The look on Charles's face as they left Erik behind was expected, but Raven kept him close anyway, hoping to help at least a little.
"What did you get from him?" she asked, once they were in their cell and alone.
Charles shook his head, expression still crumpled.
"Frost did a much better job this time. He's much more different from himself than when we met him. God, he's so…angry. Everything I was always concerned about…all of it is on the surface now. Erik is in there somewhere, but that is not Erik. It's…an aimless, angry, poor excuse for a copy." He let out a breath, leaning heavily on the headboard of his bunk as he sat on the edge, and he looked awful.
Raven swallowed. "Is there any way you can get through to him? Maybe you can't fix what she did yourself, but if you can get through to him…I mean, last time he knew, at least, that something was up…"
Charles shrugged. "That part of him is still there, and he feels it, but Frost has altered his personality. He's reacting to it differently. Rather than simply wanting to know what it is that he feels, he is only confused and angry. He knows nothing else. That and loyalty to Shaw, even if that is still a bit grudging, as it was before."
"That doesn't mean you can't get through—"
"But it does mean that it is much less likely, especially if I want to do it and I want it to do any good. And even if I could get him to listen, what then? I…I can't retrieve his memories for him."
She went to sit beside him. "Once you're stronger, you can."
Charles groaned and let his head thunk back against the wall. "Raven, we've been over this. I highly doubt that Stryker will ever allow that now." He blinked, more than once, and she realized he was blinking back tears. "We had our chance. Chances. We didn't take any of them, and it was all because I was far too cautious. Now we may never have another opportunity."
"We will," Raven said firmly, reaching for his hand and gripping it reassuringly. "And it isn't your fault. You've been doing the right thing, being careful about this. We can't do it at the wrong time, or it will all have been for nothing. I know you don't want that, and neither do I. We have to do this right. We have a responsibility to everyone in here, and you're only being mindful of that."
He wouldn't look at her. "That doesn't change the fact that if we can't get Erik back it will all have been for nothing anyhow."
"We'll get him back."
"How!" He looked at her sharply at that, and he must have moved too quickly. He whimpered in pain and sank farther back against the wall.
She didn't say anything about that part, knowing he would rather she didn't, and just waited until he was quiet again. It was hard to do that—to not ask if he was all right—but if she wanted him to listen to her she didn't need to aggravate or frustrate him any farther.
"What about that girl? Jean, right? Didn't you say she was telepathic?"
Charles straightened again, with some difficulty. "It's only a secondary mutation for her, and I know what you're implying, Raven, and no."
"Why the hell not?"
"She may be powerful, and perhaps she could help me, but I will not use her like that. She helped to free me, but I let her because she offered that. And it didn't seem incredibly dangerous. This would be."
"How would helping you help Erik be more dangerous than breaking you out?"
"Frost had not altered my consciousness; merely trapped it. What she's done to Erik is entirely different. Much more complicated. And Jean's power is raw, unfocused. She's young. She doesn't have much control—though she doesn't need much, yet; much of the full extent of her powers is still latent—and I can't control it all for her for any length of time in the condition I'm in. To be quite honest, though I didn't think that her attempting to help me would be dangerous, it very nearly was. If it had taken a moment or two longer I might have lost control of the power she was sharing. We're both very lucky that nothing got out of hand."
Raven chewed her lip. "So you're saying she can't help you with Erik because that would take longer? It would all go up in smoke?"
Charles nodded uncomfortably, and wouldn't quite look at her. "Essentially, yes. I'm afraid it's likely that right now, at least, all an attempt would accomplish would be my death, or hers, or both. It isn't worth that."
She shook her head slowly, shivering inwardly a bit. "No. It isn't. But what are we supposed to do then?"
It was a long time before he answered her. "I don't know. I suppose all we can do right now is try to get through to him; you were right about that, anyhow."
"We can do it. Or you can, anyway. I'm sure of it."
Charles winced. "I hope you're right about that, too."
Charles would have tossed and turned that night, if he could have done it without pain. Instead he was forced to remain mostly still, shifting when he could, and he could not find a position that was comfortable. He had healed enough over the days he'd been…elsewhere, but everything still ached.
That, and there was something he had to do.
I'm here. Thank god; I was beginning to think I wouldn't hear from you. I've only been back for a few hours, and I've heard so many rumors…
I'm…please, don't worry about me. I'm sorry, I only have a moment, but there is something I have to tell you.
