No one was on the bunks this time, as they dangled steadily in the air and slowly spun near the ceiling of the cell. Charles and Raven stood back by the screen that sectioned off the toilet, and Erik was just in front of them watching the bunks he was manipulating with his ever-strengthening powers.
"Someone tell me again why we let him use our beds as practice fodder?" Raven asked, arms crossed.
Charles raised eyebrow. "It's the only free-standing metal thing in the room."
"What if he drops them?"
"I'm not going to drop them," Erik deadpanned.
"Came really close a couple of weeks ago."
"I was tired that day."
"It would make a lot of noise and how the hell would we explain that?"
"I am not going to drop them," Erik repeated, even as he smirked and showed off by flipping them over entirely. There was just enough room in the cell to do it.
Charles smiled to himself and watched Raven balk at him. It wasn't that she didn't trust Erik, he knew-she was actually quite impressed by his powers, usually. But the two of them had developed something of a sibling-like relationship themselves, a fledging version of what Charles had with her, and it easily led to such well-humored bickering as now.
Charles didn't mind at all; he was glad that the two of them got along so easily. He also suspected it had, at least at the beginning, had more than a little to do with how much they both worried about him, but...well, anyway. It had led to this, which was a good thing.
"Even if he did drop them it wouldn't matter. He could fix them, and no one would hear anyhow. When he's here training I shield the room. No one in the immediate vicinity is aware of any sound coming from inside."
"Convenient," Raven commented.
Erik snorted. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Charles."
"It's only a precaution. You're doing quite well. In fact, what you really need now is something else to work with. Something larger. The only problem is that though are plenty enough larger metal objects about, you can't do that here. You'll have to go elsewhere."
Erik set the beds back down in the corner where they belonged and turned to looked at him skeptically, the leather of his well-loved brown jacket crinkling as he lowered his arm. "And how am I supposed to do that?"
Charles felt his brow creasing. "You are hardly a prisoner here, Erik. I know you spend most of your time with us, but as far they are concerned you are not one of us. You are free to come and go as you please."
"Am I really? What if Stryker said something to Shaw? What if he showed up here or called me away."
"You don't have to listen to him anymore, Erik. You owe him nothing."
"Nothing but a painful death," Erik clarified through clenched teeth.
This reaction always worried him. He didn't want to think about what might happen the next time Erik did have to face Shaw. If he gave in to his rage...
Erik gave him a look, but then visibly calmed himself. "I know that, Charles, but if he called me away I still wouldn't be able to stay. At least not without raising suspicions. And the last thing I want is to cause any more trouble for you. Stryker is getting restless at it is. And it would be even worse if Shaw showed up here-not to mention if he brought Emma."
Charles winced. "I realize that." He thought about it for a moment. "I suppose if they did I could help you create shields-barriers that would prevent her delving far enough into your mind to know that your memories have been uncovered...give her the illusion that your mind was the same as the last time she encountered it."
Erik's eyebrows went up. "You could do that?"
Two years ago he could have. Now he wasn't so sure. "Theoretically..."
By now both Erik and Raven understood what the hesitation meant-that he was no longer completely confident in the higher functions of his powers. He couldn't be. His body was weaker and most things other than basic telepathy had been too long in disuse. That was why helping Erik to uncover his memories had made him sick. And in that he had only brought down barriers created by a less-powerful telepath, and he had exploited a weakness that already existed to do it.
Creating barriers would be considerably more complicated.
They were both looking at him now, and he made a face again. "Let's hope it isn't needed."
Raven let out a breath and went to drop onto the bottom bunk, and Erik leaned into a wall with a troubled look.
"Anyhow, I know that there are risks involved, but we cannot do this until we know it will work. We've been over this, Erik. We have to know that your powers are strong enough. If we tried to break out and failed we would all be in a considerable amount of trouble."
"They would kill all of us," Erik said quietly.
"They would kill you and me and everyone else," Raven corrected. "They wouldn't kill Charles, and there are a few others with valuable powers they might keep alive, but-"
"But that still does not bear thinking about," Charles cut in.
Erik let out a heavy breath. "Fine, so I need to practice with something bigger; that still doesn't answer the question of what I tell Stryker."
"Don't tell him anything. Tell him you will be back in a few days. You don't precisely answer to him, either; he has no right to question you."
"That doesn't mean he won't."
"I don't know what else to tell you, Erik. But you need this."
Erik looked back at him for a long moment, Charles standing his ground, and finally another deep-seated reason for his not wanting to leave came to the surface. Charles caught it in his mind just before he said it. "I don't want to leave you here, Charles." Unprotected.
