The voice crept in along with the cold winds that December, seeping in as inevitable and uncomfortable as the chilly drafts in Charles' study.
Charles, who had a keen memory in general but more specifically never forgot the first time that he heard a song or met a person or felt a particular emotion, could later pinpoint the first moment that he'd heard the voice, though at the time he had written it off as a stray thought he was too tired to process correctly.
He'd just levered himself out of the shower without cracking his head open on the tile which, sadly enough, was something of an accomplishment these days, and had settled himself in the sunny corner of the bathroom to shave. As he carefully held a hand mirror with one hand and scraped a bit of stubble off the underside of his jaw with the other, a voice said, low and wistful, *I'd forgotten how young I was.*
Charles paused for a moment. Hank, Sean, and Alex were all too young to be indulging in an old man's reflections on lost youth, so this was obviously coming from outside. His power had grown quite a bit during his weeks in the hospital--well, it had had to, hadn't it, to keep out the horror of the other patients' suffering, and to keep the CIA from having them thrown into a place where the sun never shone?--so he was quite accustomed at this point to picking up thoughts from fifty miles away, or even more, in the right frame of mind. Obviously, someone's nostalgia had gotten rather strong this morning.
It didn't feel like a stray thought, though. It scarcely felt like a thought at all, but like a vibration or a pulse, or an actual voice speaking very close to his ear, so close as to be inside his head. Charles paused again and looked at himself in the mirror. He lifted the razor to his chin once more. Nothing happened.
"Ridiculous," said Charles to himself, and he filed the thought away in the corner of his mind where he kept other foolish things--the times he thought, 'Oh, best run down to get the mail,' or the still frequent occasions when he lifted his head at a sound, expecting Raven to come into the room.
Founding a school truly was not for the faint of heart. The fact that Charles was interested in establishing a private institution helped somewhat, but honestly, he didn't want "school" to be a euphemism for "homeless shelter for mutant children." He wanted it to be an actual school, one whose diploma would be good enough to get its students into university after graduation. This meant that besides renovating the house to make it more navigable for Charles, he also needed to put in classrooms and dormitories and whatever else schools generally had. He hoped to be able to provide everything a public school did, and more besides, so he also felt obliged to do a great deal of research into the state's requirements with respect to curriculum and facilities.
Despite Alex and Sean's willingness to go to university and get teaching certificates, for the time being, Charles would also need to hire some instructors. Most likely, given the small proportion of the human population who had radical mutations and even smaller percentage who considered that to be a central enough pillar of their identity to uproot their lives to come to Westchester, he'd need some human instructors. Assuming, of course, that he could find some who didn't mind working with Hank--or Charles, for that matter--and would treat mutant students with the same dignity and kindness they would treat typical human students. And wasn't that a job. Besides all sorts of therapy, the ridiculously long time it took to get bathed and dressed, and doing his best to make himself useful around the house, Charles' daily routine now included hours spent in his study, corresponding extremely carefully with former colleagues at Harvard and Oxford in hopes that they might know of a suitable candidate.
He scanned quickly through a letter from Peter Taylor, an old classmate, recommending he get in touch with a Yasuo Takiguchi--he knew the name. If he recalled correctly--and he usually did-- the man actually specialized in robotics engineering, but according to Peter, he was excellent with undergraduates. As Charles scribbled the name on a list of potential teachers, the same familiar not-voice of a few mornings ago said *Lord, Yasuo. That was so long ago.*
Charles had many failings, but inordinate stupidity was not one of them. "Excuse me," he said, both aloud and with a pulsing menace in his mind, "but would you mind explaining just who--or, may I say, what you are?"
Utter silence. Charles felt a chill of nervousness run up his spine. Despite what his mother had thought all those years ago, Charles had never had any particular doubts as to his sanity; what his nurse had seen as demon possession and his mother had feared might be schizophrenia, he had known quite well to be a sense that simply went beyond the capacities of most to comprehend. But all that mess had simply been thoughts he'd picked up and hadn't had the foresight to conceal. This was...Charles had no idea what this was.
He suspected that he was the only one affected by it. Still, driven by the same impulse that had made him pick at scabs and pimples as a boy, that evening at supper he asked, "I don't suppose that any of you are hearing...a voice?"
Alex raised a confused eyebrow in his direction and Hank frowned. Sean said, "A voice?"
Charles nodded. "Mmm. It's an older man's voice, English accent, seems given to nostalgia?" Five years ago, Charles would have wholly written off the idea of a ghost, but these days, very little seemed outside the realm of possibility.
Sean shrugged. "Uh. Don't take this the wrong way, Professor, but don't you usually hear voices? I mean, the whole telepath thing?"
Irritated, Charles was half-tempted to ask Sean why on earth he thought Charles would ask about something if it were in fact a perfectly commonplace phenomenon for him. But Alex still looked baffled, and Hank was leaning over with a thoughtfully concerned expression, and Charles really didn't need to read their minds to know that no, they hadn't heard the voice. Since the last thing he needed was for them to think their professor had lost his mind as well as his legs, Charles said, "Right, of course. Probably a stray thought, then--it's a bit disconcerting how far away I seem to be picking them up."
Alex's expression cleared, and Hank leaned back again, expounding once again on his theory as to why Charles' range was increasing so dramatically. Charles listened with half an ear. With the rest of his senses, he grew very still, carefully tracing the boundaries where his mind ended and the world around him began. If there was an intruder--in his house or in his head--Charles would be prepared.
The next morning, while Charles was getting dressed, he stared very deliberately at his legs. It had only been a few months, and with any luck the stretches and whatnot he was doing would keep the muscles from completely atrophying, but they still looked like pale, sickly, skinny things to his eyes, almost as foreign to his sight as they were estranged from his sense of touch. Charles could remember quite clearly what they had looked like in the days when he ran laps with Raven and swam back and forth in the pool in the sun. If there were anything that would trigger the wistful nostalgia of his visitor, surely what remained of his legs would do the trick.
*I'm hardly a visitor, my dear boy,* said the voice. Charles's heart tightened painfully in his chest with surprise for a moment, but it took a great deal more than a melancholy disembodied voice to shake Charles F. Xavier for long.
I suppose not, he thought, since obviously the voice was privy to the workings of his mind. After all, visitors are generally invited.
*In my defense,* the voice said, sounding amused, *I didn't know you were aware of my presence until yesterday.*
That's no defense at all, thought Charles. There was something unsettlingly familiar about the voice, something that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. State your business or leave.
There was something like a sigh, then, a sense of painfully sweet memory and a longing for things that were lost. Charles was intimately familiar with these emotions, both from within his own mind and from without, but this feeling seemed neither external nor internal to him, setting his nerves on edge. *If I could leave, I would,* said the voice. *I have no more desire to relive these days than you have to live them.*
To relive them? Several wild theories rose and burst like bubbles in the corner of Charles' mind devoted to scientific curiosity; his defenses still bristled with suspicion. Who are you? What are you?
*Good questions, both.* Then there was a weird sort of image projected in his mind. It wasn't really a mental picture--Charles was quite familiar with those--but more like the sort of pattern one saw on the inside of one's eyelids, where one could not name the colors or the shapes but had a definite sense of having seen something. It took a moment to decipher, but once Charles had got the feel of it, the image that emerged was of a man, neatly-dressed, completely bald and sitting calmly in a wheelchair. And it became abruptly, nauseatingly clear to Charles just why the voice had sounded familiar.
You're me. The thought resonated through Charles' consciousness, a kind of hesitant disbelief, the nervousness that came with touching the unfamiliar and inexplicable. How?
*I could just as easily say that you're me, couldn't I?*
A few possibilities presented themselves to Charles. One: somehow he had learned to project his consciousness back in time--a modified version of Cerebro, perhaps? Two: he had developed a secondary mutation allowing him mental communication with future and past versions of himself--dear Lord, feast yourself on that, H.G. Wells. Three: It was a trick devised by another telepath, possibly Miss Frost, although Charles really couldn't imagine what Erik and his group would gain by tricking Charles this way. Four--four--
*I'm afraid it's none of the above, Charles,* said the voice compassionately. *I hate to tell you this, but I believe my presence here is the result of a last-ditch effort on the part of my mind to preserve itself in the face of my body's destruction.*
You mean I'm dead. You're dead. We're dead. Perhaps it should have been frightening; at the moment, it simply struck him as absurd.
The voice--Older Charles, as it were--wasn't communicating with him telepathically in quite the same way that he himself could communicate with others, but Charles could still sense a warm rush of sympathy like something soft stroking his head from the inside. *I'm afraid so.*
How? Charles was beginning to feel like a scratched record. There were times, he thought, when something was so shocking to one's world that it trapped you in a long, blank moment you couldn't help but repeat. This was shaping up to be one of them.
Older Charles sighed again. *That, my dear boy, is a very long and complicated story. Suffice to say that it was the result of a number of bad decisions made by a number of people over many years--people including yourself.*
Speak for yourself, said Charles, knocked out of his stupor by an unexpected fit of pique. I'll bet you've made a lot more of those decisions than I have. And that's not much of an answer, anyway.
There was a long emptiness like silence then, long enough to make Charles think that old, dead, ghost Charles had vanished. He might have thought he'd imagined the whole thing if Older Charles hadn't finally said, *We must be very careful. What I tell you might affect the course of human history.*
Well, you're not full of yourself or anything, Charles wanted to say, but as strange as it was to think of it, he had already played a rather significant part during that whole business in Cuba, and if his plans for the school succeeded, he actually might be doing something significant for all mankind. And his mother had thought he'd never amount to anything. Ha. To Older Charles, he said, Well, you'd best tell me something good, then, if you don't want us to get stuck in a constant cycle of dying and haunting younger versions of us. Ourselves. Bugger, that's strange.
*Lift yourself up,* said Older Charles.
Charles blinked. What?
*From your chair. Lift yourself up for a moment. You've been sitting in that same position without shifting for almost half an hour. Trust me, you don't want to have to deal with pressure sores. They're most unpleasant.*
Oh, for Christ's sake. Surely you didn't come back from the dead to be my nursemaid. Still, Charles braced himself on his forearms and levered himself up from his seat for a good five seconds, setting himself back down a bit further back in the chair so as to shift the distribution of his weight. The ever-more perceptible presence in his head exuded a warm satisfaction.
Irritated, Charles said, Smug bastard and rearranged his legs just a bit. It was unsettling to think of himself as dead, his body lying lifeless in some cemetery plot in the future. He thought of asking Old Charles when he'd died, but he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to know. The voice sounded quite a bit older than Charles was at the moment, so that was something at least. The question of how he'd died was...well, surely Old Charles would have to tell him sooner or later, seeing as how they were sharing the same head. But Charles thought he might leave that question alone for a bit. It was quite a lot to think of.
*Weren't you getting dressed?* asked Old Charles. *The boys are already seated for breakfast. If you wait any longer, Hank will come in to see if there's anything the matter. And you've skipped breakfast quite often enough. It's important to keep your strength up, you know.*
Charles bristled at the condescension. Tell you what, since I'm you and you're me, let's just assume that I know this sort of thing already. I'm perfectly capable of running my own life, thank you very much.
*I was just trying to be helpful,* said Old Charles, radiating patronizing paternalism like a beacon.
Good Lord, I hope you haven't been like this with our students over the years, Charles shot back. If I want to kill you now, I can't imagine how someone with much less reason to want you alive will react.
Charles waited for almost two minutes for Old Charles to respond before giving it up and wheeling himself out to breakfast. Not only smug but mysterious, then. Fantastic.
Everyone had woken up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, it seemed. Under Hank's concern at Charles's tardiness was irritation at Charles's tardiness, and underneath both of them, his seething anger and self-loathing seemed stronger than usual. Charles would seriously have considered mentally forcing Hank to talk to a psychologist if it weren't for the poor lad's current bestial appearance. Sean had gotten another phone call the previous evening from his parents, asking if he was ever going to get a real job and why he was still staying with that fruitcake in New York. This made him defensive on Charles' behalf (very nice) but also preemptively defensive of his family, whom he imagined Charles and Hank would think were a bunch of inbred morons, though neither of them had ever said anything of the kind or even met Sean's family. And Alex...well, Charles wasn't sure if Alex ever woke up on the right side of the bed. He certainly hadn't during the tenure of his acquaintance with Charles.
How tiresome. Charles had hoped perhaps breakfast would lift his spirits, after the baffling and rather unsatisfying encounter with himself earlier.
"Hank," he asked, "I've been meaning to ask you--on the heels of our discussion the other day about my range, do you suppose that thoughts can exist independently of a physical source of those thoughts?"
"What?" Hank blinked, looking something like a sleepy and confused lion. "Well, thoughts are really electrical impulses between nerves, so, absent a physical nervous system, I don't really know how thoughts could exist."
"Yes, but no physical nerves connect me to other people's minds, and yet I can receive and interpret these impulses. This connection of brains via the amplification of the brain's electromagnetic waves--isn't that the general idea you used to design Cerebro?"
Hank frowned, and Charles relaxed inwardly. Thus far, the most effective way he had found to minimize Hank's unhappiness was to distract him from it. Any successful distraction was, if not a permanent solution for anything, at least a temporary plaster over both his and Charles's sensitive points. "Of course, but both Cerebro--and your telepathy, as far as I understand it--operate on the idea that there must be something on the other end producing electrical impulses. There has to be something there for you to read, regardless of whether it's amplified or not. I suppose those impulses could be artificially produced, given quite a bit technological advancement from where we are now, but they have to be there. " He arched an eyebrow at Charles, peering suspiciously at him over his glasses. "This is all theoretical, right?"
Charles pondered for a moment whether or not to drop a hint as to the practical ramifications of the issue. Such a conversation would probably be more trouble than it was worth, though, so he dismissed both the idea and Hank's question with a scoff. "Honestly, Hank," he said, which didn't answer the question but seemed to embarrass Hank into subsiding.
Sean looked up from his oatmeal. "Hold on," he said. "Are you guys talking about, like, thoughts without a brain?"
"Precisely," said Charles, and he took a bite of his eggs. Overcooked, but then, none of them was exactly a chef, and it wasn't as if Charles contributed any more to the household's cooking than peeling vegetables, so he was hardly in a position to judge.
"Like, just random, floating thoughts?" Sean was intrigued despite himself. "Where would they come from if no one was thinking them?"
"Outer space?" said Alex scornfully. Underneath, he thought are there really aliens what if the professor can hear them maybe he's insane that's stupid aliens but why not if mutants are real why not aliens.... Charles personally thought that Alex ought to have saved his scorn for people who didn't know about his fondness for The Twilight Zone.
"Well," said Charles carefully. "Other forms of electromagnetic radiation, such as light, can continue on after the original source is gone. For instance--since you brought up outer space, Alex, many of the stars we see no longer exist; it simply takes their light a very long time to reach us."
"Oh, yeah," said Alex. "I think I heard that somewhere."
Three miles away, Eloise Preston Dugan, age 85, breathed her last. It was painless but cold, the sudden dousing of a light--the sort of death Charles would probably not even have felt before Cuba. Nothing of Eloise Preston Dugan remained, at least on this earthly plane. He wondered, if he had applied himself to learning the shape of her mind, the pattern of her thoughts, could he have retained an impression of Mrs. Dugan in his mind that approached sentience? The closest he had come to such devoted study of another's mind had been the brief but shining moments he had thrown himself wholly into Erik's, and look how that had turned out. If Mrs. Dugan herself had been a telepath, might she have sent herself outwards, catching her soul on whatever minds were capable of receiving it?
Pointless speculation, at this particular moment anyway. Charles sipped his orange juice and returned his focus to Hank, Sean, and Alex.
Hank nodded and pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. He'd tried to adjust his previous pair to fit the new shape of his face, but Charles thought he would probably have to scrap everything but the lenses and start from scratch. "Sure," he said. "But light has a measurable speed. I'm not sure how we'd go about measuring the speed of thought. It's not like we have a large sample group of telepaths to work with."
"I rather think there are more than we know," said Charles. "I saw quite a few during those first few sessions in Cerebro. You're right, of course, that it would be quite difficult to design an experiment to test this hypothesis. Still, I don't think it's all that unreasonable to compare thought to light, or some other form of radiation. Radioactivity, perhaps. Radioactivity has a tangible results on the things and people with whom it comes into contact. Maybe thought does, too--well, tangible to those capable of perceiving such things, anyway. Psycho-material combination, if you will."
Of course, neither Sean nor Alex understood the reference, but Hank huffed in displeasure and said, "Buchanan? That's not science, Professor!"
Charles could only laugh at that. He'd certainly heard such things about some of the things he read to develop a basic theoretical understanding of his telepathy, though never by anyone who knew his own psychic abilities to be genuine. (Well. Except for some teasing by Raven.) "No, perhaps not. Although given what we have already discovered, I think the boundaries of what is considered to be science will soon expand quite rapidly."
"Ugh, why?" interrupted Sean. "It is way too early for this much science."
Charles laughed. Sean actually quite liked science; what he didn't like was Charles and Hank talking over his head at the breakfast table, which was a fair enough objection. "My apologies, Sean. I had an idea in my head and needed to get it out."
"Yeah, well, I've got an idea, too--how about you help me prepare for the Albany interview? I don't do real well with this whole public speaking thing."
"I don't know that I'd really consider a college interview to be 'public speaking,'" Hank pointed out.
Sean shrugged. "Might as well be." He pushed his chair back from the table, picked up his plate, and gave Alex an overly casual look. "You in, dude?"
For a moment, it looked as if Alex hadn't heard. He had, but he was taking a moment, as he so often did, to process his emotions, which in this case consisted of a lot of nervousness about the interview and overwhelming doubts about his ability to teach anyone, or even to be around people without causing damage. Charles rather thought that success in this area would do more to allay his fears than anything Charles could say, and Charles was willing to do quite a lot to ensure success.
Finally, Alex gave Sean a quick look over his shoulder and said, "Sure, whatever. Just let me finish my bacon."
"Oh, that's fine," said Charles. "Don't even wait for my answer before you start scheduling things for me."
He obviously hadn't succeeded at the light tone he was aiming for, because Hank, Alex, and Sean's minds were all suddenly arrested with uncertainty. Lord. If he was good for nothing else, Old Charles might have given Charles some words of advice about how to be an authority figure before scarpering off to wherever the hell ghostly voices disappeared to when they got sick of talking to their younger selves. Apparently, he was on his own. He smiled and said, "Oh, as if I weren't going to help, given that this whole college thing was my idea anyway. But you're not the only one who likes bacon, Alex. In fact...." He reached across the table to steal a piece off Alex's plate. "That'll be a one-bacon surcharge for the benefits of my wisdom."
"Benefits my ass," snorted Alex, but he was smiling. If Charles had really dedicated some attention to it, he could have imagined that it was Raven sat across from him, kicking him under the table and reading the comics page to him. But this wasn't the time to get wrapped up in the past, nor was it the time to get overly involved in a future, decades away, that might or might not come to pass. Tomorrow was enough of a challenge. And he liked to think that he was needed today.
Charles didn't know what, exactly, a dead future version of himself found to keep himself busy, but whatever it was, Old Charles didn't make a reappearance for weeks. In the meanwhile, he successfully got Alex and Sean through their interviews, engaged in rather friendly correspondence with Yasuo Takiguchi and a high school guidance counselor from Connecticut called Alicia Downing, and practiced his morning routine enough to be able to get himself bathed, shaved, and dressed in under an hour. He certainly had enough to keep himself busy without the intrusive emotions and questions that Old Charles's mysterious appearances had caused.
Therefore, Charles was rather less pleased than surprised and suspicious when, finally, that strangely familiar voice came to him as he was sketching out the beginnings of a biology curriculum. It said, *We haven't begun recruiting students yet, then.*
Is that a question, or a criticism? said Charles, who was determined not to give Old Charles the satisfaction of surrendering to his surprise. In the spirit of strict honesty, one might say that I have already recruited two students in the persons of Alex and Sean. Neither of them had any idea of going to college before we met, much less becoming teachers.
*It's simply an observation,* said Old Charles. *And you know quite well to what I was referring.*
He was silent for a long moment, long enough for Charles to wonder if he'd left again. It was a curious sensation, to know that a mind was so close to his as to be literally inside it, but not to know anything about what it contained or how it worked or what it was doing. He tried to project a sense of gentle questioning into his own mind, but he wasn't sure whether or not it worked. Surely you didn't pop in just to tell me something I already knew, did you?
*No, I didn't. As a matter of fact, I came to...offer some advice, if you will.*
As baffling and irritating as the whole matter was, Charles couldn't help feeling relieved that his future self hadn't abandoned him so quickly. Oh, so you're not worrying about changing the course of human history anymore?
*I am. But....* It was the strangest sensation, as if someone within his head was poking at him, directing his eyes towards the calendar on his desk. Charles wondered if this was how it felt when he pushed someone mentally. *I believe my presence has already altered the path of events, for better or for worse. You already know things that I did not when I was in your place, with what results I cannot say. I've taken some time to think the matter over, and I think....*
Another pause. You think what? asked Charles, feeling unaccountably frustrated. Being unable to read Old Charles's mind--which was his mind too, damn it all!--was like having an itch in his brain that he couldn't scratch.
*I think that, since I'm here and already causing changes to your time, I might as well try my best to change things for the better.*
Really? Now that they were really discussing it, Charles thought he could let himself get excited about the possibilities. The idea was like time travel, really--Charles had read the novel and seen the Rod Taylor film, and the whole notion had intrigued him. Not so much the idea of travelling into the future, although that of course would be interesting as well, but the idea of travelling back to a specific point in time to change a particular event or set of events. Could it really be done for the better, without wholly disrupting the workings of time and space?
*I'm not doing this to save our life,* said Old Charles, sounding unfairly stern about it. *In the grand scheme of things, my death is the least of the things I'd like to change.*
Speak for yourself, said Charles. Oh, wait, I guess you are.
Old Charles didn't seem to find that very amusing.
Oh, well. At any rate, if some of the mistakes leading to Old Charles's death were as grievous as his grimness seemed to imply, perhaps preventing that death might be a side benefit. What is it that you want to change? he asked.
*Small things, relatively speaking,* said Old Charles. *The best of intentions will not prevent us from doing grave harm if we try to do too much at once. But I've...overlooked...too many things in the name of the greater good over the years, and I'm not about to do it again now. If I have the chance to prevent the suffering of a child, then by God I'm not going to---*
Charles cut him off. Wait, he said, feeling as if his whole self had been sharpened like a knife to a keen edge. What child is suffering?
Instead of answering, Old Charles said, *Has Alex ever told you about his brother?*
Yes, Scott, said Charles, irritated at Old Charles's circumlocution. Is he all right? Alex had, on occasion, made brief reference to Scott, but he'd seemed to think the boy was safer with his foster parents than he was being around a brother who shot destructive rays of energy out of his gut, which was a fair point. Charles, who wasn't at all confident about his ability to be sensitive to a friend's feelings after the whole business with Erik and Raven, hadn't pushed. Maybe he ought to have.
