"How are you doing?"
Piotr lifted his head enough to look up at Clint, but not so much that he'd have to come out of his hunch. Clint's left arm was wrapped in gauze from fingertips to elbow and he had a butterfly bandage below his left eye that was only partially obscured by his glasses.
Piotr's own injuries were mostly hidden. He had surface cuts on the right side of his face from when Scott had blasted off his helmet's visor; bits of his NODs had dug into his cheek even though he'd been in his steel form. There was also a large, deep bruise by his right ribs where he'd taken a kick from Henry (he hadn't been in his steel form then) and they'd x-rayed his ribs as a precaution. If there were any fractures, they were too small to see and so the medics had just wrapped his torso and handed him some painkillers. He hadn't taken them yet because he hadn't eaten and didn't want to wrap himself in the fuzzy warmth of drug-induced dissociation. "It's nothing that won't heal."
"Nothing the armorer can't fix, I know," Clint said as he sat down heavily next to him on the couch. "Which wasn't what I was asking."
Piotr, head hanging down once more, took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "It was a lot harder than I thought it would be."
Clint laughed, although it came out more like a cough. "That's because you were an idiot and thought that it wouldn't hurt to treat your friends like the bad guys."
From the tone of Clint's voice, Piotr knew that if he were to look up, he would see Clint's 'I Told You So' face. It was an expression that was usually more affectionate than smug -- unless Clint was pissed, in which case it was more than a little chilling. But Clint didn't sound pissed and Piotr wasn't sure he was ready to accept the comfort of Clint's concern for him. So instead, he opened his eyes and stared at the floor, seeing nothing.
They were sitting in Fury's office, dark except for a desk lamp illuminating the area around Rudelsky's corner. The windows were untinted and, if they turned around, they'd be able to see the Manhattan skyline illuminated against the dark blue that passed as blackness in New York's night. Fury himself was elsewhere, either in one of the post-mission briefings or down in the medical area looking in on the wounded soldiers.
They had gone in with two full teams of SHIELD's Special Forces troops plus a platoon of regular infantry and come back with a quarter of them under the care of the team medics and qualified assistants. Piotr, who had gone through medic cross-training, had spent the ride home applying pressure on the nicked artery of one unhappy sergeant. None of the injuries were imminently life-threatening, but a few would require lengthy recovery times -- Scott had broken one soldier's back and fractured another's pelvis with his optic blasts; Ororo and Henry had caused their share of broken bones (arms, legs, ribs, skull) fighting their way toward the Blackbird and there was one confirmed case of frostbite.
But some of the wounds couldn't be treated by the doctors. Whenever Piotr closed his eyes, he could still see the cold determination on Scott's face as he fought to free himself, to lose his glasses. A full-power optic blast to the head at that distance was only a killing shot and Scott knew it. What sort of changes had been wrought in Scott's life - or Cyclops's - to make the use of lethal force an option? Scott, more than any of them, had been hyperconscious of his mutation's potential danger. Was the readiness to kill simply a reaction to what had happened to them all during their capture by Weapon X - a visceral reaction to a terrifying situation? Or was it something more pervasive, a shift in either personal or team philosophy that rendered Xavier's public platform of non-violence a complete charade instead of merely worthy of skepticism? And had the departure of Colossus been one of the dominoes that had been pushed over to reach that end?
He hadn't thought of Weapon X as he'd walked with silent footfalls through the estate's grounds, hunting his once-upon-a-time teammates. For all of the mission planning that had involved rehashing that first assault on the mansion, those memories hadn't been foremost in his mind. He'd instead remembered walking the grounds on his own, either for privacy or for exercise or to escape from the claustrophobia of Xavier's ideas and Xavier's walls. He'd remembered the way the place looked in the summer and in the fall, snowball fights in winter and the spot on the porch where Alex's bloodied body had lain after his suicide attempt.
Piotr regretted the similarity between SHIELD's assault and Weapon X's. It was pointless to deny how similar, just as it was pointless to dwell on the regret. Especially because he'd like to think that the ingress was where the similarity ended. No matter what else, there would be no experimentation, no torture, no threat of pain and death. (That Bobby and the Lorna girl would be sent home was assumed; Fury didn't believe in child fighters.)
He didn't doubt that Fury had plans for the X-Men or that those plans might not be any more voluntary than his own conscription into SHIELD had been, but he had to believe that the results of Fury's machinations would be for the betterment of them all. He had to or else his betrayal of his friends went from simply unfortunate to absolutely unforgivable, at best another preying on his store of hope for the future and at worst a ruthless exploitation of his naiveté.
