Categories > Comics > X-Men > Days Never Meant To Be

Picking Bones

by Spyda 0 reviews

A simple day into the city leads to danger and revelation for Max, Jimmy, and the boys, and Magnum makes his first move.

Category: X-Men - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover,Drama - Characters: Magneto,Wolverine - Warnings: [V] [?] - Published: 2019-03-17 - 24488 words

General Thaddeus Ross looked at his watch again for the third time in the last ten minutes. It had to be slow. It had to be. The people at Capstar had assured him the car would be on time, and here it was twenty minutes late. The General had wanted to call those idiots up at the office, give them a piece of his mind, but everytime he reached for his phone, he could hear the voice of his wife Karen telling him to count to ten, take a deep breath, and be patient. Bless that woman, he thought. Patience of a G-D saint, she was.

He had promised to watch his temper – well, he had promised to watch his blood pressure, but both Karen and he knew that the best way to do that was to watch the temper – when she had gone into the hospital. He swore he would, thinking she'd get better by sheer will power, just to make sure he did.
But life never works that way. He had harshly admonished himself as he knotted his tie – her favorite, a gift for their tenth anniversary – on the day of her funeral. If it hadn't been for their daughter Elizabeth, he would have crawled into the deepest bottle of whiskey bourbon he could find and pulled the cork in after himself. That girl was his North Star, his guiding light, and he'd be G-D'd if he was going to let her down.

He searched his pockets for a cigar – he always kept a Panetela or two somewhere for emergencies, when the black state car pulled up. The chauffeur stepped out, a tall and muscular man in a smart black uniform, topped with a cap,and he strode to the read passenger side, opening the door for the General.

“You're late, son.”
“Sir, I ran into some engine trouble, sir. Had to wait for one of the other cars to clear the motorpool, Sir.”
“Hmph. Excuses. Well, you're late, and now I'm late. Come on, then, we'd best take the bridge before it gets clogged.”
The General stepped into the car, the door closing behind him. The driver took his seat, and adjusted his rearview, smiling amicably.
“Don't worry, Sir, I'll have you in town before you know it.”
“See that you do, son. I'm in no mood for any more nonsense. Now get going.”
Carl Creel put the state car into gear, and smiled at his reflection, unseen by the General, who was busy checking his briefcase. The car pulled away from the General's house, and soon vanished into the morning traffic mill.


Fixing up a car to drive in it again
Searching for the water, hoping for the rain
Up and up, Up and up

Johnny Storm closed his eyes, letting the music take him away. The earbuds felt cool cradled in his ears, Up&Up playing soothingly on an endless loop. He hadn't liked Coldplay before the Excelsior crash, before the Morlock Tunnels and his world exploded, but Peter had insisted Head Full of Dreams was essentially perfect, and so far, he had been right.
He lay his head against the train window as he absorbed Chris Martin's voice. He was bathing in the sunlight shining through the windows. He had been up since four in the morning, raiding the hospital's meager food stock, walking around outside and rolling in the cold dewy grass, waiting for the first sunrise he had seen in a year and a half to make it's glorious, triumphant return. He had wept when he saw the clouds glow and part and the sun come up, and silently wished that Reed, Ben and Susan were there to see it with him. The last few days he had been like a junkie with the surface world, sneaking off to get his fix of fresh air, grass, clean water and starlight. Peter actually found him napping on the roof of the hospital this morning, and had to quickly jump up to wake him as the inspectors pulled up the drive. As he rubbed the grey haze of sleep from his eyes, Peter said the magic words: Road. Trip.

The train into the city was packed – apparently the schools from the Hollow took yearly trips into the city – and Peter, Johnny, and Jimmy had barely found a section of the car away from the milling crowds of kids. Johnny wanted to mingle with them, craved some sort of contemporary socialization that didn't involve the phrase, “hey, isn't life underground just the swellest” (a word he had never used once in his life but always dreaded to.) but Jimmy had insisted that the three of them keep to themselves. Moira and Missus Howlett – Johnny didn't know her name – had insisted that the boys get out of their hair while they dealt with the inspectors at the hospital, and didn't trust them enough to let them go without an escort. Jimmy didn't mind – the boys seemed alright, if a bit annoying. Peter was medically incapable of shutting up, and every third word out of Johnny's mouth made Jimmy want to punch him, but beyond that, they weren't that bad. Peter was in his own world, reading an actual paper-and-ink book and Johnny was engrossed in his music. So, Jimmy stared out the window, watching the skyline blur past like frames in a zoetrope. He was averse to cities by nature – the smells, the sounds, it all tended to overwhelm him. But he had to admit, a part of him thrilled at the idea of being back in New York. He hadn't been here since 1926, working the high steel on the Paramount Building. It hadn't been an easy time, money was hard to come by, but he remembered taking his lunch on the girders with his friends, listening to the Orangemen games on the radio. He even made twelve bucks in their game against Colgate that year. Those were good times. Simple times.

Peter looked over at the short, hairy, silent man that served as their escort, and saw a small, wistful smile spread across his face, and the boy shuddered. Something about this man smiling disturbed him deeply, on some distant, primal level.

The three got off at the station, Peter drawing up the hood on his sweater and lowering his face.
“Dude, it's like, eighty degrees out, lose the sweater.”
Peter only looked nervously at Johnny, shaking his head. “No, I'm good. I don't want anyone recognizing me. The last time I was in the city, I nearly got killed.”
Jimmy pulled out a cigarillo and lit it. “God you kids yammer too much.”
“Hey,” Johnny protested, “we've barely said a word the whole trip down. This is the first conversation we've had in two hours!”
Jimmy stuffed his hands in his pockets, keeping his head low. “Yeah,” he growled, “and it's already annoying the shit out of me.”

The boys skipped to catch up to Jimmy. Peter stuffed his book awkwardly into his sweater pocket, struggling to keep it from slipping out. “So what are we doing today? Shopping? See a movie? 'Cause there's this one, where Micheal Keaton plays a guy in a bird suit, I keep hearing good things about it.”
Jimmy looked around, as if searching for something.
“Where the hell is this place? Damn...he couldn't have given me a map or something?”
“A map? Dude, what are you looking for? You can't be on the streets of New York with a map, you'll get yourself killed. Why don't you just use your phone or something?”
Jimmy looked at Peter gruffly. “Do I look like some idiot tween girl making duck faces in the mirror, kid? I'm too damned old for a cellphone, or whatever the hell people call them these days.”
“No, you look like a tourist begging to be mugged in a city famous for it's muggings.”
Jimmy squinted at Johnny's lip. “Fine then, give me your phone.”
Johnny chuckled, “Sure, let me whip out the phone I have that survived a cosmic radiation storm, a suborbital crash and nine months underground. I don't think Samsung makes them quite that durable.”
Jimmy passed an annoyed gaze over to Peter, who shook his head. “I left mine in my house, which the robots blew up...and that is apparently a sentence that can be said.”
“Great. Shit.”
The gruff man led the two youths down the street, as he fished his pockets for something.
“There has to be a payphone somewhere in this city.”
“Yeah, they're in the station. Like, the only ones left, Grand Central and Penn. Didn't you see them?”
Jimmy rolled his head in exasperation, and turned back to the station.
Old man, one of these kids is not coming back home alive, Jimmy grumbled to himself.

Johnny and Peter stood outside the station, waiting on Jimmy inside, trying to think of something, anything to reduce the boredom of two broke youths with no idea about what to do with themselves.
“ lived around here?”
Johnny's question was barely audible through the traffic and din of the milling station.
“No, Queens. You?”
“The Bowery. Just off Yancy.”
“Oh. Cool.”
There was a long, cold silence, before Peter spoke up. “, what school did you go to?”
“Eleanor Roosevelt. You?”
“PS 108. Midtown High.”
“Oh hey, the Panthers. We played you guys a couple years back. Varsity basketball.”
“Yeah? How'd we do?”
“Not bad. Some jackhole name Thompson slammed our center into the benches, but once he was off the floor, you guys did pretty good.”
“Yeah, sounds like Eugene. On behalf of Midtown High, his mother, the Midtown Panthers basketball club, and whatever condom factory cut back on their quality assurance, I apologize for everything Eugene Thompson has ever or will ever do.”
“It's okay.”
Peter sat on bench next to Johnny, putting his head in his hands.
“Last time I was in the city, I was being chased by the Fantastic Four.”
Johnny turned to him, scratching his neck and taking in a dim summer breeze as it washed over him.
“Geez, how'd you piss them off?”
Peter's eyes fell. “Got bitten by a radioactive spider, didn't die, tried to help people. Typical stuff.”
He looked up at the statue at the front of the terminal, motioning to it with his head. “You ever wonder who that Ebenezer Scrooge-looking guy was?”
Johnny looked over, and nodded. “Cornelius Vanderbilt. Owned a slew of railroads and things. Big fancy rich guy, basically.”
He turned to Peter. “How did you not know that?”
Peter only shrugged. “Hey, I can build a Jacob's Ladder blindfolded, pardon me if history wasn't my forte.”
Johnny sighed, watching a dozen yellow cabs drive under the overpass leading to the terminal.
“Man, he had better hurry up. What is taking so long in there?”

“, listen...Max, I don't know this city. No, my guy hasn't called me. I don't have a phone. I don't...because I'm an old man and technology frightens me. Well yeah, I'm being facetious. And don't be so surprised I know that word, I can hear the sarcasm over the phone. Just-just-hang on, could you let me finish? Directions, that's all I need.”

The cue outside the payphone was growing, as Jimmy patted himself down for a piece of paper and a pencil. Finding neither, he laid his head against the phone, sighing. “No, just tell me, I'll have to remember it. I don't see why that would be a problem, I can remember the Spanish Civil War in vivid Technicolour detail. ...Alright. No, I got it. What? Oh yeah, they're fine. Chatty, but fine. Yeah, sure, you...uh, you take care of your thing, then.”

Max turned to the bank teller, pocketing his phone.
“Sorry about that,” he said cheerfully.
The teller didn't look up from her screen. “That's alright. Now, Mister....Eisenhardt, was it? You wanted to transfer money into an American account?”
“That's right, from Magyar Nemzeti Bank.” He slipped her a blank check from his wallet, and an invoice. “Here are the bank and routing numbers, the address is on the invoice slip, and here is my bank card, as proof of ownership of the account.”
The teller looked over the documents, and hummed her approval. “Well, it looks all in order, I'll just...”
She stopped, her eyes narrowing at the screen. She stole a furtive glance up to Max, then back to the screen. “Damn. My screen just froze up. Excuse me a second, I have to call my manager.”
She picked up the phone, and Max felt a wave of unease. Something was wrong. Of course it was, everything was wrong. He was wrong, the whole damned world was wrong. Why should banking be any different.

A shudder of panic went through him, and he looked about nervously. She had seen something on the screen. Something that raised her suspicions. Had his name been flagged? It was possible, perhaps the Hungarian authorities had decided he was to blame for that fire that gutted his home and his life. Or had the Americans figured out who he was, what he was doing? He had attacked the Baxter Building, stolen government property, and aided in the escape of a fugitive, did he really think he could get away with that?

It was the sound of the teller dropping the phone that made him jump. Her eyes were wide in horror, a look that was all too familiar to him. He had seen that look on the faces of his friends and neighbours as his rage boiled over and exploded in downtown Budapest. It was the fear a person felt when monsters stood up and raised their horrible heads.

And it was a look directed just beyond him.

He turned his head half-way, furtively, and heard a clamor behind him as people took notice. A pulsating explosion made him flinch, and the patrons of the bank collapsed, screaming in fear. Max instinctively joined them, covering his head with his hands. Heavy footfalls sounded past his head, and a second shot went out, followed by screams. Max peeked over his hand, and saw four figures, each armed. Each bizarrely dressed.

