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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 41

Adrian Tyre paced restlessly across his living room. The same question had been eating at him for more than a week, and he was running out of time to make a decision.

What was LeBeau planning?

His entire future hinged on the answer to that question. The Guild continued to buzz with questions about the penetration of Worthington Industries’ security. Predictably, LeBeau had spun the facts to minimize the damage to himself, confirming only that one of the golden passcards had been used to bypass the security system. Most people assumed the breach had been on Worthington’s side, and LeBeau had done nothing to disabuse them of that notion.

Exactly as Adrian had expected him to. No doubt the Guildmaster had a very good idea when and how he’d lost his card. Just as he would naturally suspect Adrian was involved, even if he had no proof. But the knowledge was useless to LeBeau because he couldn’t voice his suspicions without admitting he’d fallen prey to a simple pickpocketing. Something the third ranked Master Thief in the world couldn’t afford to do.

Coming to the edge of the room, Adrian pivoted sharply. No, the question was what he might be planning to do about it. If anything.

A knock at the door interrupted his musings. He went to answer it, and wasn’t terribly surprised to find Carson on the far side. The thief had finally returned from Florida two days earlier, tanned and bringing with him gifts from the Guildmaster of Miami as a token of that Guild’s gratitude for New York’s help.

Adrian opened the door and stepped back as Carson came inside. They shook hands, and Carson’s expression sharpened.

“You look frustrated.”

Adrian shrugged, turning away. He hadn’t said anything to the other man about the steps he was taking to get rid of LeBeau once and for all, and didn’t intend to. He trusted Carson as much as he trusted anyone, but some things could never be said aloud.

“I’m getting tired of being the only person who sees catastrophe on the horizon,” he said after a moment.

Carson sank onto the couch with a sigh. “The council doesn’t have much choice right now but to back the Guildmaster. He may be crazy and dangerous, but he’s getting things done. Until he fails--and fails spectacularly--that’s not going to change.”

Adrian grimaced. The affair with Rogue was supposed to be that failure. More than embarrassing LeBeau, it had shattered the rock star-like mystique surrounding the man and made him out to be a liar willing to betray his own Guild for the sake of a woman. It should have been an unrecoverable blunder. But who could have predicted the lengths to which Rogue would go in order to protect him?

Adrian returned to his pacing. “We can always hope we’ll get lucky and he and the X-Men will fail themselves into an early grave with this mission of theirs.”

There was the crux of his dilemma. It was quite possible LeBeau would get himself killed in the next few days without any assistance from him. But if he didn’t…

Adrian shook his head subconsciously. If he didn’t, and the X-Men actually pulled off an attack on a sentinels final assembly plant, LeBeau’s hold on the Guild would once again be unshakable.

Carson watched him pace, a narrow crease between his pale brows. Adrian ignored him. What could LeBeau be planning? He was certain the Guildmaster had not confided in even his most ardent supporters on the council. He would have been able to tell. And his people who worked in the Guild’s communications center had tracked every call LeBeau made or received. He hadn’t made any suspicious contacts, and as far as Adrian could tell, his only trips outside had been to Worthington Industries. He couldn’t guarantee the Guildmaster hadn’t made any additional stops, but if he had, he’d kept it quiet. Very quiet. Like any good thief, Adrian kept feelers out across the city and beyond, and LeBeau had tripped none of them.

All that left was the X-Men. Most of them were do-gooders who wouldn’t lower themselves to helping LeBeau plot murder. Drake, of course, was the Guildmaster’s creature all the way. Adrian didn’t think there was anything he wouldn’t do if LeBeau asked it of him. The Wolverine, too, was a possibility. As was Worthington’s girlfriend. But, though any of them might have been willing to help LeBeau… had they? He didn’t think Drake or Logan could have done much without someone in the Guild noticing. Drake was young and inexperienced, still, and though Wolverine might be many things—all of them dangerous—subtle he was not.

