DISCLAIMER: All characters, contained
in this part, are the exclusive property of Marvel Comics,
with the exception of Malachy Cassidy. I am neither using
them to make me a profit or to bring down Marvel's particular
heavens with a crash. :) Comments however are much appreciated
as is any criticism, kvetches and bouquets, along with requests
for archiving. I won't say no. :) Um, this part is probably
a PG, if I had to rate it. Otherwise, no romance etc ... in
this one, merely a competiton between two masters of their
respective games. The two verses are from Louis Macniece's
At sundown now the windows had
For half an hour, a quick
Chill came off the brick
Walls and the flesh was suddenly old and cold.
Nick Fury glanced at the woman sitting across the table from
him. Impeccably dressed in a dove-grey bodysuit with the SHIELD
insignia over one breast, Katherine Pryde had always been
a model agent. From her brief tenure with defunct Excalibur
and the outlaw X-Men, she, at 25 years, had acquired more
field experience than some of the most grizzled senior agents.
Her record was exemplary - commendations from all her commanding
officers in every mission on which she had been - and her
glut of skills well-known by both terrorist and agent alike.
She cleared her throat, fixing him with her hazel eyes, green
flecks brilliant against the brown.
"So, Fury? Are you prepared to accept my resignation?"
He snorted, "I'll not keep you against your will, if
that's what you mean, but I won't accept it in any other respect."
Pausing, his eyebrow drew together in confusion, "Kate,
if I may speak freely ... I don't understand why you want
to leave us."
She smiled, a dimple forming in her left cheek, and he suppressed
the urge to touch it. To trace the familiar, bird-like lines
of her cheek and jaw. To feel the pulse just beneath the skin
thrumming to some secret, internal tune.
"With all due respect, Fury, I got a better offer. The
organisation for which I'm going to work is so ... exclusive
that this chance ... Well, it's pretty once-in-a-lifetime,
Fury grimaced, "Your mind is made up then?"
Nodding, Katherine handed him a sheet of paper. Thin, type-written,
her letter of resignation was as perfectly worded and impersonal
as all her other reports had been. She was the true professional
out of both of them, he understood with a pang, always had
been, although he had believed otherwise. He had broken off
their relationship because he had considered it a breach of
the unwritten law that forbade affairs between members of
the agency, and regretted it deeply.
"I thought I should formalise it."
Angrily, he signed it and handed it back to her. His name
was a black slash across the fragile sheet. Fury. Strangely,
painfully appropriate. "Kate, if it doesn't work out..."
"It will, sir," she tucked it into a folder that
she was holding beneath her arm, "I'll take this across
to admin for you, shall I?"
He waved a hand dismissively, "Go, before I change my
mind and tear that damn letter up."
The dimple formed in her cheek again and she stood, smoothing
down the ash-colored bodysuit and pulling up the long, black
boots. She picked up her jacket from where it was draped over
the chair and dusted it, lint flying in a thousand silver
sparks into the air. Slipping it over slight, delicately muscled
shoulders, she held out her hand for him to shake it. He ignored
the proferred appendage pointedly, realizing how ungenerous
his refusal to do so was, and shuffled some folders on his
desk. The budget report, long neglected, suddenly took on
a fascinating quality. His voice, when he spoke, was harsh
"You're dismissed, Pryde."
She nodded, snapping to attention like the blade of a knife,
The bartender uncapped another bottle of Perrier, before
sliding it down the worn-smooth surface with a practised motion.
The old wood had been polished to a glassy shine by the elbows
of its hundred-thousand patrons since its founding by an Irish
immigrant, Malachy Cassidy, over a century ago. A photo, yellowed
and cracking, hung on the wall next to the kegs of Guiness,
showing a young, dark-haired man with a guileless, toothy
smile. His carbon copy, affectionately referred to as Black
Tom by the locals, stood behind the counter, pouring drinks
and bantering with the hapless, drunk and melancholy. The
ingenuous smile on his face concealed a criminal bent, whose
delight in gambling on certain illegal sporting events had
got him indebted to some of the less scrupulous loan-sharks.
