Alex felt awkward in a way he hadn't since he was much younger, back in his few days in the orphanage - and damn anyone who says he couldn't possible remember - when he was being escorted around by strangers from event to event that should have been familiar.
Scott and Henry (he'd been told the Beast's name because Henry really didn't like being called 'the Beast' and Alex really wasn't in a position to argue applicability) showed up at his door a half-hour ago with the package. The outfit was simple - black pants and a gray long-sleeve t-shirt (it looks like Alex's own winter pajamas). After a series of tests for emissions, Henry deemed it a success and Alex was allowed to cross the threshold of his gilded cage for the first time in almost a week.
Piotr and Xavier were sitting at the kitchen table when they arrived. Bobby, it was explained, was still sleeping and the girls had already eaten. Alex took the news in stride - Jean and Storm didn't like him, this he knew - and sat down self-consciously at the seat indicated by Xavier.
"How do you feel?" Xavier asked, looking at him closely.
"Relieved," Alex admitted. He took a sip of the glass of orange juice that had been placed before him. "I haven't seen the sun in a week."
Henry came to the table with two bowls, two spoons, and the box of Chex. Scott brought two coffee mugs in one hand and the coffeepot in the other. Piotr held his cup out for a refill. It was casual domestic male - the kind that was only possible when there were no women in the room - and Alex wasn't sure whether to be comforted or not.
"You're sufficiently healed from your injuries," Xavier spoke up. "I don't see why you couldn't go down to the gym if you'd like. You can get only so much done in your room."
Alex wrinkled his nose as he reached for the milk. "If I have to live in these togs, I'd rather not sweat in them."
"The gym is... safe for you to wear what you will," Xavier replied. "It's safe for almost any possible mutation, I'd imagine."
"If it can survive Bobby, it can survive anyone," Piotr agreed. He reached for a piece of toast off of the pile.
"It would be a good balance to the mental training you will need," Xavier said thoughtfully as he sipped his tea.
"Mental training?" Alex asked, momentarily confused. "Oh, yeah. So I can stop offending telepaths with my cankered thoughts."
"Alex," Scott warned with a sigh.
"Coping mechanism, Scott," Alex retorted with a mocking, matching sigh. "Deal with it."
Scott shook his head silently and reached over to pick up the milk to return it to the refrigerator.
"I'd like to do more with you than merely teach you to keep your thoughts to yourself," Xavier began. "I think we could make headway in teaching you to control your powers."
"Control my powers? Do you even know what they are?" Alex asked. If there had been any progress in that area, nobody had talked to him about it.
"Plasma," Henry spoke up from between mouthfuls of cereal. "At least that's our lead candidate."
"Plasma as in the stuff in stars?" Alex was not sure whether or not to be amused or just stick with the pure disbelief that he had gone with so far.
"Yes," Xavier agreed. "It makes sense in a poetic fashion. Your power source lies in the moon and stars just as Scott's rely on the sun."
"But this isn't poetry," Alex returned with a frown. He fiddled with his spoon, chasing an errant Chex around the bowl. "And I'm not supposed to be out in the sun, either, in addition to the moon and stars."
"Allow a man his poetic license," Xavier said with a smile. "But you are correct in emphasizing the seriousness of the situation. I think I can help you learn how to focus your powers so that you can release the... plasma, or whatever it is... at lower levels, thus preventing any more explosions."
"How?" Alex asked as took a sip of his coffee.
"Storm's experiences with her own burgeoning powers have given me a few ideas," Xavier replied. He extended his arm outward and pointed. "She envisions her powers as an electric current and her hands as the contacts. She may not have known what she was doing when she started, but the effect is the same - she has greatly improved her control with a focusing technique. We just need to find one for you."
Alex considered Xavier's words as he finished his cereal. Grabbing two pieces of toast before Piotr and Henry finished off the pile between them, he leaned back in his seat. "Hands work, I guess. It's better than feet or head or..."
"Alex," Scott interrupted with a frown, clearly seeing where his brother was going with the thought.
