Disclaimer: I don't own any characters except Irbis and several innocent short-lived bystanders; everything else is Marvel's only.

Chapter 1

Home

It was 6 sharp and Creed took advantage of the lack of cars at this early hour to speed through the interstate. Another half an hour and he'd be home eating a 'Portuguese Omelette'. His stomach grumbled noisily at the idea of food and he sped some more. The thought of the omelette made him smile. Now, more than ever, he was happy for his insight when he had decided not to kill Irbis. She cooked very well – much better than the only other woman he had ever kept in his home, Birdy – and she seemed to work extra hard on preparing meals whenever he repeated the initial dosage or when he complimented her recipes. Just the thought of spending a few days in his little Paradise and, for once, being properly waited on immediately sent him into the best of moods.

'Portuguese Omelette'! He always had to smirk whenever he remembered how he had picked on her and she had fixed him that disgusting Spanish egg recipe. He liked her guts. He liked her style. But most of all, he liked how she always seemed to know when to get out of his hair. That was a rare skill, and one that would keep her alive and unhurt for a long time.

As he reached Wausau, he was already thinking up more topics that could annoy her. He liked to see her pent up her rage and set her jaw with that stubborn promise of a swift vengeance. It was childish… But who cared? He was having fun! Even if she could find a way to call it even, he was still having fun. And it was particularly fun when he won. It had only happened once. She had turned around, interrupted him and told him up front 'O.K., I give up; you win. All right?" He hadn't really been expecting that and his surprise had shown, followed by a victorious grin. And then she had laughed! Well not really laughed out loud – she didn't do that – but it was that kind of supressed laugh that could almost look like a chuckle although not quite. Plus the way she glanced at him playfully, followed by a slight coy flush of the cheeks. It was as if she was inviting him to press on with the game. Hell, she was constantly inviting him to keep on nagging her.

That had been when he had once more admitted that the girl was just plain strange. Weird, even. But, hey, for as long as she kept him happy, who was he to complain, right?

With this in mind, he pulled off the road and parked his bike in front of the garage. He opened the garage to put it safely inside and his good mood immediately fell to the ground. The mini-van he had given Irbis was nowhere to be seen. He looked at his watch: it was 6.32 am. Where the hell could the girl be at this hour in the morning? He regretted having given her the car and promised himself that from now on she'd have to walk everywhere!

He parked the bike and went in. The fridge was well stocked and, since he was starving from driving all night long without as much as a little snack, he fixed his own breakfast while trying to guess where Irbis might have gone. She had spent the night in the house, that was obvious, and she had had breakfast not that long ago, too. He guessed she had left sometime around 6 or 6.15. But where to? There were no shops open at that hour.

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He was napping in the couch when he heard the mini-van's engine. He immediately woke up and sprang to his feet. He went to the kitchen and placed himself facing the door to the garage. It was past 9. He heard her stop the car and get out to close the garage door. She'd know he was there, he thought to himself, as soon as she laid eyes on his bike. He heard her open the car's door and pull things down. The scent of herbs, cheese and blood among other things made him cock an eyebrow, but soon she was opening the door to the kitchen, and giving out a yell at the same time as she dropped a large basket.

"Mr. Creed?"

"Quit the dumb questions already an' tell me where the Hell ya've been."

"I… I went to market."

And she stooped to pick up the basket she had dropped.

"What market? There ain't no market in Wausau!"

"It's a summer market, on Thursdays, from July to September." She brought the basket and a few bags to the kitchen table and started putting things away. "It opens at half past seven, but I always leave de house around six am because I found out dis farm, twenty minutes away from Wausau, where I buy fresh milk and eggs; and rabbits and chickens, too. Den on Thursdays I stop by de market and buy some fruit, herbs, and anything else I think may be necessary."

He was looking at her, frowning but in silence and she decided she should say something else to avoid that stressed silence.

