Mon, 3 Sep 2001
DuAnn Cowart ibelieve@rocketmail.com
Just Lucky, I Guess 59/62

Standard disclaimers apply.

For Luba, who has been here through it all and without whom this story very probably would not exist.


Just Lucky, I Guess

59/62

DuAnn Cowart

 

The evening sun filtered through leafy maple trees, casting dappled shadows over the solitary figure brooding underneath its branches. Battered and weary from the events of the last few days, Nathan Summers sat cross-legged at the base of a particularly massive tree, staring across a clearing at the object of his heart's desire.

The woman known as Domino sat on a long dock on one of the smaller ponds dotting the edge of the Xavier estates, seemingly absorbed in her thoughts. Dressed only in a black tank top and cut off fatigue shorts, she sat on one curled-under leg, the other hanging off of the dock, absently tracing ripples on the smooth water with a curved toe. She was alone, and even a casual observer could have seen from her body language and the guarded expression on her face that she was immensely disturbed.

He was far from a casual observer, and even troubled as she was, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Although his recollections of the last few days were shrouded in a painful haze, some memories were burned forever into his mind, etched in sharp flame-licked relief against the barren expanse of his recovering thoughts. She was featured prominently in all of them. So very much had happened to them in so little time that he barely could process it all.

Only one week ago he had dallied with the idea of another, unsure of where he stood with Domino, unwilling to commit to such a fundamental change in a relationship that had been his touchstone. Six days ago he had felt her join with another, and had burned with jealousy at the knowledge of what they had denied themselves for so many years. Six days ago they had each wounded the other with angry recriminations stemming from those emotions running rampant across the mental bond they shared.

Five days ago she had shared a message of a new threat grounded in the guilt-laced horror of their shared past and confessed to him something of what she had been through at the hands of his bastard son. Four days ago they had traveled to London and met with old and new friends, and began the intricate task of saving a blissfully unwitting world yet again.

Three days ago the world had been born anew when they had finally broken through decades-old walls and joined, body, mind and soul, in a bond of a depth and intensity the likes of which he had never hoped to feel again.

Two days ago the world had ended when the monster who wore his dead son's face psionically raped her with Nathan's own image and tainted their union with false memories of unspeakable violation and betrayal, shattering that bond so that only the faintest wisps remained. Two days ago he had almost died at the hands of that same villain, and would have, had not a teammate given all she had and more to save him. Two days ago they had stopped a vicious cloning project, and very likely saved the world, or at least a good portion of it. Two days ago his partner had killed that monster before his very eyes. Two days ago the woman he loved most in the world took away his second chance to make things right with the man he could not help but consider his son.

Yesterday they had returned to Westchester to begin the long process of healing, praying that the wounds they bore from this mission would become just another set of scars from a life full of them. Yesterday he had finally awoken from psychic surgery with her name upon his lips. Yesterday he had contented himself with encouraging reports about her condition, relieved beyond words that she would recover, still too weak to seek her out or do much more than whisper thanks to Whoever was listening that she had not slipped away in the middle of the night.

Today he lingered in the woods alone as his partner, his lover, pretended not to know that he was there. He knew better than to believe otherwise. He was only a few hundred yards away, and she was far too much of a professional not to have an intimate grasp on her surroundings at all times, even in the wake of such devastating injuries.

The uneasiness emanating from her end of the painful ruins of their bond only confirmed his suspicions, and the thought itself was bittersweet. He *knew* this woman inside and out. He knew her thoughts, her fears, and he recognized the tension in her too-easy slouch. Broken link or no, she knew he was there, and she was afraid. Domino, who had faced firing squads with blithe laughter and bloody battlefields with a smile, was afraid. Of *him*.

The very thought made him ill.

He sighed, correcting himself bitterly. She was afraid of *them*, and she wasn't the only one. They had both known the risks of love before the night that bound them as one, known that admitting the truth and opening themselves fully to it would make them vulnerable to pain. Somehow, though, all that hadn't mattered in London. All that had mattered then was the fact that they were finally together and could staunch the flow of so many wasted years.

Now, only a few days later, a wasted eternity loomed. The psychic wounds that Tyler's clone had left behind would mend, but unless they could heal the damage done to their newly deepened bond the rift between them would only widen. If that happened, he would lose her- they would lose each other. London would become only a painful memory, and even the memories of the love they had shared would be tainted with the evil of Tyler's machinations.

Pushing aside the unpleasant thought, he studied her closely, considering how to proceed. She healed rapidly, he had long cause to know, but the difficulty of their mission still left its mark on her face. Underneath the fading bruises and lingering stiffness of her movements were deeper shadows, edging her beauty with a sorrow that mirrored his own.

