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Seven Deadly Sins

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“Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other ‘sins’ are invented nonsense.” – Robert A. Heinlein

 

-

 

Charles is fairly content basking in everyone else’s good mood, he’s not really following the conversation between the others as they compare their progress with the tasks they’ve been attending to. Only when he’s addressed directly does he start paying attention.

 

“I thought, maybe, we could even start trying to look for some students.” Hank suggests, glancing at him. “If you feel up to it, Charles.”

 

“Next week, perhaps,” Charles says lightly, and does his best to ignore the concern he can sense from the others.

 

He hasn’t touched Cerebro for months. Whenever he tried using it, he’d been unable to focus on any of the minds within reach – their thoughts all so chaotic, so overwhelming – and all the sessions had ended prematurely, with Cerebro shutting down. The first few times, they’d all thought it was the machinery that was malfunctioning, but this wasn’t the case.

 

He knows the problem lies with him, the turmoil of his own state of mind preventing him from having the clarity to use Cerebro properly. Sometimes he doubts he’ll ever have a sense of serenity again. Tries not to dwell on why he thinks this way.

 

He doesn’t want everyone’s spirits to falter on his part. He smiles at Hank. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. Next week.”

 

Sean changes the subject with no subtlety whatsoever. “So, how are your lectures going, Professor? Which sub-category of genetics are you delivering again?”

 

This topic isn’t new, but Charles goes with it. “Genetic variation and mutation,” he replies wryly, causing Sean to wince sheepishly and Alex to snicker. “And yes, it’s been going well, thank you.” He was initially reluctant to accept the offer to be one of the guest lecturers for this biochemistry course, but he’s glad he did. It’s been quite grounding amidst all the other changes he’s been adjusting to.

 

“Your lectures are probably the best of them all,” Sean declares, attempting to make up for his previous gaffe.

 

Hank looks amused at him now too. “You’re only saying that because you have a mutation.” The glance he gives his own blue fur contains no trace of bitterness, progress that pleases Charles to see.

 

“I find Diane’s historical content rather interesting,” he offers, rescuing Sean from digging himself further into a hole. “I hope she gets the grant she’s after.” He knows she doubts these classes will count for much on her application, given her appointment was recommended by her cousin, who works in an adjacent department.

 

“That’s the Research Professor, Marston?” Hank clarifies, and when Charles confirms this he asks, “what about Kingston? He back yet?”

 

Charles shakes his head. “But Miss Baumhauer is doing an admirable job covering for him.” He’s hoping she’ll continue to cover for Michael for the rest of the semester and not just because Michael, for whatever reason, dislikes him. She’s proven herself a very capable presenter these last few weeks and deserves the opportunity to showcase this further.

 

Alex smirks. “I’d have Adele teach me about behaviour genetics any day.”

 

You’re only saying that because you’re trying to wrangle a date with her,” Sean points out.

 

Hank raises his brows. “Well, good luck with that. She’s a teaching assistant; she’s not an idiot.” He softens the good-natured insult by raising his glass towards Alex in a toast.

 

Alex wants to make a joke about her impeccable taste and judgement, with the punchline being that she’s German, but catches himself at the last moment. Charles pretends he doesn’t notice, even though Alex suspects otherwise. “I guess we’ll see.”

 

Charles drops his fork when he senses a handful of minds abruptly appear on the grounds. Raven’s is the clearest – she’s deliberately broadcasting a semblance of cautious surrender, which could only be more obvious if she was shouting ‘we come in peace.’

 

“We’ve got company,” he tells the others and shares his impression with them. “Raven seems sincere.”

 

“What about her friends?” Hank asks bitterly.

 

Charles isn’t looking too closely at those other minds, or the distasteful empty space amongst them, so he shrugs.

 

“If they were going to attack, wouldn’t they have arrived inside the house?” Sean points out. Alex doesn’t say anything, merely folds his arms and scowls.

 

Raven seems aware he’s noticed her but is unusually patient in the face of his lack of response. “I suppose we should at least go and see what they want.” As he heads towards the front of the house, the others following behind, he sends Raven the briefest of acknowledgements. Relief floods her, though she tries to shield it from him out of consideration.

 

“If you want them out, Professor, just say the word,” Alex tells him. Charles smiles and thanks him, keeping his own unhappiness carefully concealed. Alex opens the front door and they all file out.

 

The Brotherhood are standing in close formation, a respectable distance from the entrance. Charles blinks at the unexpected sight they make.

 

Raven’s standing towards the front, clearly the spokesperson of the group. She’s in her natural blue form but is wearing an overabundant amount of clothing. He can see at least three necklines of different shirts beneath her jacket, and he assumes the bulk of her pants means she has just as many layers covering her legs.

 

Azazel’s wearing sweats and a tank top, as well as a scowl. He has one arm around Janos’s waist, his other hand gripping Janos’s arm where it’s slung over his shoulder. Azazel looks to be the only thing keeping Janos upright; Janos is completely lax in his grasp and is dressed in pyjamas of all things.

 

Standing beside them, partially behind Raven, is Angel. She’s wrapped up in Magneto’s cape, using it to cover herself, shielding her body from sight. She’s nibbling at the tips of her fingers, around the edges of her nails.

 

By contrast, Emma looks the most comfortable with the situation and herself, in her knee-high boots, short pants and some sort of bodice; the skin of her arms and legs on display. But she’s wearing Magneto’s helmet. She’s wearing the helmet; because Erik is not.

 

Erik’s standing between the women, more casually attired than Charles has ever seen him, in jeans and a purple plaid shirt buttoned at the wrists. Charles decides to focus on how he hates that Erik looks so good, rather than on how Erik isn’t looking at him but rather at his wheelchair.

 

Charles hasn’t seen any of them in person since that day in Cuba six months ago, though he’d sensed Raven’s mind nearby while he was in the hospital. A week later he’d received a card which must have come from the gift shop, with ‘Thinking of you’ and pictures of blue birds in flight on the cover. Inside, Raven had written ‘I love you, I miss you, I’m sorry.’ The words had been underlined, twice, by someone else using a different coloured ink.

 

Seeing Raven again hurts, but in a good way. Seeing Erik again is a far more complicated mess.

 

Charles focuses on his sister. “Hello, Raven.”

 

She exhales, not quite a sigh. “Hello, Charles. I’m, uh, sorry to turn up unannounced like this.”

 

“I’m surprised to see you at all.” He says mildly. “I was under the impression you and your friends have been doing your best to avoid my attention.” Raven winces. So does Erik, which earns the man a sharp look from Emma. “None of you look particularly thrilled to be here,” Charles adds.

 

“It was a majority vote,” Raven admits. “Three to two, technically.”

 

“But, there’s six of you,” Sean states, bemused.

 

“Erik wasn’t allowed a vote,” Emma retorts snidely, as if this should be obvious. Erik shudders, closes his eyes.

 

Charles doesn’t know what to say about that.

 

“Good,” Hank grumbles, glaring at Erik. Surprisingly, this earns narrowed eyes from all members of the Brotherhood, sans Erik. Alex glares back at them.

 

“Why are you here?” Charles asks Raven.

 

She clears her throat. “We would like to ask for your help.” She says this slowly, as though she’s choosing her words with great care.

 

“And what, exactly, can I do for you?” His tone is cool, impersonal now. He assumes they’ve come to ask for some favour to further their agenda, something beyond Emma Frost’s abilities.

 

Raven bites her lip. “There was an Incident three weeks ago.” He can hear how she capitalises the word. “We were on a mission, it went wrong. We were…compromised, I guess you could say. We suffered some, um, ill effects.” She squirms uncomfortably. “But we’re still effected. Physically. And we don’t know how to fix it. We figured we need…well, a professor of genetics would be helpful.”

 

It’s not what Charles expected. She’s also being very vague; Raven’s not usually this inarticulate. “I’m not sure I understand. Would it be easier if I…” he gestures to his head.

 

“No!” Raven cries, instantly mortified. “No. As my brother, you do not want to be in my head. Trust me on this, Charles.”

 

Charles frowns at her. Raven has walls up in her mind, protecting everything beneath her surface thoughts. Azazel and Angel have similar walls, clearly hiding from him. Janos could be asleep, his mind is so passive; merely observing, hardly thinking at all. If Charles wanted to push, none of them would be able to stop him. But doing so, just because he’s suspicious, would make him no better than them.

 

“If…” Erik ventures carefully, “if you need to read someone’s mind…”

 

The moment Charles had realised Erik wasn’t wearing the helmet, he’d also realised Erik’s mind was unguarded, completely open in a way it’s never been before. He’d promptly walled his own thoughts off, blocking Erik out entirely.

 

“I’m not touching your mind with a ten-foot pole,” he snaps, frustration getting the better of him.

 

Erik recoils. Angel curls towards him, touching his arm, and murmurs something reassuring. Charles refuses to feel guilty.

 

Azazel sneers. “I said this was going to be a waste of time. He’s not going to help us.”

 

“I’ve yet to hear why I should,” Charles counters evenly. He looks back towards Raven. “From what you’ve told me, you went looking for trouble and found it.”

 

“Charles,” Raven protests, stricken. Her gaze flits to Hank, beseechingly.

 

“Six months, without a word.” Hank’s gravelled tone doesn’t hide his hurt.

 

Sean shrugs. “I mean, can you blame us for being wary?”

 

Alex takes a harsher stance. “You show up like nothing happened, to beg for help–”

 

“Is that what you need?” Erik’s voice quivers. He’s clearly still addressing Charles, though he’s not meeting his eyes. “I can beg, if that’s what you–”

 

He’s cut off by Emma’s hand over his mouth. Angel tugs him back; he’d tried to take a step forward before he was silenced. Charles tries not to stare at him. Erik, beg?

 

“You will do no such thing,” Emma declares, indignant. She glares up at them. “I thought the whole point of your school was to provide sanctuary for mutants in need. Yet, you’re going to turn away your own sister? Your friend? You’re a bunch of sanctimonious hypocrites.”

 

“We can be as sanctimonious as we like.” Alex retorts. “Charles doesn’t owe any of you anything.”

 

“Alex,” Charles says tiredly, then shakes his head. “Look, Raven, I–”

 

“It’s killing us, Charles!”

 

This leaves a bleak silence in its wake.

 

“We think it’s killing us,” Raven repeats miserably. “It keeps getting worse, and we don’t know what to do. Please. Help us.”

 

She’s scared, and Charles knows it’s genuine. He looks over the others again; Angel and Janos are both very pale; Azazel’s tightened expression is unhappy. Emma’s fingers are digging into Erik’s arm she’s holding onto him so tightly. And Erik…Erik looks almost resigned.

 

Charles closes his eyes. “All right.” He opens them again, meets Raven’s gaze. “All right. Perhaps you all better come inside and explain exactly what’s happened to you.” He watches as all six of them seem to slump with relief, revealing how much tension they’d actually been carrying.

 

“Thank you,” Raven replies shakily. Then grimaces. “It’s probably easier to show you what’s wrong.”

 

-

 

Because Raven mentioned their afflictions are physical, Charles suggests taking some standard readings and blood tests before starting whatever demonstration they intend.

 

Even though they agree, the Brotherhood all seem uneasy. Erik volunteers himself to go first and appears to be so preoccupied with reassuring his team, he rolls his left sleeve up to his elbow. Everyone’s eyes fall to the numbers on his skin. From what he makes of the reactions, Charles gathers Raven and Emma are the only other ones who already knew about the tattoo.

 

Credit to Hank, who manages to keep his surprise off his expression – though this is probably out of self-preservation, given Erik’s looking right at him.

 

“Whatever you can do to help them–”

 

Us,” Emma corrects pointedly.

 

“Us,” Erik amends. He changes tack then, instead of finishing his sentence, checking in with each member of his team about how they’re feeling as he offers his arm. But he abruptly falls silent when Hank sets the needle to his skin, eyeing it unhappily.

 

“You said this ‘Incident’ happened three weeks ago?” Charles asks, telling himself this is clearly a relevant question, and has nothing to do with distracting Erik from his aversion to needles. Even if it does result in Erik turning his head in Charles’s direction, his attention shifting even though his eyes remain fixed on the needle.

 

Raven nods, but Emma answers. “Yes. This will be the start of the fourth cycle; the cycles last for seven days.”

 

“And worse each time,” Azazel grumbles.

 

“I think we should restrain them, as a precaution,” Alex remarks not-so-quietly to Sean.

 

“No,” Erik says immediately. He swipes his thumb over the crook of his arm and meets Alex’s gaze. “I tried that last time. It was a mistake.” He turns to Angel, coaxing her to relinquish the cape, which she does with reluctance. Erik rolls it up and sets it aside. “And, you have Charles.” Erik says this very slowly, as though each word is in danger of shattering. The Brotherhood all eye Erik apprehensively, as if he’s the one who’s going to shatter.

 

“What will this demonstration involve?” Charles asks cautiously.

 

Once again, Emma’s the first to answer. “Seven minutes of madness,” she deadpans. A shiver runs through her, then she sticks her nose in the air. “And given this is a demonstration, you should restrain yourself if you can, Charles, and not interfere.” Contempt drips from her tone. “I’m sure I don’t have to lecture you about observer-expectancy and the scientific principles of introducing bias.”

 

“Emma,” Erik intones quietly, then cautions Hank not to touch Raven’s skin. Hank isn’t pleased about Erik’s input but heeds the advice as he draws her blood.

 

“Noted,” Charles tells Emma dryly.

 

“Do you need anything?” Hank begins to ask Raven, who’s eyes widen. She shakes her head frantically and ducks away from him, much to Hank’s dismay.

 

“Why, yes, as a matter of fact.” Emma declares. “So glad you asked.” She then proceeds to describe the sort of open-yet-containable space they require.

 

Alex scoffs. I thought Erik was the leader of their little band, he thinks at Charles, as Sean suggests the danger room.

 

Charles shrugs. Emma may be more vocal, but it’s clear she and the rest of the Brotherhood defer to Erik. They’ve been gravitating to him, as if caught in his orbit. Charles tries not to feel any fondness at the conclusion that Erik’s presence is always magnetic.

 

“And as for what we’ll need.” Emma says briskly. “Let’s start with another jumper for Raven. No, two.”

 

Erik glances at Raven. “And a scarf.”

 

“We need food. Bland. Toast and crackers?”

 

“Three loaves; one packet. And a bottle of water.”

 

Emma continues without responding to his input. “A chair. A punching bag, and maybe something else to vent steam with–”

 

“–a treadmill. No weights.”

 

“I need a throne.”

 

“No, you don’t.” Erik’s unmoved by her glare. “A mirror,” he tells her instead and she huffs as if put out.

 

“Fine, a mirror will do.”

 

“Please,” Erik adds, which makes Sean and Hank gawk at him.

 

Leader, Charles observes, and Alex rolls his eyes at him. Aloud, Charles says, “we can arrange that. Sean? Alex? If you wouldn’t mind?”

 

“We can help,” Erik offers, a little too quickly. He’s still not looking at Charles though, which is starting to become a little unnerving. It’s unlike him. Raven and Emma both shift as if they’re about to reach out for Erik but change their minds. “Azazel?”

 

Azazel, who’s just had his blood taken, frowns at Erik and clutches Janos closer.

 

“I’ll watch Janos,” Erik assures him, holding out his arms. “Azazel, you’re the best one to help set everything up in time.”

 

The allusion to a time limit garners Azazel’s agreement. Janos seems indifferent to being handed over but leans into Erik’s side gratefully. Charles is growing more baffled by the whole group’s behaviour.

 

The preparations get taken care of efficiently, and it’s no time at all until the danger room is set up.

 

Erik surrenders Janos back to Azazel as Raven pulls both jumpers on, over the top of her jacket. Erik picks up the scarf. “Here, let me.” When she nods, he loops the scarf around Raven’s middle, getting her to turn so he can knot it at her back.

 

“What if I…if I’m cruel to you?” She whispers.

 

“You won’t be,” he replies calmly. Raven doesn’t look entirely reassured, so Erik adds, “I know you’ll stop if it’s not safe.”

 

This makes her smile a little. “Yeah. Okay.” She sways towards him slightly.

 

Azazel growls, and the two of them step back from each other. Angel tuts at him around her fingers; she’s worrying at her fingernails with her teeth.

 

Emma sidles up to Erik. “I’m ready.” He hums in acknowledgment, sweeping his gaze over the others.

 

“You guys sure are acting really odd.” Sean comments unnecessarily. They’ve all been growing more agitated with each passing minute.

 

“The rapture’s getting close.” Angel murmurs.

 

Alex’s brow furrows. “Rapture?”

 

“Are you familiar with the seven deadly sins?” Emma’s tone is condescending, and she spreads her arms to indicate the six of them.

 

Erik sighs, almost soundlessly, but it still makes Emma scowl and lower her arms. “Timer?” He asks Hank, who nods. “The Rapture lasts for seven minutes, from Janos collapsing.” Erik then points to the danger room, clearly an order for his team. The Brotherhood file into the room without further comment or complaint. Erik hovers at the threshold.

 

“Erik?” Charles prompts warily.

 

Erik sucks in a sharp breath. “If things get out of hand,” he says slowly, his gaze trained off to Charles’s right, “if you feel you need to intervene, to protect them, then please, do so. I don’t care what Emma said.” He hesitates. “I…”

 

He’s trembling, Charles notices suddenly.

 

Erik abruptly reels back, still not looking at him. He slips into the danger room and seals the door behind him. The four of them exchange uneasy glances; Erik advising caution doesn’t bode well.

 

Charles leads the others to the observation booth, where they can monitor the room from behind two-way glass. Janos is sitting in the only chair with the rest of the Brotherhood hovering around him, waiting as Erik approaches.

 

“Is anyone else really nervous all of a sudden, or is it just me?” Sean asks. Alex shushes him. Charles resists the urge to tap his fingers against his armrest, keeping his attention on their guests.

 

“Here we go again,” Azazel bites out, tone sharp with agitation.

 

“Hopefully for the last time.” Angel tries to fold her arms around her middle. Erik catches her hands, smooths his thumbs over the back of them as she looks at him.

 

“We’re going to be okay,” he addresses not only her but the whole team. “Try to ignore our audience. We are a Brotherhood. We’ll get through this.” Erik makes sure to look at each of them in turn. “I’ll keep you safe.”

 

Everyone but Janos smiles slightly at his reassurances, but the smiles aren’t nice ones; Raven’s and Angel’s are laced with dread, Emma’s and Azazel’s border on a sneer. Janos’s expression barely twitches at all.

 

Erik takes the hair tie from around Angel’s wrist. “Angel. Moderation works best if it’s for good reasons.” He gathers up her hair in his hands and expertly twists it up until he can tie it into a bun at the back of her head. “Even if your body betrays you; your heart is strong.”

 

Angel reaches over her shoulder to touch two fingers to the wing tattoo on her skin. She nods at him, then withdraws, warily putting some distance between herself and the small table of food. Erik turns to Janos next, bracing his hands on the man’s shoulders. “This is real. And we’re not going to let you disappear. Understand?”

 

After a long pause, Janos slowly nods once.

 

“Erik,” Raven implores nervously when he looks towards her.

 

“You are beautiful,” Erik tells her firmly. “But don’t ever think your worth lies in what someone else sees when they look at you.”

 

Hank shifts uncomfortably. Charles bites his lip. He doesn’t want to think about whether it means something more, Erik finding Raven beautiful. He notices that neither of them moves to touch each other and he isn’t sure what to make of the deliberate space between them.

 

Raven turns on her heel and heads for the far side of the room. She glances at Azazel as she moves past him, but he doesn’t notice. He’s too busy glaring at Erik, clenching and unclenching his fists.

 

Erik meets the glare coolly. “The wolf is beaten not for being grey, but for having eaten a sheep.”

 

Oddly, this makes some of the tension leave Azazel’s shoulders. The man’s grin is just as sharp as his glare was though. “To live with wolves, you have to howl like a wolf.” His fingers twitch as his eyes flicker to Erik’s throat, then he curls them into fists again and makes for the corner where the gym equipment is set up.

 

Erik and Emma look at each other.

 

“I don’t need help,” she insists.

 

“I know what you need,” he replies simply.

 

She opens her mouth to say something else, pauses, then purses her lips instead. Her gaze shifts over Erik’s shoulder to focus on the glass. Charles isn’t sure whether she’s looking at it, at her reflection, or towards it, as if trying to see them.

 

When she looks back at Erik, all she says is, “good.”

 

And then they’re all silent, waiting. Bracing themselves. Erik’s the only one who doesn’t seem self-reflective; his gaze tracks around the room, assessing each of his companions in turn.

 

Almost half a minute later, it begins.

 

Janos goes completely limp, slumping back in the chair. His eyes are open, the only sign he’s still conscious, but his gaze is unfocused.

 

Azazel rushes forward, fists raised, and begins thrashing the punching bag. A terrible snarl contorts his features, low growls reverberating up from his chest. The desperation he applies to his task is eerily mirrored with Angel’s, as she staggers towards the table. She hunches over it and uses both hands to seize pieces of toast, shovelling them into her mouth. She chews frantically, but barely pauses between one slice and the next.

 

Raven groans, pulling at her clothes. She manages to untangle the scarf, then starts shedding her layers. She occasionally pauses to swipe at the back of her neck, pressing her palm to her cheek, resting her arm against her forehead; as if she’s instantly overheated.

 

Erik sways, a physical sign of uncharacteristic indecision. He chooses to attend to Janos, kneeling by the chair and checking the man’s vitals. Emma, who’d been giving herself an appreciative once over and admiring herself in the mirror, snaps her focus to Erik the instant his knees touch the floor. “Erik! Worship me!”

 

“The hell…?” Alex breathes, taking in the unfolding scene. Charles can only shake his head, and Hank and Sean are similarly speechless.

 

Erik!

 

“You’re incredible, Emma.” Erik’s words are earnest, insistent, but he doesn’t take his eyes off Janos. “Talented. Fabulous. Gorgeous. You are a queen. You deserve respect, adoration.”

 

“Yes,” Emma agrees, near euphoric. “Yes.”

 

The sound Raven makes when she finally removes all of her clothing is akin to a moan. She stands there, blue and naked, her whole body shivering. She takes a step forward, towards Azazel, her eyes tracing over the shift of his muscles as he works at the bag.

 

“You’re powerful.” Erik continues. Seemingly finished with his inspection of Janos – though clearly not satisfied – he stands again. “You’re a woman who knows what she wants, and deserves all of it, everything.” Erik turns a concerned look towards Angel as she makes a choked sound somewhere in her throat, and as such doesn’t notice that Raven’s gaze has slid across to him. “You’re beautiful and you know it. You own it, and you should.”

 

Raven gasps, like it’s been punched out of her, then starts towards him. “Erik. Fuck me.”

 

Charles freezes. Distantly, he notices Hank make a strangled, wounded sound; and Azazel ceasing his boxing, spinning around to glare across the room, his body coiled with tension. But Charles is stuck on Raven wanting Erik. Is this why she wanted to leave with him? Is this why he asked her? Does Erik want her too?

 

“No,” Erik says, firm but not unkind. He sets his hand on Angel’s back, rubbing it up and down as she gags around her mouthful of food. “Easy, Angel. Chew, swallow. Breathe. Breathe, Angel.” He catches her wrist with his other hand as she reaches for more food. Her cheeks are bulging. “I don’t want you to choke.”

 

“Erik,” Raven pleads, drawing closer to him. She shapeshifts, blonde hair and bare human skin, causing Sean to squeak. “I need it, need you.” She touches Erik’s arm, his shoulder. Her breast brushes against his back.

 

Erik rolls his shoulder as if to dislodge her, his attention still on Angel, who’s begun to squirm in an attempt to reach more food with the hand he’s restraining.

