"So Red Riding Hood was goin' along, minding her own business, livin' on porridge that she stole outta the three bears' houses. Also she stole Slurpees and a kewl pair of hi-tops. But one day as she was skulkin' through the woods she ran into this wolf. An' the wolf said, 'Where ya goin' kid?' And Riding Hood was all like, 'Leave me alone, freak.' But just then this mean, horrible woodcutter--"
"Woodcutter?" interrupted Leech. "Why was woodcutter horrible?"
"This woodcutter had a chainsaw. Think Texas Massacre."
"The chainsaw guy, he came outta nowhere and he just started whaling on the wolf. So Riding Hood, she felt kinda bad for him, so she ran up to the woodcutter and grabbed the chainsaw and ran off with it. And the wood-wacko, he ran after her. And he was bigger than her, but she had these great hi-tops, and she was little and could duck through the trees. But the maniac was catching up. He was getting closer and closer, and she could hear his feet pounding behind her, and his breath panting down her neck..."
"And?" demanded Leech.
Artie just waited, round-eyed.
"And then the wolf came up behind him and ripped him to shreds," Jubilee said with satisfaction. "And Red Riding Hood and the wolf went off together and lived happily ever after."
"I don't think that's exactly how the story goes," laughed M.
"Yeah? Well that's how I always heard it when I was in the X-Men," said Jubilee loftily.
* * *
The child, alone. The dark, the cold. The monsters in the shadows. The Darkworm shivered with anticipation as he twisted his way through the telepathic miasma of dreaming minds. Always there were the vulnerable ones.
But not all of them would suit his purposes. He couldn't consume a whole mind. He needed one that would fracture, one that he could absorb in shards. It had to be a telepath, but couldn't be a strong one. And he really preferred the children.
The Darkworm twisted and burrowed, following a thread of nightmare. Something about a kidnapping, a bogeyman named Bastion. It was an open wound, an unhealed psychic scream, and it drew him as wonderfully as blood drew sharks. At the end of it he found a girl. A tough-talking child with bad memories and repressed instincts. A latent telepath afraid of her own strength. Mistrustfulness, grief, a powerful sense of abandonment...all denied by her conscious mind. The Darkworm savored, for a moment, all the wasted potential--and then bit joyfully, sadistically, into her unprotected mind.
Emma Frost turned over in her sleep as the delicate mental touch withdrew from her Academy, taking with it something that was under her care. But the shadow was too light, and did not wake her.
And Jubilation Lee cried out softly, started awake, got out of bed, climbed out the window, and started walking through the dark and towards the monster.
* * *
"Her tracks go a half-mile down the road. At that point there appear to be some fresh tire tracks. It looks like she met someone in a car and drove off with them." Frost spoke tersely into the telephone, her face an impassive mask. "Yes. Yes, I sensed something in the night. It felt like a dream." She paused, listening. "A telepathic touch. I...I believe it was drawn...by Jubilation's memories of imprisonment. It felt...like a leech. Like something very evil." Another pause. "Yes. Please notify me the instant you discover anything. Thank you, Mr. Summers."
* * *
He couldn't. Fucking. Believe it. He fought down the urge to put his fist through a wall and managed to get some words out.
"I thought the kid was goin' down there ta be safe," Logan snarled. "Has Frost stuck a 'please kidnap me' sign to her back or what?"
Nobody would meet his eyes.
"Emma sensed a cause-and-effect relationship," said Jean finally. "A telepathic influence that was drawn to her because of her experience with Bastion."
"Why," Logan growled. "What kind of sicko are we dealin' with?"
Jean shook her head, her face pale and drawn. "I don't know. And I couldn't locate Jubilee with Cerebro. If she's under mental domination, then her mind might not be accessible. But Psylocke and I are going to keep a 24-hour telepathic watch. If her captor's control slips even for a second...we'll find her."
"And the rest of us," said Cyclops before Logan could snap a response, "will go to Massachusetts and follow a standard search pattern from her last known location. Suit up, everyone."
* * *
Jubilee woke up from a really strange dream. A pretty bad dream. Her room was pitch black, and she seemed to be lying on the floor, and her feet were throbbing like she'd walked a mile barefoot, and this wasn't actually her room, and she hadn't been dreaming at all.
She raised her hands against the darkness. PAF-PAF-PAF-PAF. Light and heat and color exploded into existence, hung in the air sparkling, and slowly faded back into blackness.
She was in a basement. A wet, dark old basement. She was wearing the oversized t-shirt that she sometimes slept in, and she was really cold. The only other thing in the basement was a big bowl of dry cereal and a glass of water. A set of rickety-looking wooden stairs led up to very non-rickety-looking metal door.
"Fuck this shit," Jubilee muttered, and pulled herself to her feet. Ouch. She staggered step by painful step (damn, she'd really cut her feet up) to the stairs. PAF. A bit more light, and she pulled herself up to the door.
BANG. She slammed her fist against the door, ignoring the pain of impact in her hand. BANG. BANG. And a couple more fireworks exploding against the door, shaking it in its frame. "Yo! Room service!" she shouted. "I gotta say, y'know, I reserved the penthouse suite and I'm a little--" BANG! BANG! "--disappointed in the accomodations! I mean, there's no jacuzzi!" BANG! PAF-PAF-PAF! "There was a jacuzzi in the brochure! And what about the 'Magic Fingers' bed? There's not even a bed at all! And all this is not to mention that really bad smell that's hanging around the place! I wanna speak to the manager!"
She shouted until her voice was hoarse and her hands had gone numb. Finally she slumped against the door and slid to the ground. Fine, she thought, drawing her knees against her chest. I'll save my strength. These idiots don't realize who they're dealing with. And she told herself she was only shivering from the cold.
A lot of time passed. She had no way of telling how much. Her plan had been to wait by the door and jump whoever came through, but she was getting really hungry and it didn't seem like anybody was going to show up soon. So she went down to eat the cereal.
"Fuck!" she yelled. "This is stinkin' dog food! Look, jerkfaces, I don't eat Alpo!"
Her outraged cry echoed in the basement and died away, like her light always did. And maybe, she thought unwillingly, there wasn't anybody even listening. Maybe...she'd just been left here.
"Y'know, you have picked up the wrong girl!" she shouted. "I ain't just some helpless mutie kid...I got friends!"
She checked herself. That was probably what these psychos were after. The X-Men. That was what Bastion had been after... No. No. That way lies madness. It can't be Bastion again. It can't be.
"I got friends," she yelled, louder than before. Her voice was getting scratchy. "There's this one dude you really don't wanna piss off. Trust me on that one. He's got...he's got claws and...he's really gonna be mad when he sees this stupid Alpo! And I don't wanna hafta talk him outta rippin' your stinking hides apart! So I suggest you order up a ham-and-pineapple pizza post haste, ya hear me?"
Silence. Darkness. And more time passed. A lot more time.
* * *
Jubilee woke up, for the fourteenth or fortieth time. She felt dizzy, woozy. She she couldn't remember where she was or why.
She didn't like the darkness. She didn't like the stink. There was no toilet, and she tried to be fairly neat about only going in one corner and covering it up with as much dirt as she could scrape up, but still, there was a very bad stink, and it was always dark.
She felt like she ought to be able to do something about the darkness, anyway. She concentrated, but it was really hard. Something...about...the fourth of July. Being with...her...parents?
Yeah. Her mom and dad. For some reason her throat tightened up and she got the feeling that this was something she didn't like to think about. The fourth of July with her parents, when she was little. The fireworks lighting up the sky like magic--all different colors and so amazingly pretty--and everyone was happy and her dad was lifting her up so she could see better and he was saying, This is for you, Jubilation. All the danger and the work and coming all the way across the world. We did it for you, so you could be born here in the freedom and the joy, under the best of lucky signs. It's all for you, princess.
All those wonderful lights, all the color and the fire--it was all for her, it was all she had, it was all she had left.
"Oh...yeah," said Jubilee groggily. "Dummy."
The Alpo bowl was full again.
* * *
She went over every inch of the basement, feeling it with her fingers and blasting it with her sparks, searching for weak points. The door was an obvious target, but the hinges were on the other side and it was very sturdy.
