Charles didn't know where he was when he woke, but he knew that Erik was with him. His friend's mind was the first thing he sensed. It was just as groggy and confused as his, but it was there.
He remembered Russia-remembered that Shaw hadn't been there and the mission would have been aborted if Erik hadn't burst in after Emma Frost. Charles remembered following him in, taking her down...finding out what Shaw was up to and leaving the general's house with her, everyone loaded into the back of the truck once again.
And...oh god. Wait. They'd left in a hurry. Emma had kindly informed them that Shaw was in the process of attacking the CIA base back home where Raven and others were staying. It was happening as they spoke. But then the truck had hit something and soldiers were disappearing, there was fighting...
He and his other lackeys had already finished what they went to the CIA base to do. They had come to Russia with the teleporter; they must have.
But only Erik was here. Where were the others? Moira and her partner and the other men?
Charles blinked to clear his eyes, and cleared his throat. "Erik?"
Charles glanced to his right and saw his friend strapped to what appeared to be a plastic or fiberglass table, wrists and ankles tied to rings in the corners. It took a moment, but Charles realized he was in the same position. Their coats and sweaters and gloves and socks and shoes were gone, and they were strapped to tables that sat at an angle to the floor-tables Erik couldn't move.
"Are you all right?" Charles asked.
"I'm not hurt. But I feel naked; there isn't any metal close enough for me to sense it. Shaw planned this."
He realized that the entire room was lined with plastic-and the walls outside it must have been concrete or something else, because they looked sturdy enough, but they couldn't be metal or Erik would know it. Everything in the room was plastic. The cabinets, the tables...everything.
"Can you sense anything?" Erik was asking.
Charles focused, but he couldn't touch a single mind beyond Erik's. "No one. He's sent everyone away; I can't sense anyone at all. He really did plan this..." The thought made him sick to his stomach. "But what does he want?"
The door at the far side of the room opened, which scared the hell out of Charles considering he hadn't sensed anyone coming. He jerked-though he couldn't go far-and Erik simply glared at the figure who came in.
It was Shaw, wearing some sort of helmet. Try as he might, Charles could not touch the man's mind, and he supposed the helmet shielded him. He told Erik as much, silently, and heard Erik think quite a few swear words.
Shaw was just as immaculately dressed as he was in every single one of Erik's memories, and the man smiled politely at them as he shut the door behind him. "Good morning, boys. So nice to have you with us. I trust you slept well?"
"Where are the others who were with us?" Charles demanded immediately.
"The humans? Dead. I don't need them."
Charles's breath caught in his throat. "All of them?"
Shaw shrugged, and then seemed to realize something. "I'm sorry; were you worried about the woman?"
"Her name is Moira," Charles grated out through clenched teeth.
"Ah. Then Moira is dead."
"Bastard," Erik snarled.
"Perhaps. But you, of all people, should already know that."
Charles still wasn't processing. He couldn't look through the man's memories for confirmation or negation, and it was maddening. "You're lying..." he choked, because he wanted it to be true.
Charles, calm down, Erik thought.
Shaw looked to Charles again, and a thoughtful look crossed his face. "That is a possibility from your perspective, isn't it? Since I'm wearing this." He tapped the helmet. When he spoke again, he sounded almost apologetic. He was also coldly matter-of-fact. "I'm sorry, Charles, but I'm afraid I'm not lying. Moira is dead. Azazel slit her throat."
Charles let out a strangled sound as he bit back a sob, because he would not cry in front of Shaw.
Charles? Erik asked.
I c...I cared about her, Erik, he answered miserably, and the past tense hurt almost too much to use.
There was a pause before Erik sent anything else his way. Charles, I'm so sorry. I didn't know.
"Everyone who happened to be on your little CIA base last night is also dead," Shaw was saying now. "Except for the children, of course. I wouldn't harm them; I went there for them. No, wait, one of them is dead. The tall one, the one who could adapt..."
"Darwin," Charles whispered, chest constricting even further.
"Darwin! Yes. I don't think I got his name, but that makes sense. But to move on, the other children are fine. Angel is with us now, but unfortunately the rest chose to stay behind. I was so hoping they would come with us, but I suppose one can't win them all."
Then Raven, Hank, Alex, and Sean were all right. Whoever came back to the base this morning, or whoever showed up in response to the attack would find them. They wouldn't be alone. And if all else failed, Raven would know that she could bring them to New York. Neither of them had set foot in that house in years-England had been home since he'd begun at Oxford-but it was there, and for the moment it was safe.
"What the hell do you want, Shaw?" Erik demanded.
The man's eyebrows went up-or they disappeared into the helmet, anyhow. "Yes, well, Charles was quite right-I've planned this for some time. Originally it was only meant to be you that I brought here, but plans change. When we finished in Virginia we popped over to see how Emma was doing with the general, but we found her being carted off by you. And you and Charles were both there, and it seemed the perfect opportunity. I took it, of course."
He looked at them, but neither of them said anything. "Ah. I suppose you're waiting for the point." He paced in front of them casually, hands behind his back. "The truth is, boys, that you only have two choices here. You can join us, or you can die. Things are going to get interesting before we make it to one choice or the other, but you will make the choice, somehow."
Charles didn't know what he meant by interesting-which, again, was incredibly frustrating-but it didn't sound good at all.
Erik was the one to ask. Or demand, rather. "Define interesting," he growled.
Shaw smiled, almost happily. "I'm so glad you asked, Erik. You see, I didn't mind leaving the others behind for now-either they'll come around, or they won't-but you two...you two are so much more powerful. You two I can use."
Charles glared at him. "We know what you're planning, Shaw. I saw all of it in Emma's mind. We will not help you destroy the world as we know it."
"Of course not. Not now. Erik hates me, and you, well...you think you're so noble. I knew that you would both need a bit of convincing. Everyone can be convinced, in one way or another."
"Don't be so sure."
He'd killed Moira. He'd killed Darwin. He'd killed a base full of CIA operatives and a truck full of soldiers. He'd killed so many others, more than likely, and wanted to kill countless more. Charles would die before he had anything to do with the man, and he sensed similar feelings from Erik. Erik's feelings were from different reasons, but...
Shaw looked at him patiently. "Perhaps you should be the one who isn't so sure, Charles." He reached out and touched Charles's cheek lightly, but his head snapped to the side and it felt as if he'd been punched full in the face.
Charles's head was spinning, and he heard Erik bark in anger. When he oriented himself again Shaw was smiling once more, and then he shifted his gaze so it encompassed both of them. "This is how this is going to work: Being only one person I can only work toward...well, convincing...one of you at a time. If it isn't your turn you'll just have to wait. If it is your turn...that's the fun part." Shaw touched Charles's chin this time, and his head slammed back into the table.
Shaw continued coolly. "I'm not going to go easy on you, but the good news is that all you have to do is ask me to stop, tell me you've had enough...anything of the sort. I'll stop."
Charles, trying to clear the stars from his vision again, saw that Erik was glaring at Shaw once he could see clearly enough.
"I would assume there's a catch," Erik deadpanned. "Saying there's always a catch with you involved is no understatement."
"Very good, Erik. Yes, there's a catch. It's my favorite part. You see, if you want me to leave you alone all you have to do is ask, however...I'll still need something to do, so the other of you will take your place-until they've had enough, that is, and then it will all come back to you. It'll turn into a cycle, you see, and a cycle that's always the same can be quite boring. We'll have to keep things interesting, so in addition to moving on to the other of you I'll have switch a few other things up as well. So it seems we're getting somewhere, that means whatever is done will grow progressively worse at each change-up. It will up the stakes, if you will, and that's much more fascinating an idea than other things I could do here.
Charles couldn't help the horror on his face as he translated all of that: Shaw was going to hurt them-just one of them at a time-and if they admitted to having enough he would switch to the other, and whatever Shaw did to the other would be worse. He didn't know he was projecting his worries and his understanding of what was going to happen until Erik grunted quietly in his mind.
That sounds like him...it's actually one of his tamer plans.
And then, before Charles could protest or stop him, Erik spoke.
"Start with me."
Erik, what are you doing!
I'm used to this, Charles. If he starts with me he may never get to you. I hope.
That isn't the point...
No, the POINT is that Shaw is insane. Erik didn't actively think the rest, but Charles picked up on it anyway. If Erik could protect Charles from Shaw he was going to do it.
No, Erik. You don't have to-
But Shaw was smiling now. Again. The man's smile was unnerving. "You'd like that, wouldn't you Erik? But I'm afraid if we started with you it might be quite a while before poor Charles here got a turn at all...though you know that. That's why you want it." He glanced at Charles now, still smiling, and something about it made Charles's heart skip a beat...admittedly in fear. "So we'll start with him."
Erik's thoughts suddenly burst into frantic fragments, his eyes wide, though Charles knew that he would not openly panic in front of Shaw.
Nonono that can't happen this isn't right not Charles NOT CHARLES.
Erik, it's all right...
You weren't there, Charles. Maybe you saw it in my head, but you weren't there. You don't know how creative he is. You've never "really" been in pain. You don't understand. I don't want you to understand.
If only he knew...
But Shaw was already at the side of Charles's table, smiling a little as he reached to touch him-but not his face this time. This time Shaw's hand hovered over Charles's stomach, almost soothingly at first...and then a fingertip barely brushed the fabric of his shirt and a small shockwave pushed his body back into the table in a quick pulse, and it felt worse than a kick to the gut. Charles gagged at the impact, because it hurt and suddenly he couldn't get enough air.
He dragged in half a breath, but a second impact knocked out whatever air he'd managed to get and set him to coughing and gagging, even as a third shockwave continued to keep him devoid of air.
Charles was seeing spots by the time he was allowed to get any oxygen and keep it, and by then everything from his chest to his hips felt bruised.
Already. And Shaw had just begun.
"Shaw!" Erik. Erik was shouting.
The man was completely ignoring him. "Blunt force trauma," he was saying. "The simplest and most rudimentary of methods, but one that is still widely effective. The perfect place to start."
He reached for Charles's face again, and when Charles pulled back instinctively Shaw grabbed the back of his head instead, fingers pulling at his hair. The other hand then covered the left side of Charles's face, and Shaw's thumb began to rub over his cheekbone-began to bruise his cheekbone, because Shaw could push down much harder than anyone normal could. But he seemed to know how far he could go without cracking the bone beneath. He only left bruises, but that hurt enough.
Charles let out a small sound, against his will, and Shaw smiled, his face uncomfortably close. "Are we having fun yet, Charles?"
"Quite a bit if it. Loads. We should invite a few more and call it a party."
Shaw chuckled. "I like this one, Erik. I can see why you make such good friends."
"Leave him alone," Erik said darkly, though Charles couldn't see him at the moment because Shaw was in the way.
Shaw let go of Charles's head with one hand, and the other pushed slightly against his face but with enough force to snap it sideways again. His newly bruised cheekbone hit the table, and Charles couldn't help but grunt loudly.
"I can't do that," Shaw was saying. "It will be his choice when I leave him alone."
Charles, just do it. Tell him to let you be. I'll be fine.
Charles twisted his head to look to his other side, and now Shaw had moved enough that he could catch Erik's eyes. No, my friend. I can't do that to you.
You'll have to do it at some point. You might as well do it now.
How do you know I'll have to?
You can't last forever, Charles.
I am not at weak as you think, he lashed out suddenly, almost angry.
Erik's eyes softened. I don't think you're weak. I think you're unprepared. But then his eyes widened and his head popped up from the table. Charles-!
The sharp impact to his stomach surprised him more this time, because he hadn't been watching Shaw, and he cried out before he could stop himself. This time it lasted longer before Shaw paused, blow after blow after blow with only enough wait now and then that he could get enough air to stay conscious, and by the time Shaw really did pause Charles was coughing up blood.
And somehow nothing was broken. Shaw knew to hit low enough or not quite hard enough to crack ribs, maybe because that would come later.
He shuddered at the thought, but he would take it if he had to. He wanted to be able to. He would not choose to allow Erik to be hurt.
When Shaw saw the blood Charles knew was leaking from the side of his mouth an eyebrow went up, and his hand moved away. "Wouldn't want to do any permanent internal damage just yet," he commented.
He tried to follow where it looked like Shaw was going to move next, but the pain radiating from his midriff was distracting.
Unfortunately, Shaw seemed to notice. His hand moved back over Charles's stomach, and Charles tightened up without thinking about it.
He moaned, and he knew it sounded awful. Shaw was smirking, and he could sense Erik's alarm and anger without even really searching for his friend's mind.
I'm all right, I'm all right...he projected quickly, before Erik could say anything.
Erik said something anyway. Or thought something. Charles, TELL HIM. You don't know what you're getting yourself into.
I know what I would be getting you into if I gave in. I won't do it.
And then Shaw was pressing against his stomach-completely normal, human pressure-but it was enough to set him gasping because of the bruises that were already forming there.
Shaw dug in a thumb and began to press down, right in the middle of an existent bruise. Charles's mouth opened in a silent cry of pain, but nothing came out until what Shaw did next. A tiny, contained shockwave drove itself into Charles's body, no bigger than the end of Shaw's thumb. His body jerked and it pulled a sharp gasp out of him, and he wondered if maybe that had been akin to what it might feel like to be shot or stabbed.
It still hurt. The bruise it left was small, but deep.
Shaw did this again, and again and again, everywhere-his arms, his legs, chest, stomach-and each time he dreaded it a little more and he jerked a little harder from the sudden flash of white-hot pain. The treatment left small welts where administered, though only the ones on his arms were visible, and those only visible at all because Shaw had rolled up his sleeves part of the way.
And sometimes Shaw paused to go back over the old spots, pressing on them just for fun, because he knew it hurt Charles. It hurt especially much when anything touched his midriff at all, and sometimes Shaw simply pressed there, or grabbed his sides and squeezed until Charles was shaking from the pain.
And all the while Erik was outwardly quiet, glaring vehemently at Shaw, but inside he pleaded with Charles.
Just stop this. You can stop it. Just do it. Don't worry about me.
Charles's answers were more coherent at first, but when thinking clearly became harder he resorted to thinking back, over and over, I won't, I won't, I won't...
It took long enough, but Erik finally seemed to realize that he wasn't going to listen to him, and...was that a sob? Charles was too unfocused to tell. But that was when Erik attempted to help instead.
Charles...Charles, just don't watch him. Stop watching. Don't think about it. Look somewhere else. Go somewhere else, he coached, though he sounded strained and incredibly unhappy to be needing to share this information.
Shaw sent another sharp impact into his thigh, and Charles twitched and half-swallowed a groan. Go...go where? He knew that if he were at full strength and focused he could easily send himself far away, thanks to his powers, but he was too drained and distracted now. He tried to dredge up better thoughts and hide himself in them, but Shaw was still there, in front of him, hurting him. Go where? Look...where...
Shaw moved back to his stomach and sent a new shockwave through it, just to freshen up the bruises maybe.
Charles shouted hoarsely, and the scream he gave on the inside was worse, was a sob. WHERE!
ME! This time he knew he heard Erik sob, at least mentally. Look at me, Charles! You could have done that from the beginning. If you're going to be stupid enough to do this you don't have to do it alone. I'm right here. I'm RIGHT HERE.
Blinking back tears that he would not let loose, Charles looked quickly to his friend, and he saw that Erik's eyes were not dry either. Erik caught his gaze and held it, and it hurt just as much when Shaw pushed at his midriff and the pain from the traumatized flesh threatened to send him over the edge, but at least he wasn't alone.
Erik didn't know how long Shaw had been at it-hurting Charles. But he knew it seemed like forever and he didn't know how much more he could take, much less Charles. His fairly decent internal clock told him, at least, that it really had been hours. Erik was both stunned and somewhat proud that Charles had lasted so long already and incredibly angry that Shaw hadn't at least given him a break. Shaw, he knew, could keep at this forever. With his powers of energy absorption he didn't need to sleep.
But Charles was losing it.
When Charles had finally just looked at him, that seemed to help for a while. Since the damned stubborn man wouldn't listen to sense and stop this Erik had held his gaze and tried to coach him through it-told him not to think about it, to breathe...everything Erik wished he hadn't had to learn as a child and everything he wished Charles didn't need to know now.
Just breathe. Keep breathing. Don't focus on it. Focus away from it. Don't let it overtake you. You can go crazy that way...
He told him over and over and over, because he could do nothing else to help and he had to keep saying it-thinking it-to keep Charles calm. To make him remember it. But eventually, no matter how well or not he'd listened, Charles couldn't focus on Erik anymore. He was too exhausted. His head lolled back and when his eyes were even open he stared blankly at the ceiling until the next time they squeezed shut from the pain or he shouted and they snapped quickly closed.
Every sound that came from Charles and every face he made, every shudder of pain made Erik want to scream, because this shouldn't be happening. Charles shouldn't have to go through this. He didn't deserve it. He was good. He wasn't made to endure brutality, and yet he was doing it because he thought he had to.
Even when Charles couldn't look at him anymore, Erik felt him in his mind, just at the edge, holding onto Erik's presence for dear life. Erik still didn't understand Charles's abilities and how they worked, and doubted he ever would, but he did what he could. He imagined the tentative link Charles had with his mind as a hand, and he imagined reaching out with a hand of his own to take hold in return. He held on as tightly as he knew how.
I'm right here, Charles; I'm not going anywhere...
In his mind there was only a small whimper, but he felt the thanks.
Erik's jaw tightened when he realized that Charles was now too far gone to communicate coherently even through telepathy.
Shaw had been wrong. He'd made a mistake. This was not the perfect place to start. What he was doing was simple and done without tools, but it was not the least of things he could have done. It was not the lowest rung. For Erik, yes, if it had been him, but this was Charles. The slow grind, the constant pain that ever varied and spiked...it was wearing Charles down. He didn't have a childhood of such memories to make it easier. To make it just another day that everything hurt.
His eyes were glassy and his breaths were coming shorter and more irregularly now, and Erik was terrified that when Shaw finally stopped Charles wouldn't be himself anymore.
Then Shaw's hand moved over Charles's stomach yet again, and Erik knew what he was going to do before he did it. "No-!"
But he did it anyway, sending one of those infernal shockwaves through Charles's midriff that hurt him so much. Shaw hadn't done it in a bit and when it hit him Charles gagged and jerked forward against the ropes and straps, gasping out groggy words of his own in protest. "N-no...! No...no..." It ended in a moan, and Shaw's eyebrows went up.
"What was that, Charles?"
He shook his head weakly and looked away, but Shaw smiled.
"I think he means it's your turn, Erik."
Oh god. Finally. Not that he looked forward to it...if he was honest with himself a part of him trembled inside at the thought of being at Shaw's mercy again, but...Charles. God, he didn't want Charles to suffer any longer.
But Shaw's words were bringing Charles back from the edge of oblivion, and he was shaking his head again. "No...No, I..." He coughed, and it looked as if he would have doubled over if that were possible.
"Charles, shut up," Erik said sharply. This was no time to be gentle. That could come later. For now Charles needed to let this be over. If Charles was going to survive as he was it needed to be over.
"Let him finish," Shaw said.
"The hell I will." And he didn't even bother thinking what he said next out of Shaw's hearing this time. "Charles, it's okay. It's okay."
But Charles was still shaking his head weakly. "N-no, I'm...all right," he managed finally, though it sounded as if those words took great difficulty to say. But he'd said them. Damnit, he'd said them.
Erik just stared at him, stricken. Damn you...
And Shaw chuckled quietly, almost appreciatively. "You're all right..." He reached for Charles's face and Erik was ready to scream at him, but when he took Charles's chin between his thumb and forefinger there was no abnormal force behind it. "I really am impressed with you, Charles."
Erik was glad to see that Charles still had enough presence of mind to try to pull away. It didn't work, of course, because Shaw used at least enough force to keep Charles from pulling his face free, but at least he'd tried. He was still Charles. Shaw hadn't broken him.
The realization was such a relief that Erik's strength abruptly left him, and he let his head drop back against the table.
That was when Shaw continued. "But you've already said something. It's Erik's turn now."
Erik saw Charles bite back a sob or two of panic. "No, wait-!"
"It's too late, Charles."
Shaw turned to smile at Erik. "I'm looking forward to this. But it's been a while since we began; perhaps we should continue this in a few hours. We want you both focused, after all."
Translation: He wanted to give Charles time to recover, so he would be more alert to be upset about whatever the hell Shaw planned to do to Erik.
Erik glowered at him, and Shaw stepped over to his table and began to work at one of the ropes tying one Erik's hands. Erik didn't know why he was doing it, but once his hand was free he lashed out toward Shaw, who only stepped back and smirked.
"Now, Erik, let's be mature about this." He turned to leave. "The blocked-off corner is a bathroom. There's water there. We wouldn't want either of you dying on us too quickly."
Erik looked at his freed hand, and realized that he was perfectly capable of freeing himself and Charles now. "If you let us down how do you expect to get us tied up again?"
"That part is easy. The room is airtight. I simply leak in something to put you under," Shaw smiled, holding the door open. "And I wouldn't waste my time attempting to find a way out, if I were you. There's isn't one. See to Charles." With that, he left, the door slamming and locking at his back.
By then Erik was seething, but he only used it to fuel his speed in getting himself free-to get to Charles faster. By the time he scrambled off his table and over to his friend Charles was sobbing dryly. "Erik, I'm sorry. I'm s-so sorry..."
"Be quiet. It's all right." He didn't know what to say other than that, and he repeated it as he carefully untied Charles's wrists and ankles and pulled back the straps across his chest, hips, and legs. His wrists and ankles...god. They were covered in dried blood, scraped raw from all of the pulling at them he'd done.
If he was this much of a mess after one session, how would he survive another? Shaw would have to do something different to give him any chance at all.
No. He couldn't think like that. Erik knew now that he couldn't let Shaw have another chance at Charles. Not if he could help it. He would die if he had to he would...he would stay if he had to.
"Not...not for me," Charles whispered.
Erik blinked down at him. "You-"
"I'm sorry...I can't...I...don't have...much control. Just now. I..." He trailed off apologetically, and his eyes closed as he tried to breathe. Erik was sure breathing probably hurt, and he winced. He couldn't fault Charles for being too worn out to control his abilities, either.
Swallowing hard, Erik gently nudged an arm under Charles's shoulders, and the other under his knees. Charles grunted in the back of his throat, and Erik apologized in his own way. "I know, I know, but it would be much worse if you tried to get up on your own."
Charles made a small sound of assent, and Erik lifted him from the table as slowly and gently as he could. Charles's eyes still clenched shut more tightly, and one of his hands fisted in Erik's shirt, but he didn't protest as he was carried over to wall and set down against it.
"Not...a problem...in the slightest..." Charles gasped quietly, leaving heavily against the wall.
Erik hurried to the corner that was blocked off by more plastic walls-but frosted ones, that closed in a small bathroom that housed only a toilet and sink. A small stack of plastic cups were stacked by the sink, and he filled one with water that was thankfully, cold, and hurried back to Charles.
He lowered himself to the ground against the wall and sidled up as close to Charles as he could get-against him, really, shoulder to shoulder, so there was less chance he would topple over and just hurt himself more. At Erik's silent instruction Charles willingly leaned into him, and soon most of his weight was against Erik's shoulder because Charles simply could not support himself right now. One of Erik's arms held him around the shoulders to keep him steady.
"Here..." As soon as Charles was situated as comfortably as he was going to be able to be, with his free hand Erik picked the cup of water up again from where he'd set it on the floor beside him and held it the Charles's lips. He started to drink too quickly and Erik had to pull the cup away for a moment. "Slowly, Charles!" He brought the cup back, and after a moment Charles brought his hands up and attempted to hold it himself. But his arms shook, and Erik wasn't able to let go.
He didn't mind.
He let Charles have what he wanted, and there wasn't but a swallow of water left in the cup after, but he took that was happy enough. He would be fine. He wasn't going to get up again. He wouldn't leave Charles like this.
They sat in silence for a while, Charles's breathing finally evening out for the first time in hours. It was an intense relief to hear, but still Erik wished there were more he could do.
Charles was only quiet for a moment before he spoke again. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, and there were tears in his voice and Erik was sure there must have been some in his eyes again. "I tried to-"
"You couldn't have taken that forever, Charles. I didn't expect you to," Erik answered gruffly. "I wouldn't expect anyone to."
Another pause. "Then why do you plan to try?"
Erik stiffened. "We're not talking about this."
"I will not let him do this to you again. Have you seen you? You're a wreck."
Charles tried to laugh, and it was horrible mistake. "Hehe...aaahhh! Guh..." he moaned.
Erik's chest constricted. "My point exactly." He tugged up at the hem of Charles's shirt, and Charles grunted again when he moved a bit too quickly in bringing a hand to his middle to grab Erik's and stop him.
"Wh...what are you doing?"
"I'm trying to see how bad it is. Do you mind?"
Charles slowly relented, and let go of Erik's hand. "All right..."
Erik tried to pull up the buttoned shirt, but the rough fabric of the clothing they'd worn for the cold in Russia was unrelenting, especially with half of it bunched up under Charles, and he had to unbutton the bottom half of it before he could push it and the gray t-shirt underneath up enough to get a look at Charles's damaged midriff.
He had to bite back a grunt of anguish when he saw it, and it died half-strangled in his throat.
"I suppose...it's bad?"
"You're completely black and blue. And yellow. And purple." Erik had to say it evenly-very, very evenly-or his voice would have shaken. He couldn't have that. Not now. Charles needed him. There was still that part of him that was worried about later Shawpainlikeoldtimeswhywhywhy but the rest of him was focused on his friend.
"Oh," Charles was saying.
"'Oh?' That's all you have to say?" But what else could he say, really?
Charles fumbled with the fabric as he tugged the ends of the two shirts back down, and his hands were shaking. His arms were shaking. Erik did his best to rub them, hoping to fuse more warmth into them or convey that he was all right now, but soon Charles's entire body was trembling against him.
"E-Erik...?" His teeth chattered, and Erik held him closer and kept both arms around him, rubbing and holding him close. He needed to get warm.
"You're in shock. You've never been through anything like this."
At least...I can understand you better now.
I told you...I didn't WANT you to understand this. God, you were NEVER supposed to understand this. Not this.
Erik wished he had something to cover Charles's bare feet with, but Charles was the only one who still had an extra layer and he needed it where it was. Still, with enough of holding him and rubbing his arms and his chest and his back for warmth, Charles didn't go any farther into shock. He calmed down and finally lay still, and Erik thought for a while that he'd drifted off to sleep.
Then he heard the first quiet sob.
There was no answer at first, and in a moment he was crying quietly.
Erik swallowed. I...it's all right. It's all right. But he didn't know how to help. He wasn't good at this. This comforting thing.
You've done all right so far, Charles told him silently. There was a pause in the soft crying, but though it sounded as if maybe Charles tried to stop, he failed. It wasn't long before he was shaking again; this time from the tears.
Moira...Darwin...all of those men, he moaned inwardly. Then, again, Moira...oh Moira...
All Erik could do was hold onto him, but for Charles that seemed to be enough.
Charles remembered crying himself to sleep against Erik's chest, and he remembered being horribly embarrassed about it at first but too exhausted to particularly care. And Erik hadn't known what to do, but he'd been there, and Charles was grateful just for that.
But he must not have woken up, because he didn't remember the gas. He didn't remember being strapped to the table again. A quick scan of the surface of Erik's mind told him that Erik remembered the gas, at least, and the sudden panic. Charles swallowed hard at that part.
And now they were both restrained again, and where was Shaw, and oh dear lord why didn't Erik have a shirt on anymore? Charles had a sudden, irrational hope that Shaw wouldn't come. The last thing he wanted was for Erik to be hurt because he hadn't been strong enough.
Not that Erik blamed him. Of course Erik didn't blame him. But he still blamed himself. All he could think was that Erik had enough memories like this; he didn't need any more. He didn't need to be put through anything that would remind him of what had happened to him the last time Shaw had him in his clutches.
"Erik..." Charles tried to look at his friend, but Erik just looked away.
"Not now, Charles."
Erik was scared. Oh god, Erik was scared. Erik who would board a hostile ship with nothing but a wetsuit and a knife and not so much as a pair of shoes and Erik who hunted Nazi war criminals and Erik who had tried to raise a submarine. He was frightened of what might be coming, and it made Charles want to cry.
Then the door opened, and he wanted to scream. But it would do no good, and it would hurt. His entire body still hurt.
Shaw smiled fondly at Erik as he came in. "Erik. It's been a long time, hasn't it?"
"If you're going to get on with it, get on with it. This isn't the time for games and you know it," Erik answered angrily.
Shaw paused for a moment. "You're right, of course." He crossed to a cabinet at the side of the room and unlocked it with a plastic key. He must have had most of the things in this room specially made, and his preparation was astounding. However, Charles quickly forgot all of that when Shaw turned around with a carefully cut piece of glass in his hand that was meant to look something like a knife. Charles couldn't see Erik's face because he was looking the other way at Shaw, but he felt the reaction. Something told him Erik was refusing to let it show on his face, but...
But Shaw seemed to know what Erik thought anyway. He smiled again. "You remember what one of our favorites games was, don't you, Erik? Granted, this time is different-the knife isn't metal and you can't force it away if you try hard enough-but I think we'll have just as much fun."
And the memories oh god the memories...pain and blood and stinging and cold and metal and tears and Shaw's grin and if he could just make the knife move he could stop it all, but too often it never worked until he was too exhausted and hurting to think about anything but the anger. He-
No. Not him. Erik. Erik's memories, but they'd hit Charles with such force that for a moment they had been his. He was gasping from the intensity of it, and it was all he could do not to let his own tears here and now out from behind his eyes.
Oh my friend...I...you don't know how sorry I am. I never wanted you to go through any of this again. I-
Shut up, Charles. Shut up shut up shut the HELL up and stay out of my head!
Charles recoiled from the vehemence of it, and he didn't understand until he realized that Erik's response was more born of panic and apprehension than anything else and that he was not helping, unintentionally reminding his friend of what Shaw was about to do.
Nonononono...and Charles wasn't even sure which one of them had thought it.
Shaw, meanwhile, had moved casually to the side of Erik's table and begun to look him over, contemplating. Charles still couldn't see Erik's face clearly, but it seemed Erik simply glared at him-both because there was nothing else he could really do and to cover up how much he did not want this to happen.
There was no reply, and that was when Shaw settled the the shard of glass over the skin of Erik's forearm and began to draw it across. Erik's jaw clenched, but he made no sound as blood was drawn. He made no noise that time, or the next, or the next...
Sometimes he tensed up and began to blink rapidly, sometimes he made a face, and at times he would even jerk, just a bit, but Erik didn't make a sound as Shaw worked over his arms and his shoulders. Everything else was inward, and Charles could feel it. He could sense the pain and the misery, but only from the perspective of someone on the the outside looking in, because Erik had shut him out.
Erik couldn't truly keep Charles out of his mind, of course, but the walls he'd thrown up made it clear that Charles was not welcome past the surface. Not now. Even when Shaw moved to his chest and the rest of his torso and Erik couldn't remain completely silent any longer, he still wouldn't let Charles in.
Erik, Erik let me help you, he pleaded, wincing as Erik pulled in a sharp breath when Shaw went in a little deeper than usual with the glass. From what Charles could tell from what he'd gleaned from the surface of his friend's mind the cuts hurt, but it was more the repetition, and the sting from all of them that did not go away after, that built in intensity as his body was covered in more and more of the small wounds.
And for Erik, it was remembering what had happened to him as a boy and being just as helpless now as he'd been then.
Charles bit back a sob. Please, Erik, let me help. I can help. Don't shut me out. I don't understand!
And Erik's walls slipped, and Charles understood that he wanted to be the strong one. He didn't want to need help; he didn't want to put more stress on Charles than there already was. He didn't want Charles to relive his childhood with him, and he'd pushed him away.
Erik, you are my friend. You wouldn't leave me alone, and I will not leave you alone. Let me in. You helped me; let me help you...
He didn't listen, and soon it was worse. Shaw began to cut deeper, or to go back and drag the sharp tip of the of the glass through the wounds that were already open, and Erik grunted and seethed and clenched his eyes shut at times, and pulled at the ropes, and if he was going to insist on doing this alone Charles wasn't going to be able to take it anymore.
Erik...he sobbed inwardly. Erik, Erik, I can't watch this.
But his friend shut him out again, and Charles would not invade without permission. Not even now. Not into his best friend's mind.
You do not have to protect me...
But there was no answer, and Charles had to look away. He could not stand the sight of Shaw smiling as he cut into Erik's flesh, making him bleed and making him feel like the terrified little boy he'd been twenty years ago. Even without the connection he wanted to forge he knew that was what was happening in Erik's mind. If Erik would let him in they could share it. He could take some of the fear and loneliness away even if he couldn't stop the pain, but Erik knew Charles would be in his memories with him if he did it and he would not let him close.
Not there. Not that. You shouldn't have to, Erik answered finally, even as he strangled a groan. Charles looked back at him, but Erik still would not look at him.
I've seen enough of it already! You know I have. I've seen all of it...
But going through all of it at once did you have time to really feel it? To be there? You couldn't have. He was right. I don't...I don't want you to. You can be the way you are because you were never there...
Please Erik...I'm right here...
But now there really was no answer, and when Shaw let the tip of the glass dig into one of the deeper open cuts on Erik's chest he grunted loudly. His eyes clenched shut, and Charles's did too. He turned away again, fighting back tears.
I'm here, I'm here...
But the mental hand Charles held out that Erik had grasped so tightly before keep him steady was now left empty.
The sounds Erik made behind him made Charles flinch, and flinching hurt. His body hurt, and his head hurt, and his mind hurt because he could do nothing to help his friend, because Erik wouldn't let him in. He would have cried if Shaw were not there. He wouldn't have been able to stop.
And then Shaw stopped. Charles sensed Erik's relief and looked back, and Shaw had crossed to the cabinets again and set down the glass. And Erik...
Charles didn't want to think about how Erik looked. He looked awful. There seemed to be so much blood, even though Charles knew that none of the wounds were life-threatening.
Erik still didn't answer him.
Shaw came back to the table empty-handed, and Erik watched him warily. Tiredly. He was breathing deeply, evenly, and Charles knew he was trying to get past the pain from the wounds that he could not avoid. His set jaw probably would have given that away even if Charles couldn't sense his mental state.
But if Charles could see that, then so could Shaw.
And Shaw was smirking. "That's enough of that for now. We don't need you losing too much blood; that could be a problem. And there will be no dying here unless I say so."
"And that's what it's all about for you, isn't it?" Erik grated out. "Control. Power."
"Among other things." Shaw reached for Erik's hand, and Charles was frustrated beyond reason that he didn't know what the man was going to do. He still could not get used to being unable to touch the man's mind at all. It was infuriating. It only made everything worse. Of course, if he could touch the man's mind they would already be out of this, but anyhow...
When Shaw touched his fingers Erik pulled them back, looking as uncertain and confused as Charles felt. But Shaw caught two of them, and the grin he gave was chilling.
Charles heard the snaps from where he was as Shaw deftly broke them.
Erik shouted, and kept shouting, because Shaw still held the two broken fingers in his hand, and began to manipulate them-nothing awful, but moving them enough that the broken bones rubbed each other and pinched at flesh and nerves. Tied at the wrists, Erik couldn't pull away enough to free his hand even if he tried.
And he tried. He tried hard, but Shaw kept his grip on Erik's fingers.
Erik shouted and twisted, but Shaw would not let go. Soon he was shaking, harder and harder, and Charles tried to reach out to him yet again but by then he was too far gone.
"Stop!" Charles shouted, but Shaw would not listen to him and he couldn't project to him through the helmet. Again, he was helpless.
But then, mercifully, after another minute or two that seemed like eternity, Erik's trembling slowed and his shouting faded away, and his eyes abruptly rolled up into the back of his head. He slumped, unconscious, and Charles sobbed dryly and could breathe again. Thank god...
Shaw raised an eyebrow and came around the table, studying Erik before he turned to Charles. "I wouldn't relax just yet. I could always wake him."
