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The Aphanes

Chapter Text

I sometimes think that shame,
mere awkward, senseless shame,
does as much towards preventing good acts
and straightforward happiness
as any of our vices do.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

St. Rita's Residence was close to the Experimental Farm, a government agricultural research project that gave Ottawa a flat green heart of tidy fields in the middle of the city, high-rises standing guard around the plots of soybeans, winter wheat, and barley. A few streets away, St. Rita's took up a city block, rows of pines and cedar around its fences for privacy. It looked like a private school, maybe, dark bricks with some ugly angular roofs and windows that suggested it had been built in the '70s. It stood on a street scattered with yellow leaves, stuck there wet and bright against the rain-black asphalt. In the smoked-glass windshield of the rental car, the leaves from above were reflected again, and two of them drifted down to land between the wiper blades in the time that it took for Jean to help Charles out of the front seat and into his waiting wheelchair. She was able to use telekinesis to make the process more dignified, since there was no one around to get alarmed.

Charles was wondering if St. Rita's neighbours actually got alarmed by things like that, whether they were anxious NIMBY types or whether proximity had made them get used to the presence of mutants. The other houses on the street were small, mid-century white clapboard things, most of them immaculate, the leaves raked up and waiting at the curb in orange bags with Jack-o-lantern faces on them. Ontario's red ensign flag hung limply on a diagonal pole mounted on one of the porch posts. At the end of one long driveway, a cabin cruiser sat on a trailer cozied under a blue tarp, with an orange-and-black FOR SALE sign perched on top.

"Happy people, do you think?" Charles asked Jean as she flipped out the footrests on his chair for him, and he moved his own right leg over to get his weight settled the way he liked it. "Good neighbours?"

"I hope so. Seems quiet, anyway," Jean said, straightening up and buttoning her jacket. "No angry signs on the lawns for the People's Front for Judaea, like we were seeing on the way in."

The signs had been clustered around stop signs and fences here and there throughout the city, and some prominently placed on lawns: Canadian Front for Humanity, Human Liberation, Human and Proud, We Stand for Safe Streets. Some were weirdly cheerful or quippy: Clean Genes! one bragged, while another read No Pesticides - this lawn is safe for animals and real humans.

The gate had a camera prominently perched on the fencepost and a few warning signs in English and French, but it wasn't locked. Charles and Jean passed through the wet parking lot and up the ramp to the front doors, and these were locked. Jean had to knock on the glass and wave before the security guard inside looked up from his newspaper and pressed the button to let them in, the door buzzing.

When the guard summoned him, Dr. Gilles Visineau came down the hall to meet them. He wore a Roman collar with traditional blacks, no blue or pale grey clerical shirt to look more approachable. He and Charles had met two years ago at a big North American conference about mutation and mental health, and they hadn't exactly hit it off famously, but it was a small field and you had to play nice with colleagues. "Dr. Xavier, Dr. Grey, I'm so glad you made it -- how was your flight? From JFK, that's not too long, is it?"

"Not bad at all, it was super short," Jean said with a smile, shaking his hand. "Barely enough time for a movie. And so long as I shell out for the extra legroom I'm fine."

"Customs and security are getting to be more distressing than being in the air," Charles said, as neutrally as he could; known mutants faced extra screening, which affected Jean but not him. "But it wasn't bad at all, on the whole. I was happy to come see your facility, and I'm interested to meet your patient -- how's he doing today?"

Visineau lifted his shoulders in a shrug, an uncomfortable movement as if he were trying to dislodge something heavy or itchy from his back. "Not too bad, not too bad. From what the morning nurse told me. Hopefully you'll get to actually see him this time. I wish that Skype had worked for feeling out a rapport, without you having to come all the way here, but...well. Hoped it would work, wasn't surprised when it didn't."

A month ago, Dr. Visineau had put out some feelers, emailing Charles with a request for advice on treating one of his residents. Charles rather liked being asked for an opinion, especially since Visineau had previously seemed -- well, smug. Convinced that he understood how to treat mutants, without being one. Not in any hurry to listen to the experiences of actual mutant workers in mental health. Visineau asking for a consult felt like a concession in an argument they hadn't even been having. Charles agreed to take a look at the case, and they'd exchanged a flurry of paperwork, consent and release forms.