He felt a sudden wave of gratefulness that she was still here. As long as he had known her, Domino, who valued control above all things, had dealt with overwhelming emotions and inner pain by running away. Her tail lights in the night had become a familiar sight over the years, and this was worse than anything that had come before. It was truly remarkable that she had not left this place already, and strong testament to the power of the ties between them.

He closed his eyes and swallowed tightly, willing himself for the upteenth time to get up and go to her, but he couldn't make himself do it. He, who was so intimately familiar with guilt, who wore it like a shroud even during his lightest moments, now felt its weight settle around his shoulders like an old friend. The realization clenched his heart with fingers of ice. This was all his fault, the fruit of the poisonous vine he'd planted so long ago by leaving the boy Tyler behind.

If Tyler had not been captured by Stryfe and twisted into madness, the father's son becoming yet another arrow in their vicious brotherly war, this never would have happened. If he had not known and loved Domino, Tyler would have had no reason to strike at him through her in the first place. If he had seen deeper into Vanessa's facade, recognized that the woman was using him by tapping into his unconscious desires by becoming the Domino he'd always wished he could have, he could have rescued Domino before any experimentation took place at all, stopping this entire chain of sequences before it all came to pass.

So many ifs. So many aching memories, so many broken pathways- the shattered bond throbbed with the intensity of his feelings. Even as a non-psi he knew she must feel it, too. At that moment he wondered yet again if she would turn and stare at him with those haunted purple eyes, if she blamed him for what had happened half as much as he did. If she did, he didn't think he could bear it.

Chin lolling against his chest, his eyes narrowed in disgust at his own cowardice. This had gone on long enough. Their entire relationship had been about wasted time, and he had no desire to waste anymore. They had wasted so many years with words unsaid. Only a few days ago they had bulldozed through the emotional debris which had built up over the years and so briefly broken through to the light waiting at other side. He wanted that freedom back.

With the bright pure image of the unsullied bond that had been burning in his mind, Nathan Summers staggered to his feet and summoned his courage, forcing one foot in front of him, and then another, and then another, almost blindly stumbling towards her.

It was past time he did something about this.

He paused at the steps of the dock, staring at the woman sitting at its edge, still pretending not to see him. He didn't move, didn't speak, just stood there as the top of the swollen sun lowered itself into the thicket of trees lining the grounds of the mansion, the thunderous cries of the chorus of cricket song falling lightly on ears deafened by the thunderous pounding of his heart.

"Dom-" he began slowly, hesitant and respectful of her solitude, mouth dry as a bone. "Mind some company?"

She started, and he recognized the deceptively subtle position as her muscles tightly coiled under a disguise of relaxation, ready to spring away or attack at the slightest notice. The stance was no surprise, as he had taught it to her himself almost two decades ago when she had been little more than a girl. Cursing himself for a fool, he stood there, anxious as a cat, studying the weathered boards underneath his sandaled feet. She didn't move, didn't speak, and he felt the seconds trickle by like hours.

When she spoke, the words were so soft and low that at first he thought he imagined them. "Nathan." She turned slightly, and he could see even from her profile that the bruises on her face which seemed faint from so far away were still vivid and deep, mottling her ivory skin with blotches of yellow and purple and green. "I wondered when you were going to come down here."

Heart pounding in his chest, he pivoted and walked over the floating boards to stand only a few feet from her side. "May I join you?"

She looked up at him, and he saw for the first time how flat and cold her eyes were. "Suit yourself," she shrugged, drawing her foot out of the water, flicking droplets of pond water off goose bumped skin. "It's a free dock."

He awkwardly lowered himself to sit near her, leaning back against a heavy concrete pylon. Unspoken words hung heavy in the air between them, and neither met the other's eyes.

In such proximity to her, the shards of their bond burbled, a lost connection seeking a home. His mental shields, weak in the aftermath of the psychic surgeries, began to leak, and memories bled through, each fading and overlapping the other. . .

/bare skin aglow in London moonlight/their plane buffeted by the explosion of the Spanish ruins/her cry of ecstasy as they plunged into each other/her limp body chained to the wall/his knife in her hands, plunging into not-Tyler's neck/ the feel of her skin against his, and the birth cry of their new-formed link/ the electric agony as that bond severed/the betrayal of his false image degrading her again and again and again/

Her head whipped around, and he saw in her widened eyes a reflection of the horror he felt at what they had gone through as the remnants of their bond reflected his agonized thoughts for her review.

She scrambled to her feet, instinctively backing away from him. "Don't," she whispered hoarsely, voice trembling with emotion. "Don't you fucking dare tell me you want to talk about it."

"I. . .no, I don't, Dom, I . . . didn't come down here for that," he stammered, completely taken aback by her ferocity.