"That would be interesting," Piotr mused aloud. "Mutations are so rarely useful like that."
"So says the man of steel," Henry murmured.
"It's all or nothing, you know that," Piotr returned mournfully.
"Can we get our minds out of the gutter for a second?" Scott asked. Alex was about to tell Scott to lighten up when he realized that his brother was desperately trying to keep himself from laughing.
"As I was saying," Xavier continued blandly, a smile playing on his lips, "A focusing technique would greatly improve your control. And the sooner you can control your powers, the sooner you can return to a normal life. And then, perhaps, we can start working on how your powers can be used to... improve your life in some fashion, if perhaps not the one that seems to be popular with the current audience. But I get ahead of myself there. We must crawl before we start the marathon."
"When do we start to crawl?" Alex asked. He didn't want to sound excited. He didn't even want to sound hopeful. But if he had come to one conclusion over the past week of isolation upstairs it had been that there was no point in planning for the future if the future was the same as the present had been - seclusion. And if there was a chance at controlling whatever it was he did - plasma? - then perhaps he could afford to consider what lay ahead of him.
Xavier looked at his watch. "How about in an hour?"
Xavier left them alone after that. Alex sipped his coffee and he and Henry watched Piotr argue the strength of the Rangers' powers play with the newspaper. Scott had disappeared at some point after Xavier and Piotr had explained that Scott had a training practice to go through.
Forty-five minutes later, Alex followed Henry and Piotr (now finished with his newspaper) down to the basement. In a room adjacent to the clinic, Henry seemed to have a sort of workshop. It was filled with gadgets and monitors and all sorts of equipment that Alex could sort of identify, but not really.
"Nice playpen," Alex commented as he took the seat indicated for him. Piotr was leaning against the wall by the door, but if he was there as bodyguard, Alex didn't know. It wasn't as if he could take on Henry by himself, nor did he especially want to.
"It is, isn't it?" Henry agreed as he tinkered around. "Lots of toys I never thought I'd get my hands on once the army decided that I wasn't meant to be all that I could be." He turned around with what Alex now knew was a Geiger counter that had been specially modified to detect whatever it was that Alex gave off. "Good. It's still keeping you cool," he murmured and then turned back to the workbench.
"So I can't pop popcorn in my hands?" Alex asked.
"You're still deader than the battery in the remote control upstairs," Henry agreed, not turning around.
From his spot by the door, Piotr chuckled. "We have the makings of how many top-secret weapons in this place and we're out of AA batteries."
"I'm seriously starting to debate the merits of our plan to wait out Bobby," Henry replied sadly. "Encouraging his sense of having to carry his own weight aside, he has adjusted disgustingly well to having to get up to change the channel."
Alex chuckled despite himself. Bobby was the team's baby brother, the irresponsible, laid-back, goofy normal teenager that Alex had never been even before he had ever heard of the Friends of Humanity. Alex was only a year older than Bobby but it might as well have been five for the differences in their approaches to life.
The others found Bobby's antics and outlook endearing - except, apparently, when he refused to go to the drug store for batteries - but Alex thought his own reaction was something closer to jealousy. Bobby was so frighteningly normal. He had left his nice suburban life to come here and, Alex knew because Bobby had told him, he still called home every night. Bobby was looking forward to turning sixteen so he could get his driver's license ("You should see the cars Xavier has in the garage, Alex. Much cooler than Dad's Nissan, that's for sure.") and he spent most of his waking hours concentrating on girls, sports, and only occasionally on his studies.
Most importantly, at least as far as Alex was concerned, Bobby had long gotten over any anxiety he might have had about his powers and now looked forward with awe and curiosity to any application he could find for his newfound talents. Bobby had apparently gone seamlessly from worrying about freezing someone to death to wondering when it was that he'd be able to make his own ice cream.
"Here," Henry said, taking Alex out of his reverie. He held out a chain with a pendant hanging off of it.
"What is this?" Alex asked as he took it. Squinting down into his palm, he eyed the small silver ball pendant.
