Caer Sidi: Part 1
by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only. The Sinatra lyrics are taken from the Sinatra Songbook site, and are used without permission.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The idea for this came from the subplot in current X-books about something having jumped into Cable's mind during the Slaver storyline. As you can see, I have some fairly strong suspicions as to who it is. ;) I started this fic after I found out the site of the issue immediately following this storyline (New Orleans). The bulk of it was written before that issue actually came out, however, so it doesn't - and in fact was never intended - to fit into continuity. :) Many thanks to Dande and Sarah and Redhawk for help with this first part. :)
She could have lost herself in this city so easily, Jean Grey-Summers thought, standing at the window and looking out over the Garden District. The colors of the sunset were shading down into darkness, and she could sense New Orleans waking up for the night. She'd been to this city before, but she was still a stranger to it. It was new to her, and thankfully free of ghosts.
She could have lost herself here, put her pain aside for just a little while. Enjoyed the 'vacation' Remy was so determined that they should all have. The others were. Remy had said something about taking Storm dancing, and Hank had been determined to visit some restaurant he'd read about on the Internet. And Nathan--
Jean had no desire whatsoever for rest and relaxation. The lure of the Louisiana night paled in comparison to the terrible fear that lingered like a cold weight in her chest. Folding her arms across her chest, almost hugging herself, she took a deep, shuddering breath, and closed her eyes.
Her memories of what had happened in Russia, when she'd gone onto the astral plane to scan the slaver, Voge, were still fragmented. Only to be expected, given the resistance she'd encountered and the added distraction of Logan's appearance. But if she could only piece it all back together, she could know, for sure--
Take it from the beginning, then. Darkness; that was her primary memory of what she'd seen. Everything had been cast in gray shadows, even the ruins of the mansion. The astral plane shouldn't be that dark. But then, the astral plane had changed after the High Evolutionary's interference--
Logan had appeared, with his news of an attack on the other team. X-Men and innocent civilians taken captive--a terrifying parallel to what was going on in Russia. They'd talked, but Voge had appeared, with a Hound simulacrum of each of them, and tried to force Logan's astral form to merge with his doppelganger. But she'd freed him, just in time, and--
Jean made a soft noise of frustration and opened her eyes. Why couldn't she remember? Her next clear memory was coming back to dazed semi-consciousness in Hank's arms, aware of nothing except the horrifying truth that she'd reached out to where Nathan should be, to where his body was, and he hadn't been there.
Nathan! I can't find him! He's lost! She'd babbled those words as she'd come to, Hank had told her quietly, looking troubled, on the flight back to North America. She'd brushed him off with an explanation she knew he hadn't really bought. He hadn't pressed her for further details yet, but he would. She knew he would.
Either way, she had to find out for herself. Jean took another deep breath and started towards the elegant antique armchair in the corner, but changed her mind before she'd gone two steps and sat down cross-legged on the flowered rug instead.
It took almost five minutes to force her mind into some semblance of calm, less than half that to construct careful mirrored defenses that would hide her from sight on the astral plane, and barely the space between two heartbeats to make the transition itself.
The astral plane was so permeable these days, Jean thought as her jet-black astral self took shape, the mark of the Phoenix burning over one eye. It was frightening and exhilarating at the same time, how the line between it and the physical world seemed to be blurring.
The astral view of New Orleans was a riot of color and sound, a wild bacchanalian feast for the mind's eye. It reminded her of nothing so much as a particularly vivid abstract painting. She skimmed over it like an ebony bird over the sea, searching for the unmistakable pattern of Nathan's mind.
Long before she saw him, she saw where he'd been. The dull, gray shadows that smudged a path through the astral plane were nothing like Nathan - Nathan's astral form these days was a brilliant golden psi-construct, so bright that unless you looked carefully you'd never see the vague, alarming 'fuzziness', the lack of definition that spoke of a fundamental conflict still being resolved - but somehow she knew this was his path she was following.
