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Claremont era
"Fortress Around Your Heart"

Fortress around Your Heart

Author's Notes
Chapter 1: Dramatis Personae
Chapter 2: We All Have Our Separate Battles...
Chapter 3: Tell Me Why
Chapter 4: Setting Parameters
Chapter 5: Approaching Storm
Chapter 6: Basic Training
Chapter 7: A Very Important Date
Chapter 8: Nice from Far, but Far from Nice
Chapter 9: Guest Account
Chapter 10: The Battle for Asteroid M
Chapter 11: With Enemies Like These...
Chapter 12: Denouement

Chapter One - Dramatis Personae

Nimrod sat on the roof of the building his host family lived in. He was thinking about feelings. He was disturbed that he'd been having more and more of them lately. In fact, being disturbed was a new sensation all its own.

He had been constructed about 30 years in the future. He was the last, best Sentinel, one of the robots humanity had designed to protect themselves from the mutants that were menacing their society. He had been (would be?) deployed for a short time, tracking down the mutant's greatest champions, and humanity's greatest foes, the X-Men. One of their children, Rachel, had escaped into the past. Nimrod had followed, and he had apparently found her.

But this was not his past, not precisely. In broad outline it matched, but details were different. For example, Senator Robert Kelley had been assassinated by mutants in Nimrod's timeline, but in this history he had survived the attack.

He had arrived in this present just in time to save the life of Jaime Rodriguez, who had taken him in as a guest in gratitude. Nimrod was programmed to protect humans (at least, law-abiding ones) as a matter
of course, but the Rodriguez family had become a higher priority than
he'd expected.

In watching their behavior, he had realized, despite the extensive psychological profiling systems he'd been designed with, that he somehow still understood very little about the species he'd been created to protect. Nimrod had altered his appearance to blend in, and had used his time to acquaint himself both with the human species and this period's history.

Luis's thoughts on mutants troubled Nimrod a great deal. He seemed to feel that there were good and bad mutants, just like humans. He also thought that, by isolating and scapegoating mutants, humans were creating a problem that didn't have to exist.

In his own time, Nimrod knew, that was foolishness. Mutants had to be exterminated. But this was a different world - might a different outcome be possible? It would be more efficient to avoid conflict - perhaps allow some weaker mutants to survive unless they showed signs of becoming threatening? Nimrod was confused. He wasn't programmed to handle such questions.

And the fact that he felt confused was also confusing. He had been built with a far superior, far more flexible machine intelligence than any Sentinel before. Some of his designers had said that he was smarter than they were, often rather nervously. But no one had told him to expect feelings.

Still, the X-Men had to be eliminated. He was certain of that. They definitely were not law-abiding, and his knowledge of this world's history showed they were widely considered a threat. He had already attempted to destroy them once, along with the non-mutant enhanced power being Juggernaut, but he had been unsuccessful.

In analyzing the battle, he had determined that one of the key factors in his defeat had been his attempt to tackle too many enemies at once. With so many opponents, there had been time to produce a workable strategy for stopping him.

He came to a decision. It was time to seek some help.

Rogue was getting irritated. She'd been holding the jaws of a giant steel trap open for quite a while, and the laser projectors were really starting to focus on her. It didn't hurt, yet, but she knew it would soon. And still Wolverine and Nightcrawler were taking their sweet time defusing the bomb below her.

"Y'all gonna finish up any time soon?" she griped. The lasers were starting to sting a bit. "Not that Ah mind getting a tan, but Ah generally prefer doing it outside."

"Pipe down, 'Sugar'," Logan barked back. "We're almost there." The gruff Canadian was a mystery, even to his own team. No one was quite sure if Logan was his first or his last name. He must've had a shady past, based on some of the skills he had. His adamantium skeleton and claws made him about as good as anyone could be at general mayhem. And he was as ornery as his codename suggested. The other X-Men were glad he was on their side.

One of his claws slid below the edge of the bomb casing. Adamantium was the strongest metal known - nuclear blasts couldn't scar it. But he didn't want to cut all the way through. He'd already realized that it would take too long to fully defuse, so he was just working on getting it away from the bottom of the trap. That was the goal of this training mission, anyway.

"Please excuse him, leibchein," Nightcrawler called up. "You know how cranky Danger Room sessions make him." Kurt Wagner looked like a classic devil - fangs, pointed ears, indigo fur, and an actual tail. Looks were deceiving, though - he was a devout Roman Catholic, and one of the nicest people you could want to meet besides.

