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6335Coalescence (Xavier + Ensemble Cast, PG-13)

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  • Andraste
    Jun 3, 2006
    • 0 Attachment
      Rating: PG-13

      Disclaimer: I still do not own the X-Men. Darn. I make no money from
      writing about them.

      *Author's Notes and Acknowledgments*

      When I started writing this story, it was January 2002. I thought I'd
      have it done before my birthday at the end of February. Ha!

      This story was begun after X1 and before X2, and the overall plot
      remains unaltered from the initial drafts written then. However, I have
      incorporated lots of background information provided in the sequels.
      There are no major spoilers for X3 here. I've also drawn heavily -
      although I hope comprehensibly - on the comics.

      In the years since its conception, Coalescence, more commonly known as
      the Fanfic From Hell, has become the albatross around my neck. That it's
      here at all is a tribute to those who have helped and encouraged me
      along the way. Because the creative process has been dragged out so
      long, I'm afraid that I've forgotten some of the many people who have
      betaed this monstrosity. I remember showing it to Alara Rogers in her
      hotel room when we were in Toronto, discussing it over lunch in a
      Melbourne cafe with Rossi, and chatting about it on AIM with Trisha Lynn
      Sebastian. Special thanks to Cassandra for the tireless prodding that
      made this a far better story *g*. Most recently, the revised draft has
      been in the capable hands of C. Elisa. I am grateful beyond words to all
      of them, and to the ficcers whose contribution I may have forgotten over
      the years. Also to Kathryn Andersen for running the Finish-A-Thon back
      at the beginning of this year. Although computer problems prevented me
      from finishing the story as I'd promised, at least it got me thinking in
      the right direction again. All errors and infelicities naturally remain
      my own.

      This is dedicated to everyone who ever said 'hey, when *are* you going
      to finish that Xavier story?' At 7,500 words, it's the longest thing
      I've ever posted.


      Coalescence

      By Andraste

      In the beginning there are no words.

      There would be nothing to create or describe with them – the void is
      grey and everything is indistinguishable from everything else. It is a
      place of shadows, silences. You are a grey thing within it.

      Once that particular thought has passed, things become marginally
      better: there is you. It is a good beginning.

      The next thing you notice is pain. Startled, you move for the first
      time, and that makes it worse. Stabbing and slicing instead of the dull,
      sucking ache that was before. This is not good.

      At least you have defined 'good' and 'bad.'

      After that, a question: who am I?

      A string of concepts: cliche, humorous. A flicker of colour. It is only
      then you realise that the void is not your natural state of being. It
      is an absence of something better.

      Who am I? is still a good question.

      You go looking for more colours.

      ***

      "... are you ...?"

      ***

      In moving, you find other ways of sensing - hearing, taste, touch,
      sight, smell. You have other senses, too, that are strange and
      nameless. It is with those that you feel the pain.

      From somewhere you can hear a faint voice – suggesting that there is
      somebody in the universe apart from yourself - but it is far away. You
      are separated from each other by veil upon veil. You begin to break
      through the barriers, but it is tiring and it hurts. Why are there so
      many walls?

      Soon, you become sure that the work you are tearing down is your own,
      although you can't explain how you know. There are walls because you
      built them.

      Now you remember doing so, and now you realise what you have lost: your
      memory. The thought paralyzes you for a moment, but at least you have
      one fragment of it back. With one, you might perhaps recover the rest.

      So. Begin with what you know. Why did you build walls?

      Because you were driven to this place once before, by so many voices and
      colours and tastes and touches that you thought you would go mad. The
      void is quiet, and it soothed your pain. Now, it is a trap.

      You follow the voice, and other voices, and chains of images, as far
      into the past as you are able.

      ***

      You are lying on your back, looking up at a constellation of bright,
      blurry shapes that hover above you, far out of reach. You struggle to
      touch them for what feels like a long time before collapsing in
      frustration. Why are they up there, if you can only look and never
      reach? You begin to cry.

      ***

      Tantalus, standing waist-deep in water, straining for the fruit that
      hangs above his head. It isn't hard to understand why he wants it - in
      the illustration, the fruit looks brighter and more delicious than any
      you've seen in life, and the tree is laden with many different
      varieties. You identify the apples and pears and peaches easily enough,
      but there's one that puzzles you. A pomegranate?

      Conscious of the feel of the thick, off-white paper under your hands and
      the smell of dust and old leather, you look up from your book. Father
      will know, if you can only find him.

      ***

      You open the envelope, glancing sideways at the girl smiling nervously
      beside you. It says *Happy Father's Day*. There's a picture of a
      sailing ship on the front. Your eyes skim over the hideous poem inside.

      "I just thought, since so many of us think of you as ... maybe we
      should, uh..." she says. Her smile falters slightly in the face of your
      blank expression.

