black-eyed susan • holly
4,732 words

The damn kid had done it again though truth be told, Nathan wasn’t entirely sure which obnoxious teenager he was talking about - the real deal or the clone with a personal vendetta just because he didn’t get what he wanted. It was a tantrum when everything came down to brass tacks. The problem was that it was a tantrum that lasted far too long, spanned far too many years, and never seemed to stop with how many times they went through this rigmarole of exchanges.

And still, he couldn’t kill the damn guy. It would have saved some problems - it would have saved a lot of problems and, hell, a lot of lives - but it wasn’t the right thing to do, a move that would ultimately go against everything their was to maintaining the time stream as it should have been; and it meant one had to take the good with the bad even when presented with the opportunity to stop it.

Not that there had been anything to stop the fire as it had ripped through the apartment or the unintended slingshot to the future thanks to A.D.A.M. Unit Zero which had put him face-to-face with his younger self - again and this time without a shovel to knock some sense into him, but where the young gun had surely failed, Nathan wasn’t without his experience with the sort of complicated mess made of Stryfe’s efforts to wipe him off of the map. It, after all, wasn’t about how someone killed Cable.

It was when.

He kept his distance from the Presidio grounds for the very likely possibility Stryfe had found his way inside, keeping his distance in an attempt to go widely ignored by any telepathic probing there might have been for one Nathan or another while attempting to put together a game plan. Going in and claiming he was the real Nathan Prior? Well, that might have worked, but then again, it might have done more harm than good. Going in shooting? That was a welcome option, but he was sure to ruin his younger self’s career path if he had all intention in staying with the C.S.A. Still, there were always other ways.

“Hey, kid,” Nate said, interrupting what might have been an inconspicuous visit to the Presidio had Nate not known better. “You got a way in there?”

Theo was working hard — juggling multiple jobs, and hobbies, and also making sure he cleared his schedule to make as much time as possible for Kit, not because he had to but because he desperately wanted to see him whenever possible. It was exhausting some days, but he was thankful to be more energized than not lately, dashing between school and the Presidio, making sure he did good work in both, and obviously making sure the former didn't fire him, remained smoothed over and happy after his week and a half disappearance with very little explanation, just what he'd been comfortable telling them. That it had something to do with the superheroes they saw on the news, and that was it.

At this point, Theo was preparing to ask the C.S.A. to give him some more back-up when it came to his teaching — someone, hopefully, to step in and make excuses the next time he disappeared, since he figured there would be a next time. Hopefully not dragged backwards in time for five years without any way to escape, but one could never be so sure. He'd try to talk to someone that day, he figured, even though he had a lot of records to comb through, and was hurriedly making his way towards the entrance of the building after winding up a little late due to certain distractions. He'd parked his bike, locked it up in the appropriate spot, and was just about to hop up the stairs when he was stopped abruptly by —

Theo spun and blinked at the stranger, who ... was not a stranger. Not wholly. Was he? He narrowed his eyes. There was a familiarity in that face that he couldn't place, and he'd taken him by such surprise — and was, truthfully, a little disarmingly handsome in a just stepped out of a cowboy magazine kind of way — and all of that compounded to make Theo trip over his sneakers to splat face first on the top of the stairs.

"A... way... in?" Theo wheezed, squinting up.

There was always a next time. Like some unfunny cosmic blip in the universe that either popped them into high school, brought their doppelgangers out of alternate universes, or twisted San Francisco to the top of mass destruction leaderboards, there was always a next time. When it would be? He could probably shoot out a guess - be it something on a grand scale or something far more personal, not unlike the situation he had found himself and, well, himself in - but it was all part of some big picture, at least in the reality Nate had come from.

It was just a damn shame it never actually did end for some rest and relaxation, something he was sure he could blame on Apocalypse for starting this wild time travel ride in the first place or perhaps even Cyclops for shooting him off to the future because of it - not the blame game did anyone any good and neither did watched Theo go down with not so much as a response at the top of the stairs. His brow furrowed (which wasn't to say it hadn't already been) as he wheezed, arms crossing as he took a few extra steps up.

