by DuAnn Cowart
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Shoulders squared and expression guarded, Nathan gritted his teeth and watched her go. She flashed him a quick grin, violet eyes meeting his for just a moment before pivoting sharply and walking right into the image-induced vision of rubble and out of his sight. As she stepped through, the psionic null field dampened their link even further until it was only the faintest tendril in his mind, but it had been dimmed so much already only a psi of his caliber could feel the difference. And oh, he could feel the difference- now he barely had even that connection with her. Now, he probably couldn't reach her through it if he tried.
He stood there, watching as she walked away from him, just like she had so many times before. He watched her go, just as he had so many times before, standing silent and stoic as ever, until she was gone. He was silent. Calm. Unfeeling. Uncaring. Emotionless. More machine than man, the ever ruthless general, and she was just another disposable soldier, walking into the fortress only he knew how much she feared. He stood there, watching another woman he loved sacrifice it all for part of his dream, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it-
With an inarticulate cry, he started towards her, not caring that the others see the wild panic, his absolute terror. Before he reached the rubble, though, a strong hand clamped down on his forearm, yanking him back. He instinctively spun around to meet the threat, a dangerous growl sounding low in his throat, ready to unleash his frustration on anyone or anything that got in his way. He shouldn't have been surprised to see who it was.
"Let me go, damn you, Logan..."
An expression almost like pity flitted across the other man's grizzled features. "Nate-" Logan paused, searching for the words, and released his grip on Cable's black clad arm. "She's got to do this. You know that as well as I do."
The words- and the blistering exchange that followed- were pitched low, so quietly that only the other could hear, but the slightly embarrassed expressions on the faces of their companions left little doubt that the gist- if not the words- of the conversation was painfully obvious. Ororo, face absolutely blank, weariness and unease etched onto her lovely features, looked away, while Kitty and Elisabeth stood nearby, horribly uncomfortable to be witness to such bare emotion from so private a man. Elisabeth's brow was furrowed, and it was apparant to any who happened to look upon her that, weakened as it was from the proximity of the null-field, her telepathic shielding could barely keep out the intense emotional storm brewing between the two men. To avoid the turmoil, to garner strength from his presence, Kitty walked over to Pete, who alone out of the group paid the other two men no attention. He stood quietly, arms crossed, staring blankly into the wall of illusion and memory he'd so blithely sent his old friend into. She stopped beside him and waited as well.
This must be how Kitty feels, Domino thought wryly, blinking, as she stepped though the "solid" rubble into the bright flouorescent light of a cold steel hallway. Luck, don't fail me now- The levity abruptly ceased as her eyesight quickly adapted to the sudden brightness and a scene from her worst nightmares took shape. She could see down the cold antiseptic corridor to the cavernous foyer, which split into two wings. Immediately before it opened up into the foyer, the hallway ended in a large, ornate doorway- a beautiful fixture which she knew hid a deadly secret.
Domino suppressed the shiver that crawled down her spine. This is why I'm here. She very pointedly did not think of anything, or anyone else, especially the one particular someone who was waiting for her outside. Get through this, Dom.
A quick glance had assured her of the lack of any guards, but she still slinked down the hallway untill she reached the gothic arch separating the hall from the foyer. She stepped into it, standing stock-still, schooling her muscles into a relaxed state of readiness. She knew what to do- she'd seen the security tapes- Tolliver had been sure she was aware of the capacities of his system. He liked all his people to know what happened to those who disobeyed him.
A brief pause, then a cone of intense light clicked on abruptly from overhead, illuminating her body from above. If she hadn't been expecting it, she would have jerked or ran, and the system would have been alerted- just as it would have been had she not paused right at this specific spot- and she would be now be dead. As it was, she squinted her eyes against the light and let the bright heat course over her body as it tested her genetic structure and mutagenic code for a match against those inits database.
The seconds ticked on like eons, and the heat from the light grew progressively hotter. It's taking too long, dammit... Every instinct was urging her to flee, to run, to get the hell away from there, but she fought against those urges. If she had any chance, it was in abiding by the rules of the game, and that meant standing absolutely still and letting the system do its job.
She swallowed tightly, and as the light grew hotter, her breath grew tighter in her chest. Beads of persperation rolled down her forehead, between her breasts, down the small of her back, and she felt as if she were cooking in the thick black suit. Perversely, her scalp began to itch, fiercely, and it was agony not to scratch it. Cursing to herself, she just stood still, and let the light burn through her.
