By Alone Dreaming
Disclaimer: If I owned it, it wouldn't be under fanfiction.
Rating: PG or K+ for blood and illness
Warnings: People using Cerebro may experience headaches, fever, nausea, nosebleeds, anxiety, other people's memories, and, in severe cases, death.
Author's Note: Inspired by LaylaBinx's prompt on Ariadnes_String's Fever meme over at livejournal. While there are two versions of it, I'm only posting this one here. The other's available at the meme. Thank you to LaylaBinx for the prompt. As always, please excuse any terrible grammar/spelling/sentence construction. I edit, not a beta, and will take the blame. Otherwise, please enjoy.
Surprisingly, given his propensity to insist he doesn't care, Erik points out the strain Cerebro causes before anyone else does. Charles has tried to keep it quiet, carrying handkerchiefs to stop nosebleeds, combing his hair differently to hide the bald patch, quietly excusing himself when the headaches grow so bad that he cannot see. He expects someone to notice, though, Raven, perhaps, as she knows him the best and the longest or Hank as it is his machine. Maybe Moira- sweet, Moira- who he's spent plenty of time with.
But it's Erik who sets a glass of water at his bedside one night along with two aspirin. They're on their way to see another mutant and offer him the chance of a lifetime and this hotel is just a momentary pitstop before a long car ride. Today's ride has drained the life from Charles and he can only blink at the cup of water and the aspirin. He knows what Erik means for him to do- Erik's feelings and thoughts are so loud, so bright, so disturbingly entrancing that he finds it hard to believe that people can't feel the intensity- but he cannot will himself to do it.
"You should tell McCoy," Erik says to him. He returns in the tiny bathroom, preparing for bed.
"Tell him?" Charles echoes.
Erik turns and his eyebrows raise just slightly. You know what I mean. "Even a lab rat has the right to deliver the facts, Charles. If McCoy knew what this was doing to you, he would adjust the settings of the machine."
And make things more difficult. Yes, Cerebro costs him blood. Yes, it is ruining his hair, something he takes great pride in. Yes, sometimes he lies in bed in such pain that even his tears will not fall. But the good that comes from his actions far outweighs his suffering and he says this silently to Erik. At the same time, blood trickles from his nostrils. He mutters a weak curse and fumbles for his handkerchief, just that simple movement causing flairs of heat behind his eyes. Raising the cloth to his nose costs him more strength than he'd like, sweat beading on his brow.
He doesn't sense Erik coming to his side until strong hands grasp his shoulders and drag him upright. The bed flips upside down, then right side up and his stomach flips with it, nearly expelling the little bit he's partaken of that day. He chances a squinting glance and finds Erik sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at him with curiosity and, so odd, awe. The pills settle in his free hand and that hand is guided to his mouth. On its tail is the cup of water which he sips tentatively from.
"You'll do no one good if it kills you," Erik informs him, and his emotions swirl alarmingly as he does. "I believe you said something along those lines to me once."
"It won't kill me," Charles whispers, not chancing telepathy for the moment. "It makes me uncomfortable and, soon, bald but those are small prices to pay, Erik."
"Forgive me if I disagree," Erik stands again. "But I believe your life and health are worth more than a few more companions."
He leaves Charles to sleep, turning off the lights and disappearing from the room. Every time Erik leaves, Charles wonders if he will return. He knows Erik as a wild animal, tamed just enough to respect those around it, but not enough to stay if called by nature. He knows one day, he will wake up and Erik will have gone. So, he smiles the next day when he awakens, exhausted and weak, to find Erik lying on the bed next to his.
They go, they ask, they are turned down, they return. The team now consists of Raven, Hank, Erik, Charles and Angel; an admirable number but not enough to take on Shaw or anyone else. Even with Erik's great strength, Raven's disguises, Hank's intellect, Angel's wings and his mind, they are still just people and three of them young people. The minute they set foot in the compound, his steps rather shaky and his head heavy, he knows that he must follow Cerebro's call.
"Charles!" Raven rushes to him. She has been distant since she came into womanhood and he does not know how to handle it. Somehow, she has associated his awkwardness with disapproval for her true form and he cannot seem to dissuade her of it. He doesn't care what she looks like, so much as she's happy, and he knows that she's always wished to blend in. Too much to think on, now, he decides, and he returns her hug, enjoying the comfort of a lifelong companion. Such comfort will go a long way in thirty minutes, as Cerebro tears down his carefully constructed walls, forces its own in and amplifies his abilities so he might hunt.
"I've missed you," he says, without meaning to.
Raven pulls back. "You were only gone a day." There's the slightest hint of snotty teenager with the warmth of beloved sister. He takes the latter instead of the former.
"Am I not allowed to?" he asks.
She smiles at him, radiating warmth, and kisses his cheek. They walk arm and arm towards Cerebro, her chatting about the complex, about Hank, about a cure for her blueness, about how exciting life is. She's older than he is technically but she feels so young. The gentle pressure of her mind- a mind he stays away from because he promised- reminds him of a child's in its vigor and color. Youthful and naive, a darker part of him assesses, but he presses it down and ignores it. Youthful and beautiful, he corrects as they enter Cerebro's dome.
