Acts of Contrition: Chapter Six

"-- not what Uncle Sam pays you for, Lieutenant. You don't get paid to think until you've got stars instead of bars on your collar. Right now, you get paid to do, specifically do what I tell you to do. And I'm telling you to go. I see you back here without the Captain, I'm putting you on Banner's detail. Inside perimeter."

The door opened all the way and Nicholas Fury burst in, a file-bearing personal assistant on his heels and a woman in the dark blue of SHIELD's uniform trailing behind. Piotr, who had been hunched over a cup of coffee, sat up straight. Fury didn't seem to notice as he stalked to the end of the conference table and sat down, his PA placing the files to one side as Fury put his own coffee cup down on the other.

"Jane, I want the extraction report on my desk by eleven-hundred," Fury barked at the woman, who nodded and tapped at the screen of her PDA with the stylus. "Get Sanchez to debrief the Doublemint Twins and see if he can't get a lead on Nairobi. I will want a full and current report on the Proteus crap the minute I'm done here. You have my permission to wield my authority like the hammer of God that it is to get it done -- and tell Lleyton-Barnes over at STRIKE that he better have a damned good reason for turning down the Ultimates' offer to help. Now flee."

Jane -- Piotr wondered if that was a first or a last name -- turned and left the room, deftly avoiding the armed soldier who'd come barreling in, but had pulled up short when he saw Fury watching him. Like all of the SHIELD troops Piotr had seen thus far, this one wore black body armor over his dark blue uniform and he reached up with the hand that had been on the barrel of his assault rifle to adjust the chest pad as if it were crooked.

"There's an update on..." he trailed off, looking meaningfully at Piotr.

"He's cleared for Proteus, Flaherty," the PA said quietly as he sorted through the stack of folders in his arm. Uniformed and a Lieutenant by rank, the PA couldn't have been much older than Henry. Like the (initially incongruously named) Beast, he didn't have the hard edges of a fighter, but instead exuded the serenity and competence of a man who probably needed both in abundance to chase after Nick Fury for a living.

"He's jumped the Channel, sir," Private Flaherty blurted out. "Proteus. He's in France."

Fury sighed. "They're going to be insufferable," he muttered. "Have Jane call Berchauld and make him the same off we made STRIKE. The Frogs'll be happy enough to have someone bail them out... again."

Flaherty saluted, spun on his heel, and departed. The door swooshed close and there was quiet then, with only the scratch of Fury's pen heard over the hum of the room's electronics. Xavier respected his abilities and, Piotr suspected, had kept the X-Men out of SHIELD's way precisely as a show of that respect. But if Xavier had known of Fury for a long time on his own, the X-Men themselves only encountered him for the first time in India, while they'd been imprisoned and enslaved by Weapon X. They'd been assigned to intercept his kidnappers -- Wraith had parked Piotr in front of a speeding train and bet even money that the immovable object won out -- and Fury (along with about seven hundred SHIELD troops) returned the favor in Finland. In truth, it had been a favor to Logan that was being repaid, but none of them had cared too much at the time. Fury had let them go, along with the Brotherhood, and while a van full of SHIELD agents came up to the mansion to debrief them on Weapon X, that had been the end of their interactions. Until now.

"Do you know why you're here, Rasputin?" Fury asked, not looking up from the stack of papers he was signing.

"No," he admitted.

"Good."

Piotr frowned and looked at his coffee cup, as if the answer could be found in its depths. There was very little else going on in the room to keep his attention if he wasn't going to watch Fury do paperwork.

They were in one of SHIELD's conference rooms; it was sleek and sterile with all of its technological marvels and toys build into the walls and hidden from view. A large high-definition screen was silently showing footage from Proteus's continued rampage through Europe, but Piotr refused to let himself watch lest the guilt that had been lurking behind the adrenaline rush of escape surge and overwhelm him. It had been more than twelve hours since the X-Men had been trailing Proteus and there had been no resolution; it was harder to keep his focus on the effects of Jean and Scott's presumed absence rather than of his own.

The door opened again and a man and a woman entered. They were both in their early thirties and, despite the civilian clothing and casual bearing, they didn't look out of place in a military complex. They looked around the empty table, then at Piotr, then at each other. The man shrugged and they sat down in the chairs closest to them.

"I seem to recall a memo about all personnel being in uniform while on the Triskelion," Fury said evenly, still not looking up. He flipped over the page he was reading, following the lines with his pen.

"We are your deep cover agents," the woman replied with obvious amusement and an even more obvious Russian accent. She flipped her dark red hair behind one shoulder. "We are in uniform."

Piotr raised on eyebrow in surprise and suspicion. The exchange was too casual considering there was a stranger present and imparted far too much information to be done without intent. Fury had never asked why Piotr had left the X-Men or why he'd gone with the twins; there was every chance that this was an attempt to plant information to be brought back to Xavier or to some other person.

Alert now with the possibilities of what Fury was planning, Piotr looked over at the woman, who in turn looked back and gave him a wink.

"I'm not supposed to expect anything less out of her, Hawkeye," Fury sighed, signing the last of the papers with a flourish and then leaning back so that the PA could collect the pile, "but what's your excuse?"

The woman laughed; it was a deep, throaty chuckle that reflected more in her eyes than in her expression. She was a strikingly attractive woman in the classical Russian style and everything about her announced that she knew it.

"I haven't stayed alive as long as I have by contradicting women, sir," the man replied with a shrug. Piotr thought he heard a drawl, but couldn't be sure. It was not strong enough for Piotr to mark him as anything more specific than 'American'.

"Remind me to tell your wife that next time I see her."

Hawkeye chuckled in appreciation and leaned back in his seat. There was something of Logan in the way that he moved and Piotr was at a loss to explain how except that they both managed to look totally relaxed and very dangerous all at once.

