White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

26/December 2011 - January 2012

"I so don't miss this part."

"Getting the tree?"

"Yeah. It's such a hassle."

"I'm the one carrying the tree."

"And I'll appreciate that you smell nice and piney later."

"You didn't get a tree when I was away?"

"I got a tree. I didn't get the tree, but I had a tree. Piotr used to bring it up when we were living here."

"Do they do Christmas in the New Lands? Or is it summer there and you go to the beach or something."

"We did Christmas. And it was summer there. It was easier to get a tree in the New Lands. Hydroponics. We'd just push the tree inside. Come January, we'd push it back outside."

"That's so... artificial."

"A fake tree is artificial. This was a real tree that didn't die and drop needles and could be suspended high enough off the ground that certain little electrokinetics couldn't play with the lights."

"Hey!"

"Hey yourself, Junior. I was on a first-name basis with the guy at the Home Depot who ran the Christmas lights section because of you."

"That was when I was a baby."

"Oh, yeah. Like you haven't been trying to sneak into the closet to get to the lights for the past three weeks."

"Daddy! You told! You said you wouldn't!"

"I didn't say a word, Dane. Your mom's just got keen powers of observation."

"What's that mean?"

"It means that I know your father doesn't need to put the phone book on top of a chair to get to the shelf in the front closet."

"..."

"I told you to put the phone book back when you were done with it, Dane."

"..."

"He asked for the phone book? You let him have it?"

"I wanted to see what he'd do with it."

"Did he get close?"

"Not really. We've got a couple more years."

"That's a relief."


"... And that's it?"

Lily leaned back in her chair and sighed heavily, closing her eyes and taking off her glasses. She had had them a week and had not gotten used to them yet. "Yes, Nathan, that's it."

The meeting had not been her idea, but Nathan had insisted. She had said that they wouldn't have anything she'd be willing to use as hard data for at least another two weeks, but he had fairly demanded that he be shown what they did have. So she, Tom, Miri Ahearn, and Alice Epstein had spent the morning winnowing out what they hoped was the more outrageous of the current working theories before ordering in from the bagel place on 43rd and then hopping on the 1 train down to the Tower.

"So what you've got is..."

"A wide variety of possibilities, Commander Summers," Tom cut him off and Lily smiled. The other three were still in awe of the XSE headquarters, the exterior that loomed high over West Street and the sleek interiors. Not to mention the uniformed personnel and air of importance. They could be deferential. She herself was too... jaded. Well, not jaded, but she wasn't about to get all googly-eyed because her brother-in-law walked by in his dress uniform and her nephew was trying to intimidate her subordinates into making assertions they shouldn't be making.

"What we're looking at," Tom went on mildly, "is obviously big. It's at least a Class Three nexus point, but I don't think you need us to tell you that. We're comfortable saying that it's an isolated event and not a sequence, but whatever it is is simply too far in the future for us to narrow down that scope at this moment. That our precogs are so affected speaks to its severity, not to its imminence."

Nathan looked like he was going to protest further and Lily shifted in her seat, moving from her casual slouch to one of command. "Tom, why don't you and Miri and Alice wait outside for a moment? I'll join you in a second. I'm sure we're done here and that Commander Summers is grateful for us having taking time out of our pressing schedules to deliver in person the breakings news that we have nothing hard and fast to go on."

Nathan's eye glowed, but he nodded curtly to the other three, who wisely murmured their farewells and closed the door behind them.

"Don't start with me, Nathan," Lily warned him as she leaned down to pick up the backpack that had slid from where she had leaned it against her chair. "I have been telling you for a month that we weren't going to have anything. I told you this morning, when I tried to cancel this dog-and-pony show. I tried to tell you two weeks ago, when you set it up over my objections. I even told you at Christmas over the din of our children playing with their new-gotten goods. I don't know what you were hoping to do here by dragging us all down here, but getting blood out of stones wasn't going to be one of them."

"I... didn't sleep last night," Nathan replied quietly. Lily was about to retort to that, but one look at his face told her not to. He wasn't looking at her, he was looking through her. And the intent, focused expression that he had worn throughout the meeting had faded to something closer to a pallor. "It's not the first time. The dreams that the precogs are getting... Whatever this is, Lily, it is not something we have seen before. It isn't a political coup or a tidal wave. It's something new and something dangerous and I don't know what it is and the harder I try, the more elusive it gets. And what slips from my grasp is on a scale that I don't think we have adequately considered. I don't care who I piss off along the way. I cannot let us go towards this unprepared."

Lily took a deep breath before nodding. As annoying as the man could be, it was so hard to stay angry with him at times like this. He had the weight of the universe on his shoulders, the fate of the world literally in his hands. And no matter how big the XSE oligarchy got, Nathan still sucked at delegating.

"I know, Nate. I do. But I'm not talking about ruffling feathers or power trips. I know you well enough, at least in terms of this," she said emphatically but quietly. She waited until he was looking at her again. "But the pressure you're putting on us is not the good kind of pressure. What you're doing is making us rush and that makes us overlook things and then draw hasty conclusions which are wrong conclusions. What we're doing right now, you know as well as I do that if we miss something small now, we could end up past the point of recovery. I know you're trying to help us get a fresh perspective, but all you're doing is distracting us. I swear that you'll be the first to know if we get even a really good hint of an idea. But don't make me drag my top people down here before then, okay?"

Nathan nodded, a concession without apology. "Alex is here, by the way."

