Crusade: Part 1
by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Well, here it is, finally...the first part of the sequel to 'Broken', and the second of what I'm now calling the Paladin trilogy. 'Broken', for those of you who missed it, was based on a single, very simple premise: what if Cable fought Apocalypse...and lost. There's a lot more to the story, of course, and I would really reccommend you read that one before this (otherwise it won't make much sense). It's available at the Dayspring Archive and Alternate Timelines.
THANKS: To Redhawk, staunch idea guy, Dia and Persephone for showing me the attractions of Tall, Silver-Haired and Psychotic (inside joke, don't ask ;) and the rest of the #Plotting crew for snippet-reading and all-around inspiration.
WARNING: There's death here, and a lot of very disturbing imagery. Nothing graphic, but unsettling (or so I'm told ;).
The silence thundered in his ears. Soothing, yet oddly fragile. Part of him held it to him, another part ached to break it, perhaps with the screams of pain that had filled the air in the cabin for hours, so intense that they had imprinted themselves on the astral plane. He could feel their shadows around him now, pressing in on him, full of horror and grief and agony so thick that he could almost taste it.
But only shadows. They were all dead, now. The bodies at his feet were still and lifeless, only shells. Vaguely dissatisfied, he sat and cleaned the blade of his dagger on Deborah Summers pristine white tablecloth.
Red staining white, leaving behind clean, shining steel. Smiling faintly, he turned the blade, his eyes chasing the light, enjoyed the way it danced across the lifeless bodies of his family.
The door flew open, slamming against the wall. Letting the winter in.
What have you done? The raw cry made his smile grow, and he looked up to see Scott and Jean standing in the doorway, wearing identical masks of horror.
It was Scott whod spoken, though. Scott who radiated pain and disbelief and shock most brightly.
Scott who fairly reeked of self-righteous revulsion.
What does it look like? The obvious answer. He rose, stepping over the bodies of Jeans niece and nephew, noticing the tremor that crossed Jeans features before she got her expression back under control. Youre a little late, he continued, casually. I really thought you might have liked to watch. . .
Jeans control broke. You. . .monster! she shrieked, the Phoenix-effect exploding around her and her green eyes blazing as she took a step forward into the blood-splattered room. How could you?
He parried the attack without effort, grasping her in a telekinetic fist. She struggled wildly, throwing all her power into the effort, but it made no difference. He held on to her easily, his grip never slackening for a moment.
Monster, he whispered, and laughed. Something shuddered through him, something vast and cold and painful, so different from the utter calm hed felt a moment ago. Monster. . .
Scott shouted and cut loose with an optic blast that would have killed him on impact, if he hadnt deflected it. Let her go! he ordered.
Ordered. Ordered him. Expected him to obey instantly, like the good soldier they all wanted him to be. . .
Shut UP! Cable snarled, rage exploding inside him like a star going nova. You dont tell me what to do, you bastard, do you HEAR ME? He flung Jean against the wall, not waiting to see her fall limply to the ground, and lunged at Scott, holding back his optic blasts telekinetically.
He brought the blade around. . .
. . .stabbing solidly into flesh.
The knife was gone. Scotts visor was gone. . .
Scotts FACE was gone. . .
You stupid son of a flonq! The voice snarling at him was his own, the face glaring at him a mirror of his. They were still locked together, straining for leverage. Hes probably watching this, LAUGHING at you. . .
Shut up, Cable hissed, red creeping in at the edges of his vision. You dont tell me what to do. . .I wont listen to you, I WONT. . . The others hand closed around his throat in a crushing grip, cutting off not just any further words but air itself.
You will listen to me, his double growled, his eye spitting golden sparks. You WILL listen to me, and you will remember, do you hear me? Im not giving you a CHOICE, here!
#NO! I WONT!#
The cabin exploded around him. . .
And he sat up, cold and shaking, gasping for air. He stared blindly into the dark, his heart only gradually slowing to a normal pace as his eyes adjusted, recognizing the familiar outlines of his room.
Tibet. Apocalypses fortress. He slid from bed, shivering in the cool, dry air as he strode over to the window. It irised open at his approach and he stared out, drinking in the sight of the mountains almost hungrily as the dream fled like a shadow in the face of the rising sun, vanishing past his ability to recall.
The mountains. The mountains were unfeeling, unmoving. As unchanging as anything was, in this world. Hed found them very. . .comforting, these last few months.
*Flonqing dreams,* he thought savagely, reaching up and wiping sweat from his forehead. Every night. And then he could never remember them afterwards. Not even a stray image. . .just the way they made him feel. . .angry and terrified, and then even angrier at the fear. . .
Control. He had to control his emotions. Had to be cold like the snow, hard like the mountains. . .
There was a time and place to let the rage out. Oath, how he wanted to reach that place. The right time, the right place, the right targets at hand. . .laying a hand flat against the window, he bit back the snarl struggling to get out.
Cold. Hard. Lock the fire away. . .
The sound of the door sliding open jarred him from his concentration, and Cable stiffened, a colder kind of anger seething into life deep within him. The citadels sensors registered a psi-spike, Longrifles voice came. What do you think youre. . .