Dull gray shadows--just like the ones that had shrouded the astral plane when she'd faced Voge. Jean felt a chill of fear, and a slowly rising anxiety. This wasn't coincidence. Nathan--
Then, he was there in front of her, in the eye of a vast swirling hurricane of gray darkness. Jean almost cried out as she saw the ungifted minds in his path shrivel and turn in upon themselves as they came into contact with the shadows. Those people would still be walking the streets, probably barely aware that something had just happened to them, but the damage to their minds was both profound and permanent. They'd been touched by shadow, and it would start to affect everything they did, everything they felt--
And he didn't even know what he was doing. It was him, but it wasn't him. Jean stayed very still, willing him not to notice her. She'd trust these defenses against her inexperienced son, trust them implicitly, but that wasn't Nathan down there, not entirely.
He looked suddenly in her direction, and she could feel the puzzlement in his seeking mind. Jean held her metaphorical breath. I'm not here, she thought, holding the mirrored shield as still as she could. Just a ripple in the astral plane--you don't see me--
For a moment, his astral self flared golden, as if in frustration, and armor formed around him. A reflex, Jean knew; whether he saw her or not, he sensed a threat. But the armor and the light faded almost immediately, leaving the image of his transparent, just for a moment.
Long enough. She saw through it, through the suddenly crystalline form of her son, to what she already knew was there--the form of the great monstrous beast lurking within. Inside Nathan.
A beast with Amahl Farouk's eyes.
Retreating back to her body, so fast that the astral plane blurred past her in a shriek, the wrench of the transition so shocking that it flung her hard against the floor, Jean laid there for what seemed like an eternity, trying to get her breath back and reassemble her shattered composure. It was difficult, when ice-cold fear and fierce, protective rage warred with each other inside her soul.
Nathan-- Jean sat up, her breath still coming raggedly, drawing her knees up to herself, huddling almost instinctively. The hot Louisiana night suddenly seemed very cold.
Days. Days since this had happened, and she'd done nothing. She knew how quickly Farouk could work, how much damage he could do, given time and opportunity-- Jean pulled herself to her feet, hands clenching into fists at her sides to try and still their trembling. To steal Nate's favorite tagline, 'what is, is'. It was done, and all she could do was deal with matters as they stood.
"Damn you," Jean whispered, as much to herself as to Farouk. If only she and Betsy had managed to do something conclusive to the bastard when they'd had the opportunity, months ago. But they hadn't been fast enough, or vicious enough, and he'd--
She swallowed. Focus, she repeated to herself, and bit back what would have been a more than slightly hysterical laugh, had it escaped. She had to do what she could now; kicking herself for what had happened in the past was no good.
A plan. She needed a plan. Jean considered the idea of telepathically summoning the others, but then discarded it again almost immediately. If she had Ororo and Remy and Hank all here, all knowing what was wrong, it might tip off Farouk when Nathan came back. And that, to put it very mildly, would be bad.
The element of surprise was perhaps the only edge she had, here. If she could surprise him, trap him--
Trap him. Jean felt her eyes widen and then narrow. It could work, if she was careful, and it might just provide her with the opportunity she needed. She felt a tight smile grow on her features as she reached out and started to shape the astral plane around her. Irony; he'd almost certainly taken advantage of the way things now were to trap Nathan, and here she was emulating him.
She spun the substance of the astral plane like silk between her mental 'fingers', first into webs, and then into walls, ramparts and crenellations like a medieval fortress, all mirrored, all carefully devised to appear invisible to anything except the most powerful probe. Creating a trap that she could trigger to hold Nathan without hurting him, that would restrict Farouk to Nathan's mind, keeping the limitless resources of the astral plane out of his grasp.
When she was done, when she'd finished overlaying Remy's townhouse with her astral fortress, she went over and sat down in the armchair, fighting to keep her composure. And waited.
He'd never liked New Orleans, Nathan Summers reflected as he wandered its streets aimlessly. The city was too crowded, too noisy; it had felt that way to him even back when his telepathy had been functioning on the level of a sixth sense and little more. Here and now, the psychic noise should be driving him all but insane.
But it wasn't. It wasn't, and more than that, the city seemed so--alluring to him, tonight. He'd been walking the streets since late afternoon and he'd felt the change in New Orleans as night approached, felt everything grow darker and more vivid at the same time, if that was possible. In a strange, unsettling way, it was exciting, and he found himself reaching out to taste the minds of the people he passed on the streets.
