by DuAnn Cowart
Standard disclamiers apply.
Thanks to Alicia McKenzie's wonderful 'Friendly Fire' for the mention of Dom and Nate's first meeting... If you haven't read it, people, do! It's great!
I did not work two jobs to put myself through the agony of business school just to wind up fetching bloody hamburgers, the nattily dressed red-haired young executive fumed, holding a large bag adorned with a familiar golden arches in his left hand and a tray of sodas in his right as he strode down the hall. He did his best to ignore the amused glances of the older employees as he walked past them quickly, chin held up, trying to salvage as much dignity from the situation as he could. "Look at 'im, tryin' to get in there and see them ladies again," his immediate supervisor, the bane of his existence, taunted gleefully.
Bastard, David fumed, though he had to admit the older man was correct about one thing. The women at the far end of the hall something else, and every male employee (and some of the female ones) had been angling past those rooms all day. David hadn't, though. He'd been very properly minding his own business, taking a rough draft copy of the latest proposal he'd been assigned to to the same blasted boss who was now laughing at him when one of the bodyguards snagged him, barking out his orders in a rough gravelly voice that sounded like he was accustomed to being obeyed.
He didn't like it, didn't like it at all, but really had very little choice but to comply. His boss' sister had pretty much taken over his offices yesterday, docking her private fancy plane on the same pad Mr. Braddock'd built for his fancy little plane right on the roof, bringing in her model friends and their bodyguards to hang out there between shoots, she said.
Even so, nowhere in my job description does it say anythin' about lookin' after the Big Man's sister's hungry Yank bodyguards, no matter how many gorgeous models I get t' see in th' meantime, he fumed, remembering again just how damn big the one who'd pulled him aside and sent him after so much food was. Not like any one of 'em'd give me the time of day, anyway.
Plastering a smile on his face anyway, he stopped by the first of the rooms in the conference suite now occupied by Ms. Braddock and her friends. He knocked on the door politely, ready to get this over with so he could get back to work. If he didn't have that proposal ready, it'd be his job on the line.
Inside the room, Cable glanced impatiently at the door. He could sense the young man's loudly broadcast irritation, and from the dark look on Betsy's face, he could tell she could, too. Sorry, buddy, he thought wryly, But I was about to starve to death. Didn't have much time for breakfast this morning... The twitch on his lips became a full-fledged grin at that, and it was all he could do not to look at Dom, remembering how they'd chosen to spend their morning instead. Nope. Mind back on your work, Nate. It'd be easier once they got to the field, he knew- no, he hoped- but now, sitting around waiting, going over plans for the thousanth time- it was very easy to let his mind wander to far more pleasant topics.
She didn't notice his furtive glances. Leaning over the long rectangluar conference table, palms flat against it, the object of his thoughts was absorbed in answering yet another of Kitty's questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering her intellect and training, the youngest one among them had proven one of the most useful, pointing out potential snags in the plan with a subtlety that surprised him. Nathan had to continually remind himself not to judge the young Shadowcat by her years. After all, Dom was just about that age when we met. . .
Walking over to the door, he allowed himself a small smile at the memory of their first meeting so long ago. G.W.'s jaw hurt for a month, he chuckled, flicking his image inducer back on before he opened the door to gratefully relieve the man's burden of processed food and sodas. Digging in his pocket, he pulled out a couple of large bill and stuffed it in the surprised employee's hand. Maybe that'll make up for it, he closed the door on the gaping young man, who left the room in a much better mood than he'd gotten there.
Hmmm... David's eyes widened as he counted the money, walking back down the hall with a much more contented expression on his face. Maybe that fellow wasn't such a bad bloke after all.
Returning to the table, Nathan waited for Dom to finish, then took a chair beside her. "Dinner is served," he proclaimed grandly, and the others gratefully stopped their conversations where they were. They'd checked out of the hotel hours ago, and were now just waiting for the sun to go down, going over the plan ad nauseum until everyone- even Ororo, who was still giving him the cold shoulder- was comfortable with all aspects of it.
