by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only. Dedicated to Duey and Persephone, for inspiring me to do something with a certain story fragment. :)
"I know I haven't visited in a while, but I'm here now."
The woman who still thought of herself as Domino, even after all these years, knelt down beside the grave, aching joints protesting. She ignored the pain with the ease of long practice and reached out, tracing the inscription slowly, almost tenderly. The stone was cool under her fingers.
Nathan Dayspring Summers. Just a simple inscription. No dates, no grand epitaph. Just his name. It had always seemed appropriate to her, for a man who'd fought so hard to own his own soul even as he dedicated his whole life and every bit of his strength to a messiah's quest and a martyr's death.
"I'm here," she whispered. "I still miss you, lout." The wind ruffled her hair, long since gone snow- white, in what seemed almost like a caress. Domino looked down at the base of the stone, seeing the crocuses poking shyly up through what was left of the snow. Such a vivid purple, against the dirty gray-white. And there were so many more of them this year than there had been before. . .it was so good to see them thriving.
How long ago had she planted them? Two. . .no, three years. She smiled shakily, her vision blurring a little as she remembered a different place, a different time, and a battle armor-clad, filthy, exhausted Nathan kneeling in the snow, staring in wonder at a bed of wild crocuses.
*You'd think you'd never seen flowers before,* she'd scoffed.
*They're beautiful,* he'd said, and then looked up at her with a smile too brilliant to be there on his weary face, after a night mission with far too many unexpected surprises. *They're the same color as your eyes.*
It was one of the first compliments he'd ever paid her. So long ago, now. Decades. She didn't even know what had made her remember the crocuses, why that morning had come back to her so clearly. She'd been kneeling beside his grave, just like this. Odd things occurred to her, when she was here. Things she'd forgotten, or things she wanted to forget. . .
"I think sometimes they've forgotten you ever existed," she murmured softly, and then bit her lip, wishing she hadn't said that aloud. But it was true. She couldn't remember the last time someone had mentioned him to her, even though all she and her generation seemed to do these days was reminisce. *That's what happens when you get old. . .* But no one ever TALKED about him, and that hurt, almost as much as his absence did.
She turned her head, staring out at the lake. It had been Jean and Scott's idea, to bury him here, in this remote corner of the Institute grounds. She'd liked the idea. It was peaceful here, and he deserved that. For all she regretted how little this newest generation remembered the man she knew, something in her would have died if his grave had become some sort of. . .shrine. If they'd only remembered the legend, the Askani'son, that would have been even worse. He'd tried to fight his way free of that mask for so long. . .
And she hadn't understood. She'd thought he was buying into his own PR, losing himself in his damned mission. She hadn't looked deep enough, hadn't seen how badly he wanted it to be over, how desperately he wanted a life to call his own.
She hadn't understood, and she'd walked away from him. They'd spoken, after that argument at the safehouse, but it hadn't been the same. There'd been a distance there, a gulf she couldn't bring herself to bridge, even when he'd come to say goodbye. . .
She swallowed, wiping tears away, trying to ignore the pain in her chest. "I wish you hadn't given me so much space, Nate," she joked weakly, and then bit back a sob. "I wish. . ."
It hurt. Even now, after almost forty years, it still hurt.
"Terry's a grandmother again, can you believe that? Beautiful little girl. Red hair, loud voice. . .you're seeing a pattern here, I bet."
She did this, whenever she came. Talked to him. Filled him in on everything that had been happening with their 'family'. Small talk. Inconsequential things. . .the things that made up the life with him that she'd decided so stupidly that she hadn't wanted.
Trying to fool herself, clinging to shadows.
"I thought you might like to know. . ." She closed her eyes at the sudden swell of renewed pain that accompanied the thought. Why did she pretend he could hear her? It was nothing but a comforting illusion, that the dead could hear you when you thought of them. "That you might like to know that Sam's decided to. . .that he. . ."
It hurt. Her eyes widened slightly, one hand going to her chest. Real pain, not the ache that settled into her soul whenever she was here. . .
She tried to stand, and couldn't get to her feet.
*Oh. . .* she thought, as she fell forward, slowly. The crocuses were everywhere, a field of purple flowers reached up to embrace her softly. *So this is what it's like. . .*
Domino swallowed convulsively, trembling as she stared at the partition blocking the farthest biobed off from the rest of the infirmary. "I want to see him." It came out almost in a whimper, and she jerked away as Jean, green eyes full of tears, reached out to her. "I want to SEE him." She tried to put more strength into it, make it a demand. Hank moved in front of her as she took a step forward, and she glared at him, feeling something dark and murderous surge into life inside her. He seemed to notice; he blinked, rapidly, and shifted his weight, as if debating which direction to go.
"My dear Domino. . ." he started, his tone soft, compassionate. The perfect fucking bedside manner.
"Get out of my way," she hissed almost ferally, that blind anger growing, nearly choking her. She tensed, ready to go through him if he didn't move. At that moment, she hated him. Hated him, everyone in the room, the whole world that had just taken the man she loved away from her. . .
Almost as much as she hated herself.
Apocalypse had killed him, but she'd let him go to his death alone.