"{Do you speak?}" the stunning woman asked in Moscow-accented Russian. "{Or has your vow of silence been extended past the media interviews into everyday life?}"

Piotr knew he hadn't been able to keep the surprise out of his face that his low media profile had been noted. "{I speak when I have something to say}," he replied, his voice almost a croak after keeping quiet for so long. He'd barely said a word since they'd gotten on the plane.

She nodded, as if something had been confirmed. "{So you really are Siberian}," she mused. "{The accent is charmingly rustic; don't do what I did and bury it behind Moscow's steel. But your features... You photograph as a Russian, but it's not so strong in person. Let me guess: a grandfather or great-grandfather got stationed out there and never left."}

"{Grandfather}," he confirmed.

Still smiling at Piotr, the woman leaned over slightly toward her companion, Hawkeye, and rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. "That'll be five dollars," she told him, looking over her shoulder.

Piotr was more amused than insulted that they'd bet on his heritage; he knew he looked like his father's father. He'd worked hard to eliminate the provincialism from his bearing and appearance; the accent was harder and less important -- he was supposed to be the strong, silent type and, besides, everyone he had worked with and spoken to had known he was not Russian.

"I never accepted your bet, Widow," Hawkeye replied with a bemused shake of his head. "I didn't like your odds."

"Coward." Accusingly, and accompanied by a charming pout.

"Wise man," he corrected.

"Children," Fury intoned warningly.

"She started it," Hawkeye protested, keeping a straight face while Fury glared at him.

"There's a reason I don't bring you two in very often," Fury growled, looking at his watch. "All right, we're starting; I have enough actual problems to solve without spending any more time on one of our own devising. Rudelsky, sit down and stop hovering over me like a pigeon looking for a place to shit. And turn off the walls."

The PA sat down in the chair to Fury's right, pressing some buttons in a panel inlaid into the table. The plasma screens went dark.

"Now, if I were a cynical man," Fury began with deceptive mildness, looking straight at Piotr, "I'd remember that you were a coin flip away from felony murder charges in two countries before Xavier pulled your ass out of the fire and that you are still an illegal immigrant in this fine land."

The accusations of serving his own self-interest galled, but Piotr fought the urge to either speak up or look down; he wouldn't let Fury rattle him by spotlighting his sins and it seemed unlikely that this Widow and Hawkeye pair were unfamiliar with his history.

"You left Moscow three months before Project Rainstorm," he went on, ticking off points on his fingers, "You wind up with Xavier a mere ten days before EUCO swoops in over Brighton Beach and arrests twenty-eight, and now you've quit the X-Men on the morning before they face their biggest challenge and what looks to be their most crushing defeat."

Fury paused to let his implications sink in. Piotr met his steady gaze without flinching.

"But I am not a cynical man." Fury waved his left hand in a gesture of bounty and magnanimity. "I am a powerful man and I got to be that way by being wise and not listening to the little voice in my head that says you're here because you've always been a rat who jumps off sinking ships. I am not a cynical man and I will believe that you are lucky... if you give me reason to do so."

Piotr still wasn't sure what he was supposed to say. It would be ridiculous to deny how... fortuitous his life's trajectory looked to have been over the past few years, even as it had felt nothing like good luck at the time. He'd been brought out of Moscow by his boss because Boris needed someone to shore up the enforcers in Brooklyn and he'd been low-man on the totem pole; he had fled Brighton Beach as much in fear of Sentinels as of confessing that he'd royally botched the transaction and Boris's bosses were out a million dollars and three SAMs; and he'd left the X-Men on what was perhaps nothing more solid than a hunch and some philosophical differences. The convenience of it all was only evident in hindsight, if at all, but it was foolish to try to point that out without any sort of evidence to support it. From the outside, it looked like opportunism -- or cowardice.

There was also the matter of confessing anything to Fury or to SHIELD. It was his nature to want to trust authority, some quirk of optimism despite a lifetime of being proven wrong. And so he wanted to trust Fury, despite having no reason to do so. SHIELD had not helped the Sentinels per se, but they'd stormed every mutant hideout and compound they'd come across, citing national security and vague references to David Koresh and the Unabomber as justification.

He wanted to believe that Fury would help him, but he knew better -- any help he got would be for a price and that price would probably be some kind of betrayal of the X-Men. He would need SHIELD more than they'd need him. That had always been the case; one word from them and he was in a prison, either here or back in Siberia.

"I am not here to prove myself to you," he finally said, mustering up all of the pride left within him. He'd been dragged through two countries and across one ocean and, as disappointed as he was with himself for being so easily led, it nonetheless irritated him that they were all treating him like a backward child who didn't know how the world really worked. "I don't know why I am here, why the twins brought me to you. But it was not to beg for your mercy."

In his peripheral vision, the Widow shifted in her seat and Piotr looked over at her. She was sharing a look he couldn't catch with Hawkeye, who raised an eyebrow in return.

"Why do you think you are here?" Fury asked calmly.

"I don't know," Piotr half-snarled. He was tired and afraid and too frustrated to play games with a strategist like Nick Fury, who'd known the rules and the game plan all along. He didn't know why the twins were working with SHIELD, but while his gut instinct told him that they wouldn't have given him up as a sacrifice, he couldn't be sure. Wanda and Pietro had been banking on his naïveté.

"You don't know," the Widow agreed with a shrug, shifting forward in her seat. Fury, who had been leaning on the table, pushed back as if relinquishing the interrogation and Piotr felt peevish at this too-obvious Good-Cop/Bad-Cop routine. "What is your best guess?"

"I'm a pawn," he spat back. "Again. I am being traded for something. Exchange value to be determined by how useful I prove to be."

"And?" the Widow prompted with surprising earnestness, leaning further forward to rest her forearms on the tabletop. She sounded like the Professor when he was trying to nurse someone through a logical argument when they were too frustrated to think clearly. It was a teacher's mien, hopeful and confident that illumination was only a moment away.

