Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction based on properties of Marvel Comics; no undue claim is made and no material profit is intended or expected. This is the second story in the Double Helix series and will make more sense if you read "Twin Destinies" first.

Double Helix: Twin Divide
by Andrea and Persephone_Kore
Chapter 1/2

"Be. Careful."

"Believe me, I'm planning on it!"

Nate stared at the time machine. He did not, as it happened, have any difficulty believing that he was finally -- after several years of preparation -- about to step back into the 20th century for the first time. He was slightly relieved, of course -- there were some Askani who had recently begun making noises to the effect that it would be nice to continue to have both Chosen Ones around. Their being able to accept two had been an advantage at first -- the same teleporter that had dropped Stryfe in their laps after the climactic battle with Apocalypse had sent Nathan to the High Lord's deserted library, where he'd lived for ten years before seeking out the Sisterhood to claim their help as the child they had saved. The Askani'Son they'd been making from the Prince had been... a little disconcerted, had even feared being discarded.

It had been a good thing indeed that the Askani had been willing to view them both as worthy of assistance, and not so wasteful as to throw the one they'd been teaching away. They had been most helpful once Nathan had persuaded them that a timeline modified in the way Apocalypse had once intended, before he lost sight of his better goals in the dazzle of conquest and the blur of years, would be a worthwhile neighbor. His gratitude, however, wasn't such that he was eager for them to decide to try to keep him here and now instead.

Granted, at least this time, he would be coming back.

He hoped.

His words were so fervent partly because of the portion of the plan he'd kept hidden from his twin.

Stryfe kept his frown hidden. As the time for Nathan's departure drew closer, his twin had become more and more absorbed in his preparations, to the exclusion of Stryfe himself. Granted, Stryfe wasn't exactly lying around idle. He was occupied with his own mission, and frankly didn't have the time to spend helping Nate with every aspect of his trip to the 20th century. But...every now and then, he fiercely missed the closeness from when they'd first repaired the link.

Now, quite frankly, he was just hoping that a sudden separation of several centuries wouldn't destroy the link entirely.

"You know if you need anything--"

"I know just where to go," Nate finished for him, smiling slightly.

"Any time." Stryfe's expression wavered slightly as he heard his own words, then steadied. "And I mean that." #Nate, I mean it, be careful.#

#And I mean it, I will.# Nathan reached across the link warmly. #Clingy for somebody who didn't even want me here at first, aren't you?# As Stryfe hadn't.

#No, I'm just not particularly fond of having the link broken again by you doing something idiotic and getting yourself killed. And don't give me that innocent look, big brother. I know you.#

#I will do the very best I can not to get myself killed. This is just the first mission, after all.# He grinned mischievously. #Information, lay of the land, maybe recruit a few allies.# He hoped. #I'll be back, little brother.# A pause. #And if the timeslide itself does the link any harm -- we'll fix it.#

#We will.# Stryfe offered his hand, which Nate grasped firmly. "G'journey, Nathan." ~Be safe. Come back.~

Nate nodded and began to loosen his grip and turn to the machine -- then turned back and pulled his twin into a tight embrace. #I love you, little brother. Thank you for reminding me what family meant again.#

#Thank you for showing me what it meant in the first place,# Stryfe answered, clutching at his brother and not caring about the required dignity of the Chosen One. #I love you.#

They both felt better after that, even once they let go. Nate turned resolutely to the chamber, vowed to heaven and earth and fire and anything else that might hear promises made in the depths of the heart that he would come back, and stepped inside. "Timeslide...by one."

*****

There's a moment between sleep and wakefulness, a timeless moment where thoughts come freely and not quite connected. Floating in that timeless moment, En Sabah Nur felt the irritation of something -- someone -- watching him. Although he'd been sleeping for nearly a century, the feeling was the same as if he'd just lain down for a short nap. There was a reason he'd gone to sleep... a reason he was waking up now....

...And why was there a young man sitting there staring at him?

This was what Nate hadn't been telling his brother -- what he'd danced aside from saying directly with his talk of possibly recruiting allies. He had found evidence that his arrival in the time period might -- should, in fact -- disrupt the hibernation systems. If he intended to fulfill Apocalypse's mission correctly, he could not be working at cross-purposes to him. He needed En Sabah Nur's cooperation.

Failing that -- and he suspected this would not be an easy persuasion -- he needed to kill him.

"Greetings, En Sabah Nur." His head felt the tiniest bit out of balance -- the disrupted link -- and his throat was dry with anxiety and anticipation, but his voice was admirably steady and pleasant. "I am Nathan Dayspring, and I come to speak with you."

That did not entirely answer Apocalypse's question about his presence. Nur, fully awake now but with no significantly better explanation for this intruder's presence, emerged fully from his hibernation chamber. "Why -- and how did you penetrate my defenses thus far?"

"I came to speak with you."

"You have already said that, and it does not answer my questions," Nur rumbled threateningly.

"I come in peace, to offer an alliance, to help prepare our world to be judged by the Celestials."

Nur took one long step forward and lifted the boy into the air by one shoulder. "What do you know of the Celestials? We are not under their judgment; when they return we must be prepared to destroy them!"

"I know as much about the Celestials as you know." Nate forced himself to remain calm, rather glad that Nur had chosen the left shoulder to grab, and offered a small, slightly ironic smile. "Or perhaps I should say as much as you will know, over the next seventeen centuries."

The youth's composure, at least, was admirable -- and to maintain it in such a circumstance suggested the confidence of truth... or at least a convincing story. And he had encountered the idea of time-travel before. "Explain." Nur opened his hand, and Nate floated gently down instead of falling.

