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The Caged Birds

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It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings
          --Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Sympathy"

Erik was working intently on his plans for the new S.H.I.E.L.D. version of Cerebro. As little as he trusted the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, he had to admit there was something thrilling about the sheer vastness of the resources at his disposal now that he was working for them. The upgrades he would be able to incorporate into the new design would make both Charles' original Cerebro and Stryker's copy at Alkali Lake look like children's toys in comparison.

A sudden knock drew Erik's attention away from his work and to the blonde teenaged girl, dressed in blue jeans and a S.H.I.E.L.D. polo shirt, standing in his office doorway. "Dr. Lensherr?" the girl asked nervously.

"Miss Cuckoo," Erik greeted her, putting as much warmth into is voice as he could manage. "Come in, please. How can I help you?"

The girl too a step into his office, then froze, almost panic-stricken. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. Erik simply waited patiently until at last she said, "It's nothing. I'm sorry I bothered you."

"Sophie," he said firmly. "Sit down."

He could see the surprise register on her face at being called by her given name. Erik knew that most S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel were unable to tell the five Cuckoos apart. But while it was true that all five cloned girls were manufactured from the same DNA and thus were near-identical in terms of their physical appearance, Erik had been a teacher before he had been a terrorist. He had gained a certain amount of insight into how teenagers functioned, and had already observed that Sophie was the most reflective and introspective of the Cuckoos. She might as well have been wearing a nametag.

Sophie sat down.

"Now," he said, falling back into the old persona of kindly instructor. "Why don't you tell me what's on your mind? Take your time."

It was the better part of a minute before she spoke, and when she did, it was with a question. "You've killed people, right?"

Well. Apparently whatever issue Sophie was circling around wasn't a light one if that was the question she chose to lead with.

"Yes," Erik said forthrightly. Teenagers responded to honesty, he knew, and it's not like she didn't already know the answer to her question quite well. "Many people, and have been responsible for an untold many more."

"Do you regret them?" asked Sophie, her eyes wide.

If it had been anyone else asking, he would have answered quickly, cavalierly, with a clever retort to deflect the question. Instead, he paused, considering. "Some," he said. "Certanly there are many decisions which in hindsight I would have made differently. But there were times when I made the best decision I could at the time, knowing what I knew then, to live my principles. And no, I don't regret them, even if they didn't manage to work out like I would have wished. There I stood; I could do no other."

Sophie nodded, her face thoughtful. "When you're done building this machine you're working on, me and my sisters, we'll have the power to kill with a thought, just by concentrating."

Ah, so that was it. "I know," he agreed. After all, he had designed it.. He had come incredibly close to getting Jason Stryker to--ahem--"persuade" Charles to wipe out all the humans. If it hadn't been for Storm and Nightcrawler interrupting them, he would have succeeded and right now the mutants would have already inherited the Earth. There would never have been any soi-disant "cure" and he would still be Magneto, Master of Magnetism instead of working for S.H.I.E.L.D. "This bothers you?"

Sophie nodded. "I don't know if I can kill somebody just because Director Fury says to."

"Then don't," Erik answered easily. "You're the one with the power here; Cerebro is only just a tool. You and your sisters are goddesses among men. Never forget that."

"But we were created by men," she reminded him. "Do you really think S.H.I.E.L.D. would have allowed us to be made if they didn't think they could control us?"

The meaning behind Sophie's words struck Erik. "You think they built in a fail-safe mechanism?"

Sophie's gaze met his unflinchingly. "Wouldn't you?"

Yes, damn it, he would have, and he knew the girl didn't even need to use her telepathic abilities to know it.

"To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" Tony Stark asked jovially, looking up from his workbench, as Erik followed Miss Potts into his workshop.

"I have something I'd like you to take a look at, Stark," Erik answered, producing a datacard from his pocket. "Preferably out of sight of my S.H.I.E.L.D. watchers."

Stark nodded, took the fatacard from him and handed it to one of the robot arms which filled his workshop. "JARVIS?"

"Of course, Mr. Stark," answered the A.I.'s cultured tones and within seconds a holographic projection hung in the air in front of them.

"This is from a sample of blood given to me by Sophie Cuckoo," Erik explained. "As you can see, there are--"

"Nanites," Tony finished for him, reaching out to the hologram to increase the magnification. "Thousands of nanites. The miniaturization on these things is incredible."

"Miss Cuckoo fears their purpose is to --ahem--neutralize the Cuckoos should they oppose S.H.I.E.L.D.'s instructions. Given the circumstances, I'm afraid I find her fears more than credible."