 

“Erik!” Emma demands. “Pay attention to me!”

 

“Yes, Emma. A moment.” But Erik’s tone clearly indicates this time he’s placating her. “Angel – no, Raven. I’m sorry.”

 

When he shakes off her hand, Raven steps back. Her expression is odd, part yearning, part calculating. She shimmers, altering her form. Her blonde hair shortens, her curves being replaced with sharper angles. Her chest flattens, whilst another area of her anatomy swells.

 

Now, Raven could be her own twin brother.

 

Alex curses quietly. Charles feels like his insides have tied themselves up into knots.

 

Raven drapes herself against Erik’s back, and Erik goes very, very still. Enough so, it enables Angel to pull away from him. She snatches up more toast and stuffs them past her lips.

 

“Erik,” Raven purrs in a low baritone. “Please.” She presses her mouth to his neck, not quite a kiss, and licks at his skin. “Erik.”

 

Erik still doesn’t move, except to shut his eyes. He doesn’t say anything.

 

There’s a roar from Azazel, a burst of smoke and whump of displaced air as he teleports. He reappears right beside Raven, seizing her and hauling her away from Erik. “Why do you keep asking him?” He shouts in Raven’s face. He shoves her, practically throws her aside. When Raven hits the floor, she’s herself – and blue – again.

 

This gains a response from Erik. He turns, reaching a hand out – “Azazel” – then has to pull back to dodge the fist Azazel swings at him.

 

Emma, who’s been keening and reiterating her commands for Erik, for anyone, to pay attention to her, culminates her point in a shrill scream. “Worship me! Or I’ll make you!” Emma grapples with the helmet, twisting her body as her fingers scramble for purchase. The X-Men all start a little at the implication, but it quickly becomes clear the helmet isn’t budging. None of them need the swift glance Erik throws her way, or Emma’s outraged shouts to work out why she can’t remove the helmet. “Erik! Take it off, take it off, let me go! I’ll make you! I’ll make all of you!” She screams.

 

Raven moans, the sound teetering between frustration at her unsatisfied desires and actual physical pain. “I know what you want.” It’s difficult to tell which of the two men she’s addressing. “I can be that. Fuck me. Oh, please.”

 

Azazel, riddled with fury, presumes she’s still talking to Erik. He throws another punch, which Erik deflects. “Why the fuck does she prefer you? You don’t even like women! She has me now, doesn’t need you!” He manages to get a hold of Erik and teleports them across the room so he can slam Erik’s back into a wall.

 

Erik winces. “I won’t let you hurt any of them,” he warns. It sounds like a promise.

 

Raven’s shaking so badly she doesn’t even attempt to stand. “Azazel. Azazel. You want me? I’m yours.”

 

Emma screams again. “Why are you fighting over her, when you should be fighting over me?” She stops pulling at the helmet and whirls around, demanding attention from Angel and Janos instead.

 

Angel’s gotten through all of the toast and is currently dry-retching, even as she seizes the crackers. She gags on them, but doesn’t spit them out, keeps on eating. Janos, listing sideways, falls from the chair. He makes no effort to stop or catch himself, and crumples to the floor with a dull thud.

 

Erik notices. “Janos!” The treadmill picks itself up and throws itself into the wall next to him – the unexpected action makes Azazel flinch. Erik takes the opportunity to punch him, twist his arm behind his back, and shove him into the wall. Erik doesn’t hold onto him though, immediately releasing Azazel so he can make a beeline for Janos instead. He’s barely halfway there when there’s another whump of air and smoke. Azazel tries to grab Erik in a stranglehold, but Erik kicks at his legs and flips him, sending Azazel crashing to the floor.

 

Erik sways again, one hand stretched towards Janos and one towards Azazel. His gaze catches on Emma, who’s trying once again to remove the helmet. “Emma, it’s okay, I swear. I–”

 

“Kneel!” She shrieks, and then her demeanour transforms to blissful when Erik instantly sinks down to one knee, body angled towards her.

 

“I said I’d look after you,” Erik reminds her.

 

“You did.” Emma sighs wistfully. “You look after me. Just as you should.”

 

Raven whines from where she’s lying on the floor. She’s been trailing a hand over herself; down her side, to her thigh, back up to her stomach, across her breast, and then repeating the motion. “Azazel. My red star. Fuck me.”

 

Having rolled back onto his feet, Azazel’s anger doesn’t abate as he shifts his attention from Erik to her. “Oh, I’ll fuck you all right,” he snarls and advances on her.

 

“Azazel, no! Don’t hurt her!” Erik leaps up and tackles Azazel around the middle, sending both of them sprawling to the floor. Raven’s wail is one of agony and she curls up on herself.

 

Emma looks at Raven like she’s only just seeing her. “Mystique.” Emma smiles, slow and sly. “Come here, Mystique. You can worship me, sugar.”

 

“Yes,” Raven’s voice cracks on the plea. She starts crawling over to her. “Emma, please.”

 

Azazel and Erik are still wrestling on the floor, and Erik does something that makes Azazel curse in pain. But when Erik scrambles up, clearly aiming to intercept Raven, he doesn’t get very far before he’s accosted again. Azazel wraps his fingers around Erik’s throat and bares down. Erik jerks, grapples at him, but Azazel’s hold doesn’t give.

 

“I’m going to fucking kill you,” Azazel hisses, and his thoughts clearly indicate his intent to do exactly that.

 

Charles’s fingers are against his temple the moment he sees the flicker of panic across Erik’s expression. Azazel freezes, fingers going slack so Erik can wrench himself backwards.

 

“Charles?” Alex asks worriedly.

 

“I’ve got him,” Charles acknowledges.

 

His body may be immobile, but his mind isn’t; Azazel’s wrath not just at being held captive, but just in general, is more all-consuming than anything Charles has ever experienced before. And this includes Erik’s hatred of Shaw.

 

Erik’s still sitting on the floor, his palms braced behind him, his chest heaving as he wheezes down air. He’s staring, not at Azazel in front of him but at the glass, his expression reverent. He’s staring directly at Charles.

 

Charles has to remind himself that Erik can’t actually see him, is looking at the mirror, not at him. It’s not like Erik knows exactly where he is.

 

Erik shudders, and it perfectly echoes the almost infinitesimal shudder that runs through Charles’s metal wheelchair. Charles’s breath hitches.

 

Struggling for composure, Erik shuts his eyes and shakes his head slightly. “Azazel. Janos. Angel. Emma. Raven.” Erik’s fingers curl, dragging across the floor. “Charles–”

 

Angel’s wordless, close-lipped scream cuts through the air. Her cheeks are swollen with the last of the crackers – there’s no more food left on the table – and she begins to throw the plates to the floor. This gains Erik’s focus, but only for a moment before he turns it to the other two women.

 

Raven’s kneeling in front of Emma, sliding her hands up Emma’s legs, over her hips, as she chants, “please, Emma, please.” Raven tugs at Emma, trying either to pull herself up to her feet or drag Emma down onto her.

 

“Yes,” Emma’s saying languidly. “Of course, you chose me.”

 

“Raven, Emma,” Erik croaks. He picks himself back up, but even as he starts towards them Angel screams again – open-mouthed this time, her mouth empty – and upends the table. She turns in a circle, spies Janos lying near her. She cries out, desperate, horrified and helpless. Erik changes direction mid-run, but Angel’s already dropping down beside Janos, grabbing his arm as she leans in.

 

Janos doesn’t so much as twitch as Angel bites him, as unresponsive as a rag doll.

 

Erik’s on her immediately, prying her jaw open and dragging her away from him. Angel flails, legs kicking, snapping her teeth. There’s blood on Janos’s arm and staining her mouth.

 

“I’m the best there is,” Emma says as Raven pulls on her wrists, trying to put Emma’s hands where she wants them. “I’ll be the best you’ll ever have.” Emma teases her nails over the inside of Raven’s thigh, but goes no further, smirking at Raven’s sob. Then she shifts her gaze, so she’s smirking at the two-way glass instead.

 

Charles wonders whether she expects him to interfere, considers whether he should. The anxious manner in which Hank’s bouncing his leg isn’t helping him decide. Given the helmet, he’ll have to invade Raven’s mind. He’s more apprehensive about breaking his promise to her than being exposed to his sister’s undoubtedly explicit desires, but either way he may have no choice. Neither woman is in a position to consent to the actions they’re angling for. But even if he stops Raven, there’s nothing he can do about Emma.

 

The sudden trill of the stopwatch is startling.

 

The end is as sudden as the beginning was.

 

Azazel’s rage doesn’t vanish, but instead loosens its hold, giving him back a sense of situational awareness. His first reaction is horrified concern for both Raven and Erik, so Charles releases him and withdraws from his mind. Azazel puts his face in his hands and breathes.

 

Angel goes limp in Erik’s arms, retching. Erik shifts his hold on her with practised ease, so that when she throws up, the mess misses both of them. Some of the bile she ejects sizzles, dissolving the shattered plate fragments it touches. Erik cranes his head around to look over his shoulder, calling hoarsely for Emma and Raven.

 

Both women are slowly removing their hands from each other. “We’re fine,” Emma replies, but her voice isn’t as self-assured as it’s been since her arrival.

 

Raven sits, drawing her legs up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her knees. “Yes.” Her scales ripple: she’s now wearing a simple white jumpsuit, which is sleeveless with pant legs down to her ankles.

 

Erik helps Angel sit, locating and handing her the water bottle. As Angel rinses her mouth and spits, Erik moves to check on Janos. But in contrast to his earlier urgency, Erik now seems to be flagging. “…Azazel?”

 

“Here.” Azazel slowly walks over. He and Emma each offer Raven a hand to stand and she accepts both. All of the Brotherhood are now openly watching Erik, including Janos, who still isn’t moving at all but has regained a focus to his gaze.

 

“Janos,” Erik murmurs as he concludes his inspection of the man’s injury. Then continues, “Azazel. Raven. Angel. Emma.” He sounds like he’s reciting a checklist.

 

Emma walks over to Erik and sinks to her knees beside him, putting her hand on his shoulder. “We’re all okay. You kept us safe,” she assures him.

 

“I did good?”

 

“So good, Erik. I’m so proud of you.”

 

Erik makes a small noise and slumps against her in relief. She wraps her arms around him.

 

Charles and the others in the observation booth continue to stare, still shocked by what they’ve witnessed. Sean is the one to broach the silence. “I guess they weren’t exaggerating about needing help.”

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

“Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” – Proverb

 

-

 

They congregate in one of the large sitting rooms Charles is thinking about designating a staff room eventually. The Brotherhood arrange themselves on one of the couches, again gravitating around Erik. He’s between Angel and Emma, leaning his weight against the latter. Angel has the cape wrapped around her once more, covering her body as she would while wearing a towel, her feet tucked up beside her. Janos is sitting on the floor in front of her, braced against Erik’s legs. He has Azazel’s tail wrapped around his wrist, the tip resting loosely in his palm; Azazel’s perched on the armrest beside Angel. Raven’s standing behind the couch, her hand on Erik’s shoulder.

 

Erik’s obviously content, having remained pliant as they’ve crowded around him. Charles is steadfastly ignoring his own bitter sense of nostalgia – Erik used to be this comfortable around him. Emma has one of Erik’s hands in hers and is tracing patterns on the back of it with her fingers. Charles keeps his own hands folded in his lap, lest he be tempted to trace similar patterns on the metal armrests of his chair.

 

There are other things he’s ignoring, out of courtesy. He’s pretending he doesn’t know that Angel cried in the bathroom after she forced herself to throw up again; or that Raven and Azazel disappeared into her old bedroom for half an hour.

 

Alex and Sean choose to flank him instead of taking seats elsewhere, still maintaining a sense of vigilance. Hank’s brow is furrowed as he sinks into an armchair. He balances his clipboard against his knees, rolling his pen between his fingers with a distracted air.

 

“Tell me about this Incident,” Charles says to the group. Erik’s eyes flicker open at the sound of his voice, but his gaze stays aimed at the carpet. They all look uneasy.

 

Raven answers. “We broke into a government funded research facility that’s looking to find a way to incapacitate or control mutants. We walked into a trap.”

 

“But they underestimated Erik.” Emma pats at his hand.

 

Angel snickers. “Magneto’s motivated force was stronger than their machine’s magnetomotive force.”

 

Erik preens a little at their words, but then his smile falters. “But I couldn’t protect you.”

 

“You did.” Raven insists firmly, and the others murmur their agreement. Erik’s smile returns, albeit smaller.

 

“There was a ball of light.” Azazel taps the centre of his chest. “It was hot. And then I was so angry.”

 

“That started the first Rapture.” Angel smooths her hand over purple fabric. “An overload of raw emotion, then it was over. We left immediately after.”

 

“We thought that was the end of it.” Raven sighs. “But during the week we started feeling off. Aftereffects, we thought. But then the Rapture hit again.”

 

“Is it the same emotion – same sin – every time?” Hank asks, and Raven nods.

 

“We were lucky,” Emma says, though she uses the word like it personally offends her. “My sin suits me well enough; it’s easily controlled most of the time. And Erik’s done a wonderful job looking after all of us.”

 

“We were lucky about me,” Erik says quietly.

 

“Oh, yes, absolutely,” she agrees instantly, entirely sincere on this point. “Erik afflicted with anything else would’ve been a disaster for everyone.”

 

Charles’s first thought is anger, how most of the other sins would’ve fed this aspect of Erik’s nature and sent him on a killing spree. Even apathy could’ve been dangerous – what would’ve happened if Erik had abruptly no longer cared about his teammates? Especially, Charles thinks uncharitably, considering how much damage he’s capable of when he does care.

 

“I’m sure he’d have no trouble taking what he wanted from lust,” Hank mutters.

 

Unbidden, Charles imagines Erik naked and flushed with want, mind alight with pleasure, unashamed to demand more

 

A burst of irritation from Raven jerks him out of his thoughts. She deliberately misunderstands the comment, sidestepping the shapeshifting jab she knows Hank was making. “Oh, so I should’ve taken whatever I wanted then? Lay off. You don’t know anything about what Erik wants.”

 

“Clearly not a woman,” Alex remarks dryly, but he’s startled when Erik flinches. Charles is very uncomfortable with this line of conversation, and desperately hopes his face doesn’t look as flushed as it feels.

 

Charles knows Erik’s gay, of course. He’d known practically everything about Erik. It’s just never been something they’d ever discussed. It’s not – there’d been no reason to discuss it. Obviously.

 

Raven rounds on Alex. “So what? I’m queer too. I like men and women; it doesn’t mean I want to fuck everyone in this room.”

 

“You’re queer?” Sean parrots, eyes wide. Raven turns her gaze onto him, expression daring him to make something of it.

 

“Yes, she is,” Emma states. “But Mystique isn’t attracted to me, which I find ridiculous. None of it has any bearing on her behaviour in Rapture. And for the record, I would’ve had Erik if he’d–”

 

“Stop,” Erik insists. He pulls his hand free of Emma’s to scrub at his face. “I don’t want to talk about my desires.” He sounds pained and rubs his thumb over his tattoo; both of his sleeves are still rolled up to his elbows.

 

Alex blanches, a little horrified by the thought that Erik might be wary because of his experience with Nazis. “Uh, sorry.”

 

Erik startles, meets Alex’s gaze. “Thank you?” He’s genuinely taken aback, which is the most heartbreaking reaction to an apology Charles has ever witnessed. He restrains the urge to reach for Erik’s mind to offer comfort, then has to remind himself that he doesn’t read Erik’s thoughts anymore, shouldn’t want to.

 

“Let’s not argue,” he suggests. They can’t afford to waste time; based on the Brotherhood’s best estimations they only have about twenty minutes of unhindered clarity left before their symptoms begin to resurface. “Hank? What did all their tests indicate?” Hank had run another set of identical tests immediately after the Rapture, for comparisons.

 

Hank lifts up his clipboard, frowning. “Well firstly, everyone’s dopamine levels are off, which makes sense given it controls emotional responses. All their cortisol levels are quite high too; it’s released under stress.” He taps his pen to the page. “In comparison to the others, Janos’s cortisol levels are very high. Prolonged elevation like this can cause muscle atrophy.” He glances to where Janos is sitting, unmoving on the floor. “His melatonin levels are high too, which accounts for his lethargy. But with his dopamine deficiency, his results could lean more towards akinetic mutism.”

 

“Which is?” Azazel asks, somewhat pointedly.

 

“Lacking the will to move or speak,” Hank explains. “Is this the case, or is he physically unable to?”

 

“We’re not sure,” Angel says. “He understands us, but he stopped talking early on.”

 

“I could’ve found out,” Emma proclaims. “If I’d been allowed to take this thing off–”

 

“No.”

 

Emma slaps Erik’s knee. “I know.” Charles suspects from the look they exchange that she’s tried to remove the helmet on a few occasions.

 

“Janos?” Charles asks. “I can answer for you, if you like.”

 

Janos’s gaze tracks slowly across to him. He doesn’t so much as nod as he does let his head tilt forward. His mind is like treacle, his thoughts wisps of cotton candy dissolving away into nothing.

 

“Everything’s too much effort, in general.” Charles conveys. “But atrophy seemed a factor during the Rapture.”

 

Hank’s worried by this answer, but turns his attention back to his clipboard. “Azazel’s results are straightforward; elevated heart rate and blood pressure; high adrenaline and norepinephrine; and a substantial surge in testosterone. All markers of aggression.” Azazel’s eyes flicker towards Raven but he says nothing. “Angel’s blood sugar and insulin levels are dangerously low, but she’s got an excess of ghrelin, much more than I’d expect to see.”

 

“What does that do?” Angel asks nervously.

 

“It prompts hunger responses, basically indicating an empty stomach.” Hank considers her. “Your dopamine levels are amongst the highest. Dopamine also impacts the pleasure-and-reward system, so when your levels are high, you need to go further to be satisfied. Has your appetite been getting worse?”

 

“Yeah.” Angel pulls a face. “I’m always hungry, never full. And I keep wanting to eat more and more.”

 

“But you’re having trouble keeping it down?”

 

Angel bites her lip. “Not…exactly.”

 

Erik works his arm around her shoulder. “That’s psychological, not physical,” he tells Hank. Angel hides her face against his shirt.

 

“Ah, okay,” Hank murmurs. He refers back to his notes. “Emma has low oxytocin levels.”

 

“The love hormone?” Sean pipes up curiously.

 

“Essentially, yes,” Hank says wryly. “But it does more than that. Low oxytocin has been linked with narcissism and a lack of empathy.”

 

Emma tuts. “That’s rubbish. I’ve been very considerate.”

 

“Remove me from the equation,” Erik suggests.

 

She ponders this. “Oh. Fair enough.”

 

Charles bristles a little, unsure what to make of them. When he first heard the news that Magneto had broken her out of the CIA, he’d been unable to shake the feeling he’d been replaced. Is she his confidant as well as his telepath? Emma catches his reaction and drops him a wink, her lip curling.

 

Erik doesn’t notice their exchange. He’s looking at Hank, who continues his assessment of Emma. “Larger concentrations of serotonin and endorphins induce euphoria, which she’s shown signs of.” Hank makes an inclusive, sweeping gesture with his pen. “For the four of them, all their readings follow the trends; if they had high results before the Rapture, they had higher ones afterwards; and vice versa for lower levels.”

 

Raven frowns. “What about me and Erik?” She starts worrying at her lower lip.

 

Hank lifts the sheet on his clipboard, referring to the page beneath it. “Your heart rate and blood pressure are elevated too; both went up. You had really low oxytocin levels before the Rapture, but they skyrocketed afterwards, even though you didn’t, um.”

 

“Sate my desires?” She offers matter-of-factly.

 

“Er, yes. Such an, um, act, would correspond to a rush of oxytocin.” Hank doesn’t meet her gaze, but barrels on despite his awkwardness. “How did this Rapture compare to the previous ones?”

 

Janos has his eyes closed, but the rest of the Brotherhood look to Erik to answer. “Everyone seemed a little more self-aware this time around.” Observer-expectancy, Charles thinks. “But the intensity was greater across the board, like always.”

 

“Then the concern is how everyone’s baseline is shifting with each cycle.” Hank certainly does a good job in not letting on just how concerning this point is. Charles had been hoping they’d been incorrect about the effects growing worse.

 

When Alex asks what this means, Erik turns towards him. “Azazel’s adrenaline starts here and rises, then next time starts here,” Erik raises his hands, staggering their placement to indicate one point higher than the other. “Raven’s oxytocin ends up here,” he indicates the higher hand, “and comes down to here,” he lowers it, but not below the first one, “then this is her new low point for the next cycle.”

 

That’s not sustainable, Charles thinks at Hank.

 

No, it’s not, Hank agrees grimly. “Erik, is the pattern linear or exponential?”

 

“Exponential,” is the immediate verdict. “Their symptoms kick in faster and stronger with each cycle; and I find it harder not to want–” Erik chokes back his words, cutting himself off. He presses a clenched fist against his chest.

 

“What about Erik’s tests?” Raven repeats.

 

“Low dopamine and endorphins.” Hank’s a little sheepish when he adds, “but I’m not sure how those would compare to his usual baseline.”

 

Angel frowns. “Why?”

 

“Because I’m a miserable person?” Erik offers, utterly deadpan. He doesn’t react to the disapproving looks his team gives him but allows Emma to retake his hand, lacing their fingers together.

 

Hank doesn’t necessarily disagree with this but fortunately knows better than to say it. “Low dopamine can correlate to a tendency for risk-taking. And endorphins are involved in regulating the body’s responses to pain. I figure Erik must have a high pain tolerance anyway, but he may not be able to tell the difference if he’s compromised.”

 

Azazel shoots a bleak look towards Erik, specifically at the faint bruising visible on his neck.

 

“So Erik’s maybe normal?” Sean’s question is dubious. Charles doesn’t like the implications inherent in Erik being the only one unaltered by overwhelming sin, but Hank’s already shaking his head.

 

Erik’s oxytocin levels are extraordinarily high. As in, more than I’d expect to see in a woman in labour.”

 

“Which explains the overprotective maternal instincts, I guess.” Raven runs her fingers through Erik’s hair.

 

He leans back into the touch. “There’s nothing overprotective about it,” he remarks.

 

Hank frowns at them, then quickly looks back down at his clipboard. “Let’s say Raven’s levels were twenty percent before, one hundred percent after. Erik’s came down from one hundred to only about eighty afterwards. So even though there was a drop, it was negligible.”

 

“So, it’s more like he’s stuck in one gear with the accelerator to the floor?” Alex muses, an analogy which Sean voices his approval of.

 

But over-rev an engine too long and the wheels will come off. Charles knows oxytocin can also function as an anti-depressant, so it’s likely keeping Erik’s emotions tethered in the positive spectrum. What’s going to happen when he eventually crashes?

 

Aloud, Charles says, “comparing their current levels to their original baselines might help serve as a reference point.” When they’d been working in tandem with the CIA, Hank had run complete physicals on each mutant – except Erik, of course, whose simple refusal hadn’t brokered any argument to the contrary. “Then we can look at how to reverse the effects.”

 

“Good idea.” Hank rests his clipboard back down against his knees. “Raven? Angel? We can get started on comprehensive tests straight away, if that’s okay?”

 

But Angel shakes her head, looking distressed. “No, no, I don’t think I can do that. I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

 

“Then you won’t,” Erik states. Angel curls into his side, hiding her face again.

 

“It’s okay, Angel,” Raven says calmly. “I can do it.”

 

Azazel’s eyes narrow slightly, gaze flitting between her and Hank. “I’m coming with you.”

 

“If you like.” Raven raises an eyebrow at him. “But then so is Erik. I’m not having you near Hank without Erik present.” Hank’s taken aback by this remark, torn between concern and annoyance.

