White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

28/May-June 2012


She held a finger up to indicate that she'd switch her attention over in a moment. Finishing writing down the sequence of numbers, Lily looked behind her.

"It's five of one," Alice Epstein said. She was kneeling on her desk, Lily assumed, her head appearing through the nest of spider plants that rested on the border between their cubicles. Alice was notorious for keeping a neat workspace and actually had room on her desk upon which to climb. Lily, on the other hand, didn't even remember what color the formica was underneath her clutter.

She nodded, but Alice had already removed herself from her perch. She took the tablet off of its docking station and headed off towards one of the small conference rooms. Nathan, Scott, and Sam Guthrie were there already, Nathan having teleported them in from the XSE headquarters downtown. Bishop had been forced to stay behind because of some emerging situation that Lily really hadn't cared to inquire about.

"Afternoon guys," she said as she entered, deftly avoiding stepping on Louisa as the office manager was crouching down by the electrical outlet nearest to the door. "Sorry, Louisa. Didn't see you... How are you feeling, Scott?"

She was glad nobody else was in the room - she wanted time to establish the pecking order. Within the lab, Lily tried to keep her authority casual, but she hated it when the XSE came in to her world and acted like they owned the place. They might end up doing so in the future - there had been murmurs of incorporating a chronography division within the XSE hierarchy - but right now, this was Lily's house and she had to make sure they knew that.

"Uncomfortable," Scott muttered, squirming in his seat until he was leaning back as far as the chair would go. "I stopped taking the painkillers because they were making me stupid. I have an appointment with Dana this evening."

Lily nodded as she took her seat. She knew Dana had been traveling a lot lately, but hadn't realized how often she must be away if Scott hadn't gotten help from her by now. He had wrenched his back in a training exercise a couple of weeks ago. In general, now that the X-folks were no longer living in such close proximity to each other, it was harder to know who was doing what where. Scott, Jean, and the twins were the only ones now living on the Xavier estate - now the XSE Academy - and Lily was often slow to ask for updates on the far-flung extended family.

Alice and Tom entered the room next, nodding greetings to everyone - Alice knew Nathan better than almost everyone else in the lab group and Tom had had enough dealings with the XSE hierarchy to be more than politely interested in catching up. Miri Ahearn came running in, face flushed, as Sam was in the middle of telling Lily about Alison's latest attempt to prove that she was a telekinetic like her brother. Miri had taken an early lunch to go to a doctor's appointment and had warned Lily that she might be a few minutes late.

Peter Vasiljevs, the head of the programming subgroup, came in carrying a laptop with a pile of flash drives balanced on top of a mini-projector. He immediately went over to the seat closest to the data jacks, forcing Nathan to shift over, and started plugging his toys in. "Stan and Vic think they'll have the filters you asked for by three," he told Alice. "There was a problem with one of them. One of your parameters made the first test-drive explode."

"That's what I was hoping for, actually," Alice replied. "Well, not hoping for, but what I thought would happen."

She turned to Lily. "Those were the filters we worked out," she explained and Lily made a face. She and Alice had been plotting worst-case scenarios and anything that had a sequence that converged at infinity was considered to represent an impossible event. Lily had been skeptical of some of the situations Alice had proposed, thinking them too far-fetched even considering past oddities and thus a waste of time, but Alice, the Historical Data Analysis head, had insisted and Lily had translated her requests into fluid dynamics terms and sent them off to the mainframes.

Ubong Wadkins and Rob Anazole, math and stats heads respectively, entered and Ubi closed the door behind them. Lily sat up straight in her chair as they took their seats and waited for Louisa to nod that she was ready to start taking notes.

"Okay, let's get this show on the road," Lily began. "If you'll all open your folders you'll find the timeline Radek Droppa from Midnight produced for us. This is the latest draft of the non-mathematical version and the only changes in this one from the one you were all emailed are that the incidents in Jordan and Switzerland were removed and there is a new entry for the synagogue destruction in Alsace. As was said in the last email, any questions on real-life events go to Radek or Roger Marlowe and Louisa will send out clean copies today along with the rest of what we produce here."

Years of teaching had given her good intuition as to when to pause in the middle of monologues. She did now, waiting for everyone to open the manila folders, find the new entries, and then mark them in whatever fashion they chose.

The timeline had been a very hard document to produce and was the result of hours upon hours of intense cooperation between HisDAs, the field service, and the units that normally dealt exclusively in the theoretical aspects of chronography. Lily had nearly lost her voice in one particularly acrimonious meeting by shouting down Bob Sagerstein and the chorus of HisDAs specialists down at Midnight when they had tried to overrule Alice - their counterpart here in New York - on a set of threat assessments.

It was too simplistic to say that the timeline was a map of nexus points; instead, what they were hoping to accomplish was the detailing of one particular time stream. Hopefully, it would be the correct one and they would be able to use their resources to either lessen or completely avoid the still-unknown future event that had Nathan and the clairvoyants so distressed.

"Jordan and Switzerland have stopped being our problem and can be considered yours," she went on after everyone's attention was back on her, smiling innocently at Scott's frown. He handled much of the administrative duties within the XSE and the investigation of the incidents would probably be his bureaucratic headache. "We were skeptical about their relevance to our problem from the start, as you'll recall from our last get-together, but now I can give you a more precise reason why: the Alsatian synagogue destruction wasn't what we all thought it was."

