Acts of Contrition: Chapter Eight

"You're damned lucky you're made out of metal."

Piotr frowned as he slid his back against the wall to sit down. Pulling open his pack, he looked around inside of it without having any particular object to his search. Next to him, Hawkeye lay on his stomach with the rifle sight to his eye, muttering under his breath as if the smoke across the street would listen to his exhortations and dispel faster.

"I'm not made out of metal and luck had nothing to do with it," Piotr said evenly, opening up his canteen and taking a long pull. He offered it to Hawkeye, who declined with a shake of his head. Clint had been in the warehouse for three hours, going through his routine and preparing for action and Piotr felt a bit like an intruder.

"You haven't been doing this long enough to get that cocky." Hawkeye pulled away from the carefully positioned rifle, frowning. He shuffled back on his knees, the hard-capped kneepads scraping against the course dust that covered every surface in the room. Every surface in this town. This had once been the truck depot for the local collective, then it had gone private, and then it had gone out of business. The hangar-like main room downstairs was empty save for the odd bit of trash and signs that people occasionally came out here to shoot up or have sex -- drug paraphernalia and food wrappers and used condoms next to filthy blankets piled into ersatz nests. The loft had been divided into rooms and their present location had once been an office judging by the warped and battered file cabinet and desk; the wooden furniture had long since been hacked apart for firewood to be used in the steel drum furnaces below.

Rolling his neck, Hawkeye reached into his belt for his saline drops. The contact lenses were a new prototype, intended for operatives who wouldn't be easily able to care for traditional ones in the field, but they were apparently very irritating and Clint, who absolutely refused to get laser surgery, had been increasingly more frustrated with them and less careful not to take it out on Piotr and Natasha. The Widow would snark back, but Piotr found it easier to just take it without protest.

"You made a mess with that last charge," Hawkeye said calmly.

"I stayed away from the gas tank." Aware that Hawkeye wasn't really criticizing his actions and was instead peevish about his own discomfort, Piotr leaned back and closed his eyes. "It didn't send anyone running off to sound an alarm who wasn't supposed to be running off to sound an alarm."

They'd been in motion since two hours before dawn -- which, it being summer, was barely after nightfall this far north -- and the sun was close enough to overhead to call it noon now. Piotr had had last watch, which meant he'd been up for two hours longer than either Clint or Natasha, both of whom were far more used to sleeping when and where they could than he was. Opening his eyes lest he start to doze, he dug out one of the energy bars in his pack's outside pocket and tore open the wrapper, stuffing it into the mouth of the now empty canteen and putting the canteen in his pack, re-closing it. If Hawkeye was the guinea pig for contact lenses, Piotr was on a quest for the least inedible MRE. The copious snacks and drink powders were fine, but the entrees left plenty to be desired and Piotr only ate them when he had to -- or when he was ordered to. The energy bars were an unpleasant necessity. Natasha and Clint were benevolently amused at his seemingly constant need to eat, although Piotr was himself surprised at the perpetual growl of hunger that had begun once he'd started intense training and never really ceased. Xavier had realized that most mutants possessed an accelerated metabolism and structured the mansion's mealtimes and food supply accordingly, but that had been with moderate physical exercise. In the eight months since he'd been drafted into SHIELD, however, Piotr had had to redefine "moderate" in many contexts.

"They're mobile," the Black Widow said into their earpieces. "ETA five minutes. Petya, once you're done with your snack, come meet me out back. We'll need to plan a distraction."

"Don't you be putting any dents into that shiny metal ass of his," Hawkeye warned as he settled back into position behind the rifle.

"That's your job?" Piotr asked before he could stop himself. Of course, the man had a point. The last 'distraction' that the Widow had staged had been little more than Piotr running around in his steel form getting shot at while she made her move behind the gunplay.

"Damned straight," Hawkeye agreed, not looking over. His attention was on the street below, Piotr knew, and the imminent approach of the caravan. "C'mon, c'mon, you jacked-up goatfuckers, now is not the time to start obeying pedestrian right-of-way."

Piotr finished his energy bar -- a Swedish kind that tasted less like chalk and more like cardboard than the Danish ones he'd been working his way through -- and stood up. He was wearing his rifle on a strap and had everything else he'd need tucked in to pockets and pouches, so he dropped his pack next to where Clint had left his own and Natasha's.

A grunt from Hawkeye acknowledging his departure was enough and Piotr headed toward the unevenly slanted doorway and the stairs with their corrugated-steel steps that creaked miserably when he walked on them. He'd been allowed in the field in some capacity for more than half of his time with SHIELD; the short missions between sessions at sapper school where all he'd do was observe had slowly changed to longer ones where he'd been given responsibilities. For the last month, however, those responsibilities had grown in importance and while he was still very much the junior partner of the trio, he was a partner. It felt more natural now, here with Black Widow and Hawkeye in the middle of yet another black op, than it ever did with the X-Men and Piotr still feared that it was because he was free to be violent instead of because he was free to be human.

"{Come on}," Natasha said, poking her head in the doorway from outside. Her brilliant hair was hidden by a cap and her face was streaked with dirt and ashy residue from the fire they had started earlier. "{We get done here quickly enough, we can be in Almaty before Tuesday and that means a long weekend in Paris.}"

"{I don't like Paris}," he replied, pushing off the wall he'd been leaning against and walking toward the door.

"{Fine. We'll punt you out of the plane somewhere over Austria and you can spend the weekend looking at churches... or for places to sin. You had a good time in Vienna last time, I seem to recall. The two bankers, right?}"

Piotr sighed heavily as he squinted against the sunlight and Natasha laughed delightedly. She cheerfully ignored all of his stated and implied desires to not discuss his love life; the more reticent he acted, the harder she pressed. There was nothing to tease Clint about, she insisted; happily married, his healthy appreciation for the female form was theoretical only. Clint, more relieved than sympathetic, had suggested turning it around on her and telling her everything. Piotr was still living in fear of the next time Natasha proved how badly that idea had backfired.

They made their way around the side of the building Clint was using as his sniper's nest and across to the next, staying in the shade and out of sight. The streets were unpaved and uneven, with dusk clouds easily kicked up and just as easily dispersed by the wind, and mostly deserted. Close to the Chinese border, it had been a town under occupation by drug traffickers since long before the 1991 Independence movement. But recently the opium trade here had been supplemented by increasing number of arms and the rumor of other, more dangerous chemicals. The arms were dangerous, of course, but not SHIELD's concern; ricin was.

The discovery of a brick of ricin-laced heroin had been accidental; it had been part of a large seizure of barely cut heroin in Los Angeles six months ago. The DEA had immediately lost half a dozen agents from the exposure; Homeland Security had been brought in, various agencies had attempted cooperation to trace the shipment back to the former CIS states... and then the investigation had stalled. Russia's Pacific seaports were owned by organized crime and the Russian government would neither take the requisite actions against the mob nor would they sanction US action. Moscow, a tenuous ally at best, would sacrifice much to preserve the appearance of maintaining control over the country. Kyrgyzstan was three-quarters Muslim; all it would take would be a couple of extremists to divert a packet or two and it wouldn't just be the Chechens who were getting supplied. The US President had told Nick Fury to take whatever action was necessary. That had been two months ago.

