Into the Heart of Darkness
Jean shivered and rubbed her arms in an effort to warm away the goosebumps that had popped up. The snow was falling in soft flakes that tried to melt away the instant they hit the ground, but there were too many of them to succeed. Drifts piled up here and there across the deserted street, and Jean squinted, trying hard to see in the dim glow of the fading streetlights.
'This was Duo's mindscape?' she wondered briefly, her heart twinging at the dismal surroundings. All of the buildings were dark, and a chill went through as the air passed by. She walked slowly, listening for a hint of sound, something to show her where Duo was. 'Did he live here at one time?' It was such a sad-looking place, but Jean knew this had to be a reflection of some place that Duo knew.
A giggle sounded to her left and she turned her head sharply, catching sight of a small figure dashing into an alleyway.
" Duo?" Jean called out hesitantly as she hurried towards the elusive sound. Reaching the alleyway, she peered around carefully, and saw nothing except some old beat up garbage cans, some of the trash long since spilling over on to the ground.
Jean gasped as a lop-eared tabbey cat crouched onto the rickity fence lining the alleyway, its yellow eyes glaring balefully at her. She took a step back and the cat suddenly yowled at her and ran away. " What-"
" You don't belong here."
Jean cried out and whirled around, falling into a defensive stance. A strand of red hair fell into her eyes and she brushed it away automatically. " Duo?"
A young boy, almost anorexically thin, perched on a cement block in front of the streetlight. It's fading light cast the front of the child in shadows but Jean had no trouble seeing his eyes. Violet beams drilled into her, mentally taking inventory of her, who she was, what she wanted. Long, chestnut hair straggled down the slender form, the light wind whipping clumps of it over and around his face but those eyes never wavered. The child couldn't have been more then seven or eight, but the voice that answered her gentle query sounded years older.
Jean swallowed and took a step forward. Young Duo growled, and she stopped.
" I'm a friend," she said gently, meeting his gaze openly. Her mind exuded thoughts of peace and goodwill, but the boy's muscles remained as taut as pulled wire.
" No friend of mine," the child finally spoke, crossing his arms defiantly. Jean almost smiled and she crouched down, meeting his gaze on an even level.
" You're right - you don't know me. But I know you." She cocked her head to one side. " And I know your friends."
" Friends?" The defiant gaze almost dropped as a curious lilt entered chibi-Duo's voice.
" The friends you'll have when you're bigger." Jean stood up slowly. " I know you're protecting the real Duo, but I'm only here to help. Can I talk to him?"
Young Duo's cocky brashness dropped away as he too stood slowly. He regarded her slowly, nodding to himself as he came to a realization.
" You're real."
" Yes I am," Jean nodded. " And you are not."
The child smirked at her, then shivered as the wind howled its way along the alley again. Jeans hands found her arms again.
" Duo? May I change the scenery?" she asked, not wanting to overstep her bounds. Some telepaths might have just forced the child to reveal Duo's location and by-pass the acting, but when dealing with the subconscious, irrepareable damage to the persons psyche could be easily avoided by playing along. Jean knew that Duo was hurt enough without forcing her way through his barriers. But the child was giving her a puzzled look, and she frowned.
" What's wrong?"
" Change the scenery?" Duo's young voice sounded unsure. Jean raised her hand, open-palmed.
" May I?"
Curious, young Duo nodded. With a wave of her hand, the snow and wind disappeared, the sun reappearing as if by magic. Gentle warm beams surrounded them, the houses losing their dark appearance. Children's laughing voices could be heard in the background, the rumble of your everyday, typical neighbourhood. Jean was smiling as she turned to look at Duo's mind guardian - and found him pressed back against the fence, eyes wide with shock and fright.
" Turn it back!!" he begged, squeezing his eyes shut. " Don't show me!"
Confused, and slightly alarmed, Jean changed the scenery back to the winter wasteland. Chibi-Duo slowly unfurled himself from the fence, watching her intently, the mistrust back in his eyes. Jean sighed as she took in the defensive nature of the child's stance.
" What happened there?" she asked gently.
" It was happy," the chibi answered quietly, eyes now a dark purple as he stared at her accusingly. " It's not supposed to be happy. 'Cause it'll hurt more when its gone."
Jean sucked in her breath as she realized what the child was telling her. The old adage, 'you can't miss what you don't have' danced through her mind and she blinked back tears of sorrow for the poor child.
" I'm sorry," she whispered. The boy nodded once and stood up in preparation to leave. " Wait!"
" You can't come with me," the child informed her. Jean's eyes widened as a set of red eyes appeared in the background, watching her, watching Duo.
" He doesn't trust you," the child intoned, backing away even more. " He doesn't know you and he'll hurt you for sure."
Jean reached out but the child leaped nimbly away. She rushed forward to follow when she bounced off a barrier. Pulsing red translucense, she ran her hands over it and knew that she couldn't get through without applying damaging force. Only trust would willingly weaken the barrier, and she closed her eyes, sensing for the key. She got a faint image of white wings, spread gloriously to the heavens, and a pair of cobalt blue eyes that pierced her to the core. Opening her eyes, she smiled.
" Okay Duo," she whispered, stroking the barrier softly as one would a kitten. " I understand. You're frightened and you don't want to be hurt. Sinister hurt you, didn't he? And you're trying to hide now, using your injury as an excuse." She smiled gently; it was so like Morph it was scary. " I'm leaving now Duo, but I'll come back okay? And I'll bring your friend with me so you don't have to be scared."
Jean stepped back and concentrated. A minute later, her physical body trembled, and her eyes opened to see a worried Heero staring at her intensely. Hank stood next to the professor who also opened his eyes, releasing his hold on the link he'd helped Jean establish.
" It's okay," she said, reinforcing her words with a little mental nudge. " I'm fine."
" Is Duo?" Heero growled, trying unsuccessfully to banish the concern from his voice. Jean shrugged.
" I don't know," she said, her smile fading. " I couldn't find him - he didn't know me, so he wouldn't let me in." Her expression changed, sadness stealing over her features. " It was so dark and lonely...."
" Did his subconscious stop you?" asked Hank with interest. Jean nodded and looked at the Professor.
" You handled it well Jean," said Charles. " To force your way in would have caused more damage then necessary."
Heero was fuming. " What happened? Force your way where?"
