Title: Portraits in a Gallery: Revelations
"Well, thank you, Ororo, for your report." Charles leaned back in his chair and smiled at the African goddess he'd rescued from the streets of Cairo so many years ago. She'd skirted the issue of why she and Scott hadn't been in to debrief him last night, and she was now side-stepping why he wasn't here at the moment. Charles admired her discretion, but he already knew well that Scott was in quite a bit of turmoil. His chosen team leader had always been a strong projector, and that was, in part, why Scott had been selected – Charles could easily read from him, even at quite some distance. However, he did not, of course, pry into what the exact cause of Scott's distress was. He knew that in time, Scott would come to speak with him about it himself, and if Charles had learned anything about raising teenagers and dealing with young, headstrong adults, it was to let them do things in their own time and in their own fashion whenever possible.
"You are quite welcome," Ororo answered, with a warm smile. Charles chastised himself for taking a moment to bask in it. He hoped he at least hid his reaction well – he knew that Ororo thought of him as a father figure, as a savior. His own predilections for lush-bodied, serene women would not mesh with what she needed from him. Still, even if it was only within the confines of his own powerful psyche, Charles occasionally indulged in moments of uninhibited enjoyment of her warmth and attention. He tried not to feel guilty about that – and he tried not to remember that he'd had the same feelings ever since he met the weather goddess all those years ago, although his lips did occasionally curl into a smile when he contemplated what the reaction among his students and colleagues might be if he had pursued the then-seventeen-year-old beauty. "I shall do as you have suggested and check in with the family again at the end of the month. I hope we will be able to bring the child here."
"Indeed." Charles wheeled around his desk, coming to a stop next to where Ororo was seated. "Tell me, Storm – " Using her codename helped to remind him of what their relative positions were, and to disperse some of those warm, fuzzy feelings. " – when Logan found out about this connection to his past, when he found out about this artist, Marie, what was his reaction?"
'Ro nodded, seemingly expecting the question. "I believe he was pleased, after the initial shock wore off. He was, of course, quite private about the entire matter."
"Did you meet the woman in question?"
"No, but I have seen her paintings – quite moving work. And most feature Logan in one fashion or another. Some show him in scenes with which I am unfamiliar, and I wonder if perhaps these are scenes from his life before he came to us. I wonder if Marie made some kind of psychic connection, some kind of link to him when they met, before."
Charles leaned forward. "Are you saying that you think Marie might be a mutant, another telepath?"
"It is one possibility," Ororo allowed, mirroring Charles' actions. "You mentioned that Logan is bringing her here, so I suppose that we will know soon enough." Charles indulged in an unabashed smile, and Ororo again copied him. "You know, Logan's oft-repeated analogy is quite apt – you are like a child in a candy store, Charles." Her voice was soft, and held hints of the earthy warmth infused in her both by her mutation and her upbringing. Charles found himself holding her eyes, and he caught himself just before reaching out to hold her hand.
"I cannot help my enthusiasm." He said, backing away with his body but not moving the chair. "It is my life, helping people like us."
"And what a wonderful thing that is. You saved me, Charles," Ororo purred, "and for that I can never thank you enough. I am ever more impressed by you the more I get to know you."
"You have known me long, and well, Ororo."
"Not as well as I should like," she smiled, and for a moment, Charles could've sworn she was flirting with him. But then he realized that no, it must be some of the irrepressible spirit she has always had, the spirit he recognized and cherished, even as she picked his pocket on the Cairo streets. Mentally, he chuckled. He could still see her throw her shoulders back, widen her eyes, and affect her best regal bearing when he tracked her down and confronted her. "Have a good day. I shall be around the mansion should you need me." She gave his hand a gentle squeeze, and took her leave.
Logan came around the corner on a two-lane stretch of the trans-Canada highway in very good spirits. He, Marie, and Hank had been joking and laughing all morning long, and Marie seemed to positively beam at his attentions. All in all, life was good. It figured, then, that something had to go wrong soon. When he rounded the corner, he found out what it was - there was a fallen tree across the road, blocking their path and obstructing both lanes. "Aw, dammit. Wouldya look at that?" He brought the SUV to a halt just a few feet from the fallen tree.
