Acts of Contrition: Chapter Nine

"{Relax}," Natasha urged as they strode down the hall. "{Fury's more upset with himself than he is with you.}"

Piotr looked down at his teammate walking next to him. He must have appeared as disbelieving as he felt because Natasha smiled indulgently and patted his arm.

"{He underestimated you,}" she explained, head swiveling to follow an exceptionally handsome officer walking in the other direction before snapping her attention back to look up at him. "{You were so... bewildered when you came to us. So lost. Our gentle, naive giant. Fury thought he could read you like a book and he's embarrassed because he read you badly.}"

They reached the security checkpoint for the SHIELD executive's inner sanctum and had to wait for the two sergeants on duty to finish their examination of the woman in front of them. The call had come five minutes ago to join Fury and Clint in Fury's office and despite Clint's amused voice on the phone and Natasha's anticipatory glee, Piotr still felt like he was being escorted to his execution.

"{Are you?}" Piotr asked.

Clint had planned things out the night before, over the last of the tea and cake and after the children had been sent off to play. They'd all go home (or to the SHIELD quarters Piotr used as his base when in New York) and get a good night's sleep and Clint would talk to Fury in the morning. Despite the assurances, Piotr had barely been able to sleep at all, something Natasha anticipated when she had showed up at his quarters shortly after seven bearing breakfast and fresh, strong coffee. He had no idea where she had found scones and clotted cream on the way to the Triskelion from her hotel. He'd been afraid to ask her, even to make simple conversation, because he was afraid he'd hear the coldness of her response. It had been an oddly quiet breakfast, Natasha's cutting rejoinders to Katie Couric's morning perkiness the only talk.

"{Am I embarrassed at misreading you?}" Natasha laughed, a loud, carefree noise that startled the sergeants on the security detail. "{Of course not. SHIELD began as a synthetic organization; we all came from someone else's toybox and were forged by someone else's hands.}"

The sergeants approached, metal detecting rods in hand. Natasha, dressed in jeans and a flattering sweater, posed outrageously with her arms extended and her hips cocked at a suggestive angle. Piotr watched with practiced patience as she made the sergeants blush all without looking like she was trying. "{And besides, I rather think I know all of your most interesting secrets.}"

He sighed helplessly and Natasha laughed again. That wicked laughter, more than the fresh orange marmalade at breakfast and the current good mood, gave Piotr hope that he hadn't lost his place with her. Natasha did not believe in laughing with her enemies and she did not believe in softening the blow for someone who was getting what they deserved.

The suite outside Fury's office was buzzing with activity and tension. The two civilian secretaries had the slightly dazed look of the shell-shocked as they typed, not even looking up as Piotr and Natasha entered. The two sentries were already standing and had a seriousness about them that Piotr associated with being recently yelled at and Rudelsky's desk was unoccupied, which meant he was already inside, which in turn meant that Fury was already making decisions.

Corporal Nitsu opened the door and Fury's voice could be heard within.

"-- not be a joint operation. I don't care about what Grosvenor wants to throw under Posse Comitatus. This is going to be SHIELD... Well, fine. If he wants to go that route, he can. We'll see who gets tossed off that slag heap."

Fury hung up the phone with an annoyed grunt as they entered. Clint, in one of the seats across from Fury's desk, turned to greet them with a quick grimace roll of his eyes. In the other seat, out of uniform, was Captain America, presumably not there in his capacity as the team leader of the Ultimates. He, too, turned, but only nodded in acknowledgment of their arrival.

Piotr had met Steve Rogers many times since that first morning at the Triskelion and wanted to like him, but while he didn't dislike the hero, he also understood why Clint still got nervous around him. Even when Steve Rogers smiled and laughed, there was something unsettling about him. Right now, there was no laughter.

"Sit down." Fury pointed angrily and Piotr followed Natasha to the couch against the window. Fury looked over at his computer screen for a moment, then stood up and ran his palm over his bald scalp.

"Congratulations, Rasputin. You have now proceeded to piss me off on a level it took your teammates years to achieve. Years." Fury slapped a tall pile of folders near his left hand. "Do you know how many files we have on Magneto? On Charles Xavier? On telepathy, telekinesis, on the Brotherhood? On the X-Men?"

"A lot?" Piotr asked when it became clear that Fury was not asking a rhetorical question.

"Do you know how much of it has now been rendered hopelessly obsolete with your little 'oh, by the way, Magneto's alive and well and living in Queens'?" Fury asked, fist coming down hard on the pile. "Do you know how much of the rest of what's left has to be re-evaluated now that we know that Charles Xavier is a strong enough telepath to fake his old buddy's death in front of more than a thousand witnesses? We have gone from barely being able to tread water to wearing cement shoes like that --" he snapped. "You have vexed me, Rasputin."

"Well, we always knew he'd make a great SHIELD agent," Clint said mildly, ignoring Fury's glare.

"Rudelsky!" Fury barked over Clint and Captain America's head. Piotr turned. Rudelsky was at the small desk at the back of the large office, hunched over the keyboard of the computer there and wearing a headset. "Speak!"

"Temporary stationary surveillance in place; strategic command will be set up within the hour." Rudelsky didn't look up as he spoke, didn't even stop typing. Rudelsky, as far as Piotr knew, had no nerves, no first name, and no fear of the wrath of Nicholas Fury. He did have the ability to hide in plain sight, blending in to the background and being all but forgotten until his boss summoned him. To Piotr's and Clint's minds, he also had the more impressive attribute of unsettling Natasha, who had forgotten he was present several times and then been startled upon being reminded.

"Affinity placement?"

"Working on it, sir," Rudelsky replied calmly. The process of inserting an agent to befriend Erik Lehnsherr would take days at least. "They're still compiling the profile. There's a request to release Mister Rasputin's last psych. eval. so that they can use it."

"Do you have anything to help with that?" Fury asked Piotr. The anger was gone from his voice, replaced with a sourness that wasn't quite sarcasm. "Or do I let them have it?"

"No!" Clint barked with genuine irritation. "They have enough other stuff from him. Leave his psych file alone."

Piotr watched Clint and Fury glare at each other. Clint's belief in the sanctity of privacy was absolute and unaffected by his years in the service and Piotr had rarely been more grateful. He'd had two evaluations so far, one right when he'd first been brought in and one a few days ago during his probationary hearings, and while part of a psych eval was learning how to not say anything of relevance, he didn't want anything he did say going anywhere, least of all to the Psy Ops division.

"Tell them to do their own homework, Rudelsky," Fury finally said. "They can get a transcript of Rasputin's interview with Intelligence. Interviews. Plural. There will be many."

Piotr stared at the floor, as much to avoid Fury's glare as to try to recall elements of any of his conversations with Lehnsherr that wouldn't have been picked up by Clint's more expert conversational interrogation. Mentions of home, mentions of work, mentions of... "When Xavier took me to see him, he said that Lehnsherr was seeing a woman in his building."

Fury nodded. "Rudelsky?"

"Already forwarded, sir."

"Right," Fury said, mostly to himself. He sat down and put his elbows on his desk. "Well, gentlemen," he said looking at Captain America and Clint. "We have some unpleasant tasks left to us. What to do with the Brotherhood and the Lehnsherr twins and what to do about Charles Xavier and his X-Men."

"Who says we have to do anything about them?" Clint took off his glasses and cleaned them on the edge of his shirt. "The twins are happy as they are running the Brotherhood and Xavier wants us to think he's just a harmless idealist. Why create three brushfires when one will do? We've just shitcanned three quarters of our intel -- which probably is for the best considering how little it got us. Why not see what we can see now that we have a clue what's going on -- instead of going gangbusters and finding out the hard way what other surprises are lying in wait? A little reconnaissance may keep us out of an ambush."

"Xavier is a 'harmless idealist' with his own private militia," Captain America -- Piotr had been told on numerous occasions to call him 'Steve', but couldn't think of him as such -- pointed out. "And the twins are still terrorists. Terrorists who may be in league with Xavier himself. What's to say that they don't know about their father? Keeping him... lobotomized... means that they are free to act as they would. Why would they want to hand over control of the Brotherhood to someone who had so little success running it?"

"They don't know," Piotr said and everyone turned to look at him.

"They didn't a year ago," Natasha corrected gently. "They may now."

"We'd know if they did," Piotr persisted, leaning forward. "They may not want to cede control of the Brotherhood, but they'd want revenge on the Professor for not telling them. They don't think like him, but..."

"They don't think like Magneto, either," Fury countered. "And as much as they pull the same stupid shit he did, I really don't think they liked Magneto at all."

"They didn't like Magneto," Piotr agreed. "But they loved their father. He wasn't always Magneto to them. That the Professor... that Xavier turned Magneto into someone who doesn't even know he's a mutant? It's a double betrayal."

"Are you so sure it would be so personal?" Captain America asked, curiosity plain. "The Brotherhood is a like a multi-billion dollar business. Families have been torn apart for less."

"They still speak Epsilon-Omega to each other," Piotr replied.

"Nobody's doubting their dedication to the mutant cause," Clint said, turning slightly to face Piotr and Natasha.

Piotr ran his fingers through his hair and looked down at the carpet. How could he explain an instinct? All he was basing his own reaction on was a day and night more than a year ago. But he remembered Wanda's burning eyes as she spoke of burying the mutants killed by the Sentinels and abandoned by their families and the way both twins spoke of Xavier's treatment of his son.

