Dreams in the Mist
This story, for reference's sake, is set between chapters 28 and 29 of Alicia McKenzie's "True Believers," is posted with her approval, and is naturally dedicated to her for all her delightful stories as well as her friendship, encouragement, and help with writing it. It could also be considered a response to Kielle's "Back to Basics" Subreality challenge, though it's technically a little late. Many thanks go to (naturally!) Alicia, as well as Mitai and everyone else who provided comments.
#I have to get out of here.#
Cable glanced around, a bit wildly. The Subreality Café was beginning to seem unutterably stifling. He was actually much calmer than he had been when last written, but the last several minutes had suggested that his "break" from torment wasn't much of a vacation.
When last written. That was exactly the problem. He'd dropped directly into the Café from mid-battle, in a high state of emotional turmoil, with Phoenix-fire raging frozen around his body. Every other fictive, including the ones from his own story, was giving him a wide berth and nervous glances, except for those brave, kind, concerned, generous, helpful, annoying souls who solicitously sprayed him with the fire extinguishers. He dropped his head wearily and groaned as a dollop of white foam dripped off his hair and plopped directly into his coffee. #Murphy. Ought to be my Writer's name, it really should.# After a moment of contemplation, he gulped it down anyway and grimaced. Insipid. Apocalypse's theory was exactly WRONG as applied to coffee, he mused; the strongest coffee never survived because it went straight down his throat, while the weaker brews sat around or were poured surreptitiously into unappreciative potted plants.
His head jerked up as he sensed the approach of three Dominoes, four other Cables, one Aliya, five Cyclopes, and a Grizzly, all wearing determined expressions and fire-fighting gear. #Oath they aren't even thinking I'm a threat, just in trouble,# he realized after the first flash of paranoia subsided. Despite or because of? the static and rather avian conflagration surrounding him, no one had really tried to attack. #Oh, no, nobody attacking. Not since my allies turned on me when I tried--# He cut off that line of thought abruptly, and tried to look at things rationally. Given the state of mind he'd carried in, that was difficult. #I've been treating Xavier's mansion like a trap, having fistfights with mirrors, manifesting the Phoenix,# he glanced ruefully up at one arching wing that was quietly singeing the rafters, #practically draining Dom, cutting off the psi-link # Cable shut his eyes tightly and a tear leaked down the side of his nose as the area of his mind around the link cramped painfully in longing.
The laughter in the parts of the Café not swept clear by his wings was almost unbearable. Seventeen tables of Rogue-Remy couples swapping tales of what their Writers had put them through before they finally got together three years ago, or five, or seven, or how they were tragically lost to one another and then, blessedly, left alone to live happily ever after in Subreality, at least between readings. The corner booth filled and overflowing with at least four versions of Generation X, the happiest set of which seemed to keep turning at random into cats. #Cats?# He tried to focus. One Jubilee looked very grown-up and a little sad, and was leaning comfortably but platonically against Jonothon. One turned into a half-grown kitten as he watched, and clambered onto Synch's head. A third was waving a baby doll in the air to punctuate some rigmarole that was drawing gales of laughter from most of her table. One was with Angelo and he blinked a real baby. He rubbed his eyes and stared at the Stryfe who, apparently invisible to the rest of the Café, was beaming beatifically at the happy family. He stood up suddenly, overturning the table, plunging through a barrage of foam from the charging rescue brigade and then staggering towards the door, wrestling the unwieldy flaming wings past an obstacle course of chairs and tables.
Cable didn't even know if he ran or flew out of the warm, over-cheerful glow into the mists of Subreality, but must have been flying when he realized the ground had disappeared. He stopped, saw a surface of sorts appear near his feet, and collapsed in exhaustion onto nothing as the mirage disappeared. It made little difference he was far enough into the realms of pure imagination that there was no structure, only the chaos between thoughts. Fortunately, this also meant that if he thought there was a place to sit, there was. He looked around as rainbows arced through scraps of fog and shrieks, wails, banners, umbrellas and the occasional hedgehog swirled in the gusts of wind, and slumped, dejected. Not only had he managed to alienate his family, friends, and allies within the story and then terrorize the Café, he had now succeeded in getting completely lost!
Bright shards of flat light began gently, lazily drifting in. An especially large oblong turned vertically to face him. ~Nathan?~
He froze and stared at his reflection. #Not again!#
~Not what again? Oh...~
#Not a reflection. Can't be a reflection. Glowing eye would be on his RIGHT if it were a reflection stab his eyes, one of him is enough!#
The man stepped out of the oblong, looking somewhat concerned and immediately throwing up telekinetic shields as golden psi-fire shot at him. "Nathan "
Cable felt a light scan and then a flood of calming empathy, and uneasily halted the attack his double was diverting. #Not as if I could block a telepathic attack right now if my life depended on it.# He studied the new arrival sharply. #Looks like Stryfe. It CAN'T be Stryfe. Entirely too calm.# Not that he was one to talk about being calm, lately.
