Future Pluperfect: Chapter 18


Textual Poaching Alert: Marvel owns everyone but Mirrin, although Social Services would have stripped custody long ago...

After the sturm-und-drang that had surrounded the departure of the team to Vanuatu had settled somewhat, Betsy Braddock was left with silence. And silence, in the X-Mansion, was usually not a good thing. For a group as populated as they were by thieves, assassins, spies, and others whose 'professions' necessitated the ability to work without making a sound, the X-Men were a noisy group in their downtime.

A quick telepathic sweep indicated that all was well, but Betsy still felt a gnawing bit of something in her stomach. And it wasn't the after-effects of the tuna melt she had made for lunch.

Hank was down in his lab, Logan was on monitor duty, Remy - as far as she could tell - was doing something innocuous on the roof, Rogue was breaking rocks in the small quarry to the south of the house (hence the probability of Remy being up on the south-facing roof), Ororo was tending to her plants, and Warren... was brooding.

What else is new? Betsy mused as she headed down the great hallway that bisected the first level of the main mansion. It wasn't that she was looking for him, more that she couldn't find him and was curious.

Following the faint sounds of music, she found him in the west study. This was where Xavier liked to spend his recreational time and it showed. The walls were painted a deep forest green, but mahogany bookcases crammed with leather-bound volumes covered most of them. The only light came from either the large windows framed by heavy drapes or the antique lamps that were scattered tastefully throughout the room to rest atop similarly tasteful small tables. The room had a state-of-the-art stereo system, the speakers well hidden throughout, but Bobby had once given Jubilee a memorable lecture on why it was blasphemous to use it for anything written past 1850.

The room was sumptuous without being decadent, quiet without losing its warmth, but it was not a popular destination for any of the X-Men. The various members may live in a mansion, may have access to limitless amounts of technology, food, and other needs both essential and not, but all of those things could be classified as being tied to their profession. The demands and expectations of the personal were something else.

Underneath the Shi'ar-fabricated costumes and behind the X that graced their uniforms, the X-Men were by provenance a motley crew and most of them felt distinctly out of their league in a room that fairly screamed out 'old money' and 'upper class'. There was a code of conduct and a set of manners that went along with rooms like this and one normally didn't learn these things in Mississippi or Nebraska or Siberia.

As a result, the east study (with its more contemporary furnishing) was the better-used place for quiet recreation, just as the east drawing room was the place for entertainment with its giant screen television and the most-used stereo in the mansion. There were a few among the team that either were brought up to be comfortable in the trappings of wealth (namely herself and Warren), or were sufficiently versed in its nuances to be comfortable (such as the erstwhile Kurt Wagner and, Betsy suspected, Remy, but he'd be loath to admit such) or were so truly self-possessed as to not care (Ororo and Logan came to mind, although Logan's strong personal preferences almost negated it). Everyone else, however, seemed to have found better places to do whatever could be done in the west study and, being social creatures, those who could find joy in the room had followed the pack to the other side of the grand staircase.

Nevertheless as she pushed open the not-quite-closed door to the room, Betsy was utterly unsurprised to find Warren. He was sitting on a divan that allowed his wings to rest comfortably with a book in hand. Warren was one of the only people she knew who could keep his lips perfectly still while reading.

"You're peaceful," Betsy said quietly.

Warren looked up from the book, his finger going to the line where he had stopped, as she knew it would, and smiled apologetically. "I wanted to know if it worked; apparently it does."

Crossing the threshold and half-closing the door behind her, Betsy didn't bother to mask her confusion. "If what worked?"

"Way back when we started out," he began, gesturing with his head for her to join him, "When it was just Jeannie and Scott and Bobby and Hank and I..."

"The good old days," Betsy chuckled as she sat down in a club chair next to Warren. "Uh-oh, one of those stories," she sighed dramatically, taking care to make sure that he knew that she was only teasing.

"After our first few missions," he continued unperturbed, "we'd always come back expecting Professor Xavier to be waiting by the door, anxious to see us return."

