Christmas In The Taiga

by Alicia McKenzie



DISCLAIMERS: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only. Set roughly in current continuity. This was my full-length Christmas story for 2000.

She floundered through the deep snow, struggling to stay on her feet as the wind battered at her mercilessly. Domino stopped for a moment, raising a futile hand to shield her eyes as she looked around, seeking some sign, something that would tell her where she was.


Nothing. Only the snow, blowing in what seemed like all directions at once. But she'd taken her bearings before she'd fled the compound, so the plane had to be around her somewhere. Had to be, Domino thought bleakly, or she was going to freeze to death out here--if her pursuers didn't catch up to her first. She wasn't sure which she'd prefer.

Somewhere behind her there was a distant, thunderous rumble that she could feel through the soles of her boots, rather than hear. Some of our charges going off. If only she could delude herself into believing that any of her team was responsible for it. But she'd seen them all die. She'd hardly known any of them, and now they were all dead. Again. She was going through teams at a terrible rate, really. If she got out of this, there wouldn't be a group of mercenaries on earth who'd want to work with her.

If. Domino tripped over something, twisting her ankle badly and falling to her knees in the snow, gasping with pain. Have to get up, she thought doggedly. Keep going, Dom--

She hauled herself to her feet and kept staggering forward into the storm. Onwards, until the pain of her ankle and that of the other wounds she'd suffered in the fight back at the compound had faded into the cold that seemed to be consuming her from the inside out. Even as her steps slowed and her concentration grew hazy and fragmented, she kept stumbling forward.

Until she fell, too exhausted to take another step as the cold and the pain finally caught up with her. The snow seemed impossibly soft, like--like--

The thought drifted away, like the snow itself. Disjointedly, she reflected that if they were tracking her by her heat signature, there wouldn't be a trail for them to follow for very much longer--


Someone was pulling her up out of the snow, someone with strong arms that lifted her right off her feet. Jarred back to semi-consciousness, she started to struggle feebly.

"It's all right, Dom. It's me."

She heard the deep voice, felt the words vibrate in the broad chest against which she was held, and relaxed, almost despite herself. Pride was pride, but she was better than half-frozen at the moment, and she supposed that in the end, she trusted him. Even now--

"I'll get you out of here. Just hang on."

He carried her away from where she'd fallen, putting her down on a soft surface in a warm, enclosed space - some sort of vehicle? she thought uncertainly - and covering her with blankets. There was a sound like a door closing, and she started to shiver, as if the warmth had just reminded her how cold she truly was, and drew the blankets up around her with shaking hands.

"What---the h-hell are you doing here?" she gasped out as she heard a second door close, and everything started to move. Definitely a vehicle--she could feel it jostling back and forth as it moved over the rough ground.

"Taking a leisurely drive through northeastern Siberia, Dom," was the droll reply. "What did you think I was doing?"

Domino forced her eyes to open wider, and blinked up at a low roof, turned her head and realized that he'd laid her down on what seemed to be the back seat. He was in the front, driving; all she could see of him was the back of his head.

"S-Shouldn't be here," she continued, stubbornly. "You were f-following me, weren't you?" Her teeth were actually chattering. This was ridiculous. Humiliating. She didn't need him to save her ass, she didn't need anyone--"Shouldn't b-be here," she repeatedly, trying to make it sound forceful--and failing rather miserably.

"I shouldn't, should I?" Domino grabbed weakly at the seat as the vehicle suddenly swerved, but Nathan continued, his tone never altering. "An objective observer might disagree. Besides, I wasn't following you, Dom, I was looking for you. There's a difference. I think I picked a good time to find you, too, given the circumstances--or would you have preferred me to leave you out in the snow?"

His voice was cool, remote in a way she hadn't been used to hearing from him for a long time. She didn't want to deal with it, with this all too familiar Nathan. Not now--

She slipped back into the blackness, but the warmth came with her, this time, and chased the cold away.


