16 months later
The noonday Florida sun beat down on the deck of the Caspartina, and Erik stood silently at the railing in typical fashion, hands in his pockets as he looked out over the water, bored as hell. Emma, as always, was sunbathing. Sometimes it seemed she could do it for days on end and never end up a single shade darker. Not that Erik cared. He had never liked her, and never would. He couldn't put his finger on why, but she bothered him. Maybe it was because she always seemed to know things that she shouldn't know.
But whatever it was, the occasional sex was more out of boredom and frustration than anything.
"Pack your bags, Erik. You're headed to Virginia."
Erik turned, an eyebrow raised, to look at Shaw as he came up on deck.
"The Americans think they may have a problem at their mutant facility. They've been asking me to come look the place over anyway, but you know we've been busy. I still have other things to attend to, so I thought I'd send my right-hand man."
Erik hated it when Shaw called him that. Maybe he had a debt to repay to the man, but he didn't necessarily like him all that much. And he certainly didn't intend to stick around forever. He'd started to leave, more than once, but somehow every time he thought he might Shaw and Emma concocted a reason that he should stay before his idea of leaving had even fully formed. Sometimes he stayed even though he didn't want to, and for the life of him he didn't know why. It was unnerving.
"Send me to do what?"
Shaw shrugged a bit and grinned. "Make sure the place is up to snuff."
It was hard to figure out what Shaw really was. What purpose he considered his life to have. Erik knew, of course, that he had an intense interest in the people known as mutants to those who knew about them at all, and that he had done research under the Germans during the war, though not exactly for the Nazis. Shaw, actually, despised the Nazis, which was one thing he had going for him in Erik's book.
Then there was the fact that he had rescued Erik from the camps, which was the whole reason there was a debt in the first place. Most of Erik's young life was a blur to him-all hazy and uncertain after he and his family had been dragged off to the camps. He had never seen his father again, but he could still see his mother hitting the carpet in a pristine office, a bullet in her chest. He could see the men who had been holding her, and he hated them. He remembered their faces clearly. What he didn't remember was the face of the man who had pulled the trigger.
Shaw said he couldn't remember it, or much after that, simply because it was too traumatic. He'd been a boy then. It had been too much for his young mind, and he had shut off. Erik didn't really remember anything after that, specifically, until years later when Shaw had taken him away from the camps and raised him. Not that there had been much more raising to do by then, but it didn't matter. Whatever had happened to him in the camps, Shaw had taken him away from it, and Erik would always owe him for that.
He still didn't know why Shaw had done it. There was nothing remarkable about him. He was just one more Jewish boy subjected to the horrors of the Nazi regime.
"I saw something in you, Erik," Shaw told him sometimes. "You're special. Very special. Never let anyone else tell you differently."
Erik didn't quite buy it, though sometimes he did think he felt something in himself...something different. Something important. But just when he thought he was on the verge of knowing what it was, it slipped away again. Every time.
But anyhow, now Shaw, as a leading authority on mutants, had become something of an advisor to the American government, as far as Erik could tell. Maybe not even just to the American government, but Shaw didn't discuss many details of his work and goals with Erik.
"Up to snuff?" Erik repeated uncertainly.
"Well the whole point of the facility's existence is, of course, to make the mutant situation safer for everyone-for precaution. And, true, to safely examine their powers. I think the Americans are hoping to gain something useful from them. But I'm also afraid they're going about things quite the wrong way in some areas. I'd like a full report."
Erik snorted, not sure what could be done even if something Shaw didn't agree with was going on there. He didn't think the man had any real authority, but maybe he was wrong. "And what sort of problem to do they think they're having?"
"Ah! Yes. The problem. It's the telepath. They think he may be up to something. Planning some sort of escape at long last, perhaps. We can't have that, of course. I do hate that he apparently will not cooperate and make things easier on himself, but he's the key to the whole operation."
"So I've heard." The facility in Virginia was something Shaw had spoken to him about in the past. He had seemed extremely excited about the Americans' acquisition of the telepath more than a year ago, and about the new facility. At first Erik thought it was the prospect of being invited to the facility for research, but then even when Shaw was invited he never went. He observed from a distance, keeping tabs on everything and treating the whole thing like a pet project.
Though what the point of the project was, Erik couldn't begin to understand. Shaw's mind was a mystery to him. Sometimes he talked about wanting to help mutants, but he endorsed this facility and the Americans' plan of action. It was all too confusing for Erik, and he had long since begun to suspect a hidden agenda.
