READ ME: Go back and re-read chapter 38 if you want to. I ended up doing a lot of edits on it to fix inconsistencies in Zen's personality. In my eagerness to show growth, I went a bit too far.
Anyway, Happy Halloween all my dear readers! I hope it's been a fun one and here's an extra treat for all of you.
Chapter 40 - Tangled Webs
"Sometimes shame is a more powerful engine than rage. Like rage, it burns hot; and like rage it tends to consume its own furnace." ~ Jonathan Maberry, Dust & Decay
The elegant feather quill hissed over the parchment as Dumbledore signed his name, filling out yet another form while he stood at the desk of one of the robed and hooded Unspeakables. All around them were endless rows of shelves, each heavy with the weight of countless orbs.
This wasn't the first time he'd come to report a Prophecy. It felt like the years melted away while Dumbledore filled out the familiar paperwork and waited with breath held in his ancient lungs for confirmation.
"Thank you for your time, sir." As with all their kind, he couldn't immediately pinpoint if the speaker was male or female. He half suspected they had enchantments woven into the fabric of those cloaks to befuddle the eye.
Instead of turning to leave, Dumbledore waited. It felt like waiting for the school quill all over again. And, like before, his hope was dashed. Instead of writing initials the Unspeakable added a set of numbers to the label. "Huh," they said as they finished writing out the number. "A muggle prophecy. Quite rare to get one of those. It will be interesting to watch it play out."
"Yes, quite," Dumbledore murmured as he turned away. Then he turned back.
"How are prophecies sorted?"
The Unspeakable shifted uneasily, and Dumbledore held up a placating hand. "I don't mean to ask for how the spells work, merely what are the criteria? What factors are used to discern if a prophecy is magical or muggle in nature?"
Dumbledore thought they wouldn't answer, then they gave a low sigh and spoke, "It depends entirely on which world will be the most affected, and who the primary subjects of the prophecy are. This is a tricky one since there are at least six, possibly more. If that's all? I need to get this shelved."
"Yes, thank you for your time and for the information."
Dumbledore walked through Diagon Alley while his mind turning over Sybill's words again and again. True, the primary focus of the prophecy was on the six, but his thoughts lingered over the last two lines.
Perhaps all was not lost.
Xavier sat at the threshold of Cerebro, the tips of his feet mere centimeters from the edge. He stared down at those feet, studying the reflected light in the smooth brown leather, unable to bring himself to look up. Beyond the tips of his dead toes he could feel the chamber, a yawning emptiness beckoning him to enter. Sweat broke out on his skin, dewing the shiny dome of his bald scalp.
It slid down his skin unpleasantly dampening the collar of his shirt, but Xavier hardly noticed. Instead he focused on his breathing, trying to force it into a smooth rhythm while ignoring the way his heart thundered in his chest. Far too hard for a man of his age.
His finger hovered over the controls on his chair. Push it, just push it. There's nothing to be afraid of. Nothing at all. A hollow laugh escaped him. How these many years seemed undone, and in the blink of an eye he felt like a boy again. Afraid of the monsters under the bed and the bitter knowledge that he'd have to face them alone because his parents were at another dinner party.
The image of a man dressed in blood-stained white flashed in his mind. A man he should have known about, should have heard but hadn't, burned in the back of his mind. Self-reproach wound itself into the tangled ball of fear, anger, pain, and panic burning in his chest. He gave the chamber beyond his feet a defeated smile.
Still not looking up, he thumbed the reverse button on the chair and made his way to the study. Apparently, they had a guest in need of Sanctuary. Another harsh jolt of laughter escaped him. "Sanctuary, as if we were a medieval church." As amusing as the notion was, in its own way it was apt. They took in those who'd been turned out from their own homes. Those scorned by a world that hated and feared them. Were mutants any different than Quasimodo from the old tale?
There were plenty of humans who thought of mutants as mere birth defects. He'd even heard rumors that countries like Iceland were considering a similar cure to the one they'd implemented against children with Downs Syndrome, by aborting all the babies who tested positive. Perhaps the only thing that kept similar practices from being adopted for the X-Gene was that it could only be tested for in the third trimester, and they weren't ready to take it that far.
When they reached his office, Xavier sat waiting for them. He'd dabbed the fear sweat off his brow and offered a welcoming smile that failed to erase the worry in his eyes. For the count of almost seven heartbeats, Zen stood resolutely in the doorway, his slight frame blocking the way as he locked eyes with Xavier. No thoughts whispered between them but the Professor could read the ex-assassin's disapproval in every line of his stiff form. Then he stepped aside, allowing Fantomex to enter the room.
"Good evening, Fantomex. Please take a seat." Xavier gestured to the pair of chairs in front of his desk, the professional smile never left his face as the stranger dressed in blood-stained white sat with easy grace. Once Fantomex settled himself, the smile on Xavier's face dimmed as he steepled his hands atop his desk. "I must apologize for leaving you outside for so long. I was unaware of your presence." Xavier's lips twitched in a suppressed grimace at the admission. "Please explain your request for sanctuary and we'll see if we can accommodate you."
Before Fantomex had a chance to speak, the door opened again. Zen stiffened slightly, his eyes narrowed as he stared at Logan. "Ah, do come in," Xavier said, false cheer flavoring the words.
A low rumbling growl tickled the back of Logan's throat, but he stepped into the office anyway. He held a large tray in his hands and grumbled under his breath as he set it on the desk. "Here, C-" he hesitated over the insult before switching to, "Charles." Then he looked the telepath in the eye and thought hard enough to make the older man wince. I might have brought it, but you can pour your own damned tea.
"Are the grounds secure?" Zen's words were unusually sharp-edged as he stared at Logan.
Ignoring the pair, Xavier poured two cups of tea. "Would you care for cream or sugar?" Xavier asked.
Another low growl trickled from Logan's lips, a sound that normally marked X's appearance, but this time it was all Logan. "No, I was sent to fetch drinks instead."
Before the smaller assassin could tell him to go make the rounds to ensure the school was safe, Xavier's fingers gave a subtle twitch. Both Weapons settled back at the subtle command. Zen's eyes narrowed but he held his peace. Instead he pondered the mental silence radiating off Xavier. Usually, the man would have given them mental commands, not resorted to hand signals that must have been plucked from Zen's mind at some earlier point.
"Beast is giving the grounds a good once over to make sure there are no other unexpected guests lying about," Xavier said, attempting to lighten the atmosphere. The worlds fell flat as both ex-Weapons stared at him.
"No cream or sugar," Fantomex said, breaking the mounting silence as he reached for one of the delicate china cups. Without a word of warning, Fantomex settled back in his seat, held the cup of steaming hot liquid over his head and began pouring. The unusual action drew all eyes to him, instantly breaking the tension.
Xavier's mouth dropped open, a sharp demand almost escaping before he noticed that the tea wasn't spilling all over the man. The odd headgear protecting the stranger's thoughts also absorbed the tea with ease. He'd seen a lot in his day, but this was one of the most peculiar. Xavier wanted to ask, to steer the conversation towards safe waters and avoid whatever disaster brought the man to his doorstep, but the words stuck in his throat.
A smile wide enough to crinkle the edges of his white mask flared across Fandomex's hidden face as he neatly set the empty cup back on the tray. "Now that we're through with the pleasantries, it's time to get down to business." Still flabbergasted by the odd display, Xavier nodded his consent.
Fantomex settled back in the chair and locked eyes with Xavier. A chill passed down the old man's spine as he stared into those empty doll-like eyes. He couldn't help the itch of dread that bit into his bones in anticipation of what the strange mutant might say.
"I'm a thief, and I stole something I shouldn't have." Fantomex paused, and it took more effort than Xavier wanted to admit not to demand he go faster. It felt strange to have to wait for information. Before Alkali Lake, he'd been accustomed to slipping in an out of minds at will. Half the time it wasn't even on purpose, merely habit. Being forced to wait for information, the slow transmission of the spoken word, felt physically painful to the telepath. Yet, he didn't try to stretch out his mind in search of chinks in Fantomex's strange armor. Instead, he waited for the information like everyone else in the room. "When I did, something big and bad got loose on the C-Train. They call it Weapon XII." The last two words punched the air like hot lead as Fantomex's pale gaze flicked between Logan and Zen.
"The civilians are dead by now."
"Get tHEm! geT THE muTanTS!"
A chorus of voices shouted as one, sounding like the howling one might hear belching up from the pits of hell. "kiLL THem. TeAR thEM to PieCES."
The four lone mutants pushed back against the doors between the cars. Marty turned, his deep prune skin blending almost perfectly in the darkness as he tried to jerk the door open. Nothing happened. "No, oh God, no. Not like this. I won't go out like this."
"Marty don't! You won't make it," Linda shouted as the alien-looking young man leapt. His body twisted in a way that would make a falling cat envious as if all his bones were made of strong rubber. Mid-twist he kicked off his shoes, revealing his bare feet. Like a human fly he clung to the top of the car. "Not that way!" she shrieked, as he began to move with surprisingly nimble grace, trusting his superior reflexes to get him through. Her arm stretched, trying to grab him, but too late. Her fingers clamped on air, and then he was over the mob. Even if she managed to get a hold of him all she would do was pull him off the ceiling and into the forest of hands and teeth.
Another shrill scream filled their end of the train car, this time it was torn from Alana's stone throat. Her slate gray eyes widened in horror as they watched agility fail in the face of sheer numbers. Marty dodged one set of long arms only to run face first into an artificially clawed hand. Fingers tipped with long red fingernails, the stick-on type made to mimic a manicure, sank into the living strands of his hair. Three popped off under the force of her grip. Marty's shrill screech cut through the darkness, a perfect match for Alana's. More hands twisted into his clothes, his hair, gripped arms and legs and tore him off the ceiling.
"KiLL IT kiLl It KiLL iT!"
Every voice but the mutants rose up, chanting their judgement so loud it drowned out Marty's terrified screams, but they heard the second those screams turned to howls of agony. Countless cell phones dotted the floor, screens cracking under indifferent feet, but still casting their eerie glow over the horrific scene. The strange blue-colored light stole the red from the blood, turning it to black tar covering the hands and teeth of the possessed humans.
The screaming came to a gurgling end and as one the mob stood. Their strange reflective eyes locked on their targets. Every set of eyes reflected that eerie, unholy blue light.
"Please don't," Linda sobbed as she sank to her knees, arms covering her head to block out the sight.
Reggie straightened and adjusted his glasses. He stepped in front of her and looked at the oncoming mob with narrow eyes. "Reg," Alana hissed, but she didn't try pulling him back.
With an inhuman roar, they charged. Two feet in front of the young man, they slammed into an invisible wall. Reggie staggered and almost fell to one knee before steadying himself. "Get that door open," Reggie snapped.
"Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." Tears slid down Reggie's cheeks, as unnoticed as the blood dripping down his chin from his nose. He tried to remember the rest of the prayer, but it had been too long since those hot afternoons in Sunday school. It had been years since he'd set foot in a church. Not since he'd developed his mutation and left the family. Not because they would have rejected him, but because he knew how the rest of the town would react. Small minds who couldn't even handle two men loving each other wouldn't be able to handle one of their own with powers that should only be in the Bible. His parents would have stood by him, he knew that, but then they would have been pariahs too. He refused to let that happen. So, he'd gone off to college and never came back. No one back home knew what he was, and he'd planned to keep it that way.
The blood flowed faster from his nose, making it hard to breath as the weight of the bodies began piling up. Panting, he watched fingernails and then fingers break as they tried to claw through air as hard as brick. More people, men, women, children, were crushed against the barrier. "Hurry!" he managed to shout; the words half choked as blackness began to eat at the edges of his vision.
