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Volume 7 -- Issue 166 -- Trial By Fire

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Trial By Fire
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Professor Charles Xavier and his X-men protect a world that hates and fears them. Every so often, though, the fear of mutants is supplanted by fears of another kind. Mutants have become mainstream through Charles Xavier’s controversial Mutant Monitoring Initiative that allowed his X-men to work with the authorities on mutant issues, as well as other major concerns. Now one of those concerns has made the world very vulnerable.

It began with the arrest of Sebastian Shaw and ended with a global attack by the private army known as White Cell. Led by Wolverine’s powerful and estranged father, Romulus, an army of Weapon X clones attacked every major armed force on the planet.

Few were spared. Governments, militias, and criminal organizations were all hit hard. The very order that humans and mutants alike rely on has been undermined. Now the X-men must take on new roles and help reestablish some semblance of peace.

At the same time, the merits of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative have come into question. The chaos that ensued from White Cell was a direct result of the X-men not being able to do what was necessary. This hasn’t just struck the X-men either. X-Force has been reeling as well. The divide that has left the X-men so overwhelmed is now taking a back seat to a new range of concerns.

Downtown Los Angeles

“Hello 50-inch OX-LED TV!” proclaimed a shop-lifter as he wheeled a shopping cart out of a major department store.

“It’s like Christmas minus the decorations and I’m loving it!” said another who followed close behind with a cart of computers.

The spirits of the two small-time shoplifters were high. Their sentiment reflected the general optimism of all ambitious criminals in recent weeks.

Ever since the White Cell attacks, the authorities were swamped. The military didn’t have the hardware they needed to fight. The police didn’t have the hardware they needed to uphold the law. It was a perfect confluence of circumstances. It led to numerous riots and uprisings in certain areas. Los Angels was just one where the momentary weakness of the LAPD allowed gang riots to break out in droves.

For some, gang affiliation was overrated. They were content to let the gangs occupy the police. The sun was setting over the city and the riots were sure to get worse as night fell so those in search of a quick score tried to be proactive. The two shoplifters had already commandeered a van with a friend, who waited in the parking lot. They went to work loading it up and prepared to make their escape.

“Hurry it up, you two! We don’t have much time and you wasted plenty by going for the heavy stuff,” said the driver of the van.

“Cool your jets, man. We’ve got plenty of time,” boasted the shoplifter with the 50-inch TV, “The cops are swarmed and armed only with nightsticks and pepper spray. They don’t have time for part-timers like us.”

“It’s not the cops I’m worried about. It’s these damn gang riots,” said the driver, “I’ve been listening to the radio. Sounds like they’re spreading towards this area.”

“So what? Let them spread!” said the other shoplifter, “The more they occupy the police, the more shopping we can do.”

“We shop too much and we’ll end up being raided as well,” warned the driver, “Every major city with a gang problem is facing riots and if we don’t secure this shit, we’ll end up as fodder.”

“You worry too much, bro. I’ve got it all figured out!” scoffed the shoplifter as he tried to force the TV into the back of the van, “Once we hit a few more stores, we’ll high-tail it to my uncle’s place and lock this shit down. He’s still got a few guns, some heavy locks, and boxes of dried pasta to keep us going for months. It’s perfect! Ain’t nobody that can stop us neither!”

He almost had the TV loaded into the van. Then some unseen force shoved the TV right back at him. It knocked him flat on his back for a moment. While stunned, he looked up and saw a couple of figures hovering over him.

“There’s just one problem with that plan of yours, sugah,” said a hovering Rogue in an intimidating tone.

“Namely us,” said Jean Grey, who had been the source of the unseen force.

“Aw hell no! X-men?” exclaimed the other shoplifter.

“To hell with the merchandise! I’m outta here!” exclaimed the driver.

In a panic, the driver stomped on the accelerator of the van. The other shoplifter didn’t have time to jump back inside. Half the stuff he was loading fell out and he tried running after the van in a vain attempt to catch up.

“Wait up, damn it! Don’t leave me hanging!” the shoplifter exclaimed.

“Screw you! I didn’t sign up for this!” exclaimed the driver, “I’ll see you back at the…”

The driver was unexpectedly silenced. He hadn’t driven more than a hundred feet before he ran right into an immovable obstacle that literally walked out right in front of him. That obstacle was Colossus in his metal form. Without moving a muscle, he let his invulnerable body render the van undriveable by leaving a thick indent right in the front. It caused the air bags to deploy while forcing some much-needed humility on the driver.

“Umf!” groaned the driver, his voice muffled by the air bag.

“You should keep your eye on the road, comrade,” said Piotr flatly, “Now you’re on your own as well.”

“Fuck…this day just keeps getting worse,” he groaned.

“You do not know the half of it,” grumbled the Russian.

Now dazed with a significant bruise on his forehead, the driver stumbled out and started limping away. He met up with the other shoplifter, who gave him a shove for his cowardice. However, they saved their bitterness for another time. For now, they were content to get away from the X-men.

Even though they weren’t moving very fast, the X-men didn’t pursue them. Jean, Rogue, and Piotr gathered near the now crippled van to assess the situation. It was a pretty basic scenario that had played out in many other areas all over the country.

“Ain’t you gonna go after them, Pete?” asked Rogue.

“Nyet. I think we made our point,” said Piotr as he watched them run, “They’re empty-handed, wounded, and anxious. That is all the justice we can deliver right now.”

“Are you just saying that because you know the LAPD won’t bother processing petty shoplifters?” asked Jean.

“They asked us to assist them. We need not distract ourselves more than we already are,” said the Russian.

“That doesn’t mean we should negate the little things,” said Jean.

While Piotr and Rogue caught their breath, Jean turned her attention back to the shoplifter she knocked on his back earlier. She used her telekinesis to levitate him and shove him into the back of his now crippled van. Once inside, she closed the doors and locked them so that the police wouldn’t have trouble arresting him.

“What the hell are you doing you crazy bitch?” exclaimed the shoplifter.

“Relax, I cracked the windows,” said Jean, rolling her eyes, “The cops should follow the gang riots here within an hour. If you rat out your buddies, I’m sure they’ll go easy on you.”

“Fuck you!” was all he said in response.

“Better have them teach you some manners in the process,” said Rogue, rolling her eyes.

The shoplifter’s voice was muffled by the van. Jean also ripped the tires off the to ensure that he would remain in place. They were elaborate lengths for a simple shoplifter, especially when they had much bigger troubles approaching with the gang riots. The team was still drained from the White Cell debacle.

“You’re really pushing it for someone who spent a couple of days in the infirmary, Jean,” commented Rogue, “Didn’t Beast tell ya to get some rest before you jump back into fire?”

“Should we really have this conversation now?” questioned Jean as she did a telepathic scan, “I can sense the gang riots spreading quicker. They’re starting to barricade themselves in department stores and the police aren’t equipped to weed them out.”

“Forget about gang wars for a second. You’re starting to sound too much like the old you that just keeps busy for the sake of being busy,” she said strongly, “Did crossing paths with X-Force open some old wounds?”

“This has nothing to do with old wounds and everything to do with the wounds left by White Cell,” said Jean strongly, “The Professor told me in plain words. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative is in trouble. We can’t stand idly and let it fail.”

“I don’t think healing from injuries counts as standing idly,” argued Piotr, “I’m still quite sore from the attacks. I was barely able to lift 50 tons this morning.”

“I’m not trying to sound fatalistic here, guys. I’m just saying we should be more proactive…even when we’re not supposed to,” argued Jean, “We proved with White Cell that it can go a long way.”

“Far as Ah’m concerned, we just proved how dang much we’ve complicated our jobs,” quipped Rogue.

“I’m not going to argue against that. Hell, I agree with you on more levels than I care to admit,” Jean retorted, “My sole concern here is damage control. It’s gotten to a point where it doesn’t matter how we feel about the initiative. If it fails, we’ll all be sore in ways we can’t heal from. I think even X-Force understands that now.”

