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Blessed is the Match Consumed

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Erik goes to bed in the mansion and wakes up in a prison cell. His thinking is slow and confused, and at first he assumes he's having a very realistic nightmare—not that unusual for him—but then the guards appear and move him. One of them elbows him in the stomach when he takes too long to get up and the pain is real enough. There's no waking up from this.

They take him to a new cell that has a table and two chairs, one of which they chain him to. Both the table and the chairs are metal and he wonders if they're taunting him, his hands flexing behind him as he struggles to break the cuffs, to move the table, to slide the chair across the floor, to do anything, trying to feel a shiver, a twitch, some sign of movement. But they remain stock-still, as unresponsive to him as wood.

One of the guards sits down across from him, taking off his black combat helmet and laying it down on the table. He's balding and middle aged. "Tell me about your faction," he says.

Erik squints at him, pretending he's too dazed to understand. It's more-or-less true.

"What are you planning?" the interrogator continues, ignoring Erik's silence. "Anything specific, or are you still getting organized?"

"Are you military?" Erik asks, scanning his uniform, his eyes struggling to focus. He's not wearing any unit insignia or rank. None of them are. Not a great sign.

"We found some pretty dangerous equipment in that secret basement bunker of yours. Whatever you're planning, it's got to be something impressive. Something more than run-of-the-mill terrorism I think. Why don't you tell me about it?"

Erik shakes his head, trying to wake himself up. "I don't know what you're talking about. Where are we? How did I get here?"

"There's no point in playing dumb," the man says, leaning forward. "Let's start at the beginning. What are your goals? Your cause?"

"Who are you?" Erik replies, pronouncing each word carefully, drawing them out. "And where the fuck am I?"

There's a sound from behind him and a new man comes into Erik's line of sight. He has graying hair and is wearing a dress uniform, crisp and neat compared to the utilitarian fatigues of the guards. The commanding officer?

"You're in a secure facility," the officer explains. "One specifically designed to hold militant groups of powered-individuals like your little radical cell."

Erik raises his eyebrows. "You mean our school? "

The officer smiles. "Yes, Explain that to me. Explain to me why last year a professor of genetics, his unemployed sister, and an illegal alien decided to form an unaccredited school which has a grand total of three students and five completely unqualified faculty members."

"We're applying for accreditation," Erik snaps. "Who are you?"

The man smiles. "You can call me 'Alpha.'" Erik squints at him and he continues, nodding toward each of the guards and the interrogator in turn. "And that's Kappa, Delta and Gamma."

"I see," Erik says. No, not good at all. "How did I get here, did you raid the school?"

The officer looks back at the interrogator, nodding for him to take over again. The man leans forward on the table toward Erik. "We're not here to answer your questions, you're here to answer mine."

"Uh huh," Erik says. He ignores him, still looking at the officer. "You've got to give me something first. Is everyone else here? Where are the kids?"

The interrogator slams his hand on the table, trying to get Erik's attention again. "Tell me about your organization first."

"Where are the children? " Erik repeats. The officer starts walking out, so Erik turns his head and yells after him, shouting over his shoulder. "You can't keep them here, they're all minors. Jean and Scott's parents will be looking for them!"

"What are your objectives?" the interrogator continues. "Overthrowing the government? Or something more ambitious?"

Erik turns his head, finally giving up on the officer now that he's out of sight. "How about you let me see my people first, and then I'll consider having a conversation with you."

"That's not how this is going to work."

"Well, then I guess it's not going to work at all," Erik says, and lays his head down on the table. He closes his eyes and keeps it there while the interrogator continues to bark questions at him, his forehead pressed against the cold metal, daydreaming about molding it in to a club and beating him and the other Greek letters to death with it.

One of the guards comes over and knocks the chair to the ground, sending Erik crashing down with it. He kicks him next, his boot slamming into Erik's side, taking the breath from him. He draws his legs in, waiting for the next blow.

"This is what I'll give you," the interrogator says, standing up. "You tell me what I want and you get to go back to your cell without any broken bones."

Erik coughs. "You can play it that way if you want, but it'd be much easier to negotiate with me."

The interrogator turns away and the guards rough him up some more. They don't actually break any bones, but he passes out pretty quickly anyway, maybe due to whatever they drugged him with. He wakes up in the same cell as before, still not knowing anything about where he is or what happened to the others.

On the positive side, Erik doesn't see the interrogator again.

***

They leave him alone in the cell for a good three days before he starts hearing the wailing. He thinks it's been three days anyway, it's hard to estimate time when he doesn't have a window and they leave the lights on constantly. He suspects that they're purposefully changing the length of time between meals too, trying to disorient him further. So far it's working pretty well.

The noise starts out far away at first, echoing off the concrete walls of the prison. It's so distorted that it almost sounds mechanical, but there's something in the pitch that seems familiar, and it makes all the hair on Erik's head stand up. He gets up and goes to the door of his cell, lacing his fingers through the bars and peering out. He can't help testing the metal as he does it, flexing his fingers and pulling at them one more time, imagining them twisting under his hands and tearing loose, letting him escape into the corridor. But the bars stay where they are, unresponsive, the living metal grown cold and dead to him. So instead Erik presses his face against them and tries to see down the hall and around the corner. He can hear marching footsteps now. There are definitely guards coming this way, bringing whoever is making that unholy sound with them.

Finally someone comes into view, a guard that Erik recognizes. He's seen a lot of him, he was one of the ones from the first day, with the interrogator. One of the ones that beat him—Delta. He seems to be the captain of this cell block, which currently consists of one prisoner—Erik—and a whole hell of a lot of sentries.

"What's happening?" Erik asks as Delta comes up even with him. He ignores him at first, taking up position across from Erik's cell and looking back toward the howl and the marching feet. Erik tries again. He's talked to him before, knows he can be reasoned with despite their rather harsh first introduction. "Captain Delta?"

"Back up," Delta says, glancing at Erik from underneath his helmet. "Prisoner transfer. Get against the wall."

Erik nods and backs up one step at a time, shuffling backwards until his back hits the cold concrete behind him. It's not much of a rebellion, but he tries to follow all of their orders slowly, never rushing when he can linger. Not quite insubordinate, but not quite compliant either.

"Stay back," Delta snaps at him, hand going to his automatic rifle. The wailing is getting louder, sounding horse and pained, but Erik is sure he recognizes it now.

An escort of guards comes into view, walking in formation and coming to a halt where Erik can see them. There are at least seven of them, which seems like overkill at first, until Erik finally spots Ororo being carried by one of them at the back. He can hear her clearly now, and it's less a wail than a scream, a high-pitched shriek of helpless anger, her fists and legs flying as the guard holds her over his shoulder, barely keeping her pinned with both arms. She's wearing an oversized shirt, the same sterile white as Erik's uniform, and one of her sleeves is flopping back and forth as she thrashes, eyes squeezed shut. It would almost be comical if it wasn't so heart wrenching. Erik wonders where they've been keeping her. In a bare cell like his own? Alone?

Erik's chest tightens as Delta comes up to his cell, reaching for the electronic lock. "Sit down, hands behind your head, you know the drill," he says. Erik nods, dropping to the floor, obeying immediately for once.

Ororo's cries change pitch as she spots Erik over her shoulder, her shrieks turning into a desperate whine as she throws her hands toward him, trying to squirm out of the guard's grip. She gets more and more piercing as Delta opens the door and the guard holding her steps inside. He grabs her around the middle and lifts her off his shoulder, holding her out at arm's length while she keeps struggling, fingers outstretched and grasping for Erik. He wants to reach for her but knows better, keeping his hands laced behind his head and his back flat against the wall, his eyes on the guards. The guard finally drops her in a heap, letting go so she lands on her stomach, head bouncing off the hard floor. Erik studies the man's face so he'll be able to retaliate later, memorizing his scraggly blond mustache and cleft chin.

The blow hardly fazes Ororo and she pulls herself up and runs to Erik, stumbling into his lap before the lock on the door has even sealed shut. He moves finally, grabbing her tight and lifting her up in his arms, cupping the back of her head while she shakes and starts hiccupping against his shoulder. "It's okay, you're safe now," he says, lying easily. "I'm here."

"Mr. Lehnsherr? Erik?"

Erik looks up from the white haze of Ororo's hair, confused until he realizes that the small voice is coming from outside, from the corridor in front of his cell. The guards are still out there, more men walking by now, the rear guard bringing along a prisoner he couldn't see before. It's Jean, her arms handcuffed in front of her, her red hair frazzled and filthy.

"Jean" he says, rushing forward, shifting Ororo over to the crook of one arm as he reaches out with the other through the bars. She's too far away, but Erik makes a grab for her anyway. Delta is there immediately, slamming the butt of his rifle into the bars to remind Erik to keep his hands inside. He obeys but keeps talking to her, calling out, "Jean, are you okay? Are you hurt?"

Jean opens her mouth but can't speak, her face clenching up as she starts to cry. She stops walking, shaking her head and running smack into the guard behind her. His hand comes down on her shoulder and he starts to push her forward, moving her past the cell and away from Erik.

"Please," Erik says, looking at Delta. "Please, can't you put her in with me too? She's only a child."

Delta sighs, but motions for the guard to stop shoving Jean forward. He makes a show of considering it, looking at Jean and then away into the distance.

Erik lets him think, taking the moment to calculate the best way to argue this. He knows from experience that guards are not simply faceless jackboots. They can be talked to, negotiate with, bribed—if you have anything to bribe them with—sometimes even counted on in a pinch. But never, ever trusted. Because guards are still human and most men don't want to think of themselves as bad men, even in the worse situations. So some of them will lean a little bit, give you an extra comfort here or there, a blanket or some water between meals. They'll be decent when they don't have to be, give you hints of what the higher-ups are planning, a warning when something is amiss, or when the routine is changing. Because if they give an inch sometimes then they don't have to feel too guilty later. Because then they'll know they aren't really bad men. They're decent fellows deep down, despite some of the things they had to do. Despite what happened to you in the end.

"Please," Erik says, looking at Delta and holding up one hand, palm out. "They're scared, they'll both be easier with me. They're just kids and they're scared." Ororo glares over his shoulder, supporting his case by remaining blessedly silent and calm after her earlier violence.

"I'm supposed to keep her separate," Delta says, shrugging. "I was planning on putting her across the way, you'll be able to see her there, hear her…" He drifts off, considering again.

Jean looks back and forth between them, eyes pleading, looking to Erik and then back to Delta, first to her possible sanctuary and then to the man dangling it in front of her.

"Is there any chance—" Erik pleads, letting all his desperation and helplessness show in his voice. He tells himself he's being manipulative, playing on Delta's emotions. He has his own illusions to protect, his own sense of self to preserve. "I don't want to get you in trouble, but is there any way—"

Delta cuts him off. "Well, it does make sense. We'll probably end up moving you all in together eventually anyway. Yeah, okay, why not." He waves to the guard holding Jean and then to Erik, who backs up to the wall again.

The door slides open and Jean skids inside, barely waiting long enough for Delta to unlock her handcuffs. She throws her arms around Erik's waist and lets out a loud gasp. They all sink down to the ground together, Erik kissing the girls' heads and repeating, "hey, it's okay, I've got you now, I've got you," as they both start crying anew.

