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Sinister Motives: An Earth 723 Fic

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SINISTER MOTIVES
By Rowena Zahnrei

Chapter One

Sally Sutherland stretched her arms out behind her and leaned back in her chair, listening to her stiff joints popple and crack.

It was shaping up to be another long night, but Sally didn't really mind. The dim light made the small security office seem warm and cozy, and the sound of moving water outside in the treatment tanks was sort of relaxing…as long as she didn't let herself remember how much of it was pouring in from the sewers.

The Jardine Water Treatment and Purification Plant was the largest water treatment facility in the UK. It processed just over a billion gallons of water a day, serving more than seven million consumers in the London and Greater London area. Sally was one of only three guards who worked the night shift. Yet, although it could be lonely at times, and more than a little boring, Sally liked this security job much better than her previous job sorting letters for the Royal Mail. That had been an endless stream of machine noise and chatter in close quarters with at least a dozen co-workers. She'd come home at night so tired and frazzled she'd barely had the energy to crash on the couch, let alone to cook dinner or play with her little daughter, Janey.

Here, she had an entire office to herself and, as long as Janey's father Jack was willing to take the night shift at home and drop Janey off at kindergarten in the morning, Sally could sleep all day, then spend the entire afternoon with her daughter. In fact, tomorrow, she was planning to take Janey to LEGOLAND to see the new Excalibur exhibit in the Hall of Fame. She was pretty curious to see how they managed to model Nightcrawler's tail out of LEGO bricks, and she knew Janey would be excited to see Shadowcat—

A flash of movement caught her eye, and she focused her attention on the security monitors on the control panel before her. She leaned forward and used the control pad to swivel the camera, zooming out to give herself a wider view of the gate.

No one was there. The chain and lock on the gate seemed intact and untouched and, when she switched views, she could see no sign of any unauthorized vehicle in the car park beyond.

"Probably an owl," she muttered to herself.

Still, the rules stated that anything unusual had to be reported to the rest of the night watch team. Sally tapped the communicator on her wrist, opening a channel to Cliff and Aaren...

*******

"Hey, Aaren!"

Aaren Towers looked up from his solitaire game to tap his communicator.

"Yeah, Cliff. What's up?"

"Don't know," Cliff's tinny voice responded. "Jus' got this burst of static over my comm unit. Was wondering if you got one too."

"No, not me," Aaren said, slapping down his remaining cards and rising from his chair. "You hear anything Sal?"

He waited for Sally to respond, then checked his communicator. The channel was open.

"Sally?" he asked again.

"She's not responding," Cliff's voice reported.

"I know that, Cliff," Aaren snapped back. "Check the monitors, see if you can spot her. I'll head to the main office."

"You know, I'll bet she's in the bog," Cliff said. "If we jus' wait a minute or two—"

"Yeah, maybe," Aaren responded, already on his way out the door. "But there's something odd here. Sal's never so much as missed a com check. An' even if she did head to the loo, we're supposed to report whenever—"

"Oi—Aaren! Jus' spotted something on Camera 8," Cliff said. "In the shadows. It might be Sally."

"That's Tank 15. I'll check it out."

Aaren ran out into the chilly night, his boots clanking on the grated metal catwalks that weaved over and around the gaping, churning water tanks. As he ran, he scanned the shadows that lurked beyond the floodlights that illuminated the yard, on the alert for any sign of movement.

"Sally?" he called. "Sal? You out here?"

Footsteps, to the left.

Aaren turned his head, only to feel something cold and solid slam against his shoulder. He spun around, grabbing onto the metal hand rail to keep himself from falling.

But there was no one there. No one he could see, anyway.

"What the—?"

Slapping his communicator, he shouted, "Cliff, hit the alarm! We have an intruder!"

"I'm on it," Cliff answered.

"Aaren?"

That was Sally's voice. She sounded dazed and a little weak. Aaren moved toward the sound until he could see her slender form. She was leaning against the handrail by Tank 15, holding a hand to her head.

"Sal!" he said. "Sally, what happened? Are you all right?"

"I…" She shook her head slowly, her fingers trailing through her brown hair and down her face as she dropped her hand to her side. "I don't know, Aaren. My…my hands were wet but… I—I can't remember how… I don't remember leaving the office…"

Their comm units crackled and Cliff's voice burst through.

"Right, lads, the cops are on their way. They'll want to talk with you as soon as they get here."

"Ta, Cliff," Aaren said, and turned his attention back to Sally. "Come on, Sal, let's get you inside. I'll fetch you a strong cuppa tea."

*******

...Four Months Later...

"Mummy, I don't want that yellow dress. I want to go home!"

Jeanine Prestcote sneezed discretely into the crook of her elbow and pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. She was a slight blonde woman, petite and elegant, but her high heeled boots and brimmed hat made her look much taller than she was. At first glance, her face appeared quite striking, if perhaps a little too heavy on the make up. She had wide green eyes, a small nose, and a broad mouth. But looking closer, it became clear there was something different about her. Her skin seemed oddly stretched, taut, as if she'd had one too many face lift procedures done.

Her daughter was a different story. She looked to be about six years old, with brown hair tied neatly into two long pigtails. But, far from being stretched, her face seemed to droop, sagging from her large blue eyes down to a practically non-existent chin. Her mouth in particular seemed unnaturally broad, especially when she opened it wide in a loud whine.

"Mummy!"

"Jessalyn!" Jeanine scolded through her handkerchief as she wiped her nose. "Please, don't make a scene! Mummy doesn't have the energy for this right now."

"But Mummy," Jessalyn said, "I want to go home! I don't want to try on clothes anymore!"

"Don't you want to look pretty at Dava Walker's birthday party next week?"

"No!" Jessalyn stated. "I don't want to go to Dava's party! Everyone will laugh at me!"

Jeanine looked down at her scowling daughter and crouched to her eye level.

"Who's laughing at you, baby?" she asked.

"Everyone!" Jessalyn cried. "Alex Cabe watched an old vid disk with all these puppets and he said I look like one. Now everyone in my whole class is calling me Muppet, and I don't want to go to the party!"

"Baby, look at me," Jeanine said.

Jessalyn sniffed and wiped her eyes, but looked into her mother's face.

"You are a beautiful, adorable girl," Jeanine told her. "And nothing any of those kids say can change that. Understand?"

"I'm not beautiful," Jessalyn stated. "Not like you."

Jeanine sighed.

"Oh, honey," she said. "I used to look just like you when I was your age. Doctors had to work for years to fix my jaw and cheeks, and they'll help you too baby, even better than they helped me. But you have to know you're beautiful even without the surgeries. You have a beautiful smile and bright, beautiful eyes. And if you believe that about yourself, then it doesn't matter what anyone else says. OK?"

Jessalyn shrugged, and her mother gave her a hug.

"That's my girl," she said. "Now, how would you like to try on that pretty dress?"

"OK," Jessalyn said reluctantly. "But I still don't want to go to the party."

"Well, we'll see how you feel next week."

Jeanine sneezed again and rubbed her forehead.

"And how I feel. Ooh, I cannot afford to get sick right now."

"Mummy?" Jessalyn asked.

"Yeah, honey," Jeanine said as she counted the dresses she'd collected in her shopping cart and draped them over her arm.

"Mummy, that lady's staring at us."

Jeanine looked over her shoulder toward where her daughter was pointing. The Kingston TK Maxx was a big store, and there were a lot of shoppers milling around, but Jeanine's sharp eyes caught the gawker right away.

Realizing she'd been spotted, the brunette stranger averted her eyes and pretended to be fascinated by a nearby mannequin display.

Jeanine growled a little and grabbed her daughter's hand.

"Don't let her bother you, Jessalyn," she said. "Come on, let's go to the changing rooms. Once we're in these pretty clothes, they'll really have something to stare at."

Jessalyn gave a little smile and trailed her mother to the dressing room attendant.

"We have five dresses to try on," Jeanine told the bored-looking woman, who nodded and handed her a purple plastic card with a white 5 painted on it. Jeanine smiled and thanked her and led Jessalyn inside.

The brunette stranger watched them disappear around the corner, then grabbed a sweater off the nearest rack.

"One," she told the dressing room attendant, accepting her yellow card and striding calmly inside.

Barely five minutes later, she walked out, dressed in a completely different wardrobe. She slid the yellow card across the yawning attendant's desk and walked calmly toward the check-out.

It was only when the next customer came up for a card that the attendant noticed dark blood spots on the yellow plastic. And by then, the brunette stranger was long gone.

To Be Continued...

Reviews Welcome! :)

Chapter Text

Marta Wagner burst into the sitting room in a BAMF of purplish smoke.

"Suzie!" she exclaimed, slightly breathless. "I knew I'd find you here. Where's Dad?"

Marta's younger sister, Ingrid Susan Wagner, was staring at the wall-sized 3D viewscreen, watching uniformed groups of animated characters blast each other with super-charged energy rays. The surround-sound speakers were going full volume, and Marta had to shout to be heard.

"What?" Suzie shouted back, groping for the remote with a hand as pale as the moon. Lowering the volume, she turned to face her sister, her golden eyes narrowed in her thin, elfish face. "What do you want, Marti? I'm trying to watch a show here!"

"I need to find Dad!" Marti repeated, her long, spaded tail swaying anxiously behind her.

"So?" Suzie said, casually flicking a strand of azure blue hair behind her pointed ear. "Go find him, then!"

Marti clenched her pointed teeth.

"I will, if you can tell me where he is."

"Well, he was here until a few minutes ago. Then, I think he got a call."

Marti rolled her night-goggle green eyes.

"Terrific," she said. "Where'd he take it?"

"How should I know?" Suzie snapped, her eyes drifting back to her show. "He left, I changed the channel, end of story. Why do you want him so badly anyway?"

"A priority call just came in," Marta said. "Priority A, actually."

Suzie raised her blue eyebrows.

"Ooh, sounds big. Any clue what it's about?"

"Nope. They won't talk to anyone but Dad."

Suzie scowled.

"Well, that's hardly fair. But I suppose you could try outside," she offered. "The front steps, near the drive. You know how Dad likes to pace out there when he gets a private call."

The indigo-furred teenager shot her sister a toothy smile.

"Good thinking. Thanks."

Suzie just turned the volume back up, no longer interested in her sister's mission.

BAMF!

Marta appeared on the manicured lawn outside Braddock Manor, facing the broad front steps. Sure enough, her father, Kurt Wagner, was pacing there in long graceful strides, his indigo tail thrashing behind him in agitation as he spoke into his comm unit.

"Dad!" Marti exclaimed, and dashed over to him on all fours. "Dad, I need you to—"

"Not now, Marti," Kurt said, waving her away with a thick, three-fingered hand without breaking his conversation. He was speaking to whoever was on the other end in rapid, colloquial German, his words flowing so quickly Marti had to really concentrate to figure out what he was saying.

["Why can't you just wait?"] he said, pacing across the stone landing at the top of the stairs then walking up the ancient brick wall before turning around and pacing back the way he'd come. ["You know we're coming down there next month. We could take the boxes then."]

"Dad?" Marta tried again, bobbing up and down on her fuzzy, two-toed feet. But he just kept talking.

["It wouldn't be any trouble. The jet has plenty of cargo space. Honestly, Mutti, I—"]

"Dad."

["I just think it's a lot of trouble and expense for nothing. You have the entire summer to get ready for the—"]

"Dad!"

["I know that, Papa. I know. And you're right too, Mutti. Excalibur could be called up at any time. But that has always been the case and we still managed to come down to see you at least once a year…"]

"Dad!"

["I know our schedule is unpredictable, but we've already made the plans… Brian is more than capable of taking care of things while we're away…"]

"DAD!"

"WHAT?!" Kurt exploded at last, fixing her with a blazing golden glare. "What is it, Marta!"

"I just thought you might want to know that Commander Thomas is on Priority A and he's asking for you. You can take the call in the Control Room."

"Ach, Gott..."

Kurt ran a harried hand through his short, indigo curls.

[Yes. Yes, Mutti. Your point has been proven. OK. OK, send the boxes! It is your money after all. I just hoped to save you some trouble—

"Yes, Papa, I understand. I love you too. Yes, I'll tell them. Yes, Mutti. I have to go now, though— I love you. Bye.]

"ARGH!"

"What was all that about?" Marta asked.

Kurt sighed.

"Your Oma and Opa are going to be moving—"

"Moving?!" Marti exclaimed. "But…why?! I love that old house by the river!"

"Ja, so do I," Kurt said in his light Bavarian accent. "This is the first they have told me of their plans as well. They've already started cleaning the attic and sorting things out. They called to let me know they are going to be sending me some of my old things from when I was a child."

Marti tilted her head.

"But couldn't we just pick that stuff up when we go to visit next month?"

"Of course we can!" Kurt said, sounding as if he'd just been vindicated. "And, that's what I told them! But you know how your Oma can get when she is cleaning..."

Marta smiled and chuckled behind her hand.

Kurt caught her smile and returned it with one of his own.

"Ja, well, enough of this family drama. What was it Commander Thomas wanted?"

"You." Marti said.

Kurt shot her a look.

"That's all I know, honest!" she said. "He wouldn't say anything more. At least, not to a lowly Junior International X-Man like me."

Kurt sighed.

"All right, all right. I'll go take his call. In the meantime, I want you to gather up the rest of the team and tell them to prep the Blackbird. The way this day has been going, I've a feeling we'll be needing it sooner or later."

Marti snapped to attention with a sharp salute.

"Jawohl," she said.

Kurt smiled and ruffled her bright red curls.

"I'll count on you, then," he said, and disappeared in a BAMF of smoke. A moment later, a grinning Marti followed his lead.

*******

BAMF!

Nightcrawler appeared in Excalibur's expansive Control Room, deep in the heart of Braddock Manor. Stepping forward, he tapped the flashing Priority icon on the comm station's flat panel keypad with the spade of his tail, then used one thick finger to type in his ID code and password.

Instantly, the dim room was illuminated by a broad, holographic viewscreen projected by the complicated computer system built into the walls. Within the viewscreen floated the broad shoulders and stern, jowly countenance of Commander Dai Thomas of Scotland Yard.

"Wagner," the scowling man grunted. "'S about time."

"Dai! Guten Tag! I see you are your usual jovial self this morning." Nightcrawler greeted his old friend with a smile. "What's the emergency?"

"'S'not good, that's what it is," Dai said grimly.

Nightcrawler's smile dimmed.

"Kurt, how quick can you get your team down to London?"

"Twenty minutes," the IX-MO Colonel said without hesitation. "Why? Where are you?"

"Kingston. The TK Maxx on Clarence Street." The weary cop looked deeply angry. "Tell your team…there's been another murder. Can't tell officially 'till the tests come back, but jus' from looking I'd say the vic's a mutant. That's why I called you."

Nightcrawler nodded, his golden eyes burning with an inner fire that more than matched Dai's.

"Another hate crime, then?" he asked, his white fangs slightly bared. "Same M.O.?"

Dai grunted his affirmative.

"You better be prepared, Kurt," the hardened police officer warned him. "Whoever this perp is, it seems he's escalatin'. This scene ain't pretty."

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

"Isn't it great?" Forge said. The wiry Native American grinned like a proud papa as he leaned against the curved, transparent aluminum window that separated Excalibur's new observation deck from the completely redesigned Training Room below. "The whole thing's outfitted with cutting edge Simul-Gram technology, at least four years ahead of its time!"

"So, you've finally got it up and running?" Kitty Pryde Stuart asked, unable to hide her excitement. "Does this mean you've actually solved the problem? Because the last time we tried to upgrade the Training Room, the Manor's antiquated electrical system couldn't take it. We nearly frazzled the circuits for good."

