Worlds Between Us
by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fic is another installment in the 'shifting universe' I first wrote about in Aspect (available at the Dayspring Archive) and Kaylee added to with Impasse (available there and at Fonts of Wisdom). This is not the same Cable that was in Aspect, of course--that's the joy of the shiftworld concept. :) This fic is short, abrupt, largely incomprehensible, and somewhat disturbing, just to give fair warning. :)
Soft and harsh at the same time, full of grief and hate and something else, something indecipherable, the voice spoke.
"I know you can hear me."
It rustled ominously in the trees along the shoreline like a bitter, mournful wind. Scott shook his head irritably, shaking off the sudden chill, and turned back to his companions. Jean laughed softly, trailing her fingers in the water, and Logan muttered something under his breath, blue eyes glinting with humor as he wrestled with the reel on his fishing rod.
His Jean, his Logan. Right here where they should be, with him. The boat rocked gently as he rowed them out to the center of the lake, and the sunlight wrapped itself around them like a blanket. He smiled. Beautiful. Afternoons like this could last forever, if you let them--
A dream, he knew, but it didn't matter. He was still here, and he could forget, forget that the last time he'd seen this lake it had been boiling dry as a super-heated shift rolled over it--forget the morning another shift had ripped him away from the people he loved, forever--
"Open your eyes, Slym." The voice, still soft, so very soft, slashed across the calm water and smashed the dream around him, mercilessly. A strangled cry escaped from him as he fought his way up out of the darkness.
The pain in his shoulders registered first. He was hanging from something, Scott realized, his wrists tied together above his head, his feet dangling helplessly. His vision cleared further, and he saw that he was inside, more or less. The building might have been a warehouse, before the shifts. Now, it was a broken shell, half of it gone without a trace, patches of fused glass and dead grass and other, less distinguishable surfaces here and there. What he could see of the sky was a livid emerald green.
The air in this shift was breathable, at least. He sucked in a lungful of it--once, twice--and coughed to clear his throat.
"W-Who's there?" The question came out sounding like something had broken in his throat. He coughed again, tasted blood.
"Does it really matter?" The voice, the same voice from his dream, still speaking in little more than a whisper. It came from somewhere behind him. He couldn't turn to see, but he could feel whoever it was staring at him, a cold gaze burning into him like a knife in the back.
He had the ruby-quartz goggles on, the ones he'd once worn only when sleeping. He'd broken his glasses, shifts and shifts ago, and he hadn't seen his visor since the very beginning, when he'd left it on the dresser in his room and woken up to find himself alone and the mansion in years-old ruins. If only he could get a hand free, pull the goggles away--
"Oh? What would you do--Slym? If you could get the goggles off. Would you use your optic blasts on me?" The voice was closer, now. Still softer, but warmer, alive with a heat that wasn't quite anger, but something much more painful--something much more dangerous.
Scott blinked a few more times, trying to clear his still-blurred vision. "I--I don't mean you any harm," he managed, his voice still weak. "Let me down--we can talk--"
Gentle, mocking laughter made the hair on the back of his neck stand straight up. "I don't think so, Slym. Conversation is for a world that makes sense. There's nothing left to say, anyway." Footsteps, and Scott found himself staring into mismatched eyes, one gray and surrounded by scars, one glowing gold, as a tall, silver-haired man strode around to stand in front of him.
Scott Summers had never seen him before in his life.
Something changed in the stranger's expression, and Scott shuddered away from the rage he could almost feel pouring off the man in waves. "You don't know me, do you?" the stranger asked, the edge to his voice growing. "You actually don't know me." Another one of those eerie laughs. "Doesn't that just figure. I finally find one of you, and you're from a timeline where I died before I met you again or didn't come back in the first place--or something in between--"
"Why don't you tell me who you are, then," Scott said, trying to make his voice stronger, steadier. If he could keep the man talking, calm him down while he figured out what to do, here--
"Look a little closer, Slym."
Slim--how did this man know his old nickname? Scott had met countless alternate versions of his friends and teammates as he wandered through the shifts. He'd even run into himself, once or twice. The stranger had to have known another him, to know that name--but it wasn't quite the old nickname, either. It sounded ever so slightly different--
"I don't--" Scott said, and the next word died on his lips as he stared at the stranger's face.
The stranger smiled coldly. "You see it, don't you."
And he did. The familiar line of the man's jaw, the particular set of his features--the resemblance.
He looked like Jean. He looked like Scott himself. His features were a mixture of them both, that melding of traits you only found in--
"It's not--it's not--" Scott's voice broke, and he swallowed almost convulsively. This wasn't--unless the distortion had changed, fundamentally, this was impossible. Back when it had all started, when reality had begun to fragment for no apparent reason, Reed Richards' conclusion had been that time was still running in a linear fashion--that a year was still a year, no matter how many dimensional fragments impinged on their world in the course of that year.
