****************** Title: Like A Fox Author: John Duffin (firstname.lastname@example.org) URL: http://liesl.sharecom.ca/poet/ Rating: ? Summary: A spectre from Wolverine's past rises up to threaten Storm. Disclaimer: The X-Men are the creative property of Marvel. I'm filching them for a few minutes, and plan to return them in much the same condition as I got them. No challenge of copyright is intended or implied, and this work is not for profit. ******************
"Call it by the numbers, gamma, chi."
"Open and received, Fox. Flight Chi reporting- Wolverine, Mastodon. One point five meters from target. Wolverine is applying the agent right now. Supplying coverage. Mastodon over."
"I got you, Fox. Flight Gamma reporting- Wildcat, Sabretooth. Ran into a bit o' entertainment on the way in. Still forty-six metres from target. Creed over."
"Get it in synch, soldier, or the agent will peel the fur off you in sheets. Fox over."
"Don't get yer panties in a knot, Fox. Five metres from target. Target is acquired. Wildcat is applying agent. Supplying coverage. Creed over."
"Flight Chi good to go."
"Flight Gamma good to go."
"Report, gamma, chi."
"Flight Gamma reporting- Wildcat, Sabretooth."
"Flight Chi reporting- Wolverine, Mastodon."
"Switch and synchronization reported complete. Activate agent. Come back."
"Agent orange activated. Proceeding. Mastodon over."
"Agent grey will not activate. Repeat, agent grey does not respond. Come back."
"Looks like we're in fubar country, kids. Flight Gamma, get the hell out of there."
"Don't need to tell me twice, Fox. Creed over."
"Fox, what the hell was that? Come back."
"C'mon, Fox, don't screw around. Give us the dope. Come back."
"Flight Gamma, this is Flight Chi. Wolverine is taking command of this operation. Come back."
"Acknowledged, Chi. Let's hear what the runt's got to say. Come back."
"Gamma, this is Wolverine. Fox must be compromised. Switch in five, old school pattern. Come back."
"We hear and obey. Creed out."
"This is Flight Chi reporting. Tender your status, Flight Gamma."
"Switch by two in five, old school pattern. [static]
Gamma, this is Chi. Report your status."
"Switch by three in five, old school pattern. [static]
Gamma, this is Chi. Tender your status."
"Gamma, Fox, this is Flight Chi. Now activating radio silence. We are implementing beta. Get out if you can. Mastodon over and out."
The wind howled, beating rain down on the pearl-diver's boat until even its thirsty deck could drink no more. The waves, forming stiff blue-grey peaks in the sea, were not tall. Nevertheless, each one slapped the hull broadside until the young man aboard feared that the seams would split.
He was slender, but firmly muscled, with a curl to his black hair that could remained discernable despite the fact that it was slicked to his head. Whenever he paused in his movements, he shivered slightly. He was wearing no shirt, as it had been tied to the rail. The waves had slashed it to rags and string.
The man was bent over the length of a burlier man, who blinked groggily against the stinging salt and the light slaps of his younger companion. There was something about the broad nose and flattened ears that suggested a blood kinship between the two.
<Uncle Nicholas!> the younger man shouted. <Please wake up! I don't know what direction home is in, and I can't handle the boat in this wind!>*
The older man shook his head a bit, blinked, and hauled his bulk off the deck.
<We're in a mess now, boy.> he said. <Get below and get the pump started. I'll steer her in, if I can get the outboard started.>
The boy gratefully nodded and went below. Nicholas looked up, and noted with relief that the boy had taken in the sails. That had been his last order before the boom had swung around and clouted him across the jaw.
He rubbed it ruefully. It had been stupid of him to venture out in a stormy sky. Greedy. He'd not make that mistake again.
Down below, he heard the pump start. Nicholas breathed a sigh of relief as he pulled the string on the outboard. It gurgled.
He swore sulphurously. One of the seals had shrunk, and now there was seawater mixed in with the gasoline. The storm anchor's chain was too old and rusty to hold. Bad luck would fetch them up on the rocks in these waters.
The boy wasn't coming back up. Just as well. He'd probably feel less frightened below. Come to think of it, so would he.
<Wait a minute> he said out loud. There was a jerry can below. If he and the boy could haul the outboard and drain the reservoir, and if the jerry can hadn't taken water, then they might be able to make a run for the nearest lee shore and ground her. He'd have to replace the engine, but it was a lousy, unreliable old beast anyway.
He scanned the sea to make sure that there were no rocks in sight, cursing the poor visibility, before going below.
<Boy! Where's the gasoline can?> he shouted.
<I had the same thought, Uncle Nicholas!> the young man replied. <I rescued it before it took on any water, I think. Why, is the engine out of gas?>
<Seal's blown. She's taken on some salt water. I'm thinking of draining her, and giving her a new load of gas. Maybe caulk the seal shut.>
Nicholas shrugged. <So is sitting out here.>
The young man nodded, and tried to fight down a wash of uneasiness that settled into his stomach. <Let's go above and get the outboard, then.>
A sudden stab of fear shafted into Nicholas' stomach, but he swallowed and nodded at the boy. They had to leave these waters.
The two of them went up to the deck, and started to work the outboard free of its housing. The wind shrieked, and stinging salt water lashed their hands. Nicholas, leaning to the right to get leverage on a bolt, caught the boy's suddenly jerking elbow in his temple. He almost lost the wrench then, rescuing it at the cost of bloody knuckles.
Nicholas' fingers were soon numb as he frantically worked at the wrench, trying to remove the bolts that held the outboard in place. He could faintly hear his nephew's terrified sobs.
<Uncle!> the boy shrieked. <Give me the wrench! We have to get away from here!>
Nicholas fumbled the wrench under a growing tide of panic, incapacitated by it. The wrench tumbled out of his hands and sank beneath the waves. He stared at it stupidly.
With a furious access of strength, the boy shoved his uncle out of the way and grasped the outboard's tiller. His ears registered the splash as Nicholas hit the water, but his mind was absorbed entirely with the need to divert the boat from its course.
