"En vaerld aer varje maenniska, befolkad
av blinda varelser i dunkelt uppror
mot jaget konungen som haerskar oever dem.
I varje sjael aer tusen sjaelar faangna,
i varje vaerld aer tusen vaerldar dolda
och dessa blinda, dessa undre vaerldar
aer verkliga och levande, fast ofullgaangna,
saa sant som jag aer verklig. Och vi konungar
och furstar av de tusen moejliga inom oss
aer sjaelva undersaatar, faangna sjaelva i naagon stoerre varelse, vars jag och vaesen
vi lika litet fattar som varan oeverman
sin oeverman. Av deras doed och kaerlek
har vaara egna kaenslor fatt en faergton.
Som naer en vaeldig aangare passerar
laangt ute, under horisonten, daer den ligger
saa aftenblonk. --Och vi vet inte om den
foerraen en svallvaag naar till oss paa stranden,
foerst en, saa aennu en och maanga flera
som slaar och brusar till dess allt har blivit
om foerut. --Allt aer aendaa annorlunda.
Saa grips vi skuggor av en saellsam oro
naer naagot saeger oss att folk har fardats,
att naagra av de moejliga befriats.
ITíS ALL IN YOUR HEAD==
"Mommy, look! The lady has purple hair!"
The little girl jumped up and down in her seat, excited with her discovery, while her mother tried to quiet her down. Elizabeth Braddock, telepath and a natural purple, in that order, turned her head and smiled politely, to defuse the mother's anxiety. It was good to go home again, although she still felt a vague sadness at leaving her brother. Her life was with the X-Men, his with Excalibur and most of the time she didnít miss him, but saying goodbye to him and seeing him walk away made her feel small and lost. She didn't know if Brian felt the same way and was reluctant to ask. If he did, heíd rather die than tell her. The thought made her smile again, a real smile this time. She had bought some magazines at the airport, but she was too sleepy to read them. They'd had a real party the night before she left Muir Island and now she felt tired as well as slightly hung-over. The chairs were comfortable, the upholstery warm. With an effort, she shut out all sounds, all the random thoughts from her fellow passengers. As the plane reached cruising altitude, Elizabeth Braddock slept in her chair.
She woke up as a plastic tray was put in front of her. The light was very intense. Her temples throbbed and she put her hand to her forehead to cool it. Then hot pain sliced through her head, blocking out all other sensations. She was not aware of screaming.
"Are you alright, miss?"
The stewardess' voice was concerned. The pain ebbed, subsided. Elizabeth became aware of the little girl, her mother and another stewardess, all hovering over her. She forced a smile.
"It's just a headache," she said.
<As all telepaths experience now and then.>
"There are Tylenols if you want them," the stewardess said, her voice bored again.
She moved along the aisle, apparently writing off the incident as just another drunk passenger. The little girl kept staring.
"Your hair," she said admiringly. "It's wonderful."
Elizabeth sighed inwardly and braced herself.
<What do you talk about with a seven-year old anyway? Barbie?>==
Warren met her at the airport, just as she'd known he would. He took her in his arms and kissed her, not caring that people stared at them. There was indeed reason to stare. Not only because of the kiss, which was spectacular, but there was also the fact that he was a blue-skinned angel with organic steel wings lightly brushing her. Which meant that he had been in such a hurry that he'd forgotten the image-inducer he normally carried. Warren, the organizer. She was touched. He opened his mind to her, letting her read his thoughts and memories and she responded the same way. He caught her suitcase, as it came by the second time and they walked to his car.
"God, I've missed you," Warren said aloud.
"How much?" she teased him.
"So much I've made some small arrangements for tonight," he said, smiling down at her.
The headache was back. Elizabeth resisted the urge to rub her temples and tried to sound encouraging.
"Well, I thought we'd have dinner and then meet some friends of mine. They are really excited to meet you."
He looked so earnest and hopeful that her heart sank. Dinner with Warren meant violins at the table and live bands. She shuddered.
"Warren, I don't want to be ungrateful, really, and I'd normally love to go out with you, but..."
The great wings drooped beside her even if Warren's face didn't betray any emotions. She tried again.
"I got an awful headache during the flight. You know what jet-lag is like. I've got to get some sleep."
Silence, in which the wings dropped even further. He was disappointed and tried not to be. And not many men could make her feel so guilty for that. He asked so little of her that it was shameful to deny him what he did ask.
"It's alright then," he finally said. "You don't look so well."
It annoyed her that he gave way so easily.
"You make me feel guilty," she complained.
They had reached the car and he took his time putting her suitcase in the trunk before answering.
"I'm not making you do anything. Get in."
She got in.
He got in after her, turned the key and music filled the car. Paganini, his favourite composer.
"Shut it off!"
Elizabeth didn't realise she had yelled until she met Warren's reproachful glance. He shut it off, started the car and then he put his hand on hers. She shook it off.
"Leave me alone!"
To her dismay, she found hot tears rising in her eyes. She put her head in her hands, wishing herself thousand miles away.
"What's the matter with you?" she snapped. "Do I have to take a cab to get home?"==
Elizabeth woke up at five in her own room at the Mansion. It had been quite late when they'd arrived, but the Professor had waited up for them anyway, Jean by his side. Both being telepaths, they had surely detected the tension between her and Warren, but neither had said anything. The Professor shouldn't have waited up for them, she thought. He worked far too much and slept too little as it was and he had looked increasingly fragile during the last months. No matter what he looked like, he was the most powerful telepath on Earth, so outer appearances were misgiving. She should know. Her mind was European, her body Asian and belonged to another. It was a nice body, she thought, stretching and yawning, very supple and strong. Good skin, nice eyes. It wouldn't qualify her for "Britain's most beautiful woman" as her own body had, and her Asian face would never make it to Vogue or Elle, but it had other uses. No need to get emotional about it. She tucked away the sentimental thoughts and put on her gi, then went to the big safe in the hallway and took out her katanas. Swords in hand, she padded downstairs and out in the garden. There was an apple orchard where she usually practiced.
"Don't damage the trees," the Professor had cautioned her, but she never did. She drew a couple of deep breaths and raised the katanas over her head. For a moment she stood that way, concentrating and kept the rose light to a minimum to save mental energy. Then she brought the swords down in great gleaming arcs.
She knew what it was supposed to feel like. She even had a lingering memory of it. Time and place should stop being. Only the flow, unhurried, effortless should remain. Logan had told her she was concentrating too much and on the wrong things. He was probably right, but she dared not lose conscious control over her actions. After her transformation, she had acquired a new set of reflexes and responses. She needed to learn how to use them, not let them use her. When she practiced now, one part of her had to stay detached, to check herself for impulses and movements not quite her own, and that was why she could not reach the state of mind necessary to complete the kata. She hadn't been able to do it all since she was herself again. The body remembered. The mind didn't. That made all the difference. And the swords were of a sudden to heavy to raise another time. She was aware of the apple orchard again, of having interrupted the kata somewhere in the middle and she felt a presence.
"I didn't want to disturb you," he said.
"You didn't. I'm ready now."
Elizabeth sheathed her swords without looking at him. She knew she'd have to apologise. She had been wrong, from the first outburst to the last.
"Sorry about yesterday."
"No, I should have asked you if you wanted to go out. I'd have known you wouldn't, if I'd thought about it."
He was going easy on her, but she knew that pettiness and childishness vexed him. These were feelings too small for him to understand.
"Look, Warren, I'm sorry I've been so difficult when it comes to meeting your friends. I know it's important to you, both personally and business-wise."
"They are old friends of my father, gentlemen and ladies I've respected all my life. They are also significant connections."
Elizabeth had hoped for a bit more understanding. The times she had met his friends she had felt bored, and worse, humiliated. Warren's friends were all over sixty, properly dressed, quiet men accompanied by elegant wives. She had to sit with the wives and listen to their tales of children and hairdresser's, subjects that mostly excluded her. They talked about "dear Warren" and looked chillingly at her. They obviously disliked both the fact that she wasn't married to him and the possibility that she one day might be. Or so she interpreted it.
"I think it would be easier if I had my English face," she finally said. "This body and this me, I don't like it. I don't expect anyone else to."
She had to stop there. There was a lump in her throat. Warren came up closer to her, but she turned away and refused to meet his eyes.
"They wouldn't care. They have many acquaintances in Hong Kong."
"That isn't what I meant."
"So what exactly did you mean?"
"Can we talk about it later? I'm starving. I hope they've left us some breakfast."
He didnít say anything more, until they were halfway through the garden, and when he did, he sounded both apologetic and wistful.
"When I saw you in the morning light, you looked like... I don't know what, exactly. A fairy perhaps? Something out of myth or song, that would dance away into the hills at any moment and be lost to me. It isn't just the way you look, it's in the way you move, the way you hold your head. Like you could never belong to anyone mortal. I forget, sometimes, how lucky I am, to hold you in my arms. I forget to tell you how beautiful you are."
"Were," she corrected him.
"Are," he said firmly. "I'll keep telling you."
"At least the purple hair is for real now," she said.==
After breakfast Elizabeth went to check on Cerebro and found Jean there. Jean had tied back her beautiful red hair and wore surgical gloves and a white robe. Components and flow charts, both scribbled and typed lay scattered all over the work-bench. The room was warm and damp, the air-conditioning switched off. Jean was intent on her work, but she looked up and gave Elizabeth a quick smile.
"The Professor said I should help you," Elizabeth said.
"Good.We're updating this again. It's partly Shi'ar work, which I'll leave to Charles, but partly it's Forge. He wrote up this handbook for dummies before he left, so I've been doing pretty well, but I could use some help."
"Where did you get the robe?"
The door of a small locker opened as if by itself and out came a robe and a pair of gloves. It was even the right size, Elizabeth reflected, as she put it all on.
"How long will it take to put Cerebro back together?"
"Two weeks at most. I mean, if we really screw up."
As Elizabeth set to work, she shook her head at the complexity of Jean's feelings. Never mind the outwardly composed Jean, at ease with herself and the world, the Jean inside needed love and reassurance almost every second, and the subliminals she flooded her surroundings with made sure she got it. From the Professor, who was secretly in love with her, from Ororo, her best friend, from Scott who would walk over dead bodies for her. Elizabeth sighed. Thinking about Scott hurt, a little. She had wanted him so bad, even messed with his mind, which hadn't been ethical at all, just foolish and in the end, it was like nothing had happenend between them. They had just gone on with their lives. To be fair, it wasn't as if she had really loved him. She had just wanted to be special to someone. Just like Jean.
After some hours, the work with Cerebro got gruesome. Fragile components and tools and a handbook with hopeless diagrams. This wasn't a job for dummies, it was a job for a genius who could bridge great gaps in the logic. Elizabeth was sweating under the robe. Concentrating became harder every second as her fingers trembled with tension and fatigue. She made a mistake, caught herself, made another. She was sure Jean took it all in.
"Why don't you go off for a while, Betsy?" Jean asked, pausing for a moment.
"I can manage."
"Yes," Jean indulged her, "but you didn't get much sleep last night and we're all running the obstacle course this afternoon."
"We are?" Elizabeth bitterly regretted doing the kata. "Maybe I'll take a break then."
"You do that. I'm afraid there isn't much food, but we've got a seven-year supply of noodles." Jean winked.
It was remarkable that they could all survive on a diet consisting mainly of noodles and sandwiches. There was a schedule for cooking, but no one respected it much except when Ororo made them. Scott believed food was heaven-sent and the Professor could probably live for weeks on just coffee, without noticing anything was amiss. After examining the contents of the refrigerator Elizabeth decided to have a nap instead.==
Time was running out. Fast. The entity could feel light and strength leak away with every pulse-beat. It clung to the last seconds of life, coveting immortality, life. Already modified in thousands of ways to postpone the inevitable end, it mutated once more on genetic level. It waited for the result, knowing that it had not the strength to mutate again. After only a very short time relief flooded in. Respiration continued. The stress on the tortured organs was relieved. The entity had found a new way to survive. Unfortunately, this way would ensure the death of the entity Elizabeth Braddock.==
Elizabeth woke up with a start. Sleep hadn't refreshed her, as she had hoped. She felt cold and ill. God, she was going to be sick. She was out of the bed in a flash and got to the bathroom just in time.
<<Are you alright,Elizabeth?>>
How convenient. The Professor contacting her telepathically while she was dry-heaving.
<<Yes, sir>>, she sent back to him.
<<See me in my office>>
Her stomach cramped one last time and he hastily withdrew.==
"I wonder if doing the kata this morning has anything to do with your nausea," Xavier suggested. "It would be a very natural reaction."
Nothing even remotely like privacy in this house. He probably had a bug in every damn tree.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow.
<I could be pregnant for all I know>
"I strongly advised you against using those abilites," Xavier continued.
"The body remembers. I don't. Sir."
"Do not give me that sort of answer, Elizabeth."
"Nothing else I can say."
Sensing her reluctance to talk, Xavier changed the subject.
"I want to change your schedule. See Hank at 1400. Math. The two of you can fix dinner.You do the obstacle course tomorrow."==
Hank didn't like to be disturbed, that was evident
"I thought you would participate in the amusements of the afternoon, mainly plowing aimlessly through layers of soil, while upsetting the wildlife," Hank greeted her, his furry eyebrows knit together.
"The Professor told me to see you," Elizabeth replied defensively. "He says you have some math you need to get off your mind."
Her vague attempt at humour passed unnoticed..
"Math, is it? Physics would be better. We need a good engineer."
That was another try. Hank kept trying to coax her into physics, especially electronics. She supposed he was factually right, they did need another engineer and she was one of the X-Men who had a head for math. Still, physics were unsatisfying. Not exact enough.
"I want my degree in math and we've got Forge anyway," she pointed out.
"I don't think we've exactly got Forge," Hank grumbled.
He was really in a bad mood. Even his verbal eloquence was quenched. Elizabeth decided to change tactics.
"How's you research going?" she asked sweetly, peering over his big
"Got an article turned down for the third time by both Nature and
<So that's what's bothering you?>
"They won't believe my new technique in limiting dilution is as accurate as the old one. It's technically very simply, but the matemathical variables are hell to work out. I guess that's where I lose them. Anyway, they won't publish."
He swept the papers he'd been working on off the table and stared morosely at the wall.
Elizabeth didn't know what to say. She knew that Hank would receive better professional credibility, not to mention appreciation, working at an university or doing industrial research. Very few of those places wanted to hire a mutant, though, especially such an obvious
mutant as Hank. Also, he had devoted his life to mutant research and Xavier provided the best working conditions for that. Unable to do anything else for him, she began to pick up the scattered papers for. Hank didn't seem to want them, so she put them on her own desk and began organising them into something resembling their original order.
"It's the Poisson distribution, isn't it?"
He didn't answer.
"Give me your data, please."
He pointed to one of the screens, interested against his will.
Elizabeth flipped through his data. There was decidedly something funny about the mathematical model he had constructed. She frowned.
"Why did you use two matrices?"
A blue, furry arm reached past her, called up a program and parameters. She watched it intently for ten minutes.
"It's alright, it's working, but it isn't what you included in the final model. If it was, it would look like this."
Elizabeth scribbled down some notes on a scrap of paper.
"You need to compensate here and here."
She stabbed at the paper.
"Run this through and check the standard deviation again. I'll bet it's less than the last time."
She smiled triumphantly, rose light shimmering around her.
Hank looked at her, with a certain wonder in his eyes.
"That was smart," he said. "How did you come up with it? There are three or four visible errors, but there's nothing wrong with the idea. In fact, it's original. Do you mind if I use it?"
"No, go ahead."
"You see, the first error you made here was assuming that the equilibrium would be constant. It isn't. But that can easily be corrected, just put in a second order differential equation and solve it numerically. That's where another set of variables comes in."
Elizabeth smiled again. There would be a math class anyway.==
After dinner, the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Elizabeth and Hank had made Chinese food, which had been praised by everyone and Hank had been been so pleased with her that he had offered to do the dishes all by himself. There was mud all over the house, since Jean, Scott, Warren and Bishop had come in directly from their exercise. They were tired and bruised, but in very good spirits. Scott had made a clean run and Bishop had only gotten hit once. During the dinner they had been laughing and discussing the run over and over. She had felt a little left out, until she remembered her day's work with Hank and saw the new glow in his eyes.
They had gone into the living room with their wine-glasses and Warren stood at the window with Jean, Scott and Bishop were playing chess and Hank was humming to himself inthe kitchen. Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment. She had had more wine than she used to and felt pleasantly warm and fuzzy. Suddenly she felt no sensation of gravity. She was off her center, falling, falling...and there was Warren behind her, the light rustle of his metal wings and his fingers toying with her hair.. And she was immediately ashamed for any little stab of jealousy she had felt, seeing him with Jean.
<These guys have a history. Be fair. Jean never hurt you, did she?>
"Not the whole truth I think," Xavier said, the yellow hoverchair sliding up noiselessly next to her.
"Leave her alone," Warren said with unexpected heat. "You've no right
to eaves-drop on her."
Xavier looked taken aback, but nodded.
<<Thank you, love>> Elizabeth sent. <<Do you want to go to bed now?>>==
As she had thought, Warren had some paperwork he needed to finish first. He sat at his big mahogany desk, his back turned to her, while she dozed on the bed. The windows were open, to let in the evening sounds, the way they both liked. He had extended his wings fully, to shield her from the desk light, because her headache was back with a vengeance. As usually, he put her needs before his own.
Elizabeth knew without either pride nor remorse that she was everything to Warren. She alone had brought him out of null mode, made him vulnerable to hurt and sorrow, once again. For a long time he had been untouchable. Now he was not. She thought that maybe she had been
cruel to him.==
Loneliness was a terrible thing. Initiation of replication started. The entity made sure every offspring would inherit the trait of immortality. They would have the whole of eternity together.==
A sound of metal gliding against metal woke her. Warren's wings were unfolding, his deadly flechettes quivering, ready for release. He was dreaming. Elizabeth lit the lamp, then summoned her butterfly and let it touch his brow, to try and wake him. At the touch, Warren's eyes snapped open. He looked at her without any sign of recognition, then screamed in terror. Elizabeth knew what came next. During the first months of their relationship, this had happened every night.
She was already moving as he lashed out at her, the wings unfolding completely. Rolling off the bed, she threw herself flat to avoid the flechettes, but one caught her just below her left knee and she felt the whole leg go numb. Then she heard a ragged sob and knew that he was awake. She dragged herself onto the bed again. The blankets and sheets were ripped to shreds. Warren sat huddled in the middle of the mess.
"Bad dream?" she asked.
He didn't answer, just kept staring in front of him. She put her arm around his shoulders.
"Telling me about it might help, Warren."
He shoved her away, got out of bed and started dressing with visibly shaking hands.
"We've got to talk about this."
His lips twitched uncertainly. For a moment it seemed as if he was going to say something, but he shrugged instead and went out on the balcony. He stood there, elbows on the rail, looking down at the ground.Cold, damp air was seeping in through the balcony door.
"We've got to talk," she said again.
"You wouldn't understand anyway."
He spoke coldly, almost vehemently.
"Warren, you shot at me with your damn knives. That's fine, I know you didn't mean to. But don't you dare tell me that I wouldn't understand!"
They both fell silent. The wind sighed in the trees outside. A dog was barking somewhere in the neighbourhood.
"Candy," Warren said at last.
"The dream was about Candy. Satisfied?"
His voice rose to a scream on the last word. Before Elizabeth could think of anything to say, he had taken off into the dark sky.==
After reaching a certain size, the entity could no longer maintain its self-sufficiency. Nutrition would henceforth have to be drawn from an exterior source. It needed to extend its already complex network of channels and connections. Done.==
The obstacle course was no joke. There were a couple of alternative routes through a muddy field. Some involved climbing mountainsides, others swimming an artificial river. The scenery changed often. To top it all, there were someone in the control room who kept track of you with the radar and shot rubber bullets at you.
"The Gladiators are abs'lutely nuthin' compared to this," Rogue had said admiringly after her first run.
The Professor hadn't quite caught her meaning but the rest of them had shrieked with laughter.
Elizabeth wore light armour, a helmet and gloves. It was threatening to rain, which would surely delight the Professor. He kept the field as muddy as possible, to impair speed. Her com beeped at her.
"Hello, Psylocke." That was Scott at the controls today. "We're ready if you are. Start at your convenience."
