White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

25/November-December 2011

Alex greeted his brother at the door with a quick hug and took his coat. The XSE uniform Scott was wearing looked odd to him with its patches and pins, but then again so did the gray hairs that were starting be noticeable in the right light.

It had been a good few days. Surprisingly good. The email to everyone had been a relief to send, even if Lily had been insistent upon him including his former supervisors at both the Museum of Natural History and Lamont-Doherty ("You want to be a paid geologist again, right?") on the list. They had had dinner at Piotr and Callisto's on Monday night and Alex had been pleasantly shocked at the 'new' Piotr and his family. Especially Callisto. Privately, Alex took hope from watching Piotr and Callisto. He saw in them a sort of mirror image of himself and Lily, even if it was a funhouse mirror. They had met in a situation that was as idyllic as it was temporary and even misleading, been forced apart by circumstances beyond their control, and yet found the strength to come together again no matter what the scars. If Callisto could do it, so could he.

"You're home alone?" Scott asked, following him into the kitchen. Alex had left the choice of where to have lunch up to his brother and Scott had suggested eating in, saying that he had enough business-related meals this week that he'd prefer not to spend any additional time in a restaurant that he didn't have to. Alex thought that while that may be true, the real reason was privacy to talk. And that was okay, too.

"Packed 'em off this morning," Alex confirmed as he pulled vegetables out of the fridge. "I'm a big boy now. No babysitter required."

"Why am I not surprised that Lily's not taking more time off for this?" Scott asked, shaking his head and smiling. He opened up the drawer near the sink and pulled out the carrot peeler. Alex frowned at him - he hadn't known it was there. Maybe Scott knew where Lily kept the toolbox hidden - the clothes bar in his closet was loose on one side.

"I know it's a bit hypocritical to expect Lily to make a big production out of you coming home," Scott went on as he scraped the carrots Alex had handed him. "We certainly haven't done it in the past when anyone else reappears, but... I don't know, you guys have made a point of being different from everyone else."

Alex shrugged. "She's working half-days this week," he explained. He was actually relieved that Lily wasn't home all day. Not that he wasn't happy to spend every moment with her, but he'd quickly realized that he needed his own time. "She tries to leave at one, it ends up being closer to two, but it's good. It's okay. It's maybe even a little necessary. I don't think we need to be around each other 24/7. We'd drive each other crazy. She needs to do her work, maintain some semblance of normal for both herself and for Dane, and I need... I need to figure out what my normal is going to be."

Scott gave him a considering look. "Is this Alex-speak for 'something's not right' or..."

"No, no," Alex cut him off, waving the romaine lettuce. "It's more a case of me being the only one who can sort out what's going on in my head about the past, about my time in other realities. It's ugly and messy and it's got me a lot more screwed up than I want to admit to either myself or anyone else. And when Lily and Dane are around, I distract myself from that because why would I want to look at all of the darkness when I've got them? Does that make sense?"

"Sure," Scott answered, nodding. He pulled the garbage can out from under the sink and dumped the peels into it. "But I'm still going to remind you of what I remind Lily constantly - you don't have to do it alone. Even the stuff that happened when you were off being the Nexus of All Realities. Just remember that Jean and I have done the whole 'go sometime else and be someone else and then come back and try to pretend that you're the same person' thing. If either of us can help you, then let us. It probably wouldn't do either of us any harm to talk about it, either."

Alex nodded and pulled the large knife out of the holder and put down the cutting board. "I had sorta forgotten about that."

"I haven't," Scott said darkly. "It's actually getting easier as time passes. The one good thing about getting older, I guess. The discrepancy isn't as big. It's still there - I'm still fifty-five in a forty-three year-old's body - but I don't have to pretend as much. I'm supposed to be wizened and mature now. It's not like it was before, when everyone thought I was just broody and solemn because while I was thirty-seven in my head, I was twenty-five as far as everyone else was concerned and that's not how twenty-five year-olds act. At least Jean understood. I don't know what I would have done if she hadn't. Not that I'd wish what happened to us on her, but..."

"I think Lily's going into this with eyes wide open," Alex said, resuming cutting the cucumber into chunky slices. He felt a little sheepish - he had been one of those people who thought Scott was just broody and introverted and it had never dawned on him that Scott was acting his mental age and not his physical one. But he knew Scott wasn't telling him that to chastise him. "She comes from a military family. Her grandfather was in Korea, her dad's been in a whole whack of bad places. This isn't a foreign concept to her, even if the specifics are decidely weirder than anything she might've seen in the past."