Nicholas, meanwhile, snapped from his reverie with the painful assault of salt water. He bobbed to the surface, attempting to ride the waves, and swam away from the boat at a slight angle, almost directly into the wind.
Without the power of the outboard, or the sails, however, the tiller had precious little effect on the boat's course. Sobbing in frustration and terror, the young man finally dove from the deck and swam in the same direction that his uncle had taken.
Unmanned, the boat ground out a few minutes later on a gravelly shore, grinding gently as it rocked back and forth with the waves. A short way upland from the shore, light filtered dimly from a window.
*<> translated from the Greek.
The wind continued to howl outdoors, as it had for the better part of two hours. The room was small and warm, fashioned as it was of cedar, with olive accents. A fire burned merrily in the fireplace, filling the room with its dry, spicy scent. The fury of the storm could be heard as it smashed rain into the double glazing, but the room's occupant was untouched by it.
He was seated in an overstuffed chair that had once been covered by a rich green velvet. It was well-suited to his titanic frame, though, which was why he never tired of it. He was only four inches shy of seven feet, easily weighing three hundred fifty pounds. Although the hair on his scalp had long since faded away, the fringe was still a virile black. An abrupt hook of a nose crouched over a neat black floorbrush mustache, which failed to conceal a broad mouth and thin lips. His chin was enormous and jutted angrily. Despite the fact that he was apparently in his middle forties, the musculature that could be made out underneath his open single-knit cardigan was hard and well-defined.
A flash of light from outside heralded a change in the man's pensive mood. He waited for the thunder's sound to pass before he spoke.
"Thérèse, present yourself." he said in a low bass grumble.
Through an archway came a young woman. She wore a thin white button-up blouse open over a stretch top and a brief skirt. Her long, flawless legs were covered in gooseflesh, as the room was cold despite the fire. She had raven-black hair, pulled into a long tight braid, and large hazel eyes. These last had assumed a blank expression that might lead the casual observer to believe that she was blind. A sharply inclined jaw underwrote a small mouth. Finely rounded cheekbones framed her narrow, straight nose, all covered by skin that was coppery in colour. Her long neck was bound by a narrow collar of steel, on which a single red light winked.
"What is your wish?" she asked in a dull tone.
"A drink, and then a dance." he replied.
Thérèse nodded neatly, and traced her steps across the room to a cabinet, from which she pulled a bottle of claret and a tumbler. She filled the tumbler half way, and brought it to the man's chair. He took it delicately from her hand, and sipped.
"Do you wish me to unbind my hair?" she asked.
He waved a hand dismissively. "Dance."
Thérèse moved before the fire and raised her hands above her head. She began to sway sinuously. As she stretched, a tiny rawhide pouch on a leather thong tugged up from under the blose.
The man laughed out loud. "Exquisite! If you keep pleasing me in this way, Thérèse, I may one day return your real name."
She smiled vaguely as she danced. "Thank you, Mr. Ferro."
Ferro leaned back in his chair with a gleam in his eye and a smile on his lips. He casually reached over to the coffee table beside the chair and picked up a keychain, from which there dangled six tabs. From five of the tabs hung short, blocky keys. Each key had a word carved onto it. Wildcat. Kestrel. Mastodon. Fox. Sabretooth. They made a tinny sound as he manipulated them with his blocky fingers.
"One day, Thérèse, I will have your lover, and I will take what I am owed from him." he said in an even, pleasant tone. "I suppose that until that day, I will have to satisfy myself with you."
"Thank you, Mr. Ferro."
He laughed out loud, a great bear laugh. "You would thank me if I removed one of your limbs, wouldn't you?"
"Yes." she replied.
"And I'm afraid that if I did that, I wouldn't be able to stop until you were nothing more than a pile of bloody rags. And then who would keep me company on this desolate rock, hmm?"
She paused in her dance. "I don't know, Mr. Ferro."
He heaved a sigh. "Taunting you is not very amusing. Maybe I should relax my hold on you a little."
"Thank you, Mr. Ferro."
Ferro growled deep in his throat. "Back to your room, girl."
Thérèse nodded neatly and left the room.
Ferro sat in silence for a while. The shadows cast by the fire were growing stronger than the light in the room. Clearly, the fire needed to be stoked. He thought about recalling his maid, but decided that he couldn't bear another moment of her company. He stood up himself and opened a small cupboard, in which a cord of seasoned wood was stacked. He selected a log and placed it carefully on the fire. A few judicious prods with a long metal rod that lay to hand had the flames dancing merrily again.
Lightning flashed again, striking the sea only a few miles away. Ferro could make out the thin column of steam in the light of the next discharge. He enjoyed the violence of storms, but prefered to watch them from the comfort of his home in Sicily. Now, he was hiding on a miserable rock in the Aegean. The shallow waters hereabouts discouraged naval traffic or major shipping, and the powers of his formidable mind frightened away the small fishing boats that might otherwise intrude.
Supplies were brought in by his old servants, but they were due to be replaced. They didn't have the contacts that he needed. He needed materials.
Perhaps it was time to make another foray into the outer world. The Department couldn't suspect that he was still alive.
The skies poured out another bolt of electricity.
Everything went white, and she felt a strange pressure on her skin. It was relieved a moment later by a wall of noise that struck her like a palpable thing, driving her from her feet and concentrating all the weight in the world on her eyes and ears.
Quickly, she shut her eyes, clapped her hands over her ears, and opened her mouth. The wall of sound rolled her against a nearby cot with bruising force, and then passed her by. She lay on the ground, shaking involuntarily for a few moments before climbing at last to her feet.
She was in a small, square room formed rudely of cedar. It greatly resembled the interior of a log cabin, in fact. She shook that thought free of her head. There was a small cot, covered only with a striped blanket with letters on it that faintly read "Hudson's Bay Company". The room was otherwise plain, not even boasting a window or a door. An archway was its sole entrance.
There seemed to be something wrong with her head. She shook it gently and blinked, but there was no improvement. Something to worry about later.
She pressed her back against the wall alongside the archway, and listened carefully to the sounds coming from the next room. She could hear static and sparks arcing around the room. Possibly a fire. Someone was groaning, but not moving. She risked a glance around the corner.