 

Azazel scowls at her. “Isn’t your brother good enough to chaperone?”

 

“Charles can come too. But we’ll need Erik there; you know we will.”

 

“I wanted Erik to watch Janos,” Azazel says, but his change in tone suggests he doesn’t disagree with her.

 

Erik nudges Janos’s shoulder with his knee, as if to include him in the conversation. “Emma will watch Janos for us.” He looks at her expectantly and she straightens to attention like he’s given her a vital task.

 

“We best get started then.” Charles swallows, gathers his resolve, then addresses Erik directly. “Erik, you and I should probably discuss precautions for if your team’s symptoms escalate in the meantime.”

 

Erik twitches. He turns towards Charles, but his gaze skitters down to the carpet again. “I’ll take responsibility for them. I know their pressure points, the warning signs, so we should be okay.” Charles tilts his head a little, trying to catch Erik’s gaze when his voice wavers, but Erik ducks his head down, pulling his line of sight further back, towards his own feet. It suddenly becomes apparent to Charles that it’s only him Erik won’t look at; he’s had no trouble making eye contact with Hank or Alex. “We’ve got some contingencies in place–”

 

Look at me, please,” he demands sharply.

 

Erik’s head jerks, eyes snapping up to meet his. Charles instantly regrets it; he’d forgotten how intense it feels to have Erik’s complete focus. If the eyes are windows to the soul, it’s because of the emotions that shine through them. Erik’s present emotions are a tumultuous storm beneath a veneer of calm and as such renders his expression unreadable. This is probably a good thing, as Charles abruptly decides he doesn’t want to know what Erik’s feeling.

 

“Thank you,” he says lightly, trying to downplay what’s just happened. “Please continue.”

 

“And you’re here.” Erik doesn’t add anything further. He doesn’t look away from him either, his gaze holding steady. Charles is the one who turns his gaze aside, and notices Emma and Raven are both watching Erik intently.

 

Charles looks at Hank instead. Raven thought it was killing them.

 

Hank tries not to grimace. The prolonged stress their bodies are under could very well be fatal if it continues like this for much longer. And at this stage, he considers ‘much longer’ to be ‘not long after the next Rapture.’

 

“Well, all right then. We should get Raven’s tests underway.” Charles steers his chair towards the door. “Follow me.”

 

“Yes.” Erik’s response is a little too heartfelt to be solely about heading to the lab.

 

-

 

“So, now you understand why I didn’t want you in my head before?” Raven asks.

 

“Yes, perhaps that was a good idea.” Charles is glad she feels less anxious enough to tease him. He can sense her strong hope that he’ll be able to help them, and he squeezes her hand. “And despite the circumstances, it’s good to see you again.”

 

“Yeah, you too. I’ve missed you, Charles.” She glances at Erik, who’s helping Hank set up the equipment. “We both have.” She lowers her voice. “I’m really sorry about – about what happened to you. We didn’t know how badly you’d been hurt.”

 

“Neither did I, at first.” He smiles gently at her. “I did find it reassuring, to know you were nearby, at the hospital.”

 

“Azazel took me; stayed with me while I was there.” Her expression softens as she looks at the man. Azazel’s standing at the far end of the room, arms folded, watching Erik and Hank. His thoughts have an edge of irritation to them, the low buzz passively aimed at both men.

 

“I don’t mean to pry,” Charles says leadingly. Raven’s genuine affection for Azazel surprises him; he hadn’t realised they were in an actual relationship.

 

She understands his meaning. “I’ve been with Azazel for about two months now.” Her train of thought, which had been focused more on why she finds them compatible, suddenly derails. It’s almost as if a shiver runs through her which reorients her attention to the physical components of their dynamic instead. Which then leads her to add, “I slept with Erik too, for a few weeks, not too long after Cuba.” The tone of her thoughts indicates this relationship was sexual, without a romantic component. Charles pulls back a little from her mind, not wanting to hear anything more about it. Raven’s gaze turns shrewd. “Does it bother you?”

 

What does he care, about whether Raven had sex with Erik? It’s none of his business who Erik sleeps with. Or did she mean Azazel? “I thought you didn’t want me to make judgements about what you choose to do with your body?” Charles points out evenly. “Look, as long as you’re happy, and the man you’re with respects you, then I’m happy for you.”

 

Raven falters, caught between her reactions of man OR woman, please don’t ignore my sexual identity – yes, but what do you think of Azazel, could you ever like him, would you approve of him – for god’s sake, your sexual frustration isn’t my problem – and – you and Erik need to sort yourselves out. “Well, thank you,” she settles on, but her tone’s brittle, and she pulls her hand out of his.

 

Charles wants to refute those two last points have any sort of correlation, but that would mean acknowledging them. Hank calls Raven, indicating he’s ready to start running the tests, and she heads over.

 

Erik hesitates a few seconds, then slowly approaches to take up the position beside Charles. Charles takes a few moments to ensure the mental wall between them is still in place.

 

“Charles–”

 

“So, precautions,” he says, briskly steamrolling over the tentative enquiry. “Earlier you said restraining them didn’t work out?”

 

“I.” Erik pauses, brow furrowing as he changes tacks, to answer instead of ask. “They’re more prone to hurting each other, or themselves, during the Raptures. So we agreed I should tie them down, to see what happened if I denied them what they needed.” He sets a hand on the surface of the table beside him, fingers flexing uneasily. “I spent the whole time trying to keep Azazel’s restraints malleable enough so they wouldn’t tear him to shreds as he tried getting loose. Angel almost chewed off her own tongue – she only finished recovering yesterday.”

 

Charles is horrified. “Raven?”

 

“Spent the whole time screaming about being on fire.”

 

This is also disturbing, because – due to a telepathic mishap on his part when their stepfather died – Raven knows exactly how that feels. He hopes she was exaggerating. “And Emma Frost?” He tries to keep any of the resentment he feels for her out of his tone.

 

“Emma gave a detailed speech listing all the things she was going to do to my mind when she gets the helmet off,” Erik replies indifferently, which is surprising glib given how guarded he usually is about his mind. “But I’m fairly certain she was only half-serious. And she’s not as good as you.” At this, he looks at Charles. The unmistakeable fondness there makes Charles’s chest hurt.

 

“And what sort of problems occur between the Raptures?” He assumes the Raptures are the worst of it, given their attitudes towards the event.

 

“It’s easier to assess their limits; when their moods fluctuate. And they usually let me work around them. If Angel’s meal is twice the size of my portion, she’s convinced she’s eaten more than she has. The more I spar with Azazel reduces how likely he is to try and punch Emma. Janos seems more present after we meditate together. Raven says the mandated periods of physical contact helps her self-control.” Erik’s angled towards him now, practically lounging against the table. His relaxed posture and easy answers broadcast his eagerness to be helpful. “I do what I can for them. But I’m not enou– it’s not enough.”

 

They let me, Erik’s said. But they’re dependant on him, using him as their keystone, and they all know it. Charles wonders who supports Erik if he’s so busy supporting everyone else, but he doesn’t ask, because it’s probably Emma.

 

“You’re monitoring them, right?”

 

Them, not us. He’s aware Charles is deliberately blocking him out then.

 

He nods. Though he obviously cannot sense Emma beneath the helmet, Alex is concentrating on being aware of her for his benefit, and Charles is conscious of the minds of everyone else in the mansion. To exclude one specific mind is actually more difficult than trying to find one within a crowd, but he’s determined to keep this wall between him and Erik in place.

 

“I’m giving you carte blanche on the minds of the whole team.”

 

“You’re what?” Charles stares at Erik.

 

“I told you before, if you need to interfere, do so.” Erik’s eyes skitter away from him. “They trust me; and I trust you.”

 

Charles takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He can’t deal with this.

 

Fortunately, Raven’s raised voice breaks into their conversation. “Erik’s gay and he wouldn’t fuck me, so I thought I’d have better luck as a man. He has never tried to take advantage of my shapeshifting.”

 

“I would never ask Raven to be someone she’s not,” Erik agrees.

 

Raven glances in their direction, her gaze catching on Charles as she thinks, jealousy does not become you.

 

Charles wonders what his expression must be to prompt this – not that he’s prompted this, because she must mean that about Hank. He’s not jealous of anything.

 

Raven looks back at Hank. “And just because I’ve slept with two of my teammates, it doesn’t make me a slut.”

 

“That’s not what I meant,” Hank insists, mortified. Azazel sneers at him, and Erik watches Azazel closely.

 

“Who I sleep with, and how often, would be none of your business,” Raven tells Hank, an acerbic edge to her tone, and he looks away, shamefaced. “But here’s some relevant information. Since this all started, I can get myself off a dozen times and it doesn’t help much. Having someone else touch me is far more rewarding, even if it’s not sexual. You think I’m happy about any of this? It’s not been fun.”

 

“Raven,” Charles interjects. “Forgive me for being a concerned big brother,” – and this makes some of the tension leave her, a small smile appearing on her face – “but I imagine consent becomes an issue for all of you?”

 

Azazel speaks up. “She has a list.”

 

Raven nods. After she gives Erik an imploring look, he elaborates. “For what interactions she’ll allow, and from who. Which things are…excusable, when she’s compromised.” Erik straightens, still eyeing Azazel. “I had everyone set boundaries after the second Rapture.”

 

Charles gets an impression of gratitude from both Azazel and Raven towards Erik for this, but Azazel’s is quickly dissolved by the frustration that bubbles up from beneath it.

 

“Sounds like an ugly mess,” Hank contributes sympathetically, trying to make amends for offending her.

 

“Ugly?” Another shiver runs through Raven, her mood abruptly shifting again. “I think it’s beautiful. Things can be beautiful.” She rakes her gaze over Hank, appreciatively. “Blue can be beautiful, Hank. Erik said –”

 

Erik said,” Azazel snarls, unfolding his arms. His eyes remain fixed on Hank as he balls his hands into fists.

 

“Azazel thinks so too,” she croons. Raven holds her hand out, an offer. “I can show you, Hank.” He takes half a step back, alarmed more by Raven’s sudden attempt at seduction than Azazel’s growl. “Your fur looks so soft. I want to touch you.”

 

“Um.” Hank shakes his head. “No. Please, don’t. I’d rather not be punched.”

 

Flashes of memories flit through Azazel’s mind; fighting with Beast in Cuba, Beast knocking him out after Raven-as-Shaw came to his aid. “A rematch won’t end so well for you, Beast.” Azazel grins darkly, and Charles wonders if he’ll need to freeze him again.

 

“Azazel,” Erik warns. Azazel, aware of how much metal there is in the room, reluctantly heeds him.

 

“Why don’t you want to touch me?” Raven sounds confused as she lowers her hand, which isn’t so much about her question as it is her trying to clear her head. “What’s wrong with my blue skin?”

 

“Nothing.” Erik and Azazel insist simultaneously. When Raven looks towards Azazel, pleased, the man’s fleeting urge to punch Erik is discarded.

 

“I’m sure you two can control yourselves,” Charles says conversationally. Raven covers her eyes with her hand, shaking off her sense of lust enough to feel embarrassed. Azazel glares at him, then at Erik. When Erik arches an eyebrow, Azazel folds his arms again with a huff. Charles braces his elbows on his armrests and steeples his fingers under his chin. “I might need to know more about this initial Incident.” It would be helpful to have more context about what exactly was being researched.

 

“There’s nothing more to tell,” Raven protests unhappily.

 

Erik shrugs when Charles looks at him. “We didn’t end up retrieving any information. I was more worried about getting them out of there. But I can tell you, or show you, whatever you want to know.”

 

Charles shakes his head, letting it go for now. Hank starts to venture a question about resuming the tests, but Charles holds up a hand for silence. His awareness of Janos, which had been minimal to begin with, abruptly dwindles. There’s a pronounced flutter of anxiety from Angel.

 

Professor? Sean calls. Janos won’t wake up.

 

-

 

Charles withdraws from his inspection of Janos’s mind, troubled. “He’s self-aware, though he didn’t seem to notice me. And he’s not exactly dreaming, but he’s thinking about an Inguma?”

 

“A Spanish god who brings nightmares,” Erik explains as he checks Janos’s pulse.

 

“And kills the sleeper,” Azazel snaps. He’s loitering near the doorway, his worry for his friend having overruled his misgivings about leaving Raven and Hank in the lab with only Sean to chaperone them. But his rising stress levels are doing no favours for his temper.

 

“Janos.” Erik’s address is calm this time, unlike the rattled demand it had been ten minutes ago. “You’re safe here. We’re going to fix this.” He looks at Charles. “Can you wake him?”

 

“Possibly,” He replies.

 

“Probably,” Emma corrects without looking up from her book.

 

Azazel’s tail lashes about restlessly. “Wake him then.”

 

But Charles shakes his head. “I’d rather wait until we have a better understanding of what’s causing the problem.” He doesn’t know if trying to force the issue will make things worse. “Janos doesn’t seem to be in any immediate danger.” But they should set him up with an IV drip, given it doesn’t look like Janos is going to wake on his own anytime soon.

 

Azazel draws himself up, bristling. “You wake him up now. Or I’ll–”

 

“If you touch Charles, I’ll kill you.”

 

The words seem to cut through the air like a hot knife slides through butter. Charles feels a shiver slide down everyone’s spine, and even Emma pauses in the act of turning a page.

 

Unbelievably, Erik’s threat calms Azazel down. He smirks and replies in Russian. An enemy will agree, but a friend will argue. Azazel finds Erik’s conviction impressive.

 

Charles chooses not to address any of their exchange. He speaks to Angel instead. “This hasn’t happened before?”

 

She shakes her head. “He dozes sometimes, but even at night he’s not slept this deeply.”

 

Emma snaps her book shut and gets to her feet. “Everyone’s falling apart,” she comments snidely. “Such weakness. Diamonds are beyond compare.” She shoves her book into Erik’s hands without looking at him. Erik’s eyes follow her as she stalks out of the room.

 

“I’ll show her weakness,” Azazel grumbles.

 

“Leave it,” Erik says. There’s an odd undertone to his words Charles can’t place. “I’ll talk to her later.”

 

-

 

Charles is surprised to find Angel in the kitchen come morning rather than Erik.

 

Well, he isn’t surprised to find Angel in the kitchen. But given the odd reluctance Erik had shown in letting him out of his sight last night, taking three attempts to bid him goodnight and head for his old room, Charles had expected to be immediately sought out again.

 

He tries to tell himself it’s because Erik’s being overprotective of everyone, but Raven’s words about Charles being missed echo, so he tries not to think too much about it at all.

 

He greets Angel, intending to ask how she slept, but she jumps at the sound of his voice. She spins around, mind flaring with shame and clutching a cereal box to her chest. There are six bowls on the table beside her.

 

“Sorry.” She shivers a little. “Erik said it would be okay if I ate something.”

 

“It’s alright, Angel, I understand.” He pulls up at the table, watching as she agonizes over putting the box down without adding anything to the last still-empty bowl. Despite her best efforts, she finds herself pouring more cereal. “Where is Erik?”

 

“Outside. He’s sparring with Azazel.”

 

Charles frowns a little. “I assume Emma’s watching them?”

 

“No.” Angel retrieves a milk carton from the fridge. “I haven’t seen her yet. But it’s still early.”

 

“Should they be alone?” He can’t discern any specifics from Azazel’s surface thoughts, just a general aggressive stance on physical exertion. “They weren’t exactly gentle with each other yesterday.”

 

“Azazel’s better about Erik when it’s not about Raven.” The anger makes Azazel forget he doesn’t need to be jealous of Erik, Charles overhears. “Azazel respects him. We all do, but Azazel, um.” Angel pauses to drink from the carton, then sets it on the counter by the sink. “From what I know about how the team worked before,” she says quietly, “Azazel was encouraged to kill indiscriminately. Erik’s been more selective about the issue, and Azazel’s respected that.”

 

The shadow of Shaw is cast heavily over her thoughts, though she very deliberately avoids mentioning him.

 

Angel rests her spoon against the lip of the nearest bowl. “Besides, Erik’s the better fighter. He’ll be okay.” She takes a spoonful of cereal, then another, and then her attention isn’t really on Charles anymore.

 

Something about this simple assessment of Erik’s ability bothers him, but he can’t put his finger on why. He figures it’s due to his own misgivings about violence and, since Azazel and Erik seem to be done with their spar, Charles decides not to worry about it. “No, Sean, you are not making any omelettes,” he informs the young man as he enters the room.

 

“Aw, come on,” Sean complains.

 

“We don’t need another fire.” Alex grins, elbowing Sean as he walks past.

 

Sean pulls a face. “It was a tiny fire. And I put it out straight away!” Charles just looks at him. “Ugh, fine.”

 

“Where’s all the milk gone?” Alex asks, then catches sight of Angel’s breakfast array. “Oh.”

 

Angel stiffens, pulling the spoon slowly out from between her lips. Her eyes dart to the cape, which is hanging over the back of a nearby chair. “I didn’t mean to…” She trails off, her shame reigniting. It flares in her thoughts with a churning acidic burn.

 

“It’s okay, Angel.” Charles reassures her. She seems torn between wanting the food, but not actually wanting to eat any of it. It’s a jarring contrast. If this is how off-balance they’ve all been feeling for the last few weeks, it’s a wonder they’ve been able to function at all.

 

Sean drops into a chair. Trying to be helpful, he suggests, “do you want to come flying with me after breakfast?”

 

The spoon falls from Angel’s fingers, landing in a bowl and splattering milk droplets everywhere. “Flying,” she says, tone flat.

 

“If you want to?” Sean fidgets uncertainly.

 

“If I want to.” Angel’s chest heaves.

 

Alex is apprehensive all of a sudden. “Uh, Angel? Are – are your wings okay?”

 

Charles gets a jumble of memories from all three of them: Sean tumbling from the sky towards the sand; Alex loosing a plasma blast, raw and unrefined; burning pain in Angel’s wing, sizzling, her nerves on fire as she plummets.

 

Angel fixes Alex with a cool stare. She unfurls her wings without a word. At first glance there appears to be nothing wrong; both wings look whole and mobile. But the echo of her pain has Charles examining the edge of her previously injured wing, and then he sees it. Spilling out around that area is textured scarring.

 

“I’m sorry.” Alex says, a little awkwardly. “I – I’m glad they’ve healed.”

 

“My wings don’t heal the same way the rest of my body does.” Angel informs them, her voice shaking.

 

“Alex was protecting me,” Sean points out carefully, trying to defend Alex without upsetting Angel. “What else was he supposed to do? I mean, we were all fighting.”

 

But Angel isn’t listening to him. “It’s ugly. It’s disgusting.” She casts a look at her wing, then looks down. “I’m disgusting. Look at this, this,” Angel presses her hands to her stomach, pushing and squeezing, observing the way her flesh shifts and moves. Bulges, as she sees it. “I’m so fat. I used to be a dancer!” Her mind shrieks, I used to be in perfect shape! “Now I look–” horrible. Swollen. Disgusting.

 

“You look fine,” Charles says, hoping to soothe her before this blows out of proportion. “There’s nothing wrong with your weight.”

 

“I wouldn’t know, because Erik destroyed my scales!” Angel wraps her arms around herself, trying to shield her stomach. She stares at her bowls of food. “I’m so hungry!” She chokes on a sob. “It’s making me fat!”

 

“Your physical proportions are perfectly acceptable,” Erik announces as he enters the room. He reaches for her, and she clings to his arm. Her wings are quivering.

 

“No,” she whines. She clings to a memory of Erik’s voice saying, ‘starving yourself isn’t healthy,’ and she knows he’s right. But her gluttony-ridden body won’t let her stop eating, and the thought of putting all that food into her stomach makes her retch. She turns and runs.

 

“Angel!” Erik calls after her, worriedly. He sways a little, as if about to follow her, but looks towards Charles and seems to change his mind. “How much did she actually eat?”

 

“A bowl and a half.” While he tracks Angel, he covertly looks Erik over but doesn’t see any obvious injuries from his dealings with Azazel.

 

Sean pokes miserably at one of the bowls. “What should we do with these?”

 

Erik sighs. “Leave them. She’ll be back for the rest.”

 

Angel’s made it outside and is throwing up food and acid onto the lawn. Charles winces. “Does this happen every meal?”

 

Erik shakes his head. “At first, only when she ate too much. But now she’s sick twice a day, regardless of how much she eats. And she can’t pace herself during the Raptures, so always after them.”

 

Alex retrieves a bottle of water from the fridge. “Should I take her this?” There’s a general unpleasantness clinging to Alex, guilt about not having considered Angel’s injury during the last six months.

 

Erik considers Alex. “That would be nice of you.” He pulls his cape from the chair. “Here. Take this with you.” Alex gives Erik a tight smile as he drapes it over his arm and heads off after Angel. Erik looks back at Charles again. “Do you…you still like tea? I could make you some?”

 

“Yes, please,” Charles replies out of habit, as if it hasn’t been six months since Erik’s offered him a drink, and he catches himself too late. Before he can amend his answer, Erik brightens and applies himself to the task.

 

“Well, I could–”

 

“No omelettes,” Charles tells Sean again, more sharply than he means to. He tries not to watch Erik move around the kitchen.

 

-

 

When Erik gathers his team to play Yahtzee, Charles is dubious about whether a competitive game is a good idea. But the others seem enthusiastic about the idea; even Azazel needs little coaxing to relinquish his watch over Janos to Alex. Charles accompanies them under the pretence of wanting to be on hand if Hank needs his input while working through his first data set. He won’t deny he’s curious, but he declines both Erik and Raven’s offer to play.

 

The casual way they arrange themselves on the floor suggests they’ve done this before. Angel sits cross-legged, sucking on a lollipop in an attempt to satisfy her hunger pangs, with Raven resting her cheek on Angel’s knee. Raven puts her feet in Azazel’s lap, and he starts massaging them. Erik sits across from them, on his own. Apparently, this is so Erik’s far enough away his presence doesn’t provoke Azazel, who’s channelling his low bubbling tensions into the game instead. This seems to work as an outlet for his frustrations because when Erik decimates them all in the first round, Azazel merely complains about the dice and insists on a rematch. He even tolerates Hank’s occasional question of Raven about her physical responses without doing more than sneering at him.

 

Mostly though, Charles is distracted, because Erik spends the whole time smiling. Sometimes Erik will aim the smile his way, and Charles has to pretend he’s entirely absorbed in editing his thesis.

 

It’s late afternoon when Emma emerges. Erik, obviously sensing the helmet, turns to look towards the door several seconds before Charles hears her boots sounding on the floorboards.

 

“Erik!”

 

Charles wonders if she really has been holed up in her guest room this whole time, as her teammates believe. Does she usually isolate herself for this long? It doesn’t seem conducive to her pride. But if this isn’t normal, why has she done so on this occasion? Charles feels like they’re trying to build a working theory with only half the available data. How are they possibly going to find a solution before the next Rapture occurs?

 

Erik gestures her over. “You’ll be glad to be on my team, Emma. We’re winning.”

 

“Of course we are,” she says, mollified. She remains standing near the doorway. “We’re the two most powerful mutants here.” Then her voice goes cold. “Isn’t that right?”

 

Erik hesitates, which prompts a furious scowl from Emma. “You’re the most powerful woman in this room,” he replies, and her expression clears, satisfied with this.

 

Charles doesn’t miss Erik’s eyes flickering in his direction and admits he did a good job getting around that. It probably won’t turn out well if Erik starts complementing someone else when Emma is obviously fixated on his good opinion of her.

 

“Full house!” Raven announces triumphantly. Gathering the dice, she hands them off to Angel.

 

“You want to join us?” Erik asks Emma, beckoning again.

 

“Hmm.” Emma takes a step forward. “I suppose. You could do with a queen to proclaim our inevitable victory.”