You mustn't speak to Erik. You mustn't contact him in any way or even act as if you know him, unless he speaks to you. If that happens, act naturally, but mention nothing about us or our plans. I know you don't actually know many details, and that is a good thing in this case, but anyhow…
What are you talking about? Why?
Shaw and Frost…they were here. Frost has altered his memory again. Until I can figure out how to get it back again, you mustn't draw any attention to yourself. Frost altered so much this time that I'm afraid if he suspected anything of you he would report it. I don't want you in any danger.
Why can't you help him like you did last time?
Charles hesitated. I uhm…I can't, Moira.
She was quiet for a long moment. What did they do to you? she asked anxiously. Please don't tell me Stryker really put you in Cerebro again. Not without fixing it.
He wouldn't lie to her, but he didn't want to confirm it, either.
Oh god, he did. Is the rest of it true?
Moira, I'm still here. The rest is in the past. Or most of it was. But one thing still clung to him, and he was afraid it always would. If she knew…
He knew he would never be able to bring himself to tell her. She couldn't know. He had long since decided that he would protect her from that, and he would stand by his decision.
But god, it hurt to talk to her and know that he couldn't call her his own anymore.
I'll be all right. I have to go. I'm sorry.
She called to him again, and he wouldn't let himself shut her out, but Charles didn't answer. It was better for her that way—to let her become angry with him; to let her, hopefully, forget him—than for her to know the truth. So he didn't answer.
He lay awake instead, curled around the pain that was not just physical, and when he did finally sleep the nightmares returned.
Erik dreamed about the telepath. It made no sense, but he did. Things that seemed like memories that he didn't recognize at all, feelings he didn't understand, and then it was all gone and he was awake and he didn't quite know what had happened. But he knew it had all had something to do with the telepath, and he knew that that was ridiculous.
But then it happened night, after night, after night.
In the days that followed Charles did everything he could to reach Erik. He reached out as often as his recovering powers and slowly returning strength allowed, pushing carefully at the walls Frost had rebuilt to weaken them and trying not to be noticed in the process. Much of the time he didn't dare let Erik know he was there at all, fearing repercussions from the angry semblance of his friend. Charles wasn't sure why—maybe it was because they had been so close—but when Erik noticed him, when he reacted angrily and chased Charles from his mind, it hurt. And not only in the sense that it hurt to see his friend so changed.
But slowly, he was able to burrow in farther before being chased away. Slowly he felt Erik begin to doubt the truth of what he thought he knew, especially when Charles, on occasion, was strong enough to pull a small memory or two from the hidden void and give them back. But it wasn't enough, and the small things he was able to free were so small that they could be dismissed as imagination, or remembrance of more dreams that made no sense to Erik. And, of course, that did not come without its own fresh waves of confusion and frustration.
Charles hated to be doing it this way—one agonizingly small it at a time. He hated the way it only angered Erik, and made him more lost and confused by the day, but there was no other way. Eventually, he hoped, the walls would break, and Erik would be himself again and he would understand, but for now…
For now hope grew slowly, too, but it did grow. It was there.
Sometimes, Charles didn't even have to pull the small memories out himself. Sometimes a new one or two or three slipped out on their own. Sometimes in Erik's dreams, and sometimes more consciously.
"I think the length of time his mind was free made him less susceptible to Frost's alterations. I think they're crumbling more easily this time, actually. It only seemed, at first, as if she'd done a much better job because she changed so much more. That was all it was. I think with time Erik may regain his memory on his own. I may only be speeding the process," he told Raven one night.
"That's good, right?"
"If I'm correct."
He still wasn't sure whether or not he was, but the hopelessness he'd felt when Frost had taken Erik was finally beginning to fall away.
Still, though, all was not looking up. Every day, every night as he lay awake, he could feel Moira, at the edge of his mind, never forgotten. He'd pushed awareness of her there to the edges to keep her pleas from overwhelming him, but he would never ignore her. He couldn't. She begged him to speak to her, to tell her what was wrong, calling out to him whenever she thought to. Charles wanted so badly to answer her—he ached to, to put a stop to her anxiousness and pain and growing anger—but he was certain it was better than what it would put her through to know the truth.
He took to sitting with the children through most meals, rather than simply visiting them. He knew that Jean missed her parents terribly, as all of the children did, and that she was comforted by his presence. Theirs, too, comforted him. The children were glad to have him there. They knew nothing of what had happened to him, and they didn't hover, or worry, and they would never judge.