Worthington’s woman—the purple-haired ninja—had plenty of opportunity, but she was far more conspicuous than either of the others.

All of it pointed to the possibility that LeBeau wasn’t planning anything. That despite what he knew, or thought he knew, he had been left with no room to maneuver and was powerless to prevent Adrian from selling his life right out from under him. Which was exactly what Adrian had intended when he started on this course. But now that he’d reached the decision point, his doubts nagged at him.

He could simply do nothing and let the chips fall where they may. The X-Men could fail. LeBeau could end up dead in an OZT installation in the back woods of Virginia. That was the safe choice.

Adrian snorted softly to himself. No, safe choices were for those too weak or afraid to take hold of everything life offered. Not for him.

“You okay?” Carson asked from his place on the couch.

Adrian looked up and found himself smiling. “I’m good,” he assured his friend.

“An’ if ya would just listen ta me for one second--!” Rogue’s hands balled into fists at her sides.

Remy’s gaze narrowed. “I am listenin’, chere. I jus’ don’t agree.”

From his position on the far side of the Guildmaster’s massive desk, Scott could see the bunched muscle in Remy’s jaw as the couple glared at each other. It was the second spat of the morning, and he could tell the other man’s patience was wearing thin.

“Then ya bein’ an idiot!” Rogue jabbed her husband in the chest with one finger.

Scott saw Remy’s temper snap. “All right, dat’s it.” He grabbed her hand, twisting it away in a disarming motion. Had she been holding a weapon, she would have been forced to drop it. “I ain’ sure what’s goin’ on wit’ you today, but cut it out.”

Rogue gasped, two white spots appearing on her cheeks. She yanked her hand out of his grasp, her green eyes shining with angry tears.

“Fine.” Whirling away, she stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind her for good measure.

For a moment, no one moved. Then Wolverine grunted. “She’s in a mood this mornin’.”

Remy heaved a sigh and shook his head. “Feel like I’m in a time warp,” he muttered.

The various guildmembers in the office remained frozen, their expressions owlish. But, Scott reflected, they’d probably never witnessed an argument between these two. He couldn’t imagine how they would react to the kind of full-blown—and occasionally full-powers—fights the X-Men had had front-row seats for.

Scott’s lips twisted in a sour smile. “Guess the honeymoon had to end some time,” he said in an undertone. Wolverine made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

Scott sobered. Unfortunately, today was a really bad day for Rogue to pick to revert. In less than twenty-four hours they would be on board the Blackbird, headed for Virginia and the prime sentinels manufacturing facility.

He paused, struck by a sudden thought. With a nod to Logan, he left what he was doing and headed out of the office.

He found Rogue in the school, trying to muscle one end of a rolled up carpet out into the middle of one of the classrooms from its former position up against one wall. It was Saturday so class wasn’t in session, and in the remarkable quiet of the empty caverns he could clearly hear Rogue muttering angrily under her breath.

Scott stopped in the doorway. Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned one shoulder against the rough stone.

“So,” he said after a few moments, “are you going to be able to handle this?”

Rogue dropped the carpet with a startled exclamation. She straightened and planted her hands on her hips. “Am ah gonna be able ta handle what?” she demanded.

Scott didn’t let her sharp tone faze him. “Going into a combat situation with your husband.”

Rogue jerked and he heard her suck in her breath in a hiss. “Are ya questionin’ mah professionalism?”

Scott raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, I guess I am,” he answered in a matter-of-fact tone.

Rogue’s gaze darkened dangerously. She opened her mouth for a retort, but before Scott could do more than brace himself, she abruptly closed it again.

She turned her head away, moistening her lips. “We’ve been fightin’ together foh almost four years, sugah. Ah’ll handle it like ah always have.”

“Things have changed, Rogue.”

“Doesn’t matter.” She wouldn’t look at him.

