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X-Men fic: Students and Soldiers (2/3)

December 27th, 2017 (09:04 pm)
nerdy

feeling: nerdy

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

To Raven’s dismay, Charles does not settle for the hallway. In fact, he leads Raven all the way to the side door, letting them both outside into one of the private verandas on the property. This one is designated for staff use, but the staff is otherwise preoccupied at the moment.

He wheels himself all the way out amid the flowers. Here, everything is peaceful and serene. You might not realize that halfway across the property, there’s a smoking crater in the ground. Funny, how easy appearances can deceive.

“What do you want, Charles?” she demands. She’s back in her preferred human form again, blonde waves fashionably disheveled on her head. She’s hiding in plain sight; a fact noticeable only to Charles.

He wheels about to face her. “I told you before, there would be time to talk,” he says. “That time is now.”

This is probably no surprise to her -- she is a bright woman, after all -- but it is clearly not the conversation she wishes to have now. Shaking her head, she lets out a terse breath. “I should be back there with them.”

“They are fine for now,” Charles tells her.

“No,” Raven says, her eyes flashing decidedly. “They’re not. Not any of them, least of all Peter.”

“Which is exactly why we need to talk,” Charles persists.

It would not be hard for Raven to walk away; indeed, Charles wouldn’t stop her if she tried. But that whole issue of respect -- it’s a two-way street between them. At times, precariously so, but the last year has earned them both a degree of latitude that they haven’t enjoyed since childhood.

It’s a visible effort when she collects herself, and she is very level when she speaks with her shoulders squared. “We need to make sure Peter’s okay.”

“There’s nothing we can do for Peter now,” Charles replies unflinchingly. “Except to figure out what happened.” He sighs, feeling a swell of sympathy again. “What happened, Raven?”

She either cannot endure his sympathy or she does not feel worthy of it. She stiffens. “You said it yourself,” she reminds him. “It was an accident.”

Charles inclines his head kindly. “That much is without argument.”

“A misjudgement,” she clarifies.

“Also a very reasonable conclusion,” he says.

He’s going out of his way to avoid a fight, but his agreement only seems to rile her further. She works her jaw tautly, eyes darkening. “Then what is the answer you’re looking for, Charles? Do you want someone to blame? Do you want me to admit that it was my fault?”

There’s a cutting edge to her voice, sharper than glass. She’s like Erik sometimes; when she’s hurt, she lashes out, not in. She wants you to believe it, but it doesn’t change the truth.

“No,” Charles says. “As you so succinctly said, it was an accident. But such a simple conclusion obscures the larger, much more important point.”

She shifts her weight on her feet, crossing her arms over her chest. “Okay,” she says diffidently. “You might was well enlighten me.”

With a sigh, Charles gives into the inevitable. “That maybe we shouldn’t be doing this here at all.”

“This?” she asks, incredulous.

“The X-Men--”

Her response is immediate, like a knee-jerk reaction. She tsks her tongue and rolls her eyes, almost turning away. “Come on,” she says, gesturing widely with her arms. “You want to do this now? The dust hasn’t even settled. Peter’s still with Hank--”

“Which is why this is the precise time we need to do this,” Charles replies emphatically. “We can’t let ourselves get distracted by good outcomes that we scrape together at the last second. We’re too prone to relying on luck or fortune, and we let ourselves conveniently forget that we’re inviting forces into play that we have no control over whatsoever.”

“Of course we can’t control them,” Raven snaps in return. She gives a short, incredulous chuckle. “I mean, isn’t that the point? There’s an entire world out of there we can’t control, which is why we have to train them and equip them to face it as best they can. And I know -- okay? I know that there are risks involved with all of this. Risks I can’t whitewash, and risks you can’t print on your school’s little brochures.”

She’s not exactly trying to be dismissive -- she doesn’t blame Charles for running a school, and she doesn’t even think it’s necessarily the wrong thing to do -- but she’s always been one for half measures sometimes. She’s been the middle ground between Charles and Erik for so long that sometimes he think she doesn’t know how to exist in any other form.

That’s one reason why he’d been so agreeable to letting her start the X-Men again. She needed a cause, and if that was one she could rally behind, Charles wanted to support that.

But only to a point.

“I know,” he says, quieter now. “And I think that’s the problem.”

She makes a face, shaking her head. “What?”

“The X-Men,” he says. “That’s not what’s on the brochure.”

She still doesn’t understand, at least not fully. At least because she hasn’t let herself yet. “Well, yeah--”

“And yet, Raven, here we are,” he says. “Trying to do both on the same property like it’s no big deal. Student and soldiers sharing meals, sharing rooms, sharing lives. This is a school, and it always has been. To make it a training ground as well...”

This isn’t the answer she’s expecting. “But where else are we going to do it?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t do it,” he suggests.

“Charles, you can’t be naive--”

“How could I be? All that’s happened--”

“Charles, the X-Men, what they represent, who they can be,” she says. “That’s important.”

“More important than the school?” Charles asks.

She closes her mouth. She knows better than to take that stand, even if it is what she believes. “Why do we have to choose?”

“Because we’re blowing up parts of the campus,” Charles says. “Because we have four shell-shocked children back there, and one who is fighting for his life. Because the X-Men and the school are different, Raven. And I’m not sure we can make them pretend otherwise.”

