by Alicia McKenzie
The gruff voice startled him out of his reverie. Defensively, Scott glanced at Logan, a small, prideful part of him a little abashed to be caught out here on the lawn, pacing. It wasn't as if he could do anything to get X-Force here faster, he knew that. It was just that he couldn't bear to stand vigil any longer while Charles and Jean tried and failed, over and over again, to find Nathan. Making hard decisions, dealing with the consequences--that he could do.
Waiting was an entirely different kind of hell.
"What is it, Logan?" he muttered grudgingly when his teammate didn't show any signs of going away.
"Nothing." Logan shrugged, lighting his cigar. "Just wondering if you've ever heard that old saying about how a watched pot never boils." Scott bristled, but Logan returned his look calmly. "They'll be here," he said, almost laconically.
Scott couldn't quite stop a glare from forming on his features. "You're being awfully casual about all of this," he said, more heatedly than he'd intended. All the pent-up frustration inside him was seething, searching for a way out, and Logan, as always, was making himself far too handy a target. Scott sometimes wondered if he did it deliberately.
"Yeah, well, maybe I don't see the point of getting all riled up when we don't know what the hell's happening yet." Scott opened his mouth to make an angry retort, but Logan gestured sharply, as if to silence him, and continued. "Don't bite my head off, Slim. I ain't brushing this off. Between Akkaba and what Domino says she's picking up on whatever's left of this psi-link of theirs, I know it doesn't look good."
"Oh, thank you for the recap--"
"All I'm saying is that you gotta take a step back for a minute here. If the worst-case scenario's true, you're not gonna do him any good if you can't think straight."
Scott bit back what he'd been about to say, and took a deep breath instead, fighting for composure. "I can't do him any good at the moment anyway, can I?" he asked as evenly as he could, trying to ignore the raging helplessness, to stuff it away into a corner of his mind so that it wasn't smothering his thought processes in acid-edged panic.
The worst-case scenario--that the psi-trace in Akkaba wasn't just a coincidence, an accident of geography. Scott had never believed in coincidences, anyway. "I should have tried to find him long before this," he said dully. "Instead of 'giving him space'."
Maybe at the beginning, when he'd been trying to recover from Bastion's little parting gift, he could be excused for not dropping everything and going hunting for his son. But later, after the psi-wave on the astral plane, especially after Nate had been captured and experimented on by SHIELD--there was no excuse.
He'd been afraid. Afraid to push--afraid of what he'd find.
And now, he hated himself for it.
Something flickered in Logan's eyes--frustration, maybe?--and he muttered something about 'kicking yourself in the ass' being a 'family hobby'. "He's a big boy, Cyke," he growled, more loudly. "Long past the age where you need to go around holding his hand. And he'd be the first one to tell you that."
"Platitudes? From you?" Scott shook his head with an angry, bitter laugh. "Never thought I'd see the day."
"Of all the flamin'--!" Logan took a deep breath, his eyes narrowing, and continued in a considerably more level voice. "Settle down, would you? Bad enough that Jeanie's in there cursing a blue streak about 'stupid machines' and kicking Cerebro every five minutes. We don't need both of you in parental overdrive mode."
"Do you blame her?" Scott snapped. "Or me? For all we know, Nathan could be--" He swallowed, unwilling to say it--just in case saying it would make it true. Colossus had voiced that possibility when they'd called the team in to brief them on the problem in the morning. Scott could still hear Jean's furious words, echoing in his mind.
Don't even go there, Peter! He's NOT dead! I would have felt it--I would have felt it if I was on Chandilar, damn it!
"That's the point, one-eye, we DON'T know," Logan growled, pulling him back to the here and now. "Besides--and you shouldn't need me to point this out--Domino and those kids wouldn't be breaking speed records to get here if Nate WASN'T on the other end of that psi-link leaking whatever's got her so freaked out. So let's not go picking out tombstones for him yet."
Scott shook his head slowly, half-relieved, half-appalled. "Logan, were you absent the day they handed out tact?"
