by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Part of my Shadowlands (Shiftworld) series. Check out http://www.crosswinds.net/~antiochene/shadowlands/index.html for the other stories in that 'universe'.
RATING: R, for bad language, disturbing and violent imagery, and semi-explicit sex. If you figure any of that will disturb you, don't read it. Feedback is more than welcome.
She remembered drowning.
The shift before this had been a desert of rainbow glass that might have been beautiful without the yellow sulphur smoke hanging in the air, making breathing hard. She didn't know how long she'd been lost in that desert, how long she'd been wandering. Something had driven her on, even when her food and water had run out. Maybe pure stubbornness--maybe something else, some unconscious resolution that if she was going to die, if she was going to give up after all of this, all this pain, all this loss, she was going to close her eyes for the last time in someplace that reminded her of home.
Then the shimmering line of the shift had rippled out there in the desert, and she'd found the strength to run towards it, knowing that hell itself could be waiting on the other side, hoping wildly that it was something closer to heaven.
It had rolled over her, and she'd fallen, down into clear fresh water. The impact had stunned her, her lungs had filled with water, and everything after that had been a foregone conclusion. She must have been quite a picture, floating there face-down, like a lady in a medieval romance who'd drowned herself for love.
She remembered drowning.
She didn't remember coming back to life, but she appeared to be alive. Alive, and being carried, cradled in strong arms that held her as if she were made of crystal. Her head was leaning against a broad chest, and as she swam up out of the dark, she listened, with some wonder, to the sound of someone else's heartbeat, steady and strong.
Then she opened her eyes, and every muscle in her body tensed, a scream catching in her throat, as she saw what was falling from the sky.
"It's all right," a deep, gravelly voice said from above her. "It won't touch us. I'm shielding."
It was raining fire. Tiny, luminous darts of fire, hitting the ground and leaving charred patches on the grass. In panic, she grabbed at him, desperately seeking some sort of more secure hold.
"It's all right," he repeated inexorably as her fingers tightened like claws on his shirt. "We're almost through. Hold on just a few seconds longer--"
Then the world around her stretched. A child, pulling at taffy, everything drawn out thin and attenuated, colors paling, senses failing--
The world collapsed back in upon itself with a soundless rush, and she hid her face against his chest as his feet hit the ground with an impact that jolted right through him and into her. He went to his knees, somehow managing to deposit her more or less gently on the smooth asphalt beneath them.
Domino took a deep shaky breath, and looked up to meet his eyes.
"What the bloody fuck TOOK you so long, asshole?" she growled.
Nathan's mouth quirked in more of a smile than she'd seen from him for the last five long years. "Ran out to the corner store to get some milk," he said gravely. "I noticed we were out."
"Shithead!" she snapped, and lunged at him.
He fell back against the road - it was a road, she noticed with some surprise, and one that seemed to be in decent enough repair - with a grunt of surprise, and blinked up at her as she straddled his chest. "Why, Dom," he said, and part of her was sadistically glad to hear the faint wheeze in his voice. "You keep this up, I'm going to think you don't love me anymore--"
She leaned down, taking his face between her hands and kissing him, a deep, hungry kiss that left them both gasping for air when she finally drew away. "You must be confusing me with someone else," she said huskily, staring down into those faintly amused mismatched eyes. "I never loved you. I only stick around for the sex."
Something deeper and darker flashed in his eyes, something that frightened her even as she relished it, savored it as a reminder that they were alive, and together--even if he had been inexcusably late for their last rendezvous.
"Someone to keep you warm on these long nights," he growled, and flipped them, pinning her to the ground before she could do more than gasp. "Is that it?"
"Something like that," she breathed, squirming slightly. He pinned her wrists to the road, and she smiled sweetly at him, moving her knee every so slightly, just to remind him precisely who was in the more vulnerable position here. His eye glowed angrily, and she chuckled, moving under him in a much more calculated way. "I should do it anyway," she murmured. "You were very late, you know. My luck had just run out--"
Pain stabbed across the link, and his eyes were suddenly haunted, full of shadows. "I know," he muttered, letting go of her wrist and smoothing the wet hair back from her face shakily. "I felt you fall. But I was coming, Dom--"
"I know." She reached up with her free hand, tracing the line of his jaw hesitantly. Muscles clenched beneath her fingers. "You need a haircut," she said more briskly, changing the subject. "You're getting shaggy. Let me up, oaf."
He moved aside and let her sit up. She frowned, raking her fingers through her hair and tsking at the tangles.
"The only woman I know who'd worry about her appearance ten minutes after nearly drowning," Nathan said, sounding oddly angry.
