White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

17/ November 2008

There was a knock on her open office door and Lily looked up, then made a surprised face. "Nathan! What a surprise! How are you? How are Clare and Domino?"

She stood up as Nathan entered the room. Watching him walk so tentatively leaning on his cane was always disconcerting. He was still such a strong mind, such a strong presence, that physical weakness seemed wrong. "Everyone is well, thanks," he replied as he sat down a little heavily.

The top of a blond head appeared above the edge of the playpen and two blue eyes peered out. "Hi."

"You're feeling sociable now, huh?" Lily asked her son, who turned to look at her guilelessly. "You didn't even budge when we had visitors earlier."

Dane was quiet, occasionally quiet enough that Lily would get worried even though Jean had told her that there were no developmental problems and that he was actually quite bright for his age. Although Dane seemed to understand quite a bit, he didn't talk much and he was not given to displays of temper. He'd sit and play with his toys even when Lily had students in during office hours, not disrupting and not making noise. Orly had gotten him a mirror that came up from the corner of his playpen like a satellite dish and Lily had noticed that Dane loved to watch anything that happened in the office. She'd often catch him watching her - she'd look up at the mirror, see her son's face reflected, make a face herself, and hear him laugh. He had a wonderful laugh.

"Hello, Dane," Nathan replied with a small smile. Dane let out a cascade of laughter as he suddenly found himself being levitated into the air. "You're getting big."

"Big," Dane agreed, holding out his arms in the hopes that Nathan would hold him. Dane knew it was possible - he had gotten picked up at Clare's birthday party the previous weekend. Apparently the techno-organic virus allowed Nathan to hold him without discomfort (Lily didn't know if Nathan even had sensation on that side of his body) and he settled the toddler on his left side.

"Not that I'm not always pleased to see my favorite nephew," Lily began with a grin as she sat back down. "But even though you're not in uniform, I'm assuming this isn't a social call."

Nathan's eye flashed - after all this time, Lily knew it was a flash for humor and not one of anger - and he telekinetically opened up the briefcase he had brought with him, floating a thick folder into Lily's hands, all without disturbing Dane, who was watching raptly. She wondered what sort of magical world it must be for her son that he didn't bat an eye at telekinesis - it was no more or no less weird than anything else.

"I've been... sensing things," Nathan began, frowning as if to acknowledge the uselessness of such vague statements. "I can't tell what they are or what they mean. All I know is that they're real and they're dangerous."

Lily opened the folder, completely unsurprised to see printouts of what she knew were models of the time stream. This was what she had spent the months before Akkaba studying and perfecting - how to predict the magnitude and nature of disturbances and then to calculate their effects. It was what she had been working at on her own since then - Nathan had seen her conclusions, had discussed ramifications and whether to make any of the results public. It had been decided to keep things quiet. Nathan was worried about someone powerful taking the information and using it against the world while Lily's were much more mundane concerns - she didn't want to blow her burgeoning reputation in the field by turning into a Sagan-esque loony talking about bending time.

"Not to treat your instincts lightly," Lily said, skimming the pages of graphs and charts, "Because that would be pure folly. But is there anything more... concrete than just a sense of foreboding?"

By the sixth page, however, something was starting to set off her own sense of warning even before Nathan replied. She stood up and went over to the table behind where Nathan and Dane were sitting, where she usually sat with students and tutored. She spread out the graphs on the table, noticing in her peripheral vision that Nathan only turned to face her and did not get up out of his chair.

"Ever since Akkaba, I've been... more tightly bound to the timestream," Nathan explained thoughtfully. "I've always been the biggest disturbance, but now... I've got a very close relationship to the current itself, I think."

Lily turned to look at him, understanding what he was saying just as she understood all that he was not saying. Whatever had happened to him at Akkaba had changed him on a much more fundamental level than he had let on. And he hadn't told anyone. That was why he was being vague - because whatever this change was also happened to be the reason he could tell that there was trouble down the line. And he was trying to keep his secret even as he knew he was the only source of information. And there was trouble down the line. Running back-to-back, the graphs showed a definite pulse, albeit a faint one.

