Mon, 15 Feb 1999
Samy Merchi <samerc@utu.fi>
[BOEM] Be Longing (1a/1)

* DISCLAIMER *
This is a non-profit work of fan-fiction involving characters created and owned by Marvel Comics Group.

* ARCHIVED AT *
http://mash.yok.utu.fi/~samerc/fanfic/index.html

* CONTINUITY *
This story takes place AFTER the HUNT FOR XAVIER and BEFORE the MAGNETO WAR.

* MATURE CONTENT *
This story includes: No especial mature content

* DEDICATED TO *
Alkona Maret Alstorkoveich Happy Valentine's Day, my Heaven!

 


Be Longing

Samy Merchi

 

/Bar with No Name/, Medina County, Ohio. A couple of years ago, a massacre took place in this bar.

Enforcer. Miracle Man. Hate-Monger. Megatak. Melter. Titania. Basilisk. Hammer and Anvil. Fly. Death Adder. Blue Streak. Wraith.

A list of those who had fallen to the enigmatic Scourge, all over the United States of America. Death upon death upon death. The villainous community had been quivering with fear. Who would be next? Nobody was safe. You couldn't take a shower without being afraid the Scourge of the Underworld would come and end your wreched little life.

To this world where paranoia was more than justified, a rumor of hope was introduced. The anarchist foe of Iron Man, Gary Gilbert, also known as Firebrand, announced he was arranging a council of war, in hopes of finding a way to end the threat of the Scourge.

Bird-Man. Turner D Century. Cheetah. Commander Kraken. Cyclone. Grappler. Hellrazor. Hijacker. Jaguar. Letha. Mind-Wave. Mirage. Rapier. Ringer. Shellshock. Steeplejack. Vamp.

A list of those who heard the call, and came. To the "Bar with No Name", in Medina County, Ohio. Owned by Gary Gilbert, it was safe home turf for the criminals.

Or so they thought.

An hour after the bartender revealed himself to be the Scourge in disguise, eighteen corpses were carried off by the police to the morgue of Medina County. Few people would ever grieve over the massacre. More people would celebrate ridding the world of its malcontents.


/Bar with No Name/, Medina County, Ohio. A couple of years later, on Saturday night, February 13th, it serves as the site of a class reunion of sorts.

"WHERE'S MY BEER?"

A huge fist struck the wooden table, sending the glasses upon it jumping a few inches into the air. The dull echo of the impact rang thruout the bar, and quickly died away.

"Really, Fred", Dominic Petros said, lowering his eyes to his mug which had spilled part of its contents onto the table from the slam. "Give the girl a break. In the meantime, why don't you tell me how St John's here?" The Greek man nodded towards the blond at the bar counter, nursing a drink and looking morose. "Last I heard, he fought the X-Men and was taken in by SHIELD..."

"When he was on a mission from us, yes", nodded Mortimer Toynbee, as he looked at his mug, not devoid of a quarter of its contents due to Frederick J Dukes' enthusiasm. "When he was sent by Xavier..." The tone of his voice started slowly slipping downwards, from moderate to morose, and he trailed off to some unintelligible mumblings under his breath.

"We freed him", grunted the grim, blue expression of Lawrence Tremain. "Aren't we, after all, a brotherhood? Brothers in arms don't leave each other." He picked up his mug, and slammed the entire contents back down his throat.

"We used ta be, anyway", the Blob grumbled, levelling a slight glare at Post. "Before we started lettin' in all kinds o' riff-raff..."

The Toad quickly broke up the starting argument as Post started to get up threateningly. He leaped up from his chair, and onto the table between the two huge men, looking almost comical crouched there like a little insect between two giants. "I could say the same about you, Fred. I was here before you. Before any of you. Now calm down. We'll have a fight later tonight if you want, but right now, I want to drink in peace! Okay??"

"Hnh", Tremain muttered, and glanced from Mortimer back to Fred briefly. "I'm gonna go hit the can. Be back in a bit." The wooden floor of the bar shook slightly as the blue-skinned giant started walking off towards the back of the building.

As if to emphasize the departure, a flash of lightning blazed into existence briefly outside, the bright glow blasting in thru the windows, followed less than a second later by a rumbling thundercrack.


The shadowed figure flinched in momentary fright, and drew the cloak tighter around herself at the sound of the thundercrack exploding only a hundred yards or so from her, blowing a tree apart and leaving it a smoldering cinder. Battle reflexes honed by years forced her body to tense up, as if she were under a threat. But she kicked herself mentally for the reaction, reminding herself that she was going to no battle. Only to see some old...friends.


"Bloody hell", St John Allerdyce said, wrinkling his nose, as he turned his head to look out a window when the lightning hit. "I hate lightning..." he spoke, though the only one there to listen was the barmaid who was too busy filling up new drinks for Fred to listen. "Reminds me of that weather-witch...Storm...always putting out my fires like I was nothing..."

"You're not nothing", the barmaid's voice suddenly said, and St John looked up, surprised that she had actually been listening. "You're a good man, St John. One of the best I've ever had the honor of knowing."

"And what would you know?" Pyro asked, wrinkling his nose at the presumptuousness of the little brat. She looked like she was barely out of her teens, with pale skin and a short, floppy black mane. "You never even knew me 'fore tonight."

"That's what you think", the girl smiled with twinkling, slightly mischievous eyes. "I know more than you'd think." She shrugged, as she finished filling a mug of beer and placed it onto a now-full tray. She lifted the tray up into her hands, and said, "Gary Gilbert -- the guy who used to own this place -- he was a super-criminal." She walked around the counter, starting to head off towards the table where Fred, Dominic and Mortimer were sitting. "And my brother", she winked to St John as she walked off.

"What's that flippin' got to do with anyth--" the fire-manipulator started, turning around on his barstool, but the girl had already walked off out of hearing range. With a hmph, Pyro wrinkled his nose, and turned his attention to his shot of whiskey. A quick motion later, the sweetly-numbing drink was down his throat.


A few raindrops fell down on his beak, but he did not make a motion. He stood atop the /Bar with No Name/, crouched on the edge of the roof like a green gargoyle -- or more accurately, pterodactyl.

Sauron. Human/pterodactyl. Hypnotist. Life energy vampire.

Lonely.

Slowly, his head turned to look upwards, at the darkening night sky, as clouds billowed in to obscure the bright moon. Another soft raindrop fell onto his face, and he lowered his head again, wondering what in the world he was doing here -- in this place -- with these people... He didn't belong here.

"Anything interesting in sight?"

Sauron's head whipped around to look over his shoulder at the source of the words. There, maybe ten feet behind and above him on the sloped roof, was lying on her side a white-haired, six-armed woman. Sauron's eyes rested on her for several moments, and then, he said grimly, "No."

"Then why are you here?" Spiral asked, as one of her hands went over to take off her helmet, baring her straight white hair to another of her hands which took up stroking its fingers thru the light mane. "Everyone else is downstairs. Inside. Warm. Quenching their thirst."

