Double Helix: Twin Destinies
by Andrea and Persephone
Chapter 4/4

When Aliya finally got out of the session, she was very quiet and seemed distracted. Stryfe found the link unusually well shielded on her side, and while she opened it at his nudge, there was more of her mind than usual that he couldn't get to. She told him she'd been ordered not to share what the last meeting had been about until later. This wasn't encouraging, but arguing wasn't going to help.

"Later" was what felt like a very long time in coming. Nate, to his surprise, wasn't called anywhere and in frustration unnerved a number of Askani by voluntarily helping with a variety of chores. Stryfe was teasing him over dinner that he was going to cause trouble that way; they'd start expecting it -- when Madame Sanctity's thoughts rang through everyone's mind.

She announced -- apparently to every Askani within secure limits -- that the newcomer whom they had questioned the previous day was indeed the child rescued from the twentieth century at the Mother Askani's orders. The Askani'Son they'd followed for ten years, the Chosen One behind whom a new Clan was to rally, was in fact the clone the Mother had ordered made, fearing the death or capture or incapacitation of the first child.

Scenes unfolded, drawn from memories and sewn together, of the Mother Askani's orders, the protests made, the young woman assigned to the project and a few of her reports on progress... the assault on the Cloisters that made the halls run with blood like the vessels of a live being, when Apocalypse stole one child and the other was lost. Then further reports, pieced together. The delivery of the Mother Askani's comatose body to one location. The assistance of other, lesser known operatives to a pair of new Clan Askani under orders, they claimed, direct from the Mother, who had predicted their arrival and need, though they'd expected it to be less desperate.

The Daysprings.

And their child.

Stryfe was having trouble breathing by the time the report had finished. Clone. He was a clone. His life, his mission, everything...were all just copies of another. Bright Lady, how was he supposed to react to that? Nate nudged the link after a moment. #There. Catch that? Chosen Ones, plural. I think they're keeping you.# He was getting a bit worried about Stryfe, but had to admit to being relieved that the phrasing they'd taken from the Mother Askani herself referred to them on equal terms, so presumably the Askani wouldn't get too agitated at the idea of keeping Stryfe. On the other hand, he was having an interesting time keeping his temper under control. What did they think both men -- or infants -- were, just tools to their hand?

Stryfe looked up at him, his eyes unnervingly empty for a moment before he blinked and focused on Nathan again. #Yes, I heard.# It was more than he'd hoped for, even in his dreams. He'd been preparing himself for being given, at best, a command within the Askani network. At worst, politely shown the door, but that was an outcome he'd preferred not to consider at all. But this...He was still the Chosen One. Well, not the Chosen One, but at least a Chosen One, and that really should be good enough. Part of him was exulting in the news.

The other part, though...

Nate eyed him worriedly. Then sent as softly and as privately as he could, using the link for it almost by instinct, #Are you all right?#

#It's more than I'd hoped for.#

#That's not what I asked.#

#I didn't even allow myself to think that I might be still regarded as the Askani'Son at the end of all this. Apparently I am. That should be good enough for anyone.#

Nate sighed and caught Aliya's eye, which took actual prodding since she, too, was looking worriedly at Stryfe. "Aliya," he whispered, trusting the privacy of a low voice more than he did that of a telepathic connection to someone he hadn't linked with, around all these Askani. "Can we get out of here?"

She gave him a slightly startled look. Well, she was about done, and Stryfe didn't appear likely to be eating any more.... "Good idea." She touched Stryfe's hand and rerouted most of the Sisters who tried to come talk to them with either telepathic notices or simply a forbidding manner. Nate wasn't sure which. She took them both to her room, mostly because it was closer than Stryfe's. And she wasn't sure he'd think to lock the door.

Stryfe didn't appear to really notice the change of venue, which was worrisome, but he sat down on the edge of the bed to look at them both. "I take it this is what was discussed at the Council session I wasn't privy to yesterday?" he asked Aliya, trying to keep his voice steady.

"Some of it. Some of today's announcement was new to me, and some of it I know they were still gathering information for because that's what they had me doing all morning."

Stryfe nodded once, the movement tightly controlled. "It's more than I was hoping for."

"You said that before," Nate observed.

"It's still true," Stryfe snapped.

"Fine. You're obviously not happy. Maybe Aliya knows why, and maybe you didn't care if the entire cafeteria could see it, but I'm not seeing why." ~And you're shielding so hard it actually hurts. Your right if you want to, I can take it, but it's not working well enough to do anything but confuse me....~

"You don't see why? Didn't you HEAR what Madame Sanctity said?"

"Um...that you were still the Chosen One? Well, a Chosen One. Isn't that what you wanted?"

"It's more than I hoped for, and I said that already!"

Aliya sighed and went over to the bed to kiss him. He didn't resist, but he didn't really respond, either, and she set her hands on his shoulders and studied him for a moment. "Talk to me, love."

"I was talking."

"You know what I meant." She tilted her head. "Is it the cloning? I've heard about the woman they had do it. Her birth-clan's practically legendary."

"Hmph. I am legendary. At least...Nathan is. I, apparently, am a copy of a legend. Don't you think that would bother you somewhat?"

"The Mother Askani referred to you both the same."

"And yet somehow I ended up with Apocalypse while he miraculously escaped and ended up with Slym Dayspring!"

"It could have been the other way around," Nate said quietly. "Of course, then you really would be the only one around -- I'm pretty sure he'd have killed me."

"It wasn't the other way around, and he did his level best to kill me as well, if you've forgotten." Stryfe blew out a breath and reminded himself that he wasn't being fair to Nathan, or Aliya, or the Askani for that matter. Mother Askani had referred to them both equally, he should take that at face value and not delve too deeply beneath the surface. But...something was just striking him wrong about the explanation, and he did NOT like being reduced to a mere copy of another person.

"Well, I meant a bit sooner. Not as if he'd want a host who was turning into metal soup."

Stryfe winced. "I didn't--that's not how I meant it."

"I know it doesn't make it any better for you," Nate said quietly. "You -- obviously you have a survival advantage, though." His mouth quirked irrepressibly. "Old saying I found: At least you've still got your health."

Stryfe's mouth twitched. "Lucky me."

Aliya aimed a telekinetic swat, too light to be taken as an actual attack but just barely, at Nate, then settled closer to Stryfe. Nate sighed and walked over, not touching either of them or sitting down this time. "Sorry."

"Sorry has no meaning."

Nate took a firm grip on his temper and pushed it out of the way. "All right. I won't joke about it. But -- okay, you're a clone. If nobody noticed up to this point they must've done a good job, right?" There could be problems with the techniques on occasion, especially if accelerated growth came into play, but those were likely to be obvious early on. "What are you worried about, being used? You didn't seem to mind it yesterday."

"That was not the same thing! I follow the Askani because I believe in our mission, and I believe in the Mother's prophecies. If I am destined to lead in a new order, then so be it. I've accepted that. But--being grown in a tank, just in case YOU were killed? What kind of flonqing destiny is that?"