There were times when he thought Lily was trying to drag them all, him especially, to safety and happiness by sheer force of will alone. There were times when he could see her fighting her own frustration and irritation -- Alex had put something in the wrong place, he'd forgotten some piece of information he'd been told, his tastes had changed over the lifetimes and her attempt to anticipate his needs or wants came out badly -- and biting her tongue when he knew that once upon a time, they'd have fought. It was weird and uncomfortable and it made him feel alternately fragile because he wasn't getting things as quickly as he felt he should or he'd forgotten something that he thought he shouldn't have but also resentful of being considered fragile because he disliked having this weakness on display. He disliked needing help as much as he did. Lily's absences kept him from reaching the point where he took that frustration out on her.

"She's strong and she's stubborn and she's still the best person to help you through this," Scott agred, turning on the water to wash the celery and the pepper. "But one last bit of wisdom learned the hard way: Don't be untrue to yourself just to make everyone else feel better. This isn't just a random 'oh, look, the X-Men got thrown around by an evil telepath and acted out their darkest fears' sort of thing where you want to wash your brain out with a Brillo pad and then you go around looking sheepish because you still remember what you did until it fades from memory in time for the next crisis."

Scott paused to turn off the water and gently bang the wet celery against the rim of the sink. "You've been through an awesome, terrifying experience and it has changed you profoundly in ways I don't think any of us really understand yet. Especially you. And so while this isn't a license to go all Dark Havok on us, don't be afraid to be who you are now just because you're not sure everyone - or even just Lily - is going to like who that is."

It was sound advice, as befitting his brother, but Alex couldn't help but wonder if Scott would say the same thing if he truly understood exactly what his little brother had had to become to survive.

They fell into a companionable silence, Scott finishing making the salad and Alex making an omelet out of the 'fake eggs,' as Dane called the egg-white stuff. Alex found it all a little weird - pleasantly weird, but still weird. He and Scott had never quite managed the buddy thing. They had tried, but while they were both willing, different lives, different teams, different goals, different everythings had always stood in the way. It had been true across all of the realities that Alex had been in where Scott had been alive and present - there had been a tension between them that could never be overcome. And the depressing thing was that almost every time it was Alex who was mostly to blame. Sure, some of the Scotts could get a little sanctimonious and some of them had been outright evil, and Alex hadn't run across a version of himself who wasn't a bit of a hair-trigger, but it still seemed a little... pointless.

"Are you ruminating or brooding?" Scott asked as he set the table.

"Ruminating," Alex replied, not bothering to put the omelet on a serving platter and just cutting it in half in the pan. "I only brood between eight-thirty and ten in the mornings. I was just thinking about all the different relationships I had with the different Scotts in the other realities."

"Uh-oh," Scott murmured, but he looked thoughtful as he sat down. "And where do we fit in?"

"High end," Alex told him, sliding the omelet halves onto his and Scott's plates. "I mean, at least now. We seem to be uniquely able to piss each other off no matter what reality we're in - and for the record, our powers don't work against each other no matter what plane of existence we're on. But we had stopped trying in most of them. At least where we were together and on the same side."

"There were times where we weren't?" Scott asked dryly, serving himself salad.

"It only makes sense," Alex said, smirking at his brother's sarcasm. "Probability theory in action, all of the different permutations possible. We've seen it bleed over here, although I don't think any of us ever examined it too closely. Dark Beast and all that - doesn't Kurt have that story about an evil version of himself?"

"Dark Bamf and he gets huffy every time Kitty -- Kate -- tries to tell that story," Scott confirmed.

"And I guess you could even through in some of the other stuff that's happened," Alex went on, trying not to think about what a Dark Bamf must have looked like. "Like the reality where Nate Grey came from. Or even what happened with the Siege Perilous. Same players, different roles. Every one of us is guaranteed at least one reality where we're evil and one where we're good. Simple mathematics."

"What about the rest?" Scott asked. "I mean, wouldn't it be weird if we had the only reality where someone was a certain way? Like we got the only evil Blob or the only good Bobby in all of existence..."

"We didn't," Alex told him, choosing not to elaborate. "As for the rest? I had a few working theories, but nothing beyond the hypothesis stage. In terms of nature versus nurture, it's a killer philosophical debate even if it's flawed. It's like the whole Joseph-Magneto thing - close enough to be tantalizing, but not exactly right."

Scott chewed thoughtfully. "I have to admit to being impressed. You've become a lot more... reflective."

"I had a lot of time to think," Alex replied with a frown. "About a lot of things. Especially about the person I am and how there are parts of me that I really, really don't like. It's kind of hard to stay in denial about your own faults when you see them repeated over and over and over again. Once is okay, twice is suspicious, but after that, it's time to take the hint. There were some real shits out there with my name and my face, you know?"

"Worse than Genoshan Magistrate Summers?" Scott asked meaningfully.

"Magistrate Summers had nothing on them," Alex answered with a disgusted shake of his head. "Magistrate Summers was a bastard and he was up front about it. Nothing devious, no false fronts, no secret betrayals. I've come to appreciate honesty, no matter how ugly it may be, in a way that I don't think I ever had before. It was one of my most important lessons learned."

