The heavy doors to the lab wing were just as Erik remembered them, but today no scientists milled in the monitoring room outside. Instead, there was a guard on either side of the open doors, and Erik made swift work of pulling their guns from their hands and using those guns to knock them out, all while still two dozen feet away. Moira helped him pull them into the monitoring room and shut the door.
How many? he thought.
Nine. Eight on the lower level, where the holding rooms are, and one in the lab across the corridor from where you found me when we met, Charles told him.
There were both stairs and an elevator immediately to their left, and Erik took the stairs down and motioned for Moira to follow him. It wasn't hard to find the lab wing's holding cells—it was all that was on the lower level. They were different than the regular cells, smaller and with bars and locks rather than remotely operated doors, and equipment that Erik decided he didn't want to know the purpose of…cells to hold those the scientists were in the process of performing experiments on when they weren't in one of the labs.
He tried not to think about how often Charles had probably been here in the past.
Moira seemed to be thinking the same; she did not look comfortable here at all. "Let's get these people out of here and get going," she said, voice pitched low.
Erik nodded curtly and followed the corridor to the end, where they found the last four cells on ether side occupied. Five of the eight shrunk back or cringed when they saw someone in the corridor, and the other three performed various versions of the stand-up-quickly-and-glare-a-lot. Erik just smirked and snapped away all eight locking mechanisms in two quick motions.
Still, even as the barred doors began to yawn open, all of them looked at him and Moira warily. Moira's office clothing probably didn't help.
"Come on," Erik said firmly. "We're getting out of here."
"Who the hell are you?" The one who growled it was a haggard teenage girl with an arm in a sling.
And that was when Charles got around to the general announcement he'd been planning for days, modified a bit for the current situation. Erik heard it, and from what Charles had told him earlier in the week every mutant on base was hearing it, too, but none of the humans other than Moira. Apparently Charles had spent days while trapped in the infirmary gleaning through every mind in the compound, gathering every mutant into something of a group in his mind so that he could broadcast to them as easily when he needed to.
Now Erik was glad he'd done it early, because it was certainly coming in handy now. Charles made certain that they all understood who he was—more of a feeling and an installation of knowing of relevant faces, an info dump of sorts, than words—and he then told them that they were leaving.
The man and woman who are coming to free all of you can be trusted. He is one of us, and we have planned this thoroughly. I am sorry to put all of this onto all of you so suddenly, but unforeseen circumstances have forced us to act more quickly than we had meant to. But if you will trust us, we will all be free within the day.
I cannot say this will not be dangerous—it will be—but we will do everything we can to protect you. If you have a defensive power of your own, please, use it. Help to protect those around you; help us see that we all make it out safely. And I cannot make up your minds for you, but I would also implore you not to cause needless harm to any of the humans in our way. Yes, they have held us and mistreated us, but if we were to purposely hurt them we would be no better than they are. Please, make the right choice and do not give in to anger and revenge. It is enough that we will be free. There are other ways to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.
Erik looked at Moira as Charles's voice faded away, and her eyebrows were up as she looked back. The expression on her face, other than that, was unreadable at first. Pride, maybe, in the man she loved? But it was tempered by sadness, and Erik looked away and gave her her privacy. He focused again on the mutants slowly emerging from the cells, and there was confusion and hope and excitement and still a bit of wariness there, too, but they were coming.
"Ready to go now?" he asked. They all nodded quickly, and Erik turned and headed back up the stairs. "Stay with them," he called back to Moira. "I'll get the other one."
By the time Erik and Moira had made it to the lab wing and Charles had given the announcement, he and Raven had been back in their cells for several minutes, and Stryker and his entail of guards were drawing closer.
Raven knew what was happening now. She knew they were moving because Stryker was coming to kill her, and she knew that many others would die tomorrow, too, if they didn't make their move now. Charles wished he hadn't had to tell her quite everything, but she hadn't let him be until he had.