"Hey, it's me, remember? Mechanical Marvel, Engineer Extraordinaire," the robotically-inclined mutant bragged, casually crossing his mechanical arm and leg over his flesh-and-blood limbs. "And I didn't just fix the problem, I obliterated it. Your problem was this old place was built back in the B-E times: before electricity. When I went crawling around, I found remnants of the old tubes that used to provide gas light to some of the bigger rooms, and it seems when electricity came into vogue the electricians pretty much took advantage of the gas system that was already in place to make the conversion. Well, I changed all that. This entire Manor has been brought up to date, so now your power flow can be juiced up to the max with no worries about burn outs or blown fuses—or even storms, for that matter!"

Kitty clasped her hands together with a squeal of joy.

"Finally!" she said. "Oh my God, I can't wait to try it out!"

"Why wait?" Forge asked. "The system's ready for a trial run. Do you have any particular programs in mind?"

Kitty thought for a moment.

"Well, Doug had an idea for a training exercise the other day—a sort of capture the flag team-challenge sort of thing."

Forge's brown eyes lit up.

"Doug—yeah! That little blond kid—the one who can pick up any language. He's been tagging around after me like a lost puppy the past few days, asking all sorts of questions. But he never said anything about being into computers."

Kitty smiled.

"Doug's talents aren't limited to human communication. We call him Cypher. He's got a strong talent for machine languages and computer codes as well. In fact, I've been working with him pretty closely since Scott sent him and those other newbies over here for training. I'll bet if we put our heads together, we could whip up a sim program that would stretch your Simul-Gram system to its limits by tomorrow."

Forge grinned a toothy grin that gave his darkly stubbled face a roguish look.

"That sounds—"

BAMF!

Kitty and Forge both jumped at the unexpected explosion in the shadows at the other end of the dimly lit space.

"Pooph, I know that sulfur stink," Forge said with a smile. "That you, Kurt?"

"No, it's me," Marta said. "Auntie Kitty, I—"

"Marti!" Kitty gave her a welcoming wave. "It's OK. Come on over here. Your Uncle Forge has just proved his genius once again. At long last, the much neglected European branch of the International X-Men Organization finally has its own working training simulator."

That took Marti aback for a moment.

"We do? You mean, like that brilliant Danger Room at IX-MO Headquarters in New York? The one Uncle Scott said was restricted to 'experienced IX-MO officers only' last time we were there?"

"Better," Forge told her with a grin. "The one Cyke's got is last year's model. This one's fully upgraded, with cutting edge holo-projection emitters. Step into this baby and you guys won't be able to tell the difference between the simulation and reality."

"Fantastic!" Marti exclaimed. "And do we all get to use it? Even the Junior X-Men and the trainees?"

"That's what it's here for," Kitty said. "To train you kids—get you ready for real missions in the real world the same way your father, Scott, and I were trained by Professor Xavier back in the old Bayville days."

Marti pressed a three-fingered hand to her chest.

"I may faint," she said, and giggled. Running to the curved window, she leaned forward and looked out over the expansive metallic space, her long tail swaying behind her.

"Oh, but this is brilliant! When do we get to try it out?"

"Tomorrow, if Doug and I can whip up a new program," Kitty told her.

Marti beamed.

"Yes! We have to tell everyone! I can go find—oh, oops!"

The teenager flushed darkly beneath her fine, fuzzy fur.

"Oh, sorry Auntie Kitty, I almost forgot. I already have a message. It's from Dad. He wants the team to assemble in the hangar and prep the Blackbird for takeoff."

Forge tilted his head curiously. The middle-aged mutant wasn't a member of Excalibur, or even the X-Men, officially—more of a technical attaché with his own thriving business as a freelance consultant and inventor. But no matter how crazy his schedule, Forge was always happy to lend a hand to his friends at IX-MO.

"You guys got a new mission?"

"I think so, but I don't know any of the details," Marti said. "All I know is Commander Thomas was asking for Dad on the Priorty A channel. He's talking to him now."

Kitty sighed and cast a longing glance over her shoulder at the empty training space.

"Sorry, Forge," she said. "You know how it is. Who've you collected so far?" she asked Marti.

"You and Mum, Uncle Alistaire, and Dr. MacTaggert," she said. "I haven't been able to find Uncle Brian. Do you know where he is?"

"You might check the lighthouse," Kitty suggested. "He's been spending a lot of time out there lately."

Marti nodded.

"Right, I'll check it out. Let me know when the simulation program's ready, though. I want to be the first to try it!"

The indigo teenager grinned, then teleported away, creating a soft implosion as the air rushed to fill the space she'd left: BAMF!

*******

The Nexus Lighthouse stood tall and gleaming white on its rocky island, some three miles out from Braddock Manor. The turbulent sea churned and splashed around the island's base, its salty spray misting the grasses at the top of the rugged cliffside.

Betsy Braddock closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, leaning over the safety rail that ringed the top of the lighthouse so the playful wind could catch and lift her purple hair.

"Mmmm, I love the smell of the sea," she purred. "Do you remember, Brian, when we were younger, how I would stand at the edge of the cliff that marked the end of our property. I would inch forward until I could feel the wind under my toes, then spread my arms and dream that I could fly."

"Sure I remember," her muscular twin grunted, his blue eyes disapproving in his chiseled face. "Nearly sent our father into a conniption, you did. And you'll do the same to me if you don't step back from that railing."

"Oh, but Brian, it isn't fair," Betsy said in her most petulant voice. "That you get to be Captain Britain and wear that special suit that lets you fly whenever you want. You get to have all these powers—"

"You could have had them too, Betsy," Brian said, crossing his burly arms over his broad chest. "The suit fits the wearer. If you'd accepted Roma's offer, become an agent of Otherworld, you would have had one of your own. But you wanted to become a fashion model, a walking clothes hanger for all the trumped up tailors of Milan, Paris, New York, Tokyo, and London."

"I was young, Brian," Betsy said, turning to face him and leaning her elbows casually on the railing behind her. "Young and foolish and dazzled by the flash of the cameras, the lure of fame's siren song."

"And you achieved that fame," Brian said. "You're a major supermodel. I don't understand what you're complaining about, Betsy. It's not like you don't have powers of your own."

"My telepathy, do you mean?" Betsy said, a delicate glow of energy appearing around her violet eyes like a butterfly-shaped mask. She blinked and the energy mask faded.

"That's nothing. I still can't fly. Not the way that you do."

"But, I can't leave the UK, Betsy," Brian said. "Not for extended periods and never without my suit. And while I am here, I must guard this lighthouse—"

"I never did understand all that fuss about this old lighthouse," Betsy said, coiling her long purple hair around her fingers. "That trandsimensional nonsense about this structure existing in every reality simultaneously, throughout the multiverse…"

"This lighthouse is like a pin, fastening this world to all other possible realities," Brian said. "Here, the walls between realities are exceptionally thin and weak. If I were not here to maintain this structure, those walls would begin to break down—"

"Allowing weird, dangerous creatures to cross over from their reality to ours, I know." Betsy sighed. "But couldn't that Roma woman just assign one of her own Otherworld bureaucrats as custodian? Isn't it Otherworld's job to keep the realities in balance?"

"I am Otherworld's agent here in Britain," Brian said firmly. "And I take my duties seriously. That is why, twin sister or not, you cannot borrow my suit."

Betsy's eyes widened.

"Your suit? But who said anything about—"

"You didn't have to say it. I know when I'm being finagled, especially by my own sister. Now, I want you to get this clear in your head. You can not borrow my suit. If you want to fly, take a plane or ask me and I'll fly you out here with me. And all the blinking, pouting, posing, finagling, manipulating and blackmailing in the world won't change my mind. Are we clear?"

Betsy rolled her violet eyes.

"Oh, quite clear," she said with a pout. "You never were one for sharing, even when we were children."

"This isn't about sharing, it's about responsibility," Brian said. "And you would know that if you had any sense of the meaning of that word."

"What, 'responsibility'?" Betsy snorted. "Sure, I know responsibility. In fact, that's really why I dropped by today. I figured it was about time I took some on. Started to give back, as it were."

"What do you mean?" Brian asked warily.

"We're not getting any younger, dear," Betsy said. "And this modeling lark just isn't as rewarding as it used to be. That's why I was thinking…"

"What?"

"Maybe it's time I move back home. Join Excalibur. Become an X-Man. Or, rather, an X-Woman."

She slid her hand to her hip and smiled.

Brian closed his eyes and pinched his nose.

"Betsy…" he started.

BAMF!

Betsy clapped a manicured hand over her heart.

"Dear Lord, what was that? Did the light bulb blow?"

"Sounded more like that fuzzy German hobgoblin to me," Brian grunted.

"I'm not German, I'm English, just like you," Marta said, stepping out of the glass lantern room onto the balcony. "Hi, Uncle Brian. You're wanted back at the Manor. The team's meeting in the hangar."

Betsy's eyes widened at the sight of the long-tailed redhead.

"Is that—? But it can't be Marti! Little Marti Wagner, is that you?"

"Aunt Betsy!" Marti grinned and ran into Betsy's open arms. "Wow, when did you get here?"

Betsy gave the girl a warm squeeze, then held her back at arm's length to get a good look at her.

"When did you get so big?" the supermodel exclaimed. "Why, you're nearly as tall as I am. How old are you now? Fourteen? Fifteen?"

"Sixteen," Marta told her.

"No!" Betsy said. "Why, I was just one year older than you are now when I started out on my modeling career! Can you believe it, Brian?" she asked, and looked at her scowling brother. "Little Marti is sweet sixteen!"

"I do live here, Betsy," he said. "And if you had deigned to grace us with your presence more often you would know not only Marta's age, but Samuel's and Eliza's as well."

Betsy let Marta go and tilted her head.

"Your little twins? Well, if Marta's sixteen, then they couldn't be more than…"

"They're eighteen, Betsy," Brian said. "Your niece and nephew are eighteen years old."

"Impossible!" Betsy stated. "Well, that settles it then. I am definitely moving back home!"

Marta's jaw dropped and she let out an excited squeal.

"What, really? You mean you—Psylocke—you're going to be living at the Manor with us?"

Brian frowned.

"That hasn't been decided yet—"

"You bet, kiddo," Betsy talked over him, shooting Marta her biggest smile. "It's time."

"Now Betsy…" Brian warned.

"Brian dear, lend me your shoulder, won't you?"

"What?" Brian started, but Betsy grabbed his shoulder and jumped up, forcing him to catch her in his arms. "Huh? What do you think you're—"

"Fly me home, Captain Britain," the supermodel said, wriggling herself into a more comfortable position. "Marti, do you need a lift? I'm sure my brother would be more than happy to oblige."

"No, I can make it on my own. Great to see you again, Aunt Betsy! I can't wait to tell everyone the fantastic news!"

BAMF!

Betsy gasped as the girl vanished in a puff of smoke.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I don't know if I can get used to that."

"Well, if you hope to join Excalibur, you're going to have to," Brian grunted. "Right, hold tight. I'll fly you home."

*******

Dr. Moira MacTaggert's sneeze resonated across Excalibur's cavernous jet hangar. The spectacled Scotswoman patted her pockets in search of a tissue, but Professor Alistaire Stuart beat her to it, holding out a clean blue handkerchief for her to take.

"Here you go," the lanky physicist said, and sneezed himself, nearly knocking his wire-rimmed glasses off his face. "Agg, God," he sniffled, holding a hand over his nose.

Dr. MacTaggert let go of the hanky, but Alistaire shook his head.

"Doe, doe, take id," he insisted. "Id's all ride. I hab anoder."

"Thangks," Dr. MacTaggert said, bringing the handkerchief to her nose.

"Oh no," Kitty said, holding a cool hand to her husband's head as Alistaire blew his nose into a red handkerchief. "Do you still have that cold? Honey, if you're sick, maybe you should stay home."

"No, I think it's getting better," Alistaire assured her. "I'm all right."

"As am I," Dr. MacTaggert said, tucking the blue handkerchief into her pocket.

Kitty still seemed concerned.

"I don't know. Alice, Meggan and I were watching a report on the news this morning, about that weird summer flu that's been going around. Five people have already died from it, and they still don't have a vaccine out."

"Kitty, there's an old doctor's sayin'," Dr. MacTaggert told her. "If it looks like a horse, sounds like a horse, smells like a horse and walks like a horse, it's probably going to be a horse, not a zebra. Alistaire and I have caught a touch of the summer sniffles, that's all. I've got me eye on it. If our symptoms get any worse, I'll see we take the proper steps."

"What if you're too sick?" Kitty asked.

"Then I shall tell young Eliza to take the proper steps," Dr. MacTaggert retorted. "The lass has been doing a fine job in her nursin' classes, and has become a big help to me."

Kitty frowned.

"Hm. My husband's life in the hands of a hyper-emotional teenaged girl. Somehow, I am not reassured."

"Calm down, love," Alistaire said, taking her arm. "You're making a Category 5 hurricane out of a mere sneeze."

Kitty sighed and leaned into him until she was resting her head on his shoulder.

"You're probably right," she said. "But I think I have a right to worry when—"

"OK, Betsy, here we are! Excalibur's hangar," Alice Wagner announced, striding into the cavernous space with Brian Braddock, his wife Meggan, and his sister Betsy in tow.

Alice's grandparents had come from India, but she and both her parents had been born and raised in Northumberland, in the north of England. Now in her mid-forties, Alice's smooth copper skin showed little sign of aging, and her long braid was still jet black. Her hair was tied back with a thick red ribbon and, like her companions (with the exception of Captain Britain and Betsy), she wore the standard form-fitting black, gold, and red uniform of an IX-MO officer with Excalibur's insignia printed over the left side: the word EXCALIBUR in gold, outlined in red with one long, silver sword running horizontally through the letters and two shorter swords crossed to form the 'X'. Brian wore his own special suit, mostly white with the colors of the Union Jack crossed over his chest, arms, and the mask that covered his chiseled face and butter-blond hair. Betsy was dressed in ordinary clothes—if an expensive designer top and jeans could be called ordinary.

"Sorry we're late, but as you can see we had an unexpected guest drop in—" Alice started, then paused as her eyes drifted over the gathered group. "Wait a moment. Where's Kurt?"

"I'm here, I'm here," came Kurt's accented voice as the indigo mutant jogged into the hangar. "If the jet's prepped, let's hop on board. We need to be in Kingston-Upon-Thames in fifteen minutes."

Captain Britain stepped forward.

"Why?" he asked. "What's going on?"

Nightcrawler stopped half-way up the ramp that led into the Blackbird.

"I will brief you all on the details once we are in the air," he said. "But it seems our mutant killer has struck again—this time in a department store. Commander Thomas wants Excalibur on the scene."

"AAACCHOOOO!" Alistaire sneezed.

Nightcrawler looked from him to Kitty, noting the concerned look on Shadowcat's face.

"Alistaire," he said, "you stay here. I left Marta in charge of the kids, but I'd like you here as well, just in case."

Shadowcat's expression noticeably relaxed.

"You can talk with Forge," Shadowcat suggested, giving his hand a squeeze. "I'm sure he'll be glad of the company of a fellow scientist."

"What about Betsy?" Alistaire said. "Surely she's not going."

"Betsy?" Nightcrawler looked at the supermodel in surprise. "When did you get here?"

"I arrived this morning," Betsy said. "But, I can see this isn't a good time for welcomes. I can wait here with Alistaire until you lot get back."

Nightcrawler nodded.

"Sehr gut," he said, and started back up the ramp. "The rest of you, let's go. I've already cleared our flight path, and Dai's arranged for us to land the Blackbird in the car park."

As Nightcrawler disappeared into the jet, Kitty kissed Alistaire's cheek.

"Get some rest," she said, joining the others as they filed up the ramp.

Alistaire and Betsy watched as the curved ceiling opened wide. The sleek, black jet powered up and lifted off, rising straight up into the clear, blue sky. A moment later, the powerful machine was little more than a deafening memory fading into the distance.

"They'll be back soon enough," Betsy said, smiling at Alistaire as she led him out of the hanger and back into the main building. "Come on. Let's go see what those kids are up to."