"Good," she snapped, fists clenched in tight balls at her side. There was another long moment of silence which was finally broken by her terse "Take the friggin' dock, I'm going in." Oblivious to the wounded look on his face, she bent down and stuffed her feet into a pair of worn white tennis shoes. When she was done, she rose stiffly, studiously avoiding his gaze. One hand gripping a nearby pylon for balance. "It's getting dark out here, anyway."

He reached out for her arm, and tried not to flinch when she jerked away from his touch and dropped instantly into a fighting stance. "Don't-" she tilted her head sharply to the side, raising the heels of her hands in warning, and he saw a flash of something far more sinister lurking behind her eyes.

He instantly backed away, mirroring her gesture. Standing in silence, he shifted his weight, unsure of how to proceed. "I. . . Dom, I didn't mean to intrude. I just wanted to-"

"To what? To talk? To share our feelings? To tell me how fucking sorry you are? *Fuck* that! The op went bad, they've gone bad before, they'll go bad again. I'd really rather not get in to any other shit right now, if you don't mind!" She recovered quickly, but her cheeks burned with embarrassing color nonetheless. "Besides, it's getting cool out here. It's time to go in."

"Then take my jacket," he replied quickly, casting about for something, anything to say. "Please stay out here, Dom. . . " He slipped out of the light coat and extended it to her like an offering to a queen.

She studied it suspiciously, then shook her head abruptly. "No, thanks, I'm fine. Now please, excuse me, Nathan-"

He made a face, thrusting the garment towards her insistently. "Dom, you said it yourself, it's cool out here, take my jacket-"

"I don't want your fucking jacket!" She exploded, screamed words echoing in the relative stillness of the night. "I don't want anything remotely related to you! Why can't you get that through your thick fucking skull?"

He bent his head as if slapped, and was quiet a long moment, catching his breath. When the pain had slackened enough that his voice worked again, he spoke softly, enunciating each word carefully. "So that's it, then? You're giving up, just like that? This means so little to you?"

"Don't lecture me, Nathan," she muttered through clenched teeth. "I'm not going to stand here and take it. You have no fucking *idea* of what I'm feeling right now!"

"Don't I?" He growled, left eye flashing golden in the dim twilight. He took a looming step closer to her, suddenly furious. To her credit, she didn't back away, though he could see as well as sense her fear through their stunted connection. He instantly stepped back, looking away so that she wouldn't bear witness to the shame on his face.

"Flonq, Dom, you're right." He squeezed his eyes shut, furious with himself. Drawing a deep breath, he murmured softly, "I'm . . . sorry."

She took a step back, taken by surprise at the unexpected apology. "Sorry has no meaning," she snapped, parroting the words she'd heard from his lips so many times before. Underneath the air of bravada, though, he heard the slight quaver in her tone, felt an uncertainty in her voice that matched his own.

He nodded slowly, jaw muscles twitching as he struggled with deep emotions. "I used to think that," he admitted, and she knew he was referring to far more than simply this argument. "But I was wrong. Sometimes 'sorry' is the only thing that matters."

She blinked, startled out of her rage. In a dubious tone, she said "I . . . don't believe you just said that."

He laughed humorlessly. "I don't believe a lot of the things that have happened lately. You, me, finally taking that step, and then losing it all- it doesn't seem real somehow."

"It's real," she whispered, but the anger had faded from her voice. "Trust me, Nathan, it's real." Wincing, she ran her hands through her hair, then sat back down, looping her arms around her knees. "And there's no need for you to apologize. I'm sorry, I overreacted."

"Don't be. You had every right," he shook his head, sincerity deepening his already bass voice. Taking a gamble, he shrugged, "Besides, it's just a flonqing jacket."

She snorted, resting her chin on her knees to look up at him. "Right. Just a jacket." She looked up at him, and for a moment he saw the old Domino in her small wry smile. "This didn't start particularly well, did it?"

He chuckled, relieved at her response. "I've seen civil wars that began more auspiciously." Smiling, he sat back down as well, careful not to crowd her on the long dock.

"So have I," she attempted a smile, but he didn't miss the fact that she still scooted a little farther away from him. She ran her eyes over his massive frame, and noting the absence of any major wounds or bandages remarked conversationally, "You look a lot better than you did the last time I saw you."

"So do you," he replied bluntly, then winced at the reference to the injuries Tyler had inflicted upon her. "Shit, Dom, I'm sorry-"

She shook her head. "Don't do that again, Nate, I don't think my heart can stand it," she half-joked, but he again heard the slight chill in her voice, saw her features tighten underneath the expression of indifference she wore like a mask. "I told you, it's ok. It's not like it didn't happen." She swallowed tightly and met the inevitable. "I suppose. . . it's all right for you to bring it up."

He paused, utterly confused at her abrupt about-face. "So . . . we can talk about it?" He paused, a disbelieving smile flickering on his lips. "You're not gonna- what's that stupid movie you and Kane made me go to that horrible little back water drive-in to see over and over again, with the priest and the demon and the little girl? You're not gonna start spitting up green bile and twist your neck all the way around, are you?"

