Acts of Contrition: Chapter Five

Piotr came awake with a start. In his right hand, his cell phone buzzed and vibrated twice, then stopped. He looked over at the digital clock on the nightstand between the beds. Twenty before three. Beyond the clock, in the other bed, Bobby was asleep, sprawled across the double bed. Piotr closed his eyes.

He knew who had called, just as he knew his phone would say "unknown caller" if he looked. He had a half-hour to decide whether to obey the summons.

The message had been delivered during one of the public events in London, a book signing. Piotr had been standing away from the crush of fans and protesters, watching both groups with uneasy eyes, when he'd felt a breeze and a ghost of a touch on his hip. Quicksilver, delivering a slip of paper with instructions.

In the three days since he'd read (and burned) the message, Piotr had mulled over his decision a million and one times. He'd been sure enough that he'd go with the twins that he'd given Alex the CD, but the next morning there had been the youth club meeting that had gone so very well and three dozen awestruck, happy faces looking up at him and Cyclops and Storm and he'd wondered again if maybe this wasn't the lesser evil.

And yet "lesser evil" didn't seem acceptable, either. The protesters were not getting quieter or fewer in number. The supporters were not increasing -- were decreasing, it seemed, with each headline. The message was getting out, but it was also getting grossly misinterpreted. The Guardian had run three progressively more virulent editorials pushing for mutant registration and a Ministry for Mutant Affairs to oversee the registered population. The EU, which had not even responded to Xavier's request for an audience, had gone from "no comment" a week ago to "we shall have a statement soon" on the mutant question.

And the Professor himself was... showing the strain. Eager to preach his ideas to a world stage and anxious that that chance was getting closer to realization, he was increasingly short, sharp, and impatient with the team. Solicitousness and cooperation may have been the order of the day publicly, but privately the team was on edge and frustrated, finding no comfort within the group to balance out the hatred without. The dichotomy between what the Professor said publicly and what he said to his students was also becoming more obvious --Xavier may have continued to use the semantics of his program of appeasement, but the angry, even ugly tone of his voice was at odds with his message. The Dream, too, was showing signs of stress fracture.

Back in Westchester, the idea of proving to the world that mutants could be productive contributors to society had seemed to be the goal; it was what Xavier told his pupils and anyone else who would listen. And while Piotr had felt like nothing so much as a dancing bear trained to perform for the audiences thrilling to the proximity of such a dangerous, if subdued, creature... it had been abasement for a good cause. But here, now, in the glare of the spotlight, it felt like an act, the speech of a character Xavier was not perfectly portraying. The Dream, when detailed by this flawed actor, sounded like a step to some greater plan, an 'agenda' that the X-Men hadn't been properly briefed on yet. Something less altruistic, something a little more pragmatic than the Professor's usual sunny idealism. Somewhere along the line, it had stopped being so much about integration of the species and started being about... something else. It had not taken Alex's chronic and corrosive cynicism to notice that Xavier privately referred to the baseline humans as "the homo sapiens" and it wasn't just Bobby who thought of references to Planet of the Apes.

They had all been doing their best to avoid each other when not required to be together, so these weren't ideas explored with Scott or anyone else. He'd kept his thoughts to himself, a traitorous ember in his belly he didn't know whether to fan into flame or snuff out. Was it a geniune reaction to the situation or simply prideful resentment? Xavier was critical of all of their actions, picking apart even the most productive of actions to find the mean motivation underneath and then holding up the unearthed germ as a sign of carelessness, of selfishness, of individual desires over the benefit to mutant kind, of incipient treachery. Piotr kept his tongue, but he knew his own resentment was close to the surface, waiting for the worst possible opportunity to break out. Was this, now, his eruption?

Piotr opened his eyes and looked at the clock again. Ten of three. Twenty minutes.

But what were the twins offering him? Truth? Safety? A way to redeem himself? A means to finally figure out what it is he believed in? Or did they assume that, knowing the truth, Piotr would simply choose to join the Brotherhood... no. Whatever it was the twins wanted from him, it wasn't another mutant terrorist. He only hoped that it wasn't worse. He was under no illusion that 'going home' was an option the twins were providing, no more than Xavier did. You could run off to join the circus, but there was no escape from it.

Scott had been mentally induced to run away. Magneto had been lobotomized to stay. If he did not like what the twins had to say, could he return from this defection -- could he make his plea to Xavier and apologize for his lack of faith? And if he could, would he? He had been unhappy before he had been able to verbalize it, before he had even been able to realize it. A return to a life he'd increasingly found untenable...

Five to three.

The twins were still on speaking terms with Xavier and it had crossed Piotr's mind that they were part of an elaborate test of his loyalties. But he didn't think so; the twins' anger at Xavier burned too brightly. They did not know about their father... or did they know more than they said, did they think that he could lead them to him? And if that were the case, did he have the right to take umbrage when he had already passed up opportunities to tell them the truth? Did he owe the twins a penance, too?

Wanda and Pietro were enigmatic to him, to all of the X-Men save Scott, whom Piotr thought only learned of them what he'd wanted to see. The twins looked at the team with undisguised pity, their disgust with the X-Men's lack of knowledge was but thinly veiled. Dull tools in Xavier's hands, servants and not partners in the battle to secure mutants a place in the world.

The Brotherhood under the twins had been markedly different since Magneto's 'death'. Wanda and Pietro were obviously making changes in the organization they had inherited -- and just as obviously facing a power struggle from within, presumably by those who did not view leadership of the Brotherhood as inheritable. The result was a schizophrenic association made more terrifying by its unpredictability. More focused and yet more inept. More subtle in its targets and messages, but with obvious, public betrayals and defections. The Brotherhood's new tactics, presumably at the instigation of the twins, were about retribution and exposure, directed attacks against specific anti-mutant events. But the mass spectacles, the gratiutous violence, the flash and bombast that had been Magneto and his plans for world domination were not gone. They were still around, yet they were no more successful and no less ludicrous in their grandiosity. Scott and Alex both thought that these gory, messy failures were the compromise the twins had to make to keep power -- the sop to the extremist wing of the Brotherhood, a faction made up of the unstable, the sociopathic, and the bitter that Magneto had collected and harnessed with the promise of revenge upon a world that shunned them.

His internal clock ticked louder. Now or never. He looked at the clock, its red digits glowing a shade not dissimilar to the one emitted by Scott's visor. Two minutes past three. What would Scott say? What would Alex? Part of him wished for their counsel -- between Scott's unshakeable faith and Alex's inability to believe, there would have been wisdom, or at least sureness where his own steps were faltering. Do this or don't. Stay or go. Martyr or sacrifice. He was no captain and he could abandon a sinking ship, but how could he save his friends from so far away? Did they need saving or was it just him? Would Logan understand? Would he protect Bobby for him, keep what little bit of innocence had not been torn away by idealogical zeal and inhuman cruelty? Would Bobby forgive him for what he'd see as abandonment and betrayal?

He pulled back the blankets in a quick, quiet motion.


"This way," Wanda said over her shoulder as she started walking toward the entrance to the terminal. Pietro muttered behind him, pulling out paper money and coins and trying to figure out how much to tip the cabbie.

Piotr staggered a bit as he exited the cab. He was tired and tense --it was four in the morning and he was feeling the prickly edge of the hyperawareness that came from sleep deprivation. The airport was busier than he'd have thought for this time of the day and he was jostled by both cranky cabbies and uniformed porters as he followed Wanda's rapidly retreating form. Pietro was by his side with a suddenness that was annoying; he was too anxious to be civil, so he said nothing at all to Pietro's continued quiet grumbling at his sister's unconcerned pace.

He'd arrived in the lobby with his backpack over one shoulder and his jacket in his hand. Not seeing the twins, there had been a quick moment of fear that he was too late. But he'd felt a breeze warmer than the dry cool blast of the air conditioner and there was a note in his hand telling him to check out and meet them in the cab waiting outside. He did, smiling impersonally at the concierge, who had obviously known who he was and had just as obviously wanted to know why he was leaving in the middle of the night.

It had been pleasant and quiet when he had stepped outside and he had looked around quickly before heading down the stairs to the cab idling at the curb. The doorman followed, hurrying along to get to the door first. Piotr had let him open the rear door and had pressed a tip into his hand as he had passed him. It was one of the retro-looking cabs with rumble seats and Wanda and Pietro had been sitting across from each other on the driver's side. "Heathrow Airport," Wanda had said loudly in a voice that didn't sound at all like hers.

Now, Wanda seemed to be leading them toward the British Airways area, but she suddenly stopped to wait for them, swinging her duffel bag around to rest on her hip so that she could open the zippered outer compartment. She pulled out a makeup bag and retrieved a lipstick and a compact mirror.

"We're going to pick up our boarding passes," Pietro said quietly as Wanda re-applied her dark red lipstick. "Use your passport. We've booked you a ticket. We're on the 6:45 flight to Kennedy."

Piotr raised an eyebrow and looked meaningfully at Pietro, who shook his head to indicate that this was neither the time nor the place to discuss the matter. So instead he watched Wanda purse her lips and critically inspect her work.

The line at the check-in was short; they were among the first passengers, all Americans. Piotr smiled blearily at the ticket agent, dutifully answered the questions about his luggage, and was handed his boarding pass after a quick-but-thorough examination of his passport photo. The passport was real, but fake. Piotr did not have American citizenship, nor even a green card. He was an illegal alien that SHIELD had chosen not to turn over to the INS; Nick Fury had barked angrily at the underling who had pointed out Piotr's status. Piotr took a moment to mourn the loss of that promised protection.

Pietro was already done and waiting when Piotr finished; Wanda was smiling patiently at the clerk who had to change terminals after the computer he was working on suddenly froze, the sound of his profuse apologies carrying in the pre-dawn quiet. Wanda wiggled her fingers at the computer and giggled for the benefit of the ticket agent and Piotr suddenly realized that Wanda had used her hex magic to crash the computer. He wondered why, but Pietro, surveying the area with (false, Piotr thought) casualness next to him, didn't seem inclined to answer any questions.

They proceeded without incident through the next phase of security and the metal detectors ("You won't set that thing off, will you?" Pietro had asked, gesturing toward the detector. "Not if I take off my watch," he had replied, too tired to keep the irritation from his voice) and headed toward the waiting area.

There weren't many passengers about; most of them were sitting in the waiting areas or in the just-opened coffee bar and sandwich shops. Everyone moved with the slowness of the exhausted whether they were half-drowsing over cool tea and doughy crumpets or the packed meals from home, brought along to avoid the exorbitant expense of airport fare.

"You boys go buy a newspaper or a candy bar or something," Wanda instructed as they reached the concourse. "I've got to make a pit stop."

Piotr was inclined to wait where he was standing, but Pietro pulled him by the elbow. "Come on," he said. "Let's go get a Cara-milk."

They crossed the concourse walkway, past the shop with the cheesy London souvenirs and t-shirts with "Kiss Me, I'm Scottish" written on them in tartan-print letters and the duty-free store. Piotr paused in front of the little bookstore with its potboilers and romances. There was a tell-all book about the royal family featured on one pile and a few copies of Xavier's book on another. Piotr shuddered and turned away, nearly bumping into Pietro, who merely glared at him. There was another touristy shop with allegedly upper crust British items like pipes and marmalade and ivory combs and then a newspaper stand.

Pietro bought five Cara-milk bars and a tube of Smarties, looking over at Piotr before adding a Spectator to the pile. As Pietro examined the coins in his open palm to try to count out correct change, an announcement requested building facilities to report to the second floor south causeway. As the candy was being put into a brown paper bag, a security guard walked past and Piotr could hear the chatter from his walkie-talkie. A burst pipe, it sounded like.

Wanda found them as they headed toward the waiting area. "Come on," she said. "This way."