"I have only one manner of thirst", Sauron replied with a tone that was both dark and sharp, and bitter and sad. "And that thirst will not be sated tonight." His head turned forwards again, looking down from the roof and pretending to scan the surroundings of the building while he just wanted to look away from Spiral. "The thirst for life."

"I've known people like that", Spiral answered, sitting up and replacing her helmet on her head. "If it is lives you thirst for, I can give you that."

Sauron perked up, and again turned his head towards Spiral. "I made a promise to the others that I would cause no trouble tonight, to bring the authorities down on us --"

A simple shrug accompanied Spiral's reply. "My dance can carry us far away from here, across the gulf of dimensions if you wish. Nobody would ever find out -- nobody would ever come after you." A slight smirk danced on her lips. "Except me."

What passed for Sauron's eyebrows, rose slightly. Then, he stood straight. "Let's go."

Spiral stood up, and after a brief, beautiful and frightening dance of six arms, the two superhumans discovered in a flash of light and a PLINK! sound.

Only moments after their departure, there was the soft sound of footfalls as a cloaked figure started approaching the /Bar with No Name/.


Silence and nervousness were both evident in Julia Carpenter's expression and posture as she watched the Blob's bellowing from across the bar. With a sigh, she shook her head, and took a sip from her Coke. (( God, I don't belong here... )) she thought to herself anxiously. (( The Brotherhood isn't a part of my past, Freedom Force is -- and even that is so far away it's not even funny... Why did they ever send me the invitation to come, anyway? I thought it'd be a trap, but -- everything...seems to be...okay... )) Again, her eyes scanned all over the bar for any signs of oddities or trouble, but found nothing. She sighed in relief. (( Thank God for small favors... At least they had the brains to rent this place for the night, so there wouldn't be any trouble from any stupid racist clientele... ))

"Excuse me? You're Julia Carpenter, Spider-Woman?"

Julia looked up to sight a woman dressed in purple and gold, with a wavy white mane descending down to her shoulders, and lifted an eyebrow. "Yes -- and you are?"

"My name's Eileen Harsaw -- I used to hang with the Brotherhood for a while after their Freedom Force days..." Her head slowly turned to glance towards the massive bulk of the Blob on the other side of the bar, and she swallowed a bit. "Would you mind if I sat with you? I...kind of feel like...like I don't really know anyone...belong here, and I thought you looked a bit like you might be feeling the same...?"

Julia gave Eileen a warm smile and a nod, taking an instant liking to the woman. "I'd love it if you sat with me", she said softly. "And yeah, I don't feel like I really belong here either -- most of the people here, they were crooks at one time or another -- I...well, I never was like that..."

"That's what I thought of myself, too -- long ago..." Eileen said quietly, as she sat down and placed a clear drink onto the table in front of her. "Way too long ago..."


Large fingers placed a coin into the slot, and then pushed a few buttons. Then, Calvin Rankin took his Rum Cola from atop the jukebox, and walked over to a dark corner of the bar, trying to keep his wings pulled tightly against his back so they wouldn't be hitting everything.

"Nobody on the road Nobody on the beach I feel it in the air The summer's out of reach Empty lake, empty streets The sun goes down alone I'm driving by your house Though I know you're not home."

He closed his eyes and sighed deeply, shaking his head, as he sat down. His angelic wings brushed against the wall of the little booth, and he lowered his eyes to stare at the drink on the table in front of him, as if it somehow held all the answers to why his life had become so complicated.

"But I can see you! Your brown skin shinin' in the sun You got your hair combed back and your Sunglasses on, baby! And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong After the boys of summer have gone."

"You look like you lost your best friend."

The Mimic was awakened from his brooding by the words, and looked up at the old white-haired man standing beside his booth, blinking briefly at all the cybernetics that were an obvious and indisguisable part of him. "I never had one", Calvin simply replied.


"-- and she's got the greatest pair of --"

"I'll be right back", Dominic said, standing up suddenly and breaking off Fred's ranting. He grabbed his mug of beer, and sipped on it as he started heading off towards the bar counter where his best friend was sitting, alone, with only the barmaid to keep him company. Of course, it's not like he'd usually mind a good-looking woman keeping him company -- but Dominic knew St John well, and he knew the Australian was hurting.

"You're sh*tting us, Fred", Mortimer said, wrinkling his nose annoyedly. "I don't believe you --"

"I swear!" Frederick J Dukes said with wide, innocent eyes, before downing another mug of beer. "She'll be here later -- she promised she'd show up --"

"What's he ranting about now?" Post asked as he returned from the bathroom and sat back down on his seat.

"Some girl", Mortimer said with a hurt expression, feeling his heart wrench at the thought that even the Blob could get girls, and Mortimer Toynbee...could not. "He says he's got a girlfriend."


"...so I've kind of kept tabs on the super-criminal community... Sort of like a favor to my brother, god rest his soul... He died trying to protect you guys, and I'd like to carry on doing his work, in a way... I don't like psycho killers -- I wouldn't let that Carnage guy in thru my doors, but -- well, like I said, I know a lot about people and people who know people, and I've heard a lot of good things about you..."

"Hey John", Dominic said, sitting down on a barstool next to Pyro. "You doing all right?"

St John's eyes lingered on the barmaid's eyes for a moment, and saw nothing but honesty and sincerity in them -- honesty and sincerity which prevented him from just lashing out angrily and discounting all of her words as lies. He sighed, and shook his head as he looked to Dominic. "No, I'm not, Dom. I'm *dying*, you dumb cluck."

Dominic bit his lip, and placed a hand onto St John's shoulder. He didn't know how the Legacy Virus spread, but nothing between heaven or hell would stop him from trying to comfort his friend. The most important thing he had left in the world. "I'm sorry -- God, Johnny, I wish -- if there was anything..."

"There ain't, ol' mate", St John Allerdyce simply whispered, a bit of moisture glimmering in his eyes, before he blinked it away, forcing his macho demeanor to hold back any tears. "I'm gonna die, simple as that. I just wish I could...do some good before I checked out...maybe something to help you and Helen somehow --" He turned his head to look directly into Dominic's eyes. "You've been the best friend I've had all my life, man. I just -- look, never think I hold grudges about Iraq, okay?"

"I had no choice --"

"I know", Pyro said, and with a soft smile, placed a hand onto Avalanche's shoulder. "I wouldn't have made the same decision in your place. And I'd have screwed everything up. It's because of you that all four of us're here tonight, alive..." His head slowly turned to look at a corner of the bar, where the Crimson Commando was talking to the Mimic. "Or mostly alive, in some cases..."


"-- so I stabbed him with a knife. And..." Eileen Harsaw swallowed briefly, her heart beating faster at the memories. "Well, I was diagnosed as a mutant by the doctors who examined me, and as soon as that got out, everything turned against me. Everyone suddenly stopped considering it valid self-defense against rape, and I got hit with murder charges and shipped off to the Vault..."