"Well, your... relationship has been your bounty this time," Lily said slowly, looking back at the graphs before moving over to the blackboard. Maintenance had been through the room overnight and the board had actually been cleaned. She started the first equation at the top, writing in a smaller hand than her 'blackboard handwriting' so that everything would fit without needing to erase. Time was a compressible flow, more or less, and could be roughly translated into equations. "It looks like the ass end of a ripple."

As she wrote out the equations, referring to the folder for the values of constants that only applied to the time stream itself, Lily muttered. This was why she didn't go public with her findings - unless you had the background, it was all science fiction; there wasn't enough direct connection to existing scientific knowledge. "If you've got a big enough rock, no matter how strong the current of the river, you're going to get a ripple going upstream that is strong enough to be felt. The readings you have are really, really faint. But they could be the far edges of that upstream ripple."

"The effects of a future event being felt before it happens," Nathan mused, gently disentangling Dane's hands from the contents of his shirt pocket.

"It could be," Lily agreed. "It could also be a few other things. It's really too early to tell. It could be something completely innocuous. The time stream is like every other non-theoretical flow - it's not perfectly smooth."

"I can't take that risk," Nathan replied, exhaling loudly. "I can't... I'd rather look paranoid than be caught unprepared. I've had everyone who has experience with temporal anomalies working overtime to come up with something, anything that this could be related to, but they've got nothing. There is nothing going on right now - even in the theoretical stages - that could cause this kind of... headache."

"And you mean that literally, don't you?" Lily asked pointedly as she collected the papers she had spread out across the table.

"I need your help," Nathan said instead, looking down at the toddler in his lap rather than answering the question. "I need to know what and when."

"I never mastered the 'what,' Nathan," Lily sighed as she took the folder back to her desk. She dropped it heavily and sat down with the same gracelessness. "I can tell you how and why. Even the when is going to take a phenomenal amount of effort. The time stream... if any of the work I've done since Akkaba has proven anything, it's that for every rule of fluid dynamics the time stream follows, there is another one where either it's a special case or there's a factor we haven't figured out yet. It took us three months to come up with a workable schematic for rate of flow. That's one of the most basic elements... To get what you want here... I don't know."

"You did it at Akkaba," Nathan objected, telekinetically bringing Dane's plush rabbit out of his playpen and into his outstretched hands.

"That was short-range," Lily pointed out, shaking her head and frowning. "The time between cause and effect was minimal so it was easy to map out the function. I also had a room full of people and a couple of hundred data sources."

"You could have that again," Nathan said, shifting in his seat. Lily idly wondered if sitting for long stretches was uncomfortable for him, although stillness was not a trait she associated with him in general. "All of those resources and more. Plus the XSE."

"At the risk of sounding callous and cold for ignoring the fate of the world in favor of more petty concerns," Lily sighed, leaning back. "What you're asking for is a full-time job. With overtime... I want to help you, but... This is going to be a project that's going to be intensive now and it's going to have to develop long-term protocols to deal with situations as they come up in the future. Small-scale, you're going to need to set up a permanent system within the XSE or your network..."

"They're basically integrated now," Nathan interjected.

"Fine," Lily said, waving her hand vaguely as that wasn't the point of what she was trying to say. "But that's just small scale. Large-scale... You're going to have to come up with a completely new science of time. Develop a whole new area of study. This isn't a one-person job. You're going to need some computational fluids experts and probably even a couple of experimental people, not to mention covering stats, pure math, a theoretical physicist or three… And all of this is pretending that we don't know that the social sciences aspect of this is totally undeveloped. We didn't need it at Akkaba and there's been nobody working on it in between. Data collection, relevancy scales… whole divisions to do tasks I can't even imagine right now. This isn't a quick start-up kind of business, Nathan."

"It's going to be done a lot less quickly and a lot less well if you're not involved," he replied. "I didn't ask for your help at Akkaba just because you were Alex's wife. You have the best combination of youth, intellect, and imagination for this precise task. That was true then and it's true now. Even more true now because of the work you've done since then on the time stream. This interests you - the creation of a new science. And we both know that you'd rather be doing this than trying to get a bunch of second-rate students through to their B.S. degrees."

Lily sighed again. She hated that he could so easily cut through to the core of the issue. "I'm not going to lie and say I'm not fascinated by all this. I am. But I'm also a civilian, Nathan. I'm not a superhero, I'm not XSE. I have to teach - I'm up for tenure review next semester - and taking care of Dane is not going to get any easier now that he's running around and taking things apart when I'm not looking..."

