Dedicated to QB, for being QB. :)
Of all the nightmares Cecilia Reyes had suffered through in the four years since the barrier between Earth and Limbo had been ruptured, loosing the cancer that had spread across the world destroying everything it touched, the most horrific was also the most simple.
It began the same each time. She would find herself standing in a bare, dimly lit room with no visible doors or windows. Then the silence would be broken by the sound of an amplified human heartbeat, steady and strong. She would listen to it for a while, almost content, until it dawned on her that the spaces between beats were getting longer and longer with each passing moment. Someone was dying, she would realize at that moment, and start to look for a way out, a way to reach whoever it was out there and help them.
But there was no way out of the room, and no one heard her, even when she screamed and hammered on the featureless walls. The heartbeat would slow further, then stop--and she would wake up sobbing, angry at herself and furious at whoever had locked her in the room where she couldn't do her job, couldn't heal people.
Cecilia figured she knew where the nightmare came from. It had its roots in moments like this, she told herself, standing over the examining table, hands covered in blood as she stared down at the shattered chest of the man lying on the operating table, and knew that there was no chance of restarting this heart.
"Damn," Amelia murmured sickly from beside her. "If only he'd been in his metal form."
She'd heard too many hearts stop, since Magneto had rescued her and brought her here to the Antarctic fortress to serve as the sanctuary's doctor. Too many, even with Amelia's help. One would think she'd have gotten used to it by now.
"I gather that he was," Cecilia murmured. Surely that couldn't be her voice, so impassive and cold--"Victor said something about Illyana heading right for him and casting some sort of spell to make him change back."
Amelia made a bitter noise, and Cecilia glanced sideways at her, part of her almost surprised at the anger in the other woman's green eyes. "That's it then, I suppose. All these years, he never gave up trying to reach her, and the little bitch repays him by turning off his mutant abilities and feeding him to her pet demon."
"Well," Cecilia said in a clipped voice, not wanting to think about it, "I can't speak for the rest of it, but that is most definitely 'it' for Mr. Rasputin." She reached up, closing his eyes, and then pulled the sheet over his head. *Rest in peace, Piotr.*
She took the time to wash her hands before she went out to deliver the news. "I'm sorry," she said, meeting Magneto's eyes first. He nodded slowly, not looking particularly surprised, and for a moment, she hated him. He could be so damnably cold-blooded at times, as bad as Betsy. "There just wasn't any way to save him," she went on, her gaze moving from Creed to Wagner, some distant, analytical part of her pointing out the difference in their reactions. Wagner was visibly struggling with tears; Creed looked like he wanted to go back out and find someone to dismember. "He was too badly injured. I'm sorry."
Then, of course, she had to look at Kitty Pryde, which she really hadn't wanted to do. The sight of the girl's taut expression and dry eyes bothered her. Kitty might have been keeping company with that new guy, the Brit - what was his name, Wisdom? - but history was history, and to hear the others tell it, Kitty and Piotr had had plenty.
"We'll make her pay for it," Kitty said in a voice that sounded far too old, coming from that youthful face. Cecilia glanced downward, seeing blood trickling out from Kitty's tightly clenched fist.
"Yes," Magneto said quietly. "We will. But not today." He laid a hand on Cecilia's shoulder. "Thank you," he said gravely, directing it to both her and Amelia. "You should both get some rest. We'll be evacuating one of the Russian enclaves tomorrow, and I doubt the Goblin Queen will allow us to rescue two hundred men, women and children without putting up at least some resistance."
"Heaven forbid that a day should go by without Cecilia and I adding to our trauma experience," Amelia said bleakly. "We'll be ready."
"Danke, ladies," Wagner said in a soft, strained voice. "As always, we appreciate your efforts." He reached out a hand tenatively to Kitty. "Katzchen?"
She stared up at him steadily for a long moment. Then, something softened in her expression, ever so slightly, and she took his hand. "Come on, fuzzy elf," she said quietly.
They left the infirmary together. Creed, after one disgusted look at Magneto, trailed along behind them. Magneto gave a sigh as the door closed behind the three of them, and Cecilia's earlier frustration at him ebbed as she saw weariness descend over him like the weight of the world had just been dropped on his shoulders. The image was more or less appropriate, she reflected with an inward sigh of her own.
"This should not have happened," he murmured, his shoulders slumped. "Nathan was occupied with N'Astirh--the rest of us should have been able to manage Illyana and the demons. But I could not even seem to reach her, let alone stop her."
"You can't blame yourself," Cecilia said automatically, one of those platitudes she loathed hearing from her own lips but which seemed to inevitably slip out, every so often. Magnus gave her a look that seemed more than slightly skeptical, and Cecilia almost bristled. "You can't," she said, more forcefully. "You do the best you can, just like the rest of us."
"She's right." Amelia gave him a measuring look. "When was the last time you got a full night's sleep?" she asked in the sort of stern, 'don't lie to me or I'll make you wish you'd never been born' tone that Cecilia hadn't quite mastered yet.
