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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Chapter 52
Chapter 53
Chapter 54
Chapter 55
Chapter 56
Chapter 57
Chapter 58
Chapter 59
Chapter 60
Chapter 61
Chapter 62
Chapter 63
Chapter 64


Written by Valerie Jones
Last updated: 05/10/2010 11:31:24 PM

Chapter 35

Scott sat back in his seat at the head of the table, watching the X-Men. It had been a long time since they’d all been in a room together. The meeting room Warren had provided sat in the center of one of the upper floors of the Worthington Industries building. The walls were all made of semi-transparent glass panels, and the floor was a single sheet of slick black marble. A large LCD display hung at one end of the oval-shaped room, its screen currently blank. Low profile speakers sat at intervals down the center of the long table, like a string of black stepping stones. Warren sat behind a small desk tucked into the corner of the room near the LCD display, working on hooking up a laptop computer to the tangle of equipment there with an occasional comment from Sam.

It had taken some doing to get all of the X-Men out of the complex and to the Worthington Industries building. Working out the logistics of moving that many people by different routes and transportation methods, none of which could be traceable back to the complex, had been quite a feat. But when Logan had called, asking if it might be possible to call an old-fashioned team meeting, something in the other man’s voice had convinced Scott to make it happen.

He glanced over at Gambit. The Cajun was once again dressed in worn jeans and a faded t-shirt in his guise as Worthington’s resident security expert. He sat on the edge of the table at Scott’s right, kicking his feet like a little kid as he talked with Bobby, Elisabeth and Ororo. To Scott’s left, Jean and Hank chatted amiably. A little further down, Bishop sat stiffly in his chair, his gaze fixed on a quiet but intense conversation going on between Rogue and Joseph on the far side of the table. Mystique stood a short distance beyond him, arms crossed, and her attention apparently focused on those two as well. Gambit, he noted, was also keeping an eye on the discussion, though he gave no sign that it concerned him in any way.

The screen at the far end of the room came to life suddenly, accompanied by a hiss of static from the tabletop speakers. Logan’s face appeared, larger than life as it filled the entire display.

“Finally,” he growled. “Took ya long enough.”

“Sorry,” Warren said as he stood up from behind the laptop. “We had a few technical difficulties.”

There was a general shuffle as the X-Men found their seats. Rogue patted Joseph on the forearm before rising and returning to her seat on Gambit’s far side. Joseph watched her with a frustrated expression which disappeared as people settled into the chairs around him. Warren took the seat closest to both the screen and the laptop and Elisabeth sat down beside him. Both were dressed expensively, as befitted the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and his girlfriend, but they looked out of place next to the rest of the X-Men. Gambit hopped down from the table and collapsed into his chair in a boneless slouch. With one hand he massaged his thigh where Michael Tyre’s exoskeleton had impaled him, as if the old injury was bothering him today.

The room quieted by degrees and Scott turned his attention to the screen. “The floor’s all yours, Logan,” he said.

“Right.” Logan cleared his throat. “I went to the hospital like I told ya I was going ta, and I found out some things.”

Scott’s gut tightened instinctively, a reaction he saw reflected around the room. But Logan’s pronouncement was followed almost immediately by a spate of girlish giggles from somewhere off camera.

“You big lug! You’re so mean!” the off-camera voice scolded Logan. Scott barely had time to register the familiarity of that voice before Jubilee’s face crowded on to the screen. She wrapped her arms around Logan’s neck and pressed her cheek against his as she waved into the camera. “Hi guys!”

Jubilee!” The exclamation came from a dozen places around the room as Logan’s face split in a huge grin. All of the X-Men began to talk at once.

Scott could only stare. She was alive. His heart swelled, feeling like it might burst out of his chest at any moment. Jubilee was alive. Laughing, Jean threw her arms around him in an exuberant hug, which he gladly returned. How long had it been since they’d gotten truly good news?

The tumult eventually dwindled. But before Scott could figure out what to say, Ororo leaned forward, her expression intent.

“We believed you dead, child. What happened?”

Jubilee’s smile dimmed. She let go of Logan and perched on the edge of his chair, tucking her hands in her lap. Only then did Scott properly note that she appeared to be bald beneath the bright pink bandana she was wearing and his stomach did a little flip. She looked like a cancer patient.

“I’m supposed to introduce everybody first, before I get into that,” Jubilee said.

“Introduce everybody?” Scott frowned, uncertain how to take the statement.

Jubilee nodded, but it was Logan who spoke. “Yeah. When I found Jubes here, I also found some other folks yer gonna want to talk to.” Logan nudged Jubilee off the chair and then stood as well. The screen filled with a closeup of the pattern on Logan’s shirt, then cleared as he stepped away from the camera. To Scott’s surprise, the room behind him was full of people. They sat or stood in an uneven ring inside what looked like a hastily converted storage area. Shelves lined the walls, filled with assorted stacks of unidentifiable equipment.

