Sat, 20 Jan 2001
DuAnn Cowart ibelieve@rocketmail.com
Just Lucky, I Guess 58/61+

Standard disclaimers apply. I am gaining no pecuniary profit from this work and expressly deny any intent to infringe upon any copyright or intellectual property interest of Marvel Comics Group.

For Alicia, on her twenty-fifth birthday, with love and affection.


Just Lucky, I Guess

58/62

DuAnn Cowart

 

Pink tendrils of psionic energy twirled around the once and future Phoenix as she hovered in lotus position a few inches above the head of the man she'd raised as her son. She ran a hand through perspiration-matted red hair, telepathy straining to make sense of the chaos she found in his thoughts as she delicately sorted through the psychic debris littering the uppermost layers of his mind.

At this level, the task did not require a great deal of skill, only stamina. Their genetic link made it far easier for her to perceive the depth of his injuries, but it also forced her to involuntarily share in his pain.

She and his father had raised this son of her flesh in his own dark future, and as 'Redd', she had had taught him how to control the agony and bind the virus deep inside his body with the power of his telekinesis. Long experience had taught her that some level of pain was omnipresent with the virus, but this was unlike anything he, or by extension she, had ever felt. His mental reserves depleted by the fierce battle, injured and emotionally exhausted, Nathan's control had faltered. The infection, long pent-up and repressed by his iron control, was seizing this opportunity to consume its host, cell by cell.

Tracking the source of the pain, Jean dampened it as best she could, stabilizing the techno-organic mesh with her own telekinesis, and went on with her work, removing splinters of broken shielding from his mind with a steady touch. Despite her aura of calm self-confidence, she was concerned. This recent attack was far too soon after the minor surgery to repair his psilink with Domino, and the damage was far too severe than was good for any telepath, much less one who had suffered as much as Nathan.

Ignoring the small worried burble emanating from her psilink with Nathan's frantic father, Jean Grey-Summers blocked out the rest of the world and focused on her work. Visualizing the deeper layers of his mind as a choppy pool, she donned psionic armor in the form of a wet suit and scuba gear.

She arched her back and dove in, her lithe form barely making a splash in the troubled waters. Consciously reinforcing her psionic armor, she moved in an economical breaststroke through viscous blood-colored 'waters', peering through the murky layers of memory and frustrated desire until she at last saw a pattern of wounds lacerating the thin walls of his broken mental shields.

Looking deeper, she saw that his mind was savagely slashed with gaping rips and tears that leaked burbling psionic energy, draining what was left of his telepathy. These were recent injuries, she noted, new scars as well as those accumulated over a soldier's lifetime. Most were so old that they were inexorably embedded deeply into his core; to remove them would be to completely change the man he was. Volcanic fissures opened all around her, hissing with the threat of retaliation should she come too close to particularly sensitive areas.

Memories whipped by like ocean predators, rapidly flickering and shifting glimpses of a lifetime of struggle and sacrifice. One particularly powerful memory called out to her, and she watched as an auburn haired woman she recognized as Aliya nursed a towheaded infant, and Nathan, uniform still bloodied from battle, stood behind them, gazing at the two adoringly from exhausted eyes. Jean stared at the tender scene, transfixed, then forced herself to look away as the scene shifted to the infant, all grown up, leering over an unconscious Domino and staring directly at his father with vengeance in his eyes.

Tyler. Nathan's son might have been a few test tubes and time travels away from being her natural grandson, but he was certainly a child of her flesh and a member of her family. To see this fury carried along through the generations like a disease shook her to her core, and she shivered again at this evidence of the never-ending manipulation of all she held most dear.

Tyler, stolen as a child from his home and raised by his enemies to hate all he had once loved. She had only met him briefly, but even then she'd seen the broken soul behind the haunted eyes, the lost child within the madman. Although she had not been made privy to the full details of the evil he wrought in her time, she too had grieved along with Scott and Nathan when Logan had been forced to kill the man he'd become, and she had fervently prayed that wherever he was he had at last found peace.

It seemed now that was not to be- or was it? Studying the vicious figure before her, Jean saw that he was not the grandson she had so briefly known. This man- he looked like Tyler, he *felt* like Tyler, but his mental signature was overlaid with a strange shimmer, an odd distortion she had seen many times before. It was subtle, to be sure- so minimal as to be almost indetectable, and only a highly skilled telepath specifically searching for it could have found the tell-tale glow.

Just as Madelyne Pryor was her own exact duplicate except for a similar glint, and Strife was identical to Cable but for the same, this man was a clone of Tyler. *Another family tradition,* she choked, throat constricting at yet another remembrance of pain.

