Disclaimer: Characters and source universe belong to Marvel. The Shadowlands are a modification thereto by Alicia McKenzie, who has approved this use of them. No profit is intended from this other than whatever enjoyment may be or have been derived from writing and reading it.
Postscript to Disclaimer which I forgot on OTL: Diamonde and Lyssie also had roles in inspiring this, but I don't think they know about it yet. Well, NOW they do....
Author's note: I'm taking the novel step of actually posting a story to this list. ;) If we've had anything other than discussion (Don't get me wrong; it was very *interesting* discussion!), my copy got eaten by one of the monsters of Cyberspace, and its author is requested to repeat herself on my behalf.
"I'm not sleepy."
"You need your rest."
"Love... I don't want to go to sleep. I don't feel particularly sleepy." He got a disapprovingly skeptical look for that, but was permitted to continue speaking. For the moment. "I am not going to fall asleep involuntarily, and I'm not going to go to sleep on purpose if I'm on guard duty. Besides, I... don't know how much longer I'll be able to do anything helpful."
She gazed at him reproachfully, arms folded.
"Aliya, I do not want to sleep. I'm not here to sleep. I'm the best choice to keep watch and you know it, and I don't want to dream."
For once she didn't argue the point -- he knew from that very silence that she, too, saw what was coming, so it was surely very close now. Instead she settled for wrapping her arms around his neck and nestling close for a prolonged, urgent kiss that metamorphosed gradually into a more relaxed, tender one. They both lost themselves in it for far longer than would have been appropriate in such perilous conditions if not for the almost painful heightening of Nathan's telepathic and chronovariant awareness, to the point that little or nothing could make an approach that would escape his attention.
Finally, they eased away by mutual agreement, looking long and steadily, searchingly, into one another's eyes.
"Go tend to our people. And then, you go to sleep."
"No, I'm not. I have different reasons. Your sleep habits will have to last longer than mine."
She looked pained, but couldn't deny it. It was true. It was inevitable.
"Quiet vigil, love," she wished him after a long pause, then turned back to the small cluster that was all they had left of Clan Chosen.
Nathan turned to watch her go, fondly and a little wistfully. It was so good to see her again, to see her every day and night, to hold her in his arms, to quarrel and laugh, to work and fight alongside her again. He'd missed her so.
This wasn't the same one, of course, but in a way they all were. All the same, and all different -- and if he wasn't her first Nathan, which he wasn't, it didn't matter, because he and his others were more the same than almost any other set of alternates. So perhaps she wasn't his Aliya, but he was her Nathan, or as close as made no difference. He was hers now.
He was glad.
It still hurt that the ones they had known the first and longest (Was it longest? What did longest mean when every world was an eternity or an eyeblink and no one was ever completely certain which? Was there any meaningful way to speak of time, now, at all?) were lost to them forever, dead or wandering. But what was, was, and hard as that could be to accept, it yet could not be denied. It was best, given the opportunity, to do what you could and love whom you might find, never mind that another you and another she had been the ones to lay the groundwork.
Nathan had not thought all that out in detail when he first encountered the little band. He'd been sobered by the dangers and losses they'd encountered, and by the fates of his own alternates -- those he knew of -- but he had been lost and so lonely for what felt like so long, and had jumped at the chance to make up in some small measure for his failures and the horrid feeling that all the harm and chaos was somehow his own fault.
He wasn't entirely sure why he blamed himself for the current condition of the world(s). It simply seemed the right and natural thing to do.
Aliya and her first Nathan Dayspring had held some few of their people together when the shifts began: she'd been the one, she told him, to predict it -- her strongest precognitive chronovariant flash until that time, surpassed since only by the increasingly more intense warnings that had persisted until they were well and truly within the strange medley of worlds. Then they had simply stopped, either because the specific warnings were no longer useful or because being in the midst of the catastrophic mingling caused too much interference, or perhaps because she had acclimated to the jangling.
