regann: (Default)
regann ([personal profile] regann) wrote2013-04-27 10:58 am

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Title: Day of Fire and Sun
by Regann


Summary:

Charles Xavier has pledged himself and his crew to helping Erik Lehnsherr achieve his vengeance against the Hel clan, ending the decades of tyranny that they have held over humans and mutants alike under the leadership of Sebastian Shaw. But first Charles must make sure their fragment of the legendary Engine of Creation doesn't fall into the wrong hands and he needs an old friend's help to do so. Still, with the Hel on their heels and Erik impatient for his revenge, Charles knows that every moment counts -- for him, for Erik, and for the Tri-Galaxy. Space AU, Powers, alpha/pack social dynamics. Second fic in the "Engine of Creation" series.




Notes:

See the first fic for more notes on the fusion/AU aspect of the 'verse.




Published at: 2012-03-07

Revised at: 2012-04-03 13:52:57 -0400


Chapter 1

**


Oh day of fire and sun

Like a crystal burning,

Slow days go one by one,

But you have no returning.


- Excavated Fragment, Unknown Terran Poet, C.Y. 1849


**


In all his years of crisscrossing the known reaches of Brotherhood space, Erik had never seen a crew grow so quiet and still, as if their breaths would be the thing that would betray them to their enemies.


He stood on the bridge of the Eye of Wisdom, surrounded by its mutant-but-not-Brotherhood crew, looking at each solemn face in turn through the cool, blue glow of the ship's emergency low lights. Angel's eyes never left the read-outs on her console, while Alex's remained tilted up, watching the middle panel of the wide view screen that showed the real-time space that surrounded the ship. Darwin's attention was divided between whatever his own console monitored and some people-watching of his own and Raven, in the pilot's seat, slowly clenched and unclenched her fingers around the piloting controls.


Their captain -- Charles Xavier, mutant and Vederan -- stood at the front of the bridge, his face most clearly illuminated by the light thrown from the viewscreens, his eyes dark and distant as he no doubted focused on everything at once through the telepathic connections he'd made with each of his crew.


The ship had been hiding out in the asteroid belt for longer than Erik wanted to admit, everything but essential functions powered down to eliminate as much of their energy signature as possible. It was why they only had the emergency lights to brighten the bridge, why everything was sharpened or obscured by the strange shadows, why they all stood quiet and still -- waiting for the moment when danger passed.


That was their biggest mistake, Erik knew. Thinking that the danger ever passed. His own experiences had taught him better than that.


This mission is fraught enough as it is, Charles's voice floated through Erik's mind again, once again proving that the telepath had an appalling lack of shame when it came to eavesdropping on private thoughts. After only a few weeks with the crew, Erik was already mostly resigned to this fact. Such pessimism is hardly useful.


Erik snorted aloud, earning a dark glance from Raven that he returned with a scowl of his own. It wasn't like any organic noises they made amongst themselves would be overheard, no matter how sensitive the sensors of the cruiser dodging them, but he had also learned during his time on the Wisdom that the entire crew was used to working in silence because of the advantage afforded from Charles's telepathy. Only Moira was cut off from the undetectable communications systems Charles created with his power, but she was an AI and, as such, was usually receiving raw data directly from the Wisdom's sensors, both internal and external.


Is that slipdog still sniffing around? Erik thought back at Charles.


Darwin says they are just on the edge of the system, Charles sent back. Hopefully we won't have to camouflage ourselves for much longer.


And are you going to tell me this is just a coincidence, too? Erik asked. The Warhawk clan are allied with the Hel. And this is the second of their spy ships we've had to shake since we reached Vederan space.


I never said it was a coincidence, Erik, Charles returned, his mind-voice as plain with annoyance as his auditory voice would've been. I just said we can't change our plans because of it. And we can't. We cannot engage the Hel as long as we have a part of the Engine of Creation with us.


For months, Erik had searched for the meaning of the flexi he'd found, the one that he'd hoped would lead him to a piece of the legendary Engine of Creation, an ancient device said to have created the universe with its powers. But it had only been after he'd come abroad the Wisdom that he'd found the answers he'd been looking for, not to mention the piece itself, which now sat in the most secure vault the science vessel boasted.


He grudgingly admitted that Charles was right -- he'd spent years looking for it so that it would not fall into the hands of the Hel and its Alpha, Sebastian Shaw. No matter how strong the temptation, he knew they couldn't take on an entire clan of Brotherhood mutants without making sure it was safely tucked away somewhere.


Erik just had his doubts that Charles's mysterious "old friend," whoever they were, would be up to the task.


And you still owe me a viable plan, Charles reminded him. I'll expect that soon enough.


Erik rolled his eyes at the implied chastisement in Charles's statement, although he knew the telepath couldn't see it where he was focused on the viewscreen; still, he'd read the emotion that elicited it just the same. The screen continued to show a sea of asteroids, chosen by Darwin for its magnetic signature that best obscured any residual trace of their presence. It was a dangerous and harrowing game of hide-and-seek, the way they'd gone about evading the fast, sleek spyships the Warhawk clan used for surveillance, but it had worked thus far.


Ever the pessimist, Erik wondered just how much longer they'd be that lucky.


"...and they're gone," Darwin announced aloud, the first words spoken in quite some time. A collective sigh of relief echoed through the bridge. "They shouldn't be able to detect us, even on long range."


"Very good, Darwin," Charles said, the only one who hadn't looked tense and harried in the moments before. "Alex, Raven, keep on course and let me know the moment we've reach the coordinates I've indicated near the Antonius Cloud, please."


"Should I comm Moira and have her turn everything back on?" Angel asked.


Charles shook his head. "Let's keep our systems as minimal as possible. In fact, keep the slipdrive offline until we reach Antonius."


"Are you sure?" Alex said. "It'll make it hard to run if we have to."


"I love this ship but we're never going to outrun a slipdog, even with a slip jump," Charles said. "If that's our only option, we're as good as done anyway."


"And I thought I was the pessimistic one?" Erik said, amused.


Charles flashed him a smile, one that never failed to send a slice of wanting through him. "I'm just realistic."


"Hardly," Erik said, returning the smile a little.


"Okay, then," Raven said, far more loudly than she needed to. When Erik cut his eyes toward her, she was smirking, yellow eyes lit up with mischief. "If you two are finished, I'd like to get us moving again. How about it, Captain?"


Charles bowed a little, teasing her with the arm flourish that accompanied the action. "Of course, Raven, you have the controls." He glanced across the bridge until he met Darwin's dark gaze. "And you have the bridge. I'll be in my office if anyone needs me."


No one seemed surprised that Erik followed Charles off the bridge.


"I'm still waiting for you to tell me about this friend of yours," he reminded the telepath as he walked behind him.


"I haven't forgotten," Charles said, turning back to face him. "All in good time, Erik."


"I've noticed that no one seems to know much about where we're going," Erik said. "Not Alex or Darwin or even Raven seems to have much clue."


"Because it's not important for them to," he said. "This isn't Shintaido or Witchhead. We're not walking into enemy territory here. We're going somewhere safe, somewhere the engine piece will be safe."


"Unless the Warhawk catch us first," Erik told him.


"They haven't yet," Charles said. "We'll manage."


"Famous last words," Erik said with another roll of his eyes. "I still haven't figured it out. Is it just your natural arrogance that makes you so certain of yourself or is it deluded optimism?"


"I don't think it's either," Charles told him. "I think it's trust. In myself, in my crew, in what I believe. In the natural order of the universe."


"So delusion, then."


Charles laughed. "I will say that I wouldn't rule out arrogance entirely just yet."


It was just another instance in Erik found himself continually surprised by the way Charles reacted to him, completely unlike anyone else he'd ever met. Charles never reacted like a human Vederan, although he counted himself a member of their Commonwealth, but he behaved like no Brotherhood mutant Erik had never known, no alpha displays or beta approval-seeking, no omega displays of modesty or acquiescence. Everything about him was a strange mix of behaviors that eluded any traditional understanding Erik had learned from the clans. With Charles, Erik often found himself confused, even as he was interested.


Their attraction, mutual though it was, was another dangerous game of hide-and-seek that Charles seemed determined to play.


The fact that he allowed it at all was just another point on which Erik found himself confused.


A rush of heat-bright-fondness that didn't originate in his own mind forcibly reminded Erik that Charles was a telepath and one that had obviously been picking up the essence of where Erik's thoughts had went, if not the thoughts themselves. Charles's slightly flushed skin and darkening eyes was further proof of the fact.


"That, all in good time, as well," Charles told him softly, Erik only then noticing how much closer together they'd come to stand, heat curling between them.


"So you keep saying," Erik said, his words accompanied by a light touch against Charles's skin, this time the pulse point of his wrist.


As usual, it was Charles that stepped away. "I really do have things that need my attention in my office."


"Things to do?" Erik said. "More secrets to keep, you mean?"


His blue eyes were earnest in the face of Erik's faint accusation. "Only the ones I have to," he said. "Only the ones that need keeping."


"Hardly seems fair that you get any at all," Erik told him. "You don't allow me the luxury."


"Oh, Erik," Charles breathed, his voice and the accompanying spike of feeling that spilled from his powers as much of a caress as Erik's fingers on his skin had been. "You sell yourself short. Even if I knew every thought and every deed of every moment of your entire life, you'd still be a mystery."


"Why don't I believe you?"


"Because you're suspicious and mistrustful, among your many lovely qualities," Charles said, using a smile to soften the blow of his words. "I really do need to go."


Erik sighed and stepped back. "I still want answers."


"I still want to give them," Charles said. "But even this isn't as black and white as that. Surely you of all people appreciate the shades of gray?"


Erik crossed his arms over his chest. "I recognize a stalling tactic when I see one."


"It wouldn't hurt you to learn a little patience," he said.


"I wait for things when I have to," Erik said, thinking of the years he'd spent planning his escape from the Hel when he'd been one of their slaves, then his years of plotting, searching for the perfect way to avenge his murdered clan. "But there are things I shouldn't have to wait on."


"I will see you later?" Charles asked, purposefully ignoring Erik's last pointed comment. "Perhaps at dinner?"


"I'll be around," Erik promised -- or maybe warned. "You will see me."


"On that, I had no doubt. Good day, Erik," Charles bid him before he turned around and headed down the corridor that would take him to his office. It hadn't taken Erik long to learn the layout of the ship and even some of its rooms; he could easily conjure up what Charles would look like behind his desk, head no doubt bent over flexis or reports on his console.


Once Charles had rounded the corner out of Erik's line of sight, Erik headed in the opposite direction, in search of something to occupy his time constructively while he suffered through more interminable hours of waiting. As he did so, he reflected on the fact it had barely taken a few weeks for Charles Xavier to drive him to complete distraction in every way possible. He also couldn't help but wonder what another month or two would do to him. He also wasn't sure if the thought of it filled him with anticipation or dread.


Such had become his life aboard the Eye of Wisdom.


**


Charles hadn't been lying to Erik when he said there were duties waiting for him in his office, even though it had, as always, been a convenient excuse to escape another tense conversation with the alpha. Erik was a problem that Charles still hadn't figured out and one he wasn't sure how to decipher properly. It had been a very long time since he'd come across a mutant who made him question his opposition to personal dealings with all things mutant and Brotherhood but Erik was simultaneously everything Charles wanted to avoid and yet so much more. While he didn't think he'd ever be willing to allow himself at such a disadvantage, Erik made it tempting for the first time since Charles had learned the hard way that alphas could never be trusted.


The ship's initial detour after their visit to Takilov Drift had put Charles well behind schedule as far as the Vederans had been concerned and they had been less than thrilled when he'd taken the Wisdom off the science roster for an indefinite leave when he'd decided to help Erik with his search for the Engine of Creation, but he hadn't seen a better option. In its secondary capacity as an intelligence-gathering team for the Commonwealth Special Ops, the Wisdom remained the best ship for the job of dealing with a Brotherhood clan who posed such an ominous threat. But working under that banner meant that Charles had even more details he needed to control and cataloged, more hoops he had to go through just to make sure his crew was safe, from enemies both internal and external. It was a daunting task and Charles wouldn't have bothered for anything less than the Engine of Creation.


Or anyone less than Erik Lehnsherr.


Charles's agenda had included dealing with some of that classified material as soon as he was alone in his office but he was soon distracted by the long list of mail items waiting at his console from the last upload when they'd been docked in Vedera before Shintaido. He hadn't had the time immediately before or after their visit to that planet to check his comm messages but now he had a moment and he started to run through them for anything important.


The third message he found waiting made him scowl just from the subject and sender, and he had to bite back on his disgust when he opened it and scanned the first few lines. There was a video file attached as well but he wasn't sure he had enough serenity in him to watch it when those few lines had incensed him so much.


Charles wasn't sure how long he glowered at the screen before his office door slid open. Since there had been no chime and he felt no accompanying press of a mind as the door slid closed, he knew his companion was Moira without even lifting his head.


"I know you said you wanted to work through some of the CSO files, so I thought I'd see if you had time now," Moira said, her words slowing as she processed his disgruntled expression. "But it looks like you're not really in the mood for that."


"Hardly," he agreed, glaring at his console screen for a few more seconds before he swiveled his chair, giving Moira his full attention. "Although who ever wants to deal with Commonwealth bureaucracy?"


"No one but it's more than that, isn't it?" She sat on the edge of his desk and peered down at him. "What did Lehnsherr do now?"


At that, Charles snorted. "Thank you for your concern but it was nothing that Erik did." He furrowed his brow. "Why would you even lead with that?"


"Because I have sensors that work far better than eyes and ears," she told him. "So I know that your mood lately has been very dependent on our guest and how he does and does not act."


Charles didn't see the point in arguing when she was very right. "Well not this time," he sighed. He turned back toward his console and nodded at the message still opened on it. "I'm finally checking my mail," he explained. "This was waiting for me from Senator Marko."


"Why would your stepfather be contacting you?" Moira asked. "Wasn't it his idea to have you permanently exiled from your home?"


"Oh, well he can't take all the credit," Charles said. "Look what he sent, after all."


Charles started the video file and a window appeared on his console, showing an older human woman on the floor of the Vederan Senate. She was speaking but Charles had already muted it in anticipation because he wasn't quite ready to hear her familiar clipped accent spouting the words he knew she'd be saying. Since Moira could read lips from the vid, the sound wasn't needed anyway. After a full minute of what was probably very strongly-worded anti-mutant vitriol, Moira reached over and dismissed the vid from the screen. "I'm sorry, Charles," she said softly.


He leaned back in his chair and looked at the screen, still seeing his mother's face in his mind's eye, still hearing the words he'd heard so often from her. "Erik," he began and forgave the subtle way Moira tensed when he said it. "He thinks I don't understand about how humans feel about mutants or what some factions of the Senate want to do about them in the Commonwealth. But I do know exactly how some people feel about mutants, better than most."


"No offence meant to your new friend, but he's not one for subtlety. Or nuance."


"He does have a very straightforward manner, doesn't he?" Charles almost smiled. "I know it might seem counterintuitive but that's why I know you can't judge humans or Vederans by a rotten few. My mother and stepfather aren't indicative of the entire Senate, no more than the entire Senate is for the planet, or Vedera for the Commonwealth." He gestured toward the screen. "Because she's an agitator, she sounds like she's more important than she is. But there are so many more who know better than to blame every mutant for what clans like the Hel do. They also know we'll never have peace with attitudes like my mother's dictating policy."


"I've seen the Commonwealth do a lot of stupid things over the years," Moira told him. "But they didn't hesitate to offer support to the Polaris when the Hel turned on them. Hopefully that attitude will win out over ones like your mother's."


"I hope so every day," he said. "More so on days like today."


"It makes me glad I don't have parents," Moira admitted. "I have engineers who were all very excellent at their duties and I have former captains who all served well and with valor. That's much better than what you organics have to deal with."


Charles knew she was teasing him by the sly way she looked at him out of the corner of her eye, so he smiled to express his gratitude for her support. "Some parents are wonderful, you know. Mine were just not a very good example of what they have to offer."


"Have you ever thought of telling him about your mother?" Moira asked him. "Maybe it would help him understand that you do know what you're talking about."


"I thought you said you had the logs on the Brotherhood permanently stored in your systems?" he asked. "Or did you miss the part that genealogical discussions are considered a flirtatious topic among the clans?"


"I don't think anything about Senator Sharon Marko or Brian Xavier could be misunderstood as flirtatious, even by Lehnsherr," Moira told him. "It might help, if he knew. About your mother, but also about your father."


"My parents are hardly an uplifting conversational topic to cover at the best of times."


"But maybe if he knew what your father had put you through when you were young, about the clans," she said. "It might make him leave him alone and stop pushing."


"If knowing Sebastian Shaw hasn't soured Erik on the Brotherhood, then I doubt knowing that my father resorted to less-than-savory means of ingratiating himself to his fellow mutants will have much of an effect."


"It might at least get him to give you some space."


Charles shook his head. "He wants to know about Lilandra, too," he told her. "At that point, I'd be telling him my entire life story."


"I'm sure he wouldn't mind," Moira said. "Didn't you just say that was how mutants flirt in the Brotherhood?"


"It's how you find yourself a mate anyway," he said. "You have to make sure you're choosing someone with a worthy genetic line. Good powers help, too."


Moira raised an eyebrow. "No wonder you're so popular," she said. "Telepaths are still pretty rare."


"Yes, they are," he agreed. "Especially outside of the Phoenix clan."


"Charles." Moira looked at him with a rather serious expression on her face before she reached out and gave his shoulder a squeeze. "You know I don't like Lehshnerr but it's obvious you do. Since we've signed on for this mission, to help him with the engine and the Hel..." She trailed off for a moment before she finished. "I just want to help you deal with it the best I can."


"There's nothing to deal with, Moira," he told her, pressing on despite the dubious look she gave him "We'll do this; we'll take care of the Hel and make sure the Engine's safe, and then...he'll move on and we'll go back to scouting missions for the Vederans." He looked out across his office, unseeing. "And everything will continue on as it has."


Her hand on his shoulder turned into a light punch, startling his attention back to her. "Don't sound so morose about it, Xavier. Just because every mission isn't about saving the Tri-Galaxy and searching for mythical objects of ultimate power doesn't mean we don't have fun. At least sometimes, anyway."


"You're right, of course," he said, hoping his smile would soothe her worries for him. "And I mean it sincerely when I say I wouldn't give up what we do for anything in this galaxy or the next one."


"You're just not averse to taking a small detour now and then," she teased.


"Exactly," he said, his smile a little less fake. "But just a small one, though."


Moira grinned at him for that, then pulled herself to her feet. "I'll be back in a few hours. Be ready to deal with those reports then. No reason to keep avoiding them."


He gave her a mock salute. "Aye, aye, Captain."


She paused at the door and looked back at him; he noticed, for the first time all day, that she'd left her hair down instead of putting it in its usual ponytail. "Watch it or I'll give you a run for it," she said. "I do have more command experience than you, anyway."


Once Moira had left him to the privacy of his thoughts, Charles let his eyes linger on the opened comm message on his screen. He opened the video once again and let his finger hover above initiation, trying to decide whether he should watch whatever speech his mother had recently given that his stepfather thought he needed to see. For a moment, he thought about all them, those figures who had shaped him into the man he'd become by the way they'd treated him as a child: his mother, his stepfather, his stepbrother; his father, and his father's so-called associates, and others, who had tried to take advantage of the situation he had found himself in before he'd pulled himself together and found his own way.


After another few seconds of deliberation, Charles deleted the message and the video without another glance.


**




Chapter 2

One of the hardest things about his time on the Wisdom was that Erik felt unnecessary. Since he wasn't part of the crew, he had little to do to pass the time between destinations and Moira made sure that his access to anything interesting was strictly curtailed. In the past, he would've dealt with such obstructions and did as he pleased but Erik had no desire to repay Charles in such a way, no matter tempting it was. Still, it was a different situation for him, thrust into idleness, without even something to plan. As long as they were on Charles's detour, Erik was unnecessary even when it came to what he did best. He had tried to keep himself occupied with the Wisdom's impressive library but he had never been one to engage in pursuits solely for his mind.

With so few choices at his disposal, Erik ended up once again the areas designated in the ship for training. He'd used it extensively when he'd been on the ship by himself during it
s stopover on Vedera and tended to visit later in the evenings as well, when the rest of the crew had retired to quarters for bed. This time, he made his way there in the middle of the ship's day, unsurprised to find at least one other person making use of it.

"Hey," Alex said, pausing in where he was working up a sweat as he focused his attentions on several dummy opponents. "Come to train?"

Alex wasn't someone with whom Erik had spent much time since he'd come abroad the Wisdom, although he was familiar enough with him from the hours he had passed on the bridge with Charles and those nightly communal meals. His first impression of him remained in place however -- excitable, extroverted, although short-tempered. Within a clan, he would've probably been a passable alpha or more competent beta to an alpha who could've channeled his energy properly. To the boy's question, Erik answered with a short nod.

Alex looked at him for a moment, as if sizing him
up. "My sparring partner is late," he said. "If you're up to it, we could...?"

"Spar?" Erik asked.

Alex nodded. "I'd even go easy on you," he said with a faint smile.

Erik thought about it for a moment. "Why not?"

"You're not gonna get a better offer anyway," Alex said. "No powers, though, all right?"