When she'd calmed herself, she looked back at the pool of memories, drawn to the horror despite herself. She watched as Tyler, far stronger than she had ever known him to be, tortured Domino with a vengeful joy that nauseated her, then delightedly focused his malevolent power on his father and Psylocke, intent on nothing but the kill.

She saw Tyler's anger, and felt the residual anger emanating from his memory-images, but that was nothing compared to the overwhelming guilt pouring out of her son when faced again with the knowledge that the child he'd raised as a symbol of love triumphing over hate could be the author of so much pain. Because of his failure, his son had been twisted into a mockery of the innocent child he'd been, and the woman he loved would forever bear the scars for it.

Through Nathan's eyes, she felt the weight of responsibility for all that had happened, from Tyler's capture to Domino's grievous injuries, and she staggered from the weight of it. She bit her lip and looked away, unable to bear the echoes of his guilt and pain and the cries of distress filling the murky waters of his mind like whalesong.

It would have been easy to lose herself in the powerful riptide of his loneliness and despair, to lose her footing and fall prey to the darkness inside him. She had fought psionic battles before, had her mental armor stripped bare and found her mind blistered and battered more times than not, but in her long years of service with the X-Men she'd rarely seen damage as bad as the injuries inflicted upon her son. The blows were clumsy, she saw, inefficient, but backed with so much fury and power that they had almost destroyed Nathan's inexperienced shields.

Taking care to respect the remaining privacy of his memories as much as possible, Jean softly bathed his mind in healing psionic energy, suffusing the sensitive new wounds with gentle warmth and rose colored light. It took some time, but slowly, so slowly, the lighter wounds began to knit at the edges, leaving new scars atop the old so that even the deeper gashes pulled themselves together slightly, enough so that Nathan's natural psionic defenses could take over and he could heal himself from there.

Only one area evaded touch. The remnants of the psilink- no, bond, Jean corrected herself sadly, seeing the telltale depth of color and intensity that indicated far more than a simple link with Domino, still bore the dirty taint of Tyler's touch, and the frayed edges were so worn that Jean was afraid that the slightest touch would tear them asunder. Hurting for Nathan, for both of them, Jean created a wall around the link, a buffer of sorts to protect against any further harm.

When she had done all she could, she gave her son's embattled mind one last caress and then began swimming slowly to the surface and consciousness, praying that her aid had been enough.


Although Emma Frost *knew* that the illusion of a barren desert surrounding her in all directions was just that, an illusion, blue eyes still watered as hot air shimmered over bleached bone sand, and one gloved hand rose of its own accord to shade her fair skin against the harsh rays of the burning sun overhead. It took some effort to remind herself that despite its heat on her face, despite the hot air searing her lungs, none of this was real-- it was all in Domino's mind, an astral represenation of the tightly repressed turmoil of the other woman's thoughts.

With that in mind, she tucked a lock of windblown platinum hair behind her ear and looked around her new patient's mindscape. The desert was empty, barren except for dark purple mountains dotting its distant horizon and one shriveled blue-gold cactus at her feet. Upon closer inspection, she saw that the sandy surface was not smooth at all, but scored with pox marks and craters. Some were larger and some smaller, but each was a representation of a wound or scar on Domino's psyche.

Even though this place was simply an astral manifestation of Domino's mind, Emma sensed a level of ambient psionic power in the 'air' that was nothing less than staggering. Not from Domino herself, no, for despite the remains of a dormant link with Cable, the woman was definitely mindblind. The mindscape itself, however, was faded and smudged like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, bearing the lingering residue of severe telepathic abuse.

*So that's why I'm here,* Emma mused as the dark foreign presence rippled and swirled across Domino's mind like a desert sandstorm, marring the fragile balance with its corrosive touch. Looking closer into the textured shadow, Emma saw that it was made up of layers and layers of subtle traps, intricate razors and barbs that burrowed deeper into Domino's psyche with every passing thought. *And what, pray tell, do I do with this?*

Despite her everpresent bravada, Emma was at a bit of a loss as to how to deal with the situation. She hadn't been prepared for this eventuality. After being awoken out of peaceful post-coital slumber, Emma had reluctantly climbed out of strong Irish arms to scurry to Xavier's aid like an obedient servant, but had only expected to play a secondary role at best in whatever mysterious procedures His Underendowed Baldness had in mind.

She had waited in the heart of what had once been enemy territory, waiting patiently for the noble wounded to return. Domino was the last of those to arrive in the mansion's Medlab, escorted by Samuel Guthrie and Pete Wisdom, of all people, whose unexpected and unpleasant presence very nearly made Emma lose her vaunted composure. No one had been as startled as she when Domino had shrugged off all assistance and quietly announced that she would allow Emma, and Emma alone, into her mind. The others had protested, far too politely for Emma's taste, but Domino had been quietly adamant- Emma, and no one else, was welcome in her thoughts.

