White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

24/November 2011

"So how long do we have?"

Scott made a face. "Huh?"

"How long until the XSE has to make an announcement?" Lily fished through the small outer pocket of her backpack for house keys. After it had been decided that they wouldn't be staying overnight in Westchester, Lily had failed to convince Scott that they could take the train home and he had insisted on driving them back to their apartment after an early dinner.

"Oh. Uhhh... Today's Saturday, so I think the best we're going to be able to do is Tuesday morning," he replied, looking at the rearview mirror at the truck double-parking behind him. "It'll give you enough time to tell the important folks, but I don't think it's going to stay out of the news long. There were civilians on the scene; we're gonna have to announce it before it leaks."

Lily looked behind her; Dane was busy introducing Alex to Ivan the Doorman. "We'll deal," she said. "Scott..."

"I know," he interrupted with a smile. "And the hard part hasn't even started yet. Just do me a favor, Lily? Remember that we're here to help? I think we've all realized not to push you, but... How can I say this without pissing you off? Some of us have been where he's been. Nobody's going to argue that the last five years have been a greater hell for you than anyone else, but don't deny Alex anything just because of your pride, okay? You're strong, he's strong, and that's still not going to be enough. Trust me on this."

Lily nodded rather than say anything. She knew Scott was right, but it still stung. And it was better to keep her mouth shut than say anything that she would later regret. Especially as she had been the one so anxious not to stay over in Westchester.

"It'll work out, Lily. It will," Scott continued, his voice gentler and Lily leaned in a little to hear him over the street noise. "The two of you are too stubborn for there to be any other conclusion... All right. Before I get ticketed. Tell Alex I'll talk to him during the week, okay? And I'll see you next weekend, if not before."

Lily nodded again and kissed his proffered cheek. "I'll be good, don't worry," she promised.

Scott coughed out a laugh as he turned off the blinkers and rolled up his window. "Famous last words and I love you anyway. 'Night."

Lily watched the car go down the street and then turned back to the apartment building. Ivan greeted her with a smile and she waved to Alex and Dane waiting by the elevator as she stopped off by the rows of mailboxes. Mail retrieved, she shook her head silently as Dane went to town on the call button.

"They redid the lobby," Alex observed as they entered the elevator. He pushed the button for the fourth floor without hesitation. "It's not puce anymore."

"As if that's a bad thing," Lily replied, hoping her voice sounded more normal to him than it did to her.

"You know where we live?" Dane asked his father curiously as they got off the elevator and walked.

"Yup," Alex confirmed, hanging back so that Lily could pass by. "I picked out this apartment. With Mommy's help, of course."

"Of course," Lily agreed with a chuckle as she unlocked the door. Alex had come running home waving the flyer and Lily's 'help' had been peeling him off of the ceiling. "But it looks a little different than the last time Daddy saw it, so if you want to show him around a little, I'm sure he wouldn't mind. But put your bag in your room first and dig out your PJs."

Once inside, Dane tore off in the direction of his bedroom and Alex stood in the foyer and looked around. Lily thought he looked bewildered and tried to squash the panic rising in her stomach.

"Moving was a bitch, I'll have you know," she said quietly, hanging up her coat. Alex didn't need one and hadn't bothered to borrow one. "Nobody would let me do anything and I was too stubborn to give precise directions and too numb to care where things were going. This wasn't your home and I didn't want to live in it without you."

Alex grimaced but Lily was relieved; the lost look was gone. "But you got over it," he said, then frowned and looked at her. "That didn't come out right."

"Probably not," she agreed wryly, crossing the foyer to him and putting her arms around his waist. After a half-second pause, he draped his arm over her shoulders and kissed her forehead. They had hardly been out of contact since the morning. It was as if they went too far apart the other would disappear again.

"It took me the better part of a year to find everything again after the move," she went on, "and half of that time I was wondering where you would want things to be and if you'd like the way things were set up. I was making myself crazy. And then it all became a moot point. Everything had to be set up according to how it could best accommodate Dane. That's pretty much been the way things have gone while you were away. I'd freak out until I had to do something for Dane. I never got over it, Alex. Never. I wasn't ready to move on. I was very unready. If I hadn't been pregnant when you disappeared, I can pretty much promise you that I'd still be living upstairs and there wouldn't be a damned thing out of place from the day you left."

Alex exhaled loudly. "I'm sorry I left you alone to face all this. You were so unsure about the baby and then..."

"And then I ended up having to raise an electrokinetic baby on my own because his father was rude enough to be the victim of some weird cosmic plot by becoming the Nexus of All Realities," Lily interrupted sourly, pulling away slightly so she could see his face. They hadn't had much of a chance to talk alone all day and she had had time to organize her thoughts. "Don't you dare start apologizing to me, Alex. We are not going to play that game. We are not going to compare scars, we are not going to feel guilty for not having been there for the other, and we are not going to try and figure out who had it worse."