"{What is taking them so long?}" Natasha groused as she looked around. Piotr kept his eye on the street where their targets were supposed to be coming from. He'd spent the morning attaching explosives to the foundational supports inside the converted granary that was now the town's opium processing plant; the place would be blown by remote on the way out, but he'd knocked out the garage already and that was what would be bringing the cavalry... when they showed.

"Change of plans, babe," Clint's voice came through their earpieces. "Otorbayev's spooked -- he's coming with two escorts and they're taking Adilet Street."

Natasha cursed viciously in both Russian and English, tapping Piotr on the arm and gesturing that he should follow her. The original plan had been for Piotr to block the rear escape route while Natasha grabbed Bektur Otorbayev, the local warlord and a key piece to the Kyrgyzstan puzzle, and Clint would take out the escort. But that was no longer feasible; Otorbayev was not going straight to the garage, instead taking the main road. It would be too much open space and too hard for two people to work. Otorbayev's value was slightly higher alive than dead, but that was a goal and not a requirement. Acquiring the laptop he carried on his person at all times, however, was not optional.

"{There}," she said, gesturing to a large metal storage tank on the side of the building. "{Can you turn that into scrap?}"

Rather than replying, Piotr went over to it, changing into his steel form as he walked. There were no houses within five hundred yards of the granary and nobody around to see what he was doing. It took a well-balanced jerk to wrench the tank, once used to hold grain, loose from its welded moorings. It was rusted in spots and Piotr pressed his fingers into the reddened areas, feeling the oxidized metal flake as it gave way. He tore bits off raggedly, like peeling a grapefruit without a knife, and tossed them in to the street in front of the granary, making sure that each piece was sufficiently jagged and bent. Working quickly, he managed to litter enough of an area that would make it impossible to park.

"{Side alley}," Natasha said as she started to run and Piotr, back in his flesh form, jogged to follow. The alley was wide enough for the big Lincoln SUVs Otorbayev favored, but not much else. It was sided by two unbroken walls, the granary's and the rear of an abandoned warehouse that not even Otorbayev used because the roof had rotted through and two of the walls were made of corrugated tin. The wall facing the alley, however, was brick and had a small, rickety staircase that led up to a door.

Without prompting, Piotr jogged to behind the staircase. It was a poor hiding spot, but it was the largest area of shadow in the alley and Natasha could more easily fit in the recess of the granary's doorway. He pulled his ski mask out of his pocket and pulled it on, careful not to dislodge the earpiece. There were also gloves; annoying necessities to hide the metallic sheen of his skin in its steel form in case of survivors. As he pulled the second one on, he heard the sound of wheels turning on the dusty ground and stepped back.

Across the street, Natasha pulled on her mask and stepped back as well. She nodded to him and pulled her weapon around. It had originally been some sort of Benelli, but had been heavily modified by a SHIELD Special Forces armorer and now looked more mutt than anything.

The SUVs came to sliding halts on the loose ground. Otorbayev would be in the middle one, stopped about five meters away from where he and Natasha hid. They'd have to neutralize the rear car first, then come at Otorbayev from behind and Clint would be re-positioning to take out at least the front-seat occupants of the lead vehicle.

"{Tape the doors, then toss a canister in a window}," Natasha said quietly, her voice coming through the earpiece. "{Then get Otorbayev out of the car. I'll cover the other side.}"

Piotr took the golf-ball-sized gas canister out of his thigh pouch and pulled the roll of tape off of his belt, flicking the starter tab with his thumb. The tape was something SHIELD had come up with and was standard issue for all trooper kits; it was shot through with some sort of metal filament that made it nearly uncuttable and, when exposed to the air, the adhesive size was stickier than Krazy Glue.

Crouching down, he waited for Natasha's signal and then ran in a crouch to the back of the rearmost SUV. They arrived at the same time and Natasha held up fingers to count down from three. With perfect synchronization, they moved around to the sides of the SUV, attached one end of the tape to the car by the side turn signals, then ran it along the length of the car until past the rear-view mirrors. The tape dispensers came with a sliding adamantium blade to allow them to be used one-handed and Piotr punctured the tear gas canister with his other hand. Standing up, he transformed to steel and shot his fist through the passenger-side door and flung the already-smoking canister toward the rear. It was round and small and, in the panic already caused, would be difficult to retrieve before it blinded the SUV's occupants, all five of whom were already shouting and cursing in a mixture of Kyrgyz and Russian.

Piotr moved on to the next vehicle, yanking the rear door off its hinges easily. Otorbayev, a small, thin man, was on the other side. The man closest to Piotr was neither small nor thin and he pulled a handgun out, firing its entire clip into Piotr's protective chest plating. Piotr was knocked backward by the force of the bullets' impact, but the warehouse wall was not far behind him and his momentum was checked before the thug, clearly surprised at the lack of dead attacker, could react. Piotr grabbed him by the collar with his left hand and punched him with his right, hoping that the sickening crack of breaking bone he heard was jawbone and not neck. The front passenger door started to open and Piotr kicked it shut, putting a dent in the door where his foot made contact. He pulled his pistol from the holster on his thigh and shot the man in the shoulder as he turned around.

"{Don't make me shoot you in the head}," he requested politely, although the man was screaming too loudly to pay attention. The driver was obviously reaching for his weapon and Piotr clucked loudly. "{The same goes for you."}

Otorbayev, shocked motionless by the assault, recovered his senses and reached to open the door on his side. Natasha was standing there, her firearm pointed straight at his head.

"{Stay there}," she told him curtly, then fired a single shot into the driver's seat. The driver, screaming in agony, fell forward on to the steering wheel and the horn sounded. She looked at Otarbayev, but spoke to Piotr. "{What have I told you about courtesy getting you nowhere? Go check on the next one.}"

Piotr looked over at the lead vehicle. The rear door on his side was open and the man who had opened it on the ground next to the car, either dying or dead. The tinted window showed the bullet hole. He hadn't heard them and didn't know if Clint had nailed all of his targets, so swung his own rifle around and flicked off the safety as he moved forward. Stepping over the fallen man, Piotr could see through to the other side of the back seat. The door was open, but the inside of the window was splattered with gore. Natasha must have shot him. There were matching bullet holes in the windshield and Piotr saw slumped figures, but he opened the passenger side door just to be sure.

"I'm offended," Clint's voice came through on his earpiece. "You should trust me more than that."

"Just admiring your marksmanship," Piotr replied smoothly.

"{Does someone big and strong and with a taste for lithe, mustachioed Viennese financial advisors want to come help me carry a package?}" Natasha asked sweetly. "{I'll carry the laptop}," she added helpfully.

"Can I hate her?" Piotr asked plaintively as he went around to where Natasha was holding a briefcase next to the unconscious Otorbayev. "Just until we get home?"

"You can try, darling. You can try," Natasha laughed.

"We really need a computer person here," Scott grumbled as he stared at the screen. "Someone who knows more about the internet than how to look stuff up on Google."

