The cry was a happy one, Jean as she flew out into the corridor the moment the door to the children's holding area was open. Rather than cells in was a long room lined with bunks on either side, with restroom stalls at the ends and irregularly spaced shelves that held a few minimal amusements to keep the younger children calm.
It was better than the cells but not by much, and Charles could see why Jean and the rest of them would be eager to be out of the place.
Jean, still in communication with him, had known they were coming and was waiting for them as soon as Erik had the door off. Charles released Moira's hand and Logan helped him get down to his knees more easily to be at Jean's level when she hurried into his arms. Still, she was careful, as always, because she could sense what he felt, and she didn't run into him hard enough for it to hurt.
"We really get to leave now?" the girl asked eagerly, arms around his neck. "We can go find my parents?"
"Yes, we will find your parents," Charles chuckled. "And thank you for your help."
She pulled back. "You still need help? Are we not done yet?"
"Not quite yet. We still must get outside; if you don't mind, could you stay with me for a bit longer?" he asked, tapping his head. Jean nodded easily, and he smiled. "Thank you. Now, you're going to go with Raven, though."
Hank had already led the group from the cells in the last corridor out, and the only other freed prisoners with them now were the fliers. Raven was going to bring them and the children out, and the fliers and older children were already picking the younger ones up in readiness to flee the compound.
Jean pouted. "But I want to stay with you."
"It's much safer if you don't, Jean, and I want you to be safe."
"I want you to be safe too."
He kissed her cheek. "I'll be all right. And let someone carry you; it will be faster that way, and the sooner you're all through the gate and into the hills, the better."
"But I'm fast!"
"Come here, you," Raven said, picking up the little girl and shifting her onto her back. "There. You happy with me?"
"Can't I ride with Logan?"
Logan laughed a little. "Sorry, kid. I've gotta stay with the hot-shots here," he chuckled, pointing a thumb at Erik and Charles.
"Okay…" Jean wrapped her legs around Raven's waist and held on. "If Charles and Logan aren't coming I can ride with you."
"Thanks a lot for that."
While Jean giggled, Charles laughed as Logan helped him back to his feet.
"You okay?" Jean asked, when he winced.
"Yes, just rather sore still. I'll be all right."
"Get going," Erik said then, to Raven. "Get them out of here."
She nodded and she went, the fliers and older children following her carrying their younger charges. Some of the fliers who had secondary powers did not carry any of the younger children, and remained on the outskirts of the retreating formation for defense. They hadn't really needed to be told, either, Charles had realized. Most of the mutants had banded together on their own as the escape went on, organizing themselves for efficiency and to reduce casualties, those who could help more effectively doing so. Some, of course, did whatever they wanted, acting on their own before even being out of the facility, but their choices were their own and Charles had other things to worry about. He had stopped two or three that had deliberately tried to kill humans, but that was all.
He reached for Moira's hand again. "You should go with them," he said. He already knew she would say no. She had made that clear the last time he had asked her to go. Sure enough, she didn't even bother to answer aloud this time. She merely shook her head and squeezed his fingers.
Then the rest of the group following Raven was out of sight, and it was only Charles, Erik, Moira, and Logan in the corridor.
"Where to?" Logan asked.
"We have to destroy Cerebro," Erik said first. "Or I do. And any records, the databases."
"Darwin came back in and took a small group through the offices," Charles said. "Once he had the others with him outside the walls. He had two that could control fire. Any physical records have been destroyed, and the fires are already out. What about the databases in the labs?"
"Melted them down on the way out."
"There are others, near the offices," Moira said. "There are two rooms of machines. I don't know if Darwin's team found them…"
Charles shook his head. "They didn't. We'll need to see to those."
"Is that it then?" Erik asked. "Those and Cerebro?"
Charles nodded now, and Logan humphed. "Let's get the hell to it then."
Charles filled her in on the remaining agenda once he knew it, and then gave her further instructions.
Once you're through the gates, get to the trees; that's where everyone's gone. It's cover. Most of the guards have either been put to sleep or subdued by now, but a few are still in pursuit. You'll be as safe as you can be there.
They made it through the corridors safely, no conscious guards in sight, but it was a different story once they were outside and in the open, in the space between the compound's buildings and the gates. A small group of humans came from around the next building, firing.
