ARCADE BY MADRIPOOR ROSE
Disclaimer: Marvel's Universe, I just play here. No copyright infringement intended.
I hadn't had a mall crawl like that since I got outfitted to be sent off to Xavier's back when I was thirteen. Hailing a cab in front of Water Tower Place I piled in, and, trying to get my bags settled on the seat beside me without crushing anything expensive, I told the driver to take me to the Midwestern campus.
"I thought maybe dinner first," the voice and accent were familiar, and I kicked myself for not paying attention. Slipping there, Pryde. I may be an Ex-X-Man for now, but I couldn't count on the bad guys knowing it. If I had to be caught off guard, though, luckily this was one of the good guys. More or less.
I met laughing blue eyes in the rearview mirror, and glanced at the hack license. Then groaned.
"Konstantine Leonidivich Kentov?" Peter Rasputin winked at me. "They let you make bad puns in the KGB?"
"Federal Security Bureau, if you please. There are surprisingly few comic book fangeeks in international espionage, Kit."
"Kon-El Kent. Superboy, Superman, Man of Steel. God. You and Natasha used to run around with Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale false ids, didn't you?"
"Moose and Squirrel is no problem. Vith Volverine and Firefox, is wery big problem," his accent was suddenly thicker than a dollop of sour cream garnishing borscht and I started laughing in spite of myself.
Truth is...I missed Peter. I missed everyone.
Not that I regret dropping off the team to have a normal life...whatever normal is. But still. I've fought giant robots, been to alien planets, met with world leaders...and the girls in my dorm think getting drunk at a dance club is a wild night, y'know?
And then there's the fact that the Russian liaison and I have a little entente cordiale of our own.
This is also how I am not like any of the girls I'm going to college with. They thought dating a football player is cool. I? have a hot Russian spy mutant boyfriend. Yeah. They hate me. Like I wanted Peter to walk around the dorm in boxer shorts and a shoulder holster the last time he slept over. It's not my fault his pants got a little embedded inside a wall.
So it was my fault, but it wasn't on purpose.
But something about the fact that he'd done a neat grab with an established cover identity, even one this deeply lame, told me he wasn't here for fun and games.
"Pete, this isn't a good time. I was indulging in a little retail therapy, taking a break, but I've got two papers due. So while I'd love to spend a little time with my Siberian Tiger..."
"Katya, I need your help. I can't go to the professors, or to Alexei...and Natasha is nowhere I can contact her."
Whoo boy. Something he couldn't take to the bosses? And he'd been trying to contact Nasty Natasha? Yup. I shoulda spent the rest of the afternoon in Marshall Fields. "What's wrong?"
"Arcade. They took Illyana. They have my daughter."
A little backstory here. While the Soviet Union was collapsing and reorganizing, the KGB Mutant Directorate found a big fifteen year old Siberian farmboy who could turn to living steel. Piotr Rasputin. They gave him to the Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff, to train.
Yeah. That Rasputin. That Romanoff.
As Peter's boss is fond of saying, In Russia, Fate is not without a sense of irony.
The Black Widow is kind of a legend in the covert ops community. And if you've ever read a Tom Clancy novel or seen a James Bond movie, you know exactly what that means. She's the most dangerous woman in Europe.
She was also his lover.
They were partners in both senses of the word for a couple of years, then she got pregnant. Had the baby, and gave it to Peter's parents to raise. Everyone thinks Illyana is his little sister. They'd both made enemies...and there's some prophecy about a Romanoff/Rasputin child, they were afraid that would draw out the Russian version of those fundamentalist nutjobs who kidnapped Warren Worthington and cut off his wings a few years back.
And that's when it all went to hell. Peter is still a sweet farmboy from the Transbaikal at heart, even if he knows fifty-seven ways to kill people with a paperclip. He wanted to retire in a few years, get married, reclaim their daughter and settle down on a nice dasha with a white picket fence to keep polar bears out of the garden.
There's a reason her codename is Black Widow.
Colonel Vazhin pulled Peter from fieldwork and made him his personal assistant. Deskwork to keep him from getting himself killed while his broken heart healed, then assigned him to be FSB liaison to the Raven's Rock thinktank.
We weren't the X Men yet. That came after Larry Trask decided giant mutant killing robots were a good investment for the billions he made with Minisoft and the Doorways operating system.
This was before Professor Lehnsherr finished the Cerebral Amplifier, and the mutant census and recruitment drive that followed.
