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tell them I ain't coming back

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take me out to the black
tell them I ain't coming back
burn the land and boil the sea
you can't take the sky from me

It was monsoon season on Taiyang, with the kind of heavy, driving, humid rain that rusted up cheap equipment and had Armando instinctively growing gills in self-defense. The rest of Cerebro's crew didn't like it any better than he did: Erik was swearing up a blue streak, Mandarin curses sprinkled with mutterings about waterproof alloys and engine parts, and Raven strode around smugly butt-naked in her natural blue scales while everyone else dealt with sodden clothes and muddy boots. After the first five minutes helping to unload supplies left him drenched and cranky, Armando mimicked her as best he could, encasing his body in protective armor that kept the worst of the wet off. Reduced his mobility somewhat, but it was definitely worth the trade-off.

He'd just foisted a crate of Core-grade medical supplies off to the local aid workers when Angel flitted up to land beside him, her wings glistening but otherwise unaffected by the damp. "Hey, Darwin," she said, careful not to use his real name in front of strangers. "Got a sec?"

"I'll give you a whole ten minutes if it means getting out of this gorram rain."

She flashed him a quick smile and beckoned him into the squat, airy building that served as town hall, house of worship, and hospital all at once. The floor in the entryway was basically one big puddle, but at least the roof was sturdy. Armando sighed with relief as he let his skin relax back into baseline normal.

"You settling in okay?" he asked. It had been months since they'd last visited this sector of the Rim. Charles kept tabs on her, of course, but it wasn't the same.

Angel shrugged, but though she looked tired, she seemed more at ease here than she'd ever been on their ship. "It's all right. Hard work, and the weather sucks, but at least I got space to spread my wings, you know?"

In more ways than one, he thought, but didn't say nothing about it. "Glad to hear it. So what's up?"

"Got a potential passenger for you guys," she said. "Tried stowing away on a cargo ship that passed through a few weeks ago. They dumped him in our holding cell and promised some Feds would pick him up soon." She spat on the floor, the acid-fire sizzling in the puddle for a breath before steaming away. "As if the likes of them would bother hauling out to the fei fei de pi yan of the Rim for one lousy stowaway. The magistrate added him to the labor roster instead, and he's a hard worker. Smart. Don't talk much. Dunno where he came from or where he's trying to get to, he won't say, but he's a good kid, I think."

Armando considered it. "One of us?"

"He's a mutant, yeah. Won't talk about it, of course, but he let that much slip. The Captain will know for sure."

"Charles don't scan for new mutants every time we make planetfall, Angel."

She gave him a skeptical look, and, okay, yeah, Charles probably did. But he didn't make a big deal of it unless someone needed their help.

"Why not go straight to Charles, then?" Armando asked.

Angel's lips twist into a wry smile. "After the way I left? Nobody's too keen on doing me a favor these days. Raven won't even take my waves. You're the only one I figured wouldn't hold a grudge."

Charles wouldn't, Armando thought; Charles would welcome Angel back with open arms if she ever chose it. But Angel'd never trusted Charles the way the rest of them did. She'd got on better with Erik, but Erik did hold grudges.

"But anyway," Angel went on, "this ain't for me, it's for the kid. He'd do better on Xavier's crew than in some Alliance cell, that's for damn sure. And Taiyang -- well, I like it here well enough, but it ain't for everyone."

"You think he's gonna bring trouble down on this here moon?"

She shrugged. "Alliance always brings trouble. Leastaways you guys can keep flying on ahead of it. We're stuck on this mudball. Don't seem fair to any of us, least of all some mutant kid who was only trying to get away from wherever he started."

"How young is he?"

"Not that young. Nineteen, twenty maybe. Maybe older. Hard to say. Young enough to've missed the war, anyway."

"Only to miss fighting in it," Armando pointed out. "Not to miss the war itself."

"Yeah, well," was all Angel would say to that.

Armando sighed, stretching until his spine popped. "All right, then, I'll talk to Charles. So what's this kid's name?"

"Alex Summers," Angel told him. "And thanks. I won't forget it."

"You ain't Feds," were the first words out of Alex Summers's mouth.

Charles chuckled. "No, indeed not," he said, with his most disarming smile. "Hello, Alex. My name is Charles Xavier, captain of the Cerebro. And this is Darwin, our pilot."

Summers was a physically fit young man with bright blond hair and hard blue eyes. He currently looked deeply suspicious of them both, and Armando winced. Charles's natural charisma worked well on younger mutants and most anyone of the female (or sly) persuasion, and his telepathy generally smoothed the way with other folk when necessary, but this one wasn't buying it. He'd caught on to the Londinium accent and too-smooth charm, probably was asking himself what a high-falutin' Core pretty boy was doing all the way out here on the Rim.

Settler stock from one of the border moons, Charles confirmed, for Armando's hearing only. His mind-voice was wry. You'll do better alone with this one, I believe, but I'll forge ahead for the moment.

Aloud, Charles continued: "Our friend Angel indicated you might be interested in transport. Are you heading anywhere in particular?"

There was a long moment's silence. Rain lashed the corrugated tin roof over their heads. Sounded like the wind was picking up. "Beaumonde," Summers finally said. Armando didn't need a Reader to tell him that the kid had picked it more or less at random. Beaumonde was a good three-week trip from Taiyang on hard burn. It had easy access to the Core and all its luxuries, but still allowed a body the freedom and relative anonymity of a Border planet. All that meant was that Angel'd been right -- Summers was trying to run away from something.

Or towards it, mayhap.

"I see," Charles said. "Well, we do occasionally pass through Beaumonde, but it'll likely be another several months before we head in that direction again. We are making a stop on Persephone in the next couple of weeks, though, and from there you can easily arrange passage on another transport to Beaumonde. There's a great deal of commerce between the two spaceports. Would that be acceptable?"

Summers folded his arms across his chest, frowning. "Don't got much in the way of money."

"That's not a problem," Charles said. "Angel says you're a hard worker. If you're willing to give us a hand hauling cargo between here and Persephone, I'll consider the debt cancelled."

The frown deepened. "Why do you wanna help me? You don't know me."

But I do, Alex, Charles said, broadcasting it to them both so as not to cut Armando out of the conversation. Summers flinched but held his ground. We try to look after our own.

"You're a Reader?" Summers asked. He looked between Charles and Armando, eyes wide. "Both of you?"

"Nah, man, just the captain here," Armando said, keeping his tone light and easy. His turn. "But we all got our talents, right?" He held out his hand, flashing the waterproof scales he'd used out in the rain. Summers stared at him, but not in a bad way. Looked intrigued. He had to've known Angel was another mutant, at least, but maybe he'd been the only one back in his home settlement. The first time you met other people like you could be a real rush. Armando remembered what that felt like.

"The whole crew's mutants?"

"Indeed," Charles said aloud. "We've two Shifters, a Superhuman, a Kinetic, and another Reader." He smiled -- this time, with less charm and more sincerity. "What is your particular ability, if I may ask?"

"Blaster." Summers made a face. "Hate that classification go se. But that's what they call my thing, so whatever."

Armando hummed in agreement. The Alliance mutant classification system was imprecise at best. It shuffled powers into broadly defined categories, then tacked on a level designation as a crude approximation of the strength of the mutation. Armando was considered a Level 4 Shifter, with a note in his file that his powers were strictly defensive in nature. In contrast, Raven -- a true shapeshifter -- was Level 7. The highest mutant strength designation ever recorded by the Alliance had been a Level 9 Blaster called Sebastian Shaw, and he didn't so much "blast" as absorb anything and everything you threw at him, then send it right back in your face. Level 9 meant you were pretty much indestructible by baseline human standards -- it would take either another mutant or an act of God to bring you down.

Any mutant manifesting above Level 6 or so was usually snatched up by Alliance officials and sent off to God knew where. Armando was just grateful his own designation was so low. He should've been a 6 or 7 at least, but the dumbass baseline bureaucrats who came up with the classification system had never known what to do with mutants whose powers didn't fall all nice and pretty within their predetermined categories. So instead of measuring Armando's strength based on his own powers, they compared him to actual shapeshifters like Raven and found him wanting. All kinds of different powers fell under the Blaster category, too. Didn't really narrow down much what Summers could actually do, apart from destroy things.

"You really gonna trust a petty criminal with no people this far out on the Rim just 'cause I'm a mutant?" Summers demanded, skeptical. "'Cause I gotta wonder how long you're all gonna survive on that little ship of yours if you're that ruttin' stupid."