Instead of making a left toward the escalator that would lead them to their gate, Wanda turned right. She looked behind them quickly and then indicated a door marked as an emergency stairwell. Pietro pulled something out of his pocket and nodded, pushing the door open and reaching up to clamp something on to the alarm box with a speed too quick for Piotr's eyes to follow. As he passed beneath, he saw that Pietro had placed a long, thin piece of metal sheet over the contacts -- the circuit remained closed and the alarm didn't sound. Wanda headed down the stairs and Piotr nearly stumbled as he turned to watch Pietro close the door carefully behind them.

They paused at the landing for the next floor down for Pietro to perform the same trick. Wanda, obviously having scouted out the area earlier, led them around the corner and into a ladies' washroom that smelled strongly of disinfectant cleaner. Piotr was initially surprised to see no matron, but then he realized that he was mistaken. A light-skinned black woman, thickened in the waist by middle age, was propped up in one of the stalls, a thin line of blood trickling down her bruised forehead and her hands folded gently into her lap.

The washroom door had a lock and Pietro turned it, pushing the matron's empty chair in front of the slatted vents at the bottom of the door. He crossed to the counter where Wanda had put her bag and opened his, pulling out a small device that looked like a cell phone.

"Wha..."

Pietro put his finger to his lips and Piotr stilled. He watched in silence as Pietro fiddled with the small machine. Wanda looked behind her once to see what they were doing, but left them be, instead sifting through the bags; he could hear the rustling of plastic shopping bags echo awkwardly around the washroom.

The device was some sort of sensor or detector, Piotr realized as Pietro, obviously satisfied with its settings, started waving it slowly around him. Head arms -- Pietro silently indicated for Piotr to raise his arms -- torso, waist, legs, shoes. Pietro fiddled with the sensor once again and took Piotr's backpack and jacket, scanned them, and returned them to him.

"He's clean," Pietro announced, turning off the sensor. He tossed it to Wanda, who caught it without turning to see where it was.

"Good," she said in a low voice. "I was getting very tired of the silent movie thing."

"Does this mean you get to tell me what we're doing now?" Piotr asked, relaxing enough to lean against the brace between the stall walls and door.

Pietro laughed sardonically. "And spoil the surprise?"

What began next was a transformation that left Piotr in appreciative awe of how professional the twins were -- this was not the blustery, blundering preparation that the X-Men had assumed went on before Brotherhood actions. It was cool, efficient, and smooth, done with the calmness of rote. Piotr had new respect -- and fear -- of a Brotherhood run by leaders with a command of the subtle.

Inside the plastic bags Wanda had been retrieving was hair dye; all three were working toward various shades of dark brown. Wanda stopped to pull out a bottle of chloroform and make sure the matron was still unconscious while Pietro rifled through her pockets to find her wallet, which he tossed on the pile of their things on the counter.

"What?" he asked as he caught Piotr frowning at him. "She's only got twenty on her. She'll get the rest back later. It'll look like a mugging this way."

"Here," Wanda said, thrusting a folded pair of blue jeans at him. Her head, like his and Pietro's, was topped with a cheap plastic shower cap. It would have been ridiculous under any other circumstance, but Piotr was too tired and too numb to appreciate the ludicrousness. "Change into these while we're waiting for your hair."

"What's wrong with mine?" he asked, ignoring for the present the likely case that they didn't fit.

"They're not your style, sweetheart," she answered in what Piotr assumed was a Texas twang. He'd been in the United States long enough to differentiate between broad classes of English-speaking accents --he could tell an Australian from a Irishman, but was still unable to discern regional American accents beyond certain obvious ones like "southern" and "Brooklyn" and there were some he found impossible to understand. Bobby loved to test his English comprehension skills by affecting various 'accents' and remembering the awful, hammy attempts brought back his anxiety for him; Bobby would need someone to comfort him.

Bobby would be very afraid for him, he knew. Even if the others suspected the truth -- that he'd left of his own will -- Bobby would hold out. It was how he was -- determined to believe the best of everyone until proven wrong. For as long as Piotr was in hiding from the X-Men, Bobby would believe that Piotr had been taken, that he'd been forced away, that he'd never abandon him. And that is what hurt -- that he had abandoned Bobby, who, unlike the others, had no one else to turn to. And whom he'd promised never to leave behind. If the others found out, they would be various shades of pragmatic or irate, depending on how fervently they believed in the Professor's ideas. Piotr didn't want to think about what the Professor would do or think, as much because he feared a fate as cruel as Magneto's as for the lingering fear this entire episode was not what it seemed. And that perhaps this was a punishment for his ill-conceived crisis of faith.

Piotr shook out the jeans to unfold them. They were Levis and had the size stamped on the back label. His size. Frowning at the thought of putting unshod feet on the washroom floor, he crouched down carefully and untied his sneakers without looking down, unknotting the laces by feel so that the dye would not drip or the shower cap shift. He stood slowly and undid the button of his black jeans, unembarrassed by Wanda's sly observation. Pietro was sitting in the matron's chair, reading the magazine.

Changing pants without moving his head was harder than he'd thought and he ended up shooting one of his sneakers at Pietro as he kicked off one leg of his old jeans. Pietro looked annoyed, but returned the shoe without comment. The new jeans were looser in the leg than what he usually preferred, not baggy but certainly with extra room. He retied his shoes, valiantly resisting the urge to scratch at where plastic cap met skin. The dye smelled vaguely flowery, some artificial fruit essence or whatever had been on the package. The end result was to be something close to mahogany, if the hair on the coyly smiling woman on the cardboard box was to be believed.

Scott's hair color, when he wasn't getting it highlighted or otherwise altered. Scott went to a salon in Rye to get it done, never admitting out loud that he didn't trust himself to get the colors right when he couldn't see the difference between chestnut highlights and orange ones. Piotr had never understood why Scott had always dyed his hair in some fashion and yet Scott had so obviously been working on an impetus stronger than mere vanity or whim. It was, he had finally decided, either an attempt to look like someone or a desire to stop looking like someone and, even after meeting the blond Alex, Piotr hadn't been able to choose which option sounded less... pained.

Did Xavier know how badly Scott was broken inside? He must. Jean must. Scott was so very good at hiding it -- at hiding everything about himself. In plain sight. There wasn't a resident of the mansion that didn't know that Scott liked his coffee strong, his spaghetti underdone, and ZZ Top on the CD player. They all knew that Scott liked The Sopranos, hated  Friends, and didn't understand why anyone liked watching basketball on TV. He'd read everything the Professor had ever assigned to any of the other students, but never the Bible. He'd pined over Jean, but nobody knew if she was his first girlfriend. He could ride a motorcycle as well as drive a car, but nobody knew if he'd had those skills before meeting Xavier. Nobody knew how he'd met Xavier. Scott was open -- ridiculously open -- about everything that ultimately didn't matter. He was friendly to them all, beyond the 'happy field commander, happy troops' thing, but he hid everything about himself that Piotr imagined you'd know about a friend. His past, his beliefs -- in Xavier's Dream, at the very least, his fears, his hopes...

Piotr thought -- or at least told himself -- that Scott would accept what he'd done, that he'd be patient and try to understand how the skepticism that so frustrated him in Alex wasn't isolated and had in fact infected another. Scott wasn't rash and if he was impulsive, he also possessed the self-restraint not to act on those impulses. Ororo would fly into a lightning-sparked rage, but Scott would simmer, waiting to see what was happening so he could formulate the appropriate response.

Wanda pushed off the counter she'd been leaning against, drawing Piotr's attention outward. She looked at her watch and carefully took off her own plastic cap. Pietro had plugged a small desk lamp in on the countertop area Piotr supposed was for women to apply their makeup away from the sinks. Wanda turned it on and aimed it so that she could examine her hair.

"Yours should be more than ready," she told her brother, who was back to sitting in the matron's chair. Pietro got up, making a sour face, and went into one of the empty stalls. Wanda, by the sink, unraveled a shower nozzle and hose of the sort that Piotr was used to seeing in Russia. Before attaching it, Wanda hung another piece of metal sheeting, attached to a wire loop, to the faucet. She attached the nozzle and kinked the hose, then let the small piece of corrugated aluminum fall down behind it, activating the motion sensor. She picked up a towel and went into the stall where Pietro was waiting.

The twins... disturbed him. He'd expected two individuals capable of such evil as they had effected would be different. Marked, the way some of the mafiya he'd known over the years had been, with some set of characteristics that by themselves meant nothing but put together signified something dangerous and unwell. But Wanda and Pietro, in his thus-far limited interaction with them, did not give off an aura of instability. They possessed their father's intensity, but it did not blaze brilliantly the way it had for Magneto; it was a quieter fire, one he suspected was no less intense. And yet it was still fervor and not fever, passion and not the overripe sweetness of decay that he associated with sociopathy.

He heard the sound of water running into the toilet and leaned over to look in. Pietro was bent over the toilet, the way a vomiting person would be, his hands on the rim and his head down as Wanda was rinsing out his now-brown hair. His eyes were closed, but they opened again when Wanda kinked the hose once more and dropped the towel on to the back of his head. Pietro rubbed his scalp furiously before standing up slowly and Wanda pressed herself up against the toilet paper dispenser so that he could pass by.

"Next," he said as he passed by Piotr.

Piotr knew he had a dubious expression on his face. The stall was narrow and he was not and even by himself, it would have been a close (although not claustrophobic) fit. Wanda sighed impatiently. "Kneel," she ordered, not unkindly.

He did, noting once again the extra roominess (and stiffness) of the new jeans, and Wanda peeled off the plastic cap one-handed. The water -- cool, but too warm to be refreshing -- started and he felt its gentle pressure against his scalp. Wanda shifted so that her thigh was resting against his shoulder and upper arm, a gentle pressure that increased once she was sure he was compensating for his weight. Even were he straight and even if Wanda didn't know that he wasn't, there was nothing intimate about the proximity. Leaning over, she could reach the far side of his head, carding her fingers through his short hair and rubbing at a spot behind his right ear. She pushed his head down gently, getting him to tip further forward, but he could not do so without either raising his haunches and dislodging her or putting his face uncomfortably close to the rim of the toilet. She ended up cupping water over the spots she could not safely reach with the shower nozzle and he was surprised when a towel was dropped on his head. He waited for her to move back and kink the hose again before reaching up to touch the towel.

Pietro was standing, hair dry, right outside the stall when he backed out. Piotr moved past him and over to the mirror, careful not to bump the hose, and could hear the twins bicker quietly about how to best wash Wanda's hair out without dangling her curls into the toilet water. In the fluorescent light of the washroom, his hair didn't look different. The brown was dark enough that it was not at odds with his eyebrows and matched well with the dark circles under his eyes. Darker hair than Scott's, but lighter than Logan's. He turned away, rubbing his hair dry. He was done by the time Wanda emerged from the stall with her hair wrapped up in a towel turban.

The rest of the process was completed in silence. Wanda handed him an olive colored J Crew henley and took the navy shirt he'd been wearing and put it in the duffel that held the wet towels. Pietro collected all of the boxes, bags, and other detritus from the hair dying and put them, too, in the bag. As Piotr dug his wallet and change out of his old jeans and Wanda changed, Pietro sped around behind her, wiping down every surface with the matron's own bottle of cleaner and paper towels. He took Piotr's black jeans and Wanda's clothes and stuffed them into the now-crammed duffel, too.

"Give me your passport," Pietro demanded, holding out his free hand. "And any identifying cards in your wallet."

Piotr paused. His passport was fake, but it was a legitimate fake --the physical item was the real thing -- and it, along with his similarly manufactured green card, was the only thing that would keep him from deportation back to Russia should something go wrong. At the best -- Piotr wasn't sure what either Great Britain or even the US did to illegal immigrants with criminal ties and a defaulted membership in a probably illegal mutant militia. Hair dye or not, flight from the X-Men or not, up until this moment he could walk away from the twins. Without his passport and green card, there was no turning back.

