Title: The Cast of Shadows
Starring: Jean, Cyclops, Gambit, Rogue
Also appearing: Polaris, Kitty, Wolverine, Beast, Storm and Professor Xavier (and assorted badguys!)
Summary: The X-Men infiltrate Sinisterís base in order to uncover more information about the mutant virus. Meanwhile, Jean encounters a strange presence on the astral plane. Can it be that she is ... in love ... with Cerebro? Scott finds an attraction to another redheaded girl who bears some striking similarities to Jean. Gambit and Rogue deal with their mutant powers, and each other.
Notes: To sum up the first three stories in this series: Gambit has joined the X-Men in order to escape the possessive hands of his adoptive father, Nathan Essex. Jean becomes more adept at wielding her powers and battles a psychic being known as Malice on the Astral Plane. After being kidnapped by Essex (a.k.a. Sinister), Jean and Scott learn of a strange mutant virus and itís origins. This particular series breaks off from X-Men: Evolution continuity after "Walk on the Wild Side" and before "Shadowdance." I hope that those of you that donít care for X-Men: Evolution would consider this story more of an AU than an Evo-fic.
As always, I thank Alexis for proofing this and for her undying encouragement!
(* *) denotes emphasis
(:: ::) denotes telepathic communication
The Cast of Shadows
Identification: Jean Grey
Enter Password: Read-Head...Password Accepted
Accessing Cerebro Journal Files...
I find it odd. No. I find it funny. Me, keeping a diary. At this point in my life when I feel I've grown more towards adulthood, I start a diary. It seems a childish venture. I had a diary once. When I was thirteen, and the most I could find to put inside it were random complaints and observations on how dreamy Duncan Matthews was. I can only roll my eyes in contempt of the person I once was.
Of course, now things are different. Cerebro can record my thoughts better than any pen put to paper. And Cerebro is a lot more secure than a bound book with a toy metal lock on the cover. In the past few weeks, I've come to see this massive computer as something more than advanced circuitry and metal. Cerebro is my confidant; a personal friend who always listens. And the more I come to control and understand my mutant powers, the more Cerebro opens himself up to me, showing me a world I never knew existed.
I first stepped into this new world a month ago. At the time, I didn't know what I was doing, really. I entered the mind of my teammate, Rogue, to find a whole new setting: a world inside of the mind. There, I battled a being known as Malice, and having defeated her, I saved Rogue's life. But that is not the whole truth of it.
In this...'mind-world' (I'll call it for lack of a better term), I was able to...I was able to---be anything. Do anything. I soared through the air like Storm. I was untouchable as a ghost, like Kitty. I had the deadly accurate aim that Gambit possessed. When I threw that psychic dagger at Malice and watched as her psyche was torn to shreds, I was triumphant. I couldn't hold back the bubble of laughter that escaped me. Why did I laugh? It wasn't funny. Someone died that day.
Malice. A being made up only of psychic energy, who could possess another mind and another body. I could try to console myself by saying she was never truly alive in the first place. I could say that for Malice's life, I saved the lives of two others, Rogue and Polaris. But Cerebro gives me insight into what I truly feel. It isn't guilt over Malice's death that plagues me so. It's the fact that I celebrated it. That fevered laugh that rushed up inside of me when I watched her die...I had won! I had defeated her!
Even now, I hear my thoughts ring out around me, echoing away into the darkness. Cerebro listens, and takes note.
My God. Who have I become?
The motorcycle rumbled up the road, coming to a halt before a grand Victorian home not far from the center of Bayville. Rogue slipped off the back of the bike and removed her helmet, placing it on the seat she had vacated. Gambit, the driver, followed suit and slowly trailed after Rogue. She walked up the sidewalk and trotted up the steps leading to the front porch. Without hesitation, she jabbed her gloved finger at the doorbell. Chimes echoed inside the house and the pair waited for several long moments. With an angry sigh, Rogue tried the doorbell again, and rapped on the glass-fronted door. Gambit stood on the sidewalk, watching Rogue as he lit a cigarette.
