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The Singer, Not The Song

Chapter Text

Upon finishing the letter, Erik is startled to find himself sitting propped rather heavily against the edge of his cherrywood desk, almost as a figure in some dramatic etching. It is a position that implies the receipt of some shock so great it weighs the head down into empty and despairing palms-- all quick, decisive lines on the part of the artist. An illogical reaction, and surely not one representative of his emotions-- for the letter contains no truly new information, and he is too busy gripping the epistle with ginger fingertips to mirror such literary theatrics. At least his rebellious hands have not crumpled the letter. Rather, his fingers are nearly numb from pinching the rich paper and have left only the tiniest impressions, as swiftly fading points of pressure on pale skin. The sight of his own name-- and the titles of friendship that follow-- in Charles' hand appear stark blue-black ink on ivory weave.

('My dear friend…'; probably the most affection any two alphas-- two *equals*-- would admit to one another in life. That and the occasional 'beloved' hypaspistes, reserved for those tombs erected to commemorate the closest of fallen comrades, for though the cost in sorrow is heavy there is still some safety in confining admission of love to the dead alone.)

The endearments feel as inescapable as a brand, yet inherently lunatic as any lost language from Old Earth. Bleakly, Erik looks up from the page, lungs supporting only the shallow breaths of the vanquished party in a round of fisticuffs.

 

Objectively, it must have taken him little time to read the letter. The ornate clock which hangs between the chamber's two windows continues circulating drops of liquid mercury-- little beads of time-- through the scrolling vacuum tubes. The firm iron hands and sensitive release mechanisms are far more even and dependable than any organic rhythm. Beyond the loosely draped curtains, the spring evening is bleeding into vibrant sunset and, though the panes are closed, Lehnsherr can still hear the boom of laughter as it echoes from the street. Another moment and he can make out the voice of Sam Wilson, one of the younger alpha boarders, energetically announcing himself out on the front steps. The gregarious, arrogant buck must have passed his final flight test. Erik registers these sounds, and the indistinct trickle of words that follow, very oddly indeed. They seem quite far away; he is a man alone on a vast arctic plain and anything from beyond its endless waste is only a snatch from some other world, carried by devious and irksome winds.

He'd shake his head at himself, but the uncharacteristic image only gains potency, making his chambers into some alien white contrivance, a forgery carved of snow. In another moment, he has a better hold on his mental faculties, though his body insists he must either drop the letter as if burned, or tear it to pieces. Erik allows the papers to fall and scatter on the chamber's thick, dark rug. There, they too look like offensively regulated snowflakes.

 

Florid impressions or no, Lehnsherr should not find such wintery associations threatening or dismal. His is a child of the North, where the estate of his mother's family was established in the early days of colonization, before even the dazzling City had pretenses with which to adorn itself. Perhaps its unsurprising from an alpha, but Erik has a deep sense of history and heritage-- familial and of his people as a whole. At the same time, he is aware of just how fluid the seemingly obdurate monuments of the past can be. There are other monotheists in the Imperium; worshipers of the Solar Lamb, for example, but their beliefs have been contracted down from many different sects. It is said, even by members of that fold, that there was once a time when the authority of the Hierophant lacked universal acknowledgement, and that the position was open to male alphas alone.

The seat of the Lehnsherr clan is impressive, its foundations a celebration of survival and somewhat defiant individuality. It is all the more entrancing and strange because many of Erik's ancestors were themselves dedicated antiquarians. It's the sort of place Charles would love-- as historic as his own manor, but unpolluted by fascicle attempts (particularly on the part of Lady Sharon's first omega, Kurt) to keep up with City fashion or add luxuries in total disregard of aesthetics.

Erik has, in fact, sent Charles holo-stills of his childhood home, receiving in return enthusiastic ramblings and inquiries regarding the mosaics, subterranean bath, and the insularium which had been such a favorite of Lehnsherr's father. These stills, however, were all very much out of date-- the last time Erik set foot on those grounds was just after finishing graduate studies at Atelier. A freshly minted interstellar engineer, already preparing to wade ruthlessly into the teeming jungle of City industry with one trusted hypaspistes at his side in Emma, and another precious shield-bearer to advise him from afar.

 

In the weeks after Saturnalia, that had been. While most of the City blearily recovered from one festival and began its headlong dive into New Year's preparations, Lehnsherr himself had undertaken a solitary pilgrimage. The great ebony rail train had cut like a dagger, or some sleek panting beast, through the wind-swept moors of marble snow. Everywhere there had rested the albino cloak of the North, which each year yielded sylvan brilliance for scarcely two months. Having told no one of his plans-- not even Charles-- Erik had also kept to himself amongst the still-festive passengers. Instead, he'd stared out at the fine fresh powder, which glittered only with starlights and the occasional canary-colored glow of a distant, lighted dwelling. His people still kept the millennia-old traditional calendar as well as that of the Imperium, and Lehnsherr had been secretly grateful that the Eight Nights had fallen before the common winter holidays that year. A small mercy. The poignant landscapes did enough to foster the notion that the past was coming to lay flush with the present-- perhaps to the point of allowing actual passage. The shine-orbs, the candles, and sugary smell of sufganiyot would have been too much for the prodigal to bear.

As it is, Erik remembers experiencing both a melancholy balm and a strong resurgence of grief as he walked the corridors of his childhood home. So often, the explosion and his parents' subsequent deaths seemed like a literal wall of fire between himself and the sense of belonging he knew as a small boy. Shaw, greedy and eager to claim innovations not his own, had razed all of that to the ground. Erik had been left only with rage and dreams of vengeance, stewing in the kingdom of austere barracks and corporal punishment which composed every alpha boarding school.

