Note: Big surprise. This does not follow continuity. Cecilia and Beast are still with the X-Men (they never should have been written out, in my oh-so-humble-opinion), the team went into the past just before Galactus gobbled up the Skree home world, and Marrow has gone through her whole transformation ( i.e. her mutation has stabilized thanks to the Alien device Gambit shoved her in when she was dying). No mention of Xavier here, or Apocalypse--in other words, the past few issues of X-Men are null and void. Logan is Logan, and so on.
Another Note: Since the range of Cecilia's powers was never really discussed before she left the books, I've taken some liberties with what might be considered some weaknesses in her bio-shield. For example, if she's already made bodily contact with someone, and that person reaches up, puts his hands around her neck, and begins to squeeze--will her shield activate?
Disclaimer: Another big surprise. I don't own them, and never will. Sue me, and I'll sic my poodle, Daisy, on you. She'll blind you to death with her keen fashion sense.
Okay, one last thing. This is a long story,
and I'm not entirely sure how well it holds together. My villains always
seem too flat and non-threatening, the dialogue feels stiff in some places,
blah, blah, blah. In other words, constructive comments would be greatly
appreciated at [email protected]
Cecilia Reyes raced down the cramped, winding lane, soaked to the bone. It was difficult to hear her pursuers over the storm, winds howling down on her, pressing her skin flat against the bones of her face. It was even harder to see, to make out obstacles, the driving rain stinging her eyes and thickening the looming darkness surrounding her. She grunted in pain as the bio-shield surrounding her bare knee connected with an old wooden crate someone had left leaning against a doorstep, the narrow lengths of wood breaking loudly as they ricocheted off her leg and hit the cobblestone street behind her. Clenching her teeth against the imagined sensation of torn flesh, Cecilia slammed the palm of her hand against the plane of her thigh, and pushed herself to keep moving.
Up ahead, she could see light streaming from a window slit, bars over the glass. Rainwater poured over the eaves of the roof just above the tiny golden glow, and she steered clear of the falling water. She'd run under more than one of those, all by accident, and the shockingly cold onslaught of water had almost dropped her to her knees each and every time.
As she passed the window, the sound of laughter from within made her pause. Heart thundering in her ears, eyes and body aching, she took a numb step forward and found herself staring into a kitchen. Her gaze fell on the back of a little girl's head. She was giggling and pointing at the television, and the sounds of Donald Duck huffily spouting Chinese filled Cecilia's ears. There were other voices, a woman's shrill call to her husband, and the scraping back of a chair followed by irritated muttering.
It was the man's voice that brought her back, and she jumped away from the window, breath rattling in her throat. How long had she been standing there? She turned, and her foot connected with glass. Cecilia knelt, and with the faint light emanating from the window she was able to find the broken stem of a beer bottle she had kicked with her tennis shoe. She clutched the smooth length of glass in her right fist, comforted by the feel of a weapon in her hands, something she could use against the men if they caught up with her.
And they had, she realized, ears picking up the distinct echoing splash and slap of shoes on pavement. She turned and ran, leaving the little light of the kitchen and moving into blind darkness. Here, she could not see at all, and the lane narrowed dangerously. Narrowed even more, the walls closing around her until, shockingly, there was no where left to run. She had come to a dead end.
There were doors--she banged on them with her fists, kicking with her feet. Not one of them opened. The roof then, but the walls were slick, and she was too tired. She kept losing her grip, and on the third desperate attempt, she fell just too hard. Sprawled on the ground, collected rain from the eaves pouring down on her head, her body finally gave out. Not even her arms would work.
"Shit," she muttered, just as the first beam of a flashlight appeared not more than ten feet away.
It began with an invitation from Hank to attend a medical conference. Before that, however, her morning started out in a fairly routine fashion--meaning that someone came into the infirmary at eight a.m. sharp. Holding rollerblades. Bleeding, and in a typically grouchy, ungrateful mood.
"Ouch! Watch it!" Jubilee griped, clutching the edge of the examining table. She glared at the woman bent over her leg.
"If you would hold still for just one minute, it wouldn't hurt so badly," Cecilia replied, gritting her teeth.
"Some bedside manner you've got." Jubilee shot back. She hissed, as Cecilia cleaned out the cut a little harder than what was necessary. The sounds of the infirmary room's door opening reached them from beyond the curtain, and Cecilia caught a glimpse of blue through a small tear in the separating material.
"Lucy, I'm hooome!" Hank called.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she muttered, not bothering to look around the curtain. She heard him puttering around his desk, glasses tinkling and papers shuffling in a decidedly homey manner.
"All fixed up and ready to go," Cecilia finally announced, straightening. Jubilee sniffed, looking at her bandaged knee. She flexed her leg.
"Thanks, Doc." She jumped off the table, and Cecilia opened her mouth to warn her to be more careful. She closed it with a snap, deciding that the teen was not going to listen to her no matter what she said. Jubilee pulled back the curtain as she left, allowing Cecilia an unobstructed view of Hank. He was already seated at his computer, glasses shoved up his nose. He glanced at her, a smile playing on his lips.
"And how are you this morning?"
"Just peachy. And you?"
"Simply superb, although I'm afraid that Bobby and I have depleted the house of its supply of Pepto Bismo."
"I did warn you," Cecilia said, sitting down on the edge of his desk. "I don't care how much of a tradition Harry's is for you guys. That place violates every health code in the district and those fish chips were distinctly green."
"Puts hair on a man's chest, m'dear doctor," he blithely confessed over her snort of laughter. "So, what are your plans for the day?"
"I'm heading into Salem Center." Cecilia answered, studiously examining her fingernails. "I'm thinking of starting my own practice, and there's some office space that I want to take a look at."
Hank blinked. "You wish to leave us?"
Cecilia smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "It's not like you really need me. Besides, I'll still be in the neighborhood in case you're desperate for an extra pair of hands."
"And what an extraordinary pair of hands they are, my dear," Hank murmured. Cecilia felt herself blush, an increasingly frequent occurrence that was beginning to irritate her. Hank pushed onward as if he did not notice. "If your own practice is what you wish, then I suppose there is nothing I can say to convince you otherwise. We will miss your presence, though. You are refreshingly down to earth."
He reached into his desk and pulled out an envelope which he proceeded to then wave in front of her face. "Before you leave us, however, I have a surprise for you."
"You shouldn't have."
Hank grinned, and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I received an invitation to a very prestigious medical conference taking place next week in Taipei, and, as one of the speakers of honor, I am allowed to bring a guest."
"A guest," she echoed blankly. "As in me?"
She had not thought it possible for his grin to grow any wider, but it did. Which was all the answer she really needed.
"Well・when are we leaving, then?"
His smile faltered, and he leaned forward over the edge of his seat. "You aren't going to argue with me about this? Ask me if I have any ulterior motives? Present me with excuses about why you should not go?"
"You almost sound disappointed."
"It just seems unlike you."
"I'm not that much of a pain in the ass, McCoy," Cecilia snorted, her startled surprise at the invitation fading as she warmed to this new topic. "And I don't think it is so inconceivable an idea that I might actually look forward to attending a medical conference--especially one that takes place on a tropical island."
"Er, it's winter there."
"Whatever. If it has palm trees and it doesn't snow, it's good enough for me."
"Wonderful! I must warn you, though--yesterday I received an email from one of the conference leaders. They require my presence earlier than I expected, and I have to fly out on Monday."
"Sounds a little like overkill to me," Cecilia commented.
"I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow," Hank quoted. "I feel my fate in what I cannot fear--"
"--I learn by going where I have to go." Cecilia finished for him, noting with pleasure his startled glance. "Ok, fine. But I can't leave on Monday. I can't even leave until Thursday."
"Not a problem, since that was my original departure date. The conference begins bright and early on Saturday morning, in which three days of intense discussion are to follow, all topped off by a lovely formal gala on Monday evening. Which I do hope you will attend."
"Yeah," she muttered absently. "I assume you've already got my plane ticket?"
"You read my mind." Hank hesitated. "There is, er, one other thing."
Cecilia narrowed her eyes. "What?"
"You're probably going to have some traveling companions--just for the flight. I assure you, after that, the three of you can part ways, never to see each other again while you're on the island--unless you happen to run into each other, which I must say is very unlikely, even given Taiwan's relatively small size--"
"Hank." Cecilia took a deep breath, trying to still the urge to reach out and strangle the babbling doctor. "Just tell me who you've got me sitting next to on the plane."
His smile was not very reassuring. "Two hints," he said. "One of them is Cajun. The other is very, very bony. With psychotic tendencies, although I hear that's clearing up some."
"I'm going to kill you, McCoy."
"Cecilia, please・.put down the stapler."
"Not a chance. This time--"
"--your ass is mine."
"Well, if you insist--urk!"
If there was anything that Cecilia Reyes hated more with a gut-wrenching passion, it was slugs. The big fat ones, oozing slime. Looking like moving, crap-sized, sausage-round・things・of puke. The first slugs she had ever seen were kept in a glass container in the zoo. They were from South America (which seemed to be the favorite country of origin for all the creepy species of showcased wildlife also deemed native to United States, cockroaches being just one prime example), which of course meant that they were Big. And Nastier than your regular-run-of-the-mill nasty slugs.
There were not, thankfully, any slugs on Northwest flight 069 to Taipei, which meant that Cecilia only had to deal with the second of her great, passionate hatreds: flying.
It helped that she was sitting in First Class, that before take-off she had been served several very tasty glasses of Champagne, and that her actual seat was more comfortable than her dorm room bed in college.
It did not help that for the next thirteen hours she was stuck in the same cabin as Marrow and Gambit, who were, much to her dismay, both seated in the row directly beside her own.
Logically, she knew that should not bother her. It shouldn't, she told herself sternly, even bother you that they are flying with you to Taiwan. But it did bother her, just like an itch on the instep of a foot that's been shoved into a too-tight tennis shoe. Their presence nagged at her.
Deep down, she liked Gambit. Marrow, too, if she dug down a little deeper. They were real characters--utterly unique people with absolutely no fear of how the world viewed them--and she admired that. She wished that she had that same strength.
But they also annoyed the hell out of her.
Cecilia glanced over at the two X-Men. Marrow, her appearance disguised by an image inducer (which she had been very reluctant to use, claiming that if "upworlder scum" couldn't take her new and improved look, they could just lay down and rot), was staring out of her window, focused breathlessly on the moving landscape below. For a moment, the harsh lines of the girl's usually rigid body appeared to soften before Cecilia's eyes, and then Marrow seemed to realize that someone was watching her, and she whipped around. When she saw it was just Cecilia, she gave the doctor a nasty smile, along with the finger.
Oh, yeah. A real, freakin' lady, that one.
Gambit did not appear to notice his companion's display--or if he did, he simply ignored her. The girl was all sugar when she talked to him anyway, so Cecilia could not blame him for acting oblivious to some of her antics. Being on Marrow's good side probably counted as one of the first of the three miracles leading to Sainthood, the second being that she actually had a good side. The third miracle, Cecilia was sure, had to be that Gambit, after all this time, was still on that good side at all, and had not been killed in his sleep by a carefully misplaced bone.
Said Cajun currently lay stretched out, his foot rest up and his seat back down, his body somehow sprawled in what could only be described as a lazy, tousled, you-know-you-want-me-NOW position. His eyes were open, and he was staring at the cabin ceiling with an inscrutable expression on his face.
//He's all mystery. And damned if he doesn't like it that way. //
The real mystery though, she decided finally, was why the two of them were going to Taiwan. Why now, especially. Hank had confessed ignorance (even after being smacked around, which in all honesty, she kind of secretly enjoyed), while Gambit claimed that they were going to the little island because it was winter there--always the best time to travel to Asia because the weather was cooler than in the summer.
Faced with such a stunning wealth of information, Cecilia concluded that it was none of her business. Which, of course, did absolutely nothing to curb her curiosity.
