Future Pluperfect: Chapter 30


Textual Poaching Alert: Marvel owns everyone but Mirrin, although Social Services would have stripped custody long ago...

By the time Domino gave up the pretense of sleeping, the fire had already been reduced to embers. She sat up quietly and looked around.

Drake was on his back, hands folded on his stomach like the way they posed dead people, snoring gently. Alex was on his side with his head resting on his forearm, a little closer to Mirrin than he otherwise might have been if they didn't have some weird emotional thing going on between them, but not close enough to be considered within 'couples distance'. Mirrin herself was curled up in a ball with her back to Alex, a position Domino took to be one of trust (allowing Alex to watch her back) and wasn't sure what Alex himself thought of it. Not sure she cared, either, but it was something to distract herself with on this long night.

Sam was next to her, asleep on his stomach with his arms as a pillow. Domino had never understood how he could be comfortable with his face so close to the dirt. The one time she had asked him about it he had given her some long explanation involving farms and siblings and God's earth and Domino had decided that you could take the boy out of Kentucky, but you couldn't take the Kentucky out of the boy and there were some things she wasn't meant to understand in this lifetime.

She was glad he was sleeping, though. He had been eerily quiet ever since they had woken up in that hole in the ground and Domino had been worried that Sam had seen Cable incapacitated one too many times in such a short duration. They hadn't said much to each other while they were out doing the Swiss Family Robinson thing earlier. What else was there to be said? Sam had seen Cable dead, then undead, then pissy enough make others rue the change, and now he was as good as dead. They had already run the spectrum of emotions and there was no point in reiterating how scared the other was because they knew it already and saying it again wasn't going to make it any better. Wasn't going to make it hurt any less.

So instead Sam had stayed near Domino's side, not quite hovering but definitely hanging out more than he would have were this any other sort of situation. And Domino had let him because, quite frankly, she needed it.

One of the erroneous notions Domino was happy to let flourish was the idea that she needed no one. It wasn't true, but it was good PR and it kept the people in her circle that much safer because they were that much less likely to be used as pawns.

In truth, she had very specific needs. Someone to be there for her on her terms - not demanding more than she could comfortably give, not drowning her in more than she wanted. Nathan understood those requirements perfectly, even if they were so subtly different from his own that their inevitable fights came down to forgetting that those differences existed. It was how the both of them survived the psi-link, a too-intimate connection between two people who preferred to think of themselves as islands in a sea.

Sam, in that too-mature way of his, understood. Understood them both and loved them both and whether it was in spite of or because of their quirks Domino wasn't going to ask because that would be examining the dental health of a gift horse and neither she nor Nate got enough of those to be picky. She used to worry about the damage they were doing the boy, but now, having accepted herself as an object lesson if she couldn't be a good example, Domino was more impressed by him than concerned. Heartened that if he was going to live forever, then at least he was in strong enough mental shape for the challenge to survive without being embittered. Because the one thing her luck had taught her over the years was that sometimes surviving wasn't the least painful option.

Case in point being the one leaning against the rocks, neither his body nor his mind in his own possession. At least the body was in safe hands - Jean had been ferociously attentive to him all day, snarling at Cyclops when he had suggested taking a break. Right now, though, Jean had finally given in to the exhaustion of keeping two bodies in working order and was asleep with her head in Cyclops' lap. Cyclops, who was sitting up with his back ramrod straight, staring at the embers of the fire but Domino was sure he was aware of everything going on around him.

"We can build up the fire if you want," Cyclops said quietly. "It's not like Dawnsilk doesn't know where to find us if she wants to."

Domino didn't especially feel like moving, but stood up anyway. Cyclops couldn't get up without disturbing Jean and that left her. And the air was getting cold.

Surrounded by trees, getting enough dry twigs wasn't a hardship and Domino was back feeding the little pit in a matter of moments. Having built up the blaze again, she decided to reap the benefits and sat down as close to it as she could without freaking out Cyclops.

"Jean and Mirrin think Dawnsilk's going to come after us on the astral plane again," he said once she had gotten settled. "We're at a much greater disadvantage that way. Especially if she can blow out our mental shields as easily as she did last time."

So that's what they were talking about, Domino thought to herself as she nodded to Cyclops. The two telepaths had obviously been having some sort of conversation earlier, but neither of them had said anything and it hadn't been obtrusive enough to demand sharing.

"They were thinking of a kind of group telepathic link," Cyclops went on, "Something temporary, but enough to keep everyone together. It would give the rest of us better shields, I think, was the rationale. We'll have to talk about it in the morning."

"It's fine with me," Domino said and shrugged, frowning at Cyclops's thoughtful look. "I like my privacy, but not to the point of dying for it." And especially if the choice was between Mirrin and Dawnsilk poking around in her head.

"Didn't mean to imply such," Cyclops replied soothingly. "I was just thinking about mental bonds in general."