Waking up was a leisurely process. The first thing she registered was that she was warm, completely but comfortably so. This was most definitely a good thing. Her mind registered other things more slowly. The feel of a bed beneath her. The blankets covering her. The soft crackling sound of a fire, somewhere nearby.

The dull ache that was all that seemed to be left of the various minor injuries she'd picked up over the course of the night. Domino raised a hand to rub her eyes, wondering rather groggily where she was. Not out freezing in the snow--that's one blessing--

Memory of her 'rescue' came back to her in a rush, and she sat up slowly, her hands clenching into fists in the thick blankets as she looked around. Where the hell did he take me? She didn't recognize this place at all. The bedroom was small and sparsely furnished. A fire blazed in the stone fireplace, and sitting on the chair next to it was a small pile of folded clothes, none of which she recognized.

A little warily, she looked down at herself, and relaxed. She was wearing an oversized shirt that looked like it'd fall past her knees once she stood up. It wasn't the first time she'd woken up wearing one of his shirts. She supposed she had no fundamental objection to it, but still--

Her ankle was tightly bandaged, as was her thigh where a bullet had grazed her and the arm she'd sliced open on a jagged edge of metal as she'd jumped out through a hole in the wall of the compound's main building. She swallowed and slid out of bed, limping over to the chair and finding a pair of pants that more or less fit--or at least didn't fall right off. They were loose enough that they fit over the bandages easily, and frankly, that was all she cared about.

Opening the bedroom door, she found a dark, narrow hallway, and a set of stairs that she hobbled down cautiously. "Nate?" she called at the bottom, wary and a bit dizzy as she looked around. There was another fireplace going down here, and the furnishings were maybe a bit better, but the place still looked--off, somehow. Not lived in, at the very least.

"Right here." He stepped through from whatever room was next to this one and then stood there, watching her.

Domino couldn't help but stare. "Hi," she said, lamely.


Holy shit-- She'd heard from the kids that the T-O cocoon had done something to him, but--he looked so young. If his hair had gone back to brown, he'd have looked almost the same as the first time they'd met. All the lines that had crept into his face over the last few tumultuous years had vanished; he was thinner, but looked more fit, that slight slump to his shoulders she'd been all too used to seeing gone as if it had never been.

A faint smile tugged at his lips. "Are you sure you should be walking around on that ankle? It's not broken, but I'd imagine it's pretty sore."

"It's fine," she said, and gritted her teeth as she limped over to look out the window. "Thanks for patching me up," she muttered, studying their surroundings. There were trees all around, boreal forest, and a great deal of snow. From what she could see of the sky, it looked like sunset--or maybe sunrise. She wasn't sure. "Where are we?"

"About an hour outside Yakutsk."

Yakutsk, the only real city in this area, and about a hundred and fifty kilometers from where the compound had been. "Let me guess," she said, still staring out the window. It was safer than looking at him. So much safer--"One of your safehouses."

"Got it in one."

She nearly jumped out of her skin as his hands came down lightly on her shoulders. "Would you mind?" she said irritably, pulling away and hobbling over to the nearest chair. "Not that I'm not grateful for the save--" although it grated on her to say that "--but I'm not in a touchy-feely mood at the moment, Summers."

"I see that." Nathan studied her for a moment, and then gave her that faint, irritating smile again. Domino glowered at him. She wished she knew what was on his mind--no, scratch that, she didn't. There wasn't even a trace of their old psi-link left, and frankly, she was just as happy. She thought much more clearly without it. "I was making dinner," Nathan finally said. "Are you hungry?"

She was, but made a non-committal noise and arranged her sore ankle in as comfortable a position as possible as he turned and went back into--the kitchen, presumably. Whatever. She didn't feel like hobbling over to check.

"You slept for a while," he called from the kitchen. "We got back just before dawn."

"Long night," Domino muttered, trying to sound as neutral as she could. Damn, this was awkward. The last time they'd met, she'd been trying to kill him--well, it hadn't been her (and damned if she'd yet managed to figure out what had been inside her head), but still, it had happened. The few times before that, they'd been busy shouting at each other. Be fair, her conscience chided her. You were doing most of the shouting.

