In My Image
Viashan didn't see blackness, he was practiced enough to exist deep in Sam's subconscious in a way similar to the astral plane. An illusion of physical reality, shaped to suit his needs. But right now he saw nothing, because his eyes were squeezed shut. The imaginary tears still seeped out, falling onto the black cloth covering his knees as he curled into a ball. Black cloth which he'd left behind in the future. If only he could have left his feelings behind, become the cold and emotionless being people had assumed him to be. Done what was necessary, changed the past, and then slipped away.
But I can't. How can I? They're all here, still alive, still happy... He paused, not wanting to face what was really hurting. She's still here. I should have known, even though I changed it and it was different. But it hurts, it hurts so much...
He didn't know if he would be able to manage it, was terrified that he might fail because he couldn't handle the pain. Nothing had scared him for a very long time. Years, not since he'd become Viashan. The Soulless One. A name from a fairy-tale that attached to him as he turned into an urban legend, a shadowy figure of cold vengeance and romanticized grief.
I thought nothing could hurt me any more than it already had... fool. Sit here, watch them live and laugh and fight... and know how they die. Look at Dani's face and see the lines and scars that aren't there yet, and remember the dead hopelessness in her eyes that last year. When she finally died it was a relief to her. But not for me. Never for me.
Remember, know it will happen if you can't stop it but see it all as it used to be and know that it IS... Did you think all the pain in the world could prepare you for that? He sobbed, struggling helplessly against the tearing of a soul he wasn't supposed to have anymore, the breaking of a heart he'd thought shattered beyond any feeling.
Tears still falling, tears he should have been able to stop with a thought. 'Didn't think that you could'... neither did I, Stryfe. Neither did I. But he can make me cry, damn him. That little me can, without ever knowing it. So innocent, so whole... And so much ahead of him, so many wonderful new things to discover before it all comes crashing down and tears him to pieces. You know what, you bastard clone? I want to be him again. More than anything, I want to be him.
* * *
Cable was waiting in ambush. He might have managed to slip out unhindered due to the arrival of unexpected visitors, but there was no way Sam was going to get back in without a good hard looking-at and a telepathic inspection. He even had Pete reluctantly guarding the front door while he talked to Ian, Tamara's father.
Nathan had never met Tamara before, he'd lost contact with Ian after he retired from the mercenary business to get married and settled down fourteen years earlier. They hadn't been exactly been best friends even before then, although they'd got along well.
Then again, when your daughter starts causing indoor whirlwinds with the crockery when she gets annoyed you become willing to look up a lot of old contacts, if just to save damage to the walls. Just having someone pronounce 'yup, serious telekinetics' seemed to have relieved him a great deal, although Cable wasn't sure why. Ah well, as long as Ian didn't interfere with his ambush...
"I've been meaning to ask... the name Tamara?"
Ian shrugged and grinned. "I liked the sound of it. But it hasn't seemed to have had much of an effect. She shows absolutely no affinity for guns, and has a depressing tendency to answer to Tammy."
"Don't tell Dom."
"She already noticed. Just rolled her eyes and gave me that Look."
The door opened and Cable turned. "Sam. Where did you run off to?"
Sam conscientiously closed the door behind him and shrugged. "Just went for a walk. Seemed to do some good, Ah feel a lot better." And he looked it. The withdrawn, confused look of the past few weeks had disappeared without a trace. He almost looked cheerful.
Nathan's eyes narrowed as he reached out awkwardly to scan the relaxed young mind. There was a little pain from his injury, and he felt a bit tired, but otherwise seemed normal. Sudden mood swings like that were more than simply wrong. It was... creepy, to say the least. "Excuse me, Ian. I need to talk to Sam for a minute."
Ian nodded. "Sure. I'll just help myself to a drink or three while you're gone."
Sam looked puzzled and he was hustled out of the kitchen and down the hall. "What's wrong?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of you telling me that." Reasonable hadn't worked, patient hadn't worked, and subtle hadn't worked. Confrontational was about all he had enough patience left for.
"Huh? What did Ah do?"
"Let me count. You beat up Jesse, using moves you don't know. You pulled Dom and Jim out from under that temple using your powers in a way which is completely beyond anything you've ever done before, and haven't seemed able to repeat. Then you turned into a basket case, avoiding everybody and spending more and more time alone. Oh, and woken up screaming at least twice, then swore black and blue that all of us were hearing things."
Sam looked utterly blank. Or, as Domino might have been inclined to say, very blond. "What?"
"You heard me."
"Well, yeah, but..." He shrugged helplessly. "Ah admit Ah was a little off for a while, but Ah was black and blue. And Ah wasn't that bad."
