The Next Generation

Vin woke with a start, sitting straight up in bed. He was breathing hard and bathed in sweat. He looked around in his darkened room and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He was trying to determine what had woken him and the only thing he could come up with was, "Mom?"

He pushed the remaining covers away and rose from the bed, still confused as to why his thoughts urgently centered on his mother. In only his sleep shorts, he hurried from his room and to the special elevator down the hall.

She woke when Vin did, as though out of a nightmare. Her instincts, however, told her to be still... be quiet. She couldn't push down the fear, though.

Vin called to his mom, but the agony her own mother was inadvertently sharing gave Maria some very scary thoughts. Thanks again, Mom, she thought to herself. I get just enough of that energy gift of yours to make my life miserable, and not enough to do anything particularly useful with it.

As her sometimes... most of the time... lover left the room, she felt a nudge in her mind.

Paul, something's seriously wrong. Especially with Mom and Aunt Lin.

Yeah, I know. I feel like I just got slammed in the head with Mom's staff. What the hell's going on?

No clue. Vin just went off to Cerebro, I think. She got out of bed and started laying out clothes. Where are you? It was a legitimate question. Sometimes she thought her brother's wanderlust was worse than Em's. Unlike Em, however, Paul enjoyed traveling to meet people. Mostly. He did have that Beastmaster thing going on.

Home.

Vin descended to the lowest level of the campus and headed for the spherical room at the end of a long corridor. He placed his left eye in front of the small scanner and waited.

The blue lights criss-crossed his iris and confirmed his identity.

"Welcome, Professor Xavier," the pleasant female voice greeted him as the doors opened.

He paid it no mind but went straight to the chair at the end of the platform. He settled in, set the neurotransmitters onto his head and activated Cerebro. He sent his thoughts outward, away from Earth. He knew where to search. She always let him know where they were going in case of an emergency.

Mom? Mother?

He called out to her yet she did not answer. He could not even get a hint of her. That worried him more than he cared to admit. He shifted his direction.

Dad?

He received back an acknowledgment but nothing coherent.

His thoughts then turned to his sister. Em?

Her answer came back almost immediately as if she had been waiting for him. Vin?

Can you feel Mom? he asked.

No, she replied, her tone clipped. Can you reach Dad?

Yes, but there's something wrong.

Pick me up in the ship. I'll meet you at the Lookout Scope. You do know where they are, don't you?

Yes. It'll take me about an hour to get to you. I'll talk to Maria.

Home. Maria missed home, missed the dry sand and rocks of the New Mexico desert, and had been looking forward to the end of this term so she could go home.

I'm jealous. It's too wet here. And cold. And...

Her brother interrupted her perennial litany of complaints with a mental sigh. Not now, Maria, my head is either going to explode or implode but, in either case, let me know what's going on if Vin finds out anything. Oh, and figure out where Mom is, okay?

She sighed. Fine. She broke the connection as she headed for the shower. When Mom went off with Aunt Lin and Uncle Logan on their walkabouts, no one ever knew where they were. Fine, Vin probably knew. She had a feeling he was the only one in the universe who did know, however. They were off planet, but that was obvious. They hadn't gone on walkabout Earthside in over a century.

Maria never thought of her finding gift to be all that useful. It only ever worked to find her relatives. It had been fun when she was considerably younger; telling Mom when Uncle Justin was home was the most fun. Mom had always liked spooking her brother that way. But as more and more of her relatives died — from her great grandparents to grandparents to aunts and uncles and cousins and the children and grandchildren of her cousins, and finally Dad... Well, these days, Mom and Paul were the only people she could find. Given that Mom was off planet, Maria was going to need more time than she had at the moment to get an exact fix that was more accurate than sort of in the direction of Betelgeuse. And what was the point, really? Vin probably knew where they'd gone... Aunt Lin was like that. Mom? Not so much.

She turned on the water in the shower to nearly scalding and stepped inside.

She didn't have the same sort of relationship, the same sort of connection with Vin that her parents had... that his parents have, for that matter. Still, her hearing was greater than the average human's; she heard him come into the bathroom. She just stood under the rain of water trying to sort through the mess of information she was picking up from Mom.

He returned to his room even more quickly than he had left it. He opened the door to find the light on and clothing out on the bed. He looked around and listened with both his ears and his mind, following the sound of the water and the distinctive feel of her mind. He picked up worry now that he was focused on her. He padded through the door and across the bathroom then stepped into the shower with her.

"Maria."

He spoke softly but did not touch her. He communicated too easily with her when he touched her.

When he stepped into the shower and spoke her name, she set that problem aside for now.

"Mom's so upset I've got chaos in my brain and Paul's got a headache that's making his head explode," she said without moving or opening her eyes. "It's so bad, Deer says Dad won't leave her side." She furrowed her brows. "Won't leave Mom or your Dad. Uncle Rene won't leave them either."

She opened her eyes and moved to allow him space to shower as well. "What did you find out?"

"My mother's missing. Neither Em nor I can reach her. Dad... Dad's hurt badly..."

He swallowed hard, holding on to fear he had never felt before.

"Em's off at the Lookout Telescope over Neptune. I'm headed out there to go pick her up. I... Will you come with me?"

Her eyes widened in disbelief. Aunt Lin being missing certainly explained Mom's state of mind. But Uncle Logan? He healed faster than any of them.

"Yes, of course," she said without even thinking. Family was as important as self to the Navajo.

"We should pick up Paul, too. He's in..." She tilted her head to find him, then raised an eyebrow. "When he said he was home, I figured he was at Mom's place... but he's out near Lake Powell."

Neither of them was a touch telepath, but sometimes — usually when either or both of them was under a lot of stress — touch seemed to make it really easy to communicate everything. Still...

Maria held out her hands to Vin. "Risk a hug? You look like you could use one."

His parents were not immortal in the strictest sense. They had both died before. This felt a bit like that except that it did not. He could not define where the difference was only that there was one.

He hesitated at the offer of a hug. It was not that he did not want to share with her... Yes, it was a risk, a risk that his mind would overwhelm hers. Professor X had been a strong telepath, and his older brother Leon had been stronger even. Vin knew his talent surpassed both of theirs, and he was always cautious of it. Still, this was Maria.

They had not exactly grown up together, but they had been together for so many years that the age difference was negligible. Certainly it was considerably smaller than the seventy-year gap between his mother and father. He loved her. More than that he absolutely trusted her.

He stepped into her outstretched arms and tightly enveloped her in his. A slight tremor ran through him as he closed his eyes and bent his head to touch hers.

My gods, Maria, I've never been so scared... Mom's just not there. Even when she's died, I've still always been able to feel her consciousness. And Dad... he'd have never let anything happen to her or vice versa... I can't imagine what might have happened...

Although intellectually Maria knew Vin was a much stronger telepath than she was — despite her own strength — she had always trusted him. She had seen him as a big brother, a favorite cousin, a best friend when she and Paul were growing up. Somewhere along the line, they'd become lovers. She wasn't sure she understood that mumbo jumbo Mom and Dad always talked about, the feeling of "Oneness." She did know, however, that she trusted him completely.

I know, Vin. I'm scared, too. Mom's never lost control like this. I... She shuddered slightly in his arms. I remember a story she told about the first time Dad got taken to another dimension. Her qi always got a little crazy when she told that story, but dear gods, nothing like this!

Maria lifted her head from his shoulder to look him in the eyes. "I know your mom's not a blood relative, but I'll turn my brain to mush trying to find her. You know I will." She bit her lip, trying to remember why she had never been able to find anyone who wasn't a relative. It had been more than half a century since she'd bothered, but it had something to do with connections. She just didn't know if it was definitely just blood connections, or if a deep and abiding love would suffice. She had never tried that one.

And there was a niggling thought in the back of her mind that she should remember something. It was something that she and Paul knew, only he always seemed to remember that stuff so much better than she did. What was it?

"I don't know for sure, but maybe if I piggybacked on Mom's feelings for Aunt Lin, I could find her. I'm willing to give it a shot.

"And you know Paul can open a portal to anywhere." She gave him a crooked little half smile, so much like her father. "Well, anywhere he's ever tried, at any rate."

She was still scared, maybe even terrified, but Maria always had been able to pull herself together pretty quickly. And didn't Mom and Dad always say that being brave wasn't about not being afraid... that it was about doing what you had to do even though you were afraid?

Yeah. They sure had.

He met her eyes and knew the truth of her words even without his telepathy.

"I'd rather you didn't turn it to mush, Maria," he told her. "I need you, all of you, mind, body, and soul. And I need all of you whole. I don't think I can get through this without you whole..."

He smoothed some of the wet hair back from her face and bent to gently kiss her.

I need you.

This time he used his gift to communicate everything that went with those three words. He wished just a little for Em's ability to share feelings.

"I know you'll try. But wait until we get there. I told Em I'd be there in an hour to pick her up. We should get going. They went out to Everness to climb mountains and whatnot."

Everness, a beautiful planet that resembled Earth before industry took hold. Forests, jungles, and verdant plains were in abundance. Fortunately, it was also a difficult place to get to unless you had the right connections.

Vin's kisses were always a balm for her soul. She'd never deny her love for him, but she never bought into the notion of settling down, tying herself to just one person. It seemed to work for Aunt Lin and Uncle Logan, and for Mom and Dad; she just didn't think it would work very well for her.

This kiss was different, though. Vin was so much more present than he ever been, almost as if he was trying to share his soul, his very essence with her.

I am here for you. You know that, Vin.

She didn't have the full measure of her mother's gift, so there was no way for her to gauge what was happening right now. She had no way to know that she and Vin were a hair's breadth away from that whole soul sharing, our qi is one qi thing she never understood when any of the elders alluded to it.

I know... just...

For someone who was usually considered an eloquent speaker, his words utterly failed him.

She nodded, although she rolled her eyes at the same time. Of course, she'd wait. It would be silly to try to find Aunt Lin before getting to Mom.

Paul, can you get out to the School now? Vin says we're supposed to pick Em up in an hour.

Nothing like cutting things close, is there, sis? Yeah, on my way... won't be more than fifteen minutes.

"How long will it take to get to Everness?" she asked Vin as she rinsed her hair. "I'm getting one of those twitchy feelings like I really need to see your Dad... you know, like, right now. Paul says he'll be here in fifteen minutes or less." Stepping out from under the showerhead, she began squeezing water from her long dark hair. "Less most likely. He flies like Mom rides."

"By trade routes, about a day and a half but I'm going to try to call in some favors while we're headed to get Em and use a Conduit or two. That should cut it down to only a few hours, and we'll push the Bird as hard as we have to. Tell Paul to meet us downstairs."

He reached behind her and turned off the water then took the time to truly kiss her. I love you.

"We should take uniforms... just in case."

He stripped off his now wet clothing and hung it over the hold bar. He reached out and brought towels in for them both. He dried off figuring he would finish cleaning on the way to Everness. Paul could fly the Blackbird as well as he could, if not better.

"I think Em's getting that feeling too. I need to tell the others we'll be gone for a while."

I love you, too, Vincent Rene Xavier.

"And you know I hate uniforms." She said it with a smile, however, as they stepped out of the shower. She'd gather them — his and her own, Em's, Paul's — and pack them in the Bird, along with their weapons.

Mom had made sure both she and Paul were trained in a number of martial arts in addition to the Taiji that helped focus the small amount of qi power they'd inherited from her. They were well versed in both armed and unarmed fighting styles. Dad had made sure they knew how to handle weapons. Actually, Aunt Lin had been a much better instructor... mostly because there didn't seem to be a weapon she couldn't use.

"I never remember who's here at any given time," Maria said, pulling on her clothes. "Is Krysta still here? I'd hate to leave folks without a medic."

Of course, the fact that her healing skills tended to unnerve most people didn't give her an excuse to leave people without the benefit of those skills. Because it freaked people out so much, she tried to use them only when absolutely necessary, only in an emergency. Only when not using them would mean the difference between life and death; health and permanent disability.

He smiled at her protest at the uniforms and caressed her cheek with a thumb. "I know you do."

"Yes, Krysta's still here. Of the mostly permanent staff, only Cho is away at the moment."

Cho Yoshida, the current martial arts instructor, was at a conference in Asia. There had been some grumbling at first when the full martial courses were first introduced. Some said it was not something Charles would have approved, but it had been Charles Xavier who had initiated the first class of its kind with his mother as the teacher. And it was Madeline who had discussed it with him at length until she had finally persuaded him that, yes, it was necessary and would benefit the students. So much of the training of the control of their gifts depended on mental discipline and their ability to focus that martial arts were a natural fit. His mother also had the contacts and respect to ensure that the school was visited only by the premier teachers who understood the special nature of the students here.

"Well, at least I remembered Cho was gone, but probably only because I've been teaching her classes," she said with a smile.

Being Dean of the school, it was his job to keep track of everyone. Being a high-level telepath that could sense them all helped tremendously.

"I'll only wake Adam and Indira though. They can let the others know in the morning."

His eyes unfocused on what was in front of him as he touched those two minds and communicated with them. He signed off with We'll be in touch. There had not been much to tell them, really. They only knew there was a problem, and that they need to get to their parents as quickly as possible.

Vin was half dressed by the time he was done talking to Adam and Indira. Like Maria, he was not overly fond of uniforms either but he knew the purpose they served. The suit he wore as Dean was just another kind of uniform to him. His preference, and what he dressed in now, were similar in taste to his parents: jeans, boots, tank top and leather jacket.

"They'll look after things while we're gone," he told Maria.

Maria dressed quickly in clothes similar to Vin's, although she wore a t-shirt rather than a tank top. When she was home, she wore a comfortable plaid hunting jacket over the t-shirt; outside the Nation, she preferred the leather jacket. Mom always looked at her with one of her nicer smiles, shook her head, and said, "Your aunt and uncle are a bad influence on you." It was one of Mom's favorite ways to tease her; she was certainly not serious about it. Most of the time, when they were growing up, Dad dressed the same way. Well, when he wasn't working. And now? As a Spirit, he could wear anything he could possibly think of... and he still mostly looked like he was wearing jeans, boots, and a t-shirt.

Before putting the jacket on, she strapped on her forearm sheaths and made sure her knives were secure. They were beautifully balanced — a gift from Aunt Lin for her twenty-fifth birthday — and Maria was equally proficient using them in close quarters and throwing them. Every few years she'd go on walkabout with Em, taking nothing but her knives, bow, and a quiver of arrows. While Em certainly had an advantage, even today hunting was the primary source of food for people in most of the First Nations... it was a survival skill many children learned. It wasn't a skill anyone in their family had needed to learn, but Mom had thought it was a good idea. She and Paul and groused about enough that Aunt Tali had just given them a Look and said, "Stop fighting with your mother and do as she asks." Aunt Tali was so nice and one of the sweetest people anyone would want to meet, but she was also plenty spooky because she could see the future. So when Aunt Tali told anyone to do something, or not to do something, there wasn't a person in the family who didn't listen.

Fortunately, Paul interrupted her reminiscing.