Another strange picture was projected onto the inside of Charles's eyelids: a small boy, maybe five or six, curled up with his knees pulled close to his chest. His eyes were taped shut; tears were leaking out from under the tape and slowly dripping down the boy's cheeks. Voices like echoes scattered around: What are we going to do with him He's not safe If he did that to a wall imagine what he could do to a person Freak Freak Freak--
Charles swallowed. Worse things happened to children every day--Charles's own childhood had been nothing to write home about--but the thought that Alex's little brother sat alone, crying, afraid of the world and of himself while those around him treated him like a monster, hit him like a blow to the chest. Scott, I presume? he asked, walling his emotions away until such time as they could be of use.
*Yes.* Old Charles removed the picture from Charles's mind and replaced it with that of a young man in red-tinted spectacles. *I didn't meet him until he was sixteen. By then, his powers had ceased to come in random bursts. What he did could no longer be explained away.*
What does he do?
*He's not unlike Alex--he shoots beams of energy, but from his eyes rather than his chest. Like Alex, he's always suffered a lack of control over it; the beams come out whenever he opens his eyes. Or, rather, they did when I last saw him. He told me when he was young that they came out at unexpected times, often when he was angry or frightened.*
A small fraction of Charles's mind filed this away as useful information. Though his own power had appeared so early in life that it was difficult to connect it to any particular event, Erik's, Raven's, Alex's, and Armando's all seemed to have miraculously appeared in times of emotional distress, or times of real danger--a sort of latent evolutionary defense, triggered only when needed. The matter was worth investigating, though of course he'd need to talk to many more mutants before coming to any conclusions. The rest of Charles's mind sifted through various reasons why Scott Summers might be so angry and frightened as to shoot energy out of his eyes, and it didn't like any of the possibilities.
I suppose you--we had some good reason for leaving him in such a situation for ten years? It was unfair of Charles to be angry at his older self, he knew it, but the anger under his skin had to be directed somewhere, and it wasn't as if he could dispel it with a good run as he might have done in the past.
Old Charles's voice was damnably calm as he answered, *Because as far as Alex knew, his brother was living an idyllic suburban life, and as you well know, you've been setting up your school to educate teenagers, not six-year-olds. We had no reason to think that, even if Scott were a mutant--which, genetics being what it is, was no guarantee--he would benefit from being removed from his current foster home.*
All true enough, if still unsatisfying. Well. We'll clearly have to change all that.
*I think so,* said Old Charles, sounding just the tiniest bit unsure. *I've given the matter a great deal of thought, and...well, there is that old canard, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' and certainly Scott's past gave him a certain strength, but...*
Are you joking? I don't care if it makes the boy bloody Hercules. A memory of Erik, talking about Shaw as his 'creator,' flicked into Charles' mind. No. No. There were other ways to find strength, and to knowingly let a child suffer to make him 'stronger' was horrifying. Nothing Kurt had ever done had made Cain stronger, just angrier, and if Charles had gotten better at psychically manipulating people, well, that was certainly a power that was at times more of a headache than it was worth. If Charles could have gone back in time to spare Erik even a moment of pain, he would have done it. He couldn't do it for Erik, but he could do it for Scott. No. Scott's coming here. We can send him to a local school, for now anyway, but he's coming to live in this house.
*Excellent,* said Old Charles, regaining whatever certainty he had lost earlier. *Of course, the first step will be to talk to Alex. I don't think you'll need me for that part, will you? I haven't spoken to the man in years, so I wouldn't be much help.*
Wait, what? asked Charles. Why haven't you spoken to Alex in years? Is it to do with Scott?
There was no answer. Charles tried again, more 'loudly' in a psychical sense. From somewhere upstairs, Sean yelled, "Hey, you okay, Professor?"
Charles sighed. Evidently, Old Charles seemed to think he'd done his part for the day and taken his leave. Christ, Charles was really going to have to take a good hard look at his life, if he was this annoying as an old man. I'm fine, he told Sean, and to Alex, he said, Alex, could you come here for a moment?
Confusion and concern rose like a sickly haze around the edges of Alex's mind, but he said, clear as day,Sure. He was a great deal better at projecting thoughts than he thought he was.
He appeared in Charles's study a minute later, his expression an exercise in casual disinterest. "What's up?" he asked.
Charles wheeled himself around the desk. Alex, almost unthinking, sat in the old leather armchair on the other side of the desk, so as not to loom over Charles's head. Charles didn't know whether to be irked or touched at the consideration; he decided on ignoring it altogether. "Alex," he said. "This is an issue of rather a personal nature; do you mind?"
Charles received, in quick succession, a mental image of Alex helping Charles use the bathroom last month, Alex trying to get Charles into a pair of trousers without actually looking at him, and Alex sitting through an excruciating conversation with Hank and Sean about sexual function for paraplegics, on the off-chance that Charles should ask about it. How thoughtful. Visibly bracing himself, Alex said, "No problem."
A laugh bubbled up, against Charles's will, and it came out like a kind of high-pitched croak. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean personal for me. I meant personal for you. I'd actually like to talk about your brother."
Alex's expression turned instantly defensive, his mind suddenly like a spiky fortress. "What about him?" It was hardly a question that invited an answer.
Charles pondered laying a calming hand on Alex's shoulder or something, but ultimately he decided against it. He certainly wasn't trying to hit on Alex, which was generally the impression people got whenever he tried making physical contact, for reasons as of yet mysterious and unknown. "Only, when was the last time you spoke to him?"
Even as Alex leaned forward to say roughly, "Three years ago," Charles could see how it had been, a younger Alex trying to explain to Scott, still practically a toddler, why he couldn't stay with Alex, that leaving Scott at the home didn't mean Alex didn't love him.
Charles couldn't help his sympathy, but he pressed it down, under and away from the edges where his mind sometimes leaked into others'. If Alex felt it, experience said he would take it as pity, which would not be appreciated. He said, trying for a calm but not overly cool or distant tone, "So, you haven't had recent information from him?"
Alex's head shot up, his expression vaguely betrayed. "I couldn't," was all he said, while underneath was a rushing current of thoughts that could be summed up: I wanted to, but I didn't want to mess up his life. It wasn't my fault. It doesn't mean I don't love him. It was all my fault. How can you ask me this?
"Of course," said Charles softly. "I only ask because I have reason to believe that he might be better off here than in his current foster care situation."
"The hell are you talking about?" His voice was harsh with worry. "What reason? He's in fucking Nebraska, there's no way you could have picked anything up telepathically." The last was almost a question--which was fair enough, given how much Charles's range had expanded in the last few months.
"No," said Charles. "I...someone told me."
"Who?" Alex stood up, looking about ready to blast Charles through the wall if he didn't like the answer. "Have you been asking about him? If he's hurt--if you fucked things up with his foster parents--"
"Nothing like that," Charles said before Alex could finish the threat. "It's...." He hesitated. He had several options. First, he could psychically calm Alex down, make him forget the last few moments, and then try beginning the conversation again. Perhaps he'd do a better job the next time around. Second, he could come up with a lie and persuade Alex that it was true--hell, he could explain the situation in truth and use a touch of power to persuade Alex that it was true. Honestly, though, he didn't really like any of those options. Trust was such a fragile and precious commodity, and Alex had been very good to him; Charles hardly wanted to squander his friendship now. So really, his variety of options boiled down to one: tell the truth, and let the chips fall where they might. "This is going to sound a bit strange," he began.
Alex clenched his fists. "What is?"
"There's a voice in my head, and it's me from the future. Apparently I know Scott then--he's a mutant like you, and he's having a rough time of it."
There was a long silence in which Alex blinked slowly at Charles, his fists slowly unclenching and his mind too stunned to form a coherent thought. "What?"
Charles sighed. "I told you, it's very strange. Apparently, some years in the future, I'm going to die--well, obviously, everyone dies, but what I mean to say is that, when I die, I'm going to--send my mind back in time or something, because right now, this me from the future is hanging about in my head offering me advice. And before you say I'm insane--" (Because a thought of that sort was beginning to spread throughout Alex's mind) "--Do consider that many of the things you and I have seen or done would have been considered science fiction forty years ago. There is absolutely no reason, according to the laws of physics as they are currently understood, that you should be able to create and project energy the way that you do. Our comprehension of the science behind my telepathy is extremely limited, and at this point I'd be very hesitant to rule out anything as impossible."
Disbelief warred with giddy amazement in Alex's mind until both collapsed into acceptance, and Alex himself collapsed back into his chair. "Damn," he said, resting his chin on his hands. True to character, he didn't stay dazed for long; after a few moments, his confused emotions had hardened into a sharp, focused point. "So, wait, future you told you--what kind of rough time? Where is Scott, is he okay?"
"I had no direct psychic contact with Scott, so I only know what my future self told and showed me. According to him, Scott's fine, physically, but...well, perhaps I'd better show you." Charles gathered up the memory of the image Old Charles had given him and pushed it into Alex's head. It was only when tears began to run down the boy's face that Charles thought maybe he ought to have asked his permission.
Alex hid his face in his hands and moaned, "Oh, God," and Charles thought that even a non-telepath could have felt the self-recrimination radiating from him.
"Don't," he said, perhaps a bit more sharply than necessary in an effort to get his point across. "No part of this is your fault. We'll go to that home in Nebraska, and we'll take Scott from those people and bring him here, and everything will be fine."
"But his eyes," said Alex in anguished tones. He looked up, and his own eyes were wet and bloodshot.
It was a pickle, for certain--if Charles had understood his older self correctly, Scott's energy blasts were intermittent now but would become constant later (and Lord, where did he get all that energy?). Thus far they had managed to focus Alex's blasts, but not to disperse them harmlessly, and since the plates Hank had devised weren't transparent and thus couldn't be modified for use as glasses, Charles wasn't sure how they'd even be able to contain Scott's ability. But he honestly didn't think hopeless realism would do anyone any good at this point, so he said firmly, "Hank will figure something out. And you know, the rest of us aren't exactly slouches intellectually, either."
Alex snorted. "You mean you aren't."
That was, actually, what Charles had meant, although he hoped not in a disparaging way. Sean and Alex were hardly idiots, and they'd already proven themselves to be very helpful when it came to carrying out some of Charles and Hank's more hands-on ideas. Alex in particular would have to be an active participant in any effort to help Scott harness his ability, so Charles said, "Alex, we can't possibly find a way for Scott to control these energy blasts without your assistance. As far as I can tell, you two may be the only people on the face of the earth who can do this sort of thing, and we'll need your experience--your ideas--to set up experiments so they might actually be useful to Scott."
Alex swallowed wetly and scrubbed tears from his face. "Yeah, okay, you need a test subject. Whatever. Let's get Scott out of there."
"Agreed," said Charles firmly. "I actually do know somebody in the Children's Bureau in New York. She can help us get in contact with the right people in Nebraska to gain at least temporary custody of Scott." ('Know' was maybe an overstatement, as Charles hadn't talked to Dolores Kempe since he was twelve years old, but she'd probably help him nonetheless. She'd had a soft spot for Charles and Raven back in the day.)
There was a brief flicker of curiosity in Alex's mind as to who Charles knew in the Children's Bureau and how, but it was quickly smothered by a more pressing question. "So, we'd get you to be Scott's foster father, then? Would you adopt him?"
This seemed like dangerous emotional territory to Charles. One thing he'd never quite been able to explain to Raven was that sometimes the knowledge of someone's entire past, their hopes and their desires and their mundane quotidian thoughts, wasn't enough to know what answer they truly wanted when they asked a question. "I don't know," said Charles carefully. "I probably could, if we felt it was necessary. You might have an easier time of it, given your relationship to Scott."
Alex started shaking his head before Charles had even finished his sentence. "No. No way," he said. "That's not a good idea." Under the smooth surface layer of calm Alex had managed to reclaim, hurt and anger and uncertainty festered like old, unhealed wounds. It hurt Charles to share the feelings, and he carefully separated himself from them with layers of white noise. He concentrated on the steady in and out of his breath as Alex said, "Maybe you better--look, you're a rich college professor who lives in a castle, I'm a dropout with a criminal record. You and me both know how that's gonna look. Plus, Scott probably hates me, and I don't blame him. I wouldn't have a lot of time for a big brother who ditched me, either. I can help you with your experiments, but...I could go stay in the city while you go get him. And then I can go off to college--if I get in--and we can...." Alex trailed off, obviously unable to think of a way to help Charles run the school while simultaneously never allowing his brother to lay eyes on him again.
Charles knew what it was like to blame oneself, both for those things that were his own fault and those that were not. Raven had often jollied him out of a self-hating (or perhaps self-pitying) mood, but as Raven never seemed to blame herself for much despite her insecurity, Charles had very little experience being on the other side of the equation. "Alex," he said finally, "I was utterly incompetent at dealing with six-year-olds when I was a six-year-old, and your brother doesn't know me from Adam."
"Since when has that stopped you?" asked Alex. His tone was biting, but the tight line of his mouth had softened, an almost-imperceptible relaxation that Charles would have missed had he not been looking for it.
It was true. Charles never really had minded strangers--given his talents, no one really remained a stranger for long. But it was easy to tell people about drink orders and genetics and why Gideon vs. Wainwright was such a revolutionary ruling. It was very difficult to tell people that you wanted a perfect world for them but that you also wanted to protect them in this one, or that you cared about them but didn't understand them at all. Children needed more than biology lectures and some cheery ass blithering "Well done!" at them. Charles wasn't sure what it was that they did need, but he knew that much.
"Listen," he said, trying a new tactic. "I really need your help. You know of course I'm willing to take care of Scott, but I'm really not doing an excellent job taking care of myself at the moment. I know I sometimes get a bit...stubborn about accepting help--" Right, stubborn, thought Alex with a snort. "--but honestly, I can't take care of a six-year-old on my own. I know Sean's got younger siblings as well, but Scott doesn't know Sean, either. We need you. Please."
Alex teetered for a moment between discomfort at the idea of someone relying on him (and the reminder of Charles's own vulnerability) and a kind of warm, pleased, affectionate sensation. Being Alex, he quickly caught his mental balance and landed, as usual, at amused disdain. "Whatever," he said. "I already said I was gonna stick around."
"Thanks," said Charles, trying not to be too effusive. People tended to find him a little creepy when he was overly grateful.
They sat in awkward but not wholly unpleasant silence for a long moment, Charles squirming in his chair a bit at the soreness in his back and Alex tapping his fingers on his leg, unable to meet Charles's eyes. After a moment, the dark clouds of his thoughts coalesced into a question, so it wasn't actually surprising when he said, "So. You can hear some dead ghost you from the future?"
After the emotional upheaval of the last few minutes, all his initial skepticism seemed to have been wiped away. Charles drudged up a smile. "Yes. I can."
Alex shook his head, but less in disbelief than in wry acceptance of how strange his life was. "Hank's gonna have kittens."
And Charles would never have a free moment to himself ever again. Or at least until they found a new project for Hank to fix his considerable focus on. "Well, probably," he said, trying to put a positive spin on it, "but it's all in the interests of scientific advancement, I suppose."
"Yeah, have fun being Bozo's guinea pig," said Alex. "At least it'll distract him from me for a while." Charles should have chided Alex for mocking Hank, but it was more reflexive than malicious; the actual tenor of Alex's thoughts stretched in a more inquisitive direction. "What's it like?" he said after a moment of silent thought. "Having another you in your head? I mean, what do you talk about? Are you totally on the same wave-length all the time, or...." He trailed off with a shrug.
"Oh, no," said Charles. "He's a rather annoying bastard, actually. All cryptic advice and popping off to God knows where whenever you have a question."
Alex smirked a bit. "No offense, Professor, but that's not that surprising."
"Oh, I hardly think I'm in the habit of dashing off when you fellows need me." Neither of them really needed to say that 'dashing off' required more mobility and spontaneity than Charles actually had these days.
The mocking lines of Alex's face hardened into something more serious, and he said, "No. You're not." A ghostly memory, buried like a lump of coal, said, We can avenge him, and a remembered, now disdained version of Alex burned in admiration, yearning desperately for whatever hidden machinery drove Erik Lehnsherr. Out loud, Alex said, "So, when does it happen? You dying, I mean. We'll stop it."
There was something very touching about Alex's determination. "Oh, not for a long while, I shouldn't think. He sounds a great deal older than me. For all I know, I'm going to die quietly in my sleep."
It wasn't true, of course, but it seemed to calm Alex a bit. "So, what happens in the future? With the school and mutants and everything? Does it all turn out okay?"
His first instinct was to tell Alex that yes, it all turned out all right, that their school flourished, and mutants achieved some sort of legally protected status and in the end, Erik and Raven came back. (Although that last was probably more Charles's idea of a happy ending than Alex's.) But he couldn't do it. He didn't have it in him to feign an optimism he just didn't feel. He had no idea what the future held for him, for any of them, save that whatever it was probably wouldn't be easy. "I don't know," he said at last. "I suppose we'll all find out."
It wasn't until late, late at night, after Charles had explained the situations both with Scott and with Old Charles to Hank and Sean, had an extremely awkward but ultimately productive conversation with Dolores, and worked out some of the day's emotional tensions on the weight machines in the exercise room, that Old Charles returned like smoke under a doorway, his voice a distant whisper: *Good job.*
Charles paused, partway through the onerous task of wrestling himself into his pajama pants. Thanks. That means a lot, coming from someone who was no help whatsoever.
Around the county, people were falling asleep, the conscious drive of their thoughts growing distracted and dreamy. A few were enjoying rather more active pleasures in the bedroom, a few were enduring a sleepless night for one reason or another, but the overall tone of the thoughts was calm and contented enough that Old Charles's jagged regrets stuck out like a splinter in a smooth wooden desk. *I'm sorry,* he said. *I know how difficult that sort of personal conversation is for you.*
And who would know better? I suppose you had some terribly good reason for leaving me, then.
*Honestly, I think you did better on your own than you would have done with my assistance. As I've mentioned...Alex and I really haven't talked in years.*
It really didn't surprise Charles that somewhere down the line he managed to fuck up his friendship with Alex. He considered himself lucky he hadn't done it that very afternoon. So instead of asking how he'd managed to estrange himself from Alex and what he could do in the future to avoid it, he said, Fine, whatever you say. All's well that ends well and all that. But, given that you and Alex are the only ones who've ever met Scott, I certainly hope you'll be willing to help us with him. Or isn't he talking to you either?
Old Charles fell into a mournful silence again before saying, *Of course I'll help. Scott and I were very close.*
Charles considered asking why he'd said "were" instead of "are," but decided it probably wasn't worth the effort. Excellent, he said. While I'm on the subject of Scott, do we help the boy control his power at some point? I certainly don't want to keep the boy's eyes taped shut, but it's going to be difficult for all of us to live here if he blasts the place to smithereens.
*Ah,* said Old Charles, sounding as professorial as Charles had ever heard him. *As you've witnessed with Alex, it's a difficult ability to control consciously. I believe in both cases the problem lies not with the brain, which has in fact developed strategies for keeping the blasts in check, but in the body, which has yet to develop the more specialized organs needed for more fine control. Where the body lacks, technology must step in--you'll find that ruby quartz, properly shaped, can prove both transparent and able to absorb Scott's blasts. In fact, later we're able to build a visor allowing him to shoot blasts of various strengths--very useful in combat situations.*
Combat situations. Really. Charles had a sneaking suspicion Old Charles wasn't simply talking about the Army. I see, he said.
*But to be honest, I'm not sure whether technology has yet advanced to that point. I know Hank's a genius, but he's certainly not the only one having revolutionary ideas around this time, and I wouldn't want to rob anyone else of their achievements by giving you technological breakthroughs before they're meant to be discovered.*
Of course not, said Charles, who was beginning to get a headache from all this. There was a flask of bourbon in his desk drawer for just such situations, but he felt oddly self-conscious about drinking from it with Old Charles still hanging about.
*I've probably interfered with scientific progress enough for one day,* Old Charles mused. *It's difficult to say what Hank will make of the knowledge that psychic energy can be sent back in time. His focus for the near future might be you and the telepathic energy, but the man's a genius--the implications for time travel are going to catch his attention sooner or later.*
Charles was a man of science, true enough, but having already rhapsodized about the theoretical possibilities for three fucking hours with Hank, and that on top of his headache, he was in no frame of mind to sit through Old Charles's lectures for much longer. So, when you're not talking to me, do you just sit in my head and eavesdrop on all my conversations?
*Well, it's not as if I have much else to do,* said Old Charles, sounding vaguely piqued at the subject change. *Try as I might, I seem to have no access to my telepathy in this form.*
Charles tried to imagine such a thing and failed. Lord, that would be a far greater loss than that of his legs. It was with all the sympathy he could muster that he said, I'm sorry. I suppose--without your physical body--
*Yes, yes,* Old Charles interrupted testily. *And I suppose I should consider myself lucky that get the sort of second-hand version of it from you that I do.*
How does that work, exactly?
*I suppose it's like the difference between watching Richard III on stage and watching Laurence Olivier playing it in the films. It's not at all the same.* He sent Charles another of his funny afterimage-impressions, of weird overheard thoughts and feelings, like a thick pane of glass between Old Charles and the world. Of course, in this case, the glass was actually Charles.
I suppose if you don't like it, you could always go to the afterlife. I'm certainly not keeping you here.
That seemed to jolt Old Charles out of his sour grapes. *I beg your pardon,* he said. *I don't mean to complain.*
Of course he did, which wasn't to say that Charles blamed him. I'd complain, too, he said, feeling guilty for his snide remark.
*Believe me, if I knew some way out of your head, I'd take it, and damn the consequences. I've the most terrible fear that I'll do more harm than good, telling you what's to come.*
Bit late to regret it now, seeing as how I'm about to become the proud foster father of a six-year old who shoots energy beams out of his eyes, Charles pointed out. So come on. What else? Any other children who need rescuing, wrongs that need righting, that sort of thing?
Resigned amusement flooded Charles's mind. *I'll see what I can do.*
Scott reminded Charles so much of Raven that it hurt. Not in any of the superficial ways, of course--Scott being a boy, and perfectly average-looking, and younger than Raven had been when Charles met her. But with the fear that lurked under even his happiest moods, and his painful gratitude for kindness of any sort, and in the wondrous potential that had been so stifled by the fear of those around him, Scott tore off all the scabs that had grown around the places in Charles's heart where Raven still dwelled, making them bleed anew.
Charles would probably never know what it felt like to be a father, but by God, he did know what it was like to be willing to do anything to protect someone. The moment he saw Scott realize that it wasn't a trick, that his brother really had come to take him away from this couple who hated him and called him a monster--the moment he saw the boy's skinny arms wrap around Alex's neck and his mouth tremble with disbelieving, tearful joy, Charles promised himself that he would do right by Scott. He'd learn from the business with Raven and Erik. He'd do better.
