This is the X-men fic I wrote for NaNoWriMo. It is 50,000 words and will be posted by chapter. It is an AU and is something of a mixture of comic and movieverse, but is set early enough that it isn't really an issue. I don't own Charles or Erik or the concept of mutants, but the ownership of everything else is debatable.
Some of Charles' most haunting nightmares had been ones in which he, too, had been in the concentration camps. He was still chased by a persistent doubt -- if he had lived through what Erik had, would he still be certain his way was the right one? Would he have even been able to survive the camps? Would he have wanted to?- Evolution by Renata.
The transport was not recorded, officialised or even announced before it had already departed. Had it arrived as it should, this story would not be being written. But it never did arrive.
It was dark, and so foul that it seemed that the darkness itself was tainted, as though it were a filthy cloth thrown over the scene to hide it from prying eyes. Even the faint light, filtering through the barbed wire slots above the doors seemed somehow dirty, the slivers of cloud covered sky a dim, grimy grey.
The British soldiers that stopped the train didn't know what it was, when they built the blockade across the rail tracks. If they did, they might have been less eager to obey orders. But they didn't know.
The sounds were muffled by the dark and the filth, no more than murmurs from voices which had, days ago, shouted themselves hoarse. No one shouted any more, no one spoke, even if they could have made themselves heard above the clattering din of the train.
They thought the train was carrying supplies, troops, or even prisoners of war. But why would supplies be carried in these ancient cattle wagons? And who would be inhumane enough to transport people in such a manner? Even prisoners of war were protected by the Geneva convention.
But that didn't include civilians.
It was hot, and the stale, vile air was hard to breathe. It had been unbearable at first, when they had been packed in until there was barely any room to move, let alone sit. But it was easier now, with so few lungs still taking in the air.
The train hit the blockade with a jarring screech that set all teeth on edge, the locomotive crashed into the barrier head-on and overturned, dragging the first two wagons over with it. The others slammed into each other with such force the many of the boards splintered, and the screams of tearing metal and crushed wood covered the very human screams that sounded at the same time.
The stop was so sudden and violent that there was no warning, and no one could see what was happening when they were all thrown across the wagon with such force that he saw stars when he hit the far wall. The most light he had seen in days.
The soldiers closed on the transport carefully, cocking their guns in case the remaining wagons should open and disgorge hundreds of German soldiers. But as they closed on the collapsed locomotive, the only enemies they found were a half-dozen of Nazi SS, most of them knocked unconscious from the crash.
The darkness returned, deeper than ever. The silence that had fallen was broken only by rising groans and the ringing inside his own head. Blind and shaking from the fear rising slowly up his spine, he groped around the floor slick with blood and filth and the bodies of those who hadn't survived this as he had.
Leaving eight men to guard the SS and try to extract information from the bare few who still clung to consciousness, the rest of the platoon left to examine the rest of the train. Few of the men understood German, and the ones who did had rudimentary knowledge at best, so what they learnt from the reluctant guards was confused and contradictory, and it was all moot anyway once their comrades opened the wagon doors.
His hand touched a familiar wrist. He couldn't see who it belonged to, but after three years together he just knew. The skin was warm, too warm but at least it indicated life. He pulled the body up against his chest, and his lips dragged into a smile when he felt the fingers twitch against his chest, the body shaking heavily as coughs shook the thin frame. The short stubble scratched against his throat as he rested the head on his chest.
It was like opening a door into a charnel house, and the smell hit them even before their eyes could adapt to the gloom. Several reeled, and were spared the sight their stronger stomached colleagues had to endure. They thought them mannequins at first, or perhaps gruesomely realistic waxworks. People so filthy they would seemed to be part of the wagon if it wasn't for their eyes, gleaming as they reflected the light, but with so little of their own.
Some way ahead came the scraping bang of a door opening. His arms tightened instinctively around his friend's chest, feeling the bones dig into his arms through the tatty fabric of his shirt, the reverberations as his friend groaned, turning his face away.
His voice was as dry and rusty as corroded metal, his lips cracked and bleeding from dehydration. "Erik."