"Nathan," the man started again, "I'm not who I look. . . like. . . ah, not who you think I am. . . You know, I should really have rehearsed this introduction again."
Cable, still tense, looked warily at his double. "Maybe you could start with who you ARE instead of explaining who you AREN'T," he suggested. The look he got in return was a strange mixture of amusement and something akin to regret or longing.
"I'm Christopher Summers."
"Sure you are." #Christopher?! What is this me, never infected with the virus in some timeline?# Christopher, whatever his origins, was certainly taking the sight of a wild-eyed Cable surrounded by the Phoenix effect well in stride. Surprisingly well, really; Cable had a fairly good idea what he must look like, currently, and probably wouldn't have reacted with nearly as much aplomb. And certainly not with that peculiarly wistful, measuring expression.
"Really. It's. . . slightly complicated. Care to sit down? You don't look as if you've been getting much rest lately."
Cable laughed a bit weakly. #Body language, telepathy, voice, he's either not a threat and wants me to know it, or putting on one fantastic act.# "That's something of an understatement." He watched curiously as Christopher turned to the oblong, which twisted slightly in the breezes as if hung on a string, steadied it, and drew a place from it in a faint golden glow. The oblong grew larger and then disappeared completely as the ground that wasn't there flowed into it and merged into the rug and furniture coming out.
They were standing in what appeared to be part of a library or study, with a rug on the floor beneath a cherry-wood table, at a comfortable height for sitting and reading. Christopher took one of the two chairs and his eye flashed slightly as the other was nudged away from the table. Nathan started to sit down and cringed as his peripheral vision caught one stiff flaming wing brush far too close to a bookshelf. One that appeared, come to think of it, to be standing on nothing at all. There was no floor past the edge of the rug.
"The Phoenix," Nathan growled, "is being uncooperative. Or maybe catatonic. I'm not really sure. I was using it or maybe the other way around," he added reluctantly, "when my Writer last stopped. That apparently means it's just going to hold its shape as much as possible until she starts the next chapter." He wondered why he was bothering to explain this when he still wasn't sure who his. . . guest? Host? Time-wandering duplicate? #Well, that would cover practically any possibility, now wouldn't it?#. . . was. "It keeps catching on things and scorching them unless I fight with it."
"Let me see if. . . there." Christopher blinked as a telekinetic prod coincided with the wings' disintegration. "That was unexpected."
"What IS that?" Nathan looked over his shoulder, then at it. The wings were gone, and some sort of black and dull red powder was sprinkled over him and much of the rug, deep enough below the line the wings had followed to form drifts.
Christopher moved to kneel on the carpet and pick up a handful. He sniffed at it, then sneezed violently over his shoulder and brushed off his hands. "Pepper." He returned to his seat. Nathan stared at him and slowly sat down as well.
"You have got to be kidding."
Christopher looked slightly indignant. "I am not."
"Why would the Phoenix turn into pepper?"
"I have no idea. At least now you won't set the library on fire."
Cable studied the peppered pattern of blue and green and burgundy on the rug, then prodded the floor with his foot. It felt as if there was wood there. The bookcases sheltering the area looked solid enough, but most of them still appeared to be standing firmly on air and mist. Then again, he'd been doing the same for a while. He looked back up and across the table. "That does help. You were going to explain who you are? Who's your Writer?"
"The same as yours. Alicia."
Cable smiled wryly. "I can't even claim her in the Café. Too many of her assorted versions of me are too well known for being. . . explosive. Volatile. Well meaning, but high powered and more than slightly unbalanced."
One eyebrow lifted as Christopher looked pointedly at the pepper strewn around the area. "I've noticed. And I don't mean to be rude, but I got the idea you fit that description yourself at the moment."
"Pretty obvious right now, isn't it?" Cable said ruefully. "It's usually easier to stay comparatively calm, or sane, in the Café the feelings from the story aren't as intense when I'm not in it." He looked quizzically at Christopher. "But if she writes you, I guess you know that. You're powerful enough I'm surprised she hasn't got you raving even here, actually."
A steaming coffeepot and two mugs already full folded out of the air onto the table. Christopher stared into his mug and answered slowly, "She doesn't exactly. . . I'm not quite real."
"We're fictives. What's your point?"
"That isn't what I meant." Again, that oddly wistful smile. "Time for that explanation, I suppose. In my timeline you're dead."
"Really." There was an edge to Cable's voice as suspicion was reawakened.
