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X-Men Days of Future Past fic: Out of the Frying Pan (1/2)

December 8th, 2015 (09:50 pm)
ditzy

feeling: ditzy

Title: Out of the Frying Pan

Disclaimer: I do not own X-Men in any incarnation.

A/N: Set after X-Men Days of Future Past. Written for my dear friend sendintheklowns. Fill for my Loss of Job square on hc_bingo. This has not been beta'ed, so pardon the typos.

Summary: Charles would rebuild his school; he would reshape his legacy. He would help people: mutants and otherwise, and the world would be a better place.



-o-

It was an understatement to say, perhaps, that coming home was somewhat anticlimactic.

The President wasn’t dead, that was the good news. And Raven had chosen her own destiny, and though it wasn’t with Charles, it wasn’t with Erik either. As for his old friend, he could only hope that this would be a lesson to Erik, that he might learn something beneficial and make better decisions in the future.

Though, truly, this was Erik. Charles didn’t dare be optimistic.

Besides, there was no way of knowing if anything had changed. True success was not something he could measure. Logan had gone missing since the fight, and since they had in essence been saving themselves from the future, it wasn’t like Charles had much to compare it against except the shadow of memory inside Logan’s mind.

All in all, Charles had to think it was a success.

But back at home, wheelchair in the drive just beyond the gate, he was keenly aware that victory didn’t mean as much as he thought it did. There was still work to do, perhaps even more now. He had perhaps given up the notion of being a superhero, of saving humanity through grand feats, but he could still save them, one mutant at a time.

That was where change would be wrought, after all. If he could teach others to be true and faithful, smart and productive. That would be one more mutant to live in peace and show the world a better way. If he could empower them to make choices like Raven, then the future might be the one Logan came back to create.

The problem was, most naturally, that Charles had a rundown school with an overgrown yard and nothing but a well-intentioned scientist to bring it back into working order.

He sighed. “Has it always looked this bad?” he asked.

Hank’s expression was apologetic. “Just for the last year or so,” he said. “It went downhill when we let the gardener go.”

“Why did we let the gardener go?” Charles asked.

“He was friends with the pool cleaner,” Hank said.

“And we let him go, too?” Charles asked.

“No, he quit when you threw a bottle at his head,” Hank reminded him.

Charles frowned. “Oh,” he said. “I had rather hoped that was a dream.”

“To be fair, a lot of the last few years have sort of been a nightmare,” Hank commented.

Charles sighed again, shaking his head. “I fear I owe you an apology, my friend.”

“What?” Hank asked. “No, that’s not--”

“But it is,” Charles said. “I lost myself, and I nearly took you down with me.”

“Charles, I made a choice to stay,” Hank said.

“Your loyalty was undeserved,” Charles said.

“I don’t think so,” Hank said. “This is the only place where I’ve ever felt like I belonged. You did that, Charles. You.”

“These last few years--”

“Are over now,” Hank said. “I mean, we can do anything now, right?”

Anything.

That was a novel promise, one that Charles had believed in once.

One that he could -- and would -- believe in again. For Logan’s sake. For Raven’s and even Erik’s. For Hank’s and all the others he could find.

He could make a difference, no matter how hopeless it seemed. He had to keep his optimism, and he had to keep working.

Lips drawn together, he eyed the bedraggled lawn again.

There was plenty of work to be done.

“Anything,” Charles agreed with a sober nod of his head. “And everything I’m afraid.”

“We can start by hiring the gardener again,” Hank suggested.

“Nonsense,” Charles said. “This task is ours.”

“It’s an entire school,” Hank pointed out.

Charles smiled. “Which is why we should get started.”

-o-

It had been months since Charles had bothered himself to give a damn about anything other than the bottom of a bottle, but he found the tasks of organization and management came back to him quickly. The drugs and the liquor had dulled his senses quite thoroughly, and now that he was quite himself again, it was not so hard to get a firm grasp on the task ahead of them.

That was not to say, however, that it was an easy task. If anything, rebuilding the school was more daunting the second time around. The grounds had eroded; their influence had waned. Charles had no connections and far fewer resources.

“So we’ll have to trim back the gardens, then,” Charles said, looking at the map of the grounds laid out in front of them.