"It's personal," Piotr insisted. "They see Xavier as... the last link to their life before their father became Magneto. That's why they still go to him for advice even though they don't trust him."

There was quiet for a moment, the only sound being Rudelsky's typing in the back of the room.

"Assuming that they don't know," Fury began, "Do we get anything by telling them? Does their sense of betrayal extend to giving us more information?"

"They'd act on their own rather than come to us," Clint answered sourly. "They'll keep it in the family. Certainly if they think we've been holding out on them for the last two-plus years."

Natasha nodded agreement. "They'd lash out at us and, maybe, if we were lucky, Xavier too. Besides, they aren't the best source of information about Xavier's recent activities. Piotr knows much more about what's going on in Westchester than they do."

It felt odd, Piotr realized idly, not to feel torn apart by this discussion of the X-Men. It felt awkward, to be sure, but he thought he ought to regret more strongly that he was in a position to compromise the freedom and happiness of his former teammates and would-be mentor. He no longer thought Charles Xavier either benevolent or benign, but he wondered why he could so easily see Xavier as target and potential enemy instead of as the man who had saved him from an uncertain future. Xavier had rescued him to use him, but so had Fury. Except Fury was open about the fact while Xavier hid his plans behind benevolent innocence. Did honesty really make that much of a difference? And what of his teammates? How much did any of them really know? If SHIELD brought them in, would they be offered the same choice he was? Would they take it?

"I haven't spoken with anyone for more than a year," Piotr pointed out when he realized everyone had turned to him. "The twins have kept in contact with Xavier. Didn't they go to him after Proteus and talk?"

"We have corroborating intel on Proteus from them," Fury confirmed. "Don't give me that look, Rasputin. I forwarded on anything I thought you needed to know."

"Which was practically nothing," Piotr retorted before he could stop himself.

"You were being deprogrammed and were as jumpy as a frog as it was," Fury said mildly. "You're welcome to the file now."

Piotr shook his head in familiar irritation. It was an old argument. Now, a year later, the details were relatively unimportant in light of developments, just as they would have been too important when they were current.

"Our bottom line remains that if we have to strike against Xavier and the X-Men, Piotr's our best outside source of intel." Clint shifted in his seat again to face forward. "Telling the twins is as good as telling Xavier that we're on to him and we're not prepared to handle those consequences just yet. Not until we re-evaluate just what sort of ticking timebomb he is."

Piotr couldn't see Clint's face, but he could imagine the look the man was giving Fury. Clint did not hide the fact that he thought the X-Men should have been permanently disassembled after encountering Weapon X. He thought -- and had told Piotr as much -- that allowing a powerful mutant militia, a militia driven by child warriors, to rebuild and grow stronger, all within US borders, was dangerous and just asking for trouble. From what Piotr had heard from Natasha, Fury, confident in SHIELD's ability to keep the X-Men under their watchful eye and indirect control, had disagreed. Piotr did not think it a stretch to imagine that the private meeting between the two of them earlier had been a revisiting of that old argument.

"It's my understanding that SHIELD tacitly supports the Lehnsherrs' control of the Brotherhood as the least of all possible evils," Captain America said as the glares between Fury and Clint threatened to turn into a full-bore staring match. "You let them run things because you can predict their actions within an acceptable degree of accuracy. Introducing this bit of information brings their actions outside the realm of what you can control, or at least what you can influence."

"So we sit on all of this," Fury sighed, leaning back in his chair. "And hope it doesn't go off under our asses. For how long? Do we wait until Xavier has amassed a force that could take down a government? I don't like being passive here. Being trusting and sympathetic has gotten us into this mess. I don't want to get burned twice."

These were rhetorical questions, but only to a point. Fury looked resigned to a plan he was uncomfortable with, not as if he were still questioning what to do. They'd tried his way after Weapon X and it had not worked out. And now something else would have to be tried instead.

"We prepare an attack plan," Clint said, not sounding at all like he was gloating at this rare admission of fallibility from Fury. "We make sure that we are ready to take down the X-Men without hesitation and without complication should the need arise. And we err on the side of caution when deciding if and when it comes up. We can't sit back and wait for them to try to take over the country, or whatever the hell Xavier's real plan is. But the reason we've left them this long is that we aren't in a position of strength. We take them on right now, we lose. We need to do the legwork we didn't want to do before when we thought Weapon X would dull their appetite for adventure and they'd settle down."

Fury tapped the pen he was holding against the pad on his desk a few times. "We have specs of some of the underground facility and the blueprints for the house itself. Rasputin, I want you to go through them and make any corrections or additions you can. I can't imagine Xavier left our system unaltered. I know you declined to do so the first time we asked you, but that was then and this is now."

Piotr nodded. After rescuing the X-Men from Weapon X, SHIELD had offered to install a security system and Xavier had been too heartbroken from the assault to object, although in fact the Professor had seemed pleased with it once it was in place. Scott and Henry had modified it while Piotr had helped with the heavy lifting. He had been asked many questions about the mansion and its systems during his initial interrogations with SHIELD and, not sure of where his loyalties ultimately laid, he'd said nothing.

The intercom sounded and Fury looked surprised and irritated. "What?"

"I'm sorry, sir," a tinny voice said, "but Captain America has a television interview in an hour and Miss Ross would like to discuss it with him beforehand."

Fury took his finger off the button and snorted. "Betty would like to see you so that she can put words into your mouth," he reported dryly.

Captain America departed with brief goodbyes and little visible enthusiasm for either his meeting with Betty Ross or his interview. The level of intimacy of the interviews and reports disturbed him, Piotr knew. This wasn't the newsreel and photograph from the 1940's; this was the internet and MTV and millions of people having access to his shoe size and pants inseam measurements. But Captain America was an icon and a fascination and Steve Rogers believed in the importance of that enough to be willing to sacrifice for it.

The rest of the meeting was almost purely procedural and Piotr had a hard time focusing because of it. They were sitting there discussing how to take down the X-Men and Charles Xavier, his friends and former teammates, people he had been through so much with -- Sentinels, Weapon X, missions both great and small, everyday life -- and Piotr couldn't adjust to how normal it all was. Fury was barking into his intercom for various assistants and folders, griped testily at nobody in particular about the twenty-first century not producing a paperless office, and asked occasionally random-seeming questions of him, Clint, and Natasha. And Piotr found his attention wandering as it always did during long briefings and then wondered how it could during this, of all meetings.

Finally, after the specialist tasked to the Brotherhood left, Clint stood up and picked up his jacket. Following a cue Piotr had obviously missed, Natasha stood and stretched languorously, kicking him to stand as well before Fury could lodge much of a protest and, four hours after Piotr entered, they left the executive suite to Fury's reminder that they were still on medical leave.

"Well, that went better than expected," Natasha said as she waited for Clint to put on his jacket. Clint raised an eyebrow and gave her a disbelieving look.

"He didn't curse at us in Flemish or throw anything," she explained with a shrug. "You remember what he did after the Nicaraguan fiasco?"

Clint snorted. "He's got shitty aim. As long as he doesn't send us off to some other godforsaken place to 'punish' us, he can throw all the paperweights he likes."


"Good evening Mister Frost, Miss Frost," the doorman said with a bow of his head as they passed. Emma gave a quick half-smile of acknowledgement, but her father walked by without so much as seeing the man.

The foyer was the same as ever, spotless and well-lit and tasteful. The eternal and unchanging nature of the Hellfire Club had been a comfort, a confirmation of continuity of power and position. It had been an oasis from the annoyances of daily life, from paparazzi to politicians, a place where her guard could be lowered and she could relax. But that had changed when Xavier and Shaw had exposed the Club's static decadence as a front for a more dynamic secret power, and Emma no longer felt at ease.

That there was an inner circle was neither news nor at all surprising. There was no egality within the Hellfire Club, merely a shared sense of entitlemen. Within the rarified strata of the Club, there was a caste system, unspoken but well understood and never transgressed, a series of concentric circles with each inner circle opaque to all who stood without. There had to be an endpoint, an innermost circle, and all that Emma thought she'd ever know about it was that she'd never know precisely who was in it. She still didn't, of course, but she did now know about Sebastian Shaw's leadership of it and that, if anything, proved the surprise.

Shaw represented real power, as opposed to simply descendence from the oldest established families, and that was both entertaining and dangerous. That at least some of its members not only were mutants but also that they knew about each others' mutations... it implied a very tight sort of bond -- getting outed was still the fastest way to irretrievable disgrace.

The consequent question was obvious: if they knew about each other, did they know about anyone else? And if they did, what would they want to keep that information quiet? There was no doubt that such knowledge was power and Emma knew that she was being watched every time she stepped through the Club's doors. What she didn't know was precisely how exposed she was. Were Shaw and his cronies watching her like eagles watching prey, waiting for the moment when they could swoop down and strike? The options were endless, especially when you lived a life rich with possibility and largely free of consequences. They wouldn't want something pedestrian, not when they could meet all of their own desires without any intrigue.

She shrugged off her sable coat with the help of the coatroom attendant and handed over her hat and muff. New York was guaranteed one week in January with unseasonably and unbearably cold weather and this year it happened to coincide with the Frost Industries annual benefit, which meant that Emma had been only one of dozens of miserably uncomfortable women with exposed calves covered only by the sheerest of stockings and feet tucked into delicate slippers completely incapable of warding off the sub-zero cold. It had taken a half hour and a stiff scotch to feel her toes after arriving at the FI Building and it would take at least that long here after getting stuck chatting with the Ukrainian ambassador's wife outside the limo.