"What kind of flonqing destiny is being born?" Nate shrugged. "I keep telling you, that's too early to pick someone. I still think the whole thing is stupid. But if anything, you have more right to be Askani'Son than I do. You were literally made for it."

Stryfe snorted. "You have an odd way of seeing things, Nathan."

"Let's see. You spent, what, twelve years with Apocalypse and ten with the Askani, and I spent the time with the Daysprings and then in a library. Are you surprised we see things differently?"

"No, not really. You're still odd. Not at all how I expected you to be."

"Remind me to ask you some other time how you did expect me to be."

"Why not now?"

"It doesn't seem to bear that much on the topic at hand."

"Which is?"

"You being upset."

"I am not upset. I was...surprised."

#It's only explanations I can't get through the link right now, Stryfe. I can tell how you're feeling.#

#Have I mentioned lately that I hate this flonqing link?#

#I want to help. But I don't know what I can do.#

#You can't do anything.#

#How do you know if you won't even tell me what's wrong? Maybe I can help. Stryfe, we're...we're part of each other. We're...brothers. Let me help.#

#I'm your CLONE!#

Nate hesitated for a second. #That's a brother.#

#NO IT ISN'T. It's a flonqing copy. They made me so they'd still have a Chosen One if you died. Doesn't that bother you at all?#

#Oath, yes. I don't particularly care for the fact that they see us both as tools they can do whatever they want with. I don't particularly like the flonqing virus, either. And I know people look down on clones, I know that's considered normal. I also know there's not a rational basis for it. Less of one even than culling flatscans -- and I grew up among flatscans, if you recall. You're my brother. Whether you like it or not.#

#Clones are used for menial labor and -- harvesting. Which is what I was made for, if on a large scale. They're not people.#

#There's one Clan where they're a majority of the population -- or were when the record was made. I'd be willing to bet the woman Aliya was talking about was from there. All right, people exploit clones. Some people will exploit anyone they can, just because they can. Most people will do it if they need to to survive. Or didn't you notice?#

#I noticed.# ~That doesn't mean they're wrong.~

#So do you think nonmutants aren't people, or did the Askani think to shake that out of you?#

#They're people.#

#Well, that's promising,# Nate thought back drily. He realized that at some point Aliya had managed to tap in and was listening. Might be nice if she'd actually help....

#And you're still a person,# Aliya put in at last. #Mother Askani thought of you both equally, and I, for one, am not about to argue with her judgment. So now we have two Askani'Sons instead of one. That's all the better. No one's replacing you, Stryfe. Now you just have a brother to help.#

#I'm a clone,# Stryfe thought back, a bit sullenly. Nate and Aliya both sighed at him. He looked slightly taken aback.

#Now you're just being stubborn,# Nathan thought at him firmly.

#He's always like that,# Aliya muttered.

#Hey!#

#Redd always said I was as stubborn as a schmule,# Nathan added. #So I guess we're alike in that. Honestly, Stryfe, if we don't see anything wrong with it... well, who the flonq cares what some people might think? I've been in your mind, and I know you're as real as I am. So stop being stubborn.#

#I -- are you sure?#

#Oath. Of course I'm sure. Don't be an idiot.#

Aliya, surprisingly, started to giggle. #As if anyone couldn't tell you two were brothers from the way you insult each other.# They both gave her baleful looks for that. Identical ones. She giggled harder.

"Don't laugh at me," Stryfe said, a bit peevishly.

"It's very hard not to sometimes."

"Try," he suggested reasonably.

"It's also fun." She controlled herself and patted his shoulder. "Come on. I agree with Nate, you're definitely real."

"See?" Nathan looked very pleased with himself. "And if you can't believe us, who can you believe?" ~Not the people who've been lying to you and using you half your life.~ He still wasn't sure where to count Aliya in that - she was Askani, and seemed to have a high place, however junior, as she'd been involved in the Council sessions he and Stryfe had been excluded from. But she also loved Stryfe, Nathan could tell that. So where did that put her loyalties?

"I... suppose." Stryfe pushed his boots off his feet and propped his heels up on the bed. He felt horribly drained.... Shouldn't the real Askani'Son be able to deal with something like this better?

"Your confidence in us in overwhelming," Aliya said dryly, curling up beside him to hug him tightly.

Since when, Stryfe wondered, had Aliya and Nathan formed some sort of minor cabal? He put an arm around her and held tightly. That felt a little better. Nathan smiled a little at Aliya. Whatever else she was up to, she genuinely cared about Stryfe's feelings, at least. That was good. He still wasn't sure how he felt about all of this, but it had been pushed aside in favor of Stryfe's upset. He sighed and cocked his head a little to the side. "So...what happens now?"

Stryfe sighed. "I don't know. I... wasn't at all prepared for this."

"We'll probably try to figure out who's supposed to be doing what," Aliya said wryly. "Nobody else was particularly prepared for your arrival either, Nathan."

"As long as we're on the subject -- sort of," Nathan began, "is there any chance of my managing to time travel this way?"

Aliya laughed at him, this time. "You might have to talk to my sister about that."

"That's why I came here," Nathan said patiently. "I know I have to talk to the Sisters. I was just wondering if you could guess."

"No, I mean my sister, as in family, not the Sisterhood. She's sort of an adjunct Askani, since there aren't enough families involved for a recognizable Clan at the moment. Chronovariant, a trained chronophysician and tech, but not a psi. Her name's Hope."

"Oh." Nathan blushed a little. "Sorry, I misunderstood."

"Obviously," Stryfe put in.

Nathan eyed him. "You're obviously feeling better."

"It wasn't that unreasonable." Aliya grinned. "I don't think I'd mentioned to him that I had relatives."

"I forget what I know and don't know about you, sorry," Nathan explained with a little smile. "I feel like I'm supposed to know you well enough to know if you've got family or not, but I don't."

She raised an eyebrow. "You two did get tangled."

"Well, yeah."

"I told you," Stryfe added uncomfortably.

"You did, yes." Aliya regarded Nathan for a moment, then sighed. "Incidentally, unless you have anything else to do, I should probably warn you that there are a lot of Askani who want to talk to you both about now. Not by orders, just want to. You're going to be swarmed if you leave."

Stryfe eyed her. "If?"

"Well, I'm not going to kick you out to face them if you're not ready to. I'm not that mean. You can stay here." Her mouth quirked up at one side and she added with a little wink, "Like I didn't already get enough comments about hogging the Askani'Son to myself."

Stryfe blushed faintly. Nate shifted his weight. It sounded as if he was included in the invitation, but he felt distinctly like an intruder. Stryfe hugged Aliya a little tighter. "You're keeping me anyway, right?" Mostly joking.

"Of course I am. Don't be silly."

"You like it when I'm silly." Either there was more to that statement than Nathan realized or Stryfe added something telepathically, because Aliya suddenly blushed as well.

Nathan shifted again, feeling like he was definitely interrupting something. "I think I can handle talking to a few people."