Erik paused just before he stepped onto the mat. "Why?"

"I'm supposed to avoid blowing anything up unless it's an emergency," he explained. "Sean gets an attitude when there are holes in the hull and, really, I don't much enjoy the vacuum of space, either."

Erik realized that he had spent so little time with most of the crew that he had little idea about their powers, other than Sean's. "What is your power, exactly?"

"Plasma blasts?" Alex said, although he didn't sound sure. "They're not really good for anything unless you want something or someone taken out."

"Useful," Erik said, finally stepping onto the mat. "Very well,
no powers."

Erik hadn't been expecting a match against Alex to be very taxing and it wasn't, although Alex was quicker and more sturdy than Erik had first assumed. He was also as reactionary as Erik had thought, too, and it didn't make much time at all before Erik could easily decipher the moves the younger mutant so obviously telegraphed. Erik took him to the mat several times but Alex managed to hold his own long enough and with such stubbornness that even Erik was grudgingly impressed.

They'd just finished their last, short bout and Alex was panting for breath while he wiped the sweat from his face when the bay doors slid open. Now that he knew what it meant, Erik easily sensed the curls of complicated metal that made up Moira's body. When Alex saw her, he grinned. "There you are! I was wondering if something was wrong when you didn't show up but no one commed and Charles said everything was fine."

Moira made sure Erik was aware of the dark look she s
ent his way. "The only emergency was one of the Sean kind," she said. "He's trying to do something to the shields to better hide our energy signature and he...really shouldn't be, let's just put it that way." Even Erik couldn't hide a hint of alarm at that ominous line while Alex gasped out an audible noise of concern. "Don't worry, it's taken care of," she told them both. Then she crossed her arms and moved her eyes from between Alex and Erik. "It looks like you found an acceptable substitute."

Erik was surprised at that. He glanced at Alex. "She's your sparring partner?"

"Yeah," Alex said, rubbing his towel over his sweaty hair.

Erik turned to Moira. "You train?"

"When I feel like it," she said.

"She doesn't need to, of course," Alex explained, holding out a spare towel to Erik since he hadn't thought to bring his own. "But she's certainly better than any of us at...well, everything. Hand-to-hand, weapons...you name it. She can take you down
in about three seconds flat but it's good practice."

"She can take you down maybe," he said, accepting the towel. He wiped it over his face before he caught Moira's eye. "But I wouldn't need more than my pinky to deal with her."

"Not if I crushed your hand first, Lehnsherr," she said flatly, making Erik grin. At that, she rolled her eyes and turned back to Alex. "I've got things to do, so I'll just leave you two to do beat each other's brains in. Have fun." With a last nod at Alex, Moira swept out of the bay.

Erik watched until the doors closed behind her, turning to find that Alex was staring at him hard. "What?" he asked.

Alex's expression was grim. "You have a problem with AIs or something?"

He shook his head. "It's far less philosophical than that," he admitted. "She has a problem with me."

Alex snorted. "She's got reason enough, don't you think?"

"Why?"

Alex laughed a little. "Moira's straight-up military, through and thro
ugh. We give her a hard enough time." Alex shook his head. "You must drive her crazy. There's not much love lost between the Vederan fleet and the Brotherhood on a good day."

Although Erik didn't care much about Moira, it was the opening he'd been waiting for. "This crew is still hard for me to believe," he said. "I know there are mutants who turn their back on our ways but I've never met so many, certainly not in one place."

Alex shrugged. "We all make the choices that work for us, or at least that's what Charles says."

"Usually someone who's clanless does so against his will," Erik told him. "Mutants don't choose to give up the embrace of their clan."

Alex looked away, off into the distance like he was seeing something other than the mostly empty bay of the ship. "My parents are human, actually," he said with a shrug. "So I didn't exactly give it up. And I'm not really interested in it."

"Another thing Charles says?" Erik asked.

Alex gla
nced back at him, frowning. "When Charles found me I was on a Brotherhood prison planet," he told him. "So no, I didn't need Charles to tell me I didn't want to find out anything else about the clans."

Erik was almost tempted to ask Alex more about that meeting, having visited -- and been imprisoned on -- his own share of Brotherhood penal colonies belonging to several different clans but he decided against it, since he had more important topics he hoped to learn about. "Is Moira your only sparring partner?"

Alex shook his head, shoulders relaxing with the change of topic. "Usually it's Darwin," he said. "We even do some work together with my powers when it's safe. He's about the only person I can do that with."

"He's immune to plasma bursts?" Erik asked, thinking of the usefulness of such a mutation.

"He's immune to anything," Alex said. "He...adapts. He even managed to survive outside of the ship once without a viro suit. It's not something we wante
d to repeat to figure out how exactly but he did."

"How long has this crew been together?" Erik asked him. "You don't look old enough for it to have been very long if Charles found you on a prison planet."

Alex shrugged at that. "A few years? Moira and Hank and Raven, of course, were around when I first met Charles. Then Sean and Darwin. Angel joined, maybe a year ago? Logan came and went for a while. And now you."

"And none of you have clans? Plan to ever return to the Brotherhood?" Erik asked, honestly curious. It still amazed him that nothing about the rest of their people ever seem to cross their minds, at least not enough to reach their words. One mutant like Charles was one thing, but he had managed to surround himself with mutants of like minds. Intellectually, he knew that many first-generation mutants chose to remain on the planets of their human families, but he'd met very few who were open about their mutant identity and even fewer he didn't want
to treat with suspicion and disdain.

"Like I said, my parents are human," Alex said. "Everyone's got a different story, you know? Angel was born into a clan. So was Sean, but it wasn't a great situation. I think everyone who ended up here had it rough in one way or the other."

"Even Charles?" Erik wanted to know. "He had it rough, did he?"

Alex sighed, suddenly wary of Erik where he'd been open and friendly just before. "Look, Erik, I think if you have questions about Charles or about anyone else, you need to ask them yourself. Especially about their pasts. Something Charles did tell us was that when we came on board he wasn't going to hold our pasts against us, that we could leave them behind. And, for the most part, that's what we do around here."

Erik didn't bother to form a reply because Alex quickly gathered his things and left the training area, throwing a quick thanks back over his shoulder at Erik before he disappeared into the corrido
r. That left Erik alone to think about what he had learned from Alex -- and what he hadn't. He could almost understand why Alex had no interest in the clans, raised as he was by humans, but he couldn't see why Angel and Sean would've chosen to eschew them if they'd always known them. He knew that some clans weren't as strong as the Hel or weren't as close-knit as the remnants of the Polaris scattered through the galaxies, but they were still the core of their culture, the heartbeat in the body of the Brotherhood. It was his heartbeat as well and, no matter how he tried, he couldn't help but feel sadness for Charles and his misguided flock who didn't understand what they'd turned their backs on.

He thought of the scarred clan marking on his bicep and the claim of ownership that the Hel had once branded him with and thought of how those two things -- two marks, two scars, two clans -- had shaped his life into what it was, made him into everything he took pride in
about himself -- mutant, Polaris, alpha.

Resolved.

As he followed Alex's lead and left the training area intent on his quarters, something of his turmoil must've registered on whatever level of awareness Charles chose to keep open between him and the rest of his crew because Erik became aware of Charles on the edge of his thoughts, present but respectful. When Erik didn't acknowledge it, however, the feeling slipped away almost as quiet as how it had come. As much as he didn't know how to accept whatever comfort Charles had hoped to give, Erik also missed it when it was gone.

**

Even as he focused as he was on the CSO files he and Moira had begun to sort, Charles hadn't been able to help himself from reaching when he'd felt a stab of emotion from Erik so strong that it had reached him despite the rather cursory reach he'd been exercising over his powers at that moment. In some ways, it was a signature of Erik that Charles had gotten used to since he'
d come to the Wisdom; everything the man felt seemed louder than average, at least when it came to Charles's telepathy. Without much work, he could easily track Erik's mood and location throughout the ship but he tried to stop the unconscious surveillance out of respect for Erik's privacy.

After his gentle sympathy was coolly rebuffed, Charles made sure to tamp down on any lingering connection and give Erik the space he obviously wanted. Moira looked disgruntled when he explained why his eyes had glazed for a few seconds while he'd ignored her in favor of offering a bit of comfort to Erik.

"Even I'm getting mixed signals here," she told him. "On one hand, you don't like alphas. You don't involve yourself with the Brotherhood. On the other, you save his life, you agree to help him with his lifelong quest and you won't stay out of his head. You tell him you can't be involved when he clearly wants to be, but then I find you kissing in the corridor."

"Th
at's not what happened," he protested, but she continued on.

"You tell him again you're not interested, you tell me it can't happen, but now you're not an hour or two away from him and you're coddling him telepathically?"

"Moira, I take umbrage with your distillation of these events," Charles told her. "The situation is entirely more complex than you're letting on."

"And I thought complex was exactly what you didn't want when it came to your personal affairs," she said. "Isn't that why you've steered clear of them since Lilandra?"

Charles was trying to mount his defense against the charges Moira had laid against him when he felt another spike from his telepathy -- from Angel this time. It was a warning that Darwin had detected the Warhawk slipdog on their long range sensors once again and it was approaching fast, much faster than they would be able to move to evade it.

"Damn it," he said as he moved to his feet. At Moira's confusio
n, he explained. "The slipdog is back. I'm on my way to the bridge."

She nodded and straightened from her relaxed position, right on his heels as he stepped out into the corridor. They moved so quickly toward the bridge they were almost running and they met Raven on their way as she headed in the same direction but from the medbay.

"Anything new?" Charles asked Darwin as they all burst onto the bridge, Raven quickly sliding into the pilot seat and fastened her shoulder belt.

"They're closing fast and there's nothing to hide behind," Darwin reported. Charles looked over at Moira who nodded in agreement as she interfaced with the sensors from her own console.

"Nothing? Really?" Darwin shook his head and Charles tried to hide his evident frustration. "We're still a low power, yes?"

"Yes," Moira confirmed. "I'm bringing us down even further," she said and the lights throughout the bridge dimmed accordingly, leaving them with nothing but the glow of
the viewscreens and their consoles to see by.

"Auto pilot disengaged," Raven said quietly as she powered up her chair and slid her hands into the controls. "Waiting for orders, Captain."

"As soon as I know what to do, I'll tell you," he said. "Angel, take sensors from Darwin. Darwin, take weapons please."

Darwin moved to Alex's usual console, although Angel didn't since she could monitor sensor functions from her own. "We might not be able to fight our way out of this, you know."

"Noted," Charles nodded. "Raven, how fast can you get us to a slip point, any slip point?"

"Not before they'll see us," Raven said, nodding toward the viewscreen where the slipdog was only minutes from crossing the demarcation on the grid where the Wisdom's superior sensors stopped giving them the advantage. "And propulsion will trip their sensors really fast."


Sean!


Yeah, boss?


I need anything you have that we can use to blind their sensors, confuse them. Do you have anything?

The change to comm made everyone jump when Sean's voice echoed through the bridge. "I've got some warning buoys I might be able to reprogram that might do the trick."

"Can you do it in less than two minutes?"

"You know I like a challenge, Charles. On it!"

Charles remained in Sean's head a few seconds longer until he understood the gist of what his engineer planned to do. "He's going to try to reverse the program so that it sends out a jamming frequency instead of a hail on comm frequencies," he explained aloud. "Raven as soon as they're in position, I need you to get us out of here quickly as you can with only sublight. The ruse Sean's planning wouldn't work if we tried to engage our slipdrive."

They all waited for a report on Sean's progress as they all watched with growing concern as the slipdog inched closer and closer into range where its sensors would be able to detect the Wisdom. One of the advantages that certain classes of Vederan
ships, like the Eye of Wisdom, had over most Brotherhood ships, even Warhawk spy cruisers like the slipdog on their trail, was that the Vederan engineers paid far more attention to passive advantages like stronger sensors than most clans ever thought to. Into the middle of that terse silence, the bridge doors opened to admit Erik.

"What's wrong?" he asked, focusing immediately on Charles.

"Our slipdog is back and there's nowhere to hide."

Erik glanced at the viewscreen who status panel indicated that they were very slowly. "Why are we sitting still?"

"Trying to fool their sensors with a new trick this time," Charles told him.

"Why don't you just destroy them?"

"Because this is a science vessel, most of the time," Darwin volunteered. "Without a specific reason, we don't overload our weapons."

"We look friendlier that way," Angel added.

"Vederans and their allies are horrible at strategy it seems," Erik observed.

Charles was saved from answering by Sean's voice over the comm. "Ready to deploy 6 modified buoys, spaced out enough -- I hope -- to camouflage us long enough for an escape. I'm patching their monitoring systems into the sensors now."

"Good work, Sean," Charles said. "Deploy now."

"Deploying," he said over the comm. "ETA 30 seconds to position."

"If the ship gets too close, can't you just...?" Charles turned to Erik in time to watch him wriggle his fingers near his head in some approximation of Charles using his powers.

"I don't have that kind of reach any more than you do," he said. "Unless you can disassemble an enemy craft from this far away?"

"I've never tried," Erik admitted. "I think the problem would be in not disassembling my own ship in the process."

"Buoys are ready!" Sean announced over the comm and they all saw the confirmation of his statement on the viewscreen that fed out the sensor data. "You say when and I'll activ
ate them."

Charles watched the close sweep of the slipdog on the viewscreen. "Do it, Sean. Raven, be ready."

The bridge held its breath as the slipdog finally drew close enough that their sensors would've been able to detect the Wisdom if Sean's jammer buoys failed.

"They don't seem to be moving to intercept," Angel reported. "Still moving this way but no change in their course."

"The closer they get to Sean's buoys the better their effectiveness," Charles told him. "Let them get a little closer and then you'll be on, Raven."

"Charles," Angel started again, voice rising a little. "It looks like they're powering up for some kind of attack."

"Are they locked onto us?" he asked Darwin.

"Not that I can determine," he said. "They might be targeting the buoys or at least realize they're out there."

"Let's give them a few more seconds," he said. "But Darwin, make sure shields are ready just in case."

They all watched a
second later as a messy and seemingly random spray of basic point missiles launched from the slipdog. Even though it looked like they'd done little to direct the missiles, a few were still on target to take out the buoys. "Raven, now!"

As she often did, Raven threw the ship into full sublight more quickly than strictly safe, rocking them all where they stood. While Charles didn't have a console to grip to keep him upright, he clutched at one of the guard rails that circled Raven's pilot seat for support. Erik did the same, just behind him, his other hand coming up to hold onto Charles's shoulder as they lurched forward.

But as fast as they were in fleeing, they all watched as a few of the missiles remained on course for a hit. Before they'd barely gotten their feet under them from Raven's hot start, they braced for a second impact. When it didn't come, even Charles was confused.

"Report," he said, looking at Darwin.

Darwin shrugged. "They must've been
duds," he said. "The shields didn't even kick in and there's no sign of damage or detonation."

"Lucky break," Charles said.

"Cheap," Moira corrected. "You know the Warhawk and their black market weapons trade."

"Someone's else frugality saved the day," he said, while feeding Raven the mental direction of evasive pattern X Gamma Blue. Then he told Sean to start making sure the slipdrive was ready to come back online shortly.

"The slipdog?" he asked aloud.

"They don't seem to be following," Angel said, hands flying over her console as she brought up the sensor panel for everyone to see on the viewscreen. "Four of the buoys are still intact and they're still probably feeling the effects of the jam. With their target systems scrambled, it'll take them a while to be sure it's safe to proceed."

"Our second small victory of the day," Charles said. "Someone might get the impression we know what we're doing."

"No, they wouldn't," Erik said
dryly, earning him dark glares from almost everyone on the bridge.

Charles, however, just smiled at him as he shrugged off the hand Erik hadn't removed. "Raven, forget Antonius," he said. "At this point, they've either realized that's where we're headed or are good at anticipating our route through this space. I want you to get us to the Deathcry Nebula as quickly as possible."

"Are you serious, Charles?" she asked. "The Deathcry Nebula."

"You heard me."

"It's called Deathcry," she reminded him. "The area is too unstable for slip travel and did I mention it's in the middle of nowhere? No one goes out there for a reason."

"Captain's orders, Raven," he told her. "Please lay in a course."

Despite her obvious suspicion of the order, Raven was too good of a crew member and too good of a friend to question Charles again. Even as she grumbled under her breath, she keyed their new destination into the navigation systems and
computed the new route without further objection.

Erik had no such qualms, however, as he caught Charles by the arm. "I agree with Raven," he said. "What are you doing?"

"I'm following your advice, actually," he said. "The Warhawk are determined to catch us and we can't have that. We need to get where we're going faster than I had originally planned, that's all."

"And that will happen by taking us to a dark nebula everyone avoids?"

"I'll have to call in another favor, but the fate of the Tri-Galaxy is at stake. I suppose it's worth it."

"That doesn't answer my question," Erik told him.

Charles pulled away. "I realize that," he said. "But it's all I have to say at the moment."

He left them on the bridge, each of them wondering about his uncharacteristic reticence.

 

**




Chapter 3

If Erik was annoyed that Charles had added yet another mystery to the ones that lay between them, he could at least be comforted knowing he wasn't alone with this latest one. The evening meal made it clear that he was far from the only one mystified by Charles's latest order and he wasn't the only one left unhappy when an explanation wasn't forthcoming.

When Erik arrived to the gathering, Charles was not there yet but the rest of the crew, minus Moira, had assembled, already starting to pass around the dishes and fill their plates. Erik joined them but there was barely a pause in their discussion to mark his added presence.

"Someone did explain to him that he said the Deathcry, right?" Sean was saying as Erik reached for one of the large plates of food and began to help himself. "Because, sometimes, you know, I think he might get confused because he's got everyone's thoughts in his head."

"He does not," Angel said.

"And I double-c
hecked the order," Raven added, frowning down at the contents of her plate. "So, yes, we're on course to the Deathcry nebula."

"So he's obviously lost his mind," Sean said. "And maybe a few others."

"This is the thing that made you realize that?" Alex asked, rolling his eyes. "Because I was convinced of that when he let you stay after the incident on New Dublin Station."

"She was my soul mate, Alex!"

"She didn't even speak Common, Sean."

"That's why I needed some help."

"That's why you ended up in jail," Darwin reminded him. "Seriously, guys? I'm sure Charles knows what he's doing. He wouldn't put us in danger."

"Yes, he would," Angel disagreed. "He just usually has a good reason for it."

Erik thought about the conversation he'd been half-listening to and he turned to Sean. "What's your objection to going to the nebula?" he asked him.

The table quieted for a moment, as if they'd all forgotten that Erik was there or that
he could speak. Then, Hank let out a muffled groan. "I wish you hadn't asked that."

"Actually, it's a great question!" Sean said. "It's good to know that someone here appreciates my perspective."

"He won't once he hears it," Angel said. "Because you're a loon."

"Ok, so, Erik," Sean continued, ignoring everyone's suffering expressions. "Have you read any of the stories about Deathcry?"

"Other than reports that it's not navigable? No."

"Crazy stuff happens out there," Sean explained. "Things people can't explain."

"Here we go," Darwin sighed.

"Ghost ships, strange phantom readings." Sean was warming to his topic, if his growing hand gestures were any indication. "Ships go into the nebula, but never come out it. Or they see ships that aren't really there and their sensors are blinded for no reason. There's even been some reports from a few who have survived traveling near it that they've even seen things on their own ships -- gho
sts walking their ship corridors."

"You think the nebula is haunted?" Erik asked.

"Duh."

"What do you think haunts a nebula?"

"Who knows?" Sean said. "I don't. But I do know that it's bad news all around."

"But the answer isn't ghosts, Sean," Darwin said. "I don't care how many flexis you read that say otherwise."

"Whatever, you'll see," he told them. "When we all die a horrible death at the hands of whatever's hiding in the nebula just waiting to kill us."

"Nothing is waiting in the nebula to kill us," Charles said as he entered, causing everyone that wasn't Erik to glance his way guiltily before looking away. Erik did watch as Charles took his seat at the table, so he caught the amused grin he sent his way as he did so.

Kids keeping you entertained? Charles asked, along with a flash of warmth.


I'm not sure entertained is the word.

Aloud, Charles addressed Sean again. "Honestly, I'm going to start having Moira screen your mailings when we get new uploads if you can't separate fact from fiction."

"This is fact I'm talking, Charles," Sean told him.

"No, it's not," Charles said. "We will not be eaten by mysterious monsters when we reach the nebula."

Darwin cleared this throat. "Maybe it would help if we knew why we were going there?"

Charles looked to be deliberating about what he wanted to say. "There's a shortcut to where we're going," he finally said. "It's through the nebula. The Warhawk won't follow us in."

"That's because no one can navigate through it," Raven told him. "Around it, sure. But through it? No one can do it."

"It will be fine, I promise," he told them all. "Perhaps we can eat instead of argue?" Erik didn't know what he was reading from their thoughts because Charles added, "Let me rephrase: we will eat instead of argue, even if I have to interve
ne telepathically. All right?"

"He really wouldn't," Sean leaned over to tell Erik as they moved on from the topic of the nebula. "He just likes to pretend he would."

"If I did, you wouldn't know, Sean," Charles reminded him. "Being that I'm a telepath and could alter your memories."

Sean turned back to Erik long enough to mouth He really wouldn't before he followed everyone else's example and focused on his food.