"Maybe. But I think you forgot you're supposed to be the strategist here, Summers," Logan's voice took on a familiar, goading tone, and Scott found himself responding to it almost automatically. "So why don't you stop moping and start acting like it? Sort through the possibilities and start drawing up a plan--start flamin' well thinking, instead of just reacting!"
"I'm not in the mood for logic right now, Logan," Scott growled, and then blinked, a little taken aback by his own words. That definitely didn't come out right.
Logan gave one of those gravelly laughs, taking a puff on his cigar. "Yeah, I can see that, Cyke." He shook his head, his expression almost rueful. "Hell, you know I'm not Nate's biggest fan. But he was getting himself into and back out of trouble long before anyone ever convinced him to put on an 'X'. " He snorted. "You just wait. We'll track him down, and the first thing he'll do is curse at us for thinking he needed rescuing."
"I--hope you're right," Scott said, awkwardly. "And I--I know you ARE right, Logan. About the rest of it, I mean. Still, I--I just should have--" He trailed off as he looked back at the horizon, at the distant dark speck that was slowly growing larger. "Is that--?"
"Yep," Logan said, squinting. "Chopper with a big old DaCosta International crest on the side."
Scott nodded jerkily, relief flooding him. Thank God-- This would make the difference. It had to. Charles and Jean were flying blind right now, but with Domino and her link to Nathan, however tenuous it might be at the moment, they might--no, WOULD be able to get somewhere. They would. He couldn't acknowledge any other possibility.
Logan gave him a sideways look. "We'll find him, Scott," he said, in a much quieter voice. "Whatever happened, wherever he is. It ain't gonna end this way."
He'd closed his eyes, just for a second, and the sun had vanished. Fallen off the edge of the world, leaving behind a sky that still looked like blood, even as it faded to night. The stars came out. So did the wind. He listened to it for a long time as it sang to him softly--one minute comforting, the next mocking, reminding him how helpless he was.
Cold--so cold. The cold was worse than the heat. During the day, he'd been able to escape a little, his mind retreating to a place the burning sun couldn't reach. But something had drawn him out of that refuge, pulled him inexorably back to his pain-racked body. Everything had an--edge to it, a terrifying crystalline clarity that a distant part of him recognized as dangerous.
The world only got this sharp, this vivid, when it was about to shatter in pieces around you.
"Got that right, bub," a familiar voice growled. Logan appeared from somewhere behind the 'X', stopping in front of him and blowing cigar smoke into his face. He was in his X-Men uniform, his face half-hidden by the mask, further obscured by the shadows. "Shit, Nate, you're a mess," he said, shaking his head. "Maybe this'll teach you to bring some backup along next time, eh?"
"Shut--up." A weak, raw whisper. Not his voice, surely. Even on his worst days, he hadn't sounded like that.
Logan snorted. "Don't you wish. Got some things to say to you, Summers, and I'm not leaving until I do."
Cable stared down at him for a long moment, dull irritation stirring within him. "Always--have something to say," he coughed. Always baiting him, goading him. Challenging him. Sowing seeds of doubt in him about everything he did--making him wonder, even if only for a second, if what was necessary WAS always right. And doubt was a weakness. Doubt made you vulnerable. Maybe that was why part of him had always looked at Logan as such a threat. "Talk too much--always did--"
"And you never talked enough, pal," Logan said ironically, blowing another ring of smoke at him. "How else do you think you ended up in this position?"
He didn't think he could handle a lecture at the moment. "Doesn't matter." The words came out slurred, even more than before. "The w-why of any--" His train of thought trailed off before he could complete it. His head was heavy, so heavy he could barely lift it, but he managed, looking up at the night sky, staring at the blanket of stars. Maybe if he ignored him, Logan would go away, leave him in peace.
Leave him alone.
Someone--not Logan, he realized--laid a hand flat against his chest, over his heart. "Alone?" Aliya said gently. He looked down at her, into the calm green eyes of the woman whose love had sustained him through all those awful, bloody years of war. "Is that truly what you want, Nathan? Or is it just what you've convinced yourself you deserve?"