“Honestly, we may just want to start over,” Hank said. “For a while I tried to go out there a few times over the summer, but it got really out of control. We lost a few trees in one of the storms last year, and I just never had the time to get them taken care of.”

Charles chewed his lip thoughtfully. “What is the state of the pool?”

“Not as bad as you’d think,” Hank said. “It’s the other buildings you’ll want to reconsider.”

Charles looked up, surprised.

Hank shrugged, sheepish. “There’s a leak in one of the utility sheds,” he said.

“And we didn’t fix it?” Charles asked.

“Well, we stopped letting people on the property at that point,” Hank reminded him. “And I spent most of last summer trying to rebuild the sporting shed.”

“What happened to that one?” Charles asked.

Hank blinked at him, almost as if in surprise. “Gophers.”

Charles raised his eyebrows.

“Burrowed under the east corner,” he said. “I didn’t realize how bad it was until the footings started to collapse.”

Charles gaped for a moment. Then, he let out an indignant laugh. “You mean, you and I have managed to essentially save the world and quite possibly the future, but we’ve spent the last year being foiled by gophers?

“Or moles,” Hank said. “I set up traps, but they’re surprisingly strong--”

Charles shook his head, waving his hand through the air. “No, no, I think you’re right,” he said wearily. “Maybe we should just start over.”

There was a weighted, awkward silence before Hank shuffled his feet. “I know the grounds aren’t doing so well, but the house is in pretty good shape,” he said. “We’ll want to fix the chimney flue, but I did get the roof mostly reshingled, and honestly, with the equipment I’ve collected, we’ll be able to make a much better science lab--”

“Wait,” Charles said. “When did you reshingle the roof?”

Stopping, Hank looked at him earnestly. “Um,” he said. “Three months ago.”

Three months ago.

Charles shook his head. “Why don’t I remember this?”

“Well,” Hank said. “You were busy with your...books. And your writing.”

Books and writing. Yes, Charles had been spending time with his books and writing.

That said, he didn’t remember any of the books and he couldn’t produce a single word to his name.

In truth, he’d spent years locked in his room with nothing but his grief for company. He’d abandoned his school, he’d abandoned his friends, he’d abandoned himself.

And for the love of all that was good, he’d abandoned Hank as well. Why the other man had stayed was still more than Charles could grasp, but he was infinitely grateful for it.

“I should have done more,” Hank continued, sounding pained. “I wasn’t a very good groundskeeper--”

Charles looked up at him, almost appalled. “You did more than anyone else would have in your place,” he said. “What I asked of you -- what I came to expect from you -- it wasn’t fair, Hank. I started this, and then left you with all the responsibility and none of the resources you needed. I didn’t just fail you as an owner. I failed you as a friend.”

Hank’s brow furrowed and he licked his lips. “You needed help, and I gave you the drugs,” he said. “Whatever happened these last few years, I enabled it--”

“And it was still my choice,” Charles said. “Please, Hank. Don’t take the responsibility--”

“After what you’d been through--”

“What we’d all been through,” Charles said. “Loss is not a contest. Grief is not a relative measure.”

Hank swallowed hard. “Still.”

Charles managed a small smile. “Still,” he agreed. “What’s done is done. Now the task ahead of us requires both of our full attention. Can we agree on that much?”

Hesitant, Hank nodded.

“And this time,” Charles said. “Neither of us will do it alone. How does that sound?”

“Good,” Hank said, starting to smile. “It sounds like a good place to start.”

-o-

A good place to start.

But there was a whole lot more they needed in order to finish. They started the list, but it didn’t seem to end. The bushes needed to be pruned; the trees needed to be trimmed. The entire driveway probably needed to be replaced, and most of the fencing needed to be fixed and repainted. The buildings were in disarray, and apparently, all the flower beds needed to be replanted or something ridiculous of that nature. The house needed to be washed; the siding in several key places needed to be fixed; and there was an entire thicket of rose thorns to be contended with.

It was appalling, really. Not just that Charles had let it spiral so wildly out of control, but that he’d had no concept of just how much work went into the upkeep in the first place. He’d grown up privileged, with manicured lawns and a cook on hand. There had never been any need to do household chores, and Charles had probably erroneously believed that such things just happened.