Taste. Where had that come from? he thought a little dazedly. Making myself sound like some sort of psychic vampire-- But the momentary unease faded as he thought about it some more. Ridiculous; he wasn't doing anything inappropriate. He was just--exploring. Everything had changed so radically all those months ago; not just the astral plane, but all the telepaths connected to it, too.
He didn't know who he was anymore. That was the truth at the heart of all of this, the realization that was continually shattering his careful detachment and leading to all of these strange, overwhelming emotions--like the savage joy he'd felt fighting his teammates in Russia. It had bothered him, at the time, but he found himself able to shrug it off, now. Was it any wonder he felt so strange, lately? His two worlds had narrowed to one, and he was having to make decisions, face parts of himself that he'd kept suppressed for longer than he could remember, in the name of his 'mission'. He shouldn't be afraid of this. He should revel in it. It was that simple.
So why did it seem so complicated? Everywhere he looked there were shadows, depths lurking beneath the surface of the world around him. Dark, bottomless pools waiting for him to put a foot wrong and fall, fall--
Nathan smirked at his own whimsy, and only then noticed that he was nearly back to LeBeau's townhouse. Shrugging, he continued on in that direction. Why not? Not like he'd had any plans for the night. McCoy and LeBeau and Ororo had all gone off to do their own thing, but Jean had been planning to stay in, the last he'd heard. Maybe if she was still there, they could talk--
Nathan blinked, surprised by the longing he felt at the idea. Oath, I'm--older than I want to count, and I still have the urge to go running home to my mother when I feel out of sorts. How flonqing pitiful is that?
He supposed they'd bonded, over the last several months. Once we got over trying to run away from each other-- There were still subjects they avoided by mutal consent, wounds that time would have to heal on its own, but they'd spent more time together than not, lately. That wasn't a bad thing, was it?
He unlocked the front door of the townhouse and went in, frowning at how dark and quiet everything was. The emptiness bothered him. Left him feeling somehow--dissatisfied. #Jean?# Nathan said, unsettled by his own train of thought again. #Jean, are you here?#
A long pause ensued, lengthy enough that he was almost ready to start scanning for her when she finally answered. #Up in my bedroom, Nate,# Jean responded softly.
Nathan frowned and started to climb the stairs. #Are you all right?# She had her good days and bad days still, he knew that, and there had been something in her voice, a certain tension, that made him think that today must be one of the latter.
#It's all right, Nathan. I'm fine,# she answered as he reached the top of the stairs and strode down the hall towards her door. He hesitated, hand on the doorknob, and heard a soft laugh from inside. "I'm decent, Nathan, if that's what you're worrying about," she said aloud. "Come in."
He opened the door, trying to laugh in response to her joke. It came out sounding odd and strained, and he flushed, wishing he'd just kept quiet. "I thought--I thought I'd come back and see if you wanted to get some dinner or something," he said a little defensively, trying to fill up the silence.
"I'm not really hungry, Nathan. But thank you for asking," she said without getting up. Her red hair and white dress seemed to draw every bit of what little light was in the room, but her face was in deep shadow, unreadable. He took a step towards her, but froze as she stiffened in her chair, as if reflexively.
"Jean, is there something wrong?" he asked tentatively, reaching out to her telepathically.
"Yes, Nathan." She still didn't get up. "There's something very wrong."
The Phoenix effect flared in the dimness, and Nathan staggered as the fabric of the astral plane twisted and warped around him. The shock to his senses was immediate and total, and he was helpless to resist as the astral plane folded in on him like the petals of a flower. Fear and rage penetrated the shock, just for an instant, but the mouth of the trap had closed on him by then, and he couldn't reach beyond the confines of his own mind, couldn't even seem to breathe properly--
His body crumpled to the floor like a rag doll, and the last thing Nathan heard was a cry of rage. Not Jean's, not his--but coming from him?
Darkness took him, on that thought.