"'S empty," he said around the cigarette dangling from his lips. He didn't have to look through the window to see that no one was home.
Rogue cast him a glance and peered through the window in the door. Through the lace curtains she could see a bare floor in the foyer beyond. There was no furniture, no signs that anyone had lived there. Rogue could feel heat rising to her face. She walked back down the steps and headed toward the detached garage on the side of the house. She looked through one of the windows in the garage door. There was no car inside. Rogue backed away from the garage. Her breathing came in short angry gasps. Her face was flushed, red splotches breaking out over her pale cheeks. She cried out in frustration as she reached down and grabbed a rock from the gravel driveway.
"You bitch!" she screamed, her voice cracking as she let the rock fly. It flew cleanly through the garage window, shattering it. "Where are you?" Rogue turned to the main house as she scrabbled in the dirt for another rock.
"Rogue---" Gambit began, before she threw the second stone. It struck a second story window. Glass shards tumbled down. "Rogue, calm down."
Rogue wasn't listening. Another rock was in her hand and she put all her effort into throwing it. As she threw, her foot slipped in the loose gravel, causing her to lose her balance. She put an arm out to catch her fall and grunted as she hit the ground. Gambit was suddenly standing beside her, trying to help her up.
"Don't touch me!" she growled, slapping his hands away. "Just get away!" She struggled to her feet, holding her injured arm. The gravel had torn the thin shirtsleeve. Her elbow was bleeding where the rocks had cut into her skin. She wiped her hand across her leaking eyes, leaving a smear of dirt and blood. Gambit watched her quietly, his hands in his pockets. He backed up a few feet and allowed her to stomp past him.
Gambit watched stoically as Rogue continued down the street. He sighed and tendrils of cigarette smoke emitted from his lips. Dropping the butt on the ground, he snuffed the dying ember with his boot-heel. He turned his attention from Rogue back to the house. There was a sodden newspaper on the sidewalk, another on the porch.
He nodded to himself. So the girl had left quickly, and in her haste had neglected to cancel the newspaper subscription. Gambit approached the mailbox having noticed the red flag on the side was pointing up. Inside was a single white business envelope, blank save for the single name printed on the front. He folded it in two and tucked it into his back pocket. Mounting his motorcycle, he revved the engine to life and started down the road, careful to go the opposite direction Rogue had headed.
In light of their recent discovery, she probably needed some time alone.
Kitty always made the extra effort to turn the bathroom doorknob, instead of phasing through the door, as she would have preferred. She was startled to find that despite her efforts, she had walked in on Rogue---again, and the other girl did not appear at all happy. Kitty quickly took in the bathroom; Rogue was sitting on the toilet lid, her face angry and tear-stained. She cradled her injured arm. There was small line of bloody rocks on the bathroom counter. Her thin over-shirt had been cast to the floor.
"Rogue, what happened?" Kitty asked.
"Ever heard of knocking?" Rogue snapped angrily, choosing not to answer Kitty's question.
"You're bleeding," Kitty said, ignoring Rogue's anger. She opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out a roll of gauze and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. "Did you fall off of Gambit's bike?" She asked as she turned to Rogue.
"Don't you touch me," Rogue shrank back from Kitty, turning to face the wall. Kitty found Rogue's gloves on the bathroom counter and slipped them on her own hands.
"Here, give me your arm. You can't do it by yourself." Kitty took Rogue's pale arm and examined it. Her elbow was bleeding, clotted with dirt and grime. Her forearm was pockmarked with gouges, presumably where the stones that were sitting on the counter had dug in to her skin. Kitty grabbed a fistful of toilet paper and dabbed at Rogue's wounds with the peroxide. Rogue watched as gauze was wrapped around her injured elbow, her eyes empty and detached. Her mascara and eye shadow were smeared; tears had left their trails through the makeup on her cheeks. Kitty glanced up at Rogue's face as she worked.
"So tell me what happened," Kitty said.
"Risty's gone, up and left," Rogue replied.
Kitty frowned, her eyes turned sad. "Oh, Rogue, I'm sorry."
Rogue ground her teeth, taking her eyes away from Kitty's gaze and staring off into space.