The one nearest to Max was dressed in what looked like a gaudy, quilted yellow bodysuit, heavy silver gauntlets on his wrists. Scanning his eyes towards the door, Max saw a man wearing what looked like a black body suit with what looked like pink and purple padding strapped onto it, a purple motorcycle helmet covering his face. Next to him was a tall man in a heavy coat, holding a strange pistol-like device connected by a flexible metal hose to what looked like a pair of oxygen tanks strapped to his thigh. And at the back was an elderly man, dressed in some sort of green flight suit, the sleeves slit open up to his shoulders. Mr. Oxygen-Tanks turned to the veranda windows, and pointed his pistol at them, spraying some sort of thick, whipped chaulking over the glass and doors. The bank interior was dark, lit only by the sconces on the wall and the suffused neon of the banking machines in the lobby.
“Windows and doors are covered, Vultch. We can take our time.”
The old man in the flight suit - “Vultch,” apparently – smiled and jumped up onto a display table nearby.
“Thank you, Trapper. Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention please. No doubt you have come to the inescapable conclusion that this is, indeed, a robbery. As I'm sure you've all seen movies and television, you all know the boilerplate – shut up, and nobody try anything disgustingly noble, and nobody has to die. We're only interested in the money.”
To emphasize the point, the man in the quilted suit pressed one of his gauntlets against the head of a security guard, pulling his gun out of the holster.
“See, we don't want violence, but we're not afraid to use it if we are forced to. Now, allow me to introduce my colleagues and myself. That fellow over there with the guard, that is Shocker. And the man who covered the windows is Trapper. And our friend who is currently trying to disable the silent alarm and crack the access codes to the bank vaults is Wizard. And as for myself, I am the Vulture.”
The man in purple pulled out a small, thin notebook computer, connecting it to the teller's monitor.
“I'm in, Vulture. Uploading the worm now.”
“Thank you, Wizard. If you could, open the vault, and Shocker, help these kind souls in. I'd hate for them to be hurt during our transactions.”

Shocker started with the guard, pulling him roughly to his feet. “Alright, get up. Try anything stupid, and-” he fired his gauntlet at the floor, creating a sea of shattered tile and dust.
“And it does worse to people, so don't be an idiot.”
He pushed the guard ahead, and began pulling the bank's patrons to their feet hastily, corralling them towards the vault. Max felt an arm lift him up, and he joined the reluctant customers.

Outside, Vulture watched over Wizard's shoulder as he worked away on the computer.
“How soon will you be in, Bentley?”
“It'll take some time, Adrian. It might be easier to actually rob the bank, you know?”
Vulture shook his head. “I'm not a thief, Bentley, I only want what's rightfully mine.”

Shocker shoved the young woman, the last of the patrons, into the brightly-lit vault. Max eyed the man in the unusual suit, sizing him up. Perhaps if Peter had been here, or Jimmy, these men wouldn't have gotten even this far. But Max had to play diplomat for now, had to watch and study. These men only seemed to want money, something Max was unwilling to jeopardize the mission for.

The young woman stumbled, nearly toppling over. Another patron helped her up, and one of the tellers stared death and fear at Shocker. “What are you going to do with us?”
Shocker sneered – he wasn't an attractive man, and contorting his face the way he did, did him no favours. “You don't have to worry about that. Just shut up and be smart, and you all get to live another day.”

Shocker leaned against the wall, watching the others, tapping his head against the clean white brickwork of the bank in rhythm to some song only heard in his head. Scanning the hostages with his eyes, his gaze fell upon the woman he had shoved, and he started to really notice her. Young, maybe twenty-four or -five, Asian, with short hair cut into a pixie style. In other words, cute. His lips curled into a creepy grin, and he straightened himself out. The young woman was trying to stay unnoticed, but Shocker's movements drew her eyes to him. She stiffened as he approached, squatting down on his haunches to her eye-level. She flinched as he reached out to her.
“Hey now;” his voice dripped with slime and innuendo. A hand shot out and clasped around Shocker's wrist, pulling it down and away from the woman. He shot back up to his feet in anger, Max also rising to his full height. Max released Shocker's hand, his eyes narrowed slits.
“Leave her alone,” Max threatened.
Shocker raised his fists, as if to get into a boxer's stance. A low thrumming sound rose from the devices on his wrists, and the air about them seemed to vibrate and shimmer. Max closed his eyes, his breathing slow and soft and steady. His mind raced back to his assault on the Baxter building, how he had lashed out in a blind fury when Iron Man had ambushed him. Back then, it had just been the two them, so Max' wild use of power was permissible. But here, now, with all these people in harm's way, he couldn't risk it.

“Just take what you want and go, there's no need to bother these people.”
Shocker gave Max the stink-eye, sucking his teeth as he weighed his options, deciding whether to paste this man or not. He played his thumb over the trigger of his gauntlet, teasing it, gently nudging it into an 'on' position without actually turning it on, debating which of his angels he'd give into. He never did know if he would have fired on the silver-haired stranger after all, because Vulture's gravel-sandpaper-and-age voice snapped him from the dull, dark haze of rage he had simmered in.

“Shocker, I hope you're not thinking of doing something off-script. I'd hate to have to end our working relationship, after we've come so far and gotten so close to what we want.”
Shocker closed his eyes, and let out a breath. He lowered his hands, thumb off the toggle, and slumped his arms to his side. “No, Vulture, I was behaving. We were just having a friendly conversation.”
Vulture smiled, a warm and grandfatherly grin, strangely welcoming for a bank robber. “Good. Now, go help Wizard. I can keep an eye on our new friends. You've earned a break.”

Shocker slinked away, muttering under his breath. Vulture watched him leave, then turned to Max, offering him his whithered, bony hand in a conciliatory gesture. “I do apologize for Shocker, if he overstepped his boundaries. I trust he did nothing untowards?”
Max shook his head; “No, was nothing.”
Vulture smiled, and the act made Max' skin pucker and chill. The man's grin was cadavorous, his gums thin and bloodless. Images of Max Schreck gliding up the shadowy stairwell filled Max' mind, an unbidden memory from watching Nosferatu at the local cinema as a child. Max swallowed his unease and forced himself to take Vulture's skeletal hand.
“Good, good.” He tilted his head up, to address the entire group in the vault; “I know you are all eager to leave, and I can't really blame you. If all goes according to plan, we should be on our way, shortly, and you can all return to your loved ones. In the meantime, if there is anything anyone needs, be it reading materials, medicine, or food, please do not hesitate to ask.” Scanning the room for any requests, Vulture straightened his too-friendly smile when none appeared, and turned to to leave. Max reached out for him quickly.
“Wait...why are you doing this? I mean...there must be easier ways to steal money, these days.”
Vulture frowned, his eyes hooded. “Thieves steal, my good man. I am merely taking back what was stolen from me. And what I want is not money.”
As Vulture left, Max slipped to the floor, unsure of what to do next, uncertain if he should even try to stop these men.
A soft hand touched his shoulder, and he turned to see the young woman, smiling at him.
“Thanks for what you did back there. I could have handled myself, but it was still nice.”
Max returned his smile. This woman reminded him of his wife, when they had first met so long ago.
No, she reminded him more of his daughter, he had to remind himself he was an old man now.
“It was my pleasure, miss.”
“My name is Janet. Janet Pym.”
Max tried to hide his shock. He knew the name. Every living person in the country knew the name.
The wife of Dr. Henry Pym, the biochemist who helped draft the initial Anti-Exotic Initiative.
One of the founders of the Fantastic Four, the government's anti-exotic “heroes.”

Max swallowed the wisp of panic rising up in his throat, forcing a smile. Things had just gotten worse.

Henry Pym nervously pulled at his watchband. It was a gift from Janet, for his fortieth birthday, a silver face with black hands and numerals and a braided band of patent leather. The face, when he had it turned upwards towards him during his fidgeting, read 10:17, making Captain America and Doctor Doom both twenty minutes late. Very unusual for them. He knew that Iron Man would be too drunk/hungover/Iron Man to even bother showing up at all. That was very usual for him.

Hank sighed and looked around the hall outside the Councilroom, tapping out the rhythm to Hey Jude with his feet. He hated meeting with the Feds, hated being pulled away from the lab and his work. That was his element, he was a scientist. Let Steve and Victor maneuver the political stuff, they were good at it. But SHIELD Director Rappaccini had wanted the entire Fantastic Four present for this meeting. He wasn't sure what the meeting was about, but given the recent spate of failures and defeats the team had suffered lately, Hank was sure he could look forward to a good coal-raking. Somewhere in between the Niganda massacre – which did eventually make international news, thank you CNN – the theft of the Baxter Building's exotic registry, and the escape of the Parker boy, the higher ups had determined that the Fantastic Four weren't quite living up to their names. They were supposed to be the bright, candy-coloured face of the administration's new security measures against the dangers of exotics, mutants, and other superhuman threats, and in the span of a week they had suffered three humiliating spankings.
President Gyrich had used some choice words when describing his disappointment – censure, investigation, “utter incompetant clusterfuck” was a favorite of his. There was talk of revamping the team's dynamic, or even the team itself, revoking their Champion-class clearance, putting them under military jurisdiction. Something to reign them in, make them more efficient. The idea of being yoked to the military worried Hank; he had a friend from college, Bob Banner, who got roped into some weapons thing the Army was doing. And what happened to poor Bob made Hank shudder in horror to remember. No, if the military was going to take over, Hank was certain that he'd have to leave. Maybe Roxxon would take him back, or the University.

It was the sound of Steve's hectic footsteps that woke Hank from his thoughts. Turning his blonde mess of a head, he saw the dark blue dress uniform Steve wore to these bloody things, and Victor close behind in a suit of dunny green, the only suit he owned, apparently.
“So it hasn't started yet?” Steve had a knack for stating the obvious that bordered on uncanny.
“No, they wanted the whole team here. I was waiting for you two, at least. You're both much better at dealing with the brass than I am.”
Victor sighed in resignation. “So he isn't here again. This is getting ridiculous, Steven. He should be here as well, he is a part of the team, and yet he never shows up for the flogging along with the rest of us.”
“I now, Victor. But just forget it for now. Come on, let's get this over with.”

.The council room was different than most of the other rooms in the Baxter Building. For one, it wasn't the sterile white Dr. Pym had insisted upon, but looked like any bog-standard court room, with wooden wainscotting along the walls. At the head of the room was a long and high dias, serving as the SHIELD Command's bench. Simple blacktop tables were arranged before the dias, and the three men took their seats there. Already the SHIELD Council had seated, looming over the floor like vultures. Hank did a cursory scan of their faces, seeing if it was the usual suspects; and it was. It always was.

In the center was Director Monica Rappaccini, her shaded eyes barely containing her cold disdain for these proceedings. To her right was Senator Robert Kelly, the author of the bill that had grown into the Anti-Exotic Initiative when President Gyrich took office, and to his right was Doctor Lawrence Trask, the man who's father had invented most of the goverment's anti-exotic technology.
On the Director's left, sat Commander Timothy Dugan, the right-hand man of the former SHIELD Director, now serving in the same capacity for the current holder of that title; and on the far end, FBI Director Fred Duncan, the Fantastic Four's connection to law-enforcement on the federal level.

Director Rappaccini glowered down at the gallery floor, her lips a thin pale line. She glanced at the documents in her hand, reading them quickly and silently, before breaking the miniscule silence with a rasping cough.

“I want it made clear, before we start, that this is tribunal is merely a formality, to address certain concerns the House Senate and President have brought up concerning this group's recent...inefficiencies. This is not meant to punish or castigate anyone, but merely confront any issues and shortcomings that may have led to recent mistakes.”

“Sounds like you're trying to grease up the bullets before the firing squad shoots us, so they'll go in easier.” The room lifted their collective heads to see a man in his fifties, bald-pated and sporting a doorknocker goatee and wearing a very expensive suit, stride in confidently, seating himself next to Pym, who, as did all the others present in the room, stared at him in surprise.

“It's nice of you to join us, Mr. Stane. For once.”

As the Director droned on about the official concerns, Hank leaned over to the man next to him.
“What the hell, Obidiah? You came?”
Obidiah Stane smirked. “Yeah, I'm here.”
“And you're sober.” Steve Rogers' snide remark was icily deadpan, and appropriately Stane's retaliatory glare could melt glass.
“And you're wearing pants.” This time it was Victor with the quips. “Shall wonders never cease?”