In one corner she found scrapes in the wall. She put her hand up against the scrapes and saw that they were spaced about as far apart as her fingers were. When she realized that she wasn't the first to be trapped in this basement she kind of lost it, and blasted that part of the wall over and over and over again until it was blackened and rubbly and she couldn't see the handmark.
She sang songs and told herself stories. She pretended she was Storm after the earthquake, but she couldn't really do Storm's accent too well, and she was having trouble actually remembering much about Storm anyway. She pretended she was Wolverine and clawed at the door until her fingers bled, and then she thought of some other kid clawing in the corner until HIS fingers bled, and then she kind of lost it again and she smashed her water glass and started hacking at the wall with the shard of glass.
That turned out to be a mistake, because they didn't bring her another one until she'd gotten so thirsty she was pretty sure she would die. And then she gulped it all down and puked it right back out, which really didn't help the stink.
* * *
She woke up. It was dark. She couldn't remember who she was or where. "Gimme a freakin' break," she gasped, but it came out like a sob.
There was someone who was supposed to be coming for her. Wasn't there?
* * *
"Anything?" Wolverine asked tersely.
"No," Scott answered from the other side of the phone connection. It had been more than two months since Jubilee disappeared from her bed in the Massachusetts Academy. No trace, physical or mental, had been found. Wolverine refused to come back to headquarters. He roamed the state obsessively, hunting for Jubilee's scent, and he called every morning to see if Jean or Psylocke had learned anything. Scott took a deep breath. "And I'm telling Jean to quit the Cerebro watch. It's tearing her up, and if they were going to learn anything that way they'd have found it already. Logan, I'm sorry. You know I cared about Jubilee too--"
"Shut up," Logan hissed. A pause, while Wolverine struggled to control himself. "Let me talk to Jeannie."
"She wanna give up on Jubes too?"
"We're not giving up, nobody's giving up. We're just...we need to look for a different kind of sign. This one isn't working."
The connection was scratchy--Logan was on a pay phone by the side of a highway. His voice came low and feral through the static. "Cyke, you abandon that kid--then don't ever say a word to me about responsibility or teamwork. And don't ever expect me to follow any place you lead, or fight for any o' yer causes. Because I will personally invite you to go ta hell."
"One week, Wolverine," Scott said shortly. "One more week. Then we find some other way."
* * *
She could no longer tell waking from sleeping. She had forgotten her name a long time ago.
There was someone eating her mind. She could tell he was there now because there wasn't much left for him to hide behind.
She clutched her glass shard like a talisman. She slept with it curled to her heart. She'd given up trying to dig through the wall; she knew she was underground and it would take decades, and she didn't have that long. And she'd given up thinking that the keeper of the basement would come down and she could jump him and use the glass like a knife. He never came down while she was awake, and she was pretty sure he could make her be asleep whenever he wanted.
Still, she held on to the glass. Sometimes she clenched a fist and wedged it between her fingers and just sat there with it like that. It was comforting to her somehow. She knew she was like that piece of glass. A broken thing, but a strong thing, and useful in a weird way. The kind of thing that just comes to people sometimes when they're looking for something else, and turns out to be a gift. She knew that. Some of the time she knew it.
When she sat there like that and made her thoughts very calm, she could sort of think in and around things, in a sneaky way that she thought maybe the braineater couldn't catch. And she'd come up with an idea that way.
She was going to explode her mind. She was going to make fireworks in her head just like the way they happened in the air. She was going to try to catch the braineater in the blast, but just in case, she was going to tuck something out of the way. Something to come back to.
She took a deep breath and clenched her fingers around the glass. Just that one image. A clenched fist and a shard of glass. That was her. Or it wasn't her, she wasn't really sure anymore, but anyway she was going to remember it, or if she didn't, at least she she was going to come back for it someday.
Then she lost track of what she'd been thinking about, which was a pretty good sign that the braineater was feeding.
So she exploded her mind.
* * *
"Jean? Are you all right?"
"I--I felt her. I felt Jubilee!"
* * *
The Blackbird settled at the side of a deserted highway; only one figure watched it descend from the air. The wind from its landing whipped through Logan's hair. As soon as the hatch opened he barreled inside. The other X-Men were in their usual places.
"Ya found her, Jeannie?"
"New York City," she said. Her voice was steady but she looked terrible, her delicate complexion shadowed with strain and creased with worry. "Logan--she was in pain. It...it felt like..." Her eyes slid away.
"A deathcry," finished Cyclops from the cockpit. "Hang on. We're going full throttle."
* * *
Logan hated the place from the first second. A squat, dirty concrete apartment complex with half the windows boarded up. Outside, trash clogging the gutters and rain sleeting down over them, fouling up the smells of everything. It had taken them too long to get here--Jean's fix had wavered and they'd been wandering New York's streets, getting howled at by addicts in doorways. All the time knowing that Jubilee was hurting, maybe dying.
But this place--he hated it enough that he knew it had to be the one. He didn't need Jean's confirmation or Cyke nattering about calling the supervisor. He bared his claws and ripped the entry gate off its hinges, then took out the main door, then looked over his shoulder to see if anyone wanted to give him shit about it.
"Ground floor," said Jean simply. "Back."
And suddenly--he knew. He had her scent. He ran down the graffiti-covered hallway, barrelled through an apartment door, ignoring Cyclops yelling behind him about going in with a plan.
A kitchen, bare, faded linoleum and painfully clean surfaces. Some guy lying on the floor. Wolverine dragged him up, slammed him against the wall, backhanded him. Nasty-looking creep--pallid, a little bloated, with lank greasy hair and a little sucker-like mouth.
The Darkworm swam into consciousness under Wolverine's ungentle shakes. He opened his eyes and stared into Logan's feral hatred. Aha. Another fragmented mind. Not a telepath--but--
"She's dead," the Darkworm gloated. His voice was a whisper, a terrible hiss. "I incinerated her this morning. She died screaming for someone. Was that you?" And as the wave of grief and rage obliterated Logan's conscious thought, the Darkworm slithered in, curling into the man's mind, badly needing to feed...
And was rudely slammed back as the other X-Men arrived on the scene, and Jean Grey threw all her psychic force against him. Wolverine blinked, came back to himself. That little shit had been in his mind--and now the air was charged with energy as Jean and the worm-guy stared each other down.
Telepathic battles were so weird. You couldn't see anything happening, but you knew it was going on. The Darkworm broke after just a moment, crumpled in Wolverine's grasp. Wolverine dropped him in disgust and stalked into the back of the apartment.
Living room. Old couch, bare floor, no dust, nothing on the walls. Door to the bedroom, door to the basement. Down there, a foul stench...and laced through and around it, the scent of Jubilee.
No lights. He took the stairs three at a time. The smell nearly gagged him. There was no one here now, but she'd been here--been here for a long time. Scared. Two and a half months. In the dark. The walls also smelled of charcoal, like they'd been burnt. Jubilee. Oh, darlin'.
He came back up the stairs and met Gambit coming out of the bedroom, carrying a videotape in one hand and a handful of photographs in the other. The Cajun's eyes were narrowed, blazing. Logan jerked his chin toward the photos. "Jubes?"
"Some of 'em," Gambit said shortly. "Others too. Look like he kep' them in de basement. And they all sleepin' or..."
Wolverine turned away. In the kitchen Jean was kneeling over the bastard, her fingers brushing his forehead. She swayed suddenly, snatched back her hand, and opened her eyes. Scott was there immediately. "Jean?" he said gently. "Are you all right?"
Her eyelids fluttered. "Wo-Wolvy?" she said in a small voice.
"Right here, darlin'." Wolverine's voice cracked; gently, he brushed a strand of red hair back from her cheek. "Jeannie? You find Jubilee?"
"Mm--oh." She drew herself up. "Pieces...pieces of Jubilee. He was...eating her. Like a psychic vampire. But she...she fought him. She hurt him somehow. He's very weak now."
"Yeah. Not weak enough." SNIKT.
"Non, mon ami," said Gambit gently. "You know how de p'tite feel 'bout killing."