"Jen--" No tears left, not after all those hours in the sun. His mouth worked soundlessly as he struggled and failed to find words. Why did she have to be here, to see this? The last remnants of his pride quivered and dissolved. Jen had always believed in him, right until the day she'd died. So he'd failed her, too--failed her trust, her faith.
"You didn't fail, Nathan," she said just as softly, leaning up and brushing his lips with hers for a hearbeat before she took a step back. "The only way you fail is if you give up. And I've never known you to do that, beloved." She started to smile, that wonderful, warm smile that still haunted his dreams, even now.
But the smile wavered and died, unborn, as the color drained from her face. Taking another step backwards, she put a hand to her chest for a moment, bringing it away again covered in blood. Gasping, she looked up at him, her eyes filling with tears. "Nate--oh, Nate--" she breathed. "It hurts--"
The same words she'd choked out as she bled to death in his arms that day. "Jen!" The cry tore free from his soul as she took another wavering step away, crumpling to her knees. "Jen, no--JEN!"
"Nate!" Logan was suddenly standing in front of him again, dark eyes boring into his mercilessly. "Look at me, Nate, not her," he snapped. But Cable couldn't drag his eyes away from Aliya lying behind him, her life draining away into the sand--not again, no, I can't watch her die again-- He started to pull ineffectually at his restraints, ignoring the pain, and Logan growled a curse, taking him by the shoulders and slamming him back against the 'X'. "Damn it, Nate, you listen to me!"
"Let me go--Jen--"
"That's flamin' well enough of that!" Logan barked. Cable finally looked at him, and Logan took a step back, giving a grim, satisfied nod. "That's better," he growled. "Always were good at blindin' yourself, weren't you? Only seeing what you wanted t'see--only it's not working so well right now, is it?" Logan crushed his cigar underfoot, his lip curling as he regarded Cable. "You're ready to quit--don't try to tell me otherwise, tin-man, I can see it in your eyes." He snorted. "Always figured you'd take the easy way out, in the end."
"Go--away--" Cable muttered thickly. "Don't--understand!"
"What?" Logan scoffed. "That you got in over your head and got your ass kicked for it? You think that hasn't happened to the rest of us, Nate?" He leaned closer, his eyes narrowing. "But you get up," he continued in a low, menacing growl. "You don't just let go and leave the job for someone else to do."
The job. The mission.
His duty. His destiny.
A weak laugh, more than half a sob, shook him, as despair opened up inside him like a yawning chasm. "S-Screwed up--the 'job', Logan--"
Logan actually rolled his eyes. "Fine," he said disgustedly. "Just close your eyes, Nate. Wish it all away. Lie to yourself, you poor stupid bastard. You've always been REAL good at that."
"Aren't you being a little harsh, Logan?" G.W. stepped out from around the other side of the 'X'. He gave Cable a once-over, wincing. "Shit, you really got your head handed to you this time, didn't you?"
"Go practice your Fury impression, Bridge," Logan growled. "I'm trying to talk to the man here."
"Why bother?" Hammer said nastily, his hoverchair gliding forward out of the shadows. "So he bit off more than he could chew--so what? Son of a bitch has been doing that for as long as any of us have known him." Hammer gave Cable one contemptuous look, the hatred in his eyes like a knife right through the heart. "So," he sneered. "Figured it'd end up this way. This noble fucking cause of yours goes down the tubes because you weren't man enough to see it through. Feel good, Cable? To know that all the crap you pulled was for nothing?"
"Aw, lay off, Ham," Kane said from somewhere off to the left, in the shadows. "Not fair to kick a man when he's down."
"Speak for yourself, kid," Hammer growled. "I intend to take whatever opportunities I can get." He gave Cable a hard, humorless smile. "Damn, I wish I could have been there when Apocalypse broke you over his knee like a twig. I could've been happy for the rest of my days, if I'd gotten to see that."