"Fuck you," she said amiably, swiftly braiding her hair and tucking it into a neat coronet of sorts, out of the way. "Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades--"
"And pan-temporal warfare," he murmured, finishing the phrase as he leaned back, letting his head sag backwards until he was staring straight up at the steel-gray sky. "I would have come to get you sooner, but I found Drake."
"Oh?" Domino said with interest.
"Found Drake, tried to talk to Drake, ended up killing Drake." Nathan's expression tightened again. "I didn't want to," he muttered painfully, "but one of us was going into that shift, and it wasn't going to be me."
"Oh," she said, her mouth twisting in a humorless grin. "Well, it wouldn't be the first time." His head jerked upright, and she raised a defensive hand as he glared at her. "I know, I know. But if he was too far gone, he was too far gone."
"I was pretty far gone myself," Nathan muttered, pulling his knees up to his chest as if he were cold. "You didn't put me out of my misery."
Domino swallowed, looking away from him to buy herself a moment or two. The air here was clear, that was one thing in its favor, but beyond the road was hard-packed dirt, eggshell-white and somehow disturbing-looking. "It would have come to that, I think," she said softly.
"But it didn't."
"Not because of anything I did," she felt obliged to point out.
"You don't give yourself enough credit."
"Hey, it wasn't me who beat some sanity back into that thick skull of yours--" She fell silent instantly as she looked back at him and saw how blank his expression had gone. "Nate?"
He scrambled to his feet, pulling her along with him. "Look," he said tautly. She followed the direction of his gaze, and saw the shimmer in the distance.
"Another shift," she said, eyeing him sideways.
"A bad one," he muttered, and she tensed.
"Do we run?" The shift was rolling towards them, slowly but inexorably, and her stomach was beginning to churn, as certain a confirmation of his worry as she could ask for. Her powers had developed in the last few years, adapting to the shifts. When she got a bad feeling, she KNEW probability was sliding towards something nasty.
It wasn't much good at telling her what particularly sort of nastiness was in store. That was why she so much preferred to be running the shifts with him at her side. Her luck had saved her more times than she could count, but having someone who could manipulate the shifts made her survival chances that much better.
There were other reasons she kept him around, of course. None she wanted to confess TOO openly, given that no amount of ability to manipulate the shifts or guess the safe way to jump was guaranteed to keep them both alive past the next day. She'd made the decision a long time ago to savor what time they had. Happy endings weren't part of the package.
"No," Nathan said with a bitter smile. "If we run, it'll chase us." She shuddered at the image, opening her mouth to snap at him for being so dramatic, and he gave a low, humorless laugh. "We are not having this discussion again, Dom. At least not right now."
"Fair enough," she said tautly. "We can debate your paranoia when we're back safely." She hated it when he started ranting about there being some awareness guiding the shifts. It made her uneasy, reminded her too much of how he'd been a few years ago, before she'd found help--
The shift picked up speed, and Nathan stepped out in front of her, shaking hands clenched into fists at his side. "Stop," he murmured tonelessly, light growing around him steadily, limning him in something brighter than sunlight, cleaner than sunlight could be anymore. "Stop--"
The shift shattered with a soundless explosion that knocked them both off their feet. Domino raised her head, dazed, holding up a hand to shield her eyes as she blinked frantically to clear her vision, so she could see what had been behind the shift wall.
It was retreating even as she looked, snapping backwards like a broken elastic band and narrowing into thinner and thinner fragments, but there was enough left that she got an impression of red skies, boiling fog and pitch-black ground that rippled and oozed, as if it were alive. *Volcanic shift--* she thought hazily, trying to sit up. *Something like that--*
There were scorch marks on the pale ground as the remnants of the shift rippled back the way it had come. Domino took a deep breath and turned to Nathan, who was pushing himself back up into a sitting position, breathing heavily.
"What is this need of yours to be so fucking showy all the time?"
"Oh, flonq you," he grumbled, hauling himself back to his feet and offering her a hand up. "Let's get moving. I can feel half a dozen shifts between us and home, and I'm too damned tired to wait until more come flocking at us." He put an arm around her shoulders, drawing her in close, and she let him.
If there'd been anyone around liable to make a smart comment, she would probably have pointed out that Nathan was a little unsteady on his feet and needed some support, while he would undoubtedly have muttered something about shift aerodynamics and minimizing the width of the path he had to form through the distortion. Both explanations had their measure of truth, after all, but she and Nathan both had a little too much pride to admit to anyone - even themselves - how badly they needed to hold each other at the moment.
It was a thoroughly ugly congolomeration of wildly different structures, ranging from prefab-style huts to a dilapidated old ranch house that might once have been graceful. Everything was crowded together, almost claustrophobically so, but aesthetics hadn't been the primary concern when all of this had been built. The smaller the space that needed to be protected, the better--or so their benefactor had decided, Nathan thought a little sourly as he and Dom made their way to the unofficial 'heart' of their little enclave.