“And we can pretend like the risks don’t exist either way?” she asks. “Or have you already forgotten? About Apocalypse? About Trask? About your friend Logan from the future who told you that the X-Men were an inevitability--”

“That’s not what he said--”

“But it’s what he showed us, isn’t it?” she asks. “Being a school, that didn’t stop Apocalypse. Being noncombatants didn’t stop Trask. The X-Men are the epitome of what you want, Charles. Mutants joining together to protect the good of everyone. At this school and beyond.”

It’s his turn to close his mouth, conceding the point. “Maybe,” he says. “But here? On the campus?”

“And why not?” she asks. “No one else has the resources anyway.”

“But this is a school,” he insists, more firmly now.

Her frustration peaks and she throws her hands up. “It’s more than that!”

“Since when?” he challenges pointedly.

“Oh, don’t even,” she says. “You made Cerebro. You’re the one who brought the conflict here. Every single time.”

“I built Cerebro to find students, mutants who need my help,” Charles argues.

“And you’ve never used it for other reasons?” she asks knowingly. “I mean, come on. Hank’s been building warplanes in the basement.”

He straightens defensively. “What he does on his own time--”

She is not buying his copout. “You’re a psychic, Charles,” she says. “You know what he thinks.”

Bristling, his look grows colder toward her. “I may be psychic, but I do not use my abilities to influences the minds of others,” he says. “Hank is fully entitled to his opinions.”

“And you let it happen at your school.”

That is the point, and he knows he can defend against it. He extends leeway to people, sometimes more than might be advisable. It’s not wrong, certainly, but if he’s going to call out Raven, he has to call out Hank, too. He has to call out himself.

But Raven is still missing the point.

“It’s not the same,” Charles says. “Hank keeps his projects under control.”

“It really is all about control with you,” she concludes disdainfully. “It’s never changed.”

She’s going for the personal attack now, and she can wield it with a power that few other people can. In fact, he can count on one hand the number of people who can hurt him like this. And she’s second from the top.

“If you wanted an army,” he spits out, “you should have--”

“What?” she interjects sharply. She tips her head. “Gone with Erik?”

She knows what punches to throw; she’s good.

Charles, though: he’s better.

“No,” he says coolly. “You tried that already, more than once. And how did it work out for you?”

That’s the thing about being psychic. You know what to say to make people feel better.

You know what to say to make them feel worse.

She hides it well, but the damage has been done. It’s a shot he can’t take back.

“You’re a bastard, Charles,” she says, hot and under her breath.

He lets his shoulders fall. “Raven--”

She shakes her head. “No,” she says. “You’ve made your point perfectly clear. This is a school, right? So don’t waste your time with soldiers.”

With that, she turns abruptly, storming back toward the building.

It doesn’t escape his notice that she doesn’t look back.

He’s sure it hasn’t escaped hers that he doesn’t ask her to.

-o-

It’s just as well, he tells himself in her absence. This is his school; this is his responsibility. Blaming her, while it may feel good temporarily, doesn’t excuse him from the fault he needs to own in this. He makes the rules, and he could have just have easily told Raven no from the very start.

That had been his weakness, of course. He’s never been able to say no to her.

Of course, he’s never been able to fix her either.

All of his effort to make her understand, to help her feel accepted, and it’s done little to change the underlying tension between them. No matter what culpability she feels, Charles knows that she’s just as much a victim here -- of his brand of chosen negligence.

It’s not for a lack of intelligence -- Charles can’t say he doesn’t understand the inherent risks of everything he does. He knows the risks of operating a school for mutants, and he knows too well the risks of letting the X-Men train on his grounds. So he can’t claim ignorance.

No, his negligence is more purposeful. He may like to say it’s that he chooses to belief the best in people, that he gives them the benefit of the doubt, but that excuse can only extend so far. When people are injured -- and worse -- he has to acknowledge the measures he should have taken to prevent it.

What’s the point of being psychic, after all, if you can’t claim some type of foresight?

What good has his belief done people, anyway? For all those he’s helped, he remembers those he’s failed. What good did he do Alex? There wasn’t anything left of his body to recover, nothing for his brother to grieve.

And what has he done for Raven?

All this years, he’s no closer to fixing things with her. He’s even less close to fixing her.

She’s right about that. He does want to fix her.

He can’t fix her, though.

What he can fix, however, is this.

His school, his students.

Gathering himself, he strives for composure.

He has work to do.

-o-

As a leader, Charles has flawless charisma. As a organizer, his delegation skills are unparalleled. In this sort of capacity, he has always flourished, even under the most dire of circumstances.

To this end, it is rather easy to navigate the crisis. He talks to his staff, explaining the situation in sufficient detail to allow them to both understand and serve as a proper buffer to the students. For them, he takes time to answer questions, but when they ask how this sort of thing has happened, Charles is polite if demur.

“We’re figuring that out, I assure you,” Charles tells them.

He gathers the students next, offering a brief if thoughtful explanation. He assures them all that everything is quite well and that there is no reason to worry about anything. This is as much the truth as Charles can expect it to be, and they handle it with relative aplomb.

They do ask, however, about the status of the X-Men.

It gives him pause, because for a top secret superhero squad, it’s not very secret at all. Charles has made little effort to separate the two, if only because he’s preferred to think of the X-Men as his pupils as much as the rest of them. There are implications to that he’s not considered; implications that stare at him now with young, young eyes.