"Everybody run!" It was Darwin, by the blasted gates, and a small group with him jumped to action attacking the guards that had revealed themselves.
Those who carried children broke into sprints, going for the open gates while the others covered them. Raven shifted Jean from her back to her chest. "Hold on!" she hissed. Jean did, and Raven ran as the fliers with empty arms took to the air. A girl with dragonfly wings appeared to be able to spit some sort of acid, and she joined the attack on the humans. Raven noted, with distant satisfaction, that for the most part those attacking were taking heed of her brother's words from before this had all really begun: they were going for non-lethal shots.
Some, though, hadn't listened, or weren't careful enough. But she wasn't about to worry over it now. The mutants were losing people, too. She held Jean's head to her chest, keeping the girl's face there so she wouldn't see the dead and wounded on the ground. She realized many of the others with children were doing the same.
This, then, was ground zero. But they had expected that.
Raven swallowed hard and barreled through the gates after those in front of her, and she would have kept going but something grabbed her arm and swung her against the metal on the outside.
The outside. She was outside.
And it was Hank who had pulled her to him.
He kissed her briefly, and moved in front of her even though they were on the other side of the walls and theoretically safe now.
"Sorry…had to be sure you were okay. Get to the trees," he told her, nodding after the others already heading there and reiterating Charles's instructions. "We haven't let any of the humans through the gate; you'll be safe there."
"What about you?"
"We're holding the entrance."
Alex and Sean and others with strong offensive powers were here, keeping the humans back so that those outside the walls would be safe. Darwin and others with defensive powers were covering those mutants still coming out and helping the wounded. But this was the last group and soon enough they were all outside. Raven hadn't had time to break off and head for the trees like Hank had asked her too.
"That's everybody?" Darwin asked, coming back to the gate. Others still kept an eye on the remaining conscious humans.
"That's it," Raven confirmed, shifting Jean to her back once more. "Charles, Erik, Logan, and Moira are still inside taking care of Cerebro and the rest of the databases. Then we're out of here." She glanced at Hank, who exchanged a glance with Darwin. Darwin nodded for the trees.
"Go on. All three of you."
Hank took her hand and pulled her toward the hills, and when Raven looked back she saw more humans gathering in the open area just inside the gates. No one was fighting anymore. It was a standoff—the guards that were left and the mutants that had stayed at the gate. If either of them moved there would be more casualties on both sides, and they all knew it.
But that didn't mean the fighting wouldn't start again.
Raven's stomach turned, and Jean's small arms tightened a little around her neck. "They'll be okay, right?" the girl asked.
"Yeah," Raven said tightly.
Come on, Charles. Get out of there.
Destroying the remaining databases was easy enough, and in fact nothing Erik had moved or manipulated today was very large. But he had done quite a bit of it, and he was feeling it. The one thing that was left was large, but he told himself it would be no different than anything else.
I know you're tired, Erik. Hold on just a bit longer and we'll be out of here.
Caught, of course. He couldn't hide anything from Charles. He looked at his friend, and saw again that he was leaning on Logan much more heavily than when they had begun. Moira kept looking at him worriedly, too.
You're exhausted, too.
Yes, well…having Jean's help does not change the fact that my reserves are dwindling. But I'm all right. Let's get this over with, shall we?
They came out into the open area at the back of the compound where Cerebro stood near the wall, away from the buildings. Unlike the open area at the front by the gates, however, this one was empty.
Erik looked up at the large spherical installation that Hank had designed and Stryker and his scientists had bastardized. He glanced at Charles, who was looking at it too, and the carefully unreadable expression on his face said more than if he'd looked upset.
Erik looked up again, and he blinked and suddenly all he could see was Charles in that chair, screaming and pleading for help that wouldn't come. Erik! Erik, please…please, please…oh god, Erik, please…please remember. Help me! I can't take any more of this. Please…help me please…But Erik hadn't helped. No one had helped. Because Shaw had taken his memory again. Because Stryker was a heartless bastard.
He reached for the installation angrily, furious with himself all over again, and with Shaw, and with Stryker even though he was dead. He pulled and…
Nothing happened. The metal groaned, but did not move.
No no no. He had to have the strength left. He had to destroy this damned thing; he couldn't let anyone use it against Charles again, or against anyone else. He pulled desperately, trying to collapse it, break it, knock it over, anything, but it was larger than anything else today and it wouldn't respond.