But every time he started to piece something together, he would lose it, just like he could never really leave and he could never really figure out what it was inside of him that wanted to be let out.
Erik crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the deck's railing. "And just what could I do about it if he is planning something? It isn't as if I would know."
Shaw held up a finger. "Ah, but you will. I want you to befriend this man, Erik. Find out what he's cooking up. Or if he's cooking anything up at all. To be honest I hope he isn't-not just because it would be troublesome, but because it will make things so much worse for him if he is. Perhaps if he is you can head it off at the pass. Prevent any real trouble."
"Why in god's name would he even talk to me? He's been held against his will for a year and half now, and I'm all but with the people who imprisoned him." That was another reason that a good part of him wanted out. Away from Shaw. Erik didn't know exactly how he felt about mutants, but he knew it seemed wrong to simply lock them up with no explanation. Maybe some of them were dangerous, true...but wasn't there anything else that could be done for them? And what about the ones who meant no one any harm? After being thrown into the camps in Poland with the rest of his people, the idea of this facility just didn't sit well with him. And that was an understatement.
Not that he had ever told Shaw this, of course.
Shaw glanced across the deck at Emma, and they shared a small smile before Shaw turned back to Erik and gave him that look that Erik hated-the same one Emma gave him quite often, that seemed as if they knew something he didn't.
"Just trust me. He'll talk to you."
Raven tossed and turned in her bunk, but sleep would not come. She was tired, but then again she was always tired. It was nothing compared to what her brother went through, and she knew that, and she never said a word.
Not that sleep was ever easy. The mattresses were thin and hard, but they were better than nothing. They were better than the cold floor Charles had slept on those first two or three months, before they'd been moved here, to the new facility. They'd been separated most of that time too, but when they were moved Charles had insisted that they remain together if anyone wanted any more cooperation out of him at all.
So they shared a cell now. There were two to a cell through most of the facility, but as far as she knew she and Charles were the only cellmates not of the same sex. After growing up together they didn't mind. They were just glad to be together after almost three months of hardly seeing each other at all. And at least they had been decent enough to provide a screen that sectioned off the corner where the toilet was, so too much awkwardness was avoided.
Though, of course, if Charles wasn't so damn important to them they wouldn't have gotten even that. They wouldn't be together at all.
Raven was trying to shut out the soft sounds coming from the bunk below her, but it was too hard tonight. She really and truly could not sleep, and her brother's muffled crying was not helping. It made her heart ache, but more often than not she left him alone because she knew by now that he preferred it that way. He was always upset when they brought him back from using Cerebro. Even as long as this had been going on, as many mutants as he saw, as many as were here...Charles never stopped caring. Each batch of coordinates betrayed was a fresh blow to him.
Tonight Raven couldn't bear it. It had to be bad this time-usually he tried not to actually cry, because he knew it worried her. Usually he was simply despondent for the rest of the day, and attempted to at least seem as if he felt better by the next day. But tonight, even though he was no louder than he ever was when he couldn't help but cry a bit, she knew he was more upset. At times his breath caught, and he let out a strangled sound as he cut off what would have been a much harder sob if he'd let it be.
Raven crawled out from under the thin covers and dropped to the floor, and tonight Charles didn't try to tell her to go back to bed. That all but confirmed her suspicions as she climbed into his bunk with him and sat against the wall the long side of the bunks were flush against. Charles wordlessly pulled himself upright and sat beside her, and Raven wrapped an arm around his shoulders and held him closer as he let his head rest against hers. He didn't apologize for waking her, either, as he usually did. But then again he probably knew that she had never been asleep.
"I'm slipping, Raven," he whispered. "I can't control it as well as I could before, when I'm in Cerebro. I-I...I'm too weak too often. I can't react as quickly." He sobbed quietly. "There are children here now. There weren't children here six months ago."
"How many got through this time?" she asked gently.
Charles grimaced. "Four. Four, Raven. God, I...usually it's one, sometimes two, but never four. It's never even been three. Not in the same session."
"It's not your fault, you know. I keep telling you that. It's not your fault you don't have the energy you need."
From what Raven knew nearly everyone here had been dragged off to the labs at least once-except for the children. And then, she had never seen the labs. She knew Charles had to have something to do with that, but he wouldn't admit it.