The guards begin to leave and Erik nods his thanks to Delta, who looks pleased, satisfied that he's done the right thing. Been a good man when he didn't have to be.

***

Erik doesn't even try to talk to the girls at first, sticking to empty reassurances as they let out all the pain and terror of the past few days. He waits until they wear themselves out, quieting with exhaustion and curling up on either side of him on the thin sleeping mat.

Ororo is soon blinking heavily and starts to nod off against him, apparently comfortable in spite of the painful-looking angle of her neck. Erik decides to let her be, not wanting to wake her up by moving her.

"Are you all right?" he asks Jean, tightening the arm he has around her shoulder.

"Yeah," she says. "I'm—they haven't hurt me. Not really."

"Not really?" he asks, the words coming out sharp. Jean flinches away and he regrets it immediately, backing off. Better to come at it indirectly, let her tell him when she's ready. "What happened to you? I mean, back at the mansion? Do you remember anything?"

"No," she says, thinking it over. "I remember going to bed and then… I woke up here. I was really out of it too, it was hard to wake up, like when you take too much cough medicine."

Erik nods. "I think I remember waking up in the night. Maybe. I heard a noise in the hall and went out thinking it was one of you. But that's it, like I blacked out. I felt drugged when I woke up too. They must have used a tranquilizer, something that causes amnesia." They were supposed to have security to prevent this kind of thing from happening, thanks mainly to Erik's paranoia. Hank insisted it was foolproof. Erik can't wait to see him again so he can chew him out about that. If he sees him again.

"Where were they keeping you?" he asks. "Have you been with Ororo?"

"No, not at first, um, I was alone for the first day or two, after I woke up. Then they put Ororo in with me because they wanted me to calm her down. She wouldn't stop screaming, but I wasn't very good at it. I think she bit one of them."

"Good," Erik says, smiling, and Jean tries to smile back, managing a weak one.

"So… they tried threatening me, you know, 'shut her up or we will,' and I kept telling them that I couldn't do it, that she needed Dr. Xavier or you or one of the older kids. And I guess they finally decided I was right."

"Have you seen any of the others? Charles?"

"No," she says, frowning. "And I tried asking about them but they wouldn't tell me anything."

"Yeah, me too. That's okay, you did good," he squeezes her shoulder. "Real good. You played them perfectly."

She brightens at that. "They're not so scary. They like pushing you around but it’s not that bad, just little jabs and shoves, kicks sometimes."

"Did one of them kick you?" Erik asks, zeroing in on the evasive way she's phrasing it, using 'you' instead of 'me.'

She nods. "Yeah, the guy, the blond one? I think he was the same one carrying Ororo. He kicked me. Came in the cell and knocked me down after I first woke up. I was shouting at them, telling him they couldn't hold us, that I wanted to talk to my parents. Or a lawyer."

He brushes her bangs back and suppresses a cynical smile at that. She still believed in the system then. Still thought that the old rules were in effect, that all the protections and guarantees of American citizenship still applied to her.

"What happened next?"

"Nothing really. They left me alone, brought me some food. Awful oatmeal or something, porridge like a witch would serve you to fatten you up." Erik doesn't remember it being that bad, but then he's had to eat worse. He idly wonders how many calories they're being allocated.

Jean goes quiet for a minute and takes his hand, squeezing closer to him. There are bruises circling her thin wrists and her lower arms, marks made by a pair of adult-sized handcuffs bouncing around on too-small wrists.

"I guess I was there for three days and two nights?" Jean says, continuing her story. "I slept twice anyway. And then I woke up when they brought in Ororo. She would calm down for an hour or two, then throw another tantrum. Finally they came and said they were moving us, but they wouldn't tell me where."

"How far did you walk? Did you see any other prisoners?"

"No, not far. We were in the same building, but a different cell block I guess? They took a lot of turns, but I think we were going in circles, trying to confuse us. I kept seeing the same wall with a little chunk of concrete taken out, like someone hit it with an axe."

"Smart," Erik says. "Okay, and you couldn't sense anything, could you? The field, the dampener—whatever it is, it didn't waver at all?"

"No, I don't think so. I keep trying to lift one of their guns, but I can't move a thing and if I try too hard I get a headache. I've been calling for Charles too, in case he's nearby, but it's like I'm shouting into a pillow. It's all muffled, even in my own head."

"Yes, it's been about the same for me too." He reaches out experimentally toward the metal bars of their cell, but still feels nothing, dropping his hand without really trying. There's no point.

Jean shifts around, trying to get comfortable on the thin mat. The three of them barely fit all together, and there's only the one blanket, which isn't much protection against the cold. She falls silent and Erik drifts in his own thoughts, running over scenarios and wondering if they can use a similar tactic to get to the others. Maybe if Ororo keeps crying? He could claim that he can't control her, that she needs Charles.

But he's nervous now in a way that he wasn't before. When he was on his own he could take chances, risk his own neck. Now all they have to do to shut him down is threaten the girls. He should probably play it safe and be compliant. With a small shock he realizes that this is what it must have been like for his parents in the camps. As a child it was a terrible coming-of-age; realizing that his parents couldn't protect him, that they were as helpless as he was. Maybe more so. Now, as an adult, he's the parent, responsible for two tiny lives that he can't protect, helpless again in a whole new way.

Jean stirs and Erik glances down. He thought she was falling asleep. She has a questioning look on her face now and maybe she's picked up on the direction of his thoughts because she whispers, "Do you think they'll kill us?"

He breathes in. "I don't know, Jeannie, I don't know what they'll do."

She sits up, pulling away. "Yes you do," she says, jaw set, eyes darting to look at his left forearm. He's been keeping his sleeves rolled up, making sure his number is visible.

He sighs again and rubs at his jaw, scratching over his stubble, trying to decide how honest he should be. Clearly she's old enough to understand what's happening to them and connect the dots herself, but it won't help anything to have her scared witless.

"No," he says finally. "No, that's not what's happening here. This is a prison, it isn't a—It's not temporary. They built this place to house people long-term, to keep them alive. I'm not sure if they built it for mutants or if they retrofitted a human prison—not that it matters…" He pauses before deciding to continue. "They could have killed us already if that was all they wanted, but they want something more from us. That's why we're alive, and that's why they haven't hurt us yet."

"What?" she asks, sinking back and leaning against him again. "What do they want?"

He shrugs. "The Nazis wanted slave labor," and medical specimens, test subjects, he thinks, mind spasming over memories of Schmidt and his childhood before he pushes them away. "I imagine they want something similar."

Jean nods, looking down and drawing her legs underneath her. He runs the back of one hand over her cheek, thumb brushing over freckles and a bruise he finds above her ear, half-hidden in her hairline.

"Okay," she says. "So maybe, when they try to get it, whatever they want, we can demand to see the others." She looks hopeful, looking up for his approval.

"Maybe," he says, patting her shoulder. "But don't think about that now, come on, lie down. You need sleep."

He slides his arm under Ororo's head and shifts her over, laying her out on her side. She mumbles something and turns her head but doesn't wake up, falling quiet again. Jean lies down next to her and Erik drapes the blanket over them both, moving to sit on the edge of the mattress by their heads.

"You'll stay awake?" Jean asks, eyes open.

"Yes, I'll keep watch, you go to sleep."

"Okay," she says, closing her eyes. She tosses and turns for a bit, but settles down eventually, leaving Erik alone with his memories.

***

Erik's walking, looking down at his bare feet as he crunches through the snow. He's not sure how many days its been. It feels like weeks or maybe months, staring down at his feet as he moves along, too tired to look up and see where they are. There's something odd about the snow here though; it's too stiff, thick and oddly shaped. He assumes it's ice at first, that the top layer of snow has frozen over, but when he reaches down to touch he realizes that it's not snow at all. It's bones. Yes, of course, that's why his feet aren't cold. He can see it now, a thick layer of phalanges and ribs and vertebrae scattered evenly across the ground. He reaches down and picks up a skull, still walking, inspecting it. It's only the top half, the tendons having long since rotted away and taken the lower jaw with them. He flips it over and goes to pull out one of the teeth, finding one with a large gold filling, but he can't seem to get it loose and as he's pulling, fingers slipping on the smooth bone, he wakes up.

Erik starts, confused for a moment by the white of the walls, thinking it must be snow or bones, not sure which. Then he remembers. He's been doing that a lot here, waking from one nightmare into another.

But this time he's not alone. He turns his head and, yes, Jean and Ororo are still there, curled up on the sleeping mat together. He fell asleep sitting up, his head leaning against the wall, and now his neck twinges painfully as he moves his head. He gets up and stretches, trying to get the tense muscles in his shoulders to relax.

When he looks back at the girls he sees that Ororo's eyes are open. She smiles at him and sits up, nearly shouting as she says, "Morning!"

Jean groans, mumbling "shud up" as she rolls over.

Erik puts his finger to his mouth and Ororo mimes zipping her lips shut, locking them, and throwing away the key. He wonders if it actually is morning. Maybe, it felt like he slept for a long time for once.

Yesterday he convinced a guard to let him keep a cup with some water in it, and he dips his sleeve in it now, using it to clean off Ororo's face and hands. She makes a face and whispers "my teeth taste gross," but there's no toothbrush so all he can do is give her the rest of the water to swish with. Her hair has gotten pretty tangled and matted after her battles with the guards, so he makes her sit while he tries to comb it out with his fingers. Ororo only has the patience for about ten minutes of this, but by then Jean is sitting up so she doesn't have to stay quiet anymore.

Jean stands, scratching her head and looking around. She's hesitating like she needs something so Erik asks, "What's wrong?"

"Um, I have to go to the bathroom." She looks at the open toilet with all the shame a 12-year-old girl can muster, which is really quite a lot.

"Oh," Erik says. "Well, go for it." He makes an exaggerate gesture toward the toilet, voilà, your carriage awaits, but that just seems to mortify Jean more.

There's an embarrassing silence while Jean sits and he and Ororo politely stare at the wall. Finally, Ororo covers her ears, waving for Erik to do the same, and starts chanting loudly, "La la la we can't hear you la LA la la la so would please pee already? la la LA LA LAAAAA." That does the trick.

Over the past three days Erik has developed a routine which involves sitting in the corner and worrying until he feels nauseous, then getting up and pacing around until a guard arrives with food. Next he unsuccessfully attempts to either cajole or intimidate the guard into giving him information about the others. Then he eats and starts over again from the beginning. This isn't a suitable routine for children and he finds himself searching for ways to keep Ororo and Jean entertained and distracted.

Thankfully, Ororo, ever resilient, is pretty good at entertaining herself. She soon has the blanket wrapped around her shoulders and announces that it's a cape glider like Banshee's, and she'll be able to take off if she gets enough speed. She runs in circles like mad until she exhausts herself and Jean tackles her to the ground and tickles her feet. They roll across the floor squealing, seemingly oblivious to where they are for the moment.

Erik remembers this, little moments of normalcy in between the constant uncertainty and foreboding, his mother trying to smile and making him a doll out of a rag and some straw hair. He remembers that once he made a little straw noose and hung the doll from the bed frame, a child's unintentional black humor, and she slapped him and started crying for no reason.