The thought of Shaw back in the City, enduring the festive wave of society galas on Emma's arm was as ironic as it was unpalatable. More than a year after bonding, Erik's nemesis lived in virtual ignominy-- put at nervous distance by some former associates and subjected to outright scorn by others. Shaw's only hobby, aside from hiding in the home-made lab Emma had purchased in an attempt to appease him, was torturing that same alpha and bond mate in a cyclical pattern of passive disdain and intimate, almost fawning heats. The details of the latter were, mercifully, kept brief both by Emma's natural disposition and general social standards. Erik shuddered to think, and always grew furious shortly thereafter. Frost hardly deserved such treatment, which was only the least fatal in a long list of crimes Sebastian Shaw had perpetrated against those Erik loved. Though he'd stood as Emma's hypaspistes, Lehnsherr still longed to plunge his ancestral misericorde through her bastard mate's malicious and calculating brain. With the illogical faith of a zealot, he still firmly planned to do so, though a solution for mitigating the consequences to Frost (and her obligation to avenge her omega in return) had yet to present itself.

Upon reaching Eisenhardt Demesne, he'd taken an initial turn about the great house almost as a sleep-walker, navigating around-- and very nearly responding to-- phantoms only he could see. Having slept not at all, it appeared then very sensible to visit the dead who had arranged so many powerful memories as a welcoming party. In the City, they left flowers or food for the dead, or burned letters with incense as a one-way signal into that place beyond the veil. Erik had brought with him on his journey two large slabs of moonstone, and the tools with which he would personally attend to his parents' grave. Reverently, he'd polished the great chalcedony and lapis tomb in which Mama lay, fingers intertwined with those of her omega veritas.

Vater had survived the initial explosion at Mama's lab, only to to face an arguably far more agonizing death himself-- that of a broken bond. A slow end, by comparison, but it had delivered Jakob to his alpha's side in less than a week. The mausoleum had been closed following the alpha's interment, but left unsealed in anticipation; only when her omega last lay with Edie, in death as he had in life, had the tomb been closed for good.

 

During that visit

(and it seems to him now that he was so young and untried, though of course he had been blinded by the bravado imbued in every university buck)

Erik had carved those raw moonstone blocks into a pair of kerubihm to guard his parents' catafalque. Such work always had a meditative aspect for him, but that had seemed almost a fugue, his mind returning again and again to one thought. Embalming was not the way of his people and, in defiance of general convention and his own young age, Lehnsherr had insisted on attending both interments. Even through the burial shroud-- so like a spider's web-- the boy had been able to see the damage only a few days had wrought upon Mama's beauty, though the cold had contributed its own unique alterations. Oh, the thinness of her hand as the Rabbi gently moved it to cradle that of the fresh omega corpse! As the grown Lehnsherr chiseled away, forming the serpent's tails and feathery wings of the new guardians, he'd wondered if his parents hadn't at last reached some alignment in their mutual decay.
Some coffers, some doors, were never meant to be opened again.

 

Presently, Erik finds himself staring blankly at the still-unpacked box on his desk, and shudders. Thin tissue paper

(shroud like, opaque as a century's veil of dust)

is all that obscures the sight of Charles' mysterious gifts. A bold breach of custom, like a bizarre behest in a will. The morbidity strikes Lehnsherr just as it had a the foot of his parents' tomb-- as offensive self-pity. This is a choice Charles has made, a sword swaying above Erik's head since the first set of letters they exchanged. Bemoaning it with morose sentimentality will not take back the years of forms, dissertations, and committee reviews Xavier has navigated to reach the gates of his vaunted Bassilica. Just as all the tears and agonized rumination in the world could not breathe life back into the shells of his mother and father.

Back then, kerubihm finished but unplaced, Erik had fled the Lehnsherr necropolis, berating himself with each step. Eyes hard (but not, alas, entirely free of unspilled tears), he had toured the mansion again, this time taking holo-stills of architectural elements with all the detachment of a man visiting a foreign coliseum. As night closed about the house, he'd lit every hearth and wired flambeaux in the East Wing, playing old favorites at loud volume on the crystal music system. Uncertain as to whether he longed or dreaded to further inspire his parents' ghosts, he'd spent the small dark hours writing to Charles, confining the letter to purely academic matters. In the morning, he had hired a discrete and trustworthy maintenance service and-- with instructions to place the new sculptures appropriately-- shut the place up, quitting Eisenhardt Demesne entirely.

With so little rest during his stay, it was not surprising that he'd slept soundly on the returning train, the sub-sonic hum of magnetic rails as soothing as the sound of a subterranean spring. At Unity Station, he disembarked to find the City as fresh and buttoned up as it could be ever, ready for the post-holiday return to swift business and shiftier politics. It had seemed as though the entire experience-- in a few hours and a few hundred thousand miles-- become entirely parenthetical, divorced from Erik Lehnsherr as he had constructed himself.

By the time he'd begun to climb the terraces to Signal Hill, damp with the fingers of twilight, there seemed little to argue the veracity of the trip at all. Only the stills provided physical evidence, and it was to be two years before his friendship with Charles deepened to a level Erik felt would excuse the lack of tact in sending them to Xavier. The omega scholar remains the only person Erik has ever shown them to. Charles' response had been a mixture of enthusiastic interest and subtextual compassion; a delicate balance which Lehnsherr still doubts anyone else could achieve. No matter the platitudes on the lips of pious sages or well-meaning omega matrons; there will never be a way to put the past-- and the dead one carries with them-- to peace. Thankfully, Charles assumed no such thing, though it has always been evident that much of the closeness and rapport in Erik's family mystifies the scholar. For all their differences in temperament and experience, that sharing and commiseration had been strangely cathartic for the alpha-- both the grown man and the still-grieving child inside. With Xavier's confidence, Erik felt as though he could shore up sensible defenses against the tumultuous emotions that had driven him-- with far more success than any physical enemy-- from his old home. The past was once more
(sealed, as a tomb, as…)
in its proper temporal place. There was a goal for justice in the future, and rationality once more reigned supreme.

