White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

4/January 2003


Lily had many ways of saying his name, Alex knew. There was the 'I can't believe you're doing that in public' tone of voice, the 'come here, I want to show you something' one (which sounded very much like her 'come hither' voice, but confusing the two could be troublesome), the 'come save me from this insanity' plea... but among all of the variations, none was more dangerous than this one.

"All you had to do was clean your crap off half the table," Lily went on from the dining/living room. Alex was in the bedroom, laptop and notebook spread upon the bed, hiding from what he privately referred to as Dark Lily. "That's all you had to do... Alex, are you even listening to me?"

"I got caught up in other stuff," Alex replied loud enough to be heard in the other room as he fiddled with a footnote. "You aren't the only one with a defense committee to kowtow to."

"No, but I'm the only one who's got forty-five graphs to get perfectly right and I'm not the one who can just input all this stuff into the computer first. I lost a week writing that thing for Perotelli and I haven't caught up yet and I can't waste time making room for myself amidst all of your shit."

Alex dropped his head and sighed. This was going to be one of those afternoons, then. If she didn't stop seething when he brought up his own impending deadlines, then she was going to be like this for hours. Days, even, if whatever she was doing didn't work itself out immediately.

With both of them on a schedule to defend their dissertations in March, things had gotten progressively more stressed as time marched forth. With their social calendars dropping to nil - after allowing them to skip any and all holiday season celebrations, Scott and Jean had driven down last week and taken them to a local restaurant just so that they'd get outside - the two were left with each other and their stress. And between the cabin fever and the dissertations, they were both losing it.

Alex knew he had the gift of perspective - the worst that could happen is that his dissertation would take longer than he wanted it to. But it was only a dissertation and if it needed tweaking, then it needed tweaking. It wasn't as bad as, say, waking up a mutant-hating magistrate on Genosha or a Goblin Prince. But as hard as it could sometimes be, he had to remember that Lily didn't have this distance. And there was nothing wrong with not having it - it was an innocence that Alex hoped to preserve for her for as long as he possibly could.

But Lily's innocence could sometimes only be appreciated in the theoretical. Despite the fact that she held a professional degree and was eminently employable, the doctorate was a do-or-die situation for her and nothing Alex said could convince her otherwise. Saying anything at all tended to get her only more angry - Lily would snap that unlike certain people, she didn't have a job as a mutant superhero waiting for her should the grad school thing not work out - so Alex had learned to keep quiet and to pack up and move to the library for a few hours if silence wasn't good enough.

Silence was what was coming from the main room and Alex was just about to hope that it was a sign that the storm had passed when there was a crash of heavy book hitting floor and a wordless scream of frustration. Alex saved his text, powered down the laptop, and got up off the bed, groaning slightly. He had not bothered to support his chest with a pillow and his back was cranky from being hyper-extended for most of the last five hours.

Without saying anything, he went to the doorway and looked out. Lily was standing amidst a small blizzard of papers (it was all scrap paper, Alex knew. Anything important was always, always clipped together and usually bound in plastic protective covers) with the very chunky MEDR by her left foot. She had her hands in her hair and was pulling tightly and when Alex cleared his throat gently, she turned to him with an almost wild-eyed expression.

"It's not working," she whispered. "I've done the calculation the long way, the short way, on the computer... fuck, I even tried it in spherical coordinates. And it's not working. I've spent three years on the same damned project and it's not going to work. I've wasted three years on a theory that isn't going to pan out. I've been tilting at fucking windmills. Barking up the wrong fucking tree. Making an ass of myself by insisting that I could force the Navier-Stokes equations to get around the viscous effects and to do what I wanted and I can't make it work."

"If I ask you if you're sure that you used the right starting numbers," Alex began slowly, "Are you going to tear my head off again?"

Lily had done both of those things a few times already - the former a simple mistake that nonetheless could be warped by her into further proof that no university not run by lobotomized lab rats would grant her a degree. The latter was just another manifestation of her stress.

"Oh, I checked that a couple of dozen times," Lily laughed darkly, pointing with one bare foot at a pile of papers on the floor near the couch. "I even redid the last five calculations that led up to this one. It's not the math. It's the premise. I'm fucked."

