Chapter 1: Objects in Space
Captain Erik Lehnsherr loved space.
He loved how vast and limitless it was, how open. He loved that when he traveled to the far-faring colonies, to the distant worlds, there was only his ship and the stars and the great black void of the Universe; velvet and diamonds.
Most importantly, he loved that there weren’t any people in it.
“I’m not going to stitch you up the next time you go and get your head split open,” Ororo told him.
He was sitting, or rather sprawling, in the pilot’s chair in the bridge of his starship, long legs stretched out, head tipped back tiredly.
“Yes, you will,” he countered, smiling slightly. He brought up a hand to rub at his eyes. “It really was an untenable situation.”
“It wouldn’t have been, if you were capable of the least degree of diplomacy.”
“I can be diplomatic,” Erik replied, giving her a look. “I can even be politic.”
Ororo gave him a critical once-over.
Erik waved a dismissive hand at her, straightening in the chair. “Just get another medic. A competent one, mind you.”
“He was competent,” Ororo insisted, but finally sighed. “Fine, I’ll get us another medic, but so help me the Gods, Erik, if you shoot this one, I will eject you off an airlock.”
“It was once,” Erik protested, offended. “And I missed.”
“Because Sean threw himself on you.”
“I still have to talk to him about that,” Erik said darkly.
Ororo pointed at his face, frowning in threat. “You touch my pilot, Erik, and you will rue the day you met me.”
“Assuming I don’t do that already?”
The Earth woman ignored him with the ease of long practice, and shrugged into her long black overcoat. She flipped her silver braid off her shoulder and gave him a pointed look.
“I’m going to go and try to clean out your mess now,” she said calmly. “Do try not to kill anyone while I’m gone, hm? Think you can handle that?”
“If anyone pisses me off, I’ll just kick them off the ship.”
Erik grinned at her. Ororo, who knew how to pick her battles, decided that dealing with her captain’s madness was a matter for a brighter day. She turned on a heel and stalked all the way from the bridge, located on the bow at the top of the ship, to the docking bay at the bottom and aft.
The Starbreaker was a battleship, and though somewhat outdated, unlike most battle vessels the design of the ship itself was elegant and sleek, masculine, powerful, and quick. It was prepared to hold several fighters in is docking bay, and the space looked oddly sad with only three individual flight ships sheltered there.
Ororo’s own Storm, a Martian Belerophonte model, was the smallest of the three, glossy and black as night. The main body pod sloped elegantly down into the folding wings, now retracted up against the single-person cockpit, their curves arching calmly towards the aft of the ship. It was a speed-demon model, built for quick maneuvering and reckless flying, exquisitely sensitive. Ororo had had it for several years, and she loved it dearly.
As she climbed up the side-ladder towards the cockpit and keyed in the code to open it, someone else joined her in the bay.
“Going out, XO?”
Ororo swung herself up into the cockpit and smiled down at the Starbreaker’s slight, young mechanic.
“Our fearless leader got rid of your medic, as you know, so now I have to go find us another one.”
Raven pulled a face. “Good riddance, I say.”
“Raven, he shot at him.”
“He missed,” Raven shrugged.
Ororo gave her an exasperated look. “Don’t enable him. He’s insane enough as it is.”
“If you can’t fight it,” Raven smiled.
The second-in-command rolled her eyes, slipping on his black gloves and leaning a hip against the edge of the cockpit.
“Since you’re going down, could you try and get some more B-liquid cans for the engine? We’re not completely out but we’re running low. And we need to change the main pivot for the left turbine, unless you mean tom lose it somewhere in space. And if you could maybe—“
“Dear,” Ororo cut in, arching her brows. “There isn’t a single chance I can fit all that on this ship. Tell Erik, or Logan. Their ships have actual cargo holds. I’ll be back as soon as I can. And clean up that mess,” she added, pointing towards a corner of the bay, where a pile of metal scraps had accumulated over time, pieces of abandoned projects and dead starships.
Of course, Ororo knew Raven would get Erik to come over and clean it himself eventually—if anyone could manipulate Erik into doing them a favor by the art of smiling and looking innocent, it was Raven. Ororo, who hadn’t been able to pull off ‘innocent’ since she was seven and spent her days pick-pocketing gullible idiots in Cairo, admired her a little.
Raven was protesting something about how that wasn’t a mess, but brilliance waiting to happen—who’d let this girl near Tony Stark, for the love of the Gods—but Ororo had already slipped into the comfortable seat of the cockpit and the pod-cover was falling. The Storm was a light-weight battleship, equipped with dual cockpit wrappings; a snug, egg-shaped independent survival pod and an outer protection shell anchored to the ship itself, which made it so the pilot was sitting right in the heart of the ship.
She turned on the engine and brought the ship around towards the hatch of the docking bay, turning on viewscreens as she went. The clear blindex of the twin pods served as something of a windshield where she could see the space and the sky open up before her, with the added benefit of digital analytics running over the glass. A digital viewscreen was more popular in models such as the Belerophontes, but Ororo hated the idea of the screen collapsing and leaving her completely blind. The glass was more fragile and it provided less navigational information, but she preferred it.
As the hatch lowered completely to its sleeve in the bulkhead, Ororo lowered the wings of the Storm and throttled the engine to take off.
The Starbreaker had the wonderful ability to stay afloat in water, so Erik had decided to leave her floating in the bay by the city, where he didn’t have to pay for the docking space. Ororo knew this wasn’t just because he was a cheap bastard—not just—but also because ships that didn’t pay for the rent of a dock space weren’t subjected to identification of vessel and crew.
Erik and Ororo was not exactly wanted people, but only because the InterStar hadn’t been able to actually prove anything and make it stick. In any case, crews in their line of work were never welcomed with what you might call open arms, and Ororo thought it was just as well they stayed out of the way.
Raven watched the ship disappear, and walked idly to the edge of the bay to stand there in the soft marine breeze, sliding her hands into her pockets. She wished she had a personal starship to travel the skies at leisure. She didn’t have the money for it, but even if she had had it, she was a lousy pilot. Sean had tried to teach her a lot of times, but she got really nervous with the responsibility of it.
Before her the sea and the city unfolded together like puzzle pieces, fitting exactly against the endless dome of the sky, blue dotted intermittently with white clouds. Raven liked the sea, in the same way she liked space—because it meant freedom. Freedom from the tight constraints and limits and rules of her up-tight high-society family, which she had left behind in their grand manor in Westchester, Old Earth.
Raven knew it was a privilege to be allowed to live on Old Earth, a rare boon only the very wealthy could afford. But she had always hated how it was meant to be a prize of some sort, something she should be so very proud of. For her it was a cage, populated with people who would never approve of her, of her choices.
The Starbreaker was a ticket to the open skies, and her crew was the family Raven had chosen.
Sighing, she went back to the command deck and closed the hatch. She climbed up the metal gangways and stairs to the habitable space of the ship, with its long sleek corridors and pneumatic sliding doors. The Eisenhardts were three-level models plus upper bridge deck. The bottom level was the docking bay; the one immediately above was weaponry and engines. The top level below the bridge was living and common areas.
Raven could make the trip at a run from bay to bridge in less than five minutes; record time. It was necessary for her to be that fast because communications between bridge and engine-room were not always dependable.
Well, maybe now they would be.
At a leisure pace, though, it took her ten minutes to make it up to the living room, where she found Logan sprawled up on his stomach on the biggest couch, hoarding all the available space and listening to something on his huge earphones. They covered half his damned face. The other half was covered in hair.
“Hey, grease-monkey,” he greeted with a mocking half-salute.
“Hey. I need to ask you to go get something over in town.”
“No can do, girlie,” Logan grinned. “I’m all booked up.”
Raven knew that if Ororo had told her to take this up to either Logan or Erik, that meant she knew neither of them had anything better to do than cater to her needs. Logan didn’t look like he had anywhere else to be in any case; he was wearing dirty jeans and a tank-top that, if it had seen better days, they hadn’t been better by much.
“Get off your lazy ass and go get me what I need,” she said, crossing her arms. “Or I gut your Wolverine to get it.”
Logan flipped her the finger, twisting over to plant his booted feet firmly on the ground.
“You wouldn’t touch my baby.”
“I absolutely would,” Raven threatened, furrowing her brows for emphasis. “I need a turbine pivot and I can make one out of the spinal column of the Wolverine. It’s the only one big enough. I’d have to destroy it, but well, I’m sure you can live with that, right?”
It was a bluff, and they both knew it. Raven wouldn’t touch a starship as unique as the custom-made Wolverine, even if her life depended on it. But she could sabotage little things that would drive Logan up the walls, and that he couldn’t possibly hope to fix himself. Not everyone had such an intimate understanding of the vowels of starships as Raven Darkholme.
“Fine, kid,” Logan shrugged, standing up and fixing his tank-top, that had ridden up on his rock-hard stomach.
What? Raven wasn’t blind.
“Forward me a list of your womanly needs, and I’ll go get them. Be a dear and tell our charismatic captain I’ll be using the Starbreaker’s account.”
With one last companionable slap to the shoulder, he left her there standing on her own and went down to his quarters to put a clean shirt on. And pick up his pistol, because Logan Howlett never went anywhere off the ship unarmed. He didn’t go anywhere on the ship unarmed either, but that was another matter.
Just as he was bypassing the living quarters, one of the doors slid open.
“Oh, Logan. Are you going to the city?”
Logan’s eyebrows flew up.
“You got bionic hearing or something?”
Emma smiled that pretty little smile full of secrets she had, the one that made all men go mad for her and made Logan want to be a complete creep to her, just for fun. She was about a third his age, after all.
“I’ve got my ways,” she said, leaning against the doorway to her quarters in a long flowing silk gown in a deep green. “Could you pick some things up for me?”
“What am I, errand boy for the ladies around here?”
“You’re the one with the ship.”
“The captain’s got a ship.”
“The captain is going to shoot me if I ask him to run errands for me.”
“Maybe I’ll shoot you too.”
“Try it,” Emma smiled, this one a different smile, full of sharp edges and promises of a world of hurt. Logan wasn’t immune to all her talents.
“Fine, Whatever. Forward it to me.”
Emma nodded and waved her hand to dismiss him. Logan rolled his eyes, but disappeared into his own quarters, because he didn’t much like Emma, who was often a bitch, in any case. He could have done without the Companion, but the truth was she was useful, in some ways. Companions were well enough respected throughout the galaxy, and she opened doors for the crew of the Starbreaker that would have otherwise been firmly locked.
Emma watched him go, and slipped out into the corridor, gathering her gown in elegant folds into her hand. He sandaled feet made no noise against the polishes steel of the floor, as she moved like a ghost, soundless, through the ship, towards the bridge.
She’d only joined the crew of the Starbreaker a year ago, and she had found, much to her surprise, that she enjoyed being part of it. Of course, if the ship was in a different line of work, she would have appreciated it, but it didn’t matter to her all that much. It hardly changed anything; she wanted to be on the move, to sail, to see open space. She hated being controlled like a pretty little doll by the Houses.
Emma’s ideal state was to be her own mistress, catering only to her own whims, finding job and pleasure wherever she saw fit. No schedules, no orders, no rules. Her own person.
She trailed her fingers over the scorch marks on the bulkhead in one of the corridors, old remnants of fights, the last action of a desperate man. This ship was full of the ghost of the men that had died in her innards, but Emma didn’t mind; she liked the dead as much as she liked the living. Most often, she disliked them both.
She turned a corner and found herself face-to-face with Sean Cassidy, their gifted pilot.
“Morning,” Sean said, cheerful.
“Morning, dear,” Emma tilted her head, smiling gently. “I thought you were running analytics on the ship’s performance.”
“I am, but mostly they run themselves,” Sean shrugged. “I just check periodically to make sure nothing’s caught on fire.”
“That sounds wise,” Emma nodded, amused. “Do you happen to know where I can find our fine captain?”
“I never know where he gets to,” he complained. “It’s like one moment he’s there, with his lingering cloud of temper, and then the next you can breathe and good luck finding him.”
“Maybe he’s taking a nap.”
“I don’t think he sleeps,” Sean’s eyes were full of mirth. “And if he does, it’s with his eyes open. He’s creepy like that.”
Emma made a soft sound of assent and, with a whisper-soft caress to his arm, moved on towards the living areas.
Sean slunk down the corridor towards the electrical room by the engine-room. It was his duty to make sure all digital and electrical things were working properly, just like it was Raven’s to make sure all mechanical and structural details were up to snuff. Raven took care of the body; Sean worried about the brain.
The soul, well—the soul had to take care of itself.
Or at least that had been the state of affairs, until two months ago.
Sean found himself stopping in front of one of the private quarters. After a minute hesitation, he knocked on the smooth metal and waited for a reply. Less than a beat later, the door slid open and Sean was allowed inside.
The Reverend hadn’t done much with this space; it was ordered, clean, and very Spartan.
“Good morning, Sean,” the Reverend said, smiling as he rose from his desk chair. He had a book in his hands, which he closed to meet the pilot.
“Good morning, Reverend,” Sean grinned. “How are you doing?”
“I’m very well, thank you for asking,” the Reverend’s eyes were the most alluring shade of blue, stunning in their beds of thick black lashes. “How are the analytics going?”
“I was just on my way to check the electrical room,” Sean answered, pushing back his orange-red hair. “I was wondering if I could borrow another of your books, Reverend.”
“Oh, certainly, Sean, do have your pick,” the Reverend gestured towards his only luxury, a metal cabinet full of precious paper books. “If you’re at all interested in existentialism, the Russians are a must-read. It’s the top shelf.”
Sean wasn’t even sure what existentialism was, but the Reverend did normally provide with good and interesting recommendations. Sean liked reading; books taught him things when no one else would. The best thing Sean had ever done besides learning to pilot was learning to read.
Complete works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Yes, that would do. He stood, shifting the book carefully in his hands. He looked at the Reverend, his wide pale-blue eyes frank.
“Hey, Reverend, won’t you reconsider a small service?”
The Reverend smiled sadly. “I’m sorry, Sean. You know I don’t do that. Your faith is between you and the Gods. You don’t need an intermediary, my friend.”
“Yeah, but…” Sean trailed off, discomfited. He shifted the book again, noting the stark contrast between the paleness of his skin and the dark brown of the carefully preserved leather cover.
“I’m sorry, Sean,” the Reverend said again, reaching out to pat the pilot tenderly on the arm. Sean towered over the smaller man, but he always felt like a child when he was in his company. The Reverend was such a calm, composed man, with blue eyes old as stars. He looked young, in the right light, but it seemed to Sean that the right light very rarely fell on him.
“That’s alright,” Sean said, trying for a smile. “I know you told me you don’t do that, before. Thank you for the book.”
“It’s no bother,” the man smiled, more genuinely now. He was very fair-skinned and his lips were very dark; a strange combination, Sean thought, but very nice.
“Enjoy it. And as always, take your time. There’s no need for you to stay up all night reading,” he added, arching a fine dark eyebrow. “Remember, I’ll know if you do.”
“I promise, Father.”
“Hm. Go back to your duties, now.”
Sean nodded his head and left the room, already eagerly looking at the first page of the book. With some luck he wouldn’t try to read as he climbed stairs again. They no longer had a medic, after all, Charles recalled with some irritation. Which reminded him, he meant to speak with a certain captain about that.
He found a sweater and put it on. The cold of space got to his bones; the temperature difference between the Red Waste in Mars and space was drastic. Charles wasn’t yet sure he liked the cold emptiness of space, but he preferred it to the alternative: a life of confinement in the silence of the Temple.
He went through the corridors and down the maintenance tubes, through unused gangways and metal stairs, across corridors and passageways no longer used, towards the heart of the ship—a small little pocket of unused space, carved in metal, perhaps a glitch of design.
Erik was sitting there in the middle of it, long legs crossed, eating an apple.
“How do you always find me?” he asked, sounding resigned, when Charles slipped carefully down to join him.
“I can read your mind,” the priest answered, deadpan.
Erik scoffed. “Save your intimidating techniques for the gullible, preacher.”
“I’m not a preacher,” Charles replied easily, settling down next to the taller man. “If I was, I would be doing my earnest best to try and save your immortal soul.”
“And why aren’t you?”
Charles seemed amused by this. “I’d rather save my efforts for the willing, if that’s quite alright with you.”
Erik made a face. “You’re a horrible priest.”
“Yes, well,” Charles sighed. “I wanted to talk to you about the medic--”
“He was an asshole,” Erik interrupted, scowling.
“You shot him,” Charles said disapprovingly.
“Why is everyone so gorram stuck on that?” Erik glared. “I missed.”
“Not by virtue of your own good will, I might remind you,” Charles pointed out blandly. “And I do hope you’re not thinking of having words with Sean about it; he saved someone’s life, Erik.”
“What, you came all the way down here to discuss my lack of morality?”
Charles took a deep breath, searching for calm.
“You have a morality,” he said. “It’s just—somewhat twisted.”
“If that helps you,” Erik conceded with a shrug. He was eyeing he long curve of Charles pale neck, and had to force himself to look up to his eyes instead. “If I say yes to whatever bullshit you’re about to tell me, are you going to agree to come with me on the hunts? I could use a telepath, you know.”
Charles grimaced. “I hate small starships; I get space-sick. Besides, I’m not all that powerful. You might ask Emma.”
“Emma is an arrogant, self-serving bitch.”
“It would not kill you to watch your language,” Charles said darkly. “And it would certainly endear you to people if you were not an asshole to everyone.”
“It would endear you to me if you’d stop being a sanctimonious dickhead, but we can’t all have what we want, can we?” said Erik, without heat. He said this to Charles often enough, and hardly ever meant it.
“I came here meaning to help you,” Charles sighed, getting to his feet.
Erik dragged his eyes up from Charles’ dark lips to his eyes, frowning thunderously. “It would help me to have an able telepath joining me in the manhunts.”
“Oh, yes, I look forward to throwing up in your beloved Magneto.”
Erik’s eyes glittered. “One day, Xavier, I’m going to find out exactly who the fuck you are.”
Charles felt abruptly tired and wretched.
“I wish you luck in such endeavor,” he said, hoisting himself up the way he had come and leaving the Captain his own little comfort nest, alone with his thoughts and surrounded by metal.
The Captain watched him go; followed the fine arch of his long neck, down to his shoulders and the curving line of his spine, to his strong thighs.
Erik was not a stupid man. He knew a priest when he saw one, and he knew Charles Xavier was no gorram priest. Most of the time, with most company, he was charming and gentle and soft, all smiles and tender blue eyes. But catch him in the right mood, and his eyes were hard, the line of his full lips thin and sad. No young priest, leading the sheltered life of the devoted, had such eyes.
It didn’t help that for all of his claims of devotion, Charles didn’t always behave like a chaste young man. The days they got along, which were admittedly few, Erik very much enjoyed his company. The attraction was undeniable. Or well, at least it was for Erik; Charles denied it well enough.
The other thing that bothered Erik about Charles was that Charles pretended Erik to ignore that there was very dark side of Charles that could, more or less easily depending on the day, be dragged up. And that that side was a very dangerous thing.
Chapter 2: The Art of Getting By
Dr. Henry McCoy was—young.
He also had a ridiculous amount of luggage. He thus fulfilled two of the three requirements Erik had to feel entitled to intensely dislike someone.
When asked, Erik officially answered that the third requirement was to be a hypocrite. When asked, Charles Xavier officially answered the third requirement was to be a living creature of any and all sorts.
As Ororo introduced them in the cargo bay of the ship, Erik felt the need to be polite and welcoming with their new crew member, like so:
“This is really the best you could find?”
“He has excellent credentials, Erik,” Ororo replied evenly.
Erik’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “If his credentials are so impressive, why the hell does he want to get on my ship?”
This was sound logic. The Starbreaker was a bounty-hunting ship, which placed her above the scum of the Alliance Rim, but not by much. Any well-credentialed medic would not touch the deck of the ship with a ten foot pole, let alone think of boarding for an undetermined amount of time.
“Field medicine has its merits,” McCoy offered, pushing his glasses up his nose calmly. He looked coolly composed, which at least earned him some points with Erik, who greatly despised hysterics and whining. As self-restrained a he looked, though, Erik noticed he flinched whenever Logan handled his luggage with his usual unnecessary brusqueness and lack of care. He was probably worried about fragile, delicate equipment.
Erik should probably be worried about that as well, seeing as someone in his crew might need some of that equipment. He half-turned and gave Logan a hard glare. The man flipped him the finger, but started paying more attention to the crates.
“Enlighten me,” Erik said, turning back to McCoy with a stony look.
“Like emergency rooms, it forces you to think on your feet and make do,” the doctor replied. His eyes were a very deep blue, Erik noticed. “As I’m sure you can tell, I can use such experience.”
“So I’m to let you sue my ship as a school-hospital, and my crew as your practice?” Erik scoffed.
“Or, alternatively, you may let them fly off into space without a primary physician.”
“We’d do fine,” Erik said dismissively.
Now it was McCoy’s turn to scoff. “In your line of work? You’d have a casualty in less than a week.”
Erik studied him. He was a tall, gangly young man, dressed in the fine clothes of the Core. He had a boyish face with smooth pale skin, and the clever small hands of a surgeon. He didn’t seem like he’d had a day of harshness all his life, but Erik wagered that would change soon enough; plenty of harshness out in the black, where the only creatures whose company you could always count on were violence and death.
He leaned closer to McCoy, counting on his glare since McCoy was surprisingly tall, taller in fact that Erik himself. Despite the height, however, McCoy was anything but imposing, too thin by half and too unassuming.
“One misstep, McCoy, and I have you jettisoned off this ship in no time flat. You hear me?”
“Loud and clear, captain,” the medic said, voice and eyes flat.
Erik caught a flash of blue out of the corner of his eye, and turned around just in time to see Kurt stumble on the last step of the gang ladder and fall on his face on the deck. He winced. The toddler started crying in long wretched wails. Charles showed up suddenly in the hatch to the upper desks, a miserable expression on his face.
“You’re doing a fine job of this,” Erik commented as Charles rushed forward to pick Kurt up and rock him against his hip.
“He teleported out of my quarters,” Charles said, shushing Kurt and kissing his temple tenderly. “Oh, hello, you must be Henry; a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure.”
McCoy looked scandalized.
“You bring a toddler around in a bounty-hunting ship? Are you out of your mind?”
Erik gave him another flat stare. “You have a problem with toddlers, doc?”
“Oh hush,” Charles waved a hand at him, as if he were a dog rearing for attack. Erik turned the full weight of his glare on him but, unfortunately, Charles was immune to it. “Henry, Kurt here is Raven’s son. Raven is out skilled mechanic. You’ll meet her tonight at dinner, I believe.”
McCoy seemed like he had something else to say regarding the presence of a child in a vessel regularly exposed to violence, and he sanity of those who had allowed the child on board, but he visibly composed himself and turned away to care for his crates. This Erik approved; he liked a man who didn’t stick his nose in other people’s business.
He arched a brow at Charles.
“Mutant,” Charles confirmed, nodding. “Also a very able medic indeed. A good lad.”
“He can be an asshole as far as I’m concerned so long as he can stitch us up.”
“You said that last time,” Charles gave him an unimpressed look. “And then you shot the man.”
Erik opened his mouth, but Charles rolled his eyes and started up the stairs back to his quarters, murmuring sweetly to Kurt. He could probably tell Erik had been about to retort he had missed.
The truth was Erik had no fucking idea how he’d wound up getting his ship crewed by the most uneven group of people in the Alliance. He was, of course, used to dealing with people of all corners of space, from the top of the social ladder to the basest of scum, but even he had to admit his crew was a motley and improbable group of what was, very likely, sociopaths.
Take for one the mere fact that he had both a Companion and a Reverend on board. How did that come to happen to him, huh? What had he done to deserve not one, but two uncooperative and secret-hoarding telepaths? Emma, at least, provided some sort of oil for the cogs and mechanisms of the Rim, where a Companion was as high-up in the social structure as one could possibly get.
However, despite the obvious advantages, one had to wonder what twist of mind had brought Emma to the Starbreaker. No one from the Core that had two working neurons occasionally colliding would even consider boarding a ship and voluntarily moving to the Rim. Emma’s reasons for doing this were, as nearly everything else that was Emma-related, a mystery.
Erik hated mysteries.
But Emma paid for her passage aboard the Starbreaker by making life easier and smoother for Erik and his crew, and Erik wasn’t about to lose that only because it rattled him not to know what precisely had moved her to abandon an easy and comfortable life in the Core. It was hard enough to find any sort of comfort in space; he would not rob his people of what little could be afforded.
Charles, on the other hand—well, Charles really was no preacher, as he did not seek to spread out the word of the Gods. In exchange for his presence aboard the ship Charles provided minimal telepathic security, scanning all and any that came aboard to make sure they meant the crew no harm. What Charles’ religious ethics and morality would not allow him to perform, Emma did with little issue: delving into the minds of their targets to get their confessions and find useful information.
So all in all, they both served their purposes aboard the Starbreaker well enough.
It was not an easy life, out in the Rim. But you made do; you survived. You struggled, and you hungered, and nothing was ever enough, but you had yourself and you had your freedom and for all that it was a harsh, dog-eat-dog world, it was all Erik had ever wanted. The Alliance could control the planets and the Gateways and the Borders, but the Rim—the Rim was free space, open and vast and quiet. Violent and unforgiving, yes, but free.
Erik nodded to Ororo and made his way up to his quarters.
Ororo watched him go, and then turned to McCoy and gave him a slight smile.
“He has more bark than bite,” she offered.
“Does he?” McCoy asked doubtfully, arching his brows as he crouched next to one of the bigger crates and slapped it as if patting an old friend. He bent down to check something in the diagnostic screen, checking that the equipment was safe and sound.
“No,” Ororo replied honestly.
That earned him a half-smiled from McCoy. “Figured as much. Do you have an infirmary at all?”
Ororo gestured for him to follow her. They did indeed have an infirmary, and although it was far from state-of-the-art, it was clean and functional and well put-together. McCoy looked around quickly, bending down to inspect cabinets and opening drawers.
“I’ll need supplies,” he said, musingly. “A lot of things are missing.”
“Make a list,” Ororo nodded. “I’ll get them for you.”
She watched as McCoy confidently inspected the small operating theatre, sealed off the main infirmary by pneumatic doors to keep it sterile and private.
“Leave any darlings behind, doc?” she asked, idly enough.
McCoy gave her a sidelong glance.
“None that might miss me overmuch,” he replied.
Core people and their fancy vocabulary.
“Pretty kid like you? I’ll wager you’re a regular heartbreaker.”
“I’m not running from family responsibilities, if that’s what you’re fishing for.”
The kid was sharper than he looked, clearly. Ororo smiled and pushed off the counter she had been leaning against.
“Just so we’re clear, I don’t like boys that run from their girls and their swollen bellies. It’s the one thing that ticks me off. And you don’t want me to be ticked off at you, doc.”
“I left no one behind,” McCoy repeated, quietly this time.
Ah. Dead sweethearts and broken hearts. Ororo spoke that language all too well.
“Well, welcome aboard, doc. Make that list.” She smiled and left the doctor in his new infirmary to acquaint himself with his space.
Ororo was making her way towards her quarters when the ship’s intercom crackled to life and Erik summoned her to the bridge. She altered course and joined him there, glancing at the main screen with interest.
“A bounty already?” she asked, curious.
“And a good one too,” Erik replied, pulling up the files to show in the main viewscreen. Like the Storm, the Starbreaker had a double-glass helm window. Erik had been willing to sacrifice safety and functionality in order not to lose visibility should the electrical system crash. In this, like in many other things, Ororo and Erik matched.
Ororo looked over the information scrolling quickly down the screen against the backdrop of the sunset sky, standing behind his chair with her arms crossed.
“Where did you find this bounty?” she asked, blinking. “I checked the nets today and nothing remarkable was there.”
“Tony gave me priority. We have twenty-four hours to hunt this guy down and if we fail, then he puts it out there.”
Ororo looked at him, surprised. “And what is the reason behind this favor?”
“The reason that if he doesn’t, I’ll sink him.”
“Oh, so regular blackmail then.”
Erik waved a hand, “Just a friendly transaction. Between friends.”
“Friends coercing each other.”
“But friends nonetheless,” Erik turned the chair around to grin at her. “Now, do we have full crew or is someone not aboard?”
“We have full crew,” Ororo answered. “But McCoy told me a lot of things are missing from the infirmary, and we need supplies—“
“We’re short on time for this bounty,” Erik cut through, turning back to the console to activate the intercom and call Sean to the bridge.
“Erik, we need those supplies.”
“When was the last time one of us got seriously hurt?” Erik reasoned, spreading his hands, palm up. Ororo had to concede they rarely got grave injuries. “It’s just a short run and then we’ll come back and he can buy all the gauze he could ever wish for. We’ll have the money.”
Ororo nodded, just as Sean bounded in with his usual exuberance.
“You called,” he drawled, making a long face. Erik didn’t get the reference, but then no one ever got half of Sean’s references anyway.
“Take us up, pilot,” Erik ordered, turning around and getting off the chair so Sean could plop down on it and start up the engines.
“I thought we were gonna be lazin’ it around for a while,” Sean commented as his hands danced across the control panel, eyes darting back and forth as he checked screens and absorbed information. Even half-baked Sean could pilot the Starbreaker with the ease with which he breathed and ten times more elegantly than most Academy trained pilots.
“Change of plans,” was all Erik said, giving Ororo a dangerous smile as he slipped out of the bridge.
“I know that smile,” Sean said woefully, looking at Ororo with his huge pale-blue eyes. “That smile means someone is getting killed.”
“That’s what all his smiles mean,” Ororo replied helplessly.
As they ship began liftoff from the troubled surface of the water, Charles looked up from the book he and Kurt were coloring. There was a minimum of rocking as the ship took to the sky and began gaining altitude; given the size of the Starbreaker, it was truly remarkable that Sean could make such a smooth maneuver. Especially considering he was stoned half the time.
The other half of the time he was sleeping.
A caress-gentle wisp of a thought, and Emma entered his quarters, long, flowing silk gown trailing behind her regally. She was dressed in deep blue that day, to match the hue of her eyes. He long blond hair was loose around her shoulders.
“Hello, Reverend,” she greeted, coming over and sitting elegantly on the other chair.
“Good morning, Emma,” Charles smiled. “Any idea where we’re going? I thought we were meant to stay planet-side for a few more days.”
Emma shook her head. As the ship began to lift her nose towards the sky Kurt dropped his pencil and Charles had to rush to hug him and prevent him toppling from his lap. Emma watched the pencil roll away, settling back against the back of the chair and lacing her fingers in her lap.
“I assume we have a bounty,” she commented.
“I would assume as much indeed,” Charles nodded. Kurt wriggled, and the Reverend shifted him in his lap so he’d be more comfortable.
Emma’s blue eyes fixed on Charles’, frank and clear.
“You felt it. The anomaly.”
Charles inclined his head.
“Did you tell the captain?”
Charles shook his head. “McCoy is a good man. Whatever it is, it won’t mean us any harm.”
Emma nodded, eyes trailing down to Kurt’s tail as it came up to wrap around Charles’ arm.
“It troubles you?” Charles asked, curious.
Emma tilted her head slightly, in that gracefully puzzled way she did sometimes, always so lovely, always so graceful.
“No,” she decided finally. “That is not it. But something about it—irks me.”
“Hm,” Charles hummed, combing Kurt’s hair tenderly back from his forehead.
“What secrets we keep,” Emma mused, quoting an old poem, turning the silver links of her Companion bracelet between her clever fingers. The dark blue polish of her nails was glossy under the lamps, and the only ring she wore, the polished silver of the Old Earth emblem, caught the light in a flash.
Charles hummed again, thoughtful.
The vessel gave a long, harsh shudder as it went through the atmospheric field and out into the black, and the gravitational engines kicked in to compensate. The inclination disappeared. Kurt started wriggling again, eager to be free of the prison of Charles’ arms. Emma rose to her feet and picked up the pencil, handing it to him. She stroked his hair gently once, and touched the tip of her finger to the tip of his button-like blue nose.
Kurt blinked his huge golden eyes, giggling. Emma smiled.
“What a precious darling,” she said softly.
Charles looked up at her, and caught the tail-end of her sorrow just as she hid it behind the shields of mind and smile.
Of course. Companions were normally barren.
What sorrows we hide, he whispered to her mind, remembering the rest of the poem.
