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Volume 7 -- Issue 154 -- Reaching Out

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Reaching Out
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The world has become a dangerous place for humans and mutants. Professor Charles Xavier formed his mutant team, the X-men, to confront that danger. With every struggle they overcome, a greater obstacle emerges. It got to a point where the X-men are no longer enough.

So in a controversial move, Professor Xavier formed the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. This bold program partnered the X-men with the Mutant Security Agency. With their support, the X-men are better equipped than ever and they need to be. Now, a dangerous new threat has emerged in the form of a powerful new drug.

In the lab, it is known as Mutant Growth Hormone. On the streets, it is known as Kick. This drug, when used, enhances the abilities of any mutant. The potential of this drug was fully demonstrated when a mutant named Beak got his hands on it. The drug turned him into a menacing threat which took the collective efforts of X-Factor, Iceman, Shadowcat, Colossus, and X-23 to resolve. In this hard-fought victory, another startling revelation was uncovered. The Brotherhood is after this drug as well.

The potential for danger posed by Kick is vast. Despite having had shaky performances from the X-men lately, Professor Xavier must focus his attention on confronting this threat. There are already significant tensions between the authorities and the mutant community. Not everyone is happy with the Mutant Monitoring Initiative and a drug like Kick could make things much worse.

Pentagon – Secure Meeting Room

It was amazing how large problems came in such small packages. Bigger problems, like the incident in Scranton, almost seemed easier by comparison. Issues like an exploding mutant were finite in scale and easier to confront. Something like Kick, which could literally fit into anyone’s pocket, was much more difficult.

That was the daunting challenge before Charles Xavier, General Grimshaw, President Kelly, and every other level of government. A single vial of the reddish substance stood in the center of the conference table. Professor Xavier had been fixated on it since Hank gave him his full analysis. It did everything it was rumored to do. That was why President Kelly conferred a meeting with the top officials at the MSA, the DEA, and Homeland Security.

He also set up a series of teleconference links countries from South America, the European Union, The African Union, and the Pacific Rim could participate. The President himself was out of the country, but his anxious face dominated the main projection screen. He echoed the many concerns that other countries shared.

“So if I’m interpreting these reports correctly, this Mutant Growth Hormone is basically a horror show in a bottle. It takes mutants that are dangerous to begin with and makes them even more dangerous by enhancing their powers,” President Kelly summarized through the main video link.

“And potentially giving them new powers in the process,” said an official from the DEA.

“Right, can’t forget about THAT,” said the Commander-in-Chief dryly, “It’s just starting to hit the streets. Word is starting to leak out over the internet after the incident in Boston. And somewhere in between, the Brotherhood is interested.”

“Who remain unaccounted for and untracked despite our best efforts,” said a top defense official from Russia through another video link.

“Who’s to say they aren’t the ones behind it?” said an official from Mexico.

“If they have the means to evade our collective detection, then surely they have the means to concoct such an obscene drug,” said a military official from China.

“But for what purpose? Simply frustrating our collective efforts with the Mutant Monitoring Initiative seems rather…unambitious,” said an MSA affiliate from Egypt.

“I thought that was the point of this impromptu meeting,” a science advisor from India pointed out, “My country signed on for the Mutant Monitoring Initiative with the understanding that Charles Xavier and the MSA would address such threats. I would much appreciate it if that stipulation was honored.”

That frustration was shared by many. All eyes turned towards Xavier, whether it be the officials present at the conference table or the officials looking in through a video link. They didn’t just want answers. They wanted action.

Professor Xavier tried to maintain his calm despite this harsh scrutiny. These people expected a lot from him and his X-men. The threat was so new and difficult to quantify. There wasn’t much he could say to stem their fears. He looked over towards General Grimshaw, who gave him an understanding nod. It was his way of telling him to say what needed to be said.

“The report you’ve all seen is merely the beginning,” said Professor Xavier, “I’m not a miracle worker and neither are my X-men. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what Mutant Growth Hormone can do. We’re a long way away from assessing every danger.”

“We can still reasonably conclude that this will be a problem. If just one mutant armed with Kick can put Boston on high alert, I hate to think what an army of angry mutants is capable of,” said President Kelly warily.

“Not forgetting that there are plenty of mutants that are at odds with the initiative,” said a defense minister from Germany, “We’ve seen an uptick in mutants actively opposing our efforts in my country.”

“Let’s not start connecting the dots before we’ve seen the big picture,” said General Grimshaw, “We’re all adjusting to these new procedures. We’ll only make them worse if we overreact to this Kick phenomenon.”

“The General is correct. Mutants will only be inclined to use Kick if we give them sufficient reason,” Professor Xavier went on, “If anything, this should motivate us to adopt more reasonable procedures. If you’ll recall, Barnell Bohusk grew frustrated because his parents took advantage of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. They claimed this boy was a threat when he really wasn’t, but that was all the European wing of the MSA needed to hear to send him to the Academy of Tomorrow.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that case,” said an MSA officer from Denmark, “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

“I don’t doubt that, but it doesn’t change the outcome. We’re making it too easy for mutants to lose control over their lives. Despite their mutant powers, they feel powerless and Mr. Bohusk saw Kick as a means to change that.”

“That’s all well and good, Xavier, but refining our procedures is a laborious process. We can’t expect anxious mutants to be patient with us,” said President Kelly.

“I’m not saying we should. I believe Kick is a symptom rather than a full-blown disease. We can’t focus on one over the other. We’ll only evoke more fear if we act aggressively against this drug.”

“It might be justified in this instance,” said the head of Homeland Security, “This is one drug we need to stop before it becomes the next crack cocaine.”

“Your country can’t even keep smugglers from importing several tons of cocaine at a time. Do you really expect to prevent a drug like this from spreading?” said a diplomat from Columbia.

“I suppose you would know,” said the head of DEA dryly.

“Gentlemen please! Let’s not start that debate again,” urged General Grimshaw, “We need to focus on Mutant Growth Hormone. And if you’re willing to listen, we may be in a better position than you think.”

Emotions were escalating. Recent incidents like Scranton and Boston had shaken their confidence in the MSA and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. They needed something to reaffirm that they were doing the right thing.

Taking a deep breath, Professor Xavier gathered every last bit of confidence and stood up. He then retrieved the small vial of Kick and held it up. Whereas many saw this as a crisis in the making, he saw it as an opportunity.

It was the kind of threat where the X-men and the authorities could demonstrate their collective strength. On their own, they would have a very difficult time dealing with this. Together, they could stop a crisis before it began.

“I may be asking a lot, but for a moment I want everyone looking at this substance to set aside their inherent fears,” said the Professor, “Allow me to list the finer details of Hank McCoy’s report. The market for a drug like Kick is extremely limited. Only mutants may use it. If an ordinary human were to inject this drug, the amphetamines alone would trigger heart palpitations. In addition, the mutant proteins would cause near fatal damage. Hank likens it to going through every stage of terminal cancer within a few minutes.”

“And if the market is limited, that means it isn’t as profitable as your basic street junk,” added General Grimshaw, “Profit drives all black markets. Given the population of mutants and the percentage of those foolish enough to use it, the incentives just aren’t there.”

“Which leads me to another important detail,” Xavier went on, “Mutant Growth Hormone is very difficult to make. Hank and I estimated that this one dose I hold would cost over half-a-million dollars to synthesize. The components are rare and the technology required is unavailable even to the most resourceful drug cartel.”

“All the more reason to suspect the Brotherhood,” surmised a high-ranking Colonel from the MSA, “They still have Genoshan hardware at their disposal and all recent intelligence reports indicate they’ve become more active lately.”

“You’re reasoning is sound, Colonel. But correlation does not equal causation,” said the Professor, “I don’t believe the Brotherhood is responsible for MGH. According to Barnell Bohusk’s statement, they were actively seeking samples of their own. They may be interested in making it, but lack the know-how.”

“Are we supposed to interpret that as good news?” said an official from the French Defense Ministry in a cynical tone.