 

Angel grows tense, uncomfortable with the way Emma stresses the word ‘queen.’ “We’re playing Yahtzee, not chess,” she retorts defensively.

 

There’s a sharp intake of breath from Erik.

 

“Why would you mention that game?” Emma hisses at Angel, who flinches and is immediately apologetic. Emma glares at Charles then.

 

He meets her stare evenly. “Can I help you?”

 

“I don’t need help!” Emma snaps.

 

“Emma,” Erik begins, a plaintive note to his voice.

 

Emma stalks over towards Erik. “I think you and I should have our own game.” She sets a hand on his shoulder and rakes her fingers through his hair.

 

Erik’s eyelids flutter a little and he relaxes under her touch. “What kind? Poker?”

 

“Only with real money.” The path of her hand leads it to settle at the back of his neck. Erik doesn’t protest. Angel cautiously takes her turn and deliberates about which dice to roll again.

 

“I’ll play poker with you next then. Will you please leave Charles alone?” Erik murmurs. “You can’t blame him.”

 

Charles is sure Erik doesn’t mean for him to hear the last part. Blame him for what?

 

“Maybe if he apologises.” Emma gives Charles an insincere smile and squeezes Erik’s shoulder.

 

Irked, Charles counters, “if this is about the CIA, might I remind you, you were trying to encourage a nuclear war?”

 

Because Hank isn’t paying much attention, Charles is as blind sighted by his thoughtless input into the conversation as everyone else is. “Wasn’t Erik the one to arrest you?”

 

Erik’s eyes go wide, alarmed. Emma’s expression is instantly horrified. She pulls her hands away from Erik like she’s been burned and backs away, but she’s already speaking, the damage clearly already done.

 

“He sent me in his place. He said it was important, that he trusted me not to fail him. But he betrayed me! I was his consort, his confidant; I was to be his White Queen in our new world!” She points a finger at Erik. “And then you came. Oh, how he’d missed you – so delighted to see you again.” Her hand is trembling in concert with her voice. “Sebastian knew you’d be there! He knew you’d get the truth from me, about his plans! He knew you’d come for him, if he attacked your people! He handed me to you on a silver platter!”

 

Hank gapes at having caused such a reaction. The other three members of the Brotherhood have also gone very still, but with dread. All their thoughts centre on Emma doesn’t lose her composure like this; Emma doesn’t talk about Shaw, and neither does Erik.

 

“Sebastian cast me aside, abandoned me, like I was worth nothing! Because he wanted you!

 

Looking desperately like he wants to give her any other answer, Erik croaks, “I know.”

 

This is a very unstable situation, and Charles feels helpless. He can’t reach Emma’s mind, and he won’t touch Erik’s. He doesn’t know what he can do.

 

“I want to hate you for it.” But Emma’s shaking her head. “I touched your mind. I saw what he did to you; saw how you felt. I understood.” She forces these words out with visible effort; it’s a minor victory before she’s swept back up into her rant. “Sebastian was obsessed with you. He wanted to know what it was like, to be inside your head. Wondered how it would feel to – to – make you better.”

 

There’s very little colour left in Erik’s face. “Frankenstein and his creature.” The words sound detached, as if Erik’s speaking them from far away.

 

There’s a flicker of fierce emotion in Emma’s eyes, gone too fast for Charles to identify, but it makes him anxious. “Sebastian told me I was beyond compare! I was his diamond, his crowning jewel – but you were oh so much better, because you were his fucking weapon–”

 

“I wasn’t his,” Erik snarls. There’s the faintest hint of anger, but it’s drowned out by desperation. “I made myself into a monster. He doesn’t fucking own us, Emma.” Erik gets to his feet, to face her properly. “I’m not sorry for killing him. I’d do it again. I hated him, I hate him, and I’m glad he’s dead! And you’re glad he’s dead too!”

 

Emma strangles a scream in her throat. “You ruined everything!” She presses her hands against the sides of the helmet, trying to slide it off. When it doesn’t move, her hands curl into fists. Tears spill from her eyes. “I wish you were dead!” The appalled look etched onto her face makes it clear she wants to burn these words from existence.

 

The fight leaves Erik all at once. Gently, he says, “I know that’s not true.”

 

Emma’s throat works, but she doesn’t speak. It takes Charles a few moments to work out that she’s trying to apologise, but she can’t, because to do so would require humility. Emma shakes her head, then turns on her heel and strides away.

 

“Erik…” Raven raises a tentative hand. “It’s going to be okay, Erik.”

 

But Erik backs away from her, shadows in his eyes. “I hope so.”

 

Raven and Azazel trade uncertain looks. Angel bites into her lollipop with a large crack.

 

“I’m going to fix this,” Charles promises them all.

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

“I am convinced, the way one plays chess always reflects the player’s personality. If something defines his character, then it will also define his way of playing” – Vladimir Kramnik

 

-

 

Deciding he is going to attend his lecture as scheduled is made more necessary by the fact that Janos has sunk even deeper into his coma. It’s only sensible to source information from a colleague who studies behavioural genetics. But his intention to be absent a few hours makes most of the others nervous, several of the Brotherhood grumbling under their breath.

 

Erik narrows his eyes at the group. “Anyone who causes problems while you’re out, will answer to me.” And the half-hearted complaints cease.

 

Erik trails after Charles, conspicuously silent – because he aborts several attempts at beginning to voice whatever he’s thinking.

 

In the past, whenever Erik had wanted to fill the silence but didn’t know how to start, he’d allowed Charles to pick up the thread of his thoughts. Charles hadn’t noticed how often they’d done this until now, when his self-imposed barriers prevent it.

 

He eyes Erik warily. “You’re not going to argue –”

 

Erik shakes his head. “It’s a good idea. You need to go, gather intelligence. I need to stay here, monitor them. It’s our best option.” He swallows. “I just…” He trails off, shaking his head again. “It doesn’t matter.” He looks tired.

 

Charles disagrees, but it would be unwise for them to debate anything while Erik’s compromised, and the wry slant of Erik’s mouth suggests he knows this too. “What can I do for you then?” The question is objective.

 

“I want.” Erik stops. Takes a breath. Starts again. “I wondered if you – would you like to – if you don’t mind, could we.” He falters again. Charles waits uncertainly, deciding it’s probably best he not respond at all until he knows exactly what Erik’s trying to say. Erik struggles for a few moments, then abandons words in favour of pulling something from his pocket and offering it up. It’s a black king.

 

“Oh,” Charles says, stunned. It’s such a simple request. Harmless, surely. “Yes, I – I think we’ve time for a game.” He’s careful as he accepts the piece; Erik’s holding it by the base, Charles takes hold of the crown, ensuring there’s no brush of their fingers. Physical contact has always heightened his telepathy, and he doesn’t trust his walls to withstand it.

 

Erik’s entire expression lights up at his acceptance. “I’ve missed – playing chess with you.”

 

Charles doesn’t miss the implication in how these words are stitched together and his heart skips a beat. He reminds himself that he’s a professional. He can handle this.

 

-

 

Erik elects to play with the white pieces. Charles is immediately wrong footed, because Erik usually prefers black, especially when employing such an apparently reckless strategy. Charles is so distracted by trying to reason out why Erik’s leaving so many openings, it’s not until he’s captured a third of Erik’s pieces that he realises Erik’s yet to take any of his, despite having opportunities to do so.

 

Erik’s deliberately sabotaging himself. He wants Charles to claim a brutal victory here.

 

Charles hesitates, fingers poised over his knight. He selects his rook instead, passing up the obvious move of capturing Erik’s bishop.

 

A shiver races through Erik’s frame. He bites his lip and lowers his gaze. Then he nudges forward a pawn on the other side of the board.

 

Charles starts ignoring the exposed pieces, mirroring Erik’s method instead, wanting to see if he can prod Erik into capturing any of his. As they start to dance around each other, Charles scrutinises Erik’s style of play.

 

Erik’s usually more of a positional player; focused on analysing the big picture and gaining ground by exploiting every small advantage he finds. But today, forgoing any long-term plan in favour of an aggressive front and excessive sacrifice, his tactics are more reminiscent of the romantic chess style. Charles decides not to read into this. Interestingly, Erik’s also actively trying to avoid taking control of the centre of the board, though he’s not doing very well at this, even before Charles starts attempting to counter-avoid.

 

They’re applying so much effort into trying to get the other to claim a sacrificial piece that they both freeze when they find they’ve accidentally manoeuvred themselves into the first check. Charles calls it, still confused as to how he missed this set up.

 

Erik stares at the board, looking a little lost. “Zwischenzug.

 

Charles frowns. “You mean, zwischenschach.

 

But Erik makes a distant yet familiar sound in response – the hum which always meant ‘you’re wrong, but I’m not going to debate semantics with you on this occasion.’ Charles considers the difference between the terms. The latter is the former specifically when it’s a check. But zwischenzug also involves pre-empting a threat by forcing your opponent to become one.

 

Charles watches Erik closely. He’s boxed in; the only way he can get out of check is to capture the opposing piece. “Your move,” he prompts quietly.

 

Erik draws a shaky breath. He reaches across and slides his pawn up into the occupied space, retrieving Charles’s queen from the board in the process. He doesn’t set the piece down by the side of the board though, continuing to cradle it in his palm. He looks up at Charles, uncertainly.

 

“Erik?”

 

“It’s powerful. And valuable. You gave it up.” Erik’s voice is a low undertone, sounding as lost as he still looks. “Don’t you want it?”

 

It’s impossible for Charles to pretend there’s nothing to read into about this.

 

Erik’s gaze falls back down to the piece he’s holding and waits. Charles inhales slowly, trying to think of what to say. There’s no good way to answer this question considering Erik’s current emotional state.

 

He never thought he’d be glad for Emma’s interference, but she disrupts the odd tension of the room by striding in like she owns the place. She crosses the space without looking at either of them, then perches herself on the edge of Charles’s desk and sighs disappointedly.

 

“Emma?” Erik prompts; it’s a command, not a request.

 

“Just to be clear,” Emma informs the ceiling. “This doesn’t mean you’re exempt from keeping to your promise.”

 

Something complicated flits across Erik’s expression – Charles can’t parse it without the context of his surface thoughts – but by the time Erik looks at Emma, he’s amused. “Not wanting your hard work to go to waste?”

 

Emma’s posture relaxes slightly. “Exactly.” She looks over, taking in the chess board, and frowns. “Are you losing?

 

Erik’s fist closes around the queen, concealing it from view. “Charles is winning,” he retorts, as though this distinction is important.

 

“Of course he is.” Emma bares her teeth at Charles in a mockery of a smile. “You must be so pleased.”

 

“Emma, please, don’t.” Erik says, closing his eyes and sliding his fingers across them before pinching the bridge of his nose.

 

She sniffs, eyeing him expectantly. Charles tries not to sigh. “Whatever problem you have with me, Emma, I’d appreciate it if you’d kindly stop disrespecting me in my own house.” He gives her a more pleasant smile. “I’m sure you can be generous enough to manage that.” Hopefully appealing to her ego will garner her agreement.

 

“Ooh, look at you, standing up for yourself,” she mocks, and there’s a bitterness in her tone which, while he knows isn’t solely about him, he finds unexpectantly provoking. “You’ve no idea–”

 

“I can’t stand at all,” he snaps. And then instantly regrets his lapse of judgement.

 

The words hit the air and shatter apart like glass. The impact jars the lynchpin loose – Erik’s hand goes slack, the black queen tumbling from his grip. It makes no noise as it hits the floor, and yet seems to land with all the weight of an impending and violent crash.

 

“I’m sorry,” Erik gasps. A breath, to brace against the inevitable wreckage, and then Erik crumples. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!

 

Charles pulls back, feeling wholly unprepared for this, and desperately wanting to put more space between them. “It’s not – this isn’t – look, forget it.” He gets Alex’s attention with a mental prod, informing him that they’re leaving, now. He retreats, rolling further back. “I have to go–”

 

“Wait,” Erik blurts out, scrambling out of his chair. He shoves the table aside in his haste to close the distance again, and chess pieces scatter everywhere. Erik stumbles, kneeling as he reaches out. “Charles, wait, please.” Charles doesn’t move in time, and Erik’s fingers connect with the back of his hand.

 

It’s as intense as it was the first time; like plunging into ice water and drowning.

 

Charles jerks his hand out from under Erik’s. “Don’t touch me.” It’s torn from him, the words too breathless, but it’s too late. His buckling mental barriers give way.

 

Erik reels back, his body obeying the order before he’s really registered it. “I’m sorry.” He’s shaking. He sets one fist on his thigh, the other against his chest. “I didn’t mean to – I’m sorry, Charles.” His mind is louder than his voice. Please, I’m sorry, please, tell me you know that. I want to touch you, why can’t I touch you? I want to be here, with you. Please don’t go. Tell me I can fix this. “I’m sorry.”

 

He’s not broadcasting on purpose, but Charles can’t shut him out, and it’s overwhelming. Erik’s thought process is usually layered, intersectional; he’d once likened it to ornamental latticework, and Erik had been amused that anyone would describe him in such decorative and delicate terms. But at present, Erik’s mind is more like plain sheet metal, one-dimensional and cutting sharply.

 

“You’re not thinking straight.” Charles fidgets, unable to meet the intensity of Erik’s gaze. “None of you are, that’s the whole point of – you’re monitoring them, and I’m gathering information, remember? Our priority here is to help them.”

 

“I want them to be safe,” Erik agrees immediately. But he’s greed, and this isn’t enough. “I want – I want to be safe.” He wants more than this. I want to be happy. I want to feel loved. I want to be allowed to want these things. I want to be allowed to have the things I want, and to keep them. I want you by my side. This thought sticks to Erik like hot sand and he keens. “Charles. Don’t you want – I didn’t – I’m so sorry. Please, Charles.”

 

Everything metal in the room – with the noticeable exception of Charles’s wheelchair – don’t touch the wheelchair, don’t touch his chair – is rattling slightly, as if trembling in tandem with Erik. Small mercies, that Erik seems to still be in control of his powers, if not his emotions.

 

Charles considers whether to enter his mind, to try and help Erik calm down, but the idea makes him uncomfortable. Erik still has no mental defences in place and lacks the ability to say no to him. Charles looks to Emma, hoping for help, but she’s gone very still. Her wide eyes are fixed on Erik, staring at him in horror.

 

He aims for a firm tone, trying to defuse the situation. “We’re not having this conversation. Your judgement’s impaired, Erik. I’m not listening to you while you’re–”

 

“Obviously,” Erik chokes out angrily, and he’s angry because he’s afraid, and Charles isn’t equipped to handle this revelation. “Of course, you don’t want – I need you to listen to me!” Erik gets to his feet but doesn’t make to approach him again. Charles accidently meets his gaze and finds he can’t look away. Charles, Charles, Charles, Charles. He spreads his hands beseechingly. “You said I was – I can be – what’s the point, otherwise?”

 

Emma starts and jumps down from the desk. “Erik,” she says urgently, “talk to me.” There’s an edge of desperation to her command.

 

Erik twitches, half-turning towards her in acknowledgement but refusing to break eye-contact with Charles. “I can’t take it back, and I’m sorry you were hurt, I’m so, so sorry.” I want you to forgive me, even if I don’t deserve it. “You’re my friend, Charles – we’re still friends, aren’t we?” Erik’s eyes are glassy, overbright. Your friendship means everything to me. I love you. I want you to love me, the way I love you, even if I don’t deserve that either.

 

Charles’s heart stops, then kickstarts into double-time. He presses the heels of his palms to the side of his head, mid-way between his ears and his temple. “That’s enough. Erik, stop!”

 

And, abruptly, Erik is silent. His voice, and his mind. Charles startles, panicked that he’s responsible for it. But, no, Erik’s chosen to comply himself.

 

“I’m not doing this now.” Charles takes a steadying breath. He steers his chair towards the door, where Alex is waiting with a frown. “We can discuss this later.”

 

“Charles!” Emma shouts in outrage, but there’s no protest from Erik.

 

-

 

“You’re projecting, Charles,” Alex comments flatly.

 

Charles reins the scope of his mood back in. “Sorry.”

 

“Are you?”

 

Charles shoots him a narrow look. He’s still unwilling to discuss what happened, but he knows Alex’s not going to let it go until he’s made his opinion clear. “You have something to say?”

 

“Yes, actually.” Alex drums his fingers against the steering wheel. “I spoke to Erik earlier, about Angel, and the injury I caused her.” Charles blinks, stays silent to give Alex room to continue. “He didn’t spare me any of it. Her pain, the long weeks of rehabilitation. The permanent scars she has to live with.” Alex’s fingers still, curling around the wheel again. “He said: ‘you didn’t mean to hurt her, but you can’t change what you did.’ Doesn’t stop me feeling awful about it though.”

 

“I suppose not.” Charles purses his lips. “And, what, so there’s an apology, and forgiveness too, of course; and that’s supposed to magically fix everything, is it?”

 

Alex’s already shaking his head. “She doesn’t have to accept my apology. Doesn’t have to forgive me either. She’s perfectly entitled to tell me to go to hell and rot for all eternity, if that’s how she really feels. If she never wants anything to do with me again moving forward, I’ll respect that.” He pauses. “My guilt, my remorse, it’s genuine. At least she acknowledges I’ve tried to apologise. It’s easier to give her space and time, so she can decide what she’s wants to do about it. I think hoping for that closure, without ever knowing if it was going to come, would feel much worse.”

 

Charles doesn’t mean to sound patronising, but he can hear how his words come across as being so. “You think so, do you?”

 

“You’re the one who reads mind,” Alex remarks, and shoves the memory at him with force akin to a slap: Erik’s expression after Charles had turned away was desolate, tears spilling over. “You tell me.”

 

Charles stays silent for the rest of the journey.

 

-

 

The lecture does wonders for stabilising his nerves, but once it’s finished with, shame creeps in.

 

He’d known it was inevitable, that Erik would only be able to hang onto his self-control for so long. He should’ve had a plan, thought of a better way to handle the situation. And just because Erik can’t control his feelings doesn’t mean they’re not real; he’s still feeling them, and they’re still taking a toll on him. Charles traces his fingers along the edge of his armrest. The first thing he’ll do when he gets back is offer reassurances that he’s going to help Erik through this. Then he’ll make it clear they’ll have a proper talk about…about everything else, once Erik and the others have been cured.

 

Charles makes his way over to where Alex and Adele are sitting together. “Sorry to interrupt,” he apologises. “But I was thinking I’d like to head home early today.” Usually, he’d stay to watch Diane’s lecture too, but he could barely focus on Adele’s, even though it was rather more important today than ever before. He glances at Alex, who offers him a rueful smile. I’m sorry, he thinks, and Alex’s smile warms as he nods. He’ll offer a more detailed apology in the car.

 

“Of course.” Adele smiles brightly at him. “Alex said you had friends visiting.” She continues sorting through her files. “Oh, and, erm, Charles?”

 

“Yes, Miss Baumhauer?”

 

“Adele, Charles.” She pauses. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

 

Her inflection resembles Erik’s, earlier, and it makes him feel all the worse, because she means, it may seem important to me, but I don’t want to bother you with it. He catches the tail end of her thought and prompts it. “Have you heard from Michael lately?”

 

“Oh,” she glances at him, surprised, but nods. “Yes. Early this morning, in fact. He was in a good mood, for once. Seems he’s about to make a breakthrough on his” – obsession, she thinks – “pet project.”

 

“He’s still not told you anything about it?” Alex asks. He’s been insisting it’s the least Michael could do, since he’s got Adele covering for him. Adele shakes her head.

 

“I don’t suppose he had anything nice to say about me,” Charles leads with, keeping his tone jovial.

 

She grimaces slightly. “Hmm. He said to tell you ‘a man who squanders his resources, deserves to lose them.’ I got the impression he thinks you’ve stolen some sort of generator from him.”

 

Alex snorts. “Charles has the resources to buy two generators and build a third.”

 

“Quite.” Adele gathers together a small collection of her files, tapping them against the table to straighten them out. “I gather you’ve no idea why he dislikes you so much either?” Charles shrugs. Alex’s muttered answer of ‘he’s jealous’ is as good a theory as any. Adele turns back towards Alex, offering him the files. “Here.” Her fingers trail along the back of his hand as he takes them. “You’ll have to let me know how Doctor McCoy finds the reading, next time I see you.” She smirks a little. “Perhaps I’ll also let you buy me that coffee.”

 

-

 

The moment they come back within range of the mansion, Charles knows something’s wrong. There’s an anxiousness, a shared mood of panic amongst everyone, which sets him on edge. He sweeps his awareness out over their minds; Hank, Raven, Emma –

 

He can sense Emma. She’s not wearing the helmet anymore.

 

He can sense her, but he can’t read her thoughts; she must be in her diamond form. Charles hopes she hasn’t done anything untoward with her telepathy.

 

Hank?

 

Charles? Thank god. Hank’s relief is obvious. He’s awash with a steady string of worry-worry-worry, but it’s not for his own sake.

 

Charles’s heart flutters with second-hand panic. What’s happened? He can sense Angel; Janos is still unconscious; Sean and Azazel are muted –

 

It’s Erik. Hank hesitates. He’s…he’s gone.

 

-

 

One of the front doors is in splinters, the other hanging off its hinges. The foyer is strewn with a mess of twisted metal and shattered glass, almost unrecognisable as pieces of the chandeliers they’d once been, and the walls are scrapped with gouges. There’s a slight amount of blood splatter in one area too, barely enough to noticeable compared to the rest of the chaos.

 

Emma’s sitting halfway up the staircase, Magneto’s helmet cradled in her lap. She’s curled over, as if protecting it, but she straightens as she looks up at Charles. When she speaks, each word falls from her lips like a sharp and brittle thing, though her tone is vacant. “Do you know what greed does to a selfless man?” Emma trembles, and her diamond form fails under the weight of her distress, giving way to flesh. Fragments of her thoughts cascade over him like broken glass.

 

Erik’s shaking, his expression twisted with anguish, face wet with still-falling tears – a flash of metal, barely registered, but she knows – throwing herself at Erik – pining him beneath her, screaming “you promised!” – Erik, thrashing, but not trying to escape – “I want it to hurt, I want to bleed, I deserve it!” – hating herself, just as he hates himself, and Sebastian would be smiling at them both right now – “what does he deserve?” – Erik on his knees, gathering chess pieces by hand – the sharpened letter opener embedded in the wall – Erik holding up the white queen –

 

Emma wrestles her composure and her diamond form back into place. “It makes him selfish.”

 

Dread squeezes tightly around everything inside of Charles’s chest. “Where’s Erik?”

 

Emma just shakes her head, curling back over the helmet. “Diamonds are beyond compare,” she murmurs to herself, over and over, like a mantra.

 

They leave her there, making their way to the infirmary without saying anything. Charles presses his lips together in a thin line when they enter the room. Azazel looks like he’s been hit by a truck, bandages on his arms and across his chest. He’s twisting a small brass rod in his hands as if trying to bend it. Raven’s curled up on one of the beds, wearing a dressing gown and hugging a pillow to her chest, her eyes squeezed shut. She’s crying silently.

 

Sean rocks away from Hank, blinking at Charles and Alex. “Heeey, guys. You’re back.” He’s slurring his words slightly. The bandages wrapped around his head and the wooziness of his thoughts indicate a concussion. “Alex. Alex! Adele’s German too!” Sean frowns at Hank. “They’re both German.” Sean finds this significant, but there’s no coherency as to why.

 

Where is Erik?” Charles snaps, his nerves fraying.

 

Hank wrings his hands together. “He tried, Charles, we all did, but…it’s hard enough to think straight when you’re not already compromised.”

 

“What the hell happened?” Alex asks.

