Continued from yesterday:
Alex groaned, holding a hand to his head. He heard scuffling nearby, then a cool hand rested against his cheek, gently pressing him back down.
“Shhh, don’t try to get up. You took quite a nasty bump to the noggin, Mr Gung-ho.”
“Someone get me the license plate of that truck,” he replied blearily, forcing his eyelids open, and then shutting them again at the brilliance they encountered. “What happened? Jean?”
“We got our butts kicked. Truly and soundly.” She sighed, and he knew the sound to be one of irritation.
“None of our own - save you - but all the ‘terrorists’ are dead. Uh… as well as a few crowd members.”
Alex opened his eyes again as heavy footsteps thudded over, and found himself looking up into the face of his brother. Scott’s eyes were bound with what looked like a shredded tablecloth. Of his visor there was no sign, and Alex vaguely remembered the six-armed woman ripping it off just before she introduced his head quite forcibly to the wall. After that things got a bit hazy.
“Anything I should know, bro?”
“Dann’s gonna be pissed,” was the succint reply.
Jean nodded, wiping a smear of blood from her face. “Major league. Still, at least we managed to save that singer.” She looked up. “Where is she, anyway?”
“Right here,” said an unfamiliar voice, and a ruffled face framed by blonde hair hove into view over the telepath’s shoulder. “And *she* would like some answers now, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Gambit wouldn’t mind a few either.” The Cajun appeared at her side, rubbing ruefully at the back of his head. “Mon Dieu, what happened? Anybody here know about some'tin called 'Legion of de Unwanted’? 'Cause I t'ink dat be who our unexpected guests were.”
Alex hoisted himself into a sitting position, helped by Jean. “Pretty small legion.”
“They managed to whup our butts, flyboy,” she said, not unkindly as he winced and fingered the sizeable lump now gracing his forehead.
Remy’s face turned dark, and he scowled. “Oui. I t'ink we be gettin' outta practice, mes amis. One elf and his hormonal girlfriend, and *poof*, laid out X-Men on de floor. T'anks, by de way.”
Dazzler blinked, surprised to be addressed. “Huh?”
“Much as it pains Gambit to admit it, you saved his life back there, cherie Dazzler.”
“Uh, your welcome.” She shrugged. “My career was pretty much shot to shit when that bastard outed me on live TV, so I figured, hey, might as well go the whole hog, so to speak. And it’s Alison. Dazzler’s just my stage name. Not that I’ll need it anymore. After this little fiasco I'll be blacklisted for sure. Bunch of fuckers.”
“An’ you kiss yo’ Mama wit’ dat mouth?”
“I’ve kissed many people with this mouth, honey. Just don’t go getting your ass kicked again, OK? Next time I might not be there to save your sorry hide.”
Remy scowled again, good humour vanishing as his eyes blazed red. "Won’t be no next time, chere. Gambit promise you dat right now.“
She waved a careless hand, life as a performer making her a little more blasé towards such outbursts of power than most. Many in the pop industry were undercover mutants - which accounted for the vast use of pyrokinetics and holographic imagery at various concerts and shows. Her own had been one of the most spectacular, ensuring her rapid rise to fame and popularity in the hearts of millions. Fans who would be sure to abandon her now it’d been revealed she was a mutant.
"Promises don’t fill empty hands, honey. What I want are answers. Preferably now.” She turned to face the collection of motley people laid out before her. “So 'fess up, what’s going down around here?”
Before any of them could answer, however the sounds of a news helicopter filtered in through the window, and its black bulk loomed out of the night sky in the distance.
Storm and Colossus, still in steel form, ran in throgh the door. "Excuse me, boys and girls,“ the weather witch said pointedly, hovered a few feet off the ground, "But the sky is falling.”
“I think it is time we made our exit, comrades,” Colossus added, gesturing out through the smashed glass. “Cyclops, what happened to your - ”
“He’s just mad he got his ass kicked by a girl.”
“Shut up, Havok. As I remember, at least I managed to stay conscious. Unlike *some* people I might mention.”
Storm frowned, calling up a small gust of wind and blowing it in their faces. “Sky’s still falling, people.”
Jean rose to her feet. “I humbly suggest we vamoose before they start plying us with questions we can’t answer.”
“Like me, you mean?” Alison stood, arms akimbo, glaring accusingly at the redhead. Jean regarded her critically, then sighed.
“You’re welcome to come with us, if you like. Unless you’d rather stay for your adoring public?”
