Charles was quite warm when he woke, which was not a usual thing. The cell blocks were kept at a stable temperature that was not cold but not quite warm either. It wasn't uncomfortable, really, but night always felt colder even under a blanket. Right now, though, he was almost sweltering, but the question was answered when he shifted a bit and felt the weight against him.
Raven. It would be Raven, of course, and when he let his eyes flicker open there was a haze of blue and orange and brown that slowly became less and less blurry.
He could see now, then. That much was encouraging. His vision cleared a good bit as he blinked, but it was still a little fuzzy, though he supposed that too would right itself in time.
Charles tried moving again, tried pushing himself up on an elbow, but he quickly let himself fall back against the wall again when such movement proved to make him incredibly dizzy. He let his head drop back to his pillow—Raven must have put it there, along with the blanket draped over him, bless her—and let out a breath. He supposed he couldn't take things too quickly, after that. His head still pounded some, though he didn't feel the need to worry about his powers. Not too much, anyway. For the most part they seemed weak but under control. Slightly shaky, maybe; the mental equivalent of the queasiness left over in his stomach, but nothing more.
And beyond that, despite the shakiness his powers seemed to have recovered more quickly than his body. He couldn't quite grasp the more unfamiliar minds in the facility, but when he reached out tentatively he could easily feel Moira, and sense Erik even miles away.
Both of them were on the verge of panic.
Raven shifted in her sleep, her arm still slung around his waist and her head pressed into his chest, and Charles settled an arm over her shoulders in return to keep her calm and asleep—she needed the sleep—and reached out to Moira. He would have contacted both of them—he could do that, split his consciousness of a sort and speak to both of them at once—but right now even though their panic would have prompted him to do so he didn't think he could handle two conversations at once. Not until he was stronger again.
Moira, I'm here. What's wrong? He knew, of course, but part of him hoped that somehow she didn't know.
It was the middle of the night and she shouldn't have been up at all, but she responded immediately. Charles! Thank god, I was afraid…I-I don't know what I thought, but what happened is already all over the base. Rumors. I don't know what's true and what isn't. What did Stryker do to you? Are you all right? What I heard sounded awful.
Charles hesitated before answering, unsure of what to tell her. I'm all right now. Mostly. Still a bit queasy, I suppose, but it will pass.
You sound a little different than usual…
My powers are still recovering as well, I'm afraid. I'm sorry if it's alarming; am I…'louder,' than usual?
Something like that.
It's that my control hasn't returned completely…
Oh…It was a long moment before she continued. What happened, Charles?
He shook his head mentally. Does it matter? I'm fine.
I've spent the last eight hours worrying myself sick over you and that's all I get?
Charles winced. I'm sorry, it's just…I don't particularly think you want to know.
You shouldn't have said that. Now I have to know.
Charles, please, she pleaded, almost desperate.
Charles swallowed and took a breath. It's…it was Cerebro. That's all. Stryker had the calibrations thrown off, and it was a bit…rougher than usual. That's all. It was the grossest understatement he had come up with in a while, but he didn't have the heart to tell her anything else.
That's ALL? She echoed skeptically. Charles, what I heard made it sound like what happened almost killed you.
Well THAT is certainly not true. And about that, at least, he was not lying. Perhaps the entire ordeal had been far more painful than he ever cared to remember again, but it had not, in fact, been life-threatening. Theoretically.
Moira, I am all right. Please, get some rest.
He felt the equivalent of a long sigh, and Moira still did not sound happy. All right…all right. As long as you do.
It was a long moment before she said anything in good night. I love you.
Charles pressed his eyes closed and swallowed hard. I love you, too. Then she was gone, attempting to find some semblance of sleep, and he was alone again, and it was several minutes before he could compose himself enough to contact Erik.
Why did it have to hurt this much that he couldn't see her?
When he did reach out to Erik he hadn't even said anything before Erik felt his presence and responded immediately.
Charles, where the hell have you been! I haven't heard from you all day! I'm in the middle of packing; I was coming back if I didn't hear anything.
No, no, don't do that. Everything is fine.
Don't give me that. You sound off; what happened? Erik demanded, and Charles had to smile a little at the level of protectiveness in his friend's voice.
I'm fine, Erik.
That doesn't answer the damn question.
He didn't want to lie, but he certainly didn't want Erik to know the truth, either. Erik was likely to kill Stryker outright if he knew. He wouldn't, Charles hoped, because it would jeopardize everything they were planning, but he would want to.
There was…an incident, but—
Are you hurt?
Damnit, Charles! Erik snarled. I'm coming back.
NO! You need to stay, Erik. You know you do. Besides that, coming back would serve no purpose. It's over; there is nothing you can do, and I'm all right.
Being cryptic about it is not making me feel any better, Charles. Damnit, Stryker is dead. Whatever it was is his fault, isn't it? It's always him…and I'm still coming back. I'm half packed anyway.
Then unpack. Please, Erik, at least one more day. Give it one more day. You know everything rides on this.
On me, you mean. No pressure, hmm?
Charles sighed. I'm sorry.
It's not your fault, Charles. I just hate not being there.
