It was another two days before Charles was released from the infirmary, and when he was released it was done unceremoniously. A nurse came in to remove the straps and detach him from any remaining medical equipment, and gave him clothes. A guard came behind her to tell him to dress, and not to take forever about it, and then drew back out to the hall to wait.
It was hard to put even the simple clothes on, on his own. Everything still ached so much. At least the zippers on the jumpsuits were in the front; with the slowly healing ribs he'd have had a time trying to reach around behind. He had to lower himself to the floor by the wall to pull the shoes on—the infirmary bed was just high enough that hauling himself back onto its edge would have been too painful, too jarring—but once the shoes were on his feet he couldn't get up again. The guard found him there, coming in out of frustration at having been kept waiting too long.
Trying to explain would have been useless; Charles didn't try.
The large man pulled him easily to his feet, and it hurt, but he bit down on the insides of his cheeks and kept any sounds at bay other than a sharp breath. It was only the one guard who prodded him from the room, and back toward the cells, and there was no bothering with restraints. Apparently they had deemed him too weak for there to be any threat of resistance. Obligingly, he didn't make trouble. This close to the end of all this—with any luck—he certainly didn't need more trouble now.
He remembered to alert Raven that they were coming, and she was waiting at the door when it opened. Charles stepped willingly inside and waited to hear the door close behind him. Only then did he let himself slump against the wall, and Raven let him catch his breath before hugging him gently.
"I really, really hate you right now," she mumbled.
"I beg your pardon?"
"For almost dying on me, damn you."
The words were sincere, but much tighter than usual, and Charles frowned as she helped him over to his bunk. He could walk on his own, but it was painful, he'd discovered on the way here, and he was grateful for the help. She lowered him to the edge of the bunk and he pushed himself back against the wall, wincing as his joints twinged in protest along with what was left of the pain in his chest and stomach. He'd been held nearly immobile for most of the long hours of the last few days; his muscles and joints had fallen a bit out of use.
Charles rested for a moment, before he said anything. He watched Raven, who was already back up and pacing when normally she would have been at his side after he returned from anywhere here.
"Raven, what's wrong?"
She stopped, and looked down at herself as if she hadn't realized until now that she was on her feet again. She sat down abruptly, but she was quiet.
She shook her head and reached to close a hand over one of his. "I've been worried about you." She swallowed. "You were in so much pain when they carted you off; god, I was afraid I was losing you…"
Charles winced; his memories of the latter part of that night—the part she was talking about—were still extremely foggy, but he knew what she meant. "That isn't what I mean. There's something else." Raven…something's wrong. Tell me. Please.
Her fingers squeezed his harder, and she looked away. "We haven't seen Hank in almost three days."
He knew what that meant. Everyone here knew that when someone disappeared for a time it meant the labs.
"What? Why didn't you tell me? I could have—"
"All you could have done was tell me what we already know," she answered, almost bitterly. Not bitterness at him, but at everything else. It only made everything in him ache more fiercely to hear that from her. "I mean, I know he'll come back. He'll be…okay, I mean…"
"But you don't want him there any more than you've ever wanted me there," Charles filled in quietly.
She nodded weakly, but she stopped in mid-motion, released his hand and stood again, letting out a loud sound of frustration. "And I can't do anything! I can't ever do anything! All I do here is sit around and worry!" she railed, at no-one in particular. Though it did, eventually, shift to him. "I'm useless! I can't even understand exactly what you and so many of the others are going through, because you protect me too much! Don't think I don't know you do it. I'm not stupid; I know that's the only way I've avoided the labs myself this long."
She held up a hand. "I'm not mad at you. You should know that. I just…I'm so damn tired of this place. I'm tired of not being able to do anything."
Charles's eyebrows went up. "You do quite enough. I certainly wouldn't have made it through the last two years at all if it weren't for you. To be rather honest, I think you've done much more for me since this began than I have been able to do for you."
Raven's shoulders slumped at that, and she shrugged and crawled onto the bed beside him. But beyond the brush of her shoulder against his, she didn't touch him, or lean on him like she often did, perhaps wary of putting any pressure on him due to his sore chest.
"It's not like I mind," she said quietly. "Even if I didn't love you so much, I should pay you back for everything you did for me when we were younger, anyway."
"You don't have to."