When it became clear that Domino was quite serious, the X-Men indulged themselves in more than a few rather insulting comments on the topic. Only Sean's rock-steady presence at Emma's side had kept her from pivoting on one well-turned heel and leaving them all with unusually strong headaches. Instead, she had smiled scornfully, and in a voice dripping with arsenic and old lace had murmured how terribly crushed she was not come up to the shining standards of terrorists and theives, and how would they *ever* be able to forgive Domino for her inexcusable temerity in preferring the harlot of Babylon to their own morally umblemished lot?

She could have predicted that the outraged outburst that followed like clockwork as most of the older X-men rose to their feet in protest, but she was as surprised as anyone when Sam Guthrie, of all people, had pushed past the small crowd to stand beside her, raising his voice to yell for everyone there to shut up and just respect Domino's wishes. All eyes then turned to Domino, who nodded curtly, and that was the end of that.

In retrospect, Domino's decision wasn't that surprising. Neither the former mercenary nor the former White Queen had ever been completely at ease with Xavier's extended brood and his philosophies. While Emma wasn't above using any information gleaned from the experience, she would certainly never use the opportunity to forcibly convert the other woman to Xavier's Dream. Like Domino, Emma was no stranger to the ugliness and brutality inherent in the lives they had chosen, and thus would never be so insulting as to pity Domino for what she found in her mind.

Obscurely touched by the bittersweet trust, Emma closed her eyes and cautiously extended her consciousness out in slow waves, applying a light mental balm to the shallow injuries scoring her mind. When she had acclimated herself to the ebb and flow of Domino's thoughts, she turned her attention to the weightier task of removing the unwelcome presence of the foreign telepath.

The ground underneath her quivered as if near a launch pad under the strain of her efforts, but slowly, so slowly, Emma sought out the foreign intrusions one by one and carefully disarmed each in its turn, cursing as several of the seemingly simple devices turned on her, very nearly tearing her astral form to pieces in the process.

Power flared from her, and she ignited the traps, wincing as the evil devices lashed out to rip at Domino's mind one last time before dissolving into nothingness. A thought occurred to her as she reached out to sew the fresh wounds back together, and her smooth brow furrowed in concern.

*This is just the beginning,* she growled, disturbed at the intensity of the peripheral damage. *I wonder what else I'll find?*

She drew in a deep breath, steadying herself. *There's no time like the present to find out,* she murmured, and, head held high, took another step forward into the deeper recesses of Domino's mind.

Arid desert gave way to a shadowy jungle, dark as night and oppressive as a vacuum. A raven cawed hoarsely above her shoulder, black feathers glistening with an oily sheen, and beady eyes fixed her with a sinister glare.

*Lovely,* she thought wryly, and raised her mental shields even tighter against what other monsters lay within the flickering shadows.


Charles Xavier's world was filled with cool grey-blue light, and he worked with surgical precision to fortify the paper-thin layers that held Elisabeth Braddock's psyche together. He was running out of time, and he knew it.

The dark shadows of the Crimson Dawn, barely held in check, pulsed a black heartbeat against the hazy lavender walls of her mental shields, threatening to burst through her weak defenses at any moment. Swearing to himself, Charles picked up his pace in order to outrace the dark parasites worming their way through her mind.

He was long familiar with Elisabeth's psionic signature, and was accustomed to her own particular calm, cool strength, not this fractured static that buzzed around her mind like bees around a hive, threatening to overtake her waning defenses. Upon entering her mind, he had been shocked to find that the halls of her thoughts lacked their usual resonance, and instead were depleted and empty, dry as an abandoned well.

Immensely disturbed that one of his students would let herself slip so very near the dangerous edge of madness, Xavier immediately strengthened her mind with his own, pulling together tears in the gauzy, billowing threadworn mesh of her shielding, injuries wrought by a vicious psionic attack. The roar of the shadows lessened, and although he could still feel their presence he also saw that the natural pattern of Betsy's own thoughts was beginning to reassert control. The danger had passed.

Now that the immediate threat was over, Charles turned towards assessing the rest of her mind. It took some time, but he managed to repair the worst of her injuries, salving the wounds and pouring his own energy into hers to reweave her telepathy and cement and restrengthen her natural psionic pathways. She had suffered a great deal, but with time he anticipated a complete recovery.

When he was satisfied with his handiwork, he paused, curious about what had caused his able student such injuries. Wounds like this could only be the result of an extended psionic battle, and most of the damage lay deeper below the surface of her thoughts.