He didnt get the chance to finish the question, as Cable turned, slamming the leader of the Dark Riders back against the wall and pinning him there. What, he said icily, did I tell you about walking in on me? Was I hearing things when I thought Apocalypse told me I would have as much privacy as I chose?
Longrifle struggled helplessly, his face reddening. Put me down, damn it! he sputtered.
Cable smiled thinly. Or what? He really, really didnt like Longrifle. There was just something about the man that unnerved him. . .
Maybe it was not being able to read him. He couldnt read any of the Dark Riders. Their minds were strange and impenetrable, like dark, faceted crystals that reflected any probe he attempted. They werent shields, not in the traditional sense. . .
Was it his telepathy? Cable thought, frustrated, as he stared at Longrifle, ignoring the Dark Riders continuing struggles. Was it not up to full strength yet, was that the problem? But it had been three months! This was so flonqing frustrating! The only people in the citadel were the Dark Riders, who he couldnt read, and Apocalypse, who was just as much of a blank slate. . .there was no way to tell!
Put. . .me. . .DOWN!
He had to be at full strength, he HAD to. . .he had to be strong. . .
Oh, stop babbling, Cable said irritably and dropped him. Youd think I was planning to tear you limb from limb or something. He hesitated, a twisted smile spreading across his features as he considered the thought. He could see himself doing it, so clearly. . .it would be so very easy, thought into deed. . .
Longrifle actually paled, and Cable threw back his head and laughed. Youve gone a little gray, Longrifle. You must have been watching me practicing with your Riders, he said sardonically as Longrifle straightened, glaring at him. Maybe we should set up a sparring session one of these days. . .no? But it would be so much FUN. . .
Dont make idle threats, Dayspring, Longrifle spat. Edging towards the door, Cable noticed with growing amusement.
Idle? Get out, he snapped, turning his back on the Dark Rider contemptuously. He heard the door slid shut again, and sighed, rubbing at his temples. His head hurt. Again. Between the nightmares and the headaches, it was a wonder he got any sleep at all. . .
He went back over and laid down on the bed, closing his eyes.
And didnt sleep.
How long do you think this can go on, Scott?
Scott Summers didnt turn his head towards the source of the voice. He knew his wife was standing in the kitchen doorway. . .could almost perfectly picture the look of mingled disapproval and concern on her face. The weariness equal to his own.
The occasional bout of insomnia isnt going to kill me, he said quietly, sipping his coffee and glancing at the clock on the stove. Three am. There was something very soothing about the quiet, at this time of night. You could just sit here and let your mind drift to somewhere else. A happier place, a happier time. . .
Occasional? Jean murmured. Scott, its been almost three months. . .you havent slept two entire nights in a row in all that time. Gentle hands came down on his shoulders, and he flinched. You cant keep doing this. Youre going to drive yourself into the ground.
Why couldnt she understand? He wasnt DOING anything. That was the problem. . .he was sitting here, doing nothing, utterly helpless, and THAT was what kept him awake at nights. What do you want me to do, Jean? Scott said with a weak laugh as she moved and sat down in the chair beside him. The normal coping strategies werent working anymore. He couldnt lock this away, or ignore it by burying himself in work. . .
His son was out there somewhere, clay in the brutal sculptors hands of the monster that had shadowed his entire life. Alone. Hurt. Vulnerable. Being twisted, carefully and precisely, into someone Scott wouldnt recognize when he saw him again. Someone with Nathans face and the soul of a Horseman, beneath. . .
The thought didnt even have the power to provoke rage in him, anymore. Only a vast, echoing emptiness, a pain so enormous that every fibre in his being shied away from it. If he faced it head-on, if he let himself feel it. . .hed crumble.
And he couldnt do that.
Jeans green eyes were clear as she met his gaze. Shed perfected her mask, just like he had, Scott reflected exhaustedly. Shed moved through the stages of this loss much more quickly than he had, it seemed. Or at least buried it. He himself was stuck somewhere between denial and shock. . .Maybe you should take Hank up on his offer of something to help you sleep. A faint smile tugged at the corner of her mouth as he shook his head, rejecting the idea of using drugs of any sort. Or I could do it. . .
No thanks, honey, Scott said with another faint, humorless chuckle. The link was. . .difficult, these days. As self-controlled as she seemed, there was still a lot of pain beneath her mask. Feeling it, on top of his own, was too much to bear. . .
The pain hadnt dulled as hope had faded. Part of him wished it had.
He got up to heat up his coffee, absently leaning over and kissing her as he walked past. Ill be okay, he said softly, and then shrugged wearily. Well. . .
She smiled, a little tremulously. As okay as we get these days, anyway.
The level where the Dark Riders were housed here in the Tibetan citadel was not a frequent destination for Apocalypse. He cared nothing about what his servants did when they were off-duty, and even less for whatever living arrangments they made to suit themselves.
But the computer registered Daysprings presence there this morning, and Apocalypse was mildly curious as to what his paladin-in-training was doing down there. Over the past weeks, Cable had killed or cripped a number of Dark Riders in sparring sessions, displaying a growing tendency towards casual violence that rather pleased Apocalypse, signifying as it did the decay of certain inconvenient inhibitions. That same tendency would not, however, particularly endear Cable to the Riders themselves. Which made his presence among them worth investigating. . .