The three XSE officers shifted forward in their seats, even Nathan. Lily had included a sort of warning in her last email to Nathan on the matter, but it had been early in the process and the final sample had finished running only last night. Right now, she nodded to Alice, who had been the one conferring with Roger and Radek.

"We had been operating on the premise that the synagogue destruction was part of the rash of anti-Semitic attacks that have been going on in Western Europe," Alice began sourly. She was Orthodox and the wave of hate crimes had pained her deeply. "According to the reports, it fit the pattern of those defilements in the geographic area - the only smashed windows were those depicting Jewish rites, the Torah scrolls had been removed from the ark and unrolled before they were burned, the Nazi graffiti and so forth and so on. Our field operatives verified this in their first report and the inventory we procured from the French police seemed to support that conclusion. But we were having a ton of problems trying to work that data into our schemes and it wasn't until our own agents drew up their inventory that we figured out why: we now believe that the destruction was staged to look like an anti-Semitic attack but was in fact an elaborate artifact retrieval."

"What changed your minds?" Sam asked, gesturing unconsciously at the spot on the timeline with the tip of his pen. Lily idly wondered at what point she had stopped seeing his still-so-youthful face and started seeing how time passed in his eyes, in his expression, and in his voice. He could still do the folksy thing, but it was now country gentleman instead of green-eared farm boy. But there was nothing folksy about his demeanor now - it was all business and even though Lily knew his features hadn't changed in the decade since he'd flown off the roof of Alex's apartment building in Princeton, she couldn't even see that person now.

"Back in the old days we had a list," Alice replied. The ten-year veteran of Nathan's pre-Akkaba network nodded slightly in acknowledgement to Nathan before going on and Lily was sure that nobody in the room missed the reference. "A list of artifacts, events, people, and other bits that had to do with En Sabah Nur. 'Pandora's Box' we called it. It was a relatively small grouping - history's been anything but short of predictions of doom and gloom and we wanted to avoid false positives. But anything in the Box had been cross-referenced and triple-checked with whatever records we had from both future and past so that if any one of them was active in any way, we got suspicious. If two or more were in play, we called in the reserves and hunkered down for a crisis. Akkaba had about ten elements in motion. We destroyed eight of them during the battle and five inactive ones were removed in the course of events. That's thirteen down and the original Box had twenty-eight. We've added nine since then, so we're at twenty-four now."

"So whatever's still in this 'Box' still has an effect on the timeline with or without Apocalypse's help," Sam asked. "Or is this supposed to be some kind of early warning system in case Apocalypse comes back from the dead somehow?"

Lily snuck a glance at Nathan, who looked unaffected, at least outwardly.

"More the former than the latter," Alice replied with a half-shrug. "We're not actively checking to make sure Nur's still dead, but this would definitely say if he were to somehow reappear."

In a world where neither the good guys nor the bad guys stayed dead, this was not an unusual precaution and nobody reacted.

"There was something from this Box in Alsace?" Scott prompted, eyes on Nathan and a sour expression on his face. Lily didn't need to be a telepath to see that father and son were going to be having a long conversation about what sort of timestream-affecting details qualified as 'trivial' and whether Nathan should be the only one deciding that. "And who else knows about either the Box or what it means?"

"More than one something and nobody not already on our side," Alice said. "Box elements... it's not a scavenger hunt where X number of elements gets you a prize. Some of the elements are very straightforward in what they are and what they can do and don't require any special knowledge to realize that they are important to the timestream. The American government's 'nuclear football' is an element, for example. But the rest -- most of them -- are much more abstract and are only component parts, atoms to a molecule, and wouldn't register as relevant to anyone not doing this kind of work. Especially as the ones we've added since Akkaba are completely unrelated to En Sabah Nur in any way; they're mundane in every sense of the word."

"But not so mundane that you're not worried about them," Sam said, not making it a question.

"No," Alice agreed. "And what went missing from Alsace is very worrying."

"'Apocalypse is back' kind of worrying?"

"Too soon to say," Alice answered with a frown. "It's not our first solution to the puzzle, but we can't say it's not a possible one."

The reaction to the very real possibility that the still-vague crisis in waiting involved Apocalypse was muted but severe. It felt different to hear it out loud, Lily mused, spoken in plain language instead of being the suggested extrapolation of a series of curves and the sum of equations that had the same answer but didn't carry the emotional weight. It was like those horror stories where the monster didn't appear unless you said his name out loud three times and they had just repeated it for the first time.

"Are these discrepancies with what was reported missing from Alsace and what actually went missing the result of intentional obfuscation, carelessness, or genuine ignorance?" Scott asked in a tone that gave little doubt that he thought it was one of the first two.

"We don't know for sure," Lily cut in, making eye contact with Alice as she spoke. Alice could sometimes speak in unintentional absolutes and while normally it wasn't a problem and the lab personnel would mentally translate it without issue, Lily didn't want Nathan jumping any starter's pistols. "We're tempted to go with obfuscation - there's an Interpol agent whose involvement should be a red flag, but we're not sure what he knows."