Charles chuckled a bit, and smiled softly. "Thank you for the sentiment, Erik, but we did get along all right before you came. I'm sure we'll be all right for a few days."
"I don't know if 'all right' is the right phrase," Erik growled in response.
Erik...nothing is going to change the fact that you need the training.
But...if something happens...
What could happen that I have not already survived, my friend?
Erik glowered at him. "Promise me you'll stay out of trouble," he said aloud.
Charles knew he couldn't make that promise. "I will do what I can," he said instead. Erik was still not satisfied, but at least he seemed to understand that that was all he was going to get.
He huffed and pushed off the wall. "Fine. I'll have to see if they'll let me borrow a car."
"Let me know when you're going to ask and I'll see if I can help in that regard," Charles offered. "Just be certain to approach Stryker when we're here and no will see that I'm focusing."
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
There were reasons he'd refrained, mostly, from trying to influence things in such a way before, but now there was a good reason. And Stryker was a simple-minded man who would never notice the minor intrusion. As long as he was careful…Charles glanced at Raven, and she nodded in encouragement. She knew the risks, too.
"You need this," Charles repeated in answer. "We need this."
Erik nodded in understanding and turned for the door. "Then I suppose I should get on that."
Erik didn't know how much of it or not had been thanks to Charles, but two days later he was driving through the nearby Virginia countryside. He was far enough from the facility that nothing that happened out here would be connected to it, be was trying to remain within Charles's range—too far and they wouldn't be able to communicate.
Not only could Charles help him in focusing his powers and teaching him how to do it on his own, but he didn't want to be out of communication range. Despite the reassurances Charles had tried to give him and the fact that he and Raven and the others had survived before he came along, being away still made Erik uneasy.
He didn't know why, exactly, he was so concerned, but something about Stryker's attitude lately…
Erik shook those thoughts away and focused on the road. He had just passed a relatively abandoned junkyard that probably contained plenty enough old cars and things to toss around, and not too far in the distance a large satellite dish rested on a hill. This being Virginia, it was probably very much government-related, and the idea of screwing with it was suddenly very appealing. It was an ambitious thought—the thing was huge, as satellite dishes went—but he could always start out in the junkyard and work his way up, and with Charles with him…
Charles? Are you there? Am I still in range?
His friend's voice answered promptly, and Erik relaxed a bit more. Yes, quite. Perhaps just beginning to reach the edge, but I wouldn't be too concerned. There was a pause as Charles took in what Erik silently offered him in images of the targets for practice he'd sighted. Yes, that should all do quite nicely. I believe you're set.
Erik stopped at the first motel he sighted and bedded down for the night. He was still enough in the countryside that what little there was of the small town didn't block the view of lush green from the windows in the room. He watched the sun set from the small table by one of them, not interested so much himself but knowing that Charles had not seen a sunset in 18 months—certainly not one over grass and trees or anything other than the harsh metal and concrete of the mutant holding facility.
So he sat back by the window drinking the bad coffee left in the room for guests and watching the sky go from blue to orange to red and pink and purple, watching the bright orange disk of the sunk sink below the horizon until finally everything was a deep dark blue, and in his mind he felt Charles watching through his eyes. He knew somehow, too, without words really, that Charles was lying back on his bunk and that he was projecting this to Raven, too.
Thank you, Erik…
You'll see this on your own soon enough, Charles. All of you will. I promise.
He didn't think he was supposed to know about the tear that Charles quickly wiped away, and he didn't bring it up. Erik blinked away his own before they could free themselves, and went to bed.
Late the next morning Charles sat on his bunk with two fingers to his temple, smiling to himself, and Raven stood back watching. Finally she couldn't help herself, and she dropped onto the edge of the bed beside him.
"What's Erik up to?"
Charles chuckled, not opening his closed eyes. "He's playing dominoes with scrap cars at the moment. He is nothing if not a child at times."
"Well I could have told you that."
Charles, I can't do this. I don't know what I was thinking. This is ridiculous. At least this soon…
He'd only been out here for a day and a half. He'd made good progress with the scrap in the junkyard, but he'd still been wary when Charles suggested that he come here this afternoon instead.
Am I going to have to play the stern professor with you, Erik? I can do that. I can tell you that you are not allowed to move from that spot until you have at least tried it.
Erik glared into the distance at the satellite dish. As if you would enforce it.
But you wouldn't.
Charles sighed in his mind. You can do it, Erik; you must trust yourself.
So he tried, grumbling quietly. Erik reached out with his powers and with both hands stretched in front of him, and he could feel the dish, feel it trembling under his influence and hear the metal groaning from here, but nothing else happened.
