Erik cannot forget the day the Nazis tattooed numbers onto his forearm. He bit his lip, felt tears of pain swimming in his eyes but refused to cry. Crying would reveal how much they were hurting him, and he never, ever wanted to give them the satisfaction. He was still only a child then, and he thought things like that mattered.
As he watched the needle pricking his skin over and over in an attempt to turn him from a person with a name to a thing with a number, Erik swore that he would never forget this. He’d give the tattoo its own meaning. The ink in his skin was a reminder of his hatred. Of his revenge. Of the struggle he would never, ever give up.
Now it’s the thing he misses seeing most of all.
He tries to run his fingers over the spot on his forearm – he knows the place well enough by touch – but the plastic cuffs are too tight to allow it. The chafing around his wrists might be bleeding by now; there’s moisture there, but it could as easily be sweat. He is surrounded by overheated, still, stale air that smells of body odor and urine – only the coldness of the rough concrete floor provides any relief to his naked, bruised flesh. They don’t bother with air conditioning in this part of the compound. Once you get here, you are beyond considerations like “comfort” or “good health.” This is … storage, no more.
Erik doesn’t mind it. This is the end; by now, that’s enough for him.
In the past months, his hearing has become slightly sharper – not superhuman, but better than before. Or maybe he just pays more attention now to what he can hear. At any rate, he catches the words uttered outside his door, though they are hardly more than a murmur:
“Come on. They can’t. This one’s a Level Five.”
“That’s what the order says.”
“Level Fives are strictly C or D.”
Convert or Destroy. It’s a term they have here. It means that you learn to follow their orders or you’re put down like a dog. Erik has been waiting to be put down for a couple weeks now.
How will they do it? He could dodge a bullet, melt a gun. Even now, with his powers under a damper of a drug cocktail that makes his mouth taste sticky sweet and his head swim, he probably retains that much ability. They can’t even give him a shot if he doesn’t consent. Erik would sense the needle and twist it into a knot. (The drugs are pumped into his stomach through a plastic tube they jam down his throat so roughly that by now he can’t even swallow without pain.) Hanging, he’d thought. That seemed most likely.
But as he listens, incredulous, he realizes the question may have become irrelevant.
“Where the hell is this, what do you call it, Xavier Home?”
“New York. Upstate. We’ve sent a couple others there, over the years.”
“You didn’t send any goddamn Level Fives.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do? This is the order. We dope Lehnsherr up, drop him off at Xavier’s while he’s still out like a light, and after that? He’s not our problem.”
“That one gets loose – he’s everybody’s problem.”
You have no idea, Erik thinks.
“Listen. Take it up with Frost if you want to. But an order’s an order.”
“Shit. Who is this Xavier?”
“Some millionaire. Gave so much to the Kennedy campaign that Papa Joe didn’t have to buy the presidency for his boy; Xavier practically did it for him.”
“So that’s why he’s got the clout, huh? Well, I hope he knows what he’s doing. Me, I don’t want to be anywhere near Lehnsherr when those cuffs come off.”
Maybe Erik should be relieved he will not die in this miserable place. Even though they are only taking him to another jail, perhaps a worse one – difficult as that is to imagine – he will not die here, not at Shaw’s hand. And in the new jail, the millionaire with the keys will not know Erik’s talents and habits. He will be making up the security protocols for Erik as they go. That gives Erik a chance to escape … how good a chance, only time can tell.
He would be relieved if he could even imagine how to live on the outside now. But he can’t.
They are letting him go only after they took his sight.
The doctors – if you can call people who have forgotten the Hippocratic oath doctors – helpfully explained that he isn’t wholly blind.
Erik realizes that much. He knows the difference between night and day, between brilliant illumination and none at all. It is the difference between taupe, grey and black. Every once in a while, if something moves very close to his face and very fast, like a club or a fist, Erik gets a sense of the motion. But that’s all he has left, and all he is likely ever to have.
Being blind isn’t what eats at him. No, Erik could have endured losing his sight. What he cannot endure is the fact that it was taken from him, by force, by cruelty.
By the person he hates the most in the world.
The person Erik will now never have the chance to kill.
He fights the tube merely enough to convince them his behavior hasn’t changed; this transfer is Erik’s only shot at survival and therefore freedom, and he knows it.