Erik…you can't protect me, he sent back quietly, because he knew why Erik felt that way. Erik tried to hide it from him—how much he felt like keeping Charles and Raven safe and to some extent the others as well was up to him—but Charles knew. He'd known from the beginning, the moment that feeling took shape in Erik's mind and stayed.
Erik growled a bit. I can sure as hell try. This is my fight now too, Charles. That's why I'm training to end it.
I know…and I appreciate the sentiment, but you can't allow your feelings to control you, and you cannot allow them to put in danger the chance that we have here.
You're not going to tell me what happened, are you?
Charles hesitated. No. Not now. But…if you'll stay another day I'll try to explain when you return.
Erik was silent for a long moment, and finally he sighed. Fine. I'll stay today, but I'm coming back first thing the next morning.
Agreed. But…Erik, please be cautious once you're back here. I'm not certain, but I believe Stryker may already suspect something of you.
Another soft growl of annoyance, though this time it wasn't directed at Charles. All right. And in this conversation Erik was first to tell him to get more rest. It's the middle of the night; go back to sleep.
Good night, Erik.
When Raven woke one of her brother's arms was around her shoulders, and he'd shifted positions some and seemed more at ease now. Either he'd woken up at some point or he was really sleeping now, rather than unconscious. Whatever it was, he looked better—less pale and shaky, and he was breathing in and out steadily as he slept. Once she'd assessed that she stopped moving, not wanting to wake him. It was still early morning yet, she guessed. He had time to sleep.
"I believe I've slept as much as I'm going to," he mumbled then.
Raven jumped and pushed away from him, slapping his arm. "Gah! Don't do that!"
Charles chuckled a bit and opened his eyes to focus on her blearily. But there was focus there. He could see her. "I'm sorry. I woke up quite in the middle of the night and I did sleep after that, but I've been awake for a bit. I was trying not to wake you."
She let out a breath and relaxed again as he sat up against the wall. "How are you feeling?"
"Much better, actually." He paused. "Thank you."
Raven didn't answer that with anything more than a nod, because she couldn't. Instead she shifted forward and reached for his face. "How are your eyes?"
He blinked a few times, as if testing. "They're all right; hardly blurry at all anymore."
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
"None. Your hands are on my face."
She pulled one back and held it in front of him. "How about now?"
He smiled indulgently. "Three. Really, Raven, I'm fine."
"Okay, okay…" She sat back on her heels, wondering what Charles was doing when he studied her for a long moment. "What?" she asked finally, uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry," he said then. "I hated putting you on the spot like that. I never would have asked you to do that if—"
"You'd had a choice. But you didn't. I know that, Charles. I understand." That didn't mean it was any less awful to remember, but she did understand, and she wasn't angry with him. Raven swung around to sit against the wall beside him, against his shoulder, and Charles's arm went around her and held her.
He didn't have to say anything for her to know that he knew.
That morning Raven practically stood over him, unrelenting in her pestering until Charles had eaten every bit of his breakfast and half of hers. He needed to get his strength back, she said, and though he protested he knew she was right.
The ordeal with Cerebro had taken quite a lot out of him.
And yet, even in the wake of such a thing, it seemed fate could not let him have one day of peace.
In the yard that afternoon, it was one of the rare days where they had managed to procure the use of one of the large space's few tables. Raven had insisted that they try—that Charles shouldn't be on his feet too much yet—and Hank, Sean, and Darwin had succeeded. Charles, though he wanted to appear unbothered and recovered, was still exhausted and couldn't help slumping over the table at times. At least he managed not to let his head fall.
Until a sharp spike of emotion drilled into his mind, driving his face into his arms as he let out a sudden cry.
"Charles!" Raven's hand was on his back immediately, worriedly. "What?"
"No," he gasped.
Fear and horror and desperation and nononowhymenotme! and images, making him twist to look at the guard tower at the side of the yard even as he sucked in a sharp breath. The others followed his gaze. "Someone's back there," he said quickly.
More details assaulted him when he pressed his fingers to his temple, and he grunted, unable to completely buffer himself from the painful effect they had with his control still weaker than usual. The space behind the guard tower was small, but large enough for the panicked young woman whose thoughts he was picking up and the small group of facility guards five or six strong that surrounded her with wolfish grins.
It wasn't the first time such a thing had happened. Often enough Charles caught the offending thoughts in the guards' minds and pushed them aside before they could come to fruition. When the thoughts made it as far as action Charles usually managed to disperse such incidents before they began, and no one retained any memory of it whatsoever. This was something that should not be happening, and one of very few things in the past many months he had been willing to use his powers to influence even at risk of being discovered.
Raven agreed with the risk, and nothing had ever gone this far before he'd noticed before. Two of the guards had the girl pinned against the wall of the guard tower's base, one in front of her holding her chin tightly, and the others—two more? Three? Three—crowded in.
Charles was already standing, stepping back over the table's bench to free himself and letting his fingers fall from his head. He didn't need the extra focus to stay connected now, as strong as her emotions were, and it would only draw attention to himself anyway. "Hank, Darwin, Sean…" he said urgently. They started to follow him without complaint, understanding his haste when he sent them the briefest version of what he had seen.
