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Masters of the Universe

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Kitty Pryde saved her report-in-progress and put her folders aside. The agency had switched to electronic record keeping a few months prior, but she somehow continued to have the exact same amount of paperwork piled haphazardly across her desk. The clock read 10:59 and Ororo Munroe was always exactly on time. Since Kitty was planning on making a completely unfair request, she felt she should at least be polite about it.

Kitty had visited the boy in the hospital this morning.

"How do you feel today, Erik?"

"I hate."

"What do you hate?"

"Stuff."

Social workers were used to making compromises. The field was dedicated to achieving the best outcomes for people with what was there. Not what should be there, not what you needed or wanted to be there, but what was actually available, like it or not. In an ideal world, Kitty would have waited until Ororo volunteered to take on a new child. In an ideal world, Ororo would have all the time she needed to recuperate after what happened with her last case. In an ideal world, Kitty would have had a pool of a dozen houseparents lined up who were each just as good as Ororo, but she didn't.

Ororo had a reputation for being able to work miracles, a reputation that was not entirely undeserved. She was initially licensed only for short-term care – kids whose extended family needed a few days before they were ready to assume custody or kids who were just treading water until a bed opened up in a psychiatric facility. Then a boy named James wandered into town, a literally feral boy, a young adolescent who had clearly be separated from civilization for some time. The media dubbed him the Wild Boy of Western New York and speculation was rampant about where he came from and what his prognosis would be. After acute hospitalization, he was placed with Ororo Munroe.

Within two weeks, she had him playing bass guitar in a Black Sabbath cover band. ("The songs are easy, they don't care how he smells, and they need a fourth.") Within two months, she had him using silverware. After ninety days, they moved him to a long-term placement, where he immediately deteriorated – he picked a fight with a neighbor's German shepherd – so they returned him to Ororo's custody and got her provisionally licensed for long-term care. By his eighteenth birthday, James had stopped punching people long enough to successfully enlist in the military where he was still serving honorably.

Thus, Kitty slid a photograph across the desk to Ororo. "His name is Erik Lensherr. 12-year-old, Caucasian male, refugee from Syria by way of Lebanon."

"How's his English?"

"Excellent. I think his father was American."

"Where are his parents now?"

"Both deceased. Only he and his mother made it out of Syria. They applied for asylum from Lebanon; she died before it was granted."

The boy twisted from side to side in his chair, hood up, face down. "It's nice," he said, "to meet somebody here like me."

Kitty tipped her head to the side. "What do you mean, someone like you?"

Without looking up, the boy raised a finger and pointed to Kitty's Star of David necklace.

"So he came to the US alone. What's known about the conditions in Syria?"

"They must have been bad enough for asylum to be granted, but other than that we have pretty much no information. We don't even know how his mother died."

"And he's not talking."

"Exactly." Kitty paused, took a sip of her coffee. "Ororo, you really don't have to take this case. I don't want you to feel obligated."

"But..." said Ororo with a knowing smile. Kitty wouldn't have invited her here if she hadn't hoped.

"But he's..." This was when Kitty usually said, 'he's a good kid'. "He's young. They want him off the ward. He's violent, manipulative, likes to get the other patients to fight each other, pick at everyone else's scabs."

Erik walked across the day room and sat next to a teenage girl who was working on a jigsaw puzzle. He said something and she froze, holding a puzzle piece in midair. After a moment, she stood and walked out of the dayroom. There was yelling and commotion in the hall. Erik's expression remained impassive. He put a piece in jigsaw puzzle.

"Is he a psychopath?" Trust Ororo to be direct.

"You know I hate putting that label on a kid so young," replied Kitty. "He's really nothing like Nathaniel." She felt bad enough even asking Ororo to take this case, let alone on false pretenses, so she added, "But he really doesn't seem to have any remorse, for anything he does wrong."

"And the doctors recommended a home placement for him?" Ororo sounded surprised.

"The doctors don't have any sort of firm diagnosis. He's been playing different games with each staff member and lying through his teeth on questionnaires. One of the psychologists told me this morning that if they took the boy at his word, they would diagnose him with Tourette's syndrome, anorexia nervosa, and hysterical pregnancy." Kitty paused. "They think he belongs in a secure setting. As in lockdown. As in delinquents."

Ororo sipped her tea. They both knew that, not surprisingly, forcing a group of conduct disordered youth to interact only with one another tended to make them worse, not better.

"I know I can convince them to go with home placement if it's you," said Kitty, "but again, I don't want you to feel obligated." She added, almost as an afterthought, "And oh, he's psychotic."

"I thought you said the doctors really didn't know what was wrong with him."

"He hears voices. If he's faking, he deserves an Emmy, because he apparently chats back and forth with the voice – he calls it 'Charles' – most of the day."

"How do they know it's not just an imaginary friend?"

"I asked the same question. He's twelve, and new to the country-" Ever since befriending Piotr Rasputin so many years ago, Kitty had developed a pretty solid understanding of the challenges faced by immigrants. "-but the psychs had a pretty good answer. Imaginary friends offer companionship, support, sometimes a way to externalize a feeling or two, but they're under the kid's control. In contrast, Erik apparently fights with his 'imaginary friend'. He loses fights with his imaginary friend. His imaginary friend recently gave him the silent treatment for almost three days."

"Interesting."

"Move it to d6." Pause. "Yeah well, you're an asshole and your mother's a whore." Pause. "Fuck, okay, pawn to e8." Pause. "That's not funny." Pause. "That's NOT funny." Pause. "THAT'S NOT FUNNY, YOU SONOFABITCH!" Erik leapt up from his bed and began punching the air.

"He's got some other quirks too. He refuses to go any further north or west of the hospital. I was originally looking at a placement with Carris Children's Home, but he got incredibly agitated when he found out where it was."

"It was my impression that the child wasn't given much of a say in the matter."

Kitty sighed. "Carris wouldn't take him anyhow, not at this point. I think he's deteriorated on the ward. He hates...doctors, I think? Could be needles, could be stethoscopes, could be white coats, we're not sure exactly what the phobia is. He still hasn't had an actual physical, so I suppose we're out of compliance with the law."

"Does he tolerate nurses?" Ororo was a registered nurse. It was one of the features that made her so valuable as a houseparent: she could have a lot more latitude than most in administering as-needed medications or intramuscular injections.

"As long as they're not trying to do medical sorts of things, he doesn't seem to hate them as people. I don't think they've ever gotten his real resting vitals, because to get a blood pressure cuff on him, they've either got to wrestle him down or sedate him."

"Erik," said Nurse Mills, "we've talked about what a vaccine does. There's a law that says everyone who stays in a place like this has to get-"

And he was up and bolting and two orderlies grabbed him, one on each arm. It wasn't like they didn't expect this. They dragged him back to his bed, but he was kicking and twisting too wildly for an injection to be administered safely.

"LET ME GO!" he screamed. "LET ME GO!"

Two more orderlies grabbed his legs.

"I'm really sorry about this, Erik," said Nurse Mills, "but it's the law for everyone's safety." She was genuinely sorry; no one liked to see a child restrained like that, but it was the law for a reason. She cleaned a spot on his arm with rubbing alcohol.

Erik pounded his head, the only remaining free part of his body, against his bed over and over again. "YOU'LL NEVER DEFEAT ME!" he cried, eyes wild and face taut. "I'M THE MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE!"