“If we're all ready to begin, gentlemen? The matter at hand is rather serious. Now, first on the docket is the Niganda incident. Captain Rogers and Doctors Pym and von Doom were inserted into the country to apprehend Moses Magnum and stop his massacre of the Nigandan people, and he was able to not only outmatch the three of you, but escape with his as-yet unknown compatriots.”
The Director slipped off her sunglasses, resting them before her. “I know you gentlemen went into Niganda blind – you had exactly as much information as SHIELD did at the time, but the idea that the three of you couldn't handle Magnum and one compatriot - “
“Excuse me, Director,” Senator Kelly, “but why were the Fantastic Four sent into Niganda before all available intel could be gathered? Perhaps if you had waited on their deployment, the outcome would have been more favourable to us?”
The Director straightened herself out. She had learned to play the politics game since taking the Director's chair from Nicholas Fury, but she had yet to develop a tolerance for the bureaucrats that infested the world.
“Senator, the op was time sensitive. We had, as far as we could tell, one man erasing all human life from an entire nation almost single-handedly. And only steps from the Wakandan border. Had Moses Magnum walked into Wakanda, there's no telling the damage he could of done, given the weapons technology they have there.”
Senator Kelly folded his hands in his lap, leaning back.
“Still, a few hours wouldn't have made that much of a difference, would it? Besides, had this Magnum person and his cronies crossed the border into Wakanda, we could have used that event to place a few American assets in the country for future operations. It seems like a wasted opprotunity to me.”

Steve raised his hand, rising to his feet.
“Director, with your permission, I'd like to address the Senator's comments myself.”
The Director thought a second. “I'll allow it, Captain Rogers. But keep it brief.”
“Thank you. Senator, you brought up the option of using the Niganda massacre as a pretense to install surveillance into Wakanda. Even if that 'opprotunity,' as you put it, were to arise, I can assure you none of my people would be given that order, not by me at least, and if they were, I would trust them all to have the moral fortitude necessary to disobey it. Official American policy on Wakanda is strictly hands off, and I will not expose my people to the...” He paused, searching for the right word. Obidiah leaned in, his voice a harsh, cold whisper. “Shitstorm.”
Steve winced at Stane's suggestion, then continued. “-the ethical and legal complications such an order would bring about. The Fantastic Four were formed to make the President's new initiatives more palatable to the American public. I'm not naive enough to think that you don't have some black bag operation somewhere in the works to do your dirty jobs. But it won't be us. It will never be us.”
Robert Kelly's mouth went as wide as his eyes, and he scrambled for a retort. “Captain Rogers, I--”
“And on the matter of waiting, Senator,” Steve continued, “By the time we were able to arrive in Niganda's capital, it had been completely depopulated. Any further hesitation or procrastination on our part would very well have resulted in the entire nation being wiped out. And neither I nor my team will 'stand around and wait' while SHIELD checks it's math so long as innocent people are dying. I know foreign lives, especially black foreign lives, don't matter much to you, Senator,” and at this point Senator Kelly's face took on a deep crimson, his cheeks puffing out with rage, “but I didn't become Captain America just to serve a country, but rather an idea. And that idea is that nobody should be made to fear their fellow man.”
Steven Graham Rogers glared at the Senator, as unmoving as a statue, and Robert Kelly, for his part, swallowed his outrage and rancor and leaned back in his chair, tenting his fingers conspiratorially.

The Director pushed up her glasses. “Thank you, Captain Rogers. That will be enough. Whether you should have waited for further intel before infil on Niganda or not, the matter of the issue is that Magnum escaped. We have intel that he has since visited Italy, Britain, and Germany, leaving several bodies in his wake. Had he been stopped in Africa, these deaths could have been avoided.”
Victor raised his hand respectfully. “Excuse my interruption, Director, but we've not heard of this. Why were we not told any of these deaths?”
“Because we weren't certain it was him. These were...much smaller incidences than Niganda. Individual deaths, single murders. Some mafioso in Milan, a botanist at Oxford, nothing Earth-shattering. It took SHIELD's facial-scanning algorithms hitting on some security footage at random to tell us what he was up to. We're looking into the victims to see why Moses would kill them, but for now he's dropped off the radar.”

“Now, on to the matter of the theft of the Baxter Building's database; our analysts tell us that this mysterious thief managed to make off with no less than twelve percent of our registry of confirmed and suspected exotics. Mr. Stane, you were on-site during this robbery, what the bloody hell happened?”

Obidiah Stane stayed seated, playing with a ball-point pen and looking for all the world like the slickest kid in class, not even caring that the principal was chewing him out.
“What can I say, I was coming in from some bullshit milk-run mission out of Genosha, got the alert, and went to see what the problem was.”
Rappaccini glanced over the papers in front of her. “Yes, you flew through the roof of the Baxter Building, damaging eight floors, injuring thirteen employees, and taking fire-supression and the redundancy servers offline.”
Stane gave a self-assured smirk. “Hey, it was an alert. Kind of an emergency, right?”
The Director sighed. “Without the redundancies, the information that was stolen is now gone forever, Mr. Stane. We don't even know what was stolen, what names the thief has. For all we know, he could have given this information to Moses Magnum, who could, for all we know, be out there right now recruiting an exotic army. Or selling the information to America's enemies, and god knows we're in no shortage of those these days. Your recklessness allowed him to get away.”
The smirk vanished, replaced by the sneer of a chastised child. Stane stayed silent, but one could see the anger boiling up inside him.

“And then there's the Parker incident. The Four – minus an injured Doctor Pym – were called in to apprehend one Peter Benjamin Parker, a exotic known as the Forest Hill Spider-Man. The target was cornered in the tunnels beneath a church. It should have been an easy capture. What happened?”
Six eyes at the table fell on Obidiah Stane, who slumped in his chair, his feet propped on the table casually. Stane glared at the disdainfully, a sneering “What?” his only retort.
Steve cleared his throat with a cough.
“The scene had been covered, we had cornered the Parker boy in the church, when Iron Man went
off-script and tried to infil on his own. There, he met resistance and-”
“Ah yes, this...Magneto, wasn't it? What does our intel say about him?”
“It doesn't, Director. Who ever Magneto is, he's a new player.”
Stane sat up, straightening out his suit. “But I know he's the bastard who robbed us. The EM signature is identical. At first I thought he was telekinetic, but he walked right through the PSI-defenses I installed in my armour after our first go-around.”
“Yes, Mister Stane, we read your...'report'. Perhaps you could help us understand why you went against orders and attempted to infiltrate on your own, instead of waiting as you were commanded.”
“Because the orders were bullshit. I didn't build that damned armour so I could shove my thumbs up my ass while SHIELD played patty-cake with a damned exotic who's balls hadn't even dropped yet. The job is to catch the little bastards, nobody else seemed too eager to do it, so I manned up and did what had to be done.”
“Except, you horse's ass,” came the gruff and tired rasp of Commander Dugan, “your actions resulted in your armour being destroyed, eleven SHIELD agents injured, over seven million dollars in damages, and oh yes, the bloody target escaping!”

Obidiah Stane set his jaw, holding his tongue.

Director Rappaccini gave the Commander a look, and he wiped his sweaty brow, pouring himself a glass of water and sitting back in his chair in a huff.
“Gentlemen, the President only agreed to the Fantastic Four project on the promise that you would get results. Now, you've done good work in the past, but that's just the nature of this business: 'what have you done for me lately?' And frankly, it's more than recent events that have had us worried. The mission to New Mexico, the loss of our asset in British Columbia...I've gone through the reports and the last mission that went off without a hitch was the mansion in Westchester, and that was a milk run on a nacent terrorist cell. I want to allay any fears you might have that you're being replaced or put on probation, but gentlemen, what needs to be done to get your success rate back above the redline?”

Stane and Pym turned to Captain Rogers, but it was Victor who spoke up.
“If I may, Director, our recent failures can best be boiled down to a lack of intelligence.”
Obidiah raised an eyebrow, and Victor quickly recovered before the Director's temper flared.
“Allow me to explain – currently we rely entirely on SHIELD's intelligence network. By the time we get our mission briefs, it's been dissected by analysts and advisors and we're already several hours behind the curve. If we had an independent system of intelligence gathering, we could streamline the process, and SHIELD assets could be reallocated to more deserving projects.”
Director Rappaccini's brows went up. “Doctor, you cannot be seriously asking that SHIELD authorize an intelligence network be set up for only four people. I can't even begin to get into the legal and ethical issues that suggests.”
Victor stood confidently. “How many SHIELD agents died bringing us Magnum's video message from Niganda? How many agents were hurt by this Magneto during the Parker incident? Think about the loss of assets and funding each failure has netted SHIELD, and weigh it against the increase in efficiency we would see otherwise, and tell me which is preferable.”
The Director opened her mouth to respond, when two people, one in a Fed-grey suit, the other in military dress, came in. They both looked to the Director, who frowned at the intrusion, but both men quickly walked to the bench, the Fed leaning to Director Duncan, the soldier to Commander Dugan's side. The Four looked amongst themselves, confused. Dugan whispered something to the Director's ear, and she nodded slightly, before standing up with a grim look on her face.
“Gentlemen, I'm afraid we shall have to adjurn this meeting. An incident has just come up, if you'll meet me in the Briefing Room.”

FBI Director Duncan turned to his man at the bench, whispering conspiratorially.
“I'll bring this to Director Rappaccini, but for now we don't say a word to Doctor Pym.”
“Director, with all due respect-”
Fred Duncan eyed his agent sternly. “Not yet, Agent Wrightson. Let Rappaccini have her say, then we'll run it by her. You know how she gets when we mere mortals get in her way.”

The halon lights of the war room came on with a droning buzz, as metal chairs groaned against the floor jarringly. Director Rappaccini took the head of the class, dropping a thin manilla folder onto the foremost table. The Four, still in suits, sat uneasily, pulling at their jackets to find some measure of comfort in the chilled room.
“Gentlemen, I am sorry for today's proceedings, I want to say that first and foremost, you have nothing to prove to me. All of that was merely for the record, and I want to stress that none of you are being replaced or censured. We...don't really know what the President is planning right now, but what ever it is, it'll have to wait.”
She took a deep breath, and opened the folder, spilling out a greyscale photograph of a stoney-faced man in military dress, a thick silver mustache dressing his upper lip.
“On to business. We've just received word that General Thaddeus Ross' car was found abandoned six miles off the New Jersey turnpike.”
She tossed a photograph of a thick-necked bald man onto the table. Captain Rogers picked it up, studying it intently.
“On-site analysis has given us this man. Carl Creel. Former boxer. Fought as 'The Crusher.' Creel's fingerprints were on the trunk and rearview. Gentlemen, I don't need to tell you what this means. General Ross is a top advisor to the President, and has access to several top-drawer exotic projects that even I don't have clearance for. And...Creel was spotted a week ago in Italy, with an old friend of yours.”
A third photo slid across the table. Victor pinned it down, and turned it face up.
“Moses Magnum? Creel's an exotic?”
The Director nodded. “We think so. Milan police gave us this footage of a nightclub owned by suspected mob-boss Angelo Unuscione, charmingly referred to by locals as 'l'Intoccabile,' 'the Untouchable.' Magnum and Creel sat with Unuscione for seven minutes, then Magnum and Creel walked out, and Unuscione had to be scraped off the carpet.”
Steve rubbed his temples. “Christ. Magnum's bagboy. Tell me we have something to go on, Director. We can't screw this one up, this time.”
The Director nodded. “As a precaution, the General's wristwatch is fitted with a tracking device. He insisted on it. We've got a SHIELD incursion team ready to accompany you, but with news that Creel is working for Magnum, we feel having the Four on site is just prudent. We don't know if Magnum's other lackey, the Silver Streaker, will be there, so be on the look-out for anything, gentlemen. Wheels up in ten, dismissed.”

Thaddeus Ross' eyes strained to adjust to the dim light slipping under the crack between the door and the floor. His fingers felt numb and stiff, something cold pressing against his wrist overhead. An aching pull on his nose told him that he was suspended from the ceiling, facing the floor, and a dull knot on his head made him groan sorely. The door opened, and the General winced away, light spilling into the room like heat from an oven. Thick footsteps plodded rhythmically towards him, and rough, calloused fingers held his face still, pulling it down. He opened his eyes furtively, and saw a powerfully-built black man before him, icy grey eyes holding him in place.

“Welcome, General Ross,” the man said in a heavily accented voice like hard steel. “I do hope my compatriot was not too rough on you. Sadly, you did not give him much of a choice in the matter, with your panicked attempts at escape.”

Ross wheezed and croaked. “Son, you are in a world of pain. If you do not release me immediately, you can guarantee that someone wearing a costume will be fitting your ass for slippers.”