"You're thinking I'm Stryfe's alternate." Christopher hadn't needed to scan to realize that, of course. "I am, I suppose but I assure you I am not Stryfe. There never was one, in that timeline. No Cable, for that matter. After. . . Nathan, and 'Slym and Redd' all arrived in the future, Nathan didn't survive the virus. Slym and Redd found me, though they raised me, not Apocalypse." He finally looked up from the coffee. "I always wondered what my brother would have been like, though."
Their eyes met across the table. Nathan was at a loss for words. A timeline where he'd hardly existed just long enough that his clone could. No Stryfe. No techno-organic parasite sapping this one's strength, occupying energy and concentration, no... #I wonder if he ever met the Askani.# Nathan's next thought was bitter: #I bet if he did their "Chosen One" didn't fail them the way I did!# He dropped his eyes to his coffee, then gulped it down to cover the nervous swallow when he realized Christopher had done the same, simultaneously. He glanced around the room again anywhere but at Christopher and began to relax again, almost despite himself, as the dark wood and warm light and sheltered atmosphere seeped calm and security into his mind. He noticed that the wind had stopped, here, and with it the eerie cries and nonsensical projectiles. The silence stretched and almost started to seem comfortable. Nathan looked down at the table again and discovered that his coffee mug had refilled itself. He took a sip and stared into the fireplace. It was a nice fire, he thought, warming the room and burning its allotted fuel without the raging, tearing hunger and triumph of the Phoenix.
"Nathan..." Christopher's voice was uncertain, almost a plea. After a moment, when Cable looked up inquiringly but didn't speak, he added, "You could say something, you know. You've gone through four cups of coffee since either of us last spoke, and the complete lack of response is becoming a little unnerving."
Nathan studied his double across the table and discovered that Christopher was looking back with what appeared to be a surprising amount of anxiety. The thought stirred that this brother of his might actually be worried about his reaction. #Why would he care? About the opinion of a failure? About the opinion of a man who'd not only lost the war but started it again, only to lose again and then run away from the doom of the people he'd destroyed...# He dragged his mind off yet another pointless train of regrets -- #What is, is,# he told himself sternly, and tried to ignore the temptation towards wild laughter at a platitude that seemed even emptier than usual. "I, ah, didn't mean to ignore you." He gulped at his coffee again. "Uh, nice to meet you."
Christopher stared at his brother. "Nathan " He trailed off for a deep breath, then continued, "First, yes, nice to meet you too. Second... your shields are still in very bad shape, and while there aren't too many stray thoughts around here that you're likely to have trouble with especially between the bookcases when you think that forcefully it's fairly hard for me to ignore." Christopher gazed seriously at his brother and reached around the coffeepot to grasp Nathan's shoulder. "Don't believe for a moment, *Dayspring*, that you're a failure. You killed Apocalypse, you led a rebellion for *years* -- I know; I've watched your timeline -- and you're going to kill the Timewalker again and sooner to free the whole mass."
Cable tried to wrench away from the grip he could feel clearly even through body armor. Christopher's fingers only tightened. "If you 'watched' then you KNOW how I failed them! All of them! We *lost*--" The thick ceramic of the mug cracked and was crushed together in a small flood of coffee as his metal hand clenched convulsively. His agonized snarl ended in a half-strangled sob and his hands shook as he continued in a rasping whisper, "We lost. They were promised a savior and all I gave them was a death I didn't even share..."
"You gave them hope."
"Empty hope. Worse than none at all."
"There's very little that's worse than no hope at all," Christopher informed him firmly. "You gave them something to believe in, something to fight for, for years, Nathan! A reason, a cause do you truly believe they'd have preferred to spend the rest of their lives groveling at the feet of Haight's flunkies?" He shook his head and added more gently, "They knew there was risk, Nathan; if they'd wanted relative safety they wouldn't have followed you. And the end... most certainly was not your fault. I don't suppose you'll listen, but I'll tell you anyway don't blame yourself." Nathan looked down at the table and watched dully as the destroyed mug and spilled coffee faded from existence and were replaced by a perfectly intact, full mug. He almost missed the much softer, "Besides... you did far better than I did."
He looked up sharply. "What do you mean? All your power I'd think you were what their 'Chosen One' should have been in the first place. And," his mouth twisted bitterly, "no Stryfe against you."
"Thank you for the reminder," Christopher replied tightly. "Their Chosen One was *dead*, Nathan. I wasn't him. Wasn't you. The Askani didn't care to settle for a substitute." He sighed. "If they weren't willing to be satisfied with the clone they shouldn't have bothered... never mind. At any rate, I was fool enough to try to lead a rebellion without them, and without the kind of support you could have drawn. There's only so much one man's powers can do, Nathan it was over within months. If not before it ever started."
Nathan flinched. "I didn't mean..." He stopped, closed his eyes. Apologies would be pointless, after all. Something about Christopher's mention of the Askani's rejection... "They told you that you weren't 'real' because you were the clone? Is that what you meant before?" He shook his head. "I used to believe that. I learned better. Load of pipe."
