White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

31/December 2012

"And here? That's why I carried tranquilizer darts," Alex told the trio of young officers, two men and a woman, as they walked through the paused simulation. "Because you can't let them get away or make a noise and while most of these ops won't give you nightmares, killing a kid will."

Staley, Brosiak, and Hernandez all nodded quickly. They looked chastened and Brosiak looked vaguely sickened at the eight-year-old boy lying on the ground with half of his face blown off by a bullet.

The request had come from Scott: run a tutorial for the Black Ops training course. Alex had initially demurred, telling his brother that he wasn't comfortable reliving - let alone relating - some of his darkest moments. But Scott had persisted, insisting that just because Alex wanted to pretend that those parts of his life hadn't existed didn't mean that they'd go away. It was spotty reasoning, but a week later, at Clare's birthday party, everything had changed. And so here he was.

"You want a break, Brosiak?" Alex asked neutrally. "No shame in needing air."

Glenn Brosiak, beta-level aquamorph, shook his head no. "I'll be fine, sir."

Alex nodded, but didn't move the trio away from where the solid light projection child lay in the throes of death, frozen in that moment of time. Everyone had to learn their own limits, to become comfortable with them and to know which ones can be stretched. So instead, he went back into the discussion on non-lethal methods of subduing non-combat personnel, periodically pausing for Sulven - upstairs in the control booth for this part of the exercise - to advance the just-completed simulation to another reference point. Alex had created a scenario that did not bear any particular relation to his own experiences, although he'd admit that that was more to make him feel better than out of any consideration for his charges.

It had been precisely three weeks and five days since Nathan had told him that the Scions of the Morning Fire were planning to clone En Sabah Nur, twenty-six days since Nathan had asked him to be prepared to save the world by leaving it. Alex had not had a moment's peace since then.

"Staley, I want you to pay attention here," he went on, pointing out a second-story window from where two snipers had been able to get off three shots each before they had been taken down. Agnes Staley could fire electromagnetic pulses from her hands and had taken them out cleanly, if belatedly. "You carry your NODs for a reason," he said, pointing to the night-vision goggles around her neck. "Your methods were adequate for solo work, but you have to modify your strategy within a group dynamic."

Actually, there had been peace. It had come in form of an eerie silence within his heart once he had decided to prepare for Nathan's request. Gone were all of the protestations, gone were all of the 'why me's', gone were all of the snarking whispers of a guilty conscience that had filled his ears before he'd realized that there was no choice. Leave Lily and Dane and everything and everyone he had ever loved - probably for good - or stay and watch it all be destroyed.

"Sulven, fast-forward to the church, please?" he called out after they'd spent ten minutes discussing teamwork. "Park us right outside the door ninety seconds before interface."

A year. He had had a year with Lily and Dane, a year where he had not only found his wife and met his son, but he had also found himself, reclaiming both the original Alex he had been before this all began as well as gaining a firmer grasp on who the new Alex had to be, the conglomerate Alex. He had come to terms with what he could be, both on the 'local' level and as the über-Alex (as Kurt called him), and what he had lost forever in the unasked-for trade of the two.

"Okay, Hernandez," he began, turning to the third XSE officer, a hulking mutant with the ability to control soundwaves. "It's your turn. What the fuck were you thinking?"

Alex disliked that with perspective had come crushing disappointment. Forced to look at things from a cosmic view, the things that had seemed so important and loomed so large shrank down to particle size. Both the good and the bad.  He hated to think of this reality as transient, a rest-stop on his journey throughout the multiverse. He wanted it to be special, to be something of stronger stuff than the rest of the multiverse, to reflect that this was the reality where his hopes and dreams had lived and died, come to fruition and faded. But he knew that that it wasn't special, not in any quantifiable sense beyond his own emotions. And that, too, was used as part of the larger plan, setting this as time and place for him to be sane, to let his guard down and recharge and replenish his energies before going back to his task. Whatever that task was.

"Shooting first and asking questions afterwards only works if they're not dead," Alex retorted after Hernandez finished explaining himself. They finished dissecting the botched entry into the church and went inside to see how openings obscured from view from the street had been used as sentry points while having an interesting discussion on the realities of dealing with members of the clergy in the course of a mission.

There was a greater design, a larger purpose to his travels than to just depress the hell out of him. There had to be. Alex refused to believe that his being the Nexus of All Realities was just a random, cruel joke; he'd have gone mad two dozen realities ago had he let himself think that there was no point to his eternal wanderings. He had a job to do, even if he wasn't quite sure he knew what it was. So in the interim, he'd just clean up each reality as best he could and then move on and hope that whatever cosmic forces controlled his path would send him home.

"All right," Alex announced, clapping his hands together. "Now let's try to figure out how the hell the three of you managed to bumble through the entire ingress and still walk away with both the primary and secondary objectives met."

Nexus of All Realities though he might be, Alex was sure that there were forces at work greater than him to go along with a greater plan. Why else had his course been plotted thus? Why had he been tested and tempered like a blade, thrust into the fire until he could take no more and then given respite, a process that had been repeated over and over again with greater extremes? And just when he was sure he had been pushed too far, the metal of the blade tired from being worked too much, he had been brought home. Because nothing else would have healed him that time. There was a system to it all, an elusive plan designed by an unseen master. And Alex was half-convinced that the minute he figured it out, he'd become the master and not the tool. Because he was really fucking tired of being the tool.

"Altering your pulses like that was a brilliant move," Alex told Staley as they walked along the half-paved road. "It sent everyone running towards where they should have been originating from."

The quartet spent an equal time discussing that which had gone right and that which had gone wrong before heading out of the first phase of the simulation. Sulven was waiting for them and Alex nodded to her in a silent handing-off ceremony. In this simulation, Alex had designed and graded the mission to retrieve three rebel leaders and Sulven had observed the interrogation and what had come afterwards. This was the third drill with these three candidates for the XSE's Covert Operations Unit and he and Sulven had a tentative rhythm working, mixing their two sets of experiences and the strategies they'd developed courtesy of vastly different powers.

At Sulven's voice command, the training room became an interrogation room and Alex headed upstairs to the observation booth. Nobody else was around - Black Ops stuff was officially unrecognized, but the real truth was that most of the XSE command and staff did not want to know what went on.

Once settled in the comfortable chair in the booth, Alex allowed himself to look at the clock: 13:15.

Forty-five minutes, then.

