It was the cry that woke Charles. A frightened, half-articulated denial followed by a thump and the sound/feel of many other minds jumping into the fray. Charles struggled to wakefulness, angry that he allowed himself to fall asleep when he should've been on guard, but comforted by the fact that when he had succumbed to slumber it was with Erik watching over him.
Charles levered himself up off of the couch. Erik offered a hand to steady him, but Charles waved it away, already in motion toward Alex's bedroom. It took less than a minute at a dead run for them to arrive, by that time Sean, Raven and Hank had already determined that although Alex appeared to be awake he wasn't conscious of their presence. All three were distressed because they didn't know how to soothe him.
The three young mutants were arrayed in a semi-circle near the foot of the bed - Hank was actually perched on the footboard of the bed – but all of them seemed leery of getting too close and making things worse. It was interesting that the three were universally unconcerned about being incinerated by an uncontrolled plasma blast but overwhelmingly apprehensive about causing any further damage to Alex's fragile psyche.
Alex had reacted violently to the nightmare that woke him, and flung himself out of bed onto the floor. He scrambled to a position of relative safety in the corner, blankets tangled in his legs trailing like poorly hung laundry from the bed to the floor. The thin, white t-shirt Alex wore was soaked with sweat, and the pallor of his skin served as a stark backdrop for the livid bruises that stood out in startling contrast against his skin.
It wasn't necessary for Charles to be in the room to feel the terror of Alex's confusion, but the young mutant's fears were doubly apparent once in his physical presence. Alex had been in such a heightened state of awareness while in Shaw's possession, being manipulated on expertly pulled strings of pain and fear, and pushed physically and emotionally to his limit until he was at a point where his mind literally could not comprehend the idea that he was safe.
Rapid-fire images of Shaw, Azazel and Emma Frost with accompanying intense emotional responses to each spiraled through Alex's over-taxed mind. Charles was very aware, though Alex was not, that the repetitious, frightening images were unconsciously triggering his instinct to fight back with the strongest weapon at his disposal – his plasma blast. Erik intuited what Charles knew, shouldered past Sean and Raven, and got dangerously close to Alex anyway. He knelt beside the distraught younger man, but was at just as much of a loss as the others as to how to ease his fears and calm him down.
Erik was deeply empathetic to Alex's trauma. He shot desperate look over his shoulder. "Put him to sleep, Charles!"
Erik's command was urgent, but Charles responded with a slight shake of his head. Erik's brow furrowed in anger. It was the same argument they'd had when Erik finally appeared in the study the night before. Charles adamantly believed that it would be detrimental to Alex in the long run if Charles forced him to sublimate his fears even with something as simple as putting him to sleep.
Charles pushed aside the pulse of Erik's anger and put his mind to making some sense out of Alex's thoughts. Although only a few seconds had passed, it was enough time to allow Alex to wake slightly and give him pause. When Alex had previously found himself surrounded by visions of his team thrust upon him by Emma Frost, there had always been someone talking, pushing him to react in some way. But these people, visions or not, were not talking to him, they didn't seem to know what to do although they seemed to want to help. It was confusing to Alex but heartening to Charles that on some level Alex knew they wanted to help him.
Alex drew his arm up toward his face and buried his face in the crook of his elbow for a moment. When he brought his arm down he deliberately banged his elbow into the wall and then thumped the wall with his shoulder and head as well as if trying to physically determine his space or reassure himself that there was no one standing behind him. Charles ignored the vicious twist in his gut as he connected all of Alex's unconscious movements to Azazel. Shaw, who was never in any danger when confronting Alex head on always advanced from the front; Azazel approached from behind.
Alex blinked his eyes as he tried to focus on the group huddled around him. Charles strongly projected the feelings of safety and support. The psychic could feel that Alex was working himself up to addressing those assembled around his bed. Alex's resolve to resist responding to figments he thought were forced into his mind by Emma Frost was crumbling in the face of the growing awareness, the almost painfully desperate hope, that this situation and these people were real.
