There was nothing pleasant about the months that followed the Cuban mission.
First, there had been weeks spent in hospital, a time of pain and grief over the total loss of his lower limbs. Moira had been a godsend, forceful and gentle by turns, the perfect counterpoint to Charles's own cycle of acceptance and despair. He'd tried for the boys -- Hank, Alex, Sean -- to be as positive as possible whenever they had shuffled in to stand at his bedside and he'd mostly succeeded; but other times, the ache had been all-consuming and inexplicable to those around him who hadn't suffered through it.
And beneath his physical infirmary had been the raw wound of his emotional losses, the total removal from his life of the people he loved most in the world -- Raven, his dear sister, and Erik.
Like his legs, it was a loss that could not be put into words, no matter how hard he tried. Though they'd only known each other a few months, Erik had become wound around him like a piece of his metalwork, until Charles felt like living without him was like trying not to breathe. The gap Raven left in his life echoed the loss of his beloved father where the Erik-shaped hole in him was more akin to his now-useless legs.
By the time Charles left the hospital to return to Westchester, he'd mostly wrestled his emotional demons under control and he was starting to get a handle on his new life confined to a wheelchair. It was amazing how much he'd taken his unfettered movement for granted, a hard lesson he learned only when it had been taken from him. He'd always been independent, fiercely so; it was a blow to his ego to find himself dependent on anyone, even his young companions who were genuinely so happy to be of service.
And then there'd been Moira, also so willing to help, so mired in her own guilt for firing the bullet that had crippled him -- not that Charles blamed her. He hardly even blamed Erik outside of his darkest, most painful moments. But Moira's mind swam in it, a fact that made Charles's decision to remove her memories a little easier. If she forgot everything after the attack on the CIA base, he told himself, she wouldn't have to shoulder that remorse any longer. Still, it had been cold comfort once she'd been sent away, the loss of his last friend in the world.
A future where he helped shape and guide the new mutant species had lost much of its luster once he realized he would have to do it alone.
Their first month together in the mansion after Charles came home was not as terrible as it could've been, but only because they all tried so hard. Hank threw himself into his experiments, including every permutation imaginable for a faster, stronger wheelchair, while Alex took it upon himself to make sure the others trained a little every day, and Sean showed a deft hand at managing the routine issues that eluded the other two, such as cooking and housework.
Faced with his pupils' dedication and resolve, Charles couldn't let himself do anything less than match it, and it wasn't too long before he was again looking forward to each day, looking forward to time with Hank in his lab, or helping Alex and Sean in training, or just the four of them sharing a meal. Hours not spent with his students were spent on plans for more of them, on the practicalities of what he'd need to do to make his dream a reality.
Even the holidays, which Charles had dreaded beforehand, turned out to be unexpectedly pleasant despite the bittersweet undertones they couldn't quite avoid in their celebrations, no matter how hard they tried.
Slowly, Charles began to push his old hurts away from the forefront of his mind and focused on that future -- his school, a safe haven for other young mutants who might need his help.
That was when the nausea started.
The first days were irritating, a stark reminder of how much accommodation he'd come to need, but hardly troublesome in the scheme of things. But when it didn't abate after a week, Hank started watching him with a hawkish concern he appreciated but didn't agree with.
"Honestly, Hank," he told him one morning as he emerged from the bathroom closest to Hank's lab where a swell of nausea had sent him. "It's probably just a virus that I'm more susceptible to given my compromised health these past few months. I'm sure it's nothing."
"Charles," Hank began, his voice rumbling with the concern that battered at Charles's mind. "Even if that's the case, I don't think it would hurt if we just got you checked out."
"I think I've seen quite enough of hospitals for the foreseeable future," Charles said mildly. "It'll keep."
"Thank you for your concern," Charles called over his shoulder as he rolled away. "But I'm fine."
Fine, Charles found, was a relative term. The nausea didn't abate, and he started to feel as tired as he had those first, dreadful days after his injury, so lethargic that getting himself out of bed seemed an insurmountable task. He tried to hide it from the boys, hoping he'd improve any day, but they were deep into a second week of ever-more-increasing nausea. Charles was just stubborn enough to hold out a little longer, until one night when he did his mental security sweep of the grounds, he found the boys huddled in the kitchen, three bright minds clustered together, heavy with worry.