The phone call had come while Alex had been making breakfast. It was a Saturday and everyone had been home and for once it had been him and Dane waking Lily up instead of the other way around. She had answered the phone and it had quickly become obvious that it was Nathan as Lily had slipped into tech-heavy shoptalk. Over the griddle, one hand holding a spatula and the other making sure that Dane didn't accidentally touch the hot surface as he stood on the step-ladder and poured pancake batter, Alex had felt nearly paralyzed with dread. He'd recovered quickly, not before Dane asked him what was wrong, however, and he'd accepted the phone when Lily handed it to him.

Nathan was teleporting to Akkaba. He'd had a dream and all of his visions had suddenly fallen into place with perfect clarity. It was today. Nathan was going in, alone, after dark. If Alex didn't get a telepathic message from him by fourteen hundred hours New York time, Alex was to get Sulven to teleport him to Akkaba immediately.

It had been all Alex could do to swallow even a bite of pancake and make like it was only a day of teaching young adults how to kill that was dragging down his good humor.

13:25

Three weeks ago, after five days of swinging between self-flagellation and self-pity, Alex had come to terms with his obligations. He had had his year of recovery and if that was all that he was going to get, then so be it. And so he had begun to prepare. It was different doing so in this reality than it had been in all of the others, here where he had family and property and so many considerations.  

But it was both easier and harder to put his affairs in order than it had been seven years ago, when he had prepared for what would become known as the Battle at Akkaba. Easier in the sense that the groundwork had been laid - he had a will that only had to be updated to include Dane and not redrafted, he understood inheritance laws and had insurance policies that could not be rendered forfeit even if it was deemed that he'd committed suicide by sacrificing himself.

The harder part was in saying goodbye. Because there would be no more closure this time than last. Because he now knew that the silence of death didn't await him on the other side, but instead a return to the cosmic hamster wheel that he'd been so profoundly relieved to escape from. Because there was no mystery as to what he was getting into and Alex knew that he was too advanced to be put back in the 'easy' realities.

The letters were the hardest part of it all. With the will, he could fool himself into focusing on how every husband and father needed a will. And insurance. And a list of all of the important financial records, although Lily still had her hands in all of that and wouldn't need to scramble like she apparently had the first time. But the letters... He had written one each to Lily, to an adult Dane, and to Scott. All three had left his eyes bloodshot with tears as he had let his emotions run free during their composition. Explaining why he had to do what he was about to do, trying to put in insufficient words how much he loved them and what they meant to him. Asking for forgiveness from Lily and Dane, asking for Scott to be there for his family once more. He had demanded of Lily that she do her best to live with him gone, not just to survive. He trusted her in all things, was so proud of her in so many ways but most of all because of Dane. He wrote that their love would be eternal even if they weren't together and that if she ever found herself in love with someone else, she had his blessings.

13:50

After he'd written the letters and given them to his attorney, Alex had felt a profound sense of relief. He had done what he could and now he would do as he must. And in this strange sort of quietude of soul, he had made the last three weeks count and not lose a moment of this gift. He had worked hard at his post-doc, but he had also taken Dane to the museum and to a hockey game. He had kidnapped his wife for a weekend in Montreal where they had wandered around the Old City and made love and acted like two escaped lunatics living it up before the asylum realized that they were gone. Lily had noticed the change, but she hadn't seen it as a frantic dash to cram a lifetime into three weeks. She had seen it as him making a determined effort to be part of this reality, to demand the happiness due him. And perhaps she was right.

"I suspect that our trio of protégés would be surprised to realize just how much failure is involved in success," Sulven said from the doorway as she entered. "They will learn."

14:05

Alex took a deep breath before he turned to face Sulven. How similar all of this was to the last time, right down to Sulven being the one to teleport him to Akkaba.

"What?" she asked, furrowing her brow.

"We have a problem."


"Are you feeling better?" Lily asked, looking up from her graphs and the running stream of data at the bottom of the screen as Dane shuffled into the room. He looked just-woken with his hair sticking out at all angles and his pajamas on.

Dane shook his head no slowly and came over to her, trying to crawl onto her lap before she picked him up and put him there. She kissed his forehead and he still felt warm.

Dane had started off the day fine, waking her up and making pancakes with Alex and then 'helping' Lily look at the real estate website for the greater Boston area. She had all but gotten the job at MIT and would be starting in the fall semester. The plan was to move in the summer so that Dane could finish kindergarten here in New York and then start first grade up in Boston. Alex had been offered a position as well, but hadn't accepted it yet as he was still looking around at other options.
 
"Do you want to eat something?" She smoothed down his hair. "A cracker, maybe?"

After Alex had left for the Tower, she and Dane had looked at pictures of houses on Alex's laptop - Dane seemed to be partial to anything with a porch - until he had gotten suddenly and violently ill. Lily had run him through a quick shower to clean him up and then put him to bed, just managing to put the kitchen back in order when she heard him throwing up again, thankfully in the bathroom.

"No food," he half-whimpered. Lily hugged him gently.

She had called Dane's pediatrician after the second time, but the advice had been to wait a while in case it was a short-course virus or food poisoning. So she'd left a message on Alex's cell phone explaining what had happened and asking him to pick up some Pedialyte on the way home. Then she'd put Dane back to bed and gone to her own computer to get some work done.

The time stream had been erratic for the past week. The much-anticipated crisis had been upgraded from eventual to imminent by Tuesday morning, by Thursday afternoon Lily's group had produced a two-pronged extrapolation. One led to a relatively stable path, the other went straight to chaos without stopping at disorder.

As far as everyone else knew, the crux of the situation was that the Scions of the Morning Fire had been scouring the world for objects belonging to a group known as the Celestials. Lily had only half paid attention during those information sessions because she knew that it was really only a secondary problem. The artifact hunt wasn't the real issue - that they were collecting the artifacts because they were making a Baby Apocalypse and wanted him to have his toys was. Alice had verified the results of Lily's semi-secret chronographic analysis a month ago; Nathan had been unsurprised at the news.

It had been his decision to keep everyone else in the dark, a decision Lily didn't understand and didn't like. When she had confronted him on the issue, Nathan had merely said that there was more involved than chronography could tell her and walked away.

With Dane making himself comfortable in her lap, Lily had to reach awkwardly when her desk phone rang. It was set to her cell phone's number when she was home. It was Tom and his message was simple.

"There isn't anything in bifurcation theory that can explain what just happened to the time stream," he said agitatedly. "Whatever the Scions of the Morning Fire are doing with the results of their scavenger hunt, they're doing it now."

Lily sighed in frustration, looking at the clock. It was one-fifteen and Alex wasn't due home until five. "That's just peachy. Alex is down at the Tower and Dane's sick."

