Winter is approaching quickly, but the house is warm thanks to the lit stove and the steam from the pot cooking on one of the back eyes.
It would be warmer if the door wasn't being opened quite so often, but as it's only late fall it isn't awful. Charles doesn't bother to scold the children as they run in and out. Bobby and Kitty are only six, and it wouldn't do much good to say anything anyway. They're playing with Marie, the girl their age from across the lane who wears gloves, and together the three of them are more than a little imaginative.
Then again, Charles supposes it's his fault. He tells them all so many stories about what he remembers the world being like before—before the war that ended wars and left the planet devastated.
Ororo is trying desperately to keep track of the smaller children, and Charles tells her it isn't necessary. "I'm watching them from here and I'm certain Marie's mother is watching from across the way. They'll be fine. Don't you have a test coming up to be studying for? Go on back upstairs."
"Okay, okay…" She's sixteen, and smart, and nearly finished with the admittedly meager school curriculum. He knows she's quite bored with it all now, wondering what the point is anyway when the only purpose this society has ever taught her that she will have is to marry, have children, and feed the slowly re-growing population.
Charles has always done his best to give his children, at least, more hope than that.
His and Erik's children.
Ororo reluctantly retreats up the bare wooden stairs of the small house, and not a moment later there are harder footsteps pounding down them and Charles is interrupted yet again. He's never going to get the seasoning in the soup right if the distractions don't stop.
"Jean? Where are you going?"
She stops halfway to the door, shawl pulled around her shoulders, and looks back and shakes her bright red hair over her shoulders. Jean is seventeen, a year older than her younger sister almost to the day.
They're both growing so fast. All of the children. Only Bobby and Kitty, really, are even children anymore at all, and sometimes Charles can't believe he's only thirty-nine.
Well, forty in a few short weeks, but there's no need to bother thinking about that.
"I'm meeting Scott at the library," Jean tells him.
"Have you done your homework?"
"What passes for it," she sighs. She should be finished with school, but though she is just as bright as Ororo she isn't as dedicated to her schooling. Jean is a dreamer, and Erik has mentioned to Charles more than once that she takes after him in quite a few ways.
"I know it isn't as challenging as it should be, but you should still do it, Jean. You would have graduated by now—"
"I know, Mom, okay? I did do it this time. I promise."
She isn't lying. He would sense it if she were, and he nods her on. "All right, but you had better stop on the way and let Sean come with you. You know he won't be happy if you don't."
"Fine," Jean sighs, before she leaves.
Sean and Alex are their older set of twins, and at twenty-two they should both be married but with the recent disputes the assignment department has fallen behind. They live in the young men's apartments now, sharing a room because everyone there is by now. They moved there when they were eighteen, and will be there until they're assigned mates and given houses.
Sean is the protective one. He takes after his father, though with his shaggy hair a red milder than Jean's he looks nothing like Erik.
The small library is on the other side of the town, too close to the wall that surrounds it for the liking of many, and Sean prefers the girls to fetch him when they want to go. Though Charles knows, too, that the mandate is also an excuse for him to be there, to visit the library's young human librarian.
Sean certainly doesn't like the fact that Moira lives there on her own. Neither does Charles, but there is nowhere else for her to go in a city of mutants, and she prefers to stay in her small apartment in the back of the library rather than return to anyone's charity.
She's a strong-headed one, that one, and Sean is in love with her.
But marrying or reproducing with humans is forbidden now. Humans are so few and far between, considered a weak and dying species, most of them killed by the bombs or later by the nuclear radiation that covered most of the globe. And the goal of the assignment system has been, from the beginning, to pair mutants whose powers and physical characteristics will produce the healthiest, most powerful offspring. To bolster the population, improve it, grow it as quickly as possible and avoid extinction. Humans, according to the leadership, have no place in those plans.
It breaks Charles's heart, to think about it. Unless things change Sean and Moira will never be together, and the same will be true for so many other young people that care about each other. Jean and Scott, too, if they aren't assigned to each other.
Couples assigned to each other aren't required to marry—only to reproduce—but with marriage outside of assignment forbidden most of them marry anyway.
He and Erik did.
Twenty-Five Years Ago
The war began when Charles was five years old, and it changed everything. Charles's parents are dead and he would be alone if it weren't for the small blue mutant girl he found abandoned in a shelter years ago. Her name is Raven, it's what he named her because she didn't remember her name when he found her, and she is his sister now.