Assuring himself that a threat significant enough to wreak this sort of damage on a telepath of Elisabeth's caliber could not be taken lightly, Charles made the difficult decision to probe deeper into her psyche. Gliding through the barrier of her thoughts, he was careful to avoid the backlash of detection by Elisabeth's vulnerable and unsuspecting mind. Eyelids fluttering rapidly, he concentrated and subtly deepened their link, observing the course of the last few days through Elisabeth's eyes.

When they were joined, he took control of her thoughts, and then peered into the brightly colored maelstrom of images swirling in her dazed mind, spinning and flickering and slowly coalescing into a single, handsome face.

Studying it intently, Charles saw traces of his own students in the crazed features, and felt a sharp, unexpected pang. Tyler, he nodded, disturbed but unsurprised at the presence of the last known member of the Summers line. Gazing on, he discovered that the maddened figure was not Tyler at all, but an augmented clone, stamped with a power and a madness that far surpassed those of that tortured youth.

Looking further, he saw that there was more to the story. Regretting that Betsy was in no condition to grant him the permission to travel further, Charles nevertheless followed the crimson trails of power seared into her brain and traced the history of the epic battle. Through her memories, he clinically observed the course of Elisabeth's journey, powerful precognitive visions and the trip to London, the perfect execution of carefully plotted tactics and the unforseen turn of battle as the villainous scientists were taken into custody but Elisabeth and Domino were captured by Tyler and his henchmen.

Peering deeper into Psylocke's thoughts, he watched stone-faced as the clone tortured Domino and Cable, then saw Elisabeth sacrifice all that she was and stretch beyond all that she knew to rescue them and keep the Undercloak shadows back. As through a great distance he watched Tyler's power implode upon itself and burn him alive, and involuntarily drew back as the blood stain Domino's face as she ended Tyler's life and, through a veil of unconsciousness, winced at the brightness of the fiery explosions that indicated their victory.

Through it all, he saw Logan, and felt the woman's feelings for the stocky Canadian deepen and grow. Linked as they were, at that moment he shared Betsy's conflicted reaction at the intensity of her connection with Logan, the vivid memories of a recent night spent in his arms. Uncomfortably sharing the sensations, Charles dampened the input stemming from that part of her mind and turned his attention back to healing her injuries

A bit of erotic attraction still seeped through the remainder of their link, and Charles sighed, ignoring it as he did a final swoop around the inner layers of Betsy's mind. When he was done, he carefully withdrew from her memories, lingering for a few moments amid the outside layers of her thoughts to soothe a few final wounds before exiting her mind. He had been unable to heal all her wounds, but she was strong and well-trained, and with time would fully recover.

He only hoped the same could be said about her companions.

Looking around the dark jungle of Domino's mind, Emma saw that she was standing in a small glade with a canopy of trees overhead so thick and intertwined that what meager light to be had came only from dappled sunlight which shone through in sickly patches. Fascinated, Emma watched smothering ebony vines creep up the gnarled trees, reflecting the approach of apathy and madness as deep psychic wounds slowly overcame the last of Domino's natural defenses. Glittering onyx snakes with dull ruby eyes slithered up and down the trees and heavier vines, each serpent a representation of a nightmare brought to life, and the dark raven continued its incessant cries.

Only one thread of color illuminated the gloom, so tiny and insignificant that Emma almost missed it. Upon closer inspections, she saw a small apple dangling from the limb of a nearby tree, desiccated and scored with scars. Like the cactus above, it was blue-gold in color, but was fading with every heartbeat, the glorious color replaced by a rapidly spreading black bruise.

Emma tried to see into the depths of the jungle, but the shadows were too dense to detect much detail. The only distinguishing features were flickers of vivid color dancing in the darkness, manifestations of memories which faded in and out of view like reels of old home movies projected onto a faltering screen. Warped and distorted by perception and time, the images strobed through the glade in rapid succession, illuminating the darkness with ghastly color.

Emma ignored the atrocities contained in the images themselves and very gently used her telepathy to lightly insert herself into the deeper recesses of Domino's mind. Instead of actively seeking out the root of the trauma, she let the turbulence come to her, and suddenly comprehension dawned as the unnamed architect of the recent shadows suddenly had a name and a face, and Emma saw for herself the horror of what the man Domino still called Tolliver had done. It was torture, pure and simple, and every neuron in Domino's mind reverberated with its aftereffects.

Strengthening her own shields against the pain, Emma travelled down the corridors of Domino's thoughts, leaving iridescent trails of energy behind her as she poured pure cleansing energy where it was needed and knitting the gaping rips and tears back together with her touch. The process took some time, but when she had done all she could, Emma slowly drew all the excess energy back within herself and, every cell aglow with power, regarded her work.