"Thank you," Nate said cooly, taking a moment to smooth the cloth Nur's hand had crumpled. Having Apocalypse's former prince to learn composure from had some benefits. "I come from the 38th century. I lived for a number of years in an abandoned library that you founded. I read your journals and your research on the Celestials, and thought that you had the right idea about preparing the earth for their arrival. Unfortunately, you got...side-tracked over the years." He smiled cooly. "I want to keep you on track."

Nur raised one brow. "Aside from its very preposterousness as a lie, do you offer any evidence for this tale?"

"Only the evidence from your own writings. I trust your memory is good enough to recognize them if I quote them to you?"

"What writings?"

"...The accuracy of the events therein, then."

Nur studied the lad. The confidence was only barely shaken; he must know... something, or believe he did. He knew of the Celestials. "Speak."

Nate swallowed and braced himself invisibly. This is what it all hinged on. He had to convince Nur that he was telling the truth and worthy of aiding...or he had to kill him. "Make yourself comfortable; it's going to be a long story," he warned dryly. "I'll start with a woman named Nephri..."

There was no visible reaction on Nur's face, but as he spoke, Nate started to get the idea that Nur might even believe him. He spoke until his throat was dry, and finally paused to take a sip from the waterskin he carried. Before he could start again, Nur raised a hand to silence him. "Enough."

"Do you accept that I'm not delusional, then?"

"If you are...then you have extremely well-informed delusions. You have not presented evidence that you are from the future, however."

"'What writings?' and you don't accept my knowledge as evidence? If you have not yet revealed your memories and yet I have them correct, it must mean that you will write them down one day."

"Or you stole them from my mind." Improbable. His will was too strong for his thoughts to be easily robbed.

Nate took a deep breath. "I cannot see into your mind."

"You tried, then."

"I tried and failed. Perhaps with more time -- but any deeper effort would have constituted an attack, and I wish for us to be allies."

Nur studied him. "You claim to share my goals."

"I do. Your goals as they are now."

"You say this as if they will change."

"They will. I can't pinpoint exactly when, but at some point you started becoming more interested in ruling the world than saving it."

"If my control can prepare --"

"It didn't."

The interruption earned him a glare that made Nate understand just how hard it must have been for Stryfe to consider crossing Apocalypse as a child.... "It didn't," he repeated more quietly, but earnestly. "I saw the results. Had the Celestials come near the end of your reign... we might have fought them. But we would not have won."

The concern, Nur judged, was real enough. "And what is it you expect to do? You say 'keep me on track' -- but unless you expect me to wander off course in the very near future, you surely have something more in mind."

"This time period is crucial, and it was nearly wasted because you spent more time fighting with the very people we need to work with, to guide. The 20th century is when mutants first became common. The evolutionary potentials are unmatched from any time in history. We can't afford to waste that potential."

"If there is fighting, the strong will win out."

"The best warriors -- but the second best will die, though still good stock, and take the potential of their children with them. Those you would want to be culled would most likely be at the periphery -- some of the best may be lost as well, because they would be those to go out as champions." Nate drew breath. "And there are those whose abilities are hazardous to themselves -- but with a helping hand, they would be among the greatest of all."

"You propose to offer assistance to those who cannot survive on their own?"

"I propose to offer assistance -- and guidance -- to those who cannot fulfill their potential without knowledge and skills that are as yet undeveloped. I propose to improve the most powerful without undercutting them -- a tree needs roots that spread, not merely a taproot, or it falls all too easily. I saw what the destruction of too much... context did to my time. And if you limit the echelons of the highest and their offspring too strictly, they turn in on themselves and become... weak."

Nur regarded him narrowly. "You believe your methods will work."

"I know what did not work. I believe mine constitute a considerable improvement in our chances." Nate spread his hands, wondering if he should have been using a tree metaphor to one desert-bred. He'd spent too much time in the forest. "They do say hindsight is 20-20. I have information which you, currently, do not. If I didn't think my methods would work I wouldn't be proposing them. The question is, have I persuaded you?"

They say what? It was simple enough to work out the intention, however. Some of what the young man said did make sense -- to breed livestock, one allowed the best to mate, but with too small a pool the quality did suffer after some generations. If the Celestials would not come for some time... perhaps a certain amount of patience was in order.

"I realize you have had few allies in your life, Nur," Nate dared to say lightly, "but you need not distrust me. I share your goals; I merely have some ideas for implementation -- and a warning against putting conquest over... growth."

"I have had allies before."

"Then you know their value. It is certainly possible to succeed alone, and by many measurements you DID succeed for many years. But if your goal was to prepare for the Celestials, you failed. I bring an alternative. I CAN work on my own, but I would prefer to work with you rather than against you." Even if the opposition would only be brief. "What say you?"

It had been some time since anyone had ever aligned themselves with him spontaneously. Suspicious -- but the earnestness seemed unfeigned, the history he knew accurate and that he did not consistent -- but not, he thought, the most obvious to predict. "I say... that I will consider you an ally."

Assistance that was truly more effective would be welcome. If this boy offered ill advice, he should be able to discern it... and he had found information from his equipment that indicated he had been awakened on account of a temporal disturbance, lending credence to the lad's tale. "Your strategies sound...feasible, and should you wish to work against me I do not think you would go to the trouble of awakening me and putting yourself in my grasp." His eyes narrowed. "This is, however, conditional. I suggest that you share your... suggestions... in more detail."

It was a very long conversation. Nur seemed untiring, and Nate was exhausted and drawing on all the discipline he had learned and all the years inured to pain not to show it. But when he finally walked from Apocalypse's presence and whispered the command to timeslide, Nur still lived and Nate... could claim success.