“I would argue it’s quite revealing. It means that this exotic substance is a fairly new phenomenon. It hasn’t been fully refined yet. Mr. Bohusk said the first dose made him very ill. It took two doses for the effect to take hold. This would indicate that whoever is behind MGH is also ill-equipped to do much with it. So there’s still time for us to act!”

“I want to be encouraged by that, Xavier. But how are we supposed to confront this threat when we don’t know who’s behind it?” asked an official from Israel.

“If not the Brotherhood, then who?” asked President Kelly intently.

“We don’t know that yet, but we have a few suspects,” said Professor Xavier, “My X-men are investigating this as we speak. We’re not stumbling around in the dark on this issue. We have a good idea of what we’re looking for and we’ll need cooperation from every country participating in the Mutant Monitoring Initiative to make this work.”

“Given recent events, that may be asking a bit much, Xavier,” said a UN official from South Africa.

“Recent shortcomings should not dissuade long-term promise,” he retorted, “I sense you all want assurance that this initiative can work. I only ask that you give me a chance to prove it. This threat is too great. We cannot allow in-fighting and mistrust to dampen our ability to combat it!”

He sounded confident, if not a little arrogant. It didn’t sit well with officials from some countries. It didn’t even sit well with officials that physically present. Professor Xavier was just as unnerved about this threat as they were.

Moreover, he seemed intent on using this threat to make up for the recent shortcomings of his X-men. Part of the reason they agreed to this initiative was because mutant threats were difficult to confront on their own. This was one threat where even countries with large armies would have difficulty stopping. Charles Xavier was their best hope whether they liked it or not.

Professor Xavier stood silently as he watched some nearby officials chatter amongst themselves. He saw on the numerous computer screens how various officials were contemplating their next move. President Kelly didn’t need much consultation. He continued staring down the Professor through his computer monitor.

The Professor saw plenty of reservations. He also saw a burning desire to make this initiative work. General Grimshaw was one of them and shot Xavier a hardened gaze. It was his way of conferring a sense of urgency. They had all staked so much on it. Now more than ever, they needed it to bear fruit.

“We’ll have to discuss this further, but for now you should work under the assumption that you have our support. We all have one too many reasons for wanting MGH eradicated,” said President Kelly.

“Thank you for your confidence, Mr. President. I assure you, my X-men will deliver,” said Professor Xavier.

“It’s not confidence. It’s a lack of options. We have no other means of dealing with this threat at the moment. Don’t assume that it’ll stay that way. Every country, including this one, will continue to seek alternatives. It would be in all our best interest if that weren’t necessary.”

“I understand. I’ll be sure to provide regular updates as details emerge. My X-men are in the field as we speak.”

“Well for all our sake, they better get their act together. I’m sick of everyone making excuses. Be it personal or logistical, we need to keep moving forward.”

Boston – Outside Fenway Park

The aftermath of the incident with Beak was not the worst the X-men had ever dealt with. It wasn’t even top ten. Much of the destruction had been constrained to Fenway Park and the damage was purely superficial.

Within two days, the field was fixed and just in time for a scheduled Red Sox/Yankees game no less. That helped keep the public reaction to a minimum. There were plenty of concerns about mutants trying to escape from the Academy of Tomorrow and rumors of drugs that could enhance their powers. Those concerns weren’t enough to prevent eager baseball fans from crowding Fenway Park.

Within this crowd, Jean and Rogue were tasked with investigating the scene. They were among the first to arrive in Boston with the MSA when Piotr reported the incident. They would be the last to leave since nobody had been able to track down whoever Beak obtained his stash of Kick from.

MSA officers and local police hit a dead end. Instead, they focused on getting Fenway ready for the game and providing additional security. Professor Xavier trusted Jean and Rogue to uncover something that the MSA had missed. For Jean, such trust may have been misplaced.

‘I feel completely overmatched and for once, it’s NOT because someone is trying to kill me. I must really be slipping. I still can’t focus my mind like I used to. All I pick up on are complaints about how expensive hot dogs are and angry Yankee slurs. Yet I’m supposed to uncover the source of this mutant-enhancing drug? It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so pathetic.’

Jean rubbed her temples and groaned as she followed Rogue around the concession stands near the front gate. Her troubled demeanor didn’t go unnoticed. For once, Rogue was the one who stayed focused.

“You finished lookin’ like someone ran over your foot yet? We need to pick up on some fresh leads and Ah ain’t the one with telepathy,” said Rogue.

“I’m trying, Rogue! There are a lot of thoughts to sift through. Most of them deal with how many games the Red Sox need to win to make the playoffs,” grumbled Jean.

“In that case, shouldn’t a fella dealing mutant enhancing drugs stand out?” she retorted.

“That’s assuming he’s still in the area. He could have fled the city for all we know.”

“That ain’t what Beak told us,” Rogue reminded her, “You were there when Xavier poked around in his mind. The guy he got his stash from had another customer in Boston. That’s plenty of reason to stick around if you ask meh.”

“And you think this guy is a Red Sox fan?” said Jean dryly.

“Ah think he’s the kind of guy or gal that would be worried about loose ends. The General told the media we were still nosin’ around the scene. Even if it’s a bluff, it might draw out our sneaky drug dealer.”

“If he’s smart enough to get a hold of this stuff, then he’s smart enough to avoid detection,” said Jean, who had to stop walking for a moment.

“Is it really that hard on you, Jean? Or are you just making excuses?” Rogue questioned.

There was a certain apprehension to her tone. Rogue didn’t even walk back to offer Jean support as she rubbed her sore head. She was not as inclined to help her friend this time. Not when she had an attitude like this.

Jean looked back at her with an almost shameful glance. She didn’t even try to deny Rogue’s accusations. For someone who once confronted a cosmic entity, Jean Grey had become laughably inept. Rogue didn’t need her absorption powers to figure out why.

“Come on, sugah. At least try to convince meh that you ain’t slipping,” she said dryly, “You used to be the last one to pack it in when the goin’ got tough.”

“I’m not packing it in, Rogue,” said Jean, trying to thrust some strength into her tone, “I’m just…”

“Restless? Whiney? Unfocused? Irritable? Or just plain weak?” offered Rogue without letting her finish.

“Are you trying to rub it in or be supportive?”

“Ah’m trying to point out what ought to be pretty dang obvious! You’ve been on the same missions as everybody else. That includes the nasty ones like Scranton. By and large, we’ve moved on. We live, we learn, and we try to get stronger. You seem to be going in the opposite direction. Ah refuse to believe that not being with Scott is holding you back that much.”

Jean cringed at the mention of her former lover. Most had been mindful enough to avoid the subject. Now it was becoming too apparent to ignore. Him leaving the X-men had affected her in ways that she never could’ve imagined. A part of her was furious. A larger part was sad. These past few months had been the loneliest of her life, including the time she spent at that insane asylum. It was getting to a point where she needed to confront the harsher truths.

“Ah ain’t trying to make it worse, Jean,” said Rogue in a more empathic tone, “Ah won’t say Ah understand the heartbreak you feel. What you and Scott had…hell, it was deep. Way deeper than Ah can ever put into words.”

“You talk about it in the past tense. As if it isn’t there anymore,” said Jean.

“Ah’m not saying it ain’t. Ah’m not even saying you two don’t love each other no more. Ah’m just reminding you the circumstances.”

“Which suck on so many levels,” she said bitterly.

“But not as many as there could be,” Rogue retorted, “Your life doesn’t have to end just because Scott Summers ain’t part of it. At some point, you gotta move forward. Ah know that’s easy for meh to say because Ah’ve still got mah boyfriend, but keep in mind we had our share of circumstances as well. Hell, Ah left the dang team at one point so they ain’t that different.”

“Were those circumstances ever this bad?” questioned Jean.

“That’s beside the point, sugah. Now Ah ain’t psychic. Ah can’t tell ya if Scott will come to his senses. If and when he does, you shouldn’t tie your hands around your back in the meantime. Get out there! Live your life! You’ll be stronger in the long run.”