Charles arched an eyebrow. "That 'little ship' is a Series 3 Firefly-class transport that's outlived several generations of its crews as well as the Unification War. We've managed well enough so far. And you're not entirely an unknown factor. You've been spoken for by an old friend, and of course your mind has just been scanned by a Level 5 Reader."

'Course, that last bit was utter go se. Rumor had it Charles had put the whammy on the Alliance testers, and Armando believed it -- that, or he had a powerful good hacker on his payroll to prettify his official Cortex file like that. Or maybe his powers had been real weak when he manifested, to get that low a designation. They weren't now. Charles Xavier was a Level 10 at least. Alliance never had considered the possibility of a mutant strong enough to flummox their testers right at the outset, more fools they.

"Think it over," Charles advised Summers. "But think quickly, please. We're shipping out first thing in the morning, with or without you."

He didn't need to mind-speak with Armando, just gave him a nod and headed back out into the rain. Summers's eyes narrowed as he watched Charles go, taking in his stiff, awkward gait. Not many people noticed the prosthetics at first glance, but Summers was too sharp -- or too young and scared and suspicious -- to miss anything out of the ordinary.

Armando stuck his hands in his trouser pockets and waited him out.

"'Spect me to trust some fancy Core professor?" Summers finally asked.

Armando shrugged. "Man can't help where he was born, no more'n you can. Ain't his fault he never learned to blend in like you or me. But he fought for the Independents in the war, and he lost just as much as anyone else. And he's a good captain, fairer than he oughtta be. Ask anyone here, or any of his crew. We'll all vouch for him."

"Why, 'cause you're mutants?"

"You don't need me to tell you that ain't worth a damn in the real world," Armando pointed out. "Alliance had its fair share of mutants stomping all over the Browncoats."

Summers snorted. "Yeah, but I seen your ship. Alliance don't travel in fei wu like that tin can."

"Just don't say that around our mechanic," Armando advised him mildly, "or he'll rip you to pieces and then use 'em for engine parts."

Summers laughed despite himself, and Armando grinned right back. He seemed younger when he smiled, Armando thought. It was a good look on him.

First stop out of Taiyang was the planet it orbited, Athens, to pick up their resident Companion and her shuttle. Emma had curled her lip at the thought of the potential clientele this far out on the Rim, but while Taiyang was just a farming moon with shitty weather, Athens still had some pretensions toward civilization. And true registered Companions were a rarity beyond the Core and Border planets, so the wealthiest johns of Athens had probably fought duels over the chance to book the renowned Emma Frost for an evening.

Armando hailed the shuttle as soon as they broke atmo over the local spaceport. "Hey, Emma," he called, when her face appeared in his viewscreen. "Have a nice night?"

"Tolerable at best," she replied, with her usual dryness, but she seemed distracted. "Armando, I need to speak to Charles just as soon as you're in range."

Emma was another Reader, but she really was just Level 5. She didn't have half Charles's range to reach out and initiate mind-speak with anyone else. But they surely were close enough that Charles could reach out to her. Armando gave him a quick ping -- first thing you pick up on a ship captained by a Reader was how to get his mental attention in need. He relayed Emma's request and then turned his attention back to the landing sequence. Emma's shuttle could berth Cerebro in the air, but it'd be easier from the ground, especially if she had other things on her mind. Besides, Armando liked the Athens port. There was a dumpling shop just up the road that made the best pork bao in the 'verse, and they'd left Taiyang early enough that he'd missed breakfast.

He didn't want to leave the cockpit until Emma safely docked, but Raven was willing enough to fetch him breakfast in exchange for a few credits' tip to buy her own. They might as well stock up on fresh food while they had the chance -- it'd be a good long haul to Persephone, and the cargo from Taiyang was sealed up for preservation until delivery.

"How's the new kid settling in?" he asked her through a mouthful of bao.

Raven shrugged, perching on her copilot's chair. "Well enough. He didn't even flinch when he met Hank."

"Didn't mind the blue?" Armando teased, and Raven rolled her eyes, her scales rippling across her skin.

"It's usually the fur and the fangs that make people nervous around Hank, not the coloring. But nah, Alex just said he looked pretty badass and why the hell was a Superhuman wasting his time playing doctor on a clunky old freighter?"

Armando grinned. "Please tell me he said that in Erik's hearing."

"Yup." Raven's teeth flashed very white in her blue face. "And Erik promptly recruited him for a crash course in Firefly engine maintenance and cleaning. He's like to be in there all day."

"Good," Armando said. "It'll be a powerful bonding experience for 'em both."

"Assuming Alex survives it."

"Least I know we're all on a first name basis already," Armando remarked, mentally shifting the 'Summers' in his head to 'Alex.' "No more code names?"

She shrugged. "Seemed too much of a bother to keep up with."

Ship full of mutants, even as small and eclectic a bunch as they made, was bound to catch the interest of the feds from time to time. They tried to keep a low profile where possible, and that meant using aliases with outsiders. Hence Darwin for Armando, and Mystique for Raven, and so forth. Felt kinda silly at times, but he didn't mind the nickname. It was surely better than Magneto.

Ready to dock, Emma said in his head, well within her mental range now, and he waved Raven away while he dealt with docking procedure.

Armando? Could you please come down to the kitchen as soon as we're safely on course?

Charles's mind-voice was as polite as ever, without a hint of compulsion behind his request. They'd left atmo nearly twenty minutes earlier, and were well out of Athens's gravitational pull. Armando triple-checked the course he'd plotted for Persephone, just to be sure, but his math was good. It was always good. That was why he tended to act as primary pilot for Cerebro instead of Raven -- well, and because she got bored easy. She was an ace pilot, great under pressure, and had wrangled some awful fancy tricks out of this old bucket, but the course-plotting and sitting for days out in the black drove her to distraction. 'Course, the nav computer could do all the calculations for you, but Armando didn't trust it the way he trusted his own brains. He'd been burned before. In a very literal sense.

But they were traveling between two different star systems now, and his course would take them well out of the way of the usual Alliance patrol routes, so they should have a nice quiet trip through the black for the next twelve days or so. Autopilot could do for them for a while.

It was a quick walk down the fore passage into the dining area, which combined kitchen and dining space. Armando was seemingly the last to arrive. There was tea set out on the table -- one of Emma's brews, from the scent of it -- and everyone else gathered about it like bees to honey. Must be a real important meeting to break out the fancy tea. Raven lounged across one dining chair, her feet up on another, all blue but clothed today; Hank leaned up against the kitchen counter, sipping his tea with surprising delicacy given the claws and sheer bulk of him. Charles and Erik sat together, as usual, though Charles ceded the seat at the head of the table to Emma, who had a datapad on the table beside her teacup. Only Alex was missing. Well, he was just a passenger. Not really part of the crew. Though a couple of weeks together in the black oughtta give him a good taste of the life -- not like there was anyplace else he could go in the meantime.

"Excellent, we're all here," Charles said as Armando pulled up a chair. "Emma?"

Emma gave them all a cool smile. "I believe I've developed a lead on the Alliance mutant holding facility."

Armando blinked slowly. Huh. That surely was worth a crew meeting. He reached for the teapot to pour himself a cup. Chamomile. Nice and calming.

"My client yesterday was an associate of a man named Harry Leland," Emma went on. She tapped her datapad, bringing up a static image of a heavyset older man, with a thick reddish-gold beard and receding hairline. His forehead seemed particularly prominent. "Leland is a businessman with a skyplex orbiting Bernadette's moon, Atlas. The precise nature of his business is...difficult to define. He has his fingers in a number of different pies -- mining operations, quarries, terraforming stations. Cargo transport." Her lip curls into a sneer. "By certain unscrupulous definitions of 'cargo', that is."

Erik's eyes were hard. "You're saying he's a slaver."

"Slavery is illegal under Alliance law," Emma said. "And Leland moves in very influential circles. It would of course be unthinkable for a man of his stature to dirty his hands with such criminal activity."

"So you're saying he runs the slave trade," Raven shot back.

Emma inclined her head gracefully. "I make no such accusations. I merely infer. But I admit to a particular interest in the confluence of his transport operations and his membership in a particular Core interest group known as the Hellfire Club."

Armando'd never heard of it, and judging by the reactions around the table, he wasn't the only one in the dark. But Charles's back went ramrod-straight, and all the silverware in the room started vibrating with Erik's powers.

"Um," Hank said. "Not to ask the obvious question, but, you know, what's the Hellfire Club?"

Erik was gripping the edge of the table hard enough that his knuckles were white. Charles placed a calming hand over his. "The Hellfire Club is the consolidation of mutant power within the Alliance government. An elite group of extremely wealthy, extremely powerful Core mutants."

