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X-Men Days of Future Past fic: The Choices We Make (3/3)

December 28th, 2014 (05:04 pm)
accomplished

feeling: accomplished

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

The rest of the day follows much the same pattern. There’s some comfort in that, a routine is something Hank can manage. It gives him something to do; it gives him some semblance of control. He monitors Charles’ vitals, tracking the progress of the fever and the changes in his breathing. After several cycles, he’s able to start predicting when Charles will wake next, noting that the time it takes for the sedative to wear of gets shorter with each progressive cycle.

During the awake periods, Hank learns to start with food and drink before helping Charles to the bathroom. It’s not something either of them talk about, and Charles endures the indignity with as much solemnity as Hank enforces it.

It’s hard to tell if the pain is getting worse, if only because Charles seems too groggy most of the time to provide a clear answer. It’s also progressively unclear if Charles is of his right mind or not. He doesn’t ask for Erik or Raven, but he also doesn’t seem to acknowledge Hank personally. In fact, Charles is mostly placid, allowing himself to be moved and helped as if he no longer has any energy left to even put up a protest.

In fact, Hank’s pretty sure Charles is hearing more voices than ever. When he’s conscious, he seems distracted, and he turns his head to look at people who aren’t really there. If this is a side effect of the fever or the amplification of his powers, Hank can’t say for sure.

He can only hope it gets better.

As the day stretches into night, Hank starts to sort through the data, which is finally enough to make some actual predictions from. His math is probably a little sloppy -- he’s tired, himself, and the stress is giving him a headache all his own -- but he thinks he’s narrowed down the variable well enough to create a predictive model for the course of the detoxification process.

It’s all theory, of course, although the amount of data he’s managed to record in two short days is pretty impressive. He has to work the algorithm out all night, and he falls asleep while computing out the complicated algebra. He loses his train of thought every time Charles wakes, and he almost runs out of sedative in the early morning of the next day, causing him to make a quick supply run throughout the house to restock the bedroom.

He makes a pot of coffee for himself, and drinks it hot and black, letting the caffeine awaken his deadened senses. If nothing else, if he can predict when the detoxification will be over, he can have a timeline in mind. He can pace himself, and it’s a proven fact that definitive periods of time are easier to endure mentally than indefinite ones.

Going over his formulas again, he makes a few more adjustments based on his most recent data. Then, based on the presence of hyperactive cells in Charles’ blood and the lessening cycle it takes for his body to work through the sedative, he’s able to come up with some solid figures that suggest first, how long it will take for Charles cellular changes to reach maximum capacity, at which point, Hank can only assume they will slow down and return to normal levels. And second, what Charles’ body will be experience at that point, and just how many more cycles they’ll have to live through.

It takes him a minute, but he finds his mental space and clears it, focusing until it’s just him on the numbers. He scrawls quickly, calculating the numbers and carrying the digits until he has the answers.

According to his best estimates, Charles’ cellular changes will reach maximum capacity in another day.

A day, Hank stops to think with relief. That’s not so long, and that’s not so bad. They can do this for another day.

But then he finishes the second set of calculations.

And realizes that Charles’ body will give out from overexertion in approximately 12 hours.

Which is half a day before the detoxification process will be over.

Which means, Hank realizes with a growing numbness, Charles is not going to survive this process.

-o-

With the calculations done, Hank stares at the numbers. Mindlessly, he starts to double check, but he already knows he’s right. In a lot of ways, he’s probably suspected this from the beginning. At the very least, it’s always been a possibility.

Nervous, he looks up at Charles. He’s still asleep, put out by the latest round of sedatives. Hank glances around at his stockpile, where he’s got his lab equipment and sedatives alongside a supply of food and water. He’s thought of everything he can.

And it may not mean anything.

Hank blinks, dumbfounded. Charles is dying.

Charles is going to die.

He’s going to waste away while his body tries to break a dependency from a compound that Hank created. That Hank injected into his arm, day after day after day. Charles is going to die because Hank is his friend.

It’s that simple.

Charles is going to die, and Hank has to watched.

His heart skips a beat, and he swallows hard as the palms of his hands start to sweat. He’s scientist, there has to be an answer. There’s a solution; there’s a fix.