I'm not as easily as dissuaded as your crew, Erik thought. It seems like the secrets you're keeping just keep adding up.

There are some things, perhaps, that we can discuss. Charles's mental-voice was soft and thoughtful. After the meal, meet me in my quarters.

The offer was much more provocative than Charles meant it, but Erik couldn't stop the way it made desire sweep over him. From the way he glanced up in time to watch Charles's bright eyes slide away from him, he thought he wasn't the only
one who'd felt it.

After that, the meal dragged on for Erik and he had never been more grateful to watch Sean and Hank start collecting the dishes among the usual verbal banter that seemed to accompany the end of every meal. With another quick glance in his direction, Charles bid his "kids" good night and slipped away. Erik waited about three beats before he followed, but he shouldn't have bothered to even wait that, if Darwin's knowing expression was to be believed.

When he approached Charles's quarters, the doors slid open instead of alerting Charles of his arrival and making him wait for permission, which was unusual. Erik didn't say anything, though, as he stepped inside, Charles's private rooms more invitingly dim than the military starkness of the corridors. Charles stood in the corner of the room, near the ancient board game he kept on a small table, his hands ghosting of the small, carved figures that made up the game pieces. Erik waited a moment for him
to speak but, when he didn't, Erik realized the opening gambit lay with him.

"Well?" he asked, impatience in his tone. "I hope you're going to tell me something."

Charles's hand stopped hovering over the game board as he turned to face Erik. "Probably not what you want to hear but yes, there are some things I think bear saying," he said.

"Just some things?"

Charles nodded. "I know you think that I keep these secrets just because I can -- no, don't argue otherwise. I know what you think about my secrecy, Erik. It's one thing you can't hide from me, no matter how much we both might wish otherwise."

Erik sighed. "Fine. You're right, I do."

"What I need you to understand is that you're mistaken on that fact." His blue eyes were earnest, his face relaxed but serious. "What I'm doing, what I'm about to do...I am already breaking a great many promises I've made people very important to me. Telling you even more would be to further
break those confidences. I can't do that unless they allow me to."

"You're taking us to a friend of yours," Erik said. "This, in itself, is a betrayal?"

"In some ways, yes," Charles said. "But she'll understand the need, I think. We were very close once and she knows me enough to see my side of it."

Erik didn't like the way something in his chest tightened as he watch Charles's face and voice go soft as he talked of this " friend" they were going to meet. It made Erik even more wary about how little he knew of what was coming. "Let me understand -- you asked me here to tell me that you can't tell me anything? Seems a waste of a trip. You could've said that in company."

"There are other things I could speak to you about," Charles told him. Instead of taking a seat in one of the chairs the room offered, he leaned against the edge of the table. "You've asked about my past with the Brotherhood, my...affiliations, so to speak. Those are things I can share
with you if you still want to know."

From another mutant who believed as he did, Erik would be able to tell if Charles's choice of topic was nothing more than what he said or if it was a prelude to something more, as it often could be. But with Charles, all the signals were muddied, so much so that Erik could only look down at him in suspicion until Charles laughed a little.

"I didn't mean to frighten you, Erik," Charles said. "But for clarity, I'm just offering information. My stance on everything else hasn't changed since yesterday."

Erik finally nodded and abandoned his position near the door, carefully moving toward Charles until they were at a companionable distance -- though, like always, that was closer than with most. "What is it that you can share?"

"As I told you, my mother is human," Charles began slowly, like the words pained him. "And my father was once Brotherhood. Like you, he felt very strongly about the importance of the clans, of bel
onging to one. But he was cast out of his. The Phoenix, as I told you."

Erik hadn't much associated with the Phoenix clan or its members; they were insular and quiet compared to the Hel or the Warhawk, or even the Polaris at its height. They were known to produce scholars and poets, to birth lineages of mutants with mental abilities, like Charles's telepathy. He couldn't imagine what someone could do -- what Charles's father could've done -- that would've gotten him cast out, a fate so many considered worse than death.

Charles answered Erik's questions without him having to say a word. "My father was a brilliant man but he wasn't necessarily a kind one. I won't say he was cruel but...science, his theories, was paramount. He went about it the wrong way and the Alphas cast him out before I was even born. He spent the rest of his life willing to do anything to return to the embrace of a clan, any clan that would have him. And again, he went about it the wrong
way."

"How do you know all this?" Erik asked. "I assumed you lived with your mother on Vedera since you claim that planet as your home."

"I lived with my mother until I was twelve," Charles said, and there was something about the careful way he phrased it that made Erik think it hid more than it revealed. "I was obliged to travel with my father for much of my teenage years. I saw firsthand what it was like to live within the Brotherhood's code but outside of its protection. As I'm sure you know, it's not a pleasant life."

Erik thought about the way he himself had reacted to outcast mutants and shuddered to think of Charles living like that. "No, it's not."

Charles shrugged. "It's not as if what I saw of the inside of the society struck me as much better," he said. He looked up at Erik, caught Erik's eyes with his. "I told you this to make you understand. My hesitance about the Brotherhood isn't academic, Erik. It's as real as what you feel about the
Hel. I do have my reasons."

"You wouldn't have to pay for your father's crimes, not anymore," Erik told him. "Most clans, probably even the Phoenix, would welcome you."

"I'm aware," Charles said with a roll of his eyes, and Erik remembered the Sabra they had encountered, remembered half-dismissed jokes among the crew about Charles's relationships with other Brotherhood clans, other alphas.

"I suppose you do," Erik admitted. He didn't know the specifics of what Charles had dealt with before but he could feel the creep of Charles's anxiety in his own mind, brought to clarity by the casual touch of Erik's hand on his arm -- a touch he hadn't even realized he had initiated. Something about that unease made him want to ease it, so he didn't even think before he added, "I'm different than that. With you."

"I know." Charles's smile was evident in his voice and in the way he allowed himself to relax just a little more into Erik. "I've always known that
."

"Always?" Erik asked, faintly amused. "You certainly haven't acted like you have."

"Haven't I?" When their eyes met again, Erik could see the longing there that Charles held such a tight rein on. "You don't realize what it means you're standing here beside me when..."

Charles's words trailed off because Erik couldn't withstand the impulse any longer. He let his hand come up to touch Charles's face, frame his jaw, his thumb resting against Charles's bottom lip. It was wet under the subtle tease of his finger. "When what?" Erik asked in a whisper.

He wasn't sure if it was a tease of his own or a natural reaction but he felt Charles's tongue against his thumb, gliding over his lip to wet it. Charles just looked at him for a long moment before his eyes fluttered and he slowly backed away. "That," he said, as if it explained everything. Maybe to a telepath it, it did. "Good night, Erik," he bid a moment later, voice rough.

Erik wasn't stupid; he
took it both for the dismissal and the victory it was.

**

Charles tried not to spend the rest of his evening thinking about Erik, but it wasn't easy to do. No matter how hard he tried to ignore him, Erik continued to be a strange exception to all his rules, one that slid past his defenses in ways that startled him whenever he found yet more evidence of it. The last thing Charles needed to be worried about was his personal feelings toward Erik when he had so much more on his agenda. There was the Engine of Creation and its safety; Sebastian Shaw and the Hel; and, now Lilandra and the Deathcry nebula that stood between them.

While no one else raised the issue of ghosts or phantoms as they neared the Deathcry Nebula, a palpable unease fell over the crew, the tension in them slowly rising as they crept closer to their destination, the patch of space that had become the center of such rumors. Charles wondered if they would be more, and not less, afraid i
f they knew the truth.

The only people left untouched by the rising panic was Erik, who feared nothing he couldn't battle with his hands, and Moira, who was immune to the power of superstition. She was, however, confused by Charles's declaration that a path lay through the nebula, as it conflicted with all of the telemetry she had in her memory banks. Charles knew she would understand soon enough, if only for a little while.

When they reached the nebula, Raven brought them to a full stop of the edge of its dark beauty, swirling clouds of dust and gases spread out before them on the viewscreen. Even Sean, who had no business on the bridge unless something was actually wrong, showed up to stand among the rest of them and gawk at the celestial object of his nightmares.

I don't mind prayer but you must do it less loudly, Charles sent at the young engineer. I can't hear myself over you.


Sorry, Charles, it's just...


No one is going to die, Sean. Calm down, please.

"So what now?" Raven asked aloud, trying to mask her own nervousness with a brave front. Erik leaned against the side of her pilot's chair, keeping an eye both on her console and the panel of the front viewscreen spouting information.

Charles took a deep breath and hoped he was doing the right thing. "Take us in slowly," he said. "Very slowly. If I tell you to stop, stop immediately. Understand?"

Raven mimicked him with a deep breath of his own, flexing her scaly blue fingers around the pilot controls. "Understood," she said, pressing the controls forward. "Going in."

As they slowly made their way into the clouds of dust and gas, Charles would read the anxiety from each of his crew members even as they all tried to keep up a brave facade. He couldn't help the rush of affection he felt for each of them in that moment, knowing how worried they were but how they did what he asked anyway. He hoped that he'd be able to repay them for their touching
belief in him one day.

They'd barely been navigating the nebula for a few moments when Charles turned to Angel. "I need hailing frequencies open wide," he told her, choosing to speak aloud in hopes it would help calm everyone.

Angel moved to comply even as she shot him a confused look. "There's nothing out there to hail, Charles."

He nodded. "Just trust me, all right? And please, make sure we're open to receive as well."

As soon as Angel announced that she'd done as he asked, Charles took another deep breath and prepared himself. While he couldn't, as he'd told Erik, use his powers across space to influence beings on another ship, he could project far enough into the space around the Wisdom that someone near enough would be able to hear his thoughts if he so chose. Since he didn't need it to go much farther, he was content with his range, especially bolstered by the open frequencies. It wasn't the ideal amplification device, but it would work
in a pinch.

Sharra? he thought loudly, imagining his thoughts carried into the space around the Wisdom and into the dust and gas that swirled around them. Sharra, I know you can hear me.

The Wisdom crept further into the clouds of the nebula, further cut off from the light of the stars that surrounded it.


Sharra!

After another few terse moments, Charles finally heard it -- an answer, booming through his skull in a strong female voice. It seemed to come from everywhere all at once, so forceful in his head that it drowned out his connection to his crew. Charles Xavier, the voice -- Sharra -- said. What are you doing here?

"Sensors are going crazy, Charles," Alex reported, slightly confused. "And that whine over the comm is a bitch."

"It's fine, Alex," he said, even as everyone on the bridge covered their ears to help ward off the buzz that Sharra's voice registered as over the open comm. "And Raven? Please bring us to a halt."

I need your help, Sharra, Charles said to her as the ship slowed. A favor.

Her consciousness seemed to fill the ship, like it and the dust and gas surrounding it were alive with it. Of course, Charles knew that the latter was true. How can I help you, human? And why would I?

I need to see L
ilandra,
he admitted. And I need to do it quickly. I want you to let us pass.

Her displeasure throbbed through him. No.

This is important or I wouldn't ask. You know that. He brought a hand to his temple to stave off the building headache. I have the Engine of Creation, Sharra.

Suddenly, the whine in the air and the boom in his head faded. When her voice came next, it was modulated, but still far louder than a mortal's would've been. You have it?

Part of it, he amended. It needs to be safe. Lilandra can do that.


I don't like humans knowing of this passage. It places her in greater danger.


I will take precaution that none of these will know the way. Please?


Very well. When you are ready, the way will open. But consider my debt paid to you, Xavier.


I do, Sharra. Thank you.

With one last howl through his mind, Sharra's consciousness disappeared and everyone breathed a sigh of relief -- the crew for the end of the strange whine and Charles because he once again could hear his own thoughts, as well as sense the familiar presence of his crew.

And Erik.

"Are you all right?" Erik asked, at his side. He looked concerned, face grim. "You looked like you were in pain."

"I'm fine," he said. "I was just speaking to someone who doesn't understand volume control."

"Who were you talking to?" Raven asked. "There's no one around."

"It's not important at the moment." Charles slipped away from Erik and headed toward Moira. "I need you to do me a favor."

"What's going on, Charles?" Darwin asked but Charles ignored him in order to focus on Moira.

"I need you to agree to partition your memory from when I tell you to and then destroy it afterward. Do the same for the ship."

"If that's what you want," she said, s
till looking confused. "Can I ask why?"

Charles looked at all the expectant faces watching him across the length of the bridge. "This isn't really the time to explain," he said. "But you're all about to see something no one else has. But it must be kept secret so I need to make sure a record isn't left behind."

"Are you going to wipe our memories too?" Erik asked, tense and defensive.

Charles sighed. "No," he said. "You won't be able to remember from sight how to navigate the way we're about to go. Although I do hope you'll all keep this to yourself."

"There's a small problem, Charles," Raven said. "I'll have to know and I don't want you wiping my memories."

"I know, love," he said, smiling at her. "That's why I was hoping you'd allow me a favor as well?"

Raven was suspicious as she said, "That depends."

He squeezed her hand in hopes that it reassured her. "I'd like to -- well, drive, so to speak."

"How?" she asked.

"I'l
l feed you the navigation in such a way that it bypasses your memory system," he said. "That way we can still make use of your superior slipstream skills."

Raven wasn't pleased but she almost immediately relented. "You know how I feel about this," she complained.

"I know," he told her. "Thank you."

"Is anyone else confused?" Sean asked. "Because I am."

"Explanations can wait until we're out of here," Charles said. "For now, I ask everyone to remain vigilant and Moira, please start those memory partitions, please."

"Done," she said.

He nodded, then pulled away from his connection with everyone but Raven, sliding into her consciousness with a depth he rarely used on her. He watched her twitch when he first meshed their minds together, but she settled a second later. He stepped over and placed his hand on her shoulder, more to ground him than anything. He used the other to brace himself on the pilot's chair.

Ready? he asked her.


As I'll ever be.

Again, into the air, he thought, Any time now, Sharra, and they all waited a beat before a slip stream opened up in a suddenly cloud-less patch of the nebula that seemed to appear directly ahead of the Wisdom.

"There aren't any slip points in here!" Alex protested, pulling his hands away from his console when he remembered anything he found out would be erased. "You can't open one inside a dark nebula!"

"That says the contrary," Erik pointed out.


Okay, Raven, just ahead. Let's go.

Charles had never been very good at navigating slipstream, at least not the way that Raven was; something about her agile form made her handling inside of the stream similarly nimble, able to twist and turn and ride out the bumps unlike anyone else he'd ever traveled with. Now they worked in tandem as the ship jumped into the stream where none should exist, into a thorny, rarely used path that spun them wildly and tried to confuse them with early exits and twisting resistance. But Charles knew the way just as Lilandra had since the knowledge had come from her mind, and he passed it straight into the part of Raven's that reacted and responded to the hum of the stream around them. It was taxing for Charles and left him a bit disoriented as he tried to process not only what he saw and what Raven saw, but also what Lilandra had once seen, memories so ancient they predated everything he knew.

Finally, when it felt like they were all going to shake apart from the ride
, the right exit appeared and they were able to slide out of slipstream into dark, serene space. Everyone jolted and heaved with the transition and Charles might've fallen, despite his grip on Raven's chair, but Erik had one arm looped around him and the other tight on the same safety bar.

Charles quickly pulled back on his connection to Raven, letting her mind be hers once again. She let out a relieved groan as she felt him depart, throwing her chair into the unused position as she flung away the controls. "Next time," she said with a heavy breath. "I'll opt for the memory modification instead."

Charles laughed unsteadily. "Now, you relent."

She flashed him a very white grin against the dark blue of her scales. "That was worse than the Shintaido ride and I never thought I'd say that."

"Are you all right?" Erik asked, very close to his ear. It was then Charles realized that Erik still had an arm around him. Gently, he edged away from its protective ci
rcle.

"I'm fine," he said, although there was a headache raging behind his eyelids. He turned to Darwin. "Anything nearby?"

"One system," Darwin reported. "One sun and one planet orbiting it."

"Alex, take over for Raven. Use sublight and get us there," he told him. "Raven, I think you and I both need some rest, yes?"

"Yes," Raven said, squinting against the too-bright lights of the bridge. "Did you leave this headache behind?"

"In a way, I suppose I did," he said. "Sorry about that."

She just shot him an affectionately annoyed look as she scrambled out of the pilot's chair and headed off the bridge.

"Moira, please delete those partitioned files for me, please, and then you have command. Let me know when we're within comm range of that planet."

"Affirmative," she said, already interfacing with her console.

"I'll be in my room," Charles told them. "Should you need anything before then."

"Go, rest," Hank advised. "Do
ctor's orders. I'll go check on Raven."

Charles nodded, then winced. He turned to follow Raven off the bridge when he found his path blocked by Erik. "You're not all right," he said.

"I will be," he said. "As soon as I give myself a few minutes to rest."

Erik moved out of his way but only so he could fit a steadying arm around him again. "Who's Sharra?"

"How do you know that name?" he asked.

"I heard you say it," Erik said, pointing to his head. "In here, when we were in the nebula."

"Sharra?" Sean repeated, bouncing over. "Is that the ghost in the nebula? You can talk to her?"

Charles's head was pounding, but he hadn't forgotten his promise for explanations. He looked first at Erik, then Sean. "She's not the ghost in the nebula, Sean," he said. "She is the nebula."

In the stunned silence that followed, Charles let himself take comfort in Erik's presence as they slowly made their way off the bridge.

**




Chapter 4

Charles consented to letting Erik see him back to his quarters, but he politely refused Erik entrance, letting the door slid closed in his face as the telepath engaged the privacy locks on the other side. Despite the fact that he had the energy to argue at all, Charles looked pale and wretched, whatever psychic pain he suffered leaving him as ill-looking as when he'd been shot. With no desire to return to the bridge to watch the boring blackness of space fly by while Sean spun his own elaborate explanations for Charles's ominous parting words, Erik decided to wait beside his door, in case Charles determined he did, in fact, need the assistance he so quickly rebuffed.

Standing around, unfortunately, was something that Erik had a passing acquaintance with from the jobs he'd worked in the past, mercenary security contracts whenever he'd been short of credits to achieve his goals. He didn't know how long he stood there, letting his mind turn over the m
ystery of Charles's revelation about the nebula being the one he called Sharra, before he sensed something delicate and metallic approaching.

"Moira," he said.

Moira stopped across the width of the corridor from him, arms folded. "Now who's the guard dog?"

Erik shrugged, deciding it wasn't worth more than an answer.

"Are you going to stand here until he wakes up?" Moira asked.

"What are you doing here?" Erik wanted to know. "I believe he left you in charge of the bridge."

"I'm an android," Moira said with evident exasperation. It was remarkably easy to forget her origins when her attitude was so entirely...human. He blamed her human creators for such a fundamental flaw and specifically the programmers who had crafted her personality core. "I'm tapped into all the necessary systems."

"It still doesn't explain what you're doing here," Erik said.

"Just because you showed up and decided that you cared about Charles d
oesn't give you a monopoly on it," Moira said. "I was concerned and so was everyone else. I came by to check on him."

"He engaged his privacy lock. I think he wants to be left alone."

"I have override authority on all of Charles's locks," Moira said, with a hint of smugness. "But I don't have any intention of disturbing him if he's really resting."

Erik tried to ignore the annoyance he felt at Moira's pointed comments about her prior claim on Charles but he didn't quite manage it. Still, he wondered if she perhaps had the answers that Charles had not yet delivered. "He tells you almost everything, does he?"

"I like to think so," she said, narrowing her eyes. "Not that I plan to tell you anything."

"This Sharra," he said, still confused as to how a nebula could also be a person, "She's not Charles's friend we needed to see, is she?"

Moira looked hard at him, as if she were deciding whether to answer or not. "No. His friend...her name is Lil
andra."

There was something about the way Moira said the name that made Erik's hackles rise. "Lilandra," he repeated, as if he could learn more about her from shaping the sounds in his mouth.

Moira nodded. "From what I understand, she's very fond of Charles. If she can help with your little quest, she will, for his sake."

For some reason, Moira's statement didn't ease any of the tightness in his chest. "Do you also have any idea how Charles can speak to a nebula and make it defy the laws of space by which everyone else lives?"

Erik wasn't certain if Moira's silence was because she didn't know the answer or because she didn't want to tell him.

Raven's arrival in the corridor ended in any further conversation for the moment. She looked as if she might've simply planned to pass them on the way to her own quarters but instead she slowed, looking between them uncertainly. "Is something wrong?" she asked, swinging her yellow-eyed gaze from Erik to Mo
ira. "With Charles?"

"Nothing other than his headache," Moira said.

Raven's shoulders relaxed, a ripple of blue scales. "I just thought, with you standing out here...that something was going on."

"No, we're just...discussing a few things," Moira said with a glare in Erik's direction.

"Yes, like this Lilandra we're going to see," Erik said, watching Raven.

She seemed to pale as much as her skin tone allowed, going a little gray in her cheeks. "That's where we're going?" she asked Moira.

Moira nodded.

"So you know her too?" Erik asked.

Raven shook her head. "I know of her," she explained. "I wasn't really with Charles when he met her. He was sort of off on his own for a few months. That's when they met." Her eyes took on a faraway look that Erik associated with thinking back over memories. "I thought she was dead or something."

"Why is that?"