"You're not fucked," Alex replied with the assurance of someone who's had to repeat this sentiment a few times. Which he had. More than a few times. "I know this with absolute certainty. You know why? Because you can barely tolerate sleeping in the same bed as me and you sure as hell aren't leaving the apartment for some illicit nooky."

Lily stared at him crossly, clearly not pleased that he wasn't taking her attempts at self-mortification seriously.

"You're not about to explode your academic career," Alex went on, unaffected. "You're not about to be the poster child for Mechanical Engineering Hubris. And you're not doomed to the fate of popping out of cakes in a bikini at bachelor parties for a living. Or gas-jockeying. Or driving a Zamboni at Shreveport Mudbugs home games. In case you've forgotten, you were recruited for a job before your defense date was even set. You had a position set up..."

"That's completely dependent on me finishing up this academic year," Lily cut him off harshly. "City College only wanted me then because they thought I'd have a degree in hand by the time I started. Which I won't. Because I'm going to have to go back over three years of research to figure out where the hell I went wrong. And either I'm going to have to re-do everything that came after the mistake or I'm going to have to start all over because nobody will take a dissertation that has a summary paragraph that says: 'You know that distortion effect on supersonic flow that nobody thought you could do? Well, I spent three years proving that they're right.'"

"Lily," Alex sighed. "You just got finished writing up a section of a paper that your undergraduate advisor begged you to write. Perotelli has got who-knows-how-many of his own grad students and he asked you. He wouldn't have done that if he thought you were a lunatic. And do you honestly thing Dagley has spent the last three years setting you up for failure? Do you honestly think that he has nothing better to do with his time than torture his advisees? The man has a chateau in the Loire Valley and would like more free time to spend working on his vineyard. He wouldn't waste his time like that."

"It's not a waste of time," Lily laughed morbidly, dropping heavily on to the one seat on the couch not covered in papers. "It's not a waste of time if you can have someone else do all the work on proving the impossibility of this particular effect. Because if they fail, then it's not tarnishing your reputation. Nobody cares if your advisee implodes."

Alex sighed and ran his hands over his face. "All right. If we're now on to the paranoid phase, then it's time to do something else. Go get your shoes on. We're going to the supermarket."

"What?" Lily squawked. "I can't go out now. Just because your paper's flowing like the Hudson River doesn't mean the rest of us can just take off and..."

"And not eat?" Alex asked sharply. "In case you haven't realized, Lily, you haven't been out of this apartment in four days. And four days ago, you went to the lab for nine hours. It's time you spent an hour thinking about Frosted Flakes versus Froot Loops and left the Gaussians to Gauss. Isaac Newton ate, too. Come on."

"I can't go anywhere until I figure out what the hell I did wrong," Lily replied heatedly. "If I don't find my mistake, I'll have the rest of my life to do nothing but contemplate Froot Loops."

"Well you're not exactly being productive right now, are you?" Alex retorted, finally losing his patience. He pushed himself off the doorjamb he had been leaning against.

"That's because I'm wasting time arguing with you," Lily said angrily.

"So now I'm a waste of your time?" Alex asked, knowing he was letting her push his buttons and starting not to care.

"At the moment, yeah," she replied, standing up to reach for the MEDR. "This isn't a hobby for me, Alex. This is my life."

"So which is it," Alex growled over his shoulder as he stormed back into the bedroom and yanked open his sock drawer. "Am I just the slumming superhero looking for a good time girl or am I just something for you to kill time with until you really have to get some work done? Why can't I be doing this for the same reasons you are? Why can't I be as serious about my studies as you are just because I'm not freaking out and pissing all over anyone who comes my way? More to the point, at what point in the dissertation process did I stop being 'Alex' to you? When did I only become 'Havok'?"

He cursed loudly as he grabbed the power supply - his hands were so hot that he had left fingerprints in the plastic. Angrily willing himself to cool down, he reached for his backpack and then closed his laptop and tossed it in along with his notebook, coiling up the adapter and putting it in the outside pocket.