Lily cocked her head at the non sequitur. "Oh?"

For most of the last month, Alex had been reliving his graduate school days. He gotten back in contact with his former graduate advisor, John Frohmeyer, and was now trying to relearn in six weeks what it had taken him six years to get down the first time. He had been commuting down to Princeton once or twice a week for meetings with Frohmeyer and, with Princeton's finals-after-Christmas policy, was taking advantage of the cram courses and special labs run for the undergraduates. Between that and his weekly 'shrink-rapping' and his determination to take care of Dane, Alex was running himself ragged. But he was also happier than he'd been at any point since his return, so, for now, Lily just watched. The nightmares came much less frequently and the moments during the day where Alex seemed to be anywhere-but-there were now rare and, for that, Lily would put up put up with much more than a coffee table covered in hydrology surveys.

"He's running through a training session," Nathan elaborated, looking much more like himself and making Lily wonder if that pale ghost had been all in her mind or not.

Lily allowed herself to look as surprised as she felt. "Who put him up to it?" she asked. "He wouldn't have volunteered by himself."

If there was a lingering shadow over Alex's life, it was in his steadfast refusal to let anyone see him use his powers for anything destructive. He and Dane would make a joke out of him regulating the temperature of Dane's nightly bath and Lily had seen the results of what must be some greatly improved fine control over his plasma rays, but that was it. Alex wouldn't even show her what he had done to fix the slight warp in the kitchen window - he had simply wiggled his fingers at her when she had asked him how. He had also reacted badly at dinner the other week when Scott had suggested a Danger Room session, so Lily couldn't imagine why he'd be running a training session here...

"It was a sudden decision," Nathan replied, standing up. "And it was all his. Why don't we go downstairs and you can watch..."

This was all getting too suspicious. "What are you not telling me, Nathan?"

"Scott can explain," he said, looking over his desk before coming around to the front of it and holding out an arm to guide Lily to the door.

"I don't want Scott to explain," Lily growled, ducking away from his hand and hoping that her anger would carry her over the surging wave of panic. What could have happened that Alex would have come here? "I want you to tell me what the hell is going on and then I can get Scott to fill in the details. Start with why you didn't tell me before?"

She watched Nathan's face, waiting for the decision to be rendered. Finally, he spoke. "He had some kind of episode, probably a flashback, when he picked up Dane from preschool. That's all I know."

It was a terribly sparse explanation, one that did not ease her growing fears, but she knew she wasn't getting anything else out of Nathan and let herself be guided towards the door. If anything serious had happened to one or the other, Nathan would have said something earlier, no matter how preoccupied he was about the timestream. Snapping her professional mask back in place, she exchanged nods with Nathan and went over to where Tom, Miri, and Alice were sitting and waiting.

"Okay, the good news is that I think I've gotten the Evil Overlord off of our back for a little bit," she began as they turned to her. "He understands that looking at us like we're bugs under a microscope doesn't make us work any better, it just makes us look like bugs."

Alice, the only one of the three who had been with the Network since before Akkaba, snorted and the other two smiled.

"The better news is that you three get to go back to work without me," she went on, "For reasons that don't involve our project, so don't get nervous. It's nothing life threatening, or at least as life threatening as what we're working on, so don't worry, either."

"Will you be back up later?" Tom asked and Lily tried to miss the concerned look in his eyes. "I called in; the stats from Midnight are already waiting and Rob wants to start on them."

Lily frowned as she checked her watch. "It's... four-fifteen. I really doubt I'm getting back today. Rob knows he can start without the whole rigmarole; tell the man to show some damned initiative, willya?" She smiled to take the edge off of her words. Rob Anazole was a brilliant statistician who could see five steps ahead of everyone else, but he wouldn't run a single number until he'd gotten supervisor approval. "All right. Anything blows up, call maintenance. Anything interesting happens, my cell is, unfortunately, on. I shall see you folks on the morrow. Good work in there, by the way."

Smiling farewell, she waved and turned back to where Nathan was waiting for her. The trip to the floor with the training rooms was brief and nobody they passed looked at them twice; Nathan was who he was and Lily wore an ID card that demonstrated her permanent clearance to be in the building.  Which was just as well; she wasn't sure how long her patience with delays would last.

The passed through a nondescript metal door into a control booth that only had a cursory resemblance to the Danger Room console back at the mansion-turned-Academy. The console itself was on a small dais, forming nearly a complete circle around the command chair. It had small monitors, sensors, and seemingly thousands of controls that Lily had appropriately oohed and aahed about during the building's construction but couldn't care less about at the moment. The rest of the room had computer screens, printers, and a mainframe against the back wall while the front was comprised entirely of windows that started at the ceiling and ended only a few feet off the floor.

An anonymous petty officer was manning the controls and both Scott and Logan were looking through the glass, matching grim expressions on their faces.

"All right, now will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?" Lily asked. "Alex has flashbacked before and none of them sent him scurrying here."

Scott turned to face her, but Logan, while he turned his head slightly in her direction, kept his eyes straight ahead. Whatever was going on down below was commanding his concentration.

"I don't know much more than Nathan must have told you," Scott said. He was apologetic, but at the same time all business. This was Field Commander Scott Summers, not the man who had argued with her last week about canned corn. His shoulders were straight, his posture stiff, and he didn't smile. "Alex wasn't very forthcoming. He said he'd explain afterwards."