I can't DO this!
Yes you can!
Maybe I should be closer.
It might be guarded; I would rather you stayed there.
Erik let out a breath. He had to do this. He knew he had to do it eventually, if he was ever going to break everyone free from the mutant facility. If he couldn't move this dish from here he couldn't do that. But it was too soon. He wasn't ready.
Yes you are, Charles told him gently. Or you could be, if you wanted to be.
I want to be. I want to get all of you out of that damned place. I don't want you there another day…He hated it. He hated it, and hated Stryker, hated Shaw, the Americans in general, hated the hatred…
And the dish was trembling again; he could feel it vibrating with him and he wasn't even really focusing on it anymore. Now he tried again, tried to move it, and something squeaked in the distance and maybe it tried to move, tried to turn a bit, but then it stopped. It continued to tremble as he focused on it but nothing else happened.
The anger isn't enough, Erik. You've been leaning on it too heavily, I think, since your memories were restored.
It's all I have. Besides you.
Then why have you only used one of them?
Erik blinked. What?
You're using the anger to focus. The rage. You're turning rage into power, and it's strong but it isn't strong enough. Everything needs its counterbalance, Erik. With rage you need serenity. Only in the point between them can you find true focus. A pause. Or that's what I've always believed, anyhow. I'm hoping it may help you.
So what are you saying? How…how do I this?
It took a moment before Charles answered. As I said…you've been using only the rage. When you want to focus you're thinking about Shaw, and Stryker, and the wrong that has been done to you in the past and to us here now. That is all you focus on. I am not saying those memories will not help, but they shouldn't be the only things you use. You need the good memories, too—the moments when you've felt safe and happy and loved. When you've been at peace.
I've never been at peace, Charles. Not entirely. Not even when I didn't remember everything. Sometimes I think it simply isn't an option for me.
He felt sadness through the link that was allowing them to communicate, and this time he knew Charles was letting it through on purpose, so that he would understand that it was there even though Erik couldn't see his face. I hope that will not always be the case for you, my friend.
Erik swallowed. Am I going to try this again, or not? he asked quickly, changing the subject.
Yes, Charles answered after a moment. If you don't mind, I think you should try again. Just remember to include the good things this time, Erik. Rage AND serenity. Find the point between them.
And Erik tried, suddenly, to remember other happy times in his life—all that came to mind were the nights these last few weeks that he had spent with Charles and Raven. Those stolen moments were happy enough, many of them, but…
His mother. He and his mother had been happy once, before the war. Before the Nazis and the camps. He knew they had been, but he'd been so young.
Charles didn't really finish what he was saying, and Erik didn't really answer, but he knew what his friend wanted to do, and he consented, though maybe a bit warily.
And Charles pushed gently into his mind from miles away, sorting quietly through his memories before pulling one out and showing it to him—it had been faded and dusty and forgotten before, but with Charles's help it was suddenly very clear. He saw his mother, the candles, her smile…felt himself smiling in his small body, as a child. He felt his mother's hand on his face and he felt the warmth and the love and the happiness, the contentment…
And then it faded away, but not completely. Charles wasn't holding it out to him anymore, but it was still there. He could access it if he wanted it, now that it had been pulled forward and dusted off.
Erik felt the tears on his face, and he didn't bother to wipe them away. There was no one to see him. He was parked in the trees off the road at the edge of the small town that housed the motel he'd holed up in, leaning against a tree a ways back from the road and looking out at the satellite dish.
Or he had been looking at the dish. Now he was looking at his shoes and letting the tears fall. "What…?" He stopped and cleared his throat before remembering that Charles wasn't here and speaking aloud was a pointless waste of breath. What did you just do to me?
When Charles's voice came it was gentle. I accessed the brightest corner of your memory system. It's a very beautiful memory, Erik; thank you.
I didn't know I still had that…
A fond chuckle. There's so much more to you than you know…even though your memories are your own again, you…you don't know how much good there is in you, Erik. But I know it's there; I've felt it. I've seen you do good here. Yes, there is pain and anger in you…and perhaps a good bit of it is my fault for revealing the truth to you, but—
None of it is your fault, Charles. You did the right thing. I thank God every day for that. If you hadn't I would be crazy by now.
Erik didn't know it was possible to blush mentally, but somehow Charles managed it, and then he continued. But there is the good, too, Erik. And when you can access all of that…you'll possess a power no one can match. A small pause, and what he said next came with a mix of pride and excitement and awe. Not even me.
Erik started at that, surprised at what he read in the tone, but Charles didn't give him a chance to mull it over.
So come on; try again?