"....something, Hank," Alex was saying as Charles eavesdropped through Sean's mind. "This is getting ridiculous."
"I've tried," Hank protested, sounding young despite his growl. "He won't listen. He says it's nothing."
"Could he be right?" Sean asked. "Are we all wound up for nothing just because we're worried because of...you know?" Since Charles was in his mind, he could see a flash of what Sean meant by "you know" -- Charles in Moira's arms on the beach as he rushed toward him, then later, the boy's impression of Charles pale and still in his hospital bed, infinitely more human than they ever wanted to see him be.
"Of course, he could be right, but he could also be wrong," Hank explained. "Look, there's a lot his brain could be missing because of the diminished sensation -- cues that's something seriously wrong somewhere. The nausea could just be the only side-effect he can feel."
"So we make him get checked out," Alex declared. "End of discussion."
"We can't make him do anything," Sean pointed out with a roll of his eyes. "Prof's got a will of iron and, you know, kickass telepathic powers."
Hank sighed, feeling older than his years. Charles could sense it even from Sean's mind. "I'll talk to him again, tomorrow," he said. "But you guys have to back me up this time."
"Don't worry, Beast," Alex teased as he slid out of his chair, landing a friendly slap on Hank's furry arm. "We've got your back against scary old Professor X."
As "Beast" growled out a reply, Charles slipped out of Sean's mind and left them to the rest of the evening. With a sigh, he slowly settled himself into his bed, knowing what he'd have to do the next day.
"Good morning," Charles said when the trio trudged down into the kitchen several hours later, already dressed for the day and enjoying a cup of tea.
His greeting was met with a few grumbles and grunts that they decided passed for a response as they each made a beeline for their respective morning lifelines -- Hank to the coffee, Sean to the sugary cereal and Alex for the fresh fruit, something he'd come to miss while in prison. Charles fought down a swell of pain at how his preference reminded him of Erik, who had also taken an unlikely joy in fresh fruits and vegetables, just one more scar left by his childhood.
Once they were seated and engrossed in their meals, Charles cleared his throat, meeting each one's eyes before he spoke. "I know you've been worried about me the last few weeks," he said, watching as they all squirmed under his level gaze. "And while I won't have you ganging up on me every time I disagree with you -- Alex, what you're thinking will not be shared aloud, thank you -- I am touched by your concern and willing to defer to Hank's rather expansive knowledge on the subject."
He added, with humor at their apprehensive faces, "You've won, gentlemen. Stop looking like I'm going to eat you for breakfast."
"So that means you'll go to the doctor?" Hank asked with relief.
Charles couldn't help the small smile on his face. "Not exactly," he told him. "I will, however, consent to any such tests as you can see fit to run here. Your lab is as kitted out as the local clinics and I was serious about not setting foot in the hospital unless it's absolutely necessary."
Neither Alex nor Hank was particularly pleased with the compromise on the table, but they accepted it for the concession it was. "We'll run blood and urine tests today," Hank announced. "I should be able to put together some imaging equipment by tomorrow sometime if we need it."
Charles nodded in agreement as he checked his watch. "I have a 9am phone call scheduled with one of my attorneys," he told him. "It shouldn't take more than an hour or so. I'll come up when I'm finished."
With that, he exited the kitchen, leaving them to finish their breakfast in peace, and headed toward his study to prepare for the call. Charles wanted his school to be as properly established as possible, to avoid any questions he could for as long as he could, which was why he had the best lawyers his money could buy working on the legal details for him. Thankfully, his money could also buy a team willing to work over the phone at the insistence of their rich, invalided client, a fact he appreciated even more now that his days were spotted with unpredictable bouts of nausea and the rare nap.
After the conference call, Charles kept his promise and presented himself to Hank to be poked and prodded to the young scientist's satisfaction. He'd already given a urine sample and was rolling his shirt sleeve down after having given the blood sample when his other two wayward students showed up. "You missed all the fun," he told them wryly as he buttoned his cuff.
"We're just worried about you," Alex said, defensive and still a little sensitive from the rebuke at breakfast. Sean hung behind him, unsure of their welcome.