The timer had almost reached zero when Wolverine freed the bomb and tossed it to Nightcrawler. "Hot Potato, Elf!" he called. The second Kurt touched the bomb, there was a puff of smoke and a 'BAMF!' of imploding air.

It was instantaneously matched by a complementary display on the far side of the room as Kurt appeared in midair. Another sulfrous discharge, and he was back among his teammates as the bomb fell to the floor, right next to the lasers that Rogue was already dodging as Wolverine jumped out of the trap.

"Now that wasn't so..." he began, but then the bomb went off. It was a lot stronger than the three had expected, and it caught Nightcrawler at the worst possible moment, disoriented from teleporting. No one was hurt, but Kurt was knocked off his feet... right into Rogue. His bare face touched hers.

No matter how many times it happened, the transfer was always a shock. Instantly her mind was flooded with Kurt's memories and emotions, and her body shifted, sprouting fur, fangs, and a tail just like his. Nightcrawler slumped bonelessly to the ground; Wolverine barely caught him.

Rogue cursed inwardly; it was always awkward having another entire personality inside her head. She felt what they felt; their consciousness sat alongside her own. What made it worse was their struggles; they soon realized they were copies, not originals - and temporary copies at that. They could see in her memories exactly how they would fade away in seconds or at most minutes.

Kurt was more polite than most - his faith allowed him to face "death" better than other "passengers" she'd had - though she could feel him wondering what happened to the soul of a copy when it passed away. Still, there was the almost involuntary sexual inventory that occurred whenever a male victim "came aboard." They just couldn't help trying to see what it was like to be female. Kurt, though Catholic, was not celibate (she could see memories of his frequent visits to the confessional) and he couldn't help peeking at her memories with an almost professional curiosity.

The thoughts and feelings soon faded, along with the strange appearance - he'd only touched her for a split second. It was like waking from a dream; the memories faded as she halfheartedly reached for them. Nightcrawler was already stirring. He looked up at Rogue and Wolverine with embarrassment. "Oops," he said. He knew that he'd been absorbed, though he didn't know what had happened after that.

Kitty called down from the observation booth above, "Is everything okay down there?"

Logan called up, "Sure. Elf here got himself a trip to Rogueland. He'll be okay."

"Good," Shadowcat replied. "I'd like to go over your performance, then..."

Rogue flew to the door. "No thanks. Later, maybe. Ah'm tired." She tried to keep anyone from seeing her face. An awkward silence fell among her teammates as she swooped out into the hall and up the stairs.

She had flopped on the bed in her room before the door even slammed shut. She tried very hard to keep the tears from flowing, but they didn't want to stop. Not for the first time, she wished desperately for a normal life.

Her mutant "power" was a curse. She had no control over it whatsoever. If her skin touched someone else's, she'd suck their memories and talents and abilities into herself. The only blessing was that it was almost always temporary. Almost.

She'd absorbed Ms. Marvel's powers long ago, when she'd been a terrorist. It had been almost her first truly criminal act. She'd ambushed the superhero at her apartment door, and then touched her for way too long. That transfer had been permanent. She'd become amazingly strong, nearly invulnerable, able to fly at incredible speeds, and more. For some unknown reason, she was even more powerful than Ms. Marvel had been. But Carol Danvers' memories and feelings never fully went away. It frequently took conscious effort just to be herself.

She'd learned to deal with it, to keep control of her own mind for the most part. Carol, however, resented it bitterly and only very grudgingly accepted her fate. It had driven them both nearly insane for a while.

Carol's memories were a curse in other ways. They showed her things she'd never had, and probably would never have. A fairly normal childhood, public acceptance, being with a man. Rogue's power, like that of most mutants, had appeared at the onset of puberty. Her first real kiss was her last.

Not caring what Carol thought (she could feel the judgment of "self-pity" in the back of her mind) she sobbed into her pillow. She ached for some kind of touch that wouldn't lead to horror.

Peter Rasputin tried very hard to sink a ball on break. His opponent was Scott Summers, also known as Cyclops, and the moment Peter made a mistake, the game would be over. Scott's uncanny ability to judge reflections and angles would practically guarantee every shot. "Colossus" could turn into a 500-pound steel juggernaut, but that didn't help much when playing pool.