Alex's gaze skittered over the group. Although Erik was closest to Alex, he barely registered with the traumatized younger man. Alex's gaze kept scanning his peers – Raven, Sean, and Hank. It was almost as if he looked at any one of them for too long, they might disappear, but he couldn't stop himself from seeking them out.
Now that Alex had decided to take the risk of believing, he allowed a fragment of an idea to unfurl. It was a thought that he managed to hold so close that Emma hadn't been able to touch it and Shaw had been unable to exploit it. Even now, Alex was afraid to think directly on it for fear that his desire would make the very thought slip away, but he couldn't help himself, and what he knew, Charles knew too.
The last thing Alex saw before Azazel transported him away with Shaw and his mutants five days before was Hank barreling through the door of the lab as Shaw released Alex's harnessed power. It was a moment that played repeatedly in his head during his captivity thanks to the manipulations of Emma Frost. In Alex's weakest, broken moments Shaw gleefully reminded him that Alex had caused the death of two of his teammates and therefore no one was going out of their way to mount a rescue.
But in the brief, blessed moments when he was left alone, Alex took out this same memory and allowed it to play forward a few seconds more. He didn't know how it would be possible, but it was Alex's most cherished belief that somehow Hank hadn't been killed by Shaw. The nuance of Alex's thought process surprised Charles; it was less important that another teammate hadn't been killed indirectly by his power, than the fact that it was Hank who hadn't been killed.
Alex took a deep breath and leveled his gaze. His eyes were pleading as he lifted his left hand toward his teammate. "Hank?" he croaked out.
The response was immediate. It was as though Hank had been waiting for this invitation. He moved with enhanced speed to Alex's side, though he managed not to startle him. Somehow Hank displaced Erik on Alex's left and gently took the offered hand in his own. Hank then put his right hand on Alex's shoulder, needing almost as much reassurance of Alex's presence as Alex needed of his. The contrast of Hank's blue paw against Alex's white t-shirt was striking.
"Alex." Hank awkwardly patted Alex's shoulder; now that he had closed the gap between them physically, Hank didn't know what to do. Alex turned his head slightly to get a better look at Hank exposing the vivid bruises that snaked around his throat. Charles could feel how the bruises provoked an intense protective response in Hank; he was surprised once again that he didn't know about the connection between the younger men.
Unwilling, or unable to wait for Hank to take the lead, Alex reached across his body with his free hand and grabbed Hank. Hank visibly relaxed given this very clear cue and drew Alex into his embrace. Alex shut his eyes tightly as he pulled himself closer to Hank; he seemed to be trying to refute the natural law that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time and Hank seemed inclined to help him.
With no verbal communication at all and only a few minor, physical adjustments Hank, perched in a semi-crouch, had wedged himself into the corner of the room behind where Alex had fallen. For his part, Alex twisted and pulled himself into a seated position in Hank's lap, curled protectively inward toward Hank's chest. Their arrangement appeared to be precarious, but Charles knew how stable Hank was and the very last thing he would allow would be to let Alex fall.
Once Alex allowed Hank in, Raven couldn't keep her distance any longer. She crept in closer toward where Hank was holding Alex until she could reach out and laid a hand on Alex's leg. Raven was not at a loss for words the way Hank was; she crooned soothing things, trying to reassure Alex that he was safe while adding her presence to Hank's. Sean was unusually silent, but crowded around near Alex's feet in the space that was left between the others and the bed.
Now that Alex had connected with Hank and allowed himself to believe that the rescue had been a reality, he began to shake uncontrollably with the certainty that his safety was not assured. Charles could feel the double edge of the powerful emotions that colored Alex's thinking – he was desperately relieved that he was back in the mansion, literally in the arms of his team, but overwhelmingly terrified that the respite would be short lived for that was what Azazel had promised.
Charles did not delve deeply into the chaos of Alex's thoughts, not wanting to trigger a memory that would be too much for the younger, abused mutant to handle, but even the surface thoughts were filled with the pain and humiliation inflicted with such relish by Azazel. The red-hued mutant would alternate creating pain and pleasure at the direction of the deranged Shaw, and in those moments when a gentle caress would replace his choking or invasive tail, Azazel would remind Alex of his ancestry – he was descended from fallen angels, he claimed – leaving no place on heaven or earth for Alex to hide if he ever did manage to get away.
