Future Pluperfect: Chapter 22

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

Alex wasn't sure why he had volunteered to chase after Sam. He probably had the least of a relationship with the young man out of all those present, and he was the only irregular member of the X-Men currently not having it out with Cable... perhaps that was why. Because he was the most insistent on leading a perfectly normal life and was thus the best suited to explain to Sam that he was reacting perfectly normally.

Of course, considering how eerily easily Sam seemed to fall into the role of a professional soldier, Alex hadn't been sure when he had headed off that Sam would be relieved by the fact that he was reacting perfectly normally. Alex fervently hoped that there was enough little boy left in Sam to comfort because he was utterly unprepared to give soldierly advice. He hadn't been able to do with X-Factor and civilian life certainly hadn't sharpened his General Patton impression. He traipsed through the woods as Alex, not as Havok.

And so it was Alex who had found Sam (and thankfully not Cannonball) a few minutes earlier. Alex had thus been a silent witness to the tail end of Sam's quiet sniffling and one escaped sob before he announced his presence by stepping on a twig. There was no point in challenging what was undoubtedly Sam's currently very fragile dignity by giving any sign that he had seen anything, however.

"Go away, Havok," Sam growled out into the darkness. He couldn't quite see who it was who had come to stand next to him, but the footfalls sounded too heavy to be female, Cable's and Cyclops's eyes glowed in the dark, and Sam somewhat doubted that Iceman could keep his mouth shut long enough to stand there. And he wouldn't still be breathing had it been Kurioon.

"Sorry, Cannonball," Alex said, emphasizing the codename, "but in case you've forgotten, we're in enemy territory. You don't get to go off and brood by yourself. I won't say anything; I'll just be your brooding bodyguard."

A few meters away, Sam hunkered down on the log he was sitting on in grudging acceptance of Alex's presence. He didn't want anyone hovering over him, even if it was only Alex and even if he knew that he really shouldn't be wandering around by himself. Mostly because Sam didn't want to get caught crying and was idly thankful that Alex hadn't brought any light with him and thus couldn't see his tear-streaked face.

Trying to make wiping his eyes dry look like he was rubbing his face in exhaustion, Sam sat silently until Alex came and sat down on the other end of the log. Eyes adjusted to the darkness, Sam could see Alex fairly well and he didn't have that 'let's talk' posture about him. In fact, he just looked tired. So, perversely, that's when Sam felt like talking.

"Ah'm over-reactin', aren't Ah?" he asked casually (at least he hoped it was casually). "Ah'm supposed to be a big boy now and not act like a little kid."

"Well, the storming off was borderline melodramatic," Alex agreed, not taking his elbows off his knees or his gaze off of the dark ground. "But that may have been because it was right out of a bad horror movie - good guy goes off by himself into unknown danger and becomes lunch and all. But if you're looking for me to be critical of you being pissed off, however, I can't oblige you. Everyone else was pissed off, too."

"Ah noticed," Sam said, kicking at a plant by his foot.

"Kind of hard not to, I suppose. But you did miss the latest installment of This Week in Askani Guilt Trips," Alex said bemusedly. "I don't know what the two of them did to each other in the future, but they certainly seem to be able to whip it out and flay the other with it at a moment's notice."

"How do you know it's guilt?" Sam asked, still kicking at the leafy plant. "They could be gettin' into it over anything. Mirrin was pretty ticked that Cable and Domino left her behind, remember."

"One of the girls I dated in college was into Kabuki theatre," Alex replied by way of explanation. "Since the sum total of my Japanese involves identifying food in a sushi bar and 'kamikaze', I got real good at following the plot without understanding the language. If you watch Nathan and Mirrin, you can tell by the hand waving and the sudden crestfallen expressions that it's guilt. Of course, genetics being what they are, the odds of it being anything else were probably pretty slim."

"You don't seem so riddled with Summers Angst," Sam offered.