So it was pretty much the Professors: Xavier, Lehnsherr, and Haller. Logan and Mystique, who are older than dirt and starring in their own bad soap opera of a relationship. Though I did have a major crush on Logan when I was a snot-nose brat. Sage, who creeps everybody out, and Doug Ramsey. Who I love like a brother, but lord, what a dweeb. And Doctor McCoy, busy with his coma patient Jean Grey.
And Peter and me.
I was eighteen. He was twenty-three.
They kept putting us in spandex and sending us into the hologym for sparring practice.
What did they think was gonna happen?
So the long distance relationship sucks, but I was already on academic probation when we met. Peter supported my decision to drop active membership to concentrate on my studies. He even looks after Lockheed for me, even though my baby alien dragon drives him crazy by eating all of his charcoal pencils, no matter where he hides them. When he has time to sketch, he never has any supplies.
Peter comes out to Chicago when he can, and I get called back to Vermont to help out with encrypted, classified but nonessential data recovery. Professor Lehnsherr's been having magnetic field accidents suspiciously often, the big yenta.
We were going to take Illyana to Disney Land for Spring Break. Peter was ready for me to meet his daughter, that's why I know about her. And now she's being held hostage to be used against him. Peter's worst fear.
Illyana's only seven years old.
"How can I help?"
He met my eyes in the rear view mirror again. "You know Arcade. He has a twisted sense of honor."
Yup. Reginald Cade was a gamer. Started out with video games, roleplaying games, board games. Ran a nationwide chain of Arcades. Not your typical mall storefront full of coin operated first person shooters or driving and flight simulators, pinball games.
Arcade was a combination of live action roleplaying, amusement park technology, and paintball. They were a very popular fad.
Five hundred and seventeen people died when Arcade switched to live ammo.
Reginald Cade turned out to be an alias, Murderworld Inc. the starting point of an endless maze of dummy corporations, holding companies, and blind trusts.
They never caught Arcade.
And he continued to play games with lives, on a more intimate scale.
But he did have a twisted sense of honor. No cheating in his games, on either side. If Peter won, Illyana would be returned to him unharmed.
If Peter lost, or was caught cheating, Illyana would die.
"What are the rules?"
"You and I must rescue her together. No outside help, no gadgets, only powers. There is a warehouse here in Chicago. We must be there at six tomorrow morning. The game starts then, no sooner."
I knew Peter felt guilty for dragging me away from my papers; we went to Dominic's for dinner. Peter is more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Or smoked lobster and caviar. Despite my attempts to educated his palate with the finer nuances of flavor in veggie deep dish pizzas.
After we ate, we headed back to Claremont Hall. Ashley was leaving as we came in. She let out a startled gasp, froze, then avoided our eyes and edged past us. I like her, but Ashley had led a very sheltered life in a very small town with very conservative parents. We were friends before she found out I was a mutant not so secret agent with a boyfriend on loan from the Rodina. If she can ever get past the Mutie Commie labels, maybe we'd be friends again someday.
A few other people said hi in the halls as we passed on the way to my room.
"I should have known better than to carry your Borders bag," Peter switched hands, flexing his fingers. "How many books did you buy?"
"The new Elizabeth Peters, the new Lois McMaster Bujold, and the new Terry Pratchett. A couple of magazines. And a paperback. You can lift a car."
"Which you always point out when you want me to carry something for you," he complained, teasing, and we walked in.
I stuck my tongue out at him, and we dropped my bags on the unoccupied bed.
I knew he was trying not to think about it. It was my job to keep him distracted. Worrying himself into a frazzle wouldn't help.
I put the bag from Borders on my desk, then tackled my new clothes. Peter flopped on my bed to watch. "How's Jeannie doing?" Cream, hot pink, and black marbled spaghetti-strap tank. Cream clamdiggers. Purple cardigan.
Jean was brought in by Doctor McCoy the day Peter joined us. A telepath and telekinetic who had seen a little friend killed by a hit and run drunk driver when she was eight...Jean Grey's mind shut down from the death-shock. She woke up later that day, during the Sentinel attack.
"Her control is improving, as for the rest...Professor Xavier is trying to help her, but she may always be a little girl in a woman's body."
"She still got a crush on Bones?" Hank hates the nickname, but it's his own fault for being a Doctor McCoy and for yelling 'I'm a doctor, not a superhero' a lot.