Lily shook her head and let loose a strangled cry of frustration. "He has bitten your head off every single time you've suggested any sort of training exercise at the Academy, but when he suddenly shows up at XSE Headquarters and demands to be thrown into a simulation, you just hand him a uniform and say 'set to'? You didn't even ask why?"

"It's not afterwards yet," Logan said from the window. He was standing in a watchful pose as he looked down. "We owe him that much."

"You both owe him the good sense to make sure he's not having a fucking episode before you..." she broke off with a heavy sigh, pacing in a direction that would not bring her close enough to where Scott could intercept her. "Did you at least check to make sure he knew where he was before you told him to go have fun?"

"Give us a little credit, Lily," Scott half-growled, half-sighed as he caught her glare. "He was lucid. Freaked out, but lucid."

A muttered curse from Logan broke the stare-down and they both looked to the window where he was shaking his head in what seemed to be awe. Nathan was standing behind him and walked back to give a direction to the controller that Lily couldn't hear.

"Where the hell did he learn that?" Logan asked nobody in particular as Scott reached for Lily's elbow and half-dragged her towards the window. "Jurgenson, give me a south-west wind at five miles an hour focused on the A4 quadrant. Increase it by five every thirty seconds until I tell you to stop."

Lily wasn't prepared for what she saw below. She had seen Alex in an XSE uniform, right before he had disappeared and the final model had just been approved. But the man in the scored battle armor holding back a volley of bullets and other projectile weapons with only a translucent wall of plasma was not who she remembered. When he turned around, his face was not a mask of concentration but was instead void of expression. He barely even looked like Havok. At least any Havok she had ever seen. And that was both the problem and the point, wasn't it.

"Oh my god," she whispered as she watched. The scene below was one of nighttime urban warfare; the scattered and destroyed remains of cars, mailboxes, people, and retail merchandise littered wet streets. Fires burned where gasoline had pooled in potholes and the sounds of war filled the air, coming through the control room speakers in surround-sound stereo after Logan flicked a switch by his left hand.

"He went straight for the advanced level," Scott said quietly by her right ear. He was standing closer to her than he otherwise would have, perhaps sensing her shock. "I did try to talk him out of it, but I couldn't."

On some level Lily understood that this was necessary. Not only for Alex, who had so obviously been fighting this aspect of himself, but also for the others, like Scott and Logan, to get some sort of tangible evidence of just how much he had changed. She knew he felt like he was living a lie, one he had to maintain lest he revolt everyone with the monster he was half-certain he'd become. So this was part confession for him and, for that, Lily held her tongue. But it was hard to watch, so very hard to see so much pain coursing just beneath the coldly expert surface.

Below, the wind Logan had ordered increased, but the wall of plasma didn't waver and Alex was focused on using a pinpoint beam emanating from his left index fingertip to successively knock out the three locks on a door fifteen feet away from him.

"He's cruising through it like it was the freshman trainee obstacle course," Scott went on in the same quiet voice. Lily could hear the bitterness, the self-accusation that she had rarely had cause to hear from him. "At the top of his game, back when he was leading X-Factor, he could have run this program and he wouldn't have gotten a quarter as far as he has. Look at what he's doing - he never could do laser precision at that distance, let alone with his left hand. He's not even melting down the whole lock, just the tumblers. He was never very good at minimizing the cosmetic damage and now he's improvising credible camouflage."

Lily could only shake her head and cover her gaping mouth with her hand.

"The plasma shield is translucent enough for him to see through, but it's holding up to... twenty mile-per-hour winds and he's not even paying attention." Scott was talking as much for himself as for her, Lily realized. Punishment for not seeing the profundity of the changes earlier, perhaps. She wasn't party to most of what went on between the brothers, but she had been under the impression that Alex was talking to Scott about things he hadn't yet said to her. Maybe that wasn't the case after all, or maybe Alex just wasn't sharing this with anyone. "He's been at this for half-an-hour and it's been like this the whole time. No fatalities, but he's gotten a helluva lot less squeamish about creating enemy casualties. And his use of his powers? We knew he'd learned some new tricks, but the scope of them is almost frightening."

"Imagine how he must feel," Lily muttered sourly. Scott's personal guilt aside, he was still Commander Summers and she didn't want the XSE looking at her husband, who was doing this out of fear, and seeing a brand new favorite weapon. These shiny new skills had come at a cost that she knew Alex had thought too steep to pay. They had been acquired through barter and Lily feared the price had been part of his soul.

From the control room, they could watch the scene unfold from on high; the ceilings Alex could see being invisible to them. They watched him shield himself from the unseen attackers as he ran across the street and dove through the door he had unlocked, kicking it shut behind him as he came out of his roll. He moved through the house, past the scared 'civilians' in the kitchen, and through the back door and into an alley. Down the alley, diving across another patrolled street, and down a block before another firefight. This time, the five attackers were in dim light and Alex put up his shield with one hand and melted their guns from under their fingers with the other.

"Everything's different," Logan said in rueful awe. "He runs differently now. Used to try and teach him stuff, but... It's like he's suddenly learned everything I ever showed him 'n' more. He's not afraid to open up the throttle anymore."

"Don't you get it?" Lily asked, too saddened by what she was seeing to even be angry. Her voice came out a whisper. "It's not sudden at all to him. It may have taken dozens of different Logans in dozens of different lifetimes to teach him what he's doing now."

A small plasma blast set off a fire in the engine block of a parked jeep that was painted with the insignia of what was presumably the enemy. Alex was around the corner and into the next alley before the owners of the jeep emerged from the building next to where it was parked, brandishing weapons and shouting.