Charles felt safer with them. The innocence they held was comforting—it was something everyone older here had lost. Something he had lost, when all of this began. Theirs gave him hope. It made him more determined than ever to do this—to find a way to free Erik's mind again as soon as he could. To get them all out of here.
And he was getting stronger. It should have been a good thing, but it only told him that, if he was right, they would come for him soon. If not Cerebro, or if they'd finally fixed the machine, there was always the chance that Stryker would have him brought back to the labs. Anything. But as long as he was strong enough to pull some coordinates from Cerebro, he still did not think that Stryker would allow him to regain much more of his strength ever again. He didn't think the agent would risk it, and in all likelihood Shaw had had Frost leave something behind in his mind to be sure of it.
He was right.
A little more than a week after he'd woken, after Jean had arrived and Moira had returned, they came for him. They brought him to Cerebro, and he knew it hadn't been repaired. The only good thing was the Stryker was nowhere to be seen.
When they came for him Charles did something he had never done. He held Raven back—purposefully. Figuratively. He kept her silent. He wouldn't let her protest. He wouldn't let her be hurt. It was a line, and he crossed it, but he did it because he loved her. She would be furious with him later, but that didn't matter when it came to her safety.
It was worth it.
She'd been terrified since the last time of what would happen if they forced him into the miscalibrated Cerebro again. When he'd felt them coming Charles had tried to keep the fear from his face, and failed miserably. She'd seen it. She'd known. And from the level of panic he'd sensed rising in her, and the anger, he'd known she would have made even more of a scene than before. She wouldn't have backed down. They would have hurt her.
She gave him no choice.
I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I love you…he told her silently, trying to control his breaths as they dragged him away. It hurt. Most of the bruises from the beating were finally fading, but they still ached, and his chest still burned. Something—more than one something, he thought—must have been sufficiently cracked.
Oh god, it was going to be worse this time. Like this.
He struggled this time, because Stryker wasn't with them. Or he tried to. But that hurt, too, and it didn't make any difference anyhow. He stopped.
Stryker wasn't there when they made it to Cerebro either. It was only the scientists in the round hub of the machine's interior, and an extra console this time, he noticed. Charles struggled again, when they put him in the chair. The terror kicked in again in full force and he nearly injured himself further, twisting and pulling and shouting and—
He heard it before he felt it. A faint cracking and sharp pain at the right side of his ribs. The feeling wasn't of giving way, of a break—though he didn't analyze that until later—but at the least an existing crack was worse now. The sudden pain brought a strangled cry and shocked him into stillness that allowed them to snap the metal cuffs over his wrists and ankles. The edges of the ones holding his wrists to the arms of the metal chair pinched painfully into his skin.
They'd finally changed them. Made them smaller. He'd lost enough weight in recent months that the second time, last time, he'd nearly pulled out of them. But they'd overcompensated. These were almost too small.
But he was in the chair now. There wasn't any getting out of this, and Charles felt his throat clogging in panic.
What was the point? Shaw and Frost would know now, after being in Erik's mind, that there was no plan without Erik. He was relatively sure that they had relieved Stryker of his suspicions in that regard.
So why hadn't they fixed Cerebro? Was it really only to keep him weak? Was it really Shaw's doing?
It had to be. No one was saying anything to him at all as they bustled about the small interior of the machine. There were four or five them this time—the scientists—instead of just two. Two of them pressed extra electrodes from the extra console to his neck and forehead before they pulled the headpiece down over him.
He recognized the console now. It was one of their standard monitoring devices from the labs, for measuring brain and telepathic activity.
Charles skimmed their minds, and his blood ran cold when he heard their thoughts.
Not only had they not fixed the machine, but they had bumped the calibrations off just a bit more. The extra console was here because they wanted extra readings to study—of what it did to him. They wanted to know if the data might be useful in their quest to learn to control him.
His breath came in panicked spurts now; Charles could feel himself shaking, and it hurt.
He almost didn't remember what it was like anymore, to live without pain.
No no no no no no no…
A litany in his mind, but he kept it to himself, and no matter how natural or well-deserved it was he cursed his fear when he felt silent tears on his cheeks before they had even turned the machine on.
The feeling of being utterly alone returned, bringing with it the hopelessness he thought he'd been able to leave mostly behind by now.
How was he going to be able to help Erik now?
