Ten Thousand Candles
WARNING: Not only is this story full of gigantic spoilers, it likely won't make a blind bit of sense if you haven't seen X-Men 2 yet.
Disclaimer: The characters herein belong to Fox and Marvel, not to me. They can hang on to them as long as they keep producing cool movies. I'm not making any money out of this fic.
Rating: Slash references and some dark themes, but nothing too graphic. I'd probably call it PG-13.
Many thanks to Rossi for the speedy beta reading :-).
He often dreams that he's creeping through the house, searching for someone or something that he's unable to remember, let alone find.
It's always dark and cold, and he keeps getting lost in corridors he had memorized before he could walk them without assistance. The only sounds are the ticking of the clocks (always subtly syncopated) his feet on the boards or carpets (his legs work, again) and the creak of the badly maintained doors. He is afraid to call out, because he knows that somebody is hunting him.
Sooner or later, he recalls that the reason he can't find anybody is because he killed them all.
And then he wakes up.
Every Sunday morning, he goes to Mass with Kurt Wagner.
It isn't the only change, but it's the one everyone notices. Ostensibly, he's there as a chaperone for the young blue German. They attend the most liberal Catholic church in the state, which means that the parishioners ask earnest questions about developments in the mutant condition caused by recent events, instead of reacting with hostility. If Kurt ever tires of their brittle cheerfulness, then the resentment is too deep for even the world's most powerful telepath to sense. For a man who carves sins into his flesh, he's surprisingly well-adjusted and relentlessly optimistic.
Charles allows the staff to think that he attends ceremonies he's been avoiding since adolescence because he's rediscovered his faith ... but how can you find something you never really lost?
He sits at the back of the church, which is too new to smell right, and listens to services given in English. It's an effort to focus on the intent behind the words without mentally critiquing their translation, or simply becoming nostalgic for the Latin phrases of his childhood. He doesn't sing the hymns, take communion, or go to confession.
One morning when Kurt is driving them there, the boy finally inquires: "Would you like to talk to the priest today? Confession can lighten the heart, as well as the soul."
"The church and I parted ways a long time ago, I fear. I find such human institutions distressingly fallible in several respects."
"They have been very kind to me, Herr Professor, in spite of my appearance. What is it that you find fault with?" There is no venom in his tone, but it is clear that the criticism grieves him. Kurt wouldn't dream of pushing his faith on anyone, but at the same time Xavier can tell he wishes that everyone could experience its security.
Charles decides on the obvious explanation, although it may be the least important. "I'm not sure if anyone explained this to you already, but Erik Lensherr was my lover." It doesn't usually *require* an explanation, but the boy has a naivety about him the professor finds touching as well as mildly exasperating.
Kurt's eyebrows climb his forehead, and his tail flickers in surprise where he has it wrapped around his body. "He called you his old friend. I did not realise ..." his voice trails off, embarrassed.
"The habit of a lifetime. You must understand - it wasn't safe, then, to be any of the things we were." When Charles was still young, he often used to wonder which would get him to Hell faster: taking a man for a lover, or loving a Jew.
Kurt nods as his mind works to assimilate the new details. "It must have been terrible for you, what he did."
Something of an understatement, that.
Kurt doesn't suggest that he participate more actively in church again.
The truth of it is this: Charles Xavier cannot go to confession, because there is no word for the sin he attempted. Even 'genocide' implies an attempt on the lives of a specific segment of the human race. What do you call the attempted annihilation of its totality?
After every service, he lights three candles. Today, they are for a man who crashed his bicycle into the back of a lorry when the pain struck him, a woman who miscarried under the strain, and an elderly lady who suffered a fatal stroke.
If he spends the rest of his life lighting candles, there will never be enough.
In the evenings, he often plays chess with Rogue. When they began she did it from memory, but to her surprise (if not her tutor's) she turned out to have some talent. She has only beaten him twice so far, but it's enough to make her worth playing. It's a better average than Jean had, at first, and he can't expect Erik's brilliance from her now that his memories have faded away.
Rogue doesn't mind that she almost always loses eventually, understanding that trying and failing sometimes has to be enough. When she frowns at the lacquered board and sets her pieces down with decisive clicks, Charles can see the woman she's turning into.
