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

December 8th, 2015 (09:52 pm)
silly

feeling: silly

Continued from PART ONE



Sleep was a deep and desperate thing that night, though it was not as restful as he might have hoped. His body was ravaged; his mind was weary.

He dreamed of the sunlight on the beach when Erik’s bullets found their way into his spine. He dreamed of the summer heat as Raven walked away from the White House lawn and didn’t look back.

He dreamed of a future he prayed to never know, of failures and losses he might never have to experience.

He dreamed of a school that he built, brick by brick by brick.

This was success, then. Not the achievement, but the process by which it is won.

Many people, they feared the dark for the mysteries they could not see.

Charles knew better, though.

It was the sunlight that he feared.

For all the things it could no longer hide.

-o-

The next morning, he did not wake until Hank took him by the shoulder, rousing him suddenly. Charles startled badly, and Hank stepped back, his sideburns especially bushy and his face guilty.

“Maybe you should take the day off,” Hank suggested.

Gathering his wits, Charles shook his head. “Nonsense,” he said.

“Today’s the hottest one yet,” Hank said. “I really think I got this--”

“I said nonsense,” Charles insisted now. “I just need a few moments--”

Hank’s incredulity was evident. “Charles--”

“Please,” Charles snapped, too tired and sore to deal with pity. “Just let me--”

Hank held up his hands. “Okay, okay,” he said. “See you downstairs.”

He left -- mercifully -- and Charles let out a breath. All huff and posturing aside, the simple task of getting dressed seemed unduly daunting.;

He looked out the window, where the sun was already pounding through.

Perseverance to do the right thing.

That was what he told Raven. That was what he hoped from Erik. That was clearly how he’d convinced Logan in the future to come back to the past. It was how he’d talked countless people into helping him, including Hank.

Now it was time to live it himself.

-o-

Within minutes, Charles was drenched with sweat and miserable. While Hank wheeled him amiably to the path out toward the pond, the other man hesitated.

“So, um,” Hank ventured. “Do you want me to help you with this?”

Charles looked at the path, considering his lackluster progress the day before. Hank was offering to help him to be nice, but there was a certain principle involved at this point. Charles squinted up at Hank. “What about the rest of the buildings?”

Hank shrugged. “Maybe we can stick together today.”

Charles sighed. “Your offer is kind,” he said. “But inefficient and unnecessary. I can’t help you with the buildings. But I can do this.”

Hank looked skeptical.

Charles stared him down. “You can check up on me in several hours, if you like.”

“Fine,” Hank said. “But drink your water.”

“The same to you,” Charles said with a keen smile.

Hank nodded toward the pond. “I was thinking about just drinking from there.”

“The pond that has stayed stagnant and untended?” Charles asked.

“Yeah, not my best idea,” Hank said. “More reason I need to keep big blue in check.”

“Well, big blue can keep himself in check by fixing the buildings,” Charles said. “Leave this lowly gardening to me.”

“Charles Xavier, gardener,” Hank said. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

“Yes, well,” Charles said. “The future is apparently full of surprises.”

“Yeah,” Hank grunted. “Let’s just hope the rest of them are good.”

-o-

Charles, for what it was worth, could not see the future.

In fact, he was starting to doubt his ability to plan for the next few hours at a time.

After sending Hank off, he worked for approximately two minutes before feeling like it was the worst idea ever. It was monotonous and tedious, and he was hopelessly terrible at it. His hands were cut and blistered, and his sunburn was started to peel. And the pounding in his head was starting to grow once more, and he was sincerely doubting whether or not his advanced intellect would be permanent hindered by the relentless discomfort of the last few days.

Was that pretentious?

Certainly, though Charles had always had something of a flaw in that regard.

And it certainly did not help that Hank’s thoughts were loud and buoyant in Charles’ head. The other man, beast and all, was positively upbeat, and as if his thorough energy was not enough to endure in the face of deepening exhaustion, he had a terrible choice in music, which was running through his mind at a horrible and redundant rate.

By the time a few hours had passed, Charles wanted to die. From the heat, from the monotony, from Hank’s off key rendition of popular music, he was not sure. But the details did not change the reality of Charles’ deteriorating disposition.

“Hey,” Hank said. “You ready for a break?”

Charles looked up at him, refusing to appear miserable. “Has it been a few hours already?”

