Summary: Lorna talks to Rachel while she waits to see how her world will end.
Fandom: X-men comics
Thanks to: harmonyangel and inlovewithnight for stellar beta work, and to imaginaryalice for amazing comments on an earlier (very different) draft that helped me get this into shape.
Author's Notes: This story, like the original, takes place in the 'home' timeline of Rachel Summers, the future-AU daughter of Scott Summers and Jean Grey. All events referenced here either come from the original story, or are my own invention, so no particular canon knowledge is required (though it may help to know that, as in most canon-AUs, something eventually goes Horribly Wrong.) "Earth: An Intimate History" is by Richard Fortey, and "The Patchwork Girl of Oz" is by L. Frank Baum.
Title, Author and URL of original story: Tubular Bells by resolute
You can understand how it might be possible to live life in that city only half aware of the volcano on whose slopes your home is constructed, and whose whim might control your continued existence. -- Richard Fortey, on visiting Naples
Lorna Dane sat on the sofa in the living room of the Xavier Institute, her legs curled under her and a dog-eared copy of Earth: An Intimate History in her hands, listening and waiting, quietly, to find out how life as she knew it was going to end.
Scott hadn't said anything to Jean yet. Lorna knew that because, a few minutes before, Jean had breezed through the room, stopping to tease her about her book ("Intimate--?" "It's about geology, Jean. You know, the subject my husband and I have P.hD's in?" "Mmm-hmm, sure. Intimate. I remember my second trimester." Leaning in to whisper, Jean added, " Try to leave Alex some energy for his work, okay?") Then Jean kissed Lorna's cheek and left her there, left her thinking, Yes, I'm pregnant, and I'm horny, and last night I stormed in on your husband in the shower, and tried to get him to let me give him a blow job, and if you were even paying the normal level of attention to me you would be able to tell I was upset, and there's no reason for me to be angry at you, when I'm the one who did the unforgivable thing, and any minute now you're going to find out and you'll want me out of your sight forever. There's no reason I should be angry, but I am.
Lorna folded back the cover of her book, and stared at the paragraph she had read a hundred times before. The book opened with a description of the Bay of Naples, the way ordinary life went on in the shadow of the volcano, and gradually moved on to talk about the invisible forces that had formed the mountains of Italy. Lorna loved this book. The chaotic poetry of plate tectonics was one of her favorite things in the world, and, this morning, it was supposed to help her feel better.
Alex had taken her to Naples, for their honeymoon.
Lorna shifted a pillow under her back, spreading over more of the cushion, a futile effort to settle into her body. She heard Scott's voice, faintly, in the corridor. "In the office for a minute? It's kind of important." So he had found Jean. Scott didn't talk to anyone else that way, with questions at the end of his sentences, with qualifiers in front of everything. The door clicked behind them. A stinging pain jabbed through Lorna's hand. She had to look down to realize she was sticking a fingernail into her own palm. She loosened her grip, and flipped back a page, trying to focus on things she already understood.
They had gone to Naples for their honeymoon, sat on the balcony and looked at Mount Vesuvius as the sun set over the Bay, and Alex held Lorna's hand, and she pretended. . .
A voice startled Lorna out of her reverie. "I know that Mombi the Witch isn't real."
Lorna jumped. "Rachel!" She steadied her hand long enough to set the book aside, and looked to see her niece lying on the floor, in a corner, hands gripped around a book of her own. She may have just gotten there, or she might have been there for hours. When Lorna shouted, the girl's head jerked back. Lorna bit down on the inside of her cheek and smiled as well as she could. It wasn't Rachel's fault that Lorna was on edge.
She heard the murmur of voices in the study, not raised yet. She wondered how long it would take Scott just to come the hell out with it.
"I'm sorry," Lorna said, "Just -- don't surprise Aunt Lorna like that. Come sit with me if you want to talk." She patted the sofa cushion beside her. The girl approached, but hesitated to draw too close. Lorna sighed and pulled her into a hug. "Get up here, silly." As the smiling child snuggled in next to her, she asked, "Are you reading about Mombi right now?"