A mental pat on the back, the sense of a smile, and Erik managed a small smile too before he reached out a hand again, determined not let his friend down.
He wanted to be everything Charles seemed to think he could be.
He reached out with his powers, thinking of his mother and Charles and Shaw and Stryker all at once. He felt the anger and the pain, but he felt love too. The anger and the pain were the fuel, perhaps, always had been…but the moments of serenity, the love…they were what made it all lighter. They were what made the metal of the dish seem suddenly fluid under his influence…what made it suddenly much more eager to bend to his will.
Erik focused on it much more easily now, and once he was sure he had hold of the satellite dish all it took was a small twisting motion of his hand.
And the dish moved. It turned to face him with ease, despite the screeching of the old joints as it moved.
Erik let it go with a breath, and he didn't realize he was grinning or that he was laughing until he felt his face aching from the strength of the smile tugging at cheeks. He had to lean back against the tree behind him to catch his breath he was suddenly laughing so hard, and in his mind Charles's ecstatic presence made it all worth it. The voice in his mind sounded almost breathless with happiness.
I knew you could do it, Erik. I knew it, my friend.
Finally Erik dried his face, still smiling as he straightened. Another step. One more step closer to shutting down that god-awful facility for good.
Am I done here?
Goodness, no, Charles chuckled. I would stay there another couple of days, at least—get more practice in. See what else you can do with it, or find something else. Take as much advantage of this trip as you can.
That much, at least, was certainly a good idea. He didn't want to have to do this again—leave the facility—before all of this was over. It was still making him uncomfortable to be away.
So he would stay for now.
That evening before he settled down to get a good night's sleep to be rested for more thorough practice tomorrow, Charles contacted Erik briefly to let him know that he'd picked up a flurry of thoughts through the facility that indicated that several of the researchers in the lab wing were extremely frustrated. It seemed that satellite connections to offsite databases were down.
Both of them had a good laugh over that.
Charles kept close tabs on Erik and his progress without being intrusive—unless Erik needed him to be, such as the first time he'd moved the satellite dish. After that, though, he didn't seem to need as much help. By the next day things were mostly quiet in his mind as he left Erik alone to focus, and he was suddenly much more aware of how much he missed his friend. Charles knew that he wasn't far away, but he realized how used to Erik's presence he'd become. Not having him about suddenly felt wrong.
But he could contact Erik if he needed to, and Moira was still here…though he couldn't see her either. But they kept even closer in touch now, even though they had said that it would be ridiculous to hope. Perhaps it would lead to nothing, or end badly, but there was no use in denying anything any longer.
So they didn't. Granted, there was still nothing more, really, that they could do from a distance, but there were no topics that they avoided any longer. The words "love" and "feelings" and "want" were no longer taboo. They let themselves wish, because it was all they had.
And Charles was beginning to see a change in Raven and Hank's relationship, as well. He knew they had always cared for each other, that they had supported each other in dealing with being here right from the start. He knew Raven wanted to be strong for him, to take care of him like he had always taken care of her, but because she had Hank she didn't always have to be strong. Charles had been grateful for that from the beginning.
But there was no real way to have anything more here, and they all knew it. Beyond sitting close, holding hands under the table when they thought no one knew, spending their time in the yard together…Raven hadn't told him, and he hadn't read her mind of course, but he knew they had not so much as kissed until now, until hope had shown itself. None of them had hoped enough before for an end to this, until Erik came. Now Charles saw the hope in their eyes. He saw how they looked at each other and smiled and knew that they were thinking of the future they might have together—properly together. Now they dared contemplate it.
The day Erik moved the satellite dish Charles saw them kissing at the edge of the yard behind the guard tower—the only real blind spot in the yard. The tower wasn't quite at the edge and there was a passageway between the base of the tower and the concrete wall of the yard. Technically the mutants were not supposed to be back there, but there were those that slipped back there anyhow. He hadn't meant to intrude but suddenly his sister was nowhere to be found, and he had tracked her there. He hadn't thought to search for Hank too, and because he would not intrude into Raven's mind he hadn't known that the young man was there until he turned the corner.
He saw them just in time to pull back around corner before they saw him, and instead of scolding Raven for breaking rules as he'd planned to he smiled to himself and let them be. He never meant for her to know that he knew, but that evening between contacting Erik to let him know what moving the satellite dish had done and being happy for his sister he could not stop smiling.
"You saw us, didn't you? Or you know," she said, hand on hips.
Charles flushed immediately. "It was not on purpose, I swear it. You disappeared; I was looking for you…"
The corners of her mouth quirked upwards. "It's fine." But after a moment she was looking at him more seriously. "Do you mind?"