Wetting his lips, he looks around, considering the compound again. Charles has flatly refused, but it may be their only option.

But this isn’t like a simple chemical dependency. If Charles goes back on the compound, there’s a good chance he’ll have to start over. And there’s no indication that Hank will be able to wean him off or that the process will even be stopped by the reintroduction of the compound. If anything, the cellular reaction seems to be on a trajectory all of its own. It was sparked by Hank’s compound, but the overreaction could be entirely independent of anything.

In short, there’s just as much a possibility that Hank will kill Charles faster with a palliative dose. If he could run some tests, that might help, but there’s no precedent for this, and any laboratory simulation would take days to set up and properly implement.

Days Charles doesn’t have.

Hank feels himself turning blue again, and he absently considers a dose for himself. He’s off balance in a bad way, and he’s not sure how to reign himself back in. He’s not sure of anything at this point, except that he shouldn’t be here.

No, not Hank. Hank and Charles are friends, but not like Charles and Erik. Not like Charles and Raven. That’s why Charles keeps calling out for them, because they’re the people that matter. They’re the ones that know Charles so well. They’d never let Charles get to this point. True, Erik nearly killed Charles, and yes, Raven walked away, but they would never have sat by and let Charles become an addict.

They never would have let him suffer from a slow suicide day after day after day.

Of everyone they started with, Hank shouldn’t be the last one standing. It’s not supposed to be him.

Yet, here he is.

Hank’s the only person who can create disaster because he’s too afraid to say no.

Erik is angry. Raven is confused. Charles is desperate.

Hank, though.

Hank’s just afraid.

He’s a poor excuse for a mutant. A worse example of a scientist.

All around, not a very good friend.

As a person, there’s just not much to go on.

All this time; all they’ve been through, it’s Hank. The only one too afraid to come out of the shadows.

He looks at Charles, watching each struggling breath. Charles is alive; Charles is fighting. Charles has survived far far worse than this.

Hank’s always been afraid. Even now, he’s too afraid to move, too afraid to act. Armed with new information, his only response is nothing. A lot of things have changed -- more things that Hank can even keep up with at this point -- but some things never will.

That’s Hank’s curse.

He hopes it might be his salvation, too.

-o-

As expected, the fever continues to rise. It’s having a visible effect, even when Charles is fully sedated. He’s soaked now, and Hank throws the sheets aside, trading out damp washcloths on Charles’ sweat slicked brow.

Not that it’s doing any good. The fever is racking the other man, leaving him flushed and shivering. He looks downright gaunt now, the burn of the fever accenting the hollows of his cheeks as he pulls short, wet breaths through his open mouth.

His vitals are getting worse. As his pulse quickens, it’s clear his SATs are falling. It doesn’t take any advanced medical equipment to hear the growing congestion in his lungs, probably because Charles’ body is starting to show signs of shutting down.

With a fever approaching 105, that’s only to be expected. Urine output has been negligible, not that Hank can get Charles to drink much anymore. At this rate, dehydration will probably shut down his kidneys, pneumonia will clog his lungs, and his liver is probably becoming inflamed at the same time. It’s a tossup as to what will actually kill him first, assuming that his brain doesn’t short circuit first.

If it weren’t for the pupillary responses, Hank would think it possible that Charles has stroked out already. With Charles’ cellular changes, it’s a bit like a time bomb. It’s as if Charles’ cells are pushing beyond the limits of his body, breaking every previous boundary -- until they break Charles altogether.

And Hank prepares sedatives and changes tepid washcloths.

It’s painfully little. Hank’s a scientist. He’s brilliant.

He’s the one who made this mess in the first place.

Hank sighs, reaching up to change the washcloth again. Under his touch, Charles tenses, turning his head away. Hank thinks it’s just another overstimulated reaction, but when he moves to apply a fresh cloth, Charles pulls away again.

Frowning, Hank checks the time. He’s still hours away from consciousness, based on the pattern established so far. But Charles thrashes again, and Hank wonders if it’s another seizure.

But the thrashing isn’t jerky, and it’s not uncontrolled. No, this is very controlled, as if responding to pain.

As if on cue, Charles cries out. He tosses hard, nearly jarring himself off the bed and it’s all Hank can do to hold on before he hits his head on the bed frame.

