The small and innocent, yet powerful presence in his mind was startling. Connecting himself to it didn't dull the pain—Charles was still mostly aware of the agony—but somehow this girl's presence made it easier to focus beyond it. To push it farther back in his consciousness and focus on being able to communicate with her. He felt power from her that he didn't think she knew she had, and somehow he knew that if were not for that power he would not be able to focus on anything at all right now.
It would only be the pain.
But instead, there was the girl. Jean. Jean Grey, he gleaned from her mind. Her primary mutation was telekinesis, he gathered now, but the telepathic ability she had allowed her power to feed him, to keep him grounded enough to speak to her. Suddenly he was standing in a small girl's bedroom in a suburban home, and she was there, sitting at a small desk with coloring books and crayons.
He could still feel the cold metal of the chair under him—still feel his fingers digging into the arms and his teeth clenching in his jaw and the sweat beading on his skin—but he was here, too. In Jean's mind. Where she was.
The girl dropped out of the chair to stand, staring at him wide-eyed, and she was so small. Her defining features were her bright, intelligent eyes and the red hair that hung about her face like flames. And even though her eyes were wide she didn't seem too incredibly surprised to see him there…only curious.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Charles. It's very nice to meet you," he said, and though he couldn't help sounding a bit incredulous, it was.
She smiled a little, and looked at him…at the fact that he was here. "How did you do that? How'd you get here?"
"I'm not sure," he admitted truthfully. Usually he wasn't quite this painfully aware of his body when he entered someone's mind to speak to them this way, and usually it was some sort of neutral ground rather than where the other person was. And usually, of course, it was a conscious decision.
But…he had not decided to come here this way. It was as if he'd been drawn.
"Oh…" She looked him up and down curiously. "Why are you dressed like that?"
Charles glanced down at the brown jumpsuit, and in a moment it had changed. That he could control. Now he wore the khakis and buttoned shirt he was used to, with a navy cardigan—the sort of clothes he hadn't worn in 18 months. It was almost strange to be in them again, even in his mind, but it was less confusing and frightful for a four-year-old girl and that was what mattered.
"Is that better?" he asked, smiling a little.
The girl frowned. "You're lying. You don't look like that right now. And you're hurting. Why do you hurt? Who's being mean to you?"
Charles let out a breath, and took a careful step forward before lowering himself to one knee in front of her. He looked into her eyes, and they were all concern and fear with a clarity that a girl her age should not have had yet. "That isn't important."
She looked hurt. "But…I want to help." She frowned in confusion. "I don't know how I could help…I just kinda know I could."
She could. If what he felt from her was any indication, she was powerful—or she would be, when her powers developed. But the raw power was there, inside her, and she could help him if he let her. But he wouldn't. He wouldn't let her, because it would likely come at great cost…of her innocence, at the very least. If she helped him there would be no way to shield her from what was really happening to him.
"Thank you, Jean," Charles said gently. "I appreciate it, but there is nothing you can do for me."
He swallowed. "I'm sure. But…Jean, there is something you need to do."
"You need to leave." He glanced around at the room they seemed to be in, and when he looked back he gently took her arms. "You need to tell your parents there is danger, and you need leave this place."
She blinked. "Leave home?"
He nodded quickly. "There are…people. The people who have me, where I really am, who are…being mean to me—"
"Where are you?"
"That doesn't matter either. I don't want to scare you, and I'm so sorry, but they may be coming for you as well. You can't stay where you are."
"But…how am I supposed to make Mom and Daddy believe me?"
She had a point. He didn't know. She had some telepathic ability, but it was only just emerging, and she certainly didn't have the control to influence anyone. If she would ever even get that far with her telepathy; the greatest of her powers seemed focused on the telekinesis that she wasn't even entirely aware of yet. Small incidents…that was all. The same of the telepathy. Hearing things people didn't say aloud. He hated to be delving so blatantly into her mind, but he didn't think she noticed.
Besides that, he couldn't help it. His control was all but shot already—the stress on his mind from the uncalibrated Cerebro stripping it away almost as efficiently as the drugs they gave him in the labs.
He wondered if Stryker had foreseen that outcome.