Charles was poised nervously in the middle of the room, wishing he could sit because his ribs ached and the new, healing scar ached, and he was trying not to shake, but he couldn't sit. Stryker was too close. He could just as easily use his powers sitting down, he supposed, but he couldn't sit. He had to protect Raven and he didn't feel he could do that properly if he weren't on his feet. "Get behind the screen," he told her in no uncertain terms.
"What? I'm not going to hide, and you're going to stop him anyway."
"I have a feeling he may be planning to shoot first and gloat later, and I would rather he didn't get off a shot before I can stop him."
"The stop him before he's inside."
Charles let out a breath. "We need them to open the door before I stop them. The faster we're all evacuated the lower the chance of casualties, and it will go more quickly if we can begin getting others out of their cells while waiting for Erik. Granted, we won't be able to do it as quickly as he could, but every saved moment will help."
"I'm not getting behind the screen."
"I just want to be sure you're safe," he pleaded, voice rising in urgency. They were close now. "It's only for a moment; as soon as I've put them to sleep you—"
But her arms were crossed and her eyes were determined. "Charles, I am not hiding. End of story."
He swallowed and stared at her for several seconds, panicking on the inside because Stryker was at the end of the corridor now but he didn't know what else to do.
Too long. He waited too long. The door opened and he spun to face it, shoving his sister behind him and pushing two fingers to his temple while he moved. The guards dropped immediately, deeply asleep, and Stryker froze in mid-movement two or three steps in the door. There was a gun in his hand and Charles quickly crossed to the frozen agent, wrenched it from his fingers and tossed it away.
He glanced back and Raven was frozen, too, in shock, holding a breath that she released in a gust now. "God," she said weakly.
Charles swallowed. "I warned you," he said quietly.
Raven came to him, slowly, eyeing the unmoving Stryker all the while. "Why isn't he on the ground?"
Charles motioned with his free hand to the fingers he still had to his head. "I have him frozen. There are a few things I need to find before I put him under—things it might be useful to know before we leave."
"Just be careful. And don't try to do anything else right now; you aren't strong enough yet. Don't overdo it."
She nodded at him in as much satisfaction as they both knew she was going to get right now, and edged past Stryker to get out of the cell. "I'll keep watch, and I'll see what I can do about getting some of these people out." She glanced about at her feet, and then bent to scoop up two of the handguns from the unconscious guards. He didn't have to read her mind to know that she only planned to use them to damage control panels to open as many of the doors as she could; she may have wanted to hurt some of the humans here, but she wouldn't. He knew that much. He trusted her.
Then Raven was outside his line of sight, and Charles returned his attention to Stryker.
Part of him still wanted to tremble inside; this was really, truly happening.
Raven noted that the guards at the ends of the corridor were unconscious as well, before she hurried several doors down to the only two she knew, and stopped at the first. She spent a moment trying to decipher any other way to get it open without shooting the panel, but without Erik the only way to open it was with a code, or from the main control room where the order was given to open the doors at mealtimes and when their group was to report to the yard. There were no locks. Just automation. She wondered how much they'd had to pay for that.
She didn't care.
Sighing, Raven stood back and aimed at the panel, and put two bullets in it.
The door popped open.
"Bingo," she muttered.
It was Sean's incredulous voice, but it was Hank's blue arms that wrapped around her and pulled her off her feet as she was crushed to his chest.
"Please tell me this isn't a dream; are we really getting out of here?" he whispered.
She laughed a little and returned the embrace, not planning to complain unless she suddenly found herself unable to take in air—though that point wasn't far off.
"Yeah. We're getting the hell out of here." When he finally put her down Hank stole a kiss, and it was brief but Sean made a face anyway.
"Geez, get a room."
Raven glared at him, and then motioned to the pile of unconscious men at their door back down the hall, and at the other ones at the entrances at the ends of the corridor. "We don't have time to play around, you guys. Find a gun or two and start shooting panels."
