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"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 Nine - "Guest Account"

Wednesday night found Rogue and Fortress on their second date. It was at the same time more tense, and more relaxed. They kept things simple and casual, preferring a quiet night out.

They were eating at Rogue's favorite pizzeria in Salem Center. They had split the pizza; Greg was appalled at the wide collection of toppings she ordered. He'd loudly insisted that the only true pizza was the pepperoni pizza; an emergency substitute was Italian sausage.

The conversation stayed neutral, particularly since they were in a restaurant; talking openly about X-Men-related topics would have been foolish. Though well-educated at Xavier's school, Rogue had never attended a regular college, and asked a lot of questions about it.

"Well, the dorms are about as crazy as you'd think. I mean, everyone's away from home for the first time, in a totally new environment, and out of their parents' shadows. Things get a little wild, but it's easy to make friends. When my dad was helping me move in, he took one look at the elevator and said, 'Monkeys would be harder on equipment than college students, but only 'cause they're stronger.'"

She laughed aloud. "Well, what do you consider crazy?"

"Lots of practical jokes. You never know what you'll see coming around the corner sometimes. The med students are scary. They have access to stuff that ordinary people don't. If someone gets too drunk at a party, they're liable to wake up with a cast on their arm, and they won't find out for a week that they didn't break a bone. And then there was the guy who got drunk, wrapped himself in the fire hose, and ran down the hall shouting, 'I'm linguine! I'm linguine!'"

Again she burst out laughing. "What about classes?"

"Freshman year is bad; lots of cattle classes. You barely meet the professor half the time. It gets better as you go along."

"Ah just get tutored by the Prof. Hank McCoy comes sometimes and teaches a special class or two - math, chemistry. Logan's a history buff. We get to do special projects and topics as long as we do the basics."

"What's your special project?"

"Aerospace, mostly. You should see the jet we have. Ah'll show you Friday, if you want. It's really sweet. Do y'all have that at UW?"

"Not really. That's grad school stuff. I don't get a lot of electives; engineering's a pretty full schedule by itself. I do know a guy, he got a great graduation present - he didn't have to graduate. He got to take a term of whatever he wanted."

"Wow. That is great." An ordinary conversation. Rogue tried to remember the last time she'd had one.

Afterward, they flew into the city, and went to a nightclub Rogue had heard Dazzler mention once, long ago. There was a short wait to get in, but soon they were on the dance floor.

They moved close to the speakers. With their powers, they didn't have to worry about ear damage, though they couldn't hear each other over the music. That was just fine with Rogue; she wanted to dance and think.

Greg turned out to be a fair dancer; nothing spectacular, but then, he hadn't trained at Stevie Hunter's dance studio. At least he wasn't embarrassed to get out on the floor, like some guys, Rogue thought.

As they jumped and twisted, she thought about how the week had gone. Greg had left Saturday after they got back to the mansion. Everyone had been very curious to find out what had happened, but Rogue had given them only an edited version. She was a fairly private person, and knew Greg was, too.

However, she was done withholding important information. She had relayed the story about Genosha, and the team was very disturbed. As Logan put it, "They just made it to the top of my 'To Do' list." They decided to plan an exploratory mission to see what was going on there. It also helped the rest of the team put Fortress' behavior in perspective.

Greg had showed up for his Tuesday session, and Rogue had, after a bit of deliberation, decided to attend. They reviewed flying a bit, but then moved on to strength, and control thereof. He was a lot more candid about his real strength level, which approached that of Colossus. They'd practiced switching rapidly from lifting 50-ton weights to handling eggshells and glassware. It was hard to regulate a dynamic range like that, and Fortress had a lot of trouble, but again, he'd improve with practice.

The music slowed, and they easily moved together, arms around each other. This was still a thrill, and Greg hadn't pushed things, even knowing how vulnerable she was in that regard. She respected him for that. Some guys would have taken advantage of her.

She leaned her head up and kissed him. He kissed back. She thought for a moment. What the heck. She slipped him the tongue. He didn't collapse. Apparently the inside of his mouth is protected too, Carol noted. Rogue told her to shut up.

