"Something's not right," Nathan murmured quietly. But that's hardly novel. Something has not been right since I returned to this flonqing time.
"Did you say something, sir?" Rahne Sinclair turned around to face him.
"Just muttering to myself. It's a sign of creeping senility, or so I'm told," he replied. In her transitional form as she was, the girl's hearing was dangerously sharp.
"T'ain't that, I fear," Wolfsbane said as she sniffed the air. She had only been visiting Westchester to deliver some computer parts when the call had come in, so instead of returning to Muir Island she had flown down to the Mexican highlands with them. "Something's wrong."
"The question is what, my lupine associate," Henry McCoy said as he walked back from where he had been filling vials. "The CDC took water and soil samples, but while I can double-check their results, I am at a loss to come up with additional possibilities that they would not."
"Sirs, have you taken anything from the... victims?" Rahne asked carefully.
Looking over, Nathan could see the young woman standing over what looked like a bloodstain in the dirt.
"What is it, Wolfsbane?"
She paused, probably hesitant to bring up anything that would associate her with the more primal side of her wolf persona. "The blood... it smells wrong. It doesn't smell like the blood of a kill."
"It could be the toxins in the bloodstream," McCoy mused aloud as he knelt by the spot. "Or it could be the de-oxygenation factor. Everyone here suffocated, after all."
Rahne shook her head. "It's not poison. It's... I don't know what it is."
"We'll look it over at the lab," Nathan assured her. "It may not be the victims' blood."
The three went about their work mostly in silence. McCoy followed the young wolf-woman and collected samples where she paused and looked uneasy. Nathan followed his own path, sometimes intersecting with the pair and mostly not.
"Pardon me for saying so," McCoy began during one of the intersections, "but your usual stoicism seems to have slipped into something more approaching saturnine. I know better than to think that you are merely perturbed by the scenery..."
"Especially since I've been the cause of a lot worse than this," Nathan sourly completed the thought. "I can't quite explain it. This attack... these attacks... they seem familiar to some that take place in my time. It's implausible why they'd be happening here and now, but I can't shake the idea, at least not until we come up with a better one."
McCoy nodded, either satisfied or not willing to press any further, and walked away. Nathan continued to wander around the village looking for possible sources of contamination, each step convincing him more thoroughly that there would be none.
Where's Blaquesmith when I need him? More precisely, when is he? I can't spend the time running an analysis of Haight's cyborg raids, especially if all this is going to be is some superimposed flashback on my part. The cyborgs aren't here, but just once, I'd like to hear it from Blaquesmith that I'm working myself so hard that I'm seeing things that aren't there.
Blaquesmith had departed abruptly a few weeks ago, barely leaving enough time for Nathan to answer the summons to the New York safe house and say G'Journey in person before the little man winked out and back to his own time. Blaquesmith claimed it was for equipment restocking, but Nathan had his suspicions and none of them were good.
In the meanwhile, however, he was left to his own devices. And a flonqing good job you're doing, Nathan taunted himself. This is probably a simple merc job, just a bunch of hired pros. Very good pros, but mercs always leave a marker. Trick of the trade - trademark your destruction for brand recognition.
But if this was just a mercenary show, these weren't any mercs that had been around when the Six Pack had been operational. And anyone who hadn't been around then was still new to the job. But this wasn't the work of an inexperienced newbie just making a name for himself. This was quality destruction, which meant precisely one thing. Trouble.
The call had come in mid-morning Westchester time, which was ass-crack-of-dawn in New Mexico, but Alex had answered the phone anyway because everyone on the X-Men knew that he was in no mood for casual conversation before noon, Two hours later, he was standing in the middle of the 'why.' A Pueblo village lay in ruins, discovered by their neighbors across the desert. This time, the corpses of the residents were desiccated, shriveled as though they had been left in the desert for weeks, although it had only been at most two days. The buzzards had been busy, but there was still flesh on bone.
"Look at this," Alex called out as he picked up a large rock and handed it to his brother, turning over the stone to show the other edge. "If I didn't know better, I'd say this looked like your work."
It was still early enough to be comfortable, cool even, but the sun would be higher than the hills soon enough and the now-muted smell of death would become overwhelming.