His jaw clenched. He tried harder, began to sweat, and—
It's not the size, Erik. Too much anger. Remember what I told you.
But he was angry. He didn't know how to turn that off. Maybe they were getting out of here now but that didn't mean it hadn't happened. That didn't mean Charles hadn't been hurt. That didn't mean that he hadn't been forced to betray his own kind with this machine for nearly two years. Just because they were destroying it now did not mean this place had never existed.
He could feel the gentle pressure in his mind, and knew Charles was about to say something else, but he felt the bullets coming for them then, almost before he heard the gunfire.
Erik swung around, catching the bullets in midair, glaring at the five men that had come out of the next building. They stopped, staring at him because they must have recognized him and they thought he was human—everyone had—and Erik hadn't dropped the bullets yet. He was staring, and he realized that he recognized half of them.
They weren't guards. They were scientists who had found guns somewhere, who were looking at him wide-eyed and terrified now. Good. Because half of them were the scientists that had been in Cerebro with Charles when he walked in on that session, when he hadn't had his memory, when he had ignored Charles's pleas for help. Some of these men were the ones who had been hurting Charles that day, probably the ones who had been there every time, from the beginning, and he hated them.
I already killed Stryker, Erik thought flatly. What's a few more? It would be easy.
You don't mean that.
They hurt you. You recognize them too, don't you?
Charles swallowed inwardly. Yes. But what they did does not mean they should die. You're angry, Erik.
The scientists were all but cowering now, still trying to aim their weapons even though they could see that it was clearly useless. Angry? Understatement, Charles. They stood there, for hours, more than once, and listened to you scream. How do they deserve to live?
Maybe they don't, but that isn't for us to decide.
Logan and Moira were frozen, staring back and forth between Erik and Charles and the men facing them and the bullets paused in the air. They seemed to understand that interfering in whatever might be happening right now was not a good idea.
Erik knew that what he was saying was wrong, but for a moment he didn't want to care. He did, because he'd had Charles as a friend long enough, but he didn't want to care. He wanted to kill them for what they had done and be done with it, just like Stryker, but—
You didn't kill Stryker on purpose, Erik.
I was still thinking about it, before.
But when it came to it, you didn't. What happened was an accident.
Does that make it any better? Does that change the fact that I killed a man? Again?
He heard Charles huff behind him. What do you want me to say, Erik? We have done this.
Exactly…we've done this. What if I really can't change as much as I've been trying to? What if this is all we ever do?
Then I will do it gladly. I am not going to give up on you just because of an unfortunate incident, even if it isn't the first. I am not going to stop caring simply because of what happened earlier, or for any other reason in the future. I am your friend, Erik, and you are mine. That is not going to change. Please, Erik…you don't have to let your anger get the better of you. You've come so far…don't ruin it. You can be the better man. I still believe in you.
It took more time. Another moment or two, or three.
But he dropped the bullets.
The men turned to run, and Charles put them to sleep.
Charles sighed aloud. "Good. May we please get over with this now?"
Erik raised an eyebrow at him, and Charles just smiled. Erik shook his head in mild amusement and turned back to Cerebro. Remember, Erik—not just the anger. You need more than that. This time he listened. He took a breath and reached for the structure again, and this time the metal began to bend. This time he brought it to the ground easily, and the relieved look on Charles's face as it came down helped.
When Erik let go he ushered them all back into the nearest doorway until the dust cleared, and when it had Charles looked over his shoulder and the relief was more than that now. "Thank god," he murmured. His voice nearly cracked, and Erik gave his shoulder a squeeze.
"It's over. Let's go."
No one would ever hurt Charles again, if he had anything to say about it.
Charles nodded, and they were on their way.
Come on, Charles. Get out of there.
He'd heard Raven as they made their way to where Cerebro stood, and he'd told her where they were. He hadn't had a chance to respond again, and her sense of urgency was growing by the minute.
We're done. We're coming.
Get here. Fast. It's all going to go to hell again. I think everyone left awake is out there now, she told him now.
Charles reached out with his mind, and he knew she was right. The remaining humans had gathered at the gate. They, of course, didn't know how many mutants were left inside, but they seemed determined not to let anyone else out. Certainly they didn't know it was only the three of them and Moira.