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

The paramedics had the dressing room attendant sitting on a chair by the handbag displays while they monitored her pulse. The plump, brightly dressed woman was still shaking, clearly in shock.

"She—she walked right b-by mm-me," she stammered to the tall, grim detective recording her statement. "S-She walked b-by me an' I—I didn't notice, I didn't see… B-but then, that other c-customer w-went in an'— And she…she screamed an' I… Oh, oh God!" She covered her eyes quickly, as if trying to block the image in her head. "Oh my God, there was so—so much b-blood!"

"Is there anything you can tell me about the suspect's face?" the detective asked calmly. "What she looked like, what she was wearing…?"

The woman shook her head, struggling to focus.

"I…I don't know. She had, erm, short hair—brown, I think. She was thin, but not bone thin, she had some meat on her."

"You think you could describe her to our sketch artist?"

"Er, I might. If you think it's all right…?" She glanced nervously at the paramedic, who had been holding her wrist throughout the interview.

"You're fine to go," the uniformed woman said. "But don't push her too hard," she warned the detective. Looking back at the dressing room attendant, she said, "I want you to take it easy for the next few days. Nothing strenuous or stressful. If you have trouble sleeping, come see us at the hospital. We'll get you a prescription and someone to talk with. Post-traumatic stress is no joke."

The attendant nodded and the paramedic helped her to her feet. The detective took her arm and started to lead her slowly toward the department store's exit.

"Come on," he said, "I'll take you to our sketch artist."

As they left, Commander Dai Thomas strode in through the electric doors, followed closely by the Excalibur team. The stocky man walked quickly up the vinyl tiled aisle with his chin down and his fists shoved deeply into the pockets of his long, beige trench coat.

"Bloody vultures," he grumbled, still irritated after being barraged by the press and by the dense crowds that had gathered outside.

The center of Kingston-Upon-Thames was a major tourist draw; an ancient market town just across the River Thames from Hampton Court Palace, with an eclectic mix of historic buildings, sandwich shops, fine restaurants, an open market and a large, modern mall arranged around its broad, cobblestone streets. TK Maxx was right on the corner of all that, and the crowds of noon-time shoppers had certainly taken notice of the fleet of cop cars, ambulances, forensic vans, and fire trucks that had set up a cordon around the closed-off block. Just a little further down the street, closer to the car park Dai had ordered cleared to provide Excalibur a landing space for the Blackbird, a small cavalcade of news vans, their satellite dishes raised high, served as a base for the reporters who had rushed to cover the breaking story.

Nightcrawler had managed to avoid most of the worst of what could have been a dangerous logistical nightmare by having Captain Britain and Meggan fly over the crowds while he teleported the rest of the team directly onto the concrete ramp that led up to the department store's entrance. That hadn't stopped a few of the more daring reporters from trying to break through the police barrier to snag an interview, though. Nightcrawler had dispatched Captain Britain, the team's unofficial public relations liaison, to go placate them with a few soundbites while the rest of the team followed Dai up the ramp.

"Alas, the price of fame," Dr. MacTaggert had sighed, and sneezed into her handkerchief.

"Ja," Nightcrawler had answered, his golden eyes scanning the faces of the cheering, shouting crowd as they jostled each other for the best view of the superheroes. "But if we must draw the public's attention, I'd rather it be like this than the fear and anger the X-Men faced before the war."

"Aye, and no question," the doctor had agreed. "But this is a murder case, Kurt. Reactions like this eclipse our purpose here. We are not performers, after all, but agents of the law."

"Undoubtedly," Nightcrawler had said. "But you must admit there is a degree of showmanship expected of us. It inspires trust. We are billed as their national heroes, after all. And Excalibur's open, approachable image is a big part of what has earned us their respect, and allowed us to maintain it."

"Perhaps you're right—about the public," Dr. MacTaggert had said. "But it's not always the same with the police."

Now, as they followed Commander Thomas past the store's display mannequins, stuffed shelves, and racks of colorful clothing, Dai's bitter attitude seemed to be proving her right.

"An' you lot don't help matters," the cop grumbled as they walked, "buzzin' around in that flashy jet of yours, grabbin' the attention of the whole town! Bad enough dealin' with the crowds out there already, without turnin' a media circus into a bloody feedin' frenzy."

Shadowcat shrugged.

"Well, what can we say? It comes with the job."

Dai shot her a look.

"Yeah, yours maybe. But in general the people don't tend to cheer like that when we cops show up."

"Now, Dai, you know us better than that," Nightcrawler said. "You called us in as professionals, and we are here to help you however we can. So, tell us: what is the situation?"

Dai sighed, his expression grim.

"Probably better I show you," he said, and led the way into the thick of the investigation. Uniformed forensic experts covered the area, combing the carpet, taking pictures, using special light wands to hunt for fingerprints and blood spots. Dai stepped over one as he headed toward a dark-skinned police officer standing by the door to the main crime scene: the woman's dressing room.

"Crime happened in there, around ten thirty this morning," Dai said with his usual gruffness, gesturing with his thumb toward the dressing room. "Victim's name was Jeanine Prestcote. We know that 'cause the perp left her purse and cards. My lads are in there now, but they'll make room for us. Right, Andrews?"

The uniformed officer nodded and strode into the dressing room. Through the thin walls, they heard him say, "Right you lot, everyone out. The supes are here."

"'Supes'?" Kitty mouthed.

Kurt shrugged. It was only natural for the police to resent them. After all, they did essentially the same job—investigating crimes—with no special powers and very little of the appreciation Excalibur received from the public. The main difference was Excalibur specialized in stopping criminal mutants who often possessed powers that could knock the entire human police force flat.

Which was, in truth, another reason for resentment.

Dai waited until his officers had evacuated the crime scene and Andrews had resumed his place by the door before charging in. Excalibur followed closely, only to jolt back in horror at the sight that met their eyes. The heavy, mineral scent of blood and offal and the early stages of decay hit them like a wall, and Alice coughed behind her hand.

"Mein Gott, Dai, you could have warned us it was this bad!" Nightcrawler snapped.

Dai shrugged.

"I did tell you the scene weren't pretty," he said.

Shadowcat blanched, and Meggan burst into tears, flying from the room with her long, blonde hair trailing behind her.

Nightcrawler grit his teeth, trying very hard for the sake of interdepartmental harmony to hold in exactly what he wanted to say to Dai at that moment.

"Shadowcat, go see to Meggan," he said. "Dr. MacTaggert? Is there anything that you can tell us about…what we are seeing here?"

The spectacled redhead nodded and stepped in closer, then crouched down for a better look at the victim's corpse. As a medical doctor, she had long ago come to terms with the sometimes grisly realities of death, decay, dissection and autopsies, but this scene was enough to rattle even her professional shields.

The victim had been posed on her back, her eyes open, her head tilted to the left. Her torso had been slit from the abdomen up, and her inner organs sorted into neat piles beside her. The blood soaking the dressing room carpet was still tacky, and stained Moira's boots as she moved around the body.

"Och, me poor quine," the Scotswoman whispered sadly as she completed her examination. Rising back to her feet, she turned to her team.

"I believe the victim was strangled first," she reported, her accented voice as clear and professional as she could manage. "By a right-handed attacker. There's bruising on her neck to indicate the killer attacked her from the front, then lay her down. The way the blood's pooled beneath her implies the killer slit her throat from the right after her heart stopped its beatin', then went to work on the rest of her. It's a clever move that, as you see, certainly cut down on the blood spatter an', so long as he wore gloves, would have left the killer relatively unmarked. Whoever this monster is, I'd wager heavily he's had some medical trainin'. The cuts are professional and clean, an' it's obvious from the way he's sorted the viscera around the body he's quite familiar with anatomy. There's jus' a few wee details that disturb me."

Alice raised an eyebrow.

"Just a few?"

"Aye," the doctor said. "There's a kidney missin' here. An' from the way this poor lass's thigh has been split, I'd say the murderer collected a fair portion of bone marrow as well."

"Bone marrow...?" Nightcrawler swallowed hard as the implications hit. "Lieber Gott. Are you saying… Are you telling us that the killer—"

"May well have done this deed with the aim of harvestin' parts?" Dr. MacTaggert finished. "Aye. 'T'would be my theory, at least. An' you say this lass was a mutant?" she asked Dai.

"Well, you can see from her face, the way her skin's so stretched an' all, there's definitely something not-normal about this woman," the cop said. "'S likely what attracted the killer in the first place. Plus the fact the other two homicides have been mutants. But we won't know for sure if this one carries the X-gene 'till the lab sends us their report."

"So, you do believe there to be a connection between these crimes," Nightcrawler said. "That we are in fact dealing with a serial killer?"

"A serial killer that targets physical mutants," Alice added with a frown.

Dai nodded grimly.

"If you take the three crime scenes as a whole," he said, "there's a clear pattern of escalation typical of a burgeoning serial killer. The first vic, Mary Anna Lowell, she was strangled but the only knife wounds on 'er were small cuts around her chest an' abdomen. The second, Chloe Harrow, also strangled, had her throat slit clean through, but there were hesitation marks around the wound. Both women lived an' worked in the London suburbs, both were obviously mutants, an' both were attacked in public places."

"A supermarket bathroom in South Croydon and a New Malden Laundromat, am I right?" Alice asked.

"Yeah," Dai said. "So, 's just possible those two were practice an' this," he indicated the victim's prone body, "was her true intent all along."

Dr. MacTaggert tilted her head.

"Did I jus' hear you right?" she said. "Is our killer a she, then?"

"Could well be," Dai said. "At least, that's accordin' to the only eyewitness we got so far. We've still got the shop's surveillance footage to go through. No CCTV in the dressin' rooms, of course, but the attendant outside said she saw a brown-haired woman enter in here shortly after the vic. She left some minutes later without a word, but she slid a blood-specked plastic chit sort o' thing back over the counter. We've sent it up to our lab for analysis. Woman admits she weren't payin' attention, though, and she claims to have heard nothin' while the crime was goin' on 'though she was perched out there the whole time. Detective Inspector Carlyle's taken her out to our sketch artist jus' in case she did notice somethin' helpful."

"Well that is certainly unusual," Dr. MacTaggert said. "A female serial killer that preys on women."

"Perhaps not so odd if it's part of some underground for-profit organization?" Alice suggested.

"Maybe, maybe not," Dai said. "After all, 's not unusual for psychopaths with this MO to take trophies."

"Dear God." Alice shivered in disgust.

Nightcrawler narrowed his golden eyes, staring down at the sad corpse before them. Lying there, brutally exposed, the murdered woman's body looked so small, so defenseless.

Kurt felt a surge of fury swell in his heart, and he lashed his long tail like a whip. The shadowy mutant looked so intimidating, Dai actually took a step back.

"When we find whoever did this," Kurt growled, his sharp teeth bared, "I pray God will show me His mercy. For I will show none to the monster behind this crime."

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

Shadowcat found Meggan by a round rack of thick, terrycloth bathrobes at the back of the store. The empathic metamorph lay on the carpet, propped on one elbow, her long hair spread out around her like a golden cape.

Meggan Braddock was something of an enigma. Though never shy about showing off her voluptuous figure, she had an innocent, trusting manner that made her come across as more of a child than a mature adult when she spoke. She was prone to tantrums, often flighty and hyper-emotional; yet, when it came down to the wire, she could be as tough and solid as her husband, Brian.

Meggan started life as a foundling child, and had endured a turbulent and abusive childhood. She had never known her real parents, never attended school. Her first experience with formal education came only after she'd had children of her own. Then, she'd followed her twins' classwork, learning as they learned. But although she was bright, and a quick study, Meggan remained more a creature of emotion than intellect. In medieval times, a mutant like her would have been called a wood elf, dryad, or fairy, but the truth was she was a free spirit, able to sense the natural world on a level so primal she could literally lose herself in it, riding her emotions into the sky with the birds, or following them out to sea to frolic and dance with the dolphins. As an IX-MO officer and member of Excalibur, the emotional insights she provided often proved more valuable to the team than the rational explanations of others.

Still, she could be unpredictable and, as a metamorph, her mood could alter her shape. For that reason, Shadowcat approached her slowly, unsure if she would be greeted by Meggan's own pale, elfish face under all that hair, or attacked by a ghoulish manifestation of fear or depression.

"Meggan?" she said softly, reaching out a hand to tentatively touch her friend's shoulder. "Hey, Meggs, it's me, Kitty. Are you all right?"

Meggan stirred, and turned to face her teammate. Kitty breathed a private sigh of relief. Meggan was still her own, striking self and, better yet, she had stopped crying.

"Kitty!" Meggan smiled, scooting over and patting the carpet, inviting Kitty to join her on the floor. Kitty shrugged and sat cross-legged in front of the fluffy, full-length bathrobes.

Meggan lay back down, peering into the darkness under the robes.

"What are you doing?" Kitty asked.

"I'm letting my friend know it's all right," Meggan spoke from the floor. "That you're with me and you don't want to hurt her."

"Your friend?" Kitty said, and frowned. "Is there somebody hiding in there?"

Shadowcat reached out to push the robes aside, but Meggan quickly slapped her arms away.

"No!" she exclaimed. "You can't! Don't you see—it's safe in there! Safe and warm and dark, with the good smell of new clothes. The bad lady can't find her there."

"Bad lady?" Kitty pressed her cheek to the floor like Meggan, squinting to force her vision to adjust to the darkness behind the robes. A pair of wide, frightened eyes blinked back at her—the vulnerable brown eyes of a child.

Kitty gasped in surprise.

"Meggan, there's a kid in there!"

"I know that," Meggan said. "I found her. The poor dear's terrified. But she trusts me. Don't you, ducky?"

The shadowy little face seemed to nod.

"Why don't you come out, sweetheart?" Kitty asked, her voice as gentle as she could make it. "Whatever happened before, you're safe now. We're here, and the police are here. No bad people can get to you."

The child backed away, deeper into the shadows.

"No!" Meggan cried, linked to the girl on an emotional level. "She can't come out. She's waiting for her mummy to find her."

"Her mummy?" Kitty winced as the implications hit. "Oh, God. Oh no. Don't tell me her mom's the…"

She didn't have to finish the thought. The look in Meggan's deep, blue eyes was confirmation enough.

Kitty sighed and rubbed her temples.

"She can't stay in there, Meggan," she said. "We have to find a way to coax her out."

"Why?" Meggan asked. "She's calm in there. Protected."

"No, Meggan, she isn't," Kitty insisted. "If she saw who hurt her mother, the police need to get her statement. Besides that, just look at how she's shaking. The poor kid's probably in shock. We need to get her checked out by the paramedics before they pack up and go, or at least have Moira take a look at her."

Meggan looked torn, trapped between Kitty's determination and the child's intense fear. Finally, she sighed and nodded.

"You're right, Kitty," she said. "Just give us a moment, will you?"

The full-figured woman crawled through the robes, leaving Kitty sitting outside on the floor. About two minutes later she emerged, this time with the little girl. She sat cross-legged and the girl crawled straight into her lap, wrapping her arms around the metamorph's neck and burying her face in her shoulder. All Kitty could see of her was her long, brown pigtails.

"This is Jessalyn," Meggan said, holding the little girl close. "And she's decided she wants to come home with us."

*******

The moment Dai led them away from the crime scene and back out into the main store, Alice pulled her husband aside.

"Kurt," she said, "I need to talk with you."

Kurt narrowed his eyes in concern.

"What is wrong, Schatz?"

"It's that crime scene," she said. "I didn't want to say this in front of Dai, but it looked familiar to me. Like…like something I've seen before. In a photograph."

"A photograph?"

"Yes," Alice said. "In a book I read on the Whitechapel Murderer."

The German mutant looked a little lost.

"I'm afraid I don't understand."

"The Whitechapel Murderer, Kurt!" Alice whispered, glancing around furtively to make sure none of the cops were listening. "You know, Leather Apron? Jack the Ripper?"