"I want details," Nathan rumbled, not looking up from where he was writing something down in the margins. There was no point in trying to see what it was - his handwriting wasn't very clear in English and Lily had no idea how much better or worse it was in Askani, the language he invariably took his personal notes in. "Alice, how bad is it?"

It was a question that would have been ridiculous in its simplicity had it been meant to be taken literally.

"Ten years ago, we would have been preparing for Convergence," she said without hesitation.

Lily understood the term - Convergence was how the time-watchers in Nathan's old network had referred to an instance that would affect every single possible time stream; Akkaba had been a Convergence. But she was sure that nobody else in the room not Nathan realized what Alice had said.

"It has the possibility of turning into an Akkaba-level event," she translated. "Not excluding a return of the star himself."

The tone of the room went from cautious wariness to outright concern.

"Pete, put up the graphs of the last two revisions of our timeline, please?" Lily waited until the screen along the wall showed the projections. "Before we get sucked into worrying about whether or not we're going to be reliving Akkaba, I want to revisit some of the methods behind the madness. It's important to emphasize the mechanics of what we've done because anything to do with En Sabah Nur is not brought up lightly and it's crucial that we eliminate every doubt that this is the proper path."

She was speaking to the room in general, her own people as well as the XSE representatives, but she was looking straight at Nathan. She still didn't know how much of this Nathan had already sussed out, whether he could feel the creep of Apocalypse in particular or whether it was just some vague foreboding shadow, and she didn't know who he had told what. Nathan being Nathan, this was probably still a very private nightmare for him.

"I want to start by going back to Jordan and Switzerland and their effect on the timeline we had been working on," Lily went on, breaking eye contact with Nathan and looking around the table and waiting for everyone to flip back to the proper page. It was important that she dial back the tension level in the room - it did nobody any good to have stress levels rising so quickly. If Nur was involved, things would heat up soon enough and Lily wanted as much productive time as possible before anger and memories started to dictate actions and reactions.

"Speaking in non-tech terms, the changes in the timeline were both a blessing and a pain in the ass. There had been a lot of fighting within HisDAs about the assignment of values to Jordan," she went on, pausing to acknowledge Alice's reflexive sneer of resentment at her colleagues, "and Switzerland was dropping our ability to get an acceptable Actuality Assessment where we'd feel comfortable pushing forward. Losing them both gets us up to a much larger sample and, as you can see on the bottom graph on the screen, lets our best-fit curve be a much better fit. We can shunt them back in at a later time if we have to, but things look a lot cleaner without them."

Again, she paused to let the information sink in. Of the three XSE officers, Nathan had the best understanding of what had been involved in producing the timeline. Lily honestly wasn't sure how much Scott and Sam got and how far she had to 'de-geek' her work. Neither of them were college graduates, but Lily knew that the education they had received at Xavier's hand had been more thorough than a typical preparatory school's and both of them had been forced to learn applied physics and mathematics to better control their mutations.

"Alsace threw a different monkey into the clockworks," she continued. "In that we knew it could change the nature of what we were looking for. We could have accommodated it as it stood within our old models, but if the destruction of the synagogue is really a by-product of an artifact retrieval, then we're looking at an entirely different set of results to the same set of equations. And Tom, this is your cue to take over."

Lily sat back in her seat as Tom, always very good at explaining complex mathematics to the innocent, began his presentation on exactly how the destruction of one of the oldest synagogues in the Alsatian region had fundamentally altered their projections. The bottom line was that all of their clues had been pointing towards those time streams that indicated a crisis that was purely political in nature and now were not. To the uninitiated, it would be counter-intuitive that removing the religious motivation behind the synagogue destruction actually increased the likelihood of a religio-cultural event. But much of fluid dynamics was counter-intuitive - starting with why Aristotle had gotten so much wrong - and Lily smiled as Tom fielded the inevitable questions.

Tom's answer to one of Sam's questions led to a prolonged discussion on just how the religion factor could shake out and Lily was pleased to see that it had drawn everyone into it - normally, any meeting with the XSE command present tended to drift either towards the practical aspects, leaving Rob, Ubi, and Miri to sit quietly and watch, or it tended to get extremely technical and the XSE officers would start to get blank looks on their faces. But this time, Ubi and Rob both got involved in explaining the formulae for differentiating between social and non-social events to the XSE trio and they battled for supremacy on the projector screen as they used their tablets to transmit data to Pete's laptop.

Lily looked down at her own tablet as a pop-up window appeared and flashed. It was an automatic notification telling her that the mainframe had spit out the results of the tests she'd set up for Alice, which shouldn't have gone to her under normal circumstances. Most of the lab's work went on without her oversight, supervision remaining in the hands of various department heads and team leaders, and even in situations where she actually had a hand in the work itself, such as setting up Alice's filters, it was not expected that her involvement would be daily or even constant. The results of Alice's filters should have gone to someone in the Fluids unit, who would have worked on the data until it was mathematically useful and then given it to Alice in a format that she could understand and Lily would have only learned of the results later on if they had been meaningful.

There was a very small list of reasons why the raw data would be coming to Lily first and none of them were benign.