Domino wasn't in the mood to pick a fight, so she let the comment lie. Mental bonds. The psi-link that was currently blocked on her side because all she got through it now was a nauseating combination of Nate's pain and Dawnsilk's malevolence. It was a slow, permanent torture if Nathan was anywhere inside his own head and Domino knew that when he got better, she was going to have to pretend to him that she didn't feel it. Because the one emotion Nate guarded more closely than love was pain. Pain was precious to him, his unit of measurement the way everyone else worked on either affection or the gold standard. The people closest to Nathan were the ones who could cause him the most pain and to gain the keys to his soul was simply to see what hurt him deepest.

Eventually, Domino suggested to Cyclops that he might as well doze off because she wasn't going back to sleep and could keep guard. He had simply nodded thanks and lifted his visor to the top of his head. With his eyes closed and his entire face exposed, Cyclops looked so... young. Domino resolutely closed off that train of thought, then mentally slapped herself for idly noticing that Cyclops and Nathan had the same eyebrows. Well, it's not as if they weren't related, moron.

Freed to focus her thoughts inward even as she kept her senses tuned outward, Domino found herself unable to think of anything at all. It was a weird sort of meditation - not as weird as levitating upside down and mumbling Askani proverbs - but it worked for her. And so Domino found herself curiously refreshed by the time dawn broke and the others began to stir.

***

"I feel like bait," Iceman groused as he plucked at the spare bits of grass within reach as he sat on the ground.

The group had moved back to the beach where they had waited a few days previous for the arrival of Cable and Domino - where Mirrin and Cannonball had first found the boat in 'real' time. It was a relatively open place - they had a group of rocks at their back (the tides having erased all remains of their dugout and the day heat long ago having taken care of the igloo) and the trees started far enough away that they could not be used as a launching point for an attack. A quick test had also shown that whatever kind of psionic system had been set up for their capture, they were beyond it. Mirrin could teleport again.

Spread out on a trio of blankets, the group now sat and waited for the approach of Dawnsilk. In whatever form she took.

"You are bait," Mirrin told him as she arranged herself into a meditation pose a few feet away from him.

"I think I liked you better when you were all mystical and mysterious," Iceman returned with a frown.

"We'd still be bait," Cannonball pointed out. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles and then leaned back to rest on his hands.

"Yeah, but she'd only tell us afterwards."

"But we'd still know," Cannonball returned.

"But it would unconfirmed knowledge, which is just being suspicious and paranoid, which is completely allowable when you're surrounded by two or more members of the Summers family and you're being chased by time-traveling forces of evil," Iceman reasoned.

"Are you always like this?" Domino asked with a snarl that only Cannonball recognized as her really her trying to hide her own amusement.

"I'm going into sugar withdrawal," Iceman informed her blithely.

"Mirrin, Jean, are you two ready?" Cyclops asked as he and Havok returned and joined the group on the ground. Nature's call had an entirely different meaning when actually out in nature and simple safety precautions meant they had to go in pairs.

Jean looked up from where they had arranged Cable on the ground, his pack under his head for a pillow. She looked at Mirrin and then nodded, shifting around so that she faced the group as much as she faced the prone Cable.

Cannonball sat up a little at the first buzz in his head. He had done this once before, back in X-Force when he and Cable had had to break into a research lab to free a pair of civilian mutants. It was an... eye-opening experience, which was precisely why he closed his eyes and waited.

It felt like being encircled in electric current, a crackle and a hum too close to your ears, not quite as annoying as a mosquito but much more irritating than the buzz of a fluorescent light on the fritz. Sam knew that were he to open his eyes, he'd see the midnight blue of Mirrin's psionic energy and the flame colors of Jean's.

All of a sudden, the buzz dropped down to a murmur, from roar to background noise. It was over, Sam knew, and he reasoned with himself that it would obviously take less time to set up with two experienced telepaths instead of just Cable, who may have the brute strength but did somewhat lack in delicacy of maneuvering. Not that he'd ever confess that to the man. Even as he desperately hoped he'd have the chance to avoid doing so.

"Wow."

Sam opened his eyes at Iceman's proclamation. 'Wow' really didn't cover it. Everyone looked like themselves, but a little different, a little... off. Vaguely he remembered Cable explaining that it was a combination of 'reality' and how you saw yourself.

"This is what a telepath sees?" Alex asked in wonderment, turning his head as if to see everything all at once and then looking down at himself. "And why am I back in civilian clothes?"

"Because that is how you see yourself," Mirrin replied. "Concentrate on your uniform and it will reappear."

Alex screwed his face tightly with the effort until he transformed back into Havok. "Oh, no, I lost the headpiece years ago," he muttered and it disappeared.

"Is that how you two see yourselves?" Iceman asked, gesturing with his chin at both Jean and Mirrin. "Gotta love the armor, Jean."