"I know…" She trailed off and her eyes filled, and she looked away stubbornly.
"You're worried about him."
Raven let out a short bark of pained laughter. "Of course I am. We just established that worrying is what I'm good at, didn't we?" She swiped at her eyes angrily, and Charles caught one of her wrists and gently pulled her to him.
"Come here." He guided her head to his lap, the way he'd done when they were little and she was still a small girl just learning how to not be afraid of the world. In the beginning she couldn't sleep in the room they'd given her on her own. The space and bed and everything else was so much bigger than anything she was used to. It echoed. The house echoed. She was glad to not be alone, but everything was big and dark and for the first few weeks she would retreat to Charles room once the lights were out, and this was how he'd managed to get her to sleep.
Charles started to give her the memory before he found he didn't need to; she was already there, curling up and settling beside him just the way she had so many times in the past. It did him good, to see her relax after so many months watching her try to be so strong. She'd taken over his role of the older sibling, really, since that first time they saw each other after being taken into custody, and it was high time he took it back.
Not because he needed to, for anything like pride, but because she needed him to. After so long, she needed the rest. Now that they were so close to being free of this place, he would truly be able to give it to her soon enough. And, for now, he could give her at least this.
That and…maybe he needed to feel like he was doing some good, rather than hurting someone. The way he'd hurt Moira, even though he hadn't wanted to. He hadn't heard from her, Erik hadn't mentioned her since then, and he couldn't bring himself to reach out to her, to bother her—not after what he'd had to tell her.
Charles stroked his sister's hair a bit, the way she seemed so fond of doing for him. He'd done it often enough, those night sin the past when they were small. Maybe that was where she'd gotten it.
"Go to sleep," he urged her. It was late afternoon now, and they wouldn't be going anywhere else today. "I'll make sure Hank is all right."
Raven hesitated, but after a moment she nodded against his leg and let herself rest.
He didn't contact Hank until she was asleep. He made excuses to himself, but really it was because he didn't want her to be awake and watching him if he found that something were wrong. He wouldn't be able to hide that.
I'm sorry, my friend. I would have checked on you much sooner, but no one told me that you were missing until now. Are you all right? I know that question is a bit ridiculous in this situation, but…
No…I'm all right. I mean…I've been better, but it hasn't been…crazy. Or anything. I really don't know what they're doing. I could hazard a better guess than a lot of people could, maybe, but I can't really see much strapped to a table.
I'm fine, Charles. God knows you been through a lot worse; I can stand to be poked and prodded and little. Okay, a lot, but…whatever.
Charles let out a breath. You haven't any idea what they might be up to?
They make a point of not whispering to each other within earshot. That came out almost amused, and Charles let him be assured that he would be all right.
He fell asleep with Raven still in his lap, and they woke up the next morning in the same sort of tumbled heap they'd become used to as children. It left him stiff and sore, but Charles didn't mind. As long as his sister had gotten enough rest, and free of too much worry. He told her what he'd heard of Hank the night before, and that helped, too.
"You keeping comin' back looking worse'n when you left," Logan commented at breakfast later. "You ought to quit that."
"With any luck all of this will end soon. Very soon." That helped the general mood.
Erik contacted him later, with news that made things even more hopeful.
Stryker will be gone for two or three days next week…some report he has to make in person.
Wonderful, Charles marveled. That will be the perfect time to go.
They won't take action against us as quickly…not without him to bark orders at them. And with him getting ready for his report, he won't have time to bother you before he leaves. Hopefully he won't have time to bother anyone.
Amen. Charles was quiet for a moment, before he answered. He could feel the warring emotions in his friend, and he wanted to say something to them. I know that you, personally, would rather Stryker be here when we do this. Thank you for suggesting the alternative anyhow.
It's better tactically…that's all.
I know. But months ago you still would not have suggested it. You would have let your need for revenge rule you, and I'm glad that you aren't now. You've changed. I would say I'm proud of you, but that might sound a bit to too parental.
Erik snorted inwardly. The amusement reached him, but even though he had been able to make the right choice Charles knew that part of him was still unhappy with it. That was all right, as long as he was doing the right thing. It was still a victory.
Just promise me we'll find them. Him and Shaw both. You said you could make sure they'll never hurt anyone again.
