Continued from yesterday:
‘It’s just the time of year,’ sighed the winged woman, 'makes me think sad things, sometimes.’
'Like my family.’
Niota’s face crinkled with confusion, 'why’s it sad to have a family. I like having a family, even if we’re not properly related or nuthin’.’
Kaze smiled warmly at the little figure, 'I’m not sad becaue I have a family, I’m sad because I don’t have a family… or not a full one at least.’
'What happened to them?’
She shrugged, 'most of them are fine, I just don’t visit them much. I’m too busy and they… they would rather I visit only very occasionaly, and keep my visits a secret. They don’t want others knowing they have a mutant for a daughter, you see. Then there’s my brother…’
'What about your brother?’
'He… he died, a few years ago.’
Niota’s little face crinkled with shock, she moved forward and gently put her hand on Kaze’s lag.
'I’m sorry,’ she said, 'I guess I know how you feel. I’ve lost some brothers and sisters too, back at the labs. They used to take kids out of their cages and sometimes… sometimes they wouldn’t come back…’
Kaze winced, 'it must have been dreadful,’ she murmered, 'oh, I’m sorry for talking like this, I’m sure you’ve been through a lot more than me…’
Niota shrugged, 'it isn’t that bad,’ she said, 'see, once, back in the labs, I asked Spyke about it, and he reckoned that they were happier, the ones that didn’t come back. He told me that they’d gone to a place where they had an even bigger family, and loads of food and drink and toys… when I first came out of the labs, I thought that place was here… I don’t think it is now.’
'Nah, not really. But I do think those other kids went somewhere, and I think your brother must have gone somewhere too. Somewhere good.’
'What makes you so sure?’ asked Kaze, and then winced, she really shouldn’t be asking such a young child such questions. She was meant to be comforting them, not the other way round.
'Well,’ began Niota, 'way I see it, if they hadn’t gone somewhere good, they’d have come back, right? And no one has yet, right? Stands to reason.’
Kaze found herself laughing and, in one, quick movment, she took Niota up into her arms.
'Yes, little one,’ she chuckled, 'it does!’
On the other side of the room, Mandy was helping decorate the Christmas tree with tinsel. She had some electrical powers that she had trouble controlling at times, but since if she zapped someone it only felt like a bad case of static, she was still allowed out with the other children.
Many felt a sneeze coming on. “Ah-ah-ah-CHOO” Mandy opened her eyes. She felt much better, until she realized that her sneeze and powers had caused the tinsel to stick to everything and everyone in the room.
Warren struggled not to laugh as he came into the room and got a good look at a tinsel-covered Logan.
Niota started quietly plotting how she would get rid of all the tinself in the entire Foundation. After all, nobody she knew even really liked the stuff.
Steven found himself chasing some of the falling tinsel as his more feline instincts took ever. He wished there was tinsel all year 'round, but the adults had said it was only at Christmas time. Maybe he could talk Niota into helping him change that…
Kurt was subdued when he returned to the tunnels. He crawled along a wall with his famous grip, navigating a pile of flotsame and sending it on its way so it wouldn’t clog up the system in the meantime.
Rita met him at the entrance to the living area. There was obviously a shout-fest on her lips, but it slipped away at his dour expression. Kurt was always dour, but there must have been something especially bad about it this time, because she greeted him with the words, “Geez, who died?”
He glared at her, and her eyes widened, tone serious.
“Oh God. Who died?”
“A piece of me,” he replied, and pushed past her to confront Tech on tracking down the whereabouts of a magnetic mutant who should, by rights, be in jail right now.
With a quick, nimble movement of her fingers Jean tied the bandage on the man’s arm. Or tried to. For some reason her fingers weren’t doing quite what her brain told them to do. They slipped and the bandage unravelled a bit, she had to start again.
'Perhaps I could lend a hand?’ suggested Hank, his smooth voice coming from just behind her. In his arms he held a large bag full of medical equipment.
'Looks like you’ve got your hands full,’ commented Jean.
'True enough,’ admitted the doctor, 'but my feet however…’
He slipped one foot out of his shoe and, using just the toes, grabbed the bandage and fastend it.
