Future Pluperfect: Chapter 28
"Aren't we short somebody?" Bobby Drake asked as he returned from his futile search for something that could serve as a container. He had no problems keeping everyone hydrated, but unless they found something everyone was going to be stuck sucking on ice cubes.
"Mirrin's over there," Cyclops gestured with his chin. Bobby looked over. The group had come to rest in one of the small wooded areas that dotted the island and the Askani was kneeling on the ground at the edge of what would be considered a safe distance, her back to the group and her head obviously bowed. "I think she's meditating."
Bobby nodded - what could he say? - and went over to where Jean was crouched on the ground next to Cable's prone form. Nathan was propped awkwardly against the rock group Alex had been so intrigued by earlier, not quite reclining and not quite lying flat. Bobby handed her an ice chunk wrapped in a large leaf. "It's the best I could do," he explained with a shrug.
"Thanks," Jean said quietly.
It had been eerily quiet among the group ever since they had escaped - more so than simple safety demanded. But Bobby could easily sense that any attempt to draw the various members out of their separate solitudes would be unwelcome in the least and dangerous at the most. He had his doubts that Scott could adequately protect him from Domino.
Once reunited with their powers, the X-Men had made getting out of their pit prison almost depressingly anticlimactic. At Cyclops' command, Cannonball had blasted out of the hole and into the sky to search for surrounding enemies and a simple ice platform had raised everyone else up to ground level. When Cannonball had given the all-clear, the octet had moved south - towards the other three islands and their point of origin - and come to rest here, in a spot well-hidden by brush, small trees, and an oddly shaped rock formation that Alex had burbled happily about before remembering the gravity of the situation.
Right now, Domino and Cannonball were looking for some sort of food. Bobby had been impressed with how Scott had handled that pair by simultaneously recognizing their rights to be brittle and angry and concerned with Cable's precarious condition as well as appealing to their sense of team duty so that something got done. Of all of them, Sam and Domino would best be able to distract themselves through work.
And they did need food. They had meager rations, but there was no point in digging in to them if they didn't have to. While it seemed fairly obvious that their confrontation with Dawnsilk was as imminent as it was unavoidable, it was better to fight for the future on something more substantial than an energy bar that had been doubling as a shock absorber.
Jean was dripping water into Cable's slack mouth, wiping his chin with a mother's delicate touch and brushing sweat-slicked hair off of his brow. Cyclops and Havok were trying to make themselves appear useful. Wood had been gathered and dumped into a small pit for a fire, although it had not yet been lit, and Cyclops was pacing back and forth between his brother still fiddling around with the eventual campfire and his wife and son and trying not to hover. Bobby didn't think he ever remembered Scott so restless during a mission and it reminded him, strangely, of the mental picture he had always carried of Scott getting ready for Madelyne's due date. Of course, Scott had been off fighting some enemy du jour when Nathan had been born, but that was by-the-by.
Deciding that Alex would have definitely gotten over his annoyance at having to share the pit prison with him, Bobby opted to drop down to the ground next to him rather than try to deal with Scott. Up close, Alex had a rather depressed 'I feel so useless' look about him (one that Bobby knew well from his own personal repertoire) and poked at the dry twigs aimlessly while stealing glances at his brother, at Jean and Cable, and at Mirrin, who as far as Bobby could tell hadn't moved a millimeter.
"Why don't you go check on her?" Bobby asked quietly. "Jean's fine and Scott's not in the mood to be coddled."
"And Mirrin is?" Alex asked with a snort even as he watched her unmoving form.
"She's probably feeling like crap and were it me, I'd want someone to make sure I wasn't plotting ways to do myself in," Bobby offered with a nonchalant shrug. "Whatever Dawnsilk said to her, it hasn't rolled off her back like she's trying to pretend it did. And I don't think Nathan's current situation is helping."
"So you want me to be Daniel walking into the lion's den?" Alex asked suspiciously.
