The story starts inside of a room.
It’s not a very unique piece of exposition, and neither is the room itself. But the details are ultimately what make this noteworthy. Everything in Sebastian Shaw’s dollhouse is specifically designed for a purpose. The walls are smooth wood, plush chairs, demure colours. Furniture in soft, vague shapes with no sharp edges. There is nothing here that would inspire anything, but an air of vaguely blank pleasantness. The business of memory is a tricky thing, after all. People can’t always be guaranteed.
“I’m offering you a clean slate.”
Seated across from him is a young man, beautiful because Shaw expects only the best. Dark hair, bright blue eyes, an innocence and a charm that many would pay for. But more than the beautiful, he needs the desperate.
“This…this is wrong. I’m sorry, but I’m not sure—“
The man hesitates, visibly struggling with the terms laid out clearly in front of him. Five years. Fixed contract. Ten million dollars. The numbers leap out from the page at him, jarring and almost surreal. It was so much money, it was more than enough.
“I understand you have a sister at home, one that you need to provide for. Raven, was it? What a beautiful name.”
His face seems to crumple at the mention of her. The man is from old money, the kind of family that came with mansions in Westchester and two other holiday homes in London and Paris. Money that was all but gone now, snatched up away from him by others with the apparent legal authority to possess it.
Sharon Xavier hadn’t left a will, after all.
The variables begin to add up. He is carefully going through them in his mind, weighing balances and risks and this whole moral quandary of his that Shaw finds so adorable. In the end, though, it all comes down to one thing: Raven deserves better than what he can currently provide her.
His brilliant mind means nothing in this world without money or connections.
And he will never, ever let Marko touch his sister again.
“I think you misunderstood me,” Shaw’s voice is smooth and efficient, with the air of someone who has given this speech time and time again, possibly at this very table to every potential active that has walked through these doors with a sour taste on their lips and hesitance in the line of their bodies. He is a man used to getting what he wants. “What we do helps people and if you decide to join us, it can help you. Think of it as being part of something greater than yourself. Think of it as unlocking your potential.”
He slides the contract across the table, pen conveniently placed on top. Crisp and newly printed, just waiting for someone to mark that line.
“I’m not forcing your hand. The choice is yours.”
The young man laughs at that, a sharp, nearly hysterical noise. “It isn’t much of one.”
He signs the next five years of his life away with carefully dotted i’s.
Charles Francis Xavier.
Charlie. He is the second doll to hold that name.
His first treatment begins two hours later.
“Ah, um – hello, Charlie.”
“Did I fall asleep?”
“Only for a little bit.”
“Shall I go now?”
”…If you want to.”
Hank McCoy is the new kid around here. He isn’t quite sure how everything runs yet and he isn’t quite so practiced at delivering the lines actives needed upon reimprinting. Hank is the youngest hired personnel inside the Dollhouse, a genius who graduated from Harvard at the age of fifteen. Scouted out first by the CIA, and then by Shaw, who had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Funny how he kept managing to do that.
This isn’t quite what he’d imagined himself doing after Harvard.
Only proving that you’re never too young to be disillusioned.
Charlie slips off of the chair and looks at him with wide eyes. He’s older than Hank but in this state, he seems younger. There are no worry lines on his face, no frowns that tug at his lips. Just a smile, warm and bright, reserved just for him, or so it seems. Hank shifts, clutching both clipboard and lab coat closely to him, unsure of how to deal with this.
“You should um—need to go to physical therapy now, if that’s okay. I mean—“ he forgets sometimes, that they don’t have choices. Nor do they want them. “Please go to physical therapy.”
It leaves a sour taste in his mouth, a plummeting in his gut as he watches Charlie leave. The rationality of science never does quite override moral instincts. Hank desperately wants to go back to the days when he worked with blueprints and metal instead of living flesh. Only he can’t.
Sometimes when he sleeps, Charlie makes noises that the other actives don’t understand. Sometimes, he mumbles words that are nonsensical and frantic, the only connection between them being one syllable, repeated again and again. No, no no no no no no. They wipe him constantly, scrubbing his mind, but there are some stains that don’t come off of a soul. Shaw keeps a careful eye on him at all times; if the treatments don’t work he’s going to end up in the attic.
It’d be a shame to lose such an incredibly attractive doll, but with their contract comes a sense of brokenness in their minds; there are some secrets that that human brain was not built to hold. Memories that would destroy them.
Fifteen years ago, Brian Xavier died in a tragic laboratory accident and somehow, Charlie had known that their lives were going to get much, much worse from there.
There are fingers clasped around his throat, the fingers of an adult around the reedy, delicate throat of a boy. Charles chokes and thrashes, Marko’s face is so close to his own. His breath reeks of alcohol.
“What have you been telling your mother, you little shit?” he is slammed into the refrigerator, the impact curving Charles’ spine and knocking the remaining breath out of him. His head feels lighter now; it’s almost easy to ignore the pain beginning to fan its way throughout his entire body. “You’ve been telling her lies, haven’t you?”
It’s only when the boy begins to slip into unconsciousness that the fingers finally release him, but it’s a brief respite because the next thing Charles knows is something that he’s very familiar with; the sink of Kurt’s fist into the soft flesh of his stomach. He’s not a stupid man. He knows that there are special ways to hurt somebody without leaving a trace.
He never hits Charles anywhere that isn’t covered by clothes, the convenient high starched collars of the boy’s uniform, those bulky cardigans. He whispers things behind closed doors, things that he’ll do to his mother, his sister, if he dares tell a single soul.