"I'm going to the lounge," her father told her as they made their way back to the foyer. "I'll be leaving here no later than half-past twelve, so if you're going to stay later, have the decency to send a message."

It took more strength to say something polite in response, so Emma said nothing at all. Apparently serving as official hostess for the function -- her mother was in Switzerland taking some sort of mineral cure for her latest 'ailment', her grandmother was snowbirding somewhere in the Canary Islands with her grandfather, and hell would freeze over before Adrienne would be considered for the task -- was not enough to return her to her father's good graces. She'd cancelled her own plans, of course, and had done a fabulous job -- she'd made judicious use of her telepathy to ferret out the shy and the sullen and otherwise monitor the thoughts of a diverse and shockingly wealthy international group. But Winston Frost had long ago raised grudge-bearing to an art and present success was no cure for past disappointments.

Emma didn't bother wasting a thought on wondering what she was being 'punished' for now, let alone poke around to find out for sure. There were moments when she was sorely tempted, but they came few and far between and mostly she just didn't care. They were not close, had not been close since she was a small child, and far more cross words than affectionate ones had been spoken between then over the years. They did not like each other either as people or as family members and found the other's presence irritating. Nonetheless, she didn't hate her father and, if it came to it, she would not let herself be used as the instrument of his destruction. She pitied him for letting the fact that he had no sons keep him from happiness, but not so much that she would transform herself into the son he never had to ease his disappointment. So, as with most other occasions when he spoke to wound, instead of saying anything that they'd both regret for being said in public, she kept walking as her father turned to climb the stairs, knowing that her father knew that her only possible destination was the first-floor bar and knowing that he'd disapprove of that as well.

The first-floor bar, unlike the one upstairs, was mostly the domain of the younger set and Emma smiled in response to waves of recognition from familiar faces. They'd all gone to the same circle of schools -- Chapin, Calhoun, Horace Mann, Choate -- and they'd all known each other since they'd been escorted down Fifth Avenue by their nannies. They were not all friends or even all friendly, but they were of the same caste and with that high birth came a certain loyalty that provided shelter from without. But what about from within? How deep did that loyalty go when the threat was not a faceless stranger, but instead someone they knew? In the past, Emma and especially Adrienne had risked the displeasure of their elders and the disdain of their cohort by associating with celebrities and other nouveau types. But now that taste for 'slumming' proved useful -- it gave Emma an excuse to steer clear of anyone close to Sebastian Shaw or anyone else left standing that night by Xavier. None of her loose cohort were mutants, but most of them were from lesser families and were perfectly happy to stay away from the Hellfire Club and instead make their fun at the trendy spots that still bent over backwards for the social elite, be they Carthwell, Grance, Hollis, or Frost.

Tonight, there was nobody she especially wanted to talk to, certainly not in her present foul mood, and so she went to the bar, gave Victor her order, and found a club chair without anyone else seated nearby, snatching a handful of salted macadamia nuts on the way.

The reason the first-floor bar was eschewed by the older members of the Hellfire Club was simple: the presence of a large plasma television on one wall. It had appeared one year in time for some major sporting event -- the Final Four or the Superbowl or something on that level -- so that the sons of New York's elite could watch together without crowding into one of the over-packed bars on Second Avenue. It had stayed and those who considered it blasphemy to have a television in a club had left and not returned.

Right now, the television was showing CNN, the blonde talking head looking seriously into the camera as she spoke. The volume was off, although there were wireless speakers in pouches next to each chair in case anyone wanted to watch. Emma took a perverse pleasure in watching television news with no sound; with no way for her telepathy to pick up on the stray thoughts of the newsreader, there was a genuine lack of information and that ignorance, all but impossible since her mutation manifested, provoked an almost giddy feeling.

"She's telling us that the X-Men saved a girl from getting strung up in Berkeley today," a voice said from behind her, a large snifter of cognac appearing right in front of her. Emma took the glass, then followed the hand that offered it up to find herself looking into the face of Shinobi Shaw. A decade of masking her telepathic eavesdropping assured her that no surprise showed.

"May I?" he asked, gesturing with a tilt of his head toward the empty chair next to her.

"Please," she replied, wondering suspiciously at the development. Shinobi had never exchanged anything other than pleasantries with her, had in fact made it rather clear that he found her and Adrienne's antics distasteful. Not that it mattered; Shinobi may be his father's right-hand man and a power dealer in his own right because of it, but he was not considered marriage material by any of the established families. Sebastian Shaw, a self-made billionaire, was still dismissed as nouveau riche by most of the older families despite decades as one of New York's elites. And while illegitimacy in and of itself certainly wasn't a disqualifying feature, there was a natural child and then there was a bastard child and rumor had it that Shinobi's mother had been a maid at a Tokyo hotel. Shinobi's infant half-brother, born of his father's extremely propitious marriage, had far better prospects. Or maybe he didn't, if he'd inherited the same mutated genes Shinobi had.

Shinobi crossed in front of her. He was dressed in black full dress tails, although his white tie was tucked into the pocket and the top button of his shirt was undone. His hair was tied neatly back save for a wisp that fell into his face. He looked rakishly elegant, like the cover model on a romance novel, Emma thought. But Shinobi had no reason to be here with her. While he seemed to like them dull and pretty, she wasn't the heaving bosom type and, as incestuous as their extended cohort could get, they'd never even come close to hooking up.

Victor appeared a moment later, carrying a tray with two tall, narrow glasses filled with what looked to be the same clear substance, but when he put them down, Emma could tell that they were not.

"Berkeley is the home of every left wing and radical cause known," Shinobi said thoughtfully after Victor had left them. Shinobi had been watching the television as he spoke, but he turned sharply to look at her and Emma fought the urge to pull back from the intensity of that gaze. "And yet they can still turn out a lynch mob to murder a sixteen-year-old girl in broad daylight. Apparently being a mutant is the wrong kind of queer."

Emma sipped at her cognac to give herself time to formulate an answer and decide how dumb to play this. Up until a year ago, it never would have crossed her mind that Shinobi would be interested in mutants -- the Shaw holdings didn't include anything involved in the extermination of mutants the way, say, Harry Leland's did. The Shaws hadn't fled New York once the Sentinels were active and while they had dutifully shown up at the few benefits held to raise funds to relocate mutants, so had everyone else including Leland.

A year ago, Shinobi had been the epitome of aloof, efficient in his father's employ and enigmatic in his personal life. He was efficient still, if The Financial Times was to be believed, but his aloofness was no longer mysterious. At least not to Emma, who had known since that fateful dinner that Shinobi Shaw, like his father, was a mutant. The question was what Shinobi knew about her. And his presence in the seat next to her after years of all but ignoring her seemed to serve as an answer. Especially with the X-Men on television doing something earnest and destructive.

But was he here on his own behalf or at his father's suggestion? The Shaws, père et fils, were opaque in their personal and professional transactions and if Shinobi were anything less than a dutiful son or perfect executor of his father's business acumen, then nobody who mattered knew about it. If Sebastian were running a cabal within the Hellfire Club, it stood to reason that Shinobi was his faithful retainer there as well. Sebastian could have charged him with this task and Shinobi would have been biding his time -- Emma hadn't been at the Club more than a half-dozen times in the past year without it being a formal event. Not after that particular formal event.

"Would it be the first time inclusive ideals have proven less so in practice?" she finally responded, putting down the snifter. "Surely hypocrisy can't shock you at this late date."

She had heard the entire conversation between Xavier and Sebastian Shaw, presumably because Xavier wanted it to be heard. Having never tried it herself, she didn't know a lot about how telepathic conversation and broadcasting worked, but there was no other explanation for why she should have been able to hear both sides without even knowing at first who was speaking. She had felt the mental compulsion to stand when Xavier had outed all of the Hellfire Club's mutants and hadn't even thought to resist it. She'd seen the X-Men leave, then watched everyone else in the room act as if nothing had happened. Realizing that nobody else remembered the incident, it had made the conclusion of the dinner absurd and surreal.

"Depends on the sort of hypocrisy, I suppose," Shinobi said, leaning back in his seat, tucking the loose strands of hair behind his ear. He was an exceptionally handsome man, far more so than any son of Sebastian Shaw could be expected to be, but always carried himself with the sort of casualness that went with knowing his own beauty and truly not caring. "If you're going to bleat like a wounded animal, you should at least have the decency to practice what you insist on preaching to everyone else."

Once she'd gotten home, she'd pored over all of her secret cache of resources on telepathy and psionic mutation, but hadn't been able to figure out why she had been able to escape Xavier's mental 'encouragement' to forget. And she didn't know if anyone else had -- was Shinobi a telepath? Or were his suspicions based on other, older evidence? Had Xavier only erased the memories of the non-mutants?

"Personally, I prefer it when people keep quiet and not preach at all." She gave him a pointed look, then turned her attention to smoothing the folds of fabric in her lap.

"Actions speak louder than words and are a good deal easier on the ears," Shinobi agreed, sounding amused instead of chastened. "Take the X-Men."

"You can keep them, thanks," Emma retorted, hoping she looked more annoyed than panicked. She forced her hands to rest on her lap and not curl into nervous balls. It was one thing to suspect that she was a target, quite another to feel the trap being constructed around her.

Shinobi laughed quietly. "Not a fan?"