"I'm getting lunch," she concludes, removing his arm from hers. "Do you want me to grab something for you?"
He already is nauseated and it will grow after he uses the machine. He shakes his head and regrets it as dizziness claws at him. "Thank you, but no. You'll have to enjoy without me."
"Well, make sure you eat at some point." For a moment, he sees the care around her, something he never thought he would have to hunt for in her. "You're looking skinny."
She leaves without saying goodbye, trading a coy look with Hank- who blushes- and skips from the room. Watching Cerebro work lost her interest a while ago and, often, it is just Charles and Hank in the room.
"She's right," Hank fastens the helmet to him. "You're pretty pale. Sure you're up to this?"
"Quite," he answers, more sharply than intended, but he's losing patience with people's mothering. The headache has also shortened his temper considerably. "Let's get on with it, shall we?"
Hank nods but watches him with the intensity of a man who knows he's being lied to. He even thinks it as he starts to flip the switches but before Charles can investigate further, Cerebro sweeps him away.
There's ecstasy and pain, using this machine. It lays him bare but protects him, fillets his mind, but allows it the privilege of seeing every other person's mind in the world. The pure joy that comes from each discovery, each unique power, overwhelms the rest of it until he's caught up in the hunt. Before he realizes it, he wants to keep reaching out, even as his body shakes and his nose starts to drip blood. He wants more of everything, joy and pain alike, and he cannot stop himself.
Hank ends the session earlier than usual. As he helps Charles with the helmet, he frowns deeply, and when Charles is freed of the machinery, he motions to his upper lip. Charles touches it and finds a great deal of red on his fingertips.
"Ah," he murmurs, fishing for his handkerchief. The world spins alarmingly for a moment and he pretends to trip over a wire to justify using the wall for balance. "Sorry, allergies."
"Allergies?" Hank says. The machine.
"Hay fever," he clarifies, though they both know its the wrong season. "Excuse me."
"Wait, Charles," Hank follows him to the door. "How long have these nosebleeds been happening? Have you experienced any nausea? Headaches? Fever?"
"Routinely since I was a child," he lies. "Only after bad fish, often with Erik and Raven to watch over, and not since my last bad cold." His smile is too weak to convince anyone. "Don't worry, Hank. I just need a bit of a rest."
Hank appears wholly unconvinced but allows his departure. The charade won't last much longer, Charles realizes, as he staggers for his room. A chill has settled into his bones that his coat will not eliminate. The handkerchief has soaked through with blood. Hank will undoubtedly find excuses for him to avoid Cerebro and will likely tell Moira about the issue. Moira will come and hound him- and ask Raven whether he has hay fever- and Erik will confirm that he's been having debilitating headaches ever since he first put the helmet on. They'll prevent him from using the machine and it will all be for naught.
He pauses in his doorway, feeling very heavy and vaguely hysterical. His vision is blackening from the center out, making him rely far too much on his peripherals to guide him. Every mind within half a mile begs for him to listen and he cannot seem to get his shields up properly to block them. Every brick he adds makes the invisible walls less stable, more likely to fall apart under his gentle touches; the voices and emotions and thoughts patter against them like rain, seeping through the cracks and eating at him.
He doesn't recalls sitting down. His tailbone protests as the edge of the door bites into it but he cannot find it in himself to move at all. Just beyond him is the military standard bed that the facility provided, the one that pokes in all the wrong places, but looks delicious from his standpoint. A chill wracks him, followed by the intense urge to shed the oppressive coat that's trying to smother him. He thinks, briefly, that maybe Erik had a point about speaking to Hank right as the darkness takes over his left eye completely.
And the bright, wild mind he has gotten to know so well swoops down and blinds him. He tumbles into it unwittingly, sensing safety in chaos, and finds himself in a silver room, full of knives and blood. His stomach churns and he wretches without meaning to, adding bile and water to the mix. A voice calls to him, telling him he needs to move the coin. If he moves the coin, it assures, he will feel better. But he cannot find the coin and he cannot lift his arms to move it. Something moves him but he has no control of his flaccid limbs.
Move the coin, Erik.
Charles, I need you to move your arm.
You'll have a rest once you've done it.
Just a small sip and then you'll sleep.
You need to learn to control it, to use it.
You need to do something, Charles, or it will use you until you die.
"No," he mumbles through cracked lips, his stomach rolling, his body shaking. "No, no, no..."
"Charles, I'm calling Moira so she can send down a medic," Erik says.
He holds Charles upright on the bed as though Charles is a toy or a child. Everything about him screams in an unholy aura and Charles cowers from it. His head spins with it, spins with dizziness and fever and too thin shields doing nothing to block out the noise.
"No," he says, with a bit more feeling. He swallows hard to keep the nausea from rising up again. "Please, no."
"You are ill," Erik says, "and you need attention." But Cerebro... "The machine is not worth your life, Charles."
