Yes, this is part 5. Yes, I officially hate myself.

the ghost of a lease on a better world
by gale

SUMMARY: Worldbuilding isn't any easier for the world's strongest telepath than it is for anyone else.


Sometimes Charles wonders if he didn't have some sort of break on the beach.

It feels that way at strange, random moments: that this is all a complicated fantasy he's created, and is projecting out into the world, like a particularly indulgent film. Telepath or no, he's still not entirely sure how it happened.

Shaw was already dead. Charles remembers, because all he'd wanted to do was lie down and die himself, or at least sleep until he woke and didn't feel like there's a coin-shaped path going straight through his own brain. Erik had brought Shaw outside, damned helmet already on his skull, keeping Charles out (and that had burned in a way the coin hadn't, that Erik was deliberately keeping him out, when he knows damned well Charles would never--). And the missiles had fired, and he was shouting at Erik--because that's the only way he was going to listen, now, and he felt something sick and desperate lurch up in him, battering its way out, and...

And he'd seen that Erik was right.

Not entirely, no; not everyone was going to be an enemy or hate them on sight. Look at Moira, for example. There would be people who hated them, yes, but there would be people who--not understood, they couldn't, but allies. They didn't have to be islands unto themselves. And they didn't have to kill people needlessly. They--God help him, maybe they would have to, at some point. More than likely, they would have to. But not now, not unnecessarily.

He remembers, in a very vague way, telling Erik that, and insisting that if he was giving on points, Erik had to, too. They wanted the same thing--the safety of their people--but they were going about it a different way, and they needed to work together. Neither of them was alone anymore, none of them were, but if they made this into a war, then how did that make either of them any different than the men who wanted them both dead?

And Erik had looked at him for a long time, not particularly strained by holding several dozen missiles aloft, and lifted the helmet enough for Charles to speak in his mind. It was faster that way.

An hour later, they were back in Westchester.

He doesn't regret wiping Moira's memory. She'll find her way back to them as ally or enemy, but this isn't her fight. It's theirs. Anyone else is just an intrusion.

*

Charles thinks briefly about going on a second road trip to find students, finally rejecting it. It's always an option, but right now the CIA isn't committing as many resources to finding them as they could, so it can wait. Individual cases, yes, but considering there are only four people who can really go and get students--one of them covered in vivid blue fur, the other newly irritated at the idea of taking any shape but her own--it's not really feasible.

They still need students, though, and there's a--tug of sorts coming from Cairo. Charles goes by himself, and Erik insists on accompanying him.

"It's not necessary," Charles points out. "I've been abroad by myself before--"

"Humor me," Erik says grimly, and Charles resists the urge to sigh. Since they returned from Cuba, Erik's been strangely protective. It's not--Charles has bumped into his mind enough to know that it's not being protective, exactly, but it's still too nameless that calling it anything else would be incorrect. It's a little like being friends with an attack dog, he thinks, and dismisses it as unfair.

*

The trip to Cairo is mostly uneventful, as Charles had figured. He has been abroad before, mostly when he was younger, but it's not as if the memory's left him. (Memories don't actually leave him. He hasn't forgotten a single thing since the age of seven, though things before that are still blurry, and the memories themselves, usually if he's been at the pub, can be blurry.) He sticks to the city rather than venture into the surrounding countryside, certain that whatever he'd felt would be nearby.

And then, on the last day, they wander into a dimly-lit restaurant and find a very large man seated at a table near the back. He's wearing a fez.

"Hello, my friend," the man says. He's also wearing very tiny sunglasses, and when he grins he exposes entirely too many teeth. They're gleaming white in a way Charles finds unnatural. It's like looking at a shark. "I've been waiting for you."

"I'm sorry," Charles says carefully. "I don't believe we've met."

"We haven't," the man agrees, "but that doesn't mean I don't know who you are, Charles Francis Xavier."

I've known who you were since you were seven years old, Charles hears in his head, and is so startled he almost falls over. It's not a projection he's catching hold of, the way Erik will now send him on occasion when speaking isn't politic: it's one mind communicating directly to his.

You're a telepath, Charles says.

The man laughs. "I am many things, my friend. Come! Sit. We will have tea. That's what the English drink, yes? Tea?" He raises his voice. "Ororo!"

The shamble of beaded curtain near the back of the booth parts, and a young girl--no older than fourteen--steps inside. Her hair is white: not white-blonde, like the Frost woman, white. Her eyes are very blue, and her whole manner is respectful, downcast. She does not speak.