Peter chuckled. "And the good Doctor McCoy is oblivious. She's allowed to fly now, Lockheed has been playing tag with her."
"Aw. Somebody better be taking photos for me."
"Professor Haller has," Peter's eyebrow rose as I put away my new lingerie, holding up a ridiculously expensive scrap of lace to model it.
"Do you like black lace?" I'd never worn anything like this for him. Bought it on a whim during my shopaholic attack. I'd been looking at fashion magazines in the bookstore and seeing Emma Frost and Betsy Braddock on every cover had the usual demoralizing effect for a naturally skinny chick like me. Makes you feel like there's something wrong with you.
The lack of a couple of pounds of silicone gel, for example.
Now I have very good self esteem, and I know Peter's a leg man with a taste for dancer's builds. Social conditioning. Or there's an evil mind controlling mutant running Hollywood and the fashion industry who gets kicks from making the average woman feel ugly.
Maybe we should be looking into that.
"I liked what you were wearing the first time I saw you," Peter teased me with a toothy grin. "The blue wig."
Nobody was ever gonna let me forget that. I walked in on a meeting with an urgent message for Professor Xavier and didn't bother to go through the door. I was also having trouble phasing clothing through walls.
I was kind of a ditz when I was seventeen.
The Clinique stuff went on top of the dresser, three new lipsticks, eyeshadow, and a tube of Elixir showergel. I turned back to face Peter, who was sitting up and taking his boots off, so I sat on his lap and gave him a proper kiss hello. He stretched out, pulling me down with him, and I got his shirt open, dropping kisses on newly revealed sculpted muscular flesh with each button undone.
A sigh earthquaked under me, and he reluctantly muttered, "you could get a few hours of work on your paper."
"Eh," I shrugged. I wanted to try this normal life thing, but I have trouble taking school seriously. Price of being a genius, I guess. I already know everything and jumping through hoops to prove I know it is annoying. But once I have that magic piece of paper to say I'm an expert in electrical engineering and computer science for me, I'll never have to go through proving it again. "You're right. You're always right. You know how much I hate it that you're always right?" I pushed myself up and rolled off of him, getting up.
"Mind if I borrow one of your new books?"
"Help yourself." I handed the bag over as I sat down at my desk and fired up the computer.
Half a hour later I glanced over and could see he was still on page five. "Peter. We'll get her back."
I actually did get one paper done and made serious headway on the second, before it was time to hit the sack. We messed around a little, and Peter fell asleep. He'd been trained to sleep when he needed to, to sleep through anything, and we'd done a few things guys generally find relaxing anyway. I couldn't get to sleep right away.
I'm a gearhead. I do research and gadgetry. I'm not a natural fighter. The training I've done with Logan and Peter...I can handle myself. But Illyana's life was on the line, and it scared me. I was also kind of uncomfortable. He's always been a cuddler, but even though he's doing that scary guy thing, where you pack up all the anger and anxiety and save it for later...it's showing in his sleep. He's clutching me for dear life, and flesh and blood, Peter weighs two-fifty and he's strong as an ox. I let him squish me for a while, then phased out from under him and went to curl up on the other bed.
I got enough sleep, barely. We got up, and dressed. Normal work-out clothes, easy to move in. Peter keeps a few things here. Uniforms are for press conferences and photo ops, and when we might be filmed by news crews in action. I think they're kind of hokey myself, but Professor Lehnsherr has this whole routine about the symbolism and history of costumed superheroes and the awe that they inspire, with his personal experience of seeing Captain America liberating Auschwitz when he was a boy, and it's just easier to put on the damn spandex.
We picked up coffee and donuts on the way, and I phased us into the warehouse promptly at six.
To be faced with a glass block wall, lit inside with blue light. Great. I phased, and let myself float up to get a bird's eye view. Wincing as way too many bullets went through me from an automatic machine gun turret in the ceiling. Great. It was on tracks, could pivot, so it could fire at any part of the maze.
"Peter! Armor up," I yelled, and dove for the turret. I couldn't stop to look back and make sure Peter hadn't been hit. I went through the mechanism, shorting it out as I passed. The echoing thunder of the guns faded, and I took a quick look around for other obvious dangers.
I could see Illyana at the center of the maze, a small blonde girl in a square of glass block walls. She wasn't crying, thank heavens. In fact, she seemed to be having a tea party with animatronic stuffed animals.