“Why do you say that? Did Scott project a few too many thoughts when you were wounded?” questioned Rogue.

“No, I just sensed there’s plenty of doubt to go around.”

She sounded distressingly convincing. The battle against White Cell seemed to embolden Jean in ways that reverberated throughout the team. Having been vindicated by her willingness to defy the initiative she vowed to defend, she was much more assertive.

Rogue and Piotr exchanged glances, not sure what to make of it. They were all struggling to adapt to all the damage they had incurred by White Cell. It was still debatable how much of that damage was fixable.

“We better get moving,” said Jean, her assertive tone covering many emotions, “The Professor needs us to create some positive news. It’ll help him push on those reforms he told us about.”

“Create good news out a gang war? Even when healthy, my strength has limits,” said Piotr.

“Ah hope we ain’t just relying on reforms to fix all the problems the led to this mess,” said Rogue as she cracked her knuckles in anticipation.

“You and me both, Rogue,” sighed Jean, “We have to do our part. Hell, that’s all we can do. It’s up to the Professor to make progress with the paperwork.”

“Somehow, I sense he’s as frustrated as we’re about to be,” said Piotr.

As the three X-men turned towards adjacent streets, they could see numerous pillars of smoke rising from the downtown area. The gang riots were doing more damage at a time when damage control was their primary objective. It seemed more political than heroic, but these were the kinds of challenges they had to overcome. Simply being heroes wasn’t enough whenever politics were involved.

United Nations Building – VIP Offices

“Mr. President, please! We still have much to discuss and time remains a factor,” urged a desperate Charles Xavier as he tried to catch up with President Kelly.

“I’m a busy man, Charles. We’ve got a global security crisis on our hands and you can’t expect me to make meeting with you my top priority,” said President Kelly, who was going over CIA reports.

“And you can’t expect me to formulate a long list of necessary reforms within an hour,” retorted Xavier.

“Why not? I thought you were the most powerful mind in the world,” said the President dryly.

“The power of my mind has nothing to do with such unreasonable logistics. You make it sound as though fixing what led to this global security crisis doesn’t matter.”

President Kelly stopped walking, allowing his frustration to surface. He was already late for a conference with several important ambassadors from the Middle East and Asia. Charles Xavier wasn’t making his job easier by pestering him. In fact, he hadn’t stopped pestering him since the dust settled from the White Cell attack.

Professor Xavier tried to ignore the burning frustration that the President was projecting with his mind. He managed to catch up with him, but that was difficult due to the thick packets of paper he was carrying. He only touched on a fraction of what he hoped to address during their meeting. With many lingering issues, he was intent on confronting the damage done to the Mutant Monitoring Initiative.

“I’m don’t mean to annoy you, Mr. President,” said Xavier as he caught his breath, “I’m just asking for some added consideration.”

“When you put it like that, it sounds an awful lot like annoyance,” retorted President Kelly.

“I apologize if that’s how it comes across, but I think we’ll make both our lives easier if we take care of this now,” he said as he sifted through some of the thick packets, “We can both agree that our inaction played a significant role in allowing White Cell’s attack.”

“Only to a point, Professor,” the President replied with folded arms, “Our inaction was only one of many contributing factors.”

“But it’s a factor we’re capable of correcting,” Xavier noted, “I’ve put together a number of reforms to prevent this from happening again. There is plenty of disagreement over the language, but the general theme is the same. The X-men must be able to work more independently. This way they can address threats like White Cell without going through so many layers of bureaucracy.”

“If that’s the general theme, it isn’t very original. Do you have any idea how many other agencies make that same request? You don’t think the Department of Energy would love being able to craft their own energy policies without federal approval?”

“I’m sure every agency would enjoy being a power unto themselves, but they weren’t directly involved in this crisis.”

“I’m sure they made that same argument after the oils shocks in the late 70s or the BP spill in the Gulf. Like everyone else, they had to adapt.”

“Did they? Or did the people involved just stop trying?” questioned Xavier.

“I can’t speak for them, but I can speak for the office that you decided to partner with,” said the President apprehensively, “There will be reform. There’s always reform after a mess like this.”

“I understand that, Mr. President. But I’m concerned it won’t be enough to stop the next crisis.”

“You’re getting ahead of yourself Xavier…and greedy for that matter,” said the President more forcefully, “There’s a lot riding on our shoulders and to be honest, I’m not comfortable trusting you to handle it. Unfortunately, neither of us has a choice.”

“Choice isn’t the issue here. It’s about making sure no one hinders the other from doing the right thing.” said the Professor, maintaining an urgent tone.

“We’re not in the business of doing the right thing, Xavier. We’re in the businesses of managing the impossible so normal folk don’t have to. If you can convince every legislative body and federal judge to go along with all these reforms, go right ahead. I’ll be happy to implement them at that point. If not, take some time to understand that the reasons for these procedures. Remember, you’re the one who signed up for this so I expect you to honor those procedures. Understood?”

Professor Xavier had much more he wanted to say, but the President of the United States made his position clear. He was not in a position to make major changes to the initiative at the moment. His primary concerns were security. He even projected some hostile thoughts to further dissuade Xavier from making further arguments. They were enough to silence any psychic from probing further.

Having made his point, President Kelly adjusted his suit and calmed down. He then turned to his Secret Service agents, who were prepared to escort him to his next meeting. They even shot Xavier a stern glance, warning him not to run after them.

“I’ll assume you heard my thoughts and we’re back on the same page,” said the President, “Whatever reforms you have, send them through the proper channels. In the meantime, I have a lot of anxious world leaders to reassure.”

“Can I also assume they’ll be as understanding if these reforms are passed too late to make a difference?” questioned Xavier.

“They have a myriad of other concerns at the moment. This may be hard to believe for a mind like yours, but there are other conflicts aside those involving mutants.”

President Kelly rushed into the VIP elevator. He left Xavier behind holding his thick stack of papers, still clearly frustrated by having his concerns tossed aside. The President of the United States didn’t have the luxury of focusing on reform. The current state of the world demanded action and for once the X-men were not a priority.

‘You’re putting us in grave danger, Mr. President. Yet somehow you make me feel selfish for trying to fix what is clearly broken. What am I supposed to tell my X-men? If they have to keep breaking the law to do their job, then I fear for more than just their well-being.’

Worthington Medical Research Center

Betsy Braddock was reeling in so many ways. She recently spent two days in the infirmary, recovering from injuries she sustained during the White Cell attack. Those wounds had been painful enough, but in between the lingering soreness she was told by Hank that Warren had been injured.

He didn’t have details. He just told her that he was involved in the attack against White Cell and he sustained significant injuries, so much so that he had to return to one of his company’s special research clinics. As soon as Betsy was sufficiently healed, she took the first flight out of DC to visit him.

It made for a bittersweet reunion. They hadn’t spoken much since the Mutant Monitoring Initiative was implemented. This initiative drove them apart just when it seems they were getting serious. His rumored affiliation with X-Force ensured they might never patch things up. Recent events rendered those disagreements more pertinent. They also reminded Betsy that she still had strong feelings for the man.

‘Warren Worthington III, you handsome moron. Why do you do this to me? I get that it wasn’t your fault this time. What I don’t get is why make me feel this way every time you get yourself hurt. Do I have some kind of pathological need to feel these emotions when you’re in pain? Guess that would make me a moron as well.’

Betsy sank into her chair, still fighting off lingering soreness as she watched over Warren’s unmoving form. She had been to this clinic before and it was as uninviting as she remembered.

It was one of a handful of facilities that Warren used for treatment after he made himself so sick from the botched Legacy Virus cure. The infirmary was customized to accommodate his physiology. His bed was extra wide with a pair of special harnesses for his techno-organic wings. Except this time, it wasn’t his wings that were the problem. It was pretty much everything else in between.