That scared him a little -- the thought that he was nothing more than an elaborate kind of bait for a trap for the X-Men. Instead of Fury thinking that he was useful for what he could do for SHIELD, it was all only ever about capturing Charles Xavier and his followers. It wasn't ridiculous in the purely strategic sense -- Natasha and Clint were trained warriors and able chameleons and if Natasha would do it for fun, Clint would do it out of belief. It wasn't ridiculous, but it didn't make a lot of sense, either, and Piotr was inclined to attribute his paranoia to his guilt.
"You all right?" Piotr asked, realizing belatedly that he hadn't before. "How's your arm?"
"I may never play the piano again," Clint replied, voice rusty and low and a little amused. "Which would bother me more if I could play the piano in the first place."
Piotr looked sideways at Clint, who opened one eye and cracked an uneven smile.
"It's mostly cosmetic," Clint said with more seriousness. "Nothing broken. Wrist is sprained and a few stitches. I'm more annoyed that they shaved my arm."
Piotr chuckled, although he regretted it instantly when his ribs barked. The cartilage had been shifted slightly and the pain from that was sharp like a knife and stole his breath away. The painkillers were probably a "when" and not an "if".
"Any news on the X-Men?"
Clint closed his eye and leaned his head back against the wall. "They're in better shape than we are. Sleeping off the tranqs downstairs."
It had nauseated Piotr a little to see the prone bodies of his once-upon-a-time colleagues. Drugged unconscious, they'd still been bound as prisoners until the teams had returned to the Triskelion, at which point they'd been handed over to the medical unit. He'd carried Bobby out of the helicopter and surprised himself by having to fight back tears. He knew everyone was watching him, seeing how he'd behave and how he'd react and it had angered him. He'd focused on that anger, harnessing it to keep his composure.
"Where's Natasha?" he asked, changing the subject.
Clint chuckled. "Last time I saw her, she was trying to get in touch with any old connections up in Canada. Apparently there are retired KGB agents all over Quebec."
Piotr, surprised, looked over again. Clint gave him a one-shouldered shrug without opening his eyes. "Maybe they like the cold and the socialism," he offered. "Reminds them of how things used to be."
They sat in silence for a while, enjoying the peace after a long night and what was turning into a longer morning. They had gotten back to the Triskelion shortly after one in the morning, spent the next hour or so getting patched up (in Piotr's case, forty-five minutes of triage for fifteen minutes of treatment), then on the first of the post-mission debriefs.
Scott, Jean, and Xavier had gotten away in the Blackbird, but not far. SHIELD had had two Auroras ready the moment the mission-initiating codeword had been uttered. The Kiowa, the only air support they'd had after infil, had tracked the Blackbird's progress as far as it was able to, but the Auroras, cleared hot since takeoff, had caught up before Lake George and, while Piotr was getting his ribs taped, there had been word that they had shot the fugitive plane down a couple hundred kilometers north of the St. Lawrence River, somewhere in the Laurentian Mountains.
The door opened suddenly and Piotr squinted against the light from the outer office that backlit Fury and Rudelsky; he hadn't remembered closing his eyes and wondered belatedly if he'd fallen asleep.
"We lost them," Fury said, striding toward his desk as the overhead light came on. He gestured for them to stay as they were instead of standing, then dropped heavily into his seat and looked over at them. "We got a team HALOed in to the crash site, but they've got nothing so far."
Piotr sat up straight gingerly and, next to him, Clint, who had been leaning back and probably dozing, did the same.
"I'm going to regret asking," Clint began, "but considering that they crashed into the side of a mountain, how far could they have gone? Xavier's a cripple, Cyclops was shot full of tranquilizers and the plane was going Mach-whatever when it went down..."
"Jean Grey is a telepathic telekinetic," Fury answered, frowning. "So, apparently, they got far enough. ODA-254 sent back digital photos and it looks like she kept the plane intact all the way down to the ground. We had two confirmed hits by Phoenix missiles."
Piotr thought of all the times he'd been in the Blackbird. They'd never practiced any sort of crash scenarios or other plane exercises. It wasn't a matter of being confident in Jean's powers or Scott's piloting; it had simply never crossed anyone's mind. All of their action had come on the ground, far from the plane. Worrying about getting to and from the Blackbird had been as close as they'd ever come to the sort of logistical planning that he now took for granted as part of mission prep.
Clint sighed. "How far away from civilization did they go down?"
Fury looked up at Rudelsky.
"About ten kilometers east of Route 113 in Quebec," Rudelsky answered. "Coordinates are available, but they're not within five kilometers of any population center."
"What is the nearest population center?"
"Waswanipi or Lebel-sur-Quevillon."
"The nearest population center anyone's heard of, Rudelsky," Fury growled.