Alison looked around, taking in the devestation that had once been a hotel floor. The sight of dead bodies made her shudder as adrenaline leeched from her system, taking with it its numbing qualities, and she knew in an instant that she was going to have many-a-nightmare about tonight. Probably for the rest of her life, or at least the next ten years, if she were lucky. As it was, her stomach suddenly roiled, and she wanted nothing more than a nice, quiet bathroom replete with toilet in which she could toss her cookies.
“You got a place where I can upchuck? 'Cause I suddenly don’t feel too good…”
Jean snapped her fingers. “Done. We can sort you something out on the Blackbird. Come on people, let’s book.”
Alex rose, shaking a stiff neck. “I ain’t arguing that.”
“You let too many humans live,” she said.
Kurt sighed. “Hello, mother,” he snarled. “Were you there?”
“You left *witnesses*,” Mystique hissed. She was currently visible - at least to the human eye - as a shape in the dark. Kurt could see her as clearly as if it was daylight. “That’s going to be bad.”
“Almost as bad as a massacre, mother?” Kurt asked. “Because massacres are *incredibly* bad for PR. We didn’t kill those hostages. The FoH did.”
Mystique snorted. “If you think they were the FoH,” she sneered, “Then you’re as deluded as the masses you seek to enlighten.”
“Actually, I did rather notice the uniformity of their - attire,” he smirked. “As far as I’m aware, they don’t have that strict a dress code.”
“They were soldiers. Dupes in the game,” said Mystique. “Expendable meat for the mincer.”
“I guessed. They had heavy artillery but no armour. Sloppy.” He fiddled with one of his swords. “Nobody ever runs a *sloppy* military-style strike.”
“And what of your angel?”
“Don’t be coy,” Mystique snarled. “It doesn’t suit you. I also know about Warren Worthington III. I know a lot of things. Get your undercover agent to sweet-talk him. If you’re lucky, you may get him before Xavier’s puppets do.” Between one step and the next, she became a city tunnel-worker, and marched away.
Kurt switched on his comm. “Stacy? You still presentable?”
“I thought the codename was 'Barbie’,” she said. He could hear her smile.
“Then get back up to 'Ken’ and see if you can’t convince him that being a mutant doesn’t have its perks.”
“Will we have voyeurs?”
“The show’s for your target, not for anyone peeking in windows, liebe. Get to it.”
“So what are you going to do?”
Kurt thought about it. “I’m going to get our best spy on the scene.”
“Will you stop saying that word?” said Piotr. “I do not think it mean what you think it mean.”
“Means,” corrected Ororo.
Piotr nodded. “Da, da. I learn. Means.”
Dann, meanwhile, was still pacing the floor. “You know what the headlines are gonna say? Fourteen dead in mutant showdown! And that’s if we’re lucky.”
“Twelve of those were FoH, remember?” said Alex. “The bad guys?”
Dann was not impressed. “You are supposed to *neautralise* the enemy. *Incapacitate* them. Not *KILL* them! I’m going to have to call my boss about this. It’s a disaster…” He left the room muttering to himself.
Scott had his glasses back on. “Who *were* those people?”
“Mutant terrorists?” said Jean. “I couldn’t scan them very well… they’re psychically shielded.”
“…twelve of our best men…” said Dann in the next room. “No, the mutants on our side did *not* gun them down… Legion of the Unwanted, whoever they are…”
The X-Men fell silent.
“We are set up,” said Piotr. “Those Friends of Humanity - were innocent.”
“Not *that* innocent,” said Alex.
“They were soldiers, bro’,” said Scott. “Sent to do a job. Maybe they were sent with bad orders from corrupt superiors, but they had to obey. It’s what soldiers do.”
“Gambit thinkin’ we nuttin’ but fireworks, non?” He was working slight-of-hand tricks with his cards. “Somethin’ fo’ de people to watch an' gasp at while de pickpockets work.”
“Gambit better keep his mouth shut,” hissed Ororo. “Our lives - the children’s lives - depend on us doing what we’re told.” She looked down. "Even if it gets people killed.“
'And what if it costs us our lives?’ Jean’s voice rang out harshly.
'Jean…’ murmered Scott, 'we knew the risks when-’
'But not from our own side!’
'What do you mean?’ asked Piotr.
'When that terrorist put a gun to my head… he meant to shoot it. He would have killed me. The government would have killed me.’
'To show off, to show that humans CAN kill mutants, to show that we're tools to used that can be destroyed like anything else! That’s why!’
'Jean,’ murmered Alex, 'calm down! Listen to yourself!’
Jean paused, and rubbed her temples. She supposed she was ranting a bit.