“Some bumps and bruises, to be sure,” Charles explains earnestly. He looks at his students, and he wishes that some truths were easier to tell. “Their training is more dangerous than yours, of course.”

They want to know more, and not just because they’ve grown to care about the X-Men. Not because Peter smuggles in extra snacks after curfew. Not because Ororo can rain out the day they are supposed to run the mile in track. Not because Scott and Jean are the quintessential example of what it means to find love in a place like this. Not because Raven is, unequivocally, the hero they’ve looked up to since they were young.

But because the X-Men are part of them. Too many of them want to graduate from Xavier’s Academy and go on to be a member. Charles has never encouraged this, but it’s impossible to avoid it. Everyone wants a hero, and when Charles provides such stunning examples to live side by side, it’s inevitable.

There’s no separation in it; there’s no line for any of them to distinguish. Without meaning to, Charles has created an army with his own feeder program.

He swallows hard and excuses himself. “You’re all confined to the main house until we’ve clean this mess up,” he says. “Teachers will be available as needed.”

There’s a price for negligence, no matter what form it takes.

That’s a lesson Charles will surely learn someday.

-o-

With the students taken care of and the staff fully preoccupied, Charles can turn his attention to the more difficult conversations.

When he gets back to the others, he finds them still outside the waiting room. They look worried, less confident than before. No one says anything, but Charles can see it in their eyes. They’re looking at him for answers.

But they don’t know to know how this happened or why.

They just want to know it’s going to be okay.

If this is a time for answering questions, then that’s what Charles is going to do.

“Stay here,” Charles orders, wheeling himself to the door. “I’ll be back shortly.”

-o-

Given the closed door, Charles is actually a bit surprised to find Hank standing perfectly still. But as he gets closer, he’s less surprised.

He’s not merely standing idle; he’s standing vigil. Next to Peter’s bedside, he’s watching the monitors and machines, almost studying every breath the boy is taking.

Not a boy, Charles tries to remind himself. Peter’s a man; not a student.

When he gets close enough to see his face, however, his confidence in that assertion falters. He looks so damn young.

“It’s a tension pneumothorax,” Hank says without being prompted. “One of his broken ribs puncture his lung. I did a chest tube to reinflate it, which helped his breathing. His vitals crashed for a bit, but they’ve been steady for awhile. I know they’re waiting…”

Hank trails off, not sure what his excuse is.

Charles provides it for him. “You’ve been otherwise preoccupied, and rightly so,” he says. He pauses, watching for himself as Peter takes a breath. “If you’d feel more comfortable, we can call for a medical transport.”

Hank shrugs a little. “At first, I thought about it,” he admits. “But Peter’s not just fast -- his entire body is fast right down to a cellular level. It gives him remarkable healing capabilities.”

Charles tilts his head, curious. “How so?”

“With the rate of his cellular regeneration, he begins healing almost instantly,” Hank explains. “Once I got the pressure out of his lungs, his body was able to do most of the hard work. For most people, you’d need to surgically repair the lung damage. For him, it’s already started to mend itself.”

This is, of course, good news. It’s tempered by a harder reality, though. Hank’s still holding vigil, after all, and Peter still looks terrible. Pale and still -- far, far too still. “He doesn’t look better,” Charles comments.

Hank tips his head, in disagreement and agreement all at once. “Anyone else in his position would be dead right now.”

Charles considers this, watching Peter again. This is all a comfort, he knows, but there’s a reason Hank hasn’t come out. There’s a reason that Charles doesn’t feel better. Because it’s not about what happened -- not really. It’s about what didn’t happen, both good and bad. Because this could have been so much worse -- and it probably never should have happened at all.

It would be foolish to let a positive outcome dissuade him from asking the difficult questions.

This isn’t the end of the ordeal.

No, as far as Charles is concerned, this is just the start.

“Ah,” Charles says, allowing himself to feel resolute. “You’ll stay with him, then?”

“Yeah,” Hank says, and he finally looks at Charles. “Of course.”

Hank is too smart not to question things, and though everyone else has left Charles at some point, he never has -- even when he probably should have. That’s a kind of loyalty Charles doesn’t take for granted.

He lets his own eyes wander to Peter again.

None of this is something Charles should take for granted.

“Very well, then,” Charles says. “You take care of Peter, and I’ll handle the rest.”

Hank hesitates as Charles backs up to leave. “The others,” Hank starts. “They’re going to need medical attention, and maybe some stitches--”

“I think I can oversee the basics,” Charles assures him. “Hold them over until you have your hands free.”

Hank nods, somewhat grateful. “Charles--”

Charles holds up his hand. “Trust me,” he says. “This is my school, after all.”

Hank wants to say something more, but maybe it’s respect. Maybe it’s exhaustion. Maybe it’s just the fact that no one wants to say it, which is why Charles must.

“I’ll be back,” Charles promises, wheeling his way to the door. “Hopefully with answers.”

-o-

They try not to look anxious, but it’s a pitiful effort. They look so anxious that Charles takes immediate pity on them, almost before he comes back through the door. He lets it close behind him and smiles. “He’s going to be fine.”

This is something he’s sure they have told themselves to varying degrees -- even Jean, he’s quite confident -- has deduced and shared as much. But hearing it from him -- Charles does not care to overly inflate his ego, but he knows who he is to these people. It’s his name on the school; for as much as Raven is their hero, Charles is their father. She may lead them in war, but he leads them in life.

