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Rescue Run

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It's out of respect for Charles and the friendship they had shared, however briefly, that Erik ignores the Westchester mansion when drawing up strike plans. It's out of respect for the growing talents of the three young men who remained with Charles that Erik doesn't target them, or in fact make any attempts at communication or conversion.

He knows that Raven sometimes calls and waits until Hank picks up the phone, and he also knows that she hangs up after he's said hello. He knows that Angel still traces the ragged line that marks where her wing has healed and looks regretful, that she sometimes wakes from nightmares that contain Alex self-destructing over having hurt a second teammate. (He knows this because he has Emma do sweeps of their lair during the night, to ensure nobody enters unnoticed, and Emma reports disturbances amongst their recruits to him.)

He knows that Emma minds the helmet much less on him than she did on Shaw. He is very careful not to think about Shaw more than he has to, but it's still a relief that Emma, Janos and Azazel see him as an entirely different commander than their previous one. Where Shaw insinuated and flattered and manipulated, Erik is blunt. He tells them what he expects of them. Azazel seems to respect him for it. Janos hovers for a while, uncertain, but eventually settles into an easy working relationship with Erik that manages to balance the line between deference and unquestioning obedience.

Erik doesn't mind questions; after all, if his colleagues can see flaws in his plans, he should be told. He makes that clear from the start. He is in charge, but he wants them to use their brains as much as they do their abilities. It's easier for Raven and Angel, who know him better, but Emma, Janos and Azazel come to an understanding quickly enough.

His respect for Charles doesn't extend to not having Emma brush by the mansion every so often to ensure that everything is as it should be. She can't touch Charles's mind, and after the first time she reports that Charles knows she's looking, but after repeated visits where she does nothing but look, quickly and almost politely, Charles seems to accept that it isn't the prelude to an attack. She even brings messages back sometimes.

Three months after the beach, Emma tells Erik that Charles has told the kids his diagnosis. She explains as clinically as she can, in language that Erik is certain she skimmed from Hank's mind, and Erik forces himself to remain impassive. She can't read his mind, not with the helmet that he's taken to wearing every waking hour, but he can see the sympathy on her face. She's not as cold as he'd assumed.

"He's adjusting," she says quietly. "They're-"

"Don't," Erik snaps. There is no absolution for what he's done. He dismisses Emma with a gesture, less respect than he normally shows his colleagues, but she seems to understand, and she leaves him to his thoughts - and his self-recrimination.

Six months after the beach, she returns from a visit with a slight frown on her face, and asks, "Who's Darwin?"

Is, not was. Erik looks at her and asks carefully, "Why?"

She shrugs. "They're all very happy about him being back."

Erik blinks, and then laughs. "Son of a bitch. He did adapt."

He explains the story to Emma, and then goes to tell Raven and Angel. He knows they were closer to Darwin than he was - hardly surprising, given his reluctance to allow anybody close to him - and their relief and joy almost makes him feel as though they're back in the mansion, before the beach happened.

This time, when Raven calls the mansion, she stays on the line long enough to say, "Tell Darwin welcome back".

Eleven months after the beach, they've relocated twice, trying to find a facility that works for them without being the obvious choice for a group of mutants on the run from the government. They're all wanted by now, Emma, Erik, Angel, and Raven especially; Azazel and Janos don't, apparently, have identities as far as America is concerned. Erik had considered moving them out of the States, but he knows Raven wants to be close to Charles, so he settles for searching for a better, more secure facility.

A disused boarding school in rural Michigan, abandoned because of structural integrity problems that would have been too expensive for the tiny religious group that ran it to repair, turns out to be a viable option. Erik can repair most of the damage to the superstructure, and Janos proves to be surprisingly adept at carpentry, offering to take charge of repairing the innards of the complex.

It's an ironic juxtaposition, Erik thinks sourly one evening; Charles setting up a school in his home, and Erik attempting to make a home in a school.

Sixteen months after the beach, Emma comes back from her usual sweep of the Westchester mansion and wakes Erik, her normally-cool expression worried. That should amuse him - they've all got attached to Charles and his band of boys somehow, living vicariously through Emma's reports of what they're doing - but with the helmet off, and with Emma unconsciously projecting as much as she is, the concern is contagious.

"They're gone," she says. Before Erik can demand a further explanation, she provides it. "I went in to look for signs of a struggle. Someone's taken them."

He should admonish her for taking that risk without backup, but he doesn't. Instead, fuelled by the certainty that something has gone deeply, horribly wrong, he does what he swore he'd never do - he opens his mind and says, "Show me."

She nods, understanding, and projects the memories into his mind. At first, Erik is caught in the bittersweet pain of viewing the halls and rooms like a stranger, when he still remembers the time those halls were something like home. But then Emma's memories reach Hank's lab and the rusty splash of blood on the floor, and he feels his anger begin to rise. The memories move on, to the kitchen, where a chopping board and rotting vegetables are on the floor, obviously left where they fell.