"What's to root for?" Emma asked archly. Even before she'd heard the confrontation between Xavier and Shaw, she'd lost respect for Xavier when it had become clear that he'd started to believe his own hype. His craftiness had been replaced by a crass populism with dreadful books and endless television appearances, turning his toy soldiers into mass-marketed mutant celebrities on par with reality television stars and with just as much relevance. It was no surprise, really, that Shaw had played him as badly as he apparently had. But it would do no good to tell Shinobi that she was disappointed in the man who had once upon a time provided the only hope she'd had that she wasn't crazy.

"The X-Men are ridiculously powerful and completely uncontrolled," she said when Shinobi's gaze turned expectant. She turned to look at the television and could see footage of Storm summoning lightning from the sky and Cyclops blasting something to bits. "Even the cutest puppies need to be housebroken eventually. Who's going to take on that challenge?"

"You'd be surprised."

The words were spoken with such quiet confidence that Emma turned to him sharply. Shinobi's eyes shone with determination and hunger and Emma found it disconcerting enough to drop her eyes down to her glass. This was not the cold satisfaction of a man who knows a joke is being played. It had the conviction of a believer. Either Shinobi didn't know about his father's dealings -- and she found that thought laughable -- or there was far more going on than Sebastian had told Xavier. Did the mutants in the Hellfire Club have their own plans for the X-Men? And did the Shaws envision her a role in this game?

"Why the sudden interest in the X-Men, Young Master Shaw? Are you thinking of joining up? Dressing up in leather and spandex and throwing yourself into harm's way for a world that hates and fears you?"

"Do I look the Uncle Tom type to you?" Shinobi's voice was low and strong and sultry and Emma looked up again. Had he just admitted to her that he was a mutant? He winked at her and she stared.

"I don't know what type you look like, Shinobi," she answered after finally shaking free of his gaze. If he was going to get anything out of her, he'd have to work a lot harder than an ambiguous statement that could have been said to trick her into showing her cards. She gave him a demure smile and returned her eyes to the television, where talking heads were discussing whatever the X-Men had done. "You are a man of hidden depths."

"And you are a woman of similar style," he replied in that same low tone. In any other situation, she'd have taken him to be flirting and reciprocated despite their history, but here and now it felt more menacing than thrilling despite the amused smile he wore. "Playing at flightiness and hiding who you really are."

"My life is an open book," Emma said airily, flipping her hair over her shoulder as she turned back to him. She could see Julia Frank by the doorway, once upon a time her best friend in school, and wondered if she could wave to attract her attention without it being too obvious to Shinobi. She'd never been claustrophobic, but thought that this is what it must be like to feel the walls closing in. She uncrossed and recrossed her legs simply because it kept her from squirming. "Just ask Page Six or People. Live in the limelight and you've got no shadows to hide secrets in."

She sipped her cognac, grateful for the warmth it brought to her stomach. Shinobi knew and he wanted something out of the deal. The question was what and for whom. What wasn't a question was whether she'd be given the option of just walking away. She wouldn't.

With some effort and a lot of concentration, she could use her telepathy to read the thoughts of most people, but she'd never tried to manipulate someone else's mind to make them forget or act according to her will. She hadn't wanted to lobotomize her first test subject, so she'd never experimented and it was only now, in her desperation, that she even considered trying with Shinobi. If he was acting on his father's orders, then she'd just be confirming whatever he was out to prove and she'd still have Sebastian and his cabal to deal with.

"You hide yourself in plain sight, Emma," Shinobi went on, leaning forward, his palm flat on the table between them. "You're brilliant and you're gifted and yet you waste your time pretending to be a dumb blonde with no greater aspiration than to sleep with George Clooney."

"George was a long time ago."

Shinobi ignored the levity. "Just because your father doesn't see--"

"My father has nothing to do with this," Emma hissed angrily, not acknowledging the turned heads of those nearby. "You presume too much, Master Shaw."

She sat back, orienting herself in the chair so that she looked forward, toward the television, instead of being angled toward Shinobi as she had been. Her outrage was mostly -- and only mostly -- an act; Winston Frost's displeasure with his daughters was not news to anyone in the room, indeed in the Club. But overreacting would force a change of topic and tactic; if Shinobi was going to accuse her of being a mutant, she really didn't want him doing it in a place where someone could overhear. She was sure she wasn't imagining the covert glances in her direction; in many quarters she and Shinobi would be the most unholy of alliances and there would be a strong undercurrent of gossip throughout their networks even if this conversation ended now without another word passed between them.

Shinobi, still leaning on the arm of his chair toward her, chuckled quietly. "My apologies, Miss Frost. I spoke too familiarly... no pun intended."

Emma turned her head slightly toward him and he bowed his in apology, although not before she could see the laughter and the confidence in his eyes. He had seen through her ploy.

"What is the point of this... conversation?" she asked, not looking at him. If she couldn't unsettle him with histrionics, then perhaps she could by being direct. From across the room, Julia gave her a wave, the quick sort that you gave someone who was busy and you didn't want to interrupt. Far be it for anyone in the room to break up this tete-a-tete. "We have no history, no common friends, no common interests. You have made it perfectly clear that you think little of me and the way I live my life. And so you can throw me in with everyone else in the room who is pretending quite poorly not to be watching us in wondering why you are sitting here."

"Because you're wrong," Shinobi answered calmly, not looking around. He, of course, didn't care who watched. He knew nobody would be coming to her rescue. "Because we have plenty in common and, whatever I think about how you've conducted yourself in the past, I do think most highly of what you could do in the future."

Emma, confused and surprised, finally turned back to face him. Shinobi was smiling knowingly at her. It was a smile both dazzling and subdued all at once and she nearly laughed at how fake his polite mask was now that she'd seen the genuine man underneath.

"We are special, Emma," he continued, voice quiet and commanding, low enough not to be overheard but strong enough to make it feel like he was keeping his voice down for her benefit and not his. "In ways that have nothing to do with our privileged surnames and the heft of our trust funds. We could have the world by rights and, instead, we waste our time alternately trying to prove our fathers right and wrong for wanting us to be other than we are. We are gifted and it is time we put those gifts to use."

"What do you want of me?" The moment of truth and Emma was pleased her voice came out evenly. There was laughter coming from the bar and she hated its frivolity while she felt like she was lined up before the firing squad.

Shinobi's smile broadened and the hand that had rested on the table between them lifted up and extended toward her, as if he were offering to help her rise. "I want you to help me rule the world."


"The Professor's going to be mad at me, isn't he?"

Scott looked up from his book. Lorna was standing there, fingers nervously playing with the back of the dining room chair in front of her and her face screwed into a mask of concern. Her bright green hair, re-dyed to its original shade after having first been dyed a dull brown, was pulled back into a ponytail or else Scott was sure she'd be twisting it around her finger just to keep her hands busy.

If Jean was twenty-three going on thirty, Lorna was precisely her own age, both in looks and in temperment. And a tomboy at that. She wore worn jeans and t-shirts and very little in the way of makeup or jewelry except for a charm bracelet that tinkled loudly when she moved her wrist. Which was often -- Lorna was a fidgeter, her Californian-relaxed demeanor somehow not at odd with her inability to sit still. Of course, she'd had only recently been given any reason to be relaxed at all.

Before he made her nervous by not answering, Scott dug out the bookmark and closed the book, placing it on the table. "For what?"

Lorna smiled, awkwardly and embarrased. "For making the Danger Room go boom this morning?"

Scott snorted.

"The Professor's not mad," he assured her. Lorna had been with the team three weeks since her high-profile rescue from a an angry mob in Berkeley and last week had been her debut in the Danger Room. This morning had been her first full-level training session and it had been... explosive. The metal sheeting on the back wall was now lying on the floor, curled into what looked like bacon strips and two of the lasers and four of the mechanical arms had been obliterated. "He's not even vaguely annoyed. He's probably relieved. After Ororo's first session, we had no power downstairs for three days because she blew the wiring in the entire sub-level."

"Yeah?" Lorna sounded more hopeful than skeptical and Scott smiled to himself. He had almost forgotten what it was like to have a newcomer in the house. Lorna was a typical well-adjusted teenager, two parents and little brother included, and, as such, still respected authority and feared getting into trouble with her teachers. In that sense, she was very much like Bobby had been, but while Bobby's entire home life had come before his mutation had manifested, Lorna's family had been actively engaged in hiding her secret. Her mother had dyed her hair as soon as it had started to come in green, her father had driven to other towns to get repaired the appliances she had destroyed with her mutation, and her little brother had been brought up to not speak about his family. Despite her family's best intentions, all of that placed a burden on Lorna and she took it seriously. She had chosen to stay at the school to protect her family and her fear of failure, especially after she'd been outed at home, was almost tangible.

"My first session? I took out the glass in the observation booth," Scott went on, careful to smile and sound as soothing as possible without appearing patronizing. The smile was easy -- enough time had passed that the incident was now funny, instead of the horror it had been at the time. "If Jean hadn't been there, the Professor would have gotten a lap full of lead-lined bulletproof glass."

"Yeah, but..."

"But nothing," Scott cut her off. "That session was intended to see what you could do and the Professor was expecting damage -- he wanted to see how far you could push your powers. So stop worrying. That's an order if you'd like it to be."

Lorna laughed. "I'm not an X-Person yet."

"Seriously, don't worry," Scott said, waving away her words. "It was in the Danger Room, which is built to withstand damage for a reason. It hasn't been modified to accommodate your powers yet, but it will be when it's fixed. And then you'll be expected to do everything you did this afternoon and more --on a regular basis."