Still, for Charles the labs were a constant of life now. After each session in Cerebro they took him, and they had a week, sometimes two or more...before they had to leave him alone to get his strength back to use Cerebro again. Sometimes they took him only during the day, or only during the night, sometimes it varied...and sometimes they took him and Raven didn't see him again until that week or two was up. That was always when it was worst.
The meaning of worst varied, too.
"They want to know just how much I can do-and they want to be able to control me," Charles had eventually admitted to her. "They know I could do much more than simply find other mutants for them."
Raven knew it, too. She didn't want to think about what the government could do with Charles if they controlled him completely. And every time they took him away she was terrified that he would come back broken, and that much closer to being under their thumb. Not that she thought he was weak...anything but. But he was her brother. She couldn't help but be afraid of those things happening.
"But...four," Charles was saying now. "I-I...it's too many, Raven," he said quietly. "One is too many. Four..." And he looked away deliberately, and that told her ahead of time that she wasn't going to like what he was going to say. "Four just makes me wish I were brave enough to really do the right thing." It was barely a whisper.
Suddenly her mouth was dry. "What are you talking about?"
He pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. "It would be easy," he continued quietly, as if she hadn't spoken. "With my powers, it would take hardly any effort at all. Just...shut down all brain function..."
Raven shook him. "Charles, stop it!"
He snapped out of it, and he shuddered as he took a deep breath, and his eyes closed as he leaned into her again. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't say that. You know I wouldn't leave you."
"You'd better not," she replied gruffly.
Charles turned his head enough to kiss her cheek. "I won't."
"If you so much as bring that up again I will kill you myself."
He chuckled a bit, and Raven wished she could tell whether or not it was only empty sound. But he had become much too good at hiding everything away.
Emma dropped him off at the airport in Miami, and then Erik was on his own-single suitcase in hand. He packed light.
A car met him at the airport on the other end, and took him to the Virginia-based facility. It was bigger than he'd imagined-all concrete and metal and fences and bars and walls and guard towers. It did not look friendly.
The car pulled up outside the main entrance, and a slightly plump older man of average height and white hair came out to meet him.
"Erik Lehnsherr? Sebastien Shaw's associate?" he asked.
"That would be me," Erik answered blandly. He didn't particularly like the title the man had given him.
The man held out a hand. "Agent Stryker, CIA. I run this facility."
"How wonderful for you. Where am I staying?"
Stryker blinked. "Inside. We have a room for you."
"Would you care to show me to it, or will I be carrying my suitcase on my first tour of the place?"
The man frowned and motioned to the entrance. "Follow me."
Erik was led inside, where Stryker tracked down the first agent he could find. "MacTaggert! Show Mr. Lehnsherr to his room; let him put his suitcase down and freshen up if he needs to. Then bring him back to my office."
The auburn-haired woman Stryker had called to turned, and Erik was almost certain she narrowed her eyes at him for a moment. "Of course," she deadpanned. She turned on her heel and started walking, and Erik supposed he was supposed to follow her. Eyebrows climbing to his hairline, he did just that.
"Well, is that a chip or shoulder or were you born like this?"
Agent MacTaggert didn't turn to look at him as they walked-quickly-through the facility's cold gray corridors. "You work for Sebastien Shaw?"
"I'm not quite sure 'work for' is the right phrase."
"But you're here on his behalf."
"So it seems."
"And from what I've heard recently, Shaw is, for all practical purposes, one of the people primarily responsible for this." This seemed to indicate everything around them-the facility, the mutants held here, and everything in-between.
"From what I know, yes." Not that he liked it. Any of it.
MacTaggert shrugged and walked a little faster. "Then we have nothing to say to each other."
Erik began to wonder, but he didn't say anything until she led him into what seemed to be a small residential hallway-rooms for those who lived on base or sometimes needed to. She opened a door down at the end, and motioned inside.
"Here. I hope you'll be comfortable." But she didn't mean it in the slightest.
Erik stepped inside and looked around, and when he didn't see any cameras he turned on the light to be sure. Still nothing. When he glanced back out into the hallway MacTaggert was looking at him strangely, but at the moment that wasn't important. When he determined that no-one was in the hallway he pulled her inside and shut the door.
"Let go of me! What are you doing!"
She tried to hit him, but he caught her wrists. "I need to talk to you! Calm down!"
She glared at him, but she did calm down, and he let go of her. "What?" she bit off quickly.
"You don't like this any more than I do, do you?"
