Future Pluperfect: Chapter 21


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

Sam kept close to the water as he flew, Cable having taught him long ago that not only were low-flying targets harder to hit, but also that the more you acted like a bird the more you were likely to get mistaken for one.

Not that he expected to be confused for waterfowl by either of the occupants of the boat he was blasting towards.

Sam did his best to keep his heart out of his throat as the distance to the boat evaporated and the forms that from a distance were unrecognizable turned into Cable and Domino. Alive.

Domino had binoculars trained on him, he could see that much already. Cable was looking off in the direction of the distraction Phoenix and Havok had set up. He could see Domino hand off the night viewers to Cable, whose body language was achingly, wonderfully familiar - Domino must have recognized him and Cable didn't believe her when she told him.

#Cannonball, what the flonq are you doing here?# Cable's mindvoice grated in Sam's head, ringing like a marble in a metal bucket. #And who is with you?#

Sam was at the boat before he could reply. "Start the motor and turn the boat towards that island," he ordered, too shaken to exchange greetings and, suddenly, too angry to automatically defer to two people he'd normally follow to the ends of the universe and beyond. How dare they go off and get killed simply because they were too sure of themselves. That was a rookie mistake, one they had driven out of X-Force through pure exhaustion. How dare they not practice what they preached. "We'll meet up with the team on the south side. You might as well turn the light on, Ah doubt you'll be able to see the shore otherwise."

Cable must have been surprised; he actually followed orders. The boat was put into a sharp turn and the propeller was lowered to the water already humming.

Domino looked distinctly pissed off, but whatever she was going to say was cut off by Cable suddenly breaking out into a streak of what was probably Askani invective.

"Spill it, Cannonball," she barked out after he was finished. "You know what's going on and Nate just found out. He's busy arguing with telepaths; that leaves you. Start talking."

"Ah'm here with Mirrin, Phoenix, Cyclops, Havok, and Iceman," Sam replied evenly as he kept up with the accelerating boat, refusing to be intimidated. "And we're here to find out why y'all snuck off like you did."

"I didn't realize cooperation with the X-Men was enforced by search party," Domino bit out, her voice raised louder than was necessary to be heard over the boat motor. "Did we miss curfew? Wander off without our leash? When did you stop trusting us, Cannonball?"

"Since you fucked up, Ma'am," Sam answered coldly. "Ah don't trust hypocrites."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked incredulously.

"What's the second rule of fightin' solo, Domino?" Sam asked mockingly in return, his voice made harsher by his need to shout as well as by his inability to keep a rein on his emotions. Cable's shields were probably being battered with his fear and anger.

"We didn't pick a fight we couldn't win. We picked a fight the X-Men weren't going to win," she retorted.

They were almost at the island and Cyclops was standing on the beach waiting for them, small torch in his hand and his visor glowing sharply in the darkness.

"Well, guess what, you picked wrong," he said, and then flew ahead so that Domino couldn't reply.

"What the hell was that all about," Domino asked Cable after Cannonball had blasted away and disappeared into the pitch black. Cable didn't answer. "Nate?"

"Mirrin won't say," Cable finally replied as they jumped out of the boat into knee-deep water. He waved briefly to Cyclops. "She's leaving Scott to do the dirty work, apparently."

"Cable, Domino," Cyclops said sourly by way of greeting. "So nice of you to join us." His voice sounded harsh, belying the calm words.

Cable watched his father closely. Scott had his shields down so tight he was gritting his teeth with the effort, but his emotions were so strong that he was leaking regardless.

Normally when he had done something Slym didn't agree with, Nathan mused as they pulled the boat ashore, his father radiated frustration and irritation and not the mixture of relief and fury that was coming through his shields now. Whatever Mirrin had brought the X-Men here to undo - and while Mirrin wouldn't even answer his telepathic questions, he was sure that that was what was happening here - it had to have been enough to crack his father's normally cool façade.