The thought of Ororo caused him to flush slightly. He still wasn't certain exactly how he'd handle that. It was obvious the woman thought there was something between them, and to be fair, he had to admit that he'd given her plenty of reason to think so. Wincing at the thought, he changed gears mentally and began going over the mission again as he dumped the food on the table, finding that far easier to think about than Ororo's wrath. Or Dom's, if it gets to that, his shoulders tightened, not knowing how his partner would react to the other woman after what they'd shared last night. Flonq me for letting me get to this. If I'd've had the guts to do this long ago, none of this would've happened.
He dumped the bag of burgers onto the table as Domino rolled up map of Tolliver's compound she and Pete had drawn up earlier. The plan was comparatively simple- Dom had highlighted in red about where Tyler had placed his external sensor alarms, Storm would both zap them a path with several judiciously placed lightning bolts and intensify the fortuitous- he smiled ironically- rainstorm that appeared to be heading exactly towards the area of the fortress. From there Dom would slip in, reprogram the system to let them in, and they'd go from there.
And that's the worst part about it, he thought darkly. That's really what this whole plan hinges on. It's a hell of a chance, whether or not Dom's still programmed into that system. If not... He paused, not liking to think of what might happen, knowing the depths of brutality Jenskot's son could descend into, part of him raging against the fact that he'd have to send Domino in that place where she'd suffered so much alone again. But I promised her I'd treat her just like anyone else, and if that's a risk she's willing to take, I've got to let her do it. He inhaled sharply, knowing this was just the first test of the promise he'd made her this morning.
Leaning forward, elbows on the table, Nathan popped the top off one of the soft drinks Betsy's employee had brought and drank deeply, feeling the cold carbonated drink flow down his throat. On his right side, Domino spun her chair towards him, stomach growling loudly. With a playful smile, she grabbed the burger he'd been about to eat right out of his hand. "Didn't your mother ever teach you to share?" she grinned, taking a huge bite from it.
He didn't say anything, just waited for the reaction he knew would come. "Phugh!" Her face twisted in a grimace, and she grabbed a drink of her own to wash down the noxious oily taste. "Dammit, Nate, you knew that would happen! Did you get mayonnaise on all of these or just this one?"
"Get your own and find out," he answered mildly, a teasing look in his eyes as he took the sandwich from her hand. "And it serves you right for having such bad table manners."
"Yeah, and you're Emily friggin' Post, I suppose," she muttered, taking another burger from the pile and peering under its bun suspiciously. Finding no offending condiments, she took a satisfied bite, glaring up at him, the twinkle in her violet eyes belying her annoyed words.
"I'm terribly sorry to disturb your delicate sensiblities." He chuckled, and motioning towards the still full bag with one hand, offered some to everyone. "Anybody else want some, go ahead. Even Miss Piggy there ought not to be able to eat all of these." She gave him another dirty look, but the others only exchanged amused glances at their familiar bickering, appreciating the subtle reassurance that all was well and this was just another mission to complete and then return home from. '
At the invitation, Pete snaked a hand into the pile and grabbed a couple of burgers for himself, handing one to the waiting Logan. The Canadian tore into it, as did Betsy beside him, who somehow made even the act of eating a hamburger look elegant. Pete somehow got the impression that he and Kitty were the only ones who'd found time for food this morning, and the strangeness of that prospect made him shake his head. I don't think I want t' know.
Pausing for a moment, he turned to his lover. "You want one, love?" Pete asked Kitty, who shook her head bemusedly.
"We already ate, remember?"
"Ah, y' can never eat enough. Blame it on th' mutant metabolism, or blame it on all of us just bein' a bunch of gluttons, makes no nevermind t' me. I like my food, I do." A brief pause. "How 'bout you, Ororo?" He tilted his head at the wide eyed stares that appeared around the room at his words. "Would you like a thick, juicy burger?"