Erik steps forward. Charles is almost certain it's not conscious. "Charles--"

"Call your dog off," the man says, still pleasant. "We are here to speak, you and I." He nods at the chair across from him. "Please! Sit. This does not have to be unpleasant."

Very carefully, Charles sits. He's dimly aware that Erik is neither moving nor speaking, and slightly more aware that the inaction is not actually Erik's decision.

"Good!" The man grins again. "Now, you are here to take my Ororo from me."

"She's not yours," Charles says. "Unless, of course, you're her father, in which case I would have to ask your permission."

"Oh, no. The girl's parents died when she was just a child. A plane crashed into their house and collapsed it on top of them. Ororo was the lone survivor. It's tragic."

His eyes don't say it's tragic. His eyes think it's funny. Charles straightens a little. "Then I think I'd like to speak to Ororo myself for a moment."

"No," the man--Amahl, Charles suddenly realizes, Amahl Farouk, the name freely given and something lingering underneath

(king, king of shadows, shadow king)

he can't quite read. "I don't think that's going to be possible."

And then--

(If Charles lives to be a hundred, he'll never be able to explain this to anyone else in words. Images, maybe, but those are just pictures of what happened; it doesn't encompass the whole experience. Another telepath, perhaps; he or she would come closest.

(He is a telepath. He has built his mental defenses since he was seven and his power first manifested. That long, hot summer he nearly went mad with the other thoughts--his mother's, Kurt's, Cain's, the staff's--that went traipsing through his head constantly, even while they slept. He built walls eventually, and learned how to put in doors he could walk through, but they've never been entirely down. He can't imagine them ever being entirely down, even around Raven or

[erik]

(anyone else; he'd go mad. Anyone would. By that same token, though, he can't imagine being mentally blind, the way he distantly remembers being before that day; it would be like being catatonic, blind and deaf and unable to touch. Both ideas are horrifying.

(Farouk knocks everything about him down without so much as a thought.)

--very slowly, as if in a dream--

(I am tired of this body, Farouk thinks, and Charles can feel him creeping up on him, on his self, like shadows lengthening towards dusk. He is screaming, but he can't even hear himself do it. Maybe he's not. I grow tired quickly these days, and this was just a man. You're very strong, boy--the strongest I've met yet. You'll last a long time.

(The shadows get longer, grow teeth. Charles keeps screaming.

(And there are others! Farouk's voice is full of oil and delight. Excellent! More toys! I've never had this many before. Oh, this will be fun.

(Raven, Charles thinks, fighting off hysteria, RavenErikHankAlexSeanalltheothers YOU WILL NOT.

(And he pushes, he takes every inch of himself--the good parts, yes, but the bad: the parts that worry that Erik's right, that they will never be accepted, that humans will want to round them up and destroy them; the parts that think they are better than humans, if just a little; the part that will never trust humans entirely, that dispassionately wiped Moira's memory and watched with satisfaction when Frost's diamond form cracked--and shoves it right into Farouk, sharp as a sword, as ten swords, a thousand.

(And Amahl Farouk screams.)

--Amahl Farouk falls over dead.

Charles knows, without looking at his watch, that it objectively took about three seconds. In his head, it's been far longer.

"Ororo," he says, and his voice is only shaking a little, "my name is Charles Xavier. This is my colleague, Erik Lenhsherr. May we speak to you for a moment?"

*

He doesn't even try to stay awake on the plane. He makes sure Ororo's not too frightened--just a bit; the girl really does not care for enclosed spaces, but he uses the dregs of what's left in him to make sure she stays calm--then collapses into his seat and trusts that Erik will get them home.

They're back in American air space, about ten minutes out, when he wakes up to hear --ver do this again, do you hear me? You will not take risks like this, are you mad--

"You're thinking very loudly and I didn't pack anything for my head," Charles says, quiet but firm. He sits up and winces. "And before you start glowering about me intruding, I'm not that good at shielding myself from anyone's thoughts when I first wake up. Right now it's worse."

"Because of what happened to--Farouk," Erik says. He glowers again. "Stop using shorthand to put things in my head."

"I didn't feel like going into detail in front of a terrified child, no." He glances back, makes sure Ororo's still calm. He relaxes when he sees that she's sleeping. He'd spoken to her long enough to establish that what Farouk had said--parents dead when she was a child--was true. She's also a bit of a pickpocket, speaks fluent English, and controls the weather.