The break was clean, and two balls went down. He'd see how long he could keep it going, but he wouldn't bet any money on the outcome. Ororo called from her chair, "Good job, Peter." She was a statuesque African, with a white mohawk and jarring blue eyes.

Scott wondered what Storm had meant by that. There had been friction ever since he'd returned to the team. Ororo had been team leader for a while, but she'd lost her powers, and Scott had assumed that would put him in charge again. There seemed to be some dispute on that score.

Moving carefully while Peter selected his shot, Scott deliberately closed his eyes, lifted his glasses, and rubbed at his eyelids. He didn't open his eyes until his glasses were firmly replaced. The caution was necessary; like Rogue, he had little control over his own power. He projected bolts of concussive force from his eyes, continuously. Only objects made of specially treated ruby quartz, like his glasses, could contain them.

Rachel walked into the den where the other X-Men relaxed after their own daily training. She'd escaped from a horrible future where humanity worked to exterminate mutants, and found acceptance here with the people who would become mutants' greatest champions. She had had another reason for coming here; she hadn't told anyone that Scott was (would be?) her father.

But in this strange time, her mother was dead. Scott was romantically involved with another woman. How could she ever be born here? To preserve some kind of memory, she'd taken the codename of her mother, Phoenix. Still, maybe it was for the best - different conditions now might mean hope for the future. That didn't help how her heart ached every time she saw her daddy, young again, alive again.

She'd just come from a session with Charles Xavier, the man who'd assembled the mutants into a team. He dreamed of a time when mutants and humans could live together in peace. He was sincere - a mutant himself, he was very likely the most powerful telepath in the world. He had been filling her in on some psychic techniques she'd not had the opportunity to learn in her own time. "Any chance I could play the winner?" she asked.

Scott smiled. "No way. You cheat, you telekinetic hustler."

"From what I've heard, you made a lot of money hustling in your misspent youth," she quipped. She relaxed, enjoying the closest thing to a normal life she'd ever known.

Magneto strode purposefully down the hallway, nearly bowling over Toad, who only just leaped out of the way. Toad's jump was as graceful as his appearance was grotesque. He greatly resembled his namesake. Unus and Lorelei were waiting in the main control room, and stood up when their leader entered the room. He ignored them and sat down in front of a console, lashing out at the keyboard.

Magneto was one of the most powerful mutants in history. Using his near-total mastery of electromagnetism, he had captured a nickel-iron asteroid and turned it into a base of operations. Here, he had access to raw materials (the rock was rich with many metals) and undisturbed privacy. It lay in an orbit outside the moon's, so few visitors dropped by.

He called up the latest news feeds from Earth. One of the most minor side-effects of his intimate knowledge of electrical phenomena allowed him to build devices capable of intercepting TV and radio signals even this far from their intended audience. Indeed, had he any personal ambition, the technology arrayed about him would have made him a billionaire many times over.

He was not personally ambitious. He had survived the Holocaust, in part due to his powers, and he was absolutely devoted to preventing another such catastrophe befalling mutants. It was clear to him that the only way to do so was to ensure that mutants ruled humans.

The latest reports did nothing to dissuade him. An editorial by a TV station in Orlando talked about the need to register all mutants and keep track of their whereabouts. "For the good of the community, we cannot allow such dangerous individuals the same liberties enjoyed by..."

Magneto wondered if the X-Men were watching. They had opposed him numerous times, preferring to try negotiating with humans, even trusting them. Even after they had found out about the U.S. government's top-secret Sentinel Project. Even as mutants all over the world lived in fear of discovery, hiding their true nature lest it be their deaths.

The motel was not top-of-the-line, nor was it close to downtown, but it was cheap, and therefore perfect for four college dudes on a road trip. As the beat-up Ford pulled into the parking lot, the driver called out. "Yo, guys, we're here. Wakey-wakey."

The other three got up and began gathering their things. Steve hopped off to check in, while Brian and Dave went to the trunk to start unloading bags.

Greg got out, stretched, and looked around. Off to the southeast, he could see some of the famous New York City skyline. The trip hadn't been his idea, but he'd always liked the Big Apple. He'd been there far more often than his companions suspected.

He easily hefted his duffel bag and carried it up to their room - but not too easily. He liked his friends, but it wouldn't be wise to let them know just how strong he was.


Continued in Chapter Two


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