"There's no scoring on the side... that's not consistent with plasma weapons," Scott agreed as he looked over the rubble. "I'll take this back with us. Maybe something will turn up under a microscope."
"Or maybe Logan will smell something," Alex suggested. It sounded flippant, but several of the X-types had the sort of enhanced senses that made it a viable option.
"Vampires, perhaps?" Ororo suggested as landed gently nearby. "I, especially, have had experience with them..."
"And were it not for this rubble, Storm, I'd be inclined to rely on that experience," Scott sighed, running a hand over his head. "But of all the times we've tangled with Dracula or his family, we've never seen evidence of a firefight."
There'd definitely been a whole arsenal of firearms discharged here, but it hadn't been a fair fight and, perhaps most importantly, most of the dead didn't look like they'd died from gunshots.
"Lorna and I used to come here in the summers," Alex said as much to himself as to the others as he stood up from his crouch and looked out over the horizon past 'Ro, trying to decide whether the weight in his chest was from the memories of love lost or from the evidence of destruction that surrounded him. "This was a very prosperous village and every August they'd have a big festival to thank their gods for their good fortune. Where were their gods for this?"
"I was a goddess once," Ororo said. "I did not brook questions out of fear that I did not know the answers. But that does not make the need for understanding disappear."
"Let's finish up here," Scott broke the silence that followed. "The folks from the reservation will want to come and perform their rituals for the dead."
The trio worked mostly in silence, collecting potential evidence and looking around for any sort of clue that might lead to those who had perpetuated the assault.
When they were don, Alex drove them back to the area where the Blackbird had been parked, but after loading the up the plane, only Scott moved to board.
"I'd like to fly back on my own, if I may," Ororo said when he motioned for her to precede him onto the ladder.
"It's a long way," he began, his mouth quirking more in concern than dismay.
"It should take me until shortly after nightfall," she replied. "It took me only a day to do a trans-Atlantic flight. I need time to myself to think. I shall not let my team down."
"Your next shift won't be for a few days," Scott assured. "You've earned the respite. Take your time and call in if you'd like to be picked up."
She nodded and with a quick hug for Alex, took off.
"She'll be all right?" Alex asked his brother.
"I hope," Scott sighed, sounding far more concerned than he had a moment earlier. "This is the second massacre she's had to investigate in two days. I didn't want her to come out here in the first place, but she insisted and everyone else was gone - even Gambit was off chasing rumors."
"You still chaining him to the back fence?" Alex made a face. "You've never really been the grudge-bearing type."
"It's not me, although I suppose it is me because I'm not telling everyone to shut up and get over it," Scott admitted with a frown. "We've been stretched so thin the past week or so, it's not going to matter what everyone thinks. Gambit's going to have to be included in the general rotation or everyone else is going to collapse from exhaustion. I guess this way, nobody's going to have the time or the energy to snipe at him and I won't have to play 'bad cop' to get people to work with him."
Alex chuckled humorlessly. "Ah, yes. I remember this personnel management strategy."
Scott made a wry face and shrugged. "I'm too tired to be a dictator. If I dedicated the energy required to keep everyone's personality quirks from rubbing everyone else the wrong way, I'd have no energy for anything else."
"And then Jean really would replace you," Alex said, since he didn't want Scott flying back to New York with his head still focused on the X-Men's current problems.
"Thanks," Scott retorted, although Alex suspected it wasn't entirely sarcasm because Scott could always see past Alex's ploys. "Thanks a lot."
"I'm making up for all the time I didn't get to be an annoying little brother back when we were teenagers."
"Funny, that's the excuse Nathan uses with Jean every time he sends me off the deep end," Scott muttered.
"Then it's a family thing and I can't help myself."
Scott laughed, probably the first time he had in days. "Are you sure you don't want to come back with me? We've got extra space."
"I'm sure," Alex assured emphatically. "I'll help you out if I can, but I'm no more superhero material today than I was yesterday. I'm not ready to go back to that life. I'm not sure I ever will be."
Scott nodded as if he'd expected that answer. Probably was. "All right," he said, gesturing with one hand to the plane. "I'm gonna get going. You stay safe and keep in touch."
"Back atcha, Bro."