      "It's ... lovely, Kitty."

      "Oh, great!" she says, obviously relieved that she hasn't overstepped
      some invisible boundary. "We got you a present, too, but I think John's
      still wrapping it."

      Against all reason, you find yourself blinking tears out of your eyes.

      ***

      You huddle around the book in your lap, bitterly cold, the moth-eaten
      navy wool blanket wrapped around your shoulders inadequate to keep off
      the winter chill. Heat may rise, but it always seems to disperse before
      it reaches the attic.

      Still, you soon manage to lose yourself in Malory's tales of Arthur and
      his knights and forget the winter outside. Although you are enchanted
      by the stories of daring, wonders, and chivalry, parts of them annoy
      you. The trouble could have been avoided so easily. If only Arthur had
      been sensible and not gotten married, he could have kept his kingdom and
      his life. You never understand why he didn't listen to Merlin. The
      wizard looks wise and powerful in the pictures, wand raised in the air,
      mouth open declaiming a prophecy.

      Interrupted by noise from downstairs, your hands tighten against the
      pages. Unlike the heat from the fire, the raised voices always drift up
      to reach you.

      ***

      "You don't *have* to go. For heaven's sake, you don't even have to use
      your powers. They give deferments to college students, don't they?"

      "If I *don't* go, they'll only send somebody else. Wouldn't it be
      better if I went, since I'm better able to defend myself?"

      Erik laughs, harshly, suddenly looking horribly old. "You're not the
      one who can stop bullets. Not that it ever did me any good."

      This is your first real fight – oh, you argue all the time, but never
      like this. Ever since your draft notice came, you've done nothing but
      shout at each other. It isn't that you want to go, but you feel that
      you ought to. Perhaps you even believe that it would finally stop Erik
      thinking that you're naïve and sheltered.

      "Erik, I'll come back, I promise."

      You understand that he's angry because he's in pain, that he's lost too
      many people already in his short life. You could, of course, make him
      agree with you. But you won't do that either.

      ***

      Your breath should not be visible in the air, in your office, in
      September. But these things happen in a school full of inexperienced
      mutants. You wish you were wearing a heavier jacket.

      "Professor, it was an accident!"

      "Robert," you say, deliberately using Bobby's hated given name, "I do
      not doubt that. What I want to know is *why* you were using your powers
      in here in the first place."

      He looks down at his feet, not wanting to give his accomplice away. He
      must know that *you* know that John – who is hovering in the doorway and
      trying not to smirk – was involved. It's more than likely Bobby was
      just trying to keep his friend from setting your desk on fire. His
      loyalty is commendable, in its way - it worries you more that John isn't
      willing to step in to defend him.

      You take in the icicles on the blackboard, the desk, and the
      bookshelves, which are now starting to drip on the carpet. Some of your
      books will be ruined, which is painful. Fortunately, you already know
      better than to keep anything of sentimental value outside your locked
      bedroom.

      "I'm really sorry. It won't happen again."

      You sigh. These little accidents will happen. "It's all right, Bobby.
      Just clean up the mess – I'm sure John will be glad to help you."

      You can feel John glaring at your back as you leave them to restore your
      office to order. It would be pointless to tell him that you didn't need
      to read anyone's mind to know what kind of a friend John is.

      ***

      The water cascading down your body lost its warmth long ago, but you
      hardly notice. You can't even tell any more if the drops on your face
      are tears or not. The tiles are freezing where you rest your back on
      them, and the concrete is gritty against your naked skin.

      Knowing all the answers on your exams before you learn them might just
      mean you're even smarter than you think you are. People doing as you
      tell them might just mean you're persuasive. The constant whispering in
      your head might just mean you're going mad.

      The hair that's falling out in handfuls and clogging the drain, though,
      is something visible. Now everyone will know you're a freak.

      ***

      You've never been seasick in your life – telepathy is far more
      disorienting than the movement of the ocean – but on this trip you've
      been queasy almost since you embarked from Portsmouth. You can hardly
      complain about another passenger being ill, but you do wish they
      wouldn't *shout* about it in your head. It's ruining what should be a
      pleasant transatlantic crossing.

      On the third day out you're taking a stroll around the deck, watching
      the liner plunge through the waves, when you sense the object of your
      irritation. All you can see of him at first is his long black coat,
      since – predictably -- he's leaning over the railing. Grimacing as a
      wave of his nausea washes through you, you reach out unthinkingly and
      will it to stop.

      The moment you touch him, you start in surprise. His mind is *lit up*
      somehow, a different colour from any other you've encountered. Stranger
      still, you find yourself meeting resistance when you try to see inside.

      As you instinctively push harder, he turns to look at you, startled. As
      if he felt your mind in his. For too long, you stare at each other in
      mutual confusion.

