Future Pluperfect: Chapter 32

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

Warren Worthington stood on the back porch and watched in awe.

At first, he had been intrigued. And then he had figured it was just Bobby being Bobby and working out what must have been some pretty impressive stress in a fashion that suited him. But somewhere around watching one of his oldest friends play duck-pin bowling with icy replicas of the Seven Dwarfs as pins, he decided to intervene.


"Warren!" Bobby called back cheerfully as a ball skimmed past Sleepy and decapitated Sneezy. "How goes it?"

Warren walked leisurely down the marble path that led from the porch into the beautifully landscaped backyard. The half-acre immediately around the house was lovingly designed, leaving the rest of the acreage to follow nature's course.

"It goes," he replied casually. Like a bird being trapped, a loopy Bobby was best approached carefully lest he fly off. "Having a good time?"

The next pass saw the ball split between Dopey and Happy, knocking over Grumpy in the process. "I'd be having a better time if I didn't have to resort to cheating at my own game," Bobby groused, melting down Bashful and Doc.

"Well," Warren began expressively, waving his hand. This wasn't the time to point out that Bobby had had to cheat at his own games for years. Bobby could play checkers against himself and lose. "You didn't exactly set it up on a smooth course, you know. The backyard isn't flat, let alone oiled."

"You're right," Bobby replied decisively, as if the onus of failure had been miraculously lifted by Warren's words. He beamed beatifically. "And if there is anything I have learned in the last week, it's that there are many things beyond my control."

"Pretend I haven't known you since your voice was breaking," Warren replied, looking around for someplace to lean against. Sitting down was out of the question - these were Kenneth Cole slacks and he wasn't about to get grass stains on them. "And tell me whether I am supposed to ignore the deeper implications of that statement."

Bobby tilted his head thoughtfully before replying. "I think I'd rather you ignored it," he said casually as he moved towards the porch. "But I suspect I'd be better off if you didn't."

Warren appreciated being given the choice. Even if it wasn't a choice. He sat down on the wide marble railing, his feathers ruffling behind him as he settled in. "I'm gathering the debrief didn't even begin to cover it."

It had been an informal gathering that only qualified as a debriefing because it had taken place in the War Room. And that had only happened because it was the closest space to both the hangar and the med lab that could fit everyone all at once. Dirty, tired, and drained of far more than mere energy, Cyclops, Phoenix, Cannonball, Havok, Iceman, Domino, and Mirrin (Cable having been dumped unceremoniously in the med lab and been in a bad enough way to not protest too fiercely) had given a rough account of their adventure. It had alternated between the vague and the graphic, the narrative coming in fits and spurts that were sometimes fluid and sometimes unbearably awkward. Time travel, mind control, telepathic trickery that Warren and the others couldn't even begin to imagine... And Bobby had been either witness to or victim of all of it.

"I can't figure out why I can't figure it out," Bobby began, hopping up to sit on the ledge next to Warren and falling immediately into a deep slouch. "It's not like I should suddenly start having problems with all of the logical leaps that take place in our line of work. Not now, after everything. But I don't know why this isn't rolling off my back."

"It's a lot to simply shrug and move on from," Warren pointed out. A blue jay landed on the grass a few yards away. It watched Warren curiously, the way birds tended to do, and he frowned at it. Tourist.

"I think that's it," Bobby said, also watching the bird watch Warren. "I think that's what's bothering me. They're just... dealing with it. Cable and Mirrin. They were betrayed and they were confronted with proof of their own failure... And they're just..."

"They're not like us," Warren replied, finally ruffling his feathers as the bird flew off. "They can try, but in the end, they're not like us. They're too damaged. It's what makes them such fearsome soldiers - there's a part of them that either got lost or got too broken or just got evolved out of them and they can't... I wonder if when Cable gets all pissed at us for being soft, he's really just jealous. He can't be soft; it's not that he doesn't want to be."

"And they know what's wrong," Bobby continued, slumping down even further and letting his elbows dig into his thighs. "They know what they're missing out on. What they've lost... Like Alice through the looking glass... I don't want to be like that, Warren. I don't want to see myself executed and not miss a beat. I don't even want to be able to bluff convincingly that I'm not affected. I don't want to find out that the Dream failed and one of us got so bitter as to turn..."

"You already did," Warren pointed out quietly. "I killed you... at least I meant to. When I was Death... And we've all turned at one point or another. Most of us, at any rate. Me, Jean, Logan, Hank, Alex, even Charles." He ticked off the names on his fingers.