They might, but only when you hired the appropriate staff. Which, to the point, he would do, but not until he handled the mess first. This was his fault, and if he expected Raven and Erik to take responsibility for their choices, then he damn well needed to start taking responsibility for his.

Therefore, he readied himself early the next morning, dressed and drinking his tea at the breakfast table when Hank came down. The other man looked somewhat less chipper in jeans and a t-shirt, and he seemed more than a little surprised as he sat himself down across from Charles.

“You’re up early,” Hank observed.

“Well, I do think I spent enough time sleeping recently,” Charles said. “Besides, we do have a lot to do today.”

Hank took a bite of his breakfast with a nod. He swallowed -- mostly -- before speaking. “I thought I could handle most of it--”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Charles said. “This is my home--”

Hank swallowed a little more, washing the bite back with a swig of orange juice. “Sure, but--”

“But what?” Charles asked, almost indignant.

Hank hesitated.

Charles sighed, puffing his chest out with a huff. “I don’t need my legs to be productive,” he said tersely.

“I know,” Hank said, a little quickly. “I just--”

“Honestly, I haven’t felt this good in ages,” Charles said.

“I know,” Hank said.

“Then why shouldn’t I help?” Charles said.

“Okay, okay,” Hank said, putting his hands up in surrender. “Make sure you drink up, then. It’s going to be a hot one out there.”

Charles took a self-satisfied sip of his tea. “After all we’ve been through,” he said. “I think I can handle a little heat.”

-o-

It wasn’t a little heat.

It was bloody stifling.

The temperature was sweltering in the morning, and by the time the sun rose to its pinnacle in the noon sky, it was nearly unbearable. Hank kept them well supplied with water while they worked, but it hardly seemed to help. By lunch, they were both drenched, and Hank rocked back on his heels, taking off his baseball cap and wiping his brow.

“You know, maybe that’s good enough for today,” Hank said.

Part of Charles wanted to agree. He was hot and uncomfortable and his hands were raw from using the damn chair.

But when he looked over their current task of paring down the garden, he realized with horrible clarity that they had barely made a dent. In fact, despite the pile of weeds and bushes they had pulled from the mess that was once the centerpiece of the grounds, the entire thing was an overgrown mess.

It would be so much easier to call it a day, to go inside and get a cold drink and then call every groundskeeper that was still talking to them.

That would be the easy way out, at least.

Charles had taken the easy way out for far too long.

He shook his head. “A quick bite to eat and then we’re back at it,” he said, trying to sound roundly upbeat.

Hank did not seem entirely moved by his enthusiasm. He made a face. “You know, we could have picked a better time for upgrades,” he said. “Like when it’s not in the middle of a heat wave.”

“Well, look on the bright side!” Charles said, starting to direct his chair back toward the house and refuses to let on just how exhausting the effort was.

“Bright side?” Hank asked skeptically.

“At least there are no massive robots trying to destroy us,” Charles said.

“And Erik’s not here to, you know, crash planes or murder people,” Hank added.

“See!” Charles said. “Things are looking up already.”

-o-

It was possible, if Charles were compelled to be honest, that he might have been overly optimistic about their prospects. By the end of the day, they were both exhausted and their progress was still painfully limited.

With both of them too tired to cook, Hank scrounged up some sandwiches in the kitchen and broke out a few beers.

Charles, however, found he wasn’t hungry.

“I hadn’t realized how bad it was,” he said finally, shaking his head.

“Well, it’s not that bad,” Hank said. “The property -- it’s just so big--”

“I literally let it all fall apart,” Charles continued.

Hank chewed and swallowed. He shook his head. “There was a lot going on--”

“Yes, like my willful ignorance and the ingestion of chemicals to make me forget everything that mattered,” Charles said.

Hank knitted his brows together. “It was a lot for you to take in--”

“So that makes it all right to just give up?” Charles asked.

“The school was everything to you,” Hank said. “When the students left, when we had no teachers -- you just needed some time, man. We all need some time to...accept who we are and where we are.”

Charles sighed, throwing his napkin on the table bitterly. “I took more than my share.”

“Hey, Erik’s still off causing mayhem. Raven’s off doing who-knows-what,” Hank said. “And me? I mean, look at me. I’m still trying to balance myself out because I don’t know how to face myself.”

