A month after Rickon sent Jon back home, none of the Starks left in the mansion had returned to normalcy. Sansa put on the best show of moving on, though on rare occasions Charles sensed glimpses of almost overwhelming guilt, tinged with homesickness and old fear. Rickon, the instrument of it all, was both the most upset and least able to cope. He tried clinging to Bran, as Charles suspected he had when the two had been the only children left in their faraway home, but Bran had also become irritable and withdrawn. Annalee, one of the homeless New York City mutants who had taken up an (unexpected) invitation to call the Xavier mansion home, continued to find herself a surrogate parent figure for the angry child instead. Arya spent most of her time in her room, though she would occasionally be drawn out long enough to get irritated with Alex' attempts at getting her to open up.
"Bran," Charles said one day, after yet another incident of Bran slipping his consciousness into that gigantic direwolf of his and picking fights with his brother's wolf, leaving everyone in the mansion jumpy at best and terrified at worst by the absolutely unearthly and hideous noises and violence of two pony-sized wolves at each others' throats. "Maybe you should try something more..."
"More what?" Bran snapped, looking hollow-eyed and fragile. He'd spent almost the whole day in Summer before Charles had been able to mentally coax him back in his own body. "What exactly should I do? Arya won't talk to anyone, Sansa is trying to pretend like nothing happened, Rickon--" He bit back on anything there, shutting down physically and mentally. He didn't need to say anything more. Bran-in-Summer's attacks on his brother's wolf said it all, really.
"More productive than being a chew toy," Charles said evenly. Bran scowled and drummed a pen on Charles' desk, the picture of a student in trouble in a principal's office in any other school in any other place. "Something relaxing. Fun. Have you ever played chess? Did they have anything like it in Westeros?"
Bran looked up and over to where Charles kept a set available, usually for Erik, though Hank played well, Betsy was decent enough for a game or two until she got bored, and Victor had tried his hand at it once or twice in the name of culture. Bran shrugged, still bouncing the pen off the desk sullenly.
"I learned to play when I was about the age you were when you first arrived here," Charles continued, as if Bran had shown interest. It was the easiest way with some children, he had learned. Let them catch up and imagine that it had been their own idea. It worked well with some of the mansion's older residents, as well. "I've always found it to be very focusing. It was originally modeled on military tactics. You're interested in those, yes?"
Bran grunted, possibly an assent.
"If you're interested in knights, you might like it. There's a notable absence of sword waving and charging horses, but it teaches you to out-think your opponent. Think of yourself as a commander, organizing his troops."
"I'd rather be on a battlefield," Bran grumbled, but he leaned over to look at the set anyway. Charles had wheeled himself over to the low table and had busily set about organizing the pieces--which were in neat enough order anyway, but as long as he didn't seem to be paying attention to Bran, the boy was more likely to not be so on the defensive. "What do all the pieces do?"
Charles explained, holding each carved piece up for examination (Bran wrinkled his nose at the limited movement allowed to the king, grumbling, "But kings do whatever they want. It's why they're kings," and Charles had to explain about game balance) and when Bran seemed to have a grasp of the rules, they tried a game.
It was a disaster.
It wasn't that Bran didn't understand the rules. He needed clarifications a few times on how to move pieces, but seemed to grasp them well otherwise. He just had no sense of strategy at all. In ten minutes, even deliberately trying to lose, Charles had won. He scratched his head.
"Well, I've been playing quite a lot for longer than you've been alive," he said. Bran scowled fiercely. From the outside window, Summer--who was confined to the yard until the bleeding and leftover aggression from Bran's warging attacks on Shaggydog were minimized--growled ominously. Charles winced, but smiled brightly. "I'm sure you'd do better against someone more your level. Victor, maybe. Or teach your brother or one of your sisters to play, I'm sure they'd like that."
Bran grunted, glaring daggers at the board as if it had personally offended him, and wheeled himself out of the office. Charles wondered if he had helped at all.
"Charles? It's not that I'm not glad to see the next generation gaining an appreciation for the finer things, but why have you gone from training mutants to running a chess camp?"
Charles looked sheepish. Erik raised an eyebrow. "I'm afraid it may have gotten a little out of hand."
Erik raised his other eyebrow, settling down on a chair. He listened as Charles explained about the Stark children's varying reactions to Jon's presumed death after being sent back to Westeros, and how Bran had seemed hell-bent on using his mutant ability in a worryingly self-destructive manner. Erik had never interacted with Bran for more than a few cursory words--or any of the Starks other than Arya and Jon Snow, now that he thought on it--but he sympathized.
"I thought that chess would help him focus," Charles said. "He seemed to like the military history of it."
"This still doesn't explain why all four of them look like they're trying to deconstruct the game in the sitting room," Erik said. Arya had barely even spared a glance at him, when she was usually boiling over to talk to someone who wasn't fully involved in the Xavier pacifist mission.
"That's not so inaccurate, as it turns out," Charles said, sighing and looking regretful. "All four of them are astoundingly terrible at it."
"It doesn't matter who they play against," Charles continued. "Bran taught Scott to play, and Scott has been wiping the floor with them. It's... sad." He sounded astonished. "Hank has been trying to run numbers. He's convinced that it's statistically impossible for anyone to be that terrible at chess."