Jean, on the couch behind him, didn't look up from her magazine. "Henry probably can."

"Henry's expertise doesn't extend past downloading hacks for the Playstation." Scott closed the tab he was looking at and went back to the one that was open to Lexis-Nexis. Fingers poised over the keyboard, he tried to come up with search terms that would narrow the results down to a manageable and useful number. 'Hellfire Club' maxed out the search function, as did 'mutants' and the two together brought nothing useful.

"That's been enough for us so far, right?" Jean flipped a page noisily. She was reading through a stack of celebrity magazines, ostensibly looking for details but Scott held little illusion about what sort of resource that was. The Hellfire Club's members -- at least the important ones, the ones Scott was interested in -- were not the types to go for ostentatious displays of power and wealth. They were more likely to be in Forbes instead of US Weekly.

"I mean, sure, Piotr was handy for looking stuff up, but he wasn't any hacker dude," Jean finished.

"Piotr would have gotten this damned search down to under five thousand hits by now."

"Well, Piotr's not here," Jean retorted with vague annoyance, flipping another page. "Don't take your frustration out on me."

Piotr wasn't here, Piotr wasn't anywhere. And Scott wondered when everyone had simply decided that Piotr wasn't coming back. SHIELD had stopped bothering to update them months ago; the agent tasked to head up the search had simply told them that it was pointless to keep reporting no change in the status quo and that the next contact would have positive information, for good or for ill. The automatic ping sent out by Cerebro was weekly instead of nightly because, like his own database searches, it brought back too many results -- a mutant's signature was unique and Piotr's was on file, but to allow for changes brought on by stress or conditioning or local geography, Xavier had broadened the spectrum's range and each ping came back with a thousand or more results that could be Piotr and never were.

"I wonder if I could take a computer class," Scott mused, typing in Moira McTaggert's name. "See if Manhattanville or SUNY Purchase has something."

"Or I could teach you," Jean suggested dryly, as if Scott had overlooked the obvious solution.

"If all you had to do was think hard at some professor, why are you lying there reading about the Frost sisters' latest drunken exploits instead of doing this yourself?" He knew he was going to pay for the comment, but didn't care. It was an annoying habit all telepaths had -- they assumed that everyone else would automatically turn to them as fonts of all sorts of knowledge, but never volunteered themselves -- and he was too tired to be generous about it. So, instead, he focused intensely on the computer screen and waited for Jean to lob back a grenade.

"You know, sometimes you're really lucky I'm a telepath," Jean said after a long silence broken only by the sound of turning magazine pages and the distant noise of Bobby's cane as he moved around the first floor. Scott could tell that she was calm, but her voice was still brittle. "You say awful things and if I didn't know that you didn't mean them, we'd have so many more fights."

Scott let out a breath he didn't realize he had been holding. On the one side, he was glad that Jean hadn't let him pick a fight -- and, in truth, that was what he had been doing. They'd only end up yelling and he'd only end up apologizing and things were tense enough this week without adding on relationship squabbling that would inevitably get brought up during the mission tomorrow. On the other side, getting forgiven out of hand because Jean could read his thoughts frustrated him because he never really earned the forgiveness and that felt inadequate, like it was charity instead of graciousness.

"And you'll be happy to know that there's a damned good reason I'm reading about the Frost sisters' latest drunken exploits," Jean went on. "I found our mysterious mutant babe."

Scott looked over his shoulder and behind him. "What?"

Jean held up the magazine she was reading, but because of the distance and his angle, Scott couldn't see more than that there were text and pictures. "Please tell me that Adrienne Frost is not a mutant."

Adrienne Frost, star of her own accidental porn movie, a permanent fixture on Page Six, and the younger daughter of Winston Frost, had been at the Hellfire Club dinner, although Scott had not seen her. At least he didn't think he had; he knew the name -- Jean was an avid reader of Page Six and the other gossip columns -- but apart from knowing that Adrienne was pretty, blonde, and (according to her sex tapes, which he had not seen) had a tattoo of a butterfly over her pelvic bone, she could have been any of the young, beautiful women in the room as far as his knowledge went.

The story around the mansion had it that it had only been Henry's timely intervention that had kept Bobby from approaching her and possibly (probably) saying something that they'd all have regretted. Scott and Jean, who knew that what had been said between Xavier and Sebastian Shaw was infinitely more regrettable than anything Bobby could have come up with, had simply smiled and laughed with Logan, Ororo, and the Professor as Henry told the tale.

"Thankfully no." Jean's voice dripped with relief and disgust. "Not unless she's got a mutant power to be crass and an embarrassment to her family."

Knowing the truth of what transpired as coffee was served, Jean had been most eager to draw up a list of who had been left standing as they'd departed -- which of New York's social elite were closeted mutants. He understood the theory of why such a list could be of use, especially if the Hellfire Club was yanking them around -- that Harry Leland and Sebastian Shaw were mutants had been most interesting to find out. But not everyone at the dinner had been part of the Hellfire Club's inner circle. Most of them were simply New York's old money, members of families whose names graced skyscrapers, hotels, museum wings, and charitable foundations. Most of them couldn't possibly have knowledge of what Shaw was implying -- those kinds of secrets couldn't stay safe if too many people knew about them. And, as such, most of the people there that night were innocents, non-combatants, and Professor Xavier had, by outing all the mutants in the room, ripped from them their own deepest secrets, even if it had only been for a moment.

As far as Scott was concerned, if someone could go through life without facing the dangers and prejudice of being known as a mutant, then they should. Xavier had not done the right thing by outing the Club's mutants, but Scott was in the minority viewpoint there and kept his disquiet to himself except when Jean's... bloodlust showed itself.

Jean had tried to couch her interest in identifying the Club's mutants in terms of her gossip-loving ways, but Scott didn't trust her insistence that there was no vindictiveness involved. Not after everything that had happened that night and not after knowing Jean for as long as he had. They had spent too many nights in front of the television watching the news gleefully show video of Sentinels descending like rockets from the sky and wondering aloud why so few of America's richest and most powerful stood up and objected. Jean came from that world of tony prep schools and being ranked according to your genealogy and she'd fumed that the branches of the tree above hers had done nothing. She had fumed until the Hellfire Club had turned around and invited the X-Men to their world. Scott didn't know if she even realized that it was her frustrated ambition that burned her the most.

"Don't you want to know who our Mystery Mutant is?" Jean asked.

"Who is it?" he dutifully asked, feeling Jean's good humor almost bubble through their link.

"The other one," Jean announced exultantly, twisting and rolling off the couch in a smooth motion into a standing position. She walked over to where Scott was sitting and came up behind him, holding the magazine before him and almost whispering in his ear. "Emma. That's her, right? The one you saw?"

Scott looked down at where Jean's finger was pointing. Emma, the relatively lower key daughter of Winston Frost. Relatively being the key word, as Jean would say. The young woman in the picture didn't look familiar at first. She was looking away from the camera and was leaning in, her arm around another pretty woman of the same age. Dressed in a little slip of a dress that covered far less than what anyone was wearing at the Hellfire Club dinner, there was nothing about this picture of Emma Frost that reminded him of the young woman he'd passed. There was no way to capture that cold-eyed stare on film, he didn't think.