Looking up, Charles realized the things he’d been ignoring. With so many voices in his head, he’d taken to ignoring most of them, including Hank’s. For what it was worth, however, he didn’t need to be a mind reader to tell just how self-absorbed he was being at the moment. “Hank--” he started.

“Look, I’m just saying,” Hank said. “You’re getting it back together. You know exactly how hard it is, and you know about the easy way, and you’re still taking the hard way. That means something. That’s how you got people us in the CIA; that’s how you built this school. That’s how you stopped Raven, and Erik, too. You make people want to be better, even when it’s not the easy thing to do.”

The affirmation was exactly what he needed to hear, which was probably why it twisted in his stomach so pointedly. Pressing his lips together, he spread his hands over his thighs and took a deep breath. “Thank you, Hank,” he said. “You have always been so good to me.”

Hank smiled, lighter now. “Just returning the favor.”

They fell into a small, amiable silence while Hank took several more bites.

“You know,” Charles said, venturing cautiously. “I don’t judge you for the choices you make, for they are yours to make. But if you wanted to learn how to...control the beast, as it were, I would be here for you. To help.”

Hank stopped mid-bite. His thoughts were fast and earnest at the forefront of his mind, and Charles did his best not to listen. But it was impossible to miss the spike of anxiety from the other man.

“Either way,” Charles added, shrugging as he picked up his drink.

Hank chewed another moment before forcing a swallow. “I’ll...let you know,” he said eventually.

Charles smiled. “Like you said,” he added. “Just returning the favor.”

-o-

After dinner, Charles excused himself for bed. The simple act of rolling his chair was painful, and try as he might, there was no way to hide it.

“Here,” Hank said, coming up behind him. “Let me--”

Charles held up his hand, shaking his head. “Please, please,” he said. “I can manage.”

“You’ve been working hard today--”

“As have you,” Charles pointed out.

“I am technically the groundskeeper here,” Hank reminded him.

“And I am the owner of these premises,” Charles said. “Besides, a little discomfort is good for the countenance, isn’t it? Something about fortitude?”

“Are you telling me or asking me?” Hank said with an arched brow.

Charles rolled his eyes, moving his hands to roll his chair forward. “All the same,” he said, offering Hank a friendly wave. “I will see you in the morning.”

-o-

The morning, unfortunately, came far, far too early.

He had hoped to feel more enthusiastic with the sunrise, but the morning brought his aches and pains to full light. While he had no feeling in his legs, the rest of his body was in literal agony with the simple task of sitting up in bed. He did not feel rested, as he might have hoped after a good eight hours of sleep. Instead he felt like he might want to stay in bed for the rest of the day.

The week, really, if that were an option.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an option. At least, not an option that Charles was going to allow himself to take.

He wanted to lead people to a better way of life.

Which meant, despite all impulses otherwise, he had to get out of bed and, well, lead.

Looking out the window, he took a ready breath and steady himself.

“Well,” he murmured. “The sun is shining; the sky is blue. How bad could it be?”

-o-

As it turned out, pretty bad.

Because yes, the sun was shining. And yes, the sky was blue.

And it was also the hottest weather Charles had ever experienced.

“Is this normal?” he asked, panting as he awkwardly wielded a shovel as they tackled the weeds in the garden.

“Huh?” Hank asked, using his hedge clippers to attempt hacking off enough of a bush to make it manageable once again.

“This heat?” Charles said. “I don’t recall it being this hot.”

“Well,” Hank said. “Most your duties had always been inside.”

“Really?” Charles asked, making a face as he bent over to pull out a particularly annoying weed.

“Honestly?” Hank said.

“Yes, honestly,” Charles replied.

Hank sighed. “I’m honestly surprised to see you out here at all,” he said. “You never struck me as the type to do physical labor.”

Charles’ mouth fell open. “But -- I was quite physical in my youth!”

Hank shrugged. “Tending gardens isn’t the same thing as playing cricket.”

“Do you really think so little of me?” Charles asked.

Hank rolled his eyes. “You’ve always had your strengths, is all,” he said. “We all have. It’s not like anyone will think less of you if we go inside, have a drink and call a gardener.”

The was to the point and utterly matter of fact. There was no condescension, and there was no derision. Hank begrudged him nothing, but then, Hank was entirely too forgiving as far as Charles’ nature was concerned.