Incoming, sis! About three minutes.

Good gods, Paul, are you flying at the speed of light?

He chuckled. Nope, just Mach two.

Maria sighed. "The incoming sonic boom will be brought to you courtesy of my brother. We'd better get downstairs and stow the rest of the weapons." She grinned wickedly, what her Dad used to always call Ninja's grin. "We'll make him pack the uniforms."

She looked at Vin as he shrugged his jacket on, her heart skipping a beat. Sometimes Maria couldn't help but notice how good looking he was. There had been girls ages ago who'd said his older brother was the more handsome of the two, but she hadn't quite been able to agree. True, Leon had been an incredibly handsome man... but there's always been something about Vin that made him special. His heart? His brilliant mind? Maria figured it didn't matter.

"Well, if he doesn't wake up the whole school, the Bird taking off just might. At least Adam and Indira will be prepared for it."

He slid open the top drawer on the nightstand on the side of his bed and removed the false bottom. From there he took a Glock 9mm and a considerably smaller laser pistol. The nine had a special holster that let him tuck it into the back of his waistband. He had made the mistake of tucking a pistol in the front once and only once. His mother had ripped into him then dragged him down into the danger room to give him a lesson on precisely why it was a Very Bad Idea. The small laser pistol was a backup weapon that tucked into a special pocket on the side of his boot.

It was another one of those things she had insisted upon. If you have to defend yourself, use of your Gift is only done as a last resort. Dad had been standing behind her with his arms crossed and nodding his head. It was also a huge part of the martial arts philosophy she followed. If someone brings a fight to you, you end it, quickly and get the hell out. If you are going to take the fight to someone else, you had better be damn well prepared to follow through to the final conclusion.

The first time he had had to follow through, he was sick to his stomach afterward. He found a dark spot away from everyone to, as quietly as possible, empty his stomach. She had known though and had stood quietly to the side until he was done. When he looked up, she wore a sad expression and told him she was proud of him, not for doing what he had to do but for feeling awful about it. At his confusion, she explained that being able to empathize was an ability she hoped he never lost.

Weapons set he looked over to Maria, "Ready?"

"Ready. All my other weapons are locked up in the armory."

That made perfect sense, of course. First, who kept a compound bow in their bedroom? Okay, scratch that. Who in their right mind kept a compound bow in their bedroom where the hands of curious small children might find it? Second, if she needed to defend herself at school... well, all hell would probably be breaking loose, and her hands and feet were deadly weapons in human form and dozens of others. While she hated having to kill an enemy with her bare teeth, it's not like she'd never done it. Gosh, fighting crime with Mom and Dad had been so much fun. Well, for definitions of fun that actually sound more like the antonyms of fun.

She quietly followed Vin downstairs. There'd be an abundance of noise soon enough.

She and Paul had been in middle school the first time they did more than just train with Mom and Dad, or patrol the relatively safe streets and back alleys of Denver. Cousin Tommy had called because there had been a lot more reports than usual of Skinwalkers out near Chinle. The Tribal Police were required to check out all reports of supernatural activity because a lot of people still kept to the old ways... not just the ceremonies, but the superstitions, too. Not all superstitions were unsupported by facts, however, as they'd discovered. There had been so many reports, and the Tribal Police had always been spread too thin; Ha'atathli Dehiya had called the Warrior to help. It hadn't been unusual to see Mom in her Ninja get up; it had been an eye-opening experience to see the near reverence the people around Chinle had for the Diné Warrior. It had been even more shocking to see their normally self-effacing mother accept the almost Spirit-like opinion the farmers had without response or deflection. She was playful with the folks up in Commerce City, friendly with the people in Denver, but always deflecting anything beyond thanks. Later she'd said it was a necessary part of the role she played for the People; she didn't let their praise go to her head, and it gave them hope.

Out there in the desert, hope was sometimes hard to come by.

They had hiked up one of the mesas as evening turned into night. Mom just had her staff. Paul had brought his bow, Maria only had her hunting knives. If these were Skinwalkers, the kinds of weapons the police carried, the kinds of weapons favored by Dad and Aunt Lin, weren't going to be much use. Skinwalkers are sort of like the legends of werewolves, only with the power of witches too, which meant really bad stuff. Witches were the ones who spoke to the dead, something that was taboo among the Navajo. Witches were evil, and they could turn into wolves if they wanted.

They'd found a pack of them that night. Paul managed to put enough arrows into one of them to take it down. Maria had Shifted to wolf form herself; her advantages were a larger than average size and true wolf instincts. The Skinwalkers, even when they became werewolves, still held most of their human reasoning skills. While Mom had been dealing with what they had thought were the other four members of the pack, one last Skinwalker crept up on Paul. Maria's telepathy was considerably weaker in animal form; even with Paul being a Beastmaster, she couldn't warn him in time. Instead, she had thrown herself at the Skinwalker, a wolf's instinct to protect its pack. When Mom and Paul had finally gotten through her animalistic rage and she Shifted back to human form to see the dead man... belly ripped open, entrails spread on the ground... Maria couldn't stop being sick. Paul knelt beside her, a hand on her back, a silent but strong presence. Mom had pulled out the canteen of water and a towel from Paul's pack and helped Maria clean herself up after she had nothing left to throw up.

"How can you stand it, Mom... killing people?" she'd asked, not even aware that she was crying.

"I can't, honey," her mother had responded. "Before I married your dad, I'd be sick for up to a week any time I had to kill someone. It's always... well, almost always my last resort." She'd help her daughter to her feet and the three of them started back to town where they'd left the pickup they had borrowed. "My fighting style isn't going to work as well for you two; you don't have the power I do. I'm going to talk to Maddie and ask her work with you.

"But I'm going to tell you what Master Chen told me. Never kill in anger. If you must kill, kill with mercy. The first isn't always possible... the second is.

"And a lesson your Dad taught me... if killing tears you up, find someone to hold you after it's all over. You'll stay saner that way, I promise."

They spent the following summer with Aunt Lin and Uncle Logan. Aunt Lin could be a real bitch, and the only reason Maria managed to get through the summer without flying off the handle every damn day was that Mom was right... and Aunt Lin was the best of the best. Oh, and Paul kept telling her to calm the hell down. It had taken the better part of a decade to warm up to Aunt Lin again. And that was even knowing that everything she had said and everything she had done was for the express purpose of teaching them how to survive.

Mom had been right, of course, about being held, too. For a while, she and Paul had sought one another out. There's very little more comforting than having a twin's arms wrapped around a shaky body, a twin's mind helping to stare down the madness. Somewhere in her thirties or forties, Maria started to realize it was Vin's arms wrapped around her... and that there was something more comforting than just being held.

Paul was waiting for them when they got downstairs. Maria grinned at him and pointed toward the locker room. "Fetch the uniforms, brother dear, while Vin and I load the weapons. Do you want a bow? Anything else?"

He groaned. "Really? Uniforms? Why, Binnie... why?" Paul rarely used the name he called Vin when he and Maria were just learning how to talk... aloud. It sent a complex message that varied with the circumstances. At its simplest, however, it could be rendered as I love you, man, and I'll follow your lead, but you might have a screw loose. If anyone had inherited Ninja's sense of humor, it was Paul.

Shaking his head in sorrow, he answered his sister's questions. "Yes, and I've got enough small arms in my pack to make me happy, so no." He turned toward the locker room, muttering both verbally and telepathically about uniforms and their lack of comfort.

Despite the worry, Paul's smart assery made Vin grin. He chuckled and headed in with Maria to get extra weapons. Automatics for Dad and Em, even though they both had onboard weapons as Mom liked to call them. Em had scoffed at the need to learn how to use them until Dad growled a warning then demonstrated his own mastery. Both of them had their jaws hanging open having never even seen their father touch a gun other than to hand it to their mother.

He collected the long blades too, katana and tanto for him, tian po for Em. Em carried her long daggers with her. Mom had developed a technique for Em after watching her spar with their dad. Like Dad, Em used her claws as weapons. Unlike Dad though, Em's claws could be broken. It only took one real encounter for Em to never be without those daggers again.

As they carried the weapons on board, Vin set his down to the side. "Secure the weapons, love? I'm going to do the pre-flight."

His primary Gift was telepathy, but he did have a small amount of telekinesis. He started the initial sequences with his mind as he headed toward the cockpit. Through the window, he looked across the expanse of hangar and saw the other two Blackbirds. The original model he had first rode in when Mom had Professor X come collect them from Denver was one. It still operated beautifully but was not capable of leaving the atmosphere. The other in his view was the twin of the one they were in.

So far, they had never had to use both of them for the same mission though there had been a couple of instances where both were gone from the hangar with two groups headed in different directions.

At Paul's continued telepathic grumbling, Vin sent teasingly sent back Nag, nag, nag. Quit being such a baby. Or do you want to stay with the kids?

To his sister, he said, Prepping for flight, Em. See you soon.

He did not get a spoken acknowledgment from her. He hadn't really expected one. He did, however, get the distinct impression of a growl. Yeah, she was going to be a fun travel companion for as long as it took them to get to Everness.

Paul was another matter entirely.

Did I say something, Vin? came Paul's immediate reply. Uniforms are great! Should I pack extras? Gosh, I just can't wait to try on the latest style!

Maria snickered as she looked at Vin. "Sure thing," she said, as she began stowing the weapons in the onboard lockers. In addition to bows and arrows for herself and Paul, she had fetched another more generic but high-quality blade to strap onto her thigh and two laser pistols. One she would tuck into the uniform's boot holster and the other in the thigh holster opposite the Bowie knife. She'd noted that Vin had fetched some of his father's preferred weapons, so after a moment of hesitation, she'd pulled out a jian for Mom, too. Finally, she'd packed a box of hiri-shuriken. Most of them could be tucked in the small pouches on the uniform belt and the rest could be put in Paul's pack with his stash of automatic and laser weapons. That's one thing her brother sure picked up from Aunt Lin, although he always blamed Dad. Maria knew better... Aunt Lin had at least ten times as many automatic weapons as Dad, and Dad had a whole cabinet of them.

It didn't take long to get the weapons and uniforms stowed; after all these years, efficiency had become second nature.

"Okay, Vin," she said as she secured the last locker, "we're ready to go."

Maria pointed Paul to the seat nearest Vin; he'd take over any piloting if Vin needed to step away. She settled in the next seat and began securing the restraints.

Vin reached up and toggled the remote controls that irised open the roof of the hangar and slid open the basketball court above it. With innate skill, he lifted the Blackbird from its berth and through the opening above. Once the craft was clear of its home and a few feet above the trees, he opened the throttle and headed almost straight up. The higher in the atmosphere they went, the more satellites began to register on the communication section of the HUD.

Once they reached thirty thousand feet, he triggered the afterburners to push them out of the grasp of earth's gravity. Once beyond that they shot toward Neptune, the Lookout Telescope, and his sister. Now was the time to call in a favor or two. He activated the high-speed comms with the military grade encryption and pinged an installation that did not officially exist, yet was not far off from a major Conduit known as Epsilon.

"You're just tripping, man," came a voice over the speakers in a laid-back drawl. "Space dust gettin' to ya."

"Yokie, need to talk to Wild Bill," Vin said into his mic.

The reply was surprised. "Xavier?"

"Yes."

"Hang on. I'll put you through."

A hiccup of static coughed out of the speakers before another voice came over, this one a woman's. "Vincent Xavier, to what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Morning, Colonel. Got a problem out at Everness, need to get there post haste. Make a spot for us?"

"Anything I should know about?"

"Not officially."

"Unofficially?"

"It's my folks."

There was there briefest of pauses. "Understood. Ping me at two minutes out. I'll get you in the stream."

"Thanks, Billie."

Colonel Belinda "Wild Bill" Trammel, Earth Marine Corps. There had been a time many years ago when she had called him Professor, when she had been a student at Xavier's School for the Gifted. She had a natural talent for science, math, and physics as well as a most unusual gift that seemingly combined telekinesis with teleportation. Or rather, she could teleport anything, except herself, and could explain the physics of it. She had been instrumental in developing the Conduit system now in use by the space-faring people of Earth.

The remote post she was ostensibly stuck at had been her choice. It was part monitoring station and part research and development working on expanding the Conduit network. Being a short trip from Epsilon let her monitor and review any problems experienced in the Conduit network. Being that most of the military ships going out-system used Epsilon, it also gave her a high-level view of what was going on without being on the official read-in list. That also made her part of Vin's unofficial network of... informants.

"Sure thing, Vin."

As he shut down the comm, he remarked, "Next stop... Lookout."

Maria had smiled as they took off; it was her favorite part of flying in one of the Birds. Landings were fun, too, but not quite as great as a takeoff. The flying itself? Boring, boring, boring.

Maria was still anxious about getting to Everness. She didn't have cousin Tali's gift for precognition, but she always got a nagging sense of dread when something was really wrong. Mom had always thought it had something to do with the qi power she had... that she simply instinctively recognized when the qi flow wasn't right with someone close to her. It was a pretty specific gift to have; she never got these feelings about strangers or passing acquaintances. Paul always called it...

Hey, you're awfully quiet over there. Your spidey sense acting up?

She looked at her brother and nodded. Yeah. It's getting worse by the minute. If this keeps up, I'm going to feel like I have ants crawling under my skin by the time we get to Everness.

Aunt Lin?

No. Even to herself, she sounded so far into surprised that it was almost shock. Uncle Logan.

Are you sure, Maria? That doesn't make sense, even with Aunt Lin missing.

She was still and very quiet as Vin triggered the afterburners.

I think he's hurt. She knew that was just about the dumbest thought ever, but she couldn't shake the feeling that there was something very, very wrong with Uncle Logan.

He's what? Sis, he... Paul mentally sighed, then was quiet for a few minutes himself. You know what? Fine. I'll give you and your spidey sense the benefit of the doubt. But only because I can count the number of times you've been wrong in the past century on my toes without taking my boots off. Just warn me if you're going to do that creepy healing thing you do because I do NOT ever want to see that again.

She looked over at him and rolled her eyes. Fine. Fair warning... I'm probably going to do that creepy healing thing I do.

Paul sighed. Wonderful. Maybe there will be some local wildlife I can enchant so I don't have to be around you.

Maria was relieved when Vin finished his conversation. The flight to Lookout was a fairly simple one. Maybe Paul would take the opportunity to catch up with Vin and leave her alone. It wasn't her fault the healing gift was... well, creepy.

She couldn't really blame people for being agitated when they saw her heal others. Even after the majority of her life, she was still sometimes shaken by it. Maria couldn't remember who'd been the most frightened the first time she'd used her healing ability. Sure, both she and Paul were born with the same healing factor Mom had. It wasn't until they hit puberty, however, that they had discovered what other oddball talents they had. Paul and his affinity for animals, and his reflexes that were nearly as fast as Em's, and portal opening thing he could do. She got shapeshifting, which was lots of fun whenever they went to visit cousin Billy. He was a great teacher, but he had the weirdest sense of humor. She never understood the appeal of Shifting to cartoon characters.