If past events had taught him anything, it was that excessive optimism did no one any good in the end, but thus far, Scott seemed to like him well enough, and Charles liked Scott well enough, too. He was a bit like Charles himself had been as a child, in that despite the hardships he'd endured, he seemed to believe that if he followed the rules laid out for him carefully enough, everything would be all right. Charles wasn't sure whether it would be kinder to disabuse him of this notion or allow the world to disillusion him--but after all, he didn't have to make that decision by himself. There was something quite reassuring about having Alex, Hank, Sean, and even Old Charles to consult with about these things.
Scott's arrival, though, had brought with it a number of questions about matters other than Scott himself. Charles's initial plan to send the boy to a local school had been rather stymied by a trio of discoveries: first, that it really wasn't so easy to fashion a pair of glasses out of ruby quartz, second, that Scott's power tended to show itself at extremely random moments, particularly when he was under emotional stress, and third, that Alex had retrieved the protective fraternal instincts he'd long thought lost and was determined to keep Scott from anything that might cause him the least bit of fear or pain. (Admirable, of course, but rather inconvenient considering how intimidating Scott found the idea of going to school.)
Charles found himself at a bit of a loss. He really had intended the school to be a high school, given that he knew next to nothing about elementary school education and, while he liked children well enough, the feeling was usually not mutual. Now, however, he frequently found himself taking time he would ordinarily have been devoting to curriculum design and finding instructors and instead reading James and the Giant Peach to Scott or playing what he supposed could have been termed "family" games of Monopoly. It concerned him a bit that he was losing his momentum when it came to getting his school off the ground; it concerned him even more that he couldn't muster more than "a bit" of concern.
*I wouldn't worry about it too much,* said Old Charles as Charles carefully stretched out his legs in the gym. *It's perfectly natural for a new father to want to spend more time with his family than his work.*
Have you lost your marbles? asked Charles, irritated. He hated it when Old Charles popped out of nowhere like that--it was very much like having someone sneak up on him, an experience which Charles had only ever really known through other people, he himself being rather difficult to sneak up on. Scott's not my son.
He got the distinct impression of some sort of injured feeling from Old Charles, who said, *Well. He's as close to it as you're ever likely to have.*
It wasn't as if Charles hadn't told himself, a thousand times, about the relative unlikelihood of his ever having a family of his own, other than Raven (ha bloody ha). It shouldn't have hurt any more coming from someone who was, effectively, also himself. It did, though.
Before he could retort, Old Charles said, *I apologize. I'm afraid I've been taking everything to do with Scott rather more personally than I ought.*
You've a funny way of showing it, said Charles. Old Charles rarely spoke to him in the presence of other people, but Charles was fairly certain he'd never spoken at all when Charles was with Scott.
*To be honest, dear boy,* said Old Charles, *when you're with Scott, I tend to wish you out of existence and pretend I'm the one reading to him or giving him wheelchair rides or what have you. It's such a strange thing, to be jealous of yourself.*
Charles had been wished out of existence before, and probably more often by himself than by anyone else, except perhaps his mother, so he didn't take it personally. Instead, he asked, Why? Have you been quarrelling with Scott in the future? That was actually rather sad. The old man was clearly very fond of Scott, and Charles found himself hoping rather fervently that he--that they--hadn't died before reconciling.
He heartily regretted even asking when his question was met by another of Old Charles's long silences. It's a sad, sad man, Charles Xavier, he said to himself, who can't hold a conversation without antagonizing even himself.
Eventually, though, Old Charles said, *It's not that. Scott was already dead when I died.*
He what?! Charles pulled out of his stretch a bit too fast and strained something in his back, but the pain felt distant, unimportant. How
Old Charles didn't wait so long before saying, albeit reluctantly, *He was killed by the same person who killed me.* Before Charles could work up a healthy cloud of anger and demand details so that they could prevent both deaths, Old Charles said hurriedly, *Please. Anger won't do anyone any good. And if you try to kill this person, I guarantee you will regret it.*
Something in Old Charles's voice made Charles uncomfortable--was it a bit of affection? For his killer? It seemed absurd, but then, Charles knew as well as anyone and better than most that emotions made no sense whatsoever sometimes. Just then, a terrible notion occurred to him. His mind trembled away from it--it was like touching a wound--but finally he managed to trace its shape in his thoughts. Was it Erik? he asked, a part of his mind escaping from the back to check in with the boys and listen to Westchester County gossip for miles in every direction. Anything but hear a "yes." Or... and this one hurt even more. Or Raven?
Old Charles sighed. *No,* he said. *Though I think I should warn you, both of them will try to kill you, as well.*
Charles felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. Oh, he said, unable to formulate a thought any more coherent than that.
Downstairs, the boys felt it, too. In whatever corner of his brain Old Charles was squatting in, he said, *Oh, dear. Perhaps I shouldn't have said that.*
Charles understood well enough that, underneath the surface layer of charm he'd managed to pick up by watching people, he wasn't very likeable. He presumed too much based on what he saw in people's minds, only to realize that those same thoughts and fears and wants changed when someone presented them in physical actuality. His speech was simultaneously too practiced, which sounded false, no matter how he tried to make it sound spontaneous, and too clumsy, which meant he was constantly sticking his foot in his mouth. But there was something really dreadful about knowing that he was such a failure at intimacy that even the two people he held dearest and closest to his heart would eventually wish him dead. Other people managed love so easily--why was it so beyond the grasp of Charles, who worked so very hard at it?
*It was never personal,* said Old Charles. He sounded quite worried, which was a change. *I really believe that. It was to do with politics. Erik especially is quite stubborn when it comes to mutant-human relationships--I don't know that it was ever about me. Us, I mean.*
Right, said Charles. He hit his left leg hard enough to bruise. He didn't feel it downstairs, of course, but the impact of flesh against his fist was pretty satisfying. My sister and the man I--my best friend try to kill me, you say, but it's not personal. Truly, your wisdom is astounding.
He was so distracted that he must have missed Sean's approach, because it came as a complete surprise when he pushed open the door and said, "Hey. What's wrong, Professor?"
"What's wrong," not "Are you all right?" He must have done a worse job at shielding his emotions than he'd thought.
"Nothing," said Charles, picturing his hurt and boxing it away, walling it behind a barrier between Sean and himself. "Nothing's wrong. I'm fine." Although apparently, I'm not so fine that I can convince people I love not to try to kill me.
Sean raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Sure. And that whole, like, huge pile of feeling horrible just came out of nowhere?"
Some bloody adult figure he made. Charles felt very small at the moment, still in his sweaty tee-shirt and loose exercise pants, sitting on the floor, his useless legs spread out in front of him. "I'm sorry," he said. "Got a bit of unpleasant news from Old Me."
"Can we do anything to stop it?" asked Sean. "I mean, that's got to be the upside of having a dead version of you hanging around, right? So we can change the future and stuff?"
*I don't wish to be the bearer of bad news,* said Old Charles, *but I've been pondering this same question for years, and I don't know that there's anything to do that I haven't already done. The real difficulty with Erik and Raven, you see, and maintaining a...a friendship with them, is that it's always got to be on their terms.*
If their terms include killing me, I'm not sure what kind of friendship we're discussing, said Charles tersely. Out loud, he said, "Old Charles doesn't have any suggestions. Maybe you've got some ideas, Sean. If you knew that someone was going to try to kill you, what would you do?"
*Really, Charles, neither Raven nor Erik actually succeeds----*
"Whoa," said Sean, taken aback. "Someone's going to try to kill you?"
*It isn't for years--, Charles, a great many things happen between now and then--*
"In the future," said Charles. He shrugged, but Sean's reaction told him that it had come off more angry than casual.
"Wow," said Sean. His face had gone sickly white under his freckles. "Well...I guess we could try to kill them first?" Under his fear for Charles, Sean really was unsettled by the idea of deliberately trying to kill someone. He still had bad dreams about Cuba.
If it would stop Charles from getting killed, though, he'd give it a try, and that thought was enough to stem some of Charles's anger and sorrow. He couldn't be so bad at intimacy, could he? He cared about Sean and Alex and Hank and Scott, and they seemed to care about him as well. "I don't think that's a good idea," he said. Future homicide attempts aside, the thought of actively trying to hurt either Erik or Raven made him sick to his stomach.
*That's the first clever thing you've said this entire conversation,* grumbled Old Charles.
Charles continued to ignore him.
"Okay." Sean nodded, relieved. "So...if Old Charles knows where you are when they're going to try to kill you, you could be someplace else." He frowned. "Well. But maybe they'd find you there, if they really wanted to kill you. Ergh." Charles wasn't in a laughing mood, but if he had been, he might have chuckled at the way Sean twisted his mouth, half thoughtfulness and half discomfort. "Do you know why they're going to try to kill you?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to say, "They disagree with me about mutant-human relations." But perhaps that would have been too big of a clue as to the killers' identities. The boys had been shaken enough at losing Raven and Erik. They had their own anger and sense of betrayal and guilt for things done and undone. Charles didn't see how the knowledge that Erik and Raven would later reappear in their lives to try and kill him would help anyone. Instead, he said, "It's to do with the mutant thing," which was both true and, hopefully, sufficiently vague.
"Ugh, seriously?" asked Sean, distressed. "Is it the CIA? I thought you wiped out all their information on us."
And so he had, having determined through Moira's mind just who needed to have his memory erased and who needed his memory slightly altered and what files needed to be destroyed. Supposing he'd done a good enough job at it, that was. He liked to think that he had, though he regretted having had to use Moira to do it.
"No," he said. "It isn't the CIA." What are they up to in the future? he asked Old Charles. I would imagine that, however many years in the future you're from, the issue of mutants in America will have raised its head again at least once.
*That, I'm afraid, is a rather longer conversation than I'd prefer to have in front of Sean,* Old Charles replied.
"Huh," said Sean, and Charles redirected his attention. "Well, maybe you could get a bodyguard."
It was on the tip of Charles's tongue to say that he could take care of himself, but obviously that wasn't true--it hadn't been in Cuba, what with that wretched helmet of Shaw's and Erik's, and it certainly wasn't now. Instead, he said, "I don't know what sort of bodyguards I could get who'd be better than the friends I've got now."
He hadn't really meant it as flattery; whatever Sean, Alex, and Hank lacked in security know-how, they made up for in their knowledge of the mansion and its secrets and their acceptance of his telepathy. It made Sean flush from within with warm pleasure, though, and he said, "Well, obviously, nobody's getting through us. But what about when Alex and me go to college in the fall?" Both of them were going to the Teachers College at Columbia, which was quite close, but, what with city driving and all, still too inconvenient for the boys to commute every day. They'd be staying at the dormitories and driving back to Westchester on the weekends.
"I know it seems unlikely," said Charles, "but I suppose there's always the possibility I could make more friends."
A strange expression crossed Sean's face and a strange, sour feeling, God that's sad and He's so lonely crossed his mind. "I know we're all about secrecy and all," he said, "but maybe you should get back to trying to recruit teachers. If anybody's gonna understand the whole mutation thing, it's gonna be a science teacher, right?" He shrugged, suddenly awkward. "I mean, not that science teachers are usually all that good in a fight--though you were really good in Cuba--but, you know, the more friends the better, right?"
Charles took pity on Sean, who was getting quite flustered, and said, "You're right, Sean." He stretched his arms above his head and said, "Oh, my. I've rather fallen down on the job here. I'm supposed to do at least ten more toe-touches."
Grateful for the opportunity to leave and recollect his composure, Sean nodded eagerly and said, "Right, sure. I'll get out of your way. Just wanted to check on you, is all."
He left, and moments later Charles could feel the twin spikes of outrage and fear from Alex and Hank as Sean explained what Charles had told him. They didn't come in, though, and he was left with Old Charles. Which was just as well--his conversation with Sean had given him the barest hint of an idea.
So, he said to Old Charles, the CIA? The FBI? Congress? Do tell. What's the 'mutant issue' looking like in the future?
*Your exercises,* Old Charles objected, and Charles reached for his toes.
There. I can exercise and listen at the same time. Go on.
With a sigh, Old Charles gave a brief rundown of the status of mutants vis-a-vis the government: experimentation, the Mutant Registration Act, the Cure, but always, always anonymity, meeting in the shadows and taking on pseudonyms and discussed as something fearful on the news. It reminded Charles rather sharply of other sorts of groups he'd known who met in secret--not being a Communist, he'd only been to a few Mattachine Society meetings, but those few meetings had left rather an impression on him.
He organized his thoughts, which were starting to stray in a number of irrelevant directions, and said to Old Charles, So, what you're telling me is that the general public is primarily aware of mutants because of the damage they inadvertently or deliberately cause, and that there are very few people in positions of visibility who are willing to admit to being a mutant. I myself won't even admit to it. Or rather, you won't.
*Don't be a fool,* said Old Charles. *You know as well as I do that a higher profile would affect not only us but our students. Many of our students conceal their mutant ability from their parents for fear of being disowned--they're only allowed to come to the school because it's not openly advertised as a mutant establishment.*
Right, you recruit for it as if it were a secret club¸ said Charles. Perhaps it was hypocritical of him, given that he had intended to recruit the first class of students in just such a fashion, but the lack of progress mutants had made in Old Charles's lifetime struck him as incredibly demoralizing.
*So what do you want to do about it?* Old Charles demanded. *You're sounding rather like Mystique, putting abstract concepts like 'mutant pride' above the physical safety of our people's children.*
Mystique? asked Charles, rather more confused than upset by Old Charles's accusation. Who the bloody hell is that?
*Raven. She won't answer to that name any more, by the way--only 'Mystique.'*
Wait, in your time or in my time?
The question seemed to give Old Charles pause. *To be honest, I've had so little contact with her over the years that I'm not sure when she decided to wholly cast off the name of Raven Xavier and go exclusively by Mystique.*
Split infinitive, Charles pointed out pedantically. Before Old Charles could object to the taste of his own medicine, he continued. Irrelevant, he said, running the substance of Old Charles's accusation through his mind again for both of their benefits. You speak as if the abstract acceptance of--of mutanthood in society at large is completely separate from the physical safety of mutant children. It's not. So long as the only people willing to admit to being mutants are extremists and terrorists, of course the general public's not going to think much of mutants.
*One can campaign for mutant tolerance without painting a target on one's back,* said Old Charles. *You've thought of this yourself--reveal the existence of extreme mutations and your own status to a few carefully-chosen people, teachers at the school, who can be trusted to be discreet. That way you can gradually create a segment of the population who understand and accept mutants without putting the people under your protection at risk.*
Well, that's obviously not working quickly enough, said Charles, thinking about what Old Charles had told him about the rise of Senator Robert Kelly.
He felt the heat of Old Charles's anger the way he felt all of his future self's emotions, as a curious neither fish-nor-fowl sensation that seemed to come from just outside the bounds of his mind and body. *Who are you to disparage what our human allies have accomplished?* said Old Charles. *Both President McKenna and President Waterman were sympathetic to the mutant cause. You think the Mutant Registration Act was the only anti-mutant act that was ever proposed? It wasn't--dozens of others were smacked down by perfectly human congressmen who believed that mutants were as deserving of human rights as any other American citizens. And Moira, God, the advances she's made in the field of mutant medicine--*
Wait, wait, said Charles, again feeling rather at sea. Are we talking about the same Moira? Moira MacTaggert?
Old Charles calmed a bit. *Yes. And it's quite a testament to her character, given some of the actions she's witnessed on the part of mutants, that she was still willing to reconnect with me back...oh, I suppose it was in the eighties.*
Apparently Charles lived at least until the eighties--that was good to know. Did you restore her memories, or....? Honestly, Charles couldn't imagine why Moira would ever seek him out even if her memories were restored to her, unless it was to shoot him again or something.
*No,* said Old Charles, his voice full of...pride? Admiration? It was difficult to tell. *She largely restored them by herself over the years, bit by bit--hypnotherapy and that sort of thing. And thank God she did.*
And...and she wasn't angry? asked Charles tentatively. Moira was wonderful, a great friend and a competent CIA agent, and she'd probably be a great help in figuring out how to reveal the existence of mutants in a positive light, but the fact of the matter was that she had no reason whatsoever to trust him. He certainly wouldn't trust him if he were in her shoes.
*Oh, she was furious,* said Old Charles cheerfully. *I think it took about a decade after we began talking again for her to forgive me.*
Fabulous. But evidently she did forgive him in the end--and maybe, if he gave the memories back himself rather than making her find them over decades of what was probably very costly therapy, she might be more kindly disposed towards him. Old Charles, he asked, do you suppose if I tracked her down this minute, we might speed up the whole 'forgiveness' process?
Old Charles exuded a kind of baffled consternation. *Do you know,* he said, *I don't remember being like this when I was your age. You're awfully...impatient, aren't you?*
Charles gave the matter some serious thought, and came to a few conclusions: first, that without Scott around, he'd be much more depressed; second, that without Old Charles, he'd be much less energetically irritated all the time; third, that without Old Charles's knowledge of the future, he'd be much less motivated to change his original plan of action and have far fewer ideas. Who'd have thought it, he said. I think you've actually done me some good, old man.
*That remains to be seen,* Old Charles said primly, but he couldn't hide his amusement from Charles. They were, after all, the same person.
Charles's initial idea of "this minute" had to be postponed a bit due to a few unforeseen occurrences in May. The first was that one morning, while Charles was in the middle of eating his oatmeal, Old Charles had said out of the blue, *Oh, I think it was right around now that Armando came back.*
"I beg your pardon," said Charles, both in his mind and out loud, causing all four young men around the breakfast table to stare at him.
The conversation that followed had led to the revelation that Armando's mutation hadn't failed him after all--that it had instead converted all the matter in his body to energy in a process that Charles thought would probably have given Albert Einstein material for half a dozen new scientific breakthroughs. This energy, having traveled about for a while as undetectable radiation, had converted itself back to matter the evening of May 12th near the wreckage of Agent Mann's secret facility in Langley. In the original timeline, Old Charles hadn't been near enough to perceive the reappearance of Armando's consciousness. Armando had naturally been extremely disoriented and, not having any idea where to look for the rest of their little group, had gone back to stay for a while with his family in Chicago. They hadn't met again until 1967.
In this timeline, Charles sent Alex and Sean out to Langley while he and Hank stayed with Scott, who was quite excited about meeting someone who could stand up to his eye beams. Hank had made a preliminary pair of ruby quartz glasses, but they weren't really transparent enough to be all that useful at this point.
The next day, around supper time, all three of them returned to Westchester in Charles's 1961 Ford Galaxie. Armando was tired and confused and dressed in a tee-shirt and pair of sweatpants of Alex' s that were too small for him; Sean couldn't stop laughing and slapping Armando on the back; Alex's eyes were glued to Armando as if he feared the other man might disappear at any moment.
Charles felt some heavy, leaden part of him he hadn't even known was there fly away, light as a feather.
So that was Armando. He was eager and curious in his study of the seven or so months he had missed, and true to his nickname and his mutation, he adapted quickly to the new reality of things: Erik and Raven's splintering from the group, Charles's paralysis, Scott and Old Charles's presence. "Wow," he said when it had all been explained to him. "Did you ever hear about that, uh, that curse, 'May you live in interesting times'?" He shook his head with a smile. "Not that I'm complaining. I can't wait to see what happens next."
What happened next was that, despite his best efforts to drink lots of water and keep his catheter site clean and so on and so forth, Charles contracted a urinary tract infection.
(*Those were certainly not your best efforts,* said Old Charles sternly. *You can't just ignore your body like you did when you were in college. You've been pushing yourself far too hard.*
Yes, thanks, Dad, Charles said, who quite thought that the infection was punishment enough without a lecture on top of it. They then both took a moment to reflect on what a mistake addressing himself as 'Dad' had been.)
The long and short of it was, it was early June before Charles's efforts at tracking down Moira bore any fruit. When it came, said fruit was from a rather unexpected source.
Though Charles's correspondence with potential instructors had slowed as he and the boys struggled to rebuild their plans around the welcome but occasionally unpredictable presence of Scott, it certainly hadn't stopped altogether. In fact, one of Charles's former lab assistants, who now had a position at the University of Chicago, had given Charles the name and telephone number of a coworker whose sister, an elementary school teacher, could very well be a mutant herself, to judge by the maddeningly vague descriptions Charles's acquaintance had provided. The postman still had plenty to bring to the mansion's door.
One day, he brought Charles the news he had been looking for, in the form of a letter from
Dear Professor Xavier, the letter began, I'm glad to hear your health is on the mend. My own department here has been decimated by the flu and is only now starting to resemble an engineering department and not a ghost town again.
Your offer with regards to lab space and materials is very generous. I'm a bit jealous of Columbia, Harvard, and Oxford; undoubtedly Professor Dugoni's blood pressure would be a great deal better if you sat on our Board of Trustees. I can obviously have no qualms there, and as I've stated in previous missives, I have no objections to teaching high school students; I began teaching in high schools in California and only became a university professor because it offered far better research opportunities, not because I found the quality of students in high schools inferior.
This, of course, remains my concern; as far as I can surmise from your previous letters, you've secured very few full-time faculty for your school, which will obviously put an above-average teaching burden on those faculty. You yourself come from a research background. Have you developed a schedule that would allow your instructors sufficient free time for independent research as well as sufficient preparation time for classes?
On a tangential note, one of my friends at Harvard tells me that there's a woman asking about applying for their graduate program in biophysics whose research interests coincide quite closely with your own. Perhaps you know her: Moira MacTaggert? Very limited scientific background, but she's apparently quite interested in working with some of the molecular bio people there, and she's got some very bold ideas about the potential of human mutation. She might be interested in collaborating with you on research, especially if her efforts to get into Harvard prove unsuccessful. If you'd like her contact information, please let me know. (If you're already in contact with her, disregard the above.)
I look forward to hearing from you.
Yasuo Takiguchi, PhD
Massachussetts Institute of Technology
Charles folded the letter in his lap and retreated for a moment into the sanctuary of his thoughts. So Moira had left the CIA, then, and was gravitating towards academia--specifically, towards genetics. Some lingering traces of memory he had failed to erase, or perhaps some breadcrumbs he had left behind at the CIA?
*She was fired, actually,* Old Charles supplied helpfully. *They never trusted her there--old misogynist boys' club and all that--and what you and I did....*
Ugh, said Charles. It really is going to take twenty years for her to forgive me, isn't it?
*If ever she does,* said Old Charles, sounding far too cheerful about it. Charles supposed it was probably a bit more pleasant being the spectator through these things than it had been--and would be--living them.
It was the work of an instant to find Moira psychically, now that he knew what he was looking for. Whether it was simply a natural extension of his mind's restless expansion in the wake of his accident or something caused by the presence of sharing his skull with a ghost, Charles was becoming ever more comfortable in extending his telepathy at distances he wouldn't even dreamed of a year ago.
It was a bit more difficult to persuade the boys to drive him to Boston.
"Wait, what?" asked Alex, caught off guard. "Why do you want to talk to Moira? I thought the whole memory-wiping thing was to keep her and us safe. What's changed between then and now?"
"Wait, memory-wiping thing?" asked Armando, giving Charles a dubious look.
"Who's Moira?" asked Scott innocently.