Still, there are days - when she's been arguing with Robert, their training session has gone badly, or she loses more quickly than usual - when she switches to slamming them down without any consideration for the varnish.
"Don't you *ever* get angry?" she asks petulantly one evening, as he starts setting up the pieces again.
"You could've fooled me. I mean," and this is what's really bothering her today, "Magneto. It's been months now, and you haven't gone after him." He wonders how long she's been gearing up to confront him with that.
"He hasn't showed his hand yet," Xavier explains, moving a pawn forward. "When the time is right, we will no doubt be forced to face him again."
She glares at him, moving one of her knights at random, and there's just a touch of Erik in it. "How can you not hate him, for what he did?"
Charles sighs. Rogue may have tasted the memories of more than one old man, but she's still at an age where such things seem simple. She mistakes his resignation for forgiveness, or lingering affection. He does hate Erik - and the hatred is fresh and sharp - but that doesn't mean he won't still love him when the oceans dry up and the stars fall out of the sky. He's long past the point where how he feels about Erik can be allowed to have any impact on his behaviour anyway. Somebody involved in this conflict has to maintain a sense of pespective, after all, and a clear head is even more necessary now.
"You had his personality within you, Rogue. You know what his reasons are."
"There are no reasons good enough for what he tried to do," she says, with the unshakeable confidence of the young.
Charles just surveys the board, wondering which piece to sacrifice first.
He explained some of what he knew to Logan - Stryker, the Weapon X program, the experiments they performed - soon after Jean's death, and was surprised by how few questions the man asked. Perhaps his grief and confusion distraced him from his quest ... but it is still an unexpected anti-climax.
He doesn't wonder at the student's continuing reliance on their headmaster, or Kurt's growing attachment, or Ororo's calm support, or the way Scott leans on him in spite of his bubbling anger and grief. But Logan isn't looking for a father. If he is seeking a guide instead, he isn't quick to demand instruction.
Eventually, Charles has to ask a question of his own.
"Why is it that you still trust me, after I lied to you from the beginning?"
They're in the Danger Room after a particularly vigorous work out. The Canadian has been a great deal of help in training the older students in the arts of self-defence, a matter more urgent than ever in an increasingly hostile world, but he himself practices alone. Unless Xavier takes the time to supervise, of course, and he feels an obligation to do so. Nothing down here is capable of killing Logan, but the gesture makes Charles feel better.
Logan grins that feral grin of his, with a slightly bitter edge. "Why don't you just read my mind, Chuck?" He picks up a towel and mops his forehead. With no women around to appreciate the show, he keeps his sodden shirt on.
"You know I won't do so needlessly ... and I'd sooner hear it from you."
"Then that's why. If you didn't want me to remember what Magneto told me, you could erase it out of my head. I'm not as dumb as he thinks, either. If there was more to it, he woulda told me just to get at you. Besides, you've helped Rogue, Cyke trusts you, and Jeannie loved you." He pauses there, frowning. "You really were trying to protect me, weren't you? Because I volunteered for the procedure, and you didn't think I could handle hearing that."
"Yeah, yeah. I know. You want me to figure it out for myself. You know, before Stryker told me, I was half ready to gut you right after we yanked you out of Cerebro. But if it's true ..." He wipes sweat off the back of his neck thoughtfully.
"Whatever Stryker told you, he was bending the truth. For what it's worth, I thought I was doing the right thing when I kept my suspicions to myself."
He was trying to help William Stryker, when he taught his son the mental finesse that allowed him to control his powers. Trying to help Jason, when he left him to die. Trying to help Marie, when he let her be captured and half-killed. Trying to help Erik, trying to help Jean, trying to help the entire fucking human race.
"That's good enough for me. For now." Even Wolverine, it seems, has more faith in Xavier's good intentions that Xavier has himself these days. "Just don't try it again. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice ..." The claws slide out, just a little, before he grins again. "And remind me never to play poker with you."
"Logan," Charles cannot help but say as the man turns toward the showers, "How do you know I haven't already altered your mind, to dispel your doubts and keep you here?"