Erik was coming from the dining hall when it hit him—a long, sobbing scream in his mind and pain that doubled him over. It stopped as quickly as it had begun, but somehow he knew the voice even though that was all of it he'd heard.
He knew it was the telepath.
And then the voice came again, tight and wavering with pain. I'm sorry, my friend. I'm sorry…
It dissolved away again, in a pained sob that faded into nothing. All in his head.
Friend? Why did it seem familiar, to hear that word spoken by that voice? Why was his chest tight after hearing that voice in pain? What was happening to the telepath, anyway? It had to be Stryker. He must have ordered another round in Cerebro, or the labs. Erik supposed he should check on that. It was the only thing Shaw really seemed to expect of him here, after all.
His hand clenched into a fist where he'd braced it against the wall, and Erik shook his head in frustration and went on his way.
Charles didn't mean to do it. But he was thinking of Erik when the machine was turned on, and he projected for a moment before he forced himself to stop.
I'm sorry, my friend. I'm sorry…
He thought it before he remembered that Erik wasn't his friend. Not now. Not this Erik.
He felt the backlash, and that was all he felt before it was only the pain.
Let me help!
Jean. Sweet, sweet Jean. She didn't understand. She only knew he was hurting. She only knew she wanted to do something. You can't help me, Charles managed. Her power drew him, offered hope of refuge, but even when he'd spoken to her before here, the pain had always been there, in the background. There was no way for her to help really take any of it away without feeling it herself, and she didn't understand that.
Thank you, but you can't. I'm sorry. I can explain later, if you'll let me, but…but I can't—
That was all he could manage, and he used what was left to gently shove her away.
The edges of the chair's arms bit into his fingers as he squeezed harder, and he wasn't only crying in pain anymore, but in despair, as more questions filtered haltingly through his fragmented thoughts.
How could he be strong for Jean and the other children when he couldn't withstand this? How could he offer them hope when he felt his slipping away yet again? How much more could he take? How much more could Raven take? He had never let anyone hurt her, but she always dealt with the aftermath. In wore on her so. He knew that…
They shut the machine off briefly, and when they did everything was black. He'd expected that, but his chest still constricted as his sweat-soaked body shuddered through the aftershocks of his sobs. He couldn't see them, but he was relatively sure that his wrists were bleeding. His chest was on fire as he tried to catch his breath.
Not that any of it mattered.
Soon enough they'd turned it back on.
Erik made his way to Cerebro, thinking that the mostly likely option, and when he reached the installation he could hear the screams from outside on the ground.
That was where they had him, then.
He climbed the spiral stairs into the installation, but Stryker wasn't there. Only scientists and the shivering, sobbing wreck of the telepath tightly restrained in the chair at its center.
He looked so small there, every desperate cry a clear plea of makeitstopmakeitstop. Something about it tugged at him, and Erik quickly pushed the beginnings of the feeling away.
And…déjà vu? Erik felt like he'd seen this before, but Stryker had only had the telepath in here twice before, since the device had been miscalibrated, and he hadn't witnessed either incident.
"Where's Stryker?" Erik demanded. "What's going on here?"
"Just tests. All approved. We're bringing him back to the lab wing after this. However, not to worry; we are receiving coordinates. Everything will remain on schedule," one of the scientists spun out absently, walking by him but not looking at him.
Erik glanced at the printout on the main console that was spitting out the coordinates of other mutants. Slowly, but it was printing them out. "I see." He paused, and in the lull there was a particularly piercing scream from the telepath. Erik winced. "And you're certain this isn't doing any permanent damage?"
"Not to the parts of his brain that are important," one of the others shrugged, also not bothering to look up from the readout he was studying. "Possibly to his visual cortex, if anything, really, but there's no way around that."
Erik nodded, and in the silence after that he realized, suddenly, that it really was nearly silence. The telepath wasn't shouting anymore.
He spun quickly, and found the mutant struggling for air, his lips turning blue.
"Hey! Turn the damn thing off; he's suffocating!"
The scientists all looked up, finally, as one, and one of them quickly punched the off switch. The device powered down, and the telepath would have collapsed if he hadn't already been sitting and held in place. He pulled in a quick breath that came out in a sob of pain, hunched toward his right side.
"I don't think we've had this problem before."
"Is it the extra bit off from the calibrations?"
The scientists were jabbering back and forth, and Erik let out an annoyed huff. "It's his ribs, you imbeciles. You put him in here with damaged ribs? Of course he can't breathe, damnit. I thought you people were supposed to have the brains around here; you're the ones wearing the white coats."