The looks on their faces would have told him they were with him even if he hadn't felt it, too.
It must have gotten through to Raven, as well. It was clear on her face. Damnit, it was rare that he could keep anything from her when his defenses were low. They were too deeply connected.
She shot to her feet and grabbed his wrist as he tried to move quickly off. He almost lost his balance from the force of it combined with his weakness. "Charles, you're not strong enough," she said, pleading. "What if you can't think them down?"
"That's why we're going with him," Darwin said immediately.
"You're still outmatched; six to what? Three and a half? You can't fight, Charles. You can barely stand up straight. And do you know how much trouble you'll be in?"
He pulled his hand from her grasp. "We have to try. Please, we don't have time for this." Behind the tower the girl was crying, her skin rapidly changing colors with her emotions. That was her mutation, but it wasn't helping her as the guard smirking and holding her chin bruisingly fumbled for his belt with his free hand.
"Look, I care, but you happen to be my priority and I don't want anything to-"
But if she continued he didn't hear her, because Charles had twisted and taken off for the guard tower as quickly as his admittedly unreliable legs would take him. Darwin, Sean, and Hank were close on his heels, and he drew them all to a stop at the guard tower's side. He edged to the corner but didn't go around. From here it was easier to sense the guards individually with his weakened powers, and he quickly brought his fingers to his temple again and focused on all six of them.
Stop this. NOW, he sent angrily, along with a healthy dose of confusion. All of them froze immediately, not truly frozen but suddenly unsure of what they were doing. Perhaps the boys would not be needed after all, which would be preferable. Charles didn't want this to escalate to violence that would only cause more trouble. Not if it didn't have to.
The guards were still confused, and now the girl was, too. Now Charles stepped around the corner, motioning for the others to stay out of sight where they were, and let the girl see him. Let her go. They did, and Charles thought to her next.
Go. Quickly. Back out into the open.
She nodded quickly, silently, choking back a small sob as she pulled the top of her jumpsuit closed again and hurried out into the sunlight. Charles asked Raven to be sure she was all right, and his sister grudgingly agreed.
Then he lost his hold on the guards.
It was unintentional, but there were six of them and he was weak, and his control slipped and suddenly their minds were clear again. And they saw him.
Charles couldn't get a grip on them quickly enough, and within seconds they were glaring at him. Angry thoughts crowded their minds, and the confusion didn't seem to have worked well enough for them to forget what they had been doing before it hit. Now they knew what he had done.
Charles backed up, planning to join his friends around the corner and get them all back into the crowd, but he knew it probably wouldn't help as much as he wished it would. Every one of the guards knew who he was, at the least, and it wasn't a good thing.
He made it around the corner and hurriedly urged the others to move more quickly back the way they'd come. Go go go. They're angry.
They moved, and Charles tried to, but suddenly there were fingers in his hair yanking him back and he cried out in surprise—laced with more than a little pain as several strands came out at the roots. He was pulled back against a tall, unyielding form, another hand on his throat now holding him there.
"If it isn't the local telepath," a harsh voice barked. "You think you're better than us, don't you?
Let me G—"Ah!" Charles cried out, his concentration broken when the sturdy younger guard yanked on his hair again. He tried to pull in a breath after that, but the hand around his throat tightened. He struggled, but two more of the men closed in and took over holding him. Hank, Sean, and Alex had already moved as if to help, but the other three guards had pulled their sidearms and had the three younger mutants frozen in place.
"Stay out of my head, you freak! You've caused enough trouble," snarled the one who'd grabbed Charles in the first place.
"Trouble?" he echoed incredulously. He felt the anger twisting his face. "You were going to rape that poor girl!"
And with Charles held between the other two now it was easy enough for the man to punch him—hard, and in the stomach. Charles doubled over, held up only halfway by the guards on either side of him. He was gasping for air once he could pull anything in at all, and above him the man who'd hit him was laughing.
"Really? Because it looks to me like you and your friends here tried to attack us. Mutants and their rebellious, violent nature. Who's Stryker going to believe?"
And he punched Charles again and Charles was seeing spots, and then he was face-down on the concrete and the sharp familiar sting of a whip bit into his back. Then again, then several times more but he had long ago stopped bothering to count, and from wherever she was now Raven was screaming in his head as well as out loud.
"What is going on here?"
Stryker. Stryker was down here. Mutants being punished for misbehavior in the yard was not uncommon, but the three guards who had drawn guns must have garnered attention. Stryker never came down here.
The next blow from the whip never came, and Charles choked back a groan as the tension in his shoulders eased and he slumped onto the ground under him. The concrete was certainly warmer than the early fall air…
He shook his head a bit and tried to focus on the words as the man who had beaten him lied through his teeth.
"—attacked us. Tried to draw us back behind the tower. Thought they could overpower us, maybe. I don't know. Stupid mutants…"
Charles forced his elbows beneath him and picked his head up. "That is not…what happened," he grated out.
Stryker was glaring at him immediately. "Did I ask you?"