 

Raking a hand through his already disheveled hair, Erik wonders where that sensible man is now. He's always prided himself on planning, strategy, and logic. Many an employee has added the qualifier 'ruthlessly' to that last one, in a mixture of annoyance and awe. They would be surprised-- though no more than he!-- to discover the wealth of wishes, intentions even, washed ashore in this emotional maelstrom.

They are not impulses of the moment, for they arrive fully formed, having grown somewhere in Erik's under-mind, without his leave. Like his parents' tomb, such unconscious depths have been sealed away by skillful pragmatism, the trade of I-shall-not-be-disappointed learned by orphans and exiles such as he. Survivors, cauterizing wounds with plans for vengeance, numbing their flesh even as they armor themselves for the endless march of living.

 

Outside, the fading light brings further clamor on the portico. Sam and what sounds like at least half a dozen of his friends are debating-- loudly, in the gathering humidity of the evening-- which of the district taverns would best suit their celebrations, or if they should venture across the bridge to the wilder environs near the Temple of Bacchus. Someone suggests a boudoir stage, where betas with less… classical theatrical training moan and pant on stage in carefully choreographed imitations of omega heat. This inspires a round of raucous laughter and, from the steady diminishment of sound, it must have universal appeal. If the bucks had lingered any longer, Phil would likely have shooed them off with his broom, before a Monitor came by with more serious citations. But no, it is clear now that they are going, the tide of their merry-making rushing them headlong into the depths of the night.

Lehnsherr himself has attended one or two of those lascivious pantomimes, bowing only slightly to the necessary social 'networking' available in those alpha dens. The longer he corresponded with Charles, the more such venues lost their already flimsy appeal. He felt self-conscious; always wondering what his friend would think. Knowing the scholar's words would take on a tolerant but faintly condescending syntax. The mystery of omegas fully fetishized, constructions catering to young alphas whose only real contact with the opposite sex would have been a parent or sibling. How strange that veiled world of intoxicating pheromones and enthralled emotions seemed to alphas on the cusp of their own hormonal maturation. Beneath all of that there was-- and is-- an icy film of terror, asphyxiating due to the loss of control. Erik remembers the headiness of his Atelier days, how each alpha carried themselves with confidence and thinly veiled contempt for authority, as if no one had ever set out to conquer the world quite the way they would. For all their enticing qualities, omegas could appear alien, vaguely threatening in their perceived sensuality. They still do, if Erik is brutally honest-- for it seems now that he has never truly thought of Charles as an omega in any tangible sense.
Any artist working in metal had to get burned at some point, he remembers his father saying-- the danger has to be made manifest. There's a difference between knowing the iron is hot and believing it.

 

Because he will not tolerate even an internalized assault on his personal honor, Erik reaches for the box without allowing himself another thought. The dye is cast now, and what in all the Imperium have his melancholy meanderings accomplished? Naught, for there is naught to be done. The only aspect he has control over now is how he choses to comport himself going forward. It-- like so many other obstacles he has encountered in adult life-- is merely an extension of the rigged fights at alpha boarding school, which had been designed only for philosophical 'triumph'. Otherwise, they were no-win scenarios, the prospect of which sank into each participants heart like the weight of a collapsing glacier. The headmaster-- Citizen Admiral Stryker, retired-- had designed them that way, soundly thrashing both winner and loser at the conclusion of each match. The punishment was exactingly equal. First, both victor and vanquished beaten with a switch they had to cut themselves and then with Stryker's sturdy ironwood cane, all in full view of their peers. The old alpha had said he wanted success itself to be the only reward, so that fights would not be won by cowards only motivated by a desire to save their own skins.
Lehnsherr is not now-- nor will he ever allow himself to be-- a coward.

As promised, the frothy packing tissue yields up first a bound book, one which Erik recognizes as exceptional even at first glance. The tome is cased in the faux-leather so briefly used by numerous groups of refugees and colonists in the single century prior to the Imperium. This alone makes the volume worth a small fortune, but it is only the most obvious sign of its importance. Embossed in long-worn filigree on the cover and spine is the title, Fragmentary Translations and Commentary on the Book of Re'ut, ascribed to Rabbi Hadassah Lieber.

Sure enough, upon opening to a random page, Lehnsherr finds each right leaf printed with Hebrew characters (of which he recognizes only a few), while the left ones contain text in Imperium Standard. The translation is indeed sporadic, and understandably so; no complete copy of any Hebrew text exists in the present day. The few holy books which did survive the massive cultural devastation of the Great Burn are only bits and pieces-- half-decayed papers or postwar parchment, not to mention data devices with corrupted lines of code and odd, defaulting characters.

This particular book is well known for being the most intact within his particular culture, but Erik has never seen it presented in anything other than the common tongue, much less actually bound in such a vintage manner. The story itself has always confused scholars, who have never been able to ascertain exactly how the Hebrew language indicated primary gender. Among the remnants of Earth's old tongues, German is perhaps the easiest to discern, since 'der', 'die', and 'das' obviously represented alpha, omega, and neuter (or, in the case of human beings, beta). Gender specificity for both primary and secondary characteristics seems to have been rare in Japanese, which has led many a historian to theorize that the society suffered a disproportionate population of betas. Examples of Chinese or English texts are almost nonexistent, for reasons as varied as the fragments themselves. Certainly, the scientists who set out to rebuild society were quick to translate the most vital of those works, all of which exist today in perfect, normalized translations. What happened to the originals is a subject of rigorous-- and carefully monitored-- debate.

