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X-Men fic: Students and Soldiers (1/3)

December 27th, 2017 (09:03 pm)
irritated

feeling: irritated

Title: Students and Soldiers

Disclaimer: Not mine.

A/N: Fills my family square for hc_bingo. Unbeta’ed. Set after Apocalypse.

Summary: Charles recruits students, not soldiers. If they become the same, somehow, that’s a problem to grapple with indeed.

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

Charles recruits students, not soldiers.

This is an important to distinction to him, excessively so. He maintains it with vehemence, and he finds himself reminding the others more than he’d like. They need to understand, however. They need to know that how a thing starts is not how it ends.

They need to know that a man still has control of his destiny, no matter how many wrong turns he makes.

Charles believes this, plain and naked as the smooth skin of his exposed scalp.

Charles recruits students, not soldiers.

If they become the same, somehow, that’s a problem to grapple with indeed.

-o-

“You’ll see by talking to anyone on campus that we take our charge as educators very seriously,” Charles explains with a diffident smile. He’s charming under the worst of circumstances, and when he’s actually making an effort? Well, then he’s damn near impossible to ignore. “Our goal is not merely academic, but social and emotional as well. We place a strong emphasis on community, teaching students how to use their particular talents within the context of the larger group.”

The parents, who are well-to-do and anxious, smile and nod politely.

Their daughter, who is by all accounts bright, ambitious, forthright and a mutant, looks eager.

He holds out the expanded orientation packet, one for each family member. “Information about coursework, living arrangement, social opportunities -- it’s all there,” he says. “We work hard to meet the individual needs of each student, which we assess on a one-on-one basis. You won’t find a school more committed to the well being of your student.”

It’s a good note, one that he’s honed over the years. Though his school is still somewhat small, it is not without renown, and while some parents of mutants are desperate for any “solution” to their child’s “problem,” Charles has expanded his resources to actively recruit students he feels will be a good fit for his overall vision.

The father looks bleak as he leafs through the pages, and the mother manages a watery smile. “Obviously, we’re concerned about safety,” she says. “While official policy has always been inclusive of children like Maya, I want to make sure -- well, you see -- I want to know that she’s--”

Maya, who has been raised with manners but has also been too thoroughly bored by this process to abide by them, rolls her eyes. “Ugh, Mom,” she says. “Just ask him if the school’s going to blow up again.”

Charles raises his eyebrows.

Maya stares him down. “We saw it on the news,” she says emphatically. “This whole place was rubble a year ago.”

“Ah,” Charles says. “It was an unfortunate but very isolated incident.”

“We want to make sure our little girl is safe,” the father interjects stolidly.

The mother hems, slightly emboldened. “And that your school’s reputation--”

Charles waves his hand to cut her off. “While our focus is on the academic and emotional well being of our students, we do devote sufficient time and attention to security issues as well,” he says. “I assure you all that this school is by far the safest place for your daughter to thrive.”

It’s the perfect pitch, and he’s sold them, from the wary mother to the overwhelmed father to the eager daughter.

Until a large bang rattles the walls and makes the lights flicker. The mother grabs onto the chair with a yelp while the father grunts to attention. Maya is staring at him with wide-eyed wonder.

Charles doesn’t let his smile waver. “I’ll let you read over the packets a little longer,” he says, wheeling himself toward the door. “If you’ll excuse me, just for a moment.”

-o-

Charles is in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t mean he’s slow. He knows his school effortlessly, inside and outside, so he traverses the grounds quickly, giving brisk orders to everyone in his wake.

“Everything is fine,” he says. “Please go back to your rooms until a teacher tells you otherwise.”

This is effective, and not because he’s a psychic with the ability of mind control. Rather, they believe him because he’s proven himself to be a virtuous man.

In this case, he also happens to be a liar.

He knows before he arrives that not everything is fine. Emotions are in turmoil, and though he cannot see the exact location, he has already honed in on it. It’s a laboratory space, back near the extra garage. Originally, it was used for storage. In recent months, he’s let Raven use it as a training facility.

Privacy, he’d agreed when she asked. He hadn’t wanted her training exercises to disrupt school activities.

Safety, she’d said.

Damn it if she had to be right about that.

Despite his focused pursuit, he’s not the first one there. A handful of students and teachers have already descended on the area, though the rescue efforts seem haphazard.

And underwhelming.

The smoking rubble is substantially larger than Charles expects. The building is all but gone, strewn across the lawn, leaving a collapsed center in a cratered middle. In the chaos, actions seems warranted, but for Charles, he just needs a moment to think.

He narrows his focus, parsing through the emotional carnage to make sense of it all. He can hear the students -- confused and scared -- and the teachers -- determined and dutiful.

Closing his eyes, he digs deeper, relying on his extra perception to get beyond the recovery to what lies beneath. This is often a figurative thing with him, but this time, it’s more literal than he’d like to admit.

There’s pain, bright and sharp. Broken arms and bruised ribs and deep cuts along the backs of his leg. Somewhere, a head pounds and breathing staggers.

Then, he feels it, like a knife to the heart.

Inhaling sharply, he opens his eyes. He’s not surprised to find Raven right in front of him. Her face is blackened, and there’s a smear of blood on her cheek. Strong as she is, something in her countenance trembles.