Even if this man was--his and Jean's son from some alternate timeline, there was no way he could have been this old. No. He had to be wrong. It couldn't be--the resemblance was a trick of the light.
It wasn't possible.
"You must have been from a very interesting timeline, to be so naive," the stranger said, very softly. Scott stiffened, and the man smiled again, almost self-deprecatingly. "Telepathy still works," he said, still almost in a whisper. "Sometimes even across a shift line. That's how I found you. I felt you out there, sleeping the sleep of the just--" The smile grew slightly, turned mocking once more.
Memory hit, bright and vivid. He'd been settling down for the night--it was the last thing he could remember clearly. Closing his eyes, making peace with the fact that he might not wake up, if he found himself in the path of a shift line. Part of being alive in this world was living with that--
"Is that all you think you have to live with?" The stranger shook his head, gaze growing more intent. Probing--Scott's whole body jerked as he felt the intrusion into his mind. There was nothing he could do to stop it, no way to defend himself. The presence pierced all his defenses, stripping them away layer by layer, almost gently. "No, it hasn't started yet for you. I can see it in your eyes. There's no guilt there."
"I don't know--what you're talking about," Scott gasped out. There wasn't any pain--the invasion had been far too deft for that--but he was still shaken by how easily the man had laid his mind bare.
"Really?" The man's tone was suddenly cool, almost professional. "It's passed you by completely, then? Even the nightmares? You don't wake up screaming, knowing that you're to blame for this--"
Anger flared up from somewhere deep inside Scott. He pulled against whatever was restraining his hands, cursing under his breath as the man's expression turned amused. "I don't know what you're talking about!" he snapped. "I had nothing to do with any of us--none of us did! We couldn't even figure out why it was happening!" And they'd tried, by God they'd tried. Hank and Reed Richards and Hank Pym and the Professor and Magneto, and so many others--but there hadn't been any answers, and time had run out--
"Because it didn't happen in your world," the man said quietly, any humor fading from his eyes. "That doesn't mean you're not to blame for it. It's your fault, just like it's mine, and Jean's, and Xavier's. All of the Twelve." He gestured around at the shell of the warehouse, at the world. "We failed, this happened. It's really quite simple."
"It? The shifts?" Scott demanded, trying to get it clear, to understand. As calmly as the man was speaking, there was something disjointed about his words, as if he was avoiding something, talking around it, as if he couldn't bear to face it head-on.
"You never did have a very good grasp on how cause and effect worked. The battle, Slym." The man moved closer, those strange eyes hazy and unreadable. "The second battle with Apocalypse. With--you."
Scott went very still. "I don't know what you're talking about." The man had to be mad. He'd seen it before, in other survivors--too many others to count. Scott wasn't sure if he himself was sane, most days. "I'd never work for Apocalypse."
The man blinked at him for a moment, and then started to laugh, and laugh, and laugh. He laughed so hard that he actually swayed as he turned away, falling to his knees. The laughter, after a while, started to sound more and more like sobs, until the man was huddled on the ground, hugging himself and weeping freely.
Scott swallowed. It might not make much sense to be feeling quite so much--sympathy for a clearly unbalanced man who had him tied up like a lamb for the slaughter, but he did. "Hey," he said softly. "I didn't mean--what did I say?" He didn't even know his name. For all he knew, this man was family, and he didn't even know what to call him. "Please--let me down, and we'll talk."
"I--don't want to flonqing talk!" the man grated, struggling back to his feet and wiping tears away with the back of his hand in a single, savage motion. "Do you think I searched all this time for you, for any you, to TALK?"
"Then what?" Scott asked. The man turned away, hands clenched into fists at his sides, broad shoulders shaking. "It can't hurt to talk," he continued, still trying to keep his voice calm, even while he ignored the agony in his shoulders and lifted his whole body, bit by painful bit. The muscles in his arm were trembling, spasming, trying to give out. He didn't let them. If he could get his head up to the level of his hands, he might be able to get the goggles off. "Whatever it is. Maybe I don't know you, but you obviously know me--a me," he corrected almost automatically.
"I want--I wanted to look you in the eyes one more time, Slym," the man said softly, not turning around. "To see you--to tell you how much I--"
"How much you what?"
"How much I loved you." The words were barely audible, but the force behind them was like a scream in Scott's mind. Power blazed around him as he turned, golden fire billowing outwards and scorching the air.
Scott saw his death in those strange eyes, as clear as day.
"And how much I hated you."
He didn't feel any pain as the fire lashed out and engulfed him completely. There was light, and then there was darkness. And then there was stillness. No more shifts--no more change.
Just stillness. He fell into that peace with a rush of relief, of something very close to joy. Never knowing that the stranger, his son and killer, turned his power in on himself and followed a moment later.
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