"He's right, Logan," Rogue said sadly, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Yah cain't believe this one's for Jubilee."
"Naw," Wolverine snarled. "This one's for me." He raised his fist; Rogue tightened her grip, holding him back by main force. Cyclops, Jean, and Storm hovered behind her, ready to help restrain Logan.
Assassination isn't about strength or even skill. A knife in the back, poison in the cup...these things don't require great ability. They only require a basic understanding of the principle of misdirection. Remy would have made a fine assassin, had he chosen that path. As all eyes turned to the frothing Wolverine, Gambit casually walked to the fallen mind-eater, raised his bo stick, and crushed the man's windpipe with one swift blow. He spasmed once but never regained consciousness.
Storm was the first to notice. "Gambit!" she gasped. "What have you done?"
"What had t' be done, ma belle. You look at these pictures, you t'ink de same."
Rogue dropped her grip on Wolverine, who shook himself and glared at Gambit. "So why'd you try and stop me?"
"B'cause what Gambit tell you be true, homme. De p'tite, she gon' need you when we fin' her. What she not gon' need is t' be thinkin' she make you into a murderer. But ol' Gambit, nobody lookin' to him for a model uh livin'. Him and de p'tite, they make it all right between them in de end."
Something unknotted deep in Logan's chest. "You think she's alive. That he was lying, an' we'll find her."
Gambit nodded. "This man, he roughed up pretty bad. You t'ink he take out de firecracker? 'Less I see her body wit' me own eyes, I t'ink Jubilee win her fight here."
"Then she's on the streets," said Storm. "Jean--how bad would the damage be?"
Jean sighed. "Physically? I don't know. But mentally--it would be very severe."
Wolverine strode to the door. "Logan?" Rogue called. "Where yah goin' now?"
"Gonna start lookin'," he said grimly. "Anybody comin'?"
* * *
They spread out, hunted up and down grimy alleys all night long. Wolverine paused at the mouth of a dark dead end. He was cursing the rain and the millions of people whose smells were mixing in the air, obscuring whatever trace of Jubilee he might have been able to follow. He scanned the alley. Just a big overflowing Dumpster, and some scattered needles in the shadowy corners. He stood there for a long moment, half-convinced that next time he looked, she'd be there, full of brilliance and spoiling for a fight.
"Jubes?" he called. "Jubilee?"
She wasn't there. She wasn't gonna be there. She died screaming for someone...
Wolverine snarled and turned away.
Finally, after what seemed like ages, the girl stuck her dark touselled head out of the trash. The man who'd been following her was gone. Don't see me don't see me don't see me she'd prayed, and it had worked.
She'd gotten out of the basement. She'd gotten away from that scary guy. She was confused and hurting but she knew two things: she was on her own. And nobody was ever going to trap her again.
* * *
The video had the greenish cast of nighttime filming. It was shot in the basement and clearly Jubilee hadn't known it was there. She rocked back and forth in the corner, hugging her thin knees to her chest. Her ragged black hair fell over her eyes. She was speaking softly to herself, in a rapid-fire, sing-song voice.
"Once upon a time there was a princess named Snow White, and another one named Rose Red. An' the king and the queen, they got whacked by...by an evil witch. So Snowy and Rosie ran away into the roods. And Snow White, she wanted to go to an orphanage. But Rose Red, she wanted to live in the woods. Snow White was the good sister and everyone in the kingdom loved her. Rose Red was the bad sister but she always got her way. So they lived in the woods, but while they were there Snow White found the seven dwarves. Their names were...um...Sneezy, and Dopey, and Bobby, and Stormy, and Remy, and Sleepy, and...um...Cyclopsy. And they were all really happy to meet Snow White and they loved her very much. But Rose Red, she kept getting in trouble. She wanted to go down in the mines with the dwarves. 'But you're just a little kid,' said Cyclopsy, 'so you have to stay home and do the dishes.' 'Ooh dishes!' said Snowy, but Rosie snuck off and followed the dwarves. But while she was gone the witch came back and stole Snow White and stuck her in a big cave an' made a big pot of soup to eat her for dinner with. Meanwhile Rose Red got lost in the woods and she came across a bear stuck in a bear trap. 'Yuck,' she said, 'that looks like no fun at all. If I let you out are you gonna eat me?' 'Naw,' said the bear, 'I'm gonna teach ya a wicked left hook, and then I'm gonna take ya to the cave where your sister is hidden, 'cause it's dark there and it's almost dinnertime.' So then Rosie and the wolf...no, the bear...they went to the cave...and they beat up the witch and saved Snow White and then they all went out for Ben and Jerry's happily ever after the end."
In the video Jubilee rocked in silence for a moment, staring blindly into the darkness. "Once upon a time there was a beast who lived in a castle..."
* * *
The runaway girl was in a moral crisis. She'd taken refuge in a metro station and beside her somebody was sleeping, wrapped head to toe in an old blanket. She wanted that blanket bad and she figured she could take it, but she also figured that other person wanted it just as much. She was thinking of waking them up and asking to share, but the idea of letting someone else get that close to her made her skin crawl.
Then she heard footsteps coming, turning the corner fast. A brown-skinned boy about her age with wide liquid-black eyes, hands stuffed in the pockets of a brightly-colored sports jacket, walking quick and looking panicked. Around the corner after him came four older boys, laughing, swaggering, bearing down on the younger kid. He threw a glance over his shoulder and started to run. The older kids took off after him; they pelted by her and caught the kid, slamming him to the ground. He started coughing hard. Then one of the older kids kicked him hard in the side and he started gagging instead. "Little mutie-lover out kinda late," smirked one of the young men, a blond kid with zit scars and a leather trenchcoat. "Little mutie-lover in the wrong territory."
"No man," the kid on the floor gasped. He had a Spanish accent. "I didn't have anythin' to do with that, man. I'm just passin' through. We got no claims on your business."
"Yeah?" the young man drawled. "Well we got claims with yours." He reached under his coat, pulled out a gun.
"No man, no," whimpered the boy.
They were gonna kill him, right there, they were gonna kill him just like...
The girl couldn't precisely remember what it was like, but she knew she wasn't okay about it. "Hey," she yelled, and the guy with the gun swung around.
His face curled up in disgust when he saw the filthy Chinese girl huddled in her t-shirt. "Oh, hold up," he drawled. "The skanky-ass ho got something to say." He leveled the gun at her. "Go ahead, china doll. We're all listening."
"Oh good," she said, feeling power burn down her hands. "I was just gonna tell you--"
PAF! PAF! PAF-PAF! The subway tunnel exploded into light as her fireworks went off in the guy's face. He screamed, his face burned, and fired off a couple wild shots, but the girl was already rolling away. She came up in a crouch and fired off some more blasts which sent him and the guy next to him flying into the wall.
"--to get the hell out of my way!" she finished.
The kid on the floor kicked at one of the two guys standing, who was going for his own gun. The girl launched herself into the other one, landing a vicious punch into his stomach and another to his face. He doubled over, coughing. She grabbed his head and smashed her knee into his face; he went down, unconscious. The boy was on his feet now and he had a knife; he slashed at the guy facing him and scored his hand; his gun clattered to the floor. As the boy dove for his gun he turned and ran. One of the guys against the wall was starting to get up; the girl blasted him again and he fell to the floor, groaning weakly.
The boy and the girl looked at each other. "Wow," said the boy. "That was...wow."
"I think we should leave now," said the girl.
"Oh, yeah, definitely." The girl stopped as she passed the guy who'd first drawn a gun. He wasn't awake yet. She stopped to strip off his leather trenchcoat. It was pretty nice.
At the top of the still escalator the boy waited for her in the rainy night. "Hey," he said. "I'm Trev."
"Hi," she said. Then, into the awkard silence: "Why did they call you that?"
"Oh. They call everyone that. It's their thing, they wanna be Nazi mutant hunters or something crazy like that. We hate them. Wow, you're like--you're--oh. I get it. You hate them too."
"The Fangs." He pushed up the sleeve of his jacket, showing her a lurid tattoo of a snarling pit bull on his forearm. "My people."
"'Kay," she said. "Well. I'm gonna...I'm gonna go look for another place to sleep. Nice helping you and all."