How little our happiness lasts, she replied, looking back down at Kurt and tilting the child’s head up with her fingers beneath his chin. How tragic and short our lives.
Kurt giggled again.
Emma brushed her fingers along his cheek, and withdrew.
“And so we wait,” she asked, once again cool and distant, beautiful like a diamond and just as hard.
“We wait,” Charles agreed.
Emma nodded her head and left without a backwards glance.
The intercom cracked again, subjected everyone to a long moment of unpleasant white noise, and finally settled on a clear channel.
“Everyone, be kind enough to drag your carcasses to the common room,” Erik’s voice ordered. “We’ve got group planning to do.”
“Oh, the joy,” Charles muttered, getting up and balancing Kurt gently on his hip. “I don’t suppose you feel like teleporting, darling? Hm? No? Walking it is.”
By the time he’d made it to the common room, the only one who had not yet arrived was Henry McCoy… who was probably lost because he didn’t know the layout of the ship. They waited in silence for a few moments.
“I’ll go get him,” Raven said finally, lifting Kurt into her arms and slipping through the hatch and into the corridor. Charles settled into a chair and crossed his legs. Erik, standing at the head of the table, glanced down at him as he did, and his eyes lingered on Charles’ strong fingers splayed on his top thigh. He then glanced up, caught Charles’ gaze, held it for a moment and finally looked away.
A few minutes later Raven and Kurt returned to the common room, McCoy in tow, all shy and nervous smiles and awkward hand gestures.
Erik’s eyebrows climbed up to his hairline. He looked at Ororo, releasing a short disbelieving breath through his nose. The Earth woman returned an amused look, crossing her arms. Charles personally thought it was adorable. Young, awkward love.
“Well, are we here to bond or what?” Logan crossed his booted feet on top of the table. Raven gave his cigar a pointed look, so he rolled his eyes, spat it out and put it off by grounding it into his palm. Raven and Sean winced. McCoy looked like he was beginning to realize he’d gotten on the worst possible ship. He wasn’t far off the mark, probably.
“We have a target,” Erik started, crossing his arms. “We have priority so we best get on it yesterday, people. Name’s Loki Odinsson.”
“What did he do?”
“Corporate espionage apparently,” Erik answered. “Punk sold off his father’s and brother’s company. Now his daddy’s understandably ticked off and wants him dragged back home for, shall we say, words.”
“Words,” Charles repeated, arching a brow.
Erik shrugged. “I don’t care what he does with the asshole once he has him. We just have to find him and dragging kicking and screaming back home to the Asgard IV colony. Last seen in Pluto, so lucky you, Wolverine, you get to visit home ground.”
“I’m so excited,” was the flat response.
“Yes, I can tell by your dead eyes,” Erik nodded.
McCoy moved closer to the table, raising a hand to forestall further conversation momentarily.
“We’re going out into space, to hunt down a criminal, with minimal medical supplies,” he said very calmly. “Obviously nothing I say will make us turn around, so I need you to make an effort not get your skulls split open. I would appreciate that. I might consider it a personal favor, even.”
“Isn’t that what we’ve got you for?” Logan retorted.
“Yes, but I can’t very well keep your brain inside your skull without morphine, which we are out of, and the rest of the crew on this ship doesn’t have a healing factor.”He pointedly glanced down at Logan’s unblemished hand. The man gave him a toothy grin.
“Smart cookie, huh?”
“Yes, he can deduct things from obvious facts. His parents must be so proud,” Erik interrupted. “Listen. This kid’s got something up his sleeve, according to Tony, so we’re going to be careful. We’re en route to Pluto now; we’ll be there in—“
Sean rocked his chair back and forth.
“Sean,” Ororo hid a smile.
“Was I supposed to talk there?”
“Oh. Well give me a cue or something. Uh, about four hours, give or take.”
“Right,” Erik said, as if he could swing the conversation back to its previous pace. “We have four hours to gather all the info we can on this asshole and be ready. Now get.”
The crew filed out of the room in different directions. Charles remained sitting down, legs crossed, fingers laced, pensively contemplating the situation. Erik pulled the chair out from the heads of the table and sat. When he crossed his own legs, his calf brushed up against Charles’. The Reverend inclined his head, but didn’t move away.
“You’re about to object to this mission, aren’t you,” Erik laced his fingers, parodying Charles’ position. The one thing missing was Charles’ effortless grace and poise, which Erik couldn’t hope to ever live up to. The man moved like a gorram king.
“It’s a family matter, Erik,” Charles replied softly.
“They put the bounty out,” Erik pointed out.
“A brash action born of helplessness and rage, I believe.”
“It’s out there all the same.”
Charles glanced away.
“We need the money,” Erik spread his hands. “Simple as that.”
Charles arched his brows. “You seek justification?”
“I don’t have to justify myself to anyone, let alone you,” Erik stated. “I’m just telling you the way things are.”
Charles’ eyes moved again, traveling across the room in search of something he was unlikely to locate. He turned his head and the tendon connecting his collarbone to the spot behind his ear stood out, tense. For a lone moment the only part of his body that moved was his chest as he breathed and tried to find the words to express his conflict. Erik gave him the time he needed; it was rare you got a good outcome from rushing Charles Xavier.
“Such matters should be left to be dealt with by blood,” he said at last, giving Erik a hard look. “His family wants him back badly enough to pay and risk his harm by strangers yet they won’t move to bring him back himself?”
“Maybe they’re afraid of the black. Lots of people are.”
“Maybe they know something they haven’t said,” Charles countered. “I can’t stop you from doing whatever you wish, captain, but I do beg you to be careful as you go.”
“Well,” Erik said slowly, leaning forward, closer to Charles. The Reverend always smelled faintly of paper; he wore no cologne and bathed with neutral scentless soap. Erik appreciated that. “If you came with me and scanned him before I bring him along, that would help me avoid risks.”
The Reverend gave him a flat look.
“Good day, captain, and good hunting,” he said politely. He turned his chair, ignoring the way their knees bumped together, and left the common room.
Erik shrugged. It was worth the try. If this was a game consisting of which one of them could be the most stubborn and break the other one, Erik was pretty certain he had, if not the lead, at least equal skill.
Ororo and the captain withdrew to the office, and there poured over every bit and scarp of information they could find on Loki Odinsson. Orphaned within the year of his birth, Loki had then been adopted by Odin Odinsson (who named his kid that? That was just cruel) and his wife Frigg. The couple already had one toddler son, Thor, who’d grown up to be your stereotypical football jock, only then had surprisingly turned out to have a brain.
“No wonder he backstabbed this dickhead,” Erik said, dropping his stylus pen and pinching his nose. “Shoving people in lockers? I’m surprised he didn’t shoot him. I hate bullies.”
“Seems to me like Loki gave as good as he got,” Ororo pointed out, going over the many records of Loki’s own school suspensions due to unnecessarily cruel pranks.
Despite his evident behavioral issues, Loki had a record of stellar grades in both primary and high school, the latter of which he graduated early to enter a private University in Jupiter’s Callisto moon. Therein he had studied for three years to get a major in Business Managing, then moving forward to get a Masters Degree in Risk and Opportunity; but a year into the MD he’d abruptly dropped out and turned, inexplicably, towards the military, where he’d instantly slotted into the Strategy track.
“That is rather drastic,” Ororo mused, frowning.
“I reckon something happened to him that year,” Erik nodded. “Think daddy and brother had something to do with it?”
Ororo nodded. “But what really bugs me about this is the military background. Graduated Strategy at the top of his class; aptitude tests off the charts; almost immediately advanced to Commander and First Officer aboard the Alliance Starfleet Vessel heavy battle cruiser Galactica?” she raised her eyes. “That was Starfleet’s flagship until a year ago when the Sunhawk was christened, Erik.”
Erik sat back in his chair, scratching his chin. “So this gifted and able Commander, a strategic genius of epic proportions, wakes up one morning and decides he’s going to ruin his career and risk court-martial to screw over daddy dearest?”
Family issues indeed, Erik mused.
“My question is, why isn’t Starfleet hunting him down?”
Erik laughed bitterly. “And risk pissing off one of their sharpest strategists? Mark my words, as soon as the Odinssons are done with his hide, he’ll be shipped back to Starfleet HQ, slapped, and then put right back aboard the Sunhawk. They can’t lose this sort of asset.”
Ororo rubbed her eyes. “This is no kitten we’re after, Erik.”
“It’s a lot of money,” Erik gritted his jaw. “Money we need. We’ll just have to tread carefully.”
His second-in-command looked unconvinced, but she too saw the need to get a plentiful bounty that would allow them to make necessary repairs to the Starbreaker, as well as buy groceries and supplies they were sorely missing.
They arrived at the vicinities of Pluto within the fourth hour of travel, and Sean eased the ship into orbit with practiced grace.
Erik gathered the crew back in the common room for one last update of the situation.
“Ororo and I are going to go down to the surface to try and flush Odinsson from his cubbyhole. Sean, I need you to be paying attention to the communication channels and scan outgoing ships to make sure he doesn’t escape us somehow. Logan, you’re on stand-by; Odinsson is one slippery little shit, so I need you to be ready to catch him up if he dodges us.”
Logan saluted him like an asshole.
“The rest of you, try not to get in our way.”
Charles arched his brows, but said nothing even when Erik fixed him with a look, expecting an argument. It seemed Charles had said his peace earlier when they were alone and had now decided both choice and consequences were out the reach of his persuasion, so it was with minimum fussing from Raven that Ororo and Erik boarded their ships and went planet-side.
Erik’s Magneto was a Jupiter WhiteShark model designed for guerrilla-type fighting; fast, furious and extremely violent. It was equipped with enough weaponry to make a light battle cruiser think twice about looking at it the wrong way, and that wasn’t even taking into account Erik’s mutation. In shape it was something like this: long and sleek, powerful, masculine and simple, wide at the cockpit and tapering gracefully back to the aft where the machine guns were aggressively visible.
Needless to say, while Erik appreciated the fine details of the detective work involved in bounty hunting, he much preferred the actual physical pursuit and fight.
As he and Ororo tried to sniff out their target, Charles removed himself from the common room to the engine room, where Raven sat on the floor, playing blocks with Kurt.
“You have a bad feeling about this, don’t you?” Raven asked, making a face as he lowered himself to the ground in front of her.
“How could you tell?” Charles answered wryly.
“You always have a bad feeling about something or other.”
“I do not, I am offended—oh, hello, dear,” he said when Kurt clambered into his lap, fisting his little hands in his baggy sweater.
“He likes you,” Raven laughed, leaning back to brace her weight on her hands. “You’re like his uncle Charles.”
“Do you have any blood planet-side, Reverend?” Raven asked, curious.
Charles shook his head, pulling playfully on Kurt’s pointy ear. “Yourself?”
Raven shrugged. “My family’s in this ship,” she said firmly, leaning forward to comb her fingers through Kurt’s inky-black hair.
“And—the father, if you forgive my curiosity?”
Raven looked at him for a moment. She seemed to be looking for any sign of judgment or disapproval, but such was not the case; Charles really was merely curious.
“He’s got his own ship,” she answered. “The Nightcrawler. Schedules and hunting permitting, we have shared custody.”
“Bounty hunter as well?”
Charles arched his brows. “And have you not considered that way of living would be less risky?”
“Yeah, but—the Starbreaker is my home. Erik and Ororo took me in, you know, when no one else would and Azazel wasn’t around. I’m not leaving them.”
“As you say,” Charles said quietly, letting Kurt grip his finger tightly with his three ones and turn his hand around to trace the lines of his palm.
“Hey Reverend, do you still have that children’s book? What was it called, the Lorax?”
“Ah, yes. Shall I retrieve it? I will read as you work.”
Raven smiled. “Oh, yes, I like that. You do have such a fine voice.”
Charles blushed from the jaw up. Raven broke out in loud peals of laughter so hard she had to bend forward to bang her hand against the grill of the floor.
“Oh, do shut up,” Charles muttered, gently disentangling Kurt from himself to rise to his feet.
He jogged up to his quarters to get the book. Just as he was leaving, he hesitated and retracted his steps to knock on Emma’s door. As the door slid to the side she leaned against the doorway, the opalescent fabric of her gown hiding little of her body from his eyes. She smirked.
“Reverend,” she murmured, and reached out to unfasten the top button of his shirt, at the base of his long throat. “What a lovely surprise.”
“Emma,” Charles sighed, catching her hands and holding her hand away from where her fingers had been brushing against his skin. “I was just going to go down and read some to Kurt and Raven. Would you like to join us?”
“Oh,” Emma seemed puzzled and surprised by getting the invitation. She seemed even more surprised considering it came from Charles, but then it made sense, too; they were similar in many ways. “Why, yes, I think I would like that.”
“Wonderful, we’ll have a blast,” Charles smiled. “Do get a wrap, it gets cold down there.”
Emma gave him a genuine, girlish smile and ducked into her quarters to find a light blue wrap to put over her shoulders and upper arms. Charles gallantly offered his hands as they went down the narrow gang ladders to the engine room, and then again to help her lower herself to the ground.
“Such a gentleman,” she praised him, tilting her head in graceful thanks. She really was stunning.
“I try,” Charles replied, grinning, as Kurt climber on his lap and pawed at the book. “Now, now, darling, there we go.”
Raven slid herself down into one of the turbine hatches, wherein she began making noise enough to rattle the whole compartment. Emma moved closer and acted as assistant, handing her the things Raven required. Emma of course knew about as much about engineering and mechanics as she did about the mating habits of sea urchins, but a simple skim of Raven’s most superficial thoughts gave her the shape of the tools.
Charles read, slowly and patiently, enunciating the words attentively over the banging.
“I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees, which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please; But I also speak for the brown Barbaloots, who frolicked and played in their Barbaloot suits, happily eating Truffula fruits. Now, since you've chopped the trees to the ground, there's not enough Truffula fruit to go 'round! And my poor Barbaloots are all feeling the crummies, because they have gas—“
The Starbreaker shuddered. There was a long groan of metal. Charles glanced up and around, meeting Emma’s alarmed eyed.
“—and no food, in their tummies,” Charles finished in a slow murmur.
The crack of the intercom made them flinch.
“Brace yourselves,” Sean said, voice tight. “Incoming.”
The safest spot in the ship was the shuttles. Charles hugged Kurt tightly to himself and went for the door, but he realized quickly he wasn’t going to make it, as the vessel gave another long groan and violently convulsed. The gravitational engine hesitated and then reaffirmed themselves too firmly; Charles crashed to his knees and braced himself on a hand. His skin tore against the grill of the floor.
Instead of making a second attempt, he curled over Kurt and held him tightly, waiting for the worst of the impact to pass.
Only it didn’t.
They came, one after the other, attack after attack, getting stronger every time.
“The shields must be failing!” Raven yelled, struggling to hoist herself up to the grill. “You have to get to the shuttles!”
Emma stumbled to her feet and grabbed Charles’ arm, dragging him up and shoving him towards the door. Kurt wailed.
“Go with Uncle Charles!” Raven shouted, kicking the hatch closed and grabbing onto the doorjamb to twist into the adjoining electrical room. Charles got the whisk of a plan; strengthen the shields by deviating energy from the engines. It was risky and rushed but, very possibly, their only option; the deck trembled beneath the soles of their feet as he and Emma rushed up to the shuttlecraft bays in the level above.
“She’s not supposed to be there in a battle,” Emma said worriedly as she strapped Kurt down to one of the children’s seats. “No, baby, no teleporting, hush.”
Charles felt her block the child’s power with a simple turn of thought. Cruel but clever; they needed Kurt to stay put. Stunned by the sudden void in his mind, Kurt hesitated in his wailing momentarily. Charles took over the opportunity to catch Emma’s wrist in his hand. Her wrap had slipped and was hanging from her elbows, and her hair was in disarray, but she seemed perfectly calm.
“I’ll try to help Raven,” he said, bracing himself as the Starbreaker lurched. “Stay with Kurt. If things take a turn for the worse, abandon ship.”
Emma didn’t waste time arguing.
Charles stumbled out into the hallway. The ship tilted sharply to the side, and his shoulder slammed painfully against the wall. Charles gasped and clutched it, but found there was little time to indulge in assessing the damage. An explosion rocked the ship, the deck vibrating beneath his feet. It was muffled enough that it might have come from the cargo bay, but the most explosive part of the ship was the engine room, and if the bay, located just beneath it, went up—the engine room would quickly follow.
He practically flew down the stairs, missed the last step and fell to his knees hard, threw himself up and into the engine room only to find one of the turbine engines had thrust up through the floor.
He choked on smoke; fire had broken out to the right of the room. He snatched the fire extinguisher form the wall and put it out, then turned around desperately to the turbine; the rotor was still moving, though sluggishly and slowly grinding to a halt. The damage was catastrophic; even if the Starbreaker had been a brand new ship, it would take weeks to repair it.
With the smoke beginning to dissipate Charles caught sight of something blue on the floor on the other side of the rotor. He felt like a spear had gone through his gut; he rushed forward and shoved pointlessly at the huge metal form, trying to pass through the small space between wall and engine. He hastily peeled his hands away when he realized the engine was almost red-hot; of course it would be; what a stupid thing to do. He needed to think.
He ripped off his sweater and used it to bundle his hands in before he forced himself between wall and engine and to the small pocket of space at the other side.
Raven was indeed there, with her leg bent at an impossible angle and—and a lot of blood, Gods. Charles fumbled with his sweater and pressed it to the long gash along the inside of her thigh, holding to stem off the hemorrhage as he sent his mind flying out, Henry! Henry, Raven is hurt, engine room, quick!
He showed the startled, alarmed medic the way down to the engine room form the infirmary and then withdrew, aware that he was close to panicking. He couldn’t allow his terror to permeate Henry’s mind; the medic needed to be calm and composed where Charles was falling apart.
He took a long breath and tried to center himself. He sent his mind out in a wide sweep; Emma was still at the shuttle, sitting at the pilot’s seat. Kurt was crying in long loud wails, strapped and still in his seat. Logan’s white-noise mind was gone; he probably had boarded the Wolverine and joined the fray outside. Sean was at the pilot’s seat in the bridge, mind racing with reflexes quick as lightening.
Charles gathered himself back to his own mind and then, with one firm push, delved down into Raven’s. He found it beginning to blank out, thoughts spiraling down towards eerie silence; gently, he grasped them and anchored them back to her mind, keeping her alive. Her mind would not die before her body, if he could help it.
The problem was her body was dying quickly.
Henry stormed into the engine room then, coughing and panting, and scrambled easily over the engine, ignoring the heat to crouch down next to Raven.
“Artery,” he said briefly, and with one smooth motion tore open his med bag and injected Raven with a clear syringe. Working so quickly his hands were almost a blur, he bound the jagged cut to stem off the blood flow, and then without another word slipped his long arms beneath her and lifted her. Charles scrambled to his feet, hoping to help, but Henry didn’t even glance back as he once again clambered over the hot engine and then, swiftly, disappeared.
Charles was left to fend for himself, in a bit of a complicated situation. He pulled down the sleeves of his shirt and wriggled himself free, and then stumbled as the Starbreaker tipped brusquely to the side. Charles’ head hit the wall.
He came to moments later, on his stomach on the floor. He managed to stagger to his feet and get to the doorway. He swiped a hand over his brow; his fingers came out wet with blood—both his and Raven’s, he realized. He didn’t know how long he’d been out, but it couldn’t have been long. The Starbreaker was still now, except for the faint vibration of high-speed travel. The sound of it seemed different, though—more a whine than a hum. Of course, ship had to be limping with one of the four turbines out for the count.
He stumbled out into the hallway, just in time for Logan to barrel into him. The man lashed out and caught him at the shoulder before he fell again, but unfortunately it was the injured shoulder. Charles hissed.
“Damn, preacher, you look like death warmed over,” Logan said, straightening him as if he were a toy.
Logan turned him around to face the stairs. “I’m just on my way to find out.”
“What happened out there?” Charles asked shakily.
Logan kept a strong hand on his arm as they walked up the stairs, guiding him.
“Turns out,” he said quietly, “That the asshole was waiting for us.”
Charles processed that. “As in—us, specifically?”
“He’s a strategist, bub,” Logan grunted. “It’s his job to know how people think before they start thinking. I guess he knows his family well enough, which now that I think about it is probably why they didn’t go after him themselves. It’s no secret Odinsson deals with Stark. From there, you know, it’s easy enough to link Stark to Erik.”
“Of course,” Charles murmured, letting Logan steer him into the infirmary.
Erik was there, sitting in one of the chairs along the wall with his head in his hands. Logan pushed Charles down on the sat next to the captain, who lifted his head brusquely and stared at him, eyes hard.
“Raven?” Charles asked, voice breaking.
Erik gestured with his head towards the closed-off operations theatre. Logan crouched down in front of him and angled his head down by his chin to rub alcohol on the cut on his brow. Chares flinched and went to shake him off, but Erik’s hand caught his wrist and brought it down against his thigh, keeping it there. Charles submitted.
He sent a tendril of thought out, though, across the ship, to where Emma was in her quarters with a sleeping Kurt. Good; he needn’t stress. Raven would be well soon enough and then Kurt would get to see his mother.
And if not? Emma asked back, wretched. Shouldn’t he be allowed to say goodbye?
That is not going to happen, Charles replied firmly.
Logan cleaned his wound, washed the side of his face, put butterfly stitches on it and then gave him a pill. Charles watched this all happen as if from far away, docile and stunned, but unfortunately not numb. He realized it was Logan who needed something to do, someone to take care of as he waited, and couldn’t begrudge him that comfort.
The hours ticked by. Sean stayed at the helm, eyes peeled sharp for pursuers or opportunistic attackers preying on a wounded ship. Ororo was in the cargo bay, attempting to salvage what little she could retrieve, but soon enough she gave that up and came to sit with them in the infirmary.
Charles realized, abruptly, that Erik’s hand was still holding his down against his thigh. That, also, he didn’t have the heart to deny.
Right on the cusp of the fourth hour the pneumatic doors slid open and McCoy left the operation room. Erik leapt to his feet, ashen-faced. McCoy himself looked tired and calm, as he ripped off his bloody gloves and threw them in the incinerator.
“She’ll be alright,” he announced. He took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders. “But I need supplies, urgently. I’m keeping her under for now, but I need antibiotics, painkillers, IV bags—“
“We’re en route to Neptune’s Proteus,” Erik said. “There’s an atmospheric habitat there, they’ll have supplies.”
“Good,” Henry said, nodding. He rubbed the back of his shoulder, and spotted Charles’ pale face. “Oh, good job on that. Who was it?”
Logan lifted a hand. Henry nodded again, absent-minded, and went over to sit on one of the chairs and stretch out his long legs.
Erik towered over him, and then, suddenly, his hand was squeezing Henry’s shoulder, eyes bright.
“Good job, doc,” he said honestly.
Henry sighed and rolled his head back. “It’s what I do. But you’re welcome all the same.”
Logan and Ororo left to take care of the cargo bay. Erik sat down at Charles’ other side, leaning back and also stretching his own legs, so Charles felt dwarfed between the two tall men, small and fragile. He realized his hands were shaking, and laced his fingers together to hide it. Erik’s thigh was pressing against his own, along with his upper arm.
Charles knew he ought to move away—Erik was a very tactile man, and he took a lot of liberties with Charles.
He found he couldn’t. He reasoned that, maybe this once, maybe this one time—he could just allow himself to feel safe and stop.
Chapter 3: Backstab
Go shi: shit
Wo de tian a: good god in heaven
hwen dan: Rotten egg
Proteus Atmospheric Habitat VI was a large star-base in orbit around Proteus, one of Neptune’s moons. Its basic mission and goal was to develop atmospheric development programs and terraforming devices that would not damage the central core, or the superficial skin of the planets they operated on.
It was, primarily, a research and scientific facility.
By all rights Henry McCoy ought to have been fascinated to be given the chance to get a tour of it. Erik had been expecting him to be all over the place with excitement like an overeager puppy, and had accordingly steeled himself not to hurt the boy, whom he now considered part of his crew.
Instead, what Henry McCoy did was firmly insist that he could not leave his patient’s side, give them a detailed list of the things that had to be bought, and refuse to set a foot outside the Starbreaker.
That Erik considered this odd was mildly put.
But Erik had the list, and he had his priorities, at the top of which currently resided one badly wounded mechanic, so he didn’t question this; he simply took the list and prepared to get the supplies. On the way down, though, he decided to stop by Charles’ quarters and bully him into coming with him. Quality time, or something like that.
He pressed his captain’s override into the keypad and walked in as if the quarters were his own—technically they were, as he owned the ship—and was stunned by what he walked into.
Charles was an early riser, a habit from a lifetime spent getting up before the Sun for early morning prayers. The only person in this ship who ever got up before Charles did was Erik himself, who suffered from insomnia ever since the Uprising and could never manage more than four hours of sleep in a stretch any night.
Yet Erik walked into Charles’ quarters that morning to find him sitting at the edge of his bed, half-dressed, as if he’d just gotten out from under the covers.
It was nearly noon, Old Earth time.
“What’s wrong with you?” the Captain asked, instantly dropping all teasing and mocking. There was clearly a problem with one of his crew and he’d failed to notice. Unforgivable.
“You could knock,” Charles said through gritted teeth. Erik saw the way the skin around his eyes was tense with pain, the way his jaw worked and his throat moved as he swallowed.
“Is it your head?” he demanded, stalking forward to lift Charles’ face and look at the wound. It didn’t seem to be presenting any complications, but Erik wasn’t a doctor and his knowledge of medicine was rudimentary at best. Charles’ remarkable blue eyes seemed normal enough, not overly dilated or contracted. Telepaths did have sensitive heads, though, so it was impossible for Erik to determine how bad a simple concussion could be for Charles.
Charles eased his head back gently. Erik kept forgetting he wasn’t comfortable with close proximity, having been raised into an ascetic, monastic life. The times he didn’t forget, he ignored it. Charles knew how to tell him to back off, so when he didn’t, Erik assumed his company was either welcomed or, at least, tolerated.
“It’s my shoulder,” Charles said, gesturing to his left arm. “But it’s alright; it’ll pass in a moment.”
“Why didn’t you go to McCoy?” Erik leaned down and gently took Charles’ arm into his hands, easing it carefully up to rotate the joint. The muscles seemed stiff and a little swollen, but the skin wasn’t warmer than the rest of Charles’ normally chilled body. A large, darkening bruise had already formed, though, where the tip of the bone was closest to the skin.
“He’s busy with Raven. And it’s just a sprain.”
Erik stroked his fingers over the swell of muscle tapered off from Charles’ shoulder into his upper arm. “How do you know that?”
“I know some medicine.”
Erik arched his brows. “Did they teach you that in the temple?”
Charles waved a hand vaguely and shrugged his shoulder out from Erik’s hands. With only minimum difficulty, he put his shirt on and layered it with a sweater.
“They don’t have a store here, obviously, but they agreed to give us the supplies we need so long as we pay the right price for them. I was going to ask if you’d like to come with me to get them.”
“Oh,” Charles hesitated briefly. “I’m afraid I have to decline, my friend. I’d rather not step out of the ship right now; I’m keeping tabs on Raven’s mind, and Kurt’s.”
This was an acceptable excuse, of course, but Erik could tell there was something else, something Charles was not telling him. The truth was, however, that Charles had a small telepathic range, and if he preferred to stay nearby to watch over Raven, then Erik was not about to challenge his decisions.
Erik ended up going to the supply office with Logan, which would most certainly not have been his first, or second, or third option—actually, if he had had a choice at all Logan would not be allowed off the Starbreaker, because the man was a trouble magnet. As it was, he kept an eye on him.
Once the supplies had been finally delivered, Erik withdrew to his quarters to give Tony Stark a call.
“He saw us coming,” was the first thing he said as soon as Tony’s mug showed up on the screen.
Tony rubbed his eyes. “That smug little shit is smarter than the whole of Starfleet Strategic put together. Listen, Erik, I’m going to have to release this to open nets. He needs to be put on a leash.”
Erik dragged a hand down his face. “That seems like the only option you’ve got left. We’re missing one of the four turbines entirely and probably won’t be able to get it fixed until we reach Saturn’s Epimetheus.”
“Worst parts is know where he comes from.” Tony sighed. “I know someone in Epimetheus that can look at that turbine of yours. I’ll let them know you’re coming.”
Erik nodded and said nothing as Tony disconnected the communication. Of course, with the failure to capture Loki and having additionally put the strategist on his guard, Erik had wasted the opportunity his leverage over Tony had afforded him. For all he knew he needed that privilege, but he wasn’t about to break his promise to use that material against Tony after a favor had been done.
Charles had a point when he said he wasn’t amoral. There were many things he was not above doing, but some—some things he would never do.
He could all too easily recall the desperate measures that had been required to get him and Ororo through the Rebellion alive. Erik had been young then, brusque and brash, single-minded to the point of obsession. He’d been hell-bent on avenging his dead parents, killed in a purge on the Moon where they had been living at the time. Erik had known little reason, and Ororo had been all too willing to be guided, a teenager drifting aimless through the black in a stolen ship.
In his quarters aboard the Starbreaker, Erik took a deep breath and pushed those memories away. No sense lingering in such things now; he had done what had been required of him to survive. Once upon a time, his freedom would have been worth more than his life, but such times were behind him.
He went to lie on his bed, and in no time flat, with the ability of a true military man to take sleep wherever and whenever he could snatch it, he fell asleep.
In the infirmary nearby, Sean was sitting by Raven’s side with Kurt, reading aloud from a children’s book he had borrowed from Charles. As he read he mentally went through all of the things the ship needed repaired with urgency. Chief amongst them was the shattered shields; the weapons Loki’s personal ship, an Old Earth Trickster model, designed for camouflage and silent attack, had thrown at the Starbreaker had been very powerful.
The problem with shielding a ship as out of date as an Eisenhardt model was that the shields served two function: keeping the attackers out, and keeping the air and crew in. Without them the life-support collapsed. Newer ships were very nearly fail-proof in that regard, but the Eisenhardts had a solid two decades over the state-of-the-art models with air chambers and jettison functions. The ships designed after the Reichenbach disaster had auto-healing functions that automatically closed off damage parts of the ship and jettisoned them into space if they endangered the prolonged safety of the crew.
Sean felt a chill whenever he thought of the Reichenbach. He’d only been twelve years old when the space station had fallen apart after being hit by an unexpected asteroid. No one understood how they hadn’t seen it coming, or how the asteroid had failed to be destroyed by the many security systems and orbiting starships. It had been Starfleet’s biggest regret and shame. The only comfort was it had been a small station with a total of only ten thousand inhabitants. Four thousand five hundred and thirty two people dead, five thousand four hundred and sixty-eight homeless and lacking all possessions. It was staggering. No one had been prepared for such a catastrophe.
Back then Sean had been living in New Earth Space Station 513, the Astra, one of the biggest ones housing over five million people. The disaster of the Reichenbach had hit him like a punch to the gut, instilling a deep-rooted terror that such thing could easily happen to his own home. He had taken pilot lessons and abandoned the station as soon as he was legally allowed, at the age of eighteen, and since then he still had a nearly religious panic whenever they were forced to dock on a station, rather than planet-side.
With the remaining three turbines in working order they could still move around, but they wouldn’t reach the Starbreaker’s maximum speed, which was actually her biggest asset. Of course, the Starbreaker couldn’t possibly hope to compete with modern ships in terms of speed, but it was extremely rare that bounty-hunters could afford the newer models, and even though it was twenty years old, it was one of the fastest in the business.
And Sean was one of the best pilots in the System.
So the fact that they had been so easily targeted and attacked by their mark rattled Sean to the bones. Clearly, Loki had known to tell his hired guns to aim at the weakest spot in the Eisenhardt models, which was the junction of the hull and the lower turbines; with the shields coming down and the turbines puncturing the hull, they had been lucky not to peel apart like a can of dried fruit. He didn’t know whether this had been calculated or Loki had hoped they’d die. Either way, Loki was an a-class asshole and Sean hoped Erik got him and beat him to a pulp.
McCoy came in then, checked Raven’s vitals and replaced one empty IV bag with a fresh one.
He looked at Sean, smiling slightly.
“You’ve read the same paragraph three times, Sean.”
“Huh? Oh, shit. Sorry, Kurt.”
“She’ll be alright, you know, I’m just keeping her under everything heals perfectly.”
“Yeah, right. I’m just,” he waved a hand vaguely.