“We have to find them, Charles,” she says, as resolute as she is scared. “We have to find them.”

She’s holding herself together, but barely. Charles knows her better than almost anyone else in this world, and he can track the tenuous stream of her thoughts almost without trying. It was an accident, of course. A training incident. Something with Jean’s mind control failing and Scott’s vision flaring and Kurt’s timing just a second off and no one took into account the highly flammable liquid kept on the grounds. Ororo had been making a vortex, taking the beam and throwing it off its path. And Peter had been nodding off, listening to his headphones, eyes closed when the whole thing went--

“We will,” Charles says, his own voice like gravel as he nods. “We will.”

-o-

He’s a man in a wheelchair. To be sure, he’s no one’s first choice in a rescue effort.

But Charles is no ordinary man.

“They’re alive,” Charles says, taking a steadying breath. He’s worked to center himself, drowning out the worst of the confusion melee of emotions in his head. It takes time to sift through them, focus on the ones he’s trying to find. “All of them.”

Hank is at the forefront of the effort, second only to Raven. In her natural blue form, she’s pulling away rubble with a dogged determination. Hank, though clearly concerned, is showing more restraint.

“Do you know where?” Hank asks, pausing after helping Raven move a particularly large piece of wood.

Charles lets his eyes flutter close for a moment, honing his concentration. “Jean and Scott are...together,” he says, and he can feel them gaining comfort from each other, hands clenched in the dark. “He’s lost his glasses, so she’s focusing her full abilities on keeping him calm and keeping his eyes closed. They seem to be well sheltered, though.”

Raven huffs. “They were working together,” she says. “We were paired up, trying to come up with new offensive techniques.”

There are questions there, and many of them. They are all aware, however, that this is not the time.

Standing over the rubble, it’s hardly the place.

“Where?” Hank asks again. “North side, south side--”

“South,” she says, seeming to shudder at the thought. “They were paired together at the south end, away from the main explosion and collapse.”

What she’s not saying is that Scott’s vision is what caused the explosion. It’s a powerful ability for the Summers’ family, but hard to control. That is presumably why Scott does not have his glasses and why Jean is involved.

He gives Raven a curious look.

She grits her teeth. “She was working on controlling his powers for him,” she reports, shaking her head. “We thought it would be effective--”

“Depends on your definition of effective,” Hank comments.

Raven shoots him a look. “I may have misjudged the stability of the building,” she says. She takes another breath and lets it out through her nose. “This is my fault, not theirs.”

“No one is looking for blame,” Charles interjects. “We are merely looking for our friends.”

Raven looks down.

Hank sighs, reaching out a hand. “South side, right?” he asks. “Working together, we can get it done in no time.”

She looks up, marginally grateful for the reprieve. It is not enough to assuage her guilt, but Raven knows better than anyone how useless guilt is as an emotion. It is action that counts.

“You two get them out,” Charles says, lifting a hand to his head. “I’ll focus on finding the others.”

-o-

The work would go faster, no doubt, if the authorities were contacted. It’s not that Charles doesn’t respect the authorities. He just knows their limitations.

He also knows it’s unlikely that this event will go entirely unnoticed by all watching parties.

He just hopes he can keep it underwraps long enough to prevent it from become an publicized affair.

That means no police, unless it is necessary.

Charles isn’t foolish, after all. He knows when it is necessary to make a compromise.

This, quite frankly, isn’t it.

Maybe it’s because the school has already survived one massive explosion. Maybe it’s because Charles has reached out to the minds of each missing X-Men member and found them alive and intact. Maybe it’s because for all that Charles talks about recruiting students, he knows he’s also fostering soldiers, and for a man of peace, Charles knows more than he should about conflict.

This is well in hand. Hank and Raven are working under his direction. The rest of the staff is managing issues back at the school, ensuring that the students are safe and informed as necessary. He even has several members distracting his latest recruits, providing a limited campus tour and complimentary snacks and beverages.

When Hank and Raven pull first Scott and then Jean from the debris, Charles feels a smile brighten his face.

Maybe this might just work out okay after all.

“I’m sorry,” Scott is saying as Hank guides him over to the side. “I’m sorry--”

“It’s my fault,” Jean interrupts him. She lingers guiltily next to him, held back only by Raven’s touch as Hank starts inspecting a bleeding gash on Scott’s head. “I was the one guiding the beam.”

“I never should have let you,” Scott says, wincing while Hank presses on it. He sighs, eyes still squeezed shut. “I know what kind of mess these can make.”

“But I asked you to trust me,” Jean implores, her voice breaking.

“Hey,” Raven says. “You both trusted me, which is all you can do. This is not your fault, either of you.”

“We’re all aware of power mutant abilities can yield,” Charles says gently. He offers Jean a smile. “This is hardly the worst incident we’ve had on the grounds. As I recall, the first time you visited campus, you destroyed my grandfather’s tree.”

It’s the right thing to say -- of course it is -- and Scott smiles. He chuckles tiredly, and his whole body visibly relaxes, giving Hank the opportunity he needs to finish his quick assessment.

“He’ll need stitches on the head, and since I can’t check his eyes, I’d like to run a few tests just to be safe,” Hank says. “But I think he’s okay.”

