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Chapter Text

Narcissus, Destroyer of Worlds


When they land from the slide, they’re alone—the Sculptor has been left behind, which is just as well, since Wade thinks he’ll never want to see her face again for as the rest of…pretty much forever.

He feels sick.  Sick of himself.  Sick of fucking up.

Sick of the disappointed look Nate’s giving him.

Nate turns slowly to survey the world they’ve landed in.  “So this is the GX bundle.  What a bleak, bleak place.  Fitting for exile, I think.”

Wade’s hands start to shake, so he clenches them.  “Please,” he says.  “Please, you can’t leave me here.  I didn’t mean to do it.  You know I didn’t.  Nate?”

Nate doesn’t believe him.  He can tell by the look in those cold, mismatched eyes.

But it’s the truth.  Wade never had a clue that the Sculptor seriously, literally meant she was going to suck the life out of the planet.  He figured it was hyperbole, because Galactus is the only guy Wade’s ever heard of who actually eats planets.

All he knew was that she said she could make him beautiful, and she did, and the only thing she wanted in return was for him to keep Nate busy in some other timeline while she chowed down.

“Stay here,” Nate says.  “Live for centuries with your nice new face, knowing what it cost, knowing that people died.  In two thousand years, this world’s Nathan will be born.  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll befriend him and betray him, too.”

The word betray rips through Wade like a bullet.  “No!” he cries, and his voice cracks.  “No, I didn’t.  Please.  I’m sorry.”

Nate wrinkles his nose in disdain.  “You’re not.”

Desperation turns to sudden anger.  Wade wants to punch that look of disgust off Nate’s handsome face for not understanding.  “Fuck you, you don’t know what it’s like!”

To be ugly.

To be hated.

To be in love with your stupid perfect best friend.

“I don’t,” Nate replies calmly.  “But you do.  And now you’re going to know what it’s like for a whole world to only see your pretty face and your blood-stained hands.  Goodbye, Wade.”

And he’s gone, just like that.  Just slid away somewhere else in the timestream, leaving Wade stranded and with no chance of getting the last word.

He can’t believe it for a moment; he stands there, gaping at the place where Nate was.  Then the anger comes back.

“Fucking coward!” screams Wade.  “You useless, spineless, fucking politically-correct know-it-all!”

He kicks the dirt and wishes he had something to throw and someone to throw it at.

“I love you, goddammit!” he shrieks at the top of his lungs, and stomps his foot for lack of anything else to do.

He’s crying now, but he doesn’t care since there’s no one there to see it.  He’s shaking and panting and trying not to sob, but he can feel hysteria starting to take hold.

And he’s losing it.  He’s fucking losing it.

“Please come back?  Nate?  Nathan?”

No one answers.  Of course, no one answers.

It’s not like Nate’s just hiding behind a curtain, waiting to jump out and shake his finger once he figures Wade’s learned his lesson.

So Wade sits down in the barren wasteland and cries and cries and cries.

And then his mind wanders back to something Nate said, and he abruptly stops crying.

In two thousand years, this world’s Nathan will be born.

Two thousand?  No sweat.  He’s already two hundred and three, and showing no signs of slowing down.

He wipes his face on his sleeve.  “Okay.  Let’s take a mulligan on that relationship, huh?”



Chapter Text



Nathan sits on a barren outcropping and stares at the ruined husk of his world.  He thought things like this were impossible.  He thought Keepers were supposed to protect their home timelines.  He thought Wade was getting better.

But no, Wade just stood by and played the petulant child; a little begging, a little snapping, but ultimately no sorrow for the lives that had paid for his vanity.

He stares at the Node in his hand and waits for the inevitable.

The burst of white noise behind him signals the arrival of his executioner.  “What kept you?” he says.

“Mmm,” the Auditor replies noncommittally, and because Nathan has met several Wades, he knows the man is lifting one shoulder in a half-shrug.  “Places to go, people to kill.”

This is only his third time being in the presence of the Auditor, and he has been terrified every time.  The man’s easygoing demeanor and placid smile only make him all the more chilling—he’s an unmatched killer, the most capable assassin in the multiverse, the last thing hundreds of timestream fugitives ever see.  Nathan feels a chill run down his spine.