"Nothing happened to Daniel," Bobby replied with a shrug. "And it's not like you don't want to."
Alex gave Bobby a look of severe displeasure, but Bobby only shrugged.
"I'm serious about the checking-in thing," he said instead. "She's a telepath. She knows exactly what we all think of her and a little reinforcement that we don't blame her for what happened to Cable can't hurt."
Alex looked at him thoughtfully.
"Go," Bobby urged. "I can give the twigs their last rites for you."
With a grunt, Alex hoisted himself off of the ground and walked past Scott, briefly clasping his older brother's shoulder in silent support as he passed, and dropped to the ground again near (but not right next to) Mirrin. He sat facing the group, not quite 180-degrees from Mirrin's position, but close enough. He said nothing to her and she didn't turn towards him. Didn't indicate she was aware of his presence at all, although Alex knew that as both a telepath and a trained soldier she knew damned well who was sitting next to her.
Thickening his mental shields so as not to interrupt Mirrin's meditations, Alex took the liberty of watching her. Wisps of hair were poking out of her normally neatly pulled-back style and were starting to curl. It made her look even younger and softer, especially with her eyes closed tightly and... tears? Alex squinted so he wouldn't lean forward, but he was sure he saw tears running down her cheeks.
Not wanting to be caught staring, Alex closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He'd wait. Sitting in silent support was as good as trying to carry on a conversation. Better, probably, as he wasn't interrupting and had no opportunity to ruin things with a banal comment.
In the middle of the usual unsurprised surprise of Bobby handling a situation with subtlety and maturity - were Alex honest with himself he'd admit to being mildly jealous of Bobby's almost perfect social barometer - Alex was left to wonder why, exactly, he was where he was. Sitting next to Mirrin and feeling a lot more than he should for someone who still aroused fierce suspicion among almost every wearer of the X.
Mirrin scared the living daylights out of all of them - including Alex. More so than even Cable or Domino, both of whom the X-Men considered to be domesticated after a fashion, broken to the harness of acceptable social behavior. Mirrin made no attempt to turn her mission into something palatable and made no concession to the sensibilities of her new associates. And nobody seemed inclined to look past her warrior veneer to see if there was a person underneath.
Along with Jean, he had been the one to do most of the talking with Mirrin during their early days at the mansion. Mirrin had a wistful curiosity about the time she was visiting, but hid it well under her mask of duty and Alex was sure he was one of the only ones to get a glimpse of her inner mischievousness. But while Alex was welcomed back with bemused familiarity, Mirrin only got distrustful glances and polite conversation and Alex had been reminded of some of the other reasons he had been happy to retire from superheroing.
Alex wondered if he didn't have a different perspective on Mirrin because he hadn't met her on the battlefield. She had been unconscious, actually, and when sleeping on his bed she hadn't looked vicious or ruthless. She had looked young and worn and a little bit vulnerable. And no matter what she had done later, Alex had never forgotten that first impression.
He wasn't sure how long he was sitting there, but Alex heard Mirrin shifting next to him and opened his eyes to find her watching him curiously from a seated position.
"Hey," he said gently.
"Hey," she returned quietly, tucking a lock of escaped hair behind her ear.
"Should I even ask?"
Mirrin shrugged and sighed. "I'll be all right as long as I don't dwell on it."
Alex quirked his brow. "So you were meditating because..."
"Because I learned self-destructive behavior from the best of them," she replied with a rueful smile, turning her head all the way so she could see Cable and Jean out of the corner of her eye.
Alex didn't follow her gaze, instead watching at her arched neck and noticing a long scar that seemed to run from her right collarbone to below her left ear. It was faint, but why hadn't he noticed it before?
Mirrin seemed to realize that Alex wasn't looking at Cable and turned back to face him.
"Well, I may be better looking and less socially inept than the other two, but I'm still a Summers," Alex offered jauntily, covering up his embarrassment at getting caught. "So if you need lessons on how to brood and blame yourself for everything, I'm your man."