A quick hug and Scott was gone. Alex watched the plane head off into the sky and then headed back to his jeep and his mostly normal life.
"Fair tidings, friend Gambit."
It was training and experience that barely kept Remy from jumping out of his skin. He turned and glared angrily at the speaker, willing the charge out of the card he'd palmed before he'd even registered what the threat was or wasn't. "What're you doing here, Askani? I'm not alone, you know."
The Askani shrugged, then pulled out a CD. "I bring you possible information. Mayhaps I have divined the next sites of interest to the Kurioon."
"And how'd you do that?" Remy looked around, but Logan was supposed to be on the other side of the village.
"Do you really want to know?" she asked with an arched eyebrow.
"Non," he agreed, because he didn't. "It's on that?"
"It should be readable on your computers," she said by way of answer. "I used the most basic computer language I had access to."
Remy kept his eyes on his surroundings as he pocketed the CD, keeping an eye out for Logan as much for any threats. There wasn't supposed to be anyone around, but there was no reason to get complacent.
"Suppose it's gonna be up to me to figure out a way to use the information without anyone knowing where I got it from?" Remy asked rhetorically. "Can't just say I found it on the street, you know. They're gonna be suspicious."
"They are suspicious already, it is their nature," the Askani retorted sarcastically. "Guilt by association is one of the hardest mistruths to eradicate."
If Remy didn't know better, he'd think she was offended on his behalf. But she had no vested interest in him personally, just in what he could do for her, and so he took no comfort from her apparent sympathy.
"Cyke's got my back," he countered. "But he's gonna want to know why my bright idea --" he waved the disk "-- is better then anyone else's bright idea."
"Has anyone been so illuminated recently?" the Askani asked rhetorically.
"Non." But that didn't mean that his would be accepted just because of a lack of alternatives. Introducing this kind of evidence, especially because it might be useful, would require an extra few layers of subterfuge. If he was shown to know anything about what was going on -- another massacre, at that -- then there would be no way anyone would believe that he wasn't involved.
"Then your 'bright idea' shall shine all the more brilliant in the absence of competing flames."
"Not that easy," Remy replied, but it was to empty air because the Askani had disappeared. He bit off a curse in frustration, then turned to back around the corner of the warehouse to continue his sweep.
On his first step, he nearly collided with Logan.
"Who're ya talkin' to?" The smaller man asked with a cocked eyebrow.
"Nobody," Remy muttered, shaking his head. "Myself."
"Either you're lyin' or that time up in the snow froze your brain and you're seein' things," Logan half-snarled in reply. "Whoever it was, you've met them before. I've caught that scent by your room and in the mansion. Who was it?"
Remy thought fast. "Person who rescued me," he said. "Wanted to make sure I was all right."
Logan looked at him closely and Remy reminded himself that the Wolverine's powers didn't include telepathy and all he had to do was keep cool and keep a straight face and remember that he was a better poker player than Logan.
Finally, the other man nodded. "This mysterious benefactor want anything from you?"
"Non," Remy replied. "Just my acceptance back with the X-Men, would you believe."
A snort from Logan. "I'll think about whether or not I believe that. C'mon, I got what we came for."
"Did you say something, Katzchen?"
"Oy gevalt," Kitty Pryde announced, this time louder. She leaned forward so that her forehead rested on the gel pad she used as a wrist rest for her keyboard. Eyes closed, she could feel Lockheed's tail skim against her ankle.
"The request from the mansion is proving too much?" Kurt stopped leaning against the monitor-room doorway and moved to sit down next to her.
"I've run every conceivable statistical analysis on the villages that have turned up massacred," she sighed and sat up. Lockheed took the opportunity to climb onto his mistress' lap and nuzzle her wrists so that she'd scratch behind his ears. Which she did, almost by reflex. It wasn't really a secret as to who had whom trained. "Demographics, economics, average yearly rainfall, everything."
"And nothing," she confirmed. "Not a single thing in common. One was good at farming, another hunting, another was known for their athletes, and the fourth, the one in Slovenia, wasn't good at anything."
"The Slovenians are hardy folk," Kurt chided gently. "A lot of good history takes place there. The gypsies have a high regard for them, as much as they like anyone who settles down."