"No. This part is about Scraps, the Patchwork Girl, and also. . ." She set her book in Lorna's lap, and started to count on her fingers. ". . . Ojo, and Unc Nunkie, and the Crooked Magician." Lorna ran her finger along the book's well-loved spine. She had read all the Oz books herself, though she had graduated to Lord of the Rings, and then Wuthering Heights when she wasn't much older than Rachel.
"I always liked Scraps," Lorna said softly. "Scraps and Trot, better than Dorothy even. I mean, Dorothy's okay, but she's so good at everything all the time."
"Aunt Lorna?" Rachel said, with the hesitant tone of a child, uncertain she should be correcting a grownup. "Dorothy is fiction. Just like Mombi and the Nome King. The monsters in Oz are fiction, but so are the good people."
"Yes, of course you're right." She patted Rachel's shoulder absently, straining to Scott and Jean's voices in the study. They sounded different, she thought, then realized one of them had put on the radio. Of course they had. Now she couldn't hear their argument at all. Smiling at Rachel, she said, "Telling truth from fiction can be hard."
"It can," Rachel said, with a world-weary voice beyond her eleven years. She reached over to pick up Lorna's book. "Is this fiction?"
"Some people think so. But mostly creationists, and they don't count." She laughed at herself, then winced as she realized what she had done. As a girl, Lorna had hated it when adults told themselves jokes that she had no way of getting.
But Rachel nodded intently. "Creationists, you mean, like the Phoenix?" When Lorna didn't - couldn't -- answer right away, the girl covered her mouth and looked down. "I shouldn't say that. I just meant -- because the Phoenix says it can create things - Anything it wants. And so the world looks so big, and so small at the same time, and sometimes the Phoenix doesn't know what other people call real or fiction?"
"It's all right." Lorna squeezed her shoulder, and tried not to wonder whether Rachel had been conversing with the world-devouring entity that once possessed her mother, or just had an imaginary friend named after it. "I didn't mean to be confusing. I was only trying to say that some people -- they look at the world and want everything to be the way it is. On the surface. If they see a mountain, they need to believe it's always been a mountain."
"Because it's beautiful, and so they think God must have wanted it that way. But people who believe that way don't understand that it's all beautiful. The forces moving beneath the surface. The things we can't see, but that affect us every day." She tapped her book. "That's what this scientist writes about."
"Uncle Alex is a rock scientist, too, right?" Rachel held the book up to her eyes and squinted at it. "Is he going to read it, when you finish?"
"I doubt it." Lorna forced a smile. Earlier this morning, she had tried to engage him in conversation about her reading; he had acted so politely interested that she knew he wasn't. ("You have no poetry; you should have been an engineer instead of a scientist." "I should have. We'd have some money of our own, and the car would be fixed by now." And he'd gone to work on the car.) "Uncle Alex only likes books with evil clowns or severed heads."
Rachel's eyes widened in way that suggested she would probably like to read the evil clown books, but she looked down at Lorna's instead. "Maybe I could try this one --?"
"When you're older --"
The stubborn set of her jaw was Scott's, the defiant crumpling of her eyebrows all Jean's. "Mom says I understand a lot of things that most kids don't get to find out about until they're older."
"Oh, it's not that kind of grownup book," Lorna said quickly. "I just meant it's a little hard -- the words --" She stopped. "You can try it if you want."
Rachel looked from one cover to the other, then picked her own back up. "Maybe later," she said. "I need to read The Patchwork Girl again to make sure my file is right. I have a file," she explained before Lorna could ask. "Real monsters. . .fiction monsters. How to tell the difference. So when it's time for me to be an X-man I'll be prepared, a little."
As Rachel spoke, she ducked her head, with that particular combination of pride and apology that happens when you're afraid someone won't be as impressed with your accomplishments as you would like them to be. Lorna recognized the tone because she used it often enough herself; and she wondered where Rachel had learned it. Certainly not from either of her parents.