Aliya raised an eyebrow at him, abruptly composed again. "You don't have to go. We can behave, I promise."

"I'm not trying to get in your way..."

"I didn't think you were."

"Not to mention that 'a few people' will likely translate into the entire population of the Cloisters. Or at least anyone who can come up with the most remote excuse to talk to you," Stryfe added. "I think I was lucky I was unconscious when I first arrived."

Nate winced. "Didn't I talk to enough of them already?"

"By your definition, undoubtedly. By theirs, not hardly."

"Most of them didn't talk back," Aliya added. "Let me guess, you've said more today than you did for about ten years?"

"Well, maybe for any one of those ten. And it depends on if you count telepathy."

"It's a wonder you still can talk."

Nate touched his throat. "Believe me, I think so too. Some advantages to being a desert brat, maybe."

#Should we try to save your throat, then?#

#As far as I can tell, it's fine. I just find this surprising.#

#Maybe the -- Forgive me, but does the T-O extend to your throat?#

#...Part of it.# Nate ordered himself to stop tensing up whenever someone mentioned it. He'd planned to bring it up himself, and had; it wasn't as if he were still seven.

Aliya cocked her head and examined him inquisitively. #Fascinating. I know the medically-talented Sisters are dying to study it. Your control is really impressive.#

#Ah, thank you.# ~I think. Oath.~ That was not a delightful prospect.

"I think you're scaring him, Aliya," Stryfe observed solemnly.

Nathan jumped a little, mostly hiding it. "Of course not."

Stryfe raised an eyebrow. "What, you don't think I can tell?"

Having his own words flung against him. How embarrassing. "No?" he tried hopefully.

"You're not fooling anybody but yourself," Stryfe told him loftily. He took pity after a moment, though. "They aren't really that bad."

"I'm not scared of them. I just...." He flexed his left hand rhythmically, unconsciously. "It doesn't matter."

Stryfe's eyes narrowed. "You didn't let me get away with that."

Nathan shrugged. "I've always hidden it. I'm just not really looking forward to everyone...noticing it."

"Forgive my pointing out the obvious again, but you put it on display as part of your evidence."

"I know!"

"You may have had to hide it before," Aliya pointed out logically, "but there's not much point in trying to now. Everyone knows already."

"Yes. I know that."

"Well, then." Aliya didn't say anything more, but her tone definitely indicated that she thought Nathan was just being odd.

Nate sighed and considered sitting down. The only chair in the room was occupied by a mysterious conglomeration of plastic and metal that seemed to be humming quietly to itself, however, so he decided against it. Stryfe eyed him quizzically. #Embarrassed?#

Nate glared at him. #How did you ever guess?#

#Well, I seem to have found myself linked to some odd newcomer and feeling entirely too much of his emotions for either of our comfort. Since you seem to be the only odd newcomer around, I would guess it's your embarrassment I'm feeling.#

Nathan wanted to snarl, but supposed it probably wouldn't be fair. #Stab your eyes. Drop it.#

#There's nothing to be embarrassed about, you know.#

Yes, there was. #I already admitted it was irrational.#

#As irrational as my being upset at being a clone? You wouldn't just ignore that when I wanted you to.#

#You were trying to claim you weren't a person.#

#Well... that's how it felt. You didn't understand it, I don't understand this. Why be embarrassed? You have amazing control over it.#

#I've learned.# What was he supposed to say? #Obviously, however, I haven't managed to get rid of it. It didn't really try to kill me much until I was thirteen, but I was at least a little sick a lot of the time when I was a kid. Best was when people assumed it was prosthetics, and even then....# He shrugged.

#The assembled minds of the Askani Order apparently weren't able to figure out a way to get rid of it either, so I wouldn't consider that an insult to your abilities. And as Aliya said, everyone here knows already, so what is the point of being embarrassed about it?#

#Why would I be embarrassed if they didn't know?#

#You seemed to be upset by people who saw it when you were a child and didn't know what it was. Everyone here does. Oath, it's hardly your fault, Nathan. Blame Apocalypse.#

#Forget it.# There wasn't much point envying Stryfe the unmarred body or lack of pain or unhampered powers, but he still did.

#I can't; I'm a telepath.#

#Pretend,# Nathan suggested rather sarcastically.

#As you wish.#

#When did you turn cooperative?#

#Perhaps I'm lulling you into a false sense of security?#

#I am not reassured.#

#It may have escaped your notice, but we are apparently regarded as equal Askani'Sons. I'm not deferring to you in respect any more,# Stryfe sent with a mental smirk, a teasing note in his voice.

#That's a relief. It was very creepy.#

#No more than it was for me, I promise you.#

#Fair enough.# Nate walked over to lean against the wall. Lousy time for the virus to act up. It rarely got out of hand anymore, not after he'd learned more about it, but he felt vaguely chilled and much tireder than was justified. And his chest ached. Maybe it had gotten annoyed at him for making a show of it earlier -- now he was just being silly.

"Is it cold in here?" Stryfe asked Aliya with a frown, pulling her against him to share body heat.

She blinked at him. "Not that I've noticed. Why?" Not that she minded being cuddled, but Stryfe didn't exactly chill easily and she certainly wasn't cold, so it seemed an odd question. Nate tried to strengthen the shielding on the link, cursing silently to himself behind it.

"It just feels colder all of a sudden. Ah well." He waved away the concern idly. "Since we're apparently stuck in here until summoned or the new Askani'Son's admirers get bored, what are we going to do?" He rubbed his chest absently.

"I'm sure we can come up with something." She regarded Nathan thoughtfully; he'd need space to sleep, too.... "Stryfe, are you all right?"

"Fine." He smiled at her. "You know I don't like the cold. Maybe you should have the environmental systems checked out in here."

"You have well over twice my body mass, and I'm perfectly comfortable. The environmental systems are fine."

Stryfe muttered something under his breath and turned to a neutral party for verification. "Nathan, do you think it's cold in here?"

Nate wondered rather wildly what he was supposed to say to that. It probably wasn't, actually, but either answer was probably going to cause some sort of problem. "I doubt it." That probably wasn't an improvement.

"You doubt you think it's cold?"

"I doubt it's cold."

"You have a very odd way of expressing things," Stryfe said with a frown. He looked down at his hand, realizing he was rubbing his chest absently, and that it was aching slightly. That was...odd. "Nathan, are you cold?"

Lying to someone you were linked to was probably a lousy idea, especially since Stryfe was the more experienced telepath. "A little."

"By chance, does your chest hurt as well?"

Nathan muttered a curse. "Yes, and most of the rest of the virus, emphasis on the boundaries of the regions it's taken over. Excuse me. I didn't intend to share."

Stryfe blinked. "Oh, I didn't realize...Well, at least I know where it's coming from. Oath, here." He flicked a light blanket from Aliya's bed to wrap around Nate's shoulders.

"Thank you." It was definitely still embarrassing. The blanket didn't really help that much, but he wasn't going to say so. And it was a little better. Or maybe that was that Stryfe had offered it....