And here he'd saved her life, again. Damn it, why was he always putting her in awkward positions like this? As if she was obligated to get over all the--crap they had between them and be a charming dinner companion just because he'd saved her life--

"What the hell are you doing here, anyway?" she said, still struggling to keep her voice normal. She wasn't quite successful, and a little hostility crept into her tone despite her best efforts. Perversely, she decided to go with it. The matter was bothering her just a little, after all. "You didn't just 'happen' to be in the neighborhood. No one just 'happens' to be in this particular corner of Siberia--"

Nathan poked his head back into the room and fixed her with a gaze that was almost enough to make her squirm. She kept eye contact by a sheer act of will alone. "I told you," he said in that oh-so-reasonable voice, "I was looking for you."

"And why the fuck were you doing that, exactly?" His eyes widened slightly, but she went on, looking away so she wouldn't have to see whatever his reaction would be. She didn't want to see, didn't want to get into any of this with him--"I mean, it's not like we have a whole lot to say to each other, right?"

"Wrong," he said, a bit of an edge to his voice again, and vanished back into the kitchen. "You know," he went on, his voice slightly muffled by what seemed like somewhat overenthusiastic crashing of pots and pans, "you could relax, just a little. I don't expect anything in return for hauling you out of the snow before those troops caught up with you--"

"Well, good--"

"Not even gratitude, not to put too fine a point on it."

He sounded pissed. That in itself was curiously satisfying, in a vindictive sort of way. All the times they'd argued lately, she'd been the one losing her temper, and he'd been cool and contained. It was just nice to see that she could still--

"Get under my skin?" Nathan demanded, appearing back out of the kitchen, vodka bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other. He looked--larger than life, somehow, looming there in the doorway and directing a downright dangerous look in her direction. "I wouldn't worry, Dom. You haven't lost your talent for that."

He filled one glass and floated it across the room to her telekinetically. She plucked it out of the air, and watch him fill his and take a sizeable gulp. "Merry Christmas, by the way," he said almost savagely.

"It's the sixth--seventh of January," she corrected, remembering she'd lost a day while she was asleep, if he was to be believed.

"We're in Russia, remember?"

Right. "Trust you to quibble about the niceties of the Julian calendar," she said, far too snippily, and took a sip of the vodka. Lemon vodka, and strong enough to make her eyes water.

Nathan flopped down in a chair on the other side of the window and glared at her for a moment before he downed the rest of his glass. "You're in a lousy mood," he observed.

It was a singularly crass thing to say, she thought. "I just lost my entire team, Nathan. You'll have to forgive me if I'm a little out of sorts." Bleakness surged up inside her at the thought, and she took another sip of her vodka to cover it. Her whole team, dead, and they'd all been so young, again--why was she always fighting alongside these children? She hadn't been in charge on this mission, but she'd been the most experienced of them. They'd looked up to her, a little, which only made her feel even more like she'd failed them.

Then again, she seemed to be making a habit of that. She failed the ones who needed her, usually getting them killed in the process, and got dismissed by the ones who'd outgrown her. Like X-Force.

It was enough to make a person feel real fucking superfluous.

"I'm not unsympathetic. But if you go in as unprepared as your team clearly did, things like that tend to happen," Nathan said with chilling indifference.

She threw her glass at him.

It froze in the air, liquid and all, a foot away from his head. "Waste of good vodka," he said coldly.

"Fuck you," she snapped tiredly.

"Maybe later. Let's be realistic here, Dom," he said, those icy eyes fixed on her. For a moment, she was eighteen years old again, part of the Wild Pack, and being critiqued by the man she barely knew as anything else but her team leader. "It was a heavily defended compound, and you went in with five other people, plain mercs with no special abilities. Not exactly ideal conditions."

"We pulled off jobs harder than that with the Pack," she pointed out, hating him suddenly with all the strength she had in her. What--fucking--right did HE have to criticize her? Damn him. She could handle that part of it herself.