‘Four broken ribs, a bruised kidney, internal bleeding, a cracked skull, a partially torn pectoral muscle, a fractured fibula, and a broken forearm…that’s just part of what I gathered from your doctor. For all I know, it’s much worse. You’ve done a lot of crazy shit to yourself since the Legacy Virus, Warren. I don’t know how your body can sustain it. Whatever you’re doing in X-Force, you’re clearly doing it wrong. Is it because you’re genuinely determined? Or do you just care that little about surviving?’

Her concern for Warren soon turned to anger. This man seemed determined to put undue strain on anyone who cared about him. It almost didn’t seem worth it at times, but Betsy couldn’t tear herself away.

Under the emotional strain, Betsy rose up from her seat. She ignored the stabbing soreness in her side and stood over the unconscious man in front of her. It wasn’t clear how unconscious he was. He had various machines and IVs going into him. They weren’t the kind she saw in a normal hospital. For all she knew, he was pumping himself with more techno-organic sludge. Seeing as how that was a genuine possibility, Betsy couldn’t help but grow more frustrated.

“I probably shouldn’t be here right now,” she told him, “I would rather not recount how many minds I had to telepathically nudge in order to get inside this place. I took it from all your security that you didn’t want anybody checking up on you. Not even the X-men. You should know by now that they’ll find out you’re hurting. You should also know that I don’t just brush off news that involves you being wounded.”

There was no response from his unmoving form. Betsy tried to contain some of her frustration and projected a more honest sincerity to this man that meant so much to her.

“If I hadn’t heard you were in this bad a shape, I would still be playing the role of Miss Uptight Daughter of an Interpol Officer. I’m supposed to be the one that always sides with the law, even when it fails us. But seeing you like this makes it much harder. Especially after Beast told me the role X-Force played in stopping White Cell. I normally don’t question the law if I feel it makes sense, but even in this case you’re making me think things and feel things that I cannot keep ignore.”

Her voice became strained as she reached for his face and brushed aside his messy blond hair. He still had the kind of presence that evoked such powerful emotions within her. She struggled to contain those motions as she continued to speak.

“You make it very hard for those who care about you, Warren. I’m trying to be mad enough that I can cast aside my feelings. I know now that won’t happen. You mean something to me, Warren. I know I mean something to you as well. You’re so willing to put yourself in danger. Is it so much to ask for you to be more careful with it so I don’t have to endure this?”

It sounded like such a reasonable request. Yet even though he lay unconscious, Betsy sensed that Warren wouldn’t heed it. He put himself through too much to stop at this point. As hard as it was to stop caring about him, Warren was still a stubborn man. It meant Betsy was probably doomed to more frustration.

Knowing she wouldn’t get an answer, Betsy fell silent. She swallowed the bitterness and animosity that emerged out of her frustration. She didn’t allow herself to think about the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, White Cell, or X-Force. She continued caressing Warren’s wounded face, allowing herself to process all the emotions she was feeling.

As she did this, she noticed something odd on Warren’s forehead. Besides the bruise along the left side of his face, she noticed that the skin around the veins in his head was discolored. It looked like an infection of sorts, but one that had nothing to do with his injuries.

“What in the bloody…” she began.

“I wouldn’t touch it if I were you,” came a voice from behind her.

Betsy turned around and instinctively formed a psionic blade. She saw that the voice belonged to Warren’s father, who looked just as frustrated as her albeit for a different set of reasons.

“Mr. Worthington…I didn’t know you were lurking,” said Betsy in an apprehensive tone, “Were you guarding your mind just so you could eavesdrop?”

“I didn’t want to intrude. I figure if Warren could hear anybody in his current state, it would be best if he heard from you,” said Warren Jr.

“Now I feel used. I also don’t feel inclined to let you take a step closer,” said Betsy, holding her psionic blade up in a threatening manner.

“You’ll have to if you care about my son as much as you claim. I know you have little reason to trust me, but that discoloration you saw is a symptom of something that even my son doesn’t understand. It needs to be managed or his life will be in even greater danger.”

Betsy remained suspicious. Warren’s father had a history of making his son’s life difficult. She sensed him lower his mental shields for a moment so that she could verify that he was sincere. It was enough for her to put away her psionic blade, but it didn’t make her any less suspicious.

“Thank you, Miss Braddock,” said Warren Jr. as approached his son’s bedside.

“Don’t thank me. Explain to me what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” said Betsy strongly.

“I’m afraid I don’t have clear answers to those questions,” said Warren Jr. as he activated one of the IVs, “Right now, I’m injecting him with a stabilizing inhibitor that will keep the techno-organic material in his blood from expanding.”

“Expanding? What do you mean by expanding?” questioned Betsy.

“That’s the only word I can use to describe it. You weren’t here when Warren tested a highly experimental and highly dangerous procedure on himself. He was sick of being so weak and he wanted to keep his wings. I tried to talk him out of it, but I was in no position to tell him otherwise.”

“Then he probably wouldn’t have listened to me as well,” she said bitterly, “Warren is just that reckless.”

“Don’t I know it,” sighed Warren Jr. as he made some adjustments to his son’s life-support, “On paper, the procedure was a success. Warren declared it a success and says he hasn’t felt any adverse side-effects. He still gets a routine check-up. At times, my people detect symptoms that they just can’t make sense of.”

“And Warren isn’t aware of this, is he?” Betsy surmised,

“I couldn’t tell him the full truth if I wanted to. This techno-organic material has too many unknowns. Even if these symptoms are a sign of something terrible, I doubt it would stop my son from doing what he does. He has an innate need to spread his wings and play the part of an angel. I’ve never been able to stop him so I’ve given up trying. While I know it may be infuriating at times, you should try to accept it as well. Warren is his own man and his own angel.”

Warren Jr. sounded somewhat defeated as he described his son. It wasn’t just because his condition had so many unknowns. The physical wounds would heal, but the wounds just beneath the surface were still festering.

The worst part for him as a father was that he had little authority to influence his son. He was going to keep doing what he thought was right, even if it meant taking unreasonable risks. He stopped fighting it long ago and he could tell that Betsy was having a hard time accepting it.

“How much danger is he in? Can you at least explain that?” asked Betsy in a calmer tone.

“At this point, I would say it’s light to moderate. These injuries he sustained certainly didn’t help,” said Warren Jr.

“What’s the worst-case scenario? Are your people doing anything to prepare for it?”

“Far as we can tell, the techno-organic material that healed his wings is also trying to heal parts of his body that aren’t wounded. One of my doctors speculated that the material sees his current mutation as incomplete and it’s trying to fill in the gaps.”

“How damaging would that be?” she asked anxiously.

“In every test we’ve run…devastating,” he answered, “His body would get off easy. It’s his mind that really concerns us. The techno-organic material often takes on a life of its own. If push comes to shove, it may not tolerate having to share with another mind.”

Betsy felt a slight chill course down her spine. As a telepath in the body of another woman, she knew all too well the struggles of having two conflicting personalities clash. With the memory of Fantomex still fresh in her mind, she shuttered to think about what this would do to Warren.

She kept watching anxiously as the new silverish IV fluid trickled through the tubes and into Warren’s body. She watched him shift uncomfortably as it entered. The discoloration along his veins disappeared, but it was clearly not a comfortable process.

“Before I leave, mind if I ask you a question, Miss Braddock?” asked Warren Jr.

“Seeing as how you haven’t called security on me, I figure it’s the least I can do,” she muttered.

“Do you love my son? Do you truly love him for who he is and what he is at heart?”

Betsy froze as she contemplated this question. It was the first time someone ever asked her such a question and this was the first time she ever gave it serious thought. She turned back towards Warren’s unconscious form and recalled the circumstances that brought them together. Beyond the frustrations she felt for this man, there were unmistakable emotions. From those emotions, she drew her answer.

“I don’t know for certain how much I love him, but I’m pretty bloody certain I do,” she said with a sigh, “He’s an easy man to love, but a difficult man to share it with.”

“You wouldn’t be the first woman to say that. I believe Candy Southerner expressed that same sentiment on more than one occasion,” said Warren Jr. as he offered her a comforting gesture.

