BOOK ONE : : FURY
Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd.
~ William Congrave, The Mourning Bride ~
Chapter One : : Bonds of Blood
The regal headmistress of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, Ororo Munroe, also known as Storm, dropped gracefully—if wearily—into the plush chair behind her desk. She always felt a little awkward in this chair, as if she was trying to fill the seat of a man far greater than she was.
Well, she was.
Storm sighed deeply, missing the Professor yet again, wishing he could be alive in her place. She turned in her chair to look out the window on the lavish grounds of the mansion, at the gates barring the outside world entry. A dream too large to accomplish and words to harsh to give.
Two of her girls were outside tonight. Rogue had left her in a walking haze. Kitty had been hugging herself too tightly, trying to act as if what Storm had just told her didn't matter. The air was warm and gentle outside. Storm could do little to soften the blows, but she could at least make it easier for them to find the space that they needed.
"They'll be fine, 'Ro," Logan's rough, masculine growl cut through her reflection.
"I suppose," she replied softly.
Logan grunted, disbelieving. He thought her too soft, perhaps. But he had taken an especial protectiveness about three of her girls and those were two of them. He trained them, pushed them more than anyone else. Of course, to him they would be fine. To him, they could take anything or he'd just have to train them some more.
"Logan." Storm finally turned back to look at him in the growing shadows of the evening's darkness.
He shifted in those shadows.
"I need to be alone for a little while." She smiled at him gently as she set about closing the blinds and turning on the lamp.
He sighed himself and gave her one last long look.
"Go on," she prodded.
Logan rose from the chair and closed the door quietly behind him, a last rough 'night lingering behind.
Storm waited a few more minutes until she was certain he was gone, really gone, not listening behind himself, probably already halfway to the student dorms to drag any straggling boyfriends away from the girls. She couldn't muster a smile at the thought though. Instead, she stared ahead, frown creasing her brow.
Finally, finally, she picked up the phone and dialed.
"Merde." Remy LeBeau swore methodically and vehemently in French at the thin letter he held in his gloved hand. In the other hand, a slim cell phone dangled, open, from his fingers.
"Gambit? Are you still there?" The former thief's voice sounded mildly panicked.
He lifted the phone back to his ear. "Stormy. I have to take care of this."
"Take care of what? You promised!"
He clenched his jaw and answered tightly. "The start of the term. No sooner. I didn't promise you more, chère."
Storm sighed, intense exhaustion blowing out with the sound. "Where are you?"
Remy smiled a grim smile beneath his devil eyes. "Can't tell you that, Stormy. Start of the term. I'll see you." He snapped the phone shut before she could respond and fingered the letter from the Guild.
Finally, he dropped a playing card on the pillow next to the nameless woman who'd shared his bed last night (and paid for it) and left silently as a thief.
Marie stumbled, gasping, into the cold night air behind the mansion. Her shoulders shook and her eyes burned, but she could not cry. Shock. She was in shock.
"I felt you should be the first to know," Storm had said kindly.
"Know what?" Cold dread knotted in Marie's stomach.
"The Cure…" Storm hesitated. "We've received word that the Cure is not permanent."
Marie's world ended right there. Marie ended there! For without the Cure, her skin turned rogue and all that was normal and right in her world crashed and burned on the ground.
Marie struggled to catch her breath, but managed to reach the cold stone bench screened by tall shrubs and small trees. Someplace private, safe. So why didn't she feel safe anymore?
Her bare hands rested in her lap. She studied them. The skin was so normal looking, white and soft from heavy use of lotion and sunscreen. Her arms were bare. Since she took the Cure, she'd left gloves and scarves and sweaters behind, dressed in the least clothing she could get away with for the weather.
Her life had changed so drastically when her mutation appeared; a little less so when it disappeared. Bobby hadn't really taken much advantage of it. Some, but not enough. He was hurting. She understood that. He had just fought and nearly killed his one-time best friend. Many of them mourned John after Pyro had destroyed him.
But after he was over it (or claimed he was), he still didn't have much time for her. Still made time for Kitty. Still…
And now, it would be all over again, just worse.
"How long do I have?" Marie asked, trying to hold back tears.
Storm maintained her composure, but her eyes were soft as she replied, "A few months. Maybe less."
And Marie nodded, rose, and managed to keep her feet going out of the office. She wouldn't cry. She'd wait until she got outside. She would not cry.