"Now Ah feel fine." He looked completely certain of that fact, although possibly not Cable's sanity.
"What were the dreams about, Sam?"
"Ah don't remember any dreams! Well, not ones worth repeatin'."
He knew that was wrong. He knew what someone having a nightmare felt like, how they projected, and Sam had been doing it regularly. But he really didn't remember. Frowning, Cable pushed out a gentle probe. It bounced of shields Sam had probably raised reflexively due to the confrontation. Or possibly not. But when it bounced...
He frowned. It bounced twice. As if there were two sets of shields, of slightly different 'frequency'. If he hadn't been so close he would never have noticed, the second reflection was only a faint echo. But it was there, and it shouldn't have been. It was possible to change the modulation of your shields, in a telepathic battle it was fairly common, but nobody could operate on two frequencies at the same time.
Cable slipped right back into devious mode. "But you've been worrying people, even if you didn't notice. Would you mind dropping your shields for a moment, just so I can make sure you're really okay?" Normally he wouldn't have needed Sam to drop them completely or even voluntarily, but in his state he probably would have hurt both himself and his student had he attempted to push through on his own.
"Okay..." Sam looked dubious, but he did it anyway. He trusted Cable not to look any further than to confirm that he felt okay...
And I have to betray that trust. Flonq it all, I just hope he understands... Taking a deep breath, Cable reached out to brush Sam's mind. And encountered only smooth normality. It was too smooth, there should have been at least a trace of the nightmares if he remembered them at all. Wincing, he pushed firmly past the surface layer and inspected underneath. There there were traces of trauma, but faint ones going nowhere.
The wince turned to a frown. No, they did connect to something... something deep and newly disturbed. Sam's mind had always seemed a little odd, his subconscious especially. But after the echo and the way this confusion and distress linked back, now he was 'looking' straight at the oddness. If it hadn't 'moved', he might not have noticed even then... but it was a patch of intense emotion that clashed with the cool concern of Sam's conscious thought. A darker blotch against a soft green glow.
A repressed memory that something had triggered? A trace of old coercions? Gingerly, Cable reached out to touch it lightly... and found himself hurled forcibly out of Sam's mind before he even had time to think of fighting it. And if it hadn't been such a ridiculous way of putting it, he'd have said that it bit him on the way out.
Something had been disturbed. And it was angry.
Shaking his head, Cable tried to calm the stinging of the mental slap/bite that had accompanied his eviction. Then he looked up, and wished he hadn't. Sam's shocked, hurt expression was as impossible to avoid as it was to ignore.
"What did you do that for? You said... dammit, that HURT! And Ah certainly don't remember giving you permission to go that deep!"
"I needed to make sure. And Sam, there IS something wrong."
Blue eyes narrowed angrily. "Can you tell me for sure that there's something there that might hurt me or someone else? That there's anything in mah head that wasn't there before?"
"No, it was always there. And by the look of it it's already hurt YOU!"
"Cable, the only pain Ah'm feeling is what you just did to me. Ah trusted you." He turned, almost walking away.
"I know, and I didn't want to do that to you!" Patience breaking, Cable grabbed Sam by the shoulders and pulled him back around until they were face to face again. "But there is something wrong!"
Sam brought his arms up inside to break the grip, just as he'd been trained. Except that fury made him clumsy and excessive, bruising them both. "Like you can talk! You're in no position to dictate psychic health to anyone! Glass houses and all that..."
That was also more retaliatory viciousness than was Sam's usual. "My power may be erratic, but there's nothing wrong with my judgment. I know a problem when it leaps out and smacks me!"
"You can't even defend yourself, what gives you the right to dictate what is and what isn't safe for anybody else?"
Gritting his teeth, Cable plowed on. "There is something inside you. And I don't know what it is, but it's probably important that I find out!"
"Are you sure it's not something inside you?" Sam stopped and frowned, as if confused at himself. "Ah can take care of mahself." Then he turned and made yet another swift exit, heading upstairs this time.
A clash. Viashan cursed Stryfe and all his ancestors with the experience of nearly two thousand years, reaching Corsair's great-grandfather and something almost physically impossible involving a high-ranking Askani before he ran out of steam. His stupid wipe clashes with the other protections that come up when someone asks about me! I'll kill the little brat. Or at least make him do something really demeaning... Before he'd even started to think about what, he crashed into someone. A smaller someone.
With Sam startled and Viashan pessimistically expecting Tamara, they were both surprised to hear Domino ask why the hell wasn't he watching where he was going.