Charles swallowed. "Please don't..."
"I won't, but not because you asked. The fact is, that passing out counts just as much as speaking up." He smiled. "It's your turn, Charles."
Charles's breath caught in his throat. What...?
Part of him was relieved. Part of him was glad that Shaw was going to leave Erik alone, at least for now, but the rest of him was terrified. He felt himself shivering before he could do anything about it, and Shaw chuckled.
"Don't worry; we won't really get started until Erik is with us." He reached for Charles's stomach. "But we can warm up. I doubt Erik will be long."
The button-up shirt was still unbuttoned at the bottom, and it was easy for Shaw to shove it and the t-shirt up and out of the way, to give him access to Charles's now-mottled skin. Shaw ran a hand over it, and the action would have been soothing if it had been someone else, if there weren't so many bruises. But there were. Everything hurt there, and it was Shaw, and it hurt. Shaw began to massage his stomach, a mockery of comfort, and it hurt so badly Charles was trembling as he groaned.
This was a warm-up?
"Relax, Charles. It's better if you relax."
Charles snarled at him, but had to cut off in a cry and he knocked his own head back against the table, willing to try anything to dull the pain.
But Shaw seemed to know that was what he was trying to do, and he squeezed sharply in a place or two, determined not to let him.
He trailed off in something like a sob that shook, and he hadn't meant for it to be that loud, but Erik stirred.
Erik, it is not your fault. It isn't. I don't blame you...
Erik's eyes weren't open yet, but he was awake now, and he was shaking his head slowly to clear it. What...? Charles, what are you talking about?
Shaw's thumb pressed in too hard again and Charles shouted, and Erik's eyes snapped open and his head popped up from the table. For a split second he just stared, trying to figure out what he was seeing, and then he was angry.
God, was he angry.
"What are you doing! I didn't say anything; you can't touch him!"
Shaw, thank god, stopped what he was doing, and his hand moved away from Charles's midriff, and Charles let out an unsteady breath.
"You left us, Erik. You lost consciousness. You had obviously had enough."
Erik's teeth clenched. "But I did not say anything. Get away from him, right now."
Shaw smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry, Erik, but I'm afraid passing out counts."
"You didn't say that before!"
"It wouldn't have made a difference. I doubt you would have been able to help it even if you had known."
"But you don't know."
"Of course I do. Now, if you'll excuse me..." He started to turn back to Charles, and though Charles's heart sped up and stuttered he managed to remember to reassure Erik again.
It's all right; it's all right...
But Erik wasn't listening just now. He pulled against the ropes and straps, straining at Shaw. "Damnit, no! You can't do that!"
"Can't I? It's my party, after all."
In Erik's head a barely contained litany of panic and apology. Oh god oh god, Charles, I'm sorry. Charles, Charles, I'm so sorry oh god...I'm sorry...Charles...
It's all right, my friend...
But it was weak this time. He didn't mean it any less, but Shaw was pressing into his side now, and damnit it hurt, and...and why did he seem to be trying to find a rib?
Charles closed his eyes. No no no...
He would have moaned it, but he wouldn't give Shaw the satisfaction. He wouldn't risk him moving back to Erik already.
Shaw's thumb found what he was looking for, and his short fingernail dug into Charles's skin atop the bone as he began to press down, harder than any human ought to have the right to be able to. Charles grunted and stared at the ceiling, not wanting to see Shaw's face. Though the pressure was only in one small place it was somehow making breathing harder, and he wondered if that was just because he was relatively sure of what Shaw was doing.
"Ah..." It reached the point where something was going to have to happen. Shaw was going to have to stop, or the bone was going to give. NotyourfaultErik...
It gave. It didn't break, not yet, but it cracked, and it was like fire in his chest, and only a strangled groan escaped, but Charles's mouth opened in a silent scream.
And Shaw stopped. He didn't snap it completely. Small favors...
Charles I'm so sorry...Erik cried inwardly. He started to pull away in shame and Charles latched onto him fiercely.
Damn you, Erik, don't you dare leave me!
He did it so violently Erik gasped aloud in surprise, but Charles felt him hold on in return again. I-I...I won't.
Shaw began to press down on another rib, lower this time, and Charles swallowed hard. Erik I need your strength...
Erik snorted in his mind, and was quiet when he answered. You have more than I do already. He was ashamed and furious with himself, but he held on because he knew Charles needed him to.
But then the second rib was cracking, and he shouted, and he couldn't focus on Erik any longer.
Erik hated Shaw. That much he had known with absolute certainty since he was fourteen, but despite the zeal with which he had sought the man for years, somehow he was able to despise the man even more now than before. Somehow the fact that Shaw had hurt Charles and was continuing to brought everything to yet another level. He swore that he would kill Shaw before this was over.
He had already lost his mother to the man. He would not lose Charles, too.
Shaw, meanwhile, surprisingly enough, left this time before Charles had given in or passed out. Charles's "turn" was not over, damnit, but Shaw claimed hunger and the late hour and, smirking, excused himself after untying one of Charles's wrists and then one of Erik's-the good hand, because he might not have been able to get himself loose if it had been the other hand that was freed.
At least Shaw had that much decency.
Not that it changed anything.
Erik quickly untied his other wrist and began to pull the straps away, careful of the broken fingers on his left hand. He couldn't move them without a flash of agony, and there was nothing to bind them with. They were swelling. His entire torso ached, too, stinging and burning from the cuts that peppered his skin. It hurt to bend down to untie his ankles but he did it, because he knew that Charles would need his help. He would not be able to bend down at all.
He slid carefully off of the table and stood, unsteady on his feet, but at least he could get there. Erik held onto the table, and he reached out to brace a hand on the edge of Charles's table before he moved over to it. Charles had managed to untie his other wrist and undo the straps across his chest and hips, but the last strap and his ankles he could not reach. He lay quietly, breathing shallowly because anything else would likely hurt too much. If Erik had counted correctly-it had been hard, because it had been so hard to watch-Shaw had cracked five of Charles's ribs before leaving.
Enough to put him in quite enough fresh pain, and yet this round and hardly even begun. It made Erik sick to his stomach to wonder what he might do to Charles when he returned.
And it was his fault.
He didn't have to speak to Charles to know that his friend did not blame him-he could feel it through the bond he had finally returned to to help Charles-and somehow that hurt even more than if he had.
Erik moved to free Charles's legs and ankles, and when he had Charles began to slide off the table on his own, at least, but it was clear that he still was not going to be able to support himself. Erik caught him under the arms, careful of his chest though he grunted loudly anyway, and slowly lowered him to the floor where he braced himself against the base of the table. His face was a mask of pain, and he had not yet said a word but Erik could still feel his friend in his mind, holding on tightly and drawing strength.
He swallowed. "I-I...I'm all right."
"No, you're not. That's the point."
Charles's arms were wrapped tightly around his chest now as he tried to find some relief from the searing. "I think I had...gathered that...thank you..." he answered breathlessly.
But it was a joke, of sorts. That was good.
Erik swallowed and glanced about for something, anything, useful. Shockingly, he was not disappointed. He found his shirt crumpled on the floor at the base of the other table, within reach. He grabbed for it, pulled it to him, and began to fold it into a a wide strip with the long sleeves making it longer.
Erik looked at him sympathetically. "Can you sit forward?"
Charles just looked at him, mouth open a bit, and the answer seemed to be no. Erik let out a breath and moved in beside him to help lever him forward a little. Charles groaned.
"Hold on; it'll be better in a moment."
He picked up the folded shirt, positioned the folded, stiffer part across Charles's chest, and tied the arms tightly behind his back. The shirt didn't provide as much support as bandages meant for the purpose would, but hopefully the makeshift binding would help a little.
At least until Shaw came back and took it away, but neither of them said that.
"Does that help at all?"
He moved away again to let Charles lean back against the base of the table once more, and Charles took a careful breath and seemed to be able to do it somewhat more easily now.
Erik nodded and got up to make his way to the bathroom for water, but before he could go any farther Charles spoke from the floor.
He looked back, and apparently Charles wasn't comfortable saying what he needed because in an instant Erik simply understood. He needed to use the restroom, and he couldn't make it there on his own.
Erik let out a breath and lowered himself to his knees again, wondering how he was going to get Charles anywhere without hurting him too much or avoiding using his injured fingers too much. Charles must have heard that bit, because he when Erik when reached for his shoulders he stopped him.
"Wait, wait..." He fumbled with the hem of his t-shirt, finally managing to tear away a strip long enough to bind Erik's fingers. Erik let him do it, silently, because he knew Charles would not take no for answer, but he certainly did not feel as if he deserved to be tended to in any way.
He had let Charles down.
"Stop that thinking, my friend," Charles said quietly.
Erik didn't protest the reading of his mind, because he doubted Charles had much more control now than he'd had earlier. It was a wonder he had any at all.
"I-If I'd known, I-"
"Would not have been able to help it, and would still be thrashing yourself over it. Please don't."
But as Erik looked away he felt Charles quake inwardly at what might happened when Shaw came back, and he felt his friend begin to shy away to hide it.
"Don't," he said, taking Charles's face in his hands to make him look at him. "Don't do that. You want me to stay with you, so you stay with me. I know you're scared, damnit; I'm scared. And you know that's saying a lot for me." Charles just swallowed, but in their minds he didn't let go.
Erik blinked back tears, ashamed all over again because they were there. "Charles...I'm sorry. If I hadn't been so...damned stubborn, I...if I'd let you help me maybe he wouldn't have gotten back to you so quickly." He didn't say at all again, because he was now all too aware that, despite being mutant, at the base if it all he was human and imperfect and could not endure forever.
He'd wanted to be able to. He'd wanted to do it for Charles.
But no one could do that.
His hands slipped from Charles's face, and he huffed. "And don't tell me it's all right. It isn't. I was stupid."
"Yes, you were," Charles agreed quietly. He said nothing more, and Erik was grateful for that. He moved to get arm around his friend's shoulders to help him up.
It was slow going, and Charles could not help crying out and was quite out of breath by the time the got to the tiny restroom, but it was so small and the walls so close and easy enough to brace against for support that he didn't need Erik's help inside. That, at least, was a relief. He would have helped him, but it would have been awkward for both of them.
Erik waited by the door, and by the time Charles was finished and emerged from the small bathroom he looked ready to collapse. He had to correct that assessment when Charles did collapse. He caught him under the arms again, but in his haste to keep his friend from hitting the floor squeezed a little too tightly a little too low around his chest, and Charles shouted.
"Not...your fault," Charles grated against his shoulder. "Thank you."
Erik swallowed, and just lowered him to the ground against the plastic wall by the plastic door. He had a feeling he was going to abhor anything plastic by the time they were out of this.
Not that he had any earthly idea how they were going to get out of this.
But they had to. He had to get Charles out of this, at the very least. He would not let his friend die.
"I appreciate...the sentiment, but I...am not entirely...certain as to what you...could do about it," Charles gasped. "If Shaw decided to kill me."
Charles's abilities being relatively unrestrained was going to become annoying, eventually, but for now he tried not to let it bother him. It wasn't Charles's fault.
"I could kill him," Erik deadpanned. "I will kill him."
Charles frowned uncomfortably. "No, Erik, that...that would make you no better than him."
"Then what do you suggest I do? How do you suggest that we get out of here? Wherever here is? I have to find an opening, and I have to take him out; there's no other way."
"Yes...there is. If one of us can get his helmet off I can take care of it."
"Take care of it?"
"Erase his memories. Implant suggestion. Make certain that he will never harm anyone again. It will take time...certainly now that I am weak, but...I can keep him frozen while I do it."
Erik blinked, trying to fathom how that would work. He wanted to kill Shaw, damnit. He wanted to punish him for what he had done to him, and his mother, and Charles, and countless others...
No, my friend. That is a path that you cannot come back from if you go down it.
He scowled. I've started already, Charles. You've been in my head; you know I've killed others while looking for Shaw. Nazi criminals. Men who deserved it.
Erik felt his friend's sadness in his mind. I know...and it pains me to think of it...but you are not yet too far gone, Erik, and I never want you to be. I had hoped to keep you as a friend for quite a while. Charles smiled weakly when he thought that, and Erik couldn't help but find a smile to give back to him.
Where would he be now if Charles hadn't found him? Dead, most likely. Drowned off the coast of Florida.
Charles must have heard those thoughts too, because his smile widened a bit.
"Have I ever told you how incredibly stupid it was to jump into that water after me?" Erik said aloud.
"You were trying to raise a submarine and you were going to drown for no good reason. In light of your stupidity I believe I can be forgiven mine."
Erik chuckled fondly and got up again to get water for the both of them, wincing as the skin around the cuts stretched and pulled at his wounds. He realized that his blood now spotted Charles's shirts from when he'd helped him over here and from the twice he'd caught him, and while he was in the bathroom he did his best to clean himself off with just the water and his hands. There was soap, but no towels or anything of the sort. It helped some, though the cuts stung more from the water, but at least he wasn't covered in the blood that had dripped any longer and he didn't look like quite such a horror story.
He came back out with two cups, and this time Charles was able to hold his own. His hands were not entirely steady and Erik kept a wary hand of his own nearby, but Charles managed.
"And just how would we go about getting his helmet off?" Erik questioned eventually. "The only chance we seem to have is just before he leaves."
Charles closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the wall. "I know. I ah...I don't know, Erik. I can't...can't think any farther, just now."
Erik sighed and settled next to his friend again, because there was nothing else to do. He felt pressure against his shoulder, but not as much as last time. Somehow he knew that Charles was trying not to hurt him. There were cuts on his shoulders, too. After a moment or two Charles spoke again, eyes opening but not quite looking at him. "Are you all right?"
"I've been better," he admitted.
"I'm sorry." Charles paused. "Perhaps we should place a moratorium on that word."
"It wouldn't work. We would say it anyway. Maybe...we should just agree that what's going to happen is going to happen." He knew Charles would know what he meant. He seemed to, but he was silent. "Charles, I don't want you trying what you tried last time."
Erik swallowed. "I don't suppose you would agree to tell him to let you alone as soon as he came back, would you?" He felt Charles tremble a bit against his shoulder, and he knew he wanted to.
"No," he said anyway, softly.
"Then when...when it's too much just tell him, damnit. All right?" He paused. "If you can do that, I'll try to."
Charles's eyes closed again and he gave a small, reluctant nod. After a moment he let out a pained breath and finally looked at Erik. "If you will agree to that then I will. After all, there is not much that we do about our situation until an opportunity presents itself." He paused. "And whatever the outcome, we are in this together, my friend. No matter how old the saying may be, it is still true."
Charles couldn't breathe. It had become a common enough occurrence in the last two or three hours, but it was never any less terrifying than the first time-not knowing from one moment to the next if he would be alive or if everything would fade out around him for good. Common sense told him that it was too early in the game for Shaw to kill him, but when one was being suffocated one couldn't focus much on logic or if the person doing it had any. Shaw knew that, damn him, but he persisted. And it was easy for him. With his powers it only took one hand and not much real physical pressure at all to completely close off Charles's windpipe, and he was sure there were horrific bruises covering his neck by now.
And all of that was hardly the worst part. Every time Shaw let go, every time Charles suddenly found himself able to breath again, his body forced him to gulp greedily for air, and it hurt. It was fire in his chest each time, and it was blinding, and Erik's shirt had been taken away and discarded on the floor once again and there was nothing to dull the pain. He couldn't help but cry out, and that hurt too, and it was a vicious cycle that left him choking on the pain, shaking, trying to gain control of it. Sometimes he succeeded before Shaw's hand closed over his throat again, and sometimes he didn't.
So cracking his ribs had only been preparation for this, then.
Charles was relatively certain he would have been losing his mind already if it weren't for Erik, who, as promised, did not leave him to endure it alone. Erik was there, saying nothing more aloud this time than last time, but he was there and he didn't let go. Charles could hear his friend seething inwardly, screaming at Shaw in his head, but he wouldn't give the man the satisfaction of saying any of it out loud. And when he wasn't fuming at Shaw he spoke to Charles, telling him the same things he'd told him last time, trying to help.
Though there was no keeping either of them any calmer. Not when Charles couldn't pull air into his lungs and Erik was just as terrified as he was that eventually Shaw might not let go in time.
Charles couldn't see by the time Shaw let go this time, and his vision came back blurry as his chest expanded and pain exploded there as air went in. He groaned weakly, pathetically, and he shivered, but it was all that came out anymore. He didn't have the energy to cry out, even thought his body tried to.
In the beginning he had fought to keep himself from inhaling too quickly, but he had long since given up. He was too exhausted to fight it. What his body did it did, and he could do nothing but try not to let the pain overcome him.
Charles, you're fading, Erik told him silently, and his mental voice sounded uneven. It's time. Just say something. It's time...
He knew he should. But even though he had agreed before he couldn't bring himself to do it. He didn't have the strength even to lift his head anymore, but when he considered saying something to Shaw he suddenly couldn't bear the thought. Shaw would hurt Erik again, he-
And why wasn't Shaw reaching for him again? Charles was sure that the man had never paused this long.
Damnit, Charles, just say something before he starts all over again!
A shift of his gaze in Erik's direction told him that his friend's eyes were damp and angry, staring at him expectantly. I...
But then Shaw spoke. "You know, Charles, it doesn't have to be like this. I don't have to hurt you. I really don't want to hurt you."
"Bloody well could...have fooled...me," Charles grated out breathlessly. His breaths were coming short and irregularly, and he couldn't seem to find a way to even them out. His chest jerked in tiny gasps that hurt, that he couldn't control, and it was maddening. His skin was covered in a fine layer of sweat and his hair hung limp and clumping in his face, and he didn't even have the energy to shake it out of his eyes. He felt shaky and disgusting and pathetic.
But he had not given in yet. That was something.
Charles, stop this before he changes his mind and doesn't want to talk anymore. We agreed to this; it's all right. Just do it, Erik was saying.
Wait for WHAT? You're done, Charles. Look at yourself.
And he could have, because he could look through Erik's eyes if he wanted to, but he didn't. He knew what he must look like. He didn't need to see it.
And Shaw was being distracting again, disgusting, feigning care as he cupped Charles's cheek in his hand. "I'm completely serious, Charles. Join me and all of this stops. You'll live like a king."
He wished he had the strength to pull away, but he didn't. All he could do was glare. "If...I did what you...wanted."
"That would be the general idea."
Charles blinked back sudden tears of rage. "You killed...Moira. All of them."
Shaw's eyebrows went up. "I'm sorry about your friend. I truly am. Or was she more than that?"
She could have been, he sobbed inwardly, and he wanted to keep it from Erik but he couldn't. Not now. His control was all but nonexistent, his powers weak. He felt Erik's sympathy, but he didn't know what to do with it.
And suddenly Shaw smiled. "I'm sorry," he said again, in a completely different tone now. "I never gave you any real closure, did I? You were rather unconscious when she died. Perhaps it would help if you saw it."
His mind was slow, sluggish, and he didn't understand until Shaw reached for the helmet. "I don't think there's any harm in it. I doubt you could influence a fly right now," Shaw was saying.
No no no oh god no if Shaw took the helmet off he would see everything, and he didn't want to. He wouldn't be able to control it. He wouldn't be able to do anything, either. He couldn't control Shaw now; he was right. He couldn't do anything. He could barely keep his connection with Erik.
But the helmet came off, and Shaw had pushed everything that Charles didn't want to see to the front of his mind, as he had seen it-the attack, Azazel disappearing with soldiers, Moira...
Moira. Moira screaming as Emma turned to diamond form and snapped her partner's neck. Levine dead over the steering wheel. Moira trying to find Charles, finding him unconscious on the ground, flung out of the truck...
And before she reached him Azazel materialized behind her, his tail snapping around her neck and pulling away again, leaving the slit in her throat that dropped her. Then Azazel was gone and Moira fell on the dirt road just short of Charles, twitching as she died, her own blood pooling around her, eyes wide and staring. Around them the soldiers, dead and dying.
"NO!" Charles screamed reflexively. "Oh GOD!" Part of him lashed out, and he heard Shaw grunt in pain and was dimly satisfied, before the helmet was shoved back on and Shaw's mind was gone and Charles was alone again with only Erik, who was shouting in his head.
Shaw had done that on purpose. To shake him. To upset him.
Charles realized he was sobbing, and the tears were free already, and there was nothing he could do about it now. He couldn't control that any more than he could control his powers just now, and he was crying and his chest was convulsing and it hurt too much. When Shaw's hand started to close around his throat again he just couldn't do it anymore. He couldn't take any more of it, and he didn't want Shaw anywhere near him.
"Get...away from me," he gasped, and it came out a breathless hiss of fury. "Get away...from me."
And then Charles still couldn't stop his sobs, because Shaw turned his attention to Erik and he couldn't take it back.
Erik saw everything Charles saw when Shaw took the helmet off. Maybe that wasn't the intention, but he doubted Charles was aware of half of what he was doing right now.
He saw Moira's death. He saw the dead and dying soldiers, and he saw what all of it did to Charles. He felt it. He felt the grief and the guilt and the hopeless longing for what could have been. In seconds Charles was sobbing uncontrollably, truly sobbing, and Erik didn't know what to do.
Charles, I'm sorry! I'm sorry. What can I do? Charles! Charles, calm down! You'll break your own ribs like that; you have to CALM DOWN.
But Charles did not calm at all, and when Shaw reached for his throat he all but spat at the man. "Get...away from me. Get away...from me."
And Shaw did. Erik knew what came next, but beyond the sudden clenching in his stomach right now he just wished to god that Charles would calm down. Charles, I know...I know...just please...god, you're scaring me...
And admitting to his fear for his friend seemed to get through to him. Charles slowly quieted, even as Shaw had moved to the side of Erik's table, watching Erik watch Charles.
I'm sorry...Charles apologized silently, for more than just making him worry.
I told you we'd say it anyway. He paused. It's all right. It's okay. We talked about this.
Shaw, meanwhile, was smirking. "Sometime you'll have to tell me what it is you two talk about that I can't hear." Then, abruptly, he reached up to snatch a handful of Erik's hair and jerked, slamming his head back into the table.
Erik grunted in surprise, his senses spinning and his head aching suddenly. And he couldn't see it because the ceiling was still spinning above him, but Shaw reached for his fingers. Erik felt him take hold of the injured ones and pull off the binding, and his jaw clenched as the broken bones moved against their will.
Erik, I...I have no strength to give you, but I'm still here...
And Erik had learned his lesson. This time he didn't shut his friend out.
At first Shaw seemed completely content to work over Erik's broken fingers again, until he seemed to remember that he was supposed to be upping the ante.
Then he completely shattered them.
Erik had no warning. Shaw had spent long enough manipulating the two injured digits, and he was already floating dangerously close to...losing it, or losing consciousness...he didn't know. But if Charles hadn't held him back from the edge he would have gone over immediately when Shaw suddenly changed his mind, grabbing the two injured fingers and crushing them in his inhuman grip. Erik couldn't remember the last time he'd screamed like that, and Charles was shouting in his head in something akin to outright panic.
Erik! Oh god...Erik!
He couldn't focus on anything. His vision was suddenly dark and he couldn't answer Charles and he couldn't breathe even though there was nothing wrong with his lungs. It took so long to pull in a breath again that he was seeing spots before he did.
And all half of his mind could think was that at least it wasn't his dominant hand. Somehow he doubted those fingers would ever work correctly again.
But that was all he could think before Shaw squeezed his fingers again, the bones that now weren't much more than tiny bits grinding against each other and flesh and skin and nerves that were already raw. He screamed again, too lost in the pain to care that Shaw heard it, and any idea of coherent thought was forgotten and buried.
Too long. They'd had no contact with the team in Russia for too long. Days. With the attack on the base here in the states all any of them could think was that the same thing had happened there. Shaw had found them...Raven was not one to panic easily, but she was close enough to it when word finally, finally came. But the news that came did not help.
Moira and Levine and their team were dead. Charles and Erik were missing. There was no sign of Shaw or anyone else, but they all knew who had done it.
Raven, Hank, Sean, and Alex had been brought back to CIA headquarters, because there was nowhere else for them to be now. And there was no one else for Raven to apply to but the director, McCone.
"Where would he take them?" she demanded.
"Shaw? You expect us to know? We lost all traces of him after Florida."
"We have to find him! He has my brother. He has Erik. You know he does." And somehow Raven knew that part of her had known it even before they'd heard. She'd felt it in her gut. She'd known Charles was in trouble, but she hadn't wanted to believe it. She still didn't want to think about what Shaw could be doing to them.
McCone only snorted. "You think I don't know that? What do you think we can do about it? We can't even find him, and now he has the two most powerful mutants we had at our disposal-plus one, since the girl with wings went with him. And he's already killed one of you and scores of my people. Do you really think you and your friends would stand a chance against him now?"
Raven glared at him over the conference table that was between them, though they were the only two in the room. "At least we're willing to try." She paused, trying to calm down enough to think clearly. "What information do you have? About where he's been before, or...anything."
"If they're still on that sub I doubt it would help."
"I don't care what you think! What do you have?"
McCone let out a breath and looked at her for a long moment. Finally, he relented. "I'll get you copies of Agent MacTaggert's reports."
Erik never had a chance to say anything. He lost consciousness again, after Shaw broke the other two fingers on the same hand and bent them all back one too many time. At least he hadn't completely crushed the other two as well.
Either way Charles's own hands still ached in sympathy, and now they were alone. This time Shaw had untied Charles's ankles and undid the bottom strap himself before leaving, besides freeing one of his hands. He untied Erik's good hand, though Charles didn't know what good it would do, seeing as he was out cold just now. Which, of course, had to be why Shaw had made it possible for Charles to free himself anyway. He still wouldn't have been able to bend down to free his legs and feet on his own.
When Shaw was gone Charles fumbled with the two remaining straps, and then it took an inordinate amount of time to free his other hand. His hands shook as he tried to pull at the knots, and he was suddenly very very aware that part of the reason he felt so weak was that he was hungry. It had to have been at least two days...maybe three...and they had only been given water. Or rather, everything hurt too much for him to actively want food, but he knew they would need it soon if Shaw planned to keep them alive for any length of time. For now, his empty stomach was just one more thing that ached and added to the now almost constant nausea.
Finally he managed to get his other hand loose, and was faced with the dilemma of how to get off the table. He'd had Erik's help before, but Erik couldn't help him now. Charles let out a small breath and steeled himself as he tried to slide down the table's incline and let himself to the floor easily. But it didn't work as well as he'd hoped. Halfway down he began to slide too fast, and he all but flipped off the side and hit the floor, and it hurt so much he didn't have time to shout before everything went dark.
Charles didn't know how long he was out, but when he blinked and turned onto his back to relieve the pressure on his damaged ribs Erik was moving, looking down at him worriedly, trying to get himself free at the same time.
"Charles? Charles, are you all right? Hold on; I'm coming..."
Everything faded out again, and when the world reasserted itself once more Erik was leaning over him, slapping his unbruised cheek, because shaking him would not have been a good idea. "Charles!"
"Mmm...m here," he breathed quietly. "Here."
Erik let out a breath of relief and sat back, and now Charles could see that his broken hand was cradled against his chest. "You should have just waited. I'd have gotten you out."
Before he really even thought to look he saw in Erik's mind what Erik had seen-waking up when Charles hit the floor, being worried and trying to untie himself, trying to ignore how much his fingers hurt...falling off of his own table himself in his haste and because he had overestimated how much strength he had left.
Charles made a small sound that would have been a chuckle if he'd had the physical capacity for it just now. "You fell too."
Erik made a face. "That really is getting annoying."
They were both quiet for a moment, until Charles spoke up again. "Are you...all right?" Erik only shrugged, and Charles swallowed. "That did not...go quite as planned." Any of it. "I'm sorry. I had...an opportunity, and...I couldn't..."
"You tried. I saw that. You hurt him."
"That was more reflex and...and anger than anything...I had no control..."
Erik's mouth pressed into a thin line. "We'll get another chance," he said finally.
"I hope so..."
Otherwise they might have to rely on Raven and the others and what was left of the CIA to find them. Though part of him hoped, too, that Raven was not foolish enough to really come looking. He did not want her in danger. He did not want her anywhere near Shaw.
Erik went for water again, though he had to carry the cups by their rims in one hand because his other one was all but useless now. He set them down and helped Charles sit up against the base of the table. It hurt awfully getting there, but it was easier to drink that way, and he'd had quite enough of being flat on his back. Before Erik sat back next to him and picked the cups up again his good hand hovered over the bruises at Charles's neck, and he frowned.
"You look like hell."
"And you look much better?"
Erik just shook his head, but at least they were on the same page now.
Erik didn't know how much more time had passed, but it had to have been another two or three days, at the least, making it at least five or six days that they had been here, or since they had been captured in Russia. Possibly more. They didn't know how long they were out when the gas came, and there was no way at all to tell time in here.
Despite what they had agreed, neither he nor Charles could bring themselves to purposely say anything to Shaw, at any point. The unspoken agreement between them seemed to be that if they couldn't do that, then allowing themselves to lose consciousness instead would have to do. Erik knew Charles could do it on purpose on with his abilities, and he hoped his friend was taking advantage of that. But he could never tell.
The sessions grew shorter as both of them weakened, and Erik wondered how much more either of them could take. Most of the other bones in his hand large enough to break were now broken, and small burns covered his torso along with the shallow and not-so-shallow cuts. Charles's cracked ribs were now broken ones, and he had two broken fingers of his own, and Shaw, of course, never passed up an opportunity to freshen up the bruises that riddled his body.
Charles was becoming increasingly unresponsive even when they were alone, and it worried Erik to no end. Even if something changed...if something happened and they got out of this alive...Erik was beginning to fear that his friend might never be the same again.
"Let him go," he said finally. Begged. He had never begged anything of Shaw and had sworn he never would, but Charles was worth it. Charles was the only thing that would ever be worth it. Charles himself was unconscious just now, and it looked like Shaw was going to leave. The man paused in reaching to untie Erik's good hand and cocked an eyebrow at him.
"You know I can't do that, Erik. Your telepath friend is too valuable."
"But I'm the one you really want. You've always wanted me back." He swallowed. "Let Charles go, right now...and I'll stay.
Shaw smiled a bit. "Gallant of you, Erik, but I'm afraid that won't do. Do you have any idea what the three of us could do, together? I start the war that rids us of the humans; with you we could go anywhere, build anything...and with Charles with us no one could stop us. We could enslave anyone who thought to get in our way and make them like it. We could rule this world."
"You have a telepath. You don't need him."
"Oh please. I'm suspecting that Emma's powers are nothing compared to Charles here, and I think you know it too."
"I doubt Emma will be happy to hear that," Erik deadpanned.
Shaw smirked. "She'll live. If she's good, of course."
Erik was quiet for a moment, glaring at the man. "Let Charles go," he repeated firmly. What he hoped was firmly. "He'll never give in to you. He won't help you. He cares too much. The only chance you have at either of us is me-if you let him go. If you don't you'll never have either of us. I'd die first."
"We'll see about that." With that Shaw crossed back to Charles, and for one horrifying moment Erik was afraid he was going to wake him up and hurt him again despite the usual rules. But instead Shaw began to untie him, and this time he freed him completely, pulled him off the table himself and dumped him unceremoniously on the floor.
This time landing woke Charles up instead of the other way around.
Charles shouted as he came to with a start, and Erik immediately latched onto him in their minds to help calm him. It took effort; the impact hadn't helped him at all. Through the bond Erik knew how much pain Charles was in, though he couldn't exactly feel it himself. But he knew.
The bond was subconscious now-something Charles had forged between them and finally made self-sustaining because maintaining it consciously had quickly become too difficult. So it was always there now, and for Erik it was a glimpse of how Charles lived every day. He could sense everything Charles felt, hear the thoughts he projected overtly and even many of those he didn't. Though the point, of course, was to share what strength they had-just to be there.
Shaw stepped over Charles without giving him so much as a glance as he tried to catch his breath, and untied Erik's good hand before leaving, the door locking behind him as always.
Erik freed himself, though he couldn't do it quickly anymore, and slid carefully to the floor. A rather shaky step or two brought him to the other table, where he collapsed against the base by where Charles lay, both of them panting. Because he was too weak to do much else-and because it had been established the last time they'd been left alone that it hurt too much now for Charles to sit up, even with help-all Erik could do was pull his friend's head onto his legs. Not that it would help much, but at least his legs weren't at hard as the floor.
Charles only glanced up at him for a moment before his stomach made an awful sound and he grimaced and looked away, arms wrapped around his middle.
"Erik, if...even if he doesn't kill...us himself...we'll starve to death...eventually..." It was more than he'd said aloud in a while.
Shaw still had not fed them at all, and Erik had begun to wonder if perhaps starving them into submission was part of the plan. Give in before their bodies gave out-either from the abuse or the lack of sustenance. If Shaw continued to withhold food there were only a limited number of weeks they could last, and the fact that they were no longer strictly healthy would not help.
"I know," he swallowed. Besides everything else that hurt he ached all over from want of food after what must have been nearly a week. Nausea was a constant companion, and he knew it was no different for Charles.
Erik also knew that Charles was weaker than he was right now, the worst injured of the two of them, smaller in the first place...he knew that if in the long run it came down to starvation that Charles would go first. The last thing he wanted was to watch his friend die, but at least it would be easier on Charles that way, not having to see him die...
But then again, how strong was the bond? Was it strong enough that if Charles didn't think to release it Erik would go with him if anything happened to him? Part of him almost wished it.
NO. He couldn't think like that. Charles would pick up on it, and he didn't plan to let it happen in the first place.
Charles grunted weakly. "'M sorry...too early to worry about it..."
And Erik was realizing that even if they did get another chance at Shaw without the helmet on, Charles would never be strong enough to influence him unless the man gave them a much longer break from all of this-which didn't seem likely.
"Much too early. We'll get out of here."
"You don't believe it," Charles swallowed, eyelids heavy.
Erik couldn't answer because he didn't want to lie again, and when he looked down Charles was quiet and unmoving, and his eyes were closed.
"Charles?" No answer. Erik didn't know why he panicked. He shouldn't have, but he wasn't satisfied until he'd checked for a pulse. After all, all of the damage Shaw had done...there could easily be internal bleeding, and they would have no warning of that. So then again maybe the panic wasn't completely unfounded.
But Charles was fine for now; he was unconscious or asleep, and Erik didn't know which but at least he wasn't hurting. His cheeks were flushed though, now that he looked-and why hadn't he noticed before? it was glaringly obvious, as pale as Charles was by now-and when Erik held his good hand to his friend's forehead it was warm.
Damn. A fever. Some sort of infection somewhere? He had no idea what to look for or where to look, if it would be internal or external...and why was Charles the one getting sick when he was the one with the cuts and burns left to the open air? But of course that would be just their luck.
Erik swallowed when he remembered that infection, sickness...either would severely shorten the amount of time that Charles could last like this.
When he tried to pull his hand away from Charles's forehead it trembled, and he abruptly placed it back over Charles's hair and left it there, fingers soon winding through the damp strands and clumps.
When Erik realized, some time later, already half-asleep, that his thumb was absently stroking his friend's forehead, he didn't stop himself.
When Charles woke up face-down on the table he knew Shaw had changed the game. It wasn't supposed to be his "turn" but this hurt as much as if it were. Beyond the bruises that ached the pressure on his chest and the broken ribs had his chest on fire, and it wouldn't stop. He suspected that if the table didn't have an incline that focused some of his weight elsewhere he might have suffocated before he'd even woken.
Breathing had been painful before, but now it was hard. To do it anything nearing comfortably he was forced to push down at the table with some other part of his body to pull his chest off of it at least a fraction of an inch. Otherwise the expansion of his chest against the hard surface pushed at the broken bones, moved them, and the pain was that much worse. And with what little strength he had, doing that-pushing up from the table a bit almost constantly, against the straps and ropes-was not easy. Soon enough Charles was soaked in sweat yet again, an it took him that long to be able to focus on anything else.