'Wow,’ Jean said, managing to put some humour into her voice, 'neat trick.’
'Thank you,’ replied Hank, 'we’ve done all we can here now, I think. I’ll just drop these last medical supplies of then I think we ought to be gone.’
'Agreed,’ sighed Jean, helping him lower the crates of supplies.
She walked with him towards the jet.
'I’ve talked to him,’ she said at last.
'I take it you are reffering to Nightcrawler?’
'And he said?’
'He said… he… he understood my point of view.’
'Ah, do you still wish to go ahead?’
Hank sighed, 'I don’t like this.’
'I didn’t ask you to,’ replied Jean, 'if you don’t want to help I can look somewhere else…’
'No, no,’ replied the large doctor quickly, 'don’t, abortion is a risky business, better I do it and be competant than you find yourself in some back-street clinic. You know how difficult Mutant babies are to get rid of, don’t you?’
'No,’ replied Jean, honestly not knowing. It wasn’t anything she’d ever considered before.
'Well, they are. Almost impossible in fact.’
'But you can help me?’ She looked up hopefully at Hank, who did not meet her gaze.
'Yes… and no. I can’t, but I might know someone who can. Have you heard of Doctor Essex?’
Cyclops was starting to regret his choice to lead the team into the sewers. He’d started with supreme confidence in his ability to track down the Legion’s location - or at least to run across one of their members. After all, he had spent quite a bit of time as the Nightcrawler’s 'guest.’
Unfortunately, that time hadn’t exactly been spent getting to know the layout. They’d been pretty careful to make sure he wasn’t exposed to much in the way of useful information during his tenure in their 'guestroom’.
Right about now, up to his knees in filth and detritus, leading his team through the dank and twisting caverns of the Legion’s underground domain, he was starting to think maybe he should have delegated this task to Jean. No matter how strongly he felt about keeping her away from the man, he had no doubt that she could have homed in on him by now.
He paused at a tunnel juncture, looking for any clue as to which way to go, listening for any sound beyond the hollow echoes of stagnant water dripping from the curving walls and ceiling or the syrupy trickle of the filthy current they were wading through. He almost missed it, a faint metallic 'clang’ from somewhere around the next curve of the lefthand tunnel.
“This way team,” he announced with infinitely more certainty than he felt. No point in letting them know how little hope he really had of finding their quarry at this point. Ten more minutes and he’d give up - no matter how humiliating the failure would be. Ten more minutes and they’d be on their way back for a desperately needed hot shower and he wouldn’t have to listen to the discontented grumbling of his team from the murky shadows behind him.
“Colossus! Havok! Quit your complaining and get a move on!” God, at least Colossus didn’t have to worry about this filth sinking into his pores, he didn’t have any in his armored form and, given the fact he hardly had to breath either, he couldn’t even complain much about the stench. He’d expected his brother to bitch, it was what he did best after all, but did Piotr have to join the snarkfest as well. He stifled the sigh he wouldn’t let escape in front of his team and began the slow slog down the left-hand tunnel. _Ten more minutes….that’s all. Ten more minutes….._
Rita wasn’t sure why Nightcrawler was snubbing her, but she was dealing with it in her own, inimitable fashion. Namely, stalking the perimeters, looking for something to skewer and then teleport what remained into another dimension.
She had worked herself into a good, solid rant by the time she heard the voices. As such, she instantly pressed herself against the sewer wall, in case she had been spotted.
She hadn’t, and the approaching footsteps were accompanied by voiecs loud enough the most inept tracker could follow them. And Rita was nothing near inept.
She ascertained how many there were, and how large from the waves and splashes. Then, subtly dancing a portal to life, she moved herself in a position to drop from the ceiling into the middle of them.
A flash of steel, the red glow of an energy discharge powering up, and the musical 'ching’ of two swords being drawn and pressed aginst a captured throat.
“Well, well. Didn’t think you’d be back here quite so soon.”
Cyclops sat in her grasp like a corpse, completely unresponsive. “It’s your sparkling personality that keeps me coming back for more.”