"Because Charles was so very sad when he came back," she said. "He
loved her so much but then he said they could never be together or something like that. He didn't say much but I always had the feeling something happened to her, you know?"

"Obviously not, if we're going to see her," Erik said, again trying to ignore the sharpness of his own response to Raven's revelation.

"Right!" she agreed. "It's just weird, though. Why would he leave her in the first place? They've got that whole telepathic soul bond thing going, I thought."

It was Erik's turn to glare at Moira because her "very fond" explanation paled next to Raven's "telepathic soul bond." "Can you explain what that means?" Erik asked, voice quiet and dangerous.

Raven seemed to notice the undercurrent of danger because her eyes widened a little as she took a step back. "I don't really..."

"Didn't Charles tell you to rest?" Moira interrupted. "You were affected, too."

"Oh, Hank gave me something for that, so it's better," she said. "But you're right
, I should probably rest." With that, Raven hurried off, disappearing into her room at the other end of the long corridor.

"Telepathic soul bond?" Erik repeated.

"I suggest you ask Charles if you want to know more," Moira said.

Erik rolled his eyes. "I think the problem is obviously that Charles doesn't answer questions."

She shrugged. "He probably doesn't see where it's any of your business. And he's right."

"This is still my mission, my goals, my piece of the Engine," Erik told her. "That makes it my business."

Moira's grim expression faded a little. "You'll still have to ask him yourself," she said. "But he...likes you. He might tell you."

"He doesn't seem to want to do that," he said. "Even though he obviously told you."

"Someone had to be there to pick up the pieces, Erik," she said. "Believe me, it wasn't the honor you seem to think." Moira's eyes trailed off, staring hard at Charles's door for a mome
nt. "And I'm not looking forward to doing it again."

Erik was tempted to ask but he knew from experience that Moira was as unlikely to break Charles's confidence as Charles was to give him a straight answer which meant, not at all. The entire crew, he noticed, seemed willing to guard the bits they each had of Charles's secrets, with occasional slip notwithstanding -- another sign of the loyalty he had instilled in his people.
Erik's mind went back to his conversation with Alex and the vague, guarded way he'd said that some of them had come from bad situations, himself included. Erik couldn't stop himself from wandering how his life might've been different if there had been a Charles Xavier waiting for him on the other side of his escape from the Hel, back when maybe he might've had a chance to carve another sort of life for himself.

I'm here now, my friend. The voice in his head was soft, almost breathless. And the future isn't carved in stone.</ i>

"I thought you were resting," Erik said aloud, even though Charles was too far away to hear his words outside of his head.

Most of my crew know to keep a certain distance as to not disturb me, Charles replied. You might as well join me.

Erik didn't hesitate to enter Charles's chambers once he heard the tell-tale hiss of air that said Charles had disengaged his privacy lock. The first room was dim but empty, so Erik continued through the far door into what was obviously Charles's sleeping area. It looked much like Erik's did, and Charles was stretched out on the utilitarian bed, an arm thrown over his eyes despite the dimness of the room. Erik settled on the edge of the bed, much as he had when Charles had been in medbay. He just stopped himself from reaching out. Instead he said, softly, "McCoy gave Raven something to help. Should I summon him?"

"No." Charles's voice was even more hushed than it had been in his head. "I like to avoid
pain medication for obvious reasons. It'll pass on its own. Sharra was...forceful."

"I can leave."

"Stay if you'd like, especially if you just plan to loiter outside."

He didn't move an inch and Charles didn't seem surprised when he didn't.

Erik watched the subtle flex of Charles's throat as he swallowed, the rise of his chest as he breathed. "So," he began, after a few minutes. "Along with everything else, you can telepathically communicate with nebulae?"

Charles laughed a little, then winced, burrowing his head further into the crook of his arm. "Just one of my many talents."

"How is such a thing possible?" he asked.

"I would not be the first to believe that everything in creation is imbued with its own kind of consciousness, a spirit if you will," Charles said.

"And you can speak to this spirit of the nebula?" Erik's voice was still quiet but his disbelief was palpable.

There was a pause before Charles answered, so
long that Erik had begun to wonder if he'd fallen asleep. "I try to speak to any being willing to listen."

Erik snorted and shook his head, even though Charles couldn't see him. "Next you'll try to have me believing in Light Bringers."

"Says the man who spent years locating parts of the Engine of Creation."

Erik grinned in response to the faint, wry tone of Charles's words and the tinge of amusement he could feel emanating from Charles's mind. The feeling thrilled him as it had in the past but it also reminded him of what Raven had said about the mysterious Lilandra, causing his smile to fade. "And Lilandra?"

Charles slowly drew his arm away from his face to look at Erik. He still had to squint a little, even against the faint light of the room, but his eyes were still luminous where they met Erik's. "What do you really want to know, Erik?"

"Raven said that you loved her."

"We were very close once," Charles said.

"And you're bound t
o her? Raven said that also," Erik told him, that sharp gnawing back in his chest. He recognized it for what it was, the burn of jealousy at the mere thought of what this woman might've once meant to Charles -- might still mean to him.

"Erik, calm down." Charles slowly pulled himself up until he was sitting. "While flattering, it's hardly necessary. We all have our pasts. I have one, just like you."

"Once again, you're trying to distract me from the question," Erik countered. "Was Raven right when she said that you're bound to this Lilandra?"

Charles raised an eyebrow. "In the scheme of things, why does it even matter?"

Erik scowled, resisting the same urge he'd felt in those first few days, to reach out and grab Charles, to mark him in some way that would make Charles understand how he felt inside. But it was a ridiculous need when Erik knew that Charles could probably feel it pouring off of him, in the cadence of his thoughts. Erik hadn't made a sec
ret of his feelings for Charles, even though he didn't know what to do with them since Charles insisted on keeping him at arm's length.

The touch of Charles's hand on his surprised Erik out of his thoughts. He looked up from where their hands touched to Charles's solemn eyes. "You're the one here with me," he said. "Right now, like this." He winced again, but then let his eyes slide closed as he leaned in until his forehead rested against Erik's. "In a way she never will be."

As if he was scared he'd frighten Charles away, Erik was careful as he lifted a hand to run his fingers through Charles's mussed hair, to gently touch the vulnerable skin at the nape of his neck. He could feel the edges of Charles's pleasure at the touch, the way it helped him lose some of the painful tension that had plagued him since his conversation with the nebula, the one Erik still didn't understand.

"We cannot change our pasts, Erik," Charles murmured close to his ear. "Only o
ur futures remain unwritten. But the future...it is within our power to shape it as we'd like it to be."

Erik knew there was more to Charles's statement than some insight into the tangled thing between them, some plea in the telepath's words that tugged at Erik, even as he resisted it. He didn't know exactly what Charles was asking of him, but he wasn't sure he could give it to him.

Instead, he continued to let his hand glide through Charles's hair, enjoying the moment he knew wouldn't last.

**

As the Wisdom hurtled through space, on course for the system Charles had indicated, he didn't need an update from Moira or Alex to know that they were rapidly approaching their destination. As the hours passed and his headache faded, he began to notice the warmth of another consciousness reaching out to his, growing stronger with ever minute that brought them closer. He also knew that it was Lilandra, welcoming him back.

Unlike Sharra, whose touch
had been dark and consuming in his mind, Lilandra was bright and soft, a welcome feeling instead of an intrusion. He had missed her in all the years they'd been apart, had missed the company inside his own skull that Lilandra could be, like no one else he'd met. What he felt when his mind touched Erik's was different from Lilandra's, although both were exhilarating in their own ways; Lilandra, though, had her own power with which to reach back and Charles often wondered if what he felt with her was like how his presence felt to others.

By the time Charles received word from the bridge that they were only minutes away from their destination, Lilandra's touch against his mind was thrumming and loud, almost enough to eclipse the light links he maintained with the rest of his crew when they were on a mission. His connection with Erik, though, almost stayed above the pleasant white noise Lilandra brought but it even it began to sink by the time Moira commed in the t
raditional way to announce their arrival.

When he joined his crew on the bridge, several of them had gathered to stand in front of the viewscreen and take in the view of the planet below them, green and blue beneath a fluffy swirl of white clouds. Farther away, and seen on one of the view panels, was a larger view of the system, its yellow sun a great, glowing linchpin around which the lonely planet orbited.

"I didn't realize the planet was this interesting," Charles said as he came up behind them, making Sean and Alex jump. Moira had probably been aware of his approach as soon as the doors slid open, and both Darwin and Erik were too well trained to reveal their surprise if they had any.

Sean scowled a little. "I think your explanation is what we're waiting on," he said. "But, you know, the planet's pretty, too."

"I answered your question about Deathcry," Charles reminded him.

Sean rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah, a talking nebula is supposed to s
ound completely acceptable but haunted nebula wasn't? I hate all of you."

Charles grinned and patted him on the shoulder.

"I'd be happy if you could give us a name for the planet," Alex said. "Or the system. Or the star. I'm not really picky at this point."

Charles gave him a fond pat as well. "I can give you all three," he said, nodding toward the viewscreen. "The planet is called Chandilar." Charles watched the clouds swirl in its atmosphere for a moment before he continued. "The system and the sun are both called Neramani. Among other things."

Alex frowned. "Never heard of them."

"That is precisely the point, Alex," Charles said. "This place is very secluded, very difficult to stumble upon without some foreknowledge...making it the ideal hiding place for the last piece of the Engine."

"And your friend is trustworthy?" Erik asked.

"Of course."

"You're sure?"

"Completely."

Erik looked like he wanted to say somethi
ng else but Moira's glare, combined with Charles's, seemed powerful enough to dissuade him. Instead, he shrugged and crossed his arms, a grudging gesture of acquiescence. Given the alpha instincts Erik felt compelled to display at every turn, Charles knew it was a kind of progress. "Scans of the planet, Darwin?"

"Of course," Darwin said, tapping on his console to bring them up. "Like Shintaido, there's only one structure on the planet. In its northern hemisphere, in the valley of a mountain range. Pretty temperate areas."

"Score one for these guys over the Shintaidoans," Sean said.

"What's up with the one building on an entire planet thing, anyway?" Alex asked. "Seems like a waste."

"It's another trick for staying hidden," Charles explained. "Just like when we go to low power when we're trying to evade the slipdog, a planet with very little in the way of development might look uninhabited to someone with less sensitive scanners or someone far enough a
way."

"All I want to know is if I get to go this time," Sean said. "Because I really think it's my turn."

"Sorry, Sean, not this time either," Charles told him.

"Not fair, Charles!"

Charles and Moira shared a commiserating look. "We won't have need for your expertise so I think it makes more sense for you to stay here." He glanced over at Erik. "I think it'll me, Moira and Erik again."

"New guy shows up and gets to have all the fun," Sean grumbled with a quick glare in Erik's direction.

"I doubt where we're going will be much interest to you anyway, Sean," Moira said.

Sean glanced her way, interested. "You know what that place is?"

Moira looked at Charles, as if to apologize, but Charles waved her on. "Go ahead."

"It's a library," she revealed.

Erik favored him with a quick, startled look, one that quickly became suspicious. From behind the beat of his connection with Lilandra, Charles could make out the faint sens
e of Erik's thoughts, all suspicion and speculation.

Sean was busy waggling his eyebrows at Moira. "It depends entirely on what kind of flexis they have."

Moira rolled her eyes while Charles shot him a warning look. "We really don't have time for that, at the moment." The thought that crossed Sean's mind about Charles wasn't very kind and it only made Charles keep his gaze steady. "Enough, Sean."

Finally he threw up his arms and sighed. "Fine, I'll go...take something apart and put it together."

"While we're gone," Charles said to Darwin, "Make sure you keep an eye on him."

Darwin even grinned at that. "Never had any other plan."

The prep time needed to take their landing craft down to the Chandilar surface was much less than it had been when their destination had been Shintaido; not only did the weather not call for as many provisions, the complex which they planned to visit was set down in a rounded valley, with more than enough room fo
r a close landing spot. When all was said and done, Moira landed them less than a half a mile from complex, which was as close as Charles thought was wise since they were coming in without an express invitation. The only real delicacy to their trek was that Erik had to carry along the piece of the Engine of Creation, but even that was easy to maneuver thanks to his powers. There was a spark between the Engine and Erik whenever he used his powers on it; it registered against Charles's powers as a sound, almost, like a bell ringing in the crisp air. But since he couldn't quite explain it to the others, he didn't bother bringing it up as they crossed the picturesque landscape of the blooming valley.

The complex was just as Charles remembered it, its facade made to look as it had been carved out of the land around it, smooth granite from the mountains that cast shadows in the distance and the soft, piney wood of the forest that edged around the valley. He also knew how muc
h of that was simply a facade, further hiding its real truth from anyone who stumbled upon it.

"Seems a strange place to build a library," Erik said, as he tugged the box with the engine part along behind him. "There's nobody here to use it."

The words were deceptively conversational, but Charles knew from his contact with Erik's mind that what he meant was much more pointed. "Some libraries have purposes beyond lending," Charles answered. "Some are more interested in preservation."

"Is that what yours is about?" Erik asked.

"Among other things," Charles said.

"Quite the collection?"

Charles glanced back over his shoulder to meet Erik's accusing gaze before he spoke. "So I've heard."

Finally, they reached the library complex, greeted by nothing more than a plain-looking door flanked by a delicate, carved scroll design. Erik looked up at the building and frowned. "I sense metal," he said. "A lot more than I'm seeing."

"I
don't doubt it," Charles said. "This place is a bit like Moira. Don't let the exterior fool you."

Moira spared a second to shoot Erik a look before she stepped up to Charles's side. "Do you want me to open the door?" she asked. "I could probably hack the system and do it."

"I don't see anything to hack," Erik pointed out.

Charles sighed, knowing what she was really asking: do you want to help me keep you from having to expose yet another secret? Even without the use of his powers on her, Charles could her the underlying meaning of her words and uncomfortable expression. And while he appreciated her loyalty, this was just one of many secrets he knew he wouldn't be able to keep from Erik if they continued as they had. "No, it's fine," he said. "We have a key. We might as well use it."

"Key?" Erik asked.

"You'll see," Moira said.

Charles took a few more steps to bring him within touching distance of the door. Instead of doing a
s others might've and touching it, he ran his fingers down the line of the scroll work on either side of it, letting his fingers linger on the swirls that made up a fancy flower at about chest-height in the carving. Then he pressed against one of the petals and the scrollwork shook a little under his hands as it detached from the door and slid away to expose a computer interface even more sophisticated than the ones on the Wisdom.

"Well, I'll be damned," Erik said.

Charles couldn't help but smile. "Let's hope not, Erik," he said before focusing his attention on the panel once more. With the surety that came from long practice, Charles tapped a circle on the panel that was roughly at eye-height, then waited patiently for the retinal scan to be completed. The panel chirped at him and there was a groan from behind the door, as if ancient gears were grinding in response. Next, he laid his hand on the panel, palm flat, and felt the hum of the computer as it rec
ognized his handprint. Again, there was the churning sound of something moving behind the door. He'd passed two of the identification protocols but there was still a third and it was the one that Moira had tried to spare him from having to reveal to Erik.

Charles took a step back from the panel, shrugging out of his coat as he did so. Then he pushed up the sleeve on his shirt to reveal his forearm. He held it wrist side up, skin exposed, and waited for the last protocol to be judged.

It took almost a minute before a small blue light swept across him from somewhere high above his head, honing in on his forearm. When it passed over the pale skin there, something shimmered on Charles's arm -- a tattoo, a strange abstract swirl, that shone with iridescence under the panel's beam but faded when it pulled away. This time there was no grinding sound but another panel revealed itself, one located in the center of the door.

Before Charles could move toward it, he f
elt the grip of Erik's hand around his wrist, the wrist of the forearm that had just been exposed to the panel's third identification protocol. Charles turned back toward Erik, his eyes asking for an explanation. "Erik?"

Instead Erik touched the fingers of his free hand to the skin of Charles's arm, the soft stripe just below the bend of his elbow where the tattoo had flashed a moment before. He glanced up at Moira, not Charles. "You lied to me."

"No, I didn't," Moira said, looking thunderous.

"You said he wasn't a Collector," Erik shot back. He ran his fingers over Charles's skin again. "But even I know the Collector's Mark when I see it."

"I told you he didn't need them," Moira replied. "There's a difference."

Charles could feel Erik's confusion, the questions in his head, the suspicion he couldn't quite control. Like humans, the Collectors were something outside of the realms of the clans, outside of the power of the Brotherhood, somet
hing Erik had been seen fit to view with disdain and distrust for their secretive, superior ways. And now, he'd learned that Charles was one of them.

"Erik," Charles said softly, and Erik's eyes snapped up to meet Charles's. "You wanted my secrets. This is one of them."

He touched Charles's arm where the invisible Collector's Mark was once more before he dropped his hand. "That's where clans place slave marks, you know," he said. "In that exact same spot."

"Charles," Moira said, moving toward the door. "We should probably head in before you have to do that all over again."

He finally looked away from Erik and nodded at Moira. "You're right," he said. "Let's go."

Charles stepped up to the door and touched his hand to the second panel, then stepped away as the door began to slide open.




Chapter 5

Erik wasn't sure what to expect of the interior of the building Charles had brought them to, especially given that its appearance did not match what his own powers told him. He could feel metal everywhere but that wasn't what his eyes saw -- they saw stone and wood with the occasional iron support, and it was a disconcerting dissonance. After he retrieved the engine piece from where he'd set its case on the stone of the library's entrance, Erik warily followed Charles inside, with Moira behind him.

What he saw was more of the same, everything seeming to be made of some rustic material while the entire complex sang with metal.

"Looks are very deceiving here, my friend," Charles told him, no doubt reading the thought from his mind. "This is a storehouse of some of the most precious and rare records from all over the Tri-Galaxy. It goes several kilometers beneath the surface of the planet and it's made to withstand the onslaught of a Nov
a bomb offensive."

Erik had to admit he was impressed if the building could do so since Nova bombs were some of the strongest and most fearsome weapons available. "This is why you suggested it as a safe place to keep the Engine?"

Charles nodded. "That, along with the secrecy of the location itself. It's probably more of a protection than the building but I believe in layers of security."

They stood just inside the building, facing long rows of tightly packed shelves. Some housed boxes of flexis while others stacks of data rods; many of them held books, dusty and organic, taking up so much space for the little amount of data they held. As far as Erik could see in all directions there were nothing but shelves, presumably more of the same. "Who knew there was even this much knowledge in the Tri-Galaxy," he said.

Charles smiled a little. "This is barely the beginning of what you could find here," he said. "This is the more innocuous items in the collectio
n. They keep it like this to deter any intruders from looking for the underground vaults where the real treasures are."

It was still difficult to fathom the idea of there being more books and flexis and data rods because the wall of shelves before him seemed endless. However, it was obvious Charles was well-acquainted with the Collector's Library, being one himself. Erik craned his neck a little, trying to sweep with the library with his eyes, making note of his surroundings to the best of his ability. In one hand, he still held tight to the strap of the metal case that held the engine piece, even though it was his powers and not his hands that did the work. "So where is...Lilandra?" he asked.

Charles waved a hand. "She'll be around eventually," he said. "She's always good for showing up where she's needed."

"We just wait then?" Erik asked.

"For the time being, yes, although I'd like to track down the caretaker of the library, too."

"They aren't
one in the same?" Erik wanted to know.

Charles shook his head. "No, Lilandra is...more of an absent guardian of the Library. The actual cataloguing and preserving falls to another Collector. We call her Sage. She should be around here somewhere, either in these stacks or the vaults."

Charles turned back from his inspection of the shelves to look at Erik and Moira. "Why don't the two of you wait here while I go look for her? I'll bring her back here so you can meet her while we wait for Lilandra."

Erik glanced toward Moira. "You want me to wait with Moira?"

"Well Moira can guard the Engine piece if you should decide to take a gander around the Library," Charles told him, deadpan. "You probably won't believe what you'd find if you did."

Erik ignored Moira's amused snort behind him, although he did let his powers gently lower the case to the ground. "I guess if those are the options."

"They are," Charles said. "Now, if you'll excuse me..." W
ith the agility and familiarity of someone who knew exactly where he was -- and maybe even exactly where he was going, Charles headed down one of the many aisles of shelves, quickly turning a corner that obscured him from Erik's watchful eye. Erik settled into a relaxed but ready stance, eyes still casing what he could see of the maze of shelves, trying to absorb every detail he could lest it prove useful later. It only took a few minutes of that and the oppressive silence that waited between him and Moira before Erik was tired of it.

"Any reason Charles didn't just summon this Sage with his powers?" he asked the android.

Moira gave him a very false smile. "None that I know of, other than he probably wanted to speak to her alone." Moira gave him a look. "And I'm sure he'd rather speak to Lilandra without you glaring at her in the background."

Erik didn't deny that that would've likely been his reaction had he had to watch Charles be affectionate with Liland
ra, as he feared he might've. However, he also couldn't deny that he was curious about the woman of whom Charles spoke so fondly and with whom, by Raven's estimation, he shared some kind of deep telepathic connection. "I know you don't want to break any confidence," he said. "But this Lilandra, is she a mutant, too?"

"No," Moira said. "Not at all."

"I don't even know why I asked."

"Because you're bored," she said. "And you don't like waiting. Or being kept in the dark. And now you're being forced into both."