A few minutes later she had covered the easy part of the field and headed out into the terrain. She was going for the barbed wire fence. A single bullet passed over her head as she climbed. Her clothing got stuck in the barbs and she had to tear free. At the top, bullets started whistling around her ears and there was nothing else to do, but to let go and fall down on the other side. The fall jolted her, hard, but she had to keep moving. Some hundred meters of level ground stretched out in front of her. She decided to risk running and went for it, zigging and zagging. One bullet hit her hip, hurt her, dammit, and she fell. She stayed down and crawled to nearest cover on her stomach. From there, she could either go straight up for a climb or left for a swim in the river. She preferred the river, already having done a fast climb. It was uneven terrain, hard to run fast, but plenty of cover. Only a very lucky shot could hit her there. None did.
The riverbanks were steep and she hesitated a moment before deciding to roll. The pebbles rattled. Forget about stealth points. A shallow dive into the water and she went with the current for a few seconds, seeking a good place to climb out. There was none. She got out of the water anyway, threw everything she had into climbing up and her damnleg failed her, just wouldn't do it. She scrambled frantically upwards, as she got hit, once, twice, then turned and dived back into the water. She needed to think. Going against the current was out of the question. She would be lucky to complete this run. Whatever solution she would come up with, would have to be downstreams, and fast. There was a waterfall not far from where she was. The waterfall? Yes. The Professor had put up a net, just in case. The water in the river was kept at decent temperatures, the rocks had been removed and there was a net. Bless him. She felt almost giddy with relief as she let the current carry her down. She had to swim a couple of careful strokes to avoid getting tangled up in the net, but once she had put her feet in the loops, it was easy. Scott wouldn't dare to shoot ather while she was hanging there. Would not, she prayed. The risk of her falling down and having a serious injury was too large. Her leg still hurt, but she got up and a last desperate burst of speed carried her over the final stretch of open ground. She broke the ray of a LED somewhere and a photocell reacted, shutting off the advanced machinery that had been monitoring her. She snuffled, realised she had a nosebleed and felt the taste of blood in her mouth.==
"You damn fool!" Scott yelled at her as she stood dripping and shivering in the doorway.
She had put an ice-pack over her nose to keep it from bleeding all over the floor, but she hadn't changed or showered. When Scott yelled, there wasn't time for niceties.
"You're disqualified from this run. You knew I wouldn't shoot at you while you were in the net. What if I had? You'd have a broken neck and we'd have a hard time fishing your body out of the river."
"Succeded, didn't it?"
A half-hearted attempt at humour.
"Because I'm nice. If I hadn't been, you'd be gone."
Elizabeth clenched her teeth to keep herself from yelling back at him. She was very close to the edge, but the only way of talking to an upset Scott was to be calm. Jean's way, she admitted to herself.
"Scott," she said. "I couldn't get out of the water. I saw no other way. Do you understand?"
"What did you think you were doing? I..." Scott blinked as the meaning of her words caught up to him. "Oh."
He took a closer look at her.
"You aren't hurt, are you?"
"Do you want to review the tape now or later?"
"Later would be fine. I don't have another run until next week, so I should have time to study up on my mistakes."
He grinned at her and she knew that the worst was over.==
She had to make an effort not to limp as she walked into the kitchen afterwards. No one was there but Bishop. She nodded absently at him and put her cup of noodles in the microwave oven.
"Do you have a fixed schedule for the afternoon?" he asked suddenly.
"I promised to help Jean with Cerebro for a while. After that, I was thinking I'd get down in the cellar and shoot at things."
That was as social as she was going to get with him.
"I need a couple of hours in the air."
"So? Ask the Professor, I'm just the pilot."
And a traffic pilot, at most, nowadays. The fights were on the ground. No ordinary plane or heli could compete with Blackbird. Once they were airborne, they were safe. Mostly.
"I did that. He wanted you to come too. I've never flown Blackbird alone, you know. Only in the sim."
He had a funny way of asking favours. She took out the hot noodles and tasted them. Chicken flavour? Not like any chicken she had eaten before anyway.
"Alright. See you here at 15, then, and we'll take her out."
"Thank you, Psylocke. I...could help you...with the marksmanship practise."
"That would be nice of you. I'm a lousy shot."
She took her noodles and left.==
Jean had almost assembled the basic module of Cerebro, when Elizabeth arrived.
"Security," she explained. "This part covers only the area around the Mansion. But you know this, don't you? You learnt to handle Cerebro the hard way."
She giggled girlishly.
"I don't know if I ever learnt to handle it," Elizabeth said. "I learnt what an enhanced psionic backlash feels like."
"That counts too. Where's Warren?"
Elizabeth tried to look innocent.
"He had breakfast early, then took off. I don't know where he is right now. I suppose I could find out. Is it terribly important?"
"Well, no...I don't want to pry, but is there anything wrong between you and Warren?"
<Of course you want to pry. You love to know what everyone is thinking and feel high and mighty about it.>
"I don't know," Elizabeth answered aloud, keeping her thoughts well behind her shield and outputting only the mildest of rose light. "We're both rather complicated persons. Opening up to someone isn't very easy. But we're working on it."
<Get it, Jean.>
"I saw him fly away last night. It scared me." Jean sounded sincere.
Elizabeth didn't think there was anything more to say about it. She deliberately let the butterfly darken.
Jean mounted the hood on Cerebro, her movements precise and careful.
"He's been spending quite a bit of money on you," she noted.
<You're scared the money will run out? Scared you'll have to return to your middle-class life? You didn't want Warren when he wanted you, so what the hell do you care anyway?>
"I appreciate your concern," Elizabeths said, "but I don't see that it is any of your business."
Jean twisted a screw just a little bit too far.
"He's my friend. He's been that for a long time. I don't want to see him used. Or hurt."
Elizabeth slammed the fragile tool down on the table, startling them both.
<Of course you don't want anyone else to use him. Attention everyone! This is Jean Grey's playground. Now stand back while she takes what she wants.>
"Not everyone confides in you, Jean," she said. "You'll have to get used to it. If you really need to know, I can tell you that Warren still is more than wealthy. So am I."
Jean looked ashamed.
"I'm sorry. No, listen, I really am. It's just that I care about Warren, well, both of you, really. I didn't mean what I said. I've got a big mouth."
<You certainly do.>
It sounded nicer than she had expected.
Cerebro started to beep and Elizabeth seized the opportunity to change subject.
"Can't you shut it off?" she asked.
Jean looked puzzled.
"It's signalling a mutant," she said slowly.
"In this room."
"Well, there are two mutants here, if I count as a mutant."
There had been a lot of philosophical discussions on that subject. Mutant, alien, whatever. She was what she was.
"But I have calibrated it. It should only signal unknown mutants,"
"You must have forgotten one of us. Me, according to the coordinates. Re-zero it, will you?"
"Shouldn't we tell the Professor that I made an error in the calibration?"
"Maybe we should. But it was so easy to fix. I say he doesn't need to know."
Elizabeth smiled fondly at Jean's compulsive honesty.
"Yes. I guess I'm silly." Jean smiled back.==
The medical check-up took a lot more time than she had expected. Hank, who was very fond of details, spent half an hour poking at the cut Warren's flechette had made.
"You're extremely lucky," he said at last. "It was only a millimeter or so from cutting off a cruciate ligament, in which case I would have had to perform a knee surgery."
He taped the cut as he spoke.
"That would indeed have been disastrous," Elizabeth agreed with a straight face.
"Tell Warren to be more careful," Hank said. "I've taped you up so many times now that I recognise the cuts."
"Wrong. Accidents kill. You're either very brave or very stupid, Betsy."
He handed her a bottle of embrocation for her bruises, then disappeared quietly into the lab.==
"Do you mind sitting observer?" Bishop asked as they were entering Blackbird.
"I think I should co-pilot," Elizabeth answered drily.
"I assure you that there is no need of that."
Elizabeth sighed. This was going to be a long afternoon.
"We can do this any way you like," she said impatiently. "One, you just shut up and get in. Two, you go back and disturb the Professor, who is in deep telepathic contact with Jean, and ask him. Three, we stand here arguing until someone else decides they need the practice. Four, whoever can kill the other first, gets to decide."
"Is this a threat?"
Elizabeth sighed again, deeper this time, and crossed her arms.
"I'm not at all worried about you being here alone. The Professor is. I'd rather go shopping than baby-sit you. Now belt up before I change my mind."
She worried that he was going to shoot her on the spot, but he shut up and got in.
"She's all yours," she told him, settling in herself and grimacing.
The bruises were stiffening. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea. Bishop seemed more nervous than she had thought he would be.
"We're on auto," she reminded him, to calm him. "Nothing to worry about, you have to fight the comp really hard to crash."
"I am not worried about crashing, woman. In my time we knew how to fly. I do not need any flight computer," he growled in response.
"Neither do I. Shall we switch to manual, then?" she asked brightly.
No need for Bishop to know that it was a long time since she had flown purely on manual.==
Bishop was a good pilot, he had probably more natural talent for piloting than anyone else on the team. He had still to get the feel for the ordnance, but she told him it wasn't his fault. There were glitches in the simulator. After about two hours, he was pretty confident and had stopped glancing sideways at her before pressing any button.
"Any fancy flying you would care to show me, woman?" he asked.
Elizabeth really wished he would stop calling her "woman".
"I could do that, yes," she answered, "if you're interested."
He shunted all activity to her, shut down his own interface, as she grabbed for her own controls, sticks and switches. In the first ten seconds, she put a dozen needles into the red fields as the plane rolled, dipped its nose and spiralled downwards. But she knew this plane, she knew the limits and she was counting the rate instead of minding the wildly swinging read-outs. Metal groaned, the numbers flowed past on the screens, flowed away, dammit. Don't mind the read-outs, girlie, her instructor had yelled in her ear, as long as the numbers are fine, you're fine. Long time ago, in Britain.Up again, a hard push that made her blackout for half a second, she shook her head to clear it. The numbers wavered, went back to normal.
"How about dinner?" she asked.
Bishop didn't answer. Elizabeth threw a glance at him to check that he wasn't about to be sick. He looked strange, his features frozen in what seemed to be a grimace. It took a few seconds before she realised it was a huge grin. Well. She had finally found another action-junkie.==
When Elizabeth came back to her room, she found that it was filled with crimson roses. Literally. Roses in vases, roses strewn on the bed, on the floor. She knew there would be a new addition to her wardrobe, probably a pair of shoes, too. Warren's way of saying he was sorry. And she would gladly have given it all up to hear what his nightmare about Candy had been about. If it had been a nightmare at all.
"Betsy, I'm sorry."
Warren stood in the hall, looking lost.
"It's alright," Elizabeth answered. "Come in, love."
He sat down on the bed, careful not to crush any roses.
"Hank said I could have ruined your knee,"
"Of course not. I'm a ninja, remember? I can dodge anything you can throw at me."
She laughed lightly.
"Don't laugh,"Warren said, but he was smiling himself, although ruefully.
"I'm not especially fond of roses," she admitted. "But it's been a hard day. I would really appreciate a backrub. And you, Mr. Worthington the third, get to do it."==
The entity was expanding. Having a limitless supply of nutrition, it could afford to produce specialised offspring. Governing the rapid growth was delegated to lesser clones. The entity began to make plans for colonisation. In time, that would be inevitable.==
She was back in the tank. Greenish light filtered through the viscous fluid. An oxygen mask was fitted tightly over her nose and mouth, electrodes were attached to the back of her head. They twinged uncomfortably as she moved.
<No. Not again.>
A voice she couldn't recognise was whispering to her, feeding her codewords and names that clicked into place in her mind. She tried to shut it out but her shields were down, her mind wide open and she couldn't stop anything diffusing in or out. She imagined she could feel her fontanelle break up.
She wept for herself, for being helpless while someone took her apart and put her together the way he wanted her to be. She wept because she had sworn to herself that no one would use her again. Ever. And because there was only one way to stop it. She ripped the mask off. Gelatinous fluid filled her nose, her mouth, made her gag. The taste of saline and sarsaparilla...
...and she woke, drenched in a cold sweat. Bile was rising in her throat. She fought it down. Warren stirred beside her in the dark, but did not wake. She wanted him to hold her, almost touched his shoulder, then chided herself for being so selfish.
<The man has enough to worry about. Leave it.>
<<Sleep>>, she calmed him.
He sighed, turned his back to her, slept on. When dawn came and the birds started chirping, the wings would get restless and he would wake. She could wait.==
There were interesting anomalies. A strange environment. Neural and immune responses were extremely adaptive, even regenerative. The entity was, however, losing patience. It would not spend its immortality fighting petty battles. There must be another way.==
The phone rang, its sound too loud for the morning quiet. Elizabeth hoped it would not be Brian, drunk and disorderly. There had been a time when she had dreaded those calls.
"Pick me up at "The Mermaid," pay my bill in the bar, I ran over something, come help me find it, please sis, you're the only one...."
She reached over Warrens immobile form and lifted the receiver.
Remy's voice and he was drunk.
"This is Psylocke. You must have punched the wrong number. Ororo is in Washington. By the way, don't call her Stormy. She doesn't like it."
"Ah, but she does, cherie, she does."
"Where are you, Gambit?"
"Dis thug threw me out of de local nightclub. Didn' figure I'd ever be in a town with only one. Been wandering 'round 'til I found a phone."
"Is that the only reason you're calling?"
"No." The pain in Remy's voice cut through his alcohol fog. "Was looking for Rogue."
"Was looking for her to say I was sorry. Dat's all."
"It's over, Remy. You have to let go."
"Don't have to do anyt'ing! You never loved anyone de way I love Rogue."
Elizabeth was surprised to discover that she found no anger at the accusation, only sympathy and sadness.
"That may be so. But what I said is still true."
There were a few minutes of silence. She almost thought he had fallen asleep or left the booth. Then he said:
"Not giving up on Rogue."
"This is an exercise primarily for those of the X-Men lacking in aviation skills," Hank announced proudly.
Elizabeth couldn't help rolling her eyes.
"Meaning what?" she said.
They were gathered in the control room of Danger Room, everyone except Jean and the Professor, who had another telepathy session. Hank ignored her and pointed to a screen where small square platforms were shown floating randomly up and down.
"Think of it as a non-gravity environment. You simply step or leap, from square to square until you have crossed the room. I'll be firing missiles from here. Speed matters."
This exercise was all too familiar to Elizabeth. For a moment her eyes blurred and in Hank's place she saw a slim Japanese man, cold and graceful. And deadly.
"I'll monitor you, just in case," Hank said.
"Looks like a computergame for kids," Scott muttered, peering down into Danger Room as the squares started moving upwards."What if I fall off?"
"Trust that your winged team-mate will save you or your butt goes black and blue," Hank replied cheerily. "Now jump out, Scott. The program is running."
Scott, still muttering, stepped out on the first square that levelled with the control room. He disappeared out of sight. Two seconds later they heard a squeal.
"Oh dear," Hank said. "Who's next? Go on, Betsy, don't waste any time here."
"Can you handle it?" Warren asked her quietly.
She wasn't sure, but she nodded anyway and got on the next square. Warren was one step behind her, Bishop was last, looking vaguely disgusted as if this game was too much play and too little guns for his liking.
"I'll give you some time to get used to it. Then I'll bring on the missiles and maybe some drones, if you're doing well."
Leaping from square to square was easier than it looked, Elizabeth decided. Besides, she was something of a pro. Scott, on the other hand, kept falling off, forcing Warren to swoop down and save him, which was bad for both their scores. Elizabeth had gotten through two runs before Scott had finished his first. Bishop was also doing well. For a man his size, he was amazingly agile. Hank eventually gave up on Scott and told him to get up in the observation booth, from where he could call out instructions and blast the robots and missiles to pieces.
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes, to better measure the distance to a slowly approaching square. Scott was watching her back, all she had to do was to pick her way through the room and avoid anything coming at her from the front. She shifted her feet on the square and prepared herself for a mighty leap.==
The entity found the way.==
Pain hit her, white and blinding, and she fell to her knees, then sprawled over the square, purple hair spilling over its edges. She was completely oblivious to the missiles that happily homed in on her bio-signature.==
There was a shore in the astral plane where the waters broke. A child could play there, put things together in the sand. Could see the waves wash them away, bring back new things from the deep. The child would try to make sense of what washed up on the beach.
The heart would beat, the chest would rise and fall. The lyme-grass would billow. Specially tailored molecules swam like glittering fishes, interacting with Otherworld genes, maintaining breath and life.==
Divide and conquer.==
"You must keep her under, Hank, I don't care what it takes."
"Charles, her vital signs show no indication of..."
"Don't you have any tranqualizer here at all?"
"Blue locker, to the right. But really..."
"Do what I say!"==
Divide and conquer.==
"As soon as you brought Elizabeth to the infirmary, I tried to do a routine scan. To my surprise I found that something was blocking my access. It wasn't like anything I've ever encountered. It radiated cold and menace. I had no way of examining it, I just felt its presence. Probing her had no effect. The barriers could withstand any attack. Other than that, her telepathy is intact."
"Sir. Yesterday, as Betsy and I were completing the basic module of Cerebro, it signalled her as a mutant. We laughed at it and re-calibrated. I thought we ought to tell you or log it, but she talked me out of it. I'm sorry."
"It might mean that she is possessed by the presence I felt, or that small changes are gradually inflicted on her mutant abilities. Is there anything else you have noticed lately? Warren? Anyone?"
"Surely you can do better than that, Warren."
"She was brainwashed once."
"Yes, I will call Logan and hear what he has to say about it."
"I don't know anything about telepathy, but if the Professor cannot control her, she sounds like a threat to me."
"If we had killed everyone you wanted us to kill, there wouldn't be any people left. If we let you in, in spite of your methods, your manners and your habit of swinging a gun in everyone's face, you just might cut us some slack, too."
"Who said anything about killing? Maybe the Professor could take her powers away or mindwipe her."
"Gentlemen, my lady. This is a meeting. I know you didn't mean to offend, Bishop, but we will do nothing of that. We need more information before we can decide on a course of action."
"Do you think we should try to contact the others, sir?"
"I see no need for that right now. As I said, we need to know more before we can tell them anything. Her brother should be informed and will be so. Hank, I need the bloodwork, complete charts on everything."
"With all due respect, sir, what happens if you can't figure it out?"
"You still don't get to kill her."==
Divide and conquer.==
"So what can I say, sir? I didn't know what to watch out for. I don't understand telepathy either. Well, I know it works, but that's it."
"No one knows the exact mechanisms, Warren. It's a very complex phenomena. What I do know is that every telepath has his or hers own version of the astral plane. There are common reference points and sites of contact, but we all have different inner eyes. My own telepathy differs from Jean's, Elizabeth's even more so, since she received very little training before she came here. For example, I don't know why her telepathy manifests in a rose butterfly. It's a symbol she developed on her own, probably very early."
"You're right when you say you don't know what to watch. But I do.Will you let me try, Warren?"
"You mean, read my memories?"
"Yes. You've been close to Elizabeth these last months. If there are irregularities in her behaviour, you're the one that most likely picked them up."
"You're asking me to betray her."
"I'm asking you to help her."==
Divide and conquer.==
"Y'all serious? Bets get a headache, ya lock her up? There's drugs, there's doctors."
"I know you care about Elizabeth. So do I. But the only thing I want your opinion on is whether this is a throwback to her assassin days."
"Nope. She's still a ninja, ya know, but she hasn't got the edge anymore."
"The comp logs do point to another conclusion, Logan."
"Cerebro's just a machine, f'godssakes. If someone did do this to her he lacks Matsuo's trademark. Quality."
"Crudeness can be deliberate."
"Right. So I'll get back here next month, have another look."
"I thought you were going to stay a while. What will you be doing?"
"My business, Red. As always."
"We need someone who knows telepathy inside out. Someone we can trust. Someone with better compability with Elizabeth than Jean or myself. I'll call Emma Frost tonight."
"But she's such a bitch!"
"I thought you said we needed someone we could trust."
"She's doing right by the Generation X kids."
"Emma is the best option. We need the margins on our side."
"Still think you oughtta speak to a doc."
"No doctor I know of could handle this. To make her less receptive they might give her drugs that interfered with her unique metabolism. They might perform surgery. She could well lose both her telepathy and her mind in the process."==
Divide and conquer.==
"You rang, sir?"
"Though it was more a get-your-butt-here request than an actual ring. Now tell me why I'm here or this butt goes straight back to Massachussetts."