As I hovered, the glass block walls shifted around, sliding, changing the pattern so I couldn't map out a direct route to the center. I could swoop over there and go get her, but the rules said we had to rescue her together. So I dropped back to the entrance of the maze beside Peter.
"You know how they say money is the root of all evil? Is that why so many millionaires are total psycho loons?" I quipped to him to cover that moment when you check each other for bullet wounds. Or, like, dents, since Peter was in his steel form. No injuries.
He flashed me a quick grim smile and we started working our way through the maze. It was the usual thing. Spiderbots that shot lasers. A trap door that dropped into a pit of rabid voles. Electrified floor tiles. Flamethrowers. Spinning blades.
It was a lot like the hologym, only lethal.
More robots. Wind-up suits of armor wielding battleaxes. Peter waded into them with a sound like a recycling bin full of soda cans being tipped over. I phased and started disabling them as fast as I could.
The edge of a battleaxe struck sparks on Peter's shoulder and he swore sharply in Russian.
"Peter!" I yelped, as he tore a handful of smoking wires out through the robotic knight's helm and it clattered to the floor at his feet. He rolled his shoulder, grimacing.
"I'm all right. I felt that one."
That was an understatement. If he'd been flesh and bone instead of organic steel, his arm would have come off. I was just glad the blade was ordinary steel, not adamantium.
The last obstacle was a giant bowling ball, like someone had seen the Indiana Jones movies one too many times. And we were there. I took Peter's hand and phased us into the room I'd seen Illyana in. I was a little afraid the teddy bears would attack, or that this Illyana was an android decoy, but she just put down her little violet -painted teacup and ran up to Peter, who scooped her up into his arms.
She jabbered at him in Russian, between giggles, and he answered her, kissing her cheek, a tear of relief trailing from the corner of his eye.
"She's fine," he told me, and grinned. "She thinks this is Disney Land."
The glass block walls slid and swung aside, parting, making a hallway to the door and a disembodied electronically altered voice announced, "Game Over. Colossus And Shadowcat: Winners."
The three of us walked out together, Piotr introducing me to his little sister, translating for her. We took Illyana for a hamburger, and then over to the Navy Pier, and I took Illyana on the merry go round while Peter called his parents to tell them she was safe, and the professors to explain where he'd disappeared to.
He was waiting for us when the merry go round stopped and I lifted Illyana down from her mermaid-tailed sea horse. I took her little hand and led Illyana over to him, being careful to speak cheerfully. Even if she didn't understand English, she was bright enough to pick up on the tone of voice.
"So. Did you get grounded for going AWOL?"
He nodded. "Logan's coming for us in the Blackbird. Professor Xavier wants to read Illyana for any clues Arcade might have left during her abduction."
"Cool. I'm going with. I can work on my paper in Vermont as well as here. And if we're going after Arcade, I want in," I added grimly.
We pootled around Chicago for a few hours. Hit the Museum of Science and Industry, because you really can't miss Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle. She was a silent film star who spent a fortune building a ridiculously elaborate dollhouse. Sterling silver furniture, floors inlaid with semi-precious stones, an ermine polar bear rug with mouse teeth, stained glass, carved ivory, tiny tapestries and working electric lights.
Illyana was as enchanted with it as I was at that age, and Peter appreciated the skill of the artisans who'd built it.
And then it was time to go to the airport. Logan was waiting with the Blackbird on the charter and private runway. He watched Peter belting Illyana into her seat and told him, "Cute kid," before going through the preflight checklist and taking off. Laconic, even for Logan, and I could tell he was hurt that Peter hadn't come to him with his problem. There was a big fight and he missed it.
Illyana was lulled to sleep by the roar of the jet engines, and Peter and I spent the flight pleasantly enough, talking and smooching a little while she napped.
I love the house in Raven's Rock Vermont. Topside is a Frank Lloyd Wright school mansion. Downstairs is the bunker. The house was built during the Cold War as a kind of spare White House, and we've got labs, libraries, everything you need to restart civilization after world war three. A perfect set-up for a mutant clinic and thinktank. The grounds are extensive, everything from formal gardens to wilderness backing right up into the mountains.
I grew up here, since my power to phase through solid objects manifested when I was thirteen, a stress reaction to my parents getting a divorce.
It's my home, and this is my family.