"I'm sorry. I suppose I should have left a note, in case you returned. Is dere something you'd like me to do? Would you like me to fix something for you to eat? Dere is a nice cool dessert in de freezer…"

"What's with yar speech?"

"I beg your pardon?"

" 'I beg yar pardon'? Where the hell d'ya learn ta talk like that? What happened ta the problems in speaking and understanding English?"

He noticed that her shoulders slumped somewhat and that her features became suddenly tired.

"I've been studying English in de last weeks. I used to have excellent marks in English classes, but I had always had de opportunity to use a dictionary and to have time to check my sentences… I wasn't used to actually speaking English. But I thought it was easy enough to recover, after some study."

"Oh, yeah? Well, let me tell ya, ya're still miles away from getting it right!"

She lowered her head and for a moment he thought she was going to cry, which would have been well done: teach her to go holidaying instead of fixing his breakfast! But instead, she picked up a piece of ham wrapped in brown paper and turned to place it in the fridge; then she opened the freezer and took out a bowl filled with something that looked like ice-cream.

"It's made wid milk, rum and nuts… It's very tasty when it's covered wid hot chocolate. Would you like me to fix you some scoops or would you rather have it after lunch?"

"After lunch. I'm goin' out an' ya better have this mess all cleaned up when I get back."

He turned around and entered the garage, avoiding kicking a basket that stood in his way because of the eggs standing on top of the apples, which he knew would be needed for the next day's breakfast.

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It was almost ten pm and Creed was wandering through his backyard, enjoying being away from anyone else. You could almost forget you were in a city, amidst the towering trees. But Creed wasn't there to forget anything; he was planning his next hit, which should take place in a few days. And he was also trying to gather some patience before going in and having a little chat with Irbis.

Irbis had been acting in a strange way all day long. First off, her speech had got very weird since he'd last been there: sometimes she spoke like a British posh, and then all of a sudden she'd fall into her original broken English, or would mix British and American words and pronunciations in a single sentence. Then she was also sighing more often. She was sighing even during meal times, and she had only done that in those first times, before that Fernandez guy had set his hounds on her. She'd better not be going back to her suicidal craze, Creed growled, he was enjoying her work and he was not going to let her ruin it. Not to mention he had plans for her, and she'd better be in the right mood to pull them off.

He finished his cigar and went back to the house, feeling himself filled with patience and understanding. She was in the living room, looking at the TV but not really watching the programme. Nevertheless, he waited for the programme to end before starting in the smoothest way he could.

"So… Irbis. What's the problem?"

"Problem?"

"Ya're depressed again, if ya ain't noticed yet, and ya gonna tell me why."

She was silent for a while, and Creed was glad he was so patient that night. She remained silent for some time more.

"I'm waitin' fer an answer, girl, an' I'd rather get it today!"

She sighed – Oh, the unavoidable sigh! – and once more he was pleased with his patience.

"I am sorry, Mr. Creed. But… It's hard to explain, I'm afraid. It's just…"

There was a long pause until Creed somehow changed a low growl into an apparent throat cleaning. Irbis held her breath for a moment before letting out in one go.

"I'm not contented. I know I should be. I know any oder person in my place would be thanking for dis second chance. But…" She shook her head without looking at him. "I just can't make myself happy wid dis. Dis emptiness. I feel like dere's no point in anything. Everything's pointless. And I feel so empty! Not just empty; I feel… I feel down, trapped, caged, broken, dispirited…"

"Now there's a long list. Guess ya filled yarself up with words with all that studying, eh?"

She looked at floor with depressed eyes but there was also a hint of rebellion the way she breathed out forcefully.

"Look, girl, ya gotta lighten up! Ya're safe in this place."

"Oh yes! Quite safe. De only place where I can possibly be safe… or better yet, de only place where I'll be as much safe as my situation can allow."

Creed didn't like her intonation, but held on to his incredible one-night understanding and ignored it.

"It ain't like ya're locked up in the house. Ya can go out in town whenever ya want. I gave ya a car, didn't I?"