"I need you to examine Psylocke's telepathy. I very strongly suspect that she may be possessed by someone still unknown."
"Now wait a bloody minute, Charlie. Possessions and obsessions and anything else rhyming with sessions aren't exactly my field of work."
"I know. I want to know if there's anything wrong with her telepathy. Basically, I want you to go through all of it and report any abnormalities."
"It will take time. It will take a lot of work. Is there any specific reason why I should do this for our favourite bimbo? Oh no, don't give me the sermon, I'll do it. But you are going to owe me big time!"
"These are our medical records and other things you need to know."
"Uh-oh. You don't think I'm going to read that. If I'm taking her on, I'm doing it my way, and more important, you're doing it my way."
"So, what's your way, Emma?"
"First, you tell me what I need to know. Yes, you, Charles Francis Xavier, Mutant Saviour and Saint in general. Then you get me some real tea. And boil the water for at least two minutes!"==
Divide and conquer.==
"I've thought this over. You'd be better off with someone like Doc Strange."
"I know what I'm doing. Just name your working conditions."
"As you want. You're not going to like them much. I'm not touching her as long as she has any drugs in her system. Another matter is that Shi'ar med unit. I want her completely free of it. I also want to hypnotize her."
"Is it really necessary?"
"Wouldn't be if she hadn't taken that fall. Concussion is a hazard in these circumstances. As Iíve told you, I wouldn't even be going in there if I had any sense."
"But fortunately for us, you donít."
"Ha ha.You can put in all the surveillance you like, but I work alone. Everyone in the house has to give me working space. You tell them. Make it an order. If you want to take part in the entertainment, I can let you can do the hypnotizing part."
"I...don't think I want to. She might put up resistance."
"Because you scanned Warren, right? When it comes down to it, your ethics are as bad as mine. That nimbo is damn more independent than most of your other students and I think this action of yours is going to backfire one of these days."
"We'll compare students in ten years, Emma."
"Yes. But I can walk."==
Divide and conquer.==
The place wasn't the astral plane, but the resemblance was close. Mist and grey smoke. Elizabeth felt a little disoriented, tried to get a fix and failed.
"Hello, Psylocke. I'm Emma Frost. You're under hypnosis. Don't fight it, just go with the flow. As Professor Xavier told you earlier, I'm going to enter your mind and examine your telepathy."
Emma's voice was cool and precise. No fuss. Elizabeth liked that.
"The transition will be less smooth than you're used to, I'm afraid. Your concussion didn't improve matters."
The mist swept her off her feet, spinning like a tornado. Emma swore, somewhere in the distance and a cold wind ripped the tornado in two.
"Sorry about that. Catch your breath."
Elizabeth felt Emma move in her mind, easy and naturally.
"Try to open up. Relax, girl. Don't be shy. I'm not going to touch anything but your mutant power. Good. Good. Tell me if it hurts."
Snow brushed over her, chilled her, but there was no pain.
"You may experience some discomfort now. I'll have to take this apart."
The sensation of cold increased. Frostbite burned her. Every nerve screamed, synapses fired randomly, overloaded and burned out in the cold and the numbness took her. Time passed as she lay motionless in this peculiar, passive state. Snow fell through her. Layers of ice built up around her.
"I will withdraw now."
Ice turned to water around her, became a dark sea with no shore in sight.
"Follow me to the surface and you'll wake up."
"Where? Where? Emma!"
There was no answer.The sea rumbled, dark ice shutting out the light. Water closed over her head.==
Divide and conquer.==
"I'm not taking this from any ninja-wannabe! Wake up, damn you!"
"She's gone into shock, that's what. Your goddamn professor in his fucking hurry, I'll break his neck! Stay out of my way, McCoy, I'm going back in."
Something jerked at her. It hurt, in a body numb beyond hurting. Another jerk, and Emma was there, pulling Elizabeth by the arm through the dark waters until they both broke the surface. Elizabeth became aware of the room again. Time and space. She tried a breath and choked. A furry arm helped her sit up. Hank.
"Emma?" she gasped, as soon as she could spare the air.
Emma had a blanket around her shoulders and her teeth were chattering, but she looked well enough.
"My, you're deep waters, aren't you?"==
Divide and conquer==
"That was a close call."
"A bit cold, even for me."
"You were in there for more than thirty-six hours."
"If you say so, Charlie. Are you interested in the results or not?"
"Of course I am, if you're fit to tell me."
"Don't you bloody patronise me, I'm fit. What I can say right off is that there is nothing wrong with her telepathy. I turned every stone, double-checked and triple-checked the most sensitive areas. No irregularity at all."
"So what went wrong? I monitored you very closely and you did nothing to set off a shock reaction."
"Yes, that was what I was thinking I'd have your skin for. You never told me she had epilepsy. Do you realise your little omission could have killed us both?"
"She doesn't have epilepsy. I assure you that we have run every possible check on her physical health."
"Well, that's what happened, anyway. A minor seizure, thank God. Take a look at the log. Random flashes. No sense in the patterns. You know I'm right, Charlie."
"Possibly it could be the entity masking itself, a response to intrusion, designed to scare off..."
"Oh, for God's sake, spare me. You have spent too much time in space lately. The episode in Danger Room was a seizure. It appears to have caused some internal damage as well as some changes. Deal with it, Charlie."
"Any other observations?"
"Yes. You've really been rubbing her nose in the Kwannon thing, haven't you? Now this. Everyone suspects her, even her flapping boyfriend sides with you. I gather she is useful to you. If you want to get some use out of her, you'd better unlock her door or you're risking a fragile mind."
"No, you listen. You've trained her. Lots of time, lots of money. She's not the best telepath around, but a fair one. An asset, I'd say. Are you going to waste her?"
"I can understand why you're being so emotional, Emma. A session this long and intense drains the best of us. I'll go through the Cerebro log and then I'll decide. Thank you for your help. I owe you one."
"Hmm...maybe you could help me crack Monet's mind?"
"Well, I suppose there is no gratitude in this world."==
The error had been made twice. The first time had been caused by poor judgment and greed. Responsible parties were punished by being heavily selected against. The second time was another matter. Four different minds in the physical space made for one was crowded. The
attempt to terminate two of them had been appropriate.==
Silver cutlery clattered against fine china. The hum of voices rose and fell. The banquet at the Inner Circle had been going on for an hour. It irritated Elizabeth that Brian acted shy. She frowned at him over the table when no one else was looking, he kicked her shin in response. How childish. How unsophisticated he seemed in this company. She turned to her dinner partner instead and conversed with him to the best of her ability.They had finished talking about art and music and were starting in on recent movies when Brian abruptly rose, not even excusing himself, and left the table.
"Excuse me for a moment," she said with her sweetest smile and hurried after him.
She caught up with him at the door.
"Where do you think you're going?" she whispered fiercely.
"Home." He took his coat from a waiter even as he spoke.
"You can't. If you leave, I'll have to leave too."
"The music hasn't even started," she pleaded with him. "Brian, this is my first dance. Can't we stay just another hour, please?"
"I don't fit in here."
"Of course you do!"
"See you at the hotel, sis."
And he was gone. She stood there in the foyer, her evening suddenly soiled, the happy feeling gone, the magic lost. The ball seemed to be just a rather tiresome party. When she met her own eyes in the mirror, she saw a teenager dressed up in someone else's finery. Awkward. Gawky. Even her white velvet gown seemed shabby.
<He was right. We don't fit in here>.
The waiter, a short, squat man with friendly eyes said:
"Don't worry, little lady, he will come back."
She tried to smile.
"I guess he will."==
The disorientation had been extreme. The disturbance caused was immense. There might be ways to turn the situation to the entity's advantage, but at the moment debris was blocking vital connections and food supply. Off-spring were starving to death. The entity felt their pain as its own. Received the distress signals, registered the vain attempts to lower metabolism and at last, silence and a dead end.==
"Of course you feel disoriented," Hank said, in his tone of voice especially designed to calm down hysteric patients.
"It's only natural," he assured her, when she had accused him of leaving her in the foyer.
"Don't worry," he said when he shot some local anaesthetic into her arm and opened it up in two quick cuts to put in a small device.
She stared, horrified, at the reddish muscles and the white tendons twitching like frog's legs, while Hank prattled on about self-sufficiency, reliability and improved feed-back circuits.
."..it will give you efficient pain control and keep you from having another seizure. While the sensor is built on the simple principle of a morphine pump, the molecule is modified for your special needs and very complex. Its chemical structure is in fact of great general interest and I intend to publish my results as soon as..."
"Really," she said with heavy sarcasm. "I'm going to my room, Doctor Pollyanna."==
Jean intercepted her already in the hall.
"The Professor wants to see you in his office."
<Damn him and damn you and damn the whole X-Men business too, while I'm at it>.
But she went.==
"I'm going to Carleton university tomorrow to lead a seminar about mutants and society.I thought we needed to talk before I left", Xavier announced.
"First of all, I want to acknowledge the fact that life is not fair."
"I know," she said.
"We have, despite thorough examinations found no trace of the entity that may possess you. One possibility is that you suffer from epilepsy. The evidence is, at best, ambiguous. Even with the small-focus scan of Warren's memories, I can't be certain."
<You scanned him? You bastard. You lying hypocrite.>
"The danger is real. What's in your head is still there."
She had to smile her nasty smile.
"Do you know what I think? I think it's all in your head, not mine,"she said.
He didnít even blink.
"Think whatever you want. You're off the team. You can move around the house as you like, if Jean tails you. You may not use your telepathy. You may not leave the house unless I explicitly say so. I don't want you in the vicinity of Blackbird or Danger Room. You will not have access to firearms and no one can carry firearms around you. There's more to this, Scott will tell you the details, but the point is that if you take one step out of line, we'll lock you up. I don't want to do that, but I will, if it ever becomes necessary. Understood?"
<No, why don't you tell me again? Or have Scott tell me. Mimicking you is one of his special talents. I suppose you taught him the basics in Anal-Retention 101, but heís gone far beyond that. Shave his head and no one will ever miss you..>
"Yes," Elizabeth said.
There was a pause, in which Xavier pretended to hesitate.
"There is of course," he said, "another solution."
He pulled out a drawer and put a thick strip of metal on his desk.
"The design is Genoshan, but Forge has worked on it. Modified it for you. It's a power dampener."
"He has a history of building such things," Elizabeth said.
Xavier avoided her eyes as he handed her the collar. It was surprisingly light.
"I'll be honest with you. The lock is coded. The power dampener won't come off until I take it off. There's also an inbuilt locator."
It looked like a necklace. A choker. Well, that was what it was.
"You have no reason to trust me or believe in me. Fortunately, you don't have to believe in me to believe in the dream. Coexistence."
She still looked at the thing. A small piece of death.
"Think about it," Xavier said.==
This time there were no roses in her room. Just Warren and darkness. Elizabeth wanted so much to forgive him, wanted to look at him with gentle eyes and seek comfort in his arms. But the nasty sneer wouldn't leave her face and the loving words wouldn't come out.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"I must tell you. The Professor scanned me."
He was upset, pale and sweating.
"So I've heard."
"He had to. Betsy, you don't understand."
In his face was guilt, fear and shame, but beneath it all, there was confidence that she would take him back. She looked at him without mercy and she saw Brian, a younger, less hotheaded Brian, with all his precious needs and wants. Sister or lover. It didn't matter. Her addiction had fitted his. Perfectly.
Warren was still talking.
."..so I don't know how I feel. I'm so confused. I need some time to think. It isn't only the recent events, it's all this past stuff with Candy and Jean..."
His precious needs and wants, indeed.
"Jean?" The cold voice, the nasty smile.
"I'm not in love with her. It's just that I look at her and she's like any normal woman. And when I look at you...I mean, you are technically an alien."
He pronounced the word carefully. Elizabeth could sense his determination to be rid of her, though he probably wasn't aware of it himself. Yet.
<Alien. Otherworlder. Business associates in Hong Kong. Who would have figured a blue-skinned mutant for a bigot? Or the Professor for a voyeur? Have it your way, Warren.>
The voice dangerously low now.
Warren's shoulders slumped as he realised that he had gone too far.
"Of course, I am an alien. And a mutant."
The smile showed him her teeth.
"But when I lost my eyes, I did try to cope with it. And I've never told any of my lovers that they were freaks. Though some of them actually were."
He raised his hand as if to stop her cruel words or touch her, but let it fall.
"I guess it's over then," he said slowly.
"I guess it is," she answered.
<From here, there's no way back. Do you see it, my former love? Do you understand what we have lost?>
They watched each other with a new wariness.
Warren broke the silence.
"Goodbye, Betsy," he said softly.
The wings rustled as they unfolded. He went out on the balcony, swung himself over the rail and was gone.==
The metal was cold. She had held it against her cheek for some minutes, but it wouldn't get any warmer. Maybe heat would interfere with the sensitive circuits.
"Goodbye, Warren," she whispered.
Then she put the collar around her neck and snapped it shut.==
The cries of dying off-spring ceased abruptly.==
<A woman can never be too rich, nor too thin>, Elizabeth thought sourly as she watched herself in the mirror.
What a joke. After spending almost a month in bed, under heavy sedation, hooked up to ten machines doing things she would rather not to think about, none of her clothes looked good on her. The jersey dress was hopelessly unfashionable, but it was high-collared and concealed the power dampener. It also looked like a sack. When she got downstairs and entered the dining room, it turned out that she hadn't needed to bother with hiding the power dampener. They all knew, anyway. She saw the anxious and pitying looks on their faces and she wanted a trapdoor to disappear through.
"What de matter, p'tite?"
Remy. He leaned at the door on the opposite side of the room and grinned broadly at her. Not a pleasant grin. Not...a pleasant man either.
"Why do you ask?"
She sat down at her usual place. Jean silently passed her the tea-pot and a cup. A slice of lemon. Rolls and orange juice.
"Maybe you don' go pokin' aroun' in Gambit's head no more, eh?"
He might be joking. On the other hand, he had a cruel streak. Well, two could play that game.
"No, I prefer to stay away from smut. It turns me off. A female characteristic perhaps?."
She took a bite of her sandwich. The cardboard taste was the same as always. Remy's face turned greenish beneath the tan. He fumbled out a packet of cigarettes, without any of his usual dexterity.
"No smoking indoors, Gambit."
Scott's voice. Law and order. He probably didn't understand any of the darker undercurrents, but he tried to make it right in his own way. The Professor, more perceptive, in any sense, put a restraining hand on Elizabeths arm.
<<No. Don't do this.>>
But there was no stopping her now.
"Shut up, Scott," Elizabeth said with the calculated coldness that had become second nature to her. "Why don't you tell us about your more sinister connections, Remy, sugah?"
Scott's mouth was hanging open in fear and disbelief. These feelings were reflected even more strongly in Jean's face.
"Elizabeth, you simply cannot accuse Remy of ...," Hank said.
"I knew he was the traitor." Bishop's voice, dull and expressionless. "I've always known."
"Quiet!" The Professor didn't have to raise his voice. "Remy told me he had been a Marauder a long time ago. We agreed to keep it between us. He has more than atoned for that time."
"I'm not sitting at he same table as a Marauder!" Scott jumped to his feet, crimson in the face and seeming dangerously near a heart-attack. "I'm not living in the same house as one! You want me here, Professor, you throw him out! Now!"
"The elementary, yet forgotten question at this point is why miss Braddock didn't enlighten us on this particular subject earlier," Hank said.
"I don't see why you're even discussing this! Just throw him out on his ass!" Scott yelled.
"I'm going to say this only once, so I think you should listen," the Professor thundered. "There's nothing to discuss. No one is leaving. Remy, you're staying. It isn't a question of what you want. The same goes for you, Scott. And if you fire that gun out of order, Bishop, I will be very angry indeed. Elizabeth, if this was what you set out to accomplish, congratulations. God, I'm getting too old for this."
"Professor, I think..."
"Scott, I love you like a son, but I don't care what you think because you usually don't. Sit down, everyone. Pass me the salt, please, Bishop."
"With all due respect, sir, you can not put salt into your coffee."
"No, it was an oblique way of telling you to take your hands off that gun." Xavier drew a deep breath. "As for Remy's past, I might as well relate the main events to you all now, if you do not mind, Remy."
"If he does mind, he doesn't belong here. If he ever did."
Scott glared at Remy.
"Remy?" Xavier looked only at the Cajun. "I'm not going to probe you, just tell them what you told me. Is that alright with you?."
"You were not so considerate with me," Elizabeth said sharply.
As she had expected, Xavier became momentarily deaf. Remy sank down on a chair. He tried to light his cigarette, but Scott glared at him and he put away the matchbox.
"Don' figure it'll make any difference. People dislikin' me already," he said numbly.
"No kidding." Scott again.
Xavier sent him a devastating glance, clasped his hands together and began to speak as if he was telling a childrens' tale.
"As you all know, Remy was adopted into the Guild of Thieves as a child. He doesn't know how old he was at the time, nor does he have any clear memories of that time. One very strong memory, however, is that of Sinister. It's rather clear and lies close to the surface. I'd suppose that was the one you found, Elizabeth. It's a loving memory, suggesting perhaps a father-son relationship or simply mirroring his, ah, extreme fondness for his test subjects. On different occasions after his acceptance into the Guild, Remy discovered a man following and watching over him, once actively protecting him from an oncoming car. A guardian angel, one might say. After Remy left New Orleans he met the man in a bar. The man revealed himself to be Mr.Sinister. He asked Remy to join the Marauders. Remy, admiring the scientist in Sinister and perhaps acting on some emotional conditioning agreed."
"You didn't see the massacre in the tunnels, sir," Scott said. "Children, women, defenseless creatures. It's unforgivable."
"Remy left well before the massacre. He was, as I've said, an admirer of science. One night, he sneaked into one of the secret labs. Fate would have it, that it was one for experiments gone wrong. Great lumps and globs of flesh, crowded in small tanks for disposal. Oversized organs and human limbs twisted beyond recognition. Research in Sinister's way has its price. Horrified and repulsed, Remy picked his way into Sinisters gene banks and destroyed them all. Then he ran. Sinister sent Sabretooth after him. Remy managed to fake his own death in France and Sabretooth was taken off his trail. The business in New Orleans with Belladonna, however, seems to have alerted Sinister to the fact that Remy is alive. He have crossed paths with Remy twice since then. End of story."
Xavier leaned back in the hover-chair, daring them to say something.
"We should vote about it," Scott insisted.
"Don't give me that I-don't-understand crap! We should vote about whether he's staying here or not."
"Scott, it is you who do not understand. There will be no vote. The decision was made when he was accepted into the X-Men a long time ago."
"Like hell it was. Besides, I know what everyone thinks. Myself, I'll gladly throw him out. Jean won't because she'll start that when-I-was-Phoenix. Hank doesn't like him, Bobby thinks he's a loser, Warren thinks he's scum, Bishop thinks he's the traitor. No lost love between him and Betsy and Rogue is in the frigging South, because she couldn't stand him. You, Professor would have him stay. So would Ororoīand Logan. Thats seven to four. 'Nuff said."
Xavier looked down at his hands for a long time before answering.
"Were it that simple, most of you wouldn't be here today," he said.==
"Betsy?" Jean was outside the darkroom.
"I'm in here."
Yes, and snivelling, though there was no need for Jean to know that. Elizabeth had fled the breakfast table first of all, her stomach too upset for food. She had sat in the darkroom since then, crying, scarcely doing any work and ruining what she did do.
"Can I come in?"
Best to keep it short and Jean might go away.
"The Professor got a call from Logan. He wants to see you."
"Logan. He said there is a do-something in North Salem..."
"That's what I said. Anyway, he'll see you there tomorrow at 15."
<Now go away>.
" About breakfast...." A note of reproach crept into Jean's voice. "Charles has so much on his mind now. I really don't think this was the right time for..."
"No lectures, Jean. You're hardly in any position to criticise me."
And dammit, her voice broke into a sob on the last word. She wiped her wet cheeks with only slightly less wet hands, having used every Kleenex in the room and even some paper towels smelling of chemicals. Jean didn't answer and Elizabeth began to hope she had finally taken the hint, when the door swung open. Jean came in, squinting in the reddish light.
"Leave me alone," Elizabeth said, mad and ashamed to be found in such a state.
Jean ignored the request and hopped onto the another of the high chairs. She put her elbows on the lab bench and sighed deeply.
"I will be honest with you, Betsy. You're my friend and I know that it never would have happened if not...You see, Scott..."