The next room was in terrible shape. A cedar facade flickered fitfully across sophisticated-looking banks of computers, which sparked and spat loudly onto the floor. A heavily insulated fireplace was cracked, and the flames danced through the gap to blacken the exposed metal of the walls. In the center of the room, an enormous man, balding, held his head in his hands and groaned. He, too, flickered. Underneath his bulging muscles and thick shoulders was gleaming metal.
His name came to her, suddenly. Aldo Ferro. Il Topo. The Vole.
She crept out on cat feet until she was standing right behind his head. His groans were getting louder. The flickering image of the muscular man stabilized, and he raised an enormous hand to his forehead. She took a deep breath, and drove her heel as hard as she could into the base of his skull.
He grunted in surprise and collapsed on the ground, but his image was still stable, and his groans didn't sound weaker. He sounded surprised and angry.
She took to her heels and rushed out into the storm, where the strong stench of ozone and burning metal was almost enough to make her retch. The rain still came down hard, and thunder boomed from all directions. A quick scan of her surroundings told her everything she needed to know: she was on a small island. There was no place to flee.
Although the seas were rough, she ran down to the beach, hoping to find some sort of transportation off of the rock, and she was not disappointed. There, not even tied, was a small fishing boat. She skipped nimbly down the rocks until she reached the gravelly beach, and leapt aboard.
She pulled the cord on the outboard. The sputtering noise it made robbed her of hope. The fuel had been polluted, and she didn't know how to sail.
The woman refused to give up, though, and cast her eyes about the deck for an alternative. They lit on a jerry can, which she carefully made her way over to. Lifting it showed that it was full. A smile lit her face.
She flopped over the stern and found the fuel line. Yanked it out. Smelly fluid came out in a thin stream. She waited impatiently until it was empty, and meanwhile poured the gasoline into the waiting tank. She took off the thin blouse and dunked it into the gasoline, and then wrapped it around the loose seal on the engine.
A quick glance up the beach showed her that the damage to the cabin's image was stabilizing itself. She didn't have much time.
The woman leaned down and reattached the fuel line, and pulled the cord gently out to prime it. Then, she yanked on the cord in earnest.
It caught, and the engine coughed and sputtered to life. It wasn't in good shape, but it would run for a little while.
She grabbed the tiller and steered her out onto the open sea.
The moon, just past its fullness, shone brightly down upon New York City. The sidewalks were still packed, even in such cold weather, but two women who were walking side-by-side were not dressed for the chill.
One was about five foot six, with pale skin and lustrous hair that was wavy and reddish-brown in colour, except for her bangs. These were snowy white. She has a tiny snub nose over a delicate chin, and laughing green eyes. She wore tight-fitting faux-denim knits that extended to mid-calf, and sneakers. An oversized forest green sweater hung lopsided over her tiny body, revealing the strap of a black tank top over one shoulder. She carried a large shopping bag in each hand.
The other woman was more than six feet tall in her boots, which were heeled, and of a supple black leather. A well-tailored mauve pantsuit over a thin eggshell cotton blouse completed her ensemble. Long white hair was pulled into a high pony-tail, revealing a slender column of neck, dusky-skinned. Exotic blue eyes were the most striking feature of her face, which was remarkable for its beauty in any case. She also carried a pair of bags.
"Girl, how are we ever goin' to recover from the guilt of spending so much money?" asked the first woman.
The other woman smiled indulgently. "When Remy sees you in some of that clothing, I suspect that your guilt will vanish like a summer frost."
"It'd better, Ororo. Ah'm not sure how soon Ah can afford to go shoppin' again. Who're you goin' to wear that little black number for?"
Ororo coughed. "I shall wear it for myself."
"Yes, Rogue, really." she replied with some asperity.
Rogue put her hand on her friend's shoulder. "Is it Kurt?" she asked playfully.
"What? No. Of course not."
"Is it Peter?"
Storm chuckled. "You are being ridiculous."
"Is it Warren? He is handsome." Rogue needled.
"He is also taken."
"Don't let that stop you, honey. Ah'll bet it's Bishop."
"It is not Bishop."
"Well, who is it, then?"
"There is no one."
"Then who are you trying to get?" Rogue replied impishly. "Is it Henry?"
"No. That is not..."
"Is it Logan? Ah always thought there was something goin' on between you two."
Ororo frowned, but before she could reply, a hand clamped down on her upper arm.
"Logan. Who is Logan? Why is that name familiar?" a bedraggled woman demanded.
"You got some nerve, interrupting like that." Rogue said. "But it looks like you could use some help. You got a place to sleep, honey?"
"Shut up." the woman snapped. "Do I know you?" she demanded of Ororo, still clutching her arm.
Storm's eyes narrowed. The woman was filthy, with layers of sweat shirts and jeans that were too large for her cinched up with tape, and a metal loop, possibly a necklace, hung from her waist. Her long black hair was straggly and wanted washing. Her accent sounded a bit familiar, but otherwise, Storm could not place the woman.
"I am afraid that I do not remember you." Ororo said. "What is your name?"
"Thérèse." she blurted automatically. "No. That's not my name. What is my name?"
Ororo shook her head sadly. "Would you like to be taken to the hospital? You are clearly not well."
"No!" the woman shrieked. "No doctors!"
"Ah think we just gotta leave her alone, sugah. She ain't gonna let us help her."
"No!" the woman shouted. She pulled on Storm's arm with one hand, and struck her behind the ear with stiffened fingers. Ororo crumpled to the pavement without a sound.
"Ah don't know who you are, honey, but you just made a big mistake." Rogue said grimly. She tossed off a stinging backhand at the woman, enough to stun, but it was blocked deftly. Thérèse responded with a kick to the hip, which made Rogue's leg twitch. The disheveled woman followed up with a hard punch to the ear that made Rogue's eyes water.
She shook it off. "You're stronger than you look, but you ain't the only one." She swung a punch, much harder than the last one, but the other woman ducked neatly and kicked her in the knee. There was a sharp crack as a bone in the woman's foot snapped.