"And what?" Piotr leaned back in his seat, the flare of anger gone from him as quickly as it came. "What do I think you want? I know what you want. What do I think will happen to me if I don't cooperate? I imagine that there is a wide variety of options and most of them involve prison labor camps."

"Never let it be said that the Russians aren't romantics," a new voice said from the doorway. "Romantic in the melodramatic sense, I mean. Not the hearts-and-flowers kind."

Captain America, without his famous shield, sat down at the opposite end of the conference table from Fury. Hawkeye, who had been casually leaning back with his elbows around the edges of the chair, sat forward and gave him a two-fingered salute. The Widow gave him a quick smile paired with a smoldering gaze.

Piotr looked over at the living icon and was met with a gaze of discomforting intensity. He looked down and then looked up again, embarrassed.

"Relax, son, I was in deep freeze for the Cold War," Captain America said with a smile that did not reach his eyes. The voice was a young man's voice -- he looked to be the same age as Hawkeye -- but the tone and timbre were all wrong. As if something essential had not quite defrosted when they'd dug him out of the ice.

Piotr remembered when SHIELD had introduced Captain America to the twenty-first century; a gala celebration to take some of the heat off of the still-new Ultimates. It had coincided with one of Alex's rare returns to Westchester and the team's sitting around the giant television watching the report from the red carpet had been one of the few stress-free points of the visit; Alex had been typically dubious, but Piotr had been hopeful. Captain America was the embodiment of a set of values that gave bottom to the flashy, thus-far-inconsequential Ultimates; he was a hero and not a celebrity. Alex had called him gullible, Jean poetic, and Scott had watched it all without saying a word. And here he was, a year or so later, feeling anything but hopeful in Captain America's presence.

"If we're done with the drama," Fury began sourly, "I'd like to move on."

A quiet shuffling sound as Rudelsky moved the folders around to better be in a position to take notes. He looked up attentively at Fury, who in turn was looking straight at Piotr.

"Mister Rasputin here has decided to retire from the mutant vigilante team known as the X-Men," Fury began, sarcasm dripping from his words. "Now, while this is an admirable endeavor and a wise decision -- especially considering Charlie Xavier's band of merry mites is currently getting its collective ass handed to them by his own son -- one has to wonder why quitting a supposedly volunteer organization required a Level Two extraction. The X-Men are a volunteer organization, aren't they, Mister Rasputin?"

Piotr, unsure if the question was rhetorical or not, just nodded.

"I agreed to this extraction because I was assured that you're brighter than the average bear and that you would prove useful to SHIELD in some capacity." Fury's posture was almost relaxed and Piotr wanted to take that as a sign. "I'd prefer that usefulness to come in the form of information; Xavier makes everyone nervous for a reason and we've got piss-poor intel beyond what the Lehnsherr twins have given us."

"We've got piss-poor intel with what the twins have given us," Hawkeye muttered.

"But despite the fact that there isn't anything to stop me from twisting you until you start singing out what we want to hear, I won't." Fury leaned forward toward Piotr's side of the table. "First, because I don't think you know anything of value. Second, because if I'm wrong (and I don't think I am), we have a much better chance of getting the truth out of you if it comes voluntarily and not after a day or two in the white room."

"If that works," the Widow murmured. Fury glared at her. "What? I read the Weapon X report."

"If I wanted backup singers, I would have given Beyoncé my cell phone number instead of the main switchboard."

Piotr schooled his features to stillness, but it was hard. Here, finally, he'd been granted proof that the great Nick Fury was not omniscient. And he wanted to laugh out loud, in part for this proof and in part because there was no way he could use it or even acknowledge its existence. What would Fury do, what would SHIELD do if they knew Magneto was alive and well and living not fifteen miles away?

"But, since you cannot earn your keep with information, you will find another tune by which to sing for your supper," Fury continued, turning back to Piotr.

"What about letting me go?" Piotr asked, knowing that that was not an option. He wanted to see what Fury's reaction would be -- the funnier Fury found the suggestion, the deeper the trouble he was in.

"Do you really want me to?" Fury asked with icy smoothness. It was meant as a rhetorical question and he didn't wait for Piotr to answer. "You are not useful to me as a civilian. And, besides, if it was as easy as all that, you would have left the X-Men on your own."

Fury held out a hand to Rudelsky, who gave him a folder. Fury put it down and opened it, picking up his pen.

"Tomorrow morning, at oh-eight-hundred hours, you will report to the training complex on sublevel D6," Fury said as he read over the top sheet of the paper. "You will begin the standard SHIELD Trainee Evaluation Course. Pending the results of that, we'll..."

"What?!?" Piotr sat up sharply and put his hands on the table to push his seat back. To his left, Captain America tensed into a ready position and Piotr turned toward him before looking back at Fury. Turning him into a SHIELD agent? It made no sense and, moreover, it wasn't what he wanted. "Why would you want...? You can't..."

"Of course I can," Fury answered calmly, signing the bottom of the sheet. "You should understand the concept of indentured servitude by now, Rasputin. Boris Yagudin bought you for couple of hundred rubles and a plane ticket to Moscow. I've paid a much greater price for your freedom from Charles Xavier and you will repay me for my good deed."

Piotr felt sick to his stomach and out of breath. Across the table, Hawkeye and the Widow looked at him with benign amusement, in clear appreciation of the punch line of this joke. Captain America was not smiling; he was watching Piotr with cold eyes and an impassive expression.

"For all of the damage you've done," he said in a low, even voice, "you should be able to muster up some enthusiasm for a chance to redeem yourself."

Piotr stood up and Captain America and Hawkeye did as well, both ready to spring into action.