"Shaw used to be their Black King," Erik growled.

Probably sensing the general air of confusion in the room, Charles clarified, "The members of the Hellfire Club inner circle referred to themselves by chess pieces -- an ancient game from Earth-That-Was. Kings, queens, bishops, rooks--"

"And they consider everyone else to be their pawns," Erik added darkly. He leveled a glare across the table at Emma. "What was your rank, back in the day?"

"White Queen," she said calmly. "But I had certain...differences of opinion with the other members of the inner circle during the war, and they cut me out entirely after you dispatched Sebastian. I never knew Leland -- he was nobody in particular in my day. A war profiteer who rose to prominence only after Unification." She curls her lip. "Not the class of mutant we ever would have invited among us, before, but it was a different time."

She was a good enough Reader to know she wasn't winning any friends around this table with that attitude, but Emma Frost never wasted time nor breath apologizing for who she'd once been. That she'd earned Charles's trust after the war said enough about who she was now. That Erik hadn't booted her out an airlock yet said even more. And it weren't only because having a Companion onboard opened any number of doors that would've been closed to Cerebro elsewise.

"Regardless," Emma went on, "Leland has trade connections throughout the 'Verse, legitimate and otherwise, and in context with his membership in the Hellfire inner circle--"

"You think he's the man responsible for the relocation of high-Level mutants," Hank said. "That he'd know where the Alliance has been holding them."

Emma nodded. "I can't be positive, of course, but it's the best lead we've had in years."

"Then we have no choice but to pursue it." Charles's voice brooked no argument. He sighed, patting Erik's hand absent-mindedly. Probably didn't even realize he was doing it. "It's chancy, flying into Bernadette. Landing is restricted on the planet itself, and the sector around it is heavily patrolled."

"My client had Leland's personal access codes," Emma told them. "Strictly for business purposes, of course. I may have gotten a quick peek at them while he was otherwise...engaged."

Raven snorted, and Armando grinned. Emma might not be as strong a Reader as Charles, but she had a particular talent for playing certain mind tricks -- such as seeming to be doing one thing with a client while her actual body was elsewhere. The Companion's Guild placed quite a high value on her abilities. And it came in mighty handy for certain less-than-legal activities in a pinch. Even if she couldn't read the access codes direct out of her client's mind, she had plenty of other ways to get the information they needed.

Charles just nodded, but his lips twitched in what might've been a smile. "We'll have to stop off on Persephone first regardless -- Moira's expecting this delivery, and we can't afford to back out on a whim. And Persephone's a far better staging point for this sort of operation. Besides, there's our passenger to consider. I did promise him passage at least to the Eavesdown Docks, so that he could find another transport on to Beaumonde."

"I'm goin' with you."

Charles was the only one there who didn't flinch at Alex's voice. Hank nearly dropped his tea, and once again all the metal objects in the room started up a-humming. Alex was standing in the hatch connecting the dining area to the aft passage, his bare arms streaked with engine grease, a stubborn set to his jaw.

"The hell you are," Erik snapped, suspicious. "How much did you overhear?" But a touch from Charles restrained him again, the silverware quieting.

"Yes," Charles told Alex with a faint smile, "I rather thought you might."

Night and day meant little and less out in the black, and every planet had its own orbit and corresponding system of telling time. Ship clocks could vary, but most stuck to the Earth-That-Was standard twenty-four hour cycle of days. Great hulking vessels like Alliance cruisers divided that into shifts for their crews, maintaining constant activity; smaller ones, like Cerebro, set their own schedules. They had proximity sensors and very, very obnoxious alarms to alert them to any possible dangers, so it wasn't strictly necessary to have a crewmember on duty at all hours, but again, Armando never trusted a computer quite like he did his own eyes and ears. So he generally stayed up all "night" while the others slept, turning in only when the rest of the ship began showing signs of activity. Sometimes it'd be Raven, wandering up for a turn at the helm; more often Erik banging around the kitchen or engine room, or Charles sending him a gentle mental tap. He didn't mind being the odd one out, nights. He liked the quiet.

He'd had a couple of hours' peace when he heard footsteps on the metal grating. Setting his book down on the helm, Armando swiveled in his chair to greet his visitor. Didn't get many, this time of night, but it happened.

"Alex," he said, a little surprised to see him. New folk generally kept to their quarters, particularly after lights out. But then, this one already wasn't turning out to be the usual breed of passenger.

Alex gave him a nod, hovering uncomfortably at the hatchway. "Yeah. Darwin, right? Or--"

"Armando." He beckoned Alex up into the cockpit with a friendly smile. "Or Darwin's fine, don't matter much to me. Couldn't sleep?"

Alex stepped forward, gaze skittering from Armando to the equipment at the helm and then up and away, out at the countless stars. "Yeah," he said. "Taiyang time's different. Don't feel like bedtime yet."

"You'll adapt quick enough. Would've thought a day in the engine room'd wear a body out. It gets hot in there."

Alex shrugged, not taking his eyes off the view. "Not near as bad as silt farming."

Armando leaned back in his chair with a laugh. "You got me there. We must look like a passel of soft spacers to you."

"I didn't mean--" Alex started, jerking his attention back, but Armando waved him off.

"It's all right, man. I'm not that tetchy."

After a moment, Alex cracked a smile. "Yeah, well, your mechanic surely is."

"Only on his good days. Bad days, he's downright mean."

Alex shuddered. "If that was him on a good day, I don't rightly want to stick around for anything more exciting."

"Oh, believe me, boy," Armando said, "you're sure to see some excitement if you're coming along with us to Bernadette."

Silence fell between them, not quite comfortable. Felt like Alex had something he wanted to say, but didn't know how to shape the words for it. Armando waited him out peaceably, staring out into the black. All those stars out there, and he'd only visited a bare handful of them. Seemed like there was plenty more flying left to do.

"Would've thought you'd've argued with your captain, when he said I could go along with you," Alex finally said. "Well, maybe not you, but Erik, at least, or that Companion of yours. You don't know me. You can't rightly trust me."

"True enough," Armando said. "But ain't none of us gonna challenge Charles's decision in front of a stranger. Raven might've put a bug in his ear when she got him alone. Erik surely did. But that's private. You ain't had time to earn our trust yet, but Charles has, and if he says there's a good reason to bring you along to Bernadette, then I believe him."

Alex frowned, leaning back against the copilot's helm. "He didn't tell you why I'm fixin' to come? He's a Reader. He's gotta know."

"Said you could be useful, that's all. Your reasons ain't none of our business." When Alex looked skeptical at that, Armando added, "Yeah, Charles'll know. He tries to respect personal boundaries, but he's not naive nor stupid, so of course he read you. But he's not looking to spill anyone's secrets. You decide to tell us, that's up to you. He won't do it for you."

"Huh," Alex said. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared back out the windows again, and this time, the silence didn't feel quite so awkward.

A few days later, Armando woke up to the trademark clanking and groaning from the cargo bay that signaled powers training was underway. His internal clock told him he'd had about three hours' sleep. Might as well get up and join the rest of the crew. His body had long since adapted to not need near as much sleep as baseline humans.

He found the others out in the cargo bay, as expected. Back when Charles had first purchased the Firefly, Erik had spent a good long while reworking the hull with his powers, reinforcing the metal with stronger alloys only he could create, so that the interior would be about as sturdy and unbreachable as a body could make it. Charles had always set out with the goal of finding and helping as many mutants as possible, those displaced by the war or struggling alone out in the Rim. Some he recruited. Most he just settled in any way he could, finding them new homes, or training them in their powers until they were strong enough to stand on their own. Some stayed with the crew for weeks or months, learning as much about their own abilities as they could before moving on. Some joined up more permanent-like. Armando, for one. Angel had been another, until recently. It was too soon to tell which road Alex would choose.

Anyway, the ship could withstand blasts from within just as well -- if not better -- than attacks from without, and the cargo bay made for a good space to work out between planets. Today it looked like Raven and Hank were sparring, with Erik as trainer. So it was combat practice, most like. Erik periodically threw hunks of shapeless metal at them to shake things up a bit -- or maybe just for his own amusement.

Alex was watching from the catwalk, elbows on the rail, face unreadable. Armando elected to join him rather than jump into the fray.

"Don't you ever sleep?" Alex demanded when he saw him there.

Armando shrugged. "Sure. Just don't need much. Part of my mutation -- I adapt to survive. And during the war, believe me, not sleeping was definitely a survival mechanism."

Alex studied him. "Thought you said you were a Shifter."