"Oh, my," Hank put in. "I do not think we will be able to move it. It must be – it must be thirty feet tall. It must weigh tons."
"Can we go around it, maybe on the shoulder?" Marie peered around, seeing the answer to her question – the driver's side of the road fell off into a deep cliff just past the obstructed road, with only a half-lane shoulder unfettered by tree branches. The other side shot upward, forming a steep hill. "Never mind," she concluded before Logan or Hank could offer an answer.
"Bet we can move it if I cut it up some first." Getting nods from the other SUV occupants and a non-committal meow from Binky, Logan opened the car door. "Ready to play lumberjack, Hank?"
Hank let out a low chuckle, and it was the last thing Logan heard before everything went black. He barely registered a blow to his left temple from something very big and very strong, before he went down. Marie had turned away to unbuckle her seat belt, and had missed the attack, but Hank's gasp and Binky's screech brought her attention back to Logan's open car door. "Logan?"
"B-b-bear!" Hank sputtered, identifying Logan's assailant. But just as soon as he had, the bear began melting, changing. Before Hank knew it, the super-sized grizzly that had felled Logan had morphed into a blue-skinned, red-haired, nearly naked woman.
"You – get out of the car," the blue woman commanded. Hank was entirely too shocked to move, and Marie seemed the same. "Do you not speak English?" the woman impatiently scorned. "You. Out. Now!"
Her clipped tone finally shook Marie out of her thoughts. She stayed Hank's move toward compliance with a firm arm. "He's not going anywhere," Marie answered, meeting the woman's flashing yellow eyes. "Stay in the car, Hank." She began slowly stripping off her gloves, readying for a fight even though she had no idea who this woman was.
In response, the woman twisted her features into a sour grin. "You, my dear finger painter, are absolutely the *last* person who should be testing my patience," she hissed. "You won't be going anywhere, I can guarantee you that." She turned her attention back to Hank. "And you – you can come out the easy way, or the difficult way. If you are anywhere near as smart as the rumors say, you know which one to choose."
"Who are you?" Hank sputtered. Marie wasn't waiting for the woman to answer or to make the next move. She found the seat belt latch and ejected herself from the car. Any answer that the woman might've made to Hank's question was lost as she turned her attention to Marie's movement. The blue-skinned red-head stilled herself for a moment, then melted into something new. Marie, for her part, was not watching the incredible transformation that the woman was making – she was most concerned about Logan, and as she rounded the hood of the SUV, her eyes searched incessantly for only his prone form. Just as she caught sight of him and the realization that he was moving a bit, and ergo, still alive, hit her, she was stricken with a claw-swipe from her left. This time, though, it hadn't come from a bear.
Somewhere, and it seemed very far away at the moment, Marie heard Hank's belated cry of warning and Binky's hiss. Somewhere, she heard the rustlings of Logan's movement, and the humming of the car's engine. But all those things faded ever-further into the recesses of her consciousness, mercilessly shoved aside by the thing now towering over her. It was definitely no mere bear, something Marie was well aware was quite dangerous, and clawed, but which had existed solely in her distant childhood memories and the occasional exotic nature special for her up until a few moments ago. No, Marie knew this shape, this beast, personally and all too well. In fact, it appeared in her every nightmare.
"Remember me?" it growled, bending down to pick Marie up and fling her back over the car's hood and onto the root ball of the fallen tree. "You didn't think you got rid of me, did you, now?"
Marie froze. She absolutely froze. He was advancing on her, *him*, and all of her worst nightmares were coming to vivid life. She couldn't even move to close her eyes, much less run. That made it worse than her worst nightmares – at least in those, she struggled, she tried to escape. Now, she just lay on the ground, motionless. But just when the leering beast shuffled his huge frame to a halt at Marie's feet, she registered a God-awful screech from somewhere behind it through her panicked haze. Still, that didn't quite un-freeze Marie, but it did send the beast into a bit of a frenzy – the screech had come from a galloping, jumping Binky, who had flung himself at the thing's head, paws and claws first, much in the same way he'd once assaulted Marie's Christmas tree. Only this time, the beast made much more of a protest than the tree ever had.