It hadn't been until a few years later that they all had the opportunity to witness her ability to heal others. They'd gone to Flagstaff to visit Grandma and Grandpa, something Mom and Dad made sure they did at least two or three times a year. It was summer... Maria remembered that very clearly. Grandpa had been having some health problems — it was hard not to notice how upset Mom was — and he wasn't supposed to be doing too much work out in the yard. Grandma would just sigh and shake her every time Grandpa went outside.

"Trying to get your father to stop puttering in the yard would be like trying to stop the sun from rising, Andrea. There's nothing you can do, so stop worrying so much."

Those words still rang in Maria's mind after more than a century. Grandma Sandy had been such a wise woman.

On that one day, though, she'd been sitting out in the sun just enjoying the break from school, leaning against the old tree in her grandparents' back yard, watching her grandfather putter. She loved to watch Grandpa putter. She had sensed that her mother was watching out the window; Mom worried a lot about Grandpa no matter how much Grandma told her not to. Grandpa was using his electric trimmers on the bushes along the fence.

Maria never could remember exactly what happened, though Mom said Grandpa tripped over the cord. What she did remember was the sight of the clippers practically severing Grandpa's arm. She remembered jumping up, full of fear, and calling his name. And then she remembered the awful, awful pain in her arm, then falling to the ground with her eyes tightly closed. She'd never felt so much pain before! She had just tried to breathe through it like Mom had taught her while her body healed from whatever it was. Subsequently, she certainly had her fair share of pain, injuries, even death — which was no picnic. That first time was horrible and so damn scary!

Finally, the pain morphed into the infernal itching of the final stages of healing and she'd opened her eyes to see her mother kneeling over her, eyes wide with surprise. "Your Dad and I were never able to work out how to do that," Mom had said. She had sat up with a little help from Mom, and looked over at Grandpa... who was sitting on the ground staring at his arm... his perfectly healthy and whole arm. There was blood on his pants and shirt, on the grass beside him, on the blades of the clippers... but not a drop on his arm. When Maria managed to stand, she had seen just as much blood on her shirt, her shorts, her legs, her shoes and the grass where she'd fallen. She had looked back at her mother with fear filled eyes. "What happened?"

Mom had wrapped an arm around her shoulders while Grandma and Dad helped Grandpa up. Paul stood transfixed between her and Grandpa, the same fear filling his eyes. "I think you just discovered another one of your abilities, sweetheart. From where I was standing, it looked like your grandfather's injury transferred itself to you." Mom had hugged her pretty hard then. That had to have been more awful to see than her broken leg when she was seven. "And then your healing factor took over."

Of course, that had meant she'd spent the following school year at the Xavier School, learning how to control that healing. Well, if she was going to be honest about it, she didn't so much learn how to control it as rein it in. Doc McCoy had been SO awesome... and Professor Xavier had given her some really good advice. She had gotten to the point where she could block out that part of her brain that kept nattering, heal heal! She needed to consciously say to her brain, in essence, go to town. Most of the time. Sometimes those primal instincts around friends and family and children kind of took over. Fortunately, as one of the School's medics, it was her job to heal.

Obviously, Paul had gone with her to the Xavier School because only crazy people would try to separate twins who didn't want to be separated. Mom had told her she absolutely had to practice her Taiji for an hour every single day, which she'd thought was pretty stupid at the time. Looking back, of course, she could see that the focus and serenity she gained during her practice helped keep her focused during her lessons, too. And she still did practice nearly every day.

Her Mom was pretty darn smart about stuff like that. Well, about a lot of stuff, really.

For the short amount of real time it would take to get to Lookout, there was nothing in particular to do. Vin swiveled his chair about and faced Paul.

"Might need all your charm to handle my sister, Beastmaster," he stated without preamble. "Whatever has happened, the feelings she's getting from Dad have her Feral instincts on high alert. And she can't feel Mom at all. Neither can I for that matter. It's like she's just … gone. And Dad was barely coherent when I reached him earlier."

His hand reached for Maria's. He still did not understand how his mother could just be gone. If she had died for the final time, she would have joined Tio Pablo and Oncle Rene. Even when she was too far away for his telepathy to reach her, he could always still feel what he thought of as the murmur of her thoughts.

Paul just huffed out a breath as he shook his head. "I inherited wiseassery from Mom, or maybe her alter ego... hard to say. I'm not too proud to admit to being terrified your sister would gut me if I tried using my powers on her, even if she has gone all Feral on us." He leaned his head back against his seat. "Aw, hell, I'll try to talk to her. I know we need her using more of her brain than her instincts. Probably. Shit, I don't know."

Vin managed a half smile. "That's really all I want. Your presence seems to have a calming influence on her, and we really don't need her tearing stuff up until we have something to aim her at. And I know it's because she's just as scared and worried as we are."

Paul looked at Maria when Vin took her hand. She had her eyes closed and knowing her, she was probably thinking way too much. On one hand, there was his over-analytical sister. On the other hand, there was his Feral cousin. Maybe if he knocked their heads together, they'd both settle into some vague approximation of normal.

No, probably not. Might as well use that analytical brain before they got to Everness and body parts started falling off or insides started coming outside. Damn, her healing gig was creepy as shit!

"Sis, you've always been more attuned to Mom. When you contacted me earlier, you just said something was wrong with Mom and Aunt Lin. Where could Aunt Lin possibly go that would upset Mom and Uncle Logan so much, somewhere even Vin and Em can't reach her?"

Maria squeezed Vin's hand and took a deep, shuddering breath. "I don't know. I can't get past all of Mom's worry to get anything coherent. And she's scared, too, Paul. I've never seen Mom scared." She opened her eyes and looked at each of them in turn. "Rene and Cat tried following her. Well, Dad did too before he realized how badly Uncle Logan was hurt, I guess. Deer says they... they bounced off some barrier. The Spirits looked at it, but they've never seen anything like it."

"So not some other dimension then?" It was common family lore that the Spirits of the First People could only enter certain dimensions other than their own. Uncle Rene and Dad were Spirits now, so that made some strange kind of sense.

She shook her head. "No, because then they'd at least be able to say where it was, even if they couldn't get there. It's like..." Maria sighed with frustration. "I don't even know of an analogy. Seriously. That's how unthinkable it is."

Maria allowed her fingers to intertwine with Vin's. Despite the worry and the fear, both his and hers, holding his hand seemed to stop those ants from marching quite so resolutely under her skin.

"I remember a book I read when I was really young... third grade, fourth grade maybe... about a bunch of really strange people who'd go flying around in a spaceship and flip into different universes..."

"No, no, no!" her brother interrupted. "Please don't tell me it was one of those science fiction things. You know that stuff's just crazy."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "And yet we're flying across a bazillion miles of space in a spaceship, so we must be crazy, too, right?"

He crossed his arms and prepared for the usual argument over what was actual literature and what was nonsensical drivel. "There were a few scientific types who just happened to write fiction."

"We're not having that discussion, you dope! I was going to point out that even the brainiac quantum physicists think alternate universes might possibly exist. Somewhere."

Paul tilted his head to the side, unconvinced. "There are an awful lot of qualifiers in that sentence."

"Yeah, well, it would explain why nobody can reach Aunt Lin."

It was Paul's turn to narrow his eyes at his sister, and stare for a minute or two. Finally, he threw his hands up in the air and said to Vin, "Sometimes, I hate when she's right. In theory, it might be possible that an alternate universe exists. And that maybe your Mom got..."

He looked at Maria again. "Just how would someone get into an alternate universe, pray tell?"

"How the hell should I know?! I wasn't there. I didn't see what happened!"

Being a little annoyed with Paul was enough to keep the anxiety — and the ants who were marching at least six by six — at bay for the moment.

Vin followed the conversation between his lover and her brother, followed it closely, and found himself wishing his older brother were still alive. Leon's understanding of physics had been light years beyond his own, no pun intended. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, none of Leon's descendants had been Gifted. He never had any children with his first wife Jennifer, and his second wife had been normal though exceptionally brilliant business-wise.

"Maria, maybe you should talk to Billie," he suggested. "She's not a quantum physicist per se, but she understands the science and technology of the Conduits. And, Paul, if you explain about the Portals perhaps there are some similarities. If Mom is in a parallel universe, maybe between the three of you, you can figure it out. I might just be grasping at straws, but I don't know what else to do."

The twins exchanged a look. "Sure, Vin," Paul says hesitantly, "we'll give it a shot, talking to Billie. But neither one of us really understands quantum physics all that well. Hell, the only person who ever did was Leon. I swear even the eggheads studying the subject now don't understand half what your brother did. And..."

For a fleeting moment, the one hundred and fifty-two year old man entertained them with a remarkable imitation of a six year old, complete with pout, pretense of a foot stomp, and a whine.

"Do you know how hard it is to explain what I doooo?"

An alarm sounded, and he turned to see that they were minutes out from Lookout and decelerating.

Em?

I see you. Cycle open the upper hatch. I'm EVA.

Yes, his sister was just as anxious as the rest of them. The upper hatch was the fastest access point. All he had to do was hover by the scope, and she would make the leap across. He did not ask if she was tethered; he knew better. At least she was communicating in full sentences still though. He gave Maria's hand a squeeze before standing.

"Paul, take us in just below the platform. Em's waiting for us outside and wants to come in via topside."

Technically he did not have to stand by the hatch and manually cycle it, but doing so let him see what was going on. Which also meant he would be ready to catch his sister if she over- or undershot that hatch.

Maria's snicker was cut short by the sound of the alarm. Paul instantly became serious again and nodded to Vin before sliding over to the pilot's seat. There weren't many pilots who could maneuver a Bird close enough to Lookout's platform for an untethered lunatic — and Em was definitely lunatic enough to go untethered even on a good day, which this wasn't — to have any chance of getting in through the upper hatch. Fortunately, Paul was was not only that good, but better — he could get close enough and hold the Bird still enough that no untethered lunatic could possibly miss the hatch. For a lunatic with his cousin's reflexes? It would be as easy as strolling across the school's courtyard.

You can really calm Em down when she's half way to Feral? Maria asked him.

She and I have danced this dance before. When there's no one or nothing around for her tear to pieces, she'll come back from full Feral. She won't necessarily be happy about it, but she's exceedingly pragmatic. Don't worry.

Worried? No. Impressed? Oh yeah... very.

Vin went up into the level between the main cabin and the upper compression chamber and cycled open the upper hatch. He watched through the viewer and the two sets of windows as they came in under the platform. He saw his sister standing on the outer edge of the platform outside the railing preparing for the leap to the Blackbird. This close he could also feel his twin's emotions: anxiety and fear topped off by the stress of holding down her Feral side.

She crouched then pushed off with her powerful legs and zipped toward the waiting hatch. As she came closer, he saw she had sealed her suit at the wrists in case she inadvertently popped her claws. He did not need to stop her. She snagged the handrail and easily pulled herself in. As soon as her feet were through the door he cycled the hatch closed and began the pressurization. She did not stand up to wait for it but put her facemask against the lower window.

Vin pulled himself up and matched her pose. Their eyes locked.

Anything from Mom? she asked.

No.

Me either. Dad's hurt bad, real bad.

He swallowed and nodded. Yeah. Maria's got that feeling she gets.

Her fists clenched and the sound of ripping fabric could be heard. Will be down...

He nodded again and returned to the main cabin. Even with all the sound dampening in place throughout the ship, her roar of frustration could still be heard. Vin's face was grim as he came back to retake the pilot's seat and get them to the Epsilon Conduit.

"She'll be down in a bit."

Paul grimaced at the sound of Em's roar.

Paul?

She's hurting and angry, sis. Can you blame her?

No, not in the least. I know how crazy I was when Dad died, and that was knowing he'd be back once he got the hang of being a Spirit. Uncle Logan is...

Sis?

I think he's getting worse. I'm having a really hard time sitting still here.

He frowned at Vin's expression as he gave control of the ship back to his cousin. "Listen, why don't you go ahead and break the laws of physics... I'm going to go talk to Em. You two go ahead and start that conversation with Billie without me if we're not down by then, okay?"

Paul went up toward the compression chamber and leaned against the wall with his hands tucked into the front pockets of his jeans. Of all the people in the universe — or, if Maria's theory was right, in this universe anyway — the only person who'd understand Em better than he did would be her Dad.

To master the beast, the Beastmaster must become the beast... live in the beast's head. He understood the animals Maria Shifted into as well as she did; he'd lived in the heads of big cats and wolves, bears and bison, and hundreds of others. A Feral wasn't a beast... nor was she completely human when she was like this. Paul never would have presumed to use his powers on his cousin; it would have been unconscionable. And yet, there had been that day — a hundred, a hundred and ten years ago — then she had deliberately pulled him into her nearly fully Feral mind. He had looked out through her eyes, eyes in which some saw madness. He knew there was a keen intellect behind them even in her Feral state; that intellect simply had a different focus.

He had asked her afterward why the hell she'd done something crazy like that. She had just smiled and shrugged. Sometimes I need help climbing back off the ledge. Dad has Mom, I need...

She hadn't said anything more, she had just shrugged again. And he had smiled and said, You need a friend. The look in her eyes was all he needed to know that was exactly the right answer.

So now, he looked at her as she struggled to rein in her Feral nature. Maria said her Dad was getting worse, and that had to make it hard on her. The two of them had a connection he didn't think he was ever going to understand, and he didn't need to understand it. The only thing he needed to do was exactly what he was doing right now.

"Hey, Em. Need a hand getting off that ledge there?" he asked quietly.

Vin pushed the Blackbird's engines to the limits and kept adjusting to get just a little more out of them. "Maria, can you bring up the comms? Need to get Billie on the horn."

Concentrating on flying the ship and talking to Billie is what he needed to do. He did put a bubble around his sister though. Her empathic projections could get pretty strong when she was battling herself. They would always reach him, but it was not for himself he did it. Their link was too strong to be blocked by anyone or anything... of course, he used to believe the same thing about their link with their mother...

Back in the chamber Em roared her frustration and ripped her ruined gloves from her EVA suit without bothering to retract her claws. As the pressurization was nearly done, she started to disengage her helmet as well. It was stifling to her now, and the plexiglass front was fogged up. The helmet clanged against the bulkhead as she tossed it aside.

Her head twitched at Paul's question. She reached over and tapped the control that opened the intervening door. A slight whoosh of air occurred, completing the air equalization. She was crouched on the edge of one of the fold-up benches resembling so much one of the great mountain cats that it was uncanny. Her reddish brown hair was unbound and cascaded in mane-like waves around her face. Her claws snikted in and out as her hands curled over the edge in a vise-like grip.

She looked down through the hatch to Paul. Her normally bright and inquisitive eyes were dark and menacing, the eyes of a wounded animal. Also evident there was her internal battle to not allow her Feral nature to completely overwhelm her. Dad had taught her the techniques and told her it would always be a struggle. It was Mom who had approached it practically though.

After one especially intense episode, after they had all cleaned up and Em was feeling guilty about her loss of control, Madeline sat her down and held her hands.