 

Hank looks exhausted and struggles for an answer. Charles cuts across whatever he’s about to say. “Show me.” His demand startles them, as well as Raven, who opens her eyes and slowly sits up. He doesn’t care. Erik’s gone, and no one is explaining anything. He’s done being polite. Hank nods, granting permission, and offers Charles the memory.

 

-

 

Hank’s worried. The Brotherhood have been jittery since Charles and Alex left, likely because Erik’s shut down. Hank glances over at the man, still curled up against Emma, half-draped over her lap. She’s got an arm around him, running her hand up and down his back in a soothing motion, both still seemingly unbothered about being on the floor, even though it must be uncomfortable.

 

Once again, he wonders what on earth happened to put such a haunted look on Erik’s face.

 

“Hank?” Raven murmurs, and Azazel makes an unhappy sound.

 

He gives them both what he hopes is a reassuring look. “All finished. You’re good to go.”

 

Raven shivers. “If only.” Azazel presses closer to her and she curls into him, sliding an arm around his middle. Hank tries not to mind.

 

“Angel?” He asks, turning to her. “Are you okay if I take your vitals?” He’s hoping she’ll agree now she’s seen him do several others. It’ll be easier for him to plot their escalation rates if he’s got data from everyone.

 

She does agree, but doesn’t look confident about it. Sean nudges her forward encouragingly and she offers him an uncertain smile. Hank tries not to sigh as Sean swings his legs back and forth, knowing it would be pointless to ask him to stop sitting on the lab table again. As Hank takes Angel’s blood pressure, Sean leans forward.

 

“Hey, Raven?” When she looks at him, Sean continues. “I’m sorry, about before, when you told us you’re queer. I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just surprised. But I think it’s great! Uh. I mean, I don’t think it’s bad. It’s good!” Sean always seems to make up for his fumbling with words by being earnest.

 

Raven smiles, clearly understanding what he’s trying to say. “Thanks, Sean.”

 

Sean brightens. Emboldened, he then twists around to look at Erik. “You too, Erik. Erm. If you’re also…because you never actually said if you were.”

 

Erik stirs. “Gay?” His voice is far too calm to be a sincere reflection of his feelings. “Yes. I am.”

 

“It’s obvious,” Emma mutters to herself, but loud enough to still be heard by everyone. “The fashion, and the flaming dramatics, and the obsession with purple.”

 

“Well, good. That’s also not a bad thing.” Sean’s nodding to himself. “Hey, did Charles–”

 

Erik shudders violently and makes a pitiful, wounded sound Hank wouldn’t have believed he was capable of if he hadn’t witnessed it. “Charles –” Erik begins, voice ragged, then presses his face into Emma’s leg, muffling the rest of his words into her skin.

 

Emma tightens her grip on Erik and eyes Sean like he’s a bug she wants to step on.

 

Fortunately, they’re spared any confrontation by an actual bell – the doorbell goes off. While this is unusual – they don’t often receive unanticipated guests – Hank seizes the opportunity. “Sean, would you see to that?” Sean groans, but hops off the desk and heads out of the room.

 

Hank thanks Angel when he finishes, then turns towards Emma and Erik. “I’m not moving,” Emma says contemptuously. “If you want me, you can come to me.”

 

He doesn’t want to start a fight, especially when Charles isn’t here. “Erik?”

 

Erik doesn’t move other than to extend his arm towards Hank, in offering. “You can’t fix me,” he says quietly, in the same tone Charles uses when posing those philosophical questions that makes Hank’s head hurt.

 

“You don’t need to be fixed,” Emma hisses at him.

 

Erik’s laugh is bitter. It makes all his teammates shiver. But before Hank can start to worry about this, Erik sighs. “Sorry.”

 

He isn’t sure who the apology’s for, but he answers anyway. “It’s all right.”

 

Banshee’s echoing shriek makes them all jerk to attention, alarmed. More alarming is when it cuts off abruptly.

 

Azazel grins fiercely and vanishes, teleporting from the room. Erik’s already on his feet; when he briefly meets Hank’s gaze his expression is determined, but Hank can’t help but notice his eyes are still bloodshot.

 

“Angel: protect Janos!” Erik orders as he runs for the doorway. “Raven, Hank: with me! Emma: stay here!”

 

“No!” Emma shouts at his back, making to follow them. Hank sees something metal snake around her from the corner of his eye, causing her to frantically shout Erik’s name, but Hank doesn’t stop, following on Raven’s heels out the lab and down the corridor.

 

“Sean!” Erik yells from where he’s ahead of them. “Azazel!”

 

An agonised scream splits the air, equal parts fury and pain.

 

“Azazel!” Raven cries.

 

Erik disappears from Hank’s line of sight as he reaches the foyer first, though he and Raven aren’t far behind.

 

“Oh,” someone else says, sounding pleasantly surprised. “Oh. You’re greed.”

 

Hank emerges into the foyer just before Raven, both of them slowing as they come to flank Erik. There’s a man standing near the ruined entryway, dressed in a fine suit, his attention fixed on Erik. He has his hand on Azazel’s head; Azazel’s on his knees, teeth bared, his face contorted with fury. He’s dragging his sharp nails down his arms, leaving bloody welts behind. Sean is crumpled on the floor against the wall to the man’s left, unconscious.

 

Something about the man is familiar. Hank’s sure he’s seen him somewhere before.

 

“Let him go,” Erik demands. The brass chandeliers overhead rattle ominously.

 

The man, still smiling at Erik in an unnerving way, releases his grip on Azazel, who slumps forward. He makes a guttural noise in his throat, still clawing at himself.

 

“Azazel,” Raven repeats, pained. She sways forward slightly but doesn’t leave her position.

 

“Who are you?” Hank growls. “What do you want?”

 

“You’re the geneticist,” Erik states slowly.

 

Raven curls her hands into fists. “You did this to us.”

 

The man ignores the rest of them, addressing Erik. “Michael Kingston. I’ve been looking for you, Magneto.”

 

Kingston. Hank recalls him now, from Charles’s first lecture at the university, when they’d all gone along to support him. “You’ve been missing your lectures.”

 

Azazel twists and lunges for the man, but he’s barely touched Kingston when he starts screaming like he’s being flayed. Raven starts forward, but Erik throws up an arm to halt her. Erik extends his other arm slightly too, in front of Hank, hovering defensively.

 

Kingston narrows his eyes at Erik’s protective gesture, taking notice of Raven and Hank for the first time. “Azazel; the fallen one, the demon of death.” Kingston’s hand is curled around one of Azazel’s wrists, and he tugs on it as if to command Azazel’s focus. “Kill the blue ones.”

 

Azazel picks his head up and there’s no awareness in his eyes, only blank rage.

 

“No,” Erik breathes. Then chaos breaks out.

 

Azazel teleports, reappearing beside Hank and bowling him over. Hank hears metal screeching as his back hits the floor; sees the chandeliers crashing down as Azazel leans over him. Raven shouts wordlessly. Hank struggles to prevent Azazel from pinning him down, like he had in Cuba, when suddenly Azazel is accosted by several tendrils of brass, seizing his arms and hauling him away.

 

Hank pushes himself up, watches as Azazel teleports out from within the twisting metal, only for more of it to chase him when he reappears. Erik looks grim, hands extended as he uses the metal to herd Azazel further back into the foyer. Hank seeks out Raven, jolts ungracefully to his feet when he sees her running towards Kingston.

 

She ducks under Kingston’s arm and kicks at his legs, so they buckle, mirroring the move Erik had used on Azazel during the Rapture. But Kingston catches her arm as she makes to flip him, and she immediately tries to recoil. He grabs her other arm, sneering. Kingston’s palms on her bare arms is the only point of physical contact between them.

 

“No,” Raven gasps, her tone spiking with confusion and shame. “No, no, no!” Her voice breaks around the word as she arcs, her whole body shuddering. Kingston shoves her aside.

 

“Raven!” Hank reaches her, reaches for her, but when his fingers graze her shoulder she wails. The sound is a lost and frightened one, and she’s wracked with another full-bodied tremor. Hank jerks his hand back, horrified at the abrupt realisation that Raven’s responses hadn’t been of pain. “Sorry!”

 

There’s an unsettling metallic vibration, growing louder in pitch.

 

“Raven,” Hank urges. “Get up, get out of here.” But she sobs and doesn’t move from where she’s curled up. Hank doesn’t dare touch her again.

 

A hand presses to the back of his neck.

 

The contact is like cold water being poured down his back, soaking into his fur and deeper into his bones. He freezes, his heart suddenly racing in his chest. He can’t get enough air; it’s too hard to breathe.

 

Kingston starts talking. “Some people may believe that telepathy is the strongest gift there is, but do you know where real power lies? Emotions.

 

Hank’s never been more afraid in his life.

 

A distant corner of his mind notes, empath. Observes the firm grip on his neck and hypothesises, requires physical contact?

 

There’s silence, which scares Hank all the more, and he only realises why when Erik’s voice ends it. “You’re lucky Charles isn’t here.” The sentence is sharp at both ends, and the middle carefully cradled; the words a double-edged dagger. All the metal in the room is still. There’s so much metal, all of it weaponised under Erik’s touch.

 

“Luck has nothing to do with it. And what would I care, if he was here? I don’t fear Charles Xavier. I’m better, stronger than him!” The fingers gripping his neck abruptly release and Hank scrambles away. “I’ll show him. Charles may be able to control people’s thoughts, but I can command their hearts!”

 

Hank presses his back against the wall, trying to make himself small and unnoticeable. Raven’s still curled up nearby; he can hear her crying and moaning. His fear doesn’t abate.

 

“Oh.” Erik says. A quiet revelation. “You got struck with envy.”

 

There’s a smear of blood on the side of Erik’s neck. It isn’t his. Hank doesn’t know where Azazel is, and thinks maybe Erik killed him. Erik kills people. Hank watches Erik’s gaze track across the room; finding Sean, then Raven, then him. He feels faint beneath the stare, and his leg starts twitching involuntarily. Is Erik going to kill him too?

 

Erik’s gaze turns back to Kingston. “Why are you here?”

 

“I was looking for you.” Kingston’s tone makes him sound like a salesman about to land an easy mark, and it unsettles Hank further. “I knew you’d return to Charles. Seek his help.” Kingston shakes his head. “You’re wasted on him. He doesn’t appreciate you, Lehnsherr. But I do.” He makes a small gesture, not entirely beckoning, but the sentiment is still there.

 

Erik’s brow furrows. He looks unhappy. About Charles, Hank thinks wildly; they must have argued before he left. “You’re not welcome here,” Erik says. “Leave.”

 

“Not without what I came for.” Kingston does beckon this time. “You’re going to come with me.”

 

Erik blinks, surprised. “I don’t want to.” His confusion makes the statement sound petulant instead of firm.

 

“Nobody cares what you think.” Erik makes that small wounded sound again and Kingston jerks to attention, a victorious gleam in his eyes. “No one except me.”

 

“Erik,” Hank croaks out, voice trembling.

 

“Don’t you want to keep your friends safe, Erik?” Kingston spreads his hands. “If you refuse me, they might get hurt.”

 

“No,” Erik protests. The panic audible in his voice matches how Hank feels. “Don’t hurt them, please. I’ll – I want them safe.” Metal quivers and Erik freezes, staring down at his hands. “Stop,” he insists, and the metal goes quiet again. “Anything, to keep them safe.” Now he sounds flat, devoid of feeling.

 

Hank had almost forgotten: Erik can be terrifying. He remembers now. He’s more terrified of this resigned surrender than anything else Erik’s ever done. Erik’s been brimming with emotion since he’d arrived. He looks lifeless without it.

 

Kingston is smug. “I left my suitcase outside. Fetch it for me.”

 

Erik’s still eyeing his hands. His expression stirs something in the tiny part of Hank which isn’t quivering with fear. He knows that expression, he’s worn it before; considering his abnormal feet; seeing the Beast in the mirror for the first time; remembering the tears in Raven’s eyes after he told her she could never be thought beautiful in her blue skin. Hating himself for all of it.

 

A metal suitcase slides into the foyer and stops beside Kingston, who uses his foot to slide it further along. It ends up near Erik. His gaze shifts to look at it instead of his hands, lowering them as the case opens itself. Inside, lies a syringe filled with an opaque liquid.

 

Tranquiliser, Hank notes, and the sight makes him start shaking again, distressed by the sense of helplessness it provokes.

 

“It’ll take a few minutes to kick in,” Kingston tells him. “But it’s strong enough to put you out the rest of the day. In case you thought about trying to fight me once we’re far enough away from your friends.” He smiles, unkindly. “You can’t fight me, Erik. And none of your friends can either. You’re all alone.”

 

Erik grips his own arms, as if trying to hold himself together. The strangled noise he makes is worse than the last: this one is utter devastation.

 

Erik’s going to leave with this madman, to protect them. “Erik,” Hank stutters, trying to push through his fear. “No, Erik, don’t.”

 

“Quiet,” Kingston snaps at him and Hank flinches back, his words tangling in his throat. “Best we be off then. We’ve a long way to go.”

 

Erik doesn’t move.

 

Kingston scowls. “Or, we wait until Charles gets back, then I take you with me anyway, after I make one of you kill him.”

 

God, no,” Erik begs desperately, and all but throws himself onto his knees as he reaches for the suitcase. “No.” His hands shake as he picks up the syringe, but they’re steady once he sets it to his arm. Hank whimpers as Erik depresses the plunger.

 

“Excellent,” Kingston says cheerfully, clapping his hands together. Erik recoils, as if something about the gesture disturbs him, and his head snaps up. Kingston beckons him once more, then turns on his heel and walks outside.

 

Erik gets to his feet. He rolls down his sleeves, rebuttoning them at the wrists, and doesn’t look back as he leaves.

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

“We sometimes underestimate the influence of little things” – Charles W. Chesnutt

 

-

 

Raven takes a sip of the tea. “It’s good. Thanks.” She lowers the cup back down onto the table and slowly rotates it between her hands.

 

Charles would usually set his hand on her arm but for obvious reasons doesn’t. “Feeling any better?”

 

“Not really.” Despite how overstimulated she’d been earlier she’s still yearning for Azazel’s touch. “It’s foolish, I guess. I just – I just thought I was done feeling ashamed of my body.” She can’t bring herself to look at him. “Kingston barely touched me.”

 

“But his touch was entirely unwelcome.” And Michael had known exactly what he’d been doing to her. “He assaulted you, Raven. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of; the blame lies with him.”

 

She nods. “I know. But I hate that it felt so good. Ugh.

 

“He will be held accountable.”

 

“Funny,” Raven replies, with exasperated sisterly affection. “You sound like the Brotherhood. They’ll all demand blood for this.” She purposely turns her thoughts back to Azazel, preferring to think of him instead of Michael, and she seems exhausted on the subject anyway. He may try broaching it again once everything’s resolved.

 

He looks down at his own teacup and bites his lip. There’s much to resolve.

 

When Angel flits into the room, he slides a plate of biscuits across the table towards her. She sits with a thump and nibbles at one. “Janos,” she mumbles anxiously, thinking on her instruction to protect him. “I should be watching him.”

 

“Alex and Azazel can manage for now.” Charles frowns as her response is to shovel the whole biscuit into her mouth. He’s unsure if the biscuits are a good idea, but it’s probably best to have her eat something she’s more likely to keep down. “This is important.”

 

“Erik?” Angel asks around her mouthful of biscuit.

 

Raven pulls her teacup towards her. “I should’ve helped him, I should’ve…” She fights back her carnal associations with Erik, struggling to focus on how worried she is about him.

 

Charles would rather avoid those sorts of associations too and addresses Raven’s guilt. “This wasn’t your fault.”

 

“No,” Emma agrees frostily as she arrives, “it’s yours.” She takes an empty seat, looking every bit a queen claiming her throne.

 

Charles doesn’t argue with her, not least because he’s been agonising over whether Erik gave in to Michael’s demands sooner than he otherwise would’ve because of him. “We’ll find Erik,” he promises. His voice breaks around his friend’s name, to Emma’s smug delight. He swallows, takes a breath to compose himself, then calmly continues. “And to that end, you’ll need to be in your natural form for what I intend,” he tells her.

 

He’s expecting protest, so he’s surprised when she immediately reverts out of her diamond form. Then she angrily lobs a memory at him.

 

-

 

“You nearly killed Emma yesterday,” Raven argues, frowning at Azazel. “We can’t keep doing this on our own.”

 

Tuning the others out, Emma looks at Erik. He’s been uncharacteristically quiet so far, and she knows this is a bad omen, knows she’s not going to like whatever he’s about to say, because he’s not looking at her, even though she knows he can feel her eyes on him. She makes a frustrated noise. He should be paying her more attention.

 

Though Erik’s voice is low, it cuts through the conversation. “What about Charles?”

 

Emma scowls. “If you need a telepath,” she begins, raising a hand to her head. She doesn’t need his helmet; he should remove it. She’d be far more useful to him without it. She can keep the others in line better than Xavier can.

 

“We need someone who understands psychology and genetics,” Erik corrects quietly, addressing her feet. He turns towards Raven without looking up. “Well?” He knows how to command a room almost as well as Emma does; everyone’s looking at him now, even Janos.

 

“Could Charles help?” Angel asks. Such a frail creature, Emma thinks. Sebastian would never have made her his queen; he’d obviously had other designs for her. She couldn’t replace Emma if her life depended on it.

 

“He could,” Raven says. “Whether he would is another matter.”

 

Azazel narrows his eyes at Erik. Always spoiling for a fight, because what else is he good for? “You just want to see him again.”

 

“Yes,” Erik says, in a tone which translates to ‘obviously,’ “but I still think it’s a good idea.”

 

“You can’t be trusted to make decisions about yourself when they involve Charles,” Emma informs him, which merely prompts a self-depreciating smile. She folds her arms, exhaling heavily through her nose.

 

“This affects the whole team.” Raven says. “So, we’ll vote on it. I say yes, we ask Charles.”

 

Angel bites her fingernails as she considers, then nods. “Okay, yes. Me too.”

 

“No.” Azazel’s tail coils and uncoils, he bares his teeth. “And he won’t help us.” He sets a hand on Janos’s shoulder. “And Janos would side with me.” He talks over Angel’s muttered protest that he can’t vote for Janos. “Or have you forgotten; he and his X-Men think us villains.”

 

“I’m his sister,” Raven protests half-heartedly, as if this is supposed to count for anything, then sighs. “Emma? What do you think?”

 

It’s sweet, that they think this is a democracy, that Emma’s word won’t be final regardless. Her choice is the only one that matters, and she’ll be clear about her opinion, which is: no. She’s about to say so when Erik raises his head at last to look at her.

 

After Miami, she’d asked Sebastian what Erik was like. He’d smiled at her with heady indulgence, cupping her cheek. ‘Dangerous,’ he’d said, almost wistfully. She sees that in Erik now, though not for the reasons one might expect.

 

‘Give me this,’ Erik’s eyes say. ‘And I’ll give everything.’

 

So, she says, “yes.”

 

The look of sheer and unexpected delight before Erik ducks his head back down is worth changing her mind for. When he was at his lowest point, it was her words he listened to. So even though she could easily fix things, if she could reach their minds, why not let Charles Xavier do the hard work for her? Shoving Erik’s perspective in his face would also have the bonus of bringing him down a peg or two, which will be a nice start on what he deserves.

 

-

 

Charles meets Emma’s gaze steadily. He’s not going to let her goad him into a debate about whatever point she’d been trying to make with that memory. It was good of you to be looking out for him.

 

Her brow furrows – a brief flicker of concern for Erik gets buried beneath scathing judgement at Charles – and she rolls her eyes. Someone has to.

 

“What do you intend?” Raven asks.

 

He doesn’t beat around the bush. “I need to know everything about the Incident. I want to see your memories of it.” Their memories, even with an emotionally skewed perspective, will be more reliable than anything they might say about it. “Figuring out why Kingston took Erik is the first step to getting him back.” He’s trying his best not to think about the fact that Erik’s at the mercy of an emotionally unstable scientist with an egotism complex.

 

Angel sucks biscuit crumbs from the pads of her fingers, uncertain, but she trusts Erik’s earlier judgement in Charles’s ability to help. “We get it. You’re hungry for answers.” She worries at her bottom lip, then tries for a smile but doesn’t quite manage it. “Don’t choke on them.”

 

Raven drains the rest of her tea in one go. Quietly, she says, “I hope you won’t think badly of either of us.”

 

“No, never,” Charles hastily assures her. She gives him a long look, unconvinced, which stings.

 

“Get on with it then,” Emma snaps.

 

“This may feel a little uncomfortable,” he warns them. Then, when they all turn their thoughts to the memories in question, he pulls.

 

-

 

Erik surveys the facility. “How many are we dealing with?”

 

He’s right to be suspicious at the lack of activity. There should definitely be more people here. “There’s only one,” Emma says slowly, scrunching her nose up in concentration. “But I can’t get a proper read on him.” As a professional and a perfectionist, this irks her.

 

“Telepath?” He asks.

 

“I don’t think so.” She frowns. “He’s not blocking me, exactly.” The sensation’s difficult to explain without using telepathy. “I think he’s on a different wavelength.”

 

“Has that ever happened before?” When she answers negatively Erik looks to Raven, a silent question about her second-hand knowledge of telepathy. Raven shakes her head too. Erik looks back to Emma. “What do you want to do?”

 

They’re not going to abort the mission just for this. “Physical contact will fix that.” She will not be outdone by a single man. “He can’t hide his thoughts if I’m touching him.”

 

“Okay.” Erik considers the building again. “White Queen, Tempest, Riptide; you’re with me. We’re going to keep the agent occupied; destroy all their equipment. Mystique; get your hands on as many files about their operation as you can. Azazel, reconnaissance; scout the whole facility, outwards in. Let’s be certain there aren’t any more employees on site.”

 

The only blank space she can sense is Erik’s helmet, but it’s a reasonable precaution. “Have fun, Beelzebub,” she drawls, fluttering her fingers at Azazel. He’s never been one for code names.

 

His tail lashes lazily in her direction but he otherwise ignores her. “If I find him first, can I take care of him?” He asks Erik.

 

Erik shakes his head. “We’ll need to question him.”

 

“And after that?”

 

“We’ll see,” Erik says neutrally, which earns a pleased smirk from Azazel.

 

The blood would do wonders for your aesthetic, Emma mocks. They’ve a long-standing tradition of throwing barbs at each other before a mission.

 

Azazel glowers at her, smirk still in place. Performance rates above style, Emma.

 

-

 

After Emma and Erik consult each other on what they sense, Erik leads a path through the facility until they reach a bolted heavy set of double doors. Erik gestures, pulling them open, and the four of them file warily into the room.

 

Angel looks around. There’s not much in the room other than the equipment against the far wall. It’s a large machine with several thick metallic pipes reaching up towards the high ceiling. Against the wall to her left are more pipes spaced out in pairs; these ones made of glass, with water bubbling inside.

 

She raps the back of her knuckles against one, the dull sound echoing oddly in the room. Bubbling liquid in a laboratory may be standard mad scientist behaviour but she prefers it in champagne form. She wouldn’t mind a drink later; Emma will have a bottle stashed somewhere.

 

“Equipment’s still running,” Janos murmurs, then wonders, “what’s it for?”

 

Angel glances at Erik, who’s standing in the middle of the room and eyeing the machinery with a stony expression. “Nothing good, I’ll bet.”

 

“Up there,” Emma announces. There’s an observation booth of sorts at the top right of the room behind panels of thick tinted glass. Someone’s moving behind it.

 

A low resonate drone from a generator kicks in, then there’s a static sizzling as small nodes lining the edges of the floor and ceiling light up. Streaks of raw electricity descend from the ceiling nodes to strike the ones on the floor, shuttering around the room like a domino effect – from one side of the machine, past the observation booth, across the doorway, between the water tanks, to the other side of the machine. They’ve become encircled within a cage of lightning.