But as he gags around the plastic, as his gut clenches at the acid burn of the drugs, Erik wonders what the Xavier Home might be. A private house of horrors, perhaps, with mutants displayed, tortured or even killed at the whims of the rich and powerful. It may be only another research facility, this one operating beyond the reach of the government. More mercifully, it might be a sort of zoo.
As sticky-sweet drugged sleep begins to claim him, Erik experiences a feeling he’s known only once before, on the train to Auschwitz. He doesn’t know what’s coming, can hardly face it, overcome as he is by the weight of enforced passivity. All he knows is that he’s already in hell – and wherever he’s going next is probably worse.
For a time it is darker than dark, and he knows nothing.
Then he awakens.
Erik reaches out first with the sense he trusts most – his connection to metal. There’s a little, very little, but perhaps enough when he gets his strength back. Carefully he traces the outlines and tries to use them to orient himself. There, with the twin spots of metal on one straight vertical line and a larger one halfway between them and to the side – hinges and a doorknob. The way out is directly across from his bed, perhaps five feet away. Of course, that metal no doubt includes a lock, which he is not yet capable of picking. But give him time.
Other senses begin to demand their due, however. Slowly Erik registers that he is lying on something soft, if dense … an old-fashioned feather mattress. He remembers that smell from childhood, musty and yet vaguely comforting. He’s a couple feet from the floor, so he must be in an actual bed. Erik had almost forgotten what that felt like. The bed is old-fashioned too; there’s no metal, so it must be wood joined together. It’s almost as if … as if someone had wanted to keep metal away from him as much as possible, and yet cared about his comfort.
Or, more likely, that this place is ancient and run down, and that he’ll be kept like a 19th-century madman.
Yet there are no chains. The cuffs are gone, though his wrists are still raw. Someone even dressed him; the sensation of soft cotton against his skin feels almost alien. A T-shirt and some sort of underwear: It’s not much, but he’s grateful for what little dignity has been restored.
Head still swimming from the drugs, Erik dares to sit up. Though the room tilts precariously around him, he doesn’t vomit or pass out. The quality of the darkness changes, and his face is now slightly warmer than the rest of him.
A window, he realizes. They’ve given the blind man a view.
The joke is so bitter that he would have to laugh, were it not for the fact that his hearing is beginning to return to him, or more precisely, is no longer drowned out by the rushing of blood through his ears.
And the fact that he can hear someone else breathing. Someone else in this very room.
Even as he stiffens, a soft, masculine voice inside his head whispers, Don’t be afraid.
Erik pushes himself from the bed. The woven rug beneath his feet feels as strange as wearing clothing. Every muscle tenses. Sick and weak as he is, he can’t decide whether to rush the intruder or get as far away from him as possible.
But what’s the point of running? This is a telepath, a telepath just like that damned Emma Frost, and there’s no protection against them –
Please, don’t be so upset. I won’t violate your mind.
“You’re doing it – ” Erik’s raw throat can hardly croak out the words. “Doing it right now.”
We’re just having a chat. He has an English accent. Why do their voices always sound the same inside your head as inside their mouths? Erik’s never understood that, has always hated it.
It’s all right. You’re safe here, Erik.
Maybe it’s the lie, that he’s “safe” in his new prison. Maybe it’s the English accent. Maybe it’s that this bastard already dug deep enough into his brain to know his name.
Whatever it is, it pushes Erik over the edge.
“Get out of my head!” Erik shouts. His throat turns into fire and blood. But he hurls himself at the sound of the breathing, and despite the drugs and the bruises and the months of inactivity, he’s strong enough to take the guy down. For a moment they grapple – Erik claws at what feels like his midsection, and his elbow slams against something that might be a jaw – the telepath’s breaths are high and fast – and then Erik hears the other jailers coming.
“Hank! Armando! Come quick!” A woman’s voice – no, a girl’s. “He’s got Charles!”
“On my way!” A young man, that one. “Don’t be silly, Professor, we’ve got to do something – hold on – ”
Then a fist rams into Erik’s gut; it’s not that strong a punch, but in Erik’s condition, it doesn’t take much. He rolls over, gagging, even as he hears the jailers fumbling with the lock on the door.
I’m sorry, the voice says, and suddenly Erik thinks it would be a marvelous idea to go to sleep for a very long time, starting right now, and he does.