Charles's room brings a combination of rage and nostalgia. Erik forces both down, forces himself to examine Emma's memory clinically, but the sight of the wheelchair on its side makes it impossible for him to keep his temper. He's aware of the vibration of metal all around him, and of Emma's sharp intake of breath, but he ignores them, focusing on the memory.

There's an odd feeling to the memories. He frowns, focusing on that, and is suddenly almost overwhelmed by the sickening, gut-wrenching fear. The hum of vibrating metal rises into a scream, and then there's a weight on his head and the memories are cut off sharply.

He spends a few minutes panting from the intensity of the fear, and only when he has his breath back does he realise that he has the helmet on, that Emma must have forced it onto his head. She's still standing in front of him, but she looks shaken. She has a right to be, he realises, looking at the twisted wreck that used to be a metal-framed mirror against the wall.

"Why were you afraid?" he asks eventually, once he's sure his voice is under control.

"Your friend is powerful," Emma replies. Her voice, like Erik's, is tightly-controlled, artificially calm. "And even if he wasn't, strong emotion leaves a sort of… psychic stain. I wasn't afraid; I was picking up on their fear."

There's a strange knot in Erik's chest. He ignores it, getting to his feet, and says to Emma, "We're going after them."

She nods, like it's not even a question. He supposed he should be amused at that, at the fact that he's trained this little group so well that one of his former foes is willing to go after the people who are, technically, their enemies, but he has no room for amusement, not with Charles and the kids at risk.

"Raven and I will make the usual rounds," she says calmly. "Government officials, military. We-"

"No," Erik interrupts, his tone turning savage. "I know where we start."

Who is the government agent who knows the most about them, after all?

"Moira MacTaggert."

 

 

"Alex. Alex, man, breathe. Breathe."

He can hear Darwin talking, trying to soothe him, but the voice is eclipsed by pain and by the bone-deep knowledge that if he releases the energy within him, no matter how well the Professor taught him to control it, he's going to have to watch Darwin burn up in front of him again. That's the whole reason he's not in solitary, because the sick fucks know he'd let loose if it was just him and they want to see how long he can contain it. He knows that's what they want because they drag him outside every day, stake him out in the sun for three hours until he can feel the energy searing his veins, and then shove him back in here with Darwin and wait to see what wins out, his self-control or the solar energy that's burning him up inside.

He doesn't even get the chance to burn any off during the day, because they stake him opposite someone else - a random guard at first, but after the first day, when he proved that he's willing to hurt the fucks working in this place, they replace the guard with Sean. Alex tries to talk to Sean, when the guards leave them mostly alone, running his mouth like he doesn't have a care in the world, saying anything that comes to mind, anything that will distract Sean from the thick bandages at his throat and the vicious leather and metal contraption strapped around his head.

And at the end of their three hours, the guards drag Sean away and put Alex back in his cell, where everything is metal-lined and reflective and it's so narrow that he can barely turn around, and the only place for his power to go is through Darwin.

He can't let loose. He can't watch Darwin die because of his power again. And Darwin's all of three feet away, but Alex can't see him, not really. All he can see is Darwin looking at him as that horrible, ugly red wells up inside him before he's just gone.

 

 

To her credit, Moira reacts fairly well to waking up and finding Erik and Emma in her bedroom. Her hand twitches towards the pillow and Erik lifts the gun he'd taken from underneath it, raising his eyebrows.

"Looking for this?"

She looks at him for a moment and then sighs, sitting up in the bed and giving him a thoroughly unimpressed glare.

"What do you want, Lehnsherr?"

Strangely, he appreciates her use of his surname. Using his first name would be too familiar, too friendly, and they both know that they're not friends. Never have been. Erik hadn't trusted her from the very start, and she'd been wary of his distance. But he can respect her fortitude.

"Charles," he says simply, not even glancing at Emma, who he knows is winnowing through Moira's mind to find any hints of deceit. Moira frowns, looking confused, and after a moment longer, Emma speaks.

"She doesn't know who did it."

"Who did what?" Moira demands, her expression tightening as she puts two and two together. "Someone found them, didn't they? And you thought I told them?"

Her outrage at the thought is a little impressive, and Erik begins to see why Charles liked her. She's no use to them if she doesn't know who took Charles and the kids, though, so he turns to leave.

"Wait." When he turns back, she's on her feet, a determined expression on her face. "You'll need help. If it's government, you'll need someone who can get you access to the right people. I've still got some contacts in the CIA, people who owe me favours. Let me help."

"Why?" Erik demands harshly. "Why should I trust you? You're one of them."

Her reply, when it comes, is painful in its simplicity.

"Because I love him too."

Erik is silent for several long moments, feeling Emma's gaze on him as he looks at Moira. She's so fragile, he thinks. Standing in a dark bedroom, barefoot and shivering in the cool night air, she looks as though he could break her with a thought. But her expression is stony, and he knows, somehow, that she'll fight for Charles as violently as he will.

Eventually, slowly, he nods.

"Come along, then. We've got a lot of work to do."

 

 

The worst of it, in Hank's opinion, is the fact that none of them will even acknowledge him.

