The only constant is change, as they say, and fortunately the human capacity to adapt is boundless. Perhaps recently Charles has had more than his fair share of life-changing events, but it's been a few weeks and he hasn't managed to kill anyone at the hospital and none of the ex-convicts have murdered him in his bed, so he feels he can pat himself on the back for a job well done so far. And it's nice, after all the upheaval, to feel his days once again settling into familiar, predictable patterns. But sometimes he has to wonder, is he taking to all of this a tad too well?
There are the normal med student things, and those were to be expected; he now subsists entirely on catnaps, caffeine and half-remembered sketches in Gray's Anatomy, and he hasn't had a date or a drink in— God, in ages. Eons. Snogging Moira in the pharmacy closet does not count, especially since Hank had walked in on them before Charles could so much as muss her hair.
He now also knows the tats and colors of every criminal organization in the city, from the MS-13 to the Crips. He can tell a working girl from an undercover cop at twenty yards. He can hold a fairly detailed conversation in Spanish, if the subject is profane enough, and he's picked up a smattering of Portuguese and knife-fighting from one of his many temporary neighbors. Paolo, a scarred Brazilian fresh out of Eastern State Penitentiary, says he has a gift— for the Portuguese, not the knife-fighting.
And for the most part, he's fine with it. Adapt-to-survive and all that; so what if he lives and works in the very worst part of town? He currently can't do any better and so he's making it work. Still, it worries him that his first reaction on seeing his entire block swarming with men in SWAT uniforms and lit-up squad cars is only resigned annoyance.
He tugs his scarf a little higher and turns and walks measuredly (no lingering, that's suspicious, not too fast, that's doubly suspicious) away from the bright lights and men with megaphones. He moves deeper into the shadows until he can duck down a damp reeking alley to the back street, almost too narrow for cars but perfect for the motorcycle gangs that use it like a drag strip. It's there, almost hidden by the overflowing dumpsters behind a tiny Haitian restaurant, that Charles sees the body.
Forget worrying, he is angry that his first thought is "Oh no, not another one" and that he's sorely tempted to just continue on, to the (relative) safety of his tiny, musty-smelling apartment and milk crate furniture. It's been a long day, five hours of lab and another six at Mercy General, and he could really do with a beer or three and some shitty telly.
Instead, he picks his way around the black plastic bags and metal bins and crouches next to the crumpled form, curled on its side in a puddle of slush. The man had been in his mid-thirties, tall, well-built. Handsome even, Charles observes with clinical detachment, through the ghastly paleness and grit and ice. There's a wound on his left side somewhere, leaching blood into his soaked clothes and the freezing snowmelt below. Half-hidden under the man's chest is a gun, gripped loosely in his right hand. The body's not been here long then, or someone would have taken it. As he considers the best way to alert the army of policemen a block over that he has found a dead man without actually involving himself, he reaches out automatically to feel for a pulse he knows is not there.
The moment his fingers touch chilled skin, the throat under them twitches in a tiny cough.
He just barely manages to stop himself from screaming and crashes to his knees, dragging the man's head and shoulders free of the icy water and into his lap. He digs his phone out of his pocket, hitting six on the speed dial and letting it ring.
"Tía Martine? Sí, es Carlos. Necesito ayuda, por favor…"
The story of why, exactly, Charles finds himself in the position to have the Mexican mob on speed dial is long and involved and paints a rather unflattering picture of himself. The facts are simple and stark:
Fact 1 – Charles descends from a long line of Xaviers whose two unifying traits have been that they are all, to a man, disgustingly wealthy and horrible womanizers. Charles is no exception (although his personal eccentricities extend to wanton philanthropy and a love of books that borders on the obscene).
Fact 2 – The trusts that hold most of the majority Xavier property and monetary assets are not, in fact, accessible to Charles until his twenty-fifth birthday, leaving him until that time wholly dependant on his parents' good will.
Fact 3 - Charles's father died and his mother remarried an absolute ass.
Fact 3b - When he returned home fresh from Oxford and his stepfather promptly cut his funds and turned him out of the house, there was very little that Charles could do about it.
And if Charles had been cut from the same feckless and irresponsible cloth as his stepbrother, he might have found equally rich and vapid friends with whom to weather the years between 22 and 25. Rather unfortunately for him, there was Fact 4 and its addendums: namely, that ever since Raven was diagnosed with EB Charles has wanted to be a pediatrician, and then pediatric surgeon; that the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has the best pediatric program in the States; and that Charles had no way to pay for four years of med school— until he stumbled across a prestigious grant that paid tuition in full and a small stipend besides, if the recipient agreed to work in Philadelphia's 'higher need' hospitals.
'Higher need' had translated to 'in the middle of the sodding projects', but he might have at least avoided living there had it not been for Facts 5 and 6: respectively, that Charles can't seem to avoid believing the best of people despite ample evidence to the contrary, and that Angel Salvadore is a vengeful, heinous bitch.