The man grinned, showing off his teeth like polished tombstones. A deep, reverberating laugh escaped him. “Do you mean your little clown show? The Fantastic Four? Why General, I know fully well they will find this place. They are no doubt on their way, as soon as they learn we have you. You see, we know about the tracker you put into your watch. We know a lot of things. But not everything.”

Two more figures entered the room, and General Ross strained to see them through the glare of the outside lights. One seemed to be small, seated in a hovering chair of some sort. The other was lithe and feminine, with dull golden eyes that somehow seemed to stand out even through the blinding backwash of light behind them.
“I-I won't tell you anything. I don't care what you do to me, you won't get anything out of me!”
The man only shook his head. “General, you don't need to say a word.”
He looked to the other two figures, and nodded, moving to leave. As he stepped into the light, he half-turned, still grinning, as the floating figure moved closer, revealing it's grossly misshapen head and corpse-grey skin. Ross fought the urge to retch, just barely.
“But thank you, General, for saying you did not care what we do to you. It is so much easier when we have permission.”
He vanished, and the light faded into a sliver as the door closed behind him. The little bulb-headed man
inched closer, staring unblinkingly at the General, thick veins throbbing a grotesque roadmap across his forehead. Something sharp drove across Ross' vision, stabbing hot needles of light and thought piercing his mind, something pulling at his memories unbidden. He grunted in effort, trying to hold on to the random flashes of his wife, his daughter, his childhood, his....his work. God, his work. Images of files, documents, computer screens, faces, all blinked across his thoughts. Passwords and handshakes, conversations with Senators and diplomats, everything he had. Project: Wideawake, Operation: Zero Tolerance, the SHRA...every piece of exotic-control theory he had slide across his desk in the last two years, racing to the surface of his mind...then pulling away like smoke being drawn by a breeze. Thin fingers of will grasped in vain at the dwindling threads of understanding and recollection, and a piercing scream echoed in the tiny dark room.

Before Thaddeus Ross fell into blackness, he could have sworn he saw a pair of dull golden eyes staring at him, slowly dimming into a familiar shade of cold steel blue.

Bryant Park was overflowing with people milling about. Johnny was distracted by the shops in the park plaza, while Peter was sitting on the steps by the statue of William Cullen Bryant, his head hunched forward as he buried himself back into his book. Jimmy sat at a table nearby, nursing a cup of coffee he had bought from the nearby tea kiosk, glaring at the clock on the Public Library just across from him.
He swirled the coffee about the cup, mixing it, and grumbling to himself, stopping only to sniff the air. Something faint and lilac-scented caught his attention, and he straightened up in his seat. A pair of slender hands pulled out the chair across from him, and a young woman with dark hair bent down, kissing Jimmy's cheek before sitting next to him. He smirked to himself, checking on the boys with his peripheral vision. Both were otherwise distracted.
“Sorry, darlin', but I'm taken.”
The woman smiled warmly, and placed her hands over Jimmy's.
“We can't be too careful, can we? Anyone seeing us would just see two people meeting at the park.”
Jimmy poured the last of his coffee out onto the grass, and leaned forward, kissing her hand.
“Fair enough. I take it you're the one we're supposed to meet?”
The woman nodded. “Rushman. No first name. You're Max' friend? The engineer?”
“Yeah, that's right. I worked for the railroads for a while. Max didn't tell me what this was all about, though. Said it'd be clear when I saw it.”
Ms. Rushman smiled, and pulled something from her black leather purse. She slipped it under Jimmy's hand, his fingers tightening over it clandestinely. It was a flash drive, he could tell from the shape and contour of the object.
“These are the files they pulled from the school. The other school, the one Max' friend built. It's not as extensive as the files he got from our friends uptown, but it has some very interesting names on it, I understand. I would recommend not letting that get into the wrong hands. I saved it from the IT guys before they could break the encryption. You get that to Max, and figure out how to read it, and you'll be the first ones to get those names.”
Jimmy hooded his eyes, looking up at the woman analytically. From the freshness of her perfume, he could tell she seldom wore it, her body oils didn't mix with it right. He could see a hemline to her hair, telling him that she was wearing a wig. Her clothes were a size too large, but he could tell from her grip on his hand that she was in better shape than she seemed. He didn't smell any gunoil coming off her purse, so if she was armed, it wasn't with a gun. Either way, he knew this was a dangerous woman. She glanced over at the boys, waving to them.
“So that's Peter. Such a handsome boy. Shame we didn't get him into our program. that the Storm boy? Where did you find him, I wonder?”
“Lady, the kids are off-limits. We're here for the list, and that's done.”
She returned her gaze to Jimmy, smiling sweetly. “Oh, I don't mean anything by it. I assure you, I'm firmly on your side. Never was a big fan of governments rounding up their own people and killing them, no matter who's doing it or what they're justification is. But, good job questioning that. Keep those kids safe. They're the future, you know. For all of us.”
She got up to leave, and kissed Jimmy's cheek again. “Give Max my best, won't you. Some of us are rooting for his little project to succeed. We're very interested to see what he does with it.”
Jimmy waited a second, only a second, then turned to ask her something, but found only the park's patrons. She had melted into the crowds as if she were one of them. He looked down at the green and white plastic casing of the flashdrive, and quickly slipped it into his jacket's inner pocket. Rising up from his chair, he waved over to the boys. “Get yer crap, kids. We're going.”
Peter awkwardly crammed his book into his pocket. “What, already? What happened?”
Jimmy shook his head. “Don't worry about it. I figure we give the ladies a bit more time with the contractors. Come on, let's go see about that bird-guy movie you were talking about.”
Jimmy walked away. Peter tapped Johnny's arm, alerting him to the change in plans, and Johnny pulled out his earbuds, running after the other two.

“Any word from inside?”
Michael Badalino looked up from his coffee, which the barista had once again burnt to a bitter, ashen soup; probably some snobbish punishment for not picking whatever latest flavoured abomination the millenials were sucking down like Aqua Vitae. Yuriko Watanabe motioned to the window behind them, at the minibranch bank across the street. Seven uniformed officers formed a barrier with their cars outside the bank, waiting for the people inside to make a move.
“Nothing yet. They won't talk, we can't get the phones to work or anything. We're waiting on the Fibbies to drop by so they can take the blame when it all goes to shit. In the meantime, grab a seat, don't order the coffee, and find a crossword puzzle some college student hasn't filled out with vulgarities.”
Detective Watanabe barely had a chance to get comfortable on the brown leather stool next to Badalino, when a conspicuous black SUV pulling up next to the semi-circle of police cars outside. With a slap on the arm, she motioned to the black suited men who disembarked from the van. “Looks like the Feds are here.”

Director Duncan scanned the area., nine officers, if the two people coming out of the coffeeshop towards him were the leads. The street was cordonned off, and were cleared of civilians. Whatever was happening outside, they expected it to spill out onto the street.
It was the male detective, a tall, broadly built sort, the type who clearly had a home gym and little else in their life to fill up their time, who made the first gesture, offering his hand to the Director.
“Hey, Detective Mike Badalino, this is Detective Watanabe.”
Duncan took the hand, and shook it. “FBI Director Fred Duncan.”
The detectives shared a look between them.
“Director? What the hell is the Director of the FBI doing on a little bank robbery in New York?”
“I was in the city on business, when the call came in. Have they made any demands yet?” he nodded towards the bank, deftly moving the conversation back towards the job.
“, we haven't heard a peep from them. We can't see inside, they painted the windows with some sort of plaster, and we can't get a feed off the cameras inside.”
“What about traffic cams? They had to have driven here.”
Watanabe interjected; “It's a good day for speeders here. Somebody cooked the cameras before they went in.”
Director Duncan frowned. “Damn. They're smart. Or they're exotics. Any word from the bank manager?”
Badalino produced his notepad, flipping through the pages until he found what he needed.
“Nah, she's in the Oo-lawn Bay-torr? Is that a place? I dunno, she's on vacation. Incommunicado.”
Duncan looked at the detectives. “Detective...Watanabe, yes? I'd prefer if you were the lead on this, thank you.”
Badalino balked. “Hey, what the hell, you can't just make her lead, who the hell are you?”
Duncan smiled sweetly, “Why detective, I'm the fucking FBI liason to SHIELD. And your partner, at least, didn't mispronounce 'Ulan Bator' and the manager essentially told you to fuck off, because Ulan Bator is the capital city of Mongolia, which does not usually draw in tourists on vacation.
So while your partner is helping us defuse this shitstorm in a bottle, you get the happy task of going down to the bank manager's home, kicking her out of bed, and dragging her down here so we can settle this before something horrific happens.”
Watanabe sat her hand on Badalino's shoulder. “It's alright, Mike. Go do the important cop stuff, I'll babysit the suits.” Badalino slunk off to his car dejectedly.
“Now,” Director Duncan barked, “I want to talk with these assholes! Someone make that happen!”

The man called Wizard smacked his hand on the desk in frustration.
Shocker leaned over his shoulder, watching the computer screen spit out a wall of numbers and code that made his eyes blur. “What's up, Whizz?”
Wizard pushed the chair away from the desk, and stood up, pulling off his helmet and rubbing his eyes.
“It's the's the Stark database. I told Adrian that Old Man Stane would have what we need squirrelled away in one of his front banks, but I didn't count on the old bastard still using Stark-era security protocols.”
“What, you skipped that class at nerd school, just hack that crap.”
Wizard shot a look at Shocker that, if it could, would have burst the uglier man's skull like a fiery melon under a steamroller's drum.
“It's not that simple, Schultz. I can crack a Stark protocol, but it's time-intensive. It takes days, maybe weeks depending on how deep this goes. We're not exactly equipped for a long stay, right?”
Shocker leaned against the wall, closing his eyes and exhaling.
“Damn. Well, someone's gonna have to tell the old man.”
Trapper peered around a clean spot on the otherwise paste-encrusted window, pulling back uneasily.
“Someone's going to have to get him in here anyway. We got cops outside. And Feds, I think.”

The mood in the vault was that of a funeral, silent and awkward, as if the slightest muffled sound would tear the world out from under them all. Vulture watched his hostages like his namesake bird, scanning them for potential troublemakers. So far, only the silver-haired man sitting cross-legged in the back made eye-contact with him, something which unnerved Vulture, for some reason he couldn't quite place. He had considered making an example of the silver-haired man, just to remind the sheep who was in charge, and would have slit his throat right there, when Shocker rapped his knuckles against the stone wall behind him. Vulture snapped out of his homicidal reverie, turning to Shocker, trying hard to hide his annoyance.
“Yes, Her-Shocker,” Vulture exhaled coldly, catching himself before stumbling out Shocker's first name.
“Feds are here. What do we do?”
Vulture straightened up, his face an inscrutible blank. “Finally. Let's go see what they want, shall we?”
Shocker turned and left, Vulture following after, leaving with a half turn as he took one last, scanning gaze at Max, as if he had figured something out.

Trapper moved aside as Vulture peered the window. What was once a clear street was now a buzzing hive of blue and black uniforms. The black suits, the Feds clearly, orbited around a smallish man with greying hair, obviously the lead on the case.
“Wizard, get me on their frequency. I'd like a word with them.”
The Wizard fiddled with a device on his belt, twisting dials and pressing a few buttons, and handed the static-squelching gadget to Vulture. Vulture lifted it to his mouth, licking his thin lips, and pressed the 'TALK' button.
“Hello out there, officers. And of course, agents of our fine Federal government. I see you've taken note of our little daytrip here.”

Fred Duncan snatched the radio from the nearest officer, and held it to his face.
“This is Director Duncan of the FBI. Who is this?”
A dry voice came over the airwaves, thick with static.
“This is the man in charge,” the radio bragged, “I'm the one holding all the cards.”
The Director smirked. Another arrogant jackass. Alright, he thought, I can play that game.
“Is there a name to go with that ego, friend, or do I just call you Criminal Idiot #8005? Because that's about how many times some dickhead with too much free time decided that what he wanted superceded the well-being of other people.”
A chuckle like drywall crumbling rasped over the air. “Is that in the hostage negotiator's handbook, Director? Aren't you supposed to ask me for my demands, or some sort of proof of life, that the people in here are safe?”
“What can I say? You caught me on a bad day. But if you want to follow the script, mind telling me what's got your morality switch flipped to 'douchcanoe' this fine day?”