When he had he almost wished he still couldn't.
He'd woken facing the other way and hadn't had a chance to change that, and behind him Erik was screaming.
Erik screaming was a deeply disconcerting thing to hear to say the very least, though terrifying would be a much more accurate word. Erik did not scream. Not unless he had no choice. Charles didn't want to look, but through the bond he knew without seeing that Shaw was taking advantage of his friend's damaged hand yet again. It had become his standby with Erik, and it seemed worse each time so it still fit within Shaw's ridiculous rules.
Erik...Erik, I'm sorry; I'm here now...
About damn time-!
Charles winced, but he wasn't offended. They were well past that by now, and he knew Erik was in too much pain to realize that he'd had his own problems. He said nothing else. He just held on.
A few moments later Shaw finally, finally paused long enough for Erik to really catch his breath.
Charles, I'm sorry...oh god, are you all right like that? Can you breathe? The thought was dim and weak, thready from Erik's lack of focus as his hand throbbed, but it was there and the concern was real.
I am alive, was all Charles allowed. He was too exhausted and hurting to lie. They had been trying not to do that more recently, anyway. Not that they didn't. Finally, though, he picked his head up enough to turn it to the other side, so that he could see his friend. You?
The same, I suppose. Alive.
Shaw, meanwhile, when he that Charles was with them, smiled. "Ah. So good to see you, Charles. I was just hoping you would join us soon." Charles just glared at him as he continued. He began to pace a bit, hands comfortably draped behind his back. "You see, I'm afraid I can't afford to be patient much longer. Quite a bit has happened since you two have been here. The Russians have missiles bound for Cuba, they as well as the Americans are sending fleets...it's all going to come down to a very interesting encounter at the embargo line very soon."
So that was how he was going to do it. Start nuclear war.
Charles's jaw clenched. "And?"
"It'll be a matter of a very few days. So we really need to wrap this up."
Then he was going to kill them. They weren't going to have time to starve. Charles supposed he didn't have many regrets, but for the fact that Shaw was probably going to succeed now. Personally though, no real loose ends in his life-not with Moira gone. Oh god. Now he was blinking back tears again. Shaw couldn't see that.
Still, he wished he could see Raven again. Just once. Hear her laugh at him and tell him he worked too hard and let her snuggle up to to be read to sleep once more. Part of him worried because he had wanted to always be there, to protect her, but he knew she could take of herself.
Charles, stop it!
He blinked, surprised at the strange exchange of roles. Usually he was one to respond to thoughts because only he could. He'd forgotten that the bond let Erik in on his stronger private thoughts, too. There had been no way to prevent that. It wasn't perfect and it had been formed and solidified in haste, using what stronger telepathic energy he'd had left when he'd done it.
He's going to kill us, Erik. We won't join him, so he'll kill us. Waking up like this, on his stomach where it would hurt him even while Shaw was hurting Erik...it should have been the first clue.
This isn't over, yet. He won't give up that easily, Erik insisted.
But Shaw didn't elaborate. He went back to work nudging Erik toward unconsciousness, and Charles had to shut his eyes.
Even though Hank, Sean, and Alex hadn't known Erik and Charles for long, they cared enough and were angry enough over Shaw's attacks that they all agreed to help immediately as soon as Raven had formulated a tentative plan-or starting point, anyway-from Moira MacTaggert's reports related to Shaw.
Moira. Raven couldn't help but wonder if, wherever Charles was, he knew that she was dead. Either way, even if Shaw hadn't done anything to him she knew her brother would not come out of this unhurt. She had already picked up on the fact that he cared about Moira before they left for Russia.
Charles would miss her, and it made Raven's heart ache.
But for now, her main focus was on getting him back alive. Erik, too. Though she didn't like him as much and really she didn't want anything to happen to him mostly because she knew it would crush Charles.
Getting McCon to agree to provide transportation to Las Vegas to allow them to check out the Hellfire Club again was not easy, but here they were. They were still casing the place, still out in the main casino, and watching the boys trying look like they knew how to gamble would have been funny if she weren't so on edge. The only thing that helped was when she occasionally crossed paths with Hank. He made a habit of squeezing her hand, and it managed to calm her a bit.
"How long do we have to do this?" Sean whispered the next time she passed him, tugging awkwardly at the jacket he was wearing. He wasn't so used to nicer clothes. He didn't like them, Raven had gathered.
"Until I've pinned down someone I can imitate that will get me in downstairs," she hissed back.
"Why don't you try using Angel?"
"That'll probably work once I get into Shaw's little hideout, but I have to get into the club first. They may not know who she is."
"Well hurry up."
She knew she needed too, and she began to circle back towards the club entrance again, waiting for someone to come out and leave for the night that she could go back in as. But the night was young, and people leaving for good for the night were scarce.
And something else was giving her a sense of urgency-something in the back of her mind that she couldn't put a finger on. As long as they had been close she liked to think she could feel her brother...feedback from his telepathy, maybe, or maybe something else. She thought she felt it now, but the feeling was so weak she could easily be imagining it, hoping it...
She'd tried calling out to him, but there had been no answer. If he was anywhere in range he was either unconscious or too weak to respond..maybe too weak to really hear her at all.
Raven didn't want to think about what that might mean.
When Erik finally fell silent and went still it was easier to breathe. Just a little. But Shaw was still in the room, and he wasn't leaving yet, and Charles couldn't imagine anything the man might do to him that he could take for long at all when he was already having problems thinking straight because he was pinned face-down like this, chest still on fire...
Shaw ambled the three or four steps over to him, rested a hand on his back in a mockery of a friendly gesture. "And how are you doing, Charles?"
Don't push down don'tpushdowndon'tpushdown.
Of course he did.
Charles strangled a cry, but enough of it got out that Shaw smirked.
"I apologize, but we really do need to speed this up." He leaned close, as if imparting a great secret, and as he did he was still pressing on Charles's back.
Charles's fingers dug into the edge of the table.
"I think it's only fair to warm you that this was the last usual round. Losing consciousness isn't going to count anymore because I'm going to expect it and you'll see why...but if you say something this time, Charles, I'm afraid Erik is going to die if he doesn't agree to join me. You may want to keep that in mind when we begin." Shaw grinned, and all Charles could do was stare at him in horror. "Whether you want to tell Erik that is up to you."
At long last Raven made it into the club under the casino, as a frustrated man who had apparently struck out for the evening and decided to call it a night.
It was easy enough to find the booth Moira had described in her report-it was the last one on the right and was the only one empty. Raven quickly slipped into it, hopefully unnoticed, and closed the curtain. As she sat down she reached toward the bauble in the center, and sure enough when she pressed it the booth began to rotate.
By the time it had stopped moving she was Angel.
She was in a library now, as she'd expected, and Raven crossed immediately to the opposite wall. A crack between the bookcases let her see into the next room, and it was empty. Thank god. Even in disguise she would rather not deal with Shaw and his lackeys if she didn't have to. She just wanted to find her brother.
Raven tugged at the bookcase until she determined which one was going to move more easily. With this sort of entrance there was probably an easier way to do it, something automatic, but she didn't want to waste the time looking for it. So she pushed and tugged and pulled, which wasn't easy when the floor was carpeted, but finally she'd widened the opening enough that she could slip through. Angel's body was a bit slimmer even than hers, and that helped too.
The room on the other side-a posh lounge with a bar and art on the walls-was much larger than the small library or study that the rotating booth opened into, and once she was inside Raven didn't know where to begin. What was she looking for? Yet another secret entrance? Some clue as to where Charles and Erik were if they weren't here? If she found nothing they were royally screwed. This was the only lead they had. Shaw's boat in Florida had been destroyed and the sub could be anywhere.
Though she doubted they would be on the sub. It was all metal. Erik could escape in an instant and he would have brought Charles with him. Shaw would know that. She didn't think he was stupid.
They had to be here. Somewhere. That feeling in the back of mind was stronger now, if only a little. She couldn't be imagining it. Or she didn't want to be.
Damnit, Charles, where are you?
Nothing, of course, but still...
And something in her that was feeling that feeling, that was connected to her brother...something in her was beginning to panic, and she didn't know why.
Shaw didn't say anything else while they waited for Erik to wake, and Charles was left to worry just what the man had meant. It didn't matter, of course-he wouldn't let Erik die. But the rest of him was terrified just the same.
So this was it then. This was it. And he didn't even know what it was. But if it meant dying and dying might give Erik more time, time to get out of here, another chance at the life he'd never really given himself time to live, then...then he would do it. Charles would do it. He was scared; god he was scared...but he would do it.
He'd said goodbye to Raven before leaving Russia. He hadn't said goodbye to Moira, but then again he might be joining her soon.
He would not say goodbye to Erik. He couldn't do it.
He wished he'd had time to help Erik more; teach him to control his powers without the anger...but now he could only hope that Erik would figure it out on his own, eventually.
Charles tried not to panic, but breathing was becoming harder. He didn't know how much longer he could support himself enough to breathe at all like this.
Maybe that was the plan-simply to let him suffocate unless he agreed to join Shaw. It would be slow and painful and there would be nothing he could do about it. But Shaw had said something about beginning. Beginning what? What else could he do?
He bit back a sob of frustration and it came out in a small moan.
Shaw glanced at him, eyebrows raised. "Hmm. I think you're right, Charles. We've waited for Erik long enough."
Shaw crossed to Erik and pushed at one of his shattered fingers, just a little. But it was enough that Erik gasped immediately, and his eyes snapped open.
"There you are. Good," Shaw smirked.
Erik ignored him. He looked quickly towards Charles, and his brow furrowed when he realized that Charles was still on his stomach and that it was most definitely becoming a problem.
Charles? he thought worriedly.
Charles didn't know what to say to him. Anything he said might give away how serious this was now-not that it hadn't been before-and that was if his face wasn't giving away his near panic on its own. But if he looked away that would make it obvious, too, that something was wrong.
He didn't want to tell Erik what Shaw had told him. Erik would insist on taking his place, and Charles couldn't bear the thought. He had to fight hard not to let any of that get through the connection they had.
Though likely he would have to sever it soon. He didn't know what effect it might have on Erik if he died while it was still in place.
Charles? Erik thought again. What's going on? Why are you looking at me like that? Charles!
Something did show on his face then. He tried to school his features, and it only worked a little. He had to look down, anywhere but at Erik. He didn't turn his head away, but he couldn't look at Erik anymore.
And Shaw was back at his side now. "I told the two of you we needed to wrap this up, and I was quite serious," he said, a hand at Charles's back again. "Here's what we're going to do."
Charles felt Erik recoil at the words, and through his friend's mind the memories flashed and were just as quickly gone again-Shaw, the office, the lab, the coin, the gun, his mother, the countdown, the gunshot...anger and pain and anger and fear...
Charles felt the fear, too.
Shaw's hand slipped under his shirts and pushed them up, and Charles had to resist the urge to shiver. What the hell was he doing?
"Charles, you have to make a choice here. You can say something now, and it will be Erik's turn again and he can make a similar choice and you'll have a while longer to think about yours, but the choice is this." His thumb ran along Charles's backbone and stopped at the base. "You can join me now, or I'm going to shatter your spine."
Charles's breath caught in his throat. What?
He felt Erik freeze, too. Charles, he's insane. This is crazy; just let me deal with this. Don't let him-
But Charles couldn't listen, because he knew he had no choice. The similar choice Shaw meant for Erik wasn't so similar at all. Erik's only other option would be death, and he wouldn't let his friend die.
And all the while Shaw was talking, and what he was saying was not making this any easier. "You'll lose all feeling in your legs immediately, and I doubt you'll ever get it back. The pain at the point of injury, though, will be quite spectacular for a while, or until you can be treated-which may be a while. I'm a busy man, after all."
Charles swallowed hard. "Y-you can't-"
"Of course I can. I want your mind, Charles. If you don't join me now but you change your mind before I kill you, it won't matter if you can walk. I don't need you to walk."
He let out a shuddering breath, and his eyes clenched shut. Oh god. Shaw was serious. Ohgodohgodohgod...
And somehow that fact that he would likely just die soon after this anyway didn't help. Not at all. He didn't want this. What if something happened? What if they were rescued and he had to live the rest of his life like that? The chance was slim to none, but he was too exhausted and nearly delirious to care.
He liked his legs. He needed his legs.
Charles, don't let him do this!
Shaw's thumb was massaging his back over the base of his spine, already starting to press down. NonononononononoNO!
"I'm going to count to three, Charles. Say something before I get to three and this doesn't have to happen."
Even Erik was panicking now, and Charles couldn't help the sob that escaped and the tears that came with it. He started to pull up at the ropes and straps with everything he had left, arms and legs yanking and twisting and desperately trying to get away from Shaw's hand at his back. His ribs and the bruises protested, and his raw ankles and wrists burned, but he ignored it all.
But the hand held him down easily, utilizing the mutant's stored energy.
CHARLES! Not for me, Charles! NOT FOR ME!
Raven had resorted to knocking on the walls, but to her surprise one finally sounded different. Hollow. A panel just around a corner behind the bar, hidden from view from most of the room.
She pushed at it, pulled at it, felt around its edges...finally her fingers slipped under the paneling of the next section of the wall beside it, and she found a small control hidden there, with one button. She pushed it, and the section of the wall that had sounded hollow slid back and away.
The moving panel revealed a small elevator shaft that was all concrete, and a lift that was all plastic and glass and other things.
She stepped in without a second thought, and inside there was also only one button. One destination. It had to be where Erik and Charles were. This thing was made to be the entrance to a prison that would hold Erik, and Raven could think of no reason why Shaw wouldn't hold them in the same place.
That, and the feeling in the back of her mind was a throbbing pressure now, telling her to hurry, not to waste time, telling her that her brother needed her. She was sure of it now.
Raven pressed the button, and the wall panel shifted back into place and the lift began to move.
Charles was crying, but he wasn't listening.
Damnit, he wasn't listening. Why wasn't he listening?
Erik began to desperately search his senses again, reaching out with his powers for anything he could use. Anything he might have missed before. Any small bit of metal Shaw might have overlooked...
"Shaw!" Erik shouted. The man ignored him.
This couldn't happen. It couldn't. Oh god...Charles. It would kill Charles. It would kill who he was if the both of them didn't die here outright. It seemed Charles already knew that. He was sobbing, struggling, but he wouldn't say anything. Erik could feel everything-the pain and the anger and the fear and the despair and the agony.
CHARLES DAMNIT, PLEASE...!
All he found were the power cords by the floor behind the cabinets. He'd felt them before, faintly, but the metal was too scarce, too small, insulated the way all cords were, and these he thought had thicker insulation than most-chosen because he was to be one of the prisoners here. Erik pulled at the thin metal in the cords anyway. God, he had to stop this. If he could just-
In the fraction of a second before something happened Charles's red-rimmed eyes opened, and he looked at Erik mournfully, apologetically. He would have killed you...
Then the bond was suddenly gone, and Shaw pressed down violently, and Charles screamed.
His legs stopped moving.
Raven shouted and staggered against the wall of the lift, and it shook as she collapsed, losing any disguise and rippling back to her natural blue form. She landed on her knees, clutching her head at the scream that sounded there and the secondhand agony that ripped through her body.
Charles. Oh god, it was Charles.
It stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and a moment later the lift stopped at the bottom. By the time the doors opened Raven's face was streaked with tears. She didn't know what had happened, but something was very, very wrong.
The doors had opened on a long, dimly lit concrete corridor that extended farther than she could see. Not bothering to don any other form again, Raven dragged herself to her feet and broke into a sprint.
The scream Charles gave was the most horrible sound Erik had heard in his life-second only to the cracking sounds he was hearing with it. Charles's struggling stopped abruptly when he legs went utterly still.
"NO!" Erik screamed. "DAMNIT!"
"I'm sorry, Charles," Shaw was saying gravely. "I warned you."
Charles was still crying, more quietly now. He kept glancing down, ignoring Shaw, and when he looked down and he seemed to be concentrating and his legs did nothing he only cried harder, moaning in frustration and pain.
No...oh god no...
Erik blinked back tears, suddenly seething, and he lashed out at the power cords again. This time something responded to him. He found a weakness in the insulation in one of the cords and he exploited it, using the thin sharp strands of metal inside to break through it so he could pull the metal out. He only felt all of this. He couldn't see the cords or the strands of metal he was pulling out and breaking into small pieces. None of the lights had gone out that he could see, and he supposed the cord he'd attacked had been for something else, or for the lights in the bathroom.
Dumb luck, but it helped. Nothing flickered, and Shaw didn't notice a thing.
When he had enough of the pieces he pulled them out from behind the cabinets and hurled half of them at Shaw, shouting.
Shaw turned quickly and held up a hand, catching the sharp darts inches in front of his face. He absorbed the kinetic energy even from things so small, and not one of them even broke the skin. Shaw let them drop to the floor.
"Now, now, Erik..."
"Fix it!" Erik shouted.
"I'm afraid that isn't possible."
Why wasn't Charles saying anything? Why wasn't he as angry as Erik was? Or was he? Or was he just in too much pain? God, the sounds he was making...Erik couldn't feel Charles anymore, not like he'd been able to before his friend had severed the link they'd had. He didn't know what Charles was feeling.
But he could worry about Charles once Shaw was out of the way.
Shaw was looking at the thin shards of metal on the floor, smirking. "Really, Erik, did you think that would help? You knew I could stop them."
Erik blinked at him. "If you were paying attention."
And he'd made sure Shaw was paying attention. He'd only thought of it at the last second, but shouting made Shaw turn and catch the first half that he'd thrown. While Shaw was talking Erik had brought the other half of the small metal darts around behind Shaw near the floor, and now they were up and floating at his neck.
Shaw blinked at what he said, and Erik drove them into his spine.
"You're not paying attention now."
Shaw cried out and dropped, suddenly unable to move at all. His body twitched on the ground but there was nothing he could do, and Erik was grimly satisfied as he scooped the first batch of metal shards from the floor and brought them to him, to begin picking and sawing away at the rope binding his good hand to the table. In his haste he scratched his wrist up further cutting through the rope, but he didn't care. When he had his hand he let the pieces of metal drop and freed himself.
Shaw was still on the floor, and he was angry.
"Erik! Stop this immediately!"
Erik motioned a bit, carelessly twitching the strands of metal buried in Shaw's neck. The man screamed and his body twitched violently, but Erik knew he wasn't moving it himself.
"How does it feel?" Erik bit out.
Then another voice cut into his consciousness, weak and pained and breathless, but there. "Erik...Erik, don't kill him..."
Erik looked up quickly, and he let the shards of metal in Shaw go still as he looked at Charles, though his good hand remained outstretched towards the man who had done so much wrong to both of them-ready to use the metal to end his life in an instant. But his friend was looking at him intently, blinking through the pain and the sweat and hair and tears in his eyes.
"Charles...what he did to you..." Erik had to stop before his voice trembled any worse than it already was.
Charles swallowed, his own voice unsteady when he answered. "If you kill him, I'll lose you." He choked on a quiet sob. "I can't...I can't lose you, Erik. Not...ever, but...not now. Not...after..." Not after this. I can't.
Erik had to blink quickly to keep his own tears away. "Charles..."
He wanted Shaw dead. He wanted him to pay for what he'd done. But then again, if he lived now...
Erik pulled the metal from Shaw's neck, letting it fall to the floor, and the man still didn't move. He never would.
That would have to be revenge enough.
Erik nodded weakly and let his hand drop, and Charles let out a small breath and his eyes closed again. Thank you.
Shaw was breathing harshly, as he realized what had just been done to him. But he was proud, and he didn't speak-just glared at the floor until Erik kicked him in the face, soundly knocking him out.
As soon as that was done Erik's weakness caught up with him, and he had to stagger to the side of Charles's table and hold onto it to stay upright. He made sure he got far enough that he was at his friend's head, where he could talk to him.
"Charles?" he asked quietly.
Charles wouldn't look at him anymore, even when Erik reached out hesitantly and swiped at the tears staining his friend's face, drying them away. He didn't know if that was okay. He still wasn't good at this comforting thing, but...god, Charles needed him now. He had to try.
"Charles...I'm sorry," Erik choked. "I'm so sorry. I tried to stop him before he-"
Charles still wouldn't look up at him, but he turned into the touch against his cheek even as he shuddered, presumably from the pain from his shattered spine. "P-please, just...just get me...down...please..." He was still shivering-his upper body was, anyway-and Erik didn't really want to move him for fear of making something worse, but he wasn't going to leave Charles there strapped down and shaking. He could go into shock.
And what could he really make worse?
Erik swallowed hard and nodded weakly, knowing Charles would know he'd answered in the affirmative even if he hadn't seen it. He didn't trust himself to speak again just yet.
He worked from the bottom up, so when he freed Charles's hands and he started to slide down the incline of the table a bit Erik was ready to catch him. He tugged him gently away from the table, off the side, as carefully as he could with one hand, and when he was far enough off Erik wrapped his other arm around his friend to stabilize him, because he couldn't use that hand. Charles was shouting pitifully, but there was no way for Erik to make it better.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." Not knowing how else to do it he hobbled backward, slowly pulling Charles with him until the weight was too much and he collapsed.
Charles came down on top of him and they landed in a heap, Charles groaning and gasping and Erik clenching his jaw because his hand had been jostled too much. Once the pain had dulled a bit and he could see straight Erik sat up against the base of his table where he'd landed, holding Charles's head and shoulders in his lap with his good hand. His fingers wove through the soft hair at the base of Charles's neck, and he let his thumb stroke the skin there, trying to calm his friend.
Charles was still trying to get ahold of himself after the pain from being moved, shivering and gasping and grunting, and his face was a mask of pain. He was soaked to the bone in sweat. It took far too long for him to be able to speak, and all Erik could do was hold him-and not as well as he wanted to, with one hand out of commission...probably for good.
Finally Charles calmed enough to lay mostly still and mostly quiet, though the occasional shudder still passed through his body and Erik still heard the occasional moan in the back of his friend's throat, or saw him let out a harsh breath. And Charles wasn't looking at him; he was staring up into space instead, at nothing, maybe trying to process everything that had just happened.
Erik was still having problems with that himself.
"Charles...why?" he managed finally. "Why...why for me?"
Charles looked at him now. "I told you...he'd said...he would kill you...if I deferred this...this time. I couldn't..."
"When did he say that? He didn't say that," Erik insisted.
"Before you woke..."
Oh. Erik just stared down at him, his throat clogging. "Charles, I-I am so sorry. Oh god I'm sorry. I'm sorry..." Tears. He knew they were on his cheeks now but he couldn't stop them. But it was Charles, not Shaw. Then again, he wanted to be strong now, strong like he always was, always had to be, because right now Charles needed him to be, but he couldn't help it. Charles had saved his life and now he would never walk again.
It was his fault.
"You didn't do this, Erik," Charles whispered. "Shaw did."
Erik quickly wiped the tears from his face before he could really begin to cry. He couldn't do that now. He had to figure out how to get them out of here. How to get Charles help. They both needed help. But he couldn't carry his friend out of here. He was too weak even if his ruined hand wasn't already enough of a problem.
And he didn't know where here was.
His eyes slipped shut. Help...we need help...
And that was when the door burst open.
The long corridor finally turned, and just around the corner Raven found a door. It was large and looked heavy and again was made out of something else besides metal, and Raven knew immediately that her brother was on the other side. If Shaw was, too, she would deal with him. She would deal with anything.
But she knew that Charles was in pain, and she knew she had to get to him now. To hell with the consequences.
She was stronger in her natural form, and with a pull at the lever and a shoulder to the door it burst open easily. Raven all but tumbled through, barely regaining her footing in time to land in something resembling a defensive stance. But one glance around the strange plastic room revealed no one at eye level, and no reason to be on the defensive.
Her arms dropped along with her eyes as she straightened, searching in panic for her brother. She found him, on the ground, in Erik's arms.
Raven's breath caught in her throat when she saw them both-Charles limp and sweaty and with bruises covering what little of his skin she could see, and Erik without a shirt and peppered in cuts and burns. Erik was looking at her silently, and the look in his eyes worried her.
The way Charles was lying he couldn't see her, and he didn't even seem to know she was there. He should have known she was there. He should have felt her. She should have felt him in her mind by now, telling her he was all right, because he always said he was all right, even when he wasn't.
She ignored the other body on the ground. She knew who it was, and she didn't care if Shaw were dead or alive.
She hoped dead, but knowing Charles that wasn't the case. He wouldn't have killed the man, and he wouldn't have let Erik do it, either.
Finally, some reaction. Charles twitched, made a small sound. In her mind, a groggy answer. Raven...?
The dim, confused onslaught of emotion and pain that slipped through with it sent her reeling backward into the door that had banged almost shut again behind her, and Raven sucked in a sharp breath and shook her head to clear it enough that she could hurry across the room. She dropped to her knees at her brother's side and stroked his cheek-the one that seemed less bruised.
"I'm here, Charles..."
He started to cry quietly when he saw her, and one of his hands came up to grip her forearm. "Raven! God...Raven..."
Shocked and confused by the reaction, all Raven could do was lean down to press her forehead to his-the closest she could get to a hug when he didn't seem able to lean up to meet her.
"Shh, I'm here, I'm here..."
Something was wrong. She'd known something was wrong. What she'd felt in the lift...what was wrong? There was something more. More than the fact that he looked beaten and exhausted. Charles didn't just cry. Not even when they were little. He held it back. He smiled and told her everything was fine.
He didn't cry unless there were a damn good reason to. Unless he couldn't deal with it anymore. Unless he couldn't help it.
She glanced up at Erik in alarm, but he looked away.
Oh god, Erik was crying too. Or his eyes were damp, anyway. Either way, it was most definitely not usual for him, either.
"What happened?" she asked anxiously. But neither of them said anything, and with no answer her imagination ran rampant. Part of her was suddenly terrified that there was internal damage-something she couldn't see that was bad enough that they both knew that Charles was not going to make it but they didn't want to tell her that, of course. She could see it in her head, like a bad movie.
"Charles?" she demanded. Her voice shook, though she didn't mean for it to. "Charles, you're okay, right? You'll be okay."
I will live.
A clarification. Not an affirmative. Why? A hand still on his cheek, she reached for his other hand, which lay on his stomach. But when she tried to hold it he gasped, pulled it away. Confused, she looked away from his tear-stained face long enough to glance at his hand, and saw that the first two fingers were swelling, and not quite straight anymore. Broken.
Raven bit back a yelp of anger, and that was when she saw Erik's hand, resting on her brother's chest. He wasn't moving it, and all of it was red and purpling and swollen, and none of the fingers looked right. She swallowed and wrapped her fingers gently around the rest of Charles's hand, avoiding the two injured fingers. He squeezed back a bit.
"What happened?" she asked again, more gently this time.
Finally one of them spoke, but it was Erik. "I'm sorry, I...I-I tried to protect him..."
Charles looked up at him, and there was some sort of communication there, and Erik looked away again. Charles swallowed hard and pulled in a shuddering breath, trying to control the tears before he really looked at Raven again.
She stroked his cheek with the hand that was already there, helping him to dry some of his face, and his other hand released her arm to dry the rest of it. Then he covered her hand on his cheek instead of holding her arm again, his fingers wrapping around it, and they were cold but his cheek was warm. His cheeks were flushed, and growing up with him she'd seen him sick enough to know that he had a fever. She didn't need to feel his forehead.
His hands were shaking. Both of them, in hers, were trembling.
He opened his mouth, more than once, as if to say something, but nothing came out. Finally he sobbed again and relented to the fact that he wasn't going to be able to. He squeezed the hand against his face and turned into it more, and in a moment she understood.
Charles didn't show her, really. Raven got the feeling, too, that he wanted to keep that from her-the details. She only picked up the briefest flashing of images. Mostly she just understood, more than saw, what was wrong. She understood that Shaw had done something to him. She understood that his back was broken and that neither he nor Erik had been able to keep it from happening and that was why he wasn't moving much, just now. It hurt too much.
Raven understood, suddenly, that her brother would probably never walk again.
"No," she gasped, when Charles was done. She glanced down at his legs, and realized that they were lying there in something of an awkward manner, one of them splayed out at a strange angle and the other twisted just enough that it wouldn't have been comfortable at all if he could feel it.
But he couldn't feel it.
"No," she sobbed. "Charles, no. Oh my god...oh god..."
She heard him, but she was crying now and she didn't know how to stop. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I should have gotten here in time. I'm sorry...god, Charles..."
"It isn't your fault," he choked out. "Not...not your fault...not Erik's fault...no one's fault..." His voice was tight. He was trying not to cry again, but there were already fresh tears on his face, and Raven sobbing was not helping, she knew, but she still couldn't stop.
She couldn't sit up anymore. Her folded legs slipped out from under her and she buried her face in her brother's shoulder, draped over him like a blanket, and she could feel him shivering under her. That only made her hold onto him more tightly, and he made a small sound of pain but he didn't protest. He clutched at her in return, clumsily.
No one's fault, he said. No one's fault but Shaw's.
When Raven had calmed down enough she heard Erik speaking over her head, tense and worried.
"Raven, you have to go for help. Charles needs help. We have to get him out of here. He needs a hospital. Now."
She sat up slowly and realized that Charles's fingers were tangled in her shirt, her hair...he wasn't holding on anymore. He was unconscious. His arms fell away now and she folded them gently over his stomach, fingers lingering carefully over his broken ones. She hiccuped and dried her face, trying to process what Erik had said.
Help. Her brother needed help. She knew that. Erik could use it, too.
Raven nodded wearily and staggered to her feet, and just doing that nearly sent her back to her knees. She had to fight not to cry again. She sobbed dryly and went for the door.
Charles wouldn't get up again.
Hank was the first one to catch sight of Raven when she finally emerged from the Hellfire Club. Her eyes were red, the irises flickering yellow; she was barely holding onto even the human form she usually wore. He went to her quickly, taking her hand and not letting go this time as he bent close.
"What's wrong?" he asked worriedly.
She wouldn't look at him, but she squeezed his hand weakly. "I found them."
He blinked, suddenly fearing the worst. "Are they-?"
"They're alive," she whispered. "They need help." Then she cleared her throat and spoke more firmly. "Where are Sean and Alex? Shaw is out of commission; I can get us in if I change into him."
Hank motioned toward where he'd seen them last, and Raven pulled her fingers from his and headed off quickly. He followed her, and he was still sure that something was off. "Raven? What's-?"
"Not now, Hank."
Everything faded out with Erik holding him and Raven crying into his shirt, clinging to him, his hands caught in her hair, her shirt, wrapped around her, trying to calm her-trying to use his powers to calm her, even, but it wasn't working. He was too weak. He passed out, finally.
For Charles everything was fuzzy after that-that was fuzzy, later, but everything after it was worse. Too much pain. Physical and otherwise.
A flash of Raven bringing the others back. A makeshift stretcher. Erik wanting to help but needing help walking himself. Hank helped him. A dim corridor. An elevator that was too small. Being moved. Pain. Shouting. Blacking out again.
Bright lights. They were moving. More shouting. Different shouting. So many voices-the faint touch of minds he didn't know, but the minds he knew were there, too.
Raven. Raven who would always be there. Raven who had been there even when he'd let Erik go.
Erik. Erik hadn't left. Charles had severed the bond to protect him, but he was still there. He wasn't aware of much but he was aware of worry and anger and anxiousness rolling from his friend in waves. Before everything was black again he reached out wordlessly to the presence he couldn't see, and Erik responded immediately.
Softer light. Same bland ceiling. The feeling of being clean, finally, and warm and safe.
But different. Only half of him was there.
Erik. Still there. Always there. A blurry image of his friend in the next bed, looking at him anxiously, calling his name, hoping for a response that Charles couldn't give yet.
Everything in and out, in and out, unconsciousness and nothingness and sleep and dreams and dark and blurry light.
Raven beside him sometimes, sometimes in a chair by the bed, sometimes in the bed with him, wrapped around him, face pushed into his neck or his hair. Sometimes talking to him. Sometimes quiet. Sometimes sleeping.
He could only feel half of her.
Erik talking to him, sometimes-sometimes out loud, sometimes thinking to him. Eventually not in the next bed anymore. In the chair, instead, by the bed. Sometimes a hand on his head, his shoulder, arm...sometimes even holding his hand. Sometimes it wasn't just talking. Sometimes the words had cadence, rhythm...reading. He was reading.
And sometimes the words were soft, his friend's voice pleading...not pleading with Charles. Pleading with someone else. Someone Erik hadn't spoken to since childhood. Since before the war and the camps and Shaw.
Sometimes the voices of the others...Hank, Sean, Alex. Where was Moira?
No. No Moira. Moira was gone. Darwin was gone. Everyone who had helped them at the base was gone. Half of him was gone, too.
Sobbing quietly; the first sound he'd made aloud.
The voices stopping. A large, warm hand on his shoulder. Erik's. A soft call of his name, questioning. A blurry view of them all, looking at him, waiting. Tears. His sister's smaller hand now, wiping them away.
Nothingness again, catching thoughts before it closed in.
Raven. All of us at once was too much. Too soon...
Did he even see us?
He looks like hell...scaring the hell out of me...
How long is he gonna be like that?
Charles, come back to us...
The last thought Erik's, desperate, sad, urging.
How long? How long like this?
But he didn't want to know. Part of him would rather this than really waking up. Part of Charles, what of him was aware, knew he should wake up. Really. If not for himself then for them.
The rest of him didn't care. The rest of him didn't want to face it. Any of it.
And then there was just nothing, for a long time.
When Charles shut down completely the doctors didn't know what to make of it. It wasn't a coma. He just didn't wake up.
Erik refused to leave his side, but Raven knew it wouldn't help. Charles would come out of it when he was ready.
But whether or not he would ever be ready was what worried her.
"We have to get him out of here," she told Erik finally. "We're in Nevada, of all places, and that's not helping. We need to bring him home."
"Home? Home where? We have nowhere to go."
"Yes we do. His home. Our home. We grew up in upstate New York, Erik; the house is still there. We haven't been there since he started Oxford, but it's the only home we have and its better than here."
Raven was on the edge of the bed, and Erik was in the chair he'd been practically living in since the hospital had released him. He glanced at his friend, prone on the bed with half a dozen things connected to him in some way, and shook his head in confusion.
"But...how would we take care of him until he wakes up?"
Until. He would. Erik was adamant about that, and Raven certainly wasn't going to correct him.
"Paying for whatever we need won't be a problem."
House? The Xavier estate in New York was huge, the mansion almost unbearably large and the grounds covering acres and acres of beautiful land. In another lifetime-before Shaw Round 2, before Charles's legs were taken from him-Erik might have been bothered by the fact that his friend had lived such a privileged life compared to what he'd had.
But he would have gotten over it, and as things were now jealousy didn't even cross mind. Instead, he supposed he was grateful that at least Charles had that.
And he had them. He would always have them.
Now he only needed to wake up and realize it.
Raven showed them which room was her brother's, and they had to have someone come to set up the equipment and show them how to use it and monitor it, but after that they took care of Charles on their own.
They never left him alone. Everyone took shifts during the day at his bedside, though only Erik and Raven took turns spending the night in his room. Raven slept atop the covers on the other half of the bed beside her brother when it was her turn, and Erik slept in the armchair that had been dragged over from the fireplace when it was his. Or he did until his back simply could not take another night of it, and he was forced to follow Raven's example.
He hoped Charles wouldn't mind, as long as he didn't wake up alone.
Time passed. Days and weeks. The boys trained because there was nothing else to do, though Hank worked to distract himself. Raven found him a room that worked well as a lab once it was set up that way. Once it was the young scientist took more than one stab at trying to determine if there were anything he could do to help Charles-either with the paralysis or the coma-like state-but he came up empty on all counts. No one had really expected anything different, but it was disappointing just the same.
When Erik wasn't in Charles's room or sleeping in his own on his off night, he was playing chess with himself and wishing Charles were sitting across from him. Or he stood aimlessly at a window-any window, really-staring out at the grounds that he refused to explore on his own.