“Is that supposed to be comforting?”

“I didn’t bring her up to draw comparisons. Candy loved him dearly, but she tried too hard to mold their love into something less frustrating. That was a mistake that hurt them both in the end.”

“You’re worried I’ll hurt him just like Candy, aren’t you?” Betsy surmised.”

“You come off as much tougher than Candy so those worries are far fewer,” said Warren Jr. with a slight smile, “If you don’t believe me on anything, believe me when I say this…Warren has a good heart. He may be arrogant at times, but he’ll fight tooth and nail to do the right thing. If that’s something you can love, then don’t try to change it. Take it from a man who watched his wife wither away from cancer. You’ll never know how precious it is until it’s threatened.”

Betsy turned towards Warren Jr. with conflicted emotions. While this man had limited credibility when it came to his son, there was no denying his sincerity. Looking back at his wounded form, she saw a man that was willing to go through this kind of pain in order to be an angel. In her mind that was something worth protecting, even if it was frustrating.

Warren Jr. left his son to rest with Betsy watching over him. She was still technically trespassing, but he chose to overlook it. While he didn’t agree with some of the things his son did behind his back, he understood why he did them. He trusted Warren to keep doing the right thing. He was also willing to trust Betsy to protect him should he need it.

‘You may hate me for thinking this, but your father’s a good man, Warren. He cares about you enough to worry himself sick over what you do to yourself. He seems to accept that you won’t listen to him. But I care about you too and I know you care about me. I hope that if that time comes, you’ll listen to me. With the way things are going, neither X-Force nor the X-men will be able to stay out of each other’s way.’

Nova Roma – Venus Bath House

The mood within X-Force had been mixed since the battle against White Cell. Romulus’s attack changed both them and the circumstances surrounding their mission. The debate over the Mutant Monitoring Initiative took a back seat as countries all over the world scrambled to get their armies functioning again.

It created a dangerous mix of chaos that X-Force could do little to resolve. In some ways, that was a good thing because it allowed them to lay low for a while. For some, however, laying low only made things worse.

“Are you ready to call it a night yet, handsome?” asked a scantily dressed Nova Roman waitress.

“Keep the drinks coming, ma’am,” said a morose Scott Summers, “I’ll either tell you when to stop or pass out, whichever comes first.”

“Wow, you sound like you spent a weekend in Hades. You know for a generous tip, I can make you feel better,” said the waitress, suggestively leaning over the table as she refilled his drink.

“No thanks. I need to be alone right now.”

“Suit yourself,” she shrugged, “Not even the wisdom of Athena could help me understand why some men wallow in such sorrow.”

Scott ignored the waitress’s remarks and went to work on his drink. It was hardly a place to be solemn. Nova Roma’s bath houses were among the many Greco-Roman traditions that had been preserved in this secretive city. They were luxurious places where men and women could relax, be pampered, and be served by attractive caretakers. Yet somehow Scott found a way to be miserable.

Since setting up shop on Nova Roma, X-Force often visited the bath houses to unwind. The Venus Bath House was among the best in the city. It was built in the mold of an old Roman temple while having all the modern fixtures. There were large open pool areas, a party lounge, specialized bathing areas, massage dens, hot tubs, and a full bar.

In nearly every area there were attractive male and female workers in revealing bathing suits to serve the patrons. Thanks to Warren’s credit cards and their connections with the Nova Roman senate, they had full access. Since everyone was still reeling from their encounter with Romulus, it seemed like an appropriate place to heal.

that was exactly why Logan, Emma, and James dragged him to this place. They refused to let him sulk on his own. Domino was already off on a mission. Nightcrawler was catching up with Shaman and Margali on Amanda’s condition. Mystique and Wanda joined him for support. The X-Force leader had no excuses so he reluctantly tagged along. While the others did their part to unwind, he secluded himself in a quiet corner of the bar. Despite an undeniable need to relax, he insisted on denying himself.

“You know that waitress wasn’t just play acting,” said the crass voice of Emma Frost, “If you did even a tiny bit of flirtation, she would have been all over you.”

“I don’t flirt, Emma. You of all people know how bad I am at it,” muttered Scott as he gulped down his drink.

“Even so, you’re an opulent bath house that most people can never hope to afford. You’re surrounded by pools, hot tubs, massage dens, and attractive servants,” she pointed out, “How can you be so willingly miserable?”

“Because I deserve to be miserable right now,” he answered.

“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Emma scoffed, “Could you at least pretend you’re not that pathetic? You’re Scott Summers. I expect this immature behavior from a lot of people, but not from you.”

Scott didn’t answer. He remained fixated on his drink, which was already half empty. Emma scolded him for a few more moments. She had just come from a very relaxing round of pampering in the private bathing area. Wearing only a bath robe, she planned on having a few drinks before she returned for a massage. She didn’t expect her sulking ex-lover to be such an issue.

Shaking her head in frustration, Emma sat down next to Scott. She looked out over the opulent bar, watching servants and patrons pass by. Most of the patrons were in bath robes or swim suits. They represented some of Nova Roma’s wealthy citizenry. They drank, they laughed, and they flirted. Some of the male and female servants even stood up on tables and did exotic dances.

The woman that had just attempted to lift Scott’s spirits decided to do one on a table nearby. She continued looking his direction, but the X-Force leader didn’t notice. He remained lost in his misery.

“Do you plan on giving your drink all the attention or are you going to talk to me?” asked Emma.

“Do you even want to listen? I would hate to kill the buzz you get from being pampered,” said Scott as he took another gulp of his drink.

“It’s already DOA, darling. Much to my frustration, I still care about you, Scott,” said Emma in a more serious tone, “I know you better than most and that’s not just because we were lovers. I also happen to be a powerful telepath in case you’ve forgotten.”

“I take it that means you’ve probed my mind already,” muttered Scott.

“I don’t have to. You’re literally shouting at the top of your brain. And to be honest, it’s quite disturbing.”

“Well maybe if I drink enough, I’ll hit my psychic mute button,” said the X-Force leader as he took another larger gulp.

“If that actually worked, then I wouldn’t sense Kurt fantasizing about Amanda, Wanda, and piles of bacon,” she retorted, “At least he has the good sense to sulk in moderation. He even has a better excuse with his comatose girlfriend.”

“I’m not sulking. I’m just thinking in a way that requires a certain level of misery.”

“I wish I could record that and play it back so you can hear how ridiculous that sounds. Then again, your mind is such a mess right now that I’m not sure you would care. Your mind is usually so controlled. This is uncharted territory in terms of self-loathing.”

“Therein lies the problem, Emma. I lost that control!” he said angrily, finally looking up from his drink, “I lost it and I can’t get it back…not in the way I need right now.”

Emma was taken aback by his sudden shift in tone. It echoed with a pain and confusion that he had never experienced. Scott had to take a few deep breaths in order to collect himself. Emma didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of his problems. Turning back to his drink, he contemplated the harsh truths that plagued him.

“You say you know me, Emma. But I don’t think you understand me. It’s one of the many reasons why we broke up,” he mused.

“I understand that you’re obsesses with control,” she retorted, “I can see why you would be troubled after what Romulus did to you, but that’s no reason to throw a fit like this.”

“If that’s what you think, then you just proved my point. You see, I don’t obsess over control. I need control. Call it neurotic. It’s still important to me…not because of who I am, but because of what I am. I’m a mutant. I have the power to hurt people just by looking at them. If I can’t control that, then everyone around me is in danger. It led me to take a life once before. Now it’s put Warren in a hospital.”

“Is that what this is about? Romulus using your powers to hurt Warren?” surmised Emma, “I’m pretty sure that Warren blames Romulus more than he blames you.”

“It doesn’t matter who he blames. It was still my power! Whether it was taken from me or not, I was the one that lost control! Romulus made it look so easy. Who’s to say that I’ll be able to prevent it from happening again?”