They had heard of the Nazi death camps of course. Heard, but not quite believed. All right, Hitler was a lunatic, but this was Europe, not some backwater little country when they prayed to trees and thought the earth was flat. And people from Europe just didn't do things like that.
They were wrong.
No answer, although he thought his friend stirred a little at the sound of his name. Whatever was happening, he had to wake up. If they had arrived, the SS would kill any unable to walk, and if not, then they had to walk, if only to escape. "Erik, wake up." His voice cracked, the sense of helplessness was crushing, and if he'd had the tears to cry, he would have.
It took an immense force of will to step into the reeking, stinking wagon, and even more not to run out immediately. Of the dozens, if not hundreds, of people packed in there, only about a tenth were still alive. There was a small boy lying in the corner of the wagon, his eyes chewed out by rats. Right next to him was a woman, thin as a skeleton, who stared at the soldiers with uncomprehending eyes and tried to touch their uniforms as if to reassure herself that they were real.
He should be desperate, he should be shaking Erik and screaming at him to get up, as he had when they had first been taken to this train. He should be forcing him to his feet and preparing to run the moment the doors were opened. But what was the point? Erik had been too sick to move to begin with, and now… He felt too numb and tired to do anything. Just to sit and stare blindly at the doors, wondering what new nightmare would spring out at them when they were opened. The memories of the chaos when the doors had been opened before, the guns and the shouts and dogs…
The sergeant regained control of his horrified platoon, ordering one group to empty the train of anyone still alive, a second to remove the dead, and dispatching a runner to find the lieutenant- who had stayed with the bulk of the army- and tell him to come back with medics. For a moment the sergeant paused- his men thought he was watching them work, checking that his orders were carried out, but in truth, he didn't even see them. Finally, he turned stiffly away and walked back to the division he had left interrogating the SS guards.
Numb or not, the tension was strung so tightly through him that he almost passed out when the first shot was fired. Even Erik jumped, and in the dim light he could see his friend's eyes open, dilated and glazed in delirium. Another shot. Then another. And another. Then two in quick succession.
The soldiers stared in horror at their sergeant, unsure what to do. The sergeant ignored the bodies at his feet and the blood sprayed across his jacket, and coldly ordered the soldiers to rejoin the rest of the platoon. The men all but ran back to their unit.
By then he was shaking uncontrollably. What that it then? Had they arrived after all and the killing had already started? Again he shook his friend, but he didn't respond; eyes closing as he lost consciousness once again.
He tried to stand, to pull them both upright, but his legs refused to bear even his own weight, let alone another's. Again, he felt his eyes burn where tears refused to come, a sob building in his throat, drawn up by sheer despair.
The wagon door were wrenched back one by one, revealing the starving, stinking mass of humanity inside. Few of the survivors seemed to be able to comprehend that they were safe, some actually fighting the soldiers sent in to save them. None appeared to be able to speak English and only a handful seemed to understand it, and before long it was everything the soldiers could do to retain some sense of cohesion.
The shouts were faint, but getting closer, and he could feel his heart beating faster as they did so, his exhausted body trying vainly to stir itself into action. He closed his eyes as he heard the hands outside start to work opening the doors, his head bowing over Erik's. They would shoot him too. Even if he could walk, he couldn't leave his friend.
The door groaned as the rusty lock finally snapped, shooting back on its ancient runners. It was the third wagon that group of soldiers had opened, but its contents still made them shudder and want to be sick. This one had been closer to the locomotive when it overturned, and the bodies were heaped up against the right hand wall, a jumbled mass of arms and legs and heads, some still twitching.
He couldn't see. The light was too bright. He remembered how once- in a time so distant it felt like a previous life- he had found his stepbrother killing ants, they were been being burnt under a magnifying glass and he now knew how the insects must have felt. He raised an arm to cover his face, and Erik moaned against his chest, turning his face away from the glare.
It took a while for their eyes to adapt to the gloom, and pick out the few poor souls who had retained the strength to pull themselves free of the pile. The soldiers didn't envy those who were trying to pull the survivors out from the wagons which had actually overturned.
He blinked, squinting through the light that sent a thousand needles pricking his brain. His hands trembled and his breath caught as he saw the soldiers. He closed his eyes, hands tightening on his friend, bracing for the inevitable moment when the killing shot was fired.