As soon as I've my strength back, yes. It may take some time to find them again—Shaw, especially—but we will. I promise. I know we can't leave them to their own devices.
That quieted Erik enough, and the rest of the day passed without incident but for the fact that Hank still did not return. He didn't return the next two days, either.
Charles tried to check on him each night, and each night he was fine, but that last night he did not get a response. Only the pressure of confused emotions, and…he didn't understand. He didn't know what to make of it, and it worried him, and he didn't sleep much.
He said nothing to Raven.
Charles seemed worried by something the next morning, but he didn't say anything to her. Raven decided not to prod him about it—part of her afraid she knew what it was—but when they walked into the cafeteria that morning and Charles stopped in his tracks she couldn't ignore it anymore.
"What?" She had to pull him out of the way to keep him from being jarred by those coming in behind them, and he barely noticed. His face was working through an indecipherable mix of emotions, and he finally settled on…unreadable. Great.
"Over here," he said. He still walked stiffly, still a bit hunched over and with a hand to his side, usually, but he tried not to need her help anymore. If they really were going to be out of here within the week he would still need help then—he wasn't nearly fast enough yet, of course—but for walking normal speeds he was relatively all right now.
She followed him warily. "What is it?"
Charles glanced at her from the corner of his eye, but not more. His mouth opened, but nothing came out at first. He squeezed her hand and paused in walking, and her breath caught in her throat before he'd even said anything.
"Hank is here," he said.
Raven glanced toward their usual table automatically, and Logan and Sean and Darwin were there, but no Hank.
Charles said it too gently. She knew something was wrong.
"He's all right, it's just… I can't explain. I don't know how to. I'm sorry."
They were coming to the edge of the room, the corner really, and all that was there was a nearly empty table that wasn't often used. Only one mutant was there now, back to them, but Charles was looking at him and Raven didn't understand why. It wasn't Hank. The mutant hunched at the table was covered in blue fur under his jumpsuit.
And then Charles looked at her and looked wordlessly back to the mutant at the table, and that was when she saw the black plastic arms of the horn-rimmed glasses buried in the fur.
"Hank?" It came out in a gasp, and the blue shoulders flinched.
All of them were silent for a while after that.
"Turns out they were trying to enhance the mutant cells in my body…or that's the result they got, anyway." The voice was Hank's, but a little deeper. A little rougher. Not from emotion—well, that too—but just because it was that way. Now. He held up a hand that was now much more like a paw, though still with the usual number of fingers and thumb, and he stared at it. "Whatever it was, it worked all right."
Raven swallowed, and after another moment she went to lower herself to the bench beside him, though facing out instead of in. Still, she could look at him, but it didn't matter yet because he wouldn't look up. He didn't look up, either, when Charles came closer and squeezed his shoulder for a moment.
Then Charles left them alone.
"Are you going to stare at that table all day?" Raven asked eventually.
Hank shrugged. "I was thinking about it."
"Stop thinking about it."
He snorted, and finally he looked up.
Raven felt her eyebrows hit her hairline. She could still see her Hank there, but the features if his face had been fit into something more feline-looking, and his eyes were yellow now, much like hers.
Actually, she kind of liked it. All of it. She would miss the blue eyes and the floppy hair, the face she was used to, but there was nothing wrong with this.
"What?" he asked testily.
She realized she was smiling, and quickly schooled her features. "Sorry…"
"Is it that bad?"
"Not at all. You're kinda cute. But then you were always cute."
Hank scowled and looked away again, but at least he wasn't looking down. "You're just trying to make me feel better."
"I'm not lying. Why would I lie to you?"
"To make me feel better," he repeated.
She caught the side of his face in her hand and made him look back at her, and the softness of the fur was surprising. "No. I'm not lying to you."
She let her hand drop, and he huffed a bit. "Fine, so I'm not grotesque. Good for me. I'm still…covered in fur. I don't look remotely human anymore. I—" He stopped when he realized she was looking at him with a cocked eyebrow.
"This is me you're talking to," she pointed out.
Hank fish-mouthed for a moment, and she could swear he was blushing even though that wasn't exactly possible anymore. What with the blue. She knew how that went. "Sorry." He looked away again, and when he spoke this time he stammered just the way he always used to, before he was confident, before being here so long, the way she remembered fondly because it had always been so irresistibly adorable. She still loved him without it, of course, but she'd sort of missed it.