“Dr. Reyes, is that you?” Hank leaned forward, adjusting his glasses.

An angular Hispanic woman off to one side nodded. “It’s good to see you again, Dr. McCoy.”

Scott raised an eyebrow and glanced sidelong at Hank.

“Charles and I met Dr. Reyes a few years ago at a conference in Geneva,” Hank told the X-Men by way of explanation.

Jubilee and Logan took a pair of empty seats next to Dr. Reyes.

“So, anyways,” Jubilee said brightly, “Dr. Reyes is the one that killed the sentinels transformation logic in my head.” Before Scott could begin to digest that, she gestured to a slender Asian man on the doctor’s far side. “This is Louis Kim. He’s a rocket scientist from NASA—“

“Control systems engineer,” the man--Louis--injected with a grin, and Scott got the distinct impression that Jubilee had already won the hearts of this group of strangers. “I’ve been working on decoding the sentinels’ command and control software.”

Feeling more than a bit overwhelmed at the rush of information, Scott held up his hands. “Wait. Back up.” He split his attention between Jubilee and the Hispanic doctor. “’Killed the transformation logic’ in your head?” he asked.

Jubilee’s expression faltered, but then she straightened her shoulders and nodded. “Yeah.”

“What does that mean?”

She snorted. “Exactly what it sounds like, dude. Bastion freakin’ turned me into a prime sentinel and Doc Reyes zapped the transformation computers so I won’t go nutzo when I’m around mutants.”

“Oh my stars and garters.” Hank stared at Jubilee, his blue eyes wide.

Scott decided that summed up his reaction pretty well, too. He tried to ignore the sinking sensation in his stomach. “Zapped them how?”

Jubilee rolled her eyes impatiently. “With a bunch of lasers. Can I finish introducing people now?”

Logan chuckled and squeezed her shoulder. “Relax, darlin’. Give ‘em some time ta catch up.”

Jubilee shrugged as if acknowledging his point, then gestured across the circle to a graying, middle-aged man in a tweed sports coat. “Moving on. That’s Gordon. He’s a doctor, too-- a microbiologist.” She pointed to a small, mousy-looking woman beside him. “And that’s Allie. She’s a robotics expert. Anything you want to know about nannites, she can tell you.”

Scott bit his tongue against a rush of questions as Jubilee continued around the circle, naming people and giving their specialties. By the time she got to the end, he was thoroughly impressed by the collection of scientific talent. It was just the right kind of group to really be able to figure out how the prime sentinels worked, and how to stop them.

Logan watched him, his expression keen. “It’s Xavier’s mutant underground,” he said in a deceptively soft voice, and Scott felt an electric thrill sweep across his skin at the words. “We never knew what happened to ‘em after we had ta leave the mansion, but the underground is up and runnin’. They’ve got an entire network goin’—world wide—and reams and reams of data.” He gave Scott a significant look, which he briefly transferred to Gambit before returning to the X-Men’s field leader. “The kinda stuff we’ve been lookin’ fer, particularly if we’re goin’ after one of the big targets.”

Logan turned to one of the others. “Okay, patch the rest of ‘em in now.”

A moment later, the screen split into two panes, one of which continued to show the room Logan was in. The second split into upper and lower halves. Moira McTaggert’s face filled the top frame, and, after a few seconds of static, Reed Richard’s face appeared in the bottom one.

Moira looked thin and worn, but she smiled when she spied the X-Men. “Ach, there ye are. It’s a pleasure to see ye again, Scott.”

“And you, Moira.” Scott managed to find his voice. A million questions tumbled around inside him, clamoring for release, and he had to force himself to focus. “Where are you? Is Excaliber there with you?”

Moira nodded. “Aye, they’re here. We’ve taken refuge at the Braddock estate, at least for the nonce.” Scott saw a flicker of reaction from Betsy at the mention of her family’s estate, and he wondered if she’d had any contact with her brother since the onset of OZT. “And we’re ready to do whatever we can tae help the X-Men.”

“The Fantastic Four also stand ready,” Richards injected solemnly. “We’re essentially pinned down inside Four Freedoms Plaza, but OZT does not yet possess the resources necessary to come in after us. Our research labs and manufacturing facilities are all intact and should remain so as long as we are here to guard them. We will be happy to assist in any way possible.”

Scott could only stare, overwhelmed, as a buzz of conversation filled the room around him. Charles had built his underground out of the best and brightest minds the world had to offer, both mutants and humans-- all of them dedicated to the idea of peace between the species. And despite OZT, that network had survived-- even flourished-- no doubt bending the full weight of their abilities toward gathering as much information about the threat as possible.

And now they were all looking to him for a way to put that information to use.

Scott leaned back in his chair and tipped his head ever-so-slightly to his right. “Remy, tell me there’s a way to get into and back out of Four Freedoms Plaza with whatever technological wonders they can cook up for us,” he told the other man in an undertone.