Charles explained to Scott who Moira was and then gave Armando a heavily censored version of how they and Moira had parted ways. (Censored out loud, anyway, for Scott's benefit--he gave a rather more complete version via telepathy.)
When it had all been explained, Armando sat back in his seat and blinked. "Don't take this the wrong way, Professor," he said, "but you're kind of a scary guy sometimes. No offense."
"None taken," said Charles. It was true. The only reason more people weren't afraid of him was because they didn't understand what he was, so of course he was making plans to tell the public about all that. Raven and Old Charles were right, he was an idiot.
"Just so you know, if you ever try doing that to me, I bet my brain will take it as an attack." Armando tapped his head significantly. "Ain't nothing getting through there if the old mutation says it's not."
Scott bristled on Charles's behalf, but Charles shushed him and handed him another cookie, sending him a wave of calm understanding. "Duly noted," he said to Armando, and to Scott, "By the way, if you ever want me to stay out of your head, you've only to ask."
"Why would I want you to do that?" Scott asked with a frown, and Charles was struck with a sudden overwhelming urge to hug the boy. God bless those Summers lads, really.
"Any reason at all," he said. "We can talk about it more later if you'd like. But right now...." He looked across the table at Sean and Hank, who had yet to speak. "We've got the matter of Moira to discuss."
Sean looked up, his perturbed expression mirroring the turmoil of thoughts within. "Is this about...." He waved a hand vaguely. "That thing you told me about that one time? That we maybe thought you needed more friends for?" Can Moira protect you? Sean's mind asked, unable to verbalize the thought consciously. Can we save you from dying if we do this?
Charles felt guilty for burdening Sean over something that wasn't likely to happen for decades, so he sent out another wave of calm and said, "Not really. Old Charles says that, in his timeline, Moira becomes a brilliant researcher into mutant medicine. That's got to be terribly useful. When we were children, Raven didn't get hurt or sick very often, but when she did, it was always terrifying for us because we couldn't reveal the injury or sickness as it really was to a regular doctor. I mean, how do you say, 'My sister's scales aren't usually this grayish and her body temperature right now is that of a day-old corpse?' You can't. Whatever sort of advances Moira's making, we're bound to need them as the population of mutants increases, and I thought we'd be in a good position to help her make those discoveries sooner rather than later." There, he thought, satisfied. I think that came out rather well. It was even true, if not the whole truth.
Hank perked up at the idea of 'mutant medicine.' "My God, you're right, Charles," he said. "Each type of mutation comes with its own variations from a human norm, variations that could make traditional medicine useless or even harmful. Oh, my stars and garters, this could revolutionize the entire medical profession!"
"My stars and garters?" repeated Alex incredulously. "Are you serious, Hank?"
He shot Alex an irritated look. "I'm not going to curse in front of Scott," he said. Turning back to Charles, he said, "We already know that Moira's perfectly capable of accepting mutants as coworkers and friends." Shewas, anyway, thought Charles ruefully. "If she's really interested in genetics and medicine, we could be a great help to each other in the labs."
"Uh, not to rain on your parade, Hank," Armando put in, "but wasn't she a CIA agent until recently?"
"Yeah, so?" asked Sean.
"Well, am I the only one wondering why she's applying for PhD programs in Boston instead of, you know, doing spy stuff?"
"Maybe she didn't want to work for people who were gonna let her get killed by missiles," Alex said, his tone challenging.
"Yeah, or maybe her CIA bosses thought there were some holes in the Cuban Missile Crisis story and sent her to do a little investigating," said Armando, calm as ever. It really did take a great deal to disturb Armando's equanimity; Charles quite envied him.
"None of the above, I'm afraid," he said. "Though none of her superiors remembered any more than she did--and I made sure of that--apparently they still saw fit to blame her for what happened in Cuba. According to Old Charles, they fired her shortly after the Missile Crisis."
That stopped everyone cold, and put a definite damper on Hank's enthusiasm. "So, why would she come back here?" Sean asked after a moment. "You're not gonna mind-whammy her, are you?"
The doubt in Sean's mind--no, really, it was more like fear, a muted sort of fear--hurt Charles more than he would have expected it to. "No," he said. "I'm going to try apologizing."
Another long pause followed that announcement. Finally, Armando reached forward to grab another cookie from the plate on the table and said, "I'll drive you, if you want, but well...good luck with all that, Professor." His tone made it clear he had serious doubts about Charles's chances of success.
Which was fair enough. Charles didn't think much of them, either.
The weather in Cambridge was pleasant and warm when Armando and Charles pulled up outside the coffee shop three blocks from Moira's apartment, so it wasn't much of a surprise to see her and a couple of other young women chatting at an outdoor table, sipping their drinks under the shade of a pale lavender umbrella.
Armando helped Charles off and went to park the car. Charles wheeled himself up to the cluster of tables, ignoring the curious glances of some of the shop's other patrons, and took a deep breath, steeling himself.
*My word,* said Old Charles. *Moira was quite pretty back in the day, wasn't she? It's really a wonder--when you get old, you forget how people used to look and think of them as having always been the age that they are.*
Not helpful, Old Charles, thought Charles, and rolled over to Moira's table. "Miss MacTaggert?" he asked, putting on his best charming smile.
Moira's face didn't soften with pity the way her friends' did as they caught sight of the wheelchair; instead, it sharpened with curiosity. "Yes?"
"Doctor Charles Xavier," he said, extending his hand. She took it with brisk cordiality. "I did my undergraduate work at Harvard, in the biology program, and one of my former professors recently wrote me to let me know that he'd a potential student whose research seemed quite similar to mine." He nodded towards Moira in a gesture he hoped was more respectful than smarmy. "You, of course. I work with genetics, specifically mutations. He gave me your name, and since I happened to be in the area...."
"Professor Xavier," said Moira. "Of course. Your dissertation is what interested me in genetics in the first place."
"Oh. That's very flattering," said Charles. It was.
"I do admit being a bit curious as to how you knew what I looked like," Moira said, and under the sharp field of her curiosity emerged a knife-blade of suspicion.
"My friend at Harvard gave me a pretty good description," said Charles, lying through his teeth. "I took a guess."
"Good guess." Moira's gaze was cool and assessing. Her friends' discomfort began to rise.
"Well," said Charles with a shrug, "Molecular biology is still a fairly small field. I do like to keep abreast of any new blood." Ugh, 'abreast.' Bad word choice, now she was going to think he was hitting on her.
"I see," said Moira, and Charles immediately revised his original plan, which had been to ask her to go someplace more private with him now. She was far, far, too suspicious, and too smart a woman to go with a man she didn't recognize and had instinctive suspicions about.
"Here," he said, giving Moira one of the business cards he and Raven had gotten printed up the day after he successfully defended his dissertation. He'd scribbled the hotel's telephone number at the bottom. "My card. I'll be in Boston for the next three days. If you'd like to talk at all about your research or the application process, give me a call at my hotel. I'd be happy to offer any help I can."
She took it with a polite smile and stuck it in her wallet. "Thank you, Dr. Xavier." It was a dismissal if ever he'd heard one, so he bid her goodbye and went off to find Armando, who was parked a block away.
The next two days were nerve-wracking, to say the least. Charles didn't feel up to going out much, so he mostly ordered in at the hotel and drank a great deal more alcohol than he should have.
"Hey," Armando said one evening, turning his attention from the news, "aren't you still recovering? I'm pretty sure you shouldn't be drinking right now."
Charles was in no mood for a lecture. "Tell you what," he said. "You don't give me a hard time about my whiskey here, and I won't say a thing about the five ounces of marijuana you and Sean bought last week."
Armando looked taken aback for a moment, but no more than a moment, and he shrugged. "Whatever," he said. His expression as he turned back to the news was grim. "Jesus. That shit with George Wallace yesterday, and now this."
You didn't need to be a mind-reader to know what was bothering Armando, only someone who kept up with the news coming out of Alabama and Mississippi. Charles thought there was very little he, as a rich white man, could say at this moment to ease the complicated tangle of feelings weighing on Armando right now, so instead he simply handed Armando the bottle.
"Thanks," said Armando, and they sat in silence for the rest of the evening. It wasn't precisely tense, but it wasn't not tense, either.
Two days after they'd arrived in Boston, at about one o'clock in the afternoon, Charles received a message at the front desk of the hotel. According to the concierge, the contents of the message were simply: "Same coffee shop as the other day. 3:00. M. MacTaggert."
If Charles had actually been a professor trying to give a student a leg up, he might have been a bit offended at the brusqueness of the message, but as it was, he was too phenomenally grateful that she had gotten in contact with him to have any complaints about her manners.
He appeared at the appointed time, only for her to stand from her table and gesture for him to follow her as she walked across the street to a little park. Charles immediately saw the logic in her choice of location: the park was quiet enough that they could talk more privately than at the cafe, but not so isolated that she couldn't scream for help if it turned out he was a sexual predator or something of the sort. Clever. She always had been.
"So," she said, settling herself on a bench as Charles arranged himself so as to be able to talk to her face-to-face. "Dr. Xavier. Do I know you?"
Charles might have given her the patter about research again, but she cut him off before he could so much as open his mouth. "You don't have much of a poker face, Dr. Xavier. No professor of genetics looks that grateful to talk to a woman with a bachelor's degree in French and accounting."
"He might if he's in a wheelchair and hasn't gotten a woman to talk to him in six months," he shot back, but she shook her head.
"No. You don't look at me like a man hoping to get laid, you look at me like I'm your long-lost sister. So I'm going to ask again, Dr. Xavier. Do I know you?"
There was something under her confident tone, something both frightened and angry, and under it all the sucking, inexorable terror of knowing that there were major events in the past year of her life that made no sense, that she knew she wasn't remembering properly. The fear that she was losing her mind, the only weapon she'd ever been able to count on. Charles sighed. He'd really shot himself in the foot on this one, no joke intended. "Yes," he said. "You know me, even if you don't remember it at the moment." And then, before she could pull away, he reached for her hand--this always worked best if there were physical contact, though he didn't know why--and carefully uncovered all the memories he had buried in her mind. It was delicate work, uncomfortable for both her and for him, but as she squirmed and groaned he held on, brushing away the false memories he had fabricated and reconstructing the truth, as delicately as an archaeologist uncovering some ancient fragment of pottery.
There were tears running down her face by the time he was done, and he reached into his pocket to pull out a handkerchief with his free hand even as he let go of her with his other hand. She stared blankly at her lap for a moment as he pressed the handkerchief into her hand, tears dripping off the end of her nose, and then she reached up with the hand that wasn't holding the handkerchief and slapped him, hard, across the face.
A man crossing the street stared hard at them, wondering what kind of woman hit a guy in a wheelchair, but Charles waved him on with a little mental gesture and five seconds of oblivion. "I suppose I deserved that," he said to Moira. His face was still tingling, but warm pain had started to replace the tingling sensation.
"Damn right you did," she said through gritted teeth. "How could you do that to me? I trusted you, I stayed in your house for months, helping you, and you--you--"
Charles almost finished her sentence but thought better of it. He made a concerted effort to build a barrier between himself and Moira, as he couldn't imagine she'd forgive any invasion of her privacy now, however small. Instead, he simply said, "I'm sorry. I could tell you my reasons, but I don't know that that would help much."
Moira snorted. Charles tried to read her expression, tried to find in it anything other than anger and contempt. Finally he gave up and said, "Really. I'm terribly sorry."
"I got fired," said Moira. "My boss told me to go back to the typing pool. I spent a week sleeping in my childhood bedroom, listening to my parents tell me 'Maybe it's for the best!' and suggesting I go back to my ex-husband."
"I'm sorry," said Charles again, feeling a bit like a broken record but unable to think of anything more clever to say. "Really. I ought to have asked."
Moira's eyes blazed. Even Charles, who really was quite shit at interpreting facial expressions absent his telepathy, knew he'd said the wrong thing. "No. You shouldn't have. You shouldn't have done it, period. If you'd have asked, I would have said no. You know why, genius? Because normal people face a lot of problems in their lives, but one that they don't worry about is the sanctity and privacy of their own minds. They have a reasonable expectation that their thoughts and their memories are theirs. Thanks to you, I'm never going to be able to trust my own memory ever again. I can't trust that my thoughts are my own, or that you're not listening in to what I'm thinking. But, yeah, I guess you could have asked."
He would have preferred it if she'd hit him again. That, at least, hadn't affected his ability to breathe. Here he sat, photographic memory, three PhDs, quite a powerful telepath, and not a single clue what he should say. Not a single word sprang to his mind.
*Promise her you won't do it again.*
Charles hoped his surprise didn't show on his face. Glad you finally decided to show your face, you bastard. In a manner of speaking.
*Well. What else can you say? You had your reasons; she doesn't want to hear them. You did it, and then you undid it. You could psychically push her into forgiving you, but if she ever found out, then she'd really never forgive you.*
What did you say to your Moira? he asked, swallowing hard. He couldn't make himself meet Moira's eyes.
*Apples and oranges, dear boy. She was a PhD and quite an excellent researcher in her own right by then. She'd had twenty-five years for her anger to cool. My advice: promise you'll never do it again.*
Charles cleared his throat. "Would...would it help at all if I promised to stay out of your head?"
"Would I know if you broke your promise? Would there be any indications that you'd violated my mind again?"
Violated. Charles winced. "Um. Not unless I wanted there to be."
Moira shrugged eloquently. "Then, I guess I really don't have any reason to trust your word, do I?"
Four blocks away, a waitress from the cafe, off-duty, was breaking up with her fiancé. Charles focused on her pain for a moment. If he'd thought it wouldn't make him look like a lunatic in front of Moira, he would have pulled at his hair. Anything to distract him from this. "I guess you don't," said Charles. "Well. Anyway, I promise I'll stay out of your head. As best I can," he added. Though honesty as a concept (and certainly as a virtue) tended to confuse him, this seemed to be a situation that called for it. "Sometimes, if you're feeling something really strongly--for instance, if you were in pain--well, anyway, you don't want to hear about that. I'm guessing you don't want to hear about it. I didn't actually read your mind just then. Um, I should probably...." He began to roll himself backwards, turning his wheels to be parallel with the sidewalk again. "You know. I think that's all I had to say. I'm glad you're doing well. Good luck with graduate school."
*You're behaving like a coward,* said Old Charles.
She doesn't want to talk to me, you ass. It didn't seem likely, at this particular moment, that she'd want to talk to him again for a long while. Possibly for the rest of their natural lives.
*Then why is she reaching out for you?*
Something shot out and grabbed one of the wheels of his chair--her hand--and he stopped immediately lest he pinch her with the wheel's rotation. "Wait," she said. Maybe her voice sounded a tiny bit less angry. It was difficult to tell. "You said you'd tell me your reasons."
He sighed and turned back around. "Which do you want first, the ones that were about me or the ones that were about you?"
She frowned. "Whichever."
"The ones about me were...well, honestly, I don't want to say that I didn't trust you, because you were wonderful after all that business in Cuba. But. You did work for the CIA, and I knew you couldn't help but tell them about Erik and Raven, and I...I couldn't let..." Words failed him, and he pulled at a bit of loose skin about his cuticle. "Raven's still my sister," he said, as if that were an explanation. "And it wasn't just--I knew that you'd leave us be, but your bosses never would. I needed you, your mind, your knowledge, to get to them and wipe their memories of us, and I knew you'd never agree if I told you that that was my plan."
"You're damn right I wouldn't," said Moira, but she wasn't as vehement as she'd been and she didn't seem inclined to argue further.
"Right. So, that was about protecting myself and the boys." He paused. "Here's the other bit. At the time I sent you back to the CIA, your facility at Langley was still holding Emma Frost, Shaw's telepath. I know she has no love for the Agency, but I thought...it didn't seem outside the realm of possibility that she'd read your mind and tell your superiors what you wouldn't tell them, sort of a revenge against both you and me for imprisoning her. And also--and this is the bit that's really more about you than about me--I thought...." If only he hadn't promised to stay out of her mind. Words really were failing him.
"You thought?" Moira prompted.
"I thought there was a not small chance that Erik would go back to the CIA. Not to work for them, obviously not, but--for revenge, or for self-defense. To get Emma Frost, at the very least. He's a very distrustful man. Once it became clear that the CIA had allowed both the Russians and the Americans to fire on us, the CIA was added to Erik's list of enemies. I didn't need to read Erik's mind to see that. I thought that if I made it abundantly clear that you had absolutely no idea about anything to do with mutants or Cuba or me or him or anything, perhaps I could...minimize the damage."
Moira nodded slowly. "Yeah. That's a good point." She stretched her legs out in front of her and folded her hands on her lap. "You really can't do anything to stop him?"
Charles shrugged. "I don't even know what he's doing. For all I know, he's engaging in a vigorous letter-writing campaign." He and Moira shared a wry grin over the mental image of Erik writing letters to the editor or something, before Moira seemed to realize what she was doing and dropped her eyes. Charles felt his own smile fade and said, "No. I really can't. I can't communicate with him through that helmet of his, and I really have no idea where he'd go, if he'd stay in the United States even."
"He hasn't gotten in touch with you at all?"
He shook his head. Obviously he'd see Erik again. The question was, when? Or rather, when they met again, would Erik be trying to kill him? He supposed it was possible that he'd be trying to kill Erik, depending on the circumstances. He thought not, though.
"Raven hasn't?" Moira asked, her voice a fraction softer.
"No," said Charles, more shortly than he'd meant to. He'd had a lot of scabs ripped open in the course of this conversation.
Moira let out a deep breath slowly. "So. Assuming I accept all that as a justification--which I don't, just to be clear....If you had all these reasons for erasing my memories like that, why come track me down and undo it all? What do you want?"
There was a wrinkle in Charles's pants; he smoothed it. A block away, a young man who worked at a bookstore was balancing his checkbook; Charles took a moment to lose himself in the soothing columns of numbers. "I wasn't lying before, not really," he said. "I really did hear from a colleague--well, more of a prospective colleague--that you were thinking of applying to Harvard's biophysics program. I really did think that, well, if you are actually interested in pursuing mutation as a research interest, I could be of help. Perhaps make up for all that business with the memory wiping."
She snorted a laugh at that. It was so much nicer than the first snort that Charles could have shouted for joy. "Don't tell me you felt bad about that, Charles, because I won't believe you."
"Well, no," Charles admitted. "I mean, I really do feel bad about getting you fired. That wasn't my intention at all. I'd always supposed that since your bosses didn't remember anything either, they couldn't possibly find a reason to cause problems for you."
"What makes you think they'd need a reason?" Moira said with another laugh. This one was more bitter.
"Right, of course," said Charles. "No, actually, the idea of reconnecting with you came from...a friend."
"A friend." She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Really."
Charles straightened himself out in his chair. It didn't make him look any taller, he knew, but it made him feel a bit more dignified. "I have got some, you know."
As if summoned by the gods of comic timing, it was at that moment that Charles felt a familiar presence at the edge of his mind, thinking about him, wondering. Things seem to be going okay, I guess... and then a more direct address to Charles: Well, Professor, how's it going? You've been out here for a while, I thought I'd check to make sure she hadn't killed you. Ah. Armando. If he looked out of the corner of his eye, he could see the other man leaning against another bench a bit further along the sidewalk.
Despite his best efforts to block Moira out, he felt a sharp spike of surprise coming from her. She had turned her head to follow Charles's gaze and, well, obviously the sight of Armando, whole and hearty, had given her a bit of a shock. "Armando?" she gasped. "Armando Muñoz?" She whirled back around to Charles, eyes blazing again. "I swear to God, Charles, if this is one of your illusions, if you're making me see this, I will tear you limb from limb, see if I won't."
Um. Things were going considerably better a minute ago, Darwin, said Charles. I don't suppose you could come over here and help me explain things to Moira? He gave Moira his best soothing smile and said, "It's not an illusion. There are actually quite a few things to explain. It's been a very interesting few months."
In the end, it was Armando's resurrection and the revelation of Old Charles more than anything Charles could say that made Moira sigh and tell them, "My lease is up at the end of the month. I've got a job doing secretarial work for the law school right now, but it's boring me out of my skull. If my room in your castle is still open in two weeks, Charles, I'll see you then." Despite her practicality, she had always been fond of the unexplained.
*I'm still not entirely certain about the course you're heading on,* said Old Charles on the drive back home, *but if you're determined to follow through with it, this is a good first step. Moira's a dear friend, and she can bring both government and human perspectives to the table if you're looking to predict the response to bringing mutants into the public debate.*
Well, I was hardly going to go on the Tonight Show, Charles answered. It's simply a logical conclusion based on what you've told me. If so many problems have been brought about because the only visible mutants are criminals, then a logical way to combat them is to gradually acclimatize human society to the existence of mutants and then find a way for us to be both equally protected and equally accountable under the law.
*You overestimate how easy that would be rather gravely, I think. Mutant criminals will always pose a unique challenge to the criminal justice system--some cannot be contained without the prior discoveries of unconscionable 'scientific' research, and the ensuing isolation makes them especially vulnerable to abuse.*
Well, wasn't Old Charles just a constant ray of sunshine? You think I haven't thought of that? he asked. For me, you certainly don't know me very well. But I don't think the fact that something will be difficult isn't a reason not to try it at all.
Old Charles's presence in Charles's head seemed to be wrapped in layers of affectionate pride and frustration and fear. He was rather a complicated fellow, all told. *Proceed with caution,* he said. *Someone can learn that you are a mutant without learning quite all of what that means.*
Of course. A few indiscretions aside, Charles rather thought that he was uniquely qualified to keep secrets. He'd had so much practice.
True to her word, Moira arrived at the mansion at the beginning of July, having shed the summery dresses she'd worn in Cambridge in favor of the blazers and tweed in which Charles was accustomed to see her. Charles was mildly curious as to whether this meant she was more or less comfortable at the mansion than in a college town surrounded by academics and beatniks, but he really was making a concerted effort to stay out of her head and it seemed like a strange and presumptuous thing to ask about. He'd never worried so much about that sort of thing before, but the last eight months (and more particularly the last few weeks of traveling) had made him quite sensitive to the way the annoyance of an ignorant question could derail a good mood.
It would be a lie to say that things went on as if Moira had never left. To start with, Moira had never lived at the mansion at the same time as Armando and Scott. If Charles had ever harbored secret wishes that Moira might take on a motherly role to Scott, he would have been disappointed; being a woman who had been told a few too many times that sooner or later she would desire motherhood, she was in fact rather uncomfortable around Scott and treated him with the same kind of businesslike brusqueness with which she treated all of them. There was nothing hostile about it, but nor was there much of the friendship that had formed between them while they were all preparing to face Shaw. Charles put it down to distrust; after all, Alex, Sean, and Hank had gone along with Charles's initial decision to erase her memory. It would have to remain a mystery until such time as she chose to address it, since Charles was devoting quite honest efforts to keeping her thoughts out of his mind and wholly lacked the courage to bring it up with her himself.
