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Audience of One

Chapter Text

I looked up and saw you
I know that you saw me
We froze but for a moment
In empathy
[..] We ran away
But what are we running from?
A show of hands who knows in this audience of one
Where have they gone?
-"Audience of One" by Rise Against

 

 

 

Erik Lehnsherr has no doubt that, when the CIA and their military collaborators stuck him in this geometrical cement grave, his captors thought they would break him without any atypical expenditure of effort.

In this same way, Erik is also certain that they will never succeed.

 

This assurance is as concrete as the walls that imprison him, and it does not stem from arrogance. Lehnsherr has that flaw in abundance, of course; he and Charles are joined in many of their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Still, even he has a breaking point. Everyone does. The obligation of a prisoner is not to last forever, but merely to outlast the jailers themselves. Then you die

(or are used for ransom
'Move the coin, or--'
Oh, but Herr Shamyir, you are dead. So just shut up and stay dead.)

for lack of usefulness, or you find some way to escape.

 

Doubtless the CIA considers itself well-equipped with experts in physical torture and mental agony. Connoisseurs, gourmands of sentient suffering, picking through the broken shells of victims as if selecting succulents for a feast. Lehnsherr will give them their due; they beat him, drug him, deprive him of food and sleep. They show him pictures of dead compatriots (Angel, Azazel and, much later, poor Sean), threatening to uncover and destroy anyone else he cares about. They can't use electroshock-- too risky, conductors are often magnetic as well-- but there's always water-boarding and the ever-popular application of cigarettes. (Schmidt was particularly fond of that one, too.) There are plenty of non-fatal ways to severely injure a person; they break bones (unlike Schmidt, they are not smart-- or depraved-- enough to deliberately set them wrong), cut into him with ceramic knives, and yank a couple of back molars.

Once, they let a group of sailors who claim to have been at the Cuban stand-off treat him to a 'soap party', which turns out to be a beating using hard bars of soap stuffed into pillow-cases. Erik doesn't believe for one moment that anyone from the battleships actually has the security clearance to get down here, but it's a good story. All part of the mind-games-- and the men certainly brutalized him like it was personal. He peed blood for a week. That was back when he still had a rough grasp on time, which is yet another psychological tactic. They won't turn off the damned fluorescents either, trying to batter his circadian rhythm. Schmidt-- that which became Shaw-- loved to go on about that one, for it was the subtleties he liked. He'd lectured Erik a great deal about the effects of sleeplessness and starvation on the brain. All, of course, whilst eating a hearty meal in front of the boy. Without proteins or lipids in the diet, the body begins a process of self-cannibalism-- first fat, then muscle. Or more bluntly, Klaus Schmidt once offered in an elaborately pedantic mood, the brain and then the heart. Erik is blearily reacquainted with these unpleasant details while the CIA withholds food, but they don't apply this tactic in any way as long as they could.

They just don't have Shaw's stamina.

 

The point is, in the grand scheme of things, they're amateurs . They've also picked the worst person in the world with whom to use torture as a means of extracting information. The grotesquely ironic part is that Erik doesn't have that much to reveal. At least, not in the way the supposed intelligence agency thinks. He and Mystique had worked hard, but they'd barely had a chance to lay the foundations for the Brotherhood before that dark day in Dallas. There's no great mutant conspiracy in play-- yet. And, while Erik is guarding a treasured weakness in the gaping maw he calls a heart, he knows full well that he is just as much a threat to Charles Xavier as the CIA will ever be.

His beautiful, obstinate and infuriating Patroclus-- Erik's own dear Achilles' heel. If these filthy insects, these simpering humans in their fine suits and uniforms should bring Charles in and torture the younger mutant in turn… Well, Lehnsherr doesn't give himself the credit to think he'd gracefully surrender before the professor was hurt at all. He would hold out, for a little while, and Charles would learn to plumb further depths of hatred for his former friend and lover.

'Then again,' comes a chill, stone-epitaph whisper, 'perhaps you are as weak as all that. Look at what you've done-- just look at what you've already done to him. Could you stand to be the author of more, even by proxy? As long as he draws breath, he is your beating heart. He makes you weak.'

And whose voice is that-- the shamyir Shaw, or Lehnsherr's own relentless darkness at the reigns? If Charles were the only thing that stood between mutants and true freedom, could Erik…?

He chokes that thought off relentlessly.

He has a duty to his people, but any hypothetical sacrifices he might or might not make are hardly germane as long as he's stuck in here.