"I know you were good friends with her," Kitty said softly as she applied a band-aid to a shallow cut on Rogue's wrist. She shook her head. "That was a real crummy thing she did to you." Kitty stood and took a towel from the linen closet. She ran some warm water from the tap and offered Rogue the damp facecloth.
Rogue took it reluctantly and wiped her face. "Thanks," she mumbled. "Guess Ah must look a-fright."
Kitty patted the other girl's shoulder awkwardly at first, then bent to give Rogue a hug. Rogue stiffened in the embrace and her breath caught. Kitty knew she didn't pull away for fear of accidentally touching her, and the knowledge saddened her. Kitty smoothed Rogue's hair. "You don't have to be afraid, you know," Kitty said. "We're all your friends here."
Rogue didn't reply and looked away when Kitty stood back. A flicker of movement in the bathroom mirror caught her eye. Kitty spun to see Gambit standing in the doorway. "Excuse me," Kitty snapped. "What do you think you're doing, spying on us!"
Gambit gave her the briefest of smiles and ducked his head in apology. He took a step into the bathroom and offered an envelope to Rogue. "Found dis," he muttered and turned to leave.
"Remy," Rogue said after she had taken the letter from his fingers. He glanced back over his shoulder. "Ah'm sorry."
Another smile flitted to his lips and he half-shrugged. "S'all right," he said and then left.
Kitty watched as Rogue opened the envelope. Rogue's eyes flicked over the contents of the letter before her lips set into a grim line and an angry furrow appeared on her forehead. "Pah!" she spat as she flipped up the lid on the toilet and tossed the crumpled paper into the water. Angrily, the lid slammed down and the toilet flushed. Rogue stomped out of the room. Kitty waited until Rogue had left their bedroom. Cautiously, she lifted the toilet lid. Floating on top of the wavering water was the note. The blue pen ink scrawled across the page was beginning to fade.
'For what it's worth, Rogue,' it read, 'I'm sorry...Sincerely,
Identification: It's me...
Accessing Cerebro Journal Files
Scott says, 'You've changed, Jean.' He says it sadly, like it's a bad thing. I don't deny it. I'm a different person since my confrontation with Malice and the imprisonment I endured with Sinister.
I look at myself and see a stronger person. But harder, sadder as well. What am I to think when a monster like Sinister toys with my genes? Here's a man who sees a mutant as little more than a string of DNA. And he chooses Scott and I out of all people to experiment with. How can I forge a relationship with Scott when I've all ready glimpsed the future our union would bring? I felt so violated...and terror-stricken. The true weight of being an X-Man was placed on my shoulders that day. That I might be forced to deal with another Sinister at some point is a strong possibility. I had the opportunity to escape this life, to flee to normalcy. I didn't take it. I had too much to loose, and so much to gain by staying. And if I had left, I would not have discovered you, Cerebro.
Professor Xavier tells me this 'mind-world' is called the Astral Plane. He has walked it as well. And with your help, I can connect to any mind on the planet. The professor tells me I must take care, however, for anything that happens to my astral form would also happen to my physical body as well. The mind is a powerful thing. This may be truer than he thinks! After all, when Malice assaulted me on the Astral Plane, the bolt of energy she fired passed right through me. If the professor is right, then my physical body would have sustained the damage that bolt would have caused. Am I so in control of my mind that I can convince my body that I am intangible? I wonder, but am not brave enough to experiment.
I'm not the only one who has changed. All of us that were involved with Sinister are different in some way. Perhaps Scott doesn't see it as clearly as I, but that is part and parcel to being a telepath.
I've come to know Lorna quite well over these past few weeks. As my new roommate, we spend a lot of time together. She couldn't be any more different from the creature that had possessed her for so long. She is a truly kind person. Not just nice, but kind. And though she puts on a cheerful front, I can see the sadness that lurks behind her happy faÁade. She is sad, desperately so. Two long years of her life were stripped away from her. For years, she rode backseat in her own mind, watching out the windows of her soul at the horrors Malice wrought. Her parents thought she had been kidnapped. In a sense she was. They had accepted the fact that she might be dead; imagine their delight when they were reunited! But Lorna was stricken to see that her friends and family had moved on without her. Though she is a year older than I, and should have been attending college, she is still in high school. She is trying to rebuild what she has lost, to learn again and make new friends. She's very brave. Braver and stronger than the person I was only a month ago.
