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Ripples in a Pond (the Strong Roots Go Deep Remix)

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Jean stared apprehensively at the man in front of her.

Charles Xavier stared straight back at her, smiling.

‘That’s not him,’ Raven said quietly from behind her, as if she were the mind-reader and not Jean. ‘That’s not Charles. That’s …’ she trailed off, unable to say just who or what it was that was destroying her brother’s mind.

‘A parasite.’ Erik’s voice was grim, and when Jean turned to look at him she saw his fierce, stony gaze fixed unflinchingly on Charles, his eyes seemingly unable to look away. ‘Call it what it is. A filthy parasite leeching off Charles’s powers, leeching off him, using his telepathy to subjugate and control everyone around him.’

Parasite. The word sounded right to Jean. That was what they were dealing with now – what was inside Charles and causing him to act the way he had been. A parasite.

Parasites can often end up killing their hosts. Jean winced as she heard Hank’s fearful thoughts and she determinedly pushed them out of her head. She had her own fears and worries to deal with just now; she did not need everyone else’s too.

In front of them, the Charles that was not Charles grinned back at her, the thick metal helmet that Erik had jammed on his head doing little to mitigate the calculating hunger in his eyes.

‘Jean.’ Everyone froze as Charles spoke, his voice low and smooth and sweet and so much like the Professor’s … and yet so very much not. ‘Jean, my Jean, why are you doing this? Why are you fighting me, dearest? Why, when all I want is what is best for you?’ His eyes moved away from Jean’s to sweep over the rest of them. ‘The best for all of you.’ His eyes lingered on Erik, but when Erik’s expression hardened, Charles’s gaze swung imploringly to Hank, who still looked miserable and uncertain.

Oh no you don’t, Jean thought grimly. Hank, out of all of them, was the most vulnerable to the Professor’s pleas, and the parasite clearly knew it. Jean wasn’t going to let this creature taunt and manipulate Hank any more than it had; it had already hurt him far too much. It was time to do what had to be done.

Setting her jaw, she straightened up and took a deep breath.

Now, she commanded, and when the helmet was abruptly whipped off Charles’s head, she didn’t hesitate. Fuelled with nothing more than fear, hope and determination, she threw her whole being outwards and dove down into the deep dark abyss that was the mind of the Professor.

*

It was dark inside the Professor’s head.

Jean had been inside Charles’s head on numerous occasions but this was the first time that the place had felt forbidding. Where before it had been open and welcoming it now appeared to her a cold, dark barren landscape that had been leeched of all of the Professor’s usual gentle warmth and comfort.

It shook her more than she had expected.

She had loved being inside the Professor’s head. It was by no means a frequent thing that she was invited in, what with most of their private lessons occurring within the confines of her own head, but it was not unusual either, and she had always regarded those moments that Charles let her into his mind as the greatest and most personal of privileges. To see his mind as it was now … her heart almost broke at the sight and her hope almost deserted her then and there.

Almost.

‘I will find you, Professor,’ she whispered, shoring up her courage and hardening her resolve. ‘I will find you and I will get you out of this. And then I will find him.’ For somehow she knew now that it was a him that had caused this trouble and – furthermore – that the parasite was not as alien a creature as she had at first believed. There was something there … something familiar …

A shiver ran through the surroundings, like a ripple that occurred when a pebble was dropped in a pond. Jean immediately turned towards it and narrowed her eyes.

‘I’m coming for you,’ she said aloud, feeling her power blazing up inside of her, waiting to act at her command. Reassured by its presence, she lifted her head and then determinedly began to stride forward, into the gloom, towards the heart of the ripple in the pond.

*

She walked for what seemed to be hours. The landscape did not change but she did not falter. She did not tire – how could she? She had no body to tire, and her persistence was unflagging.

At last – at last – she saw a glimpse of light up ahead and she hurried towards it. She paused when she came near it and frowned. It was just an ember – barely a spark – but it was there and it glowed, the one warming light in a sea of nothingness. It did not seem to be harmful – or indeed, out of place. In fact, out of everything – which is to say, the nothing – that she had seen in Charles’s head, it was this tiny spark that seemed to be the most organic.

Jean held her breath. ‘Professor,’ she whispered. The ember brightened slightly at the touch of her breath before settling down again. Jean looked at it for a moment and then slowly sank down to the ground, crossing her legs and leaning over the ember. Holding her hands up to her lips, she cupped her palms around her mouth to form a makeshift chimney and then she began to gently blow.

The ember flickered briefly but, as Jean continued to breathe life into it, pushing air as well as a thread of her own fiery powers down into its midst, the ember began to glow more brightly, no longer simply sparking and flickering but holding the light steadily. Jean continued to work, continuing as the glow grew bigger and brighter, until at last she looked up and saw that she was no longer in pitch blackness; instead, she was in a room.