"I'll be back later," he said shortly as he passed through the living room, put on his sneakers and grabbed his keys and jacket. He really didn't want to put it on - the insulated jacket would have his sweat-soaked in seconds as wound-up as he was - but it was barely above freezing outside and he had to keep up appearances.

The corner of the library where Alex liked to work was quiet - it was around the call numbers for math textbooks and it wasn't a high-traffic area. He plugged in his computer, propped up his notebook on the calculus textbook some undergrad had left on the cubby shelf, and went back to his section on the efficacy of various kinds of ion-based dating tests in actual field conditions. He nearly jumped out of his skin when books were dropped down near his elbow.

"So, what's a cute guy like you doing in a dump like this?" Ji-Won asked, schooling her features to their most innocent. She was carrying four volumes of Annals of Science and had Hello Kitty notepaper sticking out of what were presumably the relevant pages.

"If I stay home, I'd have to tremble in fear," Alex replied with a frown. He checked the clock on the corner of his laptop screen and was surprised to note that three hours had passed. "Shit. I wanted to go to Waldbaums before it closed."

"Lily's freaking out again?" Ji-Won asked sympathetically. She was only working on her proposal, so while Ji-Won understood the craziness that went along with the final death throes, she was able to maintain a certain distance from it. "And I have my car with me, so I can drive you over to the Pathmark in the mall if you want. It's open 24/7."

"Let's see," Alex made a great show of pondering. "Is having something in the house to eat besides kimchi and frozen peas worth a ride in the Little Yellow Neon of Doom?"

"It is not my fault that my car is a fender-bender magnet," Ji-Won protested. "I had a spotless driving record before this car."

"Didn't you have something like three headlight replacements before the Neon?"

"Dude, I'm a Korean from Flushing," Ji-Won replied, wagging her finger at him. "Three busted headlights is a spotless driving record. So. Wanna go buy me some Spam?"

Alex looked at his watch and considered that was already eight-thirty. "Actually, do you want to get something to eat before we hit the store? I haven't eaten since breakfast."

"Because all you have in the house is frozen peas and kimchi?" Ji-Won asked with a snort. She took off her coat and dropped it and her backpack on the chair next to Alex. "Let me photocopy this stuff and you're on. I'll be back in a few."

Alex had finished re-drafting a particularly offensive paragraph by the time Ji-Won had returned. She stole a pencil to write down the citations on the first pages and pulled out a Pochacco folder to stow them.

"'He's the hip pup with a cool attitude'," Ji-Won told him seriously as she caught him staring at the vaguely dog-like caricature.

"He's also naked from the waist down," Alex replied, tilting his head to see if any of the various renderings had the pup with pants. "Why does he need a shirt if he doesn't need pants?"

"Because he's 'the cool K-9'," Ji-Won told him, pointing a dainty fingertip at the text before she put the folder back.

"I give up," Alex laughed and turned off his booted-down computer.

"I saw Valeri over by the microfilm room," Ji-Won said as she shrugged on her peacoat. "Do you want to drag him along to dinner?"

"Sure, why not?" Alex replied as he put away his things. "I don't see anyone anymore."

Valeri was found talking to Sanjay and the four reunited Geosciences students headed off to Ji-Won's car, talking all the while about the never-quite-dead rumor that the department was going to kill off the paleontology subfield and why were they hiring another specialist in eco-politics when they really needed someone for quantitative analysis. Once they got to the parking lot, Alex and Sanjay went rock-paper-scissors to decide who got the front seat and who got the back - Valeri and Ji-Won were the shortest of the quartet, but Ji-Won was driving - and, after losing with 'paper', Alex took the seat behind Ji-Won.

"Do you want to stop and see if Lily wants to come?" Ji-Won asked as they exited the campus. "It'll be a tight squeeze and all in the back, but..."

"No," Alex replied with a frown as they drove by the pancake house that used to be a regular event for them and now hadn't been seen in months. "She says she doesn't have time for things like eating and I'm not going to get into two fights with her on the same day on the same subject. I'm torn between starving her into submission and making sure she doesn't actually do herself serious harm."