He shrugged carefully, mindful of the proximity of his shoulder and Jean's chin. "I dunno. I only remember her face."

Jean laughed and kissed him on the cheek, standing up and back before he could turn toward her face. "That's what I love about you."

"Huh?" He swiveled in the desk chair to face where she was standing. Jean merely giggled, waved the magazine, and headed for the doorway.

"It's better if it's a mystery," she said airily as she left. "I don't want your ego inflating. Now go, work. Get some nice results and maybe we can play in the Danger Room later."

She made it sound like a saucy offer, but it had been Scott who had scheduled a team session in the Danger Room, so he just shook his head, sighed, and turned back to the computer.

After another half hour of directionless searching, Scott found himself staring at the little clock in the bottom right corner of the screen. It was almost eleven in England, but Alex would be up. The question was whether Scott was up to dealing with him. Alex had been the obvious answer all along as to who to ask for help in researching the Hellfire Club's activities, but the nature of the request meant that Scott would have to stomach Alex's attitude if he wanted to get anything useful out of his brother. It didn't bother him that Alex was acerbically cynical about everything; everyone needed a hobby. It was that he tended to be such an ass when Scott was forced to admit that that cynicism occasionally had its uses.

Deciding that the worst case scenario was that he had to listen to Alex's anti-Xavier spiel for a bit and then wind up having the fight he had been semi-picking with Jean with his brother instead, Scott unclipped his cell phone from his belt and dialed.

"Yeah?' Alex answered on the third ring and Scott stifled a comment about how Caller ID was no excuse to stint on phone etiquette.

"How's it going?" he asked instead.

"Tottenham beat Man U, which is apparently the next sign of the Apocalypse after the pale horse showing up," Alex replied dryly. "Thankfully, I'm up to date on neither the Book of Revelation nor the Premier League standings. What do you need?"

"I could be calling to be social," he said, using the mouse to go back to the Lexis-Nexis home screen so he wouldn't time out the session again.

"You could, but you never call me this late unless you're about to warn me that you're gonna be on the news tomorrow or if you need something. And you always start off the warnings with some caveat about how nobody got hurt even if someone did. So. What do you need?"

"I need research help," Scott admitted. "I want to know more about the Hellfire Club than the puff pieces in Vanity Fair and the fashion spreads in Harpers's Bazaar will tell me."

Alex laughed, a crowing noise with an edge of bitterness to it. "Was wondering when you'd get around to that," he said sardonically. "Hold on, let me get my laptop."

The phone was put down and Scott could dimly hear shouts and cheers in the background. Unlike last year, Alex actually lived with other human beings now. It was a suite, Alex had said, three bedrooms off a common room. If Scott had ever known the other two's names, he'd forgotten them now. The background noise dulled and there was a faint click; Alex must have closed his door.

"Okay," Alex said, sounding like he was sitting down. "Are we starting globally or locally? All Hellfire Clubs or just the one in New York?"

"Ideally, I'd like an overview of the whole network and what sort of connections they have with each other," Scott replied. "But I'm really more interested in the one in New York."

"Let's see what we get," Alex murmured vaguely and Scott could hear the sound of keys moving.

"'Lex, I don't want you doing this for me," he said when there had been a pause. "I want to learn for myself so other people don't keep doing for me what I can learn to do for myself. I don't want to be spoon-fed out of pity."

The last line was a bit snarky and Scott closed his eyes in anticipation of Alex snapping back at him -- that's usually how their fights started, with one of them assuming a too-sharp comment was meant for the other when it wasn't.

"Fine." Alex's answer was curt and Scott could practically feel his brother seething. "Start searching with 'Sebastian Shaw' as your first term and then 'Hellfire' as the next one. They redid the interface, so make sure you've got the 'and' chosen and not the 'or'."

Scott, debating whether apologizing would make things worse or better, said nothing as he input the terms and got back more than a thousand results. Something this basic wasn't anything he could have figured out on his own, but telling Alex that would only make things worse.

"A lot of the results are going to be duplicates -- AP articles and reprinted stories," Alex went on, voice devoid of all earlier humor. He sounded like he was giving directions to a stupid child and Scott bit back a comment to that effect. "The date is going to be less important than the source; this is background research. Ignore the soft-news magazines and popular crap; you want business outlets and hard-news sources, either left or right. The New York papers will be better than the ones from outside the city -- the Daily News is as good as or better than anything from Philly or even DC. You want random paragraphs about who's running into crap with the Buildings Department when they're renovating their triplex and where Shaw was seen at dinner."

"I do?" Scott asked. He had opened up Notepad and was taking down what Alex was telling him.

"You want to build a list of connections," Alex explained with a tired sigh. This must all be so basic to him, Scott realized. Like a term paper. "Drawing a line from Sebastian Shaw to Harry Leland is easy. Getting from Shaw to, say, Selene Hollis Forster is harder."

"Who is Selene Hollis Forster?" The name didn't ring a bell beyond the obvious -- the Forster family had recently given almost a hundred million dollars to refurbish the Botanical Gardens down in the Bronx.

There was a crash down the hall and Scott turned, but he heard Ororo laughing and so didn't get up.

"Probably the world's most successful black widow," Alex replied. "She's left caskets and gained castles on every continent except Antarctica. And you care because her third husband was Vance Canning, whose first wife was Audrey Trask. As in 'sister of Bolivar'."

"How do you know all this stuff?" Scott asked as he typed the names on to his Notepad file. He understood that Alex had learned all sorts of things working for the Friends of Humanity, but Alex had been yanked out of that life when he was sixteen. How much research could he have gotten done when he was a straight-A student looking to get into college and still spending his evenings in Union Square harassing tourists and NYU students?

"Abject humiliation, shame, and the threat of violence are better motivators than setting a good example and being the President's favorite mutie lapdogs," Alex answered with gloating satisfaction. "You get more results burning crosses on front lawns than handing out flowers at the airport."

Alex was in full nastiness mode now and Scott winced. When he got like this, it was important to let him just spew his venom and then he'd be done and go back to just being sarcastic. It was like burping a baby... at least until Alex said something that Scott knew he should let go and couldn't and yet another intercontinental shouting match would be underway. It was his own fault for letting Alex get under his skin; he was the elder of the two, the one more used to putting out fires, and it was his responsibility to not rise to his brother's bait. And yet Alex made it so hard to take the high road, so unrewarding to be the better man. Alex enjoyed pushing Scott until he pushed back; he was so firmly a believer in verbal combat as a testing ground for his own opinions... he didn't understand that Scott didn't like to argue, didn't like conflict, didn't want the stress of being forced to defend every opinion he hadn't explicitly rejected. Despite Alex's accusations, not wanting to debate didn't make him weak or passive or intellectually incurious. It only meant that he liked quiet.

"How do you think the Friends of Humanity get their information? Who conveniently went into rehab at a Swiss spa right before the Sentinels started? Who got their picture taken at the MPS fundraiser? Which companies sponsored gene-cloaking research and which ones paid for mutant 'cures'?"