"What are you talking about?" MacTaggert asked, suddenly wary.
"This. All of it. The mutants being held here."
"And experimented on?" she quipped.
Now Erik frowned. "What?"
"Don't tell me you didn't know that."
"I heard something about studying their powers, supposedly safely..."
MacTaggert snorted. "Safely my ass. The scientists here do whatever the hell they want to them to find out whatever they want. More often than not they might as well be torturing them-" She cut off, and swallowed hard, but quickly began glaring again to cover up whatever emotion had just attempted to come out there.
Erik looked at her for a moment. "I'm right. You don't agree with what they're doing here." When she didn't answer he continued. "You can tell me. I'm on your side."
"Or you could be a spy for the agency, trying to root out problems." She reached behind her to open the door, and she backed out of the room. "I'll be out here when you're ready."
There was a bathroom at the back of the room, and Erik didn't take long. Agent MacTaggert showed him to Stryker's office, but he said nothing on the way there. Once she had point out the office all she said was, "Good day, Mr. Lehnsherr."
She looked at him for a second or two, but she didn't answer. She turned quickly and walked away, and he didn't stop her. She might make a decent ally here, but he didn't want to push her. Not that he had any sort of plan...in all probability he would do what Shaw wanted and leave, really. But if he changed his mind he might need someone on his side.
Stryker showed him through the facility quickly-the section where the mutants were kept, with its long hallways of cells and shorter hallways of high security cells specifically designed for the dangerous mutants they held; the labs, though there were no mutants there at the moment, only scientists; the cafeteria of sorts, where the mutants not in high security were brought in groups twice a day to eat. From the brief glance Erik had of it the food did not look incredibly appetizing, and it didn't seem as if they were given much of it.
The mutants looked like prisoners. They wore the same jumpsuits, but brown instead of orange. The shoes were black. Black and brown together. Emma, though she never wore anything but white, still cared enough about the rest of fashion that she would have had a heart attack. They were given clean clothes twice a week, Stryker mentioned. Plenty enough for mutants, he said.
Erik hated the way the man talked about them, as if they weren't people. If he hadn't particularly cared so much one way or the other before, he was certainly beginning to care much more now.
Their last stop was the the yard, which could hardly be called that. There was no grass, no basketball goal. Only concrete and high walls and barbed wire and a few lonely tables. Stryker took him outside on a small balcony from the second floor administration offices that looked out over the yard.
"We have a similar exercise room inside, smaller. We have some who can fly in various fashion; they're not allowed outside, of course. They're brought to the indoor room. There's a smaller outdoor yard, too, for the younger ones."
"Under 16." What? "There aren't so many of those."
Thank goodness for small favors.
"If they're only mutants, why do they need exercise?" Erik asked, throwing the man's own logic back in his face. It was a test, and Stryker failed it miserably.
"Even dogs needs to be walked," he shrugged.
Erik tried to not to let the anger show on his face, and for a moment he thought he felt the metal railing tremble under his hands. Either he was shaking, or he was imagining things, and he let go of it and quickly changed the subject.
"Did Shaw mention the other reason I'm here?"
"Of course. The telepath. He mentioned you might be able to help us find out if he's planning something."
Erik was about to reply when a sudden commotion broke out in the yard below them and saw several guard closing in on a small skirmish, with one guard already at the center of it.
For the first time he realized that not only did the guard carry guns and batons, but whips. Smaller ones, maybe, but they were whips. What the hell was this, the middle ages?
The guards cleared the other mutants away from the action. In the middle of it all were two guards and two mutants-an angry one with longish, shaggy reddish hair and another with more well-groomed dark brown hair who seemed to be attempting to reason with the guards. He was shorter than his friend, smaller, but somehow commanded more of a presence.
Or he did until one of the guards shoved him to the ground and lashed out with a whip.
Erik's mouth dropped open. "What...?"
"As I said, they're mutants. Sometimes they need a little extra incentive. Perhaps a bit barbaric, but it gets the job done. We added the whips about a year ago, and it improved behavior considerably." Stryker nodded to the mutant who was being whipped as they spoke. "That's the telepath. One of the few it didn't improve at all is him. He's always making trouble."
The mutant didn't cry out as the whip bit into his back; he didn't even curl up much, really. His face was a mask of pain, but mostly he kept it down, so it wouldn't be obvious. The whole thing seemed to scream that this man was used to what was happening to him, and that was sickening in itself.