"I-I just mean…you didn't—didn't sign up for…this…" He was looking at his hands again, the fur and, yes, claws. They were short, but they were claws.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
He grimaced painfully, and he still couldn't look at her, and worse than before suddenly Raven couldn't breath at all, because she knew what he was going to say.
It came out in barely a whisper, miserably and tiredly. Like he'd spent too much time thinking about it, resigning himself to it. "I mean I would understand if you…didn't want to…I mean…I mean we don't have to…"
"Stop!" And before Hank could protest, she took his blue furry face in her hands and kissed him. He tried to pull away at first, but she held onto him, and he surrendered.
It was different, but it was still Hank. His lips were constructed differently, and they had to figure that out, but it brought more giggles than anything as Hank realized that she sure as hell was not going to abandon him.
"I love you, okay?" she whispered.
"I…I love you, too." Hank, as always, was shyer to say it, but she knew he meant it.
"Hey," Raven grinned, and held her arm up next to his. "We're color-coordinated now."
He laughed a little. "I guess I hadn't thought of it that way."
"Think of it that way. It's more fun." She sat and looked at him for a moment, and this time he looked back steadily. "You know," she said finally, "it suits you." She wrapped her fingers around of his arms, which were larger now, his shoulders wider. She felt the muscle. "You always had all of that raw strength thanks to your mutation, and it seemed kind of silly that it was only your feet where it showed. Maybe this is who you were supposed to be all along."
Hank smiled a little. "You think so?"
"Maybe." Then she leaned in to kiss him again, not caring if anyone was watching, and it didn't matter to either of them for now.
Charles felt the warmth from across the room, at the table with the others. He felt his sister's happiness, and Hank's relief, and when he glanced back he saw them in each other's arms. He saw them kissing, blind to any care of being watched, and…
He was more than happy for them. He was relieved beyond words that the unexpected change in Hank had not become any sort of setback for them. They were not going to let it change anything between them; they would be fine, and Charles was glad that his sister was happy.
Watching them, he was ever more aware that the same was not true for himself and Moira. He was thinking of her now, and he couldn't stop and it hurt. It hurt quite a lot. God, he wished they could do the same. He wished he could take her in his arms and tell her that everything was going to be all right, but he would have trouble just with the first part.
Not because he didn't want her in his arms, but because he wouldn't be able to have her there without remembering things he didn't want to remember—without feeling dirty, and exposed, and unworthy.
It wasn't as if he wanted to let her go. He didn't. God, he didn't. But it was the only right thing to do. Wasn't it? To let her move on and find someone else, who could take care of her and give her what she needed. What she deserved.
Charles didn't know if he would ever be able to do that.
"Hey. You okay?"
It was Sean, and Charles blinked quickly before glancing at him. "I'm fine."
He nodded and got to his feet. "I uhm…I'm going to check on the children. I'll be back."
He made sure his eyes were dry before he got there, and when the children swarmed him none of them noticed a thing. Except, of course, for Jean. They guided him to a bench and she was the one to climb into his lap.
"You're sad again."
"I'm all right, Jean…"
"But you're sad."
Charles sighed. "Maybe a little." Maybe a lot. Maybe his heart felt as if it were in a few billion small pieces.
Jean hugged him—gently—but when she pulled back she didn't press the issue. He had admitted it; that was enough for her. He had told her many times that simply being there was all she could really do for him, and she had actually listened to him.
Instead, she rested a hand on his chest now and looked up at him again with those wide eyes. "Does it still hurt a lot?"
He had to smile at her concern, and like it usually did when he was here with Jean and the other children, the sadness began to fade into the background. "Not as much as it did."
"You feel better now?"
"I'm getting there." Physically, at least.
There was a fresh outburst from the children, and Charles turned to see that Logan had followed him here. But the children were responding as if he were familiar, and Charles raised an eyebrow in question.
Logan shrugged as he lifted a young boy to his shoulders. "What? You were gone for a while again. I mean Raven was here, but somebody had to help her make sure the kids were okay." The children seemed to like him quite a bit, and he could play with them, too, which was good; Charles hadn't been in good enough shape to do much with them for a while now.
"I see…it seems I am in your debt once again, my friend. Thank you."