“Hey,” Hank says, entirely off guard. He winces as Charles fights him, and he’s forced to press down more firmly to keep Charles from hurting himself.

Beneath him, Charles grunts. His eyes open to slits, and there’s a guttural sound in the back of his throat. He’s not seizing, but he’s not exactly conscious. It’s an altered state of at least semi-consciousness, and at this point, it’s impossible to deduce exactly what’s causing it.

Not that it matters. Charles cries out again, bucking against Hank’s touch. No matter what’s causing it, it’s not a good sign. Hank’s been able to keep this at bay with sedatives…

He glances to the table where he has the next dose set up.

He looks back to Charles.

The other man is growing increasingly frail. While his cells are ramping up, the rest of him is withering away. It’s astonishing how quickly the human body can fall apart. But mutants are known for doing things faster than normal people. At the rate his cells are converting, the energy consumption must be heightened as well. And without any sustained nutrition--

Hank grits his teeth. His body is turning itself into the necessary protein. In other words, Charles is literally wasting away.

It’s too early for the sedative, but Hank considers it anyway. It’s not like it can do much harm at this point.

Then again, it’s also not going to do much good.

No, at this point, it’s up to Charles.

Hank closes his eyes against the painful clarity of that revelation. Under his touch, Charles finally stills back into a fitful sleep. When Hank finally opens his eyes, Charles is still and breathing, and Hank pulls away.

Numbly, he sits back down. He puts away his notes. He ignores the medication. He forgets the schedule.

Now it’s just time to wait.

-o-

Time slows down; Hank’s awareness becomes acute. When hours seem like years, he loses track of it all, and when he loses his routine, he loses all sense of everything. He doesn’t eat; he doesn’t sleep; he doesn’t move.

He waits.

Charles’ body is reaching critical capacity. His period of unconsciousness are no longer restful, and he alternates between languid periods and desperate thrashing. Though he speaks from time to time, it’s never coherent, and he mumbles pleas that Hank has no way to fulfill.

Even if he wanted to, he doesn’t know how to find Raven. He certainly doesn’t know how to find Erik. He wonders if there’s someone else, perhaps in the life Charles used to lead. He’s a wealthy man from a good family. There has to be connections; there has to be someone who cares what happens to him.

And even if not a family member or friend, maybe a doctor. Maybe another scientist. Maybe someone who knows more than Hank, who has a better perspective. Someone new could possibly save Charles’ life. Hank still has contacts in the CIA. That’s a possibility, and it’s one Hank wonders if he should consider.

On the bed, Charles starts thrashing again. Hank thinks it’s just another one of his episodes -- they come, semi-regularly now, every 15 to 20 minutes -- but this time the rambling stream of words hits a little closer than Hank’s used to.

“Not like this,” he slurs, eyes fluttering but not quite opening. “Don’t let them see me--”

Hank’s stomach churns when he realizes that Charles is reading his subconscious again. He reaches out, touches Charles’ arm to soothe him.

But Charles is inconsolable. He shakes his head, head pressed back against the pillows. “It’s foolish, maybe,” he says, chest heaving as he blinks his eyes again before they roll back into his head. “Foolish pride. One last time.”

Hank wets his lips. “It doesn’t have to be the last--”

Charles convulses in denial, eyes still closed. “My choice,” he grits out. “It’s still my choice. And I’ll do this alone.”

He cuts off with a cry, voice pitching in pain before he shudders into stillness on the bed. He’s still breathing, but he’s back in a quiet phase, clearly spent.

Alone, is what Charles wants.

Alone, isn’t quite what Charles will get. Hank won’t call a doctor. He won’t call the CIA. He won’t seek out any family or friends. He won’t go begging for Raven or Erik to come.

But he’s not going to leave.

He squeezes Charles arm, and trusts the other man already knows this. Because Charles made his choice, and now Hank is making his.

-o-

It gets worse. The active periods get violent and more frequent. Charles has surprising strength for someone becoming so rapidly emaciated, and Hank nearly suffers a bloody nose and a black eye for his diligence. The words become unintelligible. The thermometer stops registering the fever, and Charles’ pulse thrums like a hummingbird faster than Hank can counts.