      "Are you all right?" you manage to ask at last.

      You're at least managing to block his projection now, but the man – a
      boy, really, he can't be any older than you – still looks positively green.

      "Just the seasickness, no? I will be fine."

      His heavily accented voice sounds wary. German, or perhaps Polish.
      He's thin and pale, with shadows under his bright blue eyes. You don't
      think that's just because the journey disagrees with him so. He's
      regarding you suspiciously as his reaches for a handkerchief to wipe his
      mouth.

      He may be the most beautiful thing you've ever seen.

      ***

      All the alcohol does is make you throw up on the bathroom floor.
      Kneeling there next to a puddle of your own vomit, you know despair.
      The liquor still buzzing through your system doesn't stop the voices in
      your mind ... but it does make them less intense. Perhaps, if you took
      the tranquillizers instead, you might attain the kind of numb
      equilibrium your mother reached before she went too far into the fog and
      never came back ...

      Or you might try to pull yourself together.

      It is not the easy choice it should be, and it is a long time before you
      get to your feet and put your head in the sink.

      ***

      *Jean –*

      The contents of your office, drifting in midair, twitch in frustration.

      *I'm not Jean.*

      It doesn't do to encourage delusions in a patient, but ... well. She
      could be right. You're starting to have trouble connecting the entity
      you're speaking to telepathically with the shy, sweet girl you've been
      getting to know in more conventional ways. Sometimes she does seem to
      be two different people.

      *Do you have a name?*

      She sends you an impression of fire, air, endless rebirth. Strength and
      passion.

      *A phoenix,* you say.

      *The Phoenix. There's only one of me.*

      *You are unique.* It is also beautiful, although you hide that thought
      from it. It does not need encouraging.

      Your furniture floats higher, which seems to indicate assent. *You
      can't cage me forever,* it thinks *one day I will be stronger than you.
      If you don't grow old and die first.*

      It is a problem you have considered at length, without coming up with a
      solution. Erik is no help at all. *I hope that by then you are in
      control of yourself.*

      *I am in control of myself now.*

      If that is true, you fear for the future of Jean's future, and everyone
      else's. The desk and chairs bob around you, and you wonder if you can
      convince it to put everything down gently this time.

      ***

      "... hear me? I'm calling you, but I don't know if you can hear me ..."

      ***

      The land mine takes most of the man's lower body off, and his surprised
      torso and head take a horribly long moment to die, twitching all the
      while, as the smell of burning and human waste fills the air. You feel
      his mind go blank, which is a relief.

      "There," you say to the remainder of your stretcher team, who are numbly
      attempting not to look at the remains of their dead colleague. Veterans
      to a man, some after all of three weeks. "Over there."

      You always find them, of course. Your comrades in arms find this both
      frightening and useful – most of the time. It's no good at all against
      land mines.

      You leave half a body lying on the track, and go to see if there's
      anything left to save somewhere else.

      ***

      The smell of blood never changes. It covers up the scent of the dusty
      carpet, covered in roses, and mingles with the odor of the alcohol
      that's splattered against the golden wallpaper. Your mother stares at
      the stain blankly. You creep out from behind the door, where you have
      been waiting for your stepfather to leave, and examine the situation.

      Her hand is covered in blood and broken glass - she crushed the tumbler
      by accident, and it has made even more of a mess than his throwing the
      bottle against the wall. You approach her carefully, as you might a
      wounded animal, and begin trying to repair the damage. She pays you no
      attention at all, slumped in the chair, but at least she allows you to
      dig the glass out this time.

      ***

      You'd like to say it happens so fast you don't have time to think, but
      the truth is that you don't have time to do anything *but* think.

      The woman is too busy picking up her groceries to see the car, the car
      is moving much to fast, there is too much distance between you. All you
      can do is watch. All you can do is think.

      MOVE you say to the driver.

      The car swerves, and you don't know who is more surprised: the man you
      controlled, or you, that you managed to do it on purpose.

      ***

      "What you did was irresponsible, childish and dangerous. If it ever
      happens again, your punishment will be far more severe than grounding."

      You fall into the role of disaproving principal too easily, mostly
      because you were genuinely afraid for Jubilee's safety - baiting
      anti-mutant bigots is a dangerous sport for students here. Partly
      because you just want to get the lecture over and done with, and get
      back to dealing with the mountain of paperwork that her flailing arm
      threatens to send sprawling across the floor of the office. You wonder
      when exactly you got old.

      " You treat us like kids!" she shouts, playing the role of hysterical
      teenager to the hilt. "Like you can tell us what to do all the time,
      like you can control us!"

      ***

      You can tell that you have Jean back for good when she flings her arms
      around you, sobbing, heedless of the way the wheelchair makes this
      awkward. If she leans on you too hard, you're going to slide backwards.
      Not that you mind.