 

“Frost?” Erik asks sharply.

 

Emma glares at the glass window. “I still can’t pin his mind down.”

 

Angel hears the crackle of a speaker and a voice sounds out. “Magneto and the mutant Brotherhood. Welcome.”

 

This was a trap, Emma comments silently, and Angel sees Janos nod slightly in agreement. Be ready.

 

Erik steps forward. “Whatever your intentions are, you won’t succeed.”

 

“I’m a geneticist; succession is my area of expertise,” the man’s voice replies, amused. “And presently, I intend to capture you and your friends.” The machine whirs into life, its internal workings beginning to grind. Erik half-turns towards it, sharply, like a wire’s been pulled taut, and stares at the bulk of the machine, his attention caught by whatever he can sense within it. The speaker crackles again. “You were damned the moment you came within my reach.”

 

“Magento!” Janos shouts. Angel follows his gaze.

 

Stark white light is pouring from thin slats at the top of the metallic pipes, slowly flooding the room. Erik raises his hands, palms extended towards the machine, which begins to rattle. He snarls, straining harder, as if pressing his weight against an invisible wall.

 

“Riptide, the glass,” Emma calls, glaring at it intently. Janos twirls his hands, generating a miniature whirlwind. He aims it through a gap between two strips of lightning to impact along the glass panel, which rattles but doesn’t break.

 

Angel unfurls her wings and begins to hover slightly above the ground, preparing to take proper flight, to try her acid on the glass. The window isn’t too high, she could probably reach it without issue.

 

“I shall command the sins of your hearts,” the geneticist informs them, triumphantly. “I will drown you in despair. Then remake your desires. Your wants will serve my needs. Your anger honed beneath my will.” He pauses. “You, Magneto, will be privy to the glorious rapture I shall finally usher in.”

 

The room seems to be growing brighter as the light from the machine diffuses into the air. Angel starts feeling lethargic, her wings drooping, feet returning to the ground. It doesn’t seem to be just her feeling this either; Emma’s rubbing at her temple; Janos attempts another small whirlwind, but it peters out before it even reaches the glass.

 

Angel’s eyelids flutter shut and it’s a struggle to open them again. She had to try…but the windows look awfully far away after all…

 

A wordless shout of defiance makes her startle. She looks to Erik, sees him hook his fingers in the air and pull his hands back towards him in a sharp motion. There’s the grating crunch of metal under duress, followed by the sound of crumpling as it fails. The central body of the machine implodes, collapsing in on itself.

 

There’s a shockwave, she feels it reverberate through the air, as if the invisible wall Erik was fighting against had burst and blown out either side of him. It makes her, Emma, and Janos stagger, they only just manage to stay on their feet. The lightning cage splutters several times, then vanishes.

 

The shockwave must hit the metallic pipes too because they split open, folding back like they’re made of tissue paper. Spheres of silvery-white light burst free and hover in mid-air.

 

One of the glowing orbs darts down to strike Erik, sinking into his chest. He rocks back, hands coming to cover the spot.

 

The other balls of light jolt forward too. Angel notices two fly over her head, towards the doorway, but then one hits her abdomen, seeps into her. She sees another impact Janos, hitting his lower back. He crumples, legs buckling, hands and knees hitting the floor. Angel shouts his name, even as she presses her fingers to her naval. The warmth of that light spreads through her stomach, which clenches like the bottom’s just dropped out of it. She tries to swallow and finds her mouth dry.

 

She’s thirsty.

 

The thought barely occurs to her and she’s stumbling back towards the nearest waterpipe. It’s bubbling still. She wants the coolness on her tongue, she wants to drink until she’s full to the brim and waterlogged.

 

The sound of music makes her falter. The pulsating beat is familiar, prompts her to sway her hips. There’s a tittering laugh and then Candy’s there, blonde hair crinkled the way it was the night Angel saw her last.

 

Something isn’t right, but she’s too thirsty to concentrate.

 

“Here’s to good customers and better tips,” Candy says, and starts to dance.

 

Angel finds she’s already dancing, and she considers Emma. Emma deserves a proper show because Emma’s beautiful and strong, and Angel would dance all day, every day, in honour of Emma because Emma’s a queen, Emma’s always been the queen, and Angel should lay diamonds and riches at Emma’s feet, because she adores Emma, everyone loves Emma, she loves Emma, and Janos loves Emma, and Erik loves Emma; he’s standing behind Emma –

 

It’s like not realising how dim the room has become until someone turns on the light. The music and Candy vanish as Erik slides his helmet onto Emma’s head, and all thoughts of Emma promptly dwindle away. Angel reels, disorientated.

 

Her thirst overwhelms her.

 

She slams her fists against the glass until it breaks. Water pours forth and she drops to her knees, cupping her hands. The first mouthful is a blessed cold burn down her throat, and she can’t stop. She shuffles closer, leaning in to put her face into the path of the liquid, swallowing eagerly as it pools inside her mouth.

 

-

 

Emma knows, as a creature of pleasure, she’s always chasing satisfaction. She’s a diamond: valuable, flawless; a symbol of power and status. She coaxes the others to worship her as easily as she’s coaxed men to bed her phantoms. People will give so much of themselves in pursuit of what they want. When confronted with her glory people either embrace it or die. Janos kneels before her, rapt; Angel dances sensually. The geneticist was weak-minded and has either perished or fled.

 

But some people are bred for confrontation. All of a sudden, she can sense Erik’s mind.

 

She likens the feel of his thoughts to a precious metal; silver, or even platinum. High grade purity, though understandably not worth as much as diamond. Even so, there’s still something enticing about his mind; a captivating warmth concealed beneath his surface defences.

 

Emma, he’s thinking intently at her, Emma, Emma, Emma; and that he’d offer his thoughts to her freely momentarily distracts her. Then his thoughts, along with everyone else’s, cut off abruptly as he slides his helmet onto her head.

 

“Remove this!” She demands, pulling at the helmet. It defies her, remaining in place.

 

Erik takes her hands, holds them within his own. “When you’re safe.”

 

She jerks her hands back to perch them on her hips. “Safe!” She’s invulnerable, diamond form or not.

 

He looks away from her, to the others. “I won’t have you lose yourself, Emma.” His voice is gentle, placating; he’s mimicking the tone she once used on him, when it mattered most, when his concession meant more to her than his comprehension of exactly what she was asking of him. “You’re better than that.”

 

“I’m better than them,” she corrects, but concedes only because he’s honouring her by invoking that tone. “I’ll allow it. For now.”

 

Before she can start listing her conditions, he smiles. “Thank you.” And while Emma has no weaknesses, Erik’s affection is a prized commodity in its own way.

 

There’s a burst of smoke and Azazel appears at the end of the room. His eyes fix on her and he snarls. “Beelzebub.” The nickname drips with venom. “Let us see how blood fairs with your aesthetic.”

 

Azazel vanishes again – her instinct is to reach for his mind, but hers is shielded – then reappears in front of her – he’s no match for her diamond form, she should shift, the helmet should pose no constraint – Azazel reaches for her, hands clawed –

 

Erik inserts himself between them, hands slamming against Azazel’s chest, shoving the demon backwards. Emma’s heart flutters. Erik defended her.

 

“If you want to hurt someone,” Erik says, low and forceful.

 

Azazel’s outrage turns to dark satisfaction. “Let’s see the wolf.” He launches himself at Erik.

 

Emma laughs, ecstatic, as they begin to fight. She’s unsurprised they’re fighting over her; men always fight over the right to claim her – even if Erik’s more interested in her mind than her body, she’ll accept whatever form his passion takes. He’s worthy to stand with her, he’ll protect her, he’s still defending her, fighting a friend for her. No other man has ever compromised himself to this extent for her before.

 

“Style is better after all, Belial,” she taunts, and Azazel turns to growl at her.

 

Erik takes advantage of the other man’s inattention, moving in and seizing Azazel in a chokehold. Azazel tries to free himself, but Erik’s hold is unforgiving. Azazel grows slack, unresponsive – without her telepathy, she can’t tell whether he’s unconscious or dead – and Erik guides him down to the floor.

 

She’s seen professional assassins perform less efficiently than Erik. “Well done.” She never doubted he’d win; she’s too important to risk harm to. “I’m impressed.”

 

Erik shivers, looks up at her with wide eyes, and oh he responds as well to praise as she does; that’s extremely valuable information. He seems a little dazed as he straightens, swaying towards her. “Emma…?”

 

“I knew you’d protect me.” And she’s pleased when he reaches a hand towards her, even as he glances around the room. “You did so well.”

 

“I’ll protect all of you,” Erik declares avidly; a man who’s rediscovered his higher calling. “Emma. Azazel.” He stumbles from Azazel’s side towards the others. “Janos.” Still kneeling, Janos doesn’t respond other than looking up at Erik with glassy eyes. “Angel.” She doesn’t turn at all. Erik grows more agitated with concern as he lists them, and he comes to a stop. He shouldn’t waste his time worrying about them; Emma deserves his full attention. “Raven; I have to find Raven.”

 

Emma narrows her eyes. “You’re choosing her over me?” Emma is entirely superior to the others, she knows this; but Erik’s opinion of her still matters. Erik is the Ace who beat the King and liberated the Queen. She and Erik are a mirrored coin.

 

Erik shakes his head. “Emma,” he looks back at her, “I need your help, I need you to look after the others while I find Raven.” He spreads his hands out, palms up, imploringly. “You’ll guard them, won’t you? You’ll keep them safe; for me; please? You’re the White Queen.”

 

He’s trusting her with their lives, their welfare. A self-satisfied smile blooms on her face. He’s the leader of this Brotherhood and he’s chosen her for this task, and of course he has because why would he entrust anyone else but the best?

 

“They’ll be safe with me,” she proclaims. Anyone who tries to harm their Brotherhood will be no match for her; she’ll destroy them.

 

Erik nods at her, then bolts for the door, already shouting for Mystique. He’ll find her. And then he’ll return to praise Emma for completing the task he assigned her to perfection.

 

-

 

“Mystique?”

 

His voice sends a shiver down her spine. She doesn’t know what’s wrong with her but knows he can fix it. “Erik?”

 

“Raven?” He sounds closer now. “Are you hurt? Where are you?”

 

She stands, shapeshifting as she does so, abandoning her harmless looking researcher disguise for her own bare skin. Her knees buckle when she sees him. Was his armour that snug before, fitted against his chest, cinched in at his waist? Her fingers itch to trace over the lines.

 

“Raven?” He asks again, slowing as he approaches her. “Are you all right?” He has a delicious looking mouth; she remembers how it tasted. She wants to topple him to the floor and have him taste all of her. Heat pulses through her at the thought. She stumbles towards him, reaching. She needs his hands on her, now.

 

She gets them, but not in the way she was hoping for. He curls them around her wrists, holding their arms between them. “Raven, something’s wrong. We need to leave.” She moans quietly. He’s very strong, she can feel the tension in his muscles as she pushes and pulls against his grip.

 

He’d always been so attentive to what she wanted. “I want to have sex. With you. Right now.” She slides her foot along his leg, fantasising about wrapping hers around him. She whines. “I need…”

 

“It’s going to be okay. I promise.” Erik manoeuvres her around to prop her hip against the table. She’s disappointed he doesn’t put her on it, but before she can pull him closer, he lets her go and steps away. “We need to get back to the others.” He’s looking her over, but not the way Azazel does when he wants her to take him to bed. Erik has his post-mission injury inspection face on. Insistently, he asks again, “are you hurt?”

 

A vague thought about playing doctor starts to take shape, but distant instinct kicks in to tell her no immediately. Erik doesn’t like doctors, she muses, but he does like them being comfortable with their mutations. She shapeshifts again, transitioning seamlessly between a selection of beautiful female bodies. “I’ll feel better if you fuck me. I’d feel fantastic.”

 

But Erik’s unmoved by her seduction attempts. “You’re not thinking straight. We’re not,” he shakes his head. “Let’s go,” he commands as he starts walking away. She follows automatically, drawn by the firm tone. She’d do anything he wants, if he keeps talking like that.

 

Anything, she thinks suddenly, he wants. “I’m a shapeshifter.”

 

“I’m aware?” He glances over his shoulder and falters when he sees her new form, a male version of her preferred blonde guise. His pace slows, his gaze flitting over her. She homes in on the spark of interest within his conflicted expression.

 

“You like men,” she comments, her voice dropping several registers. She begins cycling through the same bodies as before, as males this time. “I can be any man you desire, Erik.” She catches him biting his lip before he turns his head forward again. Yes, yes.

 

No, Raven.” But he doesn’t sound very firm anymore. There’s a shakiness there –

 

“What do you want?” She presses. “Who do you want?” And the moment she asks, the answer’s obvious. She comes to a stop and changes form again. “Erik.”

 

He freezes.

 

“Erik,” she repeats, in a perfect imitation of the familiar British accent. “Please.”

 

Erik turns, very slowly, to face her. His eyes widen and a flush begins to creep across his face. “Don’t do that,” he croaks, still staring at her with a desperation that’s encouraging. This is going to be easy; she should’ve turned into Charles from the start.

 

“Erik,” she chides and watches him shiver. “I know you want me.”

 

He starts backing away from her and shakes his head. “Not like this.”

 

She advances on him. “Have I told you how much you mean to me? I miss being with you. I want you so much.”

 

Erik whines plaintively. “Char– Raven.” His back hits the wall. “No.”

 

She’s shaking terribly now. “Please? My friend,” she adds, because Erik always liked it when Charles called him that. Erik looks like he’s in agony. Doesn’t he understand it’ll stop if he touches her? “It hurts.

 

“Hurts?” Erik parrots helplessly, concern creeping into his tone.

 

She’s close now, within arm’s reach. “Help me,” she implores. Erik squeezes his eyes shut. A sob escapes him. But it’s okay, because they’re going to make it better now. She reaches for him.

 

“Zikher vort.”

 

Her fingers halt an inch from his cheek and hover there. She doesn’t understand why she’s stopped – some instinct is screaming at her stop, stop, stop – but she’s forgotten why it’s important she does. Her body aches.

 

“If you need this,” Erik says, his voice a ragged whisper, “turn back into yourself. Please.” His eyes are still shut and his breath hitches before he continues. “Don’t – I can’t – be yourself, Raven.”

 

When she touches his face it’s with blue fingers.

 

His eyes flicker open, glazed and distant. He gathers her in his arms as she presses close to him. “What do you need?” He kisses her forehead. She gasps. She’s on fire and his touch is a relief. “Whatever you need, you can have.”

 

She chases his mouth; doesn’t kiss him so much as drag her lips across his skin. “Touch me,” she pleads against his jaw. “Touch me, now.” He shifts his hold on her – she fumbles her hands over his armour, frustrated – how does he get out of this thing? She moans as his hand – bare, he’s removed his glove – slides up her back. “Yes,” she hisses and twists so she can grab his arm. He doesn’t resist as she pulls it around, down, pushing his hand towards where she wants it.

 

“I’ve got you, Raven.” He slides his fingers up along the inside of her thigh. “It’s okay.”

 

He touches her, a fleeting caress, and it’s enough to send her over the edge. Liquid fire races through her and she arcs against him, trying to get closer still. She clamps her thighs together, keeping his hand in place.

 

Fuck! She thinks, or shouts. Yes. Good. Again.

 

“…Good?”

 

“Good,” she insists, panting against his cheek. She can taste salt. “More.” She tightens her grip and rocks against him. “More.” He repeats his previous motion and the rush of heat which follows is so intense her eyes roll back and she nearly blacks out with the pleasure.

 

As she comes back down from it, Raven returns to her senses. Her first coherent thought is the distressing realisation that Erik – oh, god, thank god she stopped. “Erik?” She whispers. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I –”

 

“It’s all right,” he murmurs from where his face is tucked against her neck.

 

It’s not, but she doesn’t argue the point. The wild, overwhelming desire the odd ball of light had stirred within her seems to have passed now.  She’s still horrified on both their behalves, but it could’ve been worse. At least Erik was the one to find her. At least she stopped.

 

She tries to step back, to give Erik space, but he clings to her, so she stills. He’s trembling, she notices. Cautiously, she slides an arm around him, curling her fingers in his cape. “Erik?”

 

“A moment.” When she uses her free hand to search out his, he immediately laces their fingers together. He doesn’t quite stifle the miserable keen he makes in his throat. The sound makes her want to cry, for him, for herself, for her idiot brother. “Need to get back to the others,” he mumbles hoarsely. “Check they’re still safe.”

 

She squeezes his hand. “In a minute.”

 

-

 

Erik and Raven are holding hands when they return; both of them look shattered. “Emma?”

 

“We’re all right,” she confirms, then grimaces as Angel retches again, throwing up another bout of water. “Relatively speaking.” Emma sees Raven glance at Erik before releasing his hand. Raven slowly approaches Azazel, who’s leaning groggily against the wall. Janos, sitting on the floor, still doesn’t say anything. Emma offers Erik a weak smile. “Everyone’s present and accounted for.”

 

Erik sighs, buckling over with relief to the extent that he braces his hands against his thighs. Then he moves to stand beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Glad to hear it.”

 

When she touches his arm, he twitches. “Are you all right?” He’s trying not to lean into her touch, which isn’t a good sign; if he initiates physical contact, he’s not remiss about accepting it in return.

 

He shrugs, likely so as not to lie to her. His gaze slides up to her head. “Sorry about…should I…?”

 

But Emma swallows. “Perhaps I’ll keep it for a while.” It had been too easy, to bend Angel’s perception, and Emma doesn’t know if she’s prepared to sense anyone’s mind so soon after that experience. “But maybe we should…talk.”

 

“…Yeah.” Erik averts his gaze, which is even more worrying. “Azazel?” Both men grimace apologetically when they look at the other. Erik extends his free hand. “Let’s all get out of here.”

 

Raven touches Azazel’s cheek. They part; she helps Angel to her feet, while Azazel gives Janos a hand up. The four of them join Emma and Erik and, once they’re all connected, Azazel teleports them out.

 

-

 

Charles holds conference with the X-Men in the staff room, bringing them up to speed on the relevant information he’s gleaned. “Sounds like Kingston’s interest in Erik isn’t new,” Alex comments. “Think that trap was more about him than the rest of the Brotherhood?”

 

Sean nods. “He specifically wanted Erik this time at least.” He offers Charles a small folded sheet of paper. “He had this.”

 

It’s a greyscale photo of a courtyard at Langley. Charles is standing beside one of the trees in the square planter beds. His body’s angled towards Erik, but his head turned towards someone out of shot – Raven, he recalls. He’s mid-conversation, gesturing with his hands. Erik’s sitting on the raised lip of the stone planter, his ankles crossed, leaning his weight back on his hands. He’s watching Charles with open adoration. Charles traces along Erik’s image with his thumb.

 

‘I love you.’

 

‘Have I told you how much you mean to me?’

 

‘He doesn’t appreciate you, Lehnsherr.’

 

Charles exhales shakily. He decides it’s quite possible he now hates Michael as much as the man hates him.

 

“Why Erik though?” Alex asks. “If Kingston wants to control and incapacitate mutants, shouldn’t he be more interested in Charles?” He gestures at the photo. “Or Emma? Erik’s no telepath; he can’t change what people think.”

 

“No,” Hank agrees grimly. “But Kingston’s an empath. It’s not about what people think, it’s about how they feel.”

 

“Emotional control is centred in a different part of the mind than rational thought,” Charles adds quietly. Hence why Emma had such trouble reading Kingston, and why Charles had never noticed his mutation before.

 

Sean picks at his sleeve. “But what’s that got to do with Erik?”

 

“From what Charles saw, I think that machine was powered by electromagnets.” Hank looks to Alex. “You said Kingston was after a ‘generator.’ Exposure to continuous magnetic pulses can have behavioural effects.”

 

“Magneto,” Charles enunciates.

 

“Kingston’s going to use Erik as a battery?” Sean demands indignantly.

 

“Essentially.” Hank replies. “Theoretically, a powerful enough generator amplifies range, intensity. Longevity. Erik’s abilities would perform more efficiently than any electromagnet could.” He hesitates, grimacing.

 

“And?” Charles prompts.

 

“Kingston used the term ‘command.’ He made me afraid, but he didn’t do that to the others. Raven, Azazel, they were already afflicted. And he was playing to Erik’s emotions.”

 

Charles considers Michael’s comments during the Incident, speaking of his plans in stages. “You think he can only induce one emotional state at a time?”

 

Hank agrees, thinking about Erik breaking the machine, how all the sins were released, not just sloth, the one which had been active at the time. “Erik’s mutation may give him access to the entire spectrum.”

 

Charles looks down at the photo again. “Well, we’re not going to give Kingston the opportunity to find out.”

 

-

 

Charles dons the headpiece and starts up Cerebro. He spreads his powers out, searching for the familiar feel of Erik’s mind, and is immediately swamped by a cacophony of voices.

 

– don’t know why she’s upset; she’s the one getting married –

 

– I’ve been waiting ages –

 

– there’s no way the sofa was that expensive –

 

– does he ever think we should stop doing this –

 

“Professor?” Alex’s concerned question is distant in comparison. The mental projection within the room is beginning to fray around the edges as the machinery starts rattling.

 

– it’s been three years –

 

– tired of this; every time, mom –

 

– but why yellow, it’s awful –

 

– meant to be watching him –

 

– keep my mouth shut, no one can prove –

 

He can’t find Erik, can’t hear a whisper of him anywhere amongst the rest of the noise. Sparks splutter from the console and Hank yelps, stepping forward to reach for the controls. “Don’t,” Charles protests sharply. He grips his armrests determinedly. “Erik?” Charles concentrates, focusing his attention on the specific mental oscillation he used to use when speaking telepathically to Erik, and shouts. “Erik!”

 

There’s no response.

 

Instead, there’s a mechanical screech from Cerebro before the safety protocols kick in and the device powers down.

 

Charles pulls the headset off and hurls it onto the console. Alex swears under his breath and Hank hastily moves in to examine the controls. Charles buries his face in his hands.

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

“The will to overcome an emotion, is ultimately only the will of another, or of several other, emotions.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

 

-

 

They refuse to let him try again. Charles balls his hands into fists. “Cerebro isn’t even the problem! We all know it!”

 

But Hank doesn’t budge. “Charles, you know it’s not safe to operate it when it’s not up to specification.”

 

“And how long do you expect that to take?”

 

“As long as it does,” Hank responds, very deliberately not thinking about time frames. “It’s not something I can rush, you know that. There’s nothing to do but wait until I’ve run a full diagnostic.”

 

There’s a brief moment where Charles considers making Hank change his mind. He’s too distressed to even feel guilty about the idea.

 

“He’ll be pissed if you hurt yourself,” Alex comments pointedly.

 

Charles glares at him, because it’s obvious he’s not talking about Hank. “And what happens to Erik while we wait?” He can’t bear to even speculate about what Erik’s going through, what he’s feeling. “I can’t.” Charles drags a hand through his hair. He has to find Erik. “I won’t sit here and do nothing.

 

“Do something else in the meantime.” Alex suggests, not unkindly. “Look, we still need to purge the sins from their systems, right? Finding Erik isn’t going to do any good if he and his team have to go through another Rapture. Wouldn’t you rather have a solution handy for when you do find him?”

 

Annoyingly, this is a valid point. And if he can’t do anything for Erik right now, the least he can do is look after his Brotherhood. “Well, did Adele’s notes turn up anything useful?”

 

Hank starts nodding. “Actually, I was reviewing a section about the development of the amygdala. Sean made a joke about cause and effect, and I think we may’ve been looking at this the wrong way.” He elaborates. “We’ve been assessing their symptoms to find a physical cause, which needs physical treatment. But it’s their emotions causing the physical changes.”