"Surely it wasn't all bad," Scott pointed out. "There had to be a few realities where you could be proud of the man whose boots you were filling."

"There were," Alex admitted. "But fewer than I'd have liked. After a while, it started to bother me how few and I started to make more of an effort to learn from the mistakes that the Alexes had made before I got there. I hope that I became a better person as I moved on through realities."

"It would have to be almost impossible not to, slow on the draw though you may occasionally be."

Scott was grinning when he said that and Alex grinned right back at him.

"It was like this weird sort of race," he said, swallowing a bit of egg. "Every reality I moved on to, I'd try to make myself better, but at the same time, I knew I was losing something else that was just as important. Hope, I guess it was. Faith, maybe - the ability to believe that I was operating towards a higher principle and not just getting flung from reality to reality like a penny through the economy. But my losses were starting to outstrip my gains. You saw what I was like when I got here. I was fried. I had pretty much given up the idea that the pseudo-karma ladder had a nirvana at the top and wasn't really a Moebius strip or something. I don't know how much longer I would have been able to go on."

"You would have managed," Scott assured him. "If only out of stubbornness."

Alex shook his head ruefully. "I'm not sure. In the beginning, I waited each reality out - I figured out how to fit in, did my best to be the good soldier and to undo some of the messes the real Alex had made at least to the point where I could live his life without being embarrassed, and went on until I got killed fighting the good fight. Knowing you're not going to stay dead does tend to make you a little reckless in battle."

"Talk to Logan about that," Scott chuckled. "But it also gives you the bravery to try long-shots that just might win the day."

"That, too," Alex agreed with a wry smile that faded. "But the longer it went on, the more realities I moved on to, the less patient I got. I never got to the point where I dropped in, looked around, didn't like what I saw, and killed myself to try the next one, but... I was getting very close to that point. I was definitely past the point where I'd take any real precautions for my own safety.

"I got more tired more quickly in each reality. It took more and more willpower to dredge up the energy to fix this Alex's messes enough to be comfortable in his skin. It got harder to remember that I was there to learn and receive as well as do and then die. And everything that reminded me of this reality? I started to hate those things. The closer a reality was to this one, the faster I wanted to die and get out of it."

Alex paused, waiting for Scott's reaction to that bit of disclosure.

"That's why Jean knocked you out when you first started talking to us," Scott told him, grim understanding in his eyes. "She was terrified that you were going to kill yourself and end up tossing yourself back into that cycle."

Alex shook his head, still slightly awed by how out of it he had been, by how far he had fallen. "I owe her for it."

"Bull," Scott snorted, chasing an errant carrot piece across his plate. "Get yourself straightened out here and now and she'll consider you two even."

"Working on it," Alex promised as he swallowed.

"Should I ask how the plan for that's going or have you had enough interrogation for one meal?"

"It's getting better," Alex answered, pausing to pick a piece of lettuce out of the bowl. "Well, most of the time. I hate scaring Lily and especially Dane."

"Have you?"

"Yeah," he admitted, not wanting to look at Scott just then and focusing on his salad instead. "I know it's not my fault per se, but I'm getting really, really tired of having to tell myself that the war is over. Knowing that it's going to take time doesn't make me more patient. And I can't help but feel that the longer it takes me to deal with the past, the harder the present and the future is going to be - I'll never catch up and I don't want to lose any more time."

Scott chuckled to himself and Alex watched him, knowing that his brother wasn't laughing at him. "I'm trying to decide whether Nathan is an object lesson or not."

Alex shook his head. "I guess going away as a baby and coming back a middle-aged man when he should be a toddler does sort of qualify."

"Hell, that's the easy, straight-forward part," Scott said, wiping his mouth with his napkin. "I was more thinking about the 'focusing on the past at the exclusion of the present' part. But he was on a mission, more or less, until Akkaba and you... you're finished. Right?"

"For now," Alex sighed. "I don't know what happens if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, though. I could end up back on the merry-go-round. I've tried not to think too much about it. Apart from the whole 'roaming realities for all eternity with no rest' possibility... I mean, should I tell Lily that next time, she doesn't have to wait for me? Do I leave standing orders in case I get to pop back a second time? Do I set up a bank account in case I don't return until Dane's grandkids are our age?"

"I see what you mean," Scott mused. "Good idea. Don't think about it."

Alex blinked, then barked out a laugh. "And they put you in charge when you give advice like that?"

"Perquisite of nepotism," Scott replied with a nod. His smile faded, however, as he caught sight of the clock on the wall. "And that's all of the advice you're getting this lunchtime. I have to get back before Sulven decides to invade some small sovereign state as part of a training drill. Again. I'm big cheese at the office today and if I'm not there to say that she can't, she's going to take my silence as tacit permission."

Alex smiled as he stood up. There were some things that had not changed in five years.

