Wow. I am so sorry that I took this long to finish the chapter. I kept getting stuck halfway through it, and finally had to re-write everything I had from the scene break down. But, it is finished now and I hope you will all enjoy it.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters mentioned in this chapter. Not even Mary (see footnote for further explanation).
10. Baroness, Interrupted
Not quite a week had passed since Zarana's rather sudden departure from the Chicago Dreadnoks' base when Serpentor decided to call a staff meeting at the Terror Dome. That in and of itself would have been a stressful event for Zartan, since this meant having fewer adults home to supervise the kids. When added to the fact that his dear sister had somehow acquired one of his credit cards and decided to use it to pay for the entire damn wedding she was planning a week from now (including the invitations he'd somehow gotten roped into handing out today), and he was faced with the very real possibility of a stress-induced coronary embolism.
"Oh, look, the Dreadnoks have arrived." Major Sebastian Bludd drawled mockingly as the motley crew of mercenaries entered the meeting room. "What? No ankle-biters today?"
"No. Shadowatch is rather preoccupied with improving our organization's public image at the moment." Zartan replied coldly. "And they're hardly ankle-biters anymore. Many of them are taller than you are."
"Boss, what were we supposed to do with these 'ere fancy letters?" Ripper asked, waving one of the invitations in the air.
"Hand them out." The human chameleon sighed. He'd rather deal with the fallout before the meeting started (hopefully distracting Serpentor enough to adjourn early in the process).
"What are these…documents?" A frowning Serpentor asked suspiciously as his was given to him.
"It appears to be an invitation." Dr. Mindbender blinked, examining his envelope carefully. "It does not appear to be tampered with…"
"If they had been, Zarana would've killed him." Monkeywrench grinned broadly despite the glare his boss shot his way.
"Shut up, Monkeywrench." Zartan snapped in irritation.
"You are cordially invited to celebrate the wedding of…" Destro read his invitation aloud before trailing off, giving Zartan an incredulous stare. "Is this some sort of practical joke?"
"Oh, how I wish it were!" The mercenary groaned, rubbing his temples. "Unfortunately, this is completely legitimate, and I have the bills to prove it!"
"Zarana—quite possibly the loudest and rudest woman we've ever employed—is getting married?" The silver-masked arms dealer asked in surprise.
"He won't be half so shocked to hear why." Buzzer whispered to his fellow Dreadnoks, who started sniggering uncontrollably.
"Pardon our ignorance," Xamot began.
"But we would like to know…" Tomax picked up where his brother left off.
"Who the groom will be." They finished in unison.
"Wait..." The Baroness frowned, studying her invitation closely. "Parker… Yes, I recognize that name!"
"Good, then maybe you can tell the rest of us what we're missing." Major Bludd scoffed, clearly not amused by this whole business of wedding invitations.
"He was one of the teachers during our mission to Bayville…" The proverbial light bulb went off in the dark-haired bespectacled woman's mind. "He's one of the Joes! Their computer expert!"
"What?!" The other officers of Cobra's High Command all exclaimed.
"How is this possible?!" Destro's jaw dropped.
"That...that can't be right!" Bludd shook his head, dispelling the idea. "She would have to be nice to him for longer than five seconds!"
"She was sleeping with him to get information." The dark-haired European woman recalled after taking a breath to calm down. "Or that's what she told us when we asked… unless it really wasn't just for information…"
"Which leads us to just why there's a need for this in the first place…" Zartan muttered under his breath, not expecting anyone else to hear him.
Unfortunately, someone did. "And just why is it that there is a need for your sister to marry one of the Joes, Zartan?" Destro inquired. "It seems a rather…unusual strategy for gaining information from our enemies."
"Due to recent, unforeseeable circumstances, I felt this was the most acceptable solution." The assassin replied calmly, inwardly cursing the arms dealer's good hearing.
"And what might those circumstances be? Did the brats finally drive her over the edge?" Mindbender chortled.