This time she did laugh out loud, as he had intended. "I might twist *your* neck around," she admitted slowly, and this time they both smiled, "but I'll try not to go all Linda Blair on you. . . again." She shivered, looking away from him, and all levity instantly faded. "But it's not easy, Nate."

He raised a hand to her, then dropped it to his side. "I don't imagine it is, babe," he whispered, overwhelmed by an inexpressible feeling of helplessness. "I just-"

"Just what?" She sighed, and he saw the fine lines around her eyes deepen again. "I don't know what you're expecting from me. There's just so much either one of us can do here. It's still so soon after everything, and it's all still so fresh. . ."

"I know," he admitted. "I just- think it's better if we talk about it now instead of ignoring it like we've done so many other things over the years. I don't. . ." He raised a hand to his chin, then met her eyes, admitting with a candor he would not have thought possible only a few short days ago, "I don't want to lose you again."

She held his mismatched gaze for a moment, then had to look away. Biting her lip, she whispered plaintively, "Just what do you want me to say, Nate? That I don't want to lose you, either? You know I don't. But. . .it's not that easy. It's not that simple." She ran a hand through her hair again, a nervous gesture that he recognized from old. "Haven't you learned by now? Nothing is ever that simple with us."

His heart split open at the pain in her voice, but somehow he made himself reply, "It doesn't have to be that way." Instinct, not thought, governed his next actions. He moved towards her, crossing the distance between them easily.

"Dom-" he moaned roughly, reaching out to trace a metal finger gently down her cheek, careful to avoid the faint bruises that still marred her smooth skin, forcing himself not to pull away when she flinched at his touch.

He lifted her chin very slightly and stared into her haunted violet eyes, whispering, "Do whatever you have to do, just don't shut me out again." He leaned closer to her, and rested his forehead against hers, eyes squeezed tightly shut. In a voice that was softer than she would have imagined possible, he whispered, "Don't let us end like this."

Heart lodged in her throat, she permitted his touch, craning her neck to meet him, and her carefully constructed facade slipped for just a moment. "Nate, I-" For a moment, just a moment, he saw the emotions warring on her face and heard the truth in her voice, an echo of the desperation that marked their first true union, then it was gone. She pulled back, and he saw the curtain descend behind her eyes again. "Please. I can't handle this right now."

In a voice hoarse with frustration, he raised his chin and rasped, "When, then, Domino? When you send me a postcard in a couple of months, when you call in a year, if you even do that? When?" He ground his teeth against the impotent fury, and in a far gentler voice continued, "I know this isn't easy, but I'm not giving up on you this time. Tell me what I can say, what I can do, to make this better."

Too tired for anger, she rubbed her temple slowly, taking time to compose a response. "Don't you see?" She stared at him with bleak eyes. "That's the problem. There's nothing you *can* do about it now."

"I . . . refuse to accept that," he said, the words pouring out in a rush. Square jaw set stubbornly, he demanded, "*Talk* to me, Dom. Tell me what's going on- there's got to be *something* I can do!"

Touched by the depth of emotion emanating from him, she met his golden gaze, forcing herself not to shy away from the love and concern she saw there. "Nate, I- he almost had me," she admitted softly, more to herself than to him, and felt something hard and cold twist in her gut at the very mention of Nathan's almost son. She twisted away again, dipping a finger into the black surface of the lukewarm pond, scooping up a handful of water. She watched as it poured through her fingers, a tight knot lodged in her throat. "He almost won."

Cable was still, quietly processing the layers of meaning in her words. "But he didn't," he reminded her softly. "He didn't win. He hurt us all, you most of all, but we- you, me, Betsy, all of us- we made it through, again. Just like we always do. We made it through. He couldn't change that."

"I'm not so sure," she replied quietly, then dried her hand on her shorts and climbed to her feet. She opened her mouth to speak and closed it sharply, and he had the sense that she was again struggling with great emotion. When she spoke, he knew the moment of sharing was gone, and she was once more lost to the silence that kept them apart. "Listen to me, Nate, I- can't deal with this right now. I said I don't want to talk about it, and I don't. Ok?"

He stared up at her, seeing the pain in her eyes, knowing what this openness was costing her. Unable to stop himself, knowing it wasn't wise to push her so, he asked "So this is how you want to handle it- ignore it and hope it goes away?"

Instead of the angry response he expected, she just sighed and ran her hands over her eyes, hiding her face from him for a moment. "Please, Nathan, I don't want to fight anymore," she pleaded, voice raw with emotion. "I just don't have it in me right now, OK? Please don't fault me for being honest with you about this."

Her words rang true, and he realized with a start the depth of an exhaustion that would cause this woman to admit weakness of any sort. Ignoring his own need for resolution, he leaned forward and whispered, "You're . . . right, Dom. I won't bother you about this any more tonight."