"It's our psionic images," Mirrin explained. "What you are seeing is sort of a superimposition of the astral plane on the real world. That is what most telepaths see."

"Always?"

"It's very hard not to," Jean admitted quietly. "Throw in the voices and you can imagine why almost every telepath started out in an institution."

"Alex?" Mirrin whispered to him and he shook the cobwebs out of his head, not even attempting to pretend he wasn't staring at her. She looked so different, physically and otherwise. Stunning, he thought. Idly, he noticed that the scar across her neck was gone.

Mirrin arched her eyebrow (now over a tattooed eye) and put a finger to her lips as if asking for silence before tapping her temple with it. "Remember that we are linked for the time being."

"Am I thinking anything that's surprising to you?" he asked honestly.

"Is this what the neural link looks like?" Cyclops asked before Mirrin could answer him.

Everyone looked at Cable, who glowed a dull gold just as the other two telepaths had a psionic aura about them. There were bright orange chains all over him, and Cannonball couldn't help but think that Cable looked as if he were a Christmas tree trussed up for disposal after the holidays.

"It's not what a neural link should look like," Mirrin replied, getting up from where she had been sitting next to Havok and walking over to Cable. "Just as this is not what Nathan should look like."

"Can we get those chains off of him?" Domino asked, gesturing with a finger. "Will that get Dawnsilk out of his head?"

"Yes to your second question, and I don't know to your first," Jean replied. "Min? What do you think?"

Domino watched closely as Mirrin crouched down to touch the link of chain closest to her, by Cable's right shoulder. She pulled back upon contact, hissing in obvious pain before reaching out again. This time, she touched Cable's shoulder with her right hand before touching the chain with her left. This time, she could stand to touch the chain enough to lift it an inch or so off of his chest.

"Domino, come here please?" Mirrin asked in a curious voice. "Try to do as I did."

Domino got up and walked over, kneeling by Cable's midsection on the opposite side from Mirrin. "Do I have to be in contact with him?"

"I don't think so," Mirrin replied, gesturing down to where she still had one hand on his shoulder. "I think I've solved that problem."

Domino gave her a stare to indicate that she wasn't all that happy with being a guinea pig, but reached out to touch the chain nonetheless. There was no pain upon contact, so she got a better grip of it. "It's very light," she said with a little bit of wonder. "Very strong, but it doesn't weigh much."

She put the chain down. "So what did you do and will it be useful?"

"The chains are mostly Dawnsilk's energy, but partially Nathan's," Mirrin began. "That's why it burned when I touched them first - Dawnsilk certainly doesn't want me removing them and Nathan, with his mind so wrapped up by hers, doesn't really know what he wants."

"We have to get his cooperation?" Cyclops asked.

"After a fashion," Mirrin agreed.

"It's not going to be as easy as 'come with us or stay with Dawnsilk', is it?" Cannonball asked. He had moved to his knees by Cable's feet, eager to see what was going on.

"No," Jean confirmed. "I can't even begin to explain it... It's like he's here, but he's not. Dawnsilk has power, but no control. She's overwhelming him, not outsmarting him. And there are parts of him that she can't reach."

"Which are?" Cyclops asked, a little more gruffly than he meant to.

"His bonds," Mirrin answered. "Dawnsilk has no comprehension of telepathic bonds. That's how I was able to touch the chain the second time - I forced open the latent bond we have between us."

"A psi-link?" Domino asked, trying to decide if she felt hurt that Nathan might have more than one.

"Nothing so strong," Mirrin assured. "Simply a rapport between two friends who are both telepaths. We know each other's mental addresses, you might say."

Cannonball shifted closer. "How did forcing open the bond let you touch the chain?"

"I'm not sure," Mirrin admitted. "My best guess is that on some level, it let Nathan know whether I was friend or foe."

"But if it were like that, wouldn't he have thrown Dawnsilk out of his head by now?" Iceman wondered aloud. "You said she wasn't outsmarting him. So couldn't he just..."

"He's in so much pain he can't think," Domino said before Mirrin could answer. "That's what it is, isn't it? All he wants right now is to stop the pain. Or at least keep it from getting worse. And if letting Dawnsilk stay in his head is what does it, then that's what it will be."

Mirrin nodded.

"It's advanced torture technique," Domino explained to Cannonball, idly noticing that she'd fallen into her old Teacher mode. "He's not going to listen to us unless we can show him up front that we can take the pain away."

"The bonds are painless," Jean spoke up. "That's what we'll have to use."

"And why Domino is going to have to do the hard work," Mirrin agreed, nodding slowly.

"Me? You two are the telepaths," Domino objected. It wasn't that she didn't want to save Cable herself, but the whole idea of fighting a telepathic war...

"You have the strongest bond," Jean said simply. "The rest of us can only support you."

"But what about the two of us?" Iceman asked, gesturing towards Havok. "Not having any bonds to him might have kept us conscious before, but it won't help us now."