“It wasn’t your fault,” McCoy said calmly, not looking at Sean. The young medic was proving to be very shrewd, and extremely perceptive. It was a little creepy, and the fact Sean thought he was creepy when he’d been in close contact with two telepaths for last couple of months had to tell you something.
“Well, I’m trained in evasive maneuvers so—“
“Odinsson sounds like a very competent enemy,” McCoy commented, paying attention to the monitors above Raven’s biobed and making notes in his hand-held pad. “He was as prepared for us as only a very good strategist can be. No pilot, no matter how genius, can perform evasive maneuvers against five compact battle starships. Don’t hold it against yourself.”
Though he didn’t quite believe it yet, Sean appreciated hearing it.
“You’re sort of clever, dude,” he said, blinking at the medic.
McCoy smiled slightly. “My minor was in psychiatry.”
“Huh? But you’re, what, twenty? How can you have one of those?”
“I’m twenty-six,” McCoy corrected. “And I started university at sixteen. I’ve had plenty of time.”
“You’re creepy smart, doc, creepy smart.”
“Thank you, I believe?” McCoy tilted his head, amused.
Kurt made a noise of complaint, seemingly bored with the adults’ conversation, and reached for the book. Sean held it out of his hands, mumbling ‘okay, okay’, and started reading again—from the repeated paragraph down.
McCoy brought a chair over and started working on Raven’s chart, jotting down notes and details of her injury and recovery and the treatment he had given her, in an easy and comfortable sort of silence. Sean appreciated that, too.
They stayed in the Habitat for the rest of the day, and at 1900 hours Old Earth time, Sean took the ship out into the black and piloted her smoothly, despite her limping state, to Epimetheus, where he landed in one of the repair docks.
Epimetheus, one of Saturn’s smallest satellites with the rather unimpressive diameter of 115 km, was one of the larger machinery producers in the system. Since the Eisenhardt was a Saturn-designed vessel, their best chance at finding a mechanic capable of skillfully doing what Raven could with one eye closed were higher than in the rest of the docks.
As promised, Tony had sent word ahead, and the Starbreaker was received at the docks by one of the chief mechanics. The man was astoundingly young given his position; tall, broad-shouldered and with muscles running to bulk, cleanly cut blond hair and velvety blue eyes.
“Hey,” he shook Erik’s hand firmly. “Steve Rogers, how you doing?”
“Erik Lehnsherr, of the Starbreaker,” Erik greeted, gesturing behind himself to the bulk of the great vessel, settled now on the dock’s support columns for the mechanics. “And not very good, seeing as I have a turbine rotor in my engine room.”
Rogers grimaced. “Sounds painful. I also see other things it needs work on, if you don’t mind me pointing out.”
“What, that dent?” Erik gestured to the hull. “That’s an old friend. I like that dent.”
The mechanic laughed shortly. “Which one? The one the size of a crater, or that long one over the third turbine that might make half the ship crumple in on itself?”
Erik dragged a hand down his face. “You can get rid of that one.”
Rogers inclined his head slightly, crossing his arms. “Listen, Tony Stark told me you’re his friend, so no charge for this one.”
Erik would have argued, but he was in no position to offer to pay for a major repair to an old vessel the size of the Starbreaker. He hated accepting someone’s kindness or overtures of friendship. And in any case, this was not what Tony was doing; what Tony was doing was doing Erik a favor that would indebt the Starbreaker’s crew to Tony until they could somehow repay it.
Considering the size and gravity of the repairs the vessel needed, this favor would not be easily repaid. Tony was an expert in putting people where he needed them to be. Erik knew that well because he, himself, was similar.
“Well, since we’re on it,” Erik shrugged. “Could you put in new shields?”
Rogers arched his brows.
“Well, it’s not like Stark has financial problems, Rogers.”
“That is true,” the mechanic conceded. “So is your crew staying in the ship for the repairs or do you need places to stay?”
“I think we’d prefer to stay in the ship.”
“Suit yourself. It’ll be a lot of noise though.”
Erik nodded. Rogers asked to be showed to the engine room, together with another mechanic, his friend James Barnes. Erik showed them the damage to the cargo hold, which had been practically flattened as the turbine rotor pushed into the ship and broke through the hull up into the engine room.
“Jesus,” Barnes whistled. “You were lucky to make it out alive in this old girl.”
“She’s a loyal one,” Erik answered.
“All Eisenhardts are,” Rogers agreed, wandering about the cargo hold with quick, assessing eyes. “This is pretty major damage, Captain Lehnsherr. What do you think, Bucky?”
Barnes scratched his head, looking around. “I’d say one week intensive, two weeks relaxed?”
“Are you in a hurry, Captain Lehnsherr?”
Erik crossed his arms. “I don’t want to look at the gift horse in the mouth, but I do need the ship up and running, if I want to feed my crew.”
Rogers and Barnes agreed that they would work intensively on the Starbreaker for the following week, but on the condition that the crew relocated to outside quarters to avoid the possibility of injuries or delays. Erik had to put up with a lot of whining because of that, and then with a whole lot more whining, because it turned out Epimetheus wasn’t prepared to house unannounced guests at short notice, and there weren’t enough quarters available for all of them.
Raven and McCoy would of course be put in the medical facilities, so that was one problem fixed. Logan could actually live in the Wolverine, which was big enough to have a living space. The rest, though, were forced to share quarters in the facilities.
Frost got her own room, Gods only know how, though Erik certainly had his suspicions, and offered to let Ororo and Kurt stay with her, for which everyone was grateful. This therefore left only Sean, Erik and Charles to fend for themselves
Charles was able to secure a small room for them in what might be affectionately called a motel and realistically a hell-hole. It unfortunately only had two beds, so they were forced to ask for a cot for one of them. Erik could see a lot more whining coming his way about this one, too, but then Sean shocked them both by giving a happy sigh when he saw the cot, and then promptly stretching out on it, spitting something about how he used to sleep on a cot on Astra, which was just a miserable state of affairs in Erik’s opinion.
Sean then almost immediately fell asleep. Charles lowered himself to the edge of his bed and hunched miserably; Epimetheus was a very cold place, since it hadn’t been terraformed. It had just been given enough atmospheric generators and gravitational engines to make it habitable for humans in order to create the fabrics and dockyards. Erik shrugged off his coat and handed it to him, sitting on his own bed to rub his hands up and down his face.
Charles took the coat gratefully and without arguing, which was a novelty. He must have really been feeling wretched.
“So now what happens?” he asked quietly.
Erik let his hands drop between his spread knees. “Now we’re stranded here until the Starbreaker can fly again, with very little money. Oh, I’m also indebted to a narcissistic dickhead. Let’s not forget that.”
“Stark?” Charles asked sympathetically.
Erik nodded and let himself fall back to lie on his back on the bed, throwing an arm over his eyes. The room was small, and the beds quite close together. Erik stretched out his longs legs, and smiled slightly under the cover of his arm when the calf of his left slid up close against the inside of Charles’ right one. The priest didn’t move away; he never did.
Epimetheus, as it turned out, was never quiet. Its days, if you wanted to call them that, were cycles determined by the great towering streetlamps shedding a light that did nothing to offer warmth. Night and day were only distinguished by the inhabitants’ will and well-kept timers, which at a certain hour turned the main lamps to a lower dial to simulate gloom.
The dockyards never closed for the day; they worked at all hours, and this meant the shops and stores that catered to the dockyards and its workforce also remained open at all times. It was noisy all the gorram time.
One other problem Erik was irritated by was the fact Kurt spent most of his time in the room with them, because Charles was the only one he wanted to be with if his mother was not available.
“I’m not trying to be sexist here,” he said as he closed the door on the evening of the fourth day. “but why can’t Emma or Ororo take care of him in their room?”
“That is sexist,” Charles pointed out, shifting Kurt in his lap. Erik didn’t fail to notice the way he winced when his left arm moved; his shoulder was giving him trouble still. That injury made him weak and vulnerable, which was why Logan had been trailing him like loyal dog, watching his back, even though no one in their right mind would attempt to assault a priest that looked as down on his luck as Charles. Certainly not for money, in any case.
“Well what do I have women on board if not to do this sort of thing? Logan, get off my bed.”
Logan grunted and got up. Then he proceeded to let himself drop on Charles’ bed, and curl up around him like a contented cat. The asshole even gave Erik a cheeky, shit-eating grin, as his hand curled over Charles’ hip. The priest shifted, frowning slightly, but Kurt was taking all his attention.
Erik narrowed his eyes and took hold of Logan’s adamantium skeleton, giving it a thrum like it was the string of an instrument. Logan got the hint, letting his hand fall to the bed.
“I’ll do you the kindness of not telling Ororo you said that,” Charles said, giving Erik a look.
“I’ll tell her,” Logan mumbled into Charles’ pillow. Sometimes Erik had the notion that Charles treated Logan like a large pet to be indulged but never taken seriously. For some incomprehensible reason, Logan liked being around Charles, as if the priest was this fragile, breakable thing that needed to be protected and sheltered. Mostly from Erik.
The thing about Charles was that the priest looked, physically, about as threatening as a butterfly, but Erik could tell his mind was made of steel and rock. Charles wasn’t as fragile as he hoped people believed him to be.
Raven woke up on the morning of the fifth day, ascending to the surface of consciousness as if her dreams were molasses, disoriented and dizzy after such a long sleep. She was more pained about what had happened to the Starbreaker than her own leg, so Erik figured she was probably okay. Insane, but physically okay.
“So I guess that means I’ll get new stuff?” she asked, cradling Kurt close to her chest and playing with his tail.
Erik nodded. “We’re getting new shields I’m pretty sure, and that whole turbine had to replaced so probably the other three will get attention as well. I’ll ask Rogers to give me schematics of what he’s doing; try to bring them around tomorrow.”
His communicator, as always in the inner pocket of his jacket, beeped. Erik took it out and gave it a glance; a source had just sent him a new bounty. He put it back in his coat and sat back.
“And as soon as we’re ready we go hunt that little shit, right?” Raven asked.
Erik rubbed his eyes. “I don’t think we should do that. Odinsson is dangerous and he knows our plays before we do. I don’t want to risk someone getting killed.”
“But he hurt our ship!” Raven protested.
“And, oh right, he almost killed you, remember that one?” Erik arched his brows.
“I agree with bluecheeks here,” Logan mumbled around a cigar that he’d never lit because McCoy had threatened to electrocute him if he did. “The asshole needs my boot up his ass.”
“That asshole chewed you out and spit you raw,” Erik snapped, and dropped his face onto the palm of his hand, passing his temples with thumb and middle finger. “As he did the rest of us. We’re not going after him again. Someone else can go crash their ship against his strategic genius.”
“Raven, next time someone could really die,” Ororo interrupted her firmly.
“But the Starbreaker—“
“This is not a democracy!” Erik snarled, ripping his hand away from his face violently. “If I tell you we’re not going after him, we’re not. The end. Any of you who absolutely must go and get him or herself killed can hop on another ship and be on their way.”
He got up and gave Raven a harsh glare.
“I have to say I would expect some reason from you, Raven, seeing as it was you that got hurt this time. Maybe next time the rotor will go through the engine room and into the quarters and kill your son.”
The following silence was devastating, but Erik turned on his heel and stormed out of the medical facility, fuming at the lack of foresight, understanding and, even worse, discipline his crew had just exhibited. As he stalked quickly out of the building and into the narrow streets, his communicator beeped again to remind him of the unread text. With the Starbreaker out of the sky he couldn’t take on any marks—Ororo had made him swear he would never hunt alone—but he could still be up to speed on what was going on.
He glanced at the screen, did a double-take and stopped walking.
B: $5.000.000/Henry McCoy-thief-appr.dead/alive-last.seen.OE-att:precious.cargo/pht.attchd
Erik felt like his blood had abruptly turned to ice in his veins. He raised his eyes and looked around, searching for an open net station. He spotted one a few feet away and forced himself not to jog as he glanced back down and saw his new medic’s face on the screen of his communicator.
He plugged the communicator to the station and watched it power up, instantly connecting to the sites Erik frequented. Erik scrolled immediately to the bounty nets and searched for the bounty he’d just received.
Five million Alliance pounds was an outrageous amount of money for a thief. You delivered a thief, you normally got about ten thousand pounds, max, unless he’d stolen something particularly precious. The bounty had very little information; it described McCoy up to the smallest detail, and then proceeded to give details of his crimes, which were theft of private Alliance property and escaping the law. No details were given about the precious cargo he had eloped with, only that when such cargo was found, the hunters ought to immediately alert the Alliance of McCoy’s apprehension and return to Alliance Headquarters without delay, on penalty of imprisonment.
That sort of language would not ingratiate the Alliance to the many bounty hunters of the world, who did not appreciate being threatened, subtly or directly. Normally such a thing would get the hunters to give the mark some advantage time, to irritate the Alliance—but that was the case when they didn’t offer five million pounds for someone who would normally get you ten thousand.
No, the bounty hunters of the Three Systems would now be overturning tables and crashing down doors in the search of one Henry McCoy, and Erik had him right in the palm of his hand.
The problem was—the problem was, McCoy had saved Raven’s life. He’d saved it when most medics would have failed and she would have died, right there on the ship. Raven would be dead if it wasn’t for McCoy. That meant they owed him the benefit of the doubt—besides, Erik distrusted the Alliance on principle. McCoy did not give off the lowly criminal stench Erik could almost smell on their usual marks.
He ripped the communicator off and started back towards the Starbreaker. He could have slipped into the hospital and subdued McCoy, but it would be pointless—McCoy didn’t think he had anything to fear from Erik and his crew and there was no reason to alarm him of any such thing until the Starbreaker was ready to fly. Which would not be for another two days, best case scenario.
There was one way to prove whether McCoy was guilty as charged, and that was go find the mysterious precious cargo he had allegedly stolen.
He sent Ororo a message: Make Logan watch McCoy and meet me at the Starbreaker asap
He found Rogers working on the first turbine, crouching down over the rotor and straightening or replacing the rotor wings to make sure they worked smoothly. When he spotted Erik he shrugged off his heavy soldering helmet and gave him a boyish smile. His blond hair was mussed and stuck out in every direction.
“Come to see your baby, captain Lehnsherr?”
“Something like that,” Erik called back, moving out of the way as a shower of sparks threatened to rain down on him. “Is there any work being done in the cargo hold?”
“Not at present,” Rogers said, rappelling down to land gracefully on his feet next to Erik. “Need to check on something?”
Erik nodded, “Could you make sure no one goes in there while we look?”
Rogers gave him a puzzled, sort of sharp look. His all his golden-retriever looks, Rogers was not an idiot. “Sure,” he said slowly. “I’ll give the order.”
Erik gave him one last curt nod. Ororo was coming up the gangway to meet him, looking curious but ready for anything. Erik took out his communicator and handed it to her as he led the way to the cargo hold and had the hatch close up behind them. It took a moment for the lights to flicker on, as the electrical system was undergoing a check-up as part of the repairs.
“What do we do if he has it?” Ororo asked, giving him the communicator back.
Erik pocketed it. He gritted his jaw for a moment.
“Cross that bridge when we get there,” Ororo decided.
McCoy’s luggage was easy to identify, since they were large, rigid crates designed to safely transport delicate medical equipment, and also expensive as hell. Erik didn’t know the size of whatever they were looking for, so they were forced to open and check every crate, carefully, so as to not disturb the contents. If the Alliance had failed to describe what they were looking for, that probably meant they would recognize it upon seeing it.
They had checked two crates when Erik spotted one that was slightly different; the one he’d seen McCoy fiddle with before, in the cargo hold that day he had joined his crew. It ran diagnostics on its content. Erik squinted at the readings, but he could make no sense of them.
“This is the one,” he told Ororo, signaling for her to come over as he dragged the crate to the center of the hold and kneeled next to it.
“How are we going to get it open?” Ororo leaned down next to him, running her hand over the large crate carefully and scrutinizing the diagnostics screen.
Erik laid his hands on the crate, feeling for the delicate circuitry. He closed his eyes and let his power surge down into the electrical system and the security overrides. These sorts of crates had hundreds of fail-safes to protect their content, but upon an emergency they would not lockdown in case the equipment there contained was needed. All Erik had to do was convince the crate that its cargo was required immediately, and have it snap the locks for him.
He followed the cables to the matrix and mainframe and sunk into it, breathing out. He spider-webbed his awareness across the circuits, tracing back the paths to the orders he needed. He ignored the alarms and overrides, discarded the information streaming into him that could not be interpreted at a glance. His breath caught when he found the right junction, and pressed down delicately upon it. If pressed, Erik could interpret the currents and figure out the mechanism, but he actually knew how to manipulate these crates from previous experience.
The crate’s locks snapped open; the diagnostic screen immediately turned red, and a loud, insistent warning beep rose. Ominous.
Erik got his hands on the handles and started lifting the lid of the crate—only to pause, stunned, when steam started pouring out, cold as ice, from between the sealing lips. He looked over his shoulder at Ororo, who had straightened, alarmed. She shook her head.
“Open it with your power.”
Erik stood and took a step back, gesturing at the crate. The lid was surprisingly heavy, but it yielded to Erik’s will, coming up and swiveling on its hinges to rest on the floor. Erik and Ororo watched in shock as more steam poured out of the crate’s innards, and the beeping rose to an alarming, uninterrupted wail.
“I don’t think this was a good idea,” Ororo murmured, eyes fixed on the crate.
“It’s a little late to…”
He trailed off. The steam was beginning to dissipate, and now they could see what was inside the crate.
And what was inside the crate was a boy. A boy. In a fetal position, curled forward, arms against his chest, hands wrapped one over the other. He was naked. And in a crate. Naked in a crate. There was a boy, naked, in a crate. Erik was having trouble going past that, and he didn’t think anyone could blame him.
“Go shi,” Ororo breathed. “Wo de tian a.”
Erik was slowly easing out of his shock and falling right into livid.
“That—that—hwen dan brought a slave onto my ship!” he roared. “I’m going to put a fucking bullet through him the piece of—“
There was a loud gasp and Erik and Ororo jumped back as the naked boy in the crate abruptly sat up, sucking big gulps of air as if he’d been starved for it. Erik would never admit to the little scream he let out. The boy gripped the edge of the crate, panting, wide blue eyes wild and blond hair plastered wetly to his face. Ororo gripped Erik’s arm so hard it hurt.
“Hank?” the boy croaked.
McCoy. Erik swallowed.
“It’s alright,” he said quietly, raising his hands. “We won’t—“
The boy’s hands were white-knuckles against the edge of the crate.
“He’s not here,” Erik assured him, aiming for a soothing voice. He glanced at Ororo, whose eyes snapped back at him, wide, before going back to the boy. No help there, then. “We’ll keep him away from you, I pro—“
A sudden explosion of red light and heat. Erik and Ororo crashed to the deck, covering their heads. A groan of metal bending, and Erik felt the Starbreaker shudder.
“Where’s Hank?” the boy was screeching, trying to get up but failing because his muscles were still rigid from the cryo-sleep. He stumbled out of the crate, scraping his hands painfully in the hard grip of the deck. Erik lifted his head, trying to understand what had just happened. He realized the boy’s chest was starting to glow red, as if a band around his ribs had heated up beneath the skin. “Where’s Hank? Where is he?”
It took him time to reload his gift, Erik realized—and surged up to his feet, stepped forward and landed one harsh punch to the boy’s jaw. He toppled over, out like a light.
Ororo and Erik stared at each other, horrified.
Erik dragged in a breath through his nose, got his communicator out of his pocket, and connected to Logan.
“Get McCoy to the ship, now.”
Chapter 4: The Dollhouse Initiative
“What the hell just happened?” Rogers demanded, running up the gangway to meet Erik, Barnes close behind him.
“We decided we needed a new hatch,” Erik answered, gritting his jaw.
Rogers and Barnes stared at the hatch. The boy’s gift had sliced right through it like a hot knife through butter.
“Well, you’re getting one,” Rogers said, frowning. “But how the hell did this happen? What was that, plasma?”
“You’re my mechanic, not my priest,” Erik growled. Logan and the others were coming up to them now.
Erik had expected McCoy to struggle and whine and beg, but the boy was stalking up the gangway towards Erik like he was in a foul mood, and Logan and the others were left to follow in his wake, stunned. As soon as he was within reach, Erik grabbed McCoy by the throat and dragged him close, and then turned his eyes on Rogers. The mechanic was looking pale, but mounting quickly towards furious.
“Get,” he snarled at the man, dragging McCoy into the Starbreaker without a glance back. He thought he heard Charles politely make excuses, but he couldn’t be bothered to trouble himself with it, because he was shoving McCoy in the direction of the crate.
The medic stumbled and then crouched down quickly next to the boy, lying now on the deck covered by Erik’s coat. He whipped his head back, eyes alight.
“You hit him?”
“He was shooting plasma rays out of his chest,” Erik said through gritted teeth.
“And so you saw fit to hit a helpless, disoriented boy that had just come out of a two month cryo-sleep?” McCoy snapped, turning the boy’s head in his hands as if it were a precious thing. Erik felt his stomach flip, this was so disgusting. The damaged hatch had closed, now.
“Uh,” Sean asked, blinking. “What the hell is this? Who’s the kid? Why’s he naked? Are you gonna use that coat again?”
“What? Concerned I hurt your little toy?” Erik asked coldly.
McCoy shot him an enraged look. “Why did you wake him? Do you have any idea the sort of medical complications cryo-sleep can bring if the patient’s not properly eased out of it? You could have caused hemorrhaging, brain damage, cardiac arrest, clots in his veins, aneurysms—“
“Who the fuck is he?” Erik demanded violently, feeling the deck vibrate beneath his feet as his anger began to spiral out of control.
Charles stepped forward between them, raising his right hand towards Erik in a request for calm. Erik breathed out harshly through his nose, clenching his fists.
“Hank,” Charles turned to the medic, frowning, polite, but cold. “You better explain.”
The medic nodded distractedly, turning the boy onto his back to check his pulse and his breathing rhythm, hands agile and quick, efficient.
“His name is Alexander Summers,” he said, glancing quickly up to Charles. “We grew up together, back on the Laurentian New Earth space station.”
“But why the fuck’s he in a crate, bub?” Logan asked, lighting a cigar, eyes bright and shrewd.
“Because he’s not—“ McCoy struggled with words for a moment. “Alex is not—alright. Psychologically. He’s not stable. And he can’t properly control his gift, as you have seen, captain.”
“So instead of helping him control his mutation you put him in a crate?” Erik hissed.
“No. I put him in a crate because it was the only way to get him safely out of the facility he was being imprisoned and experimented on!” McCoy roared. Erik realized for the first time that the boy’s fangs were sharper than a human’s.
A long, frigid silence.
“Pardon?” Emma asked quietly, moving closer and tilting her head.
“It’s a secret Alliance government program,” McCoy said. “It’s called the Dollhouse Initiative. They take mutants off the streets, mutants that don’t have a firm support system and won’t be missed, and they brainwash them into what the call Shells. Shells have literally no mind of their own, they’re like androids; they’ll do what you tell them without hesitation. And then, you can—implant whatever personality you want them to have, for a while, to later wipe them into Shells again.”
Erik felt dizzy.
“How can—how does that even work?” Sean asked shakily. “You can’t just, just, wipe someone like they’re a computer file!”
“They use telepaths,” Charles murmured, eyes flat.
“Yes,” McCoy confirmed tiredly. “One in particular: Jason Stryker. He’s an Omega.”
Ororo’s head whipped up. “There are Omega level telepaths in existence?”
“Only two,” McCoy nodded. “The Dollhouse had another one, one they’d discovered themselves and hoped to keep hidden, but he escaped before I was even recruited.”
“How were you recruited?” Erik asked sharply.
McCoy sat down on the floor, stroking Summers’ hair gently away from his forehead.
“Alex and his brother Scott had no family, so the Dollhouse thought no one would miss them. But I did. I knew they’d been taken because they’d never leave without telling me, so I—I kept looking, and I started realizing a lot of mutants went missing. I kept a low profile about my own mutation, kept it hidden. Little by little I started putting it all together. I thought they used neurosurgery to wipe their minds, so I specialized in neurology, minored in psychiatry, and then I… waited. And they came to me.”
He paused. “It took me a year to find Alex. There is more than one Dollhouse in the Three Systems, and finding one Active amongst hundreds is… and then when I did find him, I realized he was in even worse a situation than I had thought. Alex is very stubborn, so—his mind doesn’t cooperate, it’s like it rejects the wipes and the implants. He’d take to the identity for a while, but then he’d start acting out of character, doing things he shouldn’t; he’d become unpredictable.”
“He remembered who he is?” Logan crouched down next to Summers, eyes fixed on the boy’s face. He looked no older than seventeen.
McCoy ran a hand through his hair.
“The Shells aren’t supposed to have any sort of habits, or tendencies, or anything. They eat when you tell them, sleep when you tell them, they don’t talk unless you talk to them. But sometimes, strong-minded Actives can start to— they manage to hold on to pieces of themselves, under the wiping, and drag them back. It’s like they start remembering things about themselves. This is called a Ghost. Shells with Ghosts become unpredictable and dangerous, because you can’t control them.”
He paused to look back down at his unconscious friend, fisting a hand on the fabric of Erik’s coat. “The Ghosts are removed from Active duty and used for experimentation. By the time I found Alex, he’d been in experimentation for nearly two years.”
The enormity of it hit them like a tidal wave. Charles seemed to sag, as if his limbs had suddenly become too heavy for his torso. Erik took one step forward and gripped his arm tightly.
“He doesn’t always remember who he is,” McCoy continued quietly. “He remembers a lot of the other personalities they gave him, and it gets jumbled in his mind, like he has five different ways to plausibly react to stimuli. He gets confused and it scares him, and Alex always reacted to fear the same way; he gets really angry and his gift flares out of control.”
“He’s got a very powerful gift,” Erik commented, eyeing the boy with some trepidation. He was a gorram ticking time-bomb.
“Plasma rings,” McCoy nodded. “Which is why I put him in cryo-sleep to get him out of the Dollhouse. My plan was to get as far away into the Rim that I could find a secluded place where I could wake him, and try to—try to—fix him, I guess. It sounds so stupid now, but—Alex is my friend, and I got to him too late, and now…”
Charles shrugged Erik’s hand off from his arm and went to crouch next to McCoy, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s alright, Henry. Emma and I can help him with his mind, to get it back in working order.”
“Oh, yes,” Emma nodded, bringing her wrap closer about her with an elegant shrug of her shoulders. “Any telepath can do that much.”
“Wait,” Sean raised a hand, blinking. “Didn’t you say he had a brother?”
McCoy looked devastated. “I couldn’t find him. No matter how much I searched I couldn’t. Scott’s always been even worse than Alex, and I—I don’t think he’d take well to mind-wiping.”
“So he’s probably in experimentation,” Erik dragged a hand down his face. He felt like he was five hundred years old and carrying the weight of the Three Systems on his shoulders.
McCoy pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. “Why did you open the crate? The Alliance put a bounty on me, didn’t they?”
“Of course they did, “ Erik said sharply. “What did you think was going to happen? You stole one of their lab rats!”
“I faked his death,” McCoy corrected, and everyone went very still. “Experimentation subjects—they die all the time. I put it down in the records as an overdose and then smuggled him out of there in the crate and I know no one saw me. I was very careful; they had no reason to suspect I even knew who Alex was, let alone that I would steal him out of the Dollhouse.”
“It didn’t occur to you they might think it odd that you just up and left?” Ororo asked.
Henry shook his head. “I told them I was no longer interested in neurosurgery research. We parted amicably.”
Erik arched his brows.
“But I guess they figured it out,” McCoy concluded sadly. He raised his head and stared right back at Erik, eyes fierce. “I can’t tell you what to do, and I know you need what is probably a substantial amount of money that they are offering for me. But please, leave Alex out of it. Tell them he wasn’t with me. That’s all I ask.”
They’ll kill him, Charles’ voice was immediately in Erik’s mind, and he snapped his eyes to the telepath. Charles looked pale, but determined. They will torture him for Summers’ location and then they will kill him. Please. You can’t.
What am I supposed to do? Erik returned tiredly. I’m just one man. I can’t go against the Alliance.
You didn’t always believe such a thing, Erik. Charles’ eyebrows twitched closer in a sign of distress. It used to be you believed in becoming the change you wanted to see.
And look how well that went for me.
Please. Take us to Mars. Henry and Summers can stay at my Temple; I know they will be sheltered there. I beg you.
Erik closed his eyes, passed his hand over his mouth, thinking fast.
“No,” he said finally, shaking his head. Both Charles and McCoy flinched. “I’m not giving you up. What you did was the right thing, the only thing to do. But I can’t drop you off on some planet, either, McCoy. You’ll get yourself found in no time flat, if you stay in one place.”
He turned his eyes to Ororo, and waited as her own eyes cleared with a decision she could live with. “You’re part of my crew now,” he said, turning back to McCoy. “Both of you. It’s safer for you to stay on the Starbreaker. We exist largely outside the law already anyway.”
McCoy’s face crumpled with gratitude. “Thank you,” he murmured.
Over his shoulder, Charles was staring at Erik with eyes so full of emotion the captain couldn’t possibly begin to decipher them all. Instead of even attempting, he dragged his hand down his face and gestured at the unconscious boy.
“We need to keep him hidden, though.”
“Well the ship won’t be habitable for at least another day,” Ororo crossed her arms. “What do we do with him?”
“We can hide him,” Emma suggested, “Charles and I. We’ll shield him from other people’s minds.”
“Yeah, until he starts shooting plasma rings again,” Erik arched a brow. “And then what?”
McCoy shook his head. “He only does that when he panics. He’s fine if I’m around.”
That was a sad state of affairs. Also extremely inconvenient; McCoy had his duties aboard the ship and could not be expected to babysit on an unbalanced, powerful mutant at all times.
“We’ll figure it out in time,” Charles said, squeezing McCoy’s shoulder before rising up to his feet. “We should take Mr. Summers to our room; he can’t be admitted to the hospital and I believe we can all agree to preserve the ladies’ privacy—“
“Lady?” Ororo arched her brows.
“Privacy?” Emma tilted her head.
Charles waved a hand at them. “You both know what I mean.”
“Where’s he gonna sleep?” Sean waved his arms. “The floor?”
“He can take my bed,” Charles offered calmly. “I’ll use the floor. I’m used to such things; in the Temple we spent one night every seven—“
“Oh, wonderful, religiosity blah, just what I needed,” Erik interrupted.
“Blah is not a word,” Charles pointed out crisply. “Hank, can you carry Mr. Summer yourself?”
McCoy nodded, and carefully gathered the boy into his arms, cradling him tenderly against his chest. Summers wasn’t all that smaller than McCoy in truth; certainly he looked malnourished and exhausted, but he had long graceful limbs that implied he’d be a tall man, once he grew into the promise of his shoulders. Erik wondered how old he was.
They went out of the Starbreaker en masse, and Erik could feel Emma and Charles braiding their powers together in that strange way they did sometimes; like they hummed together in perfect harmony a tune only they knew. In a bizarre way Erik could see double, the truth his brain told him he should see and the illusion his eyes offered him: McCoy walking with them bare-handed and calm; McCoy walking between them, at the center of their group, with an unconscious boy in his arms. With their combined powers Charles and Emma could hide the boy from anyone who could spot them, until they reached the room.
Charles pulled the covers back and the medic lowered the boy gently to the bed, tucking him in like one would a child.
“I need to check on Raven,” McCoy looked up, troubled.
“I’ll keep him asleep,” Charles said. “Go. Get him clothes, too.”
McCoy seemed reluctant to leave the boy’s side, but Charles’ reasoning was sound. Emma and Ororo excused themselves for some reason or other; Gods only knew what those two did when they were left to their own devices, but normally it wound up with Charles reminding Erik to praise Ororo’s hair or else suffer the consequences of an offended first officer.
“I’m going out for a drink with Logan,” Sean gestured towards the door, as if suddenly he’d just realized he was trapped in a very small room with his captain, a priest, and a very unstable plasma-shooting traumatized child. His reason for escaping was also surprisingly sound, considering this was Sean. You could normally trust Sean to glance at the many possibilities laid out before him and invariably choose the worst one.
And then there were three. Erik stretched out on his bed and crossed his ankles, mind racing ahead of him, considering all the things he would need to do to ensure the ongoing safety of his crew. The Starbreaker had a vault; perhaps they could house Summers there for a while until he could be trusted to control his gift. He knew telepaths could help mutants with such things, and with Emma and Charles working on that, maybe Summers could start to mend, somehow.