"None to speak of, sir," Rudelsky replied, turning to the flat-screen display behind him. He had a remote control in his hand and a map of Quebec appeared on the screen. The crash site was illuminated with a red dot. "Chicoutimi to the east and Val d'Or and Rouyn-Noranda to the west."
Piotr could only identify the names because there had once been junior hockey teams there, but Fury and Clint had matching expressions of blank ignorance. Rudelsky went over to his desk and started typing. A political map was superimposed over the geographical and highways and towns were depicted and labeled.
"They're in the middle of nowhere," Fury mused after a long moment. "If I thought that they were still in the area, I'd send up a battalion and swarm them out. But they could be in Montreal or Ottawa by now. Or somewhere in the Arctic. Maybe Xavier and Magneto had a secret hideout up there, too."
"Don't look at me," Piotr said after he realized both men were. "I didn't even know where the Savage Land was on the map until after Sco... Cyclops got back."
"How much more is Marvel Girl capable of?" Fury asked instead. "Considering that she contained the explosions of at least two missile hits and maintained a controlled descent of a supersonic jet, how far is she going if she has to carry Xavier and Cyclops?"
Piotr shook his head. "I don't know. She was trained for both endurance and power... I've seen her levitate parts of a Sentinel, but she couldn't stop an entire one. I would not have guessed that she'd have been able to handle the Blackbird as she apparently did. But, since she has... Two men are not a lot. She could bring them to the nearest road, wait for the first car..."
"And they could be halfway to Detroit by now and we've lost them," Fury finished. "Fuck."
The map on the screen went dark for a moment, then returned, updated with concentric circles, each color-coded to indicate means of movement (foot, car, telekinetic flight) and time from impact.
"How many resources do we really want to allocate north?" Clint asked, pulling his PDA out of the thigh pouch he kept it in. "Do we honestly think they have another fortress set up? Hidey-holes are more the Brotherhood's stock in trade."
"And crash-landing in the middle of nowhere without a plan is the X-Men's," Fury agreed. "But you've been on my ass for months about not underestimating them, so let's not do that now. That said, we can leave most of that surveillance to the tinker-toys department and focus our human resources on the other 270 degrees. Satellites'll be able to tell the people from the bison well enough.... Rudelsky!"
Rudelsky had migrated over to his desk and was typing on his keyboard. At Fury's bark, he looked up expectantly.
"Where are we having teams deployed?"
Rudelsky typed a few keystrokes, then read off the results on the screen. Teams to Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo, Detroit. The team that had HALOed in to the crash site would head northeast, another team northwest, just in case.
Piotr didn't bother to hide his surprise at the sheer manpower being dedicated to hunting down Scott, Jean, and the Professor. More than a hundred of SHIELD's special forces troops, not to mention the usual sort of border alerts and airport warnings, to chase down three fugitive mutants -- one blinded and one crippled. And the odds were still in the X-Men's favor because they were needles in a field of hay, not just a haystack.
"Have we cleared this with Ottawa?" Clint asked. "Just out of curiosity."
Fury snorted. "If they ask, we'll tell them we're restaging the War of 1812 and mean to get it right this time. They lost the right to know when they backed out of the defense shield."
Clint chuckled dryly. "What sort of supplies were on the plane?" he asked Piotr, turning to face him slightly. "Cyclops had no visor and Xavier no wheelchair. Telepaths or not, Marvel Girl and Xavier can't hide the fact that Cyclops can't open his eyes and Xavier can't walk from everyone. Can they?"
"They hid Magneto," Piotr replied. "But it's a waste of energy to telepathically mask everyone instead of just going with what they have. Scott had a visor on the plane, but no glasses. There was no spare wheelchair as part of the Blackbird's standard tonnage, but there was one in the hangar with the emergency packs. If it's still there..."
"Black Widow has been advised," he replied.
"Natasha's back in Westchester?" Piotr asked, surprised even though he knew he shouldn't be. In the division of labor on their three-man team, Natasha, the former spy, handled intelligence. "So quickly?"
"She's overseeing," Fury answered with a wicked grin that bordered on smug. "We had her choppered up there an hour ago. She didn't get her ass kicked like you two did, so she was good to go once she'd given her AAR. Which, I believe, you still have to do, Hawkeye."
Clint muttered darkly and Piotr couldn't help but be amused; team leader or not, Clint was known to go to great lengths to avoid giving after-action reports. With Natasha on communications as well as intelligence, Clint was unashamed of his abrogation of any and all reporting duties where he wasn't requested by name. Which Fury did precisely because he knew he'd never hear from Clint otherwise.
"Chair or not, what are our hypotheses for where they're going to go?" Fury went on, ignoring Clint's displeasure.