Aliya was frowning and looking between the two of them. "Can you two shield at all?"

"I've never been psi-linked before, Aliya," Nathan said wearily. "I'm not very good at it yet."

"Stryfe is," she muttered.

"Our link is still... damaged."

#Please don't get into that here, Aliya,# Stryfe sent quietly. #I didn't intend to upset you.#

#I know.#

Nate was regarding them curiously, welcoming almost any distraction as long as it didn't keep him from controlling the virus. "Do I want to know?"

"I doubt you would've asked if you didn't," Stryfe muttered.

"Fine then. What are you two talking about?"

"Psi-links and shielding."

"Great," he muttered. "Any advice?"

~Don't become involved in a psi-link you're oddly opposed to shielding against after managing to convince your girlfriend that shielding your link with her isn't anything personal. And if you do, don't flonqing well admit it to her.~ "Shield better."

"I'm trying." Nathan gritted his teeth. "I have other things on my mind at the moment."

"I noticed."

"Shut up."

"How juvenile. Aren't you supposed to be the older one?"

Nathan took a deep breath, which didn't really hurt any more than not doing so even though it felt as if it should. He should remember that more often. Then he slammed every shield he could manage into place with nearly as much effort as he'd used at thirteen to separate Stryfe and Apocalypse. Not good for his concentration, but at least it was separate from controlling the virus otherwise.

Stryfe flinched and raised a hand to his temple. "Oath, are you trying to break it again? There's a reason I haven't been shielding very much, you know!"

"It was your idea." It hurt, but not significantly more, and at the moment Nate didn't really care.

"Shield, yes. Not try to cut it off entirely. Stop it."

Nate snarled half-heartedly at him and tried easing back minutely on the shielding. Aliya sat up from Stryfe and watched them both for a moment, then turned to Nathan. "Can we do anything to help?"

~Leave me alone until I get my time machine and get the flonq out of here.~ "You're linked with him too." ~How do you stand it?~ "Do you have any advice?"

"On how to put up with him? Nothing I can think of right now that would help you. I was trying to offer to help with the virus."

"I have it under control."

"Obviously, but it's also clearly causing you discomfort. I thought there might be something we could do."

"I said I have it under control."

"I heard you," she replied irritably. "Let me try this again: I can see you CAN handle it on your own, but is there anything we could do to help?" She shook her head and added under her breath, "Males."

"Females," Stryfe retorted with a wry smile. He added to Nathan, "That means you should just answer her now. Trust me."

"I... I'll be fine."

Aliya actually growled at him. "That is not what I asked you."

"You're stubborn."

"You noticed," Stryfe muttered.

"You hush," Aliya admonished him. "You're just as bad and you know it." She looked expectantly at Nathan.

#I really would answer her, you know. She's not going to leave it alone now.#

#Just because you never stand up to the Askani doesn't mean I won't.#

#This isn't a case of standing up to the Askani. It's a case of having a pointless argument with Aliya over the fact that she's trying to be nice to you.#

#I don't need her help!#

#Which she acknowledged.#

Nathan ground his teeth. #I've been dealing with this flonqing virus every day of my life since I can remember. I don't think someone who met me a day ago is going to help.#

#She offered on my behalf too, in case you didn't notice. And you don't know every technique we do, either.#

#To deal with techno-organics?#

#I was thinking of power-sharing, that sort of thing. Psionic anesthesia... for that matter, I can produce heat without incinerating people.#

#I...didn't think of that.#

~Obviously.~ #We only want to help. You're...my brother, after all.#

#I....# Nate shut his eyes. #Thanks.# "Listen. I... appreciate the offer, but I've had to deal with it on my own before and I expect at some point I will again. I don't really want to depend on outside help, if you know what I mean."

"Well that's a rational argument, at least," Aliya said testily. "You're the Askani'Son. You don't have to be alone if you don't want to be."

"There are no guarantees. I -- it's really nice for someone to offer to help -- Redd used to help -- I just don't want to get used to that when I don't have to have it. But thank you. Both."

"You're welcome." Aliya's expression clearly said that she didn't agree, but wouldn't argue further for now. "If you change your mind, just let us know."

He hesitated. "I really didn't intend to broadcast." He nodded at Stryfe.

Stryfe shrugged. "It's an unusual situation, for both of us. I'm sure you're reading more from me than you'd care to."

~Or than you'd care for me to?~ "Probably." Another pause. "I'm not feverish. I saw you move like you were going to come check my forehead, Aliya."

She was startled into a laugh. "You can tell that from watching?"

"You move like Redd used to sometimes."

"A very wise woman, obviously," Aliya said with a grin. "It's a logical guess, since you're apparently
chilled."

There wasn't any reason to be embarrassed... yeah, right. "Not fever. The metal conducts heat better the more trouble it's causing."

"Oh, that makes sense." She eyed him again, lips pursed. He was getting embarrassed again. How...male. Well, she could take a hint. "Tell me about Redd, then. I've heard about Slym endlessly" She shot Stryfe an amused look "but I don't know anything about Redd."

"I am getting really, really worried about how much Stryfe apparently knew about Slym." Nate sighed. "Which is completely pointless now, I realize. Redd was... oath, where do I start... what do you want to know?"

"I was a little worried about it myself. It bordered on obsession." She smiled teasingly at Stryfe before turning back to his brother. "I'd like to hear anything you'd like to tell me. She sounds interesting, from what little you've said. And she was apparently trusted enough by the Mother Askani to have you, so..." She shrugged. "Start wherever you want."

Nathan considered and then sat down against the wall, wrapping the blanket a little tighter. "She's... the one who taught me how to shield, and as much as she could about how to control the virus. I had to figure some of it out myself -- and don't start, I was only thirteen when she," he hesitated, "died. I hadn't practiced shielding that much since. The library was quiet more ways than one."

"I imagine it would have been. But...what was she like? Not her powers, her personality. If you don't mind telling me, of course."

He closed his eyes. "Nice. Very... fiery, even though she hid it most of the time. Weird sense of humor sometimes."

"I see where you got it from, then," Stryfe grinned.

"Hah hah. I'm perfectly normal."

"That's so ludicrous I can't even think of a response." Stryfe shook his head. Aliya swatted him lightly.

"Congratulations. I don't think anyone's managed to come up with anything he couldn't think of a reply to before," Aliya informed Nate with mock-solemnity.

"I'm talented."

"It's part of being a Chosen One, you know," Stryfe told him.

"What, making comments that defy response? Weird duty."

"Well, I meant being talented in general. That too. And most of the duties are weird."

"Really. What are they?"

Stryfe looked at Aliya, who raised an eyebrow at him, then turned back to Nathan. "I'll tell you later."

"What's that supposed to mean? Can't be something you can't talk about in front of an Askani...."

"No, he just can't complain about them in front of me," Aliya replied.

"Why not?"

"She gets annoyed," Stryfe put in.