Erik raised an eyebrow. "When did you become the telepath?"

Moira laughed and, like her smile, it wasn't something that invited Erik to join her in. "You're not that difficult to understand, Lehnsherr," she told him. "Especially not after the ample observation time I've had since you joined the Eye of Wisdom."

"I think you underestimate me."

"I think you overestimate yourself," Moira said. "Do you know how many Brotherhood
mutants like you I've dealt with in the last two decades? I took down four slipdogs at Witchhead before the Balance itself was destroyed. I was in service four years before the Peace of Antares was even in talks. As far as alpha warriors go, you're not the most fearsome I've met, not by a long shot."

He opened his mouth to say something, then decided against it. There was no point, he knew, in another useless argument with Moira since it was obvious neither of them planned to budge on their respective opinions. He disliked her and she disliked him; for the mission and Charles, they would tolerate the other, but that was as far as it went. Instead, Erik looked back out over the sea of shelves. "I think I'll look around."

"I don't think stalking Charles will lessen his concerns about you," Moira pointed out. "But, go ahead. I'm more than capable of keeping an eye on the Engine by myself."

Erik didn't even acknowledge her last comments before he star
ted to wind his way through the shelves, looking for some path, some logic to the way they were laid out. It didn't take long to recognize that they truly created a maze; there were no straight lines or perpendicular angles, not that lasted for any length of time. From what he could tell, it was another subtle layer of distraction for anyone who managed to stumble their way inside without permission. Such a level of distrust almost made Erik feel better about the Collectors and the massive knowledge they wielded as they saw fit.

Erik resigned himself to the confusion of the layout and just let himself go wherever his feet carried him, making sure to catalogue the books he passed for reference to find his way out again in case he didn't find Charles as he planned. Some of the titles were even interesting, some in languages he recognized, some in ones he didn't, some so old from the look of them that it was hard to conceptualize. But his focus was on finding Charles and
he didn't let his idle curiosity distract him from his search.

When he heard a voice behind him -- not Charles's, not Moira's -- he couldn't help his surprise after being alone for so long in the hush of the library. "I don't believe you're heading in the right direction."

Erik turned sharply to face the speaker who had managed to sneak up on him. It was a woman, as the voice had suggested, one who wasn't quite as tall as he was but one who stood with a kind of command that he recognized. She had wild dark hair that haloed about her face and dark, ink-like whorls decorating the pale skin of her face, like wings from the corners of her eyes. But it was her eyes he noticed most -- almost golden in color, and a little knowing in the same way Charles's were. "How would you know?" he asked her.

She tilted her head a little as she looked at him. "Your confusion is rather obvious, Erik," she said.

"How do you know my name?"

"I know more than that, Eri
k Lehnsherr, of the late and much lamented Polaris clan," she said. "And how? Charles, of course."

"You must be the caretaker here," he said.

She made an elegant gesture with one of her hands. "This library is my whole world."

"You know where Charles is in this?" Erik asked, a wide sweep of his arms meant to include the entire library maze.

She shook her head. "We haven't quite managed to cross paths," she said. "But soon. When the time is right."

"Are you lost in your own maze?"

"I am not," she said. "Or maybe I am, a little. It depends on which maze you mean and what you mean by lost."

"I hope that's not supposed to make sense," Erik said, wondering if the caretaker had perhaps lost her mind from so much solitude.

"Not to you," she said with a faint smile. "Even though you are so very clearly lost yourself."

He shrugged. "I'll find my way out eventually."

Her smile faded. "No, you won't," she said. "Not wi
thout Charles, anyway."

"I am looking for him," he reminded her.

"But you don't see him, even when he's right in front of you," she said. "And you don't hear him, even when he shouts. Well, as much Charles shouts, that is."

For a moment, Erik regretted his decision to break from his wait with Moira. "If you see Charles, tell him that I'm looking for him," he told her.

He made to turn away but he felt the slightest brush of her hand on his arm to halt him. Somehow, the light touch seemed to burn. He was startled by it, enough to stop his retreat. "What did you do?" he asked.

"Charles wants to be found," she said. "He wants you to be the one who finds him. I just wonder if you're up to the task."

Erik pulled away from her touch, taking a step back to place more space between them. "I don't have time for your riddles," he said. "Goodbye."

This time he turned away and she didn't try to stop him.

"That's your problem, Erik,
" she said to his back. "You don't have time for so much, so it all passes you by. It's sad. That's not what I want for Charles."

It was something about the way she said his name that time, an echo of something he felt in his own chest when he thought it. It was possessive but mournful, an ache for something one could never have. It was the same way he spoke of his clan, he realized. Erik turned back to her again. "You're not Sage, are you?"

The woman – Lilandra? -- smiled at him again. "Something that finally didn't pass you by." She bowed a little. "No, I'm not Sage. I think you know who I am, though."

"Lilandra," he said.

"Precisely," she said. "Does that knowledge give my words any more clarity?"

He shook his head. "You're still talking nonsense."

She mimicked the gesture, shaking her head in response to his words. "Not what I want at all."

"What do you want for him?" Erik asked, that same bite of jealousy from before in his th
roat, in his words.

Her face hardened for a moment, all hint of pleasantness gone, while her eyes seemed to burn a darker gold. "In a perfect universe, I want him," she said, her voice strong and commanding. Then more softly, she continued. "But we don't live in perfect universe, do we? In the most perfect possible future, I want him to be happy."

Her words made Erik want to growl at her, to offer to challenge her where they stood, even though she wasn't Brotherhood and Charles wasn't likely to appreciate the gesture. But it was what Erik felt, with an intensity that worried even him. He tried to ignore it. "What does any of that have to do with me?"

"Only you can answer that," Lilandra said. She bowed again, dainty hands behind her back. "Goodbye, Erik Lehnsherr of the Polaris clan."

Before he even knew to react, she disappeared around one of the corners of the labyrinth of shelves. In two steps, Erik was turning the same one.</ p>

With shock, he looked down the long sweep of aisle only to find it empty and Lilandra gone as if she'd never been there.

**

Once Charles was deep enough into the aisles of the library, he reached out with his powers until he found Sage's mind. She was deep within the underground vaults, already apprised of his impending arrival by Lilandra. Among the things she was working on, he learned, was making sure that one of their most secure facilities was ready to house the Engine of Creation.

With Sage alerted, Charles set out on the real reason he'd come into the library maze: to wait for Lilandra to find him. It was the way they'd always done it, and he knew her well enough to know it was how she'd arrange their meeting once again, deep within the heart of the walls that represented her unending duty to the universe. The feel of her in his mind had muted somewhat with the focus that the planet brought to her, but she was still there, warm and waiting. Char
les knew it wouldn't take long before she'd make herself known once she realized they were on Chandilar.

Charles found himself in the middle of a collection from ancient Vedera, books like the one of fairy tales he had on the Wisdom. One title in particular caught his eye and he pulled it from the shelf before he carefully began to thumb through its pages. About half-way through he came across a drawing that brought a smile to his face, of a dark-haired figure hailed by the people around her as a goddess, a staff in her hand that glowed with the power of the sun, the same power that shone out of her eyes as some unknown artist had painted them. He fondly touched a finger to the dark ink that comprised the whorled pattern that curved across the figure's bare arms.

"I've never liked that picture. You know that."

At the sound of her voice, it was like everything stopped, including Charles's heartbeat. It was so different from feeling her in his head, so
much more something he'd never thought he'd experience again. Charles took a deep breath, swallowing against the sudden swell of emotion in his throat. When he could finally trust himself to speak out loud, he started with a shaky laugh. "Don't you think you're a little old for vanity?"

"I'm a little old for a great deal," she said. "But it doesn't seem to stop me."

Charles slowly -- so slowly -- closed the book and replaced it on the shelf. "You're never too old to care."

"I didn't always think that," she said and he could feel how close she had drawn to his back, the heat of her form achingly familiar just beyond his touch. "But I've since learned differently."

Charles finally trusted himself to turn around and face her. "Lilandra."

She smiled, though it was fragile. "Hello, Charles."

She was as beautiful as he remembered, although there was little chance that she could be otherwise. He knew he had changed in those years, but they were
nothing to her, more like minutes or even seconds to soul as old as hers. Even his lifetime would barely register in the span of her existence.

"I hope you can forgive me," he said. "For coming back like this."

The illusion of pleasure in her smile faded until only the sadness remained. "You are welcome here, Charles Xavier, for as long as I burn. You know that."

"I do," he said. "I also know it's difficult for me to be here."

"Not just for me," she said. She touched a spot on her own face, near where the black whorl met the corner of her eye. "I'm not the one with the tears."

Charles rolled his eyes even as he brushed at them, rubbing away the trace of moisture he felt. "That's because you can't cry," he said. "You told me so yourself."

"I was wrong," she said. "That was something else I learned, after you left."

"Oh, Lilandra," he sighed, voice cracking. "I never meant to hurt you."

"To hurt us," she said. "And that i
s something I've always known."

"I'm sorry," Charles told her.

"Never be sorry, not for me," she told him. She took a step toward as if she'd planned to touch him, but she stopped, dropping the hand she'd had suspended in the air. "Now, how about we talk about the gift you've brought me."

"Let's," he agreed. "It's part of the Engine of Creation. The only part not in the hands of the Hel clan."

"Rare. Timeless. Endangered," she said. "No wonder you brought it to me."

"That was my thought, yes," Charles told her. "I don't know what the Engine of Creation is truly capable of, but I know what I sensed when I touched the piece of it we found. It felt fathomless and that frightened me, the idea of that power falling into Shaw's hands, into the Hel's hands."

Lilandra's eyes went far away for a moment. "It would be...not the end, but close enough," she said after a moment. "He is not wise and he would not wield it wisely. He would remake the unive
rse as he sees fit and his vision of all things is not one for any of you, mutant or human or otherwise."

"It can do that, really?" he asked. "Remake the universe as the stories say?"

"It was created for just that purpose," she said. "To make sure the universe pushes and pulls forever. It was created to shape all things as they need to be. Our arrogance was in giving it form for the mortal shape we sometimes took."

"It was like something was alive in it," Charles said. "When I touched it, I mean."

He could feel Lilandra press against his memories, over which he allowed her free rein. From his mind, she pulled the experience, the sight of the engine piece hovering above the broken altar under Erik's power. "You found the heart of it on Shintaido," she said. "It's the core of the Engine, the oldest piece. In essence, it is alive."

Lilandra's explanation made sense, and he nodded. "And you can protect it?"

"It will be safe here, but th
at isn't enough," she said. "The rest of the Engine cannot remain with the Hel."

"I have no plans to let it," Charles told her. "It's why I need the heart safe. I promised Erik we would go against the Hel next and that is what we must do. And the Engine must be neutralized as a threat."

"The Engine cannot be destroyed," Lilandra told him. "But you must render it safe until its other guardians come for it."

"Other guardians?" Charles asked. "Where am I to find them?"

Lilandra shook her head. "They will find the Engine when it is time, so that is the least of your worries," she told him. "Going against the Hel, that is the task you have ahead of you that will prove difficult."

"I know." As he had many times since Erik had brought the story of the Engine to him, Charles thought about how impossible it seemed, to think of taking on Shaw and the Hel clan with only his crew. Even with the powers they possessed, they would be vastly outnumbered by muta
nts with similar powers at their command and Shaw himself was one of the most cunning men Charles had ever encountered.

"You'll have to go back," Lilandra told him, reading the thoughts through their connection. "A direct strike will do nothing but get you killed. So you must, even for a little while, go back to who you almost were, who you do not wish to be."

"A ploy? Subterfuge?" Charles asked. "I'm not sure I can, Lilandra. I'm not the only telepath there is and I've heard rumors that Shaw has one at his side. It's risky."

"Yes," she agreed. "But it's the only way I can see that ends with you alive and the Engine saved. These are my primary concerns."

"I'm flattered I'm listed along with the Engine," he said, expression softening.

Lilandra smiled. "You doubt the truth of it?"

"Never," he promised her. He looked away from her bright, fond gaze, choked on another swell of emotion. He cleared his throat. "So I must seek an audience with S
haw instead of launching an attack if I have any hope of victory, you say? Any other pieces of advice for me?"

Lilandra was quiet for a moment. "Erik."

"What about him?"

"You will need him to neutralize the Engine," she said. "I can show you, how to show him a way to make sure that the Engine can never be used. Each of the parts has its own power and Shaw is close in understanding that. This will make sure it never happens."

Charles nodded and then he felt a flood of memories hit him, almost too strong to bear. But Lilandra knew how to control the connection and it soon became easy to follow the line of her thoughts to the ones she wanted him to have. It was like watching a vid of how Lilandra believed the situation could happen -- Charles watched as an illusory Erik used his power to gently peel away the metal of another piece of the engine and remove something small and bright. Each piece has a fragment of the core in it, she explained to his
mind. That connects it to the heart. This must be removed until the Engine is safe.

"I can show him," he said once she was finished. "Not that I planned to proceed without him. Or that he would let me do so. This is so very important to him in a very personal way."

"And it's not for you?" she asked. "Don't forget, I know everything about you, Charles. Including what this means."

"I won't lie and pretend otherwise," he said. "Shaw, the Hel -- they are a menace. If I thought I could've done it before, I would've."

"Yes," Lilandra said. "But now it means something nobler and that is what you're meant for. It's why we parted and will remain so." Her smile was fond. "But I have so enjoyed seeing you again."

Charles moved closer. "As I have, Lilandra. The years have changed me less than you said they would."

"It's not the years that I thought would change you," she said, taking a step of her own. She was much warmer than a human would've
been and he felt the heat of her. Still, she did not touch him, even as they stood so close. "It's what you would do in them. And they have."

"You still mean so much to me."

"But you have a family," she said. "And, now, perhaps you have Erik?"

"I don't know," he said. "I honestly don't."

"He is not easy, for me or you to understand," she said. "There are things inside of him that I cannot predict."

"His pain and anger," Charles agreed. "I wish I knew how to help him."

"You have done what you can for him," she said. "I think it must be up to Erik to choose his own way. Only he can control that."

He watched her expression dim, watched a troubled light take over her eyes. "But what?"

"I worry," she admitted. "For you. I see...nothing will be easy. I believe you will save the Engine and defeat the Hel. But that does not mean it won't come with a price. Erik's choices, I fear, will also cost you. That, I do not wish."

"What d
o you mean?"

She looked up at him, eyes burning, the spark of galaxies in them where Charles looked too long. "The possibilities converge into only a handful," she explained. "He will love you, he will leave you, or he will break you."

"Surely it's not so dire," he said.

"He may, in fact, do all three," she said. As if she could no longer stop herself, her hand came to his cheek and he leaned into the touch even where it felt like fire. "I did not give you back to destiny only to watch you suffer."

Charles covered her hand with his. "We both know destiny doesn't work the way we want."

"I know," Lilandra said. "And I'll never forgive her for that."




Chapter 6

After his encounter with Lilandra, Erik abandoned his exploration of the maze and carefully retraced his steps until he was back at the beginning, where Moira still waited with the engine piece.

"No luck, I take it?" she said when she saw him emerge and head back in her direction.

"I found someone," he said. "Not Charles."

"The caretaker?" she asked.

He shook his head. "Lilandra."

Moira looked surprised. "What was she like?"

"Have you not met her before?"

Moira shook her head. "No," she said. "Like Raven said, we weren't with Charles when he met her."

"Charles doesn't seem the type to abandon his crew like that," Erik said.

"We weren't much a crew at the time," she explained. "The Wisdom wasn't quite finished, so he, Raven and Hank were just waiting around for it to be completed since they'd just signed their contract with the Commonwealth. They had signed me on as well and I spent my time supe
rvising the last of the retrofits. One day, Charles says he has something he needs to do and asks me to watch Raven and Hank for him."

"And he came here?"

"I suppose," she said. "Eventually when he returned, he told us about Lilandra and how he'd never be able to see her again." Her gaze hardened a little. "And that's all I can really say about it. The rest of it is Charles's story."

"She looked remarkably well," Erik said, the jealousy still thrumming just under the surface of his thoughts. "I don't know why exactly Charles gave you the impression otherwise." He thought back to Lilandra's words, the fierceness as she declared her attachment. "She certainly seemed to care about him, still."

"Sounds like something you should've asked her if you wanted to know," Moira told him. "Or you can ask Charles later."

Erik snorted. "That's worked so well so far."

"It's obvious you feel disadvantaged by what Charles knows about you because of his tele
pathy, but you need to understand that he has trusted you with things no one else knows," Moira told him. "Do you think anyone, besides me, knows about his connection to the Collectors? Did you see him letting anyone else come down here where they might meet Lilandra? No, not even his sister."

He just shrugged and Moira let out a frustrated noise that sounded remarkably human-like in its exasperation. "I should've run your identification when we were in Vedera," she said. "I'm sure you're wanted for something somewhere."

Erik didn't say anything in reply even though he knew she was certainly right; he was probably wanted in over half-dozen Vederan or Commonwealth controlled areas, under either his own name or an alias. It was just one of the many prices he'd paid to seek his vengeance against the Hel and it wouldn't be the last. But he knew it would be worth every cost he paid to bring down the Hel as they'd brought down his clan.

Given both o
f their combat situation backgrounds, it wasn't difficult for Moira and Erik to lapse into silence and ignore each other as they waited for some word from Charles. Moira remained standing, back against the wall while Erik hunkered near the metal case he'd carried from their transport craft, using its sturdy frame as a makeshift chair. The minutes ticked by.

"Hey, hey, Moira! You there?"

The sound of Sean's agitated voice coming through the comm device embedded in the gauntlet Moira wore around her wrist made Erik's attention snap toward the android, even as she tapped its surface to return the hail. "I'm here, Sean," she said. "What's wrong?"

"Is Charles finished yet with whatever he had to do?"

"Not yet, why?"

"The engine piece is at least secure?"

"I don't know, Sean," she said. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, man."

Moira glared at the comm device before she slapped another control. "Darwin, Alex, Angel -- someone tell me what's
going on up there!"

"I was just about to comm you," Darwin said a second later. "Sean's not playing, though. We've got trouble up here."

"What kind of trouble?" Moira asked, with a glance toward Erik as if to make sure he was listening. He assured her he was with a quick nod.

"We've got a slipdog on the long-range and they're coming down hard on our position."

"How's that possible?" she demanded. "They didn't follow us through the Deathcry."

"Of course they didn't, but those slipdogs are twice as fast as we are when they want to be," Alex's voice broke in. "They're coming along the route we would've come had we continued on to Antonius. They're just jumping like crazy and maxing out their sublight."

"That still doesn't tell me how they found us," Moira said. "They shouldn't have been able to follow us."

"We messed up," Darwin admitted with a sigh. "You remember those duds they hit us with before we changed course?"

"The
y weren't duds," Erik guessed.

"It must've been some kind of tracker," Sean confirmed. "We've been leaking bread crumbs since we came out of the Deathcry. And they've been following it."

"Keep me apprised," Moira said. "I'm going to find Charles."

"We don't have a lot of time, Moira," Darwin said. "Wisdom out."

Moira let her arm fall to her side with a jerk. "The Warhawk can't find this place," she told Erik.

"I thought Charles said this place could withstand an attack."

"It can but its greatest protection is its utter secrecy," she told him. "Come on, we need to find him."

"In this maze, it could take longer than we have," Erik said, even as he followed Moira into the maze of shelves. He continued to follow as she quickly turned one corner, then another.

"Actually, I'm tracking him," she said, pointing a finger at her head. "Charles has a subdermal tracker implant for emergencies."

"I've never noticed it," he adm
itted.

Moira paused long enough to throw him a wry look. "I think we've established that you miss details sometimes, Lehnsherr."

Erik didn't bother to argue the point.

It only took a few minutes despite the vastness of the complex before they turned another corner and spied Charles and Lilandra at the end of the aisle. They were standing very close together and it almost looked like they were in an embrace.

"Charles!" Moira called out and the two pulled apart, both turning to watch as Moira and Erik gained on them.

"Moira? Erik? What's going on?"

Moira almost managed to look sympathetic as she slid her eyes from Lilandra to focus on Charles. "There's a problem. A Warhawk slipdog is bearing down on our position. They hit us with some kind of tracker and they've been following its radiation signature. We don't have a lot of time."

Charles tore his gaze from Moira to turn his imploring eyes on Lilandra. "I'm so sorry," he said, voice ro
ugh and unsteady. "I've done exactly what I swore I wouldn't do. I've put you and this place in danger."

"It couldn't be helped, Charles," she said. "You needed to come back this time."

"What are we going to do?" Erik asked. "We came half-way across the galaxy and the engine piece still isn't safe."

"Physically, everything within this complex is safe," Charles said. "But this library is one of the nerve centers of the Collectors. It has been unknown to every major population for thousands of years. We can't expose them like this, not when we came to them for help."

"You came to them," Erik said.

"Yes," Charles said. "I did. And we're going to make sure they aren't found out. Somehow."

Moira touched her comm device. "How long do we have Alex? Until they reach us?"

"Long enough to run if you guys get your asses up here," he said. "But not much more."

"We can't run," Charles declared. "I'm not going to do that to Sag
e or Lilandra, and running won't solve the larger problem of protecting them from exposure."