*****

"Eat."

"Good--" Nate yawned hugely. "Good morning to you too."

"Good morning," Stryfe replied. "Now eat."

He set the tray he carried down on the bed beside Nate, then crossed his arms expectantly. Nate eyed the overloaded tray in amusement, then picked up a piece of fruit and started to munch on it. He really WAS hungry. About all he'd had the energy to do when he'd returned to the Askani was say that he'd been successful and was all right; he'd gone straight to his room after that and gotten reacquainted with his pillow for a very long time. He hadn't even been able to talk to Stryfe. He'd been helpfully informed that the Askani'Son was "out", and Aliya was "occupied".

"Aren't you even going to say 'welcome back'?" he complained, looking up at his twin. "And sit down; you're going to give me a neck cramp."

"Welcome back. They told me you were exhausted when you got here."

"I was. Sit down and I'll tell you all about it."

Stryfe sat down on the edge of the bed. "You still look exhausted."

"It was...a very tiring trip. But don't worry, I'm okay." He grinned and took a big mouthful of fruit. "And hungry."

"Was it the transit itself, or what you did while you were there? Er, then?"

"I didn't notice any problems with the transit. I was fine when I got there. Well, except for being a little light-headed and dizzy, but I think that was from the link." He reached out and put a hand on Stryfe's arm. "Feels a lot better now."

"It felt... very strange to have you gone. Not quite as if it were broken, but... you weren't there." Stryfe took a deep breath; the contact was helping, even though he'd known the instant Nate returned by the recovery of the other end of the link. He grinned wryly. "Aliya says I was very short-tempered all the time you were gone."

Nate's eyes sparkled mischievously. "How could she TELL?"

"Hey!"

Nate slid his hand down to grip Stryfe's, continuing eating one-handed. He squeezed tightly. "I missed you. It was very strange not feeling you there." His mind curled up against the link. "I think I managed to keep my temper though."

"Hmm. Good. The twentieth century is still there, then?"

"Was when I left," Nate mumbled around a mouthful.

"Well, that's encouraging. The Askani said you'd succeeded. What did you do?"

"Just what I'd planned. Gathered some information...got an ally."

"Well, that was quick. Or was it? I don't even know how long you were there, just how long you were gone."

"About a week."

"Oath. Did you get any supplies besides what you took with you?" If not, no wonder he was ravenous... Stryfe wondered if he should have brought more water.

"I should've brought a little more. I bartered for some food while I was there." Nate grinned. "What an experience! Interacting with 20th century humans." He shook his head. "At last."

"Well, share. And what the flonq did you take to barter with?"

"I bartered a few hours' labor. I got a chance to ask some questions while I was working, get a feel for things. I'm going to have to work on my accent a little; they could tell I was foreign right away, asked a lot of questions." Nate concentrated on trying to eat as quickly as possible. He wanted to be done with food and out of bed by the time Stryfe got around to asking about his new ally...

Timing, as they say, is everything. "What were the answers? Whom did you ally with? Anyone we know from the histories, or someone else?"

Nate swallowed quickly. "Um...I tried to be as vague as possible without making them suspicious. But I didn't have to resort to telepathy, so that was good." He gave Stryfe's hand a squeeze, then let go and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

"I meant the answers to your questions...."

"Oh. Well, there were a lot of them. I was mostly just trying to get a feel for the area. I think I should establish a few bases in different areas to make it easier, not attract so much attention." He grabbed some more fruit from the tray.

"All right. What about the ally, then?"

Nate choked on his fruit.

Stryfe pounded him worriedly on the back. "Are you all right? Oath, I didn't think it was that strange a question!"

"I'm fine." Nate coughed to clear his throat. "Sorry. Uh...you know what I mean."

"I think if one of us were going to apologize for choking you, it would be me. I could be wrong."

"You didn't choke me. It just went down wrong."

"Okay. You all right now?"

"Fine. Don't worry."

"All right." Stryfe opened his mouth to ask again just as Nate took another bite of fruit, and waited patiently for him to swallow, then stopped the fruit on the way to his mouth again. "Nate! I know I told you to eat, but come on, tell me about the ally!" He was laughing.

Nate set aside the fruit and looked over at his brother. Baby brother. Loved him. Right. He took a breath. "The ally is...En Sabah Nur."

"WHAT?!" Stryfe practically leaped off the bed and halfway across the room before controlling himself. Panting slightly, he took a half-step back towards the bed. "...That was a joke, right? A very bad joke, but... a joke."

Nate stood up and walked hesitantly to his brother's side. He reached out and put a hand on Stryfe's arm. "I'm not joking, brother."

"Nate, this isn't funny."

"I'm not trying to be funny. It was a strategic move, Stryfe. That's all."

"You can't -- have possibly --" Stryfe was tenser than Nate remembered him being even when they'd first met, even when Sanctity decided to broadcast her announcement -- and he was trembling, very subtly.

"It's all right," Nate said softly, keeping his voice low and very soothing. He reached up and clasped Stryfe's shoulder reassuringly. "Everything worked out."

"You -- can't -- NATHAN!" Stryfe threw his hand off, backing up, eyes wild. "What were you thinking?"

"Calm down, Stryfe." Nate held his hands out peacefully. "It's all right. I was thinking that it's flonqing stupid to go back in time to fix where Apocalypse messed up and work AGAINST him the entire time! Our goals were still the same then."

"WHAT DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING?"

Nate winced at the volume. "Recruiting an ally I thought was important to the success of my mission."

"You went to APOCALYPSE?"

"Yes."

"How -- could -- Were you planning this?"