"Is that the whole plan?" Sean questioned. "Please tell me that's not the whole plan. I mean assume Charles was talking about Erik just now, with that thing in our heads, but what kind of one of us is he? You can tell us now, right? What's he even do?"
Raven held up one of the guns she had. "This is not the plan. Erik can manipulate metal; that's the plan. We're just speeding things up."
"Where's Charles?" Hank asked.
"Back in our cell, dealing with Stryker; him being the unforeseen circumstances Charles mentioned. I don't really feel like explaining."
Sean grumbled. "With Stryker AWOL you do realize they're gonna have the alarms on so fast—"
"Hey," she snapped. "Mr. Pessimism. Shut up and get moving."
There were enough metal instruments in the lab Charles had directed Erik to that it wasn't a problem to incapacitate the scientists crowding into it, just as he had the guards. It was chaos, for just a moment, but the rest of the compound's activity and population was so far removed from here that no one would ever notice.
After that, it was quick work to free the young man on the table from his restraints and lead him back out to the entrance to the lab wing, where Moira and the other freed mutants were waiting. Then it was quietly on the high security section, still trying to keep a low profile. As long as they could.
The first young man they freed there introduced himself as Alex Summers, and once he was freed from the metal braces around his forearms and feet that kept him from moving much at all he showed them what he could do.
He was in much more control now, he told them, than he had been when they had put him here more than a year ago. Thanks to Charles working with him from a distance, telepathically.
Breaking out the rest of the high security inhabitants went twice as quickly after that.
Stryker was frozen but he was not unaware, and rummaging through the man's mind while he watched was not on Charles's list of favorite things to do. But he needed to know what Stryker or his superiors or anyone else here might know about him, among other things. He needed to know if there was anywhere for them to go once they had left here. They had a contingency plan for how to get somewhere, but they didn't know where 'there' was yet. It all depended on what he found now, and because he wasn't recovered enough to wipe all of Stryker's memory now just as he hadn't been able to deal with Shaw when he was here, Charles had to be sure Stryker didn't know what he was looking for.
He distracted Stryker with thoughts of the escape, and their plans, pushing them forward in his mind—true bits, false bits—because it would interest him but none of it would matter for him to know. They would be long gone before he woke.
Either way, Stryker could have distracted him in return; he was aware, and he could have been ranting inwardly the entire time, but for the longest while he was silent and it was rather unnerving. But Charles found most of what he needed, and he was storing any other useful information when suddenly Stryker was laughing. Inwardly, of course, but laughing.
You really think you can do it, don't you? You think you and all your little freak friends are going to get out of here unscathed, don't you?
"Not entirely unscathed. I am not quite that naïve, thank you very much. But we do hope to avoid the largest number of casualties, yes. On both sides. I daresay that would not be your intention, were our roles reversed."
Stryker snorted inwardly. What are you saying, Xavier? You think you're better than me?
"No. I am merely saying that there are much better choices that you and others could have made. Any violence at all could have been avoided."
I don't think so. You're all animals; there would have been violence someday. I'm trying to prevent the day you all turn on us, Stryker retorted vehemently.
"Funny how you call us sub-human, and yet you are the only one that still uses our names occasionally."
Habit, Stryker growled. Nothing more.
"Or is it?"
You don't know what you're talking about; not that it matters. You're never getting out of here. You'll be dead before the day is done.
Charles raised an eyebrow. "I believe we've been over the fact that that would upset your superiors immensely."
And you know what? I don't give a damn anymore. You're more trouble than you're worth. If there's no easy way to get you under control again, I have no qualms about having you killed. Though I'd rather kill you myself. Maybe I will. But I'll still kill your sister first.
Charles glowered at him quickly. "You will never touch her."
Sure I will. Bullet in the head's too good for either of you now. I'm not just going to kill her, either; I think I'll make you watch while I fuck her first.
Charles wanted to kill him then. He was relatively sure he had just enough strength left to do it, too, and he was shaking a bit now, forcing the anger back because he couldn't do that; he couldn't kill. He wouldn't.