"Skin tougher'n armour plate, too. You can't really hurt me, so you may as well give up." The punch she threw this time tagged the woman in the stomach, and she sprawled painfully against a nearby lamp post. "'Cause Ah can sure hurt you."
Thérèse pulled the circlet off of her belt as she rose slowly to her feet. "Not if you can't hit me." she said. She deftly avoided two punches by Rogue, and brought her head down sharply on the smaller woman's nose.
"That's it!" Rogue shouted. "You're gonna learn somethin'." She pulled off the sweater quickly and threw it onto Ororo. She smiled grimly at Thérèse, clad now in her knits and tank top, and made a challenging gesture.
The black-haired woman jumped forward, right into Rogue's waiting arms. The southern belle immediately gripped her around the ribs.
"Are you crazy?" Rogue asked, as she tightened her grip around the woman.
"No." Thérèse replied, and quickly snapped the collar around Rogue's neck.
"Oh, damn." Rogue breathed, as she felt the strength leech away from her limbs. She let go of Thérèse in order to reach for the metal band that now adorned her throat, but was punished with a breath-robbing punch to the abdomen, and a crushing blow to the back of the skull. She never felt the pavement hit.
Thérèse checked to make sure that the woman was really out, and retrieved the collar from her neck. She snapped it around the tall black woman's neck, and hoisted the woman over her shoulder. She paused only to pick gather up the four shopping bags in one hand before she limped down the street. No one dared to try anything.
"Logan." she breathed.
Ororo came slowly to her senses. The first thing she noticed was her throbbing head, which threatened to split. Next, that her body was lying on bruisingly hard concrete. A metal band on her neck was uncomfortably warm.
She opened her eyes, slowly, to find that she was on the floor of a machine shop. She could hear hissing gas, and the sound of running tap water. The woman who had accosted her on the street was washing the grime off of her face and arms in a nearby sink.
Storm gathered herself, and pulled her legs toward her as quietly as she could. She came up to her knees, and put her hands to the collar around her throat. She fumbled for the clasp, and nearly cried out when she touched red-hot metal with her fingers.
"Don't bother. I've welded the collar shut, and it's keeping you from using your powers. Whatever they are." The woman, who turned out to be a beautiful native american underneath the grime, toweled off her hair and turned to regard Storm.
"Why are you doing this, Thérèse?" Ororo asked in a loud, clear voice. She stood up slowly and carefully.
"That is not my name." she hissed.
"Very well. What shall I call you?" Storm returned.
"I shall call you Julia, then. Why are you doing this, Julia?"
The other woman's mouth tightened. "I'll ask the questions, if you don't mind. Who is Logan?"
"Logan is a friend of mine." Ororo replied, walking slowly toward the woman. "Do you know him?"
"I don't know." said Julia in a bewildered tone, staring at Storm. "I think so. What does he look like?"
"Well, he is short, and very muscular, with black wiry hair that covers him from head to toe. He wears thick sideburns almost down to his chin, and he often wears a beaten brown cowboy hat." She continued her approach.
"Swept-back hair and gentle eyes." Julia said. "A square jaw. A voice like a stream of gasoline running over a gravel creek bed."
"Yes." said Ororo. "He has all of those things. He has broad shoulders, a thick neck and waist. His feet are size eight. He always wears boots." She stood only a few feet away from her captor.
"Enormous arms. Especially his forearms." Julia said softly.
"What did you call him?"
"I always called him Logan. My father called him the Wolverine, because of the anger he had in him."
"He still uses that name. Wolverine."
"My father meant it as a warning. To me." Julia said, rapt. "Logan loved it."
Ororo nodded helpfully, and lashed out with her fist at Julia's jaw, but the shorter woman moved with negligent grace and almost supernatural speed to sweep it aside. The follow-up elbow was merely evaded. Julia replied with a straight shot at Ororo's throat, which was blocked in time, but Storm could not react quite quickly enough to the quick ankle hook that spilled her onto the hard floor.
She rolled backward again and again to evade Julia, who followed apace with an angry light in her eyes. The native woman was shouting. "Bitch! It's gone now, you miserable pig! I almost remembered!" she half sobbed.
Storm reversed her roll and barreled into the woman's legs. Julia turned her fall into a neat roll of her own, but that bought time for Ororo to come to her feet. Julia did the same, and the two faced each other.
Storm and Julia each traded a few probing punches and kicks, and went through the motions of defense, before it began again in earnest. A low kick shot through Storm's defenses and smashed her knee; she winced but kept on. A seemingly lucky shot between the eyes nearly sent her back to sleep. Then, finally, Julia struck low and left herself open.
Ororo grabbed Julia by the shoulders and brought her knee up to drive the air from her opponent's lungs, but her leg was blocked deftly on Julia's shin, and the grapple left her unable to block an uppercut that shot up between her arms to catch her underneath the chin. She was lifted off the ground by the force of the blow, and fell on her back and neck. Her scalp was screaming.
"I've seen that fighting style before." Julia said angrily. "It's mine. He taught you, didn't he?"
Ororo coughed. Spat blood.
"You can't take what's mine!" Julia shouted in a hysterical crescendo. She kicked her prone enemy across the jaw, and Ororo saw no more.
"We were supposed to go to the prom together. I remember that much."
Ororo, apparently, was conscious. Her body, if it was sore before, was now in real pain. Her ears and jaw ached, and her eyes felt as if they were swollen shut. She resisted the urge to lick her lips.
"Don't pretend to be asleep, you whore. I know better."
Storm was apparently bound to a straight-backed wooden chair. She wondered if she would be able to walk once she got free.
"I had a pretty strapless gown that my father made for me with his own hands. We were too poor to afford to buy one. It was beautiful anyway."
"I am certain that it was."
"Shut up." Julia spat.
"I don't know how he got the money for the tuxedo", she continued in a musing tone, " but he looked very dashing. He brought me flowers. Picked me up on the reservation on that motorcycle of his."
"Julia, was this your high school prom?" Ororo asked. She began to pick at the ropes.
"Yes. The two of us went to school together. Grew up together."
"What year was it?"
"It was... I don't remember."
"Spit out a year." Storm pressed, while slowly working away at her ropes.