"I've done nothing but since Xavier found me," he shouted, not caring that his voice sounded panicked and too young. He felt cornered -- he was cornered, in every sense. "Do you think you can shame me into cooperating? Do you think I'm not aware of what I've done?"

He turned to Fury, who was still seated and looking up at him patiently. "Why did I leave the X-Men? Because I didn't like being manipulated. I was being used. Just like the twins are using me. Just like you want to use me." He looked back at Captain America. "How am I supposed to redeem myself if I keep getting passed around like a cheap whore? How am I supposed to change if all anyone ever wants me to do is perform the same old tricks?"

"The difference between a whore and a courtesan is in the company she keeps," the Widow said as the silence lengthened. She was still seated and had to look up to meet his eyes. "You cannot pretend you're a blushing virgin again, Piotr. You cannot have that innocence back. The best you can do is make sure that you're fucking the important people and that they're paying you what you're worth."

Disgusted with the way she twisted his impromptu words into an obscene analogy, Piotr opened his mouth to reply, but the Widow shook her head.

"You don't redeem yourself by going off to live in some monastery or taking a vow of non-violence or whatever," she went on, waving her hand vaguely. "You cannot wipe the slate clean if you are sitting there like a vegetable and doing nothing. You must earn forgiveness."

Piotr laughed derisively. "So I break bones for SHIELD instead of for a mob boss? I will become a good person that way?"

"You become a good person by doing the right thing," Captain America said with a tired sigh as he sat down again. He gestured for Piotr to sit again and he did. Hawkeye pulled his chair back to the table and sat only after Piotr had come to rest. "We're the good guys."

"That is what Xavier told me, too," Piotr retorted, sensing defeat. It didn't matter what he thought and even less what he wanted; they'd wear him down until either he acquiesced or he was too tired to fight anymore. He felt drained and nearly laughed out loud as the urge to cry welled up. He tamped it down ruthlessly and rubbed at his face with his hands.

"The evaluation will run three days," Fury began, as if he'd never been interrupted. "Physical conditioning, language skills, intelligence, psych eval, firearms -- you ever shoot anything bigger than a handgun?"

Without removing his hands from his face, Piotr shook his head to indicate that he had not.

"PT will take a full day, at least; your mutation is going to give them fits," Fury chuckled. Piotr dropped his hands and stared at him, which only made Fury's grin broaden. "I want you to take a tactical eval; we know you know how to follow orders, but I want to know if you can give them. Do you have any special skills we should know about before we start this?"

"I can cook," he replied caustically, bitter from the turn of events and the casual way Fury was acting, as if he'd never doubted the outcome. An outcome that was probably assured, true, but Piotr spitefully wished Fury'd been more charitable in giving him a chance to save face by offering to let him join SHIELD instead of forcing the conscription.

Hawkeye snorted out a laugh and Fury glared at him. "We'll decide on the rest after the physical and psych results come back," he said, as if Piotr had never answered.

Flipping through the other pages in the folder, Fury muttered something to himself that was too quiet to be heard and held out his palm to Rudelsky, wiggling his fingers. The secretary handed him a small pad and Fury scribbled a note, tearing off the top sheet and inserting it into the folder before closing it. He checked his watch and then signed the folder itself, leaning back so that Rudelsky could pick it up and then standing.

"I am a bastard, Rasputin," he said, not unkindly. "But I am not doing this to punish you -- or to punish anyone else by proxy. I am doing what is best for this country, which is what they pay me to do. I could screw you over six ways to Sunday in order to accomplish that, but I'm not. And I trust, in time, that you will come to recognize that."

Fury looked down. "Rudelsky, you are my personal assistant. You are supposed to anticipate my needs. Why are you sitting here instead of getting me my extraction report, finding Jane, and running interference on whichever arm of the Joint Chiefs drew the short straw and must try to get me to re-assign funding?"

Rudelsky sighed, stood up, and, in a smooth movement, swept the pile of folders into his arm, picked up his electronic data pad, and avoided tripping over either the Widow's or Hawkeye's chair as he walked quickly from the room.

"Captain, I will see you later," Fury said as he moved more slowly toward the still-open door. Hawkeye pulled his chair in; the Widow just looked up as Fury shimmied behind her. Captain America stood up.

"Widow, if you don't take your firearms refresher before you leave this base, I will ground you," he continued as he got to the door. "Hawkeye, make sure she does it. I let you two get away with enough; you are my elite and I will have you meet the standards everyone else does."

Fury left and, after a quick nod to the others, so did Captain America. A SHIELD soldier, wearing full body armor and a helmet, appeared. "Piotr Rasputin? Could you come with me, please?"

Piotr stood up slowly, hyperaware that everyone was watching him. He wondered what the soldier knew of him, if anything at all.

"See ya around," Hawkeye said with a grin and a friendly wave.

"{Don't mourn}," the Widow told him as she, too, stood up. "{It feels worse than it is. I would not let him fuck you over. At least not without paying for the privilege.}"

"{Am I supposed to say 'thank you' for that?}"

She laughed. "{I'd say you could make it up to me, but I think he}," she gestured with her head at the still-seated Hawkeye "{is more your type than I am. Not that I'm not averse to challenging that theory...}"

Piotr blushed and looked down and he could hear Hawkeye's protestations drowned out by the Widow's delighted laughter as he followed the soldier down the hall.


Golden light from the late afternoon sun filled the room and glared brilliantly off of the plasma screen of the television, making the picture fade into near-invisibility. Cary Grant and James Mason bantered on, regardless.

Piotr sat on the couch of his temporary quarters, piles of newspapers on his lap and at his side. The apartment was sleek and modern, fitting with the rest of the Triskelion's state-of-the-art design, both well-appointed and spare at the same time. Piotr wished he could appreciate it all. There was a television that cost more than a year's college tuition, a stereo that was integrated throughout the apartment -- even the bathroom -- and a kitchen that would have looked straight out of a gourmand's magazine if it hadn't obviously been stripped of potential weapons. There was a table in the corner where a computer had similarly been removed. There was no phone.