The Riders all lept to their feet as he entered the room where they ate. Longrifle immediately came to his side, saying something that Apocalypse ignored. The sight of a food dispenser with its front panel off and Cable apparently engrossed in making some sort of alteration to its innards was far more interesting.
Apocalypse watched him for a moment with something approaching curiosity. Cable had not shown any interest in learning the workings of the citadels systems before this. Only in regaining his fighting form, in honing the new speed and strength given to him by the reconfiguration of the techno-organic virus and adapting to the added psionic power available to him now that the virus was partially stable, and it had been in Apocalypses interest not to interfere. The broken man Cable had been three months ago had needed to regain a certain amount of pride, and driving himself to achieve a new level of capability, both physical and psionic, had accomplished that quite efficiently. Self-control had returned to him, although the personality it controlled was darker, harder, more ruthless and far less forgiving than before.
There had been other reasons for these weeks of seclusion. Cables pain and despair over how his family and friends had betrayed him had needed time to crystallize and harden into the lethal rage that Apocalypse regularly saw when he watched the sparring sessions, or when he merely looked into Cables eyes in an unguarded moment. A highly satisfactory development. It only remained to channel that rage. . .
*You are making this entirely too personal,* he had said to the boy some days ago, in one of what Cable had sardonically referred to as their philosophical discussions. Apocalypse had made sure to have such conversations regularly. Alienation from the Askani belief system was a first step; replacing it with something more suitable was a necessary second.
Pacing back and forth across the central chamber of the citadel, Dayspring had stopped and glared at him. *And how else am I supposed to take it?* hed asked scathingly. *They used me and threw me away, and Im not supposed to take that personally? Im sorry if Im not as in control of my emotions as you are. . .I havent had five thousand years of practice!*
*I am not saying you should not take it personally,* he had said, almost indifferently. He had relished the flash of perplexed emotion that had crossed Cables face, reading it as the willingness to listen, the reluctant attention that it was. *Rather that you should not limit the actions you would take in response. Why treat this simply as an offense against you? Hate them for what they have done to you, by all means. . .but recognize that you were not the only victim of their misguided idealism. Deal with them in the full understanding of what damage they could yet do. . .*
And there had been something very thoughtful in Cables eyes at that moment, an intent, calculating something that had almost made Apocalypse smile.
This interest in the food dispenser, however, was somewhat confusing. Cable, Apocalypse said, approaching him. What are you doing?
Cable did not look up. Fixing the food dispenser, he muttered.
Apocalypse frowned. There are servitors to see to such things, he pointed out.
They wouldnt fix it properly. Cable glanced almost defiantly back over his shoulder at Apocalypse. It doesnt make coffee.
Apocalypse blinked. Coffee.
Im being practical, Cable snarled. He gestured contemptuously at the Dark Riders with his free hand. Ive noticed Ive been killing more of my sparring partners lately, and even with how flonqing pitiful they are, it seems a little wasteful. So I thought that if I started the morning in a slightly better mood, we might just end the day with a few less corpses.
Practical, Apocalypse said, rather amused.
Have you got a thing with single-word sentences all of a sudden? Not that Id blame you. . .I must be a pretty boring conversationalist when all Ive done for the last three months is sit in this flonqing citadel! Cable yanked his hands out of the food dispenser and turned, glaring irritably around at the Dark Riders. I dont know why I should bother, he almost spat. If they werent slow and clumsy and utterly incompetent, we wouldnt be having this problem!
Apocalypse glanced over at his Riders, appreciating the effect Cables words had. Most of them looked entirely cowed. A few, including Longrifle, seemed to be trying to mask anger. Fewer than before, certainly. Cable was establishing his position among them with little difficulty. Those who fell by the wayside were, of course, not a matter for any concern.
Once you have produced your coffee, perhaps we can find you something to occupy your time, Apocalypse suggested, looking back at Cable.
He expected the wary look, but it still amused him. Such as what? Cable asked.
Apocalypse almost smiled. Loose ends, perhaps, he said in a low voice, and turned to leave, not expecting it to take long for Cables curiosity to overcome his suspicion.
As it happened, he was correct.
If youd just focus, damn it, you wouldnt do so much damage to yourself, Madelyne said irritably to the exhausted young man sitting on the floor across from her. There are other ways to use your powers beside at full tilt, you know. You just have to want it badly enough!
Would you quit nagging me, Maddie? Nate snapped, wiping sweat from his forehead. Im trying, all right? What more do you want? This is all new to me. . .
Well, your concentration leaves a lot to be desired, she said nastily. Her patience with him was fraying badly. Theyd been at this for half the night, with no progress to show for it. Just like yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. . .Im beginning to think subtlety isnt anywhere in your vocabulary! Or it is some sort of philosophical hangup. . .you dont want to admit that you were being lazy and sloppy with your powers. Is that it?
Nate struggled to his feet, glaring. This is getting us nowhere! he spat, visibly bristling. He didnt take well to lectures, shed noticed. Too bad he needed them so often. You know, I thought this was a good idea when you suggested this, but Im sick of hearing you carp at me!