"What?" Tom asked, obviously not talking to her. "Fuck. Lily, our projection just went out the window officially. What we've got looks nothing like either of our two models. We're flying blind."

Kissing Dane's forehead, Lily sighed again. "I'll be there in a half-hour."

She put down the phone. "We're gonna have to go to work, kiddo," she told Dane, who was already stirring. "You think you'll be okay between here and my office?"

Dane nodded and Lily carried him into his room, setting out clean clothes and taking an extra shirt just in case there was an accident. "Why don't you pick out a few books to read in case you don't want to take a nap there," she suggested.

The holiday season was already underway, so while Lily would have taken a cab with an ill Dane in tow, it wasn't an option. The subway was relatively uncrowded for a Saturday afternoon, although the walk along 42nd street was harder than usual with the extra pedestrians. Dane held tightly on to her hand and she had to half-drag him through the sea of people. Bundled up as he was against the winter weather, Lily wasn't worried about what sort of effect Dane's illness was having on his control.

Once at the office, she parked Dane in the small open lounge area by her cubicle with his books and the blanket she had brought, tucking him in on the couch and making sure that there was a waste basket in convenient range just in case. After that, she slid into command mode.

Forty-five minutes after they'd set up the wall-sized flat-screen plasma monitor to show the four different time stream models - the two original ones, the new uncharted one, and the best working approximation of the uncharted one - the tension had dropped a notch. The surprise at the deviation from the seemingly unalterable course of the time stream had faded into a more productive urgency and Lily took a moment to go check on Dane. He was dozing, one hand curled under his chin as he lay on his side. Looking out the nearby window, she could see that the sun had fallen behind the tallest buildings to the west. Thankfully, sunset was early this time of year - Alice could probably be here by six-thirty.  

The phone rang at her cubicle and Lily got it on the third ring. She listened for a moment and then thanked the caller and hung up.

"Tom," she called, exiting out of the other end of her cubicle towards the heart of the office. He waved from where he was standing by Miri Ahearn, who was pointing out something on her computer screen.

"We're on alert," she said to him after she had walked over. "The XSE has just mobilized. A mass teleportation to Akkaba."

"They can do that?" Tom asked, surprised. They had all been aware of the millions invested by the XSE in mass high-speed transport.

"They can now," was her reply. The teleportation pads had been in final testing for six months, although Lily was sure that they had sent some human test cases around the globe already. "First time for everything."

"Holy fuck!" Pete Vasiljevs was standing by the bank of monitors along the near wall. They had three televisions among the twelve screens; two were set to news channels and the third was now apparently a camera feed from Akkaba. Plasma bolts were the only things clearly visible in the darkness - it had to be midnight there, Lily realized.

"Is Alex there?" Tom asked from behind her.

"I'm guessing," Lily replied without turning around. The office had quieted enough so that the sounds of combat could be heard even though the sound wasn't up very loud. "He was with the XSE today and they'd already talked about him coming in for this."

Lily hadn't been overjoyed, but she had understood. Alex needed to do this, needed to help out and use his skills to save lives.

"Will you be okay?"

This time, Lily turned around. "As long as he comes home to me."

The television screen suddenly went monochrome as the night-optical lens was dropped over the camera. Faces were visible, a few Lily recognized. She muttered a quick prayer for their safety and then clapped her hands loudly.

"Okay folks, let's stop watching and start doing. The quicker we figure out what's going to happen, the quicker we can make things go our way."

The assorted members of the team pulled their attention away from the screen with reluctance and resumed what they had been working on at a thoughtful murmur.

"Lily! Amy Dominguez on line four!"


It was probably for the best that he was going to be leaving this reality, Alex mused perversely. If he stayed, Sulven would probably kill him.

When she had asked him what the problem was, he had told her that he needed to go to Akkaba directly. She had flown into the most composed rage he had ever seen once he had told her where Nathan was and he had barely had time to grab the backpack he had put together just for this mission before she had teleported them both to the Egyptian desert. She had spent the entire adventure cursing bitterly in Askani and Alex knew that at least part of it was directed at him personally.

Once in Akkaba, though, Sulven had turned her attention from him to what was before them. The Fortress of Apocalypse. Or at least what was left of it; the thing had been mostly reduced to rubble. In the dark, it was hard to tell whether it had been fully raised from beneath the earth before it had been destroyed.

"Can you sense him?"

Sulven was crouched next to him; they were both hiding behind a pile of debris a couple of hundred meters from the base of the fortress. They could hear shouts, some of anger, some obviously commands, and some wails of pain amplified by the desert quiet. There were spots of light around the rubble, a few torches and flashlights as the Scions of the Morning Fire were scrabbling around. Alex was mildly relieved to note the frantic tone to their voices even if he could only hear every other word of the odd mix of English and ancient Egyptian the Scions used - it meant that they hadn't found the clone baby.

"Perhaps," Sulven replied in a harsh whisper, obviously frustrated at her own lack of precision. "I sense his presence, but it is weak and not... not solid. He is still alive, but his signature is so dispersed..."

"That's about to become the least of our problems," Alex hissed, gesturing with his hand towards the far end of the expanse of rubble. "I count about five dozen lights. Is that the sum of the reserve force or are those just the guys coming to move the rubble from the door?"

The dozen or so men they had been watching would have been easy to dispatch on his own, let alone with Sulven's help. But it would be too much of a distraction to fight an army when he should be looking for the baby.

"There are more on the way," Sulven said as they began to hear the metallic clink of arms and armor. The new arrivals were well prepared. "I've called for backup."

The shouts picked up and Alex got worried that they had found either Nathan or the baby, but all they had found was another survivor of the blast.

"I can't wait for the XSE," Alex told her as a volley of gunfire erupted nearby. He had slipped into combat mode so easily, as if a year of playing civilian had been proven to be just that - playing. "We don't have that kind of time. Not when we don't know what's going on inside."

Sulven nodded and pointed. "That hole over there, next to where the parapet has fallen in. It's the closest point of entry."

Alex found the spot and looked around. There were only two Scions near enough to it to cause any trouble, but he'd need to take out the four standing on a tall pile of rubble that stood directly along the straightest path between it and where they were hiding. They were looking like they were about to move away, but not at a pace quick enough that Alex would avoid being seen by the approaching armed unit.

"I'll deal with those six," he said, "You cover my back."

Sulven murmured agreement and they switched positions so that Alex was closer to where he needed to be.

"He is one on of the upper levels," Sulven said, then frowned. "Odd that a cloning tank would be there."