"Let her by, Hank," Scott's grief-ravaged voice said from somewhere behind her. She didn't turn to look at him. Couldn't look at him, because if she did, she'd lose control, and she couldn't do that, not until. . .
She walked slowly, carefully over to the partition, hesitating as she reached it. "Apocalypse," she rasped, not turning back towards them. It wasn't a question, or maybe it was, but she already knew the answer. . .
"He. . .he's out there, somewhere," Jean said in a shaking voice.
Domino leaned her forehead against the partition. "Alive," she whispered wretchedly.
No one answered her not-question, not this time. They were all too busy. Shell-shocked minds trying desperately to process that truth, that bleak, undeniable reality, that Nathan was. . .and Apocalypse was. . .
Taking a deep, unsteady breath, she stepped around the partition, and stopped again at the sight of the still form on the bed. Iron bands clenched around her chest, squeezing tightly.
He could have been simply asleep. One glance, and you would have thought he was. Only when you looked closer, watched more carefully, did you see that he wasn't moving, wasn't breathing.
A sheet was drawn up over his chest. Walking over to stand beside the bed, she reached out to draw it back, and then hesitated.
Part of her knew what she'd see, if she drew back that sheet. But his face. . .his face was untouched.
Pale, so peaceful.
She reached out with a shaking hand, brushing that stray lock of silver hair away from his forehead. It was always falling in his eyes. . .made him look like a lost little kid, she'd always thought, especially when he had that kicked-puppy expression on. . .
His skin was cold. No warmth at all. Swallowing convulsively, her hand still shaking, she pulled back the sheet, knowing still what she would see, but knowing she HAD to see. . .
And she turned, and ran. Ran before the scream boiling inside her could escape, before the grief could snap the fragile bonds holding it back. Ran, ignoring worried voices, hands reaching out to her as she staggered past, and kept running, somehow managing to stay on her feet and not fall over again.
Knowing only she had to get away, get someplace where she could be alone before the walls came tumbling down and she had to face what she'd done. . .and hadn't done. . .
Snarling curses under her breath, Domino shut the door behind her, trying not to slam it.
Not that anyone noticed. She laughed wildly, wondering what would have happened if she'd slammed it so hard that the glass panels in it had shattered. Whether THAT would have made any impression on the crowd inside the mansion, the crowd made up of everyone who'd ever worn an X, all together, all CELEBRATING. . .
Celebrating. Damn them anyway. She took a deep, shaky breath, wiping her eyes. It wasn't that he was being forgotten in there. That toast, that damned toast. . .
*For what will be, because of what he was,* McCoy had said, almost in a whisper as he raised his glass.
It had nearly undone the self-control she'd clawed her way back to over the last couple of months.
But it was the mood of relief, of happiness, that she resented. To them, it was over. Apocalypse was dead, and the whole fucking world was suddenly a whole lot brighter. They could all put it behind them and go on. . .
They could. He couldn't. He'd never even know. . .
#Domino?# Jean's voice said gently. Domino gritted her teeth and ignored her as she started down to the lake. #Domino, please. Come back inside. You don't have to be alone, not tonight. . .#
*Fuck off, Jean,* Domino shot back, and relished the immediate, shocked silence. She didn't want to talk to Jean about any of this. Not after she'd overheard her and Scott talking about maybe leaving the X-Men, starting their own lives. . .
Starting a family was what Jean had meant, Domino thought savagely. She hadn't come right out and said it, but that was what she'd meant. A new start, their own lives, free and clear, now that the ex-wife's kid was out of the way. . .
#How DARE you?# Jean suddenly hissed.
Domino nearly tripped over a tree root as the rose- gold presence in her mind seethed with anguished fury. Straightening, pausing for a moment, she smiled bitterly. *I call it the way I see it,* she shot back. Glad that it had hurt.
The silence was almost deafening. That bitter smile still playing on her lips, Domino kept walking. Maybe Jean would leave well enough alone now. Wouldn't that be refreshing? she thought savagely, restlessly. No one trying to get her to 'talk about her feelings', no one trying to analyse her. . .
There was someone at Nathan's grave.
She stepped behind the tree beside her, staying as quiet as possible. It should have been a useless gesture, considering who the visitor was. But Logan didn't acknowledge her presence, not with a word or even a glance. As far as she could tell, he either didn't know or didn't care that she was there.
"Never been sure what to believe when it comes to the afterlife and all that," Logan said, his voice low and rough with some emotion Domino couldn't identify. "Never had the time or inclination to sit down and thrash it all out in my head. Especially with all the bits and pieces I've picked up over the years. . ."
What was he doing? Domino's jaw tightened, resentment flaring into life deep inside her, burning like acid. He had NO right to be here, the bastard. He'd never done anything but make things harder on Nathan. . .
*And what did you do?* her conscience asked her nastily. *Worse. So much worse. . .*
Logan shifted his weight, and Domino froze for a moment. But he didn't turn towards her, only kept talking, in that same quiet voice, even more gravelly than before. "Don't know why I'm here, Nate. I don't know where you are, whether you can hear me. . .hell, you might know it already, but I wanted to make sure someone told you. He's dead, and he ain't coming back, not this time. It's over. I wanted you to know that, because if I knew you at all, I know you're still hanging on out there somewhere, waiting to see how it all came out. . ."