"Those kids weren't the Pack, Dom. They weren't even X-Force." He shook his head, and levitated her glass back to her. She took it and emptied it in two gulps, too heart-sick and furious to speak. "Sloppy," he said crisply. "Sloppy and too risky. If you really wanted to get yourself killed, there are more efficient ways--"

"I beg your fucking pardon?" Domino snarled, looking up at him again, feeling her cheeks flushing and hating him even more for being able to provoke that sort of reaction.

Nathan wore a bitter, bitter smile as he watched her from across the room. "You heard me." Leaning forward, his hands resting on his knees, he regarded her so intently that she shifted in her chair and contemplated throwing the glass again. "Deny it, Dom. Come on, I dare you." She pressed her lips together tightly and glared at him. The smile flickered, turning wintry, but remained on his lips. "I thought so."

"I'm not going to deny it, because you're so full of shit I'm not going to bother, you stupid son of a bitch," Domino grated, but laced her fingers around her glass so he wouldn't notice how her hands were shaking. He had no grounds to talk. No fucking grounds at all. "Borderline suicidal Behaviour is YOUR department, remember?"

But what if he--no. He WAS full of shit. It had been a sound plan. Risky, yes, but people in their profession didn't get paid to play it safe. If there'd been anything unreasonable about it, anything that pushed the envelope too far, she would have spoken up. She was tired, so damned tired, but she was still responsible. A lot more responsible than he'd ever been--

Her glass was empty. She looked over at Nathan, and his smile grew slightly, turning mocking as he got up. "You think I'm going to give you the bottle so you can throw that at me, too?" he said, coming over to fill her glass.

His sudden closeness was disconcerting. They'd been keeping their distance, physically as well as emotionally, for so long now--"Waste of good vodka," she muttered, unsettled, and leaned back into the chair, as far away from him as she could get without getting up, while he finished filling her glass and straightened. "I might stick it somewhere painful, though, if you don't shut up."

"Low blood sugar," he pronounced, and headed back into the kitchen. "You'll feel better once you've eaten," he tossed over his shoulder.

"Whatever," she growled, and nursed her vodka, wondering where along the line they'd gotten to the point where they couldn't even exchange civil conversation anymore.


It really was quite a dinner. Not the sort of thing she'd ever expect Nate to make, and very clearly local. She picked up a piece of the thick, crusty bread and looked doubtfully at the two bowls on either side of the bread. One held honey, the other chopped garlic. "Exactly what are those for?"

"You dip the pagach," he said, lighting the white candle at the Centre of the table. She gave him a level look, and he gave a martyred sigh. "The bread, Dom. Why do you have to be difficult?"

"Shut up. In which?"

"In both. First the honey, then the garlic." He actually grinned at her. "It's supposed to symbolize the sweet and bitter in life, but it could substitute as a metaphor for your temper, too--"

"Oh, fuck you." She glowered at him, but dipped the bread in the honey. "Don't tell me you have me eating some kind of damned symbolic meal, Summers. I'm too hungry to mess around with whatever weird Askani ritual you've got cooked up."

"It's not Askani. This is a traditional Russian Christmas dinner."

"You cooked me Christmas dinner? I'm touched," she said waspishly. They ate in silence for a while - the fish dish he'd cooked, whatever it was, was actually pretty good - before she felt obligated to say something to fill the silence. She wasn't going to just let him sit there and--analyze her while he ate. "So did you spend Christmas--the other Christmas with your family?"

His smile vanished. "At the mansion, yeah," he said more quietly, and ate a forkful of the slightly overdone kidney beans before he continued. "I didn't go with Jean to the Greys the day after. Felt like I would have been a little out of place--"

Any trace of anger faded for a moment as she watched him, seeing the way he was suddenly avoiding her eyes. "You were never all that big on Christmas," she said a little awkwardly.