She waited for him to nod agreement and he smiled despite himself. Scott and Jean had tried to keep the day low-stress for him. Nobody had called or stopped by and, with the XSE headquarters already functioning in Manhattan, the mansion had been almost deserted of people who had known Alex. Scott and Jean lived in the boathouse and the mansion's only full-time residents were the Guthries, who were in turn moving into Manhattan after Christmas. Dana had graciously taken over the task of keeping the other children occupied (Dane hadn't left his father's side all day) and Sam had stayed around only for the 'business' conversations. Lily suspected Alex would have been happy to have Sam stay around the whole time - he was the one person who hadn't outwardly changed in the five years Alex had been gone. Nathan had stayed through breakfast but had left shortly thereafter, muttering something about how Alex's story would wait and Domino would not.

"When you're ready to talk about what you went through," Lily went on after she was sure she had Alex's attention again, "then I want to hear all about it. And I'm going to make sure that you know everything there is to know about your son's first four years, right down to the last exploded radio. But it's not a competition. And, quite frankly, I'm pretty sure you're going to win any one we could come up with anyway. We thought we'd get to spend the rest of our lives together and that didn't happen. But we'll deal. Besides, this is not the first time you've shown up having to explain a part of your life that I didn't know you had. And I'm pretty sure I'm going to take this a lot better than I did the news that you were Havok."

Alex made a noise that was part laugh and possibly part sob, but she ignored that part.

"So instead of just getting Alex Summers, I now have a three-for-one deal instead of a two-for-one. Even if none of your realities taught you how to separate dark colors from light when doing laundry, I will still consider it a bargain."

He sighed and kissed her again, this time finding her lips. "You make everything sound so easy," he said and she could feel his breath against her cheek.

"I've developed a tendency to oversimplify," she replied with a smile. "Parenthood cultivates such skills. You'll be a whiz in no time. Which is why you are going to explain to Junior where babies come from the next time he asks."

Lily reveled in Alex's embrace as he pulled her tight against him. She hadn't forgotten that Alex was always warm, but she had forgotten how comfortable that warmth was.

"Speaking of Junior," Alex murmured into her ear. He had been very amused when Dane's name had been explained to him. Rather, he had been amused at Lily's indignation. He thought 'Dane' was a perfectly good name. "Where is the apple of our eyes?"

"Playing in his room," she replied, not really caring if her words were muffled. All day, she had been on alert - watching Alex, watching Dane, watching everyone else lest they upset either one of them. But now, now she could let down her guard. "He's probably figured out that the adults wanted to talk. Dane's good like that."

"I've noticed," Alex replied, a tiny catch in his voice and Lily tightened her arms around him. "Is he always this..."

"Perceptive?" Lily suggested, turning her head so Alex could hear her. "Not always, but enough that he seems very mature for his age. He's always been very aware of his surroundings, so I suppose this sort of follows. He watches everything. Everyone thinks that it's carryover from when his powers were uncontrollable and he couldn't touch anything. The other senses compensating for one that can't be used and all that."

She felt more than heard Alex sigh. "Was it rough for him? He doesn't seem too affected by it. But I've only seen him for a few hours."

"Don't start to brood," Lily warned, kissing his breastbone. "You've pretty much gotten the full Dane experience today. He's... really laid-back. Always has been and, no, I don't know where he picked that up. Not from me. But to answer your question, I think he's always understood that he was different. That he is different. And he just decided that he wasn't going to let that bother him. And it doesn't, except for the incidents."

"Have there been many?"

"Incidents? A few," she answered. "You'll notice the lightning rod-type attachment to the toilet when Dane takes you on your tour. He still has problems there. Do not make exploding toilet jokes. Oh, go ahead, you can laugh, but it's not funny to him just yet. He took out a few classmates the other year."

"That's my boy," Alex murmured amusedly.

"Are you two done yet?" Dane called from what sounded like the doorway to his room. "I finished my book."

"That was a very short book," Lily called back over her shoulder. "And yes, we're done. Why don't you take Daddy on his tour while I go take a shower? Or do you want to take your bath first? Daddy can help you with that."

Dane looked almost tempted and that was enough for Lily. "Why don't you two repair to the big bathroom, I'll take a quick shower in my bathroom, and we'll reconvene in the kitchen? I think we still have animal crackers, right?"

Dane's eyes lit up. Animal crackers were his Achilles heel and had gotten Lily out of many a jam over the years. "Yeah!"

By the time Lily had showered and changed into yoga pants and a t-shirt and headed towards the other bathroom, she could hear Dane and Alex chattering but no water running. Which was pretty impressive because it meant that Dane was already splashing around. When Dane didn't want to get into the bath, he was a master procrastinator and Alex didn't have the experience with his subterfuge to be able to see it right away. But Dane, soapy hair in a shark-fin, was fiddling with his washcloth and Alex was sitting on the toilet lid and father and son looked up with matching expressions when she stuck her head in the doorway.

"Daddy made the water just right," Dane told her, pointing with a soapy hand at the taps. "It was too hot but he fixed it just by sticking his hand in the water."