Jean stopped and slowly lowered her hands down. She rose to her feet, looking around curiously. It appeared to be a kitchen – a large kitchen, perhaps, but a kitchen nonetheless. She cocked her head to the side. It looked familiar to her … and then with a start she realised it was the school’s kitchen, as it had been before the house had been demolished and remade in the wake of Apocalypse’s attack. She paused and then frowned. No, she corrected herself. It was the kitchen as it had been long before the school had been a school.

As if to confirm this, she heard the pattering of feet on the staircase and she turned just in time to see a young boy in blue striped pyjamas tiptoe into the room.

Jean took a step back to retreat into the shadows.

‘Wait! Who are you?’

Jean paused, hesitating, and then, making a swift decision, she moved forward, holding out her hand. Don’t be frightened, she soothed the boy, not quite sure what was going on.

The child – Charles, she abruptly realised, a very young Charles – paused in front of her, wide-eyed. Then he broke out into a smile. ‘I always believed I couldn’t be the only one in the world,’ he breathed, full of innocent delight. ‘The only person who was … different.’ He looked at her, taking her in from head to foot, and let out a laugh of happiness. ‘And here you are!’

The words were breathless and joyful and pleased … and yet they had a strange note to them; they almost sounded rehearsed. Ah, thought Jean. Of course. I am in a memory.

As if to confirm it, she looked down at herself and saw that she was not the Jean of the present but instead the Jean she had been several years ago, when she had been a child.

Jean had not been in that original memory, of course not – but perhaps she was in the place of someone who had been there …

‘Raven,’ she breathed.

‘Charles Xavier.’ Charles – so young and so pleased and so full of innocence – bounced on the ball of his feet, his eyes roving over her, drinking her up with his large blue eyes. ‘You’re hungry and alone. Take whatever you want,’ he said eagerly. ‘We’ve got lots of food. You don’t have to steal. In fact, you never have to steal again.’

Jean felt her heart clench at those words. The Professor had always been the kindest soul she had known – the parasite’s actions she determinedly discounted – and it warmed her heart to know that this kindness and generosity had been present in him even as a child.

This is who you are, Professor, she thought firmly, her resolve strengthened anew. This is the man you are. Not the parasite. Remember this, Professor. Remember who you are. As she spoke she felt her powers spread out, tangling with the edges of the memory and strengthening them, anchoring them. She would not allow Charles to lose this. Remember.

The world around her trembled. She took a step back and continued on her way.

*

Jean encountered several more memories on her way through Charles’s mind. She dealt with them each in the same way as the first, tending the embers and fanning the flames until the memory resurged and was whole again. Each memory was a momentous one, often a precious one, though not always. Jean saw several moments in Charles’s life that appeared to have left an indelible mark on him, moments that were so private and personal that she almost wanted to draw back and turn her face away in case she saw something that Charles wouldn’t have wanted her to see.

She saw his childhood. She saw Charles grow up, alienated and alone. She saw the experiments that were performed on him, the things that were done to him. She saw him watch his father put his gun to his temples and pull the trigger. She saw Charles’s mother descend into drink. She saw Charles’s new stepfather and stepbrother join the family, and saw the way that they treated him. She saw school, and Oxford, and Raven.

She saw Charles diving into the water to save a man – Erik, she realised with shock, he was saving Erik – and witnessed the instant, electric connection he made there. She saw the newly-formed X-men take the fight to a helmet-wielding madman. She saw Erik take up the same helmet and follow down the same path. She saw Charles lose his legs. The start of the school. The end of the school. Hank, always there, always at Charles’s side and lifting his spirits. She saw a man – a man she had seen before, the wild man who they had rescued from Stryker – leaning forward and looking at Charles with such immense belief and affection, telling him your best is enough

She saw herself. She almost gasped when she saw the memory emerge, saw a reflection of herself – younger, weaker, smaller in every way – and she saw, this time from Charles’s perspective, how their first meeting had gone. She remembered for herself how indescribable it had been to meet someone like her – not just a mutant but a telepath – for the very first time, and now she saw the same feelings of wonder and happiness – more measured perhaps, but still no less joyful – present in Charles too.

Tears in her eyes, she smiled and stepped back, warmed immeasurably by the fact that a moment in her life which she had considered to be so very precious was held in the same regard by the person who had shared it with her.

The area around her gave a slight tremor. A voice like a sigh rose up, soft as a dying breeze.

Jean …

Professor! Jean tried to snatch at the voice, to cling on to the thread that was purely Charles, the real Charles, but it was too ephemeral; he slipped through her fingers, vanishing.

It gave her hope, however. Charles was there, maybe only barely, but he was there and Jean could save him. She would save him.

I’m coming, Professor.

She continued on her journey.

The memories grew more frequent as she progressed and she found that she barely needed to encourage them in order for them to solidify.