"I…I don't know. I'm sorry. I wish I could help more, but…is there anywhere else you and your family could go? Grandparents who live some distance anyway? You could tell your parents you want to see them…"
"I'm sorry, Jean. Perhaps under other circumstances I could more properly help you, but I—" He cut off when a sudden spike of pain cut through the haze being here had pulled over most of it, and when he pulled in a breath and strangled a cry he felt Jean's alarm. He'd quickly released her arms to keep from squeezing them too hard, and the one foot he had under him slipped out and he was left on both knees. His hands went to his head to clench in his hair as he grimaced, and Jean's small hands shot out to curl around his wrists.
"What's wrong!" she wailed.
It took a moment to push the pain back again, at least enough to speak to her. "I…can't stay," Charles panted. "Please, just do what you can…you need to be away from here for…a while, at least. Several days. Weeks, if you can manage it." He didn't know if it would ever be safe for her, now that Stryker and friends had her coordinates, but that was a start. It was all he could do.
God, he wished he could reach out to her parents now, and be certain they would take their daughter and flee, but now he was having trouble even maintaining this connection with the girl, despite the fact that it seemed to have formed on its own.
"But what about you?" Jean protested. And it wasn't the petulant cry of a small child but real worry, though the voice was small and the question innocent.
She really thought asking might make a difference, and the last thing he wanted to do was destroy a bit of that innocence. Suddenly he was blinking back tears at the mere though of this girl coming anywhere near the facility he was trapped in. Anywhere near Stryker and his scientific lackeys.
"I'll be fine," he lied. With effort he managed to lower his hands from his head, but the pain was still there and he knew his time here was running out. "I have to go now. Please promise me that you will try to get yourself to safety. Please…"
Jean nodded quickly, and then she tipped forward to hug him tightly. The contact, even in her mind, temporarily sent the pain scurrying away again, to the corner of his mind.
"I'm glad I met you too," she said quietly. She was quiet for a moment, just holding onto him with her arms around his neck, and as he returned the embrace Charles had to wonder at the sudden sense of…something. Purpose? Foreboding? Destiny? All ridiculous words to associate with such a small girl, but her power gave them credibility. Even then he didn't know why he felt them, but they were there just the same.
Those feelings, and the feeling, too, that somehow this girl was his to protect.
He hoped he'd done a good enough job so far.
"I'll find you," she whispered then, and Charles would have protested. He would have told her not to try, and how could she anyway?
But then the pain was too much and the connection was lost, and everything faded violently back to the white of agony.
For long, long moments or more—there was no way to know—that was all there was. Tears and shaking and screams from a throat that was impossibly raw now, and in the background somehow the machine still did its job, and he was still seeing the minds around him instead of the interior of the installation.
When it stopped everything went black.
By the time the world reasserted itself at all the headpiece of he machine had been moved away and the restraints around his wrists and ankles were gone and he was dimly aware of stinging around the skin where they had been. He'd pulled on them enough to break the skin, then, or at least scrape them.
It didn't really surprise him. His skin was clammy, too, and he was still trembling to some degree. It was Hank's voice in his ear and he winced, and turned his head where it had fallen against the back of the metal chair, turned it toward the voice, and finally let his eyes blink open, carefully.
Or he thought he had.
Charles blinked again but nothing happened, and his head would have snapped up in alarm if he'd had the energy for it.
But he didn't.
"Hank…" he trailed, and the only evidence of his sudden panic he could muster was the edge in his voice and the extra hitch in the breathing he was still trying to bring under control. He grimaced, too; his throat was a disaster area.
"I'm right here."
The voice was right next to him. Charles couldn't sense him, couldn't sense anyone, really—or, more accurately, he would have had no control if he'd let himself sense anyone, and he had no choice at the moment but to keep his abilities tightly strapped down. He was weak and it was hard and it hurt, but it was the only option right now.
He blinked again, more furiously now, somewhat in the direction the voice had come from. "H-Hank, I…" He coughed. "I-I can't…"
"I was afraid of that." A hand on his shoulder, the voice whispering now. "It's okay…it's only temporary. Too much stress on the optic nerves. Even though what you see in there is technically in your head the images still have to go through them so that you can 'see' them. It's actually a lot more complicated than that but I won't bore you with the details."
Charles swallowed hard and let out a weak breath, and let his eyes close again. "But…it's temporary."
"It should sort itself out in a few hours…a day or two at most. It's just that using Cerebro with it miscalibrated like this was a bit more than your brain and your eyes could handle. They just need to recover. Your control's probably out too…"
He nodded, and cracked his eyes open for a moment. When he did he realized, now, that everything was not quite pitch black but a deep dull gray, and if her squinted hard enough he could just make out the dim lines of larger shapes in the darkness.