"At the moment, you are more important to the universe than this library," Lilandra said. She turned her amber eyes on Charles. "We will endure and start again. You need to leave and save your crew. We will protect the heart of the Engine."

"I'm sorry, Lilandra, but I can't do that," Charles said. "The last time, I let you make the decision for us both, not this time."

"Charles," she said in warning, in the same commanding tone she'd used on Erik. "It's bad enough that I will one day feel your death ripple across the galaxies and will have to live with it for the rest of mine. Don't make that day today, not when you have so much left to do."

Charles's head snapped up as if he'd been hit by a thunderbolt, eyes widening with some insight. "That's it," he said. "That's it. I think I know of a way."

"What?" Moira asked. Erik wondered the same.

I
nstead of speaking he glanced at Lilandra who was still watching him intently. "Well?" he asked her. "Could it work?"

For some reason, Lilandra looked toward Erik. "It may," she said. "If all the parts can work together."

"Then we have to try," Charles said.

She nodded. "I have faith in our chances."

Charles managed to smile. "Then I know luck shines down on us."

Lilandra gently touched his hand. "I'll meet you on your ship."

He nodded. "Until then."

"Charles, what are you planning?" Moira demanded to know but Charles ignored her, instead grabbing first her, then Erik by the elbow and pulling them away from Lilandra.

"No time, now, I'll explain on the way," he said. "Let's go."

"How is she going to meet us?" Erik asked. But once again, she was gone in the blink of an eye, nowhere to be seen when he glanced back.

"She has her ways," Charles said. "Come on."

They left the engine part in its metal case on the f
loor of the library, at a dead run to reach their transport craft. Moira slammed the vessel into lift-off, all the while keeping in contact with Darwin and Alex via comm. Erik half-listened to their murmured reports but he was more interested in Charles's forthcoming explanation of his plan.

"What do you think we're going to do?" he asked.

"You can scramble things, yes, with your powers?" Charles asked in reply. "You can disrupt computers, perhaps even ships?"

Erik thought about it for a moment. "Yes," he said. "Limitedly. I don't have the power to do it on something larger than a console or a security panel, though."

"That won't be a problem," Charles said.

"For what?" Erik asked for what felt like the millionth time as he saw the Wisdom's dock doors open to admit them.

"We're going to amplify our powers, yours and mine," he said. "I'm going to take care of the crew and you're in charge of the ship. We need to eradicate any trace t
hey might have of this planet from their memories, both organic and technological."

"How are we going to do that?" Erik asked.

Their transport touched down and Moira threw open the doors. Charles headed out of them with Erik and Moira right before.

"How?" Erik asked again.

"With Lilandra's help," Charles revealed as they hurried through the ship corridors toward the bridge. "You'll see."

Nothing about Charles's half-explained plan made sense to Erik and he doubted he'd see anything that would change that fact, but he had little choice but to follow Charles onto the bridge and watch as the crew burst into nervous speech as the sight of them.

"That was close! We've got to get out of here ---"

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I can't believe I missed the tracker ---"

"The ship is still on approach, I'm not sure..."

Charles raised his hand in a gesture begging for silence and, surprisingly, he received it. "Everything will f
ine," he told them. "But I need you on task and ready to act when I say, yes?"

"Should I comm Raven?" Angel asked. "To fly us out of here?"

"No," he said. "We're not going anywhere."

"We're just going to sit here?" Alex asked, incredulous.

"Not just," Charles said. "Be patient." He looked around, eyes moving rapidly when he didn't find what he was looking for. "Lilandra?" he wondered aloud.

Erik didn't know what Charles expected to happen at the sound of his lover's name but at least he wasn't the only one surprised when there was a flash of light to Charles's right and, suddenly, where it had been empty before, Lilandra stood.

"Holy..." Sean trailed off, eyes wide and disbelieving.

"I thought you said she wasn't a mutant," he said to Moira.

"She's not," she said.

"Then how did she do that?" he demanded.

"She's not a mutant," Charles said, eyes locked on her. "She's something altogether comple
tely different."

"What?" he asked, the question pointed as much at Lilandra as it was at Charles.

There was a faint trace of satisfaction to her face as she answered. "I believe you call my people the Light Bringers."

**

Charles could feel the crush of questions from the rest of the crew at Lilandra's statement, the disbelief, the fear, but they didn't have time for it, not when the Warhawk were still barreling toward them.

Erik, of course, spoke up when everyone else wouldn't. He eyed Lilandra suspiciously, then turned to Charles. "She's a god? Like from the stories?"

"She's not a god," Charles said, with a look of his own toward her. She was looking back, intense but serene. "But, yes, a Light Bringer, like in the stories."

"Light Bringers are beings of unimaginable power," Erik argued. "Is that not true?"

"This isn't really the time to debate the true nature of Light Bringers," Charles told him, the rest of his crew still s
tunned and waiting around them on the bridge. "We have to make sure the Warhawk can't expose Chandilar's location."

"If she's a Light Bringer, shouldn't she be able to do it by herself?"

"I only meant to answer your question," Lilandra spoke up. "Not start an argument we don't have time for. I cannot deal with the Warhawk on my own, but I can make it possible for you and Charles to take care of them. Is that enough for you?"

Erik looked like he wanted to argue more, and there was a muscle jumping in his jaw. All he said, though, was "Fine," before turning to Charles. "What do you need me to do?"

Despite the situation, he felt his shoulders relax a little with Erik's words, with the sign that Erik was willing to listen, to help, to bend to him in a way that probably went against every alpha instinct instilled from him since he was a small child. "Lilandra's....Lilandra can amplify our powers to a magnitude that will allow our powers to tr
avel across space, so we can attack the Warhawk from here."

"You want me to pull their ships apart?" Erik asked.

Charles shook his head. "I don't want to destroy them. That might invite an investigation by the other slipdog. No, I want to make them think they found nothing and left of their own accord."

"That sounds like a telepath's job, not mine," Erik said.

"I need you to disrupt their ship systems, particularly their sensor records. I don't need their computers to tell them what I've taken from their minds."

Erik thought about it, ran the idea through his head and decided it was sound. Charles heard the blur of Erik's rapid-fire thoughts before Erik finally said, "I can probably do it."

"I'm sure you can, my friend," Charles said, sending his belief at Erik to make sure he understood that he really meant it. He could feel the power in Erik, the raw ability; he knew Erik just needed focus and support. Charles was confident he cou
ld help Erik with both.

The look Erik gave him at that was just as intense as Lilandra's gaze, but no where nearly as serene.

"Do you need us to do anything?" Moira asked from behind one of the consoles where she was monitoring something.

Charles shook his head. "Nothing other than what you all are doing now," he said. "I'm not sure how responsive I'll be once we try...this, so please, consider yourself in charge until we're finished."

Moira nodded, a worried look in her eyes.

He felt Lilandra's too-warm touch on his arm. "We should start," she said. "If we're going to have the chance."

He nodded at her, then looked over at Erik. "If you need any help, please let me know," he said. "I'll be with you the entire time."

"I'll be fine," Erik said. "You have your own things to worry about."

"I mean it, Erik," he said. If you need me, don't think it's better to go it alone.

It was Erik's turn to answer a question with
a quick nod.

Convinced they were as ready as they could be, Charles turned back to Lilandra. "What do we need to do?"

She smiled, not one of the smiles that she usually used between the two of them -- intimate -- but the mysterious one that reminded Charles for all he loved her in a personal way she was almost ageless, mind completely fathomless, even to him. It was the smile in the painting she didn't like, the one that made it easy to understand why other beings had called her a god since time immemorial. "Just trust me and yourself," she said. Lilandra took a few steps forward. "You also might want to stand back."

Charles easily picked up Erik's mental apprehension at her statement and they both steeled themselves for whatever was coming. Charles could also hear the faint echo of Lilandra's humor singing between their connection before he was distracted by the sight in front of him. Around Lilandra a halo of golden light began to appear, like a corona fl
aring out around a star -- in fact, exactly like that, like the real Lilandra in the distance of Chandilar. Then the light began to pour away from her in flaming petals until Charles had to squint against the light she emitted, as if she were turning into a miniature version of her true form. Because the books were right about that, as well -- the Light Bringers, in their true forms, were the suns that lit the skies of the planets, the stars scattered across the vastness of the universe.

Suddenly it was like the light was in his head as well as in his eyes, the immense power of Lilandra's true strength upon him. Charles knew that Lilandra would hold onto him, so he made sure that the only mind he held to in the storm of light and heat and power was Erik's, making sure that the other mutant wasn't overwhelmed by the touch of a mind that was as close to god-like as they'd ever encountered. It took what felt like an eternity for the three of them to find their equilibriu
m in their linked state but soon the light faded until he could feel three distinct minds, despite the tangled mesh -- his and Erik's and Lilandra's.

There was only that one second of peace before Charles's awareness began to expand outward, beyond the bridge or even the ship, beyond Sage's single mind on the planet below. Then he was out in space, hurtling through it, cold and quiet and unbelievable as he rushed toward something on the swelling wave of Lilandra's power. It was unlike anything he'd ever experienced before -- it was like how he'd assumed flying through the air would be, reminding him of the glimpses he'd gotten from Angel of lost, carefree days, soaring through the air on her dragonfly wings. But there was a wisp of Erik's mind that Charles caught that it reminded him of the rush of freedom he'd felt the day he'd thrown off his Hel captors and brought down metal after metal upon them, finally unfettered by the null collar they'd kept him in. But for all
those echoes of sensation, it most matched what Charles remembered of the memories Lilandra had sent him from half-way across the galaxy to show him the reality of her existence, both the immensity and the loneliness she endured.

Time didn't exist in whatever state they currently occupied, some limbo state that let their consciousnesses traverse space with a speed usually only possible in slipstream. But Charles began to sense the barest inkling of other minds, slowly growing more clear, like the first signs of stars in the early evening sky when he was planetside. As they grew closer, he could make out more and more details of the minds and he realized they'd reached the Warhawk slipdog. It wasn't a large crew; he sensed two dozen minds scattered throughout the ship, with varying degrees of knowledge about the mission they were on, the one that involved tracking and detaining the Wisdom.

Lilandra's presence was less a distinct personality now and somet
hing more distant or consuming -- something more like the way Sharra felt when they were in the Deathcry Nebula, something that surrounded them but was too vague for true anthropomorphism. But even as he registered that difference, he still feel her warmth, her determination.

Erik, on the other hand, still felt like his mind always did against Charles's. There was confusion and disorientation in his thoughts, all of it tinged with fear of a situation he didn't quite understand. Charles reached out with his consciousness to offer comfort.

Can you feel the metal of their ship? Charles asked him.

Yes, Erik answered for a moment. I can't believe it but I can.

Work your magic, then, Charles said. And I'll work mine.

Working his way through two dozen minds would've possible if they'd been face to face, although it might've become a strain by the later stages, depending on how much memory modification he'd have neede
d to do. But bolstered by Lilandra's amplification, it was easy to slide into the minds of each of the bridge crew and re-arrange their memory systems to suit his own needs. One of the hallmarks Charles liked to believe existed when it came to his powers was his finesse; a hole in a memory drew attention to itself, so Charles seamlessly stitched false memories over the ones he took, creating a narrative that wouldn't give pause later on. Each story he implanted was the same -- the Warhawk slipdog had never picked up any trial after they'd taken over for the first slipdog and they had taken the wrong exit in a thorny, rarely used 'stream and had ended up in a dead, planetless span of space.

And, as soon as Charles was done with them, they'd be turning around and slipping out of that dead little patch of space.

While he worked, Charles was dimly aware that Erik was pushing and pulling at the most minute parts of the ship's computer systems, using his control over
magnetism to wipe out sensor data and logs that would give away Charles's game. Charles was impressed at how easy it was for him, how Erik was so intimately acquainted with the slipdog's systems to do the job so well, without even any guidance from Charles who could pluck anything he wanted from any of the crew's mind to make Erik's job easier.

I've been on a slipdog before, Erik's mind supplied. And this isn't the first time I've used my powers to erase logs.

Just the first time you've done it by piggybacking on two other people's powers? Charles asked.


That part...is unusual.

Finally, it seemed like their thorough work seem to be winding down, each mind carefully re-arranged, the sensor logs left lost in what would be blamed on a freak magnetic disturbance. Charles could sense that that Erik was finished so he made one last sweep of the bridge crew's minds, gleaning bits of intelligence about their mission, about Shaw, from them before he began to edge away himself. Once he did so, Lilandra's presence reasserted herself, her question more feeling than thought in the golden haze of her power.

We're finished, I believe, Charles said. Take us back.

If the wave that had carried them through space from Chandilar to the Warhawk slipdog had been exhilarating, the journey back was harrowing: fast and abrupt and jarring. It was like their connections with their material forms -- for Lilandra, the sun of Neramani, for Erik and Charles, their bodies -- had been stretched to its limits for far too long, gathering tension and r
esistance. Like a band pulled out of shape and released, once Lilandra knew it was safe to let them return, they seemed snapped back through space with a resounding and disorienting crack.

Being back in his corporeal form after such an experience without notice was a shock to Charles's system and he felt like he'd been returned to a prison of flesh that was too heavy to bear. Even his lungs felt too leaden to move, each breath he took with them a struggle against their weight. His feet felt rooted to the ground and all sensory input pained him, from the light that Lilandra still seemed to be emanating to the piercing sounds of a voice, calling his name, Charles! Charles!.

Then the light was gone and Charles could finally breathe, one greedy gulp of air that sounded like a choked gasp. Hhe tried to suck down another just before his knees began to buckle beneath him.

The arms that came around him to stop him being tumbling face-down onto the floor of
the bridge were thin but deceptively strong.

"Are you all right?" Moira asked, mouth against his ear.

"Fine," he said, lying, still almost blind as he worked to remember how to operate inside the confines of his own skin. "Erik?"

"Looks a little better than you," she said, and Charles managed to focus enough to see Erik still mostly upright, supported by a dark blur and a peach-colored one -- Darwin and Alex, he assumed. "Did you do it?"

Somehow, he remembered how to make the muscles in his face cooperate enough to form a smile. "Yes," he said. "I believe we did."

After what he'd been through in those moments, Charles welcomed the dark nothingness that swallowed him an instant later.




Chapter 7

Erik, for all his thoughts of planning and revenge, had never been someone to live inside his head. Everything about him needed a physical outlet, some kind of action given to whatever demons chased around in his head. It was something that drove him in his plans against the Hel, some quality deep in him that wouldn't allow his fury to remain cerebral. Without the fire of action, he would drown in his thoughts.

Even his power was something he felt physically, even as it originated from his cells. He felt the metal he moved, felt it hum in his skin and hair and blood, felt grounded with every breath he took that reverberated with it.

For those reasons and so many others, Erik took a long time to shake the uneasy feeling he'd been left with in the wake of his incapacitating the Warhawk slipdog from half-way across the system. Even after Lilandra had returned them with startling swiftness to their corporeal forms, even after he'd gained h
is footing with Darwin and Alex's help in time to see McCoy easily hefting an unconscious Charles, that sense of uneasiness lingered. It was still there a few hours later as he rested in the med cot beside Charles's, watching and listening in silence as McCoy gave Charles a lecture that the telepath obviously found unnecessary.

"I really prefer it when you don't end up in here," McCoy was saying as Erik let his attention focus on the young doctor. "Raven's happier that way, Moira's happier that way..."

"I didn't do it on purpose," Charles said. He was still a little pale but his latest bout of unconsciousness had only lasted minutes before his mind had recovered from the shock of its earlier work.

"No, you just undertook two really dangerous and difficult telepathic tasks within a few days of each other without ever once asking me if it was medically safe," McCoy groused.

"I know my limits, Hank," Charles told him.

"Obviously not!"


Charles raised an eyebrow at McCoy's tone. Erik turned away to hide his amusement. "Are you planning to give Erik the same little speech?"

"He didn't lose consciousness," McCoy countered.

"That's because I was doing twice the work," he said. At Erik's glare, he added, "I didn't mean it as an offense, but it's the truth. How do you think your consciousness got to the other ship?"

"Lilandra?" he guessed, forcing McCoy to step from between their beds so they could fully see each other.

Charles shook his head, then frowned, as if it had been a bad idea. "Her powers of telepathy are limited, despite her true form. That was mostly me."

Erik shrugged.

"Are you suffering any ill effects?" Charles asked him, looking concerned for the first time since Erik began eavesdropping on the conversation.

"I'm fine," he said, the truth. "I could use some sleep, but that's hardly different from usual."

"You don't rest well at night," Charles said
, agreeing.

"No, I don't."

"Charles, I don't think you're as fine as you're saying," McCoy said with a scowl of his own. "Otherwise, I think you would've had that little conversation where I couldn't overhear."

"What?" Charles asked, looking up at McCoy. "I don't see...oh. Really, Hank, that's not how I know that he doesn't sleep; I am a telepath."

"Anyway," McCoy said, clearing his throat. It would've been a truly intimidating sound, if McCoy hadn't been so obviously flummoxed by his unfortunately erroneous assumption. Erik could feel his own temperature rise at the thought of what McCoy had mistakenly assumed. "I want you both to rest here at least for another hour or so. Especially if you plan to go back to the planet as soon as possible."

"I do," Charles said. He settled back against the pillows of his cot. "Very well, Hank. We'll stay here." McCoy didn't look quite convinced that Charles would, indeed, stay as he
was told but Charles gave him an unimpressed look that eloquently expressed his opinion of McCoy's loitering. "Unless you have something medical to add...?"

McCoy sighed and waved a great furry hand in the air. "I can take the hint, but you better rest. And that includes not contacting people telepathically. If you want to know something, I suggest you use the comm like the rest of us."

Once McCoy had wandered off and Erik was reasonably sure that a verbal conversation wouldn't be overheard, he turned to Charles. "We're going back to the planet."

Charles opened his eyes from where he'd closed them during McCoy's parting speech. "Yes, of course."

"Why?"

Charles reached behind him to re-position a pillow. "We still need to speak to Sage about arranging proper protection for the heart of the Engine."

"The heart?" Erik asked.

Charles nodded. "That's what Lilandra called it when we spoke about it. She says it's the most important
piece of the Engine."

"And she'd know, wouldn't she?" Erik said, with a sharpness he couldn't keep out of his tone. "Being a Light Bringer."

"I suppose she would," Charles said. "She knows...more than you, than I, can even imagine."

Erik thought about all the things rumbling in his head, all the questions he wanted to ask. He settled on the one he thought sounded least accusatory. "When I brought you the story of the Engine, you didn't think it was relevant to mention that you were acquainted with the supposedly mythical race that created it?"

"Just because I knew that Lilandra's race existed didn't mean I could be certain that the Engine of Creation was just as real. And I certainly couldn't be sure of its power. Despite what you think, Lilandra is not a god."

Erik remembered the power that had rolled off of her, the brutal strength of it when it had caught him up and carried him and Charles through space. Even if though he had no desire
to worship her, Erik couldn't deny that he felt a kind of awe toward the power that made up her being. She was a star, a being so ancient and long-lived that his own life-span would be no more than a blink to her.

And yet she loved Charles.

"Erik?" Charles asked, blue eyes troubled and wounded. "Is something wrong?"

"Can't you tell?" Erik asked.

He shook his head. "I am trying to follow doctor's orders, such as they are," Charles said. "My mind is completely my own."

"Is McCoy right?" Erik asked. "You've hurt yourself?"

"I can be pushed to the limits and need a rest," Charles said. "Just like you." He gave Erik a look. "But unlike you, I do know when I am fatigued to the point where I need rest."

"I don't think you do at all," Erik said, disagreeing. "And I think that little fuss that McCoy just put up is proof of that."

Charles gave him one of those long-suffering looks he usually saved for Sean at his most spirited. "
I am fine and my powers are fine. Can we change the subject, please?"

"Sure," Erik said, secretly glad for the change of topic himself. That unease was still coiled in his stomach and part of it had to do with what he'd seen Charles do and how he'd done it. Since he didn't know what to do with it, Erik preferred ignoring it to allowing it to churn him up inside. "Did you have a preference?"

"Actually, I did," Charles said, shifting again. Erik had never noticed before since Charles seemed to do so much standing around in his capacity as captain, but Charles obviously didn't like idleness with no good purpose on his hands. "You said before that you had several ideas on how to take down the Hel?"

"Yes," he said.

"I'd like to hear them now, if you're up to sharing."

"They're less ideas about taking down the Hel and more ideas on how to kill Shaw," he admitted.

"We have to think bigger than just Sebastian Shaw," Charles said. "Killing h
im won't stop the Hel from continuing on in his tradition."

"I want the Engine of Creation back, too," Erik told him. "It belonged to Polaris. It should belong to us again."

"And Gravion?" Charles asked, his voice soft.

"That, too," Erik said. "The Polaris want no other world but our own. And right now it lays barren and wasted as an outpost for the Hel and their slave trade. Yes, I want our home world back, too."

"Killing Shaw won't accomplish that."

"My clan will be avenged, if I did," Erik argued.

Charles sighed. "I'm not particularly concerned with Shaw's fate," Charles said. "But my point still stands -- we need to take down the Hel, not just remove Shaw from its leadership. So what plans have you concocted over the years?"

Erik thought about the myriad of revenge fantasies he had entertained over the years, quickly separating them into the ones that were actually actionable now that he had Charles and the Wisdom among hi
s assets. "The most satisfying is blowing Brandenburg Tor apart around them."