That’s it, Professor, she whispered to him. You’re getting there. Keep fighting.

The memories weren’t the only things that she encountered, however. Several times she had to extricate the embers of memory from a pool of pitch black ooze that clung to the memories and tried to smother them. The closer she got to the centre of the maze of Charles’s mind, the harder the tar-like substance fought, writhing and wrapping even tighter around the memories, trying to bury them.

Jean made sure she burned out every last speck.

At long last – it could have been hours or days or weeks for all she knew – she arrived at the centre of the maze. Where before the surroundings she had walked in had been dark and wispy and clouded – so unlike Charles’s true mind, which was warm and golden and full of light – now she encountered an entire sea of thick black pitch, far more of it than she had seen thus far. And, in the middle of the back sea, there was a pyramid.

Suddenly Jean knew who the parasite was, and how it had entered Charles’s mind.

Apocalypse, she said grimly. It’s Apocalypse.

‘Apocalypse,’ she heard her body repeat aloud to the tense audience around her in the real world. ‘It’s Apocalypse.’

She continued forward until she reached the edge of the black sea. She paused then and looked down at her feet. They were scant millimetres from the edge, almost touching the roiling blackness.

Jean closed her eyes.

Flames blossomed across her body, spreading from head to foot, engulfing her completely. She opened her eyes: red, like the colour of the flames. Then she lifted her foot and calmly stepped out onto the ocean of black.

She passed serenely through. Behind her, the thick black sea sizzled and burned.

*

It took a long time to pass through the black sea surrounding the pyramid. Whenever the waves of pitch tried to seize her, to wrap their tendrils around her and drag her down, she allowed her power to blaze brighter, fiercer. It was barely an effort for her now; her power came easily to her, leaping to her call, eager to do as she wished.

It was a heady feeling.

At last, she reached the foot of the pyramid. It was huge, truly gargantuan, unhindered as it was by location or space. Somehow, Jean knew even without following it the whole way round that it had no door – no entrance.

That didn’t matter to her, though. She didn’t need doors. Not here.

She held up her hands, feeling the sensory texture of the building in front of her. It was thick and oily and sticky – it felt nothing at all like the usual landscape of Charles’s mind.

Jean pressed forward. The wall of the pyramid resisted her. She pushed again and again she was held back. She paused then, and considered the wall in front of her. A memory rose inside her of one of her lessons with Charles. The Professor had acknowledged her immense strength and appreciated it, but he had nevertheless continually emphasised the benefits of precision over brute force.

‘Anyone can use force,’ he’d told her, even as he’d constructed an entire universe within their minds with only the most delicate flicker of power. ‘But very few truly possess any actual skill. That takes practice.’

Jean turned to the wall and smiled. Apocalypse had Charles’s strength, that much was true, but he had none of Charles’s skill. How could he? Jean had had her powers her entire life and even she still occasionally struggled to control them. Apocalypse, on the other hand, had only been in control of Charles for mere days; he couldn’t have even a fraction of the experience that she did.

Brute force was therefore not the way here. That’s what Apocalypse would be expecting. No, what was needed here was finesse.

Jean removed her hands from the wall, instead allowing them to hover over it. She closed her eyes and concentrated. She was still for a very long time. And then she found it. An anomaly, a small fracture in the rock, an imprecisely-crafted brick in the wall of the pyramid.

Jean smiled. She reached out to the brick in her mind and, with a blink, crushed it.

The stone crumbled. The sudden gap in the wall upset the structure of the pyramid; it immediately became unstable.

That was all that Jean needed. She stepped forward, pressed her hand against the pyramid wall, and blew it open.

A hole appeared in the wall in front of her, not excessively large but more than enough to allow her room to comfortably enter the pyramid.

Finesse. Charles had taught her well.

She passed through the cloud of dust and entered the pyramid.

*

He was waiting for her when she entered.

Charles watched her as she approached, his expression unreadable. He was standing alone near a high stone altar, surrounded on all sides by gargantuan stone statues that gazed down at them with vacant eyes.

Charles waited until Jean was almost in front of him.

‘Jean,’ he said, his mouth widening and his arms raised to receive her. ‘My dear. You came for me.’

Jean paused a few paces away from Charles and she looked at him. She slowly ran her eyes over him. Charles’s hair – he always had hair in his mental self-image, despite the months than had passed since he had lost it, ‘a mark of my monumental vanity, no doubt,’ he had told her wryly, his blue eyes twinkling – was long, lush and a deep dark brown, untainted with grey, and his face was boyish, smooth and unlined and unwrinkled. He wore a suit of deep blue, much fancier and more formal than anything that the Professor would wear in real life, along with well-heeled shoes of shiny black. All in all he looked very handsome.

Jean finished studying him and looked up into his face. ‘En Sabah Nur,’ she greeted him.