He could deal with the aggressive deprivation of stimulus - he knows what they're trying to achieve with it, and he knows that it won't work. For all his appearance has turned animalistic, his mind is still the same, and he can deal with lack of visual stimulation and a complete dearth of any scent but antiseptic in ways that an animal couldn't. But none of the orderlies who periodically come by to take blood or hair samples or - other samples - will even acknowledge that he can speak, much less talk to him.

It's not uneasiness, either. With his senses ramped up like this he can smell adrenaline, and they don’t have it. It's deliberate.

They leave him alone in between tests, in a plain, empty cell that gives him enough room to take six steps before he has to turn around. There's no bed, no provisions made for bodily functions, and while he might normally put that down to cruelty, he knows it serves a different purpose for him than it would for any of the others. They're making it very clear that he's not a person, and doesn't get the consideration that a person would.

They do feed him, irregularly, but after the first day he refuses to eat what they give him. His mind is still very much human, and it rebels at the idea of choking down the raw meat they throw into his cell. He forces himself to drink the water they provide, knowing that dehydrating himself will only make things worse, but it turns his stomach every time he has to lift the plastic bowl and drink from it.

He still tries to talk to the orderlies, even as they go about their business quietly, ignoring him except to take their samples. He refuses to fight them after the first time, when he earned a tranquiliser that gave him a headache for hours after he woke. A part of him can't let himself fight them, because that'll just prove that he's nothing more than the animal they think he is.

 

 

It takes them far too long to track down someone who knows about the Westchester mansion. Moira's contacts come up blank, one after another, until finally one of them mentions a government contract that was begun not long after "the missile crisis". He doesn't know many details, but he knows enough: the US government contracted a man named Steven Lang, a pioneer in robotics and genetics, and a host of engineers, architects and scientists, some of them specialising in more esoteric fields than the government usually finds a use for.

Erik's instincts are screaming at him to go blazing in and take back the mutants who have been abducted, but the others - all of them, Moira and his crew - point out that they don't even know where Lang is yet. Instead, they retreat to their base, with Emma clouding Moira's mind enough that she won't be able to retrace their steps and betray them to the government. Raven is welcoming enough, hugging Moira fiercely. She gets more demonstrative the more worried she is, Erik has noticed. The others - Janos, Azazel, and Angel - view the CIA agent with mingled respect and suspicion; Moira doesn't remark on it, taking it in her stride.

As much as the inaction galls Erik, all they can do right now is research and reconnaissance. They need to know who Lang is, as intimately as they can. They need to know exactly who the government has contracted, what they can do. They need to know every person who has interacted with Lang and his superiors on a day-to-day basis. And that's slow work.

Erik chafes at the delays. Oddly, it's Moira who comes to him when he's pacing furiously, bits and pieces of metal swirling around him in a dance whose speed betrays his emotional state. She doesn't even flinch at the miniature maelstrom that has Erik at its heart. He notes the metal on her - watch, jewellery, and she's carrying her gun - but he doesn't touch it, not yet. He waits to see what she wants.

"Charles will need you focused," she tells him quietly. "Whatever this is, it's big. They're all going to need us to be as strong as we can."

"Why aren't you out looking?" Erik demands viciously. He can't be seen in public, but Moira has no price on her head. She should be out looking for leads, not standing here lecturing him.

"Raven and Emma are talking to our best lead," Moira says evenly. "They can get more information than I can. Are you listening to me? Charles is going to need you calm. He's going to be dealing with the kids' fear, and we can't afford to dump our own on him when we rescue them."

Erik smiles mirthlessly, reaching up to tap his helmet.

"He won't get anything from me, Moira. It's all safely locked up in here."

Her answering smile is almost sad, as though she knows something he doesn't and is sad that he doesn't realise it.

"Charles doesn't need telepathy to read you, Erik. You're an open book to him."

 

 

Silence.

Charles Xavier has never been alone for a moment in his life. Since before he can remember, he's been able to skim the thoughts of everyone around him. Even when he's not concentrating, there's always been a low, comforting background hum of consciousness, a steady, constant reminder that he's not alone in the world. He has never had to suffer through the anguish of loneliness; even when he's been physically alone, it has always been such a simple matter to reach out and touch a nearby mind - Raven, chiefly, during their childhood and adolescence - and even if he didn't announce his presence, the sheer existence of so many minds around him has prevented him from ever feeling as though he's alone.

Except now.

Now there is nothing but his own mind, closed-in and claustrophobic. He doesn't even have the sight of himself to break up the terrifying monotony, because there's no light, no break in the darkness. He doesn't even have touch, floating in some liquid that's kept at the same temperature as the air. It feels as though his entire body is paralysed instead of just his legs, as though he's somehow been disconnected from it and is nothing more than consciousness, trapped in the darkness.

He throws his mind outward, again and again, trying desperately to find his students. «Hank, Alex, Armando, Sean» - he cries their names over and over, until he can't tell the difference between his vocal shouts and his mental ones.

Every time, he hits the dull, smooth blankness that surrounds him and rebounds, thrown back at himself. He tries over and over, forcing his mind outward until he feels battered and bruised all over, mental pain transferring into physical, and there's still no crack in the shell around him, no hint of another consciousness.