"It's the micro version of this," Henry answered, waving the emission monitor with one huge hand. "It's a kind of zone alarm. It's silver now, right? Well, if you start to get dangerous, it'll turn blue."
"What do I do if it turns blue?" Alex asked. He put the chain over his head and tucked the ball pendant behind the collar of his shirt.
"Until you learn to control your powers, I guess run like hell away from anything that you don't want melted down," Henry replied with a shrug.
"That's helpful," Alex snorted, although not unkindly. He knew that an early warning system was better than none at all. "How effective is it?"
"It's been calibrated pretty well, if I don't say so myself," Henry said as he turned off the workbench light. "It runs in stages. Light blue isn't as bad as dark blue. Robin's egg blue should be enough for you to get a good running start. If it hits midnight blue, you're gonna do what you did upstairs. Imminently."
"Wunderbar," Alex sighed. "I guess that's impetus enough to learn how to control myself."
"Speaking of, you should go upstairs and meet with the Professor now," Piotr said as he pushed himself off of the wall he was leaning against. "I'll take you."
"Are you my escort for the day?" Alex asked. Now that he was healthy and somewhat protected from his own powers, Xavier undoubtedly considered him a flight risk.
"Don't flatter yourself," Piotr snorted. "This place is huge. I'm only offering because you don't know where you're going."
Alex nodded skeptically and, remembering Piotr's lame joke about five hundred pound bears, gingerly hopped off of the stool he was sitting on.
Two flights of stairs and three hallways later, Piotr knocked on one of a set of double wooden doors and waved Alex through after receiving an answering reply.
Alex was stunned when he looked around. The old-fashioned doors belied a futuristic interior with metal walls and funky lighting. "Ever see 'The Sleeper'?" he asked to cover up his discomfiture.
Xavier chuckled, although Alex wasn't sure whether or not he got the joke. The cat that Henry had said only liked Xavier was there, to Alex's distinct non-surprise.
"I apologize if the decorating is a bit... off-putting," Xavier said. "As can be evidenced by the late Magneto's choice in headgear, psi-shielding has yet to be turned into anything approaching fashionable."
Alex stared with cocked eyebrow, but at Xavier's prompting, he went to sit in the Queen Anne chair by the fireplace. "You're a telepath and you've created a room that can't be breached in or out by telepaths?"
"The telepathic equivalent of a rubber room, I'm afraid," Xavier explained with a sigh. "Even though the shielding can be turned off and the world let in, there are times when the constant effort a telepath must put in to keep other minds out can be just too much. The shielding serves a dual function, however. It allows me to use Cerebro without interference. Sort of like a recording studio."
"Cerebro," Alex repeated dumbly. He looked up at the motorcycle helmet suspended by cables from the high ceiling.
"It amplifies my telepathic abilities," Xavier said, looking up at the device. "I use it to keep track of mutants, mostly. It is how I found you."
"Why are you telling me all of this?" Alex asked curiously. "Why are you telling me the X-Men's secrets? Is that not monumentally risky?"
"It is, which is why I'm doing it," Xavier replied with a smile. The cat on his lap purred and Xavier idly scratched behind one of its ears. "I need you to see that I can trust you with these things."
"But you don't."
"I do, for now," Xavier said. "Besides, you know so much already. Our names, our likes and dislikes... this is no different than knowing the specifics of Scott's visor or the limits of Piotr's transforming abilities."
"That's different," Alex contradicted. "They're soldiers. You're the general."
"We're all soldiers," Xavier corrected. "And I would not put my students at any more risk than myself if it were at all possible."
Suddenly, the light bulb went on in Alex's head. "You want me to see that you trust me with sensitive information because you're about to go crawling in my head and you want me to trust you to do it fairly."
"Exactly," Xavier agreed with a smile. "I told you I'd stay out of your mind and I have. But now I need your permission to enter."
Alex took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. He had been prepared for this in a loose way ever since he had been here. There was a telepath - two, once Xavier had been confirmed - and there was really nothing keeping them from going into his head and re-arranging all of the marbles to suit their game. Nothing except their word and Alex knew that that in turn was based on their scruples. And now he had to decide whether those scruples were real or whether they were really just convenient.