“Jean has mostly bumps and bruises, and a few cuts on her legs you should look at,” Raven reports. “And I’m pretty sure her wrist is broken.”

“It’s fine,” Jean says.

Hank feels it, and Jean winces despite herself.

“Mostly,” she amends with a sheepish smile.

“We’ll get an x-ray of that, too,” Hank says, but he looks visibly more relaxed as well.

“What about the others?” Jean asks. “Storm and Kurt and Peter?”

“Storm went down in the center,” Raven reports. “But Peter and Kurt, they were on the other side.”

The group looks anxiously back at the debris. It’s painfully telling what side Raven is referring to.

“They’re all alive,” Charles says, trying to sound as encouraging as he can. “While they are not all conscious, none of them appear to be in immediate distress.”

“That’s hardly a sound medical diagnosis,” Hank says.

“And they are buried under all that,” Raven says.

“Quite so,” Charles replies, keen and gentle all at once. “Which is why, if you don’t mind, we should probably get back to work.”

-o-

Without his glasses, Scott is still mostly ineffective, but he puts a steady hand on Jean’s good wrist, which is the steadying effect she needs to calm her own mind and get in touch with her abilities. It’s remarkable how well they’ve advanced, Scott and Jean. They’ve learned to read each other almost unconsciously. One might expect it from Jean, with her psychic powers, but Scott is just as good at it as she is. They are a matched set, those two, more powerful together than they ever would have been apart.

All the same, Jean is cautious as she mentally moves the debris, working alongside Hank and Raven for the heavier lifting as necessary.

Charles knows this school like the back of his hand, which is to say, very well. But even he is surprised by the amount of debris created by this garage. He likes to stay well stocked and well prepared, but he’s starting to wonder if he’s straining the definition of overkill.

That’s another thought for another day, however. Hindsight, even for the most powerful psychic on the planet, is still 20-20.

And there is plenty to look at behind him.

More than he cares to admit.

First things first, however: his students.

Friends, he corrects himself. Strictly speaking, Peter has never actually attended a class, and Ororo takes courses at her own leisure. Kurt, Scott and Jean have all technically graduated, and Charles has granted them all positions on staff to keep them around with no questions asked.

He had concluded that would be the easiest thing to do.

He must wonder now if it is the best thing.

“Hey!” Raven yells, her voice hitching. “I think I’ve got someone!”

Hank scrambles over to her, and Jean sits up a little straighter. Charles, though, just closes his eyes.

He senses a gentle presence, quiet and tinged with pain. It’s the stillness, not just of spirit or dreams but injury. Still, the latent presence is impossible to misplace, and as he mentally reaches out to touch it, he feels it move toward him and back toward awareness.

When he opens his eyes, the deed is already done. Raven is supporting Kurt on one side, Hank on the other, while Jean clears a path for them back to the safety of the grass. The young mutant is limping, blinking dazedly, but when he approaches, he looks up and meets Charles’ gaze.

“You’re okay,” Charles tells him knowingly. “Trust me.”

Kurt grimaces as Hank lowers him to the ground next to the others. “I do not doubt,” he says, accent thicker than normal while Hank starts to prod him. “And besides, I have been trapped in worse places.”

It’s funny; it’s true.

Charles does his best to smile and he doesn’t think about how it applies to all of them.

-o-

Kurt, by Hank’s sound estimation, is fine.

“I’ll want to--”

“Let me guess,” Charles offers coyly. “Run some tests?”

Hank glares up at him through his glasses. “Better safe than sorry,” he mutters.

Charles chuckles. “Careful, Hank,” he says. “You’re starting to look a little blue.”

“We could use blue,” Raven says, getting back on her feet and turning back toward the wreckage. “We’ve still got two people left.”

Hank gives Charles a look. “Any help here?”

Charles puts his hand to his head, but stops and cocks his head.

“What?” Hank asks.

Raven steps closer. “Is something wrong?”

“I should think not,” Charles says, looking back them both. “Because I do believe there’s only one person left to recover.”

They turn, startled, in time to see Ororo dust herself off, getting shakily to her feet from the path she’s cut for herself in the rubble.

“Storm!” Raven says, rushing toward her.

Though she is shaky, she does not need Raven’s assistance. Indeed, the younger man seems to grow stronger as she approaches, the abrasions visible on her face notwithstanding.

“How did you get out?” Raven asks while Hank hovers anxiously. “The rubble over there--”

“Was extensive,” Ororo agrees. She inhales and musters a smile. “Nothing I could not handle, however.”

Hank is looking intently at a cut on her side, not quite achieving in his attempt to be discrete.

Ororo gives him a look but allows it. For a woman who grew up on the street, she has responded well to a stable home life. Although, Charles reflects at their current situation, it’s perhaps not as stable as he might have believed otherwise. “I made a wind vortex, which allowed me to shift through the rubble.”

“But how did you manage that without knocking it all over?” Scott asks. He’s still on the ground, eyes closed. He can’t see, but his fingers are clasped in Jean’s.

“Despite what your powers might have you believe, bigger is not always better,” Ororo quips dryly. “I made the vortex small enough to hold up the rubble without allowing it to get out of control. It took me some time to control the right amount of energy, but I found that being trapped in a confined space made me very amenable to refining that skill.”