"And there's the proof for why you should always check the feng-shui before you build," Alex replied, unconcerned that Sulven had no idea what he was talking about. He was amusing himself at this stage of the game. Anything not to think about what he was about to do.

Sulven gave a gesture to indicate that she was ready to provide cover.

"See you in the next lifetime," he murmured.  Taking one last look around to make sure he hadn't missed any potential problems in the darkness, he took a deep breath and set off in a dead run.

Once he got close enough that the light wouldn't give him away to those at a distance, he blasted the far side of the pile of rubble, sending the four Scions tumbling as the ground fell away from beneath their feet. One managed to get off a volley of fire from his knees, but Alex had a plasma shield up and the bullets melted harmlessly before they could hit him.

The two Scions closer to the hole in the exterior wall were easier to take out - a quick pair of narrow blasts destroyed their guns and a second pair took out their legs, hitting one in the knee and the other in the thigh. Alex dove through the hole as he heard a volley of automatic gunfire come past his shoulder, the last bullets hitting the edifice itself.

"All right," he muttered, brushing sand off of his XSE combat uniform as he stood up. Outside, he could hear commotion, presumably caused by Sulven. "Come out, come out wherever you are, Nathan."

There was an irregular light around a curve towards the right, the kind a torch gave off. It was probably on the ground considering where the brightest part of the light was and the condition of the hallway. The foundations might have held, but just barely and Alex hurried as he heard pieces of ceiling fall around him.

The fallen torch was across from a staircase that was shifted over, a group of steps missing entirely. Alex muttered about the building's warranty having just expired after five thousand years and tested the first step. It bore his weight, as did the second and third, so he went back down to the bottom and gave himself a running start to jump over the missing sixth, seventh, and eighth steps. He made it awkwardly, shifting his center of gravity away from the hole behind him without any grace and finishing his climb up the stairs as a crawl. On his hands and knees, he looked carefully past the edge of the stairwell and heard no voices, although he thought he could hear some sort of mechanical beeping. Security systems tended not to be a problem once he found the control unit; he could fry almost anything.

Standing up, he went carefully in the direction of the beeping.

"Great," he muttered as he turned a corner. There had been a ceiling collapse and a large pile of rubble mostly blocked the hallway. From the suddenly louder sounds of distant gunfighting and the pale light illuminating the rubble, Alex realized that the floor above him was the last to survive; anything over the third floor had been blown away.

"You can always tell where the X-Men have been by the mess they leave behind," Alex told nobody in particular as he approached the rubble; he'd started talking to himself in combat situations back when he was still wearing the silly headdress and he'd been perversely pleased to note than many Alexes throughout the multiverse carried on running conversations with themselves. A booted foot sticking out a third of the way down was noted and then ignored. "Nathan, never say that you were never part of the family."

Climbing the rubble was easy; the ceiling had fallen in large chunks that did not shift under his weight. Peering carefully as he poked his head just above the floor, Alex could see three sets of boots and muttered a curse. They were between him and the only way out to explore the rest of the floor; in the opposite direction was a dead end. It was obvious that the initial blast hadn't happened where the men were standing, but instead further along in the direction Alex wanted to go in. There was too much of the nearby interior structural walls intact, despite the damage to the exterior wall and the mostly missing roof. Past experience said that this damage was the result of a secondary collapse.

Two of the men were standing close to the edge of the ragged lower half of what had been an exterior wall, one looking out and the other acting as a sniper. The third was behind them, reloading.

Alex pointed his index fingers like pretend pistols and fired. He had aimed at their ankles, hoping that they would fall out instead of in. They did. The third one swung around with his newly loaded automatic and fired; Alex melted the bullets with a wide beam that destroyed the gun. The man - the boy, Alex realized, as the kid couldn't be more than twenty-five, shouted out and started to run. Alex had both strength and stride and caught up to him quickly, bringing him to the floor and then kneeling on his back.

Taking a breath to look around, Alex made a sour face. The fortress was a massive building depth-wise. With parts of roof and wall still standing and piles of rubble everywhere, it would take him a while to find Nathan.

"Where is the cloning tank?" He leaned forward and whispered harshly into the younger man's ear.

The Scion tried to spit at him and Alex fired a quick plasma ball not an inch from his nose. "In words this time."

"The Eternal One shall rise again," the young man growled in what sounded like a French accent. Maybe Algerian. "He will come..."

"And you're not going to be here to see it," Alex cut him off, letting his left hand grow bright with energy. The right one, on his captive's neck, he only let grow warm enough to hurt, not to burn. "Last chance before you become barbeque."

The Scion said nothing.

"You don't honestly think that even if you do get to bring up baby, he's going to keep you idiots around, do you?" Alex asked. "You're not of the strong. You're not even of the vaguely mighty. You're going to be fish food. So you might as well spill - I may not kill you. En Sabah Nur absolutely will."

The young man tried to turn his head away from Alex, who sighed.

"Fine, but don't say I didn't give you a chance," he muttered, bringing the heel of his hand down hard on the back of the man's neck. Standing up with a grunt, he dragged the unconscious Scion over to the edge of the building and dropped him. The drop probably wouldn't kill him, not with his two buddies lying on the ground to break the fall.

"All right, back to square one."

Moving quickly down the hall, Alex looked and listened both for voices and for anything that looked like it could be a cloning tank. He had to press himself up against a wall by a stairwell as he heard shouts, but they did not draw closer, so he proceeded. As he turned another corner, he could hear the faint whine of an alarm, the kind that comes with a medical appliance and not a security beacon. Following the noise - and ignoring the false trail caused by an echo - he found what had to have been the lab. It was covered in equipment and had once been clear and pristine. Now it was a shambles, the missing roof letting the moonlight illuminate the damage.

"Nathan?" Alex called out in a loud whisper. Reaching behind him, he felt for the Kevlar-reinforced backpack he wore. Small and sleek and sturdy, it carried five pounds of a newly developed high explosive. Alex had experienced almost every sort of death and considered himself a connoisseur. And so with drowning not an option in the middle of the desert, vaporization would do in a pinch. He'd brought enough explosive to raze a building. Not that this one needed any help.

He was ready. Ready for whatever came in the next reality. Past attempts at taking someone with him to another branch on the multiverse tree had shown him that he'd end up in another reality where an Alex Summers was trying to kidnap a Baby Apocalypse. It might not be for the same reasons, but they'd show up together. He really should name the baby. They were going to be together for a while - especially if the first reality they landed in wasn't right for the baby to be raised in - and he didn't want to call him Nur.