Still, it didn't matter. They were ready to attack again at the slightest provocation. But they weren't close enough for Charles to put them sleep, even with Jean's help. He was still healing and worn out, after all, and the bit if drugs that had made their way into his system were not helping, either. And he couldn't take much from Jean, lest he risk being unable to control the power she loaned him. Especially now, as exhausted as he was, both physically and mentally.
Everything ached, but he pushed himself faster, unwilling to let the situation at the gate dissolve into more death.
"You know, I could just carry you," Logan joked at one point.
"No, thank you." He took it as a joke. It was the only way he wanted to take it. He didn't want to remember the number of times he'd been carried in recent months. Often enough it had been Erik—which was fine in and of itself—but the reasons he had been carried were things he didn't want to remember. All of it pain and humiliation and heartbreak.
But all of that was over now. It was almost over. And he would rather walk out of this place on his own two feet.
Charles had to ask them all to stop, though, when they were close enough. It was too dangerous to wait, to knock the rest of the guards out, and as soon as they were close enough he asked them to stop. He had to stand still a moment, to the sharp ache from his ribs and wound in his side recede so that he could focus enough to put that many to sleep.
When it was done he stumbled, but it was done. Thank you, Jean, he thought again, and released the connection. Every human in the compound was now unconscious. Some of the first he had put down were beginning to rouse, and those he could reach he sent back on his own. The rest would not be awake to enough to do anything, really, for a while now. They were nothing to be concerned about. He now longer needed Jean's help, and he was glad he didn't. He could feel the girl tiring, too; she was powerful, but she was young.
Logan still had his arm, keeping him upright and steady, and Moira had his other hand and they both caught him when he wavered. Erik's hand appeared on his shoulder, too, and Charles smiled at them to dispel their worry. "It's all right. It's done. We're safe."
Thank god, Raven thought from outside.
"From the humans here, anyhow," Erik said. "We still have to make it to New York."
"Yes, well…one step at a time."
Charles didn't want to go any slower the rest of the way out, but they did. He knew they were doing it for him, and he supposed he shouldn't complain as long as they weren't wasting time. And they didn't.
Soon enough they were out the front doors of the main building and privy to the scene at the blasted gates, which were still smoldering. The ground between the buildings and the wall was littered with bodies, though thankfully they were mostly unconscious guards who would wake up again.
The mutants on the ground would not wake up again.
Charles swallowed, having trouble tearing his eyes from the limp forms that did not show any signs of life. When he looked at their faces he remembered their minds—every mutant, all of those he had gathered together in his own mind to be able to communicate with them all—and he remembered feeling them die. It was the one thing he had not kept Erik or Raven or Moira or anyone else updated on, as the escape went on—the fact that he not only knew there were casualties, but how many and who they were, even if he had never met them face to face. It had been too painful to speak about. It was still.
He knew this could have been much worse, but he still could not shake the creeping feeling of having let them down.
"Charles." It was Erik, and the expression on his face was meaningful when Charles looked at him. "You did everything you could," he said.
Charles sighed. "We all did, I suppose." That didn't mean it wasn't awful that any of them of them had died at all.
"Hey, professor!" It was Sean now, he and Alex coming to them from the gate—or rather, the gaping hole in the wall. "Is that all of them?" he asked, nodding to the sleeping humans.
"Yes. Still, we should go. Might as well put as much distance behind us as we can before they begin to wake up."
"I think some of them already had that idea," Alex said, nodding toward the hills. Charles could see the tree line, and those sheltered under it, and there were definitely not four hundred people there.
Charles nodded. "As I thought…many of them have decided it's safer to strike out on their own. They're leaving."
"We're leaving, as soon as Darwin gets back," Sean put in.
"Where is he?" Logan questioned.
"He and some of the others went in again once all the guards were unconscious—said they'd take what they could carry from the cafeteria's storage. Anything we don't have to cook, you know. So we don't have to worry about finding food right off the bat."
"Hmm. Right. New York isn't far, but I suppose I still should have thought about that," Charles mussed.
"No one's perfect, Charles," Erik smiled in amusement.
"New York?" Alex questioned.
"There's a place there, that we can go. It's safe for now," Charles told him.
"Hey, we got it! Let's go!"