      "Shhhhhh," you say, patting her back gently.

      "Professor, it was so dark and ... where have I been? It felt like I
      was nowhere."

      "You were lost, but I found you."

      You test the blocks gently, wishing that Jean wouldn't make quite so
      much noise. Your head is pounding. But it's worked - the psychic
      barriers are firm, and the split is now complete. This girl is finally
      free of the thing that calls itself Phoenix. Everything that has
      happened is worth it, for this.

      "It's all right, Jean. Everything will be all right."

      ***

      Erik hates hospitals. One night, when you are curled up together in
      your cabin, soothed by the rocking of the waves, he tells you why.

      "He used to perform experiments." Erik's formidable shields are as
      impenetrable as they get, but not infallible. You've seen the children
      sewn together, the eyes pinned to the wall. "If you were lucky he would
      inject chloroform into your heart at the end of it. I was not lucky."

      That is, more or less, all he will ever say on the subject. Part of you
      thinks that you should try to get more out of him, but another part says
      that it would do no good, and another simply doesn't want to know.

      ***

      The MASH unit is eerily quiet. The patients are asleep, or at least so
      full of morphine that they're too languid to do more than whimper. It's
      the middle of winter, the middle of the night, and even the insects seem
      to be in merciful hibernation for once.

      In your head, there is screaming.

      That damn boy in the corner, who hasn't said a word since they brought
      you in, makes more noise inside your head than anyone you've ever had
      the misfortune to spend time around, including Erik on his bad days.
      You cannot shut it out - it's more insistent than the cries of the dying
      or the panicked in battle.

      At some point after three in the morning, something inside you snaps.
      It's not compassion that finally makes you drag yourself out of bed,
      across the floor, hauling the plaster cast on your leg behind you. It's
      not guilt that makes you move slowly, just exhaustion. You only want
      him to *shut the hell up*.

      For the first time, you reach deep down into another mind. Not
      accidentally, as you have done too often, and not to share the thoughts
      of the one man who knows what you can do, taking only what he will give
      you ... but to heal. You feel his walls shatter at your touch.

      Within a moment, the screaming in your head has been transferred into
      the material world, and the doctors and nurses come running. Later, you
      try to explain what happened to the unit psychiatrist, without much success.

      ***

      You clutch the bag containing your mother's nightdress as a kind of
      security blanket, although you know you're too old to take any real
      comfort in it. Even though your legs are dangling in the air, still too
      short to reach the floor, you feel fragile and grown up. They won't let
      you into her room, and people keep looking sideways at you and whispering.

      The hospital corridor smells of disinfectant, and underneath that
      there's an even more unpleasant hint of blood and waste. Everything is
      painfully white, from the walls to the sheets to the doctors' coats and
      the nurses' uniforms. You wonder why they want to make the stains stand
      out more clearly.

      ***

      "You're talking about mutilating her!"

      "*Restraining* her, Erik, for the good of everyone. Especially Jean
      herself."

      Your arguments have escalated to the point where you wonder if this is
      why it took you so long to open the school. Now the ideological
      differences that have always fueled your disagreements are practical
      problems. You don't think that you will ever agree about Jean.

      "Her powers are her birthright. I won't stand by and watch you do this."

      "And I won't allow you to stop me."

      The words are out before you can think about the implications. Erik
      frowns at you, turns on his heel, and walks out of your room without
      another word.

      Later, when Jean asks, you will deny that there is anything wrong and go
      back to carefully installing the psychic blocks. Erik is no longer the
      most important thing in your life, and if that makes you sad, it's a
      sadness you'll have to live with.

      ***

      "... remember when we ..."

      ***

      The pain took you away, but now it brings you back. You find yourself
      curled up on the floor in the foetal position, nails cutting deep into
      your palms.

      It's dark, and chilly - you've been ... unconscious? No. Gone. For
      hours by the look of it. You're hungry and stiff, and your room seems
      silent after ... wherever you were, it was uncomfortably loud. You feel
      as though your ears should still be ringing. Perhaps your mind is
      ringing instead.

      You rise onto your knees, look at yourself blearily in the mirror. On
      your skull there are bruises. Not from where you struck your head in
      falling, but as if some internal pressure has forced the blood to the
      surface.

      ***

      Right now, even the bruises on your shins feel good as does the way
      you're coated in mud and bleeding a little from a graze on your
      forehead. You think you pulled a muscle in your side, too. A good game
      all around.

      The rest of the team gather around and punching each other cheerfully.
      Michael slaps you on the shoulder, hand lingering for not quite long
      enough. "That was a moment of genius, Charlie," he says, grinning at
      you. "You seem to know where the other team is going before they do."

      Just like that, the bubble bursts. You find it hard to smile through
      the school's victory celebrations.

