White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

23/November 2011

He remembered dying, remembered the moment of his death.

Every single fucking time.

The first time had been in an explosion, when he had woken up drowning. The second had also been in an explosion, but it was a different kind because it had taken place on the astral plane. The third time, he was pretty sure, had been decapitation. But he wasn't completely positive because after that the order got kind of blurry. The novelty had worn off. The most recent one had been poison and from past experience he could tell even without opening his eyes that he had joined a new world through some means that had him recovering in a bed. After the last life, he could use the rest.

Even if he didn't remember the order in which his deaths had occurred, he did remember them all. Sometimes the circumstances were a bit muddy, although that wasn't always his fault - he'd show up somewhere and then get killed again before he could figure out what he was supposed to have been doing instead of dying. But fate, or whatever power it was that had granted him the existence he had been given, had a decent imagination and a macabre sense of humor and he had rarely died the same way more than once. Which he was immensely thankful for; some of the deaths had been extremely unpleasant.

At the beginning, when the memories of some of his deaths still made him retch, he had been worried about what sort of long-term affects all of it would have on him. But he hadn't started gibbering yet and, in fact, he'd learned to stop associating 'death' with 'bad' and started looking at the positives. (Okay, so making like Eric Idle in "the Life of Brian" and singing 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life' to cheer himself up might not be that far from gibbering. But it worked.) It was the ultimate post-structuralist, post-modernist existence. He'd graduated past death and, with rare exception, taxes. Good, bad, right, and wrong had gone from being absolute to being relative. No matter how bad things got - and they could get pretty bad - it could always be worse. If this reality's Scott wasn't so great, maybe the next one's would be. If he had been hungry or cold in one existence, maybe he'd have a warm bed and good food in another. Permanence was no longer a part of his mindset. Not when he couldn't stay dead.

He wasn't sure how long he had been gone from the life he had started out in - and it still seemed wrong, somehow, to say 'his' life. He had stepped into the lives of so many Alex Summerses and had quickly lost the need to be proprietary about whose life was whose. And yet there was that he had never had to share, never could share.

But thinking about that one made him ache in parts of his soul that he'd thought frozen over, so he didn't. The crushing disappointment of waking up in another world that was not the one he had been born into was much more painful than any of his deaths.

There had been other reasons, of course. He had had his share of mental manipulations - Madelyne Pryor seemed to be able to throw one over on him no matter what reality he was in - but the first time he had had a telepath rip thoughts of Lily out his head and use them against him had been the last. After that, he had made fortifying his mental shields part of his routine upon first arriving in a new reality. There had been lessons from kind telepaths in a few different realities and by now his shields were stronger than even some psis', at least in terms of how easy it was to pull stuff out. There was apparently not much he could do about putting stuff in. But his shields would hold even under torture now. This had been proven more than once.

But verifying his mental shields was only the first part of his 'welcome to a new reality' checklist. The second was to gather as much information about who Alex Summers was in this reality without giving anything away. He had had to get very good at this very quickly. Failure was not an option; disclosure was even less of one. The first time he had committed suicide to escape a reality it had been to get free of the prospect of a life spent drugged up in an institution.

He sometimes wondered if he'd lost the gift of introspection through lack of use; it had atrophied by neglect. He didn't think often about his various lives -- or at all about the one he'd been born into -- because he was afraid he'd see how much he'd changed and that scared him. Or, more precisely, he was scared that there was nothing of that Alex Summers left, the one he'd been before all others, and that his experiences since then had changed him too profoundly so as to render him unrecognizable. His greatest fear was to get what he wanted, to drop back into the life he had first left, and find himself so out of sync that he'd have no choice but to move on.

Move on. His motto now. Not as catchy as 'what is, is', but effective. He wasn't a soldier marching singlemindedly towards a battle; he was the Nexus of All Realities. A flux point. Motion.

"Alex?"

The lights weren't on, he could tell, and the voice wasn't directly over him. But he still didn't open his eyes.

"I know you're awake, Alex. I don't know where you learned how to strengthen your shields like that, but I know you're awake. If you don't want to talk right now, that's fine. If you can't talk, do me a favor and thin out your shields a little bit so we can carry on a telepathic conversation."

It sounded like Jean, which was often how realities started when they didn't start with Scott or Maddie. But he had been burned too many times with evil Jeans and psychotic Scotts and, well, Maddie was usually a given and it was just a matter of whether or not she had turned evil yet. It was curiously comforting in its consistency - he had gotten rid of the Goblin Force after the first reality, but Maddie and her cosmic twins had just gotten creative instead. But now back to Jean.