She is smart, Ororo is. And not just smart, but intuitive. Many students who come to Charles’ school are unsure how to use their abilities; Ororo, on the other hand, had already embraced them with a flourish. No doubt Apocalypse’s guidance has something to do with that, but even then, her ability to acclimate here is nothing short of impressive.

Then again, Charles has to remind himself, he never recruited Ororo to be a student here, and he is quite afraid that it may show.

Hank has forgone all reservations, and he is actively pulling at the blood-stained fabric of Ororo’s training suit. “We’re going to have to look at this,” he says, earning nothing but an annoyed look from Ororo. “Clean it out right.”

“I am not a child who needs looking after,” Ororo says, a tad sharp.

Hank looks ready to protest, but Raven interjects for him. “But you are an X-Men,” she says, giving the words the emphasis needed to be self evident. “And this was worse than your average training accident. Let Hank do his job.”

Ororo seems to accept this. She is an independent woman, to be sure, and she has not sought Charles’ leadership in many significant ways. There has been no need, in Charles’ estimation, since Raven has had things well in hand.

More or less.

“What happened?” Ororo asks, nodding her head toward the wreckage. “The force of the blast from Scott’s eyes seemed stronger than usual--”

“My help,” Jean says, looking apologetic. “Though I’m not sure it was really so helpful.”

“I thought it was well within our control,” Ororo says, sounding vexed. “Unless the power of my wind was--”

“Not your fault,” Raven says. She looks at Jean and Scott. “Or yours. I was in charge of the training situation. This one’s on me.”

“But we are a team, are we not?” Ororo asks, ever persistent. It would be impressive were it not so poorly timed.

Raven is ready to argue the point, but Charles has allowed this to continue long enough.

“These are conversations we will surely have,” he says. He does not need force to command attention. His mere presence is enough. “But I think you’re all still forgetting something.”

The looks he gets are quizzical.

Charles raises his eyebrows. “Someone, then?”

Raven’s eyes widen a split second before everyone else catches his meaning.

“Peter,” Hank says, turning back.

“Is he not out yet?” Ororo asks, looking around in concern.

Kurt looks more than somewhat concerned. “We should go back for him. If he’s hurt--”

“He’s alive,” Jean reports, shaking her head.

“More than that, he’s fine,” Charles says. “I’m afraid his thoughts have become quite clear.”

Jean smiles a little; now that she’s calmed down a bit, her control is returning. And, in truth, this particular thought is not hard to sense. “He’s bored.”

“Out of his mind,” Charles agrees. “He also seems to be inconvenienced by a piece of rubble he cannot move.”

“So we have the fastest man on earth literally stuck in one place down there?” Raven asks.

Hank winces. “We better hurry.”

Charles inclines his head, trying not to be too amused. This is still a serious situation, after all. “Indeed.”

-o-

With nearly the whole team reunited, spirits have dramatically improved. Moreover, working together in sound mind allows them to fully capitalize on their powers. As capable as each member is on their own, Charles can easily see how their real advantage is realized as a team.

There’s a reason the X-Men was a good idea.

There’s a reason Charles didn’t say no when Raven wanted to resurrect the idea.

This is how it could have been; this is how it should have been. In the days when Charles was recruiting soldiers.

Raven is an effective leader, to say the least. And the team, misfit as they may have been once, have learned how to work together. They know how to read each other, using their powers not in sheer force but in complementary motion. It allows them to work through the rubble quickly and efficiently, and it’s hardly no time at all when Peter is ultimately uncovered.

From his vantage point, Charles can’t actually see all that much. He’s situated on the side, next to Hank’s makeshift triage station. Although still battered, Jean and Scott have ventured closer, leaving Charles on the side by himself.

It’s just as well; Charles can’t stand to see down into the collapsed structure. But Charles Xavier doesn’t need his eyes to see.

The clearing where they find Peter is at the core of the wreckage, and he has borne the brunt of the collapse. This sounds ominous -- and indeed, it does look bad -- but Peter has been protected by a support beam. When it collapsed, he found himself under it, providing him sufficient protection from the rest of the falling structure.

This is, naturally, the good news.

The bad news is that while providing protection, it also trapped him -- literally. Although he managed to avoid the full force of the beam -- he would be dead otherwise -- it has still pinned him to the ground, limiting his mobility and keeping him sedentary throughout the entirety of the process.

“It is about time,” Peter exclaims, voice carrying easily over the rubble. “I’ve been under here for years.”

Charles can practically feel Raven’s smirk. “It’s been an hour,” she tells him flatly. “Tops.”

“An hour,” Peter repeats. He manages to sound wholly incredulous. “Do you know how long an hour is to a guy like me? Do you?”

Logically, the answer is possibly yes. In practice, Charles knows it’s more complicated than that. It’s hard for anyone to understand how fast Peter moves. Even Charles, who has a direct access to the young man’s rapid-fire thought process, can scarcely comprehend living at such a break-neck speed. It’s not just that Peter moves quickly. It’s that he lives quickly. His entire metabolism and emotional state is structure to exist in split second intervals.

In that context, an hour of immobility would be rather daunting.

And still completely survivable.

“Oh, be quiet,” Raven lectures him. “If you’d been paying attention, you would have seen this happen and none of us would be in this mess.”

They’re working to shift the debris away from him, Jean’s telekinesis and Ororo’s wind control.