Hank started trimming again. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I appreciate your involvement, but you don’t have anything to prove to me.”

Charles looked at the weed in his hand, turning his gaze over the rest of the monstrosity that was the garden. He tossed it to the side, letting it fall into the pile of other weeds he’d managed to pull that morning. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

He chewed his lip. “Maybe I have something to prove to myself.”

Hank nodded, yanking a branch free and tossing it aside. “That’s great,” he said. “Just don’t overdo it, okay?”

“Maybe I need to overdo it,” Charles said. “Maybe that’s been our problem. We’ve been too comfortable.”

Pausing again, Hank gave him a quizzical look. “Are you talking about you or me?”

“Me, obviously,” Charles said, reaching down to tackle another weed.

“Well, not obviously,” Hank said, starting to work again. “You know, I didn’t take anything this morning.”

Charles knitted his brow together. “What?”

“The injection,” Hank said, almost refusing to look back. “I didn’t take it.”

“Oh,” Charles said. “And you’re...quite sure about that?”

Hank huffed a laugh, mouth twisted up into a wry smile. “No.”

“Well, then,” Charles said, wincing as a thorn dug into his skin as he pulled harder still. “You’re in good company.”

-o-

By dinner time, Charles felt faint and entirely depleted. With his physical strength so badly sapped, his mental capacities had left him unusually vulnerable, and the swell of voices in his head led to a persistent headache that he knew would not be quelled by pain relievers or alcohol.

For his part, Hank seemed to be in better health but no better spirits. In anything, his usually affable disposition was noticeably impaired and while Charles’ complexion was ruddy with sunburn, Hank looked blue.

Charles offered him a beer of commiseration.

Hank took it, no apology needed.

“You know,” Charles said, wheeling himself gingerly to the table. “Recent events have made me reconsider my own strengths and weaknesses.”

Hank grunted. “You thought you had gardening potential before this?”

Charles chuckled. “I meant our exploits with Logan,” he clarified. “I had thought myself a leader once, and I found that the loss of faith from others nearly destroyed all I hoped to do. I need people, Hank. I need people to stand with me since on my own, I can’t stand at all.”

Hank looked at him.

“It is our weaknesses that make us strong,” Charles continued. “Embracing those weaknesses is the only way to control them.”

Hank scowled, slumping further down. “Just wish it were easier,” he muttered.

Charles took a long drink, letting the cool liquid run down his parched throat. “You and me both.”

-o-

Though Charles was even more exhausted after a second day in the hot sun, he found himself to be better off than Hank. As the evening progressed, their cordial conversation devolved into grunts and grimaces before Charles finally sent the other man off to bed.

Hank, blue in the face and hair starting to get bushy, did not fight him. He seemed nothing but relieved to have some reprieve.

“You sure you don’t need anything?” Hank asked before he left the room.

“You’ve done more than your share already,” Charles assured him.

“You worked hard today, too,” Hank said.

“And I will rest shortly,” Charles assured him. “Worry about yourself for once, all right?”

Hank hesitated, but he was in no position to disagree. Charles could hear the uncertain timber of his thoughts as he struggled for self-control. Hank did have an inner beast, and it was restless from being kept in place. Charles had no doubt that Hank was capable of taming it, but it wouldn’t happen overnight.

Not that Charles was about to tell that to him. “You’ll feel better in the morning,” he said instead.

Hank’s brow darkened, but he nodded, turning tensely and stalking from the room. Charles could still hear him, muttering a litany of desperate promises in his head, as he jogged up the stairs and toward his bedroom.

Alone, Charles sighed, doing his best to clear his mind. He took another drink, and though he no longer felt faint, he found he lacked the energy to do anything whatsoever. Their to-do list was hardly any shorter, and the forecast was for more heat tomorrow.

It was a dismal prospect, really.

Even if it was worth it, in the end. Charles would rebuild his school; he would reshape his legacy. He would help people: mutants and otherwise, and the world would be a better place.

In the end.

Hope in that was unassailable.

However, it did little to quell his aching muscles or his nagging headache. For he was sore, and the work was more than he thought he had strength for. He would do this, though. And prove it to himself that he was capable of being the man in Logan’s future, the man who could inspire change throughout the generations.

The end was worth it.

Even if that end seemed so very far away.