"But we're the X-Men and we get better," Bobby replied, looking surprised at his own bitterness. "And even then, none of us turned willingly. Jean and Hank weren't Jean and Hank. You and Alex and Logan had your heads messed with... Charles got taken over. None of us ever said 'you know, I've had enough of the ingratitude, the blame, the Sentinels always going after us first, all of it. I'm going over to the other side.' Not even you did that. To look over your life with a clear head and say 'to hell with all this'. Dawnsilk did.

"And I can't even imagine what kind of situation that must have been for her to do it. Because to survive that long in those circumstances... she had to be a helluva lot stronger than I ever could be. And she broke in the end. They all broke in the end..." He shuddered.

"We bend," Warren said after a pause. "We bend where they don't. That's what makes us who we are, what makes us strong in our own way. We don't stand there and take it until we explode. Our greatest strength is that we recognize our own weakness. Even Scott walked away after Jean died - at least who we thought was Jean. We leave the X-Men and we come back when we're ready or when we're needed."

"But that's because we can," Bobby protested, hopping down off the railing and standing up before Warren.

"And that's not our fault," Warren returned gently. With Bobby looking up at him like that, he felt like it was years ago and it was the teenaged Bobby watching him with saucer-big eyes. "We can't be blamed for living in our own time."

He hopped down off the railing as well and put his hand on Bobby's shoulder to indicate that they should head back towards the house.

"Right now," Warren continued as they walked up the porch steps, "We have the luxury of being able to take a time-out. But if something changed and that option was taken away... we'd manage. Look at Alex - our most reluctant X-Man. If he can do it... That's where Cable's got it wrong. He doesn't think we'd be able to hack it if things got too rough because we don't go balls-to-the-wall now. But he's wrong."

"I wish I could detach myself from things and look at them objectively," Bobby sighed. "I wish I could sound so calm."

"You missed my panic attack right after you left," Warren confided with a laugh. "I was all but ready to run the white flag up the flagpole and negotiate the terms of our surrender."

"What happened?" Bobby asked as he stopped walking right inside the back door.

"You sang 'Oh, Susannah' into the Blackbird radio," Warren replied with a self-effacing grin. That had been the initial transmission from the plane - Bobby's off-key rendition of the old song, complete with a Long Island-tinted Southern drawl that had had Rogue whimpering in between snorts of laughter.


"You guys came back," Warren cut him off. "And it doesn't matter how and it doesn't matter who helped out. Because if the X-Men have a knack for anything other than coming back from the dead, it's finding just the right help when they need it. And that's when it hit me. If we can pull this off, then we're okay. The Kurioon proved the same thing that the Shadow King did and the Phalanx did and Onslaught... Betsy was right. She was right all along when she said that we have yet to truly meet our match."

Bobby looked at him thoughtfully. "Then I suppose I should thank her instead of you?" he asked with a crooked grin as he opened up the French doors.

"You could," Warren allowed as he motioned for Bobby to go before him. "But that would further crush my not insubstantial ego, which has already taken a beating in the last day or two."

"You could use it," Bobby replied lightly as they moved through the back foyer. He had heard about Warren's unspoken rapprochement with Remy from Hank, who had sounded quite pleased.

"Be nice or I tell Sam what you did to the Dwarfs," Warren warned, taking the change of tone and topic for what it was. "And you know how he'd take the news of you defiling Snow White's buddies."

"Sam's a big boy," Bobby pointed out, sounding less flippant about it than he had in times past.

"Sam's also worn out the videotape Jean got him for Christmas last year," Warren returned. "And he's bigger than you are."

"But I'm cuter."

"No you're not."

"Aren't I, Rogue?" Bobby appealed to the woman crossing the hall in front of him.

"No you're not," Rogue called over her shoulder as she closed the bathroom door.

"You don't even know what you're disagreeing with me about!" Bobby protested as Warren walked on, chuckling.


Scott ignored his son's groan as he entered the med-lab. It wasn't his 'go away or I'll inflict great bodily harm on you' groan or any of its variations. It was the 'I know you're not going away no matter what I do, but I'm still going to register my displeasure that you think we need to talk' groan. And that Scott could live with.

Mild dehydration and the effects of not having eaten a full meal in more than a week, combined with the aftereffects of the telepathic wrestling match that had gone on in his head, had left Nathan weak and in poor control of the techno-organic virus and between Jean, Mirrin, and Domino there had been no trouble in keeping him in bed. He had slept (not his idea) on the flight home and hadn't been up and about since their arrival and Scott was sure that Nathan was close to exploding from the inactivity.