A flight attendant, her make-up and hair perfect in a plastic sort of way, appeared by Cecilia's row as if by magic, and produced a white square cloth with a flourish. She stared at the Doctor expectantly, and it took her a moment to realize what the block of material was for. She fumbled for her tray table, trying to maintain her dignity as the damn thing remained lodged in the tight storage crevice. The flight attendant stirred restlessly, and finally Cecilia managed to yank the tray out. A white tablecloth immediately descended, and the uniformed woman whisked herself off to take care of the other travelers.
She reappeared a moment later beside Gambit and Marrow.
"Please take out your tray tables," she said, and simply stood there, waiting. Gambit slowly unfurled himself, in absolutely no hurry whatsoever, while Marrow just looked suspicious, as well as a little confused. The flight attendant seemed to recognize the girl's lack of jump-to for what it was, and reached over to pull out the tray for her. Instead of thanking her, the cover girl of the Morlock Underworld, currently bearing an uncanny resemblance to Brittany Spears, sneered.
"You all think you're so smart," she hissed, teeth bared.
The flight attendant, far from looking offended or disturbed by Marrow's show of aggression, merely looked her in the eye, and smiled tightly. "I'm smart enough to spot trouble makers, sweetheart. Give me any more lip, and I'll have you kicked off this plane faster than you can shake those false boobs of yours."
White tablecloth down. Turn, and whisk off. One point for the flight attendant, zero for Marrow.
The mutant girl stared after her, absolutely speechless. Gambit just laughed.
Oh yeah, Reyes, she told herself. This is going to be a *very* interesting flight.
Six hours later, the cabin perfectly dark except for the light from a television monitor being used in the back of the cabin, Gambit stirred restlessly and opened his eyes. Over the sound of air being pumped through the plane and the roar of the engines, Gambit could just barely hear the soft snores of the girl curled up in the seat beside him. She had burrowed under her blanket, and despite the fact that the appearance she presented was not her own, Gambit could still see how the lines of her face softened in sleep, how some of the rigid tension that seemed so much a part of her, melted away. It was nice to see her like this, he thought, this girl he felt so responsible for.
He owed her such a huge debt. She still had no idea about his part in the Morlock Massacre (no one was entirely sure she was stable enough for that little bit of truth to come out), although there were times when she looked at him, and he wondered. He wondered if there was a part of her that remembered him, along with the terrible violence of that night.
Either way, she seemed to trust him, and he treasured that trust. There was nothing he could do to bring back the Morlocks he had helped to slaughter--that one fact remained inviolable--but there was Sarah, and she had been there. She was still alive, and if he helped her・
・if he helped her, protected her・
What then? What, he asked himself, was he looking for?
And why in the hell was he dragging her to Taiwan? Especially when the business he had there was Guild-related? No good bringing a petite fille, even one as dangerous as her, into trouble that Jean-Luc himself had asked Remy to check out. Information theft, he had said. Important men disappearing into thin air from public places. That was all they knew, but it was enough to put the Guild in Asia on alert. Someone was working their turf, and they had no clue who it was.
//Should have left her behind,// he thought once again, glancing down at her. //She and Peter were just beginning to hit it off, too.// Gambit sighed, and glanced over at Cecilia. She appeared to be in a deep sleep as well, eyes shut and her breathing slow and even.
She had talked with him a little over dinner, growing less distant and cool over the several hours they had spent on the plane. Cecilia had even tried to say a few words to Sarah, although trying to start up a conversation with her if she did not already feel comfortable around you could be about as easy as digesting rocks--only a little less painful.
He liked Cecilia, though; he liked her professionalism and cool head. And for some reason, he liked her bad temper. Which he was beginning to enjoy baiting at every possible occasion.
Y' got weird taste, he told himself.
Glancing one last time at Marrow to make sure she looked warm enough, he closed his eyes and tried to get some much-needed sleep.
"Sweet Jesus, thank you," Cecilia breathed, stepping outside the main terminal of the Chiang-Kai Shek International Airport. The cool, slightly humid breath of night air that touched her face filled her with a sense of tremendous relief, as did the pavement under her feet. She was on solid ground.
There were palm trees across the road, although it was hard to see them clearly even with lamps spread in regular intervals along the length of the street. The blaring sounds of car horns erupted sporadically, and all around her men and women, predominantly Asian in appearance, milled towards the edge of the thoroughfare, everyone busy with the task of looking for transportation, friends, or family.
She glanced around for Gambit and Marrow, finally spotting them besides a large potted tree, which looked like it was being used more as an ashtray than decoration. Marrow sat hunched over on the wide cement brim of the container, her tiny suitcase tucked between her feet. She looked tense, and even a little miserable. Gambit lounged beside her, his legs extended and crossed at the ankles.
He smiled as she approached, and Cecilia lifted up her two bags with her own tiny grin of triumph. "Got 'em," she said. "And no trouble through customs, either."
"Took you long enough," Marrow growled sullenly. "Gambit almost went back in to make sure you weren't playing kissy-kissy with the men in uniform."
Cecilia scowled at the girl. Gambit and Marrow's own luggage had shot out before hers, and Cecilia had insisted that they go on through customs ahead of her. She had thought that she would catch up in a few minutes, and under NO circumstances did she want them breathing down her neck while the fucking-forgive-my-French conveyor belt took its damn sweet time to hand over her lousy, stinking, they-better-not-have-lost-them bags.
Of course, that had been more thirty minutes ago. A long time to be sitting around, even by her standards.
"Thanks for waiting," she told the two X-Men, forcing herself to remember some of her manners.
"No problem, chere," Gambit replied. "We're waitin' for our ride, anyway. Y' want a lift to de city?"
Cecilia opened her mouth to say no, and thought better of it. Sure, she could take a cab, but unless she was lucky enough to get a driver that spoke English, she had a feeling she might be in for another couple hours of stress.
"Who's meeting you?" She put down her bags, and sat down on top of them with a grateful sigh.
Gambit waved a dismissive hand. "Jus' a friend."
"A friend," she repeated wryly. "You sure do get around."
"An' y' sure are gettin' nosy," Gambit replied with an easy grin. He revealed a cigarette, which he quickly lit with the tip of his finger. He took a long swallow, and then slowly, methodically exhaled.
"Hmmm, dat's nice," he purred, practically waving the cigarette in front of Cecilia's face.
"Gimme that," she finally growled, swiping it out of his hand and rubbing the butt into the soil of the tree planter. "You're going to give yourself lung cancer if you keep that up. It's not a game." She noticed Marrow watching their verbal sparring with badly concealed interest.
"You don't want to be a bad influence, do you?" Cecilia asked Gambit, her eyes flickering back down to his charge.
Gambit's smile thinned only slightly, but it was enough. She had made her point. Marrow, however, jumped to her friend's defense.
"Don't tell Gambit how he should act around me," she warned, eyes narrowing. "He doesn't need any goody-goody advice from you."
Cecilia sighed. "I'm getting a little fed up with your attitude, Sarah," she replied, shaking off her exhaustion and climbing to her feet "You've got your head so far up your ass, you don't know when people are trying to help you."
"I know who my friends are," Marrow retorted. "And you're not one of them."
"Enough." Gambit stepped directly between the two combatants. His eyes flickered over both women, the weight of his gaze finally settling on Cecilia. "We're all tired," he said. "An' not t'inking straight." He then turned to Marrow, and placed his hands on the girl's shoulders. She slowly, hesitantly, backed down. "Doc Reyes is jus' tryin' t'help, petite," he said gently. "Not'ing t'get angry 'bout."
The expression on Marrow's face was completely inscrutable, but after a long moment she nodded.
"Good, petite." Gambit patted her arm, and bent down to pick up both of their bags in one hand, and Cecilia's things in the other. "I t'ink I see m'friend," he explained, inclining his head towards a tall Asian man dressed in navy slacks and a long coat. He leaned against the front door of a gleaming black Mercedes, watching them all with cool interest.
Cecilia took a deep breath. //Relax, Reyes. Life is too short to waste worrying about the fights you get into.//
Though as she followed the two X-Men to meet the man waiting for them, she still felt the sting of Marrow's last words.
The drive from the airport into Taipei was uneventful, despite the fact that Cecilia and Marrow were forced to sit together in the back seat of the car. Gambit occasionally turned around to look at them, as though checking to make sure they were not silently engaging in some physical contest of wills--like thumb-wrestling, Cecilia imagined. He needn't have worried, though. The two women contented themselves with staring out the windows of the speeding Mercedes, quietly watching the approaching lights of the unfamiliar Asian city.
Cecilia chanced a glance into the rearview mirror, glimpsing a partial reflection of Gambit's friend. Li Zhang, as he had introduced himself, kept his eyes focused entirely on the road during her surreptitious examination, although Cecilia had a feeling he knew that he was being watched. She supposed that he was a nice enough person--all politeness and humor, with a dash of handsome charm thrown in for good measure.
But he was not Gambit's friend, of that Cecilia was certain. She had seen the way Gambit acted around the X-Men--the people he often referred to as his friends--and while his cavalier attitude could be irritating sometimes, he was never less than open and relaxed when surrounded by those he considered himself close to.
Towards Li Zhang, however, his attitude was that of a businessman dealing with a colleague--cordial, even familiar and comfortable on a surface level, but not relaxed. Not relaxed at all. It made her wonder just who their driver was.
//I don't know anything about the people I live with// she realized, staring at the back of Gambit's head. Gambit twisted in his seat, and she realized that she had just sighed out loud. He met her gaze before she could look away, his eyes penetrating and thoughtful. Inexplicably feeling as though she had been caught with her fingers in the cookie jar, she opened her mouth to say something--anything--which would provide a distraction. Before she could though, Gambit smiled gently.
"Life," he said, taking her off-guard. "It's all a mystery sometimes, neh?"
She stared at him, stirring to life only when she heard Marrow rustle in the seat beside her. "Yes," she replied quietly, matching his thoughtful gaze with one of her own. "Yes, it is."
His answering smile was quick and fierce.
Fifteen minutes later, the black Mercedes rolled up to the golden, sparkling Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. Several bellhops decked out in crisp white uniforms immediately began to stroll over to open the car's doors, but the occupants of the vehicle beat them to the punch. Cecilia wearily pushed herself out of the Mercedes, watching as Li Zhang and Gambit moved to the rear of the car to retrieve her bags. To her surprise, Marrow got out of the car as well.
The girl, still utilizing her image-inducer, stared into the main lobby of the Far Eastern, her eyes swallowing the warm woods and glistening marble of the interior, where even at this late hour, beautifully dressed individuals sat nestled in cozy chairs beside ornate flower arrangements. Marrow took a few steps towards the revolving glass doors, and then stopped dead in her tracks, as though paralyzed. To Cecilia, the expression on the Morlock's face was faintly tragic, and she wondered just how much of the girl's life had been spent staring through windows.
"You know," Cecilia said, as though making casual conversation. "Gambit will probably get his friend to help check me in, since I can't speak a word of Chinese. Why don't we go inside and wait for them?"
Marrow just stared at her. "Me?" she finally asked. "Go in there with all the Pretties?"
Cecilia shrugged. "Why not?" she replied, in her best no-nonsense tone. "You're one of them now."
Which was true, she conceded, not waiting for a response as she walked away from the girl and headed towards the hotel. Even without the image-inducer, Marrow's appearance had changed to a degree where now, despite the horns sprouting from her forehead, she looked more exotic than・well, scary. From Cecilia's point of view, Marrow's problem was that she was still recovering from a lifetime of zero self-esteem, which was all related to her physical attractiveness and sense of self-worth.
//Great, Reyes. Now you're a shrink.//
She saw Gambit out of the corner of her eye; he and his friend were closer to her than she had realized, and she wondered if he'd heard what she had said to Marrow. Not that it mattered much--she looked over her shoulder just in time to see the girl lift her chin and march after her.
Gambit smiled. Li Zhang appeared beside him, and noted the expression on the Cajun's face. "Something you want to share?" he asked, his own lips gently curved.
Gambit shook his head, and picked up Cecilia's bags. "Jus' good t'ings."
Li Zhang regarded him silently. "Just remember," he finally said. "You・re here for business. They," he waved his hand towards the departing women. "Are not acceptable distractions. Keep that in mind."
Gambit's eyes narrowed. "Is dat a threat?"