"Hey," he said. "You know, you look like shit. No offense. You wanna crash with us? My sister, she's about your size." Trev looked dubiously at her bare feet. "Plus, you know, the CBB--that's those assholes, the Clean Blood Brothers--they go after muties. Mutants," he corrected himself quickly.
She eyed him. "I could use a shower," she said slowly. "I don't know that I'll stay though."
"Hey, it's cool," Trev smiled. "C'mon, this way. Hey, you got a name?"
"Probably," she said shortly.
"What, you don't know?"
"Ten points for the gangboy," she snapped: then, in a more friendly tone, "I'm on the run from something, that's all I remember. That and this big tornado...and a yellow brick road...but I don't think that could have much to do with it, do you?"
Trev smiled, a flash of white teeth and dancing eyes. "You got to have one of those spiff codenames. Like Dazzler. Though I guess hers is more of a stage name, huh? Hey, can you fly?"
"Nope. I make explosions, that's it." She was pretty sure of that, anyway.
"Okay, how about--The Detonator."
She gave him a get-real look. "Yeah, and I'm being played by Schwarzenegger, right?"
Unfazed, Trev pondered: "Or...Starburst!"
"Um, like the candy?"
"Oh yeah. Damn. That would've been a good one too. Okay, lemme think. Oh, here we go: Fireflower!"
"WAY too girly-girl. Look, I don't want a dork name, okay? I'm thinking 'Jennifer,' 'Julie'..."
"Please." Trev held up his hands. "Let the professionals handle this. Okay, here it comes...here it comes...Fuse! As in short. Cause you are."
"That's not so bad," the girl allowed grudgingly.
"Cha!" exulted Trev. "I named a superhero!"
The girl called Fuse smiled just a little.
* * *
They crept into Trev's apartment. "That's my mom," he whispered, nodding toward a sleeping figure on the couch.
"You have a mom?" Fuse said, suprised and suddenly jealous.
Trev gave her a strange look. "Most people do. Our room's back here."
A line of white tape and a Japanese folding screen divided the small room down the middle. One half of the bedroom was littered with cast-off clothes and comic books; a large poster of the Bulls took up most of the wall, and a smaller print of a great white shark got what was left. The other side of the room was tidy, and the walls were entirely devoted to Leonardo di Caprio. Trev pushed back the folding screen and shook his sister's shoulder. "Sarita," he whispered. "Wake up."
A pretty girl of about thirteen sat up yawning. Her skin was darker than her brother's and she wore her hair in cornrows. "Oh, hullo," she murmured to Fuse, seemingly unsuprised by the visitor. "What's your name?"
"Julie," she said, at the same moment that Trev said "Fuse."
"Fuse," Trev repeated firmly. "She's a mutant."
"Really?" The kid looked shocked, but interested. "How do you know?"
"You just..." she flailed around. "You find out. It's pretty hard to ignore." Sarita was still staring at her so she ignited a tiny firework with a wave of a finger. It sparkled for a moment, then faded away.
"Wow," Sarita breathed. "I wish I could do that."
"Huh," said Fuse. "Yeah, I wouldn't wanna give it up. How come you aren't scared of muties like everybody else in the world?"
"Cause around here the CBB are such motherfuckers," Trev said matter-of-factly, "that we kind of figured anybody they hate has got to be all right. Hey Sarita, can Fuse sleep with you tonight?"
"Sure," she said sleepily.
"Shower's down the hall," Trev said, and a moment later various pieces of fabric came flying over the folding screen. "Towel. Sweat pants. New t-shirt. Socks. We'll see about shoes in the morning. You're on your own for underwear."
She spent almost an hour in the shower, long after the hot water was gone, scrubbing and scrubbing at her skin. She stared at her reflection in the bathroom and couldn't fathom the secrets behind her own eyes.
When she crept shivering into Sarita's narrow bed she found a weird lump in the sheets; pulling at it, she drew out a dilapidated old teddy bear. It was missing an eye and the stitching on its mouth had frayed to the point that it seemed to almost be snarling. "Oh, sorry," Sarita murmured, snatching back the teddy bear. "I don't really like to sleep with that, I just do it cause Trev would be mad if I threw it out." But her arms curled possessively around the stuffed animal.
"I like it," Fuse whispered. "Looks more like a grizzly than a teddy. Looks like...it could defend you..." And then she rolled over in sudden pain. Animal friends--that was a little kid's story. She wasn't a kid, nobody was saying she was, and she had no idea why that should make her so unhappy.
* * *
The Fangs hung out in the upper floors of a condemmed tenement. They didn't look so tough to Fuse. There were about twenty of them. They looked mostly seventeen or eighteen, predominately Hispanic, though there were a few white kids and some, like Trev, clearly mixed-race. No other Asians. Five or six girls, though they were conspicuously attatched to their boyfriends.
"Jared," said Trev to a purple-haired kid, pierced through the lip and cheek. "This is Fuse, she saved my life from the CBB and I think we should give her some protection. She got powers."
Jared gave her a distinctly unfriendly look. "I'm thinkin' the CBB are givin' us enough shit as it is."
"What can ya do?" another of the Fangs spoke up. Trev looked at her expectantly.
"Lightshow," she said tersely. "A little force and a little heat."
"Yeah, well if we throw a disco party we'll call you first thing, OK?" Jared cut in. Trev opened his mouth but Jared overrode him--"Yeah yeah kid, fine, everybody take a good look at Trev's bitch here and don't give her no grief, happy?"
Trev nodded, and Fuse, with an effort, kept her temper.
* * *
"No, see, it's good because now you got safe passage," Trev was explaining. He'd shown her around his neighborhood, carefully explaining which streets were safe for the Fangs and which were claimed by the CBB.
"You know I'm not staying here," said Fuse, still annoyed. "And I'm not anybody's bitch."
"That's just talk," said Trev, embarrassed. "Don't let it get to you. And where are you going then anyway?"
Of course she had no answer.
* * *
"Stay," urged Sarita. "You should join the Fangs. I'm gonna, as soon as I'm old enough."
The younger girl didn't seem to mind Fuse's extended stay in her bedroom. And Fuse kind of liked having someone right there when she went to sleep. She'd been there for a week now. Since Trev's mom worked most nights at the hospital, she wasn't usually there in the evenings, and whatever Trev had said about Fuse seemed to suffice.
"I don't know," she answered. "Jared doesn't like me. And anyway don't the Fangs sell drugs and knock over convenience stores and stuff? That seems..." She couldn't really finish the sentence. Even though Trev wasn't in the room, she didn't want to say anything bad about his friends.
"Not dope anymore," said Sarita matter-of-factly. "The CBB took that over."
"What's with them anyway? Where'd they come from?"
"That's the thing, it's weird. They didn't used to be so big. When they got into this..." Sarita hesitated. "This mutant thing. Then they started getting guns and money from somewhere."
"They weren't against mutants from the start?"
"Oh, they were, but just like they were against blacks and mexicans and everyone else. And, I mean, they're still against all those things, but they don't hunt down niggers and sell them, y'know?"
"They sell mutants?" Fuse felt a little chilled. "To who?"
Sarita shrugged uncomfortably. "They brag so much, you can't tell what's true with them. The way they tell it they part of some big army. Got secret fortresses and whatever. I don't know. I guess there are governments and scientists and stuff that'll pay for muties."
Governments. Scientists. Mutant experimentation. Those were the kinds of people who would flay someone to the bones and put stuff all through their bodies that would make them go crazy like an animal when it got taken out. For some reason Fuse felt a deep rage kindle in her guts.
"That's why you should join the Fangs," said Sarita earnestly. "You need protection, chica, you need a family."
"No I don't," she retorted. "I must've had one of those once and it didn't do me much good, did it?"
"Well you didn't have me and Trev," Sarita said with the sunny confidence of a baby sister. She grinned conspiratorily. "I think he likes you."
"Oh, don't go West Side Story on me," Fuse said firmly. "I'm not into that mushy stuff."
"C'mon, Fuse! Don't you want someone?" Sarita's eyes drifted up to the Leo shrines on her wall, and her voice went soft and dreamy. "Someone who'll always back you up...someone who'll be there when you're in trouble...no matter what?"