Scott had always practiced a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy with regard to Alex's FoH activities. It wasn't denial; he knew his younger brother had done some unforgivably ugly things. But if he focused on those things, he'd never be able to see the solid citizen Alex was becoming... most of the time. So instead of letting himself be drawn into a debate on the ethics of outing mutants, one of Alex's favorite ways to goad his brother and a particularly bad topic to get into considering what had happened with the Hellfire Club, Scott instead took a deep breath and prepared to play dumb. "It's that easy?"

"Of course it's not," Alex retorted sourly. "It's not as simple as picking out which ones may be mutants and predicting what they do from that. Fuck, Harry Leland spent five years working out of London so he'd never get picked off by the Sentinels his factories built after he low-balled the contract bid."

"You knew Harry Leland was a mutant?" Scott was genuinely shocked. Once the shock of the evening at the Hellfire Club had worn off, that had remained a surprise. Everyone -- at least in the mutant community -- was aware of how much mutant blood was on the ledgers of Leland's ATC Corporation. "Why would he..."

"These people... you have to understand how they think, Scott. You can't be Commander Boy Scout with the Broomstick of Moral Rectitude coming out your ass. Sebastian Shaw and Harry Leland and people like them don't live by any code of ethics you'd even recognize. They're not crooks who are sure they'll never be caught; they know it doesn't matter if they get caught because they have the power to control what happens afterward."

There was a pause and it sounded like Alex was standing up and if Scott weren't already sitting down, he would have. After the venom passed, then came the lecture on why Charles Xavier was a blindly optimistic Pollyanna (sometimes Alex went with Don Quixote metaphors) and Scott a willing sheep who was afraid of real change. This was easier to sit through than the viciousness of Alex's barbs, relatively speaking, because despite the constant impugning of the Professor's beliefs, it was mostly an attack aimed at himself and Scott could handle that. But now he was impatient to know how Alex knew about Harry Leland -- and whether he knew about the Shaws or Emma Frost -- and he didn't want to have to sit through Alex's song and dance routine to get an answer. Asking him straight-out was not an option; Alex would pick up on the sudden interest in high profile New York City mutants and then he'd be impossible to stop.

"You've spent too much time with Xavier and his Us or Them crap," Alex began and Scott took a deep breath and tried not to sigh into the phone. "Folks like Leland? They don't identify as mutant first or even at all -- it's not a dichotomy to them, to be mutant or be human. It's irrelevant. It's all about power and it's a helluva lot more practical to control thirty percent of the mortgages in the Northeast than whatever jolt Magneto got knocking out all of the pacemakers in California. It's what makes them bulletproof -- you can't get to them any more than the Friends of Humanity could."

"Who said I..."

"Scott, remember who you're talking to," Alex cut him off. "Asshole little brother used to do this as his after-school job."

"Going after the Hellfire Club?" It would have been too easy to take that shot.

"Going after you," Alex corrected.

"And a blazing success that was," Scott snorted.

"Why waste energy and manpower defeating you when you were doing such a fantastic job of defeating yourselves?" Alex asked with vicious pleasure. "You play the connect-the-dots instead of looking at the bigger picture and that means you're both predictable as well as easily led."

Scott reminded himself that he really did love his brother, that Alex was only trying to help, and that name-calling would do no more good now than it had fifteen years ago. Probably less as there were no parents to make them stop. "I'm not a coloring book, Alex."

"Something happened when you went to that dinner thing and now you're pissed off," Alex continued as if Scott hadn't spoken. "So you're going to spend all your energy on figuring out what they're up to and then you're going to drop the ball on why they're doing it because you can't see past the idea that the X-Men being mutants isn't the whole point, if it's the point at all."

"What else would be the point?"

"You're high profile, you're dangerous, and you polarize even more than abortion does," Alex replied. "You could have so many uses, I wouldn't even know where to begin. It could be political, it could be financial, it could be both. You're all so eager to please, it's almost unfair to just aim you at someone and watch the damage mushroom out."

"Don't start with the 'Proteus got loose on purpose' conspiracy theory again," Scott asked sincerely. That had been one of Alex's fixations for a while. That someone had gone up to Scotland and freed Proteus on purpose, knowing what sort of havoc that would wreak on the mutant cause. There was a variation of the theory that also accommodated Piotr's disappearance, but Alex had dropped that part of late. Of course, now that Moira McTaggart was known to be involved with the New York Hellfire Club... Alex didn't know that, of course. If he did....

"Afraid I might be right or because it makes me sound more paranoid than usual?" Alex asked with a laugh and Scott returned it, albeit nervously because Alex was perceptive and might draw conclusions even when no premises had been laid before him.

"Either/or," Scott answered lightly. This, too, was typical Alex -- stopping the rant on a dime and becoming a reasonable person again. He'd always had that switch; it was probably how he'd managed to not alienate his friends and foster family. It had just taken a long time for anyone related to the X-Men to see that side of him.

"Ha and ha." There was the faint sound of typing and Scott realized that Alex was still searching. "You should come up with a list of search terms to combine with your names. Random phrases, usually bad things that you don't know who did them, but someone must have -- 'disowned' or 'bankrupt' or 'scandal' or 'illegitimate' or 'detox'. You get more names that way. Keep a list of those names, see who they end up in the same sentence with, and work from there. Do the same with business terms, see who folks like Shaw and Leland and Frost are battling with. The Hellfire Club is necessarily incestuous, but when they reach outside their circle, it's good to know for whom and where."

"Slow down," Scott muttered as he pecked at the keyboard. "I can't type as fast as you talk."

There was a commotion on Alex's end of the phone and even though Alex had his hand over the phone, Scott could hear loud encouragement to come out to a pub.

"Gotta go do that other college thing besides study?" Scott asked after Alex returned and apologized for the interruption.

"Apparently the heresy of my football ignorance can be forgiven if I buy them beer," Alex replied with a snort. "But I've been a good boy this week, so I might as well."

Scott coughed purposefully and Alex laughed.

"Listen, before you go," Alex said. "Do you still have the itinerary from your aborted world tour?"

Scott racked his brain. It had taken him more than a week to unpack after getting back to the mansion after the Proteus mess and, in the chaos surrounding Piotr's absence and Bobby's injuries and Xavier's reaction to Proteus himself, he'd just jammed papers and clothes into any space they'd fit. A year later, the papers were most likely still there -- his desk was not often used apart from its surface. "Probably. Why do you want it?"

"I have a calendar of rallies by the FoH and their equivalents over here," Alex explained. "I want to run a comparison and see how many events were scheduled around you guys. Chart your popularity."

"Freak," Scott muttered almost fondly. "I'll fax it if I find it."

"Thanks," Alex said. "And now I must go get pickled. Behave yourself."

Before Scott could remark on the irony, Alex had hung up.