Understanding some of what was said that pertained to him, Dane giggled and Lily smiled at him in spite of herself. Dane, as her parents were all too eager to point out complete with the smugness of grandparents, might look just like Alex but he acted just like she had at his age. There was nothing he wouldn't take apart and play with, from the television remote to the Beaufix construction set that Kurt had gotten him.

"This setup isn't a permanent solution," Nathan said, waving his free hand around the room. "What are you going to do when Dane gets too old to sit in his playpen all day? Your babysitter isn't going to be here forever. And we both know that you don't want to spend the rest of your academic career here."

Lily closed her eyes and ran her fingers through her hair. She hated not being able to deny any of what Nathan was saying. He was right - she had never intended to stay at City College long enough to be up for a tenure review, let alone at a point where she was plotting on how best to accomplish it. She was very worried about how long Dane could be kept occupied in a corner of her office - the highlight of his day was to get outside and get taken to a park where he could run around. And Shalit... Shalit made no bones about the fact that she had come to New York in part to look for a husband as well as to earn her degrees. And now a junior, she was close to accomplishing all of her goals.

"I know the real reasons, Lily," Nathan said quietly. She opened her eyes and he was watching her, the furrow in his brow gone and an almost peaceful look about him. "I know because I tried to do it, too... You won't be losing your independence. You won't become part of the big XSE-but-really-the-X-Men machine. You won't fall into what Alex ran from... That's really what this is about, isn't it? Alex."

Lily looked at him sharply. "What has Alex to do with this? Apart from the obvious part where I'm the single mother raising the electrokinetic baby?"

The electrokinetic baby in question was watching the exchange with an intense gaze that Lily found disturbing. Dane's focus, like his silence, was uncanny for a toddler and if it weren't for the fact that the former was occasionally turned on people as well as objects, Lily would have had him tested for autism.

"Do you think it goes unnoticed that you've resisted almost every offer to help?" Nathan asked instead. "Take it from my own personal experience - they've picked up on it. Every spurned invitation, every hint intentionally ignored, they notice. And keep tally. You take only what help that will let you stay as far away as possible."

"What does this have to do with anything?" Lily repeated, shaking her head in wonderment at where this train of thought could have come from.

"I'm not asking for your help because I'm looking for a way to keep tied you to the mansion," Nathan said, letting Dane on to the floor as he was trying to wiggle off of Nathan's knee. "This isn't an offer being made because I don't trust you to put your own best interests ahead of your pride. I'm asking for your help because I need it. To find someone else with your expertise and knowledge that can handle everything else that this project will involve... It can't be done. I've looked. Theoretical fluid dynamics isn't producing the sort of people I need right now. I would have left you to wallow if I could have. I'm not in the business of saving souls when they don't want to be saved."

Lily had been watching Dane wander carefully around the office, but she turned to look at Nathan sharply. "It's good to know neither injury nor fatherhood have dulled your instinctual abilities to be an asshole."

Nathan shrugged. "You were there when I needed you at Akkaba. When the world needed you. And now you're needed again."

Is this how it goes, Lily asked herself. Is this what Alex felt like every time Scott called late at night? "I'm not the same person I was then, Nathan. I'm not in the same situation. I have too many responsibilities to just drop everything and follow my curiosity. I'm not..."

"Carefree anymore?" Nathan asked with surprising gentleness. "You never were, but along with that realization came a great deal of strength. You should use it for something other than keeping everyone away from you. Trust me. Our family will meddle less that way."

There were times when Lily really hated being related to telepaths. She was never sure whether they were grasping at straws or seeing the truth.  Of course, one probably didn't need be a telepath if Lily was being as transparent as Nathan seemed to think she was. He really didn't see her often enough to be able to comment otherwise and she couldn't imagine him sitting around and discussing her with Jean or Scott.

"I can't force you to help me, Lily," Nathan said, standing up with a hiss of pain even as he raised himself telekinetically. "I know that in the end you probably will because of who you are. And I will promise you that I won't take advantage of that."

"At least not too much," Lily retorted, mostly out of a lack of anything else to say.

Nathan made face that she couldn't read and she was about to say that she'd think about it, but there was a knock on the door. "Enter!"