Charles was going to wake up, damnit, and Charles would show them to him. If Erik had to push him in a wheelchair, if he had carry him, then so be it. But he would wait. He hadn't even wandered the rest of the mansion yet.
The fact that the cast on his hand was constantly in the way did not help his frustration. It wrapped around each reconstructed finger almost to the tip, and extended halfway up his forearm-stark and white and in the way and just there. Sean had suggested they all sign it, but Erik had only growled at him.
He couldn't feel much in the hand and was spared the plague of itching, but that was hardly much consolation.
They'd told him he would never have much use of it again.
And if all but losing a hand was this frustrating, what would Charles go through once he woke? Erik wanted his friend back more than almost anything he had ever wanted, but his chest ached when he thought about it.
But he would be here for him. That was all he could do.
The voice was small and confused and barely audible, but it pulled Erik from his state of near-sleep just the same. He'd been sprawled on his stomach, but he flipped over quickly to meet bleary blue eyes in the lamp light.
All of the breath went out of him when he was sure he hadn't imagined it.
His friend blinked at him slowly. He hadn't moved-only turned his head on the pillow to look at him, and now Charles frowned, trying to fight his way back to awareness.
"Erik...why are you in my bed?"
Erik chuckled softly and sat up, barely able to accomplish that due to dizziness from the sheer amount of relief. "Someone had to keep an eye on you." Charles looked pointedly at the chair by the bed and then back to Erik. "That thing gets old after a while."
Charles swallowed, and his voice was raspy when he spoke. Dry throat, no doubt. "How long...?"
"More than two months. We've been here almost six weeks."
"Here..." Charles gave the room a cursory glance, and his eyebrows went up. "Home. We're in New York..."
"Quite a place you've got here, too."
"Yes, well..." And then he moved. Erik had known he would eventually, but he wasn't ready for it. Erik quickly gripped his arm and tried to stop him, but he was too late.
Out of habit Charles started to sit up, but of course it didn't work the way it used to. His leg muscles didn't cooperate to help him. His legs didn't move at all. He still could have made it up easily enough if he'd used his arms, but he didn't bother. He froze, halfway up and propped on his elbows, and watching his friend's face crumple broke Erik's heart.
Charles let himself drop back to the pillow with a small choked sound that wasn't quite a sob. "It wasn't a dream...none of it was..."
And now he wouldn't look at Erik anymore. He glared at the IV in his arm instead, at the metal stands by the bed and the tube from the catheter that Erik didn't even know if he could feel-anywhere else, really.
And Erik didn't know how to do anything about the catheter-they would have to have someone come to check on Charles anyway, now that he was awake, and they could take care of that-but because he didn't know what else to do he stood up and went around the bed to carefully pull the IV out and tape a bit of gauze over the spot.
"I'll get you some water..." he trailed. Charles only nodded.
Erik had forgotten to leave any cups in the connecting bathroom, and he had to go downstairs for the water. Thankfully it was the middle of the night and no one else was awake to notice. He didn't think Charles was ready to deal with anyone else just yet. Erik wasn't even sure Charles wanted to deal with him.
When he made it back to his friend's bedroom Charles had dragged himself up against the headboard and pillows, and his fingers dug into his legs through the covers. He hadn't been brave enough to throw the blanket aside yet. Erik swallowed and debated whether or not to go around and take the chair, but finally he just sat down on the other half of the bed again and handed Charles the glass.
It took a moment for Charles to realize he was even there, and another moment to reluctantly let go of his dead legs-to stop trying to make them feel something, Erik thought in despair-and take the water. He nodded silently in thanks and leaned back into the pillows he'd pulled behind him.
"How are your ribs?" Erik asked after a moment, because it was the first thing that came to mind. "They should be all right by now..."
Charles reached for his chest at that, rubbing at it with his free hand and wincing. "Aches a bit...not much. I would assume the bones are all but mended by now."
"Mostly, I guess. I don't remember exactly what they told us."
Charles shifted a bit and winced. "I did notice that it's the bruises, actually, that are lingering. It's-ah." His eyes clenched shut for a brief moment, and he stopped trying to move at all.
"They did say that a lot of the tissue damage went rather deep," Erik admitted grudgingly. "It may be a while before they're gone completely-longer before you're not sore anymore."
Now Charles looked at him, finally, as if he'd thought of something, reaching behind him to set the half-empty glass of water on the bedside table. "Your hand..." He saw the cast now, and Erik held it up some and shrugged.
"Hours of reconstructive surgery and all I really got out of it was that they didn't have to take the damned thing off. Most of the nerves were too damaged to save. It'll look relatively normal, but I won't be able to really use it-can't feel much."
Charles seemed distressed at that, though the level of it may only have been to distract himself from his own problems. Erik would have understood if it was. "Erik, I'm so sorry..."
He only shrugged again and sat back against the headboard himself. He didn't know what else to do, but he didn't want to leave Charles alone. Sleep, at least, didn't seem to be crossing either of their minds despite the hour.
Then again, Charles had slept enough for a lifetime.
When Charles finally spoke again he sounded more than a little resigned. "Then...I suppose Shaw was right. There was nothing to be done, was there?" A hand pounded hopelessly on one of his legs again for emphasis, as if Erik wouldn't have known what he was talking about.
Erik let out a slow breath and finally shook his head a bit. "I...I lost track of how long you were in surgery." He didn't tell Charles they'd almost lost him...internal bleeding around the shattered spinal column...but the way his friend grimaced he figured he'd picked that up anyway. "There was nothing they could do; they tried..." He cut off before he was forced to by the lump in his throat.
"There's no hope, then," Charles whispered.
"Charles, there's always-"
"But not as far as the medical community at large is concerned," he interrupted.
Erik winced and shook his head again, though he didn't want to. He looked away, swallowing back the lump that was still there.
When he looked back again Charles's face was streaked with tears.
Realizing that Erik was looking at him again Charles tried furiously to wipe them away, but more replaced them faster than he could dry them up.
But he was sobbing now, and Erik was completely at a loss. They weren't trapped in that damned plastic room anymore, and knowing how to help Charles, how to comfort him...was suddenly harder without the pressing circumstances. He sat frozen for a long moment, until finally he abandoned embarrassment, slid closer and slipped an arm around his friend's thin shoulders-thin, now, from two months of being nourished by only an IV tube.
He was pale and thin, and Erik knew that under the pajamas many of the deeper bruises that Charles had noticed were lingering were still quite visible-more yellow and purple now than black and blue, but still there just a same. He still looked like hell.
Erik gently pulled Charles to him, wrapped his arms around him and nestled his friend's head under his chin, and just held him. Let him cry. Before any of this had happened it would have been a highly unlikely gesture, but Erik didn't care anymore. Charles needed him, and he'd promised himself that he would be here. Whatever being here for him entailed, so be it.
There was barely restrained urgency in the voice, and Charles felt it seeping into the edges of his mind as well.
It was Erik, and Erik wanted him awake NOW.
"What is it?" Charles groaned, reluctant to open his eyes. When he did he found his friend leaning over him, hands on his shoulders and something akin to panic on his face that he quickly covered.
Erik didn't answer as first. He sat back, mouth open a little, and finally he sighed. "I was afraid you'd left again."
Suddenly Charles was hit with all of the worry Erik had harbored for him in the long weeks he had been dead to the world, and it was so powerful he was barely able to stifle a gasp. And it wasn't only Erik. Through his friend's memories he saw how concerned the others had been; how stressful the last two months or so had been for them.
Charles blinked back tears and pulled in a breath. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize..."
Erik's jaw clenched, and he wasn't quite looking at him. "Never do that again. We didn't know if we'd get you back at all, Charles. It's been killing Raven, and-" Killing me too. When I let myself admit the possibility.
He swallowed hard. "I...I didn't mean to be gone so long. I had no control over it once I was in that state. I never meant to hurt anyone..."
"I know, Charles; I thought as much. I just..." Erik rubbed at his forehead in distraction. I couldn't take that again. "Just don't do that again. I know this isn't going to be easy for you..."
Crippled. He was crippled now. Paralyzed. Paraplegic. It could have been worse-he'd gathered from Erik's mind that he'd nearly died-but...
But he would never walk again. And nothing would change that. And he was going to have to learn to live with it.
He was still flat on his back, and Erik looked down to catch his eyes. "But you're not alone, Charles. Don't leave us again."
He remembered last night. He remembered feeling the shock all over again, the pain, the anger, the hopelessness...Charles remembered that he'd cried, and that Erik had held him until they'd both fallen asleep.
And he wanted to promise that he wouldn't leave again. He wanted to.
But he couldn't promise.
He fought to remember that if he'd stopped it from happening Erik would be dead. That he'd done it to save him. He fought to remember that life would undoubtedly be different, but that he could still have one. He fought to hold onto the fact that Erik was here, and Raven was here, and that Hank and Sean and Alex were still here. They hadn't left. That he knew because he could sense them nearby. They all cared, and Raven and Erik would do anything for him.
But a part of Charles still wanted to curl up in the back of his mind again and never deal with a world in which he couldn't walk.
So he couldn't answer, because he didn't want to lie. He closed his eyes instead, avoiding the question. It hadn't been phrased as a question, exactly, but they both knew that it was.
"I'm sorry," he said again, in lieu of anything else.
He sensed that Erik, of course, wasn't satisfied, because he knew that avoiding an answer was what Charles was doing.
There was a sigh, and then movement, and then the weight on the other side of the bed was gone. "Are you hungry?" Erik asked.
Charles hadn't thought about it yet, but now he realized that he was, in fact, quite famished. "Yes, actually," he admitted, letting his eyes open again. He started to sit up and Erik reached instinctively to help him, but Charles held up a hand to stave him off. "I've got it..." Doing his best to ignore the sharp soreness from what was left of the bruises peppering his body, he pulled himself up against the headboard again as Erik straightened, trying not to look hurt.
It isn't personal, my friend. I just...
Needed to do something for himself. Anything. Anything to make him feel as if maybe life could be somewhat normal again after this.
Erik nodded silently in understanding and turned to go. "I'll be back." He paused at the door, though, and glanced over his shoulder. "If anyone else is up would you rather I not mention that you're awake just yet?"
Charles nodded in relief. "That would be appreciated, thank you." He knew how much the others had worried, but he needed at least a few hours to himself before he could face them. Especially Raven. It didn't seem too much to ask.
But Erik had only been gone a few moments before he called to Charles silently, urging him to see what he saw. Charles, it's...
Raven. Erik had found her up and in the kitchen already, making herself breakfast in a rather frustrated manner and too upset to be holding a form. Her robe and pajamas were starkly white against her blue skin, and it only made her scowl seem darker. She hadn't even noticed yet that Erik was there.
"Raven?" Erik asked.
She twisted in surprise, swiping at her face and shifting quickly into her human form.
"You don't have to do that."
She shrugged weakly and shifted back, blue again.
Raven shook her head and turned back to the counter to butter her toast. "Nothing...stupid dream, is all."
Charles winced and pressed his hands to his eyes for a moment. Send her up here. As much as he wished he could have more time to collect himself before seeing anyone other than Erik, he would not leave his sister like that. She was upset because she believed he still hadn't woken, and she didn't know if he would. He didn't have to read her mind to know that, and he didn't want to know exactly what her nightmares may have entailed.
Raven was making a pointed effort now to appear nonchalant, but it wasn't working. Erik called her name again, and when she glanced at him all he had to do was nod toward the stairs. She dropped the knife and toast and stared at him for a moment, unsure, but when he smiled a bit she bolted from the kitchen.
Charles disengaged from Erik then, and all he saw was his room. He could already hear his sister's pounding footsteps on the stairs.
Soon enough the door burst open, and Raven paused inside just long enough to confirm that he was was, in fact, awake. "Charles...!" She hurried across the room and all but jumped up onto the bed beside him to wrap her arms around his neck. "Charles, thank god..."
He had to force himself not to cry out when his still-aching body protested the impact, and he had to return the embrace tightly just to keep himself from being knocked over by the force of it, but he didn't mind. Still, his voice came out a bit breathlessly. "Raven, I-"
But he was momentarily silenced when she pulled back just long enough to briefly press her lips to his, as she'd done to say goodnight when they were children. It was a bit more fervent now, understandably, but just as sisterly. The long since nearly-forgotten gesture brought back enough memories of the better days that Charles found himself suddenly unable to speak at all as he clung to her.
Well you haven't done that in a while.
You've never been in a not-exactly-a-coma for two months before.
I'm sorry. I never meant-
I know... She sobbed inwardly. But we thought we were losing you, Charles. I can't lose you. You're my brother.
Half of your brother...
He hadn't meant to think it, and he certainly hadn't meant her to hear it, but he knew she had because the moment it was out she abruptly sat back on her heels. Her arms slipped from his neck and Charles caught her hands before she could break away completely.
"I'm so sorry; that was insensitive..."
Raven grimaced and looked away. "Why are you apologizing? I'm the one who didn't get there in time. I should apologize. I-"
"No," Charles said quickly. His voice was suddenly thick, but he made himself continue. "I've told you; this is not your fault."
"You still shouldn't apologize," she said darkly, pushing off the bed entirely and pulling her hands away. "You have every right to feel that way; you're the one who's paralyzed!"
She still blamed herself. When he'd shown her what happened because he couldn't bring himself to tell her he'd been too distracted from the pain to remember to keep from her how close it had been. She would blame herself for not getting there in time until something changed her mind.
But Raven's mind was not changed easily.
"Don't 'Raven' me! This is not one of those times I slipped up when we were kids and got you in trouble, and this is not one of those times where you're all disappointed when I'm immature, and this is not...anything else! This is not Cain smashing a vase over your head or his bastard of a father 'accidentally' shoving you down the stairs. This is not stitches or a minor broken bone that'll heal in a few weeks. This is your legs, Charles, and it's permanent, and I could have stopped it..."
She was crying now, arms crossed tightly over her chest as if to hold herself together, and he wished he knew how to make it better but he didn't. "N-No, Raven," he stammered. "I didn't want you anywhere near Shaw. I-and what could you have done? The fact that Erik was able to do anything at all was..." A fluke, as angry as he'd been over what had just happened. Erik didn't truly understand how to control his powers that well yet. he didn't understand that he needed more than the anger.
And perhaps Raven could take care of herself, but she had nothing that could have stood up to Shaw.
"You would have been dead if you'd tried to face him, Raven, and I can't lose you, either," Charles said quietly. He held out a hand to beckon her back to him. "Please...please don't cry. Please..." Please stop before "I" do...
But he kept that thought to himself.
Raven looked at his hand for a long moment before she took it, hesitantly, but once he'd squeezed hers she climbed quickly back onto the mattress beside him and buried her face in his shoulder again. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry..."
"Stop," he whispered. He kissed her cheek and held her close, and finally she stopped crying and just held onto him.
He'd wanted more time before he had to do this-before he had to look his sister in the eye and tell her that everything was going to be all right. He wanted her to believe it-he wanted to believe it himself-but he didn't know. He wasn't there yet.
But he could do this. He could always do this, because for so long Raven had been all he had, and he didn't know what he would do without her.
By the time the door opened again Raven was sitting quietly beside him, nestled in his arm around her shoulders, and Erik returned with a tray that held three plates and cups, and enough butter and toast and orange juice to feed a small army.
"I didn't think Raven would want to go anywhere," he explained. "I don't."
Charles managed to smile. "Toast is all I get?" he teased.
"You haven't eaten food in more than two months, Charles. I would even go light on the butter and the juice, if I were you."
Erik sat on the edge of the bed and seemed unsure of what to do with the tray. After a moment Charles held out his hands for it and motioned to his dead legs stretched in front of him. "Well they're here; they might as well be useful for something." Erik was still reluctant, but when Charles all but grabbed the tray he relented, shifted closer and helped settle the tray in Charles's lap. The three of them could all reach it quite well there, actually, and no one complained about the crumbs on the blanket as they ate.
If his life was going to be different now Charles supposed this wasn't a bad way to start-breakfast with the two people who meant the most to him in the world. They managed, too, not to let it seem too gloomy at all. Later he didn't remember exactly, but he was relatively sure they even laughed a few times though he didn't remember at all what they'd talked about-anything but his legs, he did know.
The only horrible damper was the moment he remembered that the only other person he might have really wanted here just now was dead, Moira was dead, and he nearly choked on his toast when he sobbed so suddenly he hadn't known it was going to happen.
"Charles?" Erik asked quickly.
Raven, beside him, had a hand at his back as he coughed. "What happened?"
"Something went down the wrong way," he lied, swallowing hard both to get the toast out of the way and to push back the lump in his throat. "I'm fine."
He wondered when it would be true-really true, not just moments snatched like this when he could forget.
The morning got better again when Erik mentioned that he would call Charles's local doctor when they were done eating. The man had been in to check on him a few times since he had been brought home, and he would need to come now that Charles was awake.
By then Raven had finished and excused herself to get dressed for the day, and Charles cleared his throat. "Please do; I would very much like this catheter out."
Erik blinked at him. "You can feel that?"
"It's rather annoying."
And his friend was grinning. "That's good. They didn't know if you'd..."
Charles colored suddenly when he realized what Erik meant, and when he sifted through the memories of the doctors in Nevada that came to the surface in his friend's mind he understood more. "Ah."
Erik shrugged a bit. "The break was low, but they weren't sure if it was low enough that...well, they said we wouldn't know exactly how much you could feel or not until you woke up and could tell us."
Good news. Something. It helped.
Despite the somewhat encouraging beginning of the first day Charles was awake, things otherwise got off to a rocky start.
Charles seemed to have enough determination not let himself sink wholly into despair, but neither was he all right. He let them let the boys in to see him soon enough, and he never turned anyone away, but it was obvious to Erik-and, he thought, to the rest of them-that Charles would rather be left alone. Though why he would want to be left alone with the things that must have been going through his mind Erik could hardly fathom.
Maybe he didn't want to burden them. If so, it was a load of bull and Erik wasn't having any of it. He didn't say anything, but he rarely allowed Charles to be alone during daylight hours. If he wanted to sit and brood he could do it at night when normal people were sleeping.
Charles would consent to play chess with him, and conversation was not nonexistent, but after that first night when he'd woken he refused to speak about anything in regards to his legs, or Shaw, or what had happened to them. Erik had never been one for talking so much about such things himself, but he knew that Charles, at least, would never heal unless he did. He was different. He wanted to bottle things up for the sake of others, but it wasn't good for him.
But until Charles decided to open up again all Erik and Raven and the others could do was take care of him, and even that was hard sometimes when he didn't want the help even though he needed it. When the catheter came out he needed help getting to the bathroom, and until he had enough of his strength back to figure out how to manage to change clothes on his own he needed help with that, too.
He hated it. They all knew he hated it, but nothing was going to change it. He didn't seem to want to so much as look at the wheelchair that was by his bed now, and once he was strong enough to get into it himself he only used it to get to the connecting bathroom or to move about in his room and get back to the bed. He would not leave his room, and he would not come downstairs even though there was an old service elevator he could have used.
Charles was hiding from reality, and Erik knew it. He smiled and he told them he was all right and he managed to seem amiable enough, usually, but the room Erik had taken was next to Charles's. When he passed his friend's door on the way to bed at night he heard muffled crying more often than he wanted to admit to himself, and sometimes through the shared wall he heard more than that-a frustrated, inarticulate shout or a crash or a loud thump. He always tried, at least, to reach out to his friend, but when he called to Charles silently he was quickly told that everything was all right and to go to sleep. When he made it as far as Charles's door he was quietly begged to leave before he could even get inside. He wouldn't know what was broken until morning, and even then they wouldn't talk about it. Erik would clean it up under Charles's apologies in his mind, and then set up the chess board atop the comforter.
Raven began to make sure nothing remotely vulnerable was in reach of the bed before nightfall.
Erik didn't know how else to help, but he was the only person in the house who could really cook at all. That left it up to him to make certain Charles was well fed, and he went at it with a vengeance, too, trying to put meat back on his friend's bones and hoping it would do some good. If there were leftovers Raven and the boys could have at them, but otherwise they were left to fend for themselves-not hard, with the huge pantry that Raven had had stocked before they arrived.
After two or three weeks or more Charles's doctor told them that though he was still rather sore the tissue damage from the deeper bruises was healed enough that he could start to train his upper body-strengthen his arms and torso to make it easier to do things for himself with his dead legs. Erik knew Charles wanted that, but he didn't seem to want someone he didn't know coming to the mansion to help him do it. So Erik took on that job, too, and soon there was a small set of weights in Charles's room.
It was the only capitulation Charles made, in admitting to any of them that everything was very different now. He still would not talk about it-about how it was different and how much it was affecting him, or what he planned to do now, or anything of the sort.
"What happened in Cuba?" he finally asked, over a chess game.
Erik's eyebrows went up at the question. "Nothing. There was a standoff at the embargo line, but the Russians ordered the missile ship to turn around. It turned around, and that was that. It didn't cross the line. There was no conflict."
"Emma Frost and the others?"
"Didn't show. Raven stayed here to watch you and the rest of us even flew all the way out there to be sure, but nothing happened. They didn't show. Without Shaw I doubt they care much one way or another about the plan anymore."
Charles's brow furrowed. "They'll make trouble again. I'm sure Ms Frost will, at the very least."
Erik's jaw set. "We'll be ready for them."
Charles only nodded wordlessly.
"Hank says he could rebuild Cerebro. Here, if you wanted," Erik said then, just to prompt further conversation.
"We could find other mutants. Maybe we could help them."
It was the wrong thing to say. Charles looked away, swallowing, and suddenly all Erik could think about were the weeks they'd spent circling the globe, tracking down the mutants Charles had identified with the first Cerebro. Those weeks were the happiest Erik had been in his life, and he knew it could never be like that again.
Charles, apparently, was thinking the same. He was glaring at his legs now, arms crossed over the chest of the navy blue cardigan that he wore over only a t-shirt. Never leaving his room he hadn't really bothered with the usual sophistication of his wardrobe since waking up; there were only sweatpants under that.
"Charles, we could still do it." It would be different, with Charles in a wheelchair...but they could do it. At first it certainly would not be as carefree, but they could get back to that. In time. Erik had to believe they could get back to that-that this didn't change everything, forever, irrevocably...that Charles was still Charles beneath the pain.
Charles just pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I don't know, Erik..."
That was the end of it, but only for now. Erik wasn't going to let him simply give up on his life. If he didn't want to work with mutants-if he wanted to go back to the university and teach with that degree of his or some other such thing-Erik would support him, as long as he did something. Though his opinion, of course, would always be that Charles should be working with mutants. What else did it seem right for one of the most powerful mutants on the planet to do?
But Charles didn't see himself that way. At least not now. Simply because of his damaged body he seemed to see himself as damaged goods now, which was ridiculous.
He didn't have to be able to walk to be one of the most intelligent men Erik had met in his life.
But he tried not to judge. He couldn't judge Charles. It had only been a few short weeks, and he knew it would take time for him to adjust to his condition-to come to terms with it. Erik helped in every way he knew how, but it would be up to Charles to do that. Still, the man was his closest friend and it hurt to watch him struggle to accept what had happened to him. If he was even trying to accept it.
It didn't help, either, that Erik still felt a healthy degree of guilt for it no matter what Charles told him.
The next morning started out badly. When he knocked on Charles's door there was no answer, and when he opened it the bed was empty. Erik didn't know why he panicked-he wouldn't have gone far-but he did, and in a moment it was somewhat justified when he found his friend on the floor near the bathroom, the simple wheelchair overturned beside him. From the direction of the tipped chair and the way Charles was lying it appeared he'd caught the edge of the coffee table and toppled out on the way back to the bed from the bathroom.
Charles was quiet, half curled on his side, and for a moment Erik was afraid he was unconscious, but when he came closer he saw the blue eyes open and staring blankly into space. His arms were wrapped around himself and he shivered a little. The fire had gone out and winter was fast approaching.
How long had he been down there?
Erik swallowed hard. Charles? The only response was that his eyes closed now, and he let out a tired breath. He shivered again, more violently this time, and Erik knelt quickly at his back and pulled him up in his arms until Charles was resting against his shoulder. Erik could see now that his lips were nearly blue and could feel that he was freezing even through the gray sweater over his flannel pajamas.
"Damnit, Charles; have you been here all night?"
He didn't answer; he didn't have to. Erik wondered why the hell he hadn't heard anything when it happened, rubbing Charles's arms to put warmth into them again and cursing under his breath. Damnit, he didn't have socks on, either. His feet were probably ice; they would be hurting by now if he could feel it.
"Why didn't you call me?" Erik questioned desperately. Charles was shivering against him, teeth chattering now.
"It was late...didn't want to wake anyone," he croaked out finally. He frowned. "I-I thought I could get back in the chair on my own. I got it...upright, but it just...tipped over again when I tried..."
"So you thought you'd just sleep on the floor? What the hell, Charles! You can't be proud about this; don't you understand that? You'll get yourself hurt, or worse!"
Too harsh. He was worried and angry and he'd come off too harshly. It had been embarrassment burning on Charles's face until now, but now he just sobbed.
"Erik, I can't do this..."
Erik let his eyes close for a moment and he held on tighter. "Yes you can. You have to."
"Why?" Charles cried.
"Why? What the hell kind of question is that...we need you. Those kids need you. The mutants out there who don't know they aren't alone need you." He hesitated. "I" need you, Charles. My life didn't have a purpose that was really worth-while until you convinced me to stay in Virginia. He didn't say that at the time he wasn't exactly gung-ho for the cause yet. He'd quickly gotten there, but in that moment in front of the CIA facility that he had decided to stay he hadn't stayed for the other mutants they might find and/or help.
He'd stayed because of Charles.
Charles was silent for a long moment. I don't know if I can be strong enough for all of them anymore.
Of course you can...but that's why I'm here. You don't have to do it alone.
Charles closed his eyes again, knowing Erik was right. He wasn't alone. That was underscored when Erik gently scooped him up and brought him to the bed. But he set him on the edge of the it instead of against his pillows, and Charles watched Erik curiously as he went to the closet and began to dig through it.
He came back out with socks, a blue shirt and a pair of pants, which he dropped onto the edge of the bed beside Charles.
"Clothes. Real ones."
"I can see that."
"Put them on, Charles."
He wanted to argue, but he already knew that Erik would not take no for an answer, and what would have been the point? Grumbling a little, he sighed and pulled off the sweater and pajama top, leaving the t-shirt underneath before he pulled on the blue shirt and began working at the buttons. And apparently he wasn't moving fast enough because Erik reached out as if to help, before he seemed to remember that he couldn't help with buttons. Not small ones that required two hands, anyhow.
He stopped short, staring at his useless hand, and Charles stopped and looked up at it too. The cast had come off last week, and it did look relatively normal-minimal scarring from the surgery, and only the two fingers that had been completely shattered still looked a bit odd...slightly lumpy and not quite straight.
But the hand was still all but useless.
Erik shook his head as if to snap out of something, and shrugged as he sat down on the edge of the bed now, too. "I guess it's a good thing I'm so fond of turtlenecks," was all he said. After another moment he chuckled weakly. "Your wardrobe wouldn't work so well for me now."
Charles swallowed and reached to take the mostly numb hand in his. Erik didn't resist as he ran his fingers over the two of his friend's that had taken the worst of it. He caressed the hand in both of his, feeling the bones that were not quite in place and the scars from the reconstructive surgery. He also felt a strong surge of guilt.
Maybe he pressed in too hard. Erik sucked in a short breath through his teeth, and Charles stopped any pressure but didn't let go. "Does it still hurt?" he asked in alarm.
"Some," Erik admitted. "Closer to my wrist, where I can feel anything."
He pressed a thumb gently into the heel of Erik's hand and down over the wrist. "You feel that, then?" He nodded, and Charles pressed against the upper palm and brushed over the fingers next. "But none of that." Erik shook his head now, and Charles let out a breath. It was a long time before he said anything else.
"I am so sorry, my friend. I...I'm afraid I've been so caught up...worried over my own problems; the changes I'll have to make...I'd forgotten that you have your own adjustments to contend with. That was awful of me..."
Erik was clearly uncomfortable with the sudden attention. "Charles, it's all right...a hand is hardly anything compared to-"
"But it is. We get so used to using two; learn to rely on it just as much as walking..." He blinked back sudden tears. "God, Erik, he's marked us both. We'll never forget now." What if that was what Shaw had wanted? "He won..."
"No," Erik firmly, taking his hand back now. "He didn't. We're still here, Charles. We'll make it."
He wanted to believe that. He didn't say anything as he finished buttoning his shirt, but he wanted to believe it.
He let Erik help him pull on the pants and socks only because he had been humiliated already this morning, being found on the floor, and there wasn't much way it could possibly be worse anyway. When Charles was dressed he pulled the gray sweater back on over the blue shirt and buttoned it, and when Erik stood back from the bed and looked at him for a moment he smirked a bit.
"There. Now you look more like yourself."
Charles glanced down at himself. "I suppose I feel a bit more like myself..."
"Good." With that Erik crossed the room again and came back with the wheelchair. "Because you're coming downstairs for breakfast."
Charles just stared at him. "No," he said firmly.
"No, I am not going downstairs."
Erik glared at him. "You can't stay cooped up in this room forever, Charles. You have to go down there sometime."
"Get in the damned chair, Charles!"
"I am not going downstairs in that bloody chair!"
He couldn't. If he did that it would be surrendering to this-to this life where he couldn't walk. It would be the end of the life he'd had before.
He didn't think he was ready for that.
They both stopped, because they were shouting now and it shouldn't be coming to that. They stared each other down now, until finally Erik relented and pushed the chair back out of the way. "Fine."
Charles only had a fraction of a second to relax before Erik picked him up instead.
"Erik! What are you-! Put me down!"
"You said you didn't want to go downstairs in the chair; you're not going downstairs in the chair."
"This is NOT what I meant, Erik. Put me down. NOW."
"You didn't complain when I picked you up a few minutes ago."
"This time it's against my will; there's a difference." He was still mostly over the bed, and he tried to pitch over out of Erik's grasp and it almost worked. But Erik quickly shifted his grip to keep Charles in his arms, and drew back away from the bed and toward the door.
"This is for your own good, Charles."
He wanted to fight him, but falling now would be much less pleasant and he had had quite enough of falling, thank you. As Erik opened the door without touching it and carried him out into the corridor and down the stairs Charles stopped struggling. He glared menacingly up at his friend, but he stopped moving.
"You're going to pay for this," he muttered.
"I'm going to pay for a lot of things. This one I don't mind so much."
Charles fell silent as Erik brought him into the kitchen and set him carefully in one of the chairs at the table.
"Are you all right there?"
There were no arms on the chair and balancing was interesting, but after a moment he had himself steadied and nodded. Erik nodded in return and went to the cabinets, pulling things out and looking into the refrigerator.
Charles crossed his arms atop the table and shook his head. "Not particularly."
Erik shrugged and pulled the egg carton out of the refrigerator. Behind him a pan he'd pulled from the cabinet moved onto the stove seemingly of its own accord, and the eye under it turned on. Erik brought the eggs to the stove, and while he took two plates down from another cabinet a drawer opened beside him and a metal spatula floated up and out of it and dangled there until he had cracked several of the eggs into the large pan. Once he had done that Erik snatched it out of the air with his good hand and began to scramble the cooking eggs. He didn't have to worry about the pan sliding on the eye; it remained perfectly in place, not shifting at all as he scraped at the eggs.
It was certainly something to see. "Your powers seem to make up for quite a bit..."
Erik paused with the metal salt shaker poised in the air above the pan, and glanced back at him. He glanced at the salt shaker and then back at Charles, and smirked a little. He probably didn't even realize how much he was using his abilities. It was second nature to him. "I guess they do."
That was good. It was probably making it easier for him, which made Charles feel a bit better. Erik shrugged now.
"It's the little things...things that aren't metal. Having my powers helps, but there's still enough I have to do differently." He was quiet as he finished the eggs and began to scrape them onto the plates, the pepper shaker shaking over them a bit as did it.
Maybe Erik didn't know all of how he felt, losing his legs, but he understood the basics of those feelings very well now and that was what he was trying to say.
I understand, my friend, Charles told him quietly. He paused. We are still in this together, I suppose. I know that, now.
Erik was smiling softly when he turned around to bring the plates to the table-one by one, because he could only hold one at a time, and the plates were ceramic. When he brought the second plate, his own, and sat down next to Charles they both realized he'd forgotten forks.
It wasn't a problem, of course; he simply pulled the cutlery drawer open by its metal handle again and brought the forks to them.
Charles chuckled as he plucked his fork from the air, suddenly finding this whole thing incredibly funny.
"What?" Erik asked.
He shook his head. "It's just...several months ago you were entirely content hunting Nazi criminals, tracking Shaw, and taking care of anyone in your way, and now here you are cooking breakfast for a paraplegic. Bit of a shift."
Erik just looked at him for a moment, before he finally laughed. Charles laughed with him, and it felt good.
He looked up and Raven was in the doorway, blue and staring at him. She was using her human form less and less recently, he'd noticed. And right now she was grinning from ear to ear as she crossed the kitchen to bend down and hug him fiercely. "Hey...you're downstairs."
"I suppose I am." He kissed her cheek briefly, and his sister pressed her lips to his forehead.
"God, you have no idea how good it is to see you down here. I was beginning to think you'd live in that room forever."
Part of him had wanted to. "I very well might have, if not for Erik," he said quietly. "I'm far too stubborn, apparently."
Raven looked at Erik now, a hand still on her brother's shoulder. "You got him down here?"
"Dragged him. You should have been there."
She laughed once, and bent to kiss Erik's cheek before she went to make her own breakfast. "Thank you."
Then she was on the other side of the kitchen getting her own food, and Erik was left blinking in surprise. Charles smiled softly when his friend looked at him in confusion.
You have a family now, Erik. Never forget that.
When they were both finished eating Erik took his and Charles's dishes to the sink, washed them along with the pan and spatula he'd used, and put everything away. Charles was sitting quietly with his sister as Raven ate, and when Erik approached the table again he wasn't quite sure what to do then.
"Back upstairs?" he asked, when Charles looked up at him.
Charles looked like he wanted to say yes, but he pulled in a breath and glanced back at Raven for a long moment, who gave him a pleading look that he didn't seem able to resist. He let out the breath, slowly, and shook his head a bit. "No, actually."
Erik raised an eyebrow. "Well I'm not going to carry you around all day." He didn't like to say it that way, but just as dragging Charles down here in the first place had been for his own good saying it was what he needed to hear if he was ever going to begin to truly adjust to the inevitable changes in his life.
Charles laughed once, and unlike much of the last few weeks he managed to actually infuse humor into it. "No, I certainly don't expect that." Then he was serious again, expression not quite trouble but not easy, either. "I suppose I'll be needing that chair then...if you wouldn't mind."
Raven reached to squeeze her brother's hand, hiding a melancholy smile behind her orange juice, though Charles still looked at Erik.
Erik looked back for a long moment, wondering if he was serious or if he might back down, but he didn't. After a moment Charles nodded minutely, and Erik nodded in return and understanding. No telepathy needed. "I'll be right back," he said, and Charles smiled in uncertain thanks as he left.
The wheelchair was still near the bed, and he had it to the door before he remembered that Charles only had socks on; if he was going to be about downstairs today he might feel a bit more civilized with shoes.
A sense of confusion in his mind before the telepath realized what he meant, and then the answer. Ah. Yes. That would be wonderful, thank you.
Raven had had everything else that had been at their apartment at Oxford shipped here by now to supplement what they'd brought with them when they joined forces with the CIA, which meant everything they owned was here now. There were so many pairs of shoes lined up neatly on the closet floor that Erik was almost surprised it was a man's closet. He heard a chuckle in his mind, and his eyes were directed to a pair by the door that looked a little more worn than the others-though they were all immaculate and expensive, of course.
Those are fine. Raven put them there for a reason; they're my favorite, I suppose. Quite comfortable. A sudden pause. Though I suppose that doesn't really matter now.