Rogue tried to encourage her without coming off as harsh. In this instance, she needed to be harsh on some levels. Jean Grey had never dealt with something like this before. First the Phoenix Force left her. Then Scott left her. It was a double shot of abandonment on top of the ever-present crisis of being X-men. Having dealt with abandonment issues of her own, she was all too aware of the impact it left. She worked through it. There was no reason someone like Jean Grey couldn’t do the same.

Jean resisted the inclination to make more excuses. She swallowed her sorrow and her discomfort to come off as stronger than she really felt. Rogue showed some frustration of her own, having vented more than she expected. With all the commotion surrounding them, they both needed a moment to gather themselves.

“Ah’m gonna go check in with our MSA pals. Maybe do some rounds and catch the opening pitch,” said Rogue in a calmer tone, “Ah’ll meet up with you later. Ah think we both need to decompress.”

“Is busting my chops really that exhausting?” said Jean with a half-grin.

“More than you think,” Rogue conceded as she started walking away.

“Would it help if I thanked you? If you weren’t going to say it, someone else would have.”

“You can thank meh by taking what Ah said to heart. Don’t just listen. Do something with it! While you’re at it, take some time for the mission. A mutant-enhancing drug is a hell of a lot bigger than our personal dramas.”

Her words lingered with Jean as Rogue disappeared into a vast sea of baseball fans. Jean stood silently near a bench, taking deep breaths and collecting her thoughts after what felt like some long overdue scolding.

‘Rogue is right on all counts. Hell, she’s right about all the stuff she didn’t call me out on, but sure as hell wanted to. I can’t keep torturing myself like this. I’m an X-man! I should be able to function without a boyfriend. No matter how much I love Scott, we’re not together at the moment. He’s living his life. I should live mine. I just wish the idea of moving forward didn’t feel so lonely.’

The time for self-loathing was over. There were missions to complete and minds to sift through. Scrapping together whatever confidence she could muster, Jean Grey shook off her discomfort and resumed her investigation.

“No more slipping,” she said to herself as she started walking, “Time to get back to work!”

“Work at a baseball game? I think you’re being too obvious, Miss Grey,” came an unexpected voice.

Jean had taken only a few steps, having passed a nearby concession stand along the way. She had been so distracted that she didn’t realize that someone she knew was standing in line mere feet from where she and Rogue had been arguing. It was Shiro Yoshida from the Academy of Tomorrow and from the looks of it, he heard their entire debate.

“Sunfire? Is that…” Jean began.

“You may call me Shiro, Miss Grey,” he said, silencing her quickly amidst the crowd, “We’re in public and if you’re worried about slipping, then you would be wise to emphasize discretion.”

Now Jean felt like she was slipping again. Just when she vowed to refocus her efforts, she discovered she had overlooked a familiar presence. Shiro Yoshida was a top-level instructor at the Academy of Tomorrow. He also seemed better equipped for an investigation by wearing clothes that ensured he wouldn’t stand out.

He wore a baseball cap and a Red Sox jacket. Holding a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other, he looked like a typical baseball fan. If he was looking for the same individual as her, then he was in a much better position to get results.

“Uh…right,” she said sheepishly, “Mind if I take a moment to gather my pride?”

“Walk with me and I’ll help you find it. In the meantime, you can also help me with my own search,” said Shiro.

“I take it this means we’re after the same vendor, so to speak,” said Jean, being more careful with her words.

“This vendor struck my home, my school, and my students. I would have to be a real ass to simply brush it aside. I had a feeling our friends at the MSA would feel the same. Imagine my surprise when I hear one of their top associates is mired by personal issues.”

“Wait…exactly how long have you been following me and Rogue?” questioned Jean suspiciously.

“I’d rather not say. I’ll simply point out that we have similar goals and I have a lead that may require the aid of a psychic.”

“What kind of lead are we talking about?” she asked with new-found intrigue.

“The kind that may be nothing…or everything,” he replied, “It is also the kind that gives us plenty of time to talk. If you’re interested, you should know I’m more patient than your friend.”

Jean looked at Shiro with a raised eyebrow. He looked a lot more focused than she was. The way he kept scanning the crowd as they walked along implied that he knew what he was looking for. That was a lot more promising than randomly scanning minds.

In addition, he seemed intrigued by her conversation with Rogue. It was no secret that she was sorting through some issues within the team. Her friends offered her understanding. However, Shiro was completely detached from the many dramas surrounding the X-men while still being part of the same struggle. In a strange way, he might be the best person to talk to for problems like this.

“Okay, I’ll tag along. But don’t expect me to spill my guts. I’ve done enough of that over the past few months,” said Jean.

“Understandable,” he said, “I teach teenagers who are routinely assaulted by hormones every other second. I can stand to overlook a few details.”

“I appreciate that,” she said with a light smile, “Before we go any further, mind telling me about this so-called lead?”

“Keep walking and talking with me. In Japan, we prefer to multi-task. We also prefer subtlety. Such a distinguished figure like yourself may draw more attention than you prefer.”

It was hard to tell if Shiro was being pragmatic or flirtatious. It might have been a little of both because he took out a spare Red Sox cap from his backpack and placed it on Jean’s head. He also gave her a pair of sunglasses to further disguise her gaze. Such a mixed gesture came as a surprise, but Jean decided to go with it.

“I’m tempted to ask if you carry spare disguises for all the women you come across,” she said with a slight tease, “Whatever the case, you’re way more prepared than I am. Guess the least I can do let you know the kind of messed up woman you’re dealing with.”

“I appreciate that,” he said with a humored grin, “You might want to keep your mind open in the meantime. This person of interest I am looking for should stand out in a very distinct way.”

District X – Sage’s Lab

“This is madness on an entirely new level. I knew it was coming. I knew I was going to be disgusted. So why am I still surprised?” mused Sage, speaking in a stoic voice with nullified emotions.

“That’s what happens when you keep your emotions turned off, my love. It’s far too easy to confuse surprise with outrage,” said Hank, who was standing behind her.

He was probably right. He usually was when it came to issues that tore her heart in a billion different directions. Hank McCoy was the only man from whom she could not suppress her emotions. As they studied the dangerous potential of Mutant Growth Hormone, it evoked feelings in her that were difficult to turn off.

Hank had finally pulled himself away from the fancy labs at SWORD and paid a much-needed visit to his distraught girlfriend. They had been in constant contact since Hank go his hands on this devious substance. For once, the mystery of what it was and where it came from didn’t frustrate their efforts.

Sage already knew who was responsible. It was written in the most important ingredients of this drug. In her lab, Hank used the data from his analysis with SWORD to construct an advanced molecular model. That model was projected into a large hologram that dominated most of Sage’s lab. As she looked at it, she turned on some of her emotions. It allowed her to properly expressed how much she despised the monster behind this.

“I knew Sebastian Shaw couldn’t be satisfied with merely taunting me,” seethed Sage, “He’s always favored the indirect approach, tormenting his enemies on a personal level before getting around to the physical.”

“He certainly hasn’t been subtle about it. I suspect this may be the culmination of his work in District X,” said Hank as he consoled his lover with a gentle embrace.

“I don’t need to suspect. I know MGH is related. I recognize some of the protein chains in your analysis. They’re direct copies from mutants who decided to join Shaw’s little venture.”

“I noticed that as well. Only someone of Shaw’s considerable resources could possibly assemble so many distinct ingredients and assemble them in a way that has such a potent effect,” said Hank.

“It’s pure logistics. In order to enhance mutant abilities, he needs the right combination of enzymes and catalysts. The only way he could possibly synthesize something of this nature is by taking direct samples.”

“Under the convenient cover of sheltering them from the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, no less,” added Hank.

“Don’t you dare start admiring his ingenuity, Hank. Shaw takes advantage of every circumstance, regardless of the politics involved. But that’s not what has me holding back so many emotions. What truly enrages me is those mutants he recruits probably don’t know they’re helping him. They don’t know they’re giving him the kind of power he loves exploiting in the worst conceivable ways!”