-o-

Wearily, Charles didn’t bother to attempt cleaning up. It was all he could do to get up into his bedroom, and even that task seemed monumental. At his bed, he managed to strip down to his boxers, turning the ceiling fan on high before looking at his bed.

Looking at it, wondering why it was so very, very far away.

It just seemed like more effort than it was worth since he’d have to drag himself out of bed in the morning all over again.

Charles was contemplating this conundrum, letting the dull roar of his head build against the strained muscles throughout his body, when he decided even the mere act of thinking was too much of a trial for him. For the night was hot and he was so tired and tomorrow would be longer and hotter still.

For now, it was time to sleep.

-o-

Admittedly, staying in his chair had seemed like the easier option last night.

Waking up with a crick in his neck and a pain shooting through his back, Charles was reminded vividly how taking the easy way out was rarely the best course of action.

Groaning, he lifted his head, squinting toward the window.

Nothing but clear, clears.

“Bloody hell,” Charles murmured.

He sighed, looking in misery at the distance to his wardrobe. The easy way out beckoned.

And Charles resisted it steadfastly.

“You got yourself into this mess,” he said to himself as he started to roll across the floor. “Time to get yourself out.”

-o-

If Charles’ exhaustion could possibly be made worse, Hank’s sudden exuberance was just the catalyst necessary for such unlikely atrocities.

He was practically bouncing off the walls, making a full breakfast that he nearly consumed all by himself.

Charles ate his toast and sipped his tea in general apprehension.

“Are you okay?” Hank asked while eating his fourth omelet.

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” Charles said.

Hank grunted, stuffing an entire piece of toast in his mouth. “Just trying to get my energy up,” he said around the bite while he chewed in an untoward fashion.

Charles lifted his eyebrows.

“It’s going to be even hotter out there today,” Hank said, pushing a half-devoured tray of toast toward Charles. “You’ll need to get your energy up, too.”

“Somehow I think you’ll be unrivalled in that area,” Charles said, pushing it back slightly.

Hank swallowed before promptly drinking half a gallon of orange juice. Charles would like this to be an exaggeration, but seeing as Hank drank it directly from the carton, such things would be impossible to overstate. He put it down on the table, exhaling greedily. “I’m not kidding,” he said. “I know I’m a little wired today, but this sort of weather is dangerous if you’re not careful.”

“Says the man who swings from the chandelier,” Charles said.

Hank’s cheeks reddened. “I haven’t--”

“Please,” Charles said. “I heard you this morning.”

Hank slouched sheepishly. “It’s going to take a little getting used to, is all,” he said.

Charles found himself smiling amiably. “Getting ourselves back to the way we should be.”

Hank’s postured eased and he reached for a piece of bacon. “At least drink something else,” he said.

“Thank you, but I do believe I can take care of myself,” Charles said, taking another drink of his tea for good measure.

Hank shrugged. “If you say so,” he said, eating a sausage in a single bite. “You ready?”

Charles looked at him.

Hank looked back. “If I don’t go outside, I’m going to have to swing from the chandelier again,” he admitted.

“Ah,” Charles said, putting his teacup down and rolling back from the table. “In that case, lead the way.”

Before he could even get the dishes in the sink, Hank was out the door as it slammed shut behind him.

“Well,” Charles said, putting the dishes down and making his way to the door. “It should be a productive day, at any rate.”

-o-

Productive, yes.

The finished, somehow, with the garden, though it honestly felt like Charles pulled one weed and looked up only to find Hank already half done. By the time Charles wheeled himself over to the waste pile, the entire ordeal was complete.

They had then moved to the orchard grove, which was also in desperate need of tending. Charles was positioning himself to assist Hank in pruning, but when the other man merely climbed into the trees to do it himself, Charles found himself rather at a loss.

When they were finished with that, it was nearly midday, but Hank showed no signs of slowing down. They stopped for a quick drink of water before eating what was left of the sandwich fixings on the patio. When Hank said he was going to handle the roofing projects this afternoon, Charles tried not to grimace.

“Is there anything I can do?” Charles asked, trying not to sound petulant despite the fact that he very much felt that way.

Hank slowed in his chewing for a moment. “Oh,” he said, as if the realization that a man in a wheelchair could not climb onto a roof had sincerely just occurred to him. He finished chewing and licked his fingers. “Well, you could clean up the house.”

