Title: Epsilon or Though I Shame To Wear A Heart So White
Author: John Duffin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dedication: I owe the inspiration for this story to Larry Hama, whose tales of Wolverine have put all others, before and since, to shame.
The woman was of medium height, and perhaps too slender to be conventionally attractive. She had full lips, incongruous with an otherwise narrow, angular face. Her hair was blonde, well cared-for, and of shoulder length. She wore a pantsuit that emphasized her long, slender legs, but did little else to flatter her spare figure. Her name was Elena Ivanova.
Despite her aristocratic carriage, she travelled on a public transit bus in Washington D.C. Her attitude was not lost on some of the other passengers on the bus, particularly a group of young turks looking for trouble, or women, or perhaps troublesome women. They harrassed her until she glared at them.
The other passengers thought it strange that the loud young men had subsided, but they weren't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
She was supposed to be keeping a low profile, but it wasn't working very well. Washington wasn't a very safe place to be for mutants since the attack on president elect Robert Kelly. A rash of crackdowns and arrests implied that police and federal agents were getting their last cracks in before the new regime began.
Washington had never been a particularly safe place for ex-members of the Komitet Gosudarstevennoi Bezopastnosti, either. For some reason, they were regarded with suspicion.
She was not there to collect information for a hostile foreign government, or to sow seeds of discord, or even to observe the aftermath of the election. She had slipped the leash of the Russian government some time ago, and was pursuing her own agenda.
Her lover would wake up to find her gone. Hopefully, he'd believe her note, which said that she had gone to Washington to meet with Mystique, who was currently in a federal prison, maximum security. Elena felt more than a little guilty about that. She had taken advantage of his illness to pursue her endless quest. What she should be doing was trying to winkle facts and maybe a datasheet from Mystique concerning the Legacy Virus. Were it not for that particular illness, David North could have come along.
He would have prevented her from seeking vengeance. It was within his power.
She felt a little guilty, too, that she did not love him. He certainly deserved it, but she didn't have room in her heart for love. David knew that. He accepted it. Truth to tell, he didn't love her either. Sometimes life was like that.
A few days ago, a new president had been elected. He had yet to be sworn in. The world watched with baited breath to see if Robert Kelly, the new leader of the free world, had really changed his ways.
That, of itself, didn't interest Elena much. She wasn't in Washington for Kelly's sake.
She was here because of something she saw on television a few days ago. When all eyes were turned to Kelly, the Brotherhood of Mutants attacked, attempting to kill him and trigger a genetic war before Project: Wideawake could get back on its feet.
One of the members of the Brotherhood, as it happened, was the man who had killed her mother.
There was no television in the Prophecy Hotel room where she and Maverick spent their days and nights. She wouldn't have known about Sabretooth, the killer, if she hadn't been out doing some Christmas shopping. His face had been plastered all over the televisions in the mall.
She knew that the attempt on Kelly's life had been unsuccessful. By all accounts, Wolverine had seen to that. But it was unlikely that her quarry had been thrown in jail, or killed, despite the famous feud between the two Canadians.
Mystique, against all odds, had been detained. If anyone knew where Victor Creed would be, the shapeshifter would know.
Elena would make her talk.
The important thing now was to get to Mystique before she was transfered to a maximum-security military prison. Even an alpha-class telepath might have difficulty dealing with the security in such a place. Most particularly, the defenses would be hardened against any sort of breakout staged with mutant powers.
According to her sources, she had less than two hours.
It would have to be enough.
The man's body was the stuff that bodybuilders and skinny kids on the beach dreamed of, measuring six inches shy of seven feet in height, and fully three feet across the shoulders. His muscle definition would have embarrassed a panther. His great hands were large even in proportion to the rest of his body, twenty-one inches around his closed fist. An artery, thick as a drinking straw, throbbed over his bicep. It was the only part of his arm that was not sprinkled with thick reddish-blond hair. This hair also covered his shoulders, bare as they were of any other covering, as indeed was the rest of his body. A titanic chest, as broad from ventral to dorsal sides as many men could boast from shoulder to shoulder, expanded and contracted with each juddering breath.
His face was passing handsome, in its way. His jaw, adamantine and defiant, was forested with stubble. Its underbite made him look even more contrary and angry than he actually was. His cheekbones, broad and prominent, conspired with his chin to dominate the face, reducing a broad, hooked nose to relative obscurity. His upper lip, full and sensuous, was dimpled inward at the twin points of his jaw, suggesting overdeveloped canine teeth. The sweep of his shaggy blond sideburns led the eye to his mouth. Certainly, gazing at the mouth, whether it was smiling or snarling, was preferable to meeting the icy-pale blue eyes of the man, whose cast of features made him resemble a Nordic god of the hunt, perhaps. The eyes made it clear that he had a broad taste in prey.
It was stark insanity to put oneself in visual range of this man, but a number of men and women wearing white lab coats were doing just that. They busied themselves with computer monitors and printouts, jabbering to each other about the improbable data.
He was floating in a tank, with a thin breathing tube encircling his head and trailing up, amidst the chaotic spread of his floating blond hair, to a mechanical pump. A thick braid of wires joined it, though much of their progress was obscured by the hair and the man's thick body. Each wire sprung from an electrode that was attached to some portion of his body. That selfsame braid fed into a bank of arcane instruments, which themselves sustained the computers at which the men and women peered.
The man looked very angry.
The lab was chaotic, an ad hoc arrangement of machines and scientists that had been cannibalized from other projects, and stuck into a room that had never been used for experiments. Its sterility was highly questionable, but the scientists were working with a will.
The lighting, at least, was adequate. White, starched coats reflected it brilliantly. So, too, did the bright emerald suit of a lone guard stationed there. She fingered her rifle, never taking her eyes off of the man suspended in the tank. Never meeting his gaze. She stood by the door, ready to call for backup at the first sign of trouble.
The scientists were oblivious to the danger, and the guard's fear, bustling back and forth with printouts and test tubes, clucking to themselves at improbable data. Some of them did look up when the guard's radio crackled at her hip. These noticed that she went red when she heard the message, inaudible to the rest of the room. They heard her stammer her reply.
One or two even noticed that their subject's glare had lost some of its power. His sneer looked a bit sickly, in fact.
They certainly paid attention when a trio of new arrivals broached the sanctity of the lab.
Two of them were unremarkable, guards dressed in Hydra uniforms, brandishing energy rifles. These were so ubiquitous as to have become invisible to most of the people working at the compound which housed the lab.
The third would have attracted attention in a carnival freak show. He wasn't particularly tall, and the muscular breadth of his shoulders made him look squat, if anything. His costume featured a garish orange shirt, with matching banded armour covering his legs. Purple gloves and boots bore yellow key designs, radiating out from a matching breastplate. Upon the cod was a yellow blazon, a vaguely humanoid sketch. Upon the chest, in the centre of the breastplate, was a slightly curved screen. A broad face gazed out from it, hideously, with prominent brows and a great, mad, animated smile. Upon the shoulders, where normally such a face might have been, there was no head. Instead there was a metallic device, part camera and part transmitter, about the size of a toaster. Its cyclopian gaze, on its mechanical traverse, was chilling.
This was no mere robot, despite its inhuman configuration. This body, artificial though it might have been, was animated by the malign will of an old evil, perhaps older than the one floating in the tank.
No one welcomed the arrival of Arnim Zola.
"Subject's name is Victor Creed." the man-thing said in a mild tone. Zola's Prussian accent was so smooth and perfect that it was easy to suspect that he had never sounded so fine while he still had a head. "Height, two hundred and one centimetres, mass of approximately one hundred sixty kilograms. Subject's age is impossible to determine owing to a regenerative healing factor and a high level of genetic error correction. More interesting is his body chemistry, and particularly the battery of hormones released by his adrenal glands, which are overdeveloped."
He paused, and gazed at a scientist, who was scribbling notes furiously. "You did not come to these conclusions also?" he asked.
"I want your exact words put to paper, Meneer Zola." the woman replied, flushing.
"Ah. The lab spy. Carry on." Zola said. "The hormone cocktail includes minute quantities of a chemical we will refer to as nortestosterone, which appears to trigger a chain reaction in the other glands, including the immediate release of endorphins in catastrophic quantities. It also depresses the sexual urge, which in the subject is considerable. Of course, the healing factor prevents the subject from being acclimatized to the endorphin levels, so the response never loses its potency.
"Am I speaking too quickly for you?" he asked the spy solicitously.
"No, sir." the woman replied. "I have a shorthand."
"An efficient spy, then." Zola remarked. "The Fuhrer's spy in my compound was my secretary. I have often marveled at the sagacity of that choice.
"However," he continued, "since the healing factor achieves this by scrubbing the endorphins from the subject's system, he is encouraged by that euphoric state to continue to trigger adrenal responses. Naturally, given his unique physiology and psychology, this means combat. He would be the perfect soldier, were it not the case that he is, by dint of biology, not objective-oriented.
He sighed. "In the beginning," Arnim Zola remarked in a wistful tone, "German was the lingua franca of Hydra. Now, it is English. How times change."
"What do you plan to do to him, sir?" one of the scientists asked.
"Excellent question. While vivisection of such a marvellous specimen would be revealing, regrettably that lies against the desires of she who contacted me.
"Another difference." he said mournfully. "A woman, and of one of the mongrel races at that, giving orders to the people of Hydra and dispatching ultimata to AIM. It tears at my heart."
Wisely, the scientists forebore to comment.
"Where was I? Oh, yes. I am instructed to undo the damage to this subject that was done by one Aldo Ferro, a telepath specializing in aversion- response conditioning and memory modelling. Of course, the memories of specimens such as this are mutable in any case. His fabulous powers of healing not only operate on his flesh, but also his brain. His memories will fade more quickly than most. Only a marriage of strong affect to a particular incident will preserve it for any great while. Ferro was quite correct to pair his implants with physical trauma."
The spy scribbled furiously.
"Do you have a line of treatment worked out, sir?" a scientist said.
Servos whirred as Zola nodded. "Yes. Earlier in his career, the subject developed an addiction to telepathic stimulation. I believe that his slave-girl was stimulating a particular portion of his brain, one which, as you can see, shows little sign of activity on this electrogram."
The men and women clustered nervously around the monitor to which he referred. "Strange, that. A particular structure adjacent to his medulla oblongata." one of them remarked.
"Say, rather, an overdeveloped structure." the old Nazi said. "And one that has precious little use in the common run of humanity. But, to a specimen such as Victor Creed, it is vital. I believe that this structure is a gland, mate to the pineal, no vestigal mote of matter but a fully realized organ that is capable of releasing nortestosterone inhibitors."
"Surely his body already produces such inhibitors?" a scientist asked.
"No. His remarkable liver breaks down the chemical, scrubbing it from his system. An inefficient response, as it is site-specific, but with the virility of his organs, scarcely dangerous. Imagine the benefits of investigating the particulars of that liver. Curse the woman."
"So you plan to... activate the organ, somehow? What sort of triggers will you use?" the spy asked.
"Telepaths," Zola said, "would supply the ideal stimulus. Unfortunately, Hydra has a ban against their employ, not unreasonably. In particular, a... visceral sort of telepathy, if you will, would be perfect. Such as the Braddock woman's psychic knife, though ideally it would be wielded by the hand of a surgeon. No, it was telepathy that burned the relevant channels raw, but that tool is unavailable to us.
"A drug regimen is useless before the power of this man's immune system. No, instead I believe that an empathic conduit is called for."
"Empathic conduit?" a scientist said incredulously. "Are you serious, sir?"
"Empathy." Zola replied. "Science fiction to the unimaginative and dull, perhaps, but I've seen the truth of it. The ability to channel emotion exists. It may well trigger the return of the subject's self-control."
"Where will we find an empath, sir?" the scientist pressed.
"We don't need one." Zola said cheerily. "My ESP box is capable of forging such a link between myself and a bio-construct. A little tinkering has availed me the ability to create links between third parties."
The scientist still looked sceptical. "Meneer Zola, how will this empathy conquer chemistry? Some kind of electromagnetic wave, controlling a simple brain structure? I can't conceive of it."
The old Nazi's phosphor face sneered. "Small wonder. You have a mediocre mind. The marriage of mind and body is so deep as to make them virtually inextricable. Indeed, the quickening of the body is what separates it from meat. As chemistry of the body may affect the mind, so too may the chemistry of the mind affect the body."
The man, greatly daring, shook his head in disbelief.
Arnim Zola growled. "It irritates me that your mind is so inferior as to be unsuitable for demonstration purposes. Spy! How progress your notes?"
"Complete to this moment, Meneer Zola." she replied.
"Excellent." he said mildly. A light on his "head", dim since his arrival, flashed brightly red.
The spy's face, in turn, reddened. "Glghck!"
"What's happening to her?" the doubting scientist asked.
"Observe." Zola said calmly.
A weird light came into the eye of the spy, then, and she began to shriek loudly. A stench of relaxed bowels assailed the nostrils of the assemblage.
"What are you doing to her?" the man demanded.
"I have forged the link." Zola replied.
She started tearing at her face with her hands, then, forming claws of twisted fingers. Her long nails drew blood. Her screams grew louder.
"The subject's discipline, in light of this display, is remarkable." Zola noted. "That he is even capable of forming coherent thoughts is testimony to that."
The sceptic looked away when the spy punctured one of her own eyes.
"Unfortunately, the flesh is weak, and so are most minds. A more suitable vessel will be necessary." the old evil said. "Even if this one were restrained, she would suffer stroke upon stroke until she died."
In the tank, the sceptic noticed, a peaceful smile had settled over the face of the subject, Victor Creed.
The sun plied its wares in the shabby room in such wise as it was allowed. Venetian blinds, dusty and notched, held the intrusion of light to a few horizontal slashes against a sallow wall. It was the reflection of this light that made David North open his eye at last.
As was his custom, he began the day with a wracking cough that robbed his body of what strength it owned. Blood-flecked phlegm spattered a sheet that was already stiff and spotted black, a legacy of Legacy. Morning was always the worst time of the day.
He swung his legs precipitously over the edge of the bed and fought the urge to vomit, as he did every day. Today, he won the battle and kept down his gorge. Not that he'd consumed anything but broth, bread, and whiskey for weeks. Hardly worth keeping down.
North raised a hand tentatively to fondle the stiff, chalky bandages covering his ruined face. Mild palpation split a bubo, which bled its contents into the bandage and filled the already rank air with a sharp, metallic smell that rotted in his nostrils.
Months ago, an unexplained remission in his condition had allowed him to return to active duty. Unfortunately, he took a beating in Europe thereafter that taxed his enfeebled immune system and engendered a relapse. It wouldn't be long now.
"Elena?" he croaked. "You here, babe?"
No, of course not. The smell in the little room was horrible. Small wonder that she'd want to be quit of it for a few hours. North pulled himself up on the dirty wall and shambled over to the window to open it.
Strange. If the angle of light was any indication, it was well past noon. Elena never let him sleep for more than six hours, or fluid would pool in his lungs. He never tossed or turned in his sleep anymore. Always, he lay like a corpse.
He jammed the window open, and breathed the heady vapours of autumn in Ottawa. The effect was spoiled by all the rotting trash in the alley, and the hiss of the cheap neon sign near the window that identified this building as the Prophecy Hotel.
North leaned against the wall beside the window to catch his breath. It was a long way around that bed. Normally, he slept on the other side, closer to the window.
He swore, and starting hobbling furiously toward the nightstand, where he could already see that the clock was unplugged. He didn't need to look under the bed to know that her suitcase was gone.
Elena had insisted, the night before, that she was having difficulty sleeping on the far side of the bed. She almost never asked anything of him, and it was so hard for her to sit and watch a bad old man like himself rot from the inside out. She even dragged the bed all the way around, to suit him, he'd thought. After all, he'd slept on the right side of the bed since earliest childhood. She just wanted to be closer to the window, he'd thought.
He hadn't even suspected, at the time, that she was angling his single remaining eye so that the light from the window wouldn't catch it in the morning.
North sat on the bed and picked up the telephone. Dead. Shit. He leaned over and saw that it had merely been unplugged. He plugged it back into the wall, and dialed the weather service. He punched in a code to get the time.
"At the third tone," it said, "it will be five-fourteen-and-thirty seconds. Beep-beep-beep."
He snarled, and slammed the phone back onto its cradle. She'd probably left as soon as he was asleep, last night. Probably slipped a mild sedative into the whiskey. Very probably thought that he'd be grateful if he never woke up because of that risk.
She was right, of course.
A cough, wet and edged like broken glass, bubbled up from his lungs. He fought to keep his feet, clutched his ribs to keep them from bursting.
Control. Emotional control.
There on the endtable, tucked under the inert clock, he spied a note. He tugged it out and held it up to his watery eye, straining to read it in the dim light that the window provided.
I have heard on the news that Mystique, your old comrade, has been working on a human-only strain of the Legacy virus. If this is true, then there is a strong possibility that her notes would be useful in finding a way to blunt the teeth of the disease. I go to Washington to meet her, before she is locked away forever. She was involved in some incident involving the new president, Kelly. She might be able to point us the way to those notes.
With new hope,
David North, who had been known in Germany as Christophe Nord, and in Canada as Maverick, crumpled the note fitfully. Did she really think that the inclusion of her patronym was too subtle a shaft for him to catch? No way was she after Mystique. No.
If Elena was gone, that meant that she must have gotten some lead on Sabretooth. And he'd been so careful to make sure that no reports of Creed's whereabouts would filter down to her through her usual channels. He still had more than enough cachet in the intelligence community to ensure that, even if his Legacy infection was now common knowledge.
Elena Ivanova was the product of the Soviet Super-Soldier program, picked up when she was still a baby by their mutant identification program, Flagwatch.
He'd been identified by the same program as a young man in East Germany, back in 1945. Only the timely intervention of the C.I.A. had prevented him from becoming Soviet property.
David stalked over to his bottle of whiskey. Some improvement, he thought. Better dead than red? There was no difference between the Americans and the Russians. Ideology clothed naked power games. Lies, lies, lies.
Elena knew that. She was ex-KGB. Nobody knew better.
She was also an alpha-class telepath, considered one of the subtlest in the business. Not quite the omega-class threat of Xavier, perhaps, but potent enough in her way to sweep all opposition before her.
Creed shed telepathy like water off a duck's back. He'd built up a strong resistance when he'd enslaved a telepathic assassin and made her follow him around, quelling his demons. Elena was no assassin. She wouldn't stand a chance in hell.
North ran his fingers through his brittle hair. He needed to find her. She'd be on the hunt. Where would Creed be?
Time to make some phone calls, if he was going to save her life.
The wind blew fitfully in the city streets, skirling the fresher snow up in parabolic arcs over the boots of pedestrians. Much of the snow stayed on the ground, stained brown by the exhaust of cars and the effluvia of petroleum distilleries. The snow was the last, unseasonable remnant of a cruel winter-- one that seemed to have stretched on for too long. The breeze was warm, however, and bid fair to melt the snow away.
Hats were fashionable for women that year, but the pillbox hats that the two ladies wore did little to protect their hair from the elements. Both were tall, young, and pretty. The taller of the two had black hair that was probably shiny when it wasn't being dulled by the weather. She also had pale, creamy skin that had reddened a little in the breeze. In spite of that weather, she wore a split skirt that flared up to reveal well-toned calves whenever the wind took it. Her coat was felt, and robin's egg blue. Her arm was locked with her companion's, for her eyes were milky white, as if she had thick cataracts. She was blind.
The other woman had henna-red hair and a complexion that looked as if it were florid at the best of times, let alone in a snow-laden breeze. Her eyes were a golden hazel, and flinty, hardening a face that would otherwise have been remarkable for its classical angularity. She was bundled somewhat more warmly, with a muff of wool that she pressed against her companion's hand to keep it warm. Her coat was woolen, and an unfashionable grey, though still of an attractive cut. It was she that steered her companion through the madding crowd.
For madding it was, jubilant and sloshing alcohol about in contravention of all public security laws. No one cared, least of all the police. Women, especially, mobbed the streets in search of a loved one. That day, it had been announced, was VE-Day, the hour of their victory in Europe over the mad Austrian and his ilk.
To add to the confusion, a large number of soldiers had been relieved from duty, or at least given leave, and the CN railway had brought them here, into Edmonton. Loved ones who had been feared lost since Dieppe were united at last with their sweethearts, or met nasty surprises when they found that their sweethearts had strayed. Some lonely men, women, and children stared at the train and the trucks, willing just one more soldier to climb out of gaping doors.
The two women had already lost interest.
"I told you that he wouldn't come out here, Irene." the red-haired woman said.
The dark-haired woman sighed. "I know. I was so sure, though..."
"Why would the Count and his son ever come out to hicktown, Canada?"
"No." Raven said. "I'm mad at you, Irene. I thought that I was going to get my hands on that louse. I was this close!" she shouted, gesticulating. "This bloody close!"
Irene shook her head. "Why are you so interested in his son, Raven? The boy is a debauched popinjay. A layabout. He'll pass no money on to his children."
"He's got land and title." Raven replied. "And by all accounts, the Count is going to keep at least some of his Austrian possessions. We can use that kind of advantage."
She sneered away a trio of soldiers who seemed to be interested in finding willing girls for the night. They left to find easier prey.
"The man who will be the father of my child. Here." Raven said. "What sort of hayseed soldier boy am I going to meet here?"
"I don't know, Raven."
"Mark my words, that boy is going to marry me by hook or crook, and if I have to bear his brat to do that, so be it."
Irene nodded. "I never doubted it."
"We can't travel around with that freak show forever, Irene."
"The Szardos family has treated us very well." Irene said firmly. "Don't be ungrateful, please."
"You're right." Raven said. "But we're spinning our wheels here. We can do better than a travelling carnival. We should be betting on horse races, or the like. Two women may not be able to get by without a man in this world, but neither can they get by without money."
"The law won't always be against us." the blind woman replied. "Look, women were allowed to work in the factories while the men were at war. Change is coming."
"Is that prophecy?" Raven asked.
"No." Irene said. "Nothing so ephemeral. Just observation."
"Oh really?" the red-haired woman remarked, with a twisted smile. "What else can you see?"
"Lots of things." her companion replied, archly.
A soldier, seated nearby, laughed. "What do you see, baby?"
"Ignore them, Raven." Irene said in an undertone.
"I'll tell you what I see." the young man continued. He was seated at a table in a sidewalk bistro that was atypical of the town, with a collection of other soldiers of much the same age. The entire porch, it seemed, was populated by soldiers of one stripe or another.
"I'll tell you what I see." he said again. "I see a pair of girls who should be giving the boys and me a proper welcome home. Give us a kiss, sweetheart."
Irene smiled. "Of course."
Raven's teeth clenched. "It's not going to stop there, Irene." she hissed.
Nevertheless, Irene leaned over the table and kissed the young man, who put his hand to the back of her neck. He held her there for what seemed like a minute before releasing her, grinning.
"And you'll share the wealth with my mates, here." he said. "Now, what about you, red?"
"I confine my kisses to men." Raven replied, and bent down to kiss another soldier at the table. He was too surprised to take advantage of the opportunity, but laughed with the rest when she withdrew.
"Vixen's got a mouth on her, Tom." one of the other fellows said to the loudmouthed soldier.
"And an eye." chuckled another.
Tom's faced turned ugly. "She ain't leaving here until she gives me the kind of kiss that'd make her mother blush. Grab her."
A couple of the boys obligingly reached for her, but Raven jumped back out of the way. Irene, though, was not as quick. The young man caught her by the arm and dragged her into his lap.
"Let me go." Irene said slowly.
"No way, chickadee. If red here isn't going to do her patriotic duty, that means you're gonna have to serve double time. Gary, your old man'll be at the Journal, won't he?"
"Let me go."
"Sure." one of the boys said to Tom, a slow smile creeping onto his face. "You know it. Only five blocks to the house."
"Let her go!" Raven yelled at Tom, stamping straight at him.
As one, the soldiers stood up. She backed off slightly, and fell into a horse stance. They moved to circle her, but she kept backing up to forestall them until she noticed that Tom still hadn't moved, and he still had Irene. She glared at each of the young men defiantly until they had successfully ringed her. Her despite only seemed to excite them.
"I'll scream." Irene warned.
"So what?" Gary said. "There are gonna be a million screaming girls today. Screaming for all kinds of reasons. And you'll only get one before I put something in your mouth to shut you up."
One of the men darted in toward Raven. Her foot lashed out in his direction, but it was only a feint. Another two moved simultaneously, and from opposite sides. She dropped onto the ground, lashing out with her fists as she did so and catching one painfully on the knee. These two backed off, but two others, again at opposite sides, surged forward. She executed a savate-style double sweep, which was enough to make them hop back.
"Ain't this familiar." a voice remarked, jarringly loud.
The man was big. Ridiculously big. Where these boys were five-foot nine, five-ten, this man was well over six feet, and might have weighed as much as any two of them together. He was dressed in an infantry uniform, which didn't fit him very well. Its sleeves were rolled up in an effort to conceal this, and perhaps to reveal Herculean forearms. These were covered with a thick forest of blond hair. He still wore his service cap, a tattered affair that failed to conceal the fact that his crew cut wasn't very even. His eyes were blue, icy blue, and so damned commanding. He was utterly at ease, as if he had not just addressed a challenge to an entire unit of soldiers.
Tom glared up at the man. "Fu--"
"Didn't I just see this scene in Italy?" the big man said, as if the boy had never opened his mouth. "'Bout a year ago?"
"Fuck you, Creed." Tom finally managed.
"And here I thought you only dandled abroad, boy. Where you could take your gun t' anybody who didn't like your style." Creed said.
"I'm warning you..."
The big man smiled. "Warn me some more, boy."
"Why don't you shut your mouth, Creed?" Gary said.
"Why don't you shut my mouth, Cox?" Creed taunted.
The soldiers stood away from Raven, and moved now to encircle Creed. He made no move to stop them.
"Gotta apologise t' you ladies." Creed said. "Seems that some of our boys are havin' problems meetin' girls. Guess they figure that even takin' it by force beats havin' t' pay for it."
"We didn't need your help." Raven said angrily.
"Who's helpin'?" Creed smiled. "I just like beatin' up little boys."
Raven moved to help Irene, prying her from Tom's nerveless grip. He never even noticed. He only had eyes for the big man, who admittedly had a very unnerving grin. He seemed to have filed his teeth.
"See you later, doll." Creed offered.
"Are you all right?" she asked of Irene, ignoring the dismissal.
"I'm fine. Let's go home." Irene said.
Raven frowned. "Shouldn't we..."
"Do you think he needs it?"
The russet beauty cracked another crooked smile. "Let's go home."
Silver Fox was fuming. She stalked down the hallway with a will, her eyes small and flinty, her teeth grinding. Her hard-soled boots, fit more for horseback than tile, made a jarring clamour.
As she walked, people got out of the way. Most of these people were much larger than she, but then they knew how little that mattered where this woman was concerned. Firstly, her fighting skill was legend. She'd never been beaten or even seriously challenged in the tournaments, and seemed to be as much at ease against three opponents as one.
Secondly, she was the final authority in Hydra. The Supreme Hydra was no more than a finger puppet that it amused her to play with.
In fine, she was not someone to irritate, and only the ambitious sought her eye.
She was approaching her office. A squad milled there, looking lost and helpless. Their sergeant noticed her, and they melted away like a summer frost.
"Errr... sir?" one of them said as she passed.
Fox spun on her heel and glared up at the common soldier. "What is it?" she answered, biting off each syllable.
"There's a man in your office, sir." he said, a bit timorously.
"What does he look like?" she asked.
"I don't know, sir." he replied. "I guess he just appeared in there, and your secretary called in a squad to remove him, and they attacked him in full force, but none of them came out, so we were dispatched to help you and get this guy out if necessary." He took a deep breath. "I think all of the first squad are dead, sir."
She nodded. "You will follow me into the antechamber, at the least. Thank you."
The soldier nodded and fell into position.
Fox frowned. "Why are you falling back into rank? Aren't you the sergeant of this squad?"
It was impossible to mistake a sergeant's outfit for that of a common soldier. The 'H' of a sergeant was white instead of yellow, and the goggles were of polarized plastic instead of just coloured plastic. The sergeant, silent throughout the whole exchange, squeaked, "No, sir. That would be me, sir."
Fox smiled at him. "Nonsense. It is the sergeant's duty to make reports, not that of a mere common soldier. You are hereby demoted to the rank of common soldier. Boy, you are now the sergeant of this squad."
"Th-thank you, sir." the former sergeant stammered.
"Effective immediately," Silver Fox said. "Though you needn't change until afterwards. This enemy is obviously professional, and an intelligent enemy takes out the sergeants and officers first. Fall in."
The two men moved to switch places, but Fox forestalled the former sergeant with a hand on his arm. "Hand me your rifle." she said. "I'm not carrying mine."
He gulped air, but complied.
"Now, follow me in, rifles couched, but do not fire unless fired upon or if you are given the order." she said. She walked the short remaining distance to the door to her office, and opened it.