He shrugs expressively. "I guess that's a matter of faith."
The worst dreams are the ones that begin with waking up.
It's warm, and when he cracks an eye open the light is slanting through the bedroom curtains the way it does around mid-morning. There's an arm wrapped around his waist, a hand stroking his stomach with intent. He's hyper-aware of every phantom sensation - the feel of the sheets, the warmth of the breath on his neck, the sound of an oriole singing outside.
"Erik," he groans. "It's Sunday, and some of us need our sleep." The lingering soreness from last night's lovemaking is putting him off, too, although he won't mention that. Erik is never rough, but he can be over-enthusiastic on occasion.
"We have the rest of the day to sleep." A kiss on the back of his head, the hand moves lower. "We can stay here until tomorrow if you like."
"What if I don't want to stay here? What if I want to be taken out?"
A theatrical sigh is the only response for a long moment. "Are you using your body to strike a bargain with me, Charles Francis Xavier?"
"Take me away from all this?"
It's always at that point that he makes the mistake of rolling over.
He sees Erik, but not Erik as he was then. This is the Erik he met in the prison cell that last day - unshaven, wild-eyed and desperate. The simmering anger spills over even as Charles opens his mouth in shock, and he sits up, slams his lover back onto the bed. Magneto's hands close around his throat, and it's as if Charles's entire body is frozen, not just everything below the waist.
He reaches out with his powers, but Erik's mind is a closed box. He has only his strangled voice left, and he always says the same thing: "Erik, please, I love you ..."
"Don't lie to me!"
The dream continues for some time after that. Sometimes Erik does awful things to him. Sometimes his powers return and he does equally awful things to Erik. No matter how hard he tries, he can't control what happens.
It never ends well.
"You're cold," Ororo says, looking up from the flower bed. The gardens didn't suffer as much as the house during the invasion, but inevitably some of the plants were trampled by the student body as they fled the area. There's always maintenance to be done. He likes to sit and watch her, when he can, although he knows less than nothing about horticulture himself. They always had staff for that sort of thing, before.
"Only a little."
He's grateful to Storm for the blizzard, of course, but ever since then he can't seem to get warm. The new school doctor, a Hispanic woman fresh out of her internship, pokes and prods at him and says he's disgustingly healthy given his age and habits.
Charles thinks that it might be because, since Jean died, nobody seems to touch him properly anymore. He misses her hand on his shoulder, her lips pressed to his temple, her fingers brushing his when she hands him his tea.
Sometimes, when he sits out here, she speaks to him. It's one more thing he must keep to himself.
"Let me fix that for you," Ororo says. She tilts her chin up, eyes gone cloudy even as the clouds above them melt away into nothing and the sun breaks through.
"Was that wise?" It's a genuine question, not a rebuke. He might have shown her the way to control her abilities, but Ororo Munroe knows the paths of the weather like nobody on earth.
She smiles and shakes her head. "What's the sense in having power if you can't help people out?"
Scott thought Cerebro was creepy even before it nearly killed the two people he loved most in the world, and then everyone else into the bargain. So Charles is mildly surprised when he begins spending every spare moment repairing it. It's not that he doesn't appreciate the help - last time it needed this much work done, Erik was here to do the heavy lifting - but he does find it odd. It's good to see him functioning, and yet ...
"I'm not sure how to thank you for this," he says, when it's finally finished and ready for retesting.
"I believe in knowing my enemies," Scott says, smiling grimly, "And it gave me the chance to beef up the security again."
There wasn't much they could do to upgrade the safety features of the machine itself. Charles always insisted that the original design incorporate a device that would kill the telepath inside the moment they used it to kill anyone else. Stryker had avoided this by the simple expedient of leaving it out of his copy. Still, at least Cyclops has improved the locks once again.
Xavier can sense his deputy's nervousness as he wheels himself down the walkway. He's having second thoughts, and more than a few third thoughts. Yet however he feels about Jean's death, Scott still believes his leader is no danger to others. His pupils have never learned to fear him as they ought to, and he has never had the courage to explain why they should.