"We get it and we don't," Scott told her. "He doesn't tell us any more than he tells you, Lily. I don't even think he tells us half of what he tells you. He won't talk about where he was, how long he was in any reality, even how many realities he was in. I don't even know if he knows."

"He knows," she said quietly, closing her eyes to keep the tears that were welling from falling. "He can't forget. He tries, but it keeps coming back. He puts so much energy into looking normal. He thinks that just because I don't see him jump when one of the neighbors slams a door, it'll mean that I think he's all better. He just wants everyone to think he's better. So that maybe he'll have an easier time convincing himself."

At the end of the day, Alex was always so tired. He'd pretend that it was simply too much reading and too much running around with Dane, but Lily knew it was more than that. Keeping up the mask of normalcy took a lot of energy. No matter how many times she tried to tell him otherwise, she knew he was still convinced that he had to get completely healed before he could feel safe in his old life. And while a part of him knew that 'completely healed' didn't mean 'the way he used to be' and would probably never be really possible, Alex wasn't going to settle for scar tissue. And Lily wasn't sure if she was doing harm or good by not doing more on that front, even if every time she brought it up they ended up arguing.

"Jurgenson, run Endgame Protocol Nine," Logan ordered. "We've seen enough."

A dead end appeared at the far side of the alley Alex was about to turn into. The lighting was nonexistent and he wouldn't be able to see the brick wall until he was halfway down the alley, by which point the armored car driving nearly silently from the other direction could pull in and corner him.

"Whatever means of escape he can come up with will bring him outside the program," Scott explained.

The scene unfolded as planned, but did not end as expected.

"Nobody's ever tried to commandeer the car before," Jurgenson offered helplessly as Logan glared at him.

The bombed-out city faded and Alex stood alone in a vast, green walled room and Lily watched with a critical eye, looking for any and every sign. He stood with his head held high, but his eyes closed and his pose was still tense, coiled and ready to spring into action once more. He was breathing deeply but evenly, exhausted but still prepared to go on.

Lily watched his hands clench tightly and flex in a slow rhythm. Something was wrong.

 "It's over," the sensitive microphones could pick up his hoarse whisper. "It's over. It's over."

"Get me down there," she said, not turning around.

"He's just..."

"Get me down there now," she repeated angrily, the waver in her voice betraying her. "Or I kick out the window and jump."

A hitched gasp came through the speakers as Scott entered a code into a keypad along the near wall. A door Lily hadn't seen before slid open and a staircase was revealed.

"It'll open at the other end when you get there," Scott told her and she ran.

It did and she stopped two strides into the room, letting Alex see her first before she startled him. She was immune to Dane's powers, not his.

He had spun to face the door the moment it had slid open, but he didn't see her, she could tell. He was caught between the Alex who had just strolled through one of the XSE's hardest training programs and the Alex he thought he had to be with her. And he was lost somewhere in the middle.

Finally, his face registered her presence and she stormed towards him, not sure if she was more angry or afraid.  She stopped right in front of him and before she could express either emotion, Alex gave her the most complex, heartbreaking look. It was the grim-set jaw of this newfound warrior, and it was the hopeful eyes of the husband who had tried to convince her that having a baby would be the neatest adventure ever. And then it crumbled, followed by the man who bore it.

She got her arms around him before he went totally boneless and eased them both to their knees. She was crying, but he was crying harder and she could hear great gasps by her ear as he sucked in air. He was trembling - shaking, really - and he held her loosely, letting her be strong for him.

She wasn't sure how long they were there before he was able to collect himself enough to breathe normally again. His grip around her tightened and she heard him take a deep breath before he shifted his weight back to himself and pulled away far enough so that he could look at her. His eyes were bloodshot, probably had been from before with all of the smoke, and before she could warn him not to apologize, because that's what he always did when he broke down like that, he kissed her. Fiercely and unapologetically.

"I had to," he said breathlessly as he pulled away again. "I had to do this."

"Why?" A despairing whisper.

"I..." he broke off with a sigh and bowed his head. Lily frowned and cupped his chin, making him look at her again.

"I had a vision," he said. "Not a flashback, nothing I had ever seen before. It... It was..."

"Enough to send you running here," she finished for him and he nodded, making a sorrowful face.

"It felt like here."

Lily knew what he meant. Not this building, but this reality. And a pang of fear ran through her that maybe Alex knew something about what was going on in the time stream, that maybe he was tuned in to the same wavelength that Nathan was. She wasn't afraid for the future, whatever that event might be. That event was going to be bad and scary and probably cost lives and it would be a tragedy in and of itself. Instead, she was afraid for Alex, afraid that the horrors of his past that he was so far unable to move past would now be compounded by his being haunted by horrors of futures yet to happen.

Chronography was artificial precognition and Lily had always felt that that was both blessing and curse. It was a curse in that the purely manufactured nature of chronography gave it an extra layer that had to be penetrated to reach the truth - reading the time stream was a learned response, not intuition or instinct. It was a blessing, however, in that it kept the burden of success and failure impersonal - they mourned each missed opportunity to prevent loss, but they didn't have to live with it within their skin the way a precog did. The way she was starting to worry that Alex might and was sure that Nathan did.

"I felt so unprepared," he went on, his eyes looking unfocused again. Or, rather, focused on something only he could see. Lily, scientist, skeptic, and concerned wife, didn't like it at all. "I know if it happens, I'm going to be needed and...I wasn't ready. I need to be ready..."