It seemed to Erik, however, that a healthy state of mind was very, very far away from the boy in its current state. To think someone had wiped his mind repeatedly and inserted whatever memories they desired in order to make him into another person… for what are we but our memories?
“So an Omega level telepath exists,” he murmured, frowning. “I thought it was a myth.”
“The Dollhouse is also supposed to be a myth,” Charles replied, from where he was sitting on Sean’s cot.
Erik sat up. “You’ve heard of it?”
“I grew up on a station,” Charles nodded. “I only moved to Mars later. The Dollhouse was a sort of bogeyman trick parents used on their mutant children when they didn’t behave. ‘Watch out, or the Dollhouse will get you’.”
“Gods,” Erik rubbed his face. “And it gorram exists.” He paused, bringing his legs up to put his elbows on his knees and look at Charles closely. “An Omega telepath. How can such a creature exist, preacher?”
Charles was staring fixedly at the floor, eyes vacant. “Much in the same way everyone else does, I imagine,” he said absently. “One breath at a time.”
“But what would they use their power for?”
“To survive,” Charles answered quietly, and turned his electric-blue eyes on Erik, flat and staring. “What else would you use your power for?”
“Apparently wipe people’s minds,” Erik hissed, glancing at Summers.
“Coercion,” Charles offered, though it seemed a rather weak excuse to Erik. The telepath looked pale and small, as if the idea of an Omega level telepath in the Three Systems terrified him. It terrified Erik a little, too.
“How do you coerce an Omega telepath?” Erik turned his palms up, disbelieving.
Charles gave him an exasperated look. “The same way you coerce anyone else? You know the Alliance’s methods. You hurt someone enough, you scare them enough, you tell them they are nothing but your slave, your toy, your weapon—voila, instant obedience.”
These were the times Charles became something more than a priest, something more than a simple man in baggy sweaters who was always cold and yet, somehow, always warm. His eyes took on an edge, like a scalpel-sharp blade wrapped in velvet, and his lips thinned into a straight line. Suddenly his voice was bitter, cold.
These were the times Erik wanted him the most.
Summers shifted on the bed, a small noise escaping his lips. Erik’s eyes snapped to him, alarmed, but Charles was up and stroking the boy’s hair back immediately, soothing, sweet. Summers settled again into a deep restful sleep. Charles straightened and made to return to the cot, but Erik reached out and grasped his wrist, made him sit on the edge of his own bed so his back was against Erik’s knee.
“I need council, preacher,” he said quietly.
Charles looked at him over his shoulder. He twisted his wrist so he was holding Erik’s hand in his own, strong and warm.
“What troubles you, sinner?” he murmured dutifully.
“I can’t walk away from this,” Erik confessed, squeezing Charles’ hand. “The Dollhouse. The mutants trapped there, used—experimented on. I can’t turn my back and act as though I had never learned of it. It will haunt me, I know it.”
Charles’ eyes closed. He swallowed. “You have your answer, then.”
Erik’ grip tightened. He leaned closer, so his chest pressed against the right side of Charles’ back. The preacher turned his face away, but Erik could see the way his cheeks flushed at the proximity. Erik knew Charles liked his distance, his personal space. His face was close enough now that he knew his breath ghosted over Charles’ ear and neck. He saw the Reverend swallow; his eyes flicked down to Charles’ throat, but he kept what little distance remained between them. He could feel the telepath’s chest move as he inhaled, breath hitching, speeding up.
“You would have me start a war with the Alliance?” he murmured.
“I’d have you do whatever will allow you to live with yourself, and find peace at the close.”
“Gentle words, meaningless as they are.”
Charles turned back to him, and they were so close now Erik had only to duck an inch closer to kiss him. Heat was building between them, pressed so close, and Erik certainly knew he wanted this. He disentangled his hand from Charles’ and brought his arm around the man’s stomach, pulling him in closer to his own thigh, pressing his nose to the curls of dark hair at his temple. Charles’ breathing was definitely shaky.
“And if I do start a war?” he breathed into the Reverend’s ear, eyes half-lidded. “Will you be at my side? People will probably die. The Scriptures have something to say about that.”
He could tell when Charles closed his eyes, swaying slightly closer, almost giving in. Erik felt him swallow, felt a thrill down his spine when the preacher’s hand came up and wrapped around his arm, holding on tightly. Charles’ face turned in even more, lips brushing Erik’s cheek. He had him, he knew it; all it would take would be a tiny movement, closer—
Charles inhaled abruptly, stiffening. “Henry.”
Erik gritted his jaw, tightened his hold and whispered fiercely, “I’m not ashamed of this. Are you?”
“Please,” Charles murmured, closing his eyes. Erik felt him move away, push against his arm, begging to be released. “Erik. I can’t.”
“But you want it, admit it.”
“I can’t,” the telepath repeated, helpless. “Let go or I will make you.”
Erik growled and moved away, breathing harshly. It didn’t help that he was half-hard.
McCoy came through the door barely a second later, carrying a bag of clothes.
“Charles, do you think you can keep him under for a few more hours? Cryo-sleep isn’t like normal sleep, and I’d like him to get as much rest as possible.”
“Sure, Hank, it’s no trouble,” Charles replied. “Do you need help to get him dressed?”
Henry shook his head slightly, and pulled back to covers. Charles politely turned away, rubbing his eyes tiredly.
Erik sighed and relaxed his shoulders, putting his elbows on his knees and gripping his right wrist. He was still tense and heated, but he recognized that Charles had been right. He forgot, sometimes, that the telepath still clung to his religious habits, to an ascetic and stoic life devoid of unnecessary pleasure. You can take the man out of the religion, but not the religion out of the man.
“You should sleep,” he said, moving over to give Charles some room in the bed.
Charles looked so miserably cold and tired that he didn’t even argue, he just toed off his shoes and got under the covers, curling on his side. Erik let his hand rest gently on the telepaths head, covering his ear, cold as always, and watched Henry carefully dress his friend. Underwear, soft pants, long-sleeved shirt and sweater. He stroked his blond hair off his forehead tenderly, eyes sad.
“Henry,” he asked quietly, getting the medic’s attention. “What are the realistic chances he’ll recover from what sounds to me like major neurological trauma?”
Henry closed his eyes, reaching tiredly up to take off his glasses, and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“If we could find that telepath,” he said, voice thin and breakable. “I’m sure he could help.”
Erik looked down at Charles, already asleep beneath his hand, breathing even and calm.
“I think if he’s managed to escape and he’s out there, he deserves to be left alone.”
Henry nodded, leaning forward to let his face fall on his hands. Erik chose to give him some semblance of privacy and, after taking off his own boots, got in under the covers and sidled up close to Charles, chest to chest, wrapping a hand around his waist. It was deceptive, often, how small and delicate Charles was; there was nothing soft inside his head, and nothing fragile. He inhaled a long breath, Charles distinctive scent and the recycled air of the room, and fell asleep.
The first thing Erik did the following morning was call Tony Stark from a secure line in his communicator.
“What?” Stark stared at him from the screen, hazel eyes wide. “What the hell do you mean, it exists?”
“I mean I have witnesses, Stark,” Erik growled.
Tony sat back, stunned. “Fuck. Fuck. You know what that means? Gods, if that’s an Alliance-approved operation—“
“I know,” Erik interrupted, rubbing a palm over his eyes. “It’s gorram insane. I’m gonna need all the help I can get, Stark. Can you sniff around for me?”
Tony arched his brows; he still looked shocked. “You’ll have it for free,” he said, eyes wide.
Erik gave him a stony look. “You’ll run afoul with the Alliance, Stark.”
“You’re right, on second thought there’s no reason for me to go against them. What’s a few hundred people enslaved and brainwashed into mindless puppets? Not my problem, right?” Tony gave him a look. “I’ll look around, see if we can figure this mess out. You guys keep flying.”
“Always,” Erik nodded, and disconnected the call.
When he returned to the room, he was greeted by the following scene: Summers, awake and upset, sitting win the bed with his back to the wall and his legs up against his chest, face buried in his knees. He was shaking and crying, and holding tightly to McCoy’s hand as the medic sat next to him, murmuring soothing words and stroking his hair.
Charles and Sean were sitting on the floor against the wall at the far corner, looking freaked as hell.
“His was not a gentle awakening,” Sean muttered, pale blue eyes wide.
Erik glanced around, closing the door. “Well, no one seems to have been sliced in half by plasma, so it might have been worse.”
“The young Mr. Summers is perhaps not inclined to agree,” Charles commented, eyes troubled.
The captain frowned and crouched down next to the telepath. “You still inside his mind? What can you see?”
Charles looked absolutely miserable. “I see about a dozen different people inside him, and only rarely do they align enough that he may act rationally.”
Erik considered that. “Isn’t there some sort of psychological problem like that?
“Dissociative Identity Disorder,” Charles nodded. “Not be confused, mind, with schizophrenia.”
The captain gave him a look, “Duly noted, professor. Well, they have medication for that, right? Can’t we give the kid some pills?”
“I’m not a kid,” Summer snapped abruptly, face lifting to glare at Erik. The captain turned around, amused.
“You’re what? Twenty? Twenty-one? Sure you’re a kid.”
‘I’m…” Summers hesitated, glancing at Henry. Erik felt a stab of regret.
“You’re twenty,” Henry answered easily, as if it were no issue at all that Summers didn’t even know how old he was.
“Oh right, I’m six years younger than you,” Summer grinned, face lighting up. Erik inhaled deeply and let himself slide to the floor next to Charles. The telepath gave him a sad look. Erik patted his knee.
“Yes, exactly,” Henry smiled sweetly.
“And Scott is ten years younger than me,” Alex added.
Henry froze only a second, and then nodded. “Yes. That’s right.”
Alex thought about that for a second, and then glanced around. He shifted, eyes traveling across the room quickly, stopping only briefly on the three men by the door and then pinning Henry down, wide.
“Hank, where’s Scott?”
Henry squeezed Alex’s hand. “I’m not sure, Alex. He’s not here.”
“He’s my baby brother,” Alex insisted.
“I know, Alex. I’m sorry, I couldn’t find him.”
“He’s just thirteen. I never used to like him and he was annoying as shit and he was so stubborn and difficult, but I like him, and he’s my baby brother. I should be with him. Hank, don’t you know where he is? I want to say I’m sorry. He’s always hungry.”
Charles covered his eyes.
Henry shook his head sadly. “I don’t, Alex. I’m sorry.”
“He’s always hungry,” Alex repeated quietly.
“I remember,” Hank murmured.
Alex seemed subdued for a moment, lost in thought. Then his bright blue eyes snapped up, and he squinted suspiciously at Erik, who was looking down at his own hands.
“Who’re you?” the boy demanded.
Erik lifted his head, arches his eyebrows and glanced around.
“I’m Erik Lehnsherr.”
“You told me you’d keep Hank away from me. I don’t like you.”
This did not impress Erik, who was not willing to put up with bullshit even from fragmented-minded assholes. “That was a bit of crossed information. Obviously I’m not keeping him away from you. As you can see. Since he’s sitting right there.”
“I don’t like you,” Alex scowled.
“Lots of people don’t like me; that don’t make you special, kid.”
“Alex, Erik is the captain of the ship I’m sailing the sky on, remember I told you?”
Alex looked blank for a second, and then nodded. “Starbreaker?”
Henry smiled again, “Yes, exactly. Well remembered.”
Alex and Henry then went into a hushed conversation about why Henry was on the Starbreaker and why they should stay aboard it, to stay safe and low-profile. Erik was only half listening, with his head back against the wall and his eyes half closed, thinking of the Dollhouse Initiative.
Stark was the most thorough and efficient hacker Erik knew, short of Kitty Pryde. If anyone could find out about the Dollhouse, it was Stark. Erik wanted to have all the information he could possibly get his hands on; if he meant to destroy the Dollhouse—and he did—he would need it. Maybe he should have asked Stark to locate the missing telepath; surely he would be an invaluable asset if he chose to ride against the Dollhouse, and Erik couldn’t see how he’d not want to see it torn to shreds.
Charles? Are you listening?
The telepath inclined his head slightly. Yes?
Could you find him? The telepath?
Charles turned to him, frowning. Why would you want that?
He could be a powerful ally. We want the same things.
Charles paled. The mere idea of trying to get in contact terrifies me. I think we should leave it well enough alone.
What are you talking about? If he’s out there and he hates the Dollhouse, we could use his help. I don’t have a lot of firepower and we’re going to need as much help as we can get.
Your idea has merit, Charles closed his eyes. But I don’t know how to use my powers like that.
Erik sighed. Maybe Emma does.
I will ask her.
Emma, as it turned out, could not help much. She explained she could and would send out some sort of telepathic signal in as wide a range as she could manage, but then it would depend on whether the Omega wanted to be found or not, and everything indicated to the latter being the case.
“It scares me that he might take offense to my call,” Emma said, bringing the wrap closer around her shoulders, eyes troubled. “I have no idea what sort of man he might be. Such power, Erik—I would not want it turned against me.”
“No,” Erik agreed, sighing. “Of course not. You’re right. Try to make is as welcoming and unthreatening as you can, if you’re still willing to do it.”
“I don’t think he wants anyone to know he exists,” Charles said quietly.
Erik ran a hand through his hair, “Well, he can’t stop existing, and he can’t play possum forever. He’s alive, he might as well be out in the world—“
“Out in the world doing what? ” Charles asked suddenly, eyes hard as stone.
Erik tossed him a sharp look. “Out there helping his people, helping demonstrate that we’re not to be used like lab rats, like experiments, like pigs without rights and minds! He’s hiding like a scared dog and meanwhile children are tortured and brainwashed!”
Charles’ face paled. “So you just want another weapon, is it? Let him come here and do your bidding.”
“He’s the most powerful telepath in the Three Systems,” Erik said through gritted teeth. “There are currently only twelve known Omegas in existence, Charles. Twelve. He’s got the potential power to bring down any organization that tortures and brainwashes our kind and you don’t want to call to him because he wants to be left alone?”
“So you believe that having this power obligates him to start a second revolution?”
Emma’s hand was on Charles’ arm, and it was clear she was whispering telepathically to him, but the priest was coldly furious in that intense, somewhat dangerous way he got sometimes. It was at times like these, when he was alive with fury and sentiment and his eyes were bright, that Erik wanted to push him against a wall and have his way with him, virgin or not.
“You’re telling me that you’re perfectly fine with letting the most powerful telepath in the Three Systems sit this one out? While mutants are brainwashed and tortured?”
“So he’s to be a weapon,” Charles murmured, eyes heavy-lidded and full of contempt.
“He’s already been made a weapon,” Erik growled. “He might as well turn around and use his anger for something valuable rather than hide like a pathetic dog too cowardly to face what he had a part in doing.”
Charles’ face went from pale to ash-white. The transition was so abrupt Erik reached out to steady him, but Emma got in the way, shooting him a harsh glare before she took Charles by the arm and dragged him off to her own room.
The next three days in Epimetheus were a nightmare. Summers slept in fits and starts, restless and haunted by nightmares. He had little appetite to speak of, having been trained to eat when told, and McCoy had to convince him to eat regularly. McCoy divided his time between monitoring Raven and babysitting Summers, which meant he got little sleep, himself. With Summers and McCoy in their room, space was sorely lacking, and Charles removed himself entirely to Emma’s and Ororo’s room where, as far as Erik knew, he shared a cot with Kurt.
With the main cargo hatch sliced neatly in half, Rogers was forced to take another two days of repairs and recalibrations. He was not amused, but Erik could give a shit about what Rogers felt so long as he did his job efficiently and thoroughly, which he did.
All told, they spent ten days in Epimetheus before the Starbreaker was fit for duty. At that point Raven was still recovering though she could now move around, provided she didn’t force that leg. In any case, she would not be moving around much for the next few days; she had a lot of catching up to do about the new rotors and cooling systems, as well as many other things.
By the time the Starbreaker finally took off back into the black, Charles was back to his usual warm but reserved self, having apparently gotten over whatever Erik had done to offend him this time.
They had only been in the sky for five hours, en route to Neptune, when Ororo came to find Erik where he was lying on his back in the common room couch.
“Stark’s on the safe line for you,” she said quietly.
Erik walked briskly to his quarters and locked the door behind himself before settling into the chair in front of the monitor and accessing the safe line.
“Already? You work fast.”
“I’m nothing if not competent,” Stark replied. “You should know this is pretty fucked up, Lehnsherr.”
Erik settled back in his chair. “I don’t see how it can be anything but. Tell me.”
“Turns out the Dollhouse Initiative started out as a mutant control program,” Stark started. “As some sort of Omega Protocol type of thing, only Omegas aren’t all that easy to pin down, as you can imagine, so they started testing it out on regular mutants. When they realized how well it worked, they started taking on more mutants. My sources say they mostly take them from New Earth space colonies, mostly the big ones like the Astra or the Eclipse. They take them young, I assume because a child that hasn’t yet developed a strong personality is easier to delete. Any and all mutant is fair game; even small mutations like throwing sparks out of your fingers—“
Tony tapped something on his screen and a small picture and file unfolded on Erik’s monitor. A pretty, doll-like little girl with dark hair.
“Jubilation ‘Jubilee’ Lee, orphaned child of NESC-0156, Titania, last recorded three years ago at the age of fifteen. She can create explosive energy of very low destructive power. Sparks, basically,” he paused. “There are others, too. Robert Drake, rumored to be able to control ice, vanished four years ago at the Cassiopeia. Scott and Alexander Summers, rumored to control some sort of plasma, vanished six years ago at the Gallifrey. Piotr Rasputin of the Tsarevich, apparently a metal-man, disappeared eight years ago.”
Erik rubbed his eyes with a hand, feeling sick to the stomach.
“Somehow this evolved from a tentative Omega Protocol to a full-out human weapon program, Lehnsherr. And it’s been running below the surface for like dozen years. People go missing all the time at the colonies, you know how it is. Most don’t even ask questions, they just assume these kids take off. They’re turning them into mindless weapons.”
“Using a telepath, I hear.”
“Yeah,” Stark rubbed his forehead. “I can tentatively tell you this whole thing is under the control of this one asshole, William Stryker. Stryker apparently has an underling with some telepathic control, Gods know where he found him, his name’s Jason, codename the Illusionist. Jason apparently is in charge of wiping minds and installing new software in the mutant’s minds. As far as I’ve been able to gather, Jason isn’t all that talented at it, though.”
Stark leaned forward in his chair, tapping on his screen, so Erik was receiving new data.
“Apparently, Stryker hit the lottery about eight years ago, when he discovered, or somehow triggered an Omega level telepath. From what I can tell the kid was picked off Mars’ moon Deimos, back when the Dollhouse wasn’t limited to space colonies, and wasn’t picked up as a telepath at all. Some sort of speed or telekinetic mutation, the records are pretty unreliable in that respect,” Stark waved a hand. “This was about a dozen years ago. It apparently took the kid four years of exposure to unlock his telepathy, and then I suppose he went supernova. There are literally no records on what happened between the point he went Omega to the point he’s reported as ‘rogue asset’, which is asshole speak for ‘he hoofed it’.”
“How old was he?”
“When he was taken? Eighteen from what I can tell.”
“So he’s about thirty now.”
“Yeah, and because I am awesome like that, I have found you a picture. It’s pretty old though.”
“People change a lot in a dozen years, Stark.”
Stark shrugged and a photo popped up on Erik’s screen, small and dated back twelve years.
Erik’s blood turned to ice.
“Name’s Wesley Gibson,” Stark continued. “Mutant, gift unspecified, but level two of ten, so not all that impressive.”
“No,” Erik murmured, lacing his fingers. “I suppose not. Anything else you know?”
“I’m still digging.”
“Keep on it.”
Stark gave him an even look. “I’m not letting this go, Lehnsherr. This is slavery, controlled by our government. This is a second Weapon X program. It’s disgusting.”
Erik nodded, still staring at that picture.
“I’ll stay in touch.”
“Do that,” Erik said softly, and watched as Stark’s connection died. The picture now centered on the screen, clear and sharp.
Erik inhaled a long, deep breath, held it, exhaled. Then he stood, straightened his long coat. Unlocked his quarters door. Crossed the corridor to Charles’ door, which he opened with his captain’s override, without knocking. Slipped inside Charles’ quarters. Locked the door.
“Erik?” Charles asked curiously at Erik’s back.
Erik turned and smiled. “Wesley,” he said silkily.
Chapter 5: Toys in the Attic
A moment still in time.
Charles sat back in his chair, closing the book in his hands slowly and resting it on the desk.
“Tony Stark, I take it.”
Erik paced idly into the room, eyes fixed on the other man.
“Is anything you’ve ever told me true?”
The telepath inclined his head. “I am a priest of the Temple in the Martian Red Waste. There I spent—“
“Eight years?” Erik filled in, smiling genially. “Right after you went Omega and managed to escape the Dollhouse, was it?”
Charles dipped his head to rub his eyes with his hand. Erik wondered if it was the sudden knowledge of the vast power he had at his disposal that suddenly seated Charles before his eyes as monarch, a creature beyond the lines within which reality was held.
“It is not as you believe it to be, Erik,” Charles murmured. “Please have a seat.”
“Why don’t you make me?”
The priest gave him a look, dropping his hand, and said, very clearly and simply, “No.”
Erik stared at him for a moment. Of course, that was the thing about Charles Xavier, wasn’t it? All these amazing things he could do, all these unbelievable powers he held, and yet he resided in a cage of his own creation. That had always been the truth about Charles, even when in Erik’s mind he was still a tolerably gifted telepath and a warm but powerless priest.
He took the chair in across the desk and sat, crossing his legs.
“Why don’t you start from the beginning?”
“What do you want to know?”
Charles’ gaze fell onto his hands. He shifted his long fingers against the binding of the book, as if the sound of skin on leather distracted him from the marvelously ordered shelves of his memories. Erik knew that, above a certain level, able telepaths had eidetic memory; he wondered how it felt, to have a mind like the organized archives of a library, always knowing precisely where a memory was to be found. No knowledge lost.
In the light of the lamp Charles’ eyes were very blue, half-lidded and absent of consciousness; he had turned back in on himself, searching for words, organizing the story of his life into a coherent narrative so Erik could follow along.
“My original name is Wesley Gibson. I was born on Mars’ moon Deimos in the year 2345. My parent’s names were Richard and Amelia. There is little I can tell you of them; they died in 2355, in a hovercraft accident. They were not mutants.”
Erik didn’t wince, though he felt a stab of pain for the man. His own parents had died when he was twenty-three, right at the beginning of the Uprising, and even then at that age it had hurt him deeply. He could not fathom what it must have been like, to have had them but a fistful of years, the most tender years of childhood, only to then abruptly lose them both.
“After their death I was put in the care of the Alliance, as is standard for such circumstances. The regular story of woes followed; foster home after foster home, some better than others, some abusive, some loving. Eventually I always ran.”
He reached over and settled the book carefully on the table, lacing his fingers in his lap, eyes fixed still on the leather cover. “My gift, as you may call it, was triggered when I was sixteen. I had been living in the streets on Deimos for a couple of years at that point and life was—rough. There is really very little choice but to fall in with a bad crowd. And if there were any sort of good crowds on Deimos I must have missed them all, somehow.” He waved a hand.
“They called themselves the Fraternity. They were led by a man called Sloan and, at the time, their violence and the aggressiveness of their methods felt like my thing. I was a very angry boy, I suppose.”
“I can’t say I blame you,” Erik offered.
“I blame myself enough for the both of us,” Charles replied, giving Erik a wistful little smile. “I was a very violent creature, easily goaded, much too willing to be deceived. I fit right into the Fraternity. We stole for a living, of course. It was during a bank robbery gone terribly, terribly wrong, that my powers finally manifested. Hyper-speed and weak telekinesis. Nothing impressive, you understand. Enough to get me and my remaining companions out of there quickly, and back to base, wherein Sloan almost immediately promoted me to his lieutenant. Attracting attention was naturally a matter of time.”
Charles paused, lost in thought momentarily. Erik felt it brush against him, like a faint whisper of feathered wings; Charles’ telepathy, unfurling like the wings of a great beast, unseen but deadly like a knife to the throat, and yet somehow silk-soft, like the caress of a lover’s lips against his temple, there and gone, missed.
“It only took the Alliance two years to identify me. I was far enough from the Core that no great fuss would be kicked up, and despite Sloan’s predictable chagrin, none would miss me. I was as removed from society as any lost child of the colonies, you understand. I was out of the system.”
Fallen through the cracks, Erik thought. There were many such children outside the Core, the more the nearer you got to the Rim. Life on the terraformed planets was not an easy one, and the Alliance did not bother to offer a helping hand to those who fell to their knees. Rag-tag bands of broken kids, thrown together by the need to survive somehow, as Charles had described the Fraternity, were not uncommon.
“They could see the Uprising coming,” Charles murmured pensively. “They would have been fools not to, of course.”
Erik felt the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end, felt his stomach roil uneasily.
“Back then, as I’m sure you’ll remember, it was thought that it was mutants who were leading the rebellion. At that time only twenty Omega level mutants existed in the Three Systems, but of course their combined power would be absolutely devastating. So the Dollhouse was initially an Omega Protocol prototype, in the wake of the absolute failure of any other such attempt.”
Erik’s mouth twisted, “Like Delta Vega V.”
“Precisely like Delta Vega V,” Charles agreed quietly. “An entire asteroid wiped free of life by the careless stroke of one deranged Omega. Clearly mutants needed to be controlled, but this time Starfleet was not willing to risk an escape. Back in those early stages, they used this newly discovered Omega, Jason, as a way to control the mutants they meant to use as guinea pigs in the search for an efficient and fail-proof way to control vastly powered mutants who proved—uncooperative.”
“So he was just a security measure.”
“Back then,” Charles reminded him, inclining his head. “Jason was very talented. He is not a telepath in himself; he cannot do as I can, cannot destroy and fracture and heal. But he is an illusionist, and he can alter perception as he so desires. Perception is reality, Erik; distort perception and you will alter reality. Somewhere along the line Jason learned to block the subjects’ access to their own memories, thus wiping their minds clean. Tabula rasa.”
“And once their minds were blank, rewriting their personalities was simply the next logical step,” Erik said, a bitter taste like acid in his mouth.
Charles nodded. “Much of what Henry told us back when we found Alex was true even then. They called the wiped-clean mutants Shells; those graced with new, improved personalities were called Actives.”
The priest leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and spreading his hands in the air as if he held between them something precious and dear, and ever so fragile. His eyes were dark, his lips pressed to a thin line. He was a very expressive man.
“If you will allow me to project something into your mind? Just for the sake of the explanation.”
“You know I don’t mind,” Erik shrugged.
Charles’ resulting smile was faint. Erik felt it again, like a feather against his mind, only this time it unfurled into a tendril of awareness. His eyes fluttered shut, and when they opened, there was something between Charles’ physically empty hands. It was like a forest of connections, elastic and shimmering, like stars linked to one another by pulsing threads of light.
“The mind is a complex thing,” Charles said quietly. “Intelligence is determined by the connections between points of knowledge that enables association. An educated man is an intelligent man, regardless of his inclinations, because the knowledge creates more pathways, quicker associations.”
“Is that the mind of a human, or a mutant?”
Charles’ electric-blue eyes snapped up. “An interesting observation. You are correct; a mutant’s mind is different, but not in the way I suspect you believe.”
Charles shifted his hands, as if the movement of his fingers had any effect in the diagram he was projecting into Erik’s mind. What was between his spread hands now was similar to what had been before, only this time it was like a solar system, many silver stars twinkling around a larger, golden one.
Erik leaned forward, fascinated. “Is that how you see our gifts?”
“Yes. Many of us of course have more than one gift, and so the universe inside our minds shifts, accordingly.”
To illustrate his words, Charles allowed the solar system to morph, into a two-star, three-star and lastly a four-star system. Then he shifted into a twin-star one where one gift fed off the other, like Emma’s telepathy and her diamond form.
The image changed to a solar system with two stars, one much greater than the other. Charles shifted it, like a tridimensional star-chart, so that the smallest star was closest to Erik.
“Imagine the small star is my telekinesis,” he suggested. “My ability to move at great speeds is a result of it, so we’ll just put them together. For you to understand the series of events that led to my going Omega, you must first understand that what the Dollhouse, what Jason was capable of doing, was blocking certain communicational pathways—say, for example, that you blocked all of my childhood memories before I was twelve,”
A whole section of the star-chart went dark.
“The key resides in understanding which links would lead to the gifts becoming inaccessible,” he said, and demonstrated by having the smallest star blinking down a banked-fire color, almost as if it were dying. “Some connections are absolutely elemental; for example, if you take down the memory of my patents dying when I was very young, you discover if they had lived perhaps my gift would never have manifested at all, as it did through violence ad panic.
“Imagine now that you have learned which ones you must keep in order to allow my gift to exist and yet be able to instill new memories that will turn me into whatever you desire me to be.”
The star-chart changed, many links disappearing, so that only about a dozen remained connected to the smallest star, and none to the biggest. Erik was enraptured, absolutely awestruck by the display. It was difficult to believe it was just in his mind and Charles’, that if he reached with a hand he would not interrupt the projection of a hologram.
“Some minds are feeble and weak, and once those connections are broken they cannot be renewed,” Charles continued. “Others are more resilient, stubborn even. Some minds realize that something is wrong, that they are not as they should be, and they begin to seek and struggle. Between the stars left to them, new paths are forged.”
Erik watched as new tendrils, new shimmering delicate links, were born from the connections left, spreading slowly as if hesitating towards the lost bits of memory connection to other sections of recollection. But they were not as the others; they were fractured like jagged pieces of glass, sharp and painful-looking.
“New ways are born, darker, twisted. And these new paths, these hidden ways, cannot be easily detected; they spread, like icy dark fingers, filtering through the blocks put unnaturally in the mind of the mutant—“ Charles paused as new connections began to bleed through the star-chart, oddly malformed yet functional, and stronger than the original ones. “Thus creating a Ghost Awareness.”
Erik sat back in his chair, feeling almost empty. “A Ghost in a Shell.”
Charles nodded, and let his hands fall to the table. The star-chart collapsed and dispersed like sparks. Erik mourned its loss. The telepath folded his hands neatly on the table.
“It is my belief, now, that my telepathy would never have manifested to the degree it did if I had not been in the Dollhouse—“ He lifted a single finger in warning when Erik scoffed. “Allow me to explain. Both of my gifts were triggered by fear. My telepathy was hidden beneath several layers of subconscious blocks, in which I can only assume was my mind understanding I was not ready to handle such power. I was in the Dollhouse for four years, Erik, submitting continuously to mind-wiping and control. This stimulated the new pathways in my mind, strengthening them.”
The telepath laced his fingers and brought them up to his lips, closing his eyes.
“I was a Ghost, of course. I was not a very talented telekinetic, so, in the end, I was deemed expendable and donated to the experimentation half of the Dollhouse. Jason got it in his head that it would be a terrific opportunity to find a way to destroy these ghost connections, to—dissolve them by force, if you will.”
“Wouldn’t that have destroyed your mind entirely?”
Charles arched his brows, “Most assuredly. But then, it was not as though Jason cared—and in any case, he expected to fail with me. I was the first test subject; merely a casualty in a long line of experiments: try and fail, try and fail, try and fail.”
There was a pause.
“So what happened?”
Charles inhaled deeply, held his breath and then released it slowly.
“I told you both of my gifts were triggered by fear. In truth, they were triggered by violence and panic. By the time Jason decided to test his little theory on me, I was enough of a sentient Ghost that my mind reacted—badly. To his interference.”
“Badly,” Erik repeated, uneasy. “How badly?”
“Violently. I was terrified, Erik. And of course I had not shown one iota of telepathic activity up to that point, so my mind was quite beyond my control. It perceived a threat, and it reacted, not with a sensible display of shielding and repelling, but rather with—a devastating swell of destruction. I turned Jason’s intentions back on him, Erik, tenfold. I felt it happen.” He turned his face away, leaned his head so his eyes were shielded by his hand. “Only I didn’t block out his connections, Erik. I snapped them, one by one, methodically. I—fractured him, like a mirror.”
“You drove him mad,” Erik murmured, eyes wide.
“Quite,” Charles dropped his hand tiredly. “For the next year I attempted to fix what I had done to him, at his father’s behest—“
Charles looked startled. “Do you not know? Jason Stryker. He’s William’s son; he’s the whole reason William came up with the idea of Dollhouse.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“But they never did participate in the Rebellion did they?” Erik asked slowly.