He has no way to track the passage of time. They stuck an IV in his leg before putting him in the tank, and he can't bend enough to find it and take it out to force them to open the tank even for a moment, giving him that much of a reprieve. He knows that he's not dehydrating, even though he feels like he should be, even though hunger gnaws at his stomach until his body gets used to being given nutrients without being fed. He's getting air somehow, although it tastes stale and recycled. But with no light, with no contact, he has no way of knowing how much time is passing. It feels like an eternity.

Eventually, he stops being able to call out for his students, and just screams, thrusting his mind out in a desperate attempt to find somebody, anybody, any mind he can touch and use to reassure himself that it hasn't always been this way, he hasn't always been alone.

 

 

Emma and Raven return from interrogating one of Steven Lang's associates, and come straight to the ready room, where Erik has taken to sleeping. Taking one look at their expressions, Erik summons Azazel, Angel and Janos - and, after a moment's hesitation, Moira. They all come at his command, Moira checking the rounds in her pistol as she takes what has become her usual stance near the door, ready to fire on anyone who interrupts them.

"Trask knew about a facility that was being set up in Colorado," Emma reports, looking a little disgusted. This Bolivar Trask must have been worse than most humans, Erik decides; it's rare for Emma to look this disturbed by her trips into someone's mind. She continues, "It's top-of-the-line, has a virtually unlimited budget, and they brought in a few Russian scientists that I've seen before."

Her gaze turns to Erik - to the helmet. His lips thin as he reins in his temper, gesturing for her to continue.

"It's being billed as a research facility," Raven says. Her tone is less even than Emma's, filled with hate and anger and a deep-rooted fear. She's in her natural blue form, but Erik can see the rippling that indicates her emotional state is having an effect on her form. Beside her, Angel reaches out to squeeze her hand, and Raven takes a deep breath, steadying herself to continue.

"It's being billed as a research facility," she repeats. "Research into 'the mutant condition'. It's strictly theoretical or voluntary - on paper."

"These things usually are," Erik says tightly. "Did you get a location?"

Emma nods. "We can be there in five minutes. I got a strong enough memory of it for Azazel to jump us in."

Azazel inclines his head in assent, looking to Erik for orders. They all look to Erik for orders.

He doesn't hesitate. "Suit up. We're going in for a full assault."

They don't have a Hank to create battle suits for them, but they do have Moira and her contacts. Each of them at least has body armour and a radio to stay in contact, since Erik won't allow Emma into his head to facilitate telepathic communication.

Thinking of Moira, Erik turns his head to look at her. She's unbuttoning her coat, preparing to put on the body armour, and he can't help a slight smile.

"You're going to insist on coming, I take it."

"Wild horses, Lehnsherr," she replies firmly. "We need as many people on this as we can get."

We, not you. Erik is beginning to realise that Moira threw her lot in with mutants a long time ago. He's beginning to realise that this human is a lot more complicated than he originally assumed.

He doesn't bother with the body armour. He doesn't need it - he's more and more aware, these days, of every bit of metal around him. Nobody shooting at him will end up landing a shot.

The plastic-and-nylon constructions look strange on all of them; only Moira wears hers like she belongs in it. Azazel looks ridiculous, as though he's trying to downplay his demonic appearance, and Erik is so used to seeing Janos in perfectly-pressed suits that the lack of a suit jacket is almost shocking. But their safety is important - he needs them alive, and more and more these days he's coming to like his little band of outlaws - and they'll put up with looking incongruous for a bit of extra protection from gun-happy humans.

When everyone is suited up - Erik in his red, Raven in the suit Hank designed for her, the rest of them in their preferred "street" clothes with the body armour over it - they all join hands, and Azazel looks to Emma for coordinates. A moment later, there's the odd saturation of red that accompanies Azazel's transportations, and their ready room is replaced by a small, cramped storage room.

Emma holds up a hand to forestall anyone leaving, saying, "Let me check who's here."

Erik grinds his teeth, impatient at the delay, but her suggestion makes sense. He nods his assent and she closes her eyes, sending her mind out to scan the entire compound.

"I found each of the students," she says quietly. "Night shift guards, two on each entrance and six patrolling each floor; thirty-six in total. No scientists at this hour. Three doctors, monitoring subjects." The word "subjects" comes out of her mouth twisted and full of distaste, and Erik's temper flares again. Emma continues, "There's a blank spot. That'll be where they have Xavier."

"Split up," Erik orders. "Azazel, Riptide, Angel, take care of the guards. Quietly. Emma, Raven, Moira, with me. Azazel, how many can you transport at once?"

Azazel hesitates, looking unsure, and eventually shrugs. "I haven't tried more than the six of you," he admits. "It gets harder, the more I take. I would not want to try to take everyone back at once."

Erik had been afraid of that, but he can't risk pushing Azazel and losing the teleporter, not tonight. He nods, and says, "All right. Check back in with me when the guards are out of the picture, and we'll triage."