"Too hot?" Lily asked, thinking Dane had misspoken. Alex could heat up water, not cool it down. But Dane nodded confirmation and Lily looked at Alex, raising one eyebrow.

"It's one of my new tricks," he explained with a shrug. "Taking heat away is really just the opposite of lending heat and I've always known how to suck up radiation, so it wasn't that big of a theoretical leap."

"So you can make ice cream as well as popcorn?"

"I'm not that sophisticated with the cooling part," he replied with a frown. "Ice cubes from water in a tray, yes. But I'm not exactly going to put Bobby out of business."

"You can make popcorn?" Dane asked, clearly interested. "Can you make cookies?"

"Not as good as your mother's," Alex told him. "Wash behind your ears."

Upon being reminded of his scheduled tour, Dane finished his bath with minimum fuss and giggled delightedly as his father dried him off with a warmed towel. He fled the bathroom before Lily could entice him into his bathrobe and she called half-heartedly after him about not running around the house naked. Shaking her head, she turned back to Alex.

"So how's fatherhood going?" she asked as he stood to hang up Dane's towel.

"So far, so good," he replied, leaning over to pull the stopper out of the drain. "It's... different."

"Then what you expected?" Lily asked as she exited the bathroom, peering down the short hallway towards Dane's room, where she could see him getting into his pajamas.

"Then the last time," Alex finished, looking almost apologetic when Lily whirled to face him.

"Last time?" She repeated, realization coming to her all at once. "You had a child in one of the other realities?" The idea hurt terribly, that Alex had had his first parental experiences with a child not theirs.

Alex sighed heavily and rubbed his face with his hands. "They were never mine. But except for one, Scotty, I always had to pretend that they were Scotty was some kind of psi and realized straight off the bat."

Lily nodded, but said nothing. There was relief that Alex hadn't fathered children himself (although as much as she didn't want to think about it, Alex had lived dozens of lifetimes and it was ridiculous to expect that he'd have been celibate for all of it), but it still hurt. She wanted Dane to have the best of Alex and that included the freshness of his experiences.

"He felt bad for me," Alex went on, looking at the wall but Lily wasn't sure he could see anything. "He knew that I had a son back in my reality and that I missed him. I wonder how he turned out, if he's happy or even if he's still alive. I don't even know how long it's been since I died in that reality."

Lily had already heard about how Sulven had accidentally told Alex about Dane before he had disappeared. It had gladdened her greatly to know that Alex had carried thoughts of their son throughout his adventures and she tried to focus on that rather than on a replacement son that Alex hadn't seen in lifetimes.

"I'm ready!" Dane announced, charging out of his room. He was wearing his grizzly bear pajamas and the matching furry slippers (Lily had had to put up with Dane scratching her with his 'claws' for days after it had finally gotten cold enough for him to start wearing them) and his hair was sticking straight up. The slippers shuffling along first the carpeting in Dane's room and then the runner in the hallway made for enough static electricity to be a problem for an electrokinetic still learning control.

"Dane, watch your voltage," Lily warned as he skidded to a halt. He rolled his eyes and then closed them in concentration as he willed the electricity into the DCM that still ran through the floors of the apartment.

"Now can we go?" Dane asked plaintively, reaching up to his head to see if his hair was lying flat.

"Lead on," Alex told him with an indulgent smile, the darkness that had clouded his face apparently gone.

"I'm going to make tea," Lily said as Alex was getting dragged back towards the living room.

She followed the pair until the living room, at which point she broke to the right to head into the kitchen while Dane dragged Alex straight towards the foyer. Without being able to make out the words, she could follow the progress of Alex and Dane by their voices. By the time they reappeared in the living room, Lily had finished making tea and was pulling photo albums off of the bottom shelf of the bookcase by the television cabinet. There were hundreds of pictures on the computer, but this would be a less overwhelming start.

"Pictures?" Dane asked in the same put-upon voice that he used when he found out they were having chicken for dinner.

"Don't you want your father to know what you looked like as a baby?" Lily asked, holding out one for Dane to take into the kitchen.

"I was smaller," he told Alex, but nonetheless took the book.

"So I'd imagine," Alex replied, pursing his lips to hide his smile and gesturing for Lily to precede him.

Once they sat down to look at the photo albums, Dane at first was more interested in his tea-milk and allotment of animal crackers - especially after Alex was willing to help him try to identify some of the less clearly-defined silhouettes. But he eventually found his way to Alex's lap and thereafter was giving commentary on every picture.

At the conclusion of the second photo album, Lily cleared her throat and pointed out that it was an hour past someone's bedtime. As expected, Dane was extremely reluctant to go to bed. It took fifteen minutes of cajoling and threatening and finally Alex tagging along to get him into the bathroom to brush his teeth and Lily was not about to entertain a similar delay as Dane attempted to prove that he had not, in fact, gotten his bedtime story. Finally, he was in bed with the lights off and Lily closed the door behind him, explaining to Alex that Dane hated sleeping with the door open - he thought his mother needed too many lights and made too much noise.