Charles paused. Then his smile widened, his features turning harder and crueller. He laughed and, taking a step forward, discarded his disguise like he was stepping out of a cheap suit, revealing himself in his true form.

‘Little Jean Grey,’ he greeted her, his eyes scanning her from head to foot and taking her in hungrily. ‘Why have you come into my realm?’

‘This mind is not yours,’ Jean said coldly, keeping her powers ready to hand in case he attacked. ‘It is the Professor’s. Where is he?’

En Sabah Nur raised an eyebrow. ‘Where is he?’ he repeated. ‘Child, your Professor is dead.’

Jean’s heart jumped in her chest. It wasn’t true, she knew it wasn’t. It couldn’t be – the memories she had seen, the voice she had heard – they had to mean that Charles was alive. They had to. Unless – and her pulse jumped rapidly at the thought – unless perhaps they were simply echoes …

Jean swallowed, firmly pushing down her fears. ‘You’re lying,’ she said icily. ‘He isn’t dead. He can’t be.’

En Sabah Nur gave her a look of disdain. ‘Charles Xavier is dead,’ he declared, folding his arms across his chest. ‘He died a long, slow death. He died before he was able to mount a defence against me, before he even realised I was here. Dismiss these foolish dreams, child. Your Professor is lost.’

A bolt of pain stabbed into Jean’s heart at these callous words – and, as if in response to the overwhelming anguish that she was feeling, the world around them trembled in a sympathetic shockwave.

En Sabah Nur’s expression tightened. Then slowly his face relaxed, his expression gentling.

‘It is not easy to lose a beloved mentor,’ he murmured sympathetically, his voice rich and golden like honey. ‘Especially one such as Charles Xavier. The loss is unimaginable to most, but to you, my child – oh the loss is so much greater. I know what he was to you,’ he said gently, reaching out to her with kindness. ‘I have seen his thoughts. I have seen his memories. I know how dear he was to you – and you to him.’

Jean swallowed but rallied herself bravely. ‘Is,’ she said coldly. ‘He is dear to me.’

Apocalypse gave her a look of benevolent condescension. ‘My dear,’ he said kindly. ‘Take a look around. Do you see any trace of your beloved Professor? Any sign that he still exists in this body? In this mind?’

‘I—’ Jean could not keep herself from looking around, still unable to see any similarity between the cold darkness of the pyramid and Charles’s usual mindscape. ‘That doesn’t mean—’

‘He is gone,’ En Sabah Nur continued, sounding almost apologetic. ‘He was not as strong as you believed him to be. He was not strong enough to survive.’ He sighed, shaking his head. ‘Your Professor was weak, in the end.’

Jean felt her temper flare. ‘Because you killed him!’ she shouted, and the flames that surrounded her rose higher, roaring in concert with her rage. The pyramid trembled.

En Sabah Nur simply smiled. He looked completely unfazed by her show of power – indeed, he looked strangely satisfied by her words, and, with a start, Jean realised what she’d said. No, she thought fiercely, balling her hands into fists. He’d goaded her into saying that but she didn’t believe it. You’re alive, Professor, she swore to herself. I know it. You’re alive and you’re here and I am going to find you and bring you home.

‘It could be perceived that way, I am sure,’ En Sabah Nur replied calmly as if oblivious to her inner turmoil, his voice smooth as silk. ‘But I promise you that it was not my intention.’

Jean’s eyes narrowed.

En Sabah Nur smiled. ‘You do not believe me, I see,’ he said. ‘But it is true. There was no great plan at work here, child. All I did was try to survive.’

He then casually waved an arm and suddenly the wall to the east transformed into an immense viewing screen; there Jean could see the events of last summer playing vividly across the surface.

En Sabah Nur watched dispassionately as the Erik on screen threw two metal beams in his path, forming a barrier in the shape of an ‘X’. Then Jean’s face appeared.

‘Ah,’ he said quietly. ‘Here you are. Here you come to kill me.’

Jean swallowed, resisting the urge to look away. She forced herself to watch as the events played out, saw herself overcome by the strange wild power inside her, saw herself blaze hot and rip Apocalypse away from Charles …

Or so she had thought.

‘You see?’ En Sabah Nur whispered. ‘I was going to die. I, a creature of millennia, once revered as a god – I was going to die. And so I did what any dying creature would do.’ He turned to Jean. ‘I fought to survive.’

And Jean saw it all. She saw Apocalypse desperately latch onto Charles’s mind and dig his claws in deep. She saw him settle in there, a ghost of his former self, and set root deep, deep down. She saw how he’d slowly but surely grown in strength, coming back to himself – and how, as he had grown stronger, his will had started to compete with Charles’s own. Barely, at first, but as time had gone on this influence had deepened, and Charles – poor Charles! – had been so unaware of the cancer that had been growing inside him that he had unconsciously accepted Apocalypse’s mind for his own.