Gambit chuckled, a surprisingly gleeful sound. “Mon ami, I got goosebumps jus’ t’inking about it,” he answered, and Scott had to grin.

He leaned forward and clasped his hands before him on the table. “We’re incredibly glad to see you all, and we’ll take all the help we can get,” he told the people on the screen.

Jean laid a hand on his arm, and turned her attention to Moira. “Can you tell us anything about the other X-teams?” she asked. “We haven’t heard from anyone in months.”

Moira nodded. “Aye, Jean, ye’ve been out o’ touch. If it had nae been for the news reports, we’d hae thought ye dead.”

“X-Force has been working primarily in California,” Reed told them. “I don’t know how much you’ve heard about what’s going on out there…”

Scott shook his head. “We don’t have any sources in California. We don’t know anything that isn’t on the news.”

Reed’s expression turned grim. “Well, since the LA Massacre that part of the country has become a powderkeg. Los Angeles has decended into chaos. X-Force is spearheading the government’s efforts to restore order, but given the stranglehold OZT has on the city, they’ve been lucky just to stay alive.”

In his peripheral vision, Scott saw Gambit pale at Reed’s words. “Is dat what they’re calling it?” he asked of no one in particular. “De LA Massacre?” He looked like he felt ill, but Scott could hardly blame him, given the tight, fraternal nature of the Guild. And the fact that only one of the two escaping aircraft had made it down in one piece. After a moment, Rogue reached over and slipped her hand into Remy’s, her expression concerned.

“What about X-Factor?” Jean asked, and Scott turned his attention back to the screen.

Reed shrugged. “We’ve had sporadic contact with them. They stay on the move to avoid OZT.” He appeared to study something off to the side on his end. “They’ve had a few small successes against OZT’s human enforcers, but nothing like you X-Men have managed.”

Moira’s expression sharpened. “Speaking o’ which—how hae ye been managing t’ do such damage tae OZT? Excaliber would like tae imitate ye, if it’s within our capabilities.”

The question produced a ripple of reaction among the X-Men. Scott resisted the temptation to look toward Gambit to gauge his expression. He already knew the wary, silently warning gaze he would meet.

Scott chose his words carefully. “We have a number of people with covert operations experience in the X-Men, and we’ve been drawing heavily on that.”

The camera recording Moira’s face pulled back to reveal several others seated at a small table with her. Kurt Wagner perched on a chair to Moira’s left, and Sean Cassidy sat to her right. Scott was surprised by Banshee’s presence until he remembered a brief mention of him going to Muir Island to be with his daughter, who’d been injured when the damping field was first activated. He bit the inside of his lip. That seemed like a lifetime ago already.

Sean leaned forward, his expression intent. “But where have ye been getting yuir equipment? Weapons, explosives…? OZT has us completely outgunned over here. I’d give my right arm to have half o’ what ye’ve been working with.”

Scott grimaced. The X-Men were well-equipped because they had the Guild’s deep pockets to draw on, not to mention the security of the Guild complex in which to store that equipment, and to plan and launch their attacks from.

“It’s partly a matter of money,” he told Sean, figuring that was the safest thing he could say. “Bastion was able to confiscate all of Professor Xavier’s holdings, but not Worthington Industries—” He gestured toward Warren, “—or the private funds held by some of our other members.”

Sean ran a hand through his golden-blond hair. “Well, I cannae say we’re that fortunate.”

“The Braddocks have been vera kind to let us stay here at the estate, but they cannae risk doing anything more for fear of OZT findin’ out.” Moira’s expression echoed his frustration.

Scott drummed his fingers on the table for a moment, thinking, then stilled as he made his decision. “If it’s money you need, we can help there. Just let us know how many zeroes.” He grinned at the expressions of surprise that flitted across the others’ faces. “And what form to send it in. If you have a secure bank account, that would be easiest. Cash will take some doing.” He glanced sidelong at Gambit to see if the other was going to raise an objection, but the thief’s expression remained mild, which he took as an assent.

Sean, Moira and Kurt looked at each other doubtfully. “OZT has tracked us down through bank accounts before,” Sean finally said.

Warren swiveled in his seat to face Scott. “Not if we have Dyson set it up. It shouldn’t be a problem to make an initial transfer of a couple million without raising any flags.”

Scott nodded. He’d been thinking something similar. On the screen, the three Excaliber members looked a bit stunned, but pleased.

“Ya know, Scott, they’re going ta need some contacts ovah there,” Rogue drawled from her place. “Money’s no use without a way ta spend it.”

Scott turned to her and raised an eyebrow. The question had been put to him, but he suspected it had been meant for Remy.

Remy shrugged in response, a tiny flicker of motion. “I c’n make some calls,” he told her in an undertone, “but it’s a big favor t’ be askin’ on behalf o’ strangers.”

She flashed him a tight smile. “Ya forgettin’ one o’ the leaders of Excaliber is ya brother-in-law, sugah. It’s a family matter.”