"Messy," Charles observed wryly. "Although bluntly effective in that it would remove the most senior members of the clan. But not as easy as it sounds. How would you save the Engine parts?"

"In that plan, they'd be collateral damage," Erik said. "We wouldn't have them but neither would the Hel."

"The Engine wouldn't be so easy to destroy," Charles said. "What's your ordinance?"

"A nova bomb or two?"

Charles's eyebrows rose. "You have access to nova bombs?"

"No, or else I would've already taken care of it," Erik said, and Charles grinned. "How about you?"

"Do I have access to nova bombs?" Charles asked. At Erik's nod, he answered, "Fairly easily, but this plan isn't one I approve of."

"Too much death?" Erik asked, mocking.

Charles shook his head. "We can't have the Engine destroyed."

"Why not?"

"For one, I'm still not convinced even a
nova bomb would do it," Charles told him. "For two, I don't want one of the universe's most treasured and powerful objects being destroyed just because of the Hel."

"A nova bomb can destroy anything," Erik said, ignoring Charles's second point because he found it irrelevant.

"The Engine of Creation was created by a race of stars, Erik, need I remind you," Charles said. "A nova bomb is based on the power of one, but on a much smaller scale. I have my doubts that it would do the job. But again, I don't want to risk it, so I hope you have a better idea."

"Surgical strike," Erik offered. "We infiltrate the capital complex on Brandenburg Tor, kill Shaw and then steal the Engine pieces back."

"Infinitely more difficult but more what I mean," Charles said. "We need to get the Engine back and we need to neutralize the Hel in a long-lasting way, if possible. Those are our main objectives."

"Your objectives," Erik corrected him. "Mine are t
o kill Shaw, then perhaps retrieve the Engine if I can. But killing Shaw for what he did to my clin is my main objective."

Charles tightened his mouth in a way Erik had learned was meant to convey displeasure, perhaps even annoyance. But he didn't turn away from Charles, refusing to give ground on this point. Shaw had to pay for what he'd done, and he'd do so with his life if Erik had any choice in the matter.

"We have to think about things bigger than your vengeance, Erik," he finally said, softly but firmly. "Protecting the universe from Shaw's plans, from Shaw himself -- that is part of the plan, but it can only be a part of it. Neutralizing the threat that Shaw is with the Engine pieces in his possession is the most important thing we have to do."

"Contrary to what you may think, you don't tell me what to do," Erik told him, much as he'd told Moira and a few others on the ship since he had arrived.

"I'm not trying to tell you what to do, Er
ik," Charles said. "I want your help, your expertise, your dedication to this. But there does need to be an understanding that this is about more than fulfilling a personal vendetta."

"Do you even know what you're asking me to do?" Erik wanted to know. The idea that he'd go through this and Shaw wouldn't be dead on the other end was unfathomable. Shaw's death was what promised closure on the decades of suffering his people had endured.

Charles looked at him for a long moment, his expression more shadowed and unsettled than Erik had ever seen it. More unsettling was the absence of the usual push of Charles's emotions at the edge of his awareness that had, since they'd met, helped him understand the man more. Without it, he had no idea why Charles's eyes were troubled and his mouth frowning. "Contrary to what you may think," Charles began, echoing his words. "I do know a thing or two about personal grievances and the way a need for justice can burn. But I al
so know how that need can burn you apart from the inside if you let it guide you. That's not what I want for you, Erik."

Erik didn't know what to say, so he didn't bother. Instead, he shifted in his med cot until Charles was pointedly staring at his back. "I'll think about our other options," he said after a long stretch of silence. "Against the Hel."

Charles's reply was no more than a soft "Thank you" before they lapsed into an uncomfortable silence that lasted until McCoy came to release them from his care.

**

Charles was relieved that their second visit to Chandilar went much more smoothly than the first. According to Moira and Darwin, there were no more sightings of the slipdog, which had disappeared out of sensor range right after Charles's telepathic intervention, and Sean was busy scrubbing the hull of the radiation tracker that they'd been hit with in the first place. He also assured Charles that he would work on tweaking the shields to make s
ure it didn't happen again.

Satisfied that they were once again out of immediate danger, Charles, Erik and Moira returned to the Collector Library. They didn't even have to bother with the identification protocols this time because Sage was waiting for them, the door at the library's entrance sliding open as soon as they approached.

"Sage," Charles said in greeting.

"It's good to actually see you this time," Sage said. "Lilandra said you'd be back."

"Did she tell you why?"

"She mentioned it had to do this box you left here the last time?"

Charles laughed. "You have no idea."

Once Sage had it explained to her, she led Charles, Erik and Moira deep down into the underground vaults where they stored the rarest selections of the collection, until they reached a row of drawers fitted into a wall that took three more identification protocols to open. As much as Erik was dubious of leaving the heart of the Engine with another, Charles could
sense that he was impressed with what he saw in the Library's security. With little complaint, he used his powers to fit the Engine's heart into the lined vault drawer, its center glowing for a moment before they sealed it within the impenetrable vault.

Once it was done, Sage pulled what looked like a data card from the panel above it and handed it to Charles. "It will need this to re-open as well," she said. "Just so you can feel safe that I haven't tampered with it in your absence." As she spoke, her eyes were on Erik.

Charles tucked the card into his jacket pocket. "Thank you, Sage. You know I trust you completely."

"You do," she said with a wry twist to her lips.

It wasn't until they were making the winding trek back to the surface of the complex that something caught Erik's attention enough that he spoke. He'd been very quiet ever since their conversation in the medbay and Charles was trying to give him the space he seemed to need, so he h
adn't pushed or let his powers reach out to him for an answer about that silence. But, of course, it was the sight of Sage's clan tattoo that finally got him to say something.

"You're Brotherhood?" he asked her, surprised.

"It's been a long time since I've been home," she said. "But, yes. Phoenix clan. And you're Polaris."

He nodded, looking from her clan tattoo to Charles. "You seem to know a lot of mutants who live outside of the clans."

"I tend to know a lot of mutants," Charles said with a shrug.

Erik didn't say anything else and Charles let him be.

Back on the main level of the library, Charles said his farewells with Sage, promising that if he returned, he'd bring less trouble with him.

She laughed. "Somehow I doubt that," she told her. "You know you're always welcome here, Charles. Both to me and to Lilandra. We all get lonely."

He squeezed her hand. "Thank you, love. Until then."

By the time he had finished with S
age, both Moira and Erik were loitering -- rather impatiently -- on the bright green grass that surrounded the complex. When he came out of the library and the door sealed shut behind him, they both stepped toward him.

"Back to the transport?" Moira asked.

Charles looked around at the cool mountains in the distance, the sway of the sun-gilded tops of the trees. "We have a few minutes, yes?" he said. "I'd like to stay for a moment. There aren't so many places as lovely as this."

Even though he loved the life he lived, loved traveling across length and breadth of the Tri-Galaxy, Charles had spent his formative years on a planet, a lovely one, and he sometimes found himself missing it. Raven's garden helped and the occasional planetside retreat whenever he could arrange it for his crew, but he still remember how much he had enjoyed having earth under his feet during his first stay on Chandilar.

Neither Moira nor Erik seemed as interested in enjoyi
ng the nature that surrounded them, so they remained where they had been standing while Charles wandered away, down along the side of the complex, close to the edge of a copse of trees. He knew if he continued on, there would be a stream slicing down from the mountains, water snow-cold and bracing. He remembered that from his stay, as well.

He didn't stray that far, however, choosing instead to stop by the trees and look back, up into the blue sky, toward the shining light of Neramani -- toward Lilandra. He closed his eyes as he tilted his head toward his warmth, content to soak in the moment with his other senses. There was the scent of pine and grass, the warmth of the sun and the nip of the breeze, the far-off rustling of creatures in the forest.

And then there was a rush of affection in his mind.

"I think that's what you looked like the first time I saw you in the flesh," Lilandra remarked, off to his left. "Hands in your pockets, looking up at me in t
he sky."

Charles smiled when he realized he, in fact, have his hands in the pockets of pants. He lowered his head and opened his eyes, turning toward the direction of her voice. "In whatever form you choose to take, you're lovely."

"You were always a flirt, too."

Charles laughed, letting his mouth settle into a smile. "I was hoping I'd get a chance to say goodbye."

She opened her arms a little, her version of a shrug. "Do you think I'd miss my chance to see you one last time?"

"Thank you for your help," he said. "With the Warhawk. We couldn't have done that without you."

She took a step toward him. "You like to pretend that you're the sensible one, but I know better, Charles. You can be as reckless as any of those others you try to protect. You placed yourself in danger just to protect me."

"The library," he corrected. "A duty that I must uphold as a Collector myself."

"Me," she argued. "The library could've been moved,
or abandoned. Sage could've escaped and let it all here."

"But you..."

"But I would've been truly alone," Lilandra finished for him, although that hadn't been quite what he had wanted to say. "And you know I would've been very lonely."

Charles looked away from the emotion in her expression, the terrible sadness and fondness reflecting out of her amber-bright eyes. He could feel the heat of his emotions creeping across his own face. "I would've stayed with you, you know. Forever."

"I know." The words were so soft that he wasn't sure if they were aloud or in his mind. "But that's why I sent you away, you know. Because I knew you had to leave and one of us had to be strong enough to make sure that happened."

"I have missed you terribly."

"And I have missed you," she told him. "And I will, long after you are gone -- not just from Chandilar but from existance. But you see, don't you? Why I had to let you go? Think about what you've done since."

Charles wasn't sure if the memories rose up by his own bidding or Lilandra's, but they were there to remembered -- Raven, so happy to see him when he'd come back; Alex, angry and scared and hurt, but still defiant when they'd taken him from the prisoner planet; Sean, malnourished and sick on a dying planet; and then Angel, wings burned and broken in her own enslavement.

Then Erik, flashes of the past few weeks -- the null collar, the confession about the Engine, his talk of the Polaris; pieces of other conversations; the kiss they'd shared in the corridor after the Sabra encounter, Erik beside him after he'd been shot; finally, the moments of the last few days, Charles's own weakening resolve in face of what he felt.

"You do see." When his mind cleared and his eyes focused once again, Lilandra was even closer, watching him, her eyes shimmering with emotion. "You would've stayed those years ago," she explained. "But if I asked you right this moment, even i
f there was no Sebastian Shaw waiting to be defeated, your answer wouldn't be same any longer. I know that and so do you."

"Lilandra..."

"You're loyal, Charles," she continued. "You couldn't leave your clan if you tried."

"I don't have a clan," he told her. "I have a crew."

"You have a family," she said. "One you created. And that was what the clans once were. Just families of mutants who came together to protect each other. The centuries have warped that in many ways, but the kernel of it is still there. You have created your own clan out of the ashes of others, in true Phoenix style."

"True to my roots, you say?" Charles reached out and touched a wild strand of her hair where it curled away from her face. "No wonder I fell in love with a sun, then."

"And why one loved you," she said. "You would do anything for those you love, Charles. That's an admirable quality, but it could also be your doom, when you love things that cannot be tamed o
r trusted."

"You don't mean yourself, do you?" he asked.

She touched a hand to where her human form would've had a heart beating beneath its skin. "Maybe a little I do, but our moment has passed. Still, like I could burn you to dust were I not careful, so can Erik. But he doesn't understand that, not like I always did."

"I will be fine," he told her, as he had many times before. "I can handle myself."

"Arrogance is another human quality you possess," she said. "Luckily you're charming enough that most people overlook it."

He tried to laugh but the enormity of the moment had settled upon him. Once again, he was leaving Lilandra, perhaps forever. "Will we see each other again? Do you see a future where that is possible?"

"Not one in which you continue to do the great things you are meant for or one in which I adhere to the laws of destiny," she said. She lifted her chin a little, stubborn. "But I will say this, even though doing so is selfis
h. If you ever wish to return to me, I will not turn you away again. If he breaks you as I fear he might, you can always come back to me. I will wait forever."

Before Charles could react, could respond, Lilandra took his face in her hands and drew it near enough to her that she could kiss him. Like always, her lips were hotter than a human's, soft, gentle in her parting embrace. When she began to pull away, Charles captured her hands against the rough scratch of his unshaven cheeks, holding on to their last moment for a few seconds more.

"Goodbye, Charles," she said as she pulled away. He felt the tears on his own face but his eyes widened in surprise when he watched a single golden tear slip from her eye. "I told you," she said. "I can cry."

"Charles?"

At the sound of his name from the other direction, he whipped around to see Erik and Moira coming around the bend of the complex, obviously tired of waiting for his return. It had been Moira wh
o had called his name but it was Erik's eyes he could feel on him, searching for something.

It only took him a second to decide to turn back to where she had stood but he wasn't surprised to find that she was gone, the only traces of her left being the lingering warmth on his mouth. As he had before, Charles looked up at the sun in the sky.

"Goodbye, Lilandra."




Chapter 8
End Notes:

I hope everyone who has been reading along enjoys where I ended this one because I wrote something for the last chapter I thought I'd never write. If you know me well enough, you'll know what it is as soon as you read it. LOL. I have really enjoyed writing this story and I have especially enjoyed the comments I've gotten from readers. You guys are sincerely very awesome! <3




As always, Erik had questions, but the mood that settled over the crew as they readied the Eye of Wisdom to depart the Neramani system was not one that invited his inquiries. Charles gave his orders as soon as the transport docked in the Wisdom's bay, and then left everything in Moira's hands before disappearing, presumably to his office. Even Erik tried to follow, Moira stopped him.

"No," she said, one strong metallic hand against his chest.

"I need to speak with him," Erik told her.

She shook her head. "Not right now," she said. "He needs some time, not you in his face asking questions."

"I think a few are warranted," he argued.

"No," she said again. "Erik, I mean it. Leave it alone."

In the end, he agreed, although he wasn't sure why.

He ended up in the engine room, watching Sean bang on something that the engineer informed him was the shield matrix. "Not letting anymore fake fake duds get through to mess up m
y ship," he told him, head still buried inside a panel of exposed tubes and wires. "We wouldn't have had to go through all of that light show with Lilandra the Light Bringer if I hadn't missed this the first time. The Warhawk would've never found us or Chandilar."

"I'm sure no one thinks like that," Erik said. "Charles, especially."

"Well, of course not," Sean said, poking his head out of the panel, smudges of some kind of dirt streaking down his face. "But that doesn't change the factthat I missed it and that caused a lot of problems. It won't happen again."

Erik left Sean working on his shield modifications to see what was happening on the bridge. Of course, Charles still wasn't there, but Moira was, although she didn't say anything when he stepped onto it. She did, however, stop whatever work she was doing on her console to shoot a glare in his direction. Erik ignored her and headed over to the front viewscreen where Darwin and Alex were discussing some
thing between the two of them as they looked at a star map that showed the system and the ship's position in it.

"What's this?" he asked, nodding to the screen.

"Plotting a course out of here," Alex said. "Charles told me that we couldn't go back through the slip route into the Deathcry Nebula, so we have to get to civilization the long way. The really long way," he added.

"Won't we run into the Warhawk if we go that way?" he asked.

It was Darwin who answered with a shake of his head. "We're letting them clear out of the area before we leave. By the time we're out of here, they'll be long gone."

"If only we knew where we were going," Alex muttered, leaning over a nearby console to drag up another map.

"We're going to Brandenburg Tor," Erik said. "We're going after the Hel and Shaw. That's been the plan since the beginning."

Darwin and Alex shared a look before Darwin shrugged. "We'll have to hear that from Charles."

Erik bit
back the retort he had at that answer, but he understood it, too. He even appreciated it, the loyalty and the dependability, but he had already felt like they had wasted more time than he found wise in ensuring their engine piece's safety. Now that he was convinced it would be safe from the Hel no matter what, Erik had lost the little patience he had for waiting.

He was ready to take the fight to Shaw.

And we will, Erik, Charles's voice echoed in his head. On this, we are on the same page, I promise.

It was startling to hear Charles's voice speaking directly to his mind, to feel the first stirrings of Charles's presence back in his head. But it was also a relief to have it back after its absence, which Erik found surprising. He was still leery at what he'd seen Charles do to the mutants on the Warhawk slipdog; while he'd known telepaths were powerful, he'd never seen one work like that, with the skill for manipulation and control that Charles
had. It was frightening to think about.

But he'd missed the feel of Charles connected to him, all the same.

Erik was still trying to sort out his own disjointed thoughts when he heard Charles's voice again, this time coming out of the ship-wide comm system. "If everyone could meet me in the conference room as soon as possible? Thank you."

The bridge seemed to freeze for a moment, as if they weren't certain they wanted to obey. Moira slammed her hand against a console with a resounding bang that made Darwin, Alex and Angel jump. "I'm sure we all heard the captain," she said. "Now, move it."

The three young mutants hurried off the bridge with all haste.

Erik couldn't suppress his snort of amusement. "Was that really necessary?"

Moira almost grinned. "Sometimes, it is," she said. More seriously, she continued. "They're worried about Charles and they're scared about what he has to say."

"Are you?"

She gave him a look. "Me? No. I know what he's going to say. I don't like it but
I'm not scared. If Charles has decided he's ready to take this fight to the Hel clan, then that's what we'll do."

Erik and Moira made it to the conference room not long after Angel, Darwin and Alex, a few minutes before Raven and McCoy came bounding in from the general direction of the medbay. Sean was the last person to show himself, but no one seemed surprised by the fact. Charles smiled a little when he caught Erik's eye, but he didn't say anything, even when Erik took a seat next to him near the head of the conference table. Moira took the seat opposite Erik, one of them on each side of Charles.

"Why does everyone look so concerned?" Charles asked once Sean had settled into his seat. "Have we decided we no longer wish to stop the Hel? No longer want to retrieve the Engine of Creation from them?"

The rest of the young crew looked at Darwin, who spoke. "I think I speak for everyone when I say that we're all just a little rattled by the last few days. Bu
t we're ready, if that's what you need us to do."

"I don't think we've been left a choice," Charles told him. "It's obvious that the Hel somehow found out that we took the heart of the Engine from Shintaido and they are actively pursuing us via the Warhawk. At this point, we have to take the fight to them."

"Then I guess the question is how," Angel said. "We all know it won't be even be as easy as shaking the Warhawk which, as we all know, wasn't easy."

"It's not like you're the first person to think it was a good idea," Alex added. "Lots of other clans have tried and failed. The Commonwealth has tried and failed."

"Our goals are more specific," Charles said.

"And the Hel will never be taken down from the outside," Erik said, drawing everyone's attention. "It'll have to be us, other mutants. Other Brotherhood."

"More or less," Charles said. "The fact is, I'm not sure of the how myself. I was hoping Erik could help us with that."

Erik
could feel everyone's eyes on him, including Charles's, waiting for an answer. After their discussion in the medbay, Erik had thought about the options opened to them, just as he'd promised Charles, factoring in everything he knew and had learned about the Hel and Shaw over the years. If Charles wanted a way into the inner sanctum at Brandenburg Tor, then Erik could give him one, even if it was one he probably wouldn't like.

"Despite some of their more despicable actions, the Hel do adhere to Brotherhood law and traditions," Erik began. "In some ways, more than most. That is our key."

"What Brotherhood tradition do you want us to exploit?" Charles asked.

"Every clan must welcome any worthy mutant who presents himself to be judged," Erik told him. "This is the way it's always been, to give first generation mutants a chance to leave the cruelty of human society and join their own."

"I'm well aware of that tradition," Charles said and, for once, Erik co
uld detect the hint of bitterness in his words, the reminder of his carefully neutral story about his father's desperation.

"I know you do," Erik told him. "And that's what we have to do."

"What?" Darwin asked.

"We seek to join the Hel clan," he explained.

"You want us to offer to join the Hel?" Sean asked. "Yeah, right."

"Not you, Sean," Erik said. "In fact, I wouldn't suggest many of us at all. That will raise even more questions than one or two of us trying at the same time will."

"Are you suggesting someone goes in alone?" Moira asked him. "That's not safe, not even for you. And since you're an interim member of this crew, that's a concern for me."

"It would work best if I went alone," he said. "If I ask for formal welcome into the clan, Shaw will be suspicious. He'll keep me close but that means I'll have access to the areas he keeps close to. Once I'm inside, I should be able to find a way to contact you and we'll proc
eed from there."

"That's a horrible plan!" Alex said.

"It's suicide," Raven agreed.

"I've been fighting the Hel since before you were born," Erik told Alex. "What do you know about a good plan?"

"A slight exaggeration on your part, Erik," Charles said, cutting off the rumble of disagreement even Erik could feel growing among the gathered crew. "But it is what I asked you for, so thank you."

"So you agree with me?" Erik asked. "I'll go in, pretending to ask for a place in their clan?"

"With one small adjustment," Charles told him. "I'm going with you."

"What?" Erik asked.

"What?" Moira exclaimed at the same time.

He ignored Moira to focus on Erik. "You won't let yourself be left behind but you expect me to let you leave me behind?" He shook his head. "We'll go in together. It's much safer that way."

"Charles, you can't mean that," Raven said, voice low and urgent, uncharacteristically so. "You can't actually
be planning to go there, to..."

"Raven," he said, the warning note in his tone unmistakable. "That's exactly what I plan to do. It's too dangerous for Erik to go in alone. And I'm the only one here who has the ability to aid him properly."