He frowned at her in confusion. "Do I mind? What on earth sort of question is that, Raven? It's your choice to make."
"I know, but you are my big brother, and he didn't ask you first."
"Why should he need to ask me anything?"
"I don't know! I don't have a father so you'd be the next best thing, and I'm pretty sure it's still considered in good taste to ask a girl's father before one begins the whole serious seeing-each-other bit."
Charles raised an eyebrow. "So it is serious."
She crossed her arms and shrugged, her smile small but full of more joy than he had seen on her face in quite some time. "If this works and we get out of here…we're not sure. If we're living on the run anyway we can't really live together first because we might not be in one place long anyway…we may just get married."
That serious. It was that serious. He'd known their connection went deep after so may long months of leaning on each other, but he'd had no idea…
"Oh," he said, all of the breath going out of him for a moment.
"Charles? Are you okay?" She sat beside him, a hand on his knee. "Charles?"
"I'm sorry; I shouldn't have sprung that on you like that. I know you don't read my mind…"
He shook his head and smiled. "No, no, I…" He pulled her into his arms before he could cry. "I'm thrilled." He was. The idea that Raven might have already found someone that would always be there for her, even in the middle of this mess…it made him indescribably happy. It did.
But there was more than one sharp stab of pain in his chest that he was not ready to deal with. There was the fact that it seemed his sister was no longer his alone, and…and it was the fact that no matter how much he wanted to, he could not hope the way she could. Moira was human, and though that would have meant nothing two years ago it separated them by worlds now.
She was free and he was not. Even when that changed nothing else would really change with it. He had told Moira the truth in that he would always welcome her wherever he was, but the part of him that managed to be selfless would still much rather she be safe.
They had been over it and over it and over it and it still hurt.
Raven returned the embrace for a long moment and then pulled back to look at him closely. "Are you sure you're okay with this?"
"Raven, it isn't for me to be all right with or not…"
"I know that, but I want you to be all right with it. Like I said; you're my big brother."
He chuckled a bit. "I certainly approve of Hank, if that is what you're asking."
She smiled back. "Well, that, yeah." She let out a breath. "I just don't want to hurt you." She knew the likelihood that things would work out well for himself and Moira. She that she had something he couldn't be certain he would.
Charles reached up to take her face in his hands, and he kissed her forehead. "Don't think of it again. I will be fine…things will turn out how they will."
Raven gave him a more sympathetic smile now, and kissed his cheek in return.
That night Charles and Moira didn't speak much, after he had told her what his sister had told him. They didn't need to…or they couldn't; Charles wasn't quite sure. They lay wrapped in the warmth of the others' feelings, instead, quiet and just there, curled up in each others' presence until they both drifted to sleep.
Once we're out of here I'll never leave your side again.
Down in his own bunk Charles seemed to be sleeping peacefully, but Raven wasn't sure she would ever get to sleep tonight. Hank's promise played over and over in her mind like a wonderfully broken record, and she didn't even mind the fact that she might be exhausted tomorrow from lack of rest.
He loved her. He really did. In the beginning there had been times…
Before all of this had happened—before the CIA betrayed them—Hank had told her that he would give anything to be normal. He hated his feet. Maybe the abilities that came with them were useful, but he hated feeling like he had to hide.
Raven understood that sentiment all too well.
But then they were prisoners, and their jailers knew what they were. There was no point in hiding. Raven hadn't used her human form since the day she'd been shot. That Raven had died that day. And Hank hadn't bothered to wear shoes in more than a year. They had always been uncomfortable for him, anyway, he said.
He didn't hate himself anymore. Being here had taught him—both of them—to be proud of who and what they were. All of them had to band together to survive here without going crazy. And Raven knew that at first Hank hadn't seen her natural form as beautiful, but as he learned to accept himself he had accepted her. That with the fact that they needed each other, and there almost wasn't anywhere else they could have ended up.
"Did you sleep at all?" Charles asked in the morning.
His smile was a bit mischievous, and when she looked away guiltily he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and kissed the side of her head.
She had never particularly envied his gift before, but now she wished she had it…if only so that she could talk to Hank whenever she wanted, instead of being forced to wait for certain times of day.
They tried to act normally at breakfast but they couldn't stop smiling at each other and Charles wouldn't stop smiling at them, and soon enough Sean and Darwin were staring. Hank told them shut up before they'd said anything at all, and Raven couldn't help laughing.
The high lasted until their time in the yard early that afternoon.
Hank was nowhere to be found.