"Don't laugh," Scott told him. "We've already had to send Sam over to the UN once to make apologies to the Security Council's subcommittee for a different incident and the Ambassador from Liberia sent us a Braille map of the world after Sulven's last rotation in charge of training exercises. Official recognition is not all it's cracked up to be."

"Thank you for reminding me of why I want to be a civilian when I grow up," Alex said, waving Scott away from any attempt to clear the table.

"Do you?" Scott asked as they headed back towards the foyer and Alex retrieved his coat. "If you've spent all those lifetimes in battle, are you fried or...? I'm talking about down the road here, mind you, not next week. You've always had pretty good command skills and if you've finally gotten comfortable about using them..."

"I'll see," Alex replied honestly. It was something that had crossed his mind in a last-resort kind of way. "I've picked up a few new tricks since last you saw me as Havok and I'm kind of curious to test them out, but not in any formal capacity. I won't sit idly by and watch you march to your deaths, but I don't see myself wanting to join the XSE anytime soon."

"All right," Scott nodded, looking as if he hadn't expected any other answer. "I guess I'll see you Saturday, then, although do me a favor and call me before then?"

"Yes, Dad," Alex groaned, then paused. "Speaking of Dad..."

"We've been trying," Scott told him with a resigned sigh. It was the 'why do I always have to be the one who has to deal with Corsair' sigh and Alex never tired of it. "They're probably on the run and cloaking."

"Do you think it's time we mentioned the 'R' word to him?" he asked, leaning forward to whisper conspiratorially. "The man is sixty-nine. Running around the galaxy being a pirate has got to be getting a little tiring by now. Besides, he's got a passel of grandsons to spoil now. And I'm pretty sure the twins and Dane will be more receptive than Nathan ever was. Has he even seen his grandkids?"

"Yeah. Stopped by for Christmas the year before last," Scott told him with a roll of his eyes. "Brought toys, got pissy with me when I suggested that he spend some time on Earth and relax, and promised to visit again before anyone graduated kindergarten. The kids love him, but the only joy I got out of it was watching your father-in-law mutter about Air Force weaklings."

"Way to go, Admiral Beck," Alex chuckled. He'd spoken to his in-laws, both of them, already. The conversation with his father-in-law had been both enlightening and surprisingly heartening. Alex had half-expected him to be angry with Alex for abandoning his daughter, but instead they had talked about returning home from warfronts and the struggle to get adjusted and the offer to hook him up with the Department of Defense's extensive recovery network. Alex was actually looking forward to the next conversation.

He had thought a lot about his own father during his travels and could honestly say that he had no especial insight after all of his ruminations. His father had good intentions, but just wasn't prepared to make significant concessions to build a solid relationship with his sons. It wasn't the same thing as him and Scott not wanting to join the Starjammers - they had gone with him for a while, but in the time since Corsair had never taken time out of his adventures to be Christopher Summers. And Alex, recently reunited with his wife and son, couldn't fathom why not.

A cell phone chirped and Scott whimpered. "They've found me. I can't run, I can't hide."

"Do what I did," Alex told him as Scott headed out the door. "Forget the phone in distant countries."

"Sulven would invade to get it back."


"Lily?"

She looked up, surprised. Normally she could tell when Tom was hovering over her desk. "Yes?"

"Vinnie Gupta's group is ready to give their report. He offered to give you an advance copy of the notes," Tom said, eying her closely. "You never got back to him on whether or not you wanted it."

"Oh," she replied, shaking her head. "I could have sworn I told him yes. He doesn't have anyone there who can speak in non-geek terms and I was going to prepare a crib sheet for the XSE briefing. That's still scheduled for tomorrow, right?"

One of the XSE clairvoyants had been getting regular visions of blood-covered walls and Nathan had brought Midday Sun in to try to get to the bottom of the situation after he himself had started to feel unwell. After all this time, Lily didn't understand why he didn't want anyone else to know that he had a connection to the timestream - it seemed like a fairly important bit of information. Of course, this was the same man who had neglected to identify himself to his own parents for more than a decade.

"Yes," Tom agreed, frowning. "I'll make sure it gets done today. Are you feeling all right? With all due respect, you look like crap."

Lily snorted. "Funny, that's how I feel."

"Dane pick up something from school?" Tom asked. "You have that 'I didn't sleep' look about you."

"Dane's fine," she replied. In fact, he was chipper and cheerful and had not helped his mother's headache as he had chattered all the way to nursery school.

"Ah."