Something twisted in his chest, a pain entirely separate from that of his broken ribs. "Ham--" he breathed, images of that day in the Yucatan flooding through his mind. Shouting at Hammer as he watched him step forward to give that disk to Stryfe--bringing his gun up, his finger squeezing the trigger even as part of his mind screamed at him to stop. "Ham--so sorry--"
"Oh, you're sorry?" Hammer gave a bitter laugh. "Fuck you, Nate. I live the rest of my life paralysed and you're sorry?"
"Collateral damage," G.W. said mildly, turning back to Cable. "Right, Nate?" Cable flinched away from what he saw in the eyes of his oldest friend in this time--the strange, malicious glee, as if part of G.W. was enjoying this to no end. "You do what you have to do. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedos, right?"
"No--didn't want to--" Cable whispered dazedly, and then gasped involuntarily as Logan stepped forward, taking him by the shoulders again.
"Look," Logan said with a sort of exasperated patience. "You think you could maybe try to stay focused here, Nate? Instead of letting yourself get distracted by shadows?"
Cable blinked, trying to focus. He couldn't see Bridge or Hammer anymore, they'd just vanished. "S-shadows?"
"Well, what the hell else do you think they are?" Logan let go of him, shaking his head ruefully. "Hell, Nate, what do you think I am? Hasn't even passed through your head to wonder why I haven't cut you down from there yet, has it?"
"Yeah, well," Logan said with a sigh, glancing at the eastern sky. Cable turned his head slowly, trying to focus on the horizon. Was it lightening? He couldn't tell. "Give it some time, Nate. You will."
A soft warning chime from the computer disturbed his troubled contemplation, and the man once known as Nathaniel Essex straightened, the distant look fading from crimson eyes. "Show me," he said curtly, and the computer obligingly presented a viewing window.
A perfectly unremarkable view of the desert a few hours outside Akkaba took shape on the screen. Unremarkable, save for the upright 'X' made out of what looked like wood, and the man hanging on it, limp and motionless as a rag doll. It was impossible to see his face from this angle, but the dim moonlight glinted off silver hair.
Besides, Sinister knew very well who it was. His errant masterwork, the weapon with a mind of his own who he REALLY needed to keep on a shorter leash.
Rising from his chair, fighting back an icy rage stronger than anything he'd felt in decades, Sinister stalked over to the communications console and then froze, momentarily indecisive.
What was to be done? The direct approach was certainly not feasible. Confronting Apocalypse himself was simply not an option, no matter what was at stake. He could attempt to send in the Maruaders to retrieve Nathan, but Apocalypse would have taken measures to guard against a rescue attempt. He was not adverse to sacrificing a few clone sets, but the chances of success were not good.
Alert the X-Men? There was a possibility, he reasoned coldly, and perhaps a more efficient plan of action. A more emotional perspective could be a powerful motivator.
One way or another, something had to be done. He had invested far too much time and effort into Nathan Summers to allow him to be corrupted to Apocalypse's use in such a way.
He would stop this. One way or another.
Noon. Or thereabouts. He wasn't sure. The sun seemed to be directly overhead, but he didn't know whether it really was, or whether it only felt like that. He tried to stay as still as he could, to minimize the pain.
Wasn't working very well. Every tiny movement hurt. Every breath of wind raked across his raw flesh like sandpaper.
All in the mind. Pain was all in the mind. That's what the Askani taught, the core of the discipline of self-control he'd relied on for so long.
Pain was transient. Pain could be controlled.
Unless every shallow, gasping breath, every involuntary muscle spasm, was nothing but agony. Then you could only cling to whatever was left of your vaunted self-control, close your eyes and wait for it to go away.
Wait for it all to end.
"That what you really want?" There was a familiar 'snikt', and Cable forced his eyes open to see Logan standing there, the claws of one hand unsheathed, flipping a cigar idly between the fingers of the other. The movement of the cigar was almost mesmerizing, in a strange way. "The easy out? Fine, bub. Far be it from me to argue with you." He sneered. "Too bad you didn't have a sword around to fall on, eh? Would've been so much more poetic that way--atoning for making such a royal mess out of your flamin' destiny."
It figured. He couldn't even die in peace.