There were signs of a firefight there, to be sure. All of the weapon discharges appeared to be from Hyda-issue VAD energy rifles, which were anti-personnel pulse fire-rifles that were property-friendly. By the slight discolouration of the paint on the walls, Fox judged that at least one soldier had turned his VAD to its maximum setting.
There were no bodies, and no damage to furniture apart from some chipped paint that might have been an old wound. The door to her office was closed. There-- a scuff on the carpet, probably from the leg of one of the chairs. Whoever won the fight, and it was clearly the interloper, had neatly disposed of the bodies and put the furniture back in its original position.
"Take up positions behind chairs." she said softly. "Keep a clear path to the door, but radio for another squad to take up a position in the hall. They are to fire at anyone that leaves this room until they receive radio confirmation."
"Sir." the new sergeant said.
"Four of you on one side, one on the other. This room is too small for a VAD crossfire." she said, walking gingerly toward the door to the office proper.
The door couldn't be kicked open from the outside; only from the inside. That was one of many design features that its occupants over the years had come to appreciate. At the moment, it was inconvenient. The designers hadn't taken into account the possibility that the office might fall into hostile hands.
"You. The weaponless one. Come here." she said.
The ex-sergeant began to shake, but he came forward.
"Open this door." Fox ordered, and took a step back. "Don't even think of ducking."
He raised a jittering hand to the doorknob, turned it slowly, and pulled the door slowly open. Fox crouched behind him, VAD at the ready, peeking into the room under his arm.
"This gun," drawled a man seated at her desk, "can penetrate three feet of concrete at a distance of 700 metres. It is loaded with titanium-jacketed depleted-uranium slugs swimming in mercury, and each one makes an exit hole the size of a dinner plate. This poor mope makes for piss-poor cover, Fox."
The office wasn't well-lit, but her night vision was more than remarkable. He was a dark-skinned man, slender and probably tall, dressed in a slate grey suit that had been tailored by a master. His shirt had a stiff collar, and sported a bolo tie with a turquoise setting. His mustache and beard were close-cropped and neat, and his hair, what she could see of it, was also short. It was mostly concealed by a tan stetson that he wore low over his eyes. A pair of british racing green Ray-banz sat on the desk beside his boots, which were of snakeskin and had a cowboy's walking heel. He spoke in a broad, lazy Texan accent. She couldn't decide if it was authentic or not. His cheekbones were broad and strangely flattened, and his nose was a prominant feature of his face, making up most of the width of his mouth.
"Carlisle?" she said incredulously.
"Mother? What are you doing here?" the guard asked.
The saintly old lady smiled at him, and he glowed. His mother was only five feet tall, and almost as wide, but still a beauty as far as he was concerned.
"I've come to see my son at work." she said in her warbling, uncertain alto.
"Mom, what's so exciting about seein' me work? You been to the courthouse a million times!" he said.
"Oh, nonsense. It hasn't been so many." she scolded. "Don't exaggerate. I came down here because I heard that there was a young lady that you've been seeing at work, and I wanted to get a look at her."
"You did?" the guard asked, much amazed. "Damn, Mom, I wish somebody had told me that rumour. No, I got no girlfriends here."
"Now, I know you!" she said, shaking her finger. "I know what it is that you are thinking when you are lying to me. There's a girl, and I know."
"Mom, honest, there's no girl!"
"Then who is this?" she asked, nodding to a doorway.
The guard shook his head and walked over to the door. Hmm. A door in the cell block? Damn, but he was an unobservant bastard. In all his years at the courthouse, he'd never noticed it. Shaking his head, he reached for the doorknob.
It was locked.
"I don't think there's anyone in there, Mom." he said. "I think you're mistaking this for another room in the building."
"Nonsense!" she needled. "You're just trying to keep me from meeting her. You unlock that door and open it."
He sighed. There was no arguing with her when she was like this. He reached for the correct key (how did he know which one?) and turned it in the lock.
And she was right. Wow.
The woman of his dreams was in there. She was gorgeous. She was... He felt a sting on his neck. Damn insects. Always biting when he was on his camping tri...
Elena raised an eyebrow at Raven Darkholme, who was staring at the inert body of the guard.
"Are you here to kill me or break me out?" Mystique asked, never taking her eyes off of the fallen man.
"If you don't answer my questions promptly and truthfully, I kill you. If you cooperate, I remove your inhibitor collar and you're free to go." the Russian replied.
"Fine." Mystique replied, looking up at last. "What do you want to know?"
"Your relationship with Sabretooth." Elena said flatly.
Raven's eyes flared angrily. "None of your business."
"Then you die."
Mystique shrugged, but her eyes narrowed.
When she saw the woman bend over to pick up the guard's sidearm, she uncoiled like a spring, and brought her shoulder to bear against the Russian's abdomen. Her target grunted satisfyingly, and was borne over backward to the concrete floor. Mystique grabbed both of the woman's ears and smashed her skull into the concrete floor. Her victim's face took on a vacant expression. She did it again. And again. The girl's pulped skull was leaving messy, bloody prints on the floor. She made a final twisting motion to be sure, snapping the slender neck, and sat back on her heels.
Bodies of skinny women always looked particularly pathetic. They resembled discarded marionettes, more than anything else. Of this girl, it was particularly true, with her head tilted at an unnatural angle and her eyes staring vacantly.
Raven shook her head. There was no easier decision in the world than that of 'you or me'. Killing wasn't something she enjoyed, but it beat dying.
On the guard's belt, she found a variety of useful keys, including one that unlocked her inhibitor collar.
She also released the other two people in the cell block, in the hope that the sheriffs would have to split their resources to track them down. Then, she took the shape of the girl.
She knew that Silver Fox would have Sabretooth. Victor was the sort of man that you kept close to hand, or not at all. A snake as large as Hydra crept along slowly. She was willing to bet that she knew exactly where Silver Fox was.
As she walked out of the courthouse, unmolested, the bright sunshine beat down on her face and reminded her how important her work was.
With the sun in her eyes, enjoying life again for the first time in days, it was probably understandable that she didn't think to count how many shadows she was casting.
Months ago, the mansion had been all but destroyed by a black-bag government program called Operation: Zero Tolerance. Nanites, Prime Sentinels, and soldiers had stripped the house of every scrap of cloth, every stick of furniture, every chip of hardware. There had been gaping holes in the wall and ceiling because of medical emergencies and enemy attacks.
Fortunately, the Xavier Foundation still possessed deep investments in medical research, pharmaceutical companies, mining interests, and real estate. Once Charles Xavier, the executor of the foundation, was produced to sign the relevant documents, certain things could be replaced. Certain bootstrapping measures could be abandoned, and rushed jury-rigging could be undone and replaced with solid repairwork.
The recreation room had not been forgotten in this program, fortunately, so that was where Wolverine could be found, shooting a losing game of pool against a smug-looking Gambit.
A brief knock at the archway failed to screw up the Cajun's next shot.
"Logan." the new arrival said. He was a big man, six-foot three, with a broad, powerful jaw and kind eyes. His shoulders were titanic, much out of proportion with the rest of his body. The body itself would have impressed a power lifter, with a barrel chest, prominent lats, and long, limber, muscular arms. His legs, strangely, were fairly short. And then, of course, there was the lustrous blue fur that covered him from head to toe.
"McCoy. What is it?"
"Storm has informed me that you have encountered a new mutant; one that might benefit from proper identification and instruction. An absorbant empath, apparently?"
"Yeah." Logan grunted. "Goes by Vendetta."
McCoy nodded sagely. "I see. By token of that choice of professional name, I assume she is not a well-adjusted young lady."
"That's right. I don't think she'd take help, if she thought it was comin' from my direction."
Gambit frowned. "I don' like the sound of that, Wolverine. You got a his'try wit' this girl?"
"Killed her father." Logan said.
The Beast sighed. "It would have to be something like that, wouldn't it? Well, perhaps we could send her down to the Massachussetts Academy. They've handled angry young ladies before."
"She ain't that young." Logan said. "Older'n' Kitty and Peter."
"But she does need help." the Beast pressed.
Wolverine sighed. "She's got a hard life, as I understand it, an' I'm most o' the reason."
"She the reason why you came in here so pissed off, mon brave?"
"Yeah." Logan replied.
"I'd hate to think that there was an untrained empath wandering around without support."
Logan handed him a cue. "It's worse than you think. Her daddy was a contract killer, an' he taught her everything he knew."
"What am I going to do with this?" the Beast asked.
"Finish my game. I've gotta talk to a man about a gun."
Wolverine left the recreation room and headed for the foyer, there to take the stairs down to the basement where he would find the man he was looking for.
The floorboards didn't creak anymore. After the mansion had been hit by the Prime Sentinels, and all of Cable's traps had gone off, they'd had to do a lot of repairs. Many of the floorboards had been torn up and refitted. He missed the creaks.
He reached the end of a hallway that fed into the foyer, and there caught a glimpse of a pair of feathered wings disappearing into the kitchen.
"Worthington!" he bellowed. "Don't go far, boy. I gotta talk to you after I get done with Forge."
"What's this about, Wolverine?" the Angel called from the kitchen.
"A research facility o' yours that Sabretooth and I paid a visit to last year. Don't go flyin' off until I come back upstairs."
"Honey will catch more flies than vinegar, you little charmer." Worthington replied in sotto, probably well aware that Wolverine could hear. "Not that you've ever had much difficulty attracting flies."
"I love you too, playboy." Logan said, as he stomped downstairs. Forge didn't like being snuck up on.
Forge had converted the area overlooking the Danger Room into his lab. Where before it had been a relatively small room, suited to having three or four observers, now it could have comfortably housed twenty, if that were its sole purpose. Of course, now it had a workbench, and some other equipment, and a drop-shield to protect the Danger Room panels from hot solder or other contaminants. It always stank in the room now.
Forge, as it turned out, was working on the Danger Room controls themselves. Charles had brought back more Shi'ar components to replace the stolen artifacts, but they weren't yet operating the way that the boss liked them. Forge was often tinkering with them. At the moment, he was on a small mechanic's gurney, fiddling around with the underside of the panel. Only his legs were visible.
"Maker." Logan rumbled.
"Logan. What is it?"
"Got a minute?"
Forge's hands gripped the edge of the panel, and he wheeled himself out into the open air. He was stripped to the waist, and sweating heavily. "Yeah. Toss me that towel, would you?"
Wolverine put his hand on a rather grease-stained bath towel. "This? You gotta be jokin'. Here, use my shirt." He pulled off the T-shirt and tossed it to the recumbant Cheyenne.
"Thanks." Forge said, wiping his brow and shoulders with it. "Want it back?"
"So what's this about?"
Logan grunted, and looked Forge in the eye. "You still workin' for the government?"
"No." Forge said levelly. "Not since they screwed X-Factor."
"Okay. Talked to Mystique lately?"
"What is this?" Forge grated.
"When we were in Washington, at Kelly's victory party, Mystique had a copy o' that damn gun o' yours."
"I'd know that thing anywhere. An' even if I didn't, you can bet that Ororo would. She was there."
Forge snarled. "Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch." He began pacing back and forth. "Fuck." He spun suddenly on his heel, and came nose to nose with Wolverine. "And you have no idea how she got that gun?"
"I got a couple of 'em. You're one."
"To hell with you, Wolverine! You know me better than that."
Logan nodded. "I think so. I've been fooled before, though, so I ain't about t' take it on faith."
Forge nodded jerkily, and began pacing again.
"Any ideas?" Logan asked.
"What's your other one?" Forge countered.
"I'll save that for the moment. Don't wanna stir the pot, A, an' I'd like an idea or two from you, B."
"Are you sure it wasn't a mock-up?" Forge asked hopefully.
"There's a thought." Logan said. "No, it never got used. It could've been a phony."
"Can't count on that, though. Shit!"
"Any chance that some government type or a corp got the blueprints, or maybe reverse-engineered one of 'em?"
"There was only ever one." Forge said. "A prototype, and I destroyed it. You know I don't need blueprints."
"Yeah." Logan said. "So you weren't sure enough about it that you gave out the process to some egghead physicist at the Pentagon?"
"I wasn't sure enough about them."
"Right. So you're thinkin' that there's no way that it's some government type who's seen the gun and maybe made his own copy."
"No way." Forge said.
"You ever discuss it with Mystique?"
Forge gave him a flat stare. "Do you think I'm stupid?"
"No." Logan said. "You ever discuss it with somebody in the mansion here?"
Forge shrugged. "Rogue, once. She was interested in the idea and asked me what was involved."
"Was anyone else there?"
Forge's eyes narrowed. "Nobody who wasn't an X-Man, if that's what you mean."
Logan shook his head. "Don't look for hidden meanings, Forge, 'cause I ain't usin' any. Who all was there?"
"Hmmm. The Professor, of course. Warren. Jubilee. That's it."
Logan nodded. "An' who out o' that bunch do you think could've made heads or tails of what you were sayin'?"
"Are you asking me if I think any of them are intelligent enough to understand the process?"
"Jubilee doesn't have the background. Charles would understand, of course. Warren might have understood the basics, but probably nothing beyond that. Rogue quite clearly couldn't follow it through."
"Why d'you say that?" Logan asked.
"She kept asking questions about it, asking me to clarify or go over a point again in simpler language, or describe the physics behind a particular element of the process."
Logan raised an eyebrow. "No kiddin'. That didn't seem weird to you?"
"Not at the time, no." Forge replied. "Her power isn't doing her too many favours. I got the impression that she was trying to get me to say that I would or would not make another of those guns."
"And you wouldn't."
"Ain't that peculiar."
"You thinking about Rogue and Mystique?"
"Maybe a little."
"I wouldn't approach her the same way you approached me." Forge said wryly. "A little tact would go a long way."
Logan shrugged. "Thought I'd appeal to the paranoid bastard in you."
"Well, it worked." Forge said. "Do you really think it's somebody in the mansion?"
"I'm afraid that it is, put it that way."
"Shit." Forge muttered. "Really, Wolverine, Rogue? She'd be about the last person I'd think would do something like this. If she screwed up and gave the design to Mystique, she would have told us. Or run off and tried to fix it herself. She's done neither."
"I don't really think it's Rogue." Logan said. "But I can't rule it out. Folks'll get suspicious if I go around interrogatin' everybody, though, so I'd like t' recruit you."
"Me? Forget it."
Forge shook his head. "Uh-uh. I'm no good at that. Pick somebody friendlier. They'll see where I'm coming from a mile away."
Logan leaned forward. "You, I'm sure of. I was pretty sure it wasn't you comin' down here. I got my suspicions about who it is, and I'll be takin' care o' that. I want you t' go and talk to Rogue, at least."
"Why me? Besides the trust thing?" Forge asked.
Logan chuckled. "You act like a paranoid asshole, it's business as usual. It'll be forgotten by dinner."
"Oh, that's great!" Forge said. "You little prick."
Logan waved his hand as he turned around and walked upstairs.
The weather outside was still frightful, but Irene Adler and Raven Darkholme sat comfortably in front of the radiator in their rented Garneau apartment.
"Now that was more like a man." Raven remarked at last.
"Tall, muscular, handsome." Irene said.
"Oh, not that. I don't care much about all that nonsense."
"No, it's his... courage. That was a whole unit of soldiers, and he challenged them all for a pair of women that he'd never met."
"Maybe in the hopes of getting by way of reward what those boys were ready to take." Irene said.
"No, or he wouldn't have sent us packing." Raven said. "No, he did that because he likes to fight, and fight in a good cause. I know it."
"That sounds more like you than him."
"Panting like a bitch in heat over a brief encounter in the street. Really, Raven, you're growing more shameless all the time."
"I'm not ready to bear his children, Irene." Raven grated.
"He'd have to buy me dinner first." the redhead said in a sanctimonious tone, and the two collapsed into giggling.
"Oh, he was brave." Irene gasped after a while, wiping her eyes.
"And he had that great, deep, rumbling voice that made him sound like a bear."
Raven nodded. "That was my favourite part."
"I don't think I'm going to let you have him." Irene said. "He's mine."
Raven shook her head. "Why am I letting myself get worked up over a man? This is stupid."
"Raven, you can't just use people all the time." Irene said. "Don't dismiss him just because you like him."
"I'm not. I mean, I don't even know him. He could be a married man, with six squalling brats and a dewey-eyed fourteen year old mistress on the side."
"He certainly has enough man in him for a month of Sundays."
"And you know I hate that!"
Irene smiled. "So you often say. But I think you hate the alternative a lot more."
Raven sighed. "I can't deny that. The Count's son is a weakling. An effete little snot that would blow away in a stiff wind. If we married, I'd dominate him from dawn to sunset."
"That's what you want, if you plan to take all of his money and leave him out in the cold."
"Oh, I know. But that's for money. That's for us. This is for me."
"Is that all right?" Raven asked.
"Of course! Raven, you don't have to make everything you do about me. I'm not helpless."
"I don't. You know I don't. But I don't want to lose sight of our purpose. There are things that we have to do." Raven said.
"Maybe this is one of them." Irene replied. "Why don't you go outside and look for that man?"
Raven pulled on her coat. "Looking for a man. I feel like an idiot."
"I'm going. Keep warm."
"I didn't much take to the welcome I got when I pulled into your office." Carlisle said to Silver Fox. "I must say, Hydra's getting downright unfriendly."
"What are you doing in my office after all these years?" she hissed.
"Heard you were back in operation." he said, brandishing his wicked-looking pistol. "Decided to take a look for myself."
"Where are all my guards?" she demanded.
"That first squad? Took themselves out with a plasma-assisted Valence Accelerator Discharge salvo. In cross-fire, I might add."
He stood up and walked around the edge of the desk. She was right about his height; he was at least six-foot four in those walking heels. Fox eyed them carefully. They appeared to have been fitted. They wouldn't hamper him in the least in a fight. In fact, the heels would be deadly weapons.
"We'll take it up in interrogation." Fox said.
Carlisle raised an eyebrow. "I don't think so." he said. "Drop your gun."
Fox raised her eyebrow. "You must be joking."
"How many shots with that thing do you think you get before I hit you with this?" he said, stroking his pistol. "One? Do you think you can take me out in one shot? Can you even count on being fast enough to hit me that first time?"
"I just might. That's a Model-774 AIM designed VAD rechargeable that draws its power from a hydrogen cell. The cell requires seventy-eight hundredths of a second between shots to cycle enough power to prime the gun, at the cost of six millilitres of plasma, which is vented in short bursts. The gun has a safety feature that prevents discharge when the vents are open, which adds another six hundredths of a second, at peak efficiency, to your lapse. If the weapon has not been properly tuned, the vents can add as much as four tenths of a second."
"Impressive." Fox said.
"You don't have a belt-pack, either, despite the fact that the Model-774 is powered from a belt-pack, which means that you have three shots, at best."
"This is a modified model."
"With the same profile?" he said disdainfully.
"I only need one shot." Fox said.
"In this room? Cover avails you nothing and me everything. Drop the VAD."
"Put down the pistol first."
Carlisle laughed. "You must think I've been eating a big helping of stupid pie. Never trust a snake-- or a fox. You're both."
"Fine." she said, pulling the trigger on the rifle-- scoring a hit on her opponent's pistol, which jerked in Carlisle's hand and swung him around by the shoulder. He let go of the gun and hit the deck just as Fox fired dry. The cell was out of juice. Unfortunately, the rifle made a characteristic clicking sound when it was low on charge. The pistol, a half-second later, made a loud clatter as it struck the radiator and clung.
"I was hoping that you'd forget about the magnetizing effect of VAD pulses on standard hardware." Carlisle grunted as he kipped up. "But you're out, too. Let's do some reasonable adult talking."
"You're forgetting who's in charge here." she said. "You want to do this the hard way?"
Carlisle lifted the edge of her desk and casually flipped it over end, clearing a space. "I don't remember this way being very hard."
Fox hurled the useless rifle at Carlisle's head and came in hard behind it. He dispatched it with a flashy crescent, converting the movement into a spin, with his trailing leg coursing in a high arc that forced her to duck under it.
He was expecting that. His hands were planted on the ground, his trailing leg became the guiding leg, and he executed a handstand, still twisting slightly to the left. His former plant leg lashed its heel into her chin on its way over, almost lifting her off of the ground. She couldn't see straight.
The handstand twisted and became a round-off. Fox could hear the heels of his boots strike the floor in a stutter-step landing, but she was too dizzy to take advantage of his apparent imbalance. She staggered backward, and reached for the wall to steady herself.
She leaned forward, feigning more disorientation then she actually felt. When he was near, angling to the left, she stumbled and dropped forward into him. He hopped backward, as expected, but the balls of her feet were still planted on the ground, and she did a toe-thrust. Still in the air, he had nowhere to go when her head rammed into his groin and she wrapped her hands behind his knees. As planned, she regained her balance before he did and lifted him off the ground. He overbalanced and slammed onto his back.
She stood upright, holding his knees, while he lay on his back, presumably helpless. From this direction, she could twist him into a number of holds that would cause a lot of pain.
Incredibly, he curled up from the waist, not faltering even when she shook from side to side and hopped backward. She let go of his legs when he grabbed for her shoulders, and as desired, he lost his grip and tumbled backwards.
She followed as he rolled, stamping her boots in an attempt to break his hands, but she didn't manage to catch a joint. He changed direction suddenly as he tumbled, and turned it into a shoulder roll that brought him to his feet.
Fox edged in as Carlisle watched warily, and shot out a straight left to give him an arm, which he took with the opposite hand, as she had intended. She lashed a left crescent of her own at his head, which he was quick enough to grab. Caught in an untenable position, she reverse-gripped his arm and released her plant leg, sliding down between his legs as he held her ankle. Rather than stand surprised and suffer another shot to the groin, Carlisle chose to sit down, a ploy that snapped her right leg painfully at the knee.
Fox screamed as he scissored her broken leg and twisted the other one with both hands, viciously. She felt his hands trail off of her ankle and graze her thigh as he leaned forward, bracing her left leg up with his shoulder. He drew in his legs, and had her right leg trapped in a cross-legged stance.
Both of her hands were free, just as his were. She grabbed his hair, not quite close-cropped enough to prevent this, and yanked it down enough that she could wrap her left knee behind his neck. She caught her own ankle underneath with her left arm and started to bear down.
The pressure on her broken leg was enormous, but Carlisle was slowly being levered up off of it, even if his legs were still crossed. Fox was willing to bet that the pressure on his neck, and especially the carotid arteries, would force him to surrender before she did.
"Your neck..." she gasped.
"Your game." he grunted, and faded away.
Not just anyone could find the studio in Hell's Kitchen, but then it didn't always exist in New York City. Most of the time, it was somewhere else. The 'where' of it was a little vague. 'Somewhere' was a pretty apt description.
When it was visible, a sign over the door invited passers-by to see if they were as tough as they believed. Many found themselves ejected from the building when they failed to choose the door inside marked, "Know your enemy as yourself."
In fact, the master of the studio only had one student, and that evening, he was hard in study.
"Cross!" the woman said.
"This is crazy." her student muttered, but he complied. He was a large man, dwarfing his instructor at six-foot six, with a solid build that he worked hard to maintain. Most martial art devotees were teaching at his age, rather than studying, but that was not to say that he was unskilled. In fact, he was often assessed as one of the most dangerous hand-to-hand combatants in the world.
His sifu wasn't exactly from this world.
He grunted under the sudden pressure of a shot to the kidneys and a less-than gentle caress of his bladder nerve line. He almost had to cheat and use TK to avoid pissing on the studio floor.
Her heel drove into the back of his skull and he collapsed. His fingers twitched, and released her arm.
"Put yourself in your opponent's power to gain power over your opponent. Attack him when he thinks he is strongest and you are weakest."
"I get the point." Cable said, as he picked himself slowly off of the floor. "It's counter-intuitive. A good technique."
"I'm glad you approve."
She wasn't large, maybe five-foot four, and maybe a hundred thirty pounds of muscle. She looked petite. Her figures were Eurasian, with a definite Han presence. Black hair, delicately tilted brown eyes, and a rather aggravating calm were the attributes that stuck in Cable's mind. She gave her name as Shin, which he translated tentatively as 'Ghost'.
He would have sworn, looking at her, that she was no more than thirty. Appearances were deceiving. At least, he hoped they were.
"You seem a little impatient today, sifu." Cable said. "Have I been too slow?"
"No." Shin said. "You are a fine student. You show a great deal of promise. I am troubled by another matter."
"Anything I can help with?"
Shin frowned. "It might not be appropriate."
"I don't mean to intrude on your private affairs, sifu." Cable said.
"It isn't that." Shin said. "The trouble is one of my old students."
Nathan cocked an eyebrow. "Old student?"
"A woman. In the past, I have usually taught my style to women. The art of spirit is meant to conserve energy, to use the opponent against himself." she said.
Cable nodded. "Not an uncommon approach, though I've never seen an art that had more methods of deflecting superior force."
"It requires attention, and an undivided spirit. She is in turmoil right now, and threatens to return to her old ways."
"People sometimes go bad." Nathan said. "Are you afraid that she's going to misuse your teachings?"
"No. I'm afraid for her life. I believe that her memory is gone, and she's unaware that she will be hunted for using my teachings."
"How many people know your style, sifu?" he asked.
"Few have ever known it, and most of them have been hunted. You are learning it. Your friend Storm was taught a diluted, bastardized version by Wolverine, who had observed it in action when his lover, Silver Fox, would fight."
"Silver Fox has lost her memory." Cable said. "It's slow coming back, and it may never be completely healed."
"Her behaviour betrays a softening of discipline and a loss of focus." Shin sighed. "She needs to return to herself. If I could detect the ripples made by her use of the style, then so could my enemies, in time."
Cable grunted. "She's a big girl."
"True, but her capacities have diminished. Her training was never made complete. When she first went to Hydra, years ago, she cut all ties with me."
Cable nodded. "Right. Well, normally, I'd say that anything that she couldn't handle would probably be taken care of by Wolverine. The problem is, I think they had a blow-up over Vendetta."
"A girl that Wolverine's managed to mortally offend. I gather that he wanted to take her in and bring her to our friends. To help her. Silver Fox apparently had other ideas. Thus, the blow-up."
Shin frowned. "I request a favour."
"You want me to hook up with Fox and remind her of your association." Cable said.
Cable nodded. "I can do that, yes. I might have to pull in a favour or two at SHIELD to get inside Hydra headquarters."
Shin bowed. "It would be most appreciated."
Cable bowed in turn. "My pleasure, Shin."
The cellular phone picked up an incoming call and began to vibrate. It was opened. "Yes?"
"Thank God you called on this phone instead of the mansion line. Call this number, or my pager, in the future."
"I thought you might run into some trouble after I was taken in." Raven said. "Does anyone suspect?"
"Suspect? Ha! That's a laugh. Yes, Wolverine suspects. That much is obvious. He's running around the mansion asking funny questions about the gun. If he knew about the psi-baffles, I'd really be up the creek, wouldn't I?"
"Yes. I crushed it under my heel when I was taken in. You don't need to worry about that. Have you had any more luck bringing in your people?" she said.
"No. I'm having a lot of trouble, actually. And eventually, people are going to start realizing that Rogue has been on vacation for an awful long time."
"Well, it'll just have to stay that way. Say, do you think that you could make it look like Rogue went to Genosha? That'd keep their attention." Mystique said.
"That's a good thought. I'll do that."
"You're not having any trouble with Psylocke?"
"Please. Without her telepathy, she's no risk at all. And even if she still had it, you know that I'm almost immune to telepathy."
"How is the prisoner?"
"Beats me. I haven't looked in a couple of days. Secure. Speaking of prisoners, I take it you're sprung."
She snorted. "No thanks to you. I had to wait for some ex-KGB girl to try to assassinate me."
"What do you want, a personal check drawn from Worthington's bank account? I'm not about to draw suspicious eyes at this point."
"Fine, fine. I just wanted to let you know that I'm back in operation." Raven said.
"Good, good. I've got to get going. Any suggestions on ducking Wolverine?"
"Couldn't you just..."
"No. I might lose control of my faculties if I do. Then where will we be?"
"You're right. Well, good luck." Mystique said, and hung up the phone.
The cell phone was closed and slipped back into the pocket. A sudden intuition struck, but too late.
"Why would you want to avoid Wolverine?" Storm asked, walking into the kitchen.
"Apart from the obvious?"
She sighed. "I do not understand the enmity between the two of you, Warren."
He shrugged. "Sometimes people just dislike each other, Storm."
"Dislike is one thing, but you distrust each other." Storm replied. "You owe Wolverine your life, and he owes you his. Many times over."
"Thanks, Storm," Warren said shortly, "but we don't need a marriage counsellor. He's a boorish, nasty-smelling little redneck with a big chip on his shoulder. He's stubborn to the point of gross stupidity and never admits a mistake." He glanced over his shoulder. "You're also ugly."
"An' you still think that your green and good looks make you a real man." Wolverine said as he stalked in. "The real reason why you hate me is you think Jean likes me better 'n you. Which happens t' be true, but only a snot-nosed punk like you'd hold a grudge like that. She's married."