Sage’s stoic demeanor shattered and she lashed out at the image before her, slamming her fist right down on her computer panel. That caused the molecular image to flicker. She demonstrated strength that even Hank found impressive.

He was among the very few who knew how Sebastian Shaw had affected her. What he was doing now struck her on a very personal level. After she left Shaw, she helped form District X as a way to make up for the horrors she incurred under his leadership. By undermining District X, Shaw demonstrated that he could hurt her in ways that even her brilliant mind couldn’t get around.

“Have you spoken to Bishop about this?” asked Hank, hoping to change the subject.

“He won’t listen. Neither will Madrox,” she said bitterly, “They think Shaw is doing too much good for District X.”

“You haven’t told them about your history with him, have you?”

“I’ve found it hard to articulate that I was once Shaw’s personal lap dog…and occasional mistress. I find it even harder to describe the horrors I created for him, all because he gave me the resources to do so.”

“So you’ll maintain the same ambivalent silence you’ve fortified for the past six months?” said Hank with a touch of criticism in his tone.

“If you think less of me for doing so, I don’t blame you,” she said solemnly as she looked away from her lover.

“You’re making it difficult for me to help you, Sage. I’ve gone to great lengths to earn your trust. I’m putting my own standing at risk by assisting you with this.”

“If you expect me to make it up to you, I can reinforce the bed with adamantium clamps by the end of the week,” she said.

“Throw all the emotions you can at me, Sage. I only expect that honor my trust as much as I’ve honored yours,” he said, “And if you’re not going to come up with a means of confronting Sebastian Shaw, then I’ll have to take a few liberties. Seeing as how this is such a touchy subject, I’ve already gotten a head start.”

Sage looked at her lover curiously. She watched as Hank closed the image depicting MGH on her computer screen and activate the communications link. Without asking her permission, he made a quick announcement.

“Come on in,” he said, “We’re ready for you.”

The doors to Sage’s lab opened. Isaac and Jubilee then entered. It looked as though they had been waiting for quite a while, indicating that Hank had discussed this with them ahead of time. Sage looked at her lover with a mix of curiosity and nervousness. He showed the same stoic demeanor she had long since mastered, as if to send her a larger message.

“It’s about time you called us in! I was starting to wonder if you were convincing her the hard way, if you know what I mean,” said Jubilee in a wry tone.

“Actually, I haven’t convinced her. I’m hoping you two will help me because she has reason to be skeptical,” said Hank.

“I cannot say I blame her,” said Isaac, “Being suspicious of Sebastian Shaw is not a popular sentiment at the moment. He’s become quite the idol over the past six months and I’ve never been fond of opportunistic men in expensive clothing.”

“Which is why I enlisted you for this operation,” said Hank, “As I’ve explained to Tessa, Sebastian Shaw is likely involved with Mutant Growth Hormone. However, he’s done a very thorough job of insulating himself from scrutiny. No one in the government can touch him. He has too many politicians on his payroll. Even other mutants are wary now that he’s made so many friends in District X. But it’s for that very reason that we’re in a venerable position to uncover Shaw’s dealings.”

There was a certain subtlety in his tone. It was his way of telling Sage that he hadn’t divulged the more unscrupulous details about her involvement with Shaw. He had not betrayed her trust, putting up a convincing act for Isaac and Jubilee. Being the cultured man that he was, Hank continued his performance. It put Sage in an interesting yet awkward position.

“I’m not gonna lie to you, Miss Tessa. I’ve seriously contemplated taking Shaw up on his offer,” said Jubilee, “I don’t like the idea of the government knowing when and how I use my powers. The only reason I haven’t done it is because Bishop and Madrox convinced me to hold off. They say a well-known enforcer in District X going off the grid would get noticed.”

“While I can think of many more reasons, I am not a mutant so I’m not in a position to judge,” said Isaac, “But I too have been suspicious of Sebastian Shaw’s charity. So over the past few months, I’ve been doing some investigating of my own.”

“Picking more outside battles? Isn’t that what got you in trouble before, Isaac?” Sage pointed out.

“Indeed it did, but this is one battle that we cannot avoid,” said Isaac.

“And in recent weeks, he’s come up with some intriguing findings,” said Hank, “He’s yet to share them with Bishop and Madrox so I convinced him to let me have a peak. I think it raises some interesting possibilities.”

Isaac nodded and handed Hank a sealed envelope. Upon opening it, he took out a series of high-definition photos. It looked like they had been taken at a distance. They all depicted shadowy figures exchanging concealed objects in clandestine locations.

One of them in particular stood out. It depicted Barnell Bohusk purchasing something from a mysterious figure in a sweatshirt. With the incident in Boston still fresh on everyone’s mind, it didn’t take a computerized mind to surmise what he was buying.

“Before you ask, let me assure you this is exactly what it looks like,” said Isaac.

“It is, indeed, the young man Colossus helped bring in. This was taken a day before the incident at Fenway Park. There’s little doubt that the package he received contained Mutant Growth Hormone,” said Hank as he gave the photo to Sage.

“By divine fate, I happen to come across such a scene while investigating Sebastian Shaw,” Isaac added, “I suspected he was reaching out to students at the Academy of Tomorrow just as he had done in District X. I had no idea he was taking it to these ungodly levels.”

“All the more reason to suspect that Sebastian Shaw is involved,” said Hank as he started pacing, “Now Professor Xavier and every branch of government expects us to uncover more. Given our recent mishaps, this is as good a time as any to deliver. If we can use this to take down Shaw, then everyone benefits. To do so, we’ll have to dig a little deeper.”

“That’s where I come in,” said Jubilee proudly, “I’m going to give Shaw’s people a call and say I want in. I want him to cut the puppet strings so I can fry old TVs with my powers in peace. It’ll put me in the heart of his plan!”

“And in a world of danger,” Sage pointed out in a disapproving tone.

“Before you yell at me, can I just state my case?” asked Jubilee.

“I was going to yell at Hank, but I prefer to save my breath,” she said, shooting her lover a harsh scold.

“First off, I came up with this idea. Not Hank. Not Isaac,” said Jubilee, “Second, Bishop and Madrox don’t know about it. I’d rather not have them freak. And third, I want to take this risk. You guys have been sheltering me ever since I joined District X. I know my youth is a liability at times, but isn’t it time I graduate from being a second stringer? If District X is in danger, let’s do something more than worry and be part of a bigger plan!”

Sage continued to scold Hank for bringing Jubilee into this. Sebastian Shaw was a very personal issue for her. She should’ve been the one that helped take him down. However, it was easy to forget that this man’s reach went far beyond her history with him.

Shaw put every citizen of District X in danger. He put every human on the planet in danger by producing something like MGH. Hank, Jubilee, and many others had a stake in this battle. As such, they deserved to be part of it.

She still had her reservations. Looking at Isaac’s photos and then back towards Jubilee, she questioned this young girl’s ability to deceive a man like Sebastian Shaw. She had grown up a lot faster than most girls her age. Time and again, she proved more capable than a typical teenage girl. There was little logic to indicate that her infiltrating Shaw Industries would be successful, but it was their best bet.

“Are you giving this plan serious thought? Or are you just contemplating how you’re going to yell at me?” asked Hank.

“I’m still tempted. I may overcompensate if you keep giving me reasons,” said Sage, “Unfortunately, dealing with Sebastian Shaw usually means taking risks that make you sick to your stomach.”

“Does that mean you’ll help us with that supercomputer you call a brain?” asked Jubilee.

“I have a great many incentives to ensure you don’t get yourself killed. I have just as many incentives to see the MSA haul Sebastian Shaw tarred and feathered.”

“Then it’s settled. We move forward with this plan,” said Isaac.

“Not before I go over some of the finer details,” said Sage, taking on her stoic demeanor again, “If we’re going to take this man on, we need to proceed very carefully. Shaw has a knack for surprising his enemies in the worst possible way.”