She accessed the file and skimmed the results, her quick glance stopping cold once she hit the eighth filter. This was the one that had exploded, as Pete had put it. It was one of the ones that Lily had considered a waste of time because it had seemed too preposterous to be useful as a winnowing tool. You needed a few far-fetched events to define a sufficiently broad set of boundaries and Alice would sometimes get a little too creative, coming up with crazy situations that did very little to help classify elements of the solution set as not worth pursuing because of their improbability. Saying something was more likely to occur than, say, Vin Diesel winning an Academy Award was funny, but not ideal as a predictive algorithm because a lot of events fit that criteria and the solution set remained very large.

But this filter hadn't been based on some implausible and amusing event and Lily couldn't have been more wrong about it being a waste of time. Pete wasn't a fluids person and wouldn't have been able to understand the particulars of why the graph had turned out the way it had. Most of the time, 'exploded' was a euphemism for 'converges at infinity' because it meant that the possibility didn't exist. But this one didn't converge at infinity. What it did converge at, however, was much less important than what it did before that point. This was why she had gotten a copy before the final treatments had been run.

She didn't have to look up to know Nathan was watching her. She knew that she had more than adequate mental shielding for someone who was headblind, but she wasn't perfect and Nathan was perceptive. Raising her head to meet his glance, she let him read the seriousness of the situation in her face.

*We may have a problem,* she thought at him and mentally 'showed' him what she was looking at and what she thought it meant.

#Are you sure that's what it is?#

*No, which is why I don't want to say anything just yet.* She gave what she hoped was the mental equivalent of a frustrated sigh. *This was supposed to be an extreme case, beyond our least upper bound. I'll look into it, but I'm not going to cause a panic until I know that this isn't a fluke or an accident.*

Nathan 'said' nothing else, but gave a hardly perceptible nod and turned his attention back to where Miri was standing by the screen pointing out where the Switzerland point had been causing so many problems. His face was deceptively impassive. While Lily didn't even pretend to understand a fraction of what went on inside his head, she knew that he had to be... Be what? Angry? Upset? Nervous? Did Nathan even ever feel nervous? What could possibly be the reaction to finding out the foe that you had spent your life in preparation to fight and had successfully defeated was back from beyond the grave to haunt you just when you had settled into a new life? Whatever that reaction was, Nathan was keeping his close to the vest, focusing on Miri's gesturing and looking for all the world like he was actually paying attention to what was being said.

Not that Lily expected to be let into Nathan's inner thought process, but that didn't stop her from feeling a little irritated at his outward placidity. It took effort to focus her own attention back to her tablet where she sent a short message back to Vic Fielder to tell him to process the results from the eighth filter immediately and with the highest security levels. When that was done, she shifted in her seat so that she could better follow along in the animated discussion the way Nathan had done with such ease, hoping all the while that they were not analyzing data that had just been proven irrelevant.

"Lil? Do you think Piotr and Callisto would let us have Felix back?"

"I'm sure Callisto would be thrilled, but you'd have a hard time getting the idea past everyone else in that house. Why?"

"I sort of miss having a cat around."

"We have a kid. It's almost the same thing."

"Dane's really a lot better about eating things off the floor."

"True, but we've still got the small mammal who is often underfoot, leaves his toys all over the house, will do pretty much anything to avoid getting a bath, and eats five times his own bodyweight. You really want a second one?"

"Are you sure we're still talking about cats here?"

"I'm not saying it's not dirty pool. It is very dirty pool. But when you're in a real firefight and not a training drill with a couple of your classmates, dirty pool is not only allowed, but it is also occasionally encouraged."

The trio of cadets he had been practicing with was looking at him with various expressions. Morrison was almost casual in her acceptance - she was going to be a commander, Alex could tell. Okashi, competent if unimaginative during the exercise, just looked scared and Alex could only assume that he was finding real war games to be much more unpleasant than the video games he had grown up playing. Vyborny was the one challenging his methods, demanding to know why Alex had gone for the kill instead of letting the simulation go on.

"It's a lot harder to force endgame when you're trying to keep casualties to a minimum," he told the younger man. Vyborny stood with his arms crossed in front of his chest, his face a mask of defiance that Alex alternately found amusing in its naïveté and concerning in its stubbornness. Robert Vyborny could be a good field soldier if he got the wax of newness sufficiently rubbed off of him. Or he could be the sort of stubborn jackass that got people killed through his own arrogance. "You have to learn to take the advantage when it's offered to you and not pass it up in some backwards notion of fair play. Especially if the other side has no compunctions against terminating your ass. There may have been little grace in how I finished them off, but there's a lot less grace in getting killed while looking for a more elegant solution."


"But what, Cadet Vyborny?" A deep voice rumbled from behind Alex and he didn't have to turn around to know that it was his nephew. The three cadets going wide-eyed and snapping to attention in front of him was as much a confirmation as he needed. "Is the only good solution one that is guaranteed to confer a medal of commendation? You will have an illustrious career with that thinking, Vyborny. One that will have you polishing your medals for the funerals of the soldiers upon whose corpses you will have built that success."