"No. We had a sort of equivalent holiday--Winternight, we called it, but it was more of a Solstice celebration, really--"

"Nate--" Whether it was the difference in her voice or something he was sensing, the tension in his shoulders eased and he looked up at her, his heart in his eyes for a single vulnerable moment. Something in her chest clenched painfully as their eyes met. "I never--" She took a deep breath and tried again. "I never got the chance to tell you--how sorry I was about Scott."

His eyes dropped to the table again. "Yeah," he said, his voice rough with something she couldn't quite identify. "Have some potatoes, Dom."

It wasn't quite a rebuff. Some things you don't want to talk about either, I see, she thought balefully, and helped herself to the potatoes. Hypocrite.

#I heard that.#

"I meant you to."

He sighed, and filled his glass again. He'd polished off almost half the bottle on his own, and was showing no signs of slowing down--or getting drunk, for that matter. "It should be wine," he muttered, eyeing the vodka bottle. "Red wine. But I like the vodka better."

"Since when did you get to be an expert on Russian Christmas traditions?" Domino asked. Banter like this was safe, at least. They could go on like this for hours, if they both cooperated--

"I don't know." His expression and posture were beginning to scream 'I'm moody, damn it!'. "I just thought--"

"Thought what, Nathan?" Something about the faint, almost sullen edge to his tone was chipping away at the precarious hold she had on her temper. "That we could sit here and enjoy this admittedly half-decent meal and pretend like we were two normal people? Well, tough shit, babe--"

"That's not what I meant--"

"Then spit it out!" She slammed her glass down with considerably more force than was necessary. The honey and garlic bowls rattled, and the white candle swayed a little in its holder. Nathan reached out to steady it, as if automatically. "Stop mincing around the subject, damn it! I don't have the patience to sit here and listen to you ramble!"

"Oh?" The sullen edge had been replaced by pure acid as he looked up from the candle and stared at her balefully. "Do you have somewhere else you need to be? I figured you probably had at least a little time on your hands, given that you're temporarily unemployed--"

Domino glared at him, seething. "Low blow," she almost spat, hardly able to believe that he'd said that. If they were going to do this, go for each other's open wounds--she didn't want to, damn it, but she knew exactly where to hit him. "Really low blow, Summers."

"I don't know any other kind," he said, very clearly and precisely.

"Oh, believe me, I know." It came out in a snarl, and she stabbed a potato with her fork, wishing--what? Hell, she didn't even know what she wanted anymore. Wasn't that why she was here, running around in Siberia pretending she was twenty-five again?

"You're here because I brought you here," Nathan murmured suddenly. "It doesn't mean anything unless you want it to."

"Don't put all of this on me, damn it--" Her voice broke, and Domino closed her eyes for a minute, cursing under her breath.

"Why not?" His voice was softer, now, almost gentle. "Seems to me like you could use the choice, one way or the other. Something to remind yourself that you're still in control--"

She just about threw her glass at him again. Only knowing that he'd catch it, and anything else on the table she might choose to use as a blunt weapon, let her squelch the impulse. "Don't you dare patronize me," she said hoarsely. "Don't you FUCKING dare, old man!"

"Did I hit a nerve?" he inquired softly, his eyes still boring into her. "Fancy that."

Domino swallowed and pushed her chair away from the table. "I've lost my appetite," she rasped.

"Dom--" His voice was gentle for real, this time, nothing measuring or testing about it, and she hesitated, about to get up but frozen in place by the sudden look on his face. "Don't go," he said, almost wistfully. "I don't--cook very often. At least finish your dinner."

Her eyes blurred. She wiped at them ineffectually. "Damn you," she muttered. I am NOT going to cry. She couldn't grieve for people she didn't know, not really, and she herself had come through it all with barely a scratch--she WASN'T going to cry. There was no reason to be so weak!

A chair scraped across the wooden floor, and Nathan was suddenly there beside her, crouching down so that he'd be at her eye level. Reaching out, he turned his face towards her with a gentle hand. "Dom," he said softly. "Look at me."

She tried to pull away. "Just--leave me alone, Nate," she said lamely. "Just--"

"You don't want that."