"Charles, where is he?" she asked desperately, after they had both searched through the clumps of fellow mutants crowding the concrete more than once. Sean and Darwin were making their way back to them—slowly, so as not to draw attention, and Charles nodded to them.
Once they're over here I'll try to find him, he told her silently.
She was trying not to think that they'd taken him to the labs. After all the time Charles had spent there the idea shouldn't have terrified her as much as it did, but even though it had only been a couple of months that they had left Charles alone she had already done her best to push it all from her memory. She wasn't used to it anymore.
And this was Hank.
Charles seemed to understand, and when Sean and Darwin made it back to them he motioned them closer. "Cover me," he said quietly. They moved closer to a nearby group of milling mutants, and at the same time Raven and the boys crowded closer around him as Charles ducked his head and brought two fingers to his temple.
After a moment he looked up again, frowning, but he didn't look too horribly alarmed. "They've brought him out to Cerebro. He thinks they may want him to calibrate something…he isn't sure. They haven't said anything. I wouldn't know why, either; nothing has seemed wrong with it…"
Raven let out a breath of relief, though she was still uneasy; anything involving Cerebro could affect her brother. "You don't have any idea at all?"
When they made it back to their cell Charles settled himself on his bunk and focused again, and she assumed he was casting about the various thoughts in the facility looking for some clue as to what was going on and left him alone.
But it definitely caught her attention when he gasped and sat forward, and suddenly looked very, very pale.
"Charles?" Raven asked in alarm. She was coming out from behind the screen and stopped short, and at first he didn't answer her. "Charles?"
Finally he glanced up at her, distractedly. Whatever it was, it looked like he already planned to downplay it. "N-Nothing."
She wasn't having any of it. "That is not your nothing face," she said firmly, moving quickly to his side. "That is definitely your something-with-a-side-of-crap face." It was his terrified face, but she wasn't going to say that. It was the face he tried to hide from her when they came to take him to the labs. It was the face that broke her heart every time she saw even a hint of it.
"Charles, talk to me," Raven insisted anxiously.
He still wouldn't look at her, really. He kept glancing nervously at the door, instead. He licked his lips and swallowed before he said anything else. "It's…it's Cerebro. They've tampered with it. It isn't dangerous, exactly, it just—" He cut off abruptly, made that face again.
"Charles! It just what!" She really hated him, sometimes, for trying to protect her. She knew there must have been things that had happened in the labs that she could only guess at. She had only seen him afterwards, and sometimes he tried to explain a bit if she insisted enough and often he was much too silent on the matter. This seemed a lot like that.
"It isn't important…"
"The hell it isn't."
Suddenly he seized her hands and held them. "Raven, please. Don't. I'll be all right." His eyes pleaded with her to drop it, but she couldn't.
She squeezed his hands in answer. "Why are you telling me that? Why do you think you need to tell me that?" Raven questioned desperately.
But he only let out a breath that sounded far too much like a frightened sob, though he cut it off and swallowed it back and quickly released her hands when the door opened. He stood and she stood too, glaring at the guards that came in—to take him to Cerebro, she assumed.
Charles's face was forcefully impassive now, and he didn't struggle. It would have been pointless anyway—it always was—but he did it to make a point and the fact that he didn't bother with it this time scared her. It seemed he was doing it to keep her calm, but it was having the opposite of the intended effect.
It's all right…
But he didn't sound like he believed it.
Charles, I'm so sorry; they won't listen to me! Oh god this is wrong…
Hank's voice was a litany in Charles's head, over and over and over apologizing for something that was not his fault. Charles had tried to quiet him to no avail, and now he just said nothing as the men on either side of him dragged him toward Cerebro. There were four of them this time, instead of two or three—one holding each arm and one in front and one behind. He wasn't going anywhere.
He didn't even have the comfort of grass or a breeze. The installation, when it had been moved here, had been placed inside the concrete walls of the facility.
Hank had warned him of what was going on as soon as he knew for certain, and Charles had gleaned a bit from Stryker's mind as well, to be sure. Stryker was there, waiting in Cerebro, and they still had Hank there as well though they hadn't bothered to bring him there in months. A few of the other scientists could run it now.
Erik had been right; Stryker was restless. He was taking matters into his own hands, with Erik out of the way for a few days. He wanted answers. He wanted to know what Charles and his friends were up to, and it seemed as if perhaps he was even beginning to suspect Erik.
It was bad. It was all much worse than he'd thought.
They were running out of time.
They screwed with it. I don't even know if they really knew what they were doing; they only knew what they WANTED to do. What Stryker wanted them to do. God…they only wanted me to tell them it wouldn't kill you, Hank had told him in panic, and then added, bitterly, or cause any permanent damage.