A falling piece of rubble was enough for Alex to spin around, hands glowing. But it was just rubble... that didn't make a noise when it landed. He crossed the room carefully and while he was expecting to find a body, he was surprised to see Nathan. Holding the baby.

Crouching down and pulling the flashlight off of his belt, Alex shone it around. He didn't need to feel the baby to realize that he was dead, although he did to verify that Nathan wasn't. The tiny boy had an eerie, unnatural blue tint and as Alex reached out to close the glassy eyes, he felt... numb. He'd spent the last month preparing to lose everything in his life that held meaning and now he didn't have to. He should have been ecstatic. But he wasn't. Because lying there was a tiny bluish baby, innocent and a pawn for both sides, who had paid the ultimate price.

Alex had been willing to give up so much for this baby and, probably as some sort of coping mechanism, he had transferred that happiness with his own life into happiness for the baby's well being. But the baby was dead and Alex had to force himself not to focus on how suddenly adrift he felt and instead on the ramifications of this unforeseen turn of events.

The baby couldn't be killed without destroying the time stream as surely as if the Scions were to raise it in the image of his gene template. But he could die. It had just not been the sort of option to build a strategy on - too high-risk. Nathan hadn't been about to play those odds when the fate of the world was in the balance and Alex had agreed with him. But in the process of agreeing with Nathan, he had forced himself to forget about that longshot third option. Because it was betting against the house and the house always wins.

Except this time.

"Thank you," he told the little blue baby, taking him out of Nathan's limp hands and wrapping him carefully in the blanket that had fallen half-off. He kissed the cool forehead, tracing a finger along the cool cheek, and placed the corpse carefully nearby. He then switched his attention to Nathan, hoping to prevent two corpses.

At first glance, Alex thought all of the damage was mental; there was a certain stillness to those who had suffered psionic injury and Nathan was looking too peaceful. But the smell of blood was too strong and Alex moved his flashlight up and down Nathan's body. There was rubble over his left leg and Alex cleared it; underneath was an ugly gaping wound. Checking again for a pulse, Alex had trouble finding it and when he did, it was thready and weak.

"You'll forgive me for the scar," Alex muttered, his voice rough from unshed tears. He touched the wound and felt blood pulsing weakly past his fingers. Taking a deep breath and holding it, he heated up his hand quickly and then brought it down on the wound itself, trying not to hear the sound of searing flesh. He wasn't sure if cauterizing a wound that big was a good idea or not, but he couldn't let Nathan bleed to death.

*Sulven!* he screamed mentally. Any telepath within the area would have heard that. *Sulven!*

#Alex?# Jean's voice. #We just arrived and Sulven's tied up. Where are you?#

He gave directions in pictures rather than words, mental images of where to climb and where to turn. *Hurry.*

With nothing to do but wait, Alex cleared the rest of the rubble away from Nathan's body and checked for other external wounds. There weren't any, but his breathing was shallow.

BAMF!

Alex looked up to see Kurt and smiled weakly. A moment later, Sam came blasting down the hallway and into the room, landing with far more grace than Alex remembered him as having.

"He's alive, but barely," he told them. "Psionic damage and one ugly-ass thigh wound. Breathing's erratic."

"I'll take him," Kurt said, kneeling down. He put both hands on Nathan's chest and gestured with his chin for Alex to move back. Still on the floor, Alex shimmied back on his knee pads, picking up the wrapped body of the baby as he did so. A sulfurous cloud later, Kurt and Nathan were gone.

"You all right?" Sam asked, sounding like he already knew that the answer was no.

Alex looked up at him, the baby's body still cradled against his chest, and suddenly all of the emotions that had been held in check because of the situation were shaken free. A sob ripped through him and he gasped for air, clutching the tiny corpse tightly to him. He closed his eyes, feeling hot tears slide down dirt-stained cheeks.

A moment later, he felt a hand on his shoulder. "Whatever it was, 'Lex, it's over," Sam said gently. "'Though I think there's gonna be a long line of people who're gonna want to wring your neck for helpin' Nathan keep secrets."

He opened his eyes, expecting to see pity. What he saw was closer to understanding and his smiled weakly. "Yeah, well," he offered with a humor he couldn't quite muster.

"Who's that?" Sam asked carefully, gesturing to the bundle in Alex's arms.

How to explain, Alex wondered wildly. The baby boy who could have been Apocalypse. Or could have been the XSE's greatest ally. Or could have been any one of a multiverse full of possibilities.

"Supposed to have been a traveling buddy," he finally replied.

Sam didn't bother to hide his confusion, but he nodded anyway. "You want a lift down or would you like to take the scenic route? Battle's getting ugly fast, so we could use your help."

It was Alex's turn to look confused. He still wasn't sure how the XSE had gotten here so quickly. Sam explained about the teleportation of the ship and Alex just shook his head.

"Let me take the scenic route and I'll clear the building from the top," he said. "This place is probably swarming with Scions on the lower levels. But... can you take him back to one of the ships? He doesn't deserve to be left here in the rubble."

Sam nodded. "I'll take him straightaway," he replied, reaching out to carefully take the bundle as if it were one of his own children. "And then I'll come back and join you for the sweep."

Sam left him then and Alex stood up, feeling a little dazed. He should be used to this feeling, the hard-fought peace of imminent death that came with agreeing to a suicide mission being shattered by the realization that survival had happened in spite of everything. But the game had never been played at these stakes. And with victory came the crumbling of that steel resolve, the one that had allowed him to get this far. Alex fell to the ground again, his reinforced kneepads sounding dully against the hard floor, and breathed deeply as he fought back tears. It was over. Allowing himself a moment to switch his focus from the deeply personal to the distantly objective, he got up and followed the echoes of panicked shouting.

There was work to be done.


"Is there any pizza left?" Lily asked tiredly, closing her eyes and rubbing her face with her hands. Six hours staring at monitors and television screens and her eyes burned. Her eyes burned, her shoulders ached, her ass was numb, and none of it mattered because halfway around the world, it had been a lot worse.

"Greg's wife is bringing us supplies," Tom said from somewhere off to her left.

Greg Dimitrakos, Ubi Wadkins' second-in-command, had married a girl from his parents' village in Greece. Irini Dimitrakos was beloved by everyone because she routinely sent her husband in with trays of food. The Monday after Greek Easter had practically been a lab holiday because of the spread provided. And then there were Name Days and Christmas and all of the 'we had company and here are the leftovers' days where the lab was a happy place to be if you liked to eat.

"Irinifood?" Lily perked up, only to sag back down again as her monitor was still showing the 'filter application in process' sign.

