‘It’s going to be OK, Charles.’
He pulls himself out of his daze and turns his attention to Moira, who’s looking at him with a pinched expression and a look in her eyes that he doesn’t want to examine too closely. ‘I’m sorry, what were you saying?’
She opens her mouth, but she pauses. There’s a shift in her thoughts, going from he’s looking at his legs to don’t think about it. ‘The paperwork,’ she says instead, ‘it’s difficult now but as soon as everything’s in order and they give the go-ahead to open up this place as a school, then it’ll be worth all the paper cuts we have on our fingers.’ Her eyes smile at him, genuinely, but there’s a strain in the corners of her lips that give away her anxiety. He returns the smile, without the slightest hint to show he had caught onto the tail end of her lingering thoughts.
‘Those damn things – I’ve finally found something I’m not too fond of reading.’
Moira laughs as she relaxes her shoulders and stands up straight. Charles has to tilt his head upward a slight inch to accommodate the change in height. ‘Come away with me,’ she says as she starts towards the door, ‘we’ll have lunch together and save all of this for much later.’
‘Wonderful idea,’ he agrees as he begins wheeling after her, happy to be out of the ground-floor library-turned-office to get some food and some fresh air.
If she noticed him pausing just a moment by the chess set, she chose not to mention it.
But that didn’t stop him from hearing it.
‘What do you think, Charles?’
‘Well,’ he begins as he mentally runs through the list of things they still need to do before they can call this empty manor a school. ‘I suppose there’s the matter of staff that we need to consider.’ There’s a shift in the air as he spoke, subtle but catching. He ignores it, deeming it of little concern to him. ‘I think we’ll be able to get Hank certified to teach easily, since he already has a few notable credentials. As for you two,’ he says as he moves his head towards where Sean and Alex are seated, though his eyes don’t shift with the movement, ‘I can vouch for the two of you. You may need to undergo some sort of training to become qualified but I think we’ll be just fine.’
There’s a wave of concern in the air, and while he can’t see their reactions, he can certainly feel and hear them think very clearly: He needs to look at us. He needs to stop staring at his legs. He didn’t deserve this.
Charles finally looks up and notes the sudden spring of guilt, anxiety and relief in their postures. He ignores it and feigns ignorance. ‘Do you think it would be better for us to hire a maid or two for the school to take care of the cooking and cleaning? Or should we enforce some responsibility onto the students?’
All three of the boys burst into a flurry of chatter, happy to provide some of their opinions. All of them are in favor of putting up a chores’ list and a weekly roster to go with it.
‘I grew up in a big family, so I know about this stuff,’ says Sean, looking sheepish but still proud.
‘They’ll need to learn how to look after themselves,’ Alex says with a one-shoulder shrug.
‘It can turn into a very good social experience, depending,’ Hank offers and though his mind shouts his doubts, he still thinks it could turn out for the better.
When the three of them leave the room to do their own things and continue on with the building’s refurbishment, they don’t verbally note how Charles tends to lean towards one side, as if caught halfway in the act of crossing his legs but can’t.
Very observant, he can’t help but think to himself as he settles down to an afternoon of paperwork.
Sometimes, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Sometimes, he can’t get comfortable. Sometimes, he wishes he can train his body and mind to cope with the changes. Sometimes he can, but sometimes, he just can’t.
He’s never noticed how often he used to cross his legs until he no longer can. He doesn’t realize what’s missing in his posture whenever he leans forward on the desk in front of him until he repeats the same upper body motions enough times to realize that he misses the way his stomach used to rest softly on his thigh. He’s never paid attention to how much he uses his legs to show his frustration, impatience, to keep his body in motion or just for lack of anything better to do until he realizes that part of him can’t move any longer.
Sometimes, he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
In truth, it’s starting to become almost all of the time.
For the longest of times, nobody’s ever noticed how he drums his fingers in a four-tap rhythm on any available surface when he’s in the middle of a thought. It’s not until the surface belongs to his legs that they suddenly take note of it.
He knows why it bothers them so much, but at the same time he doesn’t know why it even bothers them at all. He knows why it worries them, but he doesn’t know why they want to worry over something as trivial as this. He knows they care for him, deeply, but he sometimes wishes they would just pretend everything is normal; as if nothing’s changed.