"You don't need to be ready for anything," she interrupted, squeezing his chin gently so that he'd look up at her and not at the floor. "That's what the XSE is for. You have other things to worry about."

Alex shook his head, pulling away from her grasp. "No," he whispered. His eyes were closed, but when he opened them, they weren't unfocused or wild. They were perfectly clear and full of resolve. "I have to worry about this, too. I've... I've seen too many worlds fall, Lily. I can't let another one. Not this one."

"Well, it ain't gonna if we have anything to say about it."

Lily jumped at the voice behind her and she felt Alex start as well. Turning around, she saw Logan, looking... inscrutable. Like he knew that he looked gruff enough in the uniform without having to try and couldn't bring himself to look uncomfortable for interrupting an intimate moment.

"Now that you've set a record score on the program," he went on, voice softening, "Why dontcha hit the showers so we can pick your brain? You've got a lot of explainin' to do, 'Lex."

The last line came out half-muffled, as if Logan had wanted to say something else but hadn't. It was also the man talking, not the uniform. The one who had gotten the two of them dosed up with bubonic plague on a Mexican vacation, not the cool evaluator who had been standing at the observation window.

Of all of the X-people who had been close to Alex, Logan was probably the one person Lily had learned the least about during Alex's absence. At least directly. Both Piotr and Kurt had, at separate points, told her that she was being 'Loganesque' in her determination to go it alone. And they hadn't meant it as a compliment. But she knew Logan well enough to know that Alex's disappearance had hit him hard and the changes Alex had gone through before his return were hitting him harder. In no small part because Logan, like everyone else, wasn't sure how to deal with the 'new' Alex. The 'old' Alex had mellowed into someone fairly open about his own strengths and weaknesses, cheerfullywearing both an arrogance and an insecurity that had been honed in battle and in rest. Since his return, however, Alex had been opaque about who he had become and Logan was unsure of how to proceed with his old friend, understanding that the old responses were no longer accurate or even appropriate but not knowing what else to do. And Lily felt for him - for both of them - because of that.

"Lots of practice," Alex muttered, a dark smile flashing over his features. He grunted as he launched himself back to his feet from his knees and held out a hand to Lily.

A half-hour later, she and a freshly-washed-and-back-in-street-clothes Alex joined Scott, Logan, and Nathan in Scott's office. While waiting for Alex to change, Lily had called Piotr, where Dane had been brought after Alex's episode (which still hadn't been explained to anyone). Piotr reported that Dane had been upset at more than his father's sudden lack of composure, but hadn't said anything when pressed on the matter. Currently he was doing something loud with Diego that had Callisto threatening them with housecleaning chores, but he would be welcome to stay as long as they needed him to. Lily could hear the concern in Piotr's voice and wished she had something more to say to him other than what little she knew.

Over coffee, Alex - now eerily calm and businesslike - explained that he had been having a perfectly normal day, first at the New York Public's Research Library and then at Staples, and then he had gone to pick up Dane from preschool. Dane had seemed a little out of sorts, but Alex hadn't been able to get anything out of him other than his possibly having had a nightmare during his nap. He wasn't running low on electricity, which had been Alex's first thought since Dane was still getting adjusted to Reed's new model of the control device. It had been sunny and warm for January, so they had wandered around a little rather than go straight home and had split an apple purchased at an open-air market. The vision had hit, oddly enough, when he was washing Dane's hands with the water from his water bottle. He felt like he had blacked out, but Dane said he hadn't. The vision itself, once explained in fragmented pieces, was both horrifying and horrifyingly vague. He had seen En Sabah Nur, but not the one Nathan had destroyed at Akkaba. And it had been raining blood. Alex's voice stayed steady throughout, but his eyes teared in either frustration or disgust at what he saw and was unable to relate clearly.

"I've had... not this, but things like this happen before," Alex finished quietly. "It's not true precognition. It may not be any sort of precognition. I'm not sure what it is. It could be that I see things that could happen in this reality or are happening in another one. I don't know, But I've certainly never had such a strong sense of... probability like this before. Or a connection to what I saw being in this reality."  

Nathan put down his coffee cup and leaned forward. "Was Dane ever tested for precognition?"

Lily frowned as she untucked her leg from underneath her. She was unsurprised that Nathan had honed straight in on the possibility of precognition - especially with some of the fragmentary images bearing a loose resemblance to some of the XSE precogs' own visions - but didn't see what Dane had to do with things.

"No," she replied, letting the confusion color her voice. "Sulven told Alex that Dane was headblind before he was born and he's never shown any signs of anything. Besides, it doesn't run in the family."

"I don't think Dane had anything to do with it. It's a quirk of being the Nexus," Alex added bitterly and Lily squeezed his hand in silent support.

Nathan looked thoughtful, however, and Lily knew he wasn't going to drop things.

"I'll keep it in mind," she told him before he could say anything. "But I'm also going to keep in mind that Alex is an expert in realities in general, not in this one in particular. No matter how sharp the feelings."

Nathan frowned but nodded and said nothing else. They had already had this discussion today.


Lily watched Alex stare into space for a few moments before interrupting his reverie.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Alex looked up at her as if he were surprised to see her. His good humor had more or less been a show for Dane, so she had let him be after they'd put their pride and joy to bed an hour ago. Since then, he had been working furiously at his laptop, typing occasionally but mostly it had been the frustrated, solitary jabs at keys that Lily associated from her own experience with 'page down' and 'open/close document' and 'delete'.