"You two are going to have to watch everyone's backs," Mirrin replied, standing up and looking around.

"Dawnsilk's coming?" Cyclops asked, also standing up.

Mirrin nodded. "Fiddling with the chains is as good as sending up a flare."

"What should we do?" Jean looked up at the pair.

"Get started," Mirrin replied resolutely. "I'll keep her distracted."

"Won't they need you to bond with Cable?" Iceman asked. "Shouldn't that job go to me and Havok?"

"My bond with him is already open," Mirrin replied, shaking her head. "And with all due respect, I think Dawnsilk would have more enjoyment with me as her opponent."

"That's her, isn't it?" Cannonball pointed at the trees where a faint dark orange glow could be seen.

He watched as, instead of answering, Mirrin knelt on the ground behind Cable's head. She put her hands to his face with her fingertips by his jaw and the base of her palms at his temples. She leaned forward until she was only a few inches over his face and her now-loose hair partially obscured them both. He could hear her whispering to Cable in some rapid-fire dialect, sounding more like a confession than a prayer, before kissing his forehead and then putting her own forehead against his. She stayed like that until Dawnsilk called out.

"There you are," she sneered. Dawnsilk looked as she had before, dressed in some sort of battle armor. Except this time she was carrying a spear with some sort of bulb before the pointed tip. "Creative. Making all of them see the astral plane. Creative. Even if it made you even easier to find."

A dozen Orange soldiers were standing behind Dawnsilk.

Mirrin stood up and took a deep breath. "Work fast," she urged Jean and Domino before arranging the scarf of her clan costume to be less in the way. She lightly tapped Cable's arm with the toe of her sandal. "You had better make this worth it, Dayspring."

Cyclops was about to reach out to warn Mirrin to be careful when she suddenly disappeared, rematerializing several yards away so that she was between the group and Dawnsilk.

"Well, 'Silk," Mirrin called out, "Let's not dither."

Dawnsilk laughed. "What are you going to do, Ay'el? Fight me? Has time travel made you stupid? You couldn't ever defeat me in hand-to-hand combat even with my old body. Now I have decades more experience and a younger, stronger body to put it into practice. Kicking you around isn't going to be much of a delaying tactic."

"I'll take my chances."

"Why are they speaking in English?" Iceman called behind him. He and Havok were standing about four yards behind Mirrin and only about two from where Cannonball was kneeling. Dimly aware of the makeshift mental operating theatre behind them, they kept their concentration on the two women.

"They aren't," Jean replied, moving over to kneel at Cable's head as Mirrin had. "The default language of the astral plane - when telepaths speak to telepaths - is a sort of natural language that everyone can understand."

"Heh."

"Well, even if Dawnsilk's only half-lying, then we still had better get to work," Domino said, pushing up off her haunches back on to her knees. "What do I do and how do I do it?"

"Mirrin's started us off," Jean said. "Nathan's at least aware that there can be painless contact. You're blocking your link, aren't you?"

Domino nodded.

"Open it up as wide as you can and just send happy thoughts at it."

"Happy thoughts?" Domino asked with an eyebrow arched expressively.

"Whatever it is you do when you want Nathan to know you're in a good mood," Jean elaborated dismissively. "Your 'come hither' look. Your 'I want ice cream' mood. Whatever comes with no anger and no negative feelings attached."

"You're asking one half of the world's most dysfunctional relationship for something that comes with no negative feelings attached?" Domino asked just loud enough to be heard.

Havok was about to tell Iceman to behave when Dawnsilk's ugly laugh drew his attention away.

"Do you even know how to use that?" Dawnsilk asked, pointing at a knife that Mirrin had drawn. Cannonball, watching from his knees by Cable's feet, recognized it as a smaller version of the ion blade Cable carried. "That's why I didn't take it away from you before. You're harmless without a gun, Ay'el. You fight like a coward, from a distance. Close quarters, you're only good on your knees. Or on your back. The Canaanite generals say both. Does your would-be suitor know how you used to whore yourself out?"

"Now he does," Mirrin replied dryly.

"Stick and stones may break bones and all that stuff," Iceman said to Havok quietly. "But why are we just letting her take this?"

"Because it's exactly what she wants us to do," Havok replied. "It's a delaying tactic, remember? The longer you keep them talking, the better off you are. And considering Dawnsilk's got a dozen of those guys behind her and Mirrin's got a catatonic Cable behind us, I think Mirrin would prefer that we let her get called a lot more dirty names first."

Cannonball stood up and joined Havok and Iceman. "While they're hissing at each other, Ah think we could probably take out some of the soldiers," he said quietly, gesturing subtly with one hand at the dozen cyborgs standing motionless in a twisted sort of parade rest off to the side. "Especially since this is supposed to be her killin' time for us to do something."