"What's the matter?" she asked, noticing the start of tears in Alex's eyes as they went back to the kitchen. It was a silly question - a lot was the matter - but she was sure he'd take it in context.

"I'm feeling really lucky right now," Alex replied, sitting down at the table. "I've been gone since before he was born. He shouldn't know me from Adam and here I am walking into his life and he's not jealous or suspicious or anything. He's..."

"Really happy to finally see his dad," Lily finished, sitting down next to him and taking his warm hands in hers. "He does know you from Adam. He's been hearing about you for as long as he can remember. Especially after a certain incident a few years ago."

Alex looked at her questioningly.

"You remember earlier when Scott said something to Dane about him having gone off to find you and Dane said that he'd know you no matter what? Did you notice Sam looking all sheepish?"

"I thought it was unrelated," Alex replied.

"Dane got... confused at his second birthday party. It was a joint party at the mansion with Nate and Dane called Sam 'Dada,'" Lily explained, distance making what had been a traumatic moment seem not so much so. Or perhaps it was holding Alex's hands. "I utterly lost it in front of everyone, freaked Dane out - not to mention Nate and even the grownups - and, as best as I can tell, Nathan took Dane off for a nice conversation. Ever since then, he's been curious about you."

Alex nodded, but said nothing. Instead, he let his head hang and Lily wasn't sure if he had his eyes closed or was watching their joined hands. She listened to the quiet - the faint ticking of the clock on the wall, the muffled street noises, the dim sound of another apartment's stereo coming through the slightly opened window by the pantry.

"It's hard," he finally said in a quiet voice. "All of it's hard, but... trying to line up time. It's been almost five years here, fifty-nine months. It all moved forward at the pace it was supposed to..."

"For us, at least," Lily added sourly.

"And that's the thing," Alex agreed, looking up at her finally. "I stopped trying to keep track of how many years had gone by after the first few realities. Did it go at the same rate? Where was I when Dane was born? Where was I when he learned to talk and walk? Where was I when you moved to Antarctica? I can't even begin to try to figure it out. Every reality, I started at zero hour - the same day, the same year, the same minute. I lost the meaning of time because it went on a Moebius strip."

"Would it have made a difference?" Lily asked thoughtfully. "Would knowing whether you were blowing up a bad guy or eating dinner when Dane was born make much of a difference? You're upset that you weren't here. I'm upset that you weren't here. But it's in the past and we can't change that. I know you would have if you could have and don't think I didn't spend a whole lot of late nights trying to see if I couldn't change that, too."

Alex smiled sadly.

"I study time for a living," she went on. "I predict the future, at least I try to. And if I could have come up with a way to guarantee that I could punt Sulven or Nathan back to that day and stopped you from doing whatever it was that caused the accident and saved us the last five years of heartache? I would have given up an awful lot to do that."

"I know," he sighed, dropping his head again. He was quiet for a long moment and Lily waited. "And part of me is so scared that I've come back in such a state that..."

"That I wouldn't want you back?" Lily asked sharply. She pulled her hand free of Alex's and gripped his chin, forcing him to look at her. "Damnit, Alex. I waited five years for you to come back to me. I don't care if I have to hold your fragile psyche together with duct tape. I will never regret that you're home. No matter what happens between us."

He was starting to cry again; at least his eyes were tearing. Lily wiped them away with the back of her fingertips and Alex reached out to grab her hand and bring it to his lips for a kiss.

"I love you," he whispered, his voice rough. "I love you so much. And I hate myself for being so broken. And so scared."

Lily felt her own eyes burn with unshed tears. "I'm scared, too. We've both got so much anticipation. Dane's going to have to be the strong, sane, fearless one."

"He's up for it," Alex said, trying to laugh.

By unspoken agreement, they took deep breaths and pulled themselves back from the brink of unstoppable tears. They had both spent so much of the day wanting to cry, crying, and trying not to cry and Lily was sure that her eyes were just as bloodshot as Alex's. She gave him a grim smile and a nod and pulled over the third photo album.

They made it through the album, Lily making decidedly more adult commentary on the pictures now that Dane was asleep and Alex not quite being able to wrap his mind around seeing Piotr and Callisto together, before Alex yawned. It had been an incredibly long day - long couple of days - for him and Lily dropped the teacups into the dishwasher before heading back to the bedroom.

Alex wasn't there - Lily thought she heard him checking in on Dane - and so she went to brush her teeth. She was changed into pajamas and sitting on the bed by the time he entered the room and she looked up to find him watching her.

"Taking in the view?"

"I... it's not a view I thought I'd ever see again," he replied, shaking off his musings and smiling at her before he headed into the bathroom.

Lily moved into Alex's arms the moment he got into bed. She would be content with just this, just the feeling of Alex next to her. That familiar warmth, the familiar scent, the way they fit together. She was not surprised when Alex tilted her face up to kiss her and slid his hand up her side and from there it just progressed naturally. It was not fairy-tale, explosive lovemaking, the kind of perfection that happened at the end of movies and romance novels. It was a little awkward, a little rushed, a lot out-of-sync and performed with an intensity that would have been frightening in any other context. And when it was over and they had stopped crying, they laughed.