"History," Kitty mused, returning her hands to the keyboard to start typing, ignoring Lockheed's sniff of displeasure and tiny swat at her thigh. "I wonder if that's it. Maybe they were once warriors or something. But how could I find that out? Cap's encyclopedias aren't nearly up to date and I've already bothered Moira enough."
Kurt gave her a knowing look. "You know exactly how to find that out. You just won't."
Kitty did not huff out loud. That was entirely Lockheed. "Piotr's not that good in history. I'm sure the encyclopedia knows more."
"Kitty, you are being silly," Kurt was not gentle in his chiding this time. "European history was his specialty while he was a student of Professor Xavier's. If he doesn't know the answer, then he will know where to look. We are trying to save hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. He is your teammate."
"He's also the bane of my existence right now," Kitty mumbled and then sighed. "Fine, I'll ask him when I see him."
Kurt got up with a nod. "Good girl."
After he left, Kitty frowned as she scratched the drowsy Lockheed's eye ridges. "Why couldn't Pete know more about history?"
At the mention of Wisdom, Lockheed's rumble of contentment turned into a snort.
"No editorializing, dragon."
Meanwhile, on his way to the kitchen, Kurt congratulated himself on fleeing the monitor room before Kitty could launch into another tirade.
He loved both Colossus and Shadowcat dearly, he truly did, and he held them equally close to his heart. Both of them had risked their lives for his and he had and would do the same for them. But that does not mean that I cannot occasionally wish to do them in myself.
Kurt sometimes wondered if he should be angry or not with Kitty for her bouts of unreasonableness. Still so young, the girl had been through so much that her biological age was oft just a technicality. Kitty Pryde had stopped being a child long before she had convinced Professor Xavier that she was too mature to be trained with the New Mutants.
Yet he also wondered if Kitty did not use to her own advantage the guilt that all of her teammates felt for that stolen childhood. Kitty almost expected them - especially Piotr - to change as she changed, to treat her as the adult that she insisted she was. But Kurt, Logan, and especially Ororo were also required to stay the same when she was comfortable as things were, to still be the nurturing buffers they had always been. And when the rest of the X-Men could not halt nature to suit her whims... Kitty's temper was a force of nature.
'The lass just needs a friend,' Moira had once told Kurt as the two had found themselves waiting out one such storm together. Perhaps it was so, but how do you tell that to someone who has lost all of her best friends so dramatically?
Both Ilyana and Rachel had been so well-suited to Kitty - even in her most petulant mood, Kitty could not deny that both Magik and Phoenix had suffered more greatly than she had, and yet they were so eminently well-adjusted to 'normal' life. Even Doug Ramsay had managed to soothe Kitty's moods through his own even temper. But they were all gone now, having sacrificed themselves for a greater good. And Kitty was left alone.
Rahne was around now, but the two girls could not be further apart in temperament and there was too much history between the two. Rahne had confided to Kurt that even if Kitty managed to look past the fact that Rahne was a former 'X-Baby,' she didn't think Kitty would ever forgive her for getting Doug killed, regardless of the actual circumstances.
"Afternoon, Kurt. Would you like some coffee?" Moira greeted him as he entered the kitchen. "I'm putting up a pot. I'm falling asleep over my notes again."
Kurt swallowed his shudder of revulsion. MacTaggert's coffee rivaled blue Kool-Aid as the most noxious substance officially labeled safe for human consumption. "No thank you, Moira, but I'm fine. Orange juice will do."
Finishing his glass of juice, Kurt noticed idly out the window that Meggan was frolicking with some ducks on the lawn. She had turned her top half green and her bottom half brown to blend in with her new friends. But when Kurt noticed that she had also taken on webbed feet, he decided it was a very good time for an early afternoon nap.
A while later, Kurt awoke to the distinctive sound of Wisdom shuffling down the stairs. Not wanting to think of why the man was in this wing and on this floor - his room was nowhere nearby, although Kitty's certainly was - he stretched and instead turned to the blinking phone that sat on his desk. Opening his door to officially put himself back on duty, he saw Lockheed amble by and watched the dragon enter Piotr's room. Kurt heard the dragon make a noise and then Piotr greeting him. Whatever Kitty's preferences, Lockheed was most certainly on Team Piotr, having little love for Wisdom. Of course, the antipathy was mutual, so Kurt could hardly blame him.