He sighed in frustration and leaned back, rubbing his hands over his face and pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes. "I guess. I don't know."

"Now there's a definitive answer," she retorted, crossing the living room to sit next to him on the couch. Alex shrugged helplessly and tiredly and she patted his thigh. This had been a terribly long day for him, she realized. And yet he had still summoned the energy not only to care for Dane, but also to convince their son that his father really was okay. If only she were as easy to convince.

They had gotten to Piotr and Callisto's at almost seven. The discussion had been necessarily brief - the children would be needing to get ready for bed soon and Alex was really too drained to go through another interrogation and Piotr had sensed such. Callisto had been in a surprisingly approving mood. Lily had told Piotr what Alex had done in the training room when she had called and presumably he had told Callisto, but why that had garnered the reaction from her that it did, Lily was at a loss to explain. Piotr and Alex had made plans to have lunch tomorrow and then she and Alex had taken Dane, who had been positively protective of Alex, home.

"I'm feeling very... stupid," Alex said finally, turning his head from where it lay against the couch cushions to face her. "I've made a mistake that I have no real reason to have made."

Lily raised her eyebrow in silent exhortation to explain, but said nothing. More than two months into the process, they were finally learning each other's tendencies. If Alex was prone to apologizing for that which wasn't his fault, she was apparently too willing to give forgiveness for any weakness on his part. So they had a deal - he stopped saying 'I'm sorry' and she stopped saying 'it's not your fault' and they moved on to whatever the problem actually was.

"It didn't really hit me until Dane and I were most of the way to Piotr and Callisto's," he went on, frowning at himself. "I had simply thought to go there to be... safe, I guess. Indoors from the storm in the figurative sense. But we were on the subway and I was thinking about what I was going to tell them and it did hit me. I've been running again."

"From?"

"Myself," he replied with a disgusted snort. "I tried to stop being Havok again. And it didn't work any better than last time. It worked worse than last time because this time, being Havok means a whole lot more. Ever since I've been back, I've been pretending that I could go back to being the old Alex. And maybe I can, at least in terms of being a geologist and being your husband and learning how to be Dane's father and all that stuff that I missed so badly when I was gone. But what I can't do is go back to being the old Havok, even if Havok doesn't exist per se anymore. I can't go back to treating being a hero as some weird family business that I've inherited the rights to even if it's not what I want to do with my life. I've seen and done and been too much to be as... casual about it anymore."

Lily nodded, understanding the gist of what he was saying even as she was sure she was missing some essential other point that was where his insight was. "You tell all this to the Commander?"

Alex chuckled darkly. "The good doctor has been telling me as much since the start. I've been trying to pretend that I'm not Havok anymore and he's been trying to tell me that I can't pretend that that part of me doesn't exist, that it's not simply a matter of present and past. And I didn't want to hear that, so I went on my merry way and..."

"And today happened."

"In part," he agreed, taking her hand in his. "The rest... I really was disturbed by that vision. I mean, I think I would have eventually gotten around to starting to drill again no matter what. But I've never felt anything like that before. All of the other times I've seen things, it was hazy and I was never sure of when or where or if what I was seeing was real or not or just a possibility. And what I saw today, it was so concrete. And I knew that it was a possibility for this reality and that scared me so badly, Lily. I was sitting there with my son and all I could think about was that he was going to die because I was too afraid to accept how I've changed."

"So today was part butt-kicking and part illumination?" she asked, shifting around on the couch so that she could rest her head on his shoulder. He twisted around as well and she found herself in his embrace instead, her head in the crook of his arm and her torso across his lap.

"I guess," Alex admitted. "But it was one ugly-ass breakthrough."

"They're not supposed to be warm and fuzzy," she informed him sardonically. The dark cloud that had been hovering over Alex since Dane had been put down to bed seemed to have lifted, she realized, and she was relieved to not have to be careful of what she said. Even sitting cozily like they were, Alex was still capable of flying into a sulk at astonishing speeds and Lily didn't want to be stuck in such a vulnerable physical position should that happen. Not that she feared him, because she didn't, but it was awkward and embarrassing to be cuddling one moment and being accused of being a cad the next.

"Says you," he retorted, a genuine smile playing on his lips for the first time in what seemed like forever. "I want my next one to be like advancing a board in a video game. The point-meter rolling up to the sound of bells and cha-chinging coins..."

"You want to be a Mario Brother?" Lily laughed. "What's the other one's name? Luigi?"

"Scott can be Luigi," Alex sniffed, trailing the back of his fingers against her cheek as he brushed hair out of her face. "I want to get the girl."

What followed next was as much about distraction and relief as love, if not more. But it, too, reflected the day's events. For the first time, Lily thought as they lay together afterwards, Alex had been with her as he was, not as he had thought he should be in order to be the 'old' Alex. It had been different, not in a bad way at all, but different enough that Alex had that 'we have to talk' pose even as he lay on his side facing her. And that sobered her quickly.

"How much do you know about my Goblin Prince time?" he asked as she finally gave in to her trepidation and gestured with her hand for him to say whatever it was he was going to say.

"Practically nothing," she replied, not expecting him to begin with a reference to anything that had happened here in this reality. "It was pretty up there on the list of things you wouldn't talk about. Even more so than Genosha. I know it happened at the end of your time in Australia and was part of Inferno, but..."