Havok nodded. "If we sneak behind the rocks and take the long way around," he suggested, indicating which way only with a slight tilt of his head. "Then we'd be closer to the Kurioon horde."

"Won't that leave everyone else unprotected?" Iceman asked, looking behind him. Cyclops, Jean, and Domino were all kneeling around Cable's still form and were not paying attention to anything beyond that narrow focus. "Cannonball, you're going to be needed with Cable, so let Havok go. I'll stay back. I'm not sure what I can do, but I'll probably be able to deflect any stray fire, should it come down to that. Although I kinda suspect Mirrin and Dawnsilk are going to get a little more personal than that."

As if on cue, Mirrin spoke.

"A curious choice of weapon, Dawnsilk," she said with what Sam thought was much too much amusement. "Considering your great antipathy of all things Askani, to carry a psimitar does seem a little... hypocritical? Out of courtesy, should I ask if you know which end to point at me?"

So that's what the long spear was, Sam muttered to himself. A version of the same weapon Cable carried. Mirrin's bracelets were also some variation on it, but as far as he knew they were more for defense than offense. She could fire energy from them, he'd watched her do it, but she didn't unless there was nothing else at hand.

"What is she doing?" Havok whispered harshly. "The whole point of a delaying tactic is to delay the shooting."

A muttered curse from Cyclops drew their attention back.

"Try it again," Jean was telling him.

Cyclops was holding Cable's left hand gently, as if it might break, even as his own body was hunched tensely.

"Try something a little earlier," Jean suggested to him soothingly. "Further away from when we left. Like when the two of you went sliding down that muddy glen in Barrenhill."

"They're trying to barrage him with memories, Ah think," Sam said quietly as he felt Havok come closer to him. "Force him to remember happy things. It's weird... Ah can't even imagine Cable as a child. Let alone that Cyclops and Phoenix raised him..."

"Well, here's hoping Nathan can imagine that he was once a child," Havok replied ironically. "I don't think there's going to be much after that that's going to be any good towards what they're trying to do."

"Alright, now that they're back to hissing," Iceman whispered to the other two, "Let's go."

Sam followed Havok as the other man nodded at Iceman, who in turn took up the spot most directly in the line of sight between Dawnsilk and those kneeling by Cable. They walked slowly to where Cable was lying. Domino and Cyclops both had their hands on the chains and were trying to break them apart, but were obviously having no luck. Sam nodded once to Havok, then knelt down to join the others.

The tide was in. But while Cable was in no danger of getting wet, Havok had to walk into the surf to go around the rocks. Taking long strides so as not to spend any more time in the mucky sand than necessary, he paused on the other side of the rocks and peered over the top at the soldiers.

The far end of the rock formation was about ten yards from the closest soldier. If he lay on his side, Alex was sure that he could use the rocks as cover while he blasted as many as he could. The problem would be getting away if he didn't get them all the first time. Crawling back to where he was currently standing would have been the obvious answer except that would bring any return fire closer to where the others were with Cable. And it was too far a run to the trees from here. He'd just have to make damned sure he nailed them all at once.

On the other side of the rocks, Sam moved closer to Domino "What can Ah do?" he asked Jean.

"All we've figured out so far," she replied, pushing the hair out of her face, "is that the more we force our connections to him, the looser the chains get."

"Which would be fine if he was Houdini," Domino ground out, "But we can't break them no matter how loose they get."

"Can we unknot them?" Sam asked thoughtfully as he looked down at the mess of orange chains, some now laying a little slack across Cable's chest. "They're all connected to each other. It'd be like untangling a mummy, sorta."

"It might work," Cyclops mused, sounding as if he had been thinking of just that and waiting for someone else to think it was a good idea, "If we can at least free his neck and limbs, then maybe we can just slide it off."

Sam reached forward to touch one of the chains and had his hand grabbed by Domino. "Be careful," she warned. "Dawnsilk knows what we're doing. She's making the chains harder to touch."

He took a deep breath and nodded. "Should I try sayin' hello ta him first?"

"That would help," Jean agreed.

"How will Ah know when he's heard me?"

"You'll feel it," Domino said ominously.

Sam turned his focus inward and tried to envision a connection between him and Cable. He replayed his memories of whispered strategy sessions with one arm slung around his shoulders as they hunkered down avoiding being blown up; of Cable barking at him in training sessions when Sam hadn't done as well as Cable obviously thought he could; of his perverse, immense pleasure at finding out that he was the reason Cable had come back to this time. But he felt nothing and let loose a disappointed moan.

"Don't worry," he heard Domino tell him. "He's no less of a stubborn bastard now than he normally is. Just keep working at it. Focus on stuff that didn't happen on missions. That's what finally worked for me."