Erik winced and didn't reply as he bent to pick up the shoes. He didn't know how he could have replied to that. He crossed back to the door where he'd left the chair, and dropped the shoes onto the seat before he brought it downstairs-or floated it, to be precise. It wasn't heavy and would have easy to pick up if he had the use of both hands, but it was ungainly and couldn't be handled with one.
Stop it, Charles, he thought suddenly, when he felt the faintest brush of sympathy at the edge of his mind. You don't want it from us and I don't want it from you. You said it yourself; we're still in this together.
He felt his friend's assent. I know. I'm sorry.
Erik set the chair down at the base of the stairs and pushed it into the kitchen, where Charles had pushed his chair back on his own or perhaps with a bit of help from Raven to keep it from tipping. Erik stopped the wheelchair a few feet back and picked up the shoes first, but when he went to kneel in front of Charles's chair Charles protested.
"I know you can."
Maybe Charles didn't have the energy to argue anymore or didn't want to do it in front of Raven, or maybe they were simply getting better at understanding each other, but Charles didn't say anything else. He balanced on the kitchen chair and let Erik put the shoes on him and tie them, and he was quiet when Erik brought the wheelchair closer and gently lifted him up and over into it. He didn't say anything else until he was settled in the wheelchair.
"Thank you," he said then, and Erik only nodded because his throat had inexplicably clogged.
Charles looked at his sister then, straightening the chair to face her and raising his eyebrows as he parted his hands in question. "Well?"
Raven smiled weakly. "You look great. But something has to be done about that chair. Completely boring; not groovy enough for you." She smirked at the last bit, and Charles actually laughed. It was the first real laugh any of them had heard from him since he'd woken, and it was one of the most wonderful sounds Erik had heard in his life. It put him suddenly a little more at ease-made it easier to believe that they were going to being okay.
Charles rolled himself closer to his sister's chair, and she leaned out to make it easier for him to kiss her cheek. Then he backed up and looked at the kitchen door, and took a deep breath.
"Here goes nothing, I suppose," he sighed.
Erik followed him out into the corridor. "Hank could probably design something for you; something powered, maybe. Something sturdier, too, that wouldn't tip over so easily."
Charles made a face at the unintended reminder of what had happened earlier. "Yes, uhm...I appreciate your not telling Raven about this morning."
"Of course..." You can always trust me, Charles.
I know I can, my friend. Thank you.
And then Charles was continuing aloud, in answer to Erik's comment about Hank. "Anyway, I suppose he could, but I wouldn't want to take Hank's time from his other work. Where are the others, anyhow?" Charles asked, looking about and apparently finding the mansion much too quiet.
"It's not even eight in the morning, Charles. They're teenage boys."
"Ah. Yes...well, I never slept in like that."
"Neither did I, but we're strange, remember?"
Charles chuckled a bit and moved on toward the library, obviously still getting used to pushing the chair any farther than across his bedroom. They came to a plush accent carpet lying part of the length of the hallway, and he had trouble getting the chair across the edge of it much less any distance over it. There was no way to go around it; it was nearly as wide as the hallway. He made frustrated noises and his brow furrowed deeply, but Erik didn't move to help until he was asked to. Or it wasn't so much asking as Charles finally stopped and glanced up at him sheepishly.
He didn't say anything to make it worse; he moved silently half behind the chair, taking one of the handles in his good hand, and half pushed and and half used his powers to push the chair across the offending carpet and back onto the hardwood floor of the corridor on the other side. Charles was fine from there, and when they made it to the library the carpet there was more compact and not so much of a problem.
"Perhaps I should take those exercises more seriously," Charles muttered in embarrassment, once they were safely ensconced in the room and Erik had seen to the fire. The fire was absolutely necessary, now that it was nearly February.
Not that Erik had noticed as much, being Jewish, but Charles had missed Christmas. They hadn't really had one. No one had been in the mood with the uncertainty of Charles's condition hanging over them, and they hadn't had time to plan anything anyhow. Raven had insisted on a nice dinner, at least, because they'd needed a bit of cheering up if nothing else, though as she couldn't cook she'd gotten it from town. From the way Raven talked it was nothing to compared to Christmas dinners she and Charles had had here as children, but it was still more food than Erik had ever seen at once. There were still a few leftovers of the the less perishable things in the refrigerator.
It had helped some, but no one had really relaxed until nearly two weeks later, when Charles had woken after having just missed New Years, as well.
"It's just going to take time, that's all," Erik told him. "And you started out at a disadvantage after losing weight from being in that coma-like-whatever-the-hell-it-was all that time. But you'll get stronger."
"I suppose I'll have to, if I don't want to freeze to death on the floor any time soon," Charles winced.
Erik glared at him. "You won't be doing that anyway. You're going to call me next time something like last night happens again or I won't be upset when you do freeze."
Charles opened his mouth as if to protest, but slowly shut it again. "Right," he murmured eventually, looking away.
"I said all right," he huffed.
Erik nodded in satisfaction and moved to sit in one of the chairs facing a small table that already had a chess board set up on its surface. Considering how much Charles loved the game-and how good he was at it-it didn't surprise Erik at all that there was more than one good set in the house.
"Are you coming?" he asked pointedly.
Charles looked up from where he still sat in his chair just a few yards inside the room, as if startled out of some reverie. "Hmm? Ah. Yes, of course," he said, when he saw Erik at the chess board. Erik realized, then, that there was another chair opposite the table, and he quickly jumped up to move it to the main seating area and out of the way so Charles could simply position his wheelchair where it had been. By the time he sat down again Charles was there, smiling some, and Erik sat back and let himself believe that he really wasn't crazy for hoping that, in time, they would be fine.
There was still plenty to deal, more than enough to get through...but it could be done, couldn't it?
Charles didn't tell Erik or anyone else that there was another reason he hadn't wanted to leave his room. He'd barely admitted it to himself and he wasn't about to voice any of it.
He didn't tell them how much he still felt the bruises, faint though they looked now. He didn't tell them how sometimes he still expected to see Shaw hovering over him every time he opened his eyes or looked over his shoulder. He didn't tell them that it was easier to deal with that if he was safely closed away in the bedroom he'd had since he was a child, and that was harder to deal with when he wasn't. He didn't tell them he wanted to jump at every loud noise or sudden movement.
He lied when he did jump, when he couldn't stop himself. He was very good at keeping himself under control, but everyone made the occasional mistake.
As he slowly became more used to using the wheelchair and wasn't always worried about it or angry at needing help at times that only left more room for the fear to creep in. It was irrational, and Charles knew it, but the harder he tried to bat it away and bury it the harder it hit him when he was least expecting. As it was there were good days and bad days...days when he was doing all right in learning to live without his legs and days when he wanted to curl up in bed and cry. Trying not to remember everything that had happened in that plastic room only made it worse, and often he felt ever so much like an emotional yo-yo.
Raven noticed something, and he knew she cared, but he managed to keep enough of it hidden that only Erik seemed to truly suspect anything. Hank, Sean, and Alex had taken to calling him "professor" and he did his best to act the part. He was suited for it, as Raven had told him once, and falling into that role gave him something to hide behind. From his wheelchair there was still enough that he could do in helping the younger mutants train, and he did it. He did everything he could, and it was welcome distraction. Maybe there was no crisis now, but gaining more control over one's powers was always a good thing.
Hank, too, was able to help the other two boys from a scientific standpoint, and he had also agreed immediately to designing a better chair for Charles. Not that Charles had asked about it himself; that had been Erik and Raven's doing, of course. He was relatively certain the two of them were helping him concept-wise, as well, though all of them refused to let him see any of the preliminary plans.
Apparently they wanted the completed thing to be a surprise, though there was no indication of how long that would take.
But he was all right in the chair he had, simple though it was. Slowly he did gain more strength in his arms and torso, as Erik had promised he would, and the physical training of his upper body helped speed up the process. He knew it would likely be going even faster if he were having a professional physical therapist come to the house or if he were going to see one, but he didn't want to. He was much more comfortable with Erik helping him, and he was content enough with the rate of his progress.
The last days of January gave way to February, February became March, and Charles shoved Shaw and the plastic room to the the back of his mind, finally began to dwell on it less, and convinced himself that it meant he was all right.
He was wrong, of course, and part of him knew it, but then again he had always been stubborn.
It started with the lamp. The lamp and the stairs and the rough hands and things flying at his head and nonowhyIneverdidanythingtoyou and he closed his eyes and when he opened them the library was plastic and unfriendly and there were hands all over him and they hurt him and it wasn't Kurt or Cain it was Shaw. It was Shaw and it hurt so much more than anything ever had and it was deliberate, and there was no smug smirk, there was no shouting; it was just cold calculation and how much could he hurt before he wasn't himself anymore and he was just the pain?
It was different and it was worse and it was nothing like before, nothing like Kurt and Cain, and he couldn't stop it like he'd learned to stop them. He couldn't protect himself he couldn't protect Erik he couldn't do anything. It hurt it hurt it hurt and the hands pressed into the bruises and he squirmed and he wanted to cry and he wanted to get away but he couldn't and he couldn't breathe and oh god this wasn't supposed to be happening nothing happened to him that he didn't want anymore why was this happening?
His ribs burned everything burned and Shaw was still there and still hurting him and it was agony and it wouldn't stop. One more moment and he would go crazy but he couldn't go crazy he had to be here for Erik but he had nothing to give but Erik needed him Erik was hurting too but right now he just wanted to curl up and die, oh GOD why wouldn't it STOP?
The hands were a violation on his skin drawing pain from everything and they were on his back now and nonononoNO he couldn't do that and he still couldn't breathe and he was sobbing now why was he sobbing? Because he couldn't stop it he couldn't do anything because he couldn't let Erik die but he didn't want this he didn't want to be broken but Erik and-
And the worst pain he'd ever felt. Worse than the deepest bruises and the broken bones worse than everything and oh god his legs were gone. They were gone they were here but they were gone and he couldn't think straight it hurt so much and all he could see was Shaw and Shaw standing over him hurting him and he still couldn't get away he could never get away now and GOD! Would it ever stop hurting? And-
No. No. He wasn't him. Him was her. Was a she. She was a her she was Raven, not Charles and she sat bolt upright in bed and she knew she was sobbing already. She was shaking and crying, and she had to calm herself enough to climb out of the bed and get shakily to her feet. Slippers and a robe and she was out the door, arms wrapped around herself and shivering anyway.
Charles. Oh god, Charles, it couldn't have been that bad, could it?
She wasn't alone in the hallway. Across the hall, beside Charles's room was Erik's and as she watched he burst out of his room and made a beeline for Charles's door and he was oblivious to her presence.
He froze in reaching for the door handle and looked back quickly, and he was tense but he relaxed a little when he saw her. "You too?" he asked quietly.
Raven nodded and choked back a sob. When she spoke again her voice trembled much more than she wanted it to. "Erik, please tell me that was his mind exaggerating everything. Please tell me it was just a dream and it wasn't like that..." she pleaded desperately.
Apology. Even in the dim midnight hallway she could see the apology in his eyes and she knew everything had happened the way she'd seen it. Erik swallowed hard and approached her tentatively. "I could if you wanted me to lie to you," he said gently.
Raven couldn't keep herself from sobbing this time, a hand went to her mouth to clamp over it-the others were still sleeping it seemed to be just them and there was no reason to wake them-and it surprised her when Erik pulled her into his arms, even if he seemed rather uncertain about it.
"I'm sorry; I should have warned you before this happened. It was bound to happen, as bad as it was. I just...thought it was obvious, I suppose. He looked awful..."
She closed her eyes, her head against his chest-this new brother who cared about Charles as much as she did. At first she had been jealous but since bringing Charles home she realized that it was much better, not to be the only one.
"I should have known. I guess I did know. Part of me did, but I didn't want to think about it. I mean-" She cut off when she realized what she'd been about to say. Things happened when we were kids...things happened but nothing like that. Kurt and Cain were cruel and vindictive but Charles hadn't been tortured. Not really. Not like that. But Erik didn't know about that and she didn't know if Charles wanted him to.
Tortured. The word sent an ice-cold shiver down her spine but Raven knew it was the only word accurate enough to describe what had happened to her brother. Erik too, but...for Erik it wasn't the first time. She knew of that much even if she knew no details.
It wasn't her business.
But Charles was.
She pulled away from him and launched herself toward her brother's door-used it as an excuse for stopping mid-sentence. "I should go in there..."
"What going on?"
She stopped and glanced back down the hallway, and Hank was coming out of his room and looking at them in confusion. Raven still wanted to cry and seeing him only made it worse. She choked quietly, and then there was a hand on her shoulder.
"Let me handle this. I've been where he is; I know what he's going through."
And as much as she wanted to be sure Charles was okay she knew Erik would take care of him just as well as she could-better, maybe, in this case. She didn't think she would be able to go in there now without crying at some point, and that would only make it all worse. He would insist on trying to comfort her and it would all defeat the purpose.
Raven glanced back at Erik and nodded weakly in thanks, and he gave her a gentle push in Hank's direction. Hank had come closer now, his face a mask of confusion, and it only took a few steps before she could latch her arms around him and bury her face in his shirt.
"Raven...?" He returned the embrace immediately, holding onto her tightly, but he still didn't understand.
"Charles," she managed softly. "He was...he was dreaming. Nightmares. Projecting them. I guess only Erik and I got them. I don't know. I just...oh god, Hank, what Shaw did to him..."
His arms tightened around her as she started to cry.
The moonlight through the window was the only illumination in the bedroom when Erik slipped inside, but there was enough of it that his eyes quickly adjusted as he closed the door behind him. He could make out the silhouetted form huddled in the bed, turned away from him and shivering.
He could also hear the not-so-muffled sobbing, and realized that Charles had not noticed he was there. He hadn't told him to leave, or tried to tell him he was fine, or anything of the sort.
"Charles?" he said aloud. There was no answer and he crossed to the bed and reached out tentatively for a shoulder. "Charles...?"
The moment his fingers brushed fabric Charles was fighting him, shouting, and Erik's first reaction was to roll him onto his back and pin him down until he'd calmed, but he knew that would be too much like being strapped to that damned plastic table and he didn't do it. Instead he quickly moved in closer and tightly wrapped his arms around Charles from behind, pinning his arms against his body and hugging him close.
"Charles, calm down! It's me! It's Erik! Calm down! Charles!" Slowly he began to stop his thrashing, and Erik continued to whisper in his ear to calm him, his friend's sweat-soaked hair in his face. "Charles, it's all right. You're safe. It's over, Charles. It's over..."
Finally Charles was limp in Erik's arms, still crying so hard his chest was shaking and he was coughing between sobs. He had cried enough before, at the beginning, when he couldn't accept what had happened to his legs-the soft muffled sounds Erik had heard through the door and the wall-but never like this. Nothing like this. This was different. All fear and pain and helplessness and everything he had suppressed for too long, Erik realized now.
He'd thought Charles's mind was recovering with the rest of him. He should have known better. He'd felt at the beginning that Charles should talk about this, but he never had, and as he slowly got used to being in the wheelchair he'd seemed fine, recently, and Erik had put his misgivings aside.
He shouldn't have.
"It will never...be over," Charles sobbed, when his crying finally began to taper off as well.
"It'll never be over if you don't let it be over," Erik told him firmly. "You have to let it be over. You can't let him win." He was quiet for a moment, and he swallowed hard. "I let him win for twenty years, Charles. You can't be like me. You're too good for that."
And he'd begun to realize, since Charles had stopped him, that if he had killed Shaw the man would have won irrevocably. Shaw would have accomplished what he wanted and Erik knew he wouldn't have been the same again. He wouldn't be here right now.
Charles made a small choked sound, and he was squirming in an attempt to loosen Erik's grip and Erik resisted until he realized that Charles just wanted to face him. Erik loosened his arms accordingly and helped his friend turn over, and once they were face to face Charles buried himself close again, still trying to catch his breath to some extent.
Erik just held onto him, because he didn't know what else he could do. He was just there, because apparently that was what Charles needed right now.
"Why...why can't I let it go?" Charles managed finally. "I-I'd seen everything in your mind, felt everything he did to you, but this is...I still feel it. I..."
"Those were my memories you had before. It's not the same. These are yours."
Charles closed his eyes wearily. "But...you don't understand. You aren't a telepath. You don't know how much what I glean from other's minds feels so real...like I'm there. How little difference there seems to be between others' memories and my own if I've been deeply enough in their mind..." He swallowed. "There shouldn't be any difference. I could deal with what I'd seen in your mind and I should be able to deal with this..."
"Maybe I'm not a telepath, Charles, but I know what it's like to be hurt. I know you couldn't really understand if you weren't there, no matter what you felt through my memories. Seeing them didn't prepare you for what Shaw did you. It couldn't have. Looking through my memories you could stop it any time you wanted to." Erik made a face, remembering the feelings from Charles's projected nightmare and tightening his grip on his friend a little. "When you're there and you can't stop it it's an entirely different story," he said quietly.
Charles sobbed once. "I can always stop...anything. I tell myself I don't control people on a whim, but since I learned to do it nothing has ever happened to me that I truly didn't want. I-I...I've never been helpless like that..." he whispered.
"I know," Erik said gently. "And that's half of it right there. I know that."
Charles was shivering against him now. "Doesn't it wake you up at night?"
He let out a breath, and answered honestly. "Of course it does. What happened when I was young still wakes me up. All of it does...but I'm used to it. You're not, and that's okay. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"Will it ever stop?"
Erik was quiet for a moment. "I don't know. But I know you can't even start to put it behind you if you try to do it alone. Twenty years I was alone and it controlled me."
He hated that Charles needed this advice. He hated that they had this in common now-being hurt by Shaw. Changed. He would rather it be something else...anything else, that they had in common. As long as he still had this man as a friend. He just wished it wasn't this.
But it was this, it was the pain and the fear and everything that went with it, and he would be here. He wouldn't let Charles get through it alone and he supposed he couldn't try to do it alone himself anymore.
Charles's face pressed into his chest, and the next thing Charles said was silent. Not alone. We're not alone...
It sounded as if he were thinking it as much for his own benefit as Erik's, and probably more so.
"No," Erik said aloud. "You're not. I told you that. You told me that." The night they'd met. Charles had latched onto him from behind and pulled him out of the water, kept him from drowning.
I suppose you've returned the favor, Charles thought to him.
They were both quiet after that, for a long time, and finally Charles pulled back and started to sit up. Erik sat up and watched him, looking for any indication that he needed help but it never came. He got himself up against the headboard with ease enough, and Erik noted with satisfaction that he was getting stronger, and he already knew that Charles was certainly no longer the stick figure he'd been when he'd woken. Hopefully that was helping.
A flick of his wrist and the bedside lamp was on. He hadn't meant to catch Charles in the midst of attempting to dry his face, but he was only squinting at the light and not in embarrassment. The silence they were sitting in now was comfortable, quite unlike the silence the night Charles woke up, more than two months ago now. He'd been awake as long as he had been gone, and they had come a long way in that time time...Charles trusted him even more than before and didn't seem to mind so much anymore having to rely on him sometimes.
But they hadn't come far enough. Erik hadn't seen this coming, and he should have.
"I'm sorry," he said suddenly.
Charles looked at him strangely. "For what?"
He shook his head as he tried to find some way to put it into words. "For...I should have been helping you deal with this, too. I didn't."
The telepath let out a breath. "Oh my friend, it is most certainly not your fault. I didn't want help. I foolishly assumed that I would somehow miraculously get past it on my own." He grimaced and looked away. "I am not used to needing help. In any way. Even while I was learning to accept it in its physical form I couldn't admit that I needed it in another way."
They were quiet again, and Erik knew he had to tell Charles the truth of why he had known to come here in the first place. "Charles..."
Erik winced in apology. "Charles...you were projecting," he said quietly.
Charles paled immediately. "What? Oh god who else-"
"Raven. It was just the two of us."
His face crumpled, and he groaned. "Oh god...god, she was never supposed to know any of that. She-" He looked up suddenly. "Where is she? Is she all right?"
"Hank woke up when he heard us in the hallway. He's with her."
"But is she all right?"
"She's upset, Charles, but she'll be all right."
Charles moaned again and curled farther into the headboard. He knocked his head back into it once or twice in frustration and let out a sharp breath. "I'm sorry. I-"
"You don't have to apologize to me." Charles just looked at him, and Erik looked back intently. "But you do have to tell me where the lamp came from."
Charles blinked. "What?"
He wasn't going to back down on this, either. He'd seen the beginning of the dream. The nightmare. He remembered it now better than the rest because it had been unfamiliar to him. The lamp swinging toward his head and the stairs coming up to meet him too fast and many more things like that and the smirking faces of a man he'd never seen before and a boy that looked like him.
"The beginning, Charles. I remember that too. That wasn't from what happened with Shaw."
Charles looked at him for a long moment, before he finally licked his lips and winced. But instead of answering right off he pulled open the top few buttons of his pajama shirt and pushed it off of his left shoulder, the one near Erik. His fingers found the scar that was there without looking, framed it, and Erik's eyebrows climbed to his hairline. How had he not noticed before, all of the times he'd changed his friend's clothes while he was still unconscious those long weeks? It wasn't large but it wasn't small, a jagged line maybe an inch and a half long, and it was faded but not enough to completely blend into Charles's pale skin. There were other dots and lines around it, tiny and barely noticeable unless one squinted, but they were there.
"It was the base of the lamp that hit me over the head, and it was sturdy enough that it stayed in one piece but the glass shade shattered against my shoulder. A concussion and stitches all at once...Raven was irate."
Erik's jaw clenched. "Who? Who did that to you? The people in the dream? Who are they?"
"My stepfather and his son," Charles answered quietly. "They both did their share of wrong, but it was the son who perpetrated the lamp incident. Cain." He didn't look like he wanted to be saying anything about all of this at all, but he frowned to himself and just kept talking. "I was thirteen at the time. It was within the first few months Raven was with us and beyond being incredibly angry she was terrified. I'd been able to keep their cruelty from her until she walked in on that incident. She was so frightened I told her that she didn't have to stay if she didn't want to, but...she did. She didn't leave me."
A surge of anger and protectiveness, every bit as strong as what he'd felt in that plastic room. "Why did you never say anything?"
Charles pulled his shirt back over his shoulder and buttoned it again as he spoke. "There was no point. You assumed I didn't know what it was like to be hurt, and this was so much different, worse, that it hardly mattered that the concept was not, in fact, alien to me. I still wasn't prepared; you weren't wrong in that."
Erik stared at him, cursing his throat for clogging when there was so much he wanted to say. "Charles..."
Though Erik had tried to keep it out of his voice Charles must have picked up on the distress one way or another, because he looked up sharply and his expression quickly softened. "Erik, it's all right. If I had really wanted you to think any different than you did I would have said something sooner."
"Still, I shouldn't have assumed..."
"I didn't mind. I preferred it that way, really."
Erik glared suddenly. "The you wouldn't have told me if this hadn't happened?"
Charles's mouth dropped open, but at first nothing came out. "I...I don't know."
He pushed angrily off the bed and walked a quick circle in the floor beside it, more than once, some sort of pacing to burn off the sudden anger. "I can't believe you...!"
"You know everything about me, Charles!"
"So I'm not allowed anything that's private?" Charles asked hotly.
"After everything we went through together and everything you know it hardly seems fair that you kept this from me."
Charles huffed and felt silent. He looked away and Erik just watched him, trying to tell himself he shouldn't be angry but unable to help it.
"I suppose you may be right," Charles said finally. "But it was hardly something I could bring up in casual conversation."
Erik deflated. That much, at least, was true. He trudged back to the bed and dropped onto its edge. "I'm sorry."
"It seems we both say that far too often even when not in crisis."
Erik reach out and braced a hand on Charles's shoulder, letting his thumb run over the spot where he knew the scar was though the pajama shirt covered it now. "I guess we do." Charles reached up to cover the hand with his own, the corners of his mouth tugging upward, and now the silence was comfortable again.
"I don't believe I'll be getting back to sleep tonight," Charles said at length. "I should see that Raven is all right, anyhow."
Erik started to stand. "Do you need any-?"
"Help? No, thank you. I was merely commenting," he said, smiling a little. With that he threw off the covers and swung himself down into the wheelchair by the bed on his own. He brought the chair out from behind the bed and contemplated the closet and the door for a moment before heading for the door. There was no reason to change yet; it was still the middle of the night.
That, and Erik supposed he was anxious to check on his sister after the projection episode. Erik followed him, and Charles didn't head for Raven's room or Hank's room but for the elevator, and he supposed he'd located them telepathically. They found the pair in the kitchen, sitting close at the table with nearly untouched hot chocolate in front of them.
"Charles!" Raven jumped up immediately when she saw them, and Erik could see that she was coming in fast and quickly flicked a finger to put the wheelchair's brakes on before she ran into her brother and latched her arms around him. She sank to her knees by the chair and left her face buried in Charles's chest, and she was crying again now but didn't seem to care that Erik and Hank were in the room, too.
"Oh god, Charles, I'm so sorry..."
Charles, for his part, had quickly wrapped his arms around her and pushed his face into her orange hair to kiss her head. "Shh, it's all right. It's all right..."
And now that he knew that their childhood had not been perfect Erik suddenly saw their relationship so much more clearly. He understood how much they meant to each other, and it warmed his heart and broke it all at once.
He looked up and exchanged a glance with Hank, who hadn't moved either, seeming to understand as Erik did that this moment was not for them. The look in his eyes seemed to indicate that Raven may have told him something of the past, too.
Erik motioned back toward the corridor, and Hank silently stood and followed him out, leaving brother and sister alone.
"It's a what?" Charles echoed. He couldn't quite decide whether he was impressed, confused, or simply surprised.
"It's a smaller version of Cerebro. Much smaller, unfortunately, much less powerful, but I thought it might be a good thing to have until we get another full-scale installation built, which is going to take months, at the least."
Charles examined the console at the back of Hank's lab, which he himself couldn't really distinguish from any of the others save for the helmet connected to it by wires and electrodes. "You built this in less than three weeks?" It was May now, and it had only been scarcely three weeks since he'd worked up the courage to tell Hank that perhaps rebuilding Cerebro here might be a good idea after all.
Erik was right. There were still plenty enough mutants out there who needed their help. Who needed to know they weren't alone.
"Uhm, well, no...actually I kind of started this one a couple of months or so ago..."
Charles's eyebrows went up. "Ah." He let it go, and glanced at the console again. "How much less powerful is it? Do you have a guess as to its range?"
Hank shrugged a bit and scratched his head. "Well, where the original could get you pretty much anywhere, this one would probably only expand your abilities a few states. Maybe the rest of this half of the U.S. on a good day. But I think that's the best I was going to get without the spherical enclosure to amplify and the bigger antennas...I don't know. Obviously there's no way for me to test it. What do you think, Professor?"
"Well I suppose that it is certainly better than nothing. It gives us somewhere to start, and I believe that was the idea behind it in the first place, yes?"
"Right. Absolutely," Hank nodded.
Charles rolled his chair closer and motioned to the headpiece. "May I?"
"Yeah. Right. Sure. You want to try this now?"
"Might as well see what it's got, I suppose."
"Of course. All right..."
As Hank moved to the console Charles picked up the headpiece and settled it over his head, and this one didn't look much different than the first beyond being a bit smaller. He was sure he still looked like-
"Being a lab rat again, are we, Charles?"
Charles looked up, smiling in amusement, and Erik was there at the door, smirking. "Erik. What are you up to, my friend?"
"Raven said something about Hank dragging you down to the lab, and I thought I might rescue you."
"Rescue him?" Hank echoed.
"But it seems you're happily ensnared." Charles chuckled, and Erik nodded to the new contraption before he continued. "Is that what I think it is?"
"It is, actually."
"Again, smaller and much less powerful than the original, but it performs the same function that Cerebro did," Hank added.
Charles motioned to the helmet over his head. "We were just about to give it a go."
Erik came close enough to sit on the edge of the nearest table. "I don't doubt it." He waved them on. "Go ahead. I'm just here."
Charles's reaction to the initial activation of this new device wasn't quite as violent as the one to the original Cerebro, but it was interesting enough and Erik found himself smiling, knowing his friend was likely just happy enough to have found something else he could still do.
And maybe starting small was good, anyway. They hadn't even decided exactly how much they could do for these mutants, anyhow. It was pretty clear by now that Hank, Sean, and Alex weren't going anywhere-they had nowhere to go-but what of any other mutants they found? They had yet to discuss it, really, though it seemed they would have to do that soon.
Erik didn't have long to contemplate this, however, before the machine shut down and Charles quickly pulled the headpiece off.
"What is it?" Hank asked anxiously. "Is it not working correctly?"
"Oh, it works," Charles confirmed. "It's just that we seem to have a bit of a situation."
Erik stood up. "What kind of situation?"
Charles spun his chair around to face Erik. He was getting better at that, and Erik wasn't quite sure how he felt about it. "Angel. Emma Frost and the others have abandoned her. Or she's abandoned them. She's looking for us."
"With no other way to find us she went back to the base in Virginia. They're holding her at CIA headquarters. The idea would be to go there and ask that she be released into our custody," Charles told them.
The discussion was heated, of course. He'd known it would be.
Angel had betrayed them, and Raven was the only one who seemed to even want to consider giving the girl a second chance. Alex, Sean, and Hank were enraged by the idea, and Erik, though he was not expressly against again, was not happy about it either.
"It's too dangerous," Erik said, over and over.
"Too dangerous my ass!" Alex growled. "Who the hell cares about dangerous? It's just as much her fault as Shaw's that Darwin's dead."
"And she must have known, when Shaw had us," Erik added. "She didn't do anything."
"Or she didn't know," Charles interjected. It wasn't that what they were saying did not have merit. It was that he had been the one in Cerebro, and he had been the one to touch her mind. He knew alone and scared the girl was, and how much she needed them just now even if she didn't quite want to admit it.
"It could be a trap," Erik provided then.
"I would know if it were a trap. I was in her mind, Erik. She really does want to find us, and she means us no harm."
"I still don't like it."
"You don't have to like it."
Erik blinked at him in surprise, and Raven spoke up. "Maybe we should do this, just carefully."
"Or not at all," Sean cut in. "We don't owe her anything; not after what she did. Let the CIA do what they want with her."
"It's not about owing anybody anything. It's about doing what's right."
Alex, shouting now. "I really don't give a damn!"
It went on and on, all of them crowded around the kitchen table and the voices climbing in volume and overlapping each other until Charles's head began to ache from the crush of negative emotions.
He sent it to all of them, and they all abruptly shut up to stare at him. When he had their attention he cleared his throat. "Now, listen to me. I don't like to play this card, but I must point out that this is MY house, and that I will decide who I invite into it. Raven, as my sister and partial owner of this estate as well, is the only other person in this room who actually has a legitimate say in this decision. It merely seemed prudent to inform the rest of you, as you are staying here."
The boys looked appropriately sheepish now, And Erik's face was stony. Raven was silent, leaning over the back of a chair and waiting to see how this would play out.
"Sorry, Prof," Sean mumbled.
Charles let out a breath and looked at them until they looked back. "I have already made the decision to go to Virginia myself. I know that many of you may not like this, and I am aware of what Angel has done. I can assure you that this will be handled carefully. But if we turned people away due to past wrongs none of us would be here."
Flares of guilt, most notably from Alex and Erik, though Erik's was laced with anger. At Charles. Please don't be angry with me, my friend. That truly was not directed at anyone in particular. None of us is perfect, and it's only that more recently I've been much more aware of it.
The anger dissolved, became merely mild annoyance, and Charles quickly reassured Alex as well. The tension on the boy's face eased, and there was still silence at the table.
"Who's coming with you?" Raven asked finally, and he knew she wanted to.
Erik was standing across the table and he leaned forward quickly, hands pressing into the surface. "No. That is not acceptable."
"Angel was looking for me, more specifically, and I think she will feel more comfortable if I confront her alone. I'm going on my own."
"The hell you are."
Charles raised an eyebrow. "Must I reiterate what I said a moment ago?"
Erik smirked. "The house may be yours but you don't own the damn plane."
"And purchasing a ticket?"
"I can get money."
Charles decided that he didn't really want to know what that meant, and at the same moment he realized that the younger mutants were either staring at them or pointedly trying not to.
It suddenly seemed uncomfortably like children caught between quarreling parents.
When he glanced at them Hank, Sean, and Alex quickly got up and retreated from the kitchen, and Raven only lingered a moment.
"I really would feel better if you took someone with you," she told him, squeezing his shoulder briefly. "I want to believe she's had a change of heart, but Erik may be right that there could still be something fishy going on here."
Charles nodded in understanding and she left too, glancing back at the two of them once more before she was gone and Erik and Charles were alone.
"We really shouldn't do that," Charles said thoughtfully, after a moment or two of silence.
"Do what?" Erik asked gruffly, taking a chair now.
"Argue in front of them."
Erik looked at him strangely. "Why the hell does it matter?"
Charles shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not entirely certain. It just feels wrong. It's...we recruited them, Erik. We started this. We convinced them to dedicate themselves to...this cause, I suppose you would call it. Helping other mutants. Learning to understand and control their powers. I feel like it should be our job to be the role models for them. That would require presenting a united front."
Erik studied him for a moment. "Okay," he said slowly. "I suppose I agree with that, but it doesn't change the fact that I don't want you going to Virginia alone."
He sighed again. "Yes, well...it seems that you and Raven do have a point, but I also still believe that at least at first I should speak with Angel myself."
"I really don't like that idea either. She's dangerous. It's not just the wings; she has that acid trick, too."
"She won't harm me, Erik. I know that much. I'm the telepath, remember?"
Erik's brow creased. "But..."
"And if by some stretch of the imagination something changes and she does attempt to attack me in any way, I can stop her. You know that. I've long since fully recovered; my powers are just as strong as they ever were."
But Erik, for some reason, was still apprehensive, and his arms were on the table and Charles reached across it to squeeze one of them. "Whichever way this goes, I will be fine."
Erik believed Charles when he said that his powers were back to full strength now, and had been for a while. He believed it when Charles said that he could defend himself in his own way.
What he didn't believe, or at the very least wasn't sure of, was the idea that this whole thing was entirely on the level. But he said nothing else until they were in a hotel in Virginia, and Charles had contacted Director McCone and attained permission for the both of them to visit headquarters and for Charles himself to speak with Angel. The custody issue it seemed McCone would rather discuss in person.
And now that they were here, and they were going there in the morning, Erik couldn't shove his misgivings aside any longer. But he knew Charles wasn't going to budge on the issue of talking to Angel on his own.
He came out of the shower with an idea, quickly drying himself off and throwing pajama pants on before he lurched out of the bathroom, still toweling his hair. "Charles, I need to talk to you."
"No," he said immediately. He was out of his chair and propped against the headboard of his bed, reading, and he didn't even look up.
"This is not about Angel."
Now Charles did glance up, confused, as Erik dropped onto the edge of the other bed just across the short space between the two of them and tossed the towel onto the floor.
"Then what is it about?" Charles asked. Obviously he was being polite tonight, and not rooting around in Erik's head for the answer.
Erik hesitated, unsure of how to put it. "I've been thinking...about what you did when Shaw had us. The link you made that let me feel you too, so we could help each other. Could you do that again?"
Now Charles looked even more perplexed. "Why would I need to?"
"Answer the question."
"I could. It isn't hard at full strength, and I could just as easily make it self-sustaining as it was then."
"So you wouldn't have to think about it all the time. It would just be there."
"Yes...but why do you ask?"
Erik sat forward, elbows on his knees. "Because I want you to. At least while we're here. It doesn't have to stay, if you don't want, but I think it would be a good idea for now. Just in case something happens."
"If something happens I can call you."
"What if you can't?"
He let out a breath. "I don't know, Charles! But I still feel like there's something wrong with this, and I'm trying to account for every possibility. In that light, I'd rather be able to know the second something's wrong."
Charles studied him, hopefully trying to see the merit of his suggestion. "You wouldn't know much. Just what I was feeling."