On the other side of the table, Domino was stifling a laugh, and not doing too good of a job at it. Score one for you, Pete. She'd known the man far too long to recognize the offer for anything other than it was- a sharp jab at the woman who had taken such an obvious dislike to him. Pete had been in the business too long not to do his homework on the people he was associated with, and just like she'd done everything she could to find about about the myriad members of all the X-teams before she'd finally agreed to help Nate with X-Force, she was certain her old friend had done the same before consenting to move his life to Muir. Old habits did indeed die hard, and there were generally reasons for them. It's kept us alive.
Pete blinked, a practiced look of injured innocence. "Wot? Can't a man be friendly 'round 'ere, offer a bite t' eat?"
"I do not eat meat," Storm answered icily, staring with cold disdain as her teammates devoured the packaged fast food.
"Suit yerself," Pete answered blithely through an open mouthful of half-chewed food, but when his deep blue eyes met hers she could see they were as hard and flinty as her own. Ororo felt her cheeks burn.
"Besides," Ororo continued calmly, though those who knew her best could see the slightest tightening around her eyes. "I thought everyone had eaten already. We came to this building to await sundown so we can leave, and I was under the impression we would use this time to work. I was not aware we would have to take time out for nourishment."
"Oh, lighten up, Storm," Domino crumpled up the paper wrapper of the burger she'd just finished and grabbed another, the ravenous hunger she hadn't taken the time to feed this morning diminishing only slightly. "Some of us just have bigger appetites than others." She kept her face purposefully bland, but the other woman stiffened anyway. Logan had to bite back the loud guffaw he felt rising at the beginnings of Cable's vehement nod, quickly cut off by Domino's foreboding glare.
Heh. Logan thought with a smile as he swallowed the last of his burger. Neena's gonna run you a merry race, boy, an' if you know what's good fer ya y'll appreciate what th' good Lord gave y' there. Jeannie's son or not, won't much matter to me if y' hurt her. That is- He felt a flash of almost paternal pride. If there's anything left of you when she gets through with ya if ya screw up like y' been known ta do before.
When the food had been consumed, and the trash disposed of properly- it was all Cable could do to convince Betsy, still annoyed at the red-haired young man's unwillingness to help earlier- not to call him back into the room to carry it away- the team returned their attention to the remaining matter at hand. Everything had been hammered out completely save one important detail- exactly how they were going to get the dozen or so renegade Black Air geneticists out of Tolliver's fortress and to the PACRAT to be returned to England to answer for their crimes.
"Bloody shame y' can't hurl 'em through yer shadows or anythin' like that," Pete suggested to Betsy, but the British telepath fixed her countryman with a long, hard glare, coldly shaking her head in the negative.
"It is hardly that easy anymore," Her left hand clenched around the ink pen she was taking notes with, holding it so tightly the knuckles whitened. Beside her, Logan's dark eyes searched her face as she obviously worked through some deep, painful emotions.
Betsy paused, then went on in a more controlled voice. "I still retain the ability, yes, but it was the hardest struggle of my life to escape the Crimson Dawn. I think your team, too, has had experiences with the Dragons, but I seriously doubt you know the extent of what the Dawn truly is." The others listened intently, having never before heard her speak of this. Even Pete abstained from his usual wisecracks, leaning closer to hear her better.
Logan's craggy features creased with pain at her words. He had been the one to take Warren to Gomur to find the Dawn in the first place, and he was the one who bore the guilt of knowing full well what price might have to be paid. He just hadn't known it would be so high. I just couldn't bear ta watch y' die like that, Betts, he writhed inwardly, not knowing if she'd hear or not. I just stand ta lose someone else I cared about to Sabretooth. Silver Fox's lovely face appeared in his memory, and he blinked it away, knowing he'd have to retain all his faculties for the mission at hand.
She didn't answer, but she looked directly at him as she went on, her purple eyes offering nothing but forgiveness and thanks for what he had done, even though her words chilled him to the bone. "I very nearly lost myself, and every time I slide into shadows I risk losing my soul. It is even worse now for those I bring with me." She shuddered, remembering the early days when travelling through the shadows had been so easy, so convenient that she'd even used it to transport herself places as mundane as the supermarket or across the mansion. She hadn't known then what she learned later- everytime she used the ability, it left a darker, deeper stain on her soul, an icy whisper of the madness that lay at the heart of the Crimson Dawn. Even though the pull was so slight at first she hadn't noticed it, the call had strengthened until it was all she thought about, all she did.