Trembling violently, Jean slid out of her chair and hurried over to stand over Nathan's unmoving body. She hesitated long enough to probe his mind lightly, to make sure this wasn't a ruse. Her probe met blank unconsciousness, and she took a deep, shaky breath and knelt down beside Nathan, turning him over onto his back. It was a bit of a struggle - she hadn't expected him to be quite that heavy - but it was done, and he seemed to be breathing all right. His eyes were open, staring up blankly at the ceiling, and she repressed a shudder.
But it had worked. She couldn't quite believe it. There'd been almost no resistance at all; she must have taken Farouk completely by surprise. Jean looked up, away from Nathan's empty eyes, and drew the walls of her fortress inwards, to shield this room as tightly as she could.
Jean looked back down at Nathan, reaching out and brushing a stray lock of silver hair back away from his forehead. His skin was cool, almost clammy. "It'll be all right," she whispered softly, settling into a meditative posture beside him. "I promise."
A few moments to see to her own defenses, and then she closed her eyes, laying her hands lightly on her knees and concentrating on regulating her breathing.
Deep and slow--deep and slow--
She no longer had her telekinesis. Levitating would have let her further divorce herself from the sensations of the physical world, but it wasn't necessary. Determination was enough.
And that, she had in spades. You won't have him, bastard, she thought, holding that promise close to her as she let everything else drain away. It ends here, for good--
The feel of the floor beneath her faded away, and Jean almost smiled. She was floating after all, as light as a feather--no, weightless. The sound of her own heart echoed in her ears for a few moments, and then receded.
Slowly, unhurriedly, she opened her inner eye, and found herself floating amid stars. A starscape, she thought; some sort of transitional area? The stars seemed few and far between around her, but as she looked down, down into infinity, she saw that they increased exponentially, until it reached a place where there was no darkness, only a white sea of light.
Whimsy made her straighten and stretch her astral 'arms' out into a classic swan-dive position. Perfect six, she thought, stepping forward and letting herself fall--
Down, down, until the stars blurred around her--
She hears it in the silence, in the darkness. It sounds like an old scratchy record, but the music is rich nonetheless, oddly compelling.
I've seen that face before
That face that I see in the mirror
I know that face
I've seen that face before...
Sinatra, Jean thinks incredulously. I'm in Nathan's subconscious, and I'm hearing Sinatra music. This is too bizarre.
The man in the looking glass
Who can he be
The man in the looking glass
Can he possibly be me?
Jean yelps as strong hands reach out and turn her around. "You look very nice," Nathan says, drawing her into the dance. They are in an immense ballroom, decorated all in pristine white and mirrors everywhere, the tables set around the dance floor set with bone-white china and fine crystal. Save for them, the ballroom is empty.
Jean glances down at herself, and then back up at him. "Red sequins aren't exactly my style," she says a little weakly. "But you look--very nice in the tuxedo."
"Thank you." He favors her with a wry smile. He dances very well, Jean notes, almost despite herself. "I feel like a penguin."
He seems so much wiser now
Less lonely but then
Could be he's only pretending again...
He dips her, very proficiently, and Jean gasps as he lingers in that position, staring down at her. "You're like this splash of color, against the monochrome," he murmurs, leaning closer. "Like a rose--"
Their lips touch, and Jean, in a moment of sheer panic, forgets that she is in his mind and takes the dangerous step of altering their surroundings; namely, willing herself out of that near-embrace, to arm's length. "Nathan," she gasps out, shocked.
He straightens, looking supremely unconcerned by the appalled look she gives him. "What's the matter, Redd?" he asks, almost gently. She touches her lips, almost despite herself, and he smiles. "Oh, that. A little Oedipal of me, I guess--"
She steps back as he moves towards her, and he frowns. "You're not afraid of me, are you, Redd?" He seems to blur, as if he alone of the entire setting is fast-forwarding like a video tape, and when it stops, he is standing beside a table, filling two crystal goblets with wine that looks like blood. "Have something to drink," he says, taking one in either hand and moving towards her. "You'll feel better if you do."