Sam nodded, eyes still closed, and racked his brain for other Cable Moments. Nathan Moments. The man, not the soldier. The one he had caught singing along with Rosemary Clooney and who had tried to convince him it was an Askani meditation. The one who had cornered him and demanded to watch "Airplane!" with him so that Sam could explain the jokes he wouldn't admit to Domino that he couldn't get. The one who had unplugged the coffee maker and taken it into his room, muttering all the while about ritual cleansing baths, after Teresa had dared to make hazelnut-flavored brew. The one who... Sam felt a lancing pain in his temple and opened his eyes in surprise.

"I told you you'd feel it," Domino chuckled mirthlessly.

"Anyone who will take some of his pain from him is a friend," Cyclops explained. "That's about as complicated as it gets."

Sam nodded and reached out for the chain. It was soft and delicate-feeling, but it wouldn't break, he could feel that. I'd take your pain, he told that dim connection with Cable. I'd take your pain because you took mine. And if I have to wait for you to be unconscious to help you, then so be it. It's not like you don't get yourself knocked out often enough. I'll repay you one of these days. Because the one thing I know is that I've got time. "You used to make me hurt all the time in training sessions," he murmured aloud. "You know what Ah can take better than Ah do."

Domino watched and listened. With the psi-link open all the way and Nathan completely unable to keep anything on his end away from her, she was getting more than she wanted in the way of everyone else's thoughts. Nothing specific, just the general gist of things. The way she would normally be able to sense Nathan's reactions to what everyone was saying. Don't you dare break his heart, Big Boy. Don't you dare.

"It's working," Cyclops said, the relief clear.

Domino looked over and could see Jean using her telekinesis to stretch the band around Cable's neck. Jean lifted his head gently and tried to pass the chain over his head from behind. There wasn't enough slack, so Domino reached over and tried to shuffle the closer coils so that a little more might get freed up. "You and your big head, Nathan," she groused.

"Phew," Jean finally said once the loose link had been dropped and Cyclops was re-arranging the slack so as to try to loosen other possible spots. "At least we don't have to worry about Dawnsilk strangling him anymore."

"That was a poss..."

The firing of plasma weapons drowned out the rest of whatever Domino was going to ask and a flash of light bright enough to be brilliant even with the sun high overhead drew their attention. Looking over, they could see the Kurioon detachment with their arms in ready position. Another volley of blasts aimed at the other end of the rock formation was met by a sizzling noise and a shimmer of gold. Havok, clearly confused, stood up with his hands glowing. He had obviously been their target and was at a loss as to why they hadn't connected.

"It's a telekinetic shield," a standing Cyclops explained in a yell to his brother, then looked down at his wife. "Jean, is that you?"

"No," she replied in wonderment. "It's Nathan's signature."

"How could he have..." Iceman asked in surprise, trailing off and throwing up an ice shield as Dawnsilk aimed her psimitar in his direction. The sizzle and the lack of impact on the shield had Iceman staring back at Jean questioningly as he melted the ice.

"It wasn't me," Jean replied. "It must have been Mirrin, somehow."

Havok clambered over the rocks by the rest of the group. "How'd she pull this off?"

Dawnsilk apparently didn't care and turned her fire on the only enemy on her own side of the TK shield.

Mirrin deflected the blasts easily with her own defenses, but had greater difficulty with the added attack of the Kurioon soldiers and scampered about before teleporting away from a particularly heavy volley.

"Iceman, take care of them!" Cyclops ordered.

With the ocean a few yards to his right, Iceman had enough material to quickly encase the soldiers in a block of ice yards thick, adding to it as they started to break free until they were finally encased in enough to halt them.

"It's not going to hold them forever," he called over his shoulder, "But maybe by that time we'll have figured out what else to do. I made it cold enough to damage their flesh, if not their circuitry."

"He's my toy, Ay'el," Dawnsilk hissed at Mirrin. "And I don't want to share."

Domino felt Nathan shudder through their bond a heartbeat before the orange chains tightened dangerously around his body. She could see the bands pinching his skin and was thankful that they had gotten the one off of his neck. Judging by the look on Jean's face, she was thinking the same thing.

"What do we do now?" Domino asked, wincing as the pain poured down the open psi-link.

"Try to calm him down again," Jean replied, smoothing sweaty hair away from Cable's brow. "He's in there. If Mirrin can distract Dawnsilk enough, we might be able to get something back."

"We're not gonna get anywhere until Dawnsilk is dead," Cannonball said quietly.

"We'll get somewhere," Jean snapped. "We may not get it done, but we'll get somewhere. I'll be damned if I'm going to sit around and do nothing until Dawnsilk is finished playing with him."

"But there's got to be something more we can do than sit here and bleed off his pain," Cyclops ground out. "We have to get around that shield somehow..."

"I wouldn't worry about Mirrin right now," Havok said ominously as he pushed off the rocks he was leaning against and moved to stand near Iceman.

"Domino, try focusing again, please?" Jean asked, visibly trying to reign in her emotions. "Let's see if we can't loosen this up before it does any more damage."

