by Domenika Marzione

The first year is so much a blur, albeit one studded with discrete moments of perfect clarity.

Charles spends the first months bedridden, alternately dazed from the pain and muddled from the painkillers he submits to accepting (and sometimes accepts without submission, since they have appeared disguised in his food). The drugs stop his body from crying out in agony, but they wreak havoc on his telepathy and it takes time before he can adequately express how much worse that is and even more time before Hank can do anything about it.

The shielded room has no windows, but it affords Charles the first genuine chance he's had to heal.

Most of the planning ("retrofitting") of the mansion falls to Hank, who channels all of his own pain and anger into beautiful and marvelous creations that Charles can only hope that Hank will come to recognize for what they are - a natural continuation of his native genius - and not a penance and a punishment for what he has become.

Sean and Alex, best not left idle under any circumstances, do what Charles and Hank no longer can, running errands and helping with the construction. With Hank now responsible for the bulk of their training, it has taken a more practical bent, an initial (grave) disappointment that is quickly gotten over once each of them appreciates how useful fine control over their powers can be. Alex in particular is desperate to find a non-destructive use of his plasma, although his frustration in how slowly he progresses is often counter-productive. Sean is simply bored by mundane tasks; he dreams (loudly) of a career adventuring and the fabulous life he thinks Erik once led and would like to lead himself at some future point.

Charles doesn't bother to correct Sean, who has neither the tools nor the experience to appreciate the magnitude of the differences between himself and Erik. Instead, they work on literature and languages, since Sean is still of an age where he should be in high school, and Charles can and does use Sean's awe of Erik's worldliness to keep his focus on his lessons.

It takes longer to find a course of study for Alex, who is older than Sean in many ways and as closed off - to ambition, to expression, to accepting anything from anyone except on his own terms -- as Sean is open. Alex cannot be instructed as a pupil; he must be subtly guided and then left to discover for himself. It surprises neither Charles nor Hank that Alex eventually discovers a passion for geology, a subject neither of them have any mastery of (although Hank can certainly handle the basics).

By the time Moira arrives in Salem Center, Charles has more or less acclimated to life in a wheelchair. Aware of what he must do and how this visit must end, Charles speaks freely with her, admitting his pride in what has already been accomplished and his apprehensiveness of what lies in the future. She is owed honesty from him, even if - especially if - she cannot keep it.

The mansion is almost complete, he tells her. The public levels, at least. The sublevels will take another year, Hank estimates, and a budget Charles will have to work on because his stepfather was ridiculously wealthy, but not infinitely so.

He also admits to her something that he has told nobody else, not even Hank: while Erik has never communicated directly, he has put himself in a position to be telepathically found. There was never a strong connection; even if Charles hadn't been so weakened by the pain and drugs, he'd never have been able to compel Erik to do anything, wouldn’t have been able to form words Erik would recognize as such. But it was a connection and Erik was allowing it and even without being able to speak to him, Charles knew what it meant.

The contact has not been recent, however. Not since Charles has been well enough to bring more force to bear on his powers. That does not change anything; even without any telepathic contact at all, Charles can still understand Erik's actions and accept them as a sign of friendship and affection from a man who is too broken to offer any more traditional tokens.

That does not mean that Charles gives up trying to have a conversation with Erik, just that he must find other ways to do it.

The (deplorable, necessary) actions taken with Moira are but the first steps in Charles’s plan to protect his students. It is all well and good to erase her memories of where they are and what they’ve been doing, but the CIA is not so incompetent that they cannot open a Social Register or a simple phone book and find Charles Xavier’s home in Salem Center.

What Charles does to the minds of everyone else in Washington DC who’d ever heard of Charles Xavier or Erik Lehnsherr in the context of mutants is not deplorable, although it is distasteful, but it is necessary. It is an act of self-preservation, his own and those who came rallying to his standard and those who do not yet know what they are and what it will mean.

(The planning is brief as there are few details to be discussed and nobody is truly comfortable with what will be done. Charles is still coming to appreciate how terrifying his powers are to others; kept hidden from everyone but Raven (who had her own ‘scare quotient’) for so long, he is still surprised by the strength of the reaction by those to whom he has revealed himself. CIA factotums can be excused -- they are keepers of secrets and Charles has a master key -- but it is the same with his fellow mutants and that, Charles will admit, he was not prepared for. Erik’s reaction, yes, right down to its inevitable conclusion with Shaw’s helmet. But the others... Hank and Sean and Alex treat him with wary acceptance, but he also knows that they are resigned to Charles taking what he wants from their heads should he desire it. No matter how many times he promises that he would never enter their minds without permission or a damned good reason. It is disappointing and Charles wonders what sort of test he could propose and pass to prove his good faith.)

When the time comes, he lies down on a bed in a hotel room in Georgetown with the curtains closed and the lights off and enters the astral plane like diving in to the sea. If that is an echo of how this all began, then it will be a just metaphor for the conclusion of this first act.

He finds the minds of the men at that first meeting and carefully, gently, examines their memories starting with the meetings and then moving forward and back in time, erasing as he searches for who they told about mutants and what. From there, he follows each connection -- secretaries told to type up reports, strangers in bars after one too many bourbons, wives and lovers and bosses and rivals. After a while, he doesn’t need to be that meticulous; he can recognize the shape and size of this particular idea of ‘mutant’ and can just sail through the astral plane looking for its copies, destroying them upon encounter.