"Well, isn't that sweet of you," she snarled, before she could stop herself.
Logan didn't move. "Was wondering how long you were going to stand there," he said, a definite edge of weariness to his voice. He craned his neck around, his eyes pools of shadow in the moonlight. "Are you? Just going to keep standing there, I mean."
"What do you propose I do?" She stepped out from behind the tree, her hands clenching into fists at her sides. It was impossible to keep a level voice, completely out of the realm of possibility. . ."Kneel down and have a nice heart-to-heart with a chunk of stone? Thank you, but I'll pass."
Logan stood smoothly, turning towards her but not taking so much as a step in her direction. "The way you've been acting lately, woman, you could have given him at his worst a run for his money." He gestured at the stone.
Domino bared her teeth at him in what she didn't even begin to pretend was a smile. "Oh, really? Ask me if I care, old man." She almost wished he would ask, so she could vent on a target she didn't need to worry about permanently damaging. . .
"You ought to," he said, bluntly. "You're all those kids have left."
"Don't you DARE," she said restlessly. "Don't you dare throw them in my face. . .they're not children, Logan, they're perfectly capable of looking after themselves. Na. . .Cable knew that. Why else do you think he left them to go their own way?"
"You know what I mean," he said, very quietly. "You're not stupid, woman. . .don't pretend you are."
Their eyes met for a long moment; infuriatingly, she found herself looking away first. Moving forward, dropping to her knees and loathing herself for doing exactly what she'd mocked Logan for doing, a moment ago, she folded her arms across her chest, almost hugging herself. Why was it so cold out here?
"Tell me something," she said roughly. "How did he die?"
She could almost feel the frown, directed at the back of her head. "What do you mean, how did he die?"
Domino looked up at him as he came up beside her. "I meant," she said, her voice soft, mocking, "what I said. I want to know HOW he died, Logan."
"You know flamin' well how he died. Apocalypse. . ."
"Don't pretend you're stupid, old man," she interrupted, eyes narrowing at the glare she got for mimicking him. "I want to know HOW he died. I want to know what Scott and Jean didn't tell me."
Something crossed Logan's face, some oddly pained expression. "You want to know how, huh?" His voice was suddenly much harsher, and Domino stiffened, almost defensively. "He was pretty badly off when we found him. Apocalypse had just. . .left him there, and ran back to the fortress to teleport away. If we'd been there a little earlier. . .but there wasn't anything Hank could do, by then."
Something clenched inside her chest, and she began to wish she hadn't asked. He paused, and she realized, somehow, that he would have stopped right then and there if she had asked him.
But she couldn't seem to make her vocal chords work. . .couldn't even open her mouth. Everything was frozen, barren and ravaged as her heart. . .
The truth always hurt.
"He was in. . .a awful lot of pain. Scott. . .just held him, tried to tell him it was all right. But Nate. . ." Logan's voice actually cracked. "He could hardly breathe, but he just kept. . .saying how sorry he was. Asking us to forgive him. . ."
The sob lingered in the air for a full five seconds before she realized it had come from her. Her mind was racing, drawing the picture to go along with Logan's blunt words, and she couldn't, she just couldn't. . .
Strong arms went around her, strong, comforting arms that held her tightly as she wept. But not his, never his again. . .
Domino smiled faintly as she knelt down, ignoring the way the damp earth soaked the silk of her skirt. "Hey, babe," she said softly. "Me again."
She tossed her hair back over her shoulder - she'd let her hair grow out again, these last couple of years, but she still wasn't quite used to it - and laid the bouquet down at the foot of the gravestone.
It looked out of place, she thought with a fond smile. "Roses weren't really your thing, were they?" she said dryly. Especially not white roses in a bridal bouquet. He would have made a joke about that, she was sure; one of those wry little self-deprecating cracks he'd been so good at.
"She was really beautiful, Nate. I wish you could have seen her." Of course, Terry would have looked lovely in a paper bag, but she'd been particularly radiant walking down the aisle. "Like a red-haired angel, not to be trite. And Jimmy looked like someone had hit him across the back of the head with a two by four. . ." She chuckled. "It was cute, Nate. Really cute."
*I just wish I hadn't caught the bouquet. . .* She hadn't even been in the 'line'; it had been chance, nothing more. She'd been sitting down, minding her own business, and the damned thing had fallen right in her lap. Poor Terry had been ready to burst into tears. "You need to be in the right mood to appreciate THAT kind of irony. . .but I think she'd approve, though, if she knew I was here. I really think she would. All the kids seem to have this thing for symbolism. Your influence, probably."
Influence. He'd been there, or at least his shadow had, in more ways than one. The smile slipped off her face. That stiffness had still been there, between her and Scott and Jean. Her fault, all of it. She'd been the one who'd caused the problem, after Nathan's death. . .all those harsh words, the misplaced blame. . .
She should have taken the opportunity to do something about it, this time. Once she'd known that Terry and Jimmy were going to have their wedding at the mansion, rather than Cassidy Keep, she should have figured out some way to take advantage of the opportunity, and put things to rest. . .
But she hadn't. She'd smiled and nodded, and let empty courtesy take over. . .