Wizard stifled a laugh. “Oh god, Vultch, this guy. This fucking guy. Is he for real?”
“It seems so.” Vulture straightened himself out, motioning for Wizard to return to the computers with a directive nod of his head.
As Wizard went back to work on the computers, Vulture tensed his neck, and brought the radio to his lips again.
“I'm only looking to retrieve some stolen property, Director. And please, if we're going to have any kind of working relationship, feel free to call me The Vulture.”

A cold chill ran down Fred Duncan's spine.
A mask name.
This asshole just gave him a mask name.
That was never good. Never good.
Anyone crazy enough to give himself a mask name – Carlos the Jackal, for instance – was crazy enough to do just about anything. Burn down the bank, rush outside guns blazing, choreograph an impromptu dance number, complete with backing orchestra and costume changes. Anything.

“Alright...Vulture it is. What would it take, Vulture,” he bit his tongue to keep from choking on the word, “to get those people out of the bank unharmed?”
There was a pause, then Vulture's deep rasp returned. “Just time. Keep your people, and New York's Finest, on that side of the street, and we'll give them to you once we're done. We have no wish to harm anyone, Director, but we must be allowed to work in peace. Once we have what we came for, the hostages will be released.”
“That doesn't work for me, Vulture. We need a sign of good faith before we can give you anything, even if it's just the time you're asking for. Send out one hostage, and we'll have something to work with.”
The voice over the radio became cold and harsh, the rasp deepening menacingly.
“We were doing so well, Director, when we weren't playing from the script. Perhaps a demonstration is in order?”
The radio went silent, and the bank walls started shaking. Fred waved the officers away from the building, seconds before a massive burst of force sent police and debris flying across the street. Bodies rolled and slammed into glass, into car hoods, into parking meters and asphalt; ribs splintered on impact, and Fred Duncan struggled to lift himself to his aching, aged knees, his lungs burning to eject the dust he had inhaled. He blinked out the haze of pain and confusion, and slowly stood up. The few agents and officers who had escaped serious injury stood with him, dazed and battered. A large hole had been blown out of the bank wall, a hole that was quickly going dark, the interior vanishing behind what looked like a plaster patch of foam. Vulture's voice returned with a belch of static.
“That was the Shocker, one of my compatriots. A decent enough fellow, if somewhat paranoid. When his paranoia flares up, Director Duncan, he tends to blow holes in things. And people. So let's not do anything to make him anxious, hmm?”
The radio went silent, and Fred Duncan stared at the bank, a distant horror creeping upon him. He reached for his phone, and quickly searched through his contacts.
He pulled the phone to his mouth, wiping a thin coat of sweat-pasted dust from his forehead.
“This is Director Duncan of the FBI. We have an exotic-related hostage situation. We need a SHIELD
TAC team down here ASAP!”

Vulture turned back from the now-sealed hole in the wall, as Trapper put the last few blots of hardening paste on the impromptu patch-job. He looked to Wizard, who was hard at work at the computer.
“That bought us maybe half an hour, Bentley. Then they bring in SHIELD. Can you do it in that timeframe?”
Wizard licked his lips, fingers dancing on the keyboard. “Yeah, I'm almost in. It looks like your man tried hiding it under a false name. Probably had Stane's help arranging that, but I've narrowed it down to a few possibilities. Give me a few more minutes, and we'll have the vault number.”
Vulture nodded, turning to the other two.
“Keep an eye on them out there. Let me know if anyone in a mask shows up. Until then, I'll be keeping our guests company.”

Zongneng 'Daniel' La huddled against the vault wall, trying to remember if he kissed his wife Lauren goodbye, and wishing he had listened to his doctor and had taken his Atorvastatin before heading out. He closed his eyes when the room shook and thunder tore through the air, uttered a silent prayer, something he hadn't done in years, hoping that he would go home to his family at the end of the day.
A sharp, cold breath hissed inward through his teeth, as Daniel tried to keep his heart rate down, tried to find some way to calm himself; he flinched and nearly banged his head on the safe door he had slanted himself up against when a hand reached out from somewhere in the air-chilled vault and rested on his arm. He raised his eyes, red and puffy, and saw Janet, smiling comfortingly at him.
“It'll be alright, sir. We'll get through this.” Daniel only looked at her, wanting to scream that she was crazy, that they were all going to die in here, a bunch of freaks were going to murder them all and he'd never see his family again.
His hysteria went cold and calm as the small woman gave him a gentle smile, and she turned back to the front room. The silver-haired man, the one who had stared down the Vulture, was eying the door; Janet could almost see him pacing in his mind like a caged lion, debating whether he should rush his keeper when the cage was opened. She reached out to him, to calm his nerves as she had Daniel's, but she pulled her hand back in a flash, yelping at the jolt of static that had stung her fingers. Max turned to her impulsively, even as Vulture pushed the door open.
The old man had a sneer on his face of ruthless self-satisfaction.
“The Feds are outside. I imagine it's only a matter of time before the Fantastic Four make their appearance, or perhaps SHIELD themelves. Just a while longer, my friends, and you'll be back to your boring lives.”
Vulture caught Max' steely eyes, and his sneer faded. “Why so grim, friend? You've done it. You kept your head when all others around you lost theirs. Yours is the world, and what is more, you are a man, my son.” Vulture chuckled at his own quip.
Max set his jaw, his gaze fixed on Vulture. “I don't see what's so funny about any of this.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn't. Not that it matters, but in a few minutes, we'll have what we came for,
and you will be free to go about your business. So cheer up; you survived the day. You kept your wits about you, and didn't do something stupid and heroic and got yourself killed. You all keep on being good boys and girls, and there won't be any reason for us to liquidate you after.”
“So that's it?” It was Janet speaking up this time. Vulture shifted his gaze to the thin Asian woman, his smile turning ever-so-slightly jagged at the sight of her. “And just what was so damned important you had to endanger these people like this, anyway? You didn't take anything from the vaults, we've been here the whole time!”
Vulture flashed his off-white teeth, saying nothing as he left the room.
Max sucked in a breath. “Information.”
He quickly went for the door, furtively checking to make sure nobody was loitering around it, then he ducked back to Janet. “They've been out front this whole time. I'm hardly an expert on robbing banks, but if it were me, I think I'd focus on the vault here, where the valuables are. Then again, everything's digital these days, who's to say they aren't after money?”
One of the other hostages – bank teller Debra Kessrel – piped in.
“They're after something from Mister Stane's accounts.”
Max, Janet, and the entire room turned to her. She flushed pale, and stammered a bit, before continuing.
“I s-saw them access the branch manager's personal files - I'm not sure how they did that, those are partitioned off to a separate server – but it's sort of an open secret that Obidiah Stane has his fingers in this branch, and he keeps some things on the servers. We're not sure what, but I figure it's something to do with his Iron Man suit.”
Janet stood up, and paced to the wall. Max inched closer to the teller, reaching out to comfort her.
“Thank you. I...hesitate to ask this, but you were helping me before this all happened. I...I need to know what you saw on the screen before those men came in here. I promise, no harm will come to you, but you looked at me as if you had seen a ghost. Was there something on my Hungarian account that concerned you?”
Debra swung her eyes around the room, and leaned in close, whispering furtively to Max' face.
“It said you were dead.”

Janet thought quickly. What she had planned was risky – she didn't reveal this side of herself to many people, in fact only her husband and SHIELD Director Rappaccini were privy to her secret, aside from her parents – but she didn't see any other way out. She turned to Max, who was busy leaning in close to the teller on the floor.
“I think we need to face an unpleasant reality here.”
Max looked up at her, and straightened out, his knees protesting. “They're not going to let these people go, even if they get what they want.”
Janet nodded in agreement. “They'd have no need to. We've got four exotics – or at least four people with high-tech and low morals – they probably think they have nothing to fear from the police or the FBI, and the FF are probably off on a mission somewhere.”
The idea that the Fantastic Four's absence was explained by them being off hunting down some poor exotic made Max uneasy, but he swallowed his discomfort as best he could.
“So what do you suggest, Missus Pym? If we rush them, it'll be a massacre.”
“I know. But...I have a way to get all these people out of here. I's risky. On several levels.”
Janet clenched her eyes, taking a deep, cleansing breath to brace herself.
“Alright, I'll just come out and say it; I'm an exotic. Yeah, I know, we're all Satanic, baby-eating terrorists who hate your freedom and want to conquer the world. I watch the news too. But right now, I'm the best shot anyone here has of getting home.”
The other hostages murmured amongst themselves, uncertain of how to take this. Only Max seemed responsive, his shock somehow lessened.
“What do you mean, you're an exotic?” An old woman by the deposit boxes asked, her eyes wide in fear.
“It's alright, I promise you I won't hurt anyone. My husband is one of the Fantastic Four, they know all about me.” That was a lie, but there was no need to mention that. “And right now, I think I'm our best chance. I can sneak us all out of here, but I'll need you all to trust me.”
“What, can you make us invisible?”
Janet smiled shyly. She wasn't used to sharing this part of herself with others, so she wasn't sure how people would react. “Not exactly. I...I'm a mutant, I can sort of...well, shrink. Like, there's something in my body that lets me go down to the size of a bug. We can use that to get out of here before they know we're gone.”
Max shook his head, tossing his initial shock from his mind. “Wait, even if...even if you could somehow transfer this ability to everyone here, at the size of an insect, this room would be as massive as the outside world. Relatively, it would take us weeks to get outside.”
“Not if we start by the air vent. We stand there, shrink down, and let the ventilation sweep us outside, where we grow back to our normal sizes.”
If Janet was expecting a rousing chorus of cheers and a swarm of grateful people, she was deeply disappointed. Instead, she received a wall of confused stares, with one man's mouth agape in disbelief.
“That has to be THE DUMBEST thing I've ever heard!:
Max looked back at the hostages, then to Janet. “Can you really do this? Can you get them out safely?”
Janet set her jaw. “Yes, I can. At the size I'm talking about, we'd be too light to make much of an impact on the ground. Think of it as an ant falling from a tree – it just drops and keeps on going.”
“I'm pretty sure ants are a bit hardier than people, Missus Pym.”
“I know what I'm doing. I've done this before. Well, not the 'escape a bank robbery' thing, that's new; but I have taken other people down with me, and I know what to expect.”
Max looked back at the others. “Think they'll go along with it?”
“As opposed to betting on the better natures of a quartet of psychopaths?”
“Right. And you can get them back to normal size again?”
Janet sighed. It was a sound of pure exasperation. “Yes, I can make them normal again. I've only done this a few thousand times since I was eleven, you know. It's kind of the basis of Hank's research.”
Max nodded. He didn't trust that Vulture would keep his word and let them go – no, it wasn't a matter of trusting, but rather, of knowing. A man like that had no reason to keep his word. And it looked like this was the best chance to get the hostages out before they were killed.
“Okay then, you do what you need to do. I'll buy you some time.”
Max went for the doorway, as Janet reached for him, scrambling to keep him there.
“Wait, you can't! You'll be killed!”
Max smiled, in a warm, fatherly way, making her think of Gandalf or Obi-Wan and making her protest all the more for it.
“It's quite alright, Missus Pym. I've done this before a thousand times. Well, not the 'distract-four-criminals-while you-all-escape-out-the-vents' thing, that's new; but I have been in a few scraps in my time. You take care of them. I'll take care of you.”
And with that, Max was out the door, and the hostages were left murmuring confusedly amongst themselves.
“Alright,” Janet ordered, “everyone line up. And...leave your modesty behind, because what happens next is not for the bashful.”