Alex, on the other hand, was not well. Had not been well for a couple of days. Nights, rather. The first time, he had muttered something about reliving some of his more gruesome deaths and he had eventually been able to go back to sleep. The second night, he had refused to say anything when Lily had shaken him awake and had gone into the shower and stayed there long enough that Lily had fallen back asleep by the time he had emerged. (She hadn't meant to.) Last night, she had woken up to his screaming, but he had pulled away from her when she had tried to touch him and hadn't said a word to her when she had followed him into the kitchen. She had sat with him for ten minutes in the silence before he had gotten up and gone into the living room. When she had tried to follow him there, he had snapped at her to leave him alone (in less polite terms) and she had gone back to bed where she had eventually cried herself to sleep. How much of that was the actual situation and how much of it was her hormones being completely out of whack with her having gone back on the Pill (they didn't need that particular complication just yet), she wasn't sure. This morning, he had been his usual goofy self with Dane but hadn't said a word to her.

"If you want to take the day," Tom offered, "We can cover..."

"No," Lily replied, a little sharper than she had intended. "You've been covering for three weeks now. I need to start pulling my own weight here again."

The first week after Alex had returned, Lily had left at lunch and spent the afternoons with him. But as Alex had stopped looking quite so lost and had started focusing his energy on getting himself back up to speed, Lily had started to bring work home and, after a week of the two of them working in separate rooms in the house, Alex had pointed out that she might as well be at the office. He was comfortable playing househusband - picking Dane up either from school or from his after-school hockey practices and taking care of dinner - and Lily saw no real reason not to return to work.

And so this week she had been back to hoping to leave the office at five and getting out closer to six... to return to her increasingly distant husband and her increasingly tension-filled home. She was sure Dane was picking up on things, which only made her feel worse - what was going on was between her and Alex, although really she thought it was between Alex and Alex - and Dane shouldn't be involved one way or the other. But he was. He was being especially clingy and playing in his room far less often than he used to, instead bringing out his toys and books into the living room. Playing buffer. And it galled Lily that he was doing this and she hoped it galled Alex as well. Dane deserved better.

"Lily, you're pulling more than your weight right now. What's happening at home..."

"Stays at home," she cut him off firmly. "I appreciate the concern, Tom, I really do. But my personal life has no place in this office. Not as gossip and not as an excuse why I'm the head of this department and haven't a fucking clue as to what half of the people here are up to right now. I know you've all been really helpful, but the help I need right now is to get back into things. I'm no less of a control freak than I was last month and I am twitching with the knowledge that there are projects being started and completed here that I was never told about because they were considered too low level to bother me with. I want to be bothered with them now. Especially with this weird XSE stuff they handed us."

Tom sighed. "Fine. We'll play it your way. I'll get everyone to barf up an update and have Louisa prepare a summary of all ongoing research for you. But I'm warning you: I'm not going to go through the trouble of helping you overload your plate just so you can crack under the strain."

He turned and stalked away. Lily sighed and slid her chair over to her keyboard and brought up the departmental instant messenger program and sent him a one-word message: thanks.

While she was at the computer, she switched over to her email program and wrote out a quick note to Alex. He was using Lily's old one and she knew he checked his email during the day. If he wouldn't talk to her, then maybe he'd read her mail. By the time she was finished with her five paragraphs, tears were running down her face. But even as she wiped them away, she felt worlds better. It was off her shoulders now.

Before noon, an email with a list of summaries and updates of everyone's current projects arrived courtesy of Louisa, the office manager/Lily's secretary. There were three items on the list that Lily had never seen before, but none of them looked either important enough or interesting enough for her to bother with at present. She was surprised to see that Ahearn hadn't gotten the daily updates from the New Lands yet, but she'd wait until after lunch to press Miri to get in contact with Eddie Kim down there.

Lunch was spent across the street in Bryant Park watching the skating rink. She had taken Dane to skate around the previous week and he was already begging to go again.

At three-thirty, Vinnie Gupta and his trio of fluid flow specialists gave their presentation to Lily, Tom, and the eight other fluid dynamics experts. It was lovely in its conciseness, in the elegance of the mathematics, and in its novel way of interpreting what was currently one of the most unreadable of the low-amplitude distortion effects. It was also completely incomprehensible to anyone without at least a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and Tom muttered something about Martian-to-English translation services on his way out of the conference room.

Lily followed behind, rolling her neck as she walked. Two aspirin taken with cold coffee wasn't going to do much for her stomach, but it would ease the throbbing of her head that had begun in the middle of Vinnie's spiel. The bright lights of the office - natural light from outside combined with some sort of pseudo-solar light - were making it worse and Lily walked looking down, only picking her head up when Tom suddenly stopped talking in mid-sentence.

Was the fact that Alex was sitting in her cubicle a good thing or a bad thing?

Probably a good thing as it was highly unlikely that he had bothered to come to her office in order to continue to ignore her. But after that, she'd lost the ability to tell.

He was sitting at the small conference table in her cubicle, head down reading a book. Lily smiled at the scene almost involuntarily. He looked so... normal. Cute. Like how she'd find him in the library back at Princeton, or curled up on the couch at home. The way he tilted his head ever so slightly depending on whether he was reading the left page or the right, the familiar posture that she'd know from a distance. Nothing like how she was used to seeing him now, brow furrowed with the effort of keeping himself together. Not like he had spent lifetimes in different hells and no longer quite recognized that this wasn't one of them.