It was so hard, just. . .seeing them. They'd been living in Alaska for the last four years, and they seemed SO happy. Domino closed her eyes, took a deep breath.
"Sam's right to tell me how childish I'm being. Damn it, I know I'm wrong, to be so. . .resentful," she said hoarsely. "Scott would have traded places with you that day, if he could have. He would have done anything, I know that. And Jean. . ." She hesitated, shaking her head. "I'm being so petty," she said dully. "When did I get this petty?"
There wasn't any answer, of course. In her most brutally honest moments, she knew it was what Scott and Jean had that she resented so much. Peace. Time. A life with the one they loved. . .
All the things she'd given up the day she'd turned her back on him and walked out of that safehouse, the day she'd made her choice and said nothing when he came to tell them goodbye. . .
Her life. The life she'd been doomed to after the day when his life's blood had spilled out onto the Egyptian sands while she had been half a world away, walking the separate path she'd so determinedly chosen.
She blinked rapidly, trying to hold back the tears. The kids would notice, if she came back to the reception with her makeup smeared. "And we don't want that, do we? Not after I've done SUCH a good job of convincing them that I've moved on with my life." Domino kissed her fingers, and then laid her hand against the gravestone for a long moment. "Wish you were here," she whispered.
"Picked them from the garden. Uncle Charley said I could," the small red-headed girl informed her.
Domino smiled at Rachel fondly. "Your Uncle Charley's very sweet," she said, watching as Scott and Jean's five year-old daughter laid the small bunch of daisies down at the foot of the gravestone. "Do you come down here. . .a lot, sweetheart?"
She'd known Scott and Jean were here, of course. When Xavier had asked her to stop in at the mansion to discuss the job at the Academy he'd offered her, he'd mentioned, almost casually, that the Summers were visiting. *A sweet man. . .and still too damned sharp for his own good,* Domino thought wryly. Giving her the chance to opt out. . .but she hadn't. And she had been rather intrigued to see the child heading in this direction, her daisies in one hand and a determined expression on her small face.
Rachel gave her a very serious look. "Every time we come," the child said, almost gravely, and Domino blinked. "Sometimes with Mommy and Daddy. . .sometimes by myself. Daddy gets very sad when he comes here, though. Just like you do."
The off-hand statement made Domino blink. *Well, she's a telepath, of course,* she reminded herself. *Then again, it's probably written on my face so plainly that a blind man could see it. . .I've never been very good at keeping my guard up, here.* "I guess I do get sad," she admitted, glancing at the gravestone for a moment. "I. . .loved your big brother very much."
"I do, too. Mommy says that's okay, that I love him even though I never got to meet him," Rachel said earnestly.
Domino's vision blurred with tears, but she forced herself to smile. "Your mommy's right. I know. . .he loves you very much too, wherever he is." And he would. . .she knew that, somehow, on a level she couldn't quite vocalize. He'd have taken one look at this little red-haired sister of his and proceeded to spoil her rotten for the rest of his life.
"Uncle Logan says Nate was very brave."
"Did he?" The smile grew a little easier, for some reason, and Domino wiped her eyes. "Your Uncle Logan must be mellowing in his old age."
#Or something like that,# a voice said softly in her mind. Domino looked up to see Jean and Scott approaching from the mansion, hand in hand as they skirted the edge of the lake.
Instinct told her to get up, make polite excuses, and leave, but something else, something deeper, laughed wisely and reminded her that chances like this were going to be fewer and farther between, as the years went on. Hell, she'd nearly bought it last week, leading that strike team in against the latest mutant supremacist cell, and this would have stayed unresolved, forever.
She looked down at the gravestone and took a deep, resolute breath. *A little moral support would be really nic,e babe,* she thought wryly.
"Hello, Domino," Scott said, sounding terribly awkward.
She looked up at him, and smiled, a little crookedly. "Hi, Scott, Jean. Beautiful day, huh? Rachel and I were just talking."
"I'm glad," Jean said softly, kneeling down beside her. She smiled at the daisies and looked back up at her daughter. "They're lovely, honey."
"Daisies are a happy flower," Rachel said, very seriously. Jean laughed softly and hugged her daughter. Rachel endured the embrace with a long-suffering look. "And he should have lots of flowers, shouldn't he, Mommy? You said that when he was a little boy, there weren't any."
"We should. . .plant something, here," Domino murmured, remembering her night's experience of the grim, beauty-starved world he'd grown up in. "Some flowers." *Out of the mouth of babes. . .*
A hand fell on her shoulder. "I think that's a good idea." Scott sounded a little more relaxed. As if she'd made a first step, broken the ice somehow. "Ray, why don't we go sit down by the lake and skip some stones?"
*Oh, as if that wasn't BLATANTLY obvious. . .*
#Summers men rarely are subtle,# Jean sent with a soft chuckle, and Domino, almost despite herself, grinned.
Rachel's smile was infectious. "Fun!" she said enthusiastically, sounding her age at last as she darted ahead of her father, heading over to the lake. "Bye, Dom!" she called back over her shoulder.
Domino smiled faintly. "Dom?" she inquired of Jean, who chuckled softly.