Rogue: Where do I start? She is still untouchable, in more ways than just the physical. I've noted that her former attraction to Scott has diminished. I suppose the old Jean would have reveled in that. The hostility she once harbored toward me is gone as well. Perhaps because I rescued her from Malice's possession. Perhaps because she sees me as another teenager with fallacies and not as the pretty perfect prom queen. She's established a tenuous bond with Gambit, but I fear that Risty's betrayal of her trust has wounded her. Shaken her faith in others. As if Mystique's betrayal wasn't hard enough for her to face. I think these affronts she faces in her personal life have harmed her more than Malice's attack had.
And Gambit too, of course. His physical appearance continues to alter just as his emotional state. Hair dyed black, piercings in his brow, several new tattoos. I think that he is challenging the professor, toeing the line and seeing how far he can push his boundaries. I can't blame him, I've been doing much the same lately. Gambit had always been distant, but he had been making some progress before Sinister reappeared in his life. I can feel his anger as if it were a physical force. Like Rogue, he has issues with trust; it is hard for him to extend, harder for him to accept. I believe he fears we will judge him. Maybe those fears are not unfounded. I watched as Scott snatched back the hand of friendship as Gambit confessed to giving Sinister information about the X-Men.
Scott is perhaps the only person to escape these changes. I think that might be part of what irks me the most about him. What is it about Scott that allows him to stand unchanged while the tide around him sweeps the rest of us to and fro like sand on a beach? He is either very strong, or very oblivious. I haven't figured it out yet.
I have to go now. I can hear the professor tapping on my mental door, asking to be let in. Before he would have just appeared, demanding my attention. But no more. Things have changed indeed.
"Are you sure of this, Charles?" Storm asked, as she peered down at the Danger Room from the observation booth. "I do not think certain issues have had enough time to resolve themselves. I fear this mission may do harm to some of the students, both physically and mentally."
Professor Charles Xavier listened carefully to Ororo's words, and took into account the emotions behind them. He nodded his head slowly, and folded his hands on his lap. "I am certain of our course of action, as is Hank," he glanced over at the blue-furred mutant. "In fact, I had wished to conduct this mission sooner, given the circumstances."
"I agree with the professor," stated Hank McCoy as he adjusted the settings on the computer before him. "We've delayed the mission for over a month, to give the kids some time after what happened. However, we've learned little about this mystery mutant malignancy since its initial discovery. It is time to take action, now, before we risk an
Ororo nodded. "No further cases have presented themselves. We only know of two victims as of now. But I too fear that if an outbreak would occur, we would be at odds as to how to remedy it."
"There is that. And also the risk that the mutant population may come to the attention of the medical and scientific community should this virus befall us," the professor concluded. "I know that mutants, with our myriad of superhuman powers, would strike fear in the hearts of the human race. But if it were discovered that we could also be the bearers of a deadly virus..."
Storm relented, but conflict brewed behind her clear blue eyes.
The professor turned to the young girl in the doorway. She had remained silent through the adults' dialogue. She was dressed in the X-Men's bold gold and black uniform, with a half-mask like that of what Jean and Gambit wore. She wore a shield-shaped badge on her shoulder and tall black combat boots. Short green hair fell across her forehead. "The rest of the team is gathering in the Danger Room," he said to her. "Perhaps it is time to join them?"
The girl nodded. "Sure," she replied. "But you understand why I won't be going on this mission?"
The professor smiled at her. "Of course, Lorna. You were integral in the outlay of this mission, and have been of great assistance. I don't question your reluctance in joining the other X-Men."
Lorna returned his smile, giving him a smart salute as she clicked her heels together. She turned and took the lift down to the floor below. The elevator doors opened and allowed her to enter the Danger Room with the other students. Cyclops was standing before the team, which was made up of Shadowcat, Rogue and Gambit. Wolverine had also joined them. Jean had not yet arrived.