She shook her head but didn't look at him.

"And where can I go? To de parks? I've been to all. To libraries and book stores? I've been through dem all. To pubs and bars and discos? To cinemas? To de theatre? To shopping centres?" She was definitely getting ready to burst, when she looked at him, but there was also a moisture that predicted tears in a near future. "Dis is a prison, Mr. Creed, a nice looking prison, but a prison nonedeless. You may have offered me an excellent business, which you did, I'm fully aware of dat; but Wausau must be my… my gold birdcage. De one place I can't leave for fear of being discovered and taken in for testing and experimenting on."

He didn't argue. She was stubborn and wouldn't have accepted any arguments against her reasons, so he just added this information she had given him to the image he had been making of her. She was stubborn, independent and proud. She wasn't easily scared or frightened but was terribly insecure; however, she managed to hide it very well, unless her weak points were pointed out, that is. She was smart, learned fast, and knew how to deal with his difficult temper and, probably, with most anyone's temper. She was very cool and probably thought things two and three times before deciding on a course of action. She must be good at manipulating, although she hadn't tried it on him yet, but she also made a point of sincerity, honesty and professionalism. She was easily depressed, which turned her into a suicide danger. She had no problems killing people when she was being attacked and in the heat of the moment, but would rather stay clear of actual violence after recovering her cold blood. He frowned. She probably didn't like to get involved in things. And, to crown it all, she didn't like feeling trapped. He couldn't blame her on that last one, though, as he himself loved his freedom of movement above pretty much anything.

But at least he knew what the problem was: she felt she would be safe for as long as she didn't go out of the rural out-of-the-way Wausau. That idea made her feel trapped and, therefore, made her depressed, although not as passively as in June, when he had first brought her in. That pleased him: he was being successful in his quest to infuse some life into the woman. But not enough yet; as angry as she might be, she was still very much depressed. Question was: Would her anger break up and leave her suicidal again? That possibility bothered him. He had got an excellent house keeper and he didn't want to lose her just because of a ridiculous reason such as a 'oh, I feel trapped'!

"So, whaddya thinkin' 'bout doing?"

"I don't understand. What am I thinking doing about what?"

"Last time ya were depressed ya wanted ta kill yerself! So what ya gonna do now that ya're depressed again?"

She frowned and then shrugged, with a small annoyed pout.

"Ya gonna try an' kill yerself again?"

"I can't. We've got a contract, remember?"

"Huh?"

She froze for a second; then she sighed annoyedly and went to the study. Creed followed her and saw her pick up a sheet of paper which she then gave him. He whistled as he started reading it. Boy, was this girl professional! She had actually written down the conditions on both parties' sides; and there it was: he would not abuse her verbally, physically, or sexually and she would fulfil all her job functions (which were listed above in great detail). Furthermore, she would not attempt to take her own life unless the contract was breached by the other party, namely her employer, Mr. Creed, also known as Sabretooth or Mr. Jekyll.

"I see… so ya can't kill yerself unless I break my side o' the deal, eh?"

He chuckled. This was amusing! No one had ever bothered to write down a full contract like this with him. The girl may be weird, but she was fun. Plus, he didn't have to bother about her committing suicide and leaving his house unkept again. He returned the paper to her.

"By the way, how's yar finance gettin' by?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Money! How much money d'ya got around? Did ya spend all your subsidies already?"

She hesitated before sighing.

"I've got some economies, if you must know."

"Right. I bet that means ya got close to nothin'. So, tell me, whadd'ya say 'bout some extra money, huh?"

She frowned, suspicious, and didn't say anything.

"Ya see, I'm goin' ta this place over in Albany. It's a really fancy thing, an' I was thinkin' 'bout takin' a nice lookin' woman just fer the sights an' all. So I was thinkin' ta myself: wonder if Irbis'd like ta go out on some paid holiday of sorts? So, whadd'ya say, huh?"

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