The microphones must have been sensitive enough to pick up at least part of the quiet conversation because Kurt jerked his head around to stare at Rogue. “Did you just say brother-in-law, liebling?”

She chuckled. “Ah did.”

Scott watched Kurt’s face go through several transformations before settling into a pleasant smile. “That is… wonderful, Rogue. I’m very happy for you.”

Rogue’s expression darkened at the forced cheer in her brother’s voice. She opened her mouth for a retort, but Remy squeezed her hand, cutting her off.

“Let it go, chere.” Anger sparked in his gaze, all but invisible behind the flat, indifferent wall Remy had used for so many years to hide himself from the X-Men. Rogue gave him a mutinous stare.

Down the table a ways, Mystique laughed merrily. “Family Christmases are going to be so much fun,” she said in a lilting voice.

“Mama, shut up.” Rogue transferred her glare to Mystique.

Scott cleared his throat. He needed to get the conversation back on track before things got ugly. “Listen,” he told the three on screen, “we can do some digging-- see if we can find someone who can get you what you need.”

A deep furrow had appeared between Moira’s brows. “I cannae well argue with yuir results, Cyclops, but I am nae certain how comfortable I am with yuir methods. Ye are proposing to put us in contact with an arms dealer, aren’t ye?”

On the far side of the screen, Logan crossed his arms in an expression of annoyance that Scott was surprised to discover himself sharing. “There are worse things, Moira,” he answered tersely.

“He’s right,” Sean told his companion.

Moira shook her head. “I dinnae ken how ye can be so accepting. Charles would nae approve.”

Scott laughed sourly. “You’d be surprised, I think.”

Sean leaned his elbows on the table and shifted his attention to Logan. “Wolverine, ye said something earlier about going after a ‘big target’?”

Logan nodded, and Scott was just as glad to let the other man do the talking for a moment. In the back of his mind, he wondered if the fact that Moira’s attitude irritated him made him a hypocrite, or simply a realist.

Logan settled back in his chair. “We’re still workin’ up the plans, so none o’ this is set in stone, but we’re gonna see if we can get inside one of the sentinels final assembly plants.”

“Ye cannae be serious,” Sean said. “If the ones on yuir side of the pond are anything like here, ye’d need an army.”

Logan barked a laugh. “No army. We’ll get in.” He shrugged. “Getting’ out alive will be a bit more of a challenge.”

“Ain’ dat de truth,” Gambit muttered, a clear note of sarcasm in his words.

Scott ignored him. If he really thought it couldn’t-- or shouldn’t-- be done, he wouldn’t have put everything else on hold for three days to figure out how to break the plant’s security.

“What we have in mind is a two-pronged attack,” Scott told the others then proceeded to explain Warren’s upcoming lawsuit and their plan to take a news crew inside the final assembly plant. He concluded with, “The biggest risk, of course, is the fact that this is a sentinels factory. If we’re discovered, there will be far too many of them for us to be able to fight our way out.”

“I think we might be able to help with that,” Dr. Reyes said after a moment. “We’ve come up with a way to paralyze the sentinels’ nannites-- temporarily, at least. We inject the neuron-paralyzer directly into the brain stem, but it can be absorbed through the skin or the lungs as well. It just takes longer to take effect that way.”

Scott forgot to breathe for a moment as the magnitude of what she was offering registered with him. Gambit sat straight up in his seat, his pretense forgotten for a moment as he, too, realized the potential. Then, with hooded glance in Scott’s direction, he slouched back down in his chair, once again inscrutable.

“Tell Richards we’re gon’ need a means t’ disseminate de stuff as a gas or an ionized spray, from autonomous programmable dispensers.” Gambit’s voice barely reached across the short space that separated him from Scott.

“This little game of telephone is going to get old fast,” Scott muttered in reply then raised his voice to repeat the request to Reed Richards.

The leader of the Fantastic Four nodded. “Done. Is there anything else we can provide?”

“Yes,” Scott said even as the idea was coalescing in his head. “We could really use new uniforms-- everything we had went up with the mansion, pretty much. But we don’t need the unstable molecules to work with our powers, obviously. What we need is high quality body armor with an eye toward stealth, but also instantly recognizable as the X-Men.”

Reed frowned thoughtfully. “That should be no problem. Anything else?”

Scott shrugged. “Probably. Give me a couple of days and I can have a list for you.”

Reed nodded. “Good enough.” His expression sharpened. “Have you given any thought to how we will get these things to you? OZT maintains a cordon around the building that will not be easy to bypass.”

Scott waved his concern away. “Don’t worry about that. We’ll take care of it from our end.”

Eyebrows rose onscreen at the high-handed statement, but Scott didn’t let it bother him. Regardless of whether Gambit’s real nature ever became known among the other X-teams, his skills were now a part of what the X-Men had to bring to the table, and Scott was not going to hedge on that.