"No, the kids did not drive her over the edge." Zartan glared at the mad scientist. "They've actually been surprisingly well-behaved lately."
"He got her pregnant, didn't he?" Destro shot the Dreadnok leader a knowing glance.
"Can you think of any other reason why I would permit this three-ring circus to occur?" Zartan snipped, much to the Baroness's dismay. Her jaw dropped at Zartan's little revelation.
"HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?"
"You see, when a man and a woman find each other attractive…"
"I know the mechanics of it, Zartan!" The European woman growled. "What I want to know is how you could have allowed something like this to happen!"
"I hardly 'allowed' it." He frowned. "She went behind my back and left us with very few alternatives. There's a difference."
"This wedding…what sort of event is it?" Serpentor inquired. Although he had recollections of what the ceremonies binding a man and woman together were like during the lifetimes of his genetic donors, the modern wedding was a foreign thing to him.
"Formal, usually." Dr. Mindbender explained to his creation. "Guests dress up in nice suits or dresses and bring a gift for the bride and groom. The ceremony usually lasts about an hour, with a reception to follow. The reception usually means a bar."
"I trust there will be a bar at this fiasco?" Destro inquired.
"Of course there will be! The only way I'm going to be able to deal with this insanity is if I'm blitzed out of my mind." Zartan snorted.
"I suppose I can take an afternoon off to watch this madness unfold…" Destro mused.
"Oh, we are going, dear Destro!" The Baroness informed him. "And taking notes!" The arms dealer sighed heavily. He was going to have to deal with his girlfriend going into full wedding-fever because of this!
"I think this will provide some much needed entertainment, brother." Tomax glanced at his twin, an eyebrow raised.
"Yes, Tomax. We shall attend as well." Xamot responded, an amused smile on his face.
"I want to be there as well!" Serpentor exclaimed, pounding the arm of his throne with his fist. "This I command!"
"Of course, Serpentor." Mindbender sighed. He really didn't want to go to this 'special occasion', but someone needed to keep an eye on Serpentor… and there was an open bar. Couldn't be that bad, could it?
While that business was going on at the Terrordome, Mainframe and Zarana had a rather important meeting of their own in New York. They were meeting two of his three older children for lunch. Peter, his eldest, predictably rattled off an excuse as to why he couldn't be there. In the last two years, Blaine Parker had made every effort short of desperation to get back in touch with his kids. Paul and Mary were wary, but pleased to be able to speak to him again and occasionally meet for lunch. Peter, however, kept himself as far removed from his father as was possible. Aggravating though it was, Mainframe couldn't blame him for it. The divorce and the events that followed had been rather messy—messier than he'd ever intended things to get. Being the oldest, Peter was more affected, and therefore still embittered about it all these years later. &
Of course, this also meant that he wanted nothing to do with his father's wedding. Not that any of this family drama mattered to Zarana right now… none of his older kids would be living with them in the near future. Still, since the two younger teens expressed an interest in what was going on, she and Blaine agreed that it would be a good idea for the four of them to meet somewhere and discuss things.
"You sure you're up for this?" Mainframe asked her nervously. They had arrived at their destination-a quaint diner on the outskirts of Bayville—early, and were now waiting on Paul and Mary to arrive.
"For the last time, I'm fine." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Those Joes Doc and Lifeline wouldn't have cleared me to leave the base if I wasn't!" The computer expert sighed.
"Okay, let me rephrase the question. Are you sure that you're ready to talk to my kids about this?"
She sighed, running a hand through the red hair of the wig she put on before leaving the Pit. "Blaine, it was either going to be meeting them today, or meeting them at the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding. Since this wedding is already turning into a three-ring circus, I'd much rather get this out of the way now."
"Point taken." He replied as a pair of teenagers entered the diner and walked up to their booth.
"Dad! You made it!" A girl who appeared to be no older than fifteen squealed in delighted amazement. Her dark brown hair fell in a single braid down her back and bright green eyes sparkled excitedly. She wore a plain pink t-shirt and jeans.