Nova Roma – X-Force Base

“So the plan is on. Hank and Tessa are on board and we’re good to go…not bad, seeing as how you didn’t have to come up with it. We just told you where to point your camera…no, that’s not me being cynical. That’s me admiring our luck. Guess I’m more used to it than you are…no problem. Just make sure no one knows you’re making calls like this. You’ve done your part. Now X-Force can do theirs…you too, Isaac. Godspeed.”

Domino closed the encrypted communication link, relieved that her personal connection with Isaac had paid dividends, yet anxious that it was getting so intense. She had the whole conversation under Scott, Emma, and Logan’s harsh scrutiny. Sitting in their makeshift War Room, they were eager to get the full story for this developing crisis.

“So it’s official. Sebastian Shaw has crawled out from whatever rock he’s been hiding under,” said Logan, aching to sink his claws into that madman.

“I’d say that’s a safe assumption,” sighed Domino, “According to Isaac, Tessa and Beast were pretty convinced. Some techno-babble that I don’t have enough PHDs to understand implied that he’s the only one who can synthesize something like Kick.”

“I believe it,” said Emma in a cold tone, “It fits his manipulative personality. He convinces dozens of scared mutants into working with him. Then he turns around and uses their blood for his deranged R&D projects.”

“It’s a good thing you convinced Isaac to share information with us, Neena. Now we know where these rumors of a mutant enhancing drug came from,” said Scott.

“As if Laura’s little clash with that kid in Boston ain’t proof enough,” grumbled Logan.

“In any case, I’d rather you not thank me,” said Domino in a more serious tone, “I didn’t convince Isaac to do this. He’s the one that decided to play both sides of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative debate. I just hope he has as much luck as I do. He’ll need it.”

Isaac’s participation in the operations was a touchy subject. Scott, Logan, and Emma didn’t make too big a deal of it. They were more concerned about the prospects of fighting Sebastian Shaw again. It was a pressing issue, but that didn’t remove the personal stake that Domino now had in it.

It was exactly what Domino had feared. Shortly after the Mutant Monitoring Initiative was announced, she and Isaac met in private to discuss it. They both determined that government-managed mutants would incur more trouble than any faith could prevent. So when Scott Summers came along and pitched X-Force to her, Domino jumped at the chance.

Isaac could have come with them. However, he decided to stay in District X. He believed he would be more useful as an outside observer as he put it, which she interpreted as a way to avoid calling himself a spy. He put himself in a vulnerable position, keeping an eye on mutant activity in District X and feeding information to X-Force. Now the danger had escalated with the emergence of Mutant Growth Hormone.

It started with small rumors that Emma detected with their mini-Cerebrum. Mutants in certain areas couldn’t stop talking about some power-enhancing drug. Then the incident in Boston happened. Logan’s own little spy, X-23, provided them a sample to analyze. They came to the same conclusion as Hank and Tessa. That stuff was trouble. Now, with Isaac’s help, they had a potential plan of attack.

“So what are we waiting for? Why aren’t we on our way to Shaw’s nearest office, beating down doors, and putting the bastard back in a coma?” said Emma.

“Because Shaw has been a lot more careful after murdering his son,” said Scott as he started pacing, “Like any competent sociopath, he knows how to keep a low profile.”

“Probably helps that he’s rich as hell and got an army of powerful assholes in his back pocket,” grumbled Logan.

“That too,” Scott conceded, “We know he made an appearance in District X. We also know he has some network to get mutants into his company without having to get his hands dirty.”

“Isaac has been looking into that for months, but he hasn’t found much,” said Domino, “Far as he can tell, Shaw delivers on what he promises. He gives the mutants some device that keeps the MSA from tracking them. He also gives them jobs in his company.”

“Which, if the price of his stock holdings are any indication, have been pretty lucrative,” said Emma, “Making money off the backs of mutants has always been part of his business model.”

“Well Kick proves that he’s not content with making a little extra money,” said Domino, “Those mutants must be providing the raw materials Shaw needs to make Kick. They probably don’t even know they’re helping him.”

“It’s more efficient than simply kidnapping and torturing them. I’m sure that’s what he would prefer,” said Emma dryly.

“He may still get his chance,” said Logan, “You saw what that shit did to the kid in Boston. If he’s still working the kinks out, he may recruit a few extra test subjects and he won’t ask for permission.”

“As horrific as that sounds, I think we should be as less concerned about how Kick came to be and more about what Shaw intends to do with it,” said Scott as he contemplated this development.

“It’s a drug that gives mutants more power. Shaw is a mutant. I’d say the purpose is pretty damn clear,” said Emma, “All the more reason to find him and take him down!”

“And we will. We’ll follow the District X plan with Jubilee every step of the way. Hopefully that will lead us to Shaw, but I suspect there’s more to it. I don’t think Shaw would have come up with something like this on his own. I think there has to be another hand in this.”

It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. Sebastian Shaw had made deals with shady individuals before. Selene, the Black Queen, was one that nearly brought the world to an end on more than one occasion. For all they knew, Shaw had a long list of people like her. Any one of them could’ve been behind Kick. It was only a matter of time before their true intent was revealed.

“Well if there is someone else involved, I doubt we’ll find them by relying on the competence of the X-men and District X,” said Emma, “I’m going to do some digging of my own. I know Shaw better than anyone here and if he’s got another closet of skeletons, I’ll find it!”

“Is there anything I could say that would stop you?” asked Scott.

“We used to date, Scott. If you don’t know by now that I take certain missions very personally, then it’s no wonder we broke up.”

Emma didn’t wait for Scott’s approval and he had no intention of arguing it. She proceeded to storm out of the War Room, seething with the kind of anger that only Sebastian Shaw could incite.

“Damn, and I thought I held grudges,” said Logan.

“Compared to Emma Frost, you’re still an amateur. We all are,” sighed Scott.

“Does this mean we’re short a telepath in our battle against Shaw?” asked Domino.

“For now, at least,” said the X-Force leader, “Our best bet to take him down is through Jubilee’s infiltration. We have to assume that Professor Xavier and the MSA are under heavy pressure to get rid of this threat.”

“And we’re not?” questioned Domino.

“Unlike us, another failure from the X-men and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative could have serious repercussions. We had to pull them out of the fire in Scranton. If we have to do it again, we need to be ready….while taking down Shaw, of course.”

“Couldn’t it go the other way?” asked Logan, “We’re relying on spies, hunches, and a pissed off Emma Frost. This may be one mess where Chuck and his government goons are in a better position than we are.”

Scott stopped pacing for a moment and turned back towards the War Room computer. On it, they had the small vial of Kick that Laura had given Logan. He walked over to retrieve it and held it up firmly.

The threat the drug posed was great. It was easy to feel unequipped to deal with it. So far, X-Force demonstrated that they could succeed in areas where the Mutant Monitoring Initiative had failed. He hadn’t contemplated too much on how the reverse could hold true. For a threat this big, they may find out.

“We can’t worry about the finish line before we’ve run the race, Logan. We need to focus on this threat and focus hard,” said Scott as he grasped the vial, “In order to down a man like Sebastian Shaw we’ll need a lot more than we had in Scranton.”

“Like what? Luck?” said Domino half-jokingly.

“Among other things,” he said, “Chances are we won’t know just how much we lack until we need it most.”

Boston – Outside Fenway Park

Jean and Shiro Yoshida had been walking for nearly an hour at this point. They passed by every major gate leading into Fenway Park. They walked around concession stands, police checkpoints, and MSA posts. The game was already underway so the crowds around them had died down somewhat. That allowed them to move a bit further out towards some of the sports bars, street shows, and tailgating areas.

All the while, they remained on the lookout for any activity. Jean kept her mind open for stray thoughts, but she ended up talking more than listening. She quickly discovered that Shiro was a much better listener than Rogue.

“So that’s how Scott made it up to me after all was said and done,” she said after describing a few highlights from her relationship drama, “Now that I look back on it, I think it was too much.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Shiro with a humored grin, “Using the Danger Room to act out a scene from Avatar doesn’t strike me as excessive.”

“Clearly you haven’t seen the movie as many times as me. Some scenes are pretty demanding,” said Jean with a slight chuckle.