Along the psionic link, Scott could feel from Jean the sort of vague annoyance that he associated with her interacting with Bobby... or a mention of Alex. She probably had 'heard' him arguing with his brother. Scott had largely given up on getting the two of them to get along; he'd settle for mutual civility and neither of them bitching about the other to his face. Alex was incurably distrustful of all telepaths and Jean... Jean refused to believe that Alex had changed in the time they'd known him. She also resented Alex's refusal to work for the mutant cause, either as a member of the X-Men (as if the team could have handled his divisive) or to follow the Professor's suggestion that he use his 'experience' to help mutants instead of persecute them. Scott had tried to convince Alex to at least try the latter, but the last time he'd tried, it had only ended in a bitter fight that had had them not speaking for almost a month. The Professor himself seemed genuinely unbothered by Alex's so-called (by Jean and Ororo) ingratitude; he seemed to think that Alex would feel differently as he grew more used to his mutation and more distanced from his life as a hatemonger. For his own sanity's sake, Scott chose to share the Professor's faith.

By the time Henry stopped by on the way to dinner, Scott had a list of twenty names he'd never heard of simply by working off the search terms "Leland" and "mutation" and "Hellfire".

"Have you nothing better to do?" Natasha Romanova did not make it seem like a question. She did not sound jaunty or amused as she leaned on Nick Fury's desk, her face close to his and her voice edged with frustration. "What else could you need? Was there some other question about Magadan that you've come up with since the first three times we have debriefed? Some other test we did not take? Has Piotr failed his probationary review? Has Clint forgotten how to shoot? Have I gotten too fat?"

Behind her, still seated in their oversized chairs, Piotr and Clint exchanged wearily amused glances. If the plan was to get them thrown off the Triskelion, Natasha was going about it with all deliberate speed.

They'd gotten in to New York on Wednesday morning and sat through eight hours of questions and report-making with the bureaucrats from Intel and several other branches of SHIELD's core network, including several that Special Services rarely interacted with. There had been five more hours on Thursday, after which Fury had demanded that they go down to the sub-levels to take their annual physicals, qualification exams, and, for Piotr, his final probationary review, which was several weeks late and all but irrelevant since he'd already seen the change in his paychecks.

Today was supposed to be a free day, the first of two, but Fury had called them in for a meeting and then been delayed for over an hour and they were all at patience's end. Magadan had not gone smoothly and while it had ultimately been a success, there had been casualties (none fatal) among the SHIELD troop support. The normal routine of debriefing, never a simple process when shots had been fired in a country where they weren't officially allowed to be, had been grossly complicated by the involvement of the regular service and its bureaucracy. The head of SHIELD's armed forces had a special disdain for the special service in general and Natasha in particular and had dragged out the interviews and report filing for as long as possible. There were only so many times they were willing to review events on the best of missions and Clint had finally marched Piotr and Natasha out of the room and told the protesting major to call Fury.

"What is the purpose of keeping us here talking to these... POGs when we are supposed to be out in the field?" Natasha asked, standing up straight. 'POGs' -- People Other than Grunts -- was a derogatory term for SHIELD's military office workers and support staff. "We have had no time to rest, no time to work out where we're going with our tactical support team because we are tied up by petty bureaucrats who are still upset that they can't fight the Cold War anymore!"

Piotr rubbed his face to cover the fact that his eyes were drooping and he had to yawn. His body clock's local time was probably closer to Mongolia than Manhattan -- they'd spent so much time in Eurasia, it seemed impractical to try to re-orient during their brief visits home. Kyrgyzstan twice, two trips to Russia including the feverish race in and around Vladivostok when they had only intended to be on their fourth sojourn to China, and a five-day camping trip in North Korea that easily ranked as the most miserable experience Piotr had had in his time with SHIELD. They'd tracked the ricin back to its source outside of Harbin, destroyed the operating base, chased down most of the bosses, and then lost their leads as the chief chemist and the biggest financier beat them across the border to Sinuiju and were welcomed as valuable contributors to North Korea's industrial economy. They'd gone in after them, of course, but to no avail -- Zheng and Lai had disappeared somewhere between Sunchon and Pyongyang. Magadan had been the first step toward shutting down the secondary transfer points of the Harbin operation.

"Are you done, Widow?" Fury asked through gritted teeth.

"That depends," Natasha replied sourly. "Are you calling off Preston and did you order us lunch?"

"I am closer to ordering you a firing squad," Fury growled. "Sit down."

Natasha crossed over to the couch by the windowed wall and sat down, muted defiance in every gesture. Fury watched her and sighed in frustration when she smiled pleasantly at him.

"The reason I called you here," Fury began, reaching for a folder on the rightmost pile on his desk, "besides to remind you that Major Preston is a superior officer and, pompous ass though he may be, you owe him your respect. Is that clear, Master Sergeant Barton?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Piotr could see Clint nod once, curtly. SHIELD was a military organization and, in order to fit in that system, Piotr and Natasha were warrant officers. But Clint had come to SHIELD on a semi-permanent loan from the Army and still held his rank, although Fury only ever made reference to it either in formal situations or when he was very angry.

"Good." Fury's glare swept over the three of them. "Because I am frankly tired of all of this shit. You are my elite because I trust you to act independently in the field, but I can not have you cowboying around in here."

Another meaningful glance around the room and Piotr fought the urge to duck his head as his eyes met Fury's.

"I'm putting the three of you on medical leave for the next week," Fury said, looking down at the folder on his desk. "Don't start bitching at me. This is for everyone's good."

"We're not incompetent, just sick?" Natasha asked acidly. "Why don't you just re-assign the operation while you're at it? It has the same effect."

"You're cutting us off at the knees, sir," Clint agreed, sitting forward. "We're in the middle of a game of 'pin the tail on the donkey' and you're pulling us out before anything gets resolved. It makes it look like you're scared we're in the wrong."

"I'm not worried about that and you shouldn't be," Fury said in an annoyed voice. He leaned back so that Rudelsky could place three open folders on his desk. Fury signed the top sheet on each and Rudelsky took them back, disappearing again. "Your team has done spectacular work over the last three months. What happened in Magadan happened because you are getting worn down."

"But--" Clint broke in.

Fury waved his hand and Clint stilled. "You are getting worn down. If I didn't know it from looking at your faces, reading your test results, or calculating the frequent flyer miles you've accumulated, then I'd know it from the fact that if you were fresh and rested, then you wouldn't have let a little thing like a botched set of orders from the company commander become as much of an obstacle as it turned out to be."

Piotr let himself relax with Fury's softer tone. Preston had been trying to pin the blame of the casualties on Clint, even though it had been the savagely incompetent captain who had given the order that had gotten six men badly wounded.

It was both a relief and not to hear that Fury thought exhaustion was starting to affect their performance. Sure, he'd been tired for weeks -- with rare exception, all they'd done for the last few months was go off on missions, eat, and sleep. In that order of priority. But nobody liked to hear that they were showing weakness.

"You three are going to go away for a week," Fury went on, a placid smile ghosting on his face. "I don't care where. Go to Europe, go to Vegas, go to Disneyworld. Go to hell for all I care. But go away. If I see any of you here before seven days are up, I will have you shot. By Major Preston, who can't hit the broad side of a barn, so you'll bleed out slowly. Don't think that I won't do it."

Clint chuckled and Fury's smile stayed.