"I'm not stupid enough to go up to Apocalypse on a WHIM, Stryfe."

"You didn't tell me!"

"...I thought you'd probably react like this."

"You --" Stryfe shut his mouth, closed his eyes, then whirled and started out of the room.

"STRYFE!" Nate yelped and rushed to block his brother's exit. "Don't do that! Let me explain."

"Get out of my way!"

"Please don't leave mad, little brother."

"Don't call me that!" The link was closed off, so tightly it hurt, and Stryfe's eyes were still shut. "Get out of my way. After everything --"

Nate stepped forward and hugged him tightly. "Please don't, Stryfe. Don't leave mad. What if you DIE and the last thing we did was shout at each other? At least LISTEN to me! I'm your brother. I love you more than anything!"

Stryfe tried to push him away. "I'm not planning on dying. Let me go." He could have freed himself telekinetically; without it, it was hopeless even without working blind. "You went to him --"

"Neither were Redd and Slym, and THEY still left! PLEASE, Stryfe! Just let me explain! YES, I went to him. I HAD to, for my MISSION. If he didn't agree to cooperate, I was going to kill him!"

"And now you're going to work with him!"

"YES! I'm working with him. You KNEW I was basing all of this off of HIS mission. I couldn't exactly leave him out of it!"

"I didn't think you'd --" Stryfe stopped, gulping back the rest of his words. He had known that, but what little control he'd had until this point was deserting him, and he was shaking too hard even to fight Nate's grip. It still felt like a betrayal.

Nate kept clinging to Stryfe, keeping his end of the link entirely open even if Stryfe was shielding his half to a painful degree. "Look at my mind, little brother. This was strategic, that's ALL. I won't forget what he did to you, but...it was a LOT older him. ...Different."

"Strategic," Stryfe agreed numbly. If he were calm, if he seemed calm, Nathan would let him go and he could get out the door and go find somewhere to collapse. Preferably with Aliya. Except that would require going through the hallways.

"Stryfe, look. I--I knew you'd be upset about it... The only reason I didn't tell you before was because I thought you'd insist on coming WITH me and...I wouldn't have been able to talk to him then."

"It was... strategic. I knew you were working on his mission. I already threw the relevant fit."

Nate nodded eagerly. "It was strategic. That's it. I HAD to talk to him."

"Of course you did." Now if Nate would let go of him at some point while he could still stand on his own.

"Stryfe..." Nate sighed and leaned his head against Stryfe's. "If you're as calm as you're trying to sound, unshield the link."

"I'd rather not. Why don't you let me go and I will leave you here to finish breakfast and contemplate your new ally." His voice was still mostly steady, but developing a decided raw edge.

"Stryfe...I love you."

"That's nice."

Nate readjusted, keeping his hands on Stryfe's shoulders to keep him in place but moving so he could look his brother in the eye. "Stryfe. Talk to me."

"I'd really rather leave." Except for the terrified and utterly illogical feeling that he'd never see Nate again if he did, which might be why he hadn't gathered his thoughts to free himself yet.

"...I'd really rather you stay. Until we work this out. Please." Nate was having the horrible, gut-clenching feeling that he might have gained an ally and lost his brother.

"What's to work out? This is what your mission was. It was strategic."

"But you're mad at me."

"You went to Apocalypse. You went to my worst flonqing nightmare, Nathan."

"...I know."

"You know," Stryfe repeated. "Then let go of me."

"...If I do, will I see you again?"

"Y-yes." Only the slightest catch.

"You don't sound too sure."

Stryfe had a sudden, brief but compelling vision of himself walking out the door, shutting it hard behind him, not quite a slam...and then...avoiding Nate, and vice versa, until one or the other of them left for good... He stumbled, despite not having tried to go anywhere, and nearly fell against Nathan. "I don't know."

"Please," Nate pleaded. "Talk to me, YELL at me, just do SOMETHING! Don't LEAVE!"

"Why the flonq not?"

"BECAUSE YOU'RE MY BROTHER!"

Stryfe flinched back slightly at the shout, at such close range. "Am I?"

"Yes, flonq it! You're my brother, my twin, the other part of my MIND. I never wanted to hurt you."

~You DID.~ "I'm your clone. Let me go."

"You're my brother and I don't want to lose you."

Stryfe's voice was strangled. "The -- mission is more important. I can understand --"

"It is NOT more important than YOU! NOTHING is! Stryfe, little brother, if I thought it was even remotely possible that he would hurt you, I would've killed him while he slept! But this is seventeen centuries before he even knew you! He's going to help, and I'm going to keep him from going down that path again."

"Don't say that. It is. Mine is. I can -- understand that." Stryfe took a shaky breath. "But it's -- Apocalypse." There was light beating against his closed eyelids, too hard; it didn't make sense to open them, but he did. Nate's eye was flaring, the light glittering off and through the tears in both.

"I know. I'm sorry. But I had to at least try."

"Nate... let me go. Please."

Nate blinked hard and dropped his hands. "Don't hate me."

"I... I don't think I can."

"...I'd rather you not WANT to, but I'll take what I can get right now."

"I don't want to."

"...Good. I love you."

Apocalypse. His brother had allied himself with Apocalypse.

And still said he loved him.

"I don't believe this," Stryfe whispered savagely.

"What?" Nate asked, not sure if he should. He hated seeing that look in his brother's eyes, that horribly empty expression. He'd only seen close to it once before, when Stryfe had first found out he was a clone. But this...was worse. Much worse.

"This -- what you --"

"I know I hurt you. I'm sorry. And don't tell me that has no meaning!"

Stryfe's mouth twisted into a bitter smile. "You already said that you expected this reaction."