Despite everything changing.
‘How’s Cerebro coming along?’ He asks the boys that really shouldn’t be considered boys any longer.
It was their joint project; Hank directing the plans and helping with the fine-tuning, Sean in charge of the wiring and bringing in refreshments when needed (which is quite often) while Alex does most of the heavy-duty work and occasionally making sure Sean doesn’t fall off the scaffolding. They’ve made him wear his X-suit after the last incident.
‘Pretty good,’ Sean grins as he, not very subtly, looks away from Charles’ fingers still tapping away on his thighs.
‘We’re missing a few more parts,’ Alex says with another one-shoulder shrug as he continues to count the amount of time Charles drums his fingers on his legs from the corner of his eyes.
‘I haven’t finished compiling the list, yet,’ Hank sighs as he adjusts his glasses, effectively making him seem as if he hasn’t been staring at Charles’ wheelchair and legs since they’ve come into the living room for a quick run-through of their day.
Sean’s progress with taking some of the rooms in the house and modifying them into classrooms are well underway. With anything deemed unnecessary moved out into storage to create much needed space, all that’s left is to fill them up with tables, desks and a whiteboard or two. And though Hank had initially found it difficult to be in the same room as Alex, they’re managing to work together well enough to put up surveillance system around the perimeter of the mansion.
‘So you don’t overwork yourself,’ Alex reasons with his usual one-shoulder shrug.
Sean agrees with a fervent nod of his head. ‘Yeah, I mean, we know you can just,’ here he makes a funny motion with his hands around his head, ‘but that doesn’t mean we should rely on you all the time.’
‘This lets you focus on other things that need your attention, too.’ Hank says as he takes off his glasses and tries to fix the frame; it doesn’t fit quite right anymore.
‘Thank you, all of you.’
They’re making some progress, at least, in all the important ways.
Except when they care too much.
‘What are you doing out here, Charles? It’s cold,’ Moira says as she pulls the folds of her sweater closer to her shivering body. ‘There’s supposed to be a storm coming in the next couple of days and you’re just sitting out here in the middle of a category five hurricane,’ she only half-exaggerates.
He chuckles in amusement as he swirls the drink in his hand and watches as the amber liquid shine in hues of brown, gold and red. ‘The scotch is doing a wonderful job of warming me up,’ he offers with a smile as he takes a slow sip and enjoys the quiet burn down his throat.
Moira shifts behind him, and he focuses hard to tune out the signals she’s giving out. There’s too much of everything and not enough of nothing. Eventually, she leaves him on the porch and goes back inside but he knows she’ll come back, because he can feel her intent and her determination. Sure enough, she does, and with a folded blanket.
She gently lays it across his lap and tucks the edges down the sides between his legs and chair. She’s being considerate, and kind and he can’t help his fondness for her as she putters around as if this is normal between them.
‘Moira,’ he says with a soft smile as he takes her hand in his and bends forward in his chair, ‘you are a dear.’
When their lips meet, her mind radiates happiness as she leans up to return the kiss. But her happiness is short-lived when she realizes she’s using his legs to support her kneel and she feels guilt-ridden at her thoughtlessness.
He breaks the kiss before she could and says to her, ‘it’s getting late, my dear, I’m sure you must be tired.’
‘Yes,’ she says with barely-hidden relief as she stands and gives him a goodnight kiss on his cheek, ‘sleep well, Charles.’
She pulls the folds of her sweater close to her body as she leaves, but the shiver still wracking through her body isn’t entirely because of the cold, anymore.
By mid-afternoon the next day, the mansion loses another member of their crumbling team.
The boys (men, now) catch him looking at his legs and touching his knees throughout the day. They think it still hasn’t fully sunk in yet, so they give him the space he needs to recover. He’s grateful, but what he’s really trying to do is remember the weight and warmth of Moira’s hands.
It’s eight months, one week and six days after what happened on Cuba that they finally get Cerebro working. All of them are there for the first test-drive, to see how well it works and to make sure that Charles doesn’t strain himself. They’re also there to make sure that nothing goes wrong.
It works perfectly.
‘Well done,’ he praises all of them as he takes off the newly modified helmet and sets it down on its computer interface. ‘It’s running very smoothly, and I’m glad I don’t need to shave my head to get it working.’