Linguistic vagaries aside, the Book of Re'ut's subject is clear. It is an affirmation of, and ode of praise for, one omega's devotion to her alpha, Noomi. "Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go"; words inscribed within the cuff and collar of Lehnsherr's own parents, where they would rest as a reminder against the skin.

 

A harsh bark of laughter breaks the morbid silence of his chambers, startling Erik even though he is well aware the sound is his alone. It is a physical manifestation, as well as an auditory one, experienced as the scrape of a scimitar against the back of his throat. Stifling it immediately, the alpha tells himself the black mirth is unkind, disregarding the notion that allowing it to continue would court an escalation to screams.

Charles
(is leaving him, is going where Erik cannot follow)
would be hurt, if he knew. The omega's sole motivation in obtaining the book was obviously thoughtfulness-- an appreciation of Lehnsherr's culture as well as the memory of his parents.
There is no message of bleak irony to be read therein.

 

Setting the tome carefully aside on the desk, Erik finds the second layer of wrapping conceals plush folds of the deepest midnight blue. An eiderdown quilt, the kind many omegas have raised to a domestic art. Unseen and hardly sensed by the alpha himself, a tender smile plays about his lips. The fabric is beautiful and the piece is serviceably made, but it is not the work of the adept, angelic homemaker so often portrayed in omegan scrolls and advice columns. He can imagine Charles frowning at it direly, sewing away in service of geometry rather than flowing 'art', all while struggling to endure the idle gossip and chit-chat of those dinner parties somehow considered so vital to business and political networking.

As promised, it is devoid of the ubiquitous acorn, flower, and serpent fertility symbols which are the usual recourse for embroidery. Instead, Xavier has spread upon his canvas a sea of stars in gold, pearlescent, and silver thread. Erik's own father was marvelously accomplished in both sewing and needlework, often adding embellishments to his alpha's cloaks and evening wear only to pretend ignorance later. In this way, Lehnsherr recognizes that his friend was being honest. Xavier has no particular talent, though he has-- by unwilling overexposure, no doubt-- honed a skill in execution. Embroidery is one of the few acceptable pastimes for upper-class omegas; Charles would take up his hoop simply to busy his hands in situations where books and equipment would be deemed unseemly.

The scholar will shortly be beyond the need for such distractions, Erik muses dully-- and then pushes the thought away. It's easier to do with the soft material in his hands, which seems to soak up his rage and frustration rather than inspire physical demonstrations of such. The quilt is beautiful, more than the sum of its parts, and Xavier has carefully graced it with the alpha's favorite illustrations from Kesserich's Constellations of Earth That Was. The charioteer, the archer; the great slayer Perseus, with the alpha Queen Cassiopeia and her mate, Andromeda, nearby. This coverlet has spent hours in Charles' lap as he labored over it; a creation with Lehnsherr alone in mind.

 

Without conscious thought, Erik buries his face in the soft fabric, losing several long moments to a sense of peace and succor which conquers him utterly. This action, and the absorption in the sensations it inspires, stems from the most instinctive level of his being. The impulse to call out when a familiar voice is heard, to favor loved ones with a smile, to fear the dark or rush to aid when shouts occur; it is the essence of all these things and cannot be eradicated-- only concealed. It will be several more weeks before he realizes how lucky he is, or how cunning the hand (indeed, whose hand?) which wrought the alpha olfactory interface. Cognitive dissonance is the only possible result, for his body knows what comparatively little of the omega's

(his Omega)

scent imbued in the quilt cannot possibly support a veritas rut. He is quite fortunate in this way, yet utterly damned in another: a lesser alpha might not have been able to detect the intoxicating cocktail but, while his intelligent faculties have always feared the trancelike euphoria of bonding, the bloodhound within him has found at last its master's hand.

 

The fugue is perfect. When he raises his head, he has no time to wonder how he's come to grasp the crystal handset, much less enter the coordinates for Graymalkin Manor. The three tone chime is sounding; the call is being accepted, and he is on the spot.

"You've reached the Xavier Estate," a low, gravely male voice states, formality not quite masking the vague working-class accent. Lehnsherr recognizes it with something of an inward groan. Logan-- one of the household beta staff. Officially, the long-time groomsman and gamekeeper, he tends also to function as Charles' bemused chaperone. "How may I direct your call?" The alpha mutes the handset briefly, swallowing with an audible click, fearing his voice may sound as dry as his mouth.

"Alpha Citizen Lehnsherr," Erik says, though his own coordinates and security 'handshake' would display for the closed system he's connecting to. After some prodding-- a joint tag-team consisting of Erik, Charles, and the occasional contribution from Emma-- Raven has significantly upgraded the firewalls and encryptions for the Estate domain. It's still not quite to the level of Erik's own elaborate precautions, but it will easily withstand most competitor's attempts at industrial espionage and personal blackmail.

"May I please speak with Har'Xavier?" This is an atypical breach of protocol, even within the unusual friendship itself. Lehnsherr is almost always scrupulous about asking for Raven, from whom he then requests permission to speak to Charles-- though such ritual annoys the scholar to no end. Tonight, Erik's normally limited patience for these social acrobatics has vanished completely. He wants to hear Charles' voice, as soon as possible; for is not the omega who has taken such drastic action obviously the captain of his own destiny? Clearly, Xavier will decide when and to whom he speaks.