"Doesn't matter…he is lying. He and several others…they had dragged a girl back there…they were going to rape her…"
And Stryker was striding toward him now and he knew what was coming. He tried to curl up to make it harder but the immaculate dress shoe connected with his stomach anyway and then he was curled even more, doubled over from the force of the blow and the pain that burst behind his eyelids with it.
"Posts, all of them," Stryker was growling. "The others you can let off tomorrow, but the telepath we'll leave out a while…see if it does him any good."
"You can't do that!" Shouting, not close but not far away either. Raven.
When Charles managed to look up again he saw the crowd that had been drawn as it dissipated. Some of the mutants were upset, some afraid, and some simply indifferent, and the guards—more of them now than before—were closing in, grabbing Sean and Hank and Alex and pulling them to the row of wooden posts at the edge of the yard.
And then two of them were grabbing his arms, and yanking him up, and Charles couldn't help but cry out. His head was pounding and his stomach ached and his back ached and stung and burned, and the results of the whip weren't as awful as they had been in the past but with everything else it was enough to leave him miserable and not fond of the idea of moving. It was enough, too, that when they dropped him to his knees by the nearest post and yanked his arms up everything faded out for a bit.
When awareness returned there was cold metal around his wrists, and his left arm ached now too because it had been bearing the weight of his head.
There was no crowd now—just a line of guards keeping anyone from coming near the four of them chained to the posts. Raven was trying desperately to get past them, and he didn't know how long she had been at it but he caught from the guards' minds that they were frustrated with her and seriously considering violence.
Raven, please! Calm down! They'll hurt you; I don't want that…
She stopped when she heard him, when she realized he was fully conscious again, and she looked at him. She backed off, finally, but glanced anxiously toward the entrance to the yard.
Stryker was returning, with one of the facility's scientists on his heels.
The small man in the lab coat also had a readied syringe in his hands.
By skimming their minds Charles knew what it was before they got to him. It was a suppressant, something they had been working on since the beginning. But it had never come out quite right; either it wasn't strong enough or it took too long to wear off, and Stryker had put a stop it its testing after being too often upset when Charles was not ready when they needed him in Cerebro.
But apparently Stryker was taking no chances today, and in panic Charles kicked out when the scientist tried to approach him and caught the man in the shins.
If he couldn't use his powers at all he couldn't keep up with Raven from here. He couldn't make sure she was all right. He couldn't contact Erik. He couldn't do anything.
The scientist jumped back and yelped, and Stryker motioned to two of the nearby guards. One of them, to Charles's chagrin, was the one who had nearly succeeded in violating the young woman he and the others had been attempting to rescue. The young guard seemed entirely too happy to oblige Stryker's order to keep Charles still, smirking as he sat on his legs while the other one grabbed Charles around the chest from behind to keep him from twisting. Only one frustrated "no" escaped his lips before, assured he would not be struck again, the short researcher with the syringe surged forward and quickly jammed the needle into Charles's hip through his clothing, without regards to how it might feel.
Charles shouted and jerked, but it didn't dislodge the needle and the contents were emptied. In seconds his perceptions dimmed.
Quickly he made her understand what had just happened, and why she wouldn't be hearing from him. The look on her face was not comforting.
But again he didn't know if she continued, though this time it was because he could not hear her and not because he didn't have the time to listen.
It was gone. He couldn't sense anything…except for perhaps the faintest awareness that there were minds around him…and even being blind had not been as frightening as this.
Once again Erik did not hear from Charles all day, but he had promised that he would stay and he did. Still, he would have headed back as soon as evening came if he hadn't remembered that no one was let in or out of the facility after a certain hour. The perimeter was locked down for the night, and it would do him no good to go there now.
But he knew he would get no sleep if he tried, and he tried to stay out and get in a bit more practice, but he couldn't focus. At least he was more than satisfied with the progress he'd made before he began to worry about his friend when Charles had fallen silent. It wasn't that the extra day was completely useless without sharper focus—it was still good exercise—but he had done better earlier in the trip, and he would rather be back at the facility tearing it apart anyway.
Though, annoyingly enough, it was likely that it would still take a bit of time before he was truly ready to do that. He knew how, but…
Charles was right. They had to absolutely sure before they made a move.
Charles. God, the one brief conversation they'd had the night before had left Erik confused and concerned, and he didn't know what he would find when he made it back.
He was right; he got no sleep that night.
Night fell, and there were no more groups being brought to the yard and the guards were gone for the night. There was no reason for the prisoners left there to be guarded any longer; there was no one out here, and they certainly weren't going anywhere.
"I am sorry, my friends," Charles sighed aloud. He was still unable to reach anyone telepathically, and he feared the formula they'd used this time would take a while to wear off. "I did not mean for that to end like this."
Darwin snorted. "Man, you gotta quit with the takin' the blame for everything. We were with you the whole time; you know that. We make our own decisions."
"We didn't want that girl hurt any more than you did," Sean added.
"I know that, I just…well, thank you," Charles finished clumsily.