“And leave you to swelter out here alone?” Charles asked.

“I hardly feel it--”

“This is my home,” Charles said. “Moreover, this is my mess. I will be a part of cleaning it up. I will rebuild this place with my blood, sweat and tears.”

Hank studied him for a moment. “I sort of figured you wouldn’t know what that meant.”

“I have often worked hard for things in my life,” Charles said.

Hank said nothing.

Charles sighed. “Though perhaps not usually so physically,” he admitted. “But that’s all the more reason this is important to me. I want -- need -- to help.”

“Well,” Hank said, rummaging to see if there were any additional crackers. “What about the walkway to the pond? It’s been completely overgrown, and I can’t even tell if the pavers are still in place anymore.”

Charles took the opportunity with gusto. “Then that will be my afternoon project,” he said. “The path to the pond will be pristine.”

“Just be careful,” Hank advised. “There’s no shade out that way. Be sure to have a lot of water.”

Charles nodded resolutely. “Certainly,” he said. “We will split up and make spectacular progress!”

-o-

Spectacular was, perhaps, overly optimistic on his part. Because while Hank’s detoxification process was bringing out the unbridled energy he refused to acknowledge, the loss of the drugs took a much different course on Charles. While he was more clear-headed, he was also much more pushed to his mental limit, and though his self control mechanisms were snapping back into place, learning to control the voices in his head was exhausting in and of itself.

Not to mention the physical toll. The loss of his legs had been hard enough the first time it happened. This time, he felt the loss more profoundly if only because he knew it was by choice this time. His arms burned from being overworked, and the physical reality of being active was not something he was used to.

It was easy to forget, after all, how hard it was to pick up a stone while seated in a chair without toppling on his head.

There were no shortcuts that he was willing to take, however. Not with this. He had never liked to admit that some sacrifices had to be made but this time he didn’t see how he could deny it. He had lost too much by dreaming too big and lacking the fortitude to make such things last.

Houses had to be built, brick by brick.

It was an apt analogy.

It was also painfully literal.

Because as if all of that were not enough, Charles was still stuck in the blazing sunlight with nowhere to hide. Perhaps that was another analogy, even more apt than the last.

Which was all to say that Charles had been hoping for something more dramatic, but by the time Hank came by to collect him for supper, Charles had only managed to clear a small portion of the path.

“Hey, it looks good,” Hank said.

Charles gave him a wary look. “How much did you get done?”

“Oh, you know,” Hank said with a shrug.

Charles frowned, because the answer was readily at the front of Hank’s brain. “You know,” he said. “You can tell me you finished on three of the sheds.”

Hank’s shoulders slumped. “It’s not a contest.”

“I know it’s not,” Charles said.

“So why do you look like that?” Hank said.

“Like what?”

“Like I...beat you, or something,” Hank said.

Charles huffed. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“It’s not even a fair comparison--”

“So why are you making it?” Charles countered.

Hank drew his lips closed, kicking at the ground. “Okay,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

An apology.

Well intentioned and sincerely meant.

And the last thing Charles wanted to hear.

“This is my fault,” Charles said.

Hank shook his head. “You’re the smartest person I know,” he said. “But sometimes I don’t think you get it.”

“Get what?” Charles asked.

“That it’s not all on you,” Hank said. “Some of it, fine. But some of it’s on me. And some of it’s on Erik and Raven and everyone else. We all make choices, Charles. And we all have to make the best choices we can.”

Swallowing hard, Charles refused to indulge the emotions. “And what do you think I’m trying to do?”

“I know,” Hank said. “Just...remember that it’s okay to have limits, okay?”

It was his instinct to protest, but he could read Hank’s mind, and he knew that there was no malice or condescension in his words. Hank was nothing if not earnest, which was probably why he was the only one still here when Charles had lost everyone else.

Finally, Charles forced a smile. “I think I’m tired of limits,” he admitted.

At that, Hank smiled back. “Welcome to life for the rest of us,” he said. He nodded toward the house. “You ready to go back?”

Charles grunted. “Oh, yes.”

Hank chuckled, taking up behind the chair to start to push. “We’ll need our rest tonight,” he said. “Because we still have a lot to do.”