There's an almost audible pause from Logan, but Lehnsherr is quickly treated to the lower trill of his signal switching over the the laboratory transmitter. It rings for some time, but that is not off-putting. Only the Nameless G-d knows what chemicals or voluminous research Charles is up to his elbows in.

 

As he waits, Erik's gaze drifts to the window-- outside, night has settled the City fully against her breast. The lights from Signal Hill cast out their brilliance, reflecting in the still mirror of the quay and throwing a diffuse glow up to the low-hanging amethyst clouds. The alpha's own breathing sounds claustrophobic as it echoes in the receiver, the fine lacquer casing of which has warmed to match his clammy cheek. The air, too, is still and close. He can see, on the far horizon, the first of the City's many spring storms gathering its dark bulk for the attack.

"Erik?" there's the faintest questioning inflection in the tone, as if Charles has just woken and seeks belief rather confirmation.

'I don't know,' Lehnsherr thinks, suddenly asking himself the same question. 'It seems I have not known myself all this while.' And then, registering the slight catch in Xavier's exhalation, he manages, "Yes."

('Charles,' he is foolish enough to think, and wise enough to save himself from uttering, 'Charles, I could not give you up so easily-- not for sanity or pride, and certainly not over disapproval.')

The omega's pleased chuckle confirms Lehnsherr's suspicions. Charles, as he hinted in his letter, genuinely believes he might have pushed the delicate, unintentionally politicized boundaries of their friendship too far. Such censure could never dissuade the scholar-- dear, inspired, arrogant creature!-- but it would have grieved him. Even without overestimating his own importance, Erik knows it would have wounded the gentle intellectual far more than Xavier would ever allow to show.

"Yes," Erik confirms again, unnecessarily. He is gratified to have pleased Charles, to have lived up to the all-too-generous impression the omega has formed of his friend. So easy, and yet still such toil.

"I'm so glad you called." Words the younger man has spoken before, of course; the free-flowing, rote pleasantries involved in any civilized conversation. Yet the welcoming timbre renders them exotic, and Erik doesn't believe himself creative enough to fabricate that impression from whole cloth.

Words flow forth, along with his breath-- neither of which he had realized he was holding. "Of course, Charles, I had to-"

 

The statement hangs awkwardly, but to continue would be an equal blunder. Lehnsherr curses his own tongue-- it seems everything about his form and being are in conspiracy against him today. What in all the Imperium can he possibly say? 'There's so little time' is true, but it implies onus on Charles' part and would dampen the scholar's enthusiasm. Besides, on-planet delivery of scrolls and letters is quite brisk, which makes the sentiment reek of desperation from Erik's end. He should have taken a moment to sit down and methodically compose a message for the public queue-- that would have been instantaneous, therefore sparing Charles any suspense. But the missive would, by necessity, go to Raven first; omegas are not permitted on the Imperium network.

"Thank you," Xavier says, apparently responding to whatever meaning he perceives in the garbled words.

"Your acceptance to Athene's Basilica," the alpha persists, having never been one to allow the unforeseen to impact bull-headed execution of a particular plan. All the same, he cannot bring himself to actually say 'congratulations'. "To receive Orders at all, let alone at your age-- you must be thrilled."

"Oh, yes!" comes the prompt agreement. Erik can easily imagine a similar sound inspiring the pained, sad look on Raven's face this morning, and he is suddenly very glad he does not keep a mirror in his bedchamber. As if he can sense such wounding, Charles adds more softly, "It's sinking in now, of course. I've dreamt of leaving the Estate almost from the first night after I Presented, yet the thought of trespassing-- let alone never returning!-- seems nerve-wracking and impossible. I can only think of one thing in life I have feared and wanted more. Isn't that strange?"

 

Erik, as he existed when he rose from bed this morning, would easily have been able to decisively answer that question, rhetorical thought it may be. Now, there are no such assured, half-placating words at his disposal. Instead, he says very seriously, "I don't think so. Sometimes, the very importance of something-- it's emotional significance or potential as a catalyst for change-- can be so overwhelming that even reaching for it feels like you're making yourself unbearably vulnerable. Too much of a risk, too much possibility for…"

"Disappointment," Charles finishes. "You're right. I should have known you'd understand." The omega laughs, a trifle nervously, and Erik laughs too. Not at his friend, but at the notion he'd find Xavier's choice truly fathomable in the slightest. He has never found another person's emotions more wholly incomprehensible in his life-- a fact which stems only partially from his frequent lack of investment in those around him. He could be no more surprised if he saw Emma weeping, or witnessed his mother strike his father (the latter of which is, among his people, a nearly unforgivable sin). He can try to sympathize, empathize, rationalize until the stars fall from the heavens, but-- as with all sentient beings-- a dark voice continues to whisper, 'I want what's best for you, but what about me…?'

'Please reconsider, Charles,' the alpha wants to say. The impulse is so profound it feels like a sort of viscous parasite in his throat. It isn't simply an unfair request, it is also unforgivably disrespectful. Whatever basis his subconscious *thinks* it has for this selfishness, the empirical fact remains that Lehnsherr has nothing even approaching the right to hold his friend back. As an alpha, Erik has never been caged, condescended to, or barred from exercising his will. Any attempt to wield emotional leverage would likely only serve to cast him in the same light as those who have blocked, disapproved of, or abandoned Xavier in the past.