They glared at him or looked away, alternately, and that was when he realized that the telepath was looking at him.
Or…not quite looking at him. Head cocked in his direction, but Erik realized that the mutant couldn't see anything right now.
A sudden burst of images, in his mind. Emotions. Thoughts. Almost uncontrolled, and he could feel the rawness of it. The pain and desperation. Erik! Erik, please…please, please…oh god, Erik, please…please remember. Help me! A quiet sob, both aloud and inwardly. I can't take any more of this. Please…help me please…
Erik frowned, turning away quickly before he could let himself really think about what he was hearing.
Because part of him wanted to listen. Part of him, for reasons he couldn't fathom, wanted to get this mutant out of here now, before anyone else could hurt him again.
But that wasn't his job, and where the hell was that feeling coming from anyway? This was only a mutant. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that this one was valuable, and his job was to be sure it wasn't damaged beyond repair.
"Just…if you're going to continue, keep a closer eye on him," Erik said dismissively.
He left quickly, before the telepath could plead with him again, angry at the familiarity. Who did this mutant think he was, anyhow?
The screaming started again as he stepped off the installation's stairs.
Charles felt the rest of his hope slip away when Erik ignored him so completely. He hadn't meant to lose it like that, to beg like that, like he hadn't meant to project before, but even when he did—when losing control after being in Cerebro for so long led to the outburst that sent memories and so many other things to Erik's mind with Charles's pleas—Erik ignored him. Even after all of the time he'd spent in recent days chipping away at the walls Frost had built.
He was stunned to silence, until they turned the machine on again.
This time he only screamed for a little while, before losing his voice completely. It still went on after that, only with more frequent pauses to be sure he was breathing despite the fresh hitch of pain in his ribs. It went on forever. He didn't know. He only knew that finally, once when they turned it off, everything faded into blessed nothingness.
When he woke he knew where he was because the table beneath him was familiar, as was the single thin cuff that kept him bound to it.
He was in the labs.
Raven didn't see Charles for more than two days. By the end of the first day she was worried enough to be more concerned about where he was and what was happening to him than about being angry with him. By the second day she had forgiven him completely.
By the time they finally brought him back she was afraid she was beginning to lose it.
Her brother was unconscious when they dragged him in and dumped him unceremoniously on his bunk. When they left she straightened him on the bed and pulled his blanket over him, and gently lifted his head to put his pillow under it. She examined him closely, but the only marks were his raw wrists. The left was worse than the right.
The circles under his eyes were so dark—even darker than usual. And could someone lose weight in two days? And his face…it seemed as if the hope that had been there before was gone now.
He was out for nearly another twenty-four hours after that. Raven dragged her mattress back to the floor that night, and she was there sitting dejectedly on that mattress the next afternoon when Charles finally stirred. She was up in an instant, on the edge of the bed at his side. She should have known better. He jerked when he was aware enough to feel her sitting there, against his hip, and it took a moment to calm him and she could tell the sudden movement had hurt him.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry, I forgot, I—"
Charles shook his head wearily, not looking at her, she realized abruptly, because he couldn't. She'd expected that, but that didn't make it hurt any less. He reached blindly for her hand and she took his and twined their fingers together. With her free hand Raven pushed clumps of not-quite-dry hair from his forehead. She brushed gently at his eyelids with her thumb when they closed, too, as if to tell him it would be all right.
They were silent for a long time, because they didn't always need to talk. The privilege of siblings. But when Charles did speak something froze inside her in fear.
"We're never getting out of here," he whispered brokenly.
Her fingers tightened around his. "What are you saying?"
He sobbed quietly. "Th-they…they won't let it…let it happen. Stryker won't. They'll…keep me like this. I knew before. I knew, but I thought I was making progress with Erik. I thought it didn't matter I thought he could do the rest himself I thought we would get out anyway but he ignored me…he didn't care…"
"What are you talking about?" she demanded, even more urgently.
She felt him at the edge of her mind, trying to find a way to tell her because he didn't want to say it. But his control was barely there, just coming back, still shaky. She could feel that. She could feel, too, how weak he was. That there wasn't much to control right now.
But finally it came through in bursts—faint images. Charles showed her, how Erik had seen him suffering and done nothing.
Even the first time his mind had been altered, when they'd met him. Even then he'd cared. This Erik didn't care. Or he wouldn't let himself, even if a part of him wanted to, or a part of him did.