Charles looked around, wincing. “I don’t suppose it’s going to cool off tomorrow?”

Hank laughed. “Do you really think we’re that lucky?”

“No,” Charles mused, shaking his head. “I really didn’t suppose we were.”

-o-

With the work they had been doing, neither of them had been paying much attention to household affairs, which was all to say that their dinner options were limited.

Not that Hank minded. Apparently, the blue beast inside him was not a picky eater, and he devoured the remnants of what was left in the fridge and cupboards. Charles found a frozen dinner that was acceptable dinner fare, but Hank made his way through a jar of pickles, the last of the bologna, and a pint of ice cream. He thought to offer Charles some, at least, but the other man was enjoying the food far too much for Charles to possibly take him up on the offer.

Pausing after consuming the last of the orange juice, Hank just shook his head. “I’d forgotten what it was like,” he said, almost with a laugh of disbelief. “I mean, I feel like I’m on the edge of myself.”

“You’re handling it quite well, I think,” Charles said.

Hank took a piece of bread, eating it plain. “It helps to have something to do,” he said. “Before, when I was in school, I could never quite get a hold of it.”

“Your talent is highly physical in nature,” Charles observed.

“But it always scared me to do that stuff,” Hank said. “Like, I’d be playing basketball and start to grow claws. Or I’d be running and start to turn blue.”

“And is that so bad?” Charles asked. “The monster is not the blue or the claws. The monster is the emotional surge associated with it. As long as you’re channeling that in positive ways--”

“I know, I know,” Hank said around another bite. He swallowed. “It’s just not always easy.” He cast a guilty look at Charles. “But I guess you know how that is.”

Charles smiled slightly. “We all have our burdens to bear,” he said. “We just have to remember that denying our abilities is never the way to control them. Control is in the mind. That’s how we empower ourselves.”

“You’re the psychic one, though,” Hank said.

“This isn’t a psychic ability I’m talking about,” Charles said. “None of this has anything to do with mind control. I was never comfortable with my own abilities until I realized that it was about my genetics. It was how I responded to them.”

Hank chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “I’ve just...never been very good at risk,” he admitted. “I’m worried that the beast will take over, and I’ll just be...gone.”

“Your fears are understandable,” Charles said. “But you can do this, Hank. I believe in you completely.”

At that, Hank grinned sheepishly. “Listen to me,” he said. “It’s not like I’m the only one trying here. How are things going for you?”

Things was something of a broad term, though to be fair, the myriad of issues Charles was currently facing was quite broad, indeed. But Hank’s context was clear, and though Charles had misgivings about many things as of late, his decision to stop the treatment was certainly not one of them.

“The voices are getting easier to control,” Charles said. “But my skills are in my need of work, I’m afraid. My training has been badly lacking, and it does show.”

“Well, that’s another issue entirely,” Hank said. “I’ve been meaning to monitor you more closely, to make sure there are no signs of side effects from coming off the medication so suddenly.”

“It has been long enough, I think,” Charles said.

“But the dosage you were at -- the period of time you used--”

Charles drew a breath, doing his best not to redden. “I assure you, the only side effects are my own shame for allowing myself to be so compromised. I still feel I owe you an apology.”

Hank rolled his eyes. “An apology you’ve made, again and again,” he said. “And one that’s not necessary, considering all you’ve done for me and the future of humanity.”

Charles could not help but huff. “You make me sound rather more than I am.”

“Not from where I’m sitting,” Hank said, resolutely shaking his head. “Not at all.”

“Well,” Charles said. “Then I think perhaps you need to get some more rest.”

“There is some truth to that,” Hank said. “But that doesn’t change the facts that you should give yourself more credit.”

“Maybe when the school is rebuilt,” Charles said. “We have a lot to do.”

“Sure,” Hank said. “But don’t overlook all you’ve done so far.”

“Indeed,” Charles relented, looking at his drink.

“Anyway,” Hank said, pushing back from the table. “You need anything before I head to bed?”

“No, no,” Charles said. “Sleep well.”

“You, too,” Hank said as he slipped from the room.

Charles watched him go, chewing his lip a little. All that he’d done so far.

That was the problem, wasn’t it?

All that he’d done.

All that he hadn’t done.

And how none of it would ever be enough.

PART TWO