“Very well, then. We’ll talk again in a few days,” Reed said. “Dr. Reyes has all the information on how to contact us.” His gaze swept across the X-Men. “Until then.”

Scott raised a hand in farewell as the image of Reed flickered and went black.

“You know, Scott,” Sean said, “given what yuir hoping to accomplish, it might help for us to coordinate an event of some kind here, at the same time. If nothing else, it’ll demonstrate that the X-Men aren’t alone.”

“Then you think vee should do as the X-Men have, buying weapons off the black market?” Kurt leaned past Moira to look directly at Sean. “Vee will hardly be any different from criminals.”

At that, Mystique burst into peals of laughter. To Scott’s surprise, Logan threw his head back with a roar, and after a moment Bobby dissolved into helpless laughter as well. Scott felt his own lips twitching and quickly pressed them together. He really shouldn’t find this funny.

Beside him, Gambit looked like he was having just as much trouble keeping a straight face and Rogue was snickering outright.

Kurt turned to stare at them all like they’d lost their minds. Maybe they had, Scott decided.

“Don’t ask,” he advised. Then his thoughts turned solemn. “The truth is, we’re operating well outside the law at this point-- we have no choice. Whether you want to walk that path…” He shrugged. “Only you can decide.”

Trish Tilby paced impatiently along the sidewalk, the tapping of her high-heeled shoes nearly lost in the background noise that was New York City at night. Eddie, her cameraman, stood a short ways away looking distinctly uncomfortable as he fiddled with his clip-on bowtie. His camera sat in its padded nylon case by his feet. People flowed up and down the street around them, most dressed for a night on the town. Brightly lit signs pointed the way toward various nightclubs, though the loud music spilling through the doorways was probably all the direction anyone needed.

Eddie caught her glancing in his direction and scowled. “Are you sure that note said to dress up? I feel weird standing around in this monkey suit.”

Trish shrugged. “Hank said evening wear.” She’d had to borrow a gown from a friend since her own place was under surveillance by OZT. The instructions made her very curious, though. The notes that simply appeared on her desk, written in Hank’s unmistakable scrawl, usually gave nothing more than a time and place. She’d given up on wondering how the X-Men knew where she was. They seemed to be able to find her and her crew no matter how many times they moved locations, and no matter how well camouflaged they believed themselves to be.

Why Hank wanted them dressed up was another question entirely. It allowed them to loiter on this street without drawing notice, but she hadn’t found anything in her research that indicated OZT was involved in any type of activity in this area.

A limousine drove down the street, reflections from the streetlights painting bright streaks along its shiny black surface. Trish had seen a number of cars come through—many of them limousines like this one—pausing to disgorge their passengers in front of one club or another before driving on.

This one, however, did not stop at any of the clubs. Instead, it came straight down the street and pulled over in front of her. Trish instinctively took a step back, braced to run should a sentinel jump out of the car, and knowing she didn’t stand a chance if it did.

The rear door swung open as the limo came to a stop. A blue-skinned man dressed in a tuxedo looked up at her from the back of the car. White feathers surrounded him like a cloak and gave him a strangely distinguished air.

Trish needed only a moment to recognize him. “Warren Worthington?”

“Get in, Ms. Tilby,” he said.

Jerking her head at Eddie to follow, she slid into the seat opposite Worthington and discovered that he had a woman with him. Trish recognized her as well, from the society pages as well as her research on the X-Men. She nodded in greeting.

“Ms. Braddock.”

The purple-haired Asian woman smiled. “Please, call me Betsy.” She was dressed in a slinky little number of shimmering white that Trish suspected would look devastating next to her beau’s wings.

She nodded. “All right. Betsy.”

Eddie settled into the seat next to Trish, his camera in his lap, and Worthington pulled the door shut behind them. Immediately, the limousine pulled away from the curb and accelerated.

“Where are we going?” Trish asked.

Warren smiled, a surprisingly friendly expression. “The X-Men want to talk to you.” He reached inside his jacket and withdrew two long strips of black cloth. He handed one of them to Betsy and held the other one up. “I’m afraid you can’t see where we’re going, however.”

Trish wasn’t too surprised by that. She’d interviewed a few people over the years who’d used similar methods-- including Magneto and the Kingpin. She allowed Betsy to tie the blindfold across her eyes without complaint. Her heart beat madly in her chest, though more from excitement than fear.

“Can I ask some questions while we drive?” Trish reached into her purse, locating her recorder by feel, and held it up for the two to see.

Warren chuckled. “Ask away.”

Trish turned the recorder on and brought it up to her mouth. The slim piece of digital electronics didn’t need to be held close to pick up sound, but it was an old habit she hadn’t yet managed to break. “Interview with Warren Worthington III and Elisabeth Braddock, also known as the X-Men Angel and Psylocke, 18 October, location—unknown,” she said then allowed her hand to fall back into her lap.

She organized her thoughts quickly. “Mr. Worthington, it has been reported that you have once again taken personal control of Worthington Industries, and that you are frequently to be found at WI’s Manhattan offices.”