"Yeah, I used to believe in that kind of thing. But I grew out of it."
Still, she reflected. The CBB had to go down. And for that she'd need...well, from the sound of it, she'd need a small army.
* * *
Logan was lying half-undressed on top of a cheap motel bed, watching a bug wriggle through the cracks in the ceiling. The room smelled like stale smoke and old sex. The t.v. was on, tuned to static. He knew he needed to get some sleep--his senses had to be at their keenest if he was going to ever find Jubilee--but he couldn't relax.
Three months now. Every small shape in a doorway, every huddled body in the park--any of them could be her. He was considering giving up on sleep for another night and going back out there. At this point he was so strung out that he could probably trip over Jubilee before recognizing her. He rubbed a hand over his face. God, he had to sleep.
A tap at the door. Logan ignored it. Nobody he wanted to see would have to knock.
A soft, hesitant voice from the other side of the door. "Logan?"
He bolted off the bed and to the door. "Pum'kin?"
There she was, in street clothes, her brown curls in disarray and her soft eyes worried. "Hey," said Kitty Pryde. "Can I come in?"
"Like I could keep you out," Logan growled. He opened the door wider, for formality's sake. She smiled at his weak joke and walked by him, looking around the seedy room. "It ain't the Hilton but..." He trailed off and closed the door behind her.
"Whiskey, Logan?" she said, looking at an empty bottle of Jim Beam beside the bed.
"Tryin' to get to sleep," he explained roughly. "Y' know liquor is poison so my healing factor just corrects for it...but if I drink a lot, real quick, then I feel the effects for a little while."
She sat down cross-legged on the end of the bed. Logan threw himself down into much the same position he'd been lying in before she showed up. "How ya doin' then, Kit?"
"I saw the videotape," she said softly.
He looked away. "Yeah. Ya just passin' through then?" It occurred to him that would be a funny pun, in some other situation.
"Nope," she said. "I'm here to help you look for her."
He pushed himself up on his elbows and fixed her with a level stare. "It ain't like I got a plan here, pum'kin. I just go out an' wander around and...hope her goddamn luck kicks in soon."
"I can do that too," Kitty said.
He looked at her for a moment longer. God knows she'd seen her share of close scrapes too, but here she was, still sweet and generous and brave, unbroken. Generally Wolverine felt like his life was made of shards and wreckage, like destroying stuff was all he did well. So when something like Kitty...or Jubilee...crossed his path--something innocent and noble--well, he did his best to put himself between them and all the things in the world that wanted to tear them up. It helped, right now, to look at Kitty and remember that sometimes that worked.
"I ever tell you what a great power you got?" he said gruffly. She looked at him wonderingly. "Can't be caught, can't be caged...born with the right to go where you please."
She smiled. "Yep, I'm kidnap-proof. Well, nearly."
He leaned back. "If I had your gift...nothin' would ever touch me again."
She reached over, took his hand firmly. "Yes, we would," she said sadly. "Some things always get through."
He gripped her fingers. "Yeah. That's a fact."
"And sometimes..." She swallowed, thinking of Ilyana. "Sometimes you can't save people, no matter how much you love them."
"That's a fact too," he said, his voice low and rough. "Yer too smart by half, kitten. Nobody your age should understand that."
"Some things do get through."
She sat with him in silence, until Logan's hand relaxed and she looked over to see that he was soundly, deeply asleep.
* * *
"All right," said Fuse. "What do I have to do to get in?"
She was eating pizza with Trev and the Fangs in their headquarters. At her question Jared's head jerked up, and for a second she thought he almost looked afraid. But then he was sneering at her like usual.
"Well, first," he said, "we gotta want you in."
"Trev's for me," she said calmly. "And Miguel and Christo, right guys?"
"Spot on," said Christo. A few days ago all four of them had been tagging bridges when the cops showed up. Christo had panicked because he was under a suspended sentence and could go to jail for even a misdemeanor. So Fuse had set off the fireworks and they'd all gotten away. "Yeah," agreed Miguel.
"So who's against me?" Fuse demanded, staring down Jared.
He scowled. "I don't care one way or the other. If you run the train, you're in."
"Not a chance," she spat. "I'll get in like the boys do."
"That's the gauntlet," said Jared, his eyes gleaming, and she had the uncomfortable feeling that he'd been hoping she'd say that.
"Fine," she said nonchalantly. "All of you or just the girls?"
"You said you want to get in like the boys do. So all of us."
"Hold up," objected Miguel, and Trev jumped in quickly: "That's not how we did it for Mira, and I don't wanna hit a girl."
"I say it's fair." That was Mira, Jared's girlfriend. "After all she's not a normal human. Her trial should be tougher."
"We ain't putting this to a vote. What I say goes," Jared said flatly. "It's gonna be all of us."
* * *
"So how bad's the gauntlet?" Fuse asked Trev when they were alone.
He shrugged. "Nobody uses knives or anything. They'll just take you to an alley or a playground or something."
"Well. Then they beat the shit outta you."
* * *
She stood on the sidewalk, her heart racing. She knew they were waiting for her just around the corner, in the alley. She was better than any of them individually, even not counting the fireworks, and probably better than any three or four together. They were untrained; they didn't fight as a team; and they were a little bit scared of her already.
But she wasn't going to be able to take all twenty, she didn't have unbreakable bones like... She shook her head in confusion. She wasn't going to be able to take all twenty. She was gonna get the shit kicked out of her.
And she was afraid of Jared. If he had a chance, he'd do more than hurt her. Maybe he hated mutants, or Asians, or girls. Or maybe he understood that she had plans for the Fangs.
And because of those plans, she wasn't going to be able to use her sparks. She had to make it through this one clean and simple. They had to see that she was human, just like the rest of them. If they were ever going to trust her that was crucial.
She set her jaw and rounded the corner.
She wasn't prepared for the yelling, the screaming, as they rushed her from all sides. It was pretty damn scary but it was far from the most terrifying thing she'd ever faced. She went low and kicked out as the first few reached her; their blows went over her head as one went down, tangling up the others. She launched herself into another one, hoping to use his body as some kind of cover, and she elbowed the guy next to him right in the nuts.
She had to find Jared. She had to take out Jared before she went down. That was her only chance of avoiding major injury.
Something smashed her hard across the side of the head. She staggered around, came up in front of Miguel. Two quick punches and a kick to the kneecap laid him down, but her back was unprotected and someone grabbed her from behind. She went limp, all of a sudden, her whole body. He staggered back from the abrupt weight, lost his balance, and fell, taking her down on top of him. She kicked out as she fell, clearing a space, and rolled up into it as soon as she hit the ground.
Wow. She was pretty good at this. It wasn't much worse than the Danger Room. (What?)
Then she saw Jared. Shit. He was hanging back, waiting for her to go down. To be helpless.
And someone crashed against her and she fell again, this time with no chance to plan her landing. She grabbed his leg and yanked it out from under him as someone else kicked her in the ribs.
Hey. That didn't even hurt. She glanced up--Trev. Oh god, she'd gotten lucky.
She spasmed, as if Trev had really kicked her hard, and screamed. Trev looked appalled. But now behind him Jared was rushing in, aiming a kick at her head. At the last moment she straightened out, grabbed his foot as it swung toward her, and twisted it swiftly, brutally to the side. She heard his leg snap, saw him fall backwards, saw his head connect hard with the pavement. OH SHIT I DIDN'T...
But then pain exploded in her side; and her jaw; and her stomach; and then someone finally kicked her in the head and she blacked out.
* * *
"ow ow OW!"
"But am I alive?" Fuse moaned.
"You're alive," said Sarita. "You don't even have anything broken." Her face was shining. "Trev says you did wonderfully. And you didn't even use your powers!"
"Jared..." Fuse said urgently. "Is he..."
Sarita laughed. "Knocked into next week and still mopping up the puke? You bet." She finished tying up a bandage around Fuse's ribs, where bruises the size of grapefruits were starting to blossom. "When I join the Fangs I'm gonna do it just like you."