He had what he needed; enough, anyway. He backed up stiffly, another step or two, and was about to shove Stryker roughly into unconsciousness when he continued, laughing again on the inside and it was so harsh this time Charles winced.
Maybe I'll do it from behind, like that piece of trash guard did you.
Now Charles was frozen, gasping between shoving flashbacks away, and how could Stryker know that?
It was my idea, you know. Planned the whole thing. Not that I really had to to get him to do it, but I was gonna pay him. Whoever killed him saved me the money. Whoever. Because Shaw had had Emma erase any suspicion of Erik. That memory was gone. Stryker didn't know it had been Erik.
Stryker? Stryker had—
Charles stumbled back another step or two, his fingers digging into his temple as he tried desperately to hold them there. Stryker was still laughing and he was losing control. He was upset and he needed to calm down but his heart was pounding and he couldn't push the images from his mind.
Oh god. Stryker. It had been Stryker's doing the whole time.
Of course it had. Stryker had been trying to break him from the beginning.
He had very nearly succeeded.
He still might, if Charles couldn't get a hold of himself.
But Stryker was still laughing.
BE QUIET! It took everything Charles had not to hurt the man, when he screamed at him. All Stryker did, though, was laugh harder.
How do you think you can save anyone, when you can't even save yourself!
Stop! He shouted inwardly, because he didn't want Raven or anyone else to come running. Not now. He knew how he must look…he knew what the look on his face must seem. It was bad enough that Stryker was seeing it. If he'd thought he needed to sit before he wanted to collapse now—collapse in a ball and forget the world and pretend that night in the yard had never happened. He was well and truly trembling now, and he couldn't breathe, and it was only fueling Stryker's mirth.
Charles backed up another step and the bunks were at his back, and he wanted to put Stryker under but the man was throwing things at him—jokes he'd made with the few who'd known his plan, about the guard, ways he'd imagined it had gone—not what had really happened, but it was close enough and Charles was frozen, trying to fight the images away, fighting his own memories, and—
Then he lost it. He lost his hold on Stryker and the man was on him in an instant—or what seemed like one—despite his age, pinning Charles against the side of the bunks behind him and there was something in his hand and—
Charles shouted at the sharp pain at his side, and only his kneejerk reaction to shove away whatever was hurting him saved him from the clear liquid in the syringe. The needle ripped a larger wound than a needle would otherwise have left coming out when Charles shoved Stryker's arm away, but the contents, which Stryker had been attempting to empty into him, dripped harmlessly to the floor instead.
Maybe some of it had made it in. It must have. His senses did not shut down but he felt what he had left begin to shrink and grow more hazy. He fought it, fought some of the effects away before they took hold, but he knew was weaker now, and he couldn't stop Stryker when the man growled and drew his arm up. Maybe he could have at least simply put the man to sleep if Stryker's other arm weren't pressed into his chest and the pain weren't immensely distracting, but it was. Charles couldn't focus and he still couldn't breathe, and Stryker was bringing the needle down toward his face.
He threw an arm up, stopping the needle mere centimeters from his eye, and he'd been so clouded that Charles didn't realize until then what Stryker was trying to do.
Stryker really was trying to kill him. The contents of the syringe had only been meant to make it easier. He didn't care about killing Raven first anymore; all of the talk, all of the cruel taunting had only been to distract Charles, to make him lose control, and he had.
The man had known exactly what Charles's weakness was, because he had orchestrated its creation.
Charles's arm shook and his chest burned, and Stryker was still bearing down with the needle. Charles couldn't move, couldn't breathe enough to call for help, and he fumbled inwardly to reach Raven's mind with his own, but everything hurt too much and he knew he wasn't going to make it.
He hoped that, at least, made it to his sister.