Domino picked her pack up from the boat floor and fished around the exterior pocket for the flashlight before shouldering the pack. Her first inclination would have been to light into Cyclops for pulling power games, but Nate's silence was telling. There was nothing but curiosity coming through the psi-link, not even a trace of anger from Nathan that their supposedly secret mission had turned out to be anything but. And the way Sam had reacted... the way Cyclops was reacting now that they were close enough for him to lash out at them in that infuriatingly calm way of his... Something was going on and the best way to find out was to stay quiet and watch and listen.

"You can hide the boat over there," Cyclops said, pulling his flashlight out of his utility belt and aiming it at a leafy area near the shore. "I don't think anybody will come looking for it, but..."

Cable shouldered his pack and then lifted the boat telekinetically and floated it to where the light shone. It fit partially under the flora cover.

Cyclops pocketed his flashlight as Cable pulled out his own. "Let's go. We've found a place to set up camp in a clearing through the trees."

The three walked in silence through the woods, Cyclops leading the way with his torch. After about ten minutes of careful progress, they broke into open ground and saw the rest of the team.

"Ah, the guests of honor!" Iceman exclaimed from his spot on the ground. "I guess we can now draw lots to see who's going to kill monkeys and go fish in the dark for dinner."

The joke failed to break the tension that even the headblind could see building up among the group.

Jean was picking up twigs and other obstacles that littered their small space, Bobby was dropping ice cubes into a container of what was probably purified water, and Sam was standing silently - and sullenly - across the clearing from the newly arrived trio.

Cable looked around for Mirrin. He found her crouched on the ground next to Havok, who was apparently starting a small campfire. He knew she could feel his stare, but she didn't look up, instead putting all of her focus into re-arranging the pile of driftwood and dead branches.

Mirrin wasn't talking to him, but Nathan thought he knew why she was reacting as she was. He somewhat doubted that she was angry that she had been left behind - Mirrin was a veteran at guerilla warfare and knew that no one gets to go on all of the missions; had the mission gone as planned, Cable knew she wouldn't have cared that she was not along. Instead, he suspected that Mirrin was worried that he was still acting the way he had when she had left his younger self in the future. He had been crazy with grief after Aliya had died and had pushed himself harder than he should have, harder than was good for either himself or his clan. Mirrin was worried, Nathan realized, that she was going to have to protect him not only from the Kurioon but also from himself.

"Are we all going to stare at each other, or is someone going to tell us what's going on?" Domino finally asked as she put her pack down on the ground next to a fallen tree.

"Your mission was unsuccessful," Jean explained shortly. Talking with the formerly dead was something you got used to as an X-Man, but while it was always more emotional when it was someone you were especially close to, this... this was the first time Jean had had to talk to someone who had come back from the dead and didn't know that they had died in the first place. The avalanche of emotion was entirely one-sided and the relief purely her own. And Nathan being who he was, Jean knew that she couldn't just run over and hug him and let fall the tears that were currently blurring her vision. He had reacted so stoically with all of their previous reunions, she didn't know if he could understand.

"Was unsuccessful," Domino repeated with a nod. She really didn't want to think on how unsuccessful the mission had to be for the X-Men to have to come for them. "So how far back in the past is this for you people?"

"A few days," Havok answered calmly as he started the campfire with a fingertip of plasma. "We don't know what time it is now, so we can't give you a precise answer."

"What do you know?" Domino asked, a little causticity coloring her words. She knew they were all faking their perfect composure and it pissed her off more than the abrupt change of plans. The casual routine was straight out of Interrogation 101 and Domino was slightly offended that they actually thought it would work.

"It took us hours to realize that something had happened to you," Cyclops replied curtly from behind them. He used an eye blast to dig a small hole in the dirt ground and placed the base of the torch in it. "It took us the better part of a day to use three superhero teams' resources to figure out where the hell you two were. It took three telepaths to blindly stumble upon your traces in the astral plane and find out what had happened to you. And it's been two days in preparation and execution for us to end up here. All because you had to go play Lone Ranger, Nathan."

"General Custer is more like it," Iceman muttered loud enough for everyone to hear.

Cable didn't move for a moment, and then he nodded and took a step forward, conceding that he had acted in error even if he wasn't confessing to anything in particular. "The nest of the Kurioon is on the next island. Destroying it completely is impossible; we weren't even going to try. This was just a reconnaissance mission."