He looked at Pietro, who was watching him with much less than the expected impatience, as if he understood the significance of the juncture. Slowly, Piotr bent down to his bag and retrieved his travel documents. His wallet was simple -- the I-551 "green card", the Xavier-provided credit card, and his school identity card. He handed them over and Pietro nodded.

Wanda pulled out her makeup bag again, but did not re-apply the dark red lipstick that she had been wearing. Instead, she started applying a loud blue eyeshadow, followed by dabs of a foundation that was slightly too pale for her light olive complexion. She finished off with a bright pink lipstick, rubbing her lips together and then turning to Piotr and Pietro and smiling brightly.

"How d'y'all think I look?" she drawled, winking at Piotr. Next to him, Pietro snorted and looked in the mirror behind her, fixing the part in his hair.

Piotr picked up his bag after Wanda collected her things and Pietro shouldered his own bag before picking up the duffel. They looked around, although Piotr was quite sure he had no professional eye for noticing things were amiss. Wanda moved to the door, pulling the chair out of the way. She unlocked it and, cocking her head to listen for noises on the other side, opened it quickly. She pulled off the maintenance sign and looked around, waiting a moment before indicating that Piotr and Pietro should follow. They went down the short empty hallway, through a set of double doors that had a lock on the other side, and then on to the concourse. It was still dark outside the terminal windows, but the concourse was getting busy with early-morning commuters and bleary business-types filling the waiting areas.

Piotr allowed Wanda to take his arm by the elbow and drag him down the hallway. There was a bounce to her step, an eagerness that hadn't been there before and seemed unsettlingly unnatural considering all that had come before. And that it was now nearly dawn and he'd barely slept and, once the adrenaline rush from his fear wore off, he doubted he'd have the energy to fake looking anything other than tired and more than a little paranoid.

"Oh, Slava, isn't this wonderful?" she cooed in her Texas voice, turning to look up at him with a bright smile that looked terribly at odd with the cynical eyes. "This is goin' ta be so much fun."

Slava. Viacheslav. A good, solid Russian name, obviously now his for a duration to be determined. Perhaps permanently. He couldn't very well go around as Piotr Nikoleivich Rasputin and expect Professor Xavier not to track him down.

"You're going the wrong way, Wendy," Pietro growled in Texas-flavored frustration as he materialized in the corner of Piotr's peripheral vision. He wore glasses now and a faded Dallas Cowboys t-shirt and while he still looked put-upon, there was less impatience in the expression. He was not carrying the duffel bag anymore and Piotr wondered where it had been stowed -- destroyed, more likely. The artifacts of the life of Piotr Rasputin, X-Man, were gone.

Pietro gestured with his now-free left hand. "Exit's that way. Unless you want to go through Customs again."

She sighed dramatically and pulled Piotr in the direction Pietro was now leading them in. He followed dumbly, not trusting himself either to say anything -- was he supposed to have an accent? -- or to otherwise contribute. And so he stumbled along, guided by Wanda's deceptively casual grip on his elbow, as they made their way to the entrance to the Underground station. Pietro let out a muttered stream of curses when he realized that he'd have to pay for the tickets and he stood off to the side as he counted out the coin money and double-checked the paper bills.

After going through the queue, Pietro handed him and Wanda each a four-day travel pass and shrugged his bag back onto his shoulder, setting off for the turnstiles. It took a moment to figure out how they worked and whether he'd need to go through sideways, but they were soon waiting for the Heathrow Express. The London rush hour was underway by the time the train got to King's Cross.

There was another false trail laid down at the BritRail station connected to the tube. Pietro handed off the pre-paid tickets to some gracious parents trying to corral a small passel of children in matching Arsenal jerseys while Wanda purchased three tickets to Aberdeen. Piotr was left by a pillar and told to hold everyone's bags.

"Do I get to know where we're really going?" he asked after Pietro rejoined him and took back his backpack. Still not quite awake and very much feeling the lack of solid sleep, Piotr was still feeling a half-step behind the rest of the world, which had to be at least five steps behind the Lehnsherr twins. "And... does Slava have an accent?"

Pietro had frowned at the first question, but the dour look softened. "We weren't sure you'd be able to fake it, so you're not required to pass as anything but what you are," he said, the words innocuous enough but conveying pretty much what Pietro must think Piotr was.

Wanda returned ten minutes later, the tickets in her hand and the wallet presumably in her bag. "We have two hours," she said. "Should we walk?"

Pietro stopped at a newspaper kiosk and bought more chocolate -- he had apparently eaten the already-purchased ones on the way in from Heathrow -- and they left the building, walking swimming against a sea of commuters and avoiding the taxis swerving in and out of the queue. Piotr looked around nervously; they weren't that far from the hotel.

"Relax," Wanda said as she sidled up next to him. "Nobody will be looking for the American tourists and it's still too early for Uncle Charles or his strumpet to be scanning the city for you."

Wanda and Pietro were in full tourist mode, calling to each other in their Texas twangs, pointing out double-decker buses and wasn't it so kewl that everyone drove on the wrong side of the road. Wanda --Wendy, really, with no trace of the sleek, urbane terrorist about her -- had produced a camera and was taking pictures, periodically asking "Slava" to take one of her and Pietro, whom she addressed as "Pete". Piotr noticed after the second time that the camera had no film in it.

He knew roughly where they were -- he'd gone with Ororo to Covent Garden during one of their afternoon breaks -- and regretted once again that he'd had so little time to visit the sites during his time in London. Through Trafalgar Square and the British Museum that he'd only managed three hours in one morning before a book signing across the street, on to Whitehall where the pedestrian traffic took on a less casual air so close to Downing Street and the government and Parliament buildings. The twins kept them on main roads and at busy intersections, the better to hide from telepaths as well as to remain unremarkable in the eyes of anyone else who happened to see them. Back at the hotel, Bobby might have noticed his absence by now, but it was unlikely --even if by some miracle Bobby had gotten up on his own before the alarm, he was aware of Piotr's occasional overnight absences and was remarkably mature about what they signified.

It had taken them less than an hour to get to the Westminster Bridge. All along Whitehall, Wendy and Pete had grown more quiet and less obviously touristy so that by the time Piotr could look down on the dirty red ferries docked in the ugly green-yellow Thames, he was fairly sure he was walking with Wanda and Pietro again. Once past the Aquarium on the other bank, the three picked up their pace. Piotr knew where they were going now -- to Waterloo station. It would have been a few minutes on the tube, but it also would have been traceable.

They stopped at a Le Croissant Shop across the street and got coffee and pastries. Piotr hadn't realized how much Pietro ate, although he supposed it made sense considering Pietro had used his speed a few times already that day. There was a stoop in front of a boutique not yet open and Wanda indicated that they should rest there.

"Here," she said, putting down her coffee on the step next to her and reaching into her bag. She pulled out a travel envelope, the sort of nylon-and-vinyl portfolio with zippers that tourists were encouraged to carry to keep their documents and currency safe and organized, and handed it to him.

He put down his own coffee and accepted it. There was a passport in the main zippered compartment. Viacheslav Semenkov, native of Chelyabinsk and an American citizen as of a decade ago. Chelyabinsk, known as Tankograd for its production of of Katyusha rockets and T-34 tanks. Nowadays it was mostly raw materials metals, especially steel (appropriate and probably intentionally chosen, knowing the twins' love of irony). About a thousand kilometers from Moscow, he'd guess, which still made it much closer to the capital than to Irkutsk, the biggest city near his own Ust-Ordynski. The passport photo was carefully done, a doctored photo that didn't quite look like him, but was close enough to fall within the scope of Bad Passport Photos and not raise any suspicion. It looked  much more like his brother Mikhail than like him and Piotr wondered if in fact they'd used a picture of the long-missing Misha.

"Memorize the information," Wanda told him, gesturing with the bit of muffin in her hand toward a typewritten sheet in his hands. "It doesn't travel with us."

"Where are we traveling?" Piotr asked automatically as he pulled the page out of the pile by its exposed edge. It was a list of the particulars of the life of Slava Semenkov: his birthday (24 April), his address (Forest Hills, Queens, a moderately sized Russian community), his occupation (in-house artist for a direct mail agency; a list of his recent projects and a website), his education (Queens College, Class of 2001, BFA), his family (mother dead, father retired, two younger sisters Katya and Stacy). There were random facts -- his last school in Chelyabinsk, his first girlfriend's name, where he went for drinks after work with the guys. Slava was a registered Democrat and had failed the two times he'd taken the road test to get his driver's license. There was an envelope taped to the bottom with cards for his wallet -- Social Security card, credit card, New York State Identification Card, Queens College student ID with Spring '01 on the sticker, Blockbuster video card, Duane Reade shopper's card, and a business card from a dentist saying his next appointment was in three weeks.

"France," Wanda replied as Pietro loudly sucked the last of his orange juice through his straw. "Lille."

Piotr made a noncommittal noise; France made sense -- it was close and it was hard for telepaths to see into, especially without a tool like Cerebro, but he knew nothing of their destination. He took out his wallet and put away the new cards into his oddly empty wallet, removing his own Duane Reade card (he'd forgotten to take it out before) and crumpled it into pieces. He wasn't as strong as he was in his steel form, but he could still break a plastic credit card easily.

"What's in Lille?" he asked as Wanda fastidiously wiped crumbs from her lap. Pietro was eating another of his sandwiches. "Besides it being in France?"

Xavier and Jean had been antsy about France, Jean much more so than the Professor. The ground minerals in the northern part of the country were natural psi-shields; Paris itself was psionically silent under ground. From without, it was an effect not unlike a television with no antenna (so Xavier had explained to the rest of them) -- you could tell it was on, but you could get no clear signal except in extraordinary cases. Magneto's first helmet had been built in Paris, Xavier had told them. Piotr wondered if the twins had anything more than Xavier's word on whether France was truly psionically shielded --it could be as much a lie as that their father was dead.

"Shopping, sightseeing," Wanda answered with a wave of her hand and a sly grin. "It's close enough to Belgium and England and France. Lots of stores, lots of clubs, lots of students."

"It's a city full of people like us," Pietro added as he stood up. Waterloo Station had a lot of commuter traffic and while it was tailing off, the street itself was still too busy to comfortably watch others. He stood in front of where Piotr and Wanda sat, his body blocking the view to and from the station entrance across the street. "Young, beautiful, x-positive."

Piotr looked up sharply. He knew that there were mutant enclaves around the world; many of them were populated by American expatriots who had either survived the Sentinel hunts or had managed to flee before they'd been identified for termination. (Mostly the former; many mutants -- especially the assimilated, closeted ones -- had not thought the government would go as far as it did and had been unprepared for the first bloody wave.) It stood to reason that the European mutant community would be active and more prepared, but Piotr had nonetheless always imagined something closer to the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Poland and Czechoslovakia and not some trendy pan-European hotspot.

"You'll like it," Wanda assured him as she stood up. "We should be there long enough for you to enjoy it."

Piotr followed her lead and stood up as well, stuffing his spare napkins and empty coffee cup with the shards of plastic rattling around inside into the blue and white paper bag. They moved seamlessly against the commuters streaming out the doors, flashes of Wendy and Pete appearing as they looked around for the schedule of trains.

The trip itself was uneventful and Piotr slept almost all of the way, only waking up when the conductor came through for tickets; he'd wanted to see if the cliffs of Dover were really white and he'd wanted to see the Chunnel itself, but the coffee had done little to stave off his exhaustion and he'd passed out before the train had cleared the commuter train stations to the south of London. He awoke groggy and tense as the PA announced that Lille would be coming up in a few minutes, his legs stiff and with a moderate need to find a restroom.