He woke up disoriented. As usual. And as he lay still and took stock of the situation and reminded himself that he was in his own bed next to his wife, Alex fought back the pang of... anger? Perhaps frustration... that he was still acting like he was on the run through realities. It was ridiculous to think that all of that conditioning would disappear in one day; that literally lifetimes of training could be undone by a few hours basking in the unconditional love of his son and the ferocity of his wife's devotion.

The clock said that it was twenty minutes after four in the morning. But despite the fact that he should have been exhausted enough to sleep until noon, he was wide-awake. Feeling too restless to lie in bed, he got up carefully. Lily, asleep on her stomach nearby, barely stirred. She had muttered about having to be restricted to just one side of the bed now that he was back, but she seemed to have adjusted well enough and hadn't kicked him during the night. Which was a blessing - in his half-awake confusement, there was no saying how he might have reacted.

It's going to take time. Scott had told him that. Jean had told him that. Nathan had told him that. And Lily had told him that a few times already. But Alex didn't want it to take time. Not now, when time finally had meaning, when it would go forward and never be recaptured. Before, when time didn't matter because there was always more of it in another reality, he wouldn't have cared. But now? He sighed, ending that train of thought. Welcome to the way the rest of the world lives, Summers.

He started making a mental list of all the things he'd have to do today and for the next few days, the important things that came even before thinking about the future. Letting people know that he was back, for one thing. The grapevine would have assured that all of the X-types knew already, even if they were obeying Jean's dictum to give him and Lily time and space, but there were other people. Ji-Won and the rest of the gang. Lily hadn't spoken to Orly yet, he knew. Lily had suggested taking a picture of him and sending it in an email to everyone along with a promise to call in short order. She had said that it would be considerate of everyone else and would buy them some time. Alex knew that this was really part of the unspoken plan to keep him from getting overwhelmed. He'd bristled at that plan earlier and Jean had given him that flat stare she used when you were being especially dull-witted and told him that just because he was willing to take on too much at once didn't mean that he had to. Or that they had to let him. But he knew she understood - when she had 'returned' from her entombment in Jamaica Bay, she had been a whirlwind of activity.

There was also the matter of figuring out who everyone was. Jean and Scott and Lily had made up an X-family tree for him yesterday, one that covered weddings and children and significant others. Alex had been alternately amused and awed as the list had grown; it had seemed a lot of events for five years, but Scott had pointed out that those particular years had coincided with most people's first taste of civilian life and these sorts of things were bound to happen. But they had happened without him. He knew that there was endless amounts of video waiting for him - Dane's early steps, Bobby and Cecilia's wedding, Piotr's award presentation in the New Lands - but... Maybe he'd look at it eventually. Not now.

He walked quietly out of the bedroom and towards the living room. It still felt like he was a guest here, like any unguided looking around that he did was prying, and yet not because everything was familiar in a detached way. The bookcases in the living room had his books as well as Lily's, the furniture, with the exception of the lamps, were all what he and Lily had picked out... seven years ago? No, eight. They had graduated in 2003. Graduated. As in he was technically Doctor Alexander Summers, PhD. It seemed like such a foreign concept. He'd not had a lot of free time over the realities to just sit around and be a geologist. Apparently, he really had broken ranks by quitting the hero business because there had been no other realities where he had been an academic. Always a soldier, even in that one reality where he had nominally had a day job...

Walking over to the bookshelf, Alex found an earth science textbook. It was the one he had used during his unhappy tenure as junior faculty at Fordham, complete with the multicolored post-its still stuck to the page edges as tabs. He took it back to the couch and turned on the small lamp on the end table. He pulled his feet up under him and began to read.

"There you are."

Alex looked up with a start. Lily, looking very much like she had woken up suddenly to find her just-found husband missing again, was standing behind the loveseat watching him. He made an apologetic face, glancing down to realize just how much of the textbook he had actually gone through. "I couldn't go back to sleep," he said.

Lily nodded, coming around to the front of the loveseat and sitting down on it. "So you decided to read about rocks?"

"Well, rocks and water and geomagnetic forces and... I had forgotten that I was a geologist. That I was a civilian. This," he said, holding up the book, "this is a part of my life that was never replicated. And I stopped thinking about it because, well, compared to you and Dane and the people I had left behind, it seemed unimportant and I shouldn't waste brain cells on geomorphology when I should be trying to remember that you like strawberries, like bananas, and hate strawberry-banana anything."

Lily coughed out a laugh, shaking her head. "Of all the things to remember me by..."

"It makes sense after a while, it really does," he assured her. He didn't want to try and explain how it was the minutiae that differentiated people between realities. There was a core of characteristics for each person that transcended every reality, but it was the other details that marked the differences.

"But..." Lily prompted him and he must have looked confused. "But how do we go from strawberry-banana yogurt back to you reading earth science in the pre-dawn hours?"