"Simply a reminder." Li Zhang turned away and strolled through the swinging doors of the hotel, heading straight towards Cecilia and Marrow, both waiting in the lobby. He smiled at them, and Gambit's stomach lurched. A bitter taste flooded his mouth.
The night had suddenly taken a turn for the worse.
It was one-thirty in the morning when Cecilia wearily slid her key card into the door, and entered her room. Darkness greeted her, and she fumbled for the light switch. She finally found it, and a soft glow filled what she discovered to be a short corridor paneled with rich, dark wood. The air smelled faintly of fruit and flowers, and the carpet felt thick and soft beneath her shoes. As she entered, the door swinging shut behind her with a soft click, she felt faintly like a trespasser.
She took note of the marble tiled bathroom on her right, with its wall-sized window overlooking downtown Taipei, and gave herself a stern recommendation to close the blinds before she took a shower. A peeping Tom's paradise, if you asked her. She left the bathroom behind, and finally the corridor spilled out into a roomy living area, with the one thing she had been dreaming about for the last hour displayed like a work of art against the opposing wall.
Cecilia flung down her bags, and with a running leap (a display of immaturity she was thankful no one else could see), threw herself onto the bed. She sank into the soft mattress, cool creamy sheets rubbing against her cheeks. The covers had already been pulled down for her, and a delicate stemmed purple orchid lay on the pillow. She fingered the soft petals, and sighed. Eyes already sliding shut, she rolled over onto her side.
And promptly saw the blinking orange light on her phone.
No no no no no, she told herself. No, Ms. Reyes. You are not going to listen to that message.
Whoever it is can just sit on their fanny and wait for you to get back to them.
Snarling, Cecilia grabbed the phone, eyes scanning the labeled instructions for how to get her message. She punched in the code, and thumped back down on the bed, cradling the receiver against her neck. There was a brief wait, and then--
"Greetings and felicitations, Cecilia. If my earlier perusal of the incoming flight schedule is correct, you should be arriving in your room any time now. I trust you had a good trip. Do please call me when you get in--it is late, I know--but humor me. I haven't had anyone familiar to talk to in the last three days, and I'm hungry for a friendly face. I'm in room 3610. Hank."
For a brief moment, she debated whether or not to call him back. She was tired, dirty, and now that she thought about it, really hungry. There was, however, a rather plaintive note to Hank's voice that she had never heard before, and it was enough to make her roll over on her stomach and dial him up.
But when she did, he did not answer his phone.
//Ok. He's in the bathroom.//
She waited for two minutes, and dialed again. Still, no answer.
There was a part of her that was beginning to think that yes, now would be a good time to start getting angry. She was, unfortunately, just too tired to muster up that particular emotion in the amounts needed to cause damage. Instead, she tried calling him again. And again. And a couple more times after that just for good measure.
That's it, she decided, after the tenth ring. She hung up the phone, and burrowed her head into a pillow. He can just talk to me in the morning, since he can't seem to stay put long enough to take my call. Mr. I'm-hungry-for-a-friendly-face, my ass.
But then, he had said that he wanted to talk to her, hadn't he? He had said to call him even though it was late, which sort of implied that he was going to be in. And Hank, despite the short time she had known him, was not the type of man to say one thing, and then do something completely different without at least some sort of explanation.
// Just go to sleep, Reyes. Stop worrying. //
She tried, she really did. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the soft, cozy warmth of the bed. Slowly, her muscles began to unwind, and she could feel herself drifting・
And then Hank's face appeared, with nothing less than an expression of bewildered hurt. Oh, he had waited for her call (after having been in the shower for an inordinately long amount of time, singing at the top of his lungs), but had been too afraid to ring her up lest he wake her. After all, that's what friends were for, showing common courtesy and all that.
Cecilia flopped over onto her back, and stared at the ceiling. She reached for the phone, and tried calling him again. Still no answer. She checked her watch. It was one-fifty in the morning.
"Damn," she muttered, and rolled off the bed.
Room 3610 was just two floors above her own, and Cecilia hummed tunelessly to herself during the short ride in the elevator. The doors opened into a glistening, golden toned lobby similar to the one on her own floor, and she walked towards the hallway on her left, the echo of her boots on the marble floor reverberating loudly until she hit the carpeted walkway.
3608, 3609・3610. Cecilia stopped in front of Hank's room, and knocked on his door. As she waited, she idly glanced downward. And froze.
There was blood on the carpet. Not much by any standards, but after years in one of New York's busiest emergency rooms, she knew what blood looked like, no matter how small the amount--and this was fresh.
She banged again on Hank's door, this time with both fists.
"Come on," she muttered, resorting to kicking the door with the toe of her boot. The tiny drops of blood, spattered only in front of Hank's door, stared balefully at her.
And then, shockingly, the door opened. Cecilia, in the middle of lifting her right foot for a well placed kick, could only stare in silent surprise at the complete stranger who appeared in front of her--a tall, Chinese man dressed in black, who was most definitely *not* Hank McCoy.
"Who the hell are you?" She snapped. Which was, when she thought about it later, probably the wrong thing to say.
The man gave her no time to cry out--his hand snaked out, and with a strength and speed that left her too surprised to do more than yelp, he yanked her into the darkened interior of Hank's room and clamped a hand over her mouth. The door closed behind them with a soft click, and with it, Cecilia was left in complete darkness.
She thrashed wildly in his arms, furious at herself for being so slow, for allowing him the moment he needed to grab her. She lashed out with her feet and with her one free fist, which she felt clip the side of her captor's head before being pinned against the wall with a bone-jarring thud.
"Shunoabith!" Cecilia screamed, her voice muffled by the hand clamped over her mouth. She tried to bite his fingers and was rewarded with a hard fist to her temple. Her bio-shield flared just before his knuckles connected with her head, and she felt a burst of triumph race through her--just before the strength behind his blow nearly knocked her off her feet.
He had let go of her hand to strike at her, and she twisted in his arms and slammed her palm upwards in the direction where she thought his face was. For one second, her bio-shield lit the small space between them, and she watched in terror and awe as it projected from her body and slammed into the nose of the man struggling to hold her down.
//My God,// she thought, even as the man let out a cry and released her. //I did it again.//
Cecilia quickly slid trembling fingers against the wood paneling and found the light switch. The lights immediately flickered on, and she was greeted with the sight of her attacker, crouched on the carpet with blood gushing from a hole in the middle of his face. Cecilia's gaze flickered over the rest of the room just beyond the short corridor, taking in the broken furniture and the sheets ripped off the bed. Keeping one wary eye on the bleeding man, she poked her head into the bathroom. There was no sign of Hank, anywhere.
"Where is he?" She asked, trying to keep her voice level, and failing miserably. Her assailant lifted his head, and just stared at her, his breathing rough and ragged. Blood bubbled through the remaining bones of his nose. Looking at him made her skin crawl.
"Where is Hank McCoy?" She asked again, stepping towards the man. This time he flinched, and looked away.
Cecilia grit her teeth, reached down, and grabbed him by the hair, pulling his head back until she imagined she could hear the bones of his neck creak. "I'm only going to ask you this one more time," she whispered, raising her fist. "Where is the man who was staying in this room? Where is Hank McCoy?"
She never got her answer. She saw the shift in his eyes a heartbeat before his attack, but it was not enough time. Despite the sharp angle of his head, his strike to her gut was painfully accurate, and Cecilia bounced backwards, her body striking the wall. Her fingers were still tangled in her assailant's hair, and she pulled him with her. He rolled as he hit the ground, and Cecilia was forced to let go of him, his twisting motions threatening to dislocate her shoulder. He scrambled to his feet, and before she could stop him he threw open the door and ran into the corridor.
Cecilia pulled herself to her feet and took off after him. At the end of the hall the door to the emergency exit was just beginning to swing shut, and she could hear the hammer of boot soles on stairs, racing downwards.
"You owe me big time, McCoy," she muttered, pushing her way into the dimly lit stairwell. She took the stairs three at a time, suddenly grateful that she had grown up on the fourteenth floor of an apartment building with no elevator. She caught a glimpse of her assailant through the drop between the railings, and pushed herself to move faster, risking bones as she leapt down the flights of stairs. Their footfalls reverberated like thunder in the stairwell, and finally, on the fifteenth floor, she caught up with him.
She didn't stop to think--she leapt off the top of the stairs in a diving tackle that caught him in the back of the legs. They both went down in a tangle of limbs, scrabbling against each other for leverage, for something to scratch or pull. The man's shirt tore at the shoulder with a loud ripping sound, and Cecilia caught a glimpse of a tattoo, intricately detailed, the design unfamiliar but vaguely shaped like a heart.
The distraction cost her, and her assailant slithered out of her grasp. This time, however, he did not run. Before she could stop him, he lifted her bodily by the leg and arm, and slammed her face down into the concrete landing.
"Got you now," he breathed.
One arm pinned behind her back, Cecilia was unceremoniously dragged down the stairs. Once, she tried to cry out for help, and the only thing she got for her troubles was a bruised windpipe. The sudden realization that her bio-shield did not protect her from a simple case of strangulation scared her more than she wanted to admit, and try as she might, she could not figure out how to make her shield work offensively like it had in her previous struggle.
The stairs opened up into the basement, which was nearly empty except for a long black van pulled up beside the door. There was a man in the driver's seat, and he looked very unhappy when he saw Cecilia.
"Ta shi shei?"* He barked, leaning out of the window.
Her captor shook his head. "Wo buchidao, keshi wo juede ta shi McCoy de pengyou."*
The van, amazingly enough, rocked back and forth at that indecipherable (to Cecilia, anyway) pronouncement, and the side door rolled back to reveal two more men dressed in black fatigues. Just behind them, strapped to the floor of the van, was Hank. A gag had been stuffed into his mouth, but his eyes spoke volumes, as did his struggling body, which was indeed causing the vehicle to bounce and roll.
"Hank!" Cecilia shouted. An instant later, she felt strong, thick fingers dig into her windpipe. Spots appeared in her vision, and she clawed at the hand around her throat. She was dimly aware of a muffled shout, and then the hand loosened and she was unceremoniously thrown into the van. She landed on something soft, and as she struggled to pull air into her lungs, she felt fur against her cheek. Someone pulled her arms back sharply, painfully, and bound them together at the wrists.
She caught a glimpse of her captor, who was still standing outside the van. His nose hung crooked on his face, and blood oozed from the crack she had caused. He noticed her watching him and smiled, which, Cecilia decided, was one of the most un-reassuring things she had ever seen in her life. He did not climb into the van before slamming shut the sliding door, and she realized with some relief that he was not leaving with them.
//He's going to clean up after himself. Wipe away any evidence that he and his friends were ever in the building・ //
With the door shut, the interior of the van was completely dark. The rest of the men talked quietly in Chinese, but Cecilia could barely hear them over the engine as it roared to life. What she *could* hear was the sound of Hank's beating heart, and the shuddered rasp of his breath, and her own. Distinctly aware of the close presence of their captors, Cecilia slowly inched her body off of Hank, and pressed herself against his side. Through her clothes, she could feel the thick straps holding him down. His muscles quivered.
They were driving upwards, making sharp turns as they climbed out of the parking garage. Finally they stopped, and one of the men put a gun to Hank's temple. The pause was brief, and Cecilia could hear traffic and people. The van began to move once more, and the gun was removed. She let out the breath she had been holding, and watched the man sidle up towards the front of the vehicle to talk with his companions.
Cecilia pressed her lips against Hank's ear.
"Y'okay?" she breathed. It was hard for her to talk. Her throat ached.
Hank blinked once, which she took as a yes. He turned his head just enough to see her face, and for a long moment they just stared at each other. Even in the darkness of the van, she could make out the large cut above his eye, the blood stained fur screaming that No, he was NOT okay. She felt an irrational urge to touch him, and she finally gave into it, deciding that after everything she had just been through, she deserved some comfort, dammit. Since her hands were unavailable, she contented herself by pressing her cheek against his own. After a long moment, she felt something brush her knee. She looked down to find Hank's fingers, which were not bound, lightly touching her.