“You might have fooled the rest of them somehow, but I know she isn’t your sister, and if you think about talking to your mother again, I’ll throw her out onto the streets."
Charles bites down on his bottom lip and tries with all of his might not to hate him. He’s always tried not to hate people, ever since he was a child and they let him watch them without knowing it. Children can see things that adults can’t, or won’t, after all. He’s always found that if he looks hard enough at them, pity comes easier than anger or hatred. Whether that is a brand of arrogance in itself remains to be seen.
“She’s a pretty girl. I’m sure she’ll manage to look after herself.”
Don’t hate him, no. Don’t, he’s sick, he’s—he’s not right in the head don’t think about hitting him, he’s not worth it, don’t--
His fist slams into Marko’s face despite himself.
He doesn’t remember the rest of the night.
Charlie moves into the cafeteria with the same languid grace possessed by all of the other actives in their organic cotton yoga pants, bare feet against polished wood. He carries his tray of food, each calorie specifically calibrated to his weight and body type and scans the room. The actives all have their assigned patterns and consolidated routines because it gives them comfort. They aren’t supposed to be able to think for themselves, after all, and Charlie is no exception. Most days, he chooses the company of Victor or Delta, who are always sitting at the exact same table in the exact same seats.
Today is a little different. Today, he spots an active sitting by himself and frowns; they aren’t supposed to be alone, are they? He has no concept of the word loneliness but regardless, Charlie moves to take the seat opposite of the active, who looks up in near-surprise at the clank of his tray setting down.
This one is tall. Light brown hair, blue eyes, cheekbones - oh. Charlie has no concept of beauty, either but he blinks once or twice before smiling.
The man doesn’t answer him. Charlie wonders if he heard, clears his throat and tries again.
No answer, again. The man picks at his food with deliberation, a perpetual frown etched on his face, exuding hostility where Charlie had warmth. He sighs, finally, but doesn’t look up when he answers:
Ah, there we go! All was well. The placid smile on his face only grows. “My name is Charlie. What’s yours?”
Once, he might have answered differently. Might have answered with Lehnsherr or Eisenhardt. Good, strong names, he would have thought. Names that he was proud to bear.
And one that he wasn’t.
“It’s nice to meet you, Alpha,” Charlie replies as he takes a bite out of a cluster of genetically modified vegetable. “I…saw you eating alone, and I thought…” well, he’s searching for a word but doesn’t quite know what it is. What’s sadness? He’s never felt it in this state. He racks his brain for a few more moments, but nothing comes to mind. “You aren’t alone any more, though.”
“Alone,” Alpha echoes the word but he isn’t quite sure…what it means or why it hurts so, or even what pain is. “But I want to be alone,” talking was…problematic. Noise was disturbing. These were tenets of the dollhouse that they had all been indoctrinated with, but Charlie forgets himself sometimes.
“I don’t know. I’ve always been alone.”
“But I’m here now, so you aren’t.”
Alpha stands, not abruptly, but not naturally, either. There’s a tension in his muscles that wasn’t there before, a grinding in his jaw. “I’m going to go swim in the pool.”
He leaves the tray, as per regulation, and turns away.
Charlie watches him go and wonders what this vague feeling settling in his midsection is.
Not for the first time, Moira MacTaggert has realized that nobody takes her seriously. She knows four languages, has expert marksmanship, graduated in the top 99th percentile of her class and is one of the youngest agents currently employed by the CIA. Yet despite this, Moira knows that when her co-workers look at her, they see a pretty face and nothing more. Some of them wonder who she slept with to get this job. Nobody, not even her partner, gives her the benefit of the doubt.
None of that matters. What might have discouraged somebody else only makes her more dogged, more determined to show the world what she can do because damn it, she didn’t move here from Scotland for this.
“I’m telling you Levine, it’s real!” Moira exclaims, and she’s shoving the sheaf of papers and files underneath his nose, demanding that he look at it, to which she receives only an exasperated roll of the eyes.
“The Dollhouse again, MacTaggert? When are you going to give that up?” he takes a sip of his coffee, apparently undisturbed, and in response Moira snatches it away from him and places it on the desk, deaf to his cries of protest. She’s done the research, she’s backed up her sources, and here he is pretending that a medium-drip vanilla roast is more important than the lives at stake here.
“Look at this. This man, Charles Xavier, goes missing about six months ago. His sister Raven came to me, and that’s how I first got into this. And then I began to uncover this – look! Names, dates, bank statements from all across the city and six different continents. You can’t look at all of this and tell me something doesn’t look suspicious.”
The photograph on top of the file was one of Charles and Raven sitting in front of a tree outside of their Westchester mansion, and when Levine finally leaned in and checked his glasses, Moira had thought for a single second that she might be getting through to him. “Hey, she’s kind of cute—“
“Listen to me,” she grabs the photograph away, placing her palms on the file folder so that he had nowhere else to look except at her. “What they’re doing is wrong. They’re…they’re kidnapping these people, turning them into these…these dolls and selling them out for some rich pervert’s fantasy! Levine? Levine, are you listening to me?”
Stretched out in his office-issued ergonomic chair, he gives her a look that’s half impatience and exasperation, like a parent that has humoured an insolent child for far too long. “I’m listening, but you have to admit, all of this? Mind control? Sounds kind of like something out of a science fiction movie.”
Moira grits her teeth but outwardly shows no sign of how frustrated she actually is, taking the file from him with efficient movements. This isn’t over. She’s not giving up on this.
“It’s a brave new world, Levine. Get used to it.”