The other thing Ororo reminds him of is Anya. It made him love her, immediately, unreservedly from the moment Charles found her drifting through the foster care system in New York. But—sometimes—it also makes it very hard for him to be around her. Here, in this place, it's almost unbearable to watch her clamoring around their cell, tapping the walls for hidden passageways and playing music on the bars with the palms of her hands. It makes him want to retreat, to disengage and ignore her, but he knows he can't. They need him too much and Jean is too scared to handle Ororo alone, her mood swinging wildly between indulgence and anger at her antics.

"I'm bored," Ororo announces, coming over to him when she's tired of playing drums on the walls. Erik pushes away the image of auburn locks and brown eyes, trying to see the little girl in front of him.

"What's 5 x 3?" he asks.

Ororo sighs. "I dunno."

"Yes, you do."

"15," Jean says, making it a competition, which immediately gets Ororo engaged.

"Ask me another," she says.

"What's 5 x 4?"

"Easy, 20!" she says, shouting it before Jean can upstage her.

"4 x 3?"

"12!"

"How about 6 x 6?" someone asks, voice coming from the corridor. Erik snaps his head around. It's Captain Delta, standing at the bars and smiling at Ororo indulgently.

"36?" she says, looking at Erik like she's not sure if she's allowed to talk to him. He'd really prefer that she didn't.

"That's right," Delta says, still smiling at her. "You're pretty smart, aren't you?"

He'd also prefer if the fucking Totenkopfverband wouldn't try to charm his children.

"Ororo," Erik says. He waits for her to look and then points to Jean, who's moved to the back of the cell directly behind Erik. Ororo goes over to her.

Something's wrong. Delta doesn't have any food with him and when Erik goes up to the bars he sees that there are four other guards accompanying him, stationed down the corridor.

"What is it?" Erik asks.

"Back up," Delta says.

Erik waits, watching him. "Why?"

"Because we're coming in, now back up." He's getting snappier, slapping the back of his hand against the bars in annoyance.

Erik pushes his luck. "Why?"

"We're moving you."

Erik leans back a little, looking down and scratching the back of his neck with false casualness, "I see." He waits a beat and then looks up again, meeting Delta's stare. "If you try to separate us, I'll fight you."

Delta snorts. "Well, it's a good thing I'm not going to then, so you won't have to. You're all going together. Now, back. Up."

Erik does. They put cuffs on him and Jean, but let him keep his hands in front so he can carry Ororo. She's too big to be carried around like this anymore and Erik's arms are soon aching, but he knows they need a buffer between Ororo and the guards. If she gets upset she might try to bite one of them again and then they'll be in trouble.

The guards are noticeably less harsh now that the girls are with him, and Erik suspects that they're all a bit disturbed about keeping children in high-security lockup. God knows Erik refuses to make it any easier for them, taking every opportunity he can find to poke at their consciences, if they still have them, buried down deep under their military training.

He can't help hoping that they're moving them to join the others. Delta did imply yesterday that they might, eventually. But he knows it's better not to hope, better to expect the worse, and as they march them outside into an empty asphalt courtyard he sees that he was right.

The sun is blindingly bright, shinning down on them low over the walls of the prison. Late-afternoon then. Or mid-morning. There's a white line drawn down the middle of the yard, like for some kind of athletic field. But the field isn't clear like it should be for sports, there are mounds of stone here and there, big boulders scattered around. Hard labor maybe? But he doesn’t see any tools for crushing the stones. The guards fan out, forming a parameter, and Delta leads him and Jean to the center of the yard, stopping them about 10 meters from the white line.

A man steps out from the shadows on the other side of the courtyard and strolls up to them at a leisurely pace. As he gets closer Erik sees that it's the commanding officer again.

"Good morning," the officer says, pleasant, coming to a stop on the opposite side of the white line. Morning then. Erik notes the direction of the sun, mentally marking it east. The officer is looking at Erik so he shrugs in response, keeping his face blank.

"Hello," Ororo says, startling Erik. She says it with a sniff, like she's bored and wishes the officer would hurry it up and let them go back to their cell. Erik pinches her leg, willing her to stay quiet, as if silence will keep her invisible. She makes an indignant grunt and shifts in his arms.

The officer apparently finds this funny, smiling and giving Erik a conspiring look. Kids, eh? it asks. Erik makes no response, but the officer nods to himself, looking around the yard. He makes a show of rubbing his hands together, like it's been a nice chat but now it's time to get to work. "Well," he says, "I won't keep you in suspense."

Erik doesn’t answer, still waiting, but Jean starts shuffling back, moving closer to his side, looking for the illusion of safety. The officer motions to Delta and he turns on them.

"Kneel," Delta says.

Erik does, lowering himself down carefully, relieved to be able to set Ororo on the ground. Jean begins to kneel too, but Delta stops her with a hand on her elbow. That makes Erik start, his heart racing as Delta pulls her away from him, leading her over to the officer. He wants to make a grab for her but holds still, pulling Ororo in tight in the circle of his arms instead.

Delta takes Jean across the yard, crossing the white line to stand her next to the officer on the other side. He leaves her there, walking back and returning to where Erik is kneeling. He pulls out his handgun and points it at Erik, staring straight down the barrel. His eyes are blank. He's been preparing for this.

Erik stares back at Delta for a moment and then tears his eyes away, looking back in time to see the officer turning to Jean. "Now, Jean. Do you see that rock? The large one there?" He points to a big boulder, the largest in the yard, it must weigh nearly a quarter ton. "I want you to move it."

***

"I want you to move it."

Erik seizes up and all he can do is think no.

No not this no no no not this not again please God please no—

Jean sees Erik's panic and starts to panic too, her eyes searching the yard, darting from Erik to the stone to Delta to the gun in his hand, finding no comfort anywhere, no escape. "But I can't!" she says, voice high and cracking. "This place—I can't use my powers here."

"Ah, but you can," the officer says, smiling, and not unkindly. "Don't you feel it?"

Jean looks confused but stops for a moment, her eyes widening in surprise and she looks at Erik, balanced on the edge of terror and possibility, not sure what she should do. Erik reaches out with his own power, trying for the gun, for the buckles on the guards' belts, for the shinny buttons on the officer's coat, but there's nothing. The line. It must be the line. Whatever is holding back their powers stops there. Jean is still looking at him and he realizes that she's looking for instructions, asking him what to do.

Call for Charles, Erik thinks, not knowing if she can hear him. Then kill him, kill him, Jean, crush his throat, tear out his jugular, distract them, give me time to get across that line—but even as he thinks it he knows it's futile, that Delta is ready with the gun, ready to shoot him if the slightest thing goes wrong, and then it will be Jean and Ororo alone against five guards and however many reinforcements are waiting inside, watching.

Jean doesn't seem to have heard his frantic instructions, still staring at him, searching his face as his mind spins. The officer clears his throat, interrupting. "Now, Jean? Look at me, yes. You're going to move that rock now. Or I'm going to have the Captain shoot Mr. Lehnsherr in the head."

Delta cocks his gun and Jean steps backward like she's been struck. "But I can't, I can't, it's too big, let me— one of the smaller ones—"

"No," the officer says. "That one. I would suggest starting now."

Delta steps closer to Erik, coming into point-blank range, and Erik pushes Ororo down further underneath him, like his body is any protection, like a bullet this close won't blow right through his skin and bone and out into her.

He knows he has to pull it together and be here for Jean but he can't. His whole body is shaking, hands white knuckled on Ororo's wrists. He must be hurting her but she doesn't make a sound.

"I can't," Jean says again, hand on her mouth, backing away from the officer, from Delta, from Erik, like she wants to escape all of them. "I can't do it, I can't."

"Jean," Erik manages, her name coming out in a harsh whisper. She shakes her head at him and keeps moving away and she's going to run into the guards' perimeter soon if she keeps backing up. "Jean," he barks, finally stopping her.

She looks at him, eyes begging him to stop this, to make it end, but he can't. "Jean—Jean, you can do this."

"No, no I can't!"

"Yes, you can," he says, cutting her off, his mother's voice ringing in his ears, sharpening his accent. Alles ist gut, alles ist gut— "You must do this."

That seems to catch her and she takes a breath. She nods, her jaw set, looking at him with watery eyes before turning to face the stone.

Minutes tick by, Delta holding the gun steady while Jean stares at the boulder and the officer watches, waiting easily like he's in no mood to rush her. Her breath starts coming in gasps and she raises one hand, holding it out with shaking fingers. The dust stirs, like a small whirlwind blowing by, but the stone stays where it is.

Jean drops her hand. "I can't do it, please, I tried but I can't—"

"Not good enough," the officer says. "Try again."

Erik groans and bows his head, pulling at his hair with his chained hands. Why isn't Charles here? Why isn't he doing this instead? Why does it have to be him?

Delta is stepping up to him, pressing the muzzle of the gun to the back of his neck, and how could Erik have laughed at this once? Seen a gun to his head as a game, a challenge? What is he going to do?

There's something he has to say, looking up, mouth opening and closing repeatedly before he finally finds it. "Jean, whatever happens—this isn't your fault." Jean whimpers and looks again at the stone, her hands stretched out uselessly at its unmoving mass.

The officer tilts his head, watching. He seems disappointed, frustrated, like he's already decided that this isn't going to work. He turns towards Delta, mouth opening to issue another order, but Erik shouts before he can speak: "Jean, look at me! "

Jean turns, her whole body vibrating with tension.

He's never wished harder that he was a telepath. But he can't reach out to her mind and touch her memories, finding just the right one to pull forward and give her the strength. He has to do it like this, in the here and now, where she's trembling and sweating and already exhausted from struggling to lift the boulder in vain.

"Look at me, don't look at the stone," he repeats. "You can do this, I know you can do this. Charles told me you were the most powerful telekinetic he'd ever felt, the most powerful mutant he'd ever found. You can do this."

She shakes her head in mute denial, but he keeps going. He has to hope, pray, that her power is similar enough to his, that the same tricks he uses might work for her too.

"Reach out now, find the stone, feel it's edges—" her eyes dart away and he pounds the ground to keep her attention. "No, keep looking at me! Use your mind, you don't need your eyes. Can you feel it? Don't try to lift it, just feel the shape of it. Okay? Okay, now keep thinking about that shape, feel the edges of it—" he pauses, he can hear her gasps even from this far away and he breathes with her, willing her to calm, to slow down. She keeps looking at him, eyes brimming over with tears and trust. She wants to believe him. She wants to believe that she can do this.

"Imagine it getting smaller, shrink it down and feel your power stretching around it, growing bigger. It is so small, smaller and smaller every moment, and Jean, you are so strong, all you have to do is push, like flexing your arm and lifting up a pebble in the palm of your hand, and it is so small, so light—"

The officer laughs, a triumphant sound, and Erik looks away from Jean's eyes to see the rock floating nearly a foot in the air, rotating and listing slightly to the right. As soon as he looks away it's like Jean's strings are clipped, and she drops, the rock falling at the same time, landing with a loud thud as she passes out on the ground.

Erik jumps up, rushing to catch her even as he realizes that it's too late. But Delta is still there, forgotten in the intensity of the moment, and he's bringing the butt of the gun down hard across the back of Erik's skull, knocking him down so he lands half on top of Ororo and she cries out. He curls around her, covering her with his arms, landing with his head not half a meter from the white line.