Hank looked up, squinting at him through the dimness. The moon was only a sliver, and it didn't help much in cutting the dark of the guard tower's shadow. That also made it chillier. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine, Hank…"
His head didn't hurt as much anymore and he was less sore, though he was a bit concerned about the untreated wounds on his back being exposed to the elements through the tears in his clothing. But they weren't deep and they had stopped bleeding hours ago, and with any luck infection wouldn't set in before he was allowed back to the cell blocks and they could be seen to.
"Really?" Hank contested.
But he didn't answer, and now Sean was studying the chains on his wrists.
"You know, I wonder if I could like, break these if I found the right frequency or something."
Charles's eyebrows went up. "With enough practice I imagine you could. You have more power than I believe you think you do, Sean, and your throat is a muscle just like anything else. There are likely many things you could do if you learned to control it. I've speculated in the past that you might even be able to attain some sort of flight, with the right sound waves."
"Really? You think so?"
"I'm almost sure of it, but unfortunately this is not the best place to try…"
Sean chuckled weakly, and they all fell silent for the night. The hours drug on and the others seemed to be able to doze off against the posts, but Charles was wide awake when he heard something off in the direction of the yard's entrance.
It bothered him greatly that he couldn't reach out to determine if someone was there, but soon enough a figure took shape in the dark.
"Charles? Where are you?"
Charles let out a breath of surprise at the whispered call. "Moira? I'm here." The figure gained more definition as it came closer, and then Moira was crouching in front of him and he could make out her face. "Moira, what are you doing out here? It isn't safe for you to—if you're seen…" Again, Erik had an excuse. She did not.
"I know, I know, but I had to see you." Her hand gripped his arm now. "My field team is leaving in the morning. I didn't know until today; I don't know how long we'll be gone."
His already dry mouth suddenly felt drier. "Oh…" And suddenly the fact that Erik was returning tomorrow wasn't so comforting anymore.
She swallowed hard. "Charles, whatever it is you and Erik are up to…if you get the chance to get everyone out of here, do it. If it's safer to go, don't wait for me…" He couldn't sense anything from her, of course, but still knew that she didn't want to say it.
He didn't want to hear it.
"Don't say that. If you really do want to come with us then I won't leave without you."
"You may have to, and you know if it comes down to it that you will. You always have everyone's best interests in mind."
He tried to. He wanted to. But here he suffered for it and he didn't know how much longer he could do it. He wanted to be able to go on, but not if it was going to cost him this. "Moira…" I won't give you up.
She looked away. "I just wanted you to know it's all right if you have to do that." But it wasn't all right. He could hear it in her voice.
No. "No. I won't. I—" But he knew she was right. If it did come down to that he would, because it would be the right thing to do.
Moira silenced him with her lips, pressed to his, and her other hand was at the back of his head now and the warmth soothed the soreness at the roots of his hair. "Please stop," she whispered against his cheek. "We already knew we might not get what we wanted."
"This doesn't mean we won't," Charles answered quietly. He still had to hope. Hope was one of the few things that had gotten him through in recent weeks.
Moira hugged him tightly, but the embrace was awkward with his elbows up by his face, and he couldn't return it beyond pressing his face into her hair. She changed the subject.
"I'm sorry I don't have anything with me; I didn't have anything left in my room…"
"It's all right. We'll be all right."
Her fingers found the edges of the rips at the back of his jumpsuit. "But…" There were tears in her voice now.
"I'm fine," he whispered.
"How bad is it?" she demanded.
"Not so awful, I promise. You needn't be upset."
Gently she kissed up his neck and the side of his face. "I will never get used to how stubborn you are."
"That's good, I suppose. You'll never be bored," Charles teased weakly. He caught her lips for a moment. "I love you." Their mouths weren't apart any longer than it took him to say it, and by the time they finally broke apart his breathing was ragged.
Moira's was too, but as soon as she had enough air she was kissing him again. Her arms dropped around his waist, tugging them closer together, and despite the fact that he still ached everywhere it all went straight to the base of his belly and Charles groaned into her mouth.
"You…have to go," he managed.
Moira seemed to realize what she was doing and reluctantly pulled back a little. "I hate leaving you here, trussed up like this. It's ridiculous; I can't believe how bad things have gotten here, and what Stryker did to you yesterday…."
"I'm all right. You keep forcing me to say that."
"I'm not forcing you to say anything; especially when it isn't true," she scolded.
Charles smiled in mild amusement. "I know."
Moira shook her head at him and wrapped her arms around him again. "Charles, if you have to leave before I get back promise you'll find me when it's safe enough. Promise me…"
"Of course," he breathed. "I'll always find you…"
"I love you," she said then, answering what he'd said moments before. They kissed again, and it was deep and sweet and the only goodbye either of them could manage.
Soon after that she was gone, and the others were still asleep, and Charles was alone.
Morning could not have come quickly enough, and Erik left for the mutant facility as soon as there was any light at all peeking through the curtains of the small motel room and he knew it was late enough that he would be able to get through the gates when he arrived.
It seemed Stryker was waiting to ambush him the moment he was in the building.
"You missed all the excitement, Mr. Lehnsherr."