It was her office hours and personal business had to take a back seat. As if by unspoken agreement, Nathan nodded and teleported away. He must have said a telepathic goodbye to Dane, however, as the toddler turned and waved goodbye.

"Professor Summers?" A head popped in. "Are you free?"

"Sure," Lily replied, gesturing for the young man to come in as she put the folder in her backpack and moved around the front of the desk to retrieve Dane. "Leave the door open. I just didn't want my son wandering off into the hallway... Okay, Dane, back to prison for you."

"Hey Jean, how are you?... No, nothing major going on here. I'm vacuuming and Dane' s busy with his latest new toy... A fire truck. My father sent it... Yeah... He figured it out right away, actually. I felt bad laughing at him screaming in fright when the siren went off when he touched it, but... Yeah, he spent the rest of the day trying to see if any of his other toys would do the same thing. I'm going to have to start buying him battery-powered toys now... Yeah, although I don't think the money saved on batteries is going to cover the costs to wire everything else so that he doesn't blow them up... Dane! What did I say about making the lamps glow like that?... Sorry about that... Yeah. That's his other new trick. He giggles like a lunatic and I get scared to death... So what's new?... Really? Wow... Congrats... How far along are you?... Well, it won't be November or May, so you've got that in your favor... Yeah, that sort of blew my mind when I thought about it, too. It's a little easier if you just think of it in terms of Clare and not Nathan, but then again, I'm a lot less used to this family than you are. How's Scott taking it... No, I can imagine... Well, at least you've already pulled the disappearing act, you know?... You don't have to not mention it, Jean. I mean, it's going to come up. I'd honestly rather people talked about Alex than go out of their way to not bring him up in my presence... I know nobody's forgotten him, but... Yeah... Umm, next week is better... Tuesday? Okay. No, we can take the train up... Actually he does, but the MetroNorth can take it... Okay. Will do... See you then... Yeah. And congratulations... Bye."

"Be careful," Lily called after Dane as he ran down the hallway towards their apartment door.

Almost on cue, Dane tripped and fell, landing with a quiet 'oof.' Lily ran over to him, but he looked up at her more confused than hurt - it was a carpeted floor and he was wearing enough layers to ward off the late February chill that she honestly didn't think he could hurt himself. She bent down to pick him up, but Dane squirmed out of her grip and continued to race towards the door.

Lily was fairly sure what the excitement was about. Dane had mastered doorknobs the other week and was eager to put the skill to good use. He arrived at the door with a thump and reached up with mittened hands for the doorknob. "It's not going to open for you, sweetie," she told him as she fished her keys out of her backpack. "It's locked."

He tried again anyway, his covered hands sliding over the brass knob.

"Me," Dane insisted, trying to block Lily from approaching.

"I'll let you open the door," she promised with an amused sigh. "But let me unlock it first."

Dane narrowed his eyes at her and Lily laughed in spite of herself. Raising her son was turning out to be a complete revelation in terms of her at-one-time firmly held beliefs of nature versus nurture. There were certain things Dane did - like make that face - that were so utterly Alex... "How about you help me unlock the door?"

Putting down the bag of groceries, Lily offered her keys to Dane and picked him up so that he could put the key in the lock. It took a few tries for him to get the right key into the slot and Lily held his hand so that they could turn it together before putting him down. She unlocked the second lock and took off Dane's mittens. "Set to, Junior."

The doorknob turned far enough on the third try and the door swung open. Lily turned on the light before picking up the grocery bag as Dane ran to the front closet and pulled off his hat and worked on unzipping his jacket, the mittens dangling from their strings on his cuffs.

"Just leave your shirt on this time, okay?" she asked him as she took the groceries into the kitchen. Dane's other favorite activity these days was stripping.

By the time she returned to take off her own coat, a still-shirted Dane was sitting next to the pile of his outerwear and picking at the knots in his shoes. Everyone had suggested that Lily get Velcro straps for him so that he could do them himself, but there was a method behind her madness. If Dane couldn't take his shoes off, then he wouldn't take his pants off and if he couldn't take his pants off, then the diaper stayed on. He kicked his feet expectantly as Lily put away both of their coats and his hat.