“That’s correct,” he answered.

“Isn’t that dangerous? OZT must certainly know where you are by now.”

She heard a rustle of feathers as Warren shifted in his seat. “Oh, they know.” His tone was by parts amused and steely. “They’ve already tried to send a couple of different agents into the building. One was a sentinel, one human. Neither got very far.” He paused. “My security is excellent.”

Trish cocked her head, wishing she could see his face and expression. “But why take the risk? Most mutants are hiding from OZT, but you’re literally flaunting your presence here in the city.”

“Someone has to stand up and show that they’re not afraid of Bastion,” Warren told her. “OZT tried to steal my company—and failed. They’ve tried to kill me, along with the rest of the X-Men—and failed. I’m a mutant and proud of it, Ms. Tilby. And I refuse to let Bastion dictate the course of my life.”

Trish couldn’t help but smile at the ringing statement. But she quickly bent her thoughts back toward business. “Does that mean you disagree with the X-Men’s current hit-and-run tactics?” She had no idea how disastrous a schism inside the X-Men might be to the resistance effort, but it was definitely news.

Warren’s voice took on a reflective quality. “Oh, no. The X-Men are doing exactly what they need to be doing.”

Before Trish could decide what to ask next, the limousine rolled to a gentle stop.

“We’re here,” Betsy announced.

“You can take off the blindfolds now,” added Warren. “Oh, and leave the camera here. You won’t need it tonight.”

Trish and Eddie both removed their blindfolds. Trish looked around curiously as their driver got out and came around to open the door for them. They were parked halfway down a plain and somewhat seedy-looking street lined with five- to ten-story brownstone buildings. Shops opened to the street, but were closed up for the night, their doors and windows covered by iron bars. The higher floors appeared to contain apartments. There was nothing by which this street could be distinguished from about ten-thousand others just like it in New York.

Trish climbed out of the car when it was her turn. She stood on the sidewalk, drawing her coat more tightly around her frame. The evenings were beginning to get cold. A few steps away, Warren shook out his wings, half-spreading them in a hissing rustle of feathers. Trish stared in fascination as he twitched them back into place, folding them to lie across his back like every picture she’d ever seen of the archangel Gabriel.

“This way,” Warren said gesturing for the two reporters to follow. He led them to a set of cement stairs that descended below ground level, terminating in an unmarked metal door. He opened the door and held it as their party went inside.

Trish found herself in a small ante room that had probably been barren at one point but was now filled with sophisticated imaging equipment that formed a high-tech archway in the center of the space. Two very large men stood guard beside a door in the far wall, their stances wary and the weapons inside their suit jackets clearly visible. Another, slightly less imposing man stood off to the side at a control panel for the imager.

One by one Trish and her companions stepped into the arch to be scanned and then gathered on the far side.

“Mr. Worthington, Ms. Braddock.” The rightmost of the Very Large Men nodded politely to the pair then shifted his attention to Trish. “Ms. Tilby, Mr. Mallory.” Trish wasn’t certain whether to be pleased or intimidated by the fact that these men knew their names. She was beginning to get a distinct organized crime vibe from the entire situation, which made her even more curious what she was doing there. And how it related to the X-Men.

The man raised a small radio to his mouth. “Let Mrs. LeBeau know her guests are here,” he said into it, then turned and opened the door beside him, gesturing for them to enter.

Neither Warren nor Betsy seemed the least bit alarmed, so Trish worked on keeping her own nerves steady as she followed the pair through the doorway into a coat check. Loud, pounding music leaked through the closed door on the far side as Trish surrendered her coat to an ordinarily pretty young woman and received a plastic token in return.

Warren led them through the far door into a loud, crowded club. Trish took in the scattered craps tables and roulette wheels and the sea of well-dressed people with interest. Somehow, she doubted the Gaming Commission had any knowledge of this place.

A moment later, a strikingly beautiful young woman broke out of the crowd and approached them. She wore her red hair in an intricate updo that left her face framed in wispy white-dyed bangs, and her gown was a stunning affair the color of dark chocolate. She wore a string of emeralds at her throat, and everything about her spoke of wealth and charm.

The woman greeted both Warren and Betsy warmly, her voice a sultry Southern drawl.

“Hey, Rogue,” Warren replied with a smile and hugged her. Trish blinked as the name registered.

“You’re one of the X-Men,” she blurted in surprise and immediately bit her tongue, embarrassed.

The woman didn’t seem perturbed by her outburst, or concerned that someone might have overheard the name. She turned and extended her hand. “Anna LeBeau,” she introduced herself with a smile. “But people call me Rogue.”

Trish accepted the handshake and introduced herself in return. Afterward, Rogue repeated the process with Eddie, who looked just a bit dumbfounded but managed not to trip over his tongue.