It’s almost time, he knows.

He doubts himself again, one last time. He wants to run to the phone, he wants to call in every favor he has. He doesn’t want to let this happen. He doesn’t want to be here alone. If Charles dies…

Hank doesn’t think it. Hank can’t think it. Instead, he sits forward and takes Charles’ hand.

Hank’s been afraid since the first time he realized he was different.

He always thought Charles never was, but now he wonders if Charles just refused to let that fear control him. If Charles fought it off. If Charles always won.

Maybe he can do it, one more time.

-o-

This whole thing started with a tremor.

It’s only fitting that it ends with another.

Only this isn’t a tremor. It starts small, a twitch of the arm on the sheets, but it doesn’t stop. The other arm joins in until Charles entire body is contorted in a series of intensifying spasms.

Another seizures isn’t unexpected, but Hank is still jarred when it happens. He’s on his feet but idling uselessly -- Charles is already on his side and the sheets and blankets were removed from the bed awhile ago. Like the rest of this, Hank’s prepared to wait this out.

Except it doesn’t stop.

The tremors increase, and when Charles throws himself onto his back, Hank tries to roll him back to his side just to find him rigid and immobile. The rictus is severe, his neck muscles strained taut as his chin is forced up and the thrashing continues. It keeps building, until there is a low whine in the back of Charles’ throat, and Hank starts to see his lips turn dusky.

Hank has given up on time, but he reaches forward, trying to smooth a palm across Charles chest. It’s hard to tell much with the seizure, but it’s plain enough that the spasms are reaching into all muscular systems -- including the lungs.

Muttering a curse, Hank tries again to roll Charles on his side but the other man is like a plank and the last thing Hank wants to do is to snap an arm or rib in some fledging attempt at first aid.

Even so, this can’t go on like this. The dusky color is decidedly blue now, and his skin is almost translucent. The veins along his temples are sticking out, and with his stringy hair falling back, Charles looks almost skeletal.

He looks almost dead.

And the seizure doesn’t stop.

Hank’s stomach flips, and he looks around in vain for something, anything. It’s all useless, though. There’s no one else there. None of the drugs will work. None of the equations matter.

It’s just Hank and Charles.

Hank and Charles.

He looks at Charles again, throat clenching in alarm as froth starts to form at his mouth. It’s seeping out between his locked lips, dribbling down his cheeks and dripping onto the bed.

This could be it. Hank’s predicted as much. This may be as much as Charles can bear; this may be the last and final mercy of Charles Xavier’s complicated life.

It doesn’t seem possible, though. None of this seems possible. Charles Xavier shouldn’t be here. Charles Xavier shouldn’t be like this. He’s born for greatness. He’s destined for amazing things. Logan came from the future to fix things. Logan came from a future where Charles lived and did spectacular things for mutants and humans alike.

Logan came from a future where Hank’s dead, not Charles.

Hank’s had his doubts about changing the future, but he knows this can’t be it. It’s illogical and it’s sentimental and Hank doesn’t care.

Tears stinging his eyes, he shakes his head. “Not like this, Charles,” he says, trying to keep his voice steady. “You started this to build a better future, so you sure as hell better stay alive to see that future.”

Charles’ face is turning blue now, the color brushed across his eyelids and settling into his cheeks as the tremors continue up and down the length of his prostrate form.

“You talk about hope, but it’s never blind hope, not with you,” Hank tells him, begging Charles to hear him now. “Your hope pays off. Your hope comes through. Your hope is different, Charles. So don’t lose it now.”

The shaking ratchets up another notch until Charles is almost suspended off the bed. It’s reaching the critical point now, and Hank can feel the tension mount as the hairs on the back of his neck start to rise. His own fingers are starting to shake as the very house around them seems to tremble in terrible anticipation.

“Please,” Hank says. “Hold onto that hope, Charles.”

The house is shaking more now, sending books to the floor and knocking over the knickknacks. Hank scrambles to keep his feeting, eyes still trained on Charles.

“Come on, Charles,” he says as a noise starts to rise all around him. “Hold on and never let go.”

Suddenly, there’s a massive concussion, strong enough to knock Hank backward. He hits the ground hard, and unprepared as he is, his head smacks against the table with enough force to cloud his vision to a small dark point.