The vast majority of the minor slashes and rips were gone, but the darker stains remained. Recognizing them as the residue of Tolliver's violations, Emma closed her eyes and stretched out her hands, and her fingers tingled with electricity as she harnessed her own telepathic power to exhume these most recent demons from Domino's soul.

The energy trickled out at first, then grew in strength and power until cohesive beams of psionic energy flowed out of her hands, incandescent flames that burned through the lingering shadows of Domino's mind. Diamond-bright fire ignited the darkness, outlining the shadows with a coruscating luminescence, and Emma struggled to contain the roiling power as she fought to pull the pieces of Domino's broken psyche back together.

Her association with Cable had naturally strengthened Domino's shielding, but she was a nonpsi, and her mind had shattered like glass under the brutal assault of a telepath of Tolliver's abilities. Indeed, while Emma herself was a gifted telepath, even her power was outmatched by the the raw, untrained might of Domino's tormentor.

It was a battle of skill against strength, then, as Emma narrowed her eyes and planned her attack, practiced abilities artfully cutting and slicing through the darkness left behind by Tolliver's powerful, if clumsy, machinations. Focusing her energies in a tight, cohesive beam, a technique she'd learned long ago, Emma struck again.

The raven cawed loudly in outrage and then swooped down to attack her, talons poised to slice through her skin, but bounced harmlessly off of her astral armor, falling dazed to the jungle floor. Stunned darkness recoiled for a moment, and then instinctively fought back, Stygian tendrils slicing through the brilliance as it blindly struggled to regain control.

In the absence of the shadow, the projected memories grew stronger, less ephemeral, and far more vicious. An especially vivid image flickered at the edge of Emma's peripheral vision, and she spun on her heel to find a leering Cable laughing viciously, his eyes black on black on black, his face twisted with malice. Directly attuned as she now was to Domino's thoughts, she felt her instinctive horror, the frustrated longing and broken love for the man, and Emma couldn't help but notice that the dangling apple sparkled faintly, then grew dim again as the visage of Cable faded into nothingness.

A halting wave of implanted memories, both false and real, swept over her, and Emma Frost, herself jaded and toughened by a lifetime of abuse and violation, felt sickened by it all. Disgusted, Emma looked away and Domino's mindscape immediately quaked and shuddered as if vindicated, and the icy darkness slowly began creeping towards her again.

Looking closer, Emma saw that the shadows were not simply the residue of past telepathic tampering, but were much, much more insidious than that. The lingering taint was poison, pure and simple, an unschooled power that was gnawing away at her from inside. The traps imbedded in the uppermost layers of Domino's mind were only symptomatic of this evil, and Emma saw that even now his touch continued to warp Domino's perception and magnify the depths of the depravities inflicted upon her a hundred-fold, continually shrouding her mind with layers upon layers of self-doubt and pain.

Completely repulsed, Emma steeled herself and continued her assault of light, pouring all she had, all she was, into the battle. Just as she thought she'd destroyed the majority of the darkness, the shadows parted to reveal the frail, insubstantial form of an old woman.

The haggard crone was dressed in threadbare robes with no armor or ornamentation of any sort, and as she shuffled out into the edges of the light, Emma saw a faded black circle around one wrinkled eye. Coarse grey hair hung disheveled and limp around the hag's face, and she motioned listlessly with arthritic hands. She didn't look up, only focused her attention on the ground at her feet.

When she finally spoke, her voice was hoarse and cracked with age and some other unindentifiable emotion. *Why are you here?*

*Not much as far as astral manifestations of self go, are you?* Emma murmured, snapping her fingers to illuminate the area around the newcomer. The white leather of Emma's garb shone like a jewel set against the writhing black velvet of Domino's hellish mindscape, and the old woman blinked dazedly at the brightness.

*Look who's talking, White Queen,* 'Domino' snarled, and flung out a gnarled hand with sudden, violent force. One shaking finger pointed at the shaded images that still played against the backdrop of what remained of the dark jungle, dark soundless depictions of blood and pain.

When Emma didn't rise to the bait, Domino closed her eyes, and all emotion drained out of her voice. *Listen, I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but you can go now. Look around you- I've made a lifetime out of dealing in blood and filth. Tolliver-* Dull eyes hardened at the name, and the horrific memories flitting along the wall grew even darker. *He's just another example of the mess I've made of my life. This is who I am, and nothing can change that.*

*So sure, are you?* Emma replied mildly, staring at the monstrous pictures still glimmering in the darkness. She closed her eyes for a moment, and her mind supplied other more personal faces to the hulking figures in the dark.