The answer hadn't been one that he'd been thinking about, but it seemed obvious once he opened his mouth to speak. "But I think I've realized that what makes me me is this. Geology is my strawberry-banana yogurt. I was never a civilian in any other reality. There was no other Alex Summers who had ever tried to explain the identifying characteristics of riverbeds classes to five-dozen disinterested undergrads. No other 'me' had been marching through llama shit in Peru trying to put together a geomorphological survey on a shoestring budget with two guides who kept getting sloshed on local moonshine and gave conflicting directions. I thought it was unimportant at the time, so I forgot it. And now I'm realizing that what I really forgot was myself."

"I'm not sure whether to be pleased or depressed that I got the only Alex who knew that he needed a day job to make himself happy," Lily said with a frown, but then she smiled. "But really, Alex. All that time in grad school living and breathing geology and you just decided that it wasn't a part of you? In favor of yogurt?"

"I never said that I was quick on the draw," Alex murmured, smiling. When she said it like that...

Lily shook her head. She got up, walked around the coffee table to the couch and leaned over to kiss his cheek. He shifted his legs in an invitation to sit down, but she shook her head no.

"Now that my heart is back to beating normally - I nearly screamed when you weren't there on the other half of the bed, 'Lex," she half-growled, "I'm going back to bed."

She kissed him again, letting her hand trail along his arm as she headed back towards the bedroom.

"Lil?" he called after her and she turned back. "Do we need anything from the market? Is the market even still there?"

"Market's still there," she replied with a smile. "And we could use both kinds of milk. Your wallet is in your nightstand drawer."

Alex got through the derivation of the universal gravitation constant before closing the book and getting up. It was starting to get light out, which at this time of the year and latitude meant that it was six-something. The market was open all the time, at least it had been before. And if not, then he'd walk around and explore the changes that had taken place in the neighborhood. This being the Upper West Side, he was sure they were fairly profound.

Once he was thoroughly wet, Alex realized that the only soap and shampoo in the master bathroom was Lily's and there was now no chance of either borrowing Dane's or poking around in the linen closet to see where Lily kept the stuff for visitors - he sincerely doubted she made her father wash his hair with baby shampoo when he stayed over. Thankful that Lily's stuff didn't smell too strongly of anything, he mentally added a drugstore run to his excursion.

It took a few guesses to figure out which drawers in his dresser held which items, but he managed to find what he needed without waking Lily. His shoes - he had borrowed a pair of Scott's size-too-big sneakers yesterday - were in the closet that had been closed all the way and he found his wallet and watch in the nightstand as promised. He hadn't remembered how much money had been in his wallet the day he had left - he hadn't taken it with him to Akkaba - but there were a variety of small bills as well as a twenty, so it didn't look like Lily had bothered to use any of it at any point. He felt a small pang of sorrow as he noticed that she had apparently kept his cards up to date - the ATM and credit cards were current, although he realized that he'd have to renew his driver's license.

His winter jacket was all the way in the far corner of the front closet and he'd spotted his own set of keys in the drawer in the table in the foyer last night during Dane's tour. They must have been returned to Lily after he'd vanished - Alex remembered he'd had them with him in his bag when he'd left for Akkaba just in case he didn't get teleported straight back to the apartment.

He nodded to the unfamiliar man behind the front desk as he exited the lobby and wondered idly who the man thought he might be. Turning left and heading towards Amsterdam, Alex looked around in the early morning light. The cars were different, although not drastically so. The cafe on the corner was now a Starbucks and two doors down there was a restaurant that Alex was pretty sure hadn't been there before, even if he didn't remember what it would have replaced. It was a Japanese restaurant and Alex made a note to ask Lily if she had been there.

Before heading to the market, he crossed the street to the big CVS and was relieved to see that it opened at seven even on Sundays. The security guard eyed him lazily as he entered and it took actual willpower to force down his fight-or-flight reflexes and focus his concentration on reading the aisle signs. 'The war is over,' he muttered to himself as he found the shampoo-acceptable-to-men section. He grabbed the house brand of the same stuff he'd always used and went off to investigate soap and toothbrushes. The cashier was too drowsy to do much more than ask if he had a discount card (Alex was pretty sure he did, but he wasn't going to sort through his wallet at present) and he headed back into the late-fall cold.

The market was comforting in its dingy familiarity. This wasn't the place that he and Lily had done most of their shopping, restricting their purchases here to sealed items like cans and containers. He had to laugh once he reached the dairy case - he wasn't sure exactly what the date was, so the expiry dates meant nothing to him. Finding the latest dates and counting on the fact that even Amir's All-Nite Grocery wouldn't stoop to selling post-dated milk, he got a half-gallon each of one-percent and whole. He was tempted to buy grapefruit juice - it wasn't something he had liked before he had left, but it had become an acquired taste a few realities ago - but decided to wait. At the front, he picked up both a Times and a Post. A quick check of the date on the front page of the Post confirmed that the milk would still be good for a week.