Scott stroked his chin, debating how had to push. Finally, he straightened. “Okay, I’m just going to lay this out,” he said. He had to make sure he got through to her. His responsibility had to be to his team first.

Rogue glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, but didn’t move.

“So here’s the deal,” Scott continued. “Gambit’s the key to getting us into this sentinels plant, and my understanding is that we’re pushing the limit of even his skills. So, in as much as whatever’s going on with you is going to mess with him, it needs to stop.”

She was silent for nearly a minute. Scott watched her, waiting for some kind of acknowledgment--some kind of confirmation that she’d understood.

“How do you do it?” Rogue asked suddenly. She turned to face him, but her gaze fastened on the floor near his feet. “All these years ya been with Jean. How do you go on mission after mission, knowin’ somethin’ could happen to her?”

A familiar knot lodged in his stomach at the question, bringing with it the stale taste of remembered fear. Part of him hated the fact that Jean insisted on fighting with the X-Men, even as the rest of him loved her fiercely for her courage and her willingness to put her life on the line for the sake of others.

He took a cautious step forward into the room. “I can’t let myself think of Jean as my wife whenever we’re on a mission,” he told her. “If I did, I couldn’t make rational decisions.” He took another step and deliberately lightened his tone. “Besides, she’d never forgive me if I tried to make her stay at home.”

Rogue wrapped her arms around herself as if warding off a chill. Her gaze darted upward to Scott’s and then away. “Remy gets so mad at me when ah try ta protect him.”

Scott nodded. He’d seen that particular scenario play out any number of times and he understood Gambit’s frustration with her. “It comes across as disrespect—like you don’t think he can take care of himself.”

Rogue hunched her shoulders. “Ah know.” She stared at her toes, and he saw her swallow hard. “Ah feel like ah can’t breathe.” She shot him a look filled with quiet desperation. “Ah don’t think ah can go back ta bein’ alone again—”

With quick strides, Scott crossed the space separating them and drew her into an awkward hug. She remained rigid in his grasp, and his heart went out to her. “Remy’s got an uncanny talent for staying alive,” he said after a moment.

She didn’t react, and after a moment he stepped back, gripping her by both shoulders. “I understand your fear, Rogue. I really do. But I meant what I said—you’ve got to be able to get a grip on this, lock it away inside somewhere, or you’ll become a liability to the team. And on this mission we just don’t have any margin for error.”

Rogue chewed on her lip, her gaze distant, but eventually she nodded. He could see her pulling herself together by degrees. “Okay, Cyke.” She raised her head, meeting his gaze directly for the first time that morning. “Ah hear ya. I’ll—” Her expression wavered just for a moment before settling into a kind of hard resolve. “I’ll cope.”

Scott summoned a smile. “That’s all I can ask.”

Adrian slipped out of the complex just after noon. He knew he was cutting it close, time-wise, but it had taken longer than he expected to make contact with OZT. After Worthington’s shooting Garbo’s superiors had taken notice as Adrian intended, but the result was an added layer of red tape.

The delay worked to Adrian’s advantage in some ways. Because of the narrow window, there would be little opportunity for OZT to investigate the source of the information. They would be too busy moving on it. And once LeBeau was dead, Adrian had every intention of evaporating into the wind as far as OZT was concerned. With the X-Men gone, the Guild could go back to what it was supposed to be doing and get out of the hero business.

It was a beautiful day, he noted wryly. Probably the last warm weekend of the year. The trees that lined this particular street were in the later stages of color, their leaves a riotous mottling of reds and yellows. A number had already fallen on the sidewalk and crunched beneath his shoes as he walked. The smell of roasted peanuts drifted from the direction of Central Park, making his stomach rumble.

Adrian kept a watchful eye on the people moving about him. It would be ironic if his plans came to naught because of a random encounter with a prime sentinel. Primarily, though, he kept his senses peeled for the assassin common sense told him LeBeau could still have waiting for him. Whoever it was, it would be quick, subtle and very quiet because LeBeau could not afford to have word get back to the Guild.

