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Chapter 1: Exordium
"So when do we get to meet the X-Men?"
"Forget that. When do we get to try out for the X-Men?"
"Hmf. Why do they call them 'X-Men' when half of them are women? What is this, 1963?"
John Chang let the other students' voices wash over him as he followed them inside the stately mansion that housed the Xavier Institute of Higher Learning. He found their prattle to be pointless, just a release of nervous energy. By now they all knew the basics; like him, they had all been sought out by Professor Charles Xavier or one of his grown former students who had invited them to enroll in the institute, where they could be schooled in a nurturing environment that would help them learn to accept and master their special gifts, et cetera, et cetera. By now they had also been made aware that the school was the home base for the mutant superhero team known as the X-Men, and that they should therefore not be surprised if occasionally a high-powered jet plane emerged from the swimming pool or a horde of alien bounty hunters descended upon the Westchester campus. (That last had not been in the formal introduction, but rumors abounded.)
But this was the start of the new semester, the first time all these teenaged mutants had come together to drink in the reality of it all and compare notes. John supposed he could forgive them for their excitement. He felt a similar anticipation of his own. But he preferred to keep quiet about his. After a lifetime of standing apart, his difference making him a target of scorn and persecution, it was refreshing to be able to go unnoticed in a crowd.
However, as the students mingled, filing into the large parlor in the north wing to await their instructors, John noticed that the universal tendency toward segregation was playing out even here. The kids who had cool powers were showing off to one another, evoking oohs or laughter as they levitated or wove electricity between their fingers or chameleon-blended with the wallpaper. The rest those whose mutations only made them look strange or served as handicaps ended up marginalized, grouping together by default in the corner. John fell into that category himself. He had no gifts beyond the human norm; if anything, his eyesight was rather poorer and his strength below average. He was simply small and pale with four-fingered hands, beady eyes, no nose, and four pairs of canine teeth.
The only noteworthy ability he had was a natural immunity to telepathy. According to Professor Xavier, John's presence had come as a surprise. Cerebro, his mutant-detecting computer, which worked by telepathy somehow, had detected only one mutant in their Canton, Ohio, neighborhood: Harry Mills. But Harry had befriended John when the latter had arrived in Canton the previous month. (Or rather, Harold had, John reminded himself. Harold had stopped answering to the nickname "Harry" when his mutant power had manifested, causing fast-growing blond hair to emerge all over his body, leaving him looking something like an angora gorilla. Everyone else had still called him that when he hadn't been around, though.) When Xavier had come for Harr for Harold Harold had introduced him to John. And once the professor had learned how John's foster parents had mistreated him and called him a freak, he had done all he could to expedite the boy's admission to the institute.
So here John was, in the place where freaks were welcome, yet he was already getting shoved into the corner. Well, that was fine with him. He'd be content to go unnoticed.
Harold, however, had other plans. He was a gregarious youth, and he was wasting little time in introducing himself and his friend John to the others in the corner mainly the girls, John noticed. One was a dainty, round-faced girl with rich brown skin and glossy black hair. She introduced herself diffidently as Meena Banerjee. "So what are you in for?" Harold asked.
"Oh, I'm glad to be here," Meena answered, seeming surprised at his attitude. "The professor saved me. They thought I was schizophrenic. I was in hospital; they had me on drugs that weren't working. They didn't have a clue what to do with me. Then the professor came and told them I was a mutant. I wasn't having delusions after all. He said I was perceiving alternate realities."
"Whoa!" Harry said. "That sounds like a great power! Why aren't you with the others, showing it off?"
"Nothing to see." She shrugged. "Just me telling about them. And it isn't any use to me. I can't control it, I can't do anything with it. They . . . they come and go at random, and I still have trouble telling . . . what's real and what isn't." She fidgeted in the embarrassed silence that followed.
To break the tension, Harry turned to the other girl, a slim honey blonde with neck-length hair. "So how about you, um? . . ."
"Kristin," she said in a quiet voice. "Kristin Koenig. And . . . it's embarrassing."
Harry smiled. "Come on, look at me. I shed like crazy. You should see what it did to the plumbing in my house. My mom burned out a vacuum cleaner per month trying to pick up after me. And I smell like a wet cat when I take a bath. Okay, your turn."
Kristin still looked embarrassed, but she spoke up anyway. "I...uh, the things I touch, they turn invisible."
"Well, how's that bad?" He gestured at the larger group. "Sounds like just the thing that would impress those guys."
Her blush deepened. "I can't turn it off." She tentatively extended her hand. "Here. Touch it."
Harry threw a triumphant grin at John, but it faded when he took her hand. "What are you wearing a glove?"
"Everything I touch directly turns invisible. Everything except me. I I've got two layers of clothes on. You just . . . can't see the inner one."
Harry laughed. "So . . . whoa. So what would happen if, like, your chin touched your outer clothes by accident? Would they? . . ."
She glared at him. "I knew I shouldn't have told you!"
"Hey, I was just curious."
Kristin turned away, crossing her arms in pique. Meena still tried to engage her, though. "What about makeup, or jewelry?"
Kris shook her head but kept it lowered. "It just disappears. I can't pretty myself up or anything."
"Oh, you look fine!"
"Yeah, right. It's hard even to groom myself when I can't see my hairbrush and toothbrush and stuff."
"Hey," Harry said, "that makes me wonder, how do those vampire characters on TV manage to keep so perfectly coiffed?" But the girls ignored him, continuing to commiserate.