Glass broke behind him and he thought he heard Linda shout his name. Then the wall broke, unleashing the dam of insanity. Reggie tried to back pedal, tried to get away as the possessed humans stumbled over the corpses at their feet to get to him. Hands grabbed him around the waist, and he screamed before he realized the fingers were long, thin, rubbery as the hands stretched around him like a rubber band. "Linda," he gasped as she jerked him back.
Or tried to.
"Let go!" He shrieked as more than a dozen hands caught hold of his front. Locking on pants, his legs, belt, shirt, arms, hands, hair. On the hands wrapped so tightly around his middle. Behind him, he could hear Linda scream as teeth sank into her odd flesh. In a moment of absurd clarity, he stared at the hunk of flesh torn free from his friend's left wrist, at the blood gushing from the wound, at the strange white that he knew were bones. I didn't think she would tear, he thought, even as teeth found his own flesh.
Alana couldn't stop screaming, but she didn't let the panic keep her from acting. It didn't take her long to give up on the door between the cars. Instead she turned to the large window and, still screaming, slammed her stone fist into it. The first punch bounced harmlessly off, making her scream again. This time in terrified rage. Putting all her terror into it, she hit the window again, again, again. Behind her she could hear Reggie telling her to hurry. Could hear Linda's begging. Then, finally, the glass cracked. Three more hard hits and her fist went through. Jerking it free, she began clawing at the glass, pulling it out of the window frame so the others wouldn't get cut when she boosted them through.
A wild, half-mad grin painted her grey stone features as she turned, her hands reaching for her friends. The look faltered and fell away as the scene burned itself into her brain. Reggie was totally engulfed, being pulled to pieces by the mob. His high, piteous shrieks reminded her obscenely of a rabbit caught in a snare, one who'd broken its back but could still scream.
Worse, so much worse, was Linda. They'd gotten a hold of her arms, and now were dragging her into their madness one stretched inch at a time.
Alana could have grabbed her. Could have tried to pull her back, starting a hellish tug of war with the elastic girl. Could have.
Turning, still screaming, she scrambled out of the shattered window and ran into the gaping maw of darkness.
"What do you mean?" Xavier demanded.
Fantomex laced his fingers and stretched his arms over his head. A series of loud pops echoed through the office as he cracked his knuckles and back at the same time. "The Weapon is loose, Professor. And since you're already familiar with the sort of Weapons these programs produce-" he gave Zen and Logan another significant look, making Xavier's face still as he locked down his emotions. "The Weapon was designed to destroy mutants, and the tool it uses is baseline humans. Infecting their thoughts, making them into suicide bombers without the bomb. They will tear a mutant to pieces with their bare hands and teeth if that's all they have. Any base-liner who gets in the way is drawn into the fold."
Xavier's breath caught in his throat at the implications. He knew such a devastating threat had to be addressed but before it could it had to be confirmed. Thoughts and half-formed plans cascaded through his mind as he tested and disregarded method after method for discovering the truth. By the time he sent someone to scout out the situation, it could already be too late to contain, yet he couldn't send in the full X-Men without being certain of the threat.
"Xavier?" Zen's questioning tone sent a spike of impotent rage burning through his chest. Why did they have to look to him for all the answers? Why did Fantomex come here instead of going to... Where? Where could he have gone with something like this? Not the government who'd created such monsters. Not the humans who were merely walking ammunition for this Weapon.
"Tick-tock Professor. We don't have all night. If they spill out of the underground, it will all be over. Not even you will be able to contain the situation if it hits the streets of Brooklyn," Fantomex said, all the teasing gone from his voice. Now it was low and intense; a demand for action.
Again, Xavier's mind tried to reject the inevitable. He sought a way, any other way, and found none. He lifted his cup and drank the last of his now cold tea as he steeled his nerve. There was no choice in the matter.
Fear sweat dampened Xavier's armpits and he found himself stalling. "What is Weapon XII, exactly?" They needed the information, he tried to tell himself. Tried to comfort himself by gathering the facts his team would need to defeat the threat. But he knew the truth. He was stalling for time, unwilling to plunge into the sea of minds in order to learn the truth for himself.
Something flashed in Fantomex's pale gaze but the stranger didn't call him out on his blatant change of subject. "Let's cut the foreplay and get down to it then. Weapon XII is humankind's latest answer to the mutant question, Professor X. Artificial evolution." He settled back in his seat and locked eyes with Xavier.
"I'm sure you've heard the whispers from the scientific community, professor-rumors concerning the discovery of an extinction sequence in the human genotype. 'Artificial evolution' is human science's alternative to inbuilt self-destruction. Imagine, if you will, human genetic material crudely spliced with adaptive artificially intelligent microbiology. Now run the mix through half a million years of cyborg mutation and development in less than eighteen months."
A low growl rumbled in Logan's chest at the words. They made his bones itch.
Zen reached up and lightly touched the back of his neck, wondering if the nanites in his and Logan's bodies were the precursors to the ones Fantomex spoke of.
"Weapon XII is a test tube mutation bred in accelerators. Human governments know far more about what mutants are and what they can do than you can imagine." Suddenly all the languid relaxation drained out of Fantomex's form and he sat up straight. "This is a live test of the Weapon they're developing to kill you all." Then he gave another one of those hidden grins. "I should know, I snuck on board to steal the dossier and found myself in the middle of a research and development operation."
He fingered one of the bloody holes in his outfit and gave an exaggerated sigh. "They deliberately stopped the C-train. You see, they wanted a containable test. The subway is a perfect closed system full of guinea pigs." He wrinkled his nose and closed his eyes. "There were even mutants on the train. Enough for the test to be valid."
Fantomex tapped his chest and said, "I have the whole dirty dossier on a flash drive if you want to know more. I'm willing to share. For a price, of course."
Xavier's eyes narrowed as he glared at the man. "Or you could gift it to the Xavier Institute."
Fantomex threw back his head and laughed at the suggestion. "I'm a mutant with no scruples, professor. Your personal fortune was valued at three-point-five billion dollars. I prefer to sell."
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the flash drive. "This contains the details of the entire Weapons Plus program dating back to World War Two. All the failed experiments." His eyes flicked between Logan and Zen. Logan shifted forward, but Xavier held a hand up to keep the feral mutant from pouncing on the man and taking the flash drive, and perhaps Fantomex's arm in the bargain. Logan snarled but settled back at Zen's cold look. "And all the successes. The results of thousands of illegal tests on animal, human, and finally mutant subject. Like your Weapon IX and Weapon X."
The flash drive vanished back into the depths of his suit. "All yours for," he hummed and tapped his chin, thinking it over. "One billion. I'd be interested to see how much money you're willing to sacrifice for your ideals. The humans may not have special extra senses, but they're innovative. They've always had a talent for making weapons."
Xavier sighed and felt a flash of regret that this was one mutant who couldn't be bent to his will. Not that he cared to resort to such things, but in this case he might have been tempted. "We need that data. We need to know what we're up against. According to your story, there are mutants fighting for their lives right now. Not to mention the humans caught in the crossfire."
Fantomex leaned forward, every inch the predator. Logan and Zen both reacted to the shift and tensed in preparation for an attack. The attack came, but not the one the two Weapons anticipated. "Indeed, there are human and mutant lives in the balance, yet you haven't even bothered to send your thoughts out to verify my claim. Why is that, I wonder? I came here because you are the world's most powerful telepath. I need that to destroy Weapon XII."
Hooks of fury tore at Xavier's heart. Fury born of shame. He knew what he had to do as well as Fantomex did, but the mere thought of it made his stomach clench in fear. I can't do this. The thought rang in his mind. A bell toll of doom, yet what choice did he have? He started the X-Men for this reason. They were meant to stand guard and protect both the mutant and human communities. A threat like this could not be ignored, not if he wanted his own integrity and spirit to survive.
"You are correct. It is my duty to verify this troubling account." Now that he said the words, Xavier felt committed to act. Still, he found it physically painful to close his eyes and unclench his mind from the tight fist it had been kept locked in since he'd come back to himself. His heart began to speed, faster and faster, forcing Xavier to realize he wasn't as young as he used to be. Don't panic, you can do this, just take a breath. It took more effort than the rest of them would know to force his breathing to slow and to master his own wretched, fearful heartbeat.
Somehow, he managed to fend off the budding panic attack without making it obvious. Then, like a man leaping off the top of a burning building, he flung his thoughts up and out. For the first time since his mutation activated, the process wasn't as easy as breathing. Instead it felt more like prying a wounded animal from a den.
Xavier encountered the first mind and physically recoiled. He felt the scars, faded but there, lingering on the edges of Storm's thoughts. Scars he'd left. A mark forever burned into her from the searing touch of his power turned into a weapon. His stomach rolled and before he could stop himself, his thoughts retreated to the safety of his own skull. Sweat beaded over his forehead and slimed his arm pits. Shakes rocked his body, not quite hard enough to be obvious, but there all the same. His heart was jack-hammered in his chest at an alarming rate and for a second he couldn't catch his breath.
"I... can't." The words were little more than a bitter exhale, wrenched from Xavier's chest. If this was how he reacted to a mind as close and familiar to him as family, how would he handle brushing up against the countless minds between him and that train? Not to mention the terrified minds of the humans and mutants under attack. It would be akin to swimming through a swarm of jellyfish. Every scar left behind by him in those countless minds would sting his soul unmercifully, flaying him alive with his own guilt. He didn't think he would survive the experience intact.
Eyes that shone with predatory intensity watched Xavier's every twitch and shudder before Fantomex sighed and stood. He rolled his shoulders and looked down at the crippled professor. "I see. This is the price of hastily thrown together weapons who haven't been properly tempered. They broke you. How... disappointing. Well, the odds of success have gone down dramatically, but I suppose I'd better get going. Worlds to save and all that."
Xavier reached out an imploring hand. Fantomex's dismissive words struck him harder than a physical blow. He knew he was failing, but also knew that - at least for now - his mind was as crippled as his body. Stryker's abuses hadn't only scared the world, but his tool as well. It would take time to heal. Time they couldn't afford. "Wait. I know you said you needed a psychic but allow my team to accompany you. They can help."
Now that he wasn't attempting to use his power the terror released him, and he could think again. Plan again. Be the leader that the X-Men needed again. Zen and Logan could go. They'd both spent a fair amount of time hunting and capturing mutants of every flavor. But Xavier knew he couldn't let them go alone. Not without someone there to hold Zen's leash. Logan would bow to Zen, but Xavier wasn't comfortable letting the young assassin out of his sight alone without direct supervision from someone who could modify his orders as needed.
Storm? No, her powers were not suited to the underground, and he knew how much she loathed being cut off from the sky. She would be a liability in a situation like this. Another flare of pain flooded him when his thoughts touched on Jean. If only she'd survived. That's when he realized how short-staffed they were. If the world didn't come to an end between now and next week, he would have to increase the number of staff on hand both to teach and fight as X-Men.
"Zen, go tend to Scott. See that he's in shape to fight."
Fantomex gave a dramatic sigh as he plopped back down onto the chair and held up his wrist as if he were reading a watch. "Time's ticking, children. The longer we dally the greater the chance the world will end!"
Something unpleasant burned in Zen's gut at the words, and the realization he would be forced to leave his Wielder in the company of this stranger to go tend to a fool who'd only an hour ago attempted to drink himself to death. Worse was the knowledge that Xavier didn't trust him to handle the situation on his own. He would send Scott along to ensure he behaved himself. This was the sort of mission X and IX were built for. They didn't need a squeamish teacher along to play minder.
All of this churned inside him, but Zen held his silence. He gave a slight nod of acknowledgment before he turned and locked eyes with Logan. No words were spoken between the pair, but a wealth of knowledge passed between them in that second. Zen's silent demand that Logan keep Xavier safe, and X looking back, equally furious that his Wielder refused to trust him in this. Then he turned on his heel and left to find his wayward keeper.