The soldiers stepped in, grimacing at the human filth and blood that carpeted the floor. There were only a handful of survivors this far forward in the train; an old man who sat in the corner, his lips moving noiselessly in what might be prayer, a young woman who lay a little way from the pile, staring blankly at her bleeding hands, and a third, of indiscriminate age or gender, who sat with their back to the far wall, cradling a dead body in their arms.
The shot never came. Instead he felt hands on his, callused but gentle, trying to pry Erik from his death-grip. "No!" The shout was louder than he meant it, louder than he thought himself capable of, and his head snapped up to meet the astonished gaze of a British soldier.
The boy's voice - and he was now sure it was a boy- had been a low croak, but recognisably English, and the soldier was torn between relief at finding someone in this hell who could speak his language, and rage that this should happen to a fellow countryman. As for the body he held, they were undeniably alive, although still unconscious.
He stared at the soldier, unable to take in what he was seeing. His eyes traced over the man's stubbled, sharp chinned face, to his uniform- looking almost absurdly clean in the squalid wagon- to his insignia of the British 21st Army Group. Somewhere in the back of his mind, something was telling him that it was finally over, that they were finally safe, that the rescue he had prayed for even after he had renounced God had arrived. But the part of him that knew this seemed to be having some problem communicating it to the rest of his brain.
The soldier smiled at the boy, which seemed to have the opposite effect he intended. Instead of reassuring the boy, it only seemed to frighten him more, and he rammed up against the wall, still clutching at his companion. "It's okay." He whispered, keeping his voice low and steady, "I'm not going to hurt you."
It had been so long since he heard English that he didn't at first understand what was being said. No one had spoken English in the camps, unless it was as part of their own bastardised slang. It stunned him to the point that he didn't react at once when the man pulled Erik away from him.
The boy cried out again as the soldier pulled the body away from him. It was another young man, about the same age as the first, although it was hard to tell. Both were shaven bald and dressed in rags, and both were horrifically thin. Their eyes seemed too large for their faces, and the boy in his arms couldn't have weighed more than seventy pounds. As he lifted him, the boy groaned, one bony hand rising to pluck blindly at the air.
"I'm just taking him outside," The soldier's voice was soothing, but he was in no state to be calmed. With a supreme effort he rose to his feet and stumbled after him, legs trembling with every step. "We've got medics on the way," the soldier continued, "And they'll be able to take a look at your friend."
"Brother." He had repeated the lie for so long it was almost instinctively, Erik was far closer to him than his brother ever had been, but if they pretended to be related they were less likely to be separated.
"Brother." The soldier amended. The English boy was standing, but looked liable to fall over any minute. He was older than the soldier had first thought- more a young man really- and probably taller than the soldier was. It was hard to tell how thin he was through his ragged, over-large clothes, but the arms that protruded from the sleeves of his torn jacket could have come from a skeleton.
He staggered after the soldier. He had no idea where they were going, but he wasn't leaving Erik alone. The fresh air was dizzying after so long in the closed wagon -how long had they been in there? Two days? Three?- and his legs buckled as he reached the door. A hand came out and closed on his upper arm, steadying him. Another soldier. He was too bewildered to pull away from the sudden contact, even assuming he could break the man's hold on his arm, which the hand completely surrounded.
The English boy let himself be helped down from the wagon, but his legs folded up underneath him the moment his feet touched the ground. The soldier signalled at his colleague to carry him as well. The boy didn't appear to like that, and struggled wildly against the man's grip, one hand reaching out to his brother.
"Calm down," the soldier carrying him said softly, "We're just taking you and your brother to the medic. It's going to be alright."
"Erik-" He cursed a voice to weak to cry out, a body too weak to fight or even walk, and a mind which had unable to think of a way to save his friend himself. All he'd been able to for all these weeks was watch helplessly as Erik had grown steadily worse. He prayed, to a god he didn't believe was even listening, that the soldiers were right.
The medic was feeling very ill indeed. He was a well trained field operative, and he had worked on many gruesome cases, but this one turned his stomach. He smiled thinly, everyone gets one. At least that was what he'd been told as a trainee. Everyone gets a really bad case sooner or later, one they'll remember for the rest of their lives. He just hadn't expected it to be quite this horrific. He was very glad he'd brought his cigarettes to steady his jangling nerves.