"Jack the— Nein! You mean the serial killer who murdered London prostitutes back in Victorian times?"

Alice shook her head.

"I don't mean I think Jack the Ripper did this. I'm saying the crime scene resembles one of his jobs. Catharine Eddowes."

"Alice—"

"No, listen," she said. "The Ripper strangled his victims before cutting them up, and he was known to take trophies. In Catharine Eddowes' case, it was a kidney."

"What are you suggesting, then?" Kurt asked. "That our killer is a copycat? A female Jack the Ripper fanatic?"

Alice scrunched a hand through her hair.

"No. No, I don't know what I'm suggesting," she said. "It's probably nothing, anyway. But I thought I should tell you, because it's all I could think about while we were in there. Everything Moira said about how the crime happened—how the victim was attacked from the front, how the killer laid her down, how her throat was cut—everything! It was as if she was reading a page from that book! And no one here seems to have picked up on it...well, except for me."

Kurt pursed his lips, his long tail swinging back and forth behind him.

"All right," he said. "Perhaps there is something of a correlation between the two crimes. But, to think that a murder that old could have anything to do with our crime scene—"

"It's far-fetched, I know," Alice said. "I'm just putting it out there."

"And I appreciate it," Kurt told her. "But for now, I think we should just concentrate on— Lieber Gott!"

"What is it?" Alice asked, turning see what had caught Kurt's attention. Before she could react, Dai Thomas beat her to it.

"What the hell is this!" the stocky cop exclaimed. "Where did that child come from?"

Meggan and Kitty stopped in the middle of the aisle, Meggan still holding Jessalyn, who clung to the empathic metamorph as if her life depended on it.

Kitty took a step forward.

"This is Jessalyn Prestcote," she announced. "The victim's daughter."

"God, look at 'er face," one of the forensics experts said. "If we doubted the vic were a mutant before, I think we've got our proof now."

Kitty glared daggers at the man who'd spoken, waiting for him to look away before she continued.

"We found her hiding in a clothes rack at the back of the store. Apparently, she witnessed her mother's murder."

"Mein Gott," Kurt said. "The poor child."

"She's pretty traumatized," Kitty said. "I haven't been able to get her to say a word. But she seems to have bonded with Meggan."

"Brilliant, just bloody brilliant," Dai snarled. "That damn attendant never said anything about a kid! But if she saw the murderer, she's our witness. You'll have to turn her over to our custody."

"Now, jus' a minute Commander Thomas," Dr. MacTaggert spoke up. "What about contactin' the child's father?"

"Her father died," Meggan volunteered. "Jessalyn was just a baby, then. But she still misses him, don't you, love?"

The little girl squeezed her tighter. Meggan stroked her hair.

"Well, if that's the case," the doctor continued, "I think she should come to the Manor with us. The wee lass is clearly sufferin' from a severe shock, an' 't'would jus' make a bad situation that much worse were she to be separated from Meggan so soon after forgin' a trust."

"Now listen," Dai said, "I didn't call Excalibur here so you bloody supes could undermine my authority—"

"Don't be daft, man. I'm no more a 'supe' than you, an' none of us is underminin' anything," Dr. MacTaggert retorted. "The girl's no good to you as she is. If she goes with you, what does she have ahead of her but a clinical hospital room, then a bed with Children's Services? That's no good for a terrified child. Let her come home with us, an' I'll personally see we get her talkin' again. An' isn't that better for us all? Kurt?" she asked, looking to Excalibur's leader.

Kurt turned his golden eyes to Dai.

"She has a point, mein Freund," he said. "Excalibur can offer this child a place of safety, among mutants who would not judge her by her appearance. Can you say the same of Children's Services?"

Dai ground his teeth, but finally relented.

"Fine. The girl goes with you," he said. "But I want to be notified the moment she starts to talk."

Nightcrawler smiled.

"That is a promise," he said. "After all, are we not on the same team?"

"What, team 'corny as hell'?" Dai grumbled under his breath. Louder, he said, "Look, Wagner, you do your investigation into the mutant aspect, we'll focus on piecin' together this case. When you've got somethin', then we'll talk. Now, if your lot's finished with this scene…"

He glowered suggestively.

"Yes, we're quite finished," Nightcrawler assured him. "And we'll soon be out of your hair. Good luck on this case, mein Freund."

"Yeah... You too," Dai said sincerely, and held out his hand. Nightcrawler shook it, and gave the overstressed cop a supportive clap on the shoulder. Then, he led his team back down the aisle and out the automatic doors to find Captain Britain and face the noisy crowds outside.

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

The British frigate sliced through the waves, its sails billowing in the warm Caribbean wind. The ship's captain lowered his polished brass telescope and grinned, his pointed teeth gleaming white under the shadow of his broad, black hat.

"By God, I think we have her, Miss Wagner!" he roared.

"Aye, sir!" his first lieutenant responded, rushing across the deck to join him by the railing.

"Get those cannon ready!" the captain ordered. "The French ship's gone around the cove, hoping to catch us by surprise, no doubt. What does that tell you?"

"She's gone and trapped herself, Captain!" Marti said, returning her father's grin. "According to the charts, there's only one way out of that harbor. If we cut it off—"

"Precisely my plan, Miss Wagner. But we'll have to be clever about it. Once we're out there, we'll be exposed. The trick will be speed—we'll have to hit them before they have a chance to fire. Beat to quarters! We'll have that Frenchman for a prize before the day is out!"

"Aye, Captain," Marti said and shouted across the deck. "BEAT TO QUARTERS!"

A rousing drumroll sounded, and the wooden warship became a frenzy of rehearsed activity as officers, marines and sailors sprang to their battle stations.

All except one man.

Forge blinked up from the space near the main mast, looking completely lost in his British naval uniform.

"What the heck is 'beat to quarters'?" he asked. "And where am I supposed to go?"

"Cessily! Edmund!" Marta shouted.

Two young officers, a junior lieutenant and a midshipman, clambered up from below decks in a clatter of heavy boots on wooden ladders. Cessily Kincaid, a sixteen-year-old shapeshifter with skin the color of mercury, came to attention at once, but Edmund, Marta's younger brother, had more trouble keeping still.

"Hi, Marti," he said, waving his pale-blue tail. "What do you need us to do?"

"That's 'LEFTENANT' to you, Midshipman," the first officer corrected. "Take Uncle Forge below and show him how to man the cannon. We'll be engaging the enemy soon. Where's Rachel?"

"Midshipman Summers was flying up around the crow's nest, last I saw," Cessily reported. "She said something about keeping watch."

Marta nodded.

"Very good. Then she should be reporting in soon. All right, you know your duty. Back to your places!"

"Aye, sir," the young officers chorused, and led the bewildered Forge down the narrow ladder into the dimness below deck.

This new training room was turning out to be better than anyone had hoped. Even though Marti knew the ship and the sea and the craggy island beyond were all hard-light holograms, it was hard to remember for long. The salt spray the ship kicked up as it rocked and splashed through the water tasted as real as it smelled. And, even though Marta's sense of spatial perception allowed her to 'feel' the precise dimensions of the room, the illusion of the distant horizon was real enough to fool her eyes.

Scanning the busy deck one last time, Marti strode back to her father, who was peering through his telescope again.

"Hey, Dad—I mean, Captain Wagner," she said.

"Yes, Lieutenant? Speak up!"

Marta had to hide a smile behind her hand. Her father had affected his best British accent for this game, throwing himself wholeheartedly into his role as a naval captain during the Napoleonic Wars.

"I was just thinking. How do you know Auntie Kitty really did make a mistake when she took her ship around the cove?" she asked. "What if she tries to lure us after her, then turns around and cuts us off?"

"A likely scenario—good thinking, Marta," Kurt said. "But I know our fair adversary. Captain Kitty wants to one-up me, to turn my own tactics against me—and no doubt she's taking advantage of Betsy's telepathy to do it. But Betsy's out of practice, and I still remember those tricks your Grandpa Charles taught me to mislead a telepath."

"Mislead... You mean you gave them the idea to hide out in the harbor?"

The captain winked, neither confirming nor denying, and marched forward to address the men. They were all holograms, except for Marta, Forge, Cessily, Edmund, and Rachel, but they were programmed to act and react just like a real 18th century crew.

"Men," the captain shouted, "when we fire the first round, I want you to aim high. Our intention is not to sink the Frenchman, but maneuver her into waters of our choosing. The right of the harbor is too shallow to float a corvette. If we can ground her, we can board her and sail her back to England as a prize to be refitted for service in the British navy. And you'll all have a share in the prize money when we do!"

The crew erupted into cheers. Kurt unsheathed his sword and raised it above his head, all ready to give the call to battle, when the simulation froze around him, the once solid illusion turning transparent and unreal. Suddenly, instead of being separated by some half a mile of waves and rocky beach, the French and British teams were standing right next to each other on the very dry, metallic floor of the training room.

"What the—?" Kitty exclaimed, looking like a skinny Napoleon in her elaborate French uniform. Her team—Betsy; Suzie; Doug; Tessa Mulvey, a fifteen-year-old with the power to manipulate time and space; and Feron, a strange kid who'd shown up around the same time Rachel had arrived for her training course with Excalibur—clustered behind her, just as confused as Kurt's. "Kurt did you do this?"

"It wasn't me," Kurt said, slipping back into his usual German accent. "Alice?" he called up to the control booth, now just barely visible through the ghostly holograms, "Did you—"

The space in front of them seemed to unfurl into a wide, flat screen. The screen flickered, then filled with Moira's face.

"Oh good, I got it to work," the Scotswoman said, her voice booming all around the cavernous room. "Sorry to interrupt your training, but I thought you'd like to know I've got the results back on our wee guest. If you two captains could see fit to put the war on hold for a few minutes, perhaps you might pay me a visit? I'm sure Napoleon won't mind."

"We're on our way, Moira," Kurt said.

The doctor cut the transmission. The moment the viewscreen faded out, the training scenario burst back to sudden life, with Kurt's crew still cheering.

Disoriented, Kurt clambered down to the main deck and shouted below to Forge, "Is there a way to save and exit this program?"

"Yeah, sure," Forge's voice called back, followed shortly by Forge himself as he cautiously climbed up the ladder. "The main computer's got a voice link now."

Looking up at the clear, blue 'sky,' Forge called out, "Save training program, Hornblower1, and exit!"

Kurt blinked in surprise as a row of typed words appeared across the sky: "Are you sure you want to quit?"

"Yes!" Forge said.

The words blinked once, then faded, taking the entire holographic illusion along with them—including their naval uniforms. Both teams were left standing in a dimly gleaming metallic cave dressed in their usual clothes.

"Whoa, weird," thirteen-year-old Rachel Summers said. "The Danger Room back home never did that! We have to turn the simulations off from the control room! Or blow them up…"

Forge grinned.

"Well, I told you it was new and improved."

"It was fantastic!" Edmund said, jumping up and down in his sneakers.

"It certainly was realistic, mein Freund," Kurt said, clapping Forge on the shoulder. "I look forward to doing this again. Perhaps a Western next time?"

"Yeah!" Marta exclaimed. "I want to play that Destry scenario, where the gunmen all have laser blasters and the saloon owner looks like Marlene Dietrich!"

"Ooh, I like that one!" Cessily said. "I call deputy!"

"I'll be the mysterious stranger," Marta said, "who comes to town looking for revenge."

"Hey—before you kids go too far, don't forget we didn't finish this scenario yet," Kitty pointed out. "I was looking forward to creaming your dad's butt!"

"Not a chance." Kurt grinned and lashed his tail. "I had you just where I wanted you. Is that not right, Betsy?"

The telepath looked confused, then her eyes widened in realization.

"Why you filthy sneak!" she exclaimed. "You tricked me! Your plan was entirely different than the one I saw in your mind. How did you do that?"

"Well, I did learn from the best," he said. "But it is actually a relatively basic mental discipline exercise all of us X-Men were taught during the war. If you truly want to join Excalibur, Besty, you'll have to become familiar with these techniques, and how to overcome them."

"So, that was a test, then," Betsy realized. "You were testing me to see if I would sense your bluff."

"Wait," Kitty said, her voice firm as she advanced on Kurt. "Are you saying you tricked me? That you knew we were waiting for you behind that cove?"

Kurt smiled.

"If you wanted to keep the element of surprise, Katzchen, you shouldn't have acted so smug when you chose Betsy for your team. It gave your strategy away from the start."

Kitty's eyes practically crackled.

"I'll get you for this, Fuzzy," she growled. "Next time. Just you wait!"

"I eagerly await the challenge," Kurt said with a polite half-bow. "But now, Moira is waiting for us. In the meantime, you Kinder should go do something productive with your time. Go grab a snack or watch the holovision. Training will resume this afternoon."

Cheering their freedom, the Junior Excalibur team raced from the room, all except Edmund.

"Dad," the ten-year-old said, "could I come to the med bay with you? I want to know more about the girl you brought here. And, I don't know… Maybe I could help."

Kurt hesitated for a moment, sharing a glance with Kitty. Kitty shrugged and Kurt nodded.

"All right, Eddie," he said. "Run up to the control booth and collect your mother, then we'll all go together."

The boy's powder-blue face split into a grin.

"Thanks, Dad!" he said, and ran from the room, trailed a little more slowly by the adults.

*******

Jessalyn Prestcote sat wide-eyed and silent on the blue medbay cot, listening while the adults around her discussed her case. They'd all been in to see her several times since they'd brought her to this place, and she was starting to learn most of their names. But this time, there was someone new. An older boy with black hair and blue skin, and a tail like the tall, shadowy man with the scary eyes. Nightcrawler.

Noticing she was staring at him, the boy slipped away from the adults and walked across to her.

"Hi," he said softly. "I'm Edmund. Edmund Wagner. What's your name?"

Jessalyn turned away, clutching her knees to her chest.

"Hey, that's OK," the boy said, leaning against the cot. "You don't have to talk if you don't want to. But I just wanted you to know, you're going to be OK here. And when you're better, there's a lot of kids around who'd like to meet you."

Jessalyn peered at him warily over her arm.

Edmund smiled, but his pale, gray eyes were troubled.

"You really are scared, aren't you," he said, looking as though he could feel it too. "There's something terrible, someone… I can't quite see…"

A ghostly outline began to materialize by the bed, a woman with dark hair. Jessalyn felt a strange tingle far, far back in her mind and huddled herself into a tighter ball.

Instantly, the ghostly image vanished.

"Sorry," Edmund said quickly. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…" But when Jessalyn didn't look up, he lowered his head and just listened to what the adults were saying.

"So, she's not a mutant, then?" Professor Alistaire Stuart said with interest, his nose red and chapped from his cold.

"She doesnae have the X-Gene, no," Dr. MacTaggert said, pulling off her glasses and rubbing her red-rimmed eyes. "What she has is a rare genetic disorder known as Treacher Collins syndrome. It's caused by a mutation in the TCOF1 gene, at chromosome 5."

"Yes, of course," Kurt said wryly, and crossed his arms, his long tail swaying behind him. "So what does this mean to our case? Do you believe the child's mother had this disorder as well?"

"I do indeed, and I've contacted the lab in London to be sure," the doctor said, and sneezed discreetly into her elbow. "Excuse me. Treacher Collins is inherited in an autosomal-dominant pattern, so there was a good likelihood that her mother was the carrier. Tests performed on the mother's DNA confirmed that diagnosis."

"All right, then," Brian said, clapping his broad hands together. "New theory. Our victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time and our loopy female serial killer mis-targeted her as a physical mutant."

"That is one possibility," Kurt said. "Alice, Betsy, have you learned anything so far about our unfortunate Ms. Prestcote?"

"Well," Alice reported, "like Meggan said, her husband Jim died three years after Jessalyn was born. Traffic accident, drunk student ran a red light but stayed at the scene, pretty straightforward case. He worked in real estate. Jeanine was a self-employed make-up artist, consultant, and distributor working mostly with theatrical groups. Neither of them had any enemies we could find, and the neighbors Betsy and I spoke with seemed genuinely distraught. Apparently Jeanine and Jessalyn were quite well liked."