The station was new and modern and, as they were all the way at the end of the platform, it felt like the far end was already in Belgium. They descended the stairs and followed the signs for the exit; once outside, they were in front of a giant mall and across the street from the entrance to a park and looking up at a giant building that could only be described as boot-shaped.

Piotr wanted to take a moment to get his bearings, to look around, but he and Wanda had to jog to keep up with Pietro, who was moving with unconscious speed; three times he turned around as they walked up Avenue Le Corbusier and Piotr could see the surprise melt into frustration as he realized how far ahead he was.

He had never been to France, never been to the European continent at all, really, never gotten to see the cradle of Western culture and the inheritors of a society that Russia alternately envied and spurned. He'd been to the Arlanda airport in Stockholm on a layover between Moscow and New York, but his only travels had been on business -- to Moscow and then New York for the Mafiya, and then wherever the X-Men had taken him either in the wake or the forefront of disaster: Tokyo (getting 'vamped' by Rogue), Finland (Weapon X), Colorado (the debacle with Rusty), Washington (the showdown with Magneto). The twins had promised that Lille would be a relaxing wait, a pleasant layover between now and whatever awaited him in his future, but Piotr was under no illusion that this would be any more of a vacation than his earlier travels. The twins were no more concerned for his welfare than Valeri or, ultimately, Xavier. And that knowledge kept him from properly appreciating the shops and sights they were hurrying past.

Years ago, he'd been happy to leave Ust-Ordynski (or, rather, he'd been willing to find a bright spot in leaving his life and family in Ust-Ordynski) because he'd be getting the chance for new experiences. He'd foolishly believed back then that his job for Valeri (and then for Boris) would be just that -- a job and not a life, certainly not a life that trapped him and stained him with its sticky darkness like so much tar. He'd been naive, painfully naive and innocent not so much in that he'd not realized he was associating with bad men -- he'd known that all along -- but in that he'd sadly misjudged his own strength to withstand their influence. He had kissed his mother goodbye and thought he was going off to an indentured servitude of low-level racketeering and extortion and probably some vandalism and theft. What he hadn't expected was how very small the steps were from extortion to assault, from assault to murder.

Piotr had not traveled, but he had seen pictures and knew his history; Lille looked a fair bit like a displaced Belgian town, a remnant of a time when the borders between the French Bourbons and the Spanish Habsburgs were other than what they were. There were plazas and the sort of three-storied buildings comprised of residences over commercial concerns that he'd seen in illustrations and animated versions of fairy tales and that he'd always mentally pictured as being what an old town should look like. The boulevard they were on was broad and populated, but the side streets varied in breadth and frequency and angle, peeling off in sharp angles and gentle curves.

It was eleven in the morning, local time and the outdoor cafes were all full of late breakfasters, despite the cool weather. More than once the explosion of laughter of young women gathered over tall, thin coffee glasses startled him from his reveries. Pietro hadn't been facetious; the city did seem to be made up mostly of people their own age.

Pietro was leaning against the wall of a church when Piotr and Wanda arrived, his backpack hanging loosely from his hand and irritation writ large across his face. St. Maurice, the sign said, and there was a plaque with what Piotr assumed was the building's history, but he didn't have time to read it as Pietro shoved himself off the wall with his foot and crossed the street. Wanda muttered with annoyance as she chased after him.

Rue de Paris was nothing like what Piotr imagined the city from which it took its name was like except in its big city grime, although the buildings were in better state of cleanliness. They walked south for what Piotr felt was almost as long as their walk west from the station until Pietro suddenly crossed the street and paused in front of an imposing doorway.

L'Hermitage Gantois looked like a converted monastary, Piotr thought, or some sort of old merchant's estate. The walls were thick and solid and, despite having been painted a pleasant neutral sand and regularly interrupted by large windows, looked impregnable. They had rooms booked, three separate ones to Piotr's surprise. His surprise faded as they climbed up the stairs and followed the hallways -- the rooms were tiny, even by the Moscow standards Piotr had gotten used to.

"Dump your things," Wanda told him as she stood in his doorway. "Take a shower, crash, whatever. We'll head out in a couple of hours for lunch."

Piotr nodded and Wanda reached out to close the door to his room and he heard the lock click, imagining that it was a lock from the outside and not the inside. He needed to sleep more than he wanted to at this point; he'd been up for almost thirty hours with only a couple of naps in between and yet he was alert, almost hyperly so. He felt wired and tense and restless and worried that he was too exhausted sleep. But he did.

Three hours later, there was a brisk knock on his door. Piotr groaned aloud as he stirred, sitting up and swinging his legs off the bed. He padded barefoot to the floor and opened the door to find Wanda, who looked him over with frank admiration and, to his dismay, a little bit of appetite. He frowned as he turned away from her gaze and back toward his bed. He'd pulled a shirt out earlier, laid it out before he'd gone off to shower, and not put it on when he'd returned to his bed to sleep. He pulled it over his head now and turned back to face Wanda, who smiled placidly at him.

"Pietro's waiting downstairs," she said as she sat down on the ledge by the window. Piotr nodded as he put on his socks and reached for his shoes. "He's probably at least at the Place de la République by now."

If Pietro had wandered off, he had returned as he was waiting for them when they stepped outside. They walked north, toward the city center. The town had not quieted into the mid-afternoon lull Piotr had expected; the restaurants they passed were still crowded. Pietro had been leading them, as usual, but when he turned to go down a side street, Wanda had called after him and he'd come back dutifully and without comment and they'd continued on, turning down another street and heading west. They finally arrived at one of the pedestrian-only paths, snaking around past the neatly fenced outdoor seating for restaurants and a couple of stalls selling flowers until they came to a place with a red awning. Wanda clapped her hands and rubbed them together eagerly.

"Best mussels in the country," she confided as they stepped inside. The interior was cheery and unpretentious and very brightly lit, red walls behind numerous picture frames and red tablecloths under yellow paper covers. A few of the tables were still occupied and the host brought them to one a few tables over from a pair of young men talking animatedly in French about a soccer game.

The place was also a brewery; Pietro asked him what sort of beer he preferred, then ordered for them when Piotr had answered. Wanda sipped her white beer and he and Pietro their brown as they waited for their food.

"May I ask what we're doing yet?" Piotr began, putting his glass down gently. He looked over at Pietro, who in turn looked at Wanda. "I have come, I have left everything in my life behind me, even though I don't know why you have sought me out. I don't think there's anything I can do that you couldn't get someone else to do better or with less effort than what it took to bring me here."

Pietro's eyes narrowed for a moment, then his features smoothed out and he smiled as if he were discussing a day trip to Calais. "You can think, Rasputin. You are still capable of independent thought and that's a far rarer trait than you can imagine, especially among the mutant community." He sipped his beer slowly, savoring it as it went down. Pietro did not always live his life at a hummingbird's pace. "We are all fantastically powered beings, but what biology has given our bodies, it seems to have taken from our minds. We can fly, read minds, control mystical energies... but we are all so small, so tiny, so scared. And we have our leaders to thank for that -- Xavier, Father... fostering a persecution complex when there were so many better options, so many more worthy options. How are we supposed to master the universe when we cannot master ourselves?"

"It wasn't your father or Xavier who created the Sentinels," Piotr interjected, surprised by the bitterness of Pietro's words. He knew the twins disapproved of Xavier and his methods, but there was a deeper, broader frustration at play here.

They were sitting at right angles, each able to see around the restaurant. There was nobody close enough to overhear, not with the boisterous soccer fans and the low-playing music and the occasional noise from the kitchen.

"But it was they who chose not to fight them," Wanda replied. She traced the end of her piece of bread in the dish of olive oil. "You saw the files, didn't you? Father could have eradicated the Sentinel factories, destroyed the program singlehandedly. Uncle Charles could have used his obsession with public approbation to get mutants some good PR. That article on genescanning technology and all of his unpublished notes on genemasking? He could have saved a lot more mutants from the Sentinels than he did. But he only wanted you few, you select and precious few. The pretty and the malleable, although he certainly didn't plan it nearly as well as he'd thought. He could have turned the school into a haven, but he wanted martyrs. It made the cause look better."

"We chose you because you are not malleable," Pietro continued. "You haven't been programmed like the One-Eyed Wunderkind and Xavier hasn't re-wired your head out of what I can only assume is pure hubris. Were I him, you would have been the first I would have lobotomized."

Piotr looked sharply up; he had been absently watching the couple across the restaurant go through their bowl of mussels.

Wanda grinned apologetically at him. "You didn't think Scott was the first or the only, did you?" A delicate flip of her hair, the now-brown curls having been restored to their former fullness after a day bound in elastics. "Uncle Charles is not that principled."

"Wh--"

"We don't know who or how," she cut him off with a shrug that seemed too casual for what she was saying. "We have our guesses, of course. None of you were unknown to us before Charles recruited you. Certain patterns of behavior..."

He felt gut-punched and let his hand fall away from his glass. "Ororo."

The twins exchanged a look of satisfaction. Piotr felt nauseated.

"We'd tried for years with her," Wanda continued after the waiter passed by carrying one of the beer samplers. "Too wild, too mistrustful, too scared of her own powers to ever be tamed and there was nothing we could offer her that would be worth sacrificing her freedom for. Even Father gave up and he was persistent to a fault and beyond. But then that mindwhore got her out of jail -- tempted her with freedom -- and brought her to Charles... Why did she stay, Piotr? Where did her fire go? What could possibly have been offered that was worth giving up a life without responsibility or regret?"

Piotr closed his eyes. He remembered Ororo as he'd first met her, skeptical of any deal where it looked like they were getting something for nothing. Her perfect life was a convertible down a sunny highway and a bag of McDonalds in the seat next to her. But that Ororo was harder to remember than she'd used to be. It was almost as if she had been domesticated, like a pet. When he'd left her, she'd been passionate about the mutant cause, devoted to Henry, and indignant at any outsider's accusations of the Professor. He'd asked Scott once if he'd noticed a change, but Scott had shrugged and said that he hadn't known any of them very well at the beginning and that he'd been too busy trying to be field commander to be any sort of friend.

"Maybe it's legitimate," Wanda admitted. "Maybe she has truly found religion and taken that whole 'post-human rebaptism' thing to heart. Maybe Uncle Charles simply sounded like a better teacher than Father when it came to learning about her powers..."

"Because a telepath knows so much more about mastering forces of nature than a man who controls magnetism," Pietro snorted, taking a long swallow of beer.

"I'm sure Uncle Charles made it sound like it was all about her," Wanda said, looking pointedly at her brother. "Just as I'm sure Father spoke of using mutant powers to reign in and leash homo sapiens. Rhetoric was not his strong point; he never thought that the average mutant would prefer a selling point that didn't involve global domination."

"He was looking to dominate the globe," Pietro retorted. "There is something to be said for truth in advertising."

"Charles wants to take over the world, too," Wanda bit back. "But look who he ended up with to help him achieve it and look who we are stuck shepherding into the new age."

"We're working toward a different end," Pietro hissed, then swallowed whatever else he had to say. The waiter was approaching, his arms laden with their food.

Lunch itself was quiet and mercifully devoid of any further revelations. Piotr was quiet, using the generous portions and his hunger as an excuse for his failing to keep up any sort of real conversation. The food was good, very good, but he couldn't properly appreciate it with the lingering sourness of the confirmation of his suspicions about Xavier -- and he had no doubt that the twins had very good reasons to suspect the Professor of influencing Ororo -- still in his mouth. Wanda had no such trouble, however, and she expressed her delight in her food with low moans of happiness and insistent forkfuls held before her brother's and Piotr's lips.

They finished with the house's special dessert, an obvious giveaway that someone in the kitchen was from North Africa. Pietro paid by credit card, left a healthy cash tip, and they made their way back into the late afternoon sunshine. Wanda looked at her watch as they put on their sunglasses.

"Nine?"