"Em, honey, embracing the animal side isn't always a bad thing. It's a part of who and what you are. There are times it is necessary to do what we do, face what we face and come out the other side. But the animal side isn't all blood and violence either. There's also fierce passion and love and the unfettered joys of experiencing those."

Madeline wore a slightly bemused smile as she reached up and tucked a lock of hair behind Em's ear.

"After all, how do you think you got here?"

"Mom! Eww, come on."

Madeline chuckled softly. "I love you, Em, nothing will ever change that."

"But Dad..."

"Yes, your father still struggles with it. You both have empathy for your fellow beings which puts you a step above your average person and causes you pain. Believe me when I tell you that the animal side is nothing to be ashamed of. Only mankind is purposefully cruel to others."

Em had nodded, and Madeline held her arms out to her. She found herself accepting a hug and curling up with her mother like she had not done since she was a little girl.

She caught Paul's eyes and nodded mutely.

"Will do," Maria acknowledged as she opened the encrypted comm channel and waited for the station or base to come on the line.

"Don't strain yourself, Vin. Both Paul and I inherited peculiar aspects of Mom's qi power, but we can both shield against emotions, stray thoughts, and all but the strongest psychic attacks." She twitched one corner of her mouth up in a smile remarkably reminiscent of her father. "I've already started weaving a shield to keep your Dad's condition from making me climb the walls. Save your brain power for breaking the laws of physics."

The comm unit came to life then. "Xavier, that you?" It was the woman's voice, Billie.

Meanwhile, up in the compression chamber, Paul simply waited Em out. It was hard to read her qi, but not her body language. Mom had said she and Uncle Logan were tough reads because of their status as Elders, which is what the Spirits and the First People called Ferals. Practically growing up with Em, Paul relied more on body language anyway.

Oddly, it was the thing that unnerved most people that he found most attractive in his friend. Animals were more honest than humans, and few of them could comprehend deceit. He understood that she wasn't in complete control of her body and mind when she was Feral. She and her Dad relied on instinct more than an ordinary human ever could, although Mom came close when she was working as Ninja and totally in the zone.

When Em nodded, he climbed up in the chamber with her and crouched on the floor beside her. Looking up into her dark eyes, all he wanted to do was pour a healing salve over whatever hurt caused that wounded look to be in those eyes.

When you live as long as they do, friendship is fleeting. People come, and people go. Em was a constant; she had always been a part of his life, and he prayed each day to Great Spirit that she would continue to always be a part of his life.

Good friends are hard to find; Em was the best friend he had ever had. Sure, Maria had been nestled beside him, talking to him before they were even born. And Vin, too, had always been there, but Vin was so smart he was almost, just almost, intimidating. Em was down to earth, earthy, and he sometimes wondered if she could actually talk to Mother Earth like Mom did.

He reached out a hand and rested it on one of hers that still gripped the bench so hard he was surprised the bench hadn't cracked — despite knowing the Bird was constructed to withstand a lot more stress Em was giving it.

I'm here, Em.

"Yes, Billie. Can we talk off the record?"

"Stand by... go ahead."

"Need to bounce some theories off of you, and they might be a little out there."

Billie laughed. "A little out there. You are saying that to me. Oh, this should be interesting."

"What do you know about the theory of there being alternate universes?"

The line was only static for what seemed like a long time. "Vincent Xavier, are you pulling my leg?"

"I swear, Billie. I'm not. We already know there are other dimensions, different planes that certain people, beings, and spirits can transverse. Is it possible that alternate universes exist as well?"

"How far out are you?"

"About thirty minutes from Epsilon."

"I'm going to give you a boost. Stop and pick me up. Trammel out."

Emelia's hand tensed slightly under Paul's. Her claws retracted, and she turned over her hand catching her fingers in the crook of his. The color of her eyes seemed to fade from the stormy darkness to their normal bright blue. Her breath heaved in her chest, and sweat beaded on her forehead. Her struggle against her Feral nature continued.

Paul...

She knew there was no outlet for it. Not here, not on the ship. The searing absence of her mother cut so deep, and the pain from her father made it worse.

Sing?

Maria just looked at Vin for a moment before reaching over and laying a hand on his arm. She didn't dare move it, slide it up to his shoulder and behind his neck because...

Well, because five minutes... and Paul upstairs... and Mom and Aunt Lin and Uncle Logan... and... and... Yeah. Five minutes.

"I have a feeling things are going to get weirder before all this is over."

Paul smiled softly at Em. I sing for you even when you don't know I'm singing. But there was that one song Mom had sung when he and Maria were small... although looking back, it seemed as though everyone in the family knew the song. It was a short song, but one that Dad or Mom had sometimes sung for twenty or thirty minutes at a stretch, especially during those awful days when first Maria then he was touched by the Curse. There had been other songs, too, but this one... this one soothed so well.

He hummed through it first. He had sung it countless times before for both Maria and Em... and for Mom, too, right after Dad died... before he came back as a Spirit like Uncle Rene.

And then he sang softly, his low tenor voice sounding like warm honey and summer sunshine.

Like a ship in the harbor, like a mother and child
Like a light in the darkness, I'll hold you a while
We'll rock on the water, I'll cradle you deep
And hold you while angels sing you to sleep

Again and over again, Paul sang for his friend until she was able to rein in her Feral nature. It didn't matter to him how long it took.

Vin looked over and smiled a thanks to Maria. He did not quite know exactly what it was that Billie did, but he knew the feel of it. Laws of physics be damned, the Blackbird traversed space faster than it ever had before. If there was some way to create an engine or energy field that could do what Billie did instinctively...

He had to keep adjusting the internal dampeners, making corrections for gravity fields they approached far more quickly than the ship and its systems had been designed for. It made for a bit of a bumpy ride.

Whatever Billie had done, five minutes later the proximity alarms sounded, and Vin automatically applied the brakes even as he banked the ship around the rogue satellite. The umbilical was extended and waiting for them. He extended the magnetic coupler as he turned the Bird on its side and did a controlled drift in toward it.

Billie?

Just waiting for you to make the connection. The umbilical's pressurized.

Right. There's gravity on board but not in the well. You'll be able to come up once the outer hatch is closed. Just come straight forward. Maria and I will be waiting for you.

Roger that. You can detach and head to the Conduit. I'm coming with you.

Metal clanged, and the pressure in the ship altered slightly as the hatches cycled through their routines.

Em rocked on the balls of her feet, moving slowly with the soft melody. The movement was on purpose to start, a small bit of activity to sooth the part that wanted to run. She closed her eyes and listened only, letting the gentle tune soak into both her consciousness and unconsciousness. Her other claw had retracted by the time the ship was decelerating. She still rocked in time to the song when she leaned her shoulder against his.

She kept her eyes closed as the hatch below irised open but did sniff. She had, of course, heard her brother's conversation. She guessed who was coming aboard, and the woman's scent confirmed it. Her brother was pulling out all the stops to get them where they needed to be. That bit of information filtered down to her animal as well, and she relaxed a bit more, just a tiny bit though.

After the wilder than normal ride to the small station, while the pressure between the ship and the station's umbilical was equalizing, Maria gave Vin a forced smile as she let her had finally slide down his arm to his hand.

"That was fun, dear. We really should do that more often."

Paul wasn't the only one to pick up Mom's smart assery trait. For Paul, like Ninja, it was almost a way of being. For Maria, it was a sign of stress.

In the upper chamber, Paul shifted his feet so he rocked slowly along with Em when she rested her head on his shoulder. Always singing, always there for his friend, Paul listened to the whispers Maria was relaying regarding their status. He let his amusement at his sister's reaction to the trip bubble up and surround Em, at the same time bringing his free hand up to rest lightly on her back. Sometimes that was enough — he'd know within seconds — and sometimes it took running his fingers through her hair to bring her fully back. Whatever it took, however long it took, he'd stay here with Em.

Maria could explain how he opened portals as well as he could, which really meant neither of them quite knew how he did it. Mom had tried explaining it to him a few times, but it seemed like his brain just didn't want to know. It was almost as if knowing exactly how it was done would make it not work anymore. He knew that was was ridiculous, but it didn't help him remember the detailed explanations Mom had for the way he used his qi power.

Well, if Maria heard right and Billie was coming with them, Billie could ask Mom all about it. After all, she was the world's expert on the whole qi thing.

As soon as the outer hatch was closed, Vin engaged the engines and headed straight for the conduit. Billie Trammel's boot steps were purposefully not quiet as she came forward.

"Go at her full speed, Xavier. It's on hold for us," she told him.

Vin raised an eyebrow in surprise but nodded and pushed the engines to their upper limits once more. Less than a minute later the floating, rotating cat's eye of the entrance to the Epsilon Conduit appeared before them.

"Threading the needle," he announced for the benefit of Em and Paul as he buckled in himself.

Being still in the gravityless upper pressurization chamber, they would be most affected by the sharp barrel turn required to enter the Conduit at this speed. The artificial gravity field would mostly keep the rest of them in place. Nonetheless, Billie dropped into a seat and pulled the five-point harness into place and latched it. Unlike her former Professor, she had aged at a normal rate and had the physical frailties to show for it.

Em released the bench from the grip of her other hand and hit the control to retract it. With her feet and one hand, she braced herself in the chamber and held the other hand out to Paul in invitation.

Maria nodded to Billie as the other woman entered the cabin, then made sure her harness was secure. Going through these things was always a little weird, though she and Paul never got the full force of the oddness like their mother did.

She remembered the first vacation they'd taken on one of the big cruise liners. On ships like that, most people didn't even notice they were going through a Conduit. Oh, sure, there were a few who felt some mild discomforts such as ringing in the ears, tingling sensations throughout the body, or light-headedness and dizziness. Not Mom, of course.

They were all sitting in the common room of the suite Aunt Lin had booked when Mom suddenly froze up, gritting her teeth. The longer they stayed in Conduit, the more Mom curled in on herself. She had even snarled at Dad when he reached over to rub her back... a totally bizarre reaction, since it had been obvious since forever that Dad could soothe Mom from just about anything with a few slow brushes of his hand over her back or shoulders. She sat in the chair with her arms wrapped around her legs; she hugged them tight against her torso and rested her head on her knees. Even with her eyes closed, they could tell she had that glow in her eyes that she got when she was really, really angry or upset about something. Although the grownups kept a safe distance from her, Dad and Aunt Lin and Uncle Logan and Uncle Rene were focused on Mom almost to the exclusion of everything else.

Em and Vin had been just as baffled as Maria and Paul had been.

Once through the Conduit, Mom didn't stop swearing for a good fifteen minutes. Dad thought it was funny... well, not Mom's initial reaction, of course, but definitely her expression of displeasure about it. Maria and Paul had watched wide-eyed; they had never seen Mom that expressively furious. Em and Vin had looked as surprised as their cousins. Uncle Rene had almost seemed to smile, too, but Uncle Logan and Aunt Lin had simply waited out Mom's tirade.

As the invectives slowed and the glow faded from Mom's eyes, Aunt Lin asked quietly, "Are you finished now, Andi?"

There was a pause, almost as if Mom was still considering another round of paint blistering curses.

"Yes."

"You obviously had a different experience than the rest of us, I could feel that much. I'm not going to even suggest you didn't read the notice about possible reactions to going through a Conduit," Aunt Lin said. "But did you read the notice about possible reactions to going through a Conduit?"

Mom just glared at Aunt Lin, and that made Aunt Lin smile.

"There was absolutely nothing in there... or any of the propaganda the cruise line distributed... that mentioned just how totally fucked up qi is in one of those things! Don't get me started again!"

"Are you planning to do the same thing on the way home?" Dad asked. "Forewarned is forearmed, you know."

"Smart ass." But she finally let Dad hug her. "Now that I know how fucked up and chaotic it is, I can wrap a shield around myself before we go through. Damn, that's not something I've had to do much since..." Mom looked up at Dad and smiled. "...since you got back from your ancestral asshole's dimension."

From the look on their faces, there was some kind of story there... and not one they were ever likely to hear, either.

Parents.

Maria's reactions were never predictable... sometimes there was nothing, sometimes she'd have some of the mild reactions. Her theory was that it depended on who was on the ship with her and that she was picking it up from whoever was having the reaction... trying to heal it, in effect. Looking back on it, she was really glad Mom had managed to wall herself off enough that it only affected her and not Maria as well.

Paul took Em's hand with a grin, and braced himself against the bulkhead and his friend.

"Every time I go through one of these things, it gets worse, you know. I figure in another two or three hundred years or so, I'm going to need to be sedated."

The first time they'd gone through a Conduit, he had been so worried about his Mom that he hadn't really noticed it. But over the years of being part of the X-Men, he noticed that the backs of his knees felt like someone was tickling them. And with every exposure, it got worse.

As far as he had been able to research, he was unique in his reaction, just as Mom was in hers. He'd take the tickling over being subjected to whatever kind of misery she endured, though. Maybe she had told Dad and Aunt Lin and Uncles Logan and Rene about it, but she absolutely refused to discuss it with him or Maria.

"Just ignore me if I start giggling like a six year old, okay?"

Billie returned Maria's nod, but her attention was on Epsilon Conduit and Vin's control of the Blackbird.

Like space walking untethered, Em liked free fall, zero gee, and the sensation of passing through the Conduits. It made her hair stand on end and gave her an adrenaline rush. With Paul bracing himself against her, she slid her arm around him. "You're kinda cute when you giggle."

Vin pulled in his mental feelers as he drove the ship into the Conduit's opening. His sensitivity was great enough that he felt nearly every mind in passing. At this speed, it was nearly a roar of a million whispers and could be very distracting. Distraction was absolutely something he did not need at this point.

"Cute?" Paul tried shaking the feeling from his legs, but — as usual — had no success. Something between a laugh and a groan escaped. "Wow, I haven't been called cute in decades!" He chuckled. Normally, he was strapped into his seat when going through a Conduit... it was a lot easier to deal with the feeling of tiny fingers tickling his knees in free fall. He'd have to remember that for next time. Of course, Em's arm around him didn't hurt either.

Once they were in the slip stream, the Colonel gave him instructions for the navigation calculations from the Everness exit point to Everness itself. "Talk fast about this theory of yours, Xavier. I'll be busy once we're through."

"My mother's vanished, Billie, to some place neither my sister nor I can reach her. As I said, we already know about other planes and dimensions. And we can still feel mom if she's in one of those places, and no we can't talk about it. Maria's theorized maybe an alternate universe..."

"She's not the first one to make that supposition," Billie confirmed. "And there's reason to believe it's true. There are folk working to open doorways to them, and others who wonder if we should, what kind of Pandora's box we might open if we do. But I need to ask how you know about the other dimensions?"

Maria shook her head at Billie's comment about opening doorways to other universes, although she didn't say anything. She had a gut feeling that it wasn't such a great idea, but no evidence... no reason to disagree with those who wanted to go off opening doorways to gods only knew where except memories of stories Mom and Dad had told about different dimensions they had seen and visited. Who knew how much worse a whole other universe could be?