By the time he had realised what was going on it had been far, far too late.

‘It was unfortunate,’ En Sabah Nur sighed. ‘But he was weak. My will to survive was, in the end, greater than his.’

‘You’re wrong.’

‘Am I?’ En Sabah Nur raised his eyebrow. ‘Think on it, child. I was at my weakest and he couldn’t stop me. He should have been able to crush me and destroy me completely but he couldn’t. He was weak.’ When Jean didn’t say anything he lowered his voice. ‘He couldn’t even protect himself, child. How could you expect him to protect you?’

Jean turned her face away, pained. She couldn’t deny that there was some small part of her that unconsciously agreed with what Apocalypse was saying – that was angry that Charles hadn’t cottoned on sooner, that he hadn’t been strong enough to save himself – to save them all. And then there was the fear, the one that she had held deep down for as long as she could remember … the fear that no one could help her …

As if he knew what she was thinking, En Sabah Nur continued. ‘He would have failed you, in the end,’ he said quietly. ‘For all his goodness and his desire to help, he wouldn’t have been able to do what was necessary – to do what you needed. This would always end in tragedy.’

‘You don’t know that,’ Jean whispered.

‘Oh but I do.’ Jean looked at him, startled. ‘I have seen inside his head, child. I know all the he knows. Look—’ and he waved his left hand and the wall of the pyramid once again burst into life. ‘Look and see the future that awaited you under the tutelage of your beloved Professor.’

And Jean looked.

She saw herself – as seen through another’s eyes, those of the wild man, the time traveller – and she was unrecognisable. Not simply because she was older, but because there was no humanity in her eyes, just power and rage and death, so much death, how could this be, how could this happen, what would she becom—

NO!

The voice reverberated around the pyramid, shaking it to its foundations. Jean stepped back, startled, her eyes snapping away from the pyramid wall. Her cheeks were wet, she realised with detached surprise.

Apocalypse’s face was twisted into a snarl. Again he waved his hand at the wall to continue to show Jean that terrible glimpse into her future.

NO! the voice roared again, furious. NO, YOU WILL NOT SHOW THAT TO HER!

Professor! Jean cried out in hope and despair.

And suddenly she could feel him. Where before the landscape of his mind had been cold and harsh and barren, she could now feel it waking up – slowly, sluggishly, but still fighting to get through. It was like a sweet breath of air sweeping through the world – and Jean knew then that things were going to be okay.

‘Professor,’ she called out in joy.

Jean. The words were spoken with such affection and love that she felt her eyes moisten again and she laughed at the relief and happiness that that one word brought her. Jean, I am here.

Yes, she said, smiling through her tears. You are here. Come back to us, Professor. Come back. We need you.

There was a groan and the world around them trembled again.

‘No,’ Apocalypse snarled, all pretence of serenity gone from his face. ‘No, this is not possible. I defeated you!’

You’re in my head. The voice was calm but as it continued it started to grow angry. Jean gasped and she felt the hairs on her arm stand up as the voice shook through the world. YOU ARE IN MY HEAD!

Apocalypse was now starting to look uneasy. Gone was his previous air of dismissive superiority. He could feel the snare closing in. His eyes darted back and forth as if trying to find Charles – but Charles was nowhere.

He was everywhere.

In desperation, Apocalypse turned to Jean. ‘Sweet child,’ he implored, his voice as silky sweet as it had ever been, even at such a stage. ‘Surely you see the truth. Surely you know this is not the way. Charles Xavier can’t help you – powerful as he is, he has never possessed the power that you do.’ He gazed into her eyes. ‘I have. I know, Jean Grey, what it is to be a god – not just among humans but among our own kind. I can help you – I can give you what Charles Xavier never could.’

But Jean was already shaking her head. ‘The answer is no,’ she said quietly even as the world shook and shuddered around them. It was as if a hurricane was raging overhead. Around them, bricks shattered and statues were uprooted, the pyramid being levelled brick by brick. ‘It will always be no.’

The storm howled around them. Jean could feel the rage, the righteous anger that burned through Charles’s mind and the touch of it thrilled her. She closed her eyes and, reaching out in a wild sort of instinct, gladly joined her own power to his. She felt at once his recognition and joy at the touch of her mind against his own, so dear and familiar and so wholly in accord, and then, together they flew through the expanse of Charles’s mind, burning away any and all traces of the black ooze that polluted it and cleansing it of Apocalypse’s touch.

En Sabah Nur let out a howl of rage when he realised what they were doing but it was too late. His presence was being scoured away and his foothold in Charles’s mind was loosening. Charles’s mind had been dormant when he had taken over, and, having the benefit of time, Apocalypse had used stealth and cunning to gain control and secure his place over the sleeping giant. Now, however, Charles had woken up – and with him, so had the full force of his power.