Charles sighed, feeling his edge of annoyance with them soften in a wave of fondness. "I know, Alex," he said because he did know; he could always feel their admiration and regard, their respect and their sympathy, even when it cut a little too close to pity for Charles's comfort. He reached over and patted the only part of the young man he could reach, which happened to be one of his crossed arms. "I hope you'll all forgive me for my stubbornness on this, though. I really don't relish a return to the clutches of the medical establishment if it's at all possible. But it's not because I don't appreciate your concern. I'm sure I would react the same if it were one of you."
Alex and Sean relaxed a little with his words and even Hank, bent over his work, seemed to lose some of the tension in his shoulders.
"Well, then," he said to Alex and Sean. "Hank will need time to run his tests and, while he does, you two owe me some training time. In fact, I think it might be time for a little pop quiz to evaluate what you've been working on."
Sean actually groaned. "Does that mean you're going to make us dodge imaginary bad guys?"
Charles gave him one of his rare, wicked smiles. "Very likely," he answered, carefully maneuvering between them and the lab equipment to get himself turned toward the door. "Come on, you two."
"I'll be in contact when I have something," Hank let them know as they filed out, the boys looking comically morose.
Thank you, Hank, Charles said into his mind. I'm sure it'll turn out to be nothing.
I hope so, Professor, Hank sent back. I really hope so.
Charles was almost able to forget about the tests, his nausea and his physical fatigue as he put Alex and Sean through their paces, making use of his telepathy to devise any manner of test his mind could fathom. For Sean, it happened to be whatever large flying creature he could conjure up, although he made sure to keep away from any image that might've reminded them of Angel's dragonfly-like wings, watching as Sean ducked and flew and twirled to evade them. For Alex, control was still their biggest obstacle, and Charles used his mind to help guide him through the same kind of meditations he'd once used with Erik, teaching him to find the sweet spot between rage and serenity. But it was fear, not anger, which was Alex's greatest weakness; Charles could feel it lessening every time they made it through another session with nothing destroyed or no one hurt.
After a few hours at it, both boys were chilled but sweating from the exertion and even Charles could feel the stretch of exercise on his powers, so he called it quits, congratulating both of them on a job well done. After he'd sent the boys off to shower and get ready for dinner, he reached out to Hank with his mind. How goes it?
They should be finished in a minute, came Hank's answer. I haven't checked them yet. I, uh, got distracted, sorry.
Charles didn't have to ask with what -- he saw what Hank was poring over: his plans for the new Cerebro he wanted to build. You're completely forgiven, Charles told him. I'm on my way.
He didn't bother pulling away from his light telepathic connection with Hank, content to follow the boy's mental ramblings like pleasant white noise in his head as he made his way up to the second-floor lab. Charles was aware as Hank managed to lay aside his blueprints, instead turning his attention to the tests he'd run on Charles's blood and urine, cataloguing each result in quick succession.
Charles was still several yards away from his destination when he felt Hank's mind grind to halt, flaring outward with a supernova of emotions, a tangled mess of shock-disbelief-confusion-shock-fear that hit Charles like a slap in the face.
Hank? he tried, first with his mind. When he received nothing but another projection of that same coil of emotion, he called out with his voice as he quickened his pace. "Hank! What's wrong?"
Panic was spreading from somewhere and Charles pulled his mind away from Hank's to see whose it was. It lessened considerably when Hank was gone from his head, but it did not fade entirely. He entered the lab winded, arms aching a little from the exertion. Hank looked unharmed, hunched over his workbench, an open text hugged against his chest. There were claw marks on the book's cover, as if Hank had forgotten himself and handed it roughly.
"Hank?" he asked again, somehow keeping his voice steady. "Tell me. What's wrong?"
Hank slowly lifted his gaze from the scattered mess of his work bench, yellow eyes wide in his furry blue face as he fixed them on Charles. His mind was still a blanket of shock that Charles avoided to stop its edges from bleeding over.
"Professor..." he said in a low, growling voice. He shook his head, then cleared his throat before continuing. "Professor, is there any way you could be...pregnant?"