Erik's jaw clenched, and he had to force it to loosen before he could speak. "It didn't look like he was making trouble. It looked like he was trying to get that kid out of trouble."
Stryker shrugged. "Yes, well, whatever you want to call it."
Was he really hearing this? What was wrong with this man? Erik looked back down to the yard, where the guards were finally leaving the telepath and his friend alone. The other mutant, the boy, the friend, rushed to his side and helped him up, and as he got to his feet Erik could see the lines cut into the back of his jumpsuit from here. They were already bleeding.
"Won't he get medical attention?" Erik asked sharply.
"There are general medical supplies in the bathrooms at the edge of the yard and and at the ends of the hallways where their cells are. What they need, they can get to. They can take care of themselves. We get away with having fewer medical personnel that way. Saves money." Stryker talked for another minute or two, about the yard and the schedules and other things, but Erik wasn't really listening
He wasn't even holding the railing now, but it shook behind him as he looked at Stryker, and he began to wonder if maybe Virginia had tremors. He had no idea one way or the other. But by the time it happened Stryker was already heading inside and didn't seem to notice.
Erik moved to follow the agent, reluctantly, but something made him look back before he went inside.
When he looked back the telepath was looking right at him.
When guards walked away, laughing, Sean was at his side in an instant.
"Charles, man, you didn't have to do that! Man, Raven is gonna kill me...If they'd gotten me it would've been okay, you know. I can take it."
Charles grimaced as Sean helped him up, the fresh wounds already stinging sharply. "Perhaps, but that doesn't mean I would like it."
"You think we like this? You always gettin' yourself in trouble over stuff that doesn't even matter?"
"It does matter," Charles insisted. "I don't want any of you hurt because of me." Sean was one of the few who knew the truth, about Charles and Cerebro and how all of them had gotten here. He had been here almost since the beginning, and had become a close friend.
Charles tried to know everyone he could, but he and Raven still had their own smaller, tightly-knit group. Him, his sister, Hank, Sean, Darwin, and Alex Summers. Though Alex they rarely saw anymore. When he had proved unable to control his powers well he had quickly been put in high security. Charles kept tabs on him telepathically.
"You've got to quit sayin' that," Sean frowned. "Besides, that was totally my fault just then. I mean, maybe I was just yelling at the guy and didn't really mean to knock his hat off with a mini shockwave, but I was still yelling at the guy. I mean, you'd think they wouldn't get so upset over nothing, but I was still yelling at the guy..."
"Yes, and why were you?"
"I caught that one makin' fun of Hank earlier. You know, the whole feet thing. You know he hates that."
"Ah...gallant of you, Sean, but you shouldn't provoke them."
"Yeah, well apparently not provoking them provokes them too. Look where it gets you every other week." His voice dropped. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right..."
Raven ran up to them from the other side of the yard, finally able to make it there now that the crowd around the commotion had dissipated.
"Charles!" She stopped a few feet short and just looked at him, shaking her head. "Again?"
"I'm all right," he said quietly. His back protested otherwise, but it didn't matter. He would heal. He always healed.
Raven let out a breath and closed the distance between them to take his arm. "Come on...let's get you cleaned up." Her tone was resigned, but loving, and Charles didn't know what he would do without her.
He was about to go with her when something immensely heavy hit him over the head. Or that was what it felt like as awareness hit him quite suddenly of a mind he had never felt before. A strong one.
"Wait wait wait-"
Charles stopped and brought his fingers to his temple, and the moment they touched and he focused on what he sensed it was like another blow to the head. "Ah! Ah..." The memories that flooded his mind were even less pleasant than his own of the past year and a half that he had spent here. The thoughts, emotions, the pain...the power.
And much of it the owner was not even aware of himself.
Charles gasped and turned quickly to look for the source, and if Raven and Sean hadn't held him up he likely would have toppled over.
He found the man on the balcony. He was heading inside, following Stryker, but at the last moment he looked back.
For a brief moment they locked eyes, and Charles felt it all again-everything he was and everything he didn't know about himself. He pulled in an unsteady breath and almost reached out telepathically, but then the newcomer turned quickly and went inside.
"Charles?" Sean was asking.
Raven was scowling. "Charles, what? Is something wrong?"
Charles let out the breath. "My god. He doesn't even know."
"What? Who? Who doesn't know what?" Raven pressed.
"Erik. He doesn't know he's one of us."