Something beeps softly—probably the Auditor’s Node.  ~Ident verified,~ it says.

“Let’s see, now…” says the Auditor.  “Nathan Summers RS303…Beta.  Huh.  Congratulations, you’re the tenth Nate Beta to end up on my list.  You’re officially the most-erased iteration in the history of Network Operations.”

“Do I get a prize?” Nathan asks tonelessly.

“Sure.  Like all good boys, you get a choice between the Fridge and oblivion.”

Nathan watches a cloud of ash blow lazily across the landscape.  “And how many Beta iterations of Nathan Summers have you got at the Null-res Facility?”

“None.  Is this where you wax philosophical and claim that being a Beta iteration meant you were destined to go bad?  Because while that could save me a lotta time if it were true, I personally think it’s a load of shit.”

He shrugs.  He always said he didn’t believe in that sort of predestination, but he was always lying.  He’s known for fifteen years now that his life would end like this.

The Auditor makes another thoughtful humming noise.  “Nathan, you are charged with one count of Node-theft, two counts of unlawful interference with a red branch, and one count of unlawful lateral re-tuning of a Keeper.  These charges and your culpability are not in question.  You are required by law to surrender Node 017 Apollo and submit yourself for life-long incarceration in the Null-Resonance Detention Facility.  If you resist in any way, you will be erased.  Do you understand the charges and instructions I have put forth?”

Nathan frowns.  “Re-tuning?  You’re not going to just find him and give it back?”

“Doesn’t work that way, Nathan.  The moment you took Apollo out of the bundle you left him in, his phase went fluid again.  For a Wade, that means he stopped belonging to this bundle and started belonging to that one.  All the funky tampering you did that made the tesseract-slide combination work is gone, his phase is all outta whack…  Even if I gave the Node back to him, it wouldn’t accept him.  When a Wade stops being a Keeper, he can’t start again.”  With a slow scuff of boots on stone, the Auditor comes to sit beside Nathan.

Nathan glances at him, takes in the blinking Node in his hand, the gravitic constructor pad strapped to his hip, the well-worn gloves fraying where the trigger fingers have been cut out.

The Auditor shrugs, but Nathan sees him trace his left thumb across his GCP.  It would take less than a second for him to draw a weapon from it, barely any more to completely end Nathan, and he’s still as casual and relaxed as ever.  Everything about the man says, ‘I am a lion, and you are an antelope; be thankful I’m not hungry right now.’  “We’d have to grow another copy from his backup at the Core, and it’s frankly a lot quicker and easier to just find a different Wade.  Shame, too, because alllll of this—”  He waves a finger around to indicate their surroundings.  “—was apparently supposed to happen.  The loss of the sentient population of earth flattened the resonance-phase just enough to snap the whole timestream into peak stability—the highest it’d been in centuries.  And then boom, you lose us one of our best intuitive tuners, and things start to wobble again.”

“He would’ve told me,” Nathan says in a frail voice.  “If the Network had given him an instruction like that, he would’ve told me.”

“No he wouldn’t,” scoffs the Auditor.  “Because he’d know you wouldn’t believe him.  And anyway, that’s not how it works, Nathan.  The timestream needs an evil warlord taken out of power, a Wade gets a sudden urge to practice his sniping.  The timestream needs fifty school-kids offed, a Wade hallucinates he’s surrounded by killer clowns on a playground.”

“That’s horrible.”

The Auditor shrugs casually.  “Eh, such is the life of a Wade.  Usually, making us into Keepers grants us a little more finesse, but sometimes the timestream gets tired of being subtle.  Bet you’re feeling nice ‘n guilty now.”

He is.  He never knew—never thought even for a moment—that Wade’s inconsistencies really were the ‘whims of the cosmos’ (as Wade had once put it).

“Yep,” says the Auditor, nodding.  “Four other Betas had exactly that moment of realization.”

Nathan closes his hands tightly around Apollo and stares at the flickering points of light in its depths.  “He really didn’t know she was going to do it.  Once again, I ruined something precious because I was convinced I knew what I was doing.  I hate to say it, but I really don’t think there’s much point in keeping me alive.”

“Well, some people—not me, mind you—think that being alive is the point.”

It sounds like something Nathan might have believed, once-upon-a-time.  “All the same…maybe you could just leave me here?”