"Don't ask me where she picked that up, I really don't know. Maybe Sam." Jean gave her a warm smile. "You're looking well."
Domino felt an answering smile tugging at her lips. "I didn't think telepaths lied." She knew how she looked. She'd gotten maybe ten hours of sleep in the five days, and most of that had been on the plane on the way here.
"Well, okay," Jean said amiably, "so you look like shit. That better?"
Domino laughed; she couldn't help it. "I've been keeping busy, that's all."
"Running around the world for Bridge?"
Domino raised an eyebrow, meeting those too- shrewd green eyes. "Gotta hand it to you, Jean, for a retired old lady, you keep informed." Her work with SHIELD was supposed to be about as 'black' as it came, but then again, she should have known better. *Telepaths. Gotta love them.*
Jean's smile turned curiously enigmatic. "Not so old," she said softly, her hand drifting to her abdomen.
The meaning of the gesture was unmistakable. Domino took a deep breath, forcing herself to smile. "Congragulations," she said a little hoarsely. "Another new addition to the Summers family. . .I can hear the timestream screaming in terror already." She tried to laugh, to show it was a joke, but it didn't come out sounding quite right.
Jean's smile vanished. "I have this. . .dream, sometimes, you might call it," she said, very quietly. "I think of how nice it would be if the woman my son loved for almost half his life would consider herself PART of the Summers family, instead of living alone and burying herself in a job that even a suicidal twenty year-old would flinch at. . .it's a rather nice dream, actually."
Domino swallowed. "Maybe the woman you're talking about doesn't believe she can belong to the family of the man she left to die," she whispered. "No matter how much she loved him."
Strangely, it was a relief to say. She'd never admitted that to anyone. . .not even once, in all the nights she'd cried on G.W.'s shoulder those first couple of years.
"Do you really believe that?" Jean asked, her voice louder, edged in anguish. "Domino. . .it's been ten YEARS. What do you think he'd say, if he saw you like this?"
Domino got up. "We'll never know, will we?" she asked with another weak laugh. "You honestly don't get it, do you?"
"I think I do," Jean said, also rising. Her eyes were hard. Not condemning. . .just hard. Implacable, Domino thought, almost whimsically. "Apocalypse is gone, and you don't think it's fair to blame any of us for what happened. . ."
"I never blamed you, or Scott, or any of you!" Domino snapped defensively, flushing. She hadn't, not really. A few nights, early on, she'd wondered if there had been anything they could have done differently, hated them for not arriving in Akkaba five minutes sooner. . .but that had been a passing thing, a 'stage' she'd gone through years ago and left behind her. "What kind of person do you think I. . ."
"So the only safe target is yourself," Jean continued, her voice steely. "And you've gotten into the habit of doing that, haven't you? You've been poisoning yourself with guilt for the last ten years."
"This is where you tell me I have to let go, right?" Domino shook her head with a bitter laugh. "Like you have? Tell me, Jean, what are you going to do if that's HIM?" She gestured at Jean's midsection. "Consider it a chance to start over again, do it PROPERLY this time?"
Amazingly enough, Jean's eyes danced. "'It' is a girl," she said almost primly. Domino blinked at her, and Jean sighed, the amusement vanishing. "Do you really think I could do that?" she asked softly. "Even if it WAS him? It wasn't pride, or leftover bits of Madelyne that made me call him my son. I raised him, I loved him, and there is no way in hell I could ever replace him, Domino. I wouldn't even try. And I know you understand that. . ."
"You don't get it," Domino muttered, taken aback by the quiet vehemence of Jean's words. "You really don't. It's got nothing to do with how I. . .how I felt about him." Love wasn't the point. She'd loved him, he'd loved her. . .but it wasn't love that had failed him. "Before anything. . .happened between us, Jean, we were partners. We watched each other's backs. . .we TRUSTED each other to do that. And when he faced Apocalypse at Akkaba, he was alone. I LET that happen."
She'd gone over it in her head, time and time again. No matter what mental changes she made to the scenario, what potential twists and turns she took into account, she couldn't shake the certainty that things would have turned out differently if she'd been there. If she'd been beside him like she was supposed to be, damn it! They'd always made it through before. . .together. . .
"You made a mistake," Jean murmured, her eyes bright with tears. "He didn't blame you for it."
"I blame myself," Domino said harshly, the stark words hanging there in the air between them. "And don't give me any crap about what you may or may not have sensed from him at the last minute, because I don't care. . ."
"Your name was the last thing he said. He died with you in his thoughts."
Domino rocked backwards, as if Jean had struck her. "And that's supposed to make me feel better?" she cried.
"No. It's supposed to tell you that he loved you, and that it's time to remember THAT, instead of the guilt," Jean said, kneeling down and straightening the small bouquet of daisies. "It's time to get on with your life, Domino. If you can't do it yourself, do it for him. It would kill him to see you like this, and you know it."
For him. Domino took a deep breath, closing her eyes against the stinging of fresh tears. "I'll try," she finally said, opening her eyes and looking at Jean again, meeting that emerald gaze as directly as she could. "That's all I can promise." Jean nodded slowly, and Domino felt her mouth twist. "I'm not taking the job, though."