It whirled, and fumbled to grasp the tiny cat for a few moments before one of its claws sunk home into Binky's fur and flesh. With a horribly pained yowl, the cat let go. It wasn't much – he'd inflicted a few nasty scratches on the thing that had been attacking his owner – but it was enough to finally move Marie to action. She scrambled to her feet and to press the advantage the tiny cat had given her.
As the beast forgot about Binky and turned to face her, a leer once again lit its face. It swiped up a droplet of its own blood with one finger, and ran it across its lips. "Mmmm. Tasty, but not as good as yours," it growled menacingly. Marie shuddered, but stood her ground, reaching out with one small, bare ivory hand toward the monolithic thing from her nightmares.
"Stay away," she commanded with entirely more bravado than she felt. "Leave. You just leave me alone."
The beast glared back, and laughed exactly as he did in her dreams and memories. Marie willed herself not to fall back into hysteria, though, and the sight of Hank in the corner of her eye, stealthily circling around to come up behind the beast, bolstered her resolve. She didn't look at Hank or give his movement away with her expression; Marie kept her eyes locked on the beast. Maybe Hank would be able to give her another opening. She wasn't at all sure she wanted to use her skin on this – this *thing* but the other options were even more unattractive. She wasn't going to let it hurt her, not again, and she wasn't going to let it take Hank, no matter how terrified she was.
"Leave you alone? I'll never leave you alone," it growled. "Not even death can keep me from you. You have to pay for what you did to me, frail," it sneered. "You have to pay in flesh and blood." With that, Hank leapt at the beast. He had the advantage of surprise, but it had the advantage of size, even over Hank, and more importantly, experience. As they rolled around in the middle of the road, and with no clear path for her to touch the beast, Marie chanced a quick look at Logan, who was now on his knees and rising, and at Binky, who had curled in on himself and was howling in pain. When she turned back to the fight, she saw the beast throwing Hank clear of itself, throwing him over the tree. Dammit, she thought. It stood, shook itself off, and turned toward her again with that sickening leer plastered all over its face. "Nice try," it commented, in a voice more civilized than Marie remembered or heard in her nightmares. "But no dice. Fun's over, frail," it snarled, advancing on Marie once again.
"Fun's just beginnin'," intoned a familiar and altogether more comforting growly voice from behind the beast. Logan was up, and had slashed at it with his claws as he spoke. Almost faster than Marie could see, the beast whirled, and engaged Logan. It was over quickly – not many people – man, beast, or mutant – were a match for six steel adamantium blades. But just when Logan was about to deliver the killing blow, the beast melted once again, this time taking the shape of a bird and flitting out of Logan's grasp. He futilely jumped in the air and swung his claws at it as it flew off. "Fuckin' nutjob!" he called after the bird. "You ain't gonna get the drop on me again, Mystique!" Logan turned his attention to Marie after one last glare at the departing avian-shaped creature. "You OK?" She nodded, but started shaking violently. "Marie?"
"That was him," she whispered. "That was him, the guy in my nightmares, the guy who – I – but I killed him, I know I did. I killed him."
"Sabretooth?" Logan's voice held shock and surprise, but no disbelief. It actually made a hell of a lot of sense to him – Sabretooth was capable of terrorizing someone badly enough to give them the kind of trauma Marie had shown, and her skin might just be the one thing in the world that could have put that bastard down. Logan remembered the strong jolt from just a fleeting brush against her – if she'd touched Sabretooth deliberately and held on long enough…..
"You know his name?" Marie asked breathlessly. A moan from Hank's direction shifted her attention away before Logan could answer, though. "Oh, Hank! Are you all right?" She was already rushing toward him, as was Logan, but Hank waved them off.
"I am unharmed," he assured them as he struggled to his feet. "Only bumps and bruises and a few quite superficial cuts. It was almost as though that thing did not wish to injure me, not mortally in any case. I – I apologize for not being able to – to – " The rest of Hank's intended apology was cut off when Marie flung herself against him and hugged him for all he was worth. Hank felt unprecedented shock at her physical display – it was nowhere near unusual given the situation and it wasn't at all overly-intimate, but if you were a blue-furred beast, any voluntary human contact, let alone an abandoned, rib-crunching hug, was cause for jaw-dropping surprise. "Ah. Yes. Um….."