"Did you doubt I would?" The computer specialist feigned disappointment as he hugged his daughter. "Surely my track record isn't that bad."
"No, surprisingly, it isn't." A smiling Paul shrugged, stepping up to greet his father with a friendly handshake. He looked about the same as the last time Zarana saw him. The golden-haired teenager then glanced at Mainframe's now red-headed companion. "Now how did I know we'd be meeting again like this?" he sighed, this time directing the query at Zarana. While his sister knew that the infamous "Zoe Rafael" was dad's long time girlfriend turned fiancé, she didn't know any of the specifics. Unlike her brother—a student at Bayville High School during the undercover operation the pair worked—who knew most, but not all, of the details.
Granted, neither of the kids had been told that their soon-to-be-stepmother was pregnant… yet.
"Very good deductive reasoning skills, I imagine." She responded lightly. "It's nice to see you again, Paul. Didn't really get the chance to talk to you last time."
"Well, things were pretty hectic then." The blond boy pointed out, keeping his expression guarded. "Hectic" was a gross understatement, of course.
"Don't expect the wedding to be any different." She sighed. "Somehow anything involving my relatives and your father's co-workers always turns out that way."
"But surely they would behave for such a special occasion." Mary frowned, regarding the woman with a confused face. Zarana shook her head in disbelief and fought the urge to chuckle. The poor kid was so clueless it was comical. The group then took seats at a table near the corner of the diner's outdoor area.
"I'm not gonna hold my breath on that one." She smirked. "They aren't exactly thrilled that I'm marrying him, let alone that we sprung it on them like this…"
"So it wasn't just us who thought this was sudden." Paul frowned. "Why the rush, anyway? Upcoming assignment?"
"No, no, it's nothing like that." Blaine waved off his son's concern as a server stopped by to take drink orders for the table. "Our reasons are…well, they're personal."
"Oh." Mary nodded, debating whether or not to ask just what 'personal' reasons meant. Blatant curiosity won out over a desire to respect her father's privacy. "What kind of personal reasons?" She asked as her brother suddenly sat up straighter.
"Oh, no. No." Paul said, looking straight at his father. "No way. Please tell me you didn't…"
"Told you he'd figure it out first." Zarana smirked, quite pleased with having won the debate she and Blaine had on the way up here. He thought they would actually have to explain things to them, while she argued that the older one was bound to put the pieces together on his own. Hell, he'd figured out that the Joes and Cobra were after mutants in his school without any more than just tiny hints; surely he could reason his way through this.
"Paul, it's not as bad as you think it is." Mainframe sighed, rubbing hs forehead. He was feeling a headache coming on.
"How is this not bad?" his son hissed, keeping his voice low so that other patrons wouldn't overhear. "You got a known terrorist pregnant!"
"Terrorist?" Mary furrowed her eyebrows in thought. "She's a terrorist?" The woman certainly didn't look much like a terrorist…
"Can we not have this conversation here?" Zarana groaned, feeling a headache building as the conversation kept moving. "There's a time and place for this kind of crap and a small town diner during lunch rush is not it!"
"How did you two manage to get permission for this?" The blond boy frowned. He didn't know much about the general his father served under, but he didn't think that the man would let something like this happen under his watch without compelling arguments in their favor.
"I'm pretty sure that happened after Lifeline and Doc forced me to move onto the base." She shrugged. "Which was actually about a week before the shrink decided I wasn't a viable security risk..."
Paul groaned, running a hand through his hair as a server brought their drink orders to the table. Of all the announcements he expected his father to make, this wasn't one of them. He was cut off from saying something he would possibly regret by a waitress coming to take their lunch orders. Once she left, however, his sister decided to take the conversation in a different direction.
"So…you live with Dad now?" The brunette girl inquired, looking curiously across at Zarana.
"Yes. Me, Regan, and the cat."