The Auditor wiggles his feet idly.  “What, to starve to death?  That’s pretty fucked up, Nathan.  I could shoot you.  One bullet, you wouldn’t even feel it.”

But Nathan doesn’t think he deserves that.  “There’s a certain symmetry…a poetic justice, to leaving me here.  And I’ll have time to think.  And you know as well as I do that I won’t starve to death.”

“Nah, you’ll die of thirst,” the Auditor chuckles.  “And without the Nodes in proximity, there’s always that slightly-greater-than-zero chance that you’ll survive in some branch and I’ll have to chase you down.  No biggie, though; I’ll just have your branch’s Analyst slap a tag on you.  We can all sit around eating popcorn while we watch you phase-level.”

Nathan hands him Apollo.

“I’ll be back in four days, and if you’re not a mummy, I’ll be very put out.  Also, I’ll shoot you.  Enjoy your guilt-ridden demise.”

“Thank you,” Nathan says, and swallows.

Then the Auditor flares into white light and fades away.  The feelings of fear and tension go with him.

Nathan sighs and slumps.  Without buildings and artificial lights, thousands of stars are already blinking into sight on the horizon.  It’s amazing and awful at the same time, and he wishes Wade could see it.

“I’m sorry,” he says, even though there’s no one around to hear the words.



Chapter Text

The Blackblade


Wade would like to say that he found his sword in a cairn, being clutched by the skeleton of some long-dead king.  Something Conan-esque.

He’d like to say some magic chick held it up in the middle of a lake, or that it was stuck in a rock.

He’d like to say he decapitated a demon and pulled the sword out of its belly.

The boring-ass truth of it, though, is that some moron tried to rob him with it, and he didn’t even realize the quality of the sword until he’d hacked the guy’s arms off and gone to the river to wash off all the blood.  At the time, it was dulled by dirt and grime, and the wrappings were in dire need of repair, so Wade hadn’t thought much of the sword beyond oh good, it works.  Cleaned, however, he could see a midareba hamon with a broad nioi.  Probably a seven-layer sword, a fairytale Masamune blade.  He laughed until he couldn’t breathe.

It’s an odd length, three inches too long in the blade for a standard katana.  The metal is dark and iridescent, secretive gleam in shadow, oil-slick black rainbow in full light.  No nicks or dings, no warping.  The blood groove is long, and the damn thing keeps its edge like nobody’s business.  It’s balanced for one-handed work, which would be weird even if it weren’t oversized.

Some guy long ago put a lot of love and effort into the thing—damn shame for it to end up in the hands of an idiot layman.

The Blackblade is the finest sword Wade’s ever held, so he really wishes he had some exciting tale about how he got it.

He invents a better story one day, after someone picks a fight and ends up in pieces on the ground.  Mutant or no mutant, the guy should’ve known better than to get into a scrap with a someone clean and well-fed.  Those are danger signs.  You don’t have an abundance of water and food without being rich or skilled or both.

“Quite a sword,” says the victim’s master, a big guy draped in grey wolf-pelts from the wastelands.  Some Mad Max gang-leader character, no doubt.  “How did you come by it?”

On a whim, Wade answers, “In a dream.”  He wipes the blade against the dead man’s shirt.  “Lost and starving, I fell asleep in the mountains, sure I was about to meet my end.  I dreamed I woke in a lush forest, and a white stag led me among the tall trunks to a huge tree.  I reached into a hollow in the great tree and pulled out a sword made of shadows.  Then I woke, and Blackblade was beside me.”

The man in furs raises his chin and purses his lips.  “How did you get out of the mountains?”

He shrugs.  “I collapsed the next day and fell into a gorge.  The river at the bottom brought me to an oasis, where a caravan nursed me to health under the condition that I work as a sellsword for them.”

“Ha!  An excellent tale.  What’s your name, sellsword?”

Wade shrugs.  “Does it matter?  What color is your money?”

“Silver,” says the man, haughtily.  “I am Xander, and long ago my family ruled the Summer Palace.”

Wade concentrates on the slow slide of Blackblade’s mune over the back of his thumb.  “Xander from the House of Summers,” he says neutrally, and sheathes the sword.

“That’s right.  Come with me, Blackblade.”