 

At first, he thinks Mystique might yet engineer his escape but, by the time they show him pictures of Emma's dissection, Erik knows the likelihood had dwindled exponentially. Furthermore, he'd trained the girl once called Raven far, far too well. 'The Cause' above all individual considerations, above personal gain. Surely she must know what a hypocrite he is? But no-- for all the rebellious break from her 'brother', she is still very young. Naive, malleable, and desperate to be loved. Yet not so desperate that she's completely deluded herself-- for had she not once come to him wearing Charles' face, every inch cloying and vindictive innocence? He has bedded her, but he certainly didn't do it then. That night, he'd nearly killed her, and she'd gotten more practical training saving her own life than he'd been able to teach in a year's worth of sparring.

No, he'll expect no help from that quarter. Mystique is truly free now-- beholden only to herself, her demons, and her ideals. It's for the best that someone remain on the outside to keep fighting, since it's become clear that Moira and the 'paranormal' division of the CIA were third-tier patsies. There's a lot of that going around. No wonder they'd been so quick to cut bait on the beach-- he'd marked the blasted woman as a potential mole, but she'd been disposable all along. There is some other group-- some core group of humans in the shadowy star-chambers of power-- that is fully aware of mutantkind, and they are powerful enough to assassinate the leader of a nominally democratic country. Lehnsherr has never been impressed by Charles' adopted homeland. He has little faith in any man-made structure and, while there must be some bulwark to hold back anarchy, it will years before mutants have a chance to attempt their own.

'Which is why I-- we-- will need him,' Lehnsherr concedes internally. He does what he was made (or remade) to do: he destroys, and he does it well. Charles is the builder and the dreamer, attributes Erik is fairly certain can never be taught. Most assuredly not by someone who isn't capable of doing either of those things themselves. Any reasons Erik himself might need Charles are far more personal, grudging, and nigh-on impossible to admit.

 

In the early days of his captivity, he tries not to think about Charles, in case the 'zookeepers' have a telepath of their own. It rapidly becomes obvious that, a) he is the only living mutant in captivity and, b) that said humans are not smart enough to hide that fact. This comes as a relief, because not thinking about Charles is embarrassingly difficult, something which has nothing to do with Erik's present situation. He couldn't banish the dear professor from his thoughts in the outside world, either. In the year since they'd parted, Erik missed Xavier with an acidic ferocity he had not imagined possible. It was a pain Erik could live with, but he is well aware that the body could also continue functioning despite the loss of an eye, a kidney, or--

(when i die, i will be damned for many things but, oh. oh, charles, your legs…)

a limb.

 

In the outside world, at least, he'd been able to stay busy. He's always considered that a particularly useless piece of advice for mourners-- the sort of 'stiff upper lip' attitude he'd encountered in England and among the social elite in general. As if suffering were somehow déclassé. Of course, its hardly likely that any of those shallow and glittering puppets would even know suffering if it stabbed them in the heart. Lehnsherr is well aware that there is no cure for that destruction-- shavar, in the Hebrew, which sounds less trite-- save death. But what was taken in blood will be paid in blood and, while he may have left the 'G-d' part behind, Erik's personal theology is still firmly rooted in the wrath, thunder and punishment of Sinai.

Had he been mourning Charles as if he'd buried that beloved form on the beach, instead of just maiming it? Yes-- had been, and still is. During their brief collaboration, Frost once told him he had the most relentlessly sane mind she'd ever encountered. It wasn't a compliment.

"So sane, sugar," she'd drawled, eyeing Magneto's newly refurbished helmet, "that it makes you a fucking lunatic."

Charles' descriptions of the metal-bender's psyche had always been kinder, but Erik refuses to attach any special significance to that. Xavier is, no doubt, more critical of his friend's mind now-- for hasn't the thing called Magneto now proven himself to be every inch the monster Shaw created?

 

For a brief time, Erik thinks his professor might find him here, in this unfilled grave. Not physically of course, but he'd taken some sort of mental visitation almost as a guarantee. He'd been disarmed in Dallas; no helmet after a year of strict barricades against all telepathic interference. Surely that was enough time for Hank to recreate (and no doubt vastly improve) Cerebro, particularly if he had Charles to collaborate with. Moreover, Erik suspects Xavier might not need any amplification to link their minds, specifically. He'd told himself it was a strategic concern, that he certainly wasn't possessive over something that might have developed without his consent, but he'd never actually allowed Frost to check. The mere suggestion-- after a great deal of bluster and affront-- had forced Emma to admit that Charles was far stronger and more deft than she. Acting as though such a bond would be foreign is what Sean or Alex would have called a 'cop-out'. Erik told that gentle, fascinating young man in no uncertain terms to stay out of his head. And then proceeded to engage in a physical and-- non-existent G-d help him-- emotional intimacy more profound than anything he had ever experienced, or ever expects to know again. Charles has laid his mark upon him, a brand Erik had accepted in a moment of surrender and triumphant possession as honest as it was ill-advised. He can never doubt that some vestige of that warmth-and-silver-fur touch remains with him, for there is a small section of his mind that is always cold now. Cold beyond the hope of salvaged skin; cold to a blunting sense that negates having ever felt anything at all.