"Oh my god..." Julia whispered and held Eileen's hands in her own hands tightly. "That's horrible -- but didn't any lawyers try to...I don't know, shouldn't you have...won the case -- I mean, it was self-defense, right??"

"Yeah", Eileen muttered, and downed her vodka quickly, then sniffled a bit. "But what's one person ever been able to do in the United States? I was just a young girl, from a poor family -- he was from a rich family... I was a mutant, he wasn't -- I had nobody on my side, he had EVERYBODY on his side..."

"God..." Julia whispered, closing her eyes and swallowing a bit. "I never...I mean, I never realized how bad it was -- that's *horrible*, Eileen!"

"It's life", Eileen answered, and took a handkerchief from her pocket, blowing her nose briefly, and then putting it back away again. "First people who've ever accepted me since that happened, is the Brotherhood... They're all I have. And some of them might be jerks, and they might all be crooks, but at least they're my *friends*..."


"-- it just seems like all the good days've gone, and it's all downhill from now on... Hell, I used to lead the X-Men. And now where am I? Among their oldest enemies..."

"I have some idea of what that is like", Frank Bohannan said, slowly sipping a glass of what seemed like tomato juice or a Bloody Mary. "I used to think that me, Louis and Martin were heroes, fighting for a cleaner world -- and then all my dreams crumbled when we were judged guilty. And then Louis died when we fought the Reavers, and Martin died in Iraq, and I lost half my body there -- and it feels like I've been in freefall ever since Iraq -- like there's really nowhere left to go but down -- waiting for death and for it to be all over..."

Calvin quirked an eyebrow, and sipped his Rum Cola. "Well, I don't quite have a death wish yet -- I'm just so...directionless. I thought that by hooking up with Xavier again, I could find a way, but when he and the X-Men mopped the floor with Cerebro, they just left me, Fred, Morty and Tremain in those cocoons and went home, pleased as punch, without a thought spared to us... I don't belong with them. Never really did."

"But you might belong here?"

"I don't know", Calvin answered. "I know I've followed Xavier too much. First in the X-Men, then as his Onslaught minion, then in the Brotherhood -- and in all those, I never felt as I belonged. I've given him three chances. I think that's enough, and it's time for me to try something -- someone else."

Frank nodded slowly, and then downed his drink calmly. "Well, I can only vouch for what I've seen -- but I'd be dead right now if Dominic hadn't carried me out of Iraq. He's a good man, and he'll stand by you until the end. Dukes is, of course, the crude one, but I'd still let him watch my back. He's too stupid to double-play. You can always rely on those kinds of guys."

"I suppose you're --"

SLAM!

Calvin's sentence was cut short when the front door of the /Bar with No Name/ slammed open, and a cloaked figure stood in the doorway.

"Y'all called. Ah came."


Maria Muradyan, 19 years young. She has just returned to the town where she was born and raised -- Medina County, Ohio -- from the honeymoon of her life in San Francisco. (( "Lifeform in range. Analyzing...humanoid...family -- Homo sapiens superior. Latent mutant. Prepare for processing." )) She could hear the robotic monster's words ringing thru her mind, again and again, plaguing her without a day's respite.

She was a mutant.

Had her husband noticed? She glanced over her shoulder at him lying down on the back seat, dozing off, and a peaceful smile briefly graced her lips. She loved him so much. But had he heard what the robot thing had said? Would he love her if he knew she was a mutant?? And what was the thing the robot had lodged in her back? Some kind of suction cup with glowing bluish light on it? She had gotten it off her back, thankfully, but never out of her mind. Even now, it was in her glove compartment. Still glowing that weird blue light. She swallowed, and took her right hand off the steering wheel, opening the glove compartment with it as she pulled down to Big Oak Road.

"What the heck are you?" she whispered quietly, as she alternated her eyes from facing front thru the windshield, and inspecting the odd disc. "And why have I had this weird headache ever since I met you, you little bastard? I swear, if you're giving me cancer, I'm so going to break you to little pieces..."


"Hey, Rogue!" Dominic shouted across the bar, waving a hand to the young woman.

"Hi, Dom", Rogue answered a bit grimly, and then let her eyes briefly look over everyone present, before she decided that the most favorable option would really be to head over to the Greek man. She certainly didn't intend to let Blob try to impress her with how big belches he could let out. "Hey Johnny", she gave a half-hearted smile to Pyro, before sitting down on Dominic's left-hand side. "What's up, guys?"

"Nice to see you too, girlie", St John muttered under his breath, and looked over to the dark-haired barmaid. "Gimme another whiskey. As good a pain-killer as any. Maybe better..."

Dominic shook his head quietly, and glanced to Rogue. "I'm sorry about him -- he's not feeling too well these days..."

"That's the understatement of the year, mate --" St John grumbled.

Rogue nodded silently, and swallowed a bit nervously, feeling a fear grip her at the thought of the Legacy Virus claiming her -- before she ever got a chance to really build a life. "Are you getting any kind of treatment, Johnny --?"

A snort was the immediate answer. "Constantly", St John simply answered, and tossed back the shot of whiskey as soon as he was given it. "Only treatment I need is forgettin' everything."

Pursing her lips slightly, Rogue turned her head away from Pyro, wishing she knew the right words to know to make him feel better -- but she didn't, no matter how hard she wished that. So she stayed quiet.

"I'm gonna hit the john", St John announced half-angrily, and slid of his stool. "Just like life keeps doing, eh?" A bitter smile danced on his lips for a few moments, before he turned and walked off towards the back of the bar.

"God, Ah wish there was something Ah could do for him", Rogue whispered silently to Avalanche as she watched Pyro walk off and disappear thru the bathroom door. "He's hurtin' so bad..."

"He's dying, Rogue", Dominic answered quietly. "I don't know if I could handle it that well -- going to bed every night, not knowing if I would wake up in the morning..." He took a deep breath, steeling himself up a bit. "We all wish we could do something -- but the only thing we can do, really, is make his last days as good as we can... Forgive him for everything we can, understand him when he snaps at us..."

"Ah guess", Rogue nodded, and closed her eyes for a moment. "It sucks, Dom. It sucks bad."


"-- I jus'...jus' wish I coulda hadda bettrr life..." Eileen slurred slowly to Julia, and sighed, letting her forehead thunk down against the wooden table. "But I ain't...I went down this route...can't go back anymore, without doin' time, an' I'm not doing time...I couldn't take it...and even if I did, I shtill couldn't get any jobs...eksh-cons don't..." She sniffled a bit, and blew her nose again.

"Well, that's not exactly true", Julia said softly, yet hesitantly. She knew Eileen had a point. "I mean, Hawkeye used to run on the other side of the law...and Wonder Man was an embezzeller...there are a lot of heroes with checkered pasts...you can turn a new leaf, Eileen, if you want -- I can try to help you --"

"I dunno...dunno..." Eileen sighed, and shook her head. "I'm just sho...so scared, you know? Like I don' have anywhere to go or any world outside the Brotherhood..." She bit her bottom lip slightly, and started standing up. "I need to go to the bathroom", she stage-whispered to Julia, louder than she thought, and then stumbled a bit, but fortunately managed to catch herself before falling onto the floor. "I'll be right back", she told the Avenger, and then stumbled towards the bathroom door in the back of the room.