Either way, the end was the same.
"We'll never get him back. Not this way. God…" Charles trailed off, crying now. "I'm sorry. We'll never get out now, and it's my fault. I'm so sorry."
Raven's throat clogged, and she sat frozen, holding his hand still, watching her brother cry hopelessly through tear-blurred eyes of her own.
They'd broken him. She didn't know how long he had been in Cerebro or what else they had done to him—in the labs?—but they had finally broken him.
"Charles, stop it!"
He stopped abruptly, hiccupping from the sudden halt in his sobbing, but the sudden obedience probably had quite a bit to do with the fact that when she'd demanded it she'd slapped him. Hard.
So be it.
"Damnit, Charles, shut the hell up right now, you hear me? You are not giving up!" she shouted, taking his shoulders and shaking only enough for emphasis but not enough to hurt him. "I'm not, and you can't either! We need you!"
"But I…I can't do this anymore…" he gasped.
No. No no no, damnit. He shouldn't be saying things like that. He couldn't be broken. Not for good. That would make him not Charles anymore. That would mean her brother was lost to her, and Raven couldn't handle that. She couldn't. She had spent the better part of two years keeping him alive, and she didn't know if she could survive failing now.
She slapped him a second time, harder, and she blocked out the soft grunt of surprised pain that followed it. "Yes you can! You have to! I know it hurts. I know it's not easy. Do you think it's easy for me watching them hurt you? Don't you think I just wish this were over too? It will never be over if you give up! Are you listening to me!"
She really shook him this time, by the shoulders her fingers were digging into that held him to the bed.
"Are you listening to me!"
"You're hurting me!" It came out strong—the first thing he'd said since waking that had. It strong enough that she let him go immediately in surprise. He'd bucked up, but when she let go he slumped back into his pillow with a small moan.
He wasn't really listening to her.
"I just want it to stop," he was whispering fiercely. It was soft, and tears leaked from his eyes, but his voice had more life in it now. The determination had returned. "For…for everyone. I just want it to stop. This shouldn't be happening. I want it to stop…"
Raven swallowed hard. "Then don't give up," she managed after a moment.
He only nodded, staring up at the nothingness that she knew was all he saw, but the way he did it, the crispness of it, told her he'd listened.
Her brother's voice in her mind was weak, his powers clumsy, but the sentiment was understood. She nodded, and then asked if it was all right and curled up beside him and stayed there for a while when he nodded, too.
"What if it never comes back?"
He'd meant to keep his worries to himself, but nightmares and a bad night in general had led Raven down here beside him yet again.
It had been more than two weeks. His powers were beginning to recover and he was back to making slow, frustrating progress with Erik, he thought, but it had been fifteen days and Charles still could not see a thing. He hated it. Being anywhere other than in their cell was once again a nerve-wracking nightmare, the unexpected brush of bodies, of those he didn't know, threatening every day to send him spiraling over the edge into that night in the yard…panicked memories he wished he could lock away.
In the dark his attacker could be alive again…could hurt him again. In the dark it didn't matter what had happened in the real world. In the dark anyone could find him. Anyone could hurt him and no one would know.
He didn't mean to let his voice waver, either, but it did.
Raven gently tugged his forehead closer and kissed it. He wasn't reading her mind, of course, but he could sense her own worry, the sorrow coupled with it and the anger at Shaw and Stryker. Thanks to them he might have lost his sight completely. After this length of time even Hank was beginning to admit that it looked like a possibility. Maybe even a probability.
"Then I'll be your eyes," Raven told him quietly. She kept her voice carefully controlled, bless her.
Raven. She was the only reason he hadn't gone crazy, trapped in the dark for so long. If he was stuck this way he realized he might never be able to be without her again, and the idea of such dependence horrified him, but…at least it was Raven. She understood. She knew why he needed her and she was there for him.
Part of him tried to whisper that Moira would be just as understanding, if she knew the truth. But the rest of him was still afraid.
Moira didn't call out to him as often anymore, he noticed.
Two more days later, in the cafeteria, Charles and Raven had crossed the room to visit the children as they had every day since Charles was strong enough to do it again. Raven guided him to an empty seat at one of the children's tables that they pointed out to her, and Jean climbed up into his lap as she usually did and hugged him.