Blood goes down with his swallowing and sits uneasily in his belly. Erik stands up, pushing him back against the pillows, a hand gently brushing over Charles's forehead before he pulls back. There's an odd softness about the maelstrom that is Erik for that second, something that Charles hides in briefly, but it's gone almost as fast as it came, replaced only by bitterness and vengeance. Erik's hand rests on the phone in the room.
"No," Charles murmurs. "No..."
Fear gives him strength but its the strength of a failing body and lasts only a minute. He tumbles from the bed in a heap of boneless exhaustion. Fever makes the room twist, turn and warp until everything a gray blob except for the drips of red from his nose. They slither around, forming lins and shapes that look like the numbers: 214782. Or, maybe its the tattoo on Erik's arm as he slips his hands under Charles's shoulders and boosts him back onto the edge of the bed.
Charles wraps his fingers into Erik's shirt as his friend attempts to lie him down again. "Please, Erik... no."
"Your fever is on the unmanageable side of high," Erik says to him, reasonably. "You're hemorrhaging from your nose and showing signs of brain trauma. It would be a waste of a perfectly good mind to leave your health to chance, something I am unwilling to do."
He refuses to let go even though he cannot present his side of the argument with words. He tries images, instead, but they're blurry and half-hearted. A part of him reaches out and tries to make Erik understand the vastness that Cerebro provides him and the smallness that is his power on its own. He tries to show Erik a world of undiscovered talent but can only give him muddled colors and motions.
Erik unwraps his fingers from his shirt. "Without you, how will we manage to find any of them?" The firmness of his tone does not manage to hide a tremor. With gentleness Charles never expected of him, he gently dabs away the blood congealing on Charles's upper lip.
"Please, Erik," he rasps one final time. For me.
Erik says nothing, settling him back against the single drab pillow, and staying at his side as the darkness overtakes him.
He dreams of his childhood, of Raven, of Erik's childhood, of blood on his hands, of the desperate need to avenge a family that isn't his, of the fearful desire for acceptance, of the darkest voice whispering for him to move the coin, move it. The room flashes silver, flashes white, flashes to the nothingness that threatens to drag him under. His hands can't grip properly on the slick walls he attempts to scale and he sinks deeper and deeper until he can't sink any further.
Sometimes, he fades back into awareness and sees the room exactly as it is. Erik sits next to him, his focus on the small chessboard that sits on the bedside table. His shirt, dark blue, has splotches of purple on it and he wears an unnecessarily grim expression as he checkmates himself. Sometimes, he looks up when Charles's eyes open and comes close, so close that Charles imagines he can see the soul behind those blue-grey irises. He offers water or wipes at Charles's face or sticks pills onto his tongue.
At one point, when the rooms walls move like a river and transform letters into numbers and warp metal and bullets, he hears Raven's voice. It's soft and distant, and interspaced with Erik's voice. He wants her here with him, just as she has been every time he's ever been seriously ill, but she leaves before he can ask for her. In her place, Erik settles again and he must express some sort of sorrow for Erik pauses in resetting the chess game.
"You don't want her to see you right now, Charles." And when this fails to comfort him, Erik reaches out and places a soothing hand on his chest.
Awakening in its truest sense comes with the dim daylight that trickles in through the tiny window just south of his bed. He aches everywhere and his upper lip feels crusty and stiff. The sheets below him are damp and his hair has plastered to his face, over his eyes, making everything lined. Movement takes effort that he barely has energy for but he flips onto his side anyway, relieving some of the pain. His eyes pulsate with his ever present headache and his mouth tastes as though he's swallowed several gallons of saltwater.
A glass floats into his vision and he shakily takes it, lifting it to his lips with the reverence of a mortal presented with ambrosia. It's warm, stale and quite possibly the best thing he's ever had. He only manages two sips before nausea steals his interest and Erik takes the cup from him.
"How do you feel?" Erik asks.
He's honest because he doubts anything else will be believable. "Awful. What time is it?"
"Ten in the morning," Erik answers.
The new list will have been well processed by now and they should've left to retrieve the next set of recruits. Adrenaline surges through his veins and he sits up, slowly, but still with more vigor than he thought possible. Immediately, he sees grey spots and gags on the water. The world slips away from him and comes back in shattered pieces. Above him, Erik hovers, face sharper and hollower than usual.
"That was foolish," he says, settling on the edge of the bed. "Your fever just broke an hour ago."
"Oh." He blinks. "But-"
"Charles," Erik places the back of his hand on Charles forehead. "I will only say this once so please pay attention. First, you will stay in bed for the rest of today. Second, you will stop worrying about whether or not we are working with appropriate speed. Third, you will use Cerebro less, both in the amount of times per week and the duration of your sessions. If you, for even a second, consider not doing these things, instead of continuing the charade of you having a summer cold, I will call for an immediate hiatus to this foolhardy endeavor and inform Moira, Raven and McCoy that you are suffering from excessive strain and may be dying."
He blinks in surprise and Erik's grin settles somewhere between feral and tame. His head tilts to the side. "Now, rest. The stone will still be there for you to roll up your hill tomorrow."
He smiles back, fainter, likely gorier, but just as heartfelt. Tentatively, he sends a slight pulse of thanks and feels a great deal of pleasure at the returned No need, my friend.