Jean turned her attention back to the Wing pilot.
" Duo's mind had a barrier around it. Everyone's does, but thanks to Sinister, his was a little stronger then mosts. I could have gotten through easily if I so chose, but to tear away at the layers of a person's mind could reduce them to the state of a vegetable, if it shatters."
Heero froze, his mind going over the possiblity. " But nothing like that happened?"
" No," Jean said forcefuly. " I would never enter a mind against a person's will. You have to be invited."
" Well, how do you do that?" Heero asked brusquely. "The sooner we do, the sooner we can find out if he's still under some kind of mind control."
Jean smiled at him. In fact, they all did. Heero's eyes narrowed as he realized they were all staring at him as though they had something in mind. " What?"
" You're going to come with me," Jean said, still smiling.
Wufei followed the sounds of muffled sobs. Inwardly he winced, knowing he was the cause of them, thanks to his callous words back in the kitchen. No doubt, Quatre had been prepared to give him a good tongue-lashing for his rudeness, when Jubilee had beat him to the punch. He cringed as he realized that having left Quatre and Trowa alone back in the kitchen, the Arabian might still get in a tonge-lashing of his own. He shuddered, shoving those thoughts out of his mind and focusing on the task at hand: apologizing to one Jubilation Lee. He shuddered again - it was like re-living life with Meiran.
" Jubilee?" He called out softly as he entered the large living room.The choked sobs instantly cut off as he said her name and he saw the young girl standing at the window, arms folded tightly against her chest, her back half to him.
" What's up?" she asked roughly, keeping her eyes staring steadily out the window. " Look, I said I was sorry, okay? You didn't have to come out here and--"
" I came to apologize," Wufei interrupted smoothly. " I was extremely rude in saying you had no knowledge of our pain when in fact you experience it just as much. I had no right to say what I did to you and I'm sorry."
Astounded, Jubilee turned and stared at him, jaw dropping open. " You are?"
Wufei rankled slightly - was he really so hard to believe? " Yes, I am," he said testily, and Jubilee grinned at him.
" Sorry - it's just that it's usually me that has to apologize," she admitted with a smirk. " Come to think of it, since for once it's not my fault, let's see you do some grovelling!"
Wufei growled and turned to leave. He'd made his apologies, justice had been restored, his part was done. He was stopped from leaving by Jubilee's plaintive voice.
" Wait!" She tugged his arm enough to turn him to face her again. " Look, I'm sorry - I'm not sure how to act around you so I joked." She stared at him levelly. " You really hurt me, Chang."
" I know," Wufei said. " It was unintentional."
" We've both got our fair share of pain," she continued. " But that just means we may understand each other better right? Can we start over? I really want to be your friend Wufei." She stuck her hand out at him.
Wufei stared at the outstreched hand and smiled inwardly. Solemnly reaching out, he grasped her small hand in his and shook it firmly. Raising his eyes to meet hers, he was rewarded with a genuine smile from the Chinese girl.
" Wufei Chang," he said. " It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Lee."
" Likewise," she said as she flung her arms around him in an exuberant hug. Wufei's eyes nearly popped out of his head but before he could even think of raising his arms to return the embrace, she had already danced out of reach, reaching back to snag the strap of his dark tanktop and pulling him back to the kitchen. " C'mon Chang!"
Poor Wufei was dragged out of the living room at high speed and into the kitchen in time to see Jubilee let loose a tiny plasma burst at the intertwined couple on the kitchen seats. Quatre and Trowa both eeped as they were shocked apart.
" J-Jubilee?" Quatre stammered as he tried to calm his racing heartbeat. Beside him, Trowa was flaming fire-red. Quatre also noticed Wufei standing slightly behind the Chinese girl, seeming once again at ease. " I see you two made up?"
" Kinda like you two, neh Quatre?"
Quatre's eyes widened and he suddenly grinned at her, while Wufei joined Trowa in turning an even more brilliant shade of scarlet.
" You fast worker you," Quatre cooed, shooting a sly grin at Wufei. " I didn't think Wufei had it in him."
" Kisama!" sputtered Wufei as he tried to hide his face by thunking it on the table top.
Outside the kitchen, Wolverine listened casually as the tension was completely dissolved. Only his trust that the young ones would work it out themselves had prevented him from introducing that Wufei kid to his claws for making his Jubilee cry. He snorted silently - all of those kids were okay in his book, having seen the way they worked together in taking care of the machines, or how Wufei and Heero had handled both Shinigami and the other X-men back at the warehouse. Turning away, he caught site of the Cajun as Remy sauntered his way towards him.
" Logan." Gambit returned the curt greeting. He heard the laughter emanating from the kitchen and he raised an eyebrow. Wolverine shrugged.
" Goin' downstairs?"
" Just checkin' on how Madmoiselle Grey is doin' wit de kid," Remy shrugged. " Rogue be talkin' wit' Moira by now probably - de woman may be flyin' here to help La Bete in figurin' out a way to get dem kids home."
" Wonderful," Logan growled. " The madwoman that hates my cigars and follows me around wherever she happens to be, to turn the sprinklers on me when I light up." He scowled at the memory of the last time the X-Men vacationed on Muir Island. Remy burst out laughing as the memory of a soaking wet, bedraggled looking Wolverine stomping through the hallways, drenched stogie still clenched between his teeth.
" Be a pity for you, homme," he chuckled. Wolverine glared at him and looked at his pocket where he knew the Cajun kept his cigarettes.
" I wouldn't laugh if I were you, *homme*," he said pointedly. Remy stopped laughing as the implications hit him. Clutching his cigarrettes protectively, Remy moved past the smirking Wolverine.
" I t'ink I check on the 'paths now," he muttered, even as his mind began trying to figure out a way to protect his beloved nicotine. Moira was a sadist - and a practical joker at heart. She would find him too. " Bet Roguie'd be happy 'bout dat."
Logan heard his mutter and laughed out loud before disappearing outside. It was a beautiful day.
Heero was positive he hadn't heard the woman correctly. " I'm going with you?" he asked again. Jean nodded.
" I'm not a telepath," Heero pointed out calmly, stealing a look at the near comatose boy on the sterile bed. " And even if I were, I wouldn't be as strong as you - how could I get past a barrier that *you* can't?"
