Title: Portraits in a Gallery:
I Took His *Bleep*ing Head Off
Marie awoke with a start, sure at first that she was having a nightmare. It was, to be fair, an awful lot like the nightmares she normally had – she was being hefted up by an impossibly strong, well-covered and masked Sabretooth, and unceremoniously carted off. But she quickly realized that her nightmares didn't usually include a drowsing Logan, or her half-naked form being wrapped up in a sheet. Just as she woke enough to scream, she felt a strong, gloved hand close over her mouth.
"Shut up," Sabretooth's voice instructed her. And it was unmistakably *his* voice – that, she would never get out of her head. "Or I'll hafta hurt ya."
Something in Marie snapped – she went straight to sheer, blind terror in nothing flat and began kicking and struggling wildly in his grasp. Her mind kept insisting that it couldn't be him – she'd killed him, of that she'd been certain. But her panic was more convincing than any remnants of logic – somehow, he'd lived, somehow, he'd found her here and he would take her away and rape her, then kill her, and all of it in the most gruesome way his sickly inventive mind could devise. All of that, just when she'd found Logan, just when they'd shared some intimacy together, was too much. Marie let the terror take over and silenced her rational mind for good. She began struggling wildly against him, more out of irrational panic than any plan or effort to get away.
Luckily, her flailing legs kicked the door frame, hard, finally waking Logan out of his deep slumber. He blinked open his eyes just in time to see her bare foot wiggle in mid-air before being yanked out of view. He blinked once more, took a breath so filled with Marie-fear that it nearly choked him, then sprang out of bed, his claws extending.
He emerged into the hall just in time to see Marie frantically squirming in the grasp of a black-suited, hulking man that was unmistakably Sabretooth. That was all it took to bring out the savage in him. He sprang, calculating the correct angle and speed with sheer predatory instinct, and neatly severed Sabretooth's head from his body with one lightning swipe, leaving not so much as a nick on Marie in the process.
Marie seemingly didn't notice – she was still thrashing to be free of Sabretooth's body, even as it fell away from his severed, masked head. When the body's muscles relaxed, and Marie's mouth was freed, she began screaming, in a sharp, full-throated, unending wail.
"Marie!" Logan called, kicking away the head as he rushed to her side. "Marie!" She didn't stop screaming and barely seemed to notice Sabretooth had been slaughtered, or that Logan was in front of her. Quickly disentangling her from the lifeless body, Logan grasped Marie by the shoulders. "Marie!"
"No! No! No!!"
Logan took a breath – at least that was a word, not a mindless scream. That was progress. "Marie, are you all right? It's me, it's Logan. Marie!"
"No! No! NO!!"
Logan frowned, catching the scent of Hank moving towards the hall and of Jean, heading up the stairs. "Marie, it's me, it's Logan. You're OK. I killed him."
"Noooooo…….." The screams were transforming into sobs. "Nooooo…….."
Hank flung the door open, clothed only in boxers. "Is everything all – oh, dear." The blue-furred mutant pinched his lips together to keep from throwing up at the sight of the gore-filled hallway. "Good Heavens…….."
"Shh, darlin', it's OK. I got him. I got him for good this time. It's OK, it's OK, baby." Logan preemptively addressed Jean as soon as she appeared at the top of the stairs. "Sabretooth. I got him. He attacked us." Logan didn't want to divulge that Sabretooth had come for Marie – no one needed to know they had a past or were connected in any way.
"Are you sure he's – "
"I took his fuckin' head off."
"Oh." Jean took a step or two closer, peering down at the severed head. "Logan – are you sure it's him? This doesn't look like him."
"Yeah, I'm sure it's him, I – " He cut himself off, and took a sniff. He didn't smell Sabretooth's distinctive scent, but that might just be because of all the blood. "Take that mask off," Logan instructed, gripping Marie tighter and turning her away from the gory scene.
Jean did as Logan asked, and everyone standing in the hallway gasped. It wasn't Sabretooth under that mask, not even close - just a regular-looking man in his mid-thirties, sporting a military-style crew-cut and some mild five-o-clock shadow – a far cry from the hirsute, bestial mutant they'd been certain they'd seen only moments ago. "You mistook this guy for Sabretooth?" Jean inquired, with obvious skepticism.