"Oh, quit your whining, Summers," Logan growled in disgust, sheathing his claws. "'I can't even die in peace'--you stupid, maudlin son of a bitch. You know, I think I liked you better before? When you were that sneaky, cold-hearted bastard I used to want to gut every time I saw his ugly face. This martyr kick you're on lately--gettin' real tired, bub."
Martyr? A ripple of indignation, breaking through the pain. Self-righteous son of a flonq--
Logan laughed harshly, leaning closer. "Well, I'll be damned. That a little life I see in your eyes, Nate?"
"Not hard to get a rise out of him. I used to do it all the time--for what little good it ever did any of us."
Cable lifted his head slowly, the effort almost draining what was left of his strength. "T--" The single syllable was all he could manage before his voice gave out on him.
"Quite a mess you've gotten yourself into, little brother," Tetherblood said, standing beside Logan, who gave him an inscrutable look and then proceeded to ignore him. "Hope you're proud of yourself." He shook his head with a bitter laugh. "Serves me right, I suppose. Used to take pride in thinking of myself as a cynic, you know. Then you came along and I lost whatever common sense the gods gave me." His eyes were like black pits, full of a seething hatred that Cable saw, but couldn't acknowledge.
Not from Tetherblood.
"I should have turned and walked away from you the day we first met," Tetherblood hissed. "You're a failure, D. I only wish I'd figured it out sooner. Would've saved me and everyone else a lot of pain."
I tried, T, I tried-- But the words wouldn't come out. Only an inarticulate moan as he twisted helplessly in his restraints. He wanted out, away, anywhere but here. He couldn't face this, not seeing THAT in the eyes of his oldest friend, the man who'd encouraged him when he needed it and supplied a good, swift kick when necessary. The man who'd stood beside him when he'd married Jen, and with the two of them at Tyler's naming ceremony.
The only brother he'd ever had.
Tetherblood shook his head. "I'm glad it ended this way," he said in a low, intense voice, almost a snarl. "It's what you deserve. You left us, Nathan, to go on this flonqing quest of yours, and I'm just glad I get to see you reaping the consequences."
No--he'd left to save them, to make things right--
The blow across the face snapped his head around, and he hung there, dazed, Tetherblood's face inches from him. "Always had a way to justify things to yourself, didn't you?" he demanded. "To explain away every mistake you made--and believe me, Nate, you made enough of them for TEN MEN!"
The words hit home with brutal force, like a knife driven into his heart and then slowly, slowly twisted. Cable shuddered, his mind struggling desperately to find some shard of denial, anything to use as a shield against the truth that hammered at him so mercilessly. Thought I was doing the right thing--wanted to do the right thing-- he thought dazedly.
"You abandoned your Clan!" It was a tortured, anguished cry from the heart, breaking through the anger Tetherblood had shown him up until now. "Do you think you spared us anything by leaving? Did you even think of what would happen to us, when you decided that the answer to your flonqing prayers was somewhere in the twentieth century?" He leaned closer, close enough that Nathan could see the tears in his eyes. Tears he himself couldn't shed--his burned inside him, finding no release. "I'm glad Jen's dead," Tetherblood snarled feverishly. "I'm glad she's not here to see this--to see that everything she believed about you was a lie!"
For a moment, his whole being seemed to reverberate with white-hot anguish, so overwhelming that he could almost feel his heart begin to falter, about to shatter into pieces. Then, it started to beat stronger, faster, adrenalin coursing through his body and lending him one last spurt of strength.
"Stab your eyes!" He wanted to shout the words out, to hurl them at Tetherblood. The hurt, the outrage, the sick, churning fury stirring into life inside him demanded a more spectacular outlet, but all he could manage was a hoarse rasp, an angry whisper that grew more and more ragged as he went on. "I--failed you? Do you think--do you think I e-ever WANTED to be your flonqing Chosen One? To have--everyone's h-hopes resting on me? To look in your eyes--to see you believing in me, thinking I could m-make everything all right--I COULDN'T, no one--c-could, T--I tried, damn you, I tried so hard--" He barely managed to choke out the last few words, and hung there, shaking, totally drained.