"I'm going to take the radio silence as you just wanting some time to yourself now. It's all right. You must be exhausted and you're probably still pretty sore; Dana's going to be sleeping for a week after pulling you back. You should probably sleep, too, for a while if you can. Sulven's not around, so we have to wait for Nathan to go get Lily and Dane. You're going to meet your son, Alex. He's... you'll find out when you see him. I'll let you rest now."

He heard gentle footfalls, rubber-soled boots on linoleum, fade away. Fairly sure that he was alone now, he opened his eyes. The med lab of the mansion - it generally didn't look too different from reality to reality except for the one where Nathan had died of the techno-organic virus before he could be brought into the future. That reality had been illuminating for its absences; he wondered if even Scott knew just how much of the sub-basement facilities were 38th Century in design.

Jean's little monologue had been close enough to that reality to make the heartache return unbidden and he had to ruthlessly tamp down his emotions. He had been close enough before. Hope just made the delayed bubble-bursting all the more painful.

At least he seemed to have hooked up with Lily in this reality. In most of them he didn't. That had been a little disappointing; some gooey romantic part of him (that he was sure had long since been singed away) had hoped that they'd be constants in every reality like Scott and Jean. It made sense that they weren't though, because her presence in that life was solely the result of choices that no other version of him had seemed to make. At least she was alive here. He'd seen her die once and she'd been already dead in another one, both times a victim in his war for good versus evil.

A son. His son. The one Sulven had accidentally told him about the day before he had died the first time... No. He'd had other 'sons' in other realities, too. A daughter once, too.

If this wasn't part of another ploy to fuck with his head, then obviously this Alex Summers had been missing for some time. At least that would be different. Easier in most ways, harder in a couple. He had rarely had to account for missing time - his 'side' had usually seen him fall and then either dragged his re-animated carcass back with them or had had to go and rescue him from the bad guys. But as for the rest, it would make it easier to pass as this universe's Alex if his 'memory lapses' were completely understandable.

As for the other bits gleaned from Jean's words... Danas and Sulvens were more common than Lilys across realities. He suspected it was because Dana was a mutant and was more likely to get involved in the cause and Nathan usually came with an Askani sister or two, if not Sulven then another one. But he had yet to be in a reality where all three co-existed. But, statistically, it was bound to occur more than once and the odds of him encountering one of these realities increased the more he traveled.

He shifted slightly, pushing himself further up on the bed, and his left shoulder popped loudly. The shoulder he'd injured at Akkaba.

Again he tamped down the hope threatening to burst from its cell. No. It wasn't going to be home. There was going to be something off, something so absolutely off that he'd get his proof.

Diabolical plans or not, Jean was right and he was tired. If Dana had healed him, then he'd still need to sleep off whatever had happened.


"Alex, wake up. And don't play dead on me. It's been a long enough day as it is."

Scott's voice. Alex opened his eyes. Looking down, he noticed he was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt and wondered if they had been on him when he'd woken up before. When he had died in that reality, he had been wearing the remnants of a Kevlar bodysuit.

There was no point in delaying the inevitable. The sooner he found proof that this was yet another foreign reality, the sooner he could comfortably slip into the role of whoever Alex Summers was here. And then get himself killed for a good cause and move on. He had gotten good at that by now.

He looked up at this universe's version of his brother. And stared.

"Welcome home, bro," Scott said, his voice roughened by emotion. "If I wasn't so happy to have you back, I'd kill you for pulling that disappearing stunt."

Alex shifted gingerly, still sore from whatever had temporarily killed him this time, and sat up. Without exception, he always popped into a reality at the same age he'd been when he'd first died. No matter how many years he lived in any one reality, he was back to being thirty-four-and-a-half in the next one. So seeing Scott looking older - not battle-scarred kind of older, not worn, but just like he'd aged a little - was a little disconcerting. A lot disconcerting, actually.

"Jesus, Alex," Scott muttered, pulling him into a fierce embrace that he hesitantly returned. "Next time you choose to vaporize yourself, try not to wait five years before you rematerialize? Or at least send back a message? It's hell waiting for you. It really is."

He had been gone for five years after an explosion? Oh, no. No. This...