His ears are ringing and his heart is pounding. For a moment, he can’t do much of anything, and when he finally manages to blink his eyes, he realizes he’s smashed against the wall.

Groaning, he tries to move. Nothing feels broken, but he’s certainly bruised. Rubbing at the back of his neck, he gets slowly to his feet and realizes that he’s fared better than the rest of the room. Everything is in disarray, and he can see cracks along the ceiling.

Wobbling, he finds his footing, using the wall to help himself balance even as his vision dips and threatens to darken. He blinks a few more times, getting his vision to clear when he finds himself face to face with Charles.

He blinks again, taken by surprise. Then he realizes, Charles isn’t just standing, he looks...good. His hair is kept, and his complexion is back to normal. He looks as prim and proper as he had all those years ago when they first met at the CIA, full of hope and ideas.

“Charles?” Hank asks, thoroughly confused.

Charles smiles, but not at him. No, Charles isn’t looking at him. He’s looking to Hank’s left.

Turning his head, Hank tries to get his wits together.

Until he sees another Charles standing no more than three feet to his left.

This Charles has longer hair and he’s wearing a bathrobe while holding a glass of scotch. He smirks at the first Charles.

Hank looks from one to the next before he sees the real Charles, prone and lifeless on the bed.

Gaping, Hank realizes this isn’t a concussion. This isn’t his mind playing tricks.

This is Charles, creating projections of himself.

One last ditch effort that could save him.

Or kill him once and for all.

-o-

Hank’s still unsteady, but at this point, he’s not sure if it’s the blow to the head, the general exhaustion or the fact that there are three Charles Xaviers in his room. While he has a great number of questions, he has very few ways to come up with answers, and he finds himself staring dumbly from one to the next.

Each Charles, however, seems completely oblivious that Hank is there at all. The proper one -- the one Hank remembers meeting at the CIA -- presses his lips together and shakes his head in disapproval. “You’re letting it get out of hand.”

The other Charles takes a sip and barks a short, hard laugh. “You’re the one who got us here,” he says venomously, nodding toward the unconscious figure on the bed.

The first Charles is not swayed by the virulent rhetoric. Perfectly composed, he gathers a breath. “We can’t control everything that happens,” he says. “We can only control our response.”

From behind his long hair, the other Charles makes a face of contempt. “Can you actually keep a straight face and say that?”

“I live it,” the first Charles insists.

The second shakes his head. “No, I live it,” he says. “You still have your friends. You still have your hopes and dreams. You still have your perfect little world, all perfectly in order. I’m the one with the pain. I’m the one with the loss. You left me with nothing after Cuba.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” Charles says, drawing his shoulders a little higher in defense.

The second Charles steps forward, and Hank shrinks back. Although they show no signs of recognizing him, he’s pretty sure this is one confrontation he wants to stay out of.

“It was entirely your fault,” the second hisses. “You assembled the team. You convinced them all to follow you. You gave them all these ideas, you made so many promises. And you failed them. You failed every one of them that died, and you failed every one of them who betrayed you. You failed Erik. You failed Raven. You failed all the students you wanted to help. You failed us.

The first Charles stiffens, and his eyes are bright. He inhales sharply through his nose. “So that makes it right?” he asks. “That makes it okay? To shut out the pain?”

“You don’t to talk about pain!” the second Charles roars, loud enough that Hank flinches back farther. “You died on some beach, and left me to deal with the aftermath. You left me with these hopes and dreams I could never fulfill. You left me with legs that would never walk, and you expected me to just keep going. Like nothing had changed.”

The first Charles lifts his chin. “Nothing did change--”

“Everything changed,” Charles hisses, advancing again. He cuts himself off with a bitter laugh. “You think you’re so strong. You think you’re principled to believe like you do. But it’s not idealism. It’s blindness. It’s unforgivable naivete. You can make anyone believe, but you can’t make their lives better.”

“So what, then?” the proper Charles asks. “It’s best to not try? To roll over and admit defeat? To wallow in self pity and self medication?”

“I did what I had to do!”

“And look!” Charles says, gesturing to the figure in the bed. “Look how well that went for you! For all of us!”