Julia sighed quietly to herself, and then ran her fingers thru her blonde hair once. "God, how things can go to hell..." She silently took the locket hanging from a chain around her neck in her hands, and opened it, taking a look at a photo of her daughter. "Rachel, please, don't turn out like that..."


"So where's this mysterious new girlfriend of yours, Fred?", Mortimer asked derisively, wrinkling his nose a bit as he took a deep sip from his beer. "She stand you up?"

"She most certainly did not", a harsh but amused female voice spoke, like dominating gravel. Mist swirled around the brunette dressed in black leather as she faded into view beside a redhead in blue-red spandex. "Thanks for the lift, Amelia", she said, and then stepped out of the mist, and over to the Blob, running her hands thru his brown hair. "Miss me, stud?"

Amelia Voght looked at Carmella Unuscione perhaps a bit wistfully for a moment, before saying, "I'll be back to pick you up tomorrow at noon." Then, the redheaded Acolyte faded into mist, which after some swirling, disappeared.


Rogue blinked as she looked over towards Blob's table from the bar counter, just in time to catch Voght's departure. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of Carmella, and she quirked an eyebrow, then asked Dominic, "What the hell's Unuscione doing here, an' why is she all over Fred?"

"Oh, hell", Dominic muttered, and slapped his forehead with the heel of his palm. "Fred said he had gotten a girlfriend, but -- oh, no -- Johnny's going to go ballistic about this -- he's had a major grudge for the Acolytes ever since they dumped him in the Savage Land..."


"Hunh", Frank blinked at the sight of Unuscione playing around with Fred. "Now I've seen it all." He quickly downed his drink, and then looked over at the sight again. "A woman after Dukes, instead of the other way around?" He glanced at his wristwatch briefly. "11:45... I wonder if the apocalypse's coming on the stroke of midnight..."

"You know, that's one thing the Brotherhood is kind of lacking..." Calvin commented. "Women."

"That's true", Frank said, and stood up. "Especially with Mystique off doing who-knows-what who-knows-where, Phantazia's the only one left. Have a ball trying to get into her pants, kid", he said, and patted Mimic on the shoulder briefly. "I'm going to go get another drink."

Mimic didn't answer, just stayed silent in the booth, slowly running his fingertip along the edge of his glass as he considered things.


"You're KIDDING!" Mortimer screeched. "You can't get a woman like that! You've paid her, haven't you??"

"Oh shut up, toadie", Carmella smiled sweetly as she placed kisses onto Fred's cheek while sitting in his lap. "If anyone's a prostitute here -- well, I'm the one fighting for a cause, you're the one fighting for money. Get the hint?"

"I. AM. NOT. A. TOADIE!" Mortimer shouted, hopping onto the table. "I've LED the Brotherhood! Take that back before I make you eat those words!"

"Hey!" Fred said, lifting a hand up to keep Toad at a distance. "You better watch what you say to my chick unless ya don't want to be ground into paste, Morty!"

"And so, we see a beautiful woman already coming between two old friends before the clock has even struck midnight..." Tremain mumbled quietly to himself, and stood up with a sigh, deciding to leave the table and head over to his fellow rookie Brotherhooder, the Mimic.


"BLOODY HELL!" the shout of St John Allerdyce echoed thruout the bar, causing everyone to turn towards the sound and see him staring at Unuscione. Then, flame struck from his eyes, and fire started dancing around his form.

"He shouldn't be able to do that --" Rogue whispered to herself. "He only controls fire, not create it --"

"Apparently, the Legacy Virus has changed that", Dominic said hurriedly, and leapt off his stool. "Johnny, no! Calm down!" he shouted.


PLINK!

"That wasn't so bad, now was it?" Spiral asked with a mischievous smile as she and Sauron appeared in a flash of light outside the /Bar with No Name/.

"My thirst is...quenched for the moment", Sauron simply answered, and then, with a faint sigh, turned towards the front door of the estabilishment. "I believe I am now ready for...socialization."

BUH-WHOOM!

Both Spiral and Sauron's eyes widened as the wall of the bar exploded outwards in a blast of flame, which kicked out of the building a brunette ensheathed in translucent energy.

Carmella Unuscione crashed in some trees outside the bar, and hissed sharply as she pulled back onto her feet, and charged back into the building without so much as a glance for Sauron and Spiral.

"Hnh", Sauron said and looked over to Spiral. "And they told me to keep a low profile."


"I CAN'T GET CLOSE TO HIM!" Dominic shouted over the roar of flames, shielding his face from the blazing heat with his arms. "He's much too hot -- out of control --!"

"Don't worry", Post said, turning towards Pyro, as one of the techno-organic cannons hovering in the air around him started powering up with a hum. "I can handle him."

"NO!" Avalanche shouted, and with a wave of his hand, the half of the bar containing the blue giant, Mimic and Spider-Woman suddenly reared upwards. The ground bucked and rose to form a barrier between Post and Pyro. "Don't hurt him!" Avalanche yelled to everyone, and then looked back to St John. "Johnny, you've got to get yourself back under control --!"

"Too late fer that!" the Blob bellowed as he brought his fists down on the floor, sending a shockwave along the ground towards Pyro. "He attacked my chick, and I'm going to break every bone in his toothpick body for that --!"

Irene Gilbert cursed softly under her breath. (( Good thing this place is insured... )) she thought, and then in the blink of an eye formulated a plan. "MIMIC!" she yelled over the chaos in an authoritative tone that made almost everyone blink and halt. "Use Iceman's powers to cool Pyro down and try to ensheath him in ice! Rogue! To me --!"

Calvin Rankin stood up, and concentrated. "All right -- here goes --" he muttered, and raised his hands in the air. The temperature inside the building rapidly dropped a good couple dozen degrees and a halo of ice formed around Mimic's fists.

"ARRRGH!" Pyro yelled, not from anything Mimic was doing, but from the raging of his out-of-control powers now that he had unleashed them, and couldn't get them back into their Pandora's Box. His most distant flames were doused by Mimic's cold projection, and his inferno diminished slightly in size, but an inferno it remained, at the center of which was a man in agony.

"Ah'm here, M-- Miss", Rogue said, stumbling over her words slightly as she leaped over the bar counter to stand beside the barmaid. "Whatcha need me ta do?"

"There! Phantazia!" Irene Gilbert said, pointing at Phantazia who was just emerging from the bathroom to see what the commotion was all about. "Absorb her powers! Now!"

"But --!" Rogue argued, wide-eyed.

"DO IT!" Irene yelled. "Mimic can't hold Pyro for much longer, and Phantazia is much too drunk to use her powers effectively! I *need* you, Rogue!"

Rogue blinked a few times, and then flew across the room, pulling off her gloves.

"Where is he --? Let me at him --!" Carmella growled as she stalked into the bar thru the hole in the wall she had made on her way out.