A fourteen-year-old girl controls the weather. The world is a marvel, Charles thinks, not for the first time, and winces again. Even thinking is a bit dodgy at the moment.

"You can't imagine," Charles says quietly. "I've never felt anything like that before, Erik. Never. He would have--"

"He would have killed you," Erik says.

"No." Charles shakes his head. "No, he had far grander plans than that." He glances over, watches for the moment Erik gets it.

He's prepared for it, but his shields are still weak; Erik's rage blasts against him like stumbling across a fire at an inopportune moment. But for all that, his voice is as cold as anything Charles has ever heard.

"Don't. Don't fool yourself into thinking you feel bad about what you did, Charles."

"I don't relish it." Charles straightens in his seat and makes sure he's still safely buckled in place. Not that he wouldn't be, but. Nerves.

"There's a difference between gloating and not being sorry," Erik says.

Charles takes a deep breath and begins stirring Ororo's mind to wake her. His shields are still weak, but they'll have to do until he can get some rest. Nothing else to be done.

*

Charles asks Raven to help get Ororo settled before going to his room and collapsing into bed. He sleeps without dreaming--or overhearing anything, thank God--for the rest of that night and most of the next. If he wakes, he doesn't remember.

When he finally stumbles downstairs, it's late, almost time for everyone to be in bed. That sounds like a fine idea to Charles, but he makes a cup of tea anyway and slumps at the table, yawning and rubbing his eyes.

He's not sure how long he dozes, but he wakes when he hears the door open and Hank saying, "--not actually in the military, right?"

"They don't need to be defenseless, either," Erik says. His gaze flickers over Charles for a moment, but he doesn't say anything.

"He's not wrong," Charles says, nodding at Raven when she follows them in. Her face lights up, but she lets him speak. "We're none of us particularly good at hand-to-hand combat."

He can feel Erik raise an eyebrow. "Excuse me, but some of us--"

"Yes, fine, with one exception." Charles waves a hand. "And Alex could presumably do well enough, though I wouldn't be at all shocked if he loses control during the fight. No, he needs training, the same as the rest of us."

"Not just that," Raven says. The robe she's wearing is still not all that long, but it's something. Charles can admit she's right about most of it, but still: that's his sister, and she's around teenage boys all day. A modicum of modesty never hurts anyone. "Ororo used to be a thief. She can pick pockets."

"And locks," Hank adds. "She keeps triggering the lab sensors, but she gets past the actual physical locks."

"Most of them," Erik says. Charles tilts his head in acknowledgement. "And if we start that, we might as well have some of the others learn to fly the blasted plane--and don't growl at me," he warns Hank, "if something happens to you we're in trouble. I'm tolerable, not good, and I'm not skilled flying under duress."

"Uh," Alex says from the doorway, leaning in on himself, "I--there's a problem--"

Alex doubles over, coughing out a fine mist. Charles watches, startled, as the mist forms a shape: a torso, arms, legs, a head, warm eyes, a confused expression, very very familiar--

"Hey," Armando says, and finishes becoming solid. He's not wearing any clothes, which is somehow surprising. "What'd I miss?"

*

"It's incredible," Charles marvels, a little while later. He doesn't want to interfere with the tests Hank's running, but he can't help it; he wants to be here for this. "We should have seen it coming, but in the furor over everything else we missed it. Of course he'd survive! That's what he does!"

"How are you standing?" Erik asks. He puts a hand on Charles' elbow. "Come on, back to bed. You're starting to get a little--" He gestures to his head and doesn't say anything, but the word he's thinking is in German.

"A bit punchy, perhaps," Charles says. "But he--" He looks at him. "Erik, he's alive."

He can't explain it; he'd try to send an impression, but he doesn't think Erik would be all that appreciative. But: a year ago, except for himself and Raven, his theories were just that. And now there's a teenage girl sleeping upstairs that can create hurricanes, and a man not too far removed from his own age survived something that should have killed him. Despite everything, Armando survived.

They all will. Their people will make it. Charles isn't one for omens or portents, but it doesn't matter. Today is still a very, very good day.

"I know," Erik says, and Charles almost asks Do you? before realizing that no, he does. If anyone else here understands the importance of this, it's Erik. "And you're not entirely back to yourself, and since I'm fairly certain Darwin will be here tomorrow--"

"You do like the codenames," Charles points out, but lets Erik turn him around.

"I especially like them when they're appropriate." His expression is serious, but he sounds like he's trying not to laugh. A little. It's difficult to tell, with Erik. "Professor."