Jeannie and Lockheed came soaring down to meet us as we walked to the house from the landing pad. The one thing I envy Jean Grey...her telekinesis allows her to really fly. My phased airwalking is more like a lunar hop. I lifted my arm for Lockheed to land and perch, and leaned over for a hello kiss on the muzzle.
"Careful! Fishbreath!" Jeannie warned me, giggling. "We were up in the hills by the stream, and Lockheed caught a trout and ate it all up, scales and bones and guts and all. It was gross!" She sounded very impressed, and Lockheed gave a self-satisfied burp. Wearing jeans and a pink hoodie, her red hair up in pigtails, Jeannie almost looked like the little girl she'd always be, trapped in a grownup body.
Illyana had been watching both the hawk-sized dragon and the flying lady with wide eyes.
I glanced at Peter for permission, then crouched down and let Illyana pet Lockheed. She exclaimed at the warm pebbled texture of the lilac scales.
"Hello. Are you a new patient?" Jeannie asked.
Illyana didn't look up and Peter explained, "this is my little sister Illyana. She's visiting, and she only speaks Russian, Jean. She doesn't understand you." Then he switched, translating for Illyana. She looked up, and chirped politely to Jean in Russian, but most of her attention was on Lockheed, who was eating it up, cooing happily as the little girl gently scratched the base of his wings.
One of the french doors opened on the flagstone terrace, and Professor Gabrielle Haller came out and smiled in greeting. "Jean, dear. It's time for your history lesson. Peter, Kitty, Charles wants to see Illyana in the infirmary."
Lockheed blew a heart-shaped smoke ring, making Illyana clap her hands in delight, and took off, probably to go fish for more trout, greedy thing. The four of us went inside. Professor Haller led Jean off for her lessons, and we headed downstairs.
We ran into Sage coming out of one of the other labs. She was wearing her usual blue hooded cloak and red catseye sunglasses. I've never seen her wear anything else.
"Ah. This must be Miss Illyana," Sage reached down and stroked Illyana's golden hair, patting a chubby cheek. "Adorable child."
Peter gave her a spooked look and took Illyana into the infirmary. I stayed in the hall and watched Sage delicately suck her fingertips.
"You know, that's not actually any less disturbing than when you used to lick people," I told her.
"Give the proud papa my congratulations. She's a teleporter, or will be."
I held Sage's gaze through the red glass. "She's his sister."
An eyebrow quirked. "I hadn't realized the Ust Ordynski was quite that...rural."
Sage can read DNA by tasting it, and she only needs a minute trace of shed skin cells to do so. Since she's sampled Peter she obviously noted Illyana's paternity as well as decoding her latent mutation.
I kept up the glare. "Officially she's his sister. She doesn't know. Sage, please."
She looked amused. "We all have our secrets, Kitty-Kat. I only tell the ones that are mine to tell," she laughed and headed for the elevator.
In a world full of very strange things, Sage still totally creeps me out.
I shuddered and went into the infirmary. Henry had Illyana up on one of the diagnostic beds. Henry's a sweet guy, and a great doctor. Even through the language barrier his bedside manner was putting Illyana at ease, so he could examine her without scaring her. Kids that age usually associate doctors with shots and scream their heads off. Professor Xavier was standing with them, speaking quietly to Peter.
Professor Lehnsherr was leaning against the bookcase where Henry keeps all his old Notre Dame football memorabilia. I went to wait next to him.
"Skipping classes again, Katherine?"
I shrugged. "I had to rescue Illyana from arcade. I'm sure I can get a note. 'Please excuse Kitty's absence due to an unscheduled psychopathic mass murderer."
He chuckled at that, but something in his eyes hardened as he watched Professor Xavier as he sat down and began to meditate, clearing his mind before entering Illyana's.
"You might be getting that note if you're choosing to rejoin us on a full time basis. Signed by the President."
"We're going after Arcade?"
Lehnsherr pulled a pair of steel finger-juggling spheres out of his pocket and absently began manipulating them in his hand.
"I expect so. This lunatic, Arcade, has been wreaking havoc for long enough. Pity the fool who seeks trouble, for he shall surely find it." There was a cold rage in his voice, something I'd never heard from him before, and it was comforting and frightening at the same time. "He came after one of us, one of our children. This is war."
Erik Lehnsherr put his hands back in his pockets. The metal spheres continued to orbit each other, floating, making a silvery scraping sound of metal rubbing against metal that reminded me of sharpening knives.