The Shadowlands idea belongs to Alicia McKenzie as does the World’s End Bar, and boy does she ever know what she's doing. :) You can read more about the Shadowlands concept and related fanfic at Alicia's Shadowlands archive.
The characters mentioned here belong to Marvel, and I ain't makin' no money.
Thanks to KJCorner denizens and especially Lise, for their assistance.
I wouldn't recommend this for people under 15, thanks. Some violent and unpleasant imagery.
I wrote this for myself.

Finding Yourself
by Mel

My name was once Bobby Drake. That was years ago. Too many to count, I sometimes think. When I was with the X-Men. Then I quit and started work as an accountant. It was hard, sometimes harder than I ever thought I could bear, but I stuck with it, slowly building my life. A life where everyone called me Robert.

He paused, his pen still on the page for minutes, before starting again.

Then the shifts came. From what other people have said it happened fast for us, although later. We were a long way from the centre, I think. At the time though, all we knew was that the world had gone wrong. Horribly, terrifyingly wrong. Within the first few shifts, utilities packed it in, and people were dying of starvation and dehydration long before the shifts could kill them.

He stopped again, eyes staring blankly into the distance.

Even then, when it didn't make sense and no one understood what was going on, I could feel it. This was totally, incomprehensibly my fault. Those starving people, those towns melted into boiling lava pits, or sunk in the middle of unexpected inland seas, those shifts that made Texas turn to ice or made my boyfriend fall to thousands of sharp pieces scattered in my bed, they were my fault.

It was that guilt, so deep my teeth ached when I breathed and my back sweated, that wouldn't let me stay in one place. I had to move. I had to flee from that bed, from those screams, from that daily awful nonsensical world. Most of all, I had to run from something so big it couldn't be seen, something so evil it could only be myself.

I went to see my parents first. Mom invited me in, kissing my cheek, and her lips were soft and gentle, just like her eyes. She told me dinner was ready as if everything was normal, and laughingly told me that Dad always ate his meals in front of the television now. She waved a hand towards the den, and in a joking tone asked if I could convince him to clear out the leaves, they were beginning to rot, and he never could do yard work when she asked him to. He was in the chair in front of the set when I walked in, goofy smile and witty welcome at the ready. A shift had gotten to him before me.

Hopefully it killed him instantly. When I still believed in a god, I prayed that he'd died instantly.

I think that the same shift got Mom. She still fed him, three times a day, carefully placing a tray across his rotting knees, lovingly describing his favourite meals to him as she rearranged the mounds of mud and twigs on his plate before hungrily eating her own. She'd chirpily discuss shopping trips she hadn't taken and conversations with people whose houses no longer existed as I sat and stared at the gaping grey void of the television, trying not to retch at the smell of my father melting into slime in the corner.

I was too weak then to stop it then, and to kill her before I left. I wouldn't be too weak now, but countless shifts have passed since then.

After that, I didn't go back. I've never gone back. I hope she's not still there, chewing on sticks and dirt. But I never went back to check. I don't even know what universe she's in anymore.

His pen flew scratchily over the pages in the small notebook, barely pausing now, words seeming to appear to fill the blankness through his fingers without stopping at his mind.

I travelled. Clutching to me a shard of my lover, a fishing-fly from Dad, a wisp of hair from Mom I travelled across the country. Sometimes with other people at first, until finally I realised that I was a curse. They were all dying, or worse, around me. And there are things that are worse than death. I've seen them. I've seen so many, many things.

I saw things that killed with their lyrical, senseless beauty. I saw a man with a tree growing through him, like a leafy-green spear, his face stretched in incredulous surprise. I saw a pool of unbelievable beauty, blue as the sky that was rimmed with bleached white skeletons and dusky pine trees, serene and uncaring. I heard the sounds of birds that never existed, squabbling over food. I smelt snow and brimstone. I walked.

Some days I'd walk until my feet bled, so I wouldn't stop and sleep. I watched shifts slide across deep southern plains, and make their jagged ways up mountain ranges. I saw all those places that I learnt about at school, and I learned that nowhere was untouched by my curse. I'd wake to flamingos in the sky, walk in knee-deep snow amongst blooming cacti. People I'd never seen before tried to kill me, or to love me, or to walk from my dreams and tell me it was my fault. They didn't need to. I knew.

Then there were the people who thought I was a hero. That was how I'd eventually figured out that these were different universes, sliding together like lovers who'd never wanted to be separated in the first place, uncaring of the differences now. Square pegs forced into triangular holes as reality groaned under the weight.