"Ask Cable," Sam muttered, ducking into his room and shutting the door. He felt a little guilty about that, but the telepathic intrusion had made him feel angry and a bit nauseous, which tended to bring out the worst in him. Why did he DO that? Ah haven't had any nightmares, not even any ordinary nasty dreams. Well, except that one this afternoon, but Ah don't even REMEMBER that... He thought it had had Stryfe in it. Then again, it might have been Apocalypse.
Stryfe, Viashan thought, would be really angry if he heard that. He seemed to like being X-Force's greatest fear, but being mingled with Apocalypse in that role would certainly be considered offensive. Then somewhere within hearing distance Tamara laughed, and all thoughts of discretion or Stryfe's feelings fled. Viashan took three large steps, threw open the window and took off with stealth that had taken years to perfect.
A bare minute later when a united front entered, the window was still open and the slightly chilly wind was the only occupant.
No matter how annoyed he was, there was really only one place he could go in this state. Viash needed to complain and get very very drunk, and Stryfe was just the one to provide the ear and the alcohol.
He felt safe talking to Stryfe. It was really quite risky in that Stryfe didn't really like him, prowled his defenses constantly for any weak spot and hit straight at any he found, but safe because Viashan felt no need to be polite. He could push back, be deliberately hurtful, get angry and refuse to apologize. Speak in any slur of language from various time periods and feel assured of being at least generally understood, be as nasty as he wanted without being pitied or patronized.
Stryfe didn't expect him to be nice or like people. He could be Viashan in all his icy hatefulness because Stryfe didn't know Sam Guthrie and didn't care to. Viashan he knew and grudgingly respected to the point of cooperating with reasonable requests after just a little flattery most of the time.
And to an extent, it was the same going the other way. Stryfe had few pretences in front of someone as old as Viashan, who knew him and his world so well. Anger yes, resentment for whole lists of things, sure. But a kind of vicious honesty and the unspoken agreement... that it was a big world out there which they didn't fit into, and that about the only chance they had to get what they both desperately wanted was to work together.
* * *
"Gracing me with your presence again so soon?" Stryfe was quite obviously less than happy to see him. In fact, if he hadn't know that Germanicus was no match for even the younger version of Samuel Guthrie he probably would have taken great pleasure in releasing the hound.
"Lucky you, huh?" Viash shook his/their head angrily. "You screwed up. When Cable spotted me and asked, the all-happy-nothing's-wrong wipe tied my defenses in knots. I had to push the polite little bastard into counter-attacking enough to get away, and with mood-swings like that..."
"Why not just tell him? I admit Nathan is stupidly rigid about many things, but it would probably be easier that way. You wouldn't be working against yourself, for a start."
"No." Stryfe glared. "I don't have a lot of patience, and it will only stretch so far. Remember this, O Great Soulless One... I'm bigger than you, I'm more powerful than you, and I'm a whole lot nastier than you. So if you don't stop playing both ends off against the middle and hiding things from me, I don't really see why I should do a flonqing thing you say."
Viash took several mental steps back and revised his strategy. What he had of one, which hadn't been much to start with and was rapidly being shot to hell. The trouble with being so old was that you forgot how fast other people grew up and then grew old and argumentative... "I liked you better when you were sixteen."
"All hormones and anger and easy to steer? I like being middle-aged better."
"A lot of people wouldn't agree with you on that one."
"Unlike others in this room, there aren't a lot of me."
"There's three of you, and every one is a pain in the ass. But so far you're the most useful, so if you take me out and get me really, really drunk I might answer some questions before I remember why that's a stupid idea."
Stryfe knew that that was as good as he was going to get. And given that in truth there were several ways that he wasn't more powerful and he almost certainly wasn't meaner, it was a pretty good deal. And Viashan being desperate enough to put himself in such a vulnerable position was certainly worth exploring. "Okay. Let's get drunk."
Despite that statement, Stryfe himself drank little. It was enough that Viashan didn't seem to find it odd, but given Stryfe's physical size he barely even felt it. Viash, on the other hand, was drinking hard liquor as if he was afraid it was going to try and run away.
"What are you trying to drown, old one?" Stryfe asked gently in Canaanite as soon as he judged that his sometime-ally was drunk enough. 'Old one' was supposed to be respectful, but Stryfe had been using it sarcastically for some years.
Viash looked thoughtfully at his glass and snorted. "Myself. I'm having a lot more trouble staying distant than I thought I would. Especially now things have changed and I don't know exactly what will happen."
"I saved Domino and James Proudstar from dying in one of Apocalypse's traps. Well, not exactly me. I was half-awake and the boundaries between the two of us were blurring a little. His thoughts were connecting to some of my memories and experiences."