"I figured as much," Jean said softly. "I can't say that I'm not sorry to hear it, though."
Domino sighed, brushing the back of her hand across her eyes. "I just can't see myself settling in at the Academy." She smiled weakly. "I'm sure G.W. will talk me into a desk sooner or later. But I'm. . .I don't have a deathwish, Jean. I just need to be. . ." She gestured around at the grounds. "Away. Away from all of this. Somewhere I can think clearly. . ."
Maybe it was running away. Or maybe it was something else entirely. . .maybe she was seeing the chance to belong here again, and couldn't bring herself to take it. Not without him.
It was an attractive dream, this one. But he had been her faith, and until she found something to heal that void inside her, she couldn't even begin to believe in herself again, let alone a better world. . .
"I'm not running away, Jean. I'm just running." Domino managed a more convincing smile. "Like Nathan always used to say, the journey's the point, isn't it?"
*. . .journey's the point, isn't it?*
Domino froze, disoriented. She was standing beside Nathan's grave. . .
Straight and tall, energized from a morning run. Old and tired, leaning on a cane. . .
In the snow, in the rain, in the sunlight. . .
Alone, with the kids, with one grandkid or another. . .
Smiling, laughing, crying. . .
Planting the crocuses, Rachel's strong hands beside hers, helping her. . .
Time after time, year after year, drawn back to him, living her life but never able to leave him behind. . .
She blinked, trying to clear her vision. And realized she was, most unmistakably, no longer beside the grave.
She didn't know WHERE she was.
Shivering, she raised her hands. Strong, capable hands. Young hands. Why did that seem so wrong? She raised them further, touched her face. . .and started to tremble harder at the feel of smooth, unlined skin.
And there was more. The ache in her joints, a constant companion over the last twenty years, was gone. The hair falling past her shoulders was as black as night, a color it hadn't been in twenty- five years.
There was something very strange going on here. She wrapped her arms around herself, shaking almost convulsively. *So cold. . .*
The sky above was a dull iron-gray, as if it was going to snow. It FELT like it was going to snow. . .
Ahead of her, at the end of the path, was a forest. A dead wood, with pale, skeletal trees that seemed to exude an aura of palpable menace. It was like a wall, stretching to either side as far as she could see. Domino glanced over her shoulder, and then wished she hadn't. Everything behind her was. . .empty. Only the path, dead-white against the gray of the ground, stretched back to a blood-colored sea that could have been a mile or a hundred miles away. It was impossible to tell. . .
Only one way to go. Forward. Realizing, for the first time, that she was in the uniform she hadn't worn for decades, she took a hesitant step forward, and then another.
And walked into the trees.
Then the wind came, howling in anguish, sending the dead leaves swirling around her in a menacing dance and making the branches of the skeletal dead trees lash at her like whips. They cut into pale skin, leaving streaks of blood behind.
But she went forward.
Someone didn't want her to see what was on the other side of these trees. Pretty good indication, from her point of view, that she had to keep going.
Nothing in her life had been easy. Not living, not fighting. . .
. . .and loving had been the hardest of all.
She took another determined step forward and the wind shrieked in wrath, blowing harder, making her eyes water.
*I suppose this is where you tell me it's time to let him go. . .* Her own voice, harsh and bitter, ringing in her mind.
She froze. Her heart clenched inside her, half- painfully, half-ecstatically.
It couldn't. . .
Let him go, the wind whispered almost maliciously.
"Never," she whispered, not knowing who she was talking to,and pushed her way forward. The trees flailed at her, trying to hold her back, but she refused to let them.
If it was him. . .if it was. . .
She stumbled out of the trees, going to her knees on the dead grass. Her chest heaved with the effort of fighting her way through the dead forest, and she took a moment to regain her composure before she raised her head to look at her surroundings.
There was no wind, here. Only a small hill, rising up out of the circular field hemmed on all sides by the pallid trees. Atop it was a different sort of tree. . .an oak, deep-rooted and massive. Its leaves fell slowly, the color draining from them as they landed softly on the barren ground.
Beneath the tree, leaning back against its trunk, Nathan sat, staring into the empty air, tears trickling silently down his cheeks.
*Oh, my God. . .* She tried to say something aloud, but nothing would come out, and her mouth worked soundlessly as she stared at him.
Thunder echoed in the distance, a low, grating rumble.
Domino took a hesitant step forward, trembling violently. How was this even POSSIBLE? Was she dreaming?
Nathan shifted, his head sagging limply to one side as if it took too much effort to hold it up. The tears still poured down his face, crystalline and somehow luminous in the half-light.
As if his tears were the only thing that was real.
The leaves crunched beneath her feet as, hardly believing any of this was possible, she slowly made her way over to the oak and knelt down beside him.
He didn't look at her. She reached out with a shaking hand, afraid to touch him. Because if he vanished, if she really was dreaming. . .or hallucinating, she didn't know if she could bear it.
But she had to. . .if it was. . .
The tears were warm. His skin was cool, in contrast, but she felt muscles twitch slightly under her fingers as she traced the tracks of his tears downwards. . .
He turned his face away in a sudden, jerking motion, almost as if by reflex. Domino felt tears of her own escape as something broke deep inside her. She opened her mouth to apologize, to beg his forgiveness. To tell him that she loved him, that she'd never forgotten him, not in all these years. . .