"Psychology from the nubile savage." Warren sneered. "Spell it and I'll take you seriously."
Wolverine laughed out loud. "Listen t' yourself. Jean's free an' clear now. Your ol' pal Scotty's finally out o' the way, like you've always wanted. Make your play, boy."
"Enough!" Storm glared.
"I don't have to take this." Warren muttered darkly, and strode toward the door.
"Hey! I ain't done with you yet!" Wolverine said. "Sit your ass back down, Worthington."
Storm put her hand on Wolverine's shoulder, restraining him. "Let him go, Logan."
Logan shook her off. "This is too damn important, 'Ro. Worthington, get back here!"
But he was gone.
"Shit!" Logan said, smashing his fist down on the table. "Why'd I let him draw me out like that?"
"He did not know that you were there, Logan." Storm said. "I brought up your mutual dislike."
"Let it go." she said. "That is an order."
Logan smiled slightly. "All right. Guess I'll go talk to Rogue, then. You seen her around?"
Storm shook her head. "No. She was supposedly in Washington with us, but I did not see her. You might ask Cable."
"Where's Cable, then? I ain't seen him since I came in."
"I will help you look for him."
Logan shrugged. "Fair enough. Rogue was in Washington, eh? Damned if I ever caught her scent."
The alley was sooty black, as much from the smoke of countless warming trash fires as from the night. Though a dumpster squatted nearby, its scent was buried underneath the faint legacy of the burning barrel, which lay on its side, disused for the first night in weeks. That particular night, it was probably unhealthy to sit in that alley. Its current occupant wasn't feeling particularly social.
A whole legion of cat-burglars, bravos, or dime-store ninja could have snuck through that ebon alley without being noticed, except that the man who slumped there was weaing a pair of heat-imaging goggles. He panned his head back and forth.
His vigilance was rewarded after scarcely twenty minutes, not enough for him to relax. He had almost been hoping to fall asleep on the job, as he had never done before he retired. The man was feeling his considerable age.
In silence and darkness, another man seemed to resolve into view, a wash of heat that started diffuse and then was recognizable as a normal human body. Or at least, as normal as any human could be that just formed himself out of the ether.
The new man was twisted into a strange posture, almost a lotus position. He uncoiled himself and stood up slowly, painfully. He reached up and rubbed his neck, causing the stetson perched on his head to shift up and down in time.
Then, the new man noticed his observer. "You all right, Rico?" he asked in a Texas drawl.
The man nodded weakly. "Having a bit of a bout. It'll calm down in a couple of minutes. What went wrong?"
The Texan shrugged. "All sorts of things. Nothing I could immediately identify, but I've got a couple of ideas."
"Give me the run-down."
"Well, first off, she called me 'Carlisle.'"
"No kidding. I remember that 'plant. Ugh. I had to play the hippie in that one. Morse, my name was. That was degrading."
His companion grinned in the dark. "I always did get the choicer parts, didn't I? Well, you and I have had the luxury of long years in the business to work through our memory implants, but Fox was removed from the equation before she really got started."
"That doesn't make sense, though. Remember the second caper in Sicily?"
"All too well, Rico. You were Il Topo's bodyguard."
"Right. But she knew you as John Wraith during that scenario. Why the hell would she regress?"
"Beats me, Maverick. Beats me. I expect it's something to do with wherever she's been the last few years." Wraith said.
"Did you get to talk at all?" Maverick asked.
Wraith shook his head. "No. She got all Hydra on my posterior. I had to pull the old fast fade."
"Shit." North muttered. "And here I thought that I had gotten ahead of Elena. Once I saw Silver Fox in that clip on the news, it was obvious that Creed would be with her. She's probably got him boiling in oil somewhere."
Wraith nodded. "Sorry, Rico. She was not in a reasonable mood. I'm here to tell you, though, that I need to knock some of the rust off. She dispatched me handily."
Maverick's chuckle turned into a protracted coughing bout. "That's what you get from rabbiting all the time." he finally managed.
"It still bothers me that I didn't know she was back." the Texan said. "Where the hell's she been all these years, if not in the damn ground?"
"Apparently, she was limber enough to give the old Wraith-man some trouble. We should ask Logan."
Wraith smiled sheepishly. "I had to switch up between capoeira and Krav Maga, and she still bent me over and loved me like a brother."
"Well, either we've got to try again, or try infiltrating the building and looking for him ourselves. It's not like Creed's somebody you let out of your sight." Maverick said.
"Here's another piece of bad news for you. I understand that our favourite infiltration specialist is back on the job."
"Leni Zauber, AKA Raven Darkholme, the leader of Freedom Force? I thought that was a strong possibility after I saw the tape. Wolverine seemed to think that the big fellow was Raven."
"That's the one, Rico. She was contracting for Fox, by the sound of things, and was stupid enough to try to write in her own scenario without consulting Operations."
Maverick shook his head. "I wouldn't get liberal with one of Fox's plots. I like my testicles the way they are. Mystique's nuts."
"Anyway, Creed was Fox's slack-man on that job, and picked up when the point-man dropped the ball." Wraith said.
"You know it."
Maverick chuckled again. "Mystique would never see that coming. Much as Creed's a snake. She might expect garden variety treachery, but not a double game."
"Then, scuttlebutt has it that Fox rolled up her toys in a carpet and went home, leaving Mystique to hold the bag."
North shrugged. "That's what she gets for getting treacherous with the Team."
"My attitude as well. Nevertheless, she's a cunning girl in her own right, and she's gonna be muy pissed off. We'll have to watch for her now that she's been expedited out of the hooskow."
"You didn't tell me that!"
Wraith shrugged in turn. "Didn't know, an hour ago. I passed the time between Hydra assaults by reading the material on Fox's desk."
"Who broke her out?"
Wraith raised an eyebrow.
"Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit!"
"Hey, partner. Slow down and tell me how you really feel about the situation." the Texan said drily.
"How are we going to stop a shapeshifter and a telepath from sneaking into a Hydra installation?" Maverick demanded.
"Cunning and gamecraft, Rico. Same as always."
Fox gingerly made her way over to the door to her office, which had slammed shut in the fracas, and eased it open. Predictably, the soldiers that were supposed to have been her backup were gone.
"Simmonds." she hissed, wincing as she put too much weight on her fractured leg. "That was a very stupid thing to do."
Rather than open the door and get blasted by the 'friendly' fire that waited for her outside, she eased herself into the secretary's chair and called up the file for Carlisle. It didn't take long.
"Carlisle, James S. Jr. Born Februrary 6, 1929 into a poor Philadelphia family, died June 11, 1966 in Windsor, Ontario. Unconfirmed sightings since that time in Berlin, Murmansk, Leningrad, San Salvador, Nicaragua, Marseilles, and Tripoli. Click for detail."
She remembered the scene in that warehouse in Windsor. Sabretooth had called for backup, and the big man, Mastodon, burst through the window. Carlisle had given him a shot to the stomach, but he'd taken one to the face in return.
Fox shook her head, trying to get the bugs out. She'd already rejected that implant as false. Logan, Creed, and Mastodon were there as CIA or maybe ATF, playing distorted versions of themselves, but the crew on her side made no sense. Fox as herself, or maybe Zora de Plata. Who were Andre, Morse, and Carlisle?
"Blow him away, you stupid squaw!"
Andre. Their revolutionary leader and ideological guide. The man who had inspired their cell. A weedy man, dressed like a paramilitary beat poet, with wire-rim spectacles, a close-fitting toque, a scraggly goatee. Was he bald under that hat? He probably shaved his head.
"You said the pigs couldn't come across the border, Andre!"
Morse. The hippie. The stupid suburbanite counter-culture grunge god with the burning eyes of a fanatic. He'd believed in the cause more than anyone, with all the pampered certainty of the rich liberal. He was willing to die and kill for it, too. Tall, skinny, with long blond hair that hung down in thin lanks. His eyes were familiar. Penetrating, intense. A broad face? That had been obscured by all that hair. There was a lot more to Morse than met the eye. No man with those eyes was as simple as he appeared.
"How do you like it in the gut!"
Carlisle. What was the reason for his sudden appearance? How could some Marxist ex-Black Panther, a man who craved revolution and violence more than anything else, find his way into her office? The means had always been more important than the ends to Carlisle. He was happy as long as they were brutal. He was older, like Andre. Maybe he'd just been in the revolution for so long that he couldn't give up his guns.
Was he after her connections?
No, this was a memory implant. She should look at everything in it with a critical eye.
The easiest way to determine the purpose of the implant is to look for obvious discontinuities. There was at least one glaring example: she was on one side, while Creed, Logan, and Mastodon were on the other.
Obvious conclusion to draw would be that the purpose of the implant was to provide a psychological impetus for hunting and killing other members of the Team, assuming that one or more of them went rogue. Was she the isolated element in this implant?
No. Of course not. Governments don't work that way. Money is an issue.
It was more logical to assume that every player in the implant was an element of the program. That way, they could get away with fewer such scenarios, working through the perms and combs inexpensively.
Carlisle, Andre, and Morse must have been her teammates. That put an entirely different spin on the showdown in her office.
Fox shuddered. Small wonder they'd been so closely matched. She'd paid for getting too fancy against a master. It was fortunate that she'd proven more competent in the closework.
Fox tapped her temple. It was time to check in on Creed. It could very well be the case that Carlisle was here to find Sabretooth, and not Silver Fox.
She stood up, the bone in her leg partially knitted already, and pressed a button on her secretary's phone.
"Yes, ma'am?" said a crackly voice.
"There is a rebellious squad outside my office door. Remove them. Set your VADs to maximum power."
Fox paused for a moment, and then pressed another button.
"Recover the assassin Vendetta from lock-up and bring her to the new lab. Use no sedatives or other compounds. I expect to see her alert, in good health, and well-restrained."
"Right away, Silver Fox."
She would deal with Simmonds later. The problem of Sabretooth was more pressing.
The lab was small, dark, and seemed ill-equipped, but that was most certainly a ruse. In point of fact, the scientist in charge of this lab was one of the most brilliant minds that the Soviet bloc had at its disposal. Her mission, ostensibly, had been to assassinate him. In fact, she had been instructed to see if she could turn him first.
That hadn't seemed prudent. Enough noise would have attracted too much attention. It wasn't like NATO would know that she'd never presented their offer. The kill by poison would make it appear as though he'd been killed by a jealous rival-- or in this case, Leni Zauber.
It was all too easy.
The difficult part would be the extraction. She had tried to hook herself up with a bona fide expeditor, but NATO would have none of that. The costs, they said, were prohibitive.
Mystique rather suspected that they considered her expendible. Her fee was not small.
Instead of an expeditor, they had arranged for extraction by a CIA covert action team, which was less expensive. She was fully expecting them to be carrying Soviet-issue ordnance, which would make her elimination easy to explain away if there was ever an investigation.
The laboratory door collapsed under a powerful blow, and a very large man in full Kevlar burst in, wielding a nasty-looking automatic weapon. This he trained on Mystique, who was masquerading as Leni Zauber. His armour was blue with gold trim, complete with helmet.
"Where is he?" the man demanded. "Let's kill him and get gone."
Something about him was familiar. Maybe it was the powerful sweep of his shoulders, the physique that the armour failed to conceal. Maybe it was the bristling jaw, or the low, gravelly voice. She shook it off.
"You'd better be Leni Zauber." he said.
"The scientist is dead." Mystique replied. "I am Leni Zauber, yes, and you are late. What kind of coverage do we have?"
The man chuckled. "You got me."
"What? You're joking, right?" she said.
"Nope. Just you 'n' me, girlie. Get ready t' hat up and head out."
She pulled a pistol that was concealed under her coat. "Let me guess. You're a discipline problem, and this is your chance to redeem yourself."
"You got it." the man said with a wide grin. "I expect they're callin' the Kommandos on the phone right about now, leavin' an anonymous tip about a possible assassination attempt."
Mystique sighed. "I'm trapped in the middle of East Berlin and my only company is a man who thinks mortal danger is funny."
The big man shrugged. "You gotta make your own fun."
"They told me I'd have the support of an entire CAT. You're big enough to be your own team, but I've yet to see any hint of covert action."
The man laughed. "Covert? My ass. You know that CIA stands for Caught In the Act. Now, let's get the hell out o' here."
He eased his shoulder up to the ruins of the door, and peered around the corner. "Clean." he said.
Mystique followed him into the hall, Luger at the ready. "Tell me." she said. "What's your designation?"
"'Designation?' Ain't you fancy. Name's Creed." he said. "You want my serial number?"
"No." she said, and frowned. "Are you any relation to a Canadian man by the name of Creed? You're about the same size."
"We're about the same man." he replied. "Unless you're talkin' about my Pa, and I'm happy t' report that I put him in the ground a long time ago."
Mystique shook her head. "Must have been your father. It was a long time ago."
"No kiddin'. I wouldn't've figured you for an old broad. You look all o' thirty." he said.
She raised her eyebrows at his back. "And how old are you?"
"Old enough." he said.
The two of them reached an intersection in the complex, and Creed poked his head around the corner, only to jerk it back again when some ambitious young soldier took a shoot.
A lethal barrage followed that chewed away at the corner.
"How would you know my Pa?" Creed asked.
"Didn't he serve in the War?" she replied. "In Europe? I met him in Italy."
"He might have." the big man replied. "He wasn't the type t' talk about stuff like that to me. But no way are you old enough t' remember meetin' somebody in the War."
"It was only fourteen years ago."
Creed snorted. "You mean the second War? Hell, I served in that one. Pa was in the ground at that point. And I sure don't remember meetin' any German frail in Italy."
"I must be mistaken." Raven said.
"What did he look like?" Creed asked.
"Big. Blond. Handsome." she said. "Deep voice. Blue eyes. He helped me out when I needed it. I looked for him, afterward, but couldn't find him."
Creed chuckled. "You should see me under this mask. I'd make you forget all about him." He leaned around the corner and squeezed off a shot.
A scream followed. Cries issued from five throats, and the sound of pounding feet could be heard under the continuous stream gunfire.
"You shot the sergeant?" she asked rhetorically.
Creed tossed his rifle back to Mystique and pulled his knife. When the outraged soldiers rounded the corner, he sprang from a low crouch. Raven stayed low, fired upward, and prayed.
"Rogue? Rogue, could I talk to you?" Forge said, knocking on her bedroom door. "It's Forge."
Only silence issued from inside.
He tried the doorknob. It was locked.
"Rogue, are you all right in there? Answer me, or I'm coming in!"
When he got no answer, Forge pulled a screwdriver out of his pocket and stuck it into the tiny circular hole in the doorknob. A small twist, and the door opened.
Forge smiled. With his intuitive understanding of machines, simple and complex, no lock was safe from him. Perhaps he'd missed his calling.
He pushed open the door to find that the room was empty. Strange.
He shrugged, and pulled the door closed.
"Any luck?" Wolverine said, as he came up the stairs.
"No. She's not in her room, she's not in the exercise room, nor in the pool."
Logan's brow furrowed. "I've been lookin' for her myself, and there isn't a fresh scent anywhere in the mansion. I guess she's been gone for a while."
"Since Washington, maybe?" Forge said. "She didn't come back? Maybe she got snatched."
"Maybe." Logan muttered. "Thing is, I never caught her scent in Washington, either. 'Course, it was pretty hairy there for a while. I wasn't exactly payin' close attention."
"Hmm. Maybe we should ask someone where she is." Forge said. "I spend so much time down in the lab that I just didn't notice. Somebody has to know where she's gone."
"Did you get what you needed from Warren?"
Logan grunted. "Hell, no. He ran his mouth and flew off. He'll probably hide out in that penthouse of his for the next couple o' days."
Forge's face took on a peculiar expression as a sandalwood scent wafted down the hallway on a faint air current. His eyes closed almost to slits, and he tilted his head back and smiled, almost involuntarily.
"Any luck, 'Ro?" Wolverine asked.
"No, Logan." Storm said as she approached. "I cannot find Cable. Charles seems to think that he has gone to his apartment in New York."
"Did you ask him about Rogue?" Logan said.
"Yes. He said that he has not seen her in a few days."
Forge shook his head. "She's supposed to be the leader of one of the teams, and look at this behaviour."
Logan frowned. "No, she takes the job pretty seriously, Forge. This is weird. You see any notes or whatnot in her room?"
"I didn't look." Forge said.
"Is the mansion communication exchange up yet?" Ororo asked.
Forge raised his eyebrows. "It was down?"
"You're beginning to sound a bit like a mushroom, Maker. Or an Intel agent." Logan said.
Forge smiled ruefully. "Or a soldier. Kept in the dark and fed a diet of horseshit."
"Something very strange is going on here." Storm said. "It puts me in mind of an episode in which you were replaced by a Skrull infiltrator, old friend."
Wolverine nodded grimly. "Yeah. It does. Sounds like somebody is running interference and disinformation 'round here. The question is, who?"
"I think it is time that we take our suspicions to Charles." Storm said.
"Good idea." Logan said.
Forge's eyes narrowed. "I'm not so sure."
"Why not?" Storm asked.
"It wouldn't be easy to pull off this sort of thing without Charles' knowledge and approval." Forge said. "He would be the first to notice anything of this sort. Am I correct in assuming that Charles wasn't in the mansion when you were replaced by this Skrull, Wolverine?"
"No. But deep-cover Skrulls are almost immune to detection by telepathy, from what I've heard."
"It still seems to me that this is likely some sort of gambit that Charles is playing." Forge said. "Who knows that we might not tip his hand if we open our mouths too wide?"
Logan grunted. "The Prof's a little too free with that kind o' thing for my liking."
"Maybe so, but that doesn't mean that it isn't important." Forge said. "Tell you what. I'll challenge Charles to one of our chess games. That might give us the opportunity to speak privately and candidly."
"I agree." Storm said. "Do it. Meanwhile, Logan, you shall go find Cable, and I shall speak to Warren."
Logan grimaced. "I get you. This mean you're takin' charge again?"
Storm smiled slightly. "For this operation only. I have had my fill of this responsibility, at least for a while."
"I'd better head out now." Logan said. "Cable ain't always easy to find."
"I'll go find Charles." Forge said.
"After you have finished your game," Ororo called after him, "be sure to repair the mansion exchange."
"Yes, ma'am." he answered with a faint smile.
The bar was really more of a pool hall, dimly lit and smokey. It was the sort of place that made everyone but the regulars worry about the possibility of violently thrown pool balls. The regulars developed a sense of when to duck.
Two men seated at a table were obviously not regulars, but they looked tough enough to be. They were almost of a size, though the caucasian man was taller and slightly more bulky. He wasn't exactly clean-shaven, but his face looked like it had a passing acquaintance with a razor, and that was more than most of the patrons could say. He looked like an ex-military man who had somehow learned to relax in an unfamiliar environment. His posture said, "This place couldn't serve me up anything I couldn't handle." He wore a bomber jacket over a flannel shirt, and blue jeans that were scuffed a little at the cuffs. His grey hair was surprisingly full, and the strong lines of his face suggested that he might have gone grey before his time. Certainly, nothing about his waistline suggested the contrary.
The other man, an African-American man, had an immaculately trimmed mustache and beard, snowy white, that matched the tone of his crew cut. His posture also seemed relaxed, but more like artfully controlled violence. His slouch was suggestive of a switchblade at rest. Perhaps he was a man old enough to be ex-military who somehow never got himself out of the business. He wore a pair of sweats that had seen better days, covered with old stains. They looked like boxing gear. He might have been the same age as his companion, and was in equally good condition.
Skinny bikers, deadbeats, and thirty-something thugs, with the survival instincts of rats at sea, kept their heads down around these two men, and carefully did not give the impression that they were listening.
"My answering service gave me the message. What's this about, Nate? Why roust me from my workout?"
The white man leaned forward. "I need a favour."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"George, I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important. I need to get into a Hydra installation."
"Look, Nate, it's not that I don't want to help you, but whenever I see you, it's about a favour. Never about anything else. Why can't you stop being Cable for ten minutes?"
"It's not like you come visiting me either, G.W.." Cable rejoined.
"How's it going to look for the deputy director of SHIELD to visit a group of mutant terrorists?" asked the man, G.W. Bridge. "That would end my career, and yours, in a hurry."
Cable raised an eyebrow. "Is that the official SHIELD party line these days? Mutant terrorists? I didn't realize that you guys were still running dogs for the American government."
Bridge gritted his teeth. "We are an international agency, beholden to the United Nations, with an international purview."
Cable snorted. "If that were true, you'd never be allowed to operate on American soil. Don't hand me a straight line like that, George."
"This is not endearing you to me, Nate. I'm beginning to remember why I used to hate taking your orders."
"Come on, George." Nathan said. "I don't want to argue with you. I said that this was important."
"To whom?" Bridge said icily.
"You think I'd ask for a favour that did not in some way benefit the position of SHIELD?" Cable asked sardonically. "I know better than that."
Bridge sighed. "All right. All right. I'll take the damn bait. What sort of operation are we talking about?"
"I plan to remove one of the heads of Hydra." Cable said quietly.
"Silver Fox?" Bridge asked, looking surprised.
"Yeah. How'd you know?" Cable said.
"I watch the damn news, Cable. She was on CNN during the Kelly debacle. We profiled all the players afterward and came up with a name."
"I should have known."
"So, what do you need me for, pard?" George asked. "Hydra is light in the telepathic department. You could just walk right in, if you were careful about it."
"Maybe that was true once upon a time." Cable said. "But I don't want to count on that. Especially since I notice that SHIELD has developed psi- baffles. I can't feel your mind at all."
"That's true." Bridge said.
"Do you think I'd lean on you?" Cable asked sadly.
"If you thought you had to." Bridge replied. "You'd do it in a second, Nate. Don't insult me by saying otherwise."
"Well, if SHIELD has the technology, then AIM probably developed it last year." Cable said. "Or stole it last week."
"I'm trying to remember that you were born an asshole," Bridge said, "and that you probably don't even notice it, like having an ugly mole on the back of your head. It makes me think fewer unkind thoughts about you when you mouth off."
"If you want me to tiptoe around the official line that you get from your bosses at SHIELD, fine." Nate grated. "The circumlocutions will probably keep us here all afternoon, though. I came here to ask a favour of an old friend, not to listen to press releases."
"I owe you," George said angrily, "but you owe me some respect, Nate. I don't give a shit if you don't respect my job. You've made that crystal clear. Like it or not, though, my job is a big part of my life. I don't fight for an idea, I fight for a whole raft of ideals. I have the big picture in mind. I'm not a private soldier for a damn special interest group like you."
"You fight for an institution, not ideals." Cable snapped. "Expedience, not justice. SHIELD is a corporation, like any other, and it's on a leash held by the American government, cloaked in a thin veil of legitimacy lent by the UN. You've sold out, George."
"Narrow focus, Nate! Nose to the ground like a bloodhound. Your group is violent, made up of several known and wanted criminals. You cause property damage and innocent deaths wherever you go! I've sold out? You're the one that's been bought and sold."
"Not once!" Cable roared. "Not once have the X-Men caused an innocent death!"
"I've got enough documentary evidence to put all of your X-Men away for life, and ship a few off to Texas for the chair." Bridge hissed.
"Bullshit." Cable said flatly.
"We recovered a certain amount of proprietary evidence during the Zero Tolerance affair." Bridge said. "Not all of it was destroyed or stolen, despite your best efforts, and we know a damn sight more about you than you'd like to think."
"Cooked books taken from a known and discredited sociopathic xenophobe." Cable sneered. "Has the standard of proof really suck as low as the court of public opinion? Would you take Hitler's private journal to use as evidence against Jews?"
"Bastion was demonstrably not the author of this material, Cable. You might think about that the next time you carry out one of your private wars in public." Bridge said, rising to his feet. "There's nothing worse than a mercenary with a cause, and that's obviously what you've become, Nate. Don't contact me again."
"Why would I waste my time?" Cable scowled, and stalked out of the pool hall.
Bridge sat back down, heavily, and signaled to the bartender that he wanted another beer.
The bartender walked over with it. "How'd it go?"
"I think he bought it." Bridge replied. "I said all the right things."
"He'll head straight for Hydra now, without SHIELD errand boys looking over his shoulder." the bartender nodded. "That'll allow us to exert a little more control over the scenario."
"I'd better shut off the pink noise generator. You know how it pisses off the local spooks."
"Good idea." Bridge said. "And may I extend my compliments to your weapons geek? Her communications and spoofing equipment is top drawer."
"Say, was that thing you said about SHIELD having some sensitive material on the X-Men true?" the bartender asked, reaching under the bar. He pressed a button, and tension seemed to bleed out of the air.
"Every bit." Bridge said. "Thought I'd give him a little heads up. Cable is good folks, and I do hate playing him like this."
"I'm going to go take off this damned image inducer." the bartender said, choking back a cough. "These things always make me itchy."
"They make everybody itchy." Bridge said, scratching absently. "I'm with you."
"Do you think Cable's going to be a strong enough Trojan Horse to make Elena jump?"
"He damn well better be, Rico." the man who looked like G.W. Bridge replied. "He's well known in Russia, and a old KGB spook like Elena will know all about his telepathy. That's our hole card."
She wasn't conventionally attractive, not at the best of times. Her body was squat and powerful, like a power lifter's. Her forearms boasted as much definition as most women could get without the use of steroids. Her hair was black, limp, not particularly clean. Her eyes were a rich mahogany brown, but appeared flat, dead, almost glassy. Her face didn't reveal much, but she clearly wasn't very happy.
The woman was in one of Hydra's makeshift labs, where the frenzied activity of dedicated scientists only drew the eye to twin solitudes: the young woman, who was motionless between two beefy guards, and the object of her quiet scrutiny, the man floating in a saline tank. These two seemed like trees, about which a colony of ants swarmed in confusion and disarray.
As she stared into the man, so did the man stare into her. His gaze was hungry, almost hypnotic. Angry, but infinitely assured. It seemed to her that the man felt in charge of things, that he could leave at whim. All of the restraints upon him, the wires that braided down to burrow into his body, were nothing.
His lips pulled up into a smile, and he began to tap the glass with one of his claws. A steady tattoo. One of the scientists, a younger one, dropped a delicate instrument on the hard concrete floor. He refused to look at the man, as they all did.
She didn't merely look, she stared. The prisoner had been present when she'd failed to kill Logan.
Edina McLeish, for that was her name, understood what he was trying to do. He was trying to exert some sort of control, setting barriers and taboos for his captors. A classic trick for a canny prisoner, as her father had often instructed. It would wear down their nerves, encourage them to fear him. It appeared to be working.
And all who heard should see them there.
Her father had loved poetry. She had tried to get into it, but it had never moved her. People were able to move her if anything could, not words.
And all should cry, Beware! beware!
Beads of sweat became rivulets on the necks and faces of the scientists, she noticed.
His flashing eyes, His floating hair!
The man was staring right at her, as if sharing a secret. A look could paralyze an unwary or weak victim, if the author of the look was skilled. Intimidation, the reasons why one man would lower his eyes to another, these were things that could be learned, practiced, mastered.
Weave a circle 'round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread,
She was looking at a master. Her father would have respected this man. Still, his technique would never touch her. All of the meaning that he tried to impute in that gaze, all of the sense that he was infinitely wise, patient, and dangerous, was a carefully constructed illusion. All of it was wasted on a woman that could only feel when she was on the hunt.
For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.
He stopped. He could sense her resistance, and he wasn't about to waste effort on a lost cause. A professional. A killer who trusted his instincts. He looked a lot like her father, Angus McLeish, once had.
When her father adopted her, trained her to be an assassin, he imparted many lessons about the proper attitudes to hold. These nuggets of wisdom were more precious, more useful to her than all of the time on the firing range, or all of the work they'd done to improve her endurance.
"Edina, the most important thing is to keep yuir ability and desire to learn. In the field, yuir greatest asset is confidence, sure, and that confidence comes from knowing how the world works. But look. I mean, really look. If you see things the way they are, instead of the way you decided they are, then yui're gauny be ahead of the competition every time."
At that moment, things looked very bad. This man had appeared to be allied with Silver Fox before they were taken back to the facility. In the operation in Washington, he'd followed her orders. Now, he was floating under restraint in a saline tank.
That she had completed her end of the bargain, killing the people that Silver Fox had wanted killed, would carry no weight with this woman. "What have you done for me lately?" would be her refrain. Or maybe, "That was then. Now, you're more useful to me in a different capacity."
Cancelation at worst. Temporary indenture at best. Most likely, she would be a Hydra employee at the end of the day, doing wetwork against her will. When they discovered that her skills would not function unless she hated her target, she would be canceled anyway.
One thing that she couldn't figure out was why she'd been brought to this lab. It was a terrible location for an execution. Maybe she was supposed to see the man suspended in the tank, and come to the conclusion that if she wanted to live, she would take orders and play the game.
Could the assassin Vendetta, ruined daughter of a dead prince of killers, really be expected to be a valuable operative? She had not even been able to kill the only man whom she wanted dead in her own right. Her father's murderer was walking free because she couldn't bring herself to kill unless she'd empathically stolen a person's hatred of her target.