She hadn't asked him anything about his time away. Not specifics, at any rate. He volunteered information periodically, but if he was uncomfortable, there was no point in making it more so. She knew he spoke of those things to Scott and, on occasion, to Piotr. And, presumably, the details came up in the thrice-weekly sessions with the retired Navy shrink (who specialized in treating combat veterans) whom her father had somehow gotten Alex to see. But the two of them talked about other things. Dane. The history of the last five years that Alex had missed out on - presidential elections, movies, who had won the Stanley Cup. Anything but that.

"Hi," she said as she entered her cubicle, putting her notepad down on her desk. This was definitely a moment she wished there was any sort of privacy in her cubicle. Short walls, even topped by the spider plants and ivy that had spread through the office like wildfire, did not hide anything. At least Alice Epstein was visiting her family in New Zealand for the holidays, so the cubicle directly to one side was empty. Lily had staked out prime real estate - her cubicle was in the last row before the couches and coffee table that stood before the floor-to-ceiling windows - and with the de facto lounge empty, that was about as private as it got. So much for keeping her personal life at home.

"Hi," he replied sheepishly, putting his bookmark into his book and putting the book on the table. "I wanted to apologize..." he trailed off, frowning deeply.

"Alex," Lily sighed, sitting down in the chair next to his. "You don't have..."

"I do," he cut her off, waving his hand. "I do have to apologize. I've been a complete and utter shit to you and that has nothing to do with where my head is or what I've been through. You don't deserve to have me taking my frustration out on you. You haven't done anything wrong and I'm making you the target. I'm pissed off at myself, not you."

"You shouldn't be pissed off at yourself, either," Lily told him, raising her eyebrows meaningfully. Alex gave her that 'everyone says so and I don't care' look he had and she shook her head in resignation. When she was a child, she and her grandfather had used to watch G.I. Joe cartoons together and every episode had ended with a mini morality play that culminated in 'And knowing is half the battle.' Well, it was the unimportant half of the battle, she thought now. Alex knew that he shouldn't be angry with anyone, knew that his recovery would take time, but that didn't help. She was hurting, he was hurting, Dane was hurting, and knowing what the problem was didn't make it go away.

In her peripheral vision, Lily could see Tom waving people away from her desk. "I think we should probably have this conversation elsewhere," she told Alex, tilting her head slightly towards the rest of the office. "You have been the subject of idle speculation for three weeks and now that we've proven that you do, in fact, exist, I think it's time we both disappeared."

Alex nodded and Lily turned away before she could see the apologetic look on his face. She was starting to get sick of his always apologizing for 'intruding' on her life, for upsetting the routine she had settled into and breaking up the pattern of hers and Dane's lives. He was a part of their lives, damnit. Yes, he should be sorry for taking his own problems out on them, but after that? It pissed her off. And it scared her - the man who had disappeared from her life five years ago next week had traipsed unapologetically through her life, had never seemed bashful or tentative or uncertain about being a part of whatever she did. The old Alex had unashamedly kissed her senseless picking her up from end-of-the-week office hours, not caring if the students down the hall were hers or not. The new Alex was sure that she was ashamed of his coming to work.

"I was a busy boy today," he said with obviously false cheer as she pulled together paperwork and saved files to disk to take home. "I went to my head-shrinker, who reminded me that if shell shock were really treatable in three weeks then he'd had been out of business years ago. I went to the XSE tower, where Scott yelled at me for being too much like Nathan and thinking that if I just pretended that I wasn't affected by what happened then I would be perfectly functional. I picked up Dane from school, and he was the most dangerous of the bunch because all he had to do was make a face at me and demand to know why I was being so mean to his mommy..." the façade crumbled then. "I am so sorry, Lily. For treating you like crap. For letting you down."

"For crying out loud," she hissed quietly, turning around to face him and not caring about the surreptitious looks that were undoubtedly being drawn from around the office. "Stop apologizing to me. Just stop. Unless you've decided to give up trying to get your head together, then you haven't let me down. You won't let me down. If you're gonna make me your stress toy, then yeah, you can apologize. Other than that, I don't want to hear 'I'm sorry' come out of your mouth. Okay?"

Alex closed his eyes, nodded, and said nothing. Lily finished packing her backpack and crossed the cubicle to get her coat. "Where is Dane?"

"At Kurt and Amanda's," Alex replied, sounding subdued. Lily turned to look at him and he gave her this bright, 'posing for a school picture' kind of demented grin as if to say 'look, I'm not apologizing' and she was forced to shake her head at him. In return, the artificially goofy grin settled into his own naturally goofy one and Lily breathed a sigh of relief. "We worked out a deal - he'd spend the night there and I'd spend the night with you trying to work things out. And he made it sound like it was a great sacrifice on his part to go make cookies with Amanda and sing Sesame Street's entire repertoire with Kurt, so I'd better live up to my half of the bargain..."