"That's right," he said, already considering he could block most people from recognizing a time traveling intruder. It just wasn't the one person he had actually hoped to. Most days, he could bodyslide right in, but that was sure sign Cable had come knocking. Some days, he could use the Phoenix, but never mind the obvious explosive capability of that, timeline discrepancies didn't exactly grace him with the cosmic firebird. That was something left to his junior. "A way in. Preferably one that isn't obvious."

Theo needed a moment — still lying flat on the stairs, trying to wrap his head around what the fuck was happening in that moment. Someone who seemed a lot like Nate in twenty years was asking him how to get into the building, and Theo was just — trying to comprehend it. Nate in twenty years. Nate who time traveled, had time traveled before, had time traveled to rescue him from the 1950s, had —

Theo turned his face up, again, slowly, at the man standing on the steps beside him. He stared long and hard, Jeopardy music playing in the back of his mind. And then, abruptly, he scrambled to his feet, picking up his backpack and swinging it on. He still stared — a spark of sharp intelligence in there, despite his clumsiness, Theo was on to something, despite still being — well, a little thrown, a little confused, and a heavy dose of suspicious.

"Are you — okay. I think you need to. Back up, first, and explain a little more to me. Why d'you need to get inside, Mr. Mysterious Cowboy Man?"

"I think the better question is are you okay? Or do you like living dangerously tripping over your own feet?" Nate asked, still standing there, still sentry, maybe mildly judgmental, but it had been a simple enough question and he wasn't without some wind to the potential recognition that had been spinning around in Theo's head like a wound up hamster just trying to find a snack - but then he had popped up, Nate's head canting to the side for a second because, truly, he would have to provide an explanation.

Not that explaining paradoxes was exactly easy.

"It's Nate," he pointed out, "not Mr. Mysterious Cowboy Man, and the Nate that might be in that building - Askani willing - is not the one you know." But then where was the one that was supposed to be in this place, this time, this version of San Francisco? "I'm here cleaning up his mess - our mess," he explained, an almost annoyed brush at the bridge of his nose and furrow of his brow all too indicative of how troublesome the whole damn thing was, but really - it was a lot better than having some of the other Cable's around.

It's Nate, the mysterious man said, and Theo took half a step back. His expression was written with suspicion, confusion — genuine surprise, a glance up and down Old Nate that read oh, he's gonna look like that when he's old? For real? Feels unfair, but okay. But Theo's understanding of the situation grew rapidly. There was a Nate in the building. There was a Nate in the building that Theo did not know, and his eyes narrowed again, scanning and searching Old Nate's face with that same spark of something sharp.

Nate had been at the show.

Nate had been at the show, the band show, with him and Ris on stage, and Theo had — there'd been something off. He'd felt it, the little prickle down the base of his neck, but it hadn't been strong enough, or noticeable enough, and he'd been drunk and happy and there'd been fights, people getting thrown through walls thanks to Kit and his fantastic strength, and Theo had just thought the tingle was due to that, not—

"Who is he, then? The one that might be inside?" Theo asked, but he was already jumping into let's move mode, searching through his jacket for his keycard, and gesturing for Nate to follow him. He nearly stumbled as he started walking but kept upright.

What he had gotten up to in the interim - that time between Nate being thrown into the future a bit worse for wear, on the run from every enemy that had wanted to see him ended one way or another, and the old man taking the reins to throw himself back into the past to ensure it didn't get worse than it already was - Nate didn't know. He knew there wasn't untold destruction - the city, the fact it still existed in the timeline, and nothing had rippled too heavily told him that - but that didn't mean there wasn't planning, there wasn't plotting, and Nate had half a mind to tell Nick Fury that he needed to up his security if the likes of Apocalypse and his cloned progeny could get inside.

Assuming he was inside.

"I'm going to say this outright," Nate said, decided that ripping the band-aid off was a lot better a means to go about it than trying to beat around the issue, no matter the safety that might have come of it. "He's my clone." Like mother, like son - though the reasons for it had been vastly different between Sinister and the Askani who had done it to ensure not only his safety, but his future. It was just Stryfe's unfortunate luck and Nate's considerable amount of it that had his doppelganger raised by one of his worst enemies. In that was, perhaps he felt sorry for him - or would have had it not always turned into moments like this: Chasing him down to fight him back into time somewhere before someone died and all too often, that had been his mother, someone he didn't yet know had been ripped into this all. "Jettisoned your Nate into the future and stepped in, so I imagine some things have been a little bit off."