Wizard rubbed his mouth, wicking away the dry scum lining his lips as he scanned the computer screen. He had done it. The slow, creeping realization crawled up his spine to his brain, and widened his eyes.
“Vultch!” He was standing out of the chair, not remembering when he left it. “I fucking did it!”
Vulture raced to Wizard's side from the window, and saw the amber numbers roll over on the screen.
“We have it? All of it?”
“We. Have. It. All.”
Vulture clapped Wizard on the back, and let out a whooping cheer.
“It looks like Stane was outsourcing to someone. I can follow some of the numbers here...that one's Mason, no shock there. But some of these...are these coordinates? Where is this?”
Wizard scattered the nearest tin of pens, pulling one out and scouring the counter top for some spare paper, and began scribbling down the numbers as they appeared on the computer screen.
“Shit...shitshitshit...Vultch, this, this shit, I think this is in Arizona. Man, what the fuck is it doing in Arizona?”
Before Vulture could respond, if he had a response at all, the computer flickered and sparked and went dark. Wizard stared gape-mawed at the black screen, not blinking, not accepting. It slowly dawned on him that everything they had been working for was gone, lost into whatever void crashed systems operations fall. A quiet red itch bled behind his eyes, and he began shrieking.
“No! NonononononomotherfuckingNO! NO!! NO!”
He began slamming his hand into the flatscreen monitor, but that was a flimsy catharsis. Instead, he hurled the monitor at the furthest wall, and began kicking the tower behind the counter. Vulture dug his thin fingers into Wizard's throat and hoisted him up and away from his rage, keeping the flailing man aloft in the midst of his tantrum.
“What did you do, Bentley? What the fuck did you do?”
Wizard was red with rage and lack of air. He kicked his feet, spittle foaming at his mouth.
“F-fucking Feds! They fucking fucked us, the fuckers!! Fucking fried the computers! A-a f-f-fucking EMP or some bullshit! FUCK!”
Vulture dropped him, letting Wizard fall backwards against the printer.
He closed his sullen eyes, letting the information wash over him.

All the planning.

All the bankrolling.

All the...


Vulture exploded. He thrashed at the counter, long green daggers erupting from his flight jacket, draped behind his arms like great sails, and smashing through the whitewashed wood and fiberglass of the partitions. Trapper and Shocker flinched back as their boss threw chairs at walls and hurled the still dazed Wizard at the front door.
Vulture stormed out the front door, ranting and raving wordlessly, and before the police could respond six officers were pinned to their cars, or the street, or the nearest building, by long metal daggers flung from Vulture's arm. Duncan and Watanabe narrowly missed a flying blade, car glass crumbling over their heads as the pinion sluiced through the passenger-side window of the cruiser they had just been standing near.
Vulture flailed his arms around wildly, firing his bladed pinions chaotically in his rage. He shrank down, shoulders slumped, eyes wide and red and nostrils flaring, his chest heaving. The pinions vibrated from their lodgings, and pulled with an electrical hum back to their moorings on Vulture's arms. He unfurled the blades, revealing a pair of serrated wings, made up of long, bladed feathers floating around an armoured harness.
“Jesus Q. Buggerfuck,” Duncan breathed from across the hood of the dented cruiser,”what the hell?”

Vulture twisted back inside the bank, his face swollen and burgundy with outrage.
“Fucking assholes! I'll show them! Bring out all the hostages, let's get this done!”

Max watched as the last of the hostages vanished down into the open air vent. He didn't know what to expect when Janet said she could make other people shrink, but somehow, the image of her kissing each hostage, slipping them all some of her mutant DNA in her saliva, had surprised him. As Janet led them down the vent shaft, Max quickly closed the vent slats.

Something hard and cold made Max' head ring. The room flashed white for a split-second, then darkness crept into the corners of his vision and he found himself pulled to his knees, then pushed further to the floor, his head bouncing hard off the cold tile. Someone was shouting, a man, enraged, cursing and spitting and ranting, kicking Max' head into the floor over and over and over again. Max felt something pop in his face, and suddenly it was like he was breathing through mud. He scrambled to get up, only to double over as a heavy boot planted itself into his ribs. The air bled from his lungs, leaving him gasping for breath. A hand corded itself in his hair, and Max felt himself being dragged along the floor, a small pool of blood trailing from his nose. More voices, more anger and cursing and shouting, the words were lost to him, but the meaning was clear. A hand gripped him, forced him up and out into the blinding light, a foot resting on the back of his knee. More voices, starting off calm, then hitting a crescendo. Max lolled his head about, sputtering wetly through his broken nose. Vulture gesticulated angrily at Shocker, who pointed accusitorially at Max. The old man stomped up to the kneeling Max, and sharply dug his thin fingers into Max' throat, dragging him back into a wall.

“Where the hell are they, you son of a bitch!”
It took Max a second to realize that Vulture was screaming at him. He opened his mouth to speak, but was only able to wheeze out a sputter of red haze. Vulture roared in anger, throwing Max to the ground, and went off pacing the floor frantically. As Vulture raved and ranted and threatened to kick Max, to finish what Shocker began, Max felt something – low, humming – something start at Shocker's hands. Before he understood what was happening, Shocker raised his fists to Vulture, the devices on his wrists vibrating so quickly they were nothing but grey blurs. Vulture blinked at Shocker, his red face softening into a twisted smile.
“Why hello there, Herman. Want to try on the daddy-pants today, do we?”
“What I want, is to get my fucking money and not be here anymore, Adrian. You're plan is fucked, so way I figure it, I take you out, we grab what we can, and we shoot our way to freedom.”

Wizard stood up from behind the counter, fumbling a keyboard to the floor. Max sat himself up, whistling through his damaged nose, a low hum from Vulture's armour drawing his attention. A third droning, this one from Wizard's direction, joined the chorus. Whatever was about to happen, it was going to be loud.
“Herman, put your damned hands down. What money do you think you're going to find here? Everything's digital now.”
“Then what the hell was the fucking point of all this, Vultch? If we're not after money, then what? You and Bentley, with your little nerd-club secrets, but Pete and I don't get to be a part of the inner circle, do we?”
“Something that could have made us money, Herman. Something that was stolen from me.”
Shocker's wrist-devices whined louder, practically screaming as their pitch shot up sharply.
“Cut the fucking bullshit, Adrian, and fucking tell me already!”
“Why? So you can kill me and sell it? Wouldn't do you any good, Herman. You wouldn't know what it does, or how to put it together, or what it's even worth. Why don't we-”
The air squealed and burned as a blast of noise shot past Vulture's head, blowing out a section of wall.
Max could hear the faint and weary voices of the police outside through the gap in the wall, before Trapper filled it in with his paste gun. Vulture exhaled nervously, eyeing Shocker's gauntlets.
“Do. Not. Talk. Down. To. Me. I built these damned things in prison shop. Give me a blueprint and I can build anything. Cheat me, lie to me, but never imply that I. Am. Stupid.”
Wizard cleared his throat, and a voice in the chorus faded from Max' hearing.
“Guys, I was able to save the coordinates. So why don't we tuck our dicks back into our pants, zip up, and go get it?”
The air vibrated with the thick, electrical humming, until Shocker lowered his arm from Vulture's face, the droning buzz slipping into a decrescendo, until it fell into a cold silence.
Vulture smiled, and turned to the Wizard, who was typing something into his tablet hurredly.
“Well, Bentley, where is it, exactly?”
Wizard scoffed, not even raising his head to face Vulture. “Pft. I know I'm smart, Adrian, but do you honestly think I memorized the entire state map of Arizona? Or every square inch of its topography?
I'll know more when I run the coordinates.”
“But you can find it?”
“It's a simple matter of overlaying the coordinates over a map. A child could do it. And I'm not being smug or facetious, a child could literally do it.”
Shocker shook his head. “Nah nah nah, we're not going to fucking Ari-fucking-zona until you fucking eggheads finally tell us what the fuck it is we did this shit for? “
“Easy, Herman.” It was Wizard trying to be the voice of reason. “Adrian, tell him about the toy at the bottom of this clusterfuck of a Crackerjack box.”
Vulture closed his eyes, sighing. “Fine. If it'll put an end to all this childish posturing and let us get on with the shitstorm that is today.”
Vulture leaned against the wall segment separating the bank lobby from the tellers' alcoves.
“It's a little something I worked on when I was still shackled to that asshole Stane and the company he stole from a much better man.”

Max snuck in closer, careful to move slowly and quietly as he slid along the tile to just under the counter, resting just out of sight of Wizard, resting his head against the cool counter surface. He tilted his head up to listen.

“Stane wanted a way to make his Iron Man lighter, to save on jet fuel. The damned things chug avtur like a frat boy on the weekend, and he wanted a way to keep them flying without spending millions on fuel. So, I worked up a mock of my magnetic harness. Idiot threw it in a safe and locked it away, said he wasn't some fucking hippy, using magnets to fly, but he still sank two billion into developing a prototype. That, Herman, is what we are after. With the right buyers, we can each pick a small tropical island to retire to and never have to pull this crap again.”
Max slurred as he breathed, and a shot of bloody saliva slammed into the back of his throat, sending him into a coughing fit as he tried to dislodge the much from his windpipe. His moist, reedy hacking pulled Vulture's attention from his speech, and the man in green armour smiled his greasy smile at the suffocating man on the floor.
“Well hello there, stranger. I had actually forgotten about you, did you know that? Now, I'm not really too big on murder – I've gone a good, long time having never done it before, and all that – but today is not me at my best nor my brightest, and I'm giving serious consideration to eviscerating you just for shits and giggles. Care to tell me why I shouldn't?”
Max spat out a gob of black phlegm, splattering it on Vulture's boots, and looked up, his nose a shattered lattice of blood, his grey eyes focused and angry.
“Should? No, given what I know, you probably should kill me.”
“Well I must confess I hadn't expected that.”
Max pulled himself off the floor, clenching the counter with one hand, his heartbeat pounding in his ears, the blood on his face seeming to trickle out in rhythm. Another cough, and a mist of red sprayed the wall. He wiped his mouth, and stood tall.
“Yeah, I'm just full of surprises.”

Fred Duncan assessed the damage around him. Three officers were down, likely dead, stabbed by the long green knives the bald man in the bank had shot at them. He checked his Model 1076, counting the rounds still in the clip. He didn't need to, he knew it was full, but he found counting his shots calmed his mind. Injected a little math, an illusion of logic, into his world during moments of chaos, helped him come up with solutions. Nine shots. He knew that, and he still counted anyway. He got to three when Herman Schultz exploded out of the bank, covered in plaster and glass and bits of dissolving grey foam, and landing like a bomb on a fire hydrant. The hydrant, being the sturdier of the two, took this assault like a champ. Schultz, however, folded backwards at the spine with a dry crunch, and screamed bloody murder until he rolled off to the sidewalk, his screams of pain fading into barely-conscious wails of despair. In the span of a heartbeat, Fred and Detective Watanabe were peering over the hood of the cruiser they had taken shelter behind, only to see a man in a purple helmet cartwheel through the plastered window, as if he had been shot out of a cannon. He rolled in midair, imperfectly, and slammed his ankle into the pavement at the wrong angle, squealing as he crumpled next to the curb. Yuri Watanabe almost stood up, only to be pulled back down by Duncan. She shot him a look of confusion.
“What the hell? We got them.”
“We got jack. They're killing each other in there, and we'd be meat in the machine if we got in the way. Give them a few minutes, then we'll go mop them up.”
“So we sit here and let them sneak out the back?”
Before the Director could respond, something caught his eye, just off to the side of the blown-out bank, down a narrow side-alley. A young woman, hair cropped short, jumping up and down and waving her arms in his direction. And perfectly nude. Behind her were twelve other people, men and women, young and old, and all just as naked, hiding behind her, most of them trying to hide their bodies with their hands.
Fred arched an eyebrow in pique.
“What the hell is happening today?”

Peter Petruski gasped for air, blinking out a haze of pain and confusion. He let out a spackle of phlegm onto the dusty tile, his ribs burning under his armour. He reached for his paste gun, his hand trembling as he hooked his aching finger into the trigger ring. With an awkward jostle, he raised his arm, aiming his gun wide to the left of Max, who held Vulture off the ground by sheer force of will. The gun rattled as he arthritically squeezed the trigger, firing a soggy bolt of thick white plaster at Max, then collapsed into a heap on his side. The mass of paste hung in the air, shifting and roiling as a smothering wall of magnetic force held it in place, mere inches from Max's outstretched, claw-formed hand, his hooked fingers straining to keep up his magnetic shield.
“Well, you are full of surprises, aren't you?”
Max clenched his jaw, narrowing his eyes at Vulture.
“You picked an appropriate name, 'Vulture.' You pick on the bones of others, feeding on their work, gorging yourself on-”
Vulture rolled his head impatiently, snarling. “Oh for fuck's actual sake! Just kill me, so I don't have to listen to this shit!”
Max felt a choir rise up from Vulture's armour, and flew back over the counter, upending himself and smacking his head hard on the tile. As he blinked the flashing lights and spinning stars from his vision, he felt a few chords of magnetic music ring out, followed by the crashing of glass and a mechanical symphony fading into the distance. With a groan, his head sank back onto the tile, and he let out a sputter of bloody air.

