It wasn't Erik's first jail cell, and he refused to believe it was going to be his last.
He felt the back of his head, looked at his hand. His scalp felt crusted with the start of a scab, but his fingers still came away red and wet. His vision hadn't entirely cleared yet, and the iron bars of his cell barely shivered when he reached for them.
He had two days before his hanging. He had time.
The clap of boots against the floorboards caught his attention, and made him realize the jailhouse had otherwise grown quiet. He couldn't see into the shadows right now, but it looked like the guard was gone. A different man stood just outside the cell.
"Hello, Mr. Lehnsherr," said the new arrival. Erik focused on him with an effort. Everything about the man screamed From Back East. He had a high street English accent, a wool greatcoat that was a little much for this early in a New Mexico winter, silk tie and embroidered waistcoat, fitted gloves, a coachman hat that he doffed to reveal tidy, clean brown hair. He carried a pocket watch that Erik could feel was made of sterling silver and decorated with real gold. But that was it, aside from the metal in his braces and boots. He wasn't armed. And somehow he'd kept hold of that watch all the way across the West. He must have hired men watching him back, front and both sides.
He stood complacent, allowing Erik to look him up and down, and said, "I was wondering if you're ready to leave this place."
"I am," Erik said. "And I will. Under my own power."
"That would be brilliant," the man said, as if he knew the first thing about it. "Unfortunately you're working under a more pressing deadline than you realize."
Erik pushed to his feet and kept his gait slow and steady, walking to the bars and taking hold. "More pressing than an appointment with the gallows tomorrow at sunset?"
"By half," said the man. "Precisely so, in fact. I'm afraid the men you did away with had, unlikely as it seems, quite a number of friends. It might be more accurate to call them accomplices. They're determined to rush the jail tonight and string you up. I'm not sure why they can't wait for the official execution but I gather it has something to do with a show of power vis a vis local law enforcement? Regardless, the best thing for your health would probably be to come with me."
"And who are you?"
"Charles Xavier," he said, and of all things, he offered his hand through the bars.
Erik ignored that. "What concern is my health to you?"
"Tremendous," said Xavier, resting his hand on a crossbar when Erik didn't take it. "I need you alive. So you see, we have at least one common interest."
"That depends on what you need me alive for."
"I need your help," Xavier said, and his lips rested shut while his voice went on, «to find more of us.»
If Erik hadn't been cracked upside the head with a wooden ax handle, he'd have Xavier's hand snarled in those bars by now. He'd have spikes and sharp edges brought to bear, ready to slice that soft fine glove to shreds and the hand inside with it, til he found out just what Xavier knew.
«If you could do that right now,» Xavier's voice continued without benefit of speech, «you wouldn't be here in the first place, and you wouldn't need my help.»
"I thought it was you needed my help," said Erik. Maybe it was that blow to the head. He could be seeing things. Imagining Xavier's shut mouth. For that matter, imagining Xavier altogether.
«We can help one another.» Xavier leveled a canny blue gaze at Erik through the bars. «If you come with me, you and I may be able to use our unique talents in concert to find other uniquely talented people. You have nothing to lose and more than your life to gain; you have the chance to be part of something much greater than yourself. If we leave now we can be safely across state lines in Colorado by nightfall. What say you?»
"I say if the men I killed have friends who helped them and their filthy master, those friends have the same coming to them," Erik told him. "Let me take care of them and there won't be any need to hurry to Colorado."
«You have a concussion,» Xavier said. «If your situation permitted it, I wouldn't move you at all. You're certainly in no fit state to face down an angry mob.»
"Get me my gun and I'll show you a fit state."
«Your gun won't be much use when your vision's too fogged to fire it.» Xavier put up a finger and swayed it dizzily in front of Erik's face. «You can't even follow my hand. I can give you time and a chance to heal. A chance to put what you can do to use for a worthy purpose, and strengthen your power, in the bargain. If you give me that, a matter of months, then I'll help you find the man you're after.»
«You can get me to Shaw--?» Erik thought, too startled to say it aloud.
He didn't have to. «When our task is done, on my honor, I'll help you search him out.»
"Why didn't you say that to begin with?" Erik growled. "I'm in, if you're not just a vision. Or a madman. I don't see how you think you're going to spring me, I know you don't have lockpicks nor keys."
"I'm not going to spring you," Xavier said, "I'm here to extradite you," «or at least that's the official line. I look the part, don't I?»
"No," Erik said flatly. "You look like a puffed-up popinjay. There's some of them in law when you get up high enough, but they don't dress as rich as you."
"It's close enough for government work," Xavier said dryly. He took off his gloves, and touched his temple.
The guard returned, keys jingling, and he unlocked the cell door at once. "There you are, sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Matthews," said Xavier. "Mr. Lehnsherr, if you wouldn't mind coming this way..."
Xavier took him to visit the privy and the washstand, keeping a respectful distance but staying close enough that there was no use trying to run. Erik sponged off the blood from the back of his head, careful not to knock the scab loose. Xavier handed him a dressing for it, and a winding bandage. Erik looped the bandage around his head to secure the dressing in place.
"I was certain you'd need my help for that, but you have it well in hand," said Xavier.
"I can take care of myself." Erik let Xavier lead him into the sheriff's office, but as soon as Xavier touched his temple again and the sheriff didn't say boo to Erik-- or call him sheeny-- Erik got the idea, and helped himself to his duster, his belt and his guns. Still loaded. He didn't have to look at them to check them over.
"Your particular gift must be a help when it comes to those," Xavier murmured.
"A little hard work and practice with me, and you won't need a gun to send bullets flying."
"In the meantime I think I'll keep mine to hand, if it's all the same to you." Erik faced him. "If you can make them let me out, I suppose you could make them march me right back into that cell, but I don't think you will. I'm going after the rest of Shaw's gang here."
"You don't know who they are. They're still scattered all over."
"I know how to find out. Same as how I found the other two." Erik made for the door, and found himself turning right back around again, his body no longer under his command.
Anger surged through him, but he looked at Xavier with wary respect, now. «You can do that to me? I thought maybe my 'unique talent' kept you from it. Why didn't you just do that from the start instead of arguing with me to get me to come with you?»
"Why do you think?" Xavier asked, impatient now. "I'm not interested in forcing you to work with me. But I will stop you doing this if I must. You're ill and you're not thinking clearly, and you'll only get yourself killed if you go stirring up trouble. If we leave now, there'll be no bother with that lot. They don't know anything more about the man you're hunting. And I'm not inclined to quarrel with anyone who isn't actively coming after me and mine."
"And I'm not you or yours," Erik said acidly.
«On the contrary, Mr. Lehnsherr,» Xavier said silently, «we've made an agreement. I've staked you your life and your freedom, and promised to help you search out Shaw when our business is concluded. In the meantime, you are most definitely mine.»