Betsy nodded. She'd been training with Excalibur since they caught the case two days ago. Classified as a probationary applicant, she was not an official member of the team, but Kurt had been impressed with her willingness to start from the bottom and work her way up. That was why, despite Brian's objection that she wasn't really serious about leaving her modeling career for the demanding life of a superhero, Kurt had granted her request to shadow Alice.

"Everyone we spoke to had a kind word to say," she told them. "If Jeanine was targeted on purpose, I don't think it was by someone she knew."

"And has anyone found any correlation between her and the other victims?" Kurt asked.

"Not if the mutant factor doesn't pan out," Kitty said. "Maybe Brian's right. This may have been a terrible mistake."

"There is another thing," Dr. MacTaggert said. "At the autopsy, we found evidence the poor lass had been suffering from a cold. I took some samples, and found it wasnae the usual rhinovirus causin' her symptoms, but a protozoan. A wee waterborne beastie, I expect. I also took samples from Alistaire and myself. It seems we are both inhabited by the same creature."

"What are you saying, Moira?" Kurt asked. "Is our water supply contaminated?"

"Aye, so it appears," Moira said, and blew her nose. "An' not by any natural means. The beastie I found was homegrown. Genetically engineered."

She sighed and tucked her handkerchief back into her pocket.

"Kurt, I need Rahne. She's the microbe expert, not me. It's the only way we'll be able to figure out its purpose, and hopefully track it back to the source before our symptoms get worse."

"What do you mean, worse?" Alistaire asked nervously.

"I've done a bit of research," she said grimly. "Talked to colleagues, called hospitals. So far, every confirmed case of this bug has proved to be fatal."

Alistaire swallowed, and Kitty hugged his arm tight.

Kurt's tail shuddered.

"Your step-daughter is working for the government's disease control ministry now, isn't she?" he said. "I'm not sure they'd be willing to let her join us."

"They'll have to," Moira said darkly. "We have a very small window of opportunity here, where we can still make a difference before we're faced with an epidemic. Rahne's expertise may mean the difference between life and death for a whole lot of people."

"Very well. I'll make the official request," Kurt said. "If the bureaucrats refuse, I'll go pick her up myself."

"I'll go with you," Brian said, and Kurt teleported the two of them to the control room.

Edmund shot a concerned look at Jessalyn, then walked back to his mother.

"Mum?"

"Yes, love?" Alice said, looking rather tired.

"I think I know what the killer looks like. I started to get a picture in my mind, when I was over there with her." He pointed to Jessalyn.

Alice perked up a little.

"Can you show me, Edmund?"

Edmund tried to project the image, but the form refused to solidify. After a few intense moments, he had to stop with a gasp.

"Sorry," he said. "I can't get it to focus. But I'd know her if I saw her, I'm sure of it!"

Alice pursed her lips.

"Jessalyn is still in shock, Edmund," she said. "I know you're trying to help, but until she's well enough to talk I don't think we'll be able to get much more from her than shadows and static. She's closed her mind off tight."

"Not that tight," Edmund said. "She knows what's going on, and she keeps looking at me. See, Mum, she's doing it right now! I mean, just look at the way she's staring at us!"

He strode toward her, eager to try talking to her again, but Jessalyn's eyes grew wide and she hurled a pillow at his face with all her might. Edmund caught the pillow before it hit him, but Jessalyn began to scream. Her shrieks were wild and shrill, and once she started she couldn't seem to stop.

"I—I'm sorry!" Edmund exclaimed, clasping his hands over his ears.

Moira dashed over to put her arms around the flailing little girl, holding her as she rocked and cried and screamed.

Edmund stared, horrified to think he'd scared her so badly.

"Come on, Eddie," Alice said, taking him gently by the shoulders and steering him to the door after Kitty, Betsy, Forge, Meggan, and Alistaire. "Let's leave them alone for a while."

"I—I didn't mean to—!"

"It wasn't you, Eddie," his mother assured him. "I think, seeing us together, finally put her back in touch with her own emotions. For the first time, she's truly feeling the loss of her mother. That's what made her scream, love. Not you."

Edmund sniffed a little, then nodded.

"She hurts so much, Mum," he said quietly. "I just wanted to help her."

Alice smiled and bent down to kiss her son's straight, black hair.

"I think you did, pet," she said.

"Mum?"

"Yes, Edmund?"

"If you go to pick up Auntie Rahne, can I come too?"

"We'll see, love," Alice said. "Come with me to the kitchen and I'll make you some lunch."

To Be Continued…

Like it? Despise it? C'mon, make my day. Lemme know what you think so far! :)

Chapter Text

Braddock Manor's doorbell was an old fashioned mechanical chime system that had been updated only once since the stately old house was built. It rang loudest in the kitchen and the upstairs, where the Braddock family's servants would have been most likely to hear it back at the turn of the previous century, but echoes resonated all throughout the house.

Marta heard it in the sitting room, where she'd curled up in the window seat with a sandwich and a book. Jamming her bookmark between the pages, she teleported outside just in time to catch the brunette delivery lady climbing back into her little red van.

"Cheers!" She waved, then bent down to read the name on the rather large, heavily taped up cardboard box sitting at the top of the steps.

"Hey, it came!" she exclaimed and quickly 'ported the box into the Manor.

"Dad!" she called down the corridor. "Hey, Dad! The parcel from Oma and Opa is here! DAAAAD!"

"Your father's busy right now, Marta," her mother said, coming up the stairs at the end of the hall with Kitty and Edmund in tow. She looked harried, like she had no time or patience to deal with a teenager with a heavy box by her feet. "He's in the control room with Brian speaking with some representatives from the Ministry of Health."

"The Ministry of Health? What for?" Marta asked, her curiosity piqued. "And why are you running around looking so anxious? Are you guys going somewhere?"

"We're going to London to pick up Auntie Rahne from the train station," Edmund said.

"Auntie Rahne's coming? But why—"

"Marti, love, I'm sorry," Alice said, opening the foyer closet by the door and pulling out jackets for herself, Edmund, and Kitty, "but I don't have time to explain everything right now. There's been a new development in the case, that's all I'll say."

"But, Mum—! Auntie Kitty, can't you—"

"Sorry, Marti," Kitty said, knotting the belt of her lavender trench coat. "But I promise I'll fill you in on all the details as soon as we get home, OK?"

Marti's tail lashed behind her in a surge of childish petulance she couldn't suppress.

"Oh, but Edmund gets to know everything, right? That's terribly fair. And what am I supposed to do with this box?"

"Just stash it somewhere until your father has time to look at it," Alice said, already through the front door and on her way down the steps. "We'll be back in a few hours."

"But what about our afternoon training session!" Marti called after them. "Can I run the—"

"No training without adult supervision!" Alice shouted over her shoulder as she, Kitty, and Edmund piled into the van and slammed the doors.

Marti slammed the manor's front door in response and glared down at the heavily taped-up box, seething.

They hadn't even invited her. Just breezed past as if she were some junior trainee like Doug or Rachel instead of head of the Junior Excalibur team.

"Adult supervision," she harrumphed, and kicked at the carpet. "I'm sixteen, for heaven's sake! When are they going to start trusting me with some real responsibilities around here?"

"Marti? That you out there?"

Marta raised her head to see her friend Tessa Mulvey standing just outside the sitting room.

"I was coming to ask if you wanted to watch a holo-vid before we go back to training, but if you're busy with something…" Tessa said, coming closer to inspect the box. "What's that?"

"It's a box of stuff from my grandparents' house in Germany," Marta said. "I was trying to bring it to Dad, but he's tied up in the control room. Mum and Auntie Kitty just left for London with Edmund. And, there isn't going to be any training this afternoon. Not unless we can find ourselves some 'adult supervision.'"

"'Adult supervision', eh?" Tessa said. "Well, what about Mr. Braddock?"

"He's with Dad," Marta said with a scowl.

"Mrs. Braddock, then?" the American asked. "Or what about Dr. Stuart, or Psylocke even?"

"Auntie Meggan's been busy helping Dr. MacTaggert with Jessalyn," Marta sulked, her tail drooping around her ankles, "and Uncle Alistaire's not been feeling well. And Aunt Betsy doesn't count. She's not a full member of the team."

"She's an adult, though. And so is Forge, for that matter." Tessa gave Marti a sly look. "So, what do you think? Wanna go ask them?"

Marta shrugged.

"Maybe. But does anyone 'want' to train this afternoon?"

"I do," Tessa said. "I'm dying to try that Destry Western game. You and Suzie and Cessily always talk about it like it's the greatest thing, and if it's anything like that Hornblower scenario we did this morning, I have got to play it."

Marti nodded, starting to brighten.

"OK, then," she said. "I'll poll the others, and if enough of them want to join us I'll get Uncle Forge and Aunt Besty to come watch."

"What about the box?" Tessa asked.

"Oh, I'll just 'port it to the equipment locker by the Training Room. It'll be safe there until Dad's ready for it," Marti said. "Meet me there in ten?"

"You got it," Tessa said, and grinned.

Marta wrapped her arms around the heavy box. A moment later, she and the box had vanished in a puff of blue-black smoke.

BAMF!

*******

Alice and Kitty stared up at the electronic display board, scanning the rows of numbers, place names, and abbreviations for Rahne's high-speed train from Scotland. Edmund wrapped his tail around his mother's arm, concentrating on not getting trampled by the thick Kings Cross Station crowds pressing in all around them.

"Platform 10," Kitty said, pointing. "That's the direct line from Edinburgh."

"It should be arriving in six minutes," Alice said. "I'll go meet her. Will you watch Edmund?"

"No problem," Kitty said, and rested a hand on Edmund's shoulder as his mother squeezed her way through the teeming mass of people between her and the platform. "Guess it's you and me for a while, Eddie," she said. "Want to split a pretzel?"

"Thanks," Edmund said, relieved to be moving away from the dense, harried crowds. The pretzel stand was outside, at the corner of the station entrance. The traffic out there was almost as thick as inside, but at least he could lean against the building...

Kitty looked away from Edmund to order their soft, salted pretzel, but when she turned back to ask if he wanted any cheese she couldn't seem to spot him.

"Edmund?" she called, starting to get concerned. "Hey, Edmund, where are you? You didn't go back inside the station…?"

It was almost too soft to hear, especially over the noise of feet and chatter, buses and cars, but Kitty's trained ears picked it up right away. A muffled cry, coming from the alley only a few meters from the pretzel stand.

Shoving the pretzel she'd ordered back at the vendor, she ran to the corner and peered into the alley.

Edmund was there, struggling against a tall, slender figure draped in black. Setting her comm. to alert Alice, Shadowcat phased herself into the wall. Once she was even with Edmund's attacker, she sank down through the stained, stinking ground and reached up to grab the fiend's ankle.

The attacker dropped Edmund in surprise. Edmund immediately began running, as he'd been taught, while Shadowcat phased the rest of the way up from the ground and walloped the attacker with a solid, roundhouse kick.

The cloaked figure staggered and collided hard against the wall. Shadowcat took up a balanced fighting stance, ready for the figure to lunge at her - but not for the large knife it suddenly pulled from its cloak.

Shadowcat only just managed to phase before the knife sliced through her arm. Taking advantage of the fiend's proximity, Shadowcat slammed her knee into the attacker's gut and shoved. The attacker grunted and, for a moment, Shadowcat saw the fiend's eyes beneath the hooded cloak, hard and bright with hatred. The attacker lashed out again, fiercely, wildly, but Shadowcat grabbed the fiend's wrist with a skilled ju-jitsu twist that forced the knife to drop. Kicking it away, she attacked again, locking the fiend's elbow and throwing the slender figure to the garbage-covered ground.

The figure growled, and jumped up—

—only to be knocked flat by a snarling red dog with vibrant green eyes. The dog grabbed hold of the attacker's cloak and shook it, revealing the furious woman underneath.

"Hey, that's her!" Edmund exclaimed from the end of the alley, where Alice was keeping him a safe distance from the violent brunette. The dog had the woman's arm now, and she was struggling with all her might to shake the creature's grip. "That's the woman I saw in Jessalyn's mind! The one who attacked her mother!"

"Are you sure, Edmund?" Alice asked. "This is very important."

"I'm not just sure, I'm certain!" Edmund said. "I told you I'd recognize her if I saw her. That woman is the person Jessalyn saw staring at her in the clothes store!"

Kitty untied her trench coat's belt and knelt beside the struggling woman, grabbing her flailing arms.

"Hold her tight, Rahne," she said to the dog, who jumped onto the woman's back so Kitty could tie her wrists together.

"That should be good enough for now," she said. "Thanks, Rahne."

The dog panted happily and morphed into a rather short woman with dark red hair and large, green eyes.

"Any time, Kate," she said with a Scottish accent as strong as her stepmother's.

Rahne's limited shapeshifting ability allowed her to approximate human clothing, but only for a short time. Alice quickly handed her the pile of clothes she'd morphed out of when she'd become a dog. By the time Kitty and Alice had hauled the bruised and ranting brunette to her feet and called the police, she was fully dressed.

"OK, Dai's on his way," Kitty said. "Time to call Kurt."

"Can I make the call, Auntie Kitty?" Edmund asked. "I want to tell Dad how we caught the serial killer!"

"I think you've earned it," Alice said, and handed him her comm. unit.

Edmund set the device to contact his father. A few moments later, Nightcrawler's holographic face appeared above the viewscreen.

"Edmund!" he said. "What's up, mein Junge? Where is your mother?"

"She's here. But, Dad, we got her!" Edmund exclaimed. "The serial killer! She tried to attack me in an alley, but Auntie Kitty and Auntie Rahne stopped her and now the cops are going to come and—"

"Edmund, bitte," his father said, "slow down. Are you saying you were attacked?"

"Yeah, but I'm all right," he said. "And Auntie Kitty tied her up and now we're just waiting for the police to come take her."

"Thank God that you are not hurt," Nightcrawler said. "Tell your mother I'm on my way, all right? I would like to be present when the cops question this woman."

"OK, Dad," Edmund said. "Are you talking the jet?"

"Yes," he said. "I'll be there in a few minutes. Wagner out."

"Yeah, me too," Edmund said, and switched off the comm. unit. "Here, Mum," he said, handing it back to her. "Dad says he's taking the jet and he'll be here in a few minutes. He wants to be present when the cops question the serial killer."

"I expected as much," Alice said.

"Can we go too, Mum?" Edmund asked. "Please? After all, we were the ones who caught her."

"Edmund—" Alice started, but the wail of a police siren interrupted her.

Kitty and Rahne turned to look at the approaching police cars.

The serial killer took advantage of their momentary distraction. Wrenching herself free of their grasp, she pelted for the fence at the end of the alley.

Kitty and Rahne started after her, but Alice was faster. Reaching out with her mind, she latched onto the woman's seething terrors and projected them into the narrow space. Instantly, the alley was alive with writhing, moaning, shrieking creatures, terrible and deformed. They reached out to the woman with diseased hands, necrotic skin covered in lesions oozing puss.

The woman screamed and spun around, but the monsters were behind her too, staring with dripping eyes, groping and pulling at her clothes and hair and arms.

Alice shuddered to realize she recognized some of the faces. Jeanine Prestcote and the other victims were there, as well as her and Kitty, Kurt, Meggan, Brian, and even Edmund.

"Don't look, baby," she said, covering her son's eyes with her hand, but Edmund shook her off.

"Mum, I'm ten years old," he protested. "Besides, Suzie's movies are way worse."

"What do you-?" Alice scowled. "I'll need to have another talk with your sister."

"Good God," Kitty said with a sickened grimace as she and Rahne edged their way between the ghoulish creatures to approach the hysterical woman huddling at their center. "If this is how that woman sees us, no wonder she lashes out. What do you think, is she a paranoid schizophrenic or something?"