"While it is arguable to say that the world has waited for Alexander Summers to finally keep quiet," a familiar voice rumbled from the doorway, "in this case I'd wager that either attempts at withering sarcasm or even your familiar stream of complaints would be music to all of our ears." Hank McCoy, blue fur tinged ever so slightly with silver, appeared in Alex's view as Scott loosened his grip. "Speak, man, speak!"

"Uhhh... Hi?"

It was extremely lame as far as first words went, but neither Scott nor Hank seemed to care. They appeared to be too happy that Alex said anything at all. The wildly inappropriate cheerful banter was a good sign; it hopefully meant that he hadn't been found and rescued by the enemy, who would have been more careful to seem legitimately concerned. Tact was generally not an X-trait.

"He's talking now?" Jean asked, shimmying past Hank into the room. She, too, looked older. No less beautiful, but older.

"Well, he's not quite up to his usual levels of wit and profundity," Hank replied, walking over to the machine to which Alex didn't even realized that he was still attached. "But considering that he's been AWOL, emphasis on the WOL, for the past five years and that we found him..."

"Dehydrated like beef jerky," Jean cut in, frowning at Alex and he couldn't help but smile sheepishly at her baleful glare. Even if he was just going to play along with their relief that their Alex was safe and sound. It was getting harder and harder to keep from hoping. The age differences, the fact that Hank was blue...

"Yes, well," Hank continued, making a face. "Nonetheless, I'd say that a little bit of 'what the hell is going on?' is only appropriate."

"Is this my cue to ask 'What the hell is going on?'" Alex asked hoarsely, relieved that his usual biggest problem upon arriving in a reality was going to be solved so easily. He wouldn't have to explain away his confusion here.

With one hand still on his shoulder, Scott reached over with the other to get him a glass of water and Alex took it gratefully and drained it at once.

"See, he's getting better by the moment," Hank said with a nod. "That's your cue, by the way, Commander Summers."

"Oh, umm..." Scott sighed and took the glass back from Alex. "All right. Do you remember going to Akkaba to melt down some caves? It was post-Battle cleanup still and we were worried about some of Nur's cults reforming. You had to do it because of the way the mountain was situated. Julio shaking things down would have cut off nearby irrigation. Any of this ringing a bell?"

Oh, god, no. No. "Yeah."

"Something went wrong," Scott continued, a tremor in his voice. "There was an explosion. It was all out of proportion to what you were doing..."

"Heating up the core and flooding the passageways with molten rock," Alex murmured. No. Don't you dare hope, Summers, don't you dare.

"It looked like a pile of chocolate ice cream melting," Scott agreed. "You disappeared. We looked for days, but we never found a body."

There was always a body. That's how he was able to always re-set at thirty-four years old. He moved on in spirit, in consciousness, not in body.

"That was almost five years ago, Alex," Jean broke in. "It'll be five years next month."

Alex just shook his head. It couldn't be. It couldn't be.

"We've had the Cerebro looking for you constantly since then," Scott picked up, running his left hand through his hair. "And we got nothing until last night. We do a routine sweep of the area, just to make sure that nobody's getting any stupid ideas. Two minutes after Cerebro started going off, we got a call from the Egyptian police. They found you lying exactly where you had been standing that day. In the same uniform. You were in bad shape. Nothing that Dana and an IV couldn't fix, but... It was close for a bit."

"Alex?" Jean asked, concern coloring her voice. "I know it's a lot. But that's the worst of it, it really is."

"No, it's not," he whispered, trying to come up with something that would burst the bubble, that would just end the hope pouring through him like blood. This couldn't be. Not when he was too far gone. He knew he was crying, but didn't care. "No, it's not."

"Nathan's leaving in a few hours to go get Lily," Scott said gently. "He brought you back from Akkaba and then had to teleport to Moscow and now he's been sleeping that off so he can go get her and Dane. Dane's your son, by the way. Daniel, although I don't think he answers to it unless he's getting yelled at. Lily blamed you for picking the name."

Alex laughed even as the tears flowed. "I did."

A tissue box floated in the air into his lap and he took one, blowing his nose.

"We haven't told her yet," Scott said after Alex had accumulated a small pile of dirty tissues. "She's in Virginia visiting with her father for the weekend and we didn't want to tell her before... Before we knew you were all right."

Alex knew Scott didn't mean physically. "Do you know?" Can you tell me that I'm home?

"I told you that I can't get past your shields now," Jean said. "Wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you're impossible to read. We've been operating solely on the fact that you haven't jumped out of bed and tried to kill anyone."