“Charmer.” Rita was eyeing the other lackeys, both recognisable from their press pictures and positions on that 'Most Layable Mutant’ poll. Strangely enough, Colossus had scored higher than Havok even when his metallic form was touted as an off-putter. Apparently people like the burly tortured artist look.
He was armoured up, now, but made no move so long as she kept those scimitars to Cyclops’ throat. Likewise, Havok - minus the armour, of course, and plus a lot of muttered cussing.
“Okay, let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Why are you three snooping about around our borders?”
Scott’s mind worked quickly, so he wasn’t facing Nightcrawler, but it was the next best thing. He might as well see if he could get any answers out of her.
'The factory,’ he replied, trying not to look to worried, despite the presence of the large blades pressed close to his throat, 'did you blow it up?’
Rita blinked, then laughed harshly, 'you really are idiots!’ she cooed, 'of course we didn’t! Did it really look like the kind of thing Nightcrawler would sanction?’
'Who said he sanctioned it?’
Rita blinked, then growled, the implications of Scott’s words seething into her brain, 'I might not always agree with the boss,’ she rasped, 'but I do as he says, neithr I or any of the Legion would have pulled this off without his cosent.’
'So the Legion isn’t responsible?’ asked Piotr
'Hold on,’ protested Alex, 'are we supposed to belive this psychotic babe? Come on, the Legion had the means, the motivation, he’s even done this before, with the other toy factory.’
'That was when it was empty,’ spat back Rita, 'trust me on this, Nightcrawler is willing to defend his people, he’s passionate, he’s even brutal occasionaly, but he doesn’t kill for kicks. He isn’t like that, mores the pitty.’
'All very well and good,’ said Scott, 'but we’d like to meet him anyway.’
Rita blinked, 'what do you think this is? I’m the one holding the swords, friend.’
'True,’ agreed Scott, 'but you know we don’t mean you any harm now.’
'Oh really? And why should I trust you enough to let you go, let alone meet up with Nightcrawler?’
'Because,’ began Cyclops, 'there are far better targets for bombings than a toy factory, but few that would be more strongly linked to the Legion and Kurt. Whomever did this is obviously trying to frame you, and they have a fair amount of power behind them as well, if the destruction is any indication. From where I’m standing, you might need all the help you can get.’
She took moment to turn his words over in her brain. Damn it all to hell, but he was right. She removed the swords with a noise not unlike Wolverine’s egressing claws.
The portal bloomed, large and white. The X-Men half expected to see a set of pearly gates on the other side.
“Am I the only one who sees the word 'ambush’ and possibly 'trap’ written all over this?”
Scott ignored his brother, stepping into the portal. Colossus followed suit, and, with an exasperated sigh, Alex brought up the rear.
“We’re going to regret this. I know we are - ”
“Pretty boy, shut your mouth before I cut out your tongue and use it to clean the pipes.”
Nightcrawler had a splitting headache and a roaring temper, and thus was in no mood for visitors.
But he got them anyway.
“Boss!” Rita. Of all people, why did it have to be Rita? “Company!”
And then it was Rita, Cyclops, Havok and Colossus. His top four people that he didn’t need to see.
Kurt drew his sword and advanced on Spiral. “Gehst du raus.”
“GEHST DU *RAUS*!” The sword flashed. Drew blood. Just a little scar, a little hurt. Enough to remind her that he could get past her defences and hurt her. Enough to prove that he was in no mood to be gentle with her.
Spiral ran. He sheathed his sword. “What do *you* want?”
Scott swallowed. “The toy factory fire.”
“Not my work.”
“I think we both know that. The question is: who *did* do it?”
Kurt sighed. “…and *that’s* why I have a headache…” He plucked one of his puzzles from the pile where he’d stowed them. To anyone else, it looked like a burned piece of wood. “Look you. The alligatoring says that an accelerant was used to burn this place in a hurry. But *smell* it…”
They took it and passed it around.
“It smells burned,” said Havok.
“It smells burned,” Kurt mocked.
“I do not smell petrol,” said Colossus. “There is nothing on this wood but charcoal.”