"That doesn't mean I WANTED it! I knew you'd be upset. I was hoping you would let me explain and--and realize I did what I had to, and forgive me for it?"

"You went to Apocalypse." He was, Stryfe noticed dimly, repeating himself.

"I HAD to."

"You could have killed him! You could have let him sleep...."

"No, I couldn't let him sleep. He was already waking up. As big a surge of chronal energy as my arrival caused set off his sensors. He was waking up anyway, just by my being in the 20th century. I didn't have much of a window. But yes, I could've killed him. I would've, if he hadn't agreed to go along with my plan. And...I still might. I know I can't trust him. But I have a lot better chance of succeeding if he's working with me."

"You knew you'd wake him. How could --"

Nathan blew out a breath in frustration. "Stryfe. Little brother. I still maintain that the Askani are manipulative and downright bizarre, but they are... pragmatic. Is this your first introduction to the idea of making a distasteful ally?"

Stryfe looked away. "...No."

"Well, then? I don't LIKE the idea of working with him, and I was half-terrified the whole time we were talking, but right now, I need him. I knew it would hurt you, and I didn't want that to happen, but I need him."

Stryfe was shivering again. "I --" He stopped, swallowed, and started again in a more controlled voice. "I should have taken this more calmly." He summoned a tiny smile. "And that is as close as I'll get to an apology. Be satisfied."

"I don't want an apology. I don't want the next best thing to an apology. I want my brother back; I want the link open. I want you not to look at me like I just tried to rip your mind open."

Stryfe flinched. "Then I'd have killed you." He was trying for a light tone.

"No," Nate said softly. "You would have tried. I just wish...that you couldn't even imagine trying, like I can't imagine trying to kill you. You're my brother. You're the only flonqing family I HAVE, and I don't want to lose you!" Nate shut his eyes against the hurt and loss and fear building up, and whispered, "Don't let him tear us apart again, little brother."

That cut. "You're the one who went to him."

"As a strategic decision. He's my ally now, but YOU are my brother."

"Your clone."

"Will you STOP that!"

Nate instantly regretted yelling, but Stryfe's mouth twitched before he suddenly turned around and, instead of dodging past Nathan to the door, sat down on the end of the bed and put his face in his hands. Nate wasn't quite sure whether his twin was laughing or crying.

Neither, as it happened, was Stryfe.

Nate walked over hesitantly and after a moment's debate with himself sat down and put an arm around his twin's shoulders. Stryfe flinched back from him. Nate sighed and leaned his head down on Stryfe's shoulder. "Don't do that. I love you. I never wanted to hurt you."

"Stop that. You knew." Stryfe shuddered -- it had been a long time since he'd assumed any touch was an attack, and he couldn't bring himself to fear Nathan even now, but he still didn't really want to be crying. "You knew. We both knew -- have known -- still know that we will hurt each other if we have to."

"I knew I would hurt you," Nate said softly, sadly. "That doesn't mean I wanted to. And I...hoped you would forgive me. That's what family does."

Stryfe shivered again, and he thought the next catch in his breath was laughter. Mostly. "That -- telling me that -- isn't fair at all, you know."

"So who plays fair? You're the most important person in my life, Stryfe."

"Oath... no wonder you were worn out when you got back...." That one was definitely a sob. He was not keeping himself together properly at all....

"Yeah." Nate smiled weakly, squeezing Stryfe's shoulders. "He's an interrogator."

Stryfe twitched. "You still look like you're in one piece...."

"Physically. Mentally I think I'm still shaking. I knew it would be hard, but..."

"He didn't harm you?" It still hurt... but... he supposed he understood. Now that he was through panicking. It was unbecoming to the Askani'Son to panic....

Obviously Nathan had done better.

"No. I was there just as he was waking up. We...talked. I convinced him I was telling the truth, and that my plan would better accomplish his goals. I...wouldn't say he agrees with me on everything, but he's willing to try for now."

"Talked." Stryfe laughed shakily. "With him..." His head was throbbing, and he realized finally that it would probably help if he didn't have the link clenched shut.

"Yes." Nate was pouring love and reassurance and calm through the link, but he didn't think any of it was getting through. He was starting to get a headache from how closed off the link was.

Still a little -- illogically, he told himself firmly -- afraid, Stryfe reminded himself that Nate had never given him any reason (~Any other reason?~) to distrust him, and forced himself to relax the shielding that twisted the link shut. The instantaneous flood of emotions made him flinch back, but -- no. Not an attack, just... just Nate trying to make him feel better.

Oath. He really was crying now.

Nate was tearing up a little himself, from the fear and the horrible sense of betrayal he was reading from Stryfe now that the link was open again. He rubbed Stryfe's back soothingly. He'd known Stryfe would hardly take the news calmly, but...he still hadn't quite expected...this. He rummaged around for a cloth and offered it to Stryfe silently to wipe his eyes.

Stryfe accepted it. "Good thing we're not in the desert anymore," he muttered. And that the purifiers were working.

"Yeah," Nate sighed. He leaned his head on Stryfe's shoulder. "You know I love you, right?"

"...Yes." Hard to miss, at the moment. Hard to miss Nate's silent underlying fear of being... left, too, although Stryfe didn't think this was completely fair considering he hadn't been the one going anywhere.

Nate wished Stryfe didn't sound so reluctant about that. "You know that I would never betray you."

It didn't feel that way. But he'd known all this time that Nate's mission was based on Apocalypse's -- Apocalypse's old one, at any rate -- and this shouldn't be such a surprise.

"Stryfe?" Nate prompted softly after his brother was silent for a long moment.

"It felt as if you did."

