It is always hard to live up to a genius parent, even when you’re a genius yourself.
‘I have no time for this. Work is waiting.’ Father's voice says in his head.
‘I just wish he’d grow up faster. Understand things faster.’ Every morning father thinks this, and every morning he rushes to work. Every night he comes home late and every day between his departure and his arrival, mother’s loneliness grows like a dark cloud.
So every day Charles studies. He thinks if he becomes smart enough, worthy of father’s attention, father will stay home longer and mother can be less lonely.
The first time Charles reads up on physics, he is three years (ten months and eleven days) old. His father smiles proudly at him, kisses his forehead, calls him ‘my little genius’, and leaves in a hurry. He is almost late for work and not even extraordinary shows of intellect from his only child can keep him home.
He leaves and never comes back.
The day they bury father, mother starts changing.
Her already infrequent smiles taper down to nothing, her loneliness transforms from a dark cloud hovering above their heads into a thick fog blanketing everything. Her body is there but her mind is never the same.
When she is with Charles, all he can hear is her despair. She drinks from the shelf father forbade everyone to touch, and Charles hates it. He brings her flowers from the garden but she throws them away. He brings her breakfast but she never eats it. He smiles at her and curls up beside her, but she never smiles back.
She never looks at Charles anymore.
One day, Charles finds Raven and he thinks that maybe father left because Charles kept getting underfoot, so maybe mother will get better if he goes away. Soon, she starts to smile and starts talking about father’s friend, who visits mother everyday, and for a little while, she gets better. Mother is happy and Charles thinks he is right in staying away.
And then suddenly it gets worse and Charles realises he couldn’t be more wrong.
Stepfather is cruel. Charles knows he married mother for money. He can hear it in stepfather’s head, can hear the impatience in stepfather’s mind when mother or Charles is there. He brings with him an even crueller little boy, so full of anger and resentment. Charles spends the first few months of his mother's misguided marriage hoarding food in the hallway cupboards and hiding in them with Raven.
He feels it when mother leaves. He is in a cupboard when a blast of despair comes from mother’s room and he clutches his head when pain comes next. He passes out and wakes in his bed with Raven curled up like a cat beside him. Charles thinks about how he long he has known, about how he could have warned mother. If she had known, she may have stayed lonely but she would not have killed herself in grief.
He feels the guilt claw at stepfather and Charles decides it’s time to stop hiding.
Stepfather becomes nicer. He brings Charles gifts and pats Charles’ head before he goes to work. He takes the boys out to the pictures and brings them out to watch the stars.
Cain is not happy. He resents how Charles becomes more precious than him, the real son; how his father only pays attention to him as an incidental element. While once he was only angry at his father, soon he is angry at Charles and his cruelty compounds by the day.
It is Charles’ birthday when Cain sees Raven in the house. When Cain tries to hurt her, Charles fights back. Charles keeps him quiet and desperately moves their fight away from Raven. They are so focused on each other that they are surprised to find themselves in a lab, and even then they continue fighting – until fire breaks out near them.
They both think they will die but stepfather comes and saves them. When they reach the door the beams fall and they cannot pass but stepfather tosses them out through a gap and they are safe. Charles looks at stepfather from outside and cannot feel stepfather’s fear. All stepfather feels is relief from his burdens and his guilt.
Stepfather walks farther inside where no one can reach him and Cain, beside Charles, walks away. Hatred burns in Cain’s heart and he cannot bear to stay with this boy that took everything from him.
Charles does not move until Raven finds him and drags him away.
Raven stays with Charles, and as the years pass, he lets his guard down. He never forgets the four that left him, but he buries it under smiles and the sheer assurance that Raven never will. Then he meets Moira, Hank and Erik. They find Sean, Angel and Darwin. Charles thinks that it won’t matter anymore that others have left him if he can now have this family.
Then, Darwin dies and Angel walks away and Charles feels the long-forgotten fear resurface. He only looked away for such a short while, and now two are gone. ‘Who will be next?’ He wonders. He tries to swallow his terror and throws himself into training the others. He tells himself that if he does this, maybe no one will have reason to leave.
But he is wrong. Always wrong.
Charles feels Erik drifting away and it’s as if time slows to a stop. He sees his father, leaving and dying. His mother, drinking herself into a stupor day by day until she finally takes her own life. He remembers stepfather walking farther into the fire and feels the phantom of Cain walking away in hatred. He sees the children huddled together, despondent, after Darwin dies and Angel betrays them.
If Erik leaves, Charles knows he will never return. If Erik gives Raven a choice, Charles knows Raven will follow. Panic and fear claw up Charles’ chest, and even when every movement hurts, he strains to touch Erik’s face. Ironically, Erik sees Charles’ hand and brings it closer, sets it on his cheek beneath the helmet. Relief floods Charles,
“My friend. Do not do this.”
Erik’s eyes cloud as he speaks. “We will never be free unless we go against them.”
“No, my friend. Stay. Stay with me.”
Charles pushes harder, implants the suggestion deeper. He feels Erik’s capitulation even before Erik does so himself, and he cannot regret it. He has been wrong about so people so many times before; he has trusted people to stay, to love him without need of this, but always, he is never enough.
There is no way he will let it happen again. Not this time. Not with Erik.
No one’s leaving. Not anymore.