"But it would let me know something was up, rather than leaving me sitting somewhere with no clue that you weren't all right."
"What do you really expect might happen in the middle of CIA headquarters?"
"I really don't know. I just hate the thought of you alone in a room with anyone who was ever associated with Shaw. It doesn't feel right at all." He made a face, struggling to voice the pressure in his chest. "If you won't let me come in with you, I want to be there in any other way I can."
Charles finally put the book down, watching him steadily. Eight months ago he would have swung his legs off the bed to face Erik more squarely, and Erik wondered helplessly why it still hurt so much that he couldn't do it now.
"You really are worried. Still." Erik nodded wordlessly, and there was a bit more silence before Charles continued quietly. "Are you sure you know exactly what it is that you're asking?"
"I think so..."
"Without such a link I can shut you out like I do everyone else, give you privacy. Not always know exactly what it is you're thinking or feeling unless I decide to look, but if I do this...as long as it is place we would know what the other was feeling, at the least. Always. Just like we did then. Are you sure you want that?"
"I don't mind it if you don't." And he meant it. With anyone else the idea would have scared him-the idea that someone would know everything he felt; even the things he didn't usually want to share.
But this was Charles. It was different. They had already done it before, and right now he considered it a necessary safety measure.
Charles thought for a moment. "I don't suppose I have a problem with it, if it will put your mind at ease."
Another moment, and Charles let out a breath. "All right." Two fingers went to his temple, and his eyes closed briefly. An instant later there was a presence in his mind, pulling him closer until he felt an undercurrent of emotion and dim thought layered quietly under his own. The presence broke away, the but the soft current that was the connection he remembered so well remained.
Charles opened his eyes, and let his fingers fall from his head. "There. Satisfied?" he asked. The corners of his mouth tugged upwards, and Erik's eyebrows went up.
"That didn't take long."
"I told you; I am perfectly in control of my powers now. They recovered much more quickly than my body did."
Amusement. The prevalent emotion he was getting from Charles right now was definitely amusement. Under that, small hints of apprehension about tomorrow that explained why he had agreed to this so relatively easily.
Erik blinked at him for a moment, but Charles only picked his book up again and went back to reading.
God this was so different when they weren't in the middle of a crisis. Not bad. Just different. Without all of the pain and fear and guilt and panic from both of them in the way he was picking up more clearly on what was below the surface.
Erik shook his head to himself and climbed under the covers of his own bed. "Good night, Charles."
There were two lamps on the table between them, and he left Charles's light alone and turned off the one by his bed and the two across the room, all without getting up. He settled on his side away from the light Charles was using, and suddenly realized that it was going to an interesting thing, figuring out how to sleep with Charles in the back of his head.
It hadn't been a problem before. They'd both been so exhausted that they fell asleep when they could.
A soft chuckle in his mind. I told you that you should be sure of what you were getting into.
And soon enough, after examining it and becoming familiar with the link again, he was able to push it farther into the back of his mind and...the only way to explain it was turning down the volume, so he could sleep. Not that anything he was getting through it was bothersome, and really once he'd remembered how to manage it it was more soothing than in the way.
Erik drifted off to sleep easily after that, Charles's presence a comforting warmth in the background of his thoughts.
They were led to an office after they had arrived and gone through the usual safety procedures before being allowed to continue any farther into the building. It was McCone's office-one of the few people Charles knew within the CIA anymore, with everyone dead who had been on the other base at the time of the attack.
Where McCone was, though, the bristling Agent Stryker never seemed to be far behind, and thankfully today that was not the case. The director was alone in his office, and he was up from his desk as soon as Charles and Erik were shown in.
"Professor Xavier, welcome back," he said in greeting. He offered a hand that Charles shook.
"Thank you, Director McCone, but Charles is quite all right."
McCone nodded at that, and glanced up at Erik. "Mr. Lehnsherr." He offered a hand again, but Erik didn't take it and he certainly didn't correct the man. "Right..." McCone trailed.
Charles sighed inwardly, knowing that Erik still didn't really trust the CIA, no matter how long they had worked with them.
McCone went back to his desk, offering a chair to Erik and seeming to pause when he really took in the wheelchair.
He had known, of course. He himself had authorized the search and rescue mission to Nevada that allowed Raven to find Erik and Charles in the first place, and there had been reports afterward sent by the agents who had accompanied the younger mutants there even though Raven hadn't really let them do much of anything.
So McCone would have heard, at least, of the fact that Charles had been paralyzed. He just didn't quite seem to know what to do with that information now.
"Have you been...well?" the man asked awkwardly.
"Well enough, thank you," Charles nodded, calming the man's nerves in the process without letting him know it.
McCone visibly relaxed. "Good, good..."
"And you? The agency? I must...express my regrets, for your losses. In both attacks," Charles said quietly. "I'm sorry." There was an ache in his chest that had grown since they'd arrived. He hadn't realized just how hard it would be to be here, and remember being here with Moira the first time.
McCone winced. "Thank you. I uhm...I'm sorry too. We lost a lot of good people."
"Yes, you did."
There was a moment of quiet, and at the sympathetic look the director gave him Charles wondered if he had suspected anything. If he'd noticed, perhaps, that Charles had cared quite a bit for the agent sent to find him. But on the other hand he didn't want to know, and he didn't look.
McCone shifted a bit and cleared his throat. "Anyhow, I'm glad you're here. We really don't know what to do with this girl. She isn't uncooperative, but she was looking for you and we didn't know where you'd gone."
Apparently when they'd left Nevada Raven had not informed the CIA of exactly where they were going. Charles hadn't remedied that later because he now reluctantly supposed that the anonymity if their location might someday be preferred.
"You will release her to us then? If she chooses to come?"
McCone hesitated. "That I still can't say. Let's see how this goes first."
"Fair enough, I suppose."
"What else has she said?" Erik asked. "Besides the fact that she was looking for Charles and the rest of us."
"Not much, but as a gesture of good faith she has confirmed the status of Sebastien Shaw. He's dead. Apparently Emma Frost killed him herself. The girl says she was there."
Shock. Shock and disbelief and relief and pain and anger and many other things, all rolled into one, coming from Erik, and Charles had to fight the reflex to gasp aloud. Beside him in the chair he'd taken Erik had frozen stiff.
"You believe this to be true?" Charles asked, though he himself already knew that McCone did. Erik needed to hear it.
"I do. I've spoken with her myself, and I don't believe she's lying, though I guess you could confirm that for us."
"I could. I could do it from here, actually."
A quiet plea in his mind. Erik needed to know, and he needed to know now.
McCone only raised an eyebrow in curiosity, but he wasn't Charles's priority anymore. He had to admit that he, too, wanted to know for certain whether or not Shaw was really dead, and made a motion that asked for a moment and brought his fingers to his temple.
He found her easily, the only other mutant in the overly large building besides himself and Erik.
Apparently she, too, remembered the names the children had concocted before he and Erik and Moira and the others had left for Russia. He didn't comment on it.
Yes. I'm here.
But how did you-?
I can explain later. I'll be there to speak with you shortly. Right now I need to know something, if you wouldn't mind. I need to see something. I need to know what happened to Shaw.
Hesitation, but then she silently agreed and Charles saw it, in fragments because that was how she remembered it. She'd been too shocked at the time to really piece it all together in her memory.
Angel was the only one with Frost when they found Shaw, broken and unmoving on the floor of the plastic room, barely alive. If they'd gotten him help he would have lived, albeit quadriplegic, but Emma took matters into her own hands instead. Or under her boot. With one well-placed movement his neck was broken and he was dead, and Frost turned to Angel.
"Now, sweetheart, he was dead when we got here. Are you going to be good or do I need to fix your memory?"
Frost told Azazel and Riptide that the prisoners had killed him before escaping. Between the two of them they assumed it had been Erik's doing, but they had been looking for both Erik and Charles ever since in the hopes of exacting some mockery of revenge that none of them truly cared about delivering. They kept on because if they found Erik and Charles they found the others too, and any opposition could be wiped out before it really could work on a new plan for mutant world domination and no-one would stand in their way.
Angel watched them lie to each other and remembered how easily Emma had taken Shaw's life despite the fact that he was one of them. She lived in fear for months and, finally, couldn't take it anymore.
She left. She went looking for the one small group of people who had ever truly accepted her, hoping it wasn't too late.
Charles pulled out of the memories. Thank you.
She was sorry, she wanted to say, for betraying them, but he cut her off gently. Angel, we can discuss this when I see you.
Reluctantly she quieted, and Charles was in McCone's office once again.
"Was that it?" McCone asked, when Charles blinked and lowered his arm.
"Yes, actually. I've just spoken briefly with Angel and she allowed me into her memories." He glanced over to Erik when he continued, instead of looking at McCone. "It's true."
A rush of emotions again, nearly bowling him over, and Charles gripped the armrests of his wheelchair.
Outwardly Erik only nodded in understanding and stood. "Excuse me." In a moment he was out of the room, and Charles glanced back at McCone apologetically.
"I'm sorry, could you give us a few moments?"
The man nodded, mystified, and quickly got up to open the door for Charles to wheel back out into the corridor to search for his friend. He didn't have to look far, and as the door to the office closed again behind him he pulled up beside Erik, who was standing braced against the wall only a few feet away.
His face was blank, but Charles could feel everything that roiled beneath the surface. He was also trying very hard to make it appear as if it were mere coincidence that the wall was behind him, but in reality much of his weight was already against it.
"I'm fine," Erik said quickly.
Charles raised an eyebrow. "You are the one who wanted to reestablish the link for now, Erik. You know that I know you aren't. I couldn't not know if I wanted to."
Yes, he knew it. Of course he knew it, but he was stubborn, and it was a long time before he said anything.
"My whole life, Charles. Finding him and killing him was my whole life, and if this is true then it's not anymore. It's over."
"I thought it was already over."
Erik made a face. "I tried to tell myself that. He couldn't hurt anyone else. It should have been over, but it was always in the back of my mind somewhere-the fact that he was probably still out there."
"And part of you still wishes that you had killed him," Charles added quietly. That he had already suspected long before now, and Erik shrugged, which was affirmative enough.
"I know you think it wouldn't have been right-would have made me no better than he was-and maybe you're right, but that doesn't change what I feel. Even if I didn't do it I'm glad he's dead, Charles. After what he did to you isn't there a part of you that feels the same?"
Charles scowled to himself and stared at his unmoving legs. "I would be lying if I said no."
"Then you understand."
"Yes, but..." He sighed heavily. "I'm still glad that it wasn't you, Erik. I still think that if you had killed him..." He didn't know how to explain it. "I don't know if we would have come back from that." Erik just looked at him, and Charles continued quickly. "I only hope that you don't regret listening to me."
Erik shook his head slowly. "No...it's not that I regret it. It's just...well, everything I've just said." He dragged a hand through his hair, leaned more heavily into the wall. "I don't know, Charles. This has been so much of my life it's like I'm not comprehending that it's over."
Part of him was comprehending it. He was beginning to tremble a bit, and he wasn't really supporting himself at all anymore. The wall was doing it for him. Most of what Charles felt from him was confusion and shock and relief, but beneath those were other things-the ones he had tried to explain and other things that he hadn't even attempted to voice.
Things like the part of him that was still fourteen years old, shuddering under the false kindness of Shaw's hand on his shoulder and trying not to look back at his mother's still form on the floor of a dim office.
"Erik," Charles said suddenly, softly. "No one can see us." There hadn't been many people in this corridor anyway, and there were none at the moment, but there was always the chance, and Erik knew that, and he kept himself mostly in check. Hearing that he didn't need to worry about it seemed to be what he needed.
He stayed on his feet, but Erik visibly slumped, and there was no other great display but soon silent tears streaked his face. He said nothing, because Charles knew that Erik himself couldn't quite pin down exactly the reason for them.
But they were there, and they needed to be, and Charles gripped the sleeve of his leather jacket, wishing he could do more, and waited through it with him.
They didn't speak about it, once Erik had composed himself. They didn't need to. After a few moments Erik straightened and quickly dried his face and smiled at him weakly, and Charles nodded back. They went back into the office, where McCone was waiting for them, and the director stood and offered to take Charles to where Angel was now. Charles went with him alone, as they'd agreed.
It was a room much like the ones they had stayed in on the other base-bare metal furnishings, a small dresser and closet, a lamp, single bed, desk, chair. Angel wasn't restrained, but Charles had noticed that door had been locked.
The girl was perched on the chair by the desk, and she stood quickly when he came in. She said nothing until the door was closed behind him, though, and even then it seemed that whatever she had originally meant to say was derailed by the presence of the wheelchair.
Twice in one day. He had been fine at home, generally accepting that this was his life now, but he had to admit that he hadn't quite been prepared for what he would encounter when he left the house.
"W-what...?" Angel stammered. "Oh god, he did that, didn't he?" She had never been particularly tactful.
Charles forced back the sudden lump in his throat. Damnit, he should be past this point by now.
"Angel, it's..." It's all right. He wanted to say it, because he always said it, but he couldn't anymore. Maybe it was this coupled with McCone's discomfort earlier, the looks he'd gotten on the plane, in the airport. Maybe it was only being able to reach Erik's sleeve to comfort him before this.
But he couldn't say it. He wasn't all right today. There were still good days and bad days, and today, he knew now, was a bad day.
At least, thank god, she didn't cry. That wasn't quite like her, and he supposed she didn't know him well enough yet for it to effect her quite that much. It was a blessing, just now, that all she did was make a face and sit down again dejectedly.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled.
Charles let out a heavy breath. "You had nothing to do with it." That he could say. That much was entirely true.
Charles? Erik, in his mind, worried, and Charles remembered the link.
Nothing. It's nothing. Inside he chuckled, but there was no humor in it. I should get out more, I suppose, yes?
Concern and compassion. You'll be explaining that later.
It really isn't...much. Simply that I've found something else I was unprepared for.
Yes, yes, I know. He was not going to get out of explaining later.
Erik was satisfied for now, and Charles pushed his chair farther in the room. "Angel?" But she was quiet now. "You were the one looking for us, Angel. I can't help you if you won't talk to me."
She looked up at him, almost defiantly. "You were in my head. You saw what happened. I have nowhere else to go."
Charles nodded slowly. "I know that. And if the CIA will release you then you are more than welcome with us."
She studied him warily. "Are you sure?"
"It's why you were looking for us, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, but..." Part of her had never really believed that they would take her in again, after what she had done. It was just that it was the only choice she had.
Charles was going to say something. He was going to reassure her again, but he lost the chance when he heard something behind him and Angel shot to her feet in shock, shouting.
"What are you doing here!"
He spun around, only managed to make it halfway, and all he saw was that the closet was open now and something bright and sparkling was swinging toward his head.
Charles's last thought before everything went dark was that he should have taken Erik's apprehensions more seriously.
Sitting in McCone's office alone was not the most comfortable thing to do, for Erik, and it was worse when McCone returned and the two of them sat in silence.
"You just left him there?" Erik had asked initially.
"There are men outside the door; they won't let anything happen to him."
Neither of them had said a thing since, and Erik sat stiffly, monitoring Charles's emotions. At one point they took a worrying turn, an emotion he couldn't quite place that he could only describe as pain. He realized he'd felt something similar from Charles, when greeting McCone, and it didn't take long to figure it out after that. Erik reached out to him, concerned, but Charles waved it off, gave a vague answer.
Erik, only because he cared, made it clear that he would be explaining later. Charles relented, and the sharp emotions faded.
He only had a few moments to relax before something hit him like a ton of bricks, and the link was suddenly quiet.
"Charles?" Erik shot to his feet. Charles!
Nothing. He felt nothing.
"Where are they?" Erik demanded, fighting panic. "You need to take me to them now! Something's wrong!"
"How do you-?"
"I don't have time to explain! Where are they!"
McCone didn't argue any further.
Charles woke just as abruptly as he'd been put under, from the force of another blow to the head just as painful as the first. But this time it seemed to ring in his ears much longer, and his head was cold and heavy, and before he registered anything else Charles realized that his mind was silent.
He couldn't sense anything at all. Not Angel, not whoever had attacked them, not the CIA agents on the base around them...even the link to Erik was silent. Charles started to panic, but when he shook his head to try and clear it he remembered the cold and heavy part.
And Emma Frost was smirking at him, arms crossed over the ample bosom of her white jumpsuit that really could have been zipped up quite a bit more, and of course it was her. No one else could have come up behind him unnoticed like that. In her diamond form he wouldn't have been able to sense her. But she was not in her diamond form now, and he still could not sense her, or anything else.
But he knew why now.
Frost smiled smugly and tapped the helmet she'd shoved onto his head before waking him. "Convenient, isn't it? This way I can use my telepathy, but you can't use yours. We don't need you calling for help, after all. And we don't need to be interrupted."
And he couldn't take it off, because she'd shredded the bedsheets from Angel's cot-for lack of anything else-and used them for ropes. His tweed blazer had been removed and hung off the back of his wheelchair now, and his arms were tied to the armrests at both his wrists and elbows. Several more strong lengths wrapped around his chest under his arms and held him tightly against the back of the seat. She hadn't bothered with his legs, of course. Either way he wasn't going anywhere, and the fact that she had used the wheelchair against him bothered Charles quite a bit.
Angel. Where was Angel? Charles glanced about quickly and found her on the ground by the wall, near the chair she'd been in. His mouth opened in alarm, and Frost glanced over her shoulder to see what on earth he was gawking at.
"Oh, don't worry about her. She's taking a nap."
"She's alive?" Charles managed to say it evenly, seeking to confirm.
"Yes, she's alive. Little twerp is almost more trouble than she's worth, but she's alive. I would be more concerned for yourself if I were you."
"She never knew that you followed her, did she?"
"Do you always ask this many questions?"
Angel hadn't known. She really did want help. Charles had a feeling that Frost had simply taken the chance to exploit an opportunity when it came along.
Charles glared at her. "Why are you here?" He knew, now, from being in Angel's mind, that she and her associates wanted him and Erik and the children dead, but he wanted to see what her answer would be.
"I think you know that." She leaned over him, hands tightly on his arms on either arm rest. "You're going to tell me where Erik and the rest of your friends are."
"They'll know something is wrong soon enough, if they don't hear from me." With any luck Erik, a least, already knew something was wrong. That had been the whole idea of reestablishing the connection in the first place.
"I realize that. Thus the reason for the nice little blanket of confusion over the door. The men just outside have already wandered off, and anyone else who gets too close won't know why they came. It's handy. No one can hear anything from in here, either."
Charles fought the urge to swallow. She was certainly close enough that she would see it if he did. Damnit...
Frost smiled at him, seeming to sense his sudden distress anyway, and in a moment she had straddled his lap and she was sitting on him, even closer to his face now and much much too close for comfort, even if he couldn't feel the pressure on his legs. One of her hands curled behind his head near the top and rested against the helmet, pressing down just enough now that any thought of trying to shake the damn thing off was now moot.
"Now," she purred. "Tell me where the others are and this doesn't have to get ugly." Charles only continued to glare at her, and she smirked right back until suddenly she stopped, and looked up in surprise. "Well. There's one of them."
"Erik's outside. Of course he has no idea why. But we'll let him in later; I need answers from you right now." And then her complete attention was on him again, and look she gave him made Charles suddenly queasy.
Erik stared at the door in front of him for several long moments, but still he had no idea what he was doing here. He exchanged a glance with McCone, who didn't seem to know anymore than he did, and finally they wandered back down the corridor.
"What just happened?" McCone asked eventually.
What had he been doing before now, anyway? Waiting for something. Waiting for Charles. Charles was talking to Angel.
Charles was gone.
Erik stopped in his tracks outside of McCone's office, which they had almost made it back to by now. He was finally realizing again that the link was dead. Charles was unconscious, or-
He halted his thoughts before they could go any farther.
"Wait. Oh god. Charles."
What the hell had just happened?
He rushed back without thinking, only knowing he needed to get there, to Charles, but by the time the door came into view he was just as confused as he'd been before.
"Anyway," Frost was saying. Her fingernails dug into either side of his left shoulder. "As I was saying, this doesn't have to be difficult." Then her hand was diamond and cold and so much sharper, and she had to let up on the pressure to keep from cutting into his skin through his blue shirt and the t-shirt underneath. "Or it can be difficult. But that's up to you, sugar. Personally I hate blood-hate to get it on me, anyway-but, you see, I want those answers more. We don't need anyone making trouble while we revise our plans."
This time Charles couldn't help swallowing. "I am not going to tell you where the others are."
The smile was colder now. "We'll see." And her diamond-sharp thumb was pressing gently into the fleshy part of his shoulder under his collar bone, and gently was all it took. The skin broke quickly, and the small appendage that might as well have been a knife was cutting into the flesh. Just a bit, now, not far, but it hurt just the same.
Charles gasped quickly, before he could stop himself, and the loud grunt that came after was not voluntary either.
Frost stopped, but she left her thumb where it was, in the small new wound.
"Do we understand each other?"
Charles huffed sharply, trying to diffuse some of the pain. "Quite." Not that there was anything he could do about it.
"And?" He just looked at her, and she pouted a bit. "You sure you want to play it this way? You must know that I don't really care if you die. I could always rip it out of Erik's mind...destroy him in the process."
She made the situation quite clear, and Charles was rather sick to his stomach now. "Precisely. What would I gain by telling you anything?" Her thumb pressed a little farther into his shoulder, and he screwed his jaw shut.
"A quick death, for one thing."
"You'll have to do much better than that," Charles ground out. And even he wasn't sure whether he meant her bribe, or how hard she was trying to scare him with pain.
Frost's eyes narrowed. "Fine."
And she drove the diamond knife in another inch in an instant, tearing flesh and ripping a scream from Charles's throat. His body spasmed violently against the restraints, but unfortunately in didn't dislodge Frost seeing as she sat on his dead legs.
It still hurt horribly, once it was done, and Charles wanted to moan but he locked his jaw shut again, trying to breathe through his nose and hoping that made it seem less harsh. He glared at Frost unwaveringly, and she smirked back.
She didn't press in any farther, now, but her thumb moved in the wound, the diamond facets scraping at the raw flesh around the edges.
Now Charles did groan, fingers digging into the armrests of the wheelchair. His head tried to tilt away from the pain but Frost's other hand on the back of the helmet held him firmly in place. His neck still strained, uselessly, but it wouldn't have helped anyway. He couldn't get away from it.
She didn't stop. She tugged and prodded at the wound from the inside, and soon Charles's skin was coated in a fine layer of sweat and his breath came in harsh spurts that he couldn't really control anymore. He still threw glares at Frost when he could, but there was very little left of his facade of calm.
She tugged one last time, stretching the inside edge of the small wound and letting the sharp diamond do what damage it would. Charles cried out helplessly, cursing himself for not being able to keep himself from doing so, and when Frost finally, finally pulled her thumb out completely he was trembling.
Frost wiped her thumb on chest of his shirt before she let it her hand shift back to normal human flesh again. The diamond left paper-thin cuts in his shirts and the skin underneath, and Charles grunted softly. His eyes were drifting toward being shut, and he knew he was flirting with unconsciousness.
But he saw Frost shake her head at him, and heard her sigh. Her other arm was around his neck now, fingers toying with the hair at the base of his neck that was accessible under the bottom of the helmet.
"Charles, Charles, Charles...you could spare yourself this, you know. Why do those spoiled brats mean so much to you, anyway? They're only kids."
His head lolled back against the other hand she still had against the helmet, and he managed to lift it and gave her a fresh glare. "They are not...just children. They are people. They matter," he breathed heavily. "And one of them...is my sister."
"How sweet." She smirked at him. "You know, it's a shame I have to keep this helmet on you. Your friend is more my type, but you're not so bad your self. And this thing is in the way." One of the fingers of the hand she had splayed across the back of the helmet lifted to tap her fingernail against it in emphasis. The small but sharp sound cut into Charles's consciousness, spurring along the massive headache that was already forming.
"I thought you were going to kill me," he retorted halfheartedly.
"Oh I am. Eventually."
But then she crushed her lips to his, as if to claim him before she claimed his life. Charles made a strangled sound of protest and tried desperately to pull away, but the hand at his head and the other behind his neck wouldn't allow it.
So he surged forward instead, though he could do it only with his head thanks to his restraints. For a moment he responded, let her think he liked it. She would believe it, of course; she was much too confident in her own physical allure.
As soon as she had slid her tongue into his mouth he bit down on it viciously.
Frost jerked back with a cry, falling off of him and the wheelchair completely and staggering to her feet. She swiped at him in anger, not needing to shift her hand back to diamond form to leave bloody scratch marks in his skin. Her fingernails were quite sufficient, and with most of his face protected by the front of the helmet the lines were left on his neck, instead.
She snorted at him now, other hand on her hip as she glared disdainfully at the blood under her fingernails.
"Really, professor. I didn't know you played dirty."
Charles ignored her, throwing his head backwards and forwards violently in an attempt to get the helmet off before she realized she'd left him free to do so.
It didn't happen. Frost quickly stepped up to him again and grabbed his head between her hands, holding the helmet in place.
"Ah ah. None of that. Now..." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "As for dirty, two can play that game."
And her fingers slid down to curl under the base of the helmet, and he had no idea what the hell she was doing when she started to lift it a bit. For a moment he thought she intended to take it off, finally, to face off with him properly-it would be a fairer fight now, with some of his attention unfocused thanks to the pain in his shoulder-but instead she only lifted the helmet a couple of inches. It wasn't enough to free Charles's senses in any way, really, and certainly not weakened by injury, but it was just enough for Frost to push her way in.
It was enough for her to hurt him.
Charles would have doubled over if he could, when it hit him. Every memory of the plastic room, everything Kurt and Cain had inflicted on him, every painful memory of Erik's past still in the back of his mind, all of them surfaced at once and it was like raking coals over his brain. He heard himself screaming but he didn't know if it were here or there, then or now, or both.
Somewhere in the back of his mind it registered that Frost wouldn't think there was any danger in this. It hurt too much for him focus to communicate with anyone, but...the link. He didn't have to focus to make the link work. That was why it had been forged the way it was. Erik would know something, now-know, at least, that he wasn't dead, and hopefully it was enough.
Then, through the haze of pain, he felt Frost realize the link was there and that something was getting through.
Charles still wasn't entirely certain he was really screaming aloud here and now until the helmet suddenly slammed back down, cutting everything off, and the pain finally stopped and he heard himself stop screaming, heard himself pull in the shuddering breaths that came after.
"Damnit!" she was shouting. "You're linked with him? What the hell, Xavier!"
She was angry now, her carefully orchestrated little scenario threatened, and she clamped a hand over the back of the helmet again and seized his shoulder once more, plunging a now-diamond finger back into the open wound.
Charles shouted, and she grinned smugly. "It doesn't matter. He won't be able to get in the door until I let him. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to let him find you dead or let him watch you die. What do you think?"
But he couldn't answer. Frost was cutting farther into his flesh now, not only moving her finger in the wound to make it worse but digging this time, and it was much worse than before, and he was screaming again.
It had happened several times now-back to the door, back to McCone's office, back to the door, back to the office...
Or he was told it had. McCone had stopped following him there at some point and realized that something was fishy when Erik continued to go back and forth. He'd gotten on the phone, had quite a few more people in the office now, and there were men just around the corner from the door now, but no one could get closer without a blank look crossing their face and sending them wandering away from it again.
Erik floated anxiously between McCone's office and the front lines, desperate for news of any new ideas-any way to get through the barrier. He knew, now, that it had to be Emma Frost. No one else could have done it but Charles, and Charles would have no reason to.
But Charles had to be alive, at least. What reason would Frost have to keep them out if he weren't? She could have killed him and left. He had to tell himself that to keep from going crazy. The thought that anything had happened to Charles was too much to bear.
Especially when this was his fault. He should have insisted. He should never have let Charles go in there alone.
He snapped at more than a few people, but Erik wasn't particularly remorseful about it. It had been nearly an hour since Charles was left in that room, and he still had no word from Charles and they didn't seem any closer at all to solving the problem of not being able to get through the door.
That was when it hit him.
Erik doubled over in the corridor behind the lines. Pain, memories, Charles's and his and pain and-
Charles was alive. He knew for sure now, and the relief was so strong it made his eyes damp even as the pain stopped and left him curled on the floor. Panting, Erik used the wall to pull himself to his feet.
The relief quickly melted to worry as he realized that Frost was hurting his friend.
He had to get in there.
He had to make her pay for it.
Erik pushed past the lines of men and soldiers watching the door from a distance. "Move," he growled, and stopped when he felt the confusion begin to set in. He backed up and inched forward again, backed up, inched forward...found the closest point he could stand in without forgetting what he was doing.
Then he reached out to the door with his powers, thanking anyone who was listening that it was metal.
Frost stopped suddenly, the diamond knife in his shoulder going still in the wound that was now considerably deeper and more ragged.
Charles was trembling. Only a few minutes of this more aggressive approach and it was quickly becoming too much. His breaths were unsteady and unreliable, and tears of pain streaked his face.
Shaw hadn't done anything like this. Nothing had penetrated his skin. Nothing had torn at his flesh. Even once his ribs had been well and truly broken the breaks had been clean. No horribly sharp spikes of bone to bite at flesh and nerves inside him. They had shifted and pushed at things and it had hurt like hell, but not like this. Not like a knife in his flesh; it hadn't felt like this. He hadn't been prepared for how much it hurt. The only thing that had come close, perhaps, were the two broken fingers he'd sustained. But those, too, had been clean breaks. They'd healed just fine.
Charles wasn't so sure this would. God, the blood had spread so far across the shoulder of his shirt...
But he would only have to worry about it if he got out of this alive, of course.
Frost was glaring toward the door. "He can't be serious."
What? Erik? God, Erik, please...
Erik felt the metal of the door, but then he felt something else. Pain again. An intrusion in his mind. More direct than the blanket of confusion. Not through Charles, either. An attack.
He set his jaw and tried to continue, but the pain and the memories drilled into his skull and forced him back a step, and then another.
Sorry, sweetheart. I'm afraid you can't come in just now. Charles and I aren't finished.
Why the hell not?
He's still alive.
Erik shouted inarticulately and surged forward, focusing past the pain and yanking violently at the door before Frost could incapacitate him completely.
And she tried. God, she tried. Erik heard himself screaming and his vision went momentarily dark, but he heard the door crumple and come off its hinges. It hit the floor and slid away.
The pain stopped, and he felt shock from the female telepath before she pulled away. Then Erik could see again and he and the cluster of CIA agents behind him were staring through the open doorway at Emma Frost, who was staring back, eyes narrowed.
She was blocking his view of Charles, and Erik wasn't happy about it.
Before Frost could attack him again or go diamond he flung her backward by the zipper in her jumpsuit, flinging her over Charles and out of the way and into the metal bed-frame. She went diamond on impact, but it released the barrier protecting the room and Erik wrapped the bed-frame around her arms and legs as he hurried inside.
He stopped at Charles's side, glowering at her, and outside the agents were scattering, going for help or to report on the change in situation.
Help was going to be needed. Charles was hurt. A swath of blood-soaked fabric spread across his left shoulder from a comparatively small wound, and there were smaller scratches on his chest and neck, and tears on his cheeks.
"Get this thing off of me," he gasped, and he meant the helmet. Erik snatched it off immediately, realizing it explained why the link had gone dead. He tossed it across the room angrily, wishing it were metal and he could simply crush it. But it was something else he couldn't identify.
As soon as it was off he felt Charles in his mind again, relief and exhaustion and thanks quickly replacing fear and anger, though the pain stayed. And though it wasn't exactly that he could feel the pain himself, Erik knew how much Charles was hurting.
Erik, thank god, I thought I was going to die. I thought-
I know. So did I. It's all right; I'm here now...
Erik turned on Frost again, who was smirking at him even though she was relatively immobile. He wanted to break her diamond neck, finish what he'd started in Russia, but he didn't. Charles had taught him better. He glanced back at his friend, instead, who nodded tiredly.
Erik tightened the metal around her wrists, then, instead-rather certain she wouldn't want to lose her hands, either-until she was forced back to human form.
Charles put her to sleep immediately.
With Frost out of the way for now Erik's eyes cast about until they found Angel, crumpled on the floor. "Did she have anything to do with this?" he asked, nodding to her.
"No...Ms. Frost followed her. This is not her fault."
Because it was his fault.
Charles let out a breath. "No, Erik," he said quietly. Then he cleared his throat. "Anyhow...Angel will be fine. She'll wake in a few hours."
When Erik finally looked at him again Charles had let his head drop back against the back of the wheelchair, and he realized now that his friend was tied to it, as well. He lowered himself to one knee by the chair, and Charles's head rolled to watch him. Before he began to unbind him Erik studied him for a moment...swallowed at the pain and exhaustion on his face that was somehow even more obvious there than through the bond.
The tears were still there, slowly drying but there, in streaks, and Erik swallowed and reached with his good hand to dry them himself, gently swiping thumb and fingers over Charles's cheeks.
Charles didn't protest. Just watched him, and smiled at him gently.
It struck Erik for the first time in a while how different everything was now. Months ago to do this would not have crossed his mind at all, and now he didn't hesitate. He felt no threat to his masculinity or anything else to do this, and he realized that not one iota did he regret his now-increased capacity to maintain relationships.
Especially this one.
"How bad is it?" Erik asked gently, even though he could, of a sort, feel it. Charles answered as he pulled out a pocket knife and began to carefully cut away the cloth bindings.
"I uhm...I don't know. As awful as it feels I believe she missed anything important..." Erik freed his left arm and Charles moved it experimentally, just enough to be certain it still moved because even that had him clenching his eyes shut and groaning.
"Good. That's good, now take it easy..." As he looked at the wound Erik suddenly felt sick, realizing that Charles could easily have lost the use of his arm in addition to the loss of his legs.
And they still didn't know how well it would heal. They didn't know if he would regain full use of it. Anything would be better than nothing, but even thought it wasn't his dominant arm, god with his legs already incapacitated...
"It'll be all right," Erik said aloud, knowing Charles would have picked up on his feelings if not the thoughts, and he could already feel Charles's anxiety growing with his own. "It'll be fine."
Charles nodded quickly, wanting to believe it, and Erik freed his other arm and reached for the bindings around his chest.
"Actually, you can ah...please leave those just now. It...it would be worse, at the moment...to need to hold myself up..."
Erik blinked at him, then grimaced and nodded, understanding, and Charles let his head fall against the back of the chair again and his eyes closed. A short groan escaped, and after a moment his eyes opened to slits.
"Erik...the wound. She had just...worse...must be bleeding again...need...pressure..."
The fact that he was becoming less coherent rather than more seemed to confirm that. He was losing blood, Erik realized, and he quickly balled up the remains of the cloth ropes and pressed them over the wound. Charles jerked a bit and let out a strangled cry, and several tears tracked a fresh trail across one cheek.
Damnit, where was that help?
"You're ruining my handiwork; I just dried that face," Erik joked weakly, trying to distract him.
A brief smiled flash across his face before it became a grimace and Charles groaned. "Erik, I appreciate the attempt, but I would prefer if you didn't continue; if I laugh just now it will not be pleasant."
He winced. "Sorry." A fresh pang of guilt hit him over the whole ordeal having happened in the first place, no matter how relatively short it had been.
"Shh." His good hand pressed the cloth to the wound, and as Charles's jaw clenched and he began to tremble a bit Erik moved his other hand over Charles's right one on the armrest-the hand Charles could use without causing any more pain to his injured shoulder. Charles's hand was clenched in a fist, and Erik pushed his numb fingers at it to open it.
"Squeeze my hand. It'll help more, and you can't hurt it."
Charles nodded thankfully, and though Erik couldn't feel the smaller fingers that threaded through his he could feel the heels of their palms and their wrists pressed together, feel the tension in Charles's hand and know how hard he was squeezing.
There was soon a lump in his throat, but he gulped it back.
I'm sorry I didn't listen to you, Charles murmured groggily in his mind.
Shh, Erik repeated. It's all right. You couldn't have known. We can talk later...