"I know those lessons well enough," Mirrin replied, a slight smile taking the edge off the bitter tone. "But I appreciate the offer."
They were quiet for a moment and Alex nearly let himself get mesmerized by Bobby building a twig teepee.
"She was as a sister to me," Mirrin finally said, and Alex snapped his attention back to her. "And her betrayal cuts away at a part of my heart that I thought would survive anything... but I'm not sure whether I'm angry at her or simply envious."
Envious? "Did she tell you why?" Alex asked instead.
"Second thoughts," Mirrin replied sadly. "I don't know if she ever really understood how things would be."
"What do you mean?"
"If Nathan left our time to come here-and-now to stop Apocalypse, then they must have known the consequences," she said, shaking her head slowly. "Even if he never explained it... If they knew enough to steal parts for a Tinex, then they had to know what happens when a nexus point is changed and when a timeline loses its anchor... It's as good as a sacrifice. He wouldn't have forced their aid, so they must have agreed. But now she doesn't want to hold to it..."
In Dallas, Alex had knowingly sacrificed his life to save the world. It had been a truly transcendental moment, even before they had gotten re-animated and dumped in the Australian bush. He had known the awful surety of being able to look around and see things with a clarity that only came when it was too late to appreciate it. It was a burning ache, an epiphany delayed too long. And even if his time in the outback and his amnesia in Genosha could steal away those glorious insights, they weren't gone completely. He remembered the taste, if not the ingredients.
But even if he could have stopped Dallas - surely there would have been someone else there willing to take his place to save the planet -- and been able to go home in possession of that sweet knowledge... But Alex couldn't imagine sacrificing another person for his own life, let alone an entire world. Why would Dawnsilk... Mirrin had explained to them all about Dawnsilk's mental damage and they already knew about the horrors of life in the thirty-eighth century. Why would you choose that over a chance to grow up happy?
Alex gave a mental shrug and dropped the train of thought. It wasn't the first time he had failed to understand someone else's malevolent motivations. Life, unlike the detective novels he loved to read, didn't always come with a plausible explanation. Something was nagging at him, however. "They had to know?"
Mirrin made eye contact with him then and Alex could see how much this - all of this - was weighing on her. That any of them could think that this was just another mission for her...
"They," Mirrin repeated with a nod.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Although you would have known all about the perils of time travel and could have told them all yourself even if Nathan hadn't... But that would be a 'we', not a 'they'."
"To Dawnsilk, I have been dead for decades," Mirrin admitted after a pause. She was almost apologetic.
"I... I'm supposed to say something deep and profound now, I think, but I can't come up with anything," Alex confessed, reeling a little even though he had to admit to himself that he had suspected something like this from the start. Nathan had been so protective of her and he was never protective. "I mean, I suppose it makes perfect sense intellectually, but..."
"But it's still a heavy burden," Mirrin finished with a knowing nod. "I don't hand it to you lightly."
"It feels too weird to say thank you for trusting me," Alex replied, shaking his head. "But I do..."
They were quiet again and Alex wasn't sure he was hoping Domino and Sam returned to interrupt the tableau or not.
"Yes," Mirrin replied, looking over Alex's shoulder and staring at nothing. "He knows it well. And he thinks it's his fault and I need you to help convince him that it isn't."
"Not that I won't give it the old college try," Alex began almost lightly, trying to keep the conversation from tipping from the surreal over into the morose, "But I'm not exactly..."
"You are," Mirrin cut him off, switching her gaze from the trees to meet his. "You wouldn't lie to him simply to ease his pain."
"He thinks you would?"
"Probably," Mirrin allowed with a shrug. "But more because he thinks to steal more guilt for himself than out of any belief that I'd hold back my opinions from him. I'm one of his victims, so I can't be telling the truth when I tell him it's not his fault. Despite evidence to the contrary, he does have a grudging appreciation of my honesty except where it interferes with his martyrdom complex."
