The children were subdued during supper. Charles kept a vague focus on their quiet conversation, surprised at their good manners. Then again, he had seen it before. After an Oxford mission that had made the monthly news, and his stay in the infirmary to have shrapnel dug out of his legs, his students had been the epitome of politeness. But only for the first few days - it had worn off within a week. He was curious to see how long the courtesy would last in this environment.
Or he would be curious, were he not so tired. He caught himself nodding downward into his soup bowl for the third time in as many minutes, and heard Bobby’s huff of laughter.
“C’mon, Mr. Xavier.” There was a clatter as Bobby took the bowl and spoon. “You should probably go upstairs.”
“But it’s hardly even – wait.” He fumbled at his pockets. “What time is it?” And where’s my watch –
“Dunno,” Sean said. Charles hardly heard him; a sliver of panic jabbed through his daze. The watch, my father’s watch – I left it beneath my pillow with my clothes –
He got to his feet, and yelped at the pain from bursting blisters. The collective wince that puffed from the children’s minds like a smoke signal made him smile, with an effort. “Nothing to worry about. I just – these shoes weren’t the best for running.”
“Yeah.” John’s voice came from beneath the table. “You need sneakers or something.”
“Do we have any that would fit?” Ororo asked, and: “He can have mine for now,” Bobby said, and the bubble of talk and sparks of thought – find shoes, find a first aid kit, fix Mr. Xavier – at least broke their anxious quiet.
The watch. He bit his lip. Were clothes usually taken away? “Bobby – where should I wash this?” He plucked at his shirt, sweaty and grass-stained. “Or what should I do with it?”
“You kinda have to wash them in the tub. At least, there’s always soap.” He could hear the shrug in Sean’s voice. “And we don’t mind if people smell a bit.”
“Except for you, dude, when you wouldn’t take a bath after you got here, for like – three months. Nothing worse than a stinky Mick –”
“John,” Charles snapped. “No ethnic slurs.”
A frozen pause. Then John muttered: “But he calls himself that –”
“As a member of the group in question, that is his prerogative.” His feet throbbed. “But unless you are all in the mood for a lecture on the hegemony of the normative in a post-apocalyptic context, I must ask you please to refrain from any language of the sort.”
The pause stretched longer.
“Hege – wha?”
“Never mind, Sean.” Ororo sighed. “No powers in the kitchen, no bad language in the kitchen, and new rule: no ethnic slurs,” she shaped the words carefully, “in the kitchen. O.K., Mr. Xavier?”
“Yes, fine,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry – I … my feet –” He felt fluid seeping into his socks – blood or pus, and please let them have antibiotics, because the last thing he needed was septicemia –
“He can use my first-aid kit,” John announced. “It’s in my room. I’ll go get it.”
“Nah – we’ll bring him upstairs, all of us. Come on; let’s go.”
There was a scramble for the small candles – one each - left in a box on the counter. They lit Ororo’s with a spill from the stove. Then the children clustered round him as a group, and before Charles knew it he was being propelled toward the stairs. He gritted his teeth past the pain of each step, and allowed them to steer him to his room, where he sank down onto his bed.
But as soon as they had scattered to their own rooms, he dug beneath his pillow, frantically – his suit jacket and shirt, his trousers, and there in the trouser pocket: the watch. Oh, thank God.
Charles poured the chain into one palm. The puddle of steel links warmed, gradually, and blurred as he stared. He didn’t realize he was gripping the piece as tightly as he was, though, until Jean touched a small finger to his white knuckles.
“Oh.” He smiled at her, shaking off the reverie. “Sorry about that.”
She tipped her head, wistfully. Charles held out the watch. “This was my father’s. Do you like it?”
The steel case glinted in her pale hands, its flat gold scrollwork catching in the feeble light. He cast an instinctive eye at the candle she had brought in and set on the floor. There must have been a holder in her room – its size was perfect for her, its iron loops of an intricate, surprisingly delicate craftsmanship. Where did she –
The other children came back in, drawing his attention away from the puzzle. Ororo blew her candle out. “Jean’s is lit,” she explained, and: “you only get one for the night, so we try to save them.”