A man approaching from the opposite direction caught his attention. He was of Hispanic descent, with his dark, wavy hair slicked back and his cheeks pockmarked with old acne scars. He trailed behind a couple of Latino gang-bangers dressed in baggy jeans, wife-beaters and copious tattoos, nearly invisible in the shadow of their loud, overtly aggressive presence on the sidewalk. He had a predatory grace to him that set Adrian’s internal alarms to ringing.

Adrian readied himself, gauging the remaining distance between himself and the other man. The fingers of his right hand flexed instinctively, itching for the knife strapped to his forearm in a drop-down sheath. He carried a 40 Smith & Wesson in a shoulder holster as well, but the gun would draw far more attention than he wanted. The assassin would wait for him to pick a side on which to pass around the two gang-bangers before making his move. He would probably expect Adrian to pass on the right-hand side, which was instinctive for most Americans.

Adrian aimed his steps directly toward the gang members, who sized him up with a matched pair of arrogant grins as they sauntered along. The gold chains around their necks glinted in the bright sunlight. At the last moment, Adrian side-stepped to the left, twisting his body as slipped around the pair to put himself at a better angle on his target. The knife dropped into his hand.

He realized his mistake just a fraction of a second too late. The man with the slicked-back hair wasn’t carrying a weapon. Instead, he raised one arm to block Adrian’s knife thrust, and with the other stuck a small canister in his face which sprayed a fine, wet mist. Adrian breathed it in before he could stop himself. His lungs immediately seized as if he’d breathed in acid. He doubled over involuntarily, gagging and choking.

The gang-bangers spun around, grabbing Adrian from behind. Instinctively, Adrian reversed the knife in his hand with a quick twist and drove it backward into the thigh of the nearest man. He heard a howl of rage and someone cursing in rapid-fire Spanish but had no opportunity to judge how much damage the knife had done as the man with the slicked-back hair grabbed Adrian by the hair and smashed his face into his drawn up knee.

Pain exploded in Adrian’s face. He staggered and would have fallen if it weren’t for the two who pinned his arms from behind. Someone took the handgun from his holster. Tires squealed as a vehicle skidded to an abrupt stop on the street beside them. Adrian heard the distinctive sound of a van door sliding back on its rails. Dread coiled in his stomach as he realized what was happening. Somehow LeBeau had out-maneuvered him. His lungs burned, a white-hot agony he could barely breathe through.

The two gang-bangers half-carried half-propelled Adrian to the van. He fought them, but they had the advantage of both numbers and leverage. They tossed him inside, where he landed on his back on the bare metal floor. The men quickly climbed inside and the bright sunlight abruptly cut out as the van door slammed shut. Before Adrian could gather himself, the man with the slicked-back hair leaned over him, his expression smug.

“Say goodnight, Gracie,” he said in thickly-accented English and then punched Adrian hard in the face.

Adrian spun away into darkness.

Trish Tilby watched the X-Men with great interest from her seat near the back of the Blackbird’s cabin. She’d done her best to remain quiet and unobtrusive as the mutant team went about its business, though that hadn’t stopped her from having Eddie roll film. She wanted as much footage of the X-Men in action as she could get.

Despite the cramped environs, there was a great deal of activity on board the jet. Cyclops and Storm were in the cockpit. Just aft of them, Hank and a very large black man who had been introduced as Bishop were hunched over a rather sophisticated-looking array of video monitors and other assorted AV equipment. They looked like they were checking connections and sorting out wiring. Even from the opposite end of the cabin, Trish found herself catching occasional snatches of conversation and she was surprised by how fortifying she found the sound of Hank’s rumbling voice.

Her heart squeezed unexpectedly at the thought. Hank had barely acknowledged her when she boarded the plane, and the one time she had managed to catch his gaze, the wordless betrayal in his blue eyes had been like a physical force pushing her away.