“I was hiding,” Peter returns with a scowl. “Like I was supposed to, remember? That’s what you said. Quicksilver: use your speed as a defensive mechanism. No one should see you.

His approximation of Raven is suspect, to say the least. As is his interpretation of her orders.

She scoffs. Though her incredulity is not without reason, Charles knows she’s also distracting him from the delicate work the others are doing. Peter is exposed, but that beam is still dangerously perched on his chest. One wrong move--

“That meant keep moving all the time,” Raven says, shaking her head. “Not curl up and take a nap!”

“For the record, I wasn’t sleeping,” Peter says, very seriously now. “I don’t sleep, not much anyway. Like five minutes, boom. I’m good.”

Raven crosses her arms over her chest as Hank reaches down to shield Peter while Jean leverages the beam up and Ororo uses the wind to keep the rest of the rubble at bay. Kurt stands close by, ready at bay, in case he’s needed. Although he offered to get Peter out, Hank had suggested against it -- in case the sudden shift cause the debris to fall.

“Then what were you doing, huh?” Raven asks. “To get you stuck like this?”

“I was turning up the volume, if you must know,” Peter says with an air of overly dramatic exasperation. “I work better with tunes.”

“Don’t move, just for a second longer,” Hank coaches.

The beam is shifting, and Charles can almost feel its weight as it transfers upward.

“A second, man,” Peter says, shaking his head. He’s gone still, though. “If you had any idea…”

Hank pulls, and Raven catches. Jean lets the beam fall, breaking in two as Ororo keeps the rest of the fallen building stable. For a moment, everyone seems to hold their breath.

After a long, fraught second, Peter laughs sardonically. “That beam was huge,” he says, as though he’s sincerely just realized this. He looks up, and Charles can feel his wonder. “What the hell happened, anyway?”

Everyone seems to sigh, and Charles feels the tension recede. This accident is not without consequences, to be sure, but it’s nothing they can’t handle. Nothing too far outside of Charles’ entire purpose.

Steering himself to the edge of the hole, Charles looks down for the first time. Despite the fact that he knows things are fine now, it’s still a reassuring sight to see. “Now,” he announces with a wry smile. “Is finally the time to talk about that.”

-o-

Peter is normally the first in any type of activity. He doesn’t have to be particularly gifted at said project; he has the speed to make up for anything he lacks in skill. To be sure, no one would know otherwise. One blink, and Peter’s done more often than not.

So when Charles observes his slow limp back to the edge of the debris, it’s certainly worth noting. The young man is hurting, not that he lets on.

Instead, he talks.

A lot.

About nothing.

Some might think that this is a well honed self defensive mechanism, and Charles it not about to rule it out flatly. But he has a first hand view of Peter’s thoughts. As it is, he only says a fraction of what passes through his mind -- if anything, it’s a sign of self control.

Not that it makes it any easier to listen to.

“So did the house blow up or blow in?” Peter asks, allowing Hank to support him as they join Charles on the grass. “That’s, what, implosion and explosion, right?”

“The blast originated inside,” Ororo offers.

“But it forced its way out,” Scott says, sounding marginally thoughtful.

“Is it possible to be both, then?” Kurt asks.

“I know, that’s the tricky part, right?” Peter says. He winces, but extricates himself from Hank’s grasp. He makes a vague motion of what Charles can only assume is supposed to be a fireball. “In to out.”

“There’s not a widespread pattern of debris, though,” Jean says.

“Still, the initial blast pushed the debris outward, or explosion,” Hank says, shaking his head. “The force of the blast wasn’t strong enough to clear the full structure, however, so the rest of it fell in, giving it the appearance of an implosion.”

Peter gives him a look, somewhere between dazed and confused. “Yeah, man, but that’s no fun when you say it like that,” he comments. “We were in an explosion! That sounds cooler.”

“Well, I’m glad we’ve established what’s cool,” Raven interjects, sounding more than somewhat perturbed. “Since that’s what matters right now.”

“Well, yeah, kind of,” Peter says, appearing momentarily thoughtful. “I mean, it sounds dramatic, right? Explosions!”

He makes a whooshing noise, using his hands to make his point more compelling. He stops short, though. The movement makes him wince, and Charles feels his consciousness flicker as he wavers ever so slightly on his feet.

He’s surrounded by exceptionally perceptive mutants, some of the best Charles knows. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

“Maybe we should sit down,” Hank suggests, reaching out to steady Peter’s arm. “Check you out a bit.”

“He is rather fond of running tests,” Ororo says knowingly.

Peter, however, doesn’t appear to be fully listening. “No, man,” he says, shaking his head. “Explosion may be dramatic, but kind of cliche, right? Implosions are rare.”

Raven can’t stop from rolling her eyes. It’s been a long day, clearly, and Raven is not a person noted for her esteemed patience. “I think maybe tests are the right idea.”

“But we have to get the details right!” Peter protests. “Implosion or explosion! What do you think?”

“I think you’re an idiot,” Raven tells him, her expression pinched. “Now shut and let Hank look at you.”

Peter’s brow furrows dejectedly. “That’s not a very nice thing to say to a guy who you just dropped a building on.”