Bobby held Jean’s candle at a better angle. Ororo took off his shoes, then peeled off his socks – Charles bit down hard on the inside of his cheek. The children hissed in sympathy. "Man, you are insane," Sean said, and Bobby half-laughed: "Who needs sanity?"
“Here.” John crowded in with a scuffed white box, a faded red cross on its top. “Here’s the kit.”
“The Red Cross.” He couldn’t say why it made his throat hurt. Perhaps because he had mostly seen kits of the sort in material recovery missions – Raven, trying to trade one for food – he quelled the memory and forced a smile. “Thank you, John.”
“No prob.” John took out a length of bandage. “Although you should probably get your own. If you write that down and give it to Alex tomorrow morning, he’ll bring you one."
“He didn’t bring me any chocolate,” Sean grumbled.
“That’s ‘cause you don’t need chocolate. Save it for Quarter Gift.” Ororo gave the socks to Jean. “Run some water in the tub, O.K.? Put these in, and – you got anything else that needs to soak, Mr. Xavier?”
“Quite a few things, I’m afraid.” He made his voice humorous. “But nothing I’m going to take off in front of you children.”
The boys snickered. “Right. I almost forgot - sorry.” Ororo got to her feet, and held his candle to the flame of Jean’s. Then she wedged it into the holder that Logan and McCoy had left … had it only been last night?
Charles stared at the candle, his exhaustion making the light shimmer. The water plashing in the bathroom sounded hollow. It was hard to believe that so much had changed, and in only a day … a week …
“Good night Mr. Xavier,” Ororo said. The other children joined in chorus; Bobby added: “I left you a pair of my socks.”
“Good night, all. And thank you.”
Jean joined them from the bathroom, sent good night to him – and they all trooped out, closing the door.
Charles ran a hand over his face. Then he gritted his teeth again, and pushed up off the cot. Took his clothes from yesterday, limped over to the wardrobe – god damn it that hurts – and retrieved a looser shirt and a pair of sweatpants. Someone had been in there, he noted, leaving – and he counted – three pairs of sweats, and three jumpers. He poked through the pile, and his spirits lifted at the sight of blue knit. Dark blue – he took it automatically. Sank his fingers into the soft wool.
“We have a winner.” His voice sounded tired, even to his own ears. “Even if you are unraveling.”
The blue was the same color as Raven’s scales, the last time he had seen her without her disguise. The rose-cheeked English mask she wore; the innocuous English name – Mallory – she wore … he squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the choking knot in his throat. “Damn it.”
Charles took all the clothes and limped to the bathroom. As far as he could tell in the candlelight, the water in the tub was already murky. He stripped, put his old clothes (your real clothes, they captured you in them) and the day’s sweat-stained articles in to soak.
It was chilly in the bathroom. He looked in the rough cabinet beneath the sink; found a toothbrush and a washcloth. Cleaning himself off was the business of two minutes – he had made do with fewer resources on the missions. Ducking his head beneath the tub faucet – feeling the water wash the sweat out of his hair – that was an indulgence.
Then he made his way back to the cot, wearing what were now (and will be forever, world without end, Amen) his night clothes, and collapsed in a heap to take care of his feet. There was rubbing alcohol and a tin of salve in the kit.
Five minutes and several lengths of bandage later, he felt considerably better. Charles tugged on Bobby’s socks – thick and warm, obviously home-knit. He had just rolled his shoulders against the ache in his back, and considered some stretches –
– when he heard footsteps, and the click of a key in the lock. And: “Night, Xavier. Sleep well.”
Her steps went down the hall. He heard the same words, muffled; and then the distant clump of a door shutting. Just like he had heard, that very morning.
Except it was more difficult to hear now, because his ears were practically buzzing with his own rage.