 

Charles is no stranger to familial machinations and loss, and Erik will not betray what they've shared by pretending ignorance now. Like Lehnsherr, much of the scholar's personal history is public knowledge, due both to the standing of his family and the unusual circumstances of his childhood. City society has not yet forgotten Sharon Xavier, who-- in one of those rare biological and legal flukes-- set aside her political marriage for a spontaneous veritas bond. Such instances were rare, and the only permissible basis for divorce or polygamy, of which she had chosen the latter. The scientific journals had been scandalized as well-- for Brian Gilcrist was an unpopular and bookish omega whose involvement with fringe gender-rights groups had shamed his own family. Such a disappointment, everyone agreed, when an already inconvenient bond yielded a child who could not inherit! The added complexities of the first mate, Kurt Marko, and his tenacious hold on the family fortunes via Raven, had provided the gossip scrolls with fresh and titillating fodder for the next twenty years. By the time Marko's alpha daughter became a graduate at the Engineering Atelier, she was already the object of much speculation, and socially isolated enough that Charles had-- with uncharacteristic timidity-- asked Lehnsherr if he might at least show her around campus.

Erik more than understood the desire to protect one's few remaining loved ones and companions, and he still does. He will have to choke down these sentiments-- he knows too well where his friend's scars lie to consider doing otherwise. To give them voice would be incendiary, even given Xavier's usual patient temperament. Lehnsherr doesn't want to fight.

(Oh, Nameless G-d, do not let them fight if they have so little time left!)

He has never exercised this much restraint in his life.

 

With the deft touch of a guilty man, he nudges the conversations away from any understanding, or lack thereof. "This translation-- Charles, it's amazing." He fingers the tome with cautious admiration. "The condition is remarkable, especially considering the binding."

"The faux-leather is quite marvelous, isn't it?" Xavier agrees, unconsciously slipping into an intellectual enthusiasm that outshines many a scientist in Lehnsherr's employ. "If you look at the title leaf, you can see they printed it themselves at the settlement in Beth Miqlat."

Though his friend cannot see it, Erik's eyebrows fly up in surprise as he finds this is true. No wonder the paper is of such thick, fine quality, despite the antique colonial period. Many early settlers had brought with them 'printing press' technology capable of creating objects from raw organic or inorganic material, and were therefore able to establish outposts that were remarkably self-sufficient. Such devices -- or so Erik remembers from long, hot afternoons of history drills-- became impossible to obtain once the Imperium took over guardianship and regulation of those tools considered unsafe in the hands of the citizenry.

"A magnificent find," he praises, smiling. The tome in his hands has acquired new weight, a faint whiff of the prohibited that makes him feel as though he and Charles are in collusion. The omega has taken a risk-- a slight one, yes; a matter of a fine and a lingering notation in his Imperium file, but a risk all the same-- to obtain this. From anyone else, the value of the object and the possibility of censure would cause Lehnsherr to refuse the gift. Even polite graces indicate the need for token protests, the ever-popular 'it's too much', but Erik will not insults this sign of trust.

 

Absurdly, it makes him think of his school days, when small bands of alphas would set out to prove their hypaspistes devotion by making stealthy expeditions into the forbidden Temple Districts. The goal laid not only the trespass itself, but in obtaining some token that would serve as testament to their daring. Merchants of all kinds set their wares out before the 'Alphas Only' entrances to the tri-ed temples, or in the inner sanctums of alpha gods like Aries and Artemis. Unguents and tinctures for increased virility or more potent seed; toys to stave off an omega's pleasure, lengthening heat until both parties' satisfaction became explosive; bindings, exotic collars, and furniture suited to the dedicated attention omegas needed at the height of their cycle. The boudoir stages clustered on the outskirts, and upper-form alphas would up the ante by pressing one another with dares to infiltrate despite being underage. Every street was crowed with storefronts,; there were shops catering to the beauty and comfort of omegas, services forecasting the destinies of children in the womb, and bookshops which sold folios or woodcuts considered a bit too intimate to make it past communications censors.

Such antics were expected on the part of young alphas, so that the collection of such items was well known but deliberately ignored by school administrators. They only cared if you couldn't pull it off, or-- as in Erik and Emma's case-- you tended not to participate. He'd held onto too many cultural prohibitions, despite having mislaid his belief in the actual Nameless G-d, to find the circulating contraband interesting as anything other than a curiosity. At any rate, the only comrade he would have trusted for such scouting would have been Emma, who avoided such things for her own reasons.

 

Sharing this illicit excitement with Charles makes up for that a bit, odd though it may seem. Certainly, the omega himself would likely find the comparison objectionable-- but then, Xavier had a sibling to plan capers with, which might be a more acceptable analogy. Playfully, Erik asks, "However did you convince someone to part with this?"

"Several referrals and months of correspondence, I must confess," Charles says confidingly, and proceeds to regale Lehnsherr with the often amusing and sometimes intensely odd discussions he encounters via his contacts in more… theoretical areas of scholarship. Some of them-- like Hank McCoy-- are betas whose theories, while radical, are making inroads with mainstream research groups. Others have crossed deliberately into the fringe, tarnishing their reputations. A few are omegas like Xavier himself who, having attained a solitary education via their own tenacity and intelligence, have no obligation to follow a particular party line.

"It was actually Foster who directed me to someone who-- g-ds help me-- had a family collection they weren't even interested in," the scholar sighs with theatrical despair, making Erik laugh. The rag-tag band of intellectuals Charles has gathered around him have interests spanning everything from polymorphic evolution and pre-Burn history, to omegaist politics and wild conspiracy theories about the exodus from Old Earth. In some cases, Erik has had to fuss-- or, rather, temper his concern-- at Charles for mentioning subjects which could be construed as disloyal, pathologically rebellious, or having anarchist sympathies. Xavier rarely appreciates the 'overbearing' attitude, but at least Erik has a business excuse to be assiduous about the communications technology Raven employs.