"What about him?" Elizabeth said, totally confused. "Nothing happened. I've told you. I've said I was sorry."
"No. It 's Madelyne. He loves her, not me."
"But Jean, I thought you had her memories. You're all that's left of her."
<My God, how did I get into this situation? Giving marital advice to Jean of all people? And now, of all times?>
"He wants her. Every waking moment he wants her. Aches for her, the way he treated her and Nathan. His love for me is just a conditioned reflex. He made the wrong choice back in Inferno and he knows it."
Jean looked steadily at Elizabeth.
"So I...I thought I'd get drunk and just do it with someone else. A stranger. So it would hurt less. But I couldn't. And then...then it happened."
"He said he'd tell you. When I came back from the pub, drunk as a skunk, I saw the lights in Warren's room."
Elizabeth gasped. Words failed her. Her ugliest nightmare, her most repressed jealousy gone true.
"Damn you," she whispered at last and the tears started running again.
Jean tried to give her a Kleenex, but Elizabeth knocked her hand away.
"I'm sorry, Betsy. I'm really, really sorry. I went to him, just to talk, I swear. Then..."
"I don't want to know about what you did. You took your chance."
"You saw your opportunity."
"No! That wasn't how it was. I'm your friend, Betsy."
Elizabeth kicked angrily at a waste container.
"You slept with my boyfriend. Friends don't do that."
"I could say almost the same about you." Jean smiled sadly.
"Yes, but you can't, because Scott is still here. Warren isn't and I'm not going to forgive you so why don't you leave me alone!"
"If that's what you want. Anytime you want to talk about it, though..."
"You'll be there. Yes, I know. Now get out."
Elizabeth waited until she heard Jean's steps disappear down the hall. Then she slid down on the dirty, chemical-spattered floor and whimpered like an animal in pain.==
The sound of illusions crushed doesn't sound as brittle glass breaking or even the dull thud as a blunt object hits your head. It sounds like metal wings hissing in the wind as they carry your love away. It sounds like your best friend's voice as she ceases to be a friend at all. It sounds like your own voice, as it makes sounds you didn't knew could be produced from human vocal cords.==
"Angle yer blade to deflect the force," Logan instructed her, gently, patiently.
The past month had wasted muscles and softened sinews. Not to mention all the different drugs Hank had tried on her. Elizabeth clenched her teeth and nodded. She took the stance again. Logan's blade came flashing down, full circle. Blade angled, she still staggered out of postition, out of balance.
"Ya ain't got the weight or the strength to do it that way," Logan said. "Angle the blade."
He corrected her stance and re-positioned her elbow. They were alone in the dojo, a small basement that was used for karate classes. It smelled strongly of old sweat. The mats were worn by thousands of bare feet.The fluorescent lamps whirred and blinked. Elizabeth shook her head to clear it. She hadn't eaten anything since breakfast and she felt weak with hunger. Logan whacked her on the shins with his wooden sword.
Sweat ran down into her eyes. She wanted him to stop. Never mind if he reported that Kwannon had taken her soul. They had been doing exercises for several hours and he made no sign of quitting. She hurt everywhere from muscle strain.
"Last time, now. For this one."
This time she saw it coming, took the step sideways and the sword turned in her hands as by itself. Perfect.
"Good. D'ya want to take a break, have some water?"
He wrapped a towel around his neck as he spoke. She nodded, stepped off the mat and reached for the bottle of Evian in her bag. Then she heard the growl. She froze. It sounded like a dog
"Logan, did you hear.."
She stopped. His face was a mask of animal fury, all sanity gone from the eyes. Drool dripped from the corners of his mouth. The growl became a roar and he bounded across the mat like a maddened were-wolf, towards her. Fear turned Elizabeth's legs into jelly. She tried to run for the door, but he was there, anticipating her move. He licked his mouth.
<Sabretooth.> she thought and then he was upon her.
She tugged frantically at the collar and knew that she didn't stand a chance. On form, playing by the rules, she might equal him. At the real thing, never. She twisted away, barely, from a kick, but a right hook came out of nowhere and her head struck the mat with enough force to bounce. The claws raked her shoulder as he picked her up. She dangled helplessly in his grasp. He grinned his feral grin and drew back his arm to run the claws right through her. She shut her eyes and tried to remember a prayer. Nothing happened. She opened her eyes again. Logan still held her, but he didn't pay any attention to her. His facial muscles twitched, attempting to mold into another expression. All of a sudden he flung her away with a howl. The landing knocked the breath out of her. She lay on her back and panted, small unsufficient breaths. A few meters away, Logan fell to his knees, still howling in terror and pain. He tore at the mat with his claws, shred it to pieces, and the howl rose to a high-pitched scream.There was nothing she could do to help him. She turned her head away and hoped he would stop. After an eternity, the awful sound did stop. She threw a glance at him and it was the sane Logan, tired and perhaps a little disoriented, but he was sane, thank God.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
He shook his head vehemently, though at himself, not at her.
"Now ya know why I can't stay with ya people," he stated.
"This happens often?"
"All the time. Let's go get some coffee."
He hauled himself to his feet and looked ruefully at the mess he had made of the mat.
"Don't wanna talk about it, Bets."
He came over to her, offered his hand. She took it and got up clumsily. Her shoulder burned and her armour was sodden with blood. She found herself shivering with reaction. If he hadn't mastered his rage in time, he might have killed her, without even knowing what he did.
"I said I don't wanna talk about it." He helped her take the armour off. Blood was spreading in a big stain on her shirt. "I'll get a medkit. Ya better shower and put something on. Ya got goose-pimples"
"But..." Her third try.
He regarded her with a sad and ancient look.
"Ya were lucky, darlin'. So was I. Coffee now, right?"==
Half an hour later they were at one of her favourite little coffee shops. The subs were absolutely fabulous, she had told Logan, and since he had wolfed down three tuna ones, she guessed he agreed with her.
"How did I do?" she asked him.
"Fine. Not a trace of outer influence." He stirred in his coffee. "Ya smell differently, though."
"Well, I've got epilepsy. That could be it."
"I know. I visited Jubes on the way and Emma told me all about it. Did Chuck ever apologise?"
"Ah. Emma said he wouldn't."
"Emma is often right."
"So I've noticed. And she's good to the kids. What's happening at the Mansion?"
"We're acting more like the Freak Farm every day."
She sighed, hesitated for a second, then told him the whole story about Remy, Warren and Jean.
"Huh," he said when she had finished. "Give Gumbo a chance. He deserves it."
"You think so?"
"Hell, yes. I'm kinda worried 'bout Jeanie, but Wings is gonna come back."
"And you? When are you coming back?"
"I dunno." He put down his cup very carefully. "This one is a tough one."
"I need you."
"Ya don't," he said bluntly."Ye're doing well by yerself."
"I mean it. I could never be Mariko or Jean to you. Or Jubilee. But you got me out of Mandarin's house. I can't just forget it. You saved me. I don't understand how you can pretend nothing ever happened."
"Nuthin' much did."
"I was in your head, Logan. In your head."
His face was troubled now.
"I am yer friend," he said slowly. "I'd lay down my life fer ya if it came to that, but I can't be with ya. All I can promise is that when ya need me, I'll come."
"It isn't fair."
"It's love." He held up a finger to stop her bitter exclamation. "It ain't love the way ya think it should be. But it's love."
"I'd like us to try it my way."
"Sorry, Bets. Sharing bad times ain't enough."
"Sleep with me."
"Why donít ya tell me what's wrong instead."
Rain drummed against dirty windows as Elizabeth gazed out at the street, at the people moving hurriedly, no more than coloured blurs in her vision.
"Somehow, I never thought Warren would leave me. I never thought the Professor could be wrong. I thought that you and me could be friends if we tried. I didn't think it would end like this."
"This ain't the end. Far from it."
"Do you really think so?"
Her eyes kept filling, though she did her best to look away from him and think of small unimportant matters. He looked at her wistfully and put his hand on hers.
"I do. Drink up, darlin'. You c'n walk me to the station."==
They plodded along in the rain, in silence. Neither of them had an umbrella. Elizabeth's shoes were thoroughly wet and she had no coat.
"Nice necklace," Logan said amiably.
"That metal thingy around yer neck. Titanium, right?"
Elizabeth felt anger rise inside. In spite of all the events lately, she had felt no anger, only disgust or weariness. She had thought she had come to terms with her lousy fate, how she was treated, the unfairness of it all. Now her anger surged up like a tidal wave, sticking in her throat, almost choking her. As if all her swallowed bitterness was coming up in one big lump.
"That so-called metal thingy is a goddamn Genoshan collar," she hissed, "which the goddamn Professor put on and only he can take off!"
Logan's face went ashen.
"Chuck put this on ya?"
His voice was a growl. She sensed the danger. SNIKT.
As he ripped the collar from her neck and the world changed.==
Release at last. The restraints were broken. The entity surged forward. The joy of life! Life! Life!==
The world changed. She was transformed to water, flowing upwards, looking at something lying on the sidewalk in the rain. She was weightless and transparent. Everything was, except that thing on the sidewalk. And she didn't know why, because she was blonde again, her eyes blue like the sky and the sea and her mother told her she was the prettiest girl in the world, but too wild and reckless. And through the transparent skyscrapers and stores and traffic-lights she saw Braddock Manor and felt the smell of clover and rain.==
Thisisallwrong. Pain exploded, sky-rocketed somewhere else. She recorded the trails, but she couldn't feel it, nor find her way back. The feeling of gravel crunching under her sandals. She was going home. Thisisallwrongthisain'ttheend. Not the end. Braddock Manor faded. She was back by the thing on the sidewalk. A body. Some important insight seemed to elude her.
<This is me, you know. How ironic.>
A cold voice she had hoped never to hear again and the memories flooded back. Kwannon. Purple hair. The body was hers and she had to get back into it. This was death.
<Now you know what it was like. Keep trying.>
The voice taunted her.She tried. And again.
<Time is running out> the voice informed her with a certain malicious glee. <Your heart is about to stop.>
<The hell!> she yelled back, kicking all her spare energy into a shattering mindblow. <Kwannon, come on!>
<I am not Kwannon. I am the imprint she made on your soul.>
<Well, then, Imprint, I need your strength. Help me or we're both dead! Again.>
She waited for an answer. There was none.
<Please>, she pleaded, then lost all inclination to reason. <Kwannon, Imprint, whatever dammit, do you think I ever had a choice?>
The answer came from nowhere in particular and the voice was changed,
it sounded like a child's.
<I remember dying, I think. I didn't like it much. Alright, I'll take it.>
All of a sudden she was close up to a face with blue lips and the eyes showing only white. A hairy hand rested against the cheek and she could have laughed out loud if the other had let her.
<You love me, Logan, whatever you say. I know you do.>
She was steered in front of the nose.
<This way, like in the Bible?> she asked.
And the pain was unbearable.==
"This is Charles Xavier."
"H'lo, Chuck. I thought I'd tell ya, yer telepath ain't coming home for dinner."
"What do you mean, Logan?"
"She fainted on the street. I got an ambulance. She's waiting fer X-ray."
"Logan, you must get her here at once. She could be dangerous."
"Sorry, can't hear ya. The traffic is really loud here."
"Where are you? I'll send Scott to come and get you both."
"Chuck, the traffic just got louder."
"I see. Let's calm down. Where can I reach you? I'd like to do at least some damage control."
"Sorry ta tell ya, but I won't be available fer a while."
"Until Bets asks me to call ya. I understand it might be a pretty long while."
"Will you give her...my regards?"
"Can't speak fer her, Chuck, but I'd say she's had 'bout enough of what ya give."
"Hematoma," a deep voice said, and Elizabeth was startled out of her pleasant unawareness, into a strong smell of disinfectant and blood.
"Miss Braddock, you have a hematoma in your head, in the intercranial space."
<In my head>, she thought, bemused. <It was there, all the time.>
"The excess fluid has been drained away, to relieve the pressure on your brain. You will regain...any function lost to you."
That little pause informed Elizabeth of what she had lost. Her telepathy. X-Men vs. Reality 0-1. She thought she'd cry or throw up, but what came out was a giggle and she laughed madly until the sting of a needle made her stop.==
"Either Logan has gotten remarkably worse at covering his tracks, or you had a subconscious wish to be found."
A familiar voice. The Professor.
Elizabeth's eyes flew open. Bright sunlight shone through the windows, hurt her head. She closed her eyes again.
Something soft brushed against Elizabeth's neck. The scent of Chanel no. 5 wafted by and she flinched back just in time to avoid the embrace. Jean had some nerve to walk in here and act like...
"We're all here."
That was meant to be a reassuring statement from Scott, but Elizabeth felt close to panic.
"We've arranged transport for you. You will be transferred to our new medical facility in Massachussetts. Hank and myself will accompany you." The Professor again.
The word all but stuck in her throat. Her mouth was very dry.
"Hank is extremely eager to examine you. He...why don't you tell her yourself, Hank?"
"Dear Elizabeth, you have what we in the medical profession generally call an infiltrating malignant glioblastoma multiforme. A biopsy will be needed to ascertain the exact nature and location. My inexact observations so far indicate that the original growth is placed somewhere in the occipital lobe. Have you had any trouble reading? No? PET, CAT and MRI will give us the answer."
"I thought you said she had cancer, Hank," Jean complained.
No. This couldn't be. They had run every check at the Mansion, hadn't they? Hadn't they? Cancer. People died of that.
"I was just coming to the part where I was supposed to apologise and tell her what was wrong," Hank said, annoyed.
"No, you weren't. I'll talk to her." Jean sounded impatient.
Movements as a large number of people re-grouped at the whim of Jean the Queen.
"You have a brain tumour," Jean said, matter-of-factly. "Don't worry, we'll fix it."
"We?" Hank grumbled and someone (Remy?) exploded into shrill laughter.
Wouldn't it be like Remy to laugh at her? Cancer.
Jean ignored them. The smell of her scent grew stronger, as if she had leaned forward.
"Hank thinks that the swelling is blocking your telepathy, but that can be fixed.The other piece of bad news is that Warren's gone. We haven't heard from him since you two broke up. Do you know where he is? He might have hurt himself."
Warren and Jean. Oh God. She hadn't remembered before. She wished the cancer would kill her right there and then. Tears squeezed their way out from under her eye-lids.
"Y'know, I coulda sworn I told y'all to butt out." Logan.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The sound of his boots seemed very loud in the sudden silence.
"The situation has changed, Logan. Elizabeth has lost her telepathy, due to the tumour. She needs radiation therapy, chemotherapy...."
"Out. All of ya. No one's gonna mess with her."
His shadow fell over the bed, shielded her from the light.
Elizabeth didn't know if the lowering of his voice was intentional or if it meant, God, if it meant that he was losing control again. The tension in the room was almost tangible until Xavier chose to ignore the threat and slipped into his teacher mode again.
"You can say goodbye to her now, Logan," he said briskly, "unless you change your mind about going back to the Mansion with us."
Another man might have rebelled against the demanding tone, the way a child rebels against an overbearing parent. Logan only looked at Xavier, a look that promised "Later, Chuck."==
The entity crouched in the indentations of the soft matter, slowly tasting the words. It had a name now. Cancer for short, glioblastoma for formal wear. Parasite. That word didn't taste well. Was it such a crime to want to live? To want the children to grow up to independency? Malignant. What a terrible word. It had expanded, re-located and was now feeding off other areas in the habitat but the main host was still alive, wasn't it? And what with the Kwannon persona, it wasn't as if the main host had liked that part anyway.==
Logan sat down on her bed, when they were alone again.
"Ya don't have ta go back," he said quietly.
She turned to him then, desperately.
"Can you get me out of here? Please?"
She begged and he must know what it meant, because she was too proud to beg. She waited for an answer. Saw his hand caress her shoulder, the clawmarks he had inflicted on her. Saw the claws slide out from underneath the protective sheaths and touch the wounds with infinite gentleness.
"Ya want it, Bets, ya got it," he said.==
Later, Elizabeth would remember the escape as a dream where nothing could go wrong. Logan tied her hands together around his neck, told her to hold on and then he climbed out the window and scaled down the wall. After a few phonecalls, he had found her a hospice in Mount Kisco where one of the doctors owed him a favour. She would be admitted as Marie Tessier and on the way there he drilled her mercilessly in the facts of the imaginary person. He produced a creditcard and a bank account, though he warned her that excessive use might put the X-Men on her trail. He provided her with cash and several weapons she expected him to possess and some she didn't. At last, standing by the reception desk at the hospice, he jotted down a few lines on a napkin and handed it to her.
"Rosie in Madripoor. If ya really need me. Bye, Marie."
"Thank you, Ashpool, and goodbye," she said, knowing how he hated long farewells.
He smiled back, but in an absent, disinterested way, as if he had already forgotten her. He bowed stiffly and turned to the door.
"Happy hunting," Elizabeth said softly.
She had not commented the familiar face on the passport he had given her, nor the fact that a certain daimyo never had had the chance to use it.
She saw him tense for a moment, then acknowledge it and her with an almost imperceptible nod.==
Her telepathy did not return. She was grateful. It spared her from sharing death with every resident at the hospice who passed away. It spared her from remembering too much. The biopsy Hank had suggested was taken by a doctor at a nearby clinic. It confirmed the diagnosis, as she'd known it would. Hank was a first-rate medical doctor. She refused chemotherapy but allowed them to book her in for radiation some weeks later. They insisted and she was too tired to argue. The days went by and life slipped away from her as slow and final as a turning tide. Dying ought to be more of a drama, but she didn't really wish for anything more. It was all very peaceful.She walked in the park and in the corridors, when it rained and she could not think of one single thing that grieved or touched her.
One night she wandered into a wing she had never visited before.There was a light in one of the rooms and the door was ajar. Elizabeth heard someone sing. She loved music, was a fair pianist and singer herself, but this was wonderful. Maybe it was the atmosphere, the night, the light in an otherwise dark corridor, but most likely it was the voice itself, golden with a husky timbre, rising and falling in exquisite harmony. The song was an old, familiar lullaby, but yet it wasn't. The voice flowed through intricate variations of the original melody, effortlessly as running water. Elizabeth edged closer to the door, trying to get a glimpse of the singer. She must have made some small sound, because the singing stopped in the middle of a phrase.
"Who's there?" The golden voice was frightened now.
"Hello," Elizabeth said and stepped into the room, because she figured that disappearing would only make things worse.
The lights that had seemed brighter in the hallway. Elizabeth could barely make out the small bed at the wall, but she saw the respirator and heard the gurgling sounds. The blonde woman at the bedside turned to her, scared and angered by the intrusion.
"I must apologise for disturbing you," Elizabeth said,"I was just drawn by your beautiful voice. My name is Marie. I hope you will forgive me."
She smiled her sweetest smile, the one she had flashed to the cameras thousand years ago.The blonde woman looked relieved, perhaps a little self-conscious. Elizabeth noted that she was in her early thirties, short and squat.
"Goodness, you're English, too, aren't you? But your eyes..."
"My mother came from Hong Kong."
And wouldn't Warren have been pleased with the casual way she said it?
"That's alright then. My name is Victoria and this is my daughter Lisa."
There was an awkward pause in which the respirator wheezed and sighed. Elizabeth tried to find something to say.
"I could never sing like that."
Lame, but she hadn't been trained for these kinds of social events.
"No, you couldn't."
Elizabeth looked up, surprised. She had not expected ungraciousness. Victoria's mouth softened into a smile.
"I mean, you're a soprano and I'm a counter alto."
"I was going to be a music major," Victoria went on. "Then I got Lisa. The first years were wonderful. She was a gift from God. When she got sick I knew He was taking her back."
Elizabeth forced herself to look at the bed. The child's face was grotesquely bloated and puffy. Her cheeks were mottled with dark bruises.Tufts of yellowish hair grew on her head. What a terrible way to die, hooked up to a machine.
"What's wrong with her?" she asked.
It was a dumb question. It was obvious that the cause of Lisa's condition no longer mattered. Whatever it was, was going to kill her.
"A mutant touched her and she got sick," Victoria answered simply.
It was outrageous that people still believed that. Before the Legacy Virus, it had been fear of contagious mutations. Thanks to an enormous information campaign, the Professor had managed to convince most people that mutations couldn't be transferred by mere touch. Then the Legacy Virus had hit the newsservices and hysteria had broken out, especially since Moira's statement. As far as regular tests could show, Moira was no mutant. And the fear of mutants, repressed for a few years, had found another channel.