Using his influence, charm and an apparently inexhaustible
supply of cash to grease the machinery, Remy had once saved
him from some particularly unsavory debt-collectors, more
interested in extracting blood than money from the person
in question. In return, he had been promised free drinks and
a reliable souce of information for as long as he needed both.
Tonight was one of those occasions. Catching the bottle of
Perrier, he nodded his thanks at Black Tom, who grinned. On
the stage, Tom's niece, Teresa, took a sip of water, hoisted
a battered guitar onto her lap and began a round of Irish
folksongs. Her voice, clear and steady above the alcoholic
murmur, soared to heaven, like a saint's demanding mercy for
the sinners of the world. 'Danny Boy' became a faerie hymn
that echoed off the low, wood rafters. Too soon, the final,
sweet note died out, leaving the room to subside into noise
and sordidness. A juke-box started to wail out archaic music
that had lost tune with its popularity and people moved onto
the square of clear space that was the bar's dance-floor.
Brother, can you spare a dime? With a bob that was a bow,
Teresa Rourke stepped off the stage and into confusion. Squeezing
her way past the press of people, she gestured for Remy to
follow her outside. In comparison to the miasma of smoke and
fumes that filled the small room, the night air was cool and
sweet, scented with the aroma of flowers an old woman was
selling outside the bar. Gifts to appease wives and girlfriends.
"Ye needn't worry about Mary here," the woman's
lilting speech was as musical as her singing, "Even were
she not as deaf as a post, she's loyal tae th' Cassidy's and
a long-standing member of our Guild."
"Bien," Remy smiled, "I need information 'bout
She grimaced, tugging nervously at her unruly, red braid.
She'd wound tiny ribbons into that ranged from white to gold
to green. They seemed strangely quaint, juxtaposed with her
faded jeans and emerald turtleneck. Her eyes burnt strangely
as they saw the ring on his finger.
"Aye, I didnae think it was for the pleasures of my
"Dis?" the three ridges carved out of the soft
gold caught the light, blazing, "Pas de tout. (Not at
all.) Dis particular trinket shows m'status as a Grand Master
"Grand Master, Rem?" her face betrayed her surprise,
"Uncle Tom told me that no-one had attained that rank.
He's only petty himself, but...."
"I'm de first," he said with undisguised pride,
then sobered, "Anyway, it means I've got some interestin'
offers. From a Carol, for example? D'ya have any idea who
As a courier, Teresa was familiar with the aliases used in
underground communiques, while secretly thinking that they
were ridiculous and would cause any policeman worth his salt
to become suspicious. That, however, Remy had assured her,
was part of the game, the bullet in a thief's particular game
of Russian Roulette.
"I've delivered tae Brandy's and Sue's, but ne'er a
He shrugged, "Jus' like t'know who wants t'employ me.
I turned 'her' down, o' course."
"Scheme wasnae big enough f'r your Grand Master-sized
ego?" she teased.
"Par contre, it was too big."
With that mysterious rejoinder, he kissed her on her ribbon-pink
lips and reentered the bar. Teresa shrugged, making a note
of the name, and followed him.
"Good mornin', Ah'm ... Damn ... Ah mean, I'm Yvonne
"Atrocious," Mystique regarded her young charge
implacably. Ridiculous in purple, plastic curlers, which protruded
at odd angles in her newly titian hair, the young woman was
engulfed by Magneto's leather armchair. Next to her, a pile
of paper tilted precariously, containing information on all
subjects from Yorkshire Pudding to the innermost workings
"Good morning. I'm Yvonne Montgomery."
"Better, but you need more practice," she rifled
through a pile of papers on the desk, removing a photograph
from the stack and holding it up to compare with the girl.
Rogue, despite her criticism, was an alarmingly quick student,
picking up the gutturals of German as well as she parlayed
her francais. Giving the child any form of encouragement would
cause her to become complacent, however, and, in the game
of terrorism, that was tantamount to holding a gun to her
head and depressing the trigger. Rogue sunk deeper into the
soft leather, supporting her chin with a hand. Her short,
pragmatic fingernails, Mystique noticed, were completely hidden
beneath garish, fuschia press-ons - another habit that they
had decided 'Montgomery' should adopt. If they made this woman
enough of an individual, she would be beyond suspicion.
"Gawd, why didn't Ah decide t'be French?"