And then the pressure was gone. Stryker wasn't on him anymore and the needle was jerking backwards wildly and so was Stryker. It looked almost like he stabbed himself in the neck, but that wasn't what happened. He and the needle were pulled back simultaneously, the needle, the smaller object, moving more wildly and then it was in Stryker's neck, and Stryker was falling, and the man barely had time to grunt in pain before he landed on the small piece of metal. It buried itself deeper, of course—Charles assumed—because scarcely ten seconds after Stryker had been about to kill him the man was face down on the floor and dying, a pool of blood forming under his neck.
And Erik was standing in the doorway, eyes wide and a hand outstretched.
They both stared, dumbfounded, until Stryker went still. When he did Charles stumbled away from the bunks, away from the body, finding a wall to catch his breath against, though that didn't help the fire in his chest. "Erik…"
Erik swallowed and shook his head, his wide eyes slowly giving way to a more stony expression. "That isn't what I meant to do. I had to act quickly; he was going to kill you. You were slipping…" I panicked. He caught that thought easily enough.
He knew Erik wasn't lying. He could feel it. As much as they may have wanted Stryker dead, this had been an accident.
Charles shivered, still fighting the memories Stryker had brought up and trying to understand that the man who had tormented him for so long was…gone. It was relief and so many other things and really he only wanted to cry but he shouldn't do that right now. Every moment was crucial.
But he wondered if this was what it would feel like for Erik, when Shaw was finally taken care of one way or the other.
It took him a while to realize he was shivering too hard, shivering to his core, and almost the moment he realized it he was warm. Erik was keeping him from collapsing, holding him close and rubbing warmth into his arms and back, and his teeth had begun to chatter but that stopped now.
"Hey, hey, it's all right. Come on, Charles, we don't need you in shock."
"W-w-what?" He couldn't process that, at first. But he was beginning to warm up, and beginning to calm down, and his head cleared but his powers remained a bit weaker than before. He was sure now, that it had been the telepathic dampener in that syringe and some of it had made its way into his system. But he wasn't completely useless.
Or he hoped that he wasn't.
Erik kept up his efforts to keep Charles warm until Charles purposefully stepped away and took a deep breath—or as deep a breath as it was advisable for him to take at this point. Erik let him go and looked at him in concern.
"Are you all right?" I'm sorry. I didn't mean for it to happen that way. But I wasn't going to let him kill you.
Charles nodded weakly, trying not to look at the body on the floor. I know, I know…I'm all right…thank you. For saving his life. For holding him together. For not killing Stryker on purpose…all of it and more than that.
"Charles!" It was Raven, and he didn't have time to react before she threw her arms around him—gently, but she did. "What happened in here?" She'd already seen the body, and when she stepped back she looked him up and down. "You're bleeding."
Charles glanced to where the needle had pushed into his right side, and found a small circle of blood soaking through the fabric of his clothes. But the ring wasn't wide, and he knew the wound wasn't really anything to worry about. It stung and ached—something of an awfully amplified version of the residual pain from a normal shot—but it was no danger.
"It's nothing. I'm all right." Physically, maybe—though that was really a bit of a lie too; his chest particularly hated him at the moment—but his mind was a mess. He'd calmed himself but the images were still too close to the surface.
Raven sighed, and a hand still brushed his arm but she let him go. "We've got most of the doors in this corridor open, but we're out of bullets now."
"That's what I'm here for," Erik said. There was a concentrated blasting sound from out in the corridor, and his eyebrows went up. "Though I've had help. You didn't mention your friend, Charles."
Charles smiled some. "Alex? Yes, well, the way they had him restrained he could not utilize his powers until he was freed. That, and I wasn't certain that it was doing any good, only being able to work with him telepathically. I haven't been able to do much in recent weeks, either. There was no way to know if he would have enough control to help us in the way we needed. Don't worry, Erik; we still couldn't have done this without you."
Erik smirked, and Raven cut in. "Did you find what you needed?" she asked quietly.