He spared the second it took to glance at Maria. Billie had always placed her complete trust in him, now it was his turn to return the favor. "We've been to one. Maria's mom and brother can open portals to them."

Billie sat forward at that. "Do you think one of them can show me?"

"Once we make sure Dad is okay."

Like nearly all the students at Xavier's School for the Gifted, Billie knew the legend of Madeline Jacobs and the Wolverine. She had been a student during one of Madeline's tenures as Dean. Along with that, she was also one of the few that had had the questionable privilege of learning from Madeline and Logan the special skills they taught. Compared to those two, the Corps' drill instructors were a walk in the park. "What do you mean by 'make sure Dad is okay'??"

"He's hurt. That's all we know."

She sat back stunned. She knew his healing ability was more than just rumor and conjecture. She had seen it in action. It took the remaining time of the Conduit transit to process that piece of information.

"Exiting in ten seconds," Vin announced as he prepped to make the course change. "Five, four, three, two, one…"

The sight beyond the cockpit window reverted back to a normal star field. Billie's brow creased in concentration, and everyone else simply hung on. They knew how much closer they were compared to where they had been. As he set the sensors to search for Logan and Andi, Vin reached out for his father's mind.

Dad?

Vin.

Hang on. We'll be there soon.

Ain't going anywhere, son.

As for Em, the transit had soothed her back from Feralness as much as Paul's singing, as much as his presence. Feeling her Dad firmly on the Man not Beast side of his Feral nature helped too. She did not release her hold on Paul though.

Billie worked her magic, and they were in orbit above the planet even faster than anticipated, the ship's sensors already pinging the location of Xavier's family. She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes as the Blackbird sliced through the atmosphere. Despite the gravity and work of inertial dampeners, the air turbulence still bounced them around. The three in the cockpit were securely harnessed, and Em was as steady as a rock. The only thing that had ever been able to move her once she set herself in a place was their father.

With the tree cover, Vin could not land as close as he liked but he hovered over the spot where his Dad and Aunt were.

"Maria, you and Em should rappel down," he suggested.

Em was just as likely to simply jump...

Mom? How's Uncle Logan? Maria asked.

Andrea's mental voice was calm. Oh, making a mess of everything, but at least he's stopped trying to fling his intestines all over the place.

That's gross, Mom. Can you and Dad and Uncle Rene keep him out of sight until I get to the ground? Vin wants me and Em to rappel down. She started unbuckling her harness.

Her mother snorted. From the sound of the 'Bird, you're close enough that we'd need a tarp to keep you from seeing this... something we don't have, by the way.

Maria stood and shook her head. "Em and Paul can rappel down. I'm going to have to fly... blind as a bat and all that jazz." She paused and leaned down to brush her cheek against Vin's. "Mom's cracking wise and sounds normally calm; I'm taking that to mean he'll be fine once I do my thing."

She turned toward the lower hatch. "See you two on the ground."

"Be careful, Maria."

Vin knows he does not need to say it, but he does anyway. Maria's on her way, Dad.

Paul... you and Em want to rappel down and meet me on the ground? Maria asked her brother.

Do I have a choice?

Of course you do. You can stay with Vin and Billie and hike back from wherever they park.

You're going to do something crazy, aren't you. It wasn't a question. He knew his sister.

Flying isn't crazy. She got the hatch opened and looked at the trees below, then nodded to herself. I'll see you when I see you and talk to you later. You know how hard it is for me to talk when I Shift to smaller animals.

Maria took a deep breath and formed a clear picture in her mind of a western mastiff bat, the largest bat that navigated by echolocation rather than sight. Shifting to another form felt a bit like some of the more contortionist yoga postures she did; the slight queasiness that accompanied the Shift in the beginning had diminished over the course of a couple of years. Losing sight wasn't something she particularly cared for, but in this case it was essential. Given the severity of Uncle Logan's injuries, it was likely she would be incapacitated for a few minutes. She certainly didn't need to be dropping from a height of twenty feet while pulling his injuries to herself, adding whatever injuries of her own she'd collect from a fall like that.

She opened her mouth and sent out a squeak, listening for the location of the trees before launching herself out through the hatch. Flying was one of her favorite things, although she did prefer the forms of the larger birds of prey.

Maria dove and glided through the trees, her humanity warring with the animal instincts. Billy had said that was the hardest part of Shifting... maintaining control. Oh, but the little Maria bat was finding so many insects, and she was so very hungry, hungry, hungry! Then she felt an Other soothing her, promising her food when she finished her task. The Maria part of the bat recognized the presence as Paul.

Whereas Maria's skills were only partially related to Mom's gift for manipulating qi, Paul's were considerably more like hers. Not only could he manipulate qi to open portals, but he had Mom's affinity for animal communication and control. And he was far more adept at it than Mom ever was. Maria had often marveled at the synchronicity of Shapeshifter and Beastmaster, and hadn't been particularly surprised when it turned out that Paul was about the only person who could soothe their cousin from her Feral state.

After dodging leaves, branches, and tree trunks, her returning squeak told her she had reached the clearing. There were two people there... one was lying on the ground, the other knelt above the first. She was cognizant enough to land well away from the figures.

Maria Shifted back into her own form, muscles stretching and joints popping. Uncle Rene was standing in front of her when she opened her eyes. This close to her mother, Maria could also tell that Mom had been very good at keeping her emotions from flowing into their telepathic conversation.

Mom was worried. And Uncle Rene's eyes held that same worry.

"That bad, huh?" she said softly.

Rene just nodded.

Maria turned around and saw the tableau: Logan lying on the ground with Mom and Dad trying to stop the bleeding from his belly. Logan was pale and sweaty; she'd never seen him look like this... looking like he was in agonizing pain, that is. However, an instant after taking in the scene, she dropped to her knees and began violently vomiting.

Jesus Christ, Mother! You couldn't have warned me it was poison?!

She barely had time to note she was only vomiting — that none of Uncle Logan's physical injuries were being transferred to her — when more of what little in her stomach came flying out.

I wasn't a hundred percent certain that was it... only about ninety-nine percent. I didn't want you to get down here and expect this, only to find all your internal organs dropping to the ground.

It was a nasty poison, but it seemed to be affecting her differently that it affected her uncle. Her eyesight was getting far more blurry than could be accounted for from all the vomiting, there was a maddening ringing in her ears, and her head felt like it was in a vise. Nothing said welcome to hell quite like a head that threatened to explode every time another heave of her stomach occurred.

She managed to respond, Thanks... I guess... before the convulsions started and she lost touch with the outer world. She was vaguely aware that Uncle Rene was at her side... and then, at some point, Dad and Deer were there, too. She couldn't understand what any of them said, but she knew they were trying to communicate. Maria was just grateful not to be alone. It was frightening and disturbing that she couldn't sense her twin anywhere... and that only happened when one of them died. Except this wasn't like that.

When the ship came to a standstill and hovered, Em smiled her Feral "time to kick butt" smile at Paul then dropped straight down to land on top of the lower hatch. This close to the planet surface, they did not have to worry about equalizing pressure between inside and outside so she palmed the buttons to cycle both hatches. A shift of her feet kept her from falling through them. She waited until Paul and Maria were through before letting her Feral nature loose and simply dropping down.

I don't want to leave Logan's side, but I also don't like the fact that my daughter is convulsing and seems to be slipping into a coma.

Pablo tilts his head in that way that still makes my heart race — even after more than a hundred and sixty years — and then smiles and nods.

"She'll be okay, love. She probably doesn't think so at the moment, since none of us can get through to her, but Deer says she'll be fine. And who argues with Deer, right?"

"I would, damn it!" But if her father and her guardian Spirit aren't worried, I don't really need to worry. I'm still her mother, and I'm going to worry... at least a little.

"I'll go sit with her, then... to ease your mind."

Thirty years, and I still sometimes get a little shocked when he just disappears like that. Damn. I look down at Logan, who has actually begun healing. Not as quickly as usual, not yet, but he is healing. "Hey, buddy, how's it going there?"

He growls something that I think means, Well, how the hell do you think it's going? I'm going to pretend I still don't understand the growly bit that means "asshole."

"Well, you'll be up and kicking my ass in no time, O Only Man In My Life Who Isn't A Spirit. And I find that thought comforting. It's possibly the only thing in this whole situation that is comforting."

"Madeline..." he manages to croak.

Now that I'm no longer worried that he's going to crush my hand or randomly spear some part of me with his claws, I wrap one of his hands in both of mine.

"Yeah, I know. I know, Logan." I am not going to get all emotional. I'm just not. Never mind that my Sister is missing and my daughter's in a coma, and it sounds like my niece decided to simply forgo the customary rappelling from the ship. Or she's in far too much of a hurry. Either way... poor trees.

"We'll find her. And we'll get her sorry ass back here with us where she belongs."

I hear Paul's voice then.

Em had plummeted a good fifteen feet before Paul called out to her.

"Emelia Jeanine, do you have to do that?!?"

With a skittering laugh, she flipped around to partially catch a branch and swing toward another. Her animal instincts had already calculated the fastest way down without damage to herself. She moved vertically and horizontally through the branches until she was until there were no more branches beneath her. Dropping once more, she landed in a kneeling squat that dusted up dirt and debris from the forest floor.

I smile. Paul's feelings for his cousin have always included equal parts of affection and exasperation. I'm not sure, but I think I hear Em giggle. This only strengthens the theory I formulated more than a century ago that a good portion of Em's antics that exasperate my son are done to get that exact reaction from him.

"The horde arrives, m'lord."

Logan half smiles, then makes a move to get up.

"Oh, no you don't. You still have some insides on the outside, and I'm not letting you up until you can keep those bits where they belong with both hands behind your back." I look at the slowly healing wound. "At the rate you're going, maybe five more minutes?" I lean down and kiss his forehead. "I'm sorry, dear Brother," I say softly, "but please let yourself heal. I'm worried that whatever Maria's doing might not be enough if you start moving around. She's still pulling the poisons out."

Em might have still had that crazy smile if she had not smelled her father's blood. She keened a wail as she dashed to his side and threw herself down beside him.

Once the three were clear of the ship, Vin aimed her at the nearest clearing and practically dropped the ship into place. It was by no means a gentle landing, and he was out of the seat and running the shutdown sequences telekinetically. He had been keeping tabs on the three of them and felt Em's wail before he had heard it, and then felt Maria's consciousness slipping away.

"Go, Xavier," Billie told him. "Don't wait for me."

Vin barely glanced back and nodded before he was sprinting to where most of his family waited. Despite pushing himself at his top speed, it took excruciatingly long to get there. Upon arrival, he was torn which way to go until he saw his father wrap an arm around his sister. At that, he was kneeling by Maria and lifting her into his lap. He pressed his lips to her forehead and closed his eyes as he searched for her mind.

Maria? I'm here, babe. Take my strength. Hold on to me…

When Em arrives, I know there's no point in saying anything to her. She Feral, and she's desperately worried about her dad. All I can do is watch Logan's wounds, and make sure neither of them gets carried away enough to endanger the healing process. Crap. Even I healed faster than this back in the early days when the Curse was first creeping up on me. Even Pablo healed faster than this. Okay, not by much.

Logan felt the change in his system. He still had pain, but it was no longer threatening to overwhelm him. Sister pushed him back down, told him to stay where he was but Madeline… He could not spare another thought for his Mate as his daughter's cry cut him to the core. She was there, beside him, her arms around his neck and her head tucked into his shoulder. He heard her ragged breathing as she sniffed at him, trying to reassure herself that he would be okay. He shifted just enough to get his arm around her and pull her close. "Gonna be fine, darlin'. Don't you worry none."

Paul, too, looks a little worried... more for Em, I think, than his sister. He kneels opposite me, beside his cousin.

Worried that Em's going to get carried away, and not worried that your sister is in a coma? I look up at him, smiling slightly. Do I need to start worrying about you, too?

My son smiles at me. Nah, I can feel Maria... just can't get through to her to chat yet. And you know her healing thing gives me the heebie-jeebies.

I roll my eyes. And how many lives of your family and friends has she saved with her heebie-jeebie healing thing?

Hey, I never said I didn't appreciate it! Just that it's kind of creepy to watch.

What's creepy about seeing someone in a coma? I glance over at Pablo, then back at Logan's slowly healing wound. Never mind, you don't need to answer that.

When Vin arrives in the clearing, he barely hesitates before heading for Maria. But the microflare of qi causes me to raise both my eyebrows in surprise. Do those two know what they're doing? I have a really bad feeling that they don't. Inwardly, I sigh. We're going to have to have one of those super fun mother and daughter chats, Maria and I. After she wakes up. And after I Gibbs slap her. And maybe Vincent, too.

Idiots.

Maria was vaguely aware when Vin arrived, too. And she knew he was trying to tell her something. It seems more important — or maybe just more urgent — than what Dad and Uncle Rene and Deer were saying. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only seconds — minutes at the most — Maria gave up fighting the isolation. If this was the way her body was going to deal with the poison she was pulling out of Uncle Logan, there wasn't much she could do to affect it one way or another. In general, the only control she had over this ability was to choose who to look at and when. Sometimes, with strangers, she could hold it back for a short while before letting it loose. After that, her body just took over.

Maybe that's what creeped Paul out so much... that lack of control. She had to admit she wasn't exactly a fan, but it wasn't like she'd do anything differently if she did have control. She healed people who needed healing... and that was that.

Finally, finally Deer said something that got through, that Maria could hear, that made some kind of weird sense.

It is a poison meant to keep the Elder from healing. Because you share certain traits with the Elders, your body is confused.

It's not just my body. What the heck happened? Where's everyone else?

They are here. The Elder heals.

Okay, that's great. But... what happened? Why can't I feel any of them? Especially Paul?

Deer paused before answering. The Warrior calls this a 'coma'. We have assured her that you will awaken once all traces of the poison have been removed from the Elder. Your brother wishes me to tell you not to worry, that he senses your presence even though you do not sense his.

Maria considered that for a while. Okay. I'm not sure that's helpful in getting me to not worry, but I suppose there's nothing I can do about it. Or is there?

Deer seemed to shake its head. Your Beloved offers his strength, but you simply need perseverance. And patience, my little one.

Maria smiled. You haven't called me that in a long time, Deer. It feels like a hug when you do, though.

Deer laughed. I see you have traits that have come from more than just your mother and father. Kai always said the same thing.

Tita Kai? She'd had a cousin long ago named Kai — only a few months older than her and Paul — but family traits wouldn't travel sideways, would they?

Kai Beareagle, yes. Even when she neared the end of her life on your plane, she delighted in being called 'little one'. Like you, she said the name felt like a hug.

I think I need more hugs the older I get. It's so hard to watch family and friends grow old and die.

Maria felt Deer rub its soft face against hers. Yet, it's a choice you and your brother had made before you were born on that plane.

Maria sighed. I know. I sort of remember that. The decision to be twins is a clearer memory. I don't remember why we thought it was the best thing, just that it was really important.