Blackblade is the sword’s name, Wade doesn’t say.  I’ve been waiting for you, he doesn’t say.  One thousand, seven hundred ninety-five years to go, he doesn’t say.  “All right,” he says.  “Show me your enemies, Xander Summers.”

That’s the version of the story he keeps for a while, until Xander is long dead and Jon is Wade’s master and sweet little Marissa looks up at him with wondering eyes and asks, “Blackblade, where did you get your magic sword?”

It’s not magic, he doesn’t tell her.  Marissa is five, and things that look beautiful and dangerous and different are magic to her.  She’s convinced that Wade is a wizard.

“From a lake-spirit,” he says instead.  “When I was learning to fight, I went out into the forest to train, so that I could learn in secret, without other people trying to steal my hard-won knowledge.  But I didn’t know that forest, and I soon became quite lost.”

“Oh no!” the little princess gasps, appropriately dismayed.  “Were you scared?”

“No, not a bit.  I trained anyway, practicing with an old branch in the moonlight shadows of the forest at night.”

“Because you didn’t have your sword yet!”

“That’s right.  I stopped when I was tired and hot and thirsty, and I listened closely for the sound of water.”

“Bloop bloop,” Marissa puts in.

“I was almost ready to collapse from exhaustion when I found a lake in the middle of the forest.  I got down on my knees and gulped up big handfuls of water.  Now, there was a lake-spirit living in this lake, and she was wise and beautiful, and she’d seen me training.  She fell in love with me at first sight, and she came up to the surface of the water and begged me to tell her what I wanted.  Anything in her power, she told me.  Anything to make me happy.”

“What did you ask her for?”

“I asked her for a sword that would let me be the greatest warrior in the world.  Deep at the bottom of the lake, she had many treasures, and she came back with one of them—this sword.”  And he pats the Blackblade’s tsuka.

“And did you let her kiss you?” Marissa wants to know.  “If she was beautiful and she fell in love with you, you should have let her kiss you.”

“Oh, no,” Wade says.  “If you lean over to kiss a water spirit, she’ll try to drag you down into the water with her, and you’ll drown.  I stayed on dry land, thanks.”

Marissa sighs in disappointment.  “Oh, well.  Even though you didn’t kiss her, it was a nice story.”

A hundred and thirty years later, when Amant is king and Isabel asks for the story, Wade tells her that he didn’t kiss the lake-spirit because he only kisses princesses (she giggles and claps and presents her plump little cheek for kissing).

Isabel dies giving birth to Breta, who grows into a quiet, alienated little princess.  Wade is Breta’s only companion, because her father is too imposing and there are no children at court.  She is a study in loneliness, even after her father marries her to the son of the White Queen, and she never asks Wade about his past or his sword.  But she bears a son, a king where her father was only a prince, and the stories resume.

It found me, is what he tells Charles, Luther, Stella, Osel.  It fell from the sky, is what he says to James, Rinna, Gareth, Harris.  On the first day of my life, I woke with it through my heart, is the story he gives Alex (who is nine and bloodthirsty by the time he asks, and has seen Wade take a knife to the throat and heal good-as-new). 

It’s a grand game, making up new answers or embellishing old ones.

Caught it while I was fishing.  Traded with a demon for it.  Won it in a riddle game with a ghost.  Rescued a king’s daughter and got it as a reward.  Forged it myself, hundreds of years back.  Took it from a demon king I killed.

And then, one day, Scott’s wife has a son.

When all the mess and noise is over, Scott carries the swaddled heir to the balcony, where Wade has been standing guard.

“What did she name him?” Wade asks disinterestedly.

“Nathan,” the king says, shocking Wade’s world back into motion.

“It’s a good name,” he says, and doesn’t manage to sound as grudging as he’d like.

It’s been two thousand years.  Life has begun again.

Nathan grows up so slowly.  He’s smart, and shrewd (not the same thing), and far too stubborn.  Sometimes, he calls Wade by name (it hurts, and he flinches every time).

It doesn’t occur to Nathan to ask about the sword until he’s thirteen.

“It really is a lovely sword; I’ve never seen its like.  Where did you get it?”

“A fool tried to rob me with it,” Wade says, because he doesn’t like lying to Nathan (and he’s pretty sure Nathan would be able to tell, anyway).