The words were cold and the tone harsh, but Alex couldn't find it in himself to feel bad for Vyborny, who looked duly chastened -- or at least faked it well. The other two were trying to school their features to neutrality, but Alex didn't miss the glint of satisfaction in both Okashi's and Morrison's eyes. Obviously, this wasn't the first time something like this had happened.

"Doctor Summers has seen more combat situations than you ever will even if you spend the next thirty years in the simulator," Nathan went on, his tone unsoftened. Cane or not, cripple or not, Nathan could still loom like the best of them and it was all Vyborny could do not to flinch. "If you do not have the wisdom to learn from him, then at least try to muster up the respect to keep your fool mouth shut so that your companions might."

Once upon a time, before Then, when Alex had been the carefree superhero, he would have felt bad for the kid. But after lifetimes spent in battles where too many funerals and mass graves had been visited, Alex couldn't muster the compassion for a kid whose defiance was most probably the result of his only experience coming via simulation. He had seen too many people he had grown to like die because of someone's ego. He himself had died more than once because someone wanted to be the hero instead of settling for merely being part of the winning team. It had been a cure for his own arrogance, or at least an elixir to transmute that arrogance into a more spare pride in his own competence. As a result, he identified with Nathan's reaction much more closely - you can't take chances by going into a fight with anyone about whom you had doubts. You don't want to go into a fight with anyone who is thinking more about posterity than the present. He understood Nathan a lot better in general these days and Alex was never sure how much of a good thing that was.

But, here and now, this wasn't his fight and Alex merely nodded as Cadet Vyborny bowed his head in apology before all three saluted and were dismissed by Nathan.

"Vyborny's an ego without an id, but I'm not sure how much of it is him and how much of it is something greater," Nathan said as he gestured with his free hand towards the elevator. "It's a problem we're having with the psis of that age group."

"Arrogance?" Alex asked, not bothering to hide his amusement. He had already showered and changed back into street clothes - experience having shown that both debriefs and teaching instruction went better when nobody was bleeding or stank - and followed along, measuring his strides so as to keep pace with Nathan's slower gait. "Hate to tell you this, nephew-o'-mine, but it's not a new phenomenon."

There was a flash of amusement in Nathan's eye, but it disappeared just as quickly and was lost within a frown. "This is different," he said sourly. "These kids manifested post-Merge and were immediately put into training and treatment. They've had none of the traumas most of us associate with emergent telepathy and all of the benefits of their abilities. Power unchecked by fear."

Alex nodded understanding. "God Syndrome." The kids only saw what they could do and not what they couldn't - or what others could do against them. Vyborny was a beta-level telepath; his arrogance was born of his assumption that he'd be able to 'see' a more spectacular conclusion to the exercise - it was chess to him and not a war simulation. It was the same sort of arrogance that felled villains in movies and in many of the X-Men's early adventures.

 "More or less," Nathan agreed, pursing his lips in wry amusement. "It's an unexpected side effect of life after the Merge. One that I should have anticipated better."

The elevator doors closed as Nathan pushed the button for the floor where his office was. Apparently, he wanted to talk, Alex mused, and it was typical of Nathan that he just assumed that Alex had both the free time and the inclination to do so.

"Why?" Alex asked shortly. Age had not tempered Nathan's own version of God Syndrome. "Not much of what you experienced in the Thirty-Eighth Century is directly applicable here."

Nathan looked at him strangely before turning back to the opening elevator doors. "More and more of it is," he finally said as they started down the long hallway. It wasn't what he'd wanted to say, Alex knew, or at least it wasn't what the look had been about. "The Askani should have been example enough in this case."

Alex shrugged - what could he say to that one? - and waited for Nathan to unlock his office door. He'd been in this office a handful of times, been in Scott's more often and Logan's less. It was still weird to see everyone with offices and secretaries and paperwork and bureaucracy to deal with. "Now that we're here, what's up?"

Nathan sat down somewhat gracelessly behind his desk and Alex couldn't tell if the look on his face was for the undignified way he had plopped into the chair or for Alex's question.

"Not that I'm not your favorite uncle and all that, but..." he continued, gesturing with one hand vaguely as he trailed off. He sat down in one of the chairs in front of the desk.

"You're my only uncle," Nathan replied, then paused for a half-second as he realized that that was the joke, frowned, and then looked thoughtful. "I... I have not kept in touch with you, with your situation."

This time it was Alex's turn to look confused. "You never did, Nathan," he said uncritically even as he tried to imagine what his nephew could be up to. Nathan wasn't a 'let's do coffee' kind of guy and Alex just wanted to figure out what it was that Nathan wanted him to do before Nathan could spring it on him. "We've never been anything approaching close and half of the conversations we've had in the past dozen years wouldn't have happened if you didn't have a fascination with my wife's work."

Nathan's thoughtful frown deepened. "I don't mean socially," he replied, grimacing when Alex rolled his eyes at the obvious statement. "I know Scott and Logan have been the ones working with you on your training exercises and it was their idea that you run those 'tutorials' with the upperclassmen from the Academy and the junior officers, but... there are other aspects. I don't know that anyone is working with you on those."

Alex leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs at the ankles and rested his elbows on the armrests. It was a position of relaxation and it was intentional dissimilation - Alex was not especially relaxed at all. "Other aspects," he repeated sourly. "Like the ones my shrink deals with or the ones my wife deals with?"