"Why were you being so secretive about it, then?" Havok asked sharply, less than an accusation but making it clear that it was more than idle curiosity. "You didn't have to leave an itinerary, you know, but a forwarding address would have been nice. We all know how good you are at what you do; you don't have to go proving to us how well you can disappear."

"I didn't want to bring a team in here and I didn't think you'd react well to me calling and saying that Domino and I were going into the heart of the Kurioon for a look-see and please don't follow us," Cable answered calmly as he sat down on a log behind Jean, shifting over so that Domino could share it with him.

"How did you figure out that this was the nest?" Cyclops asked, sounding very much like the leader whose soldier had gone AWOL and not the father whose son had been decapitated on a beach. "And having found out, why the hell didn't you say anything?"

"I wanted to come to you with as much information as possible," Cable replied, the explanation sounding a little weak even to his ears. He could feel Domino's snort of derision through the psi-link. "If I had just e-mailed you the coordinates, there would have been a committee meeting on whether to show up here and investigate and it's too dangerous for an X-Men field trip."

"Which is, of course, what it turned out to be," Cyclops pointed out. "Complete with campfire and sleeping bags," he added, sarcasm making his words sound clipped and harsh.

"I hadn't planned on getting us killed," Cable answered peevishly.

Cable knew this was part of the routine, but he still didn't like it. Working with a chronal teleporter like Mirrin was meant that there was a certain kind of cognitive dissonance that accompanied any type of 'do-over' - everyone wanted a chance to unmake all of their mistakes, but most people were unprepared to handle the situation once it presented itself. Coming to terms with what is as opposed to what once was (or once could have been) didn't happen automatically.

Rachel had known this - 'what is, is' was the Askani rallying cry for just this reason. And while Nathan knew that his own experiences had sped up the acceptance process for himself, he also knew that it would take a little longer for everyone else. It was a frustrating process to have to be the focus of, however, and Nathan was nothing if not uncomfortable with emotional outpourings.

There was quiet for a long moment, the only noise the crackling of the fire and the distant sounds of night in a forest.

"It's too dangerous for us, but not for you and Domino," Jean summarized quietly, handing cups of water to both Cable and Domino, the former of who looked at her carefully. Jean was always at her most dangerous when she was quiet. "We're not amateurs."

"I know that... The danger wasn't in the mission, it was in the location," Nathan sighed. "The more people, the more complicated it gets. I really just wanted to get in and get out with something that might give us a better chance... And yes, I know I completely defeated the purpose."

"Yet that doesn't..."

"You didn't say how you knew this was the spot," Havok interrupted his brother's retort as he watched Mirrin out of the corner of his eye. She was being eerily silent, the sort of silent he would have associated with Cable had this been back in the days when X-Factor had to cross paths with X-Force.

"Satellite photographs. From back before the nest's defense net could get anywhere," Cable said with a shrug. It was a neutral enough topic. "I had a computer program running for about a week to cross-reference several feeds."

"Did you get anything other than the location?" Cyclops asked.

"No. Just that it was small enough that I thought Domino and I could handle it," Cable replied, handing his empty cup back to Jean. "Normally, the Kurioon nests are much more spread out and fortified. There should have been guard patrols and alarms."

"There might have been," Iceman spoke up. "We don't know what happened between when you arrived and when you... died. Mirrin and Cannonball didn't trip any alarms that we knew about and they were out and about..."

"It doesn't really matter, does it?" Cannonball asked rhetorically. He hadn't spoken a word since Cable and Domino had arrived and Cable had almost forgotten that he was there. Almost. "Somehow they knew you were there and dealt with you. There were no signs of struggle anywhere. You two got caught real quickly."

"That's why I wanted to be there in the first place," Cable explained, mindful of how distraught Sam had been earlier and how likely he was still to be set off by one wrong word. "The Kurioon is powerful, but things shouldn't be as easy for them as they have been. Especially after you took out that telepath in Lebanon. The Kurioon act. They don't react and they certainly don't anticipate. Yet they've been progressing almost at will. I had to know why before it cost us something more than we could pay."

