"He's not going to look very good out there."
"He'll look good enough."
"You'll get half what you should for him, if he's like this."
"He was never a very obedient boy. The bidder might as well know what he's getting into."
"Fair enough." The handler grabbed Charles roughly by the chin and forced his head up. Charles kept his expression as blank as possible, which wasn't much of a stretch-- the silence all around him was deafening, his mind felt fogged with it. He met the handler's eyes only with an effort. "Tell me your name."
"You know his name--"
"He needs to say it himself. You know the rules."
Kurt's hand was hard on Charles's shoulder, his grip tight. Charles pulled away with a soft sound. "Tell him your name."
"Charles," Charles managed. "Charles Xavier."
"Do you know why you're here, Charles?"
Charles reached up to his throat, his fingers brushing across the metal collar. "To get this off."
"Your new owner may or may not allow that," the handler said. "Do you understand?"
Charles closed his eyes. Getting the collar off was all he could think of; doing what it took to get it off was the only thing he understood. Kurt wouldn't. Kurt had put the collar on him the instant Charles's status changed from free to slave. A new owner might be different. It was reason enough to go through with this, not to fight it.
"Let's go. Mr. Marko, we've got a few more pieces of paperwork for you to sign, but you don't need to be present at the auction. You'll be notified of his sale price at ten a.m. tomorrow."
"Good. I've got places to be." Kurt turned on his heel, and Charles held still while the handler clipped a lead onto his collar. In Charles's fantasies, the lead was charged somehow, and when the metal of the clip touched the collar, it short-circuited the wiring, the collar falling dead on his throat, the world opening up again, all these minds his again, no more being alone--
Nothing happened. The handler tugged gently, and Charles swallowed, following along.
"You're pretty enough," the handler said. Now that Kurt was gone, his tone was a little more gentle. "If you could just smile, focus on the buyers..." Charles said nothing; the handler sighed and kept going with the facial cleansing, carefully wiping Charles's face clean. "Just make eye contact with one of them. Whichever one you like. If you can get his attention, you'll be set. Nine times out of ten, that's how it works."
Charles turned his face to the side; the handler moved on, scrubbing at Charles's ear and the side of his neck, above and below the collar.
"I'm sorry this happened to you," the handler said. "We've had mutants come through before... most of them end up in good homes."
The other side; Charles held his breath while the handler cleaned him up.
"I really want to give you a shave. You'd look nicer for the auction that way. Can I do that or will you fight me?"
He didn't fight. The handler shaved him, carefully, not a nick or a scrape anywhere. He even managed to shave Charles's neck despite the collar. Apparently he'd had a lot of practice. It wasn't exactly a comforting thought.
"I think that's the best we can do. Let's get you dressed."
"You couldn't have been two inches taller," the handler sighed. "It's all right, it just means leather won't be an option. Slaves sell for more when we can put them in leather for the auction. You wouldn't have been able to keep it anyway. We'll put you in pajama bottoms, then, and barefoot. It's the second-best look for a slave." He opened cabinets until he found something in Charles's size; when he held it up to Charles's waist, the hems just barely touched the floor. "Good. Let's get you showered off first. Or can you do that yourself?" No answer. The handler sighed. "Okay. I'll help. Come on."
Charles didn't react when the handler stripped his clothes off. If this collar hadn't been on him, he could have known for certain whether the handler was a threat. Whether the handler was going to become aroused by washing Charles. How thorough the shower was going to be.
The next twenty minutes told him that the answers were no, and no, and very. Charles braced himself against the shower wall and let the water spray over his face while the handler slid slick, soapy fingers inside him, then rinsed his hand and rinsed Charles, fingers sliding into him again and again until Charles was easy and loose and the sting of soap was long since gone.
"Good job," the handler offered. As if that were any consolation. Charles stood still while the handler dried him off, and stepped into the drawstring pants when he was told to.
A dozen other slaves were lined up backstage. Charles kept his eyes on the ground, avoiding their faces. He didn't want to see any of their faces. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, really; without being able to feel their minds, none of them would have been real. Still. If his power came back, his photographic memory might return with it; he didn't want the faces of all these slaves burned into his mind forever.