Suddenly, Charles didn't need Hank's panic to feel hysteria pushing at his thoughts.
He had more than enough on his own.
Given the next hour or so, Charles was glad that Alex and Sean were sufficiently distracted to stay away from the lab because having it out with Hank was difficult enough.
"It fits," Hank mumbled, having started to pace, something Charles envied. "The nausea, the fatigue, the tests but there's no way, right?" When he asked, he looked up at Charles imploringly, begging to be told that it was impossible.
Charles managed to answer, despite his suddenly heavy tongue. "It's not like men go around giving birth, Hank."
Hank frowned at him. "They don't usually go around reading people's minds or turning blue and furry or controlling met....you know what I mean," he finished. "It's not like we haven't seen some extraordinary divergence from the accepted norm. It's as theoretically possible as anything else, isn't it?"
"Theoretically," Charles agreed reluctantly. "But there must be another explanation."
"Of course! Definitely," Hank nodded. "I mean, it's not as if you've done something, you know, um, physically, that might have triggered, uh, this if you actually do have some kind of secondary mutation that meant you could get, ah...well." He let out a strangled laugh which was even more disturbing in his new, lower register than it would've been in his human tones. "I mean, it's not like you....with someone...male..."
Charles closed his eyes, a hand coming up to pinch at the skin between his eyebrows. Despite his growing horror at the thought, the evidence was mounting against his skepticism at a rather alarming rate, and he knew if he answered the question buried within Hank's rambling statement, his protégé would realize it as well.
Because the fact was, Charles had done exactly what Hank implied was impossible.
Once, the night before their last night before Cuba, Charles had taken the risk that he'd worried in his head for months on the road, had chanced everything on his foolish hope that Erik felt the pull between them as strongly as he did. He'd offered himself to Erik, hoping that it would be enough, praying that if the man had a glimpse of a future that wasn't about pain and violence that maybe he'd think twice before giving himself over to it. Charles had thought it might've made a difference to Erik that someone loved him as much as Charles did.
Of course, it hadn't.
For once, Charles had earned the naive charge that Erik had so often laid on him for thinking that something as simple as his love could undo an entire lifetime worth's of damage, and he'd paid for that naivety -- first with his heart, then with his legs.
And now, apparently, with everything else.
"For argument's sake," he said slowly, opening his eyes. "Let's just say that that assumption can't be used as conclusive against this diagnosis. What would be the next step?"
Hank let out something that was dangerously close to a squawk, some choked, disbelieving sound that barely escaped his throat. "Uh, okay," he said, his panic so strong that Charles had to shield against it. "The imaging equipment, an ultrasound," he told him. "That would be the most definitive way to tell."
"And you implied this morning you could put one of those together here?"
"Oh, yeah," Hank assured him.
Charles nodded. "Then do that and we'll move on from there."
"Sure, I'll get started on it right away."
"Let me know when it's ready," Charles told him, turning to go. "I'll be in my study for the rest of evening."
He stopped, glancing back over his shoulder. "Yes, Hank?"
Hank's mind was suddenly full of questions that flitted against Charles's furiously, his curiosity almost overwhelming everything he was feeling. "I...do you...I...who would you...?"
Charles's mouth turned up at the corner but it was a mockery of a smile, a defeated expression. "Do you honestly want to know the answer to that?"
Hank cringed. "No, I guess not."
But given the onslaught of sadness and sympathy that came his way from the scientist, Charles figured Hank already knew.
Charles did as he'd told Hank and went straight to his study, even going so far as to mentally beg off dinner with a quick thought at Alex and Sean where they worked in the kitchen. He knew it was a cowardly thing to do but he needed time to think, time that wouldn't be afforded if he had to face all three young men across the dinner table. He could barely handle his own questions, let alone anyone else's.
He'd barely had time to come to terms with all the horrifying possibilities the future might hold if Hank's tests were right before Charles felt a stinging blast of anger so strong that he sensed it without any particular extension of his powers. It reminded him of how he'd sensed Erik in the water that night in Florida, unexpected and blistering, demanding to be heard through no conscious effort of its feeler. Concerned, Charles didn't think twice before he traced it back to Alex's mind, nimbly sliding in between his raging thoughts to find what had upset him so.