He was all but blind for now, but it was not total and it was not permanent, thank god. If he had control again he could have used others' eyes, thanks to his abilities, and he supposed he could have survived that way, but he was much more thankful that this was only a temporary side-effect.
And with the small amount of adrenaline his body had mustered at the sudden panic gone, Charles was suddenly aware of how much he hurt. His head pounded in his skull and behind his eyes at once, and his entire body ached from tensing and shaking for so long.
However long it had really been.
And it did not help at all that he was still having to keep his powers reigned in. They were out of control, pushing to be released to do what they would, and he didn't know how long he could keep them at bay.
He was startled out of worrying about it when he was grabbed on either side and hauled roughly out of the chair, and Hank protested behind him.
"Hey! Take it easy!"
The guards didn't listen, of course; they only dragged Charles off of the platform and down the spiral staircase like so much baggage, and Hank's only reward, from the sound if it, was to be grabbed and dragged right after him.
Where was Stryker? Had he left while Charles was still out of it just after the machine had been turned off? He must have. He was sure the man would have spoken up by now if he were still here, if only to growl something menacing or derogatory.
It was one of the last truly coherent thoughts Charles had before being dragged down the metal stairs made him dizzy. Then on top of trying to keep his powers under control, and a splitting head and the trembling weakness and the aching throat he felt absolutely sick, which probably had something to do with the after-effects of so much pain, as well. Likely he would have been sick without the spiraling staircase, and though it wasn't incredibly long by the time they pulled him off the bottom of it and onto the concrete at the installation's base there was no keeping it back any longer.
The men holding him must have realized what was going to happen just in time, because they dropped him like a stone with disgusted noises and Charles's forehead smacked the concrete because he couldn't see it coming.
He wasn't sure he could have stopped the impact even if he had.
He managed to force himself back up enough that his face wasn't on the ground when what little was in his stomach came up, but the strength in his arms didn't last long. Faintly he heard struggling behind him, a quick step or two…and a hand on his shoulder held him up when his arms gave out and kept him from face-planting again.
Hank's other hand gripped his other arm, then, too, and the young scientist kept Charles somewhat steady for the good two or three minutes that he couldn't stop dry-heaving. A good amount of stomach fluid came up and left him even more queasy and with an awful taste in his mouth, but finally it stopped and now he felt even weaker. Pathetic. He fought back tears, glad beyond sense that Stryker was not here.
And the hands on his arm and shoulder tightened a bit in sympathy and Hank was a good friend, and Charles was grateful for the support, but with what little capacity he had left to think he suddenly wished that it were Raven or Moira or even Erik at his back now, because he would have been comfortable enough with any of them to just fall back into their arms and stay there until he could move again.
But it wasn't any of them, and they weren't somewhere safe. They were in the middle of the facility at Cerebro's base, and he knew he had to get up now.
He didn't think he could get up.
"Charles…?" Hank was asking.
Charles was wiping his mouth with the back of a shaking hand, and he grimaced. "I-I uhm…'m all right," he managed. He was lying, of course. He always did. But it was for them.
He didn't really have to worry, of course, about the getting-up part, because as soon as it was clear that he was done he and Hank both were pulled up again, and dragged on. Though he couldn't see where they were going Charles could tell that they didn't seem to be headed back to the cells, and for a long few moments he was worried until he remembered that it might well have been time for the evening meal. That was confirmed when the guards stopped, and a door opened, and the men at his back shoved him forward and were gone.
All Charles caught was the general noise of the prisoner cafeteria before he started to drop, but large slender hands caught him under the arms and it was Hank again, lowering him to the ground and pulling him back against the wall by the door just inside as the doors slammed shut behind them.
Awareness was becoming harder and harder as it became more and more difficult to keep his powers in check, and suddenly Charles knew he wasn't going to be able to do it forever. Not until they calmed themselves and true control returned. The crush of minds around him now was not helping, either, and suddenly it was that much harder to keep them out and his head pained him that much more and he was doubled over and Hank was giving a startled cry.
Raven. Raven was the one thing he could still make out clearly. She was here, of course; they wouldn't have been brought here if it weren't their group here now. Charles couldn't form sentences or really words at all in his mind at the moment. He couldn't send them. But he reached out weakly to his sister, tentatively, careful not to hurt her, and she felt him. She knew they were by the door and she was coming.