"Isn't love grand?" Sanjay asked from the front passenger seat.

"Only when you're not finishing up your dissertation," Valeri replied with a snort. "So, you think you two will last long enough to think about an apartment in Manhattan next year?"

"Primakov," Ji-Won sighed with frustration as she executed a slightly hairy left turn. "Do you have no shame? You're one step above reading the obituaries."

"Don't think I haven't been," Valeri moaned. His sublet was ending at the end of the academic year and Valeri was not about to stoop to returning to campus housing.

"That would explain why Ms. Park is seemingly operating as your real estate agent," Sanjay quipped as Ji-Won sped through a yellow light.

"Wanna walk?" Ji-Won snarled. She wasn't angry - in fact, she was the first person to admit that she had earned her reputation as one of Princeton's most dangerous drivers. "Jersey drivers," she muttered as she signaled and then passed a Toyota.

Alex enjoyed the camaraderie in silence. It was the natural course of events that he'd see his cohort less and less as they all advanced towards their degrees and Alex really missed everyone.

Twenty minutes later, they were all sipping margaritas at The Mexican Place (Princeton and its environs not being replete with restaurants and the Geosciences cohort being made up of a collection of varying accents, the local dining establishments tended to be referred to by their ethnicity and not their names. Which in the case of the Small Chinese Takeout Place was just as well as it seemed to change names every six weeks). Ji-Won, who didn't drink even when she wasn't driving, was especially fond of the virgin peach margaritas and could withstand any amount of ridicule over them.

Sometime between the guacamole and the entrees the conversation had turned to gossip, as it was prone to do with a group of people who hadn't seen each other in a while. Stephanie and Paul had finally given up the pretense that they weren't an item and were now shacking up; Rob had fallen madly in love with a soil expert at U Penn who was twice his age; and Valeri had sworn off women after his disastrous six-week relationship with 'that woman' from French Lit. Sanjay, as ever, managed to deftly obscure the fact that nobody ever knew anything about his romantic life and Ji-Won had more stories to tell of her grandmother's attempts to fix her up with any and all of the nice Korean boys in Jackson Heights.

"So," Valeri said, clapping his hands. "That leaves everyone but you, Alex."

"I thought the fact that I'm currently in exile from my home and my girlfriend spoke plenty about my situation," he replied with a frown and reached for his drink.

"Yeah, well," Valeri said and waved his hand dismissively. "But you two are on a deadline. You two are moving out this summer."

"And there's that whole matter of why you dragged me up to Paramus back in October," Ji-Won added. She had been Alex's 'girl voice' when he had picked out the engagement ring that was still sitting underneath old lab reports in the top shelf of his file cabinet. "You're not getting cold feet, are you?"

"No!" Alex protested. "It's more like I'm not getting any chances to do it. We're either writing or fighting these days. I can't even get her to the supermarket, let alone out for a nice romantic dinner so I can pop the question. Everything I say to her these days gets interpreted as either mollifying or patronizing or just plain inconsiderate. She'd probably take a proposal as me admitting that she doesn't have what it takes to be an academic."

Any responses were interrupted by the arrival of dinner and then the topic was changed entirely after Valeri realized that the waiter had misheard 'chicken' and brought him cheese burritos.

Ji-Won and Alex dropped Sanjay and Valeri back on campus after dinner and drove off to Pathmark and it wasn't until after they had discussed the relative merits of Granny Smith apples that the topic was re-introduced.

"Speaking as a girl here," she said, holding out a bag for Alex to pick out green peppers. "Don't rule out the fact that Lily's scared of a little more than just her schoolwork."

"What do you mean?" Alex asked as he looked over the lettuce.

"Valeri's right about the deadline," she explained, putting two cucumbers in the basket that was riding shotgun to Alex's cart. "She knows what's coming up - you two have jobs nearby each other and staying together would be natural. But she can't keep living with you if she doesn't have a commitment. Shacking up once is okay. Twice isn't."

"I'm not commitment-phobic," Alex protested. "Am I?"

"I think you're cautious," Ji-Won replied, tearing off another plastic bag from the roll. "And I think you have a different perspective than she does. You've lived with someone before. She hasn't."