Erik hates Charles a little for that, though he supposes he will always love the professor to an equal or greater degree. Hate, he is discovering, is a consumptive but ultimately easy thing. Love, on the other hand…
Well.

 

Charles has never come to him. Not the slightest brush of presence, not the least bit of stirring in the blackness Lehnsherr calls dreams. After his capture (they actually have the affront to call it an 'arrest', which makes Erik openly scoff) he was actually able to keep a good handle on time despite his isolation. He would slice little cuts on the insides of his left thigh with his thumbnail. After seven of these, he would make a cut on the right thigh, letting the original marks fade as he moved down the line of skin. Days into weeks.

They'd brought in an analyst, who called down to him from the safety of the glass-roofed enclosure like someone pitching their voice down to hear the echo from a well. She'd been very interested in his 'self-injury', prying at him with what she probably thought of as clinical precision. She might as well have been groping in the dark. It was all so phenomenally simple that he had, in fact, laughed at her. With nothing resembling a sharp edge to scratch on the wall, he was simply making use of the resources that were at hand. At any rate, she hadn't lasted long-- her presence must have been the CIA's off-handed attempt at a honey trap. A pretty, professional woman not unlike Moira, with big sympathetic eyes and a willing ear for any tirades the criminal Magneto might have against humanity.

Erik makes it a policy to speak as little as possible, even in seemingly mundane situations. It is his understanding that the menial guards have nicknamed him the 'Tin Man', and not solely because of his talent or much-missed helmet.
As in, 'If I only had a heart.'

 

By the time he's made six cuts on his right thigh, he realizes Charles will never come-- in spirit, or otherwise. The man Erik occasionally allowed himself to call neshama-- 'my soul'-- is shut of him. Xavier either despises him for the injury, or believes the carefully circulated rumor that Erik was behind the president's assassination.
In all honesty, it's probably both.

 

Thus, Erik lives in a constant, painfully fluorescent world of white and gray. With the exception of a period spent confined in a dark, coffin-sized cement bunker (during which he loses his precious grip on time), there is never any escape from the antiseptic light. What few occurrences that could be called 'events' are sporadic, but definitely cyclical. Lehnsherr's current theory is that the person or persons charged with his incarceration are periodically replaced as they fail to extract useful information from him. A replacement then comes in, all pride and self-importance, and institutes a new program of torture they're just *sure* will have Erik spilling his secrets.

This latest one likes drugs. In a way, Erik wasn't prepared for it. There's been such a long period of general inactivity that the doctored meal came as something of a surprise. He most assuredly hasn't eaten anything since-- not that he could, even if he thought it was safe. Whatever they've given him came on slowly, so that he'd finished the entire tray before he'd realized there was anything wrong. It's potent, definitely hallucinogenic, and almost certainly psychedelic. He's been vomiting on-and-off through three more offered meals, and has long since ceased to expel anything save stomach bile. In fact, there may have been a little blood in that last bout. And this, to paraphrase Banshee, is only the beginning of a sincerely 'bad trip'.

It's too strong to be LSD, at least based on Erik's experience. They tried dosing him with that early on, back when they'd still thought some sort of psychological intimidation lay in telling him what they were inflicting. It can't possibly be recreational, either; people derive their pleasure from many strange things, but he can't imagine anyone signing up for this. His prison jumpsuit is practically dripping with sweat and, while he's managed to keep from soiling himself, dragging his body to the minimal lavatory takes effort on par with lifting a submarine.

As bad as it is, Erik isn't really concerned about tolerating the physical symptoms. For good or ill, he has spent most of his life enshrouded in a grim determination that would give even that death's head reaper pause. The psychological effects of the mystery poison, however, are potent in ways even his captors may not have anticipated.

 

For Erik is not just enduring this torture, but all of them. The horrors march before him in a stunning panorama of vibrance and texture. He is both observer and entrapped participant in these agonies. He watches Schmidt hold forth the coin and demand the boy move it; he hears the sick thud of his mother's body on the floor, and feels the warm flecks of blood that land on his cheek when he crushes the guards' skulls within their helmets. He remembers the look on his father's face that final day, when they were separated. Wide and somehow noble green eyes-- Erik had forgotten that-- above pale flesh and unkempt dark beard. How Mama had trembled, shaking as if her very bones where coming apart in misery. She had breathed in painful gasps and clutched Erik's shoulders, but she had not wanted Vater to see her cry.

He watches and feels as Frost slices into his mind on the Caspertania, and is treated to Shaw/Schmidt's look of triumph in agonizing detail. So sick and humiliating, that moment of lost opportunity, when he had suddenly just been 'kleiner Erik Lehnsherr' again, tasting chocolate and knowing the monster-maker would keep on winning.
Forever.