"Wait a moment," Hank interjected before Logan could respond. Still covering his mouth with one hand just in case, he leaned down to the motionless body and pointed a clawed finger at a small box attached to the belt of the attacker. "What is this?" Getting only shrugs and questioning looks in response, Hank gingerly detached the device. While he did, Logan took a good, long look at the body. It still looked remarkably like Sabretooth's – muscular, thick, strong, and in just the proportions Logan remembered Creed as having. Moreover, there was blonde hair/fur poking up from the collar, a trait that, despite being masked by all the gore, was distinctively Sabretooth's. How was it that the head and body didn't match? "This – this appears to be some kind of – it is generating a field of some kind of – "
"Oh good God!" Jean gasped, eyes riveted to Hank.
Hank looked cluelessly at her. "What?"
"Holy shit," Logan whistled, struggling to suppress his 'attack' reaction at the sight before him. Somehow, holding that device made Hank look like Sabretooth. *Just* like him. Logan held onto a still-whimpering Marie with a death grip. She couldn't see this. "Hank – go look in the mirror, wouldya?" Hank dutifully trotted to the hall mirror and gave out a gasp of his own.
"Oh my heavens! Where did I go?" He looked back to Logan and then to Jean, before slowly setting the small metal box that had somehow converted him into Marie's attacker on the hall table. As soon as physical contact was broken, the mirage ended; Hank was back to his normal, blue-furred self. He glanced up in the mirror again. "Astonishing."
"Well, I guess that explains a lot," Jean said dryly. "But why would someone want to appear to be Sabretooth?" Logan noticed Hank glance at him and steadied himself, not wanting to return the glance and give anything away. "And how does that – that – whatever it is work?"
"I should very much like to find that out," Hank intoned. "I know I have not received a proper tour of your scientific facilities, but would you mind very much if I – "
"Not at all," Jean interrupted. "I'll show you around. Why don't you, ah, get dressed first, and Logan and I will clean up this mess. I've already sent a telepathic message to the Professor letting him know the situation, and to the students, asking them to remain in their rooms." Hank nodded, and, with a meaningful glance at Logan and Marie, disappeared back into his room.
"Jeannie," Logan said softly, "Can I ask you to take care of this? Marie – he scared the shit outta her." She looked as though she was about to bite out a harsh response, so Logan added, "I gotta take care of her first. If you want my help you're gonna hafta wait a while."
"No, don't bother," Jean said tightly. "After all, I'm used to cleaning up your messes." Logan frowned, but scooped Marie up in his arms and carried her back into their room.
After about twenty minutes, Marie was finally beginning to pull out of sheer, blind, panic. She was clinging to Logan for dear life, and he was murmuring what he hoped were soothing things – namely, that he'd killed the fucker who'd had the audacity to pull her from his bed and that it hadn't really been Sabretooth, that he was still as dead as the proverbial doornail.
"And I swear, Marie, nobody's gonna take you from me. Nobody. Not ever. Anybody who tries is gonna end up just like that son of a bitch – dead. Nobody is gonna ever take you from me."
"Promise?" she whispered. It was the first coherent word she'd spoken. Logan replied immediately.
"Promise. I'll take care of you." He gave her a squeeze, then parted from her a bit to get a good look at her face. "You OK?"
Marie nodded. "It wasn't really him?"
"Yeah. And whoever thought it might be some kinda fun trick to walk in here lookin' like him died before he got ten steps away with ya." She nodded again. "You're OK. He didn't hurt ya. Lemme get you in the shower and get you cleaned up, OK?"
Marie's eyes flitted downward to her blood-covered, half-naked, sheet-entangled body. She gave out with a half-laughing-hiccup, half-sob. "God, I look awful."
"You're OK. But I'll feel better once the blood is offa you," Logan replied, picking her up and carrying her toward the bathroom.
"Did everyone see my naked parts?"
"Just Hank. And Jeannie." Logan set her down on the toilet seat and ran the water. "The sheet mostly covered you." Her nose crinkled. She minded Hank seeing her naked much less than Jean for some reason. "You're OK," Logan reassured again, causing Marie to blink and finally come fully back to herself.
"Oh, God, I totally fell apart, didn't I?"
"Nah. You were fightin' him good. I just got to him first." And thank God, Logan added silently. He didn't want Marie to have to use her skin against anyone.
"No – I mean – the crying and – and the screaming and – I just – I lost it, I – "
"Marie, you listen to me," Logan said quietly, taking her hand in his gloved one. "You did just fine. I know how scared you were and you did good. You didn't freeze. You fought him. You did good, and you're OK now." Logan was well aware that she'd just lived out her worst nightmare, and, all things considered, she *was* coping well. At least she was talking now.
"But I freaked out."