Finally, after an eternity of searing heat, the hellish light ceased as abruptly as it had began. She heard the slight click that she knew denoted permission to pass, and with a soft exhale, she stepped through, still-drab nails scratching the damnable itch, hard, and she almost sighed at the sweet sting that followed. She could tell her albino face was burnt slightly from the intense heat. Just lovely.
Once through, she turned to the terminal on the other side. Pulling a tiny device out of one of the pockets on her belt, she slapped it onto the terminal, trusting more on her luck and Forge's skill than actual knowledge of the system. She'd spent a long year trapped here as a prisoner, true, a year when she'd had plenty of opportunity to observe the workings of this fortress, but she'd tried her best to put the memories of that year away. Yeah, and you've been real bloody successful at that, haven't you, Dom? She thought sourly, but that dark thought was soon replaced with elation as the lights on the terminal flickered briefly only to be replaced with a calm, steady glow. All's well. Good.
Forge, you're a genius, she thought, not for the first time, as the jammer interfaced with the security system, tricking it into inaction, disengaging this particular doorface without alerting the mainframe.
Satisfied that the device was functioning properly, Domino stopped, allowing herself to sag against the wall for a moment in relief, not wanting to think what might have happened had the system not let her through. What she might have lost. What she still had to do here tonight, and what she still might lose- she bit her lip, the wall of ice around her heart tightening as the memories threatened to overwhelm the fragile peace she had so recently found. I hate this friggin' place. Swallowing tightly, she turned away from the memories and back to her team.
Acutely aware of the others' reactions to his behavior, Nate had snarled a final curse and consciously turned his back on Logan, effectively dismissing him. In years past, Cable knew this would have been an invitation for Logan's temper to surface, leading to the inevitable fight, the testing and honing of skills against a respected, if not particularly liked, opponent. Truth be told, unprofessional as it was, he would have welcomed the release right then. He was to be disappointed.
"I'm worried about her, too, Nate." Logan's deep voice resounded softly in his ears, and Cable closed his eyes against the genuine emotion in his old enemy's voice.
Turning around to face him, Cable forced an ill-fitting mask of calm back on his features and nodded curtly to the other man. "I know. It's just-" His words were forgotten as Logan raised a halting hand, head tilted slightly in a manner he'd come to associate with keen senses working. "Follow my lead," Logan whispered, and spun around mid-sentence and dropped into a defensive posture, teethbared in a feral snarl.
The team moved instinctively into position, forming a tight phalanx, battle ready at once. The heavy silence was broken by a low, amused chuckle. "Should have known I couldn't sneak anything by you, old man." Domino stepped out of the rubble- quite literally- and looked over her team, satisfied at their reaction time. She wore the same cocky smile, the same confident stance, but Cable knew her masks. He looked directly in her eyes, and the haunted look lurking behind their vivid violet brightness terrified him. She met his gaze squarely, knowing his thoughts even without their link, and he was relieved to see the defiance spark in her stare.
Logan relaxed immediately, walking up to her and placing a heavy hand on her slim, muscled shoulder, chestnut eyes twinkling warmly. "Glad ta see ya, darlin'. Ya had us worried."
Domino took a shaky breath. "Worrying's a waste of time, Logan." She caught a glimpse of Kitty behind Logan, trying to bite back a smile, and she held back her own laughter. Apparantly she wasn't the only student he'd worn that particular phrase out with, then.
"Seems I've heard that somewhere before," he acknowledged with a smile. "How was it?"
She snorted. "The damn thing almost didn't let me through." Cable flinched, and she looked away, sliding ungloved fingers through perspiration-matted hair. "But hey- you know what they say about almost." No one spoke.
Pete's voice, rough with relief, broke the awkward silence "I'll give y' the cookie later, Dom. Were y' able t' disengage th' system? Can we get in?"
She grimaced. "Glad to see you, too, runt. Yeah, we're good to go. Enough lolligaggin'. Everybody remember the plan?" She made a show of checking her equipment again, giving her hands something to do, even as her mind raced at the possibilities and the actuality of what was about to happen.
Solemn nods greeted the inquiry. "Good. Psylocke, Shadowcat- you know you're with me. Wisdom, Logan, Cable- you know what to do. Storm-"
The regal leader of the X-men caught her gaze. "I am aware of what needs to be done. I will stand watch here."