“Is your sword the reason they call you Blackblade?”

“It is.  But I named the sword Blackblade long before that.  It was simply the first of many points on which I felt it wasn’t worth the effort of correcting the first Grey King.”

Nathan watches Wade with his thoughtful, mismatched eyes.  “Father once told me you’d found it in a dream.  You were lost in the wastes, and dreamed a white stag led you to a tree, and in the tree was a sword made of shadow.”

“More exciting than the truth,” Wade excuses.  “He was six at the time.  You can’t tell a six-year-old prince that a starving man tried to rob you and you took his sword and used it to cut his hands clean off.”

“Why not?  Aren’t you the one who taught me that all men are fascinated with violence?”

“I also taught you that children deserve entertaining fictions when the facts are too uninteresting.”

Nathan points at him accusingly.  “Aha!  And yet you made me learn all that history!”

It’s so ridiculous and childish and perfect that Wade has to laugh.  “Oh, Nathan,” he says fondly.

Smug and triumphant, Nathan grins and comes to lean against Wade’s shoulder.

I’ve missed you, Wade doesn’t say.  I love you, he doesn’t say.  I’ll do it right this time, he doesn’t say.  “You’re not a child anymore,” he says, a little sadly.  “Soon you’ll be a king.  I gave your father fictions, but I must give you facts.”

“That’s all right, then,” Nathan decides.  “I’ll do everything in my power to be a good king.  I’ll make you proud.”

Wade chokes on guilt, but he thinks he hides it well.  “I know you will,” he says.  “You’ll be the very best king; for it cannot be otherwise in this, the best of all possible worlds.”

Nathan doesn’t recognize the quote (Voltaire never even existed here, after all), and so he misses the dark irony.  Even if he had read the book, he probably wouldn’t understand why Wade is comparing them to Candide and Pangloss.

Damned suicidal optimism is what got him into this mess.

“But since I’m not king yet…” drawls Nathan, leaning more heavily against Wade’s shoulder, “Why don’t you tell me again how you got your sword?”

Wade grins.  “Well, there was this old beggar sitting at a crossroads…”



Chapter Text

The Grey King


Nathan has been told all his life that he is Special.  He is Unique.  He is an Irreplaceable Treasure.  He can’t even remember how long ago it started.

He can remember his mother trying to rule after his father died.  He can remember the look of helplessness and hopelessness in her eyes.  He can remember the way the other queens went to war, and the way she couldn’t stop it—didn’t know how to.  He can remember how much it hurt to hear her desperate, lonely thoughts, even as she smiled and told him that it would all be different when he was old enough to wear his father’s crown.

Nathan can remember the look of disapproval on their General’s face.

“There is a very simple solution,” Blackblade had said so many times.

“How can you even think such things?” his mother had always replied.

And as long as Nathan was nearby, that was where the argument ended.

Once, when he was eleven, he managed to stay hidden from them both, which was quite a feat—no one had ever snuck up on Blackblade, and Nathan’s mother had his same gift of hearing thoughts—and then he heard more.

“What will you leave him?” Blackblade hissed.  “You’re letting those selfish bitches peck and squabble like hens in a box.  That land is theirs only because the Grey King allows them to live on it.”

“What you suggest is all-out war.  Wholesale slaughter.  I will not believe my husband wanted that.”

“And why have we warriors, if not for war?  Your husband wanted order.  He gave it to them, and they accepted it gratefully, and they’ll do the same for his son, but they won’t sit by and let one of their own pretend superiority.”

“Pretend?!  I could destroy them all!”

“So could Hope, or Lorna.  And Emma has the best resources, and Alison the greatest army, and none of that will stop them from ripping each other to shreds.  You’ve shown them only weakness.  What’s to stop them banding together to kill you and fight over who will play regent to the next Grey King?  Their mothers did it before.”

“There’s you.  You stopped them.”

There was silence for a time, and Nathan felt a cold shiver of something from Blackblade.

“Yes.  I did.”

The next day, Nathan’s mother was found dead in her chambers.  Her neck had been broken in her sleep.

Nathan doesn’t like to think ill of Wade.  Wade is his best friend, and a far better parent than his mother was.  But the facts are the facts, and they paint a rather grim picture of his mother’s death.