"Now get the hell out of my office," Fury ordered with no real force. "I have work to do."

They left immediately and, once on the elevator to the subterranean exits, Clint reminded them of his wife's invitation to dinner and they made plans to meet up. Clint was taking his kids to the Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaurs and Natasha had been looking forward to her spa appointment since their arrival in New York, so they agreed to meet at the museum. Piotr had made no fixed plans, but it was a beautiful day out and he figured to spend at least part of it walking around. He had no idea what he would do for a week -- at the start of his tenure, his time not spent with Natasha and Clint on missions was spent at the SHIELD base where the engineering brigade was stationed so that he could continue his training and then the hell that had been SERE. Since he'd finished that, however, they hadn't been home for any extended time, certainly not in New York. The sudden free time in what was nominally his home city... had him at a loss. It felt wasteful, almost decadent, to spend a day wandering around doing nothing. Which was precisely the point.

The Triskelion had its own miniature subways to both Manhattan and Brooklyn as well as to Hoboken in New Jersey. The small terminal, as the easiest point of entry to the complex, was extremely well guarded and even more heavily fortified. Full security scans to get in and out on either end and video and heat-signature surveillance in each of the small cars. Clint broke off to take the shuttle to Brooklyn while Piotr and Natasha headed for the Manhattan platform. Once the shuttle left, it was a three minute trip to the small building on Water Street. The terminal was in the basement but nobody in the deli on the ground level or small offices on the next three floors knew about it; the rear stairwell was not often used.

Piotr let Natasha leave first, setting his bag down next to the x-ray table and pulling out his gloves, unsure if he'd need them. As a reflex, he checked the pendant around his neck, resting behind the crucifix Natasha had gotten him for his birthday. The pendant was a psionic scrambler, developed by SHIELD and used by its highest members to keep from being traced by telepaths and Cerebro-type devices. It couldn't block telepathic invasion, but it could successfully diffuse an individual's particular signature -- muddle their psionic fingerprint, as it were -- and any telepath would almost have to see a user to be able to psionically identify who it really was. The saint's icon showed as it always did when it was working -- Clint had a US flag on his, Natasha a dancer -- and he tucked it back under his shirt before picking up his bag and stepping into the vestibule that led to the last security door.

It was not yet officially winter, but it might as well have been; the sun was doing precious little to warm up the cool air. After the time spent recently in Russia and the Chinese and Kyrgyz mountains, it really wasn't that cold here in New York, but Piotr had kept a mental picture of the city in the late spring, before the summer heat made the city swelter and stink and after the false starts that were always early spring here and nowhere in that vision was his breath visible in little white puffs.

He pulled on his gloves, adjusted his scarf, and pulled out his sunglasses once he started northwest on Broad Street. Being the heart of New York's financial district, it was not a place he'd gotten to visit often. This far south in Manhattan the streets were narrow, crooked, and occasionally still cobblestoned. The buildings were stately and grand; it was one of the oldest parts of the city and felt it, even with the twenty-first century filling the air with cell phone conversations and car horns.

Wall Street west past Trinity Church, pastoral and peaceful as it was dwarfed by the buildings around it. Up Broadway, stepping on or over the plaques in the sidewalk commemorating parades down the so-called Canyon of Heroes. They were chronological and went down to Battery Park; New York had had a lot of parades. Down Vesey over to Church and up to Chambers, where he bought a copy of the Sun, then over to West Broadway because there were more restaurants and he was getting hungry. At Leonard Street, right where Varick Street split from West Broadway, there was a restaurant he'd been to once. It had been on a date that felt like it had been forever ago, but it couldn't have been much more than two years. The food had been more memorable than the date.

The dining room was comfortably full -- there were just enough people to feel busy, but not so many that conversations overlapped. Piotr was seated at a table for four and handed a menu. The last few weeks had been almost exclusively MREs broken up by whatever airplane food got stored in SHIELD transports; the chances to eat meals cooked by human beings had come rarely and Piotr nearly laughed aloud at the choices before him. The waiter brought him a glass of water with a lemon slice and took his order for warm goat cheese profiteroles, herb and roasted red pepper salad, and a rib-eye steak. The food was as good as he remembered and he left a generous tip for the waiter who did not stop by every five minutes to check on his progress and instead let him read and eat in peace.

It felt nice to have money earned legally. Xavier had given them all stipends for 'spending money' and he'd earned a regular wad of bills working for Boris (there were no paychecks in the mafia), but this was different. SHIELD paid well, at least for what Piotr did for them, and he had an actual bank account that was growing healthily; there hadn't been much down time to spend his earnings and Natasha was shameless in expensing their various stop-overs.

Varick Street became Seventh Avenue a few blocks north of Houston and Piotr was in the West Village, where the streets were at sharp angles to the rest of Manhattan's grid and crossed themselves with vicious abandon. This had once been his favorite neighborhood to cruise and to visit, but that felt like a lifetime ago and the thought of returning later in the week was both daunting and appealing. Bedford Street crossed Seventh at a sharp angle and Piotr took it, strolling past the beautifully upkept townhouses and corner bistros. Christopher Street over to Hudson (he should have waited and crossed west on Bleecker) which became Eighth Avenue and veered sharply east so that it could rejoin the rest of Manhattan's intractable grid. Eighth uptown and Piotr was content to look and be looked at as he walked through Chelsea, on through to midtown. The tourists were in force because it was after Thanksgiving and Piotr felt like a salmon swimming upstream as he waded through the sea of humanity.

Columbus Circle looked different with the new tower completed and looming on the western end, all glass and sleekness to the point where the structure itself looked like a tourist in this city of dirty limestone and weathered steel. Piotr went inside to see what was there, but came out right away. It was a mall. An upscale mall with only the most pricey of chain stores, but rarified and mass produced was still mass produced and Piotr felt faintly disappointed as he exited back into the noise and sunlight.

Central Park was across the circle and Piotr thought about going in -- and about the last time he had gone in, too. He'd met Erik Lehnsherr there and gotten advice and an offer of friendship and it had probably been where he'd made up his mind to leave the X-Men, even if he hadn't realized it at the time. The entrance of the park loomed and Piotr felt drawn to it, like a moth to a flame. Being seen by Lehnsherr was probably a faster way of getting found by Xavier than walking around in New York -- surely the Professor checked every once in a while to see if his telepathic meddling was still intact and what was there to say that he didn't rifle through Lehnsherr's memories, too?

Staying on the sidewalk, Piotr headed up Broadway. He would go to Zabar's or find a bakery and get a cake for tonight and something sweet for Clint's children because they'd undoubtedly like something after an afternoon tramping around the museum. He looked at his watch; a little more than an hour until they had agreed to meet at the front of the museum, which on Clint's off-duty clock meant closer to an hour and a half. Clint was never late on a mission, not ever. Punctuality was one of the few things he and Natasha would bicker in earnest about; Natasha was much more laid-back about how early she got into position -- so long as she got there in time, it didn't matter how much time she'd had to spare and it drove Clint crazy. Away from the job... Clint set his watch fifteen minutes ahead so he'd be on time (and then promptly adjusted for the difference). Natasha was always on her own clock, so the difference was less noticeable with her.