* * *
"Listen up and listen close," said Jared. He was slumped back in an old chair, his broken leg propped up on a stool. Fuse and the other Fangs were sitting around talking about where to get some money from. "I got news."
They quieted, looked over. Jared wasn't meeting any of their eyes. "You know we been hit hard by the CBB. They got Derek. They shut down half our businesses. They been pushing us back. There's more of them and they got better equipment. And the cops are on their side." Nods, curses, murmurs of assent. "The truth," said Jared in a hard voice, "is that we ain't winning this war. It's time to settle it." An uneasy silence. "I got a call. They offered us a deal."
"A deal with the CBB! Fuck that shit!" yelled Trev.
"Shut up motherfucker!" Jared yelled. "We got one chance here! We gotta be smart!"
"What's the deal?" demanded Fuse. "What kind of deal would they make with us? Now that I'm one of you?"
"They don't know about you, Fuse! And they can't know. You're our biggest fucking liability here. We keep you hidden, we got a chance of pulling this off."
"What. Do. They. Want."
"Nothing. Nothing. Just--that if we hear about muties, we let them come and get them. That we don't get in the way. That's all. They're crazy, they're off on a holy fucking war here. We give them this one little thing--and it's nothing--then they got no more problem with us."
"That's NOT NOTHING!" Fuse screamed. "And they're lying--or you are! It makes no sense for them to let up on us now! Unless we're gonna be their fucking spies!"
"Bitch, you do not call me a liar," Jared snarled.
"Yeah, and how come you give the orders here anyway, gimp?" Fuse rose to her feet. She drew a deep breath, just to test the state of her ribs. Still sore. But this had been coming for a long time now, and she was as ready as she could be. "I think you love the CBB so much, you should go join them."
Jared didn't move. "Steve. Jose. Take her down." Jared's friends exchanged glances and slowly got to their feet.
Trev leaped up, stood beside Fuse. "This is crazy," he said. "She's one of us. The CBB wanna kill her, well, that means no deal with the CBB. Ever."
Christo carefully set down his Coke and stood up. "Heard that," he said. Miguel looked around, and shrugged. "Yeah," he said, and joined them. A girl named Therese stood up and walked over to them, stood silently with the group. Her boyfriend followed a second later.
"Get out of here," Fuse hissed to Jared. "And anyone who wants to work with the Nazis, you go with him."
A jittery, dangerous silence followed, and still nobody moved. Ten of the Fangs were still seated between Fuse and Jared, declaring no allegience.
She let her power build, let it spark between her fingers, let the multicolored light gather around her hands. That'd sort the mutie-haters from the crowd.
"C'mon baby," breathed Mira. "Let's go."
Clumsily Jared got to his feet, lifted his crutches. Mira hovered by him but he shook off her hands. "They gonna take you, freakgirl," he spat. "And they're gonna take the freak-lovers too. You got no chance."
He limped to the stairs down, Mira following closely. Steve and Jose moved after him, awkward, tense. "No chance," Jared repeated, and started down the stairs. The boys remaining in the room shifted nervously.
"Go on," said Fuse gently. "If you believe him, go on."
A couple more got to their feet and, looking down and sideways and everywhere but at Fuse, walked to the stairs.
"Okay," she said to the ones that remained. "Things are gonna change for us now." Deep breath. "I'm gonna teach you how to fight for real."
* * *
They'd developed a routine. Breakfast in the morning at the greasy diner on the corner. Then they split up for the day, searching the streets, and met back at the hotel at night.
Logan rapped on the door of Kitty's room. "Cat? Ya back yet?"
"Come on in," she called. He pushed the door open; Shadowcat was on the bed, working on her laptop. "I had an email waiting for me from Gambit. He wants you to call him."
"Huh." He turned away, rummaging in his pockets for quarters.
"Hey, Logan," Kitty laughed. "Use this." She held out a sleek silver object and laughed again at the look on his face. "Honest, it's the next best thing to telepathy."
Logan took the cellphone dubiously. "Pryde, you're a flamin' yuppie." He jabbed his finger at the tiny glowing buttons.
"Ororo? Yeah, it's me. Lemme talk to Gambit, willya?"
"Whatcha got, Gumbo?"
"Ah, mon frere. Gambit have news for you."
"Spill it already."
"Gambit, he know some men in de city. He hear t'ings. He decide t' speak to his friends 'bout de young people, an 'bout de streets you an' de Shadowcat been hauntin'."
"This story got a point?"
"De point, mon ami, is that some t'ings be changing recently. Like this one leetle gang, they nothin', they a bunch o' punks. Until...somepin' change. Now they get focus. They get direction. They get weaponry. They on the streets and they huntin' down mutants."
"Ah, but de story get better. Seem like, out from nowhere, come this other leetle gang. They fight de first gang but they always seem to lose. Until...again, somepin' change. Now they get their own focus. They start to fight like they be a trained strike force. An' they start to make a few ripples. Why do you t'ink that be?"
Logan's patience was thin but there was such glee in the Cajun's voice that he played along. "Sounds like a change in leadership." This had better be going somewhere real good, he thought.
"Oui. An' it seem like, de new leader be a mutant. De way Gambit hear it, she a mutant p'tite, mebbe fourteen, fifteen. They say her name be Fuse. Now, your guess, it be as good as Gambit's. Why you t'ink they call her that?"
Logan nearly stopped breathing. "Because," he growled, "she blows things up!"
Not the quickest rabbit in the mental race, thought Remy to himself. But he does get there in the end. "Like Gambit say, your guess be as good as his."
"Gumbo, if you were here, I'd kiss you," Logan rumbled. Shadowcat looked up from the bed, startled.
"That's exactly why Gambit make sure t' be in another state when he tell you," Remy laughed.
"Where did you say this gang operates?"
* * *
Kitty and Logan strode through narrow streets. It had grown dark and most of the little corner stores had gated up their doors and windows. Logan stopped suddenly, sniffed the air, and then just as abruptly took off running. Shadowcat raced after him.
They came up in front of a boarded-up apartment building. There were dim lights in one of the upper stories. Wolverine sniffed again, then strode to the door. It wasn't gated or even locked.
Two flights of stairs, which Logan took running. The sound of their footfalls echoed through the old stairwell and he heard an answering commotion from above them. Distantly, a girl's voice: "C'mon! Everybody up! Like we practiced!"
It was. It was her. Wolverine burst into the room and paid absolutely no attention to the two groups of kids ranged on either side of the door with knives and baseball bats, preparing to jump him. All he cared about was Jubilee standing in the center of the room, alive, unscarred, in a long black coat and power exploding from her fingertips.
Shit. Her fireworks hit him full in the face, burning, and more seriously, blinding him. From ground zero the sound was less of a PAF and more of a BAM: he was knocked to one knee by the force of the blast, eyes stinging, ears ringing. "Jubie!" he yelled.
That was when the kids started in on him, and when a tire iron cracked into his jaw Wolverine felt a familiar rage boiling up. No. They were just kids and he couldn't lose it with them, not in front of Jubilee. He kept the claws in and started laying about him, relieving the kids of their bats and metal pipes and...dammit, that stung...knives. A solid kick caught him in the midsection--hell, Jubie had waded into the fray. "Darlin'," he gasped, "it's me": but she didn't even seem to have heard.
Behind him Shadowcat would have been joining in, but she had noticed some more commotion from the street. Dark vans pulling up. Soldiers spilling out of them, some kind of paramilitary, wearing gas masks and carrying serious firepower. Definitely headed up to the building. "Logan," she called urgently. "Company."
"A little busy here darlin'," he grunted. Jubilee was throwing fast, tight punches, and while he blocked those the rest of the kids kept stabbing him. He was losing blood faster than he could heal up, and much as he hated to hurt Jubilee's friends, something was going to have to be done soon. "Sorry, sweetie," he muttered as he gave Jubilee a hard shove backwards. As soon as she was out of the way he started cracking heads together.
"Oof!" Fuse crashed into the battered old couch. Something was utterly not right about this. That scary guy had to be a mutant, which meant he couldn't be one of the Clean Blood Brothers. He also seemed to recognize her, or something. "Back off guys!" she yelled. "He's a mutie! I'll deal with him!"