"So says the Alliance," Armando agreed easily. "Never heard a better name for what I can do, so it'll have to do. But my mutation's all about adaptability. Sometimes that means shifting my skin into armor, or growing gills. Sometimes it's interfacing with computer terminals and absorbing code like a sponge soaks in water. Don't rightly know the limits of it, but it surely does keep me alive somehow." He looked Alex up and down. "So what kind of Blaster are you?"

"The kind that probably shouldn't be stuck on a tin can in a vacuum," Alex said darkly, curling in on himself a bit.

Armando cocked his eyebrow. "You can't hurt Cerebro, trust me. She can handle anything you can throw at her."

"Sure," Alex said, clearly not believing him. "But I don't think I'm gonna put that to the test."

Below them, Hank abruptly flipped Raven onto her back and swiped out a furry arm to deflect one of Erik's projectiles. "Damn it, Erik," he growled, "that could've taken her head off!"

"Could've," Erik agreed with a grin. "Didn't, though, did it?"

Hank leapt for him with a feral roar, and Erik hastily yanked together chunks of the catwalk to serve as a shield, the metal screaming almost as loud as Hank.

Armando laughed and clapped Alex on the shoulder. His body felt startlingly warm to the touch. "Don't worry, man," Armando said. "Whatever your powers are, this ship's survived way worse."

They were shooting the shit down in the common area by Hank's med bay when Charles spoke directly into Armando's head. Get to the helm. Now.

There was a hint of compulsion underlying the order. Didn't need it. Armando was up and moving mid-sentence, hurtling up the stairs to the cockpit. He shoved a wordless question in Charles's direction.

Just at the edge of my range, Charles replied, adding an indication of direction and distance.

Armando was already recalculating their course, plotting a wide berth around the disturbance. It'd add at least half a day to their trip, probably more, but that didn't matter.

He didn't even realize Alex had followed him until he felt a hand on his shoulder. Armando nearly jumped out of his skin -- a very real option for him, considering the mutation.

"Whoa," Alex said, pulling away. "What's going on? I never seen you so jumpy."

Armando considered lying, so as not to cause a panic, but falsehoods never sat well with him. 'Specially when it came to someone you were trying to learn to trust. "Reavers," he said. "Gotta steer around 'em."

Alex froze. Sure sign of a man who'd grown up on the Rim: he didn't ask no further questions. He knew Reavers were more'n just monster stories told to scare the kiddies. Reavers were men gone wild at the far edges of space, so far gone they couldn't rightly be called men anymore. At least, that was the most popular theory. They were butchers, cannibals, demons. Rare was the man who encountered a Reaver ship and lived to tell the tale.

"How'd you know they were close?" Alex finally asked, when Armando had finished the course correction and he didn't look to be interrupting.

"Charles sensed them," Armando said.

The implications drained all the color from Alex's face. "You mean -- he Read a Reaver?"

"Yeah." Now that the adrenaline rush was subsiding -- danger averted -- Armando took deep breaths to will himself calm again. Wasn't the first time they'd had to steer around a distant Reaver ship. But they'd never been sighted so close to the Border planets before -- only a few days out of Persephone. The Reavers were getting bolder.

"But I don't even see another ship out there," Alex protested, "nor on your monitors. How...?"

Armando hesitated, then figured, what the hell. "Charles has quite a wide range, 'specially in Cerebro. When he bought this ship, Erik and Hank made a few...modifications. The metal in the hull of the ship itself -- the alloys, and the way Erik's reinforced 'em -- it all amplifies Charles's telepathic range exponentially. He's worlds better'n our proximity sensors for certain. It's come in handy more than once. Can't avoid everything out in the black, but he gets a whiff of Reavers, man, he steers us right out in the opposite direction." He ran a soothing hand across the helm and sighed. "Comes with a cost, though. I'd best go find him."

Once again, Alex followed without question.

Didn't take much looking. First stop was the kitchen area, and that's where he was. Charles sat at the dining table, pale and sweating, fingers pressed hard against his temples. Fortunately, Erik was already there with him. He had a hand on Charles's knee, body pressed close, and was murmuring lowly into Charles's ear. Talking him down, grounding him. Charles would never tell them what it felt like inside the head of a Reaver, and Armando didn't even want to imagine it. The toll it took on Charles was clear enough.

Charles didn't look up at the sound of their footsteps, too far gone into his own waking nightmare to notice the physical world around him, but Erik did. He met Armando's eyes, and Armando gave him a tight smile. They didn't all need telepathy to talk without words. Erik nodded and turned back to Charles, a clear dismissal, so Armando tugged at Alex's elbow to lead him away, back up the passage into the cockpit. He didn't want to stray too far from the helm until he was sure they'd given death the slip once again.

Alex dropped into Raven's co-pilot chair, and they sat together in silence for a time. Eventually Alex spoke. "Does it always hurt him so? Bein' in someone else's head?"

Armando shrugged. "Depends what sort of ugliness is inside." He watched Alex mull it over for a minute, then added, "Just 'cause he's Core-bred and used to money don't mean he don't got his fair share of hurtin'."

"His legs, too," Alex said slowly. "I seen him on the stairs. What happened to him, anyway?"

"Got shot in the back, right near the end of the war. Bullet hit the spine. He's lucky to be walking at all, even with help. If it weren't for Erik…" Armando shrugged again. "Well, these Fireflies ain't exactly wheelchair-friendly, dong ma?"

"Erik made the prosthetics?" Alex made a face, embarrassed. "Course he did, metal's his thing."

"That, yeah, and he helped get Charles off the battlefield for treatment. The longer they'd waited, the worse chance he'd've had."

Alex glanced back over his shoulder, down toward the kitchen, though the passage was long enough he couldn't actually see in. "Are Charles and Erik…?" He trailed off awkwardly.

Armando chuckled. "Sly? Yeah. Took you long enough to figure it out." He didn't think it'd be a problem. A couple of Rim worlds got real prudish about that sort of thing -- settler mentality, everybody's gotta do their breeding duty for the good of the community -- but most didn't much care what a person did on their own time. And Alex just nodded, taking it in. Maybe this'd help him start to see Charles as a person, not just a Reader or a Core-born or a captain. Someone he could trust. Armando'd like that.

They remained there for hours. There were no further signs of Reavers, on the monitors or in Charles's head, and eventually Armando allowed himself to relax.

They were less than twelve hours out from Persephone, and Raven was doing a bit of rewiring on his helm's control panel. The viewscreen was on the fritz again. Armando was pretty sure it'd been working just fine until Raven got bored and starting tinkering, so it'd be on her head if they had to whistle Erik up to fix it.

"So what's going on with you and the new guy?" she asked, apropos of nothing whatsoever, voice muffled by all the paneling between them.

Armando blinked down at her lower half. "Who, Alex?"

He couldn't see it, but he could feel her rolling her eyes at him. "No, the other new guy we brought aboard at Taiyang. Yes, Alex." There was a faint popping noise from beneath the control board, and she yelped.

"Everything okay down there?"

Raven shimmied back out from under the helm, sucking on her fingers with a scowl. "Shiny. Ow." She poked at him with the hand that wasn't singed, still sitting on the grating below his chair. "And don't think you can duck the question that easy."

"Maybe you should be paying more mind to the wiring and less to idle gossip," Armando suggested. When she just glared at him, he sighed. "I don't know what you mean. There's nothing going on. He's been here for less than two weeks, I don't know him any better'n you do."

"Liar," she said sternly. "He's always hanging around you. Doesn't hardly put two sentences together at a time with anyone else, but you and him are up here nattering away like old friends every night." She rested her elbows on his knees, smirking up at him. "He your kai tze now?"

He pushed her off with a laugh. "Course not. Don't be ridiculous. And I'm not the only person he talks to."

But now that she mentioned it, Armando couldn't think of a time he'd ever seen Alex strike up a conversation with anyone else on the crew. He and Erik mostly communicated through grunts or by cursing at each other in the engine room; Hank didn't seem to get on with him, and Alex never had much reason to hang about the medical bay anyway. Alex still seemed wary around the two Readers, though he'd been loosening up a bit around Charles since the Reaver non-incident. And Raven wouldn't have been hassling Armando about this if she were spending much time with Alex her own self.

Alex never had much reason to hang around the cockpit, either, but still he came by. Every night? Near enough. Armando'd just figured he liked the view out into the stars.

Maybe he felt more comfortable around Armando than the others, but that was nothing special. Armando'd always made friends easy. And Alex still hadn't told him what his grudge was against the Alliance, nor shown off his own powers. They weren't that close.

Raven huffed and hunkered back down under the helm. "Fine. Be that way. I'm just sayin', the boy's been looking, so if you're not interested, you might wanna think about how you're gonna let him down easy."