"Calm down", the Commando said, pointing one hand at Carmella and another at Fred. Cannons of some kind popped out of both hands, swiftly targeting the two mutants. "We don't need any more chaos right now."

"Says you..." Post muttered quietly to himself while glaring across the room at Dominic, dark thoughts roaming thru his head, considering a little payback for having been dissed with the earth wave.

"Chill, big guy", Julia said as she dropped from the ceiling onto the floor beside Tremain, placing a hand onto his blue shoulder. "Let's let things be cleared up without adding to the confusion..." Her head turned towards Rogue and Phantazia.

"NO!" Phantazia screamed, wide-eyed, before slumping down unconscious on the floor at Rogue's feet. The Southerner's eyes started glowing with purple energy, and she stumbled a few steps backwards, taking a sharp gasp as she saw the world in an entirely new way. A few tears came to her eyes, but she blinked them away. "What now??" she yelled.

"Use her powers!" Irene shouted. "Disrupt Pyro's electromagnetic field! It'll short out his powers!"

Rogue nodded, and took a sharp breath, then closed her eyes.

"ARRRGH!" Again, Pyro shouted. But this time, not from the agony within, but instead from the wrenching sensation of the synaptic connections of his nervous system being scrambled. He went stiff, shuddered once, and then collapsed onto the floor, limp.

Dominic watched, wide-eyed, and rushed over to St John as soon as he was down and out like a light. "Johnny -- damn it, man, don't you dare go dying on me --" he whispered as he checked for a pulse on the pyrokinetic.

"If he hasn't yet, I'll make sure he will!" Carmella growled as she projected her psionic exo-skeleton, a translucent force field around herself.

"Don't. Even. Think about it", came a sharp hiss, as a red laser-pointer dot appeared without a waver between Carmella's eyes. Irene Gilbert's eyes were narrowed on the Acolyte as she firmly held a plasma blaster. Her form wavered briefly, and was quickly replaced by a blue-skinned redhead.

"MYSTIQUE!" Fred bellowed while Sauron and Spiral quietly walked into the building. "Where the hell ya been? What're you doing here??"

"Isn't it *obvious*, Fred?" Mystique hissed sharply. "The Brotherhood is *my* team, and I take care of my own, even when you don't know it. All of you together possess less organizational skill than a brain-damaged chicken -- *someone* has to act the adult here. Can't you get thru one damn night without picking a fight with each other?? This was supposed to be a reunion, and you've turned it into a war zone! What is *wrong* with you!?!"

"She has a point", Frank said, and lowered the hand pointed at Carmella upon Mystique's targeting the Acolyte. "You ready to calm down, Dukes?"

"A very good point", Julia said, mostly to herself, as she walked over to Dominic and St John, crouching down beside the two men and asking, "Is he okay?"

Rogue, who had recognized Mystique practically as soon as she had walked in, ignored the others for the moment and slowly tugged her gloves back on, biting her lip as she turned her eyes to Phantazia, who was waking up with a slow groan. "Lemme help ya up..." she whispered to the white-haired woman. "Careful not to touch mah skin..."

"The toothpick started it", Fred said accusingly.

"And you continued it, Fred. Please, let's not sink to juvenile arguing here -- Mystique is quite right", Toad commented.

"It's a sad day when Morty's the *mature* one", Mystique said flatly, keeping her laser sights right between Carmella's eyes. "So, how about it, little miss can't-be-wrong? You ready to calm down, or do you want to test just how resilient your force field is against plasma bursts?"

Carmella glared daggers at Mystique for a few moments, and then deactivated her psionic exo-skeleton, walking over to the bar. "Give me a bottle of tequila, and I'll let it drop."


"-- so, you're Unus' sister?"

Carmella nodded briefly. "His younger sister", she answered Mortimer curtly, wrinkling her nose a bit. "And no, my brother never said anything good about you. Then again, he didn't say anything good about anyone." She smiled devilishly, and leaned over to kiss Fred. "Except Freddy, here...mmmmmmm..."

"'Freddy'?" Rogue giggled softly to herself. "If Ah recall correctly, ya *hated* that name, *Freddy*."

"Did not", Fred replied after breaking the kiss with Carmella.

"Yes you did", Dominic pointed out. "Freddy."

Blob wrinkled his nose for a moment, and then said, "AWRIGHT, awright, I HATE that name!" loudly. He snorted, and then turned towards Carmella, rubbing his nose against hers. "But she's allowed to call me that anyway."

"Men. So easy", Mystique commented dryly as she placed three photographs onto the bar counter. "Give them a little sex and they're putty in your hands."

"I wouldn't call anything about Freddy 'little'..." Carmella grinned as she lounged in Fred's arms while tossing some salted peanuts into her mouth.

"I don't see a picture of Mastermind", Toad pointed out as he opened a bag of chips and poured the contents into a bowl. "Then again, I don't see Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch having been invited either..."

"Like I said earlier, Morty", Mystique answered amidst tossing a mug of beer down the counter to Frank, "the Brotherhood is my team. The first Brotherhood were just Magneto's flunkies who happened to share the same name. They are not the same team. They were not us."

"Is there something wrong with serving Magneto?" Carmella asked with a slight glare towards Mystique.

"For one thing, Mystique is a lot sexier."

"Why thank you, Calvin", the blue-skinned woman smiled flirtatiously at the Mimic. "I can just tell you'll be a splendid addition to our little family..."

"Stop flirtin', Momma. Y' have a daughter in yoah presence", Rogue mock-glared at her foster mother, and then grinned over at Mimic. "Ya so much as touch her, and Ah'll rip your arms off 'fore she does..."

"Ah, the problems of a bachelor in the presence of strong women...", Frank commented while letting his eyes linger on the three photographs on the bar counter. "I remember when me, Louis and Martin ran into that German super-soldier Kriegerfrau -- Warrior Woman -- during the war -- I think it was in Paris. Martin started flirting with her, and before we knew it, he was flying across the bar..."

"Not *another* war story..." Julia sighed, rolling her eyes.

"Come to think of it", Sauron interrupted, "tonight would be a great night to attack the X-Men. We have a great number of us together here... We might actually win, for once." He looked towards Rogue. "No offense meant. It just gets annoying when you win every time..."

"None taken", Rogue smiled to Sauron. "An' maybe if y'all din't make the consequences o' losin' so severe, we might let ya win sometimes -- as it is, we cain't, or we'll get killed, or y'all will kill someone else, or something..."

"Maybe we should have an annual Superbowl-type thing between the Brotherhood and X-Force --"

"X-Men", Post interrupted Phantazia.

"-- X-Men, whatever. You know, every year, and stuff, just for kicks..." Phantazia suggested. "That way we wouldn't have to take stuff so seriously..."

Mystique took a deep breath and looked towards the ceiling. (( And they wonder why I'm here... Maybe that brain-damaged chicken comment was a bit harsh for the chicken... )) She stepped out from behind the bar, and glanced at Avalanche. "You took Pyro to one of the upstairs rooms?"