Stryfe hissed faintly. "That's a large change."
"I saw no reason to stop it." He still didn't look directly into the other man's face. "It makes things unpredictable, Nathan especially. But anything that changes where he ends up is probably a good thing."
"Is that why you never tried to prevent me killing him?"
"No." He threw back the last of the drink and set the glass down hard. "I just knew you'd never manage it. Although it might have been a good thing if you did."
Stryfe rolled his eyes. "Then why don't you kill him? You're in the body of one of the people he trusts the most, and I gather that he's not exactly at his best. It should be easy."
"It would be. But I won't do it. I'm here to change things so that it works out, not kill him just because I might fail! Besides, haven't you made me betray that trust enough for one lifetime?"
Insulted, Stryfe pulled back a little and glared. "I didn't make you do anything. You offered."
"Only because I had no other choice. Now I do, and I won't kill him unless I have to."
"Under what circumstances would that be? Just so that I know. After all, if anyone's going to kill him it's only fair that it should be me."
Waving for another drink, Viash shot him a nasty look with slightly unfocussed eyes. "I'm not so drunk that I can't tell you're interrogating me, Stryfe. Trust me, if you see it you'll know when. Not that you'll succeed."
"You didn't last time. You tried very hard, and he killed you instead." With deep concentration he patted Stryfe on the shoulder. "Don't worry, he only had time to torture you a little bit. You'd hardly started screaming yet."
"Was that supposed to be comforting?" It certainly didn't make him feel more comfortable. The last time he'd had to scream from pain had been when Apocalypse had.... no, he didn't want to think about that.
The blue eyes seemed to darken as Stryfe's telepathic perceptions blended with the visual. Shadows of memories, haunting ones. "No. You're far too old to need coddling. Your death was easy, comparatively, and you can hardly pretend that you didn't deserve it." But the shadows in his eyes remained dark, and he spoke softly to himself. "More than the others. Unless you believe in blaming the son for the sins of the father..."
"Your son?" Stryfe guessed, noting the characteristic bleakness Viashan always developed when he was thinking about his family.
Unexpectedly, he snorted with laughter. "No, yours. My daughter."
"I don't have a son." He was absolutely, completely certain of that. Tyler was beyond resurrection, and he'd been obsessively careful about accidental conceptions.
"Not yet, no. You will. A very powerful, impulsive son who's far too handsome for his own good and you never get to know. I did, and frequently wished he'd never been born. But I couldn't help liking him a little anyway." Viash smirked. "But don't consider this a warning. I'm changing things left, right and center now, you don't know if you'll even meet his mother let alone have sex at just the right time."
"But I might." Stryfe glared.
"You might. And I will take great pleasure in watching your face if you do."
After a moment of wrestling with his curiosity, Stryfe gave in. "Since if things happen the way they did I'll die before I 'get to know him' but if they don't he might never even be born, there's no harm in you telling me about him now."
"No, curious. He wasn't as revolting as Tyler, was he?"
"No. He was a bit smaller than you, but still taller than me. Ran off to Madripoor when he was seventeen and disappeared for two years... not that I minded. He was far too interested in my then-fifteen year old daughter for my peace of mind. Don't laugh, or I'll hurt you." He glared seriously at Stryfe until the smirk faded. "I completely and utterly blame him for her death, so it's hardly amusing." He tossed back the next drink and swayed a little. "First of my kids to die... she was only eighteen, you know. But your little brat had to run off and stop his Uncle Cable, all by himself. He inherited your powers, you know, so he had some chance... but Carrie shouldn't have followed him."
"And they lost. The thing wearing Cable's body caught them trying to run away. It nailed your kid to the wall. Held him against a stone wall and rammed a metal spike through his wrists, then let him hang there." The darkness had grown, his eyes seemed almost black now as they stared unseeing at the bar. "He didn't scream, you know... damn it must have hurt, but he didn't scream. More like you than he knew, I guess. Carrie screamed. It's not something anyone should see happen to someone they know, but it would have been worse for her... Of course, she didn't know how much worse for her it was going to get. Morgan was too dangerous to keep around, but Carrie... she wasn't as powerful as me or her mother, or you for that matter. But what she did have was unusual, and useful. They were going to keep her. Breeding stock."
"They who?! And that really doesn't sound much like Nathan, if you want to drag honesty out of me."
"They them. As opposed to 'us'. A large part of what I'm trying to stop. And I don't think there was really anything of Nathan left by that point, because he was what they were cross-breeding from."
Waves of anger, nausea and hate washed over Stryfe. The alcohol and the recollections were obviously making Viashan drop his shields. Stryfe frowned and extended his to cover them both, strengthening them significantly. The last thing they needed was someone to 'hear' him in this state... "How do you know all this?"