Calling her anything other than sister would be too strange. He raised her, in a sense, but he was only eleven when he found her. She was three then, he guessed.
Raven is seven now, and Charles is fifteen.
Humans are all but gone now, and groups of mutants slowly migrated together, forming small settlements in areas less damaged by fire and radiation. The decent, living patches of land are few and far between, but at least they do exist. There are only two such settlements in all of what once was England, that Charles knows of, and they are close enough to keep in contact with each other.
Any farther out than that, and no one knows much about the rest of the world or how it is reordering itself. But it's been ten years since the war began, seven since it ended, and the leaders of the two settlements came to a decision last year—to work together to form the assignment system and to help rebuild the planet's decimated population with individuals more likely to survive the new, harsher conditions that exist everywhere else, outside of the settlements.
Not that life in the towns is easy. It isn't awful, small bits of technology are being recovered, scientific procedures are preserved, and books are saved wherever they can be found. Society still exists, but it will be trapped in an older way of life for a time. Gas and wood burning stoves and growing food to live on and making everything else they need, too. Building small houses of wood and city walls of stone.
But it's a life. Charles and Raven have been here for two years. They like it well enough.
It's the beginning of the assignment system, and not everyone is happy about it but most see the logic. The population is still dropping, not growing, and that needs to be remedied. They don't have the luxury of allowing young people to wait to be sixteen or eighteen or more, the way things were before the war. Everyone thirteen or older—anyone sexually mature—was asked to give a sample of blood a year ago, for testing, so that matching could begin.
Nine months ago the pairings began, the older ones first, some being sent to the neighboring settlement because they were matched better with someone there, and those being paired now are younger and Charles knows it will be his turn soon. He's a little scared, and he wonders if he's met the girl they'll pair him with.
Raven tells him everything will be all right.
When he's summoned to the town's central meeting building, though, the news isn't quite what he expected at all. Raven comes with him, but they make her wait outside the office while one of the scientists explains what they've found.
Charles has a secondary mutation, they've discovered from his genes. He can have children, and he's young and strong and they've determined that he would be much more valuable having them than fathering them.
They're going to pair him with a man. They've already paired him. With a man in their sister town.
Charles doesn't know how he feels about that. He's shocked and frightened and he isn't quite sure it's real when he curls into a corner of the wagon taking the next group to the other settlement a week later. Raven is with him, they let her come with him, but it's only a small comfort when he's the only male in the group. The girls are staring at him, whispering, some of them even younger than he is.
But they're all nervous, he reminds himself, and he knows it for sure because he can hear the thoughts whispering through their minds. He can't be too hard on them. They're all being carted to a town a they've never seen, to be married to men they've never met.
Or given to, if not married to. But they've been promised that they will have a place to live if the men they've been partnered with don't want to marry them; don't want to attach themselves to them more permanently. Both towns have already built boarding houses for such cases. They're going to happen.
Charles doesn't know which outcome he would prefer more.
But he has a choice, too. So do these girls. They can also say no. As long as they reproduce with their partners they also have the choice to decide not to marry. To live in the boarding house instead. Some of them are making their decisions as the wagon rolls toward its destination.
"My mother says this is heinous. Arranged marriages don't happen anymore. Not in civilized circles. Maybe we don't have what we used to have before the war, but we're still civilized, aren't we? I know we don't want to be extinct, and I'll have the damn man's baby, but I refuse to marry him. I don't care what he's like."
"I don't mind getting married, as long as he's nice…" another girl trails.
"I wanted to fall in love!" yet another wails. She's one of the oldest in this group.
One of the youngest girls frowns. "What do you mean?" She's thirteen, the youngest of those being paired, Charles gathers from her mind. Her parents died early, as his did. Others found and took care of her.
She doesn't remember the world before. She doesn't understand, really, what love is.
Not that Charles does. Not really. He wasn't much older than she when the bombs fell. He remembers the way his parents were with each other…in the world before. They fawned over each other. They were always together. They did things for each other. They laughed. They must have been in love, he thinks.
But this isn't about love. This is about saving their race. It isn't fair, but Charles supposes he sees, too, why this has to be done, even if he doesn't quite agree with the method.
"My dad said we'd learn to love each other…" another girls says softly—one who hasn't spoke yet. "Or at least to, you know, like each other. Be fond of each other, I guess. I guess I could live with that."
Charles exchanges a glance with her, gives her a smile.
He hopes she's right. He can't bear the thought of having children with someone who doesn't care about him at all.