My guilt could only grow as I saw the effects, as I watched the moon wax and wane in one night, fading past a sliver of silver, in a performance I feared would be its last. It wasn't, of course, there were other nights of dizzying dances and double moons. Nothing is ever final now, except death by some bizarre method, most appropriate to the kinds of black-humour foreign movies my boyfriend used to make me watch at three in the morning. Lightning strikes and drowning in sand. Shifts taking senses and minds and limbs, leaving cripples and bodies and blood. And me. Dancing to a tune I couldn't hear, in steps no one could see in the dust.

It was the dreams, you see. The second my eyes closed, and I couldn't help it, they'd march in, maddeningly sane. The dreams that were so much more normal, so much more sane than the life I led with my eyes open. A familiar rut of work and social appointments. Then I'd open my eyes and clouds of green mist shivered over upside-down trees. I'd wrap my coat around myself, slide my fingers around the glassy fragment in my pocket and walk myself to exhaustion again.

There were other dreams, but those would come whether my eyes were open or not. Dreams of fighting in a desert. Of using powers I'd barely touched in years. Of wearing a costume. Dreams of ice and fire and friends I'd never met. It was those dreams that told me that I was guilty. Those dreams of impossibilities that gave me respite from dreams of home and reminded me constantly of where the blame belonged.

The light had long since dimmed and he relied on the single candle flame, standing straight and steady, although he barely looked at the words already on the page, instead following with his eyes the trail of ink as it left the pen in swirls and sharp strokes.

I couldn't absolve my guilt. I'm not a hero, nor a genius, and I was powerless against the shifts. Nor could I, having incurred his huge debt to the world, keep from adding to it. I, the person who had sworn against killing while a leading a hero's life, then moved to civilian life and couldn't even tolerate the thought of hurting another person, I killed. More than once. With my own hands, with a stick, with ice and with a knife, I ended lives. I can say as many times as I like that they were going to kill me, that they were going to kill others, that they, like Mom, were mindless and shift-mad, but to end lives is unforgivable and another smear on a soul already black with blame.

But there was no time for philosophy, out there amongst the shifts. There is only time for action and reaction, twisted mirrors of each other, never quite connecting to make a coherent whole. Thought is a luxury of the safe.

Cable found me. I saw him step out of shift like an ancient saviour, planting each foot firmly in defiance of the quagmire I had been sloppily dragging myself through. His eye gleamed as he told me of a place of peace, away from the insanity of the shifts. He led the way through the shifts, like they were a maze he had the key to, and confident in every twisted reality. For the first time in a small eternity, something gave me hope, a small wriggling hope of an end. Of a place where I wouldn't be haunted by things I'd never done, and things that I had.

Ironically, that's where I ended up, blindly following my saviour, at the World's End Bar. The buildings looking blurred around the edges, almost human in their huddling together, trying to stay as close to the warmth of Franklin's power as possible. I'd do that too, if I could. Franklin took my mind and seared it to the core, burning away what he called shift-residues, and then peered at me curiously. I didn't have many, he said. That's when I found out how short a time in the shifts I really had. For hours, for days, we sat in the bar, talking about the shifts.

I don't agree with Cable. I don't think that the shifts have aim or purpose. Somehow though, that only makes them more frightening. The damage they have done, the horror they've inflicted on the world, is only more stunning when you see that it wasn't systematic, it was only chance.

That's when they told me all about the Twelve. About what happened to give me the guilt. The why of my dreams. And why it was so important to collect the Twelve again. Maybe, just maybe we could do something to stop the shifts, save the world.

They don't understand. They don't see what I see.

I'm not a hero. I never really was, even for the short few years I was with the X-Men. I am certainly not a hero now. They don't hear me when I tell them. Instead they build plans around me, like buildings with termite-ridden frames, and I dream of coffee with my boyfriend, watching self-obsessed crowds walk by our table.

Maybe they'll understand now. I'm not a hero. I can't be. Even here I'm not safe from either set of dreams, and it would have broken me to realise that this last hope failed me, only I was broken a long time ago.

He put down his pen. There really wasn't anything else he could write. Except... He picked up the pen and, in the large white expanse at the bottom of his last page of writing, he scrawled a few last lines.

That done he uncoiled the rope and quickly and efficiently set up his noose.

He stood up on the chair, looped the end over a beam, and rested the rope around his neck. He didn't pause reflectively then, there was no need. He put his hands into his pockets, wrapping warm fingers around the last remnants of his loved ones and kicked the chair away.

A few seconds, a last twitch, and there was no one in the room any more. The candle flame burned low, illuminating the ordered desk, the neatly made bed, the fallen chair the only note of chaos in the room, and the last lines on the page.

Thank you for letting me die in a place where my way of death isn't made nonsensical. May you have the same grace.

Robert Drake
Certified Accountant

The end.

-(main) - (biography) - (discussion) - (stories) - (pictures) - (links) - (updates)-