It didn't take long. He found Scott curled around a toilet in one of the small first floor bathrooms, the one closest to the door Scott came in from. Gray slate marched in neat rows across the floor and the walls were painted an innocent sage green. The whole room felt new, fresh, not yet lived in. The lavender air freshener puffed gently from its place on the pristine white countertop, but the aroma wasn't enough to hide the smell. A stink that lingered in the air. The bitter, acidic stench that reminded Zen of the cages, and the girl who'd died after the doctor's experiments. The one he'd been tasked to watch over.
Most of the vomit made it into the bowl, but there was a liberal splash down the front of Scott's shirt. He moaned softly, every inch of him appeared to be one solid ball of abject misery. Worse, in Zen's mind at least, was the fact that he hadn't noticed Zen in the room. Why anyone would want to drink something so crippling was beyond him.
Zen never tried to treat a hangover before. Since his method of healing often came with agonizing side effects, not even Wade had been dumb enough to try and get him to fix a hangover. Then again, the mouthy mutant never managed to get quite this apocalyptically drunk before. At least not to Zen's knowledge.
Again that strange burning seared his gut as he stared down at the broken-down man who would be handed leadership of the upcoming mission. Perhaps more than a small part of him felt a slash of vindictiveness, knowing how much the upcoming healing would hurt. While he'd never attempted to heal a hangover before, he had healed poison. And what was alcohol but a mild poison?
"This is going to hurt." The cold, dead words held an edge of unmistakable judgement, and were the only warning Scott received before Zen's hands came down on either side of his sweat-slicked neck.
"Wha-" The half-slurred word ended in a sharp cry of agony as liquid fire poured down his spine. It seemed to trace the lines of his nervous system, touching every fiber of his being while it rushed down his spine, branching off into his limbs until his whole body throbbed with unimaginable pain.
His breath ran out long before the need to scream did, and Scott found himself incapable of drawing another. Every muscle knotted at once, each cell fighting futility against the invading power. It felt like his own power filling him up from the inside. Any second now he would explode into a massive ball of destructive crimson energy, destroying the mansion and killing everyone in the vicinity.
NO! His mind shrieked in terrible pain, desperate not to be the cause of yet another disaster.
Then he did explode but not in the way he imagined. Instead he surged forward as wave after bitter wave of vomit expelled itself from his body with enough force it felt like his stomach would turn inside out. Blackness at his vision, but he wasn't even granted the reprieve of passing out. Not with his guts clenching, purging him of everything he'd eaten for the past week.
The feel of Scott's sweaty skin beneath his hands reminded him again of the girl, her body still burning with fever, still hot even in death. But even freshly dead there was something missing. Although her body heated his skin when he picked up the corpse, she felt dead. Some essential part of her gone, vanished with the beating of her heart. She'd gone from a living thing to a mere object. No more alive than a piece of wood or a stone.
Zen wondered at that vibrating difference as Scott's body rejected the poison. What was the crucial difference? Could blood-flow account for the change? That crucial shift from living matter to inert? Or were humans capable of sensing, on some subliminal level, the electrical impulses flashing through another living body?
The foolish turn of his thoughts made Zen shake his head as he pulled away, allowing his own thrumming power settle inside himself. He turned away from Scott and washed his hands at the sink, wanting to be rid of that sticky, living heat. Then he filled a glass with sink water and turned to the glaring man still curled around the toilet.
"Drink this. You need to re-hydrate," Zen said, holding out the glass. The muscles in Scott's shoulders twitched with aborted violence. Instead of slapping the glass out of Zen's outstretched hand, he took it in his own with a hand that was far steadier than it would have been a few minutes ago.
"What—" he paused, taking a mouthful of water and swishing it around before spitting it into the toilet with a wince of disgust. "What did you do?"
"I healed you."
A scowl twisted Scott's lips before he tossed back the rest of the glass glass, drinking it down in one long pull. "I wasn't injured," he growled when he was done.
Zen arched an eyebrow but said nothing.
"I wasn't hurt that badly in the fight, I could have healed on my own." That's when he realized his head no longer throbbed. The world wasn't trying to shake him off, and he no longer had to hold on to the toilet to keep from falling over. Even his words no longer slurred into each other. "What?"
With a sigh that almost sounded annoyed, Zen took the glass and filled it again. "We don't have time for you to learn from your mistakes. Get cleaned up and go to Xavier's office." He handed him the now-full glass. "This is a time sensitive matter. Don't take your time."
The words were spoken with Zen's customary blandness, but they held none of the deference Zen usually displayed. Scott accepted the glass and found himself unable to look away from the hostile green eyes. What happened while he was puking his guts out?
Without another word, Zen vanished, leaving Scott to his troubled thoughts and the bitter realization that something else had gone wrong. Fear tried to root him to the spot. It was too soon. He'd just lost Jean, failed the Professor, attacked the love of his life and then slept through her death. Pain, worse than anything Zen could ever think to inflict on him swamped Scott, threatening to drag him down into the gaping maw of blackest depression.
Gritting his teeth, Scott slammed his fist into the big muscle of his thigh. Pain jolted through him, grounding him. There wasn't time to let the darkness consume him. Not when Charles needed him enough to send Zen to heal something as paltry as being drunk.
Shame burned his face as he staggered to his feet. Even though the alcohol had been purged from his system, he still felt light-headed, dazed from all that happened in such a short period of time.
"Never again," he whispered to himself as he jogged to his room to take the shortest, hottest shower of his life. As if the water could somehow wash the stain of bad decisions from his skin.
"Why are you doing this?" Xavier asked, wanting to understand the stranger's motives. While he and the X-Men regularly performed missions like this, he couldn't grasp why Fantomex would want to risk his life to stop the Weapon. Especially now that he wouldn't have Xavier's backup.
"I've read the Weapon XII file. I know exactly what I'm up against. You see, I humiliated them by stealing their data, but that's no big deal." He waved a hand as if to brush aside a bothersome fly. "I want to make a bolder statement against mutant vivisection. Weapon XII was bred to exterminate. His survival traits are the product of man/machine fusion. I may be brimming with self-confidence, but even I have my limits. I had hoped to have your powerful brain along for the ride to help cripple it, but I think with Weapon X and Weapon IX I might be able to end the experiment."
Another one of those odd grins wrinkled his white face mask. "So, here's another difficult ethical decision for you to make... I'll help save the lives of mutants in danger and everything else in Weapon XII's vicinity, if a pacifist like you will help me kill it."
The words sent a chill down Xavier's spine because it proved that Fantomex knew exactly what Xavier was to Zen. That it would be his word that allowed Zen to kill or kept him from doing so.
"Don't take too much time deciding. Weapon XII must die."
Xavier closed his eyes and felt the weight of being Zen's keeper settle a little heavier on his shoulders. "We will help you," he conceded, but he held off on agreeing to kill the unknown Weapon out of hand.
Fantomex hmmed, accepting the words. "They were trying to create supermen to fight future wars. That's how it all began. Weapon 0 was 'classified'. It was a volunteer, Weapons II through III were animals. IV to VI used various ethnic minorities. Then they stumbled across the ideal subjects for the VII trials onward."
"Mutants," Zen finished as he stepped through the door. Gone was the student's clothing. Now Zen wore an outfit similar to Fantomex, though his was as dark as the other's was light and lacked the dramatic headgear. Fantomex looked him up and down, his eyes dancing over the places that held concealed weaponry.
"Indeed," Fantomex agreed with a smirk in his voice. "Kidnapped mutants. The scum of the earth. Weapon X wasn't a letter, it was a Roman numeral. X equals 10. But of course, you already knew all that." He glanced between Logan and Zen. "Imagine my surprise when I found the last of the outdated Weapons' line here when I went in search of telepaths."
"Last two?" Xavier asked. "What about XI?"
Fantomex gave a derisive snort. "Him? Stryker's puppet was never part of the Plus Program. He simply gave him that designation out of spite since he was jealous of the real Weapons Plus Program. No, IX and X were the last of the old breed. 'Logan', known also as The Wolverine was merely the tenth generation of living weapons. They've gone far beyond that now."
"Tell us," Xavier demanded, unable to suppress the sharp slash of fear from his voice. IX and X were devastating before Xavier tamed them. What were they going up against now?
"Weapon XII becomes his enemies, Professor Xavier. They become him. He's the soldier who recruits his own army by merely touching them."
An aggravated sigh escaped Xavier at the cryptic words. "I dislike being rude to anyone, but I have to say you are a very obtuse and difficult man, Fantomex."
Before Fantomex could come up with a smart-ass reply, Scott stepped into the room. He wore his X-Man uniform and bore no resemblance to the drunk man who'd been puking into the grass less than half an hour ago.
"Ah, there you are. Take the Black Bird, they can fill you in on the details as you fly," Xavier said before his face clouded. "No, that won't work, it's still out of commission." He turned his eyes to Zen. "Have you ever been to Brooklyn? Can you jump that far?"
Fantomex stood and held out his blood-stained hands dramatically. "I have special powers too, you know. Just let me call my partner."
The small strike force stood on top of a parking garage in the middle of Brooklyn. All of them stared up into the sky where the strange form of transport winked away at speeds the naked eye could hardly detect.
"I still can't believe your mutation is a fucking flying saucer," Logan grunted as he turned to look down at the seething mass of emergency responders surrounding the mouth of the subway station. Like a kicked-over ant pile, police began erecting barricades and gently but firmly pushing back the gawking crowds. There were no less than six news vans parked among the milling people, their satellite towers reaching eager metal fingers towards the night sky. News choppers hummed in the air, and Logan wondered how none of them noticed the freaking spaceship that dropped them off. Instead of asking, he clicked his tongue in annoyance and said, "Waited too long, now the police are involved."
"Who do you think shot me?" Fantomex snorted. If it hadn't been for E.V.A. he wouldn't have made it out of the city in one piece. He stepped over to the railing and rested his folded arms against the cold metal. For a long minute he stared at the humans below them, looking for the tell-tale signs that the cancerous experiment had made it topside.
"We have to move fast. Weapon XII's mind spreads like a disease into whatever he touches. Human, animal, it's all the same to him."
"Not mutant?" Scott asked.
Fantomex gave a hollow laugh. "Caught that, didn't you? No. Not mutants. For some reason our minds are barred against him."
"I'll go down first and get in deep enough to avoid being seen. Then I'll 'port the rest of you in," Zen said in a cool, detached voice. The mask he wore to appease his wielder had been set aside, neatly folded away with his civilian clothes. While he knew Xavier wanted to save the Weapon if he could, Zen would do what was needed. Save the mutants, save the humans, and, if possible, save the Weapon.
Fantomex reached out and grabbed Zen's arm before he could vanish. The short Weapon turned faster than a striking cobra, the tip of a dagger pressed between Fantomex's ribs. It wouldn't take much for him to drive the blade into the other man's heart.
They locked gazes and the height difference didn't matter in this dance of potential violence. "I am not your enemy." The words were leached entirely of warmth, spoken in a tone that would have been a match for Zen at his worst. All the laughter, jokes, and teasing were stripped from his arctic gaze as the pair studied each other. Zen's own masks, flimsy though they were in the face of Fantomex, dropped away.
"Zen." His name, nothing more, but Zen could taste the command in Scott's voice. He held Fantomex's eyes for a heartbeat longer before he jerked his arm free and vanished.
With a soft pop, Zen appeared deep in the shadows at the edge of the chaos spilling out around the entrance to the subway. The stink of fear and adrenaline soured the air from the mass of police officers. Their fear alone told him that everything Fantomex said was true. Or at least true enough to spook the hardened officers. Closing his eyes, he focused on being unnoticed. A strange liquid sensation slid down his body and he stepped out of the shadows.
While working his way between the huddled clusters of police, Zen listened to the agitated whispers.
"Mutants, no doubt about it."
"Did you see?"
"Turned our own men! We can't go down there."