In real life-- back where he retains an odd awareness of present time and his spasming muscles-- he'd followed his quarry into the water, enraged and trying to crush the submarine like a tin can. The miracle (which Lehnsherr will never concede, never give G-d or the Universe such credit) had been that Charles managed to find him in the dark tides. Had called Erik by name and told him he was not a freak, but a part of something more.

The drug doesn't let him have that. It won't give him the hushed and oddly intimate conversation under towels and dim lights in the hold or, indeed, any of the other countless warm and treasured moments Xavier bestowed upon him. It wants only the pain: the hated coats and their branding yellow, the choking blow-job he gave in Belarus in exchange for a lead.

 

At this particular moment, he is lying face-down on the floor of his cell, cheek pressed against the cold concrete, reliving one of Shaw's fear-motivator experiments. The point is, it is not a dream. The primary basis for this argument is that he's experiencing both situations simultaneously, right down to sensory input. His nerve-endings are in no way thrilled by this. It's taxing in a way Lehnsherr has never conceived of, making him yearn for the truncation of death. Also, Erik very rarely dreams at all. His nocturnal landscape is as blank and mute as slate wiped clean. While the body has to dream-- good, bad or indifferent-- he himself is a wary creature even in repose. The few nightmares he'd had on the road with Charles had, ironically enough, occurred because he actually trusted the young man enough
(been soothed by that blue-flame presence)
to let down his guard.

 

He will never be able to clearly pinpoint just when the dual sensations of hard cement and packed earth become hard cement and smooth wood floor. Gradually, he realizes he's no longer experiencing the lightless hovel Shaw once locked him in. The space around him feels inexplicably bigger, and the air no longer smells like frozen dirt and the feces of rats and humans. In fact, the air smells processed-- a faint no-odor underneath vague traces of mothballs and old potpourri. Still aware of his aching body and endlessly lighted cell, Erik realizes his alternate surroundings offer a bay of angled windows, in addition to wood floor and actual pieces of furniture. He can only see bare branches and a sparsely starred night beyond the panes because he is currently lying on said floor. Levering up on his palms (an act which has no affect on what now seems to be an entirely separate body still in his prison cell), he cranes his neck to take in a voluptuous if dusty sleigh bed, a pair of nightstands, wardrobe, and empty vanity. The room itself is illuminated only by the moon, and a faint strip of light underneath the closed door.

Metal sings about him in its blessed, everyday profusion-- nails and buttons, hinges, radiator grills and plumbing. Keys, light-fixtures, the tungsten filament in bulbs and the tiny links of the pull-chains. The groan he releases is not unlike that of a starving man finally presented with a loaf of bread. He is ravenous for it, the feel of all these small and dear and elemental things; it is amazing, nigh-on transcendent. Collapsing, he stares almost sightlessly at the wall, just lying there as he savors the return of color and truth to the world.

Then, a quiet voice, soft and sweet like a woodwind, asks hesitantly, "Is someone there?"

 

Erik sits up a bit, which his stomach protests (though not as strongly as it might in the empirical world). Behind him, the wardrobe door has opened ever-so-slightly.

"Yes," Erik says after a moment, "I'm here."

A rustling and shifting, then the angle of the opening increases minutely. Lehnsherr can feel eyes upon him in the gloom, but no response seems forthcoming.

"Will you come out?" he asks in a low tone.

A long pause. "No, please. It's not safe." The voice is undoubtably reed-like, vital and crisp along the British vowels. "Perhaps… you could come in?"

"I very much doubt I'd fit," Erik says reasonably enough. Still aware of his glaringly bright reality, he never the less adapts to events with the same aplomb that kept him alive during his hunting days. His body-- this version of it?-- is just as ravaged by the drug, and he crosses the short distance to the wardrobe in a sort of half-crawl, half-drag.

 

The door on the far side opens obligingly, revealing a small, dark-haired young boy in a nest of piled furs. The child's breathing is strange, and one pajama-clad leg protrudes from the glossy folds at an odd angle. He's holding some sort of handset, using its greenish glow as a make-shift flashlight, but most of his own face is hidden in shadow. It doesn't matter-- one look in those blue eyes, and Erik knows without a single iota of doubt who it is. His cynicism calls his instinct nonsense; after all, that particular eye color is caused by the OCA2 gene, and is exhibited in 8% of the world's population.

(The odds, the odds… what, as they say, are the odds? Be careful, because we're playing for keeps.)

In spite of absorbing many of the professor's off-handed lectures about genetic probability, he knows that gaze.

 

Erik has never once encountered eyes quite the same hue of peerless azure as those belonging to Charles Francis Xavier.

.