He was surprised for a moment, but he rallied gamely and returned the favor. He slid a hand down her back, gently cupping a buttock. Rogue was learning at a furious pace, when suddenly she heard Rachel's voice in her mind. <<Rogue, get back here now!>>

She jerked. Greg pulled back quickly, confused; he'd obviously not received any psi-cast. Probably a good thing, Rogue thought. <<Rachel, what's up? Can't it wait?>> Despite her relative immunity from psi-probes, telepaths could "hear" her when she cast her thoughts specifically. Her eyes widened as Rachel filled her in.

She pulled him away from the speakers, toward the exit. "What's up?" he asked, apprehensively. "I hope I didn't..."

"Sorry, it's nothin' to do with you. Ah just got called; we have to get back to the mansion, right now."

Greg followed her out the exit, and hurried after her as she jogged toward the alley. "Why? What's going on?"

"Magneto just popped in for a visit."

When they arrived, a very tense situation was brewing in the den. Magneto sat across from Xavier. Unus and Toad stayed behind him, glancing suspiciously all around. The X-Men were obviously primed for combat. Rogue and Fortress entered quietly and slowly.

"I have given my word that I will honor a truce until this situation is resolved. What more can you ask?" Magneto was saying.

"I require your assurance that the truce will not be broken without, say, 24 hours notice. We will not help you, only to find you at our throats."

"Very well, Charles, though I'd hoped for better from you." Greg realized the two men knew each other.

"Fine. Now, explain the situation again, for the benefit of the newcomers."

Magneto glanced at Rogue, and particularly at Greg. Fortress got the distinct impression that he was being evaluated in roughly the same way that a lion evaluates a gazelle.

"I will summarize. Two days ago, Nimrod attacked us at Asteroid M. We had no warning whatsoever. He killed Lorelei. I fought him, but he was well-prepared. We were forced to flee. We've spent the last 48 hours returning to Earth."

"And you came here why?" Logan's voice held no expression at all. He seemed very calm, but the X-Men knew that actually meant that he was ready to spring into action at any instant.

"I propose that we join forces. Nimrod is a threat to us all. He must be eliminated."

Scott had been thinking. "He's setting up a trap, of course. It's actually a clever move. The last time we faced him, we might have been in real trouble if Fortress here hadn't shown up. At Asteroid M, there's little chance of another stranger stopping by."

"He also has access to all Magneto's technology and a great supply of raw materials," Shadowcat broke in. "He's going to be building more Sentinels."

"Then it is even more imperative that we cooperate. We cannot afford him the opportunity to create more like himself." Magneto paused. "You seem to know more about Nimrod than I would have expected. Where is he from? Who built him?"

There was an awkward pause. Then Rachel stepped forward. "I suppose I should answer that. Nimrod will be built about 30 years in the future." She wished the X-Men weren't so hostile; in her time Magneto had been a hero, working with the X-Men to fight the Sentinels.

Magneto absorbed this for a moment. "And you know this because..."

"He followed me here."

"I see." He thought quickly. "Tell us about him. What kind of future would build such a monstrosity?"

"I can do better than that. I can show you." She concentrated, then began broadcasting an edited version of her memories. The Mutant Registration Act. The Mutant Control Provisions. Sentinels in every city. And, later, the hunts, the camps, the mass graves...

Greg was unpleasantly surprised to find that Rachel was a telepath, but that was dwarfed by his revulsion at the images she showed them. The other X-Men had seen it before; that only helped a little. There was a ghastly pause when she'd finished.

"Oh my God." Fortress was leaning against the wall, slowly sliding down to a crouch. "Oh my God..."

Toad was hunched over, trying not to vomit. Magneto looked very tired. "Not again," he murmured.

Things went swiftly after that. Everyone agreed, however grudgingly, that Nimrod had to be stopped, and stopped now. He would be expecting them; well, they would have to deal with that.