The doorman looked suspicious even after Alex offered to show his (expired) driver's license with the address on it, but reluctantly let him pass on the premise that he had keys to an apartment in the building. He managed to let himself back into the apartment without too much confusion regarding which key went into which lock - they were newer than the ones in their old apartment. He put the newspapers on the kitchen table and the milk in the fridge before going back to hang up his jacket and take off his shoes. Returning to the kitchen to set about the process of making coffee, he couldn't help the immediate transformation into battle mode when he heard a small crash from the windowsill. Spinning around, hands glowing, Alex was simultaneously surprised to see Dane and nauseated that he'd reacted the way he had in his own home. The irritation with himself turned into something more profoundly painful when he saw the look on Dane's face. Terror.

"I'm sorry," Dane said in a small voice, his hand still on the pepper mill he must have accidentally knocked over. "I just wanted to look outside."

Alex put his now-cooled hands to his face and shook his head. "You don't have to apologize," he said, taking his hands away and looking at Dane. He bent down to pick up the coffee filter he had dropped and went over to his son, thankful that Dane didn't retreat backwards as he approached. "That was all my fault. I should apologize to you. I'm sorry for scaring you."

Dane watched him carefully. "You didn't scare me," he said finally and Alex fought his smile at the little bit of bravado. "Did I scare you?"

Alex sat down in the chair closest to Dane and waved his son over. There was a slight hesitation before Dane approached and Alex hated himself desperately in that moment. He picked his son up and sat him down on his lap.

"You surprised me," he answered, smoothing Dane's sleep-ruffled hair. "And right now, I'm not real good with surprises. So I guess you scared me in a way. Or maybe I just scared myself. Either way, I shouldn't have reacted like I did. And I'm sorry you had to see it."

Dane frowned thoughtfully. "I don't like surprises, too," he said. "But I don't like to say so. I make things explode sometimes 'cause I can't stop the electricity." His pronunciation of the last word was emphasized; it had undoubtedly been his first long word.

"I know that feeling," Alex commiserated feelingly and Dane's expression softened a bit as if he could see that his father did, in fact, really understand. Alex wondered, for the umpteenth time in the last twenty-four hours, at his son's capacity to accept him. And while part of him wondered how on earth this stunning compassion had blossomed in a four-year-old, one whose parents were hardly paragons of such, the rest of him didn't care. Why sweat the details when he was being presented with such a precious gift?

"Did you know about me when you were away?" Dane asked curiously, turning around in Alex's lap to face him.

Alex nodded. "I knew you were here, keeping your mom company. And I worried that I wouldn't ever get a chance to see you. But I did." And the challenge will be to not make you regret it, he silently added.

Dane leaned against him, looking straight up into his face. His son had a penetrating gaze, Alex mused as he tried to keep still for this up-close inspection. Apparently satisfied, Dane burrowed into his chest, silent approbation that there was no way Dane could have known how badly Alex needed and yet gave anyway. They sat like that, the only noise being the ticking of the clock, until Dane's stomach rumbled loudly and they both giggled.

"How about breakfast?" Alex asked. He had thought Dane had gone back to sleep, but apparently he hadn't.


"You had those yesterday," Alex told him with a laugh, kissing his forehead. "How about something else? Cereal? A bagel?"

"Bagel," Dane answered.

A quick check of the freezer showed no bagels. "Where does Mommy go to get bagels?" he asked Dane, who was sitting in the seat he had vacated.

"Tal's," was the reply. "Can I come?"

Alex smiled. "Sure. But you have to get dressed first," he said, watching Dane immediately climb down from the chair and race off towards his bedroom. He jotted a quick note in case Lily woke up and then followed his son, not quite sure what Dane would consider 'dressed.'

It wasn't until he saw Dane's surge-protector anklet that he realized that he should have perhaps thought a little more before so readily agreeing. How did he check with his son about the precautions necessary for an electrokinetic's outing?

"Do you need to wear anything special because of your powers?" he finally settled on asking.

Dane shook his head. "When it's cold, I'm safe," he said simply and Alex was sure that Dane meant that he was safe to others and not from others.

Ten minutes later, Alex was tying Dane's shoes and then following the excited boy over to the front closet, where he was pointing up at his jacket. Alex handed it to him, then watched with barely suppressed mirth as Dane put it on the way he had learned in pre-school - by laying it on the ground with the arms closest to him and then putting his hands in the sleeves and throwing the jacket over his head behind him. It was a production, but it worked.

"Put your hat and mittens on," Alex told him as he put his own jacket on.

"You don't have to," Dane pointed out with a frown, attempting the zipper.

"I don't get cold," Alex told him as he knelt down to help Dane get it started, standing up so that his son could finish zipping himself up. "When you can regulate your own body temperature, you won't have to wear mittens and a hat, either. But for now, put them on."

This time when they passed the doorman at the front desk, there was a double-take as he obviously made the connection between father and son. Dane waved happily to him, but said nothing.