"Yeah, he's out cold", Dominic answered. "But seems to be okay otherwise."

"All right", Mystique said silently, and then took an envelope from inside her jacket, handing it to Dominic. "Commando, can you tend the bar?"

"Sure thing", Frank answered. "Are you going somewhere?"

"Always and never", Mystique simply answered, as she stopped beside Rogue and gave the girl a brief, careful hug. "Always and never", she repeated, looking into Rogue's eyes. Then, without another word, she disappeared up the stairs, leaving behind her a silent congregation of Brotherhooders.


The silent form of St John Allerdyce lay on the bed. His eyes were closed, he was resting. Soon, he would rest in peace for all eternity, and he knew it. "...sleep when I'm dead..." he mumbled quietly under his breath.

With a soft creak, the door to the room opened, and a soft, feminine form stood in the doorway. A few moments later, the door closed, but this time the woman was inside the room, her eyes running over St John's body.

He didn't hear her enter. He was half-asleep and mildly delirious with a low fever. He flinched when her soft lips touched his forehead, and his eyes opened. "Mystique --" he whispered, and heard how his words were a bare croak from his dry throat.

"Shhh", she murmured, and placed a fingertip over his lips. "No words. Not tonight." Her hot breath tickled his face, and he obeyed, not saying anything. His eyes went to her body, as she unclasped the collar around her neck, and let her white dress collapse and pool down at her feet.


"You all right?"

"Hnh?" Dominic Petros looked up from staring at the sealed envelope he had been holding ever since Mystique had gone upstairs over an hour ago. and into the eyes of Frank Bohannan. "I -- yeah", he nodded slowly.

"Here", Frank said, and poured a mug of beer, then placed it in front of Dominic on the counter. "Have a beer. It'll lift your spirits, maybe."

"No thanks -- I'm not in the mood", Dominic replied, and with a sigh, fiddled with the envelope in his fingers. "Do you have a letter opener? Or a knife, anything over there behind the counter?"

"Here's a knife", Frank said, taking a knife and handing it to his friend.

"Thanks", Dominic nodded, as he took the blade, and then started slowly opening the envelope with it. Within a few moments, he had it open, and a key fell out of it onto the counter. Dominic quirked an eyebrow at the key, and then pulled an accompanying piece of paper from within the envelope.

A few moments passed, as Avalanche unfolded the piece of paper, and then took a look at it.

His eyes suddenly widened at the three words scribed onto the paper in Mystique's beautiful handwriting. His mouth fell open, and his heart skipped a beat, his head starting to feel dizzy. His gaze briefly went over the post scriptum, and then, without a word, he grabbed the key from the counter, and hopped off the barstool, running towards the front door.

Frank and several others blinked at Dominic's reaction. "Hey, where're ya --" the Blob started, but before he got to finish the sentence, Dominic Petros was already out the front door which was left open behind him. He would be back one day.

Silently, Frank Bohannan lifted up the piece of paper which had fallen onto the counter from Dominic's fingers, and let his eyes read thru the message.

/Helen has awakened./

/P.S. The key is for the Jeep outside. Happy Valentine's Day./

Outside, there was the sound of an engine roaring to life, then the screech of tires against asphalt. Frank smiled slightly as he folded the piece of paper back up, placed it back inside the envelope, and listened the Jeep drive off.


"Wake up, Ged", Maria Muradyan called out to her sleeping husband on the back seat, and then suddenly her eyes widened and she slammed down the brakes as a Jeep screeched out of the parking lot of the old /Bar with No Name/, right in front of her. She gasped in relief as she managed to stop her Honda just barely with mere feet to spare before it would have run right into the Jeep and doubtless killed the reckless driver.

"Of all the stupid --" she whispered, and then quickly looked over her shoulder. "Ged?? Ged, you okay back there?"

A faint groan was the immediate answer, followed after a few moments by, "I'm okay, honey -- just hit my head -- what happened --?" Gedrick Muradyan pulled himself up into a sitting position while rubbing his head with one hand and blinking his sleepy eyes. "Are we home --?"

"No", Maria answered quietly as she stared thru the windshield. "I almost ran into a car pulling out of the /Bar with No Name/...and there's a huge hole in the bar's wall..."

"What?" Ged blinked and leaned over between the two front seats, trying to see the bar thru the windshield himself. "Oh my god, you're right -- what the hell's happened??"


"WOO-HOO! Way ta go!" Blob yelled.

Eileen kicked her leg up higher as she tabledanced up a storm. Her sense of balance hadn't exactly recuperated yet, and she stumbled every now and then, but she didn't care. She just wanted to be the center of the attention for one night, making people smile and love her, and that's all that mattered -- belonging.

"Get your eyes away from there", Carmella whispered into Fred's ear, and pulled his face to nuzzle her chest with a mischievous smirk. "You've got better things to attend to..."

Rogue sighed quietly to herself. "That girl cain't hold her liquor..." she just whispered under her breath while watching Eileen dance, feeling pain in her heart, out of sympathy for the blonde, whose head she had just been in -- Rogue knew the secret pains and agonies of Eileen Harsaw -- everything that made her do this. And even furthermore -- Rogue knew she might never be able to be like that.

"I think maybe she can", came Julia's voice beside Rogue. "She just doesn't want to." Julia Carpenter touched a fingertip to the corner of her eye, rubbing slightly. "At least she's happy."

"Is she?" Rogue asked softly.


"Do you feel like you belong here?"

"Don't know", Post answered. "Tough to make that call after such a short time. How about you?"

Calvin Rankin finished his glass of cider, and placed the empty glass back down onto the counter. "The same. They've got so much history behind them -- like the Toad. When we were at Alcatraz, trained by Xavier, I thought he was just a blithering idiot -- but I'm told it's some kind of a mental condition -- he slides between a complete imbecile and an eloquent intellectual... There's just so much that I don't know about these people, and I feel like an outsider."

"It's always like that in the beginning", Tremain answered as he drank from his mug of beer. "I didn't know anyone when Onslaught recruited me. But if you let that stop you, you'll never get to know anyone in the first place. Me, I'm ready to give these people a shot. Hell, I'm not going to Magneto."

"Me neither..." Mimic sighed a bit, and flexed his angelic wings slightly. "I'm just longing for some --"

"WHAT THE HELL --??"

The Brotherhood turned to look towards the front door. Gedrick and Maria Muradyan stood there, wide-eyed and tense, gaping at this assemblage of monsters. A fat giant. A cybernetic man. A blue-skinned technological horror. A bearded angel. A six-armed warrior woman. A humanoid pterodactyl. "Some kind of mutants --!" Ged said, starting to back off slowly. "Run, Maria, I'll try to hold them --!"

"Don't let them get away!" the Toad shouted. "If they'll alert the authorities, we'll have Sentinels or worse on our backs within the hour --!"

"Oh, great!" Rogue hissed, and with a CRASH!, the Coke glass in her hand shattered into hundreds of little fragments. "Does it always have ta be like this --!"