Still, awkwardness aside, it really was fantastic to have Moira about. Besides being a curious and very competent assistant in Hank's lab, she had far more administrative experience than any of the rest of them (having undergone long years of secretarial work in the CIA before she had been allowed to graduate to field agent status), and every day revealed a new decisiveness in her character, one that had perhaps been overshadowed in the past by Erik's rather forceful presence. Under her aegis, the work of establishing the school resumed at a much accelerated pace. Yasuo Takiguchi agreed to join the faculty. So did Alicia Downing and two elementary school teachers, one, Jennifer Honey, human and one, Rachel Argosy, mutant.
It would have been impossible to conceal the true nature of the school from any of them once they arrived--Hank's presence alone would have rendered it impracticable, and the whole point of the place was for mutants to have a place they could feel safe. In order to prevent any unfortunate...mishaps, Moira suggested that each instructor tour the facility before signing any contracts. Even she had admitted that, should things go wrong, the situation might call for a little memory-altering on Charles's part, though she'd gritted her teeth as she said it.
To everyone's pleasant surprise, the issue never even came up. Yasuo was a man of science who was more interested in Hank's lab than in his appearance; Alicia's primary concern was with the messes Sean and Alex tended to produce; there was a very real chance that Jennifer was a saint. Charles probably shouldn't have been so taken aback that the human instructors reacted as well as they did to the revelation of radical human mutation. After all, Moira and Agents Levene and Mann had accepted Charles and Erik and Raven easily enough. Still, it was a revelation to Charles, who'd rather found himself falling into an uncomfortable "us vs. them" mentality the past half-year or so. The human mind, when asked to accept the strange and heretofore impossible and faced with incontrovertible proof, could, every now and then, rise to the occasion. It was enough to warm any scientist's heart.
As for Rachel, who looked a bit like Raven with black hair and no scales, well, she'd been fired from her job and ostracized by her community when her mutation revealed itself. She was simply overjoyed at the chance to teach again.
With the help of Old Charles, they found more students, those who were most profoundly in need of a place to go: a little girl, Ororo Munroe, who could control the weather but was picking pockets on the streets of Cairo; a teenager, Cessily Kincaid, whose body looked like liquid metal and whose parents kept her essentially under house arrest; a young Dutch man named Barnell Bohusk with wings and a bird's beak who was surviving mostly by eating out of trash cans in Amsterdam in the middle of the night. As air travel was extremely difficult for Charles to negotiate, between his wheelchair and the extreme mutations of some of the new students, in this, too, Moira's help proved invaluable. By the time Alex and Sean headed off for college in September, the school was, in fact, starting to look like a school.
There was simply no comparing the fall of 1963 with that of 1962. They might have taken place in two altogether different worlds. The latter had seen Charles Xavier, member of a convert CIA strike team, lose his legs, his sister, and quite possibly the love of his life; the former found Charles Xavier, headmaster of a small but promising private academy, working with his colleagues to develop curricula suited to the vastly varying requirements of his diverse student body, grading tests, and every now and then trying to make time for a workout in his gym. There simply weren't enough hours in the day to regret his complete lack of a social life, and that was just fine with Charles. It was almost a relief not to have to think about that sort of thing.
Perhaps it was because he had gotten so out of the habit of thinking of such personal matters that it came as such a surprise when Moira came into his study one night to announce, "I've got a date."
Charles was currently trying to beat Old Charles at chess, the first game he'd had time for in weeks. "Hm," he said, trying to sound as if he were listening.
"Yasuo asked me to go with him to that new James Bond film. From Russia with Love? It'll probably be ridiculous, but I guess it could be fun. I haven't gone on a real date in years."
"That's lovely," said Charles, still distracted. "Have fun." He really ought to have castled much earlier in the game; it was probably too late now.
*How odd,* said Old Charles. *Why on earth is she staring at us like that?*
It was this remark that made Charles look up. Moira was, in fact, staring at Charles like she was trying to read his mind. She was also quite dressed up. Charles was sure he'd never seen that much of Moira's chest before. If she'd been Raven, he'd have suggested she put on a jacket to avoid being cold, but he hardly thought Moira would welcome such a comment.
"Charles," she said. "When you erased my memory--" Charles winced. No conversation that began that way could possibly end well for him. "--why did you kiss me?"
Now that was a question he hadn't expected. "What?"
She sat down across from him at the chess table, crossing her arms and looking at him with her usual no-nonsense firmness. "I've been curious for a while, but we've been so busy and, to be honest, I wasn't in any mood for a personal conversation with you. But it's been a few months, and I'm not the mind-reader here, so I just thought I'd ask. Why did you kiss me?"
Charles looked down and distracted himself with a bishop, unable to meet her forthright glance. "What do you mean? You're a very pretty woman, I needed to be in physical contact with you anyway, I shouldn't think that much of an explanation would be needed."
"With another man? Perhaps not," Moira said, arching her eyebrows. "With you? You have the strangest romantic techniques of any man I've ever met, Charles Xavier. With you, I'm curious."
"Do you mean am I jealous that you're going out with Yasuo?" Charles hazarded. "Because I'm not. Obviously, if there were ever a time you and I might have gotten together, that time's long past."
"That isn't what I mean, although, for the record, I wouldn't give a shit if you were jealous. I don't need your permission to go out with whomever I like."
Charles set down the bishop. Ah, yes, he thought. This was why he was well shut of all this romantic business. "I never said you did. What's this all about?"
Moira sighed. "I don't know. Maybe I'm completely off-base with this, but..." She looked to the ceiling as if asking God for assistance before continuing. "Let me tell you a little story about my old partner at the CIA, Sam Levene."
What the hell is she talking about? he asked Old Charles.
*I haven't the faintest,* said Old Charles, sounding genuinely baffled. *The last time I had such a confusing conversation with Moira, she was preparing to adopt Rahne, but she hasn't even been born yet!*
Charles decided not to ask who the hell Rahne was. Instead, he said to Moira, "You wouldn't by any chance like to let me read your mind, would you? Only so I can figure out what this conversation is about."
"Not a chance, Xavier," said Moira, narrowing her eyes at him. "Anyway. Levene. He was a nice guy. Not really the take-charge kind, not enough imagination to think on his feet the way you need to in that business sometimes, but a very competent agent. He didn't have a problem working with me, which wasn't something you could say about many agents, you know?"
"But there was something a little odd about Levene. He used to hit on me sometimes. Nothing too terrible, and not when we were alone. Everybody from the director to the janitor hit on me sometimes, so I didn't take it too personally. A lot of those guys were married--at least Levene didn't have a wife at home who could accuse me of seducing him.
"So like I said, it didn't bother me too much. But after a while, I started to notice something about the way Levene hit on me. Every time he did it, it was like he was playing a role--he'd talk one way, grin real big, square his shoulders when we were around other people, but then we'd step out of the room and everything about him would change, his expression, his posture, the way he talked. For a little bit, it confused me. And then it occurred to me that he wasn't hitting on me because he was attracted to me, or because he didn't respect me, or because it was just something he did around women."
Charles had the sinking suspicion that he knew where this story was going, but he played along nonetheless. "Why was he doing it, then?"
Moira looked at her hands. Her fingers twisted together in front of the chessboard. "He was doing it to keep a secret." She looked up again, fixing Charles with the weight of her gaze. "I suppose I can trust you to keep the secret, too?"
Charles leaned back and spread his hands in what he hoped was an open, questioning gesture. "Why on earth would I spread gossip about a CIA agent whom, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, I've never met?"
She nodded, a wry smile tugging at one corner of her lips. "Right. Well, Levene shared a house with a man named Joe Rosenberg. Joe worked at General Electric, making computer equipment, I think. I met him once or twice. Nice guy. As far as everyone in their neighborhood was concerned, Sam and Joe were just two single guys splitting the rent on a house until one of them got married."
"But you thought differently," said Charles carefully.
"Well," Moira said, "all I can say is, if my ex-husband had ever once looked at me the way I saw Sam Levene look at Joe Rosenberg the morning I picked him up to go spy on the Hellfire Club in Vegas, maybe I wouldn't have been in such a hurry to divorce him."
Charles swallowed. She knows, she knows, she knows, he couldn't stop from thinking.
*Of course she doesn't,* said Old Charles, sounding less as if he were convinced and more as if he were trying to convince himself. *We've been friends for over twenty years, not counting that business in Cuba, and she's never spoken with me about that. Now lock it down before you frighten the children.*
"Why are you telling me this story?" Charles finally managed. His mouth felt dry.
Moira inhaled slowly. She looked as if she were going to reach out her hand to Charles's before deciding against it; still, he thought there was compassion in her eyes. "I guess because...if any man looked at me the way you used to look at Erik Lehnsherr, I sure as hell wouldn't leave him with a bullet in his back on the beach in Cuba."
Charles remembered how it had felt when he had first realized he was paralyzed--that horrible mix of pain in his back and nothingness in his legs and the sun burning too hot and too bright in his eyes. It might have been an exaggeration to compare that moment to this one. After all, Moira was hardly the first person to think--to understand, rather, that Charles was a homosexual. It was an insult Cain had thrown about numerous times in their youth. But though a number of people had realized his attraction to men in the past, only Moira, it seemed, had realized that it went deeper than sexual attraction when it came to this particular man. It was a stunning feeling, as if he sat naked in front of her, unable to speak or move or scarcely even to breathe. Even his attempts to reach outward with his mind for others' equilibrium failed. He was an insect trapped on a pin.
Pulling her hand back to her purse, Moira took an envelope out and pushed it across the table in Charles's direction. "Levene sent me this last week. He and I both thought there was more to this memory loss thing than the higher-ups would admit, so he's been keeping an eye out for me. He's putting a lot on the line."
Still reeling internally, Charles took the envelope. Inside was a small pile of black and white photographs, seemingly the product of a hidden camera. He sifted through them, feeling as if someone was squeezing their hand around his chest. Erik, still wearing that helmet, opening a file cabinet with nothing more than a gesture. Emma Frost, sorting through files. Both of them vanishing in a dark cloud through which the vague silhouette of, apparently, Satan could be seen. The accompanying note said, "Moira--Think Mann was on to something? Pictures from new CIA Op Center facility in Chicago. SL."
"What do you want me to do with this?" Charles asked, setting the photos down in the middle of the chessboard and looking up into Moira's solemn eyes.
Moira shrugged. "I don't know, Charles. But it's clear that Erik's making his move." She tapped the photos. "A lot of backup files from various facilities--including Mann's--were sent to this CIA Op Center office."
Of course, thought Charles, suddenly savagely angry with himself. He'd thought he was so clever, having the CIA agents destroy their own files, but he'd forgotten that some knowledge had been lost when Agent Mann and his assistants at the first Cerebro facility were killed. The only people who'd known about some of his work were gone, and so the files outlived the men who had written them. They'd been in the CIA's hands all this time, and now they were in Erik's. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
"If I had to guess," Moira continued, "I'd say he's probably recruiting." She stood up suddenly, brushing imaginary wrinkles and dust from her skirt. "I admire what you're doing here," she said. "Your efforts to make a place for these kids, putting Alex and Sean through school, the science you're doing with Hank. But you'd better think about what you're going to do if Erik turns out to be the next Sebastian Shaw."
Charles's anger was swiftly turned outwards. "Don't you dare say that," he said. "Erik isn't Shaw. You can't even compare them."
Moira was silent for a long moment. "Maybe not," she said. "But two junior agents on watch duty were found dead outside the door of that file room. They'd been strangled with lengths of pipe. You know me, I've never thought that mutants in general pose a threat to the security of this nation, any more than I've ever thought that homosexuals pose a threat to security. But if Erik's not careful, he's likely to make some powerful enemies in some high places." She blew out a long huff of air before saying, "Well, anyway, I've got a date. Best go fix my hair."
"Your hair looks fine," said Charles automatically, used to this sort of thing after years being the main source of emotional support for a younger sister. "Moira, about Erik and me...."
"I won't tell anyone," she said. "You're not the only one who can keep a secret, Xavier." She laughed, once, long and low, and added, "But I think there's a fair chance some of them already know and just don't think about it loudly enough to end up on your radar. You're not as subtle as you think you are."
And with that, she whirled out of the room.
Charles pled illness to avoid having to go down to supper. Hank, ever suspicious, would have insisted on fully examining him but for Armando and Jennifer's calling him down to help keep the children in order. In the end, Charles was left with nothing but a sandwich and the dubious company of Old Charles.
Well? he demanded. What is this? What's Erik up to?
*To be honest, I've no idea,* said Old Charles. He seemed stunned, whether it was by the revelation that his feelings for Erik had not gone so unnoticed as he supposed or by the photographs Moira had shown them. *This is...the timeline has obviously been changed quite radically. In my life, I neither saw nor heard anything of Erik for another three years, and then he was quite cagey as to what he had been doing.*
Well, bloody think about it for a moment! said Charles, frustrated. He'd been perfectly content to avoid the issue of Erik with Old Charles, both to spare his older self's feelings and his own, but surely if Erik was going to make a habit of breaking into government facilities, he had something larger in mind. What is Erik doing in the future? What do you and he talk about when you meet?
There was a moment in which it felt as if Charles's head would burst, as if Old Charles had grown in size and force so as to push his way out, but the moment passed and Old Charles said, *As to your first question, he does quite a lot of things in the future. He tries to induce mutations in non-mutated humans. He tries to use Cerebro to wipe out the entirety of the non-mutated human race. He recruits to his side a number of rather dangerous and unsavory characters. And somehow his plans almost always involve killing mutant children or leaving them to die.*
What? That was not only illogical on the face of it--obviously, one who was as invested in the future of mutantkind as Erik was would hardly go about killing mutant children--but utterly out of keeping with what Charles knew of Erik's personality. He had no qualms about making children orphans, but when it came to their lives and persons, he would no more kill a child than any decent man would.
*As to your second question,* said Old Charles, sounding more bitter than Charles had ever heard him, *We talk about very little when we meet. Oh, we'll play the odd game of chess. He's been known to help me when the whim strikes him: rebuilding Cerebro, recruiting the odd mutant, that sort of thing. But God forbid that I should ever play any part in his plans other than staying out of his way.*
The sudden diatribe in the face of almost a year's worth of silence on the subject was overwhelming. Wait, wait, Erik helps us rebuild Cerebro? And then...how can one even use Cerebro to wipe out anyone? It isn't a weapon.
*Charles, my dear boy, Cerebro isn't the weapon. You are.* Old Charles sighed, his tones suddenly less bitter and more weary. Charles found he couldn't touch the substance of that remark without horror and self-revulsion, and he recoiled, pushing his mind into what he hoped would be more productive directions.
He recalled, months ago, Old Charles telling him that his relationships with Erik and Raven had always been on their terms. A dozen questions rose to the surface of his mind like bubbles in a boiling pot, but such unfocused communications were difficult to convey across the strange connection between his mind and his older self's. Finally he managed, Do you ever call upon him?
This seemed to catch Old Charles off-guard. *I beg your pardon?*
You said that he comes to help you but never allows you to return the favor. Do you call and ask for his help?
*I do not,* said Old Charles. *We arrange meetings sometimes--never very often, but occasionally. Sometimes we meet by chance, both being drawn to events that affect the mutant population. In the course of our conversations, I have occasionally...confided in Erik about certain difficulties. He's never been one to confide in me, but I confess that his help was quite invaluable when it came to rebuilding Cerebro.* After a pause, he added sourly, *Although, since the knowledge he gained then was almost certainly what allowed him to manipulate me into attempted genocide, I find I'm not terribly grateful.*
That's years from now, Charles said, struggling to think his way through the mess. Quite a lot happens between now and then. A man doesn't jump straight into that sort of thing. Now, Moira says that Erik is probably recruiting. That makes sense; if his goal is actually to impress upon the human race the inadvisability of attacking mutants, he needs numbers, right?
*Not necessarily,* said Old Charles, thrown out of his dark mood for the moment. *He's done a lot with very few at his side. But I suppose all of that was decades into his stint with the Brotherhood.*
The Brotherhood? Is that what they call themselves? That sounded like some fraternal organization like the Masons, not like a political group.
Old Charles laughed. *Well, better than the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, which is what they took to calling themselves for a while in the nineties. They were trying to be ironic, I think. But to return to the point, you're right--at this point, recruiting would be the most logical step. Emma Frost hasn't got the range that you have, and they don't have Cerebro, so the CIA would doubtless be the best place to look for information about other mutants.*
What if.... Charles rotated the idea in his mind, examining it from every angle. What if I offered to help him?
Old Charles was silent for a long moment. *What,* he said at last, too flat to be a question.
Well, you've said it yourself. Erik has both helped and hurt you over the years; it doesn't seem like you've done much of anything but get in his way. React to his actions. If we make the first move--if we reach out to him first--isn't there a chance that could change the whole tenor of our relationship? Couldn't we prevent all those things in the future?
*Charles. I know how you feel....*
I rather doubt that you do. Old Charles had taken on his old, pedantic tones, and they irritated Charles more than he was able to express.
*Don't be absurd,* said Old Charles. *Nobody knows how you feel better than I do. I've spent years, decades telling myself the same thing. 'Swallow your pride, just sit down and talk with him, anything's better than nothing.' You don't know how many conversations I've had with him, how many times I've tried to keep him from getting himself killed. But the truth is, the philosophical gap between us is too large. I will never be willing to cut myself and mutantkind off from humanity. For all Erik's claims to wish for equality, what he truly wants is supremacy. To be 'a god among insects,' as it were. Tell me, where is the middle ground between those two positions?*
There's a hell of a lot of middle ground between a political disagreement and killing one another, said Charles, warming to his argument.
*Do you think I have ever, ever wanted Erik dead?* Old Charles's anger was like a storm viewed through windows: distant, but still intimidating. *There is no one on this earth whom I love the way I love him. I don't think I'm even capable of loving another being that way. But to try to build bridges with humanity with one hand and to reach out to a man who thinks nothing of killing humans with the other--it's selfish, Charles. If you think the school would be threatened by the revelation that you're a homosexual, how much more do you think associating with a murderer, a terrorist even, would hurt your students? In the last decade of my life, the only real connection I had to Erik was that I occasionally visited him in prison for a game of chess, and that was enough to send soldiers with guns to the school in the middle of the night. How will you explain it to the human members of your faculty, that you've decided to track down and help someone who thinks they're Cro-Magnons to be erased from the face of the earth?*
I said the wrong thing on the beach, said Charles. The non-sequitur seemed to derail Old Charles for a moment. I knew it as soon as I'd said it. That 'just following orders' bit. And again, when I told Erik I didn't want what he wanted. I could hardly think at the time, but now it strikes me that I didn't have a clue what he wanted. I still don't know. And I said the wrong thing to Raven, again and again. I've paid dearly for it. Don't you think--if there's even a chance I might say the right thing, if I can show Erik that maybe we do want some of the same things--it's worth the risk? Yes, I might fuck it up again, and I know the consequences for that could be dire. But if by some miracle I don't, couldn't we change the future for the better? We may have already begun. Isn't it worth trying?
Old Charles was silent for so long that Charles feared he'd sent his older self away. They'd never really argued like this before, and Old Charles, like Charles himself, showed a marked preference for avoiding conflicts. Perhaps Old Charles was right. Looking back, Charles had never really been able to keep Erik from doing anything, particularly not when set against Erik's sense of vengeance. Still. It wasn't as if Old Charles's way had worked all that well, either. Perhaps if Charles did fuck it up again and got himself killed, they could both go haunt the next version of Charles Xavier to come down the pike.
Charles had just about given up on receiving an answer and was about to devote himself to his sandwich when Old Charles said, quietly, *What sort of help do you think you could offer him that he would accept?*
Cautiously, Charles said, I think he and I both want the same thing right now: better ways of finding new recruits. You said that, at some point in the future, Erik helps you rebuild Cerebro. Why not now? We've got Hank, Yasuo, and Moira, and maybe Levene can find some of Mann's old files. There are already contractors coming in and out to renovate the school who could get the job started--it's actually quite a good time, everything's in flux as it is. Cerebro's net casts rather wide, and will probably cast wider, now that my own range has expanded. We're likely to get quite a mix of people, some of whom will find themselves more in sympathy with me and some more with Erik. If we include Erik and Shaw's former associates willingly--well, perhaps we can pool resources.
*Moira's not likely to approve,* said Old Charles, not sounding at all certain whether he approved, either. *Erik's killed two CIA agents, and Shaw's friends killed more.*
Including Mann, I know. Raven had been so terrified after the massacre at Mann's facility. She'd suffered nightmares for a week afterward, so vivid and horrifying that they woke Charles. He hadn't had the courage to comfort her afterwards, though, for fear she'd attack him for breaking his promise to stay out of her mind. It was amazing to Charles that she'd been able to put all that aside to join with Quested and Azazel. Still, If this all works out, perhaps we can prevent any more CIA agents from getting killed.
*Perhaps,* said Old Charles dispassionately. Then, *Talk to Hank and Yasuo first. If you can get them excited about the prospect of rebuilding Cerebro, they're more likely to be on your side when it comes to convincing Moira.*
On the contrary, said Charles. If Moira agrees with me about the strategic value of going to Erik, the battle's half won. I'm talking to her as soon as she gets back from her date.
*Of course. Given the decisiveness with which you ignore my opinions, it's really a wonder you bother to ask for them at all.*
Charles tried to apologize while at the same time not giving any ground, but Old Charles really had gone this time, perhaps hiding himself in his memories of the past--a future that Charles had to hope would never come to pass.
In the end, Charles's plan was revealed in one big conversation rather than a series of little ones. He hadn't really planned it that way, but as soon as he started talking to Moira she'd held up a finger and said, "Wait. I think this is a conversation that the rest of the faculty need to be in on." She'd darted out, and before Charles knew it, his study was filled with all three human instructors, Rachel, Hank, Armando, and Alex and Sean, who'd come home for the weekend. Well, thought Charles, at least this probably meant that Moira wouldn't bring up his futile passion for Erik.
On the downside, it was a very complicated conversation, given that, as soon as he'd gotten a few sentences about it out, Hank had gasped, Alex had shouted, "Hell, no!" and Alicia, practical as ever, had asked, "Who's Erik?"
Moira gave a brief and surprisingly even-handed summation of their meeting and ultimate break with Erik Lehnsherr. Alex came very close to blasting a hole in the wall as she neared the end of the story; he had to leave the room, Armando following on his heels, so as to avoid waking the children and wrecking the study while Moira finished.
When the tale was complete, Jennifer blinked, taken aback. "Wow," was all she managed.
Alicia frowned. "When I agreed to work here, nobody mentioned anything about secret government facilities and, and mutant supremacist murderers. I'm not going to be a party to anything illegal."
Given his druthers, Charles wouldn't have mentioned the recent attack on the CIA at all, but Moira seemed to have adopted something of a free information policy these days. "Of course," he said, deciding that it would be a mistake at this point to bring up Alicia's repeated use of tax fraud to make a point every time the government did something of which she disapproved. "I completely understand. Of course, nothing that you did could be construed as criminal. Erik's never been convicted of a crime in the United States, and Cerebro was originally designed under the CIA's auspices."