Locked up like a goddamned child in a dormitory – curfew, his mind snarled, and sleep well, and student - I.Q. test - my skill set. Who do they fucking think they are?!
Charles took a deep breath; exhaled. "The Brotherhood, that's who." The Eastern Brethren and Sistren, specialties: kidnapping, imprisonment, assault, child abuse and – undoubtedly – brainwashing. And underestimating people - people they should not treat like children …
He checked his watch; wound it carefully. Listened for five minutes, and sent out tiny flickers of his power to stand as warning beacons on the stairs, at the doors.
Then, calmly, coolly, he walked to his door, picked the lock, and set out for the tower again. Just like last night, except that now he had a blue knit sweater, a mental map, and anger coursing through him instead of fear.
Well ... Anger, and a sense of dull fatigue. Even though it had been easy enough to retrace his steps to the tower … Charles stared at its door, thinking of the winding staircase, and felt his feet throb. Walking, and walking quietly, had been bad enough.
He could climb the tower again, of course; turn off the pain receptors and power through, send his mind out flying once more … to find a nearby town or city. But …
Charles sighed. While he could tell himself that strategy was the best option – retreat, regroup, and plan how best to use his mental energy – he could not help but consider that a defeat.
“Well.” His own whisper was reassuring in silence, in the darkness. He had left the candle in his room. No need to send light flickering through the windows – the high arrow windows, he noted, through which moonlight was streaming. Perhaps he could figure out his latitude from the moon’s position, somehow? From its phase? Turning around, Charles tiredly called up memories of astronomy tutorials – but a bigger window, he’d actually need to see the damned moon before he could calculate anything.
Where to find a bigger window? Someplace that needed light – the workroom, or the library.
Charles froze. The library.
Not even twenty-four hours ago – himself, blindfolded, being walked through a series of enclosed rooms, silent as a tomb. The smell of books and leather and what he realized now had been wood smoke – a library.
His mind raced back through memory: the library, a door, a long hallway, a set of shallow stairs and then the door to his room. And then the blindfold came off.
Before he knew it, Charles had ghosted back along the hallway that led to the tower. Further, and he turned a corner and there were those shallow stairs that led to the dormitory – might as well call it that. He had turned left, he remembered – their right my left – so … he turned in place, back to the dormitory. And looked right.
Nothing, except – and his heart thumped in his chest – a dark opening, which stretched out into another hallway. He hesitated once, then started walking down it as quietly as he could. Accounting for the different sounds of shoes and socks, it was the same hallway – wasn't it?
He closed his eyes to check. Yes, it was the same … although when he opened his eyes again, there wasn’t much difference, since there were no windows of any sort. His vision rapidly adjusted to the darkness. It surrounded him, holding him in black velvet hands.
So soft, so dark … so pitch black, that the shimmering light outlining the door at the hallway’s end looked like the purest gold.
Charles stopped in front of the door and bit his lip. There was a light in there. Enough to be firelight, or maybe – could it be electric? He couldn’t tell from the quality. Not precisely. He’d have to go inside … His hand just barely brushed the wrought iron of the door’s handle –
And he felt a sudden chill.
He snatched his hand back from the iron. Goosebumps raced up his arms, over his neck. For some reason, and all at once, he knew he was being watched.
Charles closed his eyes, stretched out his mind. There was no sign of Frost. The faint presence of the other children – all sleeping, he noticed, amused – registered as the tiniest sparks in the eye of the red-orange hummingbird. The alert beacons, the bird – he catalogued them all – still less than the billiard ball; good. He sent the bird darting through the door in front of him, and ahead. No sign of anyone.
A giddy excitement rose up in him. Now or never. Try it. Because really, Charles thought, as he grabbed the handle and tugged the door open – if they were going to treat him like a disobedient schoolboy, he was going to act like one.
Charles eased the door shut. And let out one shaky sigh – nerves? Excitement? … Pleasure?
For the room in front of him was beautiful.