Lorna squeezed Rachel's hand. "That's very clever of you."
Rachel looked up with a shy smile. "I thought that maybe when your baby grows up and she's my cousin? I could help to teach her the difference. Because it's not always easy. If you're just a kid."
The sting of tears in Lorna's eyes surprised her, and she hoped that giving Rachel another tight hug would keep her from noticing. Five months until the baby was due. In five months -- in five days, in five hours -- Lorna might be banished from the family presence for good. Rachel might not be allowed to meet her cousin. "You're very sweet and very clever," she said, and she thought she was doing a decent job of keeping the guilt and fear out of her voice.
But Rachel pulled back and looked up at her. "You're worried because Mom and Dad are arguing."
"Why would I --?" Lorna stammered. "They're not arguing."
"They are." Rachel's tone was offhand, but definitive. "It's okay, they won't yell unless it's dangerous, but sometimes Moms and Dads have to discuss things in a serious way, so they don't have to get in a big fight later." No question where those words had come from; Lorna could almost imagine Jean's hand moving the girl's mouth, like a puppet. "And I can feel that you're worried."
Lorna jerked away and stood up. "No, Rachel. No reading people's minds without asking." She couldn't believe she'd been sitting here, bleeding emotion onto a preteen telepath, who was the last person in the world that should find out about what Lorna had done.
"I wasn't trying!" Rachel protested. "It just -- leaks in sometimes. But it's only a feeling most times, I can't really -- I mean, it would be wrong." She paused, then raised her wide green eyes. "Only if you did ask. . .I could practice. And it could be fun."
"No, Rachel! No." Lorna's hands needed to move. She smoothed down her sweater. "Please -- don't ask me that."
"I'm sorry," Rachel said in a small voice. She stood, curling The Patchwork Girl up in her hand. "You're upset. I can go somewhere else and finish my book."
"Yes, maybe. . .maybe that would be best right now. You finish your book and I'll finish mine, and when we're both a little calmer we can talk again."
Rachel thought a moment, then said, "Okay." She started to walk out, then turned. "Will you ask Uncle Alex? About my files, and -- my cousin? I could make everything ready so I could teach her."
"She might be a boy, you know." Lorna gave a small smile. "And I can talk to Alex about that. But remember. It's a long way off. A lot of things could happen."
"She might. And they could," Rachel said, giving each idea proper consideration. "But he'll still be my cousin. And there will still be monsters."
With that, the girl walked away, leaving Lorna with her feet tucked under her, trying to read about Naples.
Two months ago she had been there with Alex. Two days after their wedding. Two weeks after she'd told him she was pregnant. Naples was the only honeymoon Lorna had ever wanted, and he had accepted the suggestion because she wanted it -- not, she could tell, because he thought it would work out.
She had been sick the whole time, of course. Taking a boat out to Capri only made her sicker, and what little bit she had been able to eat, she had vomited into the Blue Grotto. Back at their villa, there wasn't even a question of sex, and Alex didn't try. Lorna went into the shower, turned the water as high as it could go, and sobbed until she thought her chest would crack like the fault lines that ran under the city. Then, the door opened and, before she could try to erase the lines of her tears, her new husband stepped into the shower behind her.
Alex curled his arm beneath Lorna's breasts, and rested his chin on her shoulder. Neither of them spoke, and the water streamed down on them, and Lorna pretended. She pretended they wouldn't have to go back, that she would never be left standing in the hallway while Alex and his brother argued about politics, that they would never have to barricade their home against an army of Sentinels. That she would never look at Jean or at Rachel and catch a glimpse of a planet-starved god. That every monster was fiction.
When they got out at last, Lorna's skin was hot and damp, but her mind was cool. They sat on the balcony, looking at the humpback of Mount Vesuvius and for once, for that evening, Lorna was happy not to think about the seismic shifts going on deep in the Earth, or about that inescapable future day when the mountain would explode and rain fire and hot ash down on everyone who loved it.