Chapter Forty-Three: Resolution pt 2
The Xavier Institute for Higher Learning
Rogue pulled the trench coat collar up as she stepped off the back porch and into the thick drizzling rain, which was busy saturating the grounds. She wondered how much longer Ororo would keep sulking. Rogue knew the other woman was mad as hell with Remy and would likely as not electrocute his skinny no good ass if he turned up back at the mansion. Still, Rogue had enough sense to know she was in no position to criticise.
Shaking off her thoughts Rogue padded across the lawns towards the wilder parts of the estate. She didn't know where she was planning to go except that she needed to be on the move. Still she didn't want to fly. Instead she wanted to walk through the undergrowth of the woods, the ends of her purloined trench coat catching on the brush. She wanted to loiter in shadow under the trees.
The trench coat still smelled of Remy, which basically meant that it reeked of old tobacco, road dust, a faint hint of spice and the whisper of spearmint gum. Strangely, and for no sensibly reason, the scent was nowhere near as awful as it should have been. The over-sized coat kept the rain off and the familiar scent comforted her a little.
Rogue knew that she was the only person in the mansion who truly believed that Remy was not only alive somewhere out there in the big bad world, but that he was still himself – still as sane as he started out. Jean thought Gambit had already been corrupted by Sinister's influence before the Witness programme and the Garden got a-hold of him. Cyclops thought that Remy was either dead or crazier than a coon with a tick up his butt (not that Scott Summers would use an analogy like that). Wolvie didn't seem inclined to speculate one way or the other and 'Ro was too busy feeling sorry for herself anyhow.
Rogue felt like the only one who knew the truth; she knew that Gambit might be through but Remy would be back. Maybe not exactly the man he used to be, but that old Cajun snake knew how to shed his skin and start over. She remembered the shadow of his true self that had lived in her head for weeks; that man had the resilience of a cockroach. He'd survive a meltdown, especially if he was the one who caused it in the first place.
Rogue wove in and out of the trees silently. She did not even realise she was tapping into Remy's ability to move without making a sound. From inside one of the large outer pockets of the trench coat her hand closed around a pack of cards. Casually she withdrew a few cards from the pack and fanned them in her hand. She grinned at the hand she had drawn: the ace of spades, the queen of hearts, the joker and the suicide king.
'What are the odds, huh?'
She chuckled to herself and put all the cards away save the queen of hearts, that card she pushed into the sleeve of her uniform. She continued walking. She decided that she'd have to dig out her old sewing machine and get this old coat properly washed, then she'd cut it down to size so she could wear it without tripping up.
'Sugar wherever ya are, ah hope ya havin' fun,' she told the damp night air.
After a moment Rogue gathered herself and launched upwards into the sky, the trench coat flaring out behind her like the tail of a comet. Tomorrow was a new day and Rogue was determined to make the most of it. She flew over the grounds and high into the drizzling clouds.
She'd spent so long afraid of shadows, afraid of the dark places – but she wasn't going to be afraid anymore, because she knew, in her heart of hearts, that one day she'd walk into one particular shadow and find a grinning snake charmer waiting for her. She would look forward to that day.
Garden Central Core:
Witness integration complete: pick a card, any card……..
The echoes of that soulless, inhuman voice rattled inside each of the X-men's heads as the boundaries of reality, time, and space, trembled before tumbling down around them. The Momentary Princess throbbed with power and from the depths of its infinite centre came images; profane and sublime, impossible, improbable, and horribly prescient.
Storm started as an image of professor Xavier, chained and dressed in prison scrubs being harassed by Bastion, filled their minds only to warp and shift into an image of Charles Xavier walking with the aid of a stick and standing proud surrounded by mutant children; the Xavier Institute a real school at last. Once again the image shaded into something else, becoming Xavier torn by grief and regret as his students turned against him one by one and the world became a much harsher and bleaker place.
'What the hell is this?'
Wolverine snarled through his teeth as Xavier fell away and an image of a thousand sentinels converging on the island of Genosha, raining down destruction and death without restraint, filled the glowing expanse of the chamber. Magneto rose and he fell away under the onslaught. Mutants died in droves and a diamond woman shone as she staggered through the rubble.
Then Logan saw himself, burning up under the magnificent sun in deep space, as he held Jean's limp body in his arms. He saw the Phoenix rise, nurtured by the blazing sun. He saw her struck down in her blazing majesty soon after.