Azazel nods, and then he, Janos, and Angel leave the storage room - Azazel in a swirl of sulphur, the others quietly slipping out of the door. After giving them a few minutes to get rid of the guards on this level, Erik leads the way out of the room, the three women close behind him. He can feel Moira's gun in her hands, rock-steady as though she has absolutely no doubts that she's on the right side. Beside him, Raven has adjusted her natural form, lengthening, hardening and sharpening her fingernails into claws. Emma hasn't taken her diamond form yet, too focused on leading them to the first of the students.

There's so much metal in this facility. Erik can't believe their stupidity, to think that they could dare to touch Charles and the children and not incur the wrath of the Master of Magnetism. He can feel the walls vibrating as he passes and forces himself to pull his power in, to keep it contained. He can feel Moira's approval and bares his teeth in a grimace; he doesn't need or want her approval. But she's right; Charles will need them to be calm, because Emma's expression is enough for Erik to know that none of the students will be.

Eventually, after too many identical, antiseptic corridors, Emma halts, gesturing to a door with nothing but a number on it. Erik stares at that number, unconsciously rubbing his thumb over the tattoo on his arm, and his temper rises. Unable to keep it controlled, he wrenches the door from its mooring, throwing it down the corridor to land a twisted, useless wreck.

Nobody gets to reduce mutants to numbers. Not while he's alive.

The doorway leads into what looks disturbingly like a decontamination chamber. Erik frowns, striding in. None of Charles's students have abilities that should require decontamination. Emma reaches out to stall him, saying, "He needs a familiar face. Someone with positive connotations." Her expression twists into something alarmingly close to sadness, and she looks at Raven. "Someone who treats him like a person."

"Hank," Raven says, turning pale. She pushes past Erik and Emma, hitting the next door with her fists and turning to glare at Erik until he pulls it from its hinges, too, and then she's into the next room without stopping to look.

The smell that wafts out is enough to make Erik gag. He's smelled it before, the stench of deprivation and dehumanisation, and he'd hoped he'd never have to again. It had never been something he'd suffered personally - Shaw had tried many things, but he'd never used dehumanisation of this sort on Erik - but he remembered the faces of the men and women who had had their humanity stripped from them, and he can only imagine how much worse it must be for Hank, who has his own fears about being less than human now that his exterior is so bestial.

Emma holds them back as they listen to Raven speaking, low and hurried and soothing. Moira has her back to Hank's cell door, keeping an eye on the corridor in case they're interrupted. Erik moves forward enough to see Raven on her knees in the filthy cell, cradling Hank's face in her hands and kissing his mouth over and over, saying insistently, "You're a person. Hank, look at me. You're a person. You're the most beautiful, freaky-smart, sweetest guy I know, Hank, you're a person. Come on, stand up. Stand up and come with me, okay?"

Even at this distance, Erik can see the bare patches where skin and hair samples have been taken. The crook of Hank's left elbow has been shaved, and there are multiple needle marks there. They've stripped him, and Erik's temper rises again when he sees the plastic bowl of water in one corner of the cell, the untouched raw meat next to it. The young scientist is shaking, practically shuddering, and Raven turns her head to look at Erik, silently pleading with him to help.

Emma moves up behind Erik, holding a long white lab coat, and offers it to him. He takes it and enters the cell, crouching beside Hank and saying quietly, "Come on, McCoy. We're taking you home."

Together, he and Raven manage to get the lab coat on Hank and help him to his feet. Erik moves back once they're out of the cell, letting Raven stay with Hank as they make their way further down the corridor. He's still not talking, but Raven keeps up a steady, soft stream of words, assuring him over and over that it's going to be all right, that he's safe now.

Safe, yes, Erik thinks moodily, but he's not sure any of them are going to be all right after this.

This is the containment floor, Emma explains as they continue on. The basement level, surrounded by six feet of concrete and steel, heavily reinforced above and below. It's where they keep the mutants that have been classed as definitely dangerous, rather than potentially. It's where they'll find Alex and Darwin.

The next door Emma points to is thick and heavy, and takes a little more effort for Erik to rip free of the wall. He doesn't send it flying this time, having noted Hank's flinch at the scream of metal as he tore it free; he lets it float to the ground, settling with a thump.

At first, he thinks the cell is empty, that they've come too late. But then he spots the trapdoor in the floor, narrow enough that it looks like it just barely admits a person, and his gut clenches. Oubliette. He snaps the deadbolts and lifts the trapdoor, looking down at blonde hair and reddened skin before it clicks that this is Alex.

He kneels by the trapdoor and reaches in to touch Alex's shoulder, trying to see if the younger man is awake or unconscious. His answer comes in the form of an agonised scream, as his fingers leave bright red imprints on Alex's skin. He snatches his hand back, gasping an apology, and Alex subsides, whimpering softly.

Erik can feel the heat coming off Alex's skin, hotter than any fever he's felt before. He can feel the fear radiating off Alex, and he glances up to Emma, wordlessly asking her what's wrong.

"There's another door," she says quietly, kneeling by it. "Can you get this for me? He won't let you touch him until we get Darwin out."