Again, Deer chuckled. You and your brother understand the Great Weaving on an instinctive level. Very few humans understand it all; most are not even aware of its existence. I have told you so many times, Maria... just trust your instincts.

I do my best. And right now, it feels like I've gotten all the poison from Uncle Logan. I should wake up soon, right?

Your gift works as it works. The Elder is free of the poison, yes. And soon enough your own body will be, as well.

Great. I feel like I need a nap after this.

Awareness of the outer world and those around her didn't come slowly as Maria would have preferred. Reality slammed into her, so much input, so many people! She twisted in Vin's lap — how did I get here? — enough that she wouldn't ruin all his clothing if there were anything left in her stomach.

Her father and uncle sat a few feet away, grinning at her.

She closed her eyes again.

Ugh... stop staring, you two. You look demented. I might vomit on your shoes.

"Brother... did your daughter just threaten us?"

"I believe she did. Obviously, her mother and I went wrong somewhere along the line and failed to instill in her a proper respect for her elders."

Maria opened her eyes and glared at them. "Jerks."

She took a couple of breaths to test her stomach's twitchiness, then took a deep breath and sighed. Patting Vin's hand, she said, "Help me sit up, and we'll see if I'll need to make good on my threat to the wacko Spirits."

Maria sat up and leaned lightly against Vin. She felt surprisingly good considering how bad the healing had been, and didn't really need his support, but it did feel good to have his arm around her. As she was about to make another comment to her dad and uncle, Billie entered the clearing.

"Hey, Billie. You missed most of the fun," she said with a smile.

When I see Logan's wound start healing at a normal speed again, I sigh with relief. After the few seconds it takes his belly to return to its exquisite perfection, I turn to Em and lean down to kiss her temple.

"There you go, sweetie. Your dad's fine now."

I grin and look at Logan. "Now you can get up."

Logan raised an eyebrow at Andi as he pushed up, taking Em with him. "Thanks for your permission, Sister."

Andi wasn't the only one who could be sarcastic.

I love Logan. Even when he's being sarcastic, which I totally deserve. I've been quite the bitch to him today.

Well, I do what I have to do.

Like Maddie, I've never seen any reason to be afraid of either Logan or Em. In the beginning, yes... I was a little wary of Logan when he went Feral. But after we formed the Pentad? Pffft. After my twins had been born and I was out patrolling again, Em would join me up in Jeffco to talk to the big cats whenever Maddie and her family made it out to Colorado. Those damn cats loved her, which gave me a great bargaining strategy to get them to stop fucking with the prox sensors. Being cats, they still did whatever the hell they wanted, of course. But if I mentioned I was going to take my niece to visit the cats in El Paso County instead of them... well, it kept them behaving for a couple of weeks.

I got up myself and saw Billie Trammel entering the clearing. Wow, a blast from the past. Well, not that far in the past, I guess. Still, it was before Pablo died. Wasn't Maddie the Dean when Billie was a student at the school? Yep, I think that decade was her turn. Pablo and I still hung out there a lot, teaching when there were students who had gifts we were particularly suited to teach.

"Pay no attention to my wayward child, Billie. The fun hasn't even begun."

Of course, you'd need to define fun as the agonizing search for my Sister. Why do I have the feeling Billie will find that more interesting anyway? Ah... right. Physics savant. She sort of does with space-time what I do with energy.

I look at Pablo and Rene, who are watching Maria and Vin with entirely too much interest. Then I shake my head. "You two can't behave for just ten minutes? I swear you cause as much havoc as Maddie and I clean up."

Pablo looks up at me. "I protest! Both Rene and I are paragons of virtue, upstanding citizens! Why, we'd even pay our taxes on time if we were still alive!"

"I wouldn't. Don't get so carried away, Pablo." Rene glances up at me, then back to my husband. "I don't think Andi believes you, Brother."

"Well, it was worth a shot."

"Really? Did that line of crap ever work on her?"

Pablo thought about it as I stood with hands on hips and tapping a foot. "Well, you know... now that you mention it, I don't think even the sweet librarian I used to know believed it."

"Then why do you even bother, Pablo?" I ask, and then sigh.

He points to Maria. "Your daughter threatened us!"

I raise an eyebrow and look at Pablo then Maria, at Rene and back to Maria.

"They were staring at me like demented things, and I only threatened to vomit on their shoes. And since my stomach is fine, and I'm fine, and everything is fine, that's not going to happen."

"Hmmm. Well, everything isn't quite fine, but I take your meaning." I look at Pablo. "You, of all people, should know better than go down the demented highway. Surely you can't have forgotten Raven?"

Pablo groans. "How can I forget Raven? I have to live with Raven now. And Raven has spent entirely too much time trying to suck up to me in apology. I'm going to vomit."

"Right. So knock it off. Both of you."

I sense more than see Vin hiding a smirk. I look at my daughter and nephew again. "And you two! We are going to have a little chat. Very soon. But not at the moment.

"First, we need to figure out how we're going to get to Maddie."

Fortunately, now that I'm not freaking out over worry about Logan, I can just barely feel my Sister's presence. But damn! It's that faint connection I feel when she or Logan dies... except this isn't like that.

Vin breathed a sigh of relief as Maria came around. He was ready to help her in whatever way she needs. He was not so focused that he missed Aunt Andi's piqued interest in them, not just her, not just him, but them. He shrugged it off philosophically. It was what it was, and he was fairly sure they will hear about it later.

Em once again sniffed at her father, scenting him and his status. He smiled softly at her though she could not see it and hugged her. "Emelia, darlin', I'm fine. Now we just need to find your mother."

Vin looked over now, still holding Maria close. "What happened, Dad?"

"I think you guessed considering who you brought with you," Logan commented, nodding toward the newest arrival.

"If it weren't for Billie, we'd still be in transit," Vin told him.

"Sorry I'm late," Billie apologized with a grin and a nod of hello to those already in the clearing. "I do suffer the effects of the aging process, unlike a half dozen other people I know. Can you tell us what happened exactly, Mr. Logan?"

Billie might be comfortably familiar with Vin and Maria, even Paul and Em, but like many of the former students of Xavier's School the personas of their parents were legendary. They would always be Mr. Logan, Mrs. Jacobs, Ms. Yazzie and Mr. Garcia.

He gave a slow nod and point to the ruined cliff face above. "We were standing at the top taking in the view when we saw a flash of light in the sky. I was trying to see what it was when Madeline cried out and dropped to her knees holding her head. The pinnacle exploded beneath us and threw us in opposite directions. I was able to catch on and get around just in time to see her fall through flash of light. She didn't come out the other side."

Now Billie directed her attention to Andi and Paul. "Ms. Yazzie, Paul, does that flash of light sound anything like the portals Xavier here was telling me about?"

Paul and I exchange glances; he shrugs. Okay, sure... I get it. I have been doing this longer than he has.

I look at Billie and shake my head. "Not in the least. Not even when I opened them with all the rigamarole of ritual. Most of the time, the portal itself can't really be seen. Well, it can't be seen with regular eyesight, I should say. I can see them, but that's my thing. Depending on your angle and what's on the other side of the portal... well, sure you can see that."

A flash of light. Then the ground exploded. Then Maddie fell through the light.

"You're leaving out details, Logan, and they might be important. Did anything come out of the light to cause the ground to explode... or did the appearance of the light itself seem to cause the explosion? How the hell did you get so hurt? Do you know if Maddie was injured as well when she fell through the light?"

Well, that last is just me worrying. If she did get hurt, she'd heal. And the faint tendril of sensation I'm getting through our connection is one of extreme displeasure. She's pissed off. Given that, I'm going to have to hope that Maddie hasn't destroyed whatever world she wound up in.

Logan shook his head. "I didn't see or hear anything before the explosion. Not a damn thing, and it was definitely an explosion. Between the light and the explosion, there was about a minute I guess. Madeline could tell you exactly."

He grimaced at that. Sure, she could if she were here.

"She wasn't hurt when I saw her, but she was resigned to being so. She called out to me to come scrape her up though her last word was cut off. I'm pretty sure it was my name."

"As for..." he waved at his midsection. "Something attacked me. Something I couldn't see, smell or hit. Cut me open but good, mid-air, and then I hit the ground."

"Hmmm. Well, that was one theory shot down. But the alternative is worse, in that whoever or whatever was on the other side of the portal was gunning for one or both of you. That I do not like."

That could make me go all Ninja in no time flat. You'd think the universe would have learned by now... do not fuck with my people. Well, except if this was another universe, they wouldn't have had the chance to learn it yet.

"But if she wasn't hurt prior to going through the portal, and you were..." I shake my head. "Sounds like a snatch and grab for Maddie, and a serious slap down for you to keep you from following. Like, ever."

Oh, goodie! I'm getting pissed off... I can see the beginnings of the golden halo around my irises. I take a deep breath and push the fury down. It's not going to help right now. Later? Oh yeah... it sure could.

"Well, whoever's behind this better hope I never find them."

Wait. Something Pablo, Rene and Cat all said... what was it?

Billie took it all in. There was something else here though. "Okay, earlier Xavier said neither he nor Em could sense Mrs. Jacobs like they do when she's in another dimension. And, no, I don't want to know. But, and I'm guessing here, you all have some kind of other connection too. What's the difference this time that makes you sure she isn't just on another plane? What makes these two think she might be in an alternate universe?"

Unfortunately, Billie interrupts my train of thought. This time, my smart ass son bows as he gestures to me. His father snickers.

"He got that from you, Andi."

I look at my husband. "You know, dear," I say sweetly, "being a Spirit is not going to save you from getting your ass kicked."

"She's right, Brother. I don't know how she does it, but that qi thing of hers gives her super powers." And he said that completely deadpan, too.

Thank gods for Billie's question.

"The first clue is that Em and Vin have no sense that she exists. And at first, I didn't either. Now, granted that might have been because Logan's attempt at dying was overwhelming my senses because I can just barely make out the connection I have with her at the moment."

I sigh. After more than a hundred and seventy years, I still have no clear cut explanations for how my qi power connects me to others. And yes, certainly the bond Em and Vin have with their mother is considerably different than the bond the rest of the Pentad has with her. But it's still a bond, it's still all about the qi, and it's love that forges and strengthens that bond.

"Well, as one of my guardian Spirits said, it's as if she disappeared into a place that doesn't exist. While the Spirits, even crazy former human ones," I say, gesturing to Rene and Pablo, "can't enter most of the other dimensions, and sometimes can't see into them, they absolutely can see the existence of them. Even without entering another dimension, even without being able to see into it, they know what's on the other side of the portals.

"When Pablo was kidnapped to another dimension, they knew exactly where he was... even though they couldn't get there. In this case..." I shake my head. "They can't find Maddie."

Cat suddenly appears in front of Billie and looks up at her. "I tried to follow my Warrior and ran so hard into a wall that my whiskers bent."

"They did not!" I look at Cat with exasperation.

Cat looks back at me. "Pablo and Rene have been very kind in instructing us on Figures of Speech. I believe that is what I just did."

I stare at Cat for a minute, then look at Husband and Spirit Brother. "If you two weren't already dead, I'd kill you. You're corrupting the Spirits!"

They both do their best to look innocent. Neither succeeds.

"Warrior? Are you going to go fetch my Warrior now? I'm very worried!"

"I know, Cat. But we have to find her before we can fetch her..."

"But, Mom... now that you have that connection to her, I could probably do that weird finding thing I can do. Maybe. I think." Maria looks around at those of us in the clearing and shrugs. "It's worth a shot, right?"

Logan sits up a bit more. "What weird finding thing you do?"

Rene looks thoughtful for a moment. "Perhaps we can amplify the signal to find Maddie."

"Is there anything we can do to help?" Vin asked.

"Wait, wait," Billie interjected. "I don't know how this portal to other dimensions works, but tearing into the space-time continuum between universes is not something to be done lightly. The biggest stumbling block in the getting the idea from theory to practice is that we don't have an end point. Like with what I do or did with the ship. I knew where it was and where it was going. Moving from point A to B is simple as long as you know precisely where B is. Approximates are not going to cut it. Being off be even a nanometer can put you in some pretty deep shit real quick."

Maria looked from Uncle Logan to Uncle Rene to Vin to Billie, and then looked at her mother with pleading eyes.

Mom just laughed.

"Sweetie, you started it. I can't explain your finding thing any better than I can explain how my qi power works."

Maria sighs and leans slightly against Vin's shoulder. "It's... I don't know, Uncle Logan, it's like I just always know where everyone in the family is. Like I know Kaibah and Nelson's baby really, really wants to be born... and cousin Shaman Michelle is in Ganado, but cousin Shaman Aaron is in Flagstaff."

"Please do not give us a rundown on all however many hundreds of relatives we have, because I've lost count," Paul said dryly. "There are too many, that's all I know."

Mom moved with preternatural speed to slap the back of Paul's head, maybe just a little harder than she normally did.

"OW! What did I do now?"

Pablo shook his head. "You were stupid, son."

"Well, duh. But which stupid did I do this time?"

Mom and Dad exchanged a glance before saying, in unison — which was kind of eerie — "There is nothing more important than family. You can never have too much family."

Paul looked from Mom to Dad, from Dad to Mom. "I'm pretty sure I didn't mean how it sounded. Because my family is awesome. I just can't keep track of them."

"Well, that's my point, Paul," Maria said. "I can. And you remember that time cousin Kai was super worried about Ed because he was hours and hours late getting home from work and hadn't called or anything? And all I had to do was hug her and I knew exactly what road he was on, and how many cars back he was from the bridge that had been washed out by a flash flood?"

Paul blinked once, then stared at his sister for half a minute or more. "Dear gods, Maria, that had to have been a hundred years ago!"

She considered it for a moment, then shrugged. "Maybe a little less, since I think both Sonia and Dan had moved out by then."

"Do you really think you can do it?" Dad asked.

Maria bit her lip and looked at her mother again. "You have a really strong connection to Aunt Lin. Remember what happened the first time you died?"

Andrea stared open mouthed at Maria, then turned to Pablo, who shook his head. "Nope, I never told them."

"Yeah, neither did I," she said.

"But Mom, we were there. I think that was right about when we were trying to decide if we should be twins or be a few years off in age," Paul said, sounding confused that his mother didn't remember that.

"Oh, I remember that... the two of you invading my dreams and trying to make me think I was crazy, and fucking with me by sharing your gifts that you, yourselves wouldn't be able to access for another fourteen years! I'm still pissed about that, by the way."

"Oh, Mama, you love us too much to be pissed at us for trying to help you," Paul said sweetly.

Pablo draped an arm over his son's shoulders. "Son, stop talking. There is nothing you can say right now that isn't dangerous."

"Your father has yet again given you sage advice, dear nephew. Quit while you're behind enough to still be alive. Or, to put it another way, you'd have to be out of your mind to incur the ire of one of the most powerful women in the universe."