They remained like that until the van finally stopped. As the engine died, the man who had earlier pointed a gun at Hank yanked Cecilia to her feet, eliciting a muffled shout of outrage from the blue-furred scientist. None of their kidnappers spoke, however. Their faces were completely without expression, and they made no move to let themselves out of the vehicle. To Cecilia, it seemed that they were waiting for something, and a moment later she heard voices and the sharp rattle of metal. The noises got louder, a confusing mixture of quick-fire speech and moving machinery.
The van door slid open. Bright light flooded the interior, momentarily blinding Cecilia. She blinked, trying to focus. Standing just outside the vehicle were two people. One of them, a short man with salt and pepper black hair, fiddled with an elaborate cart whose surface was loaded with medical instruments.
His companion was a middle-aged Chinese woman, and she immediately locked eyes with Cecilia. Her gaze sharp, she thoughtfully fingered a long strand of glossy black hair that had fallen over the shoulder of her skin-tight red suit.
"Doctor Cecilia Reyes," murmured the woman. Cecilia blinked at the sound of her name, and she felt Hank go very still.
"Do we know each other?" Cecilia asked, her voice still hoarse from the abuse to her throat. The viselike grip around her upper arm tightened warningly, but she ignored the man restraining her and kept her eyes trained on the woman standing, so calmly, before her.
The woman smiled condescendingly. "You do not know me, Doctor Reyes, although I know of you." The smile widened. "This is a most unexpected surprise."
It was too much. Filled with anger, forgetting to be afraid, Cecilia lunged forward.
Hands immediately clamped down around her throat, thick fingers pressing mercilessly, squeezing the air from her body. "CECEWEEA!" Hank roared around his gag. He bucked upwards, straining against his restraints. The van shook, but the grip around her neck did not lessen for an instant. Just as she was about to black out, she heard a low, throaty laugh. An instant later, she found herself flying out of the van, propelled by a hard shove to her back. Cecilia landed on her side, wheezing for air.
"Prepare her for an exam," she heard the woman say, a distinct tone of amusement in her voice. "I think I'll sell the two of them as pair."
The lights of Taipei had not dimmed in the past five years. If anything, they were brighter, and even more dazzling and frenetic than he remembered them being. Gambit stared out the car window, his fingers idly tracing the edges of the playing cards inside his coat pocket. Since leaving the Far Eastern Hotel, a light rain had begun to fall, misting the city streets with a slick, reflective sheen that captured light and color against the darkness of the roadway.
He had heard travelers and politicians compare Taipei to New York City, but in his opinion, it was like trying to describe how an apple was better than an orange, or vice versa. Taipei, like all Asian cities he had ever visited, was a law unto itself--part modern development and part something else, something old and languid. In as much as the steel and glass of Taipei filled the eye, the lush greenery and ancient bricks of the old homes and cobbled streets that pervaded the city provided a perfect counterpoint, sinking farther into Gambit's heart than the lure of fast money or big business.
The last time he had come here it had been on a lark--something to pass the time during a slow month. A top business executive in New York had expressed interest in owning one of Chang Dai-Chien's early paintings, an interest backed up by a very respectable sum of money. Which had brought Gambit--as well as his competition--to Taipei's National Palace Museum for a week long game of burglary, evasion, and--if he did say so himself--several spectacular strategic maneuvers that were still discussed by Taiwanese police forces.
Now though, his business in Taipei was serious, and Gambit was beginning to suspect that the ramifications were more far-reaching than anyone had previously acknowledged. It worried him.
"We're almost there," Li Zhang announced quietly. Gambit responded with a silent nod and a discreet glance at the man behind the wheel. The words they had shared in front of the Far Eastern lingered heavily on his mind, and he could almost taste the threat, both to himself and Sarah. Deep, quiet anger filled him, and he clenched his fist around the pack of cards inside his coat pocket. The real problem, he was beginning to think, was that the Taiwanese guild did not even want his help. Which begged the question of why he had been asked to come in the first place.
Gambit twisted in his seat to look at Sarah, ignoring how Li Zhang's disapproving eyes left the road for a brief moment to track his movements. Much to his surprise, the girl looked as though she had fallen asleep. Her temple rested against the car window, her chin drooping downwards to rest on her chest. He was sure that she would be awake. Especially after her gape-mouthed reaction to the extravagant interior of Cecilia's five star hotel, and the exotic newness of a foreign city. Gambit smiled grimly, trying to imagine what Li Zhang's reaction would be if he could see the girl without her image-inducer.
The abrupt ringing of a cell phone broke the quiet of the car's interior, and Sarah jerked awake, instantly alert. Gambit sighed, snaking free a hand to pat the girl on the knee. She relaxed only slightly, and warily stared at Li Zhang, whose quick-fire speech radiated tension, and then abruptly crackled with anger.
"What happened?" Gambit asked, as the man turned off his cell phone. As Gambit waited for a response, he did not miss the way Li Zhang's eyes lifted up to the rear view mirror to examine Sarah, and he quickly squelched a brief surge of irritation.
"There was another incident," Li Zhang finally replied, the recent sounds of anger in his voice replaced by deliberately subdued and neutral tones. A muscle jumped in his right cheek, and heavy silence filled the interior of the vehicle.
Gambit stirred restlessly, but before he could press the reticent man for more information, Li Zhang pinned the Cajun with dark, unsettled eyes.
"It is your friends," he said, and Gambit felt his stomach lurch sideways. "They have been taken."
The Guild house, based in the south of Taipei, looked quiet enough on the outside. It was a four-story apartment building crowded on every side by businesses and homes, and to be honest, Marrow could not find a single thing to differentiate it from the rest of the neighborhood. Which, she supposed, was the entire point. She had trouble, however, imagining any criminal activity going on in a place that looked so normal and clean-cut. This was supposed to be a den of Thieves? This? At least the sewers had atmosphere.
As soon as they drove into the underground garage, however, her opinion changed. There were people everywhere, all of them moving with intent and purpose. Only a few looked up as they drove in, and those that did put down what they were working on, and greeted them as they climbed out of the vehicle.
"We heard the news," one woman said, glancing nervously at Marrow and Gambit.
"Ling," Li Zhang said, "meet Remy LeBeau and his・friend, Sarah."
Neither of them missed the pause in his voice, and Marrow reminded herself to turn his "rooster" into a "hen" before she left Taiwan. She liked Remy. She liked him *a lot*, but that was between them, and she didn't care for the intimations in Li Zhang's voice. They made her feel funny. And not in a good way.
Gambit frowned. "We can meet each o'der later, Li. What I need now is information 'bout what happened tonight. An' no bullshit dis time."
Li didn't bat an eye, turning instead to Ling, who cleared her throat. "We have a witness--he arrived just before you three. One of our own men--assigned to the medical conference since the first guests began arriving on Monday. Considering the types of people who have been disappearing, it only made sense."
"In o'der words," Gambit drawled slowly. "Y' knew dat somet'ing like dis was goin' t'happen."
Ling froze. "We anticipated--"
"Y'anticipated shit," Gambit told her. Marrow felt the room go still around them, but Gambit pushed on, his voice loud and harsh in the sudden quiet. "If y' had really anticipated tonight's kidnappin', Henri McCoy and Cecilia Reyes would still be sleepin' in deir beds, an' we'd have some answers."
"LeBeau--" Li began. Gambit held up his hand, his gaze bright and furious.
"I got one more t'ing t'say, Li," he said, swooping down until they were eye to eye. "If I ever hear y'talk 'bout Sarah again with anyt'ing less dan respect, I'll break both o' your arms. Ni ting dong le ma?"*
Li's cheeks darkened with color, but he said nothing.
"Good." Gambit straightened. "Now let's go find dat witness o' yours."
They were led through a narrow corridor; the walls were concrete, unadorned and gray, and Marrow felt inexplicably penned in by them. She concentrated on Gambit's back instead, and found a little comfort in his solid presence. Not that she would ever admit that she was actually in *need* of comfort--but this place was strange, and she did not understand the language being spoken.
Li Zhang and Ling walked several feet ahead of Gambit, and they finally stopped in front of a tall metal door. They did not hesitate; Li Zhang pushed open the door and walked in, Ling motioning for Gambit and Marrow to precede her.
The room was well-lit and filled with medical instruments and narrow cots. A man sat on one of them, his back turned. He looked up as they entered, and Marrow felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise.
"What'd dey use on you, boy?" Gambit muttered, as he stared at the man's ravaged, bloody face. "De butt of a wrench?"
Maybe just that, Marrow thought to herself, appraising the damage. The blow had been controlled, that was for sure, the brunt of it concentrated on his nose. She had made wounds just like that, using the dull end of one of her bones.
"This is Guo Xi." Li Zhang said, and approached the resting man who reverently dipped his head, wincing in the process.
"These are our American guests, Guo. I know you are in pain, but could you please tell them what you told me?" Ling prompted him, laying a gentle hand on Guo's shoulder. His shirt was torn in the front, and Marrow caught a glimpse of a tattoo. There was more, but the man shifted slightly and the material folded over his skin.
"There were four men," he told them, his voice muted. His English was only slightly accented, and he kept his eyes downcast as he spoke. "I was not there when they subdued Henry McCoy or," he looked up, his eyes narrowing just slightly. "Cecilia Reyes. That is her name?" He did not wait for a response before continuing. "I caught them all as they were leaving Doctor McCoy's room."
"Henri and Cecilia--were dey unconscious?" Gambit asked.
Guo hesitated. "Doctor McCoy seemed unresponsive, as did Doctor Reyes. I suspect they were drugged."
"How'd you get hurt?" Marrow asked, ignoring Li's raised eyebrow. Let him take it up with Gambit if he had a problem with her talking.
Guo's eyes grew flinty. "I was careless. When I tried to・stop the kidnappers, one of them managed to hit me in the face with the butt of his gun, stunning me. They managed to escape with the two doctors."
There was a moment of silence as Marrow stared at him. "I would have killed you," she stated in a flat voice. "Why didn't they?"
Guo blinked, obviously startled by the question. "A gun shot would have been too loud."
"Guns are meant t'be used," Gambit replied, his eyes thoughtful. "De kidnappers wouldn't have brought dem if dey couldn't be."
"We should let Guo rest," Ling said, stepping between the two men. "His injuries have not yet been taken care of."
Gambit looked like he wanted to argue with her. There were too many unanswered questions, and there was something about the man that Marrow did not like, which in itself was not surprising. There were so few people in this world that she hadn't fantasized about killing, simply disliking someone wasn't enough to convince her that he was・a liar?
Marrow leaned forward, suddenly struck by the patch of skin she had noticed earlier. It was still just barely visible under the torn section of his shirt, but something about the marks in his tattooed flesh sent a tiny thrill of recognition through her body. Before anyone could stop her, she stepped forward and ripped away the obscuring section of material. The man bit back a shout, and half fell, half jumped off the cot. Ignoring the shouts of outrage from Li and Ling, Marrow followed Guo, hooking a foot around the back of his leg. She let his own momentum carry him into the floor, and swiftly pinned him down with one bony knee pressed into his sternum. She bowed close, and Gambit knelt beside her.
"Look at this," she said softly, tracing five long marks along the front of his shoulder, just below the intricate tattoo. "Like claws. Fingernails."
Gambit's face hardened, and Marrow felt a triumphant smile creep onto her face.
Gambit held up his hand, and pointed towards Guo's chest. Li Zhang quieted immediately, and leaned over the Cajun's shoulder.
"Y' want t'explain dis?" Gambit asked, his voice deceptively gentle. Marrow watched Guo carefully as he looked down at his chest; his expression--what little of it she could see beneath the dried blood--was one of bewildered confusion. His eyes, though--there was fear there, down deep. Marrow fought the urge to use one of her new bones on the prostrate man beneath her. Instead, she ground her knee a little more deeply into his chest, grinning at his groan of pain.
"My girlfriend did it," Guo told them, gritting his teeth. It was an obvious lie--the marks were too fresh, unless he had been having sex on the job, and the hands that had made them were small--smaller than her own. Marrow bounced a little, mentally encouraging one of her bladed knee bones to emerge just a bit more. Guo cried out, and squirmed beneath her. Which, of course, only made things worse.