It'd taken so long, but she'd finally mastered the shadows within her to overcome her battle, and had exulted when its red brand finally left her face- but she knew the danger still existed. She likened it to what Brian had gone through when he finally quit drinking. The shadows were to her much like drink was to him- a constant tempation, a pull that would truly never go away, and she feared that if she ever gave in once she wouldn't have the strength to pull away again. To be completely honest with herself, she didn't know where she found the power to do it the last time.
Looking up at her teammates, she lifted her chin slightly and said very calmly, very clearly "I am telling you this so you know what it is you are asking if you ask this thing of me."
Nathan nodded slowly, feeling for the first time a kinship with the other telepath, a woman he'd always considered too cool, too aloof for her own good. "I understand," he told her quietly, and then they'd let the matter drop.
After a moment's awkward silence they picked back up where they left off, and a heated discussion later reaced a consensus- the ever-effective combination of drugging the scientists to the point of complacency and herding them out prevailed.
As Domino and Pete argued about which combination of drugs would be most efficient, Betsy looked inward, her revelations about the Crimson Dawn leading predictably into thoughts of what Warren and Logan had done to save her, and that of course, made her think of the choice she must now make between the two men. She looked at Logan, seeing his passionate intelligence, the strength of his humanity that would always overpower the beast within him. She turned away, thinking again of Warren- of his beauty, body and soul, of the his kindness, of the power and overwhelming clarity of the love they'd once shared. The love they still shared, she knew, despite what they'd both done to the other. Still, she looked at Logan again, I do not regret for a moment what happened last night. I simply wish... she trailed off, not knowing what it was she wished, not knowing exactly what it was she felt for him- really, for either of them- anymore. I need more time, she thought a bit wildly, glancing at the clock. Five o'clock. One hour until they left for Spain.
She stood up. "We shall be leaving shortly, and I need to make a few calls," she explained at their curious looks. Logan's chin jerked up, and an unrecognizable light came into his eyes but he said nothing as she walked away. Betsy felt a familiar tug on her heart, an omen of what was to come if she and Logan kept up this dangerous game, a game she had no intention of calling to a halt just yet. Nevertheless, she steeled herself and left the room. She had promised Warren she'd call him today, and she owed him that much at least.
Noticing Logan's expression, Domino's eyes narrowed. Don't know what's up with you, old man, but I hope you know what you're doing. With a start, she snorted Hell, I'm one to talk. Night before confronting one of the worst personal demons in a head full of them, and I spend it in bed with his father. Not wanting to think about Tolliver, especially in light of what she and Nathan had just shared, she reached across the table for the map and spread it out again.
"All right, people, let's go over it one more time." Instead of the groans she'd grown accustomed to with X-Force, this group merely nodded, expecting this thorough repetition as the norm. Much as she loved the kids, it was nice to work with real professionals again. "Like I told you before, when I let you in, Logan, you, Pete, and Nathan are going to do guard-control- run interference for us. I can't say for certain what the clone will do, but Tolliver kept a healthy number of guards. Most of 'em are brawn, so that's a good thing. He generally reserves the more intelligent employees for outside work, figuring the security system will keep him safe enough in his fortress. He's usually right."
Since she would be the only one exposed to it, she didn't feel the need to tell them exactly what happened to people who didn't make it through the system. She was more than aware of it. Might as well be ready for it though, Dom, she thought grimly, If Pete's wrong and my signature's not still in the system, that's probably exactly what will happen to me. She swallowed. At one time that might not have bothered me, but now... she stopped, unwilling to think of how much she now had to live for. Beside her, Nathan caught her eye and she nodded curtly, continuing in the same calm tone.