Tony nodded absently, the majority of his attention clearly on the technological innovation in front of him. "Might not even be that unreasonable," he mused as he once again increased the magnification. "Is it really a good idea to hand ultimate power over to a handful of jailbait psychics?"

"These are the shackles used by an inferior race to chain down their betters," Erik said.

"Yeah, well, I happen to be a member of that inferior race," Tony answered. "And so are you, too, nowadays, in case you've forgotten."

"I assure you," said Erik, unable to keep some of his anger from seeping into his voice. "I have not. But neither will I stand by and allow these girls to be turned into slaves."

"Tony," Pepper interjected, her voice low. "These are children."

Tony nodded soberly. "I'll see what I can do," he promised. "I'm sure they have some sort of protection from a normal EMP, but perhaps some sort of directed pulse. . . ." He trailed off, his mind already focused on the new technological puzzle.

"Thank you," Erik said simply as he turned to leave.

Tony had already tuned him out completely, but Pepper answered with a polite, "Of course. Let us know if there's something else we can do to help."

"I've presented your . . . problem to Mr. Stark," Erik said to Sophie as the two of them walked through the labyrinthine corridors of the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. "He's agreed to help."

"Thank you," Sophie said. "I know you're taking a risk in helping us."

"My life has been full of taking risks for what I believed in, as I know you are well aware," he pointed out. "Somehow, I've always managed to land on my feet, more or less." Even if right now was arguably "less."

"You don't think I'm being unreasonable, then?" she asked him. "That I should just trust S.H.I.E.L.D. to know what is best?"

Erik laughed, dry and mirthless. "Hold no illusions that our S.H.I.E.L.D. masters are angels, my dear. If they were, they never would have made a deal with a devil like me." He turned to her. "If what they want truly needs to be done, then by all means go ahead and do it. But if they want you to act as their executioner, then you need to make that decision for yourself. No one--not Nick Fury, not S.H.I.E.L.D., not me--can do it for you. All you're asking for is the freedom to make your choices for yourself. You deserve far more than that."

He watched the girl as she gave an uncertain nod. She and her sisters had spent their entire lives surrounded by S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel who treated them more as things than as people. He knew how much that could take its toil on a person.

He shook his head. He had witnessed from an early age just how cruel human beings could be to each other, yet alone to the mutant race which was replacing them. And still, for all the lives that he had taken, for all they had feared him and called him terrorist and monster, there was still a part which failed to understand.

Take the girl beside him, young and innocent and without a single malicious bone in her body. S.H.I.E.L.D. had used and dehumanized her, valuing her only for her use as a tool or weapon, lacing her blood with nanites in order to ensure their control.

"You deserve your freedom, Sophie," he repeated. "No one, not even S.H.I.E.L.D., has the right to take it away from you." The freedom and rights of mutants was the cause he had fought for for decades, had shed blood and killed for. Even now, without any mutant powers of his own and working as a lackey for S.H.I.E.L.D. , he would put everything on the line for it. Because there was not a modicum of doubt in his mind: Sophie and her sisters were worth it.

"Each of these," Stark said, gesturing at the five syringes laid out on a tray in front of him, "contain an experimental isotope, emitting a quickly-decaying, high-level dose of epsilon radiation. It shouldn't affect you with anything more serious than a bad case of static cling, but if I'm right--and I'm a genius, so you should count on me being right--it should disable the nanites in your bloodstreams."

"Let's get on with it, then," said Sophie, stepping forward and pushing up her sleeve.

Tony smiled. "That's the spirit," he said, picking up a syringe and administering the dose. "Who's next?"

Erik watched as, one at a time, each of the five sisters received the treatment. After Tony had administered it to the last girl, Phoebe, Sophie asked, "Is that it?"

"That's it," Tony confirmed, a confident grin on his face. "Welcome to freedom, girls. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

The moment was quiet, subdued. None of the girls said anything. And yet, the small smile which slowly worked its way across Sophie's face as she stood tall among her sisters--that made everything worth it.

A teenaged girl, dressed in a black miniskirt and a "Magneto Was Right" t-shirt, made her way down the back alley. On her head, she wore a helmet similar to the one in the picture on her shirt.

The two men standing guard didn't so much as acknowledge her as she walked passed them and into the building, taking a short flight of steps down into a large underground room. Once in the room, she removed her helmet, revealing long blonde hair, and kneeled before the seated figure in the center of the room.

"My lord Loki," she said. "It is done. Dear sister Sophie didn't even realize how she was playing into our hands."

"Good," answered the God of Mischief. "Soon, my dear Esme, we will rule this planet of yours as undisputed God-king and -queen of Midgard."

The smile on Esme Cuckoo's face was as hungry as it was evil.