Gambit leaned close, until he was nearly cheek to cheek with the whimpering thief. "How'd y' get de scratches, Guo? An' if y' don' answer me dis time, I'll let Sarah ask de questions. An' trust me, y' don' wan' dat." Gambit glanced at Marrow, and she felt a grin split her face.
Guo paled, his gaze flickering past Marrow's shoulder. "They'll kill me--"
"No," Gambit interrupted. "I'LL kill you. But if y' don' tell me what I wan' t'know, I'll have Sarah torture y' first. Or y' can tell me now, and I'll kill y' quick and painless. Which is more'n y' deserve if you've done what I t'ink y' have."
"Either way, you're dead." Marrow whispered, tracing a fingernail down the side of his face. "But I would LOVE to play with you first."
"Enough of this, LeBeau." Li Zhang straightened, his face pale. "This is a Guild matter now, and *we* will handle Mr. Guo's・questioning."
Gambit stared at him incredulously. "Are y' crazy?"
Li Zhang ignored him, and reached into his pocket for his cell phone. "You are not in America, Lebeau. We handle things a little differently here. Suffice to say, you will have your answers before morning."
"We could have them now," Marrow argued.
Li Zhang dialed some numbers and lifted his phone to his ear. Marrow suddenly noticed that Ling had disappeared from the room, and she wondered if the woman had gone to get reinforcements. She looked down at Guo; his forehead was beaded with sweat, his face contorted with pain. There was still fear in his eyes, but something else, too. Something disturbingly close to triumph.
Marrow growled, and felt her fingers elongate, sharpen. The image inducer hid her bodily distortion, so when she pressed two of her fingers just below Guo's eyes, no one was aware of the threat but Guo and herself. She lowered herself down on top of him, ignoring Li Zhang's eyes burning into the back of her head, and his rapid-fire speech directed into the phone and at Gambit.
"Tell me," she breathed into his ear. She pierced the flesh just below his eyes, and Guo gasped. Li was yelling now, demanding to know what she was doing. She heard Gambit respond, but she shut out his voice. "Tell me," she asked again, and pushed the tips of her fingers further into his face. She was aiming high--she would reach his eyes if she did it again. She could smell his fear, and his blood.
"Tienmu," he whispered raggedly, loud enough for her ears only. "They're in--"
He never got to finish his sentence. The door to the room slammed open, armed men and women running in. Gambit leapt in front of Marrow, but not before Li grabbed her ankle. He pulled sharply, and Guo arched upwards as her fingers left great trenches in his face. Marrow twisted her body, and slammed her other foot into Li's shoulder. He let go, but was instantly replaced by a woman who trained a gun on her.
Marrow looked for Gambit; he had his hands up to the two men taking aim for his head. His face was contorted with anger.
"You're makin' a mistake, Li," Gambit warned.
Li said nothing, his eyes moving from the new wounds in Guo's face to Marrow's blood-free fingers. "I must talk to the Guild-master," was all he said, and with one last look at Guo, he walked past the armed Guild members and left the room. Ling entered, followed closely by two women dressed in white. They made a bee-line towards Guo, while Ling quietly regarded Gambit and Marrow. She made a silent gesture with her hands and the guns dropped.
Marrow snorted. The nervous little mouse-woman that had greeted them earlier was gone--vanished into thin air. It had been a façade, she realized. A mask. And she had fallen for it.
"You should go," she told them. Her voice was quiet, but the words had steel in them.
"He has information we need," Gambit replied, just as quietly.
"And we will give it to you when it becomes available. But for now--" Here she paused, and she tossed something metallic to Gambit. He caught it easily, and Marrow saw that it was a loop of keys. "But for now, you should go. I have just given you a vehicle, and you have rooms at the Grand Hyatt. We'll call you when we find something." Ling turned and began to walk away.
"Ling," Gambit called out. She stopped, and looked at him from over her shoulder, waiting. "Why was I asked t'come here if y' don't wan' my help?"
Ling frowned. "Your father asked that you come, isn't that right? Perhaps you should take your question up with him, Mr. LeBeau." With that last remark hanging in the air, she left. The armed men and women, who helped to carry out the injured Guo, followed her.
Marrow watched them leave, and glanced at Gambit. "Are we going after them?"
Gambit, who had been staring at the ceiling and muttering in French, shook his head and closed his eyes. "We're on our own," he told her. "I don' s'pose Guo told y' anyt'ing before Li yanked y'off?"
Marrow shrugged. "Y'know what or where Tienmu is?"
Gambit slowly smiled.
The first thing their kidnappers did was give them a medical examination. The little man with salt and pepper hair attended to Cecilia first, although in the end both she and Hank lay strapped to examining tables, bright lights blinding their eyes as their examiner poked, prodded, and pinched.
They moved Hank from the van without ever undoing his bindings. The floor of the vehicle seemed to have been designed with his capture in mind, and detached with a loud click and groan. Using a small fork-lift, they transported him to the examining table. It was almost funny, Cecilia thought, watching him wiggling--gagged, bound and suspended five feet above the ground. And if they ever got out of this alive, it would be another strange, weird story to tell the others over desert, when all of the X-Men seemed to pull out their most bizarre encounters for retelling.
The woman--Wang Mei, she called herself--left almost immediately after Cecilia was strapped to the table. The men who had kidnapped them--they were still nameless--stood in the shadows. They had put away their guns, but there was no doubt in Cecilia's mind that they were more than prepared for anything Hank or herself might try. Not that they were in any position to. Cecilia tested her restraints. They did not budge.
The little man examining them--what had Wang Mei called him? Sung or something?--removed the gag from Hank's mouth. Cecilia twisted her head, watching as her friend tried to moisten his mouth with his tongue.
"Cecilia," he croaked.
"I'm fine, Hank." Which was a lie. She was *not* fine; her throat hurt like hell, and she was scared out of her mind. She was not about to say that, though. "You?"
"My forehead itches," he said, in a voice so plaintive that Cecilia, for one instant, forgot where she was and smiled. Hank noticed, and winked at her.
The little burst of humor between them made Cecilia feel stronger, which came in handy when she felt hands begin to undo her pants. Before she knew it, she was being deftly stripped of her clothing.
"What are you doing?" Cecilia asked, ashamed at how her voice rose. She closed her eyes, trying to ignore the hands pulling down her jeans and underwear.
"The buyers need to be assured that you are both in perfect health," a voice said from behind. Cecilia heard the click of high-heels, and a moment later Wang Mei appeared on her right. She was still dressed in her red suit. She leaned close, and Cecilia smelled perfume. "Just pretend that you are being examined by your regular gynecologist."
"Fat chance of that," she muttered, lashing out with the heel of her foot. Sung easily sidestepped the oncoming blow towards his face. He grabbed her ankle, and with a surprising amount of strength, he pinned it into a stirrup, which had unfolded from beneath the table. He closed the clasp, and her other leg quickly followed suit.
"Stop this," Hank growled, a hint of desperation in his voice. "Stop this now."
"Patience, Doctor McCoy. Your turn will come next."
"Why・why are you doing all of this?" Cecilia gasped, and grit her teeth. Her skin crawled, and she tried to block out the sensation of fingers on her bare flesh, probing・
"She's doing it for money, Cecilia," Hank answered, his voice low and tight with fury. "We are to be sold like animals."
"My buyers don't pay me millions of dollars for *animals*, Doctor McCoy. They pay me for the greatest minds in science--minds that they will employ for their own use."
"It's slavery," Cecilia hissed, and then cried out in pain as Sung conducted a pap smear. He was not gentle, and the shocking intrusion into her body made her eyes sting in a way that the hands around her throat had not.
He withdrew, and a warm blanket was thrown over the lower half of her body.
There was a low feminine laugh, and then: "You see? That wasn't so bad."
Cecilia said nothing.
They were thrown into the same room. It was sparsely furnished; one large mattress on the floor, a toilet, and a sink. The walls were made of concrete, as was the floor. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling. It was, in almost every way, like being in a prison cell.
Just minutes before unbinding him, Sung injected Hank with something that Cecilia could only guess was a specialized tranquilizer of sorts. Hank remained alert, but so weak that he could do little more than allow himself to be half dragged, half carried into the cell he and Cecilia now shared.
"I suspect," he said, after the men had left and he was lying on the mattress with Cecilia sitting beside him. "That if we do not get out of here, I will find that being as weak as a kitten will become the normal state of affairs in my life. You shall have to spoon-feed me, and change my diapers."
It was an attempt to make her smile, and Cecilia knew it. Unfortunately (because she was not in the mood for jokes), it worked.
"You can change your own diapers, McCoy," she muttered, and winced as her throat convulsed in pain. There were other parts of her that ached as well, but she ignored them. They carried memories that she did not yet want to face.
With great effort, Hank lifted his hand and touched her throat, probing gently. "Swollen and bruised," he murmured. "But no permanent damage. I am afraid, however, that if we ever make it to that formal ball, you'll have to wear a high-necked dress."
Cecilia stared at him incredulously.
"McCoy," she whispered. "If we ever make it out of here, I'll wear any kind of dress you like."
He closed his eyes. "You are an inspiration, Cecilia. Now we *must* escape."
But exactly how they were going to do that, Cecilia thought, with a glance around the sparsely furnished room, was a mystery to her.
Tienmu was a small district in Taiwan, known for its modern housing and stores, as well as the number of foreigners who lived there. At three-thirty in the morning, however, there was not much to see, although Marrow occasionally spied people walking along the darkened sidewalks, umbrellas held over their heads to keep off the falling rain.
They had been driving for half an hour, and Marrow was beginning to grow restless. Granted, they had not been searching for long, but the girl was beginning to suspect that it was a useless exercise. After all, how could they know which one of these buildings the two kidnapped X-Men might be in? For that matter, Guo could have lied to her; there had not been enough time to find out for sure, although Marrow was fairly certain that the man had spoken the truth. There was something in his expression--a fear too great to allow for lies.
Marrow almost smiled. Despite the pretty face the image-inducer gave her, there were certain things--elements of personality--that just could not stay hidden.
She glanced at Gambit; he had been silent for a long while now, his face lost in shadow. "Remy," she said hesitantly. "You think it might be better if we split up and covered this area on foot?"
After a long moment, Gambit slowly nodded. He pulled the car over to the side of the road, and turned off the engine. Instead of getting out of the car, though, he just sat there and frowned thoughtfully.
"Dere's somet'ing wrong 'bout dis whole t'ing, Sarah. Wha' happened at de Guild tonight・" His voice trailed off, and he shook himself. Gambit looked at her, his eyes red and bright. "You be careful, petite."
Marrow grinned fiercely. "These Upworlders are all soft. I can handle 'em."
Gambit merely grunted, and got out of the car. Marrow followed suit, and with a flash of teeth at her friend, began to lope down the street away from him. There was a swift breeze, and she blinked away the rain that got into her eyes.
"Back here in an hour!" She heard him hiss. She lifted her hand to acknowledge him, and kept on running.
Gambit watched the girl leave, and when she had disappeared from sight, he stepped into a covered alcove and pulled out his cell phone. There was someone he could call who might know where Cecilia and Hank had been taken--but it was going to cost Gambit, which was why he had waited until he was sure he had no other choice. That, and his contact was a paranoid mutant who would instantly know whether or not Gambit had company during their conversation.
Jia Rui hated that, and now was not the time for Gambit to be on the man's bad side.
He dialed in the numbers to his contact's secure line, and waited. The phone rang only once before it was picked up.
"Allo?" Gambit asked, after a long silence on the other end. "It's Remy LeBeau."
"I know." The voice was sullen, deep, and most definitely belonged to Jia. "I heard you were in town."
"I need y' help, Jia. Some friends o' mine--"
"--have been kidnapped. Yes, I know. It's going to cost you."
"--pay it. Yes, I know." There was a long pause. "I've changed my mind. I'm going to give this one to you for free. No strings."
Gambit lifted his eyebrows. "Y' sick or somethin'?"
"Just sick of the lady who's running the operation that took your friends. I did some work for her last month. Little bitch tried to cheat me."