He nodded and walked off in the opposite direction from the one in which they had come. Piotr looked down at Wanda questioningly.

"We can't let the family business go to seed while we're showing you a good time," she replied, taking his arm by the elbow and leading him up the pedestrian walk.

"So he's gone off to be a terrorist?" Piotr made a face, although it was more at irritation with himself than with wherever in the world Pietro had gone off to do. He'd forgotten. He'd forgotten what the twins were, who they were, and what they did.

"Don't sound indignant," Wanda told him lightly, pulling at his elbow as he'd stopped short. "Save your holier-than-thou routine for someone who never saw the police photographs of Juri Andreykov."

Piotr couldn't be surprised that Wanda knew of Andreykov, a small-time bath-and-tile man who'd run up a $200,000 debt with Boris and then been unwilling to give over half the store as payment. Boris's bosses had wanted the place to launder cash and Andreykov could have gone on selling brass faucets and frosted glass shower doors, but he'd balked and Piotr had been one of the three sent over to convince him to change his mind. He hadn't landed the fatal blow, but he'd landed enough and he'd not stopped Mike from those final kicks when it was clear that no further gain could be made. Andreykov had died the next morning and his widow had given Boris the store outright.

"I am not proud of what I've done," he said quietly, letting Wanda pull him along.

"But you never quit doing it, either," she replied, looping her arm around his elbow. "You got promoted up from thug to whatever it was they called you. Dealmaker. Mule. You were never a conscientious objector."

There was no reply, no convincing reply, he could make to that statement of fact, so he didn't. They were nearing the end of the pedestrian path and Piotr could see a red Citroen idling at the curb. There was very little traffic in the city, he'd noticed.

"Don't think that we enjoy this," Wanda said in a quiet voice as they emerged on to the boulevard. The tone was gentle and yet not, an invisible steel beneath a tone that seemingly carried no anger. "Don't think we get our jollies by picking targets that will splatter the guts of flatline children all over the streets. It doesn't work like that. We're not our father. But we can't stand by and let them hunt us down and kill us like dogs. What did Charles do when the Sentinel program was announced? What did he do when they first took to the skies? What did the UN do? The ACLU? Nobody did anything. They left the families to bury the dead. Alone."

The last word hung in the air, suspended by Wanda's now-naked fury, and Piotr looked at her, really looked at her. There was an earnestness in her face, something beyond the righteous anger he'd gotten glimpses of before. This was no jihad to them, no Crusade. This wasn't about wiping out the infidel or evening the odds that stood against a mutant population that had no positive representation beyond whatever face Charles Xavier chose to put forth -- and Xavier himself had been a less than steady ally.

Piotr remembered the fear and outrage he'd felt when the Sentinels had first been proposed. He remembered the jokes the others had made, sitting around in dusky bars with bottles of ice-cold vodka and watching the Russian-language cable channel. America, the land of the free and the winner of the Cold War, and they were turning into Stalin's paradise. He'd laughed at the jokes because he'd had to, but he'd wondered where he could run to if he had to do that, too. But he hadn't run, not even after the Sentinels came to New York City, figuring that his own death by a Sentinel was better for his family than his running away from Boris.

"They buried them in ditches," Wanda went on as she pulled him over to look in a shop window. It was a couture house and there were dresses in the window that only the most perfect of women could wear with any style. Wanda would look stunning in any of them. "The bodies nobody would claim. Father sent us to exhume them, give them proper burials befitting martyrs. We'd find an arm, maybe, a sack of pulped flesh and bone, a head. The families would usually be long gone, off to try to find a new life in a place where nobody knew that the'd once called a mutant 'mom' or 'dad' or 'sister' or 'brother'."

Wanda turned away from the window and looked up at him, her intense eyes burning. "Someone has to stop them, Piotr. Someone has to speak for the dead."

With that, the fire in her eyes was extinguished and her smile went from bitter to pleased. "Now," she said in Wendy's slow twang, "I want to try a few of these puppies on."


It was a quarter past nine when Wanda led him past the bouncers waiting in the foyer to the club on Rue Royale. The old-world heft of the exterior stopped inside the large wooden double doors, giving way to a sleeker --and to Piotr's mind, more sterile -- Eurostyle smoothness. The club had been a converted merchant's villa and was built to withstand time, tide, and bread riots; the techno music blaring in the main hall was all but inaudible from outdoors.

The bouncers -- the taller of whom was still a couple of inches shorter than Piotr -- looked them over carefully as they passed. If they were supposed to have stopped for some sort of cursory inspection, they hadn't and the pair didn't object as Wanda tugged him by the hand through the small crowd milling around by the coat-check.

The music was very loud, but not uncomfortably so. Loud enough to get lost in, but not enough that you couldn't hear the person next to you, the best sort of volume for someone looking to hook up, Piotr reflected. Not that that was his intention here, despite the decidedly pretty aspect of the faces he passed and the vague-yet-unmistakable feeling of anticipation and lust that flowed through the room. The DJ on stage was young and American-looking with his shaggy blonde hair and open features, the oversized headphones making him look intent and not foolish and he swayed slightly, eyes closed, to a beat counterpoint to the one he was creating for the crowd. There was a singer next to him, her features not clear in the flashing lights, and she was singing in some mélange of French and English and sounds that were not words in any language Piotr had ever heard.

Wanda was dragging him along the back wall, slipping through the dancers to their right and the ones standing and drinking and chatting on their left. She was lithe and graceful and found seams and pockets in the crowded space, but if she sailed like a ship through the sea of humanity, Piotr felt that she pulled him after her like an unwieldy anchor. He felt especially clumsy, muttering "désolé" as he stumbled along slightly crouched so that his arm was not jerked out of its socket by Wanda's iron grip.

They passed through an opening and suddenly the sterile sleekness was gone again, the stone vault of the roof and the quiet plaster and dark-stained wood walls only echoed with the music. Wanda led him on, letting his hand go without looking behind her, toward what was still the house's kitchen. A different sort of cacophony was there, the bang and crash of pots and pans and the shouts of a well-organized kitchen staff in a country that took cuisine very seriously. It was brightly lit compared to the dim hallway and Piotr found himself watching what he could see over Wanda's head, which was really only a sous chef supervising a quartet of giant steel stockpots. He was surprised when Wanda stopped suddenly and he nearly tripped over her.

They were in front of another of the wood-and-wrought-iron doors, a smaller version of the massive ones out front. Piotr watched as Wanda slid aside a false panel in the plasterwork in the door jamb, revealing a keypad. She typed in a code, although Piotr couldn't tell what it was with her body shielding her hand's movements, and then slid the panel back into place.

Nothing happened, but Wanda didn't seem concerned. She instead smoothed her skirt and fiddled with the delicate pins in her hair. After what seemed like forever but was perhaps only two minutes, the door swung open. Filling the door was a massive... mutant. There was no other explanation for the bull-like horns and broad, inhuman nose; Piotr half-expected cloven hooves for hands and thought vaguely of minotaurs in Greek mythology.

"Missa Lehnsherr," he greeted her with a nod, then flicked his eyes over to Piotr. "Herr Rasputin. You are expected."

The large man stepped aside and Wanda strode past, a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure Piotr was following. Wanda didn't resemble either the sophisticated tourist from earlier today or her wide-eyed Texan alter ego; she was professionally cool with a slight air of impatience that was less kinetic than Pietro's occasional frustrated boredom with the world. She walked without hesitation and with entitlement down a short, dark hallway and then a flight of stairs going down. She descended almost regally, a slow pace that, once Piotr was down far enough, he realized was intended to survey the room.

The basement was large, about the size of the dance hall above, Piotr guessed. The back wall was lined with large booths, each booth containing a round table and couch-like seats and separated from its neighbor by glass partitions that went up to the ceiling. There was only a bar on the near wall, a long, dark wood bar that reflected the lighting above it. The sides had doorways and a waiter came out of one, a tray bearing plates of food held at head height.

"Bon soir," a woman in a plain black dress decorated only with a simple gold brooch greeted them with a slight bow as they reached the landing. "This way, please."

She led them to a booth that they hadn't been able to see into from the stairs. Pietro was there, sipping what looked to be a martini. A tall, handsome dark-haired man was sitting next to him, a short glass of clear liquid before him. Pietro's gaze shifted to them and the stranger followed his eyes, a flash of recognition shining in them before he stood up gracefully and bowed with restrained flourish at Wanda.

"My dear," he said in a low, smooth voice. Shoulder-length hair that looked elegant instead of immature, a few strands floating gently free from a pulled-back tail that emphasized his high cheekbones and Asian eyes... no, half-Asian, Piotr corrected. The man took Wanda's hand and escorted her to the side of the booth he'd just emerged from. Once Wanda was seated and shifting over toward where Pietro sat at the perigee of the broken circle, the stranger turned back to Piotr.

"Master Rasputin," he said coolly, looking him over with an almost proprietary expression. Piotr met his gaze impassively; he'd been sized up by too many men in his life to squirm. This one had the same airs as Valeri and Boris -- the assessing eye of someone used to buying and selling manpower -- but without the seediness.

The man -- who really couldn't have been much more than a few years older than Piotr himself -- suddenly smiled and gestured for him to sit down across from where he himself took a seat next to Wanda.

"My father buys excellent toys," the man said to Pietro with casual approval. "I'd say he'd miss this one, but I don't think he's paid close enough attention to the project to realize one is gone."

Piotr schooled his face to remain expressionless, but inside, he was irritated and confused. This man obviously knew who he was and where he was coming from, but was saying things that didn't make sense. Was he related to Xavier? Xavier would notice he was gone, unless he was being facetious...

"This is Shinobi Shaw, Piotr," Wanda explained as she took a sip from Pietro's martini. "He is a friend of ours, a friend of our cause."

Piotr inclined his head in silent greeting; Shinobi held up his glass in return salute before bringing it to his lips. The name meant nothing to Piotr; he remembered nobody named Shaw from any conversation with Xavier at the mansion.

A neatly dressed waiter appeared. "Mademoiselle? Monsieur? May I get you something to drink?" He handed them both short cards and then disappeared; they were wine lists, sorted by type, and the reverse held a list of spirits. There were no prices, although Piotr had no doubt that he would not be expected to pay. The waiter returned and Wanda asked for Viognier and Piotr Scotch. The waiter nodded and discreetly checked the contents of Pietro's and Shinobi's glasses before disappearing.

"How do you find Lille?" Shinobi asked, his voice not totally devoid of curiousity about the answer. "Pietro here hasn't forgiven them for World War Two, but I know Wanda enjoys it."

"A thousand Jews in one day, Shaw," Pietro said quietly, his voice flat and hard. "Welcoming the affluent mutants of today to spend their Euros and drink their beer doesn't make up for it."

"We went to the Bourse," Wanda cut in. "And we toured the old city. Piotr fondled the pretty books and wished he could take them home with him."

Shinobi smiled. "A bibliophile. You are quite the bundle of surprises, aren't you?"

Whatever retort Piotr was considering died before passing his lips. The waiter returned with a tray, placing a large glass of white wine before Wanda and a generously filled snifter before him before setting out bowls of olives and almonds and two marble boards of cheeses that Piotr realized were tailored to their drinks.

This meeting was a test, of course. The twins had brought him before the man bankrolling them -- if not by himself, then at least the lynchpin of the confederation -- and, as such, Shinobi's inspection was another examination to pass, another hurdle to vault over. He'd given up the chance of returning to Xavier once he'd given Pietro his passport and let Wanda dye his hair, but here... The flight from London had been about giving up the present. This, now, was about the future. Including whether he'd have one. He hadn't spent so much time among the powerful and the aspiring-to-power to misunderstand the fact that his companions could make him disappear, erase all traces of Piotr Nikolayevich Rasputin from the world forever. He was out from under Xavier's eye, but he was nowhere near safe.