“Um,” Hank said, scratching the back of his neck. “Yeah?”

“Oh, well,” Charles said. He looked back at the path to gauge his progress. “Doesn’t really show does it.”

“No, it looks great,” Hank said.

“I’d like to get a bit farther--”

“Well, let me help,” Hank said. “We can finish this up before lunch--”

Charles shook his head. “Uh uh,” he said. “I intend to finish this portion myself.”

Hank eyed the stretch to the pond dubiously. “It is lunch time--”

“Then, by all means, get lunch,” Charles said.

“But you need to eat, too,” Hank said.

“I’m not very hungry, honestly,” Charles said.

“This heat--” Hank started, preparing for what seemed to be a lecture.

A lecture Charles could not stand to endure.

Literally. “I’m drinking plenty of water,” Charles said, lifting his water bottle.

Hank’s doubts were increasingly steadily. As was the growling of his stomach.

“Come on,” Charles cajoled. “Even if I couldn’t hear your thoughts, I can hear your stomach. Go get yourself something to eat. Rest for a while.”

Hank considered this. “For a few minutes, maybe--”

“You’ve done three days work in three hours,” Charles said. “You’ve earned a reprieve.”

“But I can’t just leave you out here--”

“For heaven’s sake, Hank,” Charles said. “You haven’t left me along for years. I think I can manage for a few hours while in the garden.”

“I’m working with a beast inside me,” Hank said. “It’s not the same.”

“And I’m not some fragile flower you need to protect,” Charles said. “I’m fine.”

He was as emphatic as he was earnest, and though he had the ability to use mind control to make Hank do whatever he so desired, the thought of exerting any energy, be it physical or mental, was exceedingly unattractive.

Fortunately, Hank had never needed much convincing where Charles was concerned.

That didn’t stop him from feeling guilty. “I really wish you’d just come back with me.”

“And I’d wish you’d go take care of yourself,” Charles said. “And trust me to do the same.”

Hank’s shoulders started to slump. “But--”

“But nothing,” Charles said. “Go now, before you eat the flowers at the gate and make more work for us before the day is out.”

Hank’s lips twisted upward. “Fine,” he said. “But you come back if you’re tired. And keep drinking.”

Charles nodded. “And who put you in charge?”

Hank chuffed. “You did, remember?”

“Ah,” Charles said, almost smirking. “Time for a change, then.”

Hank grinned fully now. “Time for a change indeed.”

-o-

Charles was good at leading. He’d always been at his best in front of an audience. He had that power to make people want to be better, to change their minds with the right words and an earnest smile. Part of this, no doubt, was his ability to read minds. He knew what people needed to hear, and he preferred not to think of this as exploitative, but merely a compassionate way to deal with the reality of his gift.

He knew what people wanted to hear, so he found ways to give it to them. More than that, he was able to identify what they needed to hear, which was even more important.

Such a gift was powerful.

It was also woefully ineffective on himself.

No matter how well he knew his own thoughts, he rarely knew what to make them. And making himself feel better and doing what needed to be done?

That was a task that never seemed to get easier.

All of that was probably how he ended up here in the first place. While he did have solace that he was doing the right thing, the unrelenting strain of the heat made it hard to feel overly reassured.

In fact, he didn’t feel anything but hot.

Hot being, most certainly, the most obscene understatement yet. It wasn’t just hot; it was like a personal hell that Charles thought he might never escape. In many regards, he could only fancy this as a literal trial by fire, and he would have to push through it to the other side.

Lest he burn up in the process.

He closed his eyes, tipping his water back and drinking greedily. He was still gulping when the last trickle came out, and his arms collapsed uselessly on his lap.

Despondent, he looked at the empty water bottle and then glanced back toward the house. It had been an hour, maybe, since Hank went inside, and Charles knew that his friend wouldn’t be much longer. He could wait that long.

He had to.

The thought of wheeling himself back to the house in the heat was not only unappealing, he thought it might be physically impossible.

Wearily, he looked up the path. He was two-thirds of the way done, perhaps, which meant he was closer to the pond than anything else. The end was in sight, at least, which was motivation enough to keep going.

Besides, if he went inside now, he might lose his fortitude to finish the task.

He looked longingly back the house, then down at the empty water bottle.