“He does require, however, rest and observation,” Charles further explains as he makes a point to look each one of the X-Men in the eyes. “I assured Dr. McCoy we could handle the rest of the first aid until he was less preoccupied.”

As relieved as they are, Charles knows he’ll get no arguments. Jean and Scott squeeze each other’s hand, and Kurt visibly shudders as he lets out a breath. The ramrod posture in Storm’s spine has lessened by degrees, and only Raven has the stout ability to stare at him distrustfully.

He clears his throat to continue. “There are plenty of exam rooms available and ample supplies on hand,” he says.

“They know first aid, Charles,” Raven says stiffly. “It was one of the first things I taught them. Remember?”

The words are cold and pointed, but Charles refuses to acknowledge the tone. Instead, he nods politely at her candor. “So if we split up--”

He makes the suggestion, but Raven stands, turning on the others. “Jean and Scott, you two can take one room,” she says, interjecting herself forcefully. Where Charles treads softly, Raven is not afraid to demand. This is why they are complements, her and him. She’s never quite appreciate that the way he has. “Ororo, you and Kurt take another. I’ll be in both to make sure everything’s okay.”

Students or soldiers, they are an obedient lot. They obey without comment, and if anything, they look somewhat comforting by the familiarity of it all. This makes sense, Charles knows. When the world is as uncertain and overwhelming as this one can be for young mutants, order and routine are staunch allies. Charles has tried to provide that with his school.

Raven has provided it tenfold with her training regimen.

Of course, it’s a fine line, trying to help young mutants cope and letting them continue to think for themselves.

He meets Raven’s eye.

A fine line they will have to discuss someday sooner than either of them had hoped.

“Raven--” he starts.

It’s not clear if he’s going to apologize -- not even to himself -- but Raven wants no part of it. “Who are you going to follow up with first?”

Charles sighs. “Raven, this is not going to be an interrogation--”

“Who,” she says, her voice flat and unyielding.

He gathers a breath and squares his shoulders. “Jean and Scott,” he says. “I’d like to make sure they set her wrist correctly.”

“Fine,” she says, her jaw set like stone. “I’ve got Kurt and Ororo.”

He makes to protest, to tell her that’s not necessary, but as she stalks off, he has to wonder if maybe it is.

Maybe that’s the real problem he has. Charles will face any foe except those he remembers fondly. He’ll fight any battle except those where someone he cares about has to lose.

Charles likes control, after all.

Even the power to dictate his losses.

-o-

All the same, there is still work to be done. If Raven wants to hunker down to take sides, then Charles will do what he can to make sure the playing field is safe -- for everyone else, at least.

Scott and Jean, as one might expect, seem to have no problem with examining one another. Indeed, he suspects they can be quite thorough at this task, though he does not usually pry.

By the time he knocks on their door, Jean is swabbing away the dried blood from Scott’s face. Though one hand is cradled against her chest, she uses the other gently, and he hears her talk to him in a low, soothing voice.

“I’m going to take your glasses off now,” she murmurs.

“But my eyes--”

“You won’t hurt me,” she tells him, and it’s less the power of divination and more a sign of their trust for one another. She reaches up, slipping the glasses off his nose. “Just keep your eyes closed.”

She puts the glasses down, picking up the damp cloth again. When she reaches back up, her fingers are gentle and fluid, and Scott relaxes despite the pressure on his wounds.

Finally, Charles clears his throat.

The noise surprises Scott, but Jean is practically unmoved. Easily, she slips Scott’s glasses back on, reaching for a bandage while she turns to him.

“I don’t think this needs stitches after all,” she says, indicating Scott’s head. “It might scar a little--”

Scott reaches up to adjust his glasses before look toward Charles. “It doesn’t even hurt that bad.”

It looks like it hurts quite a lot, but there’s no value in such an observation -- at least not on their account. “What about Jean’s wrist?” he asks, nodding to the wrist she still holds steadily against her.

“Sprained,” Jean says with a hint of authority. She’s good at that now. Before Egypt, she was known for her cutting sarcasm. Her humor is still dry, but her confidence has made her another person altogether. She wiggles her fingers, as if to prove the point. “I shouldn’t need an x-ray.”

Scott straightens, reaching out to brush his fingers against her bruised skin. “We’ll still get one,” he says, and it’s a promise to Charles but his attention is fully on Jean. “I’ll wrap it, though. Get it a sling. She won’t move it until we know for sure.”

Jean is fearless in so many ways, ready to plunge in to whatever stands before her. Scott is her anchor and counterpoint in this. It’s ironic to think that he’s the one who looks ahead with his eyes wide open.

“I don’t know how long Dr. McCoy will be,” Charles says, inching closer to the duo. “If you would like, I can get a nurse her to conduct the x-ray.”

“It doesn’t need an x-ray,” Jean says.

Scott moves closer to her on the exam table. She leans into his touch. “We don’t mind waiting,” he says.

Had it really only been a year? A year since Scott came, angry and unsteady, to this school? Had it only been a year since Jean unlocked her true powers and discovered the fire ready to fly within her?

How young they had been, then. How young.

Looking at them now, it is easy to think a lifetime has passed.

But they are still students. Mere children with a head wound and a sprained wrist. Charles has made it his goal to empower them, to fulfill them, to let them discover who they are. And in a year, they’ve made incredible, unparalleled strides.

It begs the question, though. Where is his power? Where is his fulfillment? Does he know who he is?