"Forge is almost done with the devices," Pietro told his sister as he cut her a small piece off of the block of what looked to be Gruyere. It was a tension-breaker and Pietro did not pretend that it was otherwise. He placed the cheese on a pear wedge and handed it to her. "He wants to re-tool the delivery mechanism, but he always wants to retool. He'll have them ready."

"What did he make them out of?" Wanda asked after swallowing, dabbing her lips gently with a napkin. Piotr looked over at Shinobi, who was smiling in a way that made Piotr think that Pietro was telling a joke and Shinobi already knew the punch line.

"Beer cans, bubble gum, and cell phones, I think."

Wanda rolled her eyes and smiled, reaching for her wine glass. "We really should get him a bigger budget. New toys instead of having him refurbish old ones."

"Why?" Pietro asked, reaching for the knife next to another block of cheese. "He enjoys doing things this way. We gave him a Playstation and he turned it into something that let him sell DVDs of the goings-on in the women's locker room and then he made himself an X-box out of a blender and Blob's old Discman. This keeps him out of trouble."

Piotr vaguely remembered Scott telling the team about some of the residents of the Savage Lands. The one who could rewire anything -- Forge, apparently -- was one Scott had very much wished to bring back to the team. It suddenly came to him -- would Xavier replace him? Would he explain the absence of Colossus to the media or just dismiss the questions that would be asked? Would he lie or plead ignorance? Piotr did not think he would tell the truth.

"Have you given any thought to joining the Brotherhood?" Shinobi asked benignly.

In his limited experience at job interviews -- and this was, at its root, a job interview -- he had never quite figured out where the line fell between saying what his prospective employer wanted to hear and saying what he actually thought. There was also the unspoken conversation, what sort of image he projected and what someone like Shinobi or Xavier or Boris or Valeri could see without words. If Shinobi was any sort of psi, it was doubly so. He could only imagine what sort of image he'd presented to Xavier.

"Wanda thinks most highly of your... experience and training."

There was a muttered comment from Pietro and Wanda hit him not-so-gently on the forearm with the back of her hand, although her eyes sparkled with humor.

He'd lied in his previous job interviews, not to his prospective employers, but to himself. He'd told himself, both in Valeri's seedy club back in Irkutsk and Xavier's posh study in Salem Center that there had been nowhere else to go, no place left to turn, that this was the best opportunity he was going to get. Of course, there had been other choices -- not great choices, not even good ones, but they had existed. He knew they existed now. He could get up, leave, and wander out into the night. He didn't think Wanda and Pietro would go after him; they knew he wasn't going back to Xavier. He could build a life here in France as an illegal alien -- hell, there were thousands of them running around and he suspected the French merchants and businessmen would prefer a clean-cut Russian to an Arab. He could go around Europe and make his own way, staying out of sight of both Xavier and the government. Deportation back to Russia was bad, but not the end of all that was. Like Roskolnikov, he could go serve his time and wait for hope.

Or he could see where this led. He was no longer the naif who left Irkutsk for Moscow on a midnight train. He had been a hero and a villain both since then and he knew now he had the power to change his environment, for good or for ill, in a greater way than breaking kneecaps or spouting platitudes on television. He'd changed his role before, but never willingly. It had always been a push and not a jump. And now, with Shinobi leading him down a trap-laden path, the twins watching to see where he fell, it was time to leap.

"I am not interested in killing," he answered calmly, sipping at his scotch. It was a very good single malt, Caol Ila, a name he'd seen but never thought to try because of the price.
 
"Piotr is dubious of our intentions," Wanda said lightly, running a painted fingernail around the rim of her glass. "He doubts our motives."

"I don't doubt your motives," Piotr corrected. "I doubt your means."

Shinobi leaned back and smiled. "How would you go about it, then? What is your grand plan for the salvation and continuation of the mutant species? You are here because you reject Charles Xavier's pacifist appeasement and yet you reject a more active course. Surely you don't think that we can just proceed along current lines? Maintaining the status quo cost us forty thousand Americans during the Sentinel program alone. Throw in the mutie-bashing that never gets prosecuted, the aborted mutant children..."

"An eye-for-an-eye gets nothing accomplished while we are still one percent of the world's population," Piotr said, knowing he was paraphrasing Xavier and that the other three would know it, too. He'd broken with the Professor, but that didn't mean that he was discarding everything that he'd learned from him. Something about babies and bathwater. From the first time he'd recognized his own doubts about Xavier's dream, Piotr had tried to think positively in terms of what he'd do differently. But it was hard; he was not a strategist by nature and it was easier for him to analyze and break down rather than build up something new, to react instead of act. "I don't reject Xavier's ideas wholesale. I think some sort of détente has to be established."

"Détente," Pietro fairly spat. "Détente gets us nothing but crumbs."

"Why do we deserve anything greater?" Piotr asked, mind flashing back to Pietro's disgust with the city. "We are not the 'master race'. We are not entitled to anything simply because we are mutants."

"Aren't we?" Shinobi swirled the remnants of the liquid in his glass around before drinking. Out of the corner of his eye, Piotr saw that no sooner had he placed the glass down then the bartender across the room signaled with his arm. A moment later, a waiter appeared to retrieve the glass.

"Arrak," Shinobi told the young man, placing a hand over the wrist extended over the table to retrieve the glass. "I don't care about national pride; Pernod is for the timid."

The man nodded apologetically and disappeared.

"We are capable of talents and achievements that homo sapiens can't even properly dream of," Shinobi went on. He popped a few of the toasted almonds into his mouth. "We can do anything."

"But we don't." Piotr leaned forward again. "Because underneath the mutations, we are all still human and make the same choices every other human being makes. We are motivated by greed, by fear, by anger, by lust."

"So that's your answer, then?" Shinobi moved his hands as the waiter returned with his drink and a plate of small triangles of toast surrounding bowls of caviar and creme fraise. Two tiny spoons, one mother-of-pearl and one metal, rested on the plate.

Shinobi gestured for Piotr to take first. He prepared the first piece for Wanda, who accepted it with a gracious smile, and then one for himself. He had had Caspian Sea caviar once before, in Moscow, and remembered the taste.

"That we are all human? Yes, that is my answer." Piotr took a sip of water before letting his hand return to the snifter of scotch. There was an electricity in his fingers, in his body. It was not from the food or liquor, but instead it was the heady feeling of implicit danger; he and Shinobi were very high up, fighting a battle with very high stakes that he was expected to lose.

"It is the answer of someone who has never made his own choices."

Piotr looked up and met Shinobi's gaze. There was no humor in them, no delight in the bait and banter. Shinobi -- and the twins -- considered him a philosophical unequal, a simpleton who did not understand how the world worked.

"We all make our own choices," he replied with a casualness he didn't feel. He sipped his scotch. "But the hardest choice is to live with what we have already decided."

"Ironic words coming out of the mouth of a man who has spent the last several years as someone else's soldier," Shinobi said, picking up his drink. "You are a very good soldier, Piotr. You trudge on, in the face of defeat, hoping against hope that this time it'll be different. Such faith... and yet such transferable faith. You are a mercenary. You have gone from operation to operation, you have come here, all without knowing the truth about any of it, just looking for a cause and then fighting for it."

Piotr made a noise to disagree -- more at the phrasing than the facts; he was more than aware of his own itinerancy -- but Shinobi waved his hand to dismiss it. The strong liquor he was drinking gave his face a flush, but there was no fever in his eyes.

"You don't fight for money," Shinobi went on. "You are too noble -- or too stupid, I haven't decided. But I don't know what you are fighting for. What do you seek, Piotr Nikolayevich Rasputin? What are you looking for? Truth, salvation, redemption, peace? You came away with these two," -- he gestured with his head toward Pietro and Wanda -- "and for what reason? You don't share their morality or their goals. And yet at the first proffered opportunity, you fled the cause you've spent the last few years repeatedly trying to sacrifice yourself to... for what?"

Piotr leaned back, letting the tip of his index finger caress the base of the snifter. He could tell them that he'd left because he couldn't take Professor Xavier's hypocrisy anymore. It was an easy answer and not, in fact, wholly incorrect. He couldn't tell them about Magneto, though. He wouldn't tell them about how Magneto's survival as Erik Lehnsherr changed the picture for everyone, even them. It made the Professor something more sinister than merely duplicitous, made the twins and their crusade for vengeance less righteous than they thought it was, made Shinobi's role much less significant than anyone present would consider. Piotr knew he was a pawn, knew he was controlled on many levels that he couldn't even see and must only theorize their existence. But he knew of his ultimate powerlessness and the twins and Shinobi Shaw did not. They didn't realize that they were pawns, too. And that had to be his strength.

"I learned what I could from the Professor," he said slowly, looking at the way the light reflected off of the amber liquid in his glass. "Just as I learned from my... previous employers. I am tired of being a foot soldier. I no longer want to be cannon fodder in a war I do not understand. If I am to decide what to do with my life, then I want it to be an informed decision. If I am a player upon this world stage, then I want to join the right troupe."

He looked up then to Shinobi's face. The other man was watching him carefully, a broad smile slowly spreading across his face. "Oh, Wanda," Shinobi murmured. "I think we've got ourselves a live one."

A surprisingly girlish giggle from Wanda, who gave Piotr a slow wink when he looked over at her. "Do you still doubt my taste, Shinobi?" she asked as she brought a dried apricot to her lips.

"My dear," Shinobi replied, looking over at Wanda as he raised his glass. "Your taste, as with everything else, is exquisite."

Piotr kept his reaction to the obvious flirting to himself, but Pietro had no such compunction, pursing his lips sourly and cutting forcefully into the nearest wedge of cheese.

There was motion out of the corner of his eye and Piotr turned his head to follow it. The woman who had guided them to the table was approaching, a discreetly serious look upon her face.

"Messieurs et Madame," she began, dipping her head respectfully, "there is something it is thought you should see."

"The screening room?" Shinobi asked, all humor gone from his expression. The woman nodded once. "We'll be along presently."

The woman nodded again, bowed slightly, and left them.

"I wonder what's going on," Wanda mused aloud as she prepared another piece of toast with caviar, picked up her glass, and waited for Shinobi to rise. He, too, took his glass, so Piotr followed suit. Pietro chose to drain his martini glass and slid out of the booth behind Piotr empty handed.

They followed Shinobi, who sauntered with false casualness through one of the doors on the sides of the room. There was a short, dark hallway, a foyer really, and at the end a young man with unmistakably purple skin sat at a small maitre d' table illuminated by a single shaded lamp. He rose noiselessly as Shinobi entered the narrow circle of light thrown by the lamp.

"This way," he said. The darkness behind him parted and Piotr realized it was not a wall, but instead a heavy velvet curtain being drawn back by unknown hands. He had to duck slightly to pass through the folds.

The 'screening room' was just that, a room equal in size to the one they had just left, its walls covered with many large flat-paneled television monitors. They were all showing various scenes from what must be the dance floor upstairs, sometimes splitting one image between several monitors and sometimes showing discrete pictures. It was dizzying and hypnotizing both and Piotr was transfixed by the wall-sized image of an undulating young woman, head thrown back with her eyes closed and lips parted as her arms snaked sinuously above her in time to the muted music. Other hands appeared around her bare midriff and the one focus of the unseen cameras became two as her partner stayed close and their movements lost their syncopation and found their rhythm.

A hand on his elbow and a whisper in his ear. "Bet they didn't have this at your boss' club down in Brighton Beach," Pietro murmured. "Look around."

Piotr did, with eyes newly adapted to the low light. Shinobi and Wanda were looking impatient as the purple-skinned man spoke into the ear of another uniformed young man. There were couches and chairs everywhere, every one oriented toward a wall of monitors. Many were occupied, especially by couples and groups, and Piotr turned sharply toward Pietro when he realized that many of the seated women wore the same uniform as the hostess in the other room had.