"Here," Miri said as she walked by, tossing something at Lily. "Take two and pass it on."

Lily looked at what she had caught. A bottle of Visine. Dutifully, she put the drops in her eyes and held the bottle out in Tom's general direction as she let the solution sting her tired eyes. Tom, who was sitting at the table in her cubicle, took it.

The computer in front of her beeped happily and Lily snarled at it. "You had better have something useful this time," she muttered crossly.

Nathan often drove her crazy by insisting on viewing the time stream as a river (it worked in a loose sense, which is why Lily used it as a simile when explaining chronography to neophytes, but Nathan knew better). But this was more a case of a railroad going off the tracks. Time flowed continuously; that was most of the reason why they could get an equation for a function in the first place. And sometimes that function could have multiple values - the one they had come up with for today's event was supposed to have two - but it wasn't supposed to come with any new alternatives on its own. At least not now, years into the improvement of chronography. Early on, wild deviation from the function had been a regular occurrence but that had been because they were not picking reasonable equations.

But today there had been a wild deviation. And it had nothing to do with the equation - they had nursed that puppy along for months, checking and double-checking and doing it backwards, forwards, and in any system they could conceivably translate it into and it had all proved good. Until zero hour hit.

There had been a wicked, unimagined jump discontinuity of mammoth proportions at 18:18 Greenwich mean time, and then the time stream had started a new path, one that they had been forced to scurry to try to map and understand. Six hours later, they were only partially there.

Looking over the results on her screen, Lily muttered. While everyone else had been working on reconstructing the map of the timeline, she had been trying to figure out how a two-pronged path had developed a third option. The clone baby went with Nathan or the clone baby went with the Scions, those were the two options when all of the other variants - dead Nathan, murdered baby - were categorized. There hadn't been any case... except there had been. If the clone had died of natural causes before either side took possession. That had been the only case Alice had come up with that didn't lead directly to one of the two main branches. So that's what had happened. The clone baby had died.

Not sure whether or not she should feel relieved, Lily clicked on the file that had just arrived from Ubi. Picking up the phone, she hit speed dial. "Amy?... Yeah, we got it. I don't see anything wrong with it, but Ubi wants to re-derive that fourth... yeah, I know, but what should I tell him? Until we get an AA above ninety-eight, he's just sitting around waiting and nobody wants to go home. It's not technically busywork... Did Eddie come up with that sample?... No, and I didn't tell Tom, either... No, I just ran it... It looks way too much like that crazy graph we came up with when we test-drove the alpha-four parameters on the 1980's... Other than the fact that I don't think Argentina is going to invade the Falkland Islands again?... No, a friend came and picked him up. He'll spend the night with Piotr and Callisto... Thankfully, no. Whatever it was seemed to pass. He even ate some pizza. My boy likes anchovies... Yeah. I'll call you if we come up with anything."

Tom was reading over his tablet screen when Lily turned around. "Rob did his magic with the sample Miri selected earlier," he said, waving the tablet. "We're looking at AA of ninety-five within a standard deviation."

Lily waved her finger in the air in mock celebration, too tired to do more. "Yay! We're only ten hours away if we work really hard, then."

Tom nodded. "Or if the little purple chronography genie comes and sprinkles her pixie dust, maybe the parameters will magically appear in the air like sky-writing."

"I thought the chronography genie was green," XhouLiong Shin mused as he walked by.

"That's a leprechaun, ye twit," Miri called over from where she was sitting in Alice's cubicle, her brogue thick just for the barb. "He's blue."

They were punchy and sarcastic, but while they were tired, they also knew that Rob had saved them a couple of days' worth of work. What they were all trying to do now was make up for the fact that the last three weeks of work had been wiped out - they normally mapped the time stream well in advance of actual events, but instead of working in units of weeks in terms of lead time, they were working in units of hours. If Lily hadn't been so stressed, she might have taken a moment to appreciate that they were all prepared to work through the night to be able to tell the future when civilization had been doing just fine for millennia living moment to moment.

Stan Myers appeared from behind the grapefruit tree next to Lily's cubicle. "Mrs. Dimitrakos is here."

Most of the next hour was spent eating and relaxing. Lily didn't mind the work slowdown and in fact encouraged people who were working through the break to stop and eat. Progress had slowed to a crawl anyway; everyone was fried from the constant stress.

The first three hours since everyone had arrived had been split between trying to start the processes that would re-create the map of the time stream (a task largely foisted off upon Amy Dominguez and the staff in the New Lands, all of whom had been called to work in the middle of their night) and trying to serve as an oversight/auxiliary arm to the XSE detachment in Akkaba.

The New York lab was normally quite effective in providing short-term support for XSE action, but this time it had been a strain with their resources - namely a working map of the time stream - not in place and running at speed. The fight had been excruciatingly long considering the number of people involved and Lily had eventually been forced to tell Pete to turn off the video feed in the main room - she wasn't the only person with a loved one in combat.

After the fight had ended, they switched back to focusing on recreating their map. The staff at Midnight Sun had given them a good head start and Lily was pleased with how quickly things had progressed from hopelessly muddled to bad-but-recoverable. But the adrenaline that had sparked them earlier had faded and now, after six hours, it was starting to drag a little bit.

Which was why the food delivery was a blessing in more ways than one. There was a tray of moussaka, a roasted chicken with potatoes, and a salad bowl that was big enough to go swimming in. And yet Irini was apologizing for bringing bakery cookies. Irini didn't stay - her mother-in-law was sitting in the double-parked car with which she had driven the food in from Astoria - but Lily made a mental note to have a thank-you card passed around and to pick up a small gift.

By the time the eleven-o'-clock news was over, Lily was more than an hour into a conference with Alice, Tom, Miri, and then Amy and Bob Sagerstein via telephone from the New Lands. Courtesy of a lucky series of errors by the Three Stooges (the trio of computational fluid dynamists; Tony was bald, Ping had a Moe 'do, and Larry was just opportunely named) that hadn't been caught until after it had been run through most of the tests, they had found a shortcut. HisDAs had been able to provide documentation and Miri had somehow managed to design a sample that could pass Rob's muster. Ubi was positively aglow and had locked himself in the small conference room with Greg Dimitrakos and Dennis Lim so that they could work without interruption.

"All right," Lily said tiredly after Alice and Sagerstein had paused in their sniping. "Amy? How long are you running people without breaks?"

"Everyone has to walk around the block once every two hours," she replied. "Except me, of course. I roll around that block more than once and my arms fall off."