Every face. Burned into his mind, etched into his memory like acid. He'd wanted to fix their world for them. Wanted to turn tears of sadness into smiles of joy, to live up to their faith in him.
To be everything they needed, so that they could become what they wanted to be.
And Bright Lady, how he'd fought for that! For more years than he wanted to remember. More sleepless nights than he could count, plotting strategy, mapping out his next move.
Sacrifices that still scorched his heart to think about. Decision after terrible decision, taking the consequences willingly, without hesitating. Trying to ignore all the blood on his hands, all the death darkening his soul.
A lifetime of shutting away his own pain, of staggering back to his feet after every crushing blow, telling himself that he had to go on, that he had to keep fighting.
For them. All for them.
And Tetherblood doubted that? You can go to hell, T, and take the hairball with you--
The sound of slow, sardonic clapping punctured the haze of misery that shrouded him, and Cable raised his head slowly, to see Tetherblood gone, and Logan standing there. Applauding.
"I bet that felt good, didn't it, bub?"
"Getting it all out--"
"Always wondered whether or not there might be a real person underneath all that fanatical bullshit." Cable couldn't help a wince, and Logan snorted. "Aw, sorry, did I hit a sore spot there, Summers? Everyone's favorite self-proclaimed savior of the future doesn't like being reminded he's human? Get off your high horse, you stupid son of a bitch. 'Sides," Logan said with an unnerving grin, moving closer. "Easier to breathe down here."
Breathe. Just breathe. Forget that those words had come out of his mouth, forget that ugly streak of selfishness that had so suddenly reared its ugly head. Forget how sick it made him feel--
"You've got the most whacked-out sense o'right and wrong I've ever run into, you know that?" Logan said, sounding utterly disgusted as he stopped in front of him. "You think there's some kind of virtue in all this self-deprecating crap? A little self-interest ain't a crime, Nate." He leaned closer, the disgust vanishing as his expression suddenly turned sober. "And you damned well better dig down and find a little somewhere, bub, or you ain't gonna make it through this. All you got is you."
"Flonq--you--" A broken whisper, a last feeble flicker of defiance.
"Fine. Curl up and die, Nate. See if I care." Logan's face loomed in his rapidly darkening vision, blocking out the sun. All he could see. "You think I give a shit? Just never had you pegged as this much of a coward, that's all--" His tone was goading, clearly meant to provoke, but Cable barely registered that fact. The words hammered in on him, relentlessly, contemptuously.
After a while, he stopped listening.
Madelyne Pryor stood at the window, the sounds of the pub drifting up from below. She didn't hear them. She didn't hear anything. Not the soft, growing patter of rain, or the quiet whistle of the night wind.
Her mind was elsewhere, on the astral plane, totally focused on seeking out the source of that vague, unsettling disturbance that had nagged at her for almost two days. She'd grown tired of ignoring it, and decided to do something. If this is some novice psi, playing games, I'll burn out the little punk's mind--
She shouldn't be so on edge. But there was just something about this disturbance--something that provoked a strange combination of anger and anxious fear. The first she could handle; the second she loathed. Fear wasn't a weakness she intended to permit herself. There were far too many people out there who'd jump on it gleefully.
You're just reacting to what happened with Farouk, she told herself firmly as she continued to scan. Just because she'd survived the feedback wave on the astral plane didn't mean it had been particularly pleasant. Definitely ranked fairly high on the list of experiences she wouldn't want to repeat--
Where had that damned disturbance gone? Figured, that it would all but vanish the moment she decided to try and track it down. Madelyne continued to scan, growing increasingly frustrated. It WAS still there. She could feel, it, flickering mockingly at the edges of her perceptions. Echoes. Disturbing echoes--
Echoes with a very familiar flavor to them.
Her eyes snapped open, their green depths glowing eerily in the dark room as that half-subsumed apprehension broke free of its bonds and exploded into full-blown terror.
#Nathan?# she called out wildly.
And the silence laughed at her.
to be continued...
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