Armando resisted the urge to give her a good kick. Just barely.

"There we go," she said, in a different tone, and the viewscreen crackled and flickered back to life. Raven emerged again with a satisfied smile. "I told you it wasn't really broke--"

"Get Charles," Armando ordered, not taking his eyes off the screen. "Now."

They were being hailed by an Alliance patrol.

"Ta ma de," Raven swore, and bolted from the cockpit.

Within thirty minutes, they'd docked alongside the Alliance cruiser and were officially being boarded by the Feds. Weren't the first time it'd happened, and it wouldn't be the last. They knew the drill. All cargo brought front and center in the bay for inspection, full crew present and accounted for, no weapons in sight. Not that any of them needed weapons to defend themselves. Charles took lead, as befitted the captain, his most affable smile in place. Need be, he'd put extra effort in to make sure the Feds noticed the prosthetics on his legs, walk that much more clumsily, play the harmless cripple. He hated it, Armando knew, but sometimes playing to people's prejudices worked well enough in their favor. His upper-crust Londinium accent would help, too.

Weren't much of a boarding party; the Feds must not be taking this inspection too seriously. Armando wondered why they bothered at all -- Persephone was a popular port of trade, and it benefited everyone, Core and criminal alike, for the Feds to turn a blind eye to the cargo moving in and out of the Eavesdown Docks. Maybe someone had a quota to meet or something.

The Fed in charge had Captain's insignia visible on his gray uniform, which was almost an insult. They didn't even merit a Major for this? "Whose vessel is this?" he asked, looking bored.

"Captain Charles Xavier, at your service," Charles said pleasantly, stepping forward. "May I ask--"

"I'll do the asking," the Alliance Captain said. "All your crew present?"


The Captain looked them all over. He blinked a couple of times at Hank, but didn't comment. Raven was wearing her preferred human form, round-cheeked and blonde, the picture of innocence. Erik and Armando flanked Charles, and Emma regarded the handful of Feds with regal disdain. The only one who wasn't used to this sort of routine check was Alex, who kept to the back, scowling furiously.

"Taken on any new passengers recently?" the Captain asked. "At Persephone, perhaps?"

Alex twitched, and Armando gave him a look meant to be part warning, part reassurance. Charles knew how to deflect unwanted questions.

"We're en route to Persephone now, actually," Charles said. "It'll be our first stop there in, oh, four or five months at least. I can't recall the exact date of our last visit, but you're welcome to examine the ship's log. So not terribly recently, no, and no new passengers aboard. We're transporting fresh foodstuffs from Taiyang -- all legal, I have the purchase papers right here."

"Then you won't mind if we have a look around your ship." The Captain waved his men forward -- there were only four of them -- and they dispersed accordingly. "Vessel like this has plenty of inconvenient little storage spaces, doesn't it? Places a couple of stowaways might tuck themselves away. It wouldn't necessarily be your fault if you were unknowingly harboring wanted fugitives."

Was he trying to be kind? Or just trying to hurry the process along?

Charles frowned. "Fugitives? What sort of fugitives?"

"Brother and sister. Very dangerous." The Captain gave them all a hard look. "Better for everyone if they were found and taken in good and quick."

"The only siblings on this ship are my sister and myself," Charles said, easing an arm around a willing Raven's waist, "and I can assure you, we're hardly hiding from the law." His tone hardened. "And as I'm sure you've already checked my ship's registration and personnel files, Captain Chen, you are of course aware that I'm a registered Level 5 Reader. It would be unlikely to the extreme that a stowaway of any kind, criminal or not, would be able to board my ship without my express knowledge and consent."

He might or might not've been adding a touch of mental persuasion along with the words; either way, the Fed -- Chen -- gave him a clipped nod. "Procedure is procedure, Captain Xavier. Forty thousand of these damn Fireflies active between the Border planets and the Rim; still, I have my orders."

"Of course," Charles said smoothly, smiling again.

They all just sorta stood around in awkward silence until Chen's men returned and gave him the all clear. Good thing their cargo was aboveboard on this run, or they'd like to have lost it all, just so Chen could make a point. As it was, he had to let them continue on their way with nothing more than a stern warning about stowaways and suspicious folk.

"So what was that all about?" Raven demanded, once they'd been knocked loose again. "C'mon, Charles, I know you Read more than that hun dan was telling us."

Charles looked pensive. "In all honesty, he didn't know very much himself. There's a flag on an unidentified Firefly that apparently departed Persephone some weeks ago with two fugitives on board. A brother and sister, as he said -- Simon and River Tam. The flag showed photos of them both, but I didn't recognize either from the images in his mind. Emma?"

He must've passed the images on to her. But Emma just shrugged, her glittering white wrap lifting elegantly along the lines of her shoulders. "Neither of them are familiar to me, although there's a powerful family on Osiris by the name of Tam. But it's a common enough surname. There may be no relation. And it's not a lineage known for producing mutants, at any rate."

"What are they wanted for?" Erik asked.

"He didn't know even that much," Charles said. "The information was classified. The names and photos were all our Captain Chen had to go on, and that they boarded a Firefly. It's no wonder he was frustrated by the task."

"Who cares?" Alex said. It was rare enough that he spoke up in company unprompted; the belligerence in his tone stood out sharply. When Armando gave him a questioning look, he toned it down a bit, hunching his shoulders forward. "I mean, it's nothing to do with us, right? So what difference does it make that the Feds are looking for a couple of criminals?"

Charles tapped his finger against his temple thoughtfully. "I do wonder," he murmured, as if to himself, but let the matter drop.

The Eavesdown Docks on Persephone were as chaotic and colorful as ever. It became clear right quick that Alex had never been anywhere near so large a settlement before. Armando had to take pity on the man and guide him about the place. Otherwise, he was sure to get his pocket picked -- not that Alex had much in the way of pickings -- or worse. At least, that was the virtuous lie Armando told himself to justify sticking close to him. Truth be told, he found Alex's wide-eyed wonder far too charming for his own good.

Once they'd unloaded their cargo, and Moira MacTaggert -- an old war buddy of Charles's -- had taken over its distribution, they were free to do as they pleased for an hour or two. Emma had some errands to run, and she enlisted Raven's assistance, while Charles, Erik, and Hank opted to remain with Cerebro, likely planning out the next phase of the Leland operation.

"Come on," Armando told Alex, "it's far too nice a day to waste what little time we've got here hiding out in a rusty old tin can."

Alex rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. "Don't lie, you love that ship better'n any planet in the Verse."

For some reason, that brought Armando up short; he thought of an endless horizon, the bluest sky he'd ever see, the scent of freshly tilled earth. The memory blindsided him for a moment before he shook his head and let it go. "I suppose that is true, now," he said.

He was quick to smile, but it must've slipped, because Alex seemed wary all of a sudden, like he worried he'd misstepped. He put a hand to Armando's shoulder, touch so light and nervous Armando might've just imagined it. "I didn't mean to hit on a sore spot."

Armando never felt right talking about his hurts -- knew he didn't have any more'n anyone else, just that they were his own -- but still, didn't feel right to just leave it at that. Alex couldn't've known. "I grew up on Shadow," he said, knowing that was all the explanation he needed. Everyone knew what had happened to Shadow during the war, and Armando wasn't the only one who no longer had a home planet to return to. Alex's grip tightened in understanding.

Cerebro was the nearest thing to a home Armando had left, and the crew as close to a family as any he'd managed to find for himself. Long as he kept them flying, it was more than enough.

"I'm sorry," Alex said.

"It's fine," Armando told him, shrugging it off. "We're all only here 'cause we had to leave someplace else behind, right?"

"Yeah," Alex said. He let go of Armando, flexing his hand at his side. "I guess that's so."

Armando never was meant for a love story. He just weren't made that way. Didn't burn with passion, like Raven, nor ever drowned himself in another person. Couldn't drown at all. Body wouldn't let him die for anyone or anything; he could take a bullet for someone, sure, but it didn't mean the same when your skin rippled into armor without your ever needing to be conscious of it. Armando deflected, and adapted, and kept right on flying. People liked him; he was an easy person to be around. Didn't demand anything of a body 'cause he didn't need anything for himself. Enjoyed company, but never had a problem with solitude. Definitely enjoyed sex, when it was on offer, but never burned for it like others seemed to. He'd watched the push and pull as Raven and Hank's brief, wild affair sparked and then burned itself out; saw the fire of Charles's relationship with Erik flare up again and again, always eventually settling into a steady flame. Marvelled at the brisk coolness with which Emma conducted her affairs. He weren't so cold and calculating about it, not like her, but he didn't need another half to make him feel whole, either. Never had. Likely never would.