"Mrrrroooooowww………." Binky's pitiful wail cut through the emotional moment. Marie exchanged a pained look with Hank before rushing to her injured animal's side. He lifted his head, just barely, to look at his owner. "Mmmmmrrrrrrwww…."
"Oh my God, look at you, kitty." Marie gently moved Binky's front paw to get a better look at his injuries. "There's a lot of blood," she reported, in a panicked tone. Hank and Logan were both kneeling at her side by then, taking their own look at the cat.
Logan began offering apologies. "I'm sorry, darlin', but it looks kinda bad. I dunno if – I dunno if we can help him."
Marie looked up at him with big, glistening brown eyes. "We have to. He – he jumped on that thing and saved me. He fought for me." Logan frowned; Marie's words had gotten to him. Sure, it was only a mangy cat, but it had been wounded in battle, and more than that, in battle on Marie's behalf. In Logan's book, you just didn't leave anyone – feline or otherwise – on the field after that. He huffed, thinking whether they could really chance a visit to a vet or animal hospital, now that the Brotherhood was obviously on to them.
"I may be able to help him, if we can get some supplies. Is there – I thought I saw a small first-aid kit in back." Marie nodded, and ran off to get it. Hank confided to Logan, "I have studied some veterinary texts along with my medical ones, since I appear to have some, ah, rather bestial qualities and since I have not had an opportunity to make a comprehensive self-study of my physiology since the, ah, transformation, I thought it best to err on the side of – "
"Here – here, Hank!" Marie shoved the first aid case into his hands. Hank nodded, and bent down to set to work on the cat. Logan took Marie's arm, wanting to gently lead her away from her fallen pet, but she resisted.
"I know it might be hard to look at," she whispered, doing a good imitation of reading Logan's mind, "but I want him to know I'm here with him." She got teary, and Logan let her go, giving her arm a parting squeeze.
"OK, darlin'. I'm gonna get us outta here and then call for some help, all right?" She didn't respond, so he set out to take care of the fallen tree, while Hank and Marie took care of the cat.
"Jean, Scott, Ororo, thank you for coming." Charles gave his customary pre-mission greeting with a little more haste and excitement than usual, and his audience was humming with anticipation as well. Both Scott and Jean looked considerably better than they had at breakfast. For Scott, putting on the uniform, the leather, had always had a steeling effect. All of his personal problems receded behind the mind-set of 'Battle Leader' that the X-Uniform drew so strongly to the surface in him. Similarly, Jean found suiting up to be galvanizing, steadying. In the uniform, she was Doctor Grey, a critical part of the team, not Jean, jilted lover. "I have just received a telepathic communication from Logan. I had asked him to escort a new mutant, one that may be very important to our cause, here, to the mansion. This mutant has a severe physical mutation. I am sharing this with you because I do not want you to be surprised or to have an adverse reaction when you first see him. He is covered from head to toe in blue fur and also has fangs and claws. His mutation, however, is not limited to his physical changes – he is important to us because he is also a super-genius." The team seemed to take the news with equanimity, even though it had to have come as quite a surprise to Scott and Ororo that Logan was on a mission, and that there was a new mutant they hadn't been informed of out there. Jean, for her part, gave nothing away that would indicate that she'd known anything more than her teammates did. Charles was proud of them all – they were well on their way to becoming the professional, elite unit that he'd worked so hard to mold them into. "In any case, it seems that Logan's progress eastward with this mutant, Henry McCoy, has been halted by an attack."
"Brotherhood or FOH?" Scott asked. He would've bet on the latter – if this guy was as physically mutated as the Professor said, he could see how that would attract the attention of the virulently mutant-hating group.
"Mystique," Charles intoned, and that drew a muffled gasp from all of them. She was one of the Brotherhood's most feared soldiers, behind only Magneto and Sabretooth. She'd bested the X-Men in battle on her own several times – she'd even managed to go toe-to-toe with Logan a time or two. They all knew the stakes were high – the new mutant that the Professor had spoken of would be in serious trouble if Mystique got to him first. Silently, Scott was thankful that it had been Logan with McCoy – he usually did the best against the shape-shifter, and, at least this time, he must've been able to fight her off. "Logan has requested that you rendezvous with him and I have sent the coordinates to the Blackbird's computer. Rendezvous will take place at eighteen hundred hours, local time. Subjects to be retrieved include Logan and McCoy, of course, but also a traveling companion who I am told is called Marie, and, ah, her cat, who has suffered an injury."