"When will S.H.I.E.L.D be here?"
"We can't keep them down there forever."
Picking up the pace, Zen ducked under the thin line of police tape and entered the cold bowels of the earth. Passages carved out of the ground, and now infested with contaminated humans. He didn't go far, just deep enough to be sure he wouldn't be seen when he brought the others. Even this close to the entrance, he could hear the distant rumble of inhuman voices. Not loud enough to make out the words, but enough to hear the base rumble of insanity.
"Come on. We don't have a lot of time. They've called in S.H.I.E.L.D." Zen's voice cut the heavy silence surrounding the small group. Logan gave an irritated growl, not wanting to tangle with the government organization if they could avoid it.
Without hesitation, he held his hand out to Zen. The pair vanished. When Zen returned, Scott did the same though his face twisted with distaste at the mode of transportation. "I hate that," he gasped after Zen let him go. All the X-Men had been jumped with Zen in the Danger Room so they wouldn't be thrown off their stride in a fight, but it was still beyond unpleasant. "I always feel like you leave my stomach behind," he grumbled, using his discomfort as a mask against the growing unease. He could hear the low muttering rumble coming from deep within the tunnel.
Before he could tell Zen not to attack Fantomex, the assassin vanished again.
"Let's go," Zen said, holding his hand out to the white-clad stranger who'd brought yet more danger into their lives. Still, the thought of a real mission sparked an odd twist of anticipation in Zen's gut. This time there wouldn't be students in need of protection. He wouldn't be torn between his duty to protect and the need to finish the mission in an efficient manner. For the first time in a long time, Zen felt like he was standing on solid ground. Back in a world that made sense.
To Zen's mild surprise, Fantomex didn't hesitate. He settled his gloved hand lightly in Zen's. In an instant the pair vanished.
When they reappeared, Fantomex gave a low whistle. "Not bad, but I'll stick with E.V.A. in the future."
"All right, children, it's time to get this field trip started. Since we don't have the good Professor to freeze the enemy in place, we're going to have to do this the down and dirty way. Scott, IX-"
"Zen." The word was quiet but laced with steel. Again the pair locked eyes, then Fantomex's mask crinkled with a smirk that put crow's feet around his exposed eyes.
"Zen then. You and Scott get to play bait. Give me enough time to get on the train. There's an off switch for Weapon XII on the train. They couldn't risk the experiment getting completely out of hand. Logan, you're with me. I'm going to need those claws of yours."
Zen gave a slight nod of acknowledgement at the orders and wondered why he found himself so willing to obey.
Scott stood on the platform's edge and stared into the gaping, empty mouth of the tunnel. It wasn't pitch black—weak yellow light tried to push back the gloom—but the security lights in wire cages were set at one-meter intervals. They were too far apart to push back the darkness entirely. Instead it created an island effect, small pools of liquid light separated by dank shadows.
It felt strange to stand on the platform without the usual bustling crowd of commuters. In general, Scott avoided the subway whenever possible. Even though he had faith in his visor he couldn't completely escape the gut-churning anxiety that something could go wrong. The thought of his power going out of control here, trapped under tons of cement and earth, made his palms itch.
A memory teased at the edges of his thoughts. Himself, so much smaller, a huge carefree grin fairly splitting his face as he held his mom's hand while they walked down the stairs into the tunnel. Back then he hadn't paid the graffiti any mind. They'd been in New York for less than an hour and had to ride the subway to get to the hotel. It all felt like some grand adventure, not a hint of fear marred the experience. He could still hear his own piping young voice asking a thousand questions, and the soft, musical sound of her answer each with endless patience.
Now a knot of fear sat low in his gut, not only fear of the unknown Weapon and what it could do, but fear of his own power unleashed in such a tight space. Before he could stop it, another memory reared its ugly head. The weight of cement over his head, countless gallons of water pressing hard against it, eager to gush through any cracks. Again, he felt the clash of power as he threw all his strength against Jean's shield, pouring more and more of himself into it all while his mind screamed at him to stop. The memory of the explosion when their clash of powers reached an unsustainable fever pitch and the way the whole dam shuddered under the force. He knew firsthand what his mutation could do to cement.
Scott had to physically wench his thoughts out of the past and back into the present. Stop it, just stop. This is a totally different situation.
Before any other memories could plague him, Fantomex's voice cut through his inner turmoil.
"Time's wasting, let's get this show on the road." The strange mutant who'd gotten them into this mess took the lead. They had to move single file along the narrow concrete service walkway. First Fantomex, then Zen, Logan, and Scott bringing up the rear.
If the platform was bad, the walkway was unspeakably worse. Scott could almost feel the cement tunnel squeezing tight around them. A space so small it could barely fit the trains which passed like blood through these strange underground veins. The smell that wafted over them was damp and electrical, accented with an undertone of rot and waste.
Every step they took caused echoes to bounce back at them until it sounded like they were being chased. The hair on Scott's neck prickled with tension when he realized there was another sound under the clatter of their footsteps.
"Wait, do you hear that?" Scott asked, his eyes squinting a little as he tried to see deeper into the tunnel. The rest of the group paused to listen.
Under the oppressive silence, faint and far away, distorted by the distance the sound echoed back to them. Almost like the sound their feet made, but different. Sharper somehow. A discordant clanging sound, both rhythmic yet chaotic. "I hear it," Zen confirmed before he nudged Fantomex to get the group in motion again.
With every step they took, the pounding grew louder. Then the group rounded the final corner and had to freeze for a long second to stare at the strange tableau laid out before them. The stalled train acted like a cork, blocking the tunnel farther back. In front of it, a group of people stood in a ragged circle. All of them had something in hand. Rocks, a discarded pipe, and one of them held what looked like the broken off foot of a Greek statue of all things.
All of them were slamming the makeshift weapons down on a half-hidden shape. The harsh clamor of blunt objects striking stone created a deafening cacophony of noise. Scott felt his gut twist when he saw a stone hand between the mass of seething bodies, its fingers gave a feeble twitch as the stone foot came crashing down on the mutant's face.
Scott's hand instantly went to the side of his visor, the need to save the unknown mutant pounding in his chest. But the angle was all wrong. Before he could adjust his aim, Zen's hand snaked around Logan's bulk and locked around Scott's wrist. In an instant the pair vanished, appearing five feet up the track in front of the gang of crazed humans.
After they appeared, Zen brought his fingers to his lips and gave a piercing whistle. The shrill sound cut through the hammering and bounced off the stone walls. All the attackers froze as one, creating the illusion that all this was some strange breed of performance art. Then, every head turned in their direction. Scott cursed low under his breath as the unease in his gut ratcheted up another notch. Every eye locked on them glowed an eerie phosphorescent blue. The color held nothing human in it, and he couldn't stop the revulsion their totally in sync movements gave him.
While all those inhuman eyes locked on the new offering of prey, Fantomex and Logan walked silently down the walkway towards the stalled train. Logan followed his lead reluctantly, his eyes locking on Zen's slight form. A silent snarl echoed in Logan's mind from X when he saw the two retractable asps Zen pulled. Even with the proof of threat not ten feet in front of them, the small assassin planned to use non-lethal force.
"Come on," Fantomex hissed, careful to keep his voice low enough to avoid notice from the horde. The command bit into their joined psyche like a slap across the face with one of those flimsy clubs. He clenched his fists and followed, resisting the urge to unleash his claws and deal with the threat before they had a chance to attack his mate. But he understood that the only way to deal with the problem would be to strike at the source.
"Zona," Fantomex confided when Logan caught up. "His name was Zona Cluster 6. He had a life in The World before the program twisted him into a super-evolved murder machine." As he spoke, he picked up the pace. "We have to kill Zona now, before he can return to his pod to be debriefed. I have to kill him now." As he ran he pulled out a pair of Sig Sauer P320 handguns. Logan saw why in a second.
Rats boiled up from around the train, their sleek furred bodies scrambled up onto the platform in a furry tide. Every eye that should have been beady black glowed with sick blue light. Fantomex took a flying leap, somersaulting in the air as he pulled the trigger, each bullet obliterating one of the massive rodents. He landed, boots crushing the head of one and the back of another. "Nobody does it like me," he said as he kicked a dying rat off the walkway.
An explosive snort escaped Logan as he slid back, allowing X to take the lead. Claws popped through his flesh with a sharp hiss, sending droplets of blood flying. X followed Fantomex towards their primary objective. Let Zen play nice with the enemy; he wouldn't be so gentle.
Just ahead, the train loomed, along with a mob of more infected humans shuffling in front of it. Blood streaked their skin where they'd cut themselves crawling out the broken window. "Let's get this done," Fantomex said as he charged the mass. X followed, claws glittering hungrily in the weak light.
Instead of attacking, the group surrounding the downed mutant continued staring at the pair with their inhuman eyes. Zen stared back, waiting with cold patience for them to move. As long as their attention remained riveted to him and Scott, he didn't care if they stood immobile or attacked.
A strange figure stepped down off the back of the train. The thin lights lining the walls were dim compared to the pulsing of phosphorescent blue the creature's throbbing brain gave off. While it might have been human once, it now looked like a monster out of an LSD nightmare. The being stood easily seven feet tall, with more than a foot and a half of toxic mass housing its unnatural coral-like brain. Its skin ate the light like a soulless void, a color unnatural in its unrelenting blackness. The inhuman eyes looked like holes carved out of its face and filled with blue fire.
"I was born to make war on the mutant race. Has war begun?" The booming voice vibrated along the currents of darkness, more felt than heard.
"Is this war?" It repeated as it took a step towards them. "Has war begun?" It snarled, a wild grin flashed blazing white teeth at them. "Make new world for MAN! Make war in the name of ETERNAL MAN!"
Any thoughts Scott might have entertained about salvaging the Weapon died as those words boomed around him, assaulting his ears and mind. All sense of humanity and sanity had been stripped from the Weapon, turning it into little more than a killing machine. Worse, one that could infect others with its mad quest for war.
Before he could share his thoughts with Zen or develop a plan of attack, he vanished. "Damn it all," Scott hissed, hand going to his visor while he scanned the gloom in search of the wayward assassin. He gritted his teeth against the urge to shout for Zen to return this instant. The urge nearly overwhelmed him yet conflicted violently with his own mixed feelings over Zen. No matter what he knew about the other mutant and his sordid past, he couldn't banish the look of a child in his care so hungry he'd been forced to turn to eating the local wildlife to survive.
Zen was a student. Zen was a killer. Both and neither. On the one hand Scott felt the overwhelming urge to protect and shield one of the children of the school - he's not a child, no matter how he looks, he is not a child. The words rang hollow in his mind, and he stood frozen beneath the conflicting instincts.
Then Zen reappeared and Scott learned firsthand that IX was not, and never had been, a child.
When the primary target came into view, Zen didn't wait for orders. He couldn't trust Scott to make the right decision at such a crucial moment. Instead, he vanished only to reappear buried deep in the shadow at the strange mutant's back. Without warning, he whipped the asp around with enough force to make the air scream before it crashed into the back of the Weapon's left knee.
As the mutant's leg crumpled, Zen drew his sidearm. He brought the gun up, finger slipping into the trigger guard, but before he could get the shot off a wave of humanity slammed into him from behind.
There were times when a gunshot sounded like a soft, hollow pok. Other times it would be a sharp crack, akin to the sound of a brittle branch breaking in the forest. But in the cold, damp underworld of the tunnels, the shot roared like captive thunder off the cement walls, drowning them all in sound.
The shot went wide as the gun spun from Zen's hand. Without breaking from his battle-ready stance, Zen retrieved the second asp and began a savage dance with the growing mob. The tide of battle swept him away from his target, and the space was too compact for him to do more than defend himself against the rage of the countless passengers.