Erik paused in the corridor, glancing back at the man with his bag still in his hand. "Excitement?"
"The telepath. He and his friends made quite the disturbance in the yard yesterday—left all of them out there last night, and I think I'll let him, at least, stay there a while longer."
"What? Why?" He faced Stryker now, but suddenly remembering what Charles had told him he quickly schooled his features.
"The men involved in the incident claim Xavier and his little group attacked them, but to be honest I don't particularly care what happened."
Of course he didn't, because Stryker had to know as well as Erik did that Charles would never attack anyone—much less goad the boys into helping him do it. No, whatever had happened the guards were at fault, and Erik's fist clenched tighter around the handles of his bag.
"What are you saying?" Erik asked evenly.
The man glared a bit now. "I'm saying I'm tired of waiting for results from you, Lehnsherr, and if you're not going to get me answers I'm going to find them myself. That telepath needs to be put in his place; after what happened the day before he still had the nerve to pull whatever he pulled yesterday, and I've had about enough of him. If he weren't so damn valuable he'd be dead."
Erik struggled to keep a straight face. This was a test. It had to be. If he reacted to any of this Stryker would know he wasn't on the level. "And what happened the day before?"
"We needed more coordinates and we were going to need him in Cerebro anyway, so I had a couple of the brainiacs throw off the calibrations in the installation before bringing him there—enough to make it decidedly unpleasant for Xavier but not enough to cause any damage or keep the machine from doing it's job. Thought it might knock some sense into him." Stryker huffed. "Much as he was screaming I'd have thought he'd think twice before pissing me off again, but no. Of course not."
That was why Charles hadn't contacted him the first day he'd seemed AWOL. Of course he wouldn't have been able to communicate that far after that. No wonder he'd sounded off when he'd finally talked to him that night.
Screaming? Erik suddenly felt sick to his stomach, and at the same time had an overwhelming urge to rip every strand of Stryker's white hair from his head.
In all honesty, he wanted to kill the man with his bare hands, but he doubted Charles would take kindly to that no matter what the man had done to him. Charles was too good for his own good that way.
"I see," he managed finally. Erik took a careful breath. "I just need more time. He—"
"Either he trusts you by now, or he doesn't. And obviously he doesn't, or there's something you aren't telling me," Stryker challenged.
"He trusts me; he's just careful."
The older man narrowed his eyes. "I mean it, Lehnsherr. If I don't get answers soon I'll put him in that machine again. I'll force it out of him."
Not strangling Stryker at that moment was the hardest thing Erik had ever done, next to saying what he had to say next. "And why would that matter to me? He's just a mutant. Do whatever the hell you want with him."
"Then why are you so adamant that we get the information your way?"
Finally he was able to let some of the anger through in the guise of common sense. Erik let his jaw clench. "Because it's less damaging to valuable assets. What were you thinking, Stryker? You don't know what that thing might really do to him when not used properly. No matter what your crackpot scientists told you it might very well cause damage, and certainly if you do that again."
The man just shrugged. "It's the war department that wants to find a way to use him; I don't give a damn. I'd be happier wiping these freaks out than keeping them here." And with that Stryker walked away.
To keep up appearances Erik had to bring his bag to his room before he could head back to the offices, and he couldn't run there, either, like he wanted to. He couldn't rush out to the balcony over the yard to look down and assure himself that Charles was there, was alive, would be all right, but he did make it there and finally, finally he did see his friend.
Nothing. Below and on the far side of the yard Charles, Sean, Hank, and Darwin were each chained to one of the posts near the concrete wall, but it was too early for there to be a group outside yet. It was only them. The boys seemed fine—tired, maybe, hungry and thirsty, but Charles was hurt. Erik couldn't pick up many details from here, but his face was scraped up a bit, possibly from the concrete, and the angry red lines of several new wounds crossed his back.
Erik felt his hands clenching around the railing, but this time he was enough in control of his powers that he was able to keep the metal from bending under his fingers.
This time he knew his powers existed.
He sensed someone approaching from behind, and wished it wasn't Stryker but knew it probably was. A quick glance back confirmed this.
Charles? he asked again. Charles! It looked like he was conscious, but he wasn't answering.
"Is he drugged?" Erik asked abruptly.
"Of course. I'm not stupid; if we're going to leave him out there we don't need him to be able to do anything about it. Experimental formula—only suppresses his powers. Doesn't put him out of it or anything. If we didn't need him to use that contraption for us I'd probably have it administered regularly, but it's still too unreliable. No guarantee of how long or how well it'll effect him, and we need him ready when we need him."
Charles just couldn't hear him right now. There wasn't necessarily anything else wrong with him. That much, at least, was good to know. It explained his friend's silence yesterday and last night, and now everything was accounted for.
Then Stryker was gone again, and after another moment or two Charles looked up and caught his eyes. Erik couldn't quite tell from here, but he was relatively certain his friend smiled at him, as if to say I'm all right. Because that was what he always said. But even with that small reassurance, Erik knew it was not going to be easy waiting for night to fall.