Hank, Sean and Alex are snickering, smiling and nudging at each other in congratulations, broadcasting their pride, their excitement and their happiness at a job well done.
‘Would you like to have another go?’ Hank asks eagerly. ‘I’d like to tune in the configurations for future Cerebro runs.’
‘Sounds excellent,’ he says as he picks up the helmet again and ignores how it is reminiscent of another kind of helmet, designed to keep in rather than to expand.
The second run goes off without a hitch and everything’s slowly coming together. All that’s left is for the official stamp of approval for them to turn this place into a school.
The last time Charles actively used his telepathy on anybody had been well over half a year ago. Even now, he only uses a fraction of his powers to get a general idea of how everybody felt or if there is ever a sense of urgency. This is all he was willing to do and it is a line he chooses to stay well behind since his fall on Cuba.
However, when a group of three men and two women comes by the mansion to judge whether the establishment is fit enough to be considered a school, Charles found himself using his mutation to do more than just skim surface thoughts and emotions.
He is not a manipulative man by nature; he believes in free will and he believes forcing somebody to come to a decision not made of their own volition is not only a breach of privacy but also makes it null. But recently he’s also learnt that in order to give, he must take.
So he did.
When they leave late in the afternoon, the echo of their harsh thoughts concerning his disability still going strong in his mind makes his temple throb and his veins pulse in anger. Under it he also feels guilt for having manipulated two men and one woman to suit his needs. He feels shameful, but he thinks Erik would be proud.
But nobody needs to know.
It’s another two months, two weeks and four days before the mansion is officially decreed the Xavier Institute for Gifted Children. Recruitment begins the very next day with nothing more than a set of co-ordinates on paper and a practiced speech in mind, with Alex behind the wheel and himself in the passenger seat holding on for dear life. It’s mostly a success and by the end of a long month, they have enough students to fill up one and a half classrooms.
The first students are set to begin their studies in three weeks, though they’re not expected to arrive until a week before term begins.
However, it’s in the middle of the night when they receive their first unofficial students. A sudden pop of sulfur and smoke rouses him from his light doze and springing (as best as he can manage) out of his bed. He knows there are an additional eleven people on his property – one he cannot feel but knows is there, five which he recognizes and the other five which he does not.
His mind acknowledges their presence but it’s the one he can’t see, feel or touch that makes him fumble with his hold over the wheels of his chair.
The others get to the front steps before he could; battle-ready to defend if necessary, never minding that they're all in pajamas. A clearing of his throat allows him a good view of what’s standing on his front lawn. He sees the five children first, all with visible mutations, accompanying them before his eyes stray towards the others.
Charles counts the days.
It’s been exactly one year to the day since he last laid eyes on Raven, and exactly one year since he last heard from Erik.
It’s been exactly one year since they last saw him, and exactly one year since he lost all feeling in his legs.
The shock and guilt and anger of seeing him in a wheelchair are new to them, but unlike them, he’s had a year to absorb the news and adapt to the changes.
He doesn’t know what to say, he doesn’t know what to do, but he hopes they will stay, for a while at least.
They are gathered in one of the more spacious living rooms, standing apart with a wide split in the middle to show their sides. Charles wishes it wasn’t so obvious.
The five children that were brought along are keeping to themselves in the kitchen, nibbling on snacks, sipping their hot chocolate and looking around with awe in their eyes. He’ll have to ask Sean to show them their new rooms later. Tomorrow, he’ll have to give them his practiced speech about their school and ask if they'd like to stay. He knows the answer will be 'yes' but assuming it will be is different to knowing for certain.
None of them speaks for the longest of times.
Mutant and proud, mutant and proud, mutant and proud, Raven is repeating, though in Hank’s mind. Charles can see from the corner of his eyes the stiffness in his shoulders and the shake in his tightened fists.
Calm, Hank, he sends to him and notices the visible release of tension from his body
Working on it, he returns and evens out his breathing.
‘Where’s Moira?’ Raven, Mystique, breaks the uncomfortable silence as she stares at his legs and the wheelchair.
‘She’s back with the CIA.’
Erik frowns. ‘You let her go?’ There’s a slight tremor in his voice, possibly anger, possibly at Charles.