Raven felt more than heard her brother, and she knew he needed her without knowing why. Brief sensations of his surroundings—not images, strangely—gave her enough information that she turned around, looking for him and for Hank, and when she saw them on the ground by the door she pulled in a breath.
Charles looked like hell, and Hank did not look at all happy.
"Raven?" Darwin asked.
"What's up?" Sean wondered. "They back…? Oh."
Both of them turned to see what she saw, and Darwin grimaced and started to climb out of his seat immediately. "Damn…" he trailed.
Raven stood up quickly. "Give me a minute." He nodded, and she swept across the room as quickly as her legs would carry her, dodging tables and mutants all the same until she could drop to her knees at her brother's side. He was crumpled against the wall and he was pale and soaked in sweat and shaking, his eyes clenched shut, and her chest constricted painfully. God, he looked like he was still in pain.
His eyes opened at the sound of her voice, and he moved a little. He didn't seem to have known she was there until then, and that was enough to worry her even further.
"Yeah…" She reached out to cup his feverish cheek in her hand, and when it first touched him he jerked a bit, as if he hadn't noticed it coming.
That was when she realized that his eyes weren't focusing on her.
They weren't focusing on anything.
"Charles?" she asked again, more loudly this time, more worriedly. She grabbed his face, to a small startled groan, looked at him more closely and realized she was right. "Hank!" she cried, panicked.
Charles couldn't see.
"It's a temporary side-effect," Hank said quickly, a comforting hand on her arm. "It'll fix itself in a day or two at most—maybe even by morning."
Raven looked back to her brother. His face was still in her hands, one of his hands clamped around one of her wrists now as he winced, and she swallowed and kissed his forehead before she released him and his head dropped back against the wall again.
"Side-effect of what?" she questioned anxiously. "Cerebro did this?" Charles had said they'd tampered with it, but that was all he would say. And he'd tried to tell her he would be all right, but she'd seen the fear on his face.
He'd known something like this was going to happen.
But neither of them answered, and Raven looked at Hank pointedly. "What did it do to him?" she repeated.
He wouldn't look at her. "Nothing permanent," he muttered.
"I'm right here," Charles whispered weakly, in protest of being spoken about in the third person. His breathing was growing harsher by the moment, the hunch in his back more pronounced even though he had the wall to lean against, and Raven made a face and made a move to help him up.
"I'm sorry…come on; let's get you back to the table." It wouldn't be wise to stay where they were much longer. The guards near the door were beginning to glare at them.
Charles moaned as she and Hank pulled him up, and she didn't bother to ask whether either of them wanted anything to eat. Charles clearly would not be able to handle food, and Hank really didn't seem to be in the mood.
Sean and Darwin shot up immediately and hurried to them to help get Charles the rest of the way to the table, and when they had him there and settled on the bench he immediately curled over the table top and buried his head in his arms. Raven sat beside him, close enough that they were touching, hoping that might help in some way. He was still shivering and seemed to need the body heat, and when he began to groan softly she rubbed his back in gentle circles and the sounds subsided a bit.
Her other hand Hank held, apologizing over and over in her ear for not being able to protect her brother.
"I—they wouldn't listen to me," he whispered angrily.
"But what did it do?" she asked quietly. Charles didn't seem to be hearing anything right now, much less them, and she had to know. The face Hank made when she posed the question again told her she didn't really want to know, but that wasn't going to stop her.
Hank finally let out a long, weary breath and answered. "It just…they threw off the calibrations. Big time. It…the machine still did its job, but…"
"It hurt him…it hurt him a lot. He's weak, and his control is shot, and the stress on his brain and the optic nerves caused the temporary blindness. Like I said, it should all right itself it in a day or so at most, but...it was just bad."
Raven blinked back tears and found herself leaning farther into her brother's side. "God…"
"It's not your fault, Hank." Her jaw clenched. "I am going to kill Stryker."
That came from Charles, and she realized he'd been listening to them all along. Raven let her hand move up from his back to his head and began to thread her fingers through his hair instead. "Shh. Rest."