For a moment, Ororo sat in shock.
"Is that wrong? Is that not right?" Julia asked anxiously.
Ororo swallowed with difficulty. "No. You are probably right. That may well be the year that he graduated."
"Something's wrong." Julia muttered. "That year is wrong. What year is it?"
"That does not matter now. What happened at your prom?"
"He left me. I went outside to look for him, and... I forget."
"Your memory cannot come all at once."
Julia snarled. "I don't need your false sympathy. I need Logan. If I see him, I'll remember more. Maybe everything."
"I can take you to him." Ororo said.
"Not in this lifetime, slut. I don't trust you. I heard what you were saying on the sidewalk." she spat. "You've tempted him into your bed. Well, I can get him back. When he sees me again, he'll forget all about you."
Storm set her jaw. "I have never been with him."
"Shut up. He'll come here. On my terms. On my ground."
"Goddess help you when he does." Ororo said under her breath. She already had her hands free. It was all a matter of waiting for the right time.
"What nation are you from?" Ororo asked some time later.
"What was that?"
"Siksika. Treaty Seven." Julia replied.
Storm smiled slightly. "You remember more than you think."
"I guess I do." Julia said suspiciously. "Ask me more questions."
"What colour was your prom dress?"
"Was your father an important man on the reservation?"
"He was the most respected old warrior we had. Even the chief deferred to him a lot of the time."
"It seems to be working."
"Don't stop, then." Julia said in frustration.
"First, do something for me." Ororo said, unwrapping her bonds until the rope was a weapon in her hands.
"Untie my feet. You've cut off my circulation."
Julia gave her captive a hard look. "I'll loosen them a bit, but that's it."
"Please." Ororo said.
Julia bent to loosen Storm's bonds a bit, carefully keeping to one side. "Ask me another question."
"Very well. What did your father call you when you were young?" Storm inquired, kneading the rope in her hands.
"Si...glhck!" Julia got out, as Storm looped the rope around her neck and pulled it tight.
Instinctively, Julia grabbed for the rope that cut off her circulation, but Storm spun her victim around by main force until the strangling woman's back pressed against her legs.
Ororo stood up as best she could, and strained to lift the woman off the ground. Julia's feet dangled off the ground, and her struggles began to grow weak. Finally, they stopped altogether.
Storm let her slither to the ground and sat down heavily on the chair, to which her legs were still tied in any case. She paused to take a few deep, cleansing breaths.
Ororo tied off the rope, loosely, and then quickly removed the bounds on her legs. She bent to check if Julia still had a pulse, and was relieved to find that she did. Likely, she would wake up in a few minutes.
She regarded the unconscious woman a bit sadly, and made her way, painfully, out of the machine shop.
The woman woke, at last, in the dark. Her face and neck ached from the awkward position that she had assumed on the brushed concrete floor, and her mouth tasted of blood.
Julia raised a hand to her throat, and felt the painful corrugation of the rope burns there. She winced.
She sat up on her knees, and suffered a painful bout of vertigo for her trouble, but managed to remain in the position until it passed. The shaft of shame and hopelessness that she felt had nothing to do with her physical condition, however.
Her prisoner was gone, and with her, any chance she might have had of tracking down Logan. He might have been the answer to all of her problems. Now, she had no leads at all.
Damn it! And she had been about to say her name aloud. Try as she might, Julia couldn't remember what she was going to say.
"What is your name?" she asked herself aloud, experimentally.
She pounded her fists on her knees in frustration. No name, no leads, not much money. She didn't even know what year it was. Some time after 1911, apparently.
Gingerly, Julia pulled herself to her feet. Sitting here feeling sorry for herself wouldn't accomplish anything. She had to find herself. Stay away from Ferro. Ferro and his cabin.
Thick evergreen forest, spruce, fir, and pine. Lots of ground water. A cabin, of hand-sawed spruce, in the middle of a man-made clearing. The sound of an axe outside. Logan there, at the block, stripped to the waist. Splitting logs for firewood. Young. No scars. Her arms around his waist. A ready smile, a rough kiss. Back toward the cabin, to pick up some snares. Set some traplines. Pause at the door. Her favorite thing about the cabin. A heart, rudely carved. The inscription: Logan loves Silver Fox.
She smiled. Her name was Silver Fox. It felt right. It was right. She stood there for a second, truly happy, hugging herself.
Outside, sirens sounded.
The bitch! She'd called the police! No surprise there. She clearly wanted to make sure that Fox was removed as a threat. Well, if she didn't have the stomach to do the job herself, then Silver Fox certainly wasn't going to let the bitch use police to do it for her. She stumbled out of the machine shop and fled into the night. She knew at last where she had to go.
The ambulance pulled up a few seconds before the police car, but the paramedics had specific instructions not to deploy until the police were in position, so they sat in the truck.
Two doors opened on the police car, and the cop who exited from the driver's side opened the back door, which disgorged two more figures. The driver then hunkered down behind the door, his gun at the ready.
The other three figures carefully approached the machine shop's door.
One was dressed in the blues of a New York City police officer. She was tall and athletic, with cornrows pulled back under the regulation hat, and a high, intelligent forehead. Piercing brown eyes watched the door warily. Her sweat gleamed brightly on a milk chocolate complexion.
The other woman was Storm, taller yet and dressed rather more appropriately for action than she had been before, with a charcoal grey vest over a curve- hugging bodysuit that looked like it couldn't keep out the cold. In reality, it was capable of stopping an armour-piercing bullet.
The first woman was wearing the same sort of bodysuit under her uniform. She always did.
"Thanks for agreein' to take me along, Charley." said the third figure. "Always said you were too good for Worthington."
"Don't call me 'Charley', Wolverine. It's Charlotte to you. Or Officer Jones, if you keep acting the jackass."
"Suit yourself, girl." he said.
"And by the way," she said in a low tone, "I don't much like that Nassau county sheriff's department badge you're flashing around."
"Jim Logan's as real as you are, Charlotte." he said. "In the books. He's got a Social Security number. Pays his taxes."
"I still don't like it. It's fraud, at least. Impersonating a police officer, to be more exact."
He shrugged. "Done worse than that in my day."