He nodded. The next step was easy. "I'll drop them now," he offered. There was nothing else to do. Either he was home or he wasn't. And if he wasn't, then this Jean would either turn out to be sympathetic to his plight or she'd fry his brain. Either way, it would end the matter. If this wasn't his reality, he'd take the first opportunity presented and find something that would help him move on to the next one. This one was too close, too painful.

Jean walked over to the bed and reached out to touch his cheek. If this were a trap laid by him, if he were the one who could be dangerous, there would be nothing Jean could do. This was about her trusting him to be real. He wished he still had that kind of faith. But he didn't, nor did he have anything else to lose. He dropped his shields.

"Oh, god, Alex," Jean gasped. Her hand fell away from his face and he opened his eyes to find her supported by Scott, tears running down her face. "Oh, god. How did you live through this?"

"I didn't," he replied in a whisper. "That's the point."

Jean shook her head, wiping away her tears with the back of her hands. "Well, that's going to change. You're home, Alex. You're back. No more moving on." She took his face in her hands and kissed his forehead. "Tell me what I can do to prove it to you. Tell me what I can show you..."

Alex shook his head, he didn't know. Anything he'd remember could have easily come out of his own memories.

Jean kissed his forehead again, wiping away tears from his cheeks with her thumbs. "It's the best I can do," she murmured.

The next moment, he saw his wedding from Jean's perspective, feeling her amusement as he fumbled with Lily's ring. He saw himself nervous and concerned at the mansion door, bringing Lily to Westchester for the first time and he felt Jean's happiness that he had found someone so important to him. He felt Jean's horror as he appeared as Magistrate Summers of Genosha. And then he saw Lily, looked exhausted and sweaty, holding what must be their newborn son, and he felt Jean feel her anguish at his not being there.

"I want to believe," he whispered, feeling himself lose control. "I want to believe. I'm too tired to fight it anymore. I'm so tired..."

"Rest, then," Jean said quietly near his ear as he wept. "Rest. You're home, Alex. You're home. And I'm so sorry that you've been through so much that you can't believe. I'm so sorry..."

She let him cry himself out on her shoulder, Scott seemingly holding them both up, until he was gasping for air. And then there was a towel and some more water and Jean bade him lie down and told him she was going to knock him out so he could rest and that they'd be there when he woke up. She swore it would be so. And the last thing Alex remembered before falling asleep was praying that he didn't dream.

When he woke up, Scott was in a chair at the side of his bed, chin down, asleep. As Alex knew he would, his brother woke up the moment he swung his legs over the side of the bed.

"You can go across the hall and shower in the locker room," Scott said as he stood up slowly and stretched, rolling his neck. "Or you can go upstairs and use the shower in your old room. There's probably some of your own clothing there as well. We never cleaned out that dresser and Lily never stayed here long enough to do it herself."

Still feeling disoriented and unsure of what to do about the nagging doubts in the back of his mind, Alex nodded but said nothing. His sleep had been peaceful for the first time in a long time. Worrying about someone discovering his secret had made him a terrible sleeper over the years, even when he wasn't running for his life. Always having to plan ahead, always having to be in the moment - it was the rare reality where Alex Summers wasn't a soldier in some sort of war.

"Everyone here knows you're home, but they're kind of under orders to leave you be," Scott went on conversationally. "At least until Lily gets here."

"When is that?"

Scott tilted his head very slightly, a cue Alex recognized as meaning that Scott was talking to Jean along their bond. "Jean says Nathan's finishing his coffee and will probably be gone in ten minutes. Which means you should get moving because she's going to be here before you're done shaving."

Alex nodded again and got off of the bed, feeling the cool tiles under his bare feet. "Was she okay? I mean..."

"I'll let her tell you about it herself," Scott replied with a shrug that conveyed volumes. "But she's one hell of a woman, Alex. A fighter. This wasn't easy for any of us and especially for her. But she pulled herself together for Dane. You've had that to return to. And now you have."

Alex was surprised when Scott moved over and embraced him tightly. But this time, he could return it without pause. "Thanks," he murmured.

"Jean showed me a little bit about what she saw," Scott said as he pulled away. He shook his head sadly. "I hope you don't feel like the runt of the family anymore in terms of getting tossed around. Nexus of All Realities? Man, if Sinister had known what you'd turn into, he'd have stopped chasing me years ago."

Alex laughed hoarsely and Scott allowed himself a smile. They took Xavier's elevator to the third floor and Scott walked Alex to the door of his room. Judging by the light from the windows, it was early morning. The door to his room was open and Alex was utterly unsurprised to see that it looked like it always had.