Lorna sat down in the chair she'd been holding on to. "I'm hoping that won't be for a few days. I don't think I could levitate a spoon right now. I'm beat."

Scott laughed and reached for his glass of iced tea. "Too bad. I think someone came home with a couple of pints of Ben & Jerry's."

"I could always get up and get a spoon the old-fashioned way," Lorna retorted with a grin, not looking up from where she was fiddling with the placemat.

"Where's the fun in that?"

"If it's a choice between Cherry Garcia or no Cherry Garcia?" Lorna finally looked up and smiled as she shrugged.

Scott didn't ask how she knew that Cherry Garcia was one of the choices. Bobby had been the one to get the ice cream and he'd do anything short of raiding the factory to get Lorna the flavor she'd asked for. Bobby was quite smitten and Lorna, from what little Scott had seen, had no real objections to be the focus of his affections.

"Ah, there is our Fearless Leader," Henry cried out from the doorway. "And lo, there is also my unwitting benefactress." He came into the dining room and bowed gallantly at Lorna, who looked unsure of whether or not to be embarrassed.

"Got out of a training session, did you?" Scott asked mildly.

"Indeed I did," Henry confirmed. "Which means that I shall be able to partake in this evening's scheduled festivities. What's on the schedule tonight? Mars Attacks!? Ishtar? Hudson Hawk?"

"Striptease," Lorna answered, realizing that Henry was not mocking her. Thursday night was Bad Movie Night and it was Lorna's first turn to choose.

"A fine choice," Henry declared. "Demi Moore, Burt Reynolds, and Armand Assante. Can't go wrong there."

"Hey, I liked Mambo Kings," Scott protested.

Henry made a face of disdain. "I believe your rationale for liking that one was the soundtrack and the fact that Antonio Banderas dies bloodily."

"It was a good movie even without that," Scott insisted. "Even if I derived pleasure from a certain character's untimely end."

"You cackled," Henry reminded him pointedly. "Everyone else was wiping tears and you cackled. Gleefully, I must add."

"That's only because I had seen it already by the time we watched it. I was properly somber the first time."

Lorna was watching the two of them with amusement when all of a sudden, she stiffened and put her hands to her ears. Her eyes closed, she furrowed her eyebrows for a long moment and then her features relaxed.

"Summoned?" Scott asked, knowing the answer. Watching people learn how to communicate telepathically was usually entertaining. Lorna had apparently taken the instructions in shielding and speaking well, although she was better with the latter than the former. Which was usually the case; Jean was looking forward to the point where she could relax her mental shields within the mansion again.

Lorna nodded, then bit her lip nervously. "I'm going to get a Talking To, aren't I?"

"He's not angry with you, Lorna," Scott insisted. "He probably just wants to reassure you of that. Knowing him, he'll tell you everyone's most embarrassing powers-related moment, from Piotr's putting a cannonball through a wall to my brother blowing up half the third floor when he manifested. We go through a fair share of walls, windows, and doors here."

"I had rather forgotten about Alex's... debut," Henry murmured.

"Because he's caused so many more spectacular explosions since then." Scott had not missed the flash of sadness in Henry's face when he'd mentioned Piotr. Lorna looked warily confused and Scott smiled at her. "My little brother's got a... habit of setting things off. Usually me."

Lorna nodded, then paused before speaking. "Bobby said that your brother was... argumentative... at times."

"That's like saying the sea is a little bit salty," Henry scoffed. Scott wondered if Bobby had told her the truth or edited the story for content; he didn't know Lorna well enough to know how she'd react to Alex's Friends of Humanity past considering her recent adventures and he was trying to convince his brother to visit during the summer.

"Alex is a contrarian of the highest pedigree," Henry went on. "But you will meet him at some point in the future and will find out for yourself that his bark is infinitely worse than his bite. Unless you are his brother and come between him and the last slice of pizza."

"I'm immune to his mutation, so he has to fight me through more conventional means." Scott grinned, then tilted his head toward the doorway. "You'd better go before the Professor calls for you again."

Lorna nodded and gave them a little wave before disappearing. Henry sat down in the chair she had been occupying.

"She does seem to be settling in a bit," he mused once they had heard the faint hiss of the pneumatic door to the sub-basement closing. "It's taken longer than I'd have expected."

Scott shrugged. "She was a wreck when she got here. Chased around town by a crowd with baseball bats and lord knows what else, the cops pulling their Gauntlet routine... And the way we unloaded on them to get her out? She probably thought she'd jumped from the frying pan into the fire. That she wasn't gibbering is probably a minor miracle."

The team had performed maybe a half-dozen extractions in the time they'd been together (Scott counted Bobby as the first, although Bobby would undoubtedly argue the point) and, except for the failed rescue of Rusty from the prison in Colorado, Lorna's had been the most combative of them all. Three weeks later, the BPD still insisted that they had only wanted to take Lorna into protective custody. But when the X-Men had arrived Lorna had been hiding, terrified and nearly hysterical, in an abandoned house surrounded by police with guns drawn and, behind the police cordon, an angry mob of hundreds barely kept back by authorities who did not at all disagree with their wishes.

The extraction had been without fatalities, but that was probably the only positive; Ororo's lightning bolt electrifying two dozen pistols in the hands of legally appointed officers of the law had been captured on video and run endlessly on CNN. All of the good press they'd gotten by raising that Russian submarine the week after Valentine's Day had been completely undone by the damage they'd caused to three houses in a fancy Berkeley neighborhood while trying to save a teenaged girl's life. They just couldn't win.

"She really did a job on the Danger Room," Henry said, shaking his head in disbelief. "The Professor says she could be almost as powerful as Magneto."

"It's probably best that she doesn't hear that for a little while." Her mutation's being similar to that of the dead Magneto's was what had nearly gotten her killed -- Lorna's attempted lynching had come on the anniversary of Magneto's attack on California. Her first pursuers had been marchers coming home from a parade to remember his victims.

Henry nodded. "He had me ordering things all afternoon. Industrial-grade plastic panels for the Danger Room, all sorts of metal boxes and balls and whatnot. Some of what Piotr used to use can get taken out of storage and dusted off, but it's not as much as we'd thought. Although we did find the cast iron hula hoop."

Scott coughed out a laugh and Henry lost his fight to suppress his own grin. They could both remember Piotr's expression when he had been presented with it; it had been part of the Professor's plans to improve Piotr's flexibility and mobility, but Piotr had looked at it with such unrestrained disgust and it had never actually gotten used.

"I miss him," Henry said simply. Scott could only nod agreement. Anything else had long since been said.

It was only a half hour to uniprand (the Professor had long insisted that they use the Omega-Epsilon words for what Scott had always known as "lupper" and "dinner" as the need for both together was a purely mutant concept), so after Henry went off to go find Ororo, Scott went up to his room to put away his book and check his email. Alex had sent him a handful of article links, none of which he wanted to look at now, and 'Ro had sent him a list of "suggestions" for what Jean wanted for their upcoming anniversary. He already knew about the dinner at the Thai place and was not going to do anything involving stripping roses of their petals and making a mess of his bed with them. If she wanted them in her bed, that was fine, but she wouldn't. It wasn't his fault her bedroom was right above Bobby's.

Uniprand was in the dining room, complete with proper dishes, proper meals adapted to their mutant physiologies -- Lorna still took the concept with a grain of salt, not yet training rigorously enough that at least four meals a day was a necessity and not an oddity -- and proper table manners. Normally the Professor's only chance to see all of his pupils at once during the course of a day, uniprand was mandatory for all students on the grounds.

As a result, they were all on their best behavior and Scott, who read a lot of Age of Sail fiction, thought it comparable to those situations when the captain was his officers' guest for dinner -- they'd all seen each other at their worst, but they pretended that they hadn't while in front of their superior. There was some gentle teasing of Lorna for her Danger Room activities, especially after it was clear that she understood that nobody was upset with her, and the Professor used it as a launching point on to a discussion about new training regimes for all of them. Scott had privately spoken to him about the need for more team-oriented sessions; Berkeley could have been made marginally less chaotic if they practiced more together and Xavier was finally starting to agree with him.

The usual routine was to order pizzas around nine for the movie, then start the flick once they'd been delivered. The Professor had raised an eyebrow when he'd heard what they were watching and asked if it was appropriate for an audience with two members still under eighteen, but his skepticism hadn't been enough to put a damper on the giddy mood that surrounded Bad Movie Night.

The pizza had been consumed and a lengthy discussion on the relative merits of Demi Moore's physiology had already grown into a boys-versus-girls debate of far greater range (the distaff side usually far underrepresented in such discussions) when the movie suddenly stopped.

"Did we blow a fuse or did the DVD player finally rebel?" Ororo asked, not bothering to pick her head up from where it lay on Henry's lap.

The lights were already off and the clock on the wall was battery-powered. Scott looked around for anything else in the room that drew electricity. The computer and stereo were already powered off. There was no moonlight and the room was almost pitch-black. He closed his eyes for a few seconds to try to speed their adjustment to the lack of light. He normally had excellent night vision, but not after watching the movie in a darkened room.

"Bobby, go look in the hallway," he said, opening his eyes again. Bobby, who had been using the darkness to sit as close to Lorna as he dared, got up with a grumbled protest.

Jean, scan for anyone who shouldn't be here, he said along their link. He didn't want to start a panic if there was no cause. This was an old house and there had been enough power outtages over the summer that the cause could be benign. But it was his job to be prepared in case it wasn't. He 'felt' her reach out.