"What's she up to?" Gambit asked, stepping deeper into the shadowed doorway as a late-night patrol car drove by.
"You don't have time to be asking me questions, LeBeau. Keep talking, and your little friend is going to get there before you."
Gambit stiffened. "Wha--"
"Go west on the road you're on. Follow it for twelve or so blocks, and take a left at Chuang-an Street. Keep going; you'll recognize the sign."
There was click, and then nothing. Jia Rui had just hung up on him.
Gambit tucked the phone back into his pocket; running the directions through his head, he began to race down the street in the direction that Marrow had taken.
The first thing that struck Marrow as she walked through the streets of Taipei in the middle of the night were the numbers of stray dogs. She had not noticed them in the car, but as she combed the streets, she saw them everywhere.
It was too bad, Marrow thought, that she didn't have the nose of a dog. If she did, she could just sniff out the two kidnapped X-Men instead of running haphazardly through these wet unfamiliar streets, her only company a bunch of canines with skin disease and bright eyes.
She stopped under a broken light post, trying to regain her bearings. As she did, she stared at the buildings around her, all of them ramshackle and similar in design. Where in this place would a person hide someone like Blue and Furry? She began to move forward, and felt something soft nuzzle her ankle. Marrow bit back a yelp, and looked down.
It was a puppy. Tiny and white, it hugged her heels, snuffling loudly. She made eye contact as she stared at it, and immediately realized her mistake. Marrow bravely lifted her gaze in an attempt to ignore the little ball of fur. She tried to walk away. The puppy followed her, stumbling over its own legs in its haste to keep up. It was wet and looked cold.
"Go away," she told it. "I don't want you."
The puppy whined and struggled to keep up.
They walked like that for several minutes, Marrow making threats while the little dog stared at her with its great, mournful eyes. She was just about ready to make a run for it when ahead in road she saw a long black Mercedes make a U-turn and park along the side of the street. Marrow stepped into the shadows, waiting to see who the driver was.
To her amazement, it was Ling. Another figure also stepped out of the car, and she felt her jaw drop as she recognized Guo. Ling locked her car, and the two Guild members began to walk down the road away from Marrow. The ex-Morlock instantly followed--or at least, she tried to. As she began to lope down the street, the puppy whined pitifully, his little legs not long enough to keep pace.
//Just leave him. Dogs are useless, puppies even more so. They're only good to eat, and you're not starving in the gutter any more.//
Ling and Guo were pulling farther ahead, their bodies shrouded in shadow. The puppy whined again. Marrow swore, and turned around. In two steps she reached the little dog, and swept it up into her arms. It licked her chin and right then and there she almost dropped it.
"Damn dog," she muttered, and began to hurry to catch up to Ling and Guo, both of whom had just gone around a street corner. But by the time Marrow reached the place where she had last seen them, they had disappeared.
The puppy pushed its nose into her chest and sighed.
Cecilia did not think it would be possible for her to sleep, but when she found herself slowly floating back into a groggy state of semi-consciousness, she blearily realized that she had done just that. She forced herself to roll over, and came face to ear with Hank. His eyes were open, and he was staring at the ceiling.
"Tell me, Mr. Genius-In-Residence・do you have a plan yet?" Cecilia asked, propping herself up on her elbow.
A small, bitter smile played across Hank's features. "I am afraid that it is this supposed genius of mine that has gotten us into this mess. But as to your question," He turned his head and looked her in the eye. "My answer is no."
Cecilia grunted, and flipped herself onto her back. The two of them lay there, staring at nothing.
"I can't think of anything, either," she confessed. "My shield still protects me--as long as they don't grab hold of my neck, that is. I suppose I could try to make a run for it the next time they come--rip off the toilet seat cover over there and smack them with it if they try anything."
"Perhaps," Hank conceded. "The potential risk to your person disturbs me, though."
"And I・I don't want to leave you," Cecilia admitted grudgingly.
Hank went very still. "Cecilia," he began softly. "I cannot express to you how sorry I am to have gotten you in this mess. If I had not left that message on your answering machine--"
"Then none of us would know you had been kidnapped. At least--at least you're not alone, Hank. Neither of us are."
"And that is precisely why I am feeling so guilty," he replied, turning his head so that he could look into her eyes. "Because there is a part of me that is happy that you are here with me--that I do *not* have to go through this by myself. And after what you had to endure tonight--"
"Let's *not* talk about that," Cecilia interrupted wryly. "Besides, you were the one tied to the floor of a van, gagged and bound for hours, until they pumped you full of enough drugs to take down an elephant. At least I actually had the chance to get physical and kick some bootie."
Hank chuckled. "I saw what you did you to that man who dragged you into the van. I wish I had been as capable in my own defense. I called for room service--a midnight snack--but needless to say, the men who brought my meal were not employees of the hotel. They sprayed something in my face, struck me over the head, and before I knew it, I found myself bound and gagged on the floor of that van. It's embarrassing. After all of those hours spent in the Danger Room・"
"You lacked a woman's touch, that's all," Cecilia replied sarcastically, and patted his hand. He grasped it and tucked it into his side.
"My strength is coming back," he commented. "If they wait much longer, we might actually have a chance." He hesitated, and squeezed her hand. "If you have the opportunity, take it. Get away and find help--Gambit, maybe, if you can reach him."
"What about you?"
Hank sighed. "If you don't come back with reinforcements, I shall simply have to find someone *else* who can spoon feed me and change my di--"
Cecilia smacked him. "You're hoping it comes to that, aren't you? What happened when you were a baby, McCoy? Not get enough love?"
He grinned, and was just about to reply when the door to their small room clicked open. Two men, both thin and narrow, padded in with their guns drawn. Wang Mei followed them. She smiled at the two X-Men.
"I'm glad to see that the two of you are so comfortable. Unfortunately, Doctor Reyes must leave now."
"Leave?" Hank and Cecilia chorused.
Wang Mei raised a finely plucked eyebrow. "My buyer has just informed me that he has no use for Doctor Reyes; he only wants *you* Doctor McCoy. As such, your friend is going to be・released."
"Uh-huh," Cecilia nodded. //Yeah, right. No one in this room is *that* stupid. //
"If Cecilia is harmed in any way, I will not cooperate," Hank announced, feebly trying to push himself off the mattress. Cecilia stared at him incredulously.
//What a way to scare them, Hank. You can't even lift up your head.//
But he had said that his strength was returning. Which meant・
Hank caught Cecilia's eye, and she slowly stood and turned to face Wang Mei. "I'll go," she said. "I just need a minute."
"Of course." Her smile was smooth. She took several steps back and stood there, watching them.
Cecilia knelt back down besides Hank, and without a moment's hesitation he enfolded his great arms around her. She pressed her lips to his ear. "You sure about this?" she breathed, her heart beginning to rattle in her chest.
Hank turned her slightly so that the side of her head would block his mouth. "Yes," he whispered. "They won't shoot me--I'm worth too much. It's the only way."
"See you later then, Hank," Cecilia replied softly, and then kissed him hard on the lips. He was not expecting the crush of her mouth on his own, and a strangled "oomph" emerged.
She released him and stood quickly.
"Are you ready now, Doctor Reyes?" Wang Mei asked, taking several steps towards the two X-Men.
Cecilia nodded, still facing Hank. "Yeah. I'm ready."
She whirled and threw herself at the woman. The sound of bullets rang out, and Cecilia felt the familiar pain of contact as they connected with her shield and ricocheted. From behind her, she heard Hank roar, followed by the sound of flesh smacking flesh.
Wang Mei bled from a cut along her temple. //One of the bullets that bounced off me,// Cecilia realized, and then lifted her fist and slammed it towards the other woman's cheek. To Cecilia's surprise, she sidestepped the blow, and returned with one that the doctor was too slow to block. She felt it in her gut, and a second later, fingers tangled in her hair and pulled her head back.
"I'm going to kill you," Wang Mei hissed. Blood streamed down the side of her face; her eyes were dark and hard.
"Cecilia!" Hank shouted.
Cecilia snarled, raising her fists. She felt the hairs on her forearms lift off her skin, and there was a flash of gold at the bottom of her vision, followed by a loud *thump* and the sight of Wang Mei being propelled into the concrete wall with bone-shattering force.
Cecilia spun around; Hank was wrestling with one of the men--the other lay unconscious on the floor beside them. She could hear the sounds of running feet, fast approaching.
"Go!" he shouted.
"Cecilia," he hissed, his voice tight with strain as he tried to subdue the struggling guard. He was tiring--she could see it. She knew he wouldn't be able to move fast enough to escape before the others arrived.
She took a step backward, and then another, her eyes glued on Hank.
GO, he mouthed, his eyes pleading.
Cecilia tore herself away, and ran.
Marrow crept down the street in the direction she had seen Ling and Guo go. The rain was falling harder now, and the winds had picked up. She clutched the puppy to her chest, and tried to keep it from wiggling.
It had to be one of these buildings, she reasoned, staring at the storefronts and apartment complexes that lined the road.
"What do you think?" she asked the puppy. And froze.
No. She had NOT just talked to the animal in her arms. No WAY had she just done that.
The puppy wagged its tail, and Marrow growled.
The sky split with lightning, followed by the menacing rumble of thunder. Marrow looked up at the sky, and a store sign illuminated by a weak street light caught her eye. The design seemed familiar, and she stepped closer, squinting. Where had she seen--
There were differences, to be sure, but the design was too close to be mere coincidence. Marrow stepped up to the store's door and looked in through the window. The interior was dark, and she saw cloth and sewing apparatus set on high shelves. She tested the door and found it locked. Holding the puppy under her left arm, Marrow reached back with her free elbow and slammed it through the glass. It shattered loudly, and Marrow reached in to turn the knob. As she did, a hand shot out of the darkened shop interior and grabbed her wrist, pulling and twisting. Marrow's shoulder crashed through the rest of the window, shards of glass cutting into her skin, getting into her hair.
She ignored the pain, and set her heels against the outside of the door. With a loud grunt, she threw herself backward and dropped down into a squat. The hand around her wrist was followed by an arm, which in turn was followed by a head--a head with Guo's face attached to it--that appeared through the now glass-less door front. Marrow wrenched her arm free, and grabbed Guo's hair before he could disappear back into the store.
"Bad, bad boy," Marrow hissed, gliding forward until she was eye to eye with the man. "You've got some people here--one of them is big and blue. The other isn't. Take me to them."
He hesitated, and Marrow pressed his already ravaged cheek against a shard of glass still standing in its frame. "Well?"
As he opened his mouth, Marrow heard an object whistle through the air. Guo jerked once, the whites of his eyes flashing in the shadows. A breath, a sigh, passed through his bloody lips and he slumped against the door. There was a knife in his back.
"Nice throw," Marrow commented.
Ling appeared out of the shadows, a small dagger in her right hand. Her long black hair had been swept back into a ponytail, and what little Marrow could see of her eyes reminded her of two dark chips of granite. Marrow gave the dead man's body a hard shove, freeing space for her arm. She reached in, unlocked the door, and entered the shop. The puppy whined, and Marrow set it down on the counter beside her. She touched a finger to her belt and the illusion disguising her physical appearance disappeared in an eye-blink. The two women assessed each other.
"You surprise me," Ling commented mildly.
"I could say the same thing about you, Upworlder." Marrow replied. "Kidnapping, betrayal--"
"Money," Ling interrupted. "*A lot* of money. Which is why I cannot let you have your friends."
Marrow shrugged. "Then I guess I'll just have to kill you."
Realizing that you're about to die, Cecilia decided, was not the transforming experience that everyone liked to say it was. Forget the new age junk about near-death--she had never felt that "white light of love" streaming down on her, and she had been closer to death more times than she cared to count.
Or so she had thought.
Bullets, laser guns, drills, demons--name it, and it hadn't been able to get past her bio-shield. Ever. Those had been obvious threats, though--larger than life and deadly. But those hands around her neck, squeezing--they had been just as deadly as an ax aimed for her head, and yet nothing. Not even the faintest twinge of her shield.
She couldn't let the men get close to her.