"Please, enough of this. There is a confused young woman inside that seems to know you, Logan." Storm interjected.
"Is she really so dangerous that I need two X-Men as backup?" Charlotte asked.
"She is if she's who I hope she is." Logan grunted. "Keep those paramedics back until I'm sure."
He strode forward and kicked open the door.
"This is your famous stealthy approach?" Charlotte asked.
"She heard us ten minutes ago, when your dimwit partner kicked the siren in. No point sneaking around now."
"We were thirty blocks away!" she protested.
Logan shot her a disgusted look. "I can hear four separate sirens going right now, and only one o' those is in this burough. Sound carries at night."
"I can't hear anything." Charlotte said skeptically.
Wolverine snorted to indicate what he thought of that sentiment, and paced toward the shop. He paused momentarily at the door, shivering as if someone had stepped on his grave. A few moments of attention revealed nothing, so he resumed his course.
"Fox? It's me. Come out."
"Julia?" Storm said. "I have brought Logan to see you. He will help you."
Charlotte, meanwhile, scanned the machinery with her flashlight, and illuminated any place that a woman could hide.
Logan strode over to the rope that still lay coiled around the chair, and picked it up for inspection. He carefully examined it for signs of blood, and inhaled deeply.
"Well? Do you know her?" Storm asked.
A peaceful smile settled over his face. "I don't know how she did it, but she's alive. Goddamn it, she's alive!"
"Shouldn't she be?" Charlotte asked.
"Buried her myself." he said happily. "Thought I did, anyway. Guess that's one less to Creed's account."
"It is Silver Fox, then." Storm said.
Charlotte nodded absently to herself. "Does she have a record? Is there any excuse that we could use to have state police looking for her?"
"You'd better not." he replied. "She'll be on top of her game again in a couple hours, and then she'll be too much for your boys t' handle. Better leave it to me."
"Not much of one, but enough to take care o' the occasional bumps and bruises. Keeps her lookin' good, too."
"I'll be sure to write that in my incident report." Charlotte said drily.
"You should send the ambulance back, at the least." Storm said. "It can certainly be put to better use elsewhere."
"Sorry we couldn't be more help, Wolverine." Charlotte said. "I can't make a move outside the city."
He waved her off. "No problem. 'Ro and I'll find our own way back, if she's up to it."
"Night. Let me know if I can help out again." the cop said, and she left the building.
Wolverine stood silently, coiling the rope around his arm.
"You have never spoken to me about Silver Fox, Logan." Ororo said.
"Not much to tell. At least, I thought not."
"Was she not your first love?"
"Near as I can remember, yeah. Problem is, the program messed around with our minds so much that I can't tell you what parts of us were real and what parts were put in my brain."
"You say 'our minds'? She was in the program with you, then?"
"Yep. That much I can tell you for sure. Both graduates o' the Weapon X program. She was operations, 'til the day she turned on us and old John Wraith had to take over."
"She turned on you? Why?"
He shook his head. "Never figured that one out for sure. Sold us out to the Cubans. Seemed to me at the time that she thought we'd betrayed her, which was nuts. Even Creed was loyal to the program, if not to her. Anyway, we almost didn't get out of that one alive. One o' the closest shaves we ever had."
"Did your operations usually go smoothly?" she asked.
"Hell, no. Thing about black bagging, especially with the Canadian military or the CIA, is that you can't trust the sons of bitches in charge. We were constantly getting screwed by bad intel and bad gear. The only thing we could always count on was extraction, and that was because we had the Kestrel."
"What was the Kestrel?"
"Not what. Who. John Wraith, who I was mentioning before. He's an extraction specialist. Nobody can get you out of a jam like him. The worst fix we ever got into, he had the asian flu. Couldn't even lift his head, so he wasn't along."
"What was the mission?"
He shook his head. "I don't remember much of it, frankly. Old Elefante was with me, and North was with Creed. Fox's radio went, so we lost operations, and then Creed screwed up the frequency switch, so we lost communications." He frowned. "Hell, I don't know why I thought that one was so bad. We all got out in one piece. Fox was touchy for a couple o' days, but that's it."
Storm arched an eyebrow. "Where was the mission?"
Wolverine frowned. "Sicily, I think."
"We are getting sidetracked. How are we going to find Silver Fox?"
"We? We as in, 'you and me'? Get that idea out o' your head right now, darlin'. This one's gonna be a solo mission."
Ororo glared. "I understand that your feelings for the girl are private, Logan, but I am also concerned about her welfare."
"Girl? She's longer in the tooth than three o' you, 'Ro."
"Maybe so, but right now, she is frightened and alone. I think that I understand her current state of mind better than you do, having been exposed to it."
He laughed derisively. "You couldn't begin to understand her."
"Could I not? More the fool, you, to think so."
"More the fool, me, to think a ditzy broad like you would be any use tonight. Get your ass home. I'll take it from here."
"Why, you little thug! You dare deride me? You dare to imply that my time as a hostage is irrelevant? You arrogant little pig! I shall find this girl myself, and help her in my own way. Be damned to you!"
"Arrogant?" he snorted. "Fuck you, 'goddess'. You couldn't find your ass in the dark." He stomped out of the building, fumbling at his shirt pocket for a cigar as he walked. Discovering none, and remembering that he'd quit, he swore virulently.
"Fool!" she spat at his back, certain that he could hear. She felt sick to her stomach for having yelled at him, and to hear his true feelings about her at last. How could she have thought that they had been friends?
Well, in any case, she could help his friend. She certainly knew where to start looking, where Silver Fox might feel safe. She stalked out of the shop after him, and took to the sky.
Back inside the shop, a large shadow detached itself from the wall, and strode purposefully into the night with a smile on its broad face.
Silver Fox moved through the trees like the shadow of a hunting goddess, quickly and without alerting her prey, a white tailed doe. Silently she came, and from downwind, until she was mere inches away from the beast.
At the last moment, she released her breath to alert the doe, who whipped her head around to get a look at her visitor. A fatal error, as it happened, since it allowed her hunter to snap a crushing toe kick to the side of her neck. An audible snap echoed across the glade, and the doe slumped to the grass.