Her shoulders slumped in relief, and she favored him with a shaky smile, then inclined her head towards the mansion. "I'm about to go in. Are you coming?"

He nodded, and stood back up again, grateful to see that she was waiting for him at the foot of the dock. Drawing in a deep breath, he looked at her, and was again taken aback by her beauty and the magnitude of what they were fighting to preserve. The purple haze of twilight was beginning to shade into inky midnight blue, and the shadows of the wood were deepening with every passing moment. The placid water of the lake shone like onyx underneath the fading sky, but she outshone them all, a pale jewel in the setting of the dark loveliness of nature.

He stretched out a hand to her, and in a curiously deep voice, murmured the words which were at the heart of all their joy, the seeds of all their pain. "I love you, Domino."

She stiffened, and he thought for a moment that she was going to turn and walk away from him and all they shared. She didn't, but neither did she turn to him. She just paused, considering, and he felt the broken threads of their bond pull taut as she composed her answer. Lifting her face to his, she finally met his stare, and he knew that he would never forget what he saw reflected in her eyes.

She held his gaze unflinchingly. "I love you, too, Nathan. What does that have to do with anything?"


Betsy Braddock sighed, one perfectly lacquered nail delicately tracing ripples in the lukewarm water as she lingered in her afternoon bath. She breathed deeply, filling her lungs with jasmine-scented steam.

Leaning her head back against the curved edge of the huge porcelain tub, she stretched out her arms to gather the rapidly dissipating bubbles closer, hypnotized by the swirl and glide of the iridescent froth as it drifted along the surface of the scented water.

Arching her neck, she looked across the room to the mirror above the ornate bathroom sink, studying the woman who stared back at her. 'I look dreadful.' The slightly foggy reflection couldn't hide the dark circles under exquisite almond eyes, or the numerous tiny scratches and abrasions marring an otherwise flawless complexion. Raising a soapy hand to her face, Elisabeth touched her cheek, brushing back the long tendril of hair that had escaped the mass of dark purple curls piled high atop her head.

Slipping back into the water, she closed her eyes and tried again to lose herself in the peace and quiet of the quiet afternoon. Long moments passed, and the water grew cooler, but still she couldn't bring herself to leave the soothing balm of the scented water. The all-consuming pounding in her head had finally dulled to a light ache, and from the tingling inside her skull she suspected that the worst damage from the epic battle with Tyler was finally beginning to heal.

It had been an exhausting week. First the fights with Warren, then the intense precognitive trance that had warned her of the consequences of not joining Domino and Nathan on their trip to London. Then the trip itself, and an even stronger vision, and the fortress and all it brought with it. Horrible as all that was, it was nothing compared to the final epic battle with Tyler that had seared her mind almost beyond repair and the effects of the psychic surgery required to make her whole again, and-

And, of course, Logan.

With that one name, every muscle in her body tensed and whatever modicum of relaxation the careful afternoon had brought immediately fled. With a sigh, she raised one muscled leg out of the soapy water to flick the small brass lever underneath the faucet with one perfectly pedicured toe. The drain opened with a loud gurgle, and as the water swirled downward she rinsed the lingering soap bubbles off of her body with the attached showerhead and unsteadily rose to her feet.

She was still sore, and as the blood rushed to her head, the throbbing in her skull resumed full force. Wincing, she massaged her temple with water-dimpled fingertips. Almost on cue, a beam of sunlight from the nearby window struck her full in the face, its bright clear light not nearly as penetrating- or painful- as the name which refused to leave her thoughts. Logan.

And therein lay the problem. Shortly after awakening from psionic surgery she had asked Warren to take her back to Soho, anxious to be away from the prying thoughts and dark emotions swirling around the mansion. He had been only too happy to comply, but now she wondered if the course of action had been wise. Standing there in the spacious bathroom of the elegant Soho loft she shared with Warren Worthington, she was consumed not with the many distractions of city life, as she had hoped, but instead with completely unwholesome thoughts of her longtime teammate, her longtime friend.

Logan.

Muttering a very unladylike curse under her breath, she stepped out of the tub and reached for a thick ivory robe. Wrapping herself in its plush softness, she tied the long belt around her waspish waist, grabbing a thick towel to tousel dry her hair. Pulling the broad lapels of the robe around her face, she ducked her chin into the soft folds, breathing deeply of the scent that permeated the room.

Luxury, indulgence, opulence- hallmarks of the lifestyle she'd been born into, trappings of the finer things in life. Usually she could lose herself in the sensualities of life, allow pure unadulterated pleasures to override her problems for a time and simply exult in the sheer joy of life.