“Exactly,” Kurt pointed at him. “So the next question is: how do you get a fire that hot without an accelerant?”
“Pyrokinetic,” said Scott. “A fire-shaper.”
Kurt’s hair stood on end. “I’ve only heard stories… a mutant, tuned to fire… They can take any kind of spark and change it into an inferno,” he took the alligatored wood back from Colossus, staring at it, “in just instants.”
“And the metal-shaper?” said Colossus. “The one who left the message?”
“He was a cruel one,” said Kurt. “All the doors were shut. All the locks locked, and then *warped* so that no key would open them… all before the fire broke out. The people inside were trapped. Doomed to die.” He fished out a lock, and drew a small knife. “But that one was not *quite* a metal-shaper.” The lock stuck to the knife, dangling there. “They use the power of magnetism.”
“Magneto,” said Havok. “He’s still *alive*?”
Kurt zeroed in on him. “What do you know of this Magneto?”
“That depends. What do *you* know about him?”
Kurt glared. “The usual media gossip. He tried to set off a dozen or so nuclear warheads from a base just north of the Pacific last year. You X-Men stopped the warheads, tracked him to a 'secret’ base underneath the Statue of Liberty, and duked it our from there. He went to jail, you went on the news, the government filled in his base with concrete and all was once again well with the world.”
“And the rest?”
“There is nothing else.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “Oh come on. We *know* you have hackers in this place - good ones, too. You’re expecting us to believe you relied solely on newspapers and CNN all this time?”
Kurt was pensive a second, and then cocked his head to one side. “I know that Magneto’s real name was Erik Magnus Lensherr, that he is a Holocaust survivor who looks remarkably good for his age, and that he once presided over a quasi-terrorist group named the 'Brotherhood of Mutants’. Which never really got off the ground, after its first attempt to cow the human race into submission - i.e. those aforementioned nuclear warheads.”
“Very good. Do you also know that during the last year in confinement he was being treated for dual personality disorder?”
Kurt’s gaze narrowed. “I… did not,” he said at length.
“He believes himself to be three people, from what I understand,” Scott said simply. “Erik, Magnus, and Magneto. The latter is the leader of the terrorist group you mentioned. The other two… well, Mr. Dann wasn’t too forthcoming on details regarding their status as seperate entities, but from what I could glean one of them is permanently stuck at the age of fourteen. The same age he was when he lived in Auschwitz.”
“And the other?”
“Very helpful, I’m sure. But how exactly does this pertain to the Toy Factory?”
“It might be prudent to know which personality was in control to motivate the attack. If it was Magneto, then you may have an unwelcome ally. The others… He may be setting the Legion up to take the fall for him. Discrediting you for some future pupose. What it might be I can only hope to guess at, but it won’t be good, I can promise you that.”
“Wunderbar,” Kurt growled. “*FUCKING* wundervoll…” He threw the lock at a wall and his knife at a handy target. The latter hit dead centre and vibrated slowly to a standstill. “On top of everything *else*, I’m not just fighting a man, I’m fighting a verdammt *committee*!”
“If it helps, we could–”
“You could *what*?” Kurt demanded, mocking them with sarcasm. “Team up? Oh, ja. I’d just *love* the opportunity to be merchandise for the kleine kinder…” his voice fell to a mutter as he massaged his head. “…rip off their heads and tear the stuffing out…”
Havok backed a half-step away. “Uh… bro’…? Are you *sure* about doing this?”
Scott wasn’t paying attention to his team. “You’ve got more to deal with than just this, haven’t you?”
“There’s no such thing as 'just’ anything, Herr Einauge. You’ll learn that if you’re going to grow up.”
“I think I’m at least a little older than *you*,” Scott sneered.
“Perhaps. But you still let others take care of things *for* you. You’ve yet to stand up and take something as a matter wholly for yourself.” He touched his necklace of charms, and visibly gentled. “But that’s a matter for another time. You were able to get security footage?”
“No. Everything was destroyed in the fire.”
“Thorough,” said Kurt, and then he teleported into Tech’s nest. “Tech!”