“Now you are flirting with someone. Her name is paranoia,” scolded Emma, “Honestly Scott, are you really going to let this destroy you?”

“It already has to some extent,” said Scott in a more solemn tone, “It calls into question one of the basic tenants I used to justify X-Force. I opposed Professor Xavier because I thought he was giving up control over his vision for mutants. I thought X-Force could fight to get that control back.”

“And we still can. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe we couldn’t, even if I’ve grown fond of Nova Roman bath houses,” said Emma.

“I used to believe that as well. Now I’m not so sure,” he went on, “We’re mutants, Emma. We lose control and people get hurt. I used to think it was because of the fear and hatred…not in spite of it. Now Romulus has proven that I had it ass backwards. We are dangerous. We are a potential threat. And I don’t think X-Force or the X-men for that matter are equipped to deal with it anymore.”

The beleaguered man roughly gulped down the rest of his drink, allowing more doubt to consume him. At this point the alcohol was really getting to him. His demeanor, his speech, and his expression were disheveled. He no longer looked like the competent leader that so many relied on.

He felt Emma’s harsh eyes scolding him for succumbing to such doubts. He also felt some of her own doubts surfacing. She had no logical response to his statement. There was nothing else to make of it.

“You’re in pain right now, Scott. What Romulus did to you left some pretty deep scars,” she told him.

“Then why aren’t the others as miserable as me right now?” he groaned.

“We’re not the leader of this team. That and I suppose we have better coping skills when it comes to losing control,” she shrugged.

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“I’m just telling you the truth, Scott. The pain you’re in now won’t last forever. Take it from someone who had to seize control of her life at one point. Control takes effort and right now you’re not putting much into it. X-Force still has a mission. I believe in that mission and I can sense that you do as well. You may have to sober up a bit in order to see it, but I know it’s there. You wouldn’t be this troubled if it wasn’t.”

Scott held his head low, the alcohol having clouded his thoughts to a point beyond coherence. All these doubts kept swirling within his head. Yet he couldn’t tear himself away from X-Force or their mission. The world was a mess after White Cell’s attack. It set the stage for any number of greater threats. Even while drunk, he couldn’t see himself just walking away from them.

“I don’t know anymore, Emma. I just don’t know,” he said as he slouched over in a drunken daze.

“You will eventually. You’re too competent a man not to,” said Emma, offering a friendly gesture.

“You’re too kind for an ex-girlfriend, Emma.”

“I’m only vindictive to those who deserve it. Now we brought you to this bath house so you can heal. If you’re not too drunk, I can take you back to one of the private dens and make sure you get the healing you so desperately need.”

“Are you doing the flirting now? I thought you were my ex,” grumbled Scott.

“I am, I’m not suggesting we rekindle old flames,” she said, “I’m just suggesting that maybe a little meaningless intimacy would be better than alcohol. Besides, you and Jean aren’t technically together anymore. Why deny yourself something that might help you regain the control you so badly desire?”

“Hnn…don’t bring up, Jean,” he said, his words becoming more slurred.

“Why not? Don’t tell me she’s still a mitigating factor in your misery.”

Scott let out more groans. This time Emma couldn’t even make out what he was saying. Despite offering to pamper him in ways that were only appropriate in a Nova Roman bath house, he continued to accept his misery. Emma tried offering more comforting gestures.

In the end it didn’t stop Scott from passing out. His alcohol tolerance just wasn’t up to par. That or the mention of Jean Grey made passing out too appealing.

“I suppose this is your way of pleading the fifth, pathetic it may be,” she sighed.

Emma signaled one of the male servants to bring over to assist with her drunken friend. He nodded and went to work. This probably wasn’t the first time someone passed out drunk in a bath house. It was just tragic that someone as strong as Scott Summers would succumb to such a stupor.

While the male servant retrieved a pillow and some napkins for Scott, Logan entered the bar wearing only a towel. He was smoking a cigar and when he saw Scott he shook his head in bemusement.

“Is this what Cyke’s been reduced to? Getting drunk in a bath house next to his ex?” commented Logan.

“Since I know you’ll never cut him some slack, I won’t bother asking,” sighed Emma as she carefully laid Cyclops down, “However, I do think it’s a symptom of something more serious.”

“With him or with X-Force?” questioned Logan.

“Both,” she replied, “We can only hope that Domino’s little side-mission bears fruit. We’re all in need of a ‘moment of clarity’ if that’s the proper term.”

“Well if Cyke is gonna be messed up, I’d say we’re all in deep shit. That moment will come with or without his sorry ass and X-Force can’t afford distractions.”

As soon as he made this point, another figure entered the bar. This time it was Mystique. She was in her blue-skinned form and wearing a towel identical to Logan’s, which made obvious her reasons for being here.

“Speaking of distractions,” said Emma coyly.

“There you are, Logan. Where’s that bottle of wine you promised me after I won the bet?” said the shape-shifter.

“Do I want to know what this bet entails?” said Emma, acting as if she didn’t already know, “I thought you were spending time with your son and his comatose girlfriend.”

“I was, but he insisted on being alone with her. So I came here,” she said casually.

“I’m sure you did…more than once hopefully,” said Emma, rolling her eyes.

“Shut up, Frost. Don’t make me point out how many ridiculous tips you’ve left the male workers here,” grumbled Logan.

“Fair enough,” she shrugged, “But before you resume your lurid escapades, we need to make sure Scott wakes up somewhere comfortable. Preferably one that won’t make the hangover more painful than it needs to be.”

“Fine, we’ll get him a room,” said Logan, rolling his eyes, “Far as I’m concerned, he deserves a hangover. The sooner his ass hits rock bottom, the sooner he can go back to being a regular dick. We’ll need it once the next crises emerges from the mess my old man left behind.”

Istanbul – Turkey

‘What are the odds someone as lucky as me can feel so unlucky right now? I guess karma is more powerful than luck sometimes. I avoided the three days of manipulation by Romulus. So I have to make up for it by tying up the loose ends. I have no excuse like the others. They need to unwind in those fancy Nova Roman bath houses while I toil in a crowded city, spying on people that may not even be up to anything. Not sure what being lucky means here.’

It was not a good time to be in a major city. The attacks by Romulus had weakened the defenses of every major nation and some people were taking advantage of it. Turkey, like much of Europe and the Middle East, was no exception.

With boarder disputes to the south with Iraq and diplomatic disputes with a weakened European Union, there was no shortage of vulnerabilities. Students from local universities staged large protests. Religious and political leaders were vying for influence while the central government lacked the resources to silence them. It caused various street closures throughout Istanbul and limited business around the ports. It was in this setting that Domino was supposed to hunt down one last vestige of White Cell.

For her mission, she needed more than luck. Dressed in a traditional hijab that covered most of her face, she tracked her targets through the chaotic city in a game of cat-and-mouse that had been going on for several days now.

She followed a number of leads to a local soccer field in one of the major parks. It wasn’t far from where major protests were going on so it was unusually crowded. A couple of unruly games had broken out and there was plenty of cheering going on. It allowed Domino to maneuver undetected towards her waiting targets.

‘These guys picked a hell of a setting. I doubt their sports fans so there better be a reason for this. Otherwise I’m using Wolverine for target practice when I get back.’

Domino slipped through the crowded hoards to the small concession stands behind the bleachers. Most had already been raided so there weren’t many people paying attention to this area. Guided by luck and skill, she made her move.

As Domino closed in, she identified her targets. One was Frenzy, a known mutant operative from White Cell who wasn’t present at the base when Romulus was defeated. Next to her were two well-dressed women in business suits. They were Adrienne and Cordelia Frost, the deviant sisters of Emma. They seemed to be waiting for someone. Domino used an enhanced listening device stitched into her hijab to eavesdrop, hoping something would finally come of this mission.

“Your contact picked a lousy place to meet, Cordelia. We’re uncomfortably exposed here,” said an impatient Adrienne Frost.