"The score is Dawnsilk two, Mirrin one," Iceman said as he saw Havok appear in his peripheral vision. "It's kind of like a warped episode of Maverick - a whole lot of taunting interrupted by shooting. I can't imagine that this is how they did things back in their time."

Mirrin was standing in a defensive posture, waiting as Dawnsilk watched. Having gotten used to seeing her in her 'real' battle armor, Alex found it odd to see Mirrin now in what were presumably ethic robes, their intricate patterns waving gently in the sea breeze in sharp contrast to the tension of her fighting stance.

"You mean apart from how they used to fight for the same team," Alex replied, losing his footing for a moment in the sand and flailing his arms for balance.

"Yeah."

"I remember your death quite clearly," Dawnsilk said almost cheerily. No, definitely cheerily, Alex mentally corrected.

An image appeared between the two women, a hulking man with a military-style uniform standing over a kneeling, battered woman. He pulled on the woman's long hair and Alex swallowed a shudder of revulsion as he saw Mirrin's face. Older, by how much he couldn't tell, and bruised. But the biggest difference was in the eyes, which were dull and lifeless. Waiting for death.

"Jesus," Iceman muttered.

"You didn't fight in the end," Dawnsilk went on, now sounding disappointed. "They broke you."

The man was gripping the future-Mirrin's hair with his left hand and in his right appeared a heavy axe. Alex wanted to close his eyes, wanted to pretend he didn't know what was coming next. But it seemed cowardly to avert his gaze.

In front of him, Bobby muttered something unintelligible but obviously vulgar as the ax swung around and the man was left holding a bleeding, dripping head by its hair.

"And then finally they put you out of your misery," Dawnsilk finished her narration. "I got to watch."

Alex swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and cleansed his sight by staring straight at the sun, blinding him to everything but not taking away the gruesome memory.

"From what I've heard, so did a few thousand other people," Mirrin replied flatly. Her voice was cold and Alex couldn't help but wonder how much of that was pure bluffing. "It was a public execution. The Clan Chosen were among many invited guests."

Dawnsilk laughed bitterly. "Askani through and through, aren't you? They brainwash all of you into believing that death means nothing."

"More like death is unavoidable," Mirrin corrected, standing up straight and abandoning the defensive posture. "You know how this must end, Dawnsilk. You know you cannot kill me here. We just saw why."

"I don't believe in your Askani fables, Mirrin," Dawnsilk replied with a snort. "I don't believe in immutable paths and destinies to fulfill. I can kill you here. I can kill Nathan here. I can do both at once."

"Aaugh!!"

Everyone turned at Domino's wail. Alex could see her curled in on herself, holding her head and shaking. Cannonball had grabbed her and was holding her to his chest, rocking gently, his shoulder muffling her keening. Jean and Cyclops were grabbing frantically at the orange bands as Cable started to shake, even in his confinement, in the full throes of a serious seizure.

"He's not breathing!" Jean cried.

Alex and the others sprung unto action, helping Cyclops try to hold Cable's spasming body still as Jean forced his jaw open. A long trio of heartbeats until Cable made choking, rasping breaths on his own. They kept him rolled on his side and held their own breaths as they listened to his. Cable's lips were flecked with blood, the ground below his face spattered as well. He shuddered irregularly, awkwardly in his confinement, resembling nothing so much as a trapped snake.

Cannonball shifted awkwardly, trying not to dislodge the crumpled Domino from his embrace. He had his back to Alex, but it looked like he exchanged some sort of silent words with Jean, who nodded.

"I can kill him with a thought, Mirrin," Dawnsilk said calmly. "And through that, I hold the same power over you."

"You operate on the faulty premise that I will do anything to prevent Nathan's death," Mirrin replied equally calmly.

"Won't you?" Curious more than snide. Alex wondered if Dawnsilk really understood the Askani directive that well at all.

"He is not the only one who can fulfill his mission. If it's not him, it will be someone else." The sea breeze was tangling up Mirrin's scarf with her left (weapon-carrying) hand and she shifted to free herself.

"Don't try to be coy with me," Dawnsilk said witheringly. "You honestly expect me to believe that you don't care?"

"Of course I care," Mirrin hissed, pushing an errant curl behind her head. "But I won't betray what he believes in just to make myself feel better. It's a concept you're abundantly unfamiliar with."

"You're not in a position to taunt."

"You've been sent on a fool's errand, 'Silk," Mirrin went on, suddenly gentle-voiced and sad, as if she was explaining the world to a child. "You can't possibly seal off every thread that leads to the eradication of the Tomorrow Walker. You can't even narrow things down until the odds are even a little in your favor. I don't know what they promised you, sister-of-my-sister, but they sold you an empty can of water. "

"Domino?" Alex heard his brother's voice whisper, but didn't turn around. "Are you well enough to help me out here? He's... getting harder to reach."

"And I should believe you for what reason?" Dawnsilk asked skeptically.