There were more people around than usual, he noted. Drifters, mostly, to judge by the mixture of suspicion and relief that most of them were projecting. He didn't spare any of them more than a glance. Not many would stay, of course. Most went back out into the world, to take their chances in the shifting zones, where most of them probably lasted somewhere between five and ten minutes.
Not that he cared. The people with the strength to stay, to accept that their lives had to be limited to the small area within the temporal-spacial shields, adapted. It was that simple, and he wouldn't weep for those who didn't see it. If they were too stubborn or stupid to grasp a chance at salvation, the gene pool wasn't really going to miss them.
As they approached their objective, he noticed that someone had been decorating. On the aluminum siding, the words 'World's End Bar' had been painted in crimson. He pushed the door open, smirking, and music flooded out into the rapidly darkening night.
Inside, a variety of morose-looking patrons nursed glasses of the local moonshine, paying no attention at all to the young man at the piano belting out a spirited rendition of 'Great Balls of Fire'. Nathan rolled his eyes and strode over to the piano, ignoring the sound of Dom's half-suppressed snickering.
"You shake my nerves and you rattle my brains--"
"Your kind of love drives a man insane--"
"You broke my will -- OOH! -- oh, what a thrill--"
"Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!" Franklin lifted his hands off the keyboard, and swung around in a full circle on the piano stool, grinning. "Hey, Nate," he said. "You like?"
"Do I ever want to know where the piano came from?" Domino chuckled, stepping around Nathan and moving up to the keyboard, one hand running over it appreciatively.
"Salvage," Franklin said blithely, his blue eyes bright. "As usual. What, you thought I created it out of thin air? Don't I wish." Domino leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, and he hugged her one-armed. "Your clothes are damp," he said with a raised eyebrow as she straightened. "What happened?"
"I had an accident," Domino said drolly. "Got lost in the desert, then took a tumble into a shift that got a little wet." Franklin looked worried, and she shook a finger at him. "Don't give me that look. Not my fault my luck ran out. Someone was three days or so late coming to find me."
"You're going to keep rubbing that in, aren't you?" Nathan muttered, grabbing a pair of empty chairs from the nearest table and pulling them over. Domino gave him an ironic little half-curtsey as she sat down, and he snorted at her. "I got sidetracked."
"Well, given that there's no Drake with you," Franklin said, the light in those blue, blue eyes fading slightly, "I can probably guess what happened."
"Probably," Nathan said as he sat down, unable to keep the sarcastic edge out of his voice. "Funny thing, but it does no good to know you can help them if I get them back here, if I can't get them back here. I keep telling you, control over the shifts increases as the madness does." His jaw clenched involuntarily at the thought. There had been a Jean, a few months back, who'd nearly cut him in half with a shift line. As far as he'd been able to tell, she'd ripped it open herself, something that neither he nor any of the versions of himself or the rest of the Twelve that he'd encountered had been able to manage. It suggested a level of ability that could have been very useful - after all, if you could create a shift, you might be able to uncreate it - but there hadn't been enough of Jean's mind left to reach, nothing to appeal to.
He had--wanted it to be otherwise.
Franklin's expression turned bleak. "I know how hard it is for you," he said. "I'd come out with you if I could."
"I know." Helpful as it would be, it wasn't an option. Franklin had to stay here, to maintain the shields around the settlement. Reality-warping powers aside, somehow he didn't seem to be keyed into the shifts like the Twelve did. His sphere of influence was limited. Nathan had thought, more than once, that Franklin had sacrificed something to create this safe haven, made some sort of trade, conscious or not, with the force behind all of this--
"Nathan," Franklin said, sternly, and Nathan blinked at him. "'Hearing' you speculate like that makes me nervous."
Nathan opened his mouth and then closed it again. "Getting sane versions of the Twelve together is only a first step," he said brusquely, after a moment. He was getting heartily sick of Franklin and Dom and some of the other dismissing his 'speculation'. He was the chronal-variant element of the Twelve, after all--was it that much of a stretch to think that his perceptions might be useful? But no, they were dismissed as paranoia on his part. "We need to know what to do with them when and if we manage that. If you don't think that means understanding FULLY what's going on--"
"Of course we need to understand the shifts better," Franklin said, far too soothingly for Nathan's peace of mind. "But there's no basis for thinking there's some--intelligence shaping all of this. It's the results of the accident, that's all--"
"Did I say it was an 'intelligence'?" Nathan demanded acidly. "Quit jumping to conclusions, boy." Domino sighed, got up, and returned a moment later with three glasses and a full bottle. She set them on the top of the piano, and filled each up carefully.