Peter means it, of course, but he doesn’t mean it. As fast as he is, he’s not fast enough to take back the ill chosen words before Raven’s face hardens. She can turn to stone sometimes, an expression so cemented that it looks like it will never change. It frightens the others when she’s like that, but Charles knows her well enough to know that it’s not anger she’s expressing.

It’s guilt.

Charles takes a breath, and takes his cue to intervene. Raven’s in charge of training; Hank’s in charge of their physical well being; but this is still Charles’ school. These may or may not be his students, but he still calls them his own.

“All the same,” he says as pleasantly as possible. “Maybe if we discuss the incident further, the distinction will be made clear. Does anyone know exactly what happened down there?”

Some might wonder why Charles bothers. If he can read their minds, why take their biased and broken accounts in this manner. But he finds that learning the truth for himself is not always as helpful as figuring it out with others. He’s not afraid of doing things the hard way.

To the question, there’s a hesitation. They’ve told Charles bits and pieces, but none of them want to draw the necessary conclusions. It’s a sign of how well they work together, Charles is sure of that. They understand how interconnected they are, and the concept of individual responsibility is a trying one for them to accept. The idea that their collective abilities may have faltered? Is even harder to grasp.

That makes it all the more important.

Raven inhales deeply. “We lost control of the training exercise,” she says. “We didn’t take into account the full scope of our surroundings.”

“I should have closed my eyes when it got crazy,” Scott blurts.

“And I shouldn’t have intensified his blast,” Jean adds in a rush.

“And that much power in the wind was not safe indoors,” Ororo concedes.

“And I should not have left my partner for so long,” Kurt says, sounding almost tragically apologetic.

“Dude, I wasn’t doing anything,” Peter says with a diffident shrug. “Laying low, as ordered.”

He tries to look smug, but somehow he fails. He’s paler than Charles remembers, and he quite noticeably has not sat down yet.

“Peter,” Hank says, with a touch of concern now. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Peter winces, rubbing at his chest. “Yeah, sure,” he says. He swallows. “I think I cracked some ribs or something.”

Or something is hardly a medical conclusion, and Hank clearly does not seem appeased.

“That beam was pretty heavy,” Jean comments.

Peter blinks a few times, inhaling raggedly. “A lot heavier,” he says. His next breath is a wheeze, short and halting.

Raven frowns. “Peter?”

This time, Peter inhales with a deep, railing sound, which only seems to make matters worse. He half chokes on it, and Charles feels the piercing pain radiating from his body, with a suddenness that dims both of their vision at the edges.

Charles recovers -- Peter does not.

“Whoa,” Hank says, rushing to catch the younger man as he stumbles. Jean pulls Scott out of the way as Raven comes along his other side, working to guide him to the ground.

Peter gasps again, the color draining from his face with a sudden intensity. He looks up, eyes wide and suddenly scared. “I can’t -- I can’t -- breathe.”

Although his thoughts are usually a mile a minute, they’re faster than that now, and more intense. It’s almost incoherent screaming in Charles head, pushing him to the brink of utter disorientation. It’s all he can do to brace himself, looking down while Hank positions Peter flat on his back in the grass.

Peter’s almost gurgling now, convulsing as he tries to inhale.

“What’s happening?” Ororo demands.

“What’s wrong with him?” Scott asks almost simultaneously.

Jean has to squeeze her eyes shut, as if to escape the intensity of the emotions.

Charles knows how she feels, but wills himself to keep his open. He needs to see this, he needs to know.

“Peter,” Raven says, on her knees to one side. “Peter, you need to breathe.”

He’s gaping, almost like a fish out of water. His complexion is dusky all of a sudden, a blue tint in his lips.

Desperate, Hank rips open his shirt, pressing his ear to Peter’s bruised chest. He grimaces, trying to listen.

Peter’s trembling now, wayward thoughts flickering through his strained consciousness. He sees Peter stealing a box of Twinkies. He sees him looking up at Erik and wondering if he should tell him the truth, here at the end of the world. His mother shakes his head, and Peter pulls a worn card from his wallet.

Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

Charles feels his own heart stutter. This is a school. This is a school. This is a school.

But these aren’t students.

And Charles doesn’t know how the hell he lost complete and utter control of that.

“His lung, it’s punctured,” Hank announces, sitting up on his knees. He shakes his head. “I need to relieve the pressure--”

“Do it, then!” Raven almost yells at him.

“I can’t!” Hank yells back. He gestures in futility. “My supplies -- they’re back in my lab--”

It’s a problem, to be sure, but one with the most obvious of solutions. At least, that was the case when the world’s most powerful mutants were all standing together.

“Come on,” Raven says, yanking Kurt down as she gets up. “You can get them there, right?”

“It’s a bit far, yes,” Kurt says. “But with only the three and my familiarity of the place--”

Peter chokes and then goes very, very still. Charles feels the change like a punch in the gut, not for the pain or the panic, but for the silence.

Total and complete stillness.

The implications are jarring, and Charles finds himself struggling to recover.

Hank grabs Kurt with one hand, Peter with the other. “Then, go!”

Kurt, taken aback by the intensity, puts one blue hand on Peter and closes his eyes in concentration. Within a split second, the trio is gone in a poof of smoke. It happens so fast -- but painfully not fast enough -- which is the way it is with Peter.

With all of them, really.