“No.” Charles sighed. “The project was too new by then, untested. They could not be sure the mutants would hold to their given commands.”
Erik leaned forward and out his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands.
“So you spent the next year trying to fix him?”
“But it could not be done,” Charles said sadly, blue eyes full of sorrow. “The damage was too great. And even if it had not been—after the first great tidal wave, my telepathy subsided to a, a sort of—low hum, if you will. It lies there in rest, inside me. I feel it, I see it but I cannot—command it, or control it. It will come to my aid, but not to my beck and call.”
The captain smiled ruefully, “Much like a wild thing, eh?”
“Much,” Charles sighed. “Eventually, I managed to manipulate some guards into letting me out of the Dollhouse. I got onboard a transport, disguising myself in mental shrouds, and returned to Deimos.”
“A stupid move,” Erik commented.
“Quite,” Charles smiled wryly. “Yet I felt Deimos was my home. I realized quickly enough I would not be able to conceal myself there, though, and so I moved to Mars, and removed myself to the only place I knew I would be completely safe from prying eyes.”
“The Temple.” Erik nodded. “But how did you come up with Charles Xavier? It’s a bit of a strange name.”
“I didn’t.” Charles smiled. “I was taken into the Temple, and there I met Charles Francis Xavier—a young priest, just three years my junior. Charles was very sick with Circuvian fever; terminal in most cases, as you know. Charles had no family, no fortune to speak of, and was pretty much nonexistent in the system. He offered me his name and I took it.”
He sagged in his chair. “I remained at the temple for the next seven years, learning to control my telepathy, and—remembering myself. A lot had been lost. But I managed to get most of it back.”
Erik nodded. They were silent for another long moment.
“Is that the reason you never went up against them?” he asked softly. “That you don’t know how to control your telepathy?”
“One of the reasons,” Charles admitted. “The other one is I don’t have the fire-power to go against an entire organization. Lastly, Erik—I am scared of them. Very scared.”
“They can’t hurt you.”
Charles arched his brows, “Oh, they very much can. I’m not invincible. Not by any stretch of the imagination.”
“Well, you’re on my crew now,” Erik said firmly. “And no one touches my crew.”
Charles’ smile was genuine this time, easier than the previous ones.
“You’re about to start a war over this, are you not?” he asked quietly.
Erik ran a hand through his hair. “It can’t be allowed to go on like this. We have to rescue all of those mutants—and we have to put an end to this nightmare. You understand. Will you be at my side?”
The telepath made a helpless gesture with his hands. “Where else could I be, Erik?”
The captain paused, “Which brings me to another question—stupid really in the big picture, but I still wonder. You’re not really a priest…”
“…so why have I not acted on what’s between us?” Charles smiled.
“So you feel it’s there.” Erik arched his brows.
“Well, I’d have to be a bumbling fool to miss it,” Charles replied. “Erik—my telepathy is unbelievably powerful. And I cannot control it. Physical contact increases my awareness, which is why I tend to wear so many layers,” he gestured down at himself, at his sweater, shirt and undershirt. “I have not had sex ever since it manifested, and I believe it might be, if perhaps not dangerous, certainly—tricky.”
“Tricky?” Erik asked, getting sinuously to his feet, graceful like a cat.
Charles’ eyes followed him, uneasily, as he came slowly around the desk, trailing his long fingers over the plastic surface.
“It might be too overwhelming for me,” he explained, quietly. He turned his chair when Erik came to his side, and his breath hitched when he stepped up closer, nudging Charles’ legs open so he could stand between them, towering tall and masculine, eyes dark.
“I’ll go slow,” he murmured, reaching out to trail his fingertips lightly over Charles’ cheek. He was graced by the sight of heat blooming beneath the skin, Charles’ full lips parting. “You’ll tell me when to stop,” he added, fingering the curve of the telepath’s lower lip before slipping his fingers under Charles’ chin and tilting his face up. Charles’ eyes closed.
Erik leaned forward, bracing one hand on the back of Charles chair as the other one cupped his jaw.
Charles’ lips were very soft, and very warm. Erik angled his head, caught Charles’ upper lip between his own, slid their mouths together, rasping and dry. Charles breathed in and caught Erik’s bottom lip, sucked it, released it. He sat up in the chair, getting in Erik’s space; the angle made it hard for them to slide their lips together, so the captain crouched down between his spread legs, slid his hands up and down Charles’ thighs without going too far. He knew he had to take his cues from the telepath; he couldn’t afford to scare him and he certainly didn’t want to.
Charles’ hands came to his shoulders. Erik felt it again, tentative and gentle, a brush against his mind like feathered wings; a request for permission, he realized.
“Yes,” he breathed into Charles’ lips. The telepathy unfurled like it had been kept hidden too tightly in too small a container; it flooded through Erik almost too quickly, perhaps eagerly, yet clearly controlled. Erik swayed with it momentarily, with the sudden access to the whispers of Charles mind, so many thoughts streaming out before it all coalesced into a solitary murmur, intelligible and sweet.
Outside their heads all Erik could hear was their breathing, gaining rhythm and catching on to the kisses. Charles arched closer, hands grasping at Erik’s arms. The captain dropped to his knees, slid his arms around Charles back and brought him to the edge of the chair so they were pressed together. Charles seemed to reel for a moment, and his head bent back as he gasped. Erik kissed his throat instead, sneaking clever hands beneath the topmost sweater to the fabric of the shirt below. Charles gasped again, face coming back down to search for Erik’s lips.
This time the telepath’s lips parted; Erik caught the bottom between his own, slicked his tongue against it before licking inside Charles’ mouth, swallowing his breathy gasp. Charles’ hands were fisted in his coat; Erik disentangled himself only enough to pull it off his shoulders and drop it to the floor. He only wore a shirt beneath it, and Charles seemed hesitant to touch him, but he didn’t move away from the kiss, which was growing heated by the second.
Erik gripped the hem of Charles’ big sweater and pulled it up and over their heads. Charles swallowed and closed his eyes to center himself, but the next moment he was reaching for Erik again, so the captain assumed he was doing well enough. He started on the buttons of Charles’ shirt, licking into his mouth and pressing his tongue against Charles’ in gentle, long strokes before sucking on it. The last button came undone; Erik parted the sides of the shirt and palmed the undershirt at Charles’ flanks. Felt the muscle shift beneath, flutter when Charles drew in a shaky breath. Erik reached up and pushed the shirt off Charles’ shoulders, down his arms. He leaned in to kiss the side of his neck as Charles himself undid the buttons of his cuffs with trembling fingers. Erik’s hands moved along his thighs, up to the outward joint to the hip and around to Charles’ ass, which he stroked but didn’t dare squeeze, just yet.
The shirt pooled between Charles’ back and the chair. Erik gripped it and dragged it away, letting it fall to the floor, before again moving his hands up Charles’ thighs and fingering the waistband of his trousers. Charles shivered. Erik kissed the side of his neck again and slid his fingers up beneath the undershirt, against the warm smooth skin of Charles’ back.
He felt it even before Charles stiffened; the change in the flow of the telepathic link, like a dissonance, an interruption of rhythm born of fear. He pulled back quickly but not sharply, crouching, hands on the tops of the telepath’s thighs.
“Stop?” He asked, swallowing.
Charles shook his head slightly, “Just, a moment. I think you’ll have to let me.”
“That’s alright,” Erik murmured, leaning forward again to press a kiss to Charles’ lips. “But tell me what you need.”
The telepath nodded and kissed Erik again, lips soft and parted, as his fingers began to undo the buttons on Erik’s own shirt, clumsy, it appeared, with nervousness. Erik didn’t help him, thinking it was probably better to let Charles take the lead in this, and held very still when the shirt was undone and Charles finally, carefully reached for his bare skin.
Erik felt another surge, but this time it was harmonious, pleased. Charles stroked the skin over his ribs, up and around to his pectorals and over his shoulders down his back, pushing the shirt away and pulling him closer at the same time, so they were, suddenly, chest to thin undershirt. Pressed close again now Erik felt Charles’ erection against his own, something he’d been carefully avoiding because he didn’t know if the telepath was ready—but Charles’ hips stuttered forward, and the captain smiled against the skin of his cheek, wrapping his arms around Charles waist to crush him close.
There was really no finesse in the next kiss, not that either of them was noticing anymore; certainly Charles wasn’t paying attention to technique, with his hands tangled in Erik’s hair and his mind like a breathing pulsing thing in the air between and around them, beating at the rhythm of his heart, sharpening and softening things by turn. Erik pulled back, arched up to crash his mouth against Charles’ before rising to his feet and dragging his shirt the rest of the way off. He leaned forward again at the waist and fingered the hem of Charles’ undershirt, pulling it up an inch before pausing.
The telepath breathed in; Erik felt him telepathy preparing itself, wrapping shields around and between them, porous and flexible. Then Charles lifted his arms and Erik pulled his undershirt off, setting his hands gently on Charles’ shoulders.
He was braced for the surge this time, but it still took him by surprise like a tidal wave, nearly overwhelming, before Charles managed to settle it down to its previous hum. Erik thought he might have been seeing double, two images overlapping; Charles in his chair, shirtless, and Erik himself, standing tall in front of him, oddly dominant but undeniably welcome, in all his battle-scarred glory.
Charles seemed to catch the flicker of uncertainty. He stood, pressing them chest to chest, and bent down to kiss a small scar over Erik’s nipple.
A life lived, he murmured as Erik ducked his head to catch his lips again. You’re very beautiful.
Erik walked him back to the bed and caught him when he stumbled, lowering him slowly down.
“How far can we go?”
“Not very, I’m sorry to say,” Charles sighed, grasping Erik’s shoulders as he stretched out at his side on the bed, leaning half over him. “I won’t last long in any case, and—I can’t risk hurting your mind.”
“I’m not in pain,” Erik murmured, kissing Charles’ ear.
“Ah, no, I can tell, but—“ he shifted as Erik’s hand stroked down his side to his hip, breath stuttering. “But you might be, if I—surge too quickly, or lose the resonance between us.”
“That could happen?” Erik sucked his earlobe.
“If I get scared, yes,” the telepath gasped.
Erik pulled back now, frowning. “I couldn’t hurt you if I wanted to, though, could I?”
“Oh, if you wanted, to, surely,” Charles quirked his red-red lips up in a smile. “You’re a stubborn sort of man.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Erik arched his brows petulantly. Charles opens his mouth, but what came out was a moan when Erik lowered himself closer down, slid a thigh between his legs and up against his groin. Charles’ back arched. Erik kissed him again, though at this point it was more a sliding of open mouths and hot breaths than a kiss, and flipped open the button of his trouser, lowering his zipper with his gift. Charles’ hips buckled up when he palmed him through the boxers, and Erik realized Charles wasn’t lying; he was already so he hard he probably hurt, and his boxers were damp with precome.
Then again Erik couldn’t reproach him; it had been seven years of celibacy, whereas Erik had last had sex on Mars, less than a month prior. A lovely girl, not that she could hope to compare to Charles’ compact body, to his surprisingly broad chest and masculine shoulders, his tapered waist. Charles hid a lot beneath his many layers of clothing, it turned out; the very solid masculinity of him pleased Erik. It was always more thrilling for him to have a man underneath him, someone his equal in physical strength, someone he knew he couldn’t hurt in the heat of the moment.
He shifted up only long enough to drag Charles’ trousers and boxers down and free his cock. He liked the heaviness of it against his palm, hot and firm, and he liked even more the way Charles arched when he stroked, slowly. He could feel Charles sliding closer to the edge almost immediately, his telepathy pulsing almost at the same rhythm of his blood, like the beat of his heart against Erik’s chest. There was an undercurrent, soft and sweet, very much like an apology.
Erik chuckled, stroked more firmly. “Don’t be. If I didn’t want to see you orgasm I wouldn’t be here.”
Charles’ right leg came up, probably without him noticing, so he could thrust more firmly into Erik’s hand. The captain tightened his grip, careful to stay tuned to the resonance of Charles’ telepathy, trusting it would tell him if he was to rough, if he caused pain—and then, abruptly, it hit them both, like a white-out, a wave of bliss so intense even Erik gasped. He wouldn’t have been surprised to have come himself, stunned in the wake of it, muscles tense and pleasure coiled down low in his belly, so hard he was uncomfortable with it. Charles was limp on the bed, eyes half-lidded, breath catching uneven and shallow. But even now, with his body limp and weak with pleasure, his telepathy was already turning, shifting into Erik’s mind like an independent entity, seeking, searching.
Erik shifted and straddled Charles’ hips. The telepath’s eyes snapped suddenly to him, unexpectedly alert, and his hands came to Erik’s thighs and stroked up towards his groin. Erik reached up to grip the safety cage above the bed, stretching out his torso and thrusting forward into Charles’ hands. He felt hot, like his skin was too tight and sensitive, alive with it as Charles undid the button of his pants—
The intercom beeped. Erik and Charles froze.
“Intrepid captain,” Sean’s voice came clearly through the system. “We’ve been hailed. It’s urgent.”
Erik gritted his jaw so hard he might have pulled a muscle. Taking a deep breath, he activated the panel by Charles’ bed and accessed the bridge communication system.
“Who is it?” he asked evenly.
“Man, I was looking for you! Where the—oh god, is that Charles bed panel? What the flying monkey, man, what—“
The idiot was freaking out over the ship-wide fucking public intercom.
“Sean,” Erik ground out, even as Charles’ telepathy began to retreat to a subdued hum. “Shut the fuck up. Who’s on the line?”
“—knew you’d score sooner or—“
“Sean, finish that sentence and I will gut you.”
“Ohmigod, so fucking wrong man, so wrong.”
“Who’s on the fucking line, Sean? ”
“Oh. Uh. Nick Fury, man.”
Erik frowned. He hadn’t heard from Fury in months. Normally when Fury called it was because he had a particularly difficult bounty that required a special sort of service. Erik had a reputation of getting complicated jobs done, so Fury had fallen into the habit of calling him for them, but after the last one they had decided it was time they went separate ways.
Even worse, Fury was the kind of person Erik would always get out of bed for.
“Goddamn it.” He dragged a hand down his face. “Reroute him to my desk console. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
Sean cut the intercom without another word. Erik rubbed both of his hands up and down his face, letting his weight settle on Charles’ thighs with a sigh.
“I’m sorry to say I don’t know how to help you in less than ten minutes,” Charles said apologetically, stroking his thighs soothingly.
“I might, but it wouldn’t be satisfying,” Erik said and groaned. He braced himself on his hands to lean down and crush a hard kiss against Charles’ mouth. Then he shifted and got off him, stalking to the desk to grab his shirt. Charles came up to his elbows, still a little dazed by the strength of his orgasm. Erik felt his telepathy withdraw and, finally, sever the link. He frowned.
“You can keep that,” he said, pulling the shirt on with jerky, violent movements.
“You won’t calm down if I do,” Charles sighed, sitting up and self-consciously pulling a sheet over his exposed groin. Erik arched a brow at that, but didn’t comment.
“I’m not going to easily calm down anyway.”
He snatched his coat up and shrugged it on. With two strides he was back at the side of the bed, and he leaned down to tangle his fingers in Charles’ hair and kiss him again, hard and heated.
“We’ll finish this later,” he said when he straightened again.
“A threat?” Charles smiled, leaning his weight back on his hands.
“A promise,” Erik replied, smirking. “And you know I never break those.”
The captain didn’t wait for a reply, but unlocked the door and crossed swiftly to his own quarters. He took a deep breath before he sat before his console and connected the line.
“Colonel,” he greeted, sitting back in his chair.
“Lehnsherr,” the man replied, giving him a nod. “I heard you had a rough go with a certain missing strategist.”
Right down to business, as usual with Fury.
“He saw me coming before I knew it myself.”
“That’s Loki for you.”
“You know him?”
“Better than I wish I did. Which is why I’m calling. I don’t know how his mind works, but I can tell you this much; he doesn’t let things go.”
“You think he’s coming after us?”
“I’ll be more surprised if he doesn’t than if he does. You better be on your toes.”
“I always am,” Erik stroked a hand over his mouth. His lips felt swollen. “He nearly tore us apart last time.”
“I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking ‘nearly’ was a miscalculation,” Fury warned. “Loki’s off the mental map, Lehnsherr. That guy’s mind just doesn’t work like ours.”
“He’s making a point.”
“Knowing him, he’s making several,” Fury shook his head. “I’d suggest you stay off the map for a while. Play it quiet. Incidentally, I think I have a way for you to do just that.”
Erik huffed out a laugh.
“I have a person of interest,” Fury said, and Erik saw a file had just come through. “Codename Black Widow. All the data’s there.”
Erik sat up, tapped on the file and read it through quickly. He arched his brows. “Getting me out of the system, Fury? Now I know you’re really worried.”
“I’m telling you, Lehnsherr. Loki’ll chew you down and spit you out.”
“I’m surprised the military’s not looking for him openly. Don’t they want him back?”
“They’re hoping he’ll come back on his own. They’d be fools to not want a strategic genius of his caliber around, but they’re not about to go poking in his business and annoying him.”
“Do you want him around?” Erik arched a brow. “This seems like an optimal recruiting opportunity.”
Fury scoffed. “I don’t want that guy anywhere near me. His mind is a box full of cats.”
Erik laughed. “This coming from the one-eyed leather trench-coat sporting rogue Colonel.”
“I have style, motherfucker, thank you,” Fury waved a hand. “I mean to recruit this kid, so be polite.”
“She’s a master assassin.” Erik scrolled through the file. “What do I do, invite her for tea?”
“I don’t know, dumbass, I’m paying you to find the way.”
“You’re paying me to deal with it because you’re a lazy asshole.”
“Key being I’m paying you. Now get.”
The line disconnected. Erik sat back in his chair, sighing. Maybe leaving the system for a little while was the best option; he now knew he had three Alliance fugitives in his crew, along with a psychopathic revenge-hungry dickhead wanting to make an example out of him and his ship. And if Fury wanted to recruit the Black Widow for Shield, all Erik and his crew would have to do was find her and have a conversation with her, encourage her to come with them and then hand her over. It ought to be simple enough with two telepaths at hand.
One of them an Omega, he remembered with a slight smile.
The temptation to slink back into Charles’ quarters and finish what they’d started was great. He couldn’t wait to get under the sheets with the telepath and lick every inch of his skin—but Charles had told him they wouldn’t be able to go much further than what they had, for the time being, and Erik didn’t want to risk pressuring him.
Besides, they had a mission now; a mark. Erik had duties to attend to.
He leaned forward and called Ororo to the war-room.
Chapter 6: Bushwhacked
Ta Ma Duh: motherfucker
Ta Ma De Hun Dan : Mother-humping son of a bitch
They should have seen it coming. Should have, should have, should have.
But they never did.
Waking up was slow and painful, like drifting up to the surface through molasses. Erik opened his eyes to find himself on his back, sprawled out on the floor. His head ached. His gaze focused and unfocused, like the defective lens of a camera. He blinked and felt like his eyelids dragged over the gritty surface of his eyeballs. His left eye was swollen.
Get up, he thought. Move. You stay down you get killed.
The ground beneath his back shuddered and for a short, yet endless, moment Erik braced himself for the fall of the bomb, nearby and hot, braced himself for the shrapnel that would shred him. He could see himself as a pincushion, dead and staring, and left to rot.
“Hello?” Sean’s voice said shakily through the intercom. “Is anybody there? Please somebody be there, Ororo, Erik, someone, please, anybody.”
Erik swallowed. Sean, vulnerable, weak Sean; always too open, heart on his sleeve. Erik was supposed to protect him. He was supposed to protect everyone on this ship.
The captain gritted his teeth and curled to the side around his stomach, forcing his limbs and muscles to do what he told them. He got on his elbows and dragged himself to a nearby desk, and, bracing his hand on the edge, hoisted himself up to his feet. He waited for the roiling nausea to abate. Head injury, he catalogued, burns to shoulder and thigh, bruised or broken ribs.
Why wasn’t he dead? What had hit them?
“Erik?” Sean’s voice was thick with tears. “Ororo?”
Erik swallowed and reached out to the intercom button.
“Sean,” he said, voice gritty and rough. “Stay in the cockpit. Get us planetside.”
The intercom went dead for a moment. Sean might have been crying, and knew Erik would not want to hear that.
“Okay,” he said when he came back, voice firmer, like he was no longer a lost little boy, but an able and competent pilot with a mission. “I can do that, boss.”
Erik nodded heavily. “Damage report?” he switched to ship-wide intercom. “Crew, come in and give me a status report. What is your condition?”
“Yes,” Ororo coughed. “I’m fine. A little battered and bruised. But fine. They didn’t try to kill me.”
“I’m getting there,” Logan growled. “I can see my leg bone, so this might take a while.”
“Bridge is clear,” Sean reported. “Navigational instruments, communications and shielding back online. Ship’s integrity holds. I’m flying to the Petibonum, will alert the station to receive us in ETA twenty minutes.”
“Engine room is clear,” Raven came through. “All systems are online and green. Kurt and I are shaken, but unhurt.”
A long silence. Infirmary and shuttles: silence on the line.
Erik’s heart picked up as a wave of cold washed over him. He groped his hip and found his phaser gone from its holster. A quick glance around revealed it on the floor by the door, where he’d been first knocked down. He found his own communicator in his pocket.
“Ororo, meet me in the infirmary.”
Erik was unsteady on his feet; his head swam and his leg couldn’t quite take his weight; but there was no time to focus on that now and he didn’t have what would be necessary for field medicine. Henry, Alex, Emma and Charles had failed to check in. Both telepaths should be in the shuttles, ready to evacuate if needed. Erik couldn’t feel the usual thread of awareness that meant they were watching through his eyes, but he didn’t know how to project his thoughts out and reach them, he only knew how to let them in when they requested it.
The concern and the uncertainty sat like knots on the hollow of his stomach, but there was no time to give in to despair now. He and Ororo would have to make their way cautiously down the ship from the infirmary, combing through to make sure everything was clear and the threat was gone.
Erik bent down to pick up the phaser, hissing at the pull on his injured leg and ribs. With some luck they’d be only cracked and not broken. He couldn’t afford to have severe injuries with how things stood right now.
He exited his quarters carefully, phaser-first, eyes alert. It all seemed to be clear. No fallen enemies, which was bizarre, because Erik knew he’d killed at least four before going down. There wasn’t even blood on the deck, though the walls had new, fresh scorch-marks to match the old ones.
Ororo was coming in from the other end of the corridor, heading up from the cargo hold and hangar. She had a cut on her lip and eyebrow and a long, dark bruise along her cheek, but seemed otherwise unharmed. They homed-in on the door to the infirmary, one on each side, still staying clear of the line of fire, backs pressed against the wall. Erik let his head rest back a moment to brace himself for the onset of action, and then gestured to Ororo: three, two, one, go.
They stormed into the infirmary to find it deserted. They split, watching, searching, eyes scanning ground and counters. One of the glass cabinets had been smashed. Signs of fighting and violence were easily visible. Someone had put up a battle here, and Erik doubted it had been Henry.
They reconvened at the center and turned as one to the operation theater. Erik nodded as Ororo took the lead, approaching slowly, silently.
The pneumatic sealing doors slid open noiselessly. Erik and Ororo moved in, communicating through head tilts and looks.
Henry was on the floor, on his side, unconscious. Crouching over him with her hand on his arm was Black Widow. Her head snapped up as Erik and Ororo zeroed their phasers in on her.
“They wanted the doctor dead,” she said in her usual unsettling blank tone. “They took the boy.”
“Why didn’t you stop them?”
“I couldn’t,” she answered, unnervingly frank and direct. “I was busy defending the doctor. They drugged the boy with a dart and dragged him out.”
Ororo’s face went even paler as she stared at Erik. He understood what she was going through; he was going through the same thing: growing horror as comprehension began to dawn.
“They were military,” Black Widow said, getting gracefully to her feet. “I could tell from the way they moved.”
Erik turned around and left the infirmary without another word. Inside his head he was screaming loudly for Charles, as loud as he could think, and the lack of response was igniting panic in his gut like a fuse, climbing hot up his throat to claw at the back of his eyes.
He couldn’t run with his leg like it was, and in any case it would have been unwise, so he moved slowly through the ship, down the stairs and into the sub-level access to the shuttles. The access panel to the closest shuttle had been damaged. It spat out dying sparks of short-circuited electricity as Erik came closer, aiming his phaser at the door and slipping quietly inside. Pointless, he knew; their enemies had abandoned ship and left behind them nothing but bruises and pain. Like shadows in the black.
Emma was sitting against the far wall, her legs crumpled beneath her, her whole body a single mass of sparkling, shimmering diamond. Erik holstered his phaser and crouched down next to her, urgently lifting her head.
Her eyes fluttered open.
“They took Charles,” she said, voice as brittle as crystal. Erik felt like his chest had been crushed and caved inwards. “He fought like a wild thing and they knocked him out and took him. He wouldn’t let them touch me, Erik.”
Unable to find words, Erik nodded and slipped his arms around her to help her rise and walk slowly to the shuttle bench.
“You would have been proud to see him,” Emma murmured, skin easing slowly out of the unbreakable diamond and into soft, pliant flesh. “I’ve never seen him more alive, or more stunning.”
Erik straightened and swallowed with difficulty.
“What are we going to do?” Emma asked, feline eyes wide and scared.
Erik couldn’t see five minutes into the future. He couldn’t get past the fact Alex and Charles had been taken from his ship, from right under his nose, and he hadn’t even been there to fight for them. An innocent, broken kid and a gentle and kind-mannered man who would never do anything to hurt anyone. He was supposed to protect them, they were his crew, and he’d let someone come onto his ship and take them.
“How did this happen?” he muttered, easing down on the bench next to her, trying to untangle the mess that were his memories.
He threw his mind back, past the devastation of the consequences, past the confusion of the attack, farther back to the beginning of this day.
It had started with the hunt, as it usually did.
Of the Three Systems the Proxima System in the Alpha Centauri star-quadrant was the most ruthless. Though closer in parsecs than Canopus, Alpha Centauri’ several dozen small terra-formed planets and asteroids afforded little shelter and poor living conditions. Most of the population of Proxima was in its many titanic space stations, several of which held millions of people in close quarters. It was a harsh, dog-eat-dog life.
Black Widow, once upon a time Natasha Romanova, had cleverly hidden herself in the most dangerous of the stations, the old and monstrous Lusitania. The Lusitania had been the first titan-size station to be launched outside the Solar System. Proxima, a smaller star in close proximity to the twin stars Alpha Centauri A and B, was the closest star to the Sun and the most similar in size. It had been the ideal candidate to build a second system to populate with the ever-growing human race.
By all means and rights the Lusitania should have been dismantled several decades ago. And yet it lingered, a hulking monstrosity of dark painted metal scratched by stardust and space rocks, malformed by meteoroids. It followed exactly none of the modern safety regulations, and was better than dead space only by a fraction.
Following a willing and able assassin into the bowels of the Lusitania was only marginally safer than putting a bullet in your mouth. The only reason Erik had ventured past the vast hangar was that he meant Black Widow no harm; he only wanted words with her. If he played this well, and kept a low profile while at the same time making sure everyone understood he had about as nasty a bite as the rest of them, things should go smoothly enough.
Predictably, because he was Erik Lehnsherr, things did not happen thus.
What happened was he stepped into what might have one day been called the market and was nowadays a place people went to get stabbed, or, failing that, stabbed someone else. For a handsome fee that was. He figured he was going to spend a nice little afternoon dodging knives and threatening people, but what actually happened was he turned a corner and spotted Black Widow’s unmistakable red hair.
She was standing with her back to a wall, on a dark corner, arms crossed but feet set wide and firm. She was ready for anything. She had to be, if she hoped to survive this shithole. Erik was spotted almost immediately, and raised his hands to show he meant no trouble as he approached her.
“I just want to talk,” he said quietly when he was close enough.
Widow’s pale-blue eyes scanned him from head to toe twice in less than a second, assessed the threat, catalogued the many ways to kill him before he lifted a hand to his phaser, and finally settled back on his face.
She tilted her head in a wordless gesture and turned away. Erik, who could be called about a dozen different unpleasant things but none of them were any variations of stupid and naïve, knew it was a risk. But at a lack of anything else to do, and with the risk of losing her and never finding her again heavy on his shoulders and the back of his neck, he followed her.
She led him down twisting corridors, up and down stairs and through a small doorway, before she stopped and turned to look at him, crossing her arms.
“Nick Fury sent me on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D. He wants to offer you a clean slate in exchange of your unique skillset.”
“I didn’t know he was in the business of hiring mercenaries.”
Widow had an unnervingly calm and expressionless way of speaking, with a soft yet monotone voice that grated on Erik’s nerves.
“Then you don’t know a lot about him.”
She stared at him.
“And if I refuse?”
Erik was not an imbecile. He was skilled and he was quick, but Widow was deadly, and made a life out of killing men just like him; stronger, taller, gifted.
“It’s a good opportunity for you,” he said. “Unless you prefer to grovel and crawl through the filth of Proxima for the next twenty years, until you burn yourself out in this system as well. Another option is you get killed before that.”
“Who says someone could kill me?”
“Anyone can be killed,” replied Erik. “You know that better than most.”
Widow pinned him with her pale eyes. She had full, very red lips. She might have been a very beautiful woman if she had not been made out of ice and steel.
“Why did Fury rely on you to come get me?”
“It was a mutual favor.”
“He lies,” she said calmly. “He lies to everyone. All the time.”
“Yeah,” Erik arched his brows. “Tony Stark’s always saying Fury’s secrets have secrets. But he stands for his word. He thinks of himself as honorable.”
“Honor is for children.”
Erik laughed briefly, “I agree. What adults deal in are debts.”
“And what’s your debt to Fury?”
The captain sighed.
“We owe each other much,” he paused, thoughtful. “I can vouch for him.”
“Your vouching means nothing to me.”
Erik dragged a hand down his face. “Why are we having this conversation? You know he’s your only mainstream option right now. Any other choices will make you go to ground. I’m sure you’re skilled at keeping a low profile, but things get hard when you go from having no opposition to suddenly having a target painted in the back of your head.”
Why were they talking? There was nothing Erik could do or say that would convince Widow to join or not join SHIELD. She looked like she had made up her mind already, and she was a smart, sharp woman. She would join. She would take on the mantle of SHIELD agent and enjoy the protection of Fury’s long, black-leather wing. Pragmatism was the mark of the mercenary.
What angle was she working? What did she gain, bringing Erik so far from the ship—
His eyes snapped up, blood running abruptly cold.
“You’re bait,” he murmured.
Widow tilted her head. “You’re an example.”
Erik was itching to turn around and race back up to the hangar, to the Starbreaker where his crew was sitting like fish in a barrel, suspecting nothing. But he needed to know where this hidden blade had come from. He was not short on enemies; he needed a name.
“Who put you up to this?”
She looked at him, expressionless, for a moment. Then, blinking calmly, she said:
Erik whirled around and stormed out of the small room, up labyrinthine corridors and stairs, navigating the station with his sense of direction, guided by the whispers of metal in his mind. He could feel the Starbreaker like a beacon, its peculiar and unique metal alloy calling out to him.
If Sean had been paying attention, maybe he had managed to snap up the shielding in time and repel the attackers, but without Erik onboard he would never take the Starbreaker out of the station, and the Eisenhardts were not designed to battle in limited spaces like a hangar. Sean was one of the best pilots in the black, but even he could not maneuver a ship of such size with no breathing space.
He was aware of Black Widow following him, and could not for the life of him understand why, not that he could spare any time to stop and think about it. His heart was in his throat; he should have seen this coming, he thought with disgust, he should have braced himself for such a thing.
Of course Loki would be one step ahead of them; of course he would think to strike when they were most defenseless, most vulnerable. Erik hadn’t even glanced over his goddamn shoulder since they’d left the Solar system, hadn’t even considered Loki would come after them like a knife slicing in the dark. He should have.
By the time he made it to the hangar, he was out of breath and his heart was racing.
Just as he had predicted, the Starbreaker was still grounded, but it was even worse than he had fears; they had crisscrossed anchoring chains over it, some of metal alloys Erik had never even sensed before, and the ship could no rise even if it had wanted to, not without cause serious damage to the hangar, something they would not risk without Erik on board and ready to depart.