Fox turned her only weapon, a sharp scrap of metal salvaged from the machine shop, into a butcher knife. She carved out what she needed from the carcass, enough after it was cooked for a week, and scattered about the rest for the wolves and scavengers.
It was not far to the cabin, she believed, but her memories had not been returning quickly. She was thankful to be out of reach of Ferro's hateful telepathy, though, and counted herself lucky to have a mind to call her own. As she had not for years, apparently.
She built a small fire and slowly cooked the venison over it, as evenly as she could using an improvised spit. Even though she ached to see the cabin again, Silver Fox was willing to be patient. Taking the time to cook the meat properly was a good idea.
It had been easy enough to cross the border-- the guard there had not even asked for identification (which was fortunate, as she owned none). It was as simple as hitchhiking along the Trans-Canada highway to Alberta, after that. A matter of a few days. It was easy to get men to buy meals for her, so she had not been truly hungry. Then, north to Crown land. She had been walking on Crown land for two days, and expected to arrive at the cabin in a few hours. Already, the forest seemed as familiar to her as an old friend.
It would just be a few hours more.
"Pardon me, sir. Have you seen this woman?" Ororo asked.
She was in a gas station just outside of Calgary, on the Siksika reservation. Treaty seven land.
The attendant peered closely at the drawing that she held in her hand. "Hey, that's pretty good. You a cop or something?"
"No. I am a friend. She has been very ill recently, and I want to make sure that she is truly well. Her name is Silver Fox. Do you know her?"
He shook his head. "No Silver Foxes around here. Couple of Silverheads. There's Tracy Crazy Fox. What's her first name?"
Storm sighed. "I suppose it does not matter. You clearly have not seen her."
"Didn't say that. I think I remember a woman like that passing through here, about five days or so ago. Real good looking woman. My boy looked after her."
She smiled hopefully. "Might I ask your son if he has seen her?"
He smiled. "Sure. Tim, c'mere and look at this lady's drawing!"
A lanky youth came out of the adjoining garage, wiping his hands on a rag. "Can I help you?"
"Take a look at this drawing, Tim."
Ororo obligingly held up the paper.
"Wow! Did you draw that?" the young man asked.
"No." she smiled. "A friend of mine drew it for me. Have you seen this woman?"
"Sure. She was through here a few days ago with a trucker. Bought some candy and a map. With his money."
"Did she say which direction she planned to take?" Ororo pressed.
"Well, she did say that she was looking for an old cabin up north. Up in Peace country, the way she was pointing at the map."
"Could you show me where she pointed?" she asked.
"Sure." Tim said.
"Been a while since I seen you 'round, Logan." said the waitress. She was pushing sixty, at least. Logan was seated at a bar stool in a greasy spoon restaurant, in sight of a highway barely worth the name.
"Yeah. I've been busy. Say, could you take care o' the bike for me? Just for a couple days."
"No problem. Headin' up north?"
"Workin' the saw mill again?"
"Nah. I'm through with that for a while. I'm lookin' for a friend o' mine, is all. She ain't real social, if you get my drift."
"Neither are you, you miserable little S.O.B."
He chuckled. "Ain't that God's honest truth."
"Well", she smiled, "I'll have Ernie put your chopper back in the root cellar, then."
He leaned over the counter and kissed her on the cheek. "Nobody up here treats me half as well as you do, sweetheart."
The last few miles were the hardest, in one sense. So many of the old trees had died, and were gone, but some of the largest were still towering over the forest. Giants. It was like stepping back in time.
That was why it was so hard. The sudden onset of memory. The return of thoughts that she had secret feared to be lost forever.
The stream. Its course had changed, a little. She crossed over an ox bow that had once marked the deepest part of the stream. It was still steeply pitched enough to gather water in the melt, apparently.
Then came the edge of the clearing. She was almost afraid to press on, to open her eyes and possibly find disappointment there, but then she caught sight of the cabin and all was right with the world.
Silver Fox dropped her deerskin pack and ran lightly into the clearing. It was so well-preserved, almost as if it had been tended to by loving hands.
When she approached it, she saw that it had. There were new sheaves of spruce covering the original hand-sawed planks, and these hand been recently stained. She noticed, to her delight, that the stain was the same that Logan had used, all those years ago. The Hudson's Bay Company couldn't possibly still be mixing that stain, which meant that the hands that kept this place were very dear to her, and very familiar.
She ran her hands over the rough wood of the door, and pushed it open on thick steel hinges.
The interior had changed, of course. There was a table there that had been half-completed, but that was the only stick of furniture. No matter. She was as deft at carpentry as Logan. How surprised he would be, to come here and find that she had built them new furniture. He didn't love that bitch.
She could barely resist clapping her hands in delight. It was only a two day hike to civilization. She could beg, borrow, or steal some supplies and then set out traplines as she used to. Then, it would all be a matter of waiting. He would come.
There were a few saplings coming up in the clearing. She would have to transplant them elsewhere, of course. She walked back out of the cabin, running her fingers on the door in a familiar gesture.
The wood was smooth.
That wasn't right. The wood was smooth. Where was the carving?
She stared at the door. The carving was gone. The plank that it had been carved on had been replaced. She thought to look inside, in case it had been moved to take it out of the elements, but no, it formed no part of the walls. She even checked the underside of the table. It was gone.
Where was the carving? How could he remove it? That was like a knife in her heart. A hot poker, twisting in her gut.
She surged into the yard, to check the woodpile. Surely, it wouldn't be there. Surely, he could never be so cruel as that.
The woodpile was layered, with ancient wood on the bottom covered with logs of a more recent vintage. She scattered it with an oath, and began picking through the pile to find a plank.
Then she saw it across the yard, half buried in the ground.
She stood up in a haze, and stumbled over to it in horror. 'Logan loves Silver Fox', it said. It was stuck halfway into the dirt, sticking out about a foot. The dirt in which it was implanted had not sprouted so much as a blade of grass. It had not been allowed to.
It was a grave. Her grave.