Lily smiled at him and gestured for him to precede her out of her cubicle area. A silent nod to Tom was all it took to assure things were okay at the office. She knew Tom would put a lid on the gossip that would swell up the minute the elevator doors closed behind her and Alex.

Alex waited until they were outside on the bustle of Forty-Second Street before speaking. "I haven't been handling the wait well."

The crossed the street and went towards Bryant Park by unspoken agreement. The sun was setting and the lights of the Christmas display were already on. They sat down on two of the delicate-looking yet surprisingly sturdy chairs that were scattered throughout the park even in cold weather.

"I thought you were doing a respectable job of it until this week," Lily replied, adjusting her coat so that the wind wouldn't blow into it. The darkness had brought a chill that hadn't been around earlier. Alex frowned at her, giving her that 'why are you freezing when I'm a walking heater' look that she used to get back when they were dating and she was still hesitant to make use of his powers, and she moved her chair closer to his, nearly tipping it over as she tried to slide it along the loose quartz gravel.

"You didn't go back to work full time until this week," Alex replied once she was settled close enough so that he could put his arm around her shoulders and pull her against his chest.

This time it was her turn to frown at him. "Since I find it impossible to believe that you've developed an aversion to women in the workplace during your travels..."

"It's not that you're working," Alex began with a groan. "Well it is. Sort of, but not in that 'why aren't you home taking care of me' way. It's a combination of things. That I'm not working. That I'm not even close to working. That I not only have to beg your indulgence while I get my head on straight and wander around like a wraith, but also that I live at your largesse. In so many ways. I'm frustrated with my own dependence upon you."

"Alex," Lily sighed, shaking her head even as she was leaning against him. "Remember those little words we repeated to each other eight years ago next month? That whole 'for better or worse, richer and poorer' stuff?"

"I know, I know, it's totally irrational. But it's still there and it's still frustrating. So fine, I'm not worried that you're going to toss my butt out on the street, but it's still... I feel so useless and helpless and dependent. I've improved to the point where there are whole stretches of time where I don't feel broken, when I feel so close to normal that it starts to bother me that I'm sitting around. And those are the moments when I just feel like an extra piece of your puzzle. The extra button they give you on a shirt, just in case."

Lily pulled away from Alex so that she could see his face. How could he not see how important he was to her? Did she not do something right? Did her attempts to get him acclimated by immersion backfire? "Extraneous? You think you're extraneous? Like I've spent the last five years waiting for someone else? Breaking down and crying because I miss someone else?"

"No," Alex admitted, running his hands over his face and rubbing fiercely at his eyes. "It's... I don't doubt for a heartbeat that you didn't miss me, Lily. Not for a nanosecond. I know you did. It's in everything you do, everything you've done since I came back. It's in the way that Dane knows so much about me. I know all that. And if it was possible for me to love you any more because of it, I would."

"But?"

"But you have a life," he said with a shrug. "You built a life for yourself and for Dane where I don't have a natural place except as a shadow, an absence. And that's what you had to do, so I'm not upset or anything like that. But you've built my lack of presence into your life and I'm not sure where to fit in now that I'm here. My presence isn't the same shape as my absence.

"Everything I do has to come out of your life, your routine. It's you making all of the compromise, all of the sacrifice, to fit me in. That is what I mean about living at your largesse. Even things I try to do to help out - like picking up Dane from school - messes with the way you had things set up and moving smoothly before I showed up... That's why I've been such a bastard this week. Frustration with myself coupled with realizing just how much you are already shouldering and I'm adding to it."

Lily shivered as a gust of wind whipped past them, feeling the cold air burn her cheeks, but refused Alex's offer for more shelter and warmth. She needed to face him for this.

"Did it ever dawn on you that I was okay with you being an interruption?" she asked, sounding sharper than she intended. Partially she was frustrated with Alex, but mostly it was fear talking. She wasn't sure if he was wallowing in self-pity or whether she had forced these feelings of inadequacy upon him. She had survived his absence by going strong and going alone. What if she wasn't able to make the compromise after all this time? "That maybe I'd welcome you throwing monkeys into the clockwork?"

"In the abstract, yeah," Alex admitted, looking slightly chastened and even more saddened. "But day-to-day, when you're sneaking off to check your email because you want to make sure whatever's going on at work is functioning well in your absence, when I have to call you to ask you questions about where things are even though you've already told me. Even when I want to take a load off you, I still have to ask you if can I do this, that, or the other with Dane because I don't know about what he can or can't do. I feel more like a burden than a welcome interruption. Because I'm not changing things for the better right now, I'm just one more responsibility you have."