"At any rate, once Foster and I finished quarreling about the location of New New York, I was able to convince her to help me complete my set of Portman's Fuel Wars and the Rise of the Saharan Empire. I traded that to Reed in exchange for the book I gave you," Charles finishes with satisfaction, as if he hasn't just confessed to giving up six lovingly collected volumes for a single slim tome. Erik's gift is a rare find indeed, but hard copies of Portman's work are not easy to come by either.

As graceless as this may seem, Lehnsherr cannot help pointing this out. More importantly, he chides, "Charles, you really must be more careful! Do you know this 'Reed' well enough?"

"I am not ignorant of the risks," Xavier replies. His voice is gentle, but a trifle cool as well. "Omega or no, I am an adult," a wry twist creeps into the tone, "biologically speaking, at least."

 

Before the alpha can protest that logic and protective instinct do occasionally align, the scholar segues into a related topic. "That does remind me, though-- given your broader knowledge of scholastic politics, it would really be much better for you to go through my library than Raven."

"Go through it?" Erik echoes dully. His gaze is drawn, quite unwillingly, to the pewter-hued carpet that encompasses the main portion of the room. He recalls the ridiculous imagery of paper pages like snowflakes, melting letters, and the stir of memory that transported him back to the mausoleum that was once his childhood home. He has never been to Graymalkin Manor; for reasons of etiquette and Charles' own avowed distaste for bonding, Raven entertains only bonded alphas there. Affairs for Lehnsherr, Frost and Darkholme Engineering are usually held in the opulent conference pavilion Emma designed on site, or at her own well-appointed town home. Gently, gently, he pushes the book to the farthest edge of the desk, trying not to envision stacks of tomes, rooms empty of his scholarly friend but still vividly embodying his presence. These gifts, while expressions of Xavier's camaraderie and affection, reveal themselves once more to be harbingers of impending loss.

"I can't take everything with me," the omega reminds him, tone as gentle as the touch with which Lehnsherr himself pushed back the book. The faint ice-prickles of pride have vanished entirely-- at least from Charles' end. Erik is aware he's being handled, no matter how well-meaning it is, and tries to summon his own healthy ego. He doesn't need this cautious solicitude; an alpha is in command of themselves at all times, with that one intimate exception. And yet a part of him sinks into Xavier's regard and the notion that his friend does not, in fact, wish to cause him any more pain than necessary.

 

He sinks down into his chair, making faint noises of agreement as Charles begins rhapsodizing about the texts in his collection. Some of them Erik is already familiar with through previous discussions, or actually owns himself. Others are so rare that Xavier has obtained dispensation to bring them to the Basilica-- a place which, more and more, is taking on the image of a black hole in the alpha's mind. The unknown, possessed of devastating gravity, and destructive to life as it is currently known. Too close to the event horizon and no one can pull you back.

Blissfully unaware of these musings, Charles invites Lehnsherr to help himself to anything that remains, and once more entreats him to assist Raven in selling the rest. At least, those which can be advertised without drawing comment.

"I'll keep them all," Erik says with absolutely no forethought. For some reason, the statement seems more telling than its prosaic surface-- but the alpha cannot bring himself to tack on any levity.

"That's very kind of you," the scholar says after a significant pause. Almost a whisper, pitched so low-- and imbued with such undefinable emotion-- that is almost some future echo. A sound that is already infinitely far away. The omega is cleary taken aback by it as well, for he quickly launches into a catalogue of those volumes he thinks Erik will particularly enjoy.

 

Charles has such a beautiful voice-- one particularly suited to the ballads and epic poems that form his literary indulgence. The diction flows seamlessly, possessed of a subtle and enticing rhythm that exists even without the framework of verse. With that accent curling around his brain and the exhalation of the faint lightning bolts already flashing on the edge of the City, Lehnsherr feels almost blissfully drunk. The air has become dangerously still, every coil of the storm tense but withheld. That anticipatory aura evokes far more pleasant memories of the Northland's great thunder-snows-- a mixture of a boy's innocent excitement and the vague hum of sexuality which so often lulls those in the throes of adolescence to sleep. Despite the stillness, one can easily distinguish rippling thunderheads in the distance, moving with the speed of driven beasts. Each successive line grows darker, ragged like lace woven by traditional omegas on the coast.

Singularly enthroned in the great study chair, star-riddled eiderdown wrapped over his lap like a well-earned prize, Erik's body sings. As the ornate lightning rods of the City spires do for the approaching fury, as crystal does for the notes of the most exquisite aria. Charles is musing over some obscure detail of chimera mythology, and the monologue reaches Lehnsherr as a thing entire rather than individual words. Will he sleep tonight, Erik's friend, curled up in the covered nest-bed omegas almost universally favor, while the Western rains lull him to sleep?

Thunder rumbles, as though in response to his thoughts, a boom like dragons who would-- as in legends of old-- so dearly love to carry off living omega treasures, to croon over and adorn with jewels.

 

"Yes!" Xavier says, and the alpha experiences a brief moment of rational horror, not knowing what he may have inadvertently said aloud. "The dragon is a common symbol, even in the collective consciousness of pre-atomic Earth. The tales show them as being obsessed with omegas, yet they're universally portrayed as sexually dimorphic, not polymorphic."

"What does that matter? Their interest in omegas was hardly meant to be taken as a literal expression of some mating urge. They were hoarders and guardians-- formulaic trials for the hero-alpha of that particular folklore."

"Of course they're symbolic." He's never seen Charles roll his eyes, but he can hear it. "The dimorphism is jarring, considering the collective unconscious they reflect. And we know for a fact that dogs were dimorphic as well."

"We're a higher order of being," Erik shrugs, slumping a little. He isn't at all bored with the discourse, but the day has been long and his relief at not having uttered improprieties aloud is great. "I'll grant you, in our more animal state, we may very well have also been dimorphic, but that would have been in Old Earth's stone age."