A medical team arrived soon, and the last of the bindings holding Charles to his wheelchair were cut and he was lifted carefully from the chair to a stretcher. The medical personnel took charge of seeing to the wound, and Erik was free to exchange his damaged hand for his good one in his friend's grip.
Erik kept hold of Charles's hand even long after they had sedated him, and he didn't give a damn what anyone thought.
When Charles woke he didn't recognize the ceiling above him, and part of him panicked remembering the last time that had happened. He started to sit up quickly, but didn't quite have the energy to do it. A twinge of pain in his shoulder further hindered him, and all he really managed to do was jerk a bit before he was still once again.
Erik. Where was Erik?
He latched onto the link in his mind, more awake now and finally able to focus a bit. He could feel Erik there, but there were no emotions, really, just now-just the even presence of his consciousness in a light sleep. And he was close.
Everything was coming to him through a haze, more slowly than usual, and Charles felt the hand in his before he'd taken in his surroundings. Glancing down to find Erik in a chair by his bed, asleep with his head in his arms on the edge, made Charles realize that it was a hospital bed. It was a hospital room. He was in a hospital and Erik was with him.
Everything else came back, slowly, and he realized that his shoulder didn't hurt as much as it probably should.
That explained the grogginess. The haze over his consciousness. There were drugs in his system. Trying to think beyond any of that simply didn't work just yet, and Charles squeezed at the hand in his and waited for Erik to wake.
The momentary panic must have echoed through the bond, because Erik was already stirring. It wasn't long before he was awake and blinking up at Charles, a slow smile claiming his face.
"There you are."
Charles snorted quietly. "Could say the same to you. I woke first."
Erik released Charles's hand and stretched, glancing at the clock. "Well excuse me; I've been here all day and half the night now, apparently."
"Ah..." He glanced at his hand, now empty, and frowned. Erik didn't seem to notice as he sat back in his chair.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Hmm? Oh...well...rather like someone stabbed me in the shoulder." More details, now, that Charles was gathering. The bandages under the hospital gown that covered his shoulder circled the upper half of his torso, too, protecting the scratches on his chest as well. His shoulder ached even through the medication, and the scratches itched-the ones across his neck, too, covered by more gauze. His left arm was in a sling, and there was an IV on the inside of his right arm.
"And you're usually so eloquent," Erik was saying. Charles glanced pointedly at the IV, the source of the drugs keeping him from being quite himself, and Erik chuckled.
Still, though, despite whatever amount of influence he was under at the moment-which he couldn't judge himself, of course-Charles could see the telltale signs, the remains of the worry and guilt on his friend's face.
"'M all right, Erik..."
And it was true now. Things ached and itched and he knew he was still a bit confused, but he was all right. He was alive, with what he hoped was no further permanent damage. Granted, the brief encounter was likely to bring a resurfacing of nightmares, but...that could be dealt with when and if it happened.
Though there was likely no 'if' about it.
Anyhow, the small reassurance seemed to help a bit, and Erik reached forward again to squeeze his arm.
"Good. And they're saying it should heal all right. It may take a little time and some physical therapy, and they may have said something about occasional soreness, but you'll be able to use the arm just as well as you could before. There's nothing to worry about."
"That's good...that's good." Charles wasn't certain how long he was going to be awake, but he knew that was good.
Erik smiled at him gently. "You should get more rest. It's the middle of the night anyway."
"I know...wait. How is Angel?"
"She's fine. She's still there. She still wants to come with us, and now that they have Emma Frost McCone seems much more inclined to let her."
That was also good, and Charles made a small satisfied sound and nodded.
Raven. Did she know what had happened? That must have gotten through, because Erik answered the question before he'd asked it.
"And I've called home. Raven and the others know what happened-or the short version. It took half an hour on the phone to convince your sister not to worry as it was; I sure as hell wasn't going to give her the details."
Charles laughed once. "Yes, that...certainly sounds like her..." But the warmth in his chest had nothing to do with Raven's typical mother-hen-like worry over him.
Erik had called New York home.
But just as quickly as it had risen the warmth was gone, and maybe it was drugs but a sudden fear took its place. Maybe the word meant something, for Erik to say it, but it could just as easily mean nothing, mean simply that Erik was acknowledging it as Charles's home. If it meant nothing...and suddenly he had to know.
There was no way the sudden shift in emotion had gone unnoticed through the link, he knew, and he felt embarrassment over it but the rest of him didn't care. He quickly took hold of Erik's hand again and gripped it tightly.
"Erik...Erik..." he managed urgently.
"What is it? Charles? What's wrong?" Erik was standing now, concern on his face, and the hand Charles held on to returned the clasp.
And everything he'd feared from the beginning tumbled out, inhibitions broken down by medication. "E-Erik, you...it's over. Shaw is dead. I-I...I know you were using us, at the beginning, you wanted to find Shaw, and I understand, it's all right, but then what happened happened and he was as good as dead, but after that you wanted to make sure I would be all right, that I could live like this, without my legs, but I'm all right now, and now he really is dead, and..." Charles had to pause to catch a quick breath.
"And-and I know it's all over now, well and truly over, but you won't leave, will you? I know that was your plan at the very beginning, when we were still with the CIA, but it isn't anymore, is it? You said home. You called the house home..."
His vision was blurry. When had that happened?
And suddenly the returned grip on his hand was even stronger, and there was more warmth when both hands were clumsily covered in Erik's numb one.
"No, Charles, I'm not going anywhere," Erik was saying, as if it were a ridiculous question.
But it wasn't so ridiculous. Charles knew what Erik had been like, for most of his life. Never in one place for long, never trusting anyone but himself...
He couldn't flip a switch and be someone else.
"You're sure?" Charles asked weakly, blinking back the tears and cursing them.
The hand in his was abruptly gone, but then he felt it on his good shoulder, squeezing assuringly. At his side Erik's other hand still rested by his, and he grasped it for comfort even though Erik might not know that he was.
"Charles, look at me. Look at me..."
He focused, but it was hard now. The drugs fought to pull him back under, forces joined with the tears still swimming in his eyes.
Erik was looking at him intently. "Where would I go?" he asked sincerely. "I'm not leaving. All right? I'm not leaving." There was an undercurrent in his voice, a realization that much of this was fueled by medication and a deliberate attempt to keep Charles calm, but he was nearing a state of being too out of it for it to offend him.
"All right...all right...good..." Charles mumbled before he was under, to convince himself that he'd heard what he'd heard.
Erik was going to stay.
And the darkness closed in again, but it was warm and Erik was there and Charles didn't mind.
If Charles remembered his drug-induced outburst, he showed no sign of it the next time he woke. Some of the things Erik had told him the first time he was conscious he had to tell him again. Still, an undercurrent of embarrassment that he could feel through the link for a while suggested that Charles did, in fact, remember at least some of it, but Erik didn't have the heart to make it worse by bringing it up.
What was there to bring up? He wasn't going anywhere.
Another day and night in the hospital and Charles was released, with specific instructions on how to care for the wound and strict orders to see his doctor back home to keep it monitored. It would be up to his local doctor, too, to direct him to a physical therapist in his area. That also needed to be taken care of; he would need to begin therapy as soon as the wound was healed enough to handle it. Again, as long as that was done properly, the doctor here told them, Charles should regain normal use of his arm.
The only downside was that it would likely take a few months, and meanwhile Charles was back to square one when it came to mobility. Worse than square one, really. He couldn't push his wheelchair on his own at all, unless he wanted to go in a circle. He insisted that, knowing it was temporary, it didn't bother him.
Erik wasn't so sure, but with the link he would have known if Charles were lying, and he wasn't. Either it really didn't bother him so much, or he wouldn't even admit it to himself.
"You're sure you're all right?" Erik pressed, once they were back in the hotel. He was helping Charles out of his chair and into bed for the night. Their flight back to New York was the next day.
Charles let out a breath. "Erik, really. No, I am not the happiest about it, but I have little choice. I suppose that is what friends are for anyhow. I do have more of them now." He unbuttoned his shirt, but he couldn't do much more, and Erik carefully unfastened the sling holding his left arm in place and removed it so that could help his friend change clothes. Charles couldn't do that by himself just now, either, back to the beginning in that sense as well.
But as he'd said, perhaps it really was all right. It was temporary, this level of needing someone again, and he had Erik. He had all of them. Erik was beginning to believe him more, when he said it didn't bother him nearly as much as losing his legs had in the beginning. When he'd started out unable to do much for himself the first time around.
Erik helped him off with the clothes he'd just helped him on with before leaving the hospital only a few hours before, and when he was down to shorts, t-shirt, and socks Charles stopped him.
"I might as well sleep like this. We're leaving early anyway; no reason to make things more complicated tonight."
Erik glanced back at him and shrugged, dropping the pajamas he'd picked up back into Charles's bag. He went back to his friend and gently replaced the sling before helping Charles arrange the odd-consistency hotel pillows behind him in a way hopefully comfortable enough to let him sleep well.
"I'm not certain if well is quite possible, but decent would be much appreciated," Charles mumbled, wincing as he settled back. He must have picked up the thought.
Erik snorted a bit, pulling the covers up over him, and then there was concern. "Does your shoulder hurt? Have you taken what they gave you for it?"
"Yes, yes, an hour ago when we returned from dinner. You were there," Charles smirked. They'd gone out for dinner, rather than eating takeout in the room as usual. Charles had needed it, after two days of hospital food.
That fondness again, a soft breeze through the link, and Erik couldn't help but smile back.
"Do you need anything else?"
Charles shook his head, shifting again and pulling the blankets that Erik had settled over him higher on his chest. A soft grunt of discomfort, but then he was fine. "No, I'm all right. Thank you, Erik. Good night."
Erik nodded and went to prepare for bed himself, trying to push back the sudden resurgence of guilt and other things to keep Charles from picking up on them. He wasn't even certain what half of them were, but he knew they had been tumbling about much more violently in his chest since he'd burst into that room at CIA headquarters. They had been there for quite some time, but finding Charles injured had made it worse.
Still, his friend's soothing presence in his mind kept it all at bay for now, and it wasn't much harder to fall asleep tonight than it had been the last time they'd both been in this room.
It was time to go home, but before they could go anywhere they had no choice but to return to CIA headquarters, to pick up Angel. Charles was not thrilled about the idea of going back there, but this time Erik would not leave his side and he had no objection to that.
This time there was no need to go anywhere other than McCone's office, either. He had the girl there when they arrived, waiting for them, and she stood when the director showed them in, Erik pushing Charles's wheelchair. McCone left again, leaving the three of them alone.
"Hello, Angel," Charles said in greeting.
She nodded back warily, taking in the sling holding his arm and what it meant-that he had no choice but to let Erik push the chair for him. He didn't intrude into her mind directly, but he could still sense something of the thoughts churning in the forefront.
"I'm sorry," she said finally, and she seemed to mean it more this time. He knew that she did, and Charles smiled gently.
"It's all right." He was able to say it this time, and he meant it, too.
Somehow he had a feeling that everything was going to be all right.
However much Erik thought he'd been out of it, Charles did remember what Erik had said, the first time he'd woken in the hospital.
"I really didn't know she'd do something like that-follow me. I should have known..."
"You couldn't have, and I don't blame you. For anything. I hope you know that."
Angel swallowed. "You could be just saying that."
I wouldn't lie to you, he told her silently. How could I gain your trust if I lied to you? Her eyebrows went up, and she looked over his shoulder at Erik.
What about him?
Charles glanced up at his friend, and then back to Angel, smirking good-naturedly. Him? He may have a bit of a temper, but he's trustworthy. He won't hurt you. He may push you off of a satellite dish, but then again you can fly. He let Erik hear the conversation, chuckling inwardly when he heard a quiet growl. He remembered fondly the past few months, training the children, and specifically the incident to which he referred.
Sean hadn't gone anywhere near Erik for days, but he could use his sound
waves to fly quite well now.
But strangely enough, pretending to be angry and watching Sean fly for the first time weren't the best parts of that memory. Charles felt the most warmth when he remembered Erik carrying him up the ladder to the platform at the top of the dish, before that particular training session had even begun.
He hadn't carried him conventionally, of course, with Charles unable to use his legs to hold on while Erik climbed. If he'd been able to use his legs he would have simply climbed the ladder himself. No, Erik had bent a spare sheet of metal from one of the mansion's storage sheds into something of a seat, with high sides to make it safer at greater heights, and used his powers to pull Charles up in midair beside him as he used his good hand and the crook of his other elbow to climb the ladder.
It had certainly tested Charles's usual tendency to not be bothered so much by heights, but it had also strengthened the trust between the two of them quite a bit.
Nice, Angel was thinking back in amusement.
Charles chucked aloud. I know. But really, I'm sure you'll like him more once you get to know him. He means well. He paused. I really do trust him quite implicitly. That time he didn't let his side of the conversation through to Erik.
Angel still didn't come closer, though, hovering back by the chair she'd been in.
"What about everybody else? Do they even want me there?" she asked quietly.
"They'll come round."
"Meaning they don't," she scowled.
"Raven does She was attempting to encourage the others to feel the same." Behind him Erik sat in a chair by the door, still letting him do the talking. Charles sighed and studied her more closely. "But it may take time, before they truly accept you again. I won't sugar-coat that for you. You did make a choice. You left. I am not lying to you when I tell you that you are welcome with us, but it is not going to be easy at first."
The mutant girl was looking back at him steadily, taking responsibility, now. "I know. But what other choice do I have?"
"You have quite a few. You could remain here, with the CIA, and they would decide what to do with you-in which case you could end up in prison. Or you could come with us, but you know I will not make you stay. You could strike out on your own again."
Now Erik stood, finally putting something in, though Charles wasn't quite prepared when he did.
"But I wouldn't suggest it," he cut in. "If anyone can help you, Charles can. If you're going to trust anyone, I would trust him."
Charles's mouth hung open halfway for a moment, and he didn't know what to say to that so once he'd cleared his throat he continued with his train of thought.
"I uhm...I'm not certain how much we have to offer, but a place where you are not alone. Erik and I have been helping the others learn to control their powers more thoroughly, though I don't know how much help you may or may not need in that area, but you never finished high school, did you? Where we are is large enough that it could easily be a proper school-for younger mutants of course, if it were to become one. I've been considering it."
It was one of the ideas he and Erik had tossed about, in recent weeks, since Charles had decided to ask Hank to rebuild Cerebro.
"A school, huh?" Angel asked skeptically.
"Yes, I know you aren't fond of it, but I imagine it would be considerably less stressful to go to school with only other mutants."
She blinked a few times, and she was thinking about it. "Yeah, I guess..."
"You don't have to make that decision now. As I said, you are more than welcome to simply come to stay with us, for now. As you said, you have nowhere else to go, precisely."
Angel nodded weakly. "Yeah...yeah, okay."
Charles nudged Erik mentally, and his friend pushed him forward a few more feet, so that when he held out a hand it was within the girl's reach. After a moment she took it, and smiled at him him tentatively.
Charles smiled too, and glanced back at Erik briefly as well. Another moment and the corners of Erik's mouth tugged up a bit, and Charles nodded in satisfaction.
"Let's go home, shall we?"
Raven, as expected, was more protective of her brother than ever after their return to New York. She rarely left his side at all the first few days, which didn't give Erik any time with Charles to himself. Charles was good-naturedly understanding and tolerant, and Erik tried to be, but there were things he needed to discuss with his friend. Through the link he could feel, too, that his sister's hovering was testing the limits of Charles's acceptance of his temporary even more limited mobility, and Erik worried.
Not only about that. It was the link that needed to be discussed.
The first chance he got was nearly a week after their return home. Charles had finally convinced Raven to go to bed and let Erik help him get ready for the night, and once he was changed and settled in Erik still didn't move from where he sat on the edge of the bed.
"Something on your mind, my friend?" Charles asked.
He opened his mouth, but at first nothing came out.
Charles frowned. "What it is you're concerned about?" he asked. Picking up the feelings the connection gave him, of course, but not intruding into Erik's thoughts. Erik appreciated that.
"I uhm..." He motioned to his head abstractly. "This. What you did. I just...we're back, we're safe now, and...I don't want it to stay there if you'd rather it didn't."
Dark eyebrows climbed to Charles's hairline. "Why would you have that idea? I was never uncomfortable with it."
"I know that. I guess I would have felt it if you were, and you did agree easily enough, but I asked for this because of what were getting into in Virginia. It was supposed to be functional, and...now that we're back here I don't suppose it has a function anymore."
Not that Erik minded that. It was still comforting, to have the link there, to always be able to feel Charles there, in his mind, to some extent, in the background, but he didn't know if Charles felt the same way. He knew Charles was fond enough of him as a friend to have not minded forming the link again in the first place outside of direct crisis, had felt that fondness through the bond, but he didn't know if leaving the bond as it was might be something Charles was comfortable with.
And Erik didn't want to admit to himself that he wanted that.
Charles smiled a bit. "It did come in handy this time, and it might again in the future. Who's to say it's no longer functional?"
He hadn't thought of that, but then again he didn't want to think that someday Charles might be in danger again. "I suppose you're right..."
"Of course I am," Charles answered, the smug young academic slipping through. The tone recalled the first days of their acquaintance, and Erik chuckled.
"Don't get cocky, professor."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
They both laughed, until Charles stopped and rubbed at his shoulder with a grimace. "Anyhow, I don't believe I have any objections to leaving the connection be for now, unless you do."
Erik studied him for a moment, and knew he was being quite honest. "No. I don't have any objections."
Charles's smile at that was brilliant, seeming to outshine the lamplight. "Then that's settled," he said quietly.
Three weeks after the incident in Virginia it was June, and summer had officially begun. Angel had been received coldly at first-by the boys, anyhow-but after Raven had spent enough time with her Hank and Sean and Alex began to give her a chance. The group dynamic in the house was finally becoming comfortable again, and Charles was certain now that things really were going to be all right.
Meanwhile Hank, Raven, and Erik had been holed up in Hank's lab on and off for days, leaving Sean and Alex and Angel to look after Charles if he needed help. But occasionally the three younger mutants would disappear for a bit, too.
He wondered why they were so secretive about it. It certainly wasn't as if he didn't know, in general at least, what they were up to. It would be the perfect time for them to complete their project, after all; Charles didn't have any reason to visit the lab for a while, as he wasn't allowed to use Cerebro until the shoulder wound was much better healed. There were stitches, of course, but Hank didn't want to take the chance of Charles stressing his body too far and causing any hindering of the healing process. The smaller device was a much lesser version of the original, but it was still powerful and it still taxed his abilities to some extent.
Charles had attempted to insist that it really was not something worth worrying about, but while Hank had nearly relented Erik had not. Erik, out of a protectiveness that really was beginning to rival Raven's by now, had extracted a promise from him that he would not use Cerebro for several weeks, at the least-not until he was stronger.
After the look Erik gave him, Charles couldn't deny him that.
Today he was settled in the library, Alex having helped him into one of the armchairs near the window earlier and brought him the books he requested from the shelves. He had been here most of the day, and occasionally someone checked on him but they all knew he could call them telepathically if he needed anything.
Everyone had been particularly absent today, from the rest of the house. He suspected them of being in the lab. The link in his mind had hummed all day with anticipation and quiet satisfaction from Erik, though Charles hadn't seen him yet at all today.
As if in answer to the thought the library door burst open and Erik strode in, a barely suppressed smile tugging the corners of his mouth upward.
"Erik, there you are. Whatever have the rest of you been up to?" Charles asked, feigning innocence.
"You'll see." Erik crossed to him, and Charles set the book he'd been reading on the small table beside him and let his friend lift him from the armchair and move him back into the wheelchair that sat beside it. His shoulder twinged, but after three weeks the torn flesh was knitting together nicely and the pain was not nearly so awful anymore as long as he was careful with it, and certainly if he kept up with the painkillers he'd been prescribed.
"I assume it's finished then, is it?" Charles asked, as Erik pushed him through the corridors toward Hank's lab.
"You haven't been peeking, have you?" In their minds, he meant.
"Absolutely not; I'm horrified that you would ask such a thing, Erik."
A quiet chuckle behind him, and Charles smiled, truly curious now.
He saw no one on the way there, but when Erik opened the lab door with his powers before they'd reached it and wheeled Charles inside, he realized that they were all there-Raven and Hank and Alex and Sean, all crowded behind what they'd concocted and grinning. Angel was there too, not quite grinning, but there, still, and looking included and contented enough.
Erik pushed him closer and stopped, coming around from behind to stand beside him, instead.
"What do you think?"
The first thing Charles noticed was that the new chair was certainly larger than the standard wheelchair he'd been using. Sturdier it had to be, and that was one of the things that had prompted the idea of something different in the first place. The seat was a bit higher off the floor, as a result, and it would probably be easier to get into as well. The seat also looked to be better padded and much more comfortable.
"I like the size; it isn't too heavy, is it?"
Hank shook his head. "Lightweight metals; it's not too heavy, but it's structurally more sound than the one you have now. I wanted to use some plastic to make it a little lighter-it still would have been just as sturdy-but-" He cut off sheepishly, and Charles glanced up to find Erik glaring the scientist down.
"Erik," he chastised in amusement.
After a moment Erik stopped glaring and let out a breath. I wouldn't let him use any plastic because I wanted to be sure I could get you out of danger if I needed to. Quickly. Any plastic in the structure would slow me down.
Charles smiled to himself. Ah. Completely understandable. There is certainly nothing wrong with being prepared.
Erik relaxed further, and smiled again now. "Go on, Hank."
The young scientist shrugged and pushed at his glasses, seeming to accept that as an apology and realize that Erik and Charles had already resolved what had happened there.
"There really isn't much else to tell. The uhm, the breaks on this one work much better, and it's powered. It'll take come getting accustomed to, but especially until your shoulder heals it'll be much more convenient. Once you get the hang of it you won't need us to get around, at least, even with the sling."
Charles certainly liked that idea. It really didn't bother him, exactly, his current dependence, knowing it wouldn't last forever, but that didn't mean it wasn't frustrating at times. This would give him back some of the freedom he'd earned since losing his legs that the injury had taken away.
And as a whole the new chair was much more stylish than a standard wheelchair, really, silver and black and sleeker lines. Even with the sudden added maturity that the ordeal with Shaw and his new disability had forced on him, he was certainly not immune to that effect. He was still himself, after all.
"Wonderful," Charles marveled. Then he smirked. "Though I would love to know whose idea it was for the ridiculously large X's in the wheels."
"Noticed that, huh?" Raven snarked, laughing.
"I did indeed."
"Yeah, that was me..."
"How did I already know that?"
"She absolutely refused to let us go without them," Erik deadpanned.
"Hey, he can't be Professor X without them." She turned on Charles again. "You like 'em?"
"I don't suppose I dislike them..."
"Aw, come on it's cool and you know it," Alex cut in.
Sean held up a hand. "I totally seconded the idea."
Alex scowled at him. "I seconded it. You thirded it."
Angel said nothing, but she was smiling and she was trying not to laugh. It seemed she was doing just fine here now.
The back and forth went on a bit longer, Raven and Hank included, and Charles exchanged a glance with Erik.
Quite the bunch we have, isn't it?
Erik smirked. And you want to add more.
Charles just grinned and spoke aloud next. "Anyhow, Erik, if you wouldn't mind..." He motioned to the new chair, and Erik willingly helped him into it.
With Charles at least able to get himself around the house again now, it alleviated some of the guilt that Erik had to admit was still there. It wasn't the only thing still there, either, in his chest, despite how relatively well the three weeks since Virginia had gone. Charles wanted the link to stay as much as he did, it seemed, and besides once or twice that Erik had woken to his friend's nightmares and gone to sit with him until he could sleep again, Charles was all right.
Granted, part of that was probably because Virginia had not been nearly as awful as the plastic room-and that was not all right, that the plastic room had happened at all-but Erik couldn't change the past.
And that was the rub, wasn't it? He couldn't change the past. He couldn't go back and insist on going with Charles to see Angel, and he couldn't go back and push himself harder and stop Shaw earlier and give Charles his legs back.
As much as he told himself he was all right now, that he had accepted what had happened as Charles had...for part of him, at least, that wasn't really true.
Erik was afraid part of him would always wish that he could do those things-always wish that he'd done them the first time around.
The feelings balled in his chest and stayed there, and it had only been worse seeing Charles completely dependent again after being injured by Frost. It was a little better now, that part of that was fixed with the new chair, but it still hurt. It always had, since the beginning, since the plastic room, but he'd hidden it so well from himself, even, that Charles didn't seem to notice-not even with the reestablished link.
He supposed that was a good thing. He really didn't want Charles to know how much he still blamed himself, or...how many other feelings there were, still jumbled in his chest after so many months. Charles was moving on...had long since begun to move on; why couldn't he? Why did he have to pretend?
Two days after they gave Charles the new chair something happened that made Erik think he couldn't fight it any longer.
It was evening and he was upstairs dressing after a shower when Charles called to him, pain in his voice even telepathically, and though he hoped he wasn't the only one his friend had called Erik couldn't pull his pajama pants and t-shirt on fast enough. Half of him was still dripping wet and his hair and shirt clung to his skin, but he shot down the stairs as quickly as he was able.
He found Charles on the floor in the kitchen, curled around his injured shoulder. The chair was perfectly upright this time, meaning the new design had done its job, but he'd fallen out of it, and with his shoulder still out of commission he couldn't pull himself back into it. It looked like he'd hit the corner of the counter, probably having misjudged something in using the still-unfamiliar controls of the powered chair.
"Charles! Are you all right?" Why had he sounded like he was in pain? Why did he look like it? Erik dropped to his knees at his friend's side and gently pulled him up into his arms.
Charles was shivering, but not from the cold like the first time. "I l-landed on my shoulder. God, it hurts..." he gasped.
Charles's other hand was clamped over the shoulder, and when Erik's managed to pry the hand away he growled quietly. Blood was beginning to seep through the fabric of his shirt. "You're bleeding. Must have popped a stitch or two."
The shirt was ruined away, and Erik opened it the only way he could with one hand as he held Charles against him with the other arm. He pulled until two or three of the buttons popped open, and pushed the shoulder away from Charles's skin. He had indeed popped two or three stitches.
Charles hissed in pain and pressed his forehead into Erik's neck. "Erik?" he managed breathlessly.
"It doesn't look horrible. It would have been worse if it hadn't already healed as much as it has." It would have been much worse.
"Oh..." Charles groaned. "I'm sorry...still not used to those blasted controls..."
"It's all right, it's all right..." Erik held onto him until the others began to hurry in. Charles really did not want to go to the hospital unless it was absolutely necessary, and Hank, thankfully, knew enough and had enough medical supplies handy to replace the popped stitches. He did so once they'd gotten Charles upstairs and in his bed, and the bleeding stopped easily enough and it all proved to be nothing so serious.
But Charles was still pale and drawn from the pain the incident had caused, even an hour or more after taking more than one of the pills he'd been sent home from the hospital in Virginia with.
It was getting late, and the others were gone now and Raven had fallen asleep on the other half of the bed, an arm thrown over Charles's waist. Erik had pulled a chair to the side of the side of the bed, and it was all a bit too reminiscent of the first days after Charles had woken or even those when he'd still been gone.
Charles was drifting in and out of consciousness, the medication trying to pull him under.
"I really do like the new chair, you know," he mumbled at one point.
"Go to sleep, Charles."
"It's just my shoulder..."
"Charles, you'll feel better when you wake up. Sleep."
"You're not my mother," Charles retorted groggily. He smirked a little, eyes still closed. "'Course not. You ac'cially care..."
Erik's heart lurched, twisting once more on top of everything else he was feeling, and he swallowed and reached to close a hand over one of his friend's. "Go to sleep, Charles," he repeated.
The hand in his squeezed back, and soon enough Charles slept.
His fault, Erik thought in despair, safe from the link with Charles out. All of this was his fault.
Charles had been hurt again, and it was his fault. Charles would never walk again, and it was his fault. Maybe Charles had made the decisions that had led to these things, but he'd made them because of Erik.
It was his fault. All of it had always been his fault.
Maybe Charles didn't hate him, couldn't hate him, but he should.
It was a pounding pain in his temples that woke Charles the next morning, and flinching in surprise did nothing to help his shoulder.
"Ah...what?" he mumbled. He started to attempt sitting up, but dizziness drove him back down, and Raven's arm was still thrown across him anyway.
But Erik was gone.
What the hell was going on? What was it that was hurting? Charles pressed his free hand to his head and groaned, trying to search out the cause.
It wasn't a headache-not the kind most people would get. It was inside, in his mind, a reaction to something that was happening within it. Telepathic backwash.
But of what? "Ah! Damn..." A sudden spike in the pain, like something pounding into his skull, an influence drilling into his mind, and he followed the sensation back to the root.
Back to the link.
"What...?" he gasped. Charles shoved himself up against the headboard, out from under Raven's arm, crushing the pillows behind him in the process. He realized that the link to Erik was pulsing with the beats of pain, as if someone were pounding on it from the other side.
As if Erik was, of course, because he was the only one on the other end.
Grimacing through the pounding in his head, Charles slowly began to realize what was happening. Erik wasn't a telepath, didn't quite know how the link worked or even really where it was, just that it was there and he felt it. He didn't know how to attack it efficiently, and he was throwing himself at it in his mind, screaming at it, beating at it, trying to break it or wipe it from existence on his own.
Because he didn't have the skills to do it, all it resulted in was this.
Erik still didn't seem to know that Charles was even aware of what he was doing, and when he redoubled his efforts Charles doubled over, only gasping because he bit back the shout so as not to wake his sister.
Erik! What are you doing! He blocked the pain from the link. He didn't let the fact of it through because he didn't want guilt. He wanted a straight answer.
He didn't understand. Erik had wanted this. Why was he trying to sever it now?
There was a pause, a momentary fumble in Erik's efforts, and Charles let out a breath, but then he was at it again, and it still hurt.
You...you shouldn't be so connected to someone like me. This isn't right. And Erik's emotions were all guilt and sorrow and fear.
Why would you say that? Why would you think that? Charles questioned. After everything we've been through?
It's my fault. All of it. You wouldn't have gotten into any of this without me. He pushed that much harder, and Charles grunted and had to sink down onto his side again and curl that way, away from Raven, trying not to cry out.
Erik, that's not true.
Yes it is!
No, it is not! Stop this!
More pounding, sharper now. Charles felt his fingers digging into the sheets under him, felt sweat beading on his forehead and his jaw clenching. But he wouldn't let Erik know that.
You would be better off without me.
A flash of anger that was his own, that Erik could even think that, and his eyes narrowed through the pain. Then why haven't you just left! he lashed out.
A moment, before there was an answer. Because I promised you I wouldn't. So I won't. Not until you tell me to go. But as soon as you tell me to, I will.
The anger was gone, and Charles just wished to god that the pain would stop so that he could think more clearly-explain to Erik that his thinking was all wrong.
That's not...Erik, you don't understand.
Of course I do...you're too good of a person to hate me even after everything I've caused, in one way or another. I don't deserve to call you a friend.
No, Erik, I-
The sweat was in his eyes now, his jaw ached from how hard it was clenched shut, and it was a good thing his nose was clear because it was all he could breathe through, and he was breathing through it harshly. Even through the argument, Erik was pounding relentlessly on the link, and oh god why did it hurt this much?
Was it really just that it was that strong? He hadn't necessarily formed it that way; it had just grown to be. Obviously it was strong enough now that even Erik's desperate, non-telepathic attacks would cause this, and Erik didn't know, didn't understand, couldn't feel the pain too because it was telepathic, and Erik wasn't.
Charles, just let me go!
In response Erik growled inwardly and tried harder to cut it on his own, even though he was upset, even though Charles could feel the part of him that just wanted the link stay, wanted to stop this foolishness.
It hurt. Charles had to bury his face in the mattress to scream, because the last thing he wanted was for Raven to wake now.
He couldn't take it anymore. The blocks fell, and Erik knew.
God, Erik, STOP! PLEASE! It HURTS!
It stopped immediately.
Charles went limp, and he hadn't even realized how taut he'd become. He sobbed in relief into the sheets under him, between gasps for a decent breath of air.
Oh god...god, Charles, I didn't know. I'm sorry. I didn't know...oh god all I DO is let you be hurt...
Erik, you had no way to know it would do that to me. I didn't either. It's all right...
How can you say that? Erik questioned miserably.
And with the pain gone Charles could see where Erik was-outside, out on the grounds, in gray sweats and just running, running, trying to get away from all of this. And his defenses were down now too, and Charles saw everything. The guilt Erik still harbored over everything that had happened in the plastic room, with Frost...all of it. The guilt even Erik hadn't really let himself fully feel until more recently.
There is nothing for you to be guilty for, Erik...
You say that. Maybe you even mean it, and being you, you would, but that doesn't make it true.
It IS true!
Damnit, Charles, please! Quiet, finally, for a moment.You wouldn't hold me against my will, would you?
Charles flinched outwardly, eyes clenching shut. He answered unwillingly, but truthfully. No...
Then free me. I'm asking you to free me. And Charles could still feel the part of Erik that didn't want this at all, but the guilt and the pain overrode it, and he wasn't backing down. He thought he was doing the right thing.
But there was no answer.
They had gone without it the months since the plastic room, the link. It had never come up. Not really. Why now, after only the better part of a month of having it back, was the idea of losing it again suddenly so awful?
And he realized it wasn't only the link, but what it meant- that there was someone else in the world who felt close enough to him to want. That someone other than his sister cared whether he lived or died. He supposed Hank and Sean and Alex cared that much at least, of course, but...Erik cared more, like only Raven had before now.
If they lost the link Charles would lose the certainty of that knowledge.
Charles, release me.
But Erik was right; he wouldn't keep the connection in place against his friend's will. It would be drastic misuse of his powers-a line he wouldn't cross.
All right, he answered softly, painfully. Tears had built under his closed eyelids and they began to slip free now. He made sure that didn't get through. All right...
Charles didn't ask again. He couldn't bear to. He couldn't hear Erik telling him again that he wanted the link gone-that he didn't want it to stay-and so he simply did it. He severed the link, and the brush of Erik's mind always against his own was gone.
As soon as it was done he curled in on himself farther and cried. He felt suddenly alone and miserable, even with his sister sleeping beside him. He felt sick. He couldn't help the crying, couldn't stop it, couldn't muffle it, and soon enough Raven was awake behind him and worried.
"Charles? What's wrong? What is it? Charles?"
He couldn't answer her. She'd never known about the bond. No one had. She wouldn't understand. He was silent, and she must have assumed it was nightmares or some such thing, which was close enough, and she curled around him, held onto him while he sobbed, and it helped a little.
When the link disappeared Erik ground to a halt in mid-stride, and in a moment more he'd dropped to his knees.
He wondered if the sudden nausea were really there or if it was in his head-the guilt eating at him.
But it should have been better now. He'd freed Charles from the link, from being connected to someone the likes of him, and that was a good thing. Charles didn't deserve to be tethered to someone who would only bring him pain and trouble. He deserved so much more than that.
But what now? Where was he supposed to go from here?
He didn't know, and to avoid the answer Erik pushed himself back to his feet and ran, trying to pretend that his eyes weren't damp.
Charles ached too much, physically and mentally alike, to leave his bed that day.
And the day after that. And the day after that.
He expected Erik to leave. He expected him to take the release from the bond as leave to go, and he didn't want to say goodbye if Erik wasn't going to choose to come to see him, so he stayed where he was.
But Erik didn't go. He rarely came into the house at all but to sleep, and he quickly bypassed Charles's door on the way to his own and never once so much as paused outside, but he didn't leave.
It didn't make sense.
And Charles refused to search the surface of his mind for answers. He refused to go anywhere near Erik's mind at all beyond searching it out to know where he was, to know if he'd left yet.
Raven was worried about him, he knew. He wouldn't tell her what was wrong-he couldn't. He told her was simply sick, that was all, come down with some sort of bug, and in reality he wondered if he had. He felt awful-no vomiting, but nausea enough, and his head pounded with normal human headache, and sometimes his stomach cramped, too. He wasn't able to eat much. But there was no fever, no explanation.