"Information is the only way," the Professor had said many times, both publicly and at the Mansion. "If you can convince just one person to change his opinion of mutants, by showing them compassion and honesty, you have changed the world."
Elizabeth had thought he was a great man. Part of her still did. But so much had happened since then and she had changed so much, shed so many loyalties. The November night was dark and the other woman was crying. There was no need to change the world, not while rain was still falling outside and inside her own her heart. In the room of a dying child, in the darkness preceding death, the final betrayal seemed almost unimportant. She said nothing, just took Victoria's hands between her own.
<And now a mutant touched you too.>==
Victoria's friendship proved difficult to win. The invitations to lunch and the suggestions that Victoria join her for a short walk went unnoticed. Victoria sat by the bed in the sickroom, never taking her eyes off her child's face, as if nothing else in the world existed. She talked to Lisa softly, sang to her, cried sometimes. There was just the two of them, in a little bubble of glass, isolated from the rest of humanity.
Elizabeth tried to tell herself that the small resentment she felt at the continued rebuffals came from wounded pride, but deep down she knew that the real reason for her hurt and anger came from jealousy. No one had ever stayed by her side for so long, asking nothing, giving everything in return. No one had loved her the way Victoria loved Lisa and now nobody ever would.
In spite of increasing pressure from the doctors, Elizabeth still refused treatments. Most of the chemotherapy available would probably be outright toxic to her and with Hank's implant still in her arm, she needed no additional pain control. The doctors told her that her tumour would respond to treatment, but after doing some research of her own she realised that they were either not fully informed or lying in her face. The discussions continued until Elizabeth decided to reveal that she was a member of a religious cult that forbid the intake of any chemical substances and the exposure to any radiation. She was relieved to see them backing off and she spent the rest of the day idly expanding her story in case someone would ask her for details. When she heard the timid knock on the door she had just about finished it.
"Hello," Victoria said.
Elizabeth almost fell out of the bed. During all her time in the hospice she had never seen Victoria leave Lisa's room, much less venture through an indeterminate number of corridors.
"I didn't mean to startle you."
Elizabeth regained most of her abilities, including the one that enabled her close her mouth and smile like the fool she was. She swung her feet down to the floor and got up.
"Don't apologize. I'm glad you're here," she said. "Come in."
She beckoned into the room, towards a chair.
Victoria shuffled her feet and looked around her.
"Your room is really nice," she said in a neutral voice.
Elizabeth hadn't exactly thought about it. She had decorated it bit by bit, put up some prints, bought some furniture and textiles and giving in to extravagance and a genuine love for flowers, she had a standing order for fresh flowers every other day. Compared to the bare walls in Lisa's room, it did look nice, though. It also looked as if some rich bitch wanted to flaunt her money before she died.
"Oh, I don't know..."
The situation grew more and more embarrassing. Why was Victoria here? What did she want and could she please get it over with? Elizabeth wanted to lie down again. She was cold and the nausea that always came over her when she rose too quickly, was catching up with her.
"I couldn't help overhearing..." Victoria said nervously. "You and the doctor, I mean. This afternoon, I...."
Then it came pouring out all at once.
"And I'm so glad you understand what it means. I'm really happy that someone at this rotten place understands that treatments isn't the same as healing. What the mutant freak did to Lisa...They've been nagging at me all the time, about her, but I haven't given in, and I never will. You see, Lisa didn't want the treatments either, she always said it wasn't the right thing to do and that I couldn't force her."
Elizabeth checked the outburst of accusing words that rose inside her. What was done was done and there was no use in thinking that things might have been different if someone had talked some sense into this woman's thick head in time. Lisa could have only a few weeks left to live. Elizabeth herself had another few months in tolerable health. Perhaps she could help Victoria in some way that mattered.
"I see," she managed to choke out. "What matters is what Lisa wants, isn't it?"
She stared hard at Victoria, willing her show to some kind of remorse.Oh, to have the gift of telepathy, to positively impale this woman onher psychic knife, to absorb every memory and thought and rectify all these silly notions about who was a freak and who wasn't.
"She never wanted hospitals. Never wanted needles or treatments."
Of course she didn't, especially if her mother was less than encouraging. What child likes to have needles stuck into her arms, tubes stuck up her nose? Victoria went on, but Elizabeth hardly listened.
"Of course, with the disease she had, the hospitals didn't want her either."
The sentence jerked Elizabeth back to reality.
"What disease?" she asked, a little too sharply.
"You know," Victoria answered with the word "you" underlined several times.
Elizabeth couldn't help reflecting on how lovely Victoria's voice was, how it conveyed nuances and meaning even in the most casual of conversation. Although this conversation was anything but casual. What was she talking about? AIDS? But there were hospices exclusively devoted to AIDS-patients. Her mind wandered to tropical diseases, discarded Ebola for obvious reasons and pondered Japanese encephalitis. She arrived at the conclusion as Victoria hissed a single word:
Elizabeth was torn between outrage for the child and fear. The Legacy Virus might be contagious or not, but Hank tended to treat it as contagious, since no one knew. He had refused to meet with Moira for a long time now.
"I've tried anything to help her," Victoria babbled on."The Friends have been helpful but they couldn't do much."
Some help. A call to the Professor had been quicker, cheaper. The woman was the dangerous kind of misguided. Underestimating her and the damage she could cause would be a serious mistake.
"Is she a mutant?" Elizabeth demanded.
Victoria's smile was too quick, too reconciling. It was, all things considered, a frightening smile.
"Oh, no. How could you think such a thing? My baby."
"Well, I'm a mutant. How do you feel about that?"
Elizabeth rose from the bed and placed herself between Victoria and the door.
Victoria looked down at her hands resting in her lap.
"I thought so," she said. "Your hair, you know. I guess not all of you are freaks, thought the one that hurt my baby was. She came out of a wall like a ghost, patted Lisa's cheek, winked and phased through another wall. The same day Lisa got sick and I knew."
Kitty. Elizabeth still cherished the memories of touching Kitty's soul, the delicateness and the lightness. It was like touching glittering drops of running water. Kitty had been so brave, fought so hard for her life, although not only her body but also her mind was disintegrating. If Kitty knew about Elizabeth's illness and disappearance, she would be mad.
"I want to make a few phonecalls," Elizabeth said carefully. "There is a man who might be able to help you and Lisa. His name is Charles Xavier."
She felt a fleeting regret. So much work had gone into avoiding the X-Men and she had felt so much bitterness on their account, but she knew what the right thing to do was. Victoria didn't protest, just nodded.
There was a loud bang, and another. It sounded like gunshots.
"What was that?"
Victoria's head snapped up. Elizabeth rushed to the window to get an overview. The west wing of the hospice was on fire.The one where Lisa's room was. Smoke billowed up through the roof and flames licked the walls. The smoke alarms in the corridor outside began to wail and there were splashing sounds as the sprinklers cut in.
There was something wrong with the air above the roof. It shimmered. Victoria screamed thinly and Elizabeth knew where she had seen that kind of shimmer before: Alex Summers firing his plasma blasts. People were running over the lawn carrying stretchers. A fire-brigade was trying to approach the wing, but were forced back by the heat. Victoria's scream became words:
"Lisa! She's in there! Oh God, I left her alone!"
"We'd better get out," Elizabeth told her as calmly as she could. "If there's smoke..."
"You don't give me orders, filthy mutie!" Victoria yelled at her, real hatred in her eyes.
Elizabeth decided to address those issues later. Her mind started stripping gears, to get into emergency mode. Hunter-vision set in, boosted by the adrenaline rush. New strength shot out through her limbs. She took a firm hold of Victoria's blonde hair, wrapped it around her hands and dragged her out of the room. Victoria tried to break loose first, then to hit her, but even though Elizabeth was out of training and not terribly steady on her feet, Victoria was no match.
Once out of the room Elizabeth scanned the corridor quickly. No smoke, no fire in this part of the hospice, but heading towards the elevators would be too risky. She pulled Victoria by the hair, not an easy task to start with, and the masses of panicked patients and nurses on the stairs made it a nearly impossible one. Victoria had given up screaming for Lisa and was now directing a stream of obscenities and curses at Elizabeth.
"Shut up," Elizabeth panted. "I'm trying to get to Lisa, see if she's alright, get her help if she isn't, where are your priorities in this,woman?"
That earned her a kick to the shin. It was probably because she had called her "woman." Together with twenty-something other patients they stumbled out on the lawn. A rattled nurse took their names, wrote them off a list and told them to join the other patients in the park. They staggered off. Elizabeth kept hold of Victoria's hair so the woman wouldn't do anything crazy, like running into the burning building on her own.
"It's your fault. You lied to me! You lied to me!" Victoria sobbed under the trees. "My baby is dead and it's your fault. You lied to me!"
"Oh, shut up." Elizabeth glared at her, too winded to talk.
The exertion made her knees feel like water. She had not walked this far in a long timeShe gulped air and wondered if she was going to pass out or throw up or both. Maybe she should have left Victoria inside. When she looked in the direction of the fire again, she saw the firemen backing away from it. Fast. The air shimmered all around the hospice now and she could feel the heat on her hands and face.
It made sense, of an ugly kind. A lot of things made sense. Someone had Legacy. Someone else concealed it, with lies within lies, and as a result a building went up in flames.
"Goddamnit, Victoria!" Elizabeth's voice was no more than a hoarse whisper. "Lisa was a mutant, too, wasnít she? Generating heat and plasma. What you did, keeping that secret, was to kill all those people in that building."
She had to stop. She couldn't wheeze out another word. Her lungs felt as if they were on fire. She doubled over, coughing and retching and she released Victoria because it didn't matter, it really didn't matter to her anymore what the other woman did.
A heavy hand on her arm made her look up from the green grass spinning under her. It was a policeman. Or at least he looked like one.
"Sorry to bother you ma'am, but I have a few questions."
Slow, she was slow and she couldn't stop coughing. The insignia on the collar. He had dressed for his job in a hurry, only pulling the second jacket over his first. He evaded her kick easily, his eyes narrowing.
"Ah. Very perceptive of you, Psylocke," he said.
She didn't even feel the blow, maybe there wasn't one. She just tumbled to her hands and knees, not trying to resist him anymore, merely trying to breathe. He picked her up easily, she pulled ineffectively at his jacket, all she could do. The insignia of the FoH.
"Oh, yes," he said to another man she couldn't see. "See to the flatscan."
An agonized scream, and she knew the voice. It had called her "filthy mutie" not many minutes ago. Elizabeth closed her eyes. Cerebro must have picked up on a manifestation of mutant power at this level. She just wished the X-Men would hurry.==
When Elizabeth woke up, she was lying in the back-seat of a car. She couldn't actually see it, since she had been most expertly blindfolded, but she heard the engine and felt the movements. An expensive car, she guessed, it ran so smoothly, and probably one with tinted windows, or a blindfolded, handcuffed passenger might have attracted attention. She moved her hands gingerly. Whoever had done this knew his work, she couldn't slip out of them. Her feet were tied together with something soft, Velcro perhaps. She let her hands wander over the leather upholstery to find something, a paper clip, a piece of wire. Then she felt the stirring in her head, and heard the cold, dispassionate voice of Kwannon.
<Stop that,> it said. <You can't get out of the cuffs and if you did, you still couldn't get out of the car. Smash the windows? Bleed to death from a severed artery? You used to be a smart girl.Think. How many in the front seat? Two or three? Maybe a whole convoy of cars. That's bad. Now, think about the good stuff. So far, they have been careful not to damage you. They could have slapped you around, gang-banged you for some fun and yet they didn't. They have their orders to bring you in, in one piece. Probably you will be either bait, hostage or source of information to them, but don't worry about it at the moment. They can't hold you at gunpoint forever, you'll have a chance to escape sooner or later. Now think about Victoria for a minute. You think you hate her. That's alright. Define your feelings, then look past them. What are the facts about her? She loved her daughter. She was a sadly misguided person. But that doesn't explain why they wanted to bring her in with you.>
Kwannon the assassin, fast and focused. Elizabeth felt a wave of self-loathing. So now she needed Kwannon to think for her.
<Keep analyzing>, Kwannon advised her.
<What do you want from me, Kwannon?> Elizabeth demanded.
<As you pointed out earlier, yours is the only body I can access. I do have reasons for keeping that body alive. So, I am about to suggest a deal to you. I am presently feeding off of that thing in your head. I'll help you beat it, if you'll create another body for me. A clone, to be precise. I would not want to inhabit your child. That would dilute the genetic matrix and insert foreign material. I also ask that you do this in cooperation with Matsuo Tsurabaya. I want to be with my lover again. If you won't take the deal, I'll destroy you slowly and enjoy every second of it.>
She had promised herself that she would never be a slave again, no matter how lucrative the deal seemed.
<Do your worst, Kuan-Yin. No deal.>
<You will wish to reconsider. In the meantime, reach out with your left hand.>
Elizabeth did so and felt something hard and bottleshaped.
<How did you see...?>
<Dear Elizabeth, I have learnt to use your body and mind in ways you cannot imagine. I don't need your eyes to see. This is my parting gift, for now.>
After an initial shuffle, Elizabeth had managed to position the bottle end against the screen separating the back seat from the front. The bottle mouth rested firmly against her cheekbone. It was awkward, but it was the best she could do with her hands tied. At first she could hear nothing but car sounds. She closed her eyes and imagined the soundwaves resonating through her skull, growing stronger through positive interference. She imagined being blind again, picking out voices she knew from a background of white noise.
"Where are we going? What..."
That was Victoria alright, on the verge of hysteria. A smack, as if someone had slapped her. Elizabeth couldn't figure out whether it was a calm-down slap or a shut-up slap, but according to the sound of it, it was a lot harder than she wanted anyone to be hit and despite the futility of it, she struggled with the cuffs again.
A man's voice, and one which sent chills down Elizabeth's spine, by the utter deadness in it. This man cared not if he lived or died and even less if someone else did.
"I don't know anything about her, I swear!"
Elizabeth was very close herself to tell Victoria to shut up and not draw any further attention. Had the woman no sense at all?
"You failed to inform us, my dear."
Another man, older and sharper, Elizabeth reckoned. There was a silk quality to his voice. He'd probably be the interrogator if she made it that far.
"You were taken off the list of informants by my request. I considered you unreliable after the incident with your bastard child."
What incident? Did he refer to the treatment the FoH had given Lisa?
"Ever since the mutie moved in at the hospice, I have personally supervised your actions. All it had taken to turn her in was a call. You failed."
For the first time there was steel in the silk.
"You believed her silly story as she believed yours. Or have you betrayed more than your ideals this day? It doesn't matter. You won't get another opportunity."
"Please... She was...nice to me and I was all alone"
Victoria choked out the words between heavy sobs. Elizabeth couldn't help feeling a rush of sympathy, in spite of everything that had happened. Victoria confessing a fondness for one of the hated "mutie freaks," in a situation as desperate as this, was a show of courage and utter foolishness.
"I said it doesn't matter. Danny."
There was a finality to the words and then the unmistakable sound of a trigger being cocked. Elizabeth let the bottle fall to the floor, then banged her already aching head against the screen, once, twice. She let out a yelp before she could help it, then decided it was a good idea and kept it up. The car skidded to a halt and someone tore the door open, swearing. She could feel the draft of cool air.
"What's with her?"
The dead one did seem a little concerned now.
"Some kind of spell, I think."
Elizabeth let her eyes roll back and drooled. When the blindfold was removed, she allowed herself a fast glimpse of the men, then tensed and convulsed with a throaty cry.
"Damn! Sit on her, Danny, she'll hurt herself."
And wasn't that little exchange very interesting? But she didn't have much time to reflect on it before Danny spread himself on her to keep her down. Elizabeth could feel at least three hard bulges on him that was guns and she prayed that he'd put the safety on. He was well muscled. Mercenary? The other one was taller, thinner and very intimidating, like a vulture. A bit of cloth was pressed into her mouth. How considerate they were. She heard another car pull over.
"Sir? Are you alright, sir?" A young voice, a little out of breath.
"Quite. We had a little problem. See to it."
For some reason Elizabeth felt certain that he didn't mean her, but Victoria. And now, blind and helpless under Danny's weight, she heard steel whisper against steel, a half-muffled whimper, footsteps on gravel and a soft thump.
When something that is alive, ceases to live, any telepath worth the name can feel it. There's a ripple in the astral plane when something is taken out of circulation. A lapse of time. If the death is violent and unexpected, the disturbance is larger. A skilled telepath can walk along with the dying, keep them company on the darkest road for a while and help them go in peace. Elizabeth had been told the telepathic paths in her mind were closed, but Kwannon knew the way and guided her gently to the part of the astral plane where time had stopped and was spreading like rings on water.
A picture rose in her mind, that of herself at sixteen, kneeling in a meadow with a dying puppy in her lap. Brian was leaning against a tree and throwing up on his shoes. The car with which he had run over the little dog was parked a few meters away. It was early morning, but still dark, the grass was wet with dew and the puppy's blood stained her skirt. It breathed only the faintest of breaths now, the stubby tail trying to wave and Elizabeth went into its mind, to take it for the last walk. The scenery swirled and shifted, green valleys, pebble beaches with parasols, and all the things the puppy might have seen if it had not run out on the road. The bones it would have carried, the pats on the head it would have received, all that happiness that comes from barking and running and fetching things for a beloved human. At last she could follow no longer. The ground was not solid enough for a living mind and she released the imaginary leash, received the happy lick and saw dimly a grown dog run away through mists of what could have been.
Once again, she was brought to the meadow, only now there was Victoria lying there in her lap. The sky was black with storm clouds. Lightning struck a nearby tree that erupted into flames. No rain fell. The ground was cracked and bare.
"I'm scared," Victoria moaned. "I don't want to die."
Elizabeth flushed with shame. She had hated Brian for his weakness. She had despised Victoria for what she had done to her child. She was fortunate enough to have a metabolism, that did not crave alcohol, and she had access to resources, financial and others, that Victoria had never known, and even so, she had made lethal mistakes. She had to learn how to see beyond the imperfect result and give credit for the earnest effort and the good try, the reasons and the unreasonable despair that forced your hands alike.
"Don't be afraid," she told Victoria, surprised by the gentleness in her own voice. "I'll help you find the way and walk with you for a while."
And took the steps onto the ground that was not solid, the grass that was not grass.==
The image of the meadow rippled and was gone. So was Victoria. Elizabeth found herself soaring in empty space, lit only by distant stars. She recalled a childhood memory; Brian telling her how stars really were glittering pin-heads pinned onto a cloth of black velvet, wrapped around the earth at night. That was how it felt.
No answer. The woman might be too far gone.
The voice of Kwannon was as cold as before.
<I've told you that I am not Kwannon. If you meet my demands, I might one day become Kwannon>.
<Whatever you say. Do you prefer to be called Revanche? Where is Victoria? Can you find her?>
<Perhaps I can>. Kwannon conveniently skipped the name issue. <Though I'm afraid it will cost you. In fact, every action of mine does cost you. I need space to work, and space, my dear, is short in your head>.
There was no shortage of space in Victoria's head, though. The distances between stars were vast, incomprehensible. As Elizabeth was watching one star after another flared up and went out. Each star had a physical counterpart, Elizabeth knew. Each time a star died, another part of Victoria's mind sank into oblivion.
<If I were you, I'd try singing>, Kwannon said suddenly.
<Very funny!> Elizabeth snapped. <How is that supposed to help her?>
But once she thought about it, the idea wasn't bad. It was Victoria's singing that had attracted Elizabeth's attention. The connection might be the music, the voice that was a soprano and the one that was a counter alto.
<Swear that you won't laugh>, she muttered to Kwannon or Victoria, she didn't know which one of them.
The song she chose was the one that first came to mind as appropriate.
<Dona nobis pacem pacem. Dona nobis pacem>.
The melody came back to her as she sang. She had learnt it at school, a long time ago. She and a couple of her friends had walked arm in arm on the road, singing in chorus. She could remember the warmth of the sun on her face, the prickly feeling of the wool stockings, and the birds singing their own tune in the hedges, tsi-tsi-ty, tsi-tsi-ty.
<Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem>.
Grant us peace. Wasn't that appropriate for Victoria and herself?
<Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem>.
Another voice joined in. Elizabeth thought it was an echo at first, until she realised that was Kwannon. An assassin and cold-blooded killer singing an old Latin hymn. Well, perhaps Kwannon needed peace, too.