"Yet so many of the primates evolution credits as our forerunners are reported as continuing to present only two sexes well up to the Burn," Xavier points out stubbornly.

"Vincenza reports them to be polymorphic."

"Vincenza!" And there it is, every inch the Xavier hauteur even Raven hasn't quite perfected, despite Emma's less-than-patient coaching. "There's a well-bolstered school of thought suggesting Vincenza is a forgery. I don't think he lived on Old Earth at all. It's likely Observations on the Cocos Lands was compiled from stories of older survivors-- he was probably of the shipboard generation. Reed's trying to publish on it, but he's not getting much traction."

Lehnsherr isn't surprised, and says as much. "After all, it's still assigned reading for freshman undergrads."

"It's just… frustrating. I wish a larger sample of fauna had been saved." Charles sighs, and the alpha refrains from pointing out that such good fortune likely would not have helped much, in the end. What has survived has been so tampered with by Imperium splice-designers as to be unrecognizable to their Terran kin.

"So much has been lost…" comes the distant murmur, trailing off only to be punctuated by a timpani of thunder so loud Erik can almost feel it in this bones. Even the crystal set's transmission wavers ever-so-slightly.

 

"Sorry," Lehnsherr says, reaching to adjust the settings with sure fingers. "There's a storm coming up."

"A famous City storm." Said in such a way that the smile is clear. "It'll be down to just rain once it reaches the Casar Provinces. If only the City were on the transport route. There will be plenty of natural wonders to enjoy, but I should have liked to see it. And thunderstorms are so soothing."

"They are indeed," Erik says, barely managing to stifle a yawn.

The omega must hear it anyway, for he says, "Goodness, look at the time! I've been going on like mad-- I'm so sorry."

"Don't be. I lost track of it too." A glance at the mercury clock shows it is well past the second Vigil bell. Erik presses his lips into a firm line, fighting the childish superstition which begs him not to let the connection close. This foolishness must stop. He will talk to Charles again soon; will call as often as he can get away with before communication must cease altogether. The sentiment drifts to his tongue, waiting to be expressed, but again he demurs. It annoys him, this atypical furtiveness-- he has not checked himself so often since he left boarding school, and even then he had his ears boxed regularly. Even industry success has failed to yolk him; he does not suffer fools or idle chit-chat gladly, which means Emma usually treads on his foot at least twice in the course of a dinner party.

 

"I'll keep writing," Charles says, unwittingly soothing the wounded pride. "We'll talk again before I go."

"Yes." Erik pulls the quilt more closely about his shoulders, feeling enveloped as though by a sacerdotal garment. He's in shirt-sleeves and trousers, with all the chamber lights blazing, and the dinner Maria doubtless brought him is cooling, unseen and neglected, in the sitting room. He feels drained but warm, unwilling to move.

"The duvet is beautiful, too," he says quietly, tracing the outline of Perseus. "It's perfect."

"Far from it," Xavier chuckles self-consciously. "My Etiquette and Domestic Arts tutors despaired of me."

"I like it," the alpha intones, sealing the matter. "I'm sorry, Charles-- I should go. I have meetings all day tomorrow." He does not add that this is largely his fault.

"Poor thing." A phrase Erik would never tolerate from anyone else. From the scholar, it feels almost like a reward-- a soothing caress of his hair. "That's dreadful. Tell Raven she simply must assist you, or you'll use her bonus to secure your release."

"And wouldn't she love to know whose idea that was? At any rate, my scientific staff is rarely moved by finances."

"Ah, but all scientists can be seduced with shiny new equipment." Charles must be tired as well, for he makes an odd clearing of his throat, and the voice that follows is once more possessed of that solemn gray strangeness. "Erik. Erik, you'll be alright."

Lehnsherr doesn't respond, fighting the somnolent opaqueness of his senses and almost sure he hasn't heard correctly. He must not have done because, when the omega repeats himself, it is only: "Erik, goodnight."

"Goodnight," he replies, having just enough presence of mind to flip the switch on the handset and close the transmission.

 

He's tried, so tired. Rallying, he manages to stumble the fifteen feet to the bed, letting the heavy drapings shield him from the lamps he's left alight. By the names of all his fore bearers, he hasn't felt this drained and desiccated since the last time he went out drinking with Wilson and Rhodes! Too old to keep up the the college bucks-- isn't that a sad realization. At least this stupor does not pivot on horrible lances of pain within his skull. Lehnsherr pulls the eiderdown closer, burying his face in it once more.

The bed curtains are drawn and the chamber's tapestries thick-- there are none here to observe his weakness. Many would not know it as such, for there are no tears or dishabille. Only silence and unguarded expression, which are still too much vulnerability for a true alpha. Even Charles, whose countertenor tones are at once so soothing and yet so mournful, must never bear witness to such a display. In the morning, Lehnsherr will rationalize this however he must-- but dawn will only whittle away more Time and is therefore not to be contemplated. On Old Earth, during the post-Burn wars when omegas were few, it is said alpha warriors would often drag themselves into thickets or caves when fatally wounded. They wished to die in solitude; suffer the final defeat unseen. Erik knows this isn't going to kill him. In time, Charles may only be an old
(beloved, carefully tended)
wound.

Earlier, the restlessness in his joints, and the very marrow of his bones, felt insurmountable. Now, Erik is certain he will sleep, and dream. Perhaps he will even have the dream. He'd like to think so.

'To me, then,' he invites the specter, which is as opposed to his intellectual framework as the chaotic events of the day, though it is older and far more welcome. A comfort, tracing almost from his earliest graduate days.

 

'My arms are empty, empty. I open them to you.'

 

.