Charles wondered if it were simply in his head, that he'd been so upset he'd made himself sick. It was possible.
It was also depressing.
It lasted for days, tapering off steadily as time drew on, and when the symptoms had finally subsided enough that he felt he would be all right enough leaving his bed, leaving his room, he determined to.
He was tired of lying about. He was tired of feeling sorry for himself, missing Erik's presence in his mind and being able to do nothing about it.
He was going to do something about it.
Raven looked at him skeptically when he asked her to help him dress and get him into his chair, asking him if he was sure he felt all right enough for that. He waved her worries away and only realized later, after catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror in the corridor on the way to the elevator, that he looked awful. He was back to being pale again, and there were dark circles under his eyes from the few days straight of feeling badly.
Raven was beside him, following him downstairs, and she squeezed his good shoulder. "It's okay. You were sick. Nothing a couple of days of better food and moving around again won't fix."
Charles smirked weakly. "And you were the one who nearly didn't let me out of bed twenty minutes ago."
"I was just making sure you were all right. And by the way, you should get some sun, too."
He rolled his eyes a bit. "Thank you for that."
To appease his sister he had something to eat before he ventured outside, and both made her happy but he didn't go out to satisfy her.
He went because Erik was on the terrace, somewhere he could get to easily in the chair. Grass and gravel were not nearly so friendly as concrete.
Erik was leaning over the fashioned concrete railing, staring blankly into the distance of hills and trees obscured by a single satellite dish, and Charles had to admit that he felt much like doing the same at the moment. Just sitting. Just staring at nothing. Not worrying about thought or anything else. But he had come here for a reason. He didn't have to announce himself, either; the whine of the chair's motor gave him away.
"What are you doing out here?" Erik asked without turning around. "I thought you still weren't feeling well."
"I was looking for you, if you must know, and I'm feeling all right enough now, thank you."
Erik huffed. "I know. I am, too."
Charles blinked. "What?"
"Feeling better. I'm feeling all right today, too. It's going away."
"It...I'm sorry, did you catch whatever it was I had?"
Erik looked back, finally, for a moment, and Charles saw the dark circles that were under his eyes, as well. "I don't think we caught anything, Charles."
Oh. Oh. Part of him had wondered, but...
"This is my fault, isn't it?" Erik sighed quietly, looking away once more. "Again. I thought I was doing the right thing, and I only caused you more pain."
Charles brought the chair a bit closer, frowning. "Not only me, it seems." If he was right, Erik seemed to believe that severing the link so suddenly after having it in place for much longer this time had made them both physically ill.
Charles had to admit that it was the only explanation that made any sense. It only hadn't occurred to him before because he hadn't known Erik was feeling awfully, too. Of course he hadn't stayed in. Such a thing would be nearly nothing to him.
"It doesn't matter what it did to me," Erik murmured, predictably.
"Of course it does."
"Just tell me if you're going to be all right."
Charles made a face. "Physically, we both seem to be recovering. It must have been a temporary reaction, if indeed that is what it was. I imagine we'll be fine, now, yes."
"Good. As long as you're all right."
"Erik, stop it."
"Putting yourself down like that. You don't deserve it."
"No! You most certainly do not. I tried to tell you that. You wouldn't listen to me. You didn't let me explain before you-" He stopped, and Erik winced. His back was still turned, but Charles could see it in the minuscule hunch of his shoulders.
He let out a breath before he continued. "Not that it would have made a difference, more than likely. I've told you before, that I don't blame you for anything, and you even seemed to believe it then, but now this. I don't understand."
"I don't think I ever believed it. Not really," Erik whispered. "I'm sorry."
Charles stared at his back and swallowed. "And why in god's name don't you believe it? I would never lie to you."
"I know that..."
Erik turned around then, really turned around, back to the railing now, and there was pain in his eyes. "Because you have to be lying to yourself, Charles. You have to be. Someday you're going to wake up and realize that if you'd never met me you wouldn't be stuck in that damned wheelchair."
"No, I would be dead." Erik blinked at him, and he continued. "We were already tracking Shaw before you and I crossed paths, Erik. More than likely Shaw would have attempted to recruit and/or kill me either way. And you know I wouldn't have joined him, and without you there I probably wouldn't have escaped, either. I would be dead."
"Raven found us. She would have found you..."
"But she would have been helpless against Shaw, and you know that. Her finding me would have been of no use; he would have killed her as well. You saved my life, Erik. Our lives."
Erik was blinking back tears now, looking away, trying to hide it. "You're still paralyzed because of me." Charles could feel Erik's guilt for the other things, the smaller things since then, but he felt all of it tracing back to this one thing. His legs.
"Erik, if I weren't in this chair right now you would be dead. I would be on my feet, perhaps,, but we wouldn't be having this conversation." Charles paused, gave Erik time to look up at him again, finally. When Erik had looked him in the eyes Charles nodded down to his dead legs. "I would much rather this than that you were gone," he said softly.
He meant it. He had never meant anything more. And Erik studied him for a long moment, shock on his face, until he finally seemed to realize that they weren't only words.
"You really mean that," he said finally, incredulous.
Charles sighed, smiled tiredly. "Of course I mean it. I would never say such a thing if I didn't."
Erik nodded weakly, but then he turned away again, and Charles didn't understand until he saw the tears falling just before Erik's face was out of view.
Soon his friend's shoulders were shaking, his knuckles white on the railing, and Charles wasn't sure what to do. He was even more at a loss when Erik sank to his knees.
"Erik? Erik, it's all right..."
But he was crying rather than listening.
And Charles had never seen Erik cry. Not really. Not like this. A few silent tears at times, but never this.
"Erik, please, it's all right..." It's all right...
Still there was no response, and Charles let out a breath and brought his chair as close as he could without running over Erik's feet. He reached for his friend's shoulder, but from the chair it was a stretch, and suddenly he was more than a little frustrated.
Fine. If the chair was making this difficult then he didn't need it.
Charles gripped Erik's shoulder with the one hand he could use, with his other arm still in a sling, and pulled himself forward. It was difficult with one arm and no help, but finally he was sliding out of the chair. Erik realized what he was doing at the last moment, and caught him, cushioning the fall a bit and keeping his injured shoulder from being jarred too badly.
"Charles, what are you doing!" Erik helped him finish swinging around, and settled him back against the railing. "Are you all right?"
"Fine, thank you." His shoulder twinged a bit, but it was nothing awful.
"What are you doing?" Erik repeated, sitting back on his heels and trying to dry his face.
"Well it didn't seem as if you were coming back up any time soon, so I thought I'd come down here. Try the view."
Erik just shook his head. "You're a fool, Charles, you know that? What if I hadn't caught you and you'd landed on your shoulder again? We'd be right back where we started days ago."
"Perhaps. But I knew you would catch me." His friend blinked at him. "I trust you." Erik continued to stare at him, and Charles continued. "I certainly wouldn't have let you haul me to the top of that satellite dish with only your powers if I didn't. Really, Erik, I don't know where you ever managed to get the idea that I could ever be angry with you for anything that's happened to me. All of it was quite out of your hands."
Erik swallowed. "And if I believe you, what then? What now?"
"Well you could stay like you promised you would, to begin with." Charles was quiet for a moment, thoughtful. "Only if you want to, of course..."
"Of course I want to," Erik said quietly, eyebrows going up.
Charles smiled. "Good. I'm going to need your help, after all, if I'm going to start a school for mutants here."
"You're serious about that?"
"I'm a professor, Erik, as Raven and the others continue to insist, and I have a house more than large enough for it. I really think it was the best idea we had. It's the only thing that makes any sense. Besides that, I want to. I've enjoyed training the children here. If we can help more than the few we already have here, then..."
Erik smiled. "It is the perfect job for you."
But he seemed more skeptical at that. "I shoved Sean off a satellite dish."
Charles chuckled. "But he flew. I know our methods are different, Erik, but perhaps we need both to keep a balance. So I don't need you sitting about feeling guilty over anything. I need you here. I need you to be with me in this. I suppose I could run such an institution on my own, if I started small, but it would be much easier if we did it together."
Erik winced a bit. "You're sure? You just said...I'm not like you."
"I know. And I also said that I think we may need that."
"Charles...I don't know...you know I'll stay, but if you're serious about this school business I don't know if it's such a good idea for me to be so closely involved. You could do it..."
"Good god, but you are stubborn," Charles huffed. "The beginning and end of it all is that I don't want to do this on my own. I want help, and I want it to be you." He paused. "We can make this world an easier place to live in for people like us, Erik. We can help them. We can change things. We can make a difference, and we can do it much better together...I want you by my side."
Erik stared at him for a long moment, until finally he smiled. "I think you're the stubborn one."
"I have been told that in the past."
Erik shifted, turned to sit against the railing at Charles's side. "A school, hmm?"
"Absolutely. I'm quite excited about it, actually."
"Of course you would be."
"What exactly is that supposed to mean?"
"That you're a nerd, Charles."
"Well excuse me..."
They both chuckled and trailed off, and then Charles was serious again.
"Then you'll help me?"
Erik's eyebrows, up again. "Of course I will. I told you I wasn't going anywhere. If I'm going to be here anyway I suppose I should."
"Well if that's the logic I'm going to get I guess I'll have to take it..."
They laughed again, and it was hard for Charles to imagine that days ago he'd nearly wanted to die, and hours ago he'd still been without his closest friend.
It made him feel better, really, that everything was all right so quickly. He supposed it was proof of how close they were.
But he still missed the other reassurance that he had held onto this past month. He missed the link.
He was debating whether or not to say something when Erik spoke.
Erik's made a face, shifting where he sat. "Are you still queasy? I am..."
Charles shrugged. "A bit. But as I said, it seems to be fading."
"Maybe. But you don't know for sure if it will really stop."
"Why wouldn't it?"
Erik shrugged. "I was only thinking that it might be best if we didn't take any chances. If you put the link back in place it should stop, wouldn't you think?"
Charles raised eyebrow. "It would, I'm sure, but are you sure? After this it's clear that if we were to replace it for any length of time it would be particularly unwise to attempt to remove it again."
"Then we won't remove it again."
Charles didn't remember the last time he'd smiled so brightly. Soon enough his cheeks were beginning to ache. "Fair enough."
"Hey!" They both looked up to find Raven with her head out one of the library's windows. "What the hell are you two doing out there?"
"Enjoying the weather! What are you doing in there?" Erik shouted back. He was grinning, but Raven only rolled her eyes and pulled her head back inside.
"Well keep Charles out there for a while! He looks like a ghost!" she called, before she shut the window entirely.
Charles was laughing when Erik glanced back at him with a raised eyebrow. "Don't worry; the eye rolling merely means you're family. But I've told you before that she sees you that way by now."
Erik smiled softly. "I guess you did. Now, where were we?"
"I believe we were about to remedy the mistake you made a few days ago."
"Ouch," Erik winced. "But I deserved that..."
But Charles was still smiling at him as he brought his fingers to his temple.
He took his time this time, really feeling Erik's mind, turning it over in his own mind's hands and feeling warm at Erik's happiness as he brushed against it and gently took hold of it, linking it to his own once more. He forged the connection deeper, stronger, burying it where nothing, hopefully, could harm it.
And when he was finished and he returned to the world he could still feel Erik's quiet, contended joy through the link, and it mingled with his own and he wasn't certain where his ended and his friend's began.
He didn't bother to say anything this time, when it was done. Erik knew it was done, and it was he who spoke instead. "Thank you. That's much better."
He could have meant the fact that anything remaining of the nausea and queasiness was gone now, as it was for Charles. But that wasn't what Charles meant when he grinned and answered, seeing the future of possibilities that lay spread before them.
"Yes. It is."
Chapter 17: Epilogue
Alternate/Continuing Cherik ending. :)
Several weeks later it was mid July and the height of summer, and most training was done outside when it wasn't raining or too wet. When it was wet Hank, Charles, and Erik were planning for rebuilding the full-sized Cerebro, or Erik was helping Charles begin plans for the school.
Tossing around ideas was easier with the link, Erik realized. Either of them would know before they even finished talking if the other wasn't fond of an idea, and it made knowing what to come back to and what to discard a much quicker process.
There were a lot of things that were so much easier with the link back in place, but...there were some things that weren't so easy. Erik wouldn't have changed it for the world, but sometimes he had a hard time separating his own feelings from those he picked up from Charles. He wondered if it were just him, because he wasn't a telepath, wasn't as skilled in such matters, or if Charles had the same problem having not linked to someone like this before him.
It was frustrating, at times, was all. And there was one thing...one feeling that was changing, or...not really changing, but making itself more known to him now...and Erik didn't know if it were just him, or Charles, or the both of them. He wanted to know the truth almost as much as he needed to breathe, but how could he simply ask something like that?
Then again...the link had to mean something, didn't it? Erik hadn't been quite sure why he wanted it so badly, but Charles had agreed just as eagerly as he'd wanted to ask for it.
That had to mean something.
"Oh...wonderful. It wasn't supposed to rain today," Charles complained mildly. He was frowning through the glass of the back door in the kitchen, and Erik was clearing the lunch dishes. Charles would have helped, but he couldn't work the chair's controls and do anything else at the same time yet. His left arm was no longer in a sling, but from what he said the shoulder was still rather sore and physical therapy was just now starting to do some real good. At the moment he still had to be careful with it.
Sean would be back soon to actually wash the dishes; it was his turn, and if he didn't show Erik would gladly track him down.
"What are you talking about? It's sunny," Erik frowned, coming over now that the last dish was in the sink.
Charles pointed vaguely. "There. In the distance. It seems to be headed straight for us. I wouldn't know how quickly."
Erik leaned over the back of his wheelchair a bit and squinted as the small dark formation on the horizon. "That'll take hours to get here, and it could always turn. We can still go."
"You think so?"
"I don't see why not. Besides that, you've been chomping at the bit since you mentioned it yesterday evening; I'd hate to see you disappointed."
"Well I haven't been there since before Raven and I left home for Oxford," Charles said defensively. "Years ago. It used to be my favorite spot on the grounds, and this is the best time of year to see it."
"You're sure Raven doesn't want to come?"
Charles shook his head and shrugged. "She told me that you and I should go on for today. I suppose she'll come next time. I can't imagine why she wouldn't want to go now, but then again she's been quite happy enough cooped up here in the house recently..."
"With Hank," Erik finished.
Charles made a face. "Yes, well...we'll have to keep an eye on those two."
Erik smirked in amusement. "Something tells me it's a little late for that."
The face was one of horror now. "Erik, stop it! I'm happy for her, but she's my sister for god's sakes!" Erik chuckled as he shifted uncomfortably. "There are some things I would rather not think about, thank you."
"Sorry," Erik apologized, though he wasn't really sorry at all, and Charles knew it. It was amusing to watch him squirm, and Erik felt a familiar flash of annoyance tinged with the fondness he was so used to sensing from his friend.
"No you're not," Charles said needlessly, and the corners of his mouth quirked up. "But I forgive you."
"You always do."
"You know you love me." It was an offhand comment, a joke, but when it came out Erik suddenly felt quite exposed.
And why was Charles shifting again, clearing his throat, looking uncomfortable like that though he was obviously trying not to?
Charles chuckled again, finally, and smiled too brightly. "Anyhow, if we're going to go we might want to do it now, just in case that weather does hit us later."
Erik cleared his own throat, now, making certain that he was smiling too as he straightened and nodded. "Right. We should."
They left the chair inside, and Erik carried him where Charles directed-into a dense clump of trees at the edge of the estate's property. The edge of the woods, it seemed.
"I see why we had to leave the chair behind. Even if I'd floated it I don't think it would fit between a lot of these trees," Erik commented soon.
"We almost don't fit through many of these trees," Charles chuckled, as Erik tried and failed to squeeze them between two by turning sideways, and it didn't work. He had to back up several feet and weave another way.
"How did you and Raven get down here?"
"We were children; we were smaller. And we weren't carrying anyone. I must admit this is making it a bit more difficult..."
Erik just shrugged, unbothered, and soon enough they broke out of the trees and into the small clearing Charles had been guiding them to.
Most of the space was taken up by a moderately-sized pond that was more narrow in the middle than at the ends, the middle nearly bisected by a fallen tree trunk that jutted out over the water. At the nearby end that had the widest stretch of grass before the trees began again an ancient tire swing hung from one of the larger trees.
"It's hardly changed at all," Charles murmured appreciatively, and Erik had to smile just at the look of childish wonder on his face.
"It really has been a while, hasn't it?" Erik asked.
"Quite a while, unfortunately." Charles motioned to the end of the pond where the tire swing hung. "Over there." Erik took him there, found a stump and was about to set him on it when Charles asked him to put him down in the grass instead.
"Sitting in the grass is half the fun of being outdoors, isn't it?"
Erik complied easily, and sat beside him. "How did that get out here?" he asked, nodding back to the swing because they were facing the water.
Charles glanced back at it, almost in surprise. "Oh, that? Raven and I found it in one of the sheds near the house and took it upon ourselves to find rope, too, and drag it all down here one weekend." He grinned. "And I must say that it was infinitely more fun later after we discovered it was a rather hard-come-by spare tire for one of Kurt's cars and that he'd been rather frustrated to find it gone. He never suspected us, of course. What would two useless children want with an expensive tire?"
Erik's sense of justice was more satisfied by that than anything else he'd heard of Charles's step-father and step-brother. And he had to laugh, too.
"What about fishing? Are there fish?"
Charles shrugged. "Not as many as we would have liked, but there are some."
"I take it that means you did try to fish it."
"Oh, absolutely. The old-fashioned way, no less. Sticks with string and hooks and worms. Raven refused to bait her own hook, but, well, I suppose that's what brothers are for." He pointed out to the log across the middle of the pond. "Until we were too heavy we would sit out on that trunk to fish. It's actually been there for quite a while."
Maybe Charles's childhood had not been perfect as he'd once thought, Erik mussed, but it had had its bright spots, and he was glad of that. Being around Charles, around the others, feeling like he had a family...recently he'd begun to remember more of his own childhood. The happier years before the war and the camps and Shaw. Before his parents were dead. They'd been poor, but the more he remembered the more he realized that they'd been happy.
His parents had both loved him, and that was more than Charles had had in that respect, when it came to his mother at least. It made Erik sad to think about it, and he tried not to. The past was the past, and it was important...it had shaped them...but it didn't determine their future.
"You two came here often then?"
"All the time. We found it trying to get out of the house for a while, and it was more than useful for that ever afterwards. Cain and my step-father had no use for the outdoors; they never knew this place was here."
Erik let out a breath of wonder and shook his head.
"What?" Charles asked, eyebrow raised.
"It's just...even as much as we've talked, even with this link back in place...there's still so much I don't know about you. I didn't know you had any use for the outdoors when you were younger. You continue to surprise me."
Charles laughed. "Thought I'd been nothing but an academic from the beginning, did you?"
"I didn't say that..."
"No, but you thought it. Not that I looked, but I'm sure you did."
"Fine," Erik huffed. "So sometimes I did think that. What?"
Charles was trying and failing to suppress a grin. "An interesting assumption, considering we met because I jumped into an ocean after you."
"I never said it made any sense," Erik retorted. But Charles was laughing again, and his smile, having it back and so easy now after those months following the ordeal with Shaw when it had been so rare, was a joy he couldn't quite describe.
Oh god, I love him. That's what this is, isn't it?
The thought was so sudden and surprised that Charles heard it clearly, but he tried not to let on at all that he had as his laugh faded in the warm summer air.
"Are you sure Raven doesn't mind me being here?" Erik asked suddenly. "It seems like this was something that you two shared...I don't want to intrude."
"You're not intruding," Charles said quickly. "I've told you; you're family now."
"I know that. I believe you. This place just seems so special. Charles shrugged and pulled his shoes off, watched the grass push between his toes even though he couldn't feel it like he had when he and Raven were here when they were young. It was better than nothing.
And it was distraction while he tried to process what Erik probably hadn't meant to let him know.
"She doesn't mind; certainly not after all you've done for us. For me." He shrugged again. "And she knows she couldn't carry me here on her own anyhow."
When he glanced up again Erik was watching him sadly, and he didn't want that now. Certainly not after what he'd just heard.
He'd wondered for so long what it really was, that he felt around Erik. For him. He'd had too few close friends in his life, too little experience to separate it from anything else, and then there was not knowing what Erik felt, really, trying to separate his own feelings from Erik's in the link...
Strange, the link had never been a source of confusion before this had become so strong, and he realized now that it it had become that way because they had such similar feelings that they could be confused. That had to be it.
God, he hoped, let that be it.
Erik was so close, sitting beside him, that sad look too close, too sad, and he didn't want Erik to feel that way. Not now. They had both accepted this, that he was going to live the rest of his life like this, without his legs. He was all right now, most of the time-he was still human, after all; there were still bad days, but not so awful anymore-and Erik was finally getting there. To all right.
They didn't need this now, the sadness, in this moment. It didn't belong here now.
His bad arm was just strong to help a bit in bracing him upright, and Charles moved his hand the few inches to curl his fingers over Erik's, Erik's good hand, on the ground beside him. He smiled reassuringly. It's all right.
Erik ducked his head again. You're sure?
"Erik...?" he asked aloud.
"Hmm? What is it?"
He waited until Erik looked at him again, and shook his head. "Nothing, I just...I mean, I need to understand something."
Rather than answer in words Charles leaned closer to catch Erik's lips with his.
He felt Erik's eyebrows go up, but Erik responded. Charles's stomach flipped over inside him, twisting in a good way that certainly would not have happened if he'd kissed a mere friend.
"That," he breathed, when they had to break off enough for air.
"Oh," Erik answered against his cheek, as if it made perfect sense.
Because it did.
Erik kissed him again, and Charles had a hard time suppressing a grin enough to reciprocate properly because it was everything he hadn't quite realized he'd wanted. From Erik he felt warmth and relief and joy and a bewildered amusement, and much of that he shared, and he let himself be wrapped it.
But all too soon something overshadowed it all in Erik's mind, and he was breaking away.
"Charles...I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can't-"
"What?" His stomach twisted the other way, and suddenly it hurt. He felt like the breath had been knocked out of him, and he stared wide-eyed.
"I can't do this..." Erik grimaced, staring at the ground.
"What...why? What's wrong?" Barely controlled panic. No no no everything was going like it should what now?
Erik fumbled in his pocket with his numb hand, and his jaw clenched. All Charles sensed from him was regret and apology and pain, and because he wouldn't intrude into Erik's mind he couldn't make sense of it.
"Erik?" he questioned desperately.
Erik's managed to pull out what he'd been looking for. "I can't...I shouldn't do this...not when I'm still holding on to this. Not when I can't let it go...all of it. I-I don't...deserve it. You..."
The coin from his memory lay in the palm of his hand.
"Erik..." Charles sobbed quietly. His fingers around Erik's hand in the grass tightened, even while Erik tried to pull his hand away.God, Erik, please, don't let Shaw ruin something else. It's over. Don't let him ruin this...
He wasn't sure whether he meant to let that through or not, but it did get through, and Erik's eyes clenched shut and he stopped trying to free his hand. Charles brought his free hand up to Erik's face and stroked his cheek.
"Erik, please," he whispered, pressing their foreheads together.
"Charles," he swallowed. "I don't know if I can-"
You CAN let it go. You can. You have to want to, and you can do it. Please, Erik, don't let Shaw ruin this. Not now. Not after all this time, not after everything we've been through...
I want to let it go. I've tried. Why can't I let it go?
Charles kissed him again, gently, and Erik reluctantly let him. "I can help you. Let me help you."
At that Erik pulled away entirely, taking it as far as yanking his good hand free, switching the coin into it so he could hold it and getting quickly to his feet, nearly causing Charles to overbalance in the process. No. I'm sorry; I have to do this on my own. Maybe...once I've figured it out. I'm sorry...
But he turned away, shoulders hunching now. "We should go back."
Unyielding, and Charles realized that this wasn't going to change right now, here, barring a miracle. Maybe Erik had finally accepted that everything that had happened to Charles was not his fault, and maybe Shaw was gone, and he accepted that too, but Erik still held onto the anger. The pain. He hadn't let that part of it all go, not yet, and maybe he was right.
They couldn't be together. Not like that. Not until he could let it go. Charles would have helped him, but Erik was too proud for that.
"Just go," Charles bit back. "Send the others back for me. Raven can show them how to get here."
Erik started to turn around. "I am not leaving you-"
"GO!" He sent it telepathically as well, not putting any real influence behind it but still making it very clear. Erik stopped mid-turn, visibly flinching, and then nodded weakly, back still turned, and Charles knew he wasn't only agreeing to leave the clearing.
He was going to leave New York. At least for now.
Erik went, quickly, and Charles was grateful for the speed as he dragged himself the two or three feet to the stump he hadn't wanted to sit on and used it to lean on. His shoulder ached. His throat ached, and his stomach, and when it had been long enough that he didn't think Erik would hear him he shielded the link and let himself cry.
It wasn't fair, really, that Charles, as the telepath, could muffle his end of the link if he really wanted to. Erik felt the curtain drop over it as he pushed into the trees, and he knew it meant Charles was hurting too much to let Erik in on it.
But he had to leave. He had to. At least until he could fix this, what he held on to. He knew, now, what he felt, that Charles felt the same way...and leaving hurt more than anything had in a long time. But it would hurt them both more if he tried to stay now, when they couldn't act yet on what they knew now. When Erik wouldn't let it happen.
He wanted it to happen. He wanted Charles. All of him.
But he didn't deserve him now. Not yet.
Erik was going to do everything in his power to deserve him.
Then why can't I do it now? he wondered miserably. He slowed to a stop, leaning into a tree trunk, and when the noise of his shoes crunching foliage and fallen branches had stopped he realized the woods echoed.
He wasn't so far from the pond yet, really. And he could hear Charles crying.
Oh god, what am I doing?
That was what Charles was shielding him from. Charles didn't want him to know, but he could hear it, and his chest clenched so tightly he suddenly couldn't breath.
"I'm sorry," he gasped, to no one but himself. "I'm sorry..."
The coin burned in his hand.
Why can't I let it go now? Why can't I? Can I? Charles...
Erik wanted this. He didn't want to leave. But he didn't want to hurt Charles any further, and staying would hurt him.
Unless he could do it. Unless he could stay and he could put Shaw from his mind and he and Charles could...
His fists clenched more tightly around the small metal disk, and he felt it distorting between his fingers. You CAN let it go. You can. You have to want to, and you can do it. Please, Erik, don't let Shaw ruin this. Charles's words echoed in his mind, and he pulled in a sharp breath.
He summoned Shaw's image in his mind, and Frost's too, just for good measure. You are nothing to me. The past. You don't control me. Not anymore. You don't, you don't, you don't...
Erik went back, jaw clenching harder as he went and Charles's soft sobs became more clear. The past is the past. It has to be. It's over. It's over. When the line of trees broke and he had a clear path to water he ran, and he drew his arm back. Charles...
He stopped at the water's edge and threw the ruined coin, threw it physically, no powers at all, and an inarticulate shout ripped from his throat, and in his mind he shoved Shaw into a boxed and locked it. YOU DON'T CONTROL ME!
The coin flew far enough that it struck the log, Charles and Raven's log, and dropped into the deepest part of the pond.
By now he knew its metal well enough that he could call it to him from anywhere.
But he wouldn't.
The sky rumbled faintly, and he realized that the sun had been gone for long minutes now, obscured by the dull gray of the edges of the cloud formations they'd seen heading this way. They'd gotten here more quickly than either of them had thought.
Erik didn't realize until then that his chest was heaving, that he was trembling, and he forced himself to calm.
He realized he couldn't hear Charles anymore, and when he looked up, looked across the water, Charles had stopped sobbing and was looking at him, leaning against the stump and watching him now.
Erik went to him slowly, silently, because he didn't know what to say now. What he could say. Or what he should say.
As he drew closer Charles began to cry again, or he thought so, and he didn't understand and he worried and he picked up his pace, but when he was close enough he realized that Charles wasn't crying. Not in the usual sense. He was sobbing, and there were tears, but he was smiling through it and the shaking of his chest was more like a laugh than anything.
Relief. Joy. The shroud over the link was gone now.
Erik stopped in his tracks only a few feet away when he put it all together, stopped from his own relief, and a tired smile split his face. For you, he thought finally. For you...
Charles made a choked sound, but a clearly happy one, and reached out to him, and Erik wasted not a second in taking the last few steps and dropping to his knees at Charles's side. He took Charles's mouth, devoured it with his own, and Charles eagerly let him. Erik pressed himself closer, and they were lost in each other until a much sharper crack of thunder shocked them out of it.
Erik reacted instinctively, pulling Charles to him, but Charles chuckled and pushed himself upright again.
"It's thunder, Erik. I believe we really ought to get back to the house now."
Erik complied, picking him up, but he found Charles's lips again and his own hardly left them in the process.
But then, as he straightened with Charles in his arms, it began to rain lightly, hardly noticeable, but there, and they had yet to make their way through the trees before they could climb the hill back up to the mansion.
"Damnit," Erik sighed.
Charles laughed again, softly, and lovingly buried his head against Erik's neck as they made their way from the clearing.
The rain was light enough as they weaved through the trees, picking up a bit at the end, but they were nothing more than a little damp and the dropping temperature wasn't too much to worry about. Then, of course, as soon they they came out of the woods the bottom dropped out.
It wasn't horribly far to the house from there, but they were soaked to the bone and shivering when they made it inside and Raven was there to scold them.
"What were you doing out there! You should have headed in sooner. I swear; neither of you has any sense at all...Charles, where are your shoes?"
They both glanced down at Charles's feet and realized that he'd left his shoes and socks by the pond. Charles's hadn't felt that he didn't have them on, of course. It hadn't even occurred to him to remember to put them back on. He'd forgotten completely, and apparently Erik hadn't noticed.
Then again, they'd been a bit preoccupied.
Raven ranted on for another moment or so, but she let them go and didn't follow when Erik headed quickly upstairs to Charles's room and then into his bathroom where it was warm and they could dry off.
They were both laughing by then, Charles managing it even around his teeth chattering. "Well this is...is it supposed to rain for happy endings?"
"I wouldn't know. I never had much time for movies."
"Neither did I, really." He paused and smirked a bit. "Those were my favorite shoes we left out there. Leather. They're completely ruined by now, and I think those socks were silk. They're gone too."
Erik set him down on the rug by the sink and paused, frowning. Charles felt an unexpected pang of regret come from him, and he didn't understand until the memory flashed through Erik mind:
Those were the shoes Erik had brought down to him the first day he'd left his room after he'd woken. The day Erik had dragged him downstairs.
But then the small bit of sadness melted easily away and Erik shook his head and leaned in to Charles's forehead. "It's all right," he smiled. "It's a small price to pay." And he kissed Charles lips next. "For this."
He got up to to pull several towels from the cabinet beside the sink, and sank back to the floor at Charles's side.
Charles's fingers shook as he tried to unbutton his shirt, and Erik would have had even more problems with it so he pulled it over his head instead and tossed it away. When he reached for his t-shirt, though, there were two more hands helping him, one sure and one clumsy, and once the t-shirt was off Erik was kissing him again. He realized that Erik's shirt was off by now, too, and they wouldn't have stopped, but Charles's wet hair dropped in sticky clumps into his face and he remembered that they were both still quite damp and cold.
"T-Towels," he forced out.
"What?" Erik breathed. "Right..." He pulled back, reluctantly, and Charles's teeth chattered again when Erik wasn't so close anymore. "Damn, you really are freezing," Erik swore. He grabbed one of the towels, snapped it open and wrapped it around Charles's shoulders, rubbing his skin dry in the process. Charles fumbled at the small stack with the hand of his more useful arm and managed to half throw one over Erik in return.
Erik nodded and let go of him, sitting back and focusing on drying himself off and getting warm.
Charles finished the job of drying his arms and torso, careful of his shoulder, and ran the towel through his hair several times, at least until it wasn't clinging to him. But he was still cold, and he started to shove his trousers off next. His hand slipped on the wet bathroom floor when he pushed down on it instead of the carpet when he tried to get his hips off the ground, but Erik caught him in time. He'd already shrugged out of his own pants, was down to his boxers and mostly dry now, and he helped Charles get his khakis off.
Charles thanked him and picked up the last of the fresh towels with the intention of drying his legs, but Erik plucked it from his hands.
He opened his mouth to protest, but quickly saw that it would be no use. He nodded silently.
He hadn't really wanted Erik to dry his legs. To really look at them. They were thin now, and it wasn't awful yet but it would be, he knew, now that they would never be used again. He was already self-conscious about it, and he determined to speak with his physical therapist about how to keep up at least some of the muscle tone. It didn't have to be perfect, or necessarily like they'd been before he'd lost the use of them, but if he could keep them from becoming too thin he knew it would be safer, too...
Erik didn't get all of that. The link only gave him the feelings, but he must have noticed. He really must have noticed, because he was all but finished drying Charles's legs, now, but he didn't get up. He pushed the towel aside, but he stayed where he was. Whatever you're thinking, stop it, he was thinking, and Charles realized he'd picked up on the self-consciousness when he began to run his hands up and down Charles's dead legs. Just feeling them. There's nothing to feel that way for. Your legs? They're beautiful, Charles. MORE beautiful now. Because you gave them up for me.
Charles pulled in a breath, and he couldn't feel the way it would tickle lightly if he could feel Erik's hands, but the fact that Erik was doing it sent an unidentifiable shiver up his spine that drew nearly the same reaction. Erik...
Erik didn't quite listen to him. He heard, but he didn't stop. He gently bent one of Charles's legs up in his hands and...and he kissed it.
"Erik..." Charles swallowed, and when had his throat clogged?
Erik brushed his lips across the calf, the knee, up to the thigh. Then he did the same with the other, and what Charles felt from him then was a kind of love he had never felt from anyone before.
Not directed at him, anyway.
By the time Erik was finished Charles was trembling, fighting tears because they would blur his vision, and he had to watch because he couldn't feel it. When Erik stopped he sat up and moved behind Charles, against the base of the sink and pulled Charles to his chest and held him. Kissed him. It wasn't long before Charles turned into him more, and it was clear where this was going.
"Are you sure about this?" Erik asked, when they needed air.
"Bloody hell, Erik; what sort of question is that now?"
Erik kissed his temple. "Moira...you cared about her..." he trailed uncertainly.
Charles let out a quiet breath and twisted further to look him in the eyes, bringing fingers up to stroke his cheek. "Yes. I cared about her quite a bit. But she's gone now. And yes, part of me will always miss her...but what's important is now. Right now we're here, and...and I love you."
Erik needed no more encouragement. He grunted quietly in satisfaction, scooped Charles up and carried him out into the bedroom and to the bed, their lips meeting again and never parting. They had to stop briefly when Erik set him down and then Erik climbed onto the bed himself and straddled him and kissed him again, the fingers of his good hand twisting gently into Charles's hair.
"We'll have to be careful...your shoulder...don't let me hurt you," he murmured between kisses.
"No more than I want you to," Charles promised in amusement, and his hands were on Erik's chest, caressing the skin and the scars there, some of them newer, from the plastic room, he knew, though with his mouth trapped against Erik's he wasn't really looking now. Just feeling.
Erik chuckled aloud. Will you ever cease to surprise me?
Good lord, I hope not. That would make everything far too boring.
Erik stopped, just for a moment, to push up enough to look him in the eyes. His fingers still carded through Charles's hair, and his face sported the most beautiful smile Charles had ever seen there.
"I love you," Erik said, almost as if he were amazed by the fact. But he meant it.
Charles responded by taking Erik's ruined hand in his and brushing his lips over it, as Erik had done to his legs.
And Erik came back to him, kissed the scar on his shoulder before their lips met again. Nothing stopped them from there.
The link pulsed with joy and love and want and warmth, and this time when Charles lost himself in it nothing threatened to pull it all away again.