Rickon hid for two days after sending Jon back, and refused to speak a word to anyone for a week after that. Not even to Annalee, who had been watching over him since he had first arrived and had moved into the mansion to continue to do so.
He started talking again eventually, though he was still kind of an asshole to be around, which wasn’t something Sean really liked admitting about seven-year-olds. But the kid bit him that one time, and acted like an asshole even when he wasn’t biting people, so he felt justified.
“You can’t call a kid an asshole,” said Clarice.
“That kid’s an asshole,” Sean insisted. He rubbed at the scab on his arm, which was scarring over pink in parts now.
“He’s scared,” Clarice insisted. “And I don’t blame him one bit.” She looked away, out the window, at the floor, at her hands. “It’s so easy for you.”
“What you do.” She shifted uncomfortably away from him. “You get to fly, Sean. And you’ve got it under control.”
“It’s not that easy,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “I break stuff all the time by accident.”
“Have you ever hurt a person by accident, though? And I don’t mean made them deaf for a little while, I mean really hurt. I can dissolve things when I teleport, remember? Do you know what happened to me the first time I used my powers?” She shivered, lost in the memory. “I hurt someone really, really bad. There was a lot of blood, and—anyway, I didn’t want to teleport ever again after that.”
“Yeah. Once you do that, or wake up somewhere you’ve never been a few times, or anything like that? You act like an asshole for a while.”
Sean shut up, and then offered up, “I blew out my mom’s eardrums when we were almost in a car accident. And broke the windshield. And the other guy’s windshield.”
Clarice smiled fondly at him and stretched out her pink-purple hand to him, and he took it.
Sean would have been fine avoiding Rickon the asshole kid, even after his talk with Clarice, except that Annalee foisted the kid off on him one afternoon when he finally had the TV room to himself.
“Can’t you leave him with someone else?” he asked.
Annalee sniffed. “No,” she snapped. “I’m leaving him with you. You’re an adult.” She glared at him and then edged out of the room.
“What’s her problem?” Sean muttered.
“She doesn’t like going out,” Rickon said, plopping down on the floor. His giant freaky wolf-dog circled around, and Sean could swear it glared at him before flopping down and panting. “She doesn’t like being around people. Sometimes she makes them feel bad.”
“Uh,” Sean said.
“Can you change the channel?”
“Are you gonna bite me if I say no?”
Rickon looked over at him with an expression that was entirely too calculating to be on a seven-year-old’s face, and it creeped Sean out. “I’m taking a stand, man,” Sean said. “I’m not changing the channel. You don’t get to boss people around by biting them, even if you’re feeling crappy.”
“But, you know, if you want to, like, talk about it.” Sean shrugged. “Or whatever, man. But I’m not changing the channel.”
Rickon glared even more, but shrugged and went back to watching the TV. Sean relaxed once it seemed like the kid wasn’t going to lunge at him and go for his throat. “They all blame me,” the kid said, and God, Sean just wanted to watch TV for once this week but he made a go on noise instead. Clarice would appreciate the effort, at least.
“Arya and Sansa and Bran,” Rickon said. He rubbed his giant dog-wolf’s giant shoulder. “Summer keeps biting Shaggy. I think Bran’s really doing it, though.”
“Your brother’s attacking your dog?”
“Direwolf,” Rickon snapped. “He stopped for a while.” His hand brushed through the thick black fur and pulled some aside. “But see?” Sean leaned over and winced at the scab. The wolf—Shaggy—stood and flopped down again just out of arm’s reach.
“So, do you want me to… I dunno, talk to him or something?”
Rickon twisted his face. “No.”
“So why’d you tell me?”
The kid shrugged. “Because Annalee would have talked to him. And made him feel bad, except he wouldn’t really mean it. She wouldn’t mean to, but it’s what she does.”
“Huh.” Sean watched the screen, trying to think of something wise and mentor-ly to say, but he wasn’t really the wise and mentor-ly type. Instead, he said, “So, about, like… powers… you know, it’s not such a big deal if you don’t know how to control them, you know.”
Rickon scowled and slouched. “That’s what Annalee and the professor said. I can control mine just fine, though.”
He nodded. “And I’m never going to use them again.”
“You know, sometimes you can't really control that.”
The kid fixed him with a truly scary look. “I said, I'm never using them again, and I mean it.” The wolf fixed Sean with a look, too, and Sean wondered if its fangs suddenly got bigger.
“That's cool, then,” Sean said, holding up his hands. “You mean it. I get it.”
“Can I change the channel?” Rickon asked again.
Sean flopped back. “Yeah, whatever.” It wasn’t like he knew what was going on, anyway.