“D'WAH!” Fingers flew and screens changed. They changed from sultry women in seductive poses to screens upon screens of information. “IsweartoGoditwasforresearch!”
His headache got worse. “Find out everything you can about a man named Erik Magnus Lensherr and where is now. See if you can unearth a fire-shaper in his company. Bring it to me when you’re done.”
“And no looking at naked ladies,” he added.
Tech at least had the decency to blush.
Kurt bamfed back, and almost collapsed onto his chair. Damn headaches. “Now,” he said. “Before my people confirm what you’re about to say. Tell *me* what *you* know about Lensherr… and the company he keeps.”
Logan opened the door with a small, dribbling child attached to his forearm, and another on his leg. As such, he greeted the visitor standing on the stoop with an ill-concealed growl.
Ororo breezed past, oblivious to his charms. “Where’s Warren?”
The man in question appeared from behind a door, wings bedecked in tinsel. A small boy with tiger stripes was chasing the end as it trailed along the floor in his wake, catlike in the extreme.
“Someone say my name?”
“There’s something you need to see on TV.” Ororo sped into the main lounge area, did a double-take upon seeing the mass of children around their Christmas tree, and looked to the building’s benefactor for an alternative.
Warren, sensing this was something the kids shouldn’t be witness to, gestured her upstairs and along a corridor to a small anteroom covered in cardboard boxes that served as his office. Once both of them were inside, he shut the door, keeping prying eyes out.
A television was parked on the desk, surrounded by piles upon piles of paperwork Sandra had not yet been able to sort through. Ororo flipped this on and turned to ZNN, and a picture of the Luvums Toy Factory.
“My God…” Warren whispered, reading the tickertape scrolling along the bottom of the screen.
“They think it’s the Legion of the Unwanted. Have done since the report started this morning. Nightcrawler’s denying the attack with all strength, from what Scott told me via his comlink on the way over. Unfortunately, the media’s already in a frenzy over mutant
Warren’s mine performed a feq quick calculations. “You think they’re going to target prominant mutant hotspots?”
“Maybe not the authorities, but vigilante groups… It’s possible. Happened before.”
Warren punched an open palm and glared daggers at the TV, which buzzed more details of the death toll and damage assessment being performed by the X-Men. The image switched to that of Jean and Remy, flanked by a large man in a grey turtleneck. They were levering a plank of metal off what might have been a conveyor belt before it melted. Then it cut back to the reporter in the studio, presumably to hide the bodies discovered beneath.
“What’s Hank doing there? I thought he was in his office?”
The house rocked suddenly, trembling all the way down to its foundations. A melee of screams came up the stairs, followed by adults shouting for everybody to calm down.
Neither Warren nor Ororo thought, they simply turned and pelted out of the room and down the stairs.
Logan met them in the lower hall. “Bunch of teenagers throwin’ bottles at the frontage,” he said simply.
“Bottles don’t do that,” Ororo protested, words punctuated by another explosive sound that made the building sudder.
“They do if they’ve been converted into molotov cocktails.”
Kaze came out of a side door, followed closely by Sandra. Both women were holding small, snivelling children. Beyond a clutch of kids huddled underneath the toppled Christmas tree, which was smoking. The window had been smashed by the machinations outside.
'He had several followers,’ began Scott, 'they called themselves Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants. Some were captured with their leader, others escaped.’
'Start with those then,’ barked Nightcrawler, easing himself down onto his bed, rubbing his aching skull, 'perhaps we can use them to trace him.’
'Are you sure about this?’ whispered Alex to Scott before he could begin, 'he is the enemy, after all…’
Scott simply raised his hand and gave his younger brother a look which, even through his visor, told him in no uncertain terms to shut up.
'Magneto’s most avid follower,’ he began, 'was a man by the name of Todd Toynbee (1), AKA The Toad. He lived up to his name, he seemed to follow Magneto almost fanatically, like he was some sort of father figure or something. There were doubts about his sanity even at the beginning, apparently, but after he was caught it seemed to dissolve completely.’
'A mad man following a mad man,’ muttered Nightcrawler, 'wunderbar. But you said he was in prison…?’