………Pick a card……..any card…….around and around…..
'Scott - these images – they seem so real!'
Jean Grey-Summers clutched at her husband as she saw him leap through the air, an expression of utter determination upon his face, plunging headlong into a vortex of power wherein Apocalypse stood in the centre.
She saw her only true love, her husband and her life, die for his son. She saw a ring of twelve mutants, some friends and some foes, watch in horror alongside her as the first X-man perished. She saw herself, wreathed in flame standing by, helpless, as a man wearing her husband's form, but dead inside, destroyed the love between them; the love that had been the one and only constant of her existence. She saw her grave marker and the cursed epitaph therein: "She will rise again."
…….Around and around….where it stops…….no one knows…..
Scott Summers recoiled in horror as he saw a man who could not possibly be him embrace another woman over Jean's grave. He felt sick to his stomach to see that other woman's face. He could not bear the cold triumph in the eyes of Emma Frost. Behind his visor Scott Summers closed his eyes tightly, but still saw everything through his wife Jean's stricken and horrified eyes.
…….Pick a card, roll the die…….try your luck……
Rogue said not a word as she saw herself learn to bleed and know pain again as a dark clad stranger stabbed her right through with a gigantic sword amid the squalor of Madripoor's shanty towns. She saw herself rise and live again, without gloves, a tattooed girl in a coastal town. She could almost taste the freedom as she tasted the phantom brine of sea salt on her lips.
……Pick a card any card………challenge the house, play your hand…….
'No!' Bishop almost staggered as he saw himself, wild eyed and crazed, raise a gun to the head of a tiny infant, fire, and seemingly end the life of Charles Xavier as the man shielded the infant. Bishop saw himself hunted by those he had once revered; X-men who wanted him dead. He saw the flash of Wolverine's claws as X-men ordered to kill on sight surrounded him. He heard a whisper in his ear, cold and laughingly mocking: "One minute before Dawn."
Faster and faster the Princess spun, green-white light shading to angry, pulsing fuchsia as Sinister's dark and twisted data cables adhered like leeches to the Princess sucking up the secrets of maybe-tomorrow like blood. The X-men were trapped and helpless, unable to break the spell of foresight and see through this most deadly game of smoke and mirrors.
Wolverine chewed on the end of his cigar as he prowled through the soaked evening shadow. He was feeling old today, or maybe he was just forced to remember how young his teammates were. There was a lot of hard living and even harder knocks separating him from the rest of the team today.
Beer in one hand Logan caught the scent of Bishop skulking under a copse of trees a little ways off into the woods, even over the pungent aroma of his own cigar. The old Canadian curled his lip in dark amusement. Now there was a man with a lot on his mind. Cyke's decision not to punish Bishop for whatever the hell it was he had done to Gumbo was probably a far worse censure for the big man than anything else Summers might have come up with.
Now Bishop had nothing to live with but his own conscience. There were few things worse than self-loathing.
Logan paused, narrowing keen animal eyes to catch a hint of the man, caught all in shades of grey against the canvas of wet darkness. He thought about going over and talking to the young buck, but figured there was nothing to say. Bishop was just going to have to come to terms with his actions in his own way. That was life and she was a royal bitch.
Turning around and removing his cigar from his mouth so he could swallow from his beer bottle, Logan looked back up at the roof. He snorted sourly to see that 'Ro was still sat up there, getting rained on, and feeling sorry for herself. A shiver of genuine sympathy passed through Logan. Storm had maybe the only real legitimate bone to pick with the Cajun. Logan only hoped that she didn't become bitter when she realised Gambit wasn't going to give her the satisfaction.
Gumbo knew how to make a helluva mess that was for damn sure, Logan thought not for the first time in the last week. The man knew how to make a heck of an exit too, Logan chuckled dryly. Gambit had delivered a real clear "fuck you" message to each and every person on the team, whether he had meant to or not.
The Cajun had played them all for suckers; dragging them along on his crazy ride by the nose; got the team to take out Sinister for him even. Then, like some bizarre balancing act of good for bad, he'd left Hank with maybe the best chance the furry scientist had ever had to cure Legacy before pissing all over everything the Boy Scout, Jeannie, and the rest of the kids in this mansion had always believed to be Gospel.