Madelyne opened her mouth to snap at him, and then closed it, biting back her anger and giving him as level a look as she could. Screaming at him was not going to solve anything. Okay, she said, temporizing. Im sorry. Were both a little tired. . .why dont we pick this up later?
Her calmer tone had the desired effect. I guess, he said somewhat sullenly, and stomped off without another word. Probably to find one of his new playmates and tell them what a bitch she was, Madelyne thought snippily. She cared a great deal about him, but he could be SUCH a brat, at times. . .
Children. She was surrounded by children. Still, she wasnt sorry shed decided to come back to San Francisco with X-Force, or that shed convinced Nate to join her. There was no way she would have been able to last three months in Jeans company, for one. . .
And she wanted to stay as close to Domino as she could. That link of theirs, strained and fragmentary as it was, was the key, she was sure of it. You had only to look at Dominos bizarre behavior over the last several weeks to know that SOMETHING still had to be there. . .
Sighing, Madelyne rose, reminding herself that weariness was a figment of her imagination. *I cant get tired, Im not corporeal. . .* No, this was entirely psychological fatigue. . .probably from dealing with Nate, she admitted dryly.
What had made her push these lessons on him? she wondered dimly, wandering in the direction of the kitchen. For most of their. . .association, shed been perfectly happy to let him go his own way regarding his powers, unless they were in a life-threatening situation. She didnt know why shed changed her mind, what impulse had driven the decision. Hell, she didnt know why she did half of what she did, these days. . .
*Nathan. . .* She didnt dream, but he haunted her, nonetheless. Every time she thought of him, there was this ache where her heart would have been, if shed had a heart. Knowing that the reaction was entirely psychosomatic, just like her fatigue of the moment was, didnt do a damned thing to make it go away.
*Where are you?* she thought bleakly, tossing out the thought just on a whim, on a chance. Part of her still thought that he was out there somewhere listening, she supposed.
There was no answer, of course. There never was.
She blinked, straightened from where shed stopped and let the hand shed laid against the wall for support fall back to her side. Brooding wasnt going to do any good, either. Maybe that was why shed decided to teach Nate what she could. To distract herself. Smiling bitterly, she continued through the warehouse until she reached the kitchen.
Good morning, Madelyne, Theresa said quietly as Madelyne walked it. She was sitting at the table, nursing a cup of coffee. Looking rather pale and haggard, Madelyne noted, not without sympathy.
She didnt mind Terry. The girl was relatively pleasant, and had never done anything to offend her. She would never have told her that, of course. . .always paid to keep your emotions well in check. Good morning, Madelyne said neutrally. Wheres Domino?
New York. With Blaquesmith.
Madelyne froze, giving the younger woman a sharp look. She left last night? Did they find anything? Anger flared, automatically. She agreed to keep me in the loop!
Terry grimaced. I dinnae think they found anything, Madelyne, she said, almost defensively. Dom left around midnight. . .she was nae looking particularly agitated one way or the other. And she would have said something if thered been anything ttell, dont ye think?
Madelyne almost snarled. Midnight. How had she missed the departure? It wasnt as if she slept! *Distracted, damn it, I cant afford to be this DISTRACTED!*
Youll let me know if she calls in? Madelyne asked, trying very hard to keep her voice level.
Of course, Terry said, staring into the depths of her coffee. Just another day, she said, more softly. Nothing ttell. Just like always. . . Her eyes shone with tears, and she got up abruptly, hurrying from the room.
Madelyne watched her go, anger disappearing into reluctant sadness, just for a moment. Sadness. . .and envy.
Shed wished, more than once over the last three months, that she could really cry.
Hes looking for me, Cable repeated numbly.
Apparently, Apocalypse rumbled from the other side of the holotank. Cable laid his hands flat against the top of the display, so that he wouldnt clench them at his sides. That is what the evidence suggests, at least.
Cable stared down at the scenes depicted in the holotank. Apocalypse had thoughtfully put them on a loop, so that the sequence was replayed, showing Blaquesmith at all of his boltholes. . .not the safehouses, but the few personal sanctuaries hed created over the years. His secret, or so hed thought. . .the few safe places hed had to fall back on.
How. . . His voice sounded strained, even to his own ears. Another option, gone. . .his mind, shying away from that realization, struggled vainly to focus on the mechanics of how these recordings had been made and brought forth at this so-opportune moment. You seem to be making a habit of this, he said tautly, the edge back in his voice. Showing me things like this. . . He raised his eyes from the holotank, met Apocalypses gaze. Awfully convenient, dont you think? he rasped.
Apocalypse looked amused. There wasnt all that much change in his expression, but Cable had learned to tell. It was a poor substitute for being able to read him telepathically, but it was all he could do. I have always watched, he said. People. Events. How else should I presume to understand the progress of history? You of all people should understand that.
A wild laugh slipped free before he could stop it. Trembling, he leaned forward, using the solid bulk of the holotank for support. You expect me to believe that you just happened to be watching him? I dont believe in coincidence.