Gritting his teeth, Zen fought to keep the hits light, to limit the damage to his targets as Xavier would have wanted. He whipped the asp around, cracking it hard against the side of a teenage girl's face. The force of the blow drove her to the side and dislocated her jaw. Her green Airpods went flying, lost to the trampling feet. Instead of screaming in pain and cowering away from him, she barely flinched. Her head straightened, jaw agape and came for him again with her sparkling green fingernails hooked into claws.
Wrongness vibrated through the assassin with every blow. Strikes that should have sent the targets to their knees in agony were brushed off. For every infected he drove back, another took its place. Numbness began creeping up his arms as the force of each blow vibrated through his bones.
The world narrowed. All the human trappings Xavier fought so hard to tie around his neck fell away one by one as he lost himself to the battle haze. Everything simplified, amplified, became clear again. This is what he was created for. This. Not playing student. Not dancing to the tune of civilization.
He was created for destruction.
A man large enough to play professional football, wearing a shabby business suit that couldn't quite contain the vast expanse of shoulders, charged at Zen, head down, body aligned for a tackle that knocked half a dozen others to the ground as he plowed through them to reach his goal.
Zen drove the tip of one asp into the front teeth of stooped old man who'd been attempting to impale Zen on the end of his cane. The blow struck with enough force to dislodge the man's dentures as it snapped his head back, driving him to the ground. As the cane wielder fell, Zen turned and stepped out of the way of the charging bull. He could feel the wind of the suit's passage against his skin, and as the attacker passed, he brought the asp down with bone crushing force on the back of the man's neck. The massive bulk nearly crushed the old man trying to regain his feet, trapping him beneath the dead weight.
For half a heartbeat, Zen stared at the corpse and felt peace. Like a dislocated bone sliding back into place, IX turned his cold green eyes on the target rich environment.
Scott's finger hovered over the control on his visor. He tried to convince himself that his hesitation had more to do with fear of his power unleashed in such a confined space, but he wasn't that good at lying to himself. Instead he found himself rooted to the spot, indecision staying his hand as the battle unfolded before his eyes.
Dread coiled in his gut, sending shards of ice through his veins as his eyes locked on Zen. So small, so seemingly harmless. The scar on his side from IX's makeshift shank gave a slight twinge at the thought. No; the boy was many things, but harmless wasn't one of them.
Still, he'd had no idea. For all the damage he'd done while at the Institute, Scott had never seen Zen in action totally uninhibited. Then something changed. A subtle shift that almost drove the air from his lungs when he realized Zen had been holding back.
"No," he breathed, but couldn't bring himself to put force behind the command as bodies began falling. This storm of utter destruction could have been unleashed at the school if they hadn't had Xavier. It felt like stepping out into the road and nearly being hit by a bus. He could feel the wind of its passage written in the blood now painting the tracks.
Every blow took out an attacker. Every single one. He could hear the sound of larynx's shattering, skulls cracking, and vertebrae being turned into little more than rubble as Zen—no, not Zen. Another unmanning wave of fear curdled his stomach when Scott realized what he was looking at. Not Zen.
Even with a pair of weapons designed for non-lethal combat, IX decimated the attackers and left bodies piled in his wake as he fought his way back towards the towering monstrosity responsible for this chaos.
Take him out.
For a second, Scott wasn't sure which Weapon he had in mind.
Then it was too late for thought, too late for action. While he'd been lost in the reality of what Zen was, and what could have—would have—happened at the school if things had gone even a little bit differently, three of the infected managed to scramble up onto the walkway.
The clatter of a red high-heeled shoe falling a foot from his head jerked Scott's attention from the battle. He scrambled out of the way as the young woman took a flying leap off the walkway. He winced in unexpected sympathy at her landing. Unlike its companion, the second heel managed to stay on her foot. The sound of her right ankle crunching when the foot rolled made his gut clench as she went sprawling on the heavy gravel of the tracks.
Her bright ebony curls flared around a full face that should have been twisted with agony. Her hand reached up, and Scott reacted before his mind could catch up to the movement. Without hesitation, he offered his own hand to help her. It was only as her hand gripped his, tight enough for her nails to bite his skin through the glove that he realized his mistake.
The empty look on her face twisted into something inhuman as she jerked him down with a strength that shouldn't be possible in such a slender body. "KiLL thE MutanTs!" Each guttural word drove a spike into Scott's heart as he twisted away from her terrible grip and stumbled back.
Pain slammed into the side of his head, driving Scott to his knees. Worse, the world in front of him exploded as his power was unleashed full force. The sound of his visor skittering over the gravel was lost under the deep rumble of cement shattering under the force.
The woman in the path of the hellish blast didn't even scream.
Scott threw an arm over his eyes as he desperately groped for his only means of control. Another blow crashed into his back, driving the air from his lungs.
The ground shook, a deep keening rumble vibrated through the tunnel as red light blazed like a beacon, banishing the darkness for an instant. Zen jerked out of the blood haze, his whole body thrummed with harp-wire tension, but thought once again poured into the equation. It wasn't him and X running a clean sweep. He couldn't mindlessly attack until all the enemy ceased to be.
They weren't alone in this mission.
Zen turned back towards where he'd left—abandoned—Scott even as he continued his relentless assault. Without hesitation he kicked a small red-headed girl in the chest with enough force to crack her sternum. She crashed back into the skirt-wrapped legs of a plump matronly woman whose iron gray hair stuck up in bloody spikes on one side from a grazing head wound that hadn't been enough to bring her down.
Old and young. Men, women, and children fell away as Zen fought his way into a patch clear enough for him to vanish without taking half a dozen infected with him. He reappeared in time to deflect the downward swing of a three-foot-long pipe. The sound of asp against pipe made a harsh clanging bong. It drew all infected eyes to where he now stood. As one they spilled down the tunnel towards the two mutants.
Three sharp blows destroyed the throat of the man who'd taken Scott down. Zen kicked the corpse forward, between them and the oncoming horde. His fingers itched for an AA-12 assault shotgun with a drum magazine that could lay down five rounds a second while on fully automatic. That and a fire team. Even going full force with the asps, he'd only been able to kill twenty, maybe a few more.
There were hundreds running flat out at them.
He and X could have taken them down, if he'd had the right equipment, if X wasn't chaperoning Fantomex. If he didn't have to babysit. The space was too confined for his fire, and retreat was impossible. Without prey to focus on, the infected would surge through the tunnels until they spilled topside, spreading their mental plague faster than it could be countered.
No, they had to bottleneck it here, keep it contained to the underground. They had to hold the line until Fantomex could put an end to it.
The thought of shielding came an instant too late. At the last second, he threw a shield over Scott before the wave crashed into him. Something like a grin peeled Zen's lips back as he attacked. The sound of bone breaking mingled with the iron scent of blood in the air and all that was missing were the screams. Zen could have put himself in the shield too. He could have.
But he didn't.
Now he gave himself over to the blood lust and let the complex world Xavier tried to force him into fade into black accented by brilliant flashes of red.
The bodies began piling up around him. Behind him, Zen could feel the pressure as infected began pounding on the shield separating them from Scott. Could hear Scott shouting his name but that was all. If there were any orders, they were lost to the battle madness.
Something white and orange flashed in the corner of Zen's eye. Before he could turn, a massive shape launched itself at him. Large jaws snapped down on his right shoulder with bone crushing force. The attack half spun the pair as sixty pounds of white fury tried to pull Zen to the ground. Zen staggered under the tearing weight as the dog's hind legs began ripping long furrows down his hip and thigh. He tried to bring the other asp around to drive the service dog off, but a hand grabbed at the weapon, ripping it out of his grip.
Pain tore through Zen as he and the dog fell together. Bone cracked under the force of the dog's relentless attack. Hands clawed at his skin, tore at his hair, pulled his limbs wide. Zen twisted violently in their grip as half a dozen sets of human teeth sank deep into his flesh.
"Well, isn't this undignified."
The words were ice sheathed in a thin layer of amusement, yet the effect they had was profound. All the infected froze, their shapes forced into stillness by a powerful mental vice overwhelming even the bacterial mind of the mutant-turned-Weapon.
There were eight—no, eleven—sets of teeth buried in Zen's flesh. Not including the dog's. He tried to squirm away, but the teeth and hands held him tethered to the ground like a pagan sacrifice as the sharp crunch of high heels approached. The sound of the voice teased at the back of Zen's mind, tormenting him with a harsh twist of familiarity.
Pain sliced up his back as he tried to shift. A piece of broken glass provided a violent counterpoint of sharp agony compared to the blunter pain of teeth and fingers digging into every part of him.
White caught his eye, difficult to see past all the heads bent eagerly to tear him apart one bloody mouthful at a time. Zen blinked, and shifted as much as he could, needing to see. At first, all he could make out was white. The stranger's outfit reminded him, vaguely, of Fantomex in its pristine whiteness. Unlike Fantomex, whose only visible skin showed around the eyes, her outfit exposed significantly more. Skintight pants ended in six-inch heels, revealing every curve and muscle. Above the waist her outfit was little more than a white bra, exposing most of her stomach and giving an ample view of her chest and shoulders.
Like Storm, she wore a cloak draped around her shoulders as if she were visiting royalty. Platinum-blonde hair draped in a straight curtain down and over her shoulders to brush over the tops of her breasts.
Any other man would be lost in her Icelandic beauty, believing an angel appeared in the depths of hell to save them. But Zen could only stare at her in stunned disbelief. "You can't be—"
Then something slammed into his mind and dragged him down into profound darkness.
Pain radiated up Scott's arms from where he'd slammed his fists against the barrier Zen trapped him in. The only thing keeping him from opening his eyes was the memory of his optic blast bouncing off a similar shield. Fear of being torn to shreds by his own ricocheting power kept his eyes clamped shut.
He'd already searched every inch of the small space and hadn't found his visor. A painful mix of shame, gratitude, and fury flooded his veins as he listened to the unfolding battle, desperate to know what was happening but only able to judge by sound.
Then a strange voice, lilting yet hard, dripped into the darkness and everything... stopped. He couldn't hear the pounding of Zen beating people to death, couldn't hear the sharp exhales, or the crunch of bone breaking. Even the strange grinding sound of many—so many he couldn't begin to count—feet pounding on gravel had stopped.
No, not quite. It had been reduced to one. One pair of sharp, clicking footsteps. Making the sound all the more ominous in the darkness that ate his world.
Zen said something, but it was lost under the rough pounding of Scott's heart. Then he jerked back when the shield beneath his hands vanished. Gritting his teeth, Scott braced himself for the attack, refusing to open his eyes.
Instead of a wave of infected humanity crashing over him, a light mental touch brushed the edge of his thoughts. A touch so light he almost missed it. Would have, had he not been accustomed to it. When real fingers brushed against the side of his face, Scott jolted, but didn't attack like he would have without that first touch. A tremor of repressed violence made his muscles twitch, but aside from that, Scott stood perfectly still as he felt his visor being slid gently back into place.
For the span of two shaky breaths, Scott kept his eyes tightly clenched, not daring to open them. What if the visor was broken? Fear warred with the desperate need to see until he couldn't stand the darkness a second longer. Not wanting to harm whoever helped him, he turned his head to the side and down before cracking one eye open the slightest bit.
Power didn't explode out of him to bite into the gravel. A shuddering breath escaped him as Scott opened both eyes wide. All the muscles in his face ached with the strain of keeping them closed so tight.
A delicate hand cupped the side of his face and turned him to face hers. Scott's hungry eyes traced over her aristocratic features, shock filling him as he stared down at her. Again, he felt that light mental touch and he froze under it, torn between wanting to let her fill his mind, and flinging her violently away as if even touching another mind with his would be a betrayal of Jean's memory.
Refusing to give in to the impulse, Scott reached up and tugged her hand off his face. Then he turned and stared in shock at the infected. From the smallest rat, to the massive monster itself, they all stood frozen.