Alex pondered this as he looked over the bags of pre-packaged oranges. Living with Lorna had been different. Neither of them had been thinking of commitment then. Permanence wasn't a goal, was barely a concept they had understood. And in the years since he had lived with Lorna in the desert, Alex had never found any sort of stability even as he had come to understand it. It was part of the reason he and Lorna had never bothered to try their relationship again - even if they didn't know the specifics of it, both of them appreciated that they weren't the same people they had been in those carefree days.

Alex had never known what he wanted - more like he had only known what he didn't want. And it wasn't until Lily that he had finally seen things differently. She represented so much of what he hadn't even realized that he was seeking until its possibility was presented to him.

"I have to figure out a way to do this, don't I?" He asked as they moved on past the salad dressings and into the dairy section. "I've been waiting for an opportunity to present itself and it hasn't."

"Well, it's all up to you," Ji-Won said as she checked expiration dates on the half-gallon containers of whole milk.

"Which in girlspeak means yes," Alex snorted.

The rest of the shopping - and Alex stocked up knowing that there was a car to carry everything back instead of just whatever he and Lily could comfortably stuff into their granny cart - went quickly and there was nobody on the check-out line at eleven-thirty.

Despite Alex's protests, Ji-Won helped him carry the groceries inside. She didn't come in, however, and they said goodbye at the curb.

"Thanks," Alex told her, giving the tiny woman as firm a hug as he dared. He always thought he might break her if he wasn't careful. "For everything."

"Hey, if someone in our group of escaped lunatics is going to have a normal relationship," Ji-Won told him seriously, "Then we all have a moral obligation to help. But you're welcome nonetheless."

Lily was asleep when he got in - not a surprise to Alex as he wasn't sure she had actually gone to sleep the previous night. He was half-convinced she changed into her pajama outfit solely to help her remember to take a shower and change clothes. He put away the groceries and hooked up his laptop to the external hard drive and synchronized all of his files he kept on both computers as well as the CD-RW before going to the bathroom and taking care of his ablutions.

He came back out in his pajama bottoms and carefully rooted through the top drawer of his file cabinet. The ring he had picked out had been with Lily's quirks in mind. She normally didn't wear rings - it was just another thing to take off in labs - and would grumble about the one ring she did like and rarely wore. It was a single-stone sapphire her grandmother had given her and Lily still had the scar on her forehead from where she had accidentally cut herself with it.

As such, Alex had opted for three smaller diamonds instead of one big solitaire. "More aerodynamic," Ji-Won had agreed, although she had pushed him towards the ones that had a rounder, larger middle stone. Putting it in his pajama pocket, Alex went into the kitchen for a glass and filled it with ice cubes and water. Just in case.

Lily slept like the dead and Alex, for once, was grateful. He put the glass down on his nightstand and looked carefully for his best access to her left hand, which was currently underneath her pillow as she was on her stomach. Climbing gently on to the bed on his side, he felt for it and slowly pulled it into view. Lily didn't even stir.

Ji-Won had given him major grief for not bringing the sapphire ring with him for sizing purposes and they had had to guesstimate. Alex had known all along that he could re-size the ring by himself, but hadn't wanted to tell Ji-Won that and had put up with her rant instead. The glass of ice water was to cool the metal just in case he actually had to fiddle with the band.

He didn't. The ring went on easily, but with just enough resistance for Alex to know that it wouldn't slide off. He looked at Lily's hand with approval, but it wasn't until he leaned back on his haunches and looked at her hand in relation to the rest of her that the awe set in.

This was it. Right where he wanted to be. And there was no taking it back, not that he'd want to. He felt almost giddy. Lightheaded. And while a part of his mind was warning him that when it came to X-Men and especially to Summerses it was getting to the wedding that was the hard part, the rest of him didn't care. He wanted to tell someone, wanted to wake Lily up, wanted to share his elation. But waking Lily up would ruin the effect. If he was going to propose like this, then he couldn't spoil the surprise. So he turned off his bedside light and lay down.

It was a long time before he finally fell asleep.

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