"Jean's obviously been through," Scott commented dryly, gesturing to the folded towel on the bed as they entered. "Do you want me to wait or..."

"I'm... thirty-nine?" Alex asked, not intending to be sarcastic. After so many lifetimes, it was a little strange. He'd been thirty-nine, of course, and fifty in that one reality. But it was still odd to say.

"Yeah, yeah. Old enough not to drown in the shower," Scott muttered, smiling crookedly. "Although you don't look a day older than you did when you left."

"At least there's one perk," Alex said, surprising himself that he'd joke about it all.

"Well, the sense of humor's back," Scott chortled. "And still off-key as ever."

Alex rolled his eyes.

"Oh," Scott paused on his way out the door. "I still have the book I borrowed from you the day... you disappeared. Lords of Sipan. It's in the boathouse. I'll get it before you leave."

Alex had been most of the way into the bathroom, but he spun around to face his brother. "Did Jean..."

"Give me something out of your memories that she wouldn't know about but we would?" Scott finished without rancor. If he was bothered by Alex's continued suspicions, he didn't look it. "She didn't. But if you're looking for proof that this is your home reality, then you'll need all the minor details we can provide. I didn't think you were going to feel at ease until Lily got here, but I was wracking my brain to come up with something that might help."

"Thanks," Alex said, meaning it.

"I lost you once, 'Lex," Scott replied with a shrug. "I don't plan on doing it again."

Alex nodded and waited for Scott to close the door on his way out before getting into the shower. He had taken his clothes into the bathroom with him. Part of it was habit acquired through his various lives and part of it was because he was feeling cold in a way that had nothing to do with air temperature, and the steamy room would at least make him warm on the outside.

He put his face up to the hot spray, letting it wash away the tears that he knew were falling again. Home. It was almost too much to deal with. No, it was too much to deal with. Which was why he couldn't stop crying.

How much did he have to catch up on? How did he find a place in the life of a wife who hadn't seen him in five years and a son he'd never met? What if Lily... Scott would have said something if she'd found someone else. But what if she... he wasn't the same person anymore. He couldn't even fake being that person anymore. And Lily was a bright woman and she'd realize that pretty much right away. Intellectually he knew that there was nothing he could do, nothing they could do, but deal with it. No matter how it played out. But that didn't stop his heart from clenching tight in his chest. He missed her, doubly so because he'd so rarely let himself think about her even after the physical distance had stopped making him ache.

In the fluorescent light of the bathroom, he could look over his body and see familiar scars. He had been wounded so many times, nearly died so many times, that there would be only scar tissue were he to have gotten them only on one body. But this body was familiar in a certain way because it bore the marks of the life he remembered as his own. It was his. There was the jagged scar on his right inner arm from when he'd fallen in Bahrain during a survey for Lamont-Doherty and had caught his arm on some chain-link fencing. There was the mark from getting mauled by Sabretooth in one of his last fights with X-Factor. There was the not-quite-healed blister from the new shoes he had gotten two weeks before he had left for Akkaba...

He heard a noise coming from the bedroom and pulled his jeans on quickly. "Hello?"

"Hi," was the reply and Alex swore his heart stopped for a beat. It was a little boy's voice.

Alex yanked open the door and the boy on the bed looked up. Oh, god. That was his son. Daniel. Dane. Alex was frozen. His son.

Alex had thought that that had been especially cruel to have a 'son' in the first reality he jumped to. It had been a blessing that Scotty had known right away that he hadn't been the boy's real father.

Early on, during that time with Scotty, Alex had often wondered about what his own son would look like. Would he have Lily's eyes, his nose? Scotty had had 'his' blond hair and blue eyes, he'd looked otherwise just like his mother. Dane, who was watching his father with something between curiosity and amusement, looked exactly like Alex but with just enough to make it obvious that Lily was his mother.

Dane put the colored cube he had been playing with on the bed and got down and walked over to Alex. "You're my Daddy." It wasn't a question. It was a statement.

Alex crouched down. "Yeah," he said softly, feeling his eyes fill with tears once more. He held out his arms and Dane threw his hands around his neck and held on tightly. Alex could hear him sniffling.

Picking Dane up, he made his way carefully back to the bed, sitting down blindly and hoping he didn't sit on the illuminated cube. He didn't.