Cecilia darted down the unfamiliar corridors, the sounds of pursuit growing louder for each step she took. An image of Hank filled her mind, and she pushed it away. The important thing now was to escape--escape and find help.
A guard holding a semi-automatic rounded the corner. He skidded to a stop when he saw her, his eyes widening. Cecilia kept running towards him; she did not slow even when he lifted his gun and began firing. She barreled through the barrage of bullets, her focus straight and narrow. When she was close enough to see real fear and confusion in the guard's face, she raised her right fist and slammed it into the man's cheek. He never had the chance to defend himself, and the force of her blow sent him sprawling. Cecilia leapt over his body, evading his feeble attempt to grab her ankle. She grimaced and cradled her hand against her chest. His face had been *hard*.
She made another turn, and there--like the Holy Grail itself--were two double doors, their shape and design screaming Exit. Cecilia kicked them open, and cool wet air rushed over her face. Rain pounded the pavement just outside, and the sound of it deafened her. The street, as far as she could tell, was deserted, and the lure of Outside was like a siren's call.
She heard shouts, and whirled. Two guards, both heavily armed, were racing towards her from the end of the corridor. One of them paused, and hurled a knife at her. Eyes wide, she watched it spin through the air--only to bounce off her shield, six inches away from her face.
Cecilia leapt out into the rain. //I'm coming back for you, Hank. Oh God, don't be hurt when I get back here.//
And that was how Cecilia found herself racing down a narrow, unlit lane in the middle of the night, rain pouring down on her head, pursued by two dangerous men with murder on their minds. They might not be able to shoot her to death, but there were quite a few other things the creative mind could come up that would probably bring her that much closer to Being Dead. She could still feel the slow crush of fingers on her windpipe, and shuddered.
Winds howled down on her, and she ran under a swollen gutter. The shocking chill of the water as it hit her face and neck made her gasp and stumble, and she put a hand out to steady herself. The same thing happened only a minute later, and Cecilia tried to steer herself into the center of the lane. It was so hard to see, though・
She heard muffled shouts behind her, and extra strength flooded her legs.
//Don't let the men touch you--their hands--//
She grunted in pain as the bio-shield surrounding her bare knee connected with an old wooden crate someone had left leaning against a doorstep, the narrow lengths of wood breaking loudly as they ricocheted off her leg and hit the cobblestone street behind her. Clenching her teeth against the imagined sensation of torn flesh, Cecilia slammed the palm of her hand against the plane of her thigh, and pushed herself to keep moving.
She passed the kitchen with its golden, streaming light and its night-owl family, picking up the broken beer bottle stem to use as a makeshift weapon. She continued to run, not thinking to call to them for help, and then--then she reached the dead end.
There were doors--she banged on them with her fists, kicking with her feet. Not one of them opened. The roof then, but the walls were slick, and she was too tired. She kept losing her grip, and on the third desperate attempt, she fell just too hard. Sprawled on the ground, collected rain from the eaves pouring down on her head, her body finally gave out. Not even her arms would work.
"Shit," she muttered, just as the first beam of a flashlight appeared not more than ten feet away.
She clutched her piece of broken glass. If she was lucky, they would just try to beat her to death, and she could lay there and laugh at them. Oh yeah. Real lucky, Reyes.
They finally came into view, standing shoulder to shoulder. One of the guards laughed, and Cecilia could just imagine what he was thinking. Easy pickings.
The flashlight in her eyes was blinding; she hid the bottle stem against her chest as they approached. The rain pounding down around them, one of the men knelt beside her, a hand splayed out on the pavement for support.
"You have been much trouble," he told her. His eyes were narrow and hard, but he still managed to force out a smile. Cecilia felt her lips curl back.
"The night's not over," she muttered, and lashed out with her broken beer stem. She stabbed his outstretched hand, and felt the glass break through the flesh and hit bone.
The man howled, stumbling backwards into his companion. Over his cries, Cecilia suddenly heard the sound of clapping.
"Now dat," said a familiar voice. "Is my kind o' woman."
And Cecilia began to laugh.
It was almost embarrassing to watch the ease with which Gambit dispatched the men, and Cecilia resolved that when she got back home, she would make him teach her some of the things he had just done. There was a part of her, however, that suspected only Gambit was capable of performing some of those moves. It had to be a mutant gift, she decided, as he leapt up into the air, spinning and kicking, his bo staff whirling above his head like the fans of a helicopter. Neither of the guards managed to land a single blow, and within minutes they both lay in the street, unconscious.
Cecilia struggled to push herself off the ground. Gambit knelt beside her. "Easy dere," he murmured, not even out of breath. "Looks like y' been t'rough hell 'n back."
"I feel like it," she muttered. And then laughed again. It was Good being alive. She resisted the urge to hug Gambit, and contented herself with patting his hand. "I can't tell you how glad I am to see you. Is Hank safe?"
He didn't answer her, but then, he didn't need to. Cecilia saw it in his eyes.
She shook her head. "No."
"Chere," he reached out for her, but Cecilia shook off his hand. Her eyes stung, and she pushed herself to her feet, wincing.
"We have to go back and find him, Gambit."
"We will," he soothed. "We won' stop 'till we do."
"I shouldn't have left him." All of the stress and frustration of the long night flooded her system until it was too much--too much to bear without some physical outlet. And as much as she knew she would hate herself for it in the morning, Cecilia let herself cry.
Ling proved to be a surprisingly competent opponent, but Marrow had grown up in an alternate dimension, arid and harsh, where every day had been a fight just to survive. It had been a terrible life, full of blood and battle, never ceasing.
In the end, Ling had no chance at all.
"Where are they?" Marrow asked, the serrated edge of a bone pressed against Ling's throat.
"Down below," she answered hoarsely, her breath rattling in her throat. Sweat and blood covered her face, and a front tooth had been knocked out. Marrow was not entirely sure the woman would ever be able to use her right eye again. "They're being kept on the lowest level. Take the stairs."
Marrow nodded, and removed the bone-knife from her throat. She tried not to favor her left leg as she rose; her knee ached where Ling had managed to land a blow. From the countertop, there was a shifting of shadows and Marrow heard the puppy whine softly.
Still, she couldn't just leave it in the same room with Ling. No telling what would happen. There were purses for sale; they hung on tiny hooks by the front door. Marrow grabbed one and hooked it over her head and shoulder. The puppy slid neatly into the purse's main compartment, and Marrow shoved its head down and zipped it in.
"Stay there," she muttered.
She turned back to Ling, eyeing the fallen woman for a long moment. Ling peered at her blearily through her one good eye. "I would have killed you," she said.
Marrow nodded. A month ago even, she would not have thought a thing about sticking a bone through Ling's throat. But things had changed. A little, at any rate.
"Let's put it this way," Marrow replied, a nasty smile spreading across her face. "You're loosing a lot of blood, you can only see out of one eye, and no plastic surgeon is *ever* going to be able to patch up your face. Not only that, when the Guild hears about your little side operation, there won't *be* a place you can hide. So from where I'm standing, Upworlder, *not* killing you still makes me the meanest bitch in this room."
Which, Marrow thought cheerfully, was probably *not* what Ling wanted to hear. Which was just too bad for her.
Marrow stepped over Ling's body, and headed towards the door at the back of the store. There was a part of her that suddenly wondered why she was going to so much trouble for people she would have once cheerfully skewered.
//Because they--and the rest of the X-Men--are all I've got//
The realization stunned her, and she blinked heavily before stealthily pushing open the door. Inside was a storeroom, filled with shelves and boxes of dry goods. She found the stairs on her left; they looked old, and barely strong enough to hold her weight. They led down, and the stairwell melted into darkness. For an instant, she thought she heard shouts, but they faded quickly. Marrow patted the squirming bag at her side, and slowly began to make her way down.
She suddenly had trouble holding her focus, and her thoughts roamed. Did she really feel that way about the X-Men? Had they really gotten under her skin so much that she was beginning to think of them as--as・family? Sure, she felt safe there--she had a clean bed, food・
Laughter. Peter trying to teach her how to paint. Nightcrawler teasing her over a failed attempt at cooking, Gambit sharing the finer points of poker, taking her for rides on his motorcycle・
The memories flooded her mind, and Marrow leaned against the wall. Her eyes burned, and she felt something catch and claw up the inside of her throat. How had her life changed so much, and in such a short amount of time? And why her? Why?
Marrow heard the spatter of rapid gunfire drift up out of the darkness, and she straightened instantly. Her focus returned bright hot, and she slunk down the stairwell, her back pressed against the wall. She went down two complete flights before she saw anyone, and the first person who ran into her got a fist in the face, and another blow to the back of the head. He went down with a soft thump, and Marrow stepped over his body.
There were shouts, and she hurried down a long corridor to their source. The lights were on here, the walls and floor made of concrete and steel. From the sound of things, she was beginning to wonder if Hank and Cecilia hadn't managed to take care of things themselves, but when she rounded a corner in the hall, she nixed that idea.
Hank knelt on the floor, the palms of his hands pressing into the concrete. A woman stood above him, red-faced with anger. Her suit was torn, and her right arm hung limp at her side. In her left hand, however, she held a gun. It was pointed directly at Hank's head. She screamed at him in Chinese, and Hank shook his head in response. At least five men, all dressed in black fatigues, lined the hall. One of them looked up and saw Marrow standing there. His eyes widened exponentially, but before he could shout out a warning, Marrow lunged forward. She felt the bones in her arms change--loosen--and as she raced headlong towards the heavily armed group, she flung out her arms. Slivers of bone, needle sharp, shot from her wrists. Voices cried out in pain as the little projectiles embedded themselves in soft flesh.
The woman standing over Hank caught one in the shoulder and staggered. Her captive did not hesitate; reaching back with one long arm, Hank grabbed hold of her blouse and slammed her into a wall.
"How the Mighty have fallen." Marrow heard him murmur wearily, as the unconscious woman slumped to the ground.
Marrow finally wrested the gun from her struggling opponent, and smashed the butt of it into his temple. No one else attempted to fight her, the rest of the guards limping away as fast as their legs could carry them. They looked like a herd of porcupine or cacti, what with the bone slivers quivering from their bodies, and Marrow did not waste her breath trying to stop them. She knelt by Hank.
"Long night?" She asked, laying down the gun by her feet.
Hank stared at her. "You're joking, right?"
Marrow shrugged. "It had to happen, someday." She glanced around. "Where's Cecilia?"
Hank's face turned stricken, and he struggled to stand. He fell, and Marrow reached out a hand to steady him. "I don't know. Our erstwhile captor claimed that they--they killed her, that they were going to do the same to me. I wasn't sure whether or not to believe her."
"Um. I'd say she was lying."
Marrow made a quick gesture, and Hank turned; Cecilia stood at the very end of the corridor, Gambit at her shoulder. They were both soaking wet, their expressions ones of distinct, exhausted relief. Cecilia took a step forward, and stumbled into a short run that quickly left her on her knees beside Hank.
"I was afraid you would be gone," she told him. Water dripped from her hair, leaving a small puddle between their bodies.
"I am most thankful that I am not," he replied, and glanced at Wang Mei. "Though not for lack of trying."
Gambit appeared beside Hank, and lay a hand on the man's shoulder. "T'ink y' can walk?"
He nodded. "Indubitably, although I hope we don't encounter any more of Wang Mei's men. It's amazing how bullet holes devalue the price of fur."
Cecilia grimaced. "Wrong time, bad joke."
"Speaking of which," Hank said, glancing at the bag slung across Marrow's shoulder. "When did *you* become a collector of Hello Kitty paraphernalia?"
Marrow blinked, and looked down at the purse. To her dismay, it was a blinding shade of light pink, and on its side, like some obscene banner, was plastered the face of a dewy-eyed cat.
She tore her eyes from the bag, and stared at the others in horror.
"Well, at least I know what to get you for Christmas," Cecilia commented wryly.
Marrow scowled, her face darkening even further when she felt the bag shake. A muffled whine emerged, and Gambit's eyebrows lifted into his hairline.
"Sarah? Y' got somet'ing t'share?"
"Later," she growled, as a black nose poked its way through the zipper. The others were staring at her like she had sprouted two heads, and she rose to her feet. "You really *wanna* stay here and talk?"
