Hope had lost count of the number of nights she'd spent here at this table, methodically cleaning and reassembling her guns. Her friends would probably be bothered to know how little she actually slept. Insomnia was supposed to be a bad thing, right? But she was still too used to snatching sleep an hour or two at a time. Maybe that habit would fade once she stopped dreaming about waking up and looking into the barrel of Bishop's gun.
If I ever do. That she still did was a confession that was never going to cross her lips. The last thing she needed were patronizing attempts to reassure her, or worse, solemn promises that she'd be protected. Hope just needed to feel like someone was watching her back - her back, for her own sake, not because she was the flonqing mutant messiah - and for most of her time on Utopia, she hadn't had that.
"So why can't you sleep now?"
A faint smile tugged at her lips as she looked up at the man in the doorway. "Because I'm watching your back at the moment, old man," Hope said to her father, her tone mock-severe. "Speaking of which, go back to bed. You're still recuperating."
Nathan shrugged, coming over to sit down across from her. "I have a habit of not doing the things I should," he said. He selected a piece from the array in front of him and started to clean it - reflex, Hope thought. He probably found it as comforting as she did.
Hope was hit by a sense of deja vu so strong it was dizzying. She'd watched him clean his guns just like this, across a thousand fires on a thousand nights. Admittedly, they weren't sitting amid rubble eating rats for dinner, but this still felt so right. So natural. So... completely unlike anything had felt on Utopia since she'd gotten here.
"So. Why can't you sleep?" Hope asked, watching him. He looked so different, she thought again. She still wasn't sure how she'd managed to remove the T-O virus from his system, but clearly that wasn't all she'd managed. He looked younger, like the Nathan she remembered from her early childhood. Maybe it was that simple, Hope thought. She'd wanted him back, wanted him to live so badly, but she'd known how much of his life he'd used up raising her, protecting her. Fleeing across the centuries with her.
So maybe the fire had known that too, and that was why it had burned away the years, not just the virus. The thought should have been frightening, not exhilarating. Whee! was probably not the approved reaction to having channeled the Phoenix Force to heal and de-age your father. But why shouldn't it be?
Gray eyes met hers, and Nathan gave her that faint crooked smile she knew so well. #Your thoughts are loud when you're brooding,# he sent, the touch of his mind impossibly gentle. #But that's all right. I've spent enough time flat on my back of late.#
Hope felt her eyes sting as she thought of all those nights she'd spent on this island, staring back at the empty place in her mind where her father should have been. She'd never expected that hollowness to go away. The timestream devoured the people you loved, it didn't spit them back out.
"Oh, yes," she said sarcastically. "A whole week! You'd think you'd nearly died or something..."
"Almost doesn't count, unless-"
"-the explosive charge is sufficiently big," Hope finished and grinned back at him fiercely, still blinking too fast. They didn't do tears, or sentimental crap. This was what they did, and it was enough.
Nathan's lips twitched in another smile, and they cleaned the guns in companionable silence for a time. She could do this all night, Hope thought. Maybe they would do it all night, and then have coffee together and watch the sun rise. She liked coffee. Definitely one of the best parts of this century.
"It's all right to be afraid," Nathan said after a while. "You know that, right? You don't have to sit up at nights convincing yourself that you need to be the toughest person in the room."
Hope's jaw clenched, and her grip on the piece she was cleaning went briefly white-knuckled. "Don't I? I don't think they'd be okay with me cowering in a corner. They need me to be strong. Big brave mutant messiah, fixing the world for them. Or Maximoff's mess, at least," she said, sarcasm dripping from the words.
Hate her. Damn her. Sometimes Hope caught herself thinking of where she'd be if the Scarlet Witch had never let slip her no more mutants. A baby in Alaska, probably. Safe in the arms of a mother who wasn't a charred corpse, in a town that hadn't been turned into a charnel pit.
"Angry's fine," Nathan said, obviously picking up on her train of thought. "Maybe even a little productive. So long as it doesn't take over."
"I know," she said, more impatiently than she'd meant to. Hope stopped, grimacing in apology. "I know," she said more quietly. "I'm trying. It's hard not to be too angry. At her... even at them, sometimes." She waved a hand around them, at Utopia and its people. But saying that aloud just made her feel ashamed of herself. They were so worn down, so tired. Backed into a corner over and over, driven right to the brink so many times that it colored everything they did, everything they felt. They were so desperate. They needed so much.
She understood that. Sympathized with it. It didn't make it any easier when they all looked to her for a solution that she still didn't understand. That was still somewhere out there among the stars, coming closer by the day and bringing a thousand new questions with it.
"I just don't know what to do," she said, even more softly. "How to make sure I'm ready. I have to be ready, Nathan. It's too important." He understood this; she knew he did. From the stories he'd told her over the years, he might be the only one who really did. Because he'd been there too.
"It would help for you to know more," Nathan said after a moment. "Everything that happened with its previous hosts, what went wrong and what went right."
"It would," Hope said, her voice barely audible and her hands gone still. When she'd healed Nathan, it had been like being inside the heart of a star, the flames searing every cell in her body. Agony and bliss all at once. Right now it felt like a campfire, soft and warm and completely unthreatening. Hah. She couldn't imagine what the firebird itself would be like.