"We're picking up an injured cat?" Scott asked, with more than a little humor in his voice. He was surprised when he saw a small grin tug at the corner's of Jean's mouth. "Should we bring some Tender Vittles?"
Charles was sporting a grin of his own now. He'd always had an appreciation for Scott's ability to use wry humor to lift the gravity of the situation at times like these. He knew that it gave his teammates confidence – if Scott could make a joke, then it couldn't be the end of the world. He really was learning the nuances of command and leadership. "As long as it is not catnip," Charles returned in a rich, warm, voice. "You shall find the other specs in the plane. Good luck, X-Men, and keep in communication. Let me know as soon as you have secured McCoy."
Scott nodded, and led his team out.
Logan watched as Marie cradled her unconscious pet in her arms. Binky had passed out a few moments after Logan had finished clearing the tree away, and hadn't awakened yet. Hank had managed to patch the feline up reasonably well, all things considered, and they'd raced off to find a convenience store as soon as Logan had cleared the last branch away so that Hank could improvise some stitches with a needle and thread. While Marie was encouraged that Hank seemed to think that none of Binky's internal organs were damaged, just one major blood vessel, she was still worried that the cat remained out.
"They should be here in a coupla minutes. Scooter's usually on time."
"Do you think they'll be able to help Binky?" Marie asked, turning to look at Logan.
"Yeah, darlin'. The plane's got medical equipment like you wouldn't believe. Whatever they can do to help him, they will." He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and she smiled her thanks.
"Ah, Logan?" Hank asked. "You, ah, mentioned a little about the mansion and the plane, but may I ask about the people coming to retrieve us?" He didn't mean to be insensitive to Marie's concern for her pet, but he was curious and perhaps it would be a distraction for her.
"Sure. Probably will be Scooter flyin' the plane – Scott's his real name, Scott Summers. His codename is Cyclops 'cause – well, you'll see why." Noticing Hank's raised eyebrow, Logan elaborated, "They all got code names for when we do things like this. The Professor will probably send Storm – Ororo's her real name, and she's usually the co-pilot. Might send Jeannie 'cause of the cat." Now it was Marie's turn to give him a surprised expression. "She's, ah, she's my ex-girlfriend and also the team doc." He put a hand on Marie's leg, mostly to reassure himself, not her. Until now it hadn't dawned on him that Marie and Jean may not mix very well. It wasn't that he thought Marie had any jealousies; things were definitively over with Jean, and he was pretty sure that Marie knew that. But Marie hadn't been at all happy with his revelation that the relationship had ended because Jean had said some 'hard things' that couldn't be taken back. He remembered Marie's fierce look and protectiveness, and her emotional words about not letting those things Jean had said 'stick in his heart.' And he was beginning to realize that Marie was just as protective of him as he was of her; she wouldn't take kindly to anyone who she thought had hurt him. Logan mentally searched for something to say to make Marie understand that Jeannie had stung him, yes, but that she presented no further threat to him.
"What is Jeannie's code name?" Hank queried while Logan was thinking.
"Uh, just Jean. She never took a codename. Kinda likes to be known by her own name." Marie's eyes narrowed at that, but she said nothing. "She's a telepath. Telekentic, too."
"Logan, the mutant that attacked us, Mystique, she belongs to a different group, correct?"
Logan nodded, and kept his hand on Marie but turned to face Hank more squarely. "Yeah. The Brotherhood. Buncha assholes. Get off on mayhem. Terroristic kinda shit, mostly aimed at humans. My side, the X-Men, we fight 'em so they don't go 'round killin' everyone and rilin' up anti-mutant sentiments, so people can see we're all not like that."
"Is that what I will be expected to do as well, fight them?" Hank's voice was soft, and tempered with more than a little apprehension.
"No," Logan answered firmly. "Joinin' the X-Men team is voluntary. I'd be lyin' if I said that the Professor wouldn't try to recruit ya, that he won't probably wantcha to use that big brain of yours to help the team out, at least. But you'll have a place at the mansion regardless of whatcha decide, Hank." Hank still looked unsure, so Logan added, "Look, Chuck took me in and let me get on my feet before sayin' a damn thing 'bout the team. He won't push ya. He will ask, he will try to convince ya, but in the end it's your decision, and he'll respect that. He's a good guy, Hank. Yeah, he's gonna wantcha to consider bein' on the team, but he won't force it on ya."