She dropped to her knees on the cold earth, staring with wide eyes at the plank. She couldn't breathe. Couldn't draw a breath. Silver Fox was buried in the earth, in front of the cabin that she had loved so much.
"Who am I?" she failed to say, eyes streaming.
She was numb. She was nothing. Less real than a thought, or a grave marker. She ignored the evidence of her senses for a full minute, which told her that someone was crossing the clearing toward her.
The boots stopped behind her.
"Logan?" she whispered.
"Not yet, Thérèse", rumbled a voice, many feet above her, "but I expect him to arrive shortly."
She shrank away at the words, and could not quite help but to turn around and regard the hateful, smiling face of Aldo Ferro.
"Who am I?" she asked that face.
"You are who you have always been. You are Thérèse, my maidservant." he said.
"No." she said miserably.
"Oh, you weren't always so. Once, you were so much more than Thérèse, but years in a dangerous profession reduced your nerves to mush and your brain to porridge. You're barely suitable for menial tasks, frankly."
"It's not true." she cried, fearing that it was.
"I suppose", he mused, "that you could make a living as a dancer or a whore, but beauty is fleeting. You'd be starving on the streets in a few years. That's why your family sent you to me. Aldo Ferro, the famous psychiatrist. Unfortunately, successful treatment requires that my patients have a mind to work with. You, I must say again, have no hope."
"I won't go back." Thérèse said miserably.
"Then starve." he said. He turned to walk from the clearing, but paused, and asked, "What made you come to this place?"
"Are you identifying with Silver Fox?" he said in an amused tone. "Is that what your gelatinous mind has clung to? I couldn't have told you that story more than twice. I suppose that you were waiting for Wolverine to arrive. Your knight in shining armour, who would whisk you away to a life of fur trading and hunting."
She couldn't answer.
"Oh, he's coming." Il Topo said hatefully. "I've imprinted Silver Fox's scent on his mind. He thinks she's still alive, thanks to your delusions and the misguided floundering of the wind witch. Thanks to you, I will finally be able to crush her one true love, to drain the power from his blood, to live forever. I will suck his life until he is a dried husk, and then feed him to the fish in Sicily. Far, far away from his Indian lover's rotting carcass."
Ferro wheeled around, startled.
Wolverine was not there.
"Is your mind playing tricks on you, Mr. Ferro?" asked a voice in a lightly accented alto.
He looked wildly around the clearing, but couldn't see the source of the sound.
"You know..." SLASH! A sudden pain in his side, and the illusion of Aldo Ferro collapsed. All that was left was the Psiborg.
"I was sayin', Ferro, that's you've gotten sloppy over the years. Time was, you were the best manipulator in the world. Losin' your touch, I see."
Ferro shrieked static into the psychic plane.
"He looks frightened, old friend."
"That he does, darlin'. That he does." SLASH!
His arm went numb, mercifully blunting the agony but leaving him with a heavy weight that would not respond to his commands.
"You did not tell me that he was a robot, Logan. That was remiss of you."
Lightning shot out of a clear sky to strike him, and it fried his exposed circuits. Aldo Ferro, the Psiborg, tried to initiate his repair systems, but they were off-line.
"He ain't exactly a robot. See, he was a once just a telepath. Really powerful one, too. The thing was that he was going to grow old and die like the rest of humanity, so he made a deal with the Department to supply our memory implants. In exchange, he'd get his aging suppressed by a strain o' my healing factor. 'Cept the Department screwed him on it. 'Member that, Fox?"
"What?" she whispered.
"'Course not. He's had four long years to screw with your head." SLASH!
"I-- I'm not Silver Fox. That's just something he put in your head. My name is Thérèse. I'm just a servant."
"Nonsense. Could a servant have made her way across an entire country? Could she have crossed through the wilderness in late autumn, to find a cabin in the woods that only a few people have ever heard of?" the woman's voice said.
"How are you hiding from me?" raged Ferro. "Why can't I see you?"
"Psi-baffles." SLASH! "Simple invention. Guy name o' Forge invented them. Doubt you've heard of him." SLASH! "Keeps you from touchin' us with your telepathy." SLASH! "'Course, what with your eyes having rotted away, you pretty much see with your mind these days, eh?"
"How did you know?" the Psiborg squawked. He was little more than a head and torso now. The rest of his body was so much scrap metal. "How could you know?"
"Difference between the old me and the new me is, I start to wonder when I realize that I've just acted like an asshole. I called Storm on the band and apologized. We compared notes. Seemed pretty obvious that we were being manipulated, and I only know one guy who's good enough to pull it off. You, Ferro. Never would have noticed, if you hadn't gotten sloppy. You shoulda snatched me then and there, instead o' trying to pull me away from my home turf."
"Then I'm not Thérèse? I am Silver Fox?" the woman asked in disbelief.
"Yep. And I'm Logan. I look forward to renewin' our acquaintance, but in the meantime..."
Aldo Ferro's awareness dimmed to a point, then disappeared altogether.
Silver Fox sat close behind Logan, tucked in against him as his Harley-Davidson roared down an Alberta highway barely worth the name.
"You really thought I'd died?" she asked in his ear.
"Yeah. Last I saw the Vole, we'd just opened a six-pack o' butt-kick on his gleaming metal carcass, but not before he made Creed kill you again."
"He'd never killed me before."
"He had in my mind. Anyway, your death gave me somethin' to think about other than Il Topo. I don't know who or what it is that I buried up there, but it ain't you. He must've hid you away all these years, biding his time until he had another chance at me."
"So you never thought about it?"
"I think he designed it that way. I was too wrapped up in grief to think that it might be another con, just like the fist time."
"What are we going to do now?"
"Well, I don't know. Last I saw you, you were wearing Hydra colours. 'Ro figures that Ferro snatched you during that Sicilian mission and planted some weird shit in your head. Probably why you thought we'd turned on you, that time with the Cubans."
"I don't remember that."
He turned to wink at her. "Probably better that way. Now, I want to introduce you to guy that's helped me out no end o' times."
She battled down a panic attack. "No doctors!"
"Nothin' to worry about there, doll. You think I'd take you to a doctor? I know you better than that."
She snuggled closer. "Yeah." she said contentedly.