He was being catty; Alex knew Nathan meant nothing of the sort. But after six months of being constantly treated like a retarded child by everyone apart from his wife, being constantly 'checked up on' and unsubtly having his sanity verified, he allowed himself to be defensive.

"You're the Nexus of All Realities, Alex," Nathan half-sighed, half-growled. "Your shrink can't help you with that."

"And you can?" It came out much more of a snarl than Alex had intended, but the incredulity wasn't that far off. He'd be the first person to admit that he didn't spend a whole lot of time contemplating that part of his identity - it was the part he least wanted to identify with because it was the one that had brought him the most pain. But he hadn't forgotten it was there - not when the nightmares still plagued him, when a smell or a sound or a taste could bring back powerful memories he'd much rather stay buried. And he was surprised to realize that he resented Nathan's assumption that he was incapable of understanding it.

"I don't know," Nathan replied quietly, obviously realizing how he was coming across or at least how Alex was taking what he was saying.

Alex willed himself to relax and raised his eyebrows, gesturing for Nathan to continue.

"I don't know how much you've explored the different possibilities," Nathan began, this time sounding much less authoritative. "The potential for what you could be..."

"I know exactly what my potential is," Alex cut him off. Sitting up and leaning forward, he felt his ire rising again along with a swell of anguish and he angrily tamped them both down. "I can traverse realities without damaging them. I can violate laws of space-time for dimensions we haven't figured out exist yet and I can do it without leaving so much as a scratch. No ripples in the time stream, no loose threads in the fabric of reality, nothing. My potential is that I could be the unchallenged ruler of the multiverse - or I could be the tool of the one who would be. I'm not a baby telepath who doesn't realize what I've got, Nathan. I've had much longer than you've had to think about things."

Nathan didn't ever look chastened, but he was almost-not quite-maybe approaching it and that was the only reason Alex didn't get up out of his chair and storm out.

"We're not completely dissimilar," Nathan said finally, looking not at him but instead at the picture of Domino and Clare that sat in a frame on his desk. "Different magnitude, different preparation, different reasons? Yes. But not all different. Lost in reality or lost in time, after a while it's just being lost. And whether you're being manipulated by an entity you can see and name or whether it feels like some unseen force of randomness, it's still being out of control and helpless. You find yourself focusing on what you left behind because it was yours and you don't look ahead because you don't want to see that there's nothing there for you..."

Alex watched in awe. The entire monologue had been delivered to the photo and there had been no eye contact, but it still constituted the most sincere and most intimate exchange the two of them had ever had. Nathan had never really been an ally and he had certainly never been a friend. He had been a ruthless pain in the ass to all of the X-teams even after he had been revealed as the grown-up Christopher Nathan and even after all of the adventures involved in him manifesting the Phoenix Force, Alex had treated him with an element of bemused tolerance - more like Scott's frisky puppy than his time-tossed son. Nathan had never really become a person to him. Even now, Nathan was closer to Lily than he was to him and would periodically call her 'Aunt Lily' just to get a reaction from her. So to hear these close-kept thoughts from him now...

"I don't think I can teach you anything, Alex," Nathan said, shaking himself out of whatever reverie he had fallen into. This time, he looked up at Alex and the feeling of intimacy was so uncomfortable that it was almost necessary to diminish it. "You don't need any more object lessons on what not to do. And if I can help you at all, it'll be self-serving: I need you to think about what you can do as the Nexus of All Realities instead of just what it takes you away from. Not taking over the multiverse, but... there's more to it than that. I need you to consider all of this."

"You need," Alex repeated thoughtfully. "And I'm supposed to just smile, nod, and pretend I'm not noticing the absence of the first person plural, right?"

Nathan looked at him for only a moment before Alex felt his glance move beyond him and it was all he could do not to turn around to see what must be on the back of Nathan's door that could be so fascinating. Instead he sighed. "I know this isn't you reducing the XSE to the collective 'me,' Nathan."

"How much control do you have over where you go?" Nathan asked instead, his focus suddenly returning to Alex's face.

"None that I can tell," he replied sourly. "What control I have is in sensing paths and patterns and changes, like what Lily does with her chronography graphs except I'm working on a reality scale instead of a time stream one. I can tell when realities merge or split or if something's come over from another reality. And you didn't answer my question."

Nathan sighed, as if he had been hoping to do just that. "Something's coming. I don't know what it is. We don't know what it is. But I know that it's a crisis point. A nexus point that has to go our way or else the last seven years have been a waste of time. And while everyone is doing all that they can to figure out what the flonq we're running headfirst into..."

"You want to make sure that the escape hatches work and the back doors open out instead of in," Alex finished with a knowing sigh. Knowing in the sense that he was sure whatever it was that Nathan was eventually going to ask him to do was going to be unpleasant.

Alex tried to schedule his training sessions at the Tower during times when there were no Academy classes being taught and few junior officers around, but he knew everyone knew who he was. And he knew of the stories they told, each more incredible than the last, of where he had been and what he had done there. Some of them were half-true, others so wildly imaginative that Alex could only laugh, others still were closer to the truths that he had not yet grown the courage to tell. But the bottom line was that everyone accepted without a doubt that the mysterious Doctor Summers had killed and had killed often and Alex was sure that Nathan would eventually ask him to do what most of the X-types were still hesitant to do and kill again.