"How the hell do you know what I want?" It came out in a cry, and Domino flinched away from him, loathing the display of emotion, however involuntarily it had come.

"Because I wouldn't be here if you did." He smiled that wistful smile again. "You don't really think I followed you to Siberia just to annoy you, did you?"

She opened her mouth to say that the thought had crossed her mind, or some such wry comment - the sort of thing she SHOULD say - but all that came out was a sob that she didn't manage to bite back in time.

"All these years, all these times you came when I needed you," he murmured, reaching up and brushing a stray lock of hair away from her eyes. "Did you think I wouldn't do the same?"

All right, so she was crying. Fair enough. She couldn't be a tough bitch all the time. The tears made the candlelight wobble and sparkle in her vision, and as she turned back towards him, he seemed haloed in it, somehow. Brighter than he had any right to be. Brighter than anything else in her life lately--

"You don't know what I n-need." Pride was still there, despite it all. She glared down at him through her tears, part of her wanting to slide out of the chair and into his arms, while another, more vocal part was strongly advocating kicking him somewhere strategic so that he'd back off a little. "I don't need you to save me, Nate--"

"We save ourselves, Dom." His voice was clear and firm, the way it always sounded when he was saying something hopelessly cryptic but often far, far too true. "Whether I pull you out of a snowbank or you knock me out of the way of a bullet, it doesn't change that."

She swallowed past a lump in her throat and swatted at him feebly. "Sometimes I have absolutely no idea what the hell you're talking about, you know that?" she complained.

Nathan smiled broadly. "It's part of the routine, Dom. I talk at you until you stop wanting to castrate me--haven't you clued into that by now? Learned it from Kane--"

"You are so full of it."

"Yeah, I know." He reached out and laid a hand on her knee. She covered it with her own, quickly, before her pride could step back in and protest. "Still, I was making a point. You can be as pissed off at me as you want, but I didn't do anything you haven't done for me a dozen times before."

"So?" she demanded crossly, blinking rapidly. "That doesn't mean you aren't a chauvinist white-knight wannabe--"

"Oh, come on, Dom--black knight, please. Gray at the worst." He gave her an alarmingly angelic look, and she bristled warily. An innocent Nate was a dangerous thing. "Admit it. I'm better when I'm bad."

"You--" She laughed - she couldn't help it - and followed up with a slightly more enthusiastic swat. He rocked backwards out of the way. "Smartass."

"Yeah, whatever." Nathan stood, grinning down at her. "So are you going to finish your dinner?"

Smiling faintly, Domino looked down at the potatoes and then shook her head. "Maybe later," she said, more quietly. She was feeling--shaky, to put it mildly, and her stomach really didn't feel up to it.

"If you like." He reached out a hand to support her as she got somewhat unsteadily out of her chair. "I'd offer to take you out to see the sights, but Yakutsk really doesn't have any," he continued drolly.

"I'd sort of guessed that." She laughed weakly. "Good old Siberia. Not much of a tourist spot--"

"Oh, I don't know. It's got its charms."

He was standing very close again.

She didn't have the urge to kick him, this time.

"Really," she said, staring fixedly at the ground, wondering why she was suddenly afraid to look at him. "Like--?"

"Ever heard of the Lena pillars? Well, they're a hundred and fifty kilometers away upriver--near enough, comparatively speaking. They're rock formations, but they look like castles--"

Domino looked up, into his eyes. "Nate," she murmured.


"Shut up."


Domino reached out and hugged him as tightly as she could. A moment later, his arms went around her, a little hesitantly, as if he thought she was fragile.