Gumbo made a lie of the X-men's dream; not because he didn't respect it, but because he shone a light that couldn't be ignored right onto the dream's limitation. The world wasn't black and white and there was rarely enough order to balance out the chaos. Gambit was a child of that chaos, more so even than Logan himself, and the X-men just couldn't handle chaos.
Logan's teeth flashed in a stiletto thin smile, 'Whatchure do for an encore, bub?'
He asked the rain and then, as the wind changed, he caught a new scent on the air. Logan's nostrils flared; he never forgot a scent. Lips skinning back from sharp incisors in a grin that could only be described as savage, the Wolverine hared off in pursuit of this new scent.
Something told him the encore was here sooner than expected.
Garden Central Core:
Cyclops was shaking and the images kept coming, searing into his brain even with his eyes squeezed closed. The whisper in his brain still retained a Cajun accent even as it hissed sibilant soulless malice through his bones.
Ask your question…….choose your lie……..you want to know tomorrow? Pick a card and play the game………Witness and I'll show you everything…..there are no secrets in the Garden…..
It was Storm who broke the spell first. 'We have to leave - Cyclops we must leave!'
Reaching out to shake the field leader Ororo gestured around her at the deep indigo threat pulsing in the walls. She could feel the thrum of power eating away at her body like a deep cramping ache. They stood in the centre of a maelstrom of pure destruction and the Princess was the cruel and mocking eye of the storm.
The rest of the X-men broke free of their daze in stages.
'The doors out, y'all,' Rogue stared at the thick wall of striating energy fizzing around the edges of what use to be the corridor beyond the central core chamber. The doorway looked like a solid shroud of pinkish-white energy; a sparking nothingness that threatened to devour everything it touched. 'We ain't gonna be able to leave the way we came in.'
Cyclops pursed his lips, 'I'm open to suggestions.' He cast his gaze over the contours of the chamber, grown indistinct as the room was swallowed in a rising tide of pure energy.
'We need to go up.' Phoenix said. 'About a level, I think. We should be able to reach the open air that way.' She looked at the heavy-hitters of the team: Rogue, Storm, Bishop. 'Can you blast us a route through the ceiling?'
'We can but try.' Storm rose into the air, which hissed and crackled around her as she tried to wield elements that had already been broken down and re-formed by the insidious wash of energy.
Bishop summoned a bio-blast without a word spoken and aimed for the ceiling of the chamber above their heads. Phoenix swiftly erected a telekinetic shield around them. It proved to be unnecessary however as Bishop's blast dissipated into the hissing mass of energy long before it reached its target.
Rogue was more successful as she rose to the air and hammered a fist into the throbbing steel ceiling. 'Ouch, that tingles.' She shook her fist, which had picked up a pinkish glow after the first blow. 'Ah think ah can pound mah way through but it's gonna take time.'
'We ain't got time darlin'.' Wolverine growled. 'I can smell it –this place is ready to blow.'
Phoenix frowned and pressed a hand to her temple. 'Let me try something.' She closed her eyes and sent her mind outward, seeking a consciousness she was no longer certain still existed.
Gambit – help us. I know you don't want to hurt us. We're trapped in here.
She sent her psionic message bounding through the chamber. She had a sense that some form of intelligence was watching them all. There had to be something controlling the Princess, after all. Whether that consciousness was still recognisable as Remy LeBeau was another matter entirely, but the team was out of options and Jean would have to take the gamble.
You win Remy; we give up. The Garden's yours. Now get us out of here.
There was an almost subliminal groan and a shudder ran through the still extant structures of the chamber. A moment later, as Jean felt her consciousness brush against the hidden contours of another mind somewhere else in the chamber, a tesseract portal ripped open wide right in front of the trapped team.
'Whoa,' Rogue dropped back down to the broken platform, 'Nice goin' Phoenix.' Through the tear in the fabric of space and time it was possible to see the night sky and feel the coolness of the darkened New Mexico desert. 'How'd ya summon a portal, sugar?'
Phoenix pursed her lips, 'I didn't.'
Thank you Gambit.
Rogue was not the only one to frown at Jean a trifle suspiciously because of her enigmatic evasion, but now was not the time to second guess. Cyclops shook himself into action.
'Quickly everyone through the portal – now,' He gestured for Jean to go first, then Ororo. Rogue pulled back.
'But….what about Remy?'
Cyclops opened his mouth, and what he might have said probably wouldn't have been wise. Therefore it was just as well Wolverine spoke first.