"McCoy sent you to baby-sit me, didn't he?" Nathan asked, as irritated as Scott imagined he would be.

Scott tried very hard not to smile at his son's petulant expression. It was the exact same face he used to make as a toddler when he would balk at being put down for a nap. And while it was significantly less cute, Scott found it strangely endearing. This, too, he kept to himself.

Nathan still had an IV line in his arm, but Hank had said that that would be the last one as he could now eat. Actually, Hank had said something involving finding a more productive use for Nathan's jaw than sniping at everyone who crossed his vision field.

"You have been rather... brusque with him," Scott replied noncommittally as he sat down on a stool in line with Nathan's knees. "He's not intentionally trying to piss you off."

"All he had to do was verify that my head was fine other than the headache and..." Nathan trailed off at Scott's baleful stare and sighed. "I'm not a very patient patient."

"Really?" Scott asked, the bemused sarcasm fairly dripping onto the floor. "Hank'll live, although a word of either apology or thanks probably wouldn't be out of place. Everyone is kind of looking forward to you being up and about."

"The sooner I'm up, the sooner I'm leaving?"

"Nathan," Scott sighed disappointedly.

"A joke, Slym, a joke," Nathan replied with a frown. "I make them once in a while."

"I heard that rumor once. Didn't put much faith in it."

"Yeah, well." Nathan rubbed his head vigorously, leaving his hair a wild mess in its wake. Then, as if he realized how it must now look, he raked his fingers through it and settled it down a little. Scott gave a half-smile. Nathan had inherited the Summers hair that Scott himself hadn't but Alex had - the kind that wouldn't lie straight and tended to grow up and not out.

And then the silence started to loom. The beeps and hums and shush-shushes of the med lab seemed to echo especially loudly and Scott could feel the tension between them. Not an angry tension, but one of expectation. Both of them knew what had to be said and both of them knew the other knew it. But this was one of those times when they couldn't let that implicit knowledge stand on its own. So they were going to have to sit there until one of them got out the words.

"You missed most of it," Scott began, staring at his hands and the floor. "But Sam... He did really well. Really well. He's a good fighter. A good person."

"I know," Nathan replied, sounding a little relieved that they were starting with something else.

"You did well with him," Scott continued. "Even if you occasionally don't do well by him." A pause. "Not like I should be one to talk."

"There are times when I'm thankful that Sam is as strong and as smart as he is that he can still respect me - and for some flonqed-up reason still like me - despite everything," Nathan replied in a quiet, wondrous voice, choosing not to address Scott's guilt right then and there. "And the rest of the time I'm glad he's still got his frailties so that I can be reminded that it's not good to break everything that's given to me in trust."

Scott nodded. "Well, thanks for letting me borrow him."

Nathan made some noise to contradict and Scott cut him off. "We both know that if you said 'don't go to the X-Men' he wouldn't. At least if you gave him a compelling reason. And we both know that if you said 'come with me', he would drop everything - including the X-Men - to do so."

"I think you overestimate my thrall," Nathan said, his exhaustion-roughened voice carrying amusement in its gravelly tone. "But I wouldn't... He needs things that I can't give him right now. He needs... someone a little better adjusted to the civilian world. You and Redd... He's had so much taken away from him. I would give him some of what I had."

Scott looked at him thoughtfully, not turning away, refusing to let Nathan regret that confession. "Thanks."

The silence descended once more and Scott found himself reading the titles of the reference books Hank had lined up on the shelf closest to his desk before finding the words to begin again.

"We think we've got all of the Kurioon bases eradicated," he said. "There was some sort of thing in the Yukon, of all places."

"Makes sense," Nathan replied, fidgeting slightly. "Desert and tundra. And a trap in paradise."

"Well, Alpha Flight took care of it," Scott went on conversationally. "We can afford to be a little more methodical in our searching now that the immediate threat is taken care of. Joseph's still down in... Guatemala? Guyana? One of the two. He says he wants to check out some of the more out-of-the-way districts, see if there were any villages wiped out that we didn't know about, any bases we missed. I think he's hiding from Rogue, but I'm not going to call him on it."

Nathan nodded and shrugged. Who was he to be throwing stones?

"How long do you think you'll be hanging around?" Scott asked, fighting the urge to stare at his hands again. "Not that I want you to leave, because I don't. I'm just..."

"Probably until Mirrin leaves," Nathan replied, a catch in his voice that didn't get past his father. Scott looked at him sharply.

"How long until that happens, do you think?"