Today, though. . . there could be no joy in simplicity when she was faced with so momentous a decision. Staring into the mirror again, she raised a soft hand to her cheek, trailing it down her face, her throat, the tops of her revealed breasts.

Logan. Warren.

Either. Neither. Both.

Shit.

She threw up her hands, disgusted at her own thoughts. 'Since when have I become so bloody indecisive?!?'

Walking out of the steamy bathroom she curled up on the large plush sofa, breathing easier in the dim light of the room. Still half-heartedly drying her hair, she reached for the remote control to the large screen television and pressed the power button.

'Yes, a little mindless entertainment might definitely be in order.' The very thought brought a banal satisfaction.

The television came to life, flickering images illuminating the room. The screen showed several loudly dressed young people seated in a semi-circle on a talk show stage. One man was angrily pointing her finger at the woman smirking beside him.

"Yeah, Jeh-ry, that *?@! slept with my man, there. . . she say she my woman, she say she don't want him, but she did, she-"

Betsy sighed, and changed the channel.

"Oh, Susan, how I long for the day when we can be as one! Your fiance doesn't deserve the softness of your touch, the sweetness of your kiss. . ."

"Edward, how I desire your forbidden touch! Come to me in our naughty jungle of love. . . He need never know the burning of our passionate hearts!"

Betsy cursed, and flicked a button.

". . . And next on Oprah, we'll be previewing the next book on Oprah's Book Club. 'Living with Infidelity', by Dr. Elizabeth McKenzie. It's all about how to survive when the only one you trust betrays you-"

Betsy snarled, and threw the remote control across the room, breaking a very expensive lamp in the process. She sighed, stood up, and walked across the room to pick up the pieces.


He strummed his fingers against the taut muscles of his leg, grimacing impatiently as his driver inched the limo slowly through afternoon traffic. It had *not* been a good day at the office. A particularly risky pet deal had turned amazingly sour, and he'd spent the entire afternoon placating the grumpy old men who made up his Board of Directors. The magnitude of the failure had necessitated some ass kissing of the highest order, and it had taken all his considerable charm to woo the old bastards back to his fold.

Warren Kenneth Worthington the Third hated playing the sycophant. He'd done it, though, soothed their ruffled old feathers, and even managed to get things relatively back on track for the future. After all, the loss of a few million dollars would hardly make much of an impact to a corporation as large as Worthington Industries, and as long as the projected earnings otherwise held steady, the company was in fine shape. Ever since he'd taken over the reins of the family business a few years ago Worthington Industries had again begun to resemble the corporate powerhouse it had once been. The wrinkled old monsters could hardly give him *too* much hell. He still retained majority ownership, after all.

With that cheery thought in mind, he pulled out a tiny cell phone from his briefcase to call home. One slim blue finger poised over the buttons, however, as Warren contemplated a long evening at home with his. . . whatever the hell Betsy was to him these days. Alternately hot and cold, she'd been acting damn strangely- even for her- since her return from London yesterday.

London. Where, despite the fact that he had desperately needed her here, she had followed Cable and Domino and Storm and. . . Logan . . . to pursue some mysterious mission they all still refused to talk about, some mission where, based on his extremely limited understanding of the situation, Betsy had almost died. For all his prodding, he was still as in the dark about what happened on that fateful trip as the rest of the mansion was.

Despite the fact that they had apparently almost lost three teammates, no one involved was talking about what happened- not a word, not a peep, not from anyone- not from Storm, not from Logan, and certainly not from any of the injured. The rumor mill was ablaze with speculation as to what could have rendered so much damage to some of the most powerful members of the various X-teams, but none of said members were talking.

He remembered Jean's panicked call waking him in the middle of the night, though the rest of that evening was a blur of frantic motion as he'd rushed back to the mansion, stomach churning fear and heart-rending relief after he'd learned that his lover had emerged from emergency psionic surgery mentally whole.

He'd tried speaking to Betsy about what had happened, but she had adamantly refused. "Warren," she'd whispered gently, and he'd felt something deep inside him twist at the pain in her eyes, "Please. I don't want to- please just understand-"

Seeing her so uncharacteristically tongue-tied had unsettled him greatly, and with a lump in his throat he'd only nodded and crushed her tightly to his chest. Ever since her departure he had felt an odd uneasiness, and though he couldn't quite put a finger on it, knew deep within that something was wrong. It was enough, however, for the time being, that she was here. He was so damn glad to have her alive and here with him that he would have gladly acquiesced to anything she said.

After the initial relief of seeing her again had more or less passed, he'd tried again to get her to open up to him last night, but each time she sensed his thoughts heading in that direction she either changed the subject or made up some reason to be somewhere else. He'd contemplated speaking to Jean about it, but instead considered all the history that lay there and thought better of it. All he could do was be there while she recovered, pray for the best and hope that one day she'd trust him enough to tell him what had happened.