By now she knew to hug him gently. The general soreness was not gone and his chest still pained him. He had never said anything, but they all knew now. Jean had long since sensed his pain and chastised the others, though not in his presence, of course. The day after Jean had arrived here, they had all been suddenly gentler, and Charles had looked at the red-haired girl and raised an eyebrow and she had shrugged sheepishly and admitted, by giving him the memory, what she had done.
You needn't have done that, he'd told her at the time.
And she'd just looked up at him as if he had said something incredibly ridiculous, small hands on her narrow hips. Of course I had to.
Jean hugged him today and them pulled back, arms around his neck to hold her up while, he supposed, she studied him. He felt her in his mind, but he wasn't sure what she was up to and he didn't stop her or reprimand her. She wasn't doing any harm, and it was good for her to practice.
"Hey…squint at me real good," she said after a moment.
Charles raised an eyebrow now—something he did quite a bit around Jean, he supposed. "What?" It wouldn't do any good.
"Just do it," she insisted.
Raven was beside him, and he felt her mental shrug.
Charles squinted, seeing nothing but inky gray, of course. "Like this?" Wait, gray?
"Yeah," Jean said. Then she waved her hand vigorously in front of his face, and—
How did he know that?
Charles squinted harder, and he realized he was picking up the movement. Just the movement, not much more, but it was so much better than nothing.
He brought his hand up and caught her arm.
Raven started beside him. "Charles…?"
"Gray," he breathed. "It isn't black anymore. I didn't realize before." The change had been so agonizingly gradual that he hadn't noticed at all. "The movement, I…" He clenched his eyes shut for a moment, forcing back the lump that appeared in his throat and the sudden urge to cry. He couldn't do that here. Not now, with Jean in his lap watching him. "Oh thank god."
Charles could sense Jean grinning, and he laughed weakly and pulled her to him again.
"See? I told you everything would be okay," she gloated, giggling.
If only Erik would return to them, she would be proven even more right.
"How many fingers?"
Charles huffed, not needing to squint through the finally clearing grayness to know that Logan was cheating. "None, but all three claws."
Logan smirked and retracted the bone claws, and Raven was laughing.
"I told you that wouldn't work. He can see fine."
"What? So I wanted to be sure for myself."
Charles shook his head at them. "In Logan's defense, my vision is certainly not perfect yet. It's…dark, I suppose I should say. Blurry. I usually know what I'm seeing, but I'm afraid it seems it will be a while yet before it is more normal again."
"Well you're makin' progress. That's a hell of a lot better'n last week," Logan shrugged.
That was true. It had only been a view days since Jean had pointed out to him that his vision was, in fact, returning. This time last week they had all been nearly convinced that it wouldn't return at all.
Raven squeezed his arm. "Thank god." She let out a breath. "How's it going with Erik?"
Charles sighed then, too. "The same. He's still confused…angry. I seem to be making progress and then…I don't know. Nothing happens. It seems to be going nowhere. I don't know what else to do but wait. I really do think Frost's barrier are weaker now, but…well…"
"It's okay. It'll happen," she said, and the others looked on and one or two of them nodded, and he felt them hoping with her.
"I certainly hope so."
It was when they were coming out of the cafeteria that Erik came for Charles. He was waiting for them, outside the doors in the same place he had been the first time Charles had seen him after waking from the stupor that Frost had forced him into. Raven saw him first this time, and then Charles stopped and turned.
Erik just looked at them for a long minute or two, while the others streamed around them leaving the cafeteria.
For a moment Charles looked hopeful. Raven watched him, watched them both.
She saw it when Charles's face crumpled, when he went from hopefulness to sadness and finally to fear. She watched his face and body shift through the emotions, and when she looked at Erik his hard expression had not changed.
Charles let's go…
She tugged at his arm anxiously, not liking the look on Erik's face at all.
He startled into motion, starting to follow her, hurrying her along, but then Erik grabbed him and pulled him forcefully away.
"Hey!" Raven cried out in protest, but when she tried to reclaim her brother guards crawled from the woodwork to keep her from breaking away from the stream of prisoners.
But Erik, of course, was as good as one of them. They didn't even react as he dragged Charles away.
And Charles was struggling.
He didn't answer her.
It was after the evening meal. Darkness was falling outside when Erik dragged him out into the yard and behind the guard tower. When Erik shoved him against the concrete barrier. Charles's strength was returning so slowly after the most recent round in Cerebro that whatever energy he had was already gone by then, after struggling before now because he could see the angry, dangerous thoughts in this Erik's mind. His chest burned. It was chilly out here, and growing colder by the moment in the deepening darkness that didn't help his barely recovered vision. He felt suddenly weak, drained in every sense of the word by the coldness in the mind of this man that had been his friend.