"Toward civilization, but not into it," Clint said, idly tapping his PDA stylus on his right thigh. "They need time to recover and regroup. Unless Marvel Girl can pull the drugs out of Cyclops's system, he's not going to be conscious for another eight to ten hours and not functional for at least a day. Accelerated mutant metabolism or not, his medical file had a thing about sensitivity to soporifics, right?"
It was a rhetorical question -- they'd all seen the files -- so he went on. "They're going to move into a position where they have some level of safety and shelter, access to food and medical supplies, possible disguises..."
Fury nodded. "If I were Xavier, I'd go to ground until Cyclops is ready to move again. He's their field man, the one with practical skills and knowledge."
"He's their field man, but I don't think that will matter here," Piotr said. "Xavier... isn't really a pragmatist. He and Scott had disagreements, sometimes even during missions, about things like ROE -- Scott would want to engage and Xavier would deny permission. Xavier's one of two telepaths in the trio. He'll be sure he can outsmart anyone they encounter, certainly civilians who don't know what they're up against."
"He'll try to get as far as he can before Cyclops comes to?" Clint was looking for a file on his PDA and didn't look up as he spoke. "Just to prove that he's right and Cyclops is wrong? Isn't this the absolute wrong time for that sort of pissing contest?"
"I wouldn't put it past him," Piotr replied, thinking back to the day in the park when Xavier had taken him to see Erik Lehnsherr. The pride in what he'd done both in subduing the monster that was Magneto as well as in fooling so many people into thinking Magneto had been killed. "Xavier believes in finding the post-human solution to the problem, even if he's been lying about what that solution is. He thinks that Scott is still too.. hampered by human limitations."
Fury leaned back in his seat and sighed. "Post-human solutions... we all read that piece-of-shit book of his, so why aren't we thinking like he is?"
"Because what's to say that that book was any closer to what's going on in his mind than all those files you DS'ed back in December?" Clint asked, not making it any more of a question than Fury's had. "He's been playing us all along. We can't get trapped into trying to outguess him because we never knew what he was thinking in the first place."
Fury stared out the windows for a long moment, then sat forward again, pulling himself back to his desk with a grunt. "Well, Rasputin, it's time to start living up to your namesake. I want outside-the-box solutions, theories, plans, something from you. Rudelsky'll get you a couple of toadies from Tac-Ops to help."
"What about me?" Clint asked.
"You're going to sit down and write out your AAR before you start forgetting things," Fury replied evenly. "We'll get you a voice-to-text recorder."
"I hate those things," Clint muttered, giving his bandaged arm a traitorous look. "They never get what I say the first time. Or the third."
"That's because you talk funny," Fury said, standing up. Clint and Piotr rose carefully in response. "Find Rasputin when you're done."
He left the room then, Rudelsky following only so far as to retrieve one of the voice-to-text-enabled laptops and bring it back to Fury's desk. He set it up with his usual wordless efficiency and then gestured for Piotr to follow him out.
"If I'm not out in an hour, send reinforcements," Clint called after them.
Subject: there's a fly in my soup doing the backstroke
I am Mr. Ousmane Abousalam the Auditor General of one of the prime banks here in Dakar Senegal west Africa during the course of our auditing,I discovered a floating fund in an account opened in the our bank since 1982 and till date no body has operated on this account again after going through some old files in the records I discovered that the owner of the account died long ago in a plane crash along with his family without leaving a[Heir/WILL] hence the funds is floating and if I do not remit this money out urgently it will be forfeited for nothing.The owner of this account is Khalifa T.Ibrahim a foreigner before his death,he was a management consultant and he died since 1992.No other person knows about this account or any thing concerning it,the account has no other beneficiary and my investigation proved to me as well that until his sudden death he was a management consultant.
Alex deleted the email and sighed. The subject header was the code, the rest meant to look like spam. The translation was simple: Scott was safe but compromised and don't get in touch until he sent another coded message saying that things were clear.
They'd set up the system after Weapon X, a series of one-use-only codes for Scott to indirectly warn Alex about threats and to let him know that he was still alive in case something did happen. None of it had been necessary... until now.
He had no idea what might have happened or when. He hadn't heard from Scott in a couple of weeks, but that wasn't unusual per se. They often went long stretches without anything substantive said back and forth, especially during the parts of the semester when Alex had exams. Trinity Term ended in two and a half weeks and he'd have been surprised if he'd gotten anything more than a "good luck" before then, followed by the inevitable "Are you coming to visit?" discussion afterward.
With finals on top of him, he really didn't have time for extensive research on news of what could have happened to the X-Men. On the one hand, that he hadn't heard anything was good -- the X-Men hadn't done anything bombastic and stupid and gotten themselves killed. On the other... how do you take down the X-Men without being bombastic and at least as brave as stupid? The property damage alone from a firefight should have made the news.... unless whoever did it had the resources to control the news. Which meant either government (most likely SHIELD) or some private concern with serious cash (Hellfire Club, if only because there was obviously some connection between them and the X-Men, no matter what Scott refused to tell him).