In all honesty, Theo appreciated it when someone was upfront with him. No beating around the bush, no umms and ahhs as they tried to find the most sensitive way to explain whatever weird new thing was happening. He'd already experienced weirdness with Nate — getting sucked into the 1950s for five years wasn't exactly normal, and it had taken him a long while to return to what he'd known as normalcy before that, and even then, that had changed. His life was different. When he wasn't working, Theo was tucking a balaclava into his bag and tuning into police radio signals. Nothing was ever going to be straight-forward again.

"A little off, yeah." Theo agreed, taking every bit of information in stride as he led them through the front doors, passing only one security guard for now, who let Theo through with a flash of his badge and a quick, "He's a guest," explanation.

"He came to a show my band did. I felt like something was — I don't know. I could sense something weird, anyway, but I didn't listen to it." He gave a sharp disappointed huff — at himself, and nobody else, and then turned his face to squint up at Nate. "Do you have a — like, do you have a fake ID? I was gonna sign you in as a guest but they'll need that. Otherwise we're gonna have to sneak in a different way, and that'll mean me pulling you in through a window, probably. Up for that?"

There wasn’t much room for ambiguity that way, the umms and aahs of someone who might have been trying to play it safe a sure fire way to build suspicion - not that there wasn’t already room to find it when someone jumped back from the future to clean up a mess made by a much younger, paradoxal counterpart from another timeline that mirrored his up until the strings decided to split. At least he wasn’t trying to explain the rest of it: That there was another Cable that had been wiped off the map by the younger one and that one just so happened to turn into a Horseman, another confusing drop in the time travel bucket no matter the good that had ultimately come with it.

There was just nothing straight-forward about anything.

He didn’t say anything as they passed inside, doing his best to play the part of guest while blocking any psychic wavelengths he could have been sending off that would trigger Stryfe into realizing he was there. If he just played it cool and didn’t get in over his head, he was sure he could bodyslide him right out of there before anyone noticed there had been a mishap, but then again, nothing was so straight-forward and nothing was so easy; there were always complications, even ones that he couldn’t have seen coming like a mother trapped in Limbo rather than doing her own spying on the C.S.A. as a hellfire skeleton.

“An I.D.?” Nate asked - no, he didn’t have that on hand, but there were always ways around that. “Got a piece of paper roughly the size of an I.D.?” And before there had been any question about that, he leaned in as if there was some secret to impart. “I’m a telepath, remember? I’m pretty sure the kid hasn’t forgotten that part of it even though he’s not that good about it.”

This felt like it was a possible disaster — an infiltrator copycat inside the C.S.A. doing who knew what, showing up to parties, pretending to be Nate. How much of his life had they messed with already? That was what Theo couldn't stop thinking about — what had they done, what had they gotten away with, so far? At least he knew for sure, now, and could make sure that nothing else came to pass — alongside Nate the Elder, whose distracting swagger was at least something that gave Theo an air of confidence about the situation that he might not have had without him there.

"Uh, let me see." Theo answered, quickly spinning his backpack around to his front so he could start digging through it. It was filled with books, far too heavy for any normal human to be carrying — but Theo was no longer a normal human, and the backpack itself barely weighed anything to him now. He pursed his lips and tugged out a spare sheet of paper from a notebook, then folded it a few times and carefully ripped it into the size of a business card, which he delivered over to Nate, blinking upwards and freezing a little when he dropped closer to explain.

"Oh. Right." Theo flushed, cleared his throat, and squared his shoulders. "Well, I mean. Try not to mess with their minds too much, okay?" He requested politely, glancing off towards the security entrance. "It's Luiz and Mark today, and I really like them, they're super nice good guys."

As readily as Nathan was worried about his younger self's life and how Stryfe might have screwed it up, he was just as worried, if not more so, about what could be done with CSA resources and the knowledge that they actually did have in their possession about who was who, what they did, and the abilities they had. While some of it wouldn't have been new to him given his experiences with the X-Men, there was a whole universe or few who could have easily been manipulated by his fingers - be it because he was persuasive enough or executed more forceful means.