"Like a puppy?"

"Like a parent," Warren corrected with a smirk. "Like the anxious father who'd finally allowed his kids to go around the corner on their bikes all by themselves and wanted to make sure they came back."

"But he didn't," Betsy finished.

"He didn't. Instead, we'd come back home, tripping on our adrenalin highs, and sometime between stowing our gear and hitting the shower, we'd get a mind-call to meet in the west study in precisely one hour. We'd show up, all combed and pressed and still ready to bounce off the walls and he'd be sitting here," Warren pointed as he spoke to the club chair that sat opposite from the one Betsy was in, "all calm and quiet. There'd be Haydn playing on the stereo and he'd have a tea service set up and when I showed up - I was always the last one down - he'd finish his page, put down his book and... debrief us, I guess."

"Well, it's good to know that he started doing that from the beginning and it wasn't just because he was bored with the later generations," Betsy said. She knew there was more than just simple nostalgia at play here. Warren wasn't prone to that sort of thing.

"He'd always make us have our next meal together afterwards, in the formal dining room even though there was just the six of us. And you can't help but behave in that room," Warren's sigh melted into a chuckle. "Well, at least you couldn't help but behave in that room. It used to be a lot more forbidding than it is now."

Betsy nodded in understanding. What she didn't understand, however, was where Warren was heading. It obviously had to do with the current mission and with Jean and Scott going after their erstwhile son, but Betsy wasn't quite sure why this would be affecting Warren so deeply.

"I used to get angry at him, so angry that he was sucking all the fun out of it. He never said he was relieved to see us return unscathed; he didn't even let us relive our adventures at table. He didn't need to know what had happened because he had kept in mental contact with all of us, at least most of the time he did. So he'd tell Bobby to pipe down and he'd ask us about our studies, instead... It was just such a downer. As if we were supposed to just metabolize all that adrenalin and move on with our lives."

"Theoretically that's what you're supposed to do, spoke the self-confessed action junkie," Betsy said. Theoretically, that was what Warren had always done without problem. Oh, sure, he was usually up for a rollicking good time in bed the night back from a mission, but that was hardly acting out in any fashion.

"A couple of years ago, after the whole mess with the Shadow King had settled down, I asked him about it," Warren continued after a pause seemingly to contemplate the whorls on the lampshade next to his left elbow. "I asked him how he could sit here and drink tea and listen to Haydn and not seem the least bit... excited about our exploits."

"What did he say?"

"'Practice, Warren. Practice.' He said it was all he could do not to wear holes in the floor. He was so scared for us, so angry at himself for what he was making us do, so sad that there was such a need for us to be doing it and nobody else to handle things that it took all of his will and all of his strength to not see things through our eyes and be there with us through our minds.

"He felt so powerless not only because he couldn't face the evil himself, but also because he couldn't be there to catch us should we fall... he'd come in here to distract himself. To force himself to be distracted by the music and the literature and the comfort and the warmth of this room so that he couldn't dwell on the discord and the hatred that he had thrown us up against."

"Which brings us around to the next question," Betsy began gently.

"What am I doing here?" Warren asked almost rhetorically as he showed off the room with a wave of his right arm. "Trying to distract myself, Elisabeth, trying to distract myself."

On an intellectual level, Betsy knew that Warren had his fears, just as he had his regrets and his dreams. But he was so good at hiding them all, even from her, that when he did let them be seen they were all the more striking. She remembered a breakfast in town one early morning, sometime at the end of the whole Kwannon saga, where she had gotten probably her first good glimpse into those depths. She had been surprised then, but didn't understand why she was still a little surprised now.

"They'll be all right, Warren. We'll be all right, too."

"Will they? I don't like Cable or Domino, I don't like what they represent, I don't like their set of beliefs, I don't like how they carry themselves and I sure as hell don't like that they ended up in charge of the kids. But I respect their abilities. A lot. And those abilities weren't enough to keep them from getting killed."

"But they were just two. There's a whole team..."