Alex, Charles realized as he look out through his eyes, was in the lab with Hank and Sean, the other two watching as Alex paced the available space like a caged tiger, veins roaring with outrage. Charles could feel it in his tense frame, in the clench of his fists, in the way he held himself so tightly, trying to keep rein on his crumbling control. He could even feel the build-up of energy inside him that Alex worked to suppress.
Sean tore his eyes away from Alex to give Hank a dubious look. "Okay, maybe I'm not smart enough to follow, but doesn't it seem like the answer here is that you screwed up your test?"
"I ran it twice just to make sure," Hank said miserably. "It's accurate."
"So, you're telling me the Professor's really...?" Sean shook his head, leaning back a little more heavily against the workbench behind him. "Wow." He wiped a hand over his face. "And ew."
"I don't know for sure yet," Hank told them. "I mean the tests say yes, but we're going to try and confirm with an ultrasound. It could all be a big mistake."
"But you think you're right, right?" Alex asked as he finally stopped pacing. "Truthfully. Do you think it's a mistake?"
Hank bowed his head. "No," he admitted with a sigh. His expression was pained as he continued, hesitant in his explanation. "When I asked him about whether he'd been doing the kinds of things that he might need to be doing in order for this to actually be a problem, he didn't give me a straight answer. Which pretty much confirmed it."
"Doing what kinds of...?" Sean asked, before comprehension swept across his face, turning it a violent shade of red. "Oh god, things I didn't need to think about ever."
"But how?" Alex asked, all of his emotions still so soaked in anger that Charles couldn't decipher any nuance without pushing more deeply than he felt comfortable. At Hank's horrified expression, Alex added, "No! I meant -- how did it survive? First the bullet and then nobody noticing all that time in the hospital?"
"Luck?" Hank ventured. "His spine took the brunt of the bullet, so that might've saved it from damage. And I guess the humans missed it because they weren't looking for it." He shot Alex a steely, narrow look. "How did you know it happened before the bullet?"
Alex met Hank's look dead-on. "For one, the Prof has been laid up ever since, so we know nothing's been going on. But more importantly, because I'm not blind. There's only one person to blame for this." In Alex's head, Charles saw a flash of Erik as he'd looked on the Cuban beach just before he'd disappeared with the others. "That bastard."
Sean jumped as Alex's fist came down onto one of the tables in emphasis. "I'm confused again," he told them. "Tell me you didn't just call the Professor a bastard!"
"Of course not!" Alex said, lip curling up in a sneer. "I'm talking about Erik."
"Huh? Oh!" Sean's eyes were wide before he shook his head as if to clear away the image. "God, more things I never wanted to think about."
Hank had his arms crossed and was watching Alex with his most intimidating, thunderous expression. "So you're saying you don't have a problem with this?"
"I have tons of problems with this," Alex corrected him. "First, that asshole turns on us, cripples Charles, leaves us on an island surrounded by people who want to kill us, and now this? I don't have nothing but problems with this."
"I mean with the Professor," Hank clarified. "Because he's..." Charles didn't appreciate Hank's use of a certain hand gesture to illustrate his point, but he was too concerned with Alex's answer to pay it much attention.
He felt most of Alex's anger drain away, leaving fatigue and concern as his strongest emotions. "Of course not," he said quietly. "He's still the professor."
"Oh." Hank looked away. "I just thought maybe you would."
Charles felt ashamed to admit he had expected the same thing, especially given Alex's past. And he could see some of what he had expected to shape Alex's opinion as it crossed the boy's mind -- furtive assignations between inmates in prison, the crude jokes and cruder threats. But they were softened by other memories: a scene of a slender man laughing with a boisterous woman as they shared their cigarettes with him, then a night spent on the woman's sofa when he'd needed it badly.
Deciding guiltily that he'd spent enough time eavesdropping on Alex's thoughts, Charles skimmed over to Hank's, where he found lingering discomfort at the thought of Charles and Erik being involved physically -- Hank's mind refused to use the word "sexually" -- but it was a personal discomfort, based on thinking of them as mentors, as authority figures to look up to. There was also the sadness and sympathy Charles had felt earlier, hints of Hank's own sorrow over Raven at the very corners. Sean was similarly uncomfortable and confused, but there was no judgment or recrimination, just anxiety on what the possibility would mean for them all.