'I’m… I’m sorry,’ she murmered, 'it’s been a long and nasty day.’
'Too right, chere,’ murmered Gambit, 'too right.’
As one, the dejected X-Men turned to look at the figure wrapped in a blanket who had just re-entered from the vicinity of the bathroom. Alison looked plainly terrible, but there was a fire to her eyes that said she wasn’t down for the count just yet.
“Speaking of fireworks, you didn’t forget me, did you?” She flopped over to Alex and sat down. “Answers. Now.”
“Allow me,” said a new voice. The other mutants in the room automatically straightened - a sign of unconscious respect - as the bald man in the wheelchair rolled into the room. “I’m Professor Charles Xavier. I run this institute for 'gifted’ students. People like yourself, whose gifts are - beyond normality.”
“You’re one too?”
“A mutant, yes,” Xavier smiled. A benign, warm smile that spoke of anticipatory friendship. “My gift is telepathy. Though I choose not to invade the thoughts and minds of others, I am still feared - because I *can*. Just like the rest of mutantkind is feared, because of what they *can* do.”
“Isn’t that kind of stupid?” Alison asked. “That’s like being afraid of your neighbour because he *can* get a gun or a knife and kill you…”
Xavier laughed. “I’ve never heard it put more succinctly. You’re quite correct, but that - alas - does not stop them being afraid.” He took a deep breath and launched into what she would later recognise as lecture mode. “You see, mutation is usually something small, unnoticeable, and in some cases, capable of being 'corrected’ so the individual in question can better fit in with the throng… But once in a great while - millennia, perhaps - nature introduces a gross change in the genetic makeup of Earth’s dominant creature. This change, this time, has manifested in the 'X’ gene. A gene that is capable of unlocking humanity’s untapped potential. These mutants - people who possess one or more X genes - have a great advantage over normal humanity.” He pressed a button and moved to a window, much in the way an able-bodied person would pace as they thought. “And this X gene is not a curable mutation like diabetes. The only means of control–” he tapped his temple, “–is inside the mutant’s own mind. That’s why I made this school. To guide those with an active X-gene on the sometimes difficult path of controlling - and using - their powers. Hopefully, for the benefit of mankind.”
“Don’t you mean 'mutantkind’?” said Alison. “I’ve heard them on the news, calling us a 'dangerous new species’ and saying we shouldn’t have any rights at all… because we’re not human.”
“We *are* human,” said Jean. “We’re just - more different than everyone else.”
“Precisely,” said the Professor. “Like any other human being, we can no more change who we are than the proverbial leopard… Our mutanthood is dictated at the moment of conception - and not when the power manifests at puberty. Nobody can help being a mutant… but that is not an excuse for pity - or hate.”
“So… what’s with the superhero thing? What with the FoH and all, I'd have thought our best idea would be to lay low and say nothing.”
Xavier sighed. “Accidents - happen. A child in New Mexico tells the media of his wonderful ability, and styles himself as a local hero. Suddenly, there’s a rash of young mutants seeking to gain the same fame - and news spreads fear. How many more are still hiding? What can they *do*? Mutant ability is as wide and varied as humanity itself. Some fly, some emit electromagnetic pulses, some - effect metal. Humanity fears the unknown, and mutantkind - for the most part - isn’t obviously different. Anybody - anywhere - can suddenly unleash a destructive force like nothing ever seen before.”
“You probably saw the news about the Statue of Liberty?” said Alex. "The little lightshow that got Magneto in jail?“
"That also bought mutants into the spotlight, and the great debate about mutant rights, mutant control…” said Scott. “Mutant *camps*.”
“Therefore, the X-Men had to step forward,” explained Xavier. “We volunteered to be a police force for mutants, to step in where normal humanity could not, and deal with rogue mutant elements.”
“If we do not,” said Piotr, “it is camps for all. Even mutants who are not manifest.”
“Latent mutants,” said Jean. “People who possess an inactive X gene. Some of them live their entire lives not knowing they’re a mutant.”
“We’d like to keep it that way,” said Xavier. “Current genetic screening only shows the presence of the X gene - and not whether it has manifested. Cerebro can only detect active mutants *during* the use of that power. It needs a powerful telepath,” he tapped his head again, “to find an individual mutant.”
“What we got to offer ain’t much, petite,” said Remy, gesturing at the mansion. “A place to sleep, hot food. all the necessities, non? You also get a place you can go, cher’, where you ain’t gonna be hated on sight.”
“We need more women on the team,” said Jean.