It was hot, and he was out of water. Things were reaching the critical breaking point for him, and he had to make his choice. Just like Erik; just like Raven; just like Hank.

Stay the course.

Or walk away.

Tossing the bottle on the ground, Charles drew a breath and wheeled himself toward the pond. He reached down for the next weed with renewed determination.

It was time to stay the course.

-o-

Charles had been sweating for three days straight, but he hardly noticed now. It seemed ironic, really, that his shirt barely had time to soaked through before the sun baked it dry once more. Sweat ran like rivulets into his eyes, and every time he wiped his brow, his fingers felt wooden and his skin felt papery.

His muscles ached, and his skin was on fire. It was impossible to tell if his headache was from the heat or the voices.

Because, to be frank, both were getting somewhat out of control.

The sun burned him from the outside, but the voices -- they burned him from the inside out. His self control was slipping, as it was wont to in situations of duress -- and while Hank’s internal monologues about the virtues of food was compelling, they did not make for comforting background noise when combined with the voices from everyone in the area.

Quite possibly the state, as far as Charles could tell.

And everyone else, it seemed, was making better use of the heat than he was.

Girls at a pool party. A family at the beach. Two kids running through a sprinkler, and a boy ambushing a friend with a water balloon. An ice cream truck; a lemonade stand; the weatherman saying, “It’s a scorcher out there!”

His self control was slipping, and every time he rooted out one voice, it seemed like two more came in its place. It was a losing battle, some days.

It was a losing battle, many days.

But Charles couldn’t stop.

He wouldn’t stop.

The voices could consume him; the heat could burn him; but Charles Xavier had no choice but to prevail.

-o-

He was dizzy, after a while, not that he knew how long anymore. The hands on his watch were too small to see in the glaring sunlight, and the sun hadn’t seemed to move from its steadfast place above him. He wasn’t sure if it was the lack of water, or the swelling cacophony of voices in his head.

Not that it mattered.

The dizziness wasn’t really the problem.

No, it was the dryness in his mouth and the cracking of his lips. It was the roiling in his stomach, as if his insides were cracking like dried leather left out in the sun.

Then again, wasn’t that the nature of man? When the soul was stripped away, wasn’t that the harsh reality of it? Mutant or not, they all had hearts that beat.

Until they didn’t.

Blood, sweat and tears until there was nothing left.

Until the sweat dried, until the tears wouldn’t fall, until the blood grew stagnant.

Charles blinked furiously, trying to clear his eyes. He was almost to the pond now, and he was starting to reconsider his advice to Hank about drinking it.

It did look appealing.

But Charles knew better.

That was the rub, wasn’t it? Not that it was very hot or that the voices were starting to mount uncontrollably in his head, but that he knew better. He had known enough not to get into this mess, and here he was. And it was his fault.

No more easy outs.

-o-

Of course, it would have been nice if the outs weren’t so blantantly hard.

Or hot.

But he was so close.

He was so close.

-o-

He wondered, though. What Erik was doing. Where Raven had gone.

If Hank had started to eat the furniture.

If he focused, he might be able to find him, but right now, finding the weed in front of him was challenge enough.

He thought about the snow at Alkali Lake, the water against the dam before it burst--

He squeezed his eyes shut, not sure if that was the future or the past for Logan. For any of them.

Eyes open, he squinted to clear his vision.

There had to be hope for Logan. And for Erik and Raven.

Even for Charles himself.

There had to be hope.

-o-

Charles would get there.

He would.

Raven might not come home; Erik may never do the right thing; Hank might never control his inner beast.

But Charles would, by any means necessary, finish the path to the pond.

-o-

He pulled and pulled and pulled.

And just hoped the bottom wouldn’t fall out altogether.

-o-

Then, he was done.

He blinked a few times, trying to make sense of the lack of rubbish in front of him.

He lifted his head, the expanse of the water reflecting the glare of the sun and momentarily blinding him.

With an unsteady breath, he tried to get his bearings, only to realize that he was at the end of the path. Behind him, the long path to the house was nearly impossible to track, and all the voices had risen to an inconceivable roar. He almost couldn’t feel the heat, not with the pounding of his heart and the sound of nothing buzzing in his ears.

He’d done it, he realized dimly.

There was a rush of giddy elation, sending a spike of blood flow to his head. It made his ears ring and his vision haloed and his breathing staggered.