      ***

      You kneel on the sidewalk, cradling the young man's head in your lap, as
      he bleeds all over you. Through the semi-conscious haze of his brain,
      you sense youth, dazzling intelligence, gentleness.

      "I'm sorry," you say again, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. You
      aren't sure what you're apologizing for. Not being here sooner? Not
      preventing this before it could happen to him, or anyone?

      If he were not a mutant, the boy would be dead instead of gravely
      wounded. Even if he hadn't been killed outright, you wouldn't have
      heard his mental cries for help and come to his aid.

      If he were not a mutant, he would never have been harmed in the first place.

      From his huge musculature, you conclude that he must be as strong as
      any half dozen men. If he'd been willing to kill, even to defend
      himself properly, he could have escaped his attackers. Instead, he let
      them hurt him. The wounds to his flesh will heal (if the ambulance
      arrives in time, you note anxiously, straining to hear a siren) but the
      scars to his psyche must be far worse.

      He is harmless, but that has never yet protected anyone from harm.

      ***

      Sometimes, you come down to Cerebro just for the peace and quiet. The
      walls are shielded, so you can't hear the thoughts of anybody outside
      the room until you put the helmet on. You've even been known to bring a
      book with you.

      At other times, you use the machine to check up on certain people.
      There are more of you every day. You should disapprove of the thief in
      New Orleans and the bank robber who can copy himself dozens of times,
      but you can't help but find their adventures amusing. You haven't
      indulged in such voyeurism since you were a teenager, but it's
      comforting to see a few mutants who *don't* seem to need your help.

      Sitting here, you always feel that you're at the centre of the world,
      and that it isn't such a very bad place after all.

      ***

      "I don't see why you can't help out," Ororo says, only half joking.

      "I'm perfectly happy to cook, if you're happy to risk food poisoning."
      You wish that *you* were joking.

      Ororo is by far the best cook among you, as you've discovered in the
      week and a half since the hired professional got fed up with the chaos
      and left for good. You're even getting used to being a vegetarian, at
      least temporarily.

      "That's not what I meant – just go down to the basement and find us a
      mutant who can make food appear out of thin air."

      "It's not quite that simple," you tell her, smiling.

      "You could always mind control the cook into coming back."

      "Now, now, Ororo. I've taught you better than that."

      "Yeah," she agrees, stirring the stew thoughtfully. "You know, this is
      going to be more of a problem when we have more students. We're going to
      need a lot more domestic staff."

      Until now, you've been debating the pros and cons of expansion with your
      students, most of whom have graduated from high school now. Apparently
      Ororo has already decided that it's going to happen sooner or later.
      Maybe you should go and find that mutant after all.

      ***

      The boy is perhaps fifteen, and far too thin. His clothes are worn
      through in many places, but he is scrupulously clean - you can smell the
      cheap soap on him from here. He has washed his hair with soap, too, or
      he's not eating properly and it's lost all its natural luster. Probably
      both.

      "I want you to come home with me," you say. There is something wild
      about him, feral. You wonder if Erik, Henry, Jean and the others will
      take to him. Still, that's hardly the issue. You notice the way he
      always avoids looking directly at you - you've sensed through Cerebro
      that the intermittent manifestations of his powers are becoming more and
      more frequent with time. He needs your help.

      "Yeah?" he says. Obviously you can't be sure, but you think that his
      eyes are taking in the quality of your suit and the vintage of the car,
      sizing up the situation, looking for the best move. You don't need to
      see behind the sunglasses or into his mind to know what he thinks you
      want, and pointing out that you have a man your own age for that
      probably wouldn't help.

      "I want to help you, Scott. I think I know how to stop the light beams."

      Through all that mistrust you feel a flicker of hope, but you can't tell
      if it's his or yours.

      ***

      His hand, reaching out over yours, is enormous. "Do you see? The
      knight can move in three dimensions, remember - it changes the entire
      shape of the game." He guides your hand, so that it moves his pieces.
      The wood is pleasantly cool and smooth under your fingers, and you like
      the definite click each piece makes when placed down on the board.

      Without hearing him say 'check' or seeing him take another pawn, you
      realise that you will lose this game. You are fascinated by the way you
      can deduce this, rather than upset. "Why am I going to lose?" you ask.

      He laughs, surprised. "Well, in the first analysis I'd say it's because
      you're far too young to be learning this ... but if you want something
      specific, you're too impressed by the power of your queen. She's
      flexible, but you can't rely on her for everything."

      ***

      "Be good for the professor," Sean says, giving his daughter one last
      hug. She nods wordlessly, wiping a tear away on the back of her hand.

      You can feel the jealousy radiating from some of the other students who
      have come to say hello to the new girl. Many of them don't have parents
      to bring them to the school, let alone a father who has the same power
      as them. They think Theresa is lucky. Having lost your own mother when
      you were even younger than she is now, you're not certain that you agree.