Alison sighed. “When I was fifteen, I was the untouchable girl. The girl who was always too pretty for anyone to approach. I never had dates, so I sorta threw myself into my singing… One night - one the senior jocks decided to -well- try something. I screamed - and I blinded him. Neither of us said anything about it… and it kinda got swept under the rug…” she shivered. “And then I found out that the music industry is practically *crawling* with mutants. People who can make sounds, people who can manipulate light, people who make electronics work perfectly… I thought I’d found a home… but I’d just found a place to hide.”
Damnit. She was crying. “I can’t hide any more, can I? My career's shot to hell… I’d like to stay, if I can.”
“Too blonde,” said Dann. “We already got a blonde on the team. Alison, I do like your power, but you’re too whitebread for the image we want to maintain. We’ve got to think 'ethnic diversity’, and right now, we have the perfect balance of ethnicity and colour. The focus groups love it.”
“What?” Alison couldn’t believe it. “I’m out on my ear 'cause I’m too *white*?”
“You’re welcome to stay in the Institute,” said Xavier. "Unfortunately, we have to consider the PR angle of everything we present to the public.“
"That’s why I’m here,” beamed Dann.
“So what’s your power?” Alison sarcasmed. “Being a humongous jerk?”
“No, he’s *aaaalllllll* natural,” muttered Ororo.
“There *are* some normal people on the grounds,” said Xavier. “You'll find that most students show off within about - five seconds of meeting someone.”
“My boss has pointed out a little inconsistency in our team makeup," said Dann. "Code-names. Jean hasn’t got one.”
“I don’t *need* one,” said Jean. “I’m perfectly comfortable with who I am.”
“*So*,” said Dann, ignoring her. “We pulled a focus group and scores are *very* high for– drumroll –Miss *Marvel*.”
Jean made a face. “Is this nailed down?”
“Released to the press two minutes ago. We’ve got a three-page spread in colour. Action shots galore. Do you have an eight-by-ten swimsuit? Or do I have to call the studio?”
“I am *not* posing in a *swimsuit*,” said Jean. “I am a *doctor* of genetic *medicine*, not some bathing *bimbo*.”
“Amen,” said Storm. “There’s this little thing that happened in the 60’s, Dann. The sexual revolution? Lots of women refuse to be called Miss *anything*.”
“Hell, seventy percent of beauty contests are *Ms* Whatever,” said Alison. “Equality and everything?”
“You’re not on the team,” said Dann. “You can not make team decisions.”
“…neither can we,” muttered Ororo.
Jean folded her arms, scowling. “When I signed up for this gig, I never said anything about appearing half naked *anywhere*, let alone in a newspaper. It’s bad enough you make us wear these stupid costumes, Dann,” she gestured at the ostensibly leather two-piece that left both her midriff and a huge scoop of her bosom on show. Fortunately, unlike Ororo, Jean’s outfit included a pair of low-slung hipsters rather than a 'bikini’ - or 'glorified underwear’ as it was commonly known - but she was still very un-pleased about having to wear it, and let everyone know on a regular basis. “Next you’ll be selling my pictures to 'Men and Motors’.”
Dann shook his head, and deadpanned, “No, that’d cultivate the wrong image. You’re a superheroine, not a slut. Liberated enough to be comfortable showing off your bod sort-of-thing.”
“But not liberated enough to make my own decisions.”
Dann snapped his cellphone shut and slid it into the breast pocket of his suit. “11 a.m. tomorrow morning, Grey. Sunshine Studios. Gregorio Fradas will be taking your pictures for Gossip Magazine - and I’d advise you to take your own bathing wear, or else he’ll choose it for you. I'll take care of what the interview says.”
“So I don’t even get to do my own *interviews* now?” Jean asked incredulously.
Dann wagged his finger and smirked. “Image is everything, toots. You just show up and look pretty. Do what you’re good at.” He winked, and steam might as well have poured from Jean’s ears.
Piotr laid a steadying hand on her arm as her left hand involuntarily bunched into a fist. She glared at him, but he shook his head and after a moment she deflated. “Fine, whatever. Where is this 'Sunshine Studios' place anyway? Sounds like somewhere that makes porn flicks.”
“I’ll forget you said that.” Dann whipped out a notebook and scribbled down the address, tearing the sheet off and handing it to her. “Don’t be late. You won’t like Gregorio if you’re late.”
“I’ll bet I don’t like Gregorio whatever time I arrive.”
“I thought you weren’t a gambling type of girl, chere?” Remy grinned winsomely, and ducked aside as the notebook flew out of Dann’s hand at his head via telekinesis.