He chuckled, a sound utterly without humor. "Five years ago, perhaps."
"Not good enough, Erik," Amelia chided him. "Go and get some rest. I'll have Cecilia make it doctor's orders if you don't cooperate, and I would really advise you to cooperate. Because if that doesn't work, I'll tell Betsy on you."
The start of surprise he gave wasn't nearly as interesting as the faint flush that rose to his cheeks. Cecilia felt her jaw drop, and closed her mouth with an audible snap. Amelia was smiling knowingly. Magnus looked down at her almost defensively, and she made a few shooing motions at him, inclining her head in the direction of the door.
"Am I that out of the loop?" Cecilia asked, shaking her head, once he was gone. "Magnus and Betsy?"
"I'm not positive, but I wouldn't wager that they haven't entertained thoughts in that direction. He's about the only person Betsy acts like something other than an ice statue with, these days."
"Oh," Cecilia said with a sigh. "I suppose I have noticed that." She was just tired, she told herself firmly, straightening up. Even before the field team had come back with Colossus, she'd delivered a baby, seen to a group of children suffering from food poisoning, amputated the leg of one of the survivors of the last enclave they'd evacuated - she hadn't wanted to, had held off as long as she could, but in the end she'd had no choice - and done her usual rounds. Magnus was right. Best to get some rest while she could, because sure as the sun rose in the morning, there'd be some sort of emergency in the next twelve hours.
"Life goes on, Cecilia," Amelia said with a sigh, putting an arm around her shoulders and drawing her towards the door. "Even in the midst of all this. It has to, or none of it means anything at all."
Cecilia sighed as she stepped through the doors into the conservatory. She'd intended to get some sleep, she really had, but the family living on the level above her had been having some sort of domestic dispute, and she hadn't been able to rest for the noise. Her room wasn't someplace she preferred to spend a great deal of time in, if it was in her power. It was private, true, but she always felt as if the walls were closing in on her, and she'd never had time to make the place 'homier'.
The quiet was the first thing that hit her, and Cecilia closed her eyes for a moment, appreciating it. She made a habit of making her visits here in the middle of the sanctuary's night, when the place was usually all but empty.
The conservatory was encased in a dome at the center of the hydroponics level. On the inside of the dome, the holographic image of a clear night sky with an enormous moon was being projected at the moment. The environmental systems in here could duplicate any kind of weather systems. Cecilia almost preferred it when it was raining. You could come in here and walk in the rain, the unmistakable smell of wet earth filling the air, and pretend that you were someplace real, out in the world that had been before the war.
It was a comforting illusion, she thought bitterly, wandering down the greenery-choked paths. A wonderful little imitation of normality, which most of them had left behind years ago.
She was so--damnably--tired, Cecilia thought, her jaw clenching and her eyes blurring with tears as she reached one of the benches and sat down before her knees decided they weren't going to hold her anymore. So tired of the endless stream of broken bodies, the cries of pain that rang in her ears long after she retreated to her little closet of a room and pulled the covers over her head, wishing for unconsciousness, anything that would make the memories go away--
*They need me,* she told herself. It was true, too. They'd had another doctor once, but Henry McCoy had died in the first year of the war. Amelia had done her best, after that, but she'd been struggling. Hell, the two of them were still struggling to keep up with everything that needed to be done--and falling behind, day by agonizing day.
They'd made--mistakes, in the last year, down in the infirmary. Cecilia knew that, just as she knew how inevitable such mistakes were, with the two of them working under such unbelievable conditions, perpetually exhausted and running short on proper medical supplies. It didn't make her loathe herself any less, knowing that--
She looked up sharply, wiping her eyes, at the sound of her name. "Oh," she said, trying for a brisk tone. "It's you."
Nathan Dayspring, or Summers, or whatever he wanted to call himself, sat down on the bench beside her, and Cecilia tried not to shift away. He was still wearing his body armor, splotched here and there with dried patches of what she was sure was demonsblood. A darker, still wet-looking patch on his shoulder caught her attention, and she leaned in to take a closer look, scowling.
"Is that a bite?" she snapped. "Why didn't you come down to the infirmary and get it looked at?"
Nathan smiled crookedly. "It's healing on its own," he said.
"It could get infected--"
"It won't. I can work a little healing magic on myself, sometimes, if the balance of power is right." His grey eyes went bleak and wintry, like the real Antarctic sky outside. "I only wish it could work on others."
"Yeah, that'd be handy, wouldn't it?" Cecilia said, trying not to sound bitter. She gave him an appraising look. Other than the demon bite, he looked more or less intact, if exhausted. The slump to his broad shoulders was easily explained by that, and Piotr's death. "I'm sorry about Colossus," she murmured, looking down at the grass beneath her feet for a moment. "There just--wasn't much to do, by the time your team got him back here."
"I know," he said softly. "I knew from the moment I saw him go down. Illyana was--very determined, today, and I was caught up with N'Astirh." His mouth twisted in a humorless smile. "She's been wanting him dead for a very long time, now--her idea of cutting off all her connections to her past life. I knew that--I told Erik that--but neither of us could convince Piotr to stay here where it was safe."