It had been five days since Fury had conscripted him into SHIELD, almost a week since he'd left the X-Men in the dead of the London night. It felt like an eternity.

A routine had been established on the first morning and repeated every day since until today: he'd be woken early by an alarm he'd never set, given an hour for a breakfast that always appeared while he was in the bathroom, and then met by two armed soldiers who would escort him down to the subterranean (sub-aquatic, really) levels where he'd spend the day as a guinea pig, undergoing tests that were never explained in advance or deconstructed afterward in his presence. He'd figured out some of them on his own - the language and computational ones had been obvious, as had been the tests of physical endurance and martial training; the cognitive and analytical tests had been more obscure in their aims and he'd only been able to guess the precise purposes. The one with the box of odds and ends that he'd assembled into a radio, a radar scanner, and a tape recorder had had nothing to do with his knowledge of electronics, for instance, and everything to do with whether he remembered what he'd seen as part of computer-based exam for reading comprehension. Lunch was provided on-site and he'd be brought back to his quarters in the evening to shower and await the soldiers who brought him dinner on a cart, which was in turn collected ninety minutes later.

He was effectively isolated, seeing only his evaluators and the same half-dozen armed agents who escorted him to and from his quarters and guarded the testing sites. Nobody else had been at the shooting range when he'd taken his firearms test; the computer lab had been empty for the evaluations there; the hallways were always cleared before he was allowed to go from one room to another. Neither Fury nor any of his minions had put in an appearance, nor had the Widow or Hawkeye. He hadn't even heard reference to the twins since they'd left him at the entrance to the Triskelion, which made him wonder if the deal was already completed - and what happened to him if Fury didn't like what he'd bought. The apartment he slept in was undoubtedly wired for video and sound; Piotr had not bothered to look for how or where.

This morning, there had been no alarm. He'd woken late and sore; there had been an obstacle course yesterday and he'd been shot in the ribs at close range with rubber bullets before he'd realized that some of the obstacles were sentient.

Breakfast had been brought, and then lunch, but no escorts and the soldiers bringing his meals had kept their silence and refused to meet his gaze when he asked them any questions. With a patience that had been nurtured into existence -- the alternative was to try to emulate one of Logan's berzerker rages and he was sure that his guards were armed to prevent that from proving successful -- Piotr had taken his meals, made himself tea, and retreated to the living room with his pile of newspapers to try to piece together the events of the outside world. And, of course, Proteus.

On that score, the newspapers were remarkably unhelpful. Kept at a distance by local authorities and operating on something between rumors and speculation, the reporters were left with nothing but hedging estimates of what was going on and these in turn were padded and prevaricated until they reached the necessary column inches and there was no difference in quality between the glossy tabloid rags and the more respected daily broadsheets.

The American coverage was both more and less sensationalist. The X-Men were considered a US-based team, but the destruction and terror was a world away and not even the Europhile New York Times put the massacre of a school bus full of children in Besancon above the fold; overall, the story was getting very little coverage outside of the coast cities. Both sides of the political spectrum had their opinions and conclusions, although neither side was operating with any real knowledge.

In the end, the only facts that were indisputable and free from editorializing were that the X-Men had been chasing Proteus all over Europe for almost a week and hadn't caught him. And that Bobby had been gravely injured early on, crushed by a flying projectile. Piotr had asked his evaluators for news -- surely SHIELD had better sources than the reporters on the ground running ragged trying to keep up with Proteus -- but they'd all simply apologized and given him blank looks that didn't even pretend to any sort of sympathy. He'd taken his frustration out on the dummies and benchpresses and sparring partners, which was probably at least some of the desired effect.

None of the papers had carried a mention of Professor Xavier and there had been no subsequent mention of the lab in northern Scotland. Where Bobby had been taken for treatment -- or if he was still alive -- was unknown. Cyclops had apparently rejoined the team (if he'd ever left it) but the only mentions of Colossus were vague and speculative; Piotr wasn't sure if he was pleased or disappointed.

This morning's papers, piled up next to his mysteriously appearing breakfast, had carried hope of a conclusion. The Times had a story on the third page of the front section about the death of STRIKE agent Elisabeth Braddock, who was apparently being possessed by Proteus at the time of her death. Cyclops had killed her with an optic blast, the report said, and Piotr shuddered at how that must have gone. He did not doubt that Scott had agonized -- was perhaps agonizing still -- about killing Proteus, even considering the damage he had caused. Scott would have been more upset if someone else on the team had had to use lethal force; Scott was very conscientious -- perhaps overly so -- about asking the team members to do things beyond the normal scope of the X-Men, especially if they hadn't seen him already do them. He was always the first one to stretch one of Xavier's rules and he'd definitely make himself the first to break one, no matter how necessary. Did Scott know who Proteus was? Did Jean? If they did, he couldn't imagine Scott asking anyone else -- even letting anyone else -- bring the killing blow. Piotr didn't think anyone but Jean could have handled killing Xavier's son (or his innocent host) if Scott hadn't done it.

There was a beeping from the doorway and Piotr looked over. He hadn't remembered hearing the noise before. It beeped again and he wondered if it was some sort of doorbell. He didn't move to investigate, returning to his newspapers. If it was someone coming to see him, either they would enter on their own or they'd go away.

In the five days since he'd been at the Triskelion, Piotr had come to terms, more or less, with this latest sudden turn his life had taken. Kept busy by the constant testing and thus removed from the shock and anger at Fury's initial pronouncement -- and Piotr was still annoyed that it had been a pronouncement, not an offer (even an offer with no viable alternative but to accept) -- a calmness had descended upon him.