"You all have a name for it?" Alex asked, a little horrified. "I should have expected. But no, I'm not. I'm supposed to be the normal one in the family, remember? Although considering that I'm running around in a skinsuit fighting evil in addition to the already standing dysfunctional relationship with the former Madelyne Pryor, those differences are rapidly dwindling."

Alex hoped he had done a better job than he thought he had at keeping the sudden swell of bitterness out of his voice. He knew where the thoughts had come from - Sam's backhanded compliment aside, he was a Summers and brooding was an active hobby - but why they had burped up now...

"Just don't act all casual when you come back from the dead next time," Sam suggested, sounding brittle. He kicked the plant - which fortunately seemed not to be affected by Sam's attention - again.

"And they'll be a next time, too," Alex added, consciously trying to sound more cheerful. He was there to keep Sam from moping - even if he had said otherwise - and it would do no good to start brooding himself. He could do that on his own time.

"Of course. You can't fight heredity," Sam agreed, and then frowned. "Ah sound like a Rogaine ad."

"You're a child of the television age," Alex comforted.

"And you're not?" Sam stopped kicking the plant.

"I turned the volume off during commercials," Alex countered. "My pop culture references are of a more rarified type."

"Snob." He kicked the plant again.

"I prefer 'cultural elitist'," Alex corrected. "Stop kicking that poor plant."

"Ah'm gettin' out my aggressions," Sam explained, kicking the plant once more just to be contrary. "Ah can't kick him."

"You could," Alex corrected. "I just don't think it would be wise. Although if we empty out the bucket we're using to hold the clean water, we could probably carry you home... So, go ahead, go kick Cable."

Sam made a face at Alex, certain that he could be seen. "Ah don't know why Ah'm so upset this time," Sam said after a pause. "Ah mean, it's not like this is the first time Cable's up and gone without sayin' anything and then come back expectin' everyone to treat him like he was just off gettin' coffee. Probably not the first time he's been doin' something real stupid in the interim, too."

"Undoubtedly," Alex agreed. "But this is the first time you've ever had to confront proof that he did something amazingly stupid. Well, stupid in a life-threatening way, as opposed to doing something stupid and one of us wanting to kill him."

Sam chuckled mirthlessly. "Ah think Ah'd be okay if Cable'd just stop makin' me feel like such an idiot for caring about what happens to him. He's been... there for me - Domino, too - and Ah don't do that to him."

Alex sensed Sam had more to say, so he just nodded and hoped that Sam could see him do so.

"Ah was so angry at him. He had me so scared," Sam continued after kicking the plant twice more. "Especially after Mirrin... after she said that there might be a chance that we couldn't get them back."

"She said that?" Alex asked. That hadn't been in the report the two had given upon returning to the plane.

"Ah flipped when she told me," Sam admitted with a frown. "But she told me why and Ah understand it, sorta. But we did get them back and now Ah can't stop being scared. Ah know Ah'm probably gonna outlive Cable and Domino. Even if Ah wasn't an External, if indeed that's what it is. But Ah don't want to lose them so fast. And Cable's always makin' it like it's my fault that Ah worry that them being reckless is gonna make that day come sooner rather than later. Instead of it being him flyin' off on suicide missions..."

"It is your fault," Alex replied. "But you're right, it's a shared responsibility. Nathan owes it to you - and Jean and Scott and Domino and whoever else is in the unfortunate predicament of caring deeply about his well-being - to remember that it's foolish to wish that you didn't care and to act accordingly."

Sam could tell by the tone of Alex's voice that Alex considered himself one of the unfortunates. Which only made sense, Sam reasoned. Alex may not have much of a relationship with Cable, but he was still his uncle and was still close with Scott and Jean.

"Domino's always handled that sort of stuff better," Sam said after a long pause. "Which is funny in a way 'cause Ah'm not sure how many people she's ever really let close enough to care about her. But... she's more human than Cable is at times."