Wolverine dropped the kid he'd just beaten unconscious. "Just listen ta me!" She stared back at him, jaw set defiantly, black eyes snapping. He grinned in pure happiness. "Jubilee..."
Commotion from the stairwell drowned him out. Shadowcat had set herself at the head of the stairs, blocking the advance of the gas-mask troops, and she'd just laid out the first two with well-placed ninjitsu kicks. The ones behind them were opening fire. She phased and the bullets passed harmlessly through her; when the soldier in front of her saw that, he rushed at her. She phased back in and dropped him with a strike to the solar plexus. The stairway was choked with troops now; at least only a couple could get to her at once.
Something went sailing over her head, landed, clattering, behind her. A gas grenade, hissing out greenish smoke. Her eyes started to water and burn. She retreated from the stairs, grabbed the grenade, phased through the wall and dropped it in the street. She phased back into the room with Wolverine and Jubilee, coughing and gasping for breath. "Tear gas!" she warned.
The shock troops filled the doorway behind her. Most of the gang kids were sprawled on the floor around Wolverine. A few were on their feet, gathered behind Jubilee. "These friends of yours, darlin'?" Wolverine demanded.
Jubilee didn't answer, but sparks poured from her hands, blasted into the soldiers. With their masks on she couldn't tell whether she'd affected them.
"Guess not," Wolverine grunted. SNIKT.
Another gas grenade came flying into the room. "I've got it," Shadowcat cried, and dove for it, phasing through the floor as soon as she'd grabbed it.
Jubilee was staring at the man who'd just grown claws. A clenched fist and long shards of metal. It was reminding her of something. Something she'd been supposed to come back to. Someone who'd been supposed to come for her. Something she'd forgotten...someone who'd forgotten her...
"You left me!" she screamed, not knowing where all the anger was coming from, not knowing why hot tears were streaking down her cheeks. She launched herself at Wolverine. "You forgot about me! You left me there!"
Wolverine whirled, startled, as Jubilee threw herself at him. He barely managed to sheathe his claws before she impaled herself on them. "You forgot about me!" She was hitting him, punching him, slamming her fists into his face and chest.
And then the soldiers were unloading their guns. He grabbed Jubilee, wrapped his arms around her and flung her to the ground, covering her as the bullets ripped into him. She was flailing underneath him, kicking and scratching. "You forgot!"
"Kid..." he managed. Then three sharp pains ripped into him, numbing his flesh where they hit. Tranquilizers. He rolled off Jubilee. "Run," he snarled. "Run...to Shadowcat..."
But she didn't, she just pulled herself to her knees and pounded her fist against him, screaming that he'd forgotten her. Until another trank dart caught her and she slumped like a rag doll. He tried to catch her but the drugs were taking effect. In the last moment he was conscious they pulled her out of his arms.
* * *
Logan was having his oldest, his worst nightmare. The one where he was stripped, strapped to an operating table, surgical markings drawn on his skin. The drugs coursing through his bloodstream warred with his innate healing factor, sending the world careening in and out of focus. Distantly he was hearing voices.
"...too dangerous...can't be transported until it's declawed..."
"...damage it...they'll only pay for intact specimens..."
"Better call for orders."
"It's coming around."
Logan struggled against the restraints. There was an IV drip in his arm and a young man in a surgeon's gown fiddling with it. "Jesus, this much sedative would kill a human," the doctor said. "Maybe we should dope the girl up again too."
"No!" Logan shouted, his speech already slurring from the drugs. "The kid doesn't have a healing factor! She can't...she's just a kid...she can't survive what I..." What I've survived, he thought. But then he blacked out.
* * *
The girl was in a cell. Her hands were cuffed behind her back, but if she could've stretched out her arms she could have touched both walls at once. There was nothing else in there with her. All she could see beyond the bars was a stretch of white hallway with flourescent lighting, and another row of identical cells facing hers, but they were all empty.
"Hellooo!" she yelled. "Trev? Christo? Anybody?"
She buried her face against her knees. There were all these fragments of memories in her head now but they didn't add up to anything coherent. She'd been so hurt when she'd seen...those claws...but now she desperately wished he'd come back. She was afraid they might be hurting him.
Her head snapped up. Shadowcat had dropped out of the ceiling. "There you are," Kitty said with relief.
"Who're you?" the girl demanded. "Stay back! I know you, don't I?" Pain and confusion crossed her face as she struggled to remember.
Kitty hesitated. "Yes," she said. "In a way...I'm your sister."
Jubilee laughed nastily. "Is that right, whitebread? So which of us is adopted?"
"Both of us," said Kitty firmly. "Jubilee...don't you remember anything?"
"I don't...I don't know...an' I don't think I wanna remember! But I'm pretty sure you and I got nothing in common!"
"You're totally right, and you're totally wrong," Kitty said softly. She crouched down to look the little street punk in the eyes. "Jubilee, listen to me...there is nobody in the world that loves you more than Logan. But there is nobody in the world that understands you better than me."
Jubilee's dark eyes filled with sudden tears. "I don't want to," she whispered. "I don't wanna remember." She was rocking a little, back and forth, and Kitty remembered with a flash of pain the Jubilee in the videotape, rocking in the corner of her prison.
"Listen," she said, leaning closer. "Once upon a time, there were two sisters, and their names were Snow White and Rose Red... Does that sound familiar?"
Jubilee's whole body froze. Her eyes finally drifted up to Kitty's. The hurt and the need were so plain, and Kitty knew that she had one chance to get through to the girl Jubilee had been. She had to keep talking but she couldn't remember Jubilee's story. "And they both knew...a bear..." she floundered.
"A wolf," breathed Jubilee.
"Actually," said Kitty, "he was a wolverine." Jubilee nodded slowly, and suddenly Kitty understood. She just had to tell the truth. "He was a wolverine," she said with more certainty, "that lived in the woods. Lots of kids get lost in the woods. Some...some don't ever come back out. Snow White and Rose Red were special, they were lucky. They met the wolverine, and he protected them."
"Always?" said Jubilee.
Kitty swallowed. "Whenever he could. There was this one time, Snow White was kidnapped...by an Ogre. And the wolverine couldn't kill the Ogre. So he...he pulled out one of his own claws and he gave it to Snow White, so that she would have a weapon to defend herself with. And that's how they defeated Ogun...I mean, the ogre."
"Sure," said Jubilee bitterly. "Everyone loves Snow White. She's the good sister. But everyone forgets about Rose Red."
"Nobody could ever forget about Rose Red. She wouldn't let them." Kitty forced a smile. "When Rose Red chose somebody to love, she never let them go. When they were on the edge she talked them down. When they flew off the handle she backed them up. And that wolverine loved her for that."
"But one day," Jubilee said in a strange little-girl voice, a singsong tone very like her voice on the videotape, "Rosie fell into a cave. And the witch who lived in the cave grabbed her and threw in her a cage and every day the witch would cut off a finger or a toe and eat it for dinner."
Kitty flinched. "That's right," she said sadly. "And Rose Red waited and waited for the wolverine to come and save her. But he never did."
A silent tear tracked down Jubilee's face, dropped onto the concrete jail floor.
"So," Kitty said, "Rose Red picked one of her own finger-bones up off the floor of the cage, and she used it to pick the lock, and she sneaked out of the cave in the dead of night. And by this time she hated that wolverine."
"Then what?" whispered Jubilee, her voice still high and small. It was sending chills over Kitty to hear her talk like that.
"Well, what Rose Red didn't know was that the witch had cast a spell over the cave that made it invisible. So the wolverine had spent all this time looking and looking for Rose Red. He didn't eat or sleep or talk to anybody, just wandered around and around in the woods. And Snow White went with him. But after Rose Red escaped, the spell was broken, and Snow White and the wolverine found the cave. But," Kitty dropped her voice ominously, "the witch was still there."
Jubilee looked terrified.
"The witch was there," said Kitty, "and she grabbed the wolverine and locked him in the cage. And she started eating pieces of him for her dinner."
"What about Snow White?" Jubilee managed. Her lips were quivering.