Then, there’s another Charles, younger than both. Hank startles badly, bracing himself against the wall. This latest arrival is no more than twelve. “You were supposed to build a better future,” he says, voice still young.

“It’s not that easy,” the first explains.

“Oh, stop it already,” the second says.

“It’s the truth--”

“It’s a damn cliche!” the second explodes. “It’s a truth so far watered down that it means nothing. It’ll hurt him as much as it will help him.”

“It’s his choices--”

The youngest one shakes his head. “Maybe I am crazy,” he says, pressing a hand to his head. “The voices--”

“See,” the seconds says, jabbing his glass at the child.

“You’re the one losing control of your temper,” the first lectures.

“And none of you see yet,” another Charles says, this one older and more distinguish. His head is smooth and bald, and he’s wearing a trim gray suit as he sits neatly in a wheelchair. “You need each other.”

“I’d rather die,” the second mutters.

“I think we could do without certain elements,” the first says.

“So many voices!” the youngest whines.

The oldest one sighs, looking through them each and straight at Hank.

Hank frowns, confused. This has all been too much, and Hank’s used to the impossible, but this--

Charles’ powers have never been this strong or this out of control. Hank knows he has the power to create projections, but not on this scale. The cellular reserves it would take; the sheer amount of mental and physical control…

It’s unprecedented.

It’s impossible

It’s terrifying.

Eyes still trained on Hank, the oldest one offers a grim smile. “I’m sorry,” he says plaintively. “So very, very sorry for so very many things.”

Hank wants to ask why; he wants to ask any of them why. He wants to ask if they’re all separate entities, if they’re all equal parts of Charles’ subconscious. He wants to ask if these are random hallucinations, mustered by the mind at its period of desperate. He wants to ask if these voices have been there all along, vying for attention, trying to determine which one wins.

Or maybe they’ll just all lose together.

Hank wants to ask, but there’s no time.

The arguing continued, pitching louder as another Charles appears, and then another. Soon the room is filled with so many projections that Hank is badly disoriented. He stumbles away, moving toward the door, trying to see the figure on the bed--

That’s when the first book flies, almost hitting Hank in the head. He dodges, just to catch a notebook in the arm. The knickknacks are levitating; the paper is starting to swirl. The light fixture is shaking as the steady drone rises. The floor shakes, and Hank tries to brace himself, sinking down to the ground as glass starts to break and a bookshelf topples over.

The sound has risen to a roar, and Hank is forced to cover himself, squeezing his eyes shut and hoping and hoping and--

Silence.

It takes a long moment for it to register, and another moment still before Hank lifts his head. He still feels dizzy, but when he finds his feet, he realizes he’s alone.

The room is a mess, with broken mementos and scattered paper. But the Charleses are gone, the young and the old, the bitter and the hopeful. It’s just Hank--

And the figure on the bed.

Heart skipping a beat, Hank stumbles forward. As he gets there, the figure opens his eyes.

Hank nearly cries in relief. “Charles!”

Charles looks at him discerningly. “Hank.”

Hank grins. “Thank God--”

“You’re safe,” Charles concludes.

Hank shakes his head, reaching down to take Charles’ pulse. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he says. “It’s you who gave me a scare--”

Charles nods. “I am sorry for that,” he says. “But it’s okay now. It’s over.”

Hank loses count of the beats, but he shakes his head again. “We’ll have to run some tests--”

“No,” Charles says. “I understand now. I see it perfectly.”

“I don’t understand--” Hank starts.

“It’s a battle,” Charles explains. “A war, if you will. It’s been raging inside me for months and years. My whole life probably. Between what I hope and what I fear. Only one can win, and I suppose this whole thing has made me face that.”

“We should get some water--” Hank tries again.

But Charles shakes his head. He’s still pale, with blue tinged in his lips and cheeks. “It’s a war,” he says again, his voice like a wisp of air. He smiles. “And some wars are worth losing.”

Brow creased, Hank is ready with a palliative comeback but the words never make it out. He’s still checking Charles’ pulse when it stutters to a stop and Charles exhales deeply as his eyes close and he goes terribly and horribly still.

And, just like that, Charles Xavier loses his fight one last time.

-o-

Hank’s the last man standing.