"Don't sweat it." He moved over toward the next table with the children that were clinging to him, and when Charles looked back to Jean she was watching Logan and grinning.
"I like Logan. He's nice. He's all big and stuff, but he's really nice."
Charles chuckled. "Don't get too attached, now; he's a bit old for you."
Jean just giggled.
"Please tell me we're doing this while Stryker is gone."
"That was the general idea," Erik confirmed. He and Moira were in the corridor, not hiding but walking at an average pace that should keep them from drawing attention. Their voices were pitched low, but everyone did that here; it was automatic, as much as the hallways echoed. They wouldn't seem out of place. "I just hope that's soon enough; I don't like the kinds of things I've been hearing the last couple of days."
"Crowding in the cell blocks? Ways to fix that? I've heard it, too," Moira scowled, arms crossed. "We've been assuming Stryker won't have time to do anything stupid before he leaves, but what if he wants something to report?"
"That's what I'm worried about," Erik agreed.
"How are we doing this, anyway? Getting out of here. It's close enough now; can't you tell me?"
She knew the date: the night after Stryker was to leave. Charles and Raven's friends knew, too, and Charles was preparing to let the mutant population of the facility know soon, to prepare them for the escape.
It wasn't going to be easy.
You know we won't be able to do this without bloodshed, don't you? Erik had told him. Even without Stryker here they'll figure out what's happening at some point. Someone will sound the alarm and they'll be shooting at us. There are too many of us and we'll be too spread out, especially by the end, for me to protect everyone, especially if they come in close. People are going to die. And if you don't want us to be purposely killing any of THEM, the casualties will be mostly ours. It had been days ago, and Charles had sighed inwardly.
I know…that's why we'll need to be quiet about it for as long as we can—do it at night, knocking the guards out as we go along. I know that won't last forever, but we haven't any better choice. And if I can give everyone a bit of warning before it happens, we'll know what sort of other help we might have. I'm sure there are others here with defensive abilities that might be useful on a large scale.
I hope so.
"You'll see," Erik said now. "Don't feel left out; Charles and Raven's friends still don't know the details, either."
"Still playing it safe, then?"
"Essentially. It isn't necessarily my style, but it is the best thing to do in this situation."
She seemed to understand the point, and she was quiet then. Especially here, it was much better safe than sorry. Maybe Stryker was no longer suspicious of Erik or any escape plans—maybe he even liked Erik to some extent now, after what he'd done to Charles last week—but there was no reason for unnecessary risks. On the contrary, Erik had been attempting to cultivate Stryker's burgeoning appreciation for him for days now, trying to make the man comfortable so he wouldn't see his awful world coming down around him.
It was working, to some extent. He told Erik more now. What Erik couldn't do was temper the agent's contempt for Charles, and that would be dangerous if they were to stay here much longer. He was glad they weren't.
"I think Stryker wanted to see me this morning. We'd better part here. Don't worry abut anything; just be ready that night. We'll find you."
Moira nodded and moved off, and Erik continued around another corner or too until he reached the main offices. When he pushed through the doors the door to Stryker's office was open, and the man was stalking about in the open common area, pacing. A small contingent of guards readied themselves nearby.
"Lehnsherr! Perfect timing."
Erik raised an eyebrow warily, making sure it only looked curious to Stryker. "Perfect timing for what?"
"We're taking care of our overpopulation problem. We have a backlog of coordinates, and nowhere to put new mutants if we found them. The higher-ups demanded something be done about it before I came to Washington for my report, and I can't tell them we just have to build a new facility. Not after how much this one cost. What's the point of keeping them all here, anyway? The largest portion of them are useless, not to mention dangerous."
Erik's blood ran cold. "What are you saying?" The past few days, all of the hushed meetings Stryker had had with the central staff, the department heads, all of the conference calls…
"We've been keeping detailed records, of course—a place this size can't run without them—and we know which mutants are useless as far as science is concerned, and which ones have been making too much trouble. That's about half the high security section, and almost forty percent of the general population. That ought to make plenty of room for now; we'll start putting them down tomorrow."
His head was spinning, and Erik had to force himself to breathe normally.
They weren't going to be able to wait until Stryker left next week. They were leaving tonight. Damnit, he had to keep his head until then! Stryker still couldn't be allowed to suspect anything. "Makes sense. What's this, then?" He nodded to the guard detail, and Stryker smirked.