"Could you guarantee our safety?" asked Alicia, raising an eyebrow. God bless Alicia, she was thinking of Erik's "Brotherhood" more as anarchists rather than some sort of superhuman threat.
Charles gave the matter serious thought. Despite what Old Charles had said, Charles didn't honestly believe that Erik would harm any of the children at the school, or the original team who'd worked with them the previous fall. The more he thought about it, provided that Yasuo, Alicia, and Jennifer offered him no threat, he didn't think Erik would hurt them, either. Erik was capable of great violence, certainly, but he didn't go out of his way to offer harm to people who hadn't hurt him. He hadn't trusted the CIA, but it would never have occurred to him to attack them before the missiles had fired on them in Cuba. His associates were another story, but Charles couldn't believe that Raven would hurt any of them, and surely between them they could keep the rest of the Brotherhood in line. "I think so," he finally told Alicia.
"I don't know, Professor," said Sean, staring at his feet, a turmoil of emotion disturbing his thoughts. "I thought Erik made it pretty clear he wasn't interested in being friends with us anymore when he, you know, left us in Cuba." Under the mild sarcasm was real hurt; he hadn't looked up to Erik the way Alex had, but he'd liked him, and he hadn't understood what any of them had done that was so awful they had to be left behind with a seriously injured Charles to fend for themselves. Which was fair enough--Charles didn't really understand that, either.
Yasuo scratched at his chin thoughtfully. "Well, it seems to me like there are two questions here, right?" he said. "Question one, do we rebuild Cerebro and question two, do we call up Erik Lehnsherr to help us with it? Maybe I'm missing something here, but I think we can probably do the one without the other. I mean, Hank, have you got a decent recollection of the original design?"
"Sure," said Hank, who was always willing to devote himself to a scientific project. "I've still got some of my notes from the original, the ones I kept in my apartment rather than at the office. With the three of us plus Moira, we could get it rebuilt, no problem."
Charles sighed. "Yes, but that would rather defeat one of my main purposes with this project--to reconnect with Erik's group so that the only two groups working towards mutant acceptance in the United States aren't working at cross-purposes."
"I got news for Erik," said Alex, who had just reappeared with a long-suffering Armando. "Nobody's gonna accept mutants if he goes around killing people."
"No such thing as a nonviolent revolution," Armando said with a shrug. Every head in the room turned to look at him.
Charles thought for a moment before picking up the reference. "Malcolm X," he said. He'd read a transcript of the "Message to the Grass Roots" the previous week. Armando nodded at him with surprised approval.
"What?" asked Hank, confused.
Armando looked around the room, almost nervous, before shrugging again. "I don't know how much you guys follow all the stuff going on down south, but I've been watching it pretty closely. I got some cousins down there. And you got a couple different ideas, right? You got the idea of nonviolent protest, and you got the idea of revolution. And I'm not saying that nonviolent protest doesn't do anything--I guess it worked pretty well for Gandhi, and it takes a lot of guts to do it right. But I can understand the revolution guys, too. It's easy to say 'turn the other cheek,' but it's a lot harder to do, and it's hard to see why you should have to."
"Sure," said Yasuo, nodding. "That's why my older brother wouldn't join the army during the last world war, when the government stuck the whole neighborhood in a shitty camp out in the desert. But what are you getting at?"
"I don't know," said Armando. "Just--I can see where Erik's coming from, where maybe he might not want to sit around and wait for people to pass a constitutional amendment about mutant rights. I'm not saying he's right, going around attacking CIA facilities or whatever, but...maybe there's room for both, you know? Like, you can have a nonviolent movement and a revolution movement, and maybe they can be more than the sum of their parts."
"Exactly," said Charles, delighted. "Couldn't have said it better myself."
"Oh, yeah?" asked Alicia. "How do you accomplish that without both movements being hypocrites?"
"If nobody ever worked with someone they disagreed with, nothing would ever get done." Charles looked at Moira in surprise; she was the last person he'd ever expect to be willing to work with Erik, given that the man had tried to kill her and had killed some of her former colleagues. Moira noticed his expression and said, "What? Last year, you were about the only one who could do anything to keep Erik in line. Maybe you can keep his group from escalating their attacks now."
Charles wouldn't count on it, but he wasn't about to give up Moira's support, either, so he acknowledged her words with a nod and turned to Rachel. "Rachel," he said, "you've been rather quiet. What do you think about all this?"
Rachel looked at her hands, turning them over before putting them in her pockets. "I guess I don't have an opinion on whether we call your...your friend or not. I'm not all that into politics, and if you say it won't be a problem legally, I believe you. But I really do think you should set up that Cerebro thing. When... this happened"--she removed one hand from her pockets and gestured at her face as if to indicate her blue complexion, "I thought my life was over. I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life afraid to leave my house, totally alone. But since I've come here...." Her voice became choked up with joy, which cut Charles with guilt like a knife, because now she hardly ever left his house. "I've got people who accept me the way I am, who think there's actually something positive about all this, and I think everybody should have that. If there are other people out there like us, who think they're the only one, we should change that. We should find them and tell them that we're here, and if Cerebro will help us do that, I'm all for it."
Jennifer reached out to clasp Rachel's hand and they shared a smile. Sean looked at their joined hands and then at Charles. "What does Old Charles say?" he asked.
Charles hesitated. He could lie at this point--tell them Old Charles was all for it. But these days he was increasingly dubious about his ability to lie without Moira seeing through it. She was unsettlingly like Raven that way. And what good would lying do? Alicia and Rachel still thought the whole situation with Old Charles was bizarre and disturbing; his endorsement wasn't likely to make them support anything. "He doesn't like the idea," he said finally. "But then, his Erik has done a lot of things that Erik in our time hasn't done yet, and might never do. I don't think it's fair to blame someone for acts they might commit in the future."
"Especially if the point is to get them not to do those things in the future, yeah, I get it," said Sean with a nod. He shrugged. "Yeah, okay," he said. "If Moira thinks it's a good idea."
Moira did, and as Moira MacTaggert went, so went the rest of the faculty. But Charles had a sneaking suspicion that it was Armando's words whispered in his ear, more than anything else, that made Alex nod eventually and say, "Whatever. I guess I can deal with it."
Once Charles had an idea where to look for Erik and his companions, it was surprisingly easy, given how the question had tormented him for the past year. Erik still had that damned helmet, Frost would know it was Charles the minute his mind touched hers, and Charles still held himself bound by his promise to Raven, but he had made no such promises to Angel, Azazel, or Quested, and they had no sort of shielding to prevent him from pinpointing their location to a small town fifty miles outside of Chicago in a house owned by Emma Frost.
Moira had been quite keen on going, but they ultimately decided that it was best not to risk the safety of any of their human friends and particularly not Moira, seeing as how Erik might still hold a grudge against her. They weren't flying anywhere in the south and Charles had, as Sean so quaintly put it, "a shitload of money," so, despite the odd looks they got in the airport and the incredible hassle it was getting on the plane, the group ended up being Armando, Charles, and Sean. Sean remarked that the three of them seemed like the beginning of a joke: "A Mick, a Negro, and a cripple walk into an airport...." Armando pointed out that the joke could have also gone "Three mutants walk into an airport," and he and Sean shared a laugh. Charles might have had a better sense of humor about it if the stewardesses would have stopped talking over his head to address Sean. It was halfway through the bloody flight before either he or Armando could get a drink.
They flew into Midway and rented a car. The portable wheelchair Hank had designed wasn't nearly as comfortable as his regular chair, but it was miles better than the flimsy chair the airport insisted on rolling him about in, and it was fantastically easy to get himself from its seat to the back of the sedan they'd rented. Charles thought there was great possibility in this "self-elevating seat" business that Hank had come up with.
The drive was enjoyable, but the tension began to mount as they approached the Brotherhood's safe house. Charles feared that Emma Frost might keep an eye on the sanctity of her colleagues' minds, so he avoided focusing on them in particular; instead, he cast his mind far and wide, casually monitoring Quested and Azazel with the psychic equivalent of peripheral vision. It left him unfocused, but not so very unfocused that he couldn't see how nervous Sean and Armando were.
"You ever had an idea that sounded real good in theory but didn't look so good in real life?" asked Sean, fidgeting with the radio. We should have listened to Old Charles, Charles heard. He's been around. He knows more than we do.
"Sure," said Armando calmly. As usual, the doubts he hid were not about his own safety, but about that of others. Don't think they'd hurt the professor, but it's not like he can fight, not with the wheelchair and the helmet/hope Sean doesn't do anything stupid, we should just let Charles do the talking/What are they even doing? What are Raven and Erik and Angel even thinking? "But you never figure out whether it's gonna work or not if you don't try it, right?"
They were driving through farm country now, minds scattered few and far between. It was extremely difficult to ignore his traveling companions' thoughts. "Armando's right," said Charles, trying to sound confident. "Let's not write off the plan before we've even given it a try, hmm?"
Sean's efforts at banishing his fears mostly consisted of him thinking about Frank Sinatra singing "I've Got You Under My Skin," very, very loudly. "Sure, Professor," he said in a reedy voice. It wasn't terribly reassuring.
I don't suppose you've got any words of wisdom to contribute? Charles asked on the off-chance that Old Charles was around. No answer. He sighed and focused on shielding them from Emma Frost's telepathy. He'd never actually tried this before, but it ought to work in theory, and the element of surprise was one of the few advantages they had. He wasn't about to give it up.
They pulled up outside the safe house at about 4:30. It was late enough in the year and they were far enough north that the sun was already setting. The place was desolate--nothing but bare cornfields for miles about, only the distant feel of loud minds in the distance hinting at the existence of Chicago and Gary.
"Wow. This sure looks promising," muttered Sean. They'd rolled down the windows, despite the cold, and Armando had stuck his head out the window, gazing at the barren landscape with a dubious expression on his face.
If there had been any doubt that they were in the right place, however, those doubts were dispelled when Azazel popped into existence right in front of their car. His face, which had been twisted into a threatening snarl, slackened in surprise, and he vanished with a cloud of smoke, gone as quickly as he had come. It seemed Charles's shielding had worked, at least.
"Holy shit," said Armando, and Sean nodded, too alarmed to speak.
Before Charles could assure them that this was actually a positive sign, and that things were going according to plan--before he could even send them a burst of mental reassurance--the door of the house flew open, screaming on its hinges, and Erik swept out, Raven and Emma Frost at his heels. "Charles?" he said incredulously. "What the hell are you doing here?"
*Oh, God,* breathed Old Charles in a corner of Charles's mind. For once, Charles found himself in utter agreement and sympathy with his future self. Erik. Still wearing his damned helmet, dressed in some sort of hideous red outfit that didn't suit him at all, with dark circles under his eyes, but Erik nonetheless, in all his glory. And Raven! Charles found he couldn't look her full in the face, for fear of what he'd see there, but she looked well enough. Healthy. Completely naked. Lord, why was she completely naked? No. No, Erik had asked him a question.
"Oh, um, Erik!" he said, as if they'd run into each other in the grocery store. God, he was an idiot. He needed to get out of the car--impossible to have a conversation like this, Erik on the front porch and Charles in the back seat of the rental car. Could you help me with the chair? he asked Sean and Armando.
"Sure," said Sean, glad to have something to do. He got out and pulled the chair out of the trunk, unfolded it, and held it steady while Charles transferred himself into it. Raven made a little choked-off noise; Charles busied himself with straightening his trousers so that he wouldn't have to see her or Erik's faces. His mental shields were so rigid it was as if he'd stuck his head in a lead box.
Once Charles was sure that everyone, including himself, had had time to school their expressions into something like calm, he looked up and gave Erik his best polite smile. "As I was saying, we've actually got something of a business proposition for you."
Erik, who had probably mastered the art of chilly calm while Charles was still studying Cary Grant films to learn how to flirt, raised one eyebrow and said simply, "Oh? And who is 'we'?"
"Oh, well. The Xavier Institute." He gestured towards Sean, and then Armando, who was still sitting in the driver's seat. "You remember Sean Cassidy and Armando Muñoz, I bel--"
"Darwin? " Armando barely had time to get out of the car before he found himself with an armful of naked blue shapeshifter. "Oh my God, Darwin, you're alive! Angel, get out here, it's Darwin!" Ah. Yes. It should probably have occurred to Charles that they would find this surprising.
Armando, taken aback and no little bit confused, put a tentative hand on Raven's shoulder. "Oh, uh, yeah. I kind of...turned into energy? Hank or the Professor could probably explain it better than me." He turned his head to look over the car at Charles, his mind a non-verbal question. Charles shrugged, trying not to feel jealous that it was Armando and not him Raven had seen fit to hug. It wasn't as if he wanted a close-up view of her breasts, anyway.
Angel appeared in the doorway, wearing a backless top of some sort that allowed her obviously well-healed wings to flit about freely. Sean gave her a weak smile, which she ignored in favor of staring at Armando as if she was looking at a ghost. Which, Charles supposed, from her perspective, she was.
Erik's eyes went sharp and then soft. He turned to Charles. "Energy?" he asked.
Charles nodded. "Energy. Albert Einstein, eat your heart out." They shared a grin, and for a moment it might have been a year ago. Charles and Erik against the world. Then Erik seemed to remember that he wasn't--that they weren't--that they had gone their separate ways, and he looked away, leaving Charles feeling vaguely cold.
Emma Frost rolled her eyes, looking excessively long-suffering. "What a touching little reunion." She focused her sharp eyes on Charles and said, "I didn't feel you coming."
"That was the idea, Miss Frost," Charles said, resuscitating his grin for her. There was something satisfying about having outdone her in at least one respect; from what he could understand, she was quite a skilled telepath, even leaving out the sort of crystalline shapeshifting business.
She nodded once, shortly. "Nice trick."
He nodded back in acknowledgement. Erik, apparently frustrated, looked from Emma to Charles and said brusquely, "You mentioned a business proposition?"
It wasn't exactly, Oh, Charles, I missed you, sorry for leaving you to bleed to death on the northwestern shore of Cuba, what a dashing new wheelchair you seem to have acquired. Charles still managed to keep the smile on his face as he said, "I did, yes. Perhaps you'd like to come out and discuss it?"
A slight frown wrinkled the spot between Erik's eyebrows. "Why not go inside?"
Charles gestured at the rickety wooden stairs leading up to the porch, then at his wheelchair. Erik looked down for a minute, the slightest hint of a flush staining his cheeks. Embarrassment, perhaps? Charles had never known Erik to get embarrassed.
"Ah," Erik said. "I see." Raven broke away from Armando, and she and Erik exchanged a look before Erik said, "I could always...." Instead of finishing the sentence, he curled two fingers up, and Charles could feel the spokes of his wheels shaking before the whole chair was lifted a whole inch off of the ground.
Distrust like alarm bells went off in Sean's head, but Erik could have no conceivable reason to harm Charles at this point, and his control already seemed miles better than when they'd trained at the mansion together, so Charles nodded and said, "If you would, it'd be much appreciated."
The inside of the house, like the outside, was what Charles imagined to be a rather typical Illinois farmhouse. Emma in her white furs, Quested in his impeccable suits, Raven and her...nudity...they all looked wildly out of place. Miss Frost caught the thought, and a reply as hard and sharp as a polished blade appeared in Charles's mind: It's a bit quaint, but it serves its purpose. Charles looked up to meet her eyes; she stared at him with assumed innocence. It keeps you out, doesn't it? She pictured the porch steps with mocking satisfaction.
Charles pictured thick stone walls around his mind and thought, perhaps more viciously than the jab had merited, I bet she poked dogs with sticks as a child.
*Hardly,* said Old Charles, and Charles blinked, hoping his surprise hadn't shown itself in either his face or a weakening of his shields.
What, are Miss Frost and I friends in the future? Do we sit about comparing childhoods?
Old Charles laughed in an avuncular way that made Charles want to take a hammer to his skull. *Friends might be overstating the case a bit. But yes, we know each other. We've actually got quite a lot in common.* Miss Frost frowned at Charles as if she were trying to figure him out, and Charles felt an exploratory tendril of thought trying to poke its way past his shields. Charles simply thickened said shields and smiled sweetly at her; she narrowed her eyes at him. Old Charles laughed again. *Believe it or not,* he said, *Miss Frost also takes an interest in mutant education. Some years down the line--in my timeline, anyway--she starts another school for mutant children.*
The image of Miss Frost, dressed in her Bond girl outfit and teaching children about the glories of nuclear war, was simply too absurd to be contemplated for long, and Charles banished it from his mind as he rolled up to the small kitchen table. Armando and Sean took a seat on either side of him while Erik and his associates ranged themselves on the other side of the table, Azazel and Quested standing as if to reinforce the point that they outnumbered Charles's people two to one.
"So," said Erik. "Your business proposition."
Charles reached into his jacket and pulled out an envelope Hank and Yasuo had put together. "Some preliminary design notes on Cerebro," he said plainly. "We're thinking of rebuilding it."
Half of the other party simply looked confused at this revelation, but Raven bit her lip, Emma Frost exhaled loudly, and Erik blinked. "You're recruiting," he said. "For what?"
"As I said earlier, the Xavier Institute." Charles looked at his hands and wished he had a drink or something with which to busy them. "After...all that business in Cuba, I decided that my career with the CIA was probably at an end."
Erik snorted. "I should say so," he said, a thin, unamused smile quirking one corner of his lips.
"Indeed," Charles continued, trying not to think too hard about what that smirk meant. "At any rate, after I got out of the hospital and rehabilitation and all that--" He didn't mean to look at Raven as he said this, but it would be rude to look at his hands the whole time, and he couldn't help it if she was the first to meet his eyes. "--I thought I'd best put all those years to academia to use, and open a school."
Now this seemed to surprise Erik, and he leaned forward. "A school?"
Charles nodded. "For mutants. The original idea was for it to be a high school, but man plans, God laughs, as they say. We've got about half a dozen students and about that many faculty--the teacher-student ratio is obviously fantastic, but a school with only six students is quite a small school indeed, and the business of finding mutant children in need of quality schooling is actually more complicated than one might immediately think, so...." He shrugged. "Cerebro."
Erik nodded, frowning. "And what makes you think we'd be interested?"
This was the tricky bit. Charles took a deep breath. "Well," he said, "Ms. MacTaggert still has some connections in the CIA, and one of them sent her some pictures the other day of you and yours breaking into one of their Chicago facilities." The atmosphere in the room changed immediately, as if the temperature had dropped; Miss Frost assumed her crystal form, Erik's face closed off into the hard face of a stranger, and even Raven seemed to grow a few inches. Charles soldiered on. "We talked the matter over, and thought that perhaps you, too, were recruiting."
"Did you," said Erik coolly. It wasn't even a question.
"Well. Yes." Old Charles, he thought, this might be an excellent time to help.
*Oh, I never had any idea what they were up to at this point,* said Old Charles. *Not until at least '65. Too afraid to find out. I can tell you that everyone but Erik and Mystique have left this group by '78, but I don't suppose that helps you now.*
Not all that much, no.
*Christ. I'm sure you get tired of my saying this, but Erik was so young. There aren't any pictures of us from '62, you know. It's so odd to see him at this age.*
Charles did, in fact, know that. He'd actually wept a bit, in the beginning, at the thought that the only records that Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr had ever been friends would be in his own head. You're right, he said. I do get tired of your saying that. To Erik, he said, "If we're wrong, of course I apologize for speculating and won't bother you further. But if we were correct--well, the idea was that you might come to New York for a bit and help us rebuild, I'd get some figures, and we could make a few lists, as it were. I could find children interested in learning to use their abilities in a more academic setting, and you could find. You know. Adults, who are dissatisfied with things and want to take more direct action. Well, no, I'd find them and give you their names."
"I'd want to use it as well," Emma cut in, but she was silenced by a glare from Erik, who turned back to Charles.
"Why do you need my help?" he asked. "I'm no inventor. Surely between you and Hank, you could re-engineer this thing."
*The world might be a better place if, in fact, Erik were no inventor,* said Old Charles, which wasn't especially helpful. Charles ignored him.
"Perhaps," he allowed. "But do keep in mind, the thing's like a giant metal golf ball. It runs on some of the same principles as a satellite dish, and it's about as big as one. I'm afraid I'm not as much use lifting and carrying things as I used to be, so it would actually be of some use to have someone around who can move metal with his mind." And then, because he was actually trying to make some sort of alliance with all of them, he added, "I daresay a teleporter and another telepath would also be useful. The original was built by a team of CIA contractors--a couple of high school teachers aren't going to be able to recreate it on their own."
"Depends on the high school teachers," Angel muttered, and the tension in the room broke for a moment.
Even Erik almost smiled for a moment before regaining his severity and saying, "How are we to know whether this proposition is sincere or whether you mean to feed information about us to your friends in the CIA?"
It's not that I don't trust you, Charles remembered Erik saying, just before he'd put that helmet on and condemned Charles to a lonely and painful death in Sebastian Shaw's head. Right. Trust, indeed. He shrugged with a casualness he didn't feel. "Leaving aside the fact that I have no reason whatsoever to do such a thing, you have got a telepath among your number. If you don't trust my intentions...." He tapped his head in invitation. "Look at them for yourself."
Emma Frost looked quite pleased at the prospect, Erik less so. "And if you give her false thoughts?"
That wouldn't actually be a bad skill to learn, but it wasn't one that had occurred to Charles to master thus far. "I don't know what to tell you, Erik," he said. "At some point you've simply got to take it on faith."
Erik made a doubtful harrumph-ing sort of noise and nodded at Emma. Almost instantly, Charles felt her cool, hard presence in his mind. He shut the doors to the places he'd rather she not go and imagined arrows pointing her towards his memories of discussing the plan with the faculty, the things he had done to keep the CIA from their doors, his genuine desire to mend the bridges between himself and Erik and Raven. He felt her poking about elsewhere, suspicious of anything that was offered her so directly, but not far and not into anything Charles wouldn't have been willing to tell her himself if necessary. She pulled out after a moment with a loud exhalation of breath, and Erik swept to his feet. His outfit may have been ugly, but it did make his every movement rather dramatic.
"We'll obviously have to discuss the matter further before we come to any decisions. In the meanwhile, it's rather late. Would you care to spend the night?"
Charles highly doubted that he'd be able to use any of the bathrooms here without assistance, and he hoped to God they had a first-floor bedroom, but at any rate, that was part of the reason Sean had come along, and they were a bit far from the city to drive back and find a hotel room now. "If you've no objections?" he said, turning to Sean and Armando.
"It's cool with me," said Armando, and Sean shrugged. Charles got the distinct impression that neither of them was planning on sleeping much that night.
He turned back to Erik. "Then, yes, and thanks very much for the hospitality."
Erik acknowledged his thanks with a nod and said, "Tempest. Show them to the guest room."
The name was unfamiliar, but Angel evidently answered to it now, pushing her chair back as if preparing to stand. Before she could, however, Raven, who was already standing, said, "No, I'll do it."
"I didn't ask you to do it," said Erik, and the two of them had an argument conducted solely through facial expressions, the sort Charles was particularly ill-equipped to interpret. At last, though, Erik conceded and said, "Fine. Mystique, get them settled and then meet us in the office."