Is that truly the question you wish to ask? Apocalypse said bluntly. Logic improperly applied is delusion. Do you think I spared your life to let the Askani hunt you down and dispose of you like a hunting dog past its usefulness?
Cable squeezed his eyes tightly closed as the memories washed over him like acid fire. Blaquesmith, snarling at him about what a disappointment he was, how hed failed his mission and everyone he cared about. . .
*Youve sacrificed the world to save one city! Youve doomed us all!* Hammering him to the ground telekinetically, over and over and over again, utter contempt lacing every curse, every blow. . .
Fighting to ignore the pounding in his head, he straightened, looking up at Apocalypse. Im not going to cower in this citadel while hes out there looking for me, Cable snarled. Coldness was utterly beyond his reach at the moment, the rage snapping the bonds hed put on it and surging forward, demanding, inexorable.
I never suggested you should, Apocalypse pointed out, almost dryly. But there are other considerations.
Like? Cable snapped.
Whether or not you are sufficiently recovered to shield yourself from others who may be searching for you, Apocalypse said. His gaze was intent. Measuring. Whether or not you are sufficiently recovered to stand against your one-time teacher. . .
Oh, cut me some flonqing slack! Im either fit or Im not, isnt that the way it goes? Cable pushed himself back away from the holotank, giving Apocalypse a disgusted look. You dont honestly expect me to believe that youre CONCERNED Blaquesmith might win, do you? If I fail the test, doesnt that mean Im MEANT to fail it?
And Apocalypse smiled. It was a sufficiently chilling expression that Cable stopped in mid-pace, stiffening warily. Is that what you wish? A test of your abilities?
Cable straightened, meeting those unscrutable eyes unflinchingly. No, he said in a low, savage voice. I want to kill him.
Because I hate him and everything he STANDS FOR! Hotter, now. A nova instead of a bonfire. Is that what you wanted to hear? Stab your eyes, you keep telling me that its what they all believe in thats the problem, but I cant FIGHT IDEAS! I can only fight people, and I CANT do that here!
Apocalypse turned and walked slowly over to the nearest window. Trembling with the rage he could barely manage to keep in check, Cable followed him.
You told me once that if I wanted to leave, youd give me an aircraft and let me go, he reminded the towering External. All the restlessness of the past three months was boiling over along with the anger. He wanted this, he wanted it so bad he could almost taste it. . .And Ill be dead and burned for a week before I turn the other cheek and forget what they did to me!
I do not, as a rule, support the practice of forgiveness.
He sounded so damnably amused! He deserves to die, Cable said, his voice coming out raw, angry. For what he did. . .
Apocalypse made a curiously dismissive gesture. Nor do I indulge in such concepts as justice. As for Blaquesmith, undoubtedly he is merely searching for you in order to tie up what he sees as a loose end. . .
I am NOT A FLONQING LOOSE END! Cable almost screamed. The pain in his head was back again, pounding like a drum. I am not going to go quietly, and I am not going to HIDE!
Apocalypse said nothing for a long moment. Cables tiny store of patience was rapidly evaporating, and he continued to pace, grinding his teeth as he waited for an answer. What did Apocalypse expect from him? To stay here, sparring with Dark Riders and listening to philosophical lectures until he died of old age?
*All the sacrifices we made for you, all for nothing!* Blaquesmiths voice raged in the back of his mind, and Cable froze, a stifled moan escaping him as the pain in his head swelled, nearly blinding him.
*Have I taught you nothing about necessity?*
Necessity, always necessity. . .all his choices taken away, throughout his whole flonqing excuse for a life! Hed never been free, hed been born a slave to the plans and ideologies of others. . .but Blaquesmith had put the seal on the coffin, trapped him into the role of the Askanison. . .
#I hate you, old man, do you hear me? Im going to hear you beg me for forgiveness before I kill you. . .#
There is no need for an aircraft, Apocalypse finally said.
Cable blinked, the incipient explosion abruptly balked. What?
An aircraft. There is no need to waste time in mundane travel, Apocalypse said, very patiently. The citadels teleportational systems can transport you to New York. After you have killed him, you can be on your way.
I didnt. . . Cable hesitated, turning away. I didnt mean that. . . he said in a quieter voice, suddenly uncertain
You have no destination in mind? Apocalypse asked, almost casually. Very well. Then return here, if you like.
Cable turned back towards him. And do what? He meant it to be a demand, a challenge, but it came out a question instead. Almost a plea. His pride rebelled at the idea, but the thought of leaving, of wandering through this world with no purpose, nothing to drive him, just mere existence, adrift and useless. . . And do what? he repeated, more weakly, a strange desperation coloring his words. He couldnt live such an empty life, he wouldnt know how. . .
Apocalypse smiled again. Learn to fight ideas, perhaps, he murmured in a voice like distant thunder.
I am not getting in that thing, Domino said harshly, stopping dead in the middle of the room and folding her arms across her chest.
Blaquesmith gave what sounded far too much like a long-suffering sigh for her taste. Child, I. . .