The captain stopped and spread out his awareness, searching for the anchoring chains, pin-pointing them in the cacophony or other metals by their shape and general direction. He could feel the turbines heating as the engines started, could feel the ship begin to vibrate before the compensators kicked in and the working was smooth.
He found the chains and yanked them up and away; strained them until they began to crumble and snap. He was abruptly aware of men moving around them. He grabbed for his phaser, but Widow snatched it from his holster and threw it away. Without even thinking about, Erik gripped the metal in her person and threw it as far as he could manage, which was pretty far indeed.
The main hatch was lowering; Sean must have spotted him. Now all Erik had to do was get there. With several dozen mercenaries raining down on them and at least seven small battleships ready to take the Starbreaker to pieces, odds that he would make it were slim. But he knew better that to expect his crew would leave without him; ever if Logan was willing, Ororo would slit his throat before abandoning Erik on a hostile situation.
His only chance was fighting, so he threw himself entirely into it. In the old days, many centuries ago, life would have been so much easier, with lead and steel bullets flying at his head—but he couldn’t control laser beams, and he wasn’t a good enough one-on-one fighter to get rid of more than forty men on his own, especially not without his phaser.
The hatch lowered; Logan came hurtling out like cannon-ball, long claws unsheathed, snarling like a savage beast. Ororo, somewhat more rational if no less angry, and without the benefit of the healing factor, stayed behind the cover of the shields, as she started clearing a path for Erik to reach the Starbreaker.
The shields are holding, Charles’ voice was suddenly in his mind. We can get out of here. All you have to do is get to the hangar, Erik.
“Easier said than done,” Erik grunted, slamming his shoulder into a mercenary’s solar plexus and hissing with a laser seared along his right shoulder. Suddenly Logan was there at his side, gripping his arm and covering for him.
“Move,” he snarled, shoving him.
He had almost made it to the hatch, could jump and get on it, so close, when the closest ship opened fire on them. The deck beneath Erik’s feet jerked; he fell hard on his knees and hands, momentarily disoriented. He got up to his feet in time to see Logan fall, skull split and bleeding profusely, at his side. He crouched down and grabbed at his jacket, but he knew immediately it was pointless; he was strong, but not strong enough to drag an unconscious Logan all the way to the Starbreaker under fire.
A snap and a plume of smoke. Erik felt cold horror wash over him as Kurt smiled up at him.
“I help,” he said, and grabbed Logan’s wild hair with his tiny little hand, maybe intending to teleport them safely aboard the ship—except Kurt could not yet teleport anyone along with him, he’d only just learned to bring his clothes along.
Another fire was shot; the deck listed heavily to the right. Erik lunged forward, but Kurt’s balance was already off. The toddler fell on his bum and rolled away. Desperate, Erik latched onto what little metal he was wearing—the zippers of his pants and hoodie—and stopped him getting farther away. He lurched to his feet, intending to shield Kurt himself—but with a sudden flash of black and red, Black Widow had rolled on the boy and caught him, and without breaking the flow of the motion she was racing towards the Starbreaker, with Kurt sheltered in her arms.
Erik turned to Logan; the man was struggling to sit up already, healing factor sealing up the gaping wound in his scalp. Erik grabbed his arm and hauled him up, tugging at him to move, move move—
Chaos. Erik saw red and dragged Logan down to the deck, covering him, throwing his arms up over his head. Heat and fire and red, red everywhere. The deck tilted abruptly beneath them; Erik magnetized them to it to avoid slamming against the walls like the mercenaries were doing. The Starbreaker had taken flight and hovered, uncertain but unharmed.
Alex Summers was at the edge of the hatch, and Erik couldn’t quite understand what was happening. Rings of plasma, red and heat and fire, and a level of destruction the likes of which Erik had never witnessed. Logan was squirming underneath him; Erik got to his hands and knees and demagnetized them, and Logan grabbed his wrist in an iron grip and dragged him over to the Starbreaker.
Erik didn’t even know what to think; he felt some sort of dark fascination with the ease with which Alex tore the ships apart with his gift, alternating wide hoola rings and shooting concentrated beams that went through the ships like a hot knife through butter. The skill and focus he had with his power were absolutely breathtaking.
The Starbreaker dipped, nose rising. Erik and Logan grabbed onto the edge of the hatch and held on for dear life as Sean attempted to level the ship under the onslaught of several attackers. Erik couldn’t focus on the metal around him to help, not with all his attention diverted to attempting to climb up the hatch. Alex glanced at them briefly, but he was too busy attacking to spare a thought at helping them. Ororo herself was gripping the edge of the hangar mouth with white-knuckled hands, face grim.
“Alex!” Charles was suddenly in the hangar, running up until his arms were around Alex and he could drag him back, all the while speaking loudly over the sounds of the battle. The ship leveled momentarily; Logan managed to get an elbow onto the hatch and hoist himself up to the waist. Erik shifted his grip on the edge, thinking to swing himself up, but Widow was suddenly on him, gripping his wrist and pulling him up. He crashed into her as the hatch began to rise, and they rolled down the slope to fall hard on the floor of the hangar.
The Starbreaker paused as the shields snapped up entirely; then, Erik could feel her great bulk vibrate as the weapons began firing, as the ship picked up speed to go through the hangar doors, ripping them apart if necessary.
He rolled to his hands and knees and gripped Widows’ throat, pinning her to the ground.
“You bitch,” he hissed.
“He didn’t know,” she said flatly, pale blue eyes calm. “Loki. He didn’t know you had a child on board. If he had known he would never have done it.”
“Oh, you draw the line at kids?” Erik spat at her.
“No,” Widow answered frankly. “He does.”
“No power in the ‘verse can stop me,” Alex was saying. Erik looked away from Widow to glance at him. Charles was still holding him back, an arm around his stomach, murmuring soothingly. Erik realized Alex’ torso was almost glowing, and his clothes were smoking. But he seemed to be powering down as Charles spoke to him.
With a shrug of disgust, Erik released Widow and stood up. He looked down at her as she got up, dusting off her black combat suit as if she’d been rolling in dirt.
“Give me one reason not to jettison you off an airlock.”
“I’ll talk to Fury,” she answered flatly.
Erik stared at her.
“You played that pretty well, didn’t you?”
She tilted her head merely an inch. “Only a fool would miss such an opportunity.”
“And what about the little deal you’d done with Loki about getting us shredded?” Ororo demanded, stalking closer.
“Loki owes you now,” Widow answered. “He would never endanger a child.”
Ororo and Erik shared a look.
“You think he’d consider coming with us to see his family?”
Widow gave him a flat, bored look. “He doesn’t owe you that much. But there is a debt. Loki repays his debts.”
“Does that mean he’ll stop trying to tear us apart?” Ororo holstered her phaser and crossed her arms.
“You were supposed to be fair game,” Widow shrugged. “That’s how Loki thinks. When someone comes after you, you savage them enough that anyone else will know better than try.”
“And he taught you that?” Erik arched his brows. “Preemptive strikes harsh enough to dissuade anyone coming behind?”
“I taught him,” Widow replied.
Erik sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.
“At least if Loki isn’t after out blood anymore we can go back to the Solar. I have no intentions of going after him, he’s a dangerous piece of shit. You make sure he understands that,” he glared at Widow.
“I’ll speak to him.”
Erik nodded and caught up where Charles was waiting, now alone, looking curious and concerned.
“Is she staying with us, then?”
“For a while,” Erik answered, reaching out to clasp the back of Charles’ neck and bring him close. “Did Alex hurt you?”
“No, of course not. He’s perfectly in control so long as he knows Henry is safe and close,” Charles blinked. “Oh, your shoulder.”
“It’s fine, just a mild burn.”
Charles eased the coat carefully away from his skin and down the curve of his shoulder to expose the burnt fabric of the shirt and the reddened, blistered skin beneath.
“Now Charles,” Erik arches his brows. “No kinky sex in the hangar unless we’ve been dating for at least a week.”
“Oh Goddess, spare me,” Ororo groaned, moving past up the gangway.
“So fuckin’ wrong,” Logan muttered. Widow followed them up the stairs as if she knew where she was going and belonged on this ship.
Erik shrugged his coat the rest of the way off and plucked at the shirt sticking to his wound, hissing. “Maybe some salve would help.”
Erik had a small first-aid kit in his own quarters, but anyone could have guessed that was not the reason he dragged Charles over, except, clearly, Charles himself, who insisted in sousing the wound and dressing it with gauze before he even allowed Erik to push him down on his bed and lean over him.
Having Charles like this, stretched out on Erik’s bed, beneath Erik, sighing and making small noises as Erik kissed him languidly, lazily, was thrilling. To think Charles was such an unbelievably powerful creature, and he let Erik do whatever he wanted, provided he did it gently and stopped when Charles needed to breathe.
To be perfectly honest, Erik hadn’t spent so much time simply kissing someone in a long time. Most of the time, in a life like the one he led, kissing was the prologue to something else, something hard and fast and short-lived. It was rare you could afford more than a passing moment, and even rarer you could return to that person from the endless loop of violence that was life in the black. Erik had an open mind and a varied taste; he took a fancy and acted on it, but he never lingered.
With Charles, though, the game was the exploration, not the hunt.
And Charles was deliciously responsive, breathless and gasping at the slightest of shifts, moaning at a stroke of Erik’s tongue. Erik especially appreciated the shade of red his lips turned, kiss-swollen and slick.
Charles’s hips were shifting against Erik’s; he could feel Charles burgeoning erection against the angle of his hip and thigh—
“Oh,” Charles pulled back, hands splayed on Erik’s chest. “Please don’t—stop. I need to stop.”
Erik eased back, frowning. “I don’t feel anything wrong with your telepathy.”
“No yet, but I can feel it spiraling.”
Fair enough. Erik settled down to the side, a leg crossed over Charles’ thighs, and pressed his forehead to the telepath’s temple, wrapping an arm around his stomach. Charles’ deft fingers touched the edge of the gauze taped to his shoulder, making sure it was safely in place. Phaser burns were nasty wounds, but Erik hated taking pain medication.
“Could you manipulate my mind to stop the pain, if I asked you?”
Charles sighed. “There’s little I cannot do. But I don’t think I have the fine control to do such a thing, without the risk of damaging something. Would you ask?”
Erik considered that. “I don’t mind physical pain. The other kinds get to me worst of all.”
“I know,” Charles murmured, staring at the ceiling. His cheeks were still flushed from their kissing, lips dark, but his eyes were wide and clear. “It was what got to me, too. I don’t have a high pain threshold, but after a certain line, my telepathy will block the awareness of it and spare me the worst of it. I can’t do that with psychological torture.”
There was a long moment of silence where all they did was breathe and soak in each other’s warmth.
“Is that what they did, towards the end?” Erik asked quietly.
“It’s what they did since the beginning,” Charles answered, swallowing. His hand tightened on Erik’s arm, as if he needed the sensation of skin and muscle and sinew beneath his fingertips to ground himself. “It’s what they did all along—it’s all they did. And once they knew what I was, what I could do… I just got progressively worse. They made me wipe minds and install memories as if—as if the other were—computers, to be rebooted…”
He trailed off, eyes wet and unblinking. Erik gritted his jaw and waited.
“I’m as much a monster as any of them,” Charles murmured.
Erik sat up on an elbow, furious. “I can’t believe those words just came out of your mouth. You know better, Charles. You couldn’t help it.”
“I could have turned the destruction inwards,” Charles countered in a whisper, eyes unseeing. “I could have killed myself. I know how to do that. I could have, but I didn’t. Instead I stayed, and did those awful things to innocent people.”
“And then you burned Jason to a crisp,” Erik countered. “You don’t think that means anything? You stopped it. You put an end to it.”
Now Charles’ eyes focused back on him, hard. “I thought I had, but I didn’t, or Alex would not be as he is.”
Erik stared down at him, jaw set and eyes sharp. “It’s not too late. We can still tear it apart.”
Charles laughed bitterly. “Tear the Dollhouse down, just us? Don’t be a fool, Erik. No power in this ‘verse can destroy an organization of that size and power. We’ll all die or worse.”
“Worse than dying?”
“Much worse,” Charles said low. His eyes were suddenly very blue with small pin-pricks of black at their center, stunning and breathtaking. “You have no idea what it would be like, if they got a hold of me and forced me. You don’t understand what you would feel, on your knees on the ground as I wiped away all your memories, fractured that spectacular mind of yours and—and—“
“It won’t happen,” Erik said firmly. “Because I’ll die before they bring me to my knees. And I expect you to kill me before you do that to me. You give me your word on that now, Charles. You kill me before you ruin me like that.”
Charles closed his eyes, going completely limp beneath him. “I’ll kill us both.”
Erik gritted his jaw; that wasn’t what he wanted. He pulled away, sitting up.
“I told you I will do this, but I can’t do it on my own, you have to be there with me at every step. I can get you in, but you have to deal with Jason—“
“You can’t do it at all,” Charles replied, eyes sad. “It can’t be done.”
“If you really believed that, then why didn’t you put a phaser beam through your temple?” Erik demanded harshly, fisting a hand in Charles’ oversized sweater to shake him.
“I tried,” answered Charles, and Erik’s whole body locked still.
“I tried,” Charles repeated, voice shaking. “I told you, my telepathy is a self-preservation instinct. I tried to kill myself, but my telepathy wouldn’t allow it. It triggered my telekinesis without my conscious effort and saved me. And without the situation, without the disgust of what they forced me to do, I can’t make it destroy my own mind.”
Erik stared at him, speechless, for a long time.
“I hadn’t taken you for a coward.”
Charles laughed quietly. “That possibility didn’t cross your mind all those times you insisted I go on missions with you and I refused?”
Erik arched his brows, considering. “I actually thought you were a pathetic pacifist and strongly disliked me.”
“Oh, I dislike you. Obviously.”
Erik rolled his eyes. He leaned in to press a hard kiss on Charles’ lips.
The intercom beeped. Erik rested his forehead against Charles’, sighing. No rest for a captain.
“Hey Erik, we go hailed,” Sean said, voice uncertain. “It’s uh. Loki.”
Erik’s head snapped up.
“That asshole,” he growled, climbing off the bed to stalk to his station.
“Erik, shirt,” Charles called, sitting up.
“Oh my God, Charles, are you in Erik’s bed, what the hell, why, oh my god scarred for life, why—“
“Sean, shut the fuck up,” Erik grunted, catching the shirt Charles had thrown and him and putting it on in short, quick movements without jarring his burnt shoulder. “Put him through.”
The man in the screen looked surprisingly young, with dark, elegantly slanting eyebrows and sharp green eyes. Loki was a tactical genius and a mercurial, temperamental creature, so Erik knew he needed to tread carefully.
“You worthless piece of shit,” he snarled. “You nearly got Kurt killed.”
Loki grimaced. “Surely you see I could not have foreseen you carried the child around with you.”
He had that strangely sharp, cultured Old Earth and Core accent Erik liked to mock. Raven had long gotten rid of it, and Emma’s was not as sharp.
“What did you think we did with him, left him in a daycare in some station?”
“Miss Darkholme has a perfectly functional and wealthy family on Old Earth. She need not carry her child around in a decrepit bounty-hunting ship.”
“Her relatives are all assholes.”
“Ah,” Loki smiled. “Of that I know a little.”
Charles made a gesture at the door and slipped away. Erik nodded at him, then focused back on Loki.
“You have a very healthy relationship with your own family, I hear.”
“Colonel Lehnsherr, if we were to measure all the bad deeds I have committed against all of those that have been committed against me, I believe you would agree that my side of the scale does not tip over.”
“I’m not a Colonel.”
“Army ranks do not fade with time like stains,” Loki replied. “Not even those of the rebel army.”
Erik sat back in his chair. “Alright. Are we even, then?”
“No,” Loki’s smile died away. “I did wrong by you. To quote Natasha, I have red in my ledger. I’d like to wipe it out.”
“So you owe me a favor,” Erik smirked. “I think I can like this.”
“I’m quite certain you will find a suitable task soon enough,” Loki arched a fine black brow. “But as only three hours have passed since the attack on the Lusi—“
The Starbreaker plunged into blackout. Erik felt the low hum of the engines dying as even the rotors went to full stop. He spread out his gift, carefully rising from his desk in the pitch-black darkness.
Though of course most of the outer shell was hard space-prepared metal, the innards of the Starbreaker were, in vast majority, different forms of solid plastic Bakelite, light-weight but astonishingly hard plastic. Still, his gift told Erik that the ship itself was perfectly fine; whatever had happened was obviously either an electrical problem—which was as bad as it could get in space, because the main gravitational engines and life-support systems were electrical.
Erik braced a hand against the wall and started moving towards the door. He could navigate this ship in the pitch dark without second-guessing himself; he could get to the main electrical room and check all the circuits, see what was wrong.
The door didn’t open.
Ah. Little problem.
“Fuck,” he said viciously.
The Starbreaker abruptly lurched to the side, grav-engines flickering before they compensated. Caught off guard, Erik slammed his head against the door and fell, stunned to the ground. Luckily, all of the heavy and dangerous things in the quarters were always bolted down, or else he’d have been crushed by the combined weight of his bed and desk.
The angle at which the deck had tilted was seriously alarming. Erik expected Sean to right it immediately, but the ship did not move except to shudder violently. Erik’s gift told him that the hangar hatch was descending. He struggled to his feet and slammed his elbow against the door control panel to gain access to the manual control.
Problem: Erik knew how to use the manual controls, in theory. But he’d never done it, never even looked at it, and in the complete blackness, there was no way he could guess how to use it.
He was trapped inside his own quarters without chance of communications—also electric—and isolated.
Ah, except for… “Charles,” he muttered, trying to call out to the telepath with his mind. “Charles, can you hear me? Charles. What’s going on out there? Emma?”
A glimmer of thought, like a cold, sliding cloth across his skin. I can hear you, Emma’s voice floated over him. I’m going to the shuttle like you told me.
“Good girl. Where’s Charles?”
Not with me. But he should be at the shuttle if he’s following the evacuation process you taught us.
“I’m stuck in my quarters with the door closed. Send Logan my way and get on that shuttle.”
Erik, something is wrong, Erik felt her uncertainty, how troubled she was.
“Just get to the shuttle and stay there safely. Don’t—“
The ship leveled itself abruptly, and Erik fell on his back, smashing his head against the deck and getting the air knocked out of his lungs with a loud grunt.
“Ta Ma Duh,” he cursed in a low hiss, raising his head.
Erik? Charles’ voice exploded in his mind. The captain winced. Erik, I’m in the shuttle. Are you alright, can you get out?
“No,” he grunted. “Get Logan to help me.”
I can’t reach Logan with my telepathy, but I’ll find him for you. Let me—oh.
He abruptly cut off all links to Erik. The captain sat up, alarmed. “Charles? Emma? Can you hear me? Say something!”
Erik scrambled to his feet and groped at the panel by the door. It couldn’t be all that hard to figure out by touch alone; it was meant to be used in the case of lack of electricity after all, and it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out if the doors wouldn’t open, neither would the lights be working.
“Ta Ma De Hun Dan!” he snarled. He found a hard plastic lever and pulled it with all his strength. Nothing. He threw his weight against it.
The door fell off its mechanized bed and into the manual rail, hand-holds snapping up. Erik gripped them and threw the door to the side, stepping out of his quarters and into the ink-black corridor. Why weren’t the emergency red lights blinking? Erik felt fear spear him through the chest. Was the Starbreaker dying? But how? Rogers had done a full-systems check-up right before they left and everything had been working perfectly!
He heard a footstep behind himself and turned around, pointlessly in the dark. His gift flew up in front of him; he felt the component parts of phaser and body armor. But the man in front of him didn’t fire his weapon; instead a long, electric-charged baton came down across Erik’s face. He crashed against the doorjamb to his quarters and through the door, writhing in astonishing pain, stunned and dazed. The man followed him in, delivering another brutal blow to Erik’s torso on the left flank.
The electric charge made Erik cry out, mind blurry, but he gathered himself immediately, gift surging forward to grip the baton’s charge and turning it against its owner. The man growled and let the baton hang from the rubber strap linked to his wrist. Erik struggled to his hands and knees, spitting blood. Still reeling, he could not quite manage to grasp the electric current and manipulate it; it was just hurting him.
The man kicked him where he’d hit him before, viciously. Erik fell to the floor and rolled away, gasping. He felt the burn of a phaser beam on his right thigh and ducked down beneath his desk, reaching for his own hidden phaser there. When he peeked up over the desk to aim another bolt got him on the shoulder, a full hit on the packed muscle there. The pain was maddening. Erik had to pause to breathe through it.
It was a mistake. In the seconds it took him to compose himself, the attacker rounded the desk and rained down a brutal blow to the back of Erik’s head with the baton.
Erik knew no more.
They should have seen it coming. Should have, should have, should have.
Chapter 7: Aim to Misbehave
Tian Fan Di Fu : Complete disarray or sheer pandemonium, more literally ‘sky tumbles while earth turns over’
Yi Da Dwei Bun Chou Roh: Big stupid pile of stinking meat
Chwen: Dumbass, literally ‘retarded’
Chiu Se: go to hell, literally ‘go die’
Ni Mun Dou Shi Sha Gua: Idiots. All of you.
Ta Ma De Hun Dan: Mother-humping son of a bitch
Ri shao gou shi bing: Pile of sun-baked dog poo
The Trickster was a stealth-oriented ship, sleek, small and equipped with state-of-the-art refraction panels to make it completely invisible.
In the hangar next to the Wolverine, Magneto and Storm, it was the most elegant and beautiful of the ships.
Erik stepped closer as the hatch lowered and the gangway descended into the deck of the hangar.
Loki Odinsson was surprisingly tall and slender, dressed in black, green and silver. There wasn’t a single soft thing about him, but the hardest of his features were his eyes, like chips of jade, and his sharp, blade-like smile. His eyes traveled quickly over Erik’s body, noticing the wounds and bruises.
“Colonel,” he greeted, extending a hand. Erik shook it briefly. Loki’s skin was cold and his fingers very long.
“Loki. Welcome aboard.”
“I should like to call it a pleasure,” Loki arched a brow. “But I am unsure as to what so urgently required my presence on your ship. After all it appears I have arrived somewhat late to the party.”
Erik gave him a frank, direct look. “You have red in your ledger, Loki. I think it’s time you wipe it clean.”
“Already,” Loki arched both of his eyebrows now, tilting his head. He was distinctly feline in his mannerisms and the strange fluid grace of his movements, almost alien. “Are you quite sure you’ve thought this through? I would hate to see you waste an opportunity.”
“Opportunity is actually why you’re here,” Erik replied. “I have an offer for you.”
“Offers,” Loki repeated carefully. “I thought we were dealing in debts and favors, Colonel.”
“It’s not enough. I want more from you.”
“A rather bold demand.” The strategist smiled, amused. “Why should I give you more than originally stipulated?”
“Because I think we have a common enemy, Loki,” Erik kept his eyes on Loki’s, open and direct. “You’re a top-ranking strategist and tactical genius, and I know for a fact you’ve worked on Alliance Intelligence.”
“Ever heard of the Dollhouse Initiative?”
Loki stilled, eyes sharp.
“I can neither confirm nor deny it existence. In this I am truly ignorant.”
“Oh, let me fix that for you. It exists. I have proof.”
The tall man stared at him for a long time, the cogs in his head working at maximum speed.
“Governmental slavery,” he murmured. “Endorsed, doubtlessly, by the Army,” His eyes flicked down momentarily as he turned the information over in his head. “All the while right under my nose, and I never knew of it. How droll.”
But Erik could see he was actually amused; Loki liked this sort of games, without a doubt, since they were based on the chance to show who was smarter. But there was something else: Loki was a proud man. He would not like the idea of having been outsmarted, outplayed. His green eyes fixed on Erik, as if seeing him under a new light.
“What is this proof you speak of?”
“That little stunt of yours on the Lusitania?” Erik leaned closer. “It got the Alliance on my ship, and it got two of my crew kidnapped by the Dollhouse.”
Loki’s smile died a swift death.
“They had already been in the Dollhouse and escaped. The Lusitania, for the shithole it is, is still under monitoring and vigilance. My two crewmembers got close to the hatch and got caught on camera. Then we got ambushed and they were taken.”
“The blackout,” Loki mused. “Yes. I thought something might have happened to you, but when we spoke you said nothing.”
“It is military strategy indeed,” he continued. “Extract precious cargo without further unnecessary damage. That is why they did not kill you—the Dollhouse cannot have had an assault team ready in Proxima, so they had to recur to commonplace military forces. You can get to kidnap someone, but to make them murder you must have a very good reason.”
Erik nodded shortly. “They only tried to kill one of us. My medic, who got one of the kidnapped crew out of the Dollhouse.”
“That makes sense. They needed to silence him. He survived?”
“Widow saved him.”
“Ah,” Loki nodded.
There was a pause.
“They were found and retrieved because I set you up in the Lusitania,” Loki said. “This is also a debt I must repay, for I would not wish slavery on anyone. But this is something you have a right to demand of me, so why make an offer?”
“I told you it’s not enough, I want more from you,” Erik said calmly. “I want you to join my crew.”
Loki was still for a moment, and finally huffed out a short, amused laugh. “I am really not a team player.”
Erik took a deep breath; this was the tricky part. Convincing him.
“You’re an asset. I’m going against the Dollhouse, I am bringing it down, and I am getting my crew back, and I will do it using all the weapons I have at my disposal, and it just so happens you’re one of those weapons.”
“So what you want is for me to help you devise a strategy to bring down a powerful Alliance-endorsed Three Systems-wide mutant hunting organization that uses its victims as its very weapons?” Loki said, as if he needed to clear this up. “And somehow, this is not enough, and you want more from me?”
“You’re going to tear it down anyway,” Erik replied firmly, leaning closer. “Because you got played, out-thought, and it burns you.”
Loki looked at him, eyes hard and cold. “You think you understand me. Others have made such mistake before.”
Erik straightened, “But they betrayed you first. You escalate, you react savagely, but you don’t attack out of nowhere, Loki. It wouldn’t make any tactical sense if you did.”
The strategist arched his eyebrows, pleasantly surprised. He crossed his arms. “Well spotted. So what is it you propose?”
“Like I said, you’re an asset. Join my crew. I’m about to go to war for two of them, you can trust me when I say that I’ll never turn my back on your or betray you. You’re smarter than any of us; I need you to give me directions, a strategy, a plan of attack the Dollhouse could never see coming their way. You have your own ship; obviously you like being on your own, but you like being out in the black. You like freedom, Loki. We have that in common. The Starbreaker is never still, we’re always moving. We’re always on the hunt. And you’re a hunter. It could work.”
Loki stared at him for a long, tense moment.
“Your argument is compelling,” he said quietly. “Certainly it has some merit.
“No one can live completely on their own.” Erik shrugged. “You’ll be free to do whatever you want, and we’ll welcome you aboard whenever you want to be here. That’s what we do.”
“Because you’re a family that chose one another?” Loki mocked, though Erik could see there was something there, lurking beneath like a shadow under the crust of ice, a hurt that had not yet scarred.
“I’m ready to adopt you,” Erik grinned, because he could be an asshole too.
Loki returned the grin, but it was a jagged, dangerous thing like shards of broken glass.
“I went through that once already,” he said casually. Erik felt cold wash over him. “Behold how well that turned out for me.”
Erik dragged a hand down his face. “So that’s what that was.”
“Well, a part of it at least. Of course many other factors fanned the flames.”
Erik arched his brows, but Loki did not feel inclined to elaborate, and Erik wasn’t about to insist. About the last thing Erik wanted to deal with right now was some psychopathic strategist unloading all his woes on him, like Erik didn’t have enough shit to deal with on his own, what with two missing crew-members and a governmental slavery project to tear down. And he couldn’t even stop to think about what Charles and he had going on, either; to do that would mean to break down on fragments sharp like scalpels and destroy this ship, peeling back layer by layer of metal until the devastation on the outside equaled the one inside his chest.
Loki was tapping his fingers thoughtfully on the outside of his right thigh. Erik could see him making calculations inside his head, unfolding a fan of a thousand possibilities and outweighing he advantages of what Erik had offered against the many, many contras. Erik’s only chance was that he had read Loki’s actions right, and that the man wanted what he had offered—a welcoming space, people he could trust and rely on, who wouldn’t judge him for being an asshole—badly enough that he would turn a blind eye on all the things Erik had not mentioned, but of course had intrinsically attached to his situation. The constant toeing of the line between law and its opposite, the lack of cooperation with the police and downright animosity with the Alliance, the everyday struggle for money and survival.
“I will do this,” Loki said suddenly, turning to him with sharp, keen green eyes. “I will find your crew members and bring them back. We might as well obliterate the whole project in the process.”
Erik felt like a knot of anxiety had unraveled in his chest, permitting his lungs to swell with air. With Loki Odinsson on board, he liked their odds.
“As to the other suggestion you have made,” Loki added carefully. “I have not yet made up my mind. But I shall consider it.”
“That’s all I ask,” Erik nodded.
“Hm. Tell me, Colonel, how many friends do you have, and how well do you trust them?”
“I don’t have many,” Erik admitted. “But the ones I do have I trust entirely. Why? You have any ideas yet?”
“Ideas I have many,” Loki said, with that strange combination of eyebrow twitch and head inclination he did to concede points. “But I lack sufficient information to devise a solid tactic. Fortunately,” he added, smiling crookedly at Erik. “I happen to be an expert at finding information.”
“Right,” Erik started walking towards the ladder, gesturing for Loki to follow him. “How did you find out we were going after Widow?”
“I deduced it,” Loki shrugged. “Fury likes you. He dislikes me. He would do what he could to keep you away from my violence. Currently his only mission outside his System of influence was Natasha. It made sense to expect he would send you after her.”
It was simple enough once he explained it, but the chain of deductions that had led Loki to set his trap weren’t things Erik himself could have come up with on his own. Erik did not delude himself; he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. He was brawn, not brain. He could plan for himself and his crew well enough, but he wasn’t used to thinking five steps ahead of himself and predicting the movements of his opponent at the same time.
“Call your allies,” Loki was saying. Erik paused at a rest in the stairs to look at him. Loki was several inches taller, and in the darkness of the corridor his eyes glittered strangely, as if they reflected a light that was not falling on either of them. It was bizarre and not only a little troubling. Loki was definitely unstable; Erik would have to be on his guard.
“Have them meet us at a neutral location.” Loki thought it over for a moment. “Say Epimetheus; that ought to be neutral enough, and explain in itself the purpose of their visit.”
“And once I have them all gathered, what do I do with them?”
“We will need firepower for whatever we intend to do,” Loki explained. “No matter the strategy I devise, without any physical ability to slap the Alliance in the face it will all end in tragedy. If you think your allies will follow you in this endeavor—“
“They will,” Erik aid firmly. “Most of them are mutants. The ones that are not have a sore spot when it comes to slavery.”
“I would imagine most decent people do.”
“I hope you don’t think I’m decent,” Erik said incredulously.
Loki gave him a condescending look. He could do condescending like nobody’s business, this one. “Colonel, you may lie to yourself as much as you desire, but I can see through you. You may play your game cold and hard, but in the core of it all, you are a good man.”
“How do you figure?” Erik laughed.
“A man who did not believe in such outdated notions as nobility and loyalty would cut his losses and find himself new crew members, rather than shoot a gun in the Alliance’s face to recover the ones he’s lost.”
Erik rubbed his face to hide his expression from Loki’s sharp eyes. “I know.”
Loki studied him silently for a moment. “It’ll be alright, of course,” he said at length. “If anyone can find them and get them out, it ought to be me. I know how these agencies work, and how their heads think. We will get your crew back.”
“You’re comforting me by being an arrogant asshole. That’s nice.”
“It is not arrogance if you can back your claims with action,” Loki replied. “Where is Natasha? I would like to speak to her.”
Erik led him to the quarters they’d given Natasha and left him there to devise the fall of empires or something in the company of his apparently favorite sociopathic neutral-faced assassin.
As he walked back to his quarters he contemplated the fact his ship had become full of bizarre wild-cards that pretty much did whatever they felt like at whatever specific moment in time, and the fact that most of them had some serious sort of social or psychological malfunction. Oh, and also, there was a teleporting toddler.
Why? He asked himself as he slumped into his chair. Why me?
He called Ororo to join him in his quarters to try and make some sense of all of this. Charles and Alex had been gone for over thirty hours; he hadn’t slept a single minute since then, too anxious and wired to even consider lying down. He knew he could go for a while longer without rest, had done it before, but he had to time his crash perfectly, because once Loki’s plan, whatever it would end up being, was in motion, there probably wouldn’t be a second to spare.