Mid-cabin, the bulk of the X-Men gathered in a loose group around a large schematic that several of them held open across the seat backs, apparently going over last-minute mission timing. They all seemed strangely appropriate in their dark colored uniforms, though it was distinctly odd to see the mutants armed with ordinary weapons instead of their powers.

Perhaps even stranger, though, was Mystique’s presence with the group. She, too, was dressed in the X-Men’s colors and had a sniper’s rifle slung across her back. Trish had not been able to contain her curiosity, but when she’d asked Cyclops about the mutant terrorist’s presence his only answer had been a shrug. “She’s family, and she’s helping,” he’d said.

Finally, Trish turned her gaze toward the back of the aircraft. In the small open space surrounding a medical unit, the demon-eyed Gambit and Bobby Drake, of all people, were going through a final check of their equipment, which, from what Trish could see involved a combination of high-tech gadgetry and climbing gear. The two were dressed a little differently from the rest. Though their uniforms bore the same red highlights and the X-Men’s symbol, they appeared to be designed entirely for stealth rather than combat.

Trish had done some digging after her meeting with the X-Men at that ritzy gambling club. She had a couple of contacts inside NYPD, and they’d given her some very interesting—albeit conflicting—information about the mutant known as Gambit. Some rumors had him involved in organized crime, though the guys over in OCCB swore he wasn’t one of the Kingpin’s people. Other rumors said he’d come out of the intelligence community, though that usually implied military experience and as far as Trish could tell, no one named Remy LeBeau had ever served. The most reliable information she’d been able to dig up labeled the man as nothing more than a fairly sophisticated thief who worked on contract for anyone who could afford his services, which made her wonder how and why he’d ended up with the X-Men.

Trish didn’t really know what to make of Bobby. This was definitely not the same goofy, immature young man who’d trailed around in Hank’s shadow. Instead, he gave off an air of competence as he methodically checked his gear. He’d also buffed up in the time since her break-up with Hank, she noted. The tight suits left little to the imagination, and Bobby now wore the sleek, well-defined musculature of an acrobat.

While Trish’s thoughts continued to turn, Rogue broke away from the main group of X-Men and made her way down the center aisle toward the med unit. Her hair had been pulled back into a thick braid that fell nearly to her waist, and she, too, wore a high-power rifle across her back. Trish wondered briefly what it must have been like to grow up with Mystique.

Rogue stopped when her shadow fell across her husband, who looked up abruptly from his conversation with Bobby.

Rogue cleared her throat. “About yesterday, sugah—”

Gambit shook his head, effectively cutting her off with the gesture. “I can’t do dis right now, chere,” he said. “’M sorry.” He immediately turned back to Bobby, apparently resuming the conversation where they’d left off.

Rogue stared at him for a long moment, her throat working soundlessly. But then she turned and walked back to her place with the other X-Men.

“I wonder what that was about,” Eddie commented from behind his camera.

Trish could only shrug. “Who knows? I can’t image what kind of stress being an X-Man would put on a marriage.”

“Two minutes thirty seconds to the first insertion point.” Cyclops’ voice crackled across the Blackbird’s communication system. Like the rest of the X-Men, Trish wore a wireless headset that allowed communication between the cockpit and cabin.

“Acknowledged,” Gambit answered.

Trish watched as he and Bobby wrapped up what they were doing and slid into their packs. The two men set their headsets aside, rose to their feet and moved to the side of the cabin where the ramp was located.

Trish felt the change in pressure as the aircraft descended. She yawned to clear her ears. A few seconds later, she felt the Blackbird settle to the ground in vertical mode. The ramp opened just far enough for the two X-Men to slip through the opening and leap to the ground. They disappeared almost immediately into the night-shrouded woods surrounding the clearing in which they’d landed.

Rogue, she noted, watched the silent departure with a haunted expression in her eyes, but she didn’t say anything.