"Magneto," Charles says, in the same tone of voice, and stops, turning serious. "Erik--"

"In my lungs," Alex shouts, storming past them.

"Oh my God," Charles mutters faintly, slumping. His head hits his palms. "Remind me again why opening a school is a good idea."

"Not my place, Professor," Erik says, and it sounds like the bastard is laughing at him. If Charles had the strength, he'd knuckle his arm. "Get some rest."

*

Charles doesn't really know John Grey. They'd met once or twice in passing at Oxford, when John was visiting the campus for one reason or another; but he'd come to more than one of Charles' lectures, and he'd asked interesting questions. He isn't terribly surprised when John calls - undoubtedly someone at Oxford's told him Charles has returned to the States - but he is surprised when he learns why John wants to speak to him.

"My daughter," John starts, and stops. "My youngest daughter, Jean, she." He's quiet for another minute. Charles waits him out. "She can...do things."

"Do things?" Charles is the soul of polite confusion. He can hear Erik mentally mutter something too quiet to hear, and ignores him.

"It started last year. She - if she gets upset, sometimes things move. Without anyone touching them. Not usually anything big, a cup or a spoon or something, but she got into this fight with her sister eight months ago and started yelling for us to get her. The dresser had shoved up against the back of her door." He wraps his hands around his cup of coffee. "The dresser's clear across the room, and made of oak. No way could Jean have moved it herself."

"I see." He's starting to, anyway, but it's too soon to tell. He makes the bubble of excitement stay buried. "May I speak to Jean?"

"That's the other thing," John says, and takes his hands away to rub at his eyes. "A couple months back, Jean was out playing with her friend Annie. Annie was hit by a car. Jean..." He swallows. "The doctors call it a coma. But it doesn't make any sense; she wasn't hit, just Annie. She shouldn't be doing this."

Charles is quiet for a minute. "I'm sorry, John," he says, "but I don't see what I can do to--"

"You can try talking to her," John says quietly.

Beside him, Charles feels Erik tense. Somewhere in the house, something metal starts rattling. "John--"

"I don't care what you can do," John says, "or how it works, or--whatever. I just want my little girl back. Whatever she can do, it--I don't care. It's a gift. But I can't--please."

He skims the surface of John's mind, just enough to see if he's telling the truth, and sits back a little, blinking, at what he sees:

John's telling the truth.

He doesn't care if his daughter's a mutant. He loves Jean, fiercely and desperately in the way only parents can ever understand; he wouldn't care if she had fur or was bright blue or had extra appendages. It wouldn't make a bit of difference. It'd just be another part of her, the same as her red hair or green eyes.

"I can't promise anything," Charles warns, and abruptly the rattling stops. He feels Erik's gaze light on him, but doesn't turn his attention away.

"I know," John says, but there's relief in his voice. "She's upstairs."

*

The girl Charles had glimpsed in John's mind was a typical fourteen-year-old girl: funny, smart, already starting to chafe at her parents' yoke.

The girl Charles is looking at now is still and silent, sitting in a chair by the window. She's dressed for the day, in a sweater and jeans, but her eyes are open and vacant, focused on nothing. It's horrifying.

Charles looks at her for a long moment, then walks over and sits on the windowsill, fingers touching his temple. Hello, he says.

Nothing.

My name is Charles. I'm a friend of your father's. He asked me to see if I could speak to you, Jean.

Noth--no, mostly nothing, but a faint, flickering pulse, almost too far away to see.

He says sometimes when you get upset, things move, Charles says. But that's not entirely true, is it? Sometimes you're happy.

There's a long pause. Then, soft, almost too soft to hear:

Sometimes

He waits.

Sometimes I don't have to be upset, a girl's voice says, soft and clear. Sometimes I'll be in my room and I want a book or something, and it just--comes over to me.

Does it wobble a little? Charles asks.

Sometimes. If I'm looking at it. Otherwise it just comes over. A pause. Am I doing that?

Yes, Charles says. You're like me. You can do things other people can't.

Really? Jean sounds curious. Like what?

Well, we're talking in your head right now.

Oh, that. Jean mentally shrugs. I do that sometimes, too. Not talking to people, I mean, but I know what they're thinking. People are really loud thinkers.

They can be, Charles agrees, and glances at Erik, holds up two fingers. Jean? Did something happen with your friend? With Annie?