"Welcome to the Lille outpost of the Paris chapter of the Hellfire Club," Pietro explained with a wicked gleam in his eyes. "Where the young and powerful come to do whatever they damned please."

With that, he started to walk away, pulling Piotr's elbow until Piotr started to follow. Led by the second young mane, they moved past the couches toward a hallway that had several doors along both sides.

"Private rooms," Pietro explained unnecessarily.

They went into one, a miniature version of the larger room outside with only one large monitor per wall. The screens were tuned to the scene upstairs, but the attendant picked up a remote and aimed it at an unseen point. The channels switched in cascading fashion, the first to BBC, the second to Fox News, the third to whatever France's news channel was, the fourth to a broadcast Piotr couldn't immediately identify by the logo but then revealed itself to be Scotland's own national news. All of them were showing various angles of dark, rain-slicked highway and a destroyed tractor trailer.

"What's going on?" Wanda asked, looking around at the monitors.

"Turn the volume up on that one," Shinobi ordered, pointing at the fourth wall's monitor, which was now showing the exterior of a Burger King.

The attendant pushed buttons that muted the club's music and paused as if to remember which code raised the television's volume.

"--teen dead, although that number is unconfirmed," a woman's voice broke the heavy silence. "Authorities are asking..."

"Fuck!" Pietro spat out from where he was standing before the wall showing the Fox News feed. There was a map of Scotland on the screen with a red line tracing a path down the northeast coast toward Aberdeen. Inset, on the upper right hand corner of the screen, was a photograph of the X-Men. "It's David."

"David?" Piotr asked, confused. He was splitting his attention between the screens and the other viewers, concerned for the welfare of his former teammates as well as for the obvious civilian casualties. He felt the guilt at not being with the X-Men rise and tried to ignore it; it was useless now, no matter how much he might wish it otherwise. He'd known all along that his leaving meant that they'd face whatever dangers on their own.

Shinobi had pulled out his cell phone and held it to his ear, turning his body toward the corner closest to him and holding his other hand to cover his ear. Wanda was watching the audio-enabled broadcast, now showing more rain-slicked highway with the subtitle indicating that it was the southbound A-90 near Balmedie.

"David Xavier," Wanda answered distractedly, her eyes never leaving the screen. "You saw the files. It has to be him. A path of corpses straight from Mommy to Daddy, who has already sent out his pets to corral him."

Not for the first time today, Piotr was relieved that he'd given the files to Alex. From what Piotr had seen on the disc from the twins, the data now in Alex's possession, David Xavier was the most compromising of the many secrets the Professor kept from the X-Men. A dangerous mutant, a vampiric psion who used his hosts as fuel, he lived imprisoned in a facility in the remotest part of Scotland, cared for by his mother and forgotten by his father. Even more so than Weapon X's Rogue, David Xavier was a danger to everyone on if he were on the loose. Right now, however, it was too soon for Alex to have looked at the files or to know about Proteus; Piotr had left the folders as extra tracks on an audio CD and they'd go undetected until Alex put the CD in his computer.  

"STRIKE's probably got most of their Scotland detail on this already," Pietro said to no one in particular. "They've got to have at least half a dozen 'freak escapes Muir' protocols."

STRIKE, Britain's answer to SHIELD. Except without the 'No Mutants Need Apply' sign in the window, of course. They'd followed the X-Men around London at a discreet distance; the local division chief had made it clear that he viewed Professor Xavier's tour as an unnecessary invitation to danger and chaos.

On all four walls, reporters in raingear spoke solemnly to cameras as they stood next to the wet highway, sirens in the background flashing an ugly, slippery red in the darkness. "Are you so certain that he's come after the Professor?"

"You've got a room full of experts on Daddy Issues," Shinobi answered with dark amusement as he held the phone from his mouth for a moment. "He's going after Charles. Even if he has to burn through all of Scotland to do so..." He brought the phone back to its position. "This is the Black King's Bishop. Put me through to the Black King... I know they're in session. This is important... Well then tell them to turn on the damned television. Proteus is loose." He snapped the phone closed angrily.

"They'll figure it out soon enough." Wanda took a sip of her wine and Piotr remembered that he was still holding his snifter. He put it down on a table near his left knee. "If London hasn't called yet, then they will imminently. They have to make sure that nobody traces that pretty red line all the way back to Muir."

Pietro commandeered one of the television screens and the remote and flipped channels at a speed that made Piotr dizzy to watch, so he didn't, instead sitting down across from the Scottish channel's screen. Across the room, Shinobi and Wanda made calls on their cell phones, each call brief and agitated. The decadence around them occasionally made its presence felt, the music and low laughter from the main viewing room audible as attendants rushed in and out of the room, transforming it from being conducive to private pleasure to a simple war room by bringing in small tables that were taller and sturdier than the low ones at the ends of the couches and three laptop computers.

Wanda put down her cell phone long enough to set herself up at one of the computers and told Piotr to use the other two keep tabs on the news sites and the largest of the mutant bulletin boards. He'd only known a few of the chat rooms and weblogs; social interaction via the internet had always been Henry's thing.

While some of the chat rooms had surprisingly accurate theories, the news agencies had no idea of the true nature of the situation; there were no survivors among the witnesses to David Xavier's carnage and nobody would confirm a mutant presence for fear of sparking yet another riot a day after the fiasco caused by the visiting X-Men. Piotr bridled at the BBC's phrasing as they made it sound like the X-Men had provoked the crowd into frenzy in some fashion beyond merely appearing in public.

Pietro occasionally called out to Wanda. He spoke in shorthand and not entirely in English; Piotr knew Magneto and the Professor had come up with their own 'natural language' for mutants, but Epsilon-Omega spoken aloud sounded much like the pig latin that Bobby had painstakingly tried to teach him and it was ultimately tantalizingly close to comprehensible without actually crystallizing into sense. Shinobi, on the other hand, spoke refined English, especially when he'd finally gotten through to the Black King.

By the time an attendant announced quietly that dinner would be served, they'd put together a rough sketch of what had happened during the day. David Xavier had broken out of Muir Island in the morning. He'd slaughtered most of the island facility's staff, then the crew of the boat he'd boarded to get him to the mainland. His path toward Aberdeen was easily traced, but things got hazy after that. A London Hellfire Club operative with STRIKE reported that Proteus, David Xavier's codename among the entities that knew of him, had possibly jumped into one of the X-Men, but that was unconfirmed as it couldn't be verified that all of the X-Men had been present at the scene of the trailer accident.

"We apologize for anticipating your choices," the head attendant apologized as he stood before Shinobi and snuck a glance at Wanda. "Under the circumstances, we felt it might be best."

After a nod from Shinobi, the attendant gestured at the waitstaff gathered by the door. Two women brought in a table and chairs and attendants flittered around setting up the impromptu dining area. Shinobi stood up from the couch he'd been reclining on and offered a hand to Wanda, who was across from him. Pietro, still with his back to the room, didn't move from the flickering television screen, so Piotr sat across from Shinobi and next to Wanda.

On the BBC feed, over Shinobi's shoulder, grief-stricken family members of the Burger King massacre tried to rush past the policemen standing guard on the scene's perimeter. They were soaking wet with rain, dark shapes against the bright slickers of the officers as the television cameras zoomed in. Piotr was disgusted by the intrusion into this sudden, sharp and very personal anguish and looked away.

"Pietro," Wanda called sharply. "We have a busy night ahead of us."

Pietro turned with a sigh and dropped the remote casually on the couch as he cross the room to the table. No sooner had he sat down than the head attendant snapped his fingers once, bringing a wave of waiters over with plates of artfully composed salads.

"I took the liberty, Monsieur," he began hesitantly, gesturing for the sommelier's assistant. The young woman approached cautiously, holding out a bottle.

"I shoot, my dear," Shinobi told her with a slow smile, lifting her bowed chin with his fingertip so as to look at her face, "but never the messenger. It's a fine choice, although the '93 was a better year. You may open it."

Dinner was sumptuous, although nobody was in the proper mood to enjoy it. As the main entrees arrived, the BBC feed showed an old file photo of Magneto and footage of the Brotherhood's attack on London's Parliament. Scott had been with them at the time, but it wasn't public knowledge. Wanda looked behind her and sighed.

"It's just as well that we're going tonight," she said, frowning. "Charles should be too busy with Proteus to notice us moving around, but I don't want to think about Wendy and Pete getting recognized by someone who saw us today."

"They're not showing any mug shots," Shinobi replied with a shrug. "Do you want my jet? It's in Paris."

Pietro shook his head and looked up from where he was pulling a melon wedge out from under a careful arrangement of peach slices. "We'd better go through our own channels. Especially if they do show any mug shots."

Shinobi shook out his wrist and looked at his watch. "Is there a flight out of De Gaulle this late? The airport here closed hours ago."

Piotr looked at his own watch; it was after midnight. He'd been up for almost two days with only a couple of naps to sustain him, but he was no longer tired. Or, rather, he was past the point of exhaustion where he could even feel tired. He had been running on adrenaline for most of the time, first with their flight and then when the magnitude of his situation had hit, and then with the Proteus massacres.

"I've arranged for a flight," Wanda answered simply.

There was eventually footage of the X-Men fighting Proteus on Fox News, but it was grainy from being enlarged as it has been shot from a great distance; in the rain and darkness only the effects of Bobby's and Ororo's more spectacular powers were visible. There were no telltale red beams, however, and Scott's absence concerned Piotr. If Proteus had jumped into Scott... But instinct told him that he hadn't; if David Xavier had possessed Scott, there'd have been a wild display of Cyclops's power. Which begged the question: where was Scott and who else was missing? Had Xavier sent Scott out to look for him and not been able to recall him in time to go after Proteus? But Scott had a link with Jean, not to mention the Professor's own reach.... which would mean that the Professor knowingly sent the X-Men into a fight without, at the very least, their field leader. He'd done that before, when Scott had been off in the Savage Lands, but it hadn't gone well and, in the end, Scott had had to bail them out anyway. Jean was not gifted with command skills and the team would have balked at anyone else issuing orders; it was a permanent flaw that Scott had tried to erase through drills where each of them took command, but the lessons had never taken.

"What is it?" Piotr looked up to see Pietro watching him. "Or are you just brooding?"

Piotr narrowed his eyes in irritation, then shook his head. "Just trying to figure out what happened with the X-Men tonight."

"What should have been expected of a group of teenagers with haphazard and mostly theoretical training and delusions of vigilantism," Shinobi answered with a snort. "They're not well-trained or well-organized. Especially not without someone telling them what to do."

"Cyclops..." Wanda began.

"Cyclops isn't there," Piotr finished, looking at Shinobi, whose disdain had slid into more benign amusement. "I don't think Jean is there, either."

"Probably off looking for you," Pietro said through a mouthful of cantaloupe. "Which, I'll admit, is demonstrating a little more interest than we'd thought he'd show at your disappearance."

"And that means that we've underestimated you," Wanda added as she arranged the sliver of gjetost on her pear slice. She bit into the combination delicately, one fingertip catching the drop of juice that escaped her lips.

"How so?" Piotr asked, curious.

"Unless Xavier's sending Cyclops off on a wild-goose chase, which is a possibility but not a good one, he's deemed you important enough to be looked for now and not after the fiasco with Proteus is ended." Wanda wiped her mouth carefully and placed her napkin on the table, making ready to rise. "He had to have known what he was sending the X-Men off to take care of, even if the rest of you didn't. It was -- and is -- in his best interests to have Proteus taken care of permanently and immediately. Sending the X-Men into action without Cyclops is not the way to go about achieving that."

Pietro started to stand, still cramming fruit into his mouth and so Piotr, too, stood up. Shinobi, watching Wanda with a connoisseur's appreciative eye, stayed seated.