She had maybe a few months, and the odds were good that she wouldn't even lose her virginity in that time. Especially once everyone knew. And they would know soon.
She cried then. Tears and hair mingled in her eyes, blending light and shadow in the darkness.
Pyro scowled at his attorney. He never bothered to ask who paid her or why he had one. He had always assumed it was either Professor X or Magneto trying to get him out. He had accepted her cold, controlling presence as a nice, but ineffectual nod to diversity and his mutant status. Even a lowlife scum like him had the right to an attorney.
He ignored her.
But now, his attorney had done the unheard of. The guards at his sorry excuse for a high-security "humane" facility—a.k.a. prison—had roused him off of his lumpy cot at an unholy hour of the night, cuffed and chivied him on the way to the visiting room—never mind visitation and sleeping hours, for crying out loud—and sat him down in front of his blonde attorney with her cold, hard smile and dismissiveness to such trivial things as prison guards.
She had succeeded. Gotten him probation. Complete with collar, Cure, and classes.
Pyro was pissed.
"The Cure? You sold me to be cured!" He was up and out of his seat, angry glare at this woman in her white suit, who somehow managed to make business attire look naughty. "Get out of here!"
Emma Frost merely raised a condescending eyebrow and leaned back in her chair. "Sit down, Pyro. Unless you want those men to tazer you."
His eyes narrowed.
She tapped one set of manicured nails against the counter between them. "You were once a student at Xavier's. It can't be that bad."
He sat down. "There is nothing worse than Xavier's," he muttered darkly. A prisoner among his enemies is all he would be. He was under no illusions.
Frost laughed. "Nothing except staying behind bars without a lighter." Her mouth curved in a wicked smile. "Permanently."
Pyro snarled. "Like the Cure isn't worse."
Frost snapped back at him. "Oh for goodness' sake, Pyro, there are worse things than taking a temporary mutation suppressant to get out of this joint."
That got silence, a strange look, and his complete attention.
She raised that eyebrow again, hand stilled, a clear invitation for him to try again.
He drew in a long breath. "Temporary?"
"A few months." She shrugged. "Six to eight at the level they'll hit you with. Enough to keep you behaved until you're used to probation." She aimed an icy glare at him. "You will behave."
"Yes," he replied automatically. "Perfect, civilized behavior. What the lady wants, the lady gets." An evil smirk curled his lips.
Kitty shivered in the darkness, wedged between their two trees. John's tree braced her back, and her feet pressed against her own. The ground was hard beneath her, but she neither noticed nor cared.
John was coming back.
"I didn't want you to be surprised, so I'll be telling the rest of the team tomorrow," Storm said. She was staring out of the window, her white hair blowing a little in the slight breeze. "You remember that a number of the Brotherhood have been apprehended."
Kitty nodded, even though Storm couldn't see her, and wondered where this was going.
"Pyro was among them."
She sucked in her breath.
Storm turned, eyeing her carefully, waiting for her to exhale. Finally, she sighed. "He'll serve his somewhat lengthy probation here."
How did Storm know? How did she know what that news would do to her? She felt like a semi had slammed her in the gut. And now, after the mess with Rogue and Bobby, after his leaving had changed everything between all of them. At one time, they had all been best friends. All it took was John's leaving to shatter and destroy them all.
Almost two years ago, Kitty had sat curled up in a little ball in her favorite tree on many afternoons. She'd read or snack or just find pictures in the clouds. But on this day, she'd been sprawled at the foot of the tree, crying her eyes out, in the middle of the night.
She had phased. She could barely feel the ground or even the tree. Just a shadow in the darkness.
Suddenly, warmth licked up her legs and she drew herself up and melted halfway into the tree.
"Sprite?" St. John Allerdyce stared at her through the ball of flame in his hands. He looked terrible, like he had woken from a bad dream. His dirty blonde hair went every which way and his eyes narrowed at her like he couldn't believe it was her.
Not that she looked any better.
Crying in the mud at the bottom of her tree, wearing only her pajamas, had not been a good idea.
She rubbed her eyes, became solid. "Kitty Pryde."
"Oh." He sat down next to her.
She started crying again.
"What…um…" John rubbed the back of his neck before tentatively wrapping one arm around her and patting her shoulder in some gesture that belonged in a torture chamber, not a comfort session. "Don't cry," he pleaded.