"Because you are my clanmate. Because I know the timestream better than any of the Canaanites do. Because you - the real you - never would betray your clan like this and you know that both Nathan and I would do anything for you."

"Ah. See, that's where you lost me," Dawnsilk interrupted, gesturing with the psimitar. "Don't try to tell me what I know. I saw everything already. You and Nathan both failed me. Failed us. And if the only recompense I can get is to kill you both, then that's enough."

"Don't you dare die on me, Nathan Christopher Charles Summers," Jean half-growled, half-whispered. Alex turned around and could see her transferring Cable's head from the pack to her lap. "I didn't raise you to die on me. I won't lose you again."

When Alex turned back, he saw that Mirrin was also watching Cable. She caught glances with Alex for a heartbeat and there was so much in that look that he wished they had something more concrete between them that he could send some sort of support.

"Don't make me do this, 'Silk," Mirrin half-pleaded, determination and desperation warring in her voice.

"I always hated you, Ay'el," Dawnsilk said sadly, shaking her head. "Always. Even before you refused to overrule Nathan and let the Askani do something to fix my head. Even before you let Aliya die. Always, I hated you. So proud of yourself for deigning to spend your days among the flatscans. There was nothing stopping you from being with your own kind."

"Nothing except my unwillingness to see others suffer needlessly," Mirrin retorted. "But, again, we return to principles. I think we should respectfully agree to disagree there and just move on."

Alex noticed something out of the corner of his eye and wondered if Bobby had been replenishing the ice around the Kurioon soldiers constantly, or whether this fresh coat being added was the first one. The sun was overhead and beating down on them and simple physics answered his question.

"Indeed we should," Dawnsilk agreed with a nod and leveled the psimitar at Mirrin. The energy ball that came a heartbeat later was big enough and bright enough to force Alex to shield his eyes.

"She's flickering," Iceman whispered in awe, but when Alex tried to look the psionic energy had just hit the TK shield and the bright gold flash was enough to make them both see spots. "I'd heard that she could do that, but..."

Alex blinked hard a few times and looked again, but by that point Mirrin was in solid state.

Dawnsilk and Mirrin were only about a yard away from each other, moving in a slow circle with their weapons at the ready when Dawnsilk suddenly spun the psimitar like Gambit did his bo staff and connected solidly with the inside of Mirrin's left ankle. Mirrin yelped, either in pain or surprise, and fell heavily to the ground on her back, the knife falling just out of her grip.

"Why didn't she teleport?" Iceman hissed.

"Too surprised, maybe?" Alex replied, mystified himself.

Mirrin stretched out with her left arm to reach behind her for the ion blade and that's when Dawnsilk struck again, driving the pointed end of the psimitar into Mirrin's belly and staking her to the ground.

"No!"

Alex beat his hands futilely against the TK shield as he watched Mirrin gasp desperately for air and then cough up mouthfuls of blood, her left hand scrabbled blindly for the knife only an inch or two out of reach.

"I warned you, Mirrin," Dawnsilk said with an insincere mournfulness, "that you were no match for me." She knelt down to the right of the fallen woman, her right hand resting on the staff of the psimitar for balance and her left hand gently trailing along Mirrin's cheek as Mirrin continued to gasp desperately. Dawnsilk raised her blood-covered index finger to her own face, tracing a line across her cheekbone before dipping again and repeating the process on the other side.

"She's painting fucking warpaint," Bobby hissed as they watched Dawnsilk draw an obviously ritual design on her face.

Alex watched with a sense of detachment he couldn't quite muster up the energy to question. By all rights, he should be miserable. Furious. Heartbroken that he'd never gotten anything more than a knowing smile out the woman now coughing up her lifeblood.

But this couldn't be happening. Mirrin told him it couldn't be happening... And then something clicked, somewhere between noticing that Mirrin hadn't given up reaching for the knife with one hand and was reaching for Dawnsilk's head with the other.

"Jean?" Alex called frantically. "Jean? Can you push that knife a little closer to her?"

There was no answer and Alex spun around. Cyclops gestured towards Jean, who was hunched over Cable. "She's the only thing keeping him alive right now. She's moving his lungs and beating his heart."

And just as Mirrin wouldn't sacrifice her life to save Cable, we can't let Cable sacrifice his life, Alex reminded himself ruefully. But it's just an inch...

"G'journey," Dawnsilk said softly, taking her hand off the staff to touch Mirrin's forehead gently.

Mirrin's right hand had a tenuous grasp of Dawnsilk's head by now and pulled it towards her. Dawnsilk was obviously letting her do it, eager to hear the dying woman's last words.

"G'Journey," Mirrin croaked weakly.

It happened almost too fast to see. In one heartbeat, the knife was almost within the reach of the fingertips of Mirrin's left hand, and the next it was buried in the base of Dawnsilk's skull.

And then the world whited out.

***


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