IT'S NOT MY FAULT, Jean shouts, and Charles jerks back. He can hear something moving behind him, but doesn't turn his focus away from her. I tried to make her stay! It wasn't that hard, but she didn't--and it got so dark--

And he can see it: Jean crouched in the road over a girl with light brown hair, the day darkening to night as he watches. It's not true, he realizes, or not objectively true; it's what happens when you're in someone's head as they die. All the lights go out.

Like fireflies, Jean says, and it sounds like she's crying.

Jean. Charles keeps his voice level. She's not as strong as he is, but she's still young, untrained. She might very well be, one day. Add to that the telekinesis, and something--there's something else, like catching sight of a coin dropped in the woods: glimpsed and gone. He doesn't let himself worry about it right now. Jean. Listen to me, please.

Still sniffling, he can feel Jean's focus turn to him.

There are others of us, you know. I run a school in Westchester. There are other people like you there. Like us. He sends her a mental image of everyone else, watches her gape.

It's not just me?

At some point, the question should stop hurting. That day's not today. N--

Not at all, Erik breaks in. Charles looks at him. "You both--" Erik tilts his head. "You really need to work on doing that with other people in the room. You might as well be speaking aloud."

Can you do this, too? Jean asks. She's not quite poking at Erik's mind, but if she knew how she would be. Charles resists the urge to stop her.

"No," Erik says. His thoughts match his words, which isn't surprising; he's not comfortable speaking telepathically, though he's all but given up on Charles never doing it to him. "I do other things." There's a tug on Charles' wrist, and his watch slips off like he's removed it himself.

You can move things too! Jean says, excited.

"I can move metal," Erik corrects. "Not everything."

But practically everything has metal in it. We learned that in school. People even have metal in them--

"I know," Erik says, and Charles gets a brief flash of something

(fillings)

before he tamps it down. "But no, it's not just you. There are other children your age there, and other adults."

Oh, Jean says, a little awed, and falls quiet for a minute, thinking too fast for Charles to catch up.

Then, in a very small voice: Do I have to come out of my head? It's quiet in here. People don't think at me.

"It's like being in bed," Charles says aloud. "It's always nice to play hooky once in a while, but if you were there forever you'd get very bored."

...and you can help me? I don't want-- The shadows, again. I don't want to do that again.

"I think so," Charles says. "In fact, we can start now, if you'd like." He reaches out, touches two fingers to Jean's temple.

A moment later, her eyes are blinking open. "How'd you do that?" she croaks, her voice rusty from disuse.

"It's not difficult," Charles says. "They'll slowly wear away with time, but you won't--it's a lot at first, I know. It's easier to control this way."

Jean looks thoughtful, like she's testing it, then slides out of her chair--only stumbling a little--and wraps her arms around him. "Thank you," she says, and her voice is wet. "Thank you, thank you--"

"You're very welcome," Charles says, and hugs her back.

"I should go tell my parents," Jean says, stepping back. "I'll be right back." She starts to go, then turns back around and hugs Erik tight. Erik looks startled, but not uncomfortable.

Then she's pulling back, smiling, and running for the stairs.

"That's incredible," Erik says, looking at him.

"Yes, I've always been fond of hugs myself," Charles says, smiling, and gets up, brushing himself off.

"Not--" Little glare. "You know what I mean. Two! How do you--what on earth did you do?"

"Well, two mutations is surprising, I'll admit, but they're related. It's not out of the realm of possibility--"

"Clearly," Erik says, but his voice is warmer than Charles has heard since Cuba.

"--and as for the rest of it, I sort of." He gestures to his head. "Walled her off."

The warmth falls away. "What," Erik says. It's not a question.

"It's only temporary," Charles says. "Sort of like building a beaver dam out of graham crackers--no, that's an awful analogy." He shakes his head. "It. Erik, she was catatonic because she was in her friend's mind when she died."

"You were in Farouk's," Erik says. The chill is increasing.

He shakes his head. "No, I wasn't. I left the instant before he died. And I'm an adult; I've been doing this since I was a child. That was the first time she ever consciously used her powers, though she didn't know she was doing it at the time. It's a trauma. You can't just expect her to heal with an open wound."

It's not a conscious thought--Erik had; of course the girl can--but Charles winces anyway. "Erik, that's not--"

"You crippled her," Erik says, and there's no mistaking the tone in his voice: it's anger. He's honestly angry at Charles, possibly for the first time.

"I have not--"

Erik thinks, very loudly, about Shaw's helmet.

Charles gets the message and shuts up.

*

John protests Jean's leaving with them, but not for the reason Charles had figured.