"They will be dealt with in 1.023 seconds", Post reported, as the techno-organic mini-cannons hovering in the air over his shoulders started powering up again. Then, a blaze of crimson energy erupted from them, and towards the front door.

SHOOM!

"NO!" Rogue yelled, and jumped right into the path of the blasts. One clipped her hip, ricocheting off it, but the other hit her clear in the torso, slamming her backwards towards the front door. She managed to use her flight ability a tiny bit to adjust her trajectory so she didn't hit the gatecrashers but instead crashed onto the wall beside the front door. "Run! Ah'll try ta hold 'em --!" she wheezed while clutching her chest which felt like it was on fire.

"Flatscan-lover", Carmella Unuscione hissed, and pounced up from Fred's lap, only to activate her psionic exo-skeleton, lashing out with the translucent forcefield, shaping it like a fist and smashing it forwards like a piledriver.

SMASHH!

Rogue was smashed out of the bar right thru the wall, landing on the lawn outside the bar, her head spinning, her side aching like an elephant had fallen onto her. (( This is gonna hurt -- )) she thought while trying to draw air into her lungs amidst spitting little droplets of blood from her mouth.


"Not so fast!" Julia Carpenter shouted as she leaped to the ceiling, clinging to it with her spider-powers, and concentrated to project a psionic web covering the front door and the two holes in the wall. "Calm down, we can work this out without anyone getting killed!"

"That paltry web can't stop a teleporter --"

PLINK!

"Damn it! Spiral, get back here!" Commando yelled over the chaos. "Spider-Woman's right, we won't have to kill anyone --!"

"An' if we want to?" the Blob's voice boomed as his massive bulk suddenly loomed behind Crimson Commando, casting a shadow over the WWII veteran.

Frank Bohannan slowly turned his head to look over his shoulder and up at Fred's face. (( Uh-oh. This is going to get ugly. ))


PLINK!

"Spiral, no!" Rogue gasped desperately, forcing herself onto her feet as the six-armed sorceress began an eerily beautiful dance.

"No to what, X-Man?" Spiral answered, as she completed her dance, and magical energy bands materialized out of nowhere around Maria Muradyan's legs, causing her to stumble forward and fall to the ground. The next instant, two of her arms snaked around Gedrick's waist, another two grabbed his arms, and a fifth one brought a blade to the man's throat.

"Don' kill...'em!" Rogue cried out softly with the last ounces of her strength, trying to get Spiral to talk -- get some time to clear her head, so she could save the civilians...


Sauron crossed his arms silently over his chest, and simply watched the chaos, as Commando faced against the Blob, Mimic tried to calm Post down, Phantazia tried to clear her head from all the alcohol to realize what was going on, and Unuscione turned her angry eyes towards Spider-Woman. The pterodactyl-man had no intention of engaging in pointless fighting. And then, his choice became moot anyway.

"STOP IT!" the Toad yelled as he hopped onto the bar counter, his shrill voice ringing thru the bar. "We won't have to kill anyone, all right? We will just hold them here until morning, and then let them go when we leave!" His eyes turned towards Spider-Woman, and narrowed a bit. "Is that acceptable? It'll have to be, because if it isn't, we're going to have to fight. And you'll lose."

Julia Carpenter swallowed briefly, and then her thoughts went to the medallion hanging from her neck. Rachel. Her dear, dear daughter. Julia was not going to let her grow up without a mother. She wasn't going to get herself killed, when giving up a little bit could save everyone. "All right", she said quietly. "You promise they won't be hurt?"

"You have my word", Mortimer Toynbee said sincerely. "Now dissolve the webs."

Spider-Woman took a deep breath, and then looked towards the door and holes in the wall. With but a thought from her, the psionic webs dissolved into thin air, and she hung her head limply downwards while hanging from the ceiling.


Maria Muradyan was terrified. She was lying on the ground, she couldn't move her legs, and her husband was about to have his throat cut by some six-armed freak. Her heart was pounding, trying to leap out of her chest. Her blood was rushing in her ears, thick with adrenaline and fear. Her muscles were tense, sizzling and tingling like they were about to explode, like there was something building within her that desperately needed release --

"You should know better than that, X-Man", Spiral sneered at Rogue. "I don't kill without a --"

BUH-WHOOM!

Her flesh turned translucent bright glowing green, like a light-up action figure, or an X-ray shot, with her skeleton visible inside her glowing flesh. Vicious energy exploded from Maria Muradyan, 19 years old.

Maria Muradyan, seamstress.

Maria Muradyan, newlywed.

Maria Muradyan, mutant.

Maria Muradyan, unconscious.

The ground was charred at ground zero, smoldering around Maria's unconscious body. Spiral was several dozen feet away, knocked out from the force of the explosion, lying underneath the charred remnants of what had shielded her from the worst of it.

Gedrick Muradyan, deceased.


"What was that?" Calvin Rankin asked, his head snapping towards one of the holes in the wall thru which a flash of green light had lit up the bar momentarily.

"Rankin, Carpenter -- with me!" Commando said sharply. "The rest of you -- stay put!" He rushed towards the door, only to stop dead in his tracks at the sight greeting him at the doorway.

The brunette woman was lying immobile in a small crater, like a bomb had went off right where she was. At the edges of the crater were Rogue and Spiral, both immobile as well, and a blackened corpse atop Spiral. Commando winced, then steeled his expression, and walked out of the bar and towards the crater.

"My god!" Julia whispered as she made it to the doorway and saw the same sight. "Oh my god..."

Calvin gritted his teeth and looked away.


"Yoah name's Maria?"

"Maria Mu--" She paused, and rubbed her reddened eyes amidst a sob. "It's not true -- tell me it isn't true --"

Rogue looked over to Julia with an agonized expression, and received a reassuring, sympathetic nod from the older woman that helped her go ahead. "Maria --" Rogue bit her lip, and the rest came out in a shuddering breath. "Ah'm *so* sorry, honey --!"

"No! No..." Maria sobbed, concealing her face in her hands as her shoulders shook uncontrollably. "It's all my fault -- all my fault for -- for not telling him --!"

"No, honey -- 't ain't your fault -- how could it be your fault?" Rogue whispered as she placed a hand onto Maria's shoulder, giving a little squeeze.

"I -- I didn't tell him I was a mutant... If I'd have told him...maybe he'd have left me...and lived..." Maria took a deep breath, swallowed, and looked up to Rogue's eyes as tears streamed down her cheeks. "How'm I going to keep on going without him --??"

"I have an offer to make."

Everyone's heads turned towards Mystique as the blue-skinned woman was suddenly sitting on a barstool, sipping a Kir. No one had noticed her come down from upstairs. "You're a mutant", she said with a matter-of-fact tone. "Your husband will be identified as having been killed by a mutant. The government will find out about your powers, and prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. No reputable lawyer will defend you. You will be shipped off to some government laboratory --"

"Mystique!" Rogue snapped. "What're ya tryin' ta do?! She's terrified enuff without ya paintin' up the worst-case-scenario for her!"