He twisted again in the soldier's arms, it was irrational, even he knew that. He could see Erik, but three years of fear had made him paranoid if his friend wasn't constantly within arm's reach. The soldier holding him growled, and tightened his grip. He thought his ribs might crack under the pressure.
The medic was sitting on the step of the small Red Cross ambulance when he saw the two soldiers approach. He was one of ten who had been sent when the lieutenant had heard of the transport, and he was taking a short -but in his mind very much needed- break. It had only been after his third cigarette that his hands had stopped shaking. Now, seeing the soldiers approach, he stubbed it out with a regretful sigh and got to his feet.
"Get them inside," The man sighed, indicating the ambulance. The first soldier carried Erik inside and set him down on a wooden bench.
Seeing his friend like that, pale and still and barely breathing, just made him struggle harder to reach him. At last, the soldier let him down inside the ambulance.
The medic looked over the two young men. One was clearly very ill, and judging by the symptoms he could see and what he'd seen of the conditions inside the train, it was probably typhus, and pretty advanced at that. The other boy didn't look much better, although he was conscious and making an effort to stand up. Both boys were in the latter stages of starvation and covered in cuts and sores. The question was no so much what to do but where to start. With a third sigh- one he immediately regretted- God, when had these people last had a wash?- he dug out a syringe.
The panic that had threatened to overwhelm him stopped the moment his hand touched Erik's. His fingers curled around his friend's, squeezing gently. It was a mark of how badly off Erik was that he didn't receive a response. Even on the train he would have felt an answering squeeze, the eyes opening a little or the mouth twitching in a grim but reassuring smile. Now, it was like holding the hand of a corpse. The comparison twisted his stomach and his hands started to shake until he almost dropped the cold fingers.
The medic lay the prepared syringe aside, and looked at the conscious boy. He desperately needed a bath and some proper food, and- judging by how cracked his lips were- probably water too. He picked up an empty jar which had once been used to hold bandages, and filled it at the water tank before handing it to the young man.
It was only when he saw the glass that he remembered how thirsty he was. He'd been able to steal a half-full flask before they'd been thrown on the train, but that had quickly been consumed and Erik had needed it more than he had. And Erik needed it more than he did now, he realised regretfully.
"What are you doing?" The medic frowned. The boy had taken the glass, dipped his filthy fingers in it, and was tracing his friend's lips, trying to get him to drink it. "I assure you, your friend needs it less than you do."
"Brother," He corrected quickly, the words scraping his dry throat. He looked longingly at the water. A thin strand of dirt revolved in the jar from where he'd put his fingers, looking like a sketch he'd once seen of a whirlwind. Even dirtied from his fingers, the water was cleaner and purer than any he'd seen for longer than he cared to remember.
"Besides," The medic continued, picking up the syringe again," We've got plenty here-" he nodded at the water tank- "it's not likely we're going to run out."
He gave in, and downed the glass in a gulp. He didn't even taste it, and the pain as the liquid touched his cracked lips was agonising. He hadn't eaten for longer than he hadn't drunk, and was very nearly sick when the water hit his empty stomach. But the liquid was like a breath of life to his parched body, and he felt his head clear a little, his eyes stinging as tears formed for the first time in days.
The medic picked up the unconscious boy's arm, wincing. The skin was grimy and studded with sores, and he was sure he could see lice crawling in his ragged clothes. It took a long time to trace out a vein in the skeletal arm, so he continued to talk. "What's his name?"
"Erik Lehnsherr." He said, then paused, they'd always pretended to be brothers, but they were safe now, should he stop the pretence? No. There was no guarantee that the soldiers wouldn't separate them even now. It might have been better to have given Erik his surname, but he couldn't exactly backtrack and say that no, actually his name is Erik Xavier, could he?
The medic nodded, sliding the needle into the boy's arm, noting with satisfaction that he flinched. If the boy could still feel pain at this stage he would most likely pull through. He pressed down on the plunger. "And what's your name?" He asked idly.
"Charles..." He paused, then gave a brittle smile, "Charles Lehnsherr."