" Because Duo knows and trusts you," Jean answered just as calmly, one hand idly stroking the chestnut hair that fell along Duo's bed. Heero's eyes zeroed in on her movements and she stopped, smiling inwardly at the fierce protectiveness she was registering. " He'll let you into his mind, and me along with you. Then we can see what's wrong."
" But.." Heero's voice trailed off. he had to admit that it made sense, but that didn't mean he had to like it. Quite the contrary - he hated it. For all his exuberance and vitality, Duo Maxwell was a very private person. The thought of just entering Duo's head and seeing all his secrets made him feel disloyal to the boy he called his partner. There was something just morally wrong about it.
" There must be a reason that he's blocking us out."
" There is," Jean said gently. " And we have to know if it's Shinigami or Duo keeping us from entering."
The woman's words hit home. An image of the snarling, blood-soaked Shinigami entered his mind and he shuddered in revulsion. That wasn't Duo. They had to make sure.
" Mission accepted," he said tonelesly, eyes going blank and emotionless. Jean frowned as she scanned his projected thoughts.
//Treat it like a mission, like any other mission...//
She shook her head and looked at the Professor. " Sir?"
" Ready when you are, Jean." Charles Xavier closed his mind as he felt Jean re-open the link and anchored himself firmly to his own mind, fastening a similar anchor to Jean and Heero. Jean smiled and closed her eyes, the only signal that Heero was given.
Heero had been sitting when he was suddenly pulled into a vortex within his own mind, and he cried out instinctively. Suddenly he was back on firm ground and he blinked rapidly, noting Jean's steadying presence at his side. He shook his head and looked around, shivering in spite of himself as the winds howled around them.
" Are we in Duo's mind?" he asked in surprise. This was not what he was expecting from the mind of the crazy bouncing American. " This?"
He gestured to the desolate scene stretched before them, and Jean nodded sadly.
" This is what his mind projects," she confirmed. " Sad, isn't it?"
Heero nodded absently as he took in his surroundings. It was so gloomy, and cold. A wave of loneliness washed over him and he started at the feel of it, wondering if that was Duo's emotions he felt, or his own.
Heero and Jean both turned at the spoken word and Heero gasped. Chibi-Duo stood in front of them, arms crossed in that familiar, defiant pose. Jean smiled and gestured to Heero.
" Hello again, Duo. Do you know who this is?" she asked carefully.
Young Duo nodded.
" He's allowed," was all he said as he backed away, motioning for Heero to follow him. Heero was vaguely aware of Jean following close behind and he ignored her. He could still feel a faint sense of unease that was growing, and with a start, he realized what it was. He glanced at Jean out of the corner of his eye.
Jean passed him and showed him the barrier. Solid to her touch, he had a pliant, moveable feel to Heero and Jean smiled.
" He knows it's you, Heero," she said joyfully. Heero snorted and looked at her.
" Now what?" Even as he spoke, a section of the wall melted away. Just a bit, but more then enough. Jean clapped her hands and started for the hole. In a flash though, Heero passed her and entered the wall quickly, turning and helping it seal behind him. He heard Jean cry out and he shrugged, only partly apologetic.
Outside, Jean hit the wall futiley, and debated whether or not she should force her way in. Heero was no telepath and there was no telling what could happen to him within the depths of a person's mind. he could be killed, his mind destroyed, and his boy remaining in a coma-state.
:: Professor? Should I go in? ::
Heero's voice echoed around her and she jumped back from the wall in surprise.
:: Heero? ::
//Stay out// came the terse reply, and Jean felt the professor nod mentally.
:: It's up to Heero now, Jean :: he thought calmly.
Heero waited until he was sure Jean wouldn't follow him. The sense of unease that had plagued him since his arrival in Duo's mind abated somewhat and he knew he'd done the right thing. If they wanted to find out what was wrong, he'd do what he could. But this was still Duo's mind - he obviously had a reason for not letting Jean in. Heero didn't see any way that he had the right to circumvent Duo's reasoning and had entered before Jean could. Now if only he knew what to do. He stepped forward, looking around carefully.
He looked like he was inside the burnt out remains of what used to be a church. Everything was bathed in shades of red and black, and he realized with a start that the walls were dripping with blood. A curled-up form drew his attention and he focused on it.
No answer. He took another step forward, feeling as though something were watching him.
" Duo, is that you?"
" ...y-you shouldn't have come, Heero..." came the faint reply. Heero gasped as the slender form raised its head, revealing pain-filled violet eyes.
" Why not?" he asked carefully, keeping his voice even even as he felt excitement at finally seeing Duo, *his* Duo. He stepped forward hesitantly. Duo shuddered and curled up even tighter.
" Because *he's* in control right now...."
" He?" Even as he spoke the word aloud, the hairs on the back of his neck rose and he jumped away just as a shining silver blade sliced the air where he'd been standing. " What the--"
" Crashing MY party?" came a hissing laugh as a familiar, black-clad figure crouched before him. Fire danced in gleaming eyes, the burn of insanity reaching out and attacking Heero with its intensity. Heero took a step backwards as he recognized the growling figure.
Into the Heart of Darkness
There is no - repeat NO - mention of GW in this little interlude. This deals strictly with the business Remy was tending to in New Orleans waaaaaaaaaaaaay back in chapter one. However, it was important to do this for a couple of things:
A) It will better explain Remy's background
B) It will introduce you to several characters that will be popping up as the fic progresses, and explains their roles in my GWX universe.
C) It sets up the next story in HOD - AFTER Duo wakes up.
New Orleans bustled with an intensity that rivaled any other city in the world. Thousands of people roamed the streets, checking the venders wares, laughing as street performers entertained them as they ran their daily errands. Voices called out, laughter rang through the streets, the very air itself was alive with exuberance.
Jean-Luc Lebeau smiled at the city laid out below him with a hint of pride that seemed almost paternal. In a way, it was only fitting he should feel that way - after all, a great deal of the city was run by him, and under his protection in joint ownership, to use the term loosely, with the Assassins Guild.
Jean-Luc turned away from the window of his penthouse suite, and snapped his fingers. Instantly, a younger member of his own Thieves Guild was there with his briefcase. Sparing him a quick nod of thanks, Jean-Luc strode briskly to his own private elevator. Punching the button for the sub-basement, he leaned back against the cool metal wall and let his thoughts wander. As they often did when unattended, his thoughts drifted to his adopted son.