Dont call me that! Domino snapped, turning away from Blaquesmiths latest device. She had no idea what it was. It looked like a cross between Cerebro and a dentists chair, neither of which was reassuring. Hed summoned her here to New York, saying he had a new technique to try. She should have told him to stuff it. What is this supposed to do, anyway? she asked scathingly. He never offered an explanation, never. . .as if she was so far beneath his notice that he didnt find it necessary to waste his time. Im getting a little tired of playing guinea pig for you, old man. . .
Him and everyone else, she thought furiously. Jean, Madelyne, Xavier. . .they all seemed to think she had the solution they were looking for, like she was a tool for them to use, this faceless, mindless THING. . .
Domino, Blaquesmith said, more softly. You are growing agitated again. . .
Youre damned right Im agitated! Domino flared and stalked over to the computer console, sitting down and glaring at the old Askani, struggling with the expression of loathing that kept trying to descend over her features. I dont know why you keep at this, she said nastily. You havent much luck so far, have you?
Blaquesmith sighed again, and Domino caught herself contemplating a number of less-than-pleasant ways to make him stop doing that every five minutes. A little horrified at the tone her own thoughts were taking, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment.
Calm, she had to stay calm. What the hell was with her temper lately, anyway? Damn it, the way shed been acting she was surprised no one had sent for the little people in the white coats yet. . .
You look as if you have not been sleeping well, Blaquesmith said gently.
Dominos eyes snapped open, and she stared at him for one incredulous moment. Then, she laughed. And laughed, and laughed until tears were running down her cheeks and she was gasping for breath. Oh, thats good, she wheezed. Sleeping. . .how the hell am I supposed to sleep when he wont stay out of my dreams, huh? Any suggestions? Youre supposed to be the sage around here, arent you?
Blaquesmith looked troubled. He stepped towards her and she erupted out of her chair, slapping his hand away. Dont TOUCH me! she hissed. This is your fault, you bastard. . .YOU sent him there!
Domino, Blaquesmith started, far too patiently.
No! I swear, if you spout one more fucking platitude Im going to snap your scrawny little neck! she all but screamed in his face.
His shocked look was what snapped her out of it. That towering rage suddenly vanished, as if someone had thrown a bucket of water on it. Blaquesmith, she whispered. I didnt. . . She sank down into the chair again, her knees suddenly too weak to hold her. Shit, she whispered weakly.
Blaquesmith regained his composure rapidly enough. She should have known nothing would throw him for long. Are you all right, child? he asked in a slightly unsteady voice.
She didnt call him on the demeaning name, this time. I think, she said numbly, and looked up into those alien eyes. It is him, isnt it? she asked very quietly, reaching out mentally to that tattered thread, all that was left of their link. It was cold again. Empty. She hadnt noticed a change, shed been too busy screaming at Blaquesmith. It had FELT like her own rage. . .
*Oh, God, Nate. . .* she thought miserably, her head drooping and hot tears spilling down her cheeks. Its him, she repeated aloud in a broken voice. I know its him. . . Either that or she was going mad. Or maybe it was both. She laughed shakily. Please tell me its him.
Three months. Three months of constant nightmares, seeing him hanging on that damned X in the desert, seeing herself. . .his hallucination of her, stab him. Other, different nightmares that had played the recording of the duel that Apocalypse had so thoughtfully left for them over and over again, as if her subconscious was stuck on a continuous loop.
Before theyd come back to San Francisco, shed even run a few Danger Room simulations with the recording. She hadnt been able to help herself. The kids would have freaked, if theyd known what she was doing. . .
Somehow, though, it had helped. . .for as long as the program lasted. Shed been able to pretend that she was there, the desert air burning her lungs with every breath, the sun beating down on her. Standing beside him, instead of just WATCHING. . .
Of course, the Apocalypse simulation had handled both of them easily. If shed cared about her pride, anymore, it would have been depressing. As it was, the various bruises, sprains and lacerations shed picked up in the process had at least given her a transitory sense of. . .she didnt want to call it accomplishment, but it had been something. Something that had pushed aside the fear, the endless ache, just for a little while.
Too bad she hadnt had the guts to run the program with the safeties off. That would have at least ended this interminable waiting, this hell. . .
A hand touched her shoulder. I would think it very likely that it is him, Blaquesmith said in a strangely rough voice. From what I have observed of you over all these years, you do not lose your temper to such an extent, even under immense stress. Certainly not on such a regular basis as I have noticed in you recently. . .
She wiped the tears away restlessly. Thank you, she said, swallowing again. Jean and Xavier kept telling her it was just stress. Madelyne just watched her, with that speculative look that irritated and unsettled Domino in equal measure. I just. . .I feel like Im going insane, some days, the way I react to things. . .
A light flashed on the console beside her. Blaquesmith leaned over, his expression unreadable, and studied the pattern of lights as it flickered and changed. Domino rubbed her eyes and frowned as she tried to decipher what was going on. Shed never mastered these systems, and she sure as hell didnt read Askani, which was what looked to be what was scrolling by on the various screens.
Nothing of importance, Blaquesmith said suddenly. Simply the results of a few scans I was running. . .
Anything? she asked, not daring to hope.
I would have told you, had there been anything, he said, a little more sharply than she expected. Domino straightened, giving him an intent look. Her head seemed. . .clearer, now, for some reason, and her instincts were telling her there was something going on here. . .We can postpone the test I was planning to run until later, Blaquesmith continued. Perhaps you should get out and see some of the city, while you are here. . .