He'd left the X-Men without a real plan, at least any plan more real than 'anywhere but here'. At least that's what it felt like now; Piotr was mildly embarrassed at how impulsive his departure now seemed. What would he have done if they'd made the same demand of him that Fury had, insisted upon repayment for his liberty from Xavier by enlisting him in the Brotherhood... but they hadn't. And while he understood that the twins had traded him to SHIELD, he couldn't come up with a good reason why. What could Fury have to give them that was of enough value to risk revealing their betrayal of Xavier -- or handing over a mutant to an organization not known for its acceptance of Homo Superior -- and why would Fury give it to them if he didn't think Piotr brought information with him? Surely it wasn't to turn the X-Men's Colossus into a SHIELD trooper... a process that looked to moving inexorably toward completion.

The idea hadn't gained appeal in any real way beyond the prospect of keeping him safe from Xavier, if that was even possible. That thought had kept with him, a fear coalescing into the sureness of fact -- if he was found by the X-Men, Xavier would rewire his mind to either be as compliant as Ororo… or as dead as Magneto. Fury's offer was the best on the table.

The beeping noise sounded again and, a minute later, the door slid open and an irritated Nick Fury stalked in, his PA Rudelsky trailing behind and Hawkeye, dressed in faded jeans and a Clemson Football t-shirt with an orange cat's paw on it, ambling in afterward.

"That was your doorbell," Fury announced, squinting in the bright sunlight. He held his hand up to his forehead to shield his eye as he looked around on the coffee table that Piotr was resting his feet on. "Future refusals to answer it will be taken as passive-aggressive responses, not ignorance."

Fury reached down and picked up the remote. He aimed it at the wall of windows and the golden light dimmed to a brightness more consistent with the indoors. Hawkeye moved past him to sit on the chair adjacent to the couch; there was a seat directly behind Fury. Rudelsky stood.

"Speaking of passive-aggressive," Hawkeye chuckled, gesturing with his head at the television, where North by Northwest was still playing. Fury turned, watched for a moment, then laughed.

"It's a good movie," Piotr said with a shrug, folding up the newspapers on his lap and taking his feet off of the coffee table. Sitting up, he made a pile of newspapers and placed it where his feet had been. "And I like irony."

Fury sat down and held out his hand. Rudelsky stepped forward with a folder-sized electronic notepad.

"You're an adequate shot, but no sniper," Fury began, reading off the screen. "Above-average reflexes for someone your size, in either your human form or your..."

"I am human whether my skin is flesh or steel," Piotr interrupted primly.

Fury gave him a tiresome look. "Your physical levels are roughly where we thought they'd be," he went on. "We have your records from Weapon X and you tested at comparable levels."

"Yes," Piotr agreed. It made sense that Fury's team had taken the data from Finland before they'd blown the place. "Held against my will both times."

Fury sighed. "Now, let's get this out in the open right now, Rasputin. You're not a prisoner here. This ain't no Mod Squad setup and you're no Femme Nikita."

"Do you know that you're the first person to talk to me in almost a week?" Piotr asked by way of reply. He picked up the mug he was using for his tea and took a sip, even though there were only dregs and the liquid was tepid. "If we can call this talking to instead of talking at. There are how many thousands of people working on this base? I have seen what, maybe a dozen of them? The ones I do see will not answer my questions or ask me anything that does not pertain to your required evaluations. I want to know what has happened to my friends and nobody will tell me."

"There's a very good reason why we're keeping you quarantined from the general population," Fury broke in.

"You are afraid that I am a plant, so I am escorted from place to place by armed guards and I'm not even allowed to have utensils." Piotr gestured with his free hand toward the kitchen area. "Explain to me how this is different from prison -- or from Weapon X."

"The food's better?" Hawkeye asked, shrugging when both Fury and Piotr gave him dirty looks. "Just tryin' to find a bright spot. 'Cuz, you know, he has a point."

Fury pursed his lips and shook his head. "We know Xavier sent Cyclops to the Savage Lands as a spy," he explained evenly. It was neither apology nor excuse, but a statement of fact that would be as much of an explanation as would be provided. "We know that Cyclops didn't know he was a plant until it was all over. There are only so many ways to protect against a Trojan horse. Scott Summers thought he was leaving the X-Men of his own free will, too."

"And you're sure now that I am not a plant?" It was a genuine question. More than once in the past few days, Piotr had wondered about telepathically implanted programming. Pietro's amazement that Xavier hadn't done anything to his mind coupled with the memories of Scott's quiet fury at being telepathically manipulated had left Piotr half-fearing that he was not so much a fugitive from telepaths as a human version of one of those satellites NASA shot off into space to collect data as it moved through the galaxy into places man couldn't yet travel.

"As sure as we can be without having a telepath of our own go through your head," Fury admitted. There was a kindness to his voice that made Piotr think that he'd understood the true nature of the question. "We don't have any telepaths, so don't start worrying about that. And the Triskelion is psi-shielded, so I'm not worried about any kind of delayed activation."

Piotr nodded, a little relieved.

"Now, back to what I was trying to discuss." Fury looked down at the electronic notepad. "Your physical evaluations were all where we'd expect them to be, but that's really not why I'm interested in you. You're big, you're strong, and you're fairly bulletproof. So is the average Abrams tank and we have enough of those."

Fury held the notepad out in the general direction of Rudelsky, whom Piotr had completely forgotten was present, and the PA took it from him.

Ever since Fury had started speaking of the results of the evaluations, Piotr had felt a sense of dread had descended upon him. It solidified now, a cold ball in his stomach, and he waited for the axe to fall. As worried as he was about being tracked down by the X-Men, he'd kept careful mental notes of the paths to and from the evaluations in case he'd needed to make an escape from SHIELD; the hallways were broken up into small segments by remotely operated doors, the elevators were key-operated only, and the entire building was under video surveillance.

