Disclaimer: The likelihood is that all the characters you recognise belong to Marvel. And that all the ones you don't recognise belong to me. Mine, all mine!
Rating: This story, in its entirety, is rated M for strong language, sex, violence, and all that bad/good stuff. Please proceed with caution.
Author note: This story takes place in the Days of Future Past timeline, or a version thereof. Technically speaking if this was the 'real' DoFP timeline Rogue and Gambit would be a lot older than they are depicted in this story, but I took liberal smatterings of creative license when I wrote this, and since I've never read any of the DoFP arc I made up a whole bunch of stuff. Purists, please forgive me.
This was meant to be the 8th chapter of 'Threads', but as you can see it metamorphosed into something huge and uncontrollable and I hope it somewhat makes up for the sad lack of updates on 'Threads'.
Thanks: To Angy, my dear friend; thanks for helping me and supporting me from the very beginning, and for being my number 1 fan! You're a truly special person! To Randi, who kicked me out of my hermit's cave, and who had the bravery and patience to beta this entire fic all by her lonesome. I owe you one, hon. Or maybe a million. ;) To my muses - you know who you are. You're firmly ensconced in my fave lists. :D To EVERYONE who has read and supported my fics in ANY way over the years - I wouldn't carry on without you guys. :) And to my dad, who encouraged me to write in the first place.
: HOUSE OF CARDS :
PART ONE : CONSEQUENCES
(1) - Prologue -
Colonel Lance Saunders marched up the hill with the purposeful stride of a man for whom walking was a necessary irritation, an exorbitant means of getting from A to Z. There was an abstract look on his thin, pale face as he walked, a look of self-contained disquiet, of endless inner distress. His was an expression that lacked any particular age or defining quality, the kind of countenance one would glance at and forget a split-second later, that of a man in a perpetual coma. His body was long and thin and ungainly; his legs moved with an almost lethargic, mechanical precision. Only his eyes were alive, darting back and forth, here and there with an alacrity that was quite divorced from the rest of his ineffectual being.
He moved like a man with a purpose, and yet possessed the look of a man for whom purpose had long held very little meaning.
The colonel sighed, irritable and yet with an undisguised measure of helplessness. There was very little that surprised him anymore; indeed, over the years there were few things he still regarded with sympathy. And yet today, for the first time in many decades he had been shaken to the core, and his expression of preoccupied abstraction showed it. He crested the hill with an increasing sense of agitation, his long legs jerking back and forth with the twitching impression of a nervous tic.
Once at the top he stopped, frowned morosely, and looked around.
The mansion that had once stood at 1407 Graymalkin Lane was now nothing more than a smoking pile of debris and rubble, a decrepit skeleton of the magnificent building it had once been. Dusk was drawing on into night; the contorted husk of the mansion cast gnarled shadows out over the hill in a sinister array of broken patterns that clawed at the colonel as if onto its final lifeline.
But there was no saving this mansion now. It had taken many years, but at last its singular fight was over.
"These Sentinels certainly know how to do their job," the colonel murmured wondrously - yet not a little begrudgingly - to himself.
A little way off, in what appeared to be the gutted shell of a study, a little pocket of soldiers was bustling around a human-sized bundle lying on the floor. As soon as the colonel had made his appearance, one of the men had broken away from the party and had begun to walk over. When he was within a foot or so of the colonel, he saluted - which Saunders returned rather half-heartedly - before addressing his superior in a faintly troubled tone.
"Colonel, it's a surprise to see you. I thought -"
"You thought wrongly," Saunders retorted tartly, looking the young soldier up and down with a thinly disguised distaste. The boy was barely out of his teens, thin and sallow-faced, with an unsuccessful attempt at dignity flickering over his face.
"I'm sorry, sir," the young man replied in an obsequious tone, "it's just that you said -"
"There's been a change of plan," Saunders replied flatly. His eyes danced about with a frenetic energy that may have been mistaken for nervousness, but was more to do with a propensity for eagle-eyed attentiveness than anything else. "I take it that is the specimen," he spoke, indicating to the human-sized bundle still lying motionlessly on the study-floor several feet away.
"Yes, sir," the young man nodded. "Would you… would you like to take a look?"
Saunders regarded him a moment. He was still all but a child, he thought with a cursory stab at sympathy. Nervous, tremulous, and unused to bloodshed. Several body bags had been laid out in a neat, orderly row a little way down the hill, which the young man was very poignantly ignoring. The stench of blood and burning flesh still permeated the cool night air, but Saunders was used to it and he didn't flinch.
"Yes," he replied at last, decidedly. "I'd like to."