Hank nodded, and some of the tension left him. But then, he asked, "Have you told them what I look like?"
"They knew. Chuck's been lookin' for ya. So has the Brotherhood." Hank was rocked back on his heels by that revelation, and a look of betrayal skittered across his face. "No, it wasn't like that. I wasn't sent to find ya; it was just an accident. Ask Marie if ya don't believe me. I never knew Chuck was lookin' for ya until I called in to say I'd metcha. He kept it close to the vest, probably 'cause – well, probably 'cause the truth is whichever side you pick gets a big advantage. You're a damn genius, Hank, and everybody has room in their ranks for one of those."
"But you said I did not have to choose a side."
"Nah, I didn't say that," Logan corrected. "I said you didn't hafta pick our side." Hank sat back, turning that knowledge, and the foreboding tone in which Logan had delivered it, over in his head. Logan turned his attention fully back to Marie, and his next words were for her. "Mystique, she's been on the Brotherhood side of things for a long time. Darlin', she and Sabretooth, they were lovers." He saw Marie shiver, but he wanted to hear this from him, not by accident at the mansion. He'd also decided on letting her tell him the whole story about Sabretooth in her own time; he hoped she could tell him the whole thing, all of it, eventually, but he knew that moment wasn't now. He went on telling her what she needed to know. "Sabretooth, he's been quiet for a coupla years now. We kinda thought he was plannin' somethin' – not that he's really capable of thinkin' much, but Magneto – another mutant, the leader of the Brotherhood – Magneto mighta planned somethin' for him to do. My pet theory was that the fucker finally got caught by the government, got sucked inta one of those underground labs and – " All of a sudden, Marie's scent changed and Logan was almost suffocated by the terror in it. "Marie?"
She turned pained eyes on him and whispered, "Your theory was right." Logan's jaw dropped open and he felt like his heart was being crushed inside his chest. Those four words told him perhaps more of the story than he'd really been ready to hear. What happened to Marie, it hadn't been just Sabretooth involved. She'd crossed paths with him in a lab. They'd gotten her too. "I think he might've been working for them."
"Marie, what - "
"I can't. I can't." She shook her head and looked down at Binky, stroking his head gently. "But I thought you'd better know that."
Logan nodded solemnly, and squeezed her leg. In the distance, he heard the hum of the approaching plane. "I'm sorry," he said helplessly. She put on a brave smile for him. "Darlin' – let me tell them about Sabretooth. Let me give 'em the story." He could do at least that much to protect her; he could at least spare her having to recount any of it to strangers. But she was right – there was information there that Chuck should know, that they all should know. He would just have to make sure that he presented it to them in such a way that would protect Marie's past and her privacy. "That goes for you too, Hank – whatcha heard here, it stays between us. Let me handle it, OK?"
"Agreed," Hank said with conviction. He had no more desire to see Marie in distress than Logan did. "May I ask a question, though?" Logan grunted his permission. "Sabretooth, that was the shape this Mystique took last, was it not?"
"And Marie has, uh, brought an end to the existence of the real article?"
Marie was surprised that Hank had had the presence of mind to catch her confession in the aftermath of the attack, and that he had put it all together so quickly, but then again, she supposed that's what geniuses do. She turned to give him a gentle look, appreciative of the delicate way he'd put the question to her. "Yes."
"Then, ah, will not the Brotherhood be interested in obtaining Marie as well? It would seem that they would view her as at least as potentially powerful an ally as they may view me. Indeed, her power would allow her to take on all other mutant powers. Would they not view her as *the* person to recruit to their side? Would she not deliver a decisive advantage to whoever can claim her?"
Logan frowned, and so did Marie. The plane's approach was making itself known, and even if it's signals were still too subtle for those without super-senses, Logan knew that their landing was only moments away now. He brought his eyes back up and met Hank's. "You keep that to yourself too, huh?" Hank nodded, wide-eyed, and Marie kept her frown in place.