“I can think of far less practical demands you could have given him. I bet he would still oblige you.”

“You’re probably right,” she said distantly, “Makes me miss him even more.”

“I don’t blame you. He clearly loved you as much as you loved him. Such love is a precious thing. Losing it is akin to losing part of yourself and filling that void isn’t easy.”

Jean’s expression fell somewhat and she had to look away. Shiro slowed down a bit, offering Jean a look of reassurance. He didn’t judge or draw conclusions from anything she told him. He offered simple, insightful observations. It was different from the incessant advice she received from her friends. She had received enough advice on this issue. For now, she was content to just have someone listen.

“Should we stop for a moment?” offered Shiro.

“No, I’m okay. I’m actually better than I was an hour ago,” said Jean as she regained her composure, “I’m sorry if I’m hurting your ears with all my personal shit. I know it’s not healthy to keep dwelling on a boyfriend I’m not even with at the moment.”

“Yet you don’t call him your ex,” Shiro pointed out, “Although at times it slips.”

“Yeah, that’s been happening a lot lately,” said Jean, still looking down as she stuffed her hands in her pockets, “For a while I believed that Scott would eventually come around. He’ll see the good in what we’re doing and he’ll return to the team.”

“But that hasn’t happened,” he stated.

“No…it hasn’t,” said Jean sadly, “I used to think it was only a matter of when. Now I’m seriously contemplating adding the if part to that assumption.”

“After over six months, I would say you’re both entrenched in your roles.”

“That’s the even scarier part. Because as long as Scott is in X-Force, we can’t be together. It’s only started to sink in that I may have to live my life without Scott Summers. It’s like I have to relearn how to function on my own.”

“You seem to be making progress. You’re able to talk to me about it, after all,” Shiro pointed out.

“That’s only because you’re a good listener. The others would have tuned me out by now. I get the sense they don’t want to be the ones telling me I should move on from Scott.”

“I don’t either. Nor do I think that’s a valid approach to your predicament,” he said.

“Then what is? I’ve heard everything from ‘don’t let go of true love’ to ‘go out and enjoy being single again.’ I’m not sure what I should do. I need to figure it out soon because what I’ve been doing these past few months isn’t working.”

There was a sense of desperation in her tone. She carried herself as a strong woman who had forgotten how to be strong. Shiro saw in her a mix of complicated emotions. In some ways, she was the most emotional person he had ever come across.

Her strength was her passion, but it was also her weakness. When Scott left the X-men, it exposed that weakness and she had no way of dealing with it. As they walked down an avenue of gift shops, they stopped just outside a sports bar. It gave him a moment to process what Jean was telling him while allowing her to collect her thoughts.

“I wish I knew what to tell you, Jean. I’ve never been very good when it comes to advice,” Shiro admitted.

“Yet you’re a teacher at a school?” said Jean half-jokingly.

“That’s different. Telling a confused young mutant what is right and what is wrong can be broken down and rationalized. Matters of the heart are different. There’s no formula or philosophy. I’ve learned that from my own convoluted romantic experiences.”

“Would you say they’re anywhere as messed up as mine?” said Jean.

“I can summarize it in fairly graphic detail. As a teenage boy, I had a painfully normal relationship with a girl I loved dearly. Then when my powers manifested, I had a very abnormal and very exciting relationship with a man who understood what it was like to be different and accepted me for who I was.”

Jean blinked as these words echoed in her mind. It revealed something that caught her completely by surprise.

“Wait…you’re gay?” she said, “Not to make a big deal of it, but…”

“It’s okay, Jean. We’re in Massachusetts, remember?” said Shiro with a light laugh, “To clarify, I’m bisexual. I have just as much fondness for a man’s body as I do a woman’s. In a reserved culture like Japan, that’s difficult to make sense of. In both those relationships I mentioned, such reservations are what drove us apart. That’s part of why I came to America.”

“And here I was thinking that Emma Frost blackmailed you into teaching at her school,” said Jean somewhat abashedly.

“That’s another story altogether,” he said in good humor, “I bring this up because as a man of many mixed emotions, I’m not always comfortable in my own skin. In times of heartache, I’ve learned more about how to cope with myself more than I have at any other time. That experience has been vital in making sense of old relationships while embracing new ones. There’s no advice I can give you that you probably haven’t already heard. All I’ll say is the most useful advice is often learned, not given.”

It was a profound insight. Jean found herself frozen in place, digesting every word Shiro just said along with the subtext. This was unknown territory for her. Scott walking away from her and the X-men put her through a wide range of painful emotions that she had yet to fully deal with. Now Shiro called her entire approach into question.

She had been searching for a way to move forward with her life. She listened to all the advice and support her friends had given her. But what had she really learned or even tried to learn from this emotional rollercoaster? Did it really have to destroy her or could it somehow make her stronger?

Shiro saw plenty of conflicts in this woman. She was just beginning to assess them in a somewhat reasonable manner. It spoke volumes to her resolve. He could see now why she was an X-man. If she could learn as well as he suspected, then she could get through this.

“You know, before I joined the Xavier Institute I would get bombarded with all sorts of chaotic thoughts. I would estimate a good seventy percent of those thoughts were people begging themselves for answers,” mused Jean.

“Are you talking to me or are you just thinking out loud?” asked Shiro.

“A little of both,” she said with a light chuckle, “I bring it up because it sounds so intuitive, reaching outside yourself for answers rather than working to figure it out for yourself. It’s enough to make me feel lazy.”

“As a psychic, I assume the difficulties are magnified.”

“You assume correctly. Maybe that’s why it sounds so daunting, relying on my own thoughts rather than the influence of others. But usually the most daunting solutions tend to be the right ones.”

“That’s a relief. I hope that also means we can refocus our efforts on the mission at hand.”

“Right…can’t forget about that,” she said sheepishly, “Thanks for reminding me…in more ways than one.”

“It is one’s honor to do so,” he said to her, “I’m fully confident that you will learn what needs to be learn. I’m somewhat less confident in our ability to keep pace with this mysterious dealer we’re chasing.”

The two mutants shared a friendly laugh before taking on more serious demeanor. Personal dramas aside, they still had a job to do. They still had to find whoever it was that sold MGH to Beak. Shiro was ready to step up their efforts and having sufficiently vented her problems on him, Jean was ready too. They were about to resume their walk through the busy streets around Fenway Park. Suddenly, an unexpected commotion erupted from a sports bar across the street.

“Please, Mr. Brevort! I really need to get some things from my studio!” cried a young, Hispanic man as he stumbled out into the middle of the street.

“You set foot in my bar again and I’ll beat you in ways your momma should’ve, you rotten junkie!” roared an older man carrying a baseball.

“I…I’m not a junkie!” said the young man.

“Bullshit! I’ve seen those unmarked packages outside your door. I’ve heard you puking in the bathrooms like you’ve been eating from a toilet.”

“It’s not what you think! I swear!”

“You think I’m that senile, Vargas? I got enough problems keeping the cops off my back. I don’t need your ugly ass adding to it. Now scram before I hit a home run with your head!”

The scene caused quite a commotion. Some nearby civilians stopped walking and watched. Others walked away faster, not wanting to get caught in the crossfire of potential brawl. The young Hispanic man that had just been run out of the bar looked ill. He was shaking, his dark hair was unkempt, and his clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in over a month.

He had all the symptoms of a junkie. Despite the threats from the bartender, he was so fixated on the building he didn’t realize he was in the middle of the street. When a car finally drove by, he was jolted from his daze.

“Hey! Move your problems off the road, asshole!” yelled the driver.

“Shut up! Just shut up! I…I need a moment,” stammered Vargas, “Need to…get my stuff.”

The disturbance died down somewhat as the young man stumbled off the road and onto a curb not far from where Jean and Shiro were standing. Nearby pedestrians avoided him. Some nearby police officers were looking at him suspiciously. He came off as an ordinary junkie with ordinary junkie problems. However, the thoughts he was projecting told a different story.

‘Gotta get back in there. My stash is still in there! I can’t let the cops get it. I’ll be in trouble with some nasty ass mutants if they don’t get their dose of Kick.’