"A preview. I have to admit, you did a pretty good work-over on Xavier the other day; after everything else recently, I figure one more good shove and he won't give us any more trouble. So we'll start with the sister. We're headed there as soon as their group gets back from the cafeteria. We have to wait until everyone else is back in the cells. We don't need a riot, after all; we're doing this whole thing quietly."
No. Oh god.
"What? Are you out of your mind? You can't kill the sister; he'll never cooperate again if you do that. She's supposed to be the bargaining chip, isn't she?"
"The way we've got Cerebro set up now, he doesn't have to cooperate for it to work. The pain keeps him too distracted to try to block it. We can tone it back some so it'll still work that way, but we won't kill him or anything. Granted, I've been told that if we do that he'll probably go blind, but that's not really important. With the girl gone, and no way to fight back against Cerebro, it'll break him for good. Might give the science department an easier time, too. The DOD will be happy if they can use him. See? Perfect solutions all around."
Stryker was looking at his watch, and the older man was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. Or he would be, if he weren't too old and too large.
"About time to move. You coming?"
He shrugged. "Not interested. Enjoy yourself."
Erik shrugged and all but fled from the offices, but he found Moira out in the corridor about to burst in. Her mouth opened, and he covered it and dragged her around the corner before Stryker and the guards came out behind them. They made it out of sight just in time, and Moira bit his hand before he could let go.
"What are you doing! We have to stop them!"
"We can't stop them! Not here. Not in plain view of the offices and everyone in them. The alarm will be raised so fast you'll be seeing double, and it'll be a blood bath if we try to get out of here under those circumstances."
"We can't let them kill Raven! You know what that will do to Charles! Oh god, and he's just going to shoot her right in front of him, isn't he—"
"He won't, because Charles won't let him. He won't let anyone hurt her. He'll stop them, and we'll still have to move now, but we'll have a bit more of the element of surprise than if we'd confronted them here. I don't know just how much Charles has recovered or how much he can do at once, but I'm pretty sure he can knock out Stryker and his contingent and any other guards in their corridor—enough to keep the situation contained until we get to them."
"Until we get to them? Where are we going?"
Erik let out a breath. "We have a plan. An order. Start in the labs, then high security, then Charles and Raven on the top floor of the cell blocks and down from there. Getting everyone out, I mean. I don't see a reason not to follow that much of the plan."
Moira frowned at him in confusion. "How are we supposed to get everyone in the labs and high security out by ourselves?"
Erik reached out without looking, and pulled a few rivets out from the wall near the floor. They came to rest in his hand, and he held them up. "Like this."
She stared at them for a long moment, eyes wide, and then looked up at him again. "Metal. You're the plan," she said incredulously.
"Let's go. We don't have time to waist. Follow me and be quiet; I have to warn Charles."
It was nearly time to reach the cafeteria, and Charles was pulling Jean from his lap and standing when her eyes went wide and she quickly looked up at him.
"Uhm, I think you kinda need to talk to Erik," she said.
Charles frowned, but then he felt it too—the urgency and barely quelled panic. "Thank you," he told her. "Go on now." He sent her off with the other children, and followed Logan to Raven and Hank and the others, who were all meeting near the door to walk back toward the cells together. As he went he reached out to Erik, who was calling to him at the same moment.
Charles, we have to move. We have to leave. Now. Moira's with me, and we're headed for the labs. We'll try to keep this quiet as long as we can but we can't wait.
They're going to start executing the useless and the troublemakers. To make more room, so they don't have to build another facility. The bulk of it will begin tomorrow—
Then we should leave tonight—
But Stryker knows he can use this to break you. He's on his way to your corridor right now. As soon as everyone is back in their cells he's going to pay you a visit, and he's going to kill Raven. I know you'll stop him. But once you do, we'll have to move. We won't have a choice.
Charles stopped in his tracks, and when Raven leaned in to ask if he was all right he took her hand and squeezed it and he didn't let go. He made himself move, not wanting to cause a scene, but he could hardly breathe anymore.
Right now. They were doing this right now.
"Charles? What's going on?"
"We're leaving," he whispered.
Are you ready for this? Charles asked silently.
Erik answered immediately. I'm fine, but I could ask you the same thing. How much have your powers recovered? Are you strong enough?
I'll have to be.