He’s never been the first or the best in anything. He’s always been good but not great; he’s a good supporting man but he’s never been a leader. Hank’s never wanted that. All his life, he’s just wanted to fit in, to find his place, to be part of something.

And he’s good at that. He’s really, really good at that. It makes him happy; it makes him complete.

Which is why it’s probably so fitting that he’s always that last one standing. Because fate is more cruel than it is fickle. That’s why fate brought Raven to Charles, just to have her walk away. That’s why fate made Erik and Charles best friends, just to have them become inevitable enemies. That’s why Hank’s always been the first to say yes until there’s finally no one left to say yes to.

There’s no one left.

Hank’s done everything he can. He’s tried all he knows. He’s given every ounce of himself.

And it’s not good enough.

Because Charles is lying on the bed with no heartbeat.

It’s over.

The idea turns over in Hank’s head with a painful clarity. It’s over.

A sob works its way up his chest, and he chokes on it.

It’s over.

Hank has to accept that. He has to accept his limitations. He has to accept the inevitable. He doesn’t have a choice.

Blinking hard, he swallows the sob back down. A choice. That’s what this has been about from the beginning. About Raven’s choice to walk away. About Erik’s choice to keep fighting. About Charles’ choice to take the compound, and Charles’ choice to stop.

Choices.

Maybe it’s time for Hank to make his.

Because this may be fate, but Hank sure as hell doesn’t have to accept that.

Numbly, Hank reaches down, lifting Charles off the bed. The limp figure flops, but Hank hastily clears away a spot on the cluttered floor before laying him out. Once he’s prone, Hank arranges his body, flattening his back and straightening his neck before tipping his head back and pinching his nose.

With burning lungs, he breathes twice for Charles, watching as the other man’s chest rises and falls evenly. When he’s done, he sits back on, steadying himself before finding the right spot over Charles’ sternum.

He compresses, and the feeling is terrifying at first and he almost stops. Because he’s not sure what he’s doing, but he’s pretty sure he’s not qualified for this. He’s not thinking this through; he’s not thinking--

About anything but Charles.

Choices.

We all make choices.

Sucking in a breath, Hank picks up the compressions again. The feeling of Charles’ ribs moving beneath him is nauseating, but Hank doesn’t stop. He won’t stop. This is his choice.

He stop, bending over to pinch Charles’ nose again, breathing twice more. Charles is pliant and unresponsive. This time, Hank’s in charge. This time, it’s Hank.

Determined, he goes back to compressions, pushing harder and faster than before. His pace quickens; his form steadies. He’s not sure what he’ll do if this doesn’t work, but at this point, he can’t let himself think that he won’t. When everything is on the line, most people make the right choices.

Hank’s choosing not to quit.

Hank’s choosing to never quit again.

Hank’s choosing this time and this place; Hank’s choosing this life and this person. He’s choosing this school and this future.

Hank’s choosing.

Then, beneath his touch, Charles makes his choice, too.

With a sudden convulsion, Charles stir. He inhales noisily, arching off the ground. Breathing again, he gapes greedily, drawing lungfuls of air, one desperate inhalation after the other.

Charles chooses to come back.

Befuddled, Hank supports Charles, rolling him gently on his side while he labors for air. He clasps the other man’s shoulder, dropping his head down as he starts to cry.

“It’s okay,” he says, and it’s the truth for the first time in forever. He holds steady, close enough to hear the rapid and new pound of Charles’ heart inside his chest. “It’s really going to be okay.”

-o-


Hank’s not sure how long they sit like that, but eventually he helps Charles sit up. A short time after that, they make it to the bed. When Hank helps Charles down, the other man looks up, brow furrowed. “I thought it was over,” he murmurs.

Hank sits tiredly next to him on the edge of the bed. “That was your choice,” he says. “Not mine.”

Charles lifts his eyebrows.

“You’re not the only person here,” he says.

Charles smiles faintly. “No,” he muses, his features starting to relax again. “I most certainly am not.”

-o-

Then, they sleep.

Charles doesn’t move on the bed, slipping into a deep sleep within minutes of Hank’s resuscitation efforts. For a while, Hank tries to keep track of his vitals again, and he even draws a vial of blood for processing before he realizes that it’s been days since he last slept. The numbers on his graph paper start blurring together, so he pulls the chair closer to Charles’ bed and takes his wrist in his hand, fingers pressed to the pulse point.