While still leaning in, considering now that Luiz and Mark were good guys who probably didn't know a damn thing about what was going on beyond the realms of administrative order - "don't let people in" and "check I.D.'s always" being what he could gather immediately - Nate simply said, "I won't." There'd be the impression of an I.D. which he presented easily enough by the time they got to the desk and some memories forgotten - namely his face and anything that could have happened after, but not enough to cause a total catastrophic failure.

"Afternoon gents," he said, passing over the piece of paper with a particular pleasantry as well as flare of telepathic ability, eye wild with light even though it wasn't the identity they would see - be it then or by the time the two had passed through the security gates. "They'll be non the wiser."

Nate was much better suited to this, Theo thought as they approached the security gates. He clutched onto his backpack carefully, only remembering at the last moment to swing it off of his shoulders to send it through the x-ray check, flustered and nervous. Which — wasn't exactly unusual for him, as both Luiz and Mark knew, because Theo was often running late or carrying a million different things while needing to do a million other things, so seeing him looking a little anxious wasn't out of the ordinary, and they smiled and greeted him and chatted casually while he tried not to stare too obviously at Nate.

But then, naturally, they were through. Theo fetched his back, bid a friendly farewell to the two security guards, and rejoined with Nate, nearly bumping into him in his rush to get as far away from the security gates as possible. He let out the breath he'd been holding and grinned up at Nate, proud of their success. "Wow, nice. Okay. Great." He adjusted the straps on his bag, putting on his best Serious Theo Face.

"Where is he? The not-you. Not-Nate. Where do you think he'd be hiding? Just sticking to Nate's routines? I can probably find his schedule for the day—" Theo popped his phone out of his pocket, already scrolling through. "And then we can track him down."

It definitely wasn't Nate's first rodeo. While dealing with the C.S.A. might have been, only so much known about the organization and its place in the future, espionage operations weren't; breaking and entering, however sly it had been, wasn't; and tracking down Stryfe was common as could be; but there had to be something to bring him here and Nate was racking his brain on what it could be. Unfortunately, thoughts weren't necessarily aligned through his junior and future selves given the timeline differences - they might as well have been different in full for as readily as they were the same person - and just what it could be wasn't as readily known.

"I'd guess he's looking for something," Nate said, trying to keep his telepathy on high alert while his telekinetics were busy pushing back the techno-organic virus. It was natural by now, but it still didn't mean he could shut it off lest his cells be overtaken for good.

"He'll keep up appearances for as long as he needs to in an effort to get what he wants," Nate explained, peering down hallways as they came to them or checking out doors when they were open, trying to ensure that no one recognized his face and, of course, that he didn't miss his intended target from not doing his due diligence. "Which means that something is probably worth a whole hell of important - be it to the supers or the C.S.A. Got anywhere you keep artifacts?" Considering how suspicious a question that could have been, Nate did his best to assure Theo he wasn't the one with ill-intention. "Depending on what might have been cataloged there, it could give a solid lead - especially if Nate has checked into any databases."

Theo's gaze shot up at Nate with a touch of urgency at any mention of artifacts. It was a good thing, though, that Theo had a great deal to do with the logging and recording of said artifacts. He knew exactly where they were, exactly what had recently come into the C.S.A.'s possession, and had a fairly good idea of which were the most dangerous. His brow furrowed with obvious concern and Theo chewed on the corner of his bottom lip, considering Nate's words for a moment. His spider-senses weren't alerting him to danger — not about the older Nate standing in front of him, anyway, so after a moment of consideration he nodded, acquiescing.

"I'll show you." He inclined his head and took them on a right turn down the nearest hallway, while flipping through his phone for any sign of Not-Nate's schedule. "It doesn't look like he's got any meetings — schedule's... pretty clear, considering. Maybe he wiped it so it gave him the time to track down whatever he's looking for." Moving on from that, he started digging through his emails and private information so he could comb through any communication over artifacts.