"Did you—" he started, heart racing as he stared out at the human statues. "How long?" he demanded before she could answer. Again, he turned, eyes tracing over her face. Scott could see the slight flinching around her eyes, the line forming between them. He wondered if her skin was always this pale or if it was the strain of holding them in place.
"Three minutes, maybe less." The soft words wrapped around Scott, teasing him with their posh British accent. Still, he could hear the strain in them. The pain that holding back all those minds had to be causing. He nodded and gripped her hand a little tighter.
Blood painted X from his knuckles up to his elbows. The violent color splashed artfully over Fantomex's white outfit as the pair broke through the last of the infected standing between them and their goal. Still running, Fantomex darted onto the train, into the baggage car.
There, the mutant found what he'd come for. A pair of coffin-like units sat on the floor, their lids gaping open. One was large enough to hold the monstrosity responsible for the current disaster but the other was only big enough for a normal sized man.
X slid back into their mind as Logan took control. Sharp whisky eyes measured the smaller box against Fantomex's height. He leaned a shoulder against the door as he watched Fantomex paw through a compartment in the base of the larger unit.
"You're one of us, aren't you." A statement, not a question.
Fantomex settled back on his heels, a triggering device held in his left hand. "You wish," he snorted before giving another exaggerated grin. "I'm the new and improved model. They dipped us into liquid time. Injected us with nanites. The World is smaller than this one. Its rules and people are very, very different. Zona turns his enemies into himself. And me?" He stood, rubbing the back of his neck as he did so. "I'm smarter than they bargained for. I won't be anyone's toy soldier."
He gave a languid stretch, throwing his arms wide to encompass the world around them. "I'm a new form of life, and this place is so much bigger and more fun than The World and the Weapons Plus Program. But you would know all about the joy of freedom, wouldn't you?" he asked pointedly before he pressed the button.
One second they were surrounded by countless living statues, above them all stood the Weapon like a heathen God of destruction, the next its head exploded in a phosphorescent cloud of slime. Like a flash mob, all the infected fell.
Scott gasped in shock and felt lightheaded with relief even as adrenaline burned unused in his veins.
"Well," the stranger said with an ironic twist of her lips, "it appears the danger is over."
Scott found his eyes drawn to her face. Her makeup wasn't quite able to hide the exhaustion that lingered on her sharp features. Her smile grew a little teasing around the edges as she noticed his observation, one eyebrow rising. "Like what you see?"
Heat flooded Scott's cheeks at her teasing words as he looked away. Then he cleared his throat, "Thank you for your help, Ms...?"
"Frost. Emma Frost. I do believe your... companion is in need of aid?" Something in her tone sounded off to Scott, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Before he could react, Emma reached down and grabbed a dead teenage boy's arm, jerking the limp body off the pile burying Zen. Scott's stomach churned at the sight of the boy flopping lifelessly to the ground. For an instant, he saw Bobby's face imposed on the corpse. Both had that classic all-American look about them, and his heart lurched in his chest.
He couldn't help but stare out at the endless corpses clogging the tracks. So many bodies. So many lives lost, each one representing a now broken family. We should have stopped it. I should have stopped it. Regret more potent than all the alcohol he drank when this nightmare of a night began swamped him, held him frozen under the weight of impending grief so many would feel.
"Are you going to help or just stand there moping?"
Her irritation snapped Scott out of his morose thoughts, and he forced himself to move. His skin crawled when he grabbed the first body and felt the loose way it moved. A man old enough to be his own father, was probably someone's father, yet now he was only so much warm meat. A shudder of revulsion made Scott grimace while he tugged the weight of the corpse off the pile pinning Zen to the ground.
The head, with a full crest of salt and pepper hair, lulled and struck the gravel with a harsh thud. Scott cringed, almost expecting the man to complain over the rough treatment. He had to bite his lip to keep from apologizing to the dead man who'd never meant for any of this to happen.
That, more than anything else, hurt Scott's heart. None of these people wanted to be turned into monsters. They hadn't been given a choice and now they were dead.
A glance to his left showed the Frost woman pushing aside bodies with apparent apathy, white-gloved hands moving unceasingly. For a moment Scott felt a flicker of annoyance at the careless disregard for life, but then she shifted, curtain of pale hair falling away from her face for a moment, and he could see her face fully. Lips twisted into a pitying grimace, eyelids lowered mournfully as she moved aside the corpse of a young child with a mouthed, "I'm sorry" that he never wouldn't heard if he wasn't listening for it.
And then, catching his eyes on her, the expression vanished, replaced with the icy distance from before. For a moment Scott felt the sudden impulse to reach out to her, to comfort her, but he quickly vetoed this notion.
With a grunt he reached down and pulled at the white-furred body of the German Shepherd only to curse under his breath when Zen's body lifted too. "Shit," he hissed, letting the dog fall, though nudging it enough to keep it from landing across Zen's chest.
Now that most of the bodies had been cleared away, he could see the amount of damage marring Zen's pale flesh. Only the steady rise and fall of the boy's chest assured Scott that the infected hadn't managed to kill the small assassin. Shirt and pants had been torn in dozens of places and he gave a soft hiss of sympathy as he attempted to count the bleeding bite marks. Thankfully, none of the bites he could see managed to take a chunk out of Zen, but many were ugly, tearing things.
"You always seem to get the worst of it," Scott said under his breath as he knelt and tried to pry the ghost-white jaws apart. No matter how hard he tried to dislodge the animal, its teeth remained rooted in Zen's flesh as if even in death it was trying to rip him to pieces.
A derisive little snort escaped Emma as she knelt, careful not to allow her pristine white-clad knee to touch the filthy gravel. "Allow me," she muttered as she reached forward, her hands caressed the tops of his on the muzzle of the dead animal before he jerked away.
"What are you—" the question died on his lips as he watched her body shimmer and change, becoming transparent and gleaming, jewel-like fractals shimmering beneath her skin. The transformation reminded him of Bobby when he went all out, but clearer somehow. Radiant, as if she would positively glow in the proper light. Even in the dingy half light of these cursed tunnels, she glittered with stunning perfection.
Her glass-like hands proved far stronger than he would have imagined. A sound like stone screeching off teeth drilled into Scott's head making him wince. Then the upper jaw broke with a sick crack, and he came close to throwing up. Perhaps the only thing that kept him from the indignity was the simple fact that there was nothing left in his system.
Without acknowledging his discomfort, Emma shoved the mangled dog off Zen, pulling her hands back the moment the task was done. There was something else in her icy blue eyes as she stared down at the would-be-teenager in that moment—something Scott wasn't sure he liked—but it was gone as quickly as it appeared.
The distant thunder of boots on cement echoed towards them from the end of the tunnel. "Looks like time's up. That'll be S.H.I.E.L.D." Scott hesitated briefly, then remembered Xavier's sweat-streaked face when his mentor attempted to use his power. In the state he was in now, he wouldn't be able to teach the telepathic students, let alone aid the X-Men using Cerebro. No, they needed another strong telepath on the team. One who wasn't chained by trauma. "We need to get Zen back to the mansion for treatment. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like you to come along. You'll be safe there and we could use someone with your..." He hesitated, fumbling momentarily for the right word. "...talents."
One perfectly plucked eyebrow rose, but instead of turning him down flat, she gave a mysterious smile back. "Since I'm already terribly late for my prior engagement, I suppose that would do."
Relief washed through Scott as he stood and offered her a hand. Another jolt of almost painful awareness flooded him as she slipped her delicate hand into his, allowing him to tug her to her feet. When he was sure she wouldn't slip on the gravel in those absurdly high heels, he turned his attention to the dead Weapon. "That's different," he muttered, hardly able to believe what he was looking at.
Working at a school for mutants allowed Scott to see all manner of physical mutation, but he'd never seen anything like this. Scott knelt. This time he plucked three collection vials out of his side pocket. "His brain-stem branches off like coral," he said as he broke off a tiny piece of the blackened material. It broke like coral too, far harder than any structure in the brain ought to be. The entire head had been vaporized in the explosion. All that remained was what looked like a lightning-struck tree growing out of the stump of neck. Scott wrinkled his nose with distaste as he carefully collected a scrap of flesh and a sample of blood before he stood and slipped the vials away. Hank would want to examine them extensively; he had no doubt.
The tunnel filled with people, only this time they wore uniforms and shouted orders instead of attacked with clubs and teeth. For a moment, Scott wasn't sure which group was worse. Gritting his teeth, but unwilling to get shot, Scott turned slowly to face the S.H.I.E.L.D agents, keeping his hands well away from anything that could remotely be construed as a weapon while not actually raising them.
To his surprise, Emma took a step forward and squared her shoulders before her mind reached out with waves of soothing energy, enough to open them up to suggestion and keep them from blindly attacking. Scott couldn't feel her tinkering, but he could see the results as some of the tension bled out of the soldiers.
Scott took the opportunity to speak first. "The X-Men have this deliberately engineered 'emergency' under control. Four mutants and countless humans lost their lives today and we are in no mood to play chimpanzee politics."
One of the soldiers, a man older than the rest with skin the rough consistency of old leather stepped forward. "We've been briefed on your lot. Got a gaggle of telepaths in your group. Well don't bother looking into this dumb chimpanzee's head. You won't find anything except reruns of the adult channel."
"How uncouth," Emma sneered after dipping a single mental finger into the swamp that was the pervert's mind. "The least you could do is watch something with a little class, instead of all that back-yard rutting in the mud like swine."
Somehow, it was Scott's cheeks that burned with embarrassment while Emma's remained as white and pristine as snow. None of this is happening, Scott decided, I'm passed out in a gutter somewhere with a head injury from a bar fight and too much alcohol. When I wake up, I won't even remember this horribly vivid nightmare.
The soldier gave a toothy grin and looked her up and down. "Don't worry little lady, I'll add you to the spank bank for sure. It's a little thing they've been teaching us to protect the privacy of our minds. Here's the official story if you want your activities to continue to meet with the encouragement of the appropriate authorities, take it or leave it. The nice X-Men were on hand for a biological weapons accident in the subway tunnel. Many lives were saved, and many were lost. Four of which were fine, fine mutants. Boo fucking hoo, we love you. Now step aside. We have samples to gather and one hell of a mess to clean up."
For thirty long seconds, Scott refused to move. Allowing S.H.I.E.L.D take samples of Weapon XII didn't sound like the best idea, but Scott knew there would be no stopping them. There were too many people involved, and too few of them to pull it off without bringing the whole shady organization down on the Institute. As much as it galled him, Scott knew that if S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted them out of the picture, they wouldn't stand a chance.
Logan stepped around the train, leaned one shoulder against it and lit a cigar. "Just so you know, Weapon XIII has left the building," he grunted as he snapped the lid shut on his zippo.
Beep... beep... beep...
The sharp bite of antiseptic stung Zen's nose. That and the sound of the heart monitor gave him a sense of place. Pain flared in his shoulder, but he didn't move. Instinct kept him in place even as he felt thread pulling torn flesh back together.
Some of the tension slid away when he realized that the pain was a distant thing, muted. Certain now of where he was, he opened his eyes to the familiar ceiling in the medical ward of Xavier's Institute.
Beast hovered over him, a pristine white mask covering the lower half of his face, with a plastic eye shield above it. Large, furred hands were encased in gloves, and they handled the needle and thread with surprising dexterity. Zen reached up and placed a hand over Beast's larger ones. The big mutant startled, but it was a sign of his professionalism that his hands didn't jolt.
"Zen," he breathed, surprise flashing in his golden eyes. "You should still be unconscious. I can get some more-"
"I've told you before that such measures aren't necessary. The stitches will get in the way of the healing," Zen's empty voice sent chills down Beast's spine, and he felt the fur rising along the back of his neck at the emotionless tone.