"Not long," Nathan replied. He was looking down, then over Scott's shoulder, anywhere but meeting his eyes.

"Is there any way...?"

"No." It was almost a sigh.

"It's just... we're sending her back to that."

"We aren't sending her," Nathan replied firmly, finally looking at Scott. His voice was angry, bitter, and controlled all at once. "We aren't letting her go. We have no say in this."

"Does she?"

"I don't know," Nathan admitted quietly.

"At first, she wasn't at all what I expected her to grow up into," Scott said after a long pause. "But now...If Jean and I..."

"Don't," Nathan commanded gently, so surprisingly gently that Scott looked up at him. "Don't start blaming yourself. Not for leaving. You had no more control over that than you do this."

"That doesn't make it any better."

"No, it doesn't," Nathan agreed. "But what is, is."

"I really hope I had nothing to do with Rachel coming up with that," Scott replied ruefully, running his fingers through his hair and adjusting his glasses. "Any version of me. It's annoyingly defeatist."

"It's pragmatic," Nathan returned with a shrug.

"Not here and now," Scott said with conviction. "Not when there are so many options."

"So I am occasionally reminded," Nathan mused, looking meaningfully around the med lab.

They were quiet again, a lull between storms of words.

"You scared the crap out of me, Nathan," Scott finally began, shaking his head in remembrance. "Out of all of us. Jean... I know I can't protect you. I know I shouldn't. But... I really don't want to see you die."

Nathan fought back the flippant 'me, too' that had sprung to mind. There was no point in making this any worse than it had to be. And as much as he resented being fussed over and as much as he wished Scott's heart would listen more closely to the head Nathan knew understood everything and its implications, there was a part of Nathan - the tiny part of that adolescent boy suddenly orphaned once again - that was happy for the concern. "I know... And I'm glad you... beyond the obvious reasons, of course."

Scott nodded relaxed his taut body posture and Nathan mentally breathed a sigh of relief. It was all they were going to force each other to say in the matter. They'd each reflect on it in the privacy of their own thoughts, but...

Almost on cue, there was a knock on the door and then it immediately swished open. Mirrin poked her head in and made an apologetic face at Scott before stepping across the threshold. He was sure she had checked telepathically whether it was safe to enter before she had bothered to knock.

Scott allowed himself a smile. Instead of wearing Nathan's oversized sweatshirt, Mirrin was in a t-shirt that actually fit her, a Mercy College shirt that was obviously Jean's, and her usual sweatpants. "Finally warming up to this climate?"

"I guess," Mirrin replied with an amused shrug. "I'm sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to retrieve my hair clip." She waved the contraption - a surprisingly high-tech device that she had graciously let Hank play with for a little while. Instead of putting it in her hair - currently in a ponytail - she clipped it to the hem of her t-shirt.

Mirrin had been a rather recalcitrant patient immediately after they had landed, Hank stitching up the cuts above and below her eye with great delicacy and promising no significant scarring. The stitches didn't look as scary as Scott had imagined they would - Hank had used some light-colored thread that prevented the young woman from looking like a fugitive from a pirate ship.

"No interruption," Scott replied, then remembered that Mirrin hadn't been down to the med lab in the hours since Nathan had regained consciousness. "Do you want to say hello?" He gestured with his head towards Nathan, whom Mirrin couldn't see because of the curtain that separated him from the rest of the med lab.

"He's speaking again?" Mirrin asked with a disappointed sigh.

"You know I am, Min," Nathan growled non-threateningly.

"I was hoping it was only temporary," Mirrin replied blithely, coming around the curtain from behind to stand at the head of Nathan's bed. She stood on her tip-toes to lean over the bed railing and kiss his forehead, murmuring something in some language that Scott didn't understand.

Nathan suddenly grabbed Mirrin's arm and pulled her away from him so that he could see her face.

"What?" Mirrin asked, frowning at the rough treatment and then reaching for the wound, careful not to touch it. "I failed to duck again."

Nathan opened his mouth, but no words came out. Instead, he sighed heavily.

"You remember this wound, don't you?" Mirrin asked thoughtfully as she wiggled out of his grip.

Nathan nodded. "I think I said something unkind about it when I saw it," he replied with a lightness of tone that Scott didn't believe was real. "The stitches..."

"I was tempted not to get them because of that," Mirrin replied with a shrug. "But the alternative was to leave the wound as it was and, despite Slym's excellent field dressing, that would have been even messier."

"Probably," Nathan allowed.

"Well, I didn't mean to interrupt you two," she said, giving them both a slight bow. "I'll leave you until later."