"If it was just the training, that'd be one thing," John says. "But she's already missed almost her entire freshman year. She needs to know how to use her powers, yes, but she also needs a high school education."

"John," Charles starts, and stops, because: well. Fair point, actually.

They really will need to be a school, he realizes, with state certification and all. Alex and Armando are above the age of majority, yes, but Sean still has a year left, and Scott and Ororo are in the same position as Jean. They need teachers and support staff, and unless they can magically manage to find other educators who happen to be mutants, they're going to need to hire humans. There have to be some they can trust; look at John and Moira, back when she'd had her memory.

They're building something here. It just hasn't occurred to Charles exactly what that entails until right now.

He shakes his head. "John, I can assure you--"

"There's a simple solution," Erik says. "Jean should stay here during the week and catch up on her studies, and come to the school on weekends - and over breaks, obviously. At least for the rest of this year, while we hire staff and get certified by the state." He looks remarkably unconcerned. "We've already started the process."

We have? Charles asks.

As soon as you convince people in the certification office we have, yes, Erik says. And I'm still not speaking to you.

"It's Thursday," Charles says aloud. "We can have our doctor check her over and make sure she's physically all right, and you can get her Sunday evening. Or we can bring her back."

"You really mean that," John says.

"Your daughter has an incredible gift, John," Charles says quietly. "She needs to learn how to harness it properly. She can't learn that here."

"I know," John says, and glances upstairs. Charles can hear Jean thumping around upstairs, getting her things together. "Just - promise me you'll take care of her. Not that you'll keep her safe; no one can do that. I learned that the day she went away."

"I'll take care of her as if she was my own," Charles says, and means it.

"That's all I can ask." John raises his voice a little. "Jean! Come down here! We have some things to talk about!"

*

Charles is so buoyed by their success with Jean, argument with Erik notwithstanding, that he forgets that things tend to come in fits and starts, with their little group. Everything went all right upstate, so of course Raven comes home with someone he's never met before and accidentally gets into a fight with a coat rack.

"If it'll make you feel better," the woman--Irene Adler; probably an alias unless her parents really liked Doyle--says, "Charles can read my mind and make sure Schmidt didn't have a back-up plan."

Charles glances off her thoughts and blinks. He can see the thoughts, like fish in a lake, but he can't go any deeper than that without actual effort. The last time that had happened had been with Frost.

The sound of metal crumpling draws his attention for a moment. "Stop that," he tells Erik, idly, and isn't surprised when Erik doesn't acknowledge him. They haven't actually spoken since coming back with Jean. "I have your permission?"

Irene nods. "It might be a little more resistance than you're used to, but just give it a stronger push."

Charles nods and touches two fingers to his temple, concentrating. Her mental shields aren't anywhere near as developed as his own, but they're strong enough to tell him her power is definitely mental in nature; non-telepaths don't have that kind of protection unless they've developed it, worked at it long hours. He gives a little push--

(THOUSANDS thousands of paths/possibilities/never-weres/always-ares stretched out in front of him like a highway, like what he glimpses in cerebro but multiplied by every mind on earth, each of them gray and static unless he focuses on them and then bursting to life, full-color and loud loud LOUD too much to process too much god what if I could read them like this I'd never come out)

--and stumbles back against the stairs, unaware he's jerked away from it until Irene takes his hand away from his head.

"I should have warned you," she says. She has a very soft accent, softer than Erik's, but similar enough. Europe, somewhere, but too faint to place. "I'm used to it, you see. A little like--"

"--sensory overload, yes." He blinks his eyes again. "Your shields are very impressive."

"Natural. I didn't have a teacher." She smiles. She's very lovely, and a little sad; but that's just her face, not her mind. He doesn't have a read on her mind. The visions take up too much space. With practice he could get through them, maybe, but he's not sure he'd like that. "Until now, if you'll have me." She glances over at Erik, who's a few steps away. "He's fine," she adds.

"It's fine, Erik," Charles agrees. "Irene is a precognitive."

"She sees the future," Ororo says. She's still quiet around most of them, but Raven says she's slowly getting better about that. He hasn't been able to bring himself to ask more detailed questions about what she'd been doing with Farouk. "Also, she's blind."

That explains the glasses, then, but not how she moves--ah. Yes. Precognitive. It wouldn't be a lot of effort to peek a few seconds ahead and glimpse the layout of a room, adjust herself accordingly. Charles feels the same stab of wonder he always does when they find another mutant.