"You've seen the Danger Room session logs. Cable alone has taken down an entire X-squad. Hell, if the stories are even half-right, he and Domino have taken down whole countries together."

"Aren't you underestimating the planning that went into this, not to mention the powers of those who are on their way?" Betsy asked mildly. "You better than almost anyone else know what Scott and Jean and even Bobby are capable of. Plus Mirrin..."

"There was no planning. What does it matter about the mutant powers that went off to the tropics if they're just ad libbing?" Warren put the book down so that he could gesture with both hands. "We don't know how, who, why, or what, and it took three telepaths to figure out when and where! We're fooling ourselves if we think that they can go in there, grab Cable and Domino, and get out again without any blood loss."

Warren's wings beat in emphasis, Betsy noticed, a sure sign that he was agitated. When he was calm, Warren's wings would flutter gently as if on some invisible breeze. But these hummingbird-like motions were dead giveaways of deeper stress. Warren himself had joked that his harness was good for business - it kept his emotions to himself when he couldn't otherwise.

"What happens when comes down to the battle?" he continued, drawing Betsy's attention back from his wings to his face. "Apart from Mirrin, who on that away team is cold-blooded enough to kill on instinct, without wasting time coming up with a non-fatal solution to the problem? I'm not saying that it's their fault - I'm not Death anymore, I don't think I could do it, either - I'm just saying that there's going to be a point where it's going to be shoot-first, think-later and the X-Men aren't trained for that. And I'm scared that we've hit that point."

"We've been in bad spots before, Warren, even worse than this one," Betsy sighed and leaned back into the solid comfort of the deep chair. "The Phalanx. Onslaught. The Shadow King. Should I go on? There have been crystal waves and demons and we're probably due for another go-'round with the Sentinels and..."

"And this is the first time I've sat here powerless while most of my oldest friends are off to face a foe of that sort of magnitude with precious little on their side but determination. I want to be with them, but I know they're better off with Sam than with me. I want to help, but there's nothing I can do. Nothing any of us can do."

"It's been like that this whole time, love," Betsy said with a touch of a grin. She wasn't sure where this newfound fatalism was coming from, but she would be damned before she succumbed to it. Sure it was hard, but she liked what she did, liked that she was helping others instead of taking breaks from being a London socialite to go skiing in Switzerland like all of her prep school classmates were now doing. Like all of Warren's 'normal' friends did. "We'll battle on like we always do. We're too dumb to give up and we've been rewarded thus far. We may look like shite, but we are undefeated."

"It's not fun anymore," Warren spoke quietly. He seemed to be picking up her internal thoughts better than her words, Betsy mused, and she did a quick mental check to see if she was telepathically leaking. She wasn't.

"It's not 'let's go off and save the world and still have time to start a snowball fight with the kids from the day school down the road.' It's real now, real on a level it hasn't been before. Nobody died during Onslaught. Some people were missing during the Phalanx mess, but they turned up unscathed. But we're not unscathed anymore. Lebanon wasn't a freak accident, no more than Vanuatu is turning out to be. We've met our match, Betsy."

"That's what everyone else thought, too. From Cameron Hodge to Farouk," she shrugged as she spoke. "And none of them were the last men standing. You've just been out of action for too long. You've forgotten that we don't stay dead. I didn't. You're worried that you're rusty and that you're out of sync. It's understandable; what we do is a little more complicated than riding a bike."

Warren inhaled sharply as if he were about to say something, then changed his mind and exhaled slowly, not quite a sigh.

"The Kurioon is supposed to have come back to this time to kill Cable, right?" he not-quite-asked. "Well, they got him. Just like they got you. And if Mirrin can't undo the damage again, then all we're left with is to hope that Cable was all they came back to finish off. There's supposed to be a whole color spectrum, right? We started having problems at red. How long before our little time-walker can't keep up? What if she can't bring Cable back from the dead - does she help us still, or go back to when she came from and go for some other point in time? We didn't just fall off a bike here, Betsy. We blew both the battle and the war. We lost."