'He's gone darlin'.' The short man took Rogue carefully by the elbow, mindful of her torn uniform. 'Gumbo's playin' fer different stakes now, an' we ain't invited t' the table.'
'He ain't dead Logan, ah'd know if he was.' Rogue did not pull free of Wolverine's hold as he manoeuvred the pair of them closer to the portal.
'Course he ain't darlin'.' The old Canuck agreed sagely. 'Cajun's an X-man an' we all get at least one get out of death free card t' play.'
Rogue seemed to deflate a little when Wolverine did not dispute her. She allowed herself to be escorted through the portal alongside Wolverine. Cyclops turned to Bishop who was staring fixedly at the Princess.
'Bishop we need to move out; now.'
The big man, face cast into lurid red hued shadows by the writhing power cascading through the chamber, turned almost dazed eyes onto Cyclops. It took him only a second to gather himself however and he nodded gesturing for Cyclops to precede him through the portal. The team leader frowned at him.
'We step through together, Bishop. I'm not leaving anyone else behind.' Cyclops added darkly.
'As you say, Cyclops,' Bishop glanced over his team leader's head briefly and outward towards the glowing orb of the Momentary Princess.
For just a moment he thought he saw something, or rather someone, standing there behind the Princess. Bishop thought he saw long straggly white hair, red eyes, and a wizened, maniacal grin. Be seeing you pup – you better watch your back. Bishop thought he heard the Witness laughing at him. A moment later Bishop blinked and there was nothing but dancing shadow and roiling light.
'Now, Bishop.' Cyclops commanded.
Bishop and Cyclops stepped through the tesseract, which was already closing, sealing like a shallow wound behind them. Seconds later the rip in space and time had closed completely and the outside world might not have existed for all the difference it made.
From with the twisted contours and knotted vines of the sinuous dangling trunk made of data cables wreathing the Momentary Princess, a long fingered hand, bloody and sliced through with neon glowing fibreglass filaments, reached down to clasp the Momentary Princess.
'Mirror, mirror in de air….I t'ink it time you went back where you come from, Princess.'
A card appeared, glowing like a captive star, even amid the brilliance of the pulsing chamber, and was flipped artfully from skilled fingers. The card passed right through the immense heart of the Momentary Princess, slicing cleanly across the face of time and space.
A second later all existence imploded into light and shadow and the Garden ceased to be as anything other than a memory and a warning for tomorrow.
Hank McCoy, blue bounding Beast, pulled off his spectacles and rubbed at the grove of concentration he could feel through the thick mantle of fur covering his brow. His eyes burned and his head ached, but by Jove, it was good to be busy and productive again.
Hank, with Threnody's competent help, had already processed and qualified forty percent of the data downloaded from Sinister's databanks into Cerebro. Already the information contained within was enough to give a man of science heart palpitations filled with both joy and horror combined. Hank was sure that some of Sinister's data would prove unusable by any ethical standards simple because the results had been gathered in a manner best described as barbaric.
Nevertheless, even if almost fifty percent of this appropriated data was good for nothing but immediate erasing, the other fifty percent could advance the forefront of medical science and research by decades. Warren had already promised to have his pharmaceutical wing of Worthington Industries manufacture, test, and distribute any and all vaccines and treatments to the world that Hank might be able to synthesise from the data salvaged from Sinister's immense store. Thousands of people, both mutant and human, could soon be given a new lease of life; their pain and sickness alleviated if not completely eradicated.
His mind aflame with ethical quandaries and potential breakthroughs Hank lumbered gainfully through the mansion. He was mindful not to seem too exuberant as it would not be politic, but he could not help the spring in his step.
'Looking spry, Hankster,' Bobby was exiting the kitchen, or at least trying to, as Hank launched himself forward through the threshold.
The result of this collision led to Bobby being propelled back into a waiting dining chair by the table with a resounding 'oof' of surprise and Hank having to dive to catch the falling box of Twinkies before they hit the floor and the sweet goodness was forever sullied.
'My apologies, Robert,' Hank plucked a Twinkie from the rescued box in his hand with a dainty claw. 'I trust you were intent on sharing this here bounty with your hirsute and boisterous bosom companion; namely, for the sake of brevity, my own good self.' He popped the sweet treat into his mouth.
Bobby rolled his eyes, 'Nope I was going to go down to the secure basement and share them with your evil doppelganger.' He deadpanned before adding. 'I was on my way down to the lab. I thought only Twinkies would get you away from all that mad scientist stuff you've been doing for the last week.'