Now, Erik understands, and the anger within him begins to boil into rage. They put Alex in the same cell as Darwin, and he's burning up because he won't release any of the energy within him. He understands the logic behind it, the need to control the most destructive of the mutants they've imprisoned, but it infuriates him, and he promises himself to take his time killing whoever came up with this sick place.

He removes the second trapdoor for Emma, and she and Moira reach down and carefully pull Darwin out. He seems relatively uninjured; of course he does, Erik thinks sardonically. He adapts. He adapted to an energy that would kill almost anyone else by turning gaseous, for God's sake. The scientists wouldn't have been able to do much to him.

Darwin gives Emma and Moira a nod of thanks and then joins Erik by the door to Alex's oubliette. He gives Erik a long, hard look - obviously he's been told about what happened, but just as obviously he's withholding judgement - and says quietly, "He's gone delirious."

They're not going to be able to get Alex out without hurting him. Erik and Darwin reach in and grasp him under the arms and around the chest and pull him out of the oubliette, trying to ignore the screams. It's harder to ignore the way he begs them to stop, to just let him burn off without hurting Darwin.

Any contact seems to hurt him, turning his already-reddened skin an angry, burned-looking colour. Erik makes a snap decision, looking up at Emma and saying, "Put him to sleep."

Darwin insists on being the one to carry the unconscious Alex, holding him protectively against his chest. It's the safest option, as well as the one that makes the most sense; Darwin can defend Alex better than any of the rest of them could, solely by virtue of his mutation.

The next floor up is the medical floor, Emma tells them as they enter an elevator. Erik forces himself to let the mechanisms do the work, rather than making the elevator ascend using his ability, and the doors slide open on a corridor that's spotlessly clean and smells too sterile.

Hank whimpers at the smell, and Raven moves closer to him, protectively. Erik glances at them, at Darwin and Alex, and says, "You four wait here."

He, Emma, and Moira move out.

This level is the one that tears at Erik's carefully-maintained calm. It's too similar to the halls he was led through as a teenager, to examination rooms and laboratories. He can feel Moira watching him as the metal around them vibrates lightly, but he can't rein in his temper more than he already is.

And, eventually, Emma leads them to an observation window.

The boy in the bed is barely recognisable as Sean. There are heavy leather restraints wrapped around his wrists and ankles, thick bandages swathing his throat, and a hideous leather-and-metal device strapped around his head. They've shaved his head and stuck IVs in him, and Erik can see electrodes from the observation window.

There are also two doctors on the room - at least, he assumes they're doctors. They're wearing lab coats and one of them has a stethoscope around his neck, and Erik feels absolutely no guilt as he reaches out with his power and drags their dogtag chains up, tightening around their throats. He's been at the mercy of this sort of doctor before, and it infuriates him that they're doing this again, so soon after the experiments that they condemned.

He keeps his attention on the doctors, strangling them as slowly as he can without risking them setting off an alarm. Moira is staring at him, he knows, her free hand at her throat - this must remind her painfully of the day at the beach, where he would have killed her if not for Charles's intervention. He ignores her, ignores Emma, ignores everything except the gasps and weakening struggles of the men who dare to call themselves doctors.

When they fall to the ground, he rips the door open, and Moira immediately goes to the bedside, checking Sean's wrist for a pulse. Emma waits in the doorway, in case someone approaches, and Erik goes for the chart at the end of the bed.

Its contents sicken him. The scientists have been cutting into Sean's throat to see if his mutation has physically changed his vocal cords, and there are plans, in the notes, to investigate his brain and lungs. Erik throws the chart aside and turns to the boy, grateful, at least, that he's sedated. Removing the medical equipment and the contraption around his head will be easier if he's not fighting them out of fear.

Moira already has the restraints off by the time Erik turns back to the bed. He turns his attention to the device the scientists have been using to keep Sean quiet - a scold's bridle. Erik's bile rises as he looks at the thing, a relic of the fucking Dark Ages, not something that should be used on an eighteen-year-old kid who doesn't even know how to hate. He forces his hands to remain gentle as he snaps the locks keeping the straps closed, carefully peeling them back from Sean's skin. He can't keep back the snarl that rises when he sees the reddened, abraded places where the leather cut too deeply.

As he lifts the leather and metal away, he can see blood in the corners of Sean's mouth. Beside him, Moira swears, quietly but violently. Together, they carefully get Sean's mouth open, and more blood trickles down his chin. Erik reaches out with his power to explore the metal thing in Sean's mouth, trying to work out where the injury is, and when the shape of the thing forms in his mind, he recoils.

"What is it?" Moira asks, her tone saturated with concern. She looks from him to Sean, swallowing hard. "What did they do?"

"The gag is spiked," Erik says, the words coming out sharp and almost crackling with anger. He glances over his shoulder at Emma, whose expression is schooled into a carefully blank mask. "Emma, keep him unconscious until we get to safety."

She nods, and Erik turns his attention back to the metal gag, manipulating it with touches of power, the gentlest thing he's done with his power in years. Sean's tongue is still bleeding sluggishly by the time Erik works the spiked gag free, but there isn't any new damage, at least.