When she died, the other queens attended the funeral personally.  They had a rather nasty little argument, but in the end they agreed that General Blackblade should serve as regent until Nathan was fourteen.

Wade is a great General, a man well acquainted with war and politics.  And he was a good regent.  He taught Nathan everything he needed to know to keep his kingdom in order, to keep the queens under control.

“How long have you served my father’s family?” Nathan once asked as he watched Wade read some book on past wars.

Wade raised his eyebrows.  “Something like a thousand years now, I imagine,” he said disinterestedly.

“Were we always kings?”

“Well, the first one made himself into a king.  He took me with him, and he pointed to a place that had something he wanted—clean water, good soil, hard stone for building—and he said make that mine.  And when he’d done it enough times, there started being talk of armies and taxes and a kingdom, and he liked the word so much he decided he’d call himself ‘king.’  He was the ‘Grey King’ because of the wolf pelts he wore.  Barbaric little fall-back, if you ask me, but I’m the only one left who understands that wearing fur was looked down on two thousand years ago.”

Nathan thought about that sentence.  He thought about ‘I’m the only one left,’ and ‘two thousand years ago.’  “How old are you, Wade?”

Wade gave a little frown, the way he always does when Nathan calls him by name.  “I don’t actually remember.  That’s the truth, so don’t press me, Nathan.”

Nathan shifted a little.  “Was it very lonely for you?”

Slowly, Wade closed his book and beckoned.

Nathan went to him and leaned against his shoulder companionably.

“I have bounced a hundred kings and two hundred princesses on my knee since this kingdom was formed.  For a long time, it was the only part of my duty that even took the edge off my loneliness.  And then you came along, and oh, you annoy me with your millions of questions and your constant pestering and all the ways in which you resemble your mother…”

Nathan pouted a little before he remembered that he was fifteen and kings don’t pout.

Wade laughed and hugged him.  “But you are shaping up to be a fine king, and I am so very proud of you.  No, Nathan, I’m not lonely anymore.”

It has been three months since then, and Nathan’s powers have been flaring out of his control.  He’s seen and heard things he knows he shouldn’t.  A tryst between two guards.  A maid’s petty thievery.  A page’s horrifying early childhood.

He tries not to let it bother him.  People have dark secrets; his General taught him that long ago.

But he never thought he’d see Wade’s secret.

Please.  Please, you can’t leave me here.  I didn’t mean to do it.  You know I didn’t.  Nate?

Stay here.  Live for centuries with your nice new face, knowing what it cost, knowing that people died.  In two thousand years, this world’s Nathan will be born.  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll befriend him and betray him, too.

No!  No, I didn’t.  Please.  I’m sorry.

You’re not.

Fuck you, you don’t know what it’s like!

I don’t.  But you do.  And now you’re going to know what it’s like for a whole world to only see your pretty face and your blood-stained hands.  Goodbye, Wade.

Wade is shivering on the floor.

Nathan feels dirty.  He feels like he’s done something unforgivable, like he reached deep inside Wade’s chest and tore something out.  All because he asked why Wade served the Grey Kings, and got angry when Wade wouldn’t answer.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Nathan sobs, and falls to his knees beside his best friend.  “I had no right.  I’m sorry, Wade.”

At the sound of his name, Wade clenches a fist, and Nathan wonders for a moment if Wade is going to hit him…

“No,” Wade says hoarsely, and reaches for him.  “It isn’t your fault.”

So he sits there and hugs Wade tightly until they both calm down.

“I am a terrible person,” Wade whispers.  “I am the worst sort of monster.  I killed three billion people because I was tired of being ugly.  Billion.  With a B.  Even if you gathered up everyone in the world right now in one place, you’d only have about a million.  It’s like killing this world three thousand times.”

Nathan shakes his head.  “You’re a wonderful person.  You’re my friend.  My best friend.  Being the Grey King is such a hefty responsibility…the only thing that makes it bearable is knowing you’ll always be here.  To hell with that stuffy old bastard, he didn’t know you like I do.”

Wade laughs—or maybe sobs.  “I’m sure you’re right, Nathan.”

Nathan understands now that Wade has waited two thousand years for him.  More than old prophecies, more than his mutant gifts or his mother’s insistence, he feels that this is what makes him an Irreplaceable Treasure.