Those warnings and the collection of available powers, enhanced by Aliya's Askani-conditioned predilection for finding and recruiting psis and chronovariants, had merged with the strong sense of family among the close-knit Clan Chosen to allow its leaders to hold at least a small core of it together. More had been lost in the earliest shifts than the later, even taking into account the upswing when more hostile worlds began merging with theirs faster, simply because there had been too many, too widespread, to keep track of them all. The Clanleaders had felt every loss keenly no matter now little they could have done, or how much they had.
That Nathan was long gone. Nathan smiled wanly into the lowering purple sky as he gazed across the long silver-gray, waxy leaves that furred the landscape. He would be gone soon too, himself. Spending what time remained to him in Aliya's arms, when they had the opportunity to rest, was unspeakably tempting, but he had other things he must do.
It was true that he was the best at keeping watch, but it was also the truth of late that he could do so almost as well in his sleep as awake. Except, of course, for the false alarms -- but he hadn't dismissed a real danger yet. That wasn't his real reason for staying awake tonight. Nor were the nightmares, though he had to admit they contributed.
This went deeper.
He had to find his successor.
The shifts were slowly, inexorably driving him mad, as they had his predecessor, as they did every one of him eventually. He could feel it happening, feel the creeping paranoia about the people in his Clan, those he *knew* he could trust. He could calculate the increase in the frequency with which he thought something was coming to threaten them when it wasn't. He shuddered at it more strongly every time a shift took him and mixed with the wrongness of it was a thrill as it grew easier to manipulate them.
He was growing more powerful, developing more control. It was intoxicating, sometimes -- even if he did get the hangover at the exact same time. He had to hold onto his sense of reality and responsibility as long as he could, to use the greater power to protect his people. His family.
They weren't all faces he knew from the Clan, anymore. They'd lost more people than would be known from a simple tally of those who traveled with them now. Clan Chosen was and always had been an adoptive Clan; you were in if you really wanted to be, and willing to seek and share its fate. True to that nature, they'd collected people as they went. Mutants or not, friend or enemy or utter stranger, any former allegiance as long as they let him or Aliya verify their trustworthiness.
Sometimes even if they didn't. There was one woman, deathly pale with dark hair, whose face he had never seen clearly but who would look sidelong at him and Aliya, wary and somehow anguished, whenever they were together. She'd arrived only recently, and Aliya had chosen to vouch for her despite her adamant refusal to have her mind read. Perhaps Aliya had sneaked around her defenses; perhaps she had other reasons. She had declined to explain her choice to Nathan, more gently but just as firmly as the other woman had insisted on the sanctity of her thoughts.
She made him uneasy; he didn't really know why. She was hardly the strangest of their lot; in fact, a few of those whose minds he'd examined himself tended to surpass her easily. They had one man bearing the name of the First One Scott -- and Nathan had been astounded to find that everything matched to say that this indeed *was* the First One. He had been utterly flabbergasted to discover that the very same mind held memories of being Slym, the man who had raised him, and of being his true father by blood as well as heart.
There was a Stryfe, younger than they'd ever met, far too young to have started fighting them. He'd been just another lost kid when they found him -- although, Nathan had to admit, the boy was a horrible spoiled brat. He was improving, though. Nathan and Aliya had absorbed him into their smaller, unofficial circle within the Clan, and treated him as brother to the Tyler who still ran to his mother in greeting every time she returned to his vicinity. Tyler, however, was better behaved. He was also, luckily, delighted to have a younger sibling.
Perhaps oddest of all was the youthful En Sabah Nur, hot-tempered but surprisingly pleasant otherwise, once he was over the initial suspicion of them as strangers. He was nothing like what Nathan would have expected of Apocalypse's youth, but even so it was incongruous for those who had once lived for his overthrow to live with a version of him. It was still stranger that he seemed inclined to help keep Stryfe in line, as his alternate didn't seem to have bothered.
They also had a scattering of kids who rested by turning into various plants and taking root. This always made rousing the camp to move on a little more interesting than it otherwise would have been.