The officer is pleased, coming to stand over them, his face lit with delight. "Amazing," he says. "Excellent work. You're a great teacher, Mr. Lehnsherr."

Erik stares up at him, tasting dirt and copper in his mouth. He must have bit his lip. He spits, trying to get rid of the taste. "You remind me of someone I knew once."

"Oh?" asks the officer, one corner of his mouth lifting like he already gets the joke.

"A doctor. At Auschwitz."

The officer laughs and nods. "Fair enough. Enjoy your rest, Mr. Lehnsherr, you've earned it. Both of you." He looks toward Jean, lying face down on the ground, and walks away from them. Strolling out with the same leisurely gait he used to walk in.

***

Delta puts the pieces back together, moving Erik farther away from the line and having his men pick up Jean's limp body, carrying it over and laying her out on the ground next to him, where Erik can see that she's still breathing.

"Okay, time to go back now," Delta says, eyeing Erik. "Back to your cell. I think that's enough exercise for one day."

Erik raises an eyebrow at the euphemism, getting back some of his detachment, but then the guards that moved Jean go to pick her up again, one at her shoulders and the other at her legs, and he says, "No, let me—"

"You can't carry both of them," Delta points out.

Erik falters, remembering Ororo. He's been holding her like a sack of potatoes, barely registering that she's a living body, a tiny child who needs him. He looks down at her and combs her hair back from her face. Her mouth is twisted up like she's in pain or tasting something sour, but her eyes are still bright with anger, so she's doing okay. He puts her arms around his neck and scoops her up, standing again on weak legs.

The guards carrying Jean take the lead and they go back inside the white concrete walls of the prison. They take a different route than earlier, seeming to take turns at random and Jean was right—they're going in circles, trying to disorient them. He tries to hold onto east, to the direction of the sun, but he's not sure he still has it.

Would he have done it? he wonders. Turning it over and over again in his head like a coin as they walk. Would the officer have Delta shoot him? Was he really a Schmidt, ready to make good on his threats? Or was this just a pale parody, a little motivation, an order the officer could threaten only because he knew he'd never actually have it carried out. Erik can't tell. He sensed sadism there, a willingness to go as far as it takes, but he's not sure he's reading the officer right, his own memories coloring the incident, over-saturated and bright, staining overtop and bleaching out the details.

They finally reach their cell and Erik stumbles inside with something like relief, leaning against the cold concrete wall as he sets Ororo down. Concrete—God, there must be so much steel in this prison, so much rebar, sitting there just out of reach and he can't even touch it. He lets himself go with a vicious daydream for a moment, imagining shaking loose those steel bars, tearing them out of the walls and sharpening them into spears, impaling the officer and Delta and the blond guard one by one, through their necks and down their throats, choking them on cold steel and concrete dust.

***

About three months ago, Erik decided that part of the school curriculum was going to be a highly personal unit that he was mentally calling the "Never Again" module. As part of it, he split the kids into small groups and sat each of them down for an age-appropriate version of his story. As the youngest ones, Ororo and Jean got the most edited version, which started, "When I was a child, I lived in a country where very bad men were in charge…" He grew more detailed as they got older, moving on to Scott on his own, and then Sean and Alex, and finally ending with Charles and Raven, who got the complete, unabridged Inferno. Well, or very nearly complete. There were still a few things he passed over, things he couldn't bring himself to relive even now.

It was a rough week. Never in his adult life had he sat down and explained, start to finish, this is what happened to me. There was a lot of crying and awkward moments where he sat waiting while someone blubbered and said things like "how could anyone do something like that" or "you were how old? " Even Charles—who knew all of this already, knew it viscerally, lived some of it out with Erik in his head—even he was disturbed. There was something strangely more intimate about saying it all out loud rather than having Charles riffling through his memories, sorting them left and right into piles, there a happy memory from before; here a moment of terror and pain from after; there his mother baking cookies, pinching the corners of the dough together; and here his first trip to Warsaw with his family, amazed by all the rushing people; and there the last time he saw his grandmother, holding her wrinkled hand as she cried; and here his mother falling as she's shot on Schmidt's orders; and there Schmidt standing over him murmuring gut, gut while he's strapped down to a table; and here a Red Cross nurse inspects his bloody, frostbitten feet in a DP camp; and there a former SS guard screams as Erik plunges a knife into his palm…

Charles kept grabbing his shoulders, like he was trying to steady Erik when really he needed something to hold onto himself. Afterward he said, "Sometimes… my friend, I don't understand how you're still alive, I don't understand how you can keep living. Those first days after, how could you even keep moving, keep going day-to-day?"

At the time he was confused by the question. What other choice did he have? How could he do anything but keep living, keep moving, each step taking him further away from the camps, like he was still on a long march, one that would probably never end because he could never get far enough away.

Now though, now he's starting to understand what Charles meant because he's not sure he can do this again. He wasn't lying to Jean earlier, even after today, he knows this isn't a death camp, just a sterile parody. But even the small things… he keeps having these moments—when they first brought him the white prisoners' uniform and he realized he was expected to wear it—

It's like all his progress was a lie. He's walked a million miles and circled right back around the globe to where he started and he will never get away. He thought he paid back all of his boyhood pain, spilled it out in blood on the ground, so many men he killed, so many murderers, rapists, torturers—but here he is, with those same men and he's a child again, helpless in their grasp.

***

Erik sits next to Jean on the floor, waiting for her to wake up. He tried shaking her at first, but she's out cold. He keeps checking her pulse, reassured by the steady beating of her heart.

Delta comes back while he's still waiting, carrying a plastic pitcher and some glasses. "Water. For her," he says, slipping it through the hatch in the bars.

Erik stares at the pitcher. As far as apologies go, it's pretty weak. He can think of a few things Delta could do instead, like unlocking the door. Still, it deserves some acknowledgement. "Thank you, Blockführer. "

Delta is already turning to go, but that stops him. "What did you call me?"

"It's a rank, block leader." Erik turns to look at him. "It's what you'd be in the SS."

"This isn't a concentration camp," Delta says, calm, like he's been rehearsing it. Erik looks at the gun on his hip, the guards behind him in the corridor, the bars between them.

He smiles with a lot of teeth. "I think I'd know that better than you."

***

Jeans wakes up a short time later as Erik dabs water on her forehead with the edge of his sleeve. She starts awake as if she's having a nightmare and screams his name, trying to get up. He hugs her, holding her in place while she thrashes, still back in the courtyard, fighting to get to him. "No, no, you did it, I'm here, it's okay. You did it, Jean, you saved me."

***

Ororo is very good at first, sitting quietly and letting Erik focus on Jean. But she reaches her breaking point not long after Jean wakes up, tugging on Erik's shirt and asking with a whine, "Can we go now? I want to go home."

He sighs. "No, Ororo, we can't go until they let us go."

"But why won't they let us go?" she asks, on the verge of tears and angry.

"I don't know, honey," Erik lies. "But you have to be patient."

Her faces twists up in response and she sinks down to the floor and starts to cry, high and plaintive. "But I want to go home. "

"I know, I know." He lies down next to her on the floor, putting his face close to hers. "I do too."

He waits, rubbing her back as she cries, feeling her sobs shake through her body. It seems to last a long time, and soon she's not crying because she wants attention anymore, but because she can't stop.

Eventually her tears slow, not having the energy to keep going.

"I know it's hard, and I—I'd do anything to get you out of here." Erik has to stop for a moment, looking away until he can continue. "But I need you to be patient, and I need you to be good, to do everything I tell you to. It might be very important. Can you do that for me, Ororo?"

She nods, pulling closer to him, resting her head against his shoulder. "I'll try."

***

Ororo manages to stay quiet and frightened for nearly half a day before she gets restless and starts wandering around their cell, looking for something to do.

"Do you think they have a library here?" she asks.

"I don't think so," Erik says.

"I wish we had some books."

"Me too. Um… do you want me to tell you a story?"

"Yes!" She comes over and sits cross-legged in front of him, looking up eagerly. Erik pauses. He tries to think of a story from his life that doesn't involve either being held in a concentration camp or killing Nazis. Well, maybe something about after, when they were hiding in the mountains? No, that would require explaining about Magda and Anya, and he doesn't have the emotional energy for that right now. Crap, come on, he reads doesn't he? There must be something he can use, some story he can retell for her, preferably something calming and simple. The only thing he can think of is the last book he read for the older teens' English class, Machiavelli's The Prince. He's pretty sure Charles picked it out to mock him. Come on, come on, think of something, he used to know how to do this…

Jean stirs from where she's sitting against his side and prompts, "Once upon a time," looking at him like he's stupid. It's so normal, Erik feels like he could cry. She's been nearly catatonic ever since she woke up, sticking tight to his side but unresponsive, staring at nothing, eyes and face blank. He was afraid she was broken, that she'd never be a carefree child again. He knows she never will be, not really, but at least she's still strong enough to fake it for Ororo.

"Yes, right, once upon a time," Erik repeats. "Yes, there was a—a girl, a girl with, um…"

"White hair!" Ororo contributes.

"Yes, exactly, white hair. A beautiful girl with hair as white as snow, and skin as dark as night." Erik finds himself falling into a rhythm, the old patterns of fairy tales and fables coming back to him surprisingly quickly. "And when she was happy the sun shown and the birds sang and everyone else was happy. But when she was sad it rained and the river rose and everyone was sad with her."

Ororo nods along, pleased with the direction of the story so far. "Then what happened?"

"Well… the problem was that she was sad, very sad, all of the time, and because she was sad it rained and rained and just wouldn't stop raining. And it hailed, and the wind blew, and it snowed too—it snowed a lot. "

"Because she was being held prisoner," Jean puts in, "in a tower— by an evil wizard."

Erik frowns, he was hoping to keep this story more symbolic and less on the nose, but then again, maybe it will be therapeutic to imagine themselves a happy ending.

"Yes, that's right," he agrees. "An evil wizard put her in a very tall tower and she couldn't get down, so it kept raining and raining. So the people nearby came to the bottom of the tower and they asked her to stop because their houses were flooding and their crops were drowning and everyone was tired of being cold and wet. But the girl couldn't stop crying and she couldn't get down from the tower and the people couldn't get her down either. But then they had an idea… you see, they knew about another girl who lived nearby who could help."

Erik brings his hand up as he continues, brushing his fingers through Jean's hair. "This girl had hair as red as roses and she could move things with her mind. Everyone knew her because she was famous for being stronger than the strongest man, and people were always coming to her for help lifting heavy things. So they sent for her and she came to help, but by that time it had rained so much that the whole valley was flooded, and Rose Red had to take a boat to the tower."

"When she arrived the wind was blowing horribly and it was raining so hard she could barely see, but she rowed her boat right up to the bottom of the tower and she called out, 'Snow White, Snow White, are you there?'" Ororo sits up at that, leaning forward like she's looking out the window, searching for the person calling her name.

"Snow White heard her and came to the window and climbed out onto the ledge. And then Rose Red closed her eyes and she lifted Snow White right up into the air. Show White was afraid at first, but Rose Red lowered her down very gently and set her down right in the boat next to her."

"Snow White was so happy to be free that the clouds cleared and the sun came out and all the rain dried up. And the people were happy too and they came out to celebrate and held a big feast. Snow White and Rose Red became fast friends and they stayed together ever after, living in the village. And Rose Red built them a beautiful house and it only ever rained when Snow White wanted it to. The end."

