The Tensile Strength of Memory

Chapter 4

A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives - of approving of some and disapproving of others.
Charles Darwin

x x x

It might once have been quite a grand hotel, with its tall narrow windows and a grand portico, but it was no longer the refined rest stop it had been in years past. The patchy stucco of its walls looked out to the old railway station, and a garbage strewn park; scraggy bushes and sleeping drunks interspersed in the grass and weeds. A freight train rumbled in the distance.

Charles gazed at the building not trying to hide his dismay.

"Not up to your high expectations, Charles?" Erik leaned against the car and peered over the top of his sunglasses. This been the closet location recorded by Cerebro to the CIA base, a four-hour drive, most of which Charles had spent discussing the finer points of his thesis, including a rather breathless discourse on the reproductive advantages of certain mutations. It had taken Erik three hours to realize he was flirting.

"Are you certain this is the right place?" Charles regarded the crumpled piece of paper in his hand with deep suspicion. Erik pushed off the car and plucked the paper from his hand.

"Hank and Raven were very thorough in pinpointing the co-ordinates that you generated." Erik stuffed the paper in his pocket. "I believe Hank mentioned that one of the other locations appears to be a correctional facility of some sort, McTaggert is busy pulling some strings to get us in. I would have thought a rundown rooming house is an easier proposition, for you."

He clapped Charles on the shoulder. "Come on, Charles. This is our first recruit. I thought you would show a little more enthusiasm. I'm sure you won't catch anything." Erik grinned and trotted lightly up the front steps.

"You did lock the car?" Charles followed Erik up the steps and through the double doors, it was colder inside than it was outside and the heady mixture of stale beer, cigarette smoke and urine scented the air. Any architectural details or elegant finishes that had once adorned the walls and ceilings of the hotel had long since been stripped away or hidden under layers of cheap paint and cheap paneling; only an ornate but broken chandelier remained, hanging down over the lobby, its long crystals dulled with a thick coating of dust, no longer reflecting the light from the low-wattage bulbs.

Cautiously and almost against his better judgment Charles reached out, his fingertips lightly massaging his temple, he dropped his hand immediately. Hidden among the minds of down and outs, damaged by alcohol and illness and life was another, different from the rest. In his mind's eye it glinted, like the sun reflecting of the surface of flat, dark lake, its cold waters hiding its true depth. Charles could not disguise his discomfort; Erik noticed his expression and smirked.

"I've stayed in worse," Erik shrugged, slipping of his sunglasses and carefully taking in his surroundings. An involuntary reflex, Charles reflected, the subtle shifts in the Erik's stance and the flickering of his senses on the alert feeling too much like a gentle caress against his skin. Stairs- main, wrought iron banister. Probably back stairs near the kitchens, behind the bar. Bar to the right. Elevator, out -of -order, manager's office to the left, nothing in the way of security measures. Multiple exits including …

"Ah," Charles whispered, glad for the momentary distraction, Erik's mind shining siren sharp. "You're - casing the joint. That is the correct expression, isn't it? Erik stared at him.

"Sorry, you were thinking rather loudly." Charles looked guilelessly up at him and then rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. Erik frowned and nodded toward the manager's office.

"No. No need to ask." Charles gave himself a little shake. "He's here. Close by. Let's try the bar."

It was a small place, lit mostly by the daylight coming in through small frosted glass windows set high into the outside wall, it barely reflected off the spotted and cracked smoked mirror that encased the length of the bar itself. The place was mostly empty, a few patrons slumped over grimy tables, while the oldest bartender Charles had ever seen, cursorily dragged a filthy cloth along the worn wood of the bar top, he looked up as they entered and scowled, he didn't appear to have any teeth.

Charles hesitated, squinting in the low light, its inebriated occupants glancing briefly at them and returning to their drinks. Charles tried to ignore the slow churn of thoughts, disparate and random, washed away by alcohol. He felt drunk by proxy.

"I don't know..." Charles began and then a washroom door on the other side of the room opened and a young man stepped into the room, Charles stepped back, bumping into Erik standing close behind before he even knew what he was doing. The man took no notice of the newcomers and sat down at an empty table and half a glass of beer waiting for him. Erik took hold of Charles' elbow and guided him forward.

"Time to say hello." As they approached the young man looked up, he was in his early twenties, Charles thought, it was hard to tell, he did not appear to be thriving in his current environment. He was thin, his shoulder length hair matted, clothes worn, his gaze fell away as they reached the table.

"Leave me alone," he spoke quietly, his voice soft and cultured, not at all what Charles was expecting to hear, the dark surface of the lake rippled through his thoughts.

"We understand. We just want to talk." We're like you. Charles smiled, forcing himself to be open and relaxed he leaned forward to make eye contact, ignoring the sting of cold he felt as the distance between them decreased. The young man did not return his gaze; he stood abruptly, shoving off the table and with head down pushed past them to the door. Charles stayed where he was and would have stayed there had not Erik grabbed his arm and tugged.