 

“Emotions.” It’s not their physical baselines which are important. “The amygdala.”

 

-

 

He gathers the Brotherhood to one of the parlour rooms. Azazel and Angel carefully settle the still-comatose Janos down against the larger cushions laid out on the floor, then take their places in the circle.

 

“This is foolish,” Emma announces snidely. “And shouldn’t you have bigger priorities at the moment?”

 

He offers a small smile. “Erik would insist I do what I can for you first.”

 

A rumble comes from Azazel, who’s still watching Janos anxiously, and Angel bites at the skin of her thumb. Raven fidgets, rubbing her fist along her jumpsuit clad thigh. “So, meditation?”

 

Charles explains his idea. “I’m going to try and reset your emotional centres using a memory, one which holds a precedent for your specific sin. Think of it like applying an ice-pack to a wound, maintaining compression until the swelling goes down.”

 

Angel shies away a little, uncomfortable at the idea of having her memories trawled through. “A precedent. Something sinful?”

 

“Something contextual,” he corrects her. “And recent. It’s not about being overwhelmed, it’s more the opposite; emotional reasoning. I want to realign your impulses with your rational mind.”

 

Azazel scoffs. “‘Give unto you,’” he drawls. “‘Revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding.’” His lip curls at the surprised looks he gains. “I’m the Devil,” he mocks. “I know the words of scripture. They are just words.”

 

“Sometimes, words mean everything,” Emma says slowly, her tone odd. Whatever fight she had in her against this idea drains away.

 

“Erik wants me to help you.” Charles is firm on this point. “And this is how we help him.

 

As he hoped, their concerns for Erik outweigh their own misgivings, and they all agree. He has them start with the basic meditation techniques they already know, using his telepathy to encourage them into a deeper state; in Emma’s case, he radiates the impression he believes she’s incapable of performing, and she immediately sets out to prove him wrong.

 

Whilst at university, he’d known a girl, Sumati, who’d talked him through a beginner’s guide to tantra, and remembers her explanation of the seven chakra system – six chakras and the seventh crown. She’d always maintained the balance of her chakras were the key to her emotional health.

 

Charles begins with the Muladhara, the root chakra, which lies below the base of the spine. He’d done some meditative exercises focused on this area after Cuba, whilst growing accustomed to his disability. Associated with the element of earth, this stabilises the foundations of the physical connection with the astral plane. It’s also where the dormant words and mantras lie, so he finds it a simple matter to reach for Janos’s dormant psyche and bridge their minds. It takes more effort to reach through the fog of the man’s thoughts to unearth the memory centred in sloth.

 

-

 

Janos wanders aimlessly into the vast hall, still feeling as if he’s walking through a dreamscape. Moonlight spills through the windows and across the floor in splotchy patterns, partially obscured by the cloud cover outside. He wonders which will win out, whether the moonlight will become entirely swallowed up by the darkness.

 

“Nightmare?”

 

Janos glances across the room. Erik’s sitting on one of the windowsills, leaning back against the frame, leg extended to support his slouch; he rearranges himself to sit cross legged as Janos approaches. Janos slides into the niche opposite him. Erik’s gazing out the window, up towards the sky. His eyes are red, from tears or exhaustion Janos isn’t sure.

 

They sit in silence for a while. Janos appreciates Erik’s company in these quiet moments; his presence is a reassuring reminder that they’re in the waking world. Janos is always alone in his nightmares.

 

“I dreamt of la luz mala. Floating lights; lost souls of sinners.” Erik tilts his head, gaze shifting to regard him as he speaks. Janos continues, his voice low. “They say if you follow the lights, you vanish. Your soul becomes lost too.”

 

Janos has dreamed of them most of his life, though he rarely speaks of it. He’d told Azazel, whose assurance had been an offer of violence to protect him; Emma, who’d overheard one dream, had insisted the dream couldn’t harm him. He’s curious as to how Erik will respond.

 

“If you ever vanish, I’ll come and find you,” Erik states.

 

Janos smiles, inclines his head. The answer is a comfort: Erik is the sort of man who wouldn’t stop until he found Janos, no matter how long it may take. The chill of the nightmare fades.

 

Erik’s looking out the window again. “A friend of mine. When he felt…disconnected, he’d ‘reflect quietly.’” Janos wonders if this is why Erik’s sitting here. “We could meditate together, after your nightmares. Might help.”

 

He accepts gratefully. Neither of them says anything more, sitting comfortably in silence, time passing by until the clouds have drifted enough to bathe the space around them in full moonlight.

 

-

 

Janos returns to himself like a flower in bloom; a slow unfurl of his thoughts, his awareness reconnecting with his body.

 

Continuing with the meditation, Charles moves onto the sacral chakra. Representing the water element, the Svadhishthana holds the unconscious and sexual desires. He reaches for Raven, who’s adrift within the turbulent ocean of her lust.

 

-

 

She tries not to squirm beneath his gaze. “Say again?” Erik’s tone is as unrevealing as his expression. She’d been hoping for a more encouraging response.

 

“Would you like to sleep with me?” Raven repeats, more nervously awkward this time. “I’d like – I mean, I’m interested in being with you, in that way.”

 

Erik’s expression of mild consideration is deliberate, she knows, and still tells her nothing. “Why me?”

 

She’d pre-prepared a handful of flirtatious comments she thought might aid her, mainly about how handsome Erik is, but she gets the impression this isn’t what he’s after. So, she goes with a plain and honest approach instead. “Because you’re the first person to believe I’m beautiful, like this.” Raven gestures down at herself, at her blue skin, which she’s taken to wearing as standard. “Because you’re my friend. And because I’d like to explore my body with someone I trust, who respects me and what I want.”

 

Erik smiles then, to her relief. “Okay,” he tells her, holding up a hand to forestall her when she brightens. “But. We’re going to discuss this a bit more first. Just to clarify a few things.”

 

She sighs a little, realising there’s going to be no sex happening this evening no matter how this talk goes, and nods. Raven takes a seat on the bed opposite him. Erik has a half-formed metal sculpture in his hands; it’s a featureless creature, shackled in chains. It floats out of his palm to land on the bedside table.

 

“You are beautiful,” Erik says first, clearly wanting to impress this point. “But I’m not attracted to you. Not because of your skin, but because you’re, well, a woman.” He pauses. “I prefer men.”

 

“Oh…” This actually doesn’t surprise her, when she stops to think about it.

 

Erik glances down towards his arm. “Is that an issue?”

 

“What – no! No, of course not.” Raven puts her hand on his knee. “I fancy men and women pretty equally, so, I get it.” She feels him relax a little. “If you’re not interested in me…”

 

“I can sleep with you without being attracted to you, Raven. My answer’s still yes.” He meets her gaze. “You’re my friend. It seemed something you ought to know about.”

 

This prompts a question. She hesitates to voice it, but as they’re having an honest conversation about the subject… “Does…did Charles know? About your interest?”

 

Erik hesitates too. “My interest in men, or my interest in him?”

 

“Oh, Erik,” she whispers. She shifts her fingers to touch his hand.

 

He shrugs. “He’s a telepath, and I wasn’t being subtle about how I felt. I assumed he knew, and we just weren’t talking about it yet.” He hesitates again. “He’s probably only interested in women anyway.” This isn’t exactly a question, but Erik looks at her in anticipation of a response.

 

Raven realises she doesn’t have a clear answer for this. “I’m not sure.” If Charles likes men too, he’s never mentioned it to her, even though they’ve spoken about her being queer. Then again, Charles had been a little possessive about Erik’s attention, and maybe that meant something. Despite him being a telepath, it’s always been very hard to tell what Charles is thinking and why.

 

“I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore.” His thumb strokes over hers. “And we’re supposed to be talking about us. So, I want you to pick a safe word.”

 

It’s not what she expected him to say. “A safe word?” She cocks her head at him. “Are we going to need one? I thought they were for those power struggle dynamics.”

 

“I don’t mix pleasure and pain,” Erik says immediately. He draws his hand out from under hers, and absentmindedly rubs at his shoulder. “I’d heard safe words were for tolerances; they should be useable for any occasion.” This would explain the conversation he and Emma were having yesterday about code words during missions. “I want you to have a safe word. It gives you the power to stop everything, whenever you want.”

 

“All right,” Raven says, nodding. “I’ll have a think about what to pick. What’s yours?”

 

“Zikher vort,” he replies slowly.

 

She mouths it to herself, familiarising it. “What sort of situations do you use it for?” He must have a list, if he’s been applying it to all aspects of his life. But Erik’s silent for long enough that she realises the answer’s going to be more complex than she’s expecting. “Erik?”

 

“I’ve never used it before,” he admits. “I want to know it’s always going to be respected. And I’ve never been in a situation before where, if I’d used it, I’d have trusted the other person to stop.”

 

His insistence that her word will keep her safe, that he believes wholeheartedly in this system; Raven’s heart breaks for him. She doesn’t know much about the details of his past – when the CIA had tried to question him about Shaw, all Erik would reveal was his intention to kill the man for medical malpractice, until Charles had made the agents leave Erik alone. But Raven remembers Shaw’s offer to join him, his sense of validation when Angel accepted; Shaw was a man who wasn’t told no.

 

“Well, you can and will use your safe word with me.” Raven informs him, with as much authority as she can muster. “I’ll stop.”

 

Erik stares at her a moment, expression open, surprised and pleased. It strikes her, how vulnerable he’s made himself to her with these admissions. While she hopes she never does anything that would prompt him to need his safe word, she’ll be prepared if he does. No amount of desire will ever lead her to betray this trust.

 

-

 

Raven calms, the storm passing as her passions wane, subsiding beneath the gentle transparency.

 

Next is the Manipura, beneath the solar plexus, behind the naval. This chakra regulates the metabolism and governs digestion. A symbol of fire, it stimulates energy and willpower, fuels achievement and transformation. Angel’s hunger is a burning spark which draws Charles towards her.

 

-

 

She spreads her wings wide, basking under the sunlight as she stands on the edge of the roof. The impulse to launch herself into the air grows with each passing moment. She misses flying at high altitude; drawing in the heat, consuming it as her wings vibrate through the air. Flight used to be natural instinct, but now she has to work for it.

 

Angel gauges the distance between her current perch and the roof of the adjacent wing of the institute. It’s not that far. She could make it.

 

“Angel.”

 

She startles, only just managing not to jump through sheer will. Her wings twitch though, which he’s bound to notice. She glances over her shoulder. “Erik.”

 

He’s frowning, arms folded. He must’ve flown up because she didn’t hear him approach. “We’ve talked about this.”

 

She pretends to misunderstand. “Fine. I won’t skip lunch today.” She wants to though, despite her hunger pangs. If she’s…lighter…flight may be easier.

 

But Erik isn’t diverted. “You’ve done your hour of elevation today already.”

 

She looks away. “It would barely take ten seconds,” she counters.

 

“It’s too high.” He sighs. “I know you’re frustrated, but you have to give it time. Pushing your limits is only going to make it worse.”

 

He’s right, she knows this, but it doesn’t make her hate what he’s saying any less. “What do you know about physical therapy anyway?”

 

There’s a pause. “More than I knew several months ago.” His tone is flat, factual.

 

She bites her lip, mortified. “Right. Sorry.” She changes tack as she peers down towards the ground. “You’re usually encouraging us to push our limits though.” It’s not that high. Only a few stories.

 

Erik walks over to stand beside her. “Every now and then. But not constantly. You’ll burn yourself out too soon.”

 

But the sun is warm on her wings and she’d hovered six feet off the ground for half hour this morning without any issues. She hungers for the warm air. “Raven said you threw Sean off a satellite dish,” she accuses.

 

His lip quirks, his smile bittersweet. “I did. Because he didn’t want to admit he was ready.”

 

The unspoken ‘but you’re not’ annoys her. “I’m ready.” And she splays her wings higher, cartilage flexing, ready to prove it. It’s only ten seconds. She can feel Erik’s gaze on her, but he says nothing as she springs off her toes into the air.

 

Her trajectory takes her up and forward – one, two, three – her wings trembling rapidly – four, five – but the vibration feels unfamiliar, different, wrong – six, seven – her scars are like dead weight, throwing her usual rhythm off-balance – eight –

 

She plummets.

 

She’s still too far from the roof. Her hands grapple uselessly at the air, but she tumbles, her wing throbbing and unresponsive. She screams.

 

A hand closes around her wrist, bringing her descent to an abrupt halt. She clambers to grab hold of Erik as he heaves her up into his arms. She doesn’t start crying until he sets them down on the roof. “Your wing?”

 

“Cramp,” she chokes out and presses her face against his shoulder.

 

“I’m going to check it,” he warns her, and she nods. Angel grinds her teeth together and whines; even though his ministrations are careful, the scar tissue is oversensitive, burning at the touch. “No tearing,” he reports, “but it’s inflamed again.” She lets her wings drop rather than folding them away. His fingers move to her hair, combing it back into place. “I’m sorry.”

 

That he apologises, instead of justifiably saying he told her so, makes her cry harder. He hugs her then, humming a tune in her ear until she stops.

 

He eases her back, wiping at her tears with his thumbs. “Therapy exercises only, for a full week,” Erik insists, firm but not unkind. “Roof side hovering only if I’m present. And no distance flying until I throw you off a roof myself.” This startles a laugh from her, ragged though it is. Erik smooths her hair again. “Because when I do, it’ll be when you’re ready.”

 

Because he believes she will progress to coping with unexpected freefall one day. “Okay.” If he believes it, maybe she can believe it too. She imagines flying properly again and is determined to work as hard as she can to achieve it. She will. She will. And she cannot wait.

 

-

 

Angel is sated by the warmth of her self-satisfaction. The heat settles into her muscles and the tendons of her wings, storing energy for later use.

 

The heart chakra, the Anahata, resonates with the element of air. It unites opposing forces, through compassion, through the touch and actions of hands. It’s love. It’s serenity.

 

Charles tries not to linger on the thought of Erik, of how his absence makes the hollow in Charles’s own chest ache.

 

He moves onto the Vishuddha, positioned within the throat. This chakra represents the aether, the plane where light and matter travel through space from one point to another. It manages self-expression; it takes the sum of negative experiences and draws wisdom from those failures, so that one may learn to overcome their guilt. Charles throws himself into Azazel’s rage.

 

-

 

The blow strikes Azazel centre chest and he goes down, flat on his back. He glares at the ceiling as he catches his breath.

 

“Again?” Erik asks, raking his fingers through his hair.

 

Azazel grunts and sits up, shaking his head. “I’m done.” He catches the towel Erik tosses his way, watches as the man rolls his shoulder a few times. “Why is it you always kick my ass?”

 

Erik drinks from his water bottle in lieu of a response, because they both know why. Then he says, “since I did kick your ass – in all six bouts – you’ve got to honour the deal.” Erik moves over to the bench, propping one foot on it, and starts stretching. “So, talk.”

 

This was why Azazel had insisted on subsequent bouts; he really doesn’t want to discuss it. Erik had been clever to demand an explanation if he won, when Azazel had accosted him for a spar. He stalls by getting to his feet, scrubs at his face with the towel.

 

“Is this about Raven?” The question’s stilted, as if it’s something Erik thinks he’s expected to ask.

 

Nyet. Not exactly.” He recalls Raven mentioning her ex-boyfriend’s issues with Erik, which seemed foolish to Azazel. He’s always known exactly where he, Raven, and Erik stand with each other. In a way, he wishes his problem was something as petty as jealousy. “I’m a demon. The bloodlust. I don’t want to hurt her.”

 

Erik straightens with a frown. “You won’t.”

 

“She says so too. We’ve spoken of it.” He slings the towel around his neck, pulls at the ends. He’d still rather not get into it, but… “But she doesn’t, can’t, really know that madness.”

 

Erik, on the other hand, does understand the nature of it. He strides towards Azazel. “Again.”

 

“What?”

 

“Again.” He shoves Azazel, smirking.

 

Azazel’s lip curls, blood already racing again. He tosses the towel aside, resuming a ready stance.

 

Erik strikes first, aiming a blow for his face – deliberately placed and easily deflected. “So, what are you?” Azazel catches Erik’s next two central jabs, but the third hit is low, bypassing his guard to connect with his ribs. “Monster or predator?”

 

“What does it matter?” Azazel volleys back; one, two-three, four, then swings wide with greater force. Erik ducks under it. “A wolf cannot change its pelt.” Red skin and markings; all see a demon, so a demon he is.

 

Erik lands a kick to his shin, which hurts. Azazel wraps his tail around the man’s wrist, aiming for leverage. He claws at Erik’s arm, draws blood. He’s always been good at spilling blood.

 

“I don’t hunt wolves for their pelts.” Erik retorts. “I slaughter sheep killers.”

 

He’s surprised when Erik’s fingers wrap around his tail in turn and pulls back against him. Erik clocks his jaw with the other hand. Azazel’s distracted by the blood in his mouth only briefly, then suddenly he’s on his back again, with Erik looming over him. When Azazel makes to move, Erik sets his foot against his chest. Just pressure, no force.

 

Azazel doesn’t struggle. “Wolves are the best hunters.”

 

Erik laughs without humour. “Yes, we are.”

 

Azazel lets his head drop back to rest on the floor, this fight having been oddly more cathartic than the earlier ones.

 

“Following on with this wolf metaphor,” Erik remarks, voice calm, musing. “This Brotherhood is our pack. And I know you’re not going to harm anyone in it, because if you tried to, I’d stop you. One way or another.”

 

“I know you will.” Erik was designed for war. If Azazel aimed to win a real fight between them, he’d have to fight to kill; but his victory would only be guaranteed if Erik lacked the will to survive.

 

Erik shifts his foot to prod at Azazel’s leg, at the tender spot, to regain his attention. Azazel hisses, twitching his limb away. “You came to find me. When it was too much. That’s progress.”

 

He grins up at Erik, swears at him good-naturedly. He’s been quite impressed by how effective the man’s leadership approach has been – Azazel’s never been able to self-regulate his aggressive cravings before. It’s remarkable, how being valued in his entirety makes such a difference. Azazel huffs. “I’ll be sore tomorrow.”

 

Erik chuckles. “Yeah, me too.” He offers his hand. Azazel lets Erik pull him to his feet.

 

-

 

Azazel’s wrath dissipates like the cloud of smoke which signals his teleportation through space. The echoes linger like scars, to keep him wary of falling prey to such darkness again.

 

The sixth chakra is the Ajna, the ‘third-eye.’ Signifying the higher planes, the intangible forces, it’s associated with intuition and intellect. Located within the brain, it strengthens mental communication and the subconscious mind, revealing deeper insights to those who listen. It’s duality, but also unity. It’s omniscience.

 

He’s a telepath, as is Emma. She’s too proud to acknowledge she’s not strong enough to keep him out; she avoids this by deliberately dragging him in instead.

 

-

 

It’s not so much a thought as a resonance which jars her from her reading; like sterling silver tapping against a glass, the vibration echoing. Emma looks up, gaze drawn to Erik, phone pressed to his ear. Her brow furrows. She can’t read him – his surface thoughts are eerily blank.

 

“I heard you,” he says, and the hollowness of his words send a chill down her spine. There’s a long pause, and Emma gets the impression Raven’s talking but Erik’s not really listening anymore. “Yes. Stay. As long as you need.” There’s another pause, then he hangs up and stares at the phone.

 

“Erik?” Emma reaches for his mind carefully. His thoughts are still unfocused, telling her nothing, but there’s something unpleasant slowly bleeding up from the deeper layers of his psyche. “Everything all right?”

 

He doesn’t answer, stalking from the room. Complications with Charles’s injury then, if Raven and Azazel are remaining near the hospital for a while. Emma tracks Erik’s presence, not pushing for anything yet, but grows concerned when he seals himself in the panic room. The flood of inarticulate anguish which follows suggests the location was chosen for containment, especially when he starts destroying the contents of the room.

 

Emma closes her book, sets it on her lap. This is rather good timing, with Janos and Angel still in town. Erik’s tantrum would frighten the others, but she’s always prided herself on a level of separation between herself and the target of her focus. She can remain objective.

 

A jolt travels up through Erik’s arm – she perceives he’s punched the wall – the sharp reaction of pain is followed by an emphatic sentiment of good, it should hurt.

 

Emma concentrates, and manifests a projection of herself inside the room. Her phantom fold her arms, frowning at him. “Didn’t take you for a masochist.”

 

“You know I’m not,” he retorts sullenly.

 

“So. Charles.” The name is all she needs – Erik’s so on edge he can’t keep his thoughts quiet: spinal injury and permanent damage and wheelchair. Complications indeed. “There was nothing you could’ve done, Erik.”

 

Except get shot. That unpleasant notion seeping up to infect Erik’s mindset suddenly coalesces into a strong, unshakable belief that he deserves to suffer, deserves pain in retribution for his sins. It’s the same need for revenge he’d held for Sebastian and, alarmingly, has existed for just as long.

 

Emma takes a moment to steady herself, shaking off the brief sense of helplessness which must have come from Erik. She’s never helpless; why would she be, when she has such perfect self-control? “Your friend would’ve been displeased if you’d been shot,” she points out. Reasonably, she thinks, but Erik radiates scepticism fuelled by his fixation on useless apologies. Emma prods at this questioningly.

 

“It was my fault!” Erik shouts. Voices echo in his memory, his and Charles’s: Erik tells McTaggart ‘you did this;’ Charles tells Erik, ‘you did;’ Erik says, ‘we want the same thing;’ Charles says, ‘we do not.’ Charles, who will never walk again, because of a small bullet. He’ll never forgive me. He must hate me. He should.

 

“His injury was an accident,” Emma insists. She throws a memory of her own at him, from Russia; Charles’s constant shielding of Erik’s mind, Charles’s cold stare when she tested it, Charles’s not-so-casual and not-so-apologetic warning that he was aware of the pain she’d caused Erik when they’d first met and that it wouldn’t be happening again. He cares about you Erik! “What happened wasn’t your fault. Charles was wrong.”

 

“He was wrong,” Erik agrees flatly. Charles’s mistake was to ever believe there was good in me. Then Erik’s focus shifts, taking conscious notice of the gun within the room.

 

The book goes flying as Emma launches herself to her feet, starts running. “Well, of course you’re good,” she says imperiously, her phantom revealing none of the heart-racing panic thrumming through her system. “Otherwise you’d have put that platinum coin into my eye, not my palm.”

 

He doesn’t engage with her, as she’d hoped. Blood, and war, and death; that’s what I’m good for, he thinks. Made for pain – to deal it out, and to suffer it. He traces his powers over the edge of the weapon – a semi-automatic pistol.

 

Emma slams into the door, trying the handle fruitlessly; it’s bolted from the inside. “Open this door, Lehnsherr,” she demands. When he ignores her, her phantom stalks closer, props her hands on her hips. “Did you hear me? Open the door, or I’ll make you.” She presses against his mind pointedly.

 

He hears the threat, considers it and dismisses it. Instead, he reaches out, lifting the gun with his powers. It hovers in the air on the other side of the room, muzzle hanging downwards. It’s loaded; he feels the bullet nestled in the chamber.

 

Funny, the damage one small bullet can do.

 

Emma feels his perspective shift – one hits mama, she falls; single shots drop Nazis, one after the other; it hits Charles and he hits the ground – then he refocuses on the gun like it’s grounding him. He feels oddly disconnected from everything else around him, even her. Trauma response. No wonder he’s not thinking clearly.

 

She abandons her phantom, it vanishes as she applies her efforts to trying to force her way in, both the door and his mind. Immediately, she hits a barrier – Erik’s outer mental defences are like iron bars. “Erik, let me in!” Try as she might, she can’t breach them – she can’t tell if this is due to his natural talent or whether the barrier was specially constructed for a stronger telepath.