"I couldn't say," Alice said, concentrating too hard on maintaining the projections to really consider the question. "Have you got her?"

"Safe and secure," Rahne called back. "I don't think she'll be tryin' a stunt like that again any time soon."

"Good," Alice said, and released her psychic hold on the woman's mind.

Edmund took her arm as she sagged, exhausted.

"You OK, Mum?"

"Fine, pet," she said. "Thank you."

The police were crowding around them by this time. Commander Dai Thomas pushed through the wall of uniforms just as Rahne and Kitty handed the shaking woman over to a detective with a pair of handcuffs at the ready.

"All right," the stocky cop said. "I'll need all of you to come down to the station with us. That means you too." He jutted his chin toward Edmund. "I want full statements from each and every one of you. Come on."

"But what about Dad?" Edmund asked.

"What about 'im?" The commander glared, then gave a start as the dark shadow of Excalibur's jet fell over him. "Right," he grunted. "Well, if he's comin', he's comin'."

Shouting to his cops, he said, "All right, everyone in the cars! I want this madwoman processed and ready for questioning by the time I get Excalibur's statements—got that!"

*******

It was very late in the evening by the time Alice, Kurt, Kitty, Rahne, and Edmund finally made it back to the manor. As they trudged their way across the lawn from the garage and the hangar respectively, Rahne sniffed the air, and frowned.

"Do ye smell that?" she asked. "It smells like—"

"Smoke," Kurt said, his voice flat with dread. He disappeared with a BAMF, reappearing by the front stairs. Forge, Brian, Meggan, Alistaire, Eliza, Moria and the kids were gathered there all talking at once. They looked up at the sound of Kurt's teleport, though.

Meggan ran to him, her blue eyes reddened with tears.

"Oh, Kurt, it's terrible," she said.

"What is it?" Kurt demanded. "What's happened?"

"Kurt, it's bad," Brian said, his expression begging him to keep calm. "While you were gone, Marta and Tessa got Suzie, Cessily, Betsy and Forge to join them in the Training Room. Kurt," Brian paused, as if steeling himself to confront some terrible foe. "I have to tell you—"

"There was an explosion!" Forge blurted, and Kurt noticed his coppery face was singed and his hands were burnt and bleeding. "There—there was nothing I could do, no way I could have predicted—"

"What?" Kurt snapped. "What are you saying to me? Where are Marta and Suzie?"

"That…that's what I'm trying to tell you," Forge sobbed. "Your daughters…they were in the Training Room…and…. Oh, God. Oh my God, Kurt, I am so sorry."

"Nein…"

It was a terrible whisper, low and harsh. Meggan reached out to him, but he disappeared in a violent flash of smoke.

A moment later, a howl unlike anything Excalibur had ever heard ripped through the cold night air.

Meggan buried her head in her husband's shoulder and cried.

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

"Name?"

The policeman's voice rumbled over the conference room speakers. Moira, Brian, and Kitty stared up at the screen, searching the interrogation recording for any clues the police may have missed.

"Sally. Sally Sutherland," the bedraggled woman mumbled, her brown, unwashed hair hanging over her face. She sat with her shoulders hunched, her hands cuffed to the back of the metal chair.

"Occupation?"

"I...I work at the water treatment plant," she whispered, staring vaguely around the moss-colored room. "I'm a...a security guard..."

"She doesnae sound very convinced of that," Moira said.

"It's like she's been drugged or something," Kitty said, leaving her chair and striding closer to the screen. "Look at her eyes. She has no idea what's going on."

The policeman continued: "All right, then, Sally. Where were you five days ago, about three in the afternoon?"

"Five days...?"

The woman shook her head slowly.

"I collect Janey from...from kindergarten in the afternoon. We stop by the open market...pick out fresh groceries for supper..."

"Who is Janey, Sally?" the policeman asked.

"Janey... My daughter..." She smiled distantly. "Zany-Janey, my pretty, pretty rose..."

"Sally? Sally, listen. Where is Janey right now?"

"Where? I don't..."

"Come on, Sally, pull it together. Think: where is your daughter, Janey?"

"My...daughter?" Sally's dazed eyes rolled all around the room. "Have to... Have to find Janey..."

"Is Janey in trouble, Sally?" the policeman asked. "Is that why you've been committing these crimes? Does someone have your daughter?"

"Crimes?"

Sally stared straight through the camera, her expression lost and frightened.

"Please, I...I need to get home... Have to make supper for Janey..."

Brian paused the playback.

"The questioning goes around in circles like this for the next fifteen minutes," he said tiredly. "Kurt and I sat through the whole thing when Dai first sent it over. This recording is just the latest attempt by the cops to get her talking. Janey's fine, by the way. She's with her father, this woman's ex, Jack Kemper, who apparently didn't realize Ms. Sutherland was missing, or that anything was wrong. Said she'd been going to work, keeping her appointments... They're sending Ms. Sutherland to a shrink tomorrow to see if she can get any sense out of her."

"Good idea," Moira said as Kitty returned to her seat. "Someone or something has definitely been messing about with that poor woman's mind."

"I'm leaning more toward 'someone'," Brian said and slammed his fist against the table, making his teammates jump. "Damn it, Betsy!" he growled. "Just when we could really use a telepath, she goes and...and...!"

"Brian," Moira said quietly. "Brian, we all understand that you're angry, but-"

"Angry doesn't begin to cut it!" he snarled. "That spoiled, pampered little... She was just a probationary member. Probationary! She had absolutely no business running that simulation! And as for Kurt's manipulative, conniving offspring-"

"Brian!" Kitty snapped glaring the big man down until he averted his eyes.

"I didn't mean that the way it sounded," he said gruffly. "I just... I still can't believe it. That Betsy...my twin sister... That she's really...gone."

"We don't know that, Brian," Kitty said. "Forge and Doug are still piecing together the computer records. Until we have a clear picture of what happened in the Training Room that day, we just have to keep hoping that they're all still alive."

"Kate is right," Moira said, and sneezed into her handkerchief. "We've not found a trace of their bodies – either Betsy's or the children's. But, it's no good speculatin' without proper facts. We'll just be turning our wheels to no purpose and wasting what little time we have. Now, if we're done here, there's a wee lass in the medical wing I should be seeing to."

"Yes, yes, we're done," Brian said, and Moira strode out the door.

He caught Kitty before she could follow.

"Kate, I've been meaning to ask. About Alistaire..."

"He's doing OK," Kitty said. "For now."

"Good. That's good."

"Yeah."

Kitty sighed and shook her head.

"Brian, you're not the only one going crazy here. This whole situation is so damn frustrating!" she said. "First the explosion, and now we find out those sick murders were done by some poor lady who's probably as much a victim as little Jessalyn downstairs! Betsy, Marti, Suzie, Tessa and Cessily are all missing, Alistaire and Moira keep getting sicker, and there's nothing I can do. No clues to grab on to!"

"Actually..." Brian looked thoughtful. "Wait. That woman you captured. Sally."

"What about her?"

"She said she worked at the water treatment plant," Brian said, striding back to the controls. He reset the recording and started it playing.

"What are you..."

"Shh," Brian said as she joined him by the machine. "Just listen."

"Sally. Sally Sutherland," the disoriented woman on the screen was muttering.

"Occupation?"

"I...I work at the water treatment plant. I'm a...a security guard..."

Brian paused the playback.

"She's a guard at London's main water treatment plant," he said.

"Yeah, so?"

"Moira's protozoan. It's a waterborne parasite, right?"

"A genetically engineered waterborne parasite," Kitty said, her eyes starting to light up. "Which means someone must have dumped it into the water supply at some point."

"And here's Sally, who's most likely been under mind control," Brian said. "Who better than a security guard to poison the well, as it were?"

"But, why?" Kitty said. "What's the point of infecting London's water with these parasites? Who's the real target here? Or, is there a target? What if this is all some random terrorist plot to make us panic?"

"I don't think this is random. After all, you and I aren't affected," Brian said. "In fact, these parasites don't seem to affect any mutants. Only ordinary humans."

"Ordinary humans like Alistaire and Moira."

"And Jeanine Prestcote."

Kitty nodded, the implications building up in her mind.

"So, we're looking for someone with a grudge. Someone who wants to wipe out ordinary humans while leaving mutants unharmed. But then, why the murders? If this creep used Sally to infect the water supply and to kill those women, there has to be a connection."

"I agree," Brian said. "Those murders were done with a purpose in mind. Parts were harvested from the victims. But it doesn't make sense. Why stage such public, sickeningly brutal murders of physical mutants, while using microorganisms to infect ordinary humans with a deadly disease?"

"Maybe there's more than one mind at work here," Kitty said. "Multiple motives for multiple nuts. God, I hate this case. There's still so much we don't know! And where does that damn explosion fit in with all this? Are we targets? Was it meant to distract us?"

"I'm going to bring this up with Kurt," Brian said. "Blue devil has barely left the Control Room since the explosion. He's just been going over and over all the records we've collected so far."

"Alice is no better," Kitty said. "I mean, I honestly love those kids like family, but I can't begin to imagine what Kurt and Alice and poor Edmund...oh, hold on-"

Kitty's comm. unit blinked to life, and she took the call.

"Doug? What are you-"

"Ms. Kitty, please, you have to get down here," the young linguistic mutant said, his eyes darting around nervously, as if he was afraid his call would be overheard. "I found something, in the Training Room computer records. Something important."

"Well, why don't you tell Forge-"

"This is about Forge," Doug said urgently. "Ms. Kitty... I think he's the one who made the Training Room explode!"

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Forensic teams from London and New York had set up camp in the blasted out ruins of what had once been the east wing of Braddock Manor. They'd sectioned the area into grid squares of blue rope: dozens of uniformed figures, mutant and human, all in black wellies and reflective, florescent yellow raincoats, all focused on methodically sifting through the rubble and stone for evidence…and any sign of organic remains.

Logan's sensitive nose wrinkled at the stench of charred circuitry and twisted metal that lingered in the heavy fog, and he bared his teeth in a snarl. The manor's busy front entrance stood open despite the damp, so he strode inside, past the clusters of police and technicians, and headed straight for Excalibur's Control Room.

"Hey, Crawler."

The shadowy mutant glanced up from the computer console and Logan found himself genuinely startled by his friend's appearance. In the time they'd served and fought together, as X-Men and as soldiers during the Third World War, the Wolverine had seen his friend battered and torn, but never had he felt a chilling jolt like the one he felt now, as Nightcrawler's bloodshot yellow eyes met his. Dark stubble poked through the fuzz-like indigo fur on Nightcrawler's narrow chin, and his cheeks had a sunken look that emphasized his more demonic features…especially in the control room's dim light.

"Logan…"

The man's accented voice was rough and tight, as if he hadn't used it for days. Logan swallowed a surge of aching empathy that threatened to sting his eyes.

"Any clues?" he asked.

Kurt shook his head.

"Too many. And too few," he said. "But you should talk to Moira. She is making progress. While I…"

He shuddered all the way to the spade of his tail and rose from his chair to pace the room.

"There has been no sign of them, Logan," he said, words spilling out of him in a rising flood of anguished fury. "So it's possible that they are not d— That they might have escaped, before the explosion. Marta…she could have teleported them out. But, then where are they? Why do they not come home?"

He tore his thick fingers through his wild, unwashed hair, then gestured to the paused image on the console's main monitor.

"I have been over and over the salvaged surveillance recordings, again and again, searching frame by frame for any clues, anything strange or out of place," he said, "but I can't help feeling that I am wasting time, that I should be out there, out searching… But where Logan? It is ridiculous, that we, with all our experience and technology, should not yet even have a starting place!"

"Kurt, you have to know we—"

"Nein!" Kurt snarled, his fangs bared. "Don't dare tell me we are doing what we can, or that these things take time. I have spent most of my life tracking and catching terrorists, breaking up smuggling rings, finding those criminals most expert at not being found and bringing their crimes to light. But now…now my own daughters are missing…my students... I have been rendered useless. All this…all this technology, these computers, the police force, the X-Men themselves-!"

Wolverine set his jaw in the face of his haggard friend's palpable agony.

"When did you eat last, Elf?" he asked.

"Don't start with that," Kurt grunted. "How can I eat while meine Kinder sind-"

"Right," Logan cut him off. "Then I take it you're not sleeping either."

Kurt snarled dangerously, his tail lashing behind him.

Logan sighed through his nose.

"Hey, I know it's not what you want to hear, Elf," he said, "but you know as well as anyone you won't be any good to this investigation if you starve your brain and muscles of food and sleep."

He glanced at the frozen screen.

"Look, Kurt," he said. "I can stare at these vids as well as you can. Why don't you take a back seat for a while. I'm not sayin' you should leave the room or anything, just sit back and close your eyes for a few minutes. I can get Meggan or someone to rustle us up some sandwiches."

Kurt shook his head, his pain clear in his eyes, and Logan placed a blunt hand on his friend's arm. Kurt started to pull away…then seemed to crumple, all at once. He collapsed against Logan's broad shoulder, his lean form convulsed with harsh, racking sobs that seemed to tear from his very core.

Logan let the anguished man cry himself out, enduring the tortured roars and howls with a stern stoicism that belied the pain in his own heart.

He'd been an uncle to Kurt's kids since they were born, watched them grow, allowed himself to share in their family bond of love and trust. This investigation was as personal to him as it was to the rest of the Wagners' extended X-Men family, even he didn't hold out much hope for a positive outcome.

After a while, Kurt's violent sobs began to fade back to a sullen anger, and Logan led the exhausted mutant to a chair, where he almost immediately fell into a very restless sleep. Logan grunted and slid into the seat in front of the control monitor, resetting the vid to play from the start.

He was about four minutes in, when Kitty phased through the door.

"Kurt, Brian and I— Oh! Logan!" she exclaimed in surprise. "When did you get here?"

"Who'd you think piloted the jet bringin' the forensic experts here from New York?" he grunted. "What's up, Half-Pint?"

Kitty scrunched up her face at his use of her childhood nickname, but it was a sign of the urgency of her message that she didn't comment or complain.

"New information," she said, and glanced at Kurt with a slight, sad wince. "I don't know how you managed to get him to sleep, but I'm afraid we're gonna have to wake him up. He needs to hear this."

"You got a lead on the kids and that Betsy Braddock woman?"

Kitty nodded, her eyes wide and serious.

"And you're not gonna believe it," she said. "I'm gathering the team together in the conference room, so Brian and I can brief everyone at once. You're welcome to sit in. We start in ten minutes."

"We'll be there. After Kurt's gotten ten minutes' more sleep," Logan said, going back to sifting through the surveillance vid as Kitty phased through the floor, on her way to collect Moira and Alice from the medical lab.

*******

"What are you saying? That Forge was somehow hacked? Like a computer?" Alice exclaimed, staring from Kitty to a rather shell-shocked-looking Forge. "How is that even possible? His mechanical limbs aren't artificial implants, they're a part of his mutation!"

"It was a specially engineered program…like a virus," Kitty explained. "A sort of organic-mechanical hybrid, like Forge himself. Doug is the one who found it. We think Forge contracted it when he linked with our computer system to enact his repairs and enhancements to our training room. But, the explosion wiped the traces so it'll take a while to reconstruct what really happened."

"Then, you're suggesting someone implanted that program in our systems – before Forge even began work," Kurt said through a fierce frown, his glowing eyes still bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles. "But who could have done this? And when?"

"We're not sure yet," Brian admitted reluctantly. "But, we do know this virus was used to turn Forge into a sort of zombie, if you will – like a hacker using a computer to remotely control another computer. When the virus took control, Forge acted according to its programming, without any knowledge or awareness of his actions. We think, in this way, Forge was forced to inadvertently sabotage our training room, setting it to self-destruct. That's our going theory, at least. We'll know more once the forensics teams pinpoint the origin of the blast."

"Have you managed to purge Forge of this virus?" Moira asked suspiciously, peering at Forge through her glasses as she dabbed at her sore nose with her handkerchief.