The young cadet led him past a smoking pile of bloodstained rubble and into the heart of the gutted study. Broken books still lay scattered about the floor, Nietzche and Jung fanning pages both battered and bloody; notes on genetics and DNA drifted across the wooden floorboards like ash, lost tokens of a great professor's remarkable intellect. His legacy, scattered to the wind. How ironic, Saunders thought, this time without a trace of sympathy. Professor Charles Xavier and his great dream, crumbled all to dust. Oh how the mighty have fallen!
Soldiers were parting and saluting in the good colonel's wake; he stopped, returned the greeting, and ordered them to leave with a bored, flippant bark. At last only the young cadet was left, hovering nearby, uncertain about his own place in the grand scheme of things. Only when Saunders shot the young man a meaningful glare did he nod curtly and join his superior beside the now unattended human-sized bundle on the floor.
He coughed lightly, awkwardly, a polite preliminary to business-like formality.
"She's unconscious," he explained matter-of-factly. "We found her underneath the rubble just outside the study. One of our men shot her."
Saunders looked down.
The woman lying on the stretcher was young - probably not much more than twenty-one. All vestiges of prettiness had been drained from her pallid, drawn and bloodstained face; and yet in the delicate nose, in the clear brow, in the passionate and as yet untested lips there was an underlying prettiness that already seemed marred by more than mere cuts and bruises. The white streaks that ran through her cinnamon-coloured hair were caked with blood and dirt. As Saunders gazed down upon her, his face seemed to flare into activity for a mere split second; his mouth jerked, his throat tightened, his brow creased, and the agitated eyes grew wider. But it was only for a split second - within a moment he had become expressionless once more.
"And she hasn't awakened at all?" he asked in the same, deadpan voice.
"We don't expect she will, sir," the young cadet replied grimly.
The colonel considered this a moment.
"We should take her in for tests, just the same," he returned at last, decidedly. "After all, with these mutants, it's hard to tell when they're really dead or not." He paused, stared up at the young man again with an oddly intent look. "And Xavier?" he questioned quickly, almost furtively.
"Dead, sir," came the indifferent reply.
"And the others?"
"All dead, apart from this one."
A shadow seemed to cross Saunders' face; he stroked his chin thoughtfully.
"Then perhaps," he murmured reflectively, "when and if she wakes, she will wish that she had followed them." He did not stop to explain himself, but turned quickly; the young cadet was suddenly most surprised and a little disturbed to see two tall and peculiarly silent male paramedics - one tall, blond and lanky, the other tall, dark and burly - standing dutifully a little way behind the colonel, both of whom, up until that very moment, he hadn't noticed before. "Take her," the colonel ordered them peremptorily.
The two men moved forward, each at either end of the stretcher, and hoisted the woman up with an easy flick of the arms. The young cadet looked ruffled.
"But, sir… I thought I was meant to wait for-"
"This doesn't concern the feds," Saunders replied coldly, as the two men carted the woman back down the hill. "We've been ordered to take her to a military hospital. You are relieved of your post. Get back to barracks and make your report."
The cadet still looked uneasy, but gave a formal salute and shuffled off. Saunders hardly noticed. He was already following the two men back down the hill with an inscrutable look on his inscrutable face.
At the bottom of the hill an ambulance was already waiting. Saunders threw open the back doors whilst the two paramedics loaded the young woman inside and hastily connected her to a drip and a heart monitor with the practised air of the professional. Saunders surveyed this all with a stony silence, and when they were finished, he nodded and curtly addressed the two medics.
"Good work. Dominic, St. John, get up front and take the wheel. I'll stay with her. You'll need to be fast, my friends, but please - drive carefully. Our cargo is precious."
The tall, burly man nodded wordlessly. Saunders stepped up into the recesses of the ambulance, whilst the two men closed the doors on him, one by one.
Saunders was shut inside with the mutant.
The two medics stared briefly at one another.
"I still say we shoulda left a traitor like her to rot with the rest of those X-freaks," the blond man remarked sulkily in a broad Australian accent. "You think she'll even make it?"
"She never will if we don't start drivin'," the other replied, low and severe. "And if she doesn't, it's our heads on a freakin' platter, St. John. Get your ass up front. I'll take the wheel."
So saying he walked round the ambulance to the driver's seat; St. John grimaced to no one in particular and gave a mock salute.
"Yes, sir," he muttered caustically.
The ambulance started with a jolt; in the back, wires and fixings swung ominously in the dim half-light that buzzed and flickered mutinously from a single light fixture above. Saunders was leaning over the patient with an odd tenderness on his featureless face. It was with a gentleness quite unexpected in the staunch and severe colonel that he reached out and stroked the girl's pallid cheek with the back of his wiry hand.
"Welcome back, my child," he whispered.