Hank swallowed the mouthful of his second Twinkie. 'Am I required to start cackling maniacally at this juncture?'
Bobby grinned, 'Only if you can do that with a mouthful of calories, big blue.' He reached out a hand for the box of snack food, 'Unless you want to give me back my snack?'
Hank pulled the half empty box close to his lab coat swathed chest protectively. 'I think not. Possession is nine tenths of the law, after all.' He plucked up and devoured another Twinkie. 'All your snack food are belong to me.' He added with a grin.
Bobby opened his mouth for a suitably witty riposte in rejoinder but was rudely interrupted by the Cerebro proximity alarm sounding a split second before Cerebro's dulcet tones filled the hallowed halls of the mansion.
Warning – intruder detected: unauthorised use of teleportational device on grounds……analysis confirms tesseract activity.
Hank and Bobby stared at each other for one long, drawn out second frozen in time before Iceman broke the spell.
'Tesseract activity - oh shit!'
In the blink of an Iceman and Beast had leapt to their feet, the Twinkie box discarded on the dining room table. The two X-men ran out into the grounds to join the rest of the team; Iceman creating an ice path to get them their faster.
Almogordo - outside of the facility
The other members of the X-men team were waiting when Cyclops, Phoenix, Bishop, Rogue, Wolverine and Storm came tearing out of a hole in the fabric of space and time about a mile away from the power soaked Almogordo complex. By this point everything within the complex confines was glowing, from the rubble of the old cooling tower, to the gritty dust of the hard packed earth. The low buildings and remaining cooling tower of the Almogordo nuclear facility burned like neon stars against the darkness of the pre-dawn sky.
'What happened?' Angel demanded dropping down to land by his leader.
'There's no time,' Cyclops bit out as he continued to run full tilt for the waiting plane, 'We have to get out of here.'
'Can we stop the explosion?' Storm demanded twisting around to stare at the complex, 'If explosion is even the correct term.'
'I can try to contain it,' Phoenix replied curtly, 'but I'm not sure how successful I'll be. I can protect us easily enough, beyond that I think we have to just let it go. At least we're not anywhere near a populated area.'
'No,' Cyclops asserted himself, still struggling with the memory emblazed upon his mind in pink and neon of himself and Emma Frost. 'We need to evacuate the area immediately. There is no point in risking X-men lives trying to contain the explosion.'
'And Gambit?' Havok asked as he and Polaris joined the huddle.
Scott frowned darkly knowing the expression was lost under his visor. 'We couldn't get him out.'
Cyclops wasn't sure who uttered that not entirely irreverent curse but he thought it might have been Warren. Which reminded Cyclops of something as they all piled into the waiting Worthington private jet.
'What happened to Belladonna?'
'Left,' Polaris told him curtly, still refusing to board the plane as she watched the lights and wild colours dance through the complex.
'She's one cold blooded bitch; she figured Remy and the rest of you were goners and she packed up and went.' Strangely Lorna did not sound entirely disapproving.
'What about Scalphunter and Arclight?' Cyclops demanded as he and Polaris finally boarded the aircraft. The air was getting thin outside as Gambit's charge ignited the oxygen. If they didn't leave now the plane might be caught up in that energy snare as well.
'Psylocke knocked them out. We secured them in the cargo hold.' Alex told him as Cyclops finally sat down and buckled himself in. Alex's eyes were on him, 'So you're really just leaving Gambit; do you even know if he's alive or dead?'
'No I don't,' Cyclops admitted, 'but there was nothing more we could do.' He stared back through the porthole window of the plane. He looked out at the lurid, nightmarish visage of the glowing Almogordo complex. In his mind's eye he saw Emma Frost's cold blue eyes.
'There was nothing more the X-men could do.' He said again quietly as the plane lurched off the ground.
The X-men present on the mansion grounds scrambled to respond to the intruder alert. They raced or flew across the grounds to reach the part of the estate Cerebro had isolated as the intruder's location.
Wolverine was the first one on site. He stood amidst the neat headstones in the Xavier estates private cemetery plot under the boughs of a stately apple tree. Rogue and Ororo dropped down to land nearby.
'Wolvie what's the deal…..oh!' Rogue stopped short. She stared beyond the shadows of the apple tree.