He was telling her to go out and see the sights? No way. Ive been in New York before, she said suspiciously. Why dont we just do this now, and then I can go back to San Francisco. . .
If youre eager to return, we could do this another time entirely. . .
Whats the matter with you? Domino asked bluntly, arching an eyebrow. Blaquesmith was not, as a rule, this accommodating.
Blaquesmith wasnt looking at her. Nothing at all, child, he said. Im merely considering your well-being. The procedure would perhaps demand too much of you at a time like this. . .
Oh, right. Since when were you concerned about my welfare? Domino snapped. There was definitely something up, and she was not leaving until she got an explanation. She was tired of being kept in the dark!
Blaquesmith turned towards her, and she was suddenly trapped by his eyes, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. #I really think you should leave, child.# His voice in her mind was firm, inexorable. #Leave the area entirely, and utilize the shielding techniques you have learned over the years. Now, Domino.#
She found herself nodding slowly. Her mind was blank, except for Blaquesmiths instructions. Getting up, she headed for the door, not even stopping to pick up her coat along the way.
Blaquesmith kept a light link with her until he was sure she was heading out of the area. He was shielding her, as much as he could, but he would have to break off soon, or risk that his efforts would be detected. *Bright Lady, see her safely away. . .* he prayed silently. Domino had a vital role left to play in the course of events, and her safety could not be risked. There were other considerations, as well, but there was no time to dwell on them now. . .
Rapidly, he activated the necessary systems. They had been in place for weeks now, in most of the safehouses, just on the chance that he would find himself in the position to use them. If only he could be sure that they would be adequate! There had been no way to test them, no way to know for sure how effective they would be. . .
The console flashed again, the tracking systems pointing out that the biosignature in question was coming closer. Blaquesmiths hands hesitated over the console as he debated whether to establish a link with the X-Mens computer. No, he decided. Not until the situation was contained. This could not be permitted to escalate. A more delicate hand was required.
Nevertheless, he did set the internal systems to record what happened in this room. There were countless ways a visual record might be helpful, no matter how this situation turned out.
The old Askani was not used to emotions such as anxiety. He had been taught to overcome such things, teachings that had hardened into immutable habit over the many years of his life. But it was most certainly anxiety that he struggled with as he sat down and waited. *I would that you were here now, my Lady,* he thought wistfully, Rachels lovely face in his mind. Inwardly, he felt almost ill with fear.
Memories seemed very thick in the air here, suddenly. Memories of Nathan, that was. So many years. So many memories. The tired, stressed man hed so foolishly sent to Akkaba three months before; the defeated, heartbroken Clan leader hed sent to the twentieth century; the confident, brash young rebel.
The boy hed met all those endless years ago, on that Canaanite transport. Sometimes, not even real life could be as vivid as a telepaths memory. . .
The console emitted a brief warning noise. With something very close to a lump in his throat, he reached out and shut the tracking systems off as the door slid aside with a soft whisper.
Hello, Nathan, he said softly, not turning to face the door. Something deep inside him keened in real grief as he reached out and touched smooth, impenetrable shields, crystalline walls beyond which boiled incandescent rage like hed never seen in his student before. He wondered distantly what other atrocities he had committed according to the memories altered by Apocalypse.
It didnt matter. What is, is. He could only deal with the situation as it presented itself.
Hello? The familiar voice that answered him was little more than a snarl, seething with hatred. Thats all you have to say? Hello?
Blaquesmith rose, keeping his hands at his sides as he turned. Courtesy, he started to say. I simply. . . The words froze on his lips as he got his first clear look at what Apocalypse had made of their Askanison.
A tremor crossed Nathans face as their eyes met, a muscle spasm that spoke of the prodigious effort he was using to control himself. He was all in black, the shining silver techno-organic extrusions in sharp contrast where they wrapped around his left side like some bizarre armor, tendrils reaching across the side of his face and rippling as Blaquesmith watched.
Oh, Nathan, he whispered, almost despite himself. What he has done to you. . . He thought he had prepared himself, but seeing this. . .and yet he knew, with only a glance at him, that the worst damage lurked beneath the surface.
He, Nathan said in a low, vicious voice, set me free. Spared my life, when he could have killed me. He took a single step forward, his posture tense, ready to explode forward into violence. I think I prefer the company of my enemies, he whispered, his eyes blazing.
Listen to me, Nathan, Blaquesmith said, keeping his voice soft, soothing. He had to do something to still that terrible anger. He has not dealt with you truthfully. You do not understand. . .
Those broad shoulders shook in what might have been a suppressed laugh. . .or perhaps a sob. Youre right, Nathan said, his voice suddenly louder, a near-hysterical note to it. I dont understand, Blaquesmith, and I never will!
Golden light blazed around Nathan as he lashed out. . .
. . .and Nathan crumpled to the ground with a scream as the psionic energy was reflected back on him by a shimmering cage-like forcefield that sprang automatically into existence, part of the containment measures he had so carefully prepared against this situation. The forcefield wavered briefly and then stabilized, but Nathan made no attempt to escape it. He merely laid there shaking, his body instinctively curling into a fetal ball.