"It was Maddie's last big piece of the puzzle," he began slowly, sitting up as well and fidgeting with the sheets, torn between his mutation's production of body heat and the modesty of the body that comes with having to bare one's soul. He looked suddenly uncertain and Lily sat up a little so that he didn't have the excuse of looking down at the bed instead of meeting her eyes. "Apart from the whole 'I want to sacrifice my infant son to create a permanent hellmouth in midtown' thing, which was really the overarching plan. Basically, she... seduced me, I guess."

Lily looked at him sharply, not sure whether to be amused or concerned. Alex was a passionate man - anything he did, he did all the way - and she knew that in his younger years, that passion had been well-matched by impetuousness and an impulsiveness that he had never quite grown out of. They had not spoken in great detail of their love lives before they had met, but Lily knew that there had to be a few surprising events of that sort in Alex's past. She would never have suspected Scott's rarely spoken of first wife to be one of them, however. Alex could be free-spirited, but he wasn't indecorous. Nobody had ever really wanted to talk about the events everyone called Inferno, but she had gotten bits and pieces over the years. But she hadn't heard this part of the story and Scott, if he knew, didn't seem to hold it against his younger brother.

"I wasn't completely innocent," he went on, looking sheepish. "I was supremely pissed off at Scott for abandoning her and their baby - little did I know what was going on there, but that's sort of by-the-by - and I felt bad that she was stuck with us in Australia, the only non-mutant among a group of hard-traveling heroes, her not knowing what had happened to her son and why she had been shot and all of the crazy stuff that had led to her being in Dallas with us in the first place. And, let's face it, she was a clone of Jean and Jean's not exactly hard on the eyes..."

Lily snorted, both in amusement and to cover her relief that whatever Alex and Maddie had done hadn't been too serious an indiscretion, and she was about to say something probably impolite when Alex's look of rueful embarrassment turned into something a lot more painful and her bemused smile faded instantly.

"What happened next I'm not exactly sure about and I've never had the courage to ask Jean, who probably knows because she's got Maddie's memories," he finally continued after being lost in thought for long enough for Lily to touch his arm in gentle concern, "but the short of it is that with a little help from Maddie's telepathy, the fact that she was my sister-in-law stopped being such of an issue. It stopped being an issue at all and we became lovers. She was messing with all of our heads by that point, dulling all of our curiosity about what we had left behind and editing what we did hear and see. She was the one in charge of the communications room. Patronizing idiots that we were, we had been so relieved to let her do that because felt so bad that she couldn't go adventure with us because she wasn't a mutant.

"Anyway, when she finally revealed herself as the Goblin Queen, I was too much in her grasp to know which end was up. She took me as her consort, the Goblin Prince, and I sided with her against Scott and Jean and everyone else. Until it was almost too late."

Lily sat stunned, not sure what to say. She had known that whatever had happened to Alex during Inferno had been significantly more 'not good' than what had happened to many of the others. But now, suddenly, she understood why certain people had always been so hesitant to bring Madelyne Pryor's name up in Alex's presence.

Alex gave her a 'yeah, I know' kind of bitter smile before going on. "It was pretty much a relief that I didn't have too much time to think about it afterwards - Inferno ended and it wasn't too long before we were through the Siege Perilous and I was Magistrate Summers, and after that was over, I let myself get lost in the cleanup and X-Factor and everything else that eventually got me fried enough to quit the hero business."

This was another part of their routine, had been since that first night Alex had told her that he was Havok: he confessed his past and then braced himself for her to reject him because of it. It was a reaction that was both frustrating and disappointing to her - frustrating because Alex should know her better and disappointing because perhaps he did and that's why he got nervous.

"And I know what happens in the story after that," she broke in, knowing that she sounded June Cleaver kind of forced-cheerful, a timbre that would sound especially false to Alex coming from her, but she felt that she had to say something lest Alex start to get worried.

"Yeah," he agreed, leaning over to kiss her and reaching for her hand before sitting back again. "For which I am grateful in ways that all of those lifetimes have not taught me how to express."

She was about to say that the prior activities could be construed as very well-received expressions of that gratitude when all of what Alex had been saying about Madelyne clicked into place and Lily clamped her mouth shut before she could say anything flippant. This hadn't been one of the garden variety 'mind control betrayals' that the X-types tended to laugh about after it was over, the way Piotr still blushed furiously every time Kurt called him Proletariat Man. This had been a much deeper, much more intimate kind of control. Suddenly, their own personal sexual history suddenly became much more clearly defined. Alex did not give up control easily or well. But because she did, that had rarely even been an issue. It had never dawned on her that Alex's need to maintain personal control had been anything other than preference.

Alex had been watching her closely, she realized, because all he did was nod knowingly. "I knew I hadn't ever dealt with what Maddie did to me, but after so much water had gone under the bridge and after I fell in love with you and we were working out so well, I figured that maybe time had healed this wound..."

"It didn't," she said quietly, not a question at all. And for a brief moment, she hated Scott and Jean and all of the other X-types with all of her not inconsiderable fury. They knew the details. And they had done nothing.

"The first reality I popped into, the one with Scotty," Alex said, nodding, "That universe's Madelyne was his mother, that Alex's wife."

Lily closed her eyes, wishing she could close her ears as well. Oh, no.