"I suppose you could put it like that."

Alex laughed humorlessly. This, too, was Nathan - allowing the other person to believe whatever they wanted (or, rather, let people assume whatever first came to mind) until it actually became necessary for them to believe otherwise. He stood up and Nathan's body language didn't change to suggest that he should sit back down. "Just think about what you ask of me before you give it words. I'm not too eager to be experimenting with anything that could cost me my life in this reality again. Not when I've lost so much already and tried so hard to get some of it back."

Nathan looked as if he was about to speak and Alex cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Don't tell me I might not have a choice. Because there's always a choice, Nathan. Always. I learned that the hard way. Maybe your Askani ideas of 'what is, is' and never questioning why work on the time stream, but they don't work on reality. Creativity is pragmatism where I've been and I've died enough times to be pretty damned sure that resigning yourself to a bitter end doesn't solve anything and it only rarely makes things easier. There are a lot of stupid people in the multiverse, but the only real idiots are the truly fearless."

Nathan tilted his head thoughtfully for a moment and then nodded. "You are a very different person than you used to be," he said, sounding as if this was something of a revelation.

Alex barked out a laugh as he picked up his backpack. "No shit, Sherlock."

Nathan looked almost embarrassed, as if he had been caught being stupid. Which he had been, Alex noted with some pleasure.

"I'll see you around, Nate," Alex said as he headed for the door. Before pulling it open, he turned around. "And tell whoever it is who's in charge of assignments that Morrison should get some extra small arms training. She's got above average tactical analysis skills, but can't do much more than fire her sidearm straight."

"I know," Nathan agreed, the mask of professionalism back perfectly in place. "Her final rotation is in the Rapid Response Unit; she'll get most of what she needs there."

Alex nodded and, with a final wave, opened the door and headed off. He passed by Scott's office, but his brother wasn't in. Logan was out in the field, he already knew, so he headed for the elevator and left.

Unclipping his ID from his sweater as he headed outside, Alex checked his watch. There wasn't enough time to really get anything accomplished before it was time to pick up Dane from preschool, so instead he decided to just walk in that general direction and crossed West Street heading east. Dinner was taken care of already - Lily had promised to remember to pick up tofu for a stir-fry in return for him agreeing to take on tonight's round of teaching Dane how to use chopsticks. A co-worker of Lily's had given her 'training chopsticks', which were really just small regular ones tied to opposite ends of a small piece of foam, and while all Dane had to do to eat was squeeze, he was insistent upon learning proper finger placement. But his small fingers had trouble grasping and there was invariably a bit of flung food.

The used bookstore on Varick across the street from the '80's dance club had a huge SALE sign in the window, so Alex stopped in. It was a small store, out of place among the clubs that dotted the landscape in the area and the all-night delis that catered to the club crowds, but it had a decent supply of academic books. Alex suspected it was because they paid more than the Strand did to acquire the castoff supplies of NYU, Baruch, Pace, and BMCC, all of which were located nearby. The owner and sole employee, a balding man with a gray ponytail and coke-bottle glasses, seemed to favor histories of radicalism and they vied for pride of place with the abundance of film studies texts (courtesy of NYU grads, no doubt) and environmental studies. The latter was what interested Alex because while he didn't really expect to find the sorts of specialized texts that he used, read, and even wrote now that Frohmeyer had tossed him back into the deep end of the pool and demanded a journal article on fluvial hydrology in the Andes, there were some charming examples of older surveys done before geology had gotten so politically trendy back in the 1990's and every new study had been almost required to be accompanied by a grief-stricken monologue on the imminent demise of the planet at the hands of cruel and wasteful humanity.

Reminding himself that their apartment was crowded enough as it was, Alex limited himself to three books for himself and two for Dane - the children's section being right next to the desk set up as the cash register.

"They don't make atlases like those anymore," the owner mused as he opened each book to see the penciled price inside. One of the books was a 1960's-era book of maps, complete with elevation and sea level charts. Alex had one at home, but the pages were starting to come loose and he'd accidentally created a new continent by putting them back in the wrong order last week.

The two books for Dane, one about electricity (as if he didn't have enough of those) and the other about the American Morning Fire, were next. "Ah, let me guess: you've got a seven-year-old in the house?"

"Five last month," Alex corrected with a hint of pride. Dane was a reader, a fact that made both of his parents extremely proud. They'd be even more proud if their son exhibited any inclination to put his books away when he wasn't reading them, but that was a minor problem. And besides, his parents weren't all that good about doing it themselves, a fact that Dane was quick to point out. He wasn't much for 'do as we say and not as we do' in general. Annoyingly ethically consistent child.

The owner made an impressed face as he entered the total amount of the prices of the books into the calculator and then multiplied it by the tax rate. Alex handed him the cash, took back his change, and wished the man a good day. Once outside, he put the books in his backpack and debated taking out his sunglasses. It had been overcast earlier, but now the sun was breaking through. He decided not to; heading into the Village meant walking northeast, which meant his back would be to the sun most of the time and the tall buildings would provide shadows and shade even when it wasn't.