"...I'm sorry. I wouldn't betray you, Stryfe. You're more important to me than Apocalypse is." He laughed shakily. "A LOT more important!"

"But not particularly useful in that timeframe."

"...You'd be VERY useful, but you want to stay here." Which he understood, really, even if he'd entertained a few wild daydreams of Stryfe deciding to leave the manipulative Askani and come back with HIM...

"I have my own mission." ~And I couldn't go back... then... now.~

"I know. I understand. That doesn't mean you wouldn't be useful."

"I wouldn't now."

"Yes, you would. But it doesn't matter, because you won't come back. So I have to recruit allies then. Just like you don't count on me for anything you have to do here and now."

"I wouldn't if it meant I had to work with him!"

"...There's a lot to do. He's just one part of it."

"As you reminded me, your mission is based on his."

"And you KNEW that before I ever went back there, before I ever even thought about contacting him!"

"Right."

"You KNEW that. You KNEW that whatever I did would be based ultimately on Apocalypse. You knew that from the first day we MET, and you still managed to trust me. Love me. Or at least I thought you did. Stab your eyes, Stryfe, I know he hurt you, but it's not like this came out of NOWHERE!"

Stryfe flinched. "Fine."

"And don't pretend that you wouldn't make whatever allies you needed to for YOUR mission, even if they were my enemies."

"I'm not," Stryfe bit off.

"...Then why do you hate me?" Nate asked plaintively.

"I don't."

"You're ACTING like it!"

"Sorry," Stryfe snarled, throwing down the cloth and jerking to his feet. "I'll go now."

"Will you STOP trying to run out on me?!" Nate shouted, surging to his feet. "I should have expected it! I didn't. What do you want me to DO, Nathan?" "I don't know! Talk to me, yell at me, HIT me! Just don't LEAVE." His voice caught on the last word. "I just...want us to be okay again. Tell me what I have to do. Please."

"I don't know," Stryfe whispered. "I shouldn't --"

"Shouldn't what?"

"I don't know."

"You're still my brother. You'd ALWAYS be my brother, no matter what."

"There is... no good reason -- I overreacted." Almost calm again. Might help if he had thought to shield the link again.

"I--should've found a better way to tell you. I was just tired...I couldn't think of one."

"I don't think there was one." Stryfe gave up and leaned his forehead against the doorjamb. "Bright Lady. You recruited Apocalypse."

"...Yeah, I did." He laughed shakily. "If it helps, I still can't believe I did it. Or that it worked."

"Nate, shut up. I'm trying very hard to come up with a more palatable way to think about this than that you decided to go work with Apocalypse. In any century."

"...You could try thinking of him as Nur?"

"I thought of him as Nur most of the time I was a child, Nathan, that does not help."

"Oh."

"I did say to be quiet."

Nate heaved a (silent) sigh and sat back down on his bed. After a moment he flopped back and stared at the ceiling instead of Stryfe's back.

"You should finish your breakfast."

"...I'm not hungry anymore."

"You need to eat."

Nate sighed again and turned over on his side, picking at the food on the tray half-heartedly.

"I don't hate you, Nathan," Stryfe said quietly after a long moment. "I -- I didn't anticipate this." A pause. "I suppose I should have."

"I'm glad you don't hate me," Nate replied just as quietly.

"I can't...." Stryfe turned and sank down against the wall, eyes closed. "I can't."

Nate blinked away tears. "I'm glad," he repeated, helplessly. He wanted to go hug Stryfe, to take comfort from his closeness and refresh the link with physical contact, but...he was afraid of how Stryfe would react to that right now.

"I'm not. It's terrifying -- it's not that I want to hate you, but if I can't --"

"Is it really that bad to have someone you can't hate? You know, deep down, that I would never betray you. Why would you NEED to hate me?"

"I don't know what I know about you!"

"You've been in my mind more than anyone else ever has, even Redd! If you don't know me, who DO you know?!"

"That's a good question, isn't it?" Very soft. Very cold. Stryfe opened his eyes. "That's the problem. I don't... know. This shouldn't have been such a... a shock. It was. I had all the information and I didn't think of it. I'm linked to you and I never found out about it. What and whom do I really know, Nate?"

"...I don't know. But you never--you never asked about a LOT of details of my mission. It's MY mission, not yours, and you have your hands full enough as it is. I could name a lot of things about my mission that you don't know, and wouldn't even have thought of. Not because I'm trying to keep them from you, but just because...it's not your mission."

"This... this was kind of an important one, Nate."

"I know."

"Well. That's good, anyway."

"I was just trying to say...just because you don't know everything doesn't mean you don't know ME."

Stryfe sighed shakily and put his head down on his knees. He was sure he should be deeply ashamed of himself for losing it like this, and probably would be shortly, but for now he was just... a little numb. Except for the link. He could sense Nate's desperation through it.... He sighed. "I'm -- not going anywhere."

"Good," Nate managed to choke out against the relief that surged up through him. The sudden relief clashed badly with the desperation, frantic worry, anger, and sheer exhaustion that had been battling inside him since Stryfe's reaction began, and he buried his face abruptly in the bed to hide the sudden rush of tears. Flonq it, he was a grown man! Why was he acting like he was twelve years old again?

"Th-thirteen," Stryfe whispered. "I was twelve."

"I'm a-acting like a flonqing c-child, whatever age! I d-didn't c-cry when Redd and Slym l-left, I s-shouldn't--"

Stryfe looked up then, swallowed, and pushed himself up from the floor. Nate jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder. "Nate, I didn't mean..." Stryfe began uncertainly.

"I kn-knew you wouldn't be h-happy about it, b-but I didn't think you'd be..." He sniffled and pushed his face harder into the bedding. "I w-wasn't trying to b-betray you..."