“For once in your life, Remy, just shut up.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuckity-fuck.” Stacy bounded from rooftop to rooftop, taking graceful leaps that were nothing whatsoever to do with her mutation. The acrobatics a fellow hooker had once taught her to get more clients had come in useful for escaping police and other such folk, she’d found. And after Nightcrawler recruited her into the Legion they'd proven equally as useful for tracking targets.
However, one Mr. Warren Worthington (III) was stretching even her talents.
He soared through the night sky, dancing across cloud banks and swooping in between darkened buildings where nobody was awake to see him. Stacy followed as best she could, but even she was having a difficult time keeping up, and found herself hiding several times when he flew a little too close for comfort. No point in letting him know his 'innocent date’ of the evening knew he had wings growing out his back and was stalking him across the Manhatten landscape.
Once or twice she caught sight of Warren’s face. Her make-up had long since worn away, revealing her true appearance beneath - that of a young dark-and-short-haired woman, nineteen if she was a day, but voluptuous as any red-blooded heterosexual male could ask for. That is, if he also had a thing for females with scales covering a large proportion of said voluptuousness, and golden, lizardine eyes with only slits for pupils. Currently, her unique eyes were disguised by a pair of green contacts bought especially for the occasion, but her exceptional eyesight wasn't compromised in the slightest, and she saw the look of pure, unadulterated joy on Warren’s face as he engaged in the simple - yet vastly complicated - pleasure of spinning, twisting and beating those magnificent wings of his.
He looked so at home, so happy.
She almost felt sorry for him.
He dived towards her rooftop, and she in turn dived behind a large vent. _Shit!_ Nobody had said tonight would mean the end of her favourite little-black-dress. Nightcrawler owed her a new outfit if she was going to wow and seduce any future 'applicants’ for the Legion.
Warren passed by, and withing seconds Stacy had begun the chase again.
That is, until she came to the edge of a high rise and found herself staring out over the vast expanse of water that constituted the Hudson River. Warren soared by overhead, oblivious to the problem posed by it for her as he headed back towards his penthouse in the main body of New York.
_Shit,_ she thought, then voiced her frustration aloud. “Shit. I'm good, but I ain’t *that* good.” She fumbled for her communicator. "Nightcrawler. Yo, Fuzzy, come in.“
Static, and then a weary accented voice. "Yes, 'Barbie’?”
“Ken flew the coop. He’s headed back to good 'ole NY, and I ain’t got no handy boat to cross the river and follow. Best I can do is keep him in sight before he goes behind a - oh, wait. No, he’s gone. Cloudbank." She sighed. "These clothes ain’t made for swimming, Nighty.”
“Understood. You can leave the target for now, Stacy. If he’s gone back to New York we know where he’s headed. No need to play voyeur anymore. You can come back to the tunnels at a more leisurely pace.”
“Suits me fine. Fuckin’ freezing out here. And I ruined my dress.”
“I’ll get someone to lift you a new one. Just get your ass safely back here, pronto.”
Stacy smiled despite herself. “Since when did you start caring about the safety of my ass, Nighty? Got your eye on it?”
Her only aswer was a click, and then endless static. Stacy put away the com, and stared out into nothingness for a few more seconds before heading to the fire escape.
Alison stared at her reflection and sighed, pushing her bangs from her eyes. Not that she wanted to be a 'superhero’ or anything - especially after the carnage she’d borne witness to tonight - but it hurt to be rejected from two industries in the space of one night. It seemed she wasn’t cut out for either singing or life-saving. Faboo.
She might have pondered the matter further, but at the moment her future wasn’t an encouraging prospect, so she shelved her ruminations for the morning when she could talk to that Xavier guy without Dann breathing down their necks. The telepath seemed like a decent enough man, and though his offer wasn’t exactly the best thing that had ever happened to her, she knew it was better than the alternative. Her old landlady had been a staid anti-mutant advocator, and Alison knew that, if she went back to her apartment she either wouldn’t be let past the front door, or else would be set upon by the police before she had time to argue about her possessions.
Perhaps she could get Roman to pick up her stuff for her and drop it off here. That is if he ever turned his phone on, since invariably he'd be out if she called his place. She really should’ve phoned tonight, but it was way past the wee hours, and she was too tired and cranky to do anything without snapping right now. She’d call him in the morning. Really.
Flipping off the light switch to the guest room she’d been sequestered in, Alison fell into bed and a deep, dreamless sleep. For which she was intensely grateful.