Erik looks at Moira, once Sean is freed of the medical equipment, and says, "Take him and go wait with Raven and the others. Emma and I will see to Charles."

He can see the conflict within her; she doesn't trust him, and she's right not to, but she knows that he'll do everything in his power to help Charles, just like he knows the same thing about her. He'd gladly have her by his side while they found Charles, if only because he knows her loyalty to Charles is absolute, but he needs Emma to lead him to where Charles is being kept. And he has a sinking suspicion that he'll need Emma once they're there, too; the fact that Charles is in a psychic dead zone is a worrying one. Erik's not sure what that sort of deprivation even does to a telepath, and he's a little afraid to find out.

Eventually, Moira nods and gathers Sean in her arms, heading back to where the others are waiting. Once she's out of sight, Erik looks at Emma and asks flatly, "What am I going to be looking at?"

Her shrug is elegant and careless as always, but he can see the fear in her eyes as she replies, "It'll depend on whether they've managed to lock him in the dead zone. I've been sending my mind out to try to touch his, and I can't even get a vague sense of where he is."

A chill settles in Erik's stomach, and he says quietly, "He could be dead."

He's more relieved than he wants to admit when Emma shakes her head. "He's not dead. Trask is privy to some of their most top-level information - they want Xavier on their side. They just haven't found a way to ensure his loyalty yet. So they're keeping him subdued until they know more about the nature of his gift."

She would be afraid of that; anything that can hurt Charles will hurt her too. Erik nods, gesturing for her to lead the way to the dead zone, and spends the walk there imagining several ways he could kill the men and women responsible for this travesty.

The room Emma leads them to is frighteningly like a laboratory, even more so than the one Sean was imprisoned in. Monitors line the walls, each one showing readouts that Erik can't make sense of, and there are cables and IVs and tubing feeding into the thing in the centre of the room that captures Erik's attention immediately and sends a wave of nausea through him.

It's a metal casket, a little over six feet long, perhaps two and a half feet wide, not quite two feet high. It’s only the wires and tubing connected to it, and the fact that the monitors are showing readings of something, that stop Erik's instinctive reaction - that this is a coffin, and he's going to find Charles dead inside.

Emma winces as they approach the casket, looking as though she has a headache. Erik runs his hands over the top of the casket, looking for a release mechanism, a handle, anything that will tell him how to get rid of the lid and get Charles out. He can't find anything, and his movements get increasingly agitated as he searches again, finally looking up at Emma in desperation.

"The other doctor's in the bathroom," Emma says, her eyes turning unfocused. "I'll take a walk."

The moments she spends in the human's mind are agonisingly long, and Erik spends them looking for anything else that will help, trying to make sense of the readouts. He doesn't dare use his power to rip the casket apart, in case he injures Charles - more than you already have, a traitor part of his mind whispers spitefully.

Eventually, Emma's eyes focus again, and she walks to one of the computers and types rapidly. There's a hiss of air and the top of the casket begins to move aside, and Erik practically melds himself to its side, watching with bated breath to see what state Charles is in.

At first, he thinks Charles must be unconscious. He's not moving, and his eyes are closed. Leaning closer, though, Erik can hear rasping, barely-audible sounds coming from Charles's lips - pleas, he realises with a sinking heart. Pleas repeated often enough that Charles's voice has given out.

"How long?" he snaps at Emma, without taking his gaze off Charles's face. The lid slides back further, revealing the liquid Charles is floating in, the fact that the casket doesn't have enough room for him to move, much less turn over. Charles's skin is deathly pale, and he's lost weight - however long he has been in here, it's been too long.

"At least a week," Emma says, sounding horrified. "I can't - Magneto, I can't make sense of his thoughts, he's - it's been so long that he doesn't recognise other minds. He's-"

She breaks off, and Erik looks at her, surprised to see a stunned, sad expression on her face.

"He's what?"

"He's crying out for you," she says softly.

Erik looks back to Charles, floored. After everything, Charles is still reaching out for his mind? The implications - the idea that Charles forgives him - are dizzying. He ignores them for now, forces himself to, because they can't afford to have him distracted until they're all safe.

"Tell Azazel to meet us at the elevator," he says shortly, carefully taking out the IV that the scientists have been using to keep Charles hydrated, taking off his cape and laying it on the floor. He lifts Charles out of the casket, wincing when he sees the way the muscles in Charles's legs have begun wasting already, and lays him on the cape, wrapping him in the crimson folds as gently as if he was swaddling a baby. Lifting Charles into his arms and standing, he settles the other man against his chest, looking at Emma and defying her to make any remark.

She just nods and leads the way back to the elevator.

This close, Erik can hear the words Charles is whispering. Names, over and over. Hank, Sean, Alex, Armando - and Erik. The cracked, broken sound of Charles's voice is tearing at him, and without thinking, he takes one of Charles's hands in his and walks faster. The sooner they get to the others at the elevator, the sooner they can get to safety.