He’d actually made it.


Shaky and disoriented, the elation made him numb as his fingers fumbled at the wheels, and he was careening surreally forward with no means to stop himself.

The hard way, it seemed as his world evaporated into light and he hit the ground, was just about to get harder still.

-o-

It was out of control, that was what it was. Of course, it had probably been out of control for quite some time now, but Charles had done such a good job of pretending otherwise. Of making everyone believe that everything was going to be fine. That was what Charles did, after all. He believed so other people would do the same.

There was nothing left to believe, though. Except maybe his own inevitable failure.

This was why he’d given up.

Because failing was hard enough.

Failing when you tried so hard to prevent it?

His world burned white, and the voices grew in number behind his eyelids.

“Where were you, Charles?” Erik asked, accusation dripping from his voice. “You abandoned us all!”

“Do you honestly think they’ll ever be able to see me like this and feel anything but fear?” Raven asked, almost desperate. “You can’t even look at me.”

Charles wanted to shut it off, he wanted to escape, but there was no place to hide, nowhere to go. He was helpless against the onslaught as the fire burned through his brain and threatened to consume him.

“Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn’t mean they’re lost forever,” the old man in the wheelchair said, words cool and soothing like water. “Sometimes we all need a little help.”

But there was no help left for him. How could Charles save the world when he couldn’t save himself?

The voices grew in power, and Charles felt his strength fade. He couldn’t hear them anymore, and it was easier to let them consume him than it was to keep fighting a battle he would never win.

One, he could only think, he’d lost already.

“Charles! ”

It was too hot, and Charles was too tired.

“Charles, please!”

Maybe it would have better, then, to not try in the first place.

Better to give up now.

“Charles, I need you to wake up--

Because he could fool everyone else.

But he couldn’t fool himself.

The whiteness expanded, and the voices reached a fevered pitch.

An anticlimactic end, then, to the life he failed to live.

“Charles!”

An understatement, to say the least.

Even if inevitable all the same.

-o-

Charles had tried, quite honestly. He had tried as hard as he could and with everything he had. It had always been his intention, from the very beginning, to do the right thing. He’d taken Raven in; he’d helped the CIA; he’d made a school for others like him; he’d gone off on nothing but the word of a stranger in hopes of saving a future he couldn’t even fathom.

Because Charles believed in better things. He believed in giving back more than he could. He believed the world could be a better place, if they all just tried a little harder.

But he lost his friends. He lost his family. He lost his school and his dreams and his very ability to walk. It had all slipped away from him until the very prospect of hope was more painful that the reality of failure.

He’d wanted to forget, really. He’d wanted to hide. Yes, the drugs had given him his legs, but it had always been more than that. It wasn’t even just the voices -- though the silence had been blessed -- but it was just the voice. The one he couldn’t stand to hear anymore.

And it wasn’t Raven’s. It wasn’t even Erik’s. It wasn’t any one of the countless people out there who were suffering dismally.

No, it was his own.

It was his own inalienable hope.

That was what he’d been hiding from.

That was what he’d sought to lose.

It was easier to live in darkness than hope for a day that was never, ever coming back again.

The darkness was easy.

The light, though.

The light.

-o-

“Come on,” Hank was muttering. “Don’t make me do this--”

Something shifted with whiteness against the front of Charles’ eyelids. Opening them seemed like too much work, though, and something cool was laid over his forehead, wetness slithering back into his hairline.

“I told you,” Hank continued with rustling in the background. “I should have been there--”

Hank lifted his arm as something cold was packed into his armpit. The ferocity of the temperature was shocking, but Charles found himself unable to respond.

“I’m sorry,” Hank said, sounding truly miserable. “I just lost track of things--”

It wasn’t his fault, of course. Nothing was Hank’s fault in this. And Charles didn’t even know what this was. Blame was easy to place, but responsibility was so hard to take.

“The school, it needs you,” Hank said, emphatic now. “I need you.”

That was all he’d ever needed. To feel like he was making a difference where it counted. Like there was a measurable impact to his life for the better, like there would be still something standing even when everything else burned away.

“Charles, please.”

Everything else.

Charles.

Burned away.

-o-

When he woke up again, it was dimmer out.

It was also wet.

Confused, he lifted his head a little, craning it to look down. He was on the couch, and the curtains were drawn. He felt suspiciously wet, and he was fairly certain that the cushion were going to need to be aired out after whatever this was.