<Dona nobis pacem pacem. Dona nobis pacem>.
And now the voice that Elizabeth had been waiting for joined in, weak at first, as if it had come from a great distance, but soon it grew in magnitude and beauty. It sang of joy entwined with sorrow, ecstacy mixed with pain and a terrible ancient sadness.
<Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem>.
And there were memories, unusually jumbled, in disarray, but through it all, there were images of Lisa: in the hospice, in another hospital, in school. Elizabeth and Victoria saw Lisa take her first step and received her lovingly into their arms as she faltered. They rejoiced over her first tooth, and watched fondly as her tiny baby fists waved in the air. Their hands remembered the small weight of her, their shoulders remembered the terry towels that the baby rested her head against when they carried her.
Victoria's golden voice filled the empty space, though all but a few of the stars had gone out, though darkness were overtaking her. Elizabeth and Kwannon sang along with her, as the last star flared up and went out, as the last note faded into silence. And then Elizabeth stood alone in the darkness.
<Come on>. Kwannon tugged at her. <We'd better get out of here. She's dead>.
Before Elizabeth could argue, she was pulled through the dark, through the mist that soaked and chilled her. A very ragged and unprofessional transition. Kwannon might be formidable at finding soda bottles and producing snappy answers, but she had a lot to learn about telepathy, Elizabeth thought sourly. Worse yet, when she came to, she felt blood running from her nose, which was a textbook example of sloppy technique.
<Kwannon!> she yelled.
But Kwannon had disappeared into some obscure corner of her mind. Instead, there was bright light on her face and the man called Danny, dabbing away at the blood stream with a tissue.
"She's coming out of it now," he reported to someone she couldn't see.
A com unit perhaps? Her instinct proved correct when the answer came back, riddled with static.
"Good. Then step away from her. She's dangerous, do I have to tell you? Nearly sent those psionic readers off-limits."
Danny did as he was told. More than so, he even took the precaution to step outside and lock the door. Elizabeth could hear the clanking as heavy bolts were drawn.==
Ten minutes later, Elizabeth's nosebleed had stopped and she felt sufficiently anchored to the here and now to venture an evaluation of her situation. The room was a holding cell. The texture of the walls told her that they were impenetrable, except perhaps to adamantium. It didn't matter very much, since no one on her side had any adamantium anymore. Psionic dampeners surrounded the whole area and there was a, faint whirring that she recognized as an electromagnetic forcefield being mounted. The set-up made Elizabeth uncomfortable. It was overkill to keep an almost-but-not-quite Alpha telepath with average ninja skills in a facility like this.
She turned her attention to her own state. The left side of her face felt numb. Had the little journey into Victoria's mind caused a stroke? There were always a risk of that. Elizabeth pinched her cheek. There was pain, but not as much as there should have been. Damn. But effects of minor strokes were reversible. Kwannon had warned her, fair and square. Elizabeth had no one but herself to blame if her smile became a little crooked.
She thought about the address in Madripoor. Wishful thinking, but then a girl could wish. The X-Men hadn't come running to her rescue, as she had hoped. A small seed of almost forgotten resentment was growing stronger inside her. Maybe they hadn't discovered the mutant connection to the hospice fire. Maybe they were in space, cut off from communication and recent news. Or maybe they didn't think she was worth the trouble, in spite of the countless times she had volunteered to bail someone out. "I'll go too, Professor, the X-Men are like family to me." Some family. But then those closest to her, Ororo, Logan, Rogue and Warren, yes, Warren, damnit, weren't at the Mansion to cast their vote.
There was no use thinking about it. The X-Men would come, or they would not. In the meantime, it might pay off to prepare herself for interrogation and possibly torture. Elizabeth hoped that she was still cunning enough to lie her way through perhaps four or five interrogation sessions. She would talk at last, there being drugs that would crack her wide open, but if she could stall for twenty-four hours, the X-Men would have had a chance to change their running codes and ciphers. It occurred to Elizabeth with unpleasant clarity that she was one of the X-Men that were able to fly the Blackbird, had an insight in their personal dynamics and were involved in Hank's research. To someone who knew what questions to ask, she wasn't a bad catch, not at all.
She thought about torture. She had a high pain threshold, having been trained that way by the Hand, but, although she had known the raw pain from a serious injury, she had never been systematically tortured. Well, there was a first time for everything. They had apparently missed Hank's implant, or left it alone for now. If they had left it, they could use it as a leverage and take it away at any time. Had they missed it, the implant might overdose her under torture. Should she tell them about it? No. They were, by God, going to fight for every little piece of information they got from her.
What to do now? They might have decided to let her sweat, let fear work on her nerves for a while. It meant a respite, some time in which she could rest and work on getting that facial half back to working order. She decided to sleep, closed her eyes and deliberately slowed her breathing. She'd show those bastards that a Braddock didn't have any nerves to work on.
She woke a few hours later as the bolts clanked again. The door opened a slit and Elizabeth had to rub her eyes, to make certain that she wasn't dreaming. A handsome face under a wild spray of auburn hair showed between the door and the door frame. Remy? Remy! His eyes fell on her, first without recognizing her, then with dawning fear. Elizabeth had known she was a great deal changed, but this was ridiculous.
"What took you so long?" she snarled, not in the mood to be charitable.
Then she saw, as in slow motion, how Remy's face withdrew and the door begun to close.
"You with the Friends now, Remy?" she yelled at him. "Well, damn you too!"
She got to her feet, wobbly as she was, and banged a couple of times on the door. Her knuckles split open and started to bleed. The door stayed closed.==
It was, of course, completely useless to be angry at Remy. The man had not survived on the streets and in the service of Sinister, by being helpful or loyal. Elizabeth found anger giving away to embarrassment. What a fool she had been. Remy would be laughing somewhere now, satisfied with having suckered her and led her to believe he'd come to help. He would probably treasure the expression on her face for years.
She went back to the bed, sat down and examined her smarting knuckles. The wound was shallow, but a small trickle of blood still seeped out of it, soaking her sleeve. Fortunately, the swing at the door had been half-hearted, or she could have broken her wrist. She had held back, the way she always did, afraid of doing the wrong thing, afraid of doing nothing. The way she let others decide for her until there were no good choices left. At that point she would pick a bad one in desperation, and end up with nothing. Case in point: her escape from the X-Men. Elizabeth had known for some time that it hadnít been the best thing to do, but she hadnít wanted to think about what a piece of first-rate stupidity it had been. Another example: in the hospice, she had come to terms with dying, but never considered that she might live, and now, living scared her more.
<I hate to interrupt your little act of introspection>, Kwannon remarked, <but something is happening in the hallway.>
The door opened fully. A man with a big cylindric device slung over one shoulder stood on the threshold, and Elizabeth recognised one of the men from the car. The vulture-like one. Her gut knotted up. This one was bad news.
"May I?" he asked, gesturing towards a chair.
Elizabeth nodded, and he sat down, arranging the cylinder on his lap so that the muzzle pointed towards her. He was out of her reach, she'd have to take at least two steps on the floor, and during that time he could shoot her at his convenience.
"I see you've hurt your hand," he said.
"I can't move my fingers," Elizabeth answered dully, as if she was too dazed to realise who she was talking to.
He looked at her again, then made a strange cackling sound.
"You wouldn't expect me to fall for that old trick, would you? Believe me, miss Braddock, I couldn't care less about your hand being broken or not. We've accessed the hospital records. You're dead meat."
A laugh. It dawned on Elizabeth that the sound had been a laugh.
"Anyway, Miss Braddock, just to prevent any suicidal actions on your part to take me with you as you go down or any other heroic notion, I brought my friend here."
He patted the cylinder. Bad news indeed.
"Enough voltage to keep you twitching for hours after you're actually dead," he told her cheerfully. "Do I make myself clear?"
Elizabeth thought he had made himself pretty clear. She also thought that if the first shot only grazed her, she could still take him with her.
"What do you want from me?" she demanded.
The vulture looked mildly amused.
"A heartbeat, for now, and for the next twenty minutes or so. After that...we'll see."
He adjusted something in his ear. A com unit ?
"However, Miss Braddock, I would like to emphasize that I'm nothing like the supervillains you're accustomed to. I'm not going to volunteer any information through ranting and raving, and I'll shoot you down at first sign of trouble."
Elizabeth scarcely heard him. All her attention was on the cylinder, she encompassed it, felt it. When it lifted ever so slightly, she was already moving, throwing herself flat as blue flashes passed over her, jack-knifing up and lashing out with her long leg. She felt her foot connect with metal, and she put all her weight behind the next kick, the one that made him drop it, with a clatter. The gun went off again, spinning madly on the floor, he scrambled for it and she came down on top of him. That close, she couldn't kick him, but on the other hand, he had no advantage of his longer arms. He slapped her across the mouth so hard that it stunned her, but her fingers were already closing on what Logan called the Vulcan deathgrip, and his whole body convulsed, then went limp.
The Vulcan deathgrip had its drawbacks. First, it wasn't really a deathgrip. What a pity. Second, you were lucky to get it right. An electrical stunner was infinitely better, she thought, picking up the gun and turning down the intensity. She had a splitting headache, and she could only guess at what damage the physical effort had caused, but she wasn't dead. A quick examination of the door yielded that it was sealed from the outside. She would have to wait. Oh well. There was some things she'd love to know and a source of information was lying at her feet. She bent down and jerked the com unit out of his ear to put it into her own, then directed the gun at his head and fired.
His eyes flew open and he screamed. Elizabeth put the gun to his head to show that she meant business.
"I want answers," she said. "Tell me about Victoria."
He had received his share of intel training. He spat in her face. So she had to fire again.==
"Why are you interested in that bitch?" he asked, later, in a slurred voice. "Bitch with mutie child. Can't imagine how de...dedicated she was. Wanted to try the transplant herself. I said no. Only animals and muties, not real people. Pro'lly a latent mutie, was why the kid turned out the way she did."
That was all he would say, maybe all he could say.. Conditioned as hell. The logical thing was to kill him and get it over with. She turned up the intensity of the gun, and put the muzzle to his temple. There was a lumpy scar along the hairline, disappearing into the hair. So the transplant had worked at least once.
"Ain't gonna kill me," the man whispered. "'nother transplant. Be as good as new. Bitch."
She had never killed anyone in cold blood before.
<But I have>, Kwannon said. <I like it. Now kill him.>
<That's what Matsuo said. My lover. Our lover. Make him proud. Kill this man.>
< I'm not an assassin like you. I won't.>
<Oh yes, you are. Remember Kaptain Briton? You didn't have to kill him, you had him on the ground, but you just kept going until nothing was left. Not even a ghost cruising the astral plane in his way to nirvana. And you say you didn't like it? I know you did.>
<Get the hell out of my head, Kwannon.>
<You cannot make me. I am the reason you are alive. I, and only I, am keeping the tumour from sentience.You invited me to your house, to the Braddock Manor of your childhood. I am there, on the gravelly road, and you cannot get rid of me.>
Elizabeth looked again at the man on the floor. He seemed only half-conscious. There were practical reasons for not leaving him alive. There was revenge to be had for Victoria's death, there was her personal disgust for the idea of one brain moving from body to body. The world would be a better place without him. She thought about all the food he was going to eat during his remaining years and how someone else could eat it if she fired. And Kwannon was right, she had killed before.
She didn't fire, but she didn't turn down the intensity either. When the door opened again, she turned around, smoothly, reflexively and shot Bishop squarely in the chest.==
"What do you think you are doing, woman?" Bishop bellowed. "What am I supposed to do with all this energy?"
Elizabeth saw that he was glowing. Small sparks jumped from his fingertips. For some reason she felt like laughing, because Bishop was Bishop and always would be, and because he had come to save her. Dependable, predictable and boring, he was all that, and she'd rather have him at her back than anyone else. Then she saw Remy in the hallway and tried to go for him. Bishop caught her around the waist, jolting her with a transfer of voltage.
"That can wait," he told her. "Let's go."
Elizabeth suddenly felt weak with reaction. Bishop took another look at her, swore, then swung her up on his shoulder as if she had been a sack of potatoes. She still felt a tingle in her skin where her body touched his and she had to resist laughing again.
"Up here," Remy said, and pointed up at the ceiling. Elizabeth groaned. The inevitable ventilation system crawl. If she ever wanted to do illegal things, she would do it without ventilation or sewers, and the superhero gang could just bomb the site from afar.
"It gets worse," Bishop panted helpfully, as if he had read her thoughts. "We're going out through the sewers."
Elizabeth had to let Remy lift her into the duct. Bishop pulled her up, and for what felt like a mile or so, he half-dragged, half-carried her through the complicated ventilation system. At several points, Remy stopped and made a couple of quick adjustments to cables and faucets along the way. Elizabeth guessed that he was trying to disable com systems and electronic locks, or just creating confusion. She wished she had paid more attention to electronics so she'd known exactly what he did. Well, she had to trust that Remy wanted to save his own skin, at least.
Then it was the obligatory drop down to the floor in a basement, Bishop lowered her down and Remy received her. She took a few steps away from him. The lights were out. Once Bishop had shut the trap-door, she couldn't see at all. She heard someone, probably Remy peel his gloves off, and start working on a lock. There was a circle of light directed at his hands, and she heard metal click against metal. That meant a manual lock, which in turn meant that they could really be in trouble if Remy couldnít get it open. She wondered who was in charge of the logistics of this op.
"Voila," Remy said, rising from his hunched position. He opened the door, the pen-light illuminating his outstretched arm as he made an exaggerated bow to Elizabeth. "Ladies first," he said.
The laser beam took his arm off somewhere between the elbow and the shoulder. The penlight dropped to the floor. Bishop threw himself forward, blindly, to slam the door shut again. Elizabeth stumbled for Remy, trying to help, but he shoved her away, hard, and as she fell to the floor, she saw him pick up the penlight again, making the motion that would draw the fire from Bishop and cost him the other arm. Then the door was shut, and Elizabeth scrambled to Remyís side, ripping off the first-aid packages strapped to his thigh. The arteries in his upper arms had constricted from the shock, and he hadnít started to bleed yet. She wound a tourniquet round one arm, then the other. She got out his specific painkiller, pressed it hard against his neck and injected it. There was another injection that would counter the shock, she shot him with that too. As she tightened the bandages, her hands got wet. He was bleeding.
"Oh shit oh shit oh shit," she heard herself saying.
Bishop was by her side now, pulling at the bandages with greater strength than she had, while Remyís blood pumped out of him and sprayed them both.
"Whereís the goddamn back-up?" she yelled at him.
"There isnít any !"he yelled back. "This was simple get in, get the info and get out, until we found you in the middle of the FOH braincloning center, and the whole operation went foul on us!"
Elizabeth got out another painkiller, injected it into what was left of Remyís arm and hoped for the blood flow to stop. It was a question of minutes now, or he would bleed to death in front of them.
"No com, nothing?" she asked desperately, although she knew that if there had been any way to communicate with the rest of the X-Men, Bishop would have done so long ago.
"We put a virus into their security system," Bishop informed her. "But the laser source must have been really simple, disconnected from the main system, triggered by photocell..."
He was babbling, Elizabeth realised. Had her hands been free, she would have slapped him to get him out of it, but holding onto Remy was the only thing that kept him from slipping away. She didnít know what to do. Kwannon knew, though.
"Alphonse-Gaston," Kwannon said through her mouth, cold bored voice with a musical lilt. "Get your shit together."
"Now," Elizabeth said," Iíve got a com unit here, patched into their system..."
At that point, she was interrupted. There was a faint shimmer in the air, and Mr Nathaniel Essex aka Mr Sinister, was there, standing a few feet above the floor on what resembled a teleport disk.
"I will trade with you," he said.==
In the weak light, Elizabeth could see that Bishop, Remy and herself were covered in blood. Remyís eyes were glazing over, and the pulse she felt under her fingers was thin as a thread.
"We will not trade," Bishop answered, with something that could only be described as desperate courage or equally desperate stupidity.
"Do not be a fool, pup," Mr Sinister told him. Bishop stiffened at the use of the nickname. "He is very nearly dead. Would you prefer him that way? I will save his life if you leave him to me. Those are the terms of the trade."
"A mad geneticist I know," Elizabeth said carefully, "would just have taken him anyway. Why this negotiation, Sinister?"
"Your opinion, as your genome, is of limited interest to me," he said. "What I do, I do for my own reasons."
"What are you going to do with him?"
"Dear Elizabeth. I donít suppose you have ever heard of a gene library. No? And I gather you are not familiar with compression codes, like young Katherine. Rest assured that I will not harm Remy. His DNA contains my complete gene library. What he did to my test subjects was marginal, I will not punish him for such a trifle. Now, what will it be, Bishop? We have very little time."
Remy stirred. His head came up and black and red eyes tried to focus.
It was only a whisper. Something very much like tenderness softened Mr Sinisters features for a moment.
"Yes, Remy. Iím here," he said.
The pulse under Elizabethís fingers disappeared. Bishop bowed his head.
"Take him," he said.
There was a blinding flash, and Mr Sinister and Remy were gone.
"Wait! What about us?" Bishop screamed into the empty air.
The disembodied head of Mr Sinister reappeared in front of them.
"That was not included in the deal," he said, then vanished again.
"That was smooth," Elizabeth exploded. "Weíre in a dead-end situation with Remy bleeding to death, one of our worst enemies turn up and we happily let him take Remy away. And now weíre still in the same dead-end situation minus Remy! Was that smart? Was that even remotely intelligent? How the hell did you survive in your so called future? Why didnít you just leave me in that cell?"
"The answers are no, no, damned if I know and Iím seriously starting to wonder," he snapped back, his nerves in no better state than hers.
At that point, the com unit came to life. She held it out to Bishop, switching the small microphone to broadcast, and they listened together to codes and static.
"They must have found the virus," he said. "Their security is disengaging and engaging. The system is reset before it goes on-line again. They are going to find us, take us up there and try the transplant on us. Thatís why we had to get you out of there."
The gravelly road and Braddock Manor towering above her. Three stories above them, the FOH squad was running down the hall. They had disabled the virus that sent ghosts through their computer system. They now had all the information on the intruders. Elimination would be carried out according to the Xavier protocols.
The gravelly road became a bridge. The cherry trees were in full bloom. A man and a woman approached the bridge together. The woman was Kwannon. The man was Bishop, although younger. He stopped and she crossed the bridge without him. At the other end, she turned to face him and bowed slowly. He stared at her for a long time before returning the bow.
<This never happened.> Elizabeth stated.
<It did. In Israel. You donít remember, because you werenít there.>
<Itís not so much where as when. It was the Age of Apocalypse. Bishop was there, and I was. We went to the same war, but different places.> Kwannon sounded sad. <We never met again.>
<So youíre doubly dead.>
<Most people only get one chance, Kwannon. Why do you want to go back? Matsuo has lost all honour. He would not welcome you. And even if he would, if you would perform his assassinations for him and bloody your hands, do you really think Iíd help you do that? Get real. Youíre dead. I was a fool to invite you to Braddock Manor, but Iím uninviting you now. Youíve stayed much longer than you were invited.>
<Sure I can. Youíre an empath and a murderer. I can do without those two talents, thank you very much. The rest of what you are, youíve stolen from me. How pathetic. Where is your honour, Kwannon? There was very little in your life with Matsuo, and there is none at all in your parasitic living.>
"Psylocke? What is going on, woman?"
Elizabeth couldnít answer him. She saw the men open the hatch. She saw Kwannon on the bridge, eyes crazy and wild, as her sword shattered Braddock Manor, and the shards of a childhood faded away. But most of all, she saw herself, by the ancient lake, under the new moon, as she raised her white arms and called into the wilderness. She was the unicorn and the maiden, the yin and the yang, fire and ice that seared alike, oh, she was so much more than the vessel that contained it, and she wondered how she could have forgotten. She sang out to the stars in her Otherworld voice and they arranged themselves into pentagrams across the sky. Old magic it was, older than humanity, and it knew no mercy.
A tidal wave rose, only it was not water, but white fire, flooding her mind. She felt eight fingers on the triggers, the intent of eight minds and she took them, so completely and with such finality, that it was as if they had never existed. She almost took the ninth mind, too, but recognised Bishopís mind signature in time to turn back.
Kwannon screamed. It was an awful sound, filled with rage and hate and loneliness. She was still on the bridge, holding the sword with hands blackened and blistered by burns. Whenever she swung the sword, the wall of fire would retreat a few steps, then roar forward again. The flames licked hungrily at her hands and face, but she seemed not fully aware of it. Or else she was in shock.