"Well, what, then?" Franklin asked, and gave Domino a wide grin as she handed him a glass. "Don't tell me I've finally gotten old enough to drink with you two?"
"Mouth off at me and I'll make you trade that in for a glass of warm milk," Domino said with a deadpan look.
"Yes, ma'am." Franklin took a sip of his drink, giving Nathan an inquiring look. "So?" he said. "If that's not what you meant, tell me what you did mean."
For some reason, Franklin's sudden open-mindedness only pissed him off more. "What is this?" Nathan growled, taking the glass Dom offered him. "Since the crazy old man won't stop ranting about the subject, let's humor him?"
Franklin grinned. "You're not crazy."
"So you keep telling me."
"You never WERE crazy. That aged brain of yours was a little addled, that's all."
"I beg your pardon?" Nathan bristled. "Aged?"
"Hey, you started it, not me." Franklin shook his head as he rose. "Speaking of which--" He reached out a hand towards Nathan, his fingers just brushing his forehead for a moment. Nathan flinched backwards, not quite in time to avoid the cold shock that jolted through him at Franklin's touch. "There," Franklin said in satisfaction, sitting back down.
"I didn't need that," Nathan grumbled. It wasn't entirely the truth. He had been outside the shields for a week, more than enough time to pick up enough residue to make him edgy. That edge of gnawing panic had faded as soon as Franklin had wiped his system clean, as usual.
Chronal-spacial energy, that was the key. The energy patterns that underlaid every reality had frayed and broken, and the Twelve, by virtue of being central to the accident in every alternate in which it had taken place, were magnets for that distorted energy. The residue was what was causing the psychic blurring, and the madness. As Franklin had once put it, the Twelve were the support pillars of a collapsing reality.
"Easier to wipe away small amounts of the residual energy than wait and have to put you through the sort of ordeal I did when we first met," Franklin said softly, eyes dropping to the floor. "I don't think you could survive that again."
Others of the Twelve hadn't survived it the first time. Trial and error, that seemed to be the way of things in their little crusade. There'd been a Mikhail Rasputin, a while back, who'd nearly destroyed the settlement even as Franklin had been trying to help him. Nathan grimaced. He barely remembered Franklin's first intervention with him, or indeed, much of anything of the last few weeks before that. Just flashes--Dom's face, her voice snarling at him, promising horrible things if he didn't keep moving, keep walking.
"You're probably right," Nathan said gruffly, taking a sip of his drink. "We won't bother putting that to the test, I suppose."
"So," Domino said, planting herself on his lap and ignored his growled curse as he jumped, startled, and spilled some of his drink. "Where does that leave us, then?" She slid an arm around his shoulders, and Nathan subsided with an ill grace.
#You're really pushing your luck,# he sent down their link.
*Oh?* she sent back merrily, setting her drink on his knee and flashing him a mental image of what she could do with her free hand. He swallowed, shifting in his chair. *Stop being such a curmudgeon.*
"Not much farther along than we were a year ago, basically," Franklin said, trying to stifle what looked like a mischievous grin as he watched them. "Although Lorna's been much calmer since you've been gone, Nathan." Franklin suddenly looked a little uncomfortable. "She opened up to Kitty, finally, these last few days. Apparently the you in her reality was--unpleasant."
"I don't consider myself particularly pleasant," Nathan pointed out a little harshly. He wasn't particularly fond of the Lorna that he and Dom had managed to find and bring back a few weeks ago. They'd found her in some dead city or other - his guess had been Tulsa, or something like that - and she'd gone into a beserk fit when she'd seen them. He'd had to knock her out, finally, and though she'd been a little more cooperative when she'd woken up, the damned woman had clung to Dom all the way home and acted like she was terrified for her life every time he looked at her.
"I don't think anyone would argue that," Domino murmured primly, but her hand tightened on his shoulder, almost reassuringly. She knew how unsettled he'd been by Lorna's behaviour.
"Yes," Franklin said with a faint grimace, "but believe me, Nathan, you're nothing like this other you. Apparently you were leading the Marauders, if you can believe that--"
Nathan's blood turned to ice, and he swallowed past a sudden lump in his throat. "Flonq," he muttered desperately. "Well, someone remind the silly bitch that I'm not her Nathan."
It was a nasty thing to say, but he didn't want to think about a him who'd led the Marauders. He did not want to go there, to put it mildly. Not after what his Marauders had done to his X-Force, back in his own alternate--he pushed the memories away brutally. That was then, this was now. That night of blood and terror and loss was years in the past and a world away.
"Kitty's been trying to impress that on her," Franklin said a little sadly. "I don't think it's really getting through. She's been--pretty traumatized."