Betsy's smooth voice interrupted "You expended a great deal of energy getting us here, Ororo. Are you certain it is safe to leave you alone?"
"I appreciate your concern, but I am fine. Go." Storm's weary voice held only a hint of its usual imperious tone, and she held herself a bit taller. Beside her, Kitty glanced sharply at her old friend but said nothing. Ororo's expression softened and, if anything, became a bit sad. "I have handled a great many things alone, Elisabeth. I will be fine."
Cable stepped forward, a flash of understanding on his face. "You have a headset, Ororo- the rest of us do, too. Notify the others at the slightest hint of trouble, got it?" Now that he knew his partner- dammit, his lover, he could at least admit to himself- was safe, Cable allowed himself to slip back into full soldier mode. "You're professionals. You know what to do. Meet back here in 15 minutes, with the scientists. If you're gonna take later than that, use the headsets." Adjusting his gear and weaponry yet again, he concluded, "This is an in and out operation. Let's do it, people."
Satisfied with the obvious readiness of his team, he turned to Domino, and was rather proud of himself when his voice remained steady even when he looked directly at her. "Do you have anything else to add?"
She shook her head and smiled, a tired, weary twist of the lips. "Only-" She turned to address the group. "To have fun storming the castle, kids."
In the highest spires of the fortress- really only the top floor- a man sat alone in an opulent suite. Covered with tapestries and rugs of the finest imaginable weave, boasting furniture and art to make the wealthiest dealer quiver with envy, the rooms were a marvel of luxury and design and a sharp contrast to the spartan nature of therest of the compound.
He lay sprawled across a carved dais, one bare muscled leg hooked over its side, golden head bent low over a leather bound book written in a language yet to be invented. Crystal blue eyes scanned the pages slowly, savoring favorite passages, and the madness that usually lurked in them was dimmed for just a moment.
The door creaked open slowly, and a massive figure stepped in the doorway, closing it behind him quietly. "Ummmm. . . Sir?" The deep voice whispered, slicing through the quiet of the room.
The muscles under the blond man's jaw worked tightly, and with great difficulty he murmured in a clear voice with just the slightest bit of a lisp "I thought I left orders never to be disturbed in here."
The hulking dark man at the door- easily twice the size of the man inside- turned ashen with fear at the tone. Stories of the boss' punishments were legendary. "I. . . I'm sorry, sir, I didn't. . .I mean...I thought-" He stammered, hoping that he could just deliver the message and leave, praying he'd have a chance to get away.
The man who for all intents and purposes was Tyler Dayspring closed his eyes, and a sharp sigh escaped through clenched teeth. "Ah. You thought. Jhonli, I don't pay you to think." Regretfully closing the book, he laid it to the side, soft hands caressing its cover lightly as he rose from his seat to cross the room in several quick strides, lithe as a cat.
He stood before the quavering guard, moire dressing robe hanging open, revealing a well muscled body lightly covered with fine gold hair and nothing else. "Now whatever in the world could be so important as to permit you to interrupt me in my rest? You know how hard I work, Jhonli. This place is the only respite I have from you barbarous cretins." The voice was silken, now, with threads of anger woven in, and even though he had to look up to the other man, it was apparant who was in dangerhere.
Summoning up the last of his courage, Jhonli replied quickly "Yes, sir, I know that, sir, but I was told that you were to be informed immediately if-"
"Ah, do shut up." Tyler closed his eyes "This is so much easier if you don't speak." Jhonli gasped aloud, feeling his thoughts being taken from him even as his eyes saw the images projected from the outstretched hand of the only psi in the compound- or rather, the only one whose powers would work through the very specifically tuned psionic null-field that surrounded the fortress. Jhonli gaped, and saw his memories shape and form, images of childhood, of his youth, of the love he'd known, and despite himself his dark eyes brimmed with moisture over the innocent he'd been.
Tyler watched the display, sensual lips curving slightly upward in the handsome face, chiseled features twisting with malicious glee as the next scenes continued to unfold. Jhonli knew what came next, and tried to turn away, but the iron grip on his mind controlled his body as well and forced his eyes to remain wide open. Then, as Tyler's mutant power displayed the scenes before him, it also slid itself deeper into his mind, subtly applying pressure here and there, until Jhonli was actually reliving the scenes as well as watching them as they played out before him.