"You forgot about the wizard," Jean points out.

"Oh, him, um, well… I guess he ran away—"

"But Snow White and Rose Red went after him!" Ororo says, certain.

"Yeah," Jean agrees. "They found him and Rose Red held him in place and Snow White struck him with lightning."

Erik clears his throat. "Yes, of course, you're right. And… and he never hurt them again. And they lived happily ever after."

The phrase feels worn in his mouth, trite and insincere, but Ororo doesn't seem to notice, nodding like she's satisfied by the conclusion and getting up. Jean senses it too though, her mouth turning like she's on the verge of tears. Erik hugs her tightly, wishing he could tell her never again, I'll never let him hurt you again. Wishing he could lie to her and she'd still be able to believe it.

***

Delta stays away for a few days, and they only see the other guards at mealtimes. They mostly leave them alone, except for one interlude when the blond guard hovers at the bars after he collects their empty tray. He's been around a lot and seems to be nominally in charge, second-in-command after Delta maybe. He hesitates for a moment while Erik eyes him. He's brought four guards with him instead of the usual pair, and it's making him nervous.

"Uh, don't freak out about this, but if you want we can take you to get cleaned up. There's a shower down the hall."

"Why would I—" oh. Erik decides to ignore this. "That would be great, is it nearby?"

The guard leans back—Erik can't remember his Greek letter, Kappa?—and points down the hallway. "The steel door right there. There are clean clothes inside already."

Erik checks with the girls. Jean is sniffing her armpit, making a face. She nods at him and Ororo is already up, bouncing on her feet and looking eager.

"Okay," Erik agrees, backing up so they can open the cell door.

They don't even bother to cuff him, escorting them a short way down the corridor to the door that Kappa indicated. Sure enough, there's a small locker room inside, with urinals and sinks on one end and a row of lockers on the other. The guards stay outside with surprising courtesy, giving them some privacy and free reign of the locker room.

Jean turns bright red when she sees the communal shower, so Erik stays on the other side of the partition, waiting while she and Ororo wash.

"Don't forget to clean behind your ears," he tells them, shouting over the rush of water. Adding, "and between your toes, they stink!," mainly to hear Ororo giggle.

He opens each of the lockers while they're showering, searching for anything useful. The doors and hinges are all strong and tightly bolted in place. If his powers weren't cut off he could rip them right off the walls and tear open the plumbing, probably slit the whole building in half in the process. But he doesn't have his powers, so instead he inspects the hooks and the taps on the faucets, unsuccessfully trying to pull one loose. He stops when Jean and Ororo come out, wrapped in towels with flushed faces, happy to finally be clean again. He starts getting undressed, mindful of the short time limit Kappa gave them, grabbing a towel for himself as he goes into the showers.

"If any of them try to come in here, you shout, okay?" he tells Jean and she nods, not looking up from the towel she's using to pat dry Ororo's hair.

There are soap dispensers inside, some kind of industrial cleanser that Erik has to use on both his hair and his body. He doesn't mind, it's a huge relief to wash off all the accumulated sweat and grime, rinsing it away along with the dried blood and dirt and God-knows-what.

When he comes back out the girls are already dressed and Jean is searching around the room the same way he did earlier, tugging on one of the drains in the floor to see if she can yank the grate loose. Erik pulls on a clean pair of pants from the pile on the bench, relieved at the feel of clean cotton on his skin, and comes over. He kneels down to help but the grill is firmly bolted down, the screws refusing to loosen.

There's a knock and a male voice shouts, "two minutes!"

"All right," Erik answers, shaking his head and getting up. He goes to help Ororo roll up her sleeves and cuff her pants. They've found a slightly smaller uniform for her this time, but it's still absurdly big on her tiny frame.

"Will you braid my hair?" Jean asks, looking in the mirror now and running her fingers through it.

"When we get back," Erik promises. He surprised Raven a few months earlier by revealing that he knew how to French braid and was assigned to morning hair duty ever since, usually fixing the girls' hair at the breakfast table while the boys rushed around cooking and Charles blinked sleepily over his coffee. Ororo started demanding increasingly complicated styles when she figured out that he could do Dutch braids and fishtails as well, the patterns coming back to him easily despite the years since he last needed them.

The guard knocks a final warning and Erik pulls on a shirt, leading the girls back out.

***

Delta shows up again eventually, standing at the bars like he wants to talk to Erik and scaring the shit out of Jean, who freezes up as soon as she sees him.

"What is it?" Erik asks, going to stand so he's in front of Jean, blocking Delta's view of her. God, why can't he just leave them alone? It would almost be bearable then.

Delta licks his lips. "I have to move you."

"No," Erik says.

Delta looks away, jaw twitching. "It's not like the other day, Alpha's not involved."

"Alpha?"

"The commander," Delta explains. "He's the one that…" he looks around Erik at Jean, who has her head turned to the wall now, her face hidden in the corner.

Oh right, Alpha. Erik forgot how he 'introduced' himself that first time.

"This is different," Delta explains. "It's a new cell, a better one, one that was designed for more people."

"Oh, a better cell, wow. We're moving up in the world."

"There are beds," Delta explains.

Erik sighs. Beds would be good. He goes over to Jean, kneeling down next to her. "Jeannie?" he asks.

She shakes her head, refusing to look at him. She's breathing fast and it comes out like a spasm, chin jerking left and right. Erik rubs his face and looks back at Delta, not sure what to do.

"It's not like the other day," Delta says. "I promise, I'm not lying to you."

Erik doesn't believe him on principle, but he tries with Jean again. He touches her shoulder and she jerks out from under his hand, shaking her head and cringing away.

Erik backs away from her. "No," he says to Delta.

"But, beds—"

"Bring them here if you're so concerned about our sleep."

Delta does, or, at least, he brings them some more sleeping mats and blankets, even a few pillows, miracle of miracles. He passes them through the food hatch, not trying to open the door, much to Erik's relief. Jean cowers in the corner the entire time.

Delta stays for a moment after he's done, watching as Ororo attempts to build a fort by standing the mattresses up on their ends. It doesn't work very well; they're too thin to stay upright for long, quickly flopping over on top of her.

Erik is watching Delta from his vantage-point against the wall by the door, leaning close enough to see his self-satisfied expression. He can't let that go, so he says, "This the best you can do?"

"You're welcome," Delta says dryly.

Now they're verging on banter, and Erik really can't let that go. "I can think of a few other things we need."

"What?"

Erik shrugs, "Freedom, legal rights, habeas corpus, that kind of thing."

Delta looks away. "Look, we both know I can't do that. I'm not somebody here. I'm not command. I'm just a glorified babysitter and I'm trying to make things bearable for you. A lot of other guys wouldn't. What more do you want from me?"

Erik turns so they're face-to-face, only a few inches of space and the bars between them. "You could say 'no.' You could put down your gun and you could refuse to be a part of this."

"It wouldn't matter," Delta says, shaking his head, sounding almost relieved to share his rational. "They would court-martial me and while some of my men might follow my lead, there would be plenty of others who'd stay, worse men. It wouldn't make any difference."

"No, it would," Erik says, even though he agrees with him. "It would, and that's not the only option. There are so many ways—you could open that door and look the other way, or you could shoot Alpha yourself, or you could go find that goddamned power dampener and shut it off."

Delta turns and leaves without responding and Erik yells after him. "One way or another, you have to make a decision. What kind of man are you?"

***

"Do you think my parents know we're missing yet?" Jean asks.

"I'm sure," Erik says, patting her knee. "They do call every other day normally." He pauses, trying to figure out exactly what day it is. He's lost track, but it must have been over a week since they were taken. He wonders if the police will investigate—assuming they aren't part of it, that is, that they don't already know where they are. Three kids and five adults missing is pretty serious, even if they assume that they're all off on a fieldtrip somewhere. He wonders if their captors have tried to create a cover story, maybe implying that the adults took their mutant charges and ran.

"I don't want them to worry," Jean says, chewing on the pealing skin of her lower lip. "I thought—I thought we'd have escaped by now."

Erik blinks at her and she shrugs. "Do you think we'll get a chance soon? Maybe next time—" her bravado dies suddenly and she looks away, continuing softly. "If they take us outside again…"

He puts his arm around her and squeezes, but he's distant, not paying enough attention. She's made him realize something.

He hasn't been thinking about escape at all.

Ever since they put the girls in with him he's stopped looking for opportunities, stopped planning, stopped even considering the possibility. He memorized the order of the guards' patrol automatically, but hasn't put any thought into how to exploit it, and he's been messing with Delta constantly, but not toward any clear purpose. How did he get back in that mentality again so quickly? And without realizing it? Not thinking about escape at all, knowing that it's nearly impossible, that the world outside is so hostile that there's almost no point, that even if you did manage it, a dozen others who weren't so lucky would be starved in retaliation.

He puts his head in his hands and tries to breathe. He can't think like that, he can't let them do this to him. He has to keep fighting. What use is he to the girls otherwise? It's not enough to survive, they have to escape. But how? There's no chance if they're always in this cell. Their only chance will have to be while they're moving them. But he can't bear to make Jean leave again either, to let the guards touch her and Ororo, to let Alpha test them…

He feels Jean's hand on his shoulder. "Erik? Are you okay?"

"Yes… sorry, sorry," he says, rubbing his face and looking up, trying to breathe through his nose. "It's nothing, I was just feeling overwhelmed for a moment."

Now it's her turn to hug him and try to be reassuring, her face worried. He wonders if her faith in him is broken completely yet, if she's realized that he's helpless here too, unable to protect her, unable to escape, barely able to keep himself together, and certainly unable to save them all.

***

He's not really asleep when Jean starts shouting, just drifting, lying on his side and staring at the wall. They've been napping a lot, not having much energy to move around, lying listlessly for most of the day. But now Jean is up, saying over and over, "Charles! Charles?"

Erik looks out through the bars at first, his hopes rising incredibly high for a moment before being crushed. There's no one there. Jean keeps running around their cell, calling for Charles like she thinks he's hiding in a corner somewhere. Ororo is up now too, rubbing her eyes and peering out from under her blankets like she's annoyed by all the noise.

"What's wrong?" Erik asks, grabbing Jean's arm and stopping her when she comes within range.

"I heard him! Charles, he's here," she explains, turning in place, still looking around wildly.

"Heard him?"

"In my head," Jean says, tapping her temple and rolling her eyes at him. "He's nearby and he's—he's in pain. They're hurting him."

"Were you awake?" he asks, wondering if this was a nightmare.

She glares at him. "No, but—I woke up, and—this was real! I can tell the difference between my own dreams and someone else's thoughts."

He still feels skeptical, but he wants to believe her. Yet Jean's telepathy is a new skill, one that only developed a few months before Charles located her, and it was still mostly untested. Charles used his own power to shut it down, temporarily cutting her off from the full strength of her own abilities. Erik argued with him when he first suggested it, finding the whole idea disturbing and invasive, but then Jean's headaches got worse, turning into full-on migraines that incapacitated her for days. She agreed immediately when Charles proposed the idea, happy to focus on developing her telekinesis for the time being.