She hiccupped and tried to stop. "I—" and she was off again.
"What's wrong?" The heat drew up to her face.
She turned away.
"My parents," she finally choked out.
He nodded. "Right."
And that was the beginning of their trees.
She wanted to hate him. She did hate him. But…
Love and hate rode a very fine line.
Her face was wet with silent rivers coursing unchecked and uncheckable from her eyes. She stared up at the distant stars, imagining his face up there, when the sounds of what should have been her suddenly made themselves noticed.
Kitty sat up, listened. Someone was crying. Over there. On the stone bench.
Seemed like it was always tears.
Riding his motorcycle at insane speeds in the middle of the night down a nearly empty highway was the sort of thing Remy did far too often, but he hadn't had anyone to stop him for years. Six years since he walked away from New Orleans, since he'd spilt blood and owed the debt to the one woman he would have given anything for.
How things change.
Remy cursed to himself in fluent French, preferring the Cajun forms he'd grown up with. The cursing, the cold wind, the speed all took his reflexes and focus away from the memories, away from Stormy—he owed that girl in blood, and from Belladonna—blood again, and from Sarah—more blood.
Marrow lifted her bony head from the hard floor beneath her. They had left her in a small room, dim, with a single bed, a barred window, and a fairly empty chest of drawers. The door was locked. It took her only a short time to case it.
She crawled out from under the bed, sat up leaning against it, and pulled a long, sharp bone out of her wrist to settle against her knee in case she needed it.
Voices fluttered down the hallway and through her door. She narrowed her eyes and concentrated on the sound. It was the woman again. The sounds became stationary a little ways down. A man's voice. The father's.
Marrow's lip curled. She licked it and slid the bone closer beneath her thigh.
They were drawing nearer again. A key slid into the lock. Tumblers sliding. A click. The handle spun beneath an impatient hand.
The woman came in first, carrying a small candle with her to brighten the weak glow of the fixtures. So archaic but perhaps less tempting to a desperate prisoner than a lamp. The man followed close behind her, dark red cape swirling about him. They were both tall, dangerous people, golden-haired with formfitting body armor encasing their skins.
"You've returned," Marrow spat. She kept her weapon out of view.
The woman lifted an eyebrow, cold blue eyes easily sliding over Marrow's thigh. "He is coming."
Marrow slitted her eyes in distrust. "If you hurt him, I swear—"
"Nonsense, child," she said coldly. "We need him alive now to get information from you, non?" She flashed a smile, all white, deadly teeth. "That was the deal, n'est ce pas?"
The father nodded solemnly, though his stiffness suggested he would rather the deal had not been made.
"I only talk to him," Marrow bit out.
The woman nodded as solemn as her father before her. "Of course." She set the candle on the chest of drawers. "We'll wait together, shall we?"
Of course, Marrow had no room to refuse.
"Rogue?" a tentative voice called out of the darkness.
Marie straightened, pulled her arms in close, forgetting that wasn't necessary yet. "Who's there?"
She watched as a human form pulled out of the shadows, barely there, just a whisper of color that solidified into ever brighter detail.
Of all the people on all the nights, it had to be Kitty Pryde that caught her crying. But as the moonlight caught on Kitty's face, she realized that Kitty had been crying too.
Kitty gulped, working her own uncovered fingers together. In nervousness? Fear? "Rogue, I'm…" The words hesitated at first, then stumbled out of her in their hurry to be said. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
Marie stared at the girl who had once been her friend. Kitty's shoulders were shaking. Tears continued to fall, and fall, and fall.
"You were always stronger than me," Kitty went on. "I kept telling myself that. Bobby wouldn't leave you. You'd be okay. And I…I screwed it all up. I always screw—"
"I'm not stronger," Marie shouted suddenly. "I'm scared!"
Kitty and Marie stared at each other for a long moment.
Kitty whispered. "I know."
Another moment passed.
Marie took a deep breath and demanded, "Why? You were my best friend. Why did you do that?"
She was surprised at herself, at how much pain one question could contain.
Kitty sat down on the ground ungracefully, her face mournful. "Because he was the closest I could get to John."
Marie's mouth fell open. That she had never expected. Perhaps she should have. Perhaps it should have occurred to her where Bobby went when he was trying to do the same thing: save a man who had left them and they didn't yet know had fallen so much. Or at least save the memories.