Joel McCree, 17, was referred to me by his family physician shortly after his mutation manifested 2 years ago. He was seen at the clinic as an outpatient for 8 months before a suicide attempt necessitated inpatient care with the residential program. His powers are invisibility (poor control) and a better-controlled phasing power, similar to that of the anonymous student you described in your last article for the American Journal of Mutant Psychology. Those of my students with telepathic powers report that he is insensible to them while in his invisible state.

Joel suffers from severe depression, social anxiety, and generalised anxiety. He is also epileptic, as a result of surviving meningitis in childhood. He is resistant to therapy and medications have had limited effect. Since his arrival at St. Rita's, his suicidal ideations have worsened and the therapeutic alliance has broken down. Due to his powers, guaranteeing his physical safety here is impossible. If you are amenable, I would like to explore the possibility of referral to your program in New York.

The boy's file had a few features that caught Charles' interest. Unlike Kitty Pryde, his phasing ability never seemed to cause falls through beds or upper floors, which was interesting. Partial immunity to telepathy was an intriguing side effect too, and learning more about that could expand their knowledge of how telepathy worked in the first place.

A referral didn't sound like a bad idea either, but Charles hadn't been able to speak with Joel personally. Skype had been a total failure, since the camera couldn't pick up his presence at all. "He's too anxious on the phone," Visineau said, leading them down a corridor. "Not even in the sense of, 'oh, try some mindfulness techniques.' He gets uncomfortable and boom, he disappears."

"But face to face is better?" Jean said, following at the Professor's side.

"I'm not sure I'd say better. Face to face is possible, let's put it that way. We'll try today and tomorrow -- if that's all right with you -- but if he won't appear at all then we might as well consider this a dead end."

"We can stay until Thursday," Charles said. "That gives us a few opportunities to catch him on a good day. Are his parents able to meet with us too?"

"Are they," said Visineau with a snort. "His parents have been at my heels all month, they really want this referral. His father has a busy schedule, but they'll make the time for you."

"Pretty stable home, though, right?" said Jean. "From what I saw in the file. Supportive of mutants, engaged in his care?"

Visineau nodded. "Very supportive. His father lost his seat in Parliament because he was fighting for the mutant issue, actually, which was before Joel even manifested. When the Liberals came back swinging in the last election, his father got appointed to the Senate as a consolation prize, which is less power but more security. And he's still been pushing mutant issues from there. Joel's mother works in special needs education, so you really couldn't ask for parents who are in a better position."

Charles wanted to be impressed and reassured by that, but he thought there was something in the priest's tone that invited scepticism. You really couldn't ask...and yet... "Well. That's all to the good. The mood disorder makes sense, especially when it's co-morbid with epilepsy. And social isolation must factor in, even in a facility with other mutant patients."

"He has opportunities to interact with other mutants. He just...isn't there yet. I order group therapy, he doesn't show up. I try to pair him with other patients one on one for activities, he disappears for those too. We have serious talks about treatment goals and resistance, and he denies that he's being resistant. I can't prove that he's deliberately disappearing, but he's gone for so much of the time that I'm not sure it matters whether he's doing it on purpose or not. He's clearly too anxious to participate in -- in anything, one way or the other. He's missing his own life," Visineau added, more quietly.

"Is it so bad to miss out on being seventeen?" Jean said with a wry little smile. "It's not a very good year for everyone."

It got a chuckle out of Visineau. "Maybe. But I don't think he's tried enough to know if he likes being seventeen."

"I think," said Charles, "that it does help being with other mutant patients. But I think it would help more to have mutant staff. You and your people here are baseline humans, and as committed as you are to helping mutants, you're missing a vital piece of the experiential puzzle. Being able to see healthy adult mutants -- living productive lives -- would be very encouraging."

"Of course, which is why I hoped you could take him on. But it's not as though we're turning mutant staff away here at St. Rita's. There aren't very many in the field, they don't apply, so what am I supposed to do?" Visineau sounded nettled. "I think it's just as important to demonstrate that baseline humans aren't the enemy, that we want to help. I'm really not wild about drawing distinctions between humans and mutants, especially not in that language. We are all human."

"So we are, but a fairly major difference does exist. We must name it." Homo superior, Charles thought as he always did, Erik's voice in his memory. It wasn't a good term, and he didn't use it, but it was out there nonetheless. "Refusing to name something doesn't make it go away."