"Charles!" he hissed. Charles swallowed the instinctive 'no' that came to his lips. They followed him into the lobby, out of the main doors and across to the untidy park, he stopped, staring across at the railway station. With Erik's hand on his arm Charles had no chance for second thoughts, although his first thought had been warning enough. He had made a promise to himself, claimed the responsibility and here he was falling at the first fence. As he pulled his arm free of his companion, the screech of heavy iron wheels grinding across the freight yard switches drowned out all other noises, the young mutant raised his head and turned to meet Charles' eyes with a blank expression.

"I'm sorry if I startled you," Charles kept his distance and spoke gently. "I wasn't lying when I said we're like you, we can do things that other people might not understand. There's no need to be afraid."

The man blinked slowly and Charles started. He was looking at himself, a much younger self staring back at him, and then the face flickered and his stepfather stood before him, before it shifted again to another face, one Charles barely remembered and then another, a parade of memories that Charles had never shared and had never intended to.

He closed his eyes. Stop it, please, he pushed out the command and recoiled as it bounced back to him. Stop it, stop it, stop it. He opened his eyes as someone grabbed his arm, Erik's strained expression and wide eyes met his.

"Stop it," Erik rasped with a trace of desperation edging into his voice, he fingers dug into Charles' arm. The young man blinked at them again.

"Leave me alone," he repeated and turned and walked away. They watched him leave, Charles took a deep breath and another, embarrassed that he was shaking slightly. Erik was still gripping his arm and Charles realized that Erik was as unsettled as he was.

"What did you see?" he asked slowly, afraid of what the answer might be, afraid of what Erik might have seen. There was a few seconds of silence and Erik let his hand drop.

"Shaw, among others. No one I would care to remember. You?" Erik fumbled for his sunglasses and slid them back on; Charles sucked in a sigh of relief, looking up to see his own reflection in the dark lenses, he shook himself in an effort to still his trembling muscles and dislodge the images of his past from taking fresh root in his mind.

"An interesting form of adaptive camouflage, useful as a defense mechanism. A mutated form of aposematic signaling, one could argue. Rather disconcerting." Charles watched their first attempt to reach out to other mutants disappear back into the old hotel and glanced back at Erik and his sunglasses. "As you said, no one I care to remember."

They returned to the car and as he pulled open the passenger door Charles could have sworn that his reflection in the window shifted and for a moment Erik stared back up at him, he yanked the door open, slamming the door behind him as he squirmed into his seat. Erik had already started the engine and without a word they pulled away from the run-down buildings and their unwelcoming inhabitants.

They drove in silence to the more salubrious side of town and found a small but well-appointed hotel and booked adjoining rooms. Charles turned away from the ornate gilded mirrors that decorated the plaster alcoves of 2nd floor hallway, the faint ripples that washed across their surface, teasing the peripheries of his vision. He found himself composing an addendum to his thesis and outlines for papers he would never get around to writing, losing himself in the language of science and theory, words to block out the presence of those around him and the knowledge that he was not as alone in his abilities as he had once feared.

Charles was glad that the dining room was mostly empty, he and Erik sat tucked away in a quiet corner, decidedly not talking other than to peruse the menu and order drinks. At least one too many for Charles because by his third glass of wine the thoughts and feelings he had tried to lock away came spilling out of his mouth.

"I'm sorry," he declared after swallowing a particularly mellow mouthful of red wine. Erik put down his glass of beer and looked expectantly at him. "I made somewhat of a mess of our first attempt to reach out to our fellow mutants. I should have anticipated the outcome a little better." Erik remained silent and Charles couldn't seem to stop talking.

"I have to confess that when we arrived at that place, that hotel," Charles waved a hand in the air, "that my first incursion into the minds there was not promising. Despite what you think I am discreet and although I am prone to be a tad judgmental, at least according to Raven, I really thought that we… I could find some commonality between us." Erik frowned. "Between that young man and me, I mean. It seems I was being too presumptuous. If I cannot reach out to someone so similar to myself I have to wonder how effective I can be with others."

"Charles." Erik leaned forward. "He was only a few years younger than yourself and despite what you think you are not omnipotent. We cannot all be as lucky as you, to nurture your mutation, your gift in privileged comfort or quietly hide ourselves away from those who would abuse us. He is just one, there are many others."

Charles pressed his lips together, stifling the flow of words that welled up. Appearances were sometimes the most effective camouflage and Charles had learned that even the most astute of men would let the reflection of their own prejudices blind them to the reality that was before them. He was more like the young man in the park than he liked to admit.

"Come now, Charles. There's no need to sulk. I feel like a brandy. Would you join me?" Erik flashed his most charming smile and Charles nodded, begrudgingly.