He found her stabbing dispassionately at one of the practice dummies in the chamber that still bore burn marks from Havok’s first attempts at target practice, years prior. He waited for her to say something, annoyed at having a rare chance to spend time with Charles interrupted by Bran bursting in and whining that Arya had started a fight and God knew what else. Those puppy eyes of Charles’ and a Could you handle this, you know she doesn’t listen to me, later and here he was.
But she was patient, too, kneeling and stabbing the knocked-over practice dummy in the chest even though her arm shook and the plastic in its chest was more shredded than solid now. Practicality won out over pride and he froze the nicked paring knife at its apex.
“Don’t do that,” she snapped.
“Then don’t be petulant,” he said. The standoff continued, knife held just out of her reach and her jaw set in stubborn silence.
“You can keep the knife,” she finally said, hunching over. “That one’s too small now, anyway.”
“I don’t want the knife,” Erik said, exasperated. “And you’re a mutant, why don’t you learn to use whatever power you have properly?”
“You use knives,” she shot back.
“I use metal,” he corrected. Let her think about that. About how even if he was searched and disarmed of traditional weapons, he could kill with whatever metal was available nearby. Wires, buttons, necklaces. Coins.
“I don’t want to use a stupid power,” she said. “Mine’s useless. And I can only do it while I sleep and I’d rather have something useful, like Alex’s.”
“’Useful’ is what you make of it,” Erik said. “And nobody can ever take your power from you, once you learn to use it properly.”
“You block Xavier’s with your helmet,” she said, rolling her eyes. “All someone has to do is not have metal around to block yours.”
“That’s more difficult than it sounds,” he said, and it came out more defensively than he would have liked. Arya smirked. “In any case,” he said doggedly, “It helps to have something up your sleeve that others don’t know about.” He stood, an idea occurring to him. “Besides,” he said casually. “I don’t recruit humans.” He tossed the knife at her feet and walked out, closing the heavy door behind him without touching it.
A month later, and Arya greeted him sitting blindfolded on the front steps. Erik raised an eyebrow and waited.
“I know you’re there,” she snapped. “I heard you come up the walkway.”
“What exactly are you doing?”
“None of your business.”
“She’s waiting for a bird to come flying by,” called Rickon, sprinting by with Havok’s younger brother in tow.
Arya whipped her head around at the sound of his voice. “When I get one, I’m going to make it peck out your eyes!” she shouted after him.
“Don’t peck out your brother’s eyes,” Erik said, and walked by her, letting himself in.
Two months later, and Arya was still blindfolded. The scarf around her eyes had at least been changed at some point. “How long are you planning to do this?” Erik asked.
“Until I can see through their eyes while I’m awake,” Arya said. “I think I saw myself through a stray cat last week. I’m keeping the blindfold on until I’m sure.” She nodded to herself.
Behind her, Rickon rolled his eyes. Erik fixed him with a disapproving glare in response, and Rickon went wide-eyed and tipped over his chair in his rush to get away.
Three months later and Arya was no longer wearing the blindfold.
“I thought of how I want to use my power,” she said, not turning away from the television when Erik dropped in before leaving. “I can use it like a scope. I want to learn to shoot.”
“You’re thirteen,” he said. “I think Charles would have a few things to say about that.”
“I can wait,” she said. “I can wait for as long as I need to.”
On the television, actors fought fake Nazis and he sighed. “I expect for you to spend the next few years working on your abilities. Understand?”
She turned to look at the window, and he followed her gaze. A pigeon flew into the window, the heavy smack of it against the glass making him jump involuntarily in surprise, and Erik stared at where it lay crumpled on the ground outside.
“Perfectly,” Arya said, turning back to the television. Erik watched for a moment longer to see if the pigeon would get up again.
Telepathy was difficult.
Not the actual act, though that was a test in itself. A new muscle to flex, almost, and it made Bran think with aching longing of climbing new walls and new routes up Winterfell's towers, back before his fall. Except now it was his brain left sore after instead of his arms and legs. He could handle that. Training was never meant to be easy.
The hard part was everyone else.
Professor Xavier had warned him when they'd first started working on it, back when he first came to live at the mansion. "It's not an easy thing to live with," he'd cautioned. "Hearing the thoughts of others, while tremendously useful, can hurt you as much as it can aid you. Sometimes literally, if your mental shields aren't strong enough."
But Bran, still reeling from the loss of his family and Winterfell and Theon's betrayal, had set his jaw. "If I knew what any of them were thinking at Winterfell, maybe I could have stopped it. Or changed things, anyway."