Adrian Toomes arced his spine back, his wing-harness vibrating melodically as he sliced through the air, curving up to avoid a gargoyle on the ledge of the insurance company in front of him. His whole armour sang as his electromagnetic batteries lifted him up and away from the ruins of the bank. With a few deep swings of his arms, he carried himself blocks away, and storeys up, wheeling around and lighting on a buttress, eyeing the city below. He replayed the events of the last few minutes, massaging his neck. He didn't have time to think too hard; he had something in Arizona waiting for him, and without Wizard's memory to guide him, he'd have to find some other way of getting it. But for now, he'd need to plan. This would take considerable resources, considerable assets and assistance. And he was so very tired after today. But tomorrow, or next week, or next month? Well, he could be patient. Yes, patient, and unforgiving. He would not forget the man with silver hair, not anytime soon.

Chunks of plaster crunched under Director Duncan's shoe. The paramedics rushed to check on Trapper and Max, quickly gauging their vitals, checking their eyes and pulses and loading them into stretchers. Duncan raised an eyebrow as Max was carted into an ambulance, just as he started coming around. As the paramedics slammed the ambulance doors, Watanabe surveyed the destruction.
“God, what the hell happened here?”
Fred snapped back to his surroundings, sighing loudly.
“Easy. Some assholes with more brains than morals built themselves some super-weapons, decided to use them, and innocent people got hurt. How are our bank customers doing?”
Yuri looked back out the shattered window at the people huddling under emergency blankets near the remaining ambulances, as paramedics looked them over.
“They're unharmed, if a bit shaken up. And embarrassed, I suppose. Do you know who the skinny Vietnamese girl is? I swear she looks familiar.”
Fred looked back, and pulled a ginger drop from his pocket, fumbling with the wrapper before popping it into his mouth.
“Yeah, that's Janet Pym.”
Yuri spun her head back to the Director with such force that he heard her joints pop.
“You're kidding? That's Mrs. Giant Man? What the hell was she doing here?”
Fred sucked on the drop through his teeth, trying to hide his disappointment that it wasn't the cigarette he sorely needed right now. “At a bank? I'd theorize she was doing her banking here, Detective.”
Yuri Watanabe rolled her eyes. “Well yeah,'d she get them out? And why naked?”
Fred crunched down hard on the candy, cracking it in half; “Oh that? That's classified, Detective. Maybe someday, when you grow up and your voice starts to change, you'll get to know all the juicy secrets.”
And with that, he stepped over the blown-out window frame, and went to his SUV, brushing the broken glass off the hood as he opened the driver-side.
“Where are you going?” Yuri shouted from the sidewalk, as forensics busied themselves with the debris.
Fred smiled, waving to her lazily. “You got this. I don't want to step on your toes, you did good work here, Detective. Got most of the bad guys, you should be proud. Now, I'm going to go see to our witness with the white hair.”
“But it's our case!”
Fred shook his head as he buckled in, starting his engine and pulling away.
“They were wearing costumes, Detective. That makes them exotics. That makes them my circus. Thanks for corraling them, but I have a witness to question.”
And with that, Yuri Watanabe was left to stand stupidly in the middle of a block-wide warzone after party.

Jim Howlett blinked in the afternoon sun, trying to pry half a popcorn kernel from under a bicuspid with his tongue..
He looked up at the marquee sign above the theater, and shook his head.
“Damned artists,” he muttered. “Why does everything have to end with fartsy symbolic crap. If you've got something to say, say it; don't end this shit with 'is he really flying or did he kill himself?'”
Peter stepped into the sunlight, a bit dizzy on his feet, but smiling, digging around with two fingers into a box of Junior Mints, trying to fish out the last few candies stuck to the bottom. “That was awesome!”
Jimmy eyed the kid, shaking his head. Johnny, for his part, had his headphones stuck in his ears again, and in fact had slept through most of it.
“Are you nuts?” Jimmy gruffly chided. “That was just a lot of nothing. Now Rio Grande, that was a good movie. John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, John Ford directing. That was a film, kid. None of this navel-gazing indecisive crap you got today, men were men and made decisions and lived with them.”
He let out a long, defeated sigh, and pulled a crooked cigarette from his pocket, searching himself for a match. Finding a dog-legged match, he struck it against his cheek, and touched the tip to his cigarette, before shaking the flame out and taking a long, desparate drag. He sighed the smoke out, then tossed the cigarette, stomping it out and grinding it underfoot. “Alright, boys, let's get back to the hospital. We've wasted enough time as it is.”
Jimmy Howlett stepped to the curb, and swung his arm up for a cab, while Peter tossed the last chocolate mint into his mouth. He pressed the candy to the roof of his mouth, sucking the confectioner's glaze off with his tongue, when a sharp hum running up his spine made him lurch forward, the mint slipping down his throat and making the youth choke. Johnny slapped him on the back, and the mint shot out into a wet lump in the gutter. .
“New to swallowing, are we?”
Peter ignored Johnny's jibe, his eyes on the skyline, scanning the roofs intently for something, anything, out of the ordinary. A cab pulled up, and Jimmy opened the door, sneering impatiently for the boys to hurry up. Peter only snapped back to reality when a flutter of grey wings on the water tower across the street convinced him that he had only seen a pigeon. Johnny slipped into the back seat of the cab, Peter sidling in next to him and slamming the door.

“Shit, that was close.”
The pigeon dropped from the support strut of the water tower onto Wade Wilson's head, and tucked it's neck under it's wing, grooming it's chest. Wade pulled up the red mask covering his mouth, and sucked on the straw sticking out of his milkshake cup, taking a long drag of the drink. He pulled a ringed notepad from one of the pouches on his belt, and flipped it open, scrawling into the page with a bare nub of a pencil.
“Targets acquired, at...”; he squinted up at the sun. “Whenever the one o'clock matinee let's out. I dunno, three-thirty, I guess. Moving to stage two of surveillance.”
He tucked the notepad away, and flipped the top off the milkshake cup with his thumb, upending the icy treat into his mouth and gulping loudly. The pigeon hopped off his head as he stood up, and Wade alley-ooped the cup into a garbage can on the sidewalk below, the cup bouncing off the rim and tumbling inside. “Yes!” he cheered, raising his arms triumphantly, “Bryant makes the net! The Bulls win the Super Bowl!” He hopped around the roof in a jaunty little dance, cupping his hands to his mouth and imitating the roar of an imaginary crowd, while the pigeon bobbed about, picking at the small pile of peanut shells nested around where Wade had sat. Exhausting himself with his antics, Wade Wilson sunk to his haunches, offering a hand to the pigeon, who investigated the proffered fingers, and pecked at them sharply, before shaking it's head and hopping off.
“Oh sure, Percy, you only loved me for my peanuts. Story of my life, y'know. Some bird just bobs on my nuts, gets what they want, and off they fly.” Wade jumped up to his feet, one hand on his chest, his other stretched out to his side, and his head thrown back, singing a tortured rendition of 'Looking For Love {In All The Wrong Places.),” his tone-deaf warbling frightening off the pigeon. Wade stopped singing, watched as Percy vanished in a flutter, and shrugged to himself, “Aw well, I was getting sick of carrying the conversations on my own anyway. You were a great listener, Percy, but your personality is for the birds!” He chuckled, and looked back to the streets, trying to find the cab that his targets had entered.
“Oh shit, I had a job, didn't I?” He slapped his forehead sharply, and swung his feet over the railing to the fire escape, jogging down to the street. “Sweet Monkey Elvis, the boss lady is going to put my balls on a hibachi if I lose those gamooks!”

Wade Wilson ran down the street, bowling over random pedestrians in his frantic pace, for a full half—a-block, before the cold burning in his lungs forced him to lean against a newspaper box, wheezing wetly and trying to form a sputtering string of words.
“Fehshi—you—yeah, y'better—ooh-boy! Need me some cardio after work, I am like a gooey pile of goo. You guys ain't off the hook, we're just bookmarking this shit 'til I can get my Aerobics Trainer Barbie shit together. Once I pull out the onesie and m'legwarmers, you boys are gonna be in the stew, fo'shizzle!”

Max winced as the doctor gingerly touched at his bruised nose.
“Well, the good news is, it can be manually set. You're very lucky, Mister Eisenhardt, it looks like you only cracked your septum. It'll hurt, but it should heal straight. I can give you some nasal spray for the pain and antibiotics to stave off infection, and you'll need to wear a splint for a few weeks, but you can go home today.”
The doctor snapped off her gloves, and nodded to the nurse, who moved in to apply the metal splint over a plaster casting. As she left Max to the nurse's care, Max spotted a middle-aged man in an official looking suit, arm resting above his head on the door frame, a styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand.
Max skimmed over the man with his eyes, turning his head up as the nurse secured the cast on his nose, careful not to let on that he had seen him. Director Duncan shook his head, smirking to himself, as he sauntered in and dragged a seat next to Max, sitting down and taking a sip from his coffee.
“You took a bad header in there, friend. Surprised you're even awake, from the look of the inside of that bank.”
Max winced as the metal brace squeezed down on the bridge of his nose, inhaling wetly through his mouth.
“I was just lucky, I guess.”
The Director chuckled. “Yeah, some luck. If I had luck like yours, I'd be smashing mirrors and walking under ladders all day long just to balance it out.”
The nurse packed up her tools, and left the two men. Duncan reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a packet of nicotine gum, slipping a strip into his mouth. He offered a piece to Max, who shook his head. Nodding in assent, the Director returned the gum to his pocket, and leaned back in his chair. Max moved to stand up, reaching for his coat.
“So...Erik Lensherr, right?”
Max stopped, his arm half-slipped into his coat-sleeve.
“Is there something I can help you with, Detective? You are a detective, I assume, you're not in uniform and clearly you're a police officer.”
Fred smiled. “Well, it's Director, actually. Fred Duncan, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. I just wanted to talk to you away from the madness and circus surrounding the bank.”
Max slipped the rest of his arm into the sleeve, slinging his coat over his back and struggling to contort his other arm inside. “I gave a statement to the officers on scene, Director. Four maniacs walked in, started making demands, that young lady got everyone out but we were interrupted before I could escape, and...did everyone make it out alright? Are they safe?”
The Director sat on the edge of a nearby gurney, sipping at his coffee noisily as Max fumbled for the buttons on his coat. “Yeah, they got out. Janet Pym. Damn, they really robbed the wrong bank, didn't they? Giant-Man's flipping wife. When he finds out, he's going to hit the roof, no pun intended.”
Max, nodded, checking his jacket pockets to make sure nothing was missing or had fallen out. “Yes, she had said something about that, just before everyone else got out.”
The Director shifted on the gurney, putting his coffee cup in his lap. “How is it that you didn't escape with the others, Mr. Lensherr? Everyone else got out, except you. Why is that?”
Max thought briefly of avoiding eye contact with his inquisitor, then thought better of it; there's little more suspicious than a man trying not to be suspicious, he thought. “We were interrupted before the young miss could...'shrink' me. Is that the right term? That is what she did, right? It seems so surreal, to think about it.”
“Yeah, that's what she does. Something about reducing the space between molecules while displacing mass or some such thing. I never did get through any of Pym's papers on how he did what he did. But apparently she was the keystone of his research.”
The Director stepped away from the gurney, killing the last of his coffee and tossing the cup into the furthest recepticle, letting it bounce off the rim of the trash can, before it tumbled inside.
“So your story is, just as you were about to be shrunk down to insect size and escape, one of the robbers waylaid you, and proceeded to give you this horrid beating I see before me, is that it?”
“It's not a story, Director, it's what happened.”
Fred Duncan ran his hand through his greying hair. He turned, and quietly closed the door, making sure it clicked shut. He returned to Max, his eyes twinkling knowingly.
“Oh...I think there's more to it then that...Mr. Eisenhardt.”
It took all of three seconds before Max' real name registered, and for the room to flood with the warm thick head of ozone. A wave of prickling heat swept through Fred Duncan, and he found himself hurled against the furthest wall, his neck prickling sharply as he gasped for air, his feet dangling six inches from the floor. Max approached the Director, his eyes hooded, looking up under his furrowed brow, trying to understand what he was doing, what he was going to do next. He wasn't thinking right now, just reacting; the shock of hearing his name from this man, this man who worked with the people who hunted and killed those like himself, had turned off the rational parts of Max' mind, leaving only fear and instinct. Suddenly, he wasn't in a hospital room in New York anymore; he was back in Budapest, watching his home dissolve into black smoke and screams, as the boots of those he had called friends dug sharply into his ribs. Angry voices screaming, “Mutáns! Szörnyeteg! Ördög!,” “Mutant! Monster! Devil!” as bricks and stones pelted his head. He could still smell the smoke, the ruins of his life, of his...

