I live here, that type of behavior I'll never get used to. Guys like that make me want to—" He faced her, eyes dangerous slits. "Are you sure he didn't hurt you?"

"I'm fine," she lied, the man's rolling luggage having done a number on her ankle. But T'Challa was looking at her with I'll-kill-any-bastard-who-hurts-my-wife eyes. No way was Ororo going to tell him she was anything other than perfect. Fist-a-cuffs in a New York City airport two days before Christmas was not how she wanted to begin her weekend with T'Challa. Instead, Ororo forgave herself for the white lie and smiled.

"I missed you." Truth. Understatement. She missed . . . so much. Falling asleep and awaking in his arms. Laughing at his dry humor. Listening to him enthusiastically explain a mathematical theorem. Catching him sneak peeks at her during a simple family meal.

She inwardly sighed. Ororo would keep that to herself as well. Marriage, a perpetual work in progress.

"Not as much as I've missed you." Those hard, angry slits were now gone, replaced by chocolate rays of warmth. All aimed at her. He kissed her then, a soft touching of lips, a promise of so much more. And just like that, the rude man and the bruised ankle was forgotten.

"I assume you brought more than that little bag on your shoulder."

Ororo nodded.

"I thought so. Gifts for David and your grandparents?"

Another nod.

"Okay, well, let's retrieve your bags and get the hell out of here before some other jerk causes me to forget tis the season for good cheer and all other such American propaganda with capitalistic underpinnings."

Propaganda. Capitalistic underpinnings. Well, yes Christmas was, but it was also so much more than that. At least it had always been for Ororo. Family. Yes, Christmas was about family.

Ororo spared her husband a critical glance, careful to watch her step as he led her through the terminal in search of baggage claim, and wondered exactly what he was up to. For T'Challa, former King of Wakanda and Black Panther, protector of Hell's Kitchen cared no more about Christmas than he did in wishing Dr. Doom a happy New Year.

And maybe the New Year's card was in the post—care of Victor von Doom, Latveria.

Ororo eventually managed to close her mouth, the one that gaped open the moment she'd taken one step into T'Challa's modest flat.

Christmas. Everywhere. Surrounded by Christmas.

No arsenal of weapons in sight. No spiked bats. No military knives sharpened to a deadly shine. No sheathed swords or neatly cased nonchaku. Nothing to damage the body or protect the innocents. Ororo stared across the room and at her husband. Nothing except him. A weapon. Deadly and dangerous. A man. Loving and loyal.

He'd done this . . . for her. Nothing visible to remind Ororo of why T'Challa was there, in Hell's Kitchen.

Blue, red, and white lights were strung from one end of the room to the other, hanging overhead like shooting stars.

An unadorned tree smelling of fresh pine was the centerpiece of the room. Six feet of thickly rich branches, boxes of lights and decorations stacked at its base, waiting to be opened and placed just so.

Then there was the music, a gentle melody that hadn't been playing when they'd first entered, but now wafted through the pine-scented apartment, a Pied Piper to the senses.

Ororo closed her eyes, soaking it all in, listening to Nat King Cole's stirring rendition of "Silent Night."

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Wakandans did not celebrate Christmas. They worshipped Bast; she was their God, their ancient divine giver of life, protector in death. In truth, Ororo was no more a Christian than T'Challa, but she so delighted in the holiday.

Family.

For Ororo, Christmas was more than an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. More than the giving and receiving of gifts—although she enjoyed both—more than egg nog, caroling, great food, and football.

Family.

After the death of her parents, she had no family. No bright lights, no prettily decorated trees, no chocolate chip and sugar cookies, no dad pretending to be Ole Saint Nick. Just loneliness. Darkness. Tears.

Until the X-Men. Until Charles Xavier. A mansion of orphans of the mind, of the heart, of the soul, a cold, opulent building that soon became a home, a utopia in a sea of prejudice, of fear, of intolerance.

And it was there Ororo learned about the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of good will, of giving, and of sacrifice that didn't begin or end in December, or with the birth of a new year. No, such a spirit, a genuine tide of caring and protection could never be bottled and siphoned off in small increments when it was convenient for the giver.

One need not be of any particular faith to understand that very real truth.

So, yes, Ororo, a non-Christian loved Christmas. The holiday made even more precious since she was reunited with her maternal grandmother and her father's parents, T'Challa the one to locate her paternal grandparents—a priceless wedding gift.