Professor Xavier had given him a look that Bran recognized because Maester Luwin used to give him that same look, the one that said I know better than you but I'll let you find out the hard way and Bran's chest clenched with grief for Maester Luwin, but Professor Xavier worked with him anyway.
Betsy talked with him more after she came to live with them, Sansa in tow. Bran liked Betsy. She was tall and pretty and didn't talk with him like he was a child, which he appreciated because he would have been Lord Stark if he had been back home. But she didn't talk with him like he was a lord, either. She reminded him of Osha, if Osha had been younger and prettier and dressed in short skirts.
"It's a good thing you're such a sweet kid," she said one day when he was twelve, and he felt his face get red but it was really not worth getting embarrassed for since it was too late to hide from her anyway. "See?" she said. "That's how you've got to handle it, once you're better at the telepathy thing. Make people like you, make them comfortable, and it makes it a lot less awkward when they remember that you can pick up on them picturing you in your underwear.”
“Oh, not you,” Betsy said, waving him off and making him feel a little indignant with the dismissiveness of it. “Roberto and Xi’an and… anyway, putting people at ease helps.”
He hadn’t had to worry too much about it, though, not with his limited telepathy. As much as he worked at it, that part of his abilities were mostly passive. Picking up on moods, awareness of others nearby, and some words every now and again, but only if he tried very hard.
People still treated him a little differently. Arya stayed far away from him when she learned what he was doing, and on the rare occasion that he could pick up words from her, they were loud words in a language he didn’t understand. He was fine with that, though; when he was around her, it was like being around a maddened animal. The sister he remembered from his childhood had teased him, bossed him around, and occasionally ganged up with Jon and Robb to play small pranks on him, but she had never terrified him.
Sansa scared him too, but in a different way. She was quiet. He tried talking with Betsy about it once, but she had become unusually serious. “She’d appreciate it if you stayed out of her head,” she’d said, fiddling with an orange peel in the kitchen. “You’d probably like that, too.”
Rickon, at least, didn’t mind if Bran tried to practice on him. Even if nothing much happened.
And then the day came when the wall in his head came tumbling down. When he heard thoughts pouring in from all around him, a slow quiet trickle of whispers at first and then a torrent that he couldn’t block out fast enough, and Summer snapped at everyone who came near him and Scott needed stitches just because he’d tried to help and Bran screamed himself hoarse until Professor Xavier did something inside his brain and he woke up in the mansion’s infirmary. It was mercifully quiet, with only Hank and Professor Xavier around, talking quietly and thinking quietly. And Summer, of course, asleep on the next bed over. Bran heard Hank and Professor Xavier stop talking, and Hank hovered over him, all nerves and worry.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, and Bran frowned, trying to put it all in order.
“I have a headache,” he finally said. “Is Summer okay?”
“I had to tranquilize him,” Hank said. “He was a little out of control.” Dangerous, Hank’s mind said, and Bran winced.
“But he’ll be fine.”
“We’re more worried about you at the moment,” Professor Xavier said from behind Hank, wheeling into view. Bran couldn’t hear anything from him except what the professor said, which was a relief. “What exactly happened back there?”
Bran flopped back on the infirmary bed’s pillow, rubbing at his forehead. “Everything just got… loud. It hurt.”
Hank brushed his hand aside, shining a light in his eyes, checking pupils and wondering about concussions and migraines and other things that it hadn’t been. “That’s not it,” Bran said irritably, trying to wave him off. “Their thoughts were loud.” He glanced over at Professor Xavier, whose face hadn’t changed at his words. “I asked Miss Frost to help me with my blocked memories earlier, since she thought it might have been blocking my potential,” he explained.
The professor’s face did change then, and Bran could feel the anger that matched what he saw. “I told her to stay out of students’ heads,” Xavier said quietly.
“I asked her to,” Bran said quickly, even though he wasn’t entirely certain that it had gone that way, but it was too late now. “I haven’t been improving on my own, Professor.”
“You weren’t ready,” Xavier said. “It could have been done slowly, with less chance of you hurting yourself.”
Bran glared at him and pushed himself up, ignoring the stabbing pain just behind his right eye and the muffled growl from a still-sleeping Summer. “Did you know about it? That taking away that block in my mind would help?”
“I’m just going to check on something over there,” Hank said, backing away. Bran ignored him.
“I suspected,” Professor Xavier said.
“Why didn’t you help me with it, then?” Bran said, frustration bubbling over. “You’re supposed to help us. You know I’ve been trying and trying and nothing was happening. I trusted you to help me.”
“Bran, when you were a little older, I was going to broach the subject—”
“A little older?” Bran laughed. “Professor, if I was back in Westeros I might be married by now. Certainly a lord. Maybe a king. Maybe even dead. At my age, the Kingslayer had already been named to the Kingsguard and my brother had a crown, a wife, and been murdered for it.”