"The horror." He should probably not be quite so brusque, but he was cold.

"Some people," Stryfe said, shivering slightly and pulling Aliya a bit closer, "don't like antagonizing others for the fun of it." Another blanket floated over to Nathan.

"Sor-- oh, right, never mind." Nate eyed the blanket wrapping itself around him with wry amusement. "I'm not trying to freeze you, though."

"Did I say you were?"

"No."

"I believe you've exhausted Aliya's supply of blankets, though, so I hope that's enough." ~Since you won't let me help.~

"I'm fine. Last time it acted up was during a snowstorm on my way here, so...."

"Whatever you say. Just letting you know." Stryfe shrugged and went back to trying to leach Aliya's body heat. He grew up in a desert; he didn't like being cold.

Aliya finally laughed softly. "You know, Nate, while I certainly don't mind the results and he won't tell you -- the chill is bothering him." She grinned up at Stryfe, mischievously. "I suppose we could invite him to cuddle as well...."

Stryfe choked. "I know we're supposed to share being the Chosen One now, but I think that's taking it a little too far."

"I didn't suggest anything untoward." She sniffed. "Just a perfectly friendly sharing of body heat. If you'd ever been anywhere remotely cold growing up, you'd know it was a standard thing to do."

"I grew up in a desert. Besides, he's the one with all the blankets."

"I know you grew up in a desert. And blankets don't produce heat -- well, those don't."

"Details. I'm sorry if I would rather cuddle with you than my brother."

"Sorry has no meaning, and in this case it's a silly thing to be sorry about anyway." She gave him a look under her eyelashes that might have been either seductive or threatening. "You're the one complaining about being cold."

"So I'm supposed to snuggle up to someone else who's cold?"

"As he's the one who actually is, adding heat to him might actually help. Warming you up isn't going to do a thing. Well, it might be fun, but...."

"I wasn't actually complaining of being cold, either."

"No, just trying to cocoon me in blankets," Nate spoke up wryly, watching the two of them with a wry smile. "I'm fine, really. I didn't mean to let it bleed over. I told you I'm not very good at this."

"Of feeling cold, then. Don't quibble, darling. Nathan, would you mind letting one or both of us do something before I get squashed over here?"

"I thought you didn't mind," Stryfe muttered.

"Well, we do have company."

Nate looked at Stryfe with some interest. "You're blushing."

"At least that's warm," Stryfe replied, embarrassed.

~Must be nice.~ Nate bit his tongue before he could say that aloud, and hoped he'd shielded it away from the link.

#That's never stopped you before,# Stryfe replied in some amusement. #Here, try modulating your shield like this.# He flashed a shot of his own shield structure, modified to encompass two links. #Don't shield too hard, but you can keep out stray thoughts, at least.#

#I'll try.# Nate sighed and did his best to make his shields cooperate. Maybe he should have gone out and braved the hypothetical Askani horde after all....

Stryfe frowned. #I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable.# He sat up and stopped hugging Aliya so closely to him, though he had to repress a shiver. Was Nate this cold ALL the time?

#What?# Nate looked faintly confused, then sighed. #I'm... it's a bit awkward. I seem to be considerably less competent than I'd hoped, for one thing -- although I had no idea I'd wind up psi-linked, either.#

"In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not quite adept at this either. But I DO have more experience with telepathy in general and psi-links in particular. There's no shame in that."

Another sigh. #...Thank you. I'd apologize for... making you cold, but you'd probably just tell me it had no meaning.# He was trying to make a joke, but couldn't quite hide, mind-to-mind, the acute embarrassment.

#The sentiment is appreciated, even if I'm religiously-incapable of accepting it,# Stryfe replied gravely. Nate looked over at him and noticed he was grinning. #Psi-links are a tricky business, Nate. Especially ours.#

#Apparently.# Maybe he should have accepted the help, since the virus's importunity was affecting Stryfe as well... or was he just rationalizing taking the easy way out?

#Nathan... could I at least try warming you? I won't touch the virus; I understand your reasons. But... warming you isn't such a problem, is it?#

~I'm that annoying?~ Nate hesitated for a long moment. #I... guess not. Thank you.#

#Thank you for letting me.# Stryfe didn't wait for any further invitation -- or for Nathan to change his mind. He simply reached out with his mind and pulled on the same trick he'd used to such disastrous effect as a child. He gently warmed the air surrounding his brother, keeping it far lower-powered than when he'd summarily incinerated his tutors.

The first lungful of heated air came as something of a shock, and after having become accustomed to the cool forest, Nathan nearly choked on it. The second one was less of a surprise, and the heat as it penetrated from outside as well as within his lungs was soothing. The pain at the borders of the virus started to ease, too. #Oath....#

Stryfe kept up the heat, feeling his own shivers start to ease as the warmth started to penetrate Nate's diseased body. #Better?#

Nate flinched slightly. #Much.#

#Good.#

#Thank you.#

#You're welcome. I... can show you how, if you like? I'm not sure if you'd be able to really concentrate on it if the virus were really acting up, but it might help.#

Nate swallowed his pride. It was, he reflected, rather lumpy. #I'd appreciate that.#

#Here.# Stryfe wordlessly showed him the mental twist to heat the air around him, only cautioning, #Be very careful, though. Too much force and... you could burn.#

#I'm not sure I'd have the energy to overdo it, if the virus were really acting up,# Nate admitted wryly.

#It... really doesn't take that much energy,# Stryfe admitted regretfully.

#Maybe not to YOU....#

Stryfe shrugged mentally.

Nathan sighed. #It... really is helping.#

#I'm glad.#

The amount of help was surprising. Nate didn't think he remembered the virus having been particularly better on hot days, but... it definitely seemed to be settling down.

Aliya looked between them with a raised eyebrow and asked mildly, "Are you finished?"

Nate flushed. "Didn't mean to ignore you."

"You aren't the one I would complain about ignoring me," she replied serenely.

"No, but I'm a guest, so it's rude."

The Askani'Son is not a guest here."

Nathan heroically repressed a comment on the title and replied mildly, "Maybe not in general, but I'm a guest in your room."

"Very well." She inclined her head graciously. "However, I was actually referencing your brother." She raised an eyebrow at Stryfe again. "Not cold anymore, I assume?"

"No." He looked sheepish.

"Excellent. Although I am feeling a bit... bereft now." She smiled slyly. "Ah well."

Stryfe wrapped his arm more firmly about her again. "Allow me to remedy that."

"Mmm." She snuggled against him and allowed a tiny, if very smug, smile. "Much better."

Nate half-smiled, watching them. It reminded him a little of seeing Slym and Redd together, actually, even if the dynamic was a little different....

"So," Aliya began once she was again comfortably situated, "we now have two Askani'Sons, which is very interesting but a matter for the Council to deal with. However, we also now have... brothers." She looked between Stryfe and Nathan for a moment, though she had to crane her neck to look at Stryfe. "Thoughts?"