Remy was his pride and joy, a source of delight since the day the grubby street urchin had picked his pocket in the marketplace all those years ago. Jean-Luc smiled in reminiscence - what a fine young man he'd turned out to be! Handsome, strong, agile - and a Master Thief. It was his finest hour as a parent when he, along with the other two Master Thieves had presented Remy with a silver-hilted dagger, and inscribed their Guild insignia high on the nape of his neck, easily concealed by his hair. His son was one of the four most dangerous humans in the world, mutant powers aside. Even his own biological child Pierre didn't have nearly the ability of his adopted brother.
The man chuckled - not only was Remy a Master Thief, he also retained the brief training he'd had under an Assassin tutor in the few days directly following the end of their blood feud with the other Guild.
Still, for all his child's skill, Jean-Luc still worried about him. Remy was also a member of the X-Men, a notorious band of mutants that fought some of the most deadliest creatures on the planet. Jean-Luc had no quarrel with mutants, especially since his own son was one, but some of the acts he'd witnessed by mutants claiming to do it all for the good of their own kind, made him sick. He recalled watching one battle the X-Men had against Magneto, when for a brief period of time, the silver-haired mutant had held New York City hostage, trying to turn it into a homeland for mutants. It was frightening knowing his son dealt with such matters all the time. It was a parents prerogative to worry about their children.
It was also a parent's prerogative to worry about the future, he mused thoughtfully. A soft *ding* went off as the elevator reached the sub- basement. The automatic door slid back with a faint hiss of air, and he nodded to the two sentries whose eyes never left the entryway. You could never be too careful of who was coming down, even when you knew the sentry you'd left back in your suite had already phoned down to inform them of their leader's movements.
Jean-Luc strode down the narrow but well-lit hallway, eyes focused on the guarded archway ahead. This was his own private entrance to the underground labyrinth that made up the lair of the Thieves Guild. The door slid open, hidden cameras already showing who it was to the inner chamber, and Jean-Luc stepped forward to see his council rising to their feet at his appearance.
Waving them back into their chairs, Jean-Luc seated himself at the head of the table, meeting each one of his council members with a brief nod of greeting. His son, one of the Senior Guild Leaders, and heir to the Guild itself, sat at his right hand; his Chief Advisor, Claude Lafier, to his left. The remainder of the seats were filled in no particular order as they were all leaders of different factions within the Guild, and awarded each other mutual respect and an inbred sense of comradery that was legendary, and chief of all reasons why the Guild remained such a strong, though hidden, political faction within New Orleans.
" Greetings Master Thief," Claude started out formally, a warm smile in his eyes. The two of them had been friends for years, even back in their childhood days. Jean-Luc returned the greeting, reaching over to clasp the man's hand in a firm shake. His son watched the two of them, tension radiating from his body. Jean-Luc said nothing, even as he sensed the rising unease in his son; he knew it was nothing directed at anyone in particular in that council room, but that he was anxious to get things underway. A quick glance at Claude told him Claude knew it as well, and he sighed.
" I know you're anxious to begin, Pierre," he said, turning his attention to his son. All eyes followed him, but Pierre didn't mind - he'd been involved with the Guild and its inner proceedings since he'd been old enough to sit quietly and listen. Like his father before him, Jean-Luc believed that the grooming of the next in line should begin as young as possible. " I'll let you start."
Pierre acknowledge this with a rueful smile.
" My apologies father - I mean no disrespect by rushing you."
His father nodded once.
Pierre sighed and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the polished marble top. His eyes raked over each and every member of the council, making contact.
" We have some serious business to attend to, regarding de Guild's future."
" I assume you're talking 'bout de New York faction," came a voice from up the table. Pierre focused his gaze on the speaker, nodding.
" Robert, you know better den anyone, what de situation is like."
Robert Marks had been Advisor to the Guild Master Julian Lumiere, who ran the New York faction of the Thieves Guild. One of the four Master Thieves, Julian had been a strong leader of the Thieves, making valuable contacts in New York that served them in good stead for many, many years.
Sadly, time catches up to everyone, even Master Thieves, and Julian had succumbed to illness the previous year. His Advisor had been the one to help his successor, handpicked by both Julian before he'd fallen ill, and Jean-Luc, enter the position of power. Robert sighed.
" Jean-Luc - as Advisor of the New York council, I strongly urge you to speak with our leader."
" You forget who he is," Jean-Luc commented wryly. Claude smothered a brief smile and raised one hand slightly, acknowledging his right to speak.
" What has he done dis time?"
" Nothing - and therein lies the problem," Robert said calmly. " Your son may be the best thief in the world, Jean-Luc, but he has outside ties that lead him away from our way of doing things."
'Remy, Remy, Remy,' Jean-Luc sighed mentally. ' Always causing problems, even when you're not there.' Fond as he was of the boy, he was still an exasperating son-of-a-bitch.
" Explain," Claude commanded.
" Since taking over Master Julian's position, he has turned most leadership duties over to me, to act as I see fit. While this emphasizes his trust in me, it is not my place to be doing such things. He is a Master Thief, Leader of the New York section of our Guild - and he needs to act like it!"
" I repeat - what has he done? What is your chief complaint?" Jean- Luc stared at the man, and was proud to see Robert stand his ground, unashamed, and unafraid. Jean-Luc already knew the complaint - this particular discussion had been a recurring theme for the past several months, but matters dictated that he begin again, to ensure everyone there understood the situation at hand.
" He is supposed to be overseeing our operations, making contacts and keeping them, for one thing." Robert drummed his fingers on the marble. " Granted, he's there when we need him, and he always has the Guild's best interests at heart, but aside from the fact he's very well-known thanks to his exposure as an X-Man, he's not fulfilling the other duties required of a leader."
" Such as?" This came from Pierre. True or not, he was still loyal to his baby brother, and it irked him to hear anyone criticize him. Even if it was family.
Robert looked at Pierre and bowed his head once, trying to transmit peacefulness through body language. He knew Remy was a touchy subject, but it had to be addressed. he knew Pierre knew that as well.
" He needs to select a successor. Someone to whom the arts can be taught and passed down. There are trade secrets that died with Master Julian, known only to Master Thieves and their Apprentices. Remy has not even thought of that, in all the years since his ascension in rank."