Erik's hands clamped around his arms and held him in place, not that he could have done much moving if he'd wanted to.
"I want answers," Erik growled. "What the hell are you doing to me? Why?"
Charles didn't know what to say to that. Anything he said would sound like a lie if this Erik didn't want to believe it. He only stared, trapped between the concrete and Erik's angry eyes boring into him. A rock and a hard place. When he didn't answer Erik shook him, and his head banged into back into the concrete.
Charles saw the thoughts flashing through his friend's mind, faintly—violent images, anger, feeling how Erik just wanted to know what was happening to him, but that this was the only way knew to deal with it. Because Frost had meddled so awfully with his mind.
Erik, my friend, this is not you. You know the truth. You know…
Erik backhanded him viciously. "Get out of my head!"
He managed not to cry out, and he swallowed hard. "Please, my friend, remember—"
All he could do was plead. He'd done everything in his floundering power up to now to help Erik regain his memory, and this was all it had accomplished. He felt the failure in his bones. Literally now, with the cold of the concrete seeping into his skin.
"I'm not your friend!" Erik punched him this time, and Charles's head snapped back into the wall much harder this time. Everything went black for a brief moment, but then he was back and Erik was still shouting. "Why are you in my head? Why do you look at me like that? Why are you always in my head! I don't know you!"
Charles swallowed back the blood in his mouth; trying to spit it out would not be a good idea right now, with Erik this volatile. "Yes, you do. You do. Please, Erik…" He summoned what energy he had left and pulled free another memory…one he hadn't quite been able to work free before now. The day they met. Erik gasped and blinked, pausing in the middle of pulling his arm back for another blow.
But in the end it only made him angrier, and he punched Charles again anyway. And then a third time. "No, Damnit! Keep your lies out of my head!"
Charles coughed on the blood, his already dark vision swimming. "Shaw and Frost are the ones lying to you, Erik. I would never do that."
"Shut up!" This time Erik brought a knee up into his stomach, catching what was left of the worst bruises from the kicking he'd taken there weeks ago. An explosion of pain, and Charles blacked out again. He was fighting his way back when Erik took matters into his own hands and backhanded him once more, forcing him awake. "Don't you dare! I want answers, damnit! What are you doing to me!"
"Nothing," Charles gasped. Nothing but trying to help him regain the memory he should have anyway, anyhow. But he doubted saying that would help right now.
His vision was fading, and not only from trauma. His eyes still swam with fresh unshed tears, but there was nothing he could do about that now.
"Liar!" Erik punched him again, and again, and Charles could do nothing but shout.
"Erik! Please!" Then he was on the ground, and Erik's boot was connecting with his stomach, with his chest, over and over and over, and everything that still hurt hurt even more, and Charles had the sudden sinking feeling that he was going to die. If Erik didn't remember everything that had happened these past few months, Erik was going to kill him. Because he wanted answers now, and Charles had no other answers give him. He knew what was wrong with Erik's mind, but Erik didn't want to believe it. And Erik didn't seem to care about his supposed duty anymore; he didn't care about keeping Charles alive. About regulating Stryker. He only wanted to know the truth. Or he thought he did.
Erik wouldn't even have to try very hard, to kill him. Charles's body was still so weak; he didn't think it could take much more of this.
There was a brief respite, and Charles gagged around the blood in his throat and just barely managed to pull out a few more memories, sending some of his own to his friend as well. Anything he could do. "Erik, you—please remember. Try…please. I c…I can't do it for you this time." Not all of it.
He had no choice but to cough the blood out this time, and when he coughed he felt something give way in his chest—the rib he'd cracked further two weeks ago, maybe; it was on the right. He wasn't sure. He only knew it hurt like hell. Charles screamed through a throat already being rubbed raw, and the tears in his eyes found their way out from the corners.
Please please please please please...a few more small memories. Erik let out a strangled sound and angrily bent down over him on one knee, pulling his arm back. But he finally hesitated; finally his face seemed more conflicted. Charles looked up at him weakly, but hoping his gaze seemed firm, knowing that if Erik started to hit him again it would be over soon.
"Erik," he whispered, but it came out much more like a sob. "Please come back."
He hadn't given up. Raven had begged him not to give up, and he hadn't.
It couldn't have all been for nothing.