"The three of you'll take care of that- Ororo, you'll stay in the main corridor/rendevous point. All halls lead to that central point, so you'll be able to see and alert us via the headsets we'll be wearing- I don't want to depend on our psionics, he has jammers- if anything's coming you can't handle. You're also back-up. I need you to be ready in case either group needs help." Domino didn't specify her other reason for wanting Storm to remain in the large central hall- the tunnels dug below the fortress that housed the heart of Tolliver's operation grew uncomfortably small in places, and the X-Man's clautrophobia was well known. As much as she personally didn't like the woman, she wouldn't put her through that unless it were absolutely necessary.
At the other woman's nod, she continued "I'll lead Psylocke and Shadowcat into the scientist quarters. We'll have our gas masks, so it shouldn't be too much trouble for us skulkin' ninja types to get in there and get the job done. Then lead them out, easy as you please, meet the rest of you in the main hall, and get the hell out of there." Pete looked up at her, and she nodded infintesmally.
She very carefully kept her bond with Nathan dimmed. It was growing increasingly difficult to do so after last night, but her plans for the evening had nothing to do with him. She very pointedly didn't tell him that she'd lead Psylocke and Shadowcat into the scientist's quarters, help drug and tie them up, and then slip away to deal with the what she found in the laboratories and operating rooms where Tolliver had delighted in sending her when she angered him too much. If she planned things right, she'd be in and out in plenty of time to meet back at the rendevouz point, and if she didn't?
She'd told Pete her plan earlier, and his credit, he hadn't tried to stop her. He'd simply asked her what she wanted him to do, and when she'd told him, nodded once, squeezed her hand, and walked away. If she wasn't back at the rendevouz point by fifteen minutes after the appointed time, and couldn't be reached on her headset, he was to send the others on to the PACRAT with the scientists and come after her. Never go without a back-up, she thought, glad that Pete was here to help her keep this from Nathan.
Suddenly, the images from Betsy's vision appeared in her mind, and she grimaced. I'll just have to be more careful. Betsy did say they were only possible futures- and if I know about them, I can avoid them.
The explanation sounded weak even to her, but she saw no other way around it. She felt a wave of guilt about not telling Nathan, but then he hadn't asked, and it'd only cause him more pain to see the horrible reality of the labs his son had built, horrible pits so similiar to some of the atrocities of his childhood. I'll take care if it, she decided. He doesn't need any more pain.
If all goes well, we'll be out of the building and halfway back to London before anybody knows any differently, too, she thought fiercely. Shying away from thoughts that what she was planning by protecting him like this was exactly what she'd warned him against this morning, she tapped her foot on the floor, very concious of the twin wads of extremely powerful explosives she kept hidden in the heels of her boots, their fuses tucked safely away in one of the pouches on her gunbelt in the plane. It'll get taken care of, she told herself again, one way or the other, Tyler's little game ends. Today.
"You sure you've got everything you need, Ms. Braddock?" The hangar manager's chiseled features squinted against the last bright beams of sunset as he looked up into the strange-looking plane so similiar to Mr. Braddock's. Must be nice t' have that much money, he thought a bit wistfully. "All's clear out here."
"Yes, thank you very much for your help, Rupert. I'll be certain to tell my brother of your hospitality," Betsy leaned out of the plane, inwardly seething at having to say such, knowing half or at the very least a third of this company should be hers. She managed a charming smile anyway- as handsome as the man was, it wasn't hard- and with clipboard in hand, ducked back inside the plane to finish the preflight check.
"Hey, Rupert! How are you today?" Kitty greeted the tall man warmly, and his face lit up in recognition. She and Pete took the Midnight Runner into London frequently, though this time Kurt had taken it back with him after he'd dropped them off. He didn't want to be away from Amanda and the baby for too long, he'd explained a bit apologetically, but Pete had shooed him on, uncharacteristically understanding, glad for the excuse not to have to lie to Kurt about what they were really doing.
"Kitty!" Rupert took her hands in his, squeezing them tightly. "Mr. Wisdom," he greeted Pete in a much more subdued manner, then immediately turned back to Kitty. "I thought Kurt said he'd be back to pick you up in a few days." His voice was deep and smooth, and Kitty dimpled instinctively at him.