"Nate...." The loss of control on the other side of the link, ironically, had shocked Stryfe mostly back into reason. He had been overreacting; it was all emotion -- he'd known that, known that Nate's move was probably actually brilliant, but it hadn't felt that way. He hadn't...He'd noticed Nate's worry, had known for years now how his brother had felt when Slym and Redd disappeared, but Nate had had just enough control that Stryfe hadn't realized what his own reaction was doing to him....

"I'm sorry. I know you say that doesn't mean anything, and it probably doesn't, because even knowing how you'd react I'd do the same thing because I HAVE to, but--" He choked up, unable to speak. #I'm so sorry...#

"Nate, it's -- all right." Stryfe swallowed. "It was...strategically sound. It made perfect sense. I was just...being emotional."

A choked, watery laugh. "Then w-what am I being?"

#If you were afraid to lose me you can't have really wanted to hurt me.# Stryfe wasn't sure why he slipped that across the link, except that it seemed too absurd to say out loud... #I -- I've known I could trust you, I just --# He'd been in shock, he'd been thinking of Apocalypse...and none of it was any excuse.

#Of course I didn't want to hurt you!# Nate exclaimed in outrage, jerking his head up to look at Stryfe. #You're the only family I HAVE. I love you. I--I didn't want...#

#I didn't want to think you had. And I -- don't want to lose you. Especially not before I have to.#

And eventually they would have to, Nate reflected soberly. He could only make so many jumps across the timestream before the differences became so great that it would be dangerous to travel back and forth any longer. Nathan would be in the 20th century, and Stryfe in the 38th, each on his own mission. #I don't want to lose you either.# Oath, THAT was an understatement!

#Okay.# Stryfe took a breath that was still less than steady, but...better. #So...we don't want to lose each other, we don't want to hurt each other, we both know at least the first and probably the second can be expected, and...all right. If I promise not to throw another fit will you tell me what happened?#

#Well...when you put it that way, how can I refuse?# Nate smiled tentatively and sat up, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.

#That was sort of the idea.# Stryfe paused. #Ah, Nate? Did you by any chance tell Aliya what you were planning ahead of time? Because she just inquired very composedly whether we had calmed down yet.#

#You're the one who's linked to her, and you're wondering why she knows you were upset? I didn't tell her any more than I told you.# Because however much he liked her, she WAS an Askani, and he didn't quite trust them.

#Well, she also made some comment about unlocking the door.#

#Oops. I guess we can let her in now if you want.#

#Ah, no, I mean she locked the door. She's not there at the moment.# Although locking them in would have been at best symbolic anyway. Stryfe shrugged and tentatively offered a hug.

Nate hugged him back tightly, giving a tiny contented sigh as the contact reinforced the still not fully-recovered link. #Love you.# "So...what do you want to hear?"

#Love you too.# "Ah -- why don't you start with something like how you got Apocalypse to listen to you."

Nate pulled back and settled himself comfortably, facing his brother. "Well, basically, I just sat at the edge of his hibernation chamber until he woke up, and told him I was there to keep him on track." His mouth quirked wryly. "I think I impressed him with my audacity."

"...I guess that could do it. Er, obviously it did...."

"I had to recite his flonqing history until the 16th century before he believed me about the time travel, though," Nate snorted. "Not that I blame him, I guess. I would've been suspicious."

"The 16th? That convinced him you were from the future?"

"Well, including things that HE hadn't told anyone. And I told him about the diaries, so..." He shrugged. "Telling him about things that hadn't happened yet wouldn't tell him much except that I have a good imagination."

"True. It makes sense, I suppose." Stryfe rubbed at his face absently, trying to scrub away dried tears. "Oath. I don't think I'd have had the nerve...."

"Well...I never really knew him before, and I studied his diaries for a good ten years. I...guess I thought I knew how he thought THEN, when he still was thinking more about saving the world than conquering it."

"There is something incongruous in thinking of Apocalypse as interested in saving the world.... I gather from your phrasing that you encountered something unexpected?"

"Just...I wasn't prepared to come up to him face-to-face. I'm not sure I COULD have faced him if I'd know him in this time."

"Mph. Don't say that just to try to make me feel better." Stryfe leaned back on air, staring at the ceiling. "You did meet him in this time though...."

"I'm not saying it just to make you feel better. When I met him in this time, he wasn't exactly at his best, you know. He has this...presence." Nate shivered a little. "Well, you know. If I'd KNOWN I was going to face that..."

"I don't know if I know... You have all my memories of him, or copies anyway." Stryfe squeezed his twin's shoulder. "You must not have shown it..."

"I pulled on all that Askani'Son dignity you walk around with," Nate replied with a grin.

Stryfe snorted. "You can't credit me with it."

"Hah. I grew up a lowly peasant and spent ten years in a library. All my dignity and arrogance comes from you, brother. Well...maybe not ALL the arrogance."

"You are the original Askani'Son."

"Don't start that again!"

"Then head me off by going back to your story."

"Hmph. YOU were the first one who was actually trained as the Askani'Son, and it's the training that matters. Anyway, after he realized that I was probably telling the truth about the time travel, I had to explain my plan, and where he went wrong, and why I thought I could do better. I felt like I'd been left in the desert for a month after he was through asking questions!"

"I thought you took water."

"I did. I was still worn out and generally feeling ready to collapse." He smiled wryly. "Which I did as soon as I got back here."

"Good timing."

"Sheer stubbornness."

"That works."

"So." Nate held his hands out in front of him. "That's it. We'll be consulting more the next time I go back, but we're not going to be working together the whole time." He smiled weakly. "Not sure I could handle it. But he knows where he went WRONG before, and what I want to do differently."