Nobody who shouldn't be here, she replied.

"Lights are out all over," Bobby reported from the doorway after gingerly making his way in the darkness. "Blown fuse or are we under attack again?"

"Bobby!" Ororo sighed with annoyance. "This house is over a hundred years old and Con Ed has been digging holes and screwing around all week."

"Go to the window and see if the lights are out all over or if it's just the house, please?" Scott asked before Ororo could say anything about it being an attack or not. He gently moved out from under where Jean had been leaning against him. Find the Professor, he told her along their bond.

"Hey, Fearless Leader," Bobby groused as he left the door, opening it up all the way. "You're just going to put me in harm's way?"

"You're not in any harm," Scott said, wariness sounding enough like irritation. "Go look out the window and see if you can find the street lamps."

He stood up and rolled his neck, trying to look casual as he looked around. He didn't have to be linked to a telepath to realize how terrified Lorna was, sitting alone on a giant floor-pillow with her arms around her drawn-up legs. It was best to keep everyone calm now. He'd rather apologize for being wrong later than get everyone worked up over a blown fuse.

He's fine and he doesn't sense anyone outside, either, Jean reported back. The Professor's calling Con Ed. Should I go get candles?

No. Scott frowned, glad nobody could see it in the darkness. I want us all together.

Scott, Lorna is practically radiating fear. Xavier's dulcet tones in his mind.

I know that, Scott replied with real annoyance. And Henry's right behind her. But I want us in one place until I know we're safe.

I've scanned for intruders, Jean insisted, not bothering to hide her indignation. Neither I nor the Professor sense anyone.

You didn't sense anyone when Weapon X came for us, either, Scott retorted, knowing that it would sound harsher than he'd meant it. I'm sorry. But we don't know anything yet.

Jean turned away and went to sit next to Lorna. "And you thought rolling blackouts were only in California," she said in a cheerful voice.

Scott, who could still feel her lingering irritation, turned back toward the window. "Well?"

"It looks like Con Ed dug too deep," Bobby answered from the window. If anyone had noticed the long silence that accompanied the telepathic conversation, they said nothing. "Streetlights are out and the Wallachs' lights are out, too. I can't see the Simonovitzs's from here."

I've spoken to ConEd, the Professor's voice spoke in all of their minds. His voice was calm and soothing and Scott tamped down the thought that Xavier was ameliorating the words with telepathic suggestions. They know about the outage and are sending an emergency maintenance crew out now. They estimate that it will be ninety minutes until power is restored.

"So... shall we crank up the fireplace and make s'mores?" Jean asked.

"Weenie roast!" Bobby cried out.

"Before we start planning snacks, why don't we work on flashlights and candles?" Scott asked rhetorically. "There's a flashlight in the kitchen and there are candlesticks in the dining room."

"I have tea lights and votives up in my room," Ororo offered. "Should I go get them?"

Scott shook his head, realizing belatedly that Ororo was probably too far to see him. "Let's see what we can get out of the dining room first and then, if we need more, you can take the flashlight and go for your supply. It's a blackout, not a seance."

"What about the Professor?" Lorna asked in a small voice.

I'm fine, Xavier answered. Thank you for your concern, but it is unwarranted. I'm perfectly safe where I am, although I fear my last few paragraphs were not saved before the power went out. Once you are all settled, then perhaps Scott or Jean can come upstairs and tend to me. A pen and paper by candlelight will perhaps untrack my thoughts regarding my current article.

"Okay, then." Scott clapped his hands once. "Everyone up and on to the kitchen."

Jean came close enough to be seen, her arm looped around Lorna's elbow. "Come on, Lorna. I've been around here long enough that I can find my way in the dark easily."

"Hey!" Bobby cried out, crossing the room from the window. "I know my way around, too... OW!" He stopped short as he collided with the narrow table behind one of the couches.

"Serves you right," Ororo admonished after everyone had stopped laughing.

Bobby's accident had cut the tension notably and Scott was thankful for that. Even more thankful for Ororo's subtle attentiveness to Henry, who hadn't said a word since the lights had gone out. Henry had reacted badly the first time the power had failed during the summer and, while he'd gotten better with each successive brown-out and complete black-out, Ororo was making sure to keep up a brave face and stay in close contact with him.

"Everyone mind the end table," Jean warned as she moved to the door with Lorna.

Scott followed close behind, wanting to get a look at the hallway before leading the team to the kitchen. But Bobby's extra-cautious path around the end table had him crossing right in front of where Scott wanted to walk, so he was the last to the doorway.

"Hey!" Ororo exclaimed from the hallway. "Shit! The back door's open! Why didn't the alarm go off?"

The security system ran on an independent power source located in the sub-basement. There was no way anyone should have been able to bypass it from outside without the code or a key.

"I don't see anyone," Jean insisted. Scott knew she meant telepathically and this wasn't the time to point out that he'd been right all along.

"Okay, everyone freeze!" he ordered, pushing past Jean and Lorna toward Ororo. "Storm, you're on perimeter guard. I want you outside and in the air finding out who the hell is on their way in. Get out through a window upstairs. Iceman, you do a sweep of the house, starting with the foyer and heading toward the solarium. I will meet you at the pantry. Go!"

He turned to the others as soon as Bobby and Ororo had set off. "Beast, you take Polaris downstairs and get the mainframe up and running again. Hook up the back-up generator if you have to... Marvel Girl, set up a telepathic link with everyone and get to the Professor. I want him brought down to the basement to stay with Beast and Polaris. I'm going to sweep the other half of the first floor."

Lorna looked terrified, but when Henry, who had seemingly conquered his nerves for the moment, reached out his hand for Lorna to take, she did and they went off together. He felt more than saw Jean's reaction as she ran toward the stairs.

Left alone, Scott took off his socks. The floors on this level were highly polished wood or tile and he knew from watching Bobby that it was possible to 'ice skate' anywhere and that was precisely what he didn't want. He was wearing what were basically glorified sunglasses and he rued the lack of fine control over his optic blasts more than he worried about what his white socks would look like after this was over.

I'll get everyone connected now, Jean's voice said over their link.

Get the Professor downstairs quickly. I don't want anyone isolated. Scott walked slowly down the hallway toward the back of the house. He had intentionally sent Bobby away from the obvious point of entry, although he doubted that the back door was the only ingress site.

The doorway to the breakfast room and Scott paused, closing his eyes and willing the psionic link to stay quiet. He listened for movement, for breathing, for the fuzzy noise of a muffled radio, for any noise that would sound out of place from the usual gentle creaks of an old house settling. A minute with nothing and he ran past the doorway hunched over, stopping immediately on the other side to listen again.

The lock on the sub-basement is out, Henry's voice came next. It was hard for a headblind person to hide emotion in their mindvoice and Scott could almost feel Henry's fear even as his words were strongly spoken. I'm trying a manual override.

We have no manual override, Scott pointed out after he had sprinted to the entry to the dining room. The sub-basement's door ran on an independent power source and wasn't even connected to the house's electrical grid. It should not have been affected by the blackout.

We have brute force and a lady with some skill around a metal door, Henry replied, mental voice strained. She's trying to wedge it loose and then I'll... push.

Lorna and Henry were halfway across the house, but he could hear their efforts in the silence. He was at the end of the hallway now, the kitchen across from him and the back door to his right from where he was pressed up against the wall.

Scott, the elevator is out and whoever is here is psi-shielded, the Professor reported, his voice calm and quiet. He could feel the difference between the 'conference call' mindspeech and a private link and this was the latter. Marvel Girl is going to bring us down the stairs.

Whoever's here knows what they are doing, Scott said after he'd gotten into the kitchen and crouched down against the island. Whoever's here knows about us.

The knife stand was on the counter underneath the cabinets to his left and he wanted to grab a pair. There were sheathed and boxed carving knives in the drawer with the cooking utensils, but he'd never be able to feel for them in the dark without either cutting his hand or making a racket. The Professor refused to have any conventional weapons on the property, insisting that a school was no place for such items and a mutant school even more so. Not even Weapon X could convince him to change his mind on that, although Scott and Logan had formed an unholy alliance to plead their case anyway.

Lorna's frustrated cry and Scott gritted his teeth. They were having no luck with the door and he didn't want them wasting their time or their confidence on it. Lorna was of no use as a player on this mission -- she was too scared and too drained of power -- and Henry was not the right one to support her. He'd only put them together to get them out of harm's way. The sub-basement was nearly impenetrable, which is why he'd chosen it as a retreating point. But if their attackers had disabled the door, then there was no guarantee the sub-levels were safe.

Beast, Polaris! Leave the door alone. Meet Iceman at the pantry. Marvel Girl, bring the Professor down there, too.

What they called the pantry really wasn't; it was the old maid's quarters, but had been converted to a storage area since before he and Jean had been the Professor's only pupils. The interior entrance was in a recessed corner of the hallway and it had a hidden passage to the garage that was normally used to ease the load of bringing food stores into the house but could also be used to escape.

They took out the juice for what looks like at least a mile, Ororo reported. Nearest lights I can see are on the Thruway, I think. There are some trucks parked down the street. They look like UPS trucks, but it's too dark to see.

Get closer if you can, but those aren't UPS trucks at this hour, Scott said, picking out the largest and smallest knives from the wooden stand. He'd need a free hand to lift his glasses, but without any sort of control over the blasts, he could only use the optic blasts for large-scale destruction and would need subtler methods. How many are there?