" He's rather young to be looking for an Apprentice, no?" asked Henri Lafife, one of the senior Guild members in charge of training young thieves in their art. " He's not even t'irty years old, isn't that right, Jean-Luc?"
" Twenty-six," Pierre confirmed instead. " He has plenty of time to t'ink about heirs and Apprentices."
" I said nothing of heirs," Robert reminded them. " And with a girlfriend like Rogue, he's unlikely to have a child of his own, anytime soon."
Jean-Luc winced - another sore point with the Guild. It was a shame - he liked Rogue, and thought she was good for his son. Loyal, strong and fearless - too bad about the other aspects of her power.
" I mean an Apprentice - Remy Lebeau has been a Master Thief for seven years, and has never once considered taking aside one of our many talented youngsters, to further educate them in our ways."
" Perhaps he has not yet discovered someone dat he feels is ready to learn such methods," ventured Henri. " Selecting an Apprentice is not something to take lightly."
" We have many young thieves that fit that profile we tend to look for," Robert returned the volley easily. " It is his duty as Guild Leader to train someone."
Pierre scowled. " I'd like to bring back de point dat Remy is still young - I fail to see de urgency in all of dis. He was here briefly less den two weeks ago to help out wit' a situation we had brewing in one of de adjacent towns - he brought our agent out wit' ease. His quick response proves his loyalty to us - no matter his ties elsewhere, he is still one of us and should be treated as such."
Robert sat back. " I meant no disrespect, Pierre. I'm simply bringing this to your attention."
" I understand," Pierre replied wearily. " I want to know why. When I spoke wit' him briefly on dis subject, he also failed to see de urgency in dis."
It was the same argument, over and over again.
Robert hedged slightly, even though his outward expression remained the same. One of the first things any Guild member was taught, was to keep a straight face under any circumstances. Still, the point he had to make made even him feel uneasy.
" I merely wish to point out that in Gambit's case, age is irrelevant," he began gently. " As a member of the X-Men, he finds himself in increasingly dangerous situations everyday. Thievery is one thing - battles against mutants whose powers can kill in single blows, or theoretically destroy the planet is something different. Despite Remy's skill, he still spends a fair amount of time in the X- Mansion infirmary for various battle wounds." Robert stopped speaking for a minute to gage his audiences response. Pierre had resignation written all over his face, while Jean-Luc's remained impassive. Henri looked to be considering his words carefully. Robert sighed and spread his hands out on the table.
" All I ask sir, is that you speak to your son about choosing an Apprentice, to ensure that our ways and our methods won't be forgotten. It is by these methods that our Guild has survived for so many generations, no?"
Pierre chewed his lip thoughtfully before turning to his father. Jean- Luc sighed, knowing the truth in Robert's statements. As much as he would like to deny it, his son ran a very real risk of death every time his communicator went off. A faint pain pulsed in the back of his head, prelude to what he knew would become a migraine in due course. Rubbing his temples, he stood slowly. Immediately, all the councilmen rose to their feet. Jean-Luc sought out Roberts eyes and nodded slowly.
" You make some excellent points Robert," he admitted. " I don't like to admit dat my son's life is in considerable more jeopardy den my own - no parent does - but I see dat you only have de Guild's best interests at heart. I will speak to my son regarding d'ese matters. Pierre?" he asked, turning to his son.
" Has Remy contacted us yet?"
" I received a brief message from him today, father - apparently he has some important business wit' de X-Men to finish up, even d'ough I asked him to give an answer to d'ese matters." Pierre shook his head. Having to discuss this day in, and day out - and then emailing his impulsive younger sibling all the time, trying to nail him down long enough to get his take on things was getting tiresome. " He told me he would be in touch."
" Notify me at once when you hear from him - I will speak to him myself. Understood?"
" Yes sir." Pierre nodded sharply.
" Good. Thank you gentlemen, for coming." Jean-Luc dismissed all of them, barely noticing as they left, eyes staring at the wall as he contemplated what to do. If Remy had failed to choose one of the New York Thieves as an Apprentice, then that meant he hadn't found one yet with the skill and ability. Teaching could only do so much. He sighed again.
'Remy, Remy, Remy....what am I gonna do with you?'
Into the Heart of Darkness
Part 8 [ continued ]
'And here I thought this day couldn't possibly get any weirder.'
It could have been the fact that he had been ungraciously uprooted from his own mental stability and unceremoniously dropped into someone else's. It also could have been the fact that the featured mind in his own one-sided discussion, was his partners. That was kind of freaky too. However, Heero couldn't decide if it was his own ethereal presence in the American's mind that was giving him the heebie-jeebies or the fact that he was staring at two Duo's, both appearing to be at opposite ends of the personality spectrum.
'As if one wasn't enough.'
Heero immediately berated himself mentally for such fickle thoughts when there was a snarling, demon-like creature wearing his partner's face, standing only a few feet away.
"Let me guess," he said sarcastically, body automatically shifting into a defensive stance as it always did when confronted by an unknown. Though oft-times the bane of his existence, there were instances that he did thank Doctor J for drilling such reactions into him. "Shinigami, I presume."
A dark chuckle answered his words, and Heero watched, face devoid of any outer emotion, as the black-clad killer slowly straightened, licking his lips with a gruesome sort of anticipation. His eyes burned with a cold fire, flickering from Heero to Duo and back, a predatory light glowing in their depths. Thin lips pulled back in a semblance of a smile as his voice hissed out at them.
"So clever..." he rasped, not bothering to hide his amusement. "Maybe I'll keep you around after I dispose of *him*."
Heero started at the sound of Duo's voice laced with such venom, and he quickly looked down at his hapless partner who was watching Shinigami with a kind of resigned terror. Duo mutely stared at his doppleganger as though waiting for some kind of sign, a hint to when he was going to disappear. Heero didn't like the idea much. Call it a quirk, but he'd been through the emotional wringer a bit too often lately - ' a novel thing for me, I'm *sure*,' he thought dryly - and he was getting damn sick and tired of being threatened. His own cobalt eyes narrowed into angry slits.
"Dispose of him," he echoed, listening to the sound of his voice bounce off the walls - if there were even walls there to begin with. Heero was beginning to regret keeping Jean out - she might have been able to explain the complexities of determining what was real and what was not; a difficult task to do when in your own mind, let alone someone else's.