"He sent us a recording. But I had to play it myself, had to actually force myself to watch it because not knowing is much worse... and at least I knew that she died fairly quickly."
"But you said..."
"Oh, that was just what they were planning. You see, what none of us knew was that there was a sniper watching the whole thing. He'd been planning to pick off one of the flunkies, but instead..." He sighed. "It would have taken Morgan an awfully long time to die. He hadn't lost that much blood, so they were probably planning to leave him out there until he died of infection and exposure. A bullet to the brain at that point was a kindness. To them both."
"Yes. He shot Morgan first, thinking maybe Carrie had a chance... but he realized very quickly that that was the only time anyone was ever going to see her alive and it would be easier on her if she died with Morgan. A little mercy goes a long way. I didn't thank him at the time, of course, but later I wished I had."
Stryfe thought about this. He didn't know what had happened to Cable, except that he apparently wasn't Cable anymore, or who the 'they' were. But experience painted the picture, and he wasn't particularly impressed. Letting emotion rule over tactical sense was foolish, no matter how lofty the morality. "He should have used the first shot on an enemy, someone who wasn't already going to die. Why would you thank him for wasting the opportunity?" For some reason, that seemed to anger Viashan. Stryfe didn't understand why. Given what the man had done to get what he wanted, the people he'd happily sacrificed for one goal, it seemed ridiculously hypocritical.
"Stryfe, he was your SON! Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
"I've never met him, why should it?" He shrugged. "And if he was going to die anyway, what was the point?"
Despite the artificial warmth of the alcohol, Viash shivered. "Saving him from days of pain? He was only a kid, he didn't deserve to die like that."
"A great many people do not deserve their deaths. Should one more shock me? It certainly hasn't seemed to bother you in the past, you were just now saying that you might have to kill Cable."
"I know. Since then I've changed a lot, in ways I don't really like. It SHOULD shock us, Stryfe. At least make us sad, or uncomfortable. But it doesn't, does it?" He drew patterns in the water on the bar. A bird-shape, a cross, a few Canaanite letters. "Tell me, Stryfe... how long have we been so cold?"
"For as long as I can remember."
Viashan nodded. He'd grown hard and Stryfe always had been. He didn't know who was worse off, him for knowing what it was like to be different or Stryfe for never knowing. "That's probably why I don't hate you anymore."
"You used to?"
"Oh yes. Now, for instance. I hated you with a passion, you represented almost everything I considered wrong with the world. And you were an enemy. You've hurt a lot of people I cared about, you know that. But now I know you better, and I know me better. You're still a self-centred, violent bastard and I really don't like you. But I'm a self-obsessed lunatic too now, and I don't really care anymore. If we get things the way we want them, it won't even matter." He paused, and looked down at the row of glasses. "Add I'm getting far too drunk. We should go, before I can't walk. Hurry up and pay the man."
The bartender made a point of speaking slowly and clearly. Stryfe ignored it, but Viashan was drunk and volatile. "We speak English just fine. You remember when we ordered? It's my first fucking language."
"It really doesn't take much in the way of lingual skills to say 'double scotch'." Stryfe paid without objecting. Listening had certainly been educational enough to be worth it.
"What language was that? It sounded a bit like Arabic, but you don't look it..."
"It wasn't." Stryfe turned back to Viashan. "Sure you can walk?"
"Yes." He was a bit unsteady, but managed. Stryfe was impressed. Given the amount he'd drunk and his size, he should have been half dead of ethanol poisoning. The light outside seemed a bit harder to deal with, though. He covered his eyes and groaned. "What TIME is it?"
"About eight in the morning."
"I've been drinking all night? Ugh, no wonder I feel maudlin. I think we should walk some of it off and go look for coffee, otherwise I'll never make it back." He started off, and Stryfe followed. Until something caught his attention and he stopped, smirking slightly. "What?"
"That man." Stryfe grinned. "Listen."
Focusing past the alcohol, Viash listened for all of twenty seconds. "Just a mad bible-thumper, Stryfe. I think it's a little late for sinners like us to repent."
As if on cue, a righteous finger was pointed straight at them both. "Have you let Jesus into your hearts?" His voice echoed off the buildings, loud and passionate.
"Don't have one," Stryfe said cheerily. "But I'm a war-mongering mutant clone and an abomination in the sight of God anyway, would he want to come in even if I had one?"
"Doubt it." Viashan turned away. "You don't have a heart, and I don't have a soul. I suspect that men like us are beyond salvation."
End Part Three
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