Billie had been watching the back and forth, and finally said, "People? Tearing a hole in the space-time continuum is still a bad idea. I have no idea what all of you are talking about, but you can't just go off to... wherever unless you know EXACTLY where you're going."

Maria looked at Billie, confused. "But I just said I if could find Aunt Lin, it would be exact. Yeah, I said cousin Shaman Michelle was in Ganado. But to be exact, she's sitting — and based on height above ground, I'd say in Mom's favorite lawn chair — behind the house, fifteen feet from the northwest corner of the building."

"Huh. So many questions," Andrea says. "What's she doing at my house? Why is she sitting by the fire pit? And why, why is she sitting in my favorite chair?"

"Because you have a ley line running under the property, and that's where the nearest node is," Paul said helpfully.

Andrea nodded. "Oh, right. Yeah, that would explain it. Everything but the chair."

"If I can find Aunt Lin, all I have to do is show Paul where it is, and he can open a portal."

Em and Vin looked at each other then looked at their father and back to one another. Though Vin was usually the spokesperson for the pair, this time it was Em who spoke up. "What do you need from us, Maria?"

Em's connection to their mother was more instinctive than Vin's, as it was empathic. Now that their father was healed and smelled normal again, her Feral nature was no longer threatening to take over. Perhaps, now that Aunt Andi could sense Mom, perhaps she could also use her own connection to find her.

"Paul? Ride along?" she asked tapping her temple. "Maybe I can reach Mom too."

I raise a hand in what I expect is a useless attempt to slow down this runaway train.

"I have no problem trying to find Maddie, and seeing what conditions are if we find her. But if we need to run an extraction operation..." I point to Logan's tattered shirt and my own blood-stained clothing. "...we're not dressed for it. Plus, I'm not going anywhere without my staff."

I look at each of my children, then Maddie's children, and finally at Logan. "Just looking. Agreed?"

I feel more than see Maria, Paul and Vin nod. During the staredown with Logan, Em also reluctantly nods.

Please, Brother. We can't risk my Sister, your Mate, our Beloved by not being fully prepared should it be necessary to attempt a rescue.

He growls something that can't really be put into words, yet the sense of it is crystal clear.

I want her home, too. And her absence pains me just as much. Do you think I want to be cautious? You know me better than that.

Finally Logan nods. I reach out a hand to him.

Mom and Uncle Logan grasped hands, then Dad took Mom's other hand and Uncle Rene stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders.

Maria looked at them with surprise verging on shock.

Holy crap, Paul said privately to her.

They'd inherited a portion of their mother's ability to see qi, although their abilities for manipulating it were strangely specialized. In all the very many long years they had been looking at qi, they had never seen anything like the web of qi that connected not only their parents, but their uncles as well. And it was painfully obvious there was a piece of a whole missing from that blending.

Aunt Lin.

Maria held out her hand to Em. "I think we're all going on this ride, Cousin."

Paul took her other hand and as the younger generation stood to face the elder, Vin rested his hands on Maria's shoulders.

"Are you sure you're up for this, honey?" Andrea asked.

Maria nodded. "I think it's going to be a wilder ride than usual, but yeah. Let's find Aunt Lin."

I squeeze the hands I hold. Close the circle.

Pablo places a hand on our son's shoulder; Logan rests a hand on Em's shoulder.

This is the part that can't be explained, except to say that I become like a lightning rod for qi. I've channeled far more than this in the past, but today I have a specific purpose in holding and directing this energy. I take every bit of love the Pentad has for Maddie and bolster that tenuous connection to her that I can hardly feel; it strengthens enough that it begins to feel almost normal.

I lean my head forward as Maria does the same, and we rest our foreheads together. It's a comforting position that's been part of our mother and daughter relationship since she was old enough to hold her head up.

"You can find her. I believe in you, daughter."

Maria only had a vague sense of where Aunt Lin might be as she took Em's hand, although the feeling got a little stronger as a circle was formed among those who were her family. However, when she rested her forehead against her mother's and sighed, she knew. She smiled at her mother's words and squeezed Paul's hand.

There. Do you see?

Clear as day, kiddo. He merely lifted a hand and a circle of shimmering energy began forming, growing upward from the ground until it had a diameter of about eight feet. Then the shimmering cleared and they could see a battered Tribal Police vehicle... an actual automobile, not one of the newer skimmers. Madeline sat in the back seat cuddling two small children, looking relatively calm except for the times she glanced at the man in the front passenger seat. The young man in the back seat with her and the dark haired driver in a Deputy's uniform talked with animation; Madeline smiled a few times and even laughed once at something the younger man said.

Billie gasped and came a little closer to the group.

"Is that the 550 up to Nageezi?" Pablo asks.

"Sure looks like it, though from this close it's hard to tell exactly where on the 550 they are."

"Hey, isn't that Denny Moore?" Paul asks, pointing to the cheerful young man in the back seat with Maddie.

"Huh. How about that? Sure looks like him," I say. "His younger sister is the precog in their generation... just blossomed last year."

Maria giggled. "Yeah, and the first thing that popped out of her mouth was you're so not going to marry that one, Den, so don't even think about it. I swear, every generation the precogs get funnier with their first predictions."

"Wonder what Madeline's doing with the kids. Well, obviously rescuing them; they look like they're in bad shape."

Em growls, and Logan growls in response. I look from one to the other, then look more closely at the children. "Well, with a simple look-see window I can't read their qi, but yeah, you're right... they do look like Ferals. You'd know better, Logan, since you saw your hellions at that age."

"Think she's taking them up to the Dehiya homestead? I guess it would make sense, wouldn't it?" Pablo asks.

I nod. "If the same family living out there in that universe is the same family living out there in our universe — and by that, I mean our family — they'll take them in."

The man in the front passenger seat says something over his shoulder and Maddie's whole being changes so slightly that only those of us who really know her well can see he just pissed her off royally.

"Whoa, who the hell is that... and why is he still alive?" Rene asks. "There haven't been too many people who've sent Maddie from zero to full outrage like that so damn fast. And they're all dead."

As if to answer Rene's question, the man in the front seat turns around to respond to something Maddie had said.

We all just stare until the man turns around again. I blink and look at Logan. "Well, at least we know what you'd look like if you had decided to be a total dick as a career instead of the sweet and loving husband and father that you are."

Logan growls at me.

Pablo shakes his head and takes his eyes from the scene through the portal. "No, Brother... I think for once Andi's being sincere."

"I hate to have to admit it, Brother, but Pablo's right. Our Sister seems to have momentarily lost her smart assery."

I shrug and hold Logan's hand just a little tighter. "The smart ass will be back. Seeing a different version of you just reminds me to take a moment to appreciate how great my life is."

"Ick. You're getting awfully mushy, Mom."

Pablo snickers. "Careful, son. Your mother and I might decide to make out. Right here. In public."

"Ew. At least wait until I close the portal so I can leave, okay? Is there anything else you need to see?"

"Any clues at all on just how from Nageezi they are?"

"I saw the old gas plant flash by," Vin says, "although, from the little I saw, it looked in even worse shape than the one in our universe."

"Hmmm. Well, that would be about a fifteen-minute drive to the Dehiya place although, on those roads and that old jalopy, it might take them thirty." I shrug. "Well, we know Maddie's okay for the moment, so... no, go ahead and close it up."

Paul lets the portal close slowly, then bends over and props his hands on his knees. "Wow, that takes a lot more energy than opening a portal to another dimension."

I let go of Pablo's and Logan's hands and step to Paul's side. "You loon, you should have said something." I place a hand over his xia dan tian and channel qi from Mother — who, over the years, I've come to realize is every planet.

"Okay, so what do we need to do next to get Aunt Lin back?" Maria asks.

Rene cleared his throat. "Did it look like to anyone else as if she knew she was being watched?"

Vin nodded in agreement. "Now that you mention it, yeah, it did right before the guy with dad's face pissed her off."

"She wasn't wearing the same clothes," Logan added. "Wherever she's at, at least a day or two has passed."

"Paul, how much would it take to make that more than just a window?" Em asked.

"You know, that should not have been possible," Andrea said, "but the fact that Maddie did seem to notice us? It's bizarre, but I'm also kind of relieved."

Paul looked from his mother to Em. "Well, I could do a full out portal, but I don't know that we want to do that until we're ready to go through. Now that I have a marker for that world, though, it shouldn't be a big deal." He turned to his sister. "Are you going to need this much support to find Aunt Lin again?"

Maria shook her head. "No. I know the general area... I think just being in contact with Mom and Em should let me zero right in on her."

"I'm guessing more than a day or two," Andrea said to Logan. "I know some people set Maddie off faster than others do, and she can get people around her pretty riled, but the animosity I saw? That looked like weeks in the making.

"Well, unless your double has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. But, in that case, she would have ditched him or snapped his neck." She shrugged. "Either way, I doubt he'd still be around."

"Why shouldn't it be possible?" Rene asked. "She had to have gotten something in that exchange all those years ago. Why not the qi sensing thing?"

Em looked to her father. "Dad, you and Mom still pack the special gear?"

"What kind of question is that?"

"Where's it stowed? I have the feeling she's going to want it when we do get through to her."

"On our ship, of course."

Now she turned to her brother who answered before she could get the question out. "It's all on the Blackbird, even the uniforms."

"You guys get that stuff. I'll go with Dad to get Mom's stuff. Whatever happens, I'm going through."

"Not without me," Vin told her.

No one questioned the fact that Logan would cross over when the actual portal was open.

"Oh, she did pick up some of the qi sensing stuff, Rene," I say. "It's just that, in all the training I did with Paul, those look-see portals have never left a trace on the other side." Then I shrug. "Of course, having all of us here and linked together probably did make a difference."

My children look at their cousins, and I could almost see their mental exchange.

"Yes, yes... I guess we're all going! Go fetch your things." I roll my eyes at them, then look at Logan and Em. "My staff and change of clothing are in the lodge... but I left the rest of the weapons on the ship. Guess I'm walking with you two." I give Logan and Em the stinkeye. "Unless the two of you decide to race, of course... in which case, I'll be leisurely strolling with the Spirits."

"Wait a minute! Just wait one damn minute!" Billie has her hands on her hips and is almost glaring at each and every one of us. "I do not think it's a good idea for all of you to just... just... flit off into another universe!"

"Oh, don't worry, Billie," Pablo says. "Rene and I can't get through the portal. We'll be here to keep you company."

"Should we behave ourselves?" Rene asks.

"Well, I don't see why we should start now," Pablo responds.

"Great! Just checking."

"Oh, good grief," I mumble.

Em stayed close to Logan on the trek back to the lodge and then the ship. They did not race ahead but stayed with Andi instead. It was hard to say which one was having more difficulty keeping the Feral nature at bay. Something was bothering Em though.

"Dad?"

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"Mom's okay right?"

"You saw she was."

"How long do you think she's been there?"

"Not long enough for what you're thinking."

Though she was over a hundred and fifty, she reached for her father's hand.

"We'll get your Mom back, darlin', don't you worry."

I'm not an empath... not the way Em is. But after close to two hundred years of working with qi, I know well the look of worry, especially when it comes to family. I'm as confident that we'll fetch Maddie back as I am of my own abilities. And of those, I have not the slightest doubt.

But I am just a little concerned about the differences in time flow. If it's been a couple of weeks already for her and only a few hours for us...

Well, having her personality reintegrated helped a lot to keep her madness at bay. But that alone doesn't keep her sane. I'm going to hope she's been kicking asses from wherever she landed to the Dinébah, including the ass attached to the jerk with my Brother's face, because I'm pretty sure the other half of that equation isn't happening.

Vin entwined his fingers with Maria's as they headed to the Blackbird.

"Paul, how large of a portal can you open?"

Paul looked at Vin just a bit suspiciously. "The largest I've ever opened was about fifteen feet in diameter. I'm not sure how large I could stretch one. I know Mom's opened some pretty big ones.

"Vincent," he said slowly and distrustfully, "what sort of a harebrained idea are you concocting? And is it going to make Mom want to kill us?"

"I don't know exactly, Paul. There was just something about the way my Mom was sitting or something. I think maybe Em picked up on it as well. We're all ostensibly getting out gear so that we can go in and pull Mom out, but..."

He just shook his head.

"I don't think that's what will happen. As much as we saw her pissed off at that guy, she was in her protective mode. I know it. Em knows it. We lived with it more than you and Maria did.

"If she's set herself a mission, there's no way she'll come back till it's done, and she's going to need back up."

He stopped and looked up at the Blackbird.

"Maybe pretty big backup."

Paul looked up at the ship as well. "Oh, boy." He started to speak several times, sighing each time instead.

Finally he said, "I'm pretty sure I can't open a portal that big. Not by myself. Maybe Mom could... or between the two of us we could."

He looked at Vin. "That's not the biggest problem, though. Did you see that world? Even the tiny glimpse we got looked like late twentieth century at best, and I have a feeling some of it's even less modern. Also? Even today, in our universe, Mom would crack you over the head with that stick of hers if you didn't have permission from the Tribal Council to fly it into the Nation." He held his head in his hands. "Oh my gods, flying it out of a portal opened in the Dinébah without permission...?"

Paul groaned. "Oh, I'd feel sorry for you, but she'd smack you until you were dead, wait for you to revive, and then maybe kick your spleen."

"Uh, Paul?" His sister looked at him like he was maybe a little crazy.

"What?"

"We don't have to work it that way, you know," Maria said calmly. "Yeah, we should find out from Mom if she thinks it's possible to get the ship through a portal, but that's it. At first.

"We go through, and first find out what this mission of Aunt Lin's is. Then we find out if she thinks we'll need the Blackbird. Then we either leave the Nation to open the portal or get the appropriate permissions. And then you and Mom can open a portal back to here, Vin can grab the ship and fly it through the portal... and nobody has to die."

Paul stared at Maria for several minutes.

"Yeah, okay. That could work. Maybe."

Vin shrugged. "It was just a thought. You know how my Mom is about being over-prepared. Come on. Let's get our stuff."

The ramp was already lowering as they approached it. It was wide enough for two people to traverse it side by side which meant he did not have to let go of Maria's hand, and he didn't. He did stop and stare in thought at the uniform locker. He pictured his mother as they had seen her, and the environment she was in.

"You're off the hook, Paul. We're not taking the uniforms unless Mom specifically asks for them."

He collected his extra weapons as well as his sister's things and hefted both duffels then looked to see if his companions were ready.

Logan opened the hatch as his daughter waited as patiently as she possibly could. They boarded one after the other and went to the Equipment Locker slash Closet. As her father gathered the extra clothing, Em went straight to the secured locker at the back.

"You want any of the guns, dad?" she asked as she collected her mother's Wolf gear.

"Edged weapons only, Em, for your mother too. No way to tell if we could get or make ammo for them. She asks, tell her it was my idea."

"Of course I will."

Edge weapons also included her mother's whip. It, like her father's skeleton, was made of adamantium. Whoever created it was a metal-working genius. In order to function like a whip the length of it that was normally rope had to be finely crafted interlocking and articulating pieces. It was much more intricate than chain mail even and had a nasty bite to it. Em remembered trying to work with it once and slashing her cheek open down to the bone. Mom had walked in just after it had happened. There she was holding the fleshy part of her left cheek in place with blood flowing through her fingers and down her arm.