"I was new to the whole reality-hopping thing - I hadn't even figured out what had happened yet and I had no idea that that would only be the first stop," Alex went on, squeezing her hand in acknowledgement of the difficulty of what he had to say. "So I was open about trying to get back to my reality. Obviously, everyone thought I was crazy and they secretly had me tested. That universe's Reed Richards told Maddie that I had brain damage from 'nearly' drowning and Maddie - who was already on her way to being that universe's Goblin Queen, even if she didn't know it yet - wanted to help me out, make me right again."

She didn't want to hear this, didn't want to hear about all this pain that was beyond her grasp to prevent and yet she felt like there was something she should have done, could have done. Because if Scott and Jean and Charles Xavier knew the history, she had known the man. And all of the anger that she had initially felt towards them now turned inward because there had been no more healing on her watch than on theirs. So she listened, a penance for her crime of omission.

"It was a natural assumption that the brain damage was responsible for my 'amnesia,' responsible for why I was acting like I wasn't in love with her and was instead in love with someone else, why I thought that my son hadn't been born yet," he continued dispassionately. "Reed couldn't reverse the damage, so Maddie fixed me the only way a telepath would, by reintroducing the memories. But she wasn't really herself anymore, wasn't even the woman that that Alex had married. She was the avatar of the Goblin Force and the Goblin Force loves displays of power. So instead of just showing me what she thought that I should have known, she made me fall in love with her again."

Lily felt the tears fall, but didn't stop them and was surprised to feel Alex wipe them away with his hand. Smiling miserably, she took his hand from her cheek and kissed his knuckles.  

"When Maddie finally embraced the Goblin Force, I didn't follow her like I had the first time. I don't know why, even now. Maybe because I didn't have that well of deep antipathy towards Scott to use against me, maybe it was my memories of you holding me back; I don't know and I've spent time wondering." He shook his head absently. "But while I didn't become the Goblin Prince again, it didn't hurt any less once my head cleared.  Because all I could think about was that twice she had gotten to me, taken me body and soul without asking permission. And the first time I had been traitorous to Scott, but he's my brother and there was no way I could have known. But the second time I had been traitorous to you... This is your cue, by the way. Our agreement can be suspended for tonight."

She laughed involuntarily, not even knowing how she could do so. But she gave her best smile. "If you need me to tell you that I don't hold you responsible for that, then I don't know what the hell you're doing in this bed, Buster. You should know me better than that."

"I do," he admitted, pulling her close. "But I still need to hear the words all the same. I... I hated myself for a long time after that. And I don't think I hit a lower point, even at the end, than I did when I found out that it was all part of a cycle. History was supposed to repeat itself. The Goblin Force didn't want Maddie or Jean or anyone else; whomever it used as its avatar was merely a way to get to me. It wanted me because I was the Nexus of All Realities. That's how I found out what I was, by the way."

"Summers's luck being what it is and all," Lily muttered with grim humor and Alex nodded.

"But I couldn't be its host," he went on. "Some cosmic check-and-balance made that impossible. I could, however, be its tool. And so in every reality, since it couldn't take me directly, I was going to be taken by someone it could control and used to rule the multiverse. I... didn't deal with that news too well."

"Worse than when you found out that you were a mutant?" Lily asked. It was weak humor, but Alex smiled nonetheless.

"Much worse," he confirmed darkly, all trace of humor vanishing. "I died in that first reality so that I could take the Goblin Force with me. I didn't know that I'd be simply transported to another reality and I really didn't care. There was no way I could have gone on, reality to reality, just to get raped like that again and again for all eternity."

Still in Alex's loose embrace, she kissed his neck. Part of her wanted to shush him so that he wouldn't have to keep thinking of those dark days, but she knew better. He needed to get this out and she honestly wasn't sure if he'd have the strength to do it again should she allow him to falter here.

"In the end, I was lucky," he continued. "I learned enough about the Goblin Force so that I knew that Maddie wasn't really to blame, at least in the sense that while she had knowingly accepted the Goblin Force powers, she wasn't ultimately responsible for its plans to conquer the multiverse. So when I destroyed the Goblin Force, I made sure not to hurt her. So I didn't leave Scotty alone."

There was silence then, a heavy silence that Lily was sure she could reach out and touch as it hung around them. This was a confession that had been a decade in the making, more than a many decades if she counted all of Alex's time in other realities. And in that time, the story of how Alex had been manipulated into the Goblin Prince, a story that had been rather simple in its ugliness, had gotten chapters added to it, each worse than the last. Its horror was not only in the deeds it told of, but (Alex being Alex) also in its secrecy because if it was hidden, then he could worry that this would be the tale that would finally drive her away. But she was still there and Lily wasn't sure whether to be in awe of how strong he was or hit him for bearing that weight unnecessarily.

"When you sit there and think about how much darkness you've seen and how far you've strayed from the sunny and carefree man you seem to think that you once were and never really actually were," she finally said, "Do you think about how much light there still is in you? About your capacity not only to survive, but to forgive and do good and be happy?"

She was rewarded by one of his complicated looks, one of those special moments where a maelstrom of emotions passed over his face and could be picked out like constellations in the sky. There was self-loathing, there was humor, and over there was confusion, which was right next to bemusement...

"You have come through unimaginable experiences with your compassion and your sense of humor intact," she told him. "In your whole integration-of-personalities project, don't forget that you carry more than scars."

She was rewarded with a smile illuminated by the moon that had risen far enough to shine through the curtained windows.

Past Alex, she could see the clock on his nightstand and she must have winced when she saw the time because he turned and then chuckled and then reached behind her for her nightshirt and handed it to her with a grin.




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