"Haven't we all," Domino murmured.
"She doesn't have to like me," Nathan snapped almost feverishly. He didn't give a flying flonq about whatever had happened to Lorna in her own time. If she wasn't strong enough to move on, he had absolutely no sympathy for her. "She just has to work with me, in the unlikely possibility that we actually get a full Twelve together and figure out what the hell we can do about all of this!"
*Nate, calm down,* Domino whispered in his mind, and he took a deep breath, never looking away from Franklin's gaze. "So," he finally said, curtly, "anything else of note happen while we were gone?"
Franklin immediately started rattling off bits and pieces of news, most of which had absolutely nothing to do with anything important. Nathan knew what he was doing, of course. *Trying to bore me into a calmer mood--* He flushed, shifting irritably as a series of lurid images came flooding down the link. #Dom, quit that.#
*Or what?* she asked. He knew what she was thinking, what she was feeling. Part of this was just what Franklin was doing, trying to distract him, but there was something else there too, something he was very familiar with feeling from her after a close call or two.
Oath, she was irrepressible. #Well,# he sent back in a deliberately amiable tone, #I could throw you over my shoulder and carry you back to the house.# Why not play the game? part of him thought recklessly. It would be a good way to forget, get his mind off what Franklin's news about Lorna had dredged up. Besides, Domino wasn't the only one who reacted to danger like this, if he were going to be honest with himself. There was that same need, that same--craving in him, too, after how close they'd both come today.
*Oh, the caveman approach?* Domino sent archly. *Or is it 'you Tarzan, me Jane'. Ooga-booga.*
#Or,# he continued just as serenely, reaching out with his telekinesis and applying it in a creative fashion that wrung a surprised gasp from her, #we could have our own little display of public lewdness, right here--# Her cheeks flamed absolutely crimson as he let a second, delicate flicker of telekinesis finish the suggestion for him.
Franklin coughed, his face almost as red as Domino's. "Umm--"
Domino, her eyes still very wide, actually giggled. It was a husky, wicked little giggle that somehow managed to sound vaguely obscene. "Knock it off with the foreplay, lout. You're scaring the boy."
"He has to grow up sometime," Nathan said with a perfectly straight face.
"No, he doesn't. I like him better like this."
"Oh? Have you told Kitty that?" Nathan asked, beginning to get something of a kick out of this as Franklin reddened even further.
"Yes," Domino said blithely. "She told me that I had absolutely no call to be preaching about age differences, and, incidentally, that I could mind my own fucking business." She gave Franklin a mock-sorrowful look. "She's going to corrupt you yet, isn't she?"
Franklin coughed again, but there was a twinkle in his eyes this time. "I suppose I can get the rest of the details about your week from the two of you later on," he said, deliberately changing the subject. "I have to go check on the new hydroponics the Forges just installed, anyway. So the two of you can go--um--"
"Flonq each other silly?" Nathan asked innocently.
Franklin grinned, and took a long gulp of his drink before he set the glass down on the piano. "Whatever. Just, if that's what you decide to do, PLEASE go home and do it. We've got too many children around these days. Have pity on their innocent eyes."
Nathan felt the playful mood drain away like water from a leaky cistern. "No one's innocent anymore, Franklin," he growled, feeling the effects of a week running the shifts as fatigue seemed to hit him all at once.
Franklin shook his head. "You're wallowing in your cynicism again, Nate."
"Go check on your plants, boy." Nathan deliberately avoided his eyes, being most definitely not in the mood for a pep talk. Franklin had more optimism than the rest of them put together, most of the time. It was a good thing, he'd never say it wasn't, but it could be really flonqing annoying on days like this.
"I'll see you two later," Franklin said, after a moment's pause, and dropped a kiss on the top of Domino's head on his way by.
Domino smiled, but the expression faded into a pensive look once Franklin had left. "I was the one who nearly bought it today," she said, those luminous violet eyes seeking something in his. "So why are you so pissed off?"
He grimaced, and drained his glass, floating it over safely to join Franklin's on the top of the piano. "Drake. Hauling you out of that lake. Half a dozen other things--I don't know." He slid an arm around her waist, drawing her closer. She nestled against him, and he laid his head against her chest for a moment, closing his suddenly-burning eyes and listening to her heart beat. She took a deep, uneven breath as he did, and after a moment, when the memory of the fear he'd felt, finding her floating in the clear, clear water of what had actually been a beautiful mountain lake, had faded, he leaned back and met her eyes.
They were suspiciously bright, but she gave him that challenging smile he knew so well. "I could think of a better way to work off all that excess energy than snarling at Franklin," she said, her voice low and husky and her eyes darkening into purple shadows.