Case in point: Charles stumbled into his very first practical half an hour late, having badly misjudged public transportation times on the road from Westchester to Philadelphia and horribly punchdrunk from sleeping only seven hours in the last forty-eight. In his debilitated state he made something of an ass of himself, spouting off inanities like being used to having a driver, his stepfather cutting off his allowance and currently being homeless. Angel then made what seemed like a terribly kind offer at the time: her aunt Martine ran an apartment complex, La Joya, that specialized in inexpensive short-term leases, and would he like the address?
Following her advice led to Charles being mugged twice and pawning his father's gold fountain pen to pay for a week in Aunt Martine's den of iniquity, which it seems functions primarily as a halfway house for men recently released from the city's prisons, and secondarily as a small link in the long chain of the city's thriving drug trade.
He lived in constant fear of his life and property for just under a week. Very late on the sixth day of his stay (rather, very early on the seventh) his door was forced open and two thugs dropped a gangbanger on his carpet, squealing and bleeding like a stuck pig. He couldn't have been more than sixteen. Charles remembers vividly how the blood pulsed from the gashes the way it never did from lab cadavers, the white thread from a sewing kit and strips of his own shirt that he used to close and dress the wound. He did what he could, and it turned out to be enough.
Since then Charles has treated gunshot wounds, overdoses, broken bones, and has even delivered a baby on his bathroom floor. It was a healthy little girl, praise all the saints and angels, and holding the squalling drippy purple thing in his hands was simultaneously the most terrifying and exhilarating thing he's ever experienced. Long after he financially could have managed, Charles still hasn't moved out of La Joya. The damned baby probably marked the event horizon.
A bare minute after he calls Aunt Martine, two of her young burly 'nephews' sidle up to the dumpsters and peer around them, edging closer when he beckons them frantically forward. The man is hypothermic and still loosing blood; his injuries need to be treated, but more immediately he needs to be warm and dry.
"A mi habitación," he tries awkwardly, and the boys give him a very patient look before hauling the unconscious man up. One of them grabs the gun, and then grabs the man's feet while the other grips under his shoulders.
They're less than fifty feet from the back entrance to the apartment complex. Usually there's a full complement of loud-mouthed dealers and druggies lingering, but the dismal weather has cleared them out. Aunt Martine meets them at the door, short but broad and a lit cigarette dangling from fushia-painted lips. There's a rapid-fire exchange of Spanish, and she holds out her hand. A nephew fumbles in his coat pocket and produces the gun. She takes it, looks at it, and scowls at Charles. She's smoked since girlhood and her voice is proof; her rasped, "Who is he?" rumbles at deeper timbres than his own.
"Haven't the faintest," he answers honestly.
Her scowl deepens, and she waggles the gun at him. "You trying to bring me trouble, Carlos?"
"Trouble?" he repeats, confused.
Beyond the narrow alley, a bullhorn squawks and a squad car departs with wailing sirens, and Charles thinks, Oh. Martine sees the realization dawn in his face and shakes her head in mock despair. "You should have left him there."
The thought of leaving a man to die when he could help was abhorrent. "He needs immediate medical attention," Charles snaps, more sharply than he'd intended.
"And I have a strict 'No pets' policy," she retorts, tapping an equally fushia fingernail to a sign next to the door; no English translations provided, of course. He opens his mouth to argue, and she huffs "Santo dios, Carlos. Bring him in, fix him up, fine, but you are responsible for him. ¿Entendido?"
"Yes, absolutely," he says gratefully as she steps aside and the nephews and he move into the dim hallway of the first floor. "Thank you, Tía Martine." Charles's teeth are chattering, body shivering, and he can feel all the places where water has soaked through his own clothing keenly. No time to think about that, though, when the unconscious man's lips are a sickly blue-violet and Charles has spotted a new wound in the meat of his left shoulder. The water dripping onto the cracked linoleum is more red than clear.
He lives on the top floor and has never been more annoyed by it then at this minute, when Martine's nephews spend five precious minutes struggling to get the man's muscled frame and long limbs up four flights of stairs. He sprints ahead, unlocking his door and flinging himself inside to gather towels, gauze, antiseptics and the small collection of very expensive surgery equipment that had appeared mysteriously outside his door one day. By the time the boys maneuver the man into his apartment Charles has completed his makeshift amphitheater: plastic and fresh bedsheets laid out on the floor, lamp unshaded and dragged over, his instruments set out in a neat row, the spaceheater, electric kettle boiling merrily away in the corner. He'll need a cuppa after this.
He can't really blame the boys for dumping the man and leaving, but he finds it irritating all the same. He reassures himself that the man's heart is still beating, and begins the long, aggravating process of wrestling the man out of his wet, filthy clothing.