She tightened her fingers into a fist. Memories. She knew a lot about those. More than anyone else. She reached out and touched Kitty's shoulder.
"Would you do it again?"
Kitty closed her swollen eyes. "No." She gasped and shuddered. "Never."
Surprisingly, that was enough for her to forgive Kitty. She doubted anything would be quite enough for her to forgive Bobby.
She let go, her hands falling back to her lap. "The Cure's failing." She brought the words out with a tremendous effort, but they fell flat on the air between them.
Kitty sucked in her breath. Hard.
Marie looked up, managed a tiny smile. "I'm not sure I would have wanted it with Bobby anyway."
Kitty started crying again. Somehow they ended up tangled in a fierce girl-hug, the kind after a breakup or a birth or a funeral. Marie felt odd and tingly by moments and realized they were phasing in and out of this world, this unreal situation. But how she had missed Kitty!
Finally, they pulled away and Marie stared at her…friend? "Why are you out here?"
"John." Kitty stared at her own hands. "He's…" She looked around, at the bushes, the trees, the mansion windows. A huge breath blew out through her mouth. "He's coming back."
That one threw her. Marie caught her breath. "For real?"
Kitty nodded. She flickered out and in again.
"I see why he called you Shadowcat."
Kitty blinked up at Marie. "You do?"
Marie realized then that Kitty had no idea how invisible she made herself, melding in and out of shadow in the night. But no one else did either. They never saw her do this at night.
"Yes," Marie replied simply.
Kitty stared at her for a long moment, then worked her lip, eyes slowing taking on a flash of anger. Finally, she nailed Marie with her sharp gaze. "I've got news for you," she said as sharply. "I see why you're called Rogue and it's because you're a fighter. You are strong. You never needed anyone else to deal with who you are and you don't now."
Marie's mouth fell open again. She shut it abruptly.
Kitty stood before her with a fierce expression and balled fists and for once, Marie knew that she would not be able to brush her off. So she didn't. She tried to understand just how she was supposed to fight the return of a mutation that had always been a curse and never a gift.
"I don't know how."
"Well, find out," Kitty ground out. "Be Rogue. Be the girl that Bobby fell in love with, that Logan fought for, that was my friend."
Marie drew up herself at that. "Like I'm not!"
"No," came the quiet reply. "You're not. You're being Marie."
Bare arms. Bare hands. If Marie was the price for that, Rogue could stay away forever. Marie crossed her arms. "So?"
"So humans become mutants by surprise. They don't learn control from nothing." Kitty brushed back her hair, clearing having slipped into her analytical role. "But mutants fight the cure. They have some sort of control."
"Fight the Cure?" Marie huffed in exasperation. "That's the last thing I want to do. I want to hold onto it, as long as I can!"
The two girls stared at each other.
"Maybe we should just drop it." Marie scrambled to her feet and brushed herself off.
Kitty stared at her. Her teeth caught her lower lip and worried at it. "Rogue?"
"Shadowcat," Marie retorted.
"Forgive me?" A small hopeful smile crossed her face.
Marie studied her. She couldn't detect even the faintest hint of insincerity and she sighed. "Yes."
Kitty's smile blossomed then and she caught Marie in another hug.
They both held on tight.
She was waiting for him. Why couldn't she just give him up, let him go?
Cold blue eyes met his. I will always wait for you, those eyes said.
Remy left his motorcycle in his frère's watch. Thieves eyed Assassins warily across the line. Remy walked forward three paces until he stood at the very front of the row of Thieves.
"Bonjour, Bella." He stared into the Assassin's eyes as she studied him thoughtfully.
But she was a princess, given to the formal rites of Guilds. She inclined her head and murmured reply, "Bonjour."
Black darkness pooled between them. Only the glow of the Boudreaux mansion's outdoor lights illuminated the night.
"I have waited for you," she said softly. There was much more in those words than anything contained by this here, this now.
Remy did not reply.
Belladonna was in her formal regalia: flowing red cape with Guild emblem stitched across it, body armor fitted to her like a second skin, the golden pin of the belladonna in her hair. And under it all, a small gold chain clinging to her neck and disappearing beneath.
He knew what hung on the end of that chain.
Marius Boudreaux, Patriarch of Assassins and Belladonna's father, stepped forward, a moving shadow. "We fulfill our agreement."
Marrow whispered fiercely to herself in the dim light where she sat alone once more, "Only tell him. Only him."