It was their way out, the best method of channeling the fear and the need into something safer, something more innocuous than the dangerous, dangerous option of dealing with them head on. "I figured you could," he murmured, trying to keep his voice light and failing. That challenging certainty in her eyes faded, and they stared at each other for a moment, as if it was the first time they'd met. Like they had the first time they'd met in a shift that could have been transplanted straight from the Amazon jungle.
Nathan felt something deep and painful stir within him, something that definitely wasn't safe. A feeling that wanted to be formed into words, into a confession he'd sworn to himself he'd never make. Not after he'd said those words to another her, and then watched her die horribly.
It was almost funny to think about how long that had been before the shifts had started. To remember that people had died in fearful ways before reality had ever even begun to break down.
"I think I need another drink or four, first," he muttered, trying to distract himself from the memory.
"A bottle or two for the road?" she said in a soft voice, sliding off his lap. He nodded slowly, feeling oddly bereft now that he wasn't touching her. He watched her stride over to the bar--that graceful, confident stride. It was the same walk. It was how he'd recognized her, at first.
The same walk. The same eyes--the same beautiful body, the same brilliant mind and blazing soul. But this Domino was alive and well. In her reality, the Six-Pack had never broken up, and she and her Nathan had apparently lived quite happily as mercenaries until the shifts had started, or so she'd told him--once, years ago.
She'd never talked much about that other Nathan. He didn't even know whether he'd died, or the two of them had just been separated. Fair enough, he supposed. Especially given he'd never told her that the her he'd known in his world had been impaled by a harpoon and pinned to a wall where she'd died, choking on her own blood, as the Marauders took turns raping her.
The rest of X-Force had been dead by then.
Nathan swallowed hard, biting his lip until he tasted blood. He'd broken free when Harpoon had first stabbed her, broken free and taken Riptide down with one blow. But he'd been off-balance, staggered by Vertigo's powers, and Creed had taken merciless advantage.
That Creed, 'his' Creed, had been the one with the adamantium. Creed had ripped him open, gutted him like a fish, and then, as a last, sadistic, finishing touch, slashed his throat. Nathan traced the scars on his throat, barely noticeable now, and thought of the others, remembering what it had felt like, trying to hold his internal organs in with one hand as his own blood pooled beneath him. He should have died, but he hadn't. He'd even been conscious long enough to hear her trying to scream, to hear the Marauders laughing as they--
"Nathan?" Domino was standing in front of him, a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he said hoarsely, and reached out to take the bottle from her. "Nothing at all."
Coming in the front door of the ranch house that they and Franklin and Kitty and a half-dozen others shared, Domino promptly tripped over the edge of the cheery-looking 'Welcome' mat she'd always found so ironic. She wound up on her rear, giggling, and Nathan muttered a curse as he bent over, very carefully, and hauled her back to her feet.
"Watch where you're going," he said in the careful tone of the very drunk. "If you break something on the way to the bedroom, I'm going to be very dish-disappointed."
She tried very hard to stop giggling, knowing she'd wind up with the hiccups if she didn't. "We wouldn't want that," she gasped out as he pushed her gently in the direction of their bedroom. "Although you're really cute when you pout--"
A door opened as they passed, and a bleary-eyed Kitty poked her head out, scowling at them. "Are you two drunk?"
"Drunk?" Nathan said, pulling himself up to his full height and attempting a dignified look. "I'll have you know, Pryde, we're not just drunk. We're completely and utterly sloshed."
"Oh," she said, her mouth quirking in a reluctant smile. "I see. Try not to make so much noise this time, will you?"
"It's no fun if we don't make the walls vibrate," Nathan said gravely, and swept Domino up in his arms before she could protest. Biting back open laughter, Domino grinned at Kitty, whose expression had turned a bit baleful.
"See you in the morning, Kit," she said cheerfully, and wrapped her arms around Nathan's neck. "Weren't you carrying me off to our room to ravish me or something?"
"Something like that," he muttered, his expression suddenly bleak, and strode down the hall, climbing the stairs two at a time. The door to their bedroom opened as he approached, and shut firmly behind them, all without him touching it.
Frankly, she was impressed that he could manage to use his telekinesis after they'd had quite this much to drink. He deposited her on the bed with exaggerated care, and then straightened, staring down at her with that same bleak, somehow guarded look.
"Well?" she asked when he seemed perfectly prepared to stand there and glare at her for the rest of the night.
"Well what?" he said almost diffidently, sliding his shirt off, half-turning away from her as he did.
She'd always found it ironic that he wasn't the slightest bit self-conscious about the T-O virus, yet still, after all these years, acted like he couldn't bear to let her see his scars. She'd traced them countless nights when he was safely asleep beside her, wondering where they'd come from. They looked like claw marks, several sets of them, throat and chest and abdomen, as if someone had once had a very good time cutting on him.