In that instant, he envies them. Not just because they are young and in love, but because they are blessed with a fortitude of purpose, a cadre of intentionally. They do not sit and ask themselves if they are students or soldiers; they simply take solace in one another.

If only things were that simple where Charles was concerned.

Quite suddenly, he feels very out of place.

“Very good,” he says, mostly to make himself feel less superfluous for the moment. “If you have things well in hand--”

He doesn’t finish the statement, but he doesn’t have to. Jean is back to tending Scott’s forehead and Scott has taken her injured hand between his own. They have what they need.

And too much of what they don’t.

Love is one thing, but near death experiences? Bumps and bruises? Cuts and broken bones?

Is it possible to have the good without the bad?

These two represent every promise Charles has ever made and seen to fruition.

They represent every lie as well.

Because these two can do amazing feats as Phoenix and Cyclops.

But as Scott and Jean?

Charles doesn’t know how to gauge his failure.

As it turns out, there are some questions not even Charles wants to answer yet.

-o-

When he gets to the next room, he knocks expectantly. Ororo and Kurt glance at him; Raven storms past him with hardly a look.

That’s just as well, Charles tells himself. As far as questions go, he’s less keen than before to broach the topic with Raven.

Besides, the matters at hand are pressing enough.

He watches for a moment while Kurt tries to pluck away the fabric of Ororo’s uniform. She hisses angrily at the contact, jerking backward.

“Sorry, sorry,” Kurt says, fumbling with the bandages and antiseptic. He almost drops them.

Clearly annoyed, Ororo takes them roughly from his hands. “I don’t need assistance,” she says, using her free hand to lift her shirt enough.

Kurt flinches quite visibly, but Ororo is undeterred while she swabs the area down. She cleans away the blood efficiently before applying a bandage tightly to the area.

“See?” Ororo says, putting the edge of her shirt down again. “Now, you.”

Kurt is staring at her, moderately dumbfounded. When she reaches for him, he flinches again and Charles rolls his way inside the room a little farther.

“Are you sure you don’t need that wound looked at more closely?” Charles asks.

Ororo looks at him, and he nods toward her side. “I have had worse,” she tells him.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t do better,” Charles suggests.

Ororo sets her lips, shaking her head. “Only the injuries you dwell on will kill you,” she says. Her expression softens, just a little. “Besides, I think Kurt needs attention.”

“Oh, I, too, know injury and pain,” Kurt says, and this time he doesn’t pull away when Ororo reaches up to the gash on his head. “But if the cause is noble--”

“The cause may be noble, but we were sloppy,” Ororo says, swabbing away dried blood against Kurt’s blue skin.

“But we will improve, yes?” Kurt says, wincing just slightly as she probes the cut.

“We’d better,” Ororo says. “If we face an opponent like Apocalypse again--”

“Apocalypse is gone,” Charles reminds them.

Ororo gives him a cursory look. “World as it is, I am not naive,” she says. “There will be others.”

“And we will be ready,” Kurt says resolutely. He almost smiles, beaming at Ororo. “The X-Men.”

“Like you said,” she rejoins softly. “A noble cause.”

“How bad is it?” Charles says.

Ororo picks up another clothes, soaking it in antiseptic. “Head wounds, they like to bleed,” she comments.

“It is not so bad,” Kurt assures them.

“You are dizzy and sensitive to the light,” Ororo tells him pointedly. “You probably do have a concussion.”

“If you think we need a scan--” Charles starts.

“Observation will suffice for now,” Ororo says. She reaches for a bandage. “We have been trained for this, after all.”

“Besides,” Kurt says, bracing himself while Ororo starts to place the bandage over the broken skin. “I do not want to distract Dr. McCoy. Not until Peter is better.”

It is only that comment that makes Ororo hesitate. “He is going to be okay,” she says, looking a bit shyly toward Charles. “Isn’t he?”

“Dr. McCoy was quite confident,” Charles says.

“And you’d tell us,” she presses. “You’d tell us if--”

“Of course,” Charles says. “You’re my…”

He trails off when he realizes that he’s not sure what he wants to say. They’re not his students; and they’re not his soldiers. They’re something in between, something infinitesimally more difficult to define.

He draws a breath and forces himself to swallow. “You’re my responsibility,” he concludes finally. “Lies of that nature would benefit no one.”

Kurt relaxes again, and Ororo seems to nod to herself.

“It’s just as well,” she says. “We always tell him that sometimes he needs to slow down.”

“He can outrun an explosion!” Kurt reminds her.

“But only if he stops long enough to look,” Ororo says. “When he’s better, it’s a lesson we’ll make sure he learns.”

“It is remarkable,” Kurt continues, a glint of a smile in his eyes. “How a man so fast can learn so slowly.”

Ororo laughs. “We’ll get him there.”

“Surely, yes,” Kurt says. “But how many more buildings must we blow up in the meantime?”

It’s reassuring, Charles has to supposed, to see that they’re handling this so well. He’d been worried -- naturally -- about their ability to process and handle the things they’ve been through. In the grander scheme of things, a training accident isn’t the worst thing in the world, especially not for young people who have fought for the freedom of the entire world.

But that’s just it, then. The risk isn’t in their trauma; it’s in their indifference. Charles is here to fix them, but they haven’t even grasped the fact that they’re broken.

And they are -- each and every one of them.