What do you mean? he'd asked anxiously.
Hesitation. The sense of dread from the young scientist and mutant. Guilt that shouldn't have been there. Charles, it's going to hurt. A lot. God knows what else it'll do to you. I don't even think they care about the coordinates this time. More panic. I tried to tell Stryker this is crazy but he won't let me fix it!
Now they were keeping Hank there in case something "went wrong," and Charles was fighting sudden nausea and trying to keep his own panic off of his face. He wouldn't give Stryker the satisfaction.
Charles heard Hank before he saw him, as they were pulling him up the spiraling metal-grated staircase into the installation. He didn't have to guess to know whom his friend was shouting at.
"—it's a scientific apparatus; not a torture device! You can't do this!"
His stomach turned, and when the guards had him out of the stairwell a moment later Hank cut off and paled when he seemed to realize that Charles must have heard that. The young scientist was cuffed to the railing on the other side of the platform, and Stryker was nearby smirking at them both.
Charles hadn't meant to struggle, but Raven wasn't here and Hank knew what was about to happen just as well as he did, and he didn't want Stryker to see that sort of reaction from him but natural instinct took over.
Just because he had been through quite enough of it in the last year a half by no means meant he liked pain.
Quite the opposite, really.
It took all four of the guards to get him in the chair, and it took them longer than it had the very first time—so long ago now, it seemed.
Stryker approached him, and his smirk had taken on a knowing tick to it now. "He told you what's going on here, didn't he?" he said, nodding toward Hank a bit.
Charles only glared at him.
"I know you're planning something, Xavier. You think you can get out of here. Knowing you, you think you can get everyone out." He leaned closer. "I want to know how you think you're going to pull it off. Tell me now, and I'll let Big Foot over there fix the machine before we get started."
Hank snarled, for more reasons than one. Just because he was more comfortable with himself now didn't mean he took kindly to names. "Don't do this," he growled. "Just because it won't kill him and I'm relatively sure it won't cause real damage doesn't mean it's safe."
"That's why you're here," Stryker retorted.
Charles felt more and more sick to his stomach by the moment, and his fingers were starting to dig into the arms of the chair. The metal chair. God, where was Erik when you needed him?
No. Erik wasn't here and he didn't need to come back right now. It was obvious now that he needed the training more than ever if they were going to get out of here before everything came down around them.
And he didn't need to know about this.
"Don't you know what this is! You're no better than—!"
"Hank, stop talking!" Charles hissed, telling him silently as well. Hank's mouth snapped shut and he looked at him in surprise. Worry. Then after a moment…a small amount of understanding.
I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry…
Hank, please stop. This is not your doing…
Stryker motioned to the other two scientists milling about by the console—the two who were usually there now. The platform was a bit crowded at the moment, really.
Cerebro began to power up, and Charles felt his chest tighten and his breathing quicken against his will. He didn't want Stryker to see him panicking; as it was the man looked far too smug as he pulled the headpiece down over Charles's hair himself.
"This should hurt quite a bit," he said unnecessarily, almost nonchalantly, sounding as if he was explaining anything else and not anything remotely like what he was really saying. "We'll see how talkative you are in a few minutes. If it takes longer…I have all night."
It took everything Charles had not to find Erik or Raven or both of them and latch on before the machine activated. If he did they would know, and they would feel it, and maybe it would help but he couldn't do that to them.
Then the machine came on.
There was the usual illusion of a flash as his consciousness shifted and expanded and suddenly he was everywhere and perhaps there was always some level of discomfort involved just from the sheer intensity of it but nothing could have prepared him for this.
He had nothing to compare the agony to—molten lava between his ears or having his brain torn apart while still inside of him would have been a poor start. Faintly he heard screaming but it took him a while to associate the sounds with his own throat.
In the background Cerebro was still doing what it was supposed to do—it was using his powers to find other mutants—and he knew it but he couldn't focus on it. He didn't know whom Cerebro was finding or what they could do or how many of them there were or if it was doing any of that well enough for any of the coordinates to even be recorded.
Charles only knew that knew that nothing in his life had ever hurt this much.
He was wondering—not really wondering, because he couldn't think—how much of this he could take when it stopped.
The world reasserted itself slowly, and as it did it wouldn't stop moving and he finally realized that he was trembling. His fingers still bit into the arms of the chair, white and bloodless, and now his hands ached from holding on too tightly.
Hank silently called to him in alarm, and even the small bit of telepathy sent a shiver of pain down his back and he pulled in a sharp breath. Oh god, Hank, not now!