They all turned at the voice, and Darwin and several others, many of them the fliers that had come out last, were emerging from one of the main building's side entrances. All were carrying bags and backpacks and boxes stuffed with cans and other packaged food. The rest of those left in the gate area, Sean and Alex included, hurried to take things from them to lighten their loads, and they headed outside the walls. It left Charles, Erik, Moira, and Logan on their own again, the last to leave.
It seemed fitting enough, for him at least, to be among the last to make it outside. Perhaps it had been unwillingly and, at first, unknowingly, but Charles knew he had started this. And he had promised himself long ago that he would see it through to the end.
Now, that end had finally come.
Raven was tugging Hank back down the hill, watching them and waiting for them. She wasn't the only one. Sean and Alex and Darwin were waiting at the gate, too.
"Gonna stand there all day?" Alex called.
Charles smiled at the three with him. "Shall we?"
He shrugged politely away from Logan's help to walk through the gate on his own, though he kept Moira's hand. After that he needed help getting up the hill, but he didn't notice the ache anymore when Raven met them just short of the trees and wrapped her arms around him, Jean on her heels.
"We made it," she whispered by his ear. "I told you not to give up."
"Indeed you did," Charles chuckled softly.
"Hey, what about me!"
He bent down then to hug Jean as well. "Yes, Jean. You told me, too."
"And we're gonna be fine. Told you." The girl kissed his cheek and grinned, but she knew he still could not pick her up, so she went to Logan next. The larger mutant swung her up onto his shoulders easily, and Jean went willingly, giggling.
Charles got back to his feet with a hand from Hank, but then the sound of metal groaning made him turn around again—had everyone looking back at the facility. Erik stood with a hand outstretched, and the twisted, melted metal of what had been the gates was moving, melding with the metal wall of the compound on either side. In a moment there was no hole at all. No gate. It did not look as perfect as the rest of the wall, but the compound had effectively been sealed.
"They'll find a way to get over it, of course, but that should slow them down," Erik said in explanation. A few flicks of his wrist later and all of the power and phone lines going into the facility had been torn down as well.
"And we did leave them some food, yes?" Charles asked. Darwin just shrugged.
Erik had not turned around again. He was still staring across the grass and the road at the crippled facility, and Charles and went to his friend's side.
"Is something wrong, my friend?"
"I don't know if I know how to answer that."
Charles understood. He wasn't so sure he knew how to feel right now, himself. "I would hope that happiness is in there somewhere. You've led your people out of captivity today, Erik." He chuckled lightly. "Rather appropriate, actually, considering your heritage."
Erik smirked, giving Charles a knowing glance. "Maybe. But I didn't do it on my own. Even Moses had a brother, didn't he?"
"And a sister." That was Raven; she had followed Charles, and from the appreciative smile on Erik's face now he didn't mind.
"And a sister," Charles agreed. Something was happening, in what they were saying and what was unspoken. In not so many words they were promising each other that the bond they'd formed here would not end because this ordeal was over.
Almost over. As Erik had pointed out, they still had to get to New York.
When they looked back those that had not already left were coming out of the trees too, looking Charles and Erik and the small group around them as if for answers. What now? Where do we go? How do we get there? Charles heard all of the questions, in their minds, and saw the uncertainties warring with the relief and joy of being free on their faces.
How many are left? Erik asked him silently, surveying the crowd.
Four hundred and eleven of us made it out. There are a two hundred and twenty-three still here. The rest have gone on on their own. I wish them the best.
And we still have to get more than two hundred people to New York. Will your plan work for that many?
As long as I can rest a bit first, it will be fine. Much of my problem today was that some of those drugs made their way into my system. But it wasn't much; by tomorrow I will be stronger. The woods should be enough cover for one night, should they not?
They should. As long as we get some of that distance between us and this place you were talking about. We should walk until dark.
Moira was watching them too, the dozens and dozens of mutants coming out of the woods and gathering around them, and her eyebrows were up. "They're waiting for one of you to say something," she said quietly, glancing pointedly at both Charles and Erik. Charles had released her hand when he embraced his sister, and he reclaimed it now and squeezed it for strength. He glanced at Erik, too, who nodded him on.
"I guess that would be me, then," he murmured, almost in amusement.
Erik shrugged. "Telepathy is so much more efficient than shouting at a crowd."
"Excuses," Charles smirked. He still thought Erik would make a wonderful leader. But if he needed more time to see it himself, that was all right.