Jean’s eyes widened. Could he be the dealer they had been looking for? If so, he wasn’t anywhere near as cunning as they thought.

“What were you saying about not keeping up with our target?” asked Jean as she started making her way towards the young man.

“Why? Did you sense something?” asked Shiro intently.

“Oh yes…I sensed a very troubled mind,” she said as her vision narrowed.

Now it was Shiro’s turn to catch up. There was no need for subtlety anymore. If this guy was stupid enough to get kicked out of a sports bar, then following him probably wouldn’t lead to anything. Taking a page right out of Wolverine’s playbook, she went for the direct approach.

“Excuse me. Vargas, is it?” said Jean as she approached him.

“Leave me alone! I’ve got no time for you, lady!” said Vargas, not even making eye-contact with her.

“Oh I think you should make time,” she said in a threatening voice, “You might kick yourself if you don’t.”

Her emphasis on the word ‘kick’ caught Vargas’s attention. He immediately turned to face her. Sweat was already pouring down the die of his face. Even though she was wearing a baseball cap, he recognized her. That red hair and penetrating gaze was indistinguishable.

“You…you’re one of the X-men!” he exclaimed.

“So much for my disguise,” she said as she took off her baseball cap, “If you know who I am, then you probably know what I’m about to ask you.”

“Fuck off! You’ll get nothing out of me,” said Vargas as he started backing away.

“Maybe you haven’t seen my Wikipedia page, but you don’t need to talk for me get what I need from you.”

The young man quickly erected barriers around his mind. It was too quick for a junkie, which raised even more questions. Jean didn’t let him back away. She used her telekinesis to stop him from backing away any further. By now, Shiro had caught up as well and he was just as interested in the answers this man could provide.

“I would recommend you listen to her. Her talents aren’t nearly as painful as mine,” said Shiro as he formed a fireball around his hand.

“That’s debatable,” said Jean as she used her telekinesis to draw him closer, “But let’s not be too menacing, Shiro. We need this man’s help and he’s going to need ours.”

“Indeed,” said Shiro, “There are lots of ways this could go badly for you, Mr. Vargas. Do yourself a favor and cooperate. You’ll save us all a world of trouble.”

Vargas was starting to panic. He wanted to turn around and run, but Jean had a telekinetic wall behind him. She ensured there was nowhere for him to escape. He had to think fast. Being captured by the X-men was not an option. His boss wouldn’t allow it and he refused to let her down.

As his mind raced, Vargas noticed a woman pushing a baby stroller walking out of a nearby gift shop. She obviously hadn’t seen the raucous across the street earlier. So when she saw Jean and Shiro standing in front of her, she was understandably confused. In that moment of confusion, Vargas acted on an impulse.

“To hell with you all! I won’t betray my mistress!” he exclaimed.

In a brazen move, he reached over and grabbed the stroller the woman was pushing with a sleeping toddler inside. He then shoved it right out into the middle of the street right into the path of an oncoming car.

“My baby!” cried the woman.

“No!” exclaimed Jean.

The young psychic promptly dropped her telekinetic hold on Vargas and rushed out into the street. The oncoming car was going too fast to avoid the stroller so Jean put up a new barrier, stopping the stroller and causing the car to stop abruptly. Two cars behind it rear ended the first car, adding even more force to the impact. Jean grunted under the strain, but the barriers held. The baby was safe.

“My son! Is he…” said the woman breathlessly as she ran alongside Jean.

“He’s fine!” assured Jean, “Can’t believe that son-of-a-bitch would…”

“Jean!” said Shiro, who was still standing on the curb, “Vargas is escaping! I’m going after him!”

“I’ll catch up! Feel free to burn his ass off!”

“Duly noted!” said Shiro as he took off running.

Everything happenedvery quickly. As soon as Jean dropped her telekinetic hold on Vargas, he ran full speed down the opposing street. He shoved through some bewildered civilians in the process, intent on getting away no matter who he put in danger. Shiro ran after him to catch up. He was surprised that a junkie could run so fast. Then again, he might not be an ordinary junkie. Someone who dealt MGH was bound to have a few surprises.

The chase ensued for another four city blocks. The narrow roads around Fenway Park soon gave way to congested avenues near the Massachusetts Turnpike. Since it was the middle of the day, there were a fair amount of people on the sidewalks. Both Vargas and Shiro had to shove them aside. Having already shown a willingness to attack a mother and her child, it was a dangerous situation that needed to be stopped.

“I’ve run in the Boston marathon. You will not escape!” yelled Shiro.

Vargas panted heavily as he heard Shiro catching up. He tried knocking over a few trash cans and pushing over some tables around an outside restaurant to slow him down. It wasn’t enough. Shiro just used his fire powers to burn right through it.

He could literally feel the heat gaining on him. His frail body was failing him. His poor physical condition was catching up to him. He was nearing another busy crosswalk where there was no shortage of people he could throw in front of cars. However, Shiro wouldn’t allow it. He literally dived out and tackled him to the hard pavement.

“Argh!” exclaimed Vargas as he fell flat on his face, losing a tooth in the process.

“That’s enough of that, Mr. Vargas,” said Shiro, now holding him by the legs, “You’ve added reckless endangerment to your list of crimes. Do not add any more.”

Vargas groaned as he struggled within Shiro’s grip. He looked back and saw the Japanese mutant flash a few menacing flames around his head. He could easily burn him until he cooperated. Vargas was in no condition to endure it so he made another desperate move.

“I didn’t want to do this, but once again I’m too weak,” he said shamefully.

With Shiro still holding onto his legs, Vargas reached into the pocket in his sweat-jacket and pulled out a small syringe. It was already filled with a reddish fluid. As soon as Shiro saw it, his eyes widened.

“You’re…a mutant?” exclaimed Shiro.

“I wish,” muttered Vargas.

Closing his eyes, the young man jammed the syringe into his abdomen. Shiro tried to knock it away from him, but it was too late. The drug was in his system. The effect was almost immediate.

His once frail arms bulged with new muscle, indicating a new strength. Vargas seethed as the substance coursed through his system. At the same time, he noticed a fire hydrant to his left. Without hesitation, he slammed his arm right into the side. The metal was quickly warped under the sudden, causing a hole that shot out a high-pressure stream of water that engulfed Shiro and several surrounding civilians.

“Ugh!” grunted Shiro, his flames extinguished by the water.

Being blasted with water caused Shiro to release his grip on Vargas. As soon as he was free, Vargas stumbled back to his feet and ran out into the street. He happened to step right in front of a taxi cab, who promptly slammed on the breaks. Vargas showed his new strength by slamming his fist onto the hood of the car, causing the whole car to shake.

“Holy shit! What’s with your arm?’ the man exclaimed.

“Get out!” he told the driver.

The driver didn’t need to be threatened any further. He quickly stumbled out from the driver’s seat and ran as fast as he could across the street. With his muscles still bulging, Vargas got into the driver’s seat. Before he took off, he slammed his fist into the dashboard to knock out the cab equipment and GPS. He didn’t need anyone tracking him to his next destination.

“I’m coming, my queens. I will atone for this,” Vargas proclaimed.

Shiro was just emerging from the still gushing torrent of water when Vargas drove off. The tires screeched as he drove over a curb and out into the main avenue, causing a couple of minor fender benders in the process. Within seconds he was out of sight and there was no chance of catching him. Now soaked and unable to use his fire powers, Shiro could only watch as Vargas escaped.

The civilians around him swarmed around the accidents and the broken fire hydrant. Nearby police officers turned their attention to the cars in the street that had collided in confusion. It was a lot of damage for one junkie to cause. In Shiro’s mind, this man wasn’t a junkie. He was something much worse.

‘Whoever these mistresses are, they must have quite a hold on him. I wonder if they also gave him that dose of Kick. If he wasn’t a mutant, it should have killed him…unless there’s something else we’re messing.’