The shoulder wound proves to be a half-clotted graze, but there's a bone fide bullet hole through the man's left side; it starts streaming blood as soon as Charles shucks the leather jacket and peels away pistol hostler and shirt underneath. For several minutes, he's too focused on stopping the bleeding to notice the bruises mottling the man's stomach, but he does notice the subtle crackle of cracked ribs under his fingers as he wrestles the man into a sitting position, winding yards of bandaging around his waist.
The boots, pants and undershorts come next. The man is armed for bear; Charles finds a huge hunting knife riding at his waist and another in a stirrup in a boot. After some internal debate, Charles hides them under the man's damp clothing, draped over his single kitchen chair. Touch now unobstructed, he rubs down the length of the man's legs to check for swelling and tells his poor oppressed libido very firmly that half-dead probably-wanted men are not on the menu, however well… proportioned they may be.
Time to direct attention elsewhere. The man's knuckles are swollen and scraped raw, and near his hairline there's a nasty lump too fresh to be black and blue. The man's sharp blade of a nose looks broken, but Charles wipes carefully at the tacky drying blood and decides that it's only bruised. The man's face appears to have escaped the brutal beating the rest of him has taken, and what a face it is. He catches himself lingering over the man's split lip and hastily sets the damp cloth aside for the Bactine.
By the time every wound decorating the man's body has been found, cleaned and dressed, Charles is gritty-eyed and swaying with fatigue. As he tucks extra towels and blankets around the man's body, he glances at the clock on the wall and is unsurprised to see that it's nearly two in the morning. He has class at eight.
"That's that, then," he sighs tiredly, patting an impressively-muscled pectoral. "You haven't woken up yet, which quite probably means you won't, but your color is better and who knows, miracles happen."
On that cheerful note, he strips off his gloves and rises to his feet. His knees wobble for a moment like they might give out, but he steadies himself against the wall and continues on to the bathroom, grabbing the man's things as he goes. He can't go to sleep, not with some fugitive unconscious in the living room, but at least he can hang the wet clothes on the radiator, take a shower, maybe work on that lab report due Friday…
The bathroom, like the rest of the apartment, is a study in miniatures: barely big enough for the door to swing in, tiny sink wedged edgewise next to the toilet, mirror-front medicine cabinet a spare thirty by thirty centimeters. When Aunt Martine had first showed him the room, there had been a mold colony on the verge of sentience and something very, very dead under the sink. Forget the bathroom, the entire apartment had been in severe violation of health code, unlivable by most normal standards. He'd spent the first night cringing away from his own floor and stole two gallons of bleach from the hospital the very next morning.
He's fumbling with the cap on his toothpaste when an arm circles his throat from behind and yanks him back, into the unyielding muscles he was admiring earlier; he's in no position to appreciate them now, a breathless little squeak all that's left of his startled scream. The toothpaste clatters into the sink and his hands claw uselessly at the man's forearm as it tightens.
"Who are you?" is snarled in his ear. "Who sent you?"
"Grn," Charles gurgles, because the man has four easy inches on him and Charles' feet are barely touching the ground now, as he strains up to take pressure off his trachea.
"Who sent you?" the man demands, with a shake for emphasis. There's an accent there that Charles can't quite put his finger on, as he is busy being choked to death, but he thinks it might be German.
Obviously, the man is mad as a fucking marsh hare. Damn it all, Charles, you couldn't let it go just this once? he thinks in a steadily dizzier panic. Aunt Martine is going to find your buggered corpse and tutt at you. Her army of nephews will strew your dismembered body through three boroughs. They'll never find the head…
That's when he notices the fine tremor in the arm holding him, the absolute pallor of the man's cheeks in the mirror and the tensed, pained line of his lips pressed together. Charles makes another gurgle, this one with a questioning edge.
"What?" The man's arm loosens, minutely. Charles takes a deep, shuddering breath and drops an arm to feel along the man's side, where the bullet wound is. His fingers encounter a spreading wet patch, and when he lifts his hand and sees the blood smeared there his "You goddamned idiot!" is perfectly comprehensible. Charles wiggles wildly and manages to break out of the man's hold in time to turn and catch him as his beautiful blue-green eyes roll back in his head and he tilts forward in a dead faint.
"Stupid, stupid, bloody fucking stupid arsehole," Charles mutters darkly as he lowers him as slowly as possible to the floor. "You had to go and tear your fucking stitches, do you know how long that took? I'm a fucking first-year med student, I'm not supposed to be putting stitches in people!"
The man has gone still and quiet, not unconscious but unmoving and watching him with a bemused gaze.
Unperturbed, Charles works, stripping the sodden bandages off and swearing anew when he sees the gore of torn flesh and exposed surgical thread. "Shite, you're a mess."
"Who are you?" the man asks again, and this time there is only honest confusion in his voice.
Charles glances briefly up. "My name is Charles Xavier, and I am trying to save your life. Now shut up, please, and let me work."