It was possible. If Jean was going to sense anyone it would probably be Charles, who practiced mental shielding and meditation with her every day. It could be a sign that the power dampener was breaking down or has a weak spot somewhere that Charles could exploit. Or, more likely, that they're testing him, or maybe one of the other students, and they have them out in that yard with the white line.

"What did you hear exactly?" Erik asks.

"It was like—you know what it's like. When he checks in on you and you get this feeling like there's someone over your shoulder. Only he's in your head. And I think I could feel what he was feeling. He was aching all over and someone was shouting something. It was really fast, only a few seconds and then it was gone."

"Could you tell what they were saying?"

"No, it was sort of distorted, but it sounded like a male voice, probably one of them, not any of us. I didn't recognize it."

"And where did he— where did it hurt?" Erik asks.

Jean pauses, thinking. She twists her arm behind her back and leans forward like someone is holding it there. "My arm and my shoulder, like this. And my side, it really hurt all around here." She runs her hand over her left side and lower rib cage. "Like someone punched or kicked him there. And the back of my knees too, like they kicked his legs out from under him first."

Erik frowns, disturbed that she's starting to learn the violent topography of the body, all the tender places that people can hurt you and their favorite ways of doing it.

"Do you think he could sense you back?"

"I don't know," Jean says, like it hasn't occurred to her until he asked. "It didn't feel like he could. I mean, he wasn't thinking about me or anything. I think he was just broadcasting, maybe he didn't even know he was doing it. Do you think… maybe I can reach him? Or make it easier for him to reach me?"

Erik scratches his chin. His beard is starting to get out of control, growing thick and wiry over his cheeks. "I don't want you to hurt yourself, but you could try."

"Okay," Jean says. She closes her eyes and scrunches up her face. Erik glances back at Ororo, who's sitting up now, blanket draped over her head like a cloak.

They wait in silence while Jean makes faces to herself, raising her fingers to her temple like making Charles' trademark gesture will make it easier to find him.

After a minute she groans and drops her hand, face cringing in pain instead of concentration. "Ugh, it's giving me a headache, like I'm getting mental feedback."

"Well," Erik says. "That's enough then, stop. Maybe it worked the other way around. Maybe he could hear you broadcasting even if you couldn't sense him."

He tries not to dwell on it, tries not to wonder about what might be happening to Charles and the others. For a moment he sees him in the courtyard, kneeling next to the same stone Jean was forced to move, crying as one of his students fails the test and Delta pulls the trigger—No. There's no reason to assume. No.

Jean keeps pacing around. Scrunching up her face and making pained noises.

"Jean, come on," Erik calls. "That's enough."

She sighs and comes over to sit next to him, folding her knees up to her chest and hugging them. "It's so frustrating. For a second he was so close, like he was right here."

"I know. Look, why don't we… let's try something else. All of us." He motions to Ororo and she comes over, still wearing the blanket.

He has them sit cross-legged in a circle, holding hands. He has absolutely no idea what he's doing, but Charles has made him do many stupid meditative exercises under the guise of honing his powers, so he figures he can fake it well enough.

"Okay, so, close your eyes. Now let's all think about Charles. But don't reach out for him yet Jean. Only… keep your mind open to him. Receptive. Okay?"

He opens one eye and sees Jean and Ororo both nod, eyes closed, their faces serious.

He lets them sit in silence for a few minutes and tries to imagine that Charles is there in the room with them, just out of reach. He's watching them, probably finding the whole exercise very amusing at first. But then he'll see how tired Jean and Ororo are, how their hair is limp with sweat, how anxious they both look, wearing their fear around their eyes and their mouths like they're a dozen years older. Erik can see the worried look on Charles' face, how he'll look at Erik with so much compassion, forgetting about his own trials in the face of their pain.

"I remember when I first met Charles," Erik says. "I was drowning and he jumped into the ocean to pull me out…" he tells them about that night, and about how he decided to stay with Charles and Raven and how they searched for the others, gathering them from all over the States. And about their battles against Schmidt—the barest outline anyway, not wanting to give the girls a new boogeyman when they already have so many.

When he stops talking and opens his eyes Ororo is asleep, head pillowed in Jean's lap.

Jean has her eyes open too, her head tilted so she's staring up at the ceiling.

"Anything?" he asks.

"No," Jean says. She sighs and shakes her head, but doesn't change position, still looking up. "You killed him, didn't you?" she asks. "Shaw?"

"That's right."

"Sean told me about it, well—part of it, I think he left some stuff out." She drops her head and looks him in the eye. "Are you going to kill them too?"

"If I get the chance," he tells her. Maybe he shouldn't have. He doubts Charles would have approved, but Jean takes a deep breath and nods, looking reassured.

***

He's walking through the woods again, passing the same trees over and over when Jean touches his shoulder and wakes him, the break between sleeping and waking barely noticeable, like walking from one room into the next.

"Erik," she hisses, sounding scared. She looks over her shoulder and there's a guard in front of their cell, kneeling down and talking to Ororo through the bars.

Erik is up in an instant, going to stand over her.

Ororo looks up at him and says, "She's a reporter," pointing to the guard.

"What?" It takes Erik a moment to remember what that word means. He looks and, yes, the guard is a woman, taking off her helmet now to reveal stylish short hair.

"Trish Tilby, The Daily Globe, " she says, standing and sticking her hand through the bars. It takes Erik a moment to understand what she wants, reaching out belatedly to shake her hand.

"God," Tilby says. "How old are they?"

"Eight and twelve. How the hell did you get in here?"

"A source in the agency contacted me, and I did some digging and eventually some bribery. Not many people know about this place, but many of the ones who do are not comfortable with what's happening here."

"Do you have—keys? Anything?"

She shakes her head, "I'm sorry, no."

Jean is up now too, coming up to the bars and saying, "You've got to tell people we're here! They won't let us see a lawyer or anything."

"I know, I will, that's why I'm here," Tilby explains.

Erik puts a hand on Jean's shoulder, taking over the conversation. "Do you understand who we are?"

"Yes, you're powered, right? But people born with powers, not like the Fantastic Four or the Avengers or whoever. Genetic powers."

"Mutants."

"Right, so tell me—"

Erik cuts her off. "Do you have a camera?"

"Uh," Tilby glances over her shoulder, looking nervous for the first time. "I do, but I don't think I have time to—"

Erik touches the inside of his left elbow, directing her attention down to his bare forearm. Tilby starts, looking shocked for a moment and then her eyes light up with the realization that her story just got a hundred times more symbolic and explosive.

"Christ, hold on," she mutters, sitting down and taking off her boots. They're ridiculously oversized, at least four times too big for her feet, and she reaches inside, pulling out a lens from the toe of one and the body of a tiny 35mm camera from the other. "I'm putting you in the lede, 'illegally held inmates of this secret government program include a holocaust survivor and two girls under the age of twelve.' Quick, what are your names?"

"Erik Lehnsherr, and this is Ororo Munroe and Jean Grey. Ororo doesn't have any family left, but Jean's parents are in New York City."

Tilby doesn't write anything down, but she has him spell each name twice and repeats them, muttering under her breath as she attaches the lens and peers through the viewfinder, messing with the focus.

"Polish?" she asks.

"German, but my family fled to Poland in the '30s. We were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto and then Auschwitz."

"Got it. Uh, okay," she says, standing up and raising the camera. "I'm not really a photographer and there's no flash, so I don't know if this will come out right, but let's make it good. I think sitting there will look best."

Erik goes to where she points at the back of the cell, sitting down on one of their sleeping mats. Ororo goes with him and he puts his right arm around her waist, tucking her into his side. He holds the other one out, showing the inside of his arm, his hand clenched in a fist.

"Jean?" he asks, looking at where she's standing in the corner, making no move to come over to them.

"I look gross," she says, muttering it.

"Get over here now," he snaps, too tense to placate her feelings.

She drops her head but comes over, running her fingers through her hair and sitting on his other side. Jean now looks appropriately sullen, but Ororo is preening, tilting her chin up and looking eager, excited by the attention and Tilby snapping photo after photo like they're movie stars at a premier.

"Don't smile, liebling," he says, giving her a little shake, and she switches to an exaggerated frown, leaning her head on his shoulder and giving the camera a deeply pathetic look. "Much better," he says.

"Okay." Tilby looks over her shoulder and starts to take the camera apart again, stuffing it back into her boots. "He only gave me five minutes so I've got to hope one of those came out."

"Wait, have you seen anyone else here? Any other prisoners?" Erik asks, getting up again.

"Yeah, uh, two young men, Sean Cassidy and Scott Summers," she repeats their names carefully, like she's still trying to memorize them, "And a—a blue girl, Raven Xavier. They were all together in the same wing."

"No one else? What about an older man, my age? Or Scott's brother, Alex? Or a fuzzy blue guy?"

"How many blue people do you have?" she says, blinking at him. "No, none of them, sorry. But the guard who got me in told me there were at least another three in holding, three men he hadn't seen."

"Did he tell you where?"

"No, they keep the guards in the dark, only let them know about the prisoners directly under their control."

She stands, boots back on her feet. "I have to go now."

Erik nods, but she hesitates, still looking at him.

"I'll get you out of here," she says, earnest and confident in her own power. Against his own will, Erik finds himself ready to believe her. She walks backwards for a few steps before finally turning away.

"That woman might have just saved our lives," Erik says, staying at the bars and looking after her.

"Only if the government lets her publish," Jean grumbles, sitting down with her arms crossed, still mad at him.

Before he even knows what he's doing Erik kneels down and grabs her shoulders, shaking her. "Jean, your parents might see that picture, it might be the only proof they have that you're alive. Or were alive. Do you know how many of my relatives just disappeared? Someone saw them one last time, at a round up or in a line at an inspection, and that was it, no evidence of what happened to them or where they were taken or how they died."

Jean's eyes are wide, her face gone white and Erik lets go, realizing he's hurting her. Ororo is behind him, frozen in place, scared and confused by his anger. Shit. He sees his mother again, her hand slapping him and then her face crumbling with instant regret.

***

The daily routine continues as normal. No alarms go off and there's no sign of anything amiss. Erik hopes Tilby got out safely, that she's speeding back to the Globe's office in Manhattan, writing up the story in her head in lurid black and white with screaming block headlines.

After two meals, Delta shows up at their cell again with his usual complement of extra guards. Erik wonders if he was the one who snuck Tilby in, studying his face. He doesn't look any different. Either he doesn't know anything or he does and isn't showing it. Good.

He doesn't play games, which Erik appreciates, saying simply. "Alpha wants to see you."

Erik stares him down, trying to decide what he's going to do. Jean isn't cowering, but she's behind him, standing with her arms tight against her sides like she's trying very hard to contain her fear, eyes fixed on the ground.

"And what if I say no?"

"There's no 'no,'" Delta says, firm. "One way or another, you're going."

Erik presses his lips together and breathes deeply, looking at the girls each in turn. Ororo comes up to take his hand, but Jean starts to back away, shaking her head.

"She doesn't have to come," Delta says, unprompted. "The redhead can stay here if you want."

"Why?" Erik asks, immediately suspicious.

"This time— he wants to know about the little one." He looks at Ororo and Erik's blood freezes, gripping her hand tighter.

"What's the plan then?" he asks. "Shoot me first and see what she does? That would probably be pretty effective."

"No, he just, he wants to talk."

Talk. Right.