"How can you dispose of him? You're not even real."
"I'm not?" The jocosity of his tone was wearing thin on Heero's last nerve. Shinigami hefted what Heero now saw to be a smaller version of the scythe that was a part of Duo's Gundam. "Then this won't hurt a bit!"
Shinigami's slim frame unfurled completely as he launched himself through the air with lightening quickness, his raised arms swinging in a downwards arc, bringing bladed death with them. Heero's own reflexes were on autopilot; when Shinigami's body hurtled towards him, he was vaguely aware of himself gripping Duo by the (theoretical) collar of his priest's outfit and throwing him hard to one side. His own hands came back up just in time to catch Shinigami's wrists, his body twisting out of range of the metal blade's bite. His maneuver gave him the leverage he needed to pull and propel Shinigami over his head and to the ground.
'Gorilla-press' he thought disjointedly, the quick-think move reminding of a time when Rashid, the Maguanacs and Catherine, while on a joint get together, had convinced the pilot's to watch a wrestling marathon with them, despite the fact that it was A) completely fake, and B) nothing more then a display of muscle, hair and how much you could intimidate someone by yelling derangedly, but not by actually doing something. As he recalled, Wufei had started screeching injustice at the on-screen proceedings and had walked out. Heero had been nonplussed, even though some of the moves had looked interesting to him. 'What am I doing?'
He glanced over, somewhat anxiously at where he'd thrown Duo and was relieved to see the braided one sitting up slowly, though somewhat confusedly. "Duo?"
Duo shook his head as though trying to rid himself of something before looking up at the sound of his name. "H-Heero?" he asked, voice sounding somewhat unsure. "What's going on?"
"I'll let you know when I figure it out," he said, turning his gaze back to where Shinigami had regained his footing and was perched on... nothing... staring at them, a malicious grin on those deceptively cherubic features. Heero felt a sense of frustration well up within him at the sight of his enemy sitting on what appeared to be a pile of air.
"I'm a Gundam pilot," he muttered, shoving his bangs out of his eyes. "The physics of this should be easy for me to understand." 'So why aren't they?'
Suddenly, he really wished Jean was there. Not his nature to depend on anyone, he nonetheless realized he was way out of his league.
'Should've thought of that before I locked the door.'
Duo sat where he'd landed, fighting to regain his senses. He still wasn't quite sure what was going on, only that he was in his own mind, and Heero was sending his best Death Glare 'O Doom at what looked to be a copy of himself.
'Correction' he amended hastily. ' *Was* himself.'
Shinigami had been having a good old time, re-hashing some of his more interesting kills, using Duo's body, doing visual replays when he felt his own vivid descriptions weren't horrifying enough. Duo had been sickened when he'd first woken up within his own mind and found himself a prisoner of his own madness. he was no scientist, but even he realized what had happened.
The implant Sinister had put into his head had done more then just make him evil. It had awakened a part of Duo that the American had fought to keep under control all his life; the part of him that was angry at the world, livid at the powers-that-be that took away his family and friends. The very core of his soul that was Duo Maxwell that pulsed with thoughts of revenge. The hidden facet of him that only emerged in brief spurts when he was high on the thrill of adrenaline while commanding destruction in the cockpit of Deathscythe.
The bug had fed off him, nourished by his inner hatred and rage, and had taken on a sentient form of its own, one that delighted in bloodshed and mayhem; one that delighted in all the things Duo abhorred, and it was worse, knowing that as much as he hated Shinigami, it was still a part of him, and therefore, his fault for all the deaths Shinigami's birth had wrought.
'I am Death,' he thought miserably. 'Just as I always said.'
His gaze flickered over to Heero who was standing in front of him now, muscles tense as he watched Shinigami with a focus that was chilling. When Heero had shown up, Duo couldn't say he was completely surprised.
Duo had sensed a strange mind sniffing around his defenses. Unfamiliar to him, he had forced himself to strengthen his barriers. Shinigami hadn't prevented that, seeing as that would only help him in the long run if no one could enter, and in fact had relaxed his restraint around Duo in order to let him do it. That same lax restraint had been enough to let Duo allow Heero access to his mind - when he'd felt that strong, familiar, reassuring presence on the fringes of his consciousness, he had dropped a part of his shield instantly, implicitly trusting the probing aura that was his partner.
Still - with Shinigami in control, this wasn't exactly the safest place to be.
'Listen to me,' he thought with a hint of disgust. 'I've turned into a fucking schitzo.'
"H-Heero?" he asked, rubbing the side of his face, almost hesitantly. "What's going on?"
He had an idea of course - the way Shinigami and Heero were shooting sparks at each other, he knew that there was only one way a confrontation between them could end: in violence. Much as he wanted to see Shinigami obliterated, his scattered thoughts were solidifying back together and he had reached the conclusion that since Shinigami was a part of himself, killing him couldn't be a good thing.
"Heero!" he called out, watching as the Perfect Soldier's fists clenched. "Don't kill him!"
Heero couldn't believe what he was hearing. Duo didn't want him to kill the crazy, scythe-wielding maniac that was currently walking on air?
'Patience,' he told himself. 'He must have a good reason.'
Shinigami suddenly struck out again with the scythe. Heero leaned back quickly, a whoosh of air marking the blade's passing, missing the Japanese pilots chest by inches. Shinigami then sat back again, cackling dementedly, feral gaze focused on him. Heero growled.
'He'd *better* have a good reason.'
Jean looked nervously at the professor before turning back to look at the two forms on the bed. Duo still lay there serenely, lax features making him look younger, and more child-like then he really was. Once again, her eyes tracked to his temple where a small scar remained, the only hint to the horror that had been inflicted upon him.
After being locked out of Duo's mind, she had wasted her energy futilely, trying to find a way in without forcibly destroying the barrier keeping her out. Finding no weakness in the shield that she could detect, she had reluctantly left Duo's mind, re-awakening in the corporeal world. Professor Xavier had given her a small, but worried smile, silently reassuring her with nothing more then a warm feeling at the back of her skull, that she had done all she could do without resorting to methods that would cause lasting damage. That didn't help much, especially as she took in the still form next to the American pilot.