They both looked at her, then at one another, with faintly startled expressions. After a long moment, Stryfe admitted, "I don't know what to think."

"Since I'm supposed to be the older one, I guess I can't just sound like a little brother and say 'me too'," Nate offered with a grin.

"Well, you can," Aliya said after a moment's deliberation, "but I hope one of you at least remembers how fairly soon...."

They both blinked and said, "Excuse me?" in unison, then looked at each other and blushed faintly.

She laughed, and kissed Stryfe on the chin. "Seriously, though. I would imagine the sudden discovery of a sibling to provoke at least SOME reaction...."

"And suddenly developing a psi-link isn't enough?" Stryfe asked in a jokingly aggrieved tone. "Having my entire existence momentarily thrown in doubt? Being randomly half-frozen? Bright Lady, what else do you want?"

Aliya twisted around to embrace him tightly. "Not quite what I was thinking of.... I know it has been a rough few days for you."

"But good ones," Stryfe assured her -- and Nathan. "I don't know what to DO with him, but I'm glad he's here."

Nate swallowed hard. "That... means a lot."

"Well..." Stryfe smiled wryly. "How many brothers do I have?" He paused, frowned, and added, "On second thought, don't answer that."

"I don't know of any others," Nate replied truthfully, with a little grin. Jokes aside, though... it was... warming to have someone want him around, especially considering how much trouble he'd caused for Stryfe. He had thought he'd gotten past caring so much about that sort of thing, alone in the library for years, but apparently... not.

"You didn't know about me, either. Ah well." A wry smile. "Perhaps we'll get some variety and discover a sister next."

"I guess. And hey, at least I knew you existed...."

"I... knew you existed. I just didn't know... everything you'd done for me. I... wish I remembered."

Nate shrugged uncomfortably. "I didn't do that much."

"...Maybe it wasn't much to YOU."

Nate winced. "I didn't mean that how it sounded.... It's just that it seems like there should've been more. I'd be dead if Apocalypse had gotten hold of me instead, after all." He realized he was talking to the floor, and looked up at his brother. "You seem to have turned out pretty well despite him, though."

"...Thank you. The Sisters... made sure of that." He shrugged slightly. "I don't see what more you think you should have done. You saved my life, and then sent me to the Askani even when... your own world was falling apart." He couldn't imagine having good parents, like Redd and Slym Dayspring, and just... losing them like that. However, he wasn't about to say that to Nate.

Nate snorted. "I can't take credit. Ch'vayre said 'Use the teleporter.' He set the coordinates."

"You may be modest all you like, Nathan Dayspring. I know what you did."

"...Not meaning to be rude, but you weren't very conscious at the time."

Stryfe tapped his forehead. "Tangling memories has some benefits, apparently."

"All right, but I remember it too...."

And apparently I'm not seeing it through a veil of modestly. Stop arguing, brother."

"No, you're -- I don't know. Never mind." Nate shook his head. "I'm glad you did wind up somewhere with people, though."

"I... wish I'd wound up somewhere with you..." Stryfe said very quietly.

Nate swallowed again. "That would've been good. ...I think if one of us had to end up in the library, though, then -- well, the Askani probably took better care of you than I could've."

Stryfe shrugged. "What is, is."

"Oh, no, don't start that again!"

"The why of any situation is secondary to the situation itself?" Stryfe suggested with a small grin. "Sorry has no meaning? I'm certain I could find a decent life philosophy for you if you'd give me some time."

"Please stop," Nate implored him, fighting off (mostly) a grin of his own. "You're just getting worse. The first one at least I can't argue with."

"You can't argue with the others either. Well, you could, but not correctly. Oath, didn't you say Redd and Slym Dayspring were Askani? They should have taught you better."

"The first one's a tautology. A lot of the time why is a significant part of the situation, and maybe other things are more urgent but you won't get anywhere until you deal with the reasons. And if sorry has no meaning, then why even appreciate the sentiment?"

"The why of any situation is secondary to the situation itself, not meaningless. There are times when the reason is important, but not more important than what is actually happening. And a sense of apology is something that may be appreciated, so long as it is part of something more significant. Simply saying 'sorry' is meaningless. Ensuring that the situation that caused the apology to become necessary never happens again is what matters."

Nate winced. "Must not have meant anything after all, then. I can't guarantee that."

"You won't do so on purpose. You will try not to do so accidentally. I cannot ask for more than that. As I said, I appreciated the sentiment."

Nathan considered the possibility that Stryfe didn't argue with the Askani because it was too exhausting. He'd only spent one day at it, after all. "I'm still not taking any of them to rule my life."

"Of course not. You need all three to be properly annoying to the uninitiated," Stryfe replied blandly.

"I should probably swat you for that," Aliya said meditatively.

"You were very annoying when I first met you. Luckily, you improved vastly on closer acquaintance."

"You were a little brat. Actually you were a fairly large brat. I should swat you on general principles, not just personal reasons...." She grinned up at him. "But I'm feeling lazy, so perhaps you could persuade me not to."

"Of course I was a brat. And I was swatted quite enough for it, thank you very much." He kissed her quickly and wrapped his arms more comfortably around her. "Stay lazy... for now."

"Hmm. I think I will. This is comfortable."

"Hmph. I hope they've gotten over swatting you, Stryfe," Nate spoke up. "I'd hate to have to protect my little brother instead of getting my time machine."

Stryfe snorted, trying to look offended and losing the expression in a laugh. "They're not going to damage me, Nathan."

"Hmph." Nate crossed his arms and and tried to look at Aliya sternly. "See that they don't."

"I like him intact, thank you."

"I rather prefer myself intact as well," Stryfe added. "Although it's very odd having someone offer to protect me from the Askani...." At least until Nate got his time machine and left. Stryfe was suddenly depressed. Oath, this was ridiculous. He'd only MET Nate yesterday!

Nate looked up again, a little sharply. #Something the matter?# he thought tentatively across the link.

#No. Of course not.#

#It... felt like it.#

A mental shrug. #I'm fine.#

#In other words, 'Shut up, Nate'?#

#If I mean 'shut up, Nate', I will say so. I'm hardly trying to drive you away!#

Nate blinked a few times and lowered the shielding on the link a little bit more, guessing by feel how he should do it. He thought he'd be able to put it back, too. #Drive me away?#

#Yes. No.# Stryfe sighed and settled on, #I'm not trying to. If I mean to tell you to shut up, I will. I won't simply be rude in hopes that you'll shut up and go away.#

#...Actually, I thought you were trying not to be rude.#

#Whatever. I wasn't trying to be rude. I simply meant that I was fine.#

#All right. Not used to this yet, again.#

#Cheer up; you won't have to put up with it for very long. You said if the Askani didn't agree to providing you with a time travel device, you would leave. And if they do, you'll definitely leave. I doubt the link will cause us much trouble when you're in the 20th century.#

Nate paused. #I... didn't say I didn't like being linked to you. Even if we weren't planning on it.#

A mental shrug. #I didn't say I didn't like it either. Just that you won't have to worry about "getting used to" it for very long.#

#Well... as long as I'm in this century, I'd think it'd still be there....#

#And even if the Askani don't aid you, you've pledged you won't be in this century much longer.#

Nate looked faintly embarrassed. #It's something of a relative term. I don't know how much time it's going to take me to prepare, all together.#

Well...that was something, at least. #It sounded like you were ready to hop into the nearest time machine and disappear tomorrow, if the Askani offered.#

#Well, if I had to -- but I doubt I'd be able to get much done that way. I have some ideas how to get started, but I got started in this time by reading a lot and coming to see if I could find the Askani. I was expecting at least something of a wait; I couldn't even be sure if they'd have maintained a time machine, or what -- and as I said before, I assumed they'd expect something in return.#

#Ah. ...Good.#

#To which?#

#To...being cautious and taking the time to be prepared.#

#Ah. Well... it seems as if I'd have a better chance that way.#

#Yes. As I said, good.#

Nathan took a deep breath. #I'm... looking forward to having time to get to know you, too.# He hoped.