"Snow White hid," said Kitty, "and the witch couldn't find her. And then when the witch was asleep she crept up to the cage and she said, 'Wolverine, I'm going to run away and find Rose Red. She'll let you out of the cage with the key that she made from her fingerbone.' But the wolverine said, 'Don't do that, pum'kin. Rose Red's just a little kid, she shouldn't hafta deal with witches.'"
Jubilee looked torn. "She wasn't that little," she said finally, and Kitty was vastly relieved to hear a note of defiance enter her voice.
"Well, that's what Snow White said. But then the wolverine said, 'But maybe she couldn't save me anyway. Y'know, sometimes you can't save people, no matter how much you love them."
Now Jubilee looked outraged. "But sometimes you can! And you gotta try!"
"Well, that's what Snow White said. But then the wolverine said, 'I don't know, I think Rosie might be mad at me. I shoulda been able to see through that invisibility spell.'"
Jubilee's brows knitted. "He shoulda been able to smell through it," she said unhappily.
"It was an in-scent-ibility spell too," Kitty said firmly.
"Oh...then that's...that's just part of life, y'know?" Jubilee choked out as the tears flowed down her cheeks. Then Kitty realized she was laughing, even through her sobs. "Inscentibility spells and all..."
Kitty reached out and drew the younger girl against her. There were tears burning her own eyes. Jubilee collapsed against her, breaking down, her whole body racked with sobs as she gasped for breath. "Shh," Kitty whispered, "shh, it's all right, it's all right, Jubilee. Come back to us. Come back, we need you."
"Kitty?" said Jubilee at last, her voice muffled by Kitty's shoulder. Kitty caught her breath. Jubilee straightened up, sniffing. "Inscentibility spells are the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life. Are you trying to tell me Wolvie's in trouble?"
Kitty slowly let her breath out, her heart singing with relief. "Yeah, Jubilee," she said, feeling a silly grin cross her face. "We're all in trouble. We're in some kind of military installation. Those soldiers captured you and Logan during the fight; I slipped into the back of one of their trucks and I got out again before anybody saw me. I've had a look around and I don't think the place is very big. I even found Logan but he was out cold and he had a guard. I think they're planning to operate on him."
Jubilee tensed. "Can you phase these cuffs off me?"
She freed Jubilee with a touch. "I've got a plan. I can tell you where they've got Logan--if you can get there and cause a distraction, I'll have time to get to the control room and crack the security system. It looks like they've got a lot of automated stuff around here. If I can get control of that, it'll be a lot easier to get out of here."
Jubilee wiped the snot off her face with the back of her hand. "I find Wolvie and I start a ruckus?" She sniffed again. "That's the best plan I ever heard in my life. You really are a genius, Pryde."
* * *
Jubilee was following Shadowcat's directions. Two lefts, down the corridor, around the corner...yep, there was the guard. He looked up, and shock and recognition crossed his features. At the same moment Jubilee remembered where she'd seen him before--knocked out in a subway station.
"Hey! That's MY COAT!"
Jubilee almost felt sorry for him as she blasted him with her sparks. Poor unlucky bastard, crossing her twice. As he reeled from the explosions she closed the space between them and punched him out. When he slid to the ground she shrugged off the leather coat and left it lying over him. He did have a point about that, and she had a better one at home.
* * *
The "operating theatre" that her old friend had been guarding was a bizarro blend of M*A*S*H and The Matrix. The room was tiny, and the floor was dirty, and the furnishings consisted of a couple of old metal folding chairs and one stretcher. But the walls were crowded with tall black cabinets and gleaming, whirring machinery, some of which vaguely reminded Jubilee of the stuff in the medlab back home.
Wolverine was strapped onto the stretcher, and, oh geez, he was naked. Gross. There was also a tube coming out of his arm and connecting to a a drip thingy which Jubilee did not like the look of. He also had strange lines and circles drawn on his hands.
She was pretty sure that he'd wake up if she got the drugs out of him. So she went over and yanked the tube out of his arm.
It didn't come out all the way, and the flow in the tube suddenly reversed: instead of the clear liquid pumping into Wolverine's arm, his blood was shooting up the tube and into the bag. Jubilee yelped, horrified, and tugged harder. The tube finally popped out and she saw that Wolverine wasn't actually bleeding much. Then, of course, he wasn't actually bleeding at all, and the bruise started to fade too.
She set about unfastening the restraints, squinting a little to try and avoid any sights that might require therapy later. Good thing he's so hairy, she thought fervently.
* * *
The nightmare was always the same. He was always strapped down, always helpless, pumped full of strange drugs. There were always the doctors talking with the soldiers. There was always the kid muttering about having no sunglasses just when she really needed them.
Wait. No. That wasn't actually part of it.
Logan woke up. He became aware of several things at once. One was how he had gotten here. Another was that he was laid out for surgery but that Jubilee had just finished undoing the restraints. The third was that there were several sets of distant footsteps coming towards them.
Only one of the problems was urgent.
He sat up, gripped Jubilee's shoulders, and gave her a hard shake. "I did not forget about you," he growled. "Not for a minute. Not even for a second."
"S'okay, Wolvaroonie," she said, almost shyly. "We're good."
He looked at her closely. "Yeah?"
"Totally. And if you put on some pants, you can give me a hug."
He snorted. "Hold off those goons for a sec, willya kid?"
"What goo--" The door burst open, revealing a team of soldiers. "Oh. Yeah, sure."
Logan swung off the stretcher and started rifling through the cabinets. Heroin, morphine, a jug of something labeled "Serum X." A set of scalpels. Gauze and tape and surgical thread. A set of medical textbooks wedged in with a copy of Aberrations and the Devil's Marks, A-Z. A glowing yellow eye floating in formaldehyde. A notebook of chemical notations. And--aha--his clothing.
It was better than a symphony.
* * *
As they raced out into the hallway the lights flickered and went out. After a moment low, red emergency lighting filled the compound.
"The best part," said Jubilee cheerfully, "is that all this chaos is going according to plan."
"Nice plan," said Wolverine.
* * *
"Hey!" called Shadowcat. "You guys are going the wrong way!"
They turned around. "Well you're supposed to be recon girl," said Jubilee defensively.
"Exit's this way," Kitty said. "I sealed off most of the compound and gassed it." She smiled smugly. "You won't believe how easy it was to get root. Login: 'root'. Password: 'passwd'. I was half-hoping it was all fake, but nope." She shook her head. "You can buy a bunch of rednecks a network, but you can't teach them how to run it."
"God, Cat. You're such a nerd."
Shadowcat colored. "Sorry," she said stiffly. "The point is that the security system is now our friend."
"Aw, lighten up," said Jubilee. "I get to call you names. It's in the kid-sister job contract."
"Oh no. What have I gotten myself into," Kitty said ruefully. But now the flush in her cheeks was one of pleasure.
* * *
"You ain't staying, huh," said Trev, looking at his feet.
"I can't," Jubilee said. "I got...some prior commitments. But the CBB--I don't think they're gonna be a problem any more. We really wrecked their secret base."
Trev looked up. "You know," he said awkwardly, "you'll always be a Fang."
She smiled. "And you know--you can call me. If things ever get bad. Especially if whoever was behind the CBB turns up again."
"Yeah. I will."
"And keep looking after Sarita. We gotta...we gotta look after the people we love."
"You know it."
Jubilee nodded. That was about all there was to say.
* * *
Kitty was driving them home. Jubie was asleep in the back seat, curled up against Logan. He stroked her hair gently. She stirred a little, burrowing deeper into his warmth. She looked like she was having a good dream. He hoped so.
He looked up at Kitty. She glanced in the rearview mirror, met his eyes, and smiled.
"Darlin'," he said quietly. "I don't know what you did in there. But you did it real good."
"I got lucky," she said simply. "I got through."
"Yeah. You got a knack for that."
She smiled a little wider, and turned her eyes back to the road.
They were okay. Nobody had died or lost their heart's desire. Nobody had a sucking chest wound. And as far as he could tell nobody was insane or harboring malevolent psychic influences or infected with alien diseases. They seemed, for the moment, safe; and they were headed home.
It was like a fairy tale.
* * *