 

Erik waits a moment, to confirm she’s unable to influence his thoughts. Then he deliberately rotates the gun around, so the muzzle’s aimed in his direction.

 

He’s so withdrawn now he barely notices the urgent sense of no-bad-desist she’s sending his way. Emma bites her lip. Her negotiating skills lie in encouraging self-indulgence; she doesn’t know how to discourage self-harm.

 

Erik’s thoughts turn to Sebastian. Pleased with Erik’s progress, the man had gifted him with a book. Erik had enjoyed Frankenstein, until the doctor had spent their next session discussing its themes while wielding a scalpel. Erik still bears those scars and recalls which quotes went with them.

 

I’m a monster, Erik reflects measuredly as he cocks the gun. And I deserve to die for what I did.

 

Emma feels like the ground’s just dropped out beneath her. Especially when it’s followed by the knowledge that Erik had considered Miami a suicide mission, that he’d die achieving Sebastian’s murder, and so why should Cuba have been any different?

 

You know why! Several of Emma’s fingernails break in her attempt to pry open the impenetrable door. But if he won’t live for love, maybe he will for spite. Your death would let Sebastian win!

 

For a few heartbeats, she thinks she has him. But then he decides he no longer cares. What would be the point?

 

“Erik,” she pleads, more frightened than she thinks she’s ever been in her life. “Erik, please, don’t.”

 

The gun fires.

 

There’s an endless moment of horror, a perfectly isolated instant in time: a burn behind her suddenly stinging eyes, a prickling knot of tension in her chest, a thick lump in her throat which chokes both her air and her words. Erik, Erik!

 

One moment passes into the next. Emma’s own horror is mirrored by an uncomprehending disbelief. The two of them realise Erik’s unharmed simultaneously; Emma understanding as Erik does, knowledge spilling over. A bullet hangs suspended in mid-air, an inch from Erik’s forehead. He hadn’t stopped it consciously – his powers had acted on their own.

 

Self-preservation, Emma thinks, but then thinks opposing polarity instead and feels sick.

 

Erik does nothing but stare at the bullet with a mounting sense of hopeless betrayal. The bullet drops to the floor, followed by the gun, then Erik, as he crumples to his knees. He makes a sound – an awful keening whine in his throat – which she never wants to hear again.

 

“Erik,” she whispers. “Please open the door.”

 

For a moment, there’s only silence. Then the bolts holding the door slowly drag themselves out of their locks. The quiet persists as she enters, as she walks over, as she kneels beside him. But as soon as she touches him, he folds into her arms, shaking. Overwhelmed and wrung out, he struggles to breathe around quiet sobs. His mind is quieter, blanketed beneath despair.

 

Emma’s unsure whether this will make her a good friend or a bad one, but she takes immediate advantage of his inattention. “Promise me. Promise me you won’t ever try to do something like that again, without giving me the opportunity to talk you down first.” She keeps her voice calm, assuring; she wants to persuade him to agree before he fully understands what she’s asking. “Promise me, Erik.” She feels slightly guilty as she settles her palm on his lower back and applies a little pressure there. “Promise me.

 

“I promise,” he chokes out, and this is worth the anguish billowing off him. She promptly removes her hand, starts stroking his hair with it instead, as she murmurs reassuring nothings.

 

Sebastian would be disappointed in her, for losing her objectivity.

 

She wonders what he’d think of Erik turning a gun on himself.

 

Emma’s not so conceited she can’t admit, if only within her own mind, that Erik’s stronger than she is. And if he can fall apart like this after being discarded, how does she move forward with her life? What is she, without Sebastian?

 

Erik exhales, long and low. When he speaks, the words quiver wetly. “Can’t even die right.”

 

“Fucking good,” she declares, nudging his shoulder. They rearrange themselves, so she’s sitting properly, and his head’s in her lap. “You’re an imbecile.”

 

“Why thank you.” His attempt at a smile isn’t brilliant, but it’s still an attempt. He catches her hand, examines her broken nails. “Sorry.” It was cruel of me, to put you through that.

 

“I’m just grateful you’re okay.” I’m sorry I couldn’t help you through it. She’ll do better, should there be a next time.

 

And she must project that too, because realisation dawns on him about their new arrangement. “Hope you’re proud of yourself,” he grumbles. She isn’t fooled; she feels how humbled he is that she cares about his life at all.

 

“Oh, I am.” In fact, obtaining his word on this is probably the most important achievement of her life; definitely makes up for her earlier failure to do anything. And despite how she got it out of him, she’s confident Erik will honour the promise. She won’t fail him again.

 

-

 

Emma listens, and she understands; Charles listens, and he does too.

 

And since he’s now reached all five present members of the Brotherhood, he halts the meditation here, rather than progress onto the seventh point, the Sahasrara.

 

-

 

The Brotherhood’s welfare is his primary concern right now, Charles tells himself, folding his shaking hands in his lap. He watches as they stir.

 

Janos heaves himself up into a seated position, touching his hand gingerly to his chest. “I didn’t disappear,” he whispers, voice cracking with disuse and relief. Angel, conversely, flops onto her back with a grin and a satisfied groan, finally feeling full, and her thoughts are on flying in the sunlight.

 

Raven draws closer to Azazel and touches his arm. She whoops a little with delight. “Do you know how good it is to be able to touch you again, without worrying about it?”

 

Da.” Azazel fits his palm to the side of her face, sliding his thumb gently over her cheek. “I know.”

 

Emma turns towards Charles. “Thank you,” she says, quiet and heartfelt. “And I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”

 

Charles nods and smiles. He asks them all how they’re now feeling, and if they wouldn’t mind another set of tests, to confirm they’re in the clear now.

 

But his hands won’t stop trembling and his chest still aches.

 

-

 

The room feels more oppressive than before, as though the echo of their earlier argument still fills the space. The chess board has been reset, with almost all the pieces arranged in place.

 

The black queen is missing.

 

There’s also a letter opener embedded in the wall.

 

Charles remembers seeing it, in Emma’s memories, when Erik had been crying and she’d been screaming about his promise. Remembers Azazel throttling Erik during the Rapture and Erik, despite being the better fighter, not getting loose. Erik, refusing to release Shaw’s submarine, even as he was dragged beneath the water.

 

He set his hand over his mouth, fights back the urge to either cry or scream. He can’t think about this now. Erik needs him. But then he starts thinking about Erik’s affections for him instead and he feels even worse. He’s been such a terrible friend. It’s a wonder Erik still cares for him.

 

But what if he doesn’t anymore? He’d been so distressed, after their argument, and then Michael had come for him, clearly knowing he could take advantage of Erik’s heartache. What if, in his altered state, Erik can’t help responding to Michael’s interest?

 

The door thumps open, startling him. He tries to cobble together his composure.

 

“I don’t understand the chess metaphors all that well, so bear with me,” Emma remarks as she sits in the chair – Erik’s chair – opposite him. She points at Charles’s black pieces. “X-Men.” Then at the white ones. “Hellfire. Erik accumulated us when he deposed the old white king, reworked us into the Brotherhood we are now.” She plucks the white queen from the board. “The queen’s the best piece, right?”

 

Charles nods. “Powerful and valuable,” he echoes dully.

 

“Here’s how I see it.” Emma wiggles the piece. “Erik’s a queen – colour irrelevant – who’s trying to be a white, or perhaps grey, king. And he’s good at it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not what he wants.” She sets the queen back down. “I prefer poker metaphors, personally, they’re simpler. He’s a wildcard; changes up the whole game.”

 

He asks, because he knows she wants him to. “Why is his queen’s colour irrelevant?”

 

“Because it’s not the colour that defines him,” Emma replies gently. “It’s his king.” She tucks her hair behind her ear and sighs. “King or not, he’s always going to be your queen, you know.” She’d obviously overheard his concerns.

 

A week ago, a day ago, he’d likely have protested or deflected. Instead, he meets Emma’s gaze. “I was jealous of you.”

 

“Oh, I noticed.” She smiles, a little sheepishly. “I should apologise for winding you up about it. Actually, I – I should clarify a thing or two. Firstly, when I made that comment about Erik and lust,” she pauses, so he nods to indicate he remembers, “well, the real reason I’d have slept with him in those circumstances? Because I wouldn’t feel guilty about the sex, and Erik wouldn’t feel guilty about accidently hurting me.” I’m a bit of a masochist, she admits without shame.

 

Charles has been trying not to think about Raven imitating him in order to seduce Erik. Discussing Erik’s hypothetical sex life isn’t going to help with that. “Speaking of accidental injuries…” He swallows. You can’t blame him, Erik had told her.

 

“I never really blamed you. For what he tried to do.” Emma grimaces. “I’d have blamed myself, if it’d worked.” She stares at her fingernails. “For telepaths, we’re not very good at communicating, are we?”

 

“Apparently not.” Though Emma had done a much better job than he had in Cuba. He’ll address that, as soon as he gets Erik back. Quietly, he asks, “does he really think I hate him?”

 

Emma exhales slowly. “Honestly? I don’t know. But he often thinks about you rejecting his apology after you were shot.” Charles frowns, because that – that isn’t what happened, and Emma starts nodding, having not believed that either. “The helmet, it impacts perspective. You couldn’t read his mind, didn’t know what he was thinking.” She pauses. “Last time we were all in here, I knew you were hearing his thoughts, but I couldn’t. I could only hear what you were both saying, and so you and I have different impressions of that conversation. Because, he kept saying sorry, Charles, and you were so preoccupied with whatever he was thinking, you didn’t actually address that.”

 

Charles stares at her in horror.

 

She snaps her fingers and gestures at him. “And that look, that’s why I tried avoiding you since we arrived. I knew I could put that look on your face.” Which would have upset Erik, she doesn’t need to say. “Then I had to go and mention Sebastian instead, good god.” She laughs, just as horrified. “How appropriate my sin was. I was conditioned to be self-obsessed, to love myself, to be a queen. But Erik…”

 

Erik’s conditioning, under Shaw’s ministration, was the opposite.

 

“He has a lot of hate, for himself.” Emma starts to tap a finger against the armrest, her thoughts buzzing anxiously. “The last thing he needs right now is to give it an outlet.”

 

Charles’s blood runs cold. If Erik’s greed latches onto his self-loathing… “Do you think he’ll hurt himself?” If anything happens to Erik…the last thing they did was fight…

 

“He promised me he wouldn’t.” She swallows. “I have to trust that.” But her finger keeps tapping.

 

Charles’s gaze falls back to the chessboard, to the empty space where the black queen should be. Don’t you want it? He’s going to find Erik. Stop Michael. And then he and Erik are going to talk.

 

“Emma. I’m going to need your help.”

 

She’s on her feet immediately, a determined glint in her eyes. “Absolutely.”

 

-

 

Emma uses a projection of Charles to distract Hank, enabling them to sneak back down to Cerebro without being noticed. “I don’t know how long the illusion will last,” she warns as she seals the door behind them. “I’m out of practise.”

 

Charles doesn’t care if they’re discovered, he’s not leaving this room until he’s found Erik.

 

Emma sets a hand on his arm, strengthening the mental connection between them. “Okay, sugar. You’re up.”

 

This time, with Emma to brace him, the voices are less overwhelming; buffered, so he can move through them swiftly. He searches further and further out, ignoring the headache beginning to bloom behind his temple. Emma smooths it away, pressing her mind closer to offer more support. They both ignore the flashing warning lights and high-pitched whine from the console.

 

How long does this process take? She asks as she loses grip on her projection and Hank’s outraged realisation gains the attention of the X-Men and Brotherhood alike. Because I think we’re about to have company.

 

Charles doesn’t bother trying to hide his panic; Emma’s too closely connected with him not to sense it anyway. I should’ve found him by now. He’d recognise Erik’s mind anywhere, and Erik’s nowhere.

 

There’s a quiver of distress from her in return. Okay, so he’s hidden, she asserts, refusing to even acknowledge the other option for why Charles might not be able to sense him. Reasonable precaution, given Kingston knew you two had history. But she isn’t sure how they get around this problem.

 

There’s a thumping at the door and Hank bellows at them to open it.

 

“Erik!” Charles shouts, pointlessly, because Erik can’t hear him. Pain ricochets down his nerves, tingling in his chest and arms. He squeezes his eyes shut, breathing around it. Emma tugs at the sensation, sharing it to lessen its impact on him. Her attention wavers between her pain, their connection with Cerebro, the debate happening outside the door, and a memory of Erik after the Incident: slowly shaking his head, staring at his interlocked fingers.

 

‘You’re missing the point, Emma,’ Erik murmurs quietly. ‘Stop thinking like a mind-reader.’

 

The echo of this memory hovers between them, and Emma has an epiphany. Stop looking for his mind, she suggests. Try looking for his face instead. Then she slides her attention back to Hank, who’s instructing Alex to blast the door, because Raven’s backing Azazel’s refusal to teleport inside; Emma informs them she thinks forced entry is a stupid decision and liable to hurt Charles.

 

Charles takes her advice, coasting through as many minds as he can, focusing on an image of Erik and hoping it will resonate within someone else’s thoughts. Emma leans her weight against the back of his chair, covering both his arms with hers as best she can, and shoring up his defences against the ambient noise. And then –

 

There! Emma cries, triumphant, a moment after Charles catches sight of Erik’s eyes, staring intently. Charles singles out the mind the thought belongs to.

 

Phil Walker is a brash man who refuses to acknowledge he’s been middle-aged for quite some time. He lives in a neighbourhood which is a little above his means, works out several hours a day, and is handsome enough to pass off his rudeness as ignorance; all of which – he believes – entitles him to have anything he wants in life. Presently, he’s sitting in a bar, tossing back a few beers, his mood souring as the serving bitch he’s been eyeing up for several weeks turns down his offer to meet in the back alley after her shift.

 

The young woman glares at him, with an intensity which heralds the likes of paperclip threats and death wishes.

 

Charles grabs hold of that thought – Erik’s shadowed expression – and hauls forward the memory centred around it.

 

-

 

Phil’s read the reports. He doesn’t trust Lehnsherr to remain passive any more than he’d trust a whore not to change her prices on a whim.

 

“Trust me to know the shape of his greed,” Kingston says dismissively. “And do remember he’s mine.”

 

It won’t matter how important Lehnsherr is to Kingston’s work, he’s bound to give Phil an excuse. He hopes this plastic baton bruises as well as his usual one does. They enter the chamber with its unnerving mirrored walls. Lehnsherr’s side-eyeing his nearest reflection uneasily, but his expression is guarded by the time he looks at Kingston.

 

Lehnsherr’s currently much less intimidating than his reputation had suggested. He’s kneeling in the centre of the room, resting his weight back on his heels. His hands are suspended in front of him in a position which suggests practised familiarity with shackles. His bound wrists are anchored to the floor by chains of equally hardened plastic. Phil knows they’re just as secure as metal ones would be, but would prefer to break one of Lehnsherr’s legs, just to be safe.

 

“You get these mirrors from the CIA?” Lehnsherr sounds bored, but there’s clear tension in his shoulders.

 

“I persuaded my contact to turn over all the samples they’d recovered from Cuba.” Kingston replies, examining the setup with satisfaction. “No telepaths will find you in here, Erik.”

 

“And what makes you think I won’t escape?”

 

Kingston smiles indulgently at him. “Because you want to be rescued.

 

Lehnsherr blinks. He shivers, then swallows. “Charles – Charles won’t come.” But the words ache with longing. Phil sneers. How pathetic.

 

“Charles,” Kingston enunciates, smile vanishing, “is a fool. And if he wants to try make a fool of me, he’ll regret it.”

 

Now this is much more to Phil’s taste. “And once you’re done with him, I get to have my fun.” He lazily slaps his baton against his palm.

 

Lehnsherr’s gaze snaps to him. “I can kill you six different ways using only a paperclip,” he says lowly.

 

Phil isn’t afraid of some Kraut. He tightens his grip on his baton and ignores the chilly menace of Lehnsherr’s stare. “Was that a threat?” He’s not afraid. He scowls. “When I get my hands on you –”

 

“You’re not to touch him,” Kingston orders furiously, rounding on him. “I told you, he’s mine. Keep your hands to yourself.”

 

Phil tries not to roll his eyes. He still doesn’t see what’s so important about Lehnsherr, but it’s best to placate the man who controls his paycheck. “Understood, boss.” Besides, he can always come back later, alone, and thrash Lehnsherr a few times for good measure.

 

Kinston narrows his eyes, clearly suspicious. Phil glances back at Lehnsherr, who’s now eyeing Kingston oddly. Then Lehnsherr huffs, dropping his hands to his lap, the chains going lax. “So, Charles is the expert geneticist in behaviour as well as mutation then.”

 

Kingston visibly bites back his annoyance at this remark. “Did you know,” he asks as he slowly approaches Lehnsherr, “the name ‘Charles’ means ‘free man?’ He’s probably glad to be rid of you.”

 

Lehnsherr flinches, but retorts with “thought you were a religious man. Did you forget that ‘thou shalt not covert thy neighbour’s wife?’”

 

Phil stares. Lehnsherr essentially just called himself another man’s woman. Forget thrashing him, Phil’s going to cave his head in if he’s a fucking queer.

 

“Now you’re just trying to bait me.” Kingston reaches out, his fingers curling under Lehnsherr’s chin to tilt it up slightly. Lehnsherr twitches, glaring. “I’m satisfied with your greed, for now. But I admit, I had hoped you’d been hit with lust.” Phil wrinkles his nose, disgusted. Is Lehnsherr making Kingston act queer too? But Lehnsherr jerks his head away from Kingston’s fingers, still glaring. “You’d have been much more…receptive.” Phil relaxes a little. Kingston must be pretending to be queer, to get Lehnsherr to cooperate. Well, of course he is. Phil likes Kingston well enough most of the time, so the man can’t be a pansy.

 

“What do you want from me, Kingston?”

 

Kingston hums. “You could call me Michael. Which means ‘who is like god,’ incidentally. I did some work in linguistics, on etymology, before moving into genetics. Erik; ‘eternal ruler. Ever powerful.’ You certainly are that.”

 

“This is about my powers then.” Lehnsherr stares down at his hands. “And yours.” His gaze seems to lose focus. “Again, Herr Doktor?” Phil enjoys how resigned Lehnsherr sounds now.

 

“Your powers are extraordinary,” Kingston remarks. Lehnsherr drags his attention back to the man with what seems to be some effort. “The applications of your magnetism –”

 

“I’m not helping you,” Lehnsherr snaps.

 

“All I need you to do is exist.”

 

Lehnsherr goes very still. “What?” His suddenly stricken expression eases some of Phil’s annoyance at this news – he’d been looking forward to killing Lehnsherr later, but now it looks like he won’t get away with such an ‘accident’ after all.

 

Kingston adopts his lecture voice. “Do you know the name for a generator that uses magnetic fields to produce pulses of electrical current?”

 

“…Magneto.” The word’s subdued, the colour draining from Lehnsherr’s face.

 

“Indeed. They used to be used in lighthouses, to power the beam.” Kingston reaches for Lehnsherr’s face again; Lehnsherr dodges, snapping his teeth angrily at air. Kingston’s fingers retreat to safety. “You’re going to power my synchrotron.”

 

“I’ll destroy your machine. Again.” Lehnsherr insists shortly, clenching his jaw before he adds, “I’m good at that.”

 

Kingston tuts, like Lehnsherr’s a student with a disappointing answer. “I admit, I didn’t expect that. But I’ve making these preparations for months.” He gestures, indicating the room. “This chamber lies at the centre of a specially designed storage ring. The readings I obtained when you destroyed the federal prototype allowed me to tune the receptors to your polarity. I’ve been trying for years to come up with a power source with enough permeability to be self-sustaining.”

 

Phil’s not really following the scientific jargon, but Lehnsherr’s looking increasingly grim.

 

“All those so-called experts of their fields, telling me it couldn’t be done. What did any of them know? Because here you are; my very own superconductor.” When Kingston reaches out once more, Lehnsherr pulls back until the chains go taut. Kington touches two fingers to Lehnsherr’s chest. “Theoretically, the more energy you generate with your powers, the stronger the synchrotron radiation will be.”

 

Don’t touch me,” Lehnsherr snarls, then mutters something in German about a doctor. Once Kingston leisurely withdraws his hand again, Lehnsherr complains, “I hate this, I hate this, I hate you. I want to go back home. I’m not letting you do this to me.” Phil scoffs at the childish outburst.

 

“Westchester isn’t your home.” Kingston counters resentfully. “You belong here. Even my federal investors thought to one day contain you, as if they have that right. But a gift like yours should be harnessed.” Kingston rubs at the lapels of his coat. “And then they’ll be taking orders from me.”

 

“Your first order should be to have them take care of his Brotherhood,” Phil interjects. It’s unlikely the rogue mutants will risk breaching a facility like this one, but it’s better to tie up loose ends.

 

“No.” Lehnsherr’s tone abruptly turns cold. “Never again.” A shadow falls across his expression. “I’ll die first.”

 

This earns an intent stare from Kingston, but Phil rolls his eyes. “Excellent plan.” He’s perfectly happy to oblige, and god, he hopes for an excuse to follow. But Lehnsherr remains silent.

 

Kingston shoves Lehnsherr suddenly, hard enough the man topples sideways, twisting awkwardly as his chains halt his momentum. “A coward’s surrender? You’re worth more than that.” Kingston’s tone is conversational, an air of wisdom to it. “You should accept your fate, Erik. I guarantee you, if you renounce your old life and swear unto me, I’ll grant you peace.”

 

Lehnsherr resumes a seated position and laughs, a little wildly. “When is peace ever an option?”

 

“Your alternative would be long days of pain and endless struggling.” Kingston sighs, a show of regret. “Consider what you deserve!” He shakes his head. “We’ll leave you alone, to think on it.”

 

Phil sneaks one last glance at Lehnsherr – eyes shut, fingers gripping his knees – and follows Kingston out of the chamber.

 

Kingston seems content now. “I can sway him, with time. I know I can. And by the time Charles realises what he’s lost, Erik will already be mine.”

 

“How long should I leave him before I go back in?” Phil asks casually.

 

Kingston comes to a halt, eyes narrowing. “No. Only I’m allowed in the chamber now. You’re not to go near him, no one’s going near him. In fact,” and Kingston’s tone turns cajoling, “why don’t you take the rest of the week off, Phil? You’ve worked so hard lately. I think you should have a break. Far from here.”

 

Well, Phil’s not going to argue with that, even if it means forgoing some quality time with the prisoner.

 

-

 

Phil’s present daydream – striking the baton again and again, the floor stained red with blood, but he’s not going to stop until every bone in Lehnsherr’s body is broken – burns Charles like a physical wound. He reaches into Phil’s mind and systematically removes every trace of Erik from the man’s memory, blurring the remaining edges of those thoughts until they lose all context.

 

Emma, still riding along with him, is quietly awed by his abilities. She alters perceptions while in contact with a mind; they usually revert when she withdraws. She can, with great effort, occasionally implant a foreign thought, but they never integrate seamlessly and therefore often get rejected by the recipient. She can’t permanently reconfigure a mind like Charles can.

 

For good measure, just to be safe, because he doesn’t trust the man, and it’s better to tie up loose ends, Charles spitefully leaves Phil with a deep-seated phobia of paperclips. By ‘accident’ of course. He feels Emma’s approving smirk.

 

They both withdraw from Cerebro just as part of the console explodes.

 

-

 

Unsealing the door reveals everyone assembled in the corridor. Emma squeezes his shoulder and Charles draws a deep breath. “I know where Erik is.”

 

Raven, standing towards the front of the group, speaks up for all of them. “When do we leave?”

 

-