And so Ororo and T'Challa had spent the last four Christmases with her grandparents at their Harlem home, T'Challa playing the dutiful husband but having no true interest in the holiday beyond making her happy—a willing, if not indulgent, passenger swept up in the Monroe family holiday cheer. Yet he'd never done anything like this before, taking the initiative, planning everything down to the . . .

Ororo sniffed, and this time she smelled more than winter fresh pine.

She opened her eyes and looked past T'Challa to the small kitchen area behind him. Platters of covered dishes abounded the two countertops and circular wooden table. A classically beautiful holiday arrangement full of holiday charm and cheer served as the table centerpiece. Red carnations and spray roses sat amongst pinecone pics, red velvet ribbon and holiday greens, arranged around a clear glass hurricane holding a single red taper candle.

The entire apartment was enchanting, T'Challa making Ororo feel like the queen he'd always said she was, though the people of Wakanda no longer recognized her as such. No matter, they no longer looked to T'Challa as their king either, but he was still a king in Ororo's heart.

"I was hoping," T'Challa said, too far away for Ororo to show her appreciation, "that we could have Christmas here, just the two of us before we spend Christmas day with the Munroes." He did that strange breathing thing again, like he'd done when he'd asked her to spend the weekend with him.

He's nervous, afraid I'll say no. Goddess, he should know better, know this is the only place I want to be. With him. Always with him.

"You went to a lot of trouble." Ororo gestured to the room before closing the distance between them, the desire to be close to T'Challa overwhelming and urgent.

"You're worth it." T'Challa held her waist, strong, sultry fingers beginning a delicious back and forth glide. "More than worth it, beloved. You always said that Christmas was about family." Another glide of his fingers. Deeper this time, igniting a familiar sexual ache. "A man who lives in his head, who battles seen and unseen demons can lose sight of that . . . of what counts . . . of the family and love he takes for granted."

Those wonderfully wicked fingers moved higher, rubbing muscles and gooseflesh, arms encircling her, drawing Ororo flush against her husband.

"I no longer have Wakanda's financial coffers to rely on. I can't afford much more than what you see here. Yet I want to give you so much, so very much, Ororo. You deserve that. But all I have"—he pressed those luscious lips against her own, T'Challa's tongue coming out to gently sweep her bottom then upper lip, the southern ache growing with rapid intensity—"is what you see before you. What I have in here." He pressed Ororo's hand to his chest, over his heart. "It's all I have of value. All I have to give."

Silly, sweet, prideful man. Doesn't he know how priceless and precious a gift that is?

"You're all the gift I've ever wanted; a gift that can't be bought or stolen." She winked at him. "Not even by the best pick-pocket." Moving in closer, Ororo returned the kiss, mimicking T'Challa's earlier exploration, but taking it further, slipping her tongue inside—tasting, enjoying, wanting more.

"You're my family, T'Challa, whether we're here, Utopia, Wakanda, together, or a continent apart, that'll never change. I gifted you with my heart when you were but a scrawny flute-playing prince on walkabout and me a girl too young to know that puppy love could be forever."

"Forever," he repeated, T'Challa's voice soft but assured.

Ororo nodded, and then took T'Challa's hand in her own, turning them toward the bedroom. They had taken three steps before T'Challa stopped, hand suddenly stiff.

"What's wrong?"

He shook his head, looking torn, flustered even. "This is wrong; I have a plan. Airline flight to New York. Weekend car rental." He ticked off each line of what Ororo could only guess was a mental list, his fingers going up to emphasize each part of his meticulously thought-out plan. "Decorate the tree. Romantic dinner for two. Conversation. Bubble bath. Then . . ."

T'Challa shook his head again. "Not yet, too soon. Didn't bring you here just for this."

Ororo couldn't help but laugh at her anal husband. His plan sounded wonderful, and they would get to all of it. But first . . .

"Contingency plan, King T'Challa. This first." Ororo yanked his hand until he came to her, the heat of their shared need surrounding the both of them. She whispered, "If you're my present, let me unwrap you now." Ororo felt an unchecked shiver run through T'Challa, his hands swiftly going to her backside, grinding Ororo against him. She smiled, enjoying her present already. "Show me forever, my king, show me forever."

And he did. Again. And again. And again.

Christmas in hell had never felt so much like heaven.