But what came out was something from long ago. "You called, I came." she said, her voice coming out clearer, stronger, than she'd expected. She blinked at her own words, not understanding why she'd said that. If he'd called her, she didn't remember. . .or maybe he had been calling her all this time, through all these years, and she just hadn't listened until now. . .
The words seemed to hit him like a physical blow. He drew away from her even farther, shuddering. "Not real. . ." His voice was a harsh rasp, choked with tears and somehow rusty, as if he hadn't spoken in. . .decades. "Not. . .real."
She knew, somehow, that he wasn't speaking to her. Strangely enough, it infuriated her. If she was dreaming, then he was part of the dream, and he had no business pretending HE was the one seeing things.
If she wasn't hallucinating. . .if this WAS real. . .
Domino reached out, taking his face between her hands and making him look at her. If this was Nate, he could have broken away easily, but he didn't struggle. "Maybe not," she breathed, staring into his eyes with growing confusion, her sense of strangeness deepening.
His eyes. They were both gray. Gray as the sea in a storm, filled with pain and guilt. . .and somehow numbness, too.
No longer mismatched. "Maybe not," she repeated, holding them with her own, not letting him look away, "but I'm here. I'm. . ."
Something jolted through her, and she gasped, every muscle in her body clenching. As soon as she let go of him, Nathan shrank away, retreating. For a moment, she was too busy trying to get her breath back to do anything about it.
*What the hell was that?* she thought, her chest heaving. The tingling sensation had faded, and even as she tried to hold mentally to that strange voice, it fled, out of reach.
"Nathan," she said dazedly, seeing him huddled against the tree in an almost-fetal position. "Nate, snap out of it. I think something's. . .something really strange is going on, here. . ."
"Go away. . ." It was almost a moan. "No more, not from you, please. . .leave me alone. . ."
Biting her lip, she reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. "Nathan, listen to me. . ."
He turned, faster than she would have expected, and she gasped in pain as he grabbed her wrist, his grip almost crushing. "I said LEAVE ME ALONE!" he snarled, those gray eyes seething with blind rage. The tears were still falling, though, she noticed, wincing as she tried to twist out of his grasp. His grip only tightened, enough to wring a cry from her. "You're not REAL. . ."
She drew her free hand back and slugged him in the jaw as hard as she could. He let go of her, his head hitting the trunk of the tree with an audible thud. Nursing her sore wrist, she kept her distance, watching him warily, as he straightened, glassy-eyed and obviously dazed.
"Well, did that feel fake to you?" she demanded a little testily. He rubbed at his jaw, and then fingered the back of his head, wincing as his fingers came away bloody. She swore, and moved closer, ignoring the way he flinched away from her. "Let me see," she said more gently, cursing herself for the instinctive reaction. He shuddered, and she hesitated. "Oh, Nate. . .if it's really you, talk to me," she said brokenly. "Please. . ." Blood? Reaction to her attack? If only she could be sure it was really him. . .
*Domino, please. . .*
She froze at the soft, grieved whisper inside her mind.
*Fight, damn it!*
A flash of red hair, of bright green eyes. . .
Nathan's head suddenly jerked up, and he focused on her again, really looking at her for the first time. "Rachel," he murmured.
"Rachel?" Domino breathed, and then nodded slowly. Rachel. . .who lived at the mansion these days.
Who knew she'd come to visit. . .who would have sensed it when she'd fallen to the ground beside Nathan's grave, unable to breathe. . .
She remembered, now.
It didn't explain things. It didn't tell her why she was here, with him. . .whether it was real or not. . .nothing of what she so desperately needed to know.
"Rachel," Nathan whispered. His features twisted into a mask of incredible anguish and he pulled away from her, doubling over as if someone had just kicked him in the gut. "Rachel, I'm sorry. . .I'm sorry. . ."
*Please, Dom. . .*
Domino gritted her teeth and shut the soft voice out, resolutely NOT listening to it. At the moment, she didn't CARE what was happening to her body. She wasn't sure what was going on here, but she'd waited forty years to talk to him again. . .dreamed, night after night, about getting this chance.
Whether it was quite real or not, she was going to take it.
"Look at me," she said, gently but firmly. "Nathan."
"I'm sorry. . .so sorry. . ."
*He could hardly breathe, but he just kept. . .saying how sorry he was. Asking us to forgive him. . .* Logan's voice said in her mind, sorrowfully.
Domino swallowed and looked around. This place didn't have the fluidity of a dream. There was something almost fearfully solid about it, as if the dead ground and the cold air was pushing at her, trying to crush her between them. She shivered, and looked back down at him.
"Nathan," she murmured, reaching out and laying a hand on his shoulder again, more cautiously this time. His only reaction was to start murmuring under his breath in Askani, the same words over and over again.
*The battle language has no word for 'I'm sorry',* he told her once, with a deadpan look. She listened intently. Why hadn't she picked up more of the damned language, all those years linked to him. . .
If she could only. . .
Just understand. . .
"I tried, I tried. . ."
She froze, trying to convince herself that she hadn't heard that, that the words he was speaking hadn't become clear so suddenly. . .