Charles couldn't help the rush of relief he felt as he gently disengaged from their minds, knowing he hadn't lost their respect. It was enough to ease some of his own terror at the idea that he was actually going to have a child and not in the way he'd ever envisioned it happening. For all the fantastic and amazing things he'd contemplated in his life, this had never even crossed his mind. Charles wasn't even certain he was ready to accept it even when there was a growing sense of the truth of it in him.
In the end, Charles chose to ignore it as much as he could for the rest of evening, telling himself that there was no need to borrow trouble. Perhaps there was some other, less unusual explanation that he and Hank would find in the morning, and he'd be able to chalk the day up to some kind of surreal dream. Instead, he went over more paperwork for the school, some accounts from one of his holdings, and then settled down with a book, a newer genetics text he hadn't had a chance to read yet. He studiously ignored the half-finished game forever frozen on the chess board that one of the boys had moved to a corner sometime before his arrival home from the hospital.
He checked on Hank's progress a few times as the night grew later, finally admitting to Hank that he was heading off to bed. Hank bade him a mental good night, still absorbed in his work and his own thoughts, thoughts which Charles left undisturbed as he went through his slow, modified bed routine and tried to get some sleep. Before his paralysis, it would've probably been more difficult to sleep given what he had on his mind, but he still acclimatizing to his new reality and it took its toll on him. Before he knew it, Charles was asleep, only awaking up at the touch of several active minds close to his own.
May I ask why you are all outside of my door? Charles sent out as he pulled himself up in bed, glancing at the clock on his bedside table. It was 7:30AM, not early for him but rather so for his students.
I finished the ultrasound, Hank answered back, even his mind-voice expressing the sleepless night he'd passed. We're ready.
I'm not, he told Hank, then to all three, Go have breakfast, I'll meet you there when I'm dressed.
Charles could feel their hesitation as they obeyed him, dragging heavy feet in the direction of the kitchen. Sometimes Charles felt so much older than them, even though there was hardly more than a decade separating him from their ages. Still, those years were important ones, and they made Charles feel ancient, especially that day, his body stiff and tired and even more uncooperative than he'd come to expect since the accident.
Then, of course, there was the nausea and vomiting to contend with as well.
When he reached the kitchen, Charles didn't need to read the minds waiting for him; they were broadcasting loudly, and he addressed those thoughts immediately. "You are not all accompanying me for this test," he told him, continuing before their protests could begin. "I mean it. I don't need you either of you holding my hand. Hank will do."
"We're just worried," Alex said.
"I know," Charles said with a smile. "And I'm touched by that, but frankly, this is embarrassing enough as it is. You and Sean can wait outside but I don't want an audience."
That compromise seemed to mollify Alex who nodded before he began to attack his breakfast of sausage and eggs. Instead of running off as they usually did, everyone lingered in the kitchen until Charles managed to finish his toast and tea, then followed at his side as he made his way to Hank's lab. Hank was the only one who went ahead, to get the equipment ready.
Charles couldn't quite shake the feeling he was about to face a firing squad, not when he was surrounded by Alex and Sean's anxiety as well as feeling his own. Hank was waiting for him when he wheeled into the lab, a low-slung cot set up next to the makeshift ultrasound, one he could easily transfer himself to for the examination. He let his admiration for Hank's ability and ingenuity distract him from his worries as he maneuvered onto the cot, lying flat with his torso propped up on his bent elbows.
Hank held the wand nervously in one giant blue hand. "Are you ready, Professor?"
"Let's find out," he said with a weak smile, wondering if Hank understood the reference. "On with it."
And, then, there it was, the thing Charles had refused to let himself think about the night before, the thing that Charles was still not ready to entertain as real.
There, in black and white on the ultrasound monitor, was the unmistakable shape of a fetus in his abdomen.
With a sigh that only hinted at the panic that settled over him, Charles let his shoulders fall to the cot, one hand pressed over his eyes.
Oh god, he thought, echoing Sean's sentiments from the day before. The things I never wanted to think about ever.