With that, she left the med lab and Scott watched her go before turning back to Nathan. "What was that all about?"


"You look like you saw a ghost."

Nathan sighed heavily, then stared at the wall opposite him for a long moment. "I did," he finally admitted.

"Do you want to..."

"No," Nathan said quietly, shaking his head. "I really don't."


"Uh-oh," Alex murmured as he came into the kitchen.

Jean frowned at him. "What?"

"I'm disturbing a coffee klatch," he explained, pointing vaguely at where Jean was sitting with Ororo and Betsy. He opened up the fridge and stuck his head in. "The three witches. You're going to talk about me now. I've entered your witchy sights, so I'm fair game."

Betsy coughed delicately. "You're always fair game, Alex."

After using both hands and a foot to gracelessly keep the condiments Jean had sent his way for the witch comments from attacking him, Alex emerged with the bowl of strawberries and pointed a celery stalk at Betsy. "But that's gossiping. It's different. If you see me, then I simply become something to remark upon. A talking point. It has none of the negative connotations of gossiping."

"I do not gossip," Ororo said imperiously, failing miserably to hide her amusement.

"You may not," Alex replied with a shrug as he closed the refrigerator door with his foot. "But the two of them certainly do."

"You are so paranoid," Jean accused with a smile. "Are we not supposed to talk to each other?"

"You do it furtively," he said, examining the strawberries to see if they looked washed. "What I don't understand is what you talk about. You live in the same house. It's not like there's much news to catch up on when you see each other a dozen times a day."

"You've lived alone for too long," Betsy told him. "All that silence and sun is starting to loosen your already precarious grip on reason."

"Actually, he has always been like this," Ororo corrected, picking a grape from the bunch sitting on a plate before the three women.

"See, now you're talking about me," Alex said with a self-satisfied nod. "You wouldn't have done so if I hadn't come into the kitchen."

"Well, now we're going to talk about what sort of a nut you are," Jean replied, telekinetically taking the bowl of strawberries out of Alex's hands and bringing them to the sink, turning on the water. "Instead of talking about other things about you."

Alex followed his snack to the sink. "No salacious rumors, please."

"That would be unfair to Mirrin," Betsy replied, grinning brightly as Alex blushed and groaned. "Where is she, anyway?"

"Not a clue," Alex answered, turning off the water and dumping the strawberries out of the colander Jean had transferred them to and back into the bowl. "I haven't seen her since dinner."

"She's out by the little lake," Jean told him after a moment's pause. "And no, you wouldn't be disturbing her... Don't give me that resentful look."

"You are fair game now," Ororo chided.

Alex grumbled and left the kitchen with the strawberries. He spent what he considered to be enough time in the drawing room (making fun of Scott and Sam watching "Nova" with rapt fascination) to be properly spiteful before heading out through the back doors.

The little lake wasn't much of a lake - smaller by far than the one close to the house. But it was enough to merit stocking with fish and it had much nicer surroundings. On one side were tall oak trees that obscured it from the house, on the other were large chunks of slate that were perfect for laying out on in the summer sun or using as a perch to fish from.

Mirrin was on one of the rocks, on her back with her feet in the water and staring up at the sky when Alex found her. She was still and he wondered about how accurate Jean's suggestion about not bothering her was.

"I didn't think I'd ever get a chance to do this," Mirrin said without moving and Alex took this as permission to approach.

"Relax?" he asked as he sat down next to her on the rock. Idly, he noticed no shoes nearby.

She looked up at him and made a face. "In my mind, when I meditate... I have a place like this. Not trees like these, although I might add some... but water to dangle my feet in and a sky filled with stars... The real thing is much better."

Alex looked up at the sky. "It's still too urban to get a good look at the stars here. The lights from the city make the sky too bright. Up in Alaska, where my grandparents are, it's beautiful. You can see everything... You could go there, couldn't you? Just pop off for a few hours, come back five minutes later here? Or Hawaii... you'd like it there. It's Vanuatu without the killer robots... What?"

"Nothing," Mirrin replied with a smile.

"So whattya say? How about let's go to Hawaii for a week? I'm sure Jean has a bathing suit you can borrow," Alex suggested. "And it's not like we'd have to pay for airfare."

"It wouldn't be a good idea," Mirrin said, sitting up.

Alex looked at her thoughtfully. "Is it me? I can just give you coordinates and you can go by yourself..."

Mirrin shook her head. "It's not you. It sounds like a lovely plan, a lovely place."