Raven didn't look happy as she sank back down in her seat, glaring at her brother. For a final show, she crossed her arms over her chest.

"I agree with Raven," Erik said. "I don't like the idea."

"I'm not particularly fond of it myself but you're right, it is the best way to get in without a show of overt force," he said. "The fact is, we can't back up a show of overt force. But we can approach Shaw and figure out his weaknesses. Once inside, we can find and disable the Engine parts, make sure Shaw can't use any of their raw power. From there, we can work on taking him down somehow."

Erik was so busy glaring at Charles that he almost didn't notice when Angel cleared her throat.

"Yes, Angel?" Charl
es asked.

"I'm not saying you should or shouldn't go," she began. "But the truth is you don't do well in groups of alphas. Ever."

"I don't do well?" he repeated.

She rolled her eyes. "The alphas don't handle it well," she said. "No one will try to challenge Erik unless they think he's in danger of taking their position with Shaw and I doubt many will think that. But you..." She shook her head.

"You'll have to beat them off with a stick," Sean said. "Literally."

The mere thought of how a gathering of Hel alpha warriors would react to the prize they'd see Charles as made Erik have to bite back a growl. "The kids are right," he said. "An unbonded telepath who's come looking for admittance to the clan? Someone will win you, whether you like it or not. It's the Brotherhood way and Shaw would allow it."

"I think you are all underestimating my ability to take care of myself," Charles said.

"What if you weren't unbonded?"

<
p>The words came from McCoy who Erik had almost forgotten was there given how quiet the doctor had been. When the table's attention swung his way, to where he sat farthest from Charles, next to the still-troubled Raven, he ducked his head a little.

"What are you suggesting, Hank?" Charles asked.

"Just...if you and Erik want to go in together, it would make more sense if you went in as a bonded pair," he explained. "It would save you from a lot of posturing and challenges and it would make Erik a more attractive candidate for the clan, someone Shaw would have a harder time ignoring. His powers are impressive and useful but they're nothing compared to yours."

Erik tried to pretend the idea didn't appeal to him on some visceral level that wanted to claim Charles as his own, but he was almost certain that Charles could still feel his approval, that same voice inside him that had urged him on since he'd met Charles, singing its compliance. "He's right," Erik sai
d. "If you're determined to go, this is the best way."

"And you're fine with faking a marriage bond?" Charles asked him. "I had assumed you'd balk at such a thing, given your past and your beliefs."

"I'm not saying we fake it," Erik said. "I say we do it properly. It's the only way Shaw will accept it or Brotherhood laws will recognize it."

They held each other's eyes for a long moment, ignoring everyone else in the room. Not that this was difficult for Erik, not when the suggestion had brought to the forefront everything he had tried to suppress when it came to how he felt about Charles, how much he wanted him. It was stronger than the urge to bond had been with either of the wives he'd taken in his past, almost as strong as the bloodlust he felt for Shaw. Its depths should've frightened him but it didn't, not when he'd felt the complicated twist of emotions he elicited in Charles in return.

For the first time since they met, Erik almost thought the
y made sense.

Something flickered in Charles's eyes, some sad but smoldering at the same time. He kept them fixed on Erik and he had to fight the urge to commit some display of what coursed between them, despite of the curious attention of the rest of the crew.

"Very well, I suppose," Charles said after a terse moment of silence. His voice was less steady than usual, almost hesitant. "We do have the fate of the universe to think of."

As everyone burst into excited chatter around them, all Erik could do was watch the complicated play of emotions over Charles's face and force himself to remember that this thing that he'd suddenly wanted and even more suddenly was going to have was just another piece of his revenge against Shaw sliding into place and nothing more.

That fact was much harder to accept than he'd expected.

**

Somehow, the meeting that had started as a briefing about their strategy against the Hel had turned into an impromptu bond
ing ceremony with such startling swiftness that even Charles had been left speechless by the rapid shift in priorities.

But somehow most of his crew had ended up on their way to the observation deck, the spot chosen by the crew as the location of the ceremony that Brotherhood law demanded in order for a bond to be considered valid and protected under clan law.

"And they can't just lie, why?" Alex had asked.

"Because some people like Erik actually take some of the Brotherhood traditions seriously," Darwin had said. "And there's the fact that if the Hel really do have a telepath, they'll have enough to hide from him or her that it's just easier to have the real ceremony. It's not like it's very involved."

While everyone else made their way toward Raven's makeshift garden, Charles slipped away from the group, on his way back to his rooms. He knew there was something that they'd need for the ceremony that only he was likely to have and, if he were really
going to do this for whatever complicated motives had pressed him to agree, he didn't see the point in not doing it correctly -- even if it were only an illusion.

When Charles reached his chambers, he wasn't surprised to find someone waiting on him. But he was surprised to see that his guest had already retrieved what he'd come after.

"Raven," he said.

His sister held the ornamental box in her hands, blue fingers clutching desperately to its etched sides. "I figured you'd come after this."

"If there's to be a bonding…" he began, leaving the rest of the sentence unsaid.

"Charles," Raven said. Her yellow eyes were troubled and her face furrowed with a frown. "Do you really want to do this?"

"Hank made a good point," he told her. "Going in as a bonded pair makes more sense."

She shook her head. "I don't mean that, I mean...going at all."

"We have to stop them," he told her. "It can't be put off any longer."

"But this way?"
she asked. "You can't go back there. Not after the last time. You said that yourself."

Charles could see the moisture gathering in the corners of her eyes and he stepped up to wrap his arms around him, despite the uncomfortable press of the metal box against his chest. She released one hand from holding the box to wrap it around him in return, burying her face against his neck. "I think it's time I dealt with this, yes?" he said against her hair. "High time."

"I guess," she said with a bit of a sniffle as she pulled away. "I just wish there was some other way."

"Me, too," he admitted, stepping back to give her some room. "But I have it on good authority that there's not." He nodded toward the end of corridor. "Everyone's waiting. Perhaps we should go?"

Raven nodded and fell in step with him, so Charles took the chance to wrap his arm around her shoulders. They didn't spend as much time together now that there was a ship full of them, now that they ea
ch had their own connections with others, but sometimes Charles missed the old days when it had just been the two of them -- first against his father, then against everyone. It had been that way until they'd found Hank, the most gentle of giants, whose shyness and timidity had broken down even Raven's native mistrust of any and all newcomers. Charles knew it was better for both of them, the ways they'd grown to accommodate others in their trust, but that didn't mean there wasn't some nostalgia for how it had once been, especially when his life had so recently become so complicated with new connections.

The crowd gathered on the observation deck looked up expectantly when he and Raven stepped through the door.

"Hey, there you are," Sean said, breaking off from where he'd been standing with Angel, Darwin and Alex. Hank and Moira stood apart in their own quiet conversation, while Erik was by himself, eyes focused on the black glitter of space the obs deck offered. B
ut as soon as Charles walked in, Erik's eyes snapped toward him, following his every move as he allowed Raven to tug him along toward Sean. "We can't get on with this if one of the fake prospective bond mates is missing."

"It's not fake," Erik said. His tone was difficult to read, even for Charles who could've delved into mind for clarity. But given the burning gaze that Erik kept flicking his way, Charles decided he didn't need or want to know exactly what lay behind it. "What we're about to do here is binding by clan law."

Sean waved a hand as if he found Erik's opinions unimportant. "Since I'm pretty sure Charles isn't going to set up house or raise a bunch of mutant babies with you, I'm calling it like I see it. Fake, fake, fake."

A burst of possessive irritation zipped his way from Erik in the face of Sean's nonchalance, probably a feeling of which Erik was vaguely aware. Charles spoke up before anything else could be said on the matter. "Let's just ge
t this taken care of, shall we?"

"What exactly is going to happen?" Alex asked. "Nobody ever explained."

"Oh, right, I keep forgetting that your family was all human," Sean said. "You've never seen one of these before."

"You have?" Raven asked.

Sean nodded. "Sure, lots. Cousins, my older sister. I've got a big family."

Charles felt his own nerves settle a little as he stepped smoothly into a role he was much more comfortable with -- that of teacher. "It's a fairly painless process, Alex," he told him. "First, there has to be at least three witnesses from one of prospective mates' clans."

"We don't have that, though?" he asked. "There's no Polaris around and you don't have a clan."

Charles did smile a little at that, fond as he looked around the room. "I was recently reminded that a clan is just a kind of family," he said. "I think you all will do for witnesses."

"So we're our own clan?" Darwin asked, amused.

"The Wisdom c
lan?" Angel offered.

"The badass clan!" Sean suggested, drawing a snort of amusement from Erik -- a fact that delighted Sean.

"I don't think the name is important," Charles told him gently. "Moving on."

"We need bonding rings," Angel volunteered. "We don't have any of those."

"We'll have to make do without them," Erik said. Charles could tell, though, that it was something that bothered him to do without. Anyone else would be far less concerned about the details of a ceremony based almost solely on a strategic need but this was, as Charles kept reminding himself, Erik Lehnsherr. He didn't seem to know how to do things by half-measures.

"Actually, we won't," Raven said, stepping forward with the box. "We have some right here." She shot Charles a look and, when he nodded, she offered them to Erik, although he didn't take them.

Instead he looked over at Charles. "You have bonding rings?"

"They're heirlooms," he explained. "From my fath
er's family."

They held the look between them for a moment before Alex spoke again. "So, witnesses, rings, anything else?"

"Usually the matriarch or the most alpha female around blesses the union," Darwin explained. "We don't have one of those either."

Charles swept his attention over the room, gaze settling on Angel. "If you wouldn't mind, Angel?" he asked. He nodded for Raven to hand the box to the other woman. "I think you fit the bill nicely."

"Me?" she asked. When he nodded again, she smiled a little. "I'd be honored."

"Looks like we have everything," Darwin said. "Nothing to do now but do it."

Everyone gathered in a loose circle around Charles and Erik, each with their own thoughts about what they had come to watch. Even though he couldn't read her mind he knew that Moira didn't understand the need for the ritual when it was a tactical choice; Raven watched with unease, worry twisting her in gut. Hank worried, too, but for different
reasons -- if he'd done wrong in offering the bond mate option, if he'd done something to earn Raven's frosty frown. He had no way of knowing the two were linked.

Alex and Sean were merely curious bystanders, neither very concerned with the undercurrents of the scene, of the potential for disaster given Charles's own ambivalence toward Erik, toward the Brotherhood and the clans. But Darwin was aware of the nuances playing out in front of him and he watched the proceedings with more concern than either of his friends.

And Erik...

Before Angel opened the ornamental box she let her wings peel away from her skin, fluttering and glittering as she let them unfurl around her. It was a single nod to the weight of the occasion that she wanted to meet it with her mutation brightly visible. With steady hands, she took out the bonding rings that Charles was fairly certain were older than most of their ages combined, two identical braids of platinum and gold, made to fi
t snug around the bicep, to draw attention both to itself and its wearer's clan markings. For another pair, adjustments to the rings might've been needed but they all knew that Erik could shape the metal to his whim.

Angel held the armlets in front of her, one in each hand. "These rings represent the bond you chose to make between yourselves, your families and your clans," she said in a serious voice, with a touch more poetry than Charles had expected. "It's also a physical symbol of the bond you make between your souls, two halves coming together to create a perfect whole." She offered Erik the one in her left hand. "You first, I guess."

Erik didn't take the armlet from her, instead turning back to Charles. His eyebrow rose. "Your jacket?"

It was only then Charles remembered. "Oh, yes," he said, shrugging out of the leather, handing the jacket over to Raven who stood just behind him. He moved to undo the button at his cuff to push his long sleeve up in ord
er to bare his bicep but Erik took him by the wrist, undoing the button himself. Erik then slowly folded the sleeve up Charles's arm, making sure to drag his fingers across the skin as he bared it, until the sleeve was pushed high above his elbow. Angel offered the armlet again and Erik took it.

The metal was cool against Charles's skin in contrast to the warm brush of Erik's fingers, the armlet loose where it circled his arm. But then it heated under the touch of Erik's powers, molding until it fit perfectly against his skin, laying where it would've framed his clan tattoo if he'd had one. Erik made sure that his eyes caught Charles's before he let his hand fall away.

"Your turn," Angel said, holding out the other armlet. Charles took in from her, then repeated the same motions on Erik, sliding the metal high up on his arm until it fit around the curve of his arm. Charles couldn't help but let his fingers touch against the twisted scar of what had once been Erik
's marking that proclaimed him one of the Polaris clan.

When Charles finally pulled away, Angel clapped her hands together. "So it's done."

"That's it?" Alex asked from where he stood, arms crossed as he radiated how unimpressed he was with the display.

"What more do you want?" Darwin asked.

He shrugged. "I don't know but something more than that."

"Well, if this was a real bonding and we were an actual clan, there'd be a party now," Sean said. "And we'd all get really drunk while those two snuck off to have hot sex while we all pretended we didn't miss them. Which they might be planning to do, anyway, who knows?"

"Do you ever think about what you say before you say it?" Moira asked him.

He shot her a grin. "Where would the fun be in that?"

As the teasing and joking continued between the kids, coupled with laughs and a few good-natured shoves, Charles watched fondly them for a moment before he could no longer ignore the heat o
f Erik's gaze on him, completely focused on Charles as if they were alone instead of surrounded by the rambunctious group of young mutants that Charles had adopted over the years. He felt himself shiver under the scrutiny and he opened himself up a little, just enough to get an impression of what Erik was feeling when he looked at him like that. What he felt was a strong pulse of everything Erik had felt about him from before, a culmination of sorts -- the desire and affection, the frustration and confusion, the possessiveness that Erik felt in his bones. It wasn't much different from how Charles felt himself, caught between turns of longing and hesitance, between wanting what he could have with the mutant and dreading what it could mean to give in to the alpha.

As the room began to empty of everyone but the two of them, neither of them willing to leave the gravity of the other, Charles realized that perhaps he'd put himself in a position where his concession was all b
ut a foregone conclusion.

**

Erik had never been so aware of a piece of metal before in his life the way he was the armlet that had found its home on his arm. Not only did he feel it against his skin but he could feel its resonance with his powers, a hum of feedback that had yet to diminish since Charles had placed it on his arms in the moments before. He didn't know if he'd become used to it as he wore it as he had with the bands he'd worn before or if it would always reverberate with some deep energies born of who had put it there.

Once they were alone, Erik watched as Charles became more visibly withdrawn, hands going into his pockets. He had not slipped back into his jacket, however, and one sleeve was still pushed up to display the armlet that Erik had placed on him. Every time it caught the light of the observation deck, Erik felt a thrill at its existence, an outward sign that he was tied to Charles. Even if it was only for the mission, even with th
e circumstances as fraught as they were, part of Erik still reveled at the turn of events. The instinctive alpha part that had demanded such action since he first woke and found himself looking in Charles's blue eyes was finally calmed, secure in the knowledge that, in some way, he had made his claim.

Charles caught his gaze on the armlet and let out a nervous chuckle. "A bit surreal, isn't it?" he asked, lifting his opposite hand to run a finger along the line of armlet where it touched his skin. "I have to admit, I never expected to be going through that today." He tapped it gently before he dropped his hand. "I never thought I'd live to see a day where I'd be wearing a bonding ring."

Erik shrugged. "I've done this two times before." It was both easy and difficult not to compare those times with the bonding he'd just experienced with Charles. With Susannah especially, there had been none of the rightness he felt just being with Charles; with Magda, there had be
en none of the deeper connection, none of excitement that beat beneath it. While Charles might've had a lover in his past who had touched his soul, Erik was quickly starting to believe he had never had the pleasure.

Until now.

Charles's smile at Erik's statement was tinged with regret. "You have, haven't you?" he asked. "It's too bad the third time won't be the charm, I'm afraid."

Erik waited until he caught Charles's eyes. "Maybe it will be."

"No, Erik," he sighed. "This isn't...this isn't another way you can try to control me or dominate me. This is expedience for the mission and nothing more." But as he spoke, Erik could feel the tight rein Charles had on their telepathic connection, as if he were afraid of what Erik might sense if he didn't.

"That's not..." Erik began, unsure of what he wanted to say, but knowing he needed to say something. He understood what Charles had implied, but he also knew that was wrong "I don't..."

Erik realized, even as he couldn't find the words to say it, what exactly he was struggling to express. He wanted Charles to know, to realize as he was in that moment, that there had been a change somewhere along the time. He still wanted Charles, still wanted to claim him for his own, but the need to dominate him and control him had become markedly absent over the days since Shintaido. He'd stop trying to force Charles to make sense in the ways of the Brotherhood, had stopped trying to shape him into a role that would help Erik understand how to react to him. Erik was no longer trying to decide how Charles was able to lead when he wasn't an alpha or how he refused to back down when he was soft and yielding like an omega. Somewhere along the way he had started to just accept and recognize what it was he wanted.

And what Erik wanted was Charles, exactly as he was.

Erik's revelation must've shown not only on his face but in the whirl of his thoughts because
Charles stepped closer, expression softening into something nakedly fond. "That's all I hoped for, you know." The words were quiet, a confession. His bright blue eyes were painful in their openness. "I wanted you to look at me and see...Charles. Not a mutant or a telepath, or an alpha, or an omega. Just...me. As I am."

"But you are those things, too," Erik reminded him, bold enough in the face of Charles's warm gaze to let his fingers caress the skin around Charles's bonding ring. "You are a mutant, a telepath. You're a captain and a Vederan, not to mention a Collector and a..."

Charles brought his fingers up to Erik's lips to stop the list. Erik fought the urge to nip at them or suck them into his mouth. "Those are all what I am," he said. "They aren't who I am."

Erik wrapped his fingers around Charles's wrist and gently pulled his hand from his mouth. "You're also my bond mate," he said, a hint of a challenge.

"For the mission," Charles remi
nded him, although he made no move to get away from Erik, to put distance between them.

"No," Erik said, fingers tightening ever so slightly on Charles's wrist. "You can't stand there and say that's all it is. It's more than that and we both know it."

The brilliant blue of Charles's irises shrank as his pupils flared, betraying him as his eyes wandered to Erik's mouth. "I suppose it is too late to deny that there's something else here, isn't it?"

Erik made himself ask, even though he didn't know if he'd liked the answer. "Unless Lilandra...?"

As much as he feared the powers of the telepath, he appreciated that Charles could catch the meaning of his words, even often the ones he couldn't say. "No," he told him. Charles glanced toward the window of the obs deck where the Neramani sun still burned on the edge of their view. "She was a lovely memory to revisit but I left her a long time ago. She's...the past."

"And the future?" he asked.


Charles searched his face for a moment before he settled on an answer. "…is undecided."

"That just leaves the present," Erik observed. He curled his hand over Charles's bonding ring, pressing the metal against Charles's flesh so it felt as visceral to the telepath as it did to him. "And at present, we are bonded."

Charles finally tugged his captured wrist against from Erik's hold. "I do hope you're not expecting a traditional bonding eve?"

"Of course not," Erik said immediately, the truth. They were so hopelessly lost, Charles so annoyingly dedicated to his beliefs about alphas and the Brotherhood and the clans, about the danger they presented to him. Erik couldn't help but wonder again what secrets Charles still hid in his past. But for all his curiosity on the point, Erik was more interested still in the way Charles leaned into his warmth and how his body responded to it, or the way h is eyes lingered on his mouth when he spoke or the way their gazes
held like lightning. "However..."

 

It was Erik who kissed Charles, but he was certain the telepath had read his intention long before their lips met, either in the language of his body or the sway of his thoughts. Charles didn't shy away, either, his hands coming up to Erik's face, fingers sliding into the longer hair that brushed against Erik's neck while Erik wrapped an arm around him, pulling Charles toward him until their bodies were flush, no space left between them. Charles's tongue was wet and eager and Erik gave himself over to all the impulses he had denied, kiss after kiss until both of them were left gasping for breath.

"Yes," Charles panted when they broke apart. "However."

They were still tangled together, even though their mouths were no longer joined. "You know what I want," Erik said. "I've made myself clear."

"Yes," Charles agreed. "You have." He dragged his cheek against the bristle of Erik's jaw. "But there's still Shaw to
take care of. The Hel. The Engine."

"I know," Erik sighed, unpleasant reality returning. He had still had his mission to fulfill, his vengeance to take. He loosened his grip on Charles. "But after...?"

"After," Charles agreed, letting his lips touch against Erik's skin one more time before he pulled away. "After."

Yet even as they made the promise and moved closer to whatever waited at the place where their desires could be fully acknowledged and embraced, Erik knew that "after" was still a risky proposition. The Hel – Shaw – was a dangerous enemy and their only chance for success was foolhardy at best, leaving them with only their wits and each other as a defense. And there was still the fact that they served two masters and had two goals; while those goals aligned at the moment, Erik knew how quickly that could change. For all the irritation it caused him, Charles's caution was not unwise.

Charles watched him in silence as if he could hear every
thought Erik had and, of course, he probably did, but it wasn't a possibility he wanted to entertain. Instead Erik kissed him once more, long and lingering, and hoped, like he had never before, that there was indeed an "after" waiting for him -- and Charles -- in the days when Shaw would be nothing but a memory.

For a moment, that desire burned in him more brightly than any thought of revenge ever had.

**





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