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The welfare of a child

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Erik’s pale when he brings him back, and he looks bewildered and more uncertain than any of them imagined he could look.

It’s just wrong, Erik Lehnsherr looking that nervous. The small bundle in his arms is a pretty good excuse though.

“I didn’t know what to do. The girl ran off before I could catch her and then, well.” He glances at the baby currently cradled in Raven’s arms. “Then there was Charles to consider, so I came back here.”

He says again, helplessly “I didn’t know what else to do.”

Charles is still swaddled in his adult-sized shirt and cardigan, wrapped up snugly in the clothes he’d been left swimming in when the mutant he and Erik had gone to recruit had, for some reason, panicked and turned her power on him.

“There didn’t appear to be any problem.” Erik told them. “She seemed accepting when we demonstrated our powers for her and I had gone over to the window to check on the car – it was a rather rough neighbourhood – and I heard Charles say ‘no, don’t’ behind me and when I turned round-” he gestures “The girl was running out the door and there was a pile of clothes on the ground and no Charles. Or, just less of Charles than there had been.” he adds quietly.

They all sit in silence for a moment, staring at the now-infant Charles, who’s gazing up at the ceiling, apparently uninterested in the people round about him.

“Well” says Hank eventually “I’ll… try to come up with some ideas as to what’s happened. Do some tests.” He peers over Raven’s shoulder and pushes his glasses up his nose. He says doubtfully “At least he’s a placid baby? He hasn’t cried.”

And that’s the thing, Sean thinks. He should be. Charles looks like he’s maybe four or five months old – or a small for his age six month old – and he’s been carted around and prodded and stared at by people who are strangers to him now. He should be crying.

He looks at Charles, lying silently in Raven’s arms. That’s not a placid baby, he thinks. Placid would imply he was content.

*

All babies cry. Sean knows that. He’s the eldest in the family and he’s got three younger brothers and a sister and umpteen young cousins of various ages – and after having his ears blasted by their wailing he knows that babies cry all the time.

Charles doesn’t. In the two days he’s been like this he’s given high-pitched wails when he’s hungry or needs changed, but other than that he just lies in the cot they made up for him out of a dresser drawer and mostly sleeps. The others all seem quite happy about this and Sean wants to ask them what the hell they’re thinking. Why aren’t they as weirded out by this as he is?

His baby sister Bridget didn’t cry an awful lot either, but that’s because the second she started she got picked up and carried round and soothed by one of the family. And that’s another thing. Sean had been on rocking duty with her enough to know how babies feel when you pick them up, how they curl into you and how they’ll reach for you and try to look at this big person holding them to see if they approve or not.

Charles is either stiff and un-relaxed when you hold him or horribly limp in a way that reminds Sean of a rag doll with not enough stuffing. He doesn’t try to meet their eyes and if you try his unfocused gaze will just slide on past you. Sean feels terrible about it but he doesn’t like to pick Charles up.

Charles does make one other noise apart from his hunger/discomfort wail. Raven’s a sound sleeper and when Sean went past her room late the other night he didn’t think the small soft keening noise Charles was making was going to wake her up so he’d slipped into her room and hunkered down by Charles’ makeshift basinet.

When he’d put out a hand to touch Charles’ tiny back the noise had stopped with a startled hiccup and that little body had gone rigid.

Charles had slowly relaxed back down again though, and the small sounds of his breathing had quietened till Sean could tell he was asleep. Sean had stayed like that, with his hand warm on Charles’ back and his legs going slowly to sleep for a long time.

*

On the third day Raven wakes them all with a yell and they run to her room to find that her brother is now a small and solemn four year old.

This gives Hank more avenues for ideas and testing and everyone is delighted that whatever it was that de-aged Charles is not permanent. There’s a happy atmosphere over breakfast and all the others are obviously taken with tiny Charles shy and formal ways.

He doesn’t speak to them much but he’s very polite when he does, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ gravely in a soft, hesitant voice.

“He’s got nice manners.” Erik comments approvingly. “He’s been well raised.”

Sean notices that Charles watches everyone very carefully before he starts to eat and that he seems to know where things are in the kitchen. The plates and bowls and the food. The things that adults should be fetching and getting out for him at his age.

He notices the tiny flinch Charles gives when Alex stands up abruptly at the end of the meal as well. The way he goes very still. And he notices the wary glance around Charles gives before he quickly stretches out a hand to grab a roll and hide it before they’re put away.

Sean’s own breakfast doesn’t sit well in his stomach after that.

*

Charles seems to be able to read so Raven goes into town and brings back some old children’s books she found in a thrift shop for him. She brings him some toys as well – some building blocks and a toy car and a slightly ragged toy bear but Charles just looks puzzled by them.

Hank theorises that parts of Charles’ development are still catching up. “I think that the social and intellectual aspects must be of more importance to him subconsciously.” he says in the stuttering way he gets when he’s excited over something “So they’re more advanced. He obviously doesn’t really need the play aspects so his brain isn’t recalling them.”