"Plans change," Pete informed him shortly, feeling as always an instinctive dislike for this handsome young man who had always been entirely too friendly to Kitty in his opinion. Of course no one had asked his opinion. Taking her by the hand, he turned toward the plane and yelled over his shoulder "All right then. Good talkin' to ya. Gotta go. Bye."
Kitty, being jerked along, shrugged her shoulders at Rupert. "See you later!" She told Rupert as Pete tugged her towards the plane.
Once inside, she yanked her hand away from him, eyebrows knitted together in irritation. It was just on the tip of her tongue to demand why he'd acted like such an wanker when Ororo stepped into the plane.
Kitty's expression immediately changed. Instead of the harsh blessing-out she'd planned, she smiled sweetly and snuggled against Pete on the bench lining the wall. Ororo looked away, her eyes clouding slightly, and stepped into the cockpit without a word. The moment she turned away Kitty pulled away from him, just as angry at his possessiveness as before.
Pete felt his heart well within him at this evidence of her allegiance. All excuses gone, he pulled her close to him and whispered simply into her hair "I'm sorry, Pryde. I know I'm a bloody jack-ass sometimes, but when that good-lookin' bastard comes on to you like that I just get so jealous. I'm sorry."
She tensed for a moment, then relaxed into his arms. "'s all right," she answered. "Didn't you know he's gay?"
Pete tilted his head in surprise. "Really?"
"Really," she sighed. "But it wouldn't matter if he wasn't. I'm happy with you, even if you are such a stupid git. Don't worry, though. I'm beginning to think you can't help it."
"Can't help what?" Domino asked, stepping into the plane, smiling softly at the tender scene, Cable and Logan right behind her. "Being a stupid, oblivious, jealous idiot?" Domino, too, had seen Pete's reaction outside, and was enjoying her old friend's discomfiture immensely. Pete growled openly at her.
"That's it exactly," Kitty answered the older woman, and as the cabin filled with people, she pulled away from Pete a bit regretfully. "Though you do it again and you'll be a stupid wanker with a size 7 shoe up his ass," she pitched her words for Pete's ears alone, but she forgot about Logan. He laughed aloud.
"Anyway, ya'll ready to go?" He asked, and Betsy opened the door to the cockpit, and she and Storm joined them in the main passenger section.
"All the equipment listed here is in the back-" Betsy gave Domino back the list she'd prepared earlier. "And everything seems to be in order."
Domino nodded. "Good. Storm?" She asked the other woman, who was strangely quiet. "How're things weather wise? You feel ready?"
"I have been preparing myself all day," Ororo answered, her lilting voice sounding a bit distanced. "I am ready."
"All right, then," Domino rubbed her hands together. "Let's get started. We'll divvy out ammunition and equipment mid-flight- for now, let's just get underway. Buckle yourselves in, everybody, it's time to rock-n-roll."
She stepped into the cockpit as the others did just that, settling into their seats and preparing for takeoff with the ease of long practice. Leaning her head against the cool glass pane, she breathed deeply, feeling suddenly perfectly relaxed. What is, is, she told herself, and had to laugh. Whatever happens, happens. Let's just get it over with. After a moment, Nathan joined her in the cockpit, closing the door tightly behind him.
She was quiet for a moment, watching him take the pilot's seat and began the start up sequence. There was so much to say to him, but somehow the words wouldn't come. "You ready for this?" She finally asked him, laying her pale hand across his square one lightly.
He stopped what he was doing for a moment, raising a silver hand to touch her cheek, gray-blue eyes full of emotion. "Ready as I'll ever be."
She leaned into his kiss, and they were suspended like that for a moment, two figures illuminated by the last dying rays of sunset shining golden through the clear glass window of the plane. A few moments later the plane started up and took off, carrying those within it towards the night in Spain and what it would bring.
To Be Continued...
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto
you. Not as the world gives, give I unto you. Do not let your
hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
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