"No one is trying to erase that. That's not what St. Rita's is about," said Visineau wearily. "We just want a community."

They passed through a couple of sets of locked doors, and signed in through security. Charles and Jean were issued red plastic visitor passes, and it was nice to see that the security staff looked bored. Not tense, not threatened, not uncomfortable, just bored. That was more convincing than anything Visineau said. St. Rita's wasn't a place where the staff expected trouble.

On the boys' ward, things were quiet. An occupational therapy session was going on in one room, and through the windowed wall Charles caught a glimpse of mutant teenagers in school uniforms, working on art projects. Clay bowls and birds, sleeves rolled up, a few smiles.

Jean was keeping her head up, but her hands were balled up in foetal fists at her sides -- Charles could feel that she was working hard on keeping her mental walls up. So was he, really.

Visineau stopped at a door at the end of the hall and knocked. No answer. He sighed, and said something inquiring in French. Again no answer. "Eh bien, he's probably there," he said to Charles and Jean. "There's no way to tell, so I take it on faith. Praestet fides supplementum..."

"'Faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail,'" Charles said, quoting the traditional English translation of the line. "You sound like you're being a bit facetious -- you really don't know if he's even there?"

"From what he's told me, I honestly don't think he would just leave. He's an obedient kid, he does what he's told and he doesn't like to buck authority. Passive, really. Some kids who had this power would use it to spy on the girls' washrooms, some would just walk out the door and never come back, but him -- I don't think so. I might be wrong," Visineau allowed. "But this is why I was glad to have Dr. Grey here to consult. A powerful telepath might be able to detect what my patients here can't."

"It's possible," Jean said, not glancing over at Charles. "I mean, I'm picking up nada right now, but we'll see what we can see. Or hear, or feel. Are we good to go in?"

"I think so. Shall I give you some elbow room? I'll be at the nursing station at the end of the hall."

"Very good, thank you," said Charles, and he pushed open the door to let himself inside the room.

It was a little more homelike than a hospital room, but not as personal as a dorm. There was one window, looking out into the pines that lined the property, with switch-operated blinds within the panels of glass -- no strings or cables. The desk in the corner was stacked with books, and Charles cruised his chair over to glance at them. Dostoevsky was on top, The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe it was for school, or maybe the boy could relate to a famously epileptic author. The bed was unmade, piled with homemade quilts and afghans, more evidence of relatives who cared.

Charles relaxed his mental shields and opened his awareness, gently searching for another presence. He could feel Jean doing the same, her mind's movements quicker than his, fast radar-like sweeps -- she was nervous. She'd been in places like this before, and not (in those days) as a doctor.

"Anything?" she murmured to him, still standing with her hand on the doorframe. "I don't want to just walk in, I'm afraid I'll walk through him and I won't even know."

"Oh, I'm sure I already have," Charles said, still reaching. He felt nothing. If he hadn't known, he would have confidently said the room was empty. "But let's not talk as if he isn't here. --Joel, I expect you've already gathered this, but I'm Professor Charles Xavier. Dr. Visineau has told you about me and vice versa. I'm very sorry we weren't able to speak on the phone, or over Skype, but many people with social anxiety find that sort of thing difficult."

Silence.

"This is my colleague, Dr. Jean Grey. She's not a psychiatrist, she's a research physician, but she's not here in that capacity. I brought her with me because when I first met her, she was in a residential facility not so different from this one. She's a mutant, like you," Charles said. "And like me."

No one, there was no one there. They were talking to themselves. Not a breath, not a thought. How could he be so silent, if he was there? Why didn't he say something? Why couldn't he say something?

"We'd like to talk to you, if you don't mind," Jean said, her eyes tracking through the room, looking for any sign of life. "Can you make yourself visible for us?"

A page on the deck rustled. It was so slight that Charles thought he'd imagined it, or that it was just a random air current from the ceiling vent, but suddenly he saw a flicker of movement right in front of his face and he started, powering his chair backward until its wheels bumped the edge of the bed.

But the movement was just a white index card, fluttering to the floor. Jean came forward to pick it up, and then handed it to Charles.