      Sean looks over at you. You're proud that he's letting you have the
      keeping of his daughter, and you hope that the it will be good for her.

      *I'll keep her safe*, you promise him silently.

      ***

      "... without a map, but you ..."

      ***

      "I've been thinking," Jean says, one day when you're sharing tea with her.

      "Mmmmm?" you say, reaching for a second cookie. The chef has outdone
      herself.

      "It might be a good idea if you tried to teach me to use Cerebro."

      "Jean," you say, exasperated. "We have been over this a dozen times.
      You're not ready for that yet."

      You can see the flash of anger in her eyes. "Professor, I'm
      twenty-eight. I'm a qualified doctor. I've been your student since I was
      thirteen. When will I be ready?"

      You're sorry that she's upset, but not sorry enough to take the risk.
      "Cerebro is dangerous," you say. You don't only mean that it would be
      dangerous for her.

      ***

      All of a sudden, you're back. There are arms wrapped around you. Blood
      dripping from your nose, a nasty metallic taste in your mouth. The
      floor under your hips is cold. All of these sensations are equally
      welcome, equally grounding.

      "Are you all right?" Erik says an anxiously as you open your eyes. "I
      thought I'd lost you."

      He pulls you up until your head rests on his shoulder, kisses your
      forehead as if he doesn't mind that you're getting blood all over his
      expensive jacket. You look around the room dully, noting the way its
      finish is marred by the places where the paneling hasn't gone in yet and
      the wires are exposed. You must fix that, along with whatever the
      actual problem with the machine is. You like things to be tidy.

      "I have a headache, but other than that ... I'm fine." It's not really
      a lie - something is wrong, but you can't put your finger on what.

      You close your eyes again and rest for a moment. How to explain? You
      weren't unconscious so much as ... gone. Somewhere grey and empty.

      ***

      You notice idly that the nurse arranging the flowers is very pretty -
      she has long hair, an unnatural red, wound up in a bun, and one of the
      best pairs of legs you've ever seen. While you're still looking, she
      turns and grins at you, in a way that frees you from any embarrassment.
      Besides, it's all a little academic at this point.

      "Xavier, Charles F." she says. "You're awake now."

      It sounds right, somehow, to have your name backwards. It makes you
      smile just a little. "I have been for some time, in fact."

      "We thought for a while there you weren't going to make it, you know."

      You aren't quite sure how to respond. "I suppose I should be grateful
      that the doctors stopped the internal bleeding."

      "Yes. You really should." Her tone is still light, but you're in no
      doubt that she means it as an order.

      You close your eyes. You told everyone that it was an accident. It's not
      as though it's a lie, precisely. Even if you didn't want to live like
      this, you don't have a choice. Your students need you, more than ever,
      with Erik gone. Jean in particular, if you're ever to finish the job
      and stop this – or something worse than this – happening to someone else.

      *You* need Erik. You may never forgive him for not being here now, in
      addition to all of his other sins. Not that you would take much
      consolation in being proven right about Jean, once and for all.

      "Is there anything I can do for you?" the nurse asks.

      You think about it. "Well, I'd very much like something to read."

      ***

      The next morning, you wake up feeling dazed and hungover and not a
      little confused. Also happier than you've been in a while.

      Moira is curled up in bed next to you, naked skin glowing in the
      sunlight streaking through the window. "Good morning," she says.

      "Moira, I –"

      "If you're going to apologise for taking advantage of me, don't. I'm
      sure you know *exactly* how long I've been fantazising about doing that.
      I just never thought I'd get the chance."

      It's true, she's been thinking about it ever since you met. You only
      thought of it last night. "Neither did I."

      She smiles. "To be honest, I always thought you were ... well."

      "When I met Erik, I was seventeen years old. I'm not sure I knew what I
      wanted."

      "What do you want now, Charley?"

      What you want is to say that, no matter how brilliant she is, she's far
      too young for you. That you're not over the man you lived with for
      close to forty years, and probably never will be. Last night was
      passing insanity, even though you do love Moira.

      "I want a shower, and an aspirin, not necessarily in that order," is
      what you actually say.

      She wraps her arms around you, and kisses your cheek. "It's all right. I
      didn't expect to keep you."

      ***

      The book is ruined. Corners folded over to mark places. Covered in an
      illegible, multi-coloured scrawl you would barely be able to read if it
      were in your first language. Spine cracked where it's obviously been
      left open face down. There is a tea (or possibly coffee) stain across
      an important page. You think it may have been dropped in the bath at
      some point.

      "I made some notes," he says, apparently reading something worrying into
      the blankness you are attempting to project. He already knows you too
      well. "I hope you don't mind."

      "No, no. It's perfectly all right. Did you enjoy it?"