"I have nothing to lose," he said finally. "You'd know if I betrayed you - you're going to teach me to shield, so you'll know how to bypass that shielding - and you could just wipe my mind clean at any point. You could have done so at any point. If it makes things easier for me to cooperate, then I will."
Xavier smiled benignly. "Not the enthusiasm I'd have wished, but not bad as a starting point. Shall we begin?"
And they did. And Alex was sure that he'd never be able to look at the world in the same way ever again. Xavier talking in his head was the first surprise - his Communication and Theater teachers would be appreciative of the various tones and timbres a mental voice could display. Xavier taught Alex how to think at a telepath, how to shield (even withdrawing from the link so that Alex could construct his own in private), and how to think past shielding. It was not difficult in theory, but Alex saw the need for practice and the benefits of experience.
The silent work was interrupted by a knock on the door. Alex jumped.
"Enter," Xavier called out and Jean came in.
"Lunch is ready in the kitchen," she said without preamble. "The two of you have been at it for four hours, so I thought you'd need a break."
"Thank you, Jean," Xavier said with a smile. "Would you care to witness a demonstration of our progress?"
It wasn't really a question and Alex was sure that Jean would much prefer to watch paint dry, but she nodded anyway.
"Lower your shields a little," Xavier commanded.
Jean must have, because a smile slowly crept onto her face. "Cool," she said to Alex. "You're not broadcasting anymore." She turned to Xavier. "How stable are they?"
Xavier didn't answer, but the next thing Alex felt was the mental equivalent of a cannonball going through his newly constructed mental walls, a far cry from Xavier's gentle poking and prodding. Alex frowned and started slowly reconstructing his walls.
"Don't worry, Alex," Jean offered with a shrug. She sounded more friendly than she had at any point in Alex's stay. "It's your first day. Nobody's shields are that good at the beginning. They'll crumble if you're surprised, they'll be really thin when you sleep, and they'll probably disappear once or twice when you're not paying attention. If I can do that in a few weeks, then we'll worry."
"Yeah," Alex said with a sigh. He knew Jean was right, but he was conditioned to being a quick study and to getting everything right in the first few tries and failure did not sit well with him.
"Why don't we break for lunch," Xavier suggested, "And then we'll pick it up afterwards for a few more hours?"
Jean wheeled the Professor down the halls toward the kitchen and Alex trailed along behind slowly.
It wasn't a formal lunch. Henry and Storm were in Manhattan and Piotr, who had to be pried away from his computer, trailed in after Alex had already sat down next to Scott.
"How's your head?" Scott asked him as he reached for the mustard for his sandwich. Jean had made a roast the previous evening and the leftovers comprised the bulk of lunch.
"In one piece," Alex replied. He didn't want to sound cold, but he didn't want to sound like he was inviting conversation either. "My shielding is barely adequate, apparently."
"What did you make yours out of?" Bobby asked. "Mine has ice cubes for bricks."
"Um... regular bricks," Alex replied. It's what Xavier had suggested and he had not thought to individualize. "I'll get fancy once I stop having to rebuild them every time a telepath sneezes."
"You should make yours out of plasma," Bobby suggested. "It would look like liquid fire or something."
"You spend too much time with your video games," Piotr said with a chuckle as he speared a pickle.
The rest of lunch passed without further discussion of telepathic architecture and it wasn't that long before Alex was wheeling Xavier back to the metal room. They continued working through until dinner, at which point Xavier said that they were finished for the day.
Alex spent his first night of liberty with Piotr, Bobby, and Scott as they watched another hockey game. Jean interrupted them once by sneak-attacking, destroying Alex's shields and singing U2 lyrics in his head, all without being in the room.
After the game was over, Alex headed to his bedroom. He wasn't going to sleep for a while, however. How could he sleep with all that he had seen that day? Mental shields, energy shields... Now, for the first time in the privacy of his own thoughts, Alex could consider his future.