Azazel, Janos, and Angel are waiting with Charles's students and Moira when Erik and Emma get to the elevator. Azazel and Janos are standing off to one side, looking a little uncomfortable, but Angel is beside Darwin, her hands hovering just shy of touching Alex's skin.

"Moira, Sean, Angel, Darwin and Alex first," Erik directs as he approaches. The least combat-useful - Moira and Darwin, at least in this situation - and the two unconscious students - and one of Erik's people, just in case. Azazel nods, putting his hands on Moira's and Darwin's shoulders and teleporting them with a smoky retort. Erik turns his attention to Janos, asking simply, "Did you take care of everyone?"

"And their records," Janos replies with a curt nod. Erik regrets that necessity - their records would have been invaluable in the fight to preserve mutantkind - but they just don't have the luxury of time to get the information out. And he's not going to send his people in here again, unless it's another rescue mission. Janos keeps the explanation at that, his usual laconic nature even more subdued by the rescue of their former enemies.

Azazel returns after a moment, looking to Erik for further directions. Erik glances at the remaining mutants - six of them, the upper limit of what Azazel has had to transport at once - and raises his eyebrows, silently asking Azazel if he thinks he can make another large jump so soon after the first. The red-skinned mutant considers and then nods, and Erik gestures for everyone to gather together.

Raven stays between Hank and the rest of them. Erik doesn't blame her. Hank is justifiably jumpy, and he doesn't want to unsettle him more than he already is. He holds Charles close to his chest, forcing himself not to snarl when Janos touches his shoulder to link him into Azazel's teleportation chain, and then they leave the facility behind in favour of Erik's compound.

The moment they're safely home, Erik gives more orders. "Emma, Moira, you're in charge of medical," he snaps. They don't have a dedicated doctor the way Charles does with Hank, but Emma has honed her telepathy to an art, and has skimmed off enough knowledge from several doctors to serve the purpose. Moira's presence should help calm Charles's students. He adds, "Janos, Azazel, patrol. I want to know the minute someone gets close enough to spit on our walls."

Janos and Azazel nod and leave the room quickly; Emma touches Moira's shoulder and leads the way to what must have been the infirmary, back when this was a school. Some judicious theft, the melting-down of some of the gold Erik acquired over the years, and Emma and Raven convincing more than a few people that they were either obscenely wealthy bank customers who required their money, or obscenely wealthy medical professionals who were outfitting a private clinic, have outfitted the infirmary with enough equipment that they can handle any day-to-day problem, and a good many problems that aren't day-to-day. Emma is still no Hank, but she's effective.

Halfway to the infirmary, Erik notices that Raven isn't with them. He figures quickly enough that, since Hank had seemed reasonably uninjured, Raven has decided to take him to one of the private rooms instead of subjecting him to the infirmary. It's a reasonable decision, not one that Erik disagrees with; he makes a note to check on them both later, but leaves it for now.

Moira and Emma take charge, once they reach the infirmary. Alex and Sean are the primary concern, that much is evident. Charles seems uninjured, but the damage that was done to his psyche - Erik doesn't know how bad it is, or what to do to repair it. He settles for setting Charles carefully on one of the beds away from where Emma is trying to work out what to do for Alex, sitting beside it and unconsciously reaching out to take Charles's hand.

Charles is still mouthing names, trying to speak in a voice screamed silent, and Erik feels something tearing at his heart, watching Charles's lips shape the soundless syllables of his name. Without even thinking about it, he reaches up and takes off his helmet, setting it to one side. He takes Charles's hands and places them on either side of his head, thinking that perhaps Charles needs the contact, and whispers, "I'm here."

«ErikErikErikEriksilencepleaseErik»

Charles's psychic voice explodes into Erik's head, making him reel from the sheer force of it, from the pain and fear and desperation that permeate it almost tangibly. He tightens his hands on Charles's, keeping both their hands against his head, and grits his teeth against the pain, sending as much reassurance and comfort as he can back through to Charles.

"I'm here. I'm right here. You're not alone," he chokes out. He can't see Charles's face through the film of tears in his eyes, though whether they're from pain or something else he can't say. He keeps his hands on Charles's, holding onto him as though he never wants to let go, and keeps concentrating on meeting Charles's psychic projections of silence and fear and loneliness with comfort, reassurance, anything he can think of to make Charles calm down.

He loses track of time. He's dimly aware of Emma and Moira working not ten feet away from him, discussing what to do for Sean and whether having Alex outside to burn off when he wakes up would work, but all of Erik's attention is focused on Charles, on the psychic voice in his head begging him not to leave Charles alone, not to let them put him back in the dark and the silence. He keeps Charles's hands pressed against his head and whispers reassurances and promises, and he's not sure whether the tears he's crying are his or Charles's.

«Erik, Erik - so alone, so silent, please don't let me go back there Erik, please, please stay, stay with me stay»

"Shh," Erik whispers, and leans down to kiss Charles softly, Moira's and Emma's presence be damned. He sets one of Charles's hands on his chest to free his own hand, using it to cradle the side of Charles's face, an unconscious mirror of the way he has Charles's other hand pressed against the side of his head, and murmurs, "I'm here. I'll stay. I promise."