Alex tried to swallow a laugh and ended up snorting a cough. "I think it really is a Summers trait - we all end up associating with women who tell us exactly what we don't want to hear."
Mirrin gave him a quick smile that did not travel up to her eyes.
"Why does Dawnsilk hate you so much?" Alex asked cautiously, not wanting to risk this new rapport. "I can understand Nathan, but..."
"She called me a false friend," Mirrin replied hollowly. "That I was never truly Clan Chosen, merely an Askani operative in clan war paint... That nobody trusted me, not even Nathan. And then she showed me..." With a hitched sigh, she broke off.
"She was playing around with all of our heads," Alex protested, reaching out impulsively for Mirrin's hands and holding them in her lap.
"Not this," Mirrin returned. "She was angry at me for not going back in time to save Aliya - Nathan's wife. Everyone was angry with me; the Clan lost many that day and I have not yet regained the trust of many of those who survived. But Nathan never let them question me about it. He never questioned me about it. I always thought it was out of trust, but Dawnsilk showed me otherwise."
"Nathan thinks you had a different agenda?" Alex prompted gently. He knew the two didn't always see eye-to-eye, but like the others he had assumed it was merely a matter of different views on the same goal.
Mirrin nodded and took a deep breath. There were fresh tears, but she made no move to reclaim her hands to wipe them away. "The last thing in his mind, before she took it over and tore it apart, was his wondering why I hadn't saved Aliya," she whispered and turned to look Alex straight in the face. "It haunted him. And I don't want his last thoughts of me to be hateful ones."
"They won't be," Alex assured her. "You've got six partners who are generally considered to be too damned stupid to give up until the job is done."
Beyond that, Alex wasn't sure what to say. It was obvious that the truth of whatever Mirrin had done - or not done - on that day (a day both far in the past and even further in the future) was crushing her. But if Nathan wasn't to know, how could he ask? Alex tried to come up with some situation in his own life that would at least give him some guidance and couldn't. It was with no pride whatsoever that he could say that his own personal history was nothing if not wrought with landmines, but nothing matched this in scope. So instead he just squeezed her hands a little tighter.
"And while Nathan's damaged, I'm still unbreakable," Mirrin added joylessly, her eyes alight with the bitter irony. "At least here-and-now. I'm unstoppable. I'll fix things or I'll kill everyone trying. Because I have to."
"Because of your mission?"
"Because it's not my time to die. Not here-and-now."
Alex just blinked at her. He knew Nathan had something to that effect a few times earlier, but had assumed that was simply Nathan's confidence in Mirrin's abilities. And then a light bulb went on.
"That's why you couldn't save Aliya, isn't it?" Alex asked hesitantly. "Whatever it is that's making you invincible here is what made her..."
"More or less," Mirrin agreed flatly, staring at their joined hands. Alex debated whether to withdraw his own, but then she broke free of his grasp and took his right hand into her own, holding it so the palm was flat.
"You asked me once about temporal physics. Do you remember?"
"Everyone and everything has one event that defines their existence according to the timestream. Their nexus point," she began, tapping the back of his hand with her fingertip. "What happens before and after doesn't matter as far as the timestream is concerned. If the nexus point is met, then the timestream can continue on. If it is not, then a new branch forms where it deviates. Uncountable possibilities." She ran her finger up to his wrist and down to his fingers to emphasize the different paths.
"The butterfly sneezing," Alex murmured as he stared at his hand and her fingertip resting on the tip of his thumb. "Aliya's nexus point was her death, wasn't it? That's why you couldn't go back to save her."
"Aliya was Askani. She understood," Mirrin said by way of agreement.
Alex figured that he must have looked confused because she went on.
"The Askani Sisterhood was dedicated to assuring that every possible nexus point was met to guarantee one of the timestreams that would produce Nathan Dayspring," Mirrin explained with a sardonic smile, gripping his wrist gently. "And when that objective was met and Apocalypse was killed in my time, the next phase was to erase as much of Nur's damage as possible. And so they went about securing the timeline that would produce the man you call Cable."