Mostly so that he could put his full concentration back on his exams -- after the bureaucratic sodomy involved in switching colleges so that he could get a degree in geology, doing well was imperative -- he did a quick search on the local papers. Gannett was, as ever, overhelpful and useless all at once. The Journal News reported that there had been a gas leak near a home in Salem Center, causing it to be evacuated, but no danger had been found. The residents of 1407 Greymalkin Lane had yet to return, however, because it was a school for special needs children and subsequent tests were being done to assure parents.
The how and the what solved -- yet another home invasion -- Alex went back to mastering Remote Sensing and Active Tectonics. The who and the why were guesswork and he had no time for that right now. Scott was obviously safe -- or at least one step ahead of trouble with enough time to send a message -- and could be pressed for details later. As much as Alex thought a mugshot of his brother could be used in the picture dictionary next to "idealistic", he trusted Scott's survival skills, especially if Scott were charged with keeping the other safe as well.
Two weeks after Trinity Term ended and three days into his summer job on a dig in France, Alex returned to his billet to find a missed call on his cell phone, Scott's number. There had been no communication from him, no indication that things were back to normal -- indeed, the X-Men had not been sighted in more than a month. Alex destroyed his phone the next day, replacing it with a different model and number. And then he started to plan a trip to Paris to do some more serious research.
Piotr accepted the papers and scanned the topmost few numbers before Natasha pulled his forearm toward her so that she could see the list.
"You need your special agents to vet 'Arturo's Auto Body Repair'?" she asked sarcastically, one eyebrow arched. "What sort of shambles is the Intel department in that you need us? Or do you think it might be a front for the Brotherhood?"
"Widow!" Fury warned, no real heat behind it. "I have a flight down to the Pentagon in half an hour. You do not get the privilege of pissing me off today."
"It is not a privilege," she replied placidly. "It is a right."
With Natasha momentarily distracted, Piotr could look over the pages without interruption. The computer crime division of SHIELD had been through the mansion's computers, pulling up data and hacking email and farming addresses and whatever else they did. Everyone's cell phones had been left behind and those, too, had been researched. The list before him was part of the results of three weeks of work, each entry cross-referenced by where it was found and with what additional information. The phone Xavier had issued him was there, but it was followed by a short list of outdated numbers.
The entire list was, predictably, relatively short. The X-Men did not have a lot of contact with the outside world, almost none of it beyond the commercial and services sectors. With the exception of Bobby and the new girl, Lorna, they had no outside friends, little contact with family, and nothing that brought them out of the mansion on a regular basis to interact with society at large. Xavier's list was the most extensive, including many bold-face names, but how many of them were cold calls and solicitations for support of his various projects and how many of them were serious or even covert concerns?
"They're almost agoraphobic," Natasha commented, leaning her head on Piotr's shoulder to read again. She had been through the list a few times already and he made no effort to help her see. "Take away the repairmen and the delivery places and you're left with mailing lists, 411, and Moviefone."
When he'd lived in Westchester, he, too, had been guilty of being a bit of a shut-in. Unable to drive and Salem Center practically bereft of public transport, he'd been reliant on others' largesse to get him into town. Mindful of that fact, he'd restricted his requests to trips to the train station. Free time had come in fits and spurts, but mostly kept busy by commitments to Xavier and mindful of his status as illegal alien and criminal, he had consciously chosen not to build any sort of ties to polite, wealthy Salem Center with its Abercrombie & Fitch-clad teens and ladies who lunched.
"Keep telling yourself that you protect a world that fears and hates you and see how often you want to go down to the local Starbucks for a double mocha frappuchino," Clint murmured, looking over his own copy.
"I do protect a world that fears and hates me," Natasha retorted, not looking up. "And I make damned sure to get out as often as I can."
"Which is why your expense accounts are always on my desk full of red ink and question marks," Fury said dryly. "This look hinky to you, Rasputin? Too short? Anyone obvious missing?"
Moira McTaggert was on the phone list, as was Kurt Wagner and the Lehnsherr twins. He didn't know if he'd ever remembered Alex's number well enough to recognize it, but there were two unlabeled numbers with European country codes under Scott's name and he assumed one of them must be Alex. The only calls would have been through Scott's cell phone to Alex's -- Alex had forbidden anyone to call him from the mansion's landlines -- and while Scott had obviously kept the number out of his phone's contacts list as well as deleting it from the phone's memory, there were ways of digging these things up regardless. He flipped to the page with email addresses. Alex's school address was not there, but one of the alternates was. Alex was as paranoid and anal about his email tracks as he was about his phone trails, but even if SHIELD's computer team couldn't figure out where he was, it was perhaps only a matter of time before they realized who he was if the address had been farmed from Scott's mail folders. Precisely because they were so few, any personal contacts would be all the more closely examined.