      "Well ... I don't think I agree with a word he says, but lately that
      doesn't seem to trouble me as much as it used to." He smiles at you,
      and the flip your heart does is worth the destruction of a thousand
      copies of 'The Once and Future King'.

      The things we do for love. You laugh at yourself.

      ***

      "I assure you that your concern, while entirely understandable and
      certainly appreciated, is unnecessary. We will retrieve the unfortunate
      young mutant and return to you within the hour. You'll hardly notice
      our absence."

      Henry's cheerful tone does little to diffuse the atmosphere in the
      briefing room, although you appreciate the effort. Scott has his arms
      folded, withdrawn and frowning. He thinks that you're worried because
      you don't trust him to lead the mission. Nothing could be further from
      the truth.

      You only wish that they weren't naïve enough about battle to be excited
      instead of nervous. You knew that you'd have to send them into a
      potential combat situation when you started this ... but that doesn't
      make it an easy thing to do. All you want is to go with them. If you
      did, you might be able to convince the boy to come quietly instead of
      setting fire to your students.

      "I'll be monitoring your situation," you tell them, redundantly.

      Jean, who seems to understand better than the others, leans over and
      kisses you on the forehead in a way that's just this side of daughterly
      as she leaves.

      "Please don't fret. I promise we'll be fine, and I'll call you when
      it's over. You trust me, don't you?"

      ***

      "... do you ... the way back in: see, it's right here. I can show you
      the ..."

      ***

      Erik is crushing your ribs, but as you're trying to do the same to his,
      you can hardly complain. You're tempted to reach out and turn every
      face in the airport away so that you can kiss him right here. You're
      tempted to kiss him anyway, consequences be damned.

      You can't believe that you've survived an entire year in hell, that
      you're safely back on American soil. If you have anything to say about
      it, you're never going to leave Erik again – if you go, you'll go
      together, and it won't be anywhere near Korea. You've forgotten that
      you ever fought. Anyway, he was right to tell you not to go, not that
      you'll admit that.

      At last, he pulls away from you slightly, searching your face for
      something. "While you were gone –"

      You tighten your grip on his arm. "Erik, I don't care what happened
      while I was gone. It doesn't matter."

      If it matters to him, he never tries to tell you again.

      ***

      "... I know it hurts, but you can use the pain as a focus. Remember how
      you showed me? Try to do that ..."

      ***

      Henry's hug is going to leave fur all over your suit – the image inducer
      won't do anything to help with that problem. You're just glad that he's
      happy.

      "Charles," he says when he lets go and stands up, "I can't tell you how
      much this means to me."

      "You don't have to, Henry. Forge is building a training facility in the
      basement, based on hologram technology. I think it took him all of one
      afternoon to design a portable unit for you."

      "I wish –" he says, the face that isn't his own wrinkling in frustration.

      "That you didn't have to use it? You don't have to tell me that, either.
      I wish that none of us had to hide. Sometimes I think we shouldn't."
      Erik would be horrified that Henry no longer wants to appear in public
      covered with blue fur, but then, that's why Erik isn't here.

      Henry shakes his head. "Appearances are important sometimes."

      ***

      "If you persist in wearing that tie, not only will I not go to dinner
      with you, I shall refuse to speak to you ever again, and pretend we've
      never met if we're seen together in public."

      "You don't like it?" Your bewilderment is only half-feigned.

      "I told you to wear the *green* one."

      "I thought this *was* the green one." This is one of those languages
      Erik speaks that you haven't been able to borrow wholesale from his
      brain. He assures you that you're much better dressed since you've
      known him.

      He clicks his tongue disapprovingly, wraps an arm around you so you
      can't escape, and drags you back to the wardrobe. "There's only one
      thing for it. I'll have to undress you and start all over again."

      "Well, if you must," you say, pretending reluctance.

      ***

      "Please don't move," Piotr says quietly, when you start to turn away
      from the window.

      You didn't realise until now that he was even there, your mind on other
      things. Now you can see him out of the corner of your eye, furiously
      sketching your profile. You resist the temptation to smile, knowing that
      it will annoy the artist at work, and try to remain perfectly still.

      ***

      When you come to, you find yourself lying under one of the bookshelves.
      You wonder why it doesn't hurt more, until you attempt to move and
      find that you can't feel your legs, let alone shift them. Then you just
      freeze somewhere inside.

      You can hear somebody crying, and you're reasonably certain that it
      isn't you.

      "Jean?"

      "Professor?" she says, crawling over and peering at you with concern.

      "Jean, I need you to go and find Henry for me. Tell him to call an
      ambulance."

      "Professor, what happened?" she asks. "I know that you were in my mind,
      and then –"

      "Please, Jean, don't worry. There was an accident, and the shelf fell
      down."