"But I don't think I should go anywhere too far right now," Mirrin said slowly, wrapping her arms around herself. She was still wearing Jean's t-shirt and Alex realized that with the night's chill and her feet in the water, Mirrin was probably freezing. He shifted over to sit closer to her, enough so that she'd feel some of the warmth that always radiated off of him without making it seem like he was trying to make a move. Which he was still trying to find a way to do, but he was hoping for a subtler route.

"This is about you going back to your time, isn't it?" Alex asked, sudden realization dawning. He had consciously not thought about that - every time he did all he could see was the future-Mirrin getting decapitated.

Mirrin nodded. "They're coming to get me soon."

"Who's they and how soon?"

"Askani Sisters and very soon," Mirrin replied with a shudder that Alex wasn't sure whether it came from the cold or the topic.

"But you can come back to this moment," he reasoned. "You can go off to Maui for a week - a year - and still come back to now, right?"

"I can, but I can't... Nathan started when he saw my stitches," she said, reaching up to almost touch her eye. "He remembered them, remembered when he saw them. That means I go back there-and-then with them. And I wouldn't have them if I had spent a week with you in Hawaii."

Alex took a deep breath and exhaled forcefully, but it couldn't relieve the pressure in his chest. "That's so little time."

"I know."

"I had some crazy idea of figuring out a way to keep you from going back to that... some way to... You don't deserve that, Mirrin. You don't deserve that end," he said in a voice barely above a whisper.

"I'd like to think that I don't, either," Mirrin agreed ruefully. "But it doesn't really matter."

Alex knew in his heart that Dawnsilk hadn't been lying when she had shown that image. It was what had happened - what would happen. And it gutted him. He started when he felt a very cold arm snake around his midsection and a head lean on his shoulder, but he quickly returned the embrace. "You're frozen solid," he murmured. He felt more than saw her shrug.

"I wanted to come out here," she said into his chest. "I didn't know if I'd have a chance to do it tomorrow."

He squeezed harder then, as if he could keep Mirrin in this time and away from that fate simply through holding on to her.

"The Mother Askani warned me that this would be a hard mission," she murmured. "I didn't think it would be for anything other than tactical reasons."

"That's Rachel, isn't it?" Alex asked, shifting so as to ease the torque on Mirrin's body. "I thought she died bringing Scott and Jean into your time."

"She did," Mirrin confirmed.

"Shouldn't that have been years before you were born?"

"Not that many, but yes, it was." Mirrin pulled her feet out of the water and shook them off before twisting and draping her legs over Alex's outstretched ones.

"You went back in time to her, then?" Alex asked as he reached for Mirrin's feet to warm them up.

"Many times," she said, wiggling her toes in Alex's grip. "Aliya and I used to go... especially when Madame Sanctity's orders were... more strange than usual. We wanted to learn how to be 'real' Askani. We didn't understand the cost that knowledge would have... It was the Mother Askani who taught us about nexus points. She didn't want us going back through time and changing things we shouldn't change...She was the one who gave me my battle name, actually. Ay'el. Part irony, part tribute, and the rest curse."

Alex made a noise of non-comprehension and curiosity.

"It comes from an ancient word, I think. 'Ariel'. Lioness of God. Protector of the One, holy champion," Mirrin quoted bitterly.

"We used to call Kitty Pryde that...oh," Alex trailed off as comprehension set in. "Rachel and Kitty..."

"It was meant as a tribute to Kate Rasputin," Mirrin explained, nodding. "The woman who sacrificed herself in order to allow the Mother Askani to go back in time to prevent the horrors they had both lived through."

"I can see being upset about the irony," Alex said. "I'd hate to be reminded like that."

Mirrin shrugged as if to say that nothing better could be expected of the Sisterhood.

They were silent then, comfortable in their loose embrace to sit and listen to the sounds of nature at night. Alex closed his eyes and tried to focus on the woman in his arms and forget that this was probably going to be the only night they'd ever get to do this.

"I've wondered if I get to come back to this time again," Mirrin finally murmured. "I can't ask Nathan because he doesn't know. It would be nice..."

"It'd be one hell of a long-distance relationship," Alex returned without thinking, only afterwards wincing at how much that inferred. "Sorry."

"What for?" Mirrin asked with some amusement. "I don't think this is a physical position of casual acquaintanceship. And it is not in my nature to be... cuddly? That's the word I want?"

"That's the word you want," Alex confirmed with a chuckle. Feeling brave, he risked dropping a kiss onto her forehead. She looked up at him, arching her undamaged eyebrow meaningfully.