Now he watched Alex watch him as they made their way through the Eavesdown Docks, sidelong glances, and thought he could sense the heat rippling just under Alex's skin. Raven's voice whispered in his ear, you might wanna think about how you're gonna let him down easy, but for all his talents, Armando wasn't sure how best to go about it. Never had anyone sweet on him, not in a romantical fashion; didn't think romance were on Alex's mind, either. But even with Armando, the boy didn't talk all that much, not about anything that mattered. And until Alex broached the subject, Armando didn't see as it was his place to bring it up.

Instead he bought them both ice planets from a food vendor, and laughed and laughed when Alex couldn't figure out how to eat his right.

Getting onto Leland's skyplex over Bernadette's moon turned out to be the easy part of the plan. Man had a craving for Companions, and never booked the same one twice; with his personal access codes already in her intricately embroidered pocket, Emma had the perfect in. But that would only get them through the door.

"The trouble is, it's highly unlikely I'll be able to simply pull all of the information we need out of Leland's mind," Emma explained, as they worked through the plan in Cerebro's dining area. They'd left atmo on Persephone nearly half a day earlier. "He's Hellfire inner circle -- powerful mutants are more than usually paranoid about Readers. He'll have been trained in mental defenses as a matter of course, and may even have a Reader or two on his own personal staff to protect him. He'll know I'm in his head. I'm not strong enough telepathically to go about this with the subtlety it requires."

"Charles is," Erik said. "As long as we can get in range, Charles could pick his mind clean without ever leaving the shuttle, and Leland would never know."

But Charles shook his head. "It's not that simple. Yes, I might easily glean the physical location of the mutant holding cells from Leland's head -- the planet certainly, possibly even the precise coordinates -- but that does us very little good if we can't access it ourselves. There are likely multiple locations, for starters, and each with their own security protocols, defenses, schedules, personnel, et cetera. We're only one small vessel. We can't exactly go in shooting and expect to survive the confrontation, let alone aid untold prisoners in a successful escape. And unless Leland has an eidetic memory, that sort of information won't just be lying about in his mind where any Reader could stumble across it. What we need is direct access to his private Cortex files, and it's most likely that his personal dedicated source box will be on the skyplex itself."

Armando could see where this was going. "So basically we need a hacker on the scene. Guess I know what my part is in this little drama." He leaned forward, elbows on the table. "Get me in as, what, Miss Frost's personal bodyguard?"

"Wait, wait, hold up," Alex broke in. He'd been hovering around the edges of the kitchen like he wasn't sure if he belonged there, but now he stepped forward, breaking into the loose circle formed around the table. "Since when are you a techno-geek? I thought you were only the pilot!"

"Told you, it's part of my mutation," Armando said, surprised at the vehemence of Alex's response. "I'm adaptable, and that means picking up languages real quick. Data, code, transmissions -- they're just another kind of language. And navigating the Cortex without the Alliance catching on has been pretty crucial to our survival now and again."

"Armando is the true polymath among us," Charles added with a smile. "But no one onboard this ship can be defined merely by their everyday duties. Or do you believe Erik is only a mechanic, or Hank only a medic? These may be the roles we play now, but they certainly are not all that we are or have been, nor all that we shall be."

Weren't often that Charles let that steely tone of command slip into his voice, but Armando felt his spine straightening instinctively at his captain's words. Alex took a startled step back from the table. But there was a pensive tilt to his head, and as he looked them all over, his gaze was reassessing.

Looked like maybe Alex was starting to catch on to why this crew had come together in the first place. About time.

Armando allowed him a small smile, then turned his attention back to the rest of the crew. "I'll need support, though. You know how I get when I'm interfacing directly with the Cortex. My mutation might stop a bullet, but it can't protect me from being dragged away in cuffs by Leland's goons."

Up until a few months ago, Angel would've been the obvious choice for backup. Armando missed her for a moment, sudden and fierce, but there was no sense in wallowing.

Raven volunteered at once, but was as quickly shot down. With Armando on the skyplex, they couldn't afford to give up their other pilot. Erik could steer the ship in a pinch, as could Charles, but neither were particularly talented at it. "And if a situation arises while Armando's away that requires a pilot, we really will need a pilot," Charles pointed out. Raven sulked a bit, but conceded the point.

Hank might be the best suited physically, but his obvious mutation would make him far too noticeable on the skyplex. They'd need to be able to slip away once Emma retired with Leland, and the bright blue fur and sharp claws weren't exactly inconspicuous. "Erik, then," Armando said. "He's probably the best of us in a fight, anyway. Worst case scenario, he can always rip the whole skyplex down around us."

Erik grinned viciously at the thought, and Charles murmured a low, "that wasn't an invitation, darling," but then Alex stepped in again.

"I'll go with him."

Armando blinked up at him, startled, and Erik looked like he was about to say something particularly scathing, but Charles held up a hand to forestall commentary. "Alex?"

"I want to help," Alex said. His cheeks and ears were tinted pink, with embarrassment maybe, but he forged on. "And I'm expendable. Something goes wrong, you'll want your mechanic with the ship. Nothing for me to do here except cool my heels. But I'm a good fighter if it comes to that, and you won't even notice I'm there otherwise. That's what you guys want for the skyplex, right?" He took a deep breath, looking Armando in the eye. "And you don't know what kind of database you're gonna be swimming through up there. Might be you'll need to look for a specific mutant to start with to figure out where they rest of 'em are kept. I can help with that."

"You know someone they've taken?" Armando asked, as gently as he could manage.

Alex squared his shoulders. "Yeah. My little brother, Scott, he was a Level 7. Slavers snatched him two years back, only we knew they weren't really no slavers. They were Alliance."

His brother. Yeah, that explained more'n it didn't. And no wonder he'd got so tetchy about the Feds hunting down those fugitive siblings. Was that what he'd been planning, back when he tried to stow away on that first cargo ship that dumped him on Taiyang? Some half-baked notion of somehow finding his brother and stealing him back?

Hank cleared his throat, rubbing his hands together awkwardly. "I'm sorry, Alex, but even a name probably won't help much. I very much doubt the people running this...prison, or whatever it is, keep the sort of records that could link them to a young mutant's official Cortex file. They won't be searchable by name -- not by birth name, at any rate."

"But they're studying them, right?" Alex asked, with a note of desperation. "Brainwashing 'em, training 'em to fight for the Alliance, doing weird experiments, whatever -- still means they're studying the mutations. So they'd have files on those. Not just slapping labels like Shifter or Superhuman on 'em, but -- documenting them. Or something. Right?"

"I honestly don't know," Hank said, not unkindly. "None of us do. But yes, I suppose that's likely."

"Scott's a Blaster, like me," Alex said in rush. "Not exactly like -- he's stronger, and his come out of his eyes, but it's still the same thing. Same power. We could never hurt each other, not even on accident. My blasts never hurt me 'cause they're mine, and they didn't burn him, either. 'Cause they were the same as his."

Hank's eyes had got that far away, dreamy look, like whenever he had a new science problem to work through. "Identical energy signatures," he muttered. "Yeah -- yes. That might be just the thing."

The trip from Persephone to Leland's skyplex took several days and some very careful maneuvering; Armando and Raven alternated shifts at the helm, with Charles a frequent presence as he scanned for the clusters of other minds that would indicate Alliance vessels in the area. Emma's status as a registered Companion and her documented assignation with Leland ought to smooth their way through any Alliance checkpoints -- no one wanted to tussle with the powerful Companion's Guild -- but still, better if they slipped through entirely unnoticed. Charles's powers of mental persuasion helped with that.

Between the demands of navigating Cerebro into the Core planetary system, planning out his part of the job, and Hank's intensive work with Alex to develop a viable bioscan of his powers, Armando hardly saw Alex at all over those few days. He tried not to think too hard about how he felt about it. Hard to miss someone you'd only known a couple of weeks, but the absence of that quiet, brooding presence tugged at him, annoyingly. Armando was eminently adaptable; never took him long to make or break a habit, and he'd always known Alex wasn't like to stick around long. Most of the mutants they'd picked up over the years hadn't. Still, somehow the thought of Alex leaving after they'd found his brother scraped him raw.

If they found his brother. No guarantees.

In the end, the skyplex loomed large through the cockpit windows after only five days' sailing, but it felt like one of the longest trips of Armando's life.