She had asked him to bring her to the city, so he had, glad to get her away from the mansion and its inhabitants. He had wanted to stay home with her today, but it was a precarious time at work, Betsy understood that. Surely she did.

She had *said* she did. . .

A bit guiltily, he made a quick decision and pressed the memory button on his cell phone. It rang twice, then he heard a brief click on the other end as the call navigated his internal security system.

"Hello," Betsy answered, a perfect hint of natural haughtiness in her tone, as befitted his lover. Despite his trepidation at the evening's plans, he smiled.

"Betsy?" His voice was clear and controlled, equally as aristocratic as hers. "How are you feeling, my dear?"

"Warren." There was a brief pause. "I'm. . . feeling better," she answered, a strange timbre in her clear voice.

"I'm. . . glad to hear that." There was a long silence, and Warren stretched his long legs, idly noting the play of toned muscles underneath his expensive suit. "Listen, Betsy, I've been thinking, and I have a proposition for you."

There was an edge of wry humor in her reply. "Sounds delicious, but I'm not sure I'm up to that yet, Warren."

He grinned despite himself. "Sure you are, but that's not what I meant, either."

He sensed her returning smile across the city, and relaxed a bit. "How does this sound? Get dressed up and meet me in the lobby. We'll go out to dinner somewhere acceptable, just the two of us."

The line was silent for a moment, then she responded, "Warren, luv, I'm not really sure I-"

He shifted in his seat, suddenly eager to go out with her. Before she could continue, he interrupted with an imploring "Please, Betsy?"

She sighed, exhaling sharply. "Very well, Warren. Promise me we won't be out late, though, I really am quite tired."

"I promise," he hurriedly assured her. "Wear something black and slinky. I'll see you soon," he concluded, pressing the end button before she could change her mind. Leaning back in his expansive back seat, he crossed his arms behind his head and smiled broadly.

Tonight might be a new beginning for the two of them after all.


Across town, Betsy Braddock lay the telephone back in its ornate receiver, and rubbed her eyes with a sigh. Yawning deeply, she turned and walked back to her closet to select yet another perfectly appropriate little black dress to wear to a perfectly appropriate dinner with her perfectly appropriate lover.

And deep inside her aristocratic exterior, something feral stirred.


Pete Wisdom looked around the extravagantly decorated guestroom and ground his teeth. Despite the fact that he *knew* that Xavier had to rebuild this damn mansion every few years or so, his surroundings managed to look the centuries-old estate of every snot-nosed aristocrat or limp-wristed old sod he'd ever known who wouldn't as much as nod to him in public but who lined up to engage his services- discreetly, of course. He snorted in disdain. Antique furniture, understated walls, perfect draperies- every single component probably cost more than most blokes made in a year.

He bloody *hated* the rich. And to think, Kitty grew up in this place. It was a certified miracle that she was as well adjusted as she was, and it made him even more appreciative of the fact that she had decided to throw in her lot with an almost-penniless ex-intel agent with a penchant for drink and far too many cigarettes.

Drawing on a false sense of bravado, he fluffed a pillow on the bed and said cheerily, "In case I haven't mentioned it yet, Kit, these are pretty swank digs, here. I didn't know this Dream of yours paid quite so well or I mighta joined this bunch years ago." His lips split in a toothy grin, daring her to call his bluff.

She did. His lover, sitting on the corner of the bed, gave a long-suffering sigh and answered bluntly. "Pete, you know very well the Professor inherited all his money and earned the rest through sound investments."

"Now why does that sound just a little bit practiced to me, eh?" He yawned, hiding his lingering discomfort. "Ol' Baldy's just not tellin' the rest of y' about the Supervillain Bounty he collects every time you lot bring some baddy down."

Kitty Pryde turned to face him, smiling indulgently at her beloved. "Supervillain Bounty?"

He nodded several times, leaning over to take her in his arms. "Yep," he buried his face in her hair, breathing the scent of it deeply. "I collect 'em all the time. How else do y' think I can afford to keep y' in this style to which y' obviously have become accustomed?"

Arching an eyebrow, she replied tartly, "Quit. You know damn well I don't care anything about all this. It doesn't matter where we live, as long as we're together."

"I'll remember that next time y' start fussin' about my London apartment, then," he grinned rakishly, remembering some of their stunningly detailed arguments about his less-than-laudable housekeeping skills.

She groaned, rolling her eyes. "I'll retract that last statement," she laughed, warm brown eyes dancing in pleasure at the stolen moments alone together. After savoring his touch for a bit longer, she twisted so that their faces met. "Pete?"

"Hmmm?" he murmured, lost in the feel of the woman in his arms.

She caressed his cheek with the back of her hand, but her words were characteristically forthright. "We probably need to get back downstairs. Didn't you say you wanted to check on Domino again before we left for home?"