"It's really you, isn't it," she whispered in anguish. It had to be. He couldn't be a hallucination of hers. . .because in her mind, in her dreams, Nate had heard Logan that night. Had heard the death- scream of the monster that had killed him echo across the desert the night before.
It was the only thing that had left her go on, her belief that he'd known that Apocalypse was dead.
That he'd been at peace, these last forty years. . .
. . .that he'd been at PEACE. Not in this dead, gray nowhere-place, alone and suffering for all this time.
Torturing himself, for all these years. . .
"Damn you," she whispered harshly, tears flowing freely. "I can't believe you'd DO this!" He started to pull away again, but she grabbed a handful of his uniform - uniform, he was wearing his UNIFORM, why hadn't she noticed that? - and jerked him around to face her. "He's dead, Nathan, he's been dead for FORTY YEARS! It's OVER!"
Her fury dissolved into misery as those lost gray eyes stared up into hers. "Damn you," she repeated, more softly, caressing the side of his face as if he would disintegrate under anything but the most gentle touch. "Why? They never would have beaten him, if you hadn't hurt him so badly. All they did was finish the job, you unbelievable idiot. . .YOU were the one who won the war. He didn't even outlive you by a year, and there wasn't enough left of him to worry about disposing of the body. It's over. . .you WON. . ."
He stared at her for a long, long moment. She could see him trying to focus on her, trying to process her words. Fighting so hard, as if he was thrashing his way through some impenetrable haze.
Forty years of. . .THIS?
*You've been poisoning yourself with guilt. . .* Jean's voice said softly.
Forever. She'd done it for ten years, he'd been doing it forever. Because there wasn't any time here, she realized suddenly, with irrevocable certainty.
Nothing she had done to herself, not even those first few years, had come close to this. What had he been seeing, all this time? Visions of whatever future he thought he'd doomed them all to with his 'failure'?
What could be left of him, after this? Of her Nathan. . .
"I wish I could show you," she said hoarsely, tracing the path of his tears again. Wishing he would stop crying, so her heart would stop trying to tear itself into little pieces inside her chest. "All those years, Nate. . .they weren't all happy, but a lot of it was. And the children. . .all the children. . ." Her voice broke, but the tears that escaped now were tears of joy as she remembered the smiling faces, all blurring into each other, two generations of children, all beloved, all free. . .
A new world.
"Dom," he breathed, and she almost gasped as he reached up, his hand closing over hers, so gently. The emptiness in his eyes had been filled, with something incredulous and yearning and so very afraid. . ."He's. . .dead?"
"Yes," she whispered, staring into his eyes intently, willing him to believe her. "He's dead, it's over. . .you're free, Nate, you just have to believe that. . ."
Nathan blinked, and turned his head, looking around slowly, dazedly. "He's dead," he repeated, not a question this time. She could see the confusion in his eyes, the disorientation as he woke up from the nightmare and started to wonder where he was.
So close. . .he was so close. . .
*We're losing her. . .* It was an unfamiliar voice, full of sorrow. *Rachel, there's nothing more I can do. . .*
"Nathan," Domino whispered. Her heartbeat was pounding in her ears, measuring out time. Faltering. . .stumbling to a halt. "Nathan, look at me. . .you have to. . ."
Had to what? She didn't know. All she knew was that time was running out, that she couldn't stay here. . .
And she didn't WANT to. This wasn't exactly her idea of a nice vacation spot to spend eternity. But she couldn't leave him here. . .
*You don't have to be alone. . .*
*He died with you in his thoughts. . .*
"Nathan, please. . ." she said, almost in a whimper. She couldn't stay, but if she ended up leaving him here, she knew, more surely than she knew that she loved him, that she'd never be able to find any kind of peace. . .
"He's dead," Nathan whispered, straightening, drawing himself up to his feet. Domino stared up at him, barely daring to hope, as he reached down to take her hands and pull her up as well. "I didn't. . .fail. . ."
"Never," she said as his arms went around her. "Not for a moment." She smiled through her tears, the relief blazing into life inside her too enormous for words. Her heartbeat was a distant noise, now. She let it go. "You always were too hard on yourself, oaf."
There was something breaking in his eyes, shadow giving way to incandescence even as she watched. "It changed," she said unevenly, "after you were gone. The world was different. . .better. So much better. But not for me. Not without you. . ."
The shadows were retreating, the grayness all around her edging backwards, as if in retreat. On the ground, color seeped back into the leaves, and the tree itself seemed aflame with color, suddenly vibrant.
"You came for me," he whispered, almost in awe.
And the heavens broke.
She closed her eyes as the sunlight fell on them both. "You needed me," she whispered, still feeling the tears of joy trickling down her cheeks. "I think you maybe did call me, after all." All the pain was gone, finally gone, and her heart was opening up, encompassing the whole world. "And I never stopped loving you. Not for a moment. . ."
He whispered her name, and she opened her eyes, half-blinded by the light, but still able to see that the oak was no longer a tree, but his psimitar. And it was in his hand, blazing like the sun. . .
Shattering the world around them, and she was falling again, slowly, so slowly, through a rain of purple flowers. . .
Into his arms.
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