When it did, when it was safe—or as safe as it was going to be—to find his way out into the yard, he did so as quickly as he could. He found Charles alone, because the others had been released when their group was there that day, and Charles smiled at him once Erik had found his way through the dark and knelt beside him.
"Erik. It is certainly good to see you, my friend. I'm afraid it's been…a rough couple of days."
Erik snorted at the horrible understatement. "I told you to stay out of trouble."
Charles winced. "I told you I would do what I could. I didn't lie…it just wasn't enough, apparently."
"I know everything, Charles. Stryker told me everything, and most definitely not in the sugar-coated terms you probably would have tried to put it all in."
His friend's mouth opened and closed, and then he looked away. "Oh."
"Were you really going to tell me about Cerebro?"
"I don't know what I was going to tell you…"
Erik's jaw clenched, and it hurt to do that and he realized how much he had been doing it today, on and off, worrying and trying not to worry and trying to contain his anger all at once. "Charles, we have to get out of here. Stryker will do that again if he doesn't get answers. He doesn't care what it does to you. He'll do it until he gets what he wants."
And even in the dimness he could see Charles well enough to make out the sudden fear in his eyes—more fear than Erik had ever seen there.
"Oh god, Charles," he whispered. "Was it really that bad?"
Charles swallowed convulsively and looked away again, and he was shivering now. It was chilly out here, Erik knew that, and though he knew with certainty that the shivering wasn't because of the cold he pulled his jacket off and settled it over Charles's shoulders anyway. It wouldn't stay there well, with Charles's wrists chained to the pole above his head and his arms half stretched up, and Erik had to keep an around his friend to hold it on enough to do him any good.
"No, no, it—well it was, but I'm all right now, I—"
"You're scared to death. What the hell did it do you?" he demanded gently. As much as he was screaming…Erik couldn't erase those words from his memory, but he wanted to.
Charles let out an uneven breath and closed his eyes. "It just…it hurt, Erik."
It was the simplest thing he could have said, but somehow it was worse than any other way he might have put it. The way his voice broke when he said it didn't help, either, and Erik's arm tightened around him. "I'm sorry… I'm sorry I wasn't here."
"You couldn't have done anything. Stryker does what he wants here." Charles's eyes opened again. "Anyhow, we can't go anywhere. Not yet. Moira's field team left this morning, and unless we can help it we can't do anything until they return. Or…I'd rather not. She wants to come with us and I'm no longer very inclined to stop her."
Erik's mouth pressed into a thin line for a moment. "All right…I suppose we should wait for you to get some of your strength back, anyway. We're going to need you, too; if I'm going to be ripping doors off hinges we don't want anyone getting in the way because they weren't warned."
"Are you ready?"
He winced. "I'd like to say yes, but I don't know. Thanks to you I've made more progress in the last few days than I have since I started, but how are we supposed to know for sure? If I'm ready for this?"
"I'm afraid that's something only you will know, Erik."
"Thanks, that's a big help." He sighed and reached into the jacket around Charles for the water bottle he'd stashed in the only pocket he had large enough to hold it. "Here. I have a feeling you need this."
Charles could have managed it on his own as Sean had, but this was Charles. Erik was comfortable with Charles, and he didn't think twice about opening the bottle and bringing it to his friend's lips himself. He had to let the jacket fall, but Charles didn't protest. He was busy enough swallowing the water.
Erik tilted the bottle away for a moment. "Take it easy; it has to have been at least thirty-six hours since you've had any liquid, and you don't want to do more harm than good." It wasn't an absolutely horrible amount of time, but it was long enough to be concerning. Charles nodded slowly, and when Erik titled the bottle up again he drank at a more moderate pace. Erik kept his other hand on Charles's shoulder to steady him.
"I hope that helps some, anyway," Erik sighed. Once the bottle was empty he picked up his jacket and stuffed the empty bottle back into the interior pocket.
"I do feel better, thank you," Charles assured him.
"I don't want to leave you out here."
"Neither did Moira, but I'm afraid you have no choice."
"Moira was out here?"
"Last night. To tell me that her team was leaving. I wouldn't have known if she hadn't, I…well, I suppose Stryker mentioned the drugs, as well."
Erik made a face. "He did. Charles, what happened yesterday? What really happened? I don't believe for a minute that you or any of the others attacked anyone."
And of course they hadn't. Charles gave him the other side of the story, and it only served to make him angrier. He hated the men who had caused the trouble, but more than anything he hated Stryker for not doing anything about it. "I can't believe him…" Stryker was going to die. There was no way around it. Before Erik left this place Stryker was going to die.
"Erik," Charles said sharply.
"I thought you couldn't be in my head right now."
"I felt that anyway, and it was rather clear on your face. We've been over this, Erik. Killing Shaw is not the answer to solving the problems of your past, and killing Stryker is not the answer to our current ones. It would make us no better than them."
"What if I said I didn't care?"
Charles smiled a bit. "I wouldn't believe you." He nodded toward the yard's entrance. "Now go on; you can't stay here."
Erik sat back for a moment. "Why not?"
"If you attempted to stay here all night it's likely we would both fall asleep, and you would be found in the morning. We certainly do not need that to happen."