"Pete?" Clint turned in his seat.
Piotr made a bland face and shrugged. He'd come this far without saying anything; the only thing to do now was wait and see what happened. Either he'd have serious explaining to do or he wouldn't. "Nothing's jumping out so far."
"Keep looking," Fury ordered, standing. "But not here. I have work to do before I leave. You three are on lead-in for Jakarta when?"
An old trail on an even older Wahhabist terrorist cell had reopened last month. They'd been spending all their time since the siege on the mansion prepping, digging out files that hadn't even been digitized yet in order to write their mission plans.
"O'Dark Thirty," Clint replied sourly, coming quickly to his feet. "Early morning flight."
"It was the 8:40 flight or another nine hours in the air with stops in China and Korea," Piotr reminded him, turning to follow Natasha toward the door. As usual, he had wound up with transport arrangements, an unhappy task in general and all the worse this time considering the language and time differences and the fact that they needed access to untraceable air, sea, and land vehicles that could only be procured in-country. Trish from Mission Operations hadn't been sure whether to laugh or cry when he'd presented her with the prospective itinerary. "Besides, you always sleep on the plane."
"Because you always book us on ass-crack-of-dawn flights," Clint retorted, his drawl emphasized to take the criticism out of the words.
"No, because you're scared of getting stuck talking to me." Natasha was already to the outer door of Fury's office suite and she raised her voice to be heard. The secretaries and sentries in the outer vestibule all smiled.
"Get the comedy routine out of here!" Fury bellowed. "Get back safe and with results. The latter more important than the former. "
"As usual," Clint agreed cheerfully. "Sampai bertemu lagi!"
"I want names, Rasputin! Read on the plane!"
"Yes, Boss," Piotr replied absently as the door closed behind them. He had no intention of bringing the list on the plane or anywhere other than his quarters upstairs and Fury knew it.
They made their way down the hall and toward the bank of elevators, passing bustling secretaries and stiffly walking officers and a gaggle of confused white-coated scientists looking for a conference room that was four levels down.
"Intel says they'll have final word for us by midnight," Natasha said as the doors closed on the elevator. "Which means 0130. I say we show up at two."
Clint made a sour face. "Make it three. They aren't going to have anything that's going to affect our op orders. Might as well sleep in."
Satellite photos, the daily update from Jakarta's station chief, and a weather report was pretty much all they could count on. Anything else would be extremely lucky. Piotr made a mental note to set his alarm for two.
Natasha waved jauntily as she headed for the Manhattan-bound transport area and Clint turned to Piotr after she disappeared from view. "You want to come over, spend the day?"
It was a tempting offer -- an afternoon playing with the kids, a meal cooked by Laura, and a chance to spend the last day before a mission surrounded by people and warmth instead of alone in the sterile environs of his quarters upstairs. But he had something he wanted to do before they left, something that wouldn't wait until they returned.
"I want to go down to three-delta," he replied, not quite looking at Clint. The long-term holding cells were on level 3-D. Bruce Banner had been kept there and now Henry and Ororo were in their own suite.
The plan was to move them to the Tokyo station in the next week. Ororo's criminal record made her choices "employment by SHIELD" or "prison" and she'd made it perfectly clear that she considered both to be the same choice. Henry theoretically had the option of returning to civilian life, but his physical appearance made it impractical and his unwillingness to be parted from Ororo meant that he, too, would be following Ororo into the cold embrace of SHIELD.
Clint was facing him, watching him, and Piotr fought the impulse to duck his chin and hide.
"Probably not," he admitted, forcing his head straight and looking a little over Clint's left shoulder. He'd spent a lot of time in the last few weeks thinking about whether he should or shouldn't, whether a visit would be welcome or hurtful, whether it would be for him or for them. He'd followed their progress as best he could; they were having a hard time of it. "But I'm out of time. They're supposed to get moved before we get back."
Bobby and Lorna had been remanded to their parents' custodies ten days ago. They had been assigned case workers and were still under surveillance, but they had been released with the expectation that they would return to civilian life and grow to forget about their time with the X-Men. Fury had warned them that their release was a gift as well as a statement of trust, that if they attempted contact with Xavier or any of the X-Men that they'd be treated as problems and not as children and would receive the same terms as their elder teammates. Piotr wasn't sure how that sort of message would have worked on Bobby, who was always so eager to prove himself a grown-up, but he suspected that the Drakes would enforce Fury's mandate as best they could.