Alex was amazed and appalled and not sure which emotion was prevalent. A chess match on a level he didn't think he could comprehend - more pawns than the Hellfire Club could even imagine. "As a staunch supporter of free will, I'm not sure I can even wrap my mind around this," he finally said.
Mirrin laughed humorlessly and released Alex's hand. "There is no free will for the Askani. It exists only beyond the Sisterhood's grasp. And such a tenacious grip it is..."
"That's why you're all-but-immortal here," Alex began after a pause, looking down at his suddenly freed wrist. "Because your nexus point is in your own time... but that shouldn't preclude..."
"It has already happened," Mirrin finished for him. "The time path is stable enough that I can't undo it. Nobody can."
"Do you even know what it is?"
"Thankfully no," Mirrin replied with a relief that surprised Alex. "Everything in my life has been plotted out and I'd like to have one surprise left to me."
"Does it necessarily have to be a bad thing?" Alex asked hopefully.
"No," Mirrin answered. "It could be a good thing. Or it could be a non-event. It could simply be me walking across the street in a certain city at a certain time and nothing happening to me while doing it. Just because I am important enough to be sent back through time to keep an eye on the Askani'son doesn't mean that my nexus point is anything great. But I do have to be there to do it."
"And there's nothing you can do here undo that," Alex said.
"Short of killing the Tomorrow Walker himself? No."
"I guess he would be the mother of all nexus points," Alex agreed. "What happens when someone finally does kill him? If Nathan does it the day after you leave, will you suddenly go from being a soldier to being, I don't know, a farmer? Will you wake up in a different life?"
Mirrin shook her head and picked up Alex's hand again, tapping his palm with her index finger. "When a nexus point is destroyed, everything that comes after it stops. All of the possible futures where Apocalypse reigns, even for a moment, won't be possible anymore."
"But they'll still exist somewhere," Alex protested, pointing down at the hand Mirrin was still holding. "If I cut off my fingers, they don't disappear."
"No, they don't," she agreed, touching his fingertips. "But they can't live on unless they are re-attached."
Alex suddenly grabbed her hand. "You're fighting for your own suicide, aren't you? That's what Dawnsilk is fighting against. That's why you're not sure whether you want her to succeed or not. If anyone kills Apocalypse, then none of you will ever exist. Nathan is here and he won't vaporize, but..."
"I will do anything to make sure she doesn't succeed," Mirrin replied fiercely, pulling out of Alex's grip. "Anything. I will not allow anyone to stop the assault on the Tomorrow Walker. What is one life, a thousand lives, a million lives against the horrors of the reign of Apocalypse? It is a polluted world filled with scarred souls."
"But Dawnsilk doesn't think you have the right to make that decision for her, does she?" Alex asked gently. It was a logical point and it wasn't - save yourself or save the world? But if killing Apocalypse would be sentencing millions more to die...
"Do you ever wonder why Nathan came back to this time?" Mirrin asked instead as she viciously smoothed back more errant wisps of hair. "Why he didn't just go and kill the child En Sabah Nur and save the millenniums from his darkness?"
Alex looked at her thoughtfully. "I just assumed it was to come back to his own time, the one he was born in. To find Jean and Scott. Although in hindsight, I suppose he wasn't too eager to catch up with them..."
"This is the era that will cause the least damage," Mirrin explained. "The fewest losses of life and the greatest number of survivors in the timestream. Apocalypse isn't responsible for every birth and death from now until the thirty-eighth century. Most people will survive, more now than at any other point earlier or later. This is the best we can do."
"But it's not good enough for Dawnsilk because she's not one of them," Alex finished. "And neither are you."
Alex took a deep breath and looked back at the group. Domino and Sam had returned and they and Bobby and Scott were crouched in front of whatever they had brought back with them. Nobody was paying him and Mirrin much mind, apparently.