"Leland's mutation enables him to increase the mass of any object or person within a certain radius," Charles reminded Alex and Armando as they prepped to join Emma on her shuttle. "Bear that in mind. It's an odd ability, but given Leland's reputation, I've no doubt he's learned to use it efficiently. If he suspects you, it could get rather nasty. Emma should be able to manage him--"

"But shit happens," Armando said. "I know." He double-checked to be sure he still had the falsified IdentCard in the inner pocket of his jacket -- the chip Hank had created to search for Scott Summers in the Cortex.

Alex shifted his weight nervously. "You sure it's gotta be Armando? I mean, on the skyplex? Couldn't he just hack it from one of the ship's computers?"

"I gotta find a way through the front door first," Armando explained. "Once I've got the codes from Leland's source box, yeah, I can sneak around the back again whenever I like, but I need those codes, and the only place to get 'em is on the skyplex. I'm good, but I'm no Mr. Universe -- there's only so much I can build from scratch."

Alex scowled and stomped off into the shuttle. Armando sighed.

"It's been quite a while since any of us has thought to be concerned for your safety," Charles said, reading the unformed question in his mind. "Alex is."

Armando laughed. "That's just 'cause he hasn't seen me in action yet. No power in the 'verse can hurt me. He'll catch on quick enough."

Charles gave him a piercing look. "No," he remarked softly. "I don't believe he ever will."

The skyplex wasn't one of the largest Armando'd ever seen, but it did make an impression. Core folk surely did like their luxuries. The shuttle hatch opened into a gleamingly white docking bay, any metal parts coated in platinum. Erik would've loved this place. Or maybe really, really hated it. Hard to say with Erik.

Leland didn't come himself to meet them, but his personal assistant, Welles, seemed duly impressed. Emma was a glittering vision in white silks, diamonds dripping from her neck and earlobes and accentuating her bosom, her blonde hair done up in an elegant coif. Even by Companion standards, she made a mighty fine sight. Armando and Alex moved unnoticed in her wake, dressed in the nondescript dark grays common to private bodyguards, just a shade darker than Alliance military uniforms. They had to pass through a weapons scanner before they could enter the skyplex proper -- Alex gawped at the expensive newtech on display, while Armando quietly thanked the gods that mutations didn't show up as weapons on that sort of scan. Of course neither of them were carrying handguns. Emma sniffed haughtily at the momentary inconvenience, but she allowed a glimmer of amusement to radiate mentally in Armando's direction.

Armando hadn't dared to hope they'd be allowed within Leland's personal suite, and sure enough, the assistant stopped them at the door. "Only Ms. Frost may enter," he said sternly.

"That's quite all right," Emma said airily. "My boys can wait here for me." She gave the man a particular smile. "Xie xie, Welles xian sheng."

Armando never did get so much as a glimpse of Leland before Emma disappeared into the boss's rooms, and after a few pointedly disapproving looks, Welles also left them.

"Now what?" Alex demanded, keeping his voice low. His face remained neutral, but Armando could read the impatience in every line of his body.

"Now we wait," Armando said calmly. He settled into a more comfortable stance, not quite military at ease, but close enough. Looked professional and a little intimidating all at once. Didn't need any curious passersby questioning them. "Emma'll call us when she's ready."

The minutes crept by. Armando tried to slip into a semi-meditative state, but he was all too aware of Alex beside him, practically vibrating with nerves. Couldn't blame the man -- this might be his best chance at finding his brother, and he was young yet, hot-headed. Not so much younger than Armando in years, but the war had taught Armando patience and reflection among other, less pleasant lessons. Alex was itching for a fight, while Armando prefered to avoid one wherever possible. He'd fought enough for several lifetimes.

One thing he knew for sure was that Emma wouldn't rush things on their account. She was the consummate professional. Folk had plenty of words for Companions, and not all of them pretty, but Armando knew it weren't all about the sex. That was part of what kept Companions a world apart from common prostitutes, like Angel'd once been. For starters, Emma would lead Leland in a formal tea ceremony, then proceed to various forms of entertainment and sophisticated discussion. Didn't necessarily have to end up in the bedroom, though tonight's affair would for certain. They wouldn't have to wait for the entire performance to conclude, but Emma had standards to uphold, both the Guild's and her own, so she'd not be letting them in in no hurry.

He'd long since lost track of the time, but eventually, he felt that odd mental tap that indicated Emma's attention. Armando touched Alex's elbow to alert him, and Alex flinched.

"I'm going in," Armando said quietly. "Keep watch out here and holler if you sense trouble."

Before he could move on, Alex gripped his arm, startlingly hard. "What if you get into trouble in there?"

Armando gave him a wry smile. "Anything goes wrong on my end -- trust me, Alex, you'll know."

Alex held him a moment longer, and when he finally did let go, it was with great reluctance. Armando didn't let himself linger. The door was nothing fancy, and had no visible lock, but he imagined he'd Emma to thank that it opened so readily at his touch on the handle.

Leland's private suite was a large collection of rooms, likely with more space overall than Cerebro's entire interior. The outer chamber had about as much personality to it as the rest of the skyplex -- not ruttin' much. Instead of whites, the theme of the room was a dark, rich brown, all wood panelling. Showing off that he could afford real wood, even on a space station, and probably the costly kind, too. Beyond that, the place was bare of decoration, with sturdy, functional furniture. Two doors on the far side of the room remained closed. Emma perched daintily on a chair, fully clothed, looking bored. An elegant tea set was arranged on the low table, tea still steaming in the pot.

"Harry's being seen to in his bedchamber," she said, studying a manicured nail. Likely the man thought he had his hired Companion's full attention at the moment, but Emma didn't need to waste much mental effort on that sort of illusion. She'd had plenty of practice. "The Cortex access point is set into the wall behind the divan. Press on the smallest panel to open it."

Armando didn't see anything out of the ordinary, but sure enough, when he found the right spot, the paneling on the wall whirred smoothly out and revealed a large Cortex terminal, which activated at his touch. "Doesn't need a bioscan to get in, does it?" he asked.

Emma shook her head. "No. His security within the skyplex is remarkably lax. He must feel quite secure in his power here."

"Ain't complaining about that," Armando remarked with a grin, and set to work. Still needed a handful of passwords to get through the top layer of Cortex security protocols, but those were the sort Leland used often enough that Emma could easily pluck them off the surface of his mind without alerting him to her mental presence. Once through those first few gates, Armando no longer needed her assistance.

He never quite knew the words to describe hacking the Cortex to them as hadn't ever done it themselves; maybe his own way was different from anyone else's, anyway. He'd never met anyone with a mutation quite like his own. It was like his body knew all the right moves without his telling it, neurons firing in his brain and fingers dancing across the screen through muscle memory alone. He turned off all awareness of the physical world around him, lived only for the code, riding the signals, burying himself in deep. To say he enjoyed programming weren't quite right; he simply felt right like this, like it was where he was meant to be. Maybe his powers would eventually adapt him beyond the need for his physical shell, enable him to live on forever in a virtual reality beyond baseline human comprehension. Sometimes the notion scared him. Other times, when he was neck-deep in the Cortex and racing to further and further depths, he accepted his fate as a matter of course.

Leland was a slaver, all right, and he dealt exclusively in mutant trafficking. Not all of it was for Alliance, the she tou -- some colonies had a particular need for certain kinds of labor, and if he sniffed out mutants with powers that suited the work, he'd snatch them up. Weren't the case for Scott Summers, though, as Armando learned with a swipe of the false IdentCard along a Cortex wave. The Cortex recognized the specific energy signature of Alex's blasts, of the Summers family powers, and pulled him onward like a hound on the scent.

There, Armando thought with grim satisfaction, just as the world exploded around him.

Afterward, when they'd had a chance to put the pieces together, Armando figured that it must've happened something like this:

Leland got suspicious of the illusion-Emma in his bed, for reasons unknown. Possibly he did have a Reader on his personal staff who'd alerted him, possibly he'd used a touch of his powers and seen that the false Emma weren't responding like she should. Possibly something else entirely. Didn't matter. He came busting out of bed like a bull to a flag.

Emma realized that something weren't right in the bedchamber and tried to alert Alex and Armando, but Armando was lost too deep within the Cortex and she couldn't rouse him quick enough. She tried to get a hold on Leland's mind, too, but before she could get a firm enough grasp, he came charging out at her and she instinctively shifted into her diamond form in self-defense. That Emma was a Shifter as well as a Reader was a closely guarded secret, and it surely did take Leland by surprise. But she couldn't do both at once, and as long as she stayed diamond, she couldn't use her mental powers at all. And though the diamond kept her from being physically harmed, it did nothing against Leland's own powers. Leland held her down with her own impossibly increasing mass, and turned on Armando at the Cortex terminal with the same intention.