"I have an excuse, remember?"
"But your position with Stryker is precarious at the moment. Something like that might only solidify his suspicions."
And Charles was right. Of course he was right. Reluctantly, Erik pulled his jacket back on. "I don't know when Stryker plans to release you. It'll be tomorrow if I have anything to say about it, but if not I'll be back tomorrow night…and I'll try to bring food."
Charles nodded in understanding. "Be safe," he said.
Charles felt lonelier than ever once Erik was gone, still not able to really sense anything, but at least he wasn't thirsty. He supposed that was something.
Still, as much as he wanted Erik to keep himself from the danger of any further suspicion, he was happy at the sound of shoes scraping the concrete again perhaps an hour or more after his friend had left.
The sound moved around to the edge of the yard, near the wall where it was darker instead of coming straight to him…as if whoever were approaching didn't want to be seen too soon.
Not Erik, then.
"Who's there?" he demanded. Damnit, he hated this. He couldn't sense them. Things were just beginning to get through and he could sense…something. He knew someone was there, and he knew approximately where, but he wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between Erik and anyone else as weak as the feeling was. He leaned forward enough to get his fingers to his temple, still warily watching the darkness by the wall.
Focusing helped some, but though he still couldn't sense much more that way he could sense enough to suddenly have a very bad feeling about this.
Whoever was there was not friendly.
But Charles didn't know that there was anything he could do about it.
"Who's there?" he asked again.
This time something happened. The figure darted from the shadows and then there was a hand over his mouth and another around his chest as whoever it was grabbed him from behind.
Charles struggled, trying to bite the hand over his mouth, and when it pulled away he shouted.
Then the hand was back, at his throat now, holding a short blade against his skin, and he stopped shouting. He froze.
"There's no one out here to hear you, freak," a harsh voice whispered. "No one cares."
The voice. He knew that voice. It was the guard from yesterday. The one who'd led the attack on the girl. The one who'd lied to Stryker.
Charles's breath hitched in his throat. "Wh…?"
The blade at his throat drew back, forcing him back against the man's chest unless he wanted to be cut. "You think you can make a fool out of me in front of my guys?" he breathed angrily, in Charles's ear. "You think you can save everybody? Fine, you saved the girl. I'll take you instead."
No. Charles moved, forgetting about the knife in panic. He'd hardly pushed away before his attacker swept the blade up and let it leave a gash across Charles's cheek. It hurt, but he managed not to cry out. He tried to pull away again but there was nowhere for him to go. He was chained to a pole.
The man shoved him forward, up on his knees against the wood, and then the knife was at the base of his neck cutting into the collar of his jumpsuit. "Stop!"
But there was a yank, and the already-tattered back of the thin suit ripped in half. Charles fought, but he only gained painful gashes on his arms, and then the sleeves were cut and the pieces of the brown garment fell away from the top half of his body completely.
"STOP! What are you—!"
There were hands under his t-shirt. The knife was gone and both hands were on his skin, sliding from back to front and toward the hem of his boxers, and he knew where they were going.
"NO!" Charles shouted. "Please…!"
The hands drew back enough to come up to his shoulders, to pull him back and slam his head forward into the wooden post and leave him insensate for several moments. In those moments he saw stars Charles couldn't move, couldn't see, but behind him he was sure he heard a belt unbuckling, a zipper.
"No," he gasped. His mind lashed out in panic but couldn't break through to the only other mind here, the only one close—the one he wanted to stop. He wasn't strong enough yet. The drugs held him back too firmly.
Charles was pulled up roughly, up on his knees, shoved against the post again, and his t-shirt rode up and he was sure he was getting splinters but that didn't matter now. Neither did his arms, crushed against his chest, aching but not the issue. The warm body behind him kept him pressed into the wood, and the hands were on him, pushing down at his boxers again.
"Stop, stop, please…" he sobbed. "Don't…"
But no one listened, even when he screamed.
Despite the fact that he hadn't slept the night before Erik knew he wouldn't sleep tonight either. Not with Charles out there. He was exhausted, but his mind refused to let his body shut down. He sat up trying to read, something he supposed he didn't do enough of.
The book wasn't working out for him though, and he'd just decided to put it away and at least try to rest when a spike of pain and a rush of emotion so strong it doubled him over hit him so hard it dropped him from the bed to the floor.
Fear and terror and horror and pain and—
One word got through, only one, shocking enough when he realized it could only have come from—
How had he gotten through? Erik supposed the intensity of it answered that question. Something had panicked him enough that his powers had broken through the drugs' influence, even if just for a moment.
Erik forced himself up from the floor and snatched a flashlight from a drawer. Possibility of being discovered be damned; he couldn't help Charles if he couldn't see him well enough.
He bolted from his room, insanely glad that he'd left his shoes on, but he doubled over against the corridor wall when it hit him again.
This time Charles's voice sounded much more like a hopeless sob than anything, and Erik bit back a sob of his own and kept going.
Charles, I'm coming! Can you hear me? I'm coming! Charles? Charles! CHARLES!
But there was no answer.