"You should have been hearing about this all along," Nathan said, sounding displeased in the way that usually meant someone was about to get their jaw broken. "We who are designated to serve greater purposes should at least get the ammunition we need to know what the flonq we're doing. If it's available," he added, more dryly. "It isn't always."
"You'd know," Hope said, just as dryly. "They thought I'd lose it if I knew. I guess I gave them the impression I was a bit too fragile, after you... um, died." They'd maybe even been right. She hadn't wanted to listen to reason much those first couple of months.
"Flonq that. I have more faith in you." Nathan set the piece down, gray eyes narrowing as he looked up at her. "All right. There's someone we should talk to first," he said, "although it might be awkward. What with my father and the hairball acting like scorned lovers."
Hope barely managed to swallow the laugh. "Yeah," she said, "you're feeling better." The swell of relief rose within her at the realization that he had a plan. Then again, this was her father. He always had a plan.
"Mmm," Nathan said. "So let's figure out how to get in touch with your aunt without provoking a diplomatic incident."
She was alone in bed, Emma Frost realized before she opened her eyes. Alone in bed, again. She stretched, letting out a sigh as she gazed up at the ceiling.
"I'm leaving you," she said aloud, into the silence. "I've had enough of waking up in an empty bed, so I'll be throwing you over at the first opportunity. Well..." She paused a deliberate beat. "Not the first opportunity. I do have my standards."
A soft snort came from the direction of the windows. Scott was sprawled in one of the chairs there, staring out at the bay as if the lights of San Francisco contained all the answers to all his questions. At least he wasn't up working, Emma thought. There'd been too many nights like that lately. When no further response seemed to be forthcoming, she slipped out of bed and came up behind him, leaning against the back of the chair.
"Insomnia is not an endearing quality," she told him, laying her hands on his shoulders. The skin-to-skin contact sharpened her telepathy, and Emma's vision unfocused for a moment as images cascaded through her mind's eye.
Predictable, a lot of it. Part of Scott's mind, as always, was reviewing recent engagements like a computer on an endless loop, analyzing strategy and tactics down to the last fine detail. She was used to that. She was also accustomed to the way Hope lurked in his thoughts, like a puzzle he could never quite resolve. It only made sense that Nathan was there too, after the events of the pat week.
But the other faces were more of a surprise. Scott had been doing his best not to think of Logan lately. It wasn't simple avoidance, Emma had realized. In Scott's eyes, Logan and the mutants who had accompanied him back to the school had removed themselves as active participants in their own defense. They were to be protected, but not consulted.
The second surprise... "So," Emma murmured. "When are you going to tell Rogers that Nathan survived? Or are you avoiding that particular awkward conversation?"
It had been classic Steve Rogers, that gesture of allowing Scott to take his dying son back to Utopia. Somehow, though, Emma suspected that the good captain's agreeable nature would be sorely tested once he discovered that the man who'd managed to take down half his team had not only been restored to health, but to his full and considerable power.
"For now, avoiding." Scott's voice was dry, but she heard and sensed the tension underlying the words. "Although, given that he was determined to protect Wanda Maximoff from the consequences of her actions based on the fact that she wasn't in her right mind at the time, he can damned well afford Nathan the same courtesy."
Emma sensed the flicker of darker emotions directed at the Scarlet Witch, but let it pass without comment. "Oh, darling," she said instead, her voice soft and mocking, "aren't you ever going to learn? Wanda's an Avenger. One of his own. Your son, on the other hand..."
"There are a few different approaches that Rogers could take once he finds out." The strategist speaking, this time, quietly and confidently. "There's a response to each. I'll be ready. The real problem, Em, is that I believe Nathan. His head's clear and he's still absolutely insistent that they'll come for Hope."
"Mmm." Emma rubbed at the tense muscles in Scott's shoulders. "Time travelers would be so much less infuriating if their predictions of doom came equipped with more of the relevant details."
"Oh, but that would be too much to ask." Scott took a deep breath and let it out on a sigh. She could sense the headache he had brewing; she'd fix that, once they were through talking. Given the amount of stress he was under, it was a wonder that the headaches were the only physical manifestation.
"We have to be ready," he went on, the tactical computer part of his brain moving into projections now. Calculating possibilities. It was fascinating to watch (when he wasn't doing it during sex). "If Nathan's right about the Avengers, Hank and Logan will undoubtedly be lined up on the other side, probably dripping poison in Rogers' ear."
"Ouch," Emma murmured softly. There hadn't been the slightest trace of self-pity or resentment in Scott's comment. It was as if he'd stated that the sky was blue. "Scott Summers, you're becoming a cynic."
"A realist," he countered evenly. "If they see the opportunity to undermine Utopia, they'll take it. Then again," and there was a flicker of black humor in his voice as he continued, "I've planned for that, too."
Emma's hands stilled. She moved around to stand in front of him - and then, without warning, slid down into his lap. Before he could react, she took his face between her hands, gazing steadily into the eyes behind the glasses.
"Repeat these three words after me," she said evenly. "No. Preemptive. Strikes."
Scott smiled, if crookedly. Which had been the point of the comment in the first place. "If I need to punch Captain America," he said just as steadily, "it will be in the jaw, not in the back of the head. I promise."
"Good man. Now..." She leaned in to kiss him, and to call it a demanding kiss would be a significant understatement. #You're coming back to bed. Yes?#
Now that you've finished managing me...