A drink. A drink will help, Jean thinks wildly, and takes the goblet from him, folding her hands around it carefully and taking a sip. It doesn't taste like wine, she thinks as the warmth of it races through her, driving away the chill. It tastes like sun-warmed berries, freshly picked off the vine, but there is a deeper, wilder edge to the flavor that she doesn't recognize.
"What is it?" she asks softly, not taking another sip. One is enough, from the feel of it.
He blurs back to the table, lifting the bottle and studying it intently. "One of a kind," he says quietly. "Something bottled just before the world forgot how." He opens his hand, and the bottle falls in slow motion, heading for the floor, before it veers suddenly to the left, flies twenty feet through the air and smashes against the white stones of an empty fireplace.
"What are we celebrating?" Jean asks. His goblet has vanished somewhere, right out of his hand. She thinks a little hazily that she doesn't remember actually seeing him drink from it.
"Celebrating?" He steps forward and pulls her into the dance again, smiling faintly. Jean manages to keep a firm grasp on her goblet. "Who says we're celebrating? Maybe this is a wake."
The man in the looking glass
Has no regrets
The man who's wise never forgets...
He spins her out to arm's length, and Jean gasps as the goblet flies out of her hand and shatters noisily on the floor. The music comes to a sudden stop, and they stand there, linked only by their joined hands.
"Ashes, ashes, they all fall down," he says softly, his eyes boring into hers. She looks away, breaks eye contact, and finds her gaze straying to one of the mirrors. She sees herself, sees Nathan--
But there is something else in the mirror. Someone standing behind the mirror--a little boy, a streak of white in his brown hair and a look of sadness on his scarred face. The boy mouths a word--her name, and then vanishes.
Nathan's hand tightens on hers. "Didn't you like that song, Redd?" he asks. "We can try another--"
Jean looks up at him, and shivers at the coldness in his eyes. "No," she whispers. "No, I don't want to dance anymore." She tries to pull away, but he doesn't let her. "Nathan, let go of me--"
He smiles bitterly. "Let you run after him? Let you redeem yourself?" He tugs her closer, his eyes normal like she's never seen them, both storm-cloud gray, seething with shadows. "You don't get that privilege, Jean." His other hand tangles in her hair, wrenching her head back painfully, and Jean shudders as he leans closer. "Then again," he muses, "why not? It might be entertaining."
Jean cries out as he straightens and flings her towards the mirror. She manages to raise her hands to shield her face, but in the end it isn't neccessary. The mirror doesn't shatter. She falls through it, feeling the substance of it tug at her, as if it wants to trap her inside forever, but she makes it through, falling heavily to her knees on a rough stone floor, gasping.
The air is cool and damp, and as Jean pulls herself to her feet, she sees that the red-sequined evening gown has vanished, replaced by what seem almost like ceremonial robes, the same blood-red that the dress had been, with the addition of the Phoenix-symbol in gold across the front. The robes are cumbersome, long enough to drag on the floor behind her, and Jean tries to hold them up, afraid of tripping as she heads down the narrow, uneven stone stairs before her.
"Nathan?" she calls out, her voice touching off endless echoes. There is light coming from somewhere - there has to be, to let her see the staircase - but everything else is in shadow. Water is dripping somewhere, a steady, repetitive noise in the silence. "Nate, are you there?"
No answer, and as she reaches the bottom of the staircase, torches suddenly flare along the walls. She sticks to the lighted path, narrow as it is, and follows it downwards, until she reaches a small stone room, lit with rows and rows of candles.
No. Not just a room--a chapel, she realizes, or something very similar. There is a rough altar, and a stylized Phoenix made of what seems to be beaten gold mounted on the wall above it. Other than the candles, there is nothing else in the room.
"Nate?" Jean says hesitantly. The room is clearly empty, the only entrance the one through which she's just walked. Uneasy, she takes a few steps farther into the room, and then hesitates, seeing something on the floor in front of the altar, glittering gold in the candlelight.
She recognizes it an instant later. Stooping to pick it up, she straightens, and stares down at the Phoenix medallion in her hand, wondering what finding this here means.
"He hasn't been wearing it," she says softly, remembering. Why hadn't she noticed that before? The last time--Akkaba. The last time she can remember seeing him wear it was then. Never afterwards.