"Do you think Franklin and Kitty are sleeping together?" she said lightly, slipping off the bed and out of her own clothes, tossing them in the direction of the antique-looking chest of drawers in the corner. She'd have to dig out a needle and thread tomorrow, after she washed them--she had a few holes in need of patching. Clothing was hard to come by, these days, so you took care of what you had.
Nathan, still half-turned away from her, shrugged with one shoulder. "Not yet, I don't think. There's part of her that's still a little leery of the idea. Her Franklin never time-traveled, so when the shifts hit, he was still a child."
"Ours isn't much older than a child," Domino said and sat back down on the bed, ignoring the way the chill in the air raised goosebumps on her bare skin. She curled into her best seductive pose, and waited.
"Neither is Kitty," Nathan said with a faint, grating chuckle. "But they're older than their years, both of them." He turned, and she smiled smugly at the way he straightened, his gaze suddenly very direct, at the sight of her. "I think," he continued slowly, coming over to the bed and sitting down beside her, "that it's not really our business."
"Just so long as neither one of them break the other's heart," Domino murmured, leaning back against the bed and staring up at the ceiling for a moment. "I'd have to take steps if that happened."
"Den mother," he growled, and she gave another one of those soft, wicked laughs that she knew got under his skin.
"You bet, bub," she murmured, propping herself up on an elbow and drawing her free hand down his arm, tracing the line of the muscles as she stared into his eyes. "I get to be the bitch-mother figure, and you get to be my thug. All you have to do is skulk around looking intimidating--makes you the perfect threat to hold over young lovers' heads." Sitting up, still staring him right in the years, she let her hand roam farther down. He shuddered, but didn't so much as blink as she reached her objective. "So," she said, her voice little more than a throaty whisper. "Do you think we shocked him, back in the bar? I know damned well he picked up on all of that."
"Just so long as he doesn't ask me for pointers, I don't particularly care," he muttered shakily. She threw back her head and laughed, then gasped as he reached out and pushed her back against the bed. "Although it is a handy trick," he said, stretching out beside her, stroking the hair back away from her face and then giving her one of those small, somehow ruthless smiles. "Wouldn't you say?"
Pressure suddenly, somewhere where he wasn't touching her - yet - and Domino gave another soft gasp, her back arching involuntarily. Leaning over her, he was still smiling, and she pulled herself up to his mouth, her nails digging into his shoulders as she kissed him, hard.
"Stop being such a nasty son of a bitch," she breathed when she finally pulled back.
He gave a small, painful-sounding laugh as she laid back against the bed again. "I don't know any other way to be, Dom."
Sometimes, he reminded her so sharply of the Nathan from her reality, it hurt. That pain, that lost look that was in his eyes as he leaned over her, taking her face between his hands--that was familiar territory.
He was stronger than his counterpart had been. There had been something in the Nathan she'd known first, something broken beyond repair. She wondered sometimes if that was why he'd never gotten more than peripherally involved with his family, with the X-Men in their time. He'd been the best mercenary in their world by the time the shifts had hit their reality, but in so many ways, there hadn't been any fight left in him at all--
He'd been gentle. There was precious little of that in the man she was with now. Some of the same aloof nature, yes, but much less self-control. The darkness in him frightened her sometimes. Other times, it excited her. It sometimes seemed to part of her that she should be bothered by that, but she wasn't.
"Good," she murmured, moving beneath him sinuously. "Because I like you just the way you are."
"You really are drunk," he muttered, and bent over her. He kissed her again, lightly, just over her heart, and she shivered at the faint prickle of his stubbly almost-beard against her skin.
"You need to shave," she whispered, and bit back another gasp, as he shifted his attention lower, his tongue tracing a teasing line as he moved. "Bastard--" It came out almost in a moan, and a spasm went through her as he nipped lightly at her breast. Her nails dug into his back again, involuntarily, and she felt him wince. She didn't have a lot of sympathy. If he didn't stop playing with her, she was going to do a lot worse than scratch him--
He raised his head, and their eyes met. His were fierce and feverish, boring into her as if he could see right through her, see everything she was.
"You have a complaint?" It was a growl again, hoarse and rough with something that wasn't anger. It flooded down the link, hot and feral and frightening at the same time that it was exhilarating.
Domino bared her teeth at him, one hand tangling in his hair, hard enough to hurt. "Do something better with your mouth," she hissed at him, the not-quite smile growing. He answered it with one of his own, and then somehow twisted free of her grasp without leaving a hank of hair behind.