"Oh…uhm…yes. I did." He looked back to Erik, who was eyeing him questioningly. "I needed to know how much Stryker or anyone else involved in all of this might know, about us and the others here. What records they kept. I thought it might help us to know what was safe and what was not, once we'd left this place. It was good that I looked, really; it seems that we have somewhere to go, after all."
"Wait…really?" Raven asked. "Is New York safe?"
He nodded. "They don't know about the house there. I didn't keep any documentation related to it in the apartment at Oxford or on any of my accounts in England. They seized all of that, of course, but they had no reason to look for anything else once they had us and the way its all arranged I doubt they could have traced it anyhow. Everything in the states will still be available to us once we're in New York, though it will be wise to change the names on everything just to be certain…"
Erik was confused, and he let it be known. "Wait…what? What are you talking about?"
"My parents had a home in New York, and Stryker and his superiors aren't aware of it. We can go there, at least to begin with. We can ascertain the safety of staying at a later time, but it should be safe for a while."
"That's nice, Charles, but do you know how many people are here…?"
"Four-hundred and thirty-eight mutants, including us. Yes, Erik, I know."
"One place isn't going to be enough."
"Not all of them will want to stay with us once we're free. We'll have room for those that will, at least for a short time. There may be some crowding, but we'll manage."
"Even if only half of them follow us, that's more than two hundred—"
"It's a big place," Raven filled in.
"Big enough for two or three hundred people?" Erik asked skeptically.
"In a pinch."
"You must be joking…"
Charles shook his head. "I know we have Alex out there, but we really do not have the time for this. We should get moving."
"Are you sure you're all right?" Erik asked.
He let out a breath, wishing it hadn't turned out to be so uneven. "Yes. Let's go."
Erik didn't look entirely convinced, but he did know that time was of the essence. "All right. Go on to the end of the corridor; Moira's waiting with those already freed."
Charles tried to cover the fact that he started at that—at Moira's name—but he felt raven's hand return to his arm anyway as emerged from the cell after Erik. The corridor was full of mutants being freed from their cells and crowding toward the far end to get out. Alex was carefully blasting panels and Erik began to rip away the remaining closed doors.
"Come on," Raven said, tugging at him. The relief and hope in the air was palpable, besides the urgency, and it helped him some to feel so much of it from all of them, but Charles was still bent as he tried to walk. His chest ached so sharply, and without asking Hank was at his side, an arm around his shoulders to keep him upright.
They came out into the wide main corridors outside the cell areas. Moira was there, the crowd of mutants around her growing, and all of those that saw Hank and Raven help him from the more narrow hallway of cells behind them knew who he was, from the announcement. They knew his face, and Erik's, and Moira's, and Raven's, and Hank, Logan, Sean, and Darwin—all of those who knew the plan and those close to them, all of the faces they would need to know to follow if they cared to.
There were so many of them already. They would have to begin to split up soon, to keep them from being too large a target. They would have to begin sending groups out to the main gate—the only gate. If they sent Alex with the first group they would even be able to get out, without waiting for the rest. The sooner they began to get people outside the walls, the better.
Moira made her way to them slowly, an uncertain, pained look on her face that Charles knew he had put there.
"Charles…are you all right?"
The same question he had answered so many times already, but he had hurt her and he couldn't complain at answering it again. He saw her eyes track to the ring of blood on his jumpsuit and the way Hank was holding him up, and Charles did his best to stand straighter and more on his on and assure her that he was fine.
She said nothing else; she merely nodded and looked elsewhere, then, though she didn't move away.
That was Alex, emerging from the cell corridor with Erik and several other freed mutants close behind. The young man grinned, cocky countenance not at all dampened by his months in high security. It hadn't really been much different than solitary confinement in prison, anyhow, Alex had told him long ago.
"Alex," Charles smiled. "It's good to see you looking well."
"It's good to be getting out," he said. "Good to see you too though, but no offense—you look like hell."
"None taken. However, I do have a favor to ask of you…" Charles asked, and Alex listened, but he was hesitant.