'He escaped, about a year back. No one knows where he is. He’s a rather ugly man, warty, smelly, he has super powered legs, can spit slime and a prehensile tongue. Not the most powerful of mutants but nasty enough.’
Kurt was frowning as he listened to the description.
'A moment,’ he said, and with a puff of smelly brimstone, he disappeared.
And reappeared behind Tech, who this time was far from surpised.
'Yep,’ the technogeek passed him a few sheets of paper over his shoulder, his eyes not straying from the busy screen, 'there’ll be more soon.’
Nightcrawler reappeared with the papers clutched tightly in his three-fingered hands. He was scanning through it even as the smoke around him cleared.
Colossus, being the tallest, craned his neck and strained his eyes to catch what was on the paper. He saw photos and some small text by them, pictures of the Brotherhood.
'Is this the man?’ asked Nightcrawler, showing all three of them the paper and pointing to the appropriate picture.
'Yep,’ said Scott, 'that’s the guy.’
Nightcrawler nodded, 'I thought so, he sounded familiar. I’ve met him, you see.’
'Ja, but only briefly and it was quite a while ago, six months at least. I found him wandering the tunnels, he seemed quite a wreck then, I doubt time as improved him. I offered him help but he refused, he seemed to be looking for someone, the 'master’, or some such,’ Nightcrawler shrugged, 'I do my best to help people but if they refuse my aid, who am I to force them? Besides, he was hardly a pleasant individual. I let him go on his way. Do you think he has rejoined Magneto?’
Scott shrugged, 'who knows,’ he said, 'he would if he could, I think, though whether Magneto would accept him back… he was hardly the most capable of minions.’
'What about the other two you mentioned?’
Scott pointed wordlessly to the largest picture on Nightcrawlers sheet of paper. It showed a black and white, fuzzy image of two people. It was the kind of image security cameras took, as opposed to all the other pictures which had been taken from prison photo shoots.
The text beside it read 'Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.’
'Who are they, then?’ asked Nightcrawler, studying the picture. It was hard to tell any details from it, but the man seemed to have striking, pail hair and an athletic build. The woman, on the other hand, had darker hair and wore a flowing costume.
'The only two of Magneto’s minions to escape capture,’ began Scott, 'Quicksilver lives up to the name, he has super speed.’
'There was no way any of us could catch up with him,’ put in Havoc, 'he was just too fast, as soon as he decided to skidaddle, that was it. And he took the babe with him too.’
'Which was not entirely a bad thing,’ added Colossus, 'she was very powerful.’
'And that is all you know?’ asked Nightcrawler, his eyes trained on Cyclops. There was something about Scott’s stance which seemed… odd. Probably nothing, but still…
'More or less,’ replied Scott, 'we’ve guess that they have close relationship, perhaps lovers or something, and they seemed to have traces of a European accent, but that’s all we have on them.’
'And you have no idea where they are? No attempt was made to capture them?’
'How do you capture the fastest man alive?’ asked Colossus when his leader did not immediately reply, 'we knew nothing of them, not where they could go, not where they came from. With his speed, Quicksilver could be anywhere in America, and even further afield if they managed to get a flight or boat out. And this was long ago now. Besides, they did not seem the most… ah… strong of followers.’
'So, what you’re saying,’ sighed Nightcrawler, 'is that of those escaped, no one knows where they are, how to get them, or if they have already rejoined Magneto. We have, in short, no leads.’
'There’s still Magneto’s guys in the lock-up,’ put in Alex.
'Ah, yes, tell me about them. Perhaps they will hold some useful information.’
(1) I’m using a mixture of evo-Toad’s name and Comic Toad. I can change it if you wan’t, I just thought it was fitting, OK?
Back at the Foundation, Logan managed to get rid of the last of the clinging children, then jump out the window to give the teens a “warning” they’d never forget. Behind him, Sandra, Kaze, and a few dozen Jamie comforted the children while Warren directed a work crew of Jamies on how to clean up the rubble.
In all the melee none saw Niota lead her ragtag family outside to deal with the vandals the only way they knew how: the way the scientists had dealt with them when they were unruly.