There was nothing to be said to that, Betsy decided, and the two of them were left sitting in the west study with only the quiet refrains of Haydn's "Stabat Mater" to chase the tension from the air.

***

"Cannonball, can you tell what kind of tech we're looking at once we get there?"

A long silence, too long. "Uh... Cyclops? Sir?"

"What?" Cyclops didn't take his eyes off the instruments. The plane was being flown manually - autopilot would allow him too much time to brood. And Jean, currently sitting in back plotting who-knows-what kind of mayhem with Mirrin, had been quite sharp (not to mention correct) in warning him against that. Which was precisely why Sam was doing comm. instead of Bobby. Sam was a lot like Nathan, but tended to have as much problem with the secondary nature of 'why' as Scott did and was best kept busy for the same reasons.

"Our there isn't there."

Flicking on auto-pilot, Cyclops swiveled in the pilot's seat. "What do you mean?" Although if it meant what it sounded like, it wouldn't be the first time he'd gone on a rescue mission to an island and had the island walk away on him.

"Ah mean that there's a blank spot on the radar where there should be an island," Cannonball answered. "Where there should be four islands, 'ccording to the atlas."

Cyclops sighed. "Well, I haven't had to do a water landing in a while, but it could just be a radar trick. If I was hiding the hatching grounds of a super-army of cyborgs, I'd probably try to block radar, too."

"That's what Ah'm figuring," Cannonball agreed with a slightly embarrassed shrug. "Else they got real quiet fish down there. That does answer your question 'bout tech, though. They got and they got good if it's enough to fool these scanners." He gestured with his chin at the comm. console. "We still have those EM-pulse guns from Lebanon, right?"

"We should," Scott affirmed, and then smiled to himself as he followed the younger man's train of thought to its logical conclusion. "Of course, we'll have to find the source of the jamming if we're going to knock it out with them."

"Might as well make use of those things while we can," Cannonball replied, his back a little straighter with his suggestion having been accepted. "If the Sister's correct 'bout the soldiers upgrading, then the guns'll just be glorified pea shooters before we know it."

"Point noted."

The quiet in the cockpit allowed for Cannonball and Cyclops to catch bits of the conversation that was taking place aft. Cannonball was quite sure that his team leader was listening to the whole thing via his telepathic bond with Phoenix, but he was glad to put his own well-honed eavesdropping skills to good use even if there was no punishment in getting caught.

"You might as well put the speakerphone on, Cannonball," Iceman called from the rear. "We can see those corn-cob ears of yours straining to... Ow! No hitting!"

"Leave the kid alone," Sam could hear Havok quietly chastise his teammate.

"I'm just trying to make him feel like part of the team," Bobby defended himself.

"You're making him feel like a freak," Alex snorted. "You're the accountant. I'm the former frat boy and varsity football guy. Who should be in charge of camaraderie?"

"But you're a Summers!... Hey, I said no hitting!" There was the sound of jostling and then silence. "You haven't been around for a while. This is how Cannonball and I always interact."

"Well, it's good to know you're still into hazing the rookies," Alex replied.

"What hazing? I don't haze. Hazing is illegal in many states, including New York."

"As I said, I'm the former frat boy. I know hazing when I see it. You did the same to me."

"That was just picking on you because you were annoying."

"No, that was you compensating for your lack in certain areas by wielding authority you didn't have."

"HEY!... Well, you listened to me. Who's the dummy?"

A sharp whistle that Sam knew without having to see had come from Jean. "Heckyl and Jeckyl. Are you two done yet?"

"Yes, Ma'am," both men chorused contritely.

In the cockpit, Sam swallowed a chuckle.

"Good to see you're not letting them get to you," Cyclops said without turning around.

Sam sighed. "Y'all forget Ah'm used to this stuff. This was X-Force at its most well-behaved. Domino and Cable usually had to..." he faded out. That wasn't a place Sam wanted to go right now.

"'Usually had to what', Sam?" Cyclops asked after the pause continued for long enough that he knew that the younger man wouldn't be continuing.