"Aye aye, Captain," said Raven with a familiar, saucy tone. She crossed around to the other side of the table and said, "Follow me," motioning with one hand for Armando and Sean to get up. After pausing for a moment, she reached for the handles of Charles' wheelchair and pulled him from the table.
Charles felt indignation and tenderness warring in his chest and cleared his throat. "Excuse me," he said, "but if you'll just direct us towards your guest accommodations, I'm perfectly capable of following on my own."
Raven jerked her hands back from the chair as if she'd been burned. If Charles hadn't been so long accustomed to walling his mind off from hers, he thought she might have broken through his shields; even through them, he could feel her emotions pulsing, hot and confused. "Sure," she said. Without another word, she guided them down a rather dim and narrow wooden hallway behind the parlor. At one end of it was a bathroom; on either side, a small bedroom with a pair of twin beds. "Here," she said. "The one on the right's the guest room; the one on the left's Emma's. You guys can decide for yourselves who sleeps where."
"Hey, I don't want to be pushing anybody out of their beds," Armando began, but Raven waved his objections away with a gesture.
"Don't worry about it. It won't kill her to bunk with Angel and me for a night."
"If you say so," said Sean, who couldn't seem to stop himself from staring at Raven's body.
Hey, Charles said to him. That's my sister you're ogling.
Dude, Prof, I know, but, like, where am I supposed to look?
Try her face. To Raven, he gave a smile and said, "Thanks very much. I'm sure we can take it from here."
Raven chewed on her lower lip for a moment, shifting in an uncharacteristically graceless way from foot to food. "Yeah," she said, but she didn't leave, and they were all left in a tense little cluster at the end of the hall. Somewhere on the other side of the house, Charles could hear voices, but he didn't suppose his listening in would do anyone any favors, and his attention was needed in the here and now, no matter how uncomfortable it was. At long last, Raven said, "Do you have any bags in the car? I could go get them."
Ever the gentleman, Armando said automatically, "Oh, don't worry about that. I'll get them." He gave them all a thin, nervous smile and edged past Charles and Raven; a moment later Charles could hear the front door shut.
Sean looked from Raven to Charles and then back again; whatever he saw in Raven's face made his eyes widen, and he said, "Uh. Yeah, I'm just gonna--" And without even finishing the sentence, he followed after Armando, leaving Charles and Raven alone.
"Well, thanks again," said Charles, at the same moment that Raven said, "How've you been?" They both had to smile at that, and Charles said, "You first."
"Oh," said Raven, digging a bare toe into the carpeting. "Um. I just wanted to know how you've been."
Charles pondered carefully how to answer that question before saying simply. "Fine. And yourself?"
"Fine. Great." She let out a loud breath of air. "I didn't know. About the wheelchair."
He supposed that meant the Brotherhood hadn't been spying on him or anything. Thank God for small blessings. It was a rather cold comfort, though, given that it also meant that the girl he'd known and loved for fifteen years hadn't even thought to look in on him. "You might have phoned," he said. He probably sounded a bit angry, but, well, he was a bit angry.
"Phones work both ways," she shot back, but she must have realized the weakness in this particular comeback as soon as Charles had, because she winced almost immediately.
"Yes, but I didn't have your number. Or your address. And then there was that bit I was in the hospital. Wasn't making a lot of phone calls there. Too busy pissing myself and trying to keep myself from going insane from all the sick and dying people around me." He hadn't realized his voice was getting so loud until the sound of the others' voices across the house fell silent.
With an irritated scowl, Raven pushed Charles into the guest room and shut the door behind her. "Keep it down," she said, in a none-too-quiet tone herself.
"Oh, sorry," said Charles, beginning to feel lightheaded and reckless. "So sorry to be such a damned bother. So inconvenient, when your friends get shot in the back and you can't be arsed to see whether they're alive or dead. Silly me."
"Oh, up yours, Charles," Raven said, crossing her arms in front of her chest and lowering her head slightly, the way she'd always done when she was angry. "You told me to leave, and now you're getting angry that I left?"
"I'm not angry you left," said Charles, taking a deep breath. If he wasn't careful, he'd broadcast his anger all over the house. "I'm angry you left me there. You couldn't have gotten your red friend to teleport me out of a damned war zone? You couldn't have bloody visited me in the hospital?"
"We were on the run from the government, you asshole!"
"Right, sure, because it wasn't as if you had a telepath with you who could make the government forget all about you." Charles wanted to kick something, he wanted to pace, he wanted to fucking stomp his feet, but he had to settle for clenching and unclenching his hand around the armrest of the chair. "Oh, but wait half a moment. You did. And oh, wait, I did that anyway from my fucking hospital bed, until you had to fuck it all up by breaking into a CIA facility."
"Oh, what, so we could go back into hiding?" Raven spat. "So I could put on my human mask and follow you around like a damn lapdog?"
"So you could bloody live without being on the government's Most Wanted list!" Charles was getting loud again, but he couldn't make himself care too much. "I would have done anything for you, and you couldn't even--"
Raven snorted. "Anything? You would have done anything for me? That's a laugh." She paced, her scales flickering from one face to the next, her head periodically jerking back around to glare at Charles. "Anything but treat me like I wasn't some hideous monster you had to keep hidden. You know what I would have done if just once, just fucking once in my life you would have told me I was pretty the way I am?"
Oh. Oh, Lord.
She picked a loose scale off of one hand with her teeth and spat it to the floor. "I was in love with you for years," she said, the anger in her voice breaking into something a great deal more vulnerable that hurt Charles as her anger hadn't. "You were the only person in my whole world. But I was never good enough for you, was I? Just some ugly freak you kept around because Mom wouldn't let you get a kitten."
"Don't say that," Charles began, his own anger quite close to being burnt out, but Raven wasn't finished.
"I watched you flirt with every pretty girl you ever saw, and it was like you were stepping on my heart every time, but I put a smile on and put up with it, because I told myself that sooner or later you'd get it. Sooner or later you'd figure out that I was the person who made you happy, not them, and you'd figure out how I felt, and...." She made a noise like a muffled sob. "But you never did. Never even noticed. Just years of treating me like a kid and ignoring me and telling me I couldn't ever show my true face in public. So don't you play the fucking martyr to me. Why would you even care what I did?"
Her torrent of words apparently at an end, she gasped for breath. For just a second, her face flickered into the human one she'd adopted those last few years--the one she and Charles had come up with together, poring over magazines and pictures of movie stars, the one she'd come to hate so much at the end--before flickering back to her own face.
He'd come to think, a couple of years back, that those words, the secret Raven had held onto for so long, would never lie between them, said out loud for once. But Raven had always been braver than him. "I'm sorry," he choked out. "I'm so sorry. But...." It was as good a place to start as any. "I did figure it out, you know. Years ago."
He'd never seen her look more betrayed, and before she could reply, before he lost what he wanted to say in a thousand other things he wished he'd said long ago, he cut her off and said, "I didn't have to read your mind. All the, uh, lounging about in your robe, all the talk about what you looked like and whether I'd date you or not...I'm not the cleverest man in the world when it comes to that sort of thing, but I'm not an idiot either. I figured it out."
She frowned, her lip curling in indignant disbelief. "And you let me make an idiot out of myself like that?"
"I didn't know what to say," said Charles, feeling like a condemned criminal pleading for mercy. "I didn't want to hurt you--I didn't know how to tell you--"
"That you couldn't love me. I was too ugly. You wanted someone normal." She nodded, her eyes staring at some point over Charles's shoulder. "I get it."
He let out a rush of air, so frustrated he felt as if his body was incapable of containing all the things he wanted to say. "You don't get it at all," he said. "You're lovely."
"Yeah, right," said Raven with a contemptuous snort, but he shook his head.
"You are. You're unusual-looking, it's true, but that makes you all the more lovely. You're one of a kind--there's no other woman on this earth who's beautiful the way you are. I worried about your safety, but I never thought you were ugly. It isn't about that at all."
Her face was as open and defenseless as a child's. "Then what?"
"I--you're my sister," said Charles helplessly. "I mean, I know that we're not related by blood. I know you didn't see me as a brother. But I can't--I was an only child, you know, and I never counted Cain as a brother, but you were--" Damn. This had happened a lot to him as a boy. Words would fail him, and he'd end up stammering and stopping like a car with a faulty engine. "I did love you. I know you think I didn't, but--you can't imagine how happy I was when you came into the kitchen that night. I can't even think about what my life would have been if you hadn't. I loved you. I still love you. I'm sorry it's not the way you wanted me to, but I can't help it. You're family to me, you've always been. And..." He took a deep breath. "I never meant to hurt you, flirting with women like that. That was nothing to do with you, that was me being a coward."
She wiped tears from her face with one hand and blinked. "A coward? What do you mean?"
He rolled his chair forward and took her dry hand in both of his. He was so glad that she let him. "I'm going to tell you something now that I've never told anybody else. Please don't hate me."
"What is it?" she asked, staring into his face as if she could read it there.
"I'm a homosexual."
There was a long moment of silence before she scowled and grabbed her hand back. "No, you're not."
Charles had to laugh at that. "Well, I think I'd know, wouldn't I?"
"A homosexual. Like, you sleep with men." She couldn't have sounded any more dubious if he'd told her he was the wizard of Oz.
"Not recently," he said with a shrug, "with the wheelchair and the school and all. But...."
"Well, for a homosexual, you've sure fucked an awful lot of women," Raven said, her voice regaining some of its earlier hardness.
He shook his head. "Not as many as you think," he said. "I thought I'd try--well, minds are much the same, aren't they? Men's and women's, I mean. It seemed foolish of me to--to limit myself, I suppose, in such a way that I'd have to spend my whole life hiding it, when I was already hiding so much else about myself, so I tried to make myself, well, normal, I suppose. But...." He shook his head. "I don't know, I couldn't make it work. It would have been a lie. Me and any woman. It wouldn't have been fair to me or to her, so I just...." He shrugged. "I just accepted that I wasn't going to get married and have children, and kept on flirting because, well, it got a laugh and kept people from guessing the truth. Mostly."
Raven's face softened a fraction, but when she said, "You could have told me," the hurt in her voice was more difficult to bear than the hardness had been. "You didn't trust me."
"No," said Charles, distressed. "It wasn't like that, it--I couldn't--how to explain--" In desperation, he sent a wordless plea for help from Old Charles, but the silence was deafening. Perhaps Old Charles was listening to Erik and the others talk in some corner of his subconscious, or something. "Raven, please," he said finally. "I'm no good at words, you know that. Can't I please explain my way?"
Raven had never been so firmly opposed to his speaking in her mind as to his listening to her thoughts, but it was still a great relief to see her reluctant nod. Charles tried to distill it to the essentials--the insults and threats he'd gotten from Cain, Raven's whispered comfort: Don't worry, Charles, just because you're not a caveman doesn't make you a queer--the boys at boarding school, covering up their loneliness with loudness and casual brutality, letting some of their soft hidden selves show in quiet meetings in the dark--when he got older, going to bars while Raven was home doing her homework, sleeping with men who wouldn't even look at him the next day, occasionally sending would-be assailants off with a spot of amnesia--reading in the papers about clubs being shut down and 'perverts' being thrown out of government positions. And above it all, the gnawing fear--What if Raven thinks I'm a pervert, I cannot lose Raven, what if she hates me, the frightening uncertainty that came with trying to relate to her without telepathy, the deep-seated terror that either one of them would be discovered by strangers who wouldn't understand, who would ruin their lives in a way that even Charles couldn't make them take back.
When he was done, he pulled out of her mind and replaced the shields as carefully as he could. She looked at him, her face blank, and asked, "Does everyone at your school know?"
Charles shook his head, his heart in his throat. "No," he said. "I didn't think it was any of their business."
She laughed, softly but bitterly, and said, "Always so worried about fitting in, Charles. You're never going to be normal, you know. Really, you should tell them. You could have told me." Before Charles could think of a way to defend himself--if the deepest fears of his heart, the self-recriminations he'd beaten himself with so many times weren't good enough, he didn't know what would be, but by God he'd try--Raven was crying, really crying, and she'd fallen to her knees and wrapped her arms around his legs, sobbing into his trousers.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled, the different layers of meaning in her words seeping around the edges of Charles's mental shields. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
He combed her glossy red hair back, straightening her parting with his fingers the way he'd done so many times as a boy, and said, softly, "I'm sorry, too."
They sat like that for some indeterminable period of time. Charles would have been content to remain there for longer, stroking Raven's hair as her sobs subsided and his own breath evened out again, but finally a knock on the door interrupted them. "Uh, Charles?" said Sean's voice, unsure. "Can I, um, come in? I've got your stuff. And, like, I wanted to see if you needed any help with the bathroom."
Shit, it was about that time, wasn't it? He smiled at Raven, who'd hurried to her feet the second she'd heard the knock, and said, "Sorry, I'm on something of a schedule when it comes to my washroom activities."
"Because of the wheelchair?" she asked, her voice still soft.
Charles nodded. "Because of the wheelchair. Also, aren't you missing a meeting right about now?"
She waved a hand dismissively. "Eh. It's probably mostly over by now, unless Emma's nitpicking. She's worse than you with your dissertation. Everything's gotta be perfect with her." She opened the door for Sean, who slid in awkwardly and laid Charles's travel bag on the bed nearest the door. She watched for a moment longer, poised in the doorway, before saying, "We should have breakfast together tomorrow."
"Definitely," said Charles. "Have you got anything good?"
"We have tea, if that's what you mean," she said, and smiled briefly before leaving and shutting the door behind her.
In the middle of the night, Charles was awoken by a thought, and he sat straight up in his bed. It took a moment to remember where he was; when he did, he turned his head to take comfort from the sight of Sean, who'd fallen asleep despite his best intentions. In the room across the hall, Armando, too, had given into the exhaustion that came from travel and the tension that came from meeting with the Brotherhood. In fact, as far as Charles could tell, there wasn't a soul awake in this house, or for at least ten miles in any direction.
The thought must have come from inside, then.
Old Charles? he asked tentatively.
Old Charles didn't tend to show himself as an image very often--both of them were too well acquainted with mind-to-mind communication to need the illusion of a face. But suddenly, it was as if they were sitting across from each other, and he was staring into Old Charles's familiar weathered face.
This is quite nice, he offered. This illusion. I didn't know you could do this. Is it only with me?
One corner of Old Charles's mouth quirked in a self-deprecating little grin. *I can't actually do this,* he said. *You're still partly asleep--your subconscious is supplying most of the imagery.*
Do you know, my psychology professors would have had a field day with us.
Old Charles's smile grew a bit, but he said nothing. Charles took the opportunity to study his future self's face. It was a shame about the hair, he thought, and wondered when he'd start to lose it. He put less stock in personal appearances these days, and perhaps a receding hairline would even make him look more dignified, but still. From the fact that Old Charles still pictured himself in a wheelchair, Charles guessed that doctors wouldn't cure paralysis in however many years he had left to live. Well. If he had to grow into a bald, paralyzed old man, he supposed there were worse ways to go than to become Old Charles.
*I've always thought I knew myself rather well,* said Old Charles, startling Charles out of his contemplation.
*As I said. Between the understanding of others' minds from telepathy, and the psychology degree and all that...I thought I knew myself.* It was strange to see the rueful expression on Old Charles's face. For so long, he'd been only a strange, inexplicable voice. *But coming here, talking with you....* He sighed. *I think I've become more bitter than I realized, over the years. More set in my ways.*
Well, that's old men for you, said Charles, unsure.
Old Charles nodded. *Yes, I suppose so.* His eyes lost their focus, staring at something that must only have existed in an unfamiliar corner of Charles's mind. *It's so strange. I remember almost every day that I spent with Raven. But I had forgotten the feelings that went with the memories. The love we bore each other. It was easy to forget, in the end.*
Charles reached across the undefined divide and grasped his older self's hand. It was only a psychic projection, he knew, a figment of his imagination reaching out to a ghost that haunted his mind, but he hoped it was still capable of offering Old Charles comfort. The earlier encounter with Raven had left him feeling softer and more exposed than usual. That's dreadful, he said. I'm so sorry.
Old Charles covered Charles's hand with his own. *Thank you, my dear boy,* he said, the distant expression changing once again into a smile. *If death is inevitable, this isn't a bad way to spend the afterlife, I suppose.*
Do you think this is what happens when everyone dies? asked Charles. Do you suppose we just go over and over again to certain points in our lives, rewrite time and all that?
*I don't know, Charles.* Charles wondered, not for the first time, how old Old Charles really was. He seemed more tired than usual. *I don't know whether it would be a positive hereafter on a larger scale or not. Driving us all around in circles, pointing out all the places we went wrong....* He made a face. *I suppose it's a good thing, that you've been granted the opportunity to prevent some of the mistakes that I made. But at times I grow frightfully jealous of you. All the time that I wasted--you may well be the one who gets to enjoy it.*
And what then? asked Charles, less irked by the other Charles's jealousy than sympathetic. If I do get to enjoy all that time, well, won't you have enjoyed it, too? What with our being the same person, and all.
*I don't think so.* Old Charles shook his head. *When you grow to be my age...I don't think you'll be me at all.*
Charles frowned. What becomes of you then? Does your universe cease existing altogether, or does it go on while you're stuck in mine?
*Another excellent question,* said Old Charles, leaning back a bit in his wheelchair. His expression clouded for a moment, and Charles had the wildest urge to read his mind. It cleared after a moment, and Old Charles patted his hand once more before releasing it. *Don't worry about me,* he said. *I think you've got an exciting future ahead of you. I've been happy just to be a witness this time around.*
You don't get bored?
*Not at all. I do a great deal of thinking while you're busy with other things. Going over the past, thinking of things I might have done differently...I had an idea I've been pondering--at one point, it seemed unethical to me, but now, well. In the grand scheme of things, it seems less problematic than it once did to me.*
I shudder to think of what you've got in mind, Charles said, raising his eyebrows.
Old Charles laughed. *You needn't. Perhaps it's a decision you'll never have to face. You've changed so much already.* He hesitated, folding his hands in his lap. *Remember that you're not as alone as you think. You can ask for help. You don't have to make all the decisions yourself, and in fact you shouldn't. I think I forget that, sometimes. In the future.*
Lord, how can you possibly forget? Between you and Moira and Armando and Hank and all the rest of them, I'm amazed I get to make any decisions at all.
Old Charles laughed again even as his image dissipated, and Charles was abruptly ejected from the void and dropped into full consciousness, to the drafty bedroom in northern Illinois. He sighed. Evidently, Old Charles had weightier matters to ponder than, oh, the hereafter and the time-space continuum and the future of their lives. To be fair, being in this house had given Charles some preoccupations of his own. He had a sneaking suspicion he'd get no more sleep that night.
As quietly as he could, he pulled his wheelchair closer to the bed and maneuvered himself into it. Raven had said they had tea; he probably wouldn't be able to make himself any in their kitchen, but if they hadn't placed it too high up, he could at least see for himself what sort they had.
To his complete and utter shock, he wasn't the only person in the kitchen when he arrived. Erik sat at the table, his fingers steepled together on the table and that absurd goddamned helmet still on his head.
"Good Lord!" Charles exclaimed before remembering to lower his voice. "Do you actually sleep in that thing?"
Erik smiled wryly. "You assume I've done any sleeping tonight."
"An obviously false assumption." Charles wheeled himself closer to the table. It seemed the Brotherhood had enjoyed a roast of some sort for dinner; the smell still lingered around the counters and table. A teapot stood on the stove, while a mug, an old or empty one to judge by the lack of steam, stood in front of Erik's hands. "Well. Since you're awake anyway, could I trouble you for a cup of tea?"
Erik huffed out a laugh. "Since I'm awake anyway, I suppose." He pushed his chair back from the table and stretched, the movement causing his silly red shirt to ride up. Charles forced his eyes away to Erik's hands as he filled the teapot with water and put it back on the stove. This was not a notable improvement.
"I take it you had a productive talk with Mystique," Erik said over his shoulder. "She spent the rest of the night unsure whether to laugh or cry."
Charles hoped that was a good thing. "Mystique?" he said. "Not a Betty Friedan fan, then?"
"Hmm?" asked Erik with a frown.
"The Feminine Mystique? Book that came out this past February? It's about, oh, women's lib, and societal expectations for women and whatnot. The titular feminine mystique is this sort of widespread cultural norm making women feel they have to be housewives." Erik's baffled frown didn't dissipate. "Moira recommended it to me. It's quite interesting, actually--I should get Raven--Mystique, I suppose--a copy. I missed her birthday this year."
The frown was now more of a scowl. "Is Moira still at the mansion, then?"
"The school, yes. She wasn't for a while." There wasn't really any point in explaining about the memory-wiping thing, was there? Probably not. "She's back now, though. She's left the CIA, you know. She's been applying to graduate programs in biophysics, and helping out in the labs and with some administrative business around the school."
"Biophysics." Erik nodded slowly. "I see. I suppose it's a great help to her to have a doctor of genetics around. And a mutant, to boot."
"Mm-hmm. Less than you'd think, though. I suspect Moira's intellectual interests are altogether more practical than mine."
"Ah." Erik's mouth had flattened into a thin line. "Well. You still make for a nice couple either way."
Charles almost choked on his own spit. "Moira? And me? You must be joking. We wouldn't suit each other at all, and besides, she's dating the physics instructor."
Erik's expression didn't change, but some of the lines around his mouth lightened. Charles wasn't sure what to make of that--his carefully-studied understanding of facial expressions and emotional reactions tended to fall apart around Erik. "Which reminds me," Erik said, his voice still cool. "Miss Frost tells me you have several human instructors at your school."
"If by 'several' you mean 'four,' then yes."
Charles studied Erik's face. Once, he thought he'd been able to say the right thing to Erik at least part of the time. It hadn't ended well, though. "Well, I could tell you that Hank and I have very little experience teaching in the humanities, and that I don't know the first thing about teaching small children, which would be true. I could also tell you that the mutant population is as of yet only a sliver of the adult population of the United States and that of that sliver, only the tiniest of fractions is made up of qualified teachers--and I think I've hired them all--and that would also be true."
"But those aren't the real reason?" asked Erik, tilting his head slightly. It made him look a bit birdlike.
"They're real enough," said Charles with a shrug. "But honestly, I think it's also that I don't consider myself to be something separate from humanity. I'm not building a school so my students can spend the rest of their lives hanging about my house, I'm building it so that they can find a place for themselves in the world outside. They can't do that if they can't interact with humans and humans can't interact with them."
"And how have they accepted their mutant students?" The teakettle whistled; Erik removed it from the stove with a quick movement of his finger, cutting off the sound before it could wake anyone else.
Charles took a moment to admire his control before answering, "Quite well." Erik spoke as if he expected the worst, but then, many people did, so as not to be disappointed, and Erik had far more reason than most.
Erik smiled thinly. "And they're all like us are they, the students? With invisible mutations, ones that wouldn't cause a stir in polite company?"