<Surrender, Kwannon>, Elizabeth told her. <You canít win. Youíre only hurting yourself.>
<I refuse to die in this manner!>
<The problem with you is that you refuse to die at all>, Elizabeth snapped.
Kwannon was busy swinging the sword and couldnít answer.
<Look>, Elizabeth said, <youíve helped me a couple of times, and I appreciate it, sort of, but you should face that youíre really truly dead. I need the space in my head, or Iím going to die. And, while Iím terribly sorry and all that, I still prefer me being alive and you being dead to the other way round. So, why donít you give up already?>
<Look>, Kwannon mimicked her, leaning on the sword, <would you prefer being toast sooner or later? Because, me, I certainly favour later. And unless you can call down a damn lightning bolt from the sky to strike me dead, I could probably stand here forever, just to annoy you.>
Elizabeth did possess the means to call down lightning bolts and a couple of other things, including toads and lizards, but she supposed she could see Kwannonís side of it.
<I thought you aspired to more>, she said mildly. <Annoying me seems like a pretty weak reason to go back. Why are you defending this bridge, by the way? Are there not enough artefacts and memories of Matsuo around this place?>
And then, unforgivably late, she understood. She let the flames die down, although the spell was not finished yet.
<Matsuo isnít the reason, is he? We both know what a slimy bastard he can be.>
Kwannon laughed, a short, bitter bark.
<It takes more time than you spent with him, to learn exactly what kind of bastard he is. But, no, I didnít go to all this trouble for his sake. Or for yours. If Iíd known what you were doing with the magic voodoo shit, Iíd killed you while I had the chance.>
Elizabeth thought of explaining to Kwannon that Otherworld magic was as far from voodoo as one could get, then decided against it, as the other woman went on.
<But you saved Bishop, for which I thank you.>
<You loved him, didnít you?>
Kwannon made an impatient gesture.
<You Westerners. I had my duty, my obligation. He had his. We both knew this. What was between us needed not be said.>
<You wouldnít defend this bridge if you didnít think there was a chance you could cross it together.> Elizabeth drew a deep breath, then plunged right ahead. <Would you like to do it? He is right beside me. But after that...you understand itís...>
<Nothing personal. I do understand. Again, I thank you. I am in your debt. And as I have no honour left myself, I swear by _his_, to do what is right.>
<Bishopís honour is good enough for me>, Elizabeth said quietly.
<I would never disgrace myself before him.>
Elizabeth didnít think she would.
Cherry trees in full bloom in a Japanese garden. Two warriors stood together on the bridge, while time flowed as water below it. Distance and years blurred the image, but certainly they spoke, even touched. When the moment came, he stood by her side, with his own katana held high. She looked up at him, perfect understanding passing between them. Her blade flashed briefly in the sun before she made the first vertical cut.
Afterwards, he closed her eyes and wrapped her in his coat. Petals were falling from the trees. He made a move to brush off a few from her cheek, but changed his mind. He wiped the katana and laid it gently down beside her, then left. Snow began to fall, as soon as he was out of sight, the snowflakes unmelting and perfect on the dark coat and her cold face.==
The spell wasnít finished. She stood by the waters edge. The strength and magic she had drawn from the lake flowed through her, bridging the gap between the earth and the sky. She heard her Other voice chanting in the Other language and the stars formed new patterns on the sky. The rune for fire. The rune for storm. Last of all, the rune for death. She screamed at them with her human voice, begging them to stop, she raged and wept, but the stars did not care.
There were two women working in the reception of the research center. One had a date for the night. She didnít really like him, but he was nice, he was funny and it was better than nothing. The other woman had three children. She had yelled at them in the morning. She thought sheíd pick them up earlier this afternoon and theyíd get pancakes or spaghetti.
One word and they were gone.
The guard at the parking lot had joined the Weight Watchers. Mostly he had done it to please his girlfriend. He didnít think she understood how much he liked eating.
Another word and he was gone.
The man in the middle of the second squad going down to secure the basement had gotten a gun slapped into his hand. He didnít know how to use it. He was a scientist.
The stars moved across the sky and the whole squad was gone.
There were so many of them. The majority wasnít armed, couldnít have used a gun if theyíd had one. They were in the offices, passing through the lobby, going up and down in elevators. Some of them had no bodies and were submerged in liquid nitrogen.
She touched their minds and they were all gone.
It had to stop. She waded out into the lake. It was a foolís choice, but then she was a fool and had always been. The surface of the lake rippled in her wake, skewing the moonís reflection. Strong currents and undertows threatened her balance, but she kept walking. The water closed above her head and she kept walking.
Bridge. Connection. Hank had told her they needed another engineer and she hadnít listened. Hadnít listened while he told her about energy transfer; how Remy transferred kinetic charge to his cards, how Bishop absorbed and reflected energy pulses. She remembered Alison turning sound to light, phonons to photons, which no mathemathical formula could explain, and Brian in his lab in the basement of Braddock Manor. She had ruined his experiment, the psi-pulse of her greeting sending his delicate instruments off the limits.
Through murky water, Elizabeth saw her hands tear at a power point set in the wall. She saw, rather than felt, her nails break, but she had her treasure, a thickly insulated cable. She stripped off the insulation with her teeth and remaining nails. Then she closed her hand over the exposed wires and released the power contained in her.
Lightning struck. Her head exploded. The connection broke, a white magnesium flare, as the bridge burned out. She sank through the dark waters, a trail of air bubbles escaping from her nose and mouth.==
It had slept. There had been such a tiny space to live in, lately, and there was no food. It had waited a long time for food. Now, there was water, at least. It drank, tried to stretch. There was more room than there had been.==
The power was gone. The stars were just stars and she could feel her hands, she could feel her whole aching body, but she couldnít see. Not until Bishop switched on his Mag-Lite right in her face.
He wiped her face with something that had better not be his own hankie. She swatted at his hand, but it came back.
"Youíre hurt," he said.
"Not my blood," she said, at the same moment realising that it indeed was her own blood, running from her nose. She snuffled and the taste and smell of blood mixed with an acrid stench of ozone.
"We need to leave."
Bishop had a gift for pointing out the obvious.
"Up or down?"
"The fire alarms have gone off upstairs," he said, passing her the com unit. "Electrical fire, apparently."
"But the laser source has short-circuited. Iíve put a few shots into the machinery to make sure it is disabled. Can you walk?"
A body tried.==
It wasnít possible to die of a nosebleed. Elizabeth had tried to tell Bishop so for the last hour. Contrary to her words, she had managed to bleed all over one of his borrowed shirts and one of Remyís. She was currently wearing Bishopsí sweatpants and his t-shirt and he had wrapped both his anorak and a blanket around her, because she wouldnít stop shivering. It was chilly in the car. The heater was turned up as far as it would go, but Bishop was cold too, and taking all the heat out of the surrounding air. Not that he would admit to doing it.
They were both exhausted. He had had to carry her through the sewers, wading waist-deep through water and muck, while the building exploded over their heads. Fortunately, their car was on the part of the parking lot that was still standing and they had extracted cleanly. There was an aircraft hidden a few miles outside the town, but Bishop had driven around for a while to check if they were being tailed. During all that time, he hadnít said a word about what she had done.
She knew she ought to feel terrible, but all she could feel was heaviness and a dull ache. Her heart seemed to have shrunk and hardened, like a lump of dross that had been burnt out and discarded. Only small things got through to her; the wet stains on the cloth she pressed to her nose, the odour of rotten water from her own body and his, the smooth hum of the engine as Bishop speeded up.
"Was it real?" he asked her, suddenly.
Tough question, when he phrased it that way.
"She is dead, if thatís what youíre asking. I donít know if it was real. If the Age of Apocalypse was real, maybe this was, too."
He chewed on that for a while, staring at the road.
"It was good to see her again," he said at last. " Thank you, woman."==
"You want to wake up."
It was Bishopís voice and it was Bishopís elbow in Elizabethís ribs. She didnít recall having fallen asleep.
"Weíre landing in a few minutes," he said. "I should warn you, emotions are running a bit high at the moment. Iíve told them that youíre in no condition to be questioned."
Elizabeth raised an eye-brow. Everyone got debriefed, always, even if they had to do it from the infirmary.
"And you arenít."
She wanted to protest, but realised it wasnít a good time to argue with him. He looked as spent as she felt.
"Whatever you say," she said meekly, getting out of her seat with a wince.
Instead of being grateful, Bishop looked positively alarmed at her compliance.
"Iíll take you to Hank right away. Just take it easy, okay?"
"Bishop." It came out as a growl. "What emotions were you talking about? Spill it."
He adjusted a couple of instruments that were well inside tolerance..
"Rogue is back," he said. "Remy found her somewhere in Florida Keys. They came back together a month ago. She and the other girls went shopping today. For the...what was it called...the shower. They were at the mall when my call came in."==
Hank had planned for an emergency case. Drips. Bags of blood and blood plasma. Every screen in the room was active and he was suited up in sterile robes and a mask.
"Hey," she protested as Bishop put her down and pushed her back to make her stay there, "Iím fine, I donít need this."
In response, Hank stuck a needle in her arm.
"I said I donít need this!"
"You need a transfusion, so you get a transfusion," Hank said, words slightly muffled behind the mask.
"What I need is to find Rogue, Iíve got to tell her..."
"Tell me what?"
Rogue was in the door, hands on hips. She had clearly been crying her eyes out not too long ago, but she wasnít crying now. Her face was flushed, her nose a shade redder than the rest. The stance was childish, but the anger in her eyes was cold and adult.
"Jean, can you get down here?" Hank said into his pocket com. Turning to Rogue, he added:
"You canít come in. Youíre not sterile."
"He ainít either." Pointing at Bishop. "ĎSides, Ah can talk to them from here."
"Is there any trouble?"
It was Jean, running down the corridor. She touched the floor only at every third or fourth step in her hurry.
"No trouble," Rogue answered her. "Weíre just talking, right?"
Elizabeth had expected Rogue to slug her or cry. Maybe a bit of both. But the girl had done a lot of growing up since she had last seen her.
"Right," she said quietly.
"I transmitted a full report, while we were in transit," Bishop said stiffly.
"Screw the report." Arms crossed now. "Where is he?"
Blank looks all around.
"Probably in Sinisterís lab, getting his ass patched together," Elizabeth said.
All of a sudden, Rogueís fist was under her nose. It was a fist that could punch through armour-plate and Elizabeth knew that one wrong word would result in a new, worse nosebleed.
"Donít ya lie to me, sugah. Where did he go?"
"Rogue, less than three hours ago, I killed dozens of people. Literally. Most of those hadnít even tried to punch me in the nose. Better back off, sugah."
Both Bishop and Jean stood behind Rogue now, ready to interfere. Elizabeth winked to let them know she was bluffing. Rogue hesitated, let her hand fall.
"Ah wanna know what happened."
"It happened just the way the report says," Elizabeth said. "We really didnít have a choice. We could let Sinister take him or we could let him bleed to death in front of us."
"Sinister is going to brainwash him and use him against us," Jean said. "You know that."
"Yes. But Iíd rather have the original as an adversary, than some poor sod of a clone."
Jean flinched, but Elizabethís attention was on Rogue as she said, very gently:
"I know he was precious to you, but whatever happens now, he has a chance. Maybe heíll remember you and what you two had."
"Donít ya try ta fool me, Bets...He ran out on me, the swamp rat, like Ah always knew he would..."
But the words lacked conviction.
"Why would he run?"
Rogue blushed. It was a unbecoming blush, spreading in spots from the neck all over her unhappy face.
"ĎCause he didnít really want this marriage, Ah guess," she said slowly. " When he said that touching didnít matter, Ah told him: prove it. Marry me. So he said okay."
Elizabeth could tell from the faces of Jean, Bishop and Hank, that this was news to them. Rogue turned to them, hands balling into fists once more.
"Ah know what yíall are gonna say," she cried out. "How it was wrong and unfair and how I made him. Well, Jean, itís unfair how ya get to go down to the boathouse and snuggle with Scott, too. I never had anything like that."
Jean flinched again, but remained silent. So the fling that didnít mean anything wasnít general knowledge yet. Elizabeth put aside the bitter delight she felt at Jeanís discomfort and spoke to Rogue as if they were alone in the room:
"Listen, I donít know if he wanted this marriage or not, or if he would have run out on you later; Iím inclined to say he would have. But take it from one who despised him and was disgusted by most things he said and did: he didnít run now. Why do you always believe the worst of him, Rogue?"
Rogueís shoulders slumped. She sat down on the bed.
"Ahíve been so mad at him for so long," she said. "Itís easier to be mad at him than to miss him, Ah suppose."
Elizabeth knew that feeling and for a moment, her heart went hard and brittle. Rogue, catching her change of expression, but mistaking it for something else, said:
"Ahím sorry about barging in, Bets. Ah wouldnít have hit ya, not hard anyway. And Ah was real sorry to hear you were sick."
Elizabeth started to say something cheerful and reassuring, but checked herself. She felt bad, it was bad, it was going to get worse. There was nothing to be cheerful about. She opened her hand and let go of her brave front. The face she turned to Rogue was the one where all the years and all the pain showed.==
Elizabeth couldnít get warm. Bishop had supported her when she wobbled outside, grabbed her when her knees just gave way under her and poured her into the garden hammock. He had heaped blankets on her and put a hot water bottle at her feet. She felt terribly embarrassed by his ministrations. If she had known her weakness, she wouldnít have been so eager to leave the infirmary. Hank had given his reluctant permission, no doubt seeing her obstinacy as a good sign, and then turned back to analyzing the various body fluids he had taken from her. Even a saliva sample.
She squinted up at Bishop who had placed himself on one of the sunchairs.
"Shouldnít you...the security checks?"
"Scottís on. Surveillance has been pretty tight since word got back that youíd been taken by the FoH."
"Donít expect anything locked by palm print or retinal scan to open. Security protocol level five is currently being employed. Everyone is on stand-by."
"No sign of him. I think," he said thoughtfully, "that Remyís injuries were serious enough to require Sinisterís personal attention."
Elizabeth moved her head slightly, to ease the mounting pressure inside, and saw that Bishop held a flower between his fingers. It was one of the small cream-coloured rambler roses that covered the southern wall.
"Sub rosa," he said, raising the rose to his lips.
"I didnít know that you were interested in Medieval customs," Elizabeth said, but she didnít resist when he held the rose to her mouth.
"Sub rosa," she said, pledging her silence.
It was a while before he spoke.
"Time twists," he said then, sounding so unlike himself that Elizabeth got up on her elbow to take a closer look at him. "Of all the possible futures Iíve known, LeBeau was a part of them. Protector and abuser in one."
The dark features was calm, introspective. Not a madmanís face nor the face of someone getting lost in the timestream.
"He was the X-Traitor," he went on. "I forget how and why. Itís not important. You see, the tape was dated to the minute. Today was the day."
"Was?" Elizabeth breathed.
"The time window has passed."
"Did he know?"
"Oh yes. I told him this morning."
"What did he say?"
"He tried to taunt me into killing him, then made for the nearest window. I...denied him that. With him dead, there would be no one to care for my sister in seventy years from now. We argued. Finally, he agreed to trust my judgment in this matter. The mission profile for an infiltration of the FoH was ready. We used that as an excuse to put some distance between us and Greymalkin Lane."
It all fit, Remy shutting the door in her face, shoving her across the floor, drawing the laser-fire. There had been relief in his strange eyes, before the pain and shock overwhelmed him, relief that the choice had been taken out of his hands.
"Iím glad you got there when you did," Elizabeth said solemnly. "Or I might have been the one to betray us all."
"No. It isnít in you."
"How do you know?"
He touched the rose to his lips again, as if to remind her of their mutual vow of silence.
"In my future," he said slowly, "you were the first X-Man to die. Jean and you had infiltrated one of the mutant camps. Jean got out. You did not. The camp was destroyed when the X-Men attacked it the same evening, but it was too late. Your interrogator had shot the whole interview as well as the torture that broke you, and the tape went on international tv. You died a week later without having regained consciousness. The tapes of that went on tv, too."
He paused, trying to gauge her reaction, before continuing.
"Half a century later, it was a crime to own a copy of that tape. The Witness had one, of course. I watched it several times. I saw you break as your body betrayed you. It took nine hours. Four hours was needed to change all the codes and overhaul security. You gave us five more. Thatís how I know."
"What else do you know?"
Again, a momentary hesitation.
"I know you are not her," he said. "Although there are times when I almost think you are.You have her face, her body. Even the mannerisms. But you are not her."
"I cannot read you like I could her. But that expression on her face would mean that she was grieving for LeBeau and I would tell her not to."
He put a finger under her chin and made her look at him, and she did, although her eyes were brimming with unshed tears.
"LeBeau got his wish," he said simply.
"Sub rosa," Elizabeth whispered, her voice breaking just a little.
As the last petal fell from the rose.==
Hank upheld few traditional rules in the infirmary. One he did stick to, though, was the rule of no food or beverages inside the lab. It was completely out of character for him to open a can of soda while sitting in front of presumably irreplaceable Shíiar equipment, and when he offered another to Elizabeth, she knew the news wasnít good.
"Well?" she prompted.
Hank took off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose and put them on again. Stalling.
"Surgery is not an option. A treatment plan including both aggressive radiation therapy and equally aggressive chemotherapy might buy you more time, if we started it at once."
"What kind of time?"
She gulped the soft drink and waited for the sugar to hit her bloodstream. Hank had adjusted her implant with a few deft microsurgical procedures and given her some aspirin and she felt better. Some things seemed a little fuzzy around the edges if she stared at them too long, but as long as she could walk by herself and keep her food down, she was happy.
"Remission, possibly. With luck, an extended remission. Considering your present status, which has your immune system actively fighting the tumor, I think the odds may be in your favour. This time."
"Good." She stood up, feigned a stretch and a yawn. "When can we start?"
"Elizabeth." Softly, gently. "I wonít lie to you. There is no cure."
"So Iíve been told."
"I know," he said, even gentler, to let her know that her evasion didnít fool him. "As I understand, you refused treatment while at the hospice. As well as counselling."
"I donít need a shrink!"
He recoiled slightly and she softened her tone, embarrassed.
"Iíve had enough people in my head...please, Hank."
"The decision is yours," he answered her with just a hint of formality in his voice.
"Well," Elizabeth said, shifting to a less volatile subject. "Howís your research going nowadays?"
She turned over a few papers that had been lying face-down and examined them with interest.
"Quite a lot on cryo-techniques, isnít it? I thought you ruled out that as a treatment long ago? Assuming that the viral nucleic acids do get inserted into the human DNA, the virus would be dormant for as long as the host was frozen, but it wonít do the host any good to stay frozen forever, will it? Hank?"
His facial colour had become a weird purple.
"No," he choked out, looking almost suffused with shame "But they donít get any worse either. And meanwhile I can intensify my research, I can find the cure, I know I can. A few more months is all I need...."
"Hank," Elizabeth hissed. "Did the thought of putting _me_ in the freezer cross your mind?"
He mumbled something, Elizabeth could only make out the word "time."
"Apparently," she said. "Is Moira in on this too?"
He shook his head.
"You did swear, once. The Hippocratic oath, I believe itís called. "Above all, do no harm." But I forget. Youíre not a doctor. Youíre just a scientist, running your experiments."
There were tears in his eyes now, the blue, blue eyes, but the infinite patience and compassion, was still there, encompassing her even now. The furry hand with the blunt, flat claws reached for hers and touched her palm with warmth fuelled by a metabolism faster than her own .
"Iím so very sorry," he said. "If only I had detected the tumor earlier you wouldnít have had to go through all this."
He had drugged her out of her head, restrained her to the bed and left her there, too schiz to defend herself. He had also, over the years, set bones and joints for her and prescribed everything from decongestants to heavy painkillers when she needed it. She had felt herself safe before minor or major fights, knowing that all she had to do was to make it back to the transport and Hank would work miracles in the infirmary. He had held her when her telepathy short-circuited in Genosha, his mind a steady buffer between her and the chaos as Genosha erupted into civil disaster.
"Itís okay, Hank," she said, with a squeeze of his hand. "Not your fault. I know that a lot of what happened wasnít your decisions."
"Thatís the problem. Those decisions should have been mine. I chickened out."