A chuff of weak laughter; Amy's arms were pure muscle - she raced in mini-marathons.

"We're hitting the three hour mark here," Lily mused. "I think I should call a timeout and we'll get back to you in a little bit? We've basically done what we needed to do while we are all in earshot."

Relieved goodbyes were said and the phone hookup disconnected.

"Jesus, I am so happy I'm half a planet away from Sagerstein," Lily muttered as they exited the room. "But I'm serious about a break." She went and stood in front of the giant plasma screen television and waited until everyone's attention was on her.

"Everyone's digested Irini's dinner," she began, pausing for the guys from programming to cheer wildly at the mention of food. "Which means it's been a while since our last break. Unless you'd like Tom to lead the lab in group calisthenics, I'd suggest coordinating fifteen-minute breaks with your group head. We are getting close, folks, so come back in fighting form and we'll all get to sleep until noon tomorrow."

"Or don't and we'll all still be here at noon tomorrow," Tom added from where he was standing off to the side.

"Pessimist," Lily told him cheerfully as they headed back to their area. Tom would be succeeding her has head of the lab once she left in June; it was a choice she had wholeheartedly endorsed.

"Realist," Tom countered. "And don't you ever put my name and 'group calisthenics' in the same sentence again. I have an image to uphold."

Lily snorted. Tom was tall and rail-thin, proud of the fact that he ate whatever he wanted, never exercised, and never gained weight.

"Aye," Miri agreed from behind them. "And the rest of us will be scrubbing the mental images of Tom in a leotard out of our brains with steel wool."

Twenty minutes later, Lily looked up from her computer at Tom, who had his coat on. "What is this, 'do as I say and not what I do'?" he asked, pursing his lips in displeasure. "Oh, wait, that's exactly what this is. Let's go take our walk."

"Honestly, Tom?" Lily asked with a sigh as she rubbed her eyes and wondered who had Miri's Visine. "I am going to finish this and spend my break napping. But thank you for the offer."

Tom looked at her skeptically. "You had better be on the couch with your eyes closed when I get back or I'm getting Sergeant Ndega to frog-march you outside."

"Yes, sir."

By the time the clock beeped to indicate midnight, Lily was on the couch with her feet up on the coffee table and her eyes closed. She wondered when Alex was getting back - the last transport had left Akkaba two hours ago, which meant that it was going to be sooner rather than later. She hadn't spoken to him, but they had gotten a list of the dead and wounded and his name hadn't been on it. Nathan's was on the list of wounded, to no one's great surprise, as was Bobby's, which was.

Lily had asked Alice to make sure that she was awake and at her desk by twelve-fifteen, but it was half-past when she was shaken gently awake.

"You needed it," Alice told her without remorse.

By one, things had progressed such that they had started sending people home. The group heads were staying on and the entire math squad was still sequestered, but there was a quiet to the office that hadn't been present earlier.

At a quarter past one, the phone rang. Not expecting it to be Amy, Lily wondered who it could be.

"Summers."

"Yeah? Me, too." Alex's voice sounded tired. Exhausted, really. "You weren't in bed and you weren't in your office, so I looked under the couch and when you weren't there, either, I decided to try you at work."

She was tired enough that this was very funny.

"How are you feeling?" she asked. "Were you hurt at all?"

"I'm... okay," he replied, sounding to Lily's ears like he was anything but. When Alex was tired, his voice got lower and almost craggy.  But now there was also a tremulous tone that she associated with him putting on a brave face and not quite succeeding. "I was expecting things to be a lot worse than they were, I guess, and I haven't really absorbed that it's not."

"It was pretty bad," she pointed out. He wasn't saying something, that much was obvious. The question was what was it that he wasn't saying.

"Yeah," he agreed weakly. "Where'd you stow Junior, by the way?"

"Amanda picked him up from here around sevenish and took him to Piotr and Callisto's," Lily replied, accepting the change in topic for what it was. He could dodge her over the phone, but not around the house. At least not for too long. "He was sick earlier today. He got better by the evening, but it was so sudden. One minute he was discussing his preferences for wrap-around porches and the next he was revisiting his pancakes. And then the shit hit the fan here and in Akkaba..."

"Busy day for everyone, then."

There was a cry of exultation and Lily looked across the office at where Dennis Lim had just come running out of the small conference room with his arms raised in victory.

"Yeah," she replied into the phone.

"You going to be there for a while longer?" Alex asked and Lily closed her eyes at the sound of need in his voice. He was trying to cover it up, make it sound casual and vaguely hopeful that she was on her way out, but she wasn't buying it. It wasn't the 'come home and let's have sex like crazed rabbits' reaction that used to manifest back in the days when Alex was Havok and had been dragged off to do something with the X-Men. This was something less primal, more emotional. Not survivor's guilt, not post-battle adrenaline, but something else that made him sound entirely too fragile for Lily's comfort.

"Not too long, I imagine," she said, looking at the clock. "I've been here almost twelve hours and some of the folks have been here for closer to eighteen. And the math people are doing the end zone dance like they just scored the Superbowl-winning touchdown, so..."

"All right," Alex said, sounding relieved. "If I'm asleep, wake me up?"

"I'll think about it," she told him, knowing full well that he wasn't going to be asleep. Not when he sounded like this.

Alex blew a raspberry into the phone and Lily laughed.

"I'll see you later," she said. "Love you."

"I love you, too," Alex returned and then they hung up.

Lily stared blankly at her computer screen for a long moment before getting up and heading over to Tom's cubicle.

"Alex is home," she told him.

"He all right?" Tom asked, turning his attention away from where he was watching Ubi leaning over Pete's shoulder explaining what was on the latter's computer screen. If the math squad was already giving material to the programmers, things were looking well.

"He says so, but he's lying," Lily admitted. "Would I be a bad boss if I left now?"

Tom looked at her like she had just asked to have an arm cut off. "I think we'll forgive you," he said dryly. "You're no help with getting the kinks out of the coded version anyway. Get out of here and I'll see you on Monday."

"Thanks," Lily said, putting a hand on his shoulder for a moment before turning back towards her desk. Booting down her computer and throwing on her coat, she still felt vaguely guilty walking past those who were still working, but nobody said anything apart from wishing her a good morning.

At a quarter to two in the morning on a Saturday night, the subway was full of early-retiring clubgoers and revelers and people returning from Christmas parties. Lily felt vaguely amused at the contrast, coming home from working a crisis as she was.

Alex was standing at the bedroom window looking out at either the street or the stars when she found him. He gave her a lopsided grin and she crossed the room into his embrace. The day had been relatively mild for December, but the night had gotten quite chilly and Lily reveled in Alex's warmth.