Christopher's mouth quirked. "Thank you. Really; I probably needed to hear that. But what I actually meant was that I wasn't quite a real fictive I'm an Unwritten. Better planned than most this is Alicia, after all so I have a little more substance."
"She never wrote your story? Are you expecting her to get around to it?"
"Not exactly. She *is* writing it she just changed her mind and found a different plot from the one I would have fit into." Christopher looked faintly amused. "I was supposed to drop in on you, in fact."
Nathan's mouth dropped open. "You were supposed to be in my story? Cross-time? What were you doing?"
Christopher sighed and stared into his coffee again. "After we lost, I became something of a... a cross-time nomad. Visited my parents briefly, mostly searched for timelines where you had a chance and tried to lend a hand where I could. At least, that was the idea. And no, the Askani were not overly thrilled with my interference."
"As far as I care right now, the Askani's cross-time policing can go right to the incinerators," Nathan said moodily. He almost laughed at Christopher's startled expression. "It's too bad she decided to drop you..."
"Not necessarily." Christopher shrugged. "I think she was going to have me killed. I don't mind being Unwritten, particularly, though it did mean I couldn't do much until you left the Café. But I noticed you were having a rough time in the Café of course, but I've been keeping up with the real plot as well and thought since we were once supposed to meet perhaps I could..."
"Offer moral support?"
"Pretty much, yes."
"Thanks." There was another long pause. "So... you did say you met the Askani; did you know Aliya? She would have had to be... very different, to dismiss you just for..."
Christopher's look made Nathan trail off. "I knew her, yes," Christopher replied softly. "We married."
"Did she come with you when you were jumping timelines?" Nathan asked incautiously, then hesitated. "Was... she all right?"
Christopher jerked his gaze back to the coffee and stared at it, unblinking, for a long moment. "Don't..." He took a long, shuddering breath and raised his eyes again. "Please, Nathan, don't ask me that."
It was Nathan's turn to reach across the table and grasp his brother's shoulder. The pain in Christopher's eyes, and flickering strongly enough behind his shields to be perceived, was terribly familiar and very nearly too great to bear. "Christopher... I'm sorry."
He watched as the hurt receded not far, never that far, but the expression of sympathy from one who genuinely knew the sorrow could not but help a little. Christopher's lips twitched slightly. "Now that... that I never thought to hear from the Askani'Son." His voice was still shaky. "But I was planning to cheer you up, not..."
"It wasn't an apology. I'm allowed," Nathan interrupted gruffly. "And I'm glad to have met you. I really do appreciate *OATH*!" He roared in frustration as the distinctive summoning for a new chapter took hold and the Phoenix effect sprang back to life around him. He stood, shadow-like in the flames, and unwillingly started away from the haven. "She's at it again I'm off to the treadmill, wish me luck..."
"Nathan!" Cable turned back, at the edge where rug met mist, to see Christopher also on his feet. "On that note, try listening to Domino..." Christopher had to shout over the growing howl of wind and fire around his brother, but moved toward him despite the surrounding conflagration. "You won't remember this of course, but you do win in the end; I've seen the last sequel..."
"That's... comforting in a long-term sense, I guess see you after this chapter?" Nathan shouted back.
"I'll look for you. Come outside again. And... however rough it may be... g'journey!"
Nathan nodded, once, and was gone from Subreality.
Christopher dropped the hand he had raised in farewell, and returned with a faint smile and a small sigh to the quiet sanctuary of the library-fragment. Then he turned to the oblong shard of light that had been pretending to be a mirror on the wall, and took the sanctuary with him as he stepped through it back to a peaceful corner of Alicia's mind.
Disclaimer: All fictional characters present or mentioned, except the infant, are in some way based on ones belonging to Marvel. No money is being made due to this story, at least not that I know of. The concept of the Subreality Café and the Café itself belong to Kielle. The Cable in question is from the Outsider's Arc and the Unwritten Christopher was once supposed to be in it. Both belong to Alicia. Alicia belongs to herself, but I think her Cable-horde have a significant stake in her brain. The Gambits and Rogues are fairly random. Pick some. The Generation X with Jubilee telling animated stories and holding a baby doll are from "A Short (and Somewhat Inaccurate) History of the X-Men" by Jaelle and Orla. The other three Generation X's belong to Dyce. The Jubilee (or Jewel) leaning on Jonothon is from "Maturity in B-Minor." The set who turn into cats are from the Generation Cat series. The parental Jubilee and Angelo, their baby, and the unusually beatific Stryfe are from "Dammed Time and Damned Time."
The title is a line from the song "These Dreams" by Heart. The song and the story actually have absolutely nothing to do with each other aside from a certain level of surreality and fog.
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