A half-hour later, they were in the kitchen listening to the news as Lily made dinner. An hour after that, they were making a mess as Dane splashed around in his bath and sang a mostly-nonsensical version of one of the Sesame Street songs from the CD Sanjay and Adrian had sent him for Christmas. And an hour after that, after a story that involved the adventures of a bright blue anthropomorphic hippopotamus (whom Dane insisted on calling Kurt, despite the fact that he was named William), Lily sat on the couch with her feet on the coffee table, a cup of tea by her ankles, and a pile of quizzes on her lap as she listened to Dane sing himself to sleep.

The quizzes were eventually carried into the kitchen so Lily could make tea as she was starting to nod off herself. After finally grading the last of them, Lily dropped the folder back in her backpack and pulled out the dark blue binder. It unlocked upon her touch to the sensor panel - Reed Richards had designed fingerprint locks small enough for use on documents. Lily had been given a set of the latest design for her own use, but this one had the XSE logo stamped upon the cover and was full of Nathan's own notes.

As he had said - and as Lily had known - she had agreed to help him out. The work, in short, was overwhelming in scope, in magnitude, in importance, and in significance. Very little headway had been made thus far - mostly it was just verifying data points and running the same sets of trials in hopes of new ideas coming to light. Nathan had thrice teleported her down to the 'head office' in the New Lands, a benign looking facility (from the outside) that was run with only indirect links to the XSE. It was becoming increasingly evident to both Lily and Nathan that more money and more manpower were necessary.

Nathan had not yet asked Lily to join the research team full-time, but they both knew that it was coming. Privately, Lily wondered what she'd say when Nathan finally did ask. Her situation at City College had been unsettled all semester and was growing more so with each passing week. The tenure review committee was being... belligerent, although Lily was hesitant to use the word with anyone affiliated with school. The questions were informal, the committee hadn't scheduled any official meetings with her yet, but Lily didn't need to be a telepath to see what was going through their minds. Why else would they be asking the questions they asked her?

They knew of her XSE connections - hell, four of the members had signed the condolence card that had been passed around when Alex had disappeared. But only now was it being considered anything other than casual. They had heard that the head of the XSE had visited her office on more than one occasion. Was it during her office hours when she should have been focusing on her students? Was she accepting research projects from the XSE or did she see herself doing so in the future? Both her late husband and her son were mutant energy producers - did she see herself focusing more exclusively on the formal study of those sorts of fluid mechanics? Did she see herself becoming active in the mutant cause?

The personal nature of the questions was not especially surprising. Academia was not about pedagogy; it was about politics. And the ME department had a responsibility both to City College and the City University of New York as a whole to, well, make sure that Lily was not going to be a political problem. It galled Lily that a public university - one that by law had to accept anyone with a New York City diploma, be they mutant or baseline human - would worry about this. She should have been an asset to them - female, practically bilingual (her first two semesters of teaching classes with two dozen Koreans a section had convinced her to go back and brush up on her grammar), a well-respected young person with superb connections. Hell, her mutant ties should have been a bonus - there were almost no 'outed' academics.

But none of that was the case. Instead of focusing on the grant money Lily had won to substantially improve the fluid study capabilities of the EFMA lab, they wanted to know why she had thanked Princeton's labs in her latest paper on supersonic flow instead of her own. (They had the facilities to create the cross-flow distortion effects she needed and City didn't.) Instead of focusing on how she had been interviewed for a position at MIT, the committee wanted to know how seriously she had considered the offer from President Lehnsherr of a fellowship at the recently established University of the New Lands. (She hadn't; Magnus had made the offer despite knowing that the facilities for the Engineering School - namely the labs - would not be ready for another three years.) They even wanted to know if Lily was considering retiring from teaching to take care of her son.

Basically, Lily had decided - and Sanjay had concurred, when she had spoken to him last - that the committee was simply looking for a good justification to deny her tenure. It was frustrating, but it was also a relief - truth be told, even if Nathan wasn't tempting her with an offer to follow her professional interests with a functionally unlimited budget, Lily was ready to move on. She just needed to be pushed. But whether it would be moving on to the Midnight Sun Laboratory in beautiful downtown Biosphere Three, Lily had not yet decided. Even if there were no other immediate teaching offers, she had enough connections to wrangle out a decent 'visiting scholar' position. There were possibilities.

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