Ororo raised a fist and pressed the knuckles to her lips. Her eyes were wide as she too stared. Bishop arrived next and stopped dead in surprise. His arms dropped to his sides and all he could do was stare, just as the others did, at the object sitting under the apple tree in the cemetery.
Cyclops, Phoenix, Beast, and Iceman came up at a dead run only to find the other X-men standing around in a loose half circle staring into the shadows of the graveyard.
'What is it?' Cyclops demanded. He was surprised when Rogue turned around, tears streaming down her face, but with a grin so wide it could eclipse the moon.
Why don't'cha come and see for ya self, hon?' She asked stepping away so that Cyclops and the others could get their first look at what had so captivated the other members of the team.
Cyclops stared; they all just stared. No one could have expected to find this.
The plane continued its ascent. None of the X-men spoke. Storm had taken a seat by one of the windows and was staring so intently through the tiny porthole that her nose was almost squashed against the glass. Cyclops had no desire to know what thoughts were going through Ororo's mind right now.
'What's the plan, Fearless?' Warren asked him from the end of the cabin by the door leading to the cockpit. 'We should be at high enough altitude to be safe from the explosion in the next two minutes. Do we get the hell out of here or….?'
Or stay to watch, Scott finished for him sourly. That was what Warren had just enough tact not to ask out loud. Cyclops stomach roiled with a mixture of anger and dismay. As Cyclops Scott Summers had lost X-men before, and this was not even the most wrenching loss, not even close in fact, but that didn't make it any easier in the long run. Cyclops had still failed, after all.
This was Gambit's doing, Scott thought suddenly. Planned or not, this was Gambit's fault. Gambit had made sure that any rescue mission the X-men could have launched would only ever be a failure. Cyclops could not forgive the man for that, nor was it easy to stomach just how easily Gambit had managed to manipulate him and the rest of the team. Somehow even the things Gambit could not conceivably have planned out in advance had turned out in his favour in the end.
To hell with it, even Bishop's act of betrayal had ended up ensuring the rest of the team was unable to stop Gambit getting his revenge on Sinister by destroying the Garden. The house always wins, Scott thought bitterly, and Gambit had dealt the game from the beginning.
'Why?' Scott asked no one at all, 'Why has this happened?'
More than ever Scott wished the professor was here, not because he truly believed any longer that Charles could solve everything wrong with the world and the team, but simply because he, Scott Summers, would feel better knowing he was not the only one trying to hold the cracks together with his fingertips.
Once again his mind flashed back to the cat-like smile on Emma Frost's face; the quiet triumph in her eyes as they had kissed over the fresh lad turf covering Jean's snow covered grave. He shuddered.
Sitting beside Scott in the plane Jean threaded her fingers through his and squeezed his hand. She brushed her head against his shoulder and pressed her love and support against his mind like a soft warm blanket. She didn't say a word because there was nothing to say, but it was enough to know she was there with him – even after the things they had both seen.
By the window Ororo gasped and the sound sliced through the preternaturally tense atmosphere within the cabin.
'Goddess preserve and keep us all – he has done it – look!'
X-men crowded to the windows of the plane so they could watch the Almogordo complex blow to kingdom come. Cyclops didn't. He sat perfectly still in his chair with Jean's hand tightly grasped in his own and closed his eyes against the lurid glow as the inside of the cabin was momentarily swathed in shades of fuchsia reflected through the windows of the cabin.
The house always wins, and Scott Summers couldn't get the image of himself and Emma Frost from his mind. He shivered in revulsion as below him Sinister's greatest stronghold evaporated into super-charged atoms.
If only Scott could console himself with a comfortable lie; if only he could believe that what he had seen would never come to pass – but Scott had been to the future, he had lived it, and he knew that anything was possible, and most of it was bad news.
Damn you Gambit, he thought bitterly as the afterglow of the silent explosion many thousands of feet below faded away in complete silence, and the X-men turned away from the cabin windows with ashen faces.
Somehow Scott knew that Gambit had activated the Princess on purpose. Remy LeBeau's future had always been a bleak one; he had more reason to fear tomorrow than he had to fear his past, Scott understood that now. What he did not understand was the pettiness that had caused the thief to make his own hell the X-men's as well.
Witness and I'll show you everything……you wanted the truth…..now live with tomorrow.
How could Scott face tomorrow when it carried the whisper of the White Queen's smile?