“Well, c’mon y’all. Ah’ll take ya t’ the others.” Rogue gestured for them to follow her. “But first ah’ve got ta find Remy an’ drag him out o’ whatever he’s doin’.” She rose onto her tiptoes, scanning the room. Then, apparently locating the object of her search, she started off into the crowd.

They wove their way through the tables. Trish wished she had time to stop and study her surroundings in more depth. This place hummed with a tantalizing energy, a sense of unseen things happening all around. She was certain there was more to it than just an illegal gambling club despite its appearance.

Their path took them toward a small knot of men surrounded by a swath of empty space. Two of the men looked like they were facing off, either in the middle of an argument or about to start one. One was tall, with long, reddish hair, the other shorter and darker. The quickly ratcheting tension in the area explained why everyone was keeping their distance, Trish thought, though, oddly, no one was stopping to watch the confrontation.

Warren caught Trish’s elbow, jerking her to a stop a couple of steps into the clearing. “Let’s stay out of this,” he said as Rogue continued straight toward the group.

“Why? What’s going on?” Trish pulled her arm out of his grip, but didn’t try to move forward.

Warren didn’t answer her as Rogue walked up beside the taller man and slipped her arm through his. He broke away from his opponent long enough to smile at her, though the expression was strained.

“Warren an’ Betts are here, sugah,” Rogue told him. The man glanced over his shoulder, taking in the foursome standing quietly off to the side without reaction, then returned his attention to the man opposite him.

The dark-haired man smiled and inclined his head toward Rogue. “You’re looking well, Rogue,” he said in a silky voice that made the hairs on the back of Trish’s neck prickle in warning.

Rogue’s companion stiffened, and Trish saw the other woman dig her fingers into his biceps as if to restrain him.

“Why thank ya, Adrian,” Rogue answered brightly. “Ah’m feelin’ pretty well these days, too.”

Adrian’s gaze narrowed a fraction as if her response angered him in some fashion, but his expression remained mild.

Rogue cocked her head. Then, with a strange smile playing about her lips, she squeezed the red-haired man’s arm and stepped forward. “Ya know, ah haven’t had a chance ta properly thank ya for everything,” she told Adrian. “Without ya dedication ta protectin’ ya… people,” She stumbled just a bit and Trish wondered what word she had originally intended to use, “an’ ya willingness ta do whatever needed doin’, ah’m quite certain ah wouldn’t be here today.” She swayed toward Adrian, who was staring at her as if she’d suddenly grown fangs.

“Ah owe ya a debt ah can’t possibly repay.” Rogue laid one hand delicately on his arm and reached up to kiss him on the cheek. Adrian paled, and his face emptied of expression.

Rogue grinned at him, a sweet, cheerful expression that still sent a shiver down Trish’s spine. “But ah’m gonna try.”

And with that she turned back to the red-haired man, who slipped an arm around her waist as they walked toward Trish and her companions. His angular face was still and hard, and the demonic eyes smoldered with a kind of banked fury that made Trish’s breath catch in her throat. This was a man to tread lightly around. She didn’t know for certain if he was an X-Man, too, but it made her wonder if perhaps the mutant team might not be as dangerous as the government had always made them out to be, despite Hank’s protests to the contrary.

The anger had disappeared from the man’s expression by the time he reached them. He shook Warren’s hand and nodded affably to Betsy before turning to Trish.

“Remy, ah’m sure ya recognize Trish Tilby, an’ this is Ed Mallory,” Rogue said, indicating each of them in turn. “Trish, Ed, mah husband, Remy LeBeau.”

Trish filed the name away as she shook Remy’s hand. He gave her a charming smile. “A pleasure.”

Trish summoned a smile in return. It wasn’t all that hard. The man was rather dazzlingly handsome, strange eyes notwithstanding.

The six of them made their way to the back of the club, where a recessed doorway led onto a series of hallways where the private rooms were located. This area was lavishly decorated, with expensive paintings and pieces of sculpture set at intervals along the walls, and what appeared to be genuine crystal chandeliers hung at the intersections.

Remy picked one of the doors and went inside, then held the door open for the rest of the group. Trish walked into a nicely-appointed room dominated by a large oval poker table. Two men and a woman congregated near one end of the table. The woman drew her attention first. She, too, was a stunning beauty, with rich mocha skin and a shock of pure white hair.

Storm, Trish identified her.

As she approached, the trio moved away from the end of the table. Trish was surprised to realize she also recognized one of the men.

“Bobby, it’s good to see you again.” Trish stuck out her hand as she walked up to him.

“Trish.” She wasn’t terribly surprised when the reception she got was cool. Hank McCoy was his friend, and given how things had ended between herself and Hank, she couldn’t really blame him. But Bobby shook her hand, his expression neutral.

Rogue stepped forward to finish making introductions. Trish discovered that the final member of the trio was actually Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops, leader of the X-Men. She shook his hand, trying not to be too obvious as she studied him. He seemed strangely normal for the leader of the most notorious mutant team in history.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why we went to such trouble to arrange this meeting,” Scott said as he gestured for her to take a seat at the table.

