In the three years since Charles opened his Institute For Gifted Youngsters, he’s built quite a few solid relationships in the community. Not just Westchester, but also New York City and some of the surrounding areas. It’s helped that he spends considerable time in communication with the scholars at the nearby universities and colleges—he’s managed to do quite well for himself and his burgeoning population of students. He, Hank, Alex and Sean are at almost fifteen now, ranging from the young—the youngest being Scott Summers, eleven years old, blinded by his own abilities when they found him and rescued him from the foster care system—to the old. And with just the four of them? They’re coming close to capacity. Charles has been looking for others who might prove suitable as teachers, but can’t make himself trust so blindly as he once could. So they settle at twelve, most of whom are precocious pre-teens and teens who, quite frankly, are capable of driving a nun to profanity. Yet they manage. And, over the three years, have come close to creating something of a family.
The connections he’s fostered come in handy, but no more so when—while visiting the library at Rutgers—he runs into Giorgos Karachalios, one of the biology professors.
“Charles! I had no idea you would be coming.” Gior has an open smile and a jovial attitude. His accent, still strongly settled in his native Greece, has thus far held him back from the upper echelons of academia, but he is one of the most charming men Charles has ever met. “It is good to see you. How are the children?”
Gior is also one of the few men who actually knows the true purpose of Charles’ school.
“Excellent, thank you. And your students? And promising minds this year?”
“One or two. We shall see.” Gior cast a careful look around and lowers his voice, bending over slightly to whisper in Charles’ ear. Gior is one of the few men who has never stooped when addressing Charles, and his sudden nearness comes as a disarming surprise. “I have been meaning to call you.”
“My wife, she runs in a large social circle. One of the ladies recently mentioned a neighbor who says their child is possessed. Very sad situation—not one I would wish on a child. I thought, perhaps, this may be in your field of interest?” Even at a whisper, he protects Charles’ secrets from the numerous bodies crowding the stacks.
“It may be. Do you know any more?”
“Impossible to find out without raising questions. The woman lives in Somerset, the west side. Do you think this is enough?”
Charles thinks of Cerebro, silent for the past three months as he and the others settle into taking care of fifteen additional bodies, and nods. “Yes. I’ll see what I can find out.”
“Thank you, Charles. You are a good man.”
That evening, Charles visits Cerebro once more. Its revised construction is more streamlined, and tailored to Charles specifically instead of some random psychic who might suddenly become serendipitously available.
“You’re sure we can handle one more?” Hank asks from the sidelines. He’s already overwhelmed by the number of adolescents in their home. In fact, he’s taken to hiding in his lab between and after classes, leaving most of the extra-curricular supervision to Sean and Alex. Fortunately, between the two of them, they’re remarkably proficient at it. A testament to their characters. And, perhaps, their maturity.
“I merely want to get an idea of the situation,” Charles reassures him. “According to Gior, it’s not a good place for a child to be.” There’d been far more in his friend’s eyes than he’d been able to say in a short time.
Hanks accepts it, though obviously leery and considering what happened when Jean came to investigate the goings on in his lab and inadvertently destroyed three months of work. Without further preamble, Charles places the helmet on his head.
Cerebro welcomes him like an old friend. Each time he uses it, the number of mutants seems to have grown. It’s promising and comforting, thinking that the sheer number will one day force a peace between them an humanity and, ipso facto, between his school and the Brotherhood. He tries not to think about Raven—Mystique—or Erik—Magneto—while using Cerebro. The temptation to look for them is too near.
It doesn’t take long to locate the mutant in Somerset. He gets glimpses of the situation, but nothing beyond feelings of terror and a need to escape. It’s really all he needs.
“Hank, please ask Alex to pull the car around.”
They pull up to a small, suburban home at about eight. The lawn is well-manicured—anally so—and the lights are still on. Charles maneuvers himself into his chair and Alex follows him up the drive, a silent sentinel at his back. There’s a moment of stabbing nostalgia. It’s always there, whenever he goes looking for a new student and Erik is missing from his side. He feels Erik’s loss more keenly than the loss of his legs. And while the school proves a constant and welcome distraction, there are times when he’s overwhelmed with the realization of his loss.
Slipping his hand into his pocket, he brushes his fingers over the chess piece he carries with him. The black king. It may be sentimental, but it’s something private and exclusively his.
The front door opens before they reach it and they’re greeted by a tall, austere woman. She is elegantly dressed, her hair pulled tightly back behind her head in a severe bun. In the house beyond, a large cross hangs on the wall. Alex begins fidgeting behind him.
“May I help you?”
“My name is Charles Xavier, and this is my associate Alex Summers.” Charles smiles in the most comforting, winsome way he knows how. Some of the icy edge seems to fade from her expression. “We’re here about your…demon problem?”
Immediately, she smiles—a nasty expression which curls her lips. “Thank God. Paul has been making inquiries. Please, come in.”
The house is crowded with religious paraphernalia. Crosses. Pictures of the saints. The lady—Joyce—leads them into a small sitting room off the front, and calls for her husband to join them. He introduces himself and makes small talk while she prepares an impromptu coffee service.