"You look more or less intact," she finally said against his chest. She hadn't missed the bruise on his hip that was only half-hidden by his pajama bottoms.

"For now," he agreed, sounding vaguely amused and less fragile than he had on the phone. But he was holding her closely and with greater strength than usual. "I think I'm going to have to run the gauntlet once everyone recovers a little."

"What did you do?"

A long pause, long enough that Lily pulled away slightly and looked up at Alex's face. His eyes were closed and a single tear was running down his left cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her fingers. "Alex?"

"Nathan and I were keeping a secret," he said quietly, not opening his eyes.

"The clone baby?" Lily asked. "I guess everyone's going to be pissed about that... But that's not it, is it?"

Alex turned from her and went towards the bed, but she followed behind and sat down next to him, prepared to physically force him to look at her.

"We had a plan," Alex said, facing her but looking down at the hands in her lap rather than at her face. "For how to solve the problem..."

"Apart from the obvious one of getting the baby?"

"That was the preferred option," Alex said, smiling a wry, bitter smile. "But Nathan wanted to keep the odds in our favor. Even if we got the baby, if something happened to him..."

"The results would have been the same as if we hadn't," Lily finished for him impatiently. "I know all this stuff, Alex. The only ways to make sure we didn't all go to hell in a handbasket were to either get the baby or if the baby died on its own, which I'm guessing is what happened."

Alex sighed heavily and ran his fingers through his hair. "It did, but we weren't considering it an option," he said. "There was a third possibility, one with much greater odds of success should Nathan fall."

Lily felt her stomach drop and she was suddenly sure she was going to hear something very bad that she was going to wish that she didn't know. "And it involved you," she said with a calmness she didn't feel.

Alex nodded. "If the baby no longer existed in the timeline, the problem was solved," he said, getting up off of the bed and going back to the window, looking out as he spoke again. "I'm very good at getting things out of timelines if I have to."

Realization hit with the force of a slap. "Alex! You were going to... Oh, god. Oh, god... And you had this all planned out without telling me? You were going to disappear and not even say goodbye? How..." It was all she could do to sit still, to not give in to her instinct to pummel the man in front of her into pulp. "How dare you make that decision without me?"

"I couldn't tell you," Alex insisted, tears flowing freely now. "I didn't want our last time together to be all crazy and angry and... I wanted to spare you and Dane the pain. I wanted to spare myself."

"That's no..."

"I didn't have a choice, Lily," Alex cut her off, crossing to the bed and taking her hands, holding on tightly as she tried to pull away. She didn't want to touch him, didn't want to be in any position where she had to sit and listen to him. Because there had to be some sort of rational sense to what he had done - Alex had changed so profoundly in the time he had been away, but he had not become a coward and he had not gotten reckless with her feelings or anyone else's - and she didn't want to face the fact that maybe he hadn't had a choice.

"I didn't have a choice," he repeated in a quieter voice after she stopped struggling. "I could either break your heart or be responsible for your death. Again."

"What 'again'?" Anger was fading into fear and confusion.

Alex closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "You asked me once if I had encountered other versions of you," he began. "And I said that I hadn't because I had met you by trying to be a civilian and most Alexes weren't... But I lied."

Lily just watched, not able to even begin to form words. She had been through this before, that hateful moment when she realized that she couldn't understand everything, that there was going to be a part of Alex that she was never going to be able to get because he was so different from her. At first it had been when Alex confessed to being a mutant. And now it was because he was the Nexus of All Realities. She'd tried not to think too hard about that, not make it something more special than any of the other things that Alex did - plasma blasts, reality hopping, what's the difference? - but it was her own denial and she knew that.

"So far, we've been married in two other realities," he went on. "Both times where you were a mutant... I watched you die, Lily, because of a stupid mistake I had made. Me, not the other Alex. Me. And in the other reality, you had already died because of my counterpart's actions - inactions, apparently. But it was still me in a way. How could I do that again? How could I let you die because I wasn't strong enough to make the hard choice?"

He was crying now, they were both crying, and he sat on the bed heavily, putting his face in his hands for a moment before turning to look at her again. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry I would have had to hurt you. And Dane... Oh, god, Lily, I didn't want to have to do it. But I couldn't... I love you so much. I love our son so much. I couldn't be the one to..."

"I know," she said, her voice barely audible even to herself. "I know. I hate knowing. I hate all of this. I hate you being the Nexus of All Realities because it hurts you and me and Dane and everyone you love. I hate the thought of you wandering around the cosmos like some eternal ghost... "

They were both quiet then, too exhausted to do anything else but cry and be drowned by all of the emotions that were swirling around. Lily eventually leaned over to get the tissue box and the two of them blew their noses heavily, using tissue after tissue until they could only laugh at their taking turns tossing them towards the trash can.

When they had finished with the tissues, Alex tentatively took her hand. She squeezed and he squeezed back and they sat there in the quiet, the faint sounds of a car horn coming from the street below.

"Where do we go from here, Alex?" Lily asked. "I'm not ready to let you shoulder all of this on your own. Not in this reality. You can have the entire rest of the multiverse to yourself, but in this one, I want in. I don't care how much it hurts. I didn't marry you because you make a sexy martyr."

A chuff of laughter. "No, you didn't," he agreed, turning to look at her before she could accuse him on not taking her seriously. "I'll do my best, Lily. I promise you I'll try. But don't ask me to cause you pain just so you can feel less guilty for not being able to help carry everything."

She grimaced at his too-accurate read on the situation. But even as dignity demanded she protest, Lily knew that she was too exhausted to talk about this any further, so she nodded reluctantly instead. This would probably not be the only time they had this discussion anyway; they were who they were.

As the silence crept on and the fatigue seeped further into her bones, Lily finally got up, kissed Alex on the cheek, and headed into the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. By the time she came out to dig out her pajamas, Alex had shifted over so that he was lying in bed and when she got in herself, he stirred suddenly as if she had woke him from a light doze. As she lay down and stared up at the ceiling illuminated through the closed blinds by the full moon and the permanent light of the city, she could hear the grind and whine of a garbage truck down on the street.  She felt drained, too tired to sleep even, let alone to think through the events of the day or to consider what might have been. Instead, she focused on what was and reached for her husband, letting her hand rest on his warm shoulder. And so she fell asleep to the syncopated rhythms of Alex's steady breathing and the clink of glass meeting plastic meeting metal as the garbagemen slung trash bags out on the street below.




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