"No, you – "
"I freaked out. He had me – he had me and I knew what he wanted to do with me and the thought of having to – to go through that after you and I just – just – "
"Shhh." Logan hugged her to him, encouraging her to lay her head on his shoulder. "Hey - nobody's gonna getcha, Marie. Not while I got a breath in me. Sabretooth is dead – he's dead 'cause you were strong enough to take him down. But you don't hafta be strong all by yourself now. You got me, and I'm gonna stick up for you. Nobody's gonna take you from me. Don't even give that a thought. Not one more thought. You're OK, you're safe – and that's 'cause *you* fought him and 'cause *I* protect what's mine. We're gonna figure out who he was and what the hell he was up to. Hank's already workin' on findin' out how he made himself look like Sabretooth. We're gonna figure it out, and once we do, we're gonna take care of it."
Marie picked her head up to look at him. "Thanks." There was a world of emotion in that simple word, but Logan liked the plain affection he saw in her eyes the best.
"Welcome. Now c'mon. Let's shower you." She gave him a shaky smile, and began taking her blood-stained clothes off.
"Image inducer?" Jean queried. She'd taken care of the body, washed up, and checked on Scott before checking in with their newest arrival to see if he'd found out anything about the mystery device the attacker had been wearing. Apparently, he'd already figured out what it was, and something about how it worked, in the four hours she'd taken to complete her tasks.
"Yes," Hank replied. "It generates a projected, three-dimensional image that completely conceals the person beneath the projection. I am still working out the 'how' of it, but I believe that it employs a very unstable gaseous compound and some delicate circuitry to do so. The projected image would not be lasting; in fact, at twenty-six minutes into my experimentation, the projected image of Sabretooth began to become wavy and transparent in spots, and at twenty-nine minutes it ceased projecting altogether. Fascinating device, though – and it even seems to follow minute facial and body movements. Truly amazing."
"Do you think you can fix it?" Hank gave her a look. "It could be very useful to us, to the team."
He nodded. "I confess – I had already thought of the practical applications that might be personally useful to me. If I could project a normal, human image for even a small length of time…….."
"I hadn't thought of that, but you're right. It would – it would enable you to move around in public more easily I suppose." Jean tried to pick the right words so as not to offend him, but she fumbled a bit, and Hank's micro-frown told her she hadn't entirely succeeded. Mindful of how much Charles wanted their new recruit to stay on, she tried again. "I'm sure it's been very hard for you. Kurt – he's had similar problems because of his appearance. And I'm not saying that I think you should change how you look, but – but I can imagine your not wanting the hassle of dealing with it in public sometimes. Here, it's different. Here, you're, ah, just fine."
"Ah, yes." Hank wasn't quite sure what else to say. It was hard to read the intent behind Jean's words. "Well, I shall get back to work on it, then, and see if I can get it functioning again. Was there – are there any clues as to who that man was?"
Jean pursed her lips. "Kitty ran him through our database of known FOH members and known Brotherhood and came up empty." She recalled with a crinkled nose that the girl had e-mailed her that information instead of telling her personally. Jean supposed she intimidated Kitty, because of the whole Scott thing and how horribly Kitty must've fared in comparison to her, but that was no reason to go out of one's way to avoid talking in person. Jean really didn't understand why Charles had chosen her for the job in the first place. Sure Kitty had some computer skills, but anyone could work a mouse. "She's trying to find some government files now, to see if there's any information in that sector."
Hank nodded, gave her a tight smile, and turned back to his work. Jean wasn't entirely satisfied with how things had gone and felt compelled to add, "You know, we – we're very happy to have you here. You've helped us so much in just the short time you've been here – we're just glad to have you." Hank smiled politely and Jean felt a little better. She headed back to the medlab, and Scott.
Both Logan and Marie were faring better after the shower. He'd settled her into bed and instructed her to stay put while he took care of their ruined clothes and the bloody sheet. When he was finally ready to join her, he was struck by how tiny she looked all of a sudden, and how frail. Her wet hair, combed back but plastered to her head pretty closely, and her small form buried beneath thick covers made her seem almost helpless. But then he caught her eyes. They were steady, and her mouth was firmly set. She was doing whatever she needed to, internally, to get herself back together. That was her true power, in Logan's estimation – the ability not only to survive some God-awful things, but also to put herself back together afterward. Seemingly nothing broke her spirit. Logan's lips worked themselves into an affectionate and appreciative smile. He really was damn lucky to have found her. "Feelin' better?"