Heero Yuy lay stretched out on the bed next to his partner, the ever- present scowl missing from his face. Even though Heero had spent a good deal of the time wearing a blank mask, there had always been an underlying force behind it, a faint wisp of emotion that was nearly undetectable without either an empathic power like Quatre's, or a strong link like the one that flowed through all of the pilots. Hard to sense, but there, nonetheless. But this... this *emptiness* lacked even that undercurrent, and made Jean shudder from a sudden chill, despite the moderate temperature of the room.
Beast was the first to break the tense silence that had sprung up.
"Can either of you sense what's happening?" he asked, turning to give his EKG machines a cursory glance to see whether or not it was picking up any psychic activity. For all intents and purposes, the boys seemed to be merely sleeping. "Surely his barrier can't be *that* strong."
Professor Xavier shook his head, not taking his eyes off the two before him.
"Not enough to tell you anything concrete, Henry," he said at last. "I can sense two presences, and enough conflicting emotion in there to remind me of Magneto's mind, but I can't tell who's battling who with just a surface scan."
Jean nodded. "The wall is extraordinarily thick - Sinister must have done some upgrades to that controlling device."
"So in essence, we won't know what's happened until one of them wakes up and tells us?" 'If they wake up,' Beast didn't say out loud.
Quatre looked up from where he was sitting with Trowa in the kitchen. Wufei and Jubilee were still comparing battle experience - Jubilee *paffing* a few strands of Wufei's hair to make a point about a girl's strength in battle - and Trowa was smirking at the two of them, but Quatre suddenly didn't care about what topic they had progressed to. He closed his eyes, feeling that familiar twinge starting up again, and he reached with one hand to rub his chest, as though that simple action could alleviate the slowly building pain there.
Trowa noticed his slight action and twin bolts of green pinned Quatre in place as concern replaced the amusement. "Quatre?"
"I don't know," Quatre responded to the unasked question. "It's... kinda like before... but not the same."
Jubilee looked up from her diagram she was drawing for Wufei about one of her favorite strategic maneuvers.
"Yer' probably feeling the effects of Jeannie's trip into Duo's mind," she remarked off-hand. She could have thrown a hand grenade at the table and not have gotten a more dramatic reaction.
"Duo's mind?" Quatre echoed, standing up abruptly. " She's going into his mind?"
Jubilee blinked at this reaction. "Well, yeah - that was on her schedule of things to do when your friend was stabilized."
"I thought she was helping Beast remove the implant," Wufei demanded. He'd seen the effect of Quatre on the receiving end of Duo's mental demons - it was not something he wanted to repeat. "When were they planning on telling us this?"
"Probably after they fixed 'im up and had him back to his old self," Jubilee shrugged. " I mean come on - you were in the room ya know. You saw what kinda mind set Duo had - he's a killer! They're gonna return him to normal before they let him loose."
It was sound reasoning, but Quatre didn't like it. He especially didn't like the way Jubilee called Duo a killer.
"You realize, we're all killers, don't you?" he pointed out to the mutant girl. Jubilee blinked again.
"I know you guys were in a war," she said calmly. "But that's different - you killed because in war, that's what happens. I understand that."
"So why single Duo out?"
"Because it wasn't you that slaughtered a warehouse full of innocent, homeless people, and laughed while you did it."
That frank statement hung in the air, nearly tangible in its intensity. Wufei muffled the growl that rose up in his throat even as he realized Jubilee was right. Trowa's expression didn't change, but he did move slightly closer to his blonde partner, as though sensing his increase in distress. Quatre's hands were folded on the table, but if you looked closely, you could see the faint trembling.
"She's right," he spoke at last in a deceptively calm voice. Then he addressed the Chinese girl directly. "So they're going into his mind to see if he's still under the influence of whatever Sinister did?"
Jubilee nodded, well familiar with what was happening. She sighed mentally - she had seen this too many times before. Call it what you want: possession, mental override, taking a new host, mind-eaters, telepaths, anything dealing with the Shadow-King - the result was always the same. Someone had to go in and determine whether or not the person you once called a friend, was still there, or if they had turned into something that had to be taken care of. Permanently. She sighed again - suddenly, she felt very old.
"Why don't they just remove the device in his head?" Wufei asked, puzzled by this lack of action which to him, seemed the most logical thing to do. "Surely that would end all of this?"
"It's kinda hard to explain," Jubilee hedged, knowing that she lacked sufficient medical-mental knowledge to explain it to someone who had never experience first-hand the effects psychic control could leave on the victim. It was akin to trying to explain color to a man who'd been blind since birth - if you had never experienced it, it was very hard to grasp the concept. Even Quatre had only a mild form of empathy, from what she understood, and that wasn't enough to take someone's mind over. "I think Beastie-boy could do it better."
Trowa nodded, and stood next to Quatre. Wufei rose as well and indicated to Jubilee that she should lead them back to Beast. She rose an eyebrow at this.
"Why do you want ME to go first?"
All three boys looked at each other and blanched slightly. A faint blush rose on Wufei's face as he cleared his throat.
"'Cause we're not completely sure we remember the exact location of the sickbay." He scowled. "You have far more sub-levels in this 'school' then any Oz base I've had to sneak into."
To Jubilee's credit, she didn't burst out laughing at this admission. Rather, she nodded and turned, leading the three boys out of the room. All the while, the grin never left her face.
The subconscious is a dangerous thing, Heero decided firmly as he dodged another swipe by the laughing lunatic, cursing as he stumbled. "Shit!"
" Such language!" Shinigami scolded him in a high-falsetto voice. His wiry arms raised and the scythe flashed red in the murkyness that was Duo's mind. " You should be punished!"
" Not fuckin' likely!" Heero growled. He threw a quick glance over his shoulder at Duo who was watching them, shock in his wide eyes. No help there. Sudden movement caught his attention and he ducked again, listening to the hiss of metal slicing through the air. Hitting the psuedo-ground, he rolled away from Shinigami and came to his feet in a crouch.
Across from him, the devil wearing Duo's face giggled with amusement.
" You know, this really is entertaining!" the boy sneered. " I should have busted free a long time ago!"
Heero growled deep in his throat and spared Duo a quick glance. The braided American was watching the two of them, eyes darting back and forth, abject terror stamped across his face. Heero swore. No help there.