Linked as they were, Domino nodded slowly, and the expression on her lined face eerily reflected the chill in Emma's own soul. *Yeah,* she murmured quietly, and turned to stare at the memory-images with haunted eyes. *You understand. As shitty as it is, it's true, all true, and I just don't have the strength to fight it any more. Now go, please. Leave me alone.*

Emma took a step closer, and bright blue eyes met faded violet. *No*, she replied quietly. *I refuse to accept that the Domino I know would surrender so easily to this fate. You asked for my help, knowing how much it would cost you, and I intend that you shall have it.*

Domino chuckled humorlessly. *You don't get it, do you?* she asked tiredly. *There's nothing you can do. Down here, I can't pretend any more, even to myself, and as fucked up as I am about everything, one thing is clear- I don't want to leave.*

*What utter bullshit,* Emma retorted, the vulgarity strangely at contrast with her cultured tone. *You can't realize it, but that's him talking, not you. Deep down, you wouldn't have asked me here if you hadn't wanted help, so quit wasting both of our time and come with me.*

Domino looked up, and for the first time there was a glint of spirit in her eyes, and her quavering voice grew stronger, more passionate. *I only asked you here to shut everyone up. I don't ~want~ your help, so go! Go on, get the hell out!*

Emma simply lifted her chin, eyes bright and clear in the I know what you've been through, what you've suffered,* she paused, a speculative gleam in her eyes, *But I do wish you would quit whining and let me help you back to the physical plane. You're just echoing ~his~ words, not your own, and I don't have time to indulge you in this kind of self-pity.*

Domino shook her head slowly, then lifted a shaking hand to her face. The emotion faded, and there was again no inflection in her tone. *Nice try, but don't you get it? Self pity or not, I don't belong back out there. ~This~ is my home now. I don't ~want~ to leave anymore.*

*So you're a coward, then,* Emma responded flatly, too angry at the conversation to control her words. *You're letting the bastard win because you're too weak to fight.*

The shadow-Domino grunted, annoyed. *No, that's not it either. Don't you get it? Don't you see? This has nothing to do with . . .him. It's ~me~. ~I~ don't want to fight anymore. I'm so tired of it, so . . . damn . . . *tired* of it all, and I'm,* her voice faltered, *Just not going to do it anymore.*

Oblivious to Emma's stony silence, Domino continued in a trembling voice, staring blankly at the haunting images still dancing in the darkness. *I'm tired of not being able to rely on anyone except myself, especially when I screw up as much as I do. I'm tired of spending my life with an arsenal instead of a family. But most of all. . . I'm tired of being stupid enough to let myself care and then just having everything taken away again, like it's some sort of frigging cosmic game.* She drew in a shuddering breath, and in a lonely, almost child-like voice murmured, *It just isn't worth it anymore.*

To Emma's surprise, another vision of Cable flickered in the darkness, a softer picture of the big man resting peacefully in twisted sheets, body curled around a raven haired woman asleep in his arms. Domino stared at it blankly for a moment, her lined face a granite, emotionless mask, and through their link Emma felt a wistfulness and regret so deep and strong that it was almost a physical ache.

Shocked by the tenderness of the scene, Emma blinked, and the picture transformed into the now familiar image of the leering, mocking Cable, the visage warped and twisted into yet another horrific panorama of betrayal and violation, lips moving with silent insults and curses.

Reflected shame twisted in Emma's gut, and she almost doubled over in pain as Domino gasped, closing her eyes against the traitorous picture. Steadying herself, Emma studied Domino, gauging her reaction.

The old woman had turned away, making a low, strangled sound as she covered her face with spotted hands. Sloped shoulders shook with emotion, and it was long moments before she could compose herself enough to respond. When she did, her voice was ancient and rasping, each syllable the sum of a lifetime's pain. *Don't you see, Emma?* she whispered, each word resonating with defeat, *Tolliver warped everything inside me that was good. He took away everything I have, everything I am. You can only bend so far before you break.*

Emma caught herself before responding, rapidly considering which tactic to take. *Then don't break,* she finally answered coldly, knowing that any sympathy would only push Domino further into the gaping void. Moving to face Domino again, Emma hardened her features and heartlessly shrugged. *Don't let the bastard win.*

With that, Emma ignored the almost tangible waves of pain emanating from the other woman to again attack the encroaching vines, focusing more of her attention on the psychic debris still choking Domino's mind.

She spared just enough attention to reach out to the broken apparition. *Despite what you're saying, some part of you wants to live, too, or you wouldn't have sent me. You wouldn't still be here.* Emma stretched out one perfectly manicured hand, and the light around them flared even brighter, a shining inferno of hope against the darkness of her mind. *Take my hand.*

The crone shuddered again, and turned to face Emma, hollow eyes blinking in the face of the vibrant light. She regarded Emma steadily for a moment, and her twisted face almost softened for an instant before she closed her eyes tightly, shaking her head furiously.