They began to formulate a plan. "How can we punch his ticket?" Rogue asked. "Ah smashed him to bits once, and he re-formed in front of me. We need somethin' that'll stop him permanently."

"Well, how did he do that? Can we interfere with that in some way?" Peter asked.

"Shadowcat believes that he can maintain his consciousness even if he's destroyed, apparently in some energy-based form." Xavier noted.

"How good is that guess?" Scott demanded.

"Pretty solid." she replied. "The only other way I can think of to do it would be nanotechnology. Rachel's pretty sure that they didn't have that kind of tech when they built him. I'm inclined to agree; he'd be even nastier if he did." Toad and Unus tried to imagine something worse than the horror they'd faced, and couldn't.

"If it is indeed energy-based, I can destroy it," Magneto stated confidently. Given his powers, no one had any objection.

"So all we gotta do is smash him to kingdom come, and Maggie can toast him. But who's gonna bell the cat?" Logan looked around the room. "I mean, none of us did so well against him, the way he is now. And we gotta assume that there will be more of his super-Sentinels around."

"We may be able to even the odds a bit." Kitty was thoughtful. She had Xavier call down Doug Ramsey, the newest New Mutant. His power wasn't terribly useful in combat - he instinctively, intuitively understood languages and communication.

However, he was extremely useful in other ways. Professor Xavier had written several books; his publishers were desperate to find out who his new contract lawyer was. The ACLU had received several anonymous, amazingly valuable briefs helping them in some mutant-related cases.

Doug was also a computer programmer, in the same way that Einstein was a physicist and Picasso was a painter. He practically redefined the topic. He could do more in 10K of BASIC than most professional programming teams could do in a megabyte of assembly.

He talked with Magneto for about fifteen minutes, learning about the systems on the station. He thought a bit, then proposed a series of four viruses that worked in synergy with each other. No one could really follow his explanation, but he was sure he could write them by morning.

"I don't think Nimrod could have completely rebuilt the station yet. He must still be using at least some of the original systems. These viruses will infect those systems, and if he's interfaced with them at all, they'll infect him."

"How sure are you that this will work?" Storm was ever practical in situations like this.

"Obviously I can't be completely sure, but they're based on some very different principles than most viruses. I have some vague ideas for ways to stop this kind of virus, but it'd take me months, at least, to implement them. I can't imagine even Nimrod could come up with that kind of response on the spot."

"If he can, we're screwed anyway." Rogue's appraisal was honest, if disheartening.

"How are we going to get there?" Greg broke in. "We don't have a lot of time to waste, and this place sounds like it's over a light-second away. That ship we saw outside won't hold all of us."

"Who said you're going?" Kurt interposed. "I'm sorry, but you are far too inexperienced for a mission like this."

Scott and Storm agreed. "You're not an X-Man yet," Scott said.

"You've only been trainin' for a few days," Rogue told him, apologetically.

Greg glared at them. "If you think I'm going to stay here, after seeing that future, you'd better think again. I did just fine last time. You said yourself that I helped a lot."

"That's one of the reasons you're not going; he's seen you in action, and he'll have something prepared to fight you." Rachel said gently.

"That's bullshit. The same goes for all of you. You need all the help you can get, and you know it. Hell, Storm doesn't even have her powers anymore."

No one really had an objection to that. Rogue really wished she could come up with one, though.

Nimrod was pleased. Or, rather, he was not aware of any significant problems and indications were favorable for achieving his objectives.

He had undertaken an extensive self-analysis, and had almost succeeded in eliminating the emotional responses he'd been experiencing. They were too much of a risk. Emotions bred carelessness; carelessness bred mistakes.

Production of Sentinels was proceeding apace; shortly there would be dozens. The ore of the asteroid was, as anticipated, rich with raw materials. In the next battle, his forces would not be outnumbered. He reviewed his calculations again. Magneto would almost certainly have contacted the X-Men by this point, to a probability of 97.8123%.

The mutants would be attacking in the range of two (43.8721%) to five (15.1498%) days. There were many traps to prepare...


Continued in Chapter Ten


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