The older woman snorted, "French intelligence, Rogue?"
Chuckling at their private joke, the girl removed the top
sheet off the leaning stack of print-outs and flipped impatiently
through it. Presently, she paused and hungrily scanned a paragraph,
before handing the sheet to Mystique.
"They could be a problem," Rogue tapped a blurred
photograph of a team of garishly dressed mutants. Snapped
in the middle of battle against the Juggernaut, the figures
in the grainy, black-and-white photograph were grainy; unidentifiable
save for the one at the extreme right of the shot. She was
a stately, African-American woman whose bleached hair was
a startling contrast against her dark skin. On the shoulder
of her uniform, a sigil was evident in the dark fabric - a
circle enscribed with the letter 'x'.
"Unknown Mutants Save World Again! But Are Their Motives
As Pure As They Seem?" The girl recited from the Daily
Bugle's Headline, pronouncing the hyperbolic capitals,
"Know who they are, momma?"
Mystique took the paper from her, pursing her lips as she
scanned the newsprint. Her protegee was right, they could
be a problem, if reality bore any correlation with their reputation.
They were supposedly a group of homo superior who had
banded together under the auspices of Charles Xavier - a genius
intellect telepath - although he had been killed some years
ago in a battle with the Shadow King. Rumor said that their
reason for being was to maintain the delicate relationship
between human and mutant, although she personally doubted
it. Heroism usually was buoyed up by base and self-serving
"Yes, but carry on as planned. If the need arises to
eliminate them, we'll do so. As is, we don't wish to make
our presence known to them before absolutely necessary."
"Keep an ace up our sleeves, ya mean, momma?"
Head propped up by his hand, Forge rubbed his grizzled chin
with an index-finger. Awake by the grace of coffee more than
anything else, dark circles surrounded his blood-shot eyes
and he yawned intermittently. At one side of him, a half-empty
box of Chinese food cooled and congealed. Since finding out
that Magneto had discovered a way of overriding their tracking
system, he had neither slept nor eaten more than could be
placed into his mouth between keystrokes. Once more, the figures
scrolled past on the green screen of the laptop as he held
page-down. No less inconclusive than the previous times, the
only piece of information that was vaguely verifiable was
the fact that Magneto had disappeared. Taking another sip
of his Pepsi, he regarded the data with suspicion. Magneto
had been at Mont St Francis, a supposedly impregnable fortress
that he and his acolytes inhabited, when he had disappeared.
The latitude and longitude had remained the same for hours
before his vanishing act, which implied that he was not on
the move and had not left earth. Furthermore, the fact that
the machine had registered his absence confirmed his painstaking
diagnostics to rule out mechanical error.
Sometime between ten and eleven o'clock, Magneto had vanished.
Grimacing, Forge tapped in a sequence of commands, when cool
hands clasped his shoulders, and he started, before realizing
that it was his wife. Strong fingers massaged his neck, working
out the knots that had formed from tension. Judging by the
mingled scents of dew, flowers and greenery on her, she had
been tending to what he teasingly referred to as her conservatory.
Although he often joked about her private jungle, he understood
the need for an oasis at a time like this. As co-leader of
the X-Men, Ororo had been subject to as much pressure as he,
although she bore up under it infinitely better thanks to
her private Eden. Surrounded by roses, ferns and pansies,
her mind worked more quickly, more calmly and more efficiently.
"Have you discovered anything, love?"
"Only Magneto's location when he pulled a houdini on
us - Mont St Francis."
"A slender lead, but one that bears investigating,"
he felt the slump of her shoulders telegraphed through her
arms, "Even if only to verify that our fears are true.
I must assemble a strike-force to..."
Forge grinned at his wife, "What we must do is
get a good night's sleep. Unless you want to sleep-fight Magnus?"
Her yawn answered him, as did the hand that reached to close
his laptop. Stretching like a languid lioness, Ororo smiled
at him: "'We' means both of us, darling."
"Point taken," he cleared the remnants of his dinner
into the bin, and switched off the light.
Crumbling between the fingers,
under the feet,
Crumbling between the eyes,
Their world gives way and dies,
And something twangs and breaks at the end of the street.
Continued in Chapter
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