Instead of reacting, he cleared his throat, grabbed a pair of scissors, and snipped the thread. "Yes, so you've said. However, the dog bite was quite severe. I wasn't certain the edges would heal cleanly together while you were unconscious, so I thought it best to guide the healing. I also cleaned out the human bites. I'm not sure how well your body handles infection, and the human mouth is a cesspool of bacteria."
Sitting up, Zen began gently prodding at the torn flesh of his shoulder. Instead of lines of stitches, Zen saw that the doctor had only added a few stitches here and there. Enough to keep the torn flesh aligned while it healed.
Remembering the lessons drilled into him by Kitty and the Professor, Zen slipped his human mask back on and offered the blue furred mutant a fake smile. "Thank you."
Another shudder raced down Hank's spine, and he could feel himself puffing up like a cat as all his fur stood at attention. His patient made no comment on his fluffed-up state, thankfully. Watching the humanity—the totally fake humanity—slide back onto Zen's face had been like a bucket of ice water poured over his head. He'd just watched Weapon IX slide on the mask of Zen, and he couldn't help wondering just how much of it was a mask.
Most, if what he saw was true. It was too easy to forget exactly what Zen was, and what he could become again. I hope you're able to keep control of that which you've tamed Charles, he couldn't help thinking. Out loud he said, "You're welcome." Then he watched with unmitigated interest as Zen's eyes lost focus, turning inward to deal with the damage.
Like watching time-lapse photography, Hank observed the healing process in fast forward. He gave a small snort when the stitches he placed popped with tiny flicks of power, burning away under the force of Zen's concentration. His mutation always fascinated the scientist and made him want to run a barrage of tests, not that Zen would be willing to do it. Still, if he asked, the obedient subject would allow... No! He thought, refusing to give in to the temptation. As much as he longed to know, he understood that it would be wrong to force the once test subject back into that position.
He gave a gusty sight as the rest of the bites and bruises faded back into smooth perfection. Sometimes it was so hard to be one of the good guys.
Zen's eyes snapped back into focus and he moved to jump down off the table. "Hold up a second, I just want to check you over and make sure you're all healed."
"Most likely. But I want to verify that for myself if you don't mind."
For a long second Zen stood silently. Hank could almost see the words burning on the other mutant's tongue, wanting to tell him that he did mind and to bugger off. But he didn't. Obedience won out, and he nodded his consent.
The grin full of sharp teeth was nicely hidden behind the face mask as Hank gently pushed and prodded Zen back onto the examination table. His first target was the previously mutilated shoulder. He carefully guided Zen's arm through a range of motions. "Just tell me if anything I do causes you pain."
"I mean it, Zen. If you feel the smallest twinge, let me know. Don't hide it just because you're accustomed to hurting. Do you understand? Your powers are quite impressive, but it wouldn't do for something to heal incorrectly."
The smallest of sighs escaped Zen as he nodded his consent yet again. They both knew Hank wouldn't find anything, but that wouldn't keep the doctor from his prodding.
Claw tipped fingers began gently pressing at Zen's collar bone. "Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. Your clavicle was broken clean in half not five minutes ago. Now the hematoma is gone, and I can't even feel a bit of callus. It's like the break never happened."
Zen said nothing and ignored the echoes of the Doctor's voice in his head saying similar things followed by the agony of a freshly broken bone so he could observe the process again.
It took a full twenty minutes for Hank to finish his examination and deem him healthy. "Thank you," Zen repeated, the words sounding stiff in the sterile air of the medical lab. "May I go?"
Hank pulled the mask and gloves off, folding one inside the other before tossing the ball of latex into the trash. His golden eyes looked at Zen's still form for a long minute before he sighed. Running blunt claws through the fur along his face he nodded. As Zen turned to leave, Hank said, "I will never do anything to deliberately harm you. My practice is in healing, not in tearing people apart."
Zen half turned, pinning the doctor with one hauntingly empty emerald eye. "And if tearing me apart would give you the ability to heal others as I heal?"
To his shame, Hank hesitated.
The corner of Zen's lips quirked up in a sardonic smirk. "We are all expendable, Dr. McCoy. As a doctor, you know that more than most."
Not waiting for the man to come up with a counterargument, Zen pushed the door open and stepped out into the cold metallic hallway, one of countless corridors that riddled the ground beneath Xavier's Institute.
His mind reached out to Xavier, needing to confirm the health and wellbeing of his Wielder, but he was halted before he could make contact. All the muscles in his body froze as his thoughts crashed into a crystal wall and rebounded. He tried to move but couldn't. Muscle and bone that had flowed so smoothly in time with his thoughts now felt like stone around him, a cage keeping him in place. Even breathing became a labor, each lung full a hard-fought battle against his unresponsive flesh.
He was able to drag in enough air to keep from passing out, but no more. The sharp click of high heels preceded her. Dressed all in white, her pants were skintight, leaving nothing to the imagination. Her top was little more than an ornate bra, over it all was a pristine white cloak that would have made Storm envious. The clicking heels were part of knee length boots that ended in five-inch stiletto heels; the sort that could, with a proper kick, pierce a man's heart.
Eyes the color of an avalanche in motion met his, and he barely noticed her full lips forming into a savage smile. With a flick of her chin, she tossed her blonde hair back over her shoulder.
The outfit dripping sexuality, the predatory gaze, the power holding him frozen, none of it mattered. Over her now perfect form, another image imposed itself. A woman, dressed in a glaring orange prisoner outfit, pale from months spent locked away from the sun and terror at the sight of her sister bound to a chair. He remembered her hair lank, tangled and oily. The makeup accenting her ice-queen beauty had been stripped away, revealing a frightened young woman whom he'd been ordered to terminate.
He could still see the way her bottom lip trembled as he held the vial of poison for her to drink, his fingers stained with her sister's blood. The sound of her sister's screams echoed between them now, in this impossible moment.
And the part of him that was a weapon still burned with the need to finish the mission, even though his current Wielder made it clear all prior missions were no longer consequential.
"You're... dead." The words each came on an individual huff of air, soft puffs of accusation. "I... killed... you..."
Wrong again, darling. He felt her crawl into his head and gritted his teeth. The metal hooks of his own thoughts tried to snare her, to drag her down into the hell of his past and break her as he'd once broken a telepath in the cages. Instead of sinking into the tender meat of her thoughts, the barbs bounced off. Unlike every other telepath he'd encountered, including Xavier, her thoughts were armored, as diamond hard as he knew her other form to be.
Secondary mutation, not in the file. How are you still alive? Zen didn't bother wasting what little air he had with words. Instead he flung the thoughts at her.
A harsh laugh filled his mind, so loud he would have clapped his hands over his ears if he'd been in control of himself, for all the good such a futile action would do. The taste of blood, like a bad penny on his tongue, filled his mouth where his teeth bit into his cheek.
Strutting forward, certain now that his teeth had been pulled, Emma circled her frozen prey. "You always were the clever one, weren't you IX? They never figured out, or bothered to look, for a secondary mutation. They're so rare after all." She reached up and grabbed his chin, fingers digging into the flesh hard enough for fresh bruises to bloom like poisoned poppies on his pale skin. "It would take a telepath as strong as Xavier to keep you in your place."
The implication was staggering. Telepaths were rare enough, but Omega-level telepaths… had Weapon Plus known, they'd have never let her go. They would have taken her and twisted her into something wicked. Something of unspeakable power.
Bending forward, she paused a hair's breadth away from kissing as she locked eyes with him. Their breath mingled in the small space, as her fingers dug deeper still, nails piercing the skin to draw sharp lines of blood. "I should kill you for what you've done. It would take less than a second for me to shatter your mind into so many pieces not even the good Professor would be able to put you back together again."
Emma dropped her hand, wiping the blood onto his shirt before she stepped back, once more the emotionless ice queen. "But that's not the game we're playing. And believe me, IX, this is a game. The X-Men don't see it, but you do, and so do I. You're a monster, plain and simple. But in the game of gods and genocide, even monsters have their place."
With that, she turned, cloak flaring out behind her like a gust of wind driven snow and stalked back up the corridor, headed towards the elevator that would take her up into the school.
You will keep this conversation, and our past dealings, to yourself. The words burned into his thoughts, and he could feel a spike of power sink into his mind, pinning his past with her under a glass wall. One he doubted Xavier would notice.
As fast as it came, the paralysis vanished. With a gasp, he sagged against the wall, struggling to remain upright as his muscles spasmed and began cramping in delayed reaction. It took a full minute for the jerks and twitches to ease. Zen closed his eyes and with a flick of power, he healed the new bruising. Something cold settled in his stomach, as if he'd swallowed an icicle. He tried to ignore the sensation but couldn't put it fully out of his mind. His fingertips itched for a short knife to sink into Subject 129's heart, except he knew her primary (secondary?) mutation would save her from such an easy death.
Gritting his teeth, he pushed away from the wall and went to speak with his Wielder about the serpent crawling around the mansion.
"Come in," Xavier replied to the knock on his office door. Emma entered, pausing at the threshold to give the rich surroundings an appreciative look before her focus narrowed on the bald man seated behind an expansive mahogany desk. He didn't stand to greet her but did offer a warm smile of welcome and held his hand out across the desk to her. "Forgive the lateness of the hour, but I wanted to meet with you at least briefly before Scott got you settled in one of the guest rooms."
A cool professional smile curved Emma's lips and provided a stark contrast to her outrageous outfit. Her grip as she shook his hand matched the smile; strong, palm to palm and enough strength to prove that she was no wilting flower to be coddled. Yet not so hard as to challenge his masculinity. Charles gave a faint smile, realizing that this woman had been trained from an early age how to move in the upper circles of society.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, my name is Emma Frost," she said before taking a seat in one of the high-backed student chairs situated in front of his desk. As she sat, her back arched the slightest bit giving her the air of a dignitary. The pristine white cloak framed her sharp beauty as it draped around her, providing the perfect backdrop for her alabaster skin. Like a statue carved of ice, the only colors accenting the picture where her ghost-pale eyes, a shade similar in color to the heart of a glacier, and the frost-blue lipstick. Her nails glittered with a silver sheen.
A delicate pink, the shade of magnolia petals, dusted Xavier's cheeks as he took in the sight of her framed in like that in his office. To fend off his embarrassment, he cleared his throat and waved a hand at the tray of tea laid out on his desk. "Please, help yourself."
She prepared a cup, not bothering to add cream or sugar before she settled back and took a slow inhale. A true smile brushed her lips as she sampled the aroma of a properly made pot of tea. "Well at least you're the civilized sort."
That drew a soft chuckle from him while he set about preparing his own cup. Before he realized what he was doing, his mind reached for hers and was in the act of recoiling when he froze. The mental scarring that marred every mind he'd encountered since the incident wasn't present in her. Wonder and a near voracious curiosity burned Xavier, but he kept his touch feather light not wanting to harm her.
While he'd dealt with several telepaths in his time as headmaster at the school, her mind was unlike anything he'd encountered before, not in the least because this woman was fully trained and realized. In a way, it reminded him of a mirror house in an old carnival. While he could sense her thoughts, he couldn't quite read them. The more he looked, the more he could feel his own expectations reflected back at him. Her mind was so fascinating, not in the least because he didn't feel the unpleasant grip of fear that touching another usually brought after his escape from Stryker's base.
Xavier could tell instinctively that this was a passive defense, one that could turn active if provoked. What form would it take? He didn't know and wasn't willing to poke too hard and find out. With the gentleness of a feather brushing over naked skin, he slipped out of her thoughts and back into the room.
Another blush, this one a little darker filled his face when Emma's eyes narrowed, and she gave him a hard-edged smile. " Quite finished?" she asked, calling him out on his snooping.
"My apologies, Miss Frost. Your mind is unique, and I'm afraid my curiosity got the better of me."