The ramp closed with a mechanical thump and Trish heard the engines spool back up. The Blackbird rose smoothly into the sky. They only flew for a couple of minutes before setting down once again. This time the engines cut out and the access ramp descended fully. The X-Men deplaned, and Trish rose to follow them. Pine trees rose a hundred feet into the air all around the narrow cleared corridor in which they’d landed.

Cyclops was the last to emerge. He looked his team over with a keen expression then gestured toward two of the X-Men. “Wolverine, Psylocke, secure the perimeter.”

The two nodded nearly in unison and headed off in opposite directions, disappearing into the darkness.

Cyclops braced his hands on his hips. “All right, everyone. Let’s get to work.”

To Trish’s surprise, several of the X-Men—including Cyclops and the big man, Bishop—immediately began removing the upper half of their body armor suits, revealing black lycra t-shirts beneath. Others milled about, setting up several tripod-mounted lights. Trish had no idea what to make of it until someone removed a set of shovels from a storage compartment in the airplane’s belly. Under Cyclops’ direction, they marked off an area perhaps four feet by four feet within the circle of illumination cast by the lights and began to dig.

Trish watched for a few minutes before turning her steps reluctantly toward the Blackbird’s ramp. The only X-Man who hadn’t exited the plane was Hank. Eddie drifted after her, camera balanced casually on his shoulder.

Trish found Hank still with the AV equipment. He had brought out a laptop, which he was in the process of connecting to the other electronics.

Trish clasped her hands in front of her, feeling awkward and uncomfortable. “Hi, Hank,” she said when he looked over his shoulder at her. “Do you have some time to explain what’s going on to me?”

His startled, wary expression quickly morphed into one of scholarly affability. “Of course.” He waved to the front row of the Blackbird’s seats. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”

Trish settled in a seat that gave her a good view of the array of monitors. Hank turned his back to her and went back to work.

“What would you like to know?” he asked without turning.

Trish paused to organize her thoughts. “Well, what is all this?” she asked with a wave toward the bank of equipment. “And why are they digging outside?”

“We’re tapping into the assembly facility’s internal security system.”

Trish blinked in surprise. “It’s that easy?”

Hank chuckled and shook his head. “Oh my, no. We’re just picking up the feed out here. The actual hacking has to be done from the inside.”

“I see.” That explained what Gambit and Bobby—Iceman, she corrected herself since they were supposed to use codenames only—were doing. “How long will it take?”

Hank checked his watch. “We’re supposed to go live in a little under three hours.” Apparently satisfied with the connections to the laptop, he pushed it aside and pulled out another thick bundle of cables which he began gently separating with the tips of his claws. “I’ll be running the systems here, and playing the eyes and ears for the insertion teams.”

“Teams?” As far as Trish knew, there was just the one team going into the interior of the plant.

Hank nodded. “You saw the schematics, correct?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “There are three guard towers, for lack of a better term, that overlook the grounds. The second team is responsible for neutralizing those.”

“And by ‘neutralizing’ you mean…?”

He turned to look at her then, his blue eyes weary behind the wire-rimmed spectacles. “You know, there was once a time when we could do this kind of thing and nearly guarantee no one would be seriously injured. We had telepaths to knock people unconscious from a distance, without harming them. A mutant who controls temperature who could do the same. Telekinetics and energy manipulators who could raise defensive shields.” He shook his head sadly and turned away once again. “Now we are reduced to having no choice but to kill before we are killed.”

Momentarily out of questions, Trish stared at his broad back, wondering why her fingers suddenly itched for the feel of his fur. She balled her hands into fists in her lap. “So, how badly do you still hate me?” The question popped out of her mouth before she could consider it.

Hank went very still. “I do not believe this is the time to be having this discussion,” he said after a minute.

Trish bit her lip. “That much, huh?” she muttered to herself. Wiping her palms on the dark fabric of her military-style cargo pants, she stood. She waited a moment to see if Hank would say anything, and when he didn’t, she made her way back outside.


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