“Hey. Can you hear me? Charles says we’re not supposed to startle you again.”
Erik stirs on the bed. Bed? Memory floods in, and with the drugs now much diluted in his system, he can think more clearly. He has been transferred to some “Xavier Home.” A telepath was trying to influence his mind and forced him back to sleep. This is the young girl he heard before, and she’s sitting very close by.
“You know I can tell you’re awake, right?” She sounds exasperated in an unmistakably teenage way, as though he had just told her Elvis Presley wasn’t cool. “So sit up already.”
He whispers, “What happens if I don’t?” Speaking still hurts, but less.
“Nothing, really, but it’s gonna make it really hard to drink your 7-Up.”
7-Up? It’s been months since he had anything besides the nutrient mush they were slopped at the lab. But he can hear fizzing from an open bottle. He breathes in through his nose and smells not only the soda but something vaguely buttery …
Her voice is less petulant now. “Come on. You’ve got to be hungry, right?”
Erik sits up. Perhaps the food is drugged, but nonetheless, he needs calories if he is to regain any strength.
“Don’t go wild again, okay? I’m going to put the dinner tray on the bed. There’ll be one rail on either side of you. No biggie.” He hears the clink of china on plastic, feels the weight press down the feather mattress on each side of his thighs. She is close enough now that he can smell her perfume … floral, and too much of it, the way girls prefer when they’re just starting out. “There we go. The bottle of 7-Up is at the top right corner of your tray. Dead center is a plate of scrambled eggs. Right to the left of the plate is a fork. Bon appetit, like that lady on TV says.”
Erik reaches out tentatively. He’s been lied to before. But his fingers make contact with glass, cool glass moist with condensation, and there are little circular divots in the surface that he remembers from a bottle of 7-Up. He lifts it, trying to recall the length of it – and he does, the lip of the bottle making contact with his mouth. Then he gulps down the soda, sweet and cool and sparkling and yet gentle on his tender throat and gut.
“There you go,” she says, and he can hear the smile in her voice.
Next he finds the fork – plastic, unsurprisingly – and stabs at the plate. The whole process is awkward. He hasn’t learned how to manage this; since being blinded, he hasn’t once eaten normally, has only been fed like an animal, sometimes force-fed. But the eggs are dry enough to be easily speared. They are also bland, devoid of salt or the heaps of black pepper he favors. But they’re food, real food, more delicious to him than anything else he’s ever had. Only the strictest self-control keeps him from wolfing it down; he tries to have some semblance of table manners. He likes to remind his captors, from time to time, that he is a person and not a beast.
As he’s washing down the final bite with yet more of the soda, the girl finally speaks again. “I’m Raven, by the way.”
“Raven,” he repeats. “Erik.”
He’s ingratiating himself, but little gestures like these sometimes get inexperienced jailers off their guard. And what kind of jail is this that gives the keys to a mere girl?
“Erik. Nice to meet you.” But then the shadow creeps back into her voice. “Next time you meet my brother, would you mind not beating the shit out of him while he’s trying to be nice to you?”
Erik’s hand tenses around the bottle. That could be made a weapon if necessary – smash and slash. “Your brother. The telepath.”
“His name is Charles Xavier, and he’s the reason you’re still alive.”
Xavier’s Home. Charles Xavier the millionaire. It makes a perverse sort of sense, that soft voice and those comforting words sheathing the power and menace within. “He went into my mind.”
“Yeah, he did.” Raven snatches the tray away, plate clattering, then pries the empty soda bottle away from him. “Because he was trying to talk to you.”
“There are other ways to talk!”
She takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Not for Charles. Listen, being panicked about the mind-reading? I get it. I really do. It used to upset me too, when I was little. But I’ve gotten used to it since then. I’ve had to.”
Erik wonders if his contempt shows on his face. “He’s worn you down.”
“He can’t speak. Charles is mute.” Raven stomps to the door, and just as she goes out delivers her parting shot: “You’re not the only one they experimented on, you know.”
It slams into Erik – not guilt, because he will not apologize for defending himself, not ever. But … shame. For not recognizing another of their victims. For leaving scars that would match those of their captors.
The door slams shut. When the lock turns, Erik forgets to listen for the tumblers, to begin learning his way out.