"Are you sure? I can make the rest of this go a lot faster if I stick with this guy—" He motioned to Erik, who had begun moving toward the stairs to begin freeing those in the next corridor, but was coming to them now to confirm any change in plans first.
"I know," Charles told him. "You have already been more than a help, and you can be still. You can take out the gate and begin getting these people out of here entirely. It will be better if as many as possible can begin putting distance behind them. We can find each other once we're all out."
"He's right," Erik said quickly. "Take as many as you can and go; we can send more groups after you once the gate's down."
"Please, Alex," Charles urged.
The young man huffed a bit. "Fine. I guess that makes sense. The rest of you just be careful, all right? We've got catching up to do, and all that fun crap."
Charles smiled again. "Of course."
Raven squeezed his arm and Alex nodded and dashed off, to the head of the group gathered there. "Hey, everybody come on! Follow me! We're getting the hell out of here!"
Charles helped, giving Alex's face and what he said to the rest of those there, for those who couldn't quite see him, and giving them all the assurance that Alex could be trusted as well and would lead them to what, hopefully, would be safety.
They left, but Moira didn't move to follow.
"You should go," Charles told her. "You'll be safer outside the walls."
"I'm staying," she said, in no uncertain terms. He wanted her safe, but he couldn't insist now. He didn't deserve to—not if he could give her nothing more than the fact that he cared. She already knew that.
Hank, Sean, Darwin, Logan and Raven stayed too, to help and to be ready to lead other groups out as they went. Charles had already made certain that everyone knew the way out.
Logan took over Hank's position of making sure that Charles remained upright, and they made their way down to the next corridors. Charles put the few guards in their way to sleep but it was wearing him out much more quickly now.
It didn't help, either, that he couldn't close his eyes to rest—not even for a moment. When he tried all he saw now was that night. But that could be dealt with once this was over. He wished, though, that Moira would have gone with the others. That she was safe, and that she wasn't right here, reminding him of what he couldn't have.
What he couldn't have because of Stryker, because Stryker had planned everything…
Moira kept watching him. He knew it was only because she wanted to be sure he was all right, but it didn't help.
Halfway through the next corridor the alarms began to wail, and within seconds there were extra guards coming in from the end, weapons drawn and shouting. Erik deflected the first hail of bullets, and Charles put them to sleep, but it was a strain, and if Logan hadn't been at his shoulder he would have collapsed.
"Whoa! Watch it. Maybe you should just head out with the next group…"
Charles shook his head stubbornly and Logan scowled, but no one said anything though they were all looking at him now. They had all stopped momentarily when the shooting began, and were realizing that the rest of this was not going to be as easy.
"I need to do what I can," Charles insisted. He could get help. He would have to. He hadn't wanted to, but he would have to.
They moved on, carefully, and Charles reached out to the young mind that was already waiting for him. She could sense that something was happening, and she was waiting for him to call to her. We're coming for you, Jean. For everyone. We're leaving now.
I knew we'd get out, the little girl grinned inwardly.
And we will. But can you help me, just for a little while? It isn't complicated; it's safe for you to do it. I need you to help me put some people to sleep, so we'll be able to leave more easily. I'll do everything; I only need you to lend me some of your strength. Can you do that?
She gave it willingly, the access to her power, and it took a moment to wrestle it into submission, but because he didn't plan to do anything more complicated it, thankfully, was not as hard as he'd feared. His senses expanded again then, and he didn't feel so weak.
Does that help enough? Jean asked.
It helps quite a bit. Thank you so much, Jean. I'll see you soon.
Retrieving the children would be the last place they went, before destroying Cerebro and the databases and leaving. Last, because the young ones didn't need to be out and vulnerable for any longer than they had to be to spirit them from the facility.