Dane was in his usual good spirits when he came flying out the stairwell door at five to three. This was the last week of school before the summer, preschool ending earlier than the primary schools did, and much of Dane's day was spent practicing for 'graduation.' Alex wasn't sure of what to make of a preschool graduation - especially upon finding out from Piotr that there would be another one for kindergarten next year - but so far it seemed to entail a fair bit of singing. Dane liked singing and had been practicing his songs around the house and especially in the bath. He seemed to be rather disappointed that his parents didn't know the words and thus couldn't prompt him when he forgot.

"Your lunchbox seems awfully heavy," Alex told Dane as they crossed the street. With the hand that wasn't holding his son's, he shook the blue and green padded cloth box and felt two somethings bump inside. One was the resealable cup... "You didn't eat your apple?"

Dane made a face. "It was bruised and yucky."

"It was fine when it went into your lunchbox this morning," Alex told him with a frown as they went down the stairs to the subway and he let go of Dane's hand to fish out his Metrocard. Dane ran under the turnstile and waited on the other side. "What did I tell you about using your lunchbox as a weapon?"

Dane gave him that indignant look only a guilty child can make as he retook his father's hand.

"We got you the soft kind so that it would fit into your backpack easier," Alex told him as they walked towards the rear of the platform. "If you're going to keep using it as a bola, we might as well just let you brown bag it."

"Do I have to bring lunch to camp?" Dane asked instead. Camp was the experimental program that was going to be run this summer on the Academy grounds - the mansion, as Alex still thought of it - for alpha-level mutant children. It was supposed to be part training and mostly socializing - a first chance for many of the children who would be attending to frolic without the constant concerns that their mutations brought to their daily lives.

"We'll see," Alex said. He felt the wind in the station pick up a little and grasped Dane's hand a little tighter. The direction of the breeze meant that a train was coming on their side and Dane always liked to watch them pull into the station - from as close to the edge of the platform as he could get.

The camp had been the brainchild of Jean and Ororo, Alex had heard, a way to try to recreate the relative freedom alpha-level mutant children enjoyed in the New Lands. While there had been some concerns from the public about a camp for children being run by and around the XSE, Kurt in particular had done a masterful job of selling the connection as almost coincidental. Camps were run on academic grounds all the time - even the military academies - and this would be no different with the added advantage of already being fitted-out to handle mutants not in full control of their mutations. Most of the counselors and staff would be coming from the New Lands - there was no summer vacation for the XSE itself - and any XSE-affiliated personnel who chose to become involved were doing it strictly as civilians.

"Diego says that there's gonna be a bus," Dane confided as they waited for the people to exit the train.

"There is," Alex confirmed, amused to hear that the two boys considered this privileged information. "You're going to be getting a lot of bus rides from now on. You're going to be taking the bus to and from kindergarten next year, too."

The train was a little more crowded than usual and Alex frowned when he saw no empty seats. He had been forgetful and now there was a delicate situation. No seats meant Dane had to hold on to a pole. In theory this wasn't a terribly big problem as Alex could stand directly behind his son and keep Dane from being either trampled or flung about should he lose his grip. But it was almost summer and Dane wore no gloves - he was in fact in jeans and a short-sleeved t-shirt - and it was a metal pole and there were other people holding on to it. While Dane had generally learned to control his electrical discharge, the end of the school day was a low point - it was sufficiently between meals and if Dane had forgotten to empty his surge protector, then it would be full by now. And there was no good way for Alex to either ask Dane if he had checked his ankle bracelet or assume that he hadn't without showing a lack of trust in his son. But neither could he put other people at risk solely for the sake of Dane's continued good cheer and happiness with his father.

"Daddy?" Dane asked in a small voice and Alex looked down, relief mixing with sadness as he realized that Dane had solved the problem on his own. His son was looking at him with a distraught face. "I kinda..."

"It's okay," Alex said, crouching down and swooping his son up into his arms. If he leaned against the door, then he would be able to hold Dane until Penn Station, at which point they'd be able to get a seat for the one stop to Times Square. Even if the express wasn't already waiting there, they'd switch so that Dane could release his charge into the concrete of the station platform. He felt terrible, guilty for forcing Dane to make the admission of weakness when a little more care would have avoided the situation. But he was also proud of Dane for doing what had to be done, the sometimes-fragile dignity of a five-year-old being sacrificed for the greater good.

It wasn't until they were home and Dane was at the table gnawing on the 'unyucky' parts of his apple from lunchtime while carefully reading his new books that Alex let himself think about the discussion with Nathan. All throughout his trips through reality, Alex had never felt like he had had anything to lose. He had grown fearless because of that nihilism, willing to die during the execution of a bold plan even if there were some realities that he was less eager to move on from than others. It wasn't until his return that he'd realized just how much he actually had had to lose - and how he'd lost it all almost without a fight. And now, if faced with a situation where he'd have to lose everything again... No. He wouldn't think about it. He'd take his own damned advice and remember that there is always another way. What he had now was too good to be sacrificed because of someone's narrow imagination.

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