“Charles?” Hank asked, sounding all too hopeful.

Charles turned his head despite his protesting muscles. Hank was seated not far away, anxious on the edge of his seat.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Hank said, visibly showing relief. “I kept wondering if I needed to take you to the hospital, but I know you probably didn’t want the attention--”

Attention, most definitely not. Being a mutant was not something he was ashamed of, but after the attack on the president, feelings were mixed regarding mutants in the public eye. The last thing Charles wanted was a controversy, especially when starting the school back up.

That said, he did feel horrible.

And he wasn’t sure why.

“--but, I mean, I couldn’t let you die or anything,” Hank rambled, running a hand through his hair. “But I monitored your vitals and your core temperature was coming down, and I almost started an IV, but I wasn’t sure--”

Furrwoing his brow, Charles managed to draw enough moisture into his mouth to speak. “Hank--”

The name was short and halting, and if he felt horrible, his voice sounded worse.

Hank paled, stilling immediately, eyes wide and fixed on Charles.;

Swallowing again, Charles did his best not to wince. “What happened?”

At that, Hank visibly twitched. From fear, from guilt -- from everything, most likely. He took an unsteady breath, sitting forward a little more and peering intently from being his thick-rimmed glasses. “You don’t remember?”

An obvious question, and really, if Charles had the inclination, he could just read Hank’s mind and be done with it.

Inclination, however, was not the issue. Energy, on the other hand.

“It’s all a bit...fuzzy,” he admitted. He looked down at himself again. “And wet.”

Hank blushed furiously. “Your core temperature was too high,” he said. “I needed to bring it down. I didn’t know--”

“Core temperature?” Charles said, looking quizzically at Hank again.

“I found you passed out at the end of the trail,” Hank said. “At first, I thought maybe it was a reaction to the withdrawal, or maybe some kind of attack--”

Charles shook his head. “I don’t remember anything like that--”

“No, probably not,” Hank said. “Because I found your empty water bottle, and you were burning up. Worse than that, you’d stopped sweating--”

Charles frowned, cocking his head. “Heat stroke?”

“It was my best guess,” Hank said. “Your vitals were bad but not terrible, so I thought I could manage it, but you were so out of it, and I wasn’t sure--”

Hank was rambling again, and Charles knew he probably should work to alleviate some of the other man’s obvious anxiety. However, finding himself wet and half-dressed with Hank sitting next to him wasn’t the most disconcerting part of this.

No, that wasn’t Charles’ concern.

He shook his head. “Heat stroke?” he asked again, voice moving toward disbelief now.

Hank seemed taken aback. “Yeah,” he said, a little slowly. “From the, you know. Heat?”

The answer was so plain that Charles honestly didn’t know how to make sense of it. He’d been so set on finishing his task that he hadn’t considered anything other than that. “You’re telling me,” Charles said, willing himself to belief. “That I survived the CIA, Cuba and the president’s assassination, just to fall victim to heat stroke?

“Well,” Hank said. “You’re the one who refused to take it easy.”

“Because I was trying to get the job done!” Charles protested.

“It was too hot!” Hank said.

“Not for you--”

“Because I’ve got an oversized blue alterego inside just dying to get out,” Hank said. “Energy sort of isn’t a problem for me right now.”

“I’m perfectly capable--”

Hank rolled his eyes. “You’re capable, Charles,” he said. “And you may be a mutant with remarkable telepathic abilities. But you’re still only human in a lot of the ways that count.”

It was more sentimental than Charles might have expected, and also a tad more blunt. Though, to be fair, Charles had stopped listening for the better part of the last few years, so maybe Hank had stopped trying to tell him the things he needed to hear.

Because Charles could read minds, which meant, in consequence, sometimes he had no idea what he actually believed. With so many voices in his head, it was hard to pick out the truth when it mattered.

Hank sighed, the tension draining from his shoulders. “You have to take care of yourself better,” he said. “You need to think about you--

“I was,” Charles said. “I assure you--”

“Not you, in terms of your goals and purpose,” Hank said. “You in terms of what you need. Emotionally and physically--”

“I need the school--”

“No,” Hank said. “You need time and space to adjust. The things you’ve been through, if not over the last ten years, then just over the last two months. From the reintroduction of your powers, to the loss of your legs, to Erik’s betrayal and Raven walking away -- you need a lot more than the school, okay?”