Charles closes his eyes and does his best not to visibly shudder.

“Come on,” Raven half growls. Charles opens his eyes in time to see her head off toward the school.

It’s not quite an order, but the others obey anyway. Ororo first, and then Jean and Scott beside. Ororo quickens her pace, falling in step alongside Raven, while Scott clutches Jean’s hand while she guides him effortlessly over the landscape. Raven doesn’t even look back.

Charles should go, and he knows this. He wants to know that everyone’s okay, but he finds himself frozen.

And, after all these years, as alone as he’s ever been.

-o-

It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that paralysis can be more than physical. It’s easier still to forget that Charles knows this better than most.

After all, he’s Charles Xavier. Wealthy, well regarded and very well bred. He has rubbed elbows with the elite, both mutant and human alike, and he’s achieved academic and philanthropic feats that do make catchy headlines.

But he’s also Charles Xavier. The failed CIA prospect who ended up paralyzed on a beach in Cuba, an incident so extreme that the United States fails to even acknowledge it. His first attempt at opening a school ended in marked disaster, leaving him alone in a sprawling house with nothing but his loyal friend and a prescription. In those years, Charles could walk, but that was about all he could do.

He’d made those choices quite purposefully, too. He’d gone so far as to erase Moira’s memory of him to make the break utterly complete. He’d always insisted that the pill had been to give him use of his legs, but that had never been the truth. Charles had merely wanted them as a distraction to forget just how not okay things had become.

There’s no telling what might have happened to him if Logan hadn’t showed up. The time traveler had incredible stories to tell, stories of a future Charles might have hoped for once but had long since given up. It had been sobering, to say the least, but it wasn’t until he opened the school that he realized who he was once again.

This school, it’s his everything. Because yes, Charles does want to make the world a better place, but he knows now that it’s not about the goal as much as it is how you go about achieving it. He and Erik, they often want the same things, but their approaches vary so dramatically that it’s hard to tell sometimes.

Erik is someone who sees the big picture almost in exclusion, so focused on the end game that he’s willing to make difficulty sacrifices to get him there. He believes, with the best of intention usually, that the ends really do justify the means.

Charles, on the other hand, believes that the means determine the ends. In essence, he prefers a bottom-up approach. He sees individuals and wants to help each one reach his or her potential, no matter what they may be. He believes, he truly does, that making better people will make a better world in the end.

As ennobling as it all seems, Charles isn’t naive. This isn’t an entirely altruistic cause. No, Charles thrives among people. He needs connection almost as much as he needs control. That’s the fine line, that’s the delicate balance. He’s been walking it since he came into his powers as a young man. Because as much as he needs connection to grow, if he doesn’t control that connection, it can quickly consume him.

Charles is not vain enough to think himself God. He’s not damaged enough to imagine himself capable of making life and death decisions on the behalf of others. But for all of that, for all that he does good in this world., that doesn’t make him innocent.

This is a school, he hears himself saying. It’s on the damned cards that he hands out. It’s part of his bloody sales pitch. This is a school, and he recruits students.

He stares out across the lawn, where the dust has settled from this latest explosion. This is not the first incident, he knows. He highly suspects it will not be the last.

That’s what makes it hard, naturally. Charles is not just operating a school, he’s operating a school catered to the needs of mutants. And he’s not merely recruiting students; he’s recruiting powerful mutants who do not yet know how to control their abilities. The balance requires deftness, to be sure, but Charles is well equipped for the task. He believes -- he has to believe -- that he can create a school environment that is safe and open all at the same time.

That is when the dream explodes, of course.

Or implodes.

Whichever you prefer.

It’s not that Charles fancies himself to be a liar, but he knows too well how to craft the truth to make it palatable. After all, he can make anyone believe anything he wants, and it suddenly seems like the person he’s hoodwinked most completely may actually be himself.

How can he sit here, on the edge of another disaster, and say this is a school? How can he watch them retreat for the well being of one of their own and say they are his students? He’s ignored the fine line created by Raven’s new X-Men -- he’s had to. It’s easier that way, at least in the short term.

But maybe he needs some of Erik’s big picture thinking right about now. He can’t focus solely on the individuals involved when there’s a smoking crater on his school grounds for the second time in as many years.

It’s a lie, after all. It’s a blatant falsehood to promise parents who sit down in his office that he can keep their children safe. He can try, but there’s no guarantee when soldiers are allowed to train with proverbial life rounds across campus. It’s a promise he can’t make in good conscience.

Can he?

Swallowing hard, Charles can’t help but remember.

He remembers that first team he recruited. He remembers Angel Salvadore, who used her powers against the cause. He remembers Munoz, who made the ultimately sacrifice because it was the right thing to do. He remembers Alex and Sean, both of whom he promised so much and ultimately gave so little.

Even now, despite all his claims to run a school, he invited Alex back to fight -- and die -- for a cause Charles never expected. He knows that these are not solely his choices -- Apocalypse has his own culpability as the villain in the story -- but Charles would be foolish to think that this isn’t about him, that this isn’t because of him.

The problem is not so much that disaster follows Charles Xavier, it’s that he he continues to promise people he can keep them safe. That he knows what’s best for them.

He sighs, closing his eyes to the wreckage.

Who’s fault is it, now? Who can he blame?