The X-Men aren’t distinguished by their abilities; they’re distinguished by their tragedies. These are children who have seen more than they should in this life. These are children who were fighting wars they didn’t start. Ororo, who spent her life on the streets and found herself called to greatness. Ororo, who forsook her gifts to do what was right.

And Kurt, damaged and caged, only to willingly lock himself into corners once more. Kurt, who wanted so badly to do what was good, and who so willingly ignored what the cost might be to himself.

It wasn’t wrong to call them heroes, but Charles had never set out to make heroes. He wants to make people better, and all he’s done here is create a situation that normalized the trauma. The lesson they learned isn’t about the fragility of life or the preciousness of friendship. The lesson is to try harder, risk more.

They won’t remember the fear when this is over. Indeed, Charles knows they’ve almost forgot it already. They’ll just remember the relief.

Sometimes, in a world as dangerous and trying as theirs, relief seems like victory in and of itself.

He’s fooling himself to think that he’s training them for anything other than battle.

And who is it for, in the end?

Is it for them? Their own well being?

Is it for Raven? Is he still appeasing her?

Is it for Erik and all the others he’s failed?

“Yes, well,” Ororo says, smiling now. “At least we’ve got a generous benefactor who lets us blow up as many as we like.”

“As many as you need, of course,” Charles says, feeling stiff now. “Though I would appreciate it if you refrained from blowing up one another as well.”

“Occupational hazard,” Ororo quips.

“And maybe someday we will find someone bullet proof!” Kurt says.

The horrible thing about this - about all of this -- is that they’re right. Not just about being bulletproof -- he remembers Logan -- but all the rest, too. Inaction, as much as action, is always a choice.

A choice with consequences.

It is up to Charles to decide if he can abide by that or not.

“Double check those wounds,” Charles says, a little firmer than he intends.

Ororo and Kurt look to him, marginally surprised.

“And stay close,” Charles orders. “When Dr. McCoy is done with Peter, I do want him checking each of you.”

“But Professor--” Ororo starts.

“That’s not an option,” Charles tells her. “If you’re going to blow up my buildings on a whim, then I believe I do have this much jurisdiction, do I not?”

Kurt looks sheepish. “He has a point.”

Ororo looks less than pleased. “But I’m fine--”

“Then you should have no objections to waiting,” Charles says. He turns to leave without stopping, and he does not allow himself to look back. He doesn’t have to; he can still gauge their confusion and discontent.

It’s just as well, Charles decides.

If he’s not going to be their teacher, he can try being their drill sergeant for a while.

He makes it into the hall before he feels his composure break.

Until he figures out what he really wants, anyway.

-o-

With everything turning out so well, Charles really has no reason to feel put out and anxious. For as much as he can pretend otherwise, the fact that this is all turning out okay makes Charles feel even worse.

Disconcerted, he wheels himself back to Hank’s main lab and lets himself inside. He is ready for a heart to heart with one of his oldest friends, but he’s greeted by another thing entirely.

“Are you sure I can’t get up? Like, not even a little? Because I think I could handle it, for a second anyway,” Peter is saying from his spot on the examination table. It has been converted into a moderately more comfortable bed. Meaning, Hank has given the younger man a pillow and a blanket.

Neither of which Peter seems remotely interested in as he lifts his head anxiously off the pillow.

“A second for you?” Hank asks, barely looking up from the notes he’s scribbling. “There’s no way you can support that much.”

Peter makes a face that looks something like a three-year-old. “But one second! I’d be back in this bed before you could even blink.”

“No,” Hank says, checking the drip of the IV. “You’d probably be unconscious.”

“Not likely,” Peter says, as if he may know this. Even though he doesn’t. “I mean, maybe likely. I do feel light headed. And this hurts.”

He pauses, pushes against his chest.

“Is this suppose to hurt? Because it really does.”

“Yes,” Hank says, perturbed. He reaches up and pushes Peter’s hand back to its side. “You had a collapsed lung. You nearly died.”

This has approximately zero impact on Peter. He’s about to launch into another interesting rant about his need to move when Charles decides to intervene. For Peter’s sake -- and Hank’s.

“It’s good to see that you’re feeling better,” Charles observes, pulling himself closer.

Hank gives him a long suffering glance.

Peter huffs and flops back, ever so melodramatic. “I’m not sure this is better, honestly,” he says. He turns baleful eyes to Charles. “Did you hear he won’t let me get up? Not even for a second.”

Charles knows first hand just what Peter Maximoff can do in a second. When he’s in perfect health, it’s a remarkable feat. He’d rather not find out what might happen to an already damaged body when it goes into overdrive. “I think we should humor the good doctor this time,” Charles suggests. “It has been a rather chaotic day.”

“And I missed it,” Peter says “Can you believe it? I closed my eyes -- looked away -- just for a second! And everything explodes! And then wouldn’t you know? Another split second -- and I’m not breathing. Just like that! Do you know how long it takes for the human body to suffocate? Do you? Because, let me tell you, a minute? Feels like a lifetime.”

Charles can still remember. Watching Peter gasping for air had felt like an eternity for him, too. Normally he’d feel bad about making such comparison to someone suffering from a near death situation, but Peter is….well, Peter is different.

It is plainly clear that this event does bother him, but not for any of the reasons it should. He’s not bothered by almost dying. He’s not concerned with the fact that a run of the mill training accident ended up so horribly, horribly wrong. It doesn’t even occur to him that at the age of 29, he should probably be establishing a career and life of his own.

