Sometimes it had perturbed Charles that he didn’t remember much of his childhood, at least not after his father died and his mother remarried. By all rights he should have an incredible memory – for the mind never really forgot things, simply how to access them, and that was hardly an issue for him.
Perhaps it was simply because he had been unhappy. When he was small, when his father was still alive, everything was fine, and it became wonderful after he met Raven, because suddenly it didn’t matter how empty the mansion was, or how distant his mother was, or how infrequently he saw his father, because she was there and he was no longer alone in every way that mattered. Those memories were perfect, crystal clear, but things started to go foggy after his father died. He had first met Kurt Marko at the funeral, and though the man had crouched down next to him and patted him on the knee, the picture of a concerned family friend, his mind had been – bad, that was the only word young Charles had had for it, and it hurt to touch. His son, Cain, hadn’t been much better, but for such a different reason, so much pain and anger twisted up on itself, seeming – through the eyes of a child – immense and endless.
Kurt courted his mother in slow way that belied his intentions and charmed her, and she didn’t listen – of course, never listened – when Charles tried to convince her he was not a good man. Just jealousy, she thought. He misses his father, she thought. He could have convinced her easily, of course; he had done it before, for Raven – just the tiniest nudge to make it seem she had always been there – and while he hadn’t regretted it then (never regretted it, not for Raven) he knew he would if he did this time. He was still just a child, barely a teenager, but he was older for the time he had spent in the minds of others, and he understood the concept of a slippery slope.
He remembered the marriage even more vaguely – it was unhappy, he knew, even having spent so little time with his mother. The only thing that was clear about that time was Raven, as things got worse and they grew closer, until it seemed that was all he had. The last whole, complete memory he had before college was his mother’s funeral. And then – there were still small memories, random memories, not at all special; things he had been taught, but could no longer remember learning – but for the most part it was a blank.
And then there was college, and everything returned to normal, to how it had been before Kurt Marko. He was young and rich, intelligent and fairly attractive, he thought, and he was with Raven; everything was wonderful and he made new memories, memories that made the dark years before seem unimportant. And when he did turn his attention on that strange unnerving blank – knowing his mind better than he would ever know anything or anyone, knowing on some level he had to be responsible for it – there always seemed to be other things to do, more important things to do, and he left it alone.
And for a long time, that was that.
The headaches come first.
He doesn’t think anything of them at first, because of course he would have headaches, at the very least, after what happened. But the beach is an open wound, too raw and painful to revisit, so he takes painkillers and pours himself into learning how to operate without the use of his legs, into his work, into more important things, the most important things he has ever done.
He does not call it recruiting. Once he has mostly recovered, as Hank is finishing up the new Cerebro, Charles uses Alex’s admittedly hazy memories of his childhood as a starting point in tracking down his brother, Scott. When Scott’s arrival delays the implantation of Cerebro longer (because he is so heartbreakingly scared of what will happen if he opens his eyes), Charles discovers Jean Grey’s parents looking for him – not for him, really, but for someone, anyone, to help their little girl, and he gently convinces them to let her stay even after she’s woken up so it will never happen again. And when the machine is finally operational, he cautiously tests it by finding Warren – with small white wings hidden under a coat – in nearby Centerport, though even that leaves him with such a migraine that once the helmet is off he pitches forward and throws up all over poor Hank’s shoes.
Needless to say, they wait before trying again.
Charles focuses instead on the children – all of them are so young and so very scared. Alex and Sean are proving efficient teachers in their own rights, Alex helping Scott to acclimatize to the visor Hank eventually managed to fashion, and Sean teaching Warren to fly, even if their methods of doing so are very different. Overseeing them, and tutoring Jean himself, Charles does not notice when the headaches become daily occurrences, and only pays it a little mind when they become constant.
He has more important things to do.
Feelings start leaking through next.
Again, Charles hardly notices. There are already so many things he doesn’t let himself think of, after all. He offers no real explanation when Warren asks why Hank is blue, of all things (the same reason you have your wings, I’d imagine is what he says instead, and Hank does not elaborate). Charles tells Jean he understands, that he knows what it feels like to have someone die in your mind, but he leaves it at that. When Sean jokingly suggests pushing Warren off the satellite, Charles simply says that would probably not be the best idea – he does not mention the difference would be that Sean, wearing metal, had actually been perfectly safe when Erik had done it. The satellite itself is a subject his mind stutters away from, much the same way his eyes do, whenever they happen to fall upon it.
The children – and he includes Alex and Sean and Hank in that category – need a leader, not a man mired in grief and regret, so he doesn’t think about the beach and everything it changed except that it means he is down two (friends, family) teammates. He spends so much time pretending to be infallible, but he is anything but (obviously), and he is not surprised that on occasion he finds himself breathless with sudden melancholy or excusing himself so he doesn’t take a flush of irrational rage out on his students.
What is out of place is the fear. Which isn’t to say he isn’t afraid; he is, he’s terrified, but this fear is wrong. He fears he isn’t doing the right thing, or he isn’t strong enough, and he will fail – and by extension fail the people depending on him – but this is the panic of a boy, desperate and blind and alien. It comes in a rush and makes him duck under the stairs one day, one hand clasped over his mouth until he can gulp down the sobs and get himself under control.
He still catches Hank staring at him when he gets to the lab, looking concerned, and Charles doesn’t know if he’s projecting or if it simply shows on his face, but he carefully begins reinforcing his shields nevertheless.
The feelings feed on one another. Soon, his fears have become certainties.
‘Am I doing the right thing?’ No, of course not. If you were doing the right thing they wouldn’t have left, he wouldn’t have left. The last right thing you did was – the place between rage and serenity – if only you had had the good grace to die on that beach – would it have saved him? He is the leader they need, the leader you could never be, because you need him too.
He begins taking his meals in his room.
Raven, young and pale, and he is so scared for her, but it is – again – not the right sort of fear, a boy’s fear, beating soft panicked wings against the edges of his mind.
Big hands, so big.
It hurts more than anything he has ever known, more than the bullet, more than their leaving.
He wants to die.
For such a smart man, Professor, you can be – have always been – incredibly stupid.
They’re just following orders.
You could have stopped him, all you had to do was say the right thing, but instead you said that, the same thing every one of the men responsible for killing his mother would have used to wash their hands of her death. How could you have been so stupid?
these useless legs
you deserve this.
He has no excuses he can give any of the students. He turns and leaves in the middle of a conversation, ignoring Sean’s soft, confused, “Professor?”
Charles puts his energy into shielding himself.
It was arrogance to think you deserved to love him in the first place.
He was so – strong, beautiful – so much more than you ever were, than you will ever be.
At least he has Raven – perfect, beloved – at least you did that.
You never deserved either of them.
You are – wrong, disgusting – he knew.
That’s why you let him –
By the time he understands what’s happening it’s too late, much too late. Even if he was thinking with a clear head, he wouldn’t have known – how shocking! – what to do.
He begins sleeping in Erik’s old room, as if he can steal strength from the fading scent of the other man.
He can feel the students; they are projecting their worry so intensely.
Professor, what’s wrong? I don’t understand…
… something wrong with Cerebro? Knew I should have done more testing, stupid, stupid…
… why is he sleeping in here, is this because of Erik?…
… please tell us what we need to do, how we can help you, please.
But he cannot bring himself to open his eyes and reassure them.
He is walking through the corridors of his mind, and this time they look like the mansion. The smooth featureless walls that had protected the years between his mother’s death and his going off to college have crumbled almost to nothingness, and he pushes through the sick stale air to brush the remains away from a door and step inside.
For a long time he is silent.
And then he says, “Oh.”
Charles does not wake up.