Because whether he calls them students or soldiers, there needs to be accountability.

And that starts with him.

Opening his eyes, he gathers himself with a deep breath. He lets it out, turning his eyes from the debris back toward the main house. Right now, there are questions to answer.

He can rebuild later, he decides as he starts the long trek back.

He’s not sure what he wants to make yet anyway.

-o-

The ride back is long, but not nearly as long as it feels. Charles does not particularly prefer the company of his own thoughts at the moment, but he finds that reaching out to other minds provides no solace. While there have been no official announcements, rumor is running rampant among the student body. It’s even more keenly honed among the staff, who are diligent enough to preoccupy the students but not nearly diligent enough to quell their own curiosities.

That’s all well and good, Charles knows. He can hardly want a lack of intellectual curiosity at a school. They all deserve explanations, and such explanations will be forthcoming.

Once Charles figures them out, that is.

At any rate, he has more pressing concerns. While he is concerned about the well being of each and every person at his school, the X-Men require special attention at the moment.

He finds them in the waiting area outside of Hank’s offices.

Normally, they are an impressive, even a formidable lot.

Right now, not so much.

Jean and Scott, as seems to be their norm, are huddled together. Someone has found him glasses again -- an older pair, if Charles recognizes them correctly -- but he still seems to lean into Jean for support. This is no burden for her, however, and Charles can see how tightly she grips her hand. That’s for her, he knows -- even if Scott doesn’t.

Nearby, Kurt is perched anxiously. He’s filled out some since being here. Charles has noted that in the past with some sense of pride. He likes to think he’s a good influence, and he likes to see people come into their own. Kurt has seemingly done all that, overcoming so many terrible things in his life to become a productive and meaningful member of their tight-knit community on campus. But there’s a hollow look in his eyes today; a look Charles hasn’t seen since Egypt.

For her part, Ororo is slumped in one of the chairs. The posture could be mistaken for boredom if not for the icy look in her eyes. Her arms are crossed rigidly over her chest, and her anger is palpable in the deafening silence. They call her Storm for her abilities, Charles knows this, but there is more to it when you look inside. She is a young woman who has weathered much in her short life, and the storm brewing within her has the potential to be more dangerous than any she could create with her own hands.

It is Raven who is pacing. She walks the lengths of the room, practically stalking it. Her emotions are wound tightly, making them difficult to discern. The pain, the frustration, the fear: it’s all viable. Understandable, even.

She looks at him, as if she can feel his mental presence. “Hank’s still working on him,” she reports flatly. “There hasn’t been an update.”

Curt as she is, Charles knows better than to take her anger personally. Raven has blamed him for many things in her life, but this? She is too invested to pretend like she could find a suitable scapegoat.

In the midst of all those emotions, Charles finds empathy. If anyone knows the perils of the best laid plans of mice and men, it’s him. “Ah.”

Before he can think of something further to say, Jean lifts her head. “He’s alive, though,” she says, letting her voice rise on a note of optimism.

Kurt appears to take it to heart; Ororo slumps further in her seat.

Raven doesn’t stop pacing.

“Yes,” Charles says with a polite smile. “I can concur with that much.”

He’s being careful here, because he knows that this is uncertain and therefore volatile territory. Whether or not these are actually soldiers or students, they are still so young -- so damn young. Charles can hardly believe he was this age when he fell on a beach in Cuba and lost everything.

“Maybe we should, I don’t know,” Scott hedges, looking uncomfortable. “Call for help or something? I know Dr. McCoy’s good--”

Kurt shakes his head. “Peter would not like that.”

Ororo huffs. “He also wouldn’t want to be dead.”

It’s not so much dissension as it is personal uncertainty. They need a united front while they all grapple with the question of what happened -- of why it happened.

“If Hank needs help, I trust he will get it at any cost,” Charles says. “He is a responsible doctor; I trust him with my life as readily as I trust him with all of yours. Ultimately, we simply have to decide to have faith in him, as much as I have faith in all of you.”

Kurt is visibly hearten by this, and he can see the tension unfurl on Scott’s shoulders. Even Jean loosens her grip of Scott’s hand by a matter of degrees, and the coldness melts slightly from Ororo’s set features.

Raven, however, glares at him.

She is too old for platitudes. She knows him too well.

“Raven,” he ventures. “If I may--”

She turns her head sharply toward him without missing a pace. “I’m not leaving, Charles.”

Her voice is low, turned threatening with a growl of intent. It’s intimidating.

But not to Charles.

“It’ll only be for a moment,” he says, pausing long enough to tilt his head pointedly at her. “If you don’t mind.”

It’s a request, but only in appearance. Charles is unfailingly polite, even when he’s determined to do something unseemly. He doesn’t have to use mental exertion to force people to do things most of the time. With someone like Raven, who knows what he is capable of, the threat would be enough.

With someone like Raven, however, the threat isn’t necessary. Not when it’s made, not just in affection, but out of respect.

Mutual respect.

She stops short, finally tearing her gaze away from Charles. “Let me know if anything changes,” she orders to no one in particular.

They all nod, even Ororo.

“And I mean anything,” she adds with emphasis before stalking toward Charles. She purses her lips, shrugging her shoulders. “After you.”

“Ah,” Charles says, wheeling himself around to head back out the door. “Lovely.”