Charles drew his lips together, forcing a hard swallow down.

“And for the love of God,” Hank said. “You don’t need to lay every brick to build a school. What are you trying to prove?


The question was plain, and Charles wanted nothing more than to circumvent it entirely. But considering that Hank had stayed with him through all of this mess, Charles knew it was probably a fair question. “I just wanted to make things better.”

“And you think you haven’t?” Hank said. “Everything good here is because of you. But you need to take better care of yourself.”

“That’s the thing, though,” Charles said, the disgust starting to color his voice. “All I’ve done for years is take the selfish way out.”

The look on Hank’s face was one of understanding.

And still unyielding.

“You wanted to escape the pain before, so you took the drugs,” Hank said. “But ignoring your pain -- it’s just the same thing. You’re the one who said it, not me. We have to embrace our weaknesses to find our strength.”

Charles was weak and more than a little embarrassed at his current predicament, but he was not so out of it not to recognize the words. Not when they were his very own. It had been enlightening with Logan, to enter his mind and talk to himself. To know what it felt like to be on the other end of things, to be encouraged and validated when everything else felt lost.

He had thought that to be a one-off occurrence.

He was starting to realize, however, that he may have been somewhat short sighted in that assessment.

Because, yes, Erik still made terrible choices. And Raven still walked away. But for every person that Charles had failed, there was someone who had changed for the better on his account. There was Hank, and all the ones who had come before and those who would come after.

Charles couldn’t save them all -- that was too presumptuous for him now -- and maybe he couldn’t even save more than he lost, but the fight was still worth it for the ones who made it.

So maybe Charles was bad a yard work. Maybe there was no feasible way he could handle the renovations to the property. But that didn’t mean that he couldn’t make a difference that mattered.

Drawing a resolute breath, he nodded. “My friend, you’re right.”

Hank’s expression lightened. “Of course I am,” he said. “You told me that.”

“Indeed,” Charles said. “But sometimes it takes a wiser man to listen.

“Hey,” Hank said, sitting back now. “I don’t have much room to speak. What the saying about throwing stones in glass houses?”

Charles chuckled. “Whatever it is, it sounds like a mess,” he said. “Of which, we already have quite the project on our hands.”

“But at least the path to the pond looks good,” Hank joked.

“Speaking of that,” Charles said. “Do you still have the number for the gardener?”

Hank’s face widened with a grin. “And the pool cleaner.”

“Very good,” Charles said. “All things considered, I suppose a little help wouldn’t be so bad.”

“Thank you,” Hank said. “Because blue guy or not, I can’t take another day like today.”

“Surely the heat will break,” Charles said.

“Yeah,” Hank said. “Before or after it breaks you?”

Charles laid back gingerly, still smirking. “Point taken.”

Hank stared at him. “That’s it?”

Charles shrugged one shoulder. “I wouldn’t mind some more water, if you could,” he said. “And maybe a dry change of clothes.”

“No, no,” Hank said. “You mean, I’m right, just like that?”

Charles looked at him. “You wanted more of a fight?”

“Well, no,” Hank said. “It just seems, I don’t know. Anticlimactic?”

“Ah,” Charles said, settling back again. “After all we’ve been through, I do think that’s for the best.”

Hank laughed. “You know, you’re probably right.”

“I usually am,” Charles quipped. “Now that water…?”

Hank was already on his feet. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “We’ll do the water now. We’ll hand the wet clothes later.”

Charles hummed his approval while Hank slipped out toward the kitchen. On the couch, Charles was still painfully aware of his ordeal. He was sore, and he was tired. His skin felt like leather, and his lips were miserably chapped. Being half naked and entirely too weak to help himself was not his preference, but the alternative did seem a mite worse.

The pounding in his head was receding, at least, and though the voices were threatening him again, he wasn’t about to complain. That, after all, was Charles’ job, more than anything else. To listen to the voices, to use the voices, to bring compassion and understanding and unity.

He let his eyes close again, and this time he could not help but smile. For the first time in years, it felt like he was actually home.

Not just a school or a building or a mansion.

But home.

Where he belonged.

Where he would grow.

Where he would never -- not by choice or by circumstances -- be alone again.