Emma stares at Charles with narrowed eyes, then visibly startles and laughs. Everybody turns to her in question as her voice fills the large room. Eventually she says to him with a self-satisfied tilt of her head, ‘well done, Charles, I had always thought you to be too soft.’
‘What did you do?’ Sean asks as he thinks back on the day Moira leaves without a word of goodbye.
Charles remains silent, but Emma decides to explain for him, all with an amused smile on her lips. ‘He erased her memories, everything to do with us.’
There’s a shift in the air, loud and grating. ‘I could not let her go with her knowing what she knows, about us and about this place.’ He aims for Hank, Sean and Alex to understand the reason behind his actions, but he can only feel a smug sense of satisfaction coming from the other telepath in the room.
‘It’s sweet of you to let her go with a kiss goodbye, though,’ Emma teases cruelly.
‘Don’t read Charles’ mind,’ Raven, Mystique, requests angrily while Erik supports it by floating a fireplace poker towards them and curling it in midair. Emma scoffs and immediately keeps to herself.
Only three people in that room knows exactly what that gesture with the iron rod means, everybody else radiates their confusion at the sight of the fireplace poker straightening back out and put back in its place.
‘Enough,’ Erik, Magneto, eventually says and turns his attention fully on Charles and asks him, ‘why didn’t you inform us about your…condition?’
Alex is suddenly angry – angry at Erik for leaving, for betraying them, for hurting Charles and doing this to him, but most of all for labeling Charles’ disability as a condition.
Calm, he sends to Alex before he does anything unwarranted. ‘It wouldn’t have changed anything,’ he reasons and wishes Raven, Mystique, would stop focusing on the wheelchair so much.
‘This changes everything.’
He shakes his head and denies it. ‘I’m still the same person and so are you; this changes nothing.’
Erik, Magneto, grits his teeth as he says his next words, ‘she did this to you.’
‘No,’ Sean speaks up, ‘she fired the gun but you were the one who sent the bullet into his back.’
‘This is as much your fault as it is Moira’s,’ Alex half-shouts with a threatening step forward.
‘If you hadn’t been so hasty in trying to take it out…’ Hank trails off and forgoes listing the possibilities.
‘That’s enough, thank you,’ Charles manages out and tries not to think about what Hank had been implying. It’s the past and it’s something he’d rather let go of, after all, he’s got other important things to occupy his time with, now.
‘Charles,’ Raven, Mystique, begins as she awkwardly steps forward and stops just shy of the wheelchair, fingers tightened to a fist, ‘those kids we brought over, do you know where we found them?’
‘I can guess,’ and it makes him sad and angry to know that while not everybody is brutal like Shaw, not everybody is sympathetic like Moira, either. ‘Thank you for bringing them here.’
‘You can help us; you can help us save them,’ she kneels and avoids touching the wheelchair. ‘We’ll figure something out, Charles, everything’s going to be OK.’
Calm, he sends to the others before they jump in with their varying opinions but Alex pushes on.
‘Charles is OK. He’s been OK for months, now. He’s recovered.’
Mystique stands and bristles angrily. ‘He hasn’t recovered; look at him!’
‘We are!’ He shouts loud enough for it to echo. ‘You think we don’t see how far he’s come but we see it a hell of a lot more than you!’
‘We’ve been with him since everything that happened on Cuba,’ Sean cuts in before Alex’s anger gets the better of him, ‘we were with him when he was admitted to hospital, we were with him when he was released, we were with him through everything in-between and we will continue to stay with him.’
‘We’re not the ones who ran away,’ Hank admits.
‘Don’t you dare—’
‘Enough!’ Charles shouts into their heads and only feels partial guilt at invading Raven’s, however small an intrusion it was. He can see the moment she turns into Mystique and it pains him to know he did nothing to stop it and everything to push her even further away from him.
‘Charles,’ Magneto says just as she draws away and takes her place next to him again, ‘we may have our own methods, but our end goal is the same; we want the same thing.’
Charles needs to think about this carefully, needs to consider all of his options, all of the possible routes and how much he is willing to compromise to be able to keep Erik by his side, but as soon as his eyes meet Mystique’s he knows his answer.
They do not.