So he had. Most everyone did, when the Professor went imperial on them. Beneath her own mock deference to him was a layer of wariness and beneath that fear. The Professorís skills were not due to sheer power or intelligently applied pressure; his actions activated hormonal glands to create a mixture of biological messengers that made you _want_ to do as he told you.
"Any word on Warren?" she asked, in a level tone. This was, after all, Warrenís best friend.
<Oh, Hank. Chickening out again. That really wouldnít do.>
She injected some more heat in her glare to force the answer out of him.
"I think," he said, at last, rubbing his eyes, "that you had better see for yourself."==
She saw, alright.
"What have you done to him?!" she cried.
Warren hunched on the edge of his bed. His face had become gaunt, the hawkís nose more beaklike than ever. A blindfold covered his eyes and his wings had been secured and lay flattened against his back. The blond hair was straggly, unkempt, like his fingernails. Warren, the compulsive dandy, who couldnít bear a crooked button or a loose thread. Warren of the exquisite taste, who rather went without than settled for a lesser year, an inferior quality or a love imperfect.
"Betsy...," Hank pleaded with her.
Elizabeth was already at Warrenís side, untying the silk blindfold with utmost care, but the wing harness was locked too tight for her to open.
"Itís for his own protection, Betsy. "
"You goddamn insensitive morons...why?" she raged at him.
"Look at him, Betsy," Hank begged. "Just look at him."
Although the blindfold had been removed, Warrenís eyes remained closed. His facial muscles were slack and devoid of muscle tone. Elizabeth noticed, for the first time, the bars outside the windows.
"Warren," she said, speaking slowly and pronouncing every syllable carefully. "Itís me. Youíre safe."
"He came back a month ago, more bird than human," Hank said softly. "He cannot speak and appears not to understand what weíre saying. No one knows where he has been or what it was that pushed him over the edge. We think he has been flying with the big birds for some time now, because he gets agitated by flights of birds. At first we kept him in the attic, but he would try to fly out through the windows as the birds called, and so we put him here. At least he canít hurt himself here."
"Get the hell out of here."
He did, with a last sorrowful glance at her, as he departed. Elizabeth sank down on the bed, as her blood pressure threatened to abandon her completely. Two righteous rages in less than two hours were at least one too many for her.
"Come on, Warren," she said, cuffing his cheek lightly. "Donít fool around with me. You know I wonít have it."
Not even a twitch. She changed track.
"I hope youíre in there somewhere, Warren. Hell, I know you are, so Iím not letting you get away with this...act. You need a good, solid whack on the head and the minute youíre back to your human self, Iíll give you one. Or maybe not."
Humour died. She sighed. She had played this conversation in her head a million times, picturing Warren as either penitent or fiercely angry or anything in between, but never as catatonic. The lines and inflections she had prepared were useless. She turned his face to hers with gentle force.
"What a friend would do," she mused, "is to stay with you. Talk to you. Crack the shell of this illusion you live in. And although we didnít part as friends, I always hoped we could be, one day. We have so much in common, Warren. We know each other so well. If anyone could help you, odds are that Iíd be the one."
She tried to interpret the flicker in the wild animal eyes as recognition. Nope. Just a trick of the light.
"I suppose you can see where this is going."
Her fingers traced his cheekbone, a familiar gesture of affection, before she remembered that she had no right to touch him that way anymore. She removed her hand.
"Iím leaving the X-Men, Warren. Iím going home. Well, to Muir. Moira doesnít mind me staying there, sassenach girl that I am, and I think it will help Brian a lot to have me close. From what I understand, he hasnít been taking my medical news well. No more than I did."
Hank and Bishop had taken turns to update her on all things X, to distract her from the tests Hank was running, and though their accounts were restrained to the point of censure, it was clear that Brian had started drinking again, that Meggan was quite literally beside herself and that Kitty was furious with them both as well as with Logan, Elizabeth herself and anyone unlucky enough to cross her in the slightest way. There were a lot of things to set right. Better start now.
"So you see, I canít be the kind of friend you need. Iím sorry, Warren, I really am. But since the diagnosis, my world has grown so very small, and I with it. What strength I have I must use for myself. I canít take up another burden, even when itís yours."
She hadnít known the truth could hurt so much. Each word felt like a stab into her own heart. Months ago she would have justified her actions by the perceived unfairness of Warrenís response and counteraccusations. Not now.
"Goodbye, Warren," she said, running her hand lightly over the wings, cold and metallic to the touch. "Iíll see you otherside."
And then there was truly nothing more to say.==
The debriefing was strange, even for Elizabethís standards. With Scott and Jean flanking the Professor behind the desk, she had the couch all to herself. It felt uncomfortably similar to a psych session. She received a print-out of Bishopís mission report, which was brief, to the point and concealed a great deal of pain.
"Do you agree with the facts in this document ?" Scott asked.
There was nothing in there about Kwannon or the magic lake. Her deadly surge of power was mentioned but not explained. Other than that, the report was complete, down to documenting her outburst at Bishop verbatim.
"Charges may be brought against you. Against us."
The face below the ruby-quartz visor gave away nothing.
"Is that all you have to say?" Jean snapped harshly. "I mean, you could at least try ĎIím sorryí."
Here they went again. She had been back for mere hours and already Jean tried to play the blame-game. Elizabeth decided to go for the jugular without further niceties.
"And what good would that do? Please enlighten me as to how an apology brings about resurrection. You know both that and genocide better than I do."
"You...you...," Jean sputtered.
"Ladies," Scott said, disgusted.
Elizabeth closed her eyes, looking for restraint on the inside of her eyelids. Parts of her wanted to reconnect to the magical matrix and burn the other woman to a husk, suck her down into a neverending vortex. She suddenly realised that that was the test. The Professor, sitting quietly between Jean and Scott, was in all probability monitoring her responses and increasing her levels of bitch hormones to get a worst-case scenario.
"Letís cut the crap," she said. "You want to know the risk of a repeat performance. I can tell you, itís almost non-existent."
Scottís eye-brows rose to visibility above the visor.
"Almost," she admitted.
While it was highly improbable that Kwannon would come back from the dead yet another time, it wasnít impossible. Nothing was.
"Neither the FoH or we have anything to gain should this go public. For us, it would undermine twenty years of work to improve the relationship between mutants and non-mutants. For them, it would attract attention to...er...decidedly illegal activities in their former compound. I understand you succeeded in putting a stop to those activities."
"Our legal staff and that of the FoH have been working on a compromise."
And she had thought no one could look more shamed than Hank had. A compromise with the FoH. Talk about dealing with the devil.
"Weíll pay for the damages and...er...the distress caused. Also, as you are the main culprit, there are measures to be taken."
<Ah. The interesting stuff at last.>
Elizabeth suspected their reasoning had a fundamental error: if she wasnít as powerful as they thought, there was no need of those measures, if she was, they couldnít force her to do anything.
"I thought I might go home," she offered. "Muir, I mean."
"That would be an acceptable solution," Scott agreed, obviously relieved that sheíd made it easy on him. "The psychic blast was geographically limited. Muir Island is comparably isolated, while the NY area..."
"Okay, so if I did it again I would only kill off Excalibur and a lot of sheep," Elizabeth interjected coolly. "But do I have a choice in this ?"
Silence. Finally, Scott said:
"Well, then," Jean said through clenched teeth. "Perhaps we could be dismissed, sir?"
The Ďsirí was spit out with enough venom to make it an insult. Without waiting for permission, she made for the door. Scott followed her, but paused with his hand on the door-handle.
"Betsy, I must know," he began, heedless of the lethal look Jean gave him, "when you met Him, did He say anything about Her?"
Him being Sinister, and Her being Madelyn, Elizabeth would rather not have answered him in Jeanís presence.
"No, he didnít," she told him reluctantly.
Jean huffed, in disbelief or outrage or both, and stalked down the hall, pictures and mirrors shattering in her wake. Scott hurried after her. Elizabeth rubbed her temples and wondered why everybody was worried about her mental health but never questioned Jeanís.
The Professor spoke for the first time since she had entered the room. How odd. As a rule, he was alert and interrogative during a briefing. Perhaps he had been kept unusually busy screwing up her hormone levels.
"Are you comfortable?"
"Henry related some recent conversations to me."
She tried to sound encouraging rather than annoyed.
"He blamed himself for your condition. I set him straight." A joyless laughter. "The blame lies entirely on myself. I have done you terrible damage. I continue to do so. I flatter myself that I have given something back to most of my students, in return for their trust. To you, I have not. To you, I have been poison."
Elizabeth hadnít expected that. Although she felt bitterly vindicated now that he humbled himself in the dirt, she couldnít see what use his repentance was to her. None, unless he wanted absolution, which she wasnít going to give him.
<No. Eat remorse until you choke on it, you bastard.>
"I might hate you," she said, guarding her face and voice alike, "if I thought I had the time. If I thought there was a chance we might meet and reconcile before the end, Iíd make you crawl, Iíd make you beg. But I wonít waste as much as another hour on you."
She rose, leaned across the desk, into his face.
"You are poison to me," she breathed. "For that, I forgive you. For ever coming near me or mine again, I wonít."
He crumbled, then. His head bowed, deeper and deeper until his forehead touched the desk. She watched him without pity. This was an image she wanted to remember. During sleepless nights and painful medical procedures, between puking her guts out and begging for the needle, she would think of nothing but surviving him.==
Elizabeth found Jean on all fours in the hallway, picking glass shards out of the carpet and crying. The first was evident, the other less so. Her fingers were already bleeding from a dozen cuts.
"Hey," Elizabeth said, hunching down beside the other woman. "Donít. Stains on the carpet."
"Oh. Itís you." Jean wiped her nose on her sleeve, miserably.
"Yep. You got anything to say before I leave?"
"Would you listen?"
Whatever Jean was, she wasnít a coward. She could ask tough questions better than anyone else Elizabeth knew. She wasnít always good at handling the answers she got, but that was another matter.
"I think so," Elizabeth answered mildly.
"I was out of line," Jean conceded.
"So was I. That wasnít really what I had in mind."
As in most of their skirmishes, one debt had cancelled out the other. Tit for tat.
"I did want to ask you...When you killed them, how did you feel?"
Emerald eyes locked onto Elizabethís. Not angry, only very intense. Scared, too.
"How I felt?" Elizabeth mused. "Powerful. Like I couldnít make a mistake if I tried. Omnipotent, I guess."
"Excited. Not happy, just...I donít know, high? And then I began to get frightened, because I wanted to stop and I couldnít."
"I donít remember," Jean said slowly. "I have the memories of it as it happened, but they are constrained to the facts. I was hungry. I ate a sun. A planet died. Thatís all I know. I have no emotions connected to the event. When I think of it now, itís in a very detached way, like it happened to someone else, or like it didnít happen at all."
"It did. Never doubt that."
"I donít. Except in my dreams."
"What do you dream of?"
"A house in the suburbs. A husband that loves me. A few children. No mutations, no saving the world on a regular basis. I want an ordinary life."
"I would be content with any kind of life," Elizabeth said wistfully. "But I see what you mean."
"I know you do. Iím sorry."
"Jean, I know Iím out of my depth with the Phoenix thing. But if I may give you any advice, talk to Emma about it. I know you donít like her, but sheís good. Sheís sharp and level-headed. Talk to the Professor, talk to Scott, hell, call me and Iíll listen, at least."
"Thatís generous of you, Betsy. Thanks."
"Yeah, whatever. Will you keep an eye on Warren for me?"
Elizabeth picked up a large glass sliver and handed it to Jean. It was part of the antique looking glass Warren had bought in France and enthusiastically carried home, though it weighed more than he did. In the small cracked mirror, their gazes met and partly overlapped, green mixed with purple, Asian cheekbones with Caucasian, fiery locks with purple tresses so dark as to be almost black. It was a disturbing picture.
"We look..." Elizabeth began.
."..the same," Jean finished. "But we arenít, are we?"
"No. Not even two sides of the same coin.Or so Iíve always thought."
Jean breathed on the glass and the mirror misted over.
"Now weíre in there together," she murmured. "Whatever we are."==
Part 24 a==
Elizabeth took one last look in the mirror. She had spent nearly thirty minutes on her make-up, but it hadnít helped. She looked like a corpse. There was a grayish hue to her skin that defied both foundation and blusher and she was beyond the fashionable stage of thin. If she had owned a padded bra, sheíd have used it. The shoes were perfect, though, black lizard flats, and the braid she had wound around her head distracted the viewer from the patches where chemotherapy had made her hair fall off. The dress was lovely, too, made of heavy midnight blue silk with silver embroidery from neckline to waist and she had arranged a silvery scarf to conceal her bony shoulders. She tried a chipper smile. The effect was ghastly.
She received various insincere compliments from the resident X-People as she made her way downstairs. The guests werenít expected for another hour or so, but there was one more person she needed to talk to before she left and for him, she wanted to look her best. She hoped that the guests at her official farewell party would appreciate her efforts, as well, or she might as well wobble in dressed in a hospital gown with a drip for accessory. Her suggestion that the party theme should be "Night of the Living Dead", had not been well received.
Although the party didnít have a theme, X-people from all over had been rounded up on short notice and were coming to dinner at their own risk. It had been Scottís idea and she had gone along with it, mainly because she saw how important it was to him. Jean had been more practical. She and Bobby had worked out a detailed plan for how X-Money would finance the rebuilding of the hospice in Mount Kisco. There would be a new wing, named for Lisa, and two annual scholarships for medical students. Elizabeth had appreciated their efforts and she had been both surprised and touched when the X-Men collectively presented her with "The Victoria Foundation for Medical Research and Information." Bobby had set it up for her and would run it, and Hank would head the scientific committee. No X-Money was going into that foundation, but each and every one of the X-Men had made a contribution from their private savings. Ororo had donated an antique necklace that Elizabeth suspected belonged in a museum or to a museum. Rogue, who owned next to nothing, had returned her wedding ring to the jewellerís and put the money into the foundation, saying quietly that Remy would have liked this research.==
Years ago, Elizabeth had planted English roses on Dougís grave. The sapling she had put down beside the stone had been overturned by a Colossus under the Shadow Kingís command, and someone had thrown it away. The roses had survived the assault, though, and were more beautiful than ever.
"Hiya, kid," she said. "Long time no see."
Three years, four months and six days, in fact. She hadnít been there the day they put him into the ground, hadnít been standing in the drizzle and listened to speeches that meant nothing. Rumours said it had been a pretty dismal event. Brian had been drunk for days. Funerals did that to him.
"I wonít come here anymore. Someone else will tend your grave, cut the grass and water the flowers. Not that it matters to you. Such things didnít matter to you and you were right. I liked to come here and pretend I was doing something for you, but you arenít here, you never were. Iíll tell the stone and the roses goodbye, but whatís left of you I carry with me."
Always. She blew a kiss into the air.
"Love you, kid. "
Then she walked away.==
Elizabeth was halfway back to the house when a gravelly voice hailed her.
"Talking a lot to the dead, darliní?"
Logan. She should have known. He was standing in the shade under the trees, all but a shadow himself.
She shrugged, tried to make him out through the intricate play of light and darkness.
"What they tell ya?"
"Mostly things I already knew. Are you coming to dinner?"
"Iíd rather no one saw me right now, darliní."
"Not even me?"
"No. I ainít whatcha call presentable right now."
"Like you ever were. Is it...bad?"
It was his turn to shrug. Pretty bad, then.
"So ya chose to tough it out, darliní. Iím proud."
"Well, I beat around the bush for a long time and then I messed up."
"Done a few messes meself. Some real conspicuous ones."
He chuckled, almost nervously.
"Is this a social call, Logan?"
"No. Yeah. I wanted to tell ya, darliní, these are yours anytime you want Ďem."
The claws popped out with a snikt, retracted again. Her eyes widened.
"Logan, you wouldnít..."
"Not unless ya asked for it, no, " he assured her hastily. "But asking is enough. I wonít make you beg for it, like I did her."
The death of MarikoYashida fell between them like a shadow. The proud noblewoman reduced to begging for release. Elizabeth shivered.
"Thank you, but the answer is no."
For now, she added silently. There was no telling what sheíd do when the disease took her mind, her dignity, everything that had been Elizabeth Braddock. It was best to turn down the temptation while she still had her wits. Before fear made the decision for her.
"The offer stands, darliní."
She had been afraid of that.
"What would you do, if I made you the same offer?" she asked.
He spread his palms in a glum gesture.
"That is a pointless question," he said. "This olí canucklehead canít die. Found that out a long time ago."
"In a sense you can," she said, watching him closely. "Clean slate and rebirth."
He tensed for a second, fangs flashing white in a predatory grin, but Elizabeth didnít budge. Walk a mile in my shoes, Logan. The heels will kill you for starters, and more pain is yet to come.
"Ya ainít bad," he said with grudging admiration, tension leaking away. "Not bad at all."
"The answer, Logan," Elizabeth whispered, advancing a couple of steps, then a few more.
He tried to evade her, to fade back into the forest, but she wouldnít let him. She put her hand on his arm, conscious of the muscles flexing, the precarious control he exerted in popping the claws. He had cut her before. He had done worse than cutting. She looked at him, at his changed face, where a snout had replaced the nose and the human teeth had been exchanged for carnivorous ones. The calluses on his knuckles told her that he ran on all fours at least part of the time. The eyes with their slitted pupils were the only feature to suggest anything human about him. He swallowed.
"No," he said thickly and then: "No!"
It was a cry of pain. He lurched forward, claws popping. Elizabeth instinctively flung her arms about him, which was insane, and held him, which bordered on suicide.
"Logan, come back," she said softly. "Come back to me."
She had no authority to command him. All she could do was ask. He shuddered, once, but didnít shake her off. She watched as the fire in his eyes died and shame and doubt crept in. She pulled him closer and he didnít resist. Within the circle of her arms, his breathing slowed, the pounding heartbeats became regular. They stood under the trees, leaning on each other.
"Survival," Elizabeth rasped. "Thatís it. Thatís what we do. Whatever happens. We keep going, because thereís nothing else we can do. YouĎve been there, done that, got the T-shirt, well, so have I. And still we go on. Or are you quitting on me?"
"No," he said, packing years of anguish and loneliness into a single syllable.
"Iíve got my own beast inside my head," she said. "What Kwannon was, is there, too, and an X-Woman and a top model and a STRIKE agent and a teenager who wants to be a superhero. The daughter and the sister. The woman who loved Tom and Gabriel and Warren. Lady Mandarin of the Rings and Matsuoís mistress and slave. And now, the tumor. Gliablastoma multiforme, for which there is no cure. It will take all I have and all I am, to fight it. The best of me and the worst of me and everything in between. I can only hope it will be enough."
His shaggy features grew still with grief. It was the sorrow of the immortal as the ephemeral faded and there was no comfort for it. He had told her once that death had a dry, cold smell, like snow falling on frozen ground.
"I may lose," she said. "It wouldnít be the first time. Many lives have slipped through my hands over the years. Even my own, although Iíve been uncommonly lucky in getting it back. But Iím still here. Thatís what matters. And every day that passes means that I havenít lost yet."
He drew her to him and held her there.
"It means more than that, darliní," he murmured into her hair. "It means that yer still winning."==
It was 2 am. Most of the guests had walked, staggered or been carried to the north wing. The rest had scattered all over the grounds. Some had wandered off to check the security, some to kiss. A minority had managed a combination. Others were skinny-dipping by the boat-house or playing tag in the garden. With charged weapons. Elizabeth, walking bare-foot through the tall grass, had successfully avoided them all.
It was a warm night. The sky was clear and the summer stars were shining along with the new moon. She had been born on such a night. Her father had brought her and Brian to the window, so that the very first thing they saw would be the stars, their heritage and home. But Otherworld would never be home to her, as it had been to him and perhaps to Brian. She belonged to this Earth, to this timeline.
A shooting star raced over the firmament. She smiled, a little. There had been a time when those had carried express messages to her father. After he passed away, she liked to think that it was his way of paging her. To remind his earth-bound daughter that there were worlds out there.
And it seemed to her that the star were not so distant now, the sky not so vast. If she reached out with her hand, she could touch the heavens and beyond.==
Nu aer det natt oever jorden
Darrande stjaerna, glaens!
Vaerldarna vandra saa fjaerran
Moerkret aer utan graens
Marken och mullen och moerkret
Varfoer aelskar jag dem?
- Stjaernorna vandra saa fjaerran
Jorden aer maenniskans hem
- Erik BlombergFIN