Sean sees Charles put out a tentative finger and touch the bear.

No. He doesn’t think that’s it.

He just doesn’t think Charles has seen a teddy bear before.

*

Charles appears to recognise his old, adult room and so they make up a pallet for him on the floor there as he’s far too small to sleep safely on the high bed.

Everyone else is busy with their evening activities so Sean’s alone when he pops his head round the door to check Charles is ok.

He finds Charles sitting upright amongst his covers, hugging the bear and rocking back and forth, humming tonelessly to himself. His eyes are open but they’re unfocused, looking at nothing. He stops when he notices Sean.

Sean has to swallow a couple of times before he can get his throat to work and when he says “Lie down, Charles. It’s time to go to sleep now.” his voice is rough and scratchy, like he’s been shouting or crying.

Charles watches him silently for a moment and then shuffles back down into the bed, smoothing the blankets over himself carefully with a practised hand, tucking himself in. He stares again at Sean for a few seconds before closing his eyes, hand tightly clutched around the bear like he’s afraid it’ll be taken off him in the night.

Sean’s shaky when he ducks back out into the corridor and he has to lean back against the wall and breath deeply for a minute or two.

He’s never thought to ask about Charles’ parents before. Charles has never mentioned them.

Sean has never wanted to kill people he’s never even met before. It’s a new experience.

*

It takes three more days for Charles to age back to his usual self, with most of the growth happening in sudden, painful looking spurts throughout the third day and night.

Charles had gone from the cautious six year old he’d woken as and stayed as during the second day to eight years, then ten, twelve, a leap to eighteen that had him panting and gritting his teeth over the painful ache of his limbs and then a smoother slide up the scale of his twenties till he was back to normal.

He coped with the pain very stoically but he was wiped out and not able to do more than smile at them all tiredly and give them a rusty sounding “Hello again.” before he slipped into an exhausted sleep.

He was a good deal more talkative the next morning and ravenously hungry, wolfing down toast and eggs at the breakfast table and laughing with them as he ate. His laughter had a thin edge of frenzy to it though, and Sean noticed that Charles kept reaching out to touch them all. Small light touches that he’d immediately draw his hand back from.

Like he wasn’t allowed, Sean thought. Like he doesn’t quite believe it won’t be taken from him. Like the teddy bear.

And it’s that thought that makes him break and he bursts out “What the hell did your folks do to you as a kid, Charles?!”

What?

Sean’s not sure which of the others says that. He can’t look away from Charles, sitting at the other end of the table and suddenly very pale. Charles says warily “I’m not sure what you mean, Sean.”

Sean’s hands are trembling and he shoves them under his armpits to hide it, hugging himself. He can hear the shake in his voice when he says “You didn’t cry, man. When you were a baby you didn’t cry at all and babies cry all the damn time over the tiniest thing.” He swallows hard before continuing “And you – you rocked yourself to sleep. And you tucked yourself in and you acted like you knew how to look after yourself and you shouldn’t at that age!”

He gave a laugh that had a hint of a sob in it. “Christ! I don’t think you’d ever seen a fucking teddy bear before!”

The others are all staring now. Looking between him and Charles and Sean can see some understanding creeping into their eyes and Hank and Alex are starting to look a little horrified, Raven’s beginning to look devastated. Erik’s gone very still and he’s starting to look like he wants to kill somebody.

Sean knows what that feels like.

And Charles has dropped his eyes and there’s a flush working its way up his neck. His cheeks are still pale.

Erik asks very quietly “Charles?” and Charles finally lifts his head again to look at them. His mouth twists up in a grotesque attempt at a smile and then he takes a deep breath, lets it out slow.

He says very carefully “Well, babies learn quite quickly that it’s no use crying if no one’s going to come to comfort you. And the rocking was…” he looked away “I used to find it soothing. At night. I used to have nightmares.”

The smile he tries to give Sean isn’t much better than the last. “The teddy helped this time round, I think. And you’re right, I never had one before. My mother thought children should be able to cope on their own at night.”

He looked down at his hands, which were white knuckled around his coffee cup. “She thought I should be able to cope alone all the time, actually. I learned to be a very self sufficient child.”

Raven’s crying quietly now, a look of guilt on her face, and Hank looks like he wants to. Erik’s breathing sharply through his nose and the cutlery on the table is rattling slightly. No body seems to know what to say.

Then, somehow, Sean finds the right thing and he leans forward and reaches his hand down the table to touch Charles’ hand.

“Well, you don’t have to be anymore, Charles.” he says “You’ve got us. You’re not alone.”

And it’s not the perfect answer and it’s not enough and it can’t wipe anything out, but Charles twists his hand to clasp Sean’s fingers and this time when he smiles it’s brighter and it looks like, with a little care, it could be real.