She stared at the space in front of her, thinking about how her life had changed. Everything she thought she was wasn't true.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
For a moment she just stared at the gravestone, wanting to do anything but what she knew she must. How did such a burden fall on twenty-year-old shoulders? What higher powers ordained that she take on this now, when so much was happening to her?
Sighing, the girl took one last look at her mother's headstone, dropping the single carnation that she had been holding on the freshly turned earth. A last remnant of her childhood, she thought, walking through the fog that had descended on the small graveyard. At that moment she told herself that she was never coming back.
Charles Xavier held the letter in his hands, telling himself that there was some mistake, that it wasn't possible. But the delicate, feminine handwriting kept him from believing his own lies. He knew the handwriting, could remember the last letter he had held that contained that script. It had been just as devastating, just as crushing as the one he held now, though the message then was of a birth, not a death:
I'm sorry that we haven't stayed in touch over the years, and because of that reason this letter carries more heartache than it would have otherwise. Carla dies last week after a long battle with leukemia. She didn't want you to know prior to the final arrangements, so you won't receive this until after the funeral, which was her last wish. I don't know what happened with the two of you all those years ago, but I do know that she thought of you at the last.
Charles, Stephanie is coming. It was also Carla's wish that she finally meet her father, though why after she made it clear that she didn't want you to meet before this is beyond me. You understood her better than anyone, maybe better than she did herself, so you could grasp this better than I can. She is planning on leaving a week after the funeral to give you time to prepare, which should give you about five days after this letter arrives. She didn't want me to tell you, but I know you, and you needed to know this before she appears on your doorstep. Please keep in touch with me, even though I'm only the poor sister.
Charles sighed, folding the sheer paper and returning it to its envelope. After all these years, he thought, this is happening. He hadn't counted on this, still couldn't really believe it. Carla dying wasn't something he had thought about, something that seemed as distant in the future as as anything.
And then there was Stephanie.
He looked at the picture of a bright, smiling young girl with long brown hair and bright blue eyes. It was one of the many pictures that were crowded on the corners of his desk, and one of his most treasured. She stood with her mother, both of them holding up a diploma with a Harvard seal on it, Ph.D. in Biogenetics, he remembered, one of the youngest people to graduate from Harvard. She looks like her mother, he thought, picking up the picture, but there was something about the way she stood, the set of her shoulders, that came directly from him.
Not for the first time he cursed Carla's wish that he stay away from his child. He had followed it, of course, requesting that he be kept updated on everything from interests to boyfriends. He knew as much about her as he would if she was living with him. Knew she liked steamed vegetables and marinated chicken breast. Knew her favorite color was navy blue and she had a habit of touching the tip of her nose when she was concentrating on something. A thousand small details that wouldn't mean much to someone else, but meant the world to him. All without seeing her in person.
For years he had wondered what it would be like, meeting the child he and Carla had made together, finally coming to some terms with the mistakes of his past. He had hoped that one day Carla would agree to let him visit, to get to know Stephanie. As time passed and his daughter grew those hopes had become distant, but they remained. Now it seemed that he would be getting his wish, more or less. He was going to meet his daughter.
"Sir? Is something wrong?"
Charles looked up, and met the concerned eyes of Betsy Braddock. For a moment he didn't say anything, simply sat, trying to clear his mind. Looking down at his desk, he finally found his voice.
"Have you ever done something that you knew was wrong, but you did it anyway because you were afraid to do anything else?"
Elizabeth didn't say anything, she simply closed the door behind her and sat across the desk from her mentor. She had lived in his house for many years, had seen him happy, angry, and even joyous, but never in her memory had she seen the expression he now wore. It was a cross between expectation and fear, remorse and anger.
"What's happened, Charles?" she asked.
He realized that he didn't know where to begin. There were many things that he had kept from his students over the years. This was one of the largest. " Someone died recently, someone who was very dear to me. I've spent the last few years hoping that she would change her mind. Now I know she meant that she never wanted to see me again."
Elizabeth was taken aback by the hushed tone of his voice, the air of defeat that hung over him.
"That isn't all," he said, before briskly pulling himself together, "There is much that I have to tell all of you, and things that need to be prepared. Inform everyone that there will be a meeting in my study after dinner tonight." That would give him just enough time to figure out how he was going to tell his students, his children, that another would soon be entering their fold.
Stephanie had decided not to look through her mother's things, and she didn't. Everything in her room had been boxed by strangers, the few pieces that her mother specified had been set aside, and now she was cleaning out the attic of the large colonial house they had shared.
Old trunks layered with dust were stacked up against the walls, newer ones were waiting to be filled with the remains of her mothers things. Each trunk was neatly labeled, each held the remains of four generations of Tallerington women. Some so old that the leather of them was scarred and faded. The attic smelled of old perfume, clothes and memories, she thought as she wrapped another piece of clothing is tissue paper. It was the last box from her mother's closet that needed to be packed. Most of the clothes were old, she thought, grimacing at a pair of lime green slacks that seemed too small for even her mothers petite frame. Pictures by the dozens were kept in shoeboxes, most of them of her mother's friends when they were younger, folded and dog-eared worn photos of smiling people.