This conversation had been a long time in coming. He and Jean had quite frankly been too wrapped up in their own grief and the preparations to rescue Nathan and Domino to remember that while most of the X-Men harbored no great love for the erstwhile duo, there was at least one other team member who felt their absence deeply on the personal level.

"Usually had to resort to dirty tricks to get us to stop," Sam finished, sounding like he was trying to make himself sound strong. It was typical Sam, Scott mused. "Cable would telepathically get us all to shut up and sit still. Domino was usually more direct - she'd take a shot at whatever it was we were fightin' over."

"What if it was just a war of words?" Cyclops was afraid to know the answer.

"Light fixtures. For some reason, we tended not to snip at each other in the dark. Although she did shoot Ric in the a... rear that one time. But that was just a stun gun. And Ah think it was by accident. But with Dom's luck... Fat lotta good it did her this time, though."

Cyclops mentally nodded. This was a stage he had been waiting for, that Jean had told him to look for. Denial, then anger. Although anger would hardly be out of place, they had good reasons to be mad at both missing parties.

"Fat lot of good it did both of them," he agreed.

There was silence again. A curiously peaceful silence.

"We left the Smothers Brothers alone with two telepaths," Cyclops mused aloud. "What say you Mirrin and Jean just turned off their speech centers?" He didn't need to turn around to catch the scandalized look on Sam's face. Not when he could see the reflection in the windshield. "Oh come, now. You just said Cable did it with X-Force."

"But... that's X-Force...," Sam almost sputtered, his disbelief so disarmingly childlike that Scott had to smile. "We were already in detention, ya know what Ah mean? Not the senior team..."

"You've got an entirely too high an opinion of this outfit, young Cannonball. And I say this as the leader of the crew," Cyclops chuckled. "There are moments when I wish I was a lot more like my son. I don't think anyone would take me seriously if I pointed a plasma rifle at them, though."

"Actually, you're a lot alike, sir," the younger man ventured after a pause to consider his words. "People don't really have a choice but to follow you. Ah mean, it's so obvious that you and Cable know what you're doing..."

"Would that that were true," Cyclops sighed.

"Even when you don't, it's hard to tell," Sam allowed with a wry grin. "And you never ask anybody for anything you wouldn't give yourself. And you never ask for anything before you've given all that you could. Even..."

"Even if it means cutting off everything and everyone dear to you just to save them the pain," Scott finished with a frown. "It's a stupid trait, that one, and I'm disappointed that Nathan picked it up. Never more so than now, when I have to... when everyone who cares about him has to spend time and energy tracking down the information that it wouldn't have hurt us to have in the first place."

"Yeah." Utterly and completely heartbroken. Scott the man and Cyclops the leader both flinched inwardly at letting this conversation get delayed so long. It was so easy to forget that even if Sam didn't need any coddling just because he was the junior member of the team, sometimes he just needed the comfort a parent could afford a child. Even Nathan had seen that, Scott mused, and had conveyed a father's pride amidst all of the drill work.

A father's pride. It came in all sizes: his father's well-hidden version with himself and Alex, his own (more open, just as poorly received) with Nathan, Nathan's own tough love with Sam. It was all the same - that strange mix of fear that your son had followed you into the (very dangerous) hero business coupled with the gratification of knowing that you had somehow been considered a worthy example to follow.

"It's all right to be mad at him, Sam," Scott said quietly. He didn't want to shatter the younger man's fragile self-comportment by asking him to come sit by him in the co-pilot's seat. Distance created an impression of strength and independence, even if they both knew it wasn't real. "And it's okay to be jealous that he trusted Domino with whatever this mission was and didn't think he could trust the rest of us. And to be pissed off for letting himself get killed without having the good grace to leave things finished instead of all these loose ends. Like leaving without saying goodbye. Or letting us say it, in whatever fashion we wanted. Even if it was just 'thank you.'"