Jean felt a wild happiness spring up inside her as she worked together with Charles. In all their previous interactions the Professor had always held back, had always been reserved and kept his power tightly reined. Now, however, he restricted himself no longer and at long last allowed himself to release the full force of his power in a way that made Jean yearn to do the same.

Jean, the Professor’s voice whispered against her. It will be alright. Let go.

Jean hesitated only for a moment. Then the triumphant shriek of a bird seemed to vibrate through the vaults of Charles’s mind and then she was a tongue of fire, leaping through the currents, flying side by side with Charles who thundered at her side with the crushing force of a thousand waterfalls.

Strands of black were wrenched out of the deep and pulled apart, bursting asunder like frayed ropes. Jean and Charles burned through it all like a comet, a forest fire, a hurricane, leaving no corner of Charles’s mind untouched. There was nowhere for Apocalypse to hide, nowhere for him to cower – nowhere that Charles and Jean didn’t find him and drive him out, ripping him out mercilessly by the roots.

At last, all that remained of Apocalypse was the form he had used to speak to Jean but now it appeared frailer, wispier, much more fragile than it had been before, like an image on a badly tuned television.

‘Mercy,’ En Sabah Nur grunted when Jean at last returned to herself, her powers gradually receding alongside Charles’s. The words sounded little like a plea and more like a grudging acceptance of reality. ‘I ask you both for mercy.’

There was a pause. Then the shadows seemed to pull together and, as Jean watched, she saw a figure emerge from within, dark at first, but then more vibrant with each step he took.

‘Professor,’ she breathed, and she felt her heart swell with happiness and relief at the sight of him.

Charles gave her a quick gentle smile before his expression hardened and he turned on Apocalypse.

‘You are in my head,’ he said quietly. His voice was low but Jean could see that, under the placid exterior, cold fury still raged within him.

En Sabah Nur gave him an assessing look and then dipped his head, the closest that Jean had ever seen him come to conceding. ‘I am,’ he agreed, his voice measured. ‘It was the only way that I could survive.’

‘And you considered your survival to be more important than my own.’

En Sabah Nur merely looked back at Charles, impassive. The words had been a statement, not a question.

Charles cocked his head to the side and studied him. ‘You know,’ he said in a conversational tone. ‘You might have succeeded if all you had done was take over my body. No one would have known. All you had to do was to take me over and then walk away. Leave forever.’ His expression suddenly hardened. ‘But you didn’t. Instead you used my powers to force others to do your bidding, to torture them, manipulate them. Children,’ and here Jean could hear the anguish that bled into his voice. ‘You tampered with the minds of innocent children, children who were in my care!’ He turned to look at Jean and the sorrow in his eyes was almost overpowering. ‘You used me and my powers to hurt those that I cared about the most,’ he said quietly. ‘And that cannot be forgiven.’

En Sabah Nur’s mouth twisted at that. ‘And so you advocate for my death,’ he sneered. ‘You, who are so famed for your mercy and restraint.’

Charles shrugged. ‘I am an optimist,’ he admitted. ‘But that doesn’t mean that I am not practical.’

En Sabah Nur snarled at that, his eyes brightening with anger. ‘And so you have decided?’’

‘And so I have decided,’ Charles answered quietly.

‘And I am to die at your hands, Charles Xavier? You would dirty your hands with this?’ He bared his teeth at them. ‘I am En Sabah Nur, the immortal, the font of eternal power, the bringer of the Apocalypse. I am thousands of years old. I have seen cities fall, generations die out, wars lost and won … I have seen more of this planet and know more of its secrets than you could ever hope – and yet you would destroy me? I, the only one of my kind even among mutants – you would sentence me to death?’

‘We did it once before,’ Jean said, her voice unwavering.

‘And we will again,’ Charles said heavily. He shook his head, sadness rolling off him in waves. ‘I am sorry, En Sabah Nur,’ he said, lifting his head and looking into Apocalypse’s eyes. ‘If I believed that there was any chance that you would be able to lead a life of peace then I would help you. Gladly. But I am afraid that I don’t believe that.’ He shook his head. ‘You have had your time on this earth, my friend. But that time has now ended.’

En Sabah Nur’s eyes widened. ‘No!’ he raged, baring his teeth. ‘No, this cannot be, this will not be, I will not—’

Charles raised his hand.

There was a faint noise like a pop. And then Apocalypse was no more.

Charles let out a sigh, his shoulders slumping with the sudden lifting of weight.

Jean reached out with her senses, scanning intently for any trace of Apocalypse that might have survived but there was none.

‘He’s gone,’ she said softly.

Charles nodded grimly and then straightened up. ‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘He’s gone. For good this time. I made sure of it.’