Silver Fox and Viper, the two women who had hired her to kill Wolverine, had not hated him, as it had turned out. So he was still alive, still taking air into his lungs that should have been there for her father to breathe.
If only she'd been born with the capacity for hate.
The door to the lab eased open silently, but Vendetta noticed the small surge of fresh air and turned around. Three people came into the room.
Two of them were guards, though not the Hydra guards she'd seen before. Instead of a green uniform with yellow or white highlights and red goggles, these men were clad in pale orange. They had curious flat-topped headgear that no doubt included a helmet, but appeared to be contiguous with the jumpsuit. Most of the highlights were black, but both men had a strange, vaguely humanoid blazon in purple open the breast. They were armed with energy rifles, and the two Hydra guards that flanked her regarded them with no small amount of suspicion.
The third was the one that caused her heart to stop beating in her chest. Arnim Zola.
"I know that you can only fight on contract or in self-defense," her father had told her once, "but I want you to understand that some men are so dangerous and evil that if you ever lock eyes wi' them, it's you or him."
The familiar surge of terror lent its curious power to her body, and she felt revitalized and alive. She had no idea what abilities Zola might have, despite her father's warnings about him, so it was all or nothing.
The guards were startled when she jumped into the air, twisting into a somersault that would put her behind one of the Hydra guards. He was slow to spin around. She struck his third vertebra with crushing force, severing his spinal cord in the process and killing him instantly.
His body was struck twice by energy fire from Zola's guards, which she now recognized as AIM guards. They were only carrying light antipersonnel weapons, though, so his body provided excellent cover. She pushed it forward at them before she lost control of it, and dived at the second Hydra guard, below waist height.
His energy rifle crackled, but its beam went over her shoulder and struck some scientist behind her. She struck him as a linebacker might, careful not to bear him to the ground and so sacrifice her mobility. Instead, she pushed off with one foot while he was off-balance, and twisted her body and his torso until it was between her and the AIM guards.
His reflexes were slow. She smashed his sternum with her elbow, cracking it and incapacitating him. He was struck an instant later by energy fire, which stiffened him up and made him more difficult to maneuver, as weapon or shield.
So instead, she took the rifle from his nerveless fingers and fired at the control panel, which reacted very poorly. It shot sparks, and a crackle of electricity travelled across the whole panel. There was a popping sound, and the lights went out.
Edina turned around, where her hand was gently holding her guard upright. She let go and jumped to a crouch atop his shoulders. His body was stiff enough to bear her weight, though it was overbalanced and began to topple toward the last position of the AIM guards. She leapt off of the platform, firing as she went.
She had enough time to notice in the light of an electrical 'pop' that the rifle had no effect on the guards. She crashed into her target, Arnim Zola, and bore him to the floor.
He appeared to be stunned. She drove her foot into the interstice between his testicles and anus, a lethal blow. She discovered thereby that he had neither testicles nor anus, and furthermore that his epidermis had only a passing association with human skin.
Zola's hand shot out and clutched her ankle while she was prone. She brought the heel of her other foot down on his wrist. There was a satisfying crunching noise, and he was forced to release her.
At the same time, she took a rifle butt strike to the ear.
Apparently, she thought as she lost consciousness, AIM agents could see in the dark.
The edifice wasn't tall, being only two stories in height. It was a squat concrete affair, with deeply sunken windows set at an angle to the earth. This not only cut down on glare, it also made potential snipers work harder to sight a target. The interior design of the building, legend had it, was cellular. Several holes or weaker points in the walls, impossible to spot from the outside, gave any explosions a channel and made it very difficult to claim more than a fraction of the building with plastique.
Most of the building was under the earth, an arrangement that not only disguised the true extent of the organization, but also presented problems for surveillance. The ground around the building was saturated with tiny reflective pieces of metal to a depth of hundreds of feet, which made spying even more difficult.
It was a legendary building in the intelligence industry, one of the most difficult buildings to penetrate. It was the American headquarters of Hydra.
Two women sat together in a dry-cleaning outlet across the street. The family who operated the store, all five of them, lay in pools of their own blood in the back. It was unlikely that they could work so close to the building and not themselves be Hydra agents.
"Are you certain that Victor Creed will be in that building, Mystique?" Elena Ivanova asked. "That's a difficult organization to infiltrate, and I'd hate to begin something like that for nothing."
"Oh, he'll be in there, Irene." Mystique replied, with a far-off look in her eyes. "Silver Fox took him. She hates him. That's where he'll be."
"Who is Silver Fox? I don't remember. She must be someone from your days with the Department."
"Yes. I didn't do too much work for them before she defected, so I didn't get to know her very well. I do know that she hates Victor."
Elena frowned. "Is she reasonable?"
"And you say that she will want to keep Victor for herself."
"Yes." Mystique said. "She hates him. This is some plot to kill him."
"Then we must rescue him, musn't we?"
"Of course, Irene. You know how I feel about him."
Elena smiled indulgently. "Of course I do."
"Silver Fox is very powerful in that building." Mystique said gravely. "She'll be the top dog in there by now, or close to it. She can throw the whole apparatus of Hydra at us, if we get her angry."
"And we must get her angry." Elena said. "If we are to deal with Sabretooth, it's inevitable. So, what do you suggest?"
Mystique sighed. "We have to take her out. Not that she doesn't deserve it for putting me in jail, the bitch. I would have faced the death penalty if I hadn't escaped."
"Is that wise? Killing her, I mean? Won't that bring Hydra down on our necks anyway?"
Raven shook her head. "Not if we're smart about it. When you remove a person so high up in the power structure of Hydra, there will be too much naked maneuvering and internecine struggle for them to worry much about us. We just have to make it look like it was a Hydra agent that sanctioned her, and they'll never come for us."
"Once we do that, though, the whole place will be up in arms." Elena said. "We'll never be able to get to Creed then."
"Then we have to get some support, so that we can have two parties." Mystique said. "One party will go after Silver Fox, and one will go after Victor."
"Raven, we don't have time for that. It's going to have to be the two of us."
"What? No. Irene, you're no field agent."
"You used me so, many times, when we worked together in Freedom Force and the Brotherhood."
"But you were protected." Mystique said. "And the one time I left you alone..."
Elena frowned, and Mystique's face went blank. That particular channel of thought was dangerous. It might be beneficial to take an alternate approach.
Sabretooth was inside the building, she believed. Mystique offered a convincing argument to that effect. Moreover, it would be necessary to have a distraction in order to reach him, and the shapeshifter would be perfect.
Her operations in Eastern Europe had hurt Russia badly, and contributed, in some small part, to its decline and the collapse of its fortunes. Elena would shed no tears over the death of Raven Darkholme. Only a madwoman would design a viral agent capable of destroying humanity, anyway.
There was only a sketchy dossier on Silver Fox in the halls of the Komitet; almost nothing, apart from an embarrassing account of a CIA sting that resulted from her assumption of the Marxist "Zora de la Plata" identity in the sixties. Several American communists and even a few KGB agents went to the grist mill for the crime of trusting the Silver Fox of the Sierra Maestra.
If Elena had believed that Silver Fox was in any way involved in the planning of the operation that killed her mother... but she did not. Fox was gone by then.
Before she killed him, Elena would discover the reason why that sanction had been called, and why it was withdrawn. Most importantly, she'd find the reason why Sabretooth had seen fit to kill her mother in cold blood.
She had not known that Silver Fox had reason to hate Sabretooth. Perhaps it would be beneficial to shadow Mystique on her mission. That would be the quickest method of finding out Sabretooth's location in any case.
The Russian pushed Mystique from blankness into sleep, and settled down to watch the comings and goings across the street. She had a lot of thinking to do.
He sometimes called it his Aerye, in jest. To those outside, it was just a Soho apartment. As Storm understood it, the Aerye was Warren's place to get away from things. Only Betsy had the key, and he didn't give out the telephone number.
"What kind of situation could the X-Men run into that they couldn't handle without the Angel?" he asked once, sardonically. He often made that sort of remark, Storm thought, and all too often, no one said anything. Small wonder that he needed a palce to escape to.
In truth, Warren and Logan had much in common. Logan's skills were rarely called for, either. Both were perceptive men whose opinions were often more valuable than any physical aid they could offer.
Whatever their similarities, the two men had disliked each other on sight. While they were perfectly civil most of the time, they could make very unkind remarks when tempers began to fray. As they had lately.
Logan strongly suspected that Warren was complicit in whatever it was that Mystique was doing. Most of the time, Ororo trusted his instincts as much as she did her own, but where the Angel was concerned, he wasn't one hundred percent rational. Which was not to say that his opinion should be dismissed, which was why she was here.
As Warren seemed disinclined to speak on the matter, she didn't want to give him enough warning that he could easily fly away, in case he happened to be inside. She sidled up to the building and walked cross over toward the security doors.
There was a doorman standing in the area, and he was eyeing her with a disapproving stare. Perhaps this would not be as easy as she had hoped.
"May I help you, ma'am?" he asked.
"No, thank you." she replied, and pulled out Betsy's key. "I can manage."
"And who are you visiting today?" the man said.
"Why do you ask?" she said archly. "Are you writing for the Society pages?"
"I am responsible for this building's security." he growled. "You will not go upstairs until I am satisfied that you should be here."
The key turned in the lock. "My possession of this key should be satisfaction enough for the likes of you." Storm said superciliously.
"I've never seen you before." he stated. "A key isn't enough. Are you on the list of approved guests?"
She waved her hand airily over her shoulder as she passed through the door. He wasn't quite bold enough to lay his hands on her, and he didn't know which tenant she had come to visit. Hopefully, his duty not to disturb the residents would keep him from phoning up to each apartment.
Ororo took the stairs two at a time, just in case.
She shed her shoes at the top of the stairs and pushed open the door there as quietly as possible. She was certain that Warren's eyesight was many times more acute than normal, but she wasn't sure about his hearing. As such, she stole silently down the hallway until she came to his apartment door, and listened at it.
"...with white hair. That's all right, James. I know who that is. She's a friend of mine."
Well, if the doorman had called up, she thought to herself, then he already knew that she had the key to his apartment. She knocked, twice, and then turned the key in the lock.
He stood across from the door, with one finger on an intercom button, and a hand outstretched, palm up. She sighed and placed the keys there. His fingers closed around them.
"Thank you James. Good afternoon." he said into the intercom.
She glanced around the apartment. It was impeccably neat, as she might have expected. She could see an expensive stereo system in the living room, and comfortable furniture.
"And to what do I owe the pleasure of this invasion of my privacy?" Warren asked drily.
"I am concerned about you, Warren." Storm said. "I have come to make sure that you are all right."
"I'm fine." Warren said, spreading his arms. "Top condition."
"You know that I did not mean your physical condition." she said.
"Are you sure you came to see me?" he replied emphatically. "Or did you want to poke around in my apartment a little?"
"I came to see you." she said.
"Then you should have announced yourself." Warren replied. "What possible use could you have for my apartment keys? Which lock I'm changing, by the way."
"I saw you run out on your conversation with Wolverine, earlier. I did not want you to do the same to me."
"I didn't 'run' anywhere, Storm. I left before I said something that I would regret. Where I come from, that's considered good manners."
"Logan did not see it that way."
"'Logan' doesn't deserve an opinion on the subject. If you're here to play matchmaker, forget it."
She shook her head. "I have long since despaired of that possibility."
"Good." he said. "Perfect. Sit down."
She moved into the living room, which was as well-appointed as it had appeared at first glance. The furniture was covered with Egyptian cotton, and over-stuffed. It was a tasteful eggshell in colour. The walls were a robin's egg hue, and featured several paintings. One of these appeared to be a Manet. Another was a portrait of Psylocke, as she was before the Hand, that Colossus had done.
There was a large projection-screen television hooked up to a DVD player and stereo. She hadn't noticed when she walked in, but the stereo was on, and playing something at the lowest possible volume. A CD case sitting on a coffee table proclaimed that the piece was Mahler's sixth.
The balcony, which she could see through a set of French doors, was very large. A barbecue, which she would not have expected, sat beside a set of white lawn furniture. She could just make out the edge of a dartboard that had been set up outside. It had a shuriken sticking out of it.
"Your apartment is lovely." Storm called over her shoulder. Warren was moving in the kitchen.
"Thank you." he said. "Do you want a drink?"
"Please." she said.
"Great. What'll you have? I've got everything."
"Do you have Kenyan dark coffee beans?"
"As it happens, I do." Warren replied. "It's not today's grind, but it's pretty fresh."
"That would be perfect. I prefer them unroasted, but that is impossible in this city. Do you have any Grand Marnier?"
"Like I said, Storm, I've got everything. Kenyan dark with a splash of Grand Marnier, coming up."
The telephone rang in the next room, insistently.
"Blast. That'll be the office." Warren said. "I'll have to take that. Could you finish your coffee?"
"Of course." Storm said, standing up.
"And could you get me a tumbler of scotch and water?" he asked. "I won't be a minute."
Storm watched him retreat into his study, and he closed the door. She sighed. Warren seemed fine, once he was away from Wolverine. Perhaps it was just a case of frayed nerves.
She put the coffee, already set out, into the percolator, and made it strong. The refrigerator yielded a bottle of distilled water, which she poured into the top and closed the lid. Then, she cast about for the scotch.
It was already open, and quite old. Although the scotch had been transferred into a specially sealed decanter, the empty bottle remained. Its label identified it as having been bottled in 1783.
There was no other bottle of scotch. She sighed, and opened cupboards, looking for the tumblers. The third one she tried turned out to be the correct one. She shook her head at the efficiency of his cleaning lady. There was not a speck of dust on any of his tumblers or stemware.
One incongruous detail struck her, though, which was a tiny cabinet that was built into the cupboard. It was meant to be locked, but it had not been closed properly, and the key was in it.
She touched the key with delicate fingers. It was still warm.
Storm heard a 'click' in the hallway, as of a door being opened. She set down the tumbler to mask the sound of the cabinet, and pulled it open.
Her heart leapt into her throat. Inside the cabinet was the gun that had once robbed her of her powers. It was the same gun that she'd destroyed at President Kelly's party headquarters. Forge had sworn that he'd only made one of them, a prototype, but she had seen two in the last week.
This confirmed the worst of Wolverine's suspicions. Storm took out the gun, which Warren had clearly meant to use on her, and closed the cabinet. She turned around as the study door closed, and concealed the gun by holding it under the counter.
"Find everything?" Warren asked, as he walked back into the room.
"Yes." Storm said sadly, lifting the gun. "This, for one thing."
Warren's eyes widened. "What..."
"You were planning to use it on me, were you not? That was the true reason why you came into the kitchen."
He shook his head, sadly. "I didn't want you to see that, Ororo."
Their eyes met. "Drukhargh." Warren said.
The gun seemed to come alive in Storm's startled hands. She tried to divest herself of it, but it was softening, changing shape, molding itself to her. It climbed up her arms, a seemingly sentient mass of churning pudding. Ororo blasted it with electricity, from the inside, but that only made it take on a bluish tint. It shed that, maintaining instead a metallic, golden hue, and crawled over her body.
No matter how she writhed or stretched, it seemed to expand and hold her, as if it were rubber and steel at one time. She remembered to close her mouth as it flowed over the lower half of her face.
"Skrull handcuffs." Warren said. "They can take on any shape, as you might expect. They were designed to hold Skrulls, so you can imagine that they're pretty hard to escape from. I knew you couldn't resist snooping around."
Ororo choked down her fear of restraint and concentrated on smashing her head against the linoleum floor. She hoped to make enough noise to attract the attention of the people living below. The restraints prevented her from striking the floor with any force.
"Don't worry. They'll allow to breathe, even if they completely cover your nose. It's a slow filtration system, though, so don't do anything like hyperventilate." He picked her up off of the floor, and carried her into the study. The door closed behind them. Her eyes widened when a telephone on the desk changed its shape.
"Well done." the Skrull said. "You have proved your loyalty."
Warren ignored that. "Are you ready to do a deep shift?"
"Yes." he replied. "I can replace this woman. The change will not be ideal. I will not be able to duplicate her weather manipulation powers. It would have been better if you had been able to capture Iceman."
"I know." Warren said. "It couldn't be helped, Paibok. You can do something with your cold-generating powers, can't you?"
"It will have to do." Paibok said sourly. He leaned forward and touched her skin.
They both shuddered. Ororo felt like her veins and arteries were being strung with hot wires. The Skrull did not appear to be enjoying the process, either. He grew, slightly, and his form shifted, until he resembled a nude version of herself.
Warren raised his eyebrows. "Couldn't you have included clothing?"
"This was a deep shift." Paibok said in Storm's voice. "I have duplicated her to a genetic level. I have her mind, her memories, and her form. I shall take her clothing."
Warren shrugged. "I'll go get you a robe." he said to Storm.
"Grlghiugh." Paibok said, and the cuffs thinned. He began to undress her.
She struggled, but the thin bands constricted as tightly as the morass had. They shifted in out to allow the removal of her clothing, but never enough that she could escape.
"You will never get away with this." she said murderously. "Warren was not a perfect duplicate. People noticed. They will notice me."
Paibok raised Storm's delicate eyebrows. "Warren is not one of us."
He chuckled, a throaty alto sound. "Do not concern yourself. It is no longer your problem."
Warren came back in. "Here you are."
Paibok smirked. "Your human sensibilities are amusing. Her body will not be visible through the cuffs in any case."
"Very well." Warren said, tossing the robe over a chair.
"I shall leave in a few minutes." the Skrull said. "Drukhargh."
Ororo was able to scream before the cuffs flowed over her mouth again, but Warren only smiled.
"This study is soundproofed, Ororo." he said. "Sorry."
"Take her to the facility with the other one." Paibok said.
Warren shook his head. "That's one of the first places Wolverine is going to go to look for evidence. I've already brought the fellow here, this morning. He's in the sauna. They can keep each other company."
Paibok shook his head disgustedly. "You are beginning to seem sloppy to me. I will let this pass, for the moment, but be sure that this will not carry on forever. I leave."
"See you later, Storm." Warren called. "Thanks for the visit."
"My pleasure, Warren." Paibok replied. "Please come down to the mansion, soon. We do not see enough of you."
"Of course." Warren said. "After I get done with some business I have this afternoon."
"I will let myself out." the Skrull said, and pulled the apartment door shut.
Warren picked her up again, and lifted her to his shoulder. She tried to struggle, to make it as difficult for him as possible, but she was as helpless as a child. He walked her into the bathroom, and paused to press a switch on a small plastic device that adhered to the wall.
"Scent baffle." he said. "In case one of our friends comes calling. It looks just like an air freshener, doesn't it?"
There was a wooden door in the bathroom, a sturdy-looking affair of some soft wood like cedar. Warren opened this and deposited her inside with a prisoner under similar restraints. She couldn't identify him, so well was he covered. The room was dark and humid and warm.
"Have a good time." Warren said. "I'll be back to feed you later on."
The door closed, shutting her in with the night.
The phone vibrated, insistently. Nathan Summers reached into his hip pocket, in an ill temper, and answered it. "Yes?"
"Nate. It's Logan."
Cable grunted. "I was thinking of calling you. What's up?"
"I've been lookin' for you. What with the mansion exchange bein' down for so long, it's been a bit of a bitch."
"You seen Rogue around?" Logan asked.
"What? Why are you looking for me, instead of her?"
"Can't find her. She doesn't carry a phone, for one thing. You were in communication with her in Washington, right?"
"Yeah." Cable said. "That's where I am now."
"You one step ahead o' me?" Logan asked, sounding surprised.
"Maybe. I doubt it. I'm thinking of heading over into Delaware and visiting your ex-wife."
"No kidding. And you don't have any back-up. Maybe I should help you out." Logan said.
"Good idea. SHIELD was a bust." Cable replied sourly. "What's this about Rogue disappearing?"
"We'll talk about that when I get there, I guess." Logan said. "How about the Library of Congress?"
"It's one of the few places I can find in DC."
"All right, done." Cable said. "Say, does this line sound a bit staticky to you?"
"A bit." Logan said suspiciously. "A little thin. Anyway, I'm gettin' a bit hungry. Why don't we meet at Liberty Hall instead? There are a lot of good pubs and party spots around there. I could use a bite an' some good conversation."
"Done." Nate replied. "Will you be flying?"
"See you in a few minutes." Cable said, and hung up the phone.
Sometimes, a thin and staticky connection on the phone meant that there was someone listening in on the cell. A near match on frequency and amplitude, rather than a perfect one, could give a little feedback. He just had to look around...
Nope, no one obviously listening in. Whoever it was, if anyone, was likely clued in by the last part of the conversation.
Cable moved over to a fountain in the nearby square, and sat down there. This would make him easier to watch, but it would equally frustrate the surveillance. He planned to sit tight until the last minute. With any luck, the listener would mobilize back-up to Liberty Hall, if anywhere.
Logan had changed the location of their meeting to the community hall in which the Libertarian Party convention had been held, on the night that Mystique had attacked.
"What the hell kind of feeble code was that?" John Wraith asked. "That was so obvious it hurt my delicate sensibilities."
"What's that?" a voice said over the radio.
"Nothing, Rico. I'm having trouble believing that this is the old Emilio Garra that we both know and love. Sloppy work. What's up your end?'
Wraith was seated in a teenager's car, a rusty 1985 fire engine red Pontiac Fiero. It had the sort of stereo that could make a hearing aid explode, and that was blaring right now.
Actually, the stereo's speakers were located on the underside of the car, and carefully muted so as to make passers-by assume that the wall of noise issued from inside. Wraith could barely hear it, though he could feel the thumping bass through his seat. Inside the car, which was almost sound- proof, he had a variety of listening equipment. The car was stopped in a bank's parking lot in Washington DC, well within visual range of Cable. Its tinted windows defeated curious peepers, even as the music assailed their ears. It would be physically painful to approach the car.
"Over here? Not much going on over here." Maverick said through the radio. "There have been a few spikes on my psidar, so I'm pretty sure that Elena's in the area somewhere. I can't get a fix, though."
"The psidar is originally Soviet tech, Rico. She probably spoofs it out of reflex. By the by, this 128-bit encrypted radphone is superb. State of the art, in fact. You really must introduce me to your girl."
"Forget it, old man. She's my weapons geek. Besides, I seem to remember that you wouldn't let me play with your gun with the armour-piercing toaster payload. Consider this payback."
Wraith sighed. "Well, that's the way it goes, I guess. No movement on Cable. He plans to meet Logan at the Libertarian Party hall. I'd guess he's gonna try to boogie at the last second and catch me flat-footed."
"You're outed?" Maverick asked.
"'Fraid so. I don't think our boy will be coming over here, though. He doesn't know where I am."
"Perfect. I wish this damned mutant detector was of any use."
Wraith shrugged. "Sorry, Rico. Ever since Emma Frost pioneered that anti-Cerebro technique, it's become popular among telepaths and those who can afford their services. I've had the procedure done myself."
He was startled by a knock on the passenger-side window. He glanced over, and saw a very beefy forearm, covered with burns and scars, and not a little hair. Still visible under the damage was the outline of a tattoo. Devil's Brigade.
Wraith stepped on the gas, but the car jerked forward only an inch or two before its wheels left the ground. The sound of tyres being torn ensued.
"Shit. Time for the old fast fade." Wraith muttered. His body started to relax into dissolution, but that only brought pain, searing pain.
He solidified again, wrung out and in desparate straits. "Get out, Rico!" he shouted at the radio. "We're fubar!"
The passenger door was torn off of its hinges, flooding the car with painful harmonics, and Wraith was hauled by the arm out of the car. No one could hear the disturbance over the noise, Wraith thought to himself.
"We meet again, Johnny." the captain's lips said.
Silver Fox strode down the hall with her complement of loyal guards, any trace of a limp gone. This time, Simmonds had gone entirely too far. She could not tolerate assassination attempts within her own office. She stepped around the steaming corpse of a guard.
"Call a clean-up detail." she said. As she passed him by, she kicked the neck of the unmoving sergeant, which snapped loudly. Just in case.
One of her guards pulled out a radio and passed on the order to janitorial.
There wasn't enough time to acknowledge and deal with this problem today, unfortunately. It would keep until tomorrow. Instead, she would deal with the thorny problem of Sabretooth.
Her guards had orders to keep their rifles drawn and primed, in case any of the Supreme Hydra's men got any ideas. Instead of VADs, they were armed with infrared lasers, which would resist smoke-cloud spoofing. They were also wearing special VAD-refractive suits that she had ordered from the armoury. Normally, Hydra guards weren't allowed to wear them.
The guards that they passed, grouped in twos and fours around sensitive areas, eyed her complement warily. It was rumoured that her guard had undergone special conditioning that made them fanatically loyal to Silver Fox. True, of course. Her personal guard had always been subjected to such training.
Her sergeant stopped and stared at a soldier that had been too brazen to salute. The offender swallowed, and complied with alacrity. Fox ignored the exchange pointedly, to the soldier's eternal relief.
As they crossed an intersection, the lights overhead flickered slightly.
Fox frowned. The power grid had never been particularly reliable in this building. She brought that point up at least four times a year. Though it had its own power supply, there was no redundancy on circuits. The building was operating almost at capacity all the time. Replacing the lighting and rewiring the building was too expensive, according to the bean counters. Some things, in her experience, never changed.
The instability was getting worse as she went down the hallway. The doorways, at least, were lit with emergency lights. She paused at a guarded portal and asked, "When is maintenance going to fix these lights?"
The two guards glanced nervously at each other.
"Initiative, you toads." Fox muttered. "You are both hereby reduced in rank to common soldier, and relieved of your duty. You two at the back will replace them until I adjust the service roster."
"Yes, sir." her pair of guardsmen said in unison.
The demoted guards began to slink away.
"Common soldiers are not permitted to carry sidearms inside the compound." she could hear the sergeant say as she carried on. The door they had been guarding was a bolthole to the outside. Having loyal guardsmen there might prove to be a valuable asset.
The hallway was dark, now, except for the emergency lights. She came to the door in question to find it sealed. There was a bulkhead that was to drop in the event of a power outage, and so it had. It was impossible to open it from the inside, and difficult from the outside. She pulled out her borrowed gun and a ring of keys. One key turned in a lock beside the bulkhead, and a small flap opened. There was a large switch and a button in a recess inside.
"Open this door." she said. "The two strongest of you will pull the switch. The smallest will hold down the button."
Three men mobilized at once. The smallest sat down with his back to the door, and pressed the button from underneath. There was a hissing sound, as of hydraulics. The other two men braced their legs and pulled the switch as quickly and smoothly as they could manage, which wasn't very.
Fox dropped to one knee and couched the pistol, which felt strangely heavy in her hands. She trusted that it was as potent as its former owner had indicated.
Slowly and jerkily, the door rose, and a hand immediately appeared underneath it. She held her fire until she could see the identity of the person who was crawling out, and withheld it entirely when she saw that it was Arnim Zola. His body was bleeding fluids, and one arm was dragging, entirely useless. She kicked him out of the way and trained the gun on the only person in the lab who was still standing.
"Stand down, Creed."
The lab was a mess. The computers had been smashed, and so had the tube which had held him immobile. Two dead Hydra guards splayed grotesquely on the floor, broken marionettes in counterpoint to the two dead AIM guards, who looked more like sad Muppets with the stuffing removed. The scientists were in the worst shape. One woman had been stabbed with a broken test tube, and her life's blood still pumped feebly out of it and onto a console. A man had been spread open in a grim parody of an autopsy, his internal organs laid out neatly and pinned in place. A third victim had apparently been bled to death. Hypodermic needles, their reservoirs overflowing with her blood, stuck out of her corpse as if it were a pincushion.
"You don't even wanna know what I'm gonna do to you, squaw." Sabretooth said, with a grin on his face.
"Do you recognize this gun, Creed?"
His eyes narrowed. "That's one o' Wraith's pieces."
"Fully loaded." she said. Wraith? John Wraith. Carlisle. "Think I'll miss?"
"Never seen you miss yet." Creed replied. "But you only get one."
"I only need one." she said. "And you know it. When I pull the trigger, there will be more of you on the back wall than there will be standing up."
"This is some kind o' payback you're buildin' up, squaw. And I aim to collect." He stood in place, though, flexing his hands slowly.
"Not in this lifetime, Creed. Can't you see that I'm trying to help you?"
He snorted. "You? Me? I liked it better when you were buyin' my loyalty. Now you're tryin' t' tell me that you got my best interests in mind? I'm touched, Fox."
"I remember you when you weren't vermin, Creed. I've got an idea of what happened to you, and I think that it can be fixed."
"Vermin? You little prima donna." he sneered. "Your kind's the vermin. I always said you were a waste of that red skin o' yours. Pretty little squaw like you, not makin' babies. Why don't you come over here an' open your legs, Fox? For old times' sake."
"Even you know it." she said coldly. "You crave death. I am going to fix you, old man, because revenge against you the way you are now wouldn't mean anything.
"Zola, are you still in the hallway?" she called.