Marie nodded, and wiggled a hand out from beneath the covers, extending it to him. "Sit with me for a while?"
"Sure thing, darlin'." He settled in beside her, getting beneath some of the covers but keeping a layer of blankets between them. He'd put her in the bed nearly naked – she was only wearing a tank top and a pair of his boxers. The necessary barrier didn't stop him from putting an arm around her and drawing her as close as possible. "They're workin' on it. I checked in on the brain phone with Chuck - Hank's figurin' out the device, they're tryin' to find out who the guy was. We'll work it all out." Logan recalled with a smirk that Chuck had chastised him about clawing first and thinking later – if he'd left the intruder alive, they could've questioned him. Logan's mental response – Goddammit, I killed that guy, and that's all there is to it – was less than contrite. Still, Logan knew that on some level Chuck understood. The man had attacked Marie, and that had inevitably prompted a swift and severe reaction; Xavier had seen a lesser version of it happen in battle before, when one of Logan's fellow X-Men were threatened. Marie had been right – even the ones he didn't care for, he protected as his own. She brought that same reaction out in him, only a thousand times more strongly.
"Good," Marie murmured, sinking into his embrace.
"You're gonna be safe here."
"I feel safe with you." Logan smiled at that and kissed her head.
"Well, I am pretty impressive," he flirted, glad that it got a chuckle from her. He let them both enjoy the moment before exchanging the light mood for something more serious. "You know - you're pretty impressive too, darlin'. I'm proud of you, proud of how you did back there. You fought him. You got through it OK."
"I – I just panicked. I fought because I was in total panic."
"Most people freeze," Logan countered gently. "You didn't. Deep down, even when all the rational functions shut off, even when your animal brain took over, you fought him. Takes guts, darlin'."
"Do you really think so?" He knew by her tone that she was utterly serious.
"Yep." Marie squeezed him. "Tell me somethin' – whaddya need right now?" He remembered well their talk about Marie wishing for him after she'd escaped from Sabretooth. Now that he was here for her, he wanted to be sure to give her exactly what she needed.
"This," Marie sighed, leaning in to him and holding on tight. Logan nodded, and held on to her.
Kitty reported to the Professor's office as soon as she found something, as Xavier had instructed her. It had taken hours and hours, but she'd gotten to the bottom of who their mystery man was. Jeremy Rogers, Marine Corps Colonel. Well, former Colonel – he'd been discharged, not honorably, a few years ago. Kitty hadn't found much concrete information beyond that, but she had a few theories. She wondered if that's what the Professor wanted to hear, or if he just wanted the facts. Not being on the team, she wasn't sure how these things went.
"Come in, Katherine." Xavier's soft voice broke her reverie. She entered to find him seated behind the desk, with Storm seated on his right. Kitty had expected Scott, but of course, he was still laid up in the medlab. It looked like Storm would be his replacement for the duration. "Please, sit down."
She did as requested, and waited for one of them to speak first. To be honest, the weather goddess had always intimidated her a bit – Ororo was always so serene, so sure of herself. That, plus the fact that she was Jean's best friend, made for a hovering unease whenever Kitty found herself in close quarters with 'Ro. The Professor broke the brief silence.
"Thank you for coming. As you may know, I have asked Storm to fill in for Cyclops while he is recuperating." Kitty watched a small frown flash across Ororo's face at that, and it confused her. She'd have thought that 'Ro would be thrilled at the chance to lead the team for a while – who wouldn't be? "Storm and I will be assessing the situation, using in part the information you have come to deliver. We will then select a course of action, and inform Cyclops, Wolverine, and the rest of the team. Until we have done so, I expect you to keep whatever information you have found confidential, except as I may direct you to share it. Understood?"
Kitty nodded. The Professor's use of codenames hadn't been lost on her. This was a serious situation. "Yes, Professor."
"Very good. Now – what have you found?"
Kitty took a deep breath, then leaned forward to present the Professor with the photo she'd downloaded from the military files. "This is our intruder, Colonel Jeremy Rogers, U.S. Marines. Thirty-nine years old, single, twelve years of service before he was discharged four years ago." Xavier perused the photo a bit and then handed it over to Ororo while Kitty continued. "His service record is very confidential – I couldn't get to all of it. From what I did find, I can tell you that he's no ordinary Colonel. He's got doctoral degrees in advanced mathematics, physics, and EE."
"EE?" Storm interrupted.