“This isn’t Westeros,” Xavier said.
“It might not be, but I’ll never forget that somewhere else, I wouldn’t be considered a child. I don’t appreciate being treated like one.” He looked steadily at Xavier with all the seriousness that he remembered from Robb and his father. “I chose what I thought was right, because one day I might need it and I don’t know when that might be. I don’t want anyone else to make that decision for me. And I’d very much like your help in learning to control it.”
“You don’t have to leave,” Arya said, wrinkling her nose and lounging over her sister’s desk chair.
“I want to,” Sansa said, carefully folding another blouse and placing it in a half-full box marked bedroom in her precise hand.
She could hear the face Arya was making, even if she couldn’t see it. “It’s because you’re not a mutant, isn’t it? Is someone making you leave? Tell me who it is and I’ll make them sorry.”
Sansa smiled a little despite herself. “That’s very… kind of you, but no thank you. Nobody’s making me leave. This is something I need to do for myself.” She turned around, looking curiously at her sister. “Besides, I didn’t think you liked having me around all that much.”
Arya shrugged, looking away. “I don’t like having you not around more,” she grumbled. “There’s only the four of us left. We should stay together.”
“We can’t do that, though. It’s a beautiful thought, to stay here and let them take care of us, but what will we do when we’re older?” Sansa shook her head. “I can’t have people making my decisions for me any more. I want to do this, and I’m going to.” She felt quite pleased with how firm she sounded, considering how utterly terrifying the thought was. “Besides, I know you don’t like it here. Aren’t you planning to leave yourself when you can?”
It was apparently the wrong thing to say. Arya scowled ferociously at her and stormed out, slamming the door behind her. Sansa let her hands shake then, and the tears come to her eyes.
She wiped them away with the back of a hand at the sound of a knock on the door. “One moment,” she called. The knock was polite, so it couldn’t be Arya or Rickon, and if it had been Bran he would have brushed her mind first. Betsy, perhaps?
She checked herself in her mirror, displeased that she looked as if she had obviously been weeping but there was nothing to be done. With a sigh, she opened the door, but half closed it in surprise. “Alex?”
“Hey,” he said. “Can I come in, or—”
“I’d prefer not,” she said, stepping out into the hallway and closing the door behind her. “Can I help you with something?”
“I just wanted to...” He looked around self-consciously. “Okay, I get that you don’t want me in your room, but can we talk somewhere private?”
“Either we speak in the open or I’d like to call a chaperone,” she said. “It’s nothing personal.”
“Right,” he said with a little laugh. “That weird-ass place you come from.” She didn’t answer; it was less a remnant of her upbringing than it was wanting to feel safe. Despite Alex’s presence at the mansion during her years there, she had rarely spoken with him, and besides, from Arya’s stories the man had been some kind of criminal. “Okay, out here it is. Look, I, uh… wanted to thank you.”
“For what?” she asked. She’d certainly done no favors for him. She tried actively to avoid him, in fact.
“For what you’re planning to do. The college thing, and—” He waved a hand vaguely out to the main area of the mansion. “Trying to help kids like them. Like us.”
“Oh.” She felt her face flush. “Really, it’s not… I only want to help.”
“Yeah, I get that. We need more people like that. More people like you on our side. Especially for…” He huffed, ran a hand through his hair. “You know my little brother, Scott?”
“Yes.” How could she not? He was a friend of Bran’s, and she couldn’t avoid him if she tried. He was nice enough, though.
“I tried to take care of him after our parents died, but I couldn’t… I went away for a while, and they put him in the foster system because he was way too young to be on his own. And I lost track of him, because of the whole ex-con thing, and the mutant thing. And then he got his powers and… what I’m saying is, nobody back then really knew how to handle it. And you’ve been here all this time, so you can help, you know? Even if you’re not… you know, one of us, you know what it’s like.” He smiled a little bitterly. “And they’ll actually hire you since you’re not a mutant.”
It stung, but it was true enough. “I’m very sorry to hear about all of that,” she said.
“Yeah, I figure you know all about being apart from your family. Bran told me some of it.”
“So. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate it. I’m pretty sure Scott would, too, if he paid attention to anything. Probably a lot of the other kids around here.”
“Thank you,” she said. And because she felt like this wasn’t the sort of conversation you could leave one-sided, she added, “I think it’s very noble what you do, too.”
“Rescuing the ones who need it. Teaching them, letting them know that they aren’t alone.” She smiled. “It’s nice to not feel alone.”
He smiled back. “Yeah, it is.”