"Yes." the Prussian said, stiffly.
"Come back in here." Fox said. "He is under control."
"Not without AIM guards." Zola replied.
"Two AIM guards could not protect you as well as a complement of Hydra elite guardsmen." she said. "Or are you afraid of us?"
"Of course not." he said, smoothly. "Hydra and AIM are friends."
"AIM is a subsidiary of Hydra." Fox corrected. "Unless you are getting ambitious, in which case we could speak with the Supreme Hydra about the matter."
"The Supreme Hydra is a puppet that you dandle on your knee." Zola said dismissively. "He is of no moment. We are all too aware of that fact."
"Don't let your old Nazi prejudices run away with you, Zola." Fox warned. "I may decide that my personal hobbies are less important that the wellbeing of Hydra, and take a sharp look at your service record."
"Very well." Zola muttered. "I will cooperate. But you should look to your ideology, woman." He limped into the lab with her guards at his heels.
"According to your ideology, I should be exterminated before I can be allowed to breed, which in any case is the only function of my gender." Fox said.
Creed chuckled. "Looks like you need a tune-up, Kraut."
"I shall replace this body in due time." Zola replied. "It is dross. The mind is the proper province of mankind."
"Like old Adolf didn't bang his lonely nut against every woman that'd look once at him." Sabretooth smirked.
"Bragadoccio response." Zola said with asperity. "You have demonstrated your physical prowess, but still feel that you are in my power. Which you are."
"Less talking." Silver Fox ordered. "Did the detail with Vendetta ever arrive?"
"She's under that AIM guy." Creed said.
"Is she dead?" Fox demanded, striding over to her.
"Beats me. I didn't touch her."
She knelt down, never foolish enough to take her eyes off of Sabretooth, and felt for a pulse. "She's still alive. She just took a bang on the head, by the looks of things. Zola, revive her."
"With what?" the scientist asked. "This cretin has smashed the entire lab."
"Don't try to tell me that you don't carry drugs on your person." Fox said. "That wouldn't be a very convincing lie."
Zola's phosphor face frowned. "Very well." he groused. He pulled a small hydraulic hypo out of his belt and bent down to apply it to Vendetta's neck. She stirred.
"Stand up, Edina." Fox said. "You're not dead."
"So I see." Vendetta replied.
Fox nodded in her direction. All of the guards trained their rifles on Vendetta.
"What is this?" the assassin demanded.
"Fascinating." Zola said, holding up a small device the size of a Palm Pilot. "Where did you find this girl?"
"She's a common assassin." Fox replied. "The daughter of the so-called White Ghost, Angus McLeish."
"Adopted daughter, you mean." Zola said excitedly.
"Yes. What's got you so antsy, Nazi?"
"Her genetic material." Arnim Zola replied. "I'm reading the sample that I received on the needle of the hypodermic. Oh, if only I had my full lab here, rather than just my portable." He was grinning like a maniac. "This test indicates that she is the grand-daughter of the Fuhrer. There is no mistaking it."
"Ridiculous." Fox said.
"I am in no way related to Hitler." Vendetta said, flatly. "What sort of game are you playing?"
"A power game!" Zola said. "The plan that this mongrel bitch had for you is the purest treason. I am placing you under my protection. Oh, Silver Fox, your days are up!"
"Shoot him." Fox said. "Not the head."
Zola had time to look startled before holes started to appear in his body. The screen upon which his face was projected hissed and died, and his compact body toppled.
"This is rich!" Creed guffawed. "I ain't had this much fun in years."
"Remove his head." Silver Fox said to Sabretooth. "Be gentle about it."
Chuckling quietly to himself, the big man ambled over to Zola's body. "He gonna stay that way?"
"No." Fox sighed. "He would have transferred his consciousness to another body. He'll be back eventually."
Sabretooth tugged on the small box-like head, and severed a few wires. "Looks like these were fibre-optic."
"They can be replaced."
He shrugged, and pulled the head the rest of the way off of the body, snapping its stainless steel 'neck'.
"I don't suppose that any of these scientists are still breathing?"
She sighed again. "I guess I'll have to do this myself. Back yourself into that corner over there, Sabretooth. Keep your hands visible at all times. Alpha squad, spread yourselves out seven feet apart, fifteen feet away from the subject. Arm your rifles and train them on Sabretooth. Target center of mass if he moves."
The squad moved to comply. The rest of the guards milled about at the entrance.
"Vendetta, why don't you sit down? Try to keep your torso vertical. It appears to me that you have a mild concussion." Fox said.
Edina shrugged. "Why am I here?"
"I have another commission for you, and it involves Mr. Creed. Now, please sit quietly for a few minutes while I try to make something of this mess."
Silver Fox rooted around the darkened room for fibre-optic cable, and ran them from the box into the naked viscera of the console. She also remembered to disconnect the power supply to the console before the power was restored, which happened before she was finished with the connections.
"There." she said. "Powered, connected, and grounded. Now, I'll just pry the lid off of this thing... there. Hmmm."
Creed rose to his feet, prompting an excited shuffle from the guards. "How you going to operate that thing without the chips in his body?"
"I'm going to run power into each cable in turn until I hit the right one." Fox said.
"Simple as that." Creed remarked flatly.
"Why not?" Fox replied.
He shrugged eloquently.
She swivelled the box around until the lens pointed at the back of one of the guards facing Sabretooth, and threw a breaker switch inside the console. A tiny servo moved inside the box, probably adjusting the focus of the camera lens. A second attempt did something, judging by a whirring sound, but what she couldn't tell.
The third attempt caused the guard to shriek and hold his head in his hands. The other men jumped away from him with an oath. She cut the power, but there was no change in his condition. He fired his rifle wildly, tagging Sabretooth on the shoulder and leaving smoking holes in the wall.
One of the other guards had the presence of mind to cut a good angle before shooting him through the chest. He crumpled.
Sabretooth shook his head. "What the hell was that?"
Silver Fox spun the box around to face Edina.
"What the hell are you doing?" the young woman demanded. She stood up, a menacing expression on her face.
"I plan to forge an empathic link between you and Mr. Creed, Vendetta." Fox said.
"That didn't look healthy." Vendetta replied. "I think I'll decline."
"That guard wasn't an empath." Fox said. "You are. More than that, you are an empath who is almost devoid of emotions of her own, if I guess correctly."
Edina nodded, shortly.
"Sabretooth has an abundance. They're robbing him of his sanity. I'll bet that, as an empath, you could handle the overflow."
"What if you're wrong?"
Fox shrugged. "You'll go mad, and we'll shoot you like a dog."
"I don't think so." Vendetta said.
Fox's hand moved smoothly to the console.
"Don't make this you or me. I promise, you'll have ample cause to regret it if you do." Edina said menacingly.
"Keep your eye on Sabretooth." Fox snapped at the guards, many of whom were watching the tableau before them instead of the prisoner. "Vendetta, I did not want to play this card, but here it is. What do you want most in this world, more than anything else?"
"To kill Wolverine."
Fox nodded slowly. "You can't kill Wolverine without hate, can you?"
"No." Edina said.
"I promise you, there is no one alive who hates Logan more than this man does. Their feud goes back to the time before you were born. If you link with him, and you keep your sanity, you will have all the hate you need."
"Is that true?" Vendetta asked of Creed.
Sabretooth just smiled.
"Answer her, Creed."
"He doesn't need to." Edina said. "I can feel it in his heart. He hates Logan more than my Da ever did. Even on the day when he was fished out of the harbour with a broken back."
"It's a calculated risk..." Fox said.
Vendetta did not need time to think. "If there is a chance that I can kill Wolverine, it's worth any conceivable risk. You wouldn't bother with this if you thought that there was no chance of success. If you wanted to kill me, you could have put a bullet in my head when I was in that cell."
"Then you'll take the risk?" Fox asked.
"Willingly." Vendetta replied.
Silver Fox smiled, and tripped the switch.
"How long have we been together?" Raven asked.
"What, in days? I dunno. Never thought about it." Victor replied. "A long time, anyway."
The room was cold, but the bed was warm, and Raven lay with her head pressed to Victor's great chest. His own shaggy head was propped up with a few pillows. The wallpaper was peeling, and the floorboards creaked, but the Prophecy was the only place that they could find privacy, and they relished it.
"Logan left the Department today." he rumbled.
"I think he's sick of the life. Government's done nothing but give it to us since we joined up, you know? He took off with some bald little Yank. Power to him."
Raven shook her head. "He has the same holes in his memory as you do. Some days, I worry that you're going to forget me the same way. You've helped me and Irene more than I can ever say, Victor."
He shrugged. "Hey. I like Irene, you know? She's a gentle girl. She ain't been shaped by the business, not like you an' me."
Raven smiled. "She's not as gentle as all that."
"She is t' me."
She sighed, and snuggled a little closer. "I have a surprise for you."
Raven paused. "You don't have to do anything about this if you don't want to, Victor. I think your memory is better than any of the old crew."
"Maybe. I think maybe talkin' to you has helped me remember things. Some stuff sticks, you know? Like all of that weird shit with Logan and Fox. The nasty stuff. The rest of it? I think you're helpin' me keep it straight in my head."
"Is Basil any closer on springing you out of here?" she asked.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think so. But we were talkin' about my surprise." he grinned.
"You can't wait for anything, can you?" Raven asked with a smile.
"Nope. I surely can't. An' I won't. So tell me what it is."
"In a while." she said.
He shook his head. "Crazy broad. All right. I ain't gonna encourage your shit today."
"No?" she asked impishly.
"No. What I'd really like is for you t' visit me more often. I can get out t' the Prophecy more 'n once a week, you know."
Raven thought of a young boy, a child whose existence she had kept from Victor since she first discovered that she was pregnant. She had left him for that reason, faking the death of 'Leni Zauber', and only returned after he was born. He never knew that she had been Leni Zauber.
She was no mother. Graydon was up for adoption, now. Once that went through, she could visit her lover more often.
"Somethin' wrong, babe?"
"Just thinking about how unfair it is that Logan was allowed to move into the white ops after the Project, but you've had to stay here in the trenches." she lied glibly.
He shrugged uneasily. "Runt's more of a team player, I guess. Plus, he's been goin' soft since we went in to sanction Epsilon Red."
"You never told me about that." Raven prompted.
"Total intel bugfuck." Victor said. "Classic failure o' the testicles. Logan and I get this sanction order on some Russkie cosmonaut, right? You know the way these things go. Anyway, he's supposed to apply the patch, and I'm the slack-man."
"Logan was supposed t' break into this guy's house. What was his name... Epsilon Red was his moniker, but his name was Ivan Sergeivich Korlyonov. Somethin' like that. Anyway, he'd been hit by Flagwatch as a kid and 'volunteered' for this vacuum makeover. Russkie scientists stick him in a glass tube an' make it so he can survive in space, right? Total makeover o' the body."
"I understand. So you were sent in to hit him. Why?"
Victor shrugged. "Who the hell knows where the brass get these fucked-up ideas? You could tell this was a CIA idea, because they figure that outer space is some kind o' big military secret that belongs to the U.S. of A. an' they're gonna keep everybody else out. Bugger all of that 'new era for mankind' shit you used t' hear on TV. NASA talks big an' walks small an' wears bald eagle gaunch."
"That much is obvious."
"Now we know that it costs less to take gold bricks out o' Fort Knox and try t' kill the enemy by throwin' 'em. Space is a money pit."
"That's the point of space." Raven said.
"Never mind. Go on with your story."
"Right. Anyway, we get penetration, an' we're on this military base where Sergeivich is stayin' with his wife. Terry Adams was the profile name for it. Like a pair o' Canucks can't say Tyuratam. The Sovietski launch site. I was supposed t' stay out o' the line, keep the profile low, but then I get this abort order. I'm the man with the radio, an' this close to ol' Terry Adams, I can't radio in.
"So, I try t' sneak in, but they pull a recurve on me with the lights, and I'm in a spotlight. It's fubar city. I must o' geeked eight KGB border guards an' two entire internal secrity teams. Jus' me an' my fully auto. I come up to the window, an' what do I see but Logan standing there like a retard, listening to some cosmonaut bride bitch beg for her husband's life. An' he's listening! Can you believe that?"
"Yes." Raven said. "I know what you meant when you said he'd gone soft. He has to decide that they deserve it, first."
"Like some kind o' slacks-wearin' nancy boy. In the field, if you sit around wonderin' if you should shoot, somebody else is gonna ventilate you an' yours."
"You're preaching to the converted, Vic."
"Right." he said. "So, he says 'Sabretooth! What're you doin' here?' An' I tell him the mission's aborted. Fucking demi-civilian brass never fought on a real battlefield. Born with a general's star in their mouths. West Point pukes.
"So anyway, Logan bugs out, an' I'm coverin' him. Red shouts at him as he goes. 'No! Come back here! You can't leave me like this!' He wanted Logan t' geek him, if you can believe that."
"I can believe it." Raven said.
"I'm coverin' Logan on his way out, but I figure he needs some kind o' heads up. The mission was called off, right, but no way could he do it. He was takin' on the responsibilities o' the brass. Riskin' my ass with his moral crisis.
"So this guy, Sergeivich, looks at me an' says, 'You seem like a different sort than your friend. Harder, colder. Maybe you'll do me the favour o' killin' me.' An' I look at him and says, 'Nah, you want it too bad. But I know a way to really bum you out.'"
"And I shoot his wife."
"What?" Raven asked.
"I shoot his wife."
Raven collapsed, helpless with laughter. "You're insane! Here he thought that you were going to top him off, and instead..."
"Yep." he grinned. "Right in the chest. The look on his face was the best."
She looked up at his face, and collapsed again into giggling. "You're making this up."
"I shit you not. Me an' Logan fight our way out, an' make out our mission reports. And the killer was, we had so much trouble on our way out..."
"That I forgot t' tell the runt."
"Yep." he smiled.
"Oh my god!" she laughed. "That's hysterical."
"Heh heh. Yeah. That's a good one." Victor said.
Raven continued to laugh convulsively into his chest.
"So." he said a couple of minutes later. "What's my surprise?"
"A gift." she said.
She paused, squinted her eyes, and said, "Windsor."
"If you want to go to that warehouse, the one in Windsor, then I'll help you do it."
His face grew serious. "Windsor. I dunno, Raven."
"That note said that all the gaps in your memory could be filled in Windsor."
He grunted and sat up. "Let's get another look at it."
Raven turned over and sat up herself. He pushed the covers off of the bed and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
"Where is it?" he asked.
"In the drawer." she said.
He smiled that big smirk of his, and turned an appreciative caress of her shoulders into some sort of pawing motion that ended in a nipple tweak.
"OW!" she said. "My body is not your personal playground, jackass."
He chuckled to himself and walked over to the peeling dresser. He jerked open a balky drawer and pulled out a handwritten note.
"'In Windsor, you will remember the key to all o' your memories.'" he read aloud. "'Find the warehouse, and all will be revealed.'"
"Do you know which warehouse the note refers to?" Raven asked, her stomach churning.
"Yeah." Victor said. "I'm pretty sure, anyway."
"So, what do you think?" she asked.
"Raven, I dunno. My memories. I mean, I can remember some fucked-up shit, you know? What if the stuff I can't remember is even worse? What if I'm better off not knowin'? I mean, I'm pretty happy right now, the way things are."
"Victor, you're not a whole man." Raven said. "There are pieces of you missing. You wake up in cold sweats, or even screaming, and I think it's because of those missing pieces."
"A couple o' bad dreams ain't so bad." Victor said. "The alternative might be a hell of a lot worse."
"Maybe. But it might be better, too. You don't remember much about your parents, do you? Or any family. Or even how old you are."
"No." he said. "Not a damn thing, in fact."
"I think you should know where you come from." she said, as gently as she could manage, not looking at the note.
"Maybe." Victor said doubtfully. "Or maybe I'll wake up screamin' every night instead of once in a while."
"I feel strongly about this, Victor. This is important." she said.
The note was all that was on her mind. When Victor had showed her the note, her heart had skipped a beat. She knew the handwriting on it intimately. It belonged to Irene.
"All right, babe. For you." he said, walking over to the bed and kissing the top of her head.
Elena looked at Mystique with undisguised disgust and tears in her eyes.
"You sent him on that mission to Windsor." she said. "You covered for him at the Department, pretending to be him, and he went to the warehouse. And he came back a changed man.
"I wonder what happened to him there?" Elena asked Mystique's inert form. "You don't know, that much is clear. When he came back, you felt guilty, and avoided him. And then, in time, you twisted events in your mind until it was his fault for not loving you enough. It was his fault for being changed.
"You are a pathetic human being." Elena said. "It will be satisfying to see you killed by Hydra. But Sabretooth murdered my mother. I'm going to kill him myself."
Mystique continued to sleep quietly. The sleep of the just.
"You've never been able to doubt yourself." Elena said, wiping her face. "Bitch."
She stared across the street, at the Hydra bunker with Victor Creed inside.
Soon. A distraction was all she needed.
Cable's boots rang with a hollow sound in the hall that once housed the Libertarian Party victory celebration. Although they held few seats in the legislature, their presidential candidate was soon to be installed in the Oval Office. Cable had been a part of that. Only time would tell if their decision to support and protect Kelly had been the right thing to do. He believed that it was.
Mystique was so sure that it was. A long time ago, they had been partners. Friends, maybe. Two people that had a similar vision for the world, certainly. Nate admired her passion, her dedication, and her sense of purpose. It had been a while since he'd been able to share it.
Now, he was fairly certain that Mystique had gone insane. Maybe it had been the business with the High Evolutionary's satellite, when everyone had lost their metahuman abilities. Maybe that upset a delicate chemical balance for her. Maybe it just reminded her that she was mortal.
Xavier's dream was a beautiful thing, and he had come to accept that the methods of the 28th century were not appropriate to the 21st. Sometimes, it seemed that the methods that the X-Men used weren't appropriate to the 21st century, either.
He had been raised with what his sister had judged to be the best features of the philosophies of Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr. That left him in uncomfortable agreement with some of the enemies of the X-Men all too often. Sometimes, it was as irritating to find oneself in agreement with certain members of the X-Men.
Nate smiled. He probably wasn't cut out for team play, but he'd had a good run. His friends understood that he needed to have long absences, now and then.
It was hard to keep friends in his line of work. George had proven that earlier in the day. They died, or changed, or you did. This time, he couldn't tell which had happened.
"You in here, Nate?" Logan asked from the doorway.
Cable chuckled. "You've probably been smelling my aftershave all the way from the main doors, you little monster."
Logan shrugged. "I suggest we bug out, in case we have tails. I've got Ororo in the plane, an' she's gettin' antsy."
"Good. Let's go."
The two jogged toward the entrance.
"Any obvious tails?" Wolverine asked.
"No." Cable said. "Maybe it was a false alarm."
"Maybe. Or they might be pros." Logan said.
They came out into the dim sunlight, still careful not to be blinded by the scant glare, and ran across the lawn to the Blackbird. Ororo smiled at them as they climbed in.
"Ready?" she shouted.
Cable tapped her shoulder twice, and she took the Blackbird back into the sky.
"We truly should not land the Blackbird in a populated area." she said loudly. "Not in daylight."
Logan sealed the hatch, and the compartment became much more quiet. "I made a quick call to Nick. We won't get any slack." he said.
Cable grunted. "Glad somebody's still got friends at SHIELD."
Wolverine shrugged. "I don't know how you can stand Bridge, anyway. He's a stuffed shirt bureaucrat."
"Shall we concentrate on the mission?" Storm said.
"Right." Nate said. "I'm all for that. We should head down to Delaware. I need to get into Hydra headquarters."
"What makes you think Viper's in there, anyway?" Logan asked.
"Viper? I'm talking about Silver Fox."
"Oh. She ain't my wife. Or ex-wife. That never came off."
"Why not?" Storm asked.
Logan let that hang for a minute, before answering, "Once upon a time, I'd've said it was Creed who got in the way. I guess it was really the program. They didn't want any romantic entanglements on the Team."
"And now?" she said.
"Now? Now, I guess there's nothin'. Except we don't seem to agree on anything. I don't wanna talk about this shit, all right?"
"What do you want with Fox?" Logan asked of Cable.
He shrugged. "I guess I don't want to talk about it, either."
Logan set his jaw. "Can't say as I'm much in love with that, Cable."
"Love it or lump it, that's how it's going to be." Nate replied.
"I am sure that Cable does not have any romantic intentions toward Silver Fox." Ororo said evenly. "His interest is purely business."
"And what business do you have with Fox?" Logan asked.
"I said, I'm not going to talk about it." Cable said. "That's the end of it."
"Cable, please calm down." Storm said in a soothing tone. "Logan trusts you. You have proven yourself to him more than once."
"I've got nothing to prove to Wolverine." Cable said angrily.
Ororo shook her head. "Logan, speak to him. Tell him how you feel."
"He doesn't want me t' tell him how I feel." Logan snarled.
"This cabin's getting a bit stuffy." Cable said to him. "Why don't you hop out and stretch your legs a little?"
"Enough!" Storm thundered.
The two men subsided, sullenly.
"We will be over Delaware in a few minutes, and I will land the Blackbird well away from the bunker." she said. "We shall spend a few minutes applying ground camouflage to the jet, and then it will be a matter of getting into the town itself."
There was a long silence.
"While we're waitin'," Logan offered gruffly, "why don't we talk about Rogue a little?"
"Fine." Cable said. "What do you want to know?"
"When'd you see her last?"
"I guess it was about an hour before the convention started." Nate mused. "She was supposed to be my extraction, since Ororo wasn't there."
"Please do not refer to me in the third person when I am sitting with you." Storm said.
She smiled at him. "It is a minor thing." she said, and touched his hand.
"Nothin'." Logan said. "Keep talkin'."
"Anyway, she promised that she'd keep out of sight, and settled down in the branches of an oak, behind the leaves. She was wearing yellow and brown, in consideration of the season, to help camouflage herself."
"No communiques while you were guarding Kelly?"
"No." Cable said grimly. "Bishop was in charge of that."
"Mystique." Logan said. "Son of a bitch. She must have taken Rogue when she was masqueradin' as Bishop."
"That's exactly what I was thinking." Cable affirmed.
"Maybe we shouldn't have been so damn quick t' leave DC."
"Mystique is not in prison." Storm said quietly.
"What?" Nate demanded.
"She broke out a short time ago. It was on the news."
Logan shook his head. "Well, at least that means Rogue ain't starvin' in a hole somewhere."
"She's gone off the deep end." Nate said angrily. "We need to pull her in before she starts on her genetic war footing again."
"No arguments here."
"Nor from me." Storm said. "Are you certain that this business with Silver Fox, whatever it might be, cannot wait?"
Cable paused. "It probably can, but the way I see it, if Silver Fox didn't break her out, then she will come hunting for her. After she gets through with Sabretooth, that is."
"Fox has Sabretooth." Logan said, biting off each syllable.
"A sore point." Storm remarked. "She also has Vendetta, does she not?"
"You let that Hydra bimbo walk off with a pair of killers?" Cable said incredulously.
"Not on your best day, old man." Nate snarled.
"Put your weapons away and close your mouths," Storm said angrily, "or you will find out how much farther you can test my patience."
"Not this time, 'Ro. This upstart fossil owes me an apology." Wolverine said.
"For what? I should apologize because you were born stupid? Because you think with your dick?" Cable sneered. "You dropped the ball, Wolverine. Admit it. Silver Fox is playing you for a fool."
"You don't call a man's girl a bimbo, junior. Not if you like living."
"I am landing the plane." Storm said. "Obviously, neither of you is going to come to his senses and admit that he is wrong, so I would prefer that you do not destroy our transportation.
"All right by me."
Storm clenched her jaw. "I was not aware that you thought of Silver Fox as your 'girl', Logan. You had led me to believe otherwise."
Cable laughed brashly. "Is that right?"
"Shut up, Summers."
"There." Storm said in a disgusted tone. "The plane has landed, the door is open. Get out. I expect that the better man will win. If there is one."
The two men stomped out of the plane. They walked toward the shade of a large, twisted oak tree, and turned to face each other.
"Last chance, boy." Logan said.
"I offer you the same chance, old man." Cable said. "Apologize, and we don't have to do this."
"I fail to see why this is necessary in the first place." Storm said.
"I don't want you interferin', 'Ro." Logan said.
"Oh, perish the thought." she replied sarcastically. She stepped back two paces.
Cable bunched his fists. "Bring it on, Wolverine."
Logan laughed nastily and sheathed his claws. "I popped the claws 'cause I figured you'd use a gun. At least pull a knife or that psimitar o' yours. This is gonna be boring, otherwise."
Cable didn't bother to reply. He just stepped in and took a swing.
"Do not hurt him, Cable!" Storm called out.
Logan blocked the first punch with contemptuous ease, and crouched quickly to take a kick in the ribs instead of the gut. His counterattack missed cleanly.
"I can read your next move before you make it, Logan." Cable said. "You can't win."
"Is that a fact?" Logan sneered, and feinted a blow to the inside of Cable's elbow. He changed direction and drove for the clavicle. Cable jumped backward before the blow threatened to land.
"That is a fact." Cable said. He punched Logan in the jaw and followed with a quick strike to the kidney, which made the Canadian crumple a bit. His knee struck Logan in the throat, and the little man toppled.
As he fell, Wolverine's own leg lashed out and struck Cable in the groin. He turned his pratfall into a kip-up and head-butted his foe before the larger man could recover. Cable's head snapped backward, but he managed somehow to keep his feet.
"You may be a warrior, Nate, but I've been fightin' for two o' your lifetimes, an' I can see what you're doin' before you do it." Wolverine remarked. "Your little mind tricks don't impress me much."
"How's this for a mind trick?" Cable snarled, and he lifted Wolverine off of the ground with telekinesis.
Wolverine shrugged, and reached into his belt. He came up with a pair of shuriken. "Learned this one from Bullseye." he said, and threw the two small weapons at Cable.
Cable's eyes widened, and he raised a telekinetic shield to deflect them. They struck the invisible barrier, triggering a deafening sound akin to a sonic boom. Nate's eyes crossed, and he dropped to one knee.
Logan dropped to the ground. "Wasn't much you could do about that one. Usin' vibranium shivs was a dirty trick." He stalked over to the swaying man and grabbed him by the collar. "Say 'uncle'."
Cable looked up at Wolverine, but in so doing started to lose his precarious balance. His drooping hand brushed Logan's calf, then gripped his ankle tightly.
Electricity crackled into Wolverine's body, through the thin layer of skin and into the adamantium bonding with his bones. He, too, stumbled and at last fell. His eyes closed.
Cable, still on one knee, wiped his bleeding nose with that hand. There was a small device, the size of a joy buzzer, in his palm. He smiled at Storm. "Dirty tricks a specialty." he said.
"Oh?" she said.
"Get your opponent when he thinks he's strong and you're at your worst." Cable said weakly. He got to his feet. "The psychic feedback from introducing telekinetic force to those vibranium shuriken was brutal. I'll have to remember that one."
"I am proud of you." she said, smiling.
His brow furrowed. "What?"
She gestured to his left. A pair of Skrulls stepped out from behind the oak.
"What is this?" Cable demanded, realizing that his psychic energies were taxed. He slowly reached for his belt, but knew that the matter might be decided before he could trigger a distress call to the mansion.
"You will see." she said, and elemental cold enveloped him.
Maverick paced nervously. He was holed up in a disused retail space about two blocks away from the Hydra bunker. He did not have a line of sight to the building, which meant that their security would be a little more lax where he was concerned. The effect was completed by oiled paper that covered with windows. It was a fairly low-key field position, but that didn't reassure him.
It had been more than two hours since the last communication from Wraith, and all he'd received of that one was 'get'. It was a good bet that 'get' meant 'get out'.
Elena had to be in the area somewhere, though. The psidar indicated that there was low-level telepathy originating in the area. He couldn't be sure of where, though, or what her vantage was. She might not see him if he just walked out in the street, but it was important that he warn her.
Maybe if she knew that he was here, she'd take off.
He grimaced. That wasn't likely. A realistic evaluation of Elena would yield exactly the opposite idea, in fact.
His ulcer was beginning to pulse again. North pressed his hand to his side and winced. Legacy did a lot of things to his body, most of them very painful. He was coming down off of a remission, and he was terminal. There was no doubting it. He couldn't count on another remission to come along and save his life. This was it.
Months at the most, the doctor said. He had no cause to doubt the old villain.
Elena Ivanova was a beautiful soul. She was compassionate, wise, and effortlessly clever. She loved every child she met as if it was her own, and would give her last dollar away if he asked for it. She'd pledged months of her life away to ease the passing of a sick old man that she didn't even love.
Did he love her? Hell, yes. He hoped she didn't know.
The one hole in her perfection was the man who'd killed her mother. That was a man that he'd fought with, killed with, called brother. He'd never been a prince among men, but he had been loyal in his way, and took care of a poor German expatriate in the early days of their service together. North still had a bolo tie that Creed had taken off his neck to help tamp a bullet wound.