She started to protest, but Alex waved her silent.

"And even if it's one you want, it feeds right back into my own fear. That I'm too broken. That I'm not getting better any faster because I can't get any better. I'm going to be that porcelain Paddington Bear you probably still have stashed away somewhere - it's all cracked and broken and someone Crazy-Glued it back together so that it's in one piece and you love it dearly, but it's still broken and you won't throw it out because once upon a time it meant the world to you. Either that, or you're going to start to resent me and I don't want to be either of those things to you."

"You won't be," she said quietly. Determinedly. Paddington Bear was on the top shelf in Dane's room, dusty with disuse and there only because, as Alex knew, she didn't have the heart to toss it out even if all it was now was a relic of a time in her life long past. That wasn't going to be Alex.  "You can't be."

"I don't want you to have to give up what you've earned just so you can carve a place for me," Alex went on after a pause to let a mother and her two small children pass by. "I am so proud of what you've accomplished. Do you know that? Whether or not it could have or would have happened with me being here - and I don't think it would have - but I am so proud of you. And even if you didn't hate me for dragging you down, I would hate me for dragging you down. Because you're brilliant, Lily, and the world is just starting to realize it."

She could blame the cold wind for the tears in her eyes, but that would be lying. "I don't like what I paid for it," she said quietly. "The lab? The work? The hash tag on Twitter? It's less about being brilliant and more just grief and fear and anger put toward something other than self-destruction."

"That's--"

"Oversimplifying?" Lily cut him off. "I have a great career, true, but I have no life. Do you remember how many Engineering Job Fairs I went to back in grad school? None. I never wanted to work in an office where I'd be expected to run a staff and do paperwork and have to answer emails and texts on my phone all day every day. And yet here I am, coopted into the family business neither of us wanted to be a part of because I was too scared to make any big changes in my life in case you came back and couldn't find me. Believe me, Alex, I'm not very broken up about making changes for your benefit."

Alex watched her and waited.

"You're my fun half, remember?" she went on. "And this is what I turn into when you're not here to temper me. I don't think it's very pretty, Alex. I work eighty hours a week, I spend as much time with Dane as I can so that I don't feel completely lousy that I dump him off on other people all day, and that leaves me enough time to keep food in the house and sleep once in a while. I barely get to see anyone except for birthdays and weddings. This is not the life I want. I won't deny that I'm fascinated and energized and all those other good words by what I do at work. I love it. I really, really do. But I love other things, too. I love you."

She reached out for Alex's hands, feeling their warmth through her gloves.

"Ten years ago, we had this same conversation, you remember?" she asked and he tilted his head, looking thoughtful and confused. "You were talking about giving up being Havok - or at least cutting back severely on being Havok - because there were other things you wanted to do. Like spend time with me. And after I got over the whole 'Alex is Havok' stuff, I felt crappy because Havok was this hero who did all these amazing things and saved all these people and here I was taking him away from that. Because I knew you had let Scott drag you off a lot more often before we had hooked up than after. And you had told me that the X-Men had no lives and no hobbies and no outside friends and you were sick of that existence anyway, but I still felt lousy. And then I realized that you really were happy, that going to grad school and being with me made you happy. And the rest of the X-Men and X-Factor managed to save lives without you... Shoe's on the other foot. I trusted you then. You have to trust me now."

Alex made a face as if he was going to protest, but nodded and then smiled. "Would it shock to hear that my headshrinker is of the firm belief that you and I keep too much to ourselves?"

No, it would not. Because when Lily had, at Scott's and her father's joint urging, gone to her own session with said headshrinker, he'd said much the same thing. "So how about we make a deal -- more day to day communication and less dramatic unburdenings of mind and soul in public parks?"

Alex's smile was more genuine and more wry. "Deal," he agreed. "But since we're already here... We are footloose and child-free. Why don't we make the best of that situation?"

The best of the situation ended up being dinner at a Brazilian restaurant a few blocks away, where they enjoyed steaks and caipirinhas and managed to talk easily. Lily thought that it felt like a date almost, or at least like the dates they had gone on after they had been a couple for a while. They were back to getting to know each other again, Lily realized, a process made harder by both of them trying to pretend that everything was just the same.

With Lily having work the next day, they didn't make too late a night of it. Once they were home and sleep loomed, Lily watched Alex carefully. He noticed and assured her that while he hoped that he'd actually be able to sleep through the night, if he didn't he promised to be a lot better behaved. He also admitted that the doctor had given him a prescription for sleeping pills that he didn't want to fill. A drug-induced sleep would not necessarily be nightmare free and he didn't want to be trapped in narcotic-influenced terror.

It turned out to be a moot point. Exhausted as they both were, it felt to Lily that no sooner had she turned off the bedside lamp than the alarm went off signaling a new day. If Alex had gotten up during the night, she had no idea. He said that he hadn't and she would take him at his word.




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