“We tried to conceive our own child for several years before we realized it wasn’t in God’s plan,” she begins, alighting upon a fashionable divan. “So we decided to adopt. There are so many orphans in need of a structured, proper home. We visited a number of orphanages before we found the perfect little girl for us. Or so we thought.”
She turns away and retrieves a photo from the mantle. Charles hadn’t noticed it before now, mostly because it had been overturned. The little girl is probably four years old. She’s smiling, but it looks forced and ingenuous. Straw blond hair frames high cheekbones and intelligent blue-green eyes. The eyes catch him, in their brightness. She looks familiar, though he’s certain he’s never seen her before.
“See? Perfect. When we found her, she spoke very poor English. We’ve gone to great length to ensure she can speak without even a small trace of an accent. Her mother, we understand, immigrated from France, but died shortly after she arrived. We’d thought it fortuitous, but in retrospect the woman was obviously a whore. Unmarried? And with a child? We were willing to overlook it, as the child was close enough in appearance to us we could pass her off as our own. But just six months ago, we discovered how Satan can deceive in the most innocent forms.”
The man stands and barks out a shout. “Lorna!”
Deceptively heavy footsteps come from down the hall and around the corner, and Charles watches with a sinking heart as the same girl, about a year older, trudges forward. Her head hangs down, obscuring her features through curtains of hair. The once-blond locks are now a verdant harlequin green.
“Her beautiful hair all fell out, and was replaced with…this.” Joyce sneers. “A sure sign that God brought her to us that we can redeem her from her parents’ sins and show her the loving light of righteousness.”
Lorna looks up at Charles. Mottled bruising mars her left cheek, and as Charles’ gaze drifts down her arms, he sees the tell-tale signs of abuse. Long, thin burns branding her skin in stripes.
Charles raises a hand to his temple. Moments later, Joyce and Paul have forgotten they ever adopted a little girl, and are filled with the passionate desire to do missionary work in Antarctica. He leaves them passed out on the divan and rolls his chair over to the girl.
“Hello, Lorna. My name is Charles. And this is my friend Alex.”
She darts her eyes upwards for half a second before returning her gaze to the ground.
“We’ve come to take you away from here.” He’s not fooling himself. Five is significantly younger than any other child he’s taken on before. Already, he can tell it will be a battle to help her recover from past abuses. But what else can he do? He can’t leave her here. And with such an obvious mutation—no matter how benign—he can’t leave her to the casual cruelties of the world around them. “Is that all right with you?”
Lorna looks past him, at her adopted parents, and nods silently. He offers his hand. She stares at it uncomprehending, before finally placing her fingers against his palm. In her mind, he can feel uncertainty. Fear. But also hesitant hope. Without a second thought, he gently draws her into an embrace. Lorna is stiff and unyielding for a moment before she coughs a muffled sob into his neck.
Lorna has no toys, only a few simple sets of clothes. They return to the mansion with a small selection of luggage and a mostly-silent child.
Charles puts her in the room adjoining his own, and makes sure she knows that if she needs anything, she can knock on the door separating them. She has nightmares, which he takes great pains to ease away. Lorna is also desperate for contact, though she shies away from everyone save Charles and, occasionally, Alex. She’ll approach Charles when she believes he’s not looking and puts her hand on his leg or arm. After a few days, she seeks out hugs at random moments during the day. He tries to stay out of her thoughts, as he does all the students, but when she wraps her arms around him, he can see a pretty blond woman in her mind’s eye, and she’s come to associate Charles with the comforting impressions left in her wake. Her mother. Susanna.
It takes almost a week before Lorna speaks a word.
She seems intimidated by the older children, and takes to ghosting Charles’ movements. She follows him into classes, and sits by still and distant as he discusses T. H. White and recent advancements in particle physics. He offers her coloring books, but she just stares at them. He can see in her mind that she once loved to color, but has gone so long without interacting with such simple joys that she’s almost forgotten how. He’s careful to be patient and soft-spoken with her. And when she hesitantly picks up the green crayon and puts it to paper, he feels immeasurable relief.
That night, Lorna knocks on his door. It takes Charles a second to ease himself out of bed and into his chair, but she’s still waiting when he answers.
Her voice is low and scratchy with disuse. “I can’t sleep.”
Charles opens his arms and Lorna walks into them. “Do you want me to read to you?”
Lorna wrinkles her nose, but finally nods. “We’re on Exodus Seventeen.”
Of course. Charles shakes his head. “How about something a bit happier?”
Over the past week, he’s sent Alex and Sean out to collect things for Lorna—books, clothes, toys—but hasn’t wanted to overwhelm her with them and tries to be subtle as he carefully migrates them into her possession. She’s taken strongly to a small stuffed rabbit, which is always tucked under her arm. Charles wheels himself over to the collection of children’s books and picks out one of the recent offerings from Dr. Seuss.
They return to her bedroom and he tucks her in. Then, opening the book, begins to recount the story of Horton and the speck.