"I wonder if I could be that brave," Alex mused aloud, not looking at Mirrin. "I've offered my life in return for the safety of others, but it was always a snap decision. I've never had to work towards it, build my life around it. None of us have. I wonder if Nathan even has? He has to accept that dying may be necessary, but he has to think that he's going to win... I wonder if I could be that selfless."
"Selfless?" Mirrin asked with a mirthless laugh. "I am not selfless. I do what I do for myself. That I get to help someone try to save the world is only a... fringe benefit, I think you call it."
Alex turned and looked at her confusedly. "What are you getting out of sacrificing yourself?"
"Freedom," Mirrin replied simply. "There is not one part of my life that has not been chosen for me. Nathan isn't the only one the Askani cultivated to grow as they wished."
Alex cocked an eyebrow and waited for her to continue.
"We are all implements to serve the time stream," She went on bitterly. "Our emotions and intellects are tools like our bodies and our powers, to be tempered and molded into precise instruments. They give us what we want only so that we will react as they want once it is taken away."
Mirrin nodded. "Aliya... Aliya knew what her part was. And Nathan couldn't know because that would defeat the purpose... I had to watch him grieve knowing it was a coaxed response, the intended reaction. Not only could I not save Aliya's life, but I also couldn't stop her death from destroying his. And now it's too late."
Alex exhaled loudly, unable to come up with anything to say that wouldn't be trite or meaningless.
"I am a good Sister. As they made me. They needed me to a telepath and a teleporter, so they made sure my grandparents and great-grandparents met when they were supposed to and avoided the testing centers when they needed to so that I would be born a mutant among the flatscans. But they also needed me trained as a fighter, so they sent attacking hordes after my clan so I would learn anger and loss along with strategy.
"They needed me to be blindly loyal to Nathan, so they maneuvered my unit closer to where Redd and Slym Dayspring would be so that Nathan and I would first meet as children and not again until after he had met Aliya. Because I was to have his trust, but not his love... They have made sure that I would be everything I was supposed to be: a perfect instrument to urge Nathan towards his new destiny."
"How could anyone - especially Nathan - think you blindly loyal to the Askani?" Alex asked in wonderment.
"They allow me my anger and my resentment as an indulgence because they know in the end I will do as they want," Mirrin said with a resigned sigh. "They let me the jester, the irreverent Sister, so I don't drown in my own bitterness. But they know their own work is good. I am as Nathan is, too honorable to let my own antipathy be the damnation of others. And he knows I will do as they need me to do because it is the best way for everyone else if not for me."
Alex watched as Mirrin seemed to just... deflate. As if the anger she held was the only thing keeping her up and now that it was spent, so was she. Already sitting Indian-style, she leaned forward slightly and let her frame slouch so that she could rest her elbows in the creases of her knees and put her face in her hands.
It was an impulse to put his arms around her, but when Mirrin didn't stiffen in his embrace Alex reminded himself that he usually thought better when he didn't think at all and squeezed her gently.
"I still think you're pretty damned brave," he murmured into her ear, which was now by his chin. He was facing the group and he noticed Scott was watching them. Alex didn't want to make any sort of gesture lest Mirrin realize they were being observed. But Scott simply nodded at him and began talking to Bobby, drawing attention in the opposite direction.
Mirrin murmured something Alex was sure wasn't in English. "Was I supposed to hear that?"
"I don't think there is an equivalent expression here-and-now," Mirrin said quietly into his collarbone. "Literally, it means that 'I wish we had met when the air was sweet.'"
"I think I get it," Alex replied, pulling her a little closer. He was pleasantly surprised when Mirrin put her arm across his stomach and held on to his waist instead of simply using the ground for balance.
Alex wasn't sure how long they had sat there - it had been early dusk when he had come over to her and it was dark now - but when they got up to rejoin the group for what would pass for dinner, he was relieved that nobody said a word.
- it had been early dusk when he had come over to her and it was dark now - but when they got up to rejoin the group for what would pass for dinner, he was relieved that nobody said a word.