"All right," Cyclops was saying, "this is going to be a practice mission, just a dry run. The challenge will be getting from one end of the compound to the other, then back again. Of course, there will be obstacles---."
He broke off suddenly as the large Danger Room doors opened, spilling the bright light outside into the dim interior of the room. The small group of students turned to watch as Jean entered the room. She approached them slowly. Scott gave her a look of irritation, obviously upset that the redheaded girl was late. Were it Gambit or Spyke, he might have made a comment, but instead he just turned back to the assembled team.
"As I was saying, the maze we're going to be running through will have certain obstacles. Polaris will be our navigator. She is familiar with the compound and will be directing us via our communication links." As he spoke, the Danger Room began to change shape. The flat ground beneath their feet grew long blades of swaying grass. The horizon expanded around them, revealing a clear blue sky. Just behind Cyclops appeared a long, low building, with no features other than one dark ominous doorway.
"As you can see---," Cyclops began.
"What's de big idea!" exclaimed Gambit suddenly. "Is dis some kind of joke?"
Cyclops' face darkened, getting more and more angry at each interruption. "Why? Do you find it funny?" he said hotly. "We're going to be entering Sinister's base, in order to retrieve information on the mutant virus."
"Well, you can count me out!" Gambit protested. "I'm not going in there!" He pointed a finger at the open door's direction.
"This is an important mission!" Cyclops stated. "You can't just pick and choose when it comes to things like this. That's not what being an X-Man is about!"
"Y'can kiss my ass, Cyke," a tremor had entered Gambit's voice. "I won't be a part of dis."
"Gambit," the professor's voice echoed through the intercom system. "You have special insight into Sini---into Essex's work. That, combined with your skills as a thief, makes you important on this mission. I hope you will---."
"Non!" Gambit cried, cutting the professor off with a sweeping motion of his arm. He angrily stalked over to where the Danger Room exit would be. "Let me out! Open th'doors or I'll make my own exit!" A trio of blazing cards appeared in his fist.
The professor's reply was a frustrated sigh, to which Storm placed a placating hand on the older man's shoulder.
"I will talk with him," she said quietly. Then the doors slid apart, leaving a hole in the Danger Room's illusion, allowing Gambit to exit.
Cyclops glowered at the Cajun's back. "Well, if there's no more interruptions, I'd like to get on with this."
"Go right ahead," Jean said softly. "I'm with Remy. I'm not going either."
Shadowcat and Rogue shared an appalled look and took a few steps backward. Scott's face had turned red.
"What?" he said quietly in an exasperated voice.
Jean put her hands on her hips and struck a defiant pose. "I'm not going back into that pit. After everything that happened, you couldn't possibly expect me to go on this mission."
"Are you forgetting that I was there, too?" Scott demanded. "And Rogue! You don't hear her complaining!"
Jean opened her mouth to reply, but Polaris took a step forward. "Now wait. Let's not argue. This mission is difficult enough. It is also important, otherwise I wouldn't be involved. I'm sorry that I had any part in making you guys angry at each other, but we can work this out." She turned to Jean. "Jean can stay with me, on the outside, and help navigate. Sinister's base runs very deep, and is made almost entirely of metal. This could interfere with our communication badges. There's also a chance that the team members could become separated, or one of the com-links could get damaged. Jean can keep us better linked, using her telepathy instead of the badges. Is that okay?"
Jean gave Polaris a wary look, but then nodded curtly. "Sure," she said.
"And is that all right with you, Fearless Leader?" Polaris turned to Scott.
"Yah, that's fine," he turned away from the two girls and faced the base. "Okay Wolverine, you take the point."
Wolverine muttered something about having to take orders and marched towards the door of the compound. Cyclops followed next, then Shadowcat and Rogue.
Jean and Polaris watched them go. "I hope you know what you're doing," Jean mentally projected.
She felt the professor nod confidently, but Jean was not assured.