“We should call Fury,” Ororo said finally, pacing. “He’ll definitely want to know about this, and you know him. He doesn’t bother trying to get the world to fit his views, he just makes whatever doesn’t fit them blow up. I think we need some of that right now.”
“Yes, probably, but Nick comes attached with a lot of things—“
“We found the Widow for him,” Ororo raised her hand. “He owes us one.”
“He was going to pay me for that, actually.”
Ororo shrugged, “Bullshit. He never pays. Fury deals in favors and debts. So charge him this one steeply. It’s not like it’s going to strain him having to grab a bazooka and give some Tian Fan Di Fu to slavering Yi Da Dwei Bun Chou Roh.”
Erik eyed her. “You’re particularly crass this fine evening.”
“It’s morning,” Ororo replied flatly. “And I have a lot of feelings about slavery, if you understand what I mean.”
Erik grimaced, “I suppose I do.”
Ororo shivered briefly, “What do you think they’re doing to them? I can’t help but think of Charles and all his gentleness, wiped out like a blackboard to serve some convenient asshole. What would they even use him for? He’s just a weak telepath. How did they know to take him?”
Erik sat back and gave her a long look. Ororo’s dark eyes sharpened to obsidian.
“What are you not telling me, Erik?”
“It’s not my secret to tell,” protested Erik warily.
“Erik, for the Gods’s sake, our crew is in danger! Don’t start hiding shit from me now, you Chwen!”
The captain winced. “Charles is not a weak telepath. He’s Omega. He was in the Dollhouse and escaped, took shelter in the temple in the Red Waste, assumed a different name. They’ve been looking for him for almost a decade.”
Ororo was frozen in place, eyes wide, lips parted. Erik watched her soak that information in, and though her dark skin could not pale, it was as if the rick red undertone of it became a flat grey instead. She put her hands on his desk and lowered herself to the chair across him, speechless. She remained still for a long moment, eyes troubled, and finally brought a trembling hand up to her mouth.
“Oh, Gods,” she murmured, horrified. “Oh Gods, Erik, they have him.”
“I know,” Erik said testily. “I noticed.”
“We have to tell Loki.” Ororo leapt to her feet. “He has to know, this is enormous.”
Erik protested again, but in the end he had to recognize she had a point. It was a huge fact, monumental information that had to be considered into any calculations, into the building of a plan to rescue him. It would mean the difference between some random, weakly guarded Rim base and a powerful and jealously kept Core prison.
In fact, it rattled Erik that he had not seen this from the very beginning. It was obvious now that he should have told Loki the moment he told him of the abductions. Loki’s weapon was information; if he had less information than his opponents his plans would have holes in them. A hole of such magnitude was what got people killed.
Loki was sitting regally on the edge of Romanova’s bed when Erik and Ororo came in, back straight and chin raised, even though he’d discarded his long trench-coat and jacket and was now only in light pants and undershirt. The look was deceiving; though outwardly seemingly relaxed, Loki still held himself like he might have to fight his way out of wherever he found himself at any point.
Erik made a very brief recap of what he knew of Charles’ life. Romanova sat quietly at her table, keep blue eyes fixed on Erik’s face, full mouth neutral. Loki stood still, without pacing, hands held loosely at the small of his back in a sort of relaxed parade position.
“This changes the rules of the game,” he murmured when Erik was done. “An Omega telepath. They will keep him in the safest of their bases.”
“We need to get him out before they can learn to control him,” Ororo said urgently.
Loki turned to her. “There is no such thing as controlling an Omega. That is why the Omega Protocol exists.”
“They controlled him once,” Erik pointed out.
“No, that was before he recognized himself as an Omega,” pointed out Loki.
“You can’t bend an Omega,” Romanova said in her monotone voice. “You either break them or you kill them trying to break them. You can’t manipulate them, you can’t twist them, you can’t torture them. They’re virtually uncontrollable.”
“They’re going to try to break him into sniveling animal,” Loki’s eyes flicked to the floor. “Something they can put at the end of a very short leash. They will not kill him, of course—his innate value is much too high. Experimentation, most likely, should be prove—intractable.”
Erik felt his skin crawl. He could have exercised a great deal of violence on Loki’s person for taking on that note, using such words, but he recognized Loki was thinking in the way Charles’ captors likely would. He was following their probable thought avenues, not expressing his own views. He reigned himself in and struggled for calm.
“There is another complication,” Loki added, mind racing ahead. “You cannot drug an Omega. Far from becoming placid and docile, they tend to lash out. They will not drug him, but they cannot control him as he is—“
“They can stop him,” Natasha interrupted. Loki turned to her, brows arched. The spy affected no reaction. “There’s a new form of alloy that is telepathy-resistant. I’ve seen it. They make helmets out of it and put it on the telepaths. It drives them mad.”
There was a long moment of silence as that sank in.
“So much for stealth,” Loki muttered. “We are going to have to be severely aggressive. We must be sure to attack the base that contains him before we move onto the next ones. The moment we strike and do not retrieve him they will kill him.”
“And how are we going to find out where he is?” Erik growled. “He told me they have at least a dozen Dollhouses across the Three Systems. One out of twelve? I don’t like those odds.”
“Striking blindly would be suicide and murder,” Ororo said tightly.
“Nonsense, one does not move like a blundering oaf when such things are on the line,” Loki snapped. “Use your heads. Think. We need information. We do not, under any circumstances, move to attack without knowing for sure where to find your telepath.”
“And we do what? ” Erik snarled. “How are we going to find out? It’s not like it’s fucking advertised.”
Two pairs of eyes landed on him sharp as lasers. Natasha and Loki stared at him for a long moment, seeing right though him as if he were made of glass and they could unravel him with one well-placed nudge.
“There is more to this than you have told me,” Loki said quietly. “Noble as you are, I can hardly believe you would go to war with the Alliance over a damaged child and a weak priest. An Omega telepath, perhaps, as long as he is useful to you, but even then—not enough.”
“You’ve been compromised,” Black Widow said flatly.
Erik gritted his jaw. “That’s beside the point.”
Loki rolled his eyes. “Romance.”
He’d said the word as if it were a disgusting thing tainting his tongue. Erik took a deep breath.
“It doesn’t matter,” he insisted. “He’s still an Omega level telepath in the hands of the Alliance. Everything else is irrelevant.”
Loki inclined his head in agreement.
“Gather your people. We must move at once.”
Erik threw his hands up. “Move on what? You don’t know anything!”
Loki looked at Natasha. “The things I have to put up with.”
“Chiu Se,” Erik spat at him, feeling his blood boil in his veins.
“Loki hasn’t officially given up the Army,” Natasha told Erik. “He still has level 10 clearance, which gives him every right to enquire about the Dollhouse. Because he’s been erratic and capricious enough about his demands before, it wouldn’t make anyone’s eyebrows twitch that he suddenly wants to know about this particular thing.”
“They might not tell me everything willingly,” Loki warned, raising a hand. “But—“
Get them outside their perimeters, Emma’s voice flooded their minds suddenly, cool and smooth. I’ll get you all the information you need.
“Emma, your range isn’t great,” Erik said. “We’d have to get you close. It’ll be dangerous.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking me fragile, Emma replied calmly. I have been fully trained in my gift.
“It’s a risk, but it’s also a chance,” Natasha said. “And we need all our chances.”
“It’s worth a shot,” Ororo said firmly.
“It is indeed,” Loki agreed, quiet.
“We have to make it perfect, though.” Erik crossed his arms. “Because the moment you’re in there and she dives into someone’s mind, your cover is burnt and you’re as fair a game as the rest of us. You’ll be painting a bulls-eye in your forehead.”
I will erase our mark’s memories, Emma said. They will never know Loki was there.
Loki nodded slowly. “It’s a start. All I need is the telepath’s location. The rest I can work out on my own.”
Erik rubbed his face. “Epimetheus, then.”
The next few hours were a blur. The first thing Erik did was gather the remaining of his crew in the common room and impress upon them the dire need to call as many allies as they could possibly think of. A lot of things, both good and bad, could come from this; his crew was a motley group of psychopaths on a good day, and to the last man they all had twisted pasts, except possibly Kurt, and that was only because he wasn’t even three years old yet. Given enough time he would most likely be as bad as the rest of them.
Erik contacted anyone he could think of who would be willing, even eager in some cases, to go up against the Alliance. Some were a given; others he had to sit down and consider for a long moment, talk to Ororo, and weight out pros and contras. Nor could he bully them into this, as he would in normal circumstances. This was enough of a risk that even he could not bring himself to force anyone to join him. It would have to be volunteer-based.
By the time they reached Epimetheus, over fifteen hours later, Erik had not slept a wink and still didn’t even know how many of the people he’d called would even show up.
“It’ll be alright,” Raven said, sitting on the edge of his bed as they approached Saturn. “They’ll turn up because we need them. They’ve never failed us before.”
“It’s not the same,” Erik replied tiredly. He could feel himself begin to fall apart. He needed sleep, but every time he lied down he saw, like bright lights against the dark backdrop of his closed eyelids, the star-chart of a mutant’s mind with half the lights turned harshly off. “I can’t demand they go with me into this madness.”
“You know, some of them you don’t need to ask for them to act completely insane,” Raven quirked a sad smile.
Erik gritted his jaw. “You should stay on Epimetheus. With Kurt.”
Raven opened her mouth to protest, but no sound came out. Erik glanced at her; she looked wretched.
“You’re going to need me.”
“Kurt needs you more. I can’t promise you we’ll all get through this one alive, Raven.”
The mechanic dropped her head to her hands and dragged her fingers slowly through her thick red hair, as if she might at any point tear it out.
“I don’t know what to do,” she confessed, torn. Erik sighed, a long exhalation of breath, and came to sit down next to her.
“You have your kid to think about. We understand.”
“No, it’s not—it’s not that simple. Because Charles would do this for me, Erik. And I, I really, really like Charles, he’s like a brother. I can’t just walk away.”
“We can’t bring a toddler along for this,” Erik insisted. “It’s risky and stupid enough we have him here with us any other day, I’m not towing him along for a war. You’re his mother, Raven, you can’t get yourself killed over someone you have known for four months.”
“I know what my responsibility is!” Raven snapped at him, head whipping up to glare at him. Her eyes, farm from their usual velvety gold, looked afire. “Don’t you think I know that? I do! Kurt needs me. But you know what, these—these assholes, they’re using up mutants like they’re toy soldiers, like puppets, and they’re taking us from the Rim and killing us, and Erik—Kurt will grow up in the Rim! I’m not dumping him with my family. I want him to be free, Erik, to grow up to love himself, not to hide like he’s a deformed monster like my family taught me to do while I was growing up.”
She surged to her feet, restless with anger and anxiety. Erik braced his elbows on his knees and tried not to let her see how fractured he was, himself. His crew needed an able-bodied captain, someone they could rely on leading them.
“They’re going to take him eventually,” Raven growled, pacing. “A teleporter? They’ll take him like this,” she snapped her fingers. “They’ll take him and they’ll—do these awful things to him, Erik. My baby. I can’t walk away from this. I have to stop them.”
“Can’t you trust us to do it for you?”
“I trust you to be perfectly capable of burning shit to the ground,” Raven answered grimly. “But if I don’t walk with you down this road I’ll never be the person I want to be, or the kind of mother I set out to be for Kurt. I want to be someone he can be proud of. He’s not going to be proud of some coward who turned tail and run at the first sign of conflict.”
“I hate heroes,” Erik groaned. “You all think it’s so nice and noble, running into the fucking cannons and losing your life. What about the people that you leave behind, huh? Yeah, maybe it’s the right thing to do, the noble thing, but when Kurt grows up to be the kid in school whose mother got herself killed, you’ll know it wasn’t the kind thing to do. It’s not just you and your stupid pride and your image if yourself, Raven.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m your little sister,” Raven snapped. “It’s never been like that between us, Erik. You know I can hold my own, you know I’m useful in a fight—“
Erik glared at her, “And as the kid of a pair of heroes I can tell you, Kurt won’t give a shit about what you died for when he’s ten and motherless!”
“But he will when he’s twenty and not a mindless puppet!” Raven yelled.
“Unless we lose!”
“Even then! ” Raven cried out. “At least he’ll know I died for something, trying to keep him safe—“
“It won’t matter when he goes to bed at night and you’re not there! ”
“It’s not going to—“
The door slid open. Ororo stood in the doorway, looking grim.
“We’re in orbit around Epimetheus. Make up your mind now, Raven.”
Raven and Erik stared at each other for a long, tense moment.
“I’m going,” she said, raising her chin as if challenging Erik to order her to sit this one out.
The captain made a sound of distaste. “Suit yourself. But Kurt stays on Epimetheus, where he’ll be safe.”
The Starbreaker made a soft, silent landing in a private dockyard. Erik, Ororo and Loki gathered in the hangar to wait for the arrival of whoever was willing to show up and join them in this insanity.
Much to Erik’s and Ororo’s shock, the first ones to arrive were Rogers and Barnes.
“What the hell are you two doing here?” Erik scowled.
“I got invited.” Rogers arched his brows. “Do you want me to leave?”
“Who invited you?” asked Ororo, bemused.
Rogers stared at Loki.
“Oh, so you’re the one that told his prick we’d left your base and got us set-up?” Erik growled. “I owe you a bullet to the head.”
“That’s nice,” Barnes scoffed.
“I didn’t tell him anything. Not on purpose,” Rogers retorted, pointing a finger in Loki’s face. “You’re a dick.”
“I told you once that I use all information available to me for my plans,” replied the strategist. “It is hardly my fault if you dislike the results.”
“We were having dinner!”
Ororo and Erik exchanged glances.
“Romance,” Erik sneered theatrically at Loki.
“Oh, do be quiet,” Loki growled at him, stalking up the stairs to the common room. Rogers followed him like it was the only thing he could do, and Barnes followed in his wake, much like the man who was burdened with following an idiot to each and every mess he got himself tangled on.
The meeting took well over five hours. There were many reasons this could be attributed to, not the least of which was the fact most of the assholes that crowded into the Starbreaker that afternoon were full-blown psychopaths, or completely insane, and could not agree on the smallest of things. There was a general consensus that he Dollhouse needed to be taken down and burnt to the ground.
The problem was everyone disagreed on the way to carry on this sentence.
By the end of the fifth hour Erik was half inclined to kill the lot of them and take his chance with the Alliance on his own. He’d probably fail, but he and his temper ought to be enough to put a dent on the Dollhouse at least.
Nick Fury slapped his hand harshly on top of the table and everyone jerked into silence.
“Ni Mun Dou Shi Sha Gua,” he growled. “The only way we live through this pit of writhing shit Lehnsherr just threw us in is keeping our heads straight. I don’t like this Ta Ma De Hun Dan any more than the rest of you,” he added, gesturing vaguely at where Loki sat, eyebrows arched at the insult. “But he’s got his head put on right, and if I have to follow some sociopathic little shit into battle, it might as well be a smart sociopathic little shit. We all agree we need to do this. Can we all try to agree that he’s the only one in this here room that has the faintest, faintest, inkling of a fucking plan?”
A long moment of silence.
“Do you, though?” Azazel asked, leaning forward to press his hands flat against the table. He was standing behind Raven’s chair and as he leaned forward he caged her between his arms, a casually possessive pose he often assumed without even realizing it. Azazel was a dominant sort of man, which was why Raven had only managed to live with him for a few months before wanting to rip his throat out. “Do you have a plan?”
“I have the beginnings of one,” Loki sat straight up, spreading his hands. “But before I can lay it out for all of you I need to know where Xavier is. And I can’t do that unless Miss Frost and I get on the Trickster and go out to get that information, which I can’t do so long as you all demand me to stay here and listen to your pointless blathering as if it made any sort of sense, which it does not.”
“Is he always this dickish?” Sean asked Rogers.
“We waste time,” reminded Natasha, calmly.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I agree with Loki.” Fury nodded. “You two go and get the intel. The rest of us, we go to our ships and we try to brace ourselves. What was said here stays here. ”
Emma and Loki rose from their chairs and left without another word. Erik watched them go, sinking into his own chair with a feeling of pervasive helplessness. As the rest of the group began to dissolve, Fury got up and dropped a heavy hand on Erik’s shoulder.
“We’ll get your men back, son.”
“I don’t know, Nick. This time it’s just such a mess.”
“I’ve seen you pull through before,” Nick arches his brows, squeezing his shoulder. “And go, get some sleep. You look like Ri shao gou shi bing.”
Erik scoffed, “You tell me the nicest things.”
“Pull yourself together, soldier,” Fury said firmly. “You got people to lead.”
Erik gritted his jaw and said nothing, but he nodded.
Chapter 8: He Who Sheds His Blood
The Silvanus was a Triton-type Alliance Military space station, of the type nobody ever knew what the fuck they existed for, but just in case everyone gave a wide berth. The Alliance had a reputation for being intolerant with security breaches, be they intentional or accidental. The Triton-type space stations were third category in size, and required an impressive rank and a very high clearance level to access.
Erik’s skin crawled beneath the layers of his fake military-issue pristine Starfleet uniform, and felt like he was chocking even though it fit him like a glove.
At his side, standing tall, proud and practically bleeding authority and command, Loki affected an intensely bored expression.
“I do so loathe these stations out in the middle of nowhere,” he commented causally to Erik, studying the long window to the side of the entrance hall. “They are always staffed with the most ludicrously inefficient rookie ensigns.”
Erik gave him a flat look. “Everyone has to start somewhere, sir.”
“Indeed,” Loki’s voice drawled monotonously. “I do suppose the only way form here is up. Do you not agree, ensign, hm, what was your name again, Tank?”
“Banks, sir,” the ensign muttered between clenched teeth, staring intensely at his screen as it ran a background check on one Erik Eisenhardt. The young ensign didn’t quite seem to know what to think of this flawlessly-documented military career: thirty-four years old and a Major, a decorated veteran of the Uprising, now shadow of Loki Odinsson.
Both ensign and system were probably wondering what horrible sin he had committed to get assigned to shadow Loki Odinsson. Erik himself was starting to wonder, frankly. The Universe had to harbor some really harsh grudge against him to sidle him with this unbelievable asshole.
And he’s invited him to be a part of his fucking crew, too.
“You shouldn’t chew gum at work,” Loki continued, gazing down at the ensign with vague disapproval. “It is an unsightly habit.”
“I will remember that in future, sir.”
“See that you do.” Loki nodded sagely. “Nobody wants to be stuck in one pathetic rank for the rest of their lives simply because they can’t help but chew on sugary rubber for hours on end. Don’t you agree, Major?”
“I don’t quite think that’s how ranks work, sir,” replied Erik.
“You’d be surprised.” Loki flashed him a smile. “The most innocuous things may yet hold you back.”
Banks threw Erik a sour look. Clearly he was asking what he had to do to avoid being in Erik’s position.
The captain of the Starbreaker was not quite sure what Loki’s intentions were, other than pointlessly antagonizing some lowly Alliance ensign, and making their job harder in the process. The strategist was obviously antagonizing the poor kid on purpose, like it was his mission in life to seek out the most lousy situation and make it as bad as it could possibly get for everyone around him.
The systems were slowly scanning the files of a man who had never been born, meanwhile Loki was pissing all over the station like a bored psychopath, sharpening his claws on Banks’ soft hide. No wonder Loki had no friends. Rather than defending the weak, he preyed on them.
But for all of the seemingly idle and bored pacing, Erik could tell Loki was on high alert, watching, listening. He especially liked hovering menacingly over Banks’ shoulder as if fascinated by the lines of data streaming down his monitor. What might outwardly appear as a simple irritating gesture from an infuriating, but high-ranking, officer, disturbing but by necessity tolerated, was in fact another one of Loki’s many plays. He was keeping an eye on the information that was dumped into the Silvanus’ data banks, while simultaneously making sure no alarm was raised without him noticing.
Ideally, the false identity Tony and Kitty Pryde had forged for Erik should not raise any red flags. Shadowcat was one of the most famous and elusive hackers in the Three Systems; it was unlikely she would have made a mistake that would put them on shaky ground in an already tight situation, but Loki knew that the key to victory was anticipation.
The strategist put his elbow on the ensign’s shoulder and rested his chin on it, eyes hooded with boredom, long mouth twisted with displeasure.
“Your inadequacy tries my patience, Ensign Thomas Banks,” he said quietly, and Erik saw the boy stiffen, eyes widening. Any military man could tell when he was about to be flayed by his superior officer. It had also just become perfectly clear that Loki remembered his name perfectly and would not quickly forget his discontentment with the boy’s handling of the situation.
Loki was a high-ranking Intelligence officer. He might not be in direct chain of command for Banks’ future military career, but he sure could pull some strings. Nobody would want him as an enemy, or even as an acquaintance disinclined to clear ones’ path of obstacles.
Banks seemed to waver, uncertain. Finally, Erik saw resolve harden in his eyes, and the ensign straightened.
“You may go ahead, sir,” he said, gesturing to one of the other ensigns acting as guarding duty. The boy came forward. “Accompany the Commander to the control room immediately,” he ordered.
The man nodded, somewhat nervous, and saluted to Loki and Erik before gesturing for them to follow him. Loki smiled at Ensign Banks, cold and full of contempt, and turned away without another word. Banks turned to Erik, expression twisted with disbelief.
Erik knew he had to soften the blows Loki had delivered to the man’s ego, or else be faced with very little cooperation from anyone in this base even for as short a time as they spent in the guise of legitimate commanding officers.
“Sometimes he shuts up,” he shrugged.
Thus invited to express opinions, Banks sighed. “Tell me what you did, Major, so that I may avoid following your example?”
Erik offered him a wry grin. “It’s supposed to be an honor, escorting him.”
“Is it?” Banks asked dubiously.
Erik inclined his head. “Look at it this way: If he has his back to you, he’ll never see your knife coming.”
Banks flashed him a smile, amused, and Erik returned it briefly, before following in Loki’s wake through the door and into the innards of Silvanus.
According Loki’s pessimistic estimation—he preferred to be safe than sorry—they had forty minutes before the Silvanus personnel discovered Loki did not actually have clearance to be on this station, let alone with an escort in tow. The Intelligence ranks and clearance levels were so convoluted and twisted that it took an investigation of the chain of command to determine what any given Intelligence agent could or could not do according to his rank and position. It didn’t help that a freaky interference was scrambling their signals and making communication with HQ nearly impossible.
Even with the scrambling signal Tony had cooked up, Erik knew they had to find Charles in half an hour or risk him being killed during the coming assault. With their allies ready and standing by for the attack, even if he didn’t find Charles in time he could not afford to delay the detonation of the conflict for the sake of the telepath’s rescue. Charles was not the only mutant in this station that needed to be freed, Erik told himself that over and over as his stomach flipped end on end on itself with anxiety.
He ticked the minutes in this head, slipping away one by one, as the ensign lead them down the long twisting corridors, to an elevator and down seven levels to the heart of the Silvanus, where the control room lay under heavy surveillance and jealous guards.
Loki smiled at all of them, suddenly charming. The man could flip his attitude over with the same ease he’d flip a coin. It was disturbing. It made Erik feel like he had absolutely no idea what the true Loki was like, and subsequently no idea what the man would do when he found himself in a truly tight situation. Erik didn’t like wild cards.
Loki twisted reality around him like a cloak when he felt so inclined. It took him less than five minutes to confuse the soldiers so much that he had them wrapped around his long, thin fingers and running scans on their systems in the fear that they were under attack. Meanwhile, discreetly, Loki paced the control room and somewhere along his walking path he planted Tony’s hacking bug. With Tony’s and Shadowcat’s combined intellects and the Silvanus already offering up data on a silver platter by running the unguarded scans, they should have the location of the holding cells in minutes.
Erik stood by the door, studiously uninterested. To onlookers it would seem like he didn’t have the slightest understanding of what was going on around him. As far as Erik Eisenhardt was concerned, he was doing his body-guarding duty by sticking close to his body, and whatever his body was doing while he guarded him held only the minimum interest.
Minutes trickled by. Erik counted them, keeping his face neutral and bored and seething inside. If they didn’t find the cells in time and the assault started before they could set Charles and the others free, there was no guarantee that the guards would not kill the prisoners to prevent their release, or even worse—use them as weapons against their would-be rescuers.
Loki moved, slowly, idly, around the rows of consoles manned by young intelligent Alliance officers. Some of these men probably didn’t know what it was they did in this facility, and some likely were smart enough to figure it out. Maybe they didn’t agree.
It didn’t matter to Erik, who was lead by a rage deep enough that he would stop at nothing to save his fellow mutants, slaughtering whoever was foolish enough to cross his path. But it mattered to Loki, invested in this venture only so long as it freed him of his debt of honor to Erik and his crew. Erik wondered if Loki was etching their faces in his memory, to remember every single innocent, ignorant man that died so that he could fulfill his plan and his oath to Erik.
Loki was of that odd sort of men that, like Nick Fury, kept tabs on both his rights and his wrongs, and sought to find a balance between them. Red and white in his ledger.
Back in the Stark Industries Mobile Operations Base Ogedei, Tony and Shadowcat were in the process of hacking the Silvanus mainframe in the search of the locations of holdings cells, as well as an integral blueprint of the whole station that would aid Erik in rescuing of Charles and the others.
Erik glanced at Loki. Twenty minutes had gone past since they had entered the station. Half of their time window had disappeared and still they had no idea where Charles and the others might be.
Loki was still pacing, his back turned to Erik, but he turned to look at him briefly over his shoulder, as if he could feel Erik’s eyes fixed on him. His face was completely neutral but his eyes were cold as stones.
Emma’s voice filtered into his mind: Level 27, here, and a large tridimensional blueprint of the station and how to get to Charles’ holding cell was projected into his mind as if it were a blank canvas. Loki turned around to look at him, face grim, hands clasped behind his back. His expression was grim. It begins.
The control room pitched into inky darkness. Erik reached out with his gift and opened the metallic doors, ducking quickly into the corridor and moving swiftly towards the elevator shaft. The red emergency lights blinked into existence, fueled by the back-up power generator, and then promptly died as Tony ordered the Silvanus to kill all power except life support.
With the death of the back-up generators the stations plunged into white-out panic. Though some of the personnel was clearly military-trained and knew to keep their heads on their shoulders, it quickly became evident most of the staff and crew was made up by civilians. Lacking the discipline inherent to military, regimented life, civilians tended to behave like panicked herds during a black-out in space.
Erik, guided by Emma’s mind, which pin-pointed people ahead of him like heat signatures and simultaneously showed him the way to the elevator shaft, had a great advantage.
Levels twenty-five to forty-nine are research and laboratories, Emma told him, voice calm, though he could feel the tendril of her anxiety curling through his mind.
Those were a lot of laboratories, Erik thought as he suppressed a shudder. He reached the elevator shafts and felt a moment of dismay as he realized they were made of Bakelite and not metal. The control panel by the door suddenly flared to life, switched quickly to open and then died as soon as the doors were open.
Such precision work had to be Shadowcat. By now Tony was probably suiting up.
Erik magnetized himself to the shaft wall, the most direct line through the levels, and started climbing up as quickly as he could. Charles was sure Erik could make himself hover, but the metal-bender had not achieved it, if it was at all possible, and he wasn’t about to start trying new powers now. Climbing would have to do. Magnetized as he was to the wall, he was unlikely to fall to his untimely and undoubtedly painful death.
It was hard work. Unlike the old elevators from the twentieth century, high-speed lifts worked through magnet relays, so the shaft was almost entirely smooth and polished. Erik couldn’t help but sink his fingertips into the metal, unconsciously seeking to make holds for himself though technically he didn’t need them. He climbed up the wall like a spider, slowly, breath growing ragged with effort. He was wasting time. It was taking so fucking long.
Next level, Emma said finally, what felt like a lifetime later.
“How much time do I have left?” he panted, rubbing his forehead against the fabric of his uniform sleeve to wipe sweat away from his eyes.
“It’s not enough time,” he groaned, hoisting himself up onto the floor of level twenty-seven when the doors slid open.
We can’t delay it. Loki’s already in trouble, it’ll get out of hand and turn to violence soon.
“I’m pretty sure he can defend himself,” gasped Erik.
He got to his feet and started running down the corridor, following the directions Emma had given him. A scientist nearly collided into him, running down the hallway in the exact other direction, hoping perhaps to find a guard.
Follow the plan, Emma said harshly, her mind snagging the scientist and making him collapse without a word.
“No time,” Erik growled, but nonetheless bent down and ripped off his uniform jacket, quickly stealing the scientist’ white coat and shrugging it onto his shoulders impatiently, already moving again. If a guard stumbled upon him in the dark he would probably mistake him for a scientist, lost and wandering in the dark.
Erik turned down a hallway in the pitch black, guided by Emma’s mind, and knew he was at the cell block. The last one on the right was Charles’. He was the priority; they needed Charles to break the control over the other Actives. If he could manage it at all, they needed him to snap the Shells out of their blankness as well.
He reached the door just as Emma said, Loki’s under attack, we’re moving in, get Charles.
The side panel flared to life; the door slid open and light fell on Erik; the power to this particular room had been restored, doubtlessly because Shadowcat saw a point in making life easier for Erik. The captain rushed inside, painfully aware of the fact Loki was already on the move and the others were stopping into position.
It was a Spartan room; only a bed with wrist and ankle restrains, a toilet and sink tucked into a corner.
Erik felt like something had punctured his gut.
“He’s not here,” he croaked. “He’s not here! ”
The Silvanus shuddered. The shields were down. The station was under attack. Loki’s cover was blown, which meant he was either fighting his way through the corridors attempting to reach his ship, or lying dead on a floor somewhere. Erik reached the door and threw himself into the corridor.
“Emma, where is he? Find him!”
I can’t, Emma’s mind sounded rattled now. His mind is gone, it’s like he’s not even there.
Erik cursed. The hallway he was in came suddenly alive with light, and the doors to the holding cells on both walls slid open. Erik was torn; on the one side he needed to find Charles as soon as possible, but he couldn’t just leave these brainwashed mutants to fend for themselves. They’d be like fish in a barrel if a guard came unexpectedly upon them.
“Emma, can you fix them?”
No, Emma’s voice was coated with dismay. I’m not strong enough, and I don’t know how. I can give them a blanket command to obey you and no one else, but other than that—
Erik hesitated briefly. All logic and instinct told him he needed to find the Omega telepath that could kill them off with an afterthought. Unfortunately, although he preferred to pretend he’d discarded it, Erik did have a heart, and it wouldn’t let him simply abandon all these innocent, helpless people.
They weren’t even coming out of their fucking cells! He stalked to the one in front of Charles’ and peered inside. A slight boy of pale skin and shaved head looked at him, pleasantly vague, sitting on the edge of his bed.
“Get up,” Erik growled, and felt like his stomach dropped to his feet when the boy complied easily, otherwise unresponsive. It was as though he saw no reason to contest the command. “Emma, order them all to come to the doors and follow me.”
Yes, Emma murmured in his mind, and the boy in front of Erik tilted his head only slightly before fixing his eyes on Erik, attentive and polite, but otherwise vacant.
“What’s your name?”
“Pyro one-five-seven,” the boy replied.
“No,” Erik said through gritted teeth. “Your name.”
“Pyro one-five-seven,” was what he got, and no signs of annoyance from the boy at having to repeat himself. Erik swallowed back a growl of frustration and gestured for the boy to go ahead of him through the door and into the hallway, which the boy did, agreeably.
The rest of the Shells were also at their doors, looking straight ahead of themselves as though curiosity wasn’t even in their vocabularies.
Erik jerked as he recognized Alex three doors down, and stalked to him to grab his arm.
“Have you seen Charles?”
Alex looked amiably inquisitive. Erik could have shaken him; all that stopped him was that Alex wasn’t being purposefully obtuse: he truly didn’t know a thing.
“What’s your name?” he asked, trying to gather around himself the tattered remains of his patience and staunch with them the gaping wound in his chest bleeding violence.
“Plasma three-two,” Alex said, eyes clear and cornflower-blue.
“No,” Erik took a deep breath. “Your name is Alex Summers.”
“Okay,” now Erik did shake him, briefly, and tore himself away. He rubbed his hands roughly over his face, struggling to control his temper, and counted from ten backwards even though he knew he didn’t have the time.