"Electrical engineering." After receiving a nod from the weather goddess, Kitty continued. "He wasn't just a military egghead, though – his record shows more than a few combat missions, including one with the U.N. force in Colombia right before the, ah, change of government there." Xavier's eyes darkened at that. It was well-known that the Columbian government had harbored a secret mutant experimentation facility for many years. About five years ago, Amnesty International had exposed the tortures, and, subsequently, the United Nations had intervened. There was mixed feeling among the human troops sent in –some didn't bother to hide their approval of the outright mutant extermination they'd found. If Rogers had been discharged right after his experience in Colombia………. "His record says he raided labs, and tracked down the mutant capture squads. Apparently, he was very good at it – he was awarded several medals. I've summarized and printed out what I did find in his service record. After his dishonorable discharge – "
"What was the cause of his discharge?" Storm queried.
"We don't know. From the context of the – well, the non-record, actually, I'd guess it had something to do with stealing military technology. His last assignment, the one right after Colombia, was at Los Alamos. The record wasn't specific about what he was doing there, and if I had to make a guess, I'd say he tried to walk off with something he shouldn't have."
"You don't think he merely saw or heard something beyond his clearance level, or disagreed with his superiors?"
"No," Kitty answered with a little hesitation. "If he'd seen or heard something he *really* shouldn't have, he'd be in a military prison, not discharged. They wouldn't take a chance by letting him run around free. If it was a simple disagreement with superiors, they would've found a way to work it out – this guy's a genius, and a real combat soldier. They'd have wanted to keep him unless they thought he was totally unreliable or couldn't be trusted. I just – that's just my guess, though. I mean, don't rule anything in or out by what I think." Xavier and Storm exchanged a look.
"Was there any information about what he's done since the discharge?" the Professor asked.
"There was nothing in the record except two minor traffic citations in British Columbia."
"He was in Canada?"
"Yes. One ticket was two years ago, the other last year. Nothing major – speeding - he was going 120 kilometers in an 80 kilometer zone - and parking in front of a fire hydrant."
Xavier leaned forward. "How did you find information that specific?"
"I'm good," Kitty blurted out, before she could catch herself. "Um, I mean – "
"No, no," Xavier interrupted with a small smile. "Do not take it back. I am not inclined to disagree." Xavier's smile widened when he saw Kitty let out a sigh of relief. "Is there anything else of importance?"
"Nothing that's not on the printout. I'll be around studying for my exam, so just let me know if you have any questions about what's on there."
"Thank you, Katherine. May I ask you for one more favor before you take your leave?" Kitty nodded. "Please relay this information in summary to Mr. McCoy. It may trigger some ideas while he is working on the device."
"Professor – can I ask – just what kind of device did they find on this guy?" Xavier traded another look with Storm, and this time, it was she who answered.
"They found a device which altered his appearance to make him look like Sabretooth." Kitty's eyes went wide. "Please keep that bit of information to yourself."
"Yes. Yes. Of course. I – um, I'll go tell Hank now."
"Thank you," Xavier repeated as she rose from her seat. "And Katherine – you may want to think about a codename."
"A – a codename?" she asked, freezing in mid-stand-up.
"Yes, since you will be assisting the team."
"If you do not mind, of course." Kitty just stared at Xavier, so he prompted. "Would you mind if we were to prevail upon your computer skills again, if necessary?"
"No. No. Not at all. No." She finally finished standing up, and seemed to gather herself a bit. "I'm very grateful for a chance to do something to pay you back, Professor. You've done a lot for me, and I'll – it will be my pleasure to help out however I can."
"Very good. I shall let you know if we need your help." They exchanged nods, and Kitty left. Charles turned to his new team leader. "There are several possibilities that spring to mind, but I can think of two that seem likely, given the scenario."
Storm nodded. "It seems that he learned some lessons from the Columbians about how to best capture and experiment on mutants, and perhaps tried to carry them out in Los Alamos. I would not be surprised if he attempted to marry mutant abilities with technology available only to the military. Which means that our two likely possibilities are that he has been capturing mutants for experimentation on behalf of the U.S. government, and the dishonorable discharge is a facade, a way to provide plausible public deniability, or that he really has been booted out of the military and is capturing mutants for the use of some other interested entity – perhaps the Canadian government, perhaps the FOH, perhaps someone we are not yet aware of."
Charles nodded. "We must find out which. And we must do so quickly. I will contact some of my connections to see if I can build upon Kitty's information. I will call you when I have something. Thank you, Storm."
"Thank you, Professor," she replied, taking her leave. Charles watched her go, then picked up the phone.