So Harry turned instead to the remaining member of their group, a boy who sat in a wheelchair and was covered in heavy, dark brown armor scales. He introduced himself as Todd Watkins. "Sure, I'm bulletproof," he explained, leading John to wonder how he knew that for a fact. "But what good is it when I can't stand up under the weight of this dang stuff? The Thing has it easy at least he's got the superstrength he needs to lug that rock hide of his around."
"So what about you?" Meena asked John. "You have anything to tell us about besides, well, the obvious?"
He shook his head. "No powers. I'm just me."
"Hey, don't be modest," Harry said, putting an arm around his shoulders. "John forgot to mention he's immune to mind reading!"
John shrugged. "Nothing impressive about that."
"Sure there is," Meena said. "The kinds of people I hear the X-Men tangle with . . . I bet sometimes they could use someone whose mind can't be messed with."
"Yeah," Todd said, "but try tellin' them that." He gestured as well as he could at the other students. "It's nothin' you can show off with. Even if any of them can read minds. Even if any of them got minds."
"So . . . anything else?" Meena was still curious about John, though he couldn't fathom why and it made him somewhat uncomfortable. "Do you . . . I don't know . . . do you swim a lot?"
"Um, no. Why "
"Good afternoon." The soft-spoken, cultured voice cut through the students' clamor with uncanny ease. All eyes promptly went to the entrance, where a familiar figure was rolling into the room on a sleek, motorized wheelchair. Charles Xavier's famous, hairless head turned to take them all in. "Welcome, all of you, to the Xavier Institute. I apologize for keeping you waiting, but it was unavoidable. Given the . . . other responsibilities of myself and most of the school's faculty, I'm afraid you'll all have to get used to some rather unpredictable scheduling." A nervous chuckle ran through the parlor.
"Well." Xavier took a moment, looking over the different clusters of students that had formed. His gaze seemed to linger on John's group in the corner. "All of us are here because we are different from most other people. Different in ways that the majority often has trouble accepting or understanding. Most of us know what it feels like to be judged, excluded, even mistreated for being who we are." He gave a self-deprecating smile. "I lost all my hair by the age of sixteen, well before I lost the use of my legs. Don't ask me to tell you which loss felt more traumatic at the time." The students laughed.
"But that goes to show that there are many ways in which people can be different many grounds on which they can find themselves excluded or devalued by those around them." His angular brows drew together. "I don't mean to blame anyone for that, however. It is part of our nature, part of the instinct of the human animal, to be wary of that which is different, and to create hierarchies based on degrees of similarity. People do this all the time, without meaning any harm by it, without even realizing that they're doing it. We can see it occurring right here, in this very room." The larger group of students looked around, taking note of John's group set apart in the corner. Some of them exchanged abashed glances, though others didn't seem to get it or to care much.
"But as we all know, it can do harm. Sometimes the greatest harm is inflicted not by deliberate malice but by simple thoughtlessness. That is what makes the struggle for justice and equality such an enduring challenge. Inclusion is something that must be learned. It requires ongoing attention and effort, and those who fail to keep it in mind tend to fall short of it, even without meaning to.
"That is the goal to which I have dedicated my life and the resources of this institute: to keep the principles of fairness and equality in the minds of all people. To strive to make them aware of how they treat their neighbors, and to consider whether they would wish to be treated in the same way.
"But that lesson must begin here, in the school itself. Yes, here you will learn how to master your mutant powers and perhaps, in time, to use them for the protection and betterment of human and mutantkind alike. Here you will learn to endure the whips and scorns of bigotry, which are a tragic fact of mutant life, and to maintain your self-esteem in the face of them. But here you must also learn to understand those who exclude and judge others to understand that the same instincts and habits exist in all of us. And with that understanding, we must lead by example, and show others how to overcome those instincts and reach out to those who would otherwise be outcasts."
He fell silent for a moment, letting his words sink in. "I hope I've made my point clear," he said. "Now, if you'll all please follow me into the dining room, I'll introduce you to some of the staff, and we can all enjoy a brunch together."
John kept his eyes on the professor as the students followed Xavier out of the parlor. The speech hadn't been what John had expected. All at the same time, he had called out the more popular clique of students for their behavior, subtly shamed them for it, forgiven them for it, and encouraged them to be forgiving of their own persecutors. It had been deft and diplomatic, and surprisingly effective. As the students came into the dining room, John, Harry, Meena, and the rest found the other students suddenly interested in talking to them, sitting with them, and generally including them in the group. Not all the students were suddenly so friendly but enough were. It was remarkable to John what Xavier had been able to accomplish with mere words. Could he have been using his telepathic powers to alter their behavior? No John doubted that the man who'd given that speech would want to impose his will on others like that. Yet he also doubted that the kind of people who'd persecuted him all his life, people who'd never been on the receiving end themselves as these students had, would be so easily convinced.
"I have a good feeling about this," Meena said to him as they sat down to eat. Even though they were now incorporated into the group, she'd still ended up next to him. "This is a special place. I haven't felt like this in a long time."
"Like I'm accepted for who I really am. Like we all are. No matter what our powers or our problems, we'll all have a home here. Maybe even a family."
Meena seemed annoyed at his closemouthed stoicism. Muttering something about him being a grump, she turned her attention to her meal. But John couldn't share in her enthusiasm.
Because he knew he couldn't let himself get attached to these people. And because there were things about who he really was that nobody here could accept. Not even Charles Xavier. Copyright ©2006 by Marvel Characters, Inc.