"You're a lot smarter than you let people believe, Rasputin," Fury said, leaning forward so that his elbows were on his knees. "You collect and process information quickly and you can apply that information in short order. If you were anyone else applying for SHIELD, you would been tracked for Special Operations, probably the Quick Response Unit. If you hadn't come from the X-Men, you would have been fast-tracked for the Ultimates."

"Even with me being a mutant?"

"You wouldn't be the first," Fury said, annoyed at that admission. "But I'm not supposed to know those things. We would have downplayed the mutant thing. Hasn't been long enough since Magneto was crumpled up like a tin can and recycled."

"So what now?" Piotr winced internally. "How will I be useful to you if I can't be a SHIELD agent?"

"Who said you couldn't be an agent?" Fury asked, sitting up and leaning back with a proud, satisfied expression. "I just said you couldn't work out in the open."

Hawkeye uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, holding out his right hand. "{Welcome to Black Ops, Piotr Nikolayevich}."

Stunned, Piotr didn't move for a moment, then mechanically extended his hand out to Hawkeye, who clasped it firmly and shook it once. A distant part of his mind realized he should perhaps be embarrassed at the Widow's words to him if Hawkeye spoke Russian.

Hawkeye laughed. "Yeah, 'Tasha said you'd take it well. She'd have been here herself, but, well... duty called."

"Duty my ass," Fury muttered just loud enough to be heard.

"Natasha is the Widow?" Piotr half-asked.

"Three times over," Hawkeye confirmed. "I'm Clint, by the way."

"How do you do," Piotr muttered with a nod. He felt disconnected, removed, as if the scene in front of him was taking place without him actually being there. The initial shock was fading, however, and, like a radio being tuned in, the words exchanged became less abstract. In Fury's great plan, he was going to be the junior partner to Hawkeye and the Widow, trained in skills complementary to theirs.

"-- since Jack Hart got himself lit up in the Sudan," Hawkeye -- Clint -- was saying. "We can handle the quick-'n'-messy, but 'Tasha's not interested enough to learn the hard stuff and I'm usually the long man. If we're going to be a trio..."

"Do you have a preference, Piotr?" Fury looked over; he and Clint had been talking to each other and had oriented themselves along that axis. "You could probably do Sapper School as is." "That would be fine," he said. It sounded better than the other options, most of which involved computers; he didn't like the abstraction that came with doing damage remotely to people, places, and things rendered theoretical by being reduced to transmitted bytes and flashing cursors. "I have some experience with knocking things over and I am mostly protected from my own mistakes."

Clint laughed. "Yeah, I suppose so."

Fury wanted to send Piotr through SHIELD's basic training, but Clint argued against it. He and Natasha would have to spend months re-training him, Clint protested, and that would lose valuable time as well as inculcating habits and instincts that would be hard to override. "They don't teach subtlety in boot camp."

Ten minutes later, after Fury had refused to commit to anything more than taking it under advisement, Clint looked at his watch and stood up.

"Gotta go," he said, tapping the watch with his index finger. "I promised I'd be home before Spongebob and if I miss this shuttle... I disappoint them enough as it is."

Goodbyes were said and, after Clint left, Fury turned back to face Piotr.

"What do you have that the twins want so much?" Piotr asked before Fury could say anything. "This... agreement you have with them. Something for something -- they gave me to you, you gave something to them. You can't stop them, so they don't need your approval and there must be easier sources for weapons than diverting stores from SHIELD, so what is it?"

The older man chuckled. "You haven't figured that out yet?" He smiled and tilted his head slightly. "And here we've been talking you up as such a bright boy."

Fury leaned forward, as if divulging a confidence.

"This is going to be your first lesson in Black Ops, Rasputin," he said, not unkindly. "So take notes. In the real world, nothing is for free. Nothing. Every little bit you get comes with a price. You want a beer, you pay the bartender. You want a nice lawn, you pay the gardener. You want to keep the country safe, you have to pay for that, too. Except the transactions aren't as neat and you don't want them turning on the AmEx bill. You, Clint, and Natasha are part of my secret slush fund for when I need to pay cash.

"Purchases like these, you have to think long and hard before making them -- whether or not what you're getting is worth the price, or whether you can afford to buy it... or whether you can afford not to."

"Realpolitik," Piotr agreed. "I get that, but..."

"Something for something. What are Wanda and Pietro Lehnsherr offering up for sale? A little information and a lot of stability. They're killers and they're probably a little crazy. But they're not crazy like their father was. And they're not nearly as dangerous as some of the bastards who are lurking around waiting to take their place should they fall.

"SHIELD -- hell, any policing agency -- isn't ready to take on an army of mutant terrorists who can't be taken down by their own hubris. Look at that clusterfuck with Proteus; it's easy to say that the X-Men are screwing up, but only a fool thinks that a company of SHIELD troopers would do better. Super-powered bad guys are bad enough, but organized super-powered bad guys? We're not ready for that sort of evolution right now. So since we can't fight it, the only thing we can do is keep it from being kick-started in the first place."

"You're buying the devil you know," Piotr murmured. He had overlooked the notion of information as currency as being too obvious, but just because it was practical didn't mean it was unreasonable. The Brotherhood and SHIELD lived in different worlds that only tangentially overlapped and information crucial to one was only a curiosity to the other; the twins needed names and places of rival mutant activist (terrorist) groups and their most violent opponents while SHIELD, an organization responsible to the government that funded it, needed ways and means to keep civilians safe and their own overseers happy. Nick Fury had a President and a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to report to and public relations to keep up even before he so much as changed the color of the buttons on the SHIELD uniform.