An hour and forty-nine minutes later, the team had gathered for a debriefing. The room was darkened and the large monitor behind Cyclops illuminated. On the screen behind him was an image of a gray uniform with gloves, boots, and a matching hood. There was a plastic mask on the headpiece, and a ventilator for breathing attached to the front of the hood.
"What's with the funky getup?" Rogue asked.
Scott half-turned to the image. "This suit has been designed by Forge and Beast for our safety. Sinister's base may well be contaminated. And from what little we know about the virus, we can assume it is airborne. We will each be outfitted with one."
"Well, the shoes are gonna have to go," Kitty whispered to Rogue. "How will I ever find a purse to accessorize with that?"
Cyclops shot her look, but his expression softened. "Talk about a bad hair day waiting to happen," he added. "The suits have been designed with mobility in mind, however, peripheral vision will be slightly impaired."
"Are we expectin' t'be attacked?" asked an accented voice from the hall. Those who were seated turned to the door to see Gambit with Storm standing just behind him.
"Decided to join the party after all, Gumbo?" asked Logan.
"Stormy here gave me somet'in t'think about. Convinced me," Gambit replied. "Like my daddy always say, flattery will get you everywhere."
The professor nodded at Gambit and gave Storm a grateful look. Cyclops shifted uncomfortably, but said nothing. He was unwilling to start another fight. "To answer Gambit's question: we suspect to meet with some resistance inside the base. Polaris, would you like to explain?"
Polaris stood up from her chair and rested her knuckles on the table before her. She stared at the tabletop for a moment before looking up at the X-Men's expectant faces. "Sinister may be gone, but he has always guarded his information quite tenaciously. Some of his security measures can put what you've got here at the mansion to shame, especially when it comes to his research." Polaris risked a glimpse at Jean, who had visibly stiffened in her seat. "We can expect things like cameras and your basic alarms, but they are unmanned, and not too big a deal. But there are other obstacles that could activate at our intrusion. Motion detectors can activate traps and precautions are put in place to prevent computer data from being stolen."
"Between Shadowcat and Gambit," Scott added, "I don't think we will have much of a problem hacking into any computer system."
Kitty gloated, making a show of buffing her nails on her shirtfront, while Gambit gave a snort of contempt at the compliment.
"What kinda traps are we talkin' here?" Rogue asked Polaris.
"Access may be cut off, doors will close and refuse to open again. Walls can slide shut. Then there are these doo-hickeys," the screen behind her changed, portraying a small, football-sized piece of machinery, like that of a miniature fighter plane. "Forge was able to compose a schematic from my memory of these things. They're able to fly, track, and fire precise beams of energy at their target. The technology Sinister possessed was very advanced, though where or how he obtained these things...I don't have a clue."
"What about Sabretooth?" Kitty asked. "Do you think there's a chance he could be lurking around?"
"That's where I come in, half-pint, though I don't think he's still there," Wolverine said. "Sabretooth may be a homicidal maniac, but he's not stupid. If the base is contaminated with this mutant virus, I doubt he'd stick around to find out if his healin' factor will work against it."
"Well, we aren't heading into this unprepared," Cyclops said. "Thanks to Lorna we know what we might be up against. After a few more practice sessions in the Danger Room, and the professor's go-ahead, we will be good to go."
"Whatcha runnin' here, Prof?" Gambit said quietly. "A school t'help mutant kids, or a camp for mutie soldiers?" Storm put a hand on Remy's arm, silencing him with a look. The comment did not go unnoticed; the professor contemplated Gambit's profile for several moments afterward. "Once dis whole fandango is over wit', I'd like t'tie up some loose ends," Remy continued and an ace of spades alit with his mutant powers. "Ka-blammo, problem solved."
"Don't see why you should have all the fun," Polaris added, her fingers flicked out and several of the empty chairs in the room began to spin. "The way that place is built, I can topple it like a deck of cards."
"Now you're talkin' my language," Gambit said with a grin.
"I'd say this meeting is adjourned," Cyclops said, as he fingered his visor. At this point, he wouldn't mind a little mindless destruction himself.
Continued in Chapter 2
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