Two together, Ororo answered. There may be more, but I can't see because of the trees.

Light one up. He felt around for the fruit bowl on the counter, picking out the topmost apple.

What?!?

Cyclops, are you sure that's wise? The Professor's voice, still smooth and unruffled. We are supposed to be finding post-human solutions to violence, not slitting throats and electrocuting our opponents.

We are defending our home, Professor, Scott replied. We're going to catch the fallout from this no matter how it plays out -- we're screwed either way. I'd rather be screwed and free than screwed and living in another cage waiting for SHIELD to bail us out. Or worse.

Crouched down so that his outline wouldn't be visible from the kitchen windows -- surely their attackers had night-vision gear -- he moved to the open back door and knelt next to it. Whoever was watching the door wasn't doing it from directly outside. Taking a deep breath, he reared back on his knees and threw the apple, letting the momentum carry him forward until he was on all fours, head close to the ground and just outside the doorway.

There was no moonlight and he quickly lost track of the apple in the darkness, but he heard the muffled report of a rifle and the soft sound of the apple exploding. It had come from the left. He waited for more movement, but there was none.

Cyke? Ororo was hesitant.

Do it, he ordered. We can't fight off what we can't see and we may hit their command post. Give me a second one by the back patio if you can.

Almost immediately, there was the rumble of distant thunder. He crawled backward, away from the door, and stood up. He scurried through the kitchen in a crouch and in to the hallway toward the Professor's psi-shielded study.

Iceman, are you with Beast and Polaris yet?

Getting there. Bobby sounded excited and Scott wasn't sure whether or not to be relieved or concerned. Bobby had been overeager on his first missions after he'd been activated and he hadn't quite gotten rid of that extra energy and desire to prove himself ready yet.

I hear something in the hallway, Jean warned. I don't think we have a path downstairs.

Scott cursed silently. You and the Professor get outside from where you are. Get to the remote entry to the hangar and start the Blackbird's pre-flight routine.

But--

I am going to meet everyone at the pantry, he cut Jean off. We're going to take the path out through the garage and then outside and run like hell to catch up with you.

Would we not stand a better chance of fighting on familiar ground? Xavier asked. Presumably anyone who can successfully infiltrate the house knows of the Blackbird...

We're at the pantry, Cyke. Bobby announced. Should I open the passage?

No. Wait for me.

They know about the Blackbird and they know about the sub-basement, Scott continued over the private link with Jean and Xavier. But they're counting on us not getting to either. If we want to get out of here in one piece, we have to prove them wrong.

I'll float us out off the balcony, Jean suggested when Xavier stayed silent.

Wait for Ororo, Scott cautioned. Stay where you are until she gets their attention.

The crack of lightning overhead, but the strike was too far away and on the other side of the house to hear any of the effects. Go!

He wondered why there wasn't more activity on this level the house. Were their attackers hoping to draw them outside or hoping to pen them in, knowing that they couldn't escape to the basement.

I'm not seeing anyone moving down there, Ororo reported. I didn't...

You didn't kill anyone, he cut her off sharply. Come around back here and light up the backyard. I want to buy us some time by taking out the snipers with night-vision goggles.

Snipers? Lorna's voice was tentative and almost too quiet to be heard.

We only rate the best, Bobby replied with forced cheerfulness. We're....AAAAAGH!!

Bobby was cut off and Scott heard the distant sound of ice shattering and Lorna's scream. Scott ran down the hallway toward the pantry. With a wheelchair in the house, the hallways had to remain uncluttered and Scott had no fear of running into or stepping on anything.

"Fuck!" Bobby yelled. "Owww. They're in the house! Cyke!!"

"Coming!" He shifted his grip on the larger knife and dropped the second one as he ran. Storm, do a sweep around. Take down anyone who's coming toward the house.

"Iceman, are you hurt?"

"He's been shot in the shoulder," Lorna called back, her voice breaking. "Some sort of dart thing."

Feet squeaking as he peeled around the corner toward the closet that hid the entrance to the sub-basement and found the trio. Bobby was sitting leaning against the wall and Lorna and Henry were crouched over him and, as Scott pulled up, he could feel the cold of a thick ice wall keeping them from their attackers.

"I'm okay," Bobby insisted with slurred words. "See? Ice wall."

"I see," Scott replied, although he could only barely. "Beast, can he be moved?"

"Too dark to see anything," Henry replied, almost as if he hadn't heard. In the dark, Scott couldn't see his face and, without the advantage of mindspeak, he couldn't tell how cool under fire Henry actually was or wasn't. Bobby was semi-conscious and Lorna was too scared to move and Scott needed another adult to rely on and he hated himself for wondering if Henry was that person. "Some sort of tranquilizer, obviously."

"Figures." They weren't here to kill them, but to take them prisoner again. "Okay, let's get out of here. Beast, you carry him. Polaris, I am going to need you to run point. You need to be the lookout, see if the coast is clear. Can you do that?"

He heard Lorna's breath hitch in a sniffle, but she nodded.

"We're going to get to the back door, then Storm is going to blind everyone wearing NODs, then we're gonna make a break for it," he told them in a calm voice. If he sounded worried, then they'd never make it. "Storm will watch over us from above and I'll bring up the rear and cover our tails. All you guys have to do is keep running. Okay?"

Ororo? Did you hear?

Ready and waiting, Cyke, she replied.

Behind them, the ice wall made a hideous noise as it cracked, almost like nails on a chalkboard. There hadn't been any sounds of gunfire or bullets hitting the ice wall. Which meant that they were preparing to blow it up.

"Make a left at the corner, then go until you can't go anymore," he said quietly, waiting for Henry to shoulder the now-unconscious Bobby and indicate that he was ready. "On my mark: One... two... three... mark!"

Lorna took off and Scott watched until she disappeared, hoping that she didn't slip. He tapped Henry on the arm and he, too, started running.

Jean? he asked over their link.

We're out, she replied, her mental voice colored by strain. I'm trying to get us to the copse of firs and hoping that nobody looks up.... Shitfuck. We've been spotted.

Leaving her alone and undistracted, he turned to face the cracking ice wall. He could see diffuse bright spots of lights close to the other side of the wall. There was one about his eye-level, so it was probably attached to a headband or a helmet. There were sounds of ice chipping, which confirmed that the attackers on the other side were preparing explosives to take down the wall.

Stepping back away from the wall, he focused his eyes a couple of feet below the whitish glow and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he took off his glasses and opened his eyes. The effect was immediate. The wall of ice was blown out, heavy chunks of ice flying and hitting people and oak paneling. He could see a dozen or so tiny white lights, the sort mounted on headbands, but the confirmation of his suspicions meant little under the circumstances.

They've got a searchlight on me! Ororo fairly shouted. I can't ditch it. They're firing at me.

It was a fight to keep his eyes trained on where he wanted to aim the optic blasts, trusting his peripheral vision to pick up on the details. It was against all his instincts to not look around, especially now that he could see without a haze of red. But the bright white lights destroyed his night vision and the shapes in his peripheral vision faded into darkness. It didn't matter though. His eyes were weapons now, not for vision, and he forced himself to concentrate.

We've got one on us, too, Jean responded. Maybe we should--

Jean, get the Professor to the plane now. Storm is fine on her own.

He focused lower down, body shots being preferred. At full power, aiming for the center of gravity would be the most effective. If he'd had his visor, he could have picked off weapons or dinged a helmet-mounted light. But without the visor or any way to curb the blasts, he worried that he'd take someone's hand or head off and that was not what he wanted, even if these people were here to kidnap him and his friends.

There was shouting and the men he hit were cursing in English and he filed that information away for later use, along with the fact that they were all in black uniforms, no insignia but obviously of military issue. He could tell by the sounds of impact that they were wearing body armor and that they were carrying M-4 assault rifles. There were more men than he'd thought that there would be. Whoever it was was taking no chances.

Once the return fire stopped, he closed his eyes, put his glasses back on, and turned to run. Polaris, are you outside yet?

A loud crack of lightning and a brilliant light coming from the end of the hallway answered his question. He could see Lorna and Henry, with his burden, backlit as they stood immobile by the door.

"What are you waiting for? Go!" He shouted as he ran. Jean! Give Lorna directions.

There were the sounds of gunfire and shouting outside and while Henry stood like a statue, Lorna looked back at him with pure panic on her face.

"Go!" he yelled again, pointing with the knife in his hand. "I'm right behind you. Go!"

The gunfire stopped and just when Scott thought he'd have to push Lorna and Henry out the door himself, Lorna took off and Henry followed, getting swallowed by the darkness as soon as they were off the marble porch. Scott followed them, but tripped and fell heavily only a yard or two from the door.

They've got a chopper! Ororo warned from her position on high. It's coming in from the south.

Blast it if it comes any closer, he barked, pulling himself up into a crouch down and getting to the edge of the porch as quickly as he could. His knees hurt sharply and his wrist was jammed. There was a heavy marble rail around the patio and he could huddle behind the stanchion. Marvel Girl, keep an eye on Henry and Lorna.

They're heading for the trees, Jean reported. I didn't leave anyone standing there.

He could hear the helicopter overhead, but he could not see it because it had no lights on. A violation of FAA regulations as well as damned dangerous this close to several airports, whoever was flying it either didn't worry about getting caught or else they had permission already. If that were the case...

"Don't move, Cyclops."