Charles told them then, all of them. He told them that they had somewhere to go and a plan of how to get there safely, and that there was food enough for all of them for a day or two. That with any luck, they should be in New York soon enough, and that barring unforeseen circumstances once they were there they should be provided for. He told them all that they should continue to move until nightfall, and no one disagreed. He made sure what he was saying reached those who had already left who were still in range of his powers, and a few came back to come with them. Not many, but a few. Those who didn't were generally thankful for the offer, but they continued on their own anyway.
There was no reason to stay after that. They moved back into the trees, to hide in the hills while they walked, and Charles directed them roughly in the direction of a nearby town. Not the closest one, because that would be too obvious, but the one he and Erik had chosen. Tomorrow, when Charles was, hopefully, strong enough, he and Erik would go into the small city and…. borrow three or four buses and their drivers. Whether they were city buses or school buses would depend on what was handy and at the edge of the town. They didn't want to attract attention, after all.
Charles hated the idea of forcing anyone to do anything at all, but it was the safest way to get everyone to the Xavier estate. And the three or four humans borrowed would never remember what had happened. They could borrow just the buses—surely there were at least a few among them who could drive that large a vehicle—but if they did that the vehicles would not be returned, and they could be traced, and the estate could be found. They could be found. No, as much as he hated to control anyone, it was the only choice. The drivers would bring their vehicles back home, and no one would be the wiser. Everyone still with them knew the basics of this plan now, and they went into the hills contentedly, knowing that they wouldn't be out here for much longer.
Jean seemed content with Logan, so Charles nodded him on with her and assured the other mutant that Erik could help him if he needed the support. Raven and Hank went, too, with Sean and Darwin and Alex, and Erik raised an eyebrow at him when he didn't move.
Could you give us a moment, my friend?
Erik's gaze shifted to Moira for a moment and then back to Charles, and he nodded almost imperceptibly and turned to follow the others.
When they were alone Moira faced him, and took his other hand, too. Charles waited for it to bother him, but it didn't, and he let out a breath.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly.
"This isn't the time for this, you know," she answered, smiling a little.
"I know that. I just…before we went on, you needed to know that I—"
I love you, he told her anyway, silently.
I love you, too. No matter how stubborn you are.
Charles laughed weakly, though he trailed off when her hands slid from his and made their way up his arms instead, to his shoulders.
"Is this okay?" she asked quietly. "What's okay right now?"
"I'm not entirely sure of that myself, to be quite honest…" But he saw where she was going, and before he could be too afraid of it he pulled her into his arms himself. Just a hug. A gentle one. But before he'd thought even that would be too much, but right now it wasn't. Right now it was all right.
Right now it was good.
Moira returned the embrace and Charles smiled into her hair, telling himself that there was no reason for the tears in his eyes but of course his body didn't listen. He laughed again, amused at himself.
"Charles?" When Moira pulled back to look at him, still holding his shoulders, she must have seen that his eyes were swimming because one of her hands moved instinctively to his face.
That he pulled away from, before he could really think about it. He remembered the flashback it had caused when she'd done that in the infirmary, and he was afraid if it happening again. All of that went through his mind instantly, before he even moved, and once he had he felt awfully about it whether he should or not.
He opened his mouth to apologize, but Moira let her hand fall back to his shoulder and shook her head. "It's okay…it's okay. I'm sorry. I know it'll take time…"
He smiled weakly. "And you're certain you're patient enough?"
Moira pulled him gently back to her, and he went. "For you I am," she whispered.
Charles held on tighter this time.
Erik waited for them at the tree line, not minding at all, and if anything perhaps he paid a bit too much attention. But he was glad that Charles had come to his senses; after everything he had been through in the past two years, he deserved happiness. He deserved to have someone at his side to share his freedom with.
And to help him shoulder the responsibility that was now, apparently, his—of leading these people. Into what, Erik wasn't sure yet, and he didn't think Charles knew either, but he planned to do everything he could to help too.
Charles smiled gratefully at him when he and Moira made it into the woods and Erik offered an arm to help him, and right now the fact that they didn't have everything figured out didn't seem so frightening.
Not while they all had each other.
Family. The word had come up around Charles and Raven before, and Erik was feeling its warm weight again now.
He had a family now, and they were finally going home.