They were all like that. They all had little tokens of each other. The Wraith-man still wore a turquoise that Fox had given him for his birthday. She remembered everyone's birthdays, and the names of all the girls in all the ports, and a host of other useful data. Logan's hat was a gift from Creed. He told a story about how he'd taken it off of Creed's head. Maybe he even believed it, but North remembered that hat, and he could recall quite clearly the day when Logan started wearing it.
Unlike some of the other members of the program, Maverick hadn't been born with a healing factor. He'd been dosed with an artificial extract of it, though, which kept him young. Maybe if he'd gotten the whole thing, he wouldn't be dying. He'd heard that Deadpool had been infected with the virus and held it dead in its tracks. Maybe that was just a rumour.
How to alert Elena to the approaching danger, whatever it might be? How to deflect her from her revenge against Creed?
There was only one way. He'd have to march up to the Hydra compound, bold as you please, and kill Creed himself.
Hell, it was what the psycho wanted, anyway. Somewhere, buried deep down in that blood-drinking thug was the old, saner evil that would guard a man's back in a bar, or take the rap for a security leak because he knew that he could take the punishment, and you couldn't. That little piece of man was probably screaming all the time.
What was small enough to carry? Not the psidar, unfortunately. Maverick regretfully smashed it. Not even the radphone, truth to tell, and in skilled hands it could give up Wraith's position. He smashed it also, and wrecked the mutant detection device. The mess from those three devices made a small, neat pile, and he blasted it into a satisfying lump of slag.
The back of his neck began to itch. That was an uncomfortable feeling. North readied his rifle.
A motorcycle smashed through the window of the building, and all that North could see at first was the blinding headlight. The bike's front tire connected with his gut, smashing him into the wall and making him drop his weapon.
Maverick offered a brief prayer of thanks as his mutant power flared into life, absorbing the terrible impact and transforming it into energy. He used that energy to augment his strength, lifting the motorcycle off the ground (rider included), and bending it slowly into a new shape. The rider was dumped unceremoniously to the ground.
"Thought you'd give me more of a chase, Christophe." the man said, slowly getting up from the floor. "This was too damn easy."
North shut him up by bringing the motorcycle down onto his helmet with all of his strength. The big fellow was smashed again to the ground.
"You're a bold man, Maverick. I appreciate that." he said. "I thought that you were a directive precog, though. That would have made the game worth the ante." He began to pull himself to his feet, offering no sign that he was injured.
North leaped over him and jumped out of the window, trying to ignore the searing pain of his ulcer. It did not appreciate this physical activity. He turned around when he landed and blasted the gas tank of the bike with the last of the energy he'd managed to absorb. It caught, and detonated.
He turned around and continued to run up the street. He bore no illusions that something like a gasoline explosion was going to be enough to stop anyone who would have been dispatched to take him out.
A directive precog, the man had said. That meant that he had access to the Flagwatch files. Maverick's gorge rose. He was born with that ability, but it was judged to be too dangerous by the program, no matter how useful it would make him in the field. A directive precog could see a vista of all of the possible futures available to him over a certain period, and then he could pick the one that allowed him to come out on top. If there was one. He wasn't sure that there was, this time.
He shivered as he passed under a twisted oak tree. Aldo Ferro had taken that power, shut it away for good. All that he had left was his ability to absorb kinetic force. It would have to be enough.
A split-second decision made him head for the outskirts of town instead of the bunker. Unless the man was a Hydra employee, the bunker would offer a strange sort of safety, but Elena might interfere if she saw him pursued.
"Good man!" he could hear behind him. "Make this worth my while."
North came to an intersection, and sprinted through it, holding his hand to his side. There was a fairly thick forest at the edge of town, and he'd secreted a motorcycle therein. If he could make it there, he would be able to rabbit.
He ducked, almost instinctively, as the distinctive 'thram' of a Valence Accelerated Discharge pulse streaked across his field of view. He didn't need peripheral vision to tell him that a Hydra patrol had decided to show up and complicate things.
A man didn't have to be a directive precog to know that you could turn a complication to advantage. Maverick stopped on a dime, messing up the timing of another VAD discharge. He palmed his pistol, brought it up, and fired, all in one smooth motion.
He didn't hit any of them, but then, he hadn't planned to. He put on a burst of speed and took off in a straight line away from the squad, trusting in the foot speed of his hunter and the tendency of men to grab cover when shot at, even if they wore Kevlar.
He wasn't disappointed. The big man stepped into a hail of VAD fire a few moments later. Maverick took the opportunity to dive behind a car and observe his hunter from cover.
The man was about five foot eleven, and very thickly muscled. He was thicker than Creed, and just as broad, which made him look like a fireplug. If he hadn't been far too short, his build would have reminded Maverick of Mastodon, one of his old teammates. Mastodon was dead, though, and he'd also been Creed's height.
Apart from his base dimensions, North noticed as he shot the man in the kneecap, he was an ugly cuss. He was covered with circatrices of scars and burns. Hair grew abundantly over all of the exposed surfaces, but only in patches. He looked like a mangy pit bull. He was also wearing an old WW I army uniform, which was strange...
Devil's Brigade. Sohn eines Weibchens!
North kept his head down and made his way, as quickly as he could, toward the trees.
The sensation was like having a scratchy blanket pulled off of raw skin. It hurt like a bastard at first, but then his mind was submerged in calm. He couldn't remember anything quite like it.
Creed was standing in that little lab. Swaying on his feet, truth be told. This was something else. Nothing that Birdy had ever done for him had quite helped this much. He really hadn't expected Fox to be on the level. She really was helping him.
He looked at the girl. A weird light was in her eye, like she was thinking of singing, or maybe gnawing on somebody's leg. She was giving off a different scent, too. More like fibreglass. She'd smelled a bit like drywall, before. Weird that her moods'd make her smell like different building materials.
"How do you feel?" Fox asked.
"Good. Great." he said. "I'd say this about squares our account, Fox. You've done me solid."
"We aren't done yet." she said. "The chain."
He raised his eyebrows. "What's this shit?"
"This chain is an osmium steel alloy." she said, as one of the guards pulled it out of his pack. "This is how you're going to restrain Vendetta."
"Restrain her? You mean walk around with her on a leash?"
"Not in this life," Vendetta hissed.
Fox looked startled. "You can talk!"
The girl lashed out with an ecomonical crescent, and almost tagged Fox with it. She was quicker than she looked, and not done yet. Fox was retreating before a furious assault, every blow potentially crippling or lethal.
"You want to walk with her or carry her?" Fox shouted desperately.
He put a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Calm down, girl." Somehow, he knew she'd subside.
Creed eyed the chain. "You didn't do this t' square us away. Where's the benefit t' you in this?"
Fox raised an eyebrow, and hid it by wiping the sweat off her forehead. "You're right. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is, you're more rational with your impulses dampened. I don't like random factors."
He nodded at the wisdom of that. "What else?"
"One of these days, I plan to kill you, and I want to be able to enjoy it." she said.
She gored him with her eyes. "You don't remember the cabin, Sabretooth?"
"What about the cabin?"
"It was Logan's birthday." she said.
Logan's birthday. Oh, he remembered that day.
Back then, the country wasn't crowded, and everybody wasn't all jammed together, cheek by jowl. It was northern Alberta in the spring, and it was Logan's birthday.
He and the squaw had been stepping out for a while, down Calgary way. Her Pa had gotten sick of the whole business, and pretty much thrown her out of the tribe. He didn't want to pollute his nice Indian family with the blood of some white man. Fox had other ideas, and so did the runt, so they took off north and built that stupid cabin.
He'd done a good job on it, Logan had, but he hadn't scouted the territory right. Creed's own cabin wasn't too far away, and the intrusion had screwed up his traplines. He had to adjust his route, set new snares, and range farther afield. Two new humans were two too many for the animals in the area.
So, he'd come knocking on the cabin door one night to bitch them out. Young couple in love. Wouldn't you know it. Logan belonged back with him, in the cabin that he'd built. Back with his Pa.
Creed shook his head. Logan... his son? That wasn't right, was it? The SHIELD blood test had come back negative.
He'd walked through their yard that day, as he had every day. The squaw surely was pretty. Long, smooth legs, supple skin. Long, shiny clean hair that he watched her wash in the stream, every morning. Curvy hips and a great rack. Stomach was so flat that you could set your drink on it, and she always wore those scraps of deerskin. She was practically naked. He saw her in the window that morning, and she was humming, making a cake for her man.
Logan was nowhere around. Come to think of it, he'd gone into town for salt and meal that morning, hadn't he?
He pushed open the door and walked in, bold as you please. Whatever else you might say about the frail, she had good ears. She turned around and gave him a look. Like he was some kind of slug. Damned uppity squaw bitch!
"What's that you're makin'?" he asked.
"It's cake. For Logan. It's his birthday." she said. "What are you doing in here anyway, Mr. Creed? Get out of my house."
She put her floury hands on her hips and stared angrily at him. His eyes were drawn to her tits, which settled back into place after she'd turned around to bitch at him.
"Now, is that any way to talk to a neighbour?" he asked. "I just came by t' say hello, an' ask if you needed anythin' from town, as I'm headed there for a drink in a few."
"No, thank you." she said. Jesus, she was a good looking woman.
He licked his lips. "Ain't you gonna offer me somethin', seein' as I'm a guest in your house? How about a slice o' that cake?"
"It's for Logan." she said firmly. "Thank you for visiting, but I'm very busy this morning, and I work better in the absence of visitors." Then she turned her back on him.
A dismissal? No, an invitation! Look at her. So graceful and pretty. Girl like her had to be a slut, rutting with a white boy. Well, he'd give her what she wanted.
He walked up quietly behind her and put his arms around her waist. "You don't want t' give up the cake, squaw, I understand. How 'bout you offer me some o' your hospitality."
She struggled in his arms. "No! You bastard! Let go of me, damn it! I'd sooner lie down with a pig in rut than you!"
"What?" he shouted, blood rushing to his face.
"Let go of me, or Logan's gonna kill you when he gets home!" she screamed into his face, beating on him with her tiny fists.
He bore her to the ground and tore off the scraps of deerskin. "You want this." he muttered into her ear. "You want this, you whore." She smelled clean. Her skin was smooth and soft.
She kicked and punched and bit for all she was worth, but he was big, he was strong, and damn it, he was gonna take what he wanted.
He held her arms together in his own great hand, and pulled off his belt. "I'm gonna teach you somethin' new today, squaw." he said.
She struck at him with her closed fist, and got a lucky shot. He felt a shaft of pain in his mouth that seemed to travel straight up into his brain. There was something hard floating free in his mouth. He spat, and a long, sharp white canine tooth fell into his hand.
"Bitch!" he yelled, and struck her with his belt. A line of blood appeared on her neck. "I'm gonna take what's mine, an' then I'm gonna learn you some respect."
Creed was snapped out of his reverie by a metallic 'clink'. He was in the lab in the Hydra bunker. He wasn't back in the cabin. There was a collar attached to the little Scots frail, now, and Fox tugged on the end of the chain.
"I want you to be fully aware of what's happening when I kill you, Creed, and I want you to know what it means." she said.
He stared at her. "You don't get it, do you? I remember killin' you that day."
Fox shrugged. "Say whatever you want, Creed. Your lies aren't going to save your life this time."
Her eyes went hard as flint. "You raped me, Victor Creed. You hurt me, you made me afraid of men. You beat me and left me for dead, but I got better, and now I'm strong and you're weak."
"I never raped a woman in my damned life!" he roared at her. "Listen to me, you stupid squaw! Unlike you, I've been t' Windsor!"
"Shut up, Creed."
"No! Listen. All over that place were a bunch o' sets, like a big sound stage. There's a sawmill in there, an' a Frisco apartment, an' the inside of a B-29. There's a school hall, all dressed up for prom night. An' there's a cabin."
"Liar!" she lashed. "The cabin is real! I've been to it, you miserable rat, you bucket of pig shit!"
"I don't know from that." Creed said. "Maybe it is real, but I'm here t' tell you that there's another one just like it in that warehouse. All the same furniture. The same sappy carving on the door. There's even a platter in there with a few petrified cake crumbs on it. It's a fuckin' implant, Fox!"
"I believe that because you tell me." she said, heavy with sarcasm.
"Ask the runt." he said, biting off each syllable. "I remember cuttin' you up an' beatin' you until there was nothin' left t' beat. I ate most o' that cake an' took the rest into town. Logan came into the bar, on a mad hair, and asked me what went down, an' I told him. Said I even saved him a slice. He threw down on me, then an' there. He'd seen you dead, squaw. He saw you dead. You were dead."
"You were dead." he said deliberately. "At least in my version o' that implant. There was no makin' a mistake about it. That implant's the reason why you hate me, an' why Logan hates me, an' I think that's the point of it."
"He told me that he thought you'd killed me." she said quietly, in a daze. "He did."
Creed watched as Vendetta walked over and gathered Fox into her arms. Fox hugged her fiercely.
"I'm sorry." Vendetta croaked woodenly, stroking her back. "I'm so damn sorry."
Sounds of VAD fire echoed through the streets, which were all but empty of people all of a sudden. A firefight! That was just what she had been waiting for. God bless Hydra, Elena thought. You could usually count on them to do something stupid, if you were patient.
"Raven." she said.
"Hmmm... what?" Mystique said, snapping awake.
"You fell asleep." Elena said. "You gone loco or somethin'?"
"Stonewall." she said. "What... what are you..."
"What d'you mean?" Elena said. "Fer crissake, Raven, we're up the wall, here. The Reavers are droppin' us like flies."
"Muir Island." Mystique said dreamily. "Is this Muir, Stonewall?"
"Don't think." the Russian said. "We don't got time for that. Why'd you leave Irene behind with that Indian?"
Mystique's brow furrowed. "Irene... Legion!"
"That's right." Elena said. "Legion told me he was gonna go back to the bunker and possess that Indian, and kill Irene!"
"We've got to stop Forge!" Mystique said.
"Silver Fox." Elena corrected.
"Whatever." Mystique snapped. "Any means necessary. Err on the side of messy, just save Destiny!"
"You got it, boss." Elena smiled. "Lead the way."
Forge toiled away at the Danger Room console, making delicate adjustments to Shi'ar circuitry, adding his own refinements. Work in the mansion was a full time job, to be sure. There was always another machine that had to be replaced, repaired, or improved. Adding to the capabilities of the Danger Room was teaching him a lot about Shi'ar technology. It wasn't very modular, so he had to execute a long series of workarounds to put his ideas into practice.
A light tread on the stairs caused a small device in his pocket to vibrate. Forge pushed himself out from under the console. With the traitor still unidentified, he wasn't willing to take any chances.
"Forge." Warren said. "Could I talk to you for a minute?"
"If you'll wait for about thirty seconds, I'll be done here." Forge replied.
Forge wheeled himself back under the console, his mind reeling. The Angel was Logan's chief suspect. If his own suspicions were true, then this was his chance to see the modifications to the Danger Room bear fruit.
Warren's phone rang. "Excuse me a minute, Forge."
"No problem." he said from under the console, but he reached into his tool belt, and pressed a stud there while groping for a wrench. Static hissed into his ear, and it changed pitch as the tempest device groped for the correct frequency and amplitude.
"-ington." the tiny speaker said into his ear.
"Warren, it is I." Storm said. Forge swallowed.
"I have both Cable and Wolverine." she said in a satisfied tone.
Forge's mind reeled. Storm and Warren. His suspicions must be true. He hoped they were true.
"Perfect. That's great news. Do you have the proper storage materials?" Warren said.
"For Wolverine, yes. Not for Cable."
"That's OK. I think I've got some in the utility drawer of my apartment. Just drop them off there, with the other shipment. That is fantastic. I can't believe that the cable came in already. Oversight is going to be ecstatic."
"Yes. We have what your master wanted." Storm said. "I expect you to deliver your end of the bargain."
"And I will. Haven't I set you up in the boardroom?" Warren said. "Relax. If corporate raiding is what you want for this, that's what you'll get. You can seize assets later today, if you want to move that early."
"That would... Grrah! Maverick! We only have time to recover one!"
"Grab the cable, then." Worthington said calmly.
"All right. I will see you in a few hours." Storm said.
"In a few hours." Worthington replied, and hung up the phone.
Forge finished tinkering, and said a silent prayer. "All right." he said. "I'm all done, and it's time for my workout."
Warren raised an eyebrow. "I thought you had time to talk."
"I do." Forge said. "During my workout. If you'll join me."
"I don't know..." Warren said. "Mixing workouts. I've run into trouble trying to cross-train."
"Nonsense." the Cheyenne insisted. "I have no physical powers, Angel. This should be a snap for you." He walked down toward the Danger Room itself, forcing the issue.
"All right." Angel said. "Fine. I've got time, I guess."
The two of them walked into an empty, featureless hall. Forge pulled out his sidearm, and tossed one to Warren.
"Why didn't you set up the room?" Warren asked.
Forge smiled proudly. "Voice command interface. I just finished putting it in this morning. It's got voiceprint analysis built in, and will allow you to execute the full range of commands, if you're cleared. I also took the precaution of slightly garbling the timbre of the voices of the robotic and holographic opponents, just in case."
"Danger Room-- new scenario. Jungle setting." Forge said. "Vietnam."
A dense forest appeared around them, tropical and humid.
"I can't exactly take to the air in here, Forge." the Angel remarked.
"You've got a pistol." Forge pointed out. "Don't worry about it. Danger Room-- add opponents. Viet Cong, conventional arms. Random concealed locations. Deer hunter scenario."
A quiet metallic hissing sound indicated that the computer had processed the command and complied with it.
"What's the deer hunter scenario?" Warren asked.
"An old favourite of mine, with one modification." Forge replied. "Danger Room-- green protocol. Initialize."
The dim sunlight filtering through the fronds and leaves of the plant life around them was replaced by a harsh orange glare. It played across Forge's skin harmlessly, glinting off of his metallic leg, but it had an entirely different effect on Warren.
He grimaced, and gasped in pain as his body underwent a forced change of shape. His wings and the basic outline of his body and bone structure remained, but his eyes and skin became a gleaming emerald green in colour, and the flesh on his chin became fluted.
Forge's eyes blazed. "I knew it! You're a damn Skrull!" He pointed his pistol at the revealed creature.
"Not... exactly..." the green-skinned Angel said. "Maybe... half-Skrull."
"Your shapeshifting abilities are gone, you're in constant pain, and your gun is a dummy." Forge said.
"So... I've noticed."
"So give it up! You guys are supposed to be on our side now. I knew that we couldn't trust Skrulls!"
Skrull-Angel forced a half-smile. "Most Skrulls... are still loyal to the Emperor. Just the mutant types... on your side."
"Why do you still look like Warren?" Forge demanded.
The Skrull-Angel took a step forward. "Collar... helps me keep one shape."
"Not another step." the Cheyenne said.
The hybrid creature smiled, and tried to take another step, but fell to its knees instead. The dummy gun fell out of nerveless fingers. "Pain..."
Forge walked over to the simulacrum and held the gun to its head. "Where are you keeping the real Storm and Angel?"
"At... Worthington's apartment."
Forge nodded, and reached down to tear aside the half-Skrull's shirt. Underneath it, as the being had claimed, was a collar. It was a complex affair, composed of a bluish metal, with the tiny stamp of a twisted oak tree on it.
Forge's eyes widened. "That's not doing anything to help you keep your shape. It focuses and amplifies psychic energy, like Cerebro."
"Really?" the Skrull-Angel said. "Weird..."
Confident that the creature was helpless, Forge knelt to examine the collar more closely.
He was caught completely by surprise when the Skrull-Angel grabbed his hair with irresistable strength and pulled him into a kiss.
Maverick ran through the trees as fast as his decaying body would allow. Back in the old days, he would have rung up the Wraith-man and requested an extraction. Today, he had no radio, and John Wraith was on the run at best, taken in at worst.
Apart from the hydrochloric acid that was eating him from the inside out, and the lactic acid building up elsewhere in his body, North was dealing with the deep fatigue that followed terminal Legacy victims wherever they went. Truth was, his fastest wasn't that fast. It wouldn't have taken that old horror long to wipe out a Hydra squad and start after him again. He had to find a way to mask his trail, somehow. If only he had the time.
From his left, a few hundred metres distant, he heard the low bass rumble of jet engines firing up. If his ears did not deceive, it was an SR-17 Blackbird jet with VTOL capabilities.
The X-Men. Oh, let it be the X-Men.
Maverick angled toward the sound, and winced when he heard trees crashing back in the direction he came. His hunter was coming.
He burst into the clearing, and recognized the Blackbird jet belonging to the X-Men, but the tableau he saw before him was not particularly encouraging.
A pair of Skrulls were pulling Cable, who was quite unconscious, up the ramp of the jet. Storm, who had her back to the scene, caught sight of him and swore. She quickly hung up a phone.
He knew a set-up when he saw one. North's pistol was in his hand as quickly as he could move, and he fired at the two Skrulls pulling Cable into the plane. He hit one, center of mass, and the creature toppled into the grass. The other hit the deck and rolled out of the way. From inside the plane, the Skrull continued to pull the unconscious man into the plane.
"Help us, Maverick!" Storm cried. "Wolverine is hurt, and I cannot stop the Skrulls alone."
"Shut up." Maverick barked, and shot her in the stomach. She coughed in surprise and sank to her knees.
He pivoted to train his pistol again on the Blackbird, and cursed as he saw the hatch shut on Cable. "There goes my extraction." he thought grimly, and didn't waste any bullets on the jet.
He cast his eyes around to see if 'Storm' had been telling the truth, and sure enough, Wolverine was moaning on the grass.
The thrashing in the trees was getting closer. Maverick ran over to Logan and kicked him. The little Canadian's eyes fluttered open.
"North?" he croaked. "What're you doin' here?"
"Get up, Logan!" North barked. "We are up shit creek!"
The jet flashed its lights and took off into the sky, dragging the three of them sideways a few inches. Maverick knelt and propped up Logan's head.
"Where's 'Ro?" Logan asked.
"Storm, you mean?" Maverick asked. "Not here. Maybe on the plane. I saw a pair of Skrulls dragging Cable off, and a Skrull impersonating Storm, talking on the phone. We don't have time to worry about that. I'm being hunted by someone from the Devil's Brigade."
"Devil's Brigade?" Logan said. "I'm the only guy from that outfit who's still kickin'."
"Negative." North said. "There are at least two of you, Logan, and one is heading this way. Let me tell you, he is one ugly cuss."
A tree toppled at the edge of the clearing, and his hunter stepped forward. "A merry chase you led me, Herr Nord." he rumbled. "I underestimated you. The trick with the Hydra types was ingenious."
"You're dead." Logan whispered.
The man spread his arms wide. "Do I look dead to you, sawed-off? No, I'm back in the original packaging, and under new management."
Wolverine struggled to his feet, leaning against Maverick. "How're your wheels?" he whispered hoarsely.
"Shot." Maverick replied.
"Mine too." Logan said. "No point runnin' anyway. He can track you all over the Earth."
"I've got you to thank for my current estate, private." the man said. "I was eaten alive because of you. If it wasn't for the fact that my healing factor came back, I'd still be sitting in the guts of a bunch of mechanical bugs."
"That wasn't my idea, Cyber." Logan said. "Looks like you got your brain back, too."
"Without the adamantium skin suppressing my healing abilities, the poisons and hallucinogens that you'd filled my body with melted away like a summer frost." Cyber replied. "I may not have my metal any more, but I'm back in charge of my mind."
"Well, I got a nasty surprise for you, cap." Logan said.
"Adamantium?" Cyber said in disbelief. "You got it back?"
"You know it. An' all this time jawin' has really put me back on my game." he smiled. "Let's go to claw city."
"Fine by me." Cyber said, and cracked his knuckles. "Let's do it."
Maverick opened hostilities by firing a shot off at the big man's right knee. There was an audible crack, and blood spurted.
"He's got an artificial healin' factor based on mine." Logan tossed over his shoulder. "Best chance is t' mess him up bad enough that he can't walk anymore."
"Never happen." Cyber growled. He stuck his hand out to ward off Logan's opening swipe, and took the centre claw right through it. He pushed his hand down the blade and grabbed Wolverine's fist. "Stupid move, private."
The big man held Logan's hand closed by main strength and jerked him down to the ground by it. The smaller man hit the hard earth, and it drove the air from his lungs. He leaned his foot on the smaller man's neck. "Your skeleton may be indestructible, but I doubt your connective tissue is. If I push hard enough, I'll bet your spinal cord slices like Christmas turkey."
Maverick stayed back and lined up another shot. He couldn't get a good bead on the eyes, so he adjusted his aim and squeezed the trigger. The buller struck Cyber just to the ventral side of his left ear.
"Son of a bitch!" the old captain cried, and swayed on his feet. Ultimately, he couldn't keep his balance, and he tumbled to the ground.
Logan twisted his hand in Cyber's grip, digging a much larger hole in the man's hand, which made him let go.
Wolverine pushed backward and jumped to his feet. "Inner ear?" he asked.
Maverick smiled weakly. "No balance."
Cyber tried to get to his feet, but the world swayed around him and he fell over again.
"That ain't gonna hold him, Rico." Logan said. "How're your powers doin'?"
"They seem to work at the moment." Maverick replied.
Logan nodded, and puched Maverick in the face, as hard as he could.
Maverick staggered backwards. "That adamantium packs a wallop." he said, as his fists ignited. He looked down at the struggling relic, a ruined artifact of the Great War, and asked, "Who's your new boss, Cyber?"
The big Canadian spat by way of reply.
"You can't get shit out of him." Wolverine remarked. "He's tough as nails and near on indestructible. He knows it, too. Just fry him and get it over with."
The German nodded, and bathed Cyber's body in seething plasma. He charred slowly, yowling like a cat. His skin cracked, and finally he closed his eyes.
"Is he dead?" Maverick asked.
"I wish I could think of a way t' do it." Logan said. "He got eaten alive by techno-organic bugs once, just t' get at his admantium skin, an' he's still kickin'. He's gotta have a healin' factor on the level o' Deadpool. This is good enough for now."
Maverick smiled weakly. "One might lose, but never two of us."
"Naw. Never two. Never yet, anyway." Wolverine smiled back. "I got Moira workin' on Mystique's Legacy notes, Rico. She thinks we're close. Real close."
"That's great," North said brusquely, "but let's keep our eyes on the ball. Why don't we grab us a wounded Skrull, hat up, and head out?"
"Good idea. Hey, where the hell is she?"
They wasted a few minutes looking for her, but of the Skrull-Storm, there was no trace.
"We can't wait any longer." Maverick said, as he shot Cyber through the eye and into the brain. "I need to find Elena before she breaks into Hydra HQ."
"Is she after Creed again?" Logan demanded. "Hell, Rico. My phone's broke. I can't call the mansion. Pass me yours."
"Don't have one." North replied. "Let's go back into town. If you give me ten minutes, sniff out Elena, then I'll help you with your business."
Logan considered. "Done." he said. "I'm stoppin' at the first payphone I see, though."
The two of them took off at a lope toward the town.
Back in the clearing, Cyber was slowly dragging himself across the ground toward the oak tree. "I'm fucked up." he rasped. "Get me out of here." He pulled himself upright on the trunk. "You still need me."
A gaping, toothy maw appeared in the trunk of the tree, and it swallowed the old villain whole.
Silver Fox walked slowly back towards her office, at war with her memories. Sabretooth was whole again, well as he had not been for many years. When he'd gone back to Windsor, he claimed, they recaptured him and fed him back to Ferro. He came to the vault door, but he didn't have the key, so he couldn't get in and they took him. Remade him.
Logan must have gone to Windsor years later. The big difference was that he had somehow held on to his key. She never asked him what he'd found behind that vault door.
For a long time, the rape had been one of the central facts of her life. What if it didn't happen? What if Sabretooth didn't do it?
She nodded in perfunctory fashion to the two guards that were stationed at her bolthole, and carried on toward her office.
Sabretooth was locked up tight in the lab with his new adjunct, Edina McLeish. She would decide what to do with him when she figured out what was going on inside her head.
Could she blame Sabretooth for something that he didn't really do, or had been forced to do? Could she stop blaming him? Did he even deserve the consideration?
She looked up, startled. Along an alternate path of an intersection stood the Supreme Hydra. He had several guards standing behind him, and they were armed with a combination of VADs, lasers, and projectile weapons. They stood at the ready, their weapons primed.
Fox cursed herself for dismissing her escort. "What is it, Supreme Hydra?"
"I have received a very disturbing series of reports about some of the operations that you've apparently been carrying on inside headquarters." he said.
"Really?" she asked. "What sort of reports?"
"Apparently, you've pulled scientists from vital projects to work on some secret design of your own. Care to deny it?" he said.
"No." she answered. "That much is true, except for the part about the secrecy. A copy of the project proposal was on your desk yesterday."
"And you didn't wait for approval." he observed.
She shrugged. "There was a rider on the proposal asking you to meet me for lunch if you did not approve. You never showed up."