'Is that what I think it is?' Scott Summers asked no one in particular as he stared at the…..object…..under the apple tree.
'Um, yeah,' Bobby drawled, 'It's a bright pink glow-in-the-dark plastic flamingo.'
Bobby's irrepressible grin broke free. 'God that's so cool – can we keep it? Can we, please?' He made puppy-dog eyes at Scott who ignored him while Jean covered her mouth with her hand to smother a smile.
Scott Summers stared at the foot high lawn ornament that had been pitched into the ground in the shadow of the apple tree in the professor's cemetery. Bobby was right, it was an almost offensively bright shade of pink, it did appear to be, if not glow in the dark per se, then at least internally lit so that it shone in the dark, and it was shaped like a flamingo.
It was arguable the strangest thing an intruder had ever left within the Xavier grounds and that was factoring in some tough competition.
'Jean can you sense any other thoughts in the vicinity? Logan, can you smell anything?' Cyclops demanded trying to maintain the proper vigilance and alertness.
'I don't sense anyone but us, honey.' Jean told him confidently, a little smile playing over her mouth as she looked at the flamingo.
Cyclops tried to tear his eyes from the flamingo and found he couldn't. He noticed a slim manila folder on the ground beside the ridiculous ornament. 'What's that?'
Rogue leaned down to pick up the folder and her breath hitched for just a moment as she pulled a playing card from under a paperclip pinned to the front cover. She held up the Joker for everyone to see. Her hand trembled just a little as she did so.
'Logan?' Cyclops demanded as he nodded for Rogue to open the folder. The wily Canadian snorted with dark humour.
'Caught Gumbo's scent on the grounds 'bout five minutes before the alarm went,' He nodded to the flamingo. 'He was here alright, but the scent's gone cold.'
Cyclops frowned sharply. Thoughts flew through his mind so fast he couldn't quantify them. The brilliant pink flamingo kept his attention captive. It was so powerfully out of place it almost seemed to transcend the ordinary boundaries of good or bad taste. Scott wondered in abstract fashion about the placement; there must be some reason the Cajun had put the thing right in the middle of the X-men cemetery, and under this particular tree. It was so incongruous there must be some twisted message inherent to the placement – and Scott was not entirely sure he truly wanted to be let in on that joke.
'You're sure it was Gambit?' He asked Logan, already knowing the answer, as the attentions of the rest of the team sharpened around him. Wolverine gave him a very steady look.
'I never forget a scent, bub.' The gruff old man scratched his chin. 'Ain't like anyone else would leave something like that for us to find either,' He nodded to the flamingo. 'Gumbo's got a real whacked out sense of humour, that's for sure.'
'Remy…..was here?' Ororo's fists were tightly clenched at her sides. 'Bishop, Beast, Wolverine – spread out across the grounds. He might still be nearby.' She added urgently.
'Alas my dear Windrider,' Hank began gently, 'I fear the intruder alarm was set off by the portal with which our erstwhile Cajun compeer chose to leave the vicinity.' Beast gestured with his open hands. 'He could literally be anywhere in the world by now, so long as that anywhere was a known transmit co-ordinate for Sinister's tesseract network.'
Ororo's expression was unreadable. She turned mutely to stare at the flamingo for a very long time. Above all the X-men's heads the dark clouds parted and the rain ceased. The flamingo continued to shine a bright and cheery light over the cemetery. Scott found himself fighting an urge to either violently uproot the damned thing, or start laughing hysterically.
'Oh mah lordy,' Rogue breathed out in an excited rush as she flipped through the loose leafs of paper inside the manila folder, 'Cyke ya gonna want ta see what Remy's left us.'
Proudly Rogue held up one page sized image clearly taken from a security camera feed. In grainy black and white and grey it was possible to see the face of Professor Charles Francis Xavier. Cyclops grabbed for the image as the others all crowded around Rogue.
'Lookee here,' Rogue almost crowed, 'Blueprints on Operation: Zero Tolerance bases, Prime Sentinel schematics, something about nanite tech….' Rogue finally handed over the folder to Cyclops. 'Just think what we can do with this intel; heck we could finally find out where the government stole the prof away ta.'
Rogue was smiling triumphantly. Jean took the copied photograph of the professor from Cyclops hands as he rifled urgently through the contents of the folder in the near dark. She handed the picture over to Hank who could see better in the poor lighting.