This was not a conversation to have from across the room. Charles eased his thoughts into Hank's to let him know that Alex's greatest fear at the moment was an attack from Azazel. ~Hank, Alex is afraid of Azazel teleporting in here to take him away again.~
Hank startled slightly but managed not to communicate any unease to Alex, and once he understood the meaning of Charles' message he was full of confidence because this was a problem he could address.
"Alex…Alex…" Hank changed his tone slightly from reassuring to commanding. "You're safe here."
Alex shook his head in the negative, too far beyond words and unable to explain himself. But with Charles' information, Hank already understood. Alex wouldn't believe empty platitudes, but Hank had much more to offer than that. Now that he had a target to aim at, Hank skipped right over all of the preliminary explanations and got right to the heart of the matter.
"Sean can stop him. He can't get you here."
Alex actually stopped breathing - there was only one him Hank could be referring to. He pulled tighter into himself physically and mentally, his hand clutching convulsively at Hank's vest. In his mind Alex tried to comprehend the words that Hank had spoken; there was an elusive connection with the truth in his confused memory of events of the night before, but so much was jumbled and there were two Hanks…he knew that couldn't be right.
"It was simply a matter of…well; in actuality 'simple' is a poor term. There were many factors to take into consideration including proximity, size of the venue, building materials and frequency. Frequency was the trickiest vector – there were just too many variables to accurately take into account."
Hank juggled his grip on Alex slightly, pulling him up into a more seated position inside the confines of Hank's left arm, as he fell into "lecture" mode. Alex's expression was incredulous. A slightly hysterical laugh escaped him, and he locked eyes with Raven who shrugged slightly and then beamed a welcoming grin as she squeezed his leg. "Hank worked out how the Banshee's yell would disrupt Azazel's ability to teleport. I jumped in," she shifted quickly into Beast form and back, "to make sure you wouldn't go deaf in the process."
Alex blinked, finding it hard to take in all that Raven and Hank said. He shifted his gaze to Sean who had been hovering, unsure of his part in the reunion. Charles could feel something in Alex let go as he understood that there really was a weapon at hand to be used in his defense. As comforted and relieved as being tucked up inside Hank's embrace made Alex feel, that physical reassurance was nothing compared to knowing that Sean had the ability to literally stop Azazel in his tracks.
"Sean," this time it was Banshee that Alex reached out to. He grasped the red-head's extended hand in his own and pulled him closer. Alex's eyes were wide with amazement and something just shy of hero worship. The words he urgently wanted to share got caught in his throat as tears sprang into his eyes and ran unchecked down his cheeks.
"Sean…" he tried again, but the words were choked in a sob.
"He will never touch you again, Alex." Sean's tone matched the fiercely determined expression on his face. Sean's uncharacteristic attitude was new, so unlike the free-spirited, laid back teenager they all knew, but Charles discerned that it was a permanent fixture; as far as Alex was concerned there was nothing Sean wouldn't do to make sure nothing like this ever happened again.
Sean had moved to kneel on one knee close to Raven. He kept Alex's hand firmly in his grip reinforcing his words. "We won't let it happen again. I won't let it happen."
It was too much for Alex to take. He ducked his head and cried against Hank's shoulder, allowing himself to let go and believe there was a release from his nightmare. Erik walked over to where Charles stood just inside the doorway. The two of them looked at the small knot the rest of the team had formed; Charles was undeniably proud, but Erik felt left out.
Without looking over, Charles reached out and grasped Erik's forearm. "Your time will come later, my friend." He turned his head slightly and met Erik's gaze. "When he needs someone who understands what's he's been through, then he'll come to you. Right now, in order to start to heal, he just needs to feel safe."
Erik nodded. Charles slid his hand down until his palm rested against Erik's and their fingers intertwined. Erik let out a deep breath and leaned his shoulder into Charles'. "He won't be the same, Charles."
Charles squeezed his hand and leaned back. "He doesn't need to be, Erik…as long as he isn't broken."