"That does not constitute explicit approval, Zora." he said. "Second, you squandered the lives of those same scientists in a dangerous experiment involving Sabretooth. Is that true?"
"I wasn't even in the room at the time." she said. "You hired those scientists, and they came up with the experimental design. That one will never stick."
"It will if I want it to." he said grimly. "I've just received the most interesting telephone call from AIM headquarters. It seems that you ordered Arnim Zola, of all people, to be shot!"
"Can't deny that, Simmonds." Fox answered. "Not that I would."
"Well, then." he said. "You stand convicted out of your own mouth. It's sad, really. I had such high hopes for you."
"What will happen to Vendetta?" she said.
"That is none of your concern." Simmonds answered. "Ready weapons."
"It is germane to the continuation of Hydra." Fox answered. "What will happen to Edina McLeish?"
"Nothing." the Supremem Hydra said.
"She won't be elevated to the office of Supreme Hydra, for instance?" Silver Fox said.
Simmonds started to turn red.
"What do you mean by that, ma'am?" a sergeant asked.
"Arnim Zola, before I had him shot, confided to me in front of witnesses that Vendetta is a blood descendent of the Hatemonger." she said.
"That's not true." the Supreme Hydra said angrily.
"It is true, and easy to verify." she asserted. "I brought in this brave young woman a few days ago. I hired Sabretooth as her personal bodyguard, and I've been grooming her for leadership. Simmonds wants me dead so that he can hush things up, and Edina will disappear mysteriously, a few days down the road."
"Are you going to believe a traitor and a liar over the word of the Supreme Hydra?" Simmonds asked desperately.
"Why don't we all go down to the lab and perform a simple DNA analysis?" Fox said. "That will put all of this to rest once and for all."
"That sounds like a good idea, ma'am." the sergeant said. "With one small proviso. I think it would be better if you were taken to your office, to await the results there, and likewise, the Supreme Hydra should be returned to his. Stray weapons fire might prejudice the test results."
"Fine." she beamed. "Pull any scientist off of a project and ask her to perform the DNA test. Your day is up, Simmonds."
"Treacherous bitch!" he snarled.
"I'm not the one who was caught committing treason, Simmonds. Do accept your fate with some grace, won't you?" she remarked.
The sergeant detailed six guards to escort the Supreme Hydra back to his office, and a pair to escort Fox. She saluted Fox, and spun on her heel, walking toward the lab with the sole remaining guard.
"Coming?" Silver Fox asked, and walked back toward her office. The two guards followed close on her heels. With Creed out of her mind, and Simmonds taken care of, she felt like whistling.
Storm shivered as the door to the sauna finally opened, but did not make any deliberate movement. Her eyes stared straight ahead, blinking rapidly.
"Time for some food." Warren said. "You've also got some new friends to keep you company in there. Grelghak."
The Skrull handcuffs thinned again, and moved off of her mouth. Storm's mouth worked soundlessly and she was taking tiny, quick breaths.
Warren frowned. "Is that sauna getting to you, girl? Here." He hefted her onto his broad shoulder, and carried her through the bathroom and into the master bedroom. He laid her down on the bed.
A tiny bonsai sat on a nearby nightstand. It had been carefully pruned, and had the twisted, gnarled look common to bonsai. That was the only normal thing about the little tree, though. For one thing, it was an oak. For another, it was equipped with a tiny mouth, bristling with needle-sharp fangs.
"I see that you have captured the wind-witch." it said.
Warren jumped. "Yes, my lord. It is very comforting to hear from you. I have captured Storm."
"That is good. She shall pay. Do you have the man Forge?"
"It was difficult," Warrem said, "but I overwhelmed him. He is also in our hands."
The tree's tiny branches rustled. "You shall be rewarded. My other servants seek out Wolverine and Maverick. I will have my vengeance shortly."
"Are we ready for the war, my lord?" he asked eagerly.
"Nearly." the tree replied. "It is good. Confine them."
"Cable is being transported here as we speak." Warren said excitedly. "Once he's here, we can finally get rid of these miserable Skrulls."
"Not quite." the oak said. "We must still bring in Silver Fox. The Skrulls are best equipped to do so. After that, they will be disposed of."
"Silver Fox?" Warren asked in a confused voice. "Why her?"
"Do not question my design." the tree said. "You do not know the entire plan, and you can't fathom my purpose. Follow my orders and be content, Rogue."
The woman who looked like Warren Worthington bowed. "Yes, my lord."
The door to the lab opened again, and Sabretooth looked up to see a pair of Hydra guards walk into the room, a scientist in tow.
"What's this?" he rumbled.
"We're here to administer a DNA test to Vendetta." the scientist said. "There is apparently some chance that she is related to the Fuhrer."
"I don't think so." Creed said, and interposed himself between the scientist and Edina.
"We understand that you want to protect her." one of the guards, a sergeant, said crisply, "but this is on the orders of Silver Fox. Stand aside."
"Unless I hear it out o' her mouth, I ain't movin' an inch." Creed replied.
"We are prepared to use force." the other soldier said stiffly.
"That'd be funny." Sabretooth said. "I'd like t' see that one."
"Get the girl." the sergeant ordered. When the guard hesitated, she said, "Both of you! Now."
The scientist and the guard inched forward uncertainly. Sabretooth smiled at them, a great toothy grin that did not exactly leave his intentions to the imagination.
The smile dripped off of his face when the sergeant shot the two of them from behind.
"What's this shit?" he demanded.
"Payback." the woman said, with a Russian accent that he hadn't heard before.
He squinted at her. "Do I know you?"
A paroxysm of fury seized her. "Do you know me? Do you know me? You bastard! You shot my mother for fun, back in 1968. You nearly killed me, more than once. I am Elena Ivanova, Flagwatch 9561 B, former agent of the Komitet Gosudarstevennoi Bezopastnosti. I am here to kill you."
"Right." he said in a bored tone. "Sergeivich's little girl. How's he doin'? Still whining and tryin' to kill himself?"
"No remorse!" she exclaimed. "You monster! Can you kill so casually? Do you enjoy it so much?"
Vendetta surged forward, hands outstretched toward Elena, but Creed brought her up short with the chain and jerked her back.
"Why not?" he said to Elena. "Why wouldn't I like what I do? It was my job. You Russkies were on one side, and we were on the other." He shrugged. "It was war."
"I was born," she said levelly, "on the very day you shot my mother. Did you know that? My nascent telepathic abilities came to me in the womb, and I felt my mother's pain as she was shot. I felt her agony as they cut her open on the delivery table, because there was no time to administer anaesthetic. I felt the rush of blackness when she died. I nearly died myself."
He shrugged. "Am I supposed t' care? She got in the way during a mission. She was an acceptable casualty. Collateral damage. Are you tryin' t' tell me that you never geeked anybody?"
"Do not compare me to you." she said, pointing her gun at his head. "I am nothing like you."
"Seems t' me that you joined the KGB. I was in the CIA at the time I plugged dear ol' Mom. If you're gonna try t' tell me there's a difference between the CIA and the KGB, I'll probably die laughin'."
She glared at him. "Shut up. Your prattle means nothing. I have taken this path because my country forced me into it."
"Oh, and I volunteered." Creed chuckled. "How fucking naive are you, Ivanova? Fact is, if you got the wrong genes, you're either an enemy o' the state or the property o' the state. You chose the same thing I did."
"I do not like killing." she spat.
"You're gonna like killin' me." he said.
"You're my enemy."
"Your mother was mine."
"She was a civilian!" Elena shrieked. "She was a helpless civilian woman, nine months pregnant, and you shot her in the chest. She was unarmed! She was no threat to you!"
"She chose t' marry a Flagwatch mutant." Creed said. "Flagwatch is always political. If she didn't know the risks, she was too stupid t' live anyway."
"Enough talk." Elena said. "You cannot be made to feel remorse. You have piled rationalization upon lie upon ideology until every murder you commit is right. You die."
She put her hands to her temples then, and unleashed a psychic bolt that would cause a series of fatal strokes in his brain. The effort made her drop to one knee.
He blinked. "That's your best shot, I take it."
"Die, damn you!" she screamed. "Die! Die!"
"You're better off usin' the gun." he said.
She pulled the trigger, not even aiming the gun, and a crimson blossom appeared on his stomach. She fired again and again until he collapsed. His body bucked with each bullet, until she ran out of bullets and she just stood there pulling the trigger.
Her entire being was focused on the bloody wreck of a body in front of her, and the hateful breaths that it was still drawing. She didn't even hear the metallic clicks and other small noises that a chain makes. She didn't see where Vendetta had gone, or even think about her, until the chain looped over her head from behind and pulled taut around her neck.
Silver Fox walked into her office and sat down at her desk. The two guards had entered behind her, and stood flanking the door.
She frowned. "You may go now."
"Where's Irene?" one of the guards asked.
"Where's Destiny, Silver Fox? What have you done with her?"
Silver Fox paled. "Mystique? That's you, isn't it?"
"Yes." Mystique said.
The other guard turned to train his gun on the woman, who was even now changing her shape, but he was too slow, far too slow. Mystique's laser rifle crackled, and a hole appeared in his forehead.
"Now, answer my question, woman. What have you done with Irene?"
"Mystique, Irene has been dead for a long time. She was killed on Muir Island."
"You killed her?" Mystique shrieked. "Not again!" She pulled the trigger on her rifle again, taking Fox through a lung and narrowly missing her heart. Fox dropped behind the desk, trying to fight her way through the lance of pain that twisted in her chest, and pulled a gun from her belt. Another shot wafted through the desk and bored a hole through her ankle.
Fox screamed involuntarily at the new source of pain, and vomited on the floor. "This isn't Muir Island, Mystique." she gasped through slick lips.
Mystique fired again, grazing the inside of Fox's leg. "You'll pay, David! God, how you'll pay!"
Silver Fox pulled the trigger, and the bullet cannoned through the desk, which was blasted into fragments, and tore a hole through Mystique's chest. She struck the wall with terrible force, and slid slowly down it.
There was a hole the size of a dinner plate in Mystique's chest, destroying most of her torso and leaving only strips of skin on each side. Blood fountained out of the gap.
"Change shape, Raven." Fox whispered. "You can do it. Change shape."
She gritted her teeth, and willed the great wound in Mystique's body to close, but it obstinately remained. She started to drag herself over to where her old friend lay, but fainted halfway there.
A twisted oak sapling, growing unregarded in a pot in the corner, seemed to watch the proceedings with a wide, toothy grin. It began to vomit, spewing a large volume of clear, gelatinous fluid onto the hard tile of the floor. It continued to spew this mess upon the floor, even when it had disgorged more liquid that it could possibly have contained. When it was finished, the gel seemed to bubble, to gather itself, and then it became a Skrull.
The alien smiled at the scene, and walked over to Silver Fox's unconscious body.
"Well done." hissed the plant, which began to swell in size. "Collect Sabretooth. Wait for Wolverine and Maverick, and bring them to me, also."
The Skrull did not reply, but she did bend down to touch Silver Fox. She grimaced in pain, and shifted in appearance until she exactly resembled the sleeping Blackfoot. Then she took her clothes, dragged Silver Fox over to the tree, and dumped her into its maw.
The tree's branches writhed. Its roots had smashed through the brittle tile and concrete, and now drew sustenance from the gravelly soil beneath. "Go." it said.
She quickly dressed, and ran down the hallway as quickly as she could toward the lab.
"No mistakin' it, Rico. She went into the building." Logan said.
"Shit. I guess that's it. We have to go inside."
Logan smiled and shook his head. "You're really gone on this girl."
"Get stuffed." Maverick said. "She's taking care of me."
"How do we play this?"
Logan shrugged. "Nick ain't about t' risk lives storming this place, so I guess I'll just have to call Fox and warn her about it."
Maverick's brow furrowed. "Do you think she'll help?"
"She'd better damn well." Logan said, as he walked over to the phone booth.
"How'd the X-Men take to your message?" Maverick asked.
"They weren't in love with it." Logan replied. "Hello? Fox?"
"Yes?" Fox's voice said on the other end of the line, sounding harried.
"What's the trouble?"
"Mystique just tried to kill me." she said.
"What? Are you serious?"
"She thought I was trying to kill Destiny, Logan. I think something strange is going on here. I'm going to get Creed. Mystique's in pretty bad shape, and I think a transfusion might save her."
"Fuck. Mystique was travellin' around with this telepath, name of Elena Ivanova. Little Russian chippie. Skinny as a rail, blonde hair, early thirties. Telepath. That'd explain the incident. If you see her, don't hurt her. Just hold onto her."
"Any way we can get inside? My healin' factor's better than Creed's."
"Just come in through the front. I'll tell the guards to let you through."
"Done." he said, and hung up the phone. "We're in, Rico. Let's go."
Maverick raised his eyebrows. "They're just gonna let us waltz right in?"
"That's what she said." Logan replied. "Keep your gun handy."
Maverick checked his ammunition, reloaded all of the weapons that he could, and then the two of them walked toward the installation. Logan knocked on the door.
"Silver Fox asked us in." he said.
"Right. We heard about you." the guard said. He opened the door. "Come on in."
"This is where we get screwed." Maverick whispered.
"Yep." Logan replied in sotto. "This smells wrong. Let's get back. Put the hermit back in his shell. Left."
Maverick gave the guard a winning smile, and dropped a grenade at his own feet. The guard went pale and slammed the door. As one, the two men from Weapon X cut left and ran. The grenade detonated seconds behind them, spreading a hot pink cloud across the road.
"Smoke?" Logan asked.
"Paint." Maverick replied smugly, then sighed. "So, you think Fox was the one who set that up?"
"Let's cut t' the air strip. To answer your question, yeah. I do."
"So do I." North said sadly. "Why would she do that to us? Has she gone soft in the head again?"
"Beats me, Rico." Logan replied. "She's been playin' games on me an' havin' things her way since I picked her up at the cabin. Frankly, I'm mighty tired of it."
"Do you think Elena's still alive?" he asked.
Logan sighed. "No, Rico. I can't say that I do. But she might be."
Maverick shook his head. "If she is, then the two of us can't get in there on our own. We need serious back-up. At the very least, we need the old Wraith-man, and I think Cyber took him."
"Then let's go to the source of our Skrull problem." Logan said. "Ororo started actin' weird on that trip, so I'm gonna assume that she was taken by Skrulls before we set out, not after my little scuffle with Cable."
"Meaning she got taken when she went to Worthington's apartment."
"Yeah." Logan said. "Left here, I think. Anyway, I was wonderin' where Mystique got that mutant power-nullifying gun that she had during the Kelly thing."
"So, Creed and I tumbled to the fact that Worthington Labs was secretly developin' that gun, engineering it from a description that he got from Forge one night. Forge designed the damned thing in the first place."
"Right. So, you thought that... Mystique might have stolen it... from the lab?"
"Yeah, pretty much. The only thing I can't figure is why Rogue was askin' all the questions that night. I still haven't tracked her down, and if Mystique's dead, then I'd hate t' think that she's in some dark hole somewhere." Wolverine said grimly.
"Let's... stop for a minute." Maverick gasped.
"All right, Rico. They'll be a minute or two comin' after us." Logan said.
"So... you think Worthington's... collaborating with Skrulls?"
"Nah. I think he is one." Wolverine said. "They got this 'deep bonding' process they can do, like they pulled on me, that makes 'em pretty much impossible t' detect. Makes 'em think like a person, too. It's painful, though, an' it cuts down on their shapeshifting abilities. Maybe permanently; I don't rightly know. It ain't somethin' a Skrull would volunteer for durin' the normal course of a day."
"But getting their hands... on a mutant nullifying gun... that would be a significant tactical advantage."
"That's true." Logan said. "Not much use outside of Earth, though. As I understand it, they're usually lookin' for some leverage against the Shi'ar. Or the Kree."
"Point." Maverick acknowledged. "Okay. We know the Skrulls are in this. We know that Cyber's in this. We know that Cyber's got a new boss. You think he's working for Skrulls?"
"Maybe." Logan said. "I doubt it, though. He wouldn't work for an alien, and with his psychic trackin' abilities, he might know the difference. Maybe they're both workin' for the same party."
"Would Skrulls work for a human?"
Wolverine shrugged. "They worked for Apocalypse before. Let's get this goin' again."
"All right." North said, and they began to lope again toward the air strip. "Any chance it's Apocalypse?"
"Don't think so." Logan said. "We geeked him pretty good, last time out. I think he's a goner."
"Shit. Well, maybe it's one of the old bad actors. I could name a hundred people who've got it in for you, me, and the Wraith-man."
Their feet hit tarmac, and the two men turned up the speed, heading for a Cessna on the strip.
"Leather." Maverick gasped.
"Cloth." Wolverine returned.
They came up on the Cessna, and looked inside. "Leather seats it is." Logan said.
They fired up the plane, to the consternation of several men inside the hangar, who came storming out of the building, waving their arms. They took off anyway.
"I hope they were just pissed off that we're stealing their plane, and not trying to warn us that we're flying on fumes." North remarked.
"Tank looks good."
"To New York."
"New York it is, James." Logan said.
Cable awoke in an uncomfortable position, crammed into a hot, dark space with a bunch of other bodies. He was being restrained with some taffy- like substance, and he could feel the tell-tale pressure of psi-baffles on his temples. No telepathy would be possible.
Fortunately, psi-baffles didn't do much good against telekinesis. He was loath to use it in most situations, but this was a special case.
Trying to cut the stuff, he discovered, did no good. It was a hard fluid, like glass, but with all the give of saltwater taffy and the strength of steel. Making a cut just encouraged the stuff to flow together.
Pushing at it, he discovered, was also difficult. It would just stretch in that one spot, and tighten in others. So, he decided to push at it from all directions at once.
It took a great deal of concentration and fine control, but it was really much like creating a force field that would radiate out from his body. There was resistance, but the restraints stretched... and carefully, ever so carefully, he clamped on the substance from the outside as well as the inside. Then, he was free to scrabble out of a hole, climbing over bodies to do so. Once he was clear of the restraints, he relaxed, and they contracted into a tight ball with a snapping noise. He took off the baffles and slipped them into a pocket. No telling when they'd be useful.
"Who's in here?" he asked quietly.
There was a muffled noise, as of someone trying to make speak through a gag. Cable inched in that direction, and found the source of the noise. "Are you restrained?" he asked.
"Mmm-hmmm." the lump said.
"All right. Are you an X-Man?"
"Mmm-hmmm." the lump insisted.
"Great." Cable said. "I'll get you out as quickly as I can manage. The first thing I've got to do is find... there. A bare patch of skin, and I can... try... to work a field between you... and the restraints!"
"Jesus Christ, Cable, am I glad to hear your voice." Warren Worthington said.
"Warren? How long have you been in here? Where are we?"
"We're in my own sauna." Warren said bitterly. "There are a bunch of us in here-- you, me, Storm, some black man I don't know, and some native woman I don't know, and Forge. Some Skrull has been masquerading as me for days now."
"And now, there are probably copies of the rest of us." Cable said grimly.
"There's one of Storm, at least. Some Skrull named Paibok took her place."
"Paibok... the Power Skrull?! He's a big player! He used to tangle with the Fantastic Four. It was he that put me in here, then." Cable said. "If Paibok is here, then this has got to be sanctioned all the way to the top."
"I think it's a sting." Warren muttered. "They're trying to use the X-Men to get at that mutant Skrull movement, Cadre K."
"That makes a lot of sense." Cable said. "But why those other two people, then?"
"Who knows?" Warren said. "Can you get me right out of these things? I haven't been able to feel my wings for a long time."
"All right, Warren. Here." he concentrated, and pushed the restraints away from Warren's body, then clamped down on it from all sides. "Climb out the side, if you can. Try not to touch it."
"I'll try, but my wings are dead weight." Warren replied. He did, however, successfully navigate the gap, and Cable released the cuffs with a sigh of relief.
"Storm." Cable whispered. "Can you hear me? Make a noise if you can."
"I think they've been drugged, or something." Angel said.
"Why? Why them, and not us?"
"Beats me." Warren said. "Maybe they're considered important, and we're considered incidental."
"Well", Cable said, "they're going to learn otherwise in a hurry. I think I'll risk a small telepathic probe."
He concentrated, sent out the probe, and had the presence of mind to instantly retreat.
"This whole room is awash with telepathy." Cable whispered. "Someone very powerful, or a meld of some kind, has got a crushing hold on all of their minds. I was lucky not to be noticed."
"Shit." Warren said softly.
"I've met a Skrull telepath." Nate said. "She was nowhere near this powerful. They haven't had the opportunity yet to train, and grow strong. This has got to be something else. It's relentless, though. We're going to have to be careful, Warren."
"This is it?" Maverick asked.
"This is it." Wolverine replied. "Warren's apartment. They'll probably figure that we're waitin' on gettin' into the Hydra facility. If they thought that we were gonna hit them anywhere, they'd probably think o' that lab o' Worthington's, rather than his apartment."
"What's our approach? You know the layout and the enemy."
"I've been here once." Logan said. "I think it's gonna have t' be insertion. I'll be point, an' you pick up the slack. No coverage, no command element, no extraction. Hard point insertion."
Maverick swallowed. "That's not my favourite kind of profile. There's the chance of hostages, too. With Skrulls, we won't be sure if they're hostiles or not until they hit us."
Wolverine grunted. "We can't afford to let 'em, either. So, shoot t' kill on anything green, and anyone else, just hit 'em where they won't die or bleed out too quick. We can make our apologies later. If the shot don't seem t' slow 'em down, you can probably bet that it's a Skrull you're shootin' at."
"Don't fuck up." Logan said. "Better we get taken than you kill a friendly."
"How about we open with a concussion grenade?" Maverick said. "It's more likely to drop friendlies than hostiles, so you can paint anything still standing as a hostile."
"Within reason." Logan said. "You see Colossus in there, don't figure him for a Skrull just because a little grenade don't bother him much. But that's a good idea. We'll go with it."
"Think this is their main base?" North asked. "That doesn't seem too likely."
"I don't think so either." Wolverine replied. "It's definitely a node of their operation, though, so if we can capture the local command element, we can squeeze 'em until they tell us what we wanna know."
"If the commander is easy to identify, then, we try to take him rather than kill him. Check."
"I take it you want the door."
"I can't climb the way I used to." Maverick said apologetically.
"All right. You get the door. Keep it quiet."
"Teach your grandma to suck eggs, Wolverine. Good luck."
It was Logan's birthday today! Silver Fox was sure that he'd forgotten all about it when they woke up this morning. He'd kissed her, and then gone off into town for supplies, the same way he always did, every fourth Friday.
She hummed happily to herself. She'd been socking away flour and sugar in small quantities for a month, and now she had enough to make him a cake. Hadn't he been surprised when she'd only brought in three eggs from the coop this morning!
The icing wasn't proving to be easy. In a frontier town like Grand Prairie, confectioner's sugar was impossible to come by, and since Logan made most of the supply trips, she would have had a hard time getting a hold of it anyway. She'd had a few ideas, though. The cake was going to be perfect!
Fox heard heavy, leather soled boots scratching their way through the gravel and chicken feed in the yard, as she did every morning. She held her breath. Logan's Pa wasn't a very friendly sort. He'd been opposed to their relationship since day one, and now that they'd run off together, he'd followed them up to the north just to be spiteful. Every morning he crossed their yard, to remind her that he was always close.
This morning, unlike those other mornings, he walked right up to the door, and pushed it open! Her heart sank. He'd never been this bold before, and she hated to have him around when Logan wasn't close by.
"What's that you're makin'?" he asked.
She turned around to face him, hands on hips. Show no weakness. "It's cake. For Logan. It's his birthday." she said. "What are you doing in here anyway, Mr. Creed? Get out of my house."
"Now, is that any way to talk to a neighbour?" he asked with a broad, friendly smile. "I just came by t' say hello, an' ask if you needed anythin' from town, as I'm headed there for a drink in a few."
"No, thank you." she said. What was this? He'd never tried the friendly approach before. Was he just in a good mood? Had he decided to forgive them?
He licked his lips. "Ain't you gonna offer me somethin', seein' as I'm a guest in your house? How about a slice o' that cake?"
Now, this was more like the man she knew. "It's for Logan." she said firmly. "Thank you for visiting, but I'm very busy this morning, and I work better in the absence of visitors." She turned her back on him, a calculated insult that she hoped would drive him from her house.
He walked up quietly behind her and put his arms around her waist. "You don't want t' give up the cake, squaw, I understand. How 'bout you offer me some o' your hospitality?"
Her heart leapt into her throat. She had never expect him to try something like this. "No! You bastard! Let go of me, damn it! I'd sooner lie down with a pig in rut than you!"
"What?" he shouted, blood rushing to his face.
"Let go of me, or Logan's gonna kill you when he gets home!" she screamed into his face, hitting him, trying to drive him off with the sound of her voice, anything. He was sweating like a pig, and he smelled like rancid bear grease, and his smile... oh god...
He clamped his thick arm around her, pinning her arms and coating her skin, where they touched, in slime. His other hand scrabbled over her body like an obscene spider, tearing off her clothes... touching her... "You want this." he muttered into her ear. "You want this, you whore."
She kicked and punched and bit, trying to drive him off of her by any means necessary, but he was far too strong. He held her arms together in his own great hand, and pulled off his belt. "I'm gonna teach you somethin' new today, squaw." he said.
She managed to wriggle one hand out of his grip, and punched him in the mouth as hard as she could. He roared in pain, and spat a tooth out into his hand. He threw it, and it rattled across the floor.
"Bitch!" he yelled, and struck her with his belt. "I'm gonna take what's mine, an' then I'm gonna learn you some respect."
"Noooo!" she screamed.
"Lie down real nice and quiet, and take it the way you deserve, Thérèse." Creed said with a gap-toothed sneer.
She was lying on a table, naked for the world to see. Thick leather straps pinioned her hands and feet and neck in place, and she railed against them, no matter how much they chafed. They wouldn't budge. They wouldn't budge!
A light, sterile and white and too bright, appeared over her head, bathing her in a harsh glow. Silver Fox strained anew at the straps.
"This is going to be a lot more difficult for both of us, if you keep thrashing around." said a man's voice.
"What? No. Let me go!" she cried. "What did I ever do to you? What have I done wrong? I didn't mean it! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! Please!"
"You haven't done anything to me." the man said, moving into view. He towered over her, with broad, if slumping, shoulders. His body was probably once powerful, but was running to fat now, and he was losing his hair. It was still dark, though. He had a floorbrush mustache, and spectacles, and a doctor's spotlight on his brow. He wore a white smock.
"Doctor Killbrew! Oh, for the love of God, let me go. Please. I'll do anything, anything you want!" she shrieked hysterically.
"Your inborn recuperative abilities won't be enough to keep you from aging indefinitely." Killbrew said. "I've pioneered a process that will help slow things down even further, using a derivative from Weapon X's healing factor, which is much more powerful than yours."
"Let me go." she sobbed. "Let me go. Let me go."
"This is necessary, and to your benefit." Killbrew said sternly. "You are the second subject to receive this treatment, and I've made a few... refinements in the process since I administered it to him. You'll keep that beautiful face forever. Won't that be nice?"
He pulled out a scalpel and dunked it in alcohol. "Sanitation." he said deprecatingly.
"No anaesthetic?" she shrilled. "Give me anaesthetic! Please..."
"Pain responses are too valuable as a diagnostic tool to toss them away for your comfort." he said. "Do you want this treatment to be successful or not? It's very delicate."
Her sobs became inarticulate with terror.
"Speaking of which, wheel over that sulfuric acid bath." Killbrew said. "We'll spray that into her abdomen. God forbid she get a septic infection like that last one."
An assistant wheeled over a device that looked like some kind of crop sprinkler system. Fox could smell the acrid tang of a powerful acid.
Killbrew leaned over her torso with the scalpel, which gleamed in the harsh light. "Now." he said. "Hold still..."
Silver Fox's head snapped backward, and she fell onto the hard wooden floor. Her neck and jaw muscles throbbed with pain.
"Get up." a woman's voice said.
"Shin?" Fox asked in disbelief. "Is that you?"
"Of course." the petite woman said. "It has been a very long time, little fox."
"Yes, sifu, it has. I'm so glad to see you! The memories..."
"You have begun to stray from the path that I've taught you." Shin interrupted. "I have many enemies, and when you agreed to study with me, you agreed to take them on as your own. If you don't maintain your strength, how can you succeed?"
"I'm strong." Fox protested.
"Once you were, a long time ago." Shin said. "Too long. Now, you have grown inward. You're like a hermit, inside yourself. People were not meant to be hermits, Silver Fox. Your dishonesty and secrecy have set you apart from others."
"I need to protect myself." the Blackfoot said.
"Instead, you have isolated yourself." Shin said, walking away from the center of the studio. "You are not strong enough to be an island. No one is." She knelt before a tiny, gnarled bonsai tree and brushed its leaves. The tree seemed to preen under her touch. "Lies will destroy you, Silver Fox." She stared at Fox with eyes that impaled. "I will give you the power to see into the hearts of other people, but they will also be able to see into yours."