Blaquesmith took a hesitant step forward, trying to ignore the deep, tearing ache, as if someone had just torn his heart out. I can see what he has done to you, he said hoarsely. I will repair it, Nathan, if I must spend the rest of my days at the task.
Y-You. . . Nathan said raggedly, fighting to raise his head. The neural dampening field that had been engaged within the forcefield seemed to be taking effect, Blaquesmith noted with some relief. N-No. . .
However he has twisted your memories, you must believe me, Blaquesmith said urgently, kneeling at the edge of the forcefield. I will not harm you, Nathan. I would sooner die. . . That lump was back in his throat. I know we have not always. . .agreed. There are things that I have done that have hurt you deeply, and I regret them more than you will ever know. But you are my friend, Nathan Dayspring, the closest thing I have to a. . .son. I want only to help you, I. . .
Nathan moaned, the sound enough to bring tears to Blaquesmiths eyes. Swallowing hard, the old Askani started to rise. . .
There was a soundless explosion of light, blinding him, and he staggered backwards. The next thing he knew, a techno-organic hand was clamped around his throat, choking him, and a blazing golden presence sat inside his mind, scorching and unstoppable.
#You what?# the golden light snarled hatefully. Blaquesmith forced his eyes to open, saw Nathans face, twisted with fury and anguish both. #You swear? You give me your oath? You lying son of a flonq!#
He tried to speak, but the grip around his throat tightened, and that blazing presence started to rip through his mind, searching for. . .something? His inability to find it only seemed to drive Nathan further over the edge.
#Youre trying to trick me,# Nathans voice said feverishly. #Youre showing me shadows, trying to fool me! He said you would, he was right. . .youve manipulated me since I met you and even now you WONT STOP!#
Their minds were in full rapport, if something this brutal could be given such a name. Blaquesmith could see it all. The false memories, the pain, the anger. . .the madness.
#No. . .# he sent back weakly. He was unable to use his abilities to push Nathan from his mind. Whatever Apocalypse had done to the virus, it had left Nathan with an unprecedented level of psionic strength that he was drawing on ruthlessly in this crazed state. #I would not harm you, I would not. . .#
But there, beneath it all. . .buried, slowly being crushed by what Apocalypse had created. . .a fragment, a weakening spark that still glowed a softer, clearer gold, almost defiantly. Sunlight in the shadows, far beneath the fire. He reached for it, like a drowning man reaching for air. . .
He heard a snap, felt a sudden, simultaneous pain. Then only a roaring in his ears that faded into silence.
His last thought, as he died, was of how he had failed the two people he cared about most. But there was no time for regret, or tears. . .only a moment to remember a red-haired stranger that had blazed into his life like a star, and a reckless, impudent boy with more courage and spirit than ten men twice his age could ever hope to possess. . .
And then there was darkness.
Cable let Blaquesmiths body fall to the floor and took a step back, trembling violently. So small. . .hed forgotten how small Blaquesmith was. How frail, physically. All it had taken was a moments loss of control, one flare of uncontrollable rage. . .
And hed just. . .reached out, and. . .
Blaquesmiths sightless eyes stared up at him. Not accusing. Just. . .empty. You tried to lie to me, Cable muttered brokenly, swaying on his feet. Trick me. . .you tried to. . . The pain in his head ballooned into immensity, and he reeled, hands going to his temples, and a whimper tearing free from somewhere deep in his chest. *Hurts. . .*
When his vision cleared, he found himself on his knees beside Blaquesmiths body, tears of pain trickling down his cheeks. He reached out with a shaking hand, tearing the Askani medallion off the body and staring down at the Phoenix-symbol bitterly.
It was done. Hed done what hed come here to do, and that was all he needed to know. . .
He hurled the medallion across the room as hard as he could, and got shakily to his feet, glaring down at Blaquesmiths body.
Rot in hell, old man, he whispered, and closed his eyes at the sudden gust of wind that blew up in the room as the teleportational portal opened. He staggered through the portal, emerging back into the cool dry air of the citadel and collapsing in a crumpled heap at Apocalypses feet.
The wooden X sat there in the desert outside Akkaba. Abandoned, empty. Three months before, a fallen hero had hung for somewhere between a day and an eternity before his courage had shattered in the face of his souls darkest demons.
Now, a cloaked and hooded man stood in front of the X, testing the psychic atmosphere, remembering. A strong hand reached out, touched the wood, like a bloodhound trying to pick up a scent.
The echoes remained, even months after the fact. A trail, that could be followed. . .
The cloaked figure stiffened, staring up at the twilight sky. Well, a voice chuckled dryly from within the recesses of the hood. So the little rat is dead. Everything else aside, Nathan, at least the experience has given you a sense of taste at last.
He reached up, pushed the hood back. The dying light glinted off silver hair as he turned to the east, staring into the distance.
Looks like as good a direction as any, Stryfe said mildly, and started to walk. A few paces, and the dying light shone through his increasingly transparent form. A few more, and it fell only on sand, turning it the red of blood.
to be continued...
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