"At least she didn't loose her smile," she said to the quiet room, placing the last shoebox in the trunk. Turning, a piece of red ribbon caught her eyes. The ribbon was wrapped around a stack of letters, the newest from a few years ago. She recognized the return address, Westchester, and the name, Charles Xavier. Dear old dad she thought, putting the stack aside to browse later.
Two hours later she sat on the living room floor, and unwrapped the letters. She had often wondered at the man her father would be. She often imagined him as a superman, someone who could make everything right with a snap of his fingers, who would love her forever. She smiled slightly at the childhood rendition of the perfect father. In reality she would have jumped for joy is he had just been there some of the time.
Uncertain of what she would find, she opened the first letter:
I know that you decided a long time ago that you didn't want me to meet Stephanie, and why you made that decision is understandable when seen in the heat of anger, but to hold it for so long is beyond me. To tell you the simple truth I would love nothing more than to meet my child. It has been almost two years since you sent me any news, and I am growing anxious to hear about her. How is she doing at Harvard? Has her major changed at all? Simple things that most fathers know about their children, but I find myself relying on another to answer.
I know we didn't part as friends, but I would like us to try to be as such, at least for her sake. I won't repeat the arguments that I've tried to give in my other letters, because I have finally learned that they will do no good. It has been almost eighteen years now, long enough for the dust to settle from our arguments, at least in my opinion. I am sorry for what happened between us, and there is nothing else that I can say.
I will be in Washington this week for a conference. I truly want to talk with you, face to face, as you seem to hang up on me whenever I call, and you made it clear in your last letter that I was never to do so again. Please write to me, or call, and let me know if you will meet me anytime that I am there. We need so to talk.
Gently, Carla folded the letter, though she wanted nothing more than to rip it into pieces. With a certainty that astounded, she was sure the rest of the letter would contain the same words, asking how she was, almost begging for her mother to meet him. For years she had labored under the thought that her father hadn't wanted her, that somehow she had driven him away by simply existing. It was an illusion that her mother had done nothing to alleviate. She was told her father was too busy to deal with her, that he didn't want to see her, that he didn't have the time.
Learning differently was a slap in the face.
"Damn you," she muttered to the empty house, though she felt like screaming, like tearing at the walls. Her mother had kept her away from the thing she had wanted most, her father's love, and the woman had died without giving her a reason why.
She started when the papers flew out of her hands, scattering on the coffee table in front of her, smoking slightly. Brushing it off, she gathered the letters, idly wondering how some of them became charred. Sighing, she went upstairs and began the tedious process of making reservations, more determined than ever to know the father she had lost.
Charles watched the stunned faces of his students, unsure at whether to laugh at their comical expressions or to bang his head into the desk
He had decided that the only thing to do was to tell them quickly and easily the events that were coming. He could feel a thousand questions on their minds, many of them wondering if any more of his wayward children were going to make an appearance in their lives. He could lay that particular fear to rest. After discovering David, he had run a search on the women he remembered sleeping with. It was one of the few times that he thanked his ability for total recall. None of them had had children outside of wedlock, and those who had children at the moment were either too old or too young to be his.
Thank God for small miracles.
"Well, are you going to ask me any of the questions that are fighting desperately to get out, or are you going to sit their for the remainder of the night like statues."
Jaws that had previously hung open snapped shut with an almost audible click, bringing a peel of laughter to his throat, which he quickly shoved down. Laughing at this point in time would not be the most prudent thing for him to do.
"How old is she?" Bobby asked, though he cringed at the glares his teammates sent his way.
"Stephanie is twenty. She turns twenty one in two months. October 1." For a moment Charles vividly recalled every single birthday card he'd sent to her, at least for the first six years of her life. Each one had been returned, unopened.
Scott spoke up, " Is Stephanie a mutant, professor?"
Charles sighed. "To be perfectly honest, I don't know. Nor do I know how long she will be staying here. It is my hope that you will adjust to her presence as easily as you have adjusted to all of those who have joined us over the years. And no," Charles said before Bishop could ask, "I do not believe she is a security risk."
When no other questions were forthcoming, Charles nodded, " I think we should all return to whatever we had planned for the evening, if there is nothing more to be said."
As his X-men filed out of the room Charles caught a stray joyful thought from Bobby. Since Jubilee went to the Massachusetts Academy he was once again the youngest person in the house, a situation that he'd always found intolerable. Stephanie would be three years his junior. Charles had to fight the urge to call Bobby back and tell him to watch himself around his daughter, then shook himself.
She hadn't even arrived yet, and he found himself acting like an overprotective parent.