"My feelings?" Fox whispered.
"Your feelings, and every word that you have ever said, every thing that you have ever done." Shin replied.
"No. Sifu, take it away. I don't want it."
"They will be able to see you for who you are, Thérèse. A weakling and a monster." her master said.
Sabretooth staggered down the hallway, bleeding out from half a dozen bullet wounds. Under one arm, he carried the inert body of a Russian woman who had come to kill him. Looped around the other was a chain, and a Scottish woman was leashed to it, who had sworn to kill Wolverine. Before him, he kicked a broken-down and bleeding corpse as if it were a recalcitrant dog, or maybe a soccer ball. It little resembled the woman that it had aped, not any more.
How long had the Skrull been masquerading as Fox? Not long, he judged. Probably only since it came down the hallway and interrupted the strangling death of Elena Ivanova, for which he was grateful. Apparently, though, his companion had sensed malicious intent from the rescuer, and turned her anger on the Skrull.
One day, he'd have to figure out how they aped smells so well.
Ivanova was Rico's girl; fair enough. He and Maverick had tangled more than a few times over the years, and the German was still too much of a handbook-loving boyscout for his own good, but he wasn't about to snuff a man's girl. Not if that man was a member of the Team, anyway.
Besides which, ever since the runt had popped a little bone pigsticker into his brain, telepathy was about as effective against him as a bucket of water. He'd laughed off the best efforts of stronger opponents than her. She was no threat.
It was easy enough to follow the trail that the Skrull had left coming down the hallway. Seemed like Fox had been ambushed somewhere, most likely her own office.
A fresh smell had come from the door that those two dead guards had been protecting. That was probably the quickest way to the outside, once he was done in here.
The trail dead-ended in an office, as he'd thought it might. The stench that assaulted his nostrils was nasty, but he'd smelled worse in his day. He strode inside, looking for clues to Silver Fox's appearance.
The first thing that caught his eye was a twisted parody of an oak tree, with a slavering mouth that bristled with sharp fangs. It chuckled at him.
"You!" Creed roared. "You son of a bitch! I'm gonna freakin' tear you apart!"
He dropped both of his burdens, and charged pell-mell at the tree.
Creed dimly perceived that he was under a psychic assault, but whatever his opponent had chosen to strike him with rolled off of him like water off of a duck's back.
"Impossible!" the tree shrieked as three hundred and fifty pounds of rage smashed into its trunk.
"Meat, d'you hear me, you sick fuck? Ground chuck!" the Canadian snarled as his claws rent a deep furrow in the bark of the oak.
Underneath the torn flesh of the tree, there was the dull glint of metal. Still it writhed under the assault, seeking to smash the mind of its tormentor with psychic bolts, painful memories, and implant triggers.
"Who ruined my work?" the tree cried. "Who did this?"
Creed disdained to answer, instead tearing off a thick branch. Cables and wires tore in his hands, breathing sparks onto the ravaged tile of the floor.
It tried to bat at him with its branches, but he ignored the best efforts of the thing, and thrust his hand into its maw, scratching at the roof of its mouth, headed for the brain. It chewed on his arm with its fangs, but the pain was nothing. He was going to kill the tree. The tree!
A hole appeared in Sabretooth's chest, piercing his great heart and dropping him to his knees. His arm dropped helplessly out of the tree's mouth.
"Now you die, Wolverine." Edina McLeish said triumphantly, brandishing a laser rifle. "For the murder of my father, you will finally pay."
Logan stared up the side of the building. It figured that Worthington's apartment would be on the top floor, didn't it? What a kick in the pants. In fact, he'd better get on climbing. In his condition, Maverick would probably take the elevator like a freaking civilian.
The claws didn't particularly want to bite into concrete, but if he applied enough force, they went right in. He started to scale the wall, leaving dusty holes in triplicate in his wake.
They had no way to coordinate their attack, but then, a tandem assault could serve as a second surprise, and draw the heat unevenly. Sometimes, that could carry the day. He just had to make sure that he got up there quick enough.
How could he not have seen that something was wrong when Storm had started making those insinuations on the plane? She'd been playing him off against Nate, trying to stir something up, and it had worked. Skrull agents were provocateurs, well trained in the art of finding weaknesses and driving wedges between friends. With all of the dust-ups and arguments that he and Cable had had over the years, that wasn't much of a challenge. He should have seen it.
Her hand on his arm... oh, that had burned him up! And then, when she cried out, "Do not hurt him, Cable!" Then, he had something to prove. And his machismo made him sloppy. Nate had beaten him because he didn't have anything to prove to Storm.
When did those little things start getting to him?
A lance of pain shot through his hand and up his arm, and it snapped him out of his reverie. His hand was impaled on a long wooden spike that stuck out of the smooth wall. Pain! He looked up, and the whole wall above him had sprouted the spikes. The spikes themselves were beginning to sprout spines of their own.
The field of spikes!
His helmet weighed heavily as he ran across the field, and the monitoring devices tugged on the wires that strung between helmet and waist. Had he outrun them? Where was the bear?
Hurt! Pain! The tree!
Bear roared behind. Spun he, and slice. Down falls head. No more bear. Dead bear. Dead! Pain dead pain hurt pain!
Men come, and with sticks. Pain from sticks. Bad smell. Kill men! Blood and screams, screams and blood.
Run! They chase me. Run!
The field of spikes! The tree! Hurt!
Woman. Bad man with gun! Kill!
Big sound. Hurt.
Spikes in his body. Lots of hurt.
The elevator door opened on the top floor, and Maverick removed a concussion grenade from his bandolier. This was it. Once again, the Team was going into a hard point insertion with not a hell of a lot of intel and no support from the brass.
He chuckled, and suppressed the resultant cough. Deja vu was murder.
There was no way to coordinate the assault, but sometimes a tandem attack was more advantageous in any case. It could often pull response teams out of position, especially in a small space like an apartment. He just had to make sure that he got in first.
North felt around in a pouch for his psi-baffles. One... shit. The other one had been crushed when he had fought Cyber. Without its twin, a lone psi-baffle was of limited use. He pressed his fingernail against the test pad of the remaining baffle, and the light came up green. Well, one was better than nothing. He attached it to his temple. Maybe it would ameliorate the effects of any psychic assaults he walked into.
Curare-filled hollow-point darts... AK-47... tonfa... Glock... check.
Throwing knives, check.
Big door-kicking boots, check.
He pulled the pin on the grenade, and kicked the door in two. He had hoped for one, but planned for two. He tossed the grenade inside, startling a group of people (or Skrulls) clustered around a window, and quickly pulled the door shut again.
He took two steps back, and dived at the door, flattened out, at shoulder height. Two gunblasts, maybe projectile, passed through the space under his body, and then he rolled across the narrow hallway and came to his feet amongst a neat line of shoes, behind a narrow lip of wall.
He pulled a magnesium flare from his bandolier and tossed it around the corner, trusting in his protected goggles to shield him from any residual light. It flashed almost instantly, and there were cries of pain. He spun out of concealment and blasted several dimly-outlined figures, centre of mass, with the AK. Hollow point rounds made for a messy target.
Maverick dove across the room while they were still disoriented and took a new position behind an overturned couch. One figure who was still on its feet got another burst from the AK-47.
A poisonous drill of psionic energy struck him from all directions, attempting to burrow into his mind with a painful series of images.
Major Barrington, accusatory and spiteful in his wheelchair.
His brother Andreas, who hadn't escaped Flagwatch, whom Maverick had been forced to kill.
Elena, torn apart by the bloody claws of Sabretooth.
His own face, ravaged and cystic and oozing pus from a terminal Legacy infection.
The drill struck again and again, painful... disorienting... humiliation this time, as Silver Fox explained to him that Wolverine was the only man for her.
Betrayal, his own bitter betrayal, as he hid his remission from his young Legacy-infected ward, Chris Bradley.
Inside Christophe Nord's mind, something snapped at long last.
The unmistakable chatter of automatic gunfire erupted somewhere inside the apartment, and it was audible even through the thick wooden door of the sauna.
"You hear that, Worthington?" Cable said excitedly.
"What am I, deaf? Of course I can hear it." Angel said. "There's a big gunfight in my living room. We've got to get out there to help!"
"Damn right." Cable said. "Hold on a second. The telepath holding our friends down has got to be pretty damned distracted at the moment. I'm going to risk slashing through the connection."
"You do that, and I'm going out there." Warren said. "There's a pistol in my bedroom, and I'm picking that up and doing what I can."
"Here. Take these." Nate reached into his pocket and pulled out the psi-baffles, depositing them into Warren's hand. "You can use these."
The sauna door slammed open, and a thick, heavily scarred man stood smiling in the entrance. "Sorry, boys. Time's up."
Nate sprung from a crouch at the gut of the big man, who folded a little and was pushed back on the point of Cable's shoulder. "Go!" Cable grunted.
Warren dashed out of the sauna and ran through the bathroom, keeping himself out of the hideously burned figure's long reach. Sometimes, a large bathroom was useful for more than just ostentation, he reflected.
As he ran, the Angel positioned the psi-baffles on his temples, shielding him from whatever hostile telepath or telepaths that held everyone in stasis.
In the living room, he could see a man in golden armour, maybe Maverick, pressing a hand against his head. Several Skrull corpses leaned and slumped in various postures against the wall and on the floor. That could not possibly be the extent of them. There had to be more.
He pushed open the door to the den, and came face-to-face with himself.
His doppelganger was carefully tending a small potted tree, which looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to it. Its tiny branches seemed to writhe in agony, and... was that a mouth on the damn thing?!
"I can't touch him!" the tree shrieked. "Protect me!"
"Yes, my lord." his double said. "You're going to regret climbing out of that sauna, Warren."
Angel couldn't take the smug look he saw on his own face. "I've got a few regrets, pal, but taking a piece out of you will not be one."
The Skrull-Angel leapt at him, gliding across the long room on silent wings. Warren ducked, and straightened his own aching wings from that position, driving upward with all the force he could muster. The imposter made a queer sound like he'd been punched in the stomach, and was too distracted by the contact to remember to tuck in his own wings. He crashed into the door.
Warren rolled across the room toward the chest of drawers, and yanked out the bottom one. He tore the taped-down pistol from the underside and aimed it at the Skrull-Angel who was just getting to his feet.
The pistol spat, three times, but the bullets riccocheted off of his double, leaving him unharmed. The fourth shot, aimed at a wing, knocked off a cluster of feathers, revealing gleaming metal underneath.
The wings writhed, snapped open, and the feathers seemed to shift, flow into each other, until they were just a colourless sphere of matter on the carpet, the true form of Skrull handcuffs. Underneath, glinting in the carefully modulated light of the apartment, were his metal wings, a reminder of his stint as the Horseman of Death.
Skrull-Archangel smiled wickedly at him. "Lord Apocalypse has been very generous to me, Warren. He's allowed me to make up for the mistakes that you have made."
"This tree... is Apocalypse?" Warren muttered, dumbfounded.
"Yes." the Skrull said.
"No." Maverick asserted at the entrance of the room. "He's not." And pulled the trigger of his pistol.
A weight eased from the mind of Silver Fox, and her eyes opened, just in time to catch a short kick to her much-abused ribs. At least, she thought, there was no bubbling sound. The hole through her lung had healed.
Overhead, a meaty fist smashed into the face of Cable, driving him backward into the sauna wall.
:concern-anger-fear-acceptance-respect: she felt from him.
:contempt-rage-fear-murder: she felt from the other man.
That individual, scarred and mostly naked, leapt over her to carry the fight to Cable. She kipped up onto a sore leg and took up a position behind the man.
Cable accepted her!
Her foot lashed out and struck the burnt man in the testicles, flattening them against his body. Cable followed through with a haymaker from his techno-organic arm, and the man staggered back toward her. She leaped upward with great force, coiling like a spring against the ceiling, and drove down with both heels on the man's upturned mouth.
He fell backward, and his teeth shattered like glass, but he still made a grab for her leg, which landed between his. She bent at the waist, planted a hand on the center of his chest, and executed a one-armed cartwheel out of danger. Cable, meanwhile, had jumped forward to follow up on the advantage and crushed the supine man's testicles against the floor, under his heavy boot.
The man cried out in rage, and sat up, catching Cable above the knees with his arms. He was far too quick and strong for his size. Fox smashed her heel into the base of his skull, causing him to grunt but not having much of an effect otherwise.
Cable, radiating pain, drove cupped palms against the sides of the man's head, shattering his ear drums with air pressure. Blood spurted between his fingers, and the burnt man roared. He fell backward, suddenly, and released Cable, catapulting the old warrior into Silver Fox. The two of them went down heavily.
:concern-respect: "Are you all right?" Cable asked her.
"Fine." she said, and rolled out from under him.
He took a heavy kick to the ribs. Their opponent recovered far too quickly! He should still be nearly helpless with pain.
"You can't beat Cyber the same way twice." the burnt man said. "Night, Cable."
Cable tucked and rolled against Cyber's legs. The big man hurdled the threat to his balance neatly, but took a deadly kick to the diaphragm from Silver Fox for his trouble. The two of them were working together as if they'd fought side-by-side for years.
The heart-seeing! It must be!
Cyber rolled to his feet, holding his stomach and wheezing, but Cable and Silver Fox were both on one side of him now. He blocked, parried, and dodged punches and kicks that the grizzled fighter threw with ease, even over the treacherous footing. He was on the defensive, but seemed to be biding his time while he recovered.
"Telepathy, Cable?" the commander of the Devil's Brigade laughed. "Are you attacking me with your mind? I eat better telepaths than you for breakfast, son. Don't waste the effort."
Cyber had his feet planted widely in order to keep his balance. Fox trusted that their rapport would inform Cable of her move in advance, and risked a skid between both of their legs that took her behind their opponent and restored their advantage.
The scarred man responded by pivoting toward her, still watching Cable, and striking her in the ribs with his elbow. She gasped at the pain, and although it was only a glancing blow, her ribs creaked alarmingly. She attempted to capitalize on his move by clutching his arm with both hands and scissoring his plant leg with her legs.
Her weight could hardly inconvenience him much, but Cable took full advantage of Cyber's lack of mobility by grabbing the man's other arm in his techno-organic hand and kicking him repeatedly in the ribs. There were several sharp cracks.
Cyber roared in pain, and raised his arm sharply, hoping to break her grip. Fox elected to unscissor her legs instead, and she allowed herself to be lifted with his arm. At the height of the movement, she pivoted her body and scissored her legs again, this time around his neck. Cyber whipped his arm around, trying to dislodge her, but his arm was suddenly frozen in place.
"Telepathy doesn't bother you?" Cable grunted, kicking Cyber in the sternum. "How does telekinesis grab you?"
An audible crack followed the kick, and Cable drove his shoulder into Cyber's broad chest. It collapsed in the same breath as his lungs did, and the big man began to topple.
Without the resistance, it was easy for Fox to snap his neck.
"Thanks." Cable said drily.
"How does it feel, Wolverine?" Vendetta taunted. "Do you think that this is how my father felt, in those last seconds? Helpless? You killed him with a heart attack. I think this is appropriate, don't you?"
Sabretooth coughed, convulsively. His healing factor had already been taxed to the limit by Elena's assault earlier, and it could not now handle a hole in his heart. Already, his vision swam before his eyes. He lay sprawled on the floor like a sack of meal.
"I... ain't Wolver..ine." he mumbled.
"She won't believe you, Sabretooth." the tree said spitefully.
"Not dead yet?" Edina asked. "Your healing factor will just about raise you from the grave. I've been reliably informed that the only way to kill you for good is to permanently separate your heart from your brain. That can be arranged."
A searing bolt of heat struck him in the back, and his legs went dead. He couldn't feel them anymore. The tree grinned at him; its toothy maw, all metallic, salivated for his flesh.
"Your adamantium skeleton keeps me from breaking your back," she said, "but a precise shot with a laser rifle can still sever your spinal cord. This is a taste of what my father felt, when your motorcycle crashed into his back and it snapped. How does it feel, Logan? Tell me."
She was feeding off of his hate. He was going to die because he hated Wolverine, and she was being duped into thinking that he was the runt. Oh, this was rich. There was a roaring in his ears, and he couldn't see anything distinctly. Not even the tree.
It had been a good day. The fog of rage had been lifted off of his mind, and he could see straight for the first time in a lot of years. This hurt a bit, but he could pick worse ways to go out.
"Are you listening to me?" she shouted.
He knew that his hate of Wolverine had been carefully manufactured by the heads of the program, and nurtured over the years by recitation of events that never happened in the first place. Logan wasn't his son. He'd never been betrayed. His whole life had been wasted.
Hell, he hated the runt anyway. No reason to go out like some kind of pansy, full of regrets. Live large, make your mistakes, and die without regrets, his Pa had said once. That way, you can smile at the Devil while he's roasting your balls.
Creed's lips tugged into a smile. At least that son of a bitch was dead. That thought always made him feel better.
"Look at me when I'm talking to you, damn you!"
He coughed blood, and chuckled painfully. "I thought... you said you didn't need... poetry."
"What?" she demanded.
"This is readin' like some... third rate romance... novel. Heroine meets cackling villain." he said. "You're buildin' a memory. I ain't... gonna play. Kill me already."
"Oblige him, child." the tree said.
Edina nodded dumbly, and moved forward to turn him onto his back, but she never made it. Three bone claws burst from her chest. She tried to twist, but her strength was gone.
"Father and daughter, both." she whispered. "What a harvest, Wolverine."
"The name is Mystique." her killer mumbled in Wolverine's voice. "But I doubt you can hear me."
The two women fell, as one, to the floor.
"Where'd you come from, frail?" Sabretooth asked.
"Silver Fox left me for dead, I guess. I was lying there, in the corner." Mystique replied, lying as still as Creed. "I'm still pretty torn up. Can't fix it all."
"I'm gonna be back the way I was." he mumbled. "You took my peace away from me again, woman."
"Let that be a lesson to you." Raven coughed. "Why's the tree so damn quiet all of a sudden?"
The Creature, the Beast, became again a man.
Wolverine shuddered. It was a miracle that he'd clung to the side of the building. A fall from this height wouldn't kill a man with an adamantium skeleton and a healing factor, but it would mess him up pretty good.
For whatever reason, the attention of his attacker had been diluted, or forced elsewhere. Now, there was no doubt at all in his mind as to the identity of the enemy.
He looked up. The spines were gone, as if they'd never been there. Which they hadn't been. It was a short distance to the balcony.
Hand over hand he went, until his claws struck the underside of the balcony. He carved a circular hole in the bottom of the structure, and climbed through as the wood fell away.
The glass doors were gone, and there were Skrull dead everywhere. Apparently, Maverick hadn't needed him to mop them up. But if they'd had support, he couldn't have won. There must have been another factor that was distracting their boss. Or maybe, he figured that their alliance was more trouble than anything else and decided not to help. Whatever.
"Logan?" a croaking voice said.
"Ororo?" he said. "'Ro!" he pushed a charred Chesterfield off of her legs. "What happened?"
"Maverick came in here, all guns blazing." she said. "I was paralyzed by an explosion, and it toppled this couch against me."
"Are you OK?" he asked.
"I will be fine, in time." she said. "Please, help me up. We must get away from here."
"What?" he demanded.
"The creature has driven Maverick mad. He will kill us. Please!"
Logan nodded. "All right." he said, and sheathed his claws in her chest.
"Pretty transparent, pal. Fool me once, shame on you." Logan said, as he left Paibok, the Power Skrull and personal assassin of the Emperor, bleeding his last on the floor. "Storm has more moxie than that."
The living room and kitchen were a mess. Logan entered the hall, saw Silver Fox standing in the doorway of the bathroom, and his eyes narrowed.
The sound of gunfire erupted in the master bedroom.
Logan's gaze hit Silver Fox with palpable force. He could see into her heart. He could see her secret shame. Shin had said that she would allow others to see into Fox's secret heart, to see everything she'd ever said, everything she'd ever done.
Oh, she had betrayed him in the worst way imaginable. The glow she'd felt from Cable's trust in her faded like a summer frost. She wasn't likeable, after all. Logan didn't love her anymore.
The sound of a shot issued from the master bedroom.
The bullet erupted from the muzzle of his gun, travelling at a velocity of something over the speed of sound. If Wraith were here, he could probably quote the exact figure, as well as six other irrelevant facts about the gun, like the designer's wife's birthday.
It crossed over a scant ten feet of space and smashed into a metallic collar, just as he'd known it would, right at the seam. It split, and ever-so-slowly began to slide off of Rogue's neck.
- shoot at the tree, bullet riccochets harmlessly, Maverick is pelted by another psychic barrage - reach for the AK-47, tree sends a four-alarm blast that melts his mind - reach for a white phosphorous grenade, tree assaults his mind before he can pull the pin - reach for the EMP grenade, tree assaults his mind before he can pull the pin - pull the pin on the white phosphorous grenade while still on the bandolier, jump for tree, explosion kills him and damages the tree - pull the pin on the EMP grenade while still on the bandolier, force tree to take humanoid form -
That's the one.
North reached for the pin on the grenade and pulled it out. In the second of grace he had before it detonated, the collar struck the floor and Rogue stood there, stupified. The tree didn't have time to react, and the small sphere released a powerful electromagnetic pulse into the immediate area.
Rogue's slaying wings rippled, and Wolverine was forced back a step. The lights shut out, and then the wave washed over the tree.
Whether it was the Legacy virus screwing with his powers, or the single psi-baffle that he wore on his temple, the last psychic assault that the enemy had mounted against him had battered past the block that had been placed so long ago, and his precognitive powers had returned. Not at all what the enemy had intended, and now he was on the ropes.
Sparks shot from the innards of the toothy dendroform, the exposure of which was the result of damage from some unknown source. It didn't matter much. What mattered was the payoff.
The tree shrieked in agony, and swelled in size and shape until it was a man.
"Aldo Ferro." Logan said. "You son of a bitch, you have fucked around with our minds for the last god-damned time."
Il Topo Siciliano, the Vole, the Psi-borg, the crouching man stared up at Maverick and Wolverine with hate-filled eyes. "You can't kill me." he said. "You all belong to me."
"Not this time 'round, Ferro." Maverick said. "Your telepathy is screwed. You may be drawing from some internal power source, but there's too much interference for you to draw enough energy to attack with. And believe you me, this time, we're going to bury you for good."
"What happened the first time?" Wolverine said. "I was so sure I'd killed him."
"I-- think he's like Arnim Zola." Fox offered. "Remember when you thought you had him in Sicily? He turned into the tree, and that shrivelled up until it was nothing. He withdrew his consciousness from it."
"But you can't do that now, can you, Ferro?" Maverick said. "Not enough energy. You've got no place to go."
"I'm going to enjoy this." Silver Fox said, taking the AK-47 from North's belt and stalking forward.
"No, Fox!" Maverick cried. "Don't..."
With a savage grin, the Vole wrapped his powerful arms around her body and jumped through the window.
"You are going to die, Thérèse." Ferro said, an inch from her ear as they fell. "I am going to take you with me."
She emptied the clip from the AK-47 into his gut, and he released her, involuntarily, into the air.
"If I'm going to fall, it's not going to be with you." she snarled, seconds away from impact.
Ferro smashed into the concrete with terrible force.
"My hero." she breathed sardonically into John Wraith's ear.
"Ah, hell." he said. "It looked to me like you needed an extraction. That's what I'm here for."
"Thanks." she said. "I'm sorry for before."
"No prob, Fox. I understand that your mind was elsewhere at the time."
They stepped out of the empty sauna. "Someday, you're going to have to tell me how you do that." she said.
"Trade secret." Wraith grinned.
"You all right, Rogue?" Wolverine asked.
"Ah...Ah don't know." she confessed. She had returned to what had become her natural shape, a weird admixture of Skrull and human.
"I'll talk t' you when I get back up." he said. "I'm goin' down t' the street t' make sure Ferro's good an' dead."
"I'll come with you." Fox said.
"All right." Logan replied warily. "Shake a leg."
They walked toward the elevator in tense silence, and Fox pressed the button. The doors slid open.
"You hate me." she said, stepping inside before him.
"You just sayin' that 'cause you can tell I'm angry, or do you know what you did wrong?" Logan said.
"You hate me because I killed Mariko Yashida." she said.
"What?" he exploded, grabbing her by the arms and pinning her to the wall of the elevator. "Repeat that!"
"I killed Mariko." she said in a small voice. "I hired Reiko to kill her."
"Why! Why? Why would you do something like that?" he said in an anguished tone.
"I hated you, and I hated her for being with you." she said. "You belonged to me. I know I was wrong, and I don't blame you for hating me."
"I've spent twenty years hatin' Creed, mostly for the crime o' killin' you." he breathed, inches from her face, his own visage twisted in fury. "An' he didn't even do it. Now you tell me that you killed my Mariko? The woman I was going t' marry?"
"Yes." Fox sobbed. "You know I did."
"I didn't know until you told me," Logan said, "but I think I might kill you."
"You didn't know?" Fox whispered, stricken. "But, Shin said you could see all of my secrets. Couldn't you see my secrets?"
"You weren't even going to tell me?!" Logan roared.
"You goddamn jealous piece o' trash! You poisonous bitch!" The claws of his left hand, left and right, slammed into the metal of the elevator around her throat. "You'd kiss me after killin' her? You'd look in my eyes an' not flinch, or cry, or look away?"
Fox didn't say anything. She couldn't look at him. The elevator arrived at the lobby, and the doors opened, and they didn't move.
"You've been usin' me, playin' games on me, ever since you showed up again." Logan spat. "That would've been enough for me. But this..." He jammed his finger at the panel, holding the door open.
"I've only ever killed one woman I can remember," Wolverine said flatly, with hate in his eyes, "an' that was Mariko. I put my claws into her body t' put her out of her misery. Misery that you put her in."
"If I ever see you again, you die." Logan said. "If I ever hear from you again, you die. As far as I'm concerned, you're as low as Creed, or maybe lower. He didn't pretend t' be my friend."
"It wasn't Shin at all." Fox murmured. "It was Ferro. He did this."
Logan walked out of the elevator, and headed for the street.
"He did this." she said, and began again to cry.
Storm walked into the master bedroom wearing a large men's shirt. "I found this in your guest bedroom, Warren. I trust that this is not too much of an imposition."
"Keep it." Warren said.
"It was the night of the election," Rogue was saying, "and Ah climbed into an old oak tree to wait for Cable's signal. And Ah heard a click, and felt somethin' close around my neck."
"The collar." Forge confirmed. "Ferro must have been watching you for days. He put the collar around your neck to amplify and focus his telepathy. You're a difficult one to mess with telepathically, otherwise."
"Ah just kept changin' shapes, like Ah have been over the last couple of days, an' then Ah guess he found one that suited him. Warren's body, from when he was Archangel, or the Horseman of Death."
"And Apocalypse's touch took over your mind." Warren said. "I always felt darker, angrier, when I had those wings. At times, I thought that they were imbued with his mind. They seemed to be out of my control."
"Whatever happened, Ah knew who Ah was, but Ah just wanted to serve ol' Poccy and bring on the next genetic war."
Storm nodded. "Ferro masqueraded as Apocalypse, then?"
"Yeah. Ah knew how t' get a hold of the Skrulls from the Skrull mem'ries in my head, and Ah asked 'em if they wanted to start up their deal with Apocalypse again. They wanted to go after Cadre K, so they agreed."
"I figured as much." Warren said gently. "I feel for you, Rogue. I really wouldn't wish my mindset back then on anybody."
"Ah am truly sorry, everybody. Especially, for you and Ororo."
"Ferro was in control of your mind." Storm shrugged. "I consider the matter to be closed."
"So do I." Warren said.
"Does anyone else think that Wolverine and Silver Fox have been gone a long time?" Cable asked.
"Not really." Warren said.
"Maybe a little." Maverick put in.
"I'm going downstairs." Cable grunted. "She's the reason why I came along on this ride in the first place."
"Hydra's got to be in disarray right now, what with Fox missing. Care to help me get in and look for Elena?"
"Right behind you, old man." Wraith said. "Night, all."
Sabretooth and Mystique staggered down the hallway of Hydra HQ. Its corridors were nearly deserted which, as Creed pointed out, was all to the good, seeing as they couldn't fight off Power Pack at the moment.
"Where are we going?" Raven asked.
"Noticed a bolthole on my way to the office." Creed said, leaning heavily against the wall. "Not too far away now."
"My favourite kind." she joked.
"Why wouldn't you let me kill that little Russian tramp?" Raven asked.
"Drop it, Raven."
"I mean it."
"I said, drop it. Half o' me is still too much man for all o' you to handle."
"I remember it the other way around." she said. "You're lucky I'm half-dead."
"That's just the kind o' luck I get." he groused. "The half-way kind."
They came to the bolthole. The guards still looked dead. Creed pushed it open with a mighty surge of effort.
"This is it." he said.
"Yes. I can finally get away from you."
He stared at her a moment. "Coffee?"
"How 'bout I snuff the guy, instead?"
She smiled slightly. "Now you're talking, handsome."