“Given how often you expose yourself, I find it hard to believe it’s that uncomfortable,” quipped Cordelia dryly, who carefully scanned the area through a pair of sunglasses.

“For someone as smart as you, I find it utterly asinine that you don’t see a problem with this scenario. I wonder if impaling you with my Gucci stilettos would knock some sense into you,” grumbled the attractive blonde.

“Those stilettos won’t do you much good in a Turkish prison,” said Frenzy, “And trust me, someone like you wouldn’t last a second.”

“And I’m sure someone like you would be just at home, Frenzy,” quipped Adrienne, “If I were you, I’d be grateful. We didn’t have to bring you along for this, but unfortunately we need muscle. It’s the only way we’ll get our White Cell accounts unfrozen.”

“Seeing as how your brainiac sister here couldn’t hack it, what makes you think this contact will be able to?” Frenzy questioned.

“Because this contact has access to black market resources that we don’t,” answered Cordelia, “As it just so happens, he’s offering his services without us having to pay him what little money we have left.”

“So then how are we paying him? Are you going to ask me to sleep with him because that trick is getting old,” said Adrienne dryly.

“Not this time, dear sister. That leads me to the other reason why I wanted Frenzy to tag along. This payment he wants from us requires more than a little muscle.”

Cordelia was the only one who remained calm. Adrienne and Frenzy continued to scold her for putting them in this position. They continued anxiously watching the crowds swarm in and out of the soccer stadium. Between the nearby protests and the lack of order, it was not a good time to make a deal. Unfortunately, this was one of the few luxuries that even they couldn’t afford.

As Domino kept listening, she grew more intrigued. It sounded like she was onto something. These three had been randomly lofting around the city for days, complaining about not having access to the dirty money they earned at White Cell. Now they were finally doing something about it.

‘Finally, they’re making this mission interesting. They’re cunning enough to escape White Cell’s collapse, but not skilled enough to hold onto their money. Last I heard, White Cell was being absorbed by UN affiliates and redeployed to certain areas. So why would they need to slip under the radar? They must have something to hide.’

Domino sat down against a wall across from where Frenzy and the Frost sisters had gathered. She pretended to be a beggar, sitting near others who were holding their hands out in hopes of charity. Under her veil, she adjusted the signal so she could listen in closer. As a fresh crowd of protesters entered from the stands, they were finally approached by a man in a baseball cap and a trench coat.

“You ladies look lost. Do you need a male guide to get through these unruly festivities?” the man asked.

“That depends,” said Cordelia cryptically, “Did you come in on a fancy boat or a private jet?”

“I arrived by any means necessary. I assume you did as well,” said the man.

Cordelia smiled and took off her sunglasses. This was just the man she had been waiting for. He promised to put them back on track in major way.

“Are you two talking in code because I need to know if I should punch this man back to the days of Constantinople,” said Frenzy.

“It’s okay, Frenzy. The charade is over. This is the man I told you about,” said Cordelia.

This is Black Tom Cassidy?” said Adrienne with a raised eyebrow, “Honestly, I thought he was taller.”

“I’m big where it counts, madam,” said Black Tom coyly, “Before you take that the wrong way, please note that I successfully unfrozen two of your accounts a mere five minutes ago. Please accept this as insurance that I can do what I claim for the other eight accounts, provided you complete the task I lay before you.”

“Cordelia, tell me this man isn’t just undressing me with his eyes,” said Adrienne, who remained skeptical under this man’s gaze.

“Like you need a 189 IQ to figure that out,” said Cordelia as she took out a tablet computer, “Give me a minute to verify his claim.”

Frenzy and Adrienne waited, never taking their eyes off Black Tom. He maintained a confident grin. It didn’t take long for Cordelia to check their accounts. After a tense moment, she let out a sigh of relief and nodded. This man proved he could deliver and that certainly helped his credibility.

“He’s telling the truth. Two of our Swiss accounts are unfrozen and fully accessible,” said Cordelia.

“Marvelous,” said Adrienne, “Now we can stop sleeping in two-star hotels with mediocre room service.”

“For a while, but I’d feel much better with a much higher line of credit,” said Cordelia as she put her computer away, “Tell me more about this task you mentioned. What does it entail and why do you need us to do it?”

Black Tom smiled ominously. He had their full attention and they had his. He took off his baseball cap so he could address the three women more formally. From afar Domino’s eyes widened as she took in this man’s appearance. Her mission went from boring to volatile in a very short span.

‘It IS Black Tom! This just got dangerous in way too many ways. Nightcrawler told me about this guy. He’s an arms dealer in a world that lost over half it’s military. If anyone’s in a position to take advantage of this mess, it’s him.’

Domino carefully adjusted her listening device so that she could hear their conversation. She also kept her guns ready. Whenever Black Tom showed up, danger was never far behind.

“My reasons for choosing you are purely pragmatic,” Black Tom told the three women, “You each have more incentive than most to not screw this up. You each were heavily involved in White Cell’s more nefarious operations. The UN is making a big deal out of capturing people like you and holding them accountable. It also doesn’t help that you were skimming some of White Cell’s revenue for your own personal use.”

“Are you going to lecture us on how we make our money? Or are you going to get to the point?” scolded Adrienne.

“Don’t be silly. I’m in the illegal arms business. I’m in no position to lecture anyone on the ethics of making money. However, I am in a position to make deals that most aren’t in a position to make. I can not only unlock your accounts. I can make sure the UN doesn’t bother you as you make use of them.”

“Do we even want to know how you can manage that?” said Frenzy with folded arms.

“I think you’ll sleep better at night if I didn’t tell you,” he said with a wry grin, “But this kind of safety doesn’t come cheap. In order to pay for such a service, you will need to retrieve something for me…something important that most are not desperate enough to try.”

“What is it? How dangerous is this something you speak of?” asked Cordelia.

“It’s not so much what it is that is such a problem. It’s the location,” said Black Tom, “This brings me to a certain caveat that I must mention before I offer further details.”

“I’m already quite dubious,” said Adrienne, “Tell us what it entails so we can start coping with the frustration.”

“That’s where it gets tricky, I’m afraid. You see, before I go any further I have a confession to make.”

“Confession? You’re not going back on our arrangement already, are you?” scolded Cordelia.

“I’m not going back on anything. This is a matter of pure logistics. The deal I’m offering can only accommodate one of you. As much as I wish I could help you all, I’ve already decided who will receive my charity.”

Before Adrienne and Cordelia could voice their outrage any further, they felt a wave of paralysis come over them. A strange screech echoed in their ears and their bodies went ridged. No one else around them seemed to be affected. Frenzy wasn’t even affected, but she still took a defensive stance. Outraged and confused, they angrily scolded Black Tom.

“Ungh! Can’t…move,” grunted Adrienne.

“What…what did you do to us?” said Cordelia.

“Oh I’m not doing anything. It’s my dear daughter, Siryn. She has taken the liberty of subduing you so that you can’t make a scene, “said Black Tom, taunting the two women with a domineering gesture, “I suggest you not fight it. My daughter has a propensity to play rough.”

“So you are betraying us!” said Frenzy, who prepared to tear into this man.

“I’m only betraying them, Ms. Cargill. Not you,” said Black Tom defensively, “Tell me, would you rather earn your freedom and trust the Frost sisters to compensate you for your efforts? Or would you rather earn those funds for yourself and secure that freedom?”

Frenzy raised an eyebrow. She studied Black Tom for a moment. Then she turned back towards the Frost sisters, who looked more uncomfortable by the minute. These women had been insufferable at White Cell. They were greedy, manipulative, and completely without honor. Being a former soldier, that was more than enough reason not to trust them. The promise of more money only sweetened the deal.

“Errrr! Don’t even…consider it, Frenzy! You betray us…we burn you!” scolded Cordelia.

“I’ve already considered it and come to a decision,” scoffed Frenzy, “I’m sorry girls, but Black Tom is more trustworthy than you. Given his reputation, I think that says a lot.”

“You…conniving…bitch!” seethed Adrienne.