Scott heard the click of a rifle and froze. He had infallible aural landmarks and knew precisely where the woman who'd spoken was standing. She was too far back to be within range of the knife still in his hand, but if he pivoted on his left foot, then he could probably take out her knees with an optic blast before she fired.

"Stand up slowly," she ordered.

Scott? Jean sounded very worried. Lorna's been shot and Henry can't carry them both. Where are you?

I'm busy, he replied shortly. Storm? Come down and help Beast. Marvel Girl, is the jet prepped yet?

The soft sounds of well-trained soldiers moving into position around him. That complicated things. Getting everyone without getting shot in the process would be impossible.

"Move, Mister Summers!"

A bit of help here, Storm? I need one more strike. Doesn't have to be close.

There was no response from Ororo and Scott didn't take the time to wonder if it was because she was distracted or because she had been subdued.

"All right, all right. Just tying my shoelace."

Scott?!? Jean sounded scared and it irritated him.

"You're not wearing shoes. Get up slowly with your hands raised."

Still crouching, he centered himself over his feet so that he'd be able to move quickly without losing his balance. Taking a deep breath, he spun around on his left foot, whipping off his glasses. He heard a bullet whistle past his left ear, but the next sounds were the marble banister exploding outward, the shouts of men diving away from his blast and hitting the ground -- or getting hit by chunks of marble shrapnel. He heard glass breaking and knew he was facing the back of the house now. Turning back toward the patio and the yard, he heard another bullet scream by his ear.

Putting on his glasses, he ran down the stairs and along the row of shrubbery toward the woods. He heard shots ricochet off the remnants of the marble banister, but just ducked lower and kept running.

SitRep!

I've lost them! Jean answered anxiously. They're gone, totally gone!

Who? Scott asked as he ran among the trees. There were twigs and roots and he tripped constantly, the pebbles and fallen bits of wood digging into his bare feet so that they fairly hummed with pain. Feeling branches scrape against his cheek, he kept one hand on his glasses and the other extended in front of him. He could see just enough that it wasn't worth taking off his glasses and moving truly blindly.

All of them! Jean sounded panicky. Henry, 'Ro, Lorna, and Bobby. They're gone gone. I can't even feel them unconscious.

They're not dead, he assured her harshly, annoyed more at his own stumbling than her fear. If they'd wanted to kill us, they'd have done it right away instead of doping us first.

We have the jet prepped, but...

He froze to listen for following footsteps and to get rid of the pebble tearing into the ball of his right foot with each step. His foot was sticky with blood and had pine needles and twigs and dirt stuck to it. He was sure the other was no better. Let me look around for a minute and see if I can't find them. If we let them get out of here, we may have no better luck finding them than we did Piotr.

Do you think that these are the same ones who took Piotr? Jean sounded timid and Scott was frustrated with her questions. It was one thing for Lorna to be terrified and for Henry to still be affected by Weapon X, but Jean had been through so much, he wished she'd be strong so that he didn't feel like he was carrying her, too.

I don't know. There were footsteps and they were drawing closer, so he started moving again. Start the takeoff protocols. You may have to TK me to the plane. Can you reach me from here?

The closer the better, Jean answered and he could feel the hairs on his arms stand up on end. In this case, closer would definitely be better.

Deciding that speed was probably more useful than care here, he took off at a run, again with one hand to his glasses and the other feeling for trees in the near-pitch darkness.

Jesus!! The hangar door is jammed shut! Jean cried. Scott, I can't get you and the plane free.

Scott tripped on a root and barely kept his balance as he kept running. His feet hurt like hell, but right now it didn't matter. Take care of the plane. I'm managing on my own.

Fuck. It's like they parked a truck on top of the doors, he heard her mutter. The Blackbird was equipped for VTOL and the hangar doors were in the ground, hidden in a clearing among the Douglas Firs that covered more than half of the unlandscaped grounds. It couldn't be more than a couple of hundred yards away.

Bits of the underbrush were poking into the opened wounds in his feet with each step and he felt tears prick at his eyes, but he was too close now. He pushed on, stumbling and tripping with every step, until he ran into what felt like a wall.

Arms too powerful to be human wrapped around him and all he could do was kick fiercely and try to shake his head hard enough to knock his glasses off. It would be a full-strength blast, a headshot at close range, but at this moment he didn't care.

"Stop or you're going to break your foot," a muffled voice told him curtly.

"Fuck you," Scott spat out. He shook his head again, feeling the glasses slide down the bridge of his nose.

"Hurry up," the man-mountain called.

"This one's going straight in the ass for nearly kneecapping me," the woman from before growled. Scott swung his legs backward, despite knowing he wasn't close enough to make contact. But the motion did provide the angle of momentum he needed to finally get a earpiece of his glasses away from his ear. He closed his eyes and, with one more shake, he felt them slide loose on the left side.

He opened his eyes at the same time he felt the grip around him loosen, but it wasn't fast enough to save his captor. The helmet exploded and Scott dropped into a ball, grabbing the glasses as they finally fell from his face and putting them back on. He looked up and saw the man who had been holding him hunched over, hands to his face. He was not screaming in pain, was not saying anything at all, and Scott would have wondered why if there hadn't been a woman aiming a handgun at his head and the crunching sound of others surrounding him.

The woman turned suddenly as one of the giant fir trees started to creak and then fall. Taking the opportunity, Scott turned and ran.

Jean! He tripped and fell, probably spraining his already sore wrist as he landed hard on the uneven ground. He heard footsteps behind him and felt a prick on his right arm and then heat and sharp pain. He struggled to his feet and started to run again, stumbling with every step. He felt his bicep and it was wet slick with blood, but apparently he'd been only grazed. Was that enough to get the drug into his system?

Without his arms out for balance, he fell again, knocking his glasses off as he landed on his knees. His eyes closed on instinct and he felt around for the glasses, fearful of missing them and just as fearful of crushing them should he hurry. His fingertips brushed against one lense as he felt the impact of a dart in his side. Reaching around, he tried to knock it loose as he stood, swiping at it as if it were a mosquito. He put his glasses back on and started to run again, aware of the burning feeling spreading from the wound in his side and in his arm and determined not to fall.

Jean!!

He felt two more darts hit his right shoulder, then another lower down. It was like a night of drinking coming on full force to hit all at once. His motions were not quite under control, his head was spinning, and he was desperately thirsty. He felt numb, dimly aware of another dart hitting him. "I'm the knight who says 'Ni'."

In the distance, he could hear the roar of the Blackbird's VTOL system. Jean would come for him now.

He stumbled again and it felt like an eternity before he could get upright again, his knee straightening out to support his weight with agonizing slowness... until it finally gave way and he fell face first to the ground, his limbs abandoning all pretext of obedience and his arms refusing to push him up out of the dirt.

There were footsteps, quiet and quick behind and around him, keeping at a distance. He didn't need to look to know that there were weapons trained on him from all sides. But it was too dark to see anything and he was losing the fight to keep his eyes open at any rate.

"Bind his eyes, then his arms," the woman's voice said. "Stay clear of his legs. I don't think he can do anything, but I really don't want to have to chase him a third time."

He could do no more than twist his head away from the hands reaching down with a blindfold. Another set of gloved hands held his temples and the blindfold was put into place. It wasn't just a piece of cloth; it was hard and felt more like a pair of swimming goggles. Scott was sure it was made rudy quartz. He opened his eyes and nothing happened. He could see the ground right in front of him. What sort of blindfold... of course. They expected him to be unconscious. It must mean a short trip back to wherever they'd be kept.

Jean?

He felt his arms being yanked behind him, then tied back with what felt like plastic. He wanted to roll away, but he couldn't even manage a respectable wriggle.

"Manger, this is Mary. Tell God that Mary and Jesus have Cyclops and that the Wise Men are bringing him in."

Gotcha. A whisper in his mind and never more wanted.

He felt the electric hum of a telekinetic shield surround him and lift him gently.

"Get him down," the woman codenamed Mary barked. He saw gloved hands reaching for his legs, but bouncing off the invisible field. "Manger, we're losing Cyclops to a telekinetic shield. Take down that plane!"

I'll bring you in as soon as I stabilize. One minute. Jean sounded distracted. She had rarely flown the Blackbird and Scott wondered if she was using their link to see his memories to do so now. Now that he didn't have to move, he was surprised to find his mind still clear even as he was struggling to stay conscious.

The woman below had holstered the handgun and was now holding a flashlight that glowed like a beacon in the pitch blackness. She was aiming it at him and he had to squint, but he couldn't let his eyes close -- he had to try to see who their attackers were. But, as he moved higher and further away, she pointed it down and to the side and, in that moment, Scott swore his heart stopped for a beat because it ghosted over her companion for half of a second.

It didn't make sense, even if it did. There was no way such an assault worked without inside knowledge, no way he didn't take off his captor's head with a full-power headshot, no way anything could have worked out the way it did unless someone knew their habits as well as their powers... But there was no way Piotr Rasputin would betray them. Stockholm Syndrome was not a possibility. Piotr was too strong intellectually to be another Patty Hearst.... He must have mis-seen. Maybe it was someone else with Piotr's mutation -- mutations weren't unique and it wasn't as if their DNA wasn't on file with half of the evil scientific geniuses of the world anyway. It made no sense. Even if nothing else made better sense than seeing a flashlight reflect off of organic steel skin.

Hey, lover, you still there? Jean asked as the bubble gained speed. How are you doing?

I hurt, he whispered back, letting unconsciousness take him.


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