Charles ought to be afraid of Cerebro too, but after so many weeks of intermittent nervousness, he's quite calm now that the moment has arrived. Perhaps because he has come to the realization that he may never have needed the machine in the first place. The real weapon is the one that resides behind his eyes.
"Don't move," he says to Cyclops, unnecessarily, as he slides the helmet on.
He almost stops breathing as the lights bloom around him. As bright as ever, and twice as beautiful now he knows just how easily he might have extinguished each and every one of them. The gaps he left are almost invisible in the glow of the rest. Almost.
He can feel them all - sleeping, eating, making love, laughing, crying, helping and harming, dying and being born, thinking that they might have left the iron on - and all of them are glorious. Sitting here, in the position of a benevolent god, he can remember the names of all he found before, and learn those of the newest flares, untainted by his touch. He finally knows that he has the strength to appreciate them for what they are again, however weak and fallible he may have proven himself in the past.
He sees all, and he sees that it is good.
He's driving with Kurt again, this time late at night on the way back from a screening of 'Edge of Darkness' in New York, when he finally tells the truth. Hearing the buzz of the city he has loved all his life from inside the car, he can't help but picture the vibrant metropolis, all its pains and joys, silenced with a thought. His thought.
"Nobody blames you for what happened," Kurt says, out of the blue. Perhaps *he* can read minds now.
"They should, you know," Xavier says softly. "I wasn't forced. I was ... persuaded. Jason found the part of me that *wanted* to kill billions. Not out of hatred, or anger, but because I saw a world washed clean of all the great and petty sins humanity commits each and every day without thought or regret. I wanted to make it so. A second flood, followed by a second Eden, and something entirely new evolving in place of this flawed Creation. I saw how we could all be united, in death and then in God, and how beautiful that would be. And even as I saw, I saw how wrong it was." Kurt turns his head, with his yellow eyes that echo the headlights, away from the traffic. In a whisper, Charles adds: "In the instant I first saw you, I thought you were a demon come to carry me to Hell."
"Do you want to be punished, or forgiven?" the boy asks, ignoring the last remark.
"Nobody seems willing to punish me." He thinks of Erik, with regret even more complex than usual. "But I cannot forgive myself. Anybody who forgives me doesn't fully understand the crime."
"Surely it is a sin to believe yourself beyond saving?" Kurt smiles. "A denial of the infinite mercy of God?"
"For a moment, in the prison built from my own desires, I knew despair. Is that not the only unforgivable sin?"
"There are no unforgivable sins, Charles."
Kurt takes a three-fingered hand off the steering wheel and puts it on his passenger's shoulder, and Charles doesn't have the heart to tell him to keep his eyes on the road.
The next night, he falls asleep in his chair in front of the fire, and dreams of Jean.
"Faith, hope and love," she says, "and the greatest of these is love." She's sitting curled up on the couch across from him, cradling a tea cup.
"That's not quite how it goes," he says, realising that he's following a script drawn from his memory again. Jean's hair is long, as it was when he first found her, although the face is that of a woman grown. "The King James version is: 'and now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.' Or, in the Latin: 'nunc autem manet fides spes caritas tria haec maior autem his est caritas.' The Greek translation of 'caritas' is 'agape', although I can't claim to remember the entire phrase." His Greek has never been especially strong.
Jean laughs. "Does it really matter?"
"Yes," he says firmly. "No matter how often it turns up in wedding ceremonies, 'caritas' doesn't refer to romantic love. It's a spiritual concept."
Jean shakes her head. He realizes, abruptly, that the liquid in her cup isn't tea at all. It's glowing bright orange like molten lava, and but she takes a sip with no discernable ill-effects. "I suppose not. What I meant was - I don't think you can have hope and faith without the other. So what is the other? Love, charity ... or maybe compassion?"
All fair translations, but none of them quite synonymous in English. He smiles slightly. "Perhaps one needs all three of those, too."
She stands up to go, and now the script breaks down: she's suddenly alight with flame, and her hair ripples down her back, bright and flowing. "For what it's worth, I still love you," she says, as she bends down to kiss him.
He wakes up with tears on his face and the sun streaming in the window.
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