#...Good. I...am looking forward to that as well.#

#Thanks.# It was... a relief. Nate tried to add a joking note: #Even if I'm interrupting your time with Aliya?#

Stryfe's mouth twitched. #No one ever said having a brother was ALWAYS a good thing.#

#Thanks a lot,# Nate retorted without rancor.

#I doubt Aliya minds, and I know I don't. You... are a very odd fellow, Nathan Dayspring, but I can tell at least that things will not be boring with you around!#

Nate laughed aloud. #Were you suffering from boredom, Askani'Son?#

#Probably not as much as you, Askani'Son,# Stryfe replied, chuckling. #Warrior-librarian.#

Aliya sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "I see now why Kiani told us all never to get involved with a twin. You MISS entirely too much!"

Nate looked sheepish. Stryfe just laughed and cuddled her.

"Hmph. Don't think you'll get out of it THAT easily. What was so funny?"

"I told him he wasn't boring."

"Many things the Askani'Son may be, but boring is certainly not one of them. Either of you."

"Thank you, my love," Stryfe returned with a half-grin.

"And now he thinks he can make up for ignoring me with sweet talk. What a brother you've acquired, Nathan."

"Not arguing with that," Nate replied with a grin.

"I was paying a great deal of attention to you," Stryfe protested. "I just wasn't conversing with you."

"Perhaps you could try including me in the conversation?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Thank you," she replied serenely and settled back against him.

Stryfe kissed her hair. "I think... overall... I like it."

"Like what?"

"Having discovered a brother. Despite the traumatic readjustment of my perceptions of reality."

"My world wasn't readjusted quite so traumatically, but I think I like it too," Nate added, smiling at Stryfe. "Incidentally -- and feel free to tell me to shut up if this is a stupid question, but if they thought you were me when you showed up...why didn't you go by 'Nathan'?"

"I... don't know. A few of them tried to call me that, but it never took."

"You wouldn't respond to anything else when you first arrived," Aliya added, "so we'd gotten so used to calling you Stryfe by the time you were healed that it seemed silly to change." She smiled mischievously over at Nate. "And now I suppose we should be glad we didn't."

"One fewer thing to be confused about?"

"Precisely."

"I did remember you from when we were eight, too," Stryfe offered.

"...I was nine. I think."

"Oh. I guess that makes sense." Stryfe thought back to the images Sanctity had flashed to them all of the Chosen One's cloning. Nathan had been small, a baby, but not that young. "Well, there goes the twin title. I suppose I'll have to stick with 'brother'."

"I liked twin. There's time travel involved anyway."

"All right, then. You'll still understand why I didn't want to share a name with the impertinent peasant who actually had the nerve to wear my face." Stryfe's mouth twitched. "And 'Stryfe' sounds so much more impressive than 'Nate', don't you think?"

Nate made a show of carefully considering this, then shook his head. "Not really, no."

"Hmph. What do you know? You've been living in a library for ten years."

"That might imply I'd know rather a lot," Nate replied in amusement. "Lots of books, you know."

"But not so much about interactions."

"Nathan's still a perfectly impressive name."

"Just not as much."

"Less hostile."

"Considering where I GOT the name, does that surprise you?"

"Not particularly."

"And speaking of where we obtained our names," Aliya spoke up, leaning forward slightly and trying not to look too eager, "Stryfe told me that you have memories of the First Ones, Nathan."

Nate looked disconcerted. "Not... very many...."

"Any memories are still more than I have," Stryfe murmured.

"I'll share if you want... again. I didn't have a very clear idea what was wrong most of the time, though."

"Even unclear memories of the First Ones will be fascinating to the Askani, Nate," Stryfe said with a very faint smile. "I used to wonder on occasion why I couldn't remember them at all. My earliest memories are at the Palace..."

Nate frowned. "Shouldn't there be some from a little earlier than that?"

Stryfe shrugged. "Whether there should be or not, I don't have them." He'd spent a great deal of time looking.

"That's odd...." Nathan closed his eyes. Actually, if he remembered even fuzzy things from before he was sent through time, why hadn't he ever seemed to remember Stryfe?

"Even a telepath can't remember everything. I don't remember...quite a bit, apparently, from the time you and your unit showed up at the Palace until waking up at the Cloisters...days later. While I doubt either of us was injured that badly when we were separated as infants, if that is when the link was broken, it could explain a lack of memories."

"I was thinking that. I wonder if there could be any recovered now that the link's fixed, or if we missed the opportunity...." Nathan didn't open his eyes. "I'm looking for them."

"...Finding anything?"

"I just started."

Stryfe reflected that if any memories WERE there, he should flonqing well have some too, and he might as well look instead of just pestering Nathan about it.

"Might I suggest you try the search together?" Aliya asked mildly. "And let me in on it, if that wouldn't be excessively intimate."

Stryfe shrugged mentally and reached across the link to his brother. #It makes sense to look together. Do you mind including Aliya?#

#...No.# He had some reservations -- he liked Aliya, sure, but even if Stryfe knew her, he had only recently met her. Still....

"...The link is still fairly sore, Aliya. Perhaps we should try it on our own initially, to avoid causing any more damage." He hugged her slightly in apology.

Nate looked a bit startled. "I wouldn't think she'd do any damage."

#No, but you don't really want her included.# "It's still...sore. Having someone not part of the link would be more difficult than just the two of us."

#You know her. You trust her. I'm not expecting it to be a problem.# "She seems to have had more training, though."

#I didn't want to make you uncomfortable.# "Very well, then."

#I'll live.#

#I would certainly HOPE so!#

Stryfe decided to simply forestall any further discussion on the matter by collecting Aliya up via their link, then ducking down the recently-repaired link to join Nathan. Although the link was healing far more quickly than Stryfe would have predicted, the mental imagery was still of a slightly-inflamed wound, sore to the touch but not overly so.

He examined closely the point where the link was actually broken, a thin red line that still radiated phantom pain. Caught up in it were several tiny...orbs, almost pearls. A slight nudge pushed them free.