Some of them were nervous, feet tapping against the floor. Some of them were pacing-- strutting, more like, eating up the space with long, confident strides. More of them were like Charles, quiet, not looking at anything. But when the lead went onto each slave's collar in turn-- and oh, what Charles would have given for an ordinary leather collar, like most of them were wearing-- they were all obedient, walking out with their trainers.
Charles tried, when it was his turn. The look on his trainer's face told him he hadn't succeeded. He walked onto the stage and stood where the trainer told him, and when the trainer unclipped his leash and left him in the center of the stage, Charles tried to look out at the crowd. The lights were bright enough it was hard to see anyone.
Just smile... focus on the buyers... make eye contact with one of them, whichever one you like... you'll be set...
The collar moved.
Charles could feel it against his throat, but he held as still as he could, not even breathing. The announcer was still talking about Charles's traits, trying his best to sell Charles to the buyers before bidding began. He could feel the lightest tug at the collar, and his eyes moved in the direction the collar was moving. There were people out there, too many, no way of knowing which one was controlling his collar, no way of knowing what this could possibly be... please be something, please, please something... please, let the collar be defective, let me out, let me out, please...
And then a miracle happened, and someone answered him.
«Don't move. Don't speak. Don't look for me. I'm here, Charles, but they can't know what I am. Do you understand?»
«Please.» Grappling for the voice inside his head felt like trying to scale a glass wall. It was there, but he could only take what was sent to him, not reach out for the other person's thoughts on his own. «Just tell me I'm not crazy, tell me this is real...»
«This is real. You're standing on a stage, being sold at auction, and the humans here don't know one of their buyers is like you. If you give me away, we'll both be sold, and I can't help you. Do you understand?»
«I understand, I'll do anything, please help me, please get me away from here, get me out of this collar, please...»
The bidding began, and Charles looked from face to face in the crowd. Surely that was all right now; he was meant to be drawn to the bidders, he should be trying to get their attention. Which was it? The man on the left, narrow eyes, older, nose upturned? The one in the middle, heavyset, thick black glasses, leaning forward as if to see every detail? The only other choice was the man on the far right, slim, frown coloring his features. He looked more strict than the others-- the man with the upturned nose had a playful expression, the one in the middle had an interested expression, but the man on the right was entirely shuttered. Even with the use of his powers, Charles wasn't sure he could have read what was really going on behind the tightened lips and furrowed brow.
«Who are you? Tell me, please, I need to know...»
«I'm here,» the voice said, and the man on the right raised his paddle.
God. All right, though, all right-- he could hear this man, despite the collar. The man on the right was a mutant, like him. Better him than anyone else, please win, please let him win...
«I'm trying. Be still, now. Put your eyes on the floor again.»
Charles did it, stretching his ability out as far as he could. If he could just feel the man on the right... maybe he'd know whether to trust him, maybe he could find out his name. Anything, he'd be grateful for anything...
He'd been concentrating on that so hard he lost track of who was winning; when the bidding stopped, Charles looked frantically around to see who was coming up to the stage to collect his prize.
The man on the right. Thank God. Thank God.
He came up and scanned a credit card, signing for Charles on the spot; a few more signatures and he was given a lead, and Charles was brought down off the stage to meet him. He clipped the lead onto Charles's collar.
"I'm Erik," he said. «It's me.»
"What should I call you?" Charles whispered. «Thank you. Thank you so much, Erik...»
"By my name." Oh, God, Charles had slipped already, called him "Erik" before Erik had invited it. But no. No, in his mind, not out loud. The trainers and minders weren't taking any notice.
«Please. Please, I need out of this collar, please, I'll do anything. Anything.»
«Patience. We need to get home first. We need to be where it's safe. Can you act this part?»
Charles knelt down at Erik's side and let Erik stroke a hand through his hair. "Thank you for buying me, Erik," he said, loud enough the trainers nearest him could hear it. "I know I'll be very happy with you."
«That's a yes, then,» Erik thought. God, Charles wished he could tell what Erik was feeling. "I'm sure you will," Erik said. He tugged lightly on Charles's lead. "Get up. We're going."