"Did he agree to it?"

"Yes. Conditional to my not being proved a liar later, of course."

"Ah."

Nate leaned back on his elbows. "So that's the state of it right now. I'll see next time I go back if it keeps working. So what have YOU been doing since I've been gone?"

"There have been no drastic changes in status. You weren't gone all that long."

"I know. Just making sure." He raised an eyebrow and grinned. "And how is Aliya?"

"Well and busy. How else?"

"Are you ever going to get around to marrying her?"

Stryfe turned an interesting shade of red. Nate's grin widened. "Come on, little brother. I don't have a love life of my own, so I have to interfere in yours."

Stryfe muttered something about how Nathan should give the Askani who flirted with him a little encouragement.

"You've been psi-linked to her for years now," Nate persisted, since the comments were low enough that he could justify pretending he hadn't heard. "I'd like to see my favorite little brother settled while I'm still here."

"She's Askani. If she wants something more permanent she'll probably say so."

"...You're Askani too."

"...True."

Nate shrugged. "I think you should ask her. But you don't have to listen to me, I'm just your big brother..." He winked and added, "And NO, Aliya didn't put me up to this."

Stryfe snorted. "I hadn't thought to ask -- but I should have. Never be straightforward when devious will do...."

"Oath. Askani." Nate rolled his eyes.

"That was a joke!"

"Sounded like another Askani saying to me. You've certainly used it."

"I have a nasty feeling it's a holdover from court...but to tell the truth I think it fits the Askani just as well," Stryfe admitted wryly. "Although, really, I try not to do it unless being straightforward is more hazardous."

"All right, all right. Just teasing you." Nate winked, then assumed a studiously innocent expression and asked, "So do I get to listen in?"

"On what, me trying to propose to her? Only if SHE lets you."

"Well, I can't exactly ask, 'Aliya, do you mind if I listen while Stryfe proposes?' unless you don't mind me giving it all away before you can open your mouth!"

"That would be a problem, wouldn't it?"

"Fine, I'll just harass you for details later."

"Oath!"

"All right, I'll harrass HER for details."

"I'm not sure that isn't worse."

"That was the idea."

"Oath. I never realized family was so flonqing annoying until you showed up."

Nate grinned on, undeterred. "And you love every minute of it."

"...Well, yes."

"So I'll start preparing my list of reasons why she should marry you for when Aliya comes to ask me."

"...Why would she ask YOUR advice?"

"Because I'm very wise? And technically, wouldn't I be the head of our family?" Nate's grin was almost too broad to be comfortable. "She should talk to me, then."

"That's vaguely frightening."

"Isn't it? I just thought of that."

"I was thinking you wouldn't be an appropriate source of advice because you're biased...."

"All the more reason!"

"...I'm not sure I should examine the logic of that statement too closely."

"Who would know your good qualities better than ME? Not to mention the reasons you're annoying but good to put up with anyway."

"...Thanks."

"I expect you to return the favor someday."

"Can't do it if you go and fall in love in the 20th century after you leave me," Stryfe retorted with a mostly-faked sniff.

"...No, I guess not. I...guess you'll be telling your kids all about their crazy Uncle Nate, right?" He tried a smile, but it felt very fake.

Stryfe swallowed. "Everything."

Nate sighed. He really needed to stop dwelling on this. "I guess I should be prepared to hear you've named one of them Slym, right?"

Stryfe turned red again. "Um...well...don't be surprised."

"I knew it." Nate smiled sadly. "I like it, though."

"I'd hope so. I...only like him better, from your memories...."

"I'm glad. He...would've liked you, I think." Nate blinked rapidly. This was turning into a depressing conversation.

"Maybe...eventually." There was a short silence before Stryfe offered cautiously, "Maybe I could help sometime. Not when you were going to talk to Apocalypse...."

"I wouldn't expect you then, but..." Nate smiled tentatively. "That would be nice. You could come help me a little and be back almost before you left. We couldn't do it a LOT before the disruptions get too much, but...that would be nice." He put his hand on Stryfe's arm. "Thanks."

"...I'm a coward."

Nate blinked. "Excuse me?"

"I won't even face him...."

"...If you had to fight him, I would trust you 100% to be up to it. But...WORK with him? That's different. I understand."

Stryfe shook his head. "I should --"

"There's no REASON for you to work with him. Like I said, there's a lot to do, and he's only part of it. I'd be grateful for your help."

"I should still... be able to. And I don't know if I could."

"I...think you could, if you had to." Nate shrugged. "But the only one you ever really NEEDED to face, you already did. And won."

"I didn't. You did. And I didn't even remember you were there."

"I'm not really surprised you didn't remember me being there," Nate said dryly. "And by HIS terms, you won. He's dead. You're alive."

"And I have spent my life since then trying to get AWAY from defining things according to his terms...."

"Still being alive is a pretty good indication of winning by anyone's terms."

"I... just don't know."

"I can't think of many people who would've been strong enough to stand up to him for as long as you did after being in that energy field for however long it was."

"I've never really been sure."

"Well, it was a while, at least." Nate laughed a little. "You held him off all alone, and it took FOUR of us to beat him."

"He wasn't really trying until after you got there. I saw your memories too."

Nate shrugged. "You're not going to listen to anything I say, apparently. I think you won. You faced him when you had to. You could again."

"It doesn't feel that way."

"Trust me, little brother?"

"...I do."

"Good." Nate leaned over and hugged him again tightly.

"Wouldn't let you do that if I didn't," Stryfe replied quietly, leaning into his brother.

*****