She felt fragile, to be perfectly honest. There was comfort here, maybe even peace (for a little while), but she didn't think she was ready for it. Didn't think she could reach out and take it without everything else she'd balanced so precariously coming crashing down on her--

She felt so raw inside. Leaving X-Force, the business with 'Junior', all the deaths--years of darkness and death and pain piled one on top of the other--there had to be a limit somewhere. I think I've gone past mine-- Self-control turned from steel to ice so quickly, sometimes. And as thankfully numb as the ice made you, it could crack so easily--

His arms tightened around her. "I know," he murmured into her hair. "Believe me, I know--"

And he did. She knew that. She just didn't know how he lived with it, if this was how he felt. This--bleakness, coloring every day with shadows--

She was so tired.

Domino didn't realize she'd said that aloud until she heard Nathan give a shaky sigh and felt his arms tighten around her even further.

"Tell me about it," he said raggedly, and all the pain and weariness and uncertainty she had been feeling all these months was in his voice, too.

And it was as if someone had opened the floodgates. As if hearing it from him, knowing he felt it too, made it safe for her to admit it.

Domino hid her face against his chest and cried.


The fire was lower, now, but still giving off enough heat to make the bedroom pleasantly warm. Despite that, Domino pulled the covers up around her more securely. It wasn't that she was cold. She just felt--better, curled up in a nest of blankets with Nathan beside her. She didn't think she'd analyze the feeling too closely--it felt good, and that was enough.

She turned her head towards him and studied his sleeping face thoughtfully. He'd always looked young when he slept, but with the years the techno-organic cocoon had taken off, he looked even younger now, when he was like this. A faint smile curved her lips, and she freed a hand from the blankets and traced the scars around his eye with it. They seemed--less deep, somehow. Some of his other scars were gone completely, she'd noticed.

Guess we have a few things in common. She still did have the scar from where they'd removed 'Junior'. Nate hadn't asked, and she'd been just as glad to leave that part out when they'd caught up on the last few months. But all of her other scars, the ones he was used to seeing, were gone.

It had lent an--interesting dimension to what had happened between them tonight. They'd both been so familiar with each other's bodies that the differences had been--well, not off-putting, Domino thought with a grin she couldn't quite stifle, but a bit of a surprise.

And they'd ended up in bed, yet again. That at least was old familiar territory.

Nathan muttered something and then opened his eyes, blinking a little blearily up at her. "You should be asleep," he said in a good attempt at a repressive tone.

Domino clouted him on the shoulder. "Don't coddle me," she said warningly.

"I'm not. We BOTH should be asleep." He yawned widely. "You want to get an early start in the morning."

Domino blinked at him. She'd been contemplating her options, just a few minutes ago--but he'd been asleep, hadn't he? His expression grew a little sheepish as she continued to stare down at him.

"Well, you do, don't you?" he asked, almost defensively.

"I--hadn't made up my mind for sure," she temporized, raising an eyebrow at him. "And I didn't mention it to you, one way or the other--"

The corner of his mouth quirked upwards. "I suppose you think I was eavesdropping."

"I didn't say that--"

"Well, I was, I suppose. Just not intentionally." The almost-smile faded, and he looked at her hesitantly. "Things are--a little different for telepaths, these days," he said. The words themselves were cryptic, but his tone was bewildered, almost a little anxious. "I hear things I don't intend to hear, even when I'm not listening--"

She felt a stab of worry, but he shook his head at her almost instantly. "It's all right," he said, and the words actually did come out sounding reassuring. "I'm just still getting used to it, that's all. So if I come out with anything you haven't actually said aloud, don't be too surprised."

"I'll think more quietly," she said, as dryly as she could manage. But the spell was broken, and she rolled onto her back, shifting position awkwardly and suddenly all too aware of the ache of her injuries.

He didn't reach out to her, as if he knew she wanted a little space. Probably did, too. A few hours ago, she would have found that irritating; now, she was just grateful for it.

"This doesn't change things, you know," she said quietly, staring up at the ceiling. "I'm still leaving in the morning."

"I'll let you borrow the mini-jet. It'll come back on remote."

"Thanks." She acted on impulse and turned on her side to face him again. "I mean that," she said, staring into those watchful mismatched eyes and willing him to understand that she was being completely sincere. "Not just for the plane, or the dinner--or, um, this." With a slightly shaky smile, she leaned forward and kissed him lightly. "You saved my life," she murmured. "I've been such a bitch tonight--don't take that to mean I'm not grateful."