Nathan's replacement would have to learn about these things. They would probably surprise him at first, but eventually he would be brought to understand. That was as it must be.
He would go mad, but first he would find another him. A relatively sane one, preferably: one who had a long way to go, or many shifts, before he lost his mind entirely. They were interchangeable, overall, and one was needed. The Clan needed him to protect it, to sense and warn of danger, to divert or control the shifts, and to assist in fighting more mundane threats.
Nathan extended his telepathy and what seemed to be still another sense, searching the shifts for one of his alternates, the kind he wanted. When he found one, he would lure him in, or drive him in, or go to find him. The new one would be saner, and that meant he would be less experienced in the shifts. Nathan would teach him what he could. He would teach him about the Clan's new history and makeup.
Then, as the shift-madness took him, Nathan planned to die. He had to be careful. It was best to keep his skills and power for the Clan's use as long as possible, but waiting too long would let him forget what was important, and perhaps he would attack the Clan, or someone else who didn't deserve it, or simply wander, insane and dangerous and a horror to all. He had to die before this happened, and he fully intended to step away from the Clan and into a deadly shift before it could. If he miscalculated....
That would be his replacement's first duty as Clanleader: to make sure Nathan was dead. That had been Nathan's first duty, as his predecessor had clung too long and had to be killed.
That was not how Nathan Dayspring wished to die. Ideally he would fall in defense of the Clan -- he could avoid it if he must, but had stood sickly back and fought from a distance when if duty to the rest had not prevented him, he could have saved a few. Just a little closer....
No regrets. He bore enough guilt without adding to it regret for what he hated knowing had been a right decision. Still more would have died had he thrown his life away. As if to illustrate that point, a shiftline swayed towards their camp and he shunted it away, wrestling the rift off to a safer distance. There was no such thing as really safe.
His successor would have that battle among others on his hands, soon. Still, Nathan didn't expect persuasion to be a difficult process. True, it would be hard, and wearing. True, the duties of a Clanleader might require more pushing through the revolting, maddening breaks in reality, and hence hasten his own destruction. What good was life, though, with nothing more to do than to fight your way through a disaster of your own making, with no purpose, no chance of changing anyone's life a little for the better?
Duty. Longing. These are your people; surely you still wish to be with them. They need you; you should help them. It is your duty. You have missed them, mourned them, cried for them; now care for the living who face you. Their plight is in part your doing? Then remedy it as best you can by defending them. You must not, dare not, cannot fail them... in this.
He knew himself too well, knew others of himself occasionally better. Guilt bore power, but was a dangerous tool that could turn to a deadly weapon all too easily. Obligation was an effective trap, if needed. Loneliness was easy and almost safe to play on; grief and love for a lost Clan, and the deep-rooted desire for a family, a home, people to belong with and trust, still better. Nathan still didn't feel he had been trapped into the position -- he recognized every factor and technique thrown at him in persuasion, but he'd *wanted* this, not so much the authority but the care. He'd wanted to stay, and it was only logical that he should do his utter best with the power available to him.
He was quite willing to manipulate the next Nathan if need be, even to break in and rewrite part of his mind, should it prove necessary. Such extreme measures were unlikely, though, and undesirable. If the new Nathan were far enough gone for telepathic adjustments to be required, he would probably not be worth bothering with. Any version of him who wouldn't succumb if Aliya asked him, at any rate.... Nathan shook his head. Preposterous.
He would find a fresh alternate of himself, and bring him to the Clan to prepare to take his place, as his predecessor had done with him, and as had been done time and time again before, in a chain only Aliya truly kept track of. Then he would die. Then that Nathan would protect the Clan, and grow mad, and die as well, but not before he found his own successor.
That was to be hoped, at any rate.
The sickening energies he had learned to sense in the shifts curled avidly in a particular pattern around a mind his searching thoughts pegged momentarily as his own, and Nathan smiled.
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