Feeling a little groggy from his nap, Kurt headed down the hall to Piotr's room to see if Kitty had made her request. If she hadn't, he would. Whatever was going on was too important to be swept up into the romantic drama of Excalibur's personnel.
"Do you know, Lockheed, that Katya used to have such lovely handwriting?" he heard Piotr say conversationally. "I used to admire it when she would teach Ilyana the English alphabet. She would have had a beautiful Russian script had she ever learned it. But now? Now she only ever types at her keyboard and her hand is not nearly as fine. No flourishes, no elegance, no personality. It is as faceless as the printouts from her precious computers."
"You, mein freund, are a Luddite," Kurt announced with a smile from the open doorway. "I see Kitty has spoken to you about the village."
"If you call this," Piotr said as he waved the post-it attached to his right index finger, a wistful frown on his face, "a conversation. This was attached to my door when I got back from my workout."
Kurt sighed, hoping to avoid the flip side of his earlier conversation. While yes, Kitty was certainly not making things easy on anyone, she was not the only one to blame. Piotr and Wisdom had fought, literally, and if Kitty had at first been flattered, she'd ended up furious. Between acknowledgement of Kitty's feelings and an unwillingness to endure any more of Wisdom's hot knives, Piotr had become something of a hermit. He hid in his room, did not speak unprovoked unless only Kurt was around, and generally tried to blend in with the scenery. And that was no easier for an organic steel hulk than it was for an indigo-furred teleporter with a tail and three toes per foot.
Kurt always suspected that Piotr, a temperamental artist buried under a lifetime of conditioning to fulfill duty to state and family, enjoyed being unhappy. Or, at the very least, Piotr had convinced himself that he enjoyed it. How else to explain things? He had been happy as Peter Nicholas, amnesiac SoHo artist, but that was the exception that proved the rule - Piotr had only been content when he had been somebody else. Kurt had watched Piotr tear himself to shreds over Kitty, then break up with her, then become murderously jealous when she finally moved on to another as Piotr had wished for her to do.
Of course, had Amanda moved on to Wisdom, I would most probably have not taken it much better than Piotr.
"Is there anything that I could say, Piotr?" Kurt finally asked, because Piotr was clearly waiting for some kind of reply. "It will take time."
And, truth be told, for all of Kitty's mood swings, she did have a right to be angry with Piotr. Attacking Wisdom had been stupid, beyond the fact that the former Black Air operative's mutation meant that he was naturally armed with dangerous weapons. Even if Kitty hadn't been in the right, what protest could Piotr lodge after what he had done to her in the wake of the Secret Wars?
When they had returned from the Beyonder's universe, Kurt had gone along with Wolverine when he had dragged Piotr off that day on the pretense of making sure Logan didn't get the big Siberian killed. If Kurt were honest with himself, however, he would admit that he had been less offended at Logan's version of payback than he had made himself out to be. Suave, swashbuckling pirates lived by a certain code of conduct with the fair damsels, and Piotr had broken nearly every rule in the Errol Flynn Guide to Life. And one did not do that and still expect to get the girl.
"Apparently I will have to wait," Piotr sighed, noticing his friend's distant expression, then looked behind him. "But at least Lockheed has agreed to be my friend."
"Good afternoon, Lockheed," Nightcrawler greeted the dragon, who made a noise of sleepy acknowledgement. "Are either of you having any luck?"
"Nyet. Are you sure..."
A frantic call from the main level of the house, sounding suspiciously like Meggan-the-half-a-duck, interrupted the conversation. Kurt made his apologies and went towards the stairs.
After a moment, Lockheed decided to follow as the sun had faded beyond Colossus' ledge.
"Kurt!" Piotr called after them both. "The name of the village again, please?"
But Kurt was long gone and so a different voice answered.
"Spacebo," Piotr replied absently, not noticing that the pitch was off.
"Always a motormouth when Pryde's not around," Pete Wisdom snarled as he exchanged stares with the dragon as they crossed on the steps.