Madeline stopped and frowned. "I told you not to fool with that. Now you've gone and made a mess of my floor, and you're damn lucky that you have a healing factor."

"Sorry, mom," she apologized.

She came over and took the whip from her hand. "Not half as sorry as you're going to be once the itching sets it. And I expect you to clean up the floor too, and no using the bots."

"I will."

Madeline shook her head as she coiled up the long, silver whip and took it back to its normal resting place. "And I'm changing the code."

She hadn't really changed the code. She had just said that for Em's benefit. Of course, Em didn't find out until a few years later. It was, in fact, the same code as the shipboard secure locker. Em smiled at that and tucked in the laser pistols too. Those didn't take ammo she rationalized. And if they didn't need them, Rene could always bring them back.

"Got everything, Em?" Logan asked.

"All set."

"Let's make tracks then."

"Got your six, Dad. Aunt Andi? You ready?"

"Aw, man, I knew I loved ya for a reason!" Paul said with a grin.

Maria chuckled and shook her head. "At least bring your leather jacket. I know how much you love scraping yourself raw on rocks. And we have no idea what time of year it is there." She busied herself gathering the weapons she'd stored, slinging one quiver of arrows over one shoulder and across her chest, then handing the other to her brother. All her other weapons were in her duffel. She hefted that, then pulled Paul's bow from the locker and handed that to him as well before pulling out her own and finally Mom's sword. It had its own scabbard that nestled beside the scabbard Mom had for her staff. Mom had made her and Paul learn all about the sword and how to use it... and Maria understood why Mom shook her head every time she put the scabbard on. A sword of this length was traditionally worn at the swordsman's — or swordswoman's — side.

She set it lengthwise on the duffel, then picked up the duffel, bow in her other hand, and looked at her brother. "You about ready there?"

Paul was just settling his quiver comfortably over his jacket, then picked up his bow and duffel. "Ready when you are." He shook his head as he looked at their cache of weapons. "Are you sure this isn't overkill?"

Maria just looked at him like he was insane. "Really? We're going to fetch Aunt Lin, remember? If we don't show up with enough armament for two squads, how is she going to know we're related to her?"

Paul nodded at her logic. "You have a point, dear sister. Well, lead on, Dean Xavier! Your faithful X-Men without uniforms await your commands!"

Maria sighed and looked at Vin. "Do you want me to slug him now or do you want to torture him later?"

I follow the two of them into the ship. I understand Em's impatience, but I'm not going to let myself get sucked into that cycle. If I do, I'll start moving faster and faster. And then one of the kids — or my wicked, wicked husband — is sure to stick a foot out at some point to slow me down. Not that I'm dawdling either, of course.

The most important thing to fetch from the ship is my uniform, complete with what I call my utility belt. I think mine is way cooler than anything Batman ever had, mostly because I don't have half the crap in mine that he had in his. Okay, it's really because when Martha had first made it for me all those years ago I finally had a place to tuck my throwing stars! It was so depressing to have a box of them and not be able to carry them around to toss at miscreants because they'd just tear up my clothing. They get bad people to fall over clutching their legs just as well as my qi blasts do, and they do less damage. That was always a concern... oh, who am I kidding? I didn't care about the insurance or bad people trying to sue me. I might have been the Super in Denver who stuck most to the shadows, but that didn't mean the police and court systems didn't know my name. It never seemed to matter who the District Attorney was or what their political party affiliation... whenever someone came in to file a suit against me, I'd wind up with a fruit basket. And a note saying something like Thanks for giving the whole office a good laugh today. The DA would personally sign the note, and include a synopsis of who wanted to sue me and why. I dearly missed those calls from Sanchez after he retired. You have another damn fruit basket here, Ninja. Why don't you just get a post office box?

I smile at the memories. There were a lot of good times once Peacekeeper, Peregrine, and Ninja figured out how to coordinate and work together. Andi and Pablo got to be good friends with Michael and Martha, too.

I nod to Em as she breaks me from my reverie. "Yep. Need to stop at the cabin and change into the uniform and pick up my staff, but it's on the way and..." I look at Logan's shredded shirt.

"You know, Hank once told me that I looked like I'd gotten into a dust-up with a pair of scissors. I think you probably got attacked by hedge trimmers there, my friend."

Logan looks down at the remains of his shirt with an almost surprised expression. "Huh."

With a shrug, he tears the last bits off and tosses them into the trash bin. He doesn't bother to put on another one. There will be time enough for that later. Like his daughter, he's anxious to get back to the others and get her mother back.

"Can't even dress you up not to take you anywhere," I mutter when Logan simply tosses his shirt away. I sigh as we leave the ship. "You'd best be putting a shirt on, dear Brother. You're incredibly distracting when you're half naked."

True, Maddie will just rip it off you again, I say to him privately, but I don't need the distraction if we wind up walking into a fight.

I head back down the ramp, knowing Logan will be the last one out of the ship. It's his thing. And it's his ship. Well, no... I guess technically it's my bazillionaire Sister's ship. But that's just a picky little detail.

He locks up the ship and shoulders his duffel, then heads out knowing Em and I will be right beside him.

The lodge is actually fairly close to the ship, and I manage to get changed in little enough time that Em hasn't gotten too anxious. I settle my staff in its scabbard and pat one of the pockets on my belt. Yep, plenty of hair ties. I can braid my hair as we walk. No point in wasting time at the cabin doing it. Excuse me? What was that? You thought Andi was going through that portal? Oh no, it's Ninja's turn to play.

"Okay, let's get back to the clearing and fetch our missing family member, shall we?"

We arrive in the clearing nearly at the same time the others do.

Vin gave Em the weapons he had brought along for her. She set her mother's bag down just long enough to put them in place. Logan already had a finely wrought katana hanging from his hip. With a glance, he checked the kids and made a chuff of satisfaction.

"Aunt Andi? Paul?" Em prompted. "Where should we stand?""

I check the weapons Maria had fetched from the Blackbird and picked up my sword. "So, that's where I left this!"

"Told you," Pablo said, not helpfully either.

"Brat." I slide the second scabbard across my chest to nestle beside the staff's scabbard.

Then I look at Em. "I'm working with Mother to get a fix on the nearest node in the ley line running through here. She still doesn't always understand quite what I want." I shake my head and crouch down, palms and feet flat on the ground. See what is in my mind, Mother. This is what I need.

{Daughter... giving you gifts of everything}

"No, no, no, Mother! If I use all the power of the whole planet, we'll tear a whole right through the whole space-time continuum thing, and create another Big Bang! Fun for you, maybe. The end of the rest of us."

{Daughter... love, love, share, love, share}

"Aww, that's sweet of you, Mother, but for what we need to do, that's overkill. With an emphasis on the kill. But how about after we fetch back Maddie, I'll see if we can find a nice boring, lifeless planet and we can terraform it, okay?"

{Daughter... Daughters... Daughter missing, missing, missing... so far away!}

Wait... what? You can feel Maddie?

{Daughter... Daughter-Sister walks on different skin... sad, sad, sad}

Okay. Yeah, okay... that's so weird. At least I can feel the general location of the node now that Mother isn't trying to give me ALL THE POWER IN THE UNIVERSE. I want no part of that. No, wait. I want a very small part of that.

Don't be sad, Mother. We're going to find Maddie and bring her back to walk on all the skins that she should walk on.

{Daughter... yes, find... Sister walks in wrong places... find, go, do}

I stand and shake my head. At least getting Mother to focus on Maddie stopped her from trying to give me the power of a planet, and I can see the node.

"Maybe someday, I won't be such a magnet for weird," I mumble. "I can only hope."

"I don't see that happening anytime soon, love," Pablo says, walking beside me to the opposite side of the clearing.

I Gibbs slap both Maria and Vin on my way to the node, which is about four feet left of where Billie is standing. I sigh. "Unfortunately, neither do I."

You know, love... I don't really have a problem with those two jumping off the cliff they're about to jump off, I say to my husband, it's really just the shattering of traditions that has me annoyed. Well, that... but more the fact that they have no clue they're shattering sacred traditions.

They're kids, Andi, and they're in love. I'm pretty sure they're not thinking about traditions.

I know, Pablo. That's why they're only getting a slap on the head instead of a lecture. We can both remember days when society in general was less accepting of love that was just as innocent and just as supposedly unacceptable. Besides... it's hard to get worked up about traditions that have existed since the Diné were created by Corn Woman when my Sister's disappearance is leaving a gaping hole in my soul.

You'll bring her back. Rene and I won't be able to be with you in Spirit — so to speak...

Smart ass.

Oh, you wouldn't recognize me if I didn't give you back some of your own, my beloved. But as I was saying, Rene and I will still be in your hearts. You'll remember that, won't you? Maddie may have forgotten if she's started down the road toward that old madness of hers. Logan could forget when he goes Feral... though, to be honest, it could be just the opposite, too. That could be when he remembers best. Well, my point is, dear Wife... you'll have to be the sensible one and remember that we're still with you even if you won't be able to feel us. Or if you can just barely feel us, and we're a tantalizing glimpse of something you can't have.

I hate being the sensible one. That's your job, Pablo. I sigh to myself. And you're talking like we'll be gone months. We're going to fetch Maddie and bring her home so the five of us can get naked in bed and remember who we are.

Well, I hope it won't be months. But first, you know how time is weird and moves differently... you already saw that. A few hours have passed here; at least a couple of weeks have passed for Madeline. And second, being Spirit makes it easier to eavesdrop... Vin seems to think she's got some kind of mission in mind. She's got that "there's a wrong that needs to be righted" look in her eyes.

Frankly, I was trying not to notice that. But we wouldn't be going through this portal armed to the teeth if we didn't all realize it, I guess. Still, I don't want to be without you for that long, Pablo. I still remember the hell I lived through when I was in that coma when you had just been gone to your ancestral pest's world for a day and a half. I remember how horrible it was when you died. I don't want to go through that ever again.

You won't, Andi. You're the one who'll remember me, remember Rene. You can feel Madeline — even though it's a tenuous connection — across the span of whatever separates us. None of the rest of us can. It's that weird connection you have with her that's something beyond what you and I share, beyond what she shares with Rene and Logan, what we all share as the Pentad. I know you've noticed it over the past century. Well, that ability to wrap your heart around your Sister even when the rest of us can't find her is what's going to keep me and Rene wrapped in your heart when you fetch Madeline back.

You'd better be right, Husband.

I am, Wife. And you know it.

Maybe I do. Maybe believing that it's true will make it true. And maybe it simply is true.

"Billie, you're not going to want to be over here when we do this." I grin at her. "Hang out with the two crazies over there." I gesture in Rene's direction, and he waggles his fingers at her.

"Why do I have the feeling they're the sane ones?" she mutters as she starts across the clearing.

Right... as if any of us is sane. This is one crazy mission. I feel the energy of the node already flowing up my legs. I close my eyes and study the flow and patterns of qi, then hold out a hand to my Brother. "Logan?"

If I break a fingernail tripping over a leaf because I'm staring at your bare chest, it will be your fault.

He smiles as he takes my hand and growls.

How am I supposed to not look?! Oh, good grief!

I take a deep breath and center myself. Yes... that connection, simply hand to hand, begins the creation of a new pattern. But it's a pattern not merely for the opening of a portal, but... I think... how to proceed through the portal. Damn it, that doesn't often happen. When it does, there's always a damn good reason for it... usually because the first people through the portal are going to get mowed down. No, no... no assumptions, Andi. That's only what usually happens... there were those two times it didn't. And three is a nice number. And we're walking through a portal into the Dinébah, right? That's home... even if it's a different universe, right?

I hold out my other hand. "Maria..."

Pablo, you and Rene are going to have to stay out of this pattern, I think. We'll need to be able to recreate it — or create a mirror, I won't know until I'm on the other side — when you're not with us.

I feel the brush of his lips against my cheek. I understand. And I promise not to make Billie too crazy.

Thank you, beloved. I think.

With Maria's hand in mine and Pablo on the far side of the clearing with Rene and Billie, I can see a pattern growing...

"Em, take Maria's other hand..."

As Em's fingers intertwine with Maria's, I hear my daughter gasp.

"You know where she is." It's a statement because even I, without that particular talent — or rather, having never honed my qi powers that specifically, know where my Sister is.

"Yes."

Gods, the pain that's lancing through my heart! Oh, Maddie... do you really believe we're not trying to move heaven and earth to get you back? But you went to the right place, as hard as it is for you. Unless she has a network as strong as mine, she won't be able to do this, though.

And now I understand the full pattern.

"Paul, behind me and Maria... one hand on our hands. You can open the portal in front of us from that position?"

"Sure, Mom."

I feel his hand settle over mine and his sister's, and the pattern is nearly complete.

"Once the portal is open, Logan and I will take point. Do not question. Just do as I say. Em and Maria follow together. Vin and Paul bring up the rear. It is a proper procession with elders — not Elders meaning Ferals, no — first, daughters second, sons last.

"Eagle, you and the others can hold the portal open long enough for Paul to get through?"

"Yes, Warrior. Barely... but yes."

"Good. Vin, you're behind and between Em and Maria... one hand on theirs, the other on Paul's shoulder."

I can feel in every cell of my body when the pattern is complete. It's like the last piece of a magnetic puzzle slamming into place and locking there.

"Aunt Lin's in your house," Maria whispers. "Sitting on the sofa."

"Yes." It has to be at least a day later for Maddie, and yet we weren't gone more than twenty minutes... much closer to fifteen really.

Time's a little slippery, that is to say, more erratically different than we usually see between dimensions, I say to Pablo and Rene. We probably won't be gone long... even if Maddie's got a mission to save the world, we shouldn't be gone more than a day, and likely far less time than that.

How are we supposed to know if... well, how are we going to know you're okay? Pablo asks.

You said it yourself, love. I hold you both in my heart. You'll know. Don't worry... what's the worst that could happen?

Um, you die? Rene says.

Then we're with you for all eternity. How's that bad? And yeah... I think that's the worst that could happen. So don't worry. I love you both, and we'll be back with Maddie soon.

"Okay, Paul... go for it. And pull as much energy from me as you need. Mother misses Maddie, too, and is willing to give me the whole planet."

The portal opens far more slowly than the look-see one had. In fact, I've never seen a portal form so slowly. "Problem, son?" I ask, glancing over my shoulder at him.

"Not exactly, Mom. It's more like..." He pauses, concentrating on the portal and tilting his head to the side in puzzlement. "It's just freakishly complicated. That's the best way I can explain it." A look of surprise and then delight cross his face. "Okay, I think I got a part of the equation right. It's still going to be slower, probably because I'm drilling a hole into another universe, but it should get faster from here."

Indeed, a moment later the portal opens. We briefly take in the scene, but we only truly have eyes for Maddie.

© Kelly Naylor and ividia kt