Jean ducked her head. ‘If I had made sure …’ she said, her voice tight. ‘If – last time—’

To her surprise, Charles let out a little chuckle. ‘Jean,’ he said, and there was a wealth of affection in his voice. ‘He was in my head. Mine. And if I, with all my age and power and experience, didn’t figure things out until it was too late then how could you? No,’ he said, reaching out and squeezing her shoulder. ‘You have nothing to blame yourself for.’ He then laughed, shaking his head. ‘Oh Jean. You talk about blame but really I should be thanking you. Thank you, Jean. Thank you for saving me. For saving all of us. You cannot know how proud I am of you, my brave girl.’

Jean’s cheeks flushed but she was smiling, her heart swelling inside of her. ‘I only did what you would do for me,’ she said softly.

Charles smiled at her and squeezed her shoulder again. He then took a look around them and sighed. ‘It will take me a while to build things back up the way they used to be,’ he said ruefully. ‘You did an excellent job of helping me rebuild my memories, Jean, but there’s still plenty more to do.’ He sighed again and then shook his head and straightened his shoulders. ‘But never mind that for now. It can wait. I think we had better go back to the others now, don’t you?’

Jean nodded. ‘They’ll be worried,’ she said, biting her lip. ‘We’ve been gone a long time.’

Charles gave her a lopsided smile. ‘Perhaps it isn’t quite as long as you think.’ He reached out, holding his hand out to her. ‘Ready?’

Jean glanced at his hand and then reached over with her own to clasp his hand in hers. ‘Yes,’ she said.

And then they were both back in the room in the real world, in their own bodies, being anxiously watched over by their friends.

Charles took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and smiled at them all.

‘Miss me?’ he asked innocently.

Jean looked around at the bemused faces surrounding them – Hank, Raven, Moira, Erik, Scott – and she couldn’t help it.

She started to laugh.

*

Charles was sitting in his office, trying to catch up on all the work he had fallen behind on (Apocalypse had, quite predictably, not cared for doing paperwork) when he saw the door open out of the corner of his eye. He smiled and, without looking up, said, ‘Hello Jean.’

The intruder paused at the room’s entrance before finally stepping forward.

‘Professor,’ Jean greeted him with a cautious smile. ‘Is now a good time?’

‘For you?’ Charles put down his pen and looked up at her with a smile. ‘It’s always a good time. Come, sit down.’ He gestured to the chair in front of him.

In truth, he had been expecting this for a while. He and Jean hadn’t had much time together after they had returned to the real world. The others kept them too busy, checking over them and demanding their stories. Charles had barely had a minute to himself since his return; Erik, Moira and Raven had – after clutching him close and ensuring he was well – immediately whisked him away and forced him to endure a prolonged interrogation to ensure that it was indeed Charles Xavier before them and not his parasite. Charles had endured this with as much grace as he could, feeling impatient and tired and in dire need of a rest but nevertheless knowing that he needed to do this for their sakes – this reassurance was the least that he owed them all.

The next few days had been filled with visitors. Raven had been the first to stalk briskly into his room and throw herself into a chair, determined to get things back to the way they had been as quickly and efficiently as possible. Moira had been next, and she had been kind and understanding, if a little severe on Charles for not having taken greater precautions with his own head. Erik had followed soon after, and while things had been a little stiff to begin with, Charles’s natural affection as well as the deep fear that Erik had felt during the whole ordeal allowed them to surmount the usual barriers that came between them a lot sooner than usual.

Hank’s visit had been almost harder to deal with, in a way. His feelings were too complex, too deeply entrenched – a mixture of fear, betrayal and intractable shame was coupled with the deepest, deepest relief that Charles was back, that he was okay and that things could start getting better. It would take a long time for them to get back to the way things had been before, Charles knew, but he was determined to do whatever it took to help things on their way and rid Hank of his feelings of self-hatred.

The children had also visited him throughout the week, some privately and others in great crowds, swarming around him and clutching at him as if to reassure themselves that he was there. Charles was hopelessly touched by just how quickly they forgave him and took him back into their hearts; children were resilient, he knew, but this was more than he’d ever dared to expect.

Through all this, Jean had not approached him. She too had been busy with her own friends and interrogators, not to mention the resumption of classes, but she smiled softly whenever she caught sight of him and Charles smiled back, a sense of understanding flowing between the two of them. They were connected now, far more deeply than before. Jean had seen more of Charles than he had ever shown anyone, and such connections lingered.

He’d known that, before the week was out, she would come to see him.

And so she had.

‘Is everything alright?’ Charles asked as Jean sat in silence in the chair in front of him.

Jean looked up at him and blinked. ‘It’s fine,’ she said, smiling in reassurance. ‘I just …’ she hesitated for a moment and then Charles felt the brief touch of her mind against his and he understood. He immediately lowered his defences and he let her in.