"We think so," Kitty said. "Doug and I ran a series of diagnostics on his circuit and neural pathways after the procedure and we haven't been able to find any lingering trace of the foreign program. There are a few more tests we intend to run, but I'm all but certain we got it."

"Then the question remains," Alistaire said, dabbing at his own chapped, runny nose. "Who? And why? Could it be the same terrorists responsible for infesting our water supply with this damned parasite? An attempt to get us off their trail, as it were?"

"Well, I—" Brian started, only to be cut off by the conference room door swinging open. Brian's son, Samuel Braddock, rushed breathlessly in, his pale face flushed from running. Samuel wasn't a member of Excalibur and didn't plan to become one, he was a university student studying mathematics and astrophysics, but he and Marti had always been close, and he'd come home to help the moment he heard about the explosion.

"Father! Uncle Kurt!" the young man gasped.

"What is it, Samuel?" Brian demanded.

"The forensics teams…outside…" he panted, working hard to stand straight and control his breathing as he made his report. "The explosion, it was a cover! Sourced it to...an equipment locker. But, the Training Room – the holo emitters – they weren't just holo emitters! The whole place was set up as a giant, mechanical teleporting system!"

"But… What? How is that even possible?" Forge exclaimed, his coppery features ashen. "Even under outside control, there's no way I could construct a real, functioning teleporter! I mean, I've experimented with opening portals to other dimensions, but even then I wasn't able to reproduce what Kurt and Marti can do. The physics alone… It's impossible!"

But Brian, Kurt and Alice were preoccupied with a different concern.

"Then…that means…" Alice whispered.

Kurt met her gaze.

"Our girls may have been teleported…kidnapped…"

Kurt rose to his feet, his tail lashing like a whip.

"Tell me, Samuel," he said, "have the techs been able to determine if the teleporter system activated 'before' the explosion? Is there any way to trace where it went?"

"They think it's possible, but it'll take time to reconstruct enough of the program to recover any coordinates," Samuel said.

"I'm on it," Kitty said, her expression fierce and determined. "Samuel, go find Doug. I'm going to need his help."

"Right, Aunt Kitty," the young man said, and headed off.

"I'd like to help too, if you think it'd be all right," Forge said, his shock slowly morphing to anger. "I want to get at whoever did this to me - to all of us."

Kitty nodded.

"Thanks," she said.

"Well, if we're done here, you and I should be heading back to Rahne in the medical lab," Moira said to Alice through her sniffles, before looking to the rest of the group. "It's beginning to look like this wee waterborne beastie of ours has some very specific tastes. It is ineffective on individuals with an active X-gene, as we suspected, but it doesnae target ordinary humans indiscriminately. Our study has so far indicated only those humans with some kind of inherited 'flaw' – like the unfortunate Jeanine Prestcote with her Treacher Collins Syndrome, or poor vision, as is the case with myself and Alistaire – develop these blasted flu-like symptoms."

"Are you any closer to finding a way to eradicate this parasite?" Kurt asked.

"We're getting there," the doctor said. "I've got Rahne working on developing a compound that could dissolve the creatures' cell membranes. Problem is anything strong enough to affect the parasites also kills human cells."

"Well, keep working," Kurt said, and squeezed his wife's hand. "I want to talk with the forensics teams. We'll meet again to discuss our progress at dinner." He glanced at Wolverine. "See, Logan, I will make sure my team and I take care of ourselves. Would you mind continuing with the surveillance tapes? Your fresh eyes may pick up something I might have missed."

"Sure thing," Logan said.

"Danke, mein Freund," Kurt said, and the meeting was adjourned.

*******

"Wakey, wakey, my little pets..."

Marta groaned dizzily, the world around her coalescing slowly, like watching the sunset from the bottom of a swimming pool.

"What happened?"

Marta turned her head, blinking blearily. That was her sister's voice...

"Suzie?" she said, and coughed. Her throat was dry.

"Marti!" Suzie exclaimed. "So, you're here too!"

"Seems so," Marta said. "But where is here?"

She sat up slowly, gradually realizing that she was in a cell...a small, square, zoo-like cell with thick walls of clear plastic. Small, round vents near the top allowed air and sound to circulate, and the ceiling was high - too high to reach by jumping. Marta pressed her hand against the warm plastic, but didn't feel the usual adhesive pull that allowed her to climb sheer surfaces. Try as she might, her hand slid, as if she were trying to climb a sheet of melting ice. Her sensory perception was off too - she had no idea how thick the plastic was, or the size and shape of the space outside. If she tried to teleport without that information, she could end up inside a wall, or a piece of furniture.

"Damn it..." she muttered, and called to Suzie.

"Where are you? I can't see you! And where is everyone else? Tessa and Cessily and Auntie Betsy and Uncle Forge...?"

"I don't know where the others are, but I'm right here, in the cell next to yours!" Suzie said. "Can you see me now?"

A pale, blurry smudge appeared in one plastic wall, and Marta rushed over to it, cupping her hands around her eyes in an attempt to see through.

"Sort of," Marta said. "Can you see me?"

"Only as a blue and red blob," Suzie said irritably. "Who do you think did this? Why are we being held here? I thought I heard a man's voice, just before you woke up..."

More groans began to sound, and before long Betsy, Tessa, and Cessily had joined Marta and Suzie in the awful realization that they had been kidnapped. Once they'd ascertained they were each all right, apart from being held captive, they began testing their powers, seeking ways out of their claustrophobic little cubes.

"I hate this!" Suzie roared, after her fifth failed attempt to shapeshift into a snake thin enough to squeeze through one of the round vents.

"Me too," Cessily grunted. "I mean, it totally sucks to have a body of, essentially, liquid metal, but it sucks worse when you're stuck all rigid in one form!"

"I feel like my brain's been wrapped in cotton wool," Betsy complained. "I can't sense a thing through these blasted cell walls!"

"My powers aren't working either," Tessa said worriedly. "What's going on?"

Marta frowned, and tried a short teleport to the far side of her cell.

Nothing happened.

"My guess is there's some kind of dampening field in operation," she said to the others, her voice thick with frustration and anger. "I remember Dad telling me about them...how they were used by Weapon X during the war to keep their 'experimental subjects' from using their powers outside the testing rooms."

"Ah... So, one of you knows your history. Encouraging..."

The five captives turned their heads to face the sound.

Suzie snarled.

"That's the voice! That's the man I heard before! That old-fashioned, super-posh accent. Ergh!" She pretended to shudder.

A dark figure moved forward, close enough for the captives to make out a vaguely silver, humanoid shape through the thick plastic of their cells.

"I've had enough of this nonsense," Betsy snapped angrily. "Listen up, whoever you are. You'd better let us go if you know what's good for you. Do you have any idea who I am?"

"You are the twin sister of Captain Britain," the man said in his rich, educated voice. "Cultivator of a vapid, and rather wasteful, celebrity, I'm afraid. I wouldn't expect you to know me...or to comprehend the significance of our meeting. But, perhaps...this one..."

He moved toward Marta's cell, his blurred shape growing taller, alarmingly tall...

"Do you know me, little teleporter? Has your dear 'Daddy' told you of the time he and I spent together? Of the work we failed to complete?"

Marta swallowed and stepped back, shaking her head in horrified denial.

"You...you couldn't be... He died. Essex... He drowned! Back during the war, when the X-Men flooded the Weapon X base at Alkali Lake!"

"Very good," the man said. "Very good. Dr. Essex did drown that day. Yes...yes, indeed. But he didn't die. No... He was found, revived. Reborn!"

"How wonderful for you," Betsy said dryly. "Always did love a man who spoke of himself in the third person. If the lesson's over now, how about letting us out of here?"

"Ignorant slut! Hold your tongue!" the man snapped.

"Excuse me!" Betsy exclaimed, thoroughly outraged, but he had already turned his attention back to Marta.

"You know the Nightcrawler was mine once. As was his friend, the Wolverine. They were each useful in their time, and in their own, limited way. But you... You children... You are the offspring of the offspring of mutants. Your genetic codes are rich and varied. Just what I need... To finally complete my work..."

"What, you want to study our genes? Our DNA?" Suzie asked and hocked a wad of spit at the blurry image on her cell wall. "There, you're welcome to scrape that into your petri dish. Can we go now?"

"Rude! And so impatient!"

"Yep, that's me. Rude and impatient," Suzie said. "And completely unconvinced you really are that traitor Dr. Essex who betrayed our dad back during the war. Like Marti said, he's dead. He's been dead longer than Marti and I have been alive! Wolverine saw his body, just before the dam burst completely and swept everything away. You're probably just some sad clone or robot or something, taught to think it's Dr. Essex."

"No. No. Not Essex, not any longer," the voice intoned. "I am more than that human ever was. Infinitely more! My metamorphosis - my evolution - has been long and slow, but the end is now in sight. I will be the one to assemble the Perfect Code. And once I do, I will become the template He needs. The template He has been waiting for all these years..."

"Template?" Marta asked. "What do you mean? Who needs a template?"

"You will find out...in time..."

The man's voice was fading, his blurred shape diminishing into the distance.

"Wait!" Marta called. "If you're not Dr. Essex any more, who are you? Tell us who you are becoming!"

The clack of the man's boots paused and he seemed to turn.

"You may call me Mr. Sinister," he said, and was gone, his footsteps swallowed by the pneumatic hiss of a heavy sliding door.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Long ago…almost two centuries back…a man sat in a smoky London tavern, his pie and pint forgotten as he flipped through the notes for his upcoming speech before the Royal Society.

"Dr. Essex, I presume?"

A tall, lanky man moved to stand between Essex and the nearest gas lamp, casting the scientist's table – and his notes – into shadow. Bushy mutton chops and round, pince-nez glasses obscured his features, but his voice betrayed his youth and eagerness.

"Might I have a word with you, sir?" the man said. "It's about your research… You see, I too have read the work of Gregor Mendel, of his Law of Segregation and Law of Independent Assortment. And, like you, sir, I believe that, taken in combination, Darwin's theory of natural selection and Mendel's insights into the random transmission of dominant and recessive traits from parents to offspring have the potential to lead us to the secrets of humanity's deepest hereditary; to allow us to trace our origins back to our purest beginnings. To a time before Babel, perhaps to Eden itself—!"

Essex clenched his pipe's stem tighter between his teeth. Not another Bible-blinded radical! And a university student, from the looks of him…

"You have approached the wrong man, sir," Essex growled over the younger man's enthusiastic prattle. "I did not come here to socialize or debate. The aims of my research lie, not in tracing humanity's past, but in guiding its future. Now, leave; you are blocking my light, and I do need to review this…"

"My apologies," the young man said, staying right where he was. "Perhaps, another time…? I am free all this week."

Essex turned his shoulder to the man, but he didn't budge, waiting patiently for the scientist's reply. Essex snarled and gathered his papers, taking no notice of his untouched meal as he climbed to his feet. He waited, pointedly, in the narrow aisle but, when the tall man still didn't move, he prompted: "Sir, you are standing in my path."

"Then, allow me to open the way for you," the student said, his hair and gleaming glasses unable to fully mask his odd little smile as he stepped aside.

Essex brushed past him and out the door, his busy mind fixed on matters far more important than sparing common courtesy for some upstart student with pretentious side burns…

*******

Cold, hazy drizzle hung in the air outside Braddock Manor. It soaked through Kurt's velvet fur as he crouched at the outskirts of the cordoned grid overlaying the ruins of what had once been the Training Room's equipment locker. The salty, marshy scent of low tide tickled his nostrils, and he wrinkled his nose to prevent a sneeze, his long tail swaying irritably behind him.

"Soft weather, they call this," he grumbled. "Bloody miserable, is more like it."

"Like walking through a cloud," Samuel said, standing beside him as they watched the forensics teams work. "All this mist and fog can get pretty frustrating, though. It's not actually 'raining,' yet we still manage to get thoroughly soaked."

"I almost wish it would rain…" Kurt muttered. "At least, then, there'd be some sense of release. I feel as though the sky itself has been holding its breath since this hellish nightmare began…"

Samuel regarded the older man, his blue eyes dark with empathy. Nightcrawler looked like a shadow in the misty haze, a gaunt wraith, his chin dark with stubble and his golden eyes shot through with red. Samuel set his jaw.

"We will find them, Uncle Kurt," the teen asserted. "Marti's smart, and my Aunt Betsy's a lot tougher than she acts in front of those cameras. They've all gotten in and out of tough spots before. We just have to trust that, wherever they are, whoever's behind all this, they'll be able to handle it. They'll be OK."

Kurt placed a hand on Samuel's shoulder, but couldn't bring himself to reply. The boy was still too young to fully understand the terrors that froze a father's heart. Betsy was skilled, but long out of practice and, though Marti, Suzie and their friends were indeed smart, resourceful, talented kids, for all their training they were still only children. His children...flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood: his and his wife's. When they hurt, he hurt, and if they had been injured...or worse...as a result of this attack—

"Colonel Wagner!" one of the forensic team leaders called out, her gloves and wellies thickly coated in mud and soot. "Sir, we've found something you should see!"

A BAMF of smoke, and Kurt and Samuel were at her side. The woman jumped slightly, then smiled.

"Incredible," she said, and gestured to her find, all business. "This is the epicenter of the explosion, right here. The blast was extremely forceful, but it was more percussive than hot. We believe damaged wiring caused the fires, not the explosive itself. The blast pattern indicates the bomb device was housed in this locker, under extreme pressure. Scattered cardboard and white, blue, black and red polyester fragments suggest it had been concealed in a box - possibly inside a plush toy. We've scanned the fragments and we'll try to digitally reconstruct the original shape, in case it has some significance. But this..." she held up a damp, singed piece of what appeared to be an international shipping label, sealed in a plastic evidence bag, "...is why I called you over."

Kurt took the bag and read the shipping label's blurred, ink lettering, his already chilled skin growing cold.

"...Karl and Marta Wagner..." he whispered. "But, this is a return address! My parents' address. They said they were sending a parcel... But, if the bomb had been placed in this box—"

He pressed his thick fingers to his mouth, his long tail clamping around his leg like a snake.

"Samuel, you stay here," he croaked. "I must make a call...!"

"But, Uncle Kurt—"

Samuel started to reach out to him, but had to pull back when Nightcrawler vanished in a BAMF of smoke.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

“I don’t understand this. Not at all,” Kitty said, bent almost double over her computer console as she tapped away at the controls.

The manor’s main computer lab was noticeably cool and rather dimly lit, most of the light coming from the room’s busy monitors, viewscreens and holoprojections. Kitty’s station took up most of the far wall, while Doug and Forge worked at opposite sides of a complicated-looking control center that filled the sunken space in the middle of the lab, Doug mumbling to himself in computer code as his fingers flew across the keypads.

“What’s all that?” Logan asked, gesturing with his rough chin toward the very technical-looking graphs and charts that filled most of the computer screens.

“That up there is data from the forensics teams,” Forge told him, preoccupied with his work. “We’ve been compiling all their scans and findings as they come in.”

“And…?” Logan prompted.

“And it doesn’t make any sense,” Kitty said, sitting back and spinning her swivel chair around in frustration. “There’s just too much going on in this case! I hardly know where to start!”

“Then, take me through it,” Logan said. “From the top.”

Kitty shot him a dark look.

“You must be kidding. We don’t have time to—”

“To what, Half-Pint?” Logan grunted. “Stand here spinning your wheels?”

Kitty sighed through her nose, and nodded.

“All right, you’ve made your point,” she said. “I’ll explain what we’ve got so far to you and, in the process, we just might find that link we need to bring this mess into focus.”

“Now you’re talkin’ smart,” Logan said and sat back in one of the rolling office chairs. “So, shoot.”