*Fuck off,* she hissed, then clutched her head in pain as the psychic fire burned through to the very core layers of her mind. Domino gritted her teeth against the pain as her astral reflection reflecting the changes, the battle between dark and light. *I'm asking you, Emma, leave me ~alone~.*

Domino cried out as her image morphed and twisted into other shimmering forms, the insubstantial lines of her form mirroring the changes taking place in her mind. She shifted from old to young to middle-aged to back again as the war raged within her, as her mind slowly reasserted itself as the blackness of Tyler's taint faded under Emma's ministrations.

Her image distorted as in a funhouse mirror, Domino reached out to grab Emma by the collar of her jacket. *What the hell are you doing to me, bitch? I told you to leave me alone!* Undulating hands shoved Emma away, and she ground her teeth, clenching her hands into fists of fury. *Who the hell are you to tell me what to do? I know who you are, and I know what you've done. You of all people don't have any damn right to condemn me for my decision! Get the hell out of my head, and leave me alone!*

Emma stumbled away, and the darkness surged for a brief instant. She reasserted herself instantly, drawing deep within herself to sear through the midnight stains on Domino's soul. *No! Don't you see? You're not making this choice, ~he~ is, and I won't let that happen this time!*

Emma stood outlined against the conflagration, a shining nimbus of light and strength surrounding her. She stretched out her hand again, and in an impassioned voice pleaded, *Come ~on~, Domino! This isn't you! Tolliver, evil bastard that he was, laid mental traps all over your mind, and you've fallen right into most of them. Think about this! Is this really you? Would the Domino you know give in this easily? Are you really going to let him win?*

There was a long pause, and Domino shivered, wrapping her arms around herself to ward against an inner cold. *He's already won,* she muttered darkly, and the already insubstantial form faded even further, slighter than a ghost.

*That's where you're wrong,* Emma whispered vehemently, *The only time they win is when we let them. Despite his best efforts, you're still alive. You're still here, and he's dead. ~You~ won, Domino. Don't let him defeat you from the grave.*

Domino cried out Emma's efforts burned through one of the last bulwarks of darkness, cauterizing her soul. *And just what do you know about it? What do you know about what I've done and who I've fought?* She jerked her chin beligerantly. *Do you think this is all I've been through? What you're seeing, what you're fighting here- this is only the tip of the iceberg- shit, *I* can't even access some of my own memories! Who the hell are you to lecture me on survival? When's enough? When can I stop fighting? Don't I have the right to choose to run away?*

Almost on cue, a tentacle of dark energy ripped through the bright white fire in a defensive backlash to Emma's last attack. The force was clumsy and imprecise, more instinct than reason, but what it lacked in skill it more than made up for in power. It wrapped itself around Emma, consuming her with a dark wave that tapped into her own personal hell, forcing her to again confront the legacy of the abuses forced upon her as well as the death of her students and the folly of the ambition and pride of life she'd chosen.

Taken completely by surprise, Emma dropped to her knees as her own darkest fears overwhelmed her, and suddenly she was no longer in Domino's mind but instead several years in the past, lying unconscious as Fitzroy methodically struck down her students, one by one, laughing at their amateur attempts to stop him. She cried out again, and the scene changed, and she was once more fourteen years old, cowering in a dark cell as a lust-crazed asylum guard loomed over her, dirty fingers fumbling with his straining zipper.

The darkness loomed around her again, and she squeezed her eyes shut and grabbed her head, lovely features twisted in pain. Her head bowed to her knees, and she rocked back and forth, struggling against the darkness surging around her. The oily shadow, yet another trap laid by Tolliver against any telepath skillful enough to pry into Domino's mind, swirled around her, and she felt her vision sparkle around the edges as unconsciousness beckoned.

*NO!* She shrieked, flinging her head back in defiance as light exploded from her like a dying star, ripping and tearing through the darkness like an atomic blast. *No! I. . . will . . . NOT. . . give in to this!*

Oblivious to the tears pouring down her face, she staggered to her feet, and a nimbus of fierce white light surrounded her, skillfully laying waste to the last of Tolliver's powerful taint.

Her voice was hoarse and thick with emotion, and perfect features twisted in a snarl as she lifted a quivering chin to meet Domino's shocked gaze. With great effort, she parroted back Domino's earlier words, eyes glittering in defiance. *Nice . . . try, but that won't work on me. I've already overcome those demons, Domino, I've already made peace with myself. Just like you, I once was locked inside my own mind, tortured by my past. I fought my way out of that hell, I got out.* She paused, catching her breath, whispering, *And you will, too. If it kills me, I swear to you, you will, too.*

Suddenly exhausted, Emma staggered, looking around the mindscape for a place to rest. Domino's thoughts were still dim with pockets of shadow, dark memories and secret hidden places, but the oppressive air of Tolliver's presence was gone, dissolved into yet more of the twisted charcoal scars lacing the surface of Domino's embattled soul.