Scott's heart thumped heavily inside the cage of his chest. He might not be able to read the detail but he could see as clearly as Rogue that what was contained in this folder, if it was legitimate, could bust Bastion's Zero Tolerance wide open – or at the very least give the X-men a fighting chance against it. A fission of something hot, fierce, and hopeful ran through his veins. It seemed like a very long time since the X-men had been handed good news.
'Hey – what's this?'
Bobby's curiosity dragged Scott's attention away from the goldmine of intelligence in his hands. He looked up and away from the folder almost reluctantly.
Iceman was crouched down beside the flamingo. He reached down to depress a button on the underside of the bird's belly. Lights flashed from within the semi-hollow plastic of the ornament and from a speaker set into each painted wing issued forth the tinny strains of a very familiar recording: Frank Sinatra singing "My Way".
The X-men stood and stared in a moment of sublime and surreal surprise as the garishly ridiculous singing ornament began to strobe flashing lights like a visiting UFO and the familiar melody of the old song rang through the damp night air.
Rogue clapped a gloved hand over her mouth in a vain attempt to smother her giggles. Bobby didn't even pretend to try and repress his amusement and Ororo's eyes grew impossibly wide, her fingers twitching at her sides. It was impossible to know if she was closer to tears of rage or laughter, or perhaps, some mixture of the two. Jean buried her face against Scott's shoulder, but he could hear her laughter in his mind.
'……I did it my way…..' Sinatra sang.
The flamingo flashed coloured lights gaily and Scott noticed the battered, broken comm. badge fastened like a choker with a piece of string around the ornament's neck. A formless, nameless tension slipped from his shoulders then and there.
From out of the tinny speakers of the flamingo Frank kept singing. Scott's lips quivered. He swallowed once, twice, and then a third time but it didn't do any good. He laughed and once he started he found it felt good.
His laughter broke the spell and soon Rogue and Bobby were giggling uncontrollably, with Hank laughing in deep guffaws and Logan snickering like Mutley from Wacky Racers'. Ororo and Jean both laughed with a sound akin to the ringing of silver bells. Bishop, standing back in the shadows of the gathering, felt his own lips twisting upwards, and he looked studiously down at his feet as the flamingo finally wound down.
'…….I did it my way……..'
The X-men laughed and laughed, even after the Flamingo had stopped singing and had grown dark and restful. Suddenly tomorrow didn't seem like such a frightening prospect after all – at least not while the world was full of flamingos and crocodiles and wandering thieves who always paid their dues.
A back road in Westchester County:
The X-men ended up laughing for a long time - the sound spreading outward from that solitary spot in the cemetery and through the grounds of the Xavier estate.
From his hidden vantage point, listening in via a microphone recording device hidden inside the flamingo, a thief in the night smiled to himself. He rubbed his aching shoulder absently with his band-aided hand. It had been a bitch to get all those filaments out but at least he hadn't lost any muscle control. The thief shifted his weight, awkwardly balanced on a crutch, with one leg in a cast up to his mid thigh.
'I did it my way….' He hummed to himself chuckling wickedly.
Making an airy gesture with the hand holding the half-spent cigarette Remy LeBeau, thief, wanderer, master of the near-death fake out, opened a second tesseract portal in the centre of the peaceful country road. He glanced sideways at the road sign on the grass verge as he took a drag off his cigarette and blew a perfect smoke ring.
You are now leaving Salem Center – Please come back soon!
Remy LeBeau laughed bright and free before he stepped through the portal without a backward glance. The tesseract closed behind him in the blinking of an eye, but it was still possible, if you listened really carefully, to hear the melody of a laughing devil echoing faintly in the velvet of the night.
In the end, when you look at things rationally and the scales are finally made to balance out, there will always be heroes and there will always be villains; there are saints and there are sinners and a devil lives in the heart of every man and every woman. Life is a gamble; some of us are born a step closer to heaven, and some of us know hell. That's just how this old world works.
But more than that, somewhere out there, in the ever spinning wide world, there is a man swimming with the crocodiles and wading with the flamingos. He is a charming louse, flipping cards and chancing fate, laughing at his own misfortune - and if you are real lucky, mes amis, maybe he'll even tell you his story.
The story of the Devil's own - and how he found redemption on his own terms.
10th March 2009 - 13th October 2009
For all those who have read this story; thank you. I can only hope you have found reason to smile, and laugh, and enjoy what I have written, somewhere along the way.