He makes himself tune back into the conversation long enough to hear Irene asking about rooms. "Down the hall from you, I'd think, Raven," he says. "Jean won't be here full-time for a while yet, but she's next to Ororo." He takes a breath. "I'll be back in a moment. I need some air."

And before anyone can say anything, he heads outside.

*

By the time Charles comes back inside, Irene's in the lab with Hank.

I'm sorry about earlier, she thinks at him, in the middle of Hank's lecture about exactly how her powers work. It's not that Charles doesn't appreciate his enthusiasm; he's just not thrilled that Hank's using it as an excuse to hide away from the world. In that, he can admit Erik and Raven are right: there are going to be obvious mutations. The world needs to get used to those, too. It can be overwhelming. I should have done a better job of warning you.

Charles hesitates for a moment. It's fine, he finally says. It's as much my fault for being unprepared.

Irene doesn't say anything to that, but her mind sends up one of those fish-thoughts, and this time Charles catches it: himself, a few years older, gray touching his hair and the sounds of children outside. A number of them, actually. The house seems more familiar, well-loved.

For a moment, though, he's not seated at a desk. He's in a wheelchair. Then it flickers and disappears, and he's got his head bent to admissions forms again, legs crossed at the ankle.

Charles just watches.

Things were supposed to go differently on the beach, Irene thinks, less a shout and more of an insistent tone. That's why I'm here. You and Erik--

Another fish-thought, this one too fast to properly read, but he manages to catch sight of Moira with her gun drawn and himself, body at a strange angle, and Erik crouched over him. They both look like something's breaking.

Maybe something had, once.

What happened, happened, Charles says, very gently, and nudges Irene's mind until she changes the subject.

*

He settles in that night with a glass of scotch instead of brandy, and keeps the lights off, and lets himself think.

He's a little surprised to find that he doesn't actually want to know what could have happened at the beach. The only one who died was Shaw; that's enough for Charles. The future is his concern, not the past: what happened, happened, and they go from there. And, Charles can admit to himself, somewhat selfishly, he'd rather not linger on a possibility that ended with his legs useless and his dear friend--

No, he tells himself. That had been possible, once. It's not now. Let it go, Charles.

He's so lost in brooding he doesn't realize someone else is in the room with him until the door closes with a soft sound.

"You kept the helmet," Charles says, without turning around.

Erik doesn't argue. "I did," he says. He hasn't moved closer. "The construction is fascinating. Besides, if Hank can find a way to duplicate it, it'll be an advantage in battle."

"You always think it's going to be a battle," Charles mutters.

"Because it usually is." Erik shrugs. "I'd rather prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised if it doesn't come to that."

Charles nods. "Rather than be the eternally disappointed optimist," he says, and finishes his scotch. His voice is starting to get heavier, but he's not quite slurring his words yet. Which means he's not drunk enough. He pours himself another finger and sets the bottle down.

Before he can drink it, though, Erik's taking it away from him, head tilted. "You're not usually this maudlin," he says. "Something wrong?"

"In Irene's head." Charles rubs at his eyes. "It w--why did you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Listen to me. On the beach. You didn't have to; I wasn't exactly making the most persuasive arguments at the time." He takes his hands away and looks up at Erik--no surprise, he's always doing that; damnable man's too tall. "So why did you stop?"

Erik's quiet for a long time. And it would be easy to read his mind, easier now than ever--alcohol looses inhibition, and Charles figured out a while ago that it's only politeness that keeps him from constantly perching in Erik's head, just peering around. He could spend the rest of his life in a corner, just watching, and never get bored.

"I still think I'm right, you know," Erik says, idly swirling the scotch. "We're better than them, Charles. By right of birth, we're better than them. And they're going to figure it out, if they haven't already, and they'll come for us."

It was an old argument weeks ago; now it just seems like poking at a cavity. "Erik--"

"And when it happens," Erik says, like Charles hadn't spoken, "and you admit I'm right, I will be magnanimous in victory. I promise." He tilts his head back and downs the scotch in one swallow. "But until then, I'm...I can admit that certain of your theories might not, very possibly, be incorrect."

Look at John, Charles says. He's too tired to stop doing it altogether, and just drunk enough to use that as an excuse.

Erik nods. "I'm not saying there won't be humans who understand, Charles. They might even sympathize. Some might even be useful. But they won't be anywhere as numerous as you seem to think."

"They still deserve a chance."

"So do we."

They look at each other for a while.