"So you set yourself and Domino up as a test case to see whether it was them bein' strong or us bein' weak?" Cannonball asked, voice rising with each word. "Ah know you don't care about us, but couldn't you be nicer to Dom than to take her along on a probable suicide mission without a backup?" With that, he turned and stormed off into the forest.

"Oath," Cable muttered, standing up suddenly and waving his hand to indicate that he didn't want Domino to follow. Sam was angry with them both for slightly different reasons and it was better to focus on those differences. Domino could make her own peace with Sam later. He moved briskly across the camp towards where Sam had disappeared into the forest. "Sam!"

"<Leave him be,>" Mirrin said in Askani, speaking her first words of the reunion as she stood up to block his path. She had not budged from her spot next to the fire, even though her pack was sitting next to Havok's.

Nathan looked down at his childhood friend and clanmate. The fire at their feet made her brown eyes shine, the effect only adding to the menace in her voice. "<Let me go, Ay'el,>" he ordered, peeling her hand off his arm.

"<You've done enough damage, Dayspring,>" she said resolutely, even as she allowed him to remove her hand. "<Unless you're sure that you can fix what's wrong without making it worse first, let him be.>"

"<He needs to vent his anger,>" he replied, irritated that Mirrin thought she could read Sam more clearly than he could. "<I can stand there and take the abuse.>"

"<I need to vent my anger,>" Mirrin corrected sharply. "<He needs to vent his grief. Samuel had no chance to mourn you and Domino. He had to be strong because he knew that was the only way to get you back. He doesn't want you to see him while he's weak.>"

Nathan looked thoughtfully at Mirrin, but wasn't about to concede the point just yet. "<Since when are you his protector?>"

Mirrin glared up at Nathan and he could feel her pushing against his mental shields. A memory passed through where she had poked. A memory of Sam reacting to the two dead, mutilated bodies lying on a sunny beach. Nathan flinched faintly, a mere twitch, but Mirrin pounced.

"<He is not Askani,>" she growled quietly. "<He is a boy pretending to be a man and this is not the time to temper weapons, but instead to make sure that what you have is at its best. He is not Askani and he cannot accept 'what is, is' without struggle. Allow him that struggle - as you have let the others.>"

Nathan closed his eyes and nodded, finally conceding. He had never forgotten how Sam looked up to him, no more than he had ever forgotten that Sam had somehow forged a place for himself in Nathan's own closely guarded heart. What he did still forget, however, was that Sam was still a young man who had not been raised on the run. The tough love and macho affection that was commonplace among soldiers who had lost enough to be wary (and not enough to lose all faith) was acquired for Sam, not inherent. Sam could speak the parts, but they weren't in his voice.

"<So that means I have to stand here instead and let you vent your anger?>" Nathan asked, not kindly. He had weathered the storm of his parents without having to give too much away; Mirrin was bound to cut much deeper - and much closer to the truth - with her words. "<You were successful. You did your job and I am most thankful, especially for you saving Domino.>"

"<I am your champion and I am your clanmate,>" Mirrin said, brushing off his thanks with an angry wave of a metal-bound hand. "<Saving your life is my duty and my honor. But I am also your friend, or so you keep telling me. We have held each other's lifeblood in our hands and yet you made your move by first leaving me behind.>"

Nathan sighed. "<I don't need a champion and it was because I am your clan leader and especially because I am your friend that I left you behind.>"

"<You flonqing moron,>" Mirrin hissed, realization dawning suddenly. "<I came here-and-now to protect you from the Kurioon. Not drive you into their arms out of some stupid attempt at reparation for a life-debt you don't owe me. We both know I die there-and-then. That means I survive this little jaunt to your native here-and-now to return to the Clan Chosen. I don't know if you do.

"<Don't leave your blood on my hands, Nat'an,>" Mirrin sighed, the fight suddenly leaving her. "<I am sorry if you feel mine is upon yours. Please.>"

The pointed reminders of Mirrin's own - completed - fate weighed heavily on Nathan's heart. He looked around at the group, all of whose attention was squarely on them. "Show's over, folks," he ground out in English. "Where are Havok and Domino?"