That must be significant. Jean looks up at the Phoenix, and then back down sharply as she feels the medallion warm and change in her hand. The small golden snake she now holds curls around her wrist, hissing, and sinks its tiny fangs into her skin before she can throw it away.
She doesn't watch to see where it falls. It feels like her blood's turned to fire in her veins, and as she falls to her knees, she finds herself without even the breath to cry out.
The candle flames roar upwards suddenly, and the room swells into immensity as she falls the rest of the way to the floor. The shadows press in against the cage of fire that encloses her, and Jean manages to raise her head.
Standing there, just beyond the flames, is the boy. Nathan. He shakes his head, piercing sadness in his eyes, and through the flames, Jean sees the snake twining around his forearm.
"Ashes to ashes," he says very softly, as if confiding a secret. "Universe to universe."
And the flames close in on her, searing the robes to ashes in an instant. She can smell her own hair burning, her own flesh crisping--
But even as she screams, the room is shaking, rocking back and forth--
--"Jean!" Someone was shaking her by the shoulders, Jean realized distantly. Shaking her, hard enough to break her out of her meditative state, which was ordinarily a bad thing, but now--
Now, the part of her that was still thinking rationally pointed out, it might have just saved her life. Gathering her scattered composure, Jean reached out, just enough to identify who had intervened.
"Ororo," she breathed, and slumped backwards against the other woman. The burning pain was fading - *not real, none of it was real* - and leaving behind only a pounding headache to remind her of how close she'd come. Too close--far too close. And the most terrifying thing was that she was fairly sure the attack hadn't come from Farouk.
"Goddess, Jean, what is going on?" Ororo asked urgently, supporting her. "Talk to us, please--"
Someone else was kneeling in front of her, tilting her chin upwards. Fighting exhaustion, Jean forced her eyes open and met Remy's concerned red-on-black gaze. "Shouldn't be here--" she managed, the words coming out slurred, and probably hardly reassuring, from her teammates' point of view. Which might be a concern, she supposed, if she had the time to waste with reassurances.
"Jeanne, we need t'know what's going on," Remy said levelly, as if he hadn't heard her. "We heard y' screaming from outside, came up here and found Nate on de floor--"
Strength born of panic flooded Jean as she looked past Remy and saw Hank bending over Nathan's prone body. "No!" she gasped out, tearing herself out of Ororo's supporting grip. "Hank, don't touch him!"
Hank drew back instantly. "Jean, what is it?" he asked, softly but urgently.
He was still too close to Nathan. If she'd had her telekinesis, she would have pulled him away, but she didn't have that option, not anymore--"Back away," she said, just as softly but even more vehemently. Hank blinked at her, and then obeyed. Jean took a deep, shaky breath and shook her head, trying to clear it. "Don't touch him, any of you--you all need to get out of here, right now. Out of the house."
Ororo's hand came down on her shoulder. "Jean, we cannot simply leave you to deal with this alone, whatever this is--"
Jean bit back a curse and reached out telepathically. They were leaving this room, all three of them, and if she had to force them to go, so be it--
Remy reached out, his hand closing around her wrist as he directed an unmistakably warning look at her. "Non, Jeanne," he said steadily, clearly aware of what she'd been about to do. "You tell us what de matter is, right now."
The note of command in his voice was so firm that Jean hesitated, just for a moment. Remy smiled tightly and adjusted his grip, taking her hand in his but staring intently at her, his gaze steady and unblinking.
He was right, she thought suddenly. Idiocy, to go in without at least telling them what was going on. "All right," she said raggedly. "But out in the hall." She couldn't risk the astral trap being disrupted, not while Farouk was still--
Nathan suddenly came bolt upright, his eyes still wide and blank but his face distorted in a mask of rage. Jean instinctively reached out to the structure of her trap, trying frantically to strengthen it.
But he didn't make any attempt to break through it. Instead, his hand shot out, grabbing her other wrist, and Jean shrieked as she was pulled down into his mind, her consciousness ripped out of her body and swallowed by a maelstrom of darkness.
She didn't feel the other three being pulled in after her.
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