She gave a regal nod, accepting his excuse with good grace. "All is forgiven. I wanted to thank you for sending the X-Men when you did. I'm not sure how much longer I could have stayed safe on the train. I had enough strength to keep them away from me, but I couldn't save the others."
There was real grief there, pity for the countless lives lost, and he realized that she must have felt them die, unable to block out such a powerful psychic presence. It made his heart feel like a heavy lump of coal in his chest. Life as a mutant had never been easy, but after the Wave it had gotten exponentially worse. By his own power, he'd managed to make the lives of mutants harder than they'd ever been.
"From what Scott told me, you played a crucial part in the final moments of the battle. I have you to thank for getting Scott and Zen out safely."
Once more his mind tried to reach out to hers, not consciously, but out of reflex. Not only did he want to know why she'd been on the train, he felt the overwhelming urge to touch a pure mind again. To feel a mind untainted by what he'd been forced to do. He also desperately wanted to know how. How had she managed to escape the Wave not only unscathed but entirely untouched? Why hadn't his mind connected to hers? He'd touched every mind on the planet, held the whole world in the palm of hand before nearly crushing them.
Yet Emma's mind remained as pure as fallen snow, untouched and unscarred.
Why? How? The need to know overwhelmed good sense. This time it felt like running face first into a glass door he'd thought was open. He jerked back, his body physically reacting to the mental jarring. A gasp of pain escaped him from the hot tea slopping over the rim of his cup and spilling over his hand. Blinking in surprise he carefully blotted at the spill using one of his monogrammed handkerchiefs.
Emma took a dainty sip of tea while watching him fumble. "I gave you a free peek as a courtesy since I am a guest in your home, Mr. Xavier, but I do not appreciate men traipsing about through my thoughts at random."
Xavier silently cursed his fair-skinned ancestors for him his complexion when he felt another blush spill over his cheeks. He couldn't recall the last time a woman had gotten him so flustered and he made sure to keep his eyes locked on her face, refusing to allow them to stray any lower than that. The mild slight hidden beneath her use of 'Mister' felt well-deserved.
"You must forgive me. I'm afraid I've grown too accustomed to non-telepaths." It was the closest he would come to admitting how much he gleaned from the unprotected minds of those around him. Even the other telepaths he dealt with, the students he taught, hardly ever felt his mental touch unless he wanted them to. For years, Jean's power had been mostly blocked, and the little that remained wasn't enough to detect him. Even in the end, when her powers began growing out of control, they were too uncontrolled to sense his presence. The telepathic students were just that, students. He knew their minds better than they knew themselves since he was the one teaching them how to control their powers.
Once more in control of himself, Xavier gave a tired sigh. "This meeting got off entirely on the wrong foot. Let's begin again. Good evening, my name is Charles Xavier, you may call me Charles, or Professor Xavier if you aren't comfortable using my first name. Welcome to Xavier's Institute for Gifted Youngsters."
Emma set the cup down and inclined her head. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Charles. My name is Emma Frost." Then her lips quirked again into a half smile, "though it is closer to dawn than evening," she said, lightly prodding him over the lateness of the hour. "If you don't mind my asking, why did you wish to meet with me?"
Xavier straightened and took a small stack of papers off his desk. The papers made a soft tapping sound while he made sure they were perfectly aligned. "After I heard of the assistance you provided the team and the nature of your mutation, I took the liberty of doing a quick search on you. I found out that you'd spent some time as a teacher." A self-deprecating smile brushed his lips. "It seems we may be in need of a telepathic teacher to help out with our telepathic students."
Interest sparked in the depths of her clear blue eyes. "Yes," she agreed, "I taught high school English before..." The words trailed off, and Xavier saw a flash of pain cross her pristine face. This time he didn't ask. There was no point in forcing her to relive bad memories. Few schools were willing to allow mutants to teach their children. Even the mere rumor of being one was enough to get a good teacher blacklisted. Pain flared in his heart and he wondered if the Wave caused her to be outed. Another victim of his power being turned against the world.
"We do boast a number of telepathic students at the school. I've been their primary instructor when it comes to the use of their powers," here he hesitated, not wanting to get sidetracked by needless details. "I find myself in a position where I would be ineffective in that role for the foreseeable future." Before she could ask uncomfortable questions, Xavier continued, "we are also a school in the classical sense. Our students are taught all the core classes, plus electives. They will earn enough credits to get into any college they aim for."
Elevator pitch given, Xavier handed over the stack of paperwork. Emma scrutinized the top sheet and then looked back up at Xavier when she realized it was a teaching contract. At Xavier's encouraging nod, she began to read. Her keen eyes hunted for any loopholes in the contract that would leave her vulnerable. At least growing up at my father's knee was worth something, she mused, easily pulling apart the legalese.
"The sum you're offering is... generous."
Xavier nodded solemnly. "Yes. We believe that teaching is one of the most vital professions a person can pursue and pay accordingly." He studied her face as she read. "On top of that, our student body is made up entirely of mutants. As such, they can be a challenge at times."
"Most of our professors also serve in a secondary role," he admitted, eyes never leaving her, yet he didn't try touching her mind again. It was odd, Xavier mused, trying to gauge a person's intent with only their facial expressions, spoken words, body language, and tone of voice to go from. Without the ability to dip into her surface thoughts, it felt like his vision had been stripped of color. Not quite crippling, but it made a noticeable difference.
"As members of the X-Men," she stated dryly.
"Yes," Xavier said with a nod of agreement. "That is not, however, a requirement for the position. If you're interested, you'd be able to train and work with the team to keep the world safer for both humans and mutants."
That made her glance up in surprise. "Humans?"
"Yes," he said again, this time locking eyes with her. "Unlike Magneto and his group, I don't believe it has to be either/or. Humans and mutants are two branches of the same tree. I know we can find a way to stand together without destroying each other."
A look crossed her face that felt too old for her youthful appearance. Sorrow like bitter tea touched her features, marring their perfection and showing clearly what she thought of his idealism.
"I know it's not for everyone. But if you join the X-Men, know that I expect you to do what you can to save anyone in need of our help, no matter what their chromosomal makeup," Xavier finished.
Emma gave a dismissive wave of her hand, a gesture that conveyed both her sardonic amusement and her agreement before she went back to scrutinizing the contract.
"As you can see, room and board are covered in the contract. There's a wing dedicated to staff, so you won't have to worry about students getting under foot." He gave an almost boyish grin, eyes sparkling with the knowledge of what sort of pranks the students would get up to if they all shared the same living space. " We serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner here at the school. As a teacher, you'll be added to the mealtime rotation to keep the students in line. You are not required to take all your meals with the students outside the rotation."
Emma listened with half an ear while Xavier rambled. Finally, she looked up from the last page of the contract.
A look of thinly veiled relief crossed Xavier's face as he held out a Bentley fountain pen, its metallic barrel a cheerful sky blue that perfectly matched his eyes. Before she could take it from his hand, Xavier pulled it back with a frown. "Before you make your choice, I feel you should have all the information to make an informed decision." He took a slow breath and let it out. "As I'm sure you know, being a mutant alone in the world can be a dangerous thing. There are a number of students who've had... difficult pasts. There were two members of the school in particular I feel you should know about before you make your decision."
Settling back in the chair, Emma listened to Xavier explain how he'd managed to accidentally acquire a pair of mutant Weapons.
Zen stood at rigid attention outside the door, waiting for it to open. Every instinct he possessed demanded he go in there and protect his Wielder. But when he'd reached the door Xavier's mental voice rooted him to the spot. I am in a meeting, please wait outside until it's finished. It wasn't a direct order, but with the soft hand of his new master it equaled the same thing.
He'd tried to protest, to warn Xavier of the danger, but the thoughts wouldn't form, trapped beneath the cursed glass along with his memories of the woman's demise. She wasn't even going to let him tip his Wielder off to the danger.
After what felt like a slow eternity, the door opened, and he was face to face with Emma yet again.
Burn her. The thought tested his control, and he saw it reflected on her face as she gave an ugly smile and held up the signed documents. Zen froze, realizing too late what it was.
"Before you try anything regrettable, allow me to introduce myself: Professor Frost."
Zen could feel the noose tighten around his throat as orders contradicted instinct. As she said before, this was all a game, and he knew she would bring danger down on their heads. Yet his orders stood. Ironclad orders he could not break.
He was forbidden from attacking any of the teachers, for any reason. One of the final legacies of Jean Grey. It seemed she would haunt him even beyond the grave. Gritting his teeth against the odd burn that hissed along the length of his nervous system, akin to the feeling he got when X bit deep, but different. A different flavor of fire, and one he could not quench with masturbation or sex. It burned like a coal in the back of his mind, and he knew there would be no relief because he would not be permitted to kill her.
Without a word, he turned and stalked away, deliberately showing his back to her. They both knew the act for what it was, an empty gesture since she'd already proven her claws were sharper and more deadly than his.
To drive the blade just a little deeper, Emma gave a small wave. "Ta-ta, darling. See you at breakfast."
Scott clenched his hands around the wrought iron railing of the balcony so tightly that pain radiated up his forearms. The sensation was a distant thing, hardly noticed as he stared out into the endless darkness. Images twisted through his thoughts; not the normal tormenting thoughts of Jean, but of his absolute failure tonight.
The icy scrape of the wind against the exposed skin of his face reminded him he should go in. Should take a shower, get cleaned up, and try to get a couple hours of sleep. Why stand out here in the cold tormenting himself over things he couldn't change?
Yet he remained where he was. Hands locked around the metal, almost relishing the dig of pain in his palms as he gripped the railing even tighter. Perhaps the purely physical sensation would be enough to ground his churning emotions.
He felt the phantom blows of the humans, so hard they broke bone and he felt the drunk elation of the fight even when he lost. Lost control, gave it up and flung himself out into the world almost hoping—
Scott tried to turn away from the thought, the black twisted seed trying to take root in his heart. Shaking his head, he looked towards the horizon, suddenly hungry for even the smallest lightening of the darkness. Nothing, here in the hour before dawn, the dream of sunlight felt impossible; a gift that would never come.
"I thought I might find you here." The softly accented voice nearly made Scott jump out of his skin and had the odd effect of jarring him from his torpor in a way the cold metal and windswept night failed to.
Curiosity mingled with confusion when Emma stepped out onto the small side balcony with him. Her white outfit and exposed skin almost glowed against the backdrop of the painfully dark night, like a fallen star. "Why, uh, how? You were looking for me?" he finally managed to spit out, stumbling over the words, still trying to make sense of the situation. How had she known where to find him?
Instead of answering his fumbled questions, Emma stepped up to the railing and rested her hands lightly against the cold black metal. She tilted her head back and stared up at the star-studded sky. "They never look this bright in the city," she mused.
Scott wanted to demand answers but found himself turning his own face up to the heavens and wished the stars didn't look like blood-dipped diamonds. How he longed to see them one more time in their perfect, icy beauty, and not through the crimson filter of his lenses.
"I felt you, you know?" Her voice drew him back into the moment, reminding him he wasn't alone. Then the meaning caught up with him and a low chuckle escaped him before he could stop it. After all, he didn't need to even ask what she meant. Not with Xavier as a mentor. Not with Jean—
Another spike of pain throbbed in his chest. "Sorry about that."
"It's quite all right. Part of the hazards of being a telepath I suppose." Even though he wasn't looking at her, Scott could taste the smile in her words. He thought that now she would push at him, demand he open up and explain why his thoughts throbbed like a rotten tooth, so intense they'd drawn her to him from wherever she'd been.
But she didn't. Instead she stood side by side with him, her eyes tracing the darkness of the distant horizon. Wind still laced with winter ice teased her hair, sending it dancing in phantom pale strands around her face. Yet she didn't suggest they go in, even though her exposed skin must have been freezing. He didn't suggest it either.
Instead, the pair stood silently and watched the sun rise.