They floated seemingly at random towards one side or the other, but he and Nathan still caught hold of one at the same time, and it burst softly like a bubble to let them in.

Warm.

Mostly dark.

A low, pervasive hum.

Contentment. There was curiosity, and a bit of confusion, but whenever one of those emotions would start to surge up, a warm welcoming feeling wrapped around from the outside, assuring the new mind that everything would be fine, and it was loved and welcomed, and nothing would be wrong so long as they were...

...together.

Another memory splashed across that one, a little different -- there was light in this one sometimes, and there was pain in it, but the warmth and humming were still there. And the pain wasn't nearly as interesting as watching a new mind, bright in his thoughts even when the lights were gone, and feeling it grow and be happy to sense him.

#...Bright Lady,# Stryfe whispered, his chest feeling oddly tight. #That's... you. And me. Together.#

Well, THAT was a brilliant deduction, Askani'Son. Of course it was him and Nathan. This was from THEIR memories. But... it felt so much... warmer than he'd thought. He basked in the feelings from the memories.

Nathan swallowed hard. ~At least now we know we didn't try to kill each other on first meeting....~ He wanted to hug Stryfe, and was feeling oddly and probably futilely protective, and.... #It... is.# He let the remembered and evoked emotions across the link to wrap around his twin's (baby brother's?) mind.

Stryfe closed his eyes and just curled up in his brother's mind, returning the mental caress with a wordless surge of contentment, welcome, and trust, unconsciously echoing the same response he'd made as an infant, when all the mental and emotional scars were an unknown future. Here, now, regardless of what else had happened or would happen, he just knew he had a brother who would always be there.

Aliya's mind slid quietly back out of the way. She'd done a little subtle guidance, but they hadn't really needed it.... She was glad Stryfe had found this peace, for now, and kept quiet the wish that he could relax into the link to her more often... and the knowledge that Nathan was presumably still planning to leave eventually.

Nathan, as it happened, was feeling very torn about the possibility.

He wouldn't have even come here if not for his self-appointed mission, after all. He and Stryfe presumably would have never met again. That thought sent an illogically icy shiver down his spine. He still believed in what he'd set out to do -- he wanted to go to the 20th century, and explore the possibilities with the emergence of mutations then. Prepare Earth for the eventual arrival of the Celestials.

But....

He felt...complete, whole, in a way he KNEW he hadn't felt since Redd and Slym disappeared, and in all honestly couldn't even say he'd felt before then. THIS was right. Being here, with his twin -- this was how it was supposed to be. How could he LEAVE after finding it again?

Stryfe picked up the question; #Please don't,# slipped out before he could stop it, but then he carefully started to withdraw and stop... nesting in his brother's mind. He had no business presuming; he --

#Hey, come back,# Nate thought in dismay. #I'm certainly not going anywhere now.#

#But I shouldn't -- You have your mission, and you're going to leave anyway...# Would it hurt less, this time?

#Does that mean I can't hug you now?# Nate replied a little plaintively. Then, wildly, #Maybe if I helped with your mission first you could come too.#

#...Go WITH you? To the 20th century? But... I can't....# How could he leave this time, the Askani? But... he didn't want to LOSE his twin after he'd just FOUND him again!

#You don't have to. It was just a thought.#

#You could stay HERE. If the Celestials haven't come by now, does it even matter? You don't HAVE to leave. I don't want you to....#

#They still could. I don't think we'd be ready,# Nate thought regretfully. #And... I think the other timeline could be... good. I hope.# He sighed. #I'd miss you now, though.#

#I would miss YOU. You were... always there, then, and then suddenly you weren't and it was WRONG!# His voice was plaintive, and almost panicked at the resurrected memory. #But... my mission here isn't something I can just do and leave. And I owe the Askani so much....#

#I can't just give up before I start, either.# The emotional ties were... he couldn't say unimportant, but they couldn't just take over. Stryfe would be fine without him anyway.

#I know you can't. I just... wish you could.# He snarled, hating the stupid self-pitying track his thoughts had taken. #Oath, it's not like you need me anyway! It doesn't matter.#

#I can live without you, and vice versa. That doesn't mean I'm not... glad to have a brother.#

#I'm glad to have one too.# Though he wished, fiercely and illogically, that Nathan had never even COME here. He would never have known this current... contentment, welcome, but he also would never have to LOSE it!

Nate looked away. #I'd rather have known you, even if our lives are going to have to separate again.#

Nathan would know, Stryfe supposed. He'd already lost his family before, after all, and seemed to have done all right. Stryfe tried to decide if that was a better alternative than having your "family" try to kill you so you could safely hate their memory instead of having to miss them. #I... I just wish it didn't have to be that way.# For once, "what is, is" wasn't helping him much.

#Sometimes it does.# It was so very good to have the link intact again, though, even if he hadn't known about it for most of his life. It was... good to have family again.

#I know, but that doesn't mean I have to LIKE it!#

#I know.# The distress made the link ache, Nate noticed absently. That didn't seem to be why he wanted it to stop, though.

#Oath.# Stryfe shut his eyes and pulled himself back together. He didn't think he'd let himself become this... pointlessly emotional since he'd first come to the Askani! #What is, is. You have your mission, I have mine, and they are incompatible with our staying together. We have at least repaired a psychic hemorrhage and closed a hole in our shields. I am glad to have met you, and getting upset about your leaving is flonqing POINTLESS!#

Nathan stood up and walked over to the bed, though he found himself caught when he got there between looming and sitting on Aliya's bed without invitation, and remained standing a bit awkwardly. The next thought was much more private than the earlier ones. #I know it isn't pleasant, but it's nice to know you'd want me around enough to miss me.#

#Of course I do!#

#I know. I just --#

"Nate, go ahead and sit down," Aliya told him with a trace of amused exasperation. She squeezed Stryfe's hand quietly as she spoke.

Nate obeyed, this time. #I was never quite sure why Slym and Redd did.#

#I don't know why they left, but knowing you, I would have to assume that they didn't WANT to. And miss you very much.# If they were still alive.

#I don't think they did want to. At least, I don't think they did it on purpose.# Aliya could hear him again, but that wasn't... too much of a worry. #They just... faded into nothing. I guess they died. I don't know.#

#At least you knew that they... cared for you, before they died.#

Unlike Apocalypse. #I didn't mean to complain.#

Stryfe blinked. #I didn't think you were. I just thought... that would be a comfort.#

#It is....#

#...I'm glad.#

#I... wish you could've known them.#

Stryfe chuckled slightly. #Believe me, I spent most of my childhood wishing that as well.#

Nate sighed and hugged his twin tightly, feeling Aliya's hand gentle on his shoulder as she stretched just a little way past Stryfe. #I miss them. Every day. But... now that I have you again, it... doesn't seem quite so bad. I have a family again.#

Stryfe hugged him back fiercely. #A family.# He liked the way that sounded.

However long it lasted.