"Regan?" Both teens repeated.
"Did you get a dog or something?" Paul blinked at his father.
"No, not a dog." Mainframe shook his head. "Regan is…uh…" he sent a silent plea to the woman sitting beside him, since he wasn't sure where to start when it came to explaining Shadowatch.
"Regan is one of a group of teenagers my brothers and I have been taking care of." The woman in the red wig replied swiftly. "Since neither my brothers nor the kids thought it was a good idea for me to stay alone on-base, Regan volunteered to tag along and brought her new cat with her."
"Kids our age?" Paul frowned, not at all liking the idea of Cobra working with teenagers. "I don't suppose these are normal kids by any chance?"
"Kid, any chance most of them had at a normal life was taken away long before they came to us." She shrugged. "They're better off with us than on the street, anyway."
"Wait, you have brothers?" Mary spoke up suddenly. Her brother sighed.
"Of all the parts of this conversation, that is what surprised you?" Paul groaned in disbelief.
"I didn't meet her at school like you did!" the younger teen protested. "How am I supposed to know about her family when I've never seen her before today?"
"She brings up a good point." Their father admitted. "You two were at different schools then, remember?" Paul looked down at his drinking glass, feeling rather stupid for not remembering that particular detail. Mary didn't know much of anything about this mess because she wasn't in high school yet when all the crazy stuff went down. His sister didn't seem to notice, instead looking to Zarana for an answer to her question.
The assassin nodded, smiling softly. "Yes, I have two brothers, one of whom has a daughter about your brother's age."
"So we're getting two uncles and a cousin?" the girl asked as her sibling perked up.
"Wait, you mean the mean chick with the dreadlocks?" He blurted out. "That's your niece?"
"And who else would she have belonged to?" the woman raised an eyebrow.
"Her parents let her wear dreadlocks to school?" the girl looked at the three other people at the table, thoroughly confused.
"It's just her dad. She's home-schooled for the most part, and as long as she doesn't come home with any tattoos just yet, I honestly don't care what she does with her hair." There weren't exactly a lot of rules in their household. "It would probably be a good idea for you kids to get to know each other without the war paint on, come to think of it."
"I don't know if we can talk Hawk into that one." Blaine admitted. The general was barely open to the idea of a wedding; odds were he wouldn't allow Zanya or his kids to run around the base.
"No, but I bet Psyche-Out would be all for it." She pointed out. The shrink was just crazy enough to go along with the idea. "As long as we pick a neutral location, I bet he'd be fine with it."
Psyche-Out certainly was pushing to start some kind of family counseling… "If he says no, that's it." He looked at her.
"Of course." She replied, not feeling quite up to trying to persuade him further. "But if he says yes, we're doing this."
"Fine by me." He shrugged as his son stared at him.
"You mean you want me to be nice to her?" He gaped.
"Only if she's being nice…well, nice by our standards." Zarana amended. The Dreadnok standard for good behavior was radically different than that of everyone else in society. "If she's being a brat, then turn-about is fair play."
Strangely, that seemed to put Paul a little more at ease. At least he knew what he was going into this time. "So, what was this about wanting the two of us to be in the wedding?"
The four of them continued to talk and discuss details of the upcoming ceremonies, lost in their own bit of conversation. In fact, they were so lost that the failed to notice a pair of drunken X-Men run by in kilts. With that potential damper on the day's mood happily ignored, the soon-to-be-blended family could all agree that it was nice to have something in their lives go right for a change. The mood was so good, they didn't even notice further insanity erupting behind them, like the X-Men battling one of Kitty Pryde's notorious food monsters, and even the Bayville High School football team being chased by furious bulls...being led by a drunken Zandar dressed like a matador.
& In her story "Parallel Lives", Red Witch gave Mainframe three children: Peter, Paul, and an unnamed younger daughter. Since I needed the daughter for this chapter and a few others later on and couldn't very well insert her without a first name, I went with Mary.