His son. The baby he'd been so excited about and Lily had been so terrified of. He'd promised her that he'd help her with their child at every step of the way and then he'd disappeared. Alex squeezed his son tightly, as if he could somehow impart five years of love at once, and rocked them both gently. Dane's tears were coming with hitched gasps and Alex rubbed his back gently, trying to soothe him.

"It's all right," he murmured, kissing his son's hair. "It's all right. I'm here now."

"And so you are," Lily said, her voice wavering and weak, as she stood in the doorway. "I have been waiting to... You and Dane..." she broke off, wiping furiously at the tears.

Alex couldn't take his eyes off of her. When he'd allowed himself to think of the people he'd left behind, he hadn't focused on the faces. Moving between realities as he did, he always saw Scott's face or Jean's face. He didn't need to remember those. He remembered personalities instead. So to see her in person as well as in spirit... Five years passing would make her thirty-three, but she looked younger than that. She always had. Her face was thinner and her hair shorter than it had been, and her eyes were bright with tears. With her left hand pressed to her mouth, he felt something warm inside him when he saw her wedding ring.

Dane turned his head from Alex's neck to look at his mother and Alex loosened his grip, prepared to let his son flee to the arms of the parent he knew. But Dane didn't move.

"I found him," he told his mother instead. The tears had mostly dried, although his pale skin was damp.

"You did," Lily replied, trying to smile and not quite accomplishing it. "Even if you were supposed to be looking for Ray."

Dane looked sheepish for all of half a second and Alex chuffed a laugh. "My boy," he murmured, ruffling Dane's hair. His son beamed at him and he felt that same awe. His boy, indeed.

"They were trying to give me a big talk about post-traumatic stress disorder," Lily said, taking a deep breath and pushing off from the doorframe and entering the room. "I figured it's not like I've never seen a shell-shocked soldier before, so I walked away. I think they were hoping I'd be better behaved now that you're home."

Alex smiled. This was the woman he had married. Right down to the avoidance.

"Hi," he said, holding out his hand. "I think we've met a few times. I'm Alex Summers, Nexus of All Realities."

Lily laughed, but Alex could tell it was very close to devolving into a sob. She took his hand, though, and squeezed it tightly in hers. "Lily Summers, mad scientist."

He didn't let go of her hand, couldn't let go. He could feel her tremble and he wanted to get up and hold her, but he couldn't with Dane in his lap.

"Sweetheart, can I borrow Daddy for a moment?" she asked and Dane let go and climbed off of Alex's lap to the other side of where his parents' hands were joined.

Alex stood up and closed the distance between them and pulled Lily into an embrace. She returned it fiercely and he could feel her shake as she tried not to sob. "You can let go," he whispered in her ear. "I'll hold on to you."

She shook her head against his neck even as she continued to tremble. "Later," she replied quietly. "I want to, but right now I've got a son not to traumatize and a family to defend you from."

Alex half-laughed and he wasn't sure why. All of his emotions were swirling around right now and he wasn't sure what would come to the surface at any moment. Too much joy, too much anguish, too much love, too much relief, too much of everything swam through his blood. He felt numb, he felt too much, it was his greatest dream fulfilled, it was his greatest nightmare brought to life. He was nauseous, he was dizzy, he was giddy, his body was thrumming with energy at the rightness of all of this even as his mind was still trying to catch up. He was swallowing down the sheer terror that threatened to engulf him. He didn't want to let go and squeezed harder when Lily pressed herself tighter against him as if he could somehow graft them together so that he'd never be forced apart from her again. As if he could get close enough that she couldn't see the damage.

"Daddy?"

Alex held his breath for a heartbeat at the title. The first time he had met Scotty... And yet Dane knew... "Yeah?"

"Do you like pancakes?"

In all of the surrealness of the day, it seemed a perfectly practical question. Alex had finally come home from lifetimes spent traveling through realities, was holding his wife for the first time in five years and the son he had never met was asking him about pancakes. It made perfect sense. "Yeah," he replied, sparing a glance to look down at Lily, who was smiling wryly as if she expected such a question. "But I haven't had any in years. Your mom used to make pretty good ones. Except she always burned the blueberries..."

A snort of either laughter or tears or (more likely) both from Lily and Alex looked over her head at Dane, who nodded.

"Mommy made them with chocolate chips once," he went on, digging his fingers into the knit comforter on the bed and kicking his feet happily. If he was at all touched by the weight of the emotions swirling around his parents, Dane was hiding it well and only his own flushed cheeks were testament to his earlier tears. "But they're not pretty like Aunt Jean's are. Aunt Jean makes them round. She said she was going to make some today."