"She'd let you hug her," Alex offered.

"She'd put up a stink, but yeah," Sam agreed, smilingly crookedly at the mental image of trying to hug Domino. "She'd be real uncomfortable and would tease you something fierce, but she wouldn't be all cold like Cable was..."

"If it makes you feel better, I think Mirrin got angry at Nathan for being so casual about it all," Alex said after a pause.

Sam was about to kick the plant again but stopped in mid-kick. "It does in the abstract sense - Ah know Cable's a lot more scared of her than he is of me - but... It's like watchin' someone else beat up the bad guys. It's not satisfying in the same way 'cause you don't know if your gripes are gettin' avenged."

"Mirrin does seem to have raised being oblique to an art form," Alex agreed. "And now we know it isn't a language thing."

"Ah think Ah'm startin' to understand her a little, actually," Sam said, turning to face Alex. Sam could almost see the wistfulness in Alex's expression and chose his next words carefully. "But Ah'm also starting to suspect that she's just a gentler version of Cable. Duty first, no matter how much it hurts." And now, more than ever, Sam understood just how much duty hurt for both of them.

"Isn't that what we're all supposed to think in this business?"

"If we don't like what we're doin', we can quit," Sam explained. "If duty starts to hurt too much."

"Like I did?" Alex asked rhetorically. Leave it to Sam to completely unintentionally strip away all honor from his decision to become a civilian. Which is probably how Nathan - and especially Mirrin - saw it, but still...

"Yes and no," Sam said, conscious of how his words might be taken by Alex. "It's not like you never answered the call in the first place. Ah mean, you sacrificed yourself in Dallas, right? And you're here now. But... we can take vacations from the hero business. Or we can at least try. Even Cyclops and Phoenix went off to Alaska... Ah don't think Cable or Mirrin think they can take a time-out."

"From what little I know of the thirty-eighth century... I'm not sure that they can take a time-out," Alex said, thinking back to a dozen such conversations with Mirrin. He sighed then, clapping his hands on his knees. "And I'm not sure the thirty-eighth century is taking a time-out from us. Are you ready to head back now?"

Sam exhaled heavily and nodded. "Ah guess Ah better go and apologize for storming off like a fool."

"To Cable?" Alex asked, surprised.

"There's no sayin' sorry to an Askani," Sam replied ruefully as he stood up. "Ah was thinkin' Ah should apologize to Cyclops."

"Oh, come on, you're hardly the first person to walk away from Scott in a huff," Alex said cheerfully.

"Ah disrespected his command by walkin' off without asking," Sam explained.

"Cable had X-Force that well trained?" Alex asked in frank disbelief. "You're not even the first person to disrespect Cyke's command in the last half-hour. He's not offended."

 Alex stood up and the two began their trek back to camp. About halfway back, they stumbled across Domino, who nearly took Alex's head off with her drawn plasma rifle.

"I'd say that I'm lucky that you decided to ask questions first and shoot second," Alex said after he recovered from his surprise. "But that would probably be your line."

Domino gave him a flat stare. "Don't try to make a funny at me. I was there the last time a Summers cracked a successful joke. Your family isn't due for another three years at least," she warned as they began to walk. She had initially planned a much harsher retort, but changed her mind upon seeing Sam's expression. Whatever Alex had done had apparently worked, as Sam no longer looked either irate or distraught.

Sam coughed to cover up his chortle.

"I'm disappointed to know that Nathan was the lucky Summers," Alex sighed dramatically.

"Who said it was Nate?" Domino asked. "Your grandmother called X-Force headquarters on his birthday a few years ago."

"My grandmother?" Alex repeated as he narrowly avoided tripping on a root. "Not that my grandmother isn't cool and all, but... But she's also related by marriage, not blood. She's immune the same way Jean is. That means there's still an opening. I'd better go come up with material before Scott or Nathan accidentally make someone laugh with them instead of at them." With that, he sped ahead.