Sam had been staring absently at the comm. console as he listened. But even though he kept his body facing forward, Scott could see Sam pick his head up and nod, knowing in turn that he would be seen.

"It's also okay to doubt, Sam," Scott continued. "To doubt both that Nathan made the right decision as well as whether we'll be lucky enough to bail him out. We get so wrapped up in how things are here... we forget how precious life can be. And that our persistent inability to stay dead is a mixed blessing."

"That part Ah know all too well," Cannonball chuckled mirthlessly. "Ah'm faced every day with the knowledge that Ah'm probably gonna see everyone Ah know... that Ah'm gonna outlive a lot of people. Ah remember my brothers and sisters when they were born. Ah shouldn't be around to see them die." Sam was thoughtful for a long moment. "But you know 'bout that. You changed Cable's diapers."

"That I did," Scott agreed, realizing that Sam knew Nathan knew about it as well - Sam had been present at Tyler's death, had blamed himself for not doing the impossible and managing to stop it. "And it's fortunate for him that Maddie and I took him back to Alaska right away, before the New Mutants got a chance to play with him. Jean and I have a hard enough time reconciling the boy we raised with the man he became, I can't imagine how you would feel. One minute you're babysitting, the next you're taking orders."

Sam was as amused by the mental image as he was touched that Cyclops... that Scott would recognize that it would be interesting (to say the least) for him as well as for the immediate family. It was nice to know that people remembered that his tenure with Xavier's crew went back as far as it did, which was further than many of the current members of the team.

"My grandparents probably take the whole Magically Undead Summers thing better than anyone else in the family," Scott continued thoughtfully. "Which is probably for the best - they're the ones who have had to grieve the most times. They have at various points survived their son, their grandsons, even their great-grandson. I think they really wished there had been a daughter somewhere along the line. Change the luck around, perhaps. But I'm amazed at their resilience. Every time someone dies, they mourn it as though it was the first time. And every time that person shows up again, they are just as pleased. I think I'm too cynical for that kind of unbridled emotion. I fear we all are."

"With all due respect, sir, Ah hope Ah never am."

"With all due respect, Sam, I hope you never are, either."

Nathan, for all of his perversity about attachments and bonds, had taken a shine to the boy. And while Scott, in his most armchair-psychologist moments, occasionally wondered whether that affection was borne out of Sam's apparent immortality - Sam wouldn't die before his father as Tyler had - he couldn't help but feel as though he was letting his son down (and now, for the time being, failing his memory as well) by not protecting Sam better. Sam had been at his own father's side when the man died too young and he had been at Nathan's side during Onslaught as Nate had nearly lost a battle with his techno-organic virus. He really didn't need to be through the wringer like this again. Not at his age, no matter how myriad his experiences.

Scott let Sam collect his thoughts for another moment before speaking again. "Of course, irony being our constant companion and all, the best part of all this is that once we get to Nathan and Domino - and we will get to them - Nathan's going to be very ungrateful about how we're all fussing over him. He's going to spout some Askani proverb about how there's no point in mourning a tragedy that hasn't happened and tell us all to flonq off. I don't know Domino that well, but I can't see her taking it much better than Nate."

Sam let out a snort. "Uh, no. Ah don't see her takin' it much better, either. Domino's not real big on anything warm and fuzzy."

From the cabin, the quiet sounds of Mirrin and Jean talking were audible again. Scott wondered how much of the conversation between he and Sam Jean had been listening in on.

"They'll understand," Sam mused aloud as he fiddled once more with the radar controls. "Domino will, Ah think... and between her and the Sister, Ah think they'll get Cable to, too. Ah think he's scared of her."

"Mirrin or Domino?"

"Both, but mostly the Sister."

"I think you're probably right," Scott agreed, thinking back to a rather epic Danger Room session Cable had dragged Mirrin into participating in the previous week. Actually, throw in Jean and the future version of Rachel and Nate really did have a healthy respect (to put it politely) of the opposite gender. "Fun, isn't it?"

Sam failed to swallow a cackle. "Oh, yeah."

***


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