With Jean's help it was easier after that, but focusing on keeping her power under control left him no room to push away the images that he didn't want crowding his mind. And Moira was always near him, and he wanted to rid himself of the memories and he wanted her and—
Why? Why couldn't he have her? Why couldn't he be happy? Didn't he deserve it? Why couldn't Erik and Raven and Moira herself be right?
The frequency of attacks increased. Erik did what he could and Charles acted as quickly as he was able and those that could help in defense did, but people were hurt. A few on the fringes were killed. Thanks to the measures they were taking the casualties were not what Charles had feared or what they could have been, but it was not easy either way.
And why couldn't he clear his mind? Why couldn't he focus on what was happening now, when it was so crucial, and push the past from his mind?
Why did missing Moira still hurt so badly, and right at this moment?
The answer was relatively simple, of course. Stryker. Stryker and what he'd done and the taunting and the memories he'd pulled to the surface and that blasted cruel laugh…
Always Stryker. Since the beginning, really, it had all been Stryker. Everything that pained or irked Charles about this place, everything that had hurt him. Stryker had started or championed or supported it all. Stryker had hated him and wanted to break him and—
He was winning, Charles realized. Stryker was dead and they were succeeding, they were going to be free, but Stryker was still winning. He would win in the end, if Charles let him, if he was always afraid, if he never let himself love again the way he wanted to. If he left Moira alone.
They had sent two more groups back by now, led by Sean and Darwin, and Charles had from Alex that the gate was down and any human personnel there were subdued. There had been casualties at the gate, as well, on both sides, but that had been expected. At least there, too, it was not as bad as they had feared it could be.
Inside, they were on the last general use corridor, on the bottom level. After this, the fliers and the children. They emerged from the cell corridor to another barrage of fire.
Logan yanked him back inside, Raven and Hank and Moira following them and taking cover while Erik deflected the barrage, and none of the mutants from the cells in this hallway had made it out yet at all; they were inside and safe. It took Charles longer to reach out to the humans' minds, because this time Logan had pulled him too hard and he'd hit the wall back inside the corridor with too much force. It pulled a startled shout of pain from his throat and they were looking at him, but he fumbled to push his fingers back to his temple and do his job.
The humans outside the corridor dropped, the firing fell silent, and Charles leaned heavily back into the wall to catch his breath. He knew the expression on his face was pained, but he couldn't do much about it now. They'd seen anyway; there wouldn't be any point.
It was Moira's voice, and it wasn't until he opened his eyes again that he realized she was the one who had ended up beside him, when they'd retreated back into the cover of the other side of the doorway.
Hank and Erik and Raven began to usher the other mutants from the corridor, and after a moment Logan joined them. Charles and Moira stayed where they were. Charles was really looking at her now, and he didn't want to stop.
"Are you really okay?" she asked anxiously. She was close, but she still respected what he had told her. She didn't move to touch him in any way, and now all that did was make his throat clog anyway.
"I-I'm…I'm fine. Yes. Really." He pushed himself up straighter on his own, wincing. He looked at her longer, and the expression on her face was conflicted and unreadable and he refused to intrude into her mind to tell him more.
Why did Stryker have to be winning? He shouldn't have been winning. Charles knew he shouldn't be letting it happen. He didn't want to be letting it happen. He didn't want to be afraid; he didn't want to feel tainted or dirty or unworthy or anything else. But it wasn't as if he was choosing to.
Maybe, though, he could choose to fight it.
He wanted to. He didn't want to hurt Moira anymore. He wanted to love her.
"You're sure?" Moira asked again.
Charles nodded slowly, and something changed in her face as she watched him. Maybe she understood some of what he was thinking. But he didn't know how to put it into words, and simply letting her know seemed…too much, right now. In the middle of an operation this crucial.
He held out a hand instead. Moira looked at it for several long seconds and they were running out of time. Logan would be back for them. They needed to move on; they had more to do here.
But slowly she took it, her fingers curling around his and clasping tightly, and that and the relieved look on her face now as they locked gazes said everything.
It was a promise. A promise to try.