"Fury clear it?" Clint asked, a little too casually, as he fiddled with his jacket. It had been unusually cool for June weather this week. What he was really asking was whether Piotr was asking him to cover for him.
"He was the one who let me know it was an option." Piotr shrugged and Clint sighed with annoyance. "I think he hopes I'll be able to get more information out of them."
The containment suite was monitored to the point of betraying every intimacy, although some care was taken to preserve the image of respect and privacy.
Clint shook his head. "I'm not sure I like the odds of that mindgame coming out in our favor," he said. He was annoyed, but not at Piotr. At Fury, for what he probably thought was a case of using Piotr -- and for the timing of it. "You show up and they suddenly get chatty with nostalgia? Relive old times? Catch you up on what you've missed? You're the one who brought them down, Pete. I don't see Storm forgiving you that one too easily. You're not their friend anymore."
"Maybe I need to see that," Piotr answered. Because he did know that Ororo was still so angry and the observing psychiatrist had already diagnosed Henry with depression and their lives had just turned to shit and he had helped. It didn't matter that he'd done it for the right reasons. "Get my own closure."
"You've been talking to the shrinks too much," Clint chided, irritation bleeding through. "I don't like you revealing yourself to them. It's more information than we can trust them with right now. But... I don't want this hanging over your head anymore. And Fury knows it. We are forty hours from being headfirst in shit and I need you present and accounted for. Do what you think is right, but get it out of your system one way or the other by 0300."
Piotr nodded. Clint clapped him on the forearm and pulled out his sunglasses as he headed for the Brooklyn transport hub. "Offer for dinner's still open."
"I'll call if I'm done in time," Piotr replied, turning back to the elevators. To get to 3-D, he'd have to go back up to the main floor and switch banks. He debated going up to his quarters to change first, but didn't think that there would be any psychological advantage or disadvantage to showing up in jeans and an oxford versus pulling on a SHIELD uniform. Ororo and Henry would know by his very presence that he was affiliated.
The trip was both too short and too long, the elevators prompt and the security check thorough. He felt his hands sweat a little as he walked down the hallway toward the suite. The guards accompanying him didn't say anything and maybe didn't know why he was there. His own profile within SHIELD was far lower than Clint's or Natasha's and his past academic to almost everyone he came in contact with. But the sergeant who nodded to him as he unlocked the outer steel door had a look of something close to suspicion and Piotr realized that they knew just the same.
The holding cell itself was a moderately sized and comfortably furnished studio apartment, closer in set-up to a converted loft than a converted brownstone. Which made sense, considering the structural nature of the Triskelion. The apartment was surrounded on all sides by three layers of triple-glazed glass, the interstices of each layer filled with some invisible, noxious gas that would incapacitate anyone who tried to break in our out as well as render certain laser and sonar technologies worthless. There was a gap between the glass walls and the suite walls, ten feet on the long sides and thirty on the short. Viewing areas, like a zoo exhibit by way of Planet of the Apes. There were too many security features in the outer spaces to know or care about. Nobody had ever escaped from here, although there had been three attempts.
The viewing areas were dimmed to half-light when Piotr entered, the apartment itself more brightly lit. Henry was sitting on a couch reading and Ororo was doing something in the small kitchen with her back to the viewing area. Much as when he'd first been brought to SHIELD, there was nothing in the suite that could be used as a weapon besides furniture. But the lack of knives was where the similarity ended and Piotr wasn't sure whether or not to feel relieved or disappointed that he'd been treated so differently.
Ororo didn't turn around, but Henry looked up and froze momentarily. He put the book down gently and stood up. "I suppose it was only a matter of time before it came to this," Henry said quietly. The microphones in the apartment transmitted his voice through the speakers in the viewing area.
Ororo turned around then, a teacup visible on the counter as she did. "Piotr." Her voice was flat, devoid of any emotion. "Have you come to taunt or to treat?"
"Hello, Ororo," he replied softly, not trusting his own voice. Seeing them here was, in its own way, much harder than fighting them outside the mansion or seeing their unconscious forms transported back to the Triskelion. "Hello, Henry."
He approached the glass, not bothering to drag along one of the chairs provided. The apartment was on a small riser and Ororo was at a height with him now. Or would be, if she came closer to the glass.
"Friend or foe, Rasputin?" Ororo leaned back against the countertop. "You'll understand if we're a little cautious these days."
"I don't know which," he admitted. "Both, probably."
He hadn't planned on lying to them. He wasn't going to volunteer anything beyond what Fury had allowed -- which was that Bobby and Lorna were home -- but it had seemed pointless to lie. Even if he wasn't sure what the truth would be for some of their questions.