"No. . . please. . ." He whimpered, and it was such a small sound to issue from so large a man. Tyler just smiled, and applied more pressure, feeling himself tense in pleasure as the lovely pain washed over all him.
Watching, reliving, Jhonli felt that innocence shift and warp as he remembered- no, as he more than remembered, as he experienced himself becoming increasingly involved in the dark life of the streets, his parents and his wife and his son distancing themselves from him as he grew increasingly more violent and abusive. He relived the biggest mistakes of his life, and felt his employer's mocking laughter through it all.
Tears running down his face, Jhonli fell to the ground and curled into fetal position as he felt himself do it all again, felt himself somehow burrow his way into the mercenary world, into this cold and heartless life he'd found for himself. Jhonli felt himself lose himself yet again, as he had so long ago, but this time, somehow, it was far, far worse. He saw himself- he felt himself- do things that as sick as he had been, he had never done- things he would never do, and though he knew they were not real, he *felt* himself experience them, felt the pain he caused, felt the indignities and violations he had inflicted. He gagged, wanting more than anything to vomit, but the man who had hold of him would not let his body do so. Tyler just stared at him, blue eyes alight with an almost sensual joy, relishing the pain, savoring the other man's misery. Jhonli glared at him weakly, unable to move, unable to think, unable to do anything except relive an altered past that was his own and yet was not.
His own memories were bad enough, but he'd faced them every time he closed his eyes. He'd come to terms with his past and what he had done, but this- this violation, this forced intrusion coated his thoughts with an oily malice, twisting even the little good that was left in him into a warped mockery of what it had been. Jhonli moaned.
Finally, Tyler yawned, dismissing his agony with the slightest wave of his hand. "This begins to bore me." Quickly, efficiently, he moved forward in his employee's mind until he caught the most recent memories, the incident that had caused the inexcusable interruption of his peace. He skimmed the memories quickly, not expecting anything of importance, and actually gasped aloud when he found what had brought the other man here. In the other man's bruised and battered mind he saw the screen the guard had been observing blink in alert and then saw him register that the system had detected a level-one priority mutagenic signatures. He read the corresponding code that indicated immediate, personal notification of the boss himself, and when he saw which particular signature it was, he felt himself gasp with surprise and sharp, sharp pleasure. So she's come back, after all.
Almost as an afterthought, he released his hold on the other man, shivering in delight as implanted memories told him exactly what her presence here meant. She's come back. And if I know the old man, he's with her. He felt his body, this new body grown from the cloning tanks on the bottom floor, grow even harder and throb with anticipation. And he'll get what he deserves for leaving me, and I'll pen the little bitch up again, so she won't get away, and this time it'll be for good. This time, Daddy dearest, you'll get what you deserve.
Completely unaware of Tyler's thoughts, aware of nothing save the fact that his mind and body were once more his own, Jhonli tried to sit up. Crawling up from the floor, he shuddered, huge arms wrapped around himself as he rocked back and forth, a thin trail of spittle hanging from his mouth. Tyler ignored him, pacing back and forth with feverish excitement as plans and traps within trapsspun in his thoughts.
Finally wresting control of himself, Jhonli shakily rose, interrupting Tyler for the second time that day. "Did you have to do that?" he spat, anger overriding his better judgment, so furious at the violation he'd suffered that he spoke without thought of the consequences. His voice rose to a loud roar. "You sick bastard, you could have just taken what you needed to know- did you have to do that? Did you have show me all I've lost, twist what little I have left until it was black and dirty, dirty as you are? What purpose did that serve?"
The jubilant expression remained, but the pale blue eyes slit in annoyance. "You presume too much, little man. You are fortunate to be alive- had you brought any other tidings than those you did, you would not be. And as for loss- we all have things which we have lost. I most of all." Implanted memories flitted through his mind- memories of betrayal, of the loss of his mother, of being left behind by his father, the one man who was supposed to protect him, of the endless torture ordered by Stryfe, of the madness that had slowly descended until the only thing that mattered to him was revenge. Revenge, and power enough to ensure that he'd never suffer like that again. Never again suffer as this heap of human waste wassuffering right now.
"Oh, get up," Tyler commanded sharply. "We have work to do."
Staggering upright, unable to stand it any longer, Jhonli snarled "Fuck you, clone," and ran out the door. Tyler let him go, the mad light shining bright in his eyes as he began making the necessary preparations for his "guests". He sighed in annoyance at the way Jhonli had fled.
"Good help is so hard to find."
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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