Charles raised an eyebrow at him. "Erik, I'm not sure what exactly your experience with polite company is, but I can assure you that telepathy does, in fact, cause a stir. You try your floating teakettle trick at a cocktail party sometime and see what it gets you." Erik laughed at that, a short, sharp bark that still lifted Charles's spirits unaccountably. "Besides," he continued, "about half the students I have now haven't got invisible mutations at all. I've one I think you'd like to meet--her body's made of liquid metal. She can squeeze herself under doors. It's fantastic; she's almost as good at eavesdropping as I am."
"Quite an accomplishment indeed." Erik seemed to have relaxed some as he poured one cup of tea for Charles and then another, presumably for himself. His smile now was the toothier, more genuine one, a sign of humor rather than scorn.
"I'm sure Cessily would be pleased to hear you say that." He took a deep breath over his tea, taking in the warm steam. Perfect on a cold night. "So. Did your meeting go well this evening?
Erik shrugged, elaborately casual. "Well enough. I think you're likely to receive the assistance you've asked for." He sipped his own tea quietly and didn't meet Charles's eyes.
"Ah. Excellent." Charles wondered that Erik didn't feel the need to elaborate his answer more than that bare-bones statement, but it was likely he'd get more details in the morning. "If I might ask another question?"
The line of Erik's shoulders tensed. "Ask away."
"Do you honestly wear that helmet all the time? I would think Miss Frost would object." Charles certainly did. It was very odd indeed to pick up nothing, with no efforts at shielding at all, from a person sitting right in front of him. It made for an unsettling blank spot in his senses.
"Not all the time, no," said Erik flatly.
What did that mean? That he only put it on when Charles was about? As hurtful as that thought was, Charles didn't think that could be it--Erik had been wearing the helmet in the CIA's surveillance photos. So...did he only put it on when he was thinking especially important and private thoughts? When he was feeling emotions he didn't want anyone else to see? "All right," he said. "I actually thought I'd bring it up since--well, if you really are going to help with Cerebro and recruit from New York, your helmet might pose a practical difficulty."
"What, do you mean on planes?" Erik smiled, again that thin, sharp smile that wasn't really a smile at all. "I actually don't find myself going through airport security much at all these days."
Charles decided not to touch the questions that that raised. "That wasn't actually what I meant." He took another sip of his tea. "Only--there's a fair chance that some of the mutants you meet will be like me and Miss Frost. The fact that there are, in fact, at least two telepaths means there are probably more as well. One of my teachers, Miss Argosy, has an ability that resembles my own talent for mental manipulation; if it works on the same principles as telepathy, it's probably blocked by your helmet as well."
"Charles, what are you getting at?"
He looked down into his mug. "Well. I suppose I'm curious as to how you'll explain to them why you feel the need to keep something around to block telepathy and not, oh, teleportation, or controlling the weather, or what have you. What distinction do you make between the distrust and fear they'll get from humans and the distrust and fear they'll get from you?"
Erik set his mug down, the lines of his face harsh in the dim kitchen light. "Charles."
"I mean, I don't blame you," Charles went on, feeling stupid and inarticulate. "Everyone's got a right to privacy, after all. I suppose. Well, anyway, if they want privacy, I'm happy to give it. But from the perspective of ideological consistency, why would telepaths want to join a group that's interested in the pursuit of mutant liberation but doesn't trust its telepathic members?"
Erik shoved his chair away from the table and turned away from Charles, busying himself with something on the counter. "You are not a member of this group," he said.
"No," said Charles, deflated. "I suppose not." For all he knew, Erik trusted Emma Frost implicitly, invited her into his mind all the time. Stupid. He couldn't claim offense on behalf of all telepaths when the only other one he knew seemed to work with Erik with no problems.
"And while we're on the subject of ideology," said Erik, who was still facing the kitchen window, "what will you tell your students when a human outside of your walls hurts them? That no matter what's done to them, they have to forgive it with a smile on their face? That anything they should do to prevent themselves from being hurt again is worse than the original crime?"
Now Charles was lost. "What?"
"'Revenge will not bring you peace.' That's what you said, isn't it?" Erik turned around, glaring at Charles. "That's what this is all about, isn't it? You're angry that I wouldn't let you manipulate me into not killing Shaw."
"Manipulate--no, of course not!" Charles hadn't even thought of that, the way Sebastian Shaw had died. He'd been trying not to.
"And this is why your school is bound to fail in its purposes," Erik continued as if Charles hadn't even spoken. "The human world will trample your students under its feet, and you'll let it. You can't take both the side of the oppressor and the oppressed, Charles--you think it's fair, but it isn't, and it's how the oppressors gain power time and time again--when the good and the evenhanded people care more about fairness than justice."
"I'm glad you killed Shaw!" Charles shouted, and then immediately covered his mouth. "Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get so loud. I hope I haven't woken anybody."
Erik shook his head as if in disbelief, staring through narrowed eyes at Charles. "You're... glad."
Charles nodded and said, more quietly this time, "Yes, I'm glad. He was a sociopathic megalomaniac, and I don't believe for a second that anything but death could have stopped him. He'd probably have sunk the world in nuclear winter if he'd been allowed to go on. Just because I don't go about strangling people with pipes doesn't mean I'm a complete idiot."
"But then...." Erik frowned."Why...."
Charles had hoped he would never have to speak of this. He could never forget it, but he could tuck the memories away, put them where he wouldn't have to look at them. He'd always been a coward that way, though--sometimes you had to lance a wound, and sometimes you had to tell people the truth, regardless of how it would make them or you feel. "Look, Erik," he said, "I don't know why you thought I was directing you towards where Sebastian Shaw was hiding if not so you could kill him. But when--in the end--when you took the helmet from his head--it hurt."
Erik scoffed. "Don't be absurd. It doesn't hurt you not to be able to read somebody's mind. I have been working with a telepath for about a year now, you'll recall."
"No, you bastard, but it bloody well does hurt to have a coin shoved through your head!"
"I didn't--" All the color suddenly drained from Erik's face, and he swallowed slowly, looking like hit hurt him to do so. "You felt that?"
"Of course I fucking felt that! I didn't stop holding Shaw still for you when you put the damned helmet on--I was in there the whole time. He was strong--it took everything I had just to keep him still. We could have done it another way--we could have knocked him unconscious and killed him while he slept, I could have manipulated him into putting all that nuclear energy of his back in the generator and you could probably have killed him with your bare hands, you could have held him still yourself with all the metal in that room and strangled him with a damn pipe while I stayed out of it. But we didn't, because you couldn't do me the courtesy of waiting after the damn battle to decide you didn't trust me."
Erik wiped at his mouth. He looked a bit nauseated, but Charles had a hard time mustering up to much sympathy. "I didn't--I knew you could see and hear through Shaw, but I didn't know you felt his pain as well."
"Well, Christ," said Charles, "I thought you'd been working with a telepath for a year. Don't you know everything there is to know about the matter?"
It seemed Erik couldn't think up a response to that. Instead, he turned and paced up and down the length of the kitchen, his expression growing darker with every step. Charles had expected to feel satisfied, relieved, something along those lines, but instead he felt mostly drained. He wanted to go back to the guest room and drink the rest of his tea in silence and peace. "I'm sorry," he said. "It doesn't matter now, anyway. We can talk more in the morning." He turned his chair around to leave.
The wheels froze, stopped in place, and then the whole chair whirled about to face Erik so quickly it made Charles a bit sick. Erik was breathing hard, but with emotion, not exertion.
"You see, this--" he said, pointing his finger at Charles, "this is what I don't trust about you. If a man had done to me what I've done to you--shoot me, multiple times, apparently, paralyze me, abandon me, the only time we would ever meet again would be when I killed him. But you come to me with an invitation to your home--a school full of children, no less--and an offer to help me recruit more to my side. You sit in my kitchen and drink my tea and apologize for no reason. Wheelchair or no, you're not a weak man. You could have had your vengeance at any time, but you don't seem interested. Why? "
"Well," said Charles, taking a quick sip of tea to fortify himself. He wished he'd thought to ask Erik for a spot of brandy to pour into it. "I could tell you that I don't blame you--that it was an all an accident, and you didn't mean any of it to hurt me, which I think would be true. I could tell you that getting in touch with you is more or less the only way for me to speak with my sister, whom, despite all the damage we've done each other, I love very much. And that would be true. I could tell you that it's absurd for us to be at odds--it's not like the country's full of groups trying to achieve mutant visibility and equality, as far as I can tell it's just us, and someone had to make the first move. And that would also be true."
Some of the fire left Erik's eyes, and he sagged against the counter, looking exhausted. "But none of those is the real reason?" he said with a weary grin. "It seems we've had this conversation before."
Charles sighed. "That's one thing I have a hard time communicating to people who aren't telepaths. There's almost always more than one reason for why someone does something, and they're all real reasons." He rolled himself back up to the table and set his tea down. His breath felt tight in his chest. This was as brave as he'd ever been, he thought. "Did Raven happen to mention what we'd spoken about this evening?"
Erik frowned in confusion. "No."
"Well, then." Charles looked up, meeting Erik's eyes. They were still that lovely pale shade of grayish-blue, appropriately metallic. As ever, Charles couldn't read anything in them. "This is going to seem irrelevant, but I promise it's not."
"All right," said Erik dubiously.
"Here's the thing. I've only ever been in love once. Now, don't interrupt," said Charles, holding up a hand. Even without telepathy to help him, he could still see Erik's mouth opening to question him. "Like I said. I've done my share of flirting and dating and what have you, but I've only ever really been in love once." He took a deep breath and listened to it rush out as he exhaled. "And...and it wasn't with a woman. And it wasn't with a human."
"Hank, was it?" said Erik in the deadpan tones of the straight man in a comedy duo. "Perhaps being attracted to him is an Xavier family trait."
Charles was startled into laughter. "No, no, it wasn't Hank, though he's a dear friend." Erik grinned crookedly at him, and Charles huffed out another laugh before steeling himself for the next bit. "Do you want me to...do I need to say who it was?"
Erik's grin faded. "No. No, I think I've got it." He bit his lower lip, looking as vulnerable as Charles had seen him since they'd parted ways. "I didn't know you were...."
"No reason you should, since I never mentioned it. Now, you don't need to worry. I'm not going to...to hit on you, or bother you about it or anything. I don't expect anything of you, and I'm not a pervert."
"Never thought you were," said Erik in a low voice.
"But I...." He thought of how sad Old Charles had been when they'd spoken earlier, and no bloody wonder. He couldn't bear the thought of himself and Erik, meeting up rarely and mistrusting each other when they did, always getting in each other's way and spoiling each other's plans, more like enemies with a past than friends. And the thought that they might actually try to kill each other was so horrific it went past pain into a sort of terrible nothingness, like a sinkhole or a mask with no face behind it or that moment in Cuba after he realized he'd been shot in the back but before it had begun to hurt. "Look," he said, "All I'd like is for us to be friends."
"Friends," said Erik with a snort. "Charles Xavier, I don't think I've ever met anyone else like you."
Charles tried a smile. "Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?"
"I'll let you know as soon as I figure it out." He sat back down at the table at last and, of all things, reached out to grasp Charles's hand. "You're the best friend I've ever had, and I'd probably trust you more if I liked you less."
"I don't really know what to say to that," said Charles. He barely understood it, distracted as he was by the warmth of Erik's rough and slender hand around his own. He hoped it wasn't a farewell.
"You don't have to say anything." Erik gripped his hand once, tightly, before letting go and standing up again. "Well. I understand that you've gotten some sleep tonight, but I haven't, and it's been a long day. I'll see you in the morning."
"Right," said Charles, blindsided still. "Good night."
"Good night." Erik left the room with one last nod in Charles's direction, and Charles listened to him go up the creaking stairs and walk down the hall, his footsteps not heavy but solid.
Well, he said to Old Charles, I don't suppose you've been listening and can tell me whether you think I've utterly fucked it up forever. I really wouldn't mind having someone to talk to right about now.
Whether Old Charles wasn't interested in talking or had simply checked out to his mysterious haunts, he didn't say anything, and Charles was left to finish his tea alone in the kitchen, nervous but strangely light, as if a burden he had carried for a long time had finally been set down.
Breakfast the next morning felt like nothing so much as an extremely awkward family reunion, with all nine of them crammed around the far too-small table. Armando tried gamely to make conversation while Angel stared at him as if she were afraid he'd disappear at any moment. Sean ate like a horse and looked dubiously at Azazel and Quested--Janos, it turned out was his given name--while they looked dubiously at Charles and wondered if he was planning some unpleasant trick for them. Emma responded to Armando's efforts at conversation with cool politeness, sounding like someone's maiden aunt. Erik focused on nothing but his plate; Raven seemed more inclined to steal things off of Charles's plate. Charles had been pleased to note that Raven had come downstairs that morning wearing actual clothes--to be sure, the neckline of her red dress was quite low and the skirt quite short, but still, clothes!
"That's a lovely dress, Raven," he said as she stabbed one of his breakfast potatoes with her fork. Then the thought occurred to him--"Wait. Would you prefer Mystique?" He'd been thinking of her as 'Raven' this whole time, but Erik and Old Charles had consistently called her by the other name.
She gave him a long, studying look before saying, "Nah. It'd just sound weird coming from you." She ate her ill-gotten gains before saying, "I'm getting really good at just doing clothes without changing my shape." Her body rippled somewhat, clothes and all, and the red dress was suddenly the same yellow as her eyes. Charles clapped appreciatively.
Angel tore her gaze from Armando for a moment to roll her eyes at Raven and say, "Show off."
Raven stuck out her tongue in Angel's direction before grinning at Charles. "I thought I'd throw a bone to your stodgy old man ways for the morning."
"My stodgy old man ways are very grateful," he said, stealing a piece of toast off her place in retaliation for the potato. "You look a picture."
"But a picture of what?" They shared a smile. It was an old joke between them.
It's been weird not to have you around this past year, said Raven. It had been years since she'd projected a thought at Charles, and the message echoed, immensely loud, in his head. This isn't an invitation to read my mind, she added firmly with an undercurrent of suspicion.
I didn't take it as one. Charles had almost forgotten what Raven's thoughts felt like in his head. They weren't like other people's; Raven had been the first person to have an actual telepathic conversation with Charles, and his pathetic gratitude at having someone so interested in talking to him, her own eagerness to share her strangeness with another person and to have someone in her life that she trusted, had left a permanent impression in the way his mind received her. Charles didn't realize how long he had been missing it.
I'd never been without you that long, not even when you went away to school. It hurt. Sometimes I had to tell myself I hated you just so I wouldn't go find a pay phone and call you.. Charles wondered if anyone else around them had noticed that Raven's expression hadn't changed at all in over a minute; he wagered Emma Frost had. He was pretty well-shielded as it was, but he reinforced his defenses and tried to picture shields around Raven's mind, as well, so that they could talk in peace.
I'm sorry, said Charles, and then, because it seemed as if mutual confessions of emotion accomplished much more than the calm unaffectedness he often attempted in such situations, he added, I got so angry. I've never been so angry with you in my life, and I hated it. If you had called, I probably would have just made stupid, incoherent noises at you over the phone.
Raven laughed, and Erik looked strangely at her. It seemed as if Azazel and Armando had finally gotten a conversation going, about politics, which was nice. It distracted the rest of the table from Charles and Raven. Maybe it wouldn't have worked between us even if you liked girls, Raven said. You never were good at talking about stuff.
No, Charles agreed.
Do you have a boyfriend? Her voice was elaborately casual. You'd still call it a boyfriend if it were two guys, right?
Charles just barely restrained himself from doing something immature like rolling his eyes at her. Yes, he said, in between learning how to get dressed again and starting a school for children with super powers, I got myself a boyfriend. We go out to dinner every night and then go to the theater on the weekends.
You should. The firmness of it surprised Charles. You shouldn't have to hide.
He could feel himself flush and covered it up by stuffing his face with toast. Well, none of us should have to hide, in a perfect world. When he looked up again, Raven was smiling at him, soft, as Charles hadn't seen her smile in years. Her smile gave him the courage to ask, Is it all right, then? Do you think we can just be brother and sister?
Probably healthier that way, she said, helping herself to some more orange juice from the carton in the center of the table. Give me some time, but yeah, I think I can handle that. I got over loving you. I can get over hating you, too.
Wonderful, said Charles, and he reached over to pat her hand as he might have done a year or so ago. She snorted but let him.
"All right," said Erik, pushing his chair back from the table. "Enough chit-chat. Let's get down to business."
Charles could get down to business with the best of them, so he took his hand back from Raven, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and met Erik's hard stare full on.
The jist of what they hammered out was this: rebuilding Cerebro wouldn't be done in a day, a week, or probably even a month, and the Brotherhood couldn't spend an indefinite amount of time fiddling with telepathy amplifiers; they were quite busy with...something. Whatever they did, which Charles was not going to be allowed to know. They were, however, interested in helping. So Charles, Sean, and Armando would go back to New York to begin the work, finding the space and getting the plans together and getting the contractors to build a room, either in the basement or as a side-building. Erik and Raven and possibly some of the others would come up to the Institute in January, while the children were on winter holidays, and they would get as much of the work as they could done then.
When the term started up again, the faculty would continue to fine-tune while the Brotherhood obtained any specialized equipment or parts they might require. (Charles decided it was probably best not to ask whether these things would be obtained legally or not.) When Cerebro was finished and it had been tested to both parties' satisfaction, Charles would train Emma on how it worked and they would gather recruitment data. Should the Brotherhood require further data at a later time, they would request permission to come to the school to gather it, on the understanding that Charles would grant such permission, barring extraordinary reasons not to do so.
Probably they would quarrel over just what "extraordinary" meant. Probably Azazel and Janos, who still didn't trust Charles as far as they could throw him, would raise various objections when it came to doing the actual work. Probably unforeseen troubles would disturb the equilibrium between their groups in the days to come. For the time being, though, both parties were satisfied and Charles was quite content.
Their airplane tickets were for early in the afternoon, so as soon as they'd discussed every detail to death, it became necessary for Sean, Armando and Charles to gather their things and get back on the road in an efficient manner. It went quickly, as they hadn't brought much, and Angel and Raven were willing to help them carry the few things they'd brought. It was surreal, really--Charles's last memories of Raven were wretched blurs of pain and regret, while Sean and Armando both had extremely ambivalent recollections of Angel, and yet, here they all were, exchanging pleasantries and handing each other suitcases. If Charles had been anything of a writer, he thought the whole thing might have made a funny short story à la James Thurber.
Charles wasn't much use carrying things to the car, unless Erik were willing to ferry him up and down the stairs as needed, so he sat on the porch and watched his sister and his first recruits have their little reunion. It was a shame Alex and Hank hadn't been able to make the trip, he thought. His left leg twitched and he rubbed at his calf and knee. He really was going to regret all this cramped traveling, he thought.
It was at that point that a mind abruptly winked into existence, and Charles jerked back in his chair so hard he thought he might have pulled something in his neck.
From behind him, Erik's voice said, "Well. If I ever need to distract you, I've got a pretty good idea how to do it."
Charles wheeled himself around almost frantically to see Erik, standing in the front door and holding the helmet in his hands in front of himself.
"Erik," said Charles, and then, like an idiot, he couldn't think of anything else to say. Erik's mind was like--it was like the sun had suddenly appeared in the middle of the night. Even through Charles's hastily-deployed shields, he could feel the other mind's presence and warmth. Charles didn't remember Erik's mind being this overwhelming, but then, it had been over a year since he'd last felt it, and there were precious few other minds out here to distract him.
"Charles," said Erik, twisting his mouth in a wry almost-smile. He shifted the helmet to one hand and reached out his other for Charles to shake. "Have a safe trip," he said.
They shook hands, and Charles nodded, still a bit dazed. "Thanks very much. I'll see you in January, then?"
"January," Erik said. He paused for a moment, peering at Charles as if he had something written on his forehead, before saying, "Charles. I'm not sure that I'm really the kind of man made for...love." He tapped his head, as if in invitation, and Charles peeked quickly, careful not to intrude where he wasn't wanted or overstay his welcome.
He liked to think he'd learned something from the first go-round with Erik.
Erik's mind now was like a labyrinth of carefully-constructed metal corridors, but in the first room Charles came across was this: I don't mean with you I don't mean because you're homosexual (That means nothing to me and I don't think the less of you for it) I mean because there is only so much I can lose before there is nothing left and I have only now started to find things I do not wish to lose.
Charles pulled out. "I understand," he said, and it wasn't hard to find a smile for Erik.
"Of course," said Erik. "I've been known to be wrong about that sort of thing before." He squeezed Charles's hand once more before turning and going back into the house, sending Charles down the steps with a flick of one hand. He hadn't gone three or four steps before he put the helmet back on. It was like dousing a bright fire in Charles's mind, but Charles found he had no complaints.
The car was ready to go. While Sean and Armando exchanged stilted farewells with Angel, Charles looked up at Raven. "You'll write this time, won't you?"
Raven shrank down--not into a child, but into a perfect, miniaturized version of herself--in order to look Charles in the eye. "Yeah," she said. "I think we've got a P.O. box--I'll send you the address."
"Good," said Charles. "I owe you a birthday card."
She laughed. "Sure, you're only, what, three months late. Is it okay if I just give you two presents on your next birthday?"
Charles reached out to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "I'll see you in January--I'll just count that as an early birthday-slash-late Christmas present."
"You're such a cornball, Charles." She leaned over to wrap her arms around his neck. Her scales were rough against his face, and he imagined that his stubble was rather rough on hers, but neither of them pulled away.
"You're all right here?" Charles said softly. "You're happy, right?"
Raven breathed out, leaving a warm spot on Charles's collar, and pulled back so she could look him straight on again. "Yeah," she said. She had innumerable faces, and Charles had practiced reading a lot of them, but he liked to think that her true face was the one he could read best, and that he could see the truth of her words in the steadiness of her eyes and the thoughtful set of her mouth. "I think so. You?"
Charles nodded. It was a bit like when Alex and Sean had left for college, he thought. Painful, but in a good way. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I am."
"You ready to go, Professor?" asked Armando hesitantly.
Raven grew again to her regular height and stepped away, going to stand over next to Angel in front of the porch steps. Charles nodded. "Yes," he said. "I'm ready."
When they'd gotten out of sight of the safe house, Armando sighed in relief and said, "I gotta say, that went a lot better than I expected it to."
"I guess," said Sean. "That Azazel guy still freaks me the hell out, though."
Charles tuned them out and listened to the growing rush of minds as they got closer to the city. His own mind felt strangely empty, despite the warmth of his emotions, as if a small corner of it had been hollowed out. Old Charles was silent the entirety of the drive, and then the entirety of the flight. Maybe that meant something. Maybe it didn't. It seemed that everything over the last few days had been grand and significant, but some things--the flat airplane soda, the sound of a small child laughing two rows behind Charles, Sean and Armando's friendly debate about whether Johnny Cash could sing or not--were comforting in their smallness. Charles settled into his seat and pictured Moira and Alex at the airport, waiting to pick them up. He was ready to go home.