*That* got them moving. With Gambit and Cecilia supporting Hank on each side, and Marrow scouting ahead, they quickly found their way out of the building. The rain had stopped, and the sky was beginning to lighten. Marrow could hear the sounds of traffic, and she switched on her image inducer. Gambit paused just outside the exit doors, and motioned for Marrow to take his place at Hank's side.
"I'm goin' back in," he told them. "Dere have t'be papers, somet'ing dat tells who's been involved an' where de o'der kidnapped people were taken."
Hank's face was solemn. "I suspected we were not the only ones. I also suspect that this Wang Mei was your reason for journeying to Taiwan."
"Din' know her name, Henri," Gambit shrugged. "Din' know much at all, o'derwise you an' Doc Reyes might not have been taken tonight. Considerin' everyt'ing against us, I'd say we had luck on our sides, mon ami."
"Angels in the night," Hank murmured, with a small smile. He hugged Cecilia to his side, and Marrow noted that she did not resist him.
"Gambit," she called, as he was turning to go back into the building. "Ling was here. With Guo."
He froze. "Y' took care o' dem?"
Marrow nodded. "Ling killed Guo, but she's alive, if just barely. I figured your Guild could do the rest."
Gambit smiled, and Marrow felt a warm flush spread through her at the approval in his eyes. "Good t'inking," he told her. He fished the keys from his pocket and tossed them to her. "Get Hank to de car, petite. Wait for me dere."
It was a long walk, especially in a city that was just beginning to awaken. The few people they saw, however, did little more than stare at the strange procession--two women walking on either side of a large, blue, and very furry man. When they did reach the car, Hank gratefully squeezed his way into the back seat. Cecilia clambered in after him, and Marrow took the front. No one talked, and Marrow scanned the street, watching for Gambit. Ten minutes later, she caught a glimpse of his unmistakable figure, and she smiled. "He's coming," she told the others. There was no response.
Twisting in her seat, Marrow looked back at the two X-Men. They were both sound asleep. Cecilia's head rested on Hank's chest, and one of his thick arms hung loosely over her shoulders.
The puppy whined, and Marrow unzipped the purse. The little dog immediately poked its head out, and looked at her with an expression of such severe hurt that Marrow momentarily forgot herself.
She tucked it into the pit of her stomach, and awkwardly patted its head. The puppy wagged its tail and tried to gnaw on her wrist bones.
"Damn dog," she muttered, but she did not pull away.
Gambit stepped down from the curb, and entered the car. He looked unhappy, but when he saw the puppy in Marrow's lap, his lips twitched.
"Got a new friend?" He asked, putting down a thick sheathe of paper. He stroked the little puppy on the back of the head with one long finger.
Marrow grunted. "What'd you find?"
"Answers," he replied shortly. "But dere goin' t'be people dat don' wan' hear dem."
"Yeah, well. You know how to make people listen."
He smiled, and started the engine. "I seem t'know someone else wit' dat talent, too."
In the darkness of his hotel room at the Far Eastern, Gambit lay stretched out on his bed. The telephone rested on his stomach, staring balefully at him. With a sigh, he finally picked up the receiver and punched in the numbers he had known by heart for so much of his life.
The phone rang twice, and the voice that answered was deep and rich.
"Mon pere," Gambit said. "We need t'talk."
"Don' we always?" Jean-Luc asked wryly, although Gambit thought he heard pleasure there. On the other end of the line came the sounds of shifting papers, followed by a low creaking that Gambit knew was his father's chair as the older man leaned backwards to prop his feet up on his desk. "Y' wan' know why I asked y' t'go t'Taiwan, neh?"
Gambit just waited, and his father grunted.
"Y'see, de Taiwan Guild-Master suspected dat his people were engaging in non-sanctioned activities, but he din' know who he could trust. So, he asked for help. He din' explain to his people why y' were comin', jus' dat you'd be dere t'help dem wit' de kidnappings. An' y' did."
"M'friends almost lost deir lives," Gambit reminded him.
"But y' helped t'save dem, an' de lives o' o'der people dat were kidnapped. An' y' prevented dis from ever happenin' again."
"Yeah," Gambit muttered. "'Till de next crazy comes along and tries de same t'ing."
"Can' save everyone."
Gambit snorted. "Y' talkin' to de wrong person."
His father laughed; it was a low comforting sound, and Gambit realized that he had missed hearing it. Maybe it was time for a visit home, after he got back to the states. Maybe, he would take Marrow with him, and show off all his old haunts. She'd like that.
There was knock at his door. Gambit sighed. "Gotta go, Pa-Pa. I come see you when I get back, neh? I'll bring a friend."
"Y' do dat, Remy."
They did not linger over their good-byes, and Gambit placed the telephone back on the night stand. He stood up, briskly running his hands over his shirt. He picked up his jacket from where it lay on the bed, and swung it on as he walked to the door. He opened it to find Marrow, image-inducer on, her waist twisted as she tried to look at something on her back.
"Tres belle, petite," Gambit told her, smiling. Marrow blinked, and smoothed down the front of her dress. It sparkled in a delicate shade of rose-pink, and hugged her curves.
"Tell me that in English."
"Y' look beautiful," he said, and nearly laughed outright when she looked down, obviously flustered.
"It's the image-inducer," she muttered.
Gambit shook his head. "It ain't. Turn it off if y' don't believe me."
She stared at him, and Gambit reached down to her waist where he knew the image-inducer's controls were hidden. He tapped a button, and the illusion before him disappeared. Marrow, with her pink hair and delicate bones curving up from her forehead, looked at him with uncertain eyes.
Marrow hesitated, and reached up to touch her forehead. She closed her eyes. "What if・what if people--"
Gambit took her hand and held it loosely. "So what if dey do, petite?" He grinned, and closed his door behind him. Tucking her hand under his elbow, he led her to the elevator. "I can guarantee, if de women say anyt'ing tonight, it'll be because dey're jealous dey can' look as good as you, an' if de men let deir mouths wag・it'll be 'cause dey're jealous you're wit such a handsome devil like moi."
Marrow couldn't hide the pleased smile that darted fleetingly across her lips.
"You・you look good, too."
Gambit grinned, and glanced down at his tuxedo. Li Zhang had recommended the store he'd bought it from, and despite their differences, the man had good taste.
"We're a pair dat'll stop traffic, dat's for sure."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Marrow muttered.
・I still don・t know how I let you talk me into this, Hank.・
・My dear, you look absolutely stunning.・
・Don・t try to change subjects on me, Mister.・ Cecilia looked at him reprovingly. ・I thought this was going to be a quiet, albeit formal, scientific gathering, *not* some wild gala. I・ve seen so much ass pinching in the last hour, you'd think we were at Hooters.・ Cecilia looked around at the milling crowd with a faint light of disdain in her eyes. ・I can・t believe some of these people are actually respected in their fields.・
・I will admit,・ Beast replied, noting the rather saccharine and drunken smiles of those around them. ・That this gathering has been less than intellectually grounded. However, do you really mean to tell me that you have not enjoyed at least one modicum of our time here? You've been able to speak with some of the most respected men and women of this decade, *and* you managed to impress them with your intelligence. Dare I also mention that you have turned literally every head at this gathering?・
Cecilia smiled wryly, and smoothed a hand down the blue black silk that clung lovingly to her body. A collar covered her entire neck, but her shoulders remained bare, and the back of her dress dipped daringly. Finding the gown had been a stroke of luck, or else the result of one very well connected Cajun thief.
・Did I also mention that I・ve been approached twice this evening, by men wanting to know the name of the Escort service I work for?・
Beast choked on his drink, his eyes widening. ・It is fortuitous indeed that I was not present to hear that," he finally managed to sputter. "There would no doubt have been blood shed. How, pray tell, did you respond to such brazen inquiries?・
・Oh,・ Cecilia purred. ・I just gave them Emma Frost's private number.・
She had to pound Beast on the back as he doubled over.
"What did I ever do without you, Cecilia?" He asked her, when he finally regained control over his breathing.
"I don't know," she replied simply, touching his cheek with her hand. "But I'm glad neither of us have to find out."
Hank smiled, and wrapped one great hand around her waist. He pulled her near. "You, Doctor Cecilia Reyes, are a closet romantic."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." She grinned, and peered over his shoulder. "Here come Gambit and Marrow."
Hank's eyes widened as he took in the approaching couple. "Oh my stars and garters," he murmured. "Us mutants are making a statement tonight, are we not?"
Cecilia felt an old pang run through her heart. There had been a time when she would have died rather than be seen at a public gathering with a mutant, little alone talk openly about her own genetic differences. But she had changed, and the last several days had further cemented the feelings that had been growing inside of her. There were some things a person couldn't deny, and trying to do so was just plain dumb.
"De gang's all here," Gambit laughed. Marrow, her posture stiff, stood beside him and glanced nervously at the milling scientists and intellectuals. Cecilia smiled.
"You look great," she told her. Marrow blinked, and some of the wariness melted out of her body.
"No one seems to be paying attention," she commented.
Cecilia snorted. "Between the big blue furry guy and the Cajun, I doubt either of us are going to be looked at much tonight."
That brought a smile to Marrow's lips, and Cecilia felt herself warming to the girl. //So miracles *do* happen//
"Have you named your dog yet?" Hank asked, taking a sip of his Champagne. Much to everyone's surprise, Marrow had declared earlier in the weekend that she was going to bring the "damn dog" back with her to the United States. Gambit had found a vet, and that morning he and the girl had taken the puppy to get its shots and paperwork for the trip home. Cecilia thought it was cute, though she wasn't really a dog person. At least, she didn't think she was.
"Damndog," Marrow replied.
Hank blinked. "Damn dog?"
"You deaf or something? Yeah, his name is Damndog."
"--a perfect name." Gambit interrupted with a grin. Marrow grunted, somewhat mollified. It wasn't *her* fault the puppy refused to respond to anything else.
A soft waltz filled the room, and people began to pair off to dance.
Hank set down his glass on a nearby table and turned to Cecilia. "My Lady?" He offered her his hand. Cecilia looked at it appraisingly, and finally set her palm in his own.
"I look like a penguin when I dance," she told him.
"That's fine," he replied, drawing her out onto the dance floor. "I look like a blue gorilla."
"Just don't start picking nits out of my hair," Cecilia warned him.
"But they're so tasty."
Gambit turned to Marrow. "Come on, girl. Time y' learned t'dance."
"No." She stared at him defiantly.
"Dis ain' de time t'start arguin' wit me."
"Every time is a good time," Marrow retorted, but after a few grumbled swearwords muttered under her breath, she allowed herself to be drawn onto the dance floor.
It was, for everyone involved, a wonderful night.
The party had wound down hours ago, and the hotel staff members were now slowly beginning to put away chairs and tables, sweeping up the little and not-so-little messes that littered the room. Cecilia and Hank stood just outside the ring of their work, in a small, darkened lounge whose great windows overlooked Taipei. The city spread beneath them, lights glittering like so many jewels thrown haphazard on a bed of steel and velvet. It was breathtaking.
"We're lucky to be here," Cecilia said, lightly pressing her fingertips against the glass. She felt Hank's hand brush her shoulder, and linger. "It was all too close, Hank."
She could feel the hands on her neck, fingers squeezing the life out of her body. She shivered, and was suddenly grateful for the warmth of Hank's body near her own.
"It's going to take a while for either of us to get over the things that were done," Hank said. "And the things we had to watch that were done to each other. At least we have ourselves to talk to."
Another memory flooded Cecilia's mind, this one of hands on her bare thighs. She began to push it away, and then stopped. She reached up to her shoulder, and gently squeezed Hank's hand. "There are some things we won't tell the others," she said quietly.
Hank nodded, and wrapped his free arm around her waist. She pressed her back into his chest, and sighed. The city winked and beckoned, drawing them in, sinking them deep into a private pocket of dark, quiet space.
"We are very lucky, Cecilia," he whispered, and gently pressed his lips into her hair.
"Because for you, my flowerlike fair,
"Ta shi shei?" = Who is she?