"Do they even have chess where they're from?" Erik asked, skeptical.
"Sansa said that there's a similar game in a region far to the south of where they were born. Games of strategy aren't unknown to them. They just seem improbably awful at them. Just watch them play each other for a few minutes, Erik, it's downright painful. They know the rules, they just can't seem to do anything truly coherent with them. It's like strategy is a foreign language."
Erik rolled his eyes. And Charles called him melodramatic for the helmet and cape. "I think you're reading entirely too much into children being bad at chess. Have you considered that it might not be their game? Don't you have any other board games?"
Charles seemed to consider. "I do have a Risk set in storage somewhere."
Risk was almost as bad as chess. Worse, in some ways; there had been no actual fistfights over chess.
"I'm not playing with that little psycho again," Sean said, somewhat bloodied and shaken after Rickon bit him on the arm. "He started off in Australia, man. How do you loose Australia that fast?"
"Maybe we should play in teams," Clarice suggested.
"No," Hank interrupted. She shot him a look, and he wilted, but added, "It would contaminate the data."
"Data," Sean snorted. "Right. Next time, you play with the world's tiniest cannibal and tell me how that works out for you."
"He didn't actually eat any part of your arm," Hank said, dabbing at the bite mark with antiseptic. It had stopped bleeding, but there was still a small nasty gash. "You're going to need antibiotics."
"Now I have kid rabies," Sean groaned.
"Don't be such a baby," Clarice said. "It's not impressive in the least."
Hank rolled his eyes and reached for the gauze. "So what data?" Clarice asked, swinging her legs in her chair as Sean looked wounded.
"Win/loss ratio and time of play," Hank said. "Don't you think it's weird that they're all so bad at those games?"
"Not really," Sean said. "I suck at golf."
"You've never played golf in your life," Clarice said. "You waved a stick around like a drum major and blasted a ball out of the air a few times with your voice. That's not golf."
"I could have played before you met me."
"The point is," Hank said, cutting through fourth-date banter that made him irrationally irritated and not so irrationally lonely, "that I'm trying to compare it to a control group, which is why the rest of you are playing chess and Risk and Stratego and whatever else Alex can bring back from the store. With them, with each other. It's an ongoing study."
"So... what, you think there's something else going on with them?" asked Sean. "Like, what?"
"I don't know," said Hank. "Maybe there really is a fundamental physiological or mental difference between people from where they come from and our dimension or reality or world that causes this. I can't imagine that would be it, though, from what they've said about the complexity of their wars and history."
"Maybe their secondary mutation is they just suck at board games," said Sean, snickering.
Arya, Sansa, Bran, Rickon, and Alex sat around the kitchen table. Arya, Alex, Sansa, and Rickon were stone-faced. Rickon frowned.
Erik stood just in the doorway, amused, with Charles beside him and Hank in front, taking notes.
I can't help but think that this might be a terrible idea, Charles said in Erik's mind, his mental voice worried.
Hank letting a former felon teach four minor children to play poker in the name of science? Why would you ever think that? Erik sounded entirely too pleased with the situation, Charles thought.
Things were honestly slow and uneventful at first. Charles could feel Erik getting bored.
And then things went poorly.
It started quietly enough, with Sansa on a loosing streak. She was a decent bluffer, as it turned out, with that blank face perfected through horrific circumstances. But bluffing wasn't everything, and she cut her losses quietly and without a fuss.
Rickon lasted longer than Charles thought he would, given his lack of anything approaching a poker face. Then again, the ever-present fierce scowl served well enough. But as with chess, Risk, and every other game Hank had tried him on, the second things went downhill for him, his scant patience fled and he made foolhardy choice after foolhardy choice until he had no chips left and Sansa had to take him aside before he could attack Alex as he had Sean some time prior.
Bran was next. He was, as it turned out, a terrible bluffer, but bolder than Sansa, and dumb luck carried him through a few times. Sansa had left the table with a few chips left to her; Bran stayed until he was done, fighting the whole way.
That left Arya and Alex. Arya's blank face was not as controlled as her sister's, but of the four Starks she had the most calculation in her. But her bets were always too high, and soon she was out of chips as well.
"I want a rematch," she shouted, standing up as Alex took the pile in the middle of the table.
"Yeah," Rickon echoed.
You have to admit, they have guts, Erik thought, and Charles had to agree.
"Don't you think that's enough for right now?" Alex said, which was a mistake.
Of the four, Sansa was the only Stark who seemed to agree. "We're not cowards," Bran said hotly
"What, are you scared that we'll beat you this time?" Arya said.
Alex paused in cleaning up the table, glancing at Charles in the doorway. "Nah," he said, trying to play it off. "I just thought you might like a break."
"We'll break you!" Rickon shouted, righteous fury in his not-quite-eight year old voice and face.
Alex laughed. He probably shouldn't have.
Summer and Shaggydog, who had been allowed back in the house in the cease-fire following Hank's board game experiments, burst into the kitchen. Before Charles could yell for Bran and Rickon to call them off, Shaggydog had eaten half of the poker chips.
That was the end of that particular exercise.