"Worst-case?" Eileen asked. "It might be 'worst-case', Rogue, BUT IT HAPPENS!" She tossed an empty whiskey shot glass against a wall, shattering it to pieces. "It happened to me! Mutants don't get justice in this country, and if you're trying to pretend otherwise, go ahead, but don't blame us for being awake and having our eyes open to reality!"

"You're tryin' ta recruit her! That's what this is all about, ain't it Momma?" Rogue said, taking a threatening step towards Mystique. "Yoah tryin' ta recruit her to your dirty little Brotherhood!"

"Why you little --!" the Blob started, taking a step towards Rogue.

"Stand back, Fred!" Mystique said in a tone that could bring ice to the tropic. Then, she slid off her barstool gracefully, and walked towards Rogue. "You know I'm right, Rogue", she said softly. "She won't get any justice from US law. The best -- the only choice for her right now, is to hide from that law, at least until things cool down."

"Hidin' ain't the answer --!" Rogue started.

"Then why are the X-Men's base and identities secret?" Toad simply asked in retaliation. "Admit it, Rogue -- you and the other X-Men are hiding from the law every bit as much as Mystique is offering to the young lady here."

Rogue bit her lip, and then looked from the Toad's eyes, to Mystique's. "Ah won't let ya take her, Momma", she said strongly.

"This isn't about 'taking' anyone", Maria interjected with a little sniffle. "I make my own choices." She turned her eyes away as she felt everyone looking at her, trying to stare at the jukebox. "What can you offer me, 'Rogue'?"

"Ah -- Ah know of a place...a school...where mutants can learn ta control their powers..." Rogue said, a bit tentatively.

Maria nodded quietly, and then looked to Mystique. "And you?"

"I can also teach you to control your powers", Mystique said smoothly. "I also have contacts in the intelligence field and I might be able to have the records of this incident 'disappear' after the initial heat cools down."

"We might be able ta do that, too", Rogue said.

"If she plays a nice little thunderbolt and goes into the hero game with the X-Men so she can get a pardon", Mystique retorted. "Nice blackmail, Rogue. The apple hasn't fallen far from the tree..."

Rogue's expression turned angry. "Ah'm not blackmailin' her!" she snarled. "But people cain't get pardons 'less they do something good...Ah think."

Mystique rolled her eyes quietly, and then just turned to look at Maria. "I ask nothing of you, Maria. No heroing around, no accompanying me in my...line of work." She made a slight motion around the bar, at the members of the Brotherhood. "This is the Brotherhood that I created, Maria. If you want, you can be a part of it. If you don't -- you are free to walk away any time you wish."

"Any time I want?" Maria asked, a bit suspiciously. "No strings attached?"

"Ask Rogue here", Mystique smiled confidently, turning her eyes to her foster daughter. "She was with us once. She wanted to leave, so I let her." She held a little pause, and then asked, "Am I lying, Rogue?"

Rogue gritted her teeth for a moment, and then turned away with a wrinkle of her nose. "No, she ain't lyin'", she said quietly. "She'll care about ya, an' keep ya safe, an' she'll let you go if'n ya wanna go..." She closed her eyes, and then opened them again, turning to face Mystique with slightly moist eyes. "Please don't do this, Momma?"

"We both know it's the best thing for Maria", Mystique said, brushing a gloved hand over Rogue's cheek. "I raised you well enough, didn't I?"

Rogue took a deep breath, and then looked over to Maria. "She's right... Just...just don't ever think that bein' with her's the only way...there's always another way if'n ya don't want t' do what she'll ask of you -- the X-Men..." She looked to Mystique, and asked, "Ya'll promise to get her in touch with the X-Men if she asks?"

"You have my word, Rogue", Mystique said affectionately.

"All right", Rogue said, lowering her eyes to the floor. "Ah'm gonna leave." She glanced towards the door, then to Maria. "Take care, Maria." Then, her eyes went to Mystique. "Love ya, Momma." With that, she flew out one of the holes in the wall, and within seconds was a dot in the sky.

Mystique looked over to Maria, and extended her hand towards the young girl. "We'd better leave, too. I know a place nearby where you can catch some sleep."

Maria took a deep breath, and then stood up, her legs shaking underneath her. Tentatively, her fingers touched Mystique's gloved hand, and then their hands gripped each other firmly.

"Ya goin' already, Misty?" Fred asked, lighting a cigar.

"Always and never, Fred", Mystique replied, glancing over her shoulder at him from the door. "I'll always be going somewhere, but I'll never leave you. You're my team", she said, letting her eyes go over each member of the Brotherhood. "My family." With that, she and Maria Muradyan walked out of the /Bar with No Name/.


Upstairs, unaware of it all, St John Allerdyce slept peacefully for the first time in over a year. His sweaty, virus-scarred chest went up and down as he breathed steadily, a small smile on his face.

A piece of paper was on the nightstand beside the bed. Folded neatly by delicate fingers and placed to stand up, it held the same beautiful handwriting Dominic had read earlier tonight.

/I'll never see you again before you're cured or dead./

/Happy Valentine's Day./

/We'll always have Muir./

"...and the best of friends to do so with", the dying man mumbled in his sleep as he dreamt of Reavers and deaths and blue skin and last words and smiles.


As the sun broke over the horizon in the east, there was a screech of tires as a Jeep pulled up to the parking lot of a hospital. Dominic Petros leaped out of the car, a feverish look in his eyes as he ran towards the front doors of the hospital. His eyes had bags under them. His face was rugged, unshaven. His gaze, feverish, obsessed.

The security guards at the doors blinked at him. The nurses, doctors, patients and visitors he passed in the sanitized corridors, looked at him curiously. Cold sweat made him tense. Hyperventilation made him dizzy. Running made his heart pound and blood rush in his ears. He slammed the door open. "Helen!?!"

"Dominic!" The woman lying on the sickbed sat up suddenly, her face lighting up. "Oh, Dominic! You're here!"

"I told you I'd never leave you", he whispered, a stunned look on his face as he walked over to the bed. Then, his face constricted into an agonized expression, and he put his arms around her, sobbing as he held her tighter than he had ever held her. "God -- thank you, God!" he whimpered. "I thought I'd lost you forever when I collapsed the house on you --"

"I won't ever leave you either, Dominic", she whispered softly, and pulled back slightly to touch her lips to his. "The doctors have told me I've been in a coma ever since --" She swallowed a bit, and caressed his cheeks gently. "Have you -- have you -- moved on with your life?"

"I will never love anyone except you, Helen", he murmured against her lips. "I have always loved you, and you alone. I always will. In sickness and in health."

She smiled and rested her forehead against his. "For better or for worse. I love you too, my angel."

"Happy Valentine's Day, my Heaven. You are where I belong", Dominic Petros said as he pulled his wife into their first kiss in years.


Outside the hospital room, Doctor Nathan Milbury smiled to himself, and then started walking off. (( You owe me, Mystique. And I will come collect nine months from now... ))


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