Jean is still shaking her head, tears starting to run down her cheeks and Erik doesn't know what to do. Would it be better for her here? Alone?

Wait, no. God, no— he's kept them together this long, he cannot let them be separated now.

"Jean," he says, going up to her and cupping her face in his hands, getting her to look him in the eyes. "Jean, I can't leave you here."

"No," she sobs.

"What if it's a trick?" His voice breaks, and he can feel tears in his own eyes. "What if they're trying to split us up? I can't—I can't let that happen, I can't leave you here."

"So don't go," she gasps.

He groans. If only, if only… He looks again at Delta and he has the door open now, the bars sliding over in their track. He's holding his rifle, has it pointed at them. He sees Erik looking and says, "One way or another, you and the younger one are going. Hard way or easy way?"

Erik swallows. Easy way? For a moment he feels like a stubborn child himself. Why can't there be a real easy way? Why can't they just not go?

"Is she coming or not?" Delta asks, motioning to Jean with his rifle. "If you choose the hard way I'm leaving her here, so keep that in mind."

Jean whimpers and Erik shifts, kneeling to put his arms around her, lifting from her legs and hoisting her up over his shoulder. She starts sobbing, her body heaving in his arms, but she doesn't fight him, letting him carry her out of the cell through the open door.

"Ororo?" he asks, looking back for her. She's right behind him, silently following and she takes hold of the bottom of his shirt.

Erik takes a deep breath. "Fine," he says. "We're ready."

***

Delta takes them through the maze of prison corridors, leading them in circles through the hallways, and Erik tenses every time they pass through a new door, waiting for the one that will lead them outside.

But they never get there. Instead they go through a series of locked gates to a more administrative-looking area of the prison, less sterile, with doors with knobs and windows instead of bars.

Delta leads them through one of these doors and into a rich office, with paneled walls and wood floors, warm bookshelves and leather chairs. Erik doesn't understand where they are at first, disoriented by this room that feels almost familiar and yet so very out of place. Then he sees Alpha.

The commanding officer stands, rising behind his desk as the guards motion Erik up to it, Ororo following close behind.

Offices. What is it with Nazis and offices? Well, he supposes it's part of the fascism; the manifestation of power and authority and so on.

Alpha smiles like they're honored guests and Erik doesn't want to play this game. He doesn't want to sit in Alpha's leather chairs and talk like civilized men and pretend he isn't a prisoner. He wants to refuse, to force Alpha to admit that he's in control of Erik, to make him call Delta over and end this charade. But he can't. He can't do anything because Delta might hurt Ororo or Jean instead of him. So he sits down, setting Jean in the chair next to him, and then lifting Ororo up into his lap.

Love is a terrible thing. Nothing else could do this to him, make him ready to say anything, do anything, anything at all. And Alpha doesn't even have to do a damned thing. He looks at the girls and Erik instantly surrenders. At least torture gives you the illusion of control. You'll do what they want eventually, sure, but they'll have to break you first. Not like this. Erik's never felt more compromised.

Jean's tears have stopped and she seems to be in shock, holding still and staring fixedly downward like Alpha won't be able to see her if she doesn't move. Erik reaches for her, cupping his hand over her shoulder, but there isn't so much as a twitch, like she can't even tell he's there.

Alpha opens a drawer and gets out some lined paper, sliding it across the desk toward Erik, along with some pens. Erik looks down at them blankly. Does he want a written confession?

"For her," Alpha says, motioning toward Ororo in his lap. "For drawing."

Ororo tilts her head back to look up at him and her face asks is he fucking serious? He seems to be, so Erik shrugs at her and moves the paper closer, holding up a pen for her to take. Maybe it will keep her distracted, that would be good. Jean jerks, breaking her frozen stillness and picks up one of the other pens. Keeping her head down, she leans in and begins to sketch, leaving plenty of white space for Ororo, coaxing her to start drawing. Erik's hand is still on her shoulder, and he squeezes it approvingly.

Erik keeps one eye on Alpha, who's watching this little domestic moment with an indulgent look.

"You're going to have to get some crayons if you keep this up," Erik says, pulling his attention back up to him. "Lots of baby mutants out there."

"Really? How many?" Alpha asks and Erik's mouth goes dry.

"I was—joking. I don't know."

"I think you do, I think you and that telepath know exactly how many there are and how to find them." Alpha folds his hands in front of him on the desk. "But that's not my concern right now."

He pauses, but Erik refuses to prompt him, letting the silence stretch. Alpha studies him, eyes scanning his face and then drifting downward to stare at Ororo again.

"Tell me about her."

Erik licks his lips, swallows. "Her emotions influence the weather. Extreme emotions anyway. But it can be hard to tell how much is her power at work and how much is only normal weather patterns."

"Amazing," Alpha says. "What about violent weather—storms, tornados, hurricanes. Can she control something big like that?"

"She doesn't control anything, it's all instinct, emotion. When she's happy, it's sunny out. When she's sad, it rains. And that's about the extent of it. She's never called up anything more serious than a snow storm." This is only true in the strictest sense. In a fit of pique that February Ororo accidentally created a nor'easter that went on to dump five feet of snow from New York City to Maine and paralyzed the entire east coast. It took them three days to shovel out the road to the mansion. Charles has been working with her on control ever since, convinced that one day she'll be able to create micro weather patterns, targeted lightning strikes and tornados calculated to take out a single foe while leaving her allies untouched.

Alpha continues to stare at her, contemplating.

"I would like to do a test," he announces, standing up. Erik closes his eyes. "Don't worry, nothing so… crude as last time. Only a small experiment. Captain?"

"Please," Erik says. It seems like he's been begging a lot lately. "Please, don't make her, don't make us go back out there."

"Don't be overdramatic," Alpha says, leaning forward on the desk and looking down at Erik. "I think we understand one another now. It should be very simple, not more than ten minutes. Surely you can endure that."

Erik grimaces. Jean's taken his hand and her grip tightens until it's painful. He finds himself shaking his head, jaw working, staring at the desk because he can't bear to look at Alpha.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees the guards moving closer, converging on them, so Erik gets up, slowly, and sets Ororo down. Jean stands too and takes her, drawing her in close.

"No, I can't let you," Erik says.

"It's not a choice," Alpha answers, like Erik's being ridiculous and will be embarrassed about it later.

"No, it is," Erik says, looking up as he explains. "You might be able to make me, but I can still choose to fight."

Alpha shakes his head and raises one hand. One of the guards hits him then—maybe Delta, he's not sure—and Erik tries to grab him as he stumbles, but then another one is knocking aside his arm and gets in a well-aimed kick right to Erik's stomach. He goes down, landing with a muted thump on the heavy oriental carpet.

Oh, smart, Erik, he thinks. Because what the girls really need right now is to see you beaten in front of them.

But it's too late now and he'd probably make the same decision again anyway, so he does his best to cover his head, rolling in on himself and getting ready to ride it out. Something heavy lands on his shoulders, a body, and he thinks it's another blow at first, but then he hears Jean on top of him, crying right next to his ear, "no, don't, please no—"

He pushes her away, and someone kicks him again from behind, knocking the breath out of him. Jean gets pulled away and he tries to see where they're taking her, trying to use one of the chairs to stand and pulling it down on top of himself instead. He lands on his face, teeth clanking together and then a boot comes down heavy on the back of his neck, pressing down with a warning. "Stop." It's Delta.

Alpha is saying something, but all Erik catches over his ragged breathing is "disgusting," and then Delta steps back and two of the other guards are lifting him up, dragging him out into the hallway between them.

He shouts for Jean, looking over his shoulder, before realizing that she and Ororo are already in the hall being led away. He can hear Ororo shouting, fighting back as she's shoved down the hallway. Erik tries to stop, digging in his heels and causing the guards dragging him to stumble.

"Calm the fuck down," Delta says from somewhere behind him. "You got a reprieve, we're not— we're going back."

Erik keeps fighting them, not believing it for a second, getting a few more punches in the stomach for his trouble, but then suddenly they're back at their cell and he's being thrown inside, tossed in after Ororo and Jean. He lands on his knees and feels like he could kiss the familiar dirty concrete.

One of the guards calls Ororo a slur, tossing it over his shoulder at her as he leaves, and her startled face sends another shock of adrenaline through Erik's body, the word echoing back in his ears as Yid. He jumps up and throws himself at the bars, but they don't even look back at the metallic thud. Erik's shoulder stings and all of his new bruises light up with pain at the impact. He slides down to sit against the wall, hitting the bars again with the back of his arm.

"Jerk," Ororo says, wrinkling up her nose.

Erik hooks his arm around her and pulls her in close, kissing the top of her head. "All of them, big jerks," he agrees. Jean sinks down in the far corner and hides behind her knees, shaking.

***

Somehow, in the madness, Ororo managed to grab two pens and a handful of paper, crumpling them up and stuffing them in the waistband of her pants. Ballpoint pen is not exactly an easy medium for an eight-year-old to work with, but Ororo manages okay, getting smudges of black ink all over her hands and face in the process. On one half of a page she draws a dark storm cloud with a zigzag stripe that must be lightning coming out. There's a stick figure on the ground being hit by it. On the other side of the paper the sky is clear, with a bright sun shinning. Two stick figures are standing there, watching the storm and smiling. One of them is tall and has a squiggle of numbers drawn on his stick arm. The other one is short, with long straw hair sticking out in all directions.

"Is that you?" Erik asks, pointing to the smaller stick figure.

"No, that's Jean, I'm here." She points to a smudge of lines inside one of the clouds. "See, I'm flying."

"Oh." He doesn't ask about the figure being hit by the lightning, but he hopes it was fatal.

***

It's night, or what passes for night for them now, but Erik doesn't sleep, unable to stop worrying, wondering when they'll come back for Ororo, wondering what he'll do, trying to weigh if it'd be more traumatizing to see him fight back again or for him surrender and let them be taken out to the courtyard. He wonders if Tilby has published her story yet, thinking of all the things that could have stopped her. What if she was caught? What if she never got out of the prison? What if someone cut the brakes to her car? What if someone threatened her, or her editors? What if they don't believe her story? What if no one cares? What if the public is only afraid of them, still terrified by the very idea of mutants? What if they think it’s a good idea?

What if they decide to round up the rest of them?

***

The next day passes in much the same way, Erik worrying, pacing when he can't stand sitting still anymore.

His paranoia is high and maybe that's why when he first sees Moira he thinks, You, of course. Of course, the CIA couldn't let us go, you bitch— but then he realizes Moira is waving impatiently at Delta, who's coming up behind her, and she's giving him a poisonous look, saying, "open it, open it!" He has his helmet off, looking smaller than normal, and more uncertain than Erik's ever seen him.

The door slides open and just like that they're liberated, stepping out into the corridor as free people instead of prisoners.

There are men in the hall, but not their usual prison guards, men in plainclothes, walking around like they're investigating a crime scene. Moira starts to look over Ororo and Jean, tilting their heads back and running her hands over their shoulders and arms, checking for sore spots. "Hi, I'm Moira, are you okay? Show me where, ah, we'll need to put some antibiotics on that."

"…you're the one who contacted Tilby," Erik says, putting it together.

"Yeah, there's nothing like a little public scandal for speeding up bureaucracy. Trish used to work the security beat in Washington, before she left for Manhattan and more glamorous subjects."