"Don't worry about it. Just do me a favor and take a little better care of your life next time?" he inquired dryly. There wasn't a trace of amusement in his expression, though, and she flinched away irritably, not wanting to talk about this again. He didn't seem to take the hint. "Don't you think I understand something of what you're feeling right now?" he went on, his voice all too serious now. "Ask me what I did after we all got our powers back and I got out of the TO cocoon."

"What," she said, as expressionlessly as possible.

The answer surprised her. "I ran, Dom. I ran as far and as fast as I could. I started in Paris and wound up in Japan." He gave a humorless chuckle. "I don't even remember half the places I stopped along the way."

"Sounds like a nice way to spend a vacation," she said, much more sarcastically than she'd intended. Knowing that he'd been wandering the world in the frame of mind he'd probably been in at that point was unsettling; she was glad she hadn't known about it before. She had been worried about him, after all--not just because of Scott's death, but the rest of it, too. The mission that had been his life, and was now, for all intents and purposes, over.

"No," he said, rolling over onto his back with a heavy sigh, "it was a flonqing waste of time. I was worse off when I finished than when I started."

"So what you're saying is--?" she persisted ironically.

"I'm not saying anything--you'd laugh at me if I tried to give you advice. You'd be right to laugh, too."

"Yes, I would," she muttered, leveling a suspicious glare at him. "But there's a point in there somewhere, I'm sure of it." There always was, with him, even if you had to wade through several levels of cryptic comments and rambling trains of thought to find it.

"Not much of a point, really. I just want you to remember that you don't have to be alone if you don't want to be," he murmured much more quietly, as if he were drifting back to sleep. "Call me, and I'll come." #Think of me, and I'll be there,# his voice echoed in her mind. #It worked pretty well this time, didn't it?#

So it had, she supposed. But that leery, cautious part of her reared its head again, pointing out the dangers of his offer--how easily they could get entangled in each other again, if she took him up on it. Sometimes that had been exhilarating, but more often--

She didn't want to lose herself in him. Not when her self was the only thing she seemed to have left, these days.

But she couldn't deny the sincerity behind the offer, or the tiny surge of relief and joy she'd felt at hearing it, at knowing that he hadn't given up on her, despite all that had happened, everything that was between them--"No strings attached?" she said, and nearly groaned at how shrewish the question sounded.

He chuckled, apparently unbothered by her tone. "I wouldn't do that even if I could, Dom." Mischief sparkled in his eyes, just briefly, as he looked up at her. "Attach strings, I mean. That's not us--"

"I didn't realize there was still an 'us'," she blurted, and then wished she hadn't.

"Didn't you?" he inquired, a warm smile growing on his face. "We were never cut out for the two and a half kids and white picket fence, Dom--"

"No shit--"

"--or the twenty-four hour a day, seven days a week sort of relationship, even." He reached out to take her hand, and kissed it. "But that doesn't change the fact that I love you."

Her heart jumped in her chest, but Domino did her best to ignore it and swore, half-humorously, half-disgustedly. "All right, no more vodka for the Askani'son. Go back to sleep, Nate."

Part of her couldn't help but wonder. If their lives, the people they were, meant that a 'normal' relationship or a traditional happily-ever-after weren't for them, what did they have? Scratch out all those options from the great dance card of life, and what did that leave?

"That leaves us, Dom. Just us," Nathan said, reading her mind again. "S Rozhdestvom Khristovym," he murmured, and pulled the blankets up to his chin. "Merry Christmas, lady. Now go back to sleep."

Domino hesitated for a moment, and then slid closer to him, arranging the blankets more carefully around them both. "Merry Christmas," she murmured, and let herself slide back down into that peaceful, unconcerned contentedness as she drifted back off to sleep, listening to the steady sound of his breathing and the soft crackling of the fire in the hearth.

The morning was worlds away.


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