"Let us only hope that she will return to us, Raven," a mild, serene, yet faintly distinguished voice observed from the corner. Saunders looked up sharply, his ever-vigilant gaze finally falling on a little old lady sitting quite placidly in the shadows at the corner of the ambulance. His face darkened somewhat, his mouth holding the faintest trace of bitterness.
"How could it have been allowed to go this far, Irene," he commented grievously, "that she was almost killed! I thought you'd guaranteed -"
"You forget, Raven," the old woman returned, this time gravely. "I make no guarantees. Time itself cannot allow guarantees. What matters is that she is alive. By a thread that may be broken at any moment, granted - but she is still with us, at the very least."
She paused, frowning a little, her face wreathed for the first time in the shadows of uncertainty as her wrinkled features oscillated under the swinging light. She was a small, spare woman, apparently in her sixties, dressed in a plain, old burgundy dress suit with a prim and fussy lace collar; her grey hair was tied back in a severe bun, and where the colonel's eyes were constantly active, hers remained blank and unblinking behind rose-tinted glasses.
"You were right, at least," he finally replied, stiffly. "She was there."
"And the others are dead," Irene stated with a tone of resigned yet calm finality.
Saunders' eyes flickered briefly as he looked on the girl still lying, motionless on the stretcher.
"Yes," he answered at last, unwillingly and somewhat petulantly. "Not that I give a shit about Xavier and those other self-righteous bastards, but…"
"I said that others would be there," Irene finished serenely, "and there weren't."
This time the colonel looked up at her, and as he did so, a strange thing happened to his face - its features, the hunted eyes, the hooked nose, the discontented mouth - each seemed to shift subtly, melt, and slowly to reform itself, and then, almost within the blink of an eye, the colonel was gone and replaced with a woman, a dark-haired woman with skin almost as pale as that of the young girl lying on the stretcher; her eyes were grey and hard, and her mouth almost as unforgiving as the colonel's had been. She was beautiful, or had once been - it was difficult to tell. And though there was barely a wrinkle on her face, there was the distinct quality of age about her.
"You have rarely been wrong before," this strange woman noted pointedly - her voice held the glacial tone of an icicle, "and never about something as important as this."
The old woman named Irene didn't seem in the least concerned about the peculiar transformation Saunders seemed to have undergone. If anything she appeared not to have noticed it at all.
"In this game we play, Raven," she merely murmured softly, "one can never be quite sure just how things are going to turn out. You and I both know that, my love."
"You told me there were supposed to be three of them," Raven hissed accusingly. "Where were the others tonight? Why could we not save them?"
"Perhaps they have already been saved," Irene answered evenly. "Only not by us. Always you are too impatient, Raven. Let Time play its hand. No doubt events will unfold as they are meant to. The other two shall, in time, return."
"But you said we would find the others here, tonight," the other retorted accusingly; but Irene merely chuckled softly.
"You forget, my love, that the future is malleable, that there are certain variables in this game that my visions cannot take into account. I cannot see with any distinct clarity the shadows that lurk at the borders of this game, some of them master manipulators, those that twist events to their own subtle desires - just as we do." She paused, a small smile curling the corner of her withered lips. "At least we found that which we have always treasured most, my love." Her eyes shifted blandly, almost imperceptibly behind the dark shades. "At least we have her."
Raven's ravenous eyes fell back to the face of the girl lying, still as unbroken water, upon the stretcher. There was a pendant round her neck - a butterfly crafted from white gold, its blue and green enamel wings chapped and dusty. Her brow furrowed, Raven reached out with a slender, curious hand and touched the small token, toying with it thoughtfully.
"Yes," she finally nodded in muted agreement. Her eyes became unfocused as she addressed the girl in a mere whisper: "How long has it been, my child? All those years of waiting have finally bled into this." She raised her voice, addressing the little old woman in bitter tones; "She'll hate us for letting her live, Irene. And she will hate us even more for what we have planned for her."
The old woman's expression was grave.
"It is her destiny, Raven. It is what we sought her out for from the very beginning. And finally all those years of labour are starting to bear fruit."
Raven's eyes were suddenly dim.
"Really, Irene?" she asked quietly, an element of vulnerability suddenly breaking that indomitable voice.
And Irene replied: "Really, my love."
There was nothing more to be said. Outside the window the world rushed by, a world as untouchable and invisible to the woman named Irene as it was to the girl lying beside her on the stretcher. Nevertheless, she turned slightly, and it seemed that for a moment she could see beyond the glass, beyond the sea of houses and streets and bodies, beyond the impenetrable night and the moon and the stars, and into something else far, far away.
"That's right, my young thief," she whispered to herself. "Run away into the night, and take your shadow with you. You'll be back, soon enough. And as for you, my starchild… the future rushes towards you, and it will always find you, whether you wish to be found or not."