Instead he’s living at a school for gifted youngsters and training to be a soldier.

It’s brilliant. Brilliant and daft all at the same time.

All of this, and Peter Maximoff is nothing more than bored.

“What if it was less than a second?” Peter asks, craning his neck to look back at Hank. “Less than a second. Come on. Please?”

Hank doesn’t even bother looking up this time. “The answer is the same as the last dozen times you asked, Peter,” he says flatly. “You’re staying in that bed until all signs of trauma are gone. At the rate you’re healing, you’ll be up and about tomorrow.”

Peter looks downright stricken. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” Hank says.

“What am I supposed to do here until tomorrow?” Peter asks emphatically.

“Rest, heal, get better?” Hank asks with a shrug. “Contemplate reasons to not listen to headphones while play with live explosives?”

Pale and wide eyed, Peter looks aghast. “No headphones? Come on, man,” Peter says. “You may as well have just let me die, then.”

Hank rolls his eyes. He reaches to a table and pulls out the offending item, wires dangling down.

Peter, weak and still injured, practically lights up.

“I’ll give them to you,” Hank says. “But only if you promise to stay in that bed.”

Peter scowls. “That’s not fair, you know.”

“Neither is developing pneumonia after a tension pneumothorax,” Hank says.

With a glare, Peter takes the headphones. He unwinds the wires with a look at Charles. “Wicked stuff you do around here, I’ve got to admit,” he says. “Hard to believe my dad ever left.”

He says it like that, flippant and easy, as if it’s entirely that simple.

The thing is, it is somewhat simple. For all that they fight over their differences, Erik and Charles are more alike than they care to admit. Good intentions, wrong choices -- and a long string of losses in their wakes.

Peter shrugs, settling the earphones over his head. “Still not cool, man,” he says, turning up the volume so loud they can all hear it. “Still not cool!”

-o-

Although he prides himself on keeping his calm in times of crisis, Charles finds himself somewhat at a loss when everyone else is unsettlingly calm to a crisis that needs to elicit a response. If this is counterintuitive, then it is probably to be expected. Charles, for all the minds he can control, it is his own that eludes him still.

He’s trying not to show this, naturally. He knows that perception is important, especially when it comes to someone like him. Military officials and government servants see him as a trusted ally. Mutants see him as a powerful leader. Parents view him as a last, great hope. And students see him as the light at the end of the darkest tunnel of their lives.

He’s not sure what the X-Men see him as, but he’s pretty sure unhinged lunatic is not it.

He’s halfway out the door when Hank catches up with him. “Hey,” he says, drawing Charles to a stop.

Obligingly, Charles wheels back and offers up a polite, if droll, smile.

Hank inhales, nodding his head. “I know we all sort of...freak out back there,” he says, aiming for nonchalance. “But everything is fine now. Peter -- he’s going to be fine.”

“Are you quite certain?” Charles asks.

“I wasn’t lying,” Hank says. “I mean, sure he’s weaker than he wants to let on, but he’s healing remarkably quickly. When I told him to stay put until tomorrow, I was being conservative -- very conservative. Honestly, he’ll be back to full health in a few hours. I’ll bet the scar is gone in a month.”

A month and there will be no sign of this at all. A destroyed barn, battered X-Men, a strained relationship and a punctured lung.

And everything is fine.

Charles twists his lips ruefully. “Hardly seems possible,” he comments. “I watched him turn blue -- and he’s not supposed to do that unlike some people I know.”

Hank actually blushes. His mutant powers are not something Hank has fully come to terms with, which is why he still medicates himself. There’s an irony, of course. He’s known Hank for years, he was the first one to help him with the school, and he still hasn’t accept who he really is. It’d be an irony, anyway, if the pattern weren’t so firmly established in his life.

He doesn’t want to think about that. Not Erik and Raven. Not now.

“Trust me, I know,” Hank says, giving a quick glance toward Peter who is actively humming to himself now. He looks back to Charles, rocking forward a bit on his shoes. “But fine can be a relative description.”

He’s never thought Hank to be flippant, but he’s doing it, too. Just as fast as this terrified them, Hank is willing to make it part of their status quo. Granted, who is Charles to say different? The whole main building was demolished last year and Charles barely shut down classes for a week. The stakes are higher, he’s told himself, when it comes to mutants.

But is this too high?

Can no one else see it?

“I feel inclined to remind you,” Charles says, allowing his voice to be just a little sharp. “We have a leveled garage out back. That’s not exactly good for the brochure now, is it?”

Hank doesn’t so much as flinch. “Have you forgotten that Jean rebuilt the entire mansion with her mind? In literally less than a minute. Somehow I think we’ll be okay with a storage garage.”

It’s possible, he understands, to be right and wrong all at the same time. “It does seem like we’re overlooking the obvious problem, though.”

Hank catches his meaning. “You’re acting like there’s just one problem, one thing we can pinpoint and turn into a scapegoat for all the rest.”

“Well, one problem does undergird the rest,” Charles argues. “This is a school.”

“A school of mutants,” Hank says. “We’ve known since the beginning that it would be different.”

“Of course, and it’s a challenge we’ve handled with wisdom and care, because the stakes are high enough already,” Charles says. “Now we’ve got live combat training going on right across campus. And I’ve overlooked your activities downstairs, Hank, I really have, but honestly. This is a school.