When he opens his eyes, it is hours later and he’s exhausted and sweaty and there is no more light peeking through the gaps in the curtains. It takes three tries before he can sit up enough to reach for the glass of now-tepid water on the nightstand. He only has one chance to bring the glass across his body and to his lips.

Alex, along on the trip as driver and assistant, appears in the doorway in the wake of the sound of shattered glass. His mental presence is like a hundred-watt bulb in the darkness, too bright and sharp and Charles turns away, as if he could shield his mind as he would his eyes. Alex, however, cannot tell the context and thinks Charles is turning away in shame.

“I’ll get them to send up a broom,” he says quietly, then disappears again.

Charles can hear the conversation on the telephone as white noise, the words indistinguishable with either ears or telepathy. He feels himself drifting, floating, until Alex returns.

When he’s not being prodded by Sean or frustrated by his own limitations, Alex is mindful and ever-observant. Survival skills from prison, put to a better use. He sweeps up without a word, then goes to pour another glass, pausing when he can feel the temperature of the pitcher.

“Don’t bother,” Charles tells him, responding to Alex’s unvoiced thought that he should get colder water. “I want to go wash my face.”

He wants to wash his entire body, but the bathtub here isn’t equipped to let him tend those needs by himself and so he’ll make do until they return to New York tomorrow.

Alex hovers as Charles slides around on the bed in preparation for shifting to the chair. Normally, he can and does manage this unaided, but he’s weak and the bed is higher than is convenient and so he does not resent Alex’s cautious hovering. It’s not necessary except for at the end, where the difference in height between mattress and chair is just that little bit too much for Charles’s jelly arms to compensate for and Alex is there to catch him and carry him the last few inches. Charles thanks him and manages to get himself into the bathroom as Alex runs the taps and puts washcloth and soap within easy reach.

“Do you think this is going to be enough?” Alex asks from the bathroom doorway, where he waits with a clean undershirt as Charles finishes his ablutions. “There’s got to be a ton of actual evidence. Reports, pictures, film, stuff that wasn’t kept at the complex.”

There is, although not as much as there could have been -- or even as much as once was. Shaw’s attack on the facility destroyed some of what was being stored there and, in the wake of their decision to flee, Erik destroyed the rest. But it was not everything and the CIA has had more than a year to generate more. They have been haphazard about it, thankfully. There was a flurry of activity in the wake of Cuba and then when Erik broke Emma Frost out of detention, but then a lull once the extent of Charles’s injuries became known. As if a physical diminution, admittedly a profound one, would render a telepath harmless.

That is not the only mistake perpetuated by the CIA’s assessments. To start with, they are still not sure if Erik is operating independently or not. The end result, as gleaned from the authors’ minds before it was purged, is to not only mistake the reality of the situation, but also to somehow underestimate both Erik and Charles separately and together. Charles is not weakened by his wheelchair, just as Erik is not less of a force without Charles’s connections and resources. The CIA has no idea who Erik is or was; they didn’t understand the threat he presented before he ever stood at Charles’s side and they certainly cannot appreciate what he has become in the wake of killing Shaw.

Nor, for that matter, do they understand how Charles has been changed by these same events.

“I don’t think it will be enough,” he finally says as he towels off his face and underarms. “But it may be enough for now. The beauty of a large bureaucracy is that things get lost all of the time, especially when there are fresh distractions and the old problems are -- quite literally -- out of mind.”

Alex half-grins as he hands over the undershirt. “Think my prison records will stay lost?”

It’s not an idle question; Sean’s and Hank’s recruitments came with handshakes and promises to do good things. Alex’s came with an MP escort and the warden’s parting promise to make Alex pay if he caused trouble with his new custodians.

“They were already far more than just lost,” Charles assures as he pulls the shirt over his head. “You were properly and thoroughly disappeared from both the prison and the Army; nobody’s looking for you, Alex. Not even should you leave us and go your own way.”

He rolls back into the bedroom and retrieves a shirt, tie, and jacket from his valise. Alex watches from the bathroom doorway.

“You’re going to be a little casual for dinner, don’t you think?” Charles says mildly and Alex pushes off the door jamb with a heavy sigh, not quite dragging his feet as he goes to his bedroom to change. Charles isn’t sure he’s up to a dining room full of people after what he’s done -- he’s still feeling drained and raw, his mental shields not nearly as firm as they should be -- but Alex would benefit from company not Charles and this way, they won’t talk about what has been done and what needs doing.

Three weeks after they return to Westchester, a package comes in the mail. It is addressed to Charlie Xavier in an achingly familiar hand, the same one that writes the note found inside. The box contains a metal cassette case, both case and contents crushed and warped beyond salvaging. There is no need to ask who is responsible, but Raven’s letter does explain the context.

“Erik and his team have destroyed the rest of the CIA’s evidence of our existence,” Charles announces. “There is nothing left to tie us to the facility or any project past or present.”

He doesn’t share the rest of the letter, which assures him that she is well, that all of them are well, and that she wishes he and Erik (Magneto) would finally sit in a room together and talk because theirs is a difference of degrees, not of ends, and it pains everyone to see the family feud continue.

She signs it ‘Mystique.’

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26 June, 2011