She was as free from the monster as she would ever be.

Exhausted from her work, Emma heard a faint stirring, and with some effort, she turned back around. Domino, now a young girl with short hair and pale skin, stared back at her from weary hooded eyes. *Thank you,* she grunted, and her voice, scratchy and hoarse as it was, sounded much more like the Domino Emma knew. *I can still feel what he left behind, but. . ~he's~ gone.* There was a long, awkward pause as the former mercenary worked through what to say. *I. . . appreciate this, Emma, more than I can say.*

Emma merely nodded and waited for the inevitable, too weary to do much more.

Almost to herself, Domino whispered, her voice gaining strength with every word, *But. . .what if he was right? What if all of this is an excuse and the reason I've never been able to live a normal life is because of ~me~, and not because of my past or what people have done to me, but because ~I'm~ fucked up somehow? What if I ~do~ deserve to be locked up in here by myself?*

*Then you deal with it,* Emma whispered tiredly. *You ~live~, Domino. Of ~course~ you're fucked up. We're ~all~ fucked up- it's a fact of life. We can't just blame it on genetics or our pasts. We ~deal~ with it, Domino.*

The other woman shook her head and just looked away. *I've tried my entire life to live by my choices, Emma, but it never turns out that way. Nate-* Domino caught herself at the name, then repeated defiantly, ignoring the faint twinge of pain that caught at the name, *~Nate~ believes in destiny. I've always just believed in me- but when I'm so screwed up that some monster can turn me inside out like that, what does that say about me? Why the hell *shouldn't* I quit, if this is all I am?*

Despite her fatigue, Emma lifted her chin, and shook her head slowly. *No,* she murmured vehemently, *No. Don't you ~dare~ give in just because some bastard used you, made you his toy. Don't give in because a lifetime's worth of bastards did that. We're-* Her mask slipped for an instant, and for a moment Domino saw the insecure, tortured girl beneath the poised surface. *You're stronger than that, you're better than that.*

*To be perfectly honest, I don't know if I am,* Domino admitted, face changing again into the woman Emma recognized, the figure strengthening and solidifying as the last of the psionic healing took effect. *I don't even know where to begin.*

Emma nodded slowly, recognizing the truth in the statement. *You begin where you are, Domino, and you work from there. That's all any of us can do.* Exhausted as she was, she pointed to the largest tree, now colored a dingy gray, the blue-gold apple still dangling from its gnarled branches. She extended her hand once again, the pale glove glowing brighter than the light that surrounded them, offering a promise of sanctuary, of a chance at a new beginning. *Don't you owe it to ~yourself~ to at least try?* Recognizing the importance of the decision, Emma stepped back, contenting herself to watch as Domino pulled herself back from the abyss.

Domino rubbed her eyes and looked away, biting her lip in a now-familiar gesture. She walked slowly around the glade, readjusting to what was more or less her own troubled mind without Tolliver's taint superimposed over her own dark memories. She closed her eyes, and shame and stubborn pride warred within her as she stood poised on the crossroads of decision.

Her mind felt filthy from Tolliver's touch and scalded from Emma's burning assault. Shying away from the thought of either, Domino turned her bleak gaze inside herself, desperately seeking the strength to overcome the paralyzing inertia foisted upon her soul. She closed her eyes, looking past the shadows and scars left behind by Tyler's tampering to search deeply within herself for the slender thread that bound her to herself.

Tyler. All he had done, the ravaging of her body and spirit, the near total severing of her relationship with Nathan- it paled next to what he had done to her soul. All too unsteady to begin with, the monster had taken the prodigious darkness within her and exacerbated it, forcing her to see herself through his own twisted eyes.

*No,* she thought to herself, brushing away angry tears. *No. He's not going to win. Not this time.* Emma was right- no matter what Tolliver had done to her, no matter what anyone did to her, she was who she was, and she would not give in- not to him, and not to anybody.

It was several moments before she allowed herself to speak. *I still don't want to leave,* she admitted, turning back to face Emma. She drew in a deep breath, and it took all the strength she had to meet the other woman's gaze. Reaching out before she could change her mind, she clasped Emma's outstretched hand, pale skin on pale. *But that's why I have to.* She drew in a deep breath. *Emma. . .Get me out of here.*

*As you wish,* Emma murmured mildly, allowing herself a small smile. Closing her eyes, she withdrew from Domino's mind, pulling them both out of the astral plane back into reality, and the shadows and light that awaited both of them there.


PART60

BACK