He listened to her, thank god, but by the time the bell went off and everyone began to crowd back toward the cells, urged on by the guards, Charles could hardly catch his breath. It took her, Hank, and Darwin, with Sean spotting, just to get him back to the cell, and when they had to separate at the door and she was left to support her brother on her own it didn't work well. As the door closed behind them Charles collapsed bonelessly against the wall, though the part where he dragged her down with him somehow seemed quite deliberate.
"Raven—" he gasped.
"What?" she questioned. "What?" He suddenly sounded so desperate, and she couldn't fathom why. Her chest clenched again.
She was holding his arms and he fumbled for her hands. "Raven, I-I need you to…do something…for me…"
She really did not like the tone he said that with.
Charles pulled her hands up and clumsily placed them on either side of his head. He could barely speak between the gasps for air through what was obviously, now, a great deal of pain, and she didn't understand what was hurting him so much.
She wanted it to stop.
"I c…I'm going to lose…control, I can't…" He groaned. "It's taking too…much to keep…powers in check. God! Ah…" He cried out and moaned again, and now there were tears on his face. He sobbed weakly. "I don't want to…hurt anyone. I n-need to be unconscious—"
"What?" Raven said sharply. She pulled her hands away quickly, and he gave a small cry of surprise at the sudden absence.
"Raven—" he managed desperately.
"No no no no no I can't—can't you just put yourself to sleep?"
His jaw was clenched now, and he shook his head minutely. "Not right now," he forced out. "Not…without control…please, Raven…" Charles reached out again, found her shoulders, her arms, slid his hands down them to find hers, but she pulled them away again and he sobbed once more.
"I can't do that!"
Her brother made a loud, inarticulate sound of pained frustration and knocked his own head back against the wall. Then, suddenly, he was quieter. His face was very serious and though it was clear he was still in pain he schooled his features when he reached out blindly and took her face in his hands when he found it. Once he had it he squinted at her, and he seemed to be able to focus on something, at least, now, if just the outline of her face.
Raven looked back apprehensively.
Charles spoke between harsh breaths, though he seemed to be attempting to school those now too. "Raven…if I truly lose control…and I will if I am awake much longer…I will hurt you…and I will hurt others. I…I don't know how strong I still am, but…there is also the possibility that I could kill you." His voice broke. "Please. I need you to do this.
Her voice trembled when she answered, her hands clamped around his wrists where she'd grabbed them as if to pull his hands away at first, before he'd begun talking and she realized how serious he was. "Charles…""I know…you can. You're strong enough…physically. To do it…right the first time…I have every confidence in you…"
She understood. Raven knew he was right, but that didn't make her any more eager to do it.
"It's all right…"
Suddenly he groaned loudly, and a choked sob pulled itself from his raspy throat. "Raven! Hurry!"
"All right! I—"
As if in emphasis he seemed to lose it, just for a moment, and a lance of pain shot through her head and pulled a shout out of her before quickly subsiding.
"RAVEN!" Charles screamed.
She reacted before she could think too much about it, grabbing his head on either side where he'd placed her hands before, and quickly trying to judge the right amount of force to use—enough to knock him out soundly but not to break his neck, because in her natural form she knew she was certainly strong enough to do that without a horrible amount of effort.
And at the last second, desperate to be sure she didn't really harm him, Raven did something she had sworn to herself she would never do again—she shifted into her blond human form, to be certain she wouldn't be strong enough to do any permanent damage.
The she'd shoved before she was really aware of it, and Charles's head hit the wall with a dull thud.
Abruptly his gasping stopped and the moans stopped and he slumped to the side. Raven caught him, losing the form and shifting to blue again, and she didn't know she'd shouted when she did what she'd done until she heard the sound dying around her in the sudden quiet.
Sobbing quietly, she lowered him to the floor against the wall and got up only long enough to snatch his pillow and blanket from his bunk. She gently pulled his head up and pushed the pillow under it and arranged the blanket over him, but once she had done that she couldn't bring herself to leave him again.
Now she wished, once more, that she had his gifts. If she did would be contacting Erik herself right now, telling him to get his ass back here. Because she knew that when Charles woke up and regained control…even if he did contact Erik it would not be to tell him to come back. Charles was too stubborn for that.
But she couldn't do it. She wasn't telepathic. There was nothing she could do. Raven lay down beside him, instead, buried her face in Charles's chest and latched an arm around him as his breathing evened out.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, before she started to cry.
But there was so much that had happened to him and so much she could be apologizing for that she didn't really know which it was.