* * * * * * *
Duo bit back a whimper as Shinigami's scythe came within a hairs-breadth of slicing Heero's chest open. The Japanese rolled to his feet a small distance away, gaining some breathing room and Duo sighed with relief.
He couldn't understand it, couldn't explain the paralyzing fear that seemed to grip him. Why? Why was he so afraid? Violence, pain, blood - it was nothing he hadn't seen before. He should be helping his partner!
With that thought, Duo pushed himself slowly up. Before he could get to his feet completely though, Shinigami whirled around with a murderous expression on his face, scaring the daylights out of Duo.
" Stay out of this!" the blood-soaked apparition snarled at him, and for a minute, Duo saw claws springing out of his hands, fangs jetting out of the slanted mouth. He crashed to the ground, his knees completely giving way. With a grunt and a sneer, Shinigami turned away and Duo felt the mindless panic dissipate. 'What the...'
* * * * * * *
Heero blinked as he watched an odd expression flit across Shinigami's face before the doppleganger whirled around to shout at Duo. That hadn't been....fear, was it?
He had seen something on Duo's face - a fraction of the resolve the
American used to be full of, but it had been there. He had been about
to help him. What stopped him?
Fear. Heero stopped short. That HAD been fear on Shinigami's face when Duo had started to stand up. Duo had been about to join the fight, and his evil counterpart had known that. That was it. Shinigami was afraid of Duo! With this revelation, Heero stood.
" Help me Duo!" he shouted. " He's scared of you!"
The look of pure rage on Shinigami's face made even the perfect soldier back up a step.
" Shut up!" he screeched and lunged across the short distance, scythe twirling like a baton in his skilled hands. " I'LL KILL YOU!!"
" ARGH!" Heero didn't move nearly fast enough and Shinigami's blade slashed across his raised forearm. It was only a glancing blow, but the razor-sharpness dug through the outer skin like butter and Heero cried out, blood suddenly pouring down his arm.
' Too slow!' Heero shouted at himself as he braced himself against the searing pain in his arm. 'Dammitt!'
" Say goodnight Gracie," Shinigami remarked, almost absurdly casually, and raised the deadly weapon high above his head in preparation for the final blow. Heero closed his eyes.
* * * * * * * * *
Duo screwed up the last remains of his waning courage and leaped to his feet. In his eyes he saw the blood coursing out of his partner, and with that image came the realization that it was his fault. Heero was going to die because of him. He shook his head angrily.
With a howl, Duo launched himself at his evil twin, knocking him away from Heero. The scythe was struck from Shinigami's hands and it skittered across the floor, near Heero who eyed it nervously before looking back up.
It was odd to say the least. Duo looked like he was fighting himself in a mirror, the deadliest shadowboxing match in history. The two jockeyed for position, rolling across the ground, gaining even further distance away from the Japanese pilot who stood up shakily, clutching his torn arm in an effort to stem the bleeding.
" But this isn't real," he muttered softly, watching the two Duo's fight for control. " What will happen if one of them wins?"
* * * * * * * * *
Hank jumped to his feet and whirled away from the computer monitor at the cry from the other side of the room. Jean was on her feet, staring at Heero, hand clapped to her mouth in horror. The Professor motioned him over quickly, and with a bound, the blue-furred man was at the bed. He gasped.
A deep slash mark had formed on Heero's arm and the Japanese boy was losing blood at an alarming rate. Jean regained her senses and clamped her hands on Heero's arm, trying to stem the flow of blood while Hank rushed back across the room for his medical kit.
The Professor closed his eyes, searching.
" Charles?" Jean asked, the strain evident in her voice.
After a moment, Professor X opened his eyes and shook his head.
" Nothing. It's like going up against a sheer smooth cliff and trying to climb it with your bare hands," he said, teeth gritted in both exertion and frustration. " There is a definite upgrade in what Sinister did to this boy - Morph was infinitely easier to read."
" Well, something's happening," Beast said tersely, pointing out the obvious. Gently disentangling Jean's hands, he set about cleaning the gash and began to try and sew it up. As he did so, Jean once again let out a gasp of surprise. " Look!"
Beast and the Professor looked over at the flushed face of Duo Maxwell, and saw sweat beading on his face. His muscles suddenly pulled tight with some unknown tension and Jean made her decision.
" I'm going in Professor," she said. Charles looked up at her determined face.
" Jean, you can't get past that barrier!"
" I can if I shatter it," she replied smoothly. Charles slammed his fist down on the nightstand next to the bed, inches from his golden hoverchair.
" Jean, you could KILL him!"
" He's going to kill Heero!" she countered fiercely. " Charles, you still don't have enough strength to break that shield of his without doing a lot of residual damage - but I might be able to!"
" Jean, going in there, is not only dangerous for him, but for Heero and you as well!" Charles fingers flexed in agitation. " You could render that boy a vegetable for the rest of his life!"
" Sir, I can't sit here and do NOTHING!" she cried. The red-head stood up and walked over to the professor, kneeling before him. " Sir, trust me! I have the strength to do this! And I have your training to guide me!" She gestured to the wound that Hank was trying in vain to staunch. " There is a battle being fought in there, with an innocent who doesn't know the first thing about the astral plain! Maybe I can help stop whatever is happening!"
Charles looked down. His hands trembled as he pondered her words and realized they had no choice. They'd lose them both if something wasn't done. Jean felt the resignation sweeping over him and she placed her smaller hand on top of the man's who had been like a father to her.
" Jean?" Another voice cut through the tension in the room. Jean looked back to where her husband was watching, neck muscles tense as he waited.
" I'm doing this Scott," she said calmly, standing up. Scott said nothing but nodded and walked towards her, pulling her into a fiercehug.
" Be careful."
" I always am, Mr. Summers," she smiled gently at him. With her
husband's arms still around her, she closed her eyes, trusting Scott
to catch her, and detached herself from her earthly body.
Scott caught her and scooped her into his arms as he felt their bond weaken almost immediately.
" Be careful my love," he whispered.
The infirmary door flew open again, and a gaggle of teenagers piled through. Quatre immediately zeroed in on Heero and he gasped at the sight of blood. Wufei and Trowa stared at everyone in confusion, noting the tense looks.
Behind them all, Jubilee snapped her gum as she surveyed the wounded Heero, the tense professor and the unconscious Jean held in Cyclop's arms.
" Figures," she snorted. " So what'd we miss this time?"