"Domino didn't feel comfortable with our thoroughness in scouting for a campsite and wanted to look around," Bobby reported. "She muttered something about not trusting the birds not to be spies - which is a good thing, considering Mirrin and Cannonball's experiences - and went off. Havok's looking for Cannonball."

"Wouldn't it have been better to send a telepath?" Mirrin asked as she went over to where her pack had been left.

"The two of you were busy and not bothering to shield adequately, so Jean had to," Cyclops replied, frowning. "Havok sees well enough in the dark."

"He's found him," Jean spoke up. She had her hands to her temples, either in concentration or to attempt to fend off a headache. "They're close by and in no danger. Domino's on her way back."

"And she's pissed," Nathan sighed, mostly to himself. The psi-link was ringing.

"Uh-oh," Iceman said. "I hope it's at you."

"Don't worry, it is."

***

The klaxon sounded at four-thirty in the morning. "Briefin' room on the double, folks," Wolverine's voice growled over the building-wide intercom. "Kurioon's not waitin' to see the results of the Summers' family picnic."

Five minutes later, the Ready Room was occupied, the coffee machine was almost done percolating, and the video-conferencing screen was dropped down. Long ago, Professor Xavier had realized that evil rarely struck during regular business hours and had prepared the X-Men's facilities accordingly.

"That satellite the Avengers are letting us... borrow... has turned up some heavy mobilizing of something in a remote part of the Sudan," Nightcrawler's voice said through the speakers as the screen showed both a topological map as well as the satellite images. The photos were fuzzy, although troop formations could be recognized. "What it is, we do not know, but I cannot imagine that it would be Harvesters. There is no population center anywhere nearby. It's a five-hundred kilometer trip to the nearest significant water source."

"Perhaps they are setting up a base camp," Storm suggested thoughtfully. She had chosen to run the meeting from her regular seat - on one of the sides, adjacent to Cyclops' place at the head of the table - and belatedly understood the problems in catching everyone's eyes. In her previous stint as head of the X-Men, conferences had taken place around a smaller, round table. Such small things, she mused to herself.

"In preparation for what?" Psylocke asked, biting into a banana.

"The reign of Apocalypse," Beast answered ominously. "It would not be the first time one of our enemies made such elaborate plans for the future."

"Can we stop it?" Rogue asked as she reached for an apple.

"Can we afford not to try?" Nightcrawler asked in return. "We can't wait around for Cyclops and his team to return with Cable. Our best chance to stop the Kurioon is to attack it early."

"We're still short on manpower," Archangel pointed out, looking around the room. "Leaving aside that our most experienced fighters - excepting Wolverine - are out of our time as well as out of our reach, we're operating with a skeleton crew."

"Captain Britain's and Meggan's powers being tied to their location make them less-than-suitable to aid you," Nightcrawler said. "And it would be unfair to leave Excalibur in a position where it could not defend its homeland in case of attack, but Colossus, Shadowcat, and myself are available to you. We have discussed this already."

"Then we should depart immediately," Storm announced. Kurt was right and delaying would not only mean more trouble once they arrived, but also more doubts on the way there. She knew her temporary team felt that they were the 'junior varsity' X-Men and that crisis of confidence could not be allowed to fester. "Since the Blackbird is not at our disposal, we shall have to use one of the mini-jets and that will cost us both in time and in defenses. We should be arriving at Muir Island in approximately six hours. We can discuss any changes en route."

"Excalibur out, then," Nightcrawler said by way of agreement and the screen went dark.

"Ten minutes should be sufficient to retrieve your packs as well as to find something more substantial than breakfast fare in the kitchen to bring to eat on the plane," Storm told her team as she stood up. "I do not know what sort of time we will have once we arrive in Scotland and it would be foolish to allow something so basic as nourishment to lapse."

"Not as foolish as havin' to eat whatever's in Excalibur's fridge," Wolverine observed as he headed for the door.

Fifteen minutes later, the pre-flight check was concluded and the mini-jet taxied out of the hangar.

***


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