Trish did so, and the others all followed suit. “I am,” she agreed. In fact, she was nearly dying of curiosity and was having a hard time biting back her many questions.

The X-Men’s leader braced his elbows on the edge of the table and steepled his fingers. “We have a proposition for you, Ms. Tilby. You and your partner, here.” He nodded toward Eddie.

Trish lifted one eyebrow at his serious tone. “We’re listening.”

“First, tell me what you know about the prime sentinels.” Scott watched her face, his gaze both calm and piercing.

Trish leaned back in her seat and crossed her legs. “Hard data about the prime sentinels is hard to come by,” she began. “According to OZT’s press releases, the prime sentinels are made of a titanium alloy chassis wrapped in cloned human tissue, and run by a complex computing network. Primary power is provided by a set of fuel cells in the thighs, and propulsion is done with fairly standard jet-hover technology, which is why they need to refuel on a daily basis—the tanks are relatively small.”

Scott’s expression didn’t change. “Is that all you’ve heard about them?”

Trish’s stomach clenched. “No.” She blew her breath out in a short sigh. “There are a lot of rumors surrounding the primes. Most of it is… crazy stuff. Horror movie stuff.” Some of it was so gruesome it had nauseated even her, and she’d seen some ugly things I her day.

“Do you believe any of it?” The X-Men’s leader watched her intently.

Trish considered him as she weighed her answer. She had the feeling a lot was riding on her answer, though she couldn’t say why. “Do I believe that OZT is running mad-scientist labs, gouging out people’s brains and replacing them with computers?” she asked sharply.

Scott’s eyes filled with a sick kind of anger, and in that instant Trish’s entire world-view shifted. She blinked several times, trying to adjust. “I… was about to say no, I don’t…” She ran out of breath and couldn’t seem to draw another. “It’s true?” It was too horrible to contemplate.

Scott nodded. “Every prime sentinel was once a person like you or me.”

She clamped down on her instinctive horror, shoving it away. Her job was to report the news, not react to it. “Can you prove it?” she demanded.

He nodded. “We can introduce you to someone who is a pre-transformation sentinel. Her transformation control logic has been disabled. You can talk to her doctor, as well as see her medical records and scans.”

Gathering her wits, Trish nodded. “I’d like that very much. But even if everything you say is true, it’s going to be hard to prove. One person’s testimony isn’t enough.”

Scott nodded. “Yes, which is why we invited you here.”

Trish’s eyebrows hiked upward.

“How would you like to get inside one of OZT’s sentinel final assembly plants? To see the process first hand.”

Trish gaped at him. “Are you kidding?” If what the X-Men claimed was true, OZT was quite possibly the greatest evil to come along since Adolf Hitler. Exposing it would be the story of the decade. Perhaps the century. Her heart stuttered a beat at the prospect.

“No joke, Ms. Tilby.” Scott’s expression was a solemn as his voice. “We think we can get inside and we want you to come with us, to report what we find.”

Trish moistened her lips, her mind racing. She could hardly believe the opportunity they were offering her. “I’m in,” she heard herself saying before she’d consciously made the decision.

“It’s going to be extremely dangerous,” the X-Men’s leader warned her. “We can’t make any guarantees about your safety.”

Trish shook her head impatiently. “I’m in,” she repeated. There was no way she could turn down an opportunity like this, and she’d been in dangerous situations before. She glanced at her camera man. “Eddie?”

He looked less certain, but nodded. “Yeah. Count me in, too.”

Scott nodded decisively. “All right. Then there’s just one more thing.”

The back of Trish’s neck began to prickle again, that undefined warning sense that told her her position here was more precarious than she wanted to believe. “What’s that?” She didn’t bother to keep the suspicion out of her voice.

The X-Men’s leader looked past her. “Gambit?”

Trish turned, not terribly surprised to discover the name belonged to Rogue’s husband.

Gambit pinned her with an eerie, intimidating stare. “If y’ come wit’ us, Ms. Tilby, y’ gon’ end up seeing some t’ings y’ shouldn’t-- t’ings dat would be of great interest t’ a number of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, if y’ get my drift.”

Slowly, Trish nodded. She’d had to deal with the military and its obsession with secrets as well as criminals wanting to protect their identities and methods.

His expression didn’t change. “Good. Den y’ understand why y’ can’t have y’ tapes until we’ve had a chance t’ go through them.” He cocked his head. “An’ why y’ gon’ need t’ be very careful wit’ what y’ say t’ anyone dat asks about what y’ saw an’ heard.”

Trish kept her face still as she absorbed the meaning in his words. There’d been a reason for the whole production of bringing her to this well-hidden club. It was a demonstration of power-- a clear warning that the X-Men possessed the means and the will to do whatever they found necessary to protect themselves and their interests.

She didn’t like it, but getting to the truth often involved doing things she didn’t like.

“I understand,” she told Gambit.


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