"Look who's talking," Cecilia muttered. She might not know the sanctuary's resident sorcerer all that well - she'd only had a conversation with him a half-dozen times in the year she'd been here - but she'd heard lots ABOUT him, of course. The gossip in this place traveled like lightning. "I've heard that Magneto's been trying to convince you to stay here where it's 'safe', since you're the one maintaining the shields around the sanctuary. That's a better reason than simple self-preservation--"
"But I'm also the only one who can fight Illyana or S'ym or N'Astirh--or Madelyne on their own terms," he said, his voice going very cold on his mother's name. "That's something I have to do, no matter what risks I take. If I let the others fight that particular battle, she'd be at the gates soon enough. I'd rather not let her back us into a corner. I don't think I could beat her if that happened."
Cecilia shivered. As often as she'd heard his story from the people around here, the thought of it never ceased to horrify her. Used by his own mother in a demonic ritual that had been supposed to kill him, and even half-completed, had crippled his psionic abilities--kidnapped into limbo and then wrenched into a desolate future where he'd been taught magic, lost a war, and been forced back to this century in the vain hope of stopping the whole chain of events, only to find out he couldn't reach anything before Inferno--that he was stuck, here, dealing with the aftermath, just like the rest of them--
"I think most of us try not to think about that," she said quietly. Fear was something the inhabitants of the sanctuary lived with every day--you learned to live with it, not to dwell on it, if you wanted to stay sane. She tried to smile, but it came out half-hearted. "Some of us bury ourselves in our work--"
"I hardly think that's a choice for you," Nathan chuckled softly. "More like a necessity." Cecilia shifted as his gaze turned suddenly intent, and very grave. "I've never told you how much I admire you for what you do," he said, almost in a whisper. "I don't seem to be much good as anything but a battle machine, these days."
He sounded so depressed at that moment that Cecilia, before she quite knew what she was doing, reaching out and took his hand. "Hardly," she said crisply. "Every time I look out a window, I see those shields of yours." A smile flickered across her lips before she could stop it as she thought of the one bright spot of this very long day. "I delivered a baby this morning, did you know that? I doubt the baby would have survived, if he and his mother had been wandering out there in the wastelands somewhere. But they're here, and safe--that's due in large part to you, in my not so humble opinion."
Nathan's mouth quirked upwards. "Are you trying to cheer me up, Doctor Reyes?"
A slightly breathless laugh escaped her. "I think I'm trying to cheer both of us up, actually," she said, and then sighed. "It's been a very long day," she confessed, and jumped a little as he laid his other hand over hers.
"A good day and a bad day," Nathan said. "One life ends and another begins--"
"Now you sound philosophical," Cecilia pointed out.
He smiled, wryly. "I do, don't I? Guess I must be more tired than I thought." Letting go of her hand, he rose, looking around as if he was searching for something. "Stay right there," he said, and walked down the path for a few steps before he knelt beside a small, dark green plant with spiky leaves.
"What are you doing?" she asked curiously, getting up and following him.
He shot an oddly boyish grin back over his shoulder at her. "You don't follow directions very well, do you?"
"It's a personal failing of mine," she said dryly, kneeling down beside him. "What are you doing?"
"Giving some encouragment," Nathan said, and a soft, white-gold glow surrounded the plant as he closed his eyes, holding his hand over it. "Do you know what this is?"
"I never had much of a green thumb, now--"
"Potentilla fruticosa," he said, his eyes still closed. The plant seemed to tremble for a moment, and Cecilia watched in wonder as a bud opened to reveal a small, simple flower of a gold so brilliant that it seemed to blaze against the dark green of the leaves. Nathan opened his eyes, and plucked it delicately from its stem, handing it to her.
"Better known as the tundra rose," he said with an odd little smile that gave her a peculiar quivery feeling inside. She took the flower, inhaling its light, lovely scent deeply. "People who dabble in herbs and so forth used to believe it gave hope and courage back to those who were reaching the end of their endurance."
Cecilia looked up, into his eyes, and managed a smile that felt very strange. "You think I need that?" she asked with a shaky little laugh.
"I think you have more than enough of both to spare," Nathan said, rising to his feet and offering her a hand up. She took it, and blushed, raising the flower to her face to cover her reaction. He seemed distinctly reluctant to let go of her hand. "I just wanted to give you a flower."
She looked up at him, into those grey, grey eyes, and the smile didn't feel quite so awkward. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Nathan looked upwards, and Cecilia followed his gaze, to see that the 'sky' had clouded over while they were talking. "I think it's going to rain," he said.
She surprised herself by another laugh. "Oh, good!"
"Nothing better than a walk in the rain."
He gave her that boyish grin again. She rather liked it, Cecilia decided. "Wasn't there a song about that or something?"
"Something like that," she chuckled, drawing him down the path with her. "Come on."
He followed her, muttering something about umbrellas, and Cecilia smiled at him, wondering, as they walked, why her steps felt so much lighter.