The thrum is fast but steady, and Hank lets it lull him to sleep.

For once, everything else can wait.

-o-

When Hank startles awake, it’s dark in the room. Blinking groggily, he fumbles to find the lamp only to remember that it’s not there anymore after the Charleses got done with their little match up. Half asleep, he stumbles across the floor, flicking on the overhead light.

It blinds him, and he realizes belatedly that he may very well wake up Charles with such an act.

As it turns out, however, Charles is already awake. He’s propped up slightly on the bed, hands folded in his lap.

“You looked like you needed the sleep,” Charles says, answering the question Hank hasn’t had time to ask.

Hank tries to wet his lips but mostly fails as he makes his way back across the room. “So do you,” he says. “I need to--”

Charles shakes his head, waving his hand at Hank. “It can wait,” he says.

“But your vitals--”

“Are stable,” Charles concludes for him.

“But your cells--”

“Are clearly no longer overactive,” Charles says.

“But we don’t know the long term effect--”

Charles sighs. “And you really think we won’t have the rest of my life to figure that out?”

Hank stops at that, because all his logical questions and scientific leanings have missed the obvious, most important fact: Charles is alive. Charles is better. Yes, there’s a possibility that something could be wrong, but Hank doesn’t need to confirm what he already knows.

Sheepish, he sits down in the chair. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Charles nods his approval. “I thought I was going to have to fight you on that one.”

“We’ll run more tests,” Hank tells him. “Later.”

“Later sounds reasonable to me,” Charles says. “Perhaps we should start with something to eat?”

“And drink,” Hank says. He looks around, wondering where the wheelchair is. “I honestly don’t know how long it’s been.”

“Long enough,” Charles says. He hesitates. “You know, I don’t remember everything.”

Hank flinches slightly, refusing to look up.

“But I remember enough,” he continues gently.

Hank shakes his head. “We don’t need to do this.”

“Hank--”

“Really,” Hank says. “What happened, that was the compound. That was my compound.”

“Hank,” Charles says again, a bit more firm now. “You aren’t going to make this your fault.”

“It’s not about blame,” Hank starts.

“No, but it is about confronting the things we’ve been avoiding,” Charles says. “If you feel guilty over making the compound and helping me take it, then that is something we can discuss. Just like I need you to understand that I am sorry for putting you in that position. I knew, Hank. I knew from the beginning that you would never be able to say no to me, and I used that. Until the very end, I used that, and that, above all else, is inexcusable.”

Hank’s cheeks redden.

“You’re more than a sidekick,” Charles says. “You’re not some second rate friend. You’re not some substitute. You’ve been here, Hank. Through everything. I know what you saw. I know what you’ve been through. I know what I’ve put you through. That matters. That matters more than I think you’ll ever know.”

Hank presses his lips together. “It’s nothing.”

Charles shakes his head. “It’s not nothing. You stayed, Hank. That’s as much a choice as walking away.”

“Well,” Hank says, shrugging one shoulder. “It’s nothing I wouldn’t do again.”

At that, Charles smiles. “I know,” he says. “I’ll try not to put you up to this much again, though.”

Hank chuckles. “I’d appreciate that,” he concedes.

His laughter tapers off, and he looks at Charles. He takes a breath. He lets it out. “Look,” he says, because Charles already knows what he’s thinking. What he’s saying, though, isn’t just for Charles. If he’s going to be the last man standing next time, it’s not going to be a silent decision foisted upon him by everyone else. It’s going to be his choice, and his alone. Resolved, he holds Charles’ eyes. “I’m not Erik.”

“Well, that’s good--”

“And I’m not Raven,” Hank continues heedlessly. “I can’t fill their place in your life. I can’t be them for you, and I wouldn’t. But I’m here. I’m still here, and I’m not planning on going anywhere.”

Charles’ face warms, and he looks like a man Hank remembers, one he met so many years ago and always wanted to belief. “I know,” he says, the confidence returning to his voice and the spark lighting once again in his eyes. “That is more than enough. You can trust me on that.”

Hank always has.

And he’s pretty sure he always will.