The card looked old, its edges furred by handling, a little warped from moisture. On it was written:

Today I am having trouble speaking and staying solid.
Please be patient.

A teacher had made it for him, probably -- the handwriting was precise and elegant. Charles recalled a reference to "cards" in the file sent from Dr. Visineau. Joel used them to communicate, the file said, but only sometimes. Other times, talking to the empty space had absolutely no effect. It was just as if he were dead, or unconscious. Incommunicado.

"Okay, Joel, thanks for letting us know," Jean said softly to the air. "We'll wait until you're able to talk. There's no hurry."

They waited for what felt like a very long time, although the clock on the bedside table said it was only a few minutes. It was hard not to look nervous, not to fidget or stare, but they made the effort, knowing that if they looked impatient that it would only make Joel more skittish. Jean made some small talk with the Professor, only a little awkward, because she felt like an expectant silence was only going to feel worse. She had been shy once too; she knew that much.

Then, like a Polaroid developing, a figure faded into view by the window. Jean forgot what she was saying, her sentence trailing off.

He was thin, painfully thin, and the frayed black sweater he wore showed a deep hollow above his collarbone. Probably the victim of a recent growth spurt, gangly and stoop-shouldered.  He was gingery, freckles everywhere like the translucent speckles on a wild bird’s eggshell, and his mouth was a bit too wide for his face.  His eyes were a pale hazel that was a little unnerving, a light-catching colour, clear and clean -- Charles was used to seeing that sort of expression in other telepaths, an excess of vision. 

And right away, as if a switch had been flicked on, Charles could hear his thoughts. He felt the boy's choking nervousness, heard him thinking: don't fuck this up, don't fuck this up, not any more than you have already, they already hate you but you have to say something, just say something, it isn't hard. He had a loud mental "voice", thoughts pouring by at a fever pitch. His hands and bare toes were clenched, knuckles white.

"I'm sorry," he said, almost the way other people might say hello.

"I don't know what for," said Charles, smiling. "It's wonderful to see you. So it seems that you do have some control over your powers--"

"No," Joel interrupted, sounding alarmed. "Whoa, no, don't get the wrong idea here. I can't -- I can't do it for long." He nearly faded again, but grabbed a handful of the bed covers frantically, and his outline became sharp once more. "It's hard. When it's a bad day it's hard, I'm sorry."

"Well, I'd be very interested in exploring some control techniques with you, if you do choose to work with me. It might seem unlikely to you now, but we've had success with quite a number of mutants with very different powers. We even have a student who can phase through matter, although I suspect your abilities don't work the same way."

"Um..." Joel eased himself down to sit on the bed, moving like someone trying not to slip on an icy sidewalk. "Yeah, I mean -- sorry, can I -- what day is it?"

"It's Monday," said Jean. "The twelfth of October. We heard that your nurse thought you were doing okay this morning, was she wrong? Bad intel?"

"It's still Monday?"

"Still. Do you get disoriented sometimes?"

He nodded, flushing a dark red, and took a few seconds to gather his thoughts. "Okay -- wow, I guess it's not a bad day, then. Shows what I know. Yeah, I was gonna say...I'm really sorry about the Skype thing, sir, I really tried hard but cameras are tough for me. I have to be a hundred percent there, and I just...get really nervous--"

"I'm not worried at all about the Skype issue, Joel," Charles said. "We're here now in the flesh, aren't we? How do you feel about the prospect of leaving St. Rita's?"

Joel hesitated, then said, "Yeah, like...yeah. Everyone seems to think it's a good idea."

"What do you think?"

"I don't know."

"You'd rather stay here?"

"No. Sorry." It had just been an automatic I don't know, Charles thought, and waited for Joel to come up with a real answer. He hadn't made eye contact with either of them yet. "I want to...they can't help me here," he said finally, his voice barely more than a murmur. "They're done trying, it's run its course. It's just -- it's not working here. It happens."

"Yeah, it does happen like that sometimes," Jean said. She started to move closer but aborted it when she saw him tense up and fade at the edges. "Your chart says you've been around, huh? Different hospitals, different doctors. I was the same way, my parents tried everything. You know it's not your fault, right? It's just how the system is. Sometimes things just don't click."

"Uh-huh."

"It's a jump, going from here to Westchester, but I do think it would be beneficial. Your parents seem to agree," said Charles.