"Do you want to go find Aunt Jean and see if she's started making pancakes yet?" Lily asked, turning within his embrace to face their son.

"I'll wait for you," Dane replied, still kicking his feet. There was a touch of something in his voice. Alex didn't know what it was and felt a wave of... disappointment? Self-loathing? Something. Because he could tell that something was wrong and had he been around for any of his son's life he would have been able to know what it was.


Lily smiled and sighed. She should have known that something like this would happen. It took all of her willpower to loosen her grip on Alex, but she kissed his bare chest quickly and then went to go sit on the bed next to Dane and pull him on to her lap. She hugged him tightly and kissed his head, looking over him to Alex, who was watching and looking a little lost and a lot concerned. She gestured with her head for him to sit down next to them and he did.

In all of the secret plans she'd had for when Alex would come back to her, in all of the complications she'd terrified herself with, this really hadn't been one of them.

"Dane," she began, running her fingers through his tousled hair. "Do you know what having your daddy here means?"

Dane looked up at her, blue eyes suspiciously bright. She wondered if Alex could see as much of himself in Dane as she could. Or if any of what she saw was still part of Alex. Jean had been vague and she had been anxious to find Alex and hadn't been listening that closely...

"It means that we can be a family. Like Aunt Jean and Uncle Scott and Colin and Ray and Nathan," Lily went on. Dane nodded in that way he had to show that he was following along but still wasn't convinced.

"But do you know what it doesn't mean?"

Dane shook his head no.

"It doesn't mean that I love you any less," she answered, kissing his forehead to emphasize the point. "You're always going to be my number one little guy. Always and forever. Okay?"

Dane nodded. He didn't talk much, but he had eloquent expressions, her son did. He was embarrassed at having been found out so easily and Lily smiled. She didn't want Dane to think that he was being replaced in her affections. She hadn't ever really considered the possibility that Dane would be jealous or insecure about Alex's return. Partly because Dane was who he was and mostly because she just couldn't wrap her mind around there being any negative side to Alex's return.

"I've loved your dad for years and years and years," she went on, looking down at him instead of at Alex. "Just like I've loved you. There's room in my heart for the both of you. There always has been... So we're cool?"

Dane nodded again, this time more confidently.

"I think you'll like having your dad around," she went on, finally looking at Alex. He was watching her with an almost frightening intensity and it took effort not to break the eye contact. "He likes hockey, too. And he makes a very good grilled cheese. He doesn't make the toast too dark like I do. And he can help you with your powers..."

"Powers?" Alex asked, clearly surprised.

Lily smiled. Apparently they hadn't said anything to him. "Dane here is quite the electrokinetic," she explained, ruffling her son's hair. "He's cut himself back to a three exploding light bulbs a week habit."

Alex barked out a laugh, for the first time letting his smile reach his eyes.

Dane blushed. "Mommy," he sighed and then turned to his father curiously, his insecurity temporarily forgotten. "You have powers, too?"

Alex nodded and held out his hand, palm up. A small ball of plasma appeared, perfectly formed and changing colors from white to blue to purple to red to green to yellow before it disappeared again. Lily tried not to stare. Alex hadn't been able to do that before...

"You can..." Dane trailed off, too awed to speak. He had leaned forward in Lily's lap and now broke free of her grip to reach for Alex's hand. He inspected it, holding up his own smaller one for comparison. "I can't make them stay in my hand," he said mournfully. "They get big and make things explode. I make a lot of things explode..."

Lily frowned at Dane's disappointment.

"Oh, don't worry about it," Alex told him cheerfully, still holding out his hand for Dane to examine. "When I first got my powers, I had to wear special clothes all the time or else I'd make everything explode. It was years before I could control my powers. And I was a grown-up when I got them."

"You had to wear special clothes, too?" Dane asked, curious and pleased. "I did, too. When I was a baby. But they don't work anymore. Now I have this," he reached down to show off the ankle cuff he wore.

"It's Reed Richards' latest creation," Lily explained. "It looks like he's a criminal on probation, but it's good for when his control slips. It's a surge protector, basically, not a capacitor, so he's still got to be a very good boy. But he usually is."

"Manifested at birth?" Alex mouthed at her and she nodded. He closed his eyes and shook his head as if in pain.