The Silvanus was shuddering steadily, intermittently beneath their feet. Erik tried to calculate how much time had gone by since he’d found Charles’ room; five minutes, just about. The first wave of the assault had to be in effect already; the combined forces of the Starbreaker and Nightcrawler taking over a full frontal assault, along with the individual ships each large vessel carried. For the Starbreaker, Logan’s Wolverine and Ororo’s Storm. For Nightcrawler, Janos’ Whirlwind and several other, smaller ships Erik wasn’t personally acquainted with. The diversion.
He turned to the Shells, gathering his wits.
“Alright,” he said evenly, “You lot follow me. Stay close but make sure there is always one yard of space between the first one and me. I need space to move. You—what’s your name?”
“Metal one-five,” the large, pleasant man said, steel-blue eyes empty.
“Right. You’re rearguard. Make sure the rest stay close between us. If you see any of the guards, you protect the rest, understand?”
Erik nodded and him and started moving, grateful when Shadowcat illuminated their way to the emergency staircase. They had to go down fifteen levels to the main observations decks, and Erik was not optimistic about their odds of doing so without finding trouble along the way.
“Emma, can Azazel come get them?”
Azazel’s ship needs it captain, Emma said tightly. You don’t know what it’s like out here.
“Just hold on another ten minutes,” Erik said, swallowing, and blew open the door to the staircase, sprinting down the steps at full speed. He was followed by about a dozen empty-eyed mutants, all of them placidly obedient. It made his skin crawl to see them like that. They had gone scarcely two levels before the side door opened and five guards streamed in, armed to the teeth. Erik pulled his phaser from his holster and shot the first two in quick succession, throwing a knife at the third one. The knife flew back to his hand and boomeranged back to the fourth guard’s eye, and Erik fucked out of the way of a laser shot—too late remembering he had people he had to protect, standing behind him.
Erik cried out as the laser hit Alex in the shoulder. The boy toppled forward, too stunned by the pain and addled by the drugs to catch himself with his hands. The giant man Erik had ordered to guard the rear leapt to the front, and in an unexpectedly quick movement slammed the last guard against the wall. The sickening sound of bone fracturing reverberated on the staircase and the guard fell limp to the floor. Erik turned to the giant; the skin along his outstretched arm had turned into a sort of plated, skin-fitted metal armor. It faded as Erik watched, and the man relaxed again.
“Well done,” Erik said, dropping to his knees next to Alex and turning him around to look at the damage. The wound was of course cauterized, but it was a nasty burn, already blistering and reddening angrily. The skin had burned away to reveal the scorched muscle below, and a clear, thin serum was oozing out of it already.
The giant shrugged off his own white t-shirt and handed it to Erik, who balled it, pressing it carefully to the wound.
“Keep it there, press it tightly,” he ordered, dragging Alex to his feet. He pushed him against one of the boys and ordered the other one to help him walk, and then started leading them down the stairs again, too conscious of the time they were losing and all that was unfolding out of their sight.
They had timed the attack carefully, tiering it to precision in waves of varying intensity. Erik’s own Magneto was supposed to join the fourth wave of attack, shielding the rescuers as they moved the liberated mutants from the Silvanus to the Leviathan. Unfortunately, with the main power of the station gone for an indeterminate amount of time, the guards began to take to the stairs. What would have otherwise have been an easily solvable problem, had Shadowcat been able to seal the doors from her mainframe, became a desperate situation. Because they were meant to be easily manually opened, the doors had no locks or circuits that could be fused or fried, and were mostly made of Bakelite. Erik had little control over them, he could rip them off well enough, but that was precisely what he didn’t want to do.
They happened upon at least half a dozen other groups of guards as they moved steadily downwards. Another of his charges got a laser shot to the leg and had to be braced between two other Shells; the only one who would have been strong enough to carry him would have been Metal One-Five, and Erik needed him to help him defend the others; he couldn’t spare him.
Finally they reached level Eleven’s observation decks, and dashed out into the main corridor. Here the sounds of battle became at last readily perceived; this deck held the largest open spaces in the Silvanus, and was the ideal battleground. Fury had pummeled into them the need to reach the observations decks to hold the fight, or else be cornered and killed. As attackers they couldn’t afford to take cover, they’d have to be moving constantly.
Two guards rounded a corner and came at them. Erik, somewhat breathless, turned to shoot them, but as he watched they both dropped down on their faces, coughing blood. Black Widow stepped carelessly over them and made a cursory evaluation of Erik’s little group.
“Loki’s got another dozen on the way down from decks twenty-six and twenty-five.”
“We need to get them out of here,” Erik said urgently.
Widow shrugged, “It won’t matter if we don’t retrieve Xavier. Go and find him.”
Erik didn’t need to be told twice. Leaving the band of vague-eyed mutants in the safety of Widow’s jealous attention, he stormed back into the staircase and made himself pause.
“Emma. I need you to find Charles.”
She sounded shaken and unsettled as she said, His mind is gone, I can’t—
“Scan the minds around him. Scan every mind in this place if you have to. I don’t need to tell you how important this is.”
And he forced himself to wait, and regain his breath. It seemed to him like ages slipped past before she finally gave him a destination: Lab fifty-eight, level fifteen.
Cursing under his breath, Erik started retracing his steps up through the decks. On deck fourteen he ran into Loki and his group, and was shocked.
“You’re a mutant,” he said, gaping.
“No, you’re imagining things,” Loki snapped, gesturing for the mutants to go by him down the stairs. His skin was a deep midnight blue, with raised marks along his forehead and cheeks and the back of his hands, and his eyes blood-red. He looked like Raven, but wilder and harsher.
Loki nodded. “Secondary to ice control. Where’s Xavier?”
“Laboratories and experimentation,” Loki said immediately. He knew the blueprints by heart. “Be quick about it. The third wave is starting now.”
Erik nodded and wordlessly ran up the stairs, tearing through the door of level fifteen just as the Silvanus tipped in the direction of what Erik calculated was the front. The Quinjet, the Gambit and the Leviathan, stabbing the Silvanus in the back while the whole of the station was focused on the frontal attacks of the Starbreaker and Nightcrawler.
The captain steadied himself and looked at the door numbers desperately, until he stumbled upon one that had a black fifty-eight. He stormed into it.
It was a magnetic resonance lab; he felt power crawling up his skin, replenishing his strength, climbing up his veins to curl warm in his chest. The control room was deserted, already evacuated. Erik ripped the isolation door by its hinges and ran into the lab, illuminated by Shadowcat’s selective energy directing. He was glad the girl was on their side.
Someone was crumpled on the floor against the wall, lying like a doll. He was wearing a form-fitting blue shirt and loose scrubs pants, and a heavy-looking, ugly helmet of wickedly curbing cheek and nose guards. Chains around his wrists connected to a larger one around his waist made it impossible for the telepath to wrench the helmet off himself.
Erik felt like a spear had plunged through his heart. Breathing raggedly, he crashed to his knees next to Charles and had to swallow back the urge to rip the helmet off. Calmly now, he told himself. He took a deep breath and gently brushed his fingertips over the helmet, even as he distractedly broke and threw away the chain around Charles’ waist and hands, using his gift. He could see the helmet, he could tell it was metal, but whatever it was escaped his gift. The same had happened back on the Starbreaker the day Charles and Alex were taken.
There was a leather buckle beneath Charles’ chin. He found it and unfastened it, and carefully removed the helmet, which he threw away as if it burned him. It felt wrong in his hands, cold, though it ought to be warm with Charles’ body heat, and oddly balanced, like most of the weight was at the top.
Charles’ hair was matted with sweat and blood, which had trickled from his nose and his ears. Erik hastily turned him to his back and checked his pulse; it was steady and strong. His breathing was shallow but even. Erik ran his fingertips down the inside of Charles’ arms and found no needle marks. No drugs, then, just as Loki had suspected, but the helmet itself might have made a great deal of damage already.
“I have him,” he said aloud, and flinched when Charles’ eyes snapped brusquely open and rolled up to meet Erik’s, clear but empty. Erik froze. A fresh drop of blood rolled down Charles’ cheek from his ear, down the slope of his cheekbone to the corner of his mouth, where Erik remembered kissing him the last time he had seen him.
He raised his hands, slowly, hoping the very dazed and confused Omega telepath lying on the floor on front of him would not see fit to destroy his mind for being too close, too soon.
The deck beneath them trembled. He had to get Charles out of here and into the Starbreaker immediately, but he sensed that any attempt to touch him would result in being ruthlessly lobotomized. He shifted to even out his weight and cover Charles with his own body if the station listed to a side. It didn’t look like Charles might have the reflexes to protect himself.
You should be in the main deck, Emma’s voice said urgently. The Hawk is moving in, Iron Man is wrecking havoc, you need to get out of there now!
Something flashed in Charles’ eyes.
“Erik,” he rasped, blinking slowly.
“Don’t move,” Erik ordered, leaping to his feet and to the control room. Any half-decent MRI room had to have an emergency medical kit in case something went wrong. Erik needed to stop the bleeding before he made Charles get up and walk. He ripped the kit open and found gauze and tape, sprinting back to the main chamber just as the Silvanus shuddered violently.
That had to be the Iron Man, ripping apart the station stabilizers and turbines to cripple its maneuvering abilities.
Charles had pushed himself to a sitting position on shaky arms. Erik helped him sit up fully and started wiping his face, starting by his nose and the corner of his mouth. He could feel, vaguely and weak as a kitten’s paw, Charles’ mind against his own.
“Don’t strain yourself,” he said gruffly, holding Charles’ head steady by the chin as he cleaned him up.
“Need to push past,” Charles said dazedly, eyes tracking Erik’s hands as if they were the only thing they could focus on.
“Don’t hurt yourself, Charles, goddamnit—“
“I have to,” Charles’ eyes were gaining focus now, and Erik began to feel his presence more firmly against his mind, a growing pressure like a headache, resolutely there, but not yet uncomfortable. “Have to—find the others, break them free…”
He trailed off absently as Erik tilted his head to the side to wipe at the blood from his ear, lips parted, as if caught on a thought, expression vacant. He was doing something with his mind, Erik could tell. It felt a little like it was twirling, twining like a snake, writhing, sleek and warm and unsettling in the space between them. Erik finished wiping as much of the blood as he could—some of it had dried and would have to be washed off—and balled the gauze and threw it away.
“Charles, we need to move, I need to get you to the main level.”
“The observations decks,” Charles mumbled, eyes rolling briefly before resettling on Erik’s face, somewhat more focused. “My mind won’t stay in my head,” he complained. “It wants to leave.”
Erik had no fucking idea how to respond to that, so he shook his head and pressed his hands to Charles’ ears.
“Keep it in. I like it there.”
“I don’t feel so well,” Charles sighed, rolling his head back to rest against the wall, eyes falling closed.
“Don’t fall asleep,” Erik urged, slipping his arm between Charles’ shoulders and the wall to bring him forward against his own chest. He stood up slowly, Charles’ weight sagging in his arms. “Charles, stay awake.”
“Nobody ever lets me sleep,” Charles whined, hands fisting in Erik’s lab coat.
“You can sleep when we’re home, I promise.”
“Home?” Charles’s head moved back, wide blue eyes gazing uncomprehendingly at Erik. It was like there was no intelligent life there, like there were made of deep blue glass, a window opening to empty space. Erik felt horror eating away at his own mind, pervasive like acid. Then they flashed, again, and Erik felt the pressure of Charles’ mind, and Charles was there again, behind his own eyes. “The Starbreaker.”
“Yes,” he said encouragingly, moving towards the door. “That’s it. We’ll go to the Starbreaker and you can sleep all you want.”
“I can’t,” Charles shifted and stood on his own two feet, though still leaning heavily against Erik. “I need to find Jason. I have to stop him.”
“You’re in no condition to—“
“I’ll get better,” Charles said firmly. “But I need Emma. Get me to the observation decks, Erik.”
“What a marvelous fucking idea,” Erik growled. He dragged Charles to the staircase, where he found himself face to face with two guards, and had but a moment to panic before they were killed from behind, long curved blades shoved through their throats, yanked firmly out as they fell. Raven stood there, blue skin covered in blood obviously not hers, golden eyes gleaming.
She grinned impudently at them.
“Charles! Are you alright?”
“Well enough,” answered the telepath, and braced himself on Erik as the station jerked violently. They exchanged wide-eyed glances and rushed to the observation deck, spilling into the corridor just in time to see the ceiling above the main room collapsing brutally as a large exoskeleton battlesuit dropped onto the deck.
As the dust settled Erik recognized the distinctive design of an Amerika space battlesuit, painted in gleaming white, blue and red. On its arm, the distinctive round shield with the star was already scratched out of its trade-mark gloss. The Captain and the Howling Commandos, Erik realized with a start, shocked to find the group of rogue space pirates in the station, and confused as to what side they might be taking. He drew Charles back as the silver-and-black Winter Soldier, the Captain’s second-in-command, dropped at its commander’s side and started firing on the guards still present.
Raven patted Erik’s arm and took off down the hall, long curved knives gleaming in the fluorescent lights.
They were gutting the station from the inside; no station, no matter how well constructed, could keep up with the Howling Commandos, Iron Man and War Machine traversing its innards with violent intent while simultaneously survive the combined forces of the Starbreaker, Nightcrawler, Gambit, Leviathan and Quinjet, with the StarkTech Mobile Operations Base Ogedei standing by for reinforcement and battle relay.
Still, nothing explained the perplexing presence of the Howling Commandos in this operation. Nobody knew who they ever were, let alone how to contact them. It wasn’t a surprise they would move against the Alliance when it was clear they were in the wrong, but you couldn’t always count on the Captain to see things your way—he had a strange sort of morals unique to him and his men, and did as he damn well pleased the vast majority of the time, taking very little direction from outside sources.
Raven hissed, and Erik crushed Charles to him just in time to shield him from the wall exploding at their left, pushing them towards the main room where the Captain and the Winter Soldier were wrecking fresh hell with very little care as to their clear advantage over unarmored military men.
The dust settled. Erik gritted his jaw.
“Sebastian,” he muttered.
Shaw looked calm and composed in his sharp suit, but his eyes were cold as sleet.
“We have all the mutants aboard the Leviathan,” he said, waving a still-glowing hand to disperse dust away from his face. “The Silvanus is down. Iron Man has been transmitting this whole operation from the get-go in Three-Systems-wide overriding signal. No one can help but watch it as it goes along.”
A risky sort of maneuver that Erik nevertheless appreciated; he knew Stark would be careful to blank out their faces and distort their voices to preserve their identities, but the transmitting of the operation itself ensured the citizens of both Core and Rim knew that the Alliance was apparently all for enslavement.
With the rescued mutants safely aboard Shaw’s Leviathan, a huge battle ship no one in their right minds would dare go up against unless they had a fleet of destructors at hand, the potential repercussions to helpless innocents disappeared almost entirely.
Shaw looked grim and fatigued, older than Erik ever remembered seeing him. Sometimes Sebastian seemed to defy time itself with his immutable futures. He looked no different now than he had so many years before when he’d saved Erik’s life after the death of his parents. “Xavier, you need to find the other telepath.”
“Has he not been evacuated?”
Shaw shook his head. “No evacuation vessels escaped our nets. All of the ones that attempted it were captured, and their occupants are imprisoned onboard Remy’s Gambit.”
A smuggler’s ship with vast cargo space, the Gambit was the indeed safest bet for a prison vessel.
“Jason must be in here then,” Charles mused, closing his eyes.
“That ought to be the case, unless Loki’s data was wrong and he’s not in this station at all,” Shaw waved a hand and with a brush of fingers sent a heavy metal beam sailing through the air to smash against three Alliance soldiers, killing them instantly.
Charles seemed occupied inside his head, doing whatever it was an Omega level telepaths did, so Erik backed him up against a wall to shield him and arched a brow at Shaw, gesturing to the Commandos.
“Who invited them?”
“I thought they were your friends.” Shaw shrugged.
“When would I have met the Captain and the Howling Commandos?” Erik asked irritably.
Shaw gave him a flat look. “It’s just you all seem to share the same type of pervasive insanity.”
“I don’t know every single rogue criminal in the Three Systems, asshole.”
“Really? I was certain you lot got together for monthly meetings to bond over your traumatizing pasts and various versions and intensities of mental illnesses.”
“You’d be the first to get an invitation, were that the case,” Erik growled.
“Don’t be juvenile, Erik, it’s very unbecoming,” chastised Shaw, mildly, and they both paused as the observation deck window open to space flashed as something exploded outside. Two ships streamed by, closely together, weaving and dodging station counterattack fire.
“That’s Angel’s Dragonfly, and I imagine that must be the famous Hawkeye.”
One more individual vessel flashed by, then made a fancy turning maneuver and returned, twirling on itself like a fish in water before disappearing through the top of the window, no doubt to wreck chaos on the higher decks. Erik recognized it distinctive red-and-black paintjob.
There was a moment of silence as Shaw and Erik stared at each other.
“That was the Deadpool,” Erik drawled.
“Indeed,” Shaw answered in the exact same flat tone.
“I can’t believe you called Wade.”
Shaw gritted his jaw, “I didn’t call that psychopath. I told him if I ever happened upon him again I’d chop him to pieces and I wasn’t lying. He’s unbalanced.”
“You two match, then,” Erik snapped at him.
Shaw gave him a testy look and was about to reply when Captain turned to them in a whirr of finely-tuned machinery and leaned forward, chest-plate lifting to uncover the safely ensconced pilot seat.
Dressed in a thick black anti-contusion suit, Steve Rogers sat in the body-fitting cockpit, corn-blond hair combed back.
Erik was stunned speechless.
“How are we on the telepath situation?” Rogers asked, shifting the weight of the heavy battlesuit on its legs and hefting the large shield to clip it to its place on the suit’s back. He piloted the exoskeleton as though he had been born inside it. It was unbelievable. And he looked so meek too, like he hadn’t just single-handedly demolished a guarding station with a well-bounced shield throw. On the other hand, this explained both Roger’s previously stunning presence in the operation planning, and the unexpected addition of the Commandos as backup.
“Your guess is as good as ours,” answered Shaw, taking this revelation in stride. Sebastian did have that way of accepting anything as though it were perfectly normal occurrence. He waved at Charles, who was resting against the wall with his eyes half-lidded. “The telepath appears to be having technical difficulties. You might even say he’s bluescreened.”
“I can hear you,” Charles muttered.
“You’re a dick,” Erik informed Shaw, as if he wasn’t perfectly aware of it already.
Sebastian shrugged again. He clearly didn’t give a shit what anybody thought of him; he never had. It was one of the few things Erik was grateful that he had picked that up from him.
There was a reason Sebastian Shaw had never had children, and it wasn’t that he was incapable; he hated kids, didn’t have the least idea what to do with them or how, and he was utterly incapable of any sort of emotion vaguely resembling sympathy for people of all sizes who can’t defend themselves. Any attempts to get him to understand children were the future of mankind got you a flat, blank look and stony silence.
“Well,” Rogers seemed willing to ignore anything that wasn’t relevant to the matter at hand. What a gift. Erik wished he had it. “Then maybe we should get Xavier off—“
“I have him,” Charles said, snapping brusquely to full focus, blue eyes deep and clear. “Level four. I immobilized his father there with him.”
The station rocked brusquely, and Erik’s back slammed against the wall. Charles’ shoulder hit him squarely in the chest, knocking the air out of him. Sebastian, cool as always, absorbed the impact without looking the worse for wear. Rogers’ cockpit plate descended again to protect the pilot. The exoskeleton gestured, and Winter Soldier trotted over, probably piloted by Barnes.
“I’ll get you to deck four,” Rogers said through the voice filters. “The fastest way there is. Straight down. Winter, you carry them.”
“Right.” The bulky silver-and-black exoskeleton crouched down and spread its arms.
“I’m going along,” informed Shaw, pushing Charles towards the large black-and-silver metal suit. “Erik can rip off most doors, and whatever he can’t rip I can blast through.”
“Like the old times.” Erik grinned savagely at him.
“Do shut up.” Shaw rolled his eyes. He was a proper asshole, but despite that Erik was rather fond of him. Sebastian had gone out of his way more than once to protect him, keep him safe, help him deal with his problems.
In the end, the duties were switched; Winter Soldier blasted through the decks, one after the other, and Captain helped them down, keeping them covered with his large vibranium shield. Charles’ hands were fisted tightly in Erik’s shirt, his face pale but determined. Sebastian himself looked neutral, as per usual, but there was a cold edge to his eyes that Erik knew bode ill. Sebastian had been alive a long time; Gods only knew what atrocities of human cruelty he had witnessed along the way. This had to be hitting close to home.
“Deck Four,” Winter Soldier announced, moving out of the way for Captain to drop to the deck at his side and gently put his passengers down. Both exoskeletons immediately assumed escort duties, Captain leading them with the shield and Winter Soldier at the rear. Charles gave the directions.
This deck had been ravaged. There were dead bodies lying all over the place, the hallways and corridors sported dents and scorch marks that told stories of a serious battle. A sort of blockade had been attempted at one point, and been destroyed. Captain examined it briefly, moving aside a large metal desk.
“Iron Man was here,” he said, straightening. “He’s probably not—“
The character in question plunged through a wall and crashed into the next one. Sebastian moved immediately to shield Charles, hands raised to brace for impact. Erik knew that if they were under attack Sebastian was their best bet to keep Charles safe; he was impossible to bring down and had the tactical mind of a military general.
Iron Man extricated himself from the wall and shook off a wire that had wrapped itself around one of his gloves.
“Fucking public menace,” he muttered, and turned to stare at them. “Well, that’s opportune. You two armored dickheads come with me. I have a cannon to disable and it’s not playing possum.”
“We have Xavier to defend,” Captain protested.
“We’ve got it covered,” Sebastian said firmly, gesturing to Erik and Charles. “The cannon is important. Get it done.”
Captain hesitated, but the truth was Shaw had a point; the whole of the station’s defenses ought to be lying in tatters by now. If the cannon was still giving them trouble, then it needed to be dealt with immediately. Thus parting ways with their armored escort, the three mutants moved further into the wreck of deck four, guided by Charles’ telepathy.
Emma’s voice filtered into Erik’s mind, I’m sending Raven, Anne Marie and Azazel down to back you up.
“Fine,” Erik muttered distractedly, as Sebastian pushed open a door and stared, dumbfounded, at the contents of the cage sitting in the middle of it.
“Are those pygmy goats?” Erik asked, gaping.
“This is depraved.” Sebastian affected an appalled expression. “I can tolerate them experimenting on mutants, but pygmy goats? Unforgivable.”
“I hate you,” Erik said calmly.
“Yes, you’ve said.” Sebastian sniffed, pushing Charles along the corridor.
Charles finally drew to a stop in front of a large double door, reinforced with the same alien alloy that had been used to fashion Charles’ helmet. Erik drew his fingertips over the polished surface, but the metal eluded the grasp of his gift, slipping away from him like a slithery snake.
He shook his head and stood back, drawing Charles away as he did and Sebastian stepped up closer to the door, narrowing his eyes. Bracing himself with a long indrawn breath, Sebastian slapped his hands against the door. The floor dented in with a long whine of crushed metal. Sebastian’s brows crept up his forehead. Erik pushed Charles behind himself; this was the first time he had seen anything resist Sebastian’s gift.
The second time Sebastian infused his hands with considerably more power, and the door buckled and flew away abruptly. Sebastian stepped inside, cautiously, gesturing for them to follow him once he was sure it was safe.
Then he dropped limp to the floor.
In the shock of it Erik was capable of understanding no living creature falls so carelessly to the floor, but he was unable to understand that Sebastian was dead.
Charles exhaled briefly, hand tightening on Erik’s arm.
“No more, Jason,” he said quietly.
Erik watched in horror as what had seemed to be a simple office distorted and dissolved into a vast round room plated in that alien metal, resistant to Erik’s will. It felt bitterly cold, and bile was rising at the back of Erik’s throat, but he didn’t know if it was because of the metal, because of the two Omega level telepaths in the room with him, or because Sebastian was dead.
He was standing there, like always, tall and straight and proud, and the next moment he was dead.
Erik slid to his knees and turned the man around. His stomach roiled when Sebastian’s head lolled, eyes open and empty, staring. Erik gasped; he would have sobbed if he had had the voice, but his throat was closing. There were no wounds, not blood, no bruises, but Sebastian was dead.
“Erik,” Charles said sadly, touching his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t shield him in time.”
Helpless, almost incapable of understanding what had happened, Erik dragged Sebastian closer to himself, as though he could do anything for him when it was obviously too late.
Charles stepped around them. Erik forced himself to look away from Sebastian’s frozen expression. They were starting at the beginning of a long floating walkway that ended in a circular platform. A young man sat there in a wheelchair, dressed in hospital scrubs. An older man had crumpled at his side, as dead as Sebastian, and Erik knew him from the pictures Loki had shown them. William Stryker.
So the man in the wheelchair was Jason Stryker, the illusionist, the heart of the Dollhouse Initiative. Charles now stood between Jason and Erik, who still on his knees on the floor. He couldn’t bring himself to leave Sebastian alone, to rise and face Jason by Charles’ side like he knew he ought to.
Reality seemed to bend and twist around Erik, pressure building in his head—but a second later it was dispelling, and it felt like a cool breeze soothed Erik’s headache away.
“No, Jason,” Charles said gently. “You can’t hurt him. It’s over.”
Charles started walking slowly towards Jason, keeping his arms relaxed by his sides, as nonthreatening as possible. There was a soft sound and the smell of sulfur. Erik looked over his shoulder as Azazel, Raven and Anne Marie materialized right outside the door. Raven flinched when he saw Sebastian. She didn’t know him well, but she knew what he was to Erik. The captain of the Starbreaker turned back to the center of the room.
Charles had reached the platform now, and stood over Jason’s thin, paralyzed body in the wheelchair.
“I’m sorry, Jason,” he said softly. “It doesn’t have to hurt anymore.”
He leaned forward, stroking the stubble of Jason’s head tenderly, and there was a flare of—something, Erik didn’t know what it was, like a swelling emotion deep in his chest, a stitch of anxiety and pain bursting open to let the anger and sorrow run free. In its wake Erik felt an odd, all-encompassing peace, until that feeling, too, drained away. Jason Stryker was dead.
Charles straightened and turned, expression sad.
“He was a sweet lad, at the end,” he said absently, walking back down the walkway to Erik. He kneeled down on the other side of Sebastian’s body and hesitated to reach out, but finally touched Erik’s arm.
“I’m sorry, Erik.”
Erik swallowed, squeezing Sebastian’s shoulder helplessly.
“Are you going to be alright, comrade?” Azazel asked quietly, coming around and crouching in front of him.
“I,” Erik shook his head. “I don’t—I don’t know.”
Azazel nodded slowly. “Let me get you back to the Leviathan. There is still some violence in the station, but we’ve done what we meant to, have we not?”
The mutants were free, Charles was safe, Jason was dead. Erik nodded. He gathered Sebastian’s body closer to himself and closed his eyes as Azazel teleported them all to Sebastian’s battleship.
Chapter 9: Epilogue: First Rule of Flying
In the great Red Waste of Mars, in the shade of the imposing walls of the vast Temple, isolated from everything, they dug seven graves, and in them put six bodies.
Sebastian Shaw, Janos Quested, Jay Guthrie, Volston Karstark, Armando Munoz, Moira McTaggert, and Percival Pinkerton. They hadn’t retrieved Percival’s body, as his Howling Commando battlesuit had collided with a Silvanus evacuation shuttle and exploded, but he had a grave, and his teammates mourned him.
Though Erik felt Sebastian’s death keenly, he knew the most devastating of the losses was McTaggert. She had been a fine S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, capable and efficient, possessing a witty and acid sense of humor that had made her genuinely good company.
She had also been Sean’s soon-to-be wife.
The pilot stood pale-faced under the sun, pale blue eyes wide, holding a quiet and subdued Kurt in his arms. Erik and Ororo flanked him, offering whatever comfort they could by simply being near. Sean had been disconsolate for days, and only now had seemed to find some sort of peace, a space within himself that allowed him to continue living, fractured and different, but breathing.
The priests of the Temple did a short and simple service, blessed them, and left them to themselves.
Angel Salvadore, freshly minted commander of the Leviathan, gathered the quiet and pained remainder of her crew and said her goodbyes. Fury squeezed Sean’s shoulder, murmured a few kind words, and took S.H.I.E.L.D. away. With him went Natasha Romanova, newest member of Fury’s trained hounds. One by one, the captains and crew of the other ships also excused themselves. Remy LeBeau and his second Anne Marie of the Gambit, along with their in-house hacker Kitty Pryde, the Shadowcat. Azazel of the Nightcrawler, who had lost his second in Janos and now stood somewhat bereft.
Tony Stark had excused himself from the service, because the Ogedei was still supervising the transport and relocation of the rescued mutants.
Charles would have to go to the Ogedei eventually, soon, so that he and Emma and some other low-level telepaths could try to help these people regain their memories and become themselves once more.
But for now they stood in the Red Waste in Mars, and they mourned.
As the hours trickled by, Emma murmured a suggestion that they withdraw to the Starbreaker. Erik, Ororo and Sean remained in the cemetery, watching over and over the short projection of Moira’s bright smile above her tombstone.
Noon became afternoon, became twilight, became night. In the huge open space above them the star shone bright, and the small malformed shape of Phobos, the larger and closer of Mars’ two moons, hung awkward in the sky.
Finally, Sean sighed, and gave two steps forward to press the small button to end the projection. When he turned around, pale face leached of color by the moon and stars, Erik thought he looked no more alive than the lover he had lost. Sean was a young man to know such sorrow.
“Let’s go home?” he asked, smiling sadly.
Erik put his arm around Sean’s shoulders and nodded, leading him to the Starbreaker.
“She’s suffered some,” he said softly, looking at his beloved Eisenhardt, dented and scratched and old. “But she’s an old loyal thing. I think she’ll pull through.”
Sean closed his eyes, swallowing heavily. “She’ll take to the sky, for sure,” he said hoarsely. “And she’ll fly true.”
Erik squeezed him close, combing the curly red hair away from his forehead tenderly.
They went through the hangar, up the walkway past the engine rooms across the living quarters, up to the common room. Emma, Raven and Henry were cooking dinner. Wolverine sat on the ground, long legs sprawled out, wrestling playfully with Kurt. Alex sat cross-legged on the couch, playing cards with his little brother Scott, rescued two days prior.
Sean sat down at the table, and Erik sat at his side. He felt the curling warmth of Charles’ telepathy and the priest slipped inside from the direction of the bridge, where he had most likely been speaking to Tony. Erik smiled, and Charles came around to sit next to him and rest his hand lightly on Erik’s thigh, close and intimate, but mindful of Sean’s pain.
“What’s for dinner?” asked Erik, striking out to catch Kurt’s tail as the boy snatched past in a giggling fit, and just narrowly missing. Kurt headed for the door, intending no doubt to have them all go after him and catch him.
But just as he reached it, a tall figure ducked down and caught him around the waist, hoisting him easily up under an arm.
“You’ll have to try harder,” Loki smirked at the toddler, ignoring his squirming attempts to free himself as he strolled to the table. Kurt teleported away to Raven’s side, and Loki shrugged and sat down, crossing his long legs and looking much more relaxed in a simple black shirt and slacks.
Ororo put a large wine bottle in the table in front of them and poured everyone, but the children, a measure of it. It was aromatic and spicy.
“Before we eat, I welcome our new crewmates,” she said simply, raising her glass to Loki and Scott. Loki inclined his head, and Alex slapped Scott’s hand away when he tried to reach for a wine glass. “I don’t know that either of you have been in a crew like this before, so let me just say. Welcome to the family. Welcome home. There’s only one rule in this ship, and it’s the most important one of all. It’s the first rule of flying. Do you know what it is?”
Loki smiled faintly, but it was a soft smile, genuine, and for it handsome. Scott just shook his head, clinging to Alex’s arm.
Ororo smiled at the boy. “Love keeps us in the air. Love this ship, and love this crew, and neither will let you down.”
Scot grinned. Erik lifted his glass, clinked it against everyone else’s, and drank deep. He leaned to the side and pressed a soft, chaste kiss to Charles’ temple.
“And for dinner,” Raven announced in the comfortable silence that followed. “We have goulash!”
Erik grinned. Alex had recently remembered that happened to be his favorite.
Yes, he thought, lacing his fingers with Charles’ beneath the table. She’s suffered some, alright. But she’ll fly true.