He heard himself panting, and Stryker's arms were crossed and his brow was furrowed and he was glaring. "Well?"
Charles gulped noisily, trying to work up the strength to speak. "W-well…what?"
But Stryker just glared, and with a small motion of his hand Charles's consciousness shattered again. Everything hurt. Everything. It was all in his head, but it was everywhere, and there was too much and too many minds and too much pressure and everything burned and ached and stung all at once and it was too much.
This time it lasted longer, he was pretty sure. It had seemed long enough the first time but this time it was an eternity. This time when it stopped he was soaked in sweat and his hair hung damp and limp in his face and his face was wet. Every so often his chest shuddered against his wishes and he knew he'd been sobbing.
He didn't have the energy to care anymore that Stryker was seeing all of this, but still Charles pulled himself together as best he could as the man approached him. He couldn't quite manage the icy stare he'd wanted, but there was nothing he could do about that. He could scarcely hold his head up.
"Anything you'd like to tell me?" Stryker asked coldly.
"Not…particularly." He was amazed by how much effort that took.
The man seemed rather angered by his continued lack of cooperation, and at that he pushed the headpiece of the machine up and out of the way, grabbed a fistful of Charles's hair and yanked his head back. Charles didn't have the strength to keep himself from crying out in what turned out to be an embarrassingly pathetic manner.
"I'm not making this up, freak. I've got all night."
"If you keep this up all night you really will kill him," Hank cut in angrily.
"Shut up," Stryker snapped.
"I'm not making this up!"
"You said it wasn't dangerous!"
"I never said that! You wanted to know if your 'modifications' would kill him outright or cause any permanent damage, and I told you no, but I also told you that it still might if you kept it up for any length of time! I told you it shouldn't be done at all. I told you this was crazy and that it sure as hell was dangerous!"
"You're his friend; you just don't want him hurt."
"Damn straight, but I'm not lying to you either."
Charles, meanwhile, was straining neck muscles trying to keep from feeling as if his head might snap off at any moment if Stryker didn't let go. It hurt. His head was already on fire and he didn't have the strength to do it much longer.
Stryker looked down at him now and yanked again, pulling a strangled moan from his throat. "You heard him; I would suggest you get with the program, Xavier, unless you want your brain turned to mush."
Despite himself he was able to laugh weakly at that. "You can't…let that happen. I doubt…your superiors would take…it very well."
"Don't be so sure." He pulled again, to the side now, tightening his fingers suddenly in the strands of the hair until Charles let out a startled yelp of pain. "What are you planning?" he demanded.
"Nothing," he gasped. It was a lie, but Stryker he had no qualms about lying to. Charles glared at him. "If…we were…I certainly would not tell you."
The man let go abruptly, angrily, and pulled the headpiece down again before he crossed to look at the printouts. He smirked. "Well, it looks like we're still getting coordinates. This isn't a complete waste of time." He looked to one of the scientists at the console. "Turn it back on."
"Don't!" Hank shouted.
Charles didn't mean to sob before it came back on, but he did, once, out of a bone-deep fear that he knew he shouldn't be ashamed of but he was. He hoped Stryker hadn't heard it but he doubted he was that lucky.
And then everything splintered around him again, and when he started to scream once more he realized his throat was already becoming raw.
Some small, hysterical part of him noted that he probably wouldn't be able to talk tomorrow, and then he thought nothing because he couldn't. Around him were minds, other mutants, so many of them, and he knew that part of his mind was registering them and allowing the machine to record their whereabouts, but he couldn't focus close enough to do anything about it. He couldn't focus on any of it. For a long time he was only aware of the pain, and then he wasn't aware of much at all.
That was when he realized that he was being drawn to one mind in particular, and through the agony he didn't realize until it was too late that the power he was sensing belonged to a girl of no more than four or five. He couldn't see her and he didn't know her name—he couldn't focus that well now; he couldn't do anything, really—but he knew how small she was. Desperately he tried to shove awareness of her back into the pool around him, but everything only hurt that much more for the attempt and for a moment everything was only white and pain and sobbing.
A small voice in his mind. The girl. He knew, at least, that it wasn't her primary mutation but she had to have some telepathic ability to call out to him when he hadn't spoken to her first.
Who are you? Why are you hurting? Can I help? Let me help!
Charles blinked through the tears and tried to push past the agony, trying to latch onto the presence without letting any of the pain through. They already knew where she was; he had failed in that regard and now there was no reason not to answer her. His presence had scared her and he couldn't leave her like that. He couldn't think much at all but he knew that much.
A small face framed by red hair even brighter than Sean's began to take shape in his mind. Who…are you?
Jean. I'm Jean.