"But I'm learning to control it," Dane went on, oblivious to the silent conversation. "I have lessons and practice. Did you have lessons and practice?"

"Oh, yeah," Alex confirmed with an exaggerated nod and Lily smiled ruefully. If she remembered the stories correctly, most of his training and practice had come by getting kidnapped and even his containment suit had come from an enemy.

Lily was startled when the bedroom door suddenly opened further. Expecting an adult, she was surprised to see one of the twins. It was mildly embarrassing to her that she still had problems telling Colin and Ray apart. Especially because Dane seemed to have no such trouble. If the twins were next to each other, it was pretty easy - Colin had a rounder face and was a little taller - but apart, Lily still had problems. So she cheated. She'd thin out her shields a little bit and mentally whisper Colin's name. If the twin in question turned, it was Colin, the telepath. If the twin didn't, it was Ray, who was headblind.

"Pancakes," the twin who ignored the mental whisper announced. He looked curiously at Alex, but didn't say anything.

"Ray, this is your Uncle Alex," Lily told him. "He's Dane's dad."

"Hi," Ray said, then turned and wandered off. Lily could hear him carrying on one half of a conversation - as much of a conversation as two-year-olds had with each other - as his voice faded down the hallway.

"Jean's eyes, Scott's social skills?" Alex asked, one eyebrow raised in bemused confusion.

"The twins are..." Lily trailed off, waving her hand vaguely. "They're like the Logan twins were, but worse. At least Nick and Zara talked to other people once in a while. Colin and Ray... most of the time, they're in their own little world and don't feel like sharing."

"He's one of a set?" Alex asked with surprise as he got off the bed and went rooting through the chest of drawers for a shirt.

"Scott didn't tell you? Colin's the other one; he's the actual telepath. Ray's just x-positive."

Alex chuffed a bitter laugh as he pulled a polo shirt over his head. "We didn't get into any sort of family details," he replied, running his fingers through his hair to settle it down. "I wasn't exactly in the right shape to be updated on kids and pets. Too busy freaking out."

"Are you better now?" Lily asked, trying to keep the concern out of her body language lest Dane pick up too much on it. As it was, he was watching them both carefully.

"I'm pretty much past the fear that I'm not in my home reality," Alex replied, making a face that was too complex to decipher. "I haven't put any sort of thought into... I'm still working on that, I think. Haven't thought too much about the present, the future, what I missed..."

"We'll work on it," she told him, checking Dane's ankle cuff. This was a stressful situation and Dane's control wasn't the best when he was agitated, but he seemed to be holding himself in check for the time being. She honestly wasn't sure how she was doing herself. "We'll handle it."

"We will," Alex agreed. It was as much promise as defiance and Lily felt a surge of pride. And then he came over to her, leaned down, and kissed her forehead. To see his eyes again so close to hers, even if they were bloodshot, had an effect on her and Lily felt her own eyes well up with tears once more.

"Pancakes now?" Dane asked hopefully, standing up on the bed. Lily laughed and caught Alex's eyes again, this time smiling. Dane's years of people watching paid off in different ways sometimes and his preternatural ability to sense the invisible undercurrents of a situation was occasionally disturbing. Four-year-olds shouldn't be so perceptive, especially when they weren't telepaths.

Standing up, Dane came up to Alex's shoulder like this and Alex scooped him up in his arms.

"Pancakes now," he agreed, holding out his free hand to Lily to help her up. She took it and reveled in the warmth.

"I'm a big boy, Daddy," Dane sighed from his perch. "I can walk."

"Yeah, but I missed out on doing this when you were a baby," Alex replied easily, looking up at him. Lily could hear the slight tremor in his voice. "Indulge me?"

Dane's answer was to put his arms around his father's neck. "Just this time."

"Okay," Alex agreed. "Thank you."

The walk downstairs was filled with anticipation and Lily wondered once more what was going through Alex's mind. Right after Alex had disappeared, at her father's insistence, she had done a lot of reading on shell shock. She understood about not making Alex feel weak for not being able to fit back into the life he had left behind. She knew about not emphasizing the passage of time, but... But. None of the Department of Defense's helpful manuals covered this case...

They could hear Sam's voice as they came to the bottom of the stairs. Lily couldn't make out the words, but he was obviously talking to his children and she could hear Alison and Nate complaining in tandem about something. Alex turned to her, looking past Dane, and for a moment she thought he was panicking. But he smiled back when she smiled at him and he returned his attention to Dane, who was talking about pancakes again.




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