Domino and Sam continued at their own pace.

"He gets credit for trying, but he loses points for no subtlety and little smoothness," Domino mused aloud after a pause. "But considering whose uncle he is, those deductions can probably be written off."

They walked on.

"Ah'm sorry, Domino," Sam said quietly.

"What the hell do you have to be sorry for, Sam?" Domino bit back, a little sharper than she intended. "Or are you just saying it because I won't tell you 'sorry has no meaning'?"

"For sayin' what Ah said back by the boat..." he trailed off.

"You told the truth, Sam. It was an ugly truth, but it was the truth," Domino replied, stopping and waiting for Sam to turn to face her. "Nate and I didn't drill you in the importance of teamwork so that you'd think that the rules didn't apply to us."

Sam nodded. "So why'd y'all go off in the first place?" Not demanding, not doubtful, just curious.

"We thought we'd be able to get in and out," Domino answered with a shrug. "We've done it before. And besides, I think Nate knew all along that Mirrin would be the back-up plan..."

"Probably," Sam agreed, swallowing the rest of what he was going to say. He didn't think Domino understood what sort of back-up plan Mirrin really was.

By mutual agreement, they continued walking.

"Ah saw your... Ah saw you and Cable...," Sam tried to begin and failed.

"I'm sorry that you did," Domino said quietly as she slowed her steps. "And more than just the kind of sorry that goes along with it being my carcass... I kinda always hoped that I'd go out on a high note - have everyone think I'm sunning in Maui or something. Not with everyone pissed off. Except my bookie. Him, he should be pissed off."

"There's a gambling operation in the world that still lets you get in on the action?" Sam asked incredulously. Domino had taken him to a casino in Monaco once. They had lasted a whole hour before kindly being asked to leave... with enough francs to rent a villa for the team for a week.

"That's why I need a bookie," Domino said. "There are fools born every minute. Some of them go to the circus. Some set up shop running bets."

Sam could see the campfire in the distance, through some trees.

Domino paused with her foot on a tree stump. "I know why he's acting the way he is. He has to. He's got ghosts of his past and glimpses at people's futures and he's stuck here in the present where he can only take it one day at a time. And it's killing him that he's confronted with his own mistakes and all of the mistakes that aren't his but he's decided should be... and he's got all this power and he still can't do anything to make it all better.

"And that doesn't make it right," Domino said, waving off Sam's attempt at protest, "But that's why he does it. I hate to tell you, Sam, but I've got a few more decades' worth of reasons to be pissed off at him than you do... Sometimes you can forgive him and sometimes you have to tell him to go flonq himself because even if he's convinced himself that he's happy doing all this, it doesn't justify the shitty way he can treat everybody else."

Domino sighed heavily.

"I can't say I'm taking this whole 'now you're dead, now you're not' thing all that well," she said softly. "I mean I've been nearly dead more times than I can count. The world has nearly ended enough times... but the operative word is 'nearly'. Knowing how it all panned out... knowing that my luck finally ran out at the wrong time..."

Without thinking long enough to wonder if it was the right idea, Sam put his arms around Domino and squeezed. Domino stiffened in his embrace for a split-second and then relaxed and, checking as far as she could without moving her head to see that there were no witnesses, she returned the hug.

"Ah'm glad you're here, Dom," Sam said quietly, leaning his head down a little so that he could whisper in her ear.

"I am too, Sam," she agreed, trying to hold back whatever emotions were welling up inside. "I don't want to be the reason you stop blowing sunshine out your ass."

Sam tried to stifle his laugh - laughing and hugging were not mutually compatible exercises - and failed. "Love you, too, ma'am."

"Well," Domino said after another moment, patting Sam on the back and pulling out of the embrace. "Now that we've cleared that up, let's go gang up on General Custer... or rescue him from Mirrin."

They came through the last of the trees a few minutes later.



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