That was where things started to go wrong for Leland, too. Armando never even noticed his own mass increasing, 'cause his body immediately adapted to the change. Didn't even interrupt the flow of his fingers across the virtual keyboard. And worse for Leland, Alex had heard Emma's earlier mental alert and was breaking through the other door. Room was big enough that Alex was just out of range of Leland's powers. But Leland wasn't out of range of Alex's.

Alex had a hard decision to make and only the space between two breaths to make it. He saw Emma sinking into the floor as diamond, making a visible dent in the wood, saw it was like to kill her or drag her through the reinforced metal beneath the wood panelling if Leland didn't put a stop to it soon. Saw Armando at the terminal, drowning in the Cortex, completely ignorant as to his own danger, though all the objects around him creaked and groaned with added weight. Saw the fury in Leland's face, the murder in his eyes. Had only one weapon at his own disposal, dangerous and unpredictable though it could be. Couldn't stand there and do nothing.

Maybe it weren't such a hard decision, after all, except for what Armando would only learn later: Alex was scared of his own powers. He'd killed before, though only ever on accident. Seen his red plasma hoops slice a body in two. Woken up from vivid nightmares to find the room burning around him. He'd learned some control -- he'd had to -- but he never felt like it was enough. Never quite trusted himself.

And where Leland was standing, no way Alex could control the hoops to not take Armando down along with him. Knew Armando was supposed to adapt to anything, but hadn't seen it with his own two eyes, not yet. Not for certain. Had no way of knowing if he could survive Alex.

Still, weren't really no decision to be made.

Alex let loose his blasts.

Normally, Armando's body adapted to deflect projectiles and the like. He'd been shot four times during the war, and only known it when his skin rippled with armor and the bullets ricocheted off him with a disconcerting ping of impact, like a bee sting. Only once had he had to deflect an energy weapon, but his mutation had reacted in much the same way. That had felt less like being stung and more like being hit by a truck, but still, same general principle.

He didn't deflect Alex's plasma bursts. He absorbed them.

He blinked free of the Cortex, and open his eyes to a vision of searing red edged with white. Felt the plasma seep into his pores, filling the space under his skin near to bursting with it. Energy flooded his veins like a star going supernova. His skin blackened and cracked and regenerated and healed while fires raged in his blood, in his lungs, in his brain. Around him, wood paneling smoked and sizzled, but he hardly spared it a thought. Should've been painful, maybe, unbearable. Wasn't. Felt marvelous.

Eventually, the tides of power ebbed, leaving him awash on the shore. The energy still fizzled under his skin, though, prickling wonderfully at him, making his blood hum. He looked around.

The room around him was smoldering, though the plasma-fire hadn't caught or held. Close by, Leland's body lay in a crumpled heap, his flesh stinking with the burning. Emma remained diamond -- if nothing else, it had protected her from the blasts -- but she was slowly pulling herself to her feet as the effects of Leland's power dissipated with his death. Somewhere an alarm shrieked. And at the head of all the destruction stood Alex, white-faced, staring right at Armando as though he'd never seen the like of him.

"Huh," Armando said, marveling. "So that's what you can do. I'd wondered."

Alex opened his mouth, and a strangled croak emerged. He cleared his throat. "Armando," he said hoarsely. "You're -- you're glowing."

Armando glanced down at himself, studying his hands. "So I am," he said. He considered it for a moment, then gave the white-hot energy within himself a gentle tug. The glow receded, though the fizz and crackle of it still pulsed in his veins. He looked back up at Alex. "That better?"

"Wo de ma he ta de fen kuang de wai sheng dou," Alex swore, practically choking on it, "I thought I'd a-killed you!"

And then he'd made quick work of the distance between them, ignoring the still-smoking floor, and he was throwing his arms around Armando so tight that Armando was almost surprised his body didn't automatically develop armor in self-defense.

Armando hugged him back, 'cause there didn't seem to be anything else to do about it, and all that leftover energy still burned inside him and between them until he was dizzy with it, and this feeling wasn't something he ever wanted to adapt to, not ever.

"Well, this is very sweet," Emma said dryly, reinforcing her words with a mental prod, "but there are about thirty different security personnel running our way, and Alex has just murdered our host, so if you can bear to be parted for a minute or two…"

"Let 'em come," Alex said, pulling away from Armando with a savage grin without actually letting go of him.

Emma raised an eyebrow. "An all-out battle would hardly be to our best interests. We're going to need to make a run for it as it is, and if you want to actually use the information in Armando's head to find your brother--"

"We got it, Emma," Armando said. He disentangled himself from Alex regretfully, setting his mind to the task at hand. "If you can distract the guards long enough to get us to the shuttle, I can fly us out of here faster'n you can spit."

It got a little more complicated than that, but basically, that was what they did.

Fancy flying or no, by the time the shuttle docked again with Cerebro, it was clear to everyone that they'd need to hotfoot it out of Bernadette's airspace. Raven was already at the helm -- she excelled at the sort of complex maneuvers and split-second decisions that would keep a Firefly out of reach of the local Feds -- with Erik in the engine room coaxing all the speed and maneuverability he could out of their old boat and Charles stretching his mental abilities to capacity in an attempt to befuddle or waylay their pursuers for as long as it took to shake 'em. Hank and Emma knew to keep well out of the way when this sort of operation was underway -- Hank prepping his med bay for the distinct possibility of imminent injuries to come -- and normally, Armando would've been in the co-pilot's chair, ready to take over from Raven at need.

But not this time. He seemed to have finally found the limits of his mutations' adaptability. Between the total immersion in the Cortex, the absorption of Alex's blast, and the adrenaline rush of escaping Leland's skyplex and piloting a short-range shuttle with no defenses whatsoever back to its home berth under highly stressful conditions, Armando had finally pushed himself to the point of collapse. Charles immediately removed him from active duty and ordered Alex to "get him to a bloody bunk before we have to drag his unconscious body into the med bay." Armando was aware of finding that amusing, and then dimly of staggering down stairs with strong arms just barely helping him to keep upright, and then he wasn't sure of anything else for a good long while.

When he finally woke up, it came over him all gradual-like. First thing he knew was the feel of Cerebro humming peacefully around him, a ship in smooth sailing. They weren't running anymore, and they were still flying. That was a good place to start.

Next thing he knew was inside of himself -- all that heat still simmering in his blood. Sleeping hadn't turned it off, and it hadn't fizzled away in the meantime. He felt very awake all of a sudden, well and truly rested, limbs twitchy with long disuse. He opened his eyes.

He was in his own bunk, the lights dimmed. Could be any time at all. And he wasn't alone. Alex was splayed out awkwardly in the little armchair Armando had somehow managed to stuff down the hatch into his quarters years ago, knowing he'd likely never get it out again. It was good for sitting and reading, but not so good for napping, which Alex was. Weren't quite as tall or lanky as Armando, so maybe it fit him better, but still, couldn't be comfortable.

"Hey," Armando said, and Alex jerked awake. Hard to say which of them smiled first, or maybe it was both at once.

"Hey," Alex said back. "Been out a while. How you feeling?"

Armando stretched, the remnants of Alex's energy blast bubbling up inside of him, like embers sparking back into flame. "Feeling great, actually. How's Cerebro?"

"Made a clean enough break of it, from what I hear. Still, Captain said we gotta keep a low profile for a spell. Heading back out to the Rim now."

"We?" Armando echoed, grin widening. "So we're not dropping you off on Beaumonde anytime soon?"

"Nah, never really cared about that planet, anyway," Alex said. "Besides, can't rightly leave you now. You're the only one knows where I can find my brother."

"True enough." Recalling all the information he'd absorbed from the Cortex -- and he'd only have his own head to store it in, now that Leland was dead and the Alliance had likely already shut down his personal access codes -- sobered Armando somewhat. He met Alex's gaze and held it. "Won't be easy getting in to him, you know. Could take time to pull the resources together, and no way of knowing how he's doing in the meantime. Wish I could tell you otherwise, but I ain't never lied to you yet, Alex, and I won't start now."

Alex nodded, serious. "I know. I trust you, Armando. Maybe more'n that."

The fire burned white-hot, the kind that left streaks in your vision if you stared at it too long, like looking into a sun.

"Good," Armando said. "C'mere."

Maybe it still weren't quite a love story, but as he learned to navigate the constellations of freckles on Alex's body, the taste of his skin, the heat of his mouth, Armando thought that maybe, eventually, they'd get there. And anyway, he'd always had more of a fondness for the journey than the destination.