He moved down her body with his hands and his mouth, his pace slow and deliberate, as if he had all the time in the world. She wanted to scream at him, to tell him to stop trying to drive her mad, but rational thought was growing increasingly more difficult as he played her body like a virtuoso pianist did his keyboard. But the song wasn't anything like the cheerful, energetic one Franklin had been playing in the bar. It was something darker, more intense, something that teased and taunted and dared you to try and do anything but close your eyes and fall--
She whimpered as he parted her thighs and continued his explorations. "Nate, please--" she gasped out.
#Like this?# His voice in her mind was as clear and cold as ice, untouched by the waves and waves of dizzying pleasure that he was provoking in her with every calculated touch. #Am I doing better, Dom?#
He brought her to the edge and over, and the world shattered around her like the volcanic shift had shattered against the immovable object of Nathan's will. Only the magma was coursing through her veins, scorching her, wringing a cry from her before it faded into a warmth that resonated gently through her whole body, lingering for what seemed like an eternity as awareness of her surroundings slowly returned.
Nate was lying beside her, his face turned away, buried in the pillow. His shoulders were shaking and she took a deep, unsteady breath, reaching out to him.
"What's the matter?" she whispered, pushing herself up to an elbow and leaning over him. He shifted almost restlessly, and she caught a glimpse of his face, wet with tears. "Nate," she murmured, brushing them away with a gentle hand.
He turned over onto his back, catching her hand, squeezing it tightly. The anguish in his eyes cut at her heart. "Why do you stay with me?" he asked in a broken voice, brushing the back of his hand across his eyes. "You shouldn't. There are better men than me around, even here."
"I don't want a better man," she breathed. "I want you. Much as I want to kick your ass ninety percent of the time, I'm not about to trade you in for a newer model."
Nathan half-turned again, and she laid back as he leaned over her, still holding her hand as if it were a lifeline. "I wish--" He trailed off, and leaned down to kiss her again, on the lips, and gently. "I give you as much as I can," he whispered against her lips.
"I know," she murmured back, a wistful edge to the words. "I let you in as much as I dare." She stared up into his eyes as he pulled back slightly, and tried to put all of her need into her eyes, onto the link. "Please," she said softly, simply. "I need you, Nate. None of this is any good if you aren't with me."
She didn't know if she was talking about sex, the world, or everything in between. But he laughed that odd, hurt-sounding little laugh, as if he understood perfectly. Domino gave a long, deep sigh, almost a moan, as he entered her slowly, as if he were suddenly afraid of hurting her, of taking things too fast.
He was whispering to her in Askani, his voice catching on every second word. She pushed herself against him desperately, a plea to stop holding back. "I'm not going to break," she managed, shuddering as he moved, so very slowly. "You know that, Nate--"
"I don't want to hurt you, Dom," he breathed raggedly in English. "I never want to hurt you--"
"You won't--" She choked on the words as the rhythm between them surged, seemingly of its own accord. They were caught in it, helpless, their bodies taking the lead, wiser than their rational minds were at this moment.
Part of her still registered the bed underneath her back, the weight of his body pushing her into the mattress, but only peripherally. Sharper, by far, in terms of what she was feeling and what she wasn't, was the heat everywhere their bodies touched. His hands were on her shoulders, hers were moving across the muscles of his back. Anchoring each other.
This wasn't something that needed or wanted anything approaching rational thought. This was a dance, old as time and more real than anything outside this bed could be anymore. She whimpered, her legs tightening around him, and he thrust harder into her, again and again until release broke over them like the sun rising and they fell together, tumbling into the light. Clinging to each other, like the drowning might cling to a rock in the sea.
Which was the point, wasn't it? Domino closed her eyes as Nathan shuddered and pulled away, breathing as if he'd just run a marathon. The smell of sweat and sex was heavy in the air, and Domino shifted, wincing slightly as sore muscles protested. He slid an arm around her, drawing her close, and she laid her head on his chest, smiling mysteriously as she heard and felt his heart racing.
His hand stroked her hair. "Life's never going to be dull with you, is it?" he whispered hoarsely, kissing the top of her head.
"Never," she murmured, letting her eyes drift closes. "And I am going to get you back for before. You just watch."
"There was never a doubt in my mind."
"Flatterer." She laid an arm across his chest, hugging him tightly. "You suppose we woke anyone up?"
"Oh, I hope so. It's no fun if we don't start at least a little gossip."
"Give the folks at the bar a show the next time?" she said with a tired little chuckle.
"Sounds like a plan."
As she drifted off to sleep, she heard him murmur something to her that she was almost sure she wasn't supposed to have heard. Confessing she had would have been awkward, so she simply closed her eyes and hoped he'd follow her quickly enough not to notice the shit-faced grin plastered across her features.
Appearances had to be maintained, after all.
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