There were books on carved shelves lining the walls, stretching up to the ceiling. There were a few scuffed chairs and a round table with papers spread over it; a carpet and a desk at one window, a desk with an entire dark array of pigeonholes; and three windows actually, each with thick curtains drawn back. Charles darted over to one and found the moon; made a note of its phase and – he checked his watch – of the time. Then he turned his back to the window, and gazed at the rest of the room again.
The light was electricity - warm, though, golden and low. He couldn't see its source. There was another door opposite the one he had come through. The fireplace in the middle of the adjoining wall held nothing but ashes. Two chairs were drawn up close to it. And by the chairs: one table with a candelabrum, and one with –
Charles felt a grin split his face. Was that a chess set?
Carefully, he walked closer. It was. The pieces were set up for a game, and – Strange. White was made of – what was it? Steel? He picked up a knight. No; it was heavier than steel would be – it had to be silver. He saw tarnish creeping up the horse’s mane, though the rest was polished to within an inch of its life. He nudged a black pawn with one finger – just about as heavy, so it must be iron, or lead ...
And Charles gasped as the white knight vibrated in his hand.
He set the knight back down, hurriedly. Stared at the other chess pieces.
They were still.
But then the candelabrum – wrought iron – clattered suddenly on the other table. Charles whirled, touched it in disbelief. Then he stretched out his mind –
– and he froze.
Not literally frozen, his thoughts raced, not frozen, you can move, because it’s not Frost, it’s not Frost –
It felt different from Frost. Much different – whatever it was. It wasn't attacking him, for one thing, although he felt a solid, weighty attention zeroing in ... on him? No, on something else - like a screw vise tightening, and – he flinched – making the chess pieces shiver on their board.
What was it?
Charles stared at the other door, his feet rooted to the floor. He shifted his weight. You can move.
He felt, of all things, one of his blisters pop.
He heard a distant boom-thud – was that another door slamming? and where?
Clenching his teeth against their clatter, he sent the red-orange hummingbird flying through the library. Through rooms, through doors that he only remembered as sounds from behind a blindfold – down hallways and into a –
The hummingbird’s wings flashed as it collided with something.
Something immense: a solid, seething coil of darkness.
And the darkness was running towards him.
“Oh, fuck,” Charles gasped, and shite shite RUN – He ran for the door, wrenched it open and pelted down the hallway. Get away get away – The sting of blisters popping and hot fluid in his bandages, and there was the open entrance – he wheeled right and raced for the dormitory.
A crash rebounded down the library hallway – he sensed the darkness poised at the threshold, sending a wave of something after him – Charles found his room, ran inside and slammed the door so hard that its lock and handle and hinges all shook.
It shook. He shook. He was shaking so hard that he could hardly hold onto his watch – the steel trembled in his fingers as he flipped it open. He stared at the time, squinting in the dim light of the candle. Forgot to blow it out; what a waste, a waste –
Not even five minutes, since he had looked at the moon. Not that long …
But apparently long enough to have his life flash in front of his eyes. Fuck. Charles slid to the floor, his back to the door, as the watch slipped out of his nerveless fingers. He cradled the steel in his sweater; wrapped the chain around his wrist and pulled. The sting of metal on flesh brought him back to himself.
“What was that?” he mumbled. The inside of his mouth tasted metallic; fear. “God.”
He reached out a thread of thought; extinguished the warning beacons as quietly as he could. No sense in leaving anything out, to give him away. He flicked the thought out, further …
The darkness – whatever it was – had disappeared.
Gone; vanished into the night. Perhaps it couldn’t move past the library door? Next time he would have to be more covert, just so he could see –
Charles felt a cough itching, so he coughed, and it turned into a ragged laugh. Next time. Because he knew himself – schoolboy or scientist – well enough to know that there would be a next time. Locks and doors, self-preservation and all sanity notwithstanding.
"Who needs sanity?" he whispered, and felt the laugh turn genuine.