“That’s soon-to-be-much-richer conniving bitch to you,” said Frenzy with a half-grin, “Sorry, but you of all people should know that some opportunities are just too lucrative to pass up.”

With smug satisfaction, Frenzy turned back towards Black Tom who looked quite amused by the Frost sisters’ outburst.

“Mr. Cassidy, I accept your offer,” said Frenzy, “Tell me what you need me to do and I’ll do it.”

“Wonderful!” said Black Tom with a grin, “I’ve already arranged our transportation. I’ll leave my darling daughter to deal with these two.”

Black Tom raised his hand and waved his baseball cap in the air. That signaled another woman wearing a veil that covered most of her body to emerge from near the restrooms. She removed her veil to reveal herself as Siryn. As she approached, she continued focusing her powers on the Frost sisters. Since there were no so much crowd noise and so few security guards, they had no means of calling for help.

“Looks like I owe your cohorts back home some money,” said Siryn with a grin, “I was so certain that it wouldn’t be this easy.”

“Such is the value of a well-organized plan that relies on pitfalls and advantages of greed,” said Black Tom, “Will you be able to take care of this quietly, my dear?”

“Oh don’t worry, father. When I’m through with these two, the only ones they’ll do business will be the bugs that devour their corpses,” she said sadistically.

“Fuck…you…Black Tom,” grunted Adrienne.

“You’ll…regret this,” groaned Cordelia, “You think…I’m not smart enough…to prepare for betrayal?”

“It doesn’t matter what you’ve prepared for. It won’t do you much good if you’re dead,” reasoned Black Tom as he turned away, “Come Frenzy. Do not waste another second worrying about these scoundrels.”

“I’ve already forgotten their names, Mr. Cassidy,” said Frenzy as she followed close behind.

“We have a long trip ahead of us,” he went on, “Siryn, don’t take too long.”

“I’ll catch up, father. I promise I’ll be quick and efficient,” said Siryn in anticipation.

Trusting his daughter’s menacing threat, Black Tom put his baseball cap back on and led Frenzy into the crowds. It allowed Siryn plenty of room to take care of these unruly deviants. She carefully looked around her, formulating a plan. The two paralyzed sisters watched on with outrage and anxiety.

At this point, Domino could no longer justify remaining hidden. Black Tom’s betrayal was hardly a surprise, but the deal he kept referring to sounded more complex than simply stealing White Cell’s dirty assets. It had all the trappings of something that needed to be stopped.

As she rose up from where she was sitting, she quickly lost Black Tom in the crowds. However, she never lost sight of Siryn and the Frost sisters. If she was going to remain on their trail, she had to act.

‘A deal with Black Tom on top of a betrayal…sounds like a typical Saturday afternoon for him. What the hell could he be up to this time? Going after him now would be pushing my luck. I think my chances are better with two sisters who now have plenty of reasons to screw up his plan.’

Acting on a whim, Domino put away her listening equipment and rose up. She started making her way through the crowds towards Siryn and the Frost sisters. It looked like Siryn was going to lead them into the vacant concession stand where she could do all the horrible things she had planned in peace.

Before she could make her first move, Domino made hers. Taking out a concealed 45 caliber pistol, she fired a random shot under her veil that echoed through the stadium.

“Someone has a gun!” yelled an older woman with two children.

“It must be the police! They must have rearmed!” yelled an old man.

“We must evacuate the stadium! Hurry!” urged one of the protesters.

The sudden outburst completely disrupted the unruly crowds that were disorganized to begin with. For Siryn, it complicated her task. She had to carefully guard the Frost sisters before anyone got wind of her activities.

“Still want to kill us…with all this going on?” taunted Adrienne.

“Your luck is worse than your graveling,” scolded Siryn, “This changes nothing. We’ll just have to be a little more subtle.”

“Now where’s the fun in that?” came a nearby voice.

Siryn instinctively turned around only to see Domino emerge from the crowd. She promptly pulled up her veil to reveal that she was the one who had fired the shot. With that same gun, she fired another that struck Siryn right in the knee.

“Ahhhhhhhhhh!” she yelled out in pain.

Her cries were almost muted by the noise of the crowds. The sound of another gunshot got them to move even faster. In addition, the pain of being shot was enough to break her hold on the Frost sisters.

“I can control my body again!” exclaimed Adrienne.

“Congratulations! Your career as a business whore is saved,” said Cordelia, “Now let’s get out of here and go after Black Tom.”

“No…you won’t!” seethed Siryn.

With far less subtlety, Siryn unleashed another punishing shriek at the Frost sisters. This time it did more than just paralyze them. It hit them with a concussive force that caused them to fall flat on their faces. With their ears ringing and their heads reeling, they wouldn’t be able to move for a good five minutes or so. That was more than enough time to take care of this threat.

“Nice trick! Let’s see if you can do it after I shoot your other knee,” said Domino as she threw off her veil.

“You…did the Frost sisters hire you as insurance?” grunted Siryn as she grasped her wounded knee.

“Oh please, I’m insulted,” scoffed Domino, “I’m just a trigger-happy girl who thinks it’s in everyone’s interest that your dad fails at everything.”

Seething with pain and frustration, Siryn let out an angry sonic yell. This time she wasn’t careful about it. Her sonic shockwaves hit nearby crowds and did damage to support pillars. Domino managed to avoid them by running off to her right. She lost herself in the fleeting crowds, which were now more panicked than ever.

“Now it’s a mutant attack? How much worse can this get?” exclaimed a young woman as she ran with her family towards the exit.

“Don’t bother thinking about it! They’re doing significant damage! Let’s get out before it collapses!” said the young woman’s father.

Domino heard this remark as she continued to run full speed, narrowly avoiding Siryn’s sonic attack. She looked around and noticed that the stadium was not responding well to Siryn’s attacks. Some of the support pillars were cracking. Some of those cracks extended to the roof. As the sonic yells drew uncomfortably close, she looked up saw one of the cracks forming right over Siryn’s head. Once again, her luck would have to continue.

“If I told you shutting up was in your best interests, would you listen?” asked Domino as she kept running.

“DIIIIIIIEEEEEEEE!” yelled Siryn through her sonic attack.

“Just checking,” she said with a grin.

With an acrobatic leap, Domino used one of the trash cans to leap up over the sonic blast. As she did, she fired three more shots at the ceiling above her head. The cracks along with Domino’s luck, triggered a sizable chunk of the old soccer stadium to break off. It fell and struck Siryn right in the head, delivering a blow that both shut her up and nearly knocked her out.

“Ungh!” she grunted as she fell to the ground.

“Silence is golden,” said Domino as she landed right in front of her.

By now most of the people had cleared out. Siryn’s attack added some much-needed urgency, allowing Domino more room to operate. With no more crowds in her way, she approached the injured Siryn. With a wounded knee and a nasty bruise on her head, she wasn’t in a position to fight back.

“Okay, daddy’s girl. Time for the Q&A. Where’s your old man heading and what’s he up to?”

“Hnn…” was all Siryn could get out.

Domino rolled her eyes in frustration. It seemed she played a bit too rough. She couldn’t tell her what she needed to know if she was injured. She didn’t have the luxury of calling for paramedics and waiting. Black Tom was on the move and she had to improvise. So she turned towards the Frost sisters, who were paralyzed yet conscious.

“Never mind. I’ll try my luck elsewhere,” said Domino as she made her way over to the two paralyzed women.

“Who…are you?” groaned Cordelia.

“Someone with just as many reasons to torment Black Tom as you,” she said as she knelt over her paralyzed form, “Tell me, when you said you were smart enough to prepare for his betrayal, were you bluffing?”

“Of course not,” she grunted, “What’s it to you?”

“Well, if you point me in the right direction, I can promise that Black Tom’s luck will take a serious turn for the worse. That’s assuming, of course, you’re the vindictive type.”

Cordelia Frost looked up at Domino and scowled. She desperately wanted Black Tom to suffer. She had no reason to trust this woman. But if there was any chance to make Black Tom pay, then it was a chance worth taking.