"You helped them," Henry said, not making it a question. He walked over to the glass. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, he looked worn and tired, far more so than he ever did during their Finnish captivity, even with all of the experimentation Weapon X had done to him. Piotr knew that no such tests were taking place here. "You helped them bring us here."
He nodded. "I'm sorry for that. For this."
"Why?" Ororo pushed off the counter and joined Henry near the glass, standing with her arms crossed beneath her breasts. It was a position both belligerent and defensive and it made her look young.
"I never meant to hurt any of you," he offered lamely.
"And yet you did." Anger creeped into her voice. Ororo didn't do the slow burn; she was calm until she was sarcastic until you felt the hairs on our arms stand up from the electricity in the air and then she unleashed her anger as both nature and words. The security assured that he only had to fear her words, but that was not a comfort. Next to her, Henry seemed to pull away from her a bit, as if he could feel the electricity rising and was worried about the shock. "Was this part of it all along? From London to here?"
He shook his head no because even if she was technically correct, it wasn't about that at all. "I left the X-Men because I wanted to leave the X-Men. From there to here is something else."
"We looked for you," Henry said, sounding almost distracted, a little distant. Like there was a fog between them and not glass. "You should have left a note. We looked all over for you. Cerebro, missions, we even contacted SHIELD. I suppose they must have known where you were all along. But we didn't know if you were still alive. Bobby was disconsolate. We all were upset."
"You've been working for SHIELD," Ororo accused. "And you let them come for us?"
"I don't run the place," he said, because it was a stupid thing to ask.
"Were you there that night?"
"I suspected it might have been you," Henry said, going over to the dining table and bringing back a chair. He sat heavily. "Are Bobby and Lorna okay? Can we see them?"
Ororo gave Henry a look of mild annoyance.
"They're home," Piotr replied, then clarified just in case. "With their parents."
"Good," Henry said, surprised. He was animated again, the old Henry, for all of a half-second before the weight of the situation resettled on his shoulders and he sank again. "That's... good. This should never have been their end. It shouldn't be ours, but... I'm glad they're not here."
What do you want, Piotr." Ororo's voice wavered just slightly.
"I don't want anything," he said, meeting her angry glare. "I wanted to see that you're okay. That you weren't hurt."
"I'm sure you could have watched the video to see how we are," she snapped back, gesturing with her chin toward one of the video cameras visible in the apartment. There were a dozen more hidden ones. "Why did you betray us? And don't give me that bullshit about not wanting to hurt us. You did and you did it willingly and now you're here either to rub it in or to seek forgiveness."
He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, Ororo was still watching him. "I left the X-Men because I no longer believed that Xavier's path was the right one. He isn't the man we thought he was. I'm not sure who he is or what he wants."
"So you helped destroy him and we're just casualties?" Ororo spat. "Side effects? Collateral damage? You destroyed our lives so that you could pay the Professor back for your.... disillusionment? God, what a fucking stupid reason. You were so smart, so wise, so full of high morals and book smarts and you walked in here and I'd hoped that you had some amazing reason, some excuse that could justify destroying everyone who cared for you and you don't. It's sour grapes. You think you got jived and went for payback. You bastard. You're a fraud. You haven't changed at all since you were a thug. You're still a fucking thug. Just for a different boss."
She spun away, barely avoiding Henry's deft, if slow, reach for her.
"You are dead to me, Rasputin," she called over her shoulder. "Whatever friendship we had is over. You can go back to your masters now."
She disappeared behind the short wall that hid the bed area from the front viewing room. The microphones picked up the faint sounds of her throwing herself on to the bed.
Henry looked toward her for a long moment, then turned to face Piotr again. He shrugged and stood up, picking up the chair and putting it back against the table. He went back to Ororo without turning around again.
Piotr watched Henry disappear. He knew he should go; he had nothing else to say. He'd apologized, he'd let Ororo get angry, he'd put his knowledge of what he'd done to his once-upon-a-time friends up against their knowledge of what he'd done and... what? Did he feel better? More free? Was there closure? Or had he just confirmed Clint's suspicions and given something away for nothing?
He walked slowly to the suite's door, hearing the murmuring of Henry and Ororo in the background as he pulled out his security card and was verified as safe and alone before allowed to leave. The trip up to his quarters was doubled in length because of busy elevators and he felt claustrophobic by the time he got to the closest thing he could call home in the world. Natasha and Clint had both been on him to find a civilian home, but while he'd always demurred in the past, he thought it was time now. This was his life and he had to start living in it. With Xavier in hiding and the X-Men disbanded, the old fear of discovery was not as strong. Maybe when they got back from Jakarta, he'd start looking.
His bags had been packed since the morning, so there was nothing to do but eat and sleep. He didn't feel like doing much of either, no matter how necessary they both were. He looked at the clock, then pulled out his cell phone and called Clint.