"Yeah."

"We really might be able to make some progress there that couldn't be made here. Studying your powers, especially. Which I know might sound a bit frightening," Charles went on, although he couldn't differentiate whether the currents of fear and dread in Joel's thoughts were general or specific. Was he afraid of the prospect of being tested, or just afraid of this conversation? "My school is run by and for mutants. It's not primarily a clinical setting -- I'm actually not in the habit of taking patients these days, but Dr. Visineau asked and I was interested. It's a school for gifted children, exactly as it says on the sign. Not patients, not cases, not problems. Children who need to learn how to embrace their gifts. My hope is that it's an environment that will support recovery while giving you the opportunity to learn about your abilities. And to learn history, physics, English..."

The only reaction he got was an unspoken wave of weary apathy, under the crackle of anxiety. "Sure, yeah. That sounds...good."

"Joel, when was the last time you ate something?" Jean asked. "Not to be invasive here, but I'm a telepath, some of that comes with the territory. You feel really tired and hungry to me. Kinda rolling off you in waves. Do you miss meals a lot?"

"Sorry. Um, yeah, I do."

"Okay. Can I talk you into coming with us to the cafeteria? Keep your blood sugar up?"

He shifted his weight on the bed, still looking uncomfortable. "Okay. Let me get my shoes."

When he had his shoes on, he picked up the empty water bottle from the bedside table and tried to follow Jean and Charles to the door...then he abruptly disappeared. The water bottle also disappeared, then reappeared as it fell to the floor and bounced on the carpet. Charles remembered Dr. Visineau's notes -- small objects close to Joel's body, including clothes, became invisible with the rest of him, while larger, heavier things tended to phase through and become visible once they passed out of the field. It was why the trick with the index cards worked, when it did work.

More jarring for Charles was the sudden telepathic silence, the knowledge that he was watched but could not sense the watcher.

Suppressing her discomfort, Jean picked the water bottle up and said, "Don't worry, just come with us, okay? You might be able to get solid again once you're there. The Professor will help you."

Charles, for once, wasn't so sure he could.

* * *

"Frankly, I'm surprised that St. Rita's was able to take care of him as long as they did." Senator Jim McCree had made time to see Charles and Jean in his office in the Victoria Building, opposite Parliament Hill. It was a handsome old Art Deco building of dark red brick with white stone cornices around the roof, less imposing than the Gothic arches and steeples of the Parliament buildings themselves. The Senator's office was small and stuffed with books, reassuringly academic. He was a tall, rangy man in his early sixties; his son had been born late, his Isaac. His hair was grey but his eyebrows were still dark, his face craggy and patrician, with a long nose and a stubborn chin.

He was eating his lunch, spearing the vegetables of his salad with a plastic fork as he spoke. "When he first went there, it was hard. Knowing that no matter how much we wanted to, we couldn't help Joel with his problems. But we believed that he was getting the kind of care he needed. Now it seems an awful lot like Father Gilles just quit on him. You heard about that, right? One way or another, Joel's out the door of that place at the end of the month, because Father Gilles decided that treatment's not working. Okay, I agree, it's not. We know it's logical for people to stop banging their heads against the wall at some point; we understand that. But it's easy to feel abandoned, in a case like this."

"I can certainly understand your feelings," said Charles, who'd been offered a cup of tea by an assistant when he came in. To his surprise, he'd got it in a china cup instead of styrofoam. "Dr. Visineau did everything he could. I have no doubt of that. But he believes that the traditional models are sufficient for treating mutant children with mental problems. Except when they aren't."

"Really." A moment of ice, there -- the Senator could criticise Visineau, but Charles couldn't.

"He's in good company with that belief," Charles backtracked, allowing a hint of diplomatic irony in his voice, to show that he had registered Senator McCree's disapproval and was not cowed. "But I don't agree with him. To only try medication and talk therapy is not enough, not for mutant children. Joel has a very significant additional factor complicating his disease. I would be surprised if his mutation is the cause of it, but it's not helping. My first impression is that it's serving him as a coping mechanism, but that's not a healthy use of his ability. Dr. Visineau can't advise him very much on learning to control it, because he's never had to control a mutation himself and there's no framework for teaching it. On this subject, there's no substitute for experience."