“I did a little computer hacking before this meeting,” said Cordelia breathlessly, “You better listen closely because we’re supposed leave on a private yacht within the hour. I don’t know what he has planned and I don’t care anymore. Just make sure he fails!”

Xavier Institute – Xavier’s Office

Professor Xavier returned to his institute in a solemn daze. There was no use arguing with the President or anyone else in a position of power anymore. They were too caught up in the security gap left by White Cell. They were only interested in the symptoms and not the disease that caused it.

As the Professor entered his office, he casually tossed the thick stack of papers to the side. He leaned back against his door and groaned in frustration. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative was supposed to make the X-men’s work simpler. The debacle with White Cell was a case study in the authorities obstructing their mission.

They had more than enough evidence to go after White Cell. Because of political pandering and the corruption that White Cell utilized, the X-men were unable to do their job. Now the world was suffering as a result and worst of all, the authorities he so trusted wouldn’t do anything to fix it.

As he rubbed his tired head, Professor Xavier turned towards a picture he had mounted on his wall. It was one of the future pictures he managed to salvage from the old institute. It depicted the X-men in their early days when they still wore masks. It had Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Thunderbird, Wolfsbane, Angel, and Beast. His gaze focused on Cyclops, who had warned him about this very possibility.

“No one will listen. No one will make the changes that need to be made,” he mused, “We could have stopped White Cell, but the powers that be wouldn’t let us. You warned me about ceding that power. It turns out you may have been right.”

Professor Xavier remained fixated on the picture. He casually brushed his hands over it as if to reconnect with a less complicated time.

“What happened with White Cell could easily be corrected. Yet no one has the time or energy to do so. They’re too focused on cleaning up the damage. In doing so, they render themselves more vulnerable. It feels like the beginning of a cycle that we can’t afford to be on. There are only so many times we can get lucky. If by then you and X-Force haven’t made your point, then all will be lost.”

Unable to face the picture anymore, Professor Xavier held his head low and walked over to his desk. He let himself sink into his seat, feeling at a loss for his cause and his X-men. The authorities had made it painfully clear. There would be no reforms for the foreseeable future. Whatever crisis emerged in the meantime would face the same problems. If the X-men had to keep defying the Mutant Monitoring Initiative in order to save it, then the entire premise of the plan lost all meaning.

As Professor Xavier mused over such dire circumstances, he noticed an envelope on his desk. It was blank, bearing no return address or official markings. It had only the name Charles written on the center. In need of a distraction, he picked up the envelope and opened it.

“Unless this is a notice from the IRS, I’ll accept any news as positive,” he sighed.

Upon opening the envelope, the Professor unfolded a single-page handwritten letter. He quickly grew more intrigued. Then when he saw who it was from and what it said, his expression paled.

“You were right, Charles. Dreams are worth fighting for. In order for them to come true, it must begin where mine came to an end. I look forward to seeing you soon. Erik.”

Professor Xavier’s hands trembled as he read over the letter repeatedly. At first he refused to believe it, but he recognized the handwriting. It most certainly belonged to Magneto.

“Erik…you’ve picked a hell of a time to reemerge,” said Xavier, “You say I was right. Why do I not take comfort in this for a second?”

His frustrations over the Mutant Monitoring Initiative would have to wait. Magneto was back. He quickly folded up the letter and rushed out of his office to retrieve his X-men. Their next crisis was already upon them and this time they weren’t going to rely on the authorities to make it easier.

Port of Istanbul

“What are you overpaid thugs waiting for? Shoot her!” ordered an increasingly anxious Black Tom.

“We’ve got her pinned down, sir! Just get on the boat and cast off!” ordered one of Black Tom’s body guards.

“And leave my daughter behind?” he questioned.

“We’ll catch up with her, sir. But if she hasn’t shown up by now, then she’s probably not going to!”

Black Tom struggled to contain his outrage. This affair had been going so well up until several minutes ago. He and Frenzy arrived at a private port where his yacht was anchored. The Frost sisters weren’t supposed to know about it and Siryn was supposed to meet up with them before they disembarked. That all changed when some gun-wielding woman ambushed them and started shooting.

That woman was Domino and she had already taken down three of Black Tom’s hired guns. After her chat with Cordelia Frost, she followed her information and it let her right to Black Tom. Sneaking past the undermanned security was the easy part. Getting through Black Tom’s thugs was the real challenge. They were probably better equipped than any port guard at this point. They managed to pin her against a couple of empty oil drums while Black Tom’s crew raised the anchor on his yacht.

“There a problem, Mr. Cassidy?” asked Frenzy in annoyance, “You look flustered.”

“An unexpected, but minor setback,” said Black Tom, “Those Frost sisters must have made some friends for a change.”

“Those two? Fat chance!” scoffed Frenzy.

“It doesn’t matter. Siryn knows her role. If she’s as cunning as I taught her, she’ll find a way back to me. In the meantime, we have our destination. We don’t need to stick around and waste time or bullets on this inconvenience!”

Black Tom signaled the captain to move faster. He got the message and activated the yacht’s engines. It wasn’t long before it accelerated out from the port, using the light fog over the sea as cover.

Domino grunted in frustration. Three remaining thugs kept her pinned with incessant gunfire. She felt the bullets streak by, doing plenty of damage to the barrel and keeping her from her target.

‘Damn it! He’s getting away. I suppose I could swim after the guy, but I would rather take the dry route. That means my aim is going to have to be perfect yet again.’

Clutching her two 45 caliber pistols, Domino took a deep breath. She waited until the three thugs had to reload. These were professionals so that left her a very brief window. Just as another bullet narrowly missed her neck, she jumped out from behind the oil drum and fired two shots. Her perfect luck continued and they struck two of the thugs right in the chest.

“Ungh!” they both yelled out.

“Ooh, that can’t be good,” groaned the body guard.

The two thugs were dead soon after they hit the ground. When Black Tom’s body guard saw this, he panicked as he emptied the last bullet from his uzi. With no more bullets flying towards Domino, she was free to run out and attack him head on.

He almost dropped his uzi as he tried to load another clip. As soon as he did, Domino fired another shot that hit him right in the hand. She then followed it up with another that hit him right in his stomach.

“Ahhhhhhhh!” he cried out as he fell flat on his back.

“I’m normally more careful, but anyone stupid enough to work for Black Tom deserves some extra discomfort,” said Domino.

The body guard was down and bleeding profusely. He was already coughing up blood and in a lot of pain. As Domino approached, she looked out towards the port and saw that Black Tom’s yacht was long gone. There was no way she could catch it now. The best she could do was find out where it was heading. For that information, she reloaded one of her guns and pointed it at the wounded body guard.

“Your boss is gone and he’s not coming back for you,” she told him, “Those shots I fired will require that your hand be amputated and you’ll be paralyzed from the waist down. Then again, at the rate you’re bleeding it probably won’t be for long.”

“Errrrrrr! You…bitch,” cried the man.

“I know it hurts, but if you tell me where that yacht is heading I promise I’ll make it quick and painless. I’ll find out either way, but this will be easier for both of us.”

The wounded body guard looked up at Domino with burning anger. Blood was still gushing from his mouth and he couldn’t stop the bleeding. He was in so much pain and there was no telling how long it would lastHis loyalty to Black Tom was strong, but this kind of pain eclipsed any loyalty.

“Genosha…they’re heading for Genosha,” said the man, his voice choked with blood.

Domino was shocked by this revelation. She studied the man for a moment, looking for any signs that he might be lying. Seeing none, she was inclined to believe him.

“Genosha huh?” she said, “Sounds like a hell of a vacation spot. Consider yourself lucky.”

With one shot, Domino kept her promise and ended the man’s life as painlessly as possible. The tedious part of her mission was officially complete. Now the much messier part would take her and X-Force to the shores of Genosha where far greater dangers would surely await.

Up next: Uncivil Disobedience

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