“The point is fair -- worth a discussion at least,” Hank says. “But remember why we started this? Because of human evolution. This whole concept is an evolution, and it would be a mistake to think we’re not still evolving -- even now. It all evolves.” He shrugs, and it’s just shy of an apology. “Even us.”

It’s a good answer; one that should satiate the concerns of the average person. But Charles fears complacency now -- it stalks his placid dreams, which are saturated with dark shadows he can never quite discern. This is the lesson in paralysis: there is more than one way to move, and you’d be foolish to think they were all the same.

He calls it a school, same as Hank and Raven, but they no longer share the same vision. Perhaps this is Charles’ own fault, because he’s willingly forfeited control of his vision, allowing it to be co-opted for the greater good. He can’t be all things to all people, no more than these grounds can be the home for every wayward soul he meets.

Not for a lack of desire. Most things in his life are not for sheer indifference.

“And if we evolve ourselves into extinction?” Charles asks.

Hank inclines his head, almost taken aback by the question. “This is really bothering you, isn’t it?”

“And shouldn’t it?” Charles asks, a little louder than he intends. He pulls his emotions back. “This is supposed to be a safe space, but you cut into one of our student’s chests today.”

“But Peter--” Hank starts, somewhat perplexed. “He’s not our student.”

“Then tell me,” Charles presses. “What is he exactly?”

As easy as the question sounds, Hank’s mouth opens but no sound comes out. His shoulders sag, even as he shakes his head for a denial.

Charles doesn’t want it, not anymore. “We’re trying to run a school,” he says. “Instead, we’ve got children we can’t claim operating for a group we’ve barely defined fighting for a cause we can hardly identify. Am I wrong for seeing this is a problem?”

Hank is duly chagrined. He is also, frustratingly, not cowed. “Fine, so we look at it,” he says. “But remember, Charles, we don’t have to fix what’s not broken.”

Charles takes that point for what it’s worth. “Maybe,” he says, starting to pull away again. His eyes glance to Peter. “But we need to remember that some things are broken no matter how fast they heal.”

“Peter’s fine,” Hank assures him again.

“A relative term, remember?” Charles says. He tips his head. “I’ll check in on everyone later.”

Charles hears the protests that Hank does make.

He hopes Hank hears the rebuttals he doesn’t give in return as he lets the door close a little harder than necessary when his wheelchair bumps out the entrance.

-o-

Despite his need to go, Charles is entirely sure where he’s going. The emotion is stronger than his thinking at this point, and it is effort enough to control his expression for the sake of neutrality. That’s one reason he needs to leave; the effort of maintaining his collected exterior when he’s questioning everything is frankly more than he wants to handle at this point.

But then he nearly rolls right into his latest recruitment project.

He’s so consumed by, well, everything that he almost doesn’t recognize them. It takes him a full and very awkward second to come back to his senses and put names with their smiling faces.

“Professor Xavier!” Maya’s mother exclaims. “Your secretary assured us that you’d be in touch.”

The father looks about, moderately concerned. “Is everything all right?”

They’re humans, but they’re not stupid. Concerned and mildly ignorant, but they want what’s best for their child. Charles had made a good pitch to assure them that his school was it.

Explosions made a compelling counterargument.

Explosions, though, are no real match. Not for someone like Charles Xavier.

He smiles, and though it takes quite a lot of effort on his part at the moment, the effect is nothing short of stunning. He sees the couple relax immediately, and Maya perks up more hopefully than ever.

“Everything is quite all right, I assure you,” Charles says, almost gushing. “It was nothing but a bit of a mishap in one of the outlying buildings on campus -- not a place where students are ever allowed to go. With a facility of this caliber, we do support other research projects. Some of which are quite cutting edge. Even explosive, you might say.”

It’s all very tongue in cheek. In the mouth of any other man, it may be an unconvincing argument. For Charles, though?

It works perfectly.

“Of course,” the mother crows. “We do like the sense of academic rigor here.”

The father nods, as though his worries are finally assuaged. “And you do have a good sense about you, Professor,” he says. He puts a loving hand on Maya’s shoulder. “We couldn’t trust our girl with just anyone, but you seem to have such a clear vision -- everything under control.”

That’s exactly what Charles wants them to believe. That’s what he’s worked so hard to make everyone believe. In fact, most of the time, he’s even got himself convinced.

“Your confidence, and the confidence of all the other parents who have sent their children to this school, are what keep me going,” Charles assures them, and this much he means. At least, he wants to mean it. “That’s what this school is all about. That will always -- always -- be its guiding principle.”

The mother is beaming now, extending her hand eagerly. “Thank you, Professor Xavier!”

The father nods his gratitude while Charles shakes his wife’s hand. “We’ll be in touch, sir.”

As they make their way to the front door, Charles watches them go. They’re a unit now, more so than when they came to him. Charles has not just offered their daughter a schooling option that meets her unique needs. But he’s revitalized them as a family. He’s given them something that no other school, no other professor can offer to families in their position. He’s given them hope.

This might make him feel good.

But as he watched the door close, he’s left alone with his empty thoughts once more. All the promises he makes are undergirded with a single stretch of truth that weakens the entire foundation.

This isn’t just a school.

And worst of all, Charles isn’t sure he’s controlling any of it at all.

It’s a good thing to give people hope, Charles knows this.

It’s not a good thing to make it false, Charles knows this, too.

He just doesn’t know which one he’ll end up giving out today.