"Listen, this all makes perfect sense to me," Senator McCree said, gesturing with the plastic fork. The ice was gone and he seemed to have lost interest in monitoring Charles for criticisms of St. Rita's. "And let's be realistic here, the situation we have doesn't work. Joel is not getting better. I'm not so sure he isn't getting worse. I keep hearing phrases like 'suicidal ideation' whenever I go talk to Father Gilles, and when I ask what the plan is to keep my son safe, he doesn't know. Like I applaud his honesty, sure, thanks for not lying and saying you do know when you don't. But that means St. Rita's can't handle the job. What are they going to do if he decides he's going to walk off the grounds and go looking for a bridge? Nothing. Right? So what are you going to do?"

"After we've done some tests, I think we'll have some fresh ideas about medication," Jean said. "We have data and methods that aren't accessible to anyone else, and I think we can come up with a cocktail that will be better at keeping him solid--"

"Not you personally, though, right?" Mr. McCree interrupted. "I understand you don't work at the school, is that correct?"

"No, my area of research is in genetics. I'm a postdoctoral fellow at Sinai, so I'm in the city a lot. But the guy who would be testing and working with Joel on this question is a dear friend of mine, Hank McCoy. He's even smarter than me, if you can believe it." Jean smiled, a cajoling smile: come on, go ahead and like us. "You're sceptical, Senator, and you should be. You've got every right to ask how treatment is going to be better with us. But we wouldn't have come if we didn't believe it would be."

"Oh, you've got Dr. McCoy in-house there?" said Mr. McCree, his chair squeaking as he tilted it backward, still eating.

"You've heard of him, huh? That was a good 'oh.'"

"Ohhhh..." The Senator smiled, drawing it out as if he'd just understood the secrets of the universe. "Yeah, I've heard of Dr. McCoy. I'm not a scientist, but mutation is my pet issue, so...okay, yeah, I'm able to believe that someone of that calibre could figure something out that we couldn't in Ottawa. And obviously Dr. Xavier is a legend, we all know that. I'm not deliberately being difficult, guys. I'm being worried, because my kid's not okay. I want to hear you tell me that you've got plans and ideas, because I haven't been hearing that from other places. Other places tell me they're going to try the same thing the last twenty places tried. And I tell them, look, keep my kid alive. Ideally make him feel better, but even if all you can do is take my money and keep him alive..."

"We do have plans and ideas. We have hope, Senator. That's really what you're asking about, isn't it?" said Charles. "The social environment will be better. Staff who understand mutation from the inside out. A scientist who's top in his field is keen to give your son his personal attention. And while we're doing some benevolent boasting here, I'm not short on accomplishments myself. You probably know the lightbulb joke about psychotherapists."

"'Only one, but it has to really want to change.'" Mr. McCree nodded, herding a crouton from the edge of the bowl with his fork. "Yup, heard it."

"That really is the one thing needful. We provide what he needs to grow, to heal, to recover, and he does the heavy lifting himself. I think we can put the right tools in his hands."

"All right. Well, if you got some kind of a grudging yes out of Joel, then we'll get him down there to Westchester. Lillian's already on board, she's been excited about this. I just wanted to clap eyes on you myself." Mr. McCree shrugged. "As if you can tell anything by looking, but you know what it's like." The assistant appeared in the doorway again. "Are we out of time?"

"Ten minutes until your appointment with Marcel Lauzon, yeah," said the assistant. "Sorry, guys."

Mr. McCree sighed. "My salad's gonna wilt. Okay, I guess I used up my budgeted parental fussing time. In conclusion, Professor, I'm trusting you with my baby here. I've only got one, no backups. Just make sure I get him back when you're done, okay?"

Charles smiled. "We'll take good care of your child, Senator."

On the way out of the building, Jean said, "He's a good guy, I think. I mean, he's a politician, so I wasn't sure at first. But I think he is."

"He loves his son," Charles agreed. And he was inclined to cut the man miles of slack for that alone -- it was such a welcome change from frightened parents who were outraged that fate had not given them a "normal" child; from the absent or abusive parents of runaways; from the missing parents of bereaved or abandoned children who, like Scott and so many others, had been left behind in a system that could offer little help.

And yet even a loving father, even a family that had both money and power, was not enough to make you safe.