Lincoln Center, its fountain silenced by cold, and then Piotr stopped in to Tower Records, but it was loud and there were teenagers all around and there hadn't been anything in particular he'd come to buy. The kids were Bobby's age and Piotr wondered what he was up to; Fury had told him about how the Drakes had let Bobby return to the X-Men and Piotr couldn't help but be disappointed. Bobby should be in a record store somewhere after school, trying to impress a girl with his musical tastes, and not up in Westchester practicing to be a mutant missionary and soldier.

Zabar's had a cake that might as well have been a solid piece of dark chocolate and, despite his own preference for the berry tarts, he opted for that one because Natasha was not above pouting if there was no chocolate. There were gaudily iced cupcakes for the kids and Piotr thought he was quite magnanimous to get one for Clint, too.

Armed with his purchases, Piotr headed east on 80th Street, going all the way to Central Park West before turning south. He was right on time, but the Bartons, predictably, were not. Piotr settled on the steps, keeping himself between the cake and the exiting patrons, and pulled out his PDA. They had been given new ones last month and Piotr rather missed his old one; this new version was billed as the Swiss Army Knife of electronics, but it was encased in a thinner polymer and Piotr always felt like he would shatter it in his hand even after Fury had assured him that he could stand on it in his steel form without damaging it. Carefully he pulled up the eBook he had been reading since North Korea, The Caine Mutiny; he was almost done even though he invariably had to backtrack to remember what he'd read the time before.

He heard the kids before he saw them, three small redheads approaching at a speed dangerous to others trying to descend the stairs, Clint calling half-heartedly behind them to be courteous. Piotr was distributing cupcakes by the time Clint approached with a frown on his face.

"You'll spoil their dinner," he said dourly. Piotr handed him a cupcake and the frown melted into a grin that perfectly mirrored the twins'. "Well, it's a long ride on the subway home and we won't be eating straightaway."

The cupcakes were a certified hit, but he hadn't found a place to get napkins, so Clint washed three pairs of little hands with the contents of his water bottle and the handkerchief he carried in his pocket and never used for the purpose intended.

"{I saw a man inside who was a dead ringer for Magneto,}" Clint began conversationally in Russian as he took the wet handkerchief back from his daughter.

Piotr looked up at him sharply.

"Perfect match," Clint continued quietly in English, crouching down so that he was almost eye-level with Piotr. He was looking at the handkerchief as he folded it. "Freaked me out but good."

"I can imagine," Piotr replied mildly. The cupcake he had just eaten felt like lead in his stomach. "Is he still there?"

"He was with a nurse, leading around a half-dozen Special Ed kids," Clint said, nodding. "All my instincts were telling me to watch him, but... Hey!" he called to his children, who had gone down to the bottom of the marble staircase and were trying to balance on the last step. "Back up here, please?"

Piotr pointedly watched the twins race each other to be the slowest up the stairs. It had to be Magneto and Piotr wondered what to do. Happy in his new life, did he finally trade in his leverage? Was it needed anymore? Did he finally give Fury what Fury didn't think he had -- information? Piotr wasn't worried about his own position; he had no fear of being fired or turned loose by SHIELD although he did worry that he'd lose Clint and Natasha's respect no matter how well he justified keeping this secret. He'd been settled into this life for months, comfortable with his latest attempt at penance for his sins... He didn't think SHIELD would do anything to Erik Lehnsherr that would make him regret telling them. What could Fury do to Lehnsherr -- and would it be worse than what Xavier had already done?

"I hope there's chocolate in that," Natasha said, gesturing with her chin toward the box at Piotr's ankle. In each hand was the scruff of one twin's jacket and they were both giggling madly as they dangled an inch or two above the ground.

"I haven't traveled all this way to get killed on home ground," Piotr told her evenly. The camaraderie of the moment felt both precious and toxic because of its fragility -- it might be the last one of its kind. A team such as theirs subsisted on trust and here he was, repaying their friendship and respect with one lie that might very well prove indefensible. "Can you watch the Mod Squad for a moment?"

"Oh, sure, you give them sugar and then leave Aunt Tasha to mind them," she sniffed as she put the boys down. "Go."

He gestured for Clint to follow him back up the stairs. The side entrance at 79th was closed, so they would have to be coming out here. Piotr looked over his shoulder to make sure that Clint was following behind and pushed through the old revolving door. Inside, Piotr looked around among the groups of chaperoned children preparing to leave. School trips were popular here, but they would already be gone by this point in the afternoon, so it was mostly parents and nannies fighting with layers of outerwear to put gloves on small, recalcitrant hands.

The shock of white hair was what he saw first and Piotr felt his breath leave him in a hurry; he sucked loudly to get it back. He turned to Clint, who was watching him carefully.

"What are we doing here, Pete?" Clint asked calmly. He was casual, but wary in a way that Piotr recognized as him not being sure if he was being taken to see something serious or just indulging one of Piotr's whims.

"I'm sorry," Piotr said quietly and Clint's eyes narrowed sharply. This was no longer Clint Barton, daddy. This was Hawkeye, his group leader and a twenty-year veteran of Special Forces. His pose remained unchanged, but Piotr could see the concerned soldier standing where the curious civilian had been a moment before.

"What for?"

Piotr didn't answer, only smiled grimly and instead started walking toward the man who was giving a jolly demonstration in how to zipper up a coat.

"Erik Lehnsherr?"

Lehnsherr spun around, smile broadening in recognition after a moment. "Hallo there," he said warmly. "My friend from the Park. It has been a long time. I hope you have been well..."

Piotr explained his absence as having started a new job that involved a lot of travel, then introduced Clint, who let show nothing at all in the way of recognition. They made polite conversation for a few minutes, Lehnsherr with on eye on his charges and Clint asking many questions about the school where Lehnsherr taught, vaguely mentioning a disabled nephew, until all of the children were ready to go outside.

Lehnsherr gestured for them to come along, but Piotr demurred, saying that he had promised the rest of his party that they would meet by the origami Christmas tree. So they said their goodbyes and Clint waved cheerfully to the departing children.

"So what do we do?" Piotr asked him after they were alone again.

Clint shook his head and laughed sardonically, but without any real bitterness. "We go home, we let my wife stuff us silly with lasagna, we watch Natasha eat a quarter of the chocolate cake and then complain we're making her fat, and we enjoy the evening," he said finally.

Piotr looked at him skeptically. There was no anger in Clint's eyes, no hardening of his expression. Instead of projecting betrayal, Clint seemed more bemused. Like Piotr had just recounted Natasha's latest exploits instead of confessing that he'd been helping to harbor a murderous terrorist. Piotr knew that Clint was as unflappable as they came, but he'd been bracing for a negative reaction and this lack of one disturbed him more than anything Clint could have said in anger.

"Magneto has been alive and well for the last two-plus years," Clint explained, shrugging. "One more day isn't going to do anything. And I want one last day to enjoy with my family before the shit hits the fan. We'll call Fury in the morning and hope he doesn't let Preston shoot us."

on to the next chapter || back to the index