"If you've come here looking for an apology for Jean, you're not going to get it," Charles finally says. "It's not walled off forever. But she was in someone else's mind when she died. The lights--they went out. They all went out." He closes his eyes. "Bad enough when I did it, and I'm an adult. It must be a thousand times worse for a child."

Erik's quiet for a minute. Then: "It seems the scotch has made you overly sentimental, old friend. Let's get you to bed."

"I can walk," Charles protests, opening his eyes, but doesn't pull away when Erik gets an arm around his shoulders. He's not that drunk, but Erik is warm and steadying, and those are always good things. "I've two jobs, you know. Two great works. I've decided."

"Really," Erik says dryly. Two? As if one isn't enough?

Charles frowns. Erik hates it when they speak this way, so why would--ah. It's late, everyone else is asleep. He's considerate at the strangest times. Yes, two. I want our people to be safe--

Quite possibly a pipe dream, Erik mutters.

--and I want you to finally admit you're more than a sword, Charles says, a little too carefully. Possibly he's more drunk than he'd thought. You weren't Shaw's, and you're not mine.

No, Erik says, if anything I'm your sword arm. Careful: stairs.

That is entirely possible, Charles admits. But only until I've gotten good enough that I've developed my own sword arm.

Erik blinks at him. "Charles," he says, low and--there's something strange in his tone, very familiar, but. Not.

They stop outside Charles' door, Erik's arm still slung around his shoulders.

"That does not mean," Charles says, slow and precise, "that you can leave once I do. Develop it, I mean. You're not allowed to leave. I would be very cross with you." He gets the door open and steps inside, Erik a few steps behind.

"You are drunk," Erik says, clearly trying not to smile, "and sleepy. I'm going to stop listening to you now."

"I am not--well. Perhaps a bit." Charles sits on the edge of the bed and kicks his shoes off, flops backwards. "Thank you, my friend."

"You handle your alcohol like a teenaged girl," Erik says, not without fondness, and maneuvers him 'til he's in bed properly, on top of the covers--and oooh, that's giving him dreadful flashbacks to himself in a chair. That won't do.

"I was wrong," he says suddenly, grabbing for Erik's hand. "You're not a sword arm. 'm very sorry, Erik."

"Charles--"

We are building something, Charles says, and I cannot do it alone. I will not. If not for me, then--for us. For all of us. Stay. Please stay.

I'm not going anywhere, Erik says, and his eyes are too warm. Charles could tell why, if he looked more deeply, but he doesn't. Erik would know, and it would be--it would be bad.

It would be quite bad, Charles realizes, with no small alarm, then: Good Lord, there's nothing I wouldn't do for you, if you asked it.

"Good," Charles says, and lets his fingers slip free with no small regret. "You realize I'm going to pretend I didn't get unduly mawkish in the morning, don't you?"

"I'm impressed you can say 'mawkish' right now," Erik says, but he's smiling. It's a good smile, Charles thinks drowsily. Erik doesn't smile enough. Then again, he doesn't suppose weapons are supposed to do things like that.

"As am I," Charles says aloud. "Good night, Erik."

There's a slight pause. "Good night, Charles," Erik says, and closes the door behind him.









AAAAAAGH THIS THING SERIOUSLY. It just sat there mocking me for way longer than it should have, and I'm sorry for that. But as with everything else in this series, it just sort of writes itself. I swear to God, this is like automatic writing. Just sit back, listen to my stupid XMFC playlist, and just let shit happen.

Other than incorporating characters at weird-ass times--taking Jean and Ororo now instead of in the or 80s, when the math would add up with the Singer/Rattner movies--I'm totally going with the FC movies as an Elseworlds and just doing it that way.

Amahl Farouk is actually skeevier than presented here, and a hell of a lot scarier. Though the part with the fez is true. (He's a bodiless immortal telepath that LIKES TO EAT. This is a thing! You guys, I could literally put the Shi'ar in this thing and it would not be as batshit crazy as ACTUALFAX CANON. I love comics.)

Charles actually worked with Jean for several years previous to taking her in as a student, so obviously I've compressed that timeline here. Yes, he sealed her telepathy away until she could handle it; no, it didn't make her into the Phoenix. (IT WAS NOT A SPLIT PERSONALITY, BRETT RATTNER, OH MY GOD.)

yes I will be going into the C/E stuff more in the second part OH MY GOD WHY ARE ALL OF THESE FUCKERS BASICALLY TWO-PARTERS, SERIOUSLY
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