Going out still felt different. With more people out on the street than before, Alex felt like everyone was watching him, like he had a big 'I've just gotten back from an alternate reality' sign on his forehead or some kind of unmistakable marker that designated him as different and that any minute now, someone was going to come along and ask him where he was going with that child. He wasn't used to going anywhere with a child, his or anyone else's - his last stint as a parent had been many lifetimes ago. But Dane was taking it all in stride, chattering about all of the different places he went as they passed them or what Lily had said about this, that, or the other. And so Alex tried to keep up with the conversation and keep an eye on his surroundings. Battle-ready instincts or simple parental paranoia, he wasn't sure.

In spite of - or perhaps because of - his father's fears, Dane led the way confidently and they returned with bagels and lox and vegetable cream cheese and Alex poured Dane orange juice as he then finally started to make the coffee and suggested that Dane go wake his mother up.

After breakfast, Alex and Lily sat at the table with their coffee as Dane tried to read the article in the Post about the previous night's Rangers loss. Yes, it was the Post, which probably intentionally wrote in single-syllable words, but Dane was doing fairly well with it, Alex thought, sounding out the longer words and only occasionally asking for help. Dane was indignant when Lily had offered up 'Lecavalier' before he had finished his own attempt.

"So, who do you want to shock first?" Lily asked him after Dane had moved on to the funnies. "Or do you not want to make any calls today?"

Alex thought about it. The mass emailing would be a good idea, but he knew he still did need to talk to everyone eventually. "A few wouldn't hurt, I guess."

"Can I call Diego?" Dane asked. Alex blinked; if he had been told who Diego was, he didn't remember.

"I think we should talk to Piotr and Callisto first," Lily told Dane. She turned to Alex. "Actually, we should talk to them today no matter what. One of them usually picks Dane up from school on Mondays and he stays there until I get off from work. If there's going to be any sort of change in plans, we should let them know."

"Do you want to do it now?" Alex asked, looking at the clock.

"I don't know if anyone will be home," Lily replied, also looking at the clock. "Piotr and the kids will be in church and Callisto's going to be running errands."

Alex shook his head. "I'm still failing to wrap my mind around the domestication of Callisto, but since when did Piotr go to church?"

It wasn't that he couldn't see Piotr in a church, religion being the opiate of the Marxist masses notwithstanding, but it was more that it had always seemed like finding faith was one of those things on Piotr's list of wistful longings. Like everything else that Alex had imagined would make Piotr happy if he only let it. Lily had already told him that the changes in Piotr were profound and, without exception, for the better and Alex was very much looking forward to meeting this new, content Piotr.

"He started going with Tania," she explained with a smile. "Tania's Russian by birth - her parents had brought her here in hopes of treatment and then abandoned her when nothing could be done. And Piotr's been very adamant about making sure that she grows up knowing her heritage. Callisto thinks it's just an excuse for Piotr to go native, but she's indulging him. And Diego goes with them because he doesn't want to be left out."

"We don't go to church," Dane observed ruefully.

"Do you want to?" Alex asked, curious. He hadn't especially thought about matters of faith as they had pertained to his and Lily's offspring. He was a generic WASP and she was a lapsed Catholic raised by a flower child - intentionally ignoring the matter had seemed the prudent choice and Lily hadn't objected.

"Not the one Diego goes to," Dane replied, making a face. "It smells funny."

Incense. Alex nodded. "Well, if you can come up with one you're interested in, let me know."

Lily shook her head in amusement. "If you want to call anyone in the New Lands, you'd probably better do it quickly - it's late evening there. The government types and Kurt already know, no doubt, and Kurt will be back in town on Thursday anyway. But Ji-Won..."

Ji-Won and Kyung, in fact, were not at home. Lily left a message on their answering machine to call them whenever they got in, no matter the hour. The next call was to Sanjay, who was in despite Lily and Alex not thinking they'd catch him. As before, Lily placed the call - they'd thought it too dramatic to have Alex simply calling people up and announcing that he was back from (what everyone tacitly considered to be) the grave. Alex accepted the phone with trepidation - the whole thing still seemed overly dramatic and he was surprised to find himself nervous. But Sanjay's shock and unbridled joy had Alex grinning at the receiver. They spoke briefly - Sanjay was home because Adrian was hosting a lunch for one of his colleague's retirement - and promised to extend the conversation over Skype so that they could actually see each other.

Alex sliced the remaining bagels and put them in freezer bags as Lily talked to Orly. He was only being required to say hello, yes he was well, yes he knew just how much Lily had missed him, yes Dane was a pretty impressive kid, and that Orly would have to join a lost list of people who were going to kill him permanently should he ever disappear like that again. It was heartwarming, in a very embarrassing way, to hear people's reactions to his return. Obviously he had known that he'd be missed, but still.

Dane, uninterested in phone calls that weren't about him, had gone off to play with his toys and Lily was showering by the time Alex was putting away the remains of the cream cheese. And so all of their plans to avoid being melodramatic went awry when the phone rang before she had emerged. Ji-Won screamed into the phone when she realized whom she was talking to and was soon crying so hard that Kyung had to finish the conversation. After he was done, Alex went in search of Lily so that they could write their email now and avoid a repeat of that scenario.

on to the next chapter
back to the index