“OK, OK,” Kitty said, running her hands through her short hair in an attempt to calm down and focus. “We’ve got three main tasks here. First, I have Forge and Doug working on trying to reconstruct that virus some hacker implanted in our systems to turn poor Forge into a zombie. It would help to know exactly what that program was designed to do and just how long it was lurking in our systems. And, though it’s a long shot, sometimes some programmers like to code their signature into their work. If we can find that signature, we can send it through the IX-MO, police and government databases to see if this guy’s hacked anyone else.”

“Sounds good,” Logan said. “What else?”

“Over here, like Forge said, we have a program busy reconstructing the entire crime scene in 3-D, based on the forensics teams’ findings so far,” she said, gesturing to another panel of computers. “We’re trying to determine just how those holo-emitters were modified, but Forge still can’t figure out how our Training Room was turned into a mechanical teleporter. Until we figure that out, we have no way of tracing the coordinates of the teleport – no way of finding who snatched Marti, Suzie, Cessily, Tessa, and Betsy!”

She closed her eyes and took in a long, deep breath, her hands fisted tightly at her sides.

“Sorry,” she said.

“We’re all on edge, Half-Pint,” Logan said, and stood, moving to the nearest panel of monitors. “What’s going on here?

“I’ve linked up with Moira’s computers in the medical lab,” Kitty told him. “The parasite she and Rahne have isolated is genetically engineered, which means it was most likely developed and grown in a lab. If it was stolen, some lab somewhere may own a patent, or have published a paper, or something… God!” she exclaimed, and kicked her own office chair until it spun around in a full circle. “I hate all these missing pieces and speculation! I just need something real – some rock-solid trace that might, just might, lead us to a name!”

BAMF!

Everyone jumped at the explosive sound, but Nightcrawler was already moving past the lingering teleport smoke, making a bee line for the nearest available keypad.

“Kurt!” Kitty exclaimed, a hand pressed to her chest.

Logan stood.

“Hey Elf,” he said, “what—”

“I need a phone trace, now!” Kurt said urgently, his yellow eyes glowing like cinders in the dimness as he tapped at the touch pad with his thick fingers. “Did anyone pick up a package on the day of the explosion? It would have been addressed to me, from Germany.”

“Yes, actually,” Kitty said, moving beside him to watch as he pulled up his own phone records for the past week. “I think Marta was saying something about a package arriving from your parents.”

“Do you know where she put it?” Kurt demanded, finding the right date and time and initiating the trace with a fierce jab of his finger.

Kitty bit her lip, her large eyes tight.

“I’m sorry, Kurt, I don’t remember much about it,” she said. “We were on our way to the train station, and Alice told her to stash it somewhere until you had a chance to look at it.”

“Why all this about a package?” Logan asked, crossing his arms. “Those CSIs find something out there?”

“This.”

Kurt shoved the evidence bag containing the singed shipping label the forensics team had found at Logan, who held the damp, blurred paper to the monitor light and frowned.

“Karl and Marta Wagner,” he read grimly. “You think the bomb was in this box, then?”

“What?” Kitty exclaimed. “Oh, Kurt—”

“My parents had called my private number several days ago to tell me they were sending me some things from my childhood,” Kurt told them, his eyes still fixed on the screen, which was rapidly filling with lists and lists of numbers and locations. “If the bomb was in that box, either someone was listening in on that phone conversation and mined the box in transit, or—”

“The call may have been a set up,” Logan grunted.

“It was,” Doug said, coming up behind them. The blond boy ducked between Kitty and Logan to point at Kurt’s screen. “Just look at that crazy list!”

“What is all that?” Logan demanded. “No one could call from all those places.”

“No – that’s just tracing where the caller’s signal bounced off of towers and satellites,” Doug said and started to smile, just slightly. “You know, this makes me think someone was using a website to fool Mr. Wagner’s caller-ID. Some sneaky program designed to mask their own location, number, and identity, and make it look like the call came from his parents’ number.”

“But, I heard my parents’ voices,” Kurt said. “Not just their accent, but the way they talk. If this call was phony, how could these hackers mimic them so perfectly?”

“It could be done by computer,” Forge said, looking up at them from the central control well just below. “All they’d have to do was run a sample of your parents’ voices through a vocal masking program – like a super sophisticated version of those voice changer Darth Vader toys kids play with. Then, anything they said would come out sounding like your parents said it.”

“How would a hacker get that kind of sample?” Logan asked.

Forge frowned.

“Given all that’s happened, I have to believe that Excalibur has been under very close surveillance for some time,” he said grimly. “Now that we’ve started to get a feel for what to look for, the evidence is cropping up everywhere. Kurt, you talk to your parents at least once a week. It wouldn’t take much for a good hacker to record a few samples.”

Kurt swore darkly, and turned his burning eyes to Doug.

“Phone conversations must have a caller and a receiver, ja? What would it take for you to find out exactly where this call originated?” he asked, stepping aside to allow the young computer expert access to the keypad.

“Just give me a few minutes,” Doug said. “This hacker’s clever…guy’s got the signal bouncing all around the world, as you can see. But, I should be able to narrow it down…”

While Cypher worked, Kurt regarded his three friends, his long tail lashing.

“With that box, and this call, we may finally have found some material evidence directly linking us to these criminals,” he said. “If Doug can track the true source of this call, having that location may help us source the coordinates of whoever used our Training Room to kidnap my girls, Betsy, Cessily, and Tessa.”

“You might have something there,” Forge said, turning back to his own complex task. “I’ve been working to reconstruct the teleportation program, but with so little left to build from, it’s been very slow going.”

“The forensics team told me they think this package, sent with my parents’ address on it, was the epicenter of the explosion,” Kurt said. “They are currently working to piece together the contents of that box, in case they may have some significance. Perhaps something symbolic, something that might be a message…”

“Or, something with fingerprints or even some trace DNA,” Kitty said, a narrow ray of hope starting to shine through her voice. “If whoever is behind this tangled mess is in the system—”

“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves,” Logan grunted. “Sounds to me like we’ve all still got a lot of piecing and puzzling together to do before we can point to something solid.”

He looked up at his haggard friend, his own rough features darkening at the sight of Kurt’s sunken eyes and gaunt, unshaven face.

“Kurt, we’ve got this,” he said. “Why don’t you take a few minutes to get cleaned up. I promise to call you the second we find something.”

Kurt rubbed his rough, bristly chin, and pursed his lips.

“Go on,” Kitty said, giving his arm a sisterly squeeze. “You haven’t taken a moment for yourself since all this began. If we do get a lead out of this, we’ll need you to be sharp, fresh, and ready to go.” She smiled. “Besides, Logan’s right. We’ve got this.”

Kurt shook his head.

“Nein,” he said. “I must call my parents first. I must know that they are all right.”

“Fair enough. But, given this latest hack, we can’t trust the phones here,” Logan said, reaching into his jacket pocket. “I’ve got this burner cell I keep in case of emergencies. Untraceable.”

He held it out, and Kurt took it gratefully.

“Danke, mein Freund,” he said, grabbing a nearby pencil to help him tap the numbers on the narrow screen. After a brief, but emotional, conversation, Kurt handed the phone back to Logan, and straightened his shoulders.

“I could not bring myself to tell them about the girls,” he said, his voice rough. “Not yet. Not until I know more. But, my parents are fine. They have no intention of moving house after all. Marti will be glad to hear that...”

He sniffed a little, and wiped his eyes with his tail.

“I believe I will go wash up now,” he said, and clapped Logan’s shoulder. “Thank you, Logan.”

“Hey,” the gruff man grunted. “We’re all family here.”

Kurt smiled and nodded, then disappeared in a flash of smoke.

“All right, kids,” Logan said, turning back to Kitty, Forge, and Doug. “Back to work. Where do you need me?”

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

Alice Wagner pulled her teabag from her favorite blue mug and dropped it in the bin. She added some sugar to the tea, started to stir, then threw the spoon down onto the counter and turned away.

She'd thought if she could take a break, concentrate her mind on the familiar, calming ritual of making some strong, hot tea…

But it wasn't doing any good. Of course, it wasn't doing any good! Her daughters were missing, her children, and she and her husband were trapped in the manor, forced into inaction by a lack of any real leads, any real information, anything that might tell them who to go after, who was responsible—

Alice clenched her fists until her fingernails began to cut into her palms, then leaned back over the counter, forcing herself to calm her breathing, slow her racing heart.

Moira, her best friend, was sick. She and Alistaire could be dying…that poor little girl, Jessalyn, was already so ill she could barely get out of bed…

At least Eliza Braddock was putting her training as a student nurse to good use, organizing the rest of the children to help keep their afflicted friends comfortable. Rahne was deep in her own work, searching for a way to destroy that awful parasite thing. Meggan was buzzing around the manor and grounds, keeping all the forensics and investigative teams Brian was overseeing supplied with sandwiches, biscuits, and hot drinks…

And, what could she do? She wasn't a nurse or a scientist – she'd studied international relations and communications at university. Her skills lay in diffusing conflicts, negotiating hostage situations, not decoding cybercrimes or battling microscopic germs! Until the others got a lead – finally found an actual criminal to confront…

Alice felt utterly useless.

Pouring her steaming tea down the sink, Alice rinsed out her mug, plonked it on the drying rack, and marched stiffly out of the kitchen, aiming for her bedroom and a scalding hot shower.

*******

Kurt closed his eyes and turned his face up into the stream of steaming water raining down from the shower head.

The shower was supposed to relax him, help him focus his mind, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect. Without an outlet – an actual criminal to confront – Kurt's imagination ran in circles fed by fear, by dark, terrible worries…and even darker memories…

Memories of his own kidnapping, his own captivity…a prisoner of Weapon X…

Kurt had thought he was past this, that he had left the panic and anger and frustrated rage in the past with the war…locked away in that place before Excalibur, before the children, before he and Alice had pledged their lives and hearts to each other…

But, the images came unbidden, in vivid, visceral flashes…flashes he couldn't control…

The cell reeked of rot and worse; the stagnant mud at the bottom of the lake oozing its watery stench through the porous concrete. The chronic dampness bred an uneven colony of spindly, brown stalactites along the ceiling…the trickling droplets staining trails like tear tracks down the walls…

…drip…drip…

Kurt huddled beneath his tattered blanket, knees clutched to his chest, his entire body locked tight in an endless, rocking, freezing shiver.

There was no escape from the wet, the cold. The slick, metal floor leeched away any trace of warmth; the thin mattress pad drew in stinking, brown puddles like a moldering sponge…

Even the humming electronic door seemed to weep…

Echoes in the corridors, and he heard that voice…that smooth British accent, too distant to make out any words… There was just the tone, the timbre of that voice, far away but getting closer…coming closer with his needles, those terrible injections that burned in his veins, forced him to cry out like a tortured animal as he felt his body changing, his skin and fur growing darker, his mouth and eyes giving off a startling light all their own…

"Kurt!"

He gasped and huddled against the dripping wall, too lost in his horror think, to see anything beyond the nightmare that still lived in his mind…

"Kurt…Kurt it's me. It's Alice. I'm here, darling, I'm right here with you. Tell me you can feel my hand."

"Alice…"

Kurt closed his eyes, the falling water mingling with his tears as he clutched her hand in his.

"My God, honey, you're freezing cold," Alice said, and he realized she was crouching in the shower with him, that she was holding him, her strong, brown arms so secure around his shoulders…

His lungs still hitching, he leaned his head against her neck and just breathed her in, tangling his fingers in her long, dark hair. She was real. Gott sei dank, she was real, and she was here, and she knew…she knew without words how to find his heart in the darkness, how to draw him back to the present…

"It's Essex," Kurt whispered against her skin, his glowing eyes streaming tears. "He has them, Alice. Our beautiful girls. He's taken them because I escaped, because I got away…"

"It's not possible, love," Alice said, stroking his spine, his fuzzy back, and she pulled him close against her, pressing her cheek to his pointed ear. "Essex is dead, Kurt. Essex is gone, and so is Weapon X. It's all been thoroughly dismantled."

"Then, it's someone else," he said desperately. "Someone else who knew that damned traitor, some radical relic from Weapon X labs, or the LGP! Who else could have done this, Alice – what other motive could there be…?"

Alice chewed her lip and glanced down at her husband's shoulder, his arm. The brand there was darker now, merely a series of raised ridges she could barely see through the shower steam and his wet, indigo fur…

But she remembered how it had looked that day in the medical ward, when she'd seen what those Weapon X madmen had done. Red and swollen, the number-shaped burns glistening from the cream Dr. McCoy had spread over the ugly, ugly wound…

She remembered…she had stared at Kurt, but hadn't known him. Her handsome, playful, dashing elf just wasn't there. She'd seen only this terrible, nightmarish creature…hunched and twisted, his nails long like yellowed talons, his dark fur nearly black. He had looked up at her, opened his mouth…a light like burning sulfur had poured out from inside him...

And, she had shrieked in fear.

"Who… What is that!"

She'd known then how deeply her words had cut him, and her choking guilt had only made things worse between them. Instead of helping his recovery, she had snapped at him, the two of them fighting for months over every little thing until, finally…

She closed her eyes and swallowed the memories, that awkward time of separation before he found Excalibur…before they found themselves…

Taking her husband's hands, Alice pulled him to his feet and stood with him under the shower stream. Slowly, she touched the branded scar with her fingers, then her lips, feeling his muscles shudder away from her touch.

"Don't…" she said, and moved closer, her gentle fingers mapping out his other scars as she edged slowly around him. Laser burns, sutured gashes and surgical incisions…so many lingering reminders of battles past, of tumbles taken and pain endured…

She gazed into his golden eyes, and he brushed the wet hair from her forehead with the spade of his tail, smoothing his calloused palm down her cheek to her shoulder, her side, to rest against her abdomen…where his thick fingers gently traced marks and scars of a different kind.

"What was it for, Alice?" he whispered into her sodden hair. "We thought we won the war…that we were bringing our children into a safer world than the one that we had known… But, is it, really? Has it all been a mask, a bubble – is the real world outside, beyond IX-MO and the X-Men, still that same cruel, fear-driven, bigoted place? I think about all we endured, everything we fought to change, to teach, and I…I…"

Alice ran her hands through his hair, her own eyes stinging at the sight of the silver-blue strands that streaked through his midnight curls, gleamed in the rough stubble on his cheeks and chin…

She knew mutants tended to age slowly, and Kurt was no exception. Although he was nearly fifty, most days her husband could easily pass for a man in his mid-to-late thirties. But now…with his head bowed, the water highlighting the silver in his hair…he actually looked his age and it hurt her to see him so…mortal, so fragile…

"Oh, Kurt," she sobbed, and pressed him to her, holding him as tightly as she could. He returned her embrace with the same desperate fervor, and they swayed together in the shower mist, his spaded tail twining around them both.

"What if the battle we won was merely political?" he said. "What if the minds and hearts of the people have not truly changed? If Sinister and his twisted League for Genetic Purity allies truly have been discredited, then who could have our daughters, Alice? If they have been watching us for so long, why target Betsy and the children? Why release that parasite into the water supply?"

"We'll find out, Kurt," she assured him. "We're not alone in this. The world has changed since the war, which is why, to me, these crimes reek of desperation. Whoever is behind all this must know they are the ones on the outside this time. That they are the ones who are alone."

She pulled back and looked at him, fixing him with her steady gaze.

"We are witnessing the last great flash before these criminal extremists and all their bigoted, genetic-purity dogma finally fade into the past where they belong," she said. "It is our success that has made us targets, Kurt. Not our failure."

Kurt nodded slowly, and pulled her back to him, resting his head against her shoulder.

"Ich liebe dich," he said, kissing her neck, then behind her ear. "Danke, meine Liebe. I believe my mind is clearing now. I will be able to return to my work with fresh eyes. And you?"

"Mmmm," she agreed, burying her nose in his shoulder. "But, not yet...please... Let's stay like this a little longer. Just us two."

"Of course, my love," he said and they held each other close, together in their fear and pain as they had been in their joy the nights their children were conceived.

To Be Continued...