Fury nodded. "More or less. The twins are using the Brotherhood as a vehicle for vengeance, which is a waste of time and energy on their part, but it's their energy to waste and it's a mission that is lot less threatening to national security than if they were using that energy for fulfilling any plans of world domination. So we let them blow up a few anti-mutant groups and do a little creative damage -- most of which is on our wish list to Santa, by the way -- and, in return, we don't have to worry about them driving Sentinels into Buckingham Palace or knocking over the Washington Monument. And as long as they've got the Brotherhood in hand, that means nobody else is leading it in more... unsavory directions. Better the Lehnsherrs than a whole lot of other characters -- and they know how we feel."

Piotr leaned back thoughtfully. He still didn't know why the twins had sought to trade him to SHIELD. What did Fury want him for? What sort of shadowy business transaction would explain his interest in a mutant with no inside information? Or was that a bluff? Did Fury think that he knew more than he was letting on and hope to draw more flies with honey than vinegar? He couldn't possibly know about Magneto, but...

Fury stood up. "I have to go. I'd see about transferring you to a less... Spartan residence, but you'll probably be shipping out tomorrow or the day after. Rudelsky here will put in the order that you're safe to be left with silverware."

"Wait," Piotr called out as Fury turned to leave. "Iceman..."

"Robert Drake is in the PICU at New York Presbyterian," Fury answered, shaking his head in disgust. "He'll make it, but it'll be a long time before he's walking again. With a little luck, his parents will take him home and keep him as far away from Charles Xavier as possible."

"Thank you." Piotr frowned, pleased that Bobby was alive and would recover, but saddened all the same. That the injuries had come in the line of duty, as it were... Piotr didn't think Bobby would quit because of them, or that he'd let his parents take him away from it. For all of his griping about charitable works and public appearances and PR stunts, Bobby loved the life, loved the bit of celebrity, and (sadly) loved the danger. It would be up to Xavier to force Bobby away from the team and, despite all of the threats to do just that, despite everyone's growing sense that Bobby was too young for this sort of life in more ways than just years, Piotr doubted that the Professor would push hard enough to keep Bobby from coming back. The Professor believed enough in his Dream to sacrifice his own family, abandoning his wife and son, for the cause. That sort of dedication... someone else's son was but a small price. Piotr couldn't accept that collateral damage so easily, which was partly why he was at the Triskelion instead of the mansion.

Fury was already halfway out the door when Piotr's attention returned to him and he watched the door close automatically behind him.

"Piotr Rasputin, agent of SHIELD," he said quietly to himself, testing out the words. They hadn't seemed real before, during his isolated trials. It wasn't that he hadn't believed Fury, he had -- at least as a threat, but that he'd never imagined being put in a situation to actually represent SHIELD in any capacity; his imagination had run toward guarding way stations out in Alaska or some similarly far-flung low-level outpost where the color of the uniform and the name on the insignia were irrelevant. He hadn't envisioned being anything other than a grunt in a dark blue uniform, let alone becoming one of the chosen few.

He had no delusions about what that 'chosen' future held; Clint and Natasha did not perform the sort of tasks one got medals for doing well. Take away the advanced technology, better-grade weapons, and more exotic locales and what they did would probably not differ much from what he had done for Boris. Fury could talk all he wanted about Piotr's intelligence, but he knew that Fury was just as interested -- if not more so -- in the fact that he was capable of using lethal force without falling to pieces afterward. The potential of a renewable resource like that may have been enough to warrant the twins serving him up to Fury as a prize.

Piotr looked down at the stack of newspapers by his feet. Alex would be following the Proteus mess closely, Piotr suspected, pretending he was unaffected when he eventually got in contact with his brother. He'd have had an interesting reaction to the knowledge that the twins and SHIELD were in a marriage of convenience. Maybe he would have even predicted it -- "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you," he'd said more than once when Piotr would tell him he was chasing shadows. But Alex was right, at least in this case; the shadows had solid forms behind them. Nick Fury choosing Wanda and Pietro as the least of all evils...

The gentle, concerned smile of Erik Lehnsherr haunted him. He had initially not said anything about Magneto because he'd wanted him as his ace in the hole, the card he could pull out if Fury had threatened to turn him over to Xavier -- or worse. And now... knowing that Magneto was still alive was still a valuable piece of information (at least as long as Lehnsherr stayed where -- and how -- he was), both in dealing with Fury and in negotiating with the twins. Both sides would pay dearly for that information and, until something else came along, that was his one and only bargaining chip.

When the Professor had first brought him to Central Park to see Lehnsherr, Piotr had been horrified. But it had been a transitional sort of horror, a scary-movie kind of creepiness that would pass with time. Xavier had done this thing and, while it had questionable ethics, it was over and (at least as far as his own abilities went) irreversible. And the world was a safer place with Magneto gone, even if it had cost a moral compromise. At least this one had greater benefits than feeding his family without a double-shift at the factory. By showing Piotr what he'd done, Xavier had made him a part of that compromise... and he'd accepted that shared burden by not telling anyone else. What was one more compromise in a life full of them?

Piotr wished he could have someone to talk to, someone he could trust. Because he was starting to doubt his own motives again and question his own judgment and that was no way to live by one's wiles. He was still protecting Xavier and his choices for the sole purpose of keeping his own options open. It felt selfish and duplicitous, but he neither trusted anyone else with the information -- nor with what they would do to him once the secret was no longer his alone.

Standing up, as if he could leave the quandary behind him on the couch, Piotr walked over to the window-wall. The sun was set only barely, the sky a vivid rainbow of pinks and oranges and greens and purples fading into blue. There was ferry traffic and a couple of patrol boats, traffic helicopters and airplanes coming in low en route to Newark airport and he could see the red and white lights of rush hour traffic backed up on some road in New Jersey and he lost himself in the bustle of it all until the doorbell chimed and dinner was brought in, along with a box of utensils and snacks to make the kitchen less bare.




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