It was a frustrating outcome. This might have been their only lead to Sebastian Shaw and whoever else was involved. They had a name now, but if Vargas was as determined as he seemed then he would not be easy to find. They would need another approach and another stroke of luck.

Shiro groaned and bowed his head in frustration, ignoring the commotion around him from civilians and police. He was about to contact Jean Grey and see how she was doing. Then something on the ground caught his eye. While he was holding onto Vargas, some stuff fell out of his pocket. Among them was a fancy-looking business card with a distinct logo on the cover. When he picked it up and read the name on it, his frustration turned to intrigue.

‘Shiro! Are you there? The lady and her baby are safe, although the driver of the car is pissed. What’s happening on your end? Did you catch Vargas?’

Jean Grey’s urgent thoughts echoed loudly in his mind. However, Shiro barely heard them. He was too fixated on the card he not held in his hand.

‘Shiro? Please don’t be hurt or something!’

‘I’m fine Jean,’ he replied through his mind, ‘Vargas got away. He proved more cunning than expected.’

‘Damn it! He was our only lead. There may still be time to track him! I can call the Professor and he can get the MSA to…’

‘That might not be necessary, Jean. Vargas has already provided us with another tantalizing clue.’

‘What do you mean?’

Shiro was silent for a moment. This mystery surrounding MGH kept taking unexpected turns. With each revelation, the threat it posed grew more terrifying.

‘Tell me, Jean…does the name Wynegarde mean anything to you?’

New York City – Hellfire Club

Sebastian Shaw understood the power of vice more than most. He was never afraid to use it. He was equally unafraid of indulging in it. Yet to him, the greatest vice of all was power. The ability to control himself and those around him was the most addictive, intoxicating pleasure imaginable.

His love of vice was what made him so comfortable in places like the Hellfire Club. As one of the most exclusive strip clubs in New York City, he spent more than his share of time indulging in simpler vices. Walking through the opulent layout, he crossed the paths of many beautiful women. Some of these women he knew very well. Others he would eventually know. The men they catered to were rich and powerful in their own right. Looking around he saw politicians, bankers, and businessmen engrossed in the beautiful woman that enticed them with their bodies.

On most days, he would set up a private area for himself and have the women compete for his affections. However, today was different. His visit was all business. The pleasure would come later. As he walked past the stages and towards the VIP area, one of the scantily dressed women approached him.

“You’re a bit early, Mr. Shaw,” she said to him.

“I’m in a proactive mood. Is she occupied at the moment?” Shaw asked her.

“For you, she’s always willing to make time.”

Shaw grinned at her remark. The woman gestured towards the VIP area. One of the bouncers nodded and unlocked it. Shaw silently entered, leaving the rest of the men behind to settle for simpler vices. Rich or not, they could never understand true power.

Once he was in the room, Shaw made his way to the back wall that was covered by a mirror. He reached over to a statue of a naked woman and pulled on her arm. That caused a section of the wall to open, revealing a hidden elevator. After placing his hand on a special palm-scanning device, the doors opened.

Once inside, he entered in a code that prompted the elevator to descend five floors below the surface. Upon reaching the appropriate level, the doors opened to reveal a scene that made the floors above him look like child’s play.

“I never get tired of this sight,” he said to himself.

It was a dirty secret beneath another dirty secret. An entire floor that was nearly three times the size of the Hellfire Club above them was dedicated to a very special kind of vice.

This area was much more open. There were no private booths or flashy stages. The whole floor was like a large dance floor surrounded by rows of beds. Music was playing along with flashing lights, making for a vibrant rave-like environment. The central area was crowded with people. They weren’t strippers or men of great wealth. They were ordinary people who gave into a temptation too great to escape.

Walking through the dancing crowd, Shaw noted the vacant gazes on every face. Many were dressed in scant attire. Some were fully nude. They were moving as if they were in a daze of complete ecstasy. It was the kind of ecstasy no ordinary drug could induce. It was utterly absolute, as if they had literally ingested pleasure in its purest form. They were complete slaves to it, which always bode well for Shaw’s operations.

‘Weak minds, weak bodies, and weak spirits…all ingredients of the perfect pawns. The Inner Circle may be no more, but I am still Black King. That oaf of a son had no vision. He could never see an opportunity, let alone make the most of it. He had all the resources I had yet he never cherished the most valuable of them all…control.’

Upon making his way through the dancing crowds, Shaw emerged at an area in the north end of the room. It was a special area for which only the privileged could venture. It was surrounded by large red pillows that created large bed-like areas where the more attractive patrons, male and female, could dance on their own. Most were naked. Some were even making love. All bore the same euphoric daze. The source of that daze came directly from two beautiful women sitting in a special bed at the center of it all.

As Shaw approached, he saw the two women grasping the head of a young man. One was an attractive blond no older than 19-years-old. The other was about six years older, bearing dark hair with blond streaks. They each wore attire reminiscent of the Black Queen. One was purple and the other was green. As for the man who was in nothing but a pair of faded jeans, it looked as though he was drinking from the fountain of pleasure itself.

“Ohhhhhhhh my queens!” the man cried out.

“That’s right. We’re your queens,” said the blond.

“And don’t you forget it!” said the other, “Serve us, and the pleasure we give you will never end.”

The blissful daze fell over the man and he passed out. He fell limply in front of the two women, a content smile never leaving his face. It was a humorous scene if not somewhat pathetic. Shaw only shook his head in bemusement as he addressed the two women.

“Regan and Martinique Wyngarde,” he greeted, “You exploit your natural talents in a way few others can.”

“Nice to see you too, your majesty,” said Martinique, “It’s always a pleasure to be in your presence.”

“And we know pleasure!” joked Regan.

“I hope you won’t change your mind when I deliver some bad news,” said Shaw, “I just received word that one of your loyal pawns caused a scene in Boston. And by somewhat, I mean he may have tipped off the X-men.”

“Ah yes, you must be talking about Vargas,” said Regan, “We’re aware of his failure. I assure you, he will be punished for his failure.”

“I would expect nothing less,” said Shaw, “I understand he even used that prototype sample I gave him.”

“It was necessary,” said Martinique, “We gave it to him because we’ve heard the Brotherhood has been snooping around for MGH. It’s his own fault for making it necessary.”

“That sample will likely punish him more than he deserves. However, it leaves me skeptical about the efficiency of your pawns. I’ve been relying on them to distribute Kick to every possible mutant community. However, I’m not getting the results I require.”

“If you can find a better system than our loyal pawns, you’re welcome to try,” quipped Regan, “I doubt you’ll find any whose loyalty can be bought with a steady dose of telepathy-induced ecstasy.”

“You may be right, but don’t forget that I make that ecstasy possible,” Shaw reminded them, “You may have your grandfather’s knowledge, but I give you the ability to exploit it.”

Regan and Martinique took Shaw’s veiled threat only somewhat seriously. He was correct. Their powers were dependent on Shaw. Before they met him, their abilities were limited. They were moderate telepaths that could cast moderate illusions, but MGH enhanced their abilities were taken to a whole new level. It was a level that allowed them to take the knowledge their grandfather taught them and put it to good use.

While they enjoyed having their own cult of pleasure-addicted followers, they also understood that Shaw needed their services as well. He needed allies and manpower. In a world where the X-men were working with the MSA, it wasn’t as easy to bribe people anymore. He had to get creative with his latest operation.

“I’ll skip the rest of my subtle threats. Thanks to Mr. Vargas, we’ll have to step up our timetables,” said Shaw, “My people are nearing a major breakthrough. The next generation of MGH is almost ready.”

“Sounds like fun,” grinned Regan.

“Does this mean what we think it means?” asked Martinique.

“That goes without saying,” he said with a sinister grin, “I’ve got a fresh batch of mutants coming in from District X. This should be the last so that means you and your followers will have to move to our primary staging area.”

“Not a problem. I was getting tired of New York anyways,” sighed Regan.

“I think you’ll be much more comfortable when you see what I’ve developed. Your grandfather was a smart man, but he never realized one important fact. The only thing more effective than understanding power is controlling who gets it.”

Up next: Drug Wars

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