"His book and his traveling circus are leaving London with worse publicity than when they arrived," Wanda continued as she reached for her purse. "It's got to be near-fatal to the Dream to have the X-Men look like buffoons when faced with a mutant threat that will turn out to be his own fifteen-year-old son. So whatever it is about you -- or, more probably, whatever it is you know and he's worried will fall into someone else's hands -- is important enough that he's risking an awful lot by looking for you."

"Which is why we really must eat and run," Pietro said as he wiped his hands on his napkin. "Lille worked as a hidey-hole, but now we have to go through Paris and it's only a matter of time before Jean comes looking for us there."

Shinobi stood, too, and nodded. "At least let me arrange a car for you to Paris. The train is infrequent and slow at this hour."

Ten minutes later, they were being ushered into the back of a large Mercedes sedan. Pietro ran back to the hotel to retrieve their things while Wanda chatted with Shinobi, who was about to request the company of the pretty sommelier's assistant for the evening.

"I look forward to seeing you again in the future, Piotr," Shinobi said as they stood next to the idling car. He held out his hand to shake and Piotr did. Off to the side, Pietro was watching them and looking vaguely self-satisfied. But Piotr had come to realize that that was Pietro's natural expression -- that, or disdain -- and wasn't sure if it meant anything. That the twins hoped that Shinobi would think well of him was obvious, but to what purpose, he had yet to figure out. "May you learn what you need to find your way."

Piotr was confused by the farewell and it's accompanying paternal-without-being-patronizing smile -- Shinobi obviously knew where the twins were taking him (or, at least thought he did) -- but said nothing.

The car pulled out of the underground garage and into the near-empty streets of Lille, the wheels passing over the cobblestone streets with a muted rumble before hitting blacktop. There was a privacy glass between the back seat and the driver and Piotr finally asked the question that had been burning within him since the first summons to leave the X-Men.

"Where are we going?" He turned slightly and looked down at Wanda. "For real. Not to hide, but wherever the end destination truly is. And why do you not want Shinobi knowing where that is?"

The last had come as a sudden realization as the car door had closed; there was no reason to go through the effort and expense of chartering a flight to leave a major airport after-hours if Shinobi had both the power and the wealth to make it happen easily.

Pietro laughed quietly, but said nothing and kept looking out the window on his side. Wanda gave him a warm smile.

"There are some things Shinobi doesn't need to know," she said, shrugging slightly. "He's a good friend to us, but... our interests are in common, not identical. He is driven by other forces, no matter how strongly he feels for the mutant cause. He would not understand some of our actions."

Piotr was sure that it wasn't the murders and destruction that Wanda was referring to. "So why was it so important I meet him?"

"We're his investment," Pietro answered, leaning forward so he could be seen. "And you're our latest asset."

"I wouldn't put it like that," Wanda cut in, giving her brother a sour look.

"Why not?"

Wanda made a disgusted noise, but Piotr interrupted. "And our destination?"

"New York," Pietro said, leaning back and looking out the window again. "No better place than right under Uncle Charles's nose."

Piotr couldn't imagine being able to hide for very long in New York City; it was too close, despite the sheer numbers of people around to blend in amongst. He knew both Jean and the Professor could find him anywhere in New York if they were looking for him and it only stood to reason that they would, at some point. They both knew he'd lived nowhere else in America and it made sense for him to return there. Which is why it made no sense to actually go back. Unless this was, in fact, some sort of test engineered by Xavier, albeit one complicated by Proteus -- and whether his being returned by the twins was a sign of passing it or failing it, he couldn't guess. The twins could also be planning a double-cross of their own -- get Piotr to defect to them and then give him back to Xavier as a gift, proof that they were not the little children he apparently still considered them to be.

He wanted to ask more questions, but Wanda had closed her eyes and Pietro was not paying attention. So the rest of the ride passed silently and, despite his renewed fears, Piotr had fallen into a light doze when he was roused by a gentle elbow to his ribs.

"We're here," Wanda said quietly.

The car door opened and Piotr stepped out, followed quickly by Wanda. They were not in front of the airport; they were on the tarmac itself, right next to a ladder leading to a small plane. It was a corporate jet, he knew, despite never having been on one or even up close to one. There was a logo on the side, but he didn't recognize it and there were no words beneath it. Wanda moved past him and headed for the ladder, but Piotr didn't follow immediately and she turned around to give him a questioning look.  

"You're not scared of flying, are you?" Pietro asked from right behind him. "You've ridden in that Blackbird enough times. I guarantee this pilot's got more flight time than Cyclops."

"Why New York?"

"The proper question is 'Why New York now?'," Pietro corrected, stepping around him so that they were face to face. "Our final destination was always there. But New York has an especial attraction right now because that's where Uncle Charles isn't."

Piotr opened his mouth to say that that wasn't an answer to his question, but Pietro shook his head. "You'll find out in a few hours. Don't want to spoil the surprise." With that, he turned and walked toward the ladder.

The logic made sense -- whatever was to happen in New York couldn't happen under the watchful mental eyes of the X-Men's two telepaths, especially if the Professor had access to Cerebro -- but that was not truly comforting. Nor was the lack of malice in Pietro's expression. Piotr didn't feel like a lamb being led off to slaughter, but he'd made bad errors in judgment before. But there was nowhere to go at this stage, so he followed Pietro.

The plane's doorway was much too short for him and he had to duck to pass through it, then turn himself sideways to get through the narrow hallway between the cockpit area and the main cabin. The two stewardesses pressed themselves against the walls and apologized.

They were not the only passengers. A man in his fifties and a woman not much younger were sitting in the first two of the plane's eight seats; he had a briefcase open and was poring over printed documents and she was reading a magazine. They both looked up as Wanda led them past, but said nothing. Wanda gestured toward the seat behind the woman and Piotr went to it. Made of soft leather, it looked like a lounge chair more than an airplane seat, more than big enough to accommodate his girth and comfortable enough that he was asleep moments after takeoff.

It was almost six in the morning in New York City by the time they made their way to the curb outside the terminal at JFK. A weekday morning at one of the nation's busiest airports and they'd had to fight through crowds of business travelers and avoid airport shuttles and over-caffeinated taxi drivers. Wanda and Pietro, changed back into jeans and casual clothes, were looking around and Piotr wondered who could possibly be meeting them.

"Aunt Sally!" Wanda cried out in her Wendy voice, waving her arms dramatically and Piotr looked around to see who was passing themselves off as Wendy and Pete Maximoff's aunt. A middle-aged woman, nondescript to the point of perfection, was standing next to an idling forest green minivan and she waved back; Pietro nudged him toward her.

'Aunt Sally' greeted the three with equal enthusiasm, asking them how their vacation had gone and whether they'd taken pictures. Another example of hiding in plain sight, Piotr assumed, acting out the motions of a typical returning tourist and thereby becoming indistinct and thus unmemorable. A policeman stopped the staged reunion by warning them about getting a ticket for idling in the pick-up lane and they bundled into the van, Pietro up front and Wanda gesturing for Piotr to precede her into the back with its individual seats. The surreal (to his mind) pretense continued until the car was on South Conduit Avenue and out of the airport complex, when it was dropped with a suddenness that was just as jarring.

Piotr looked out the window. They were on the Belt Parkway, which snaked its way through Brooklyn and eventually toward Manhattan. It was one of the worst places to be during rush hour and, while it was still the early part, the morning rush was very much in bloom. Pietro turned on the radio and changed the station to the news, finally turning it off after no word about the events in Scotland and four updates on how backed up the Gowanis and Cross Bronx were.

It was almost an hour later when 'Aunt Sally', who had not spoken a word since the airport, switched lanes to point them in the direction of the Verrazano Bridge. Almost nobody was heading to Staten Island at that hour, so traffic was lightened considerably and they were able to accelerate faster than ten miles per hour. Once on Staten Island, 'Aunt Sally' negotiated local roads until she slowed the car to a stop outside the Ferry Terminal. Wanda and Pietro exited without speaking and Piotr followed suit. There were waves of people crossing the streets and getting off of buses and out of cars and streaming toward the terminal for the ride to Manhattan. Piotr nearly collided with a schoolgirl, oblivious with her headphones blasting, and ran to catch up with Wanda; Pietro was out of sight.

They entered the main terminal, but broke away from the crowd before the last hallway toward the ferries. Down a staircase and through a door marked Electrical Closet, which was neither a closet nor had any switches visible. It led to another staircase and a dank hallway with peeling paint on the walls, and finally a door to the outside. Inside the door was a row of pegs with dark blue slickers hanging from them. The slickers had "OEM" printed on them in large yellow letters and Wanda tossed one to Piotr before donning hers. Pietro was waiting outside, already wearing a slicker and a matching cap. He handed two to Wanda, who handed one to Piotr, who put it on without even wondering to what purpose the charade was for this time.

Pietro led them down a cracked sidewalk toward the water. There was a small wooden dock there and an appropriately small boat was waiting there. The boat's driver, also dressed as a member of the city's Office of Emergency Management, watched them board. "Let's go," Pietro said once Piotr had found a place to stand.

The boat pulled away from the dock slowly, turned to head north, then sped up once it had cleared the area around the ferry terminal. Piotr found a handle to hold on to, but Wanda braced her feet the way savvy New Yorkers do so that they can ride a moving subway without holding on and stood on her own. Pietro stood next to the pilot, although it didn't appear that he was saying anything to him.

The boat continued north quickly, toward Manhattan, and Piotr wondered why the twins had chosen this route; it had to be the slowest and most complicated way of getting from the airport to the city. There was a subway line that could have gotten them downtown in an hour and even if they had stayed on the Belt, they would have already been over one of the bridges that connected Brooklyn to Manhattan.

The answer came to him as the boat gently bore left, west, and away from Brooklyn. Toward the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, with New Jersey on the other side. It still might have been faster to drive or take the subway if they were going to Jersey; the PATH ran every few minutes at this time of day. Unless...

The metal shell of the hulking Triskelion, New York City base of operations for SHIELD and home of the Ultimates team, shone brightly in the morning sun. It was south of the Statue of Liberty, at the insistence of both New York's and New Jersey's governments, who hadn't wanted the massive structure blocking their harbors' view of the monument. And the boat, Piotr realized with shock and horror, was heading straight for it.

The Triskelion had sturdy docks and different sized slips and the boat pulled into one of the smallest ones, purring to a halt right next to the ladder. Pietro was out and up first, looking around with his hand at his forehead to shield his eyes from the sun. Wanda went next and Piotr followed, unable to imagine any scenario that had the co-leaders of the Brotherhood of Mutants landing at SHIELD headquarters without an entire SWAT team there to bring them down. There were heavily armed patrols visible, the full-body armor and mirrored face shields of the uniform making it impossible to tell gender, let alone intention.

Pietro and Wanda walked together toward the nearest entry door and Piotr had to force himself to follow; they couldn't have gotten him to leave the X-Men part of the way around the world just to deliver him twenty miles from where he had called home for the last few years... could they?

The machine-gun bearing soldier in front of the door didn't move as they approached. The twins stopped at a white line painted into the ground. A mechanical arm dropped down and Piotr realized it was a retinal scanner. First Pietro, then Wanda, then Pietro waved his hand to indicate that Piotr should do the same. It was a painless procedure, but Piotr had to re-do the scan after flinching; Pietro's cat-with-the-canary smile had startled him.

"Yeah, thought you'd flip," Pietro said as the arm swung back up and a buzzer sounded from inside. The guard stepped away and the door slid open.

Colonel Nicholas Fury was standing on the other side, looking somewhere between implacable and mean. He stepped forward and walked straight up to Piotr, his one eye glaring menacingly.

"In order to be here as the bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed welcome wagon," he said in a low, steady voice, "I had to get up too fucking early in the morning and leave behind a nice, warm bed and a nice, warm woman. You'd better be worth it, Rasputin."




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