      She turns even paler. "It wasn't –" she says. "I didn't –"

      You make your decision. "Of course not," you say gently. "You can't move
      anything this heavy, can you?" You reach into her mind, and you *make*
      her believe it. If you have to do the same thing to Henry and Ororo
      later, then you will. You won't have Jean held responsible for something
      that isn't her fault.

      Nobody will ever know what happened here. Not even you. Telepath or no,
      you'll never be completely sure if the Phoenix broke you in half on
      purpose or not.

      ***

      "It's not so bad, I'm right here, right next to you, I swear, just reach
      out ..."

      ***

      You glance up from your morning newspaper, to find Scott looking worried
      as he pours himself a glass of orange juice. He's been trying to cut
      down on his caffeine intake, and you sometimes wonder if you should
      follow his good example.

      "What if Senator Kelly passes the registration bill?" he says, no doubt
      noticing the day's headlines. "Do we comply with the law of the land, or
      fight the government openly?"

      You hesitate before answering. He isn't asking because he has any great
      respect for the rule of law in a country that doesn't convict a mob for
      beating mutants to death, but sends a mutant to the electric chair for
      manifesting a power unexpectedly in a way that should be considered
      manslaughter at worst. Scott is afraid that noncompliance will harm the
      students, even bring the army down on your heads.

      "It may never happen," you say, trying to sound reassuring.

      Your coffee tastes bitter today.

      ***

      Your mother pays little attention to the ceremony going on around her,
      murmuring to herself although she is weeping too much to pray loudly.
      Your own eyes are dry.

      Throughout your father's funeral, you keep your hand in hers. At the
      age of ten, you are the man of the house. You will look after her. Your
      father would expect no less. You will always be there to protect her,
      to keep her safe from harm like the sanctified walls of the church itself.

      You ignore the man holding her other hand, and you look straight ahead.

      ***

      You call Moira to tell her that it's over, and as always she
      sympathiszes as good friends do, and as always she doesn't believe you.
      It isn't as if you blame her; you never believed it yourself until now.

      "I think," you say, trying to stay calm. "That he might do something
      stupid."

      She obviously still thinks that this is a minor rift, not a yawning
      chasm. "What, chain himself to a public monument? Interfere with the
      radio transmission again? Give an inflammatory interview to the
      newspapers?"

      You don't know how to tell her that this is far worse than a bit of
      direct action. You can't explain how you didn't see this coming decades
      ago. It isn't as if you didn't know mutants could be dangerous ... but
      you've loved him since you were seventeen. You've always been too close
      to the problem. You still are.

      You see Erik's handiwork on the news that night like everyone else, and
      when Moira calls back you don't pick up the phone.

      ***

      "... please? I'm trying to help you, I know ..."

      ***

      "Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus, et
      benedictus fructus ventris tui Iesus. Sancta Maria Mater Dei, ora pro
      nobis peccatoribus, nunc ..." you stop before you reach 'and at the hour
      of our death', but the end of the phrase hangs in your mind.

      You weren't thinking of the words when you began the prayer, only of the
      hand that's gripped in yours. There is a good chance, right now, that
      Scott will die despite all that Jean and Hank can do. He's lost a great
      deal of blood.

      "It should be me," Jean says, striding through the door like a woman on
      a mission. "It's dangerous, and ..."

      She falters. What she means is that she's already lost enough people today.

      "It's not dangerous, not for me. All I'm going to do is call after him,
      help him find his way back. You're not experienced enough yet, Jean,
      and he needs your medical expertise more than your powers." Only the
      first sentence is a lie.

      Bullets have no compassion, but you wonder if anyone could hate mutants
      if you could only give each one of them this image to hold in their
      minds: the fragile wounded body in this bed.

      ***

      "We're right here. I just need you to do one more thing for me, get
      just a little more solid. You can do that, can't you?"

      ***

      When you first learn how to leave your body at will, the freedome is
      intoxicating. Sometimes you think you could go futher and further and
      never come back at all. It is the water that saves you. The water keeps
      you anchored. Surrounding your body, the cold reminds you that you have
      hands and feet and nerve endings and lungs and eyes, that you are more
      than a mind adrift on the astral winds. Like a dolphin at play, you
      learn how to send the mobile part of yourself into the mental ocean,
      secure in the knowledge of the way back.

      ***

      The light is so bright that it makes your eyes hurt when you open them.
      The ceiling is too white, the bed beneath you too cool. You feel the
      pressure of the sensors attached to you, hyper-sensitized by the lack of
      truly solid sensation for so long. You swallow, tasting nothing. You
      are thirsty.

      "I knew you'd make it back," Jean says, smiling. You can see by her
      expression and the crackling surface of her mind that you have missed
      all the excitement. It could have been days.

      "I had you to guide me," you reply.

      You flex your fingers. Home.

      The End