"Tell me something," he said, running the pad of his thumb along her cheekbone. "And this is just for academic purposes. Have you ever been taken over by forces of evil?"

Mirrin looked at him strangely. "Apart from the Sisterhood, no. At least not yet. You'll have to check with Nathan for anything that happens after I go back. Dare I ask why you want to know this now?"

"A depressing theme in my romantic history," he explained with a frown that deepened when it became clear that Mirrin was losing her fight to keep from laughing.

"I'm sorry," she apologized, smiling as she spoke. "I'm sure it was not funny at the time."

"Times," Alex corrected, then grinned himself. "But you don't need to apologize. Nobody else does when they laugh at me because almost every woman I fall for has tried to kill me."

"Well, I promise to do my best to avoid such activities," Mirrin told him with amused earnestness.

"Oh, good," he whispered as he tilted her face up to his. She gave him a surprisingly shy smile before he leaned down to kiss her. When the kiss broke, Mirrin undid the band that held her hair back before moving back into Alex's arms.

Since their return from Vanuatu, Alex had noted that Mirrin had not taken to hiding in the depths of Nathan's old sweatshirt. He had spent enough time with Rogue over the years to appreciate the significance of someone switching to short sleeves. And he thought he knew why.

Alex ghosted his fingers over her face as he kissed her, his warm hands over her cold skin, down her jaw to her neck. He could feel where the scar across her throat began, the slight rise of the skin that could barely be seen unless looked for, and traced along its edge delicately until Mirrin pulled away and looked at him questioningly as she bit her lower lip.

"It doesn't make you ugly," he whispered to her, brushing an errant curl from her face.

"Nobody here is marked," she replied, not quite meeting his eyes and not letting him draw her face back to his. "Everyone is untouched..."

"The hell we are," Alex snorted gently. "But it doesn't matter. Not to me. Mirrin... Min," he used her nickname intentionally. Not used to hearing from him, she finally looked up. "As long as you don't have a psimitar as a belly-button ornament, you look beautiful to me. We're all scarred in our own ways. It's just surface... I'm going to remember you as beautiful. And every cut, scrape, bruise, and blaster wound you've ever had isn't going to change that."
Mirrin shook her head and smiled at him, murmuring something as she leaned in to kiss him again.

At some point, Alex had planned to ask Mirrin if she wanted to move indoors and away from flying teammates, but he never got the chance. They had progressed to her lying on the rock beneath him, his hand at her waist and his lips at her neck when suddenly he felt her tense and then cry out in something between frustration and anguish. And then just start to cry.

"What is it?" he asked, shifting over so that he was leaning on his side over her and cupping her face with great concern. Alex knew that Mirrin was a soldier and that bad things often happened to women soldiers while in captivity. Fearing he had triggered some sort of bad memory, he felt his heart jump into his throat as he watched tears fall from closed eyes as she lay beneath him. "Did I do something? Did..."

"They're here," Mirrin breathed out, eyes still closed and trying hard to regain her composure. "They've come for me."

Numb. Alex felt completely numb. He sat up and back on his haunches and waited for Mirrin to sit up. She took a deep breath and did after a moment, sniffling and wiping away tears.

"I'm supposed to be taking this a lot better than I am," she said sardonically between sniffles.

"To hell with the 'good soldier' routine," Alex retorted, pulling her into an embrace. He felt her arms go around him and hold on to him fiercely. "You'll do what they want you to. You don't have to pretend to enjoy it."

After a few deep breaths on both their parts, they sat up, smoothed themselves out, and then didn't move. Finally, Mirrin reached for his hand, squeezed it, and started to get up.

Alex didn't let go until they were at the back entrance. The doors were open and a stricken Jean was standing there waiting for them.

"I've got to go change," Mirrin said quietly, reaching up and giving Alex a quick kiss on the lips before teleporting away.

Alex looked at Jean and tried to say something, but couldn't. The tears he had held for Mirrin's sake now fell and Jean hugged him tightly. He knew she understood that his pain came more from Mirrin's future than his own present. They stood there until they heard the noise in the study get louder.

"Let's go be brave," Jean whispered to him, wiping away her own tears.

When they entered the room, everyone was there. Including Mirrin, Nathan, and three Askani sisters who looked awed at Scott when he crossed the room to stand next to Jean and Alex.

"Do you know where you're going to end up when you get back?" Sam asked Mirrin thoughtfully.

"A day out of Lavaar," she replied, looking at Nathan from a few feet away. "In an abandoned warehouse. I have to join the Clan Chosen, who have been on march there for a week. Someone is going to be upset with me for being two days late."