The first thing Jean did was to quickly sweep through his mind, checking for any traces of Apocalypse. Of course, there were none.

‘Satisfied?’ Charles asked mildly.

Jean reddened. ‘I’m sorry,’ she began to apologise but Charles waved her off.

‘I quite understand,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Believe me, you aren’t the only one with that worry. I too find myself in the habit of obsessively checking through my own mind these past few days. It’s actually quite reassuring to have you confirm things for me.’

Jean sat back, relieved, and the two of them sat in silence for a minute.

‘Professor,’ Jean began again after a moment.

‘Yes, Jean?’

‘Can I ask about – about what I …?’

‘You can ask me about anything, dear,’ Charles said earnestly. ‘Anything. You deserve that much.’

Jean bit her lip and nodded. ‘I still don’t full understand what happened,’ she admitted.

Charles nodded slowly. ‘I can’t say that I know everything,’ he said carefully. ‘But I will help you where I can.’

Jean licked her lips and nodded. ‘When I was in your head,’ she started, trying to choose her words carefully. ‘It felt like I spent a lifetime in there. I can’t say how long, but it felt … long.’ She looked up at Charles and he smiled gently.

‘And yet when we returned you found it wasn’t so long after all?’ he suggested.

Jean nodded quickly.

Charles smiled. ‘You already know the answer to that, Jean,’ he said. ‘Time moves differently in our heads. Thoughts move faster than anything on earth – faster, even, than our own dear Peter.’ He raised an eyebrow at her and Jean bit back a laugh. ‘What appeared to you to be days or weeks or months was in reality only seconds, minutes. You’ll find that the whole ordeal ultimately took less than ten minutes, from what I gather.’

Jean nodded slowly. ‘Yes,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘It was strange, coming back to things like that. After everything …’ She then turned her sharp eyes onto Charles. ‘The memories that I saw,’ she said slowly. ‘The ones that I helped to grow – they were real, weren’t they? They were yours?’

Charles paused before bowing his head and nodding. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘The memories you saw were my own. They were the memories of the things that made me what I am. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to return.’

Jean nodded thoughtfully, thinking things over. ‘These memories,’ she said slowly. ‘They – they weren’t always happy …’

‘No,’ Charles said quietly. ‘Quite often the important ones aren’t very happy at all.’

Jean bit her lip. ‘Professor. The things I saw …’

‘In my memories.’

‘Yes, in your memories.’ Jean bit her lip. ‘Your parents … your stepfather … the beach in Cuba … Did all that really happen?’

‘Yes.’

Jean nodded and ducked her head. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said in a small voice.

Charles smiled. ‘There is nothing to be sorry for, Jean,’ he said gently. ‘It’s … life. Everything that happened then – good or bad – made who I am. It all brought me to who I am today. It brought me to you.’ He smiled at her as she lifted her head. ‘And I truly wouldn’t change that for the world.’

Jean couldn’t help but smile at that, feeling a familiar warmth bloom in her chest. ‘I think I understand,’ she said. ‘You can’t have the good without the bad. But Professor—’ she bit her lip. ‘I’m still – I can’t help feeling sorry for the things that happened to you.’

Charles chuckled at that, his eyes crinkling. ‘Good heavens, don’t feel sorry for me,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I accepted it all a very long time ago, Jean, and I am very happy with what my life has become. Please don’t worry yourself over it, dear. I’m an old man – it’s all ancient history.’

Jean nodded. Then her lips quirked upwards. ‘All of it?’ she asked innocently.

Charles cocked his head to the side. ‘What do you mean?’

Jean shrugged. ‘Nothing,’ she said, a smile pulling at her lips. ‘Just … I saw more than just the bad, you know. And I was wondering about it.’

‘About what?’

Jean’s smile turned impish. ‘You and Erik. And you and Moira. And you and—’

‘And you and Scott?’ Charles raised an eyebrow pointedly, his own lips pulling teasingly upwards. He met her eyes. ‘You were saying, Miss Grey?’

Jean blushed red and then laughed. ‘Nothing,’ she said, shaking her head with a grin. ‘I was saying absolutely nothing at all.’

‘I thought as much,’ Charles said smugly. ‘Now, if that’s all, you’d better head off to bed, Jean. It’s getting late.’

Jean, who found herself stifling a yawn, nodded. ‘That’s all, Professor. Are we still on for our lesson tomorrow?’

‘We are.’ Charles’s eyes softened. ‘Get some rest, Jean.’

Jean rose from her seat and smiled at him. ‘Goodnight, Professor.’

Charles smiled back. ‘Goodnight, Jean.’

The door closed behind her with a click.

The school settled slowly around them, feelings of warmth, safety and comfort rising through the air, permeating through the walls of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children like ripples in a pond.

All was well.

Charles was home.