He instantly sobered, and the haunted expression on Domino's face flittered across his vision. "Yer right, as usual," he nodded, and his chest tightened slightly as guilt for what his old friend had suffered descended like a cloud. Pushing that aside for a moment, he straightened and reluctantly kissed his partner on the lips before releasing her.

"As always, yer right, my pet," he sighed, reaching for a cigarette from a pack in his omnipresent black suit jacket. "I visited with 'er a bit this mornin', but she wasn't in th' mood t' talk. I ain't gonna push her, but we need to make some decisions before Jardine gets on th' blower and has a planeful of his lackies show up on th' front door for a full debriefing."

Kitty smiled softly, but he sensed an undercurrent of sadness in her voice. "Yeah, all things considered, I'm kind of ready to get back home myself."

He inhaled deeply, lungs filling with thick black smoke, dark as the thoughts of vengeance that filled him at the thought of what his old comrade had endured. "I'm kinda surprised t' hear that, Pryde. I always thought you wanted to visit here more often, seein' as how y' grew up here an' all."

She shrugged. "You'd think that, wouldn't you?" There was a brief pause, and a bittersweet smile touched her lips. "I won't say it hasn't been nice to see everyone, even under these circumstances, and maybe coming back later would be a good idea, but for some reason it's just making me sad this time. The person I shared the most with here is dead, and everywhere I look I just see memories of her."

Pete nodded astutely, and moved behind his lover, massaging her shoulders. "Yer talkin' about Illyana, right?" He squirmed a bit to think of her connection with Colossus' sister, but could not blame Kitty's dead friend for her sibling any more than he could blame himself for having such a callous old bastard of a father as he had.

She nodded miserably. "Yeah. Coming back here right after this particular mission is stirring up all kinds of bad memories." She paused, swallowing, "She had people experiment on her and use her, too. She was screwed with and manipulated and used her entire life. She showed them, though," Kitty smiled defiantly, and Pete again saw a flash of the warrior behind her beautiful eyes. "She beat them all and lived to rule over them, and then finally regained what she missed most of all- her innocence. She died clean," Kitty whispered softly, eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Coming back here always reminds me of that."

"Yeah, but there were good times, too, right, Kit?" He asked slowly, hesitant to interrupt her grief.

She grinned broadly, and he knew it had been the right thing to say. "Oh, yeah. The stories I could tell. . ." She trailed off, and the smile faded. She leaned her head back, resting it against his chest. "Pete, I. . . I miss her so much. It's still so hard to believe that she's gone. Being home again is stirring it all up for me."

He held her close, silently noting that she used the term 'home' to mean both Westchester and Muir. Filing that information away for later, he just pressed his body tightly against hers, allowing his warmth and presence to encourage her in ways that mere words could not.

After a moment, she pulled away slightly, shaking her head. Rubbing her eyes, she sighed. "Plus, all that shit with Ororo has made me so uncomfortable with everything here. Pete, I love her, I swear I do, but I just don't feel like justifying myself to her or to anyone, especially when it comes to you."

He snorted contemptously. "Love, I hope y' know by now that y' don't have t' fight any battles on *my* behalf. She- they- can think what they want t' think. Doesn't make me lose any sleep at night, and it sure as hell doesn't change the fact that I go home with you at the end of the day." He grinned in an exaggeratedly lewd expression.

She smiled at that, taking his hand in hers. "You got that right, buddy. Now," she began walking towards the door, pulling him along, "Don't you think it's time we wrapped up some loose ends here so we cna get back to real business?"

"Yeah," he murmured. Releasing her hand, he called out, "Hey, let me get in touch with Jardine and give him th' full story."

His eyes narrowed as he imagined the conversation. "The old bastard ought t' be so grateful that we got his bad guys for 'im that 'e won't need to bother Dom no more about it." His expression clouded. "In fact, I think we can count on that."

"Fine," Kitty said over her shoulder as she paused before the door. "I'm gonna go make the rounds before we go. Find me when you're done, eh?" She didn't wait for a response, just phased through the door, her mind obviously on other things.

He just watched her go, a smile playing about his lips, then opened his suitcase to find some very small, very expensive communications equipment, mentally calculated which markers he would be calling in with Jardine over the next few minutes to ensure that Domino was no longer bothered with any mention of this mission, or, he corrected himself, until *she* was ready for it and contacted Jardine herself.

It wouldn't be easy, he grimaced, but it was the least he could do. He owed her that much, and Pete Wisdom always paid his debts. Well, except for his credit card bills. He had a bad habit of paying them late-

Shaking off the distraction, Pete punched in the contact numbers for Jardine's private line, and crossed his fingers. Here goes nothing, he thought, then brightened as the most important man in English intelligence answered the phone.

"Jardine! Ol' buddy, ol' pal, have *I* got a story for you..."


PART60

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