Nathan tried to smile, but knew it didn't work. He remembered being more than just upset with her - especially when she finally appeared with her face still showing signs of a fight she had refused to talk about. He had still been cross with her when they teleported into the mech lab and their last words together had been angry ones. That was one of the reasons they had decided to teleport out separately.

"I don't know how to thank you," Scott said, trying to keep the awkwardness out of his voice. "You... you've done more good here than you probably realize. In addition to keeping my son alive... I'm grateful. You grew up well, Min." He gave her a quick hug that she returned.

Alex thought she was communicating privately with Jean, who smiled shakily and nodded. "I will," Jean said aloud.

And then he felt it. Like a tap being opened in his mind. But instead of water came affection - Mirrin's affection for him. What they had was too new to be imagined as love, but there was a chance it might have grown to become that and mixed in was a bit of mournfulness that they'd never find out. By the time Alex started noticing the rest of the world again, Mirrin had apparently gone through the rest of the awkward farewells as she was now standing before Nathan and looking up at him.

Nathan held her in a fierce embrace, staring down the three Askani and daring the waiting Sisters to rip Min from his arms.

"<Hey, Dayspring, some of us aren't half-metal>," Mirrin said, her voice muffled against his chest. "<Don't squeeze so hard.>"

Nathan's mind was racing. It would be so easy to say something. So easy to tell her not to let his anger at her refusal to tell him where she had been get under her skin. To tell her to let him wait for her in the mech lab while she set the charges. So easy to prevent a capture that would lead to ten years of abuse and torture. So easy to save her from an end that was as disrespectful as it was welcome, a relief from the pain and humiliation that had finally broken her indomitable spirit. It would set Rachel scrambling for another way to drive him to his fate other than by forcing Mirrin to her own. Perhaps it would be long enough for him to fix things on this end so that Mirrin would never have to be the final sacrifice.

"<Min>," he began softly. "<You know...>"

"<Don't>," she whispered, pulling back enough to pull her arm around and put a finger to his lips and kissed his cheek. "<Don't say a word. I don't want to know. I want to have one surprise in my life, okay?>"

So he didn't. And it hurt, the words that would save her burning a hole in his chest with a pain he didn't think he could feel anymore.

"<I love you. You know that, right?>" he asked instead.

"<I know that>," she answered quietly. "<And I you.>"

The three Askani sisters cleared their throats and re-arranged their robes and made ready to depart. Mirrin turned her head to them and nodded and they approached the pair.

"<And you know that I never, ever did anything that would put you at a disadvantage to the Askani, right? I'm your soldier, not theirs. Always, Nat'an>," she whispered in the dialect they had spoken as children in the North Country, putting her hand gently on his cheek.

Nathan could feel the energy building up around them. The sisters would assure that Mirrin didn't accidentally teleport him as well even as they added their power to Mirrin's own.

"<Always>," he answered back as he felt the surge of chronal energy explode as Mirrin disappeared in a shimmer of light. He put his hand to where could still feel the touch of hers on his cheek and took a deep breath. Opening eyes he hadn't realized were closed, he exhaled, the breath coming out not nearly as smooth as he wished it would in a room full of people watching him intently. He idly felt a wave of tentative comfort coming through his psi-link with Domino, but could do nothing more than send vague acknowledgement in return. Nathan wished he could teleport as well, that he could disappear and not have to face the question that he knew was coming.

"How long?" Alex asked, his voice barely a whisper and the pain all to clear.

Nathan didn't even try to misunderstand. "The battle at Lavaar was a long one, maybe three days. It turned into a siege and we had to wait them out. We started to scavenge for supplies on the fourth day. Mirrin and I were in charge of cleaning out a mechanics lab. We didn't know it was a trap. I got away. She didn't."

"Five days, then," Remy said, shaking his head in disbelief. "Was it quick?"

"No," Nathan answered, then turned around to leave. He had to get out, had to get away before either he was pressed for details or he exploded on his own from the emotions roiling around inside of him.

They watched him leave, but when Domino made to follow him, Alex stopped her.

"Let me go," he said hoarsely. "Mirrin asked me to tell him something after she left."

Domino met his eyes with a kinder look than he'd have expected from her and nodded.

And so Alex followed the sound of Nathan's heavy footsteps towards the back foyer and out to the back porch. He'd do his best to make Nathan realize that he wasn't to blame for Mirrin's death, that she went into her future with her eyes open. Alex really wanted to curl up somewhere and cry, to grieve. But right now, he had a story to tell.




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