"But how did you—"

"Remember?" Moira asks, tone wry. She starts to lead them down the corridor, herding the girls along. "I still have top clearance and they had me filing some pretty secretive stuff. I ran across a few highly redacted pages about a program for containing 'human genetic abnormalities' and it pinged somehow, so I kept my eyes peeled for more. A few days ago I came across a mention of 'exemplars' being brought in from North Salem, New York. Charles must have done a pretty crap mindwipe, because it was like a trigger and all my memories came back. I knew it had to be you guys."

Or a really excellent mindwipe, Erik thinks, designed to fail if she was ever in a position to help them again. Erik reaches for her wrist, stopping her in her tracks. "Thank you."

She twists her hand, sliding her wrist in his grasp and turning it into a hand hold. "Come on, the others are already out waiting for you," she says, pulling him forward.

As they walk he notices that something feels different. He can feel the metal around him again, sense its presence in the walls and on the men walking past. He reaches out towards a loose screw on the ground, and it comes flying up into his hand, smacking neatly against his palm. Thank God.

"By the way," Moira says. "I might have promised Trish she could do a follow up story on your release. She wants to do a profile on you specifically, for television. She's convinced it's going to bag her a Pulitzer and a spot on the evening news."

Erik sighs, "Well, I guess we owe her."

***

They end up in a sort of open lobby, maybe the prison's original visiting area, and Erik sees familiar faces and finds himself counting heads, his vision blurring, only letting out the air he's been holding when he's sure everyone is there. Raven spots them first and claps her hands to her face, crying out, and then its pandemonium as everyone's touching and crying and talking at once. They're all in the same white prison uniforms, looking dirty and thin. Erik looks at them all in turn, cataloging injuries, noting Alex's bloodied nose, Raven's swollen right eye, a tuff of hair missing from the side of Hank's neck…

They all seem to want to hug Ororo, and she's soon glowing under all the attention, regaling Sean and Alex with her adventures. "—and it really hurt, so I bit him! On the arm! He cried like a little baby and there was blood everywhere and—"

Everyone also seems to want to touch Erik, coming up to him one after another and asking in serious tones, "Are you okay?"

"Yes," he grumbles, glaring by the time Charles is coming up to his side, giving him that concerned, sympathetic look he has perfected as the headmaster of their small school.

"It's been, what, two weeks?" Erik asks. "It wasn't that bad. Could have been worse."

"Fifteen days," Charles says, clearly not believing him. But he just smiles his beatific smile and gently touches Erik's elbow.

"What happened exactly?" Erik asks, ignoring Charles and directing his question at Moira, who's standing with her hands on Jean's shoulders. "How did you manage this?"

"The Globe published the story yesterday, front page, big photo. The Bureau freaked out, of course, and started denying like crazy. The director was CIA, but this is a mixed military installation. I guess he'd been given a lot of free reign—there wasn't much oversight since it was strictly need-to-know—and most of the people upstairs didn't realize quite how far he had taken the mutant investigation program. That's all public knowledge now, by the way, they're admitting that mutants exist this time. It's kind of crazy right now, most people don't actually believe you're real, but there's been a lot of anger about American citizens being held in secret, illegally. And you," she adds, nodding at Erik. "I might have, uh, sort of blackmailed my superiors to get up here myself with the damage control team."

"What happened to him?" Erik asks. "The commanding officer? The director?"

Moira shrugs and shakes her head. "Gone. There'll be an investigation, I'm sure, a review of what went wrong, but who knows if anything will happen to him. You know how these things usually go."

Erik shakes his head and looks away, not paying attention as Charles says something about the important thing being that they're all okay. He tries to be satisfied with that much, swallowing down his bitterness. It is important. They were lucky, so lucky. An hour ago he wouldn't have believed it, that they could walk out more-or-less unscathed. He still doesn't fully believe it. Probably won't until they finally get the hell out of here.

It takes Erik several minutes to notice that they're not alone. He's turning to talk to Hank about improved security measures at the mansion when he spots Delta hanging back, watching from the other side of the room. He sees Erik looking at him and straightens up like he's steeling himself for something, hand nervously hovering in front of him as he starts to come forward.

Erik realizes that Delta wants to shake his hand. That he's coming over to apologize to him. Something unlocks in Erik's head and it's like every control he has is gone, any moral qualms he has left after the past two weeks lifting away. It's the way he used to feel all the time, back when he was a weapon honed for one purpose.

He waits until Delta comes right up to him, keeping his body open and loose, like he's ready to make nice, to forgive.

It's not instinct. Erik is thinking very clearly, and he makes a conscious decision to go for Delta's throat, palm covering his Adam's apple and pressing into the yielding flesh, backing him up against the wall, his fingernails drawing blood as he uses every piece of metal on Delta's body to pin him there

"Erik!" Charles shouts. Sudden movement behind him and then silence, everyone in the room holding still, watching. Erik can feel Charles in his head, disapproving but not pushing, and Erik can feel that he's angry too, not at Erik, or even at Delta, but at the whole situation, and he doesn't try to change anything, doesn't try to hold Erik back. Maybe he's finally learned when it's better to keep his mouth shut and not to argue with him. Or maybe he finally understands what must be done. Maybe he can finally see it now, looking through Erik's eyes.

Because Erik is so angry and he is so calm. It's a blinding rage and yet he can see so much better now. He can see them all so clearly, the man before him standing in for the entire mass of humanity and they are disgusting. Vermin. Filth.

Delta is terrified and it feels good to be in control again, looking into those startled human eyes, scared and offended, surprised that Erik would do this to him.

"What?" Erik asks, almost laughing. "What? Did you think we were friends? That I appreciated all your 'help'? When you—" He presses in harder, feeling cartilage pop and bend under his hand. "You held a gun to my head to blackmail a twelve-year-old girl. You let your men hurt us, abuse us. You threatened to shoot me while I was holding Ororo in my arms. " He slams Delta back then, not with enough pressure to crush his windpipe yet, just enough to close off his air and choke him.

Delta is trying to shake his head, throat working under Erik's hand as he gasps "nah—ay-y—" Erik lets up a little, giving him enough slack to hang himself. "Nah-no—I wasn't—I'd never—I have—"

Erik presses down again, cutting him off. "It's a good thing Alpha didn't order you to shoot me then, so you can keep telling yourself that."

"Erik," Moira says, angry and pleading at the same time. He doesn't have to look to know she has her sidearm out, has it pointed at him. "He's the one who let Tilby in here, without him it might have taken another two weeks to prove where you were and get inside."

"I am aware of that, Moira," he replies, wishing she's stay out of it. He keeps watching Delta's face, listening to his gasps as he lets up enough for him to breathe again. "It changes nothing. It doesn't erase the things you did, the things you failed to do."

 

Charles is standing next to him now, hands out, beseeching, and Erik realizes he's pointing to the floor. There's something there, a wallet. It must be Delta's, knocked out of his back pocket by Erik's attack. Charles wants him to pick it up and Erik does, lifting it easily by the change inside, turning it over and flipping it open, watching as the leaves inside unfold, revealing receipts, paper money, and what Charles wants him to see. The photos.

There's a picture on top, Delta with a woman and a child. His son Erik realizes, Delta with his wife, his family.

And instead of making him merciful it makes him angrier, because there is just no end to it. There are no good men. He can't draw a line anywhere, there is no stopping point. He is surrounded by enemies and collaborators on all sides, the guards that are here now, good men all of them, and the good men that aren't here but could be here, and good men that will be here one day, and what else is there to do but kill them all? Burn it all to the ground and salt the earth, a fiery annihilation. Rip humanity out at the roots and stop it from ever festering on the earth again. What else can he do? What else is there?

"Please, Erik," Charles whispers, maybe in his head, maybe out loud. "Please don't let them do this, don't become them."

Erik shudders, and he wants to shout, wants to tear out Delta's throat and ask Charles what choice do I have

—but he's still calm, he's in control, and so he peels his fingers out of Delta's throat, seeing the deep bruises there with pleasure, and he steps away. He hears Moira gasp, relieved, but Charles is still tense next to him. He knows Erik hasn't decided yet.

 

"Erik?"

It's Ororo, looking up him. She doesn't look afraid, the opposite, she looks secure, finally safe again watching him threaten a man and nearly kill him. She raises her arms to him and he lifts her easily, finding the deep magnetic lines of the earth and pressing down against them, lifting them both up into the air a few feet, hovering as he holds her on a knife edge.

Erik presses his face into her hair and breathes in deep. She smells dirty, like sweat and urine, and it makes his anger surge again as he looks down and surveys his people.

Raven has her fists clenched—oh, she's ready, waiting for Erik's signal. The boys, on the other hand, look torn, looking between him and Charles, Scott especially not knowing what to do when the two men that represent law and order for him are warring. Hank is moving to Charles' side, while Sean hovers between Moira and Raven, wavering between them.

Oh, but, Jean… Jean is stepping forward and she looks vicious, righteous, like divine justice made manifest. Her eyes are lit with a terrible fire and she's trembling, waiting for Erik impatiently, holding herself back. She's looking at Delta, where he's kneeling coughing on the floor, and maybe she's projecting, or maybe Charles is connecting them all now, linking their emotions, because Erik can feel what she wants and she wants so badly to kill him, to kick Delta in his bruised throat and hold his gun to his head and pull the trigger with her mind.

 

And that's it. Maybe the only thing.

That stops him.

 

Erik lowers himself back down, feet hitting the ground and he thinks for a moment he's going to fall, bile rising in his throat. He holds out Ororo, and Raven is there, taking her from him, pulling her out of his weakening arms and turning away. He wonders if she's disappointed or relieved.

Erik leans down, putting his elbows on his knees, not sure if he's going to throw up or hyperventilate or what.

Charles moves into his line of sight and kneels down slowly, tilting his head so he's looking up at Erik, hands hovering like he wants to touch him but doesn't dare. Erik notices for the first time that there's dried blood on his forehead, a trail of drops hidden under his bangs, coming from a swollen knot there.

Erik licks his lips, wetting the cracked skin. "Jeannie?" he asks.

Charles beckons without looking away from Erik's face, motioning for her, and then Jean is coming up to them, kneeling down next to Charles as she throws her arms around Erik's neck, unafraid.

"Do you understand?" he asks.

"No," she says, crying, her possessed fury melting away into grief just as quickly as it came over her.

Erik wants Charles to answer. He's not sure he can, afraid if he articulates his emotions right now it might slip away from him, the epiphany fleeting in the face of his overwhelming need for vengeance, for justice. But Charles stays stubbornly silent so Erik tries. "I want—we should, he deserves it, they all deserve it, it would be right… but I don't want—I don't want you to—" he gasps, almost overcome again. "Because you can't, it would have to be, we all, all of us, everyone, everyone—"

He gives up, crushing her to his chest and holding her while he shakes apart. He reaches out blindly and finds Charles' hand, clinging to him too as he leans in over them both.

They breathe together for a while and Erik feels his heart start to unclench, the vise that's been locked there starting to loosen for the first time since he woke up in this hell.

Charles raises his head, waits until Erik looks up too, meeting his eyes. We need to take them home, he thinks, voice clear in Erik's head.

 

And Erik thinks yes, let's go.

Let's walk out of here.

And they do.