"I was helping log a few just recently. Any idea which, if any, he might be after?" Theo slid a sideways glance Nate's way, gaze a little sharp — it was hard to shake the feeling that there was more going on than Theo was privy to, but it wasn't like he could blame Nate for playing anything close to the chest, if that's what he was doing.

It was hard not to play everything close to the chest - not because he didn't inherently trust Theo for reasons that had been left on the other side of the time stream, but because there were quite a few people that he didn't know that he could. Theo had been given some good recommendation from his younger self, one of the few people with the C.S.A. that could probably help him out with this situation, but as for anyone else? That was yet to be seen, if it was even needed.

Thankfully, Theo seemed to have all the answers and all the access, as least as much as his clearance allowed. "It wouldn't surprise me," Nathan said, his eyes peeled for any signs of his doppelganger, sure to be younger and more in leagues with his younger counterpart. That, he imagined, would make it a bit more harder to recognize him beyond telepathic markers, but so far, all had remained quiet.

"Hard to say," he said, his brain working in overtime to put together the pieces. His doppelganger, from a time much younger than his own, had come to San Francisco, jettisoned his younger self into the future to take his place, and was tracking down... what? "His sole purpose is to take over what Apocalypse started and destroy me in the process, and it doesn't seem to matter which part of the timeline it is, as long as he's had that taste of power, he is on a warpath," Nathan explained. "Anything potentially destructive to the time stream would be my first bet."

Potentially destructive to the time stream gave Theo's gut a twist of discomfort and worry. That wasn't something he was eager to experience any time soon — not without some level of control, of course. Getting tossed into the past with no way to return hadn't been the best experience of his life, even if he'd come out of it with deep, long-lasting friendships, and had returned with the realization and knowledge that he cared about a certain someone more than he'd first understood. Still. Stopping this Nate doppelgänger was high on Theo's list of priorities, now.

"Okay. Got it." Theo nodded, and for all as klutzy and haphazard as he could be, when he had his mind set to something it was easy for Theo to become hyper-focused and unbelievably stubborn and determined. He picked up his pace, diverting them through the different winding hallways of the C.S.A.

"Well, there's something I'm thinking of, but..." He winced a little, shooting Nate a glance, as he pushed his way through a doorway and into a record room — one of many that Theo frequented in his work. "Here, take a seat." He flung his backpack down and jumped onto the nearest chair at a computer, firing it up and tapping in a few passwords and codes until he could access the screen he needed. Artifact logs scrolled down, and Theo ran his finger across the screen, flipping through until he reached the thing he'd been thinking of.

"The M'kraan Crystal." He said, tilting his head around to peer at Nate. "But it disappeared. Recently." Maybe not after Not-Nate appeared, though — but Theo couldn't be one hundred percent sure of the timeline.

“But?” There was a ‘but’ and that was never a good thing, but that also didn’t mean they had the item in question that Theo had been thinking about. It could have been that they knew about it, but never had it in the first place and Stryfe was going on a wild goose hunt himself for it; or it could have been the worst of scenarios where they knew about it, had it, and lost it which, considering how easy it was for him to get through the security gates with a simple wave of a hand and fib - technically - that he was a guest, might not have been that surprising. Sitting rather unceremoniously in one of the vacant chairs, he waited for Theo to track down what he was looking for and, suffice to say, it hit him with a beat of concern when he did.

“Which means he’s going after the Phoenix,” he gauged, sitting back as he gave the concept some more thought. While it might not have been the Phoenix to bring him to the future, to clone him in the first place, Rachel Summers - Mother Askani - surely wasn’t without such cosmic presence behind her even in her final hours. Existing across the universe all at once, she had been an anchor point to him numerous times, kept him safe, kept him alive so he could see the end of Apocalypse and ensure the order of the time stream. Without… well, without wasn’t exactly what he wanted to think about and neither was cosmic destruction.

And if Stryfe didn’t have it, who did? There had been no signs of the Shi’ar and the only other associations he could make had been the Phoenix which meant he was going to have to track them down - however many of them there were. “I think I know who I’ve got to see,” he eventually said, “and if nothing else, maybe she can point me in the right direction.” Except there was no telling, not yet, that Madelyne wasn’t around and wasn’t going to be for a while.