Max reached out to the Director, who hiccuped and gulped as his throat tightened up.
“No more. I won't let you hurt another family. I won't...”
Max held out his hand, tensing his fingers as if choking the air, and Fred Duncan thrashed desperately at the wall, kicking the air, tears running down his cheeks. His face went red, slowly fading into purple as he choked on nothingness.
Max, for his part, ignored Duncan's hiccuping gasps, only hearing the screams of his children. Lorna, so like her mother, and sweet Anya, so wide-eyed and full of laughter. And the twins, Wanda and...


Peter was waiting for him. Johnny, too. And Moira. The school. The school would need him. Charles had needed him. Had given him a mission, a means to atone for his past failings. But he couldn't do what was asked of him, if he murdered this man before him. He wouldn't be worthy. How could he ever live up to Charles' ideal, if his hands were wet with cold blood?

His fingers relaxed, his hand dropping to his side limply. His mind raced for an escape route – he'd need one quickly if he was to elude the Fantastic Four, who would no doubt be minutes behind him. He couldn't lead them back to the school, that would undo everything, and...

Fred Duncan coughed and sputtered, spraying phlegm onto the floor as he wheezed for air. When the burning in his lungs had passed, he clawed his way to a semi-upright position, leaning on the wall.
“Jesus Christ, what the hell, Max? You tried to fucking kill me!”

Max eyed the nearest window. It was small, too small for him to slip through, but he was certain he could blow the wall out with sufficient force, make his escape that way.

“I mean, didn't Charles tell you?”

Max shot his gaze back to Duncan. Already the window, the escape attempt, was forgotten.
“Charles? What does Charles have to do with this?”

By now the Director was standing on his own, massaging his neck, sucking in deep, wet breaths.
“Shit, he didn't. Alright, I'll tell you, but not here. Come on, I take it you'll need a ride back home.”

Max took a step back. The window reappeared in his mind, the escape route mapping itself out behind his eyes. Duncan frowned, shaking his head.
“Fucking...I'm not going to hurt you, Max. Look, I have a metal gun. Brass-jacketed bullets. Nothing ferromagnetic, but you would be able to slow them down to a crawl, certainly. I'm as good as unarmed, Max. You're more dangerous right now. Jesus.”
Fred rubbed his neck, gulping down air. Max thought for a second. He reached out with his mind, filling the air with a soft buzzing sound and the warm scent of ozone. He could feel a pull on his mind, localized on Duncan's jacket. He closed his eyes and let his mind trace a pattern from the sensation – the button on his trousers, the clip on his tie, the – the steel frame of the hospital beds drew his attention, forming a shapeless haze in his mind's eye. He ignored them, focusing on the Director, and found the gun in his arm holster. Aluminum and steel and little titanium firing pins ignoring Max' pull.
Nothing he couldn't handle. Nothing he couldn't take apart with a thought, or twist into a useless heap, or turn against it's owner, if he were so inclined.
He had the metaphorical high-ground, he held the advantage here.

So he lowered his arm and gave it up. He kept his eyes on Fred Duncan, ready to raise his arm again if he had to, but willing to listen, for now.
“What is this? Who are you?”
The Director shook his head. “Not here. Come on, my car is outside. You're outside the city, right? We'll have time to talk on the drive back to...where did you set up shop again?”
Max squinted at Duncan, who shook his head sharply.
“Right, stupid me. Essex County. Near Lake Placid, right? See, I'm not trying to trick you into giving up your secrets. You...look, we'll go talk to Moira, and she can explain just why the hell she dropped the ball, hm? She was supposed to tell you everything by now.“
“Tell me about what? What is going on here, Director? I want to--”
The nurse came in, and stopped by the door, having hit the wall of tension between the two men. She looked at them suspiciously, setting her clipboard down on a nearby bed.
“ there something wrong here?”
The Director straightened himself upright, and flexed his neck, cleared his throat, and flashed her a charming smile.
“Not at all, Miss. Mister Lensherr and I were just discussing today's events. So much excitement today, with what he's been through and all.”
The nurse arched an eyebrow at Fred, confused. “Right, well --”
Max stepped forward. “Is there anything else you need from me, Nurse? I'd like to get home before dark, and I've got quite a journey ahead of me, yet.”
The nurse looked over the clipboard analytically. “No, nothing more we need. But you should call if you feel nauseous or light-headed, Mister Lensherr. Do you have a ride home? You really shouldn't drive, after the blow you took.”
The Director stepped up, smiling his game show host smile. “And that's what we were talking about before you came in. I was just about to offer to drive Mister Lensherr here to the train station. Shall we go then, Erik?”
Max eyed uncertainly for a moment, then nodded silently, fumbling for the zipper on his jacket.

“This is it?”
Henry Pym's tone was a mixture of disgust and disbelief at the graffiti-smeared parking garage. A stray dog slunk by, vanishing down a nearby alleyway.
“Yes, this is the place. The General's tracker is somewhere in the utility tunnels underneath the ground lot.” The eyes of Victor's facemask glowed pale blue, as his armour's ground-penetrating radar pinged the layout of the concrete beneath the building.
“This the same asshole that kicked your asses in Niganda?”
“Pipe down, Stane. Perhaps if you had been there, we would have had Moses Magnum in custody by now.” Captain America stepped forward, rolling his shoulder, tensing himself up for the coming fight.
“Alright, Hank. You run recon. Victor, walk him through the vents.”
Hank shook a small yellow pill out of a rigid white plastic bottle, holding it to his lips tentatively as he slipped the bottle back onto his belt. “And what if I spot the targets, Steve?”
Steve Rogers glowered at Pym, shaking his head. “Target, Hank. Singular. We're here for the General. But if you spot Magnum, don't engage. He nearly shattered your skull when you were giant-sized; at ant-size, he'd liquify you, and you won't have room in there to fully engage. If you see him, wait for us to breach. See if you can shrink Ross out of there in the chaos, and pull back. We'll mop up whatever's left in there.”
Hank sighed, and swallowed the pill. It tasted foul, bitter and of uric acid and quanine. He winced, and waited. The shrinking pills always took a bit longer than the growth pills, forty-five seconds compared to fifteen. He had tinkered with the formula, tried to find a way to speed up the process, but all he managed to do was toxify himself and make them taste like wood shavings. After a while, he felt the tell-tale tingling, heard the creaking of his bones through his teeth. The world went blurry, then expanded, warping into a surrealistic fish-eye panorama as he looked up at his compatriots, towering over him like monolithic statues of ancient gods. Hank stretched his legs – they always cramped up when he shrank, and broke into an urgent jog for the garages nearest steam vent. After adjusting his goggles, he took a deep breath, and stepped through the slats in the vent, and into the structure's veins.

The interior of the vent system was sweltering and damp, with black mould splattered on the walls and floor. Hank stepped over the bloated remains of what he thought was a mouse, and suddenly the taste of urine and raw rubber filled his mouth, mingled with the greasy heaviness of his own bile. He held back on throwing up, stepping over the mouse's corpse, and thumbed a toggle on his belt, activating a halon floodlamp in the buckle. He clicked a button in his mask, just behind his ear, and a small J-mic unfolded next to his mouth.

“This is Pym, I'm inside. And next time, Stane can do infil. I'll give him a pill, he can see all this crap. The world is not a utopia when you're only a fraction of an inch, gentlemen.”
Stane's voice was a choke in the background, and Steve Rogers' stern authoritarian tone came over.
“Keep on task, Hank. Victor has the layout of the vents.”
Hank then heard Victor von Doom's lilted accent over his earpiece as he stepped forward into the ventilation shaft.
“Alright, Hank, about four feet into the shaft, the vent drops three feet into the lower lot.”
Hank jogged ahead, his beltlight bobbing and peeling back the darkness before him like a curtain. He skidded to a stop on the slick, mildewed aluminum just before the sudden drop.
“Alright, Vic, I see it. I think I can make the drop easily. Might make some noise, though. Where are the fans located?”
“They're spaced every twelve-point-five feet on the lot levels, so you'll have far can you jump, Hank?”
“At this height, maybe four inches. Why?”
“Then you'll have to think of something else. The fan systems are long, much longer than four inches. They take up nearly three parking spaces, so perhaps you can climb the walls? Is that something you do?”
“Something I've been working on, yes. It's not perfect, but if I get a head of steam going, I should be able to 'wallrun' for a while. Where am I going after I pass the fans, Victor?”
Victor's voice faded behind the seismic droning of the fan motors as Hank toggled a switch on his belt, running parallel to the nearest wall and pushing himself up and away along the slick, dusty aluminum facade, sprinting jaggedly along the wall, a stream of blue static crackling behind him in his wake.
“- Twenty-five feet down from there.”
“Could you repeat that, Victor?”
“I said, after the first three fans, take a right, then over another four fans to take you to a circulation vent that leads to the tunnels twenty-five feet down.”
Pym's arms slumped to his sides. Under his breath, he muttered, “I need to finish that flight pack when we get back home. Shit like this is going to kill me.”

While Hank Pym was skimming the insides of ventilation shafts, Steve Rogers and Victor von Doom studied the yellowed building plans of the garage, as Obidiah Stane leaned the gungrey mobile tank he called the Iron Man against the nearest support pillar of the overpass above them.
“So who gets fired for this fustercluck?”
Steve and Victor looked up at Iron Man, who shifted his gaze to the garage.
“I mean, Ross is a big man, right? Military liason to SHIELD, advisor to the President, privy to more secrets than God. Somebody's getting fired for letting him get grabbed, right?”
“Nervous it might be you, Stane?”
Iron Man scoffed at Rogers' dig. “Hey, I offered the higher-ups some state-of-the-art StarkTech security units. They turned me down.”
Victor looked up from the ventplans, rubbing his eyes sorely. “Well naturally, Obi. They probably would have been safer if we gave them blind bodyguards armed with paintball rifles.”
Iron Man shifted in a huff, ignoring Victor's jibe, when Hank's voice came back over the radio.
“Alright, I'm in position, Victor. No guards yet. What did they say this Creel guy's powers were?”
“Molecular mimicry. He becomes whatever he touches.”
“, if he touches concrete, he becomes concrete, right?”
“Keep your eyes open, Hank.” Steve Rogers' voice was rock-solid, without a hint of the tremulation that permeated Hank's. “If Creel is working with Magnum, we don't want to tip our hand here and let him know we're--”
“It's empty, Cap!” Hank's voice was quick and excited.
“What was that, Hank? Please repeat the last call.”
“I said, there's no one here. No Creel, no Magnum, nobod—wait!”
Long seconds stretched past before Hank Pym continued.
“There's a door here, Cap. Heavy, metal. I can fit underneath, I think.”
“Hank, wait for a fiberline. Don't take any unnecessary risks.”
“I got it, thanks Victor. It's dark, but...what? Hang on, there's....oh hell. Oh God Almighty.”
“Hank, what is it? What do you see?”
“Breach! God, send in a medevac team, I found him! I found General Ross!”

The rusted steel door slammed against the cold cement floor of the room with a deafening knell, the thick metal bulging out where Captain America had pushed into it with his shoulder. He stood back to allow the EMTs inside, and they scrambled to General Ross' side. The General was strapped to the wall, his face bloodied and swollen, his left eyes held shut by an ugly purpling bruise and his fingers bent into awkward, crooked angles. A rattling groan slipped from his lips, as the technicians touched his tender and damaged body, getting a read on the extent of his injuries.

“Shit.” One of the technicians breathed, “What kind of animals would do this to someone?”

“How is he?” Steve's voice was soft but resolute.

“They really worked him over, sir. Broken fingers, broken ribs, contusions around the eyes, it looks like they pulled some teeth – who ever these bastards are, they have a torture technician with him.”

“Will he make it?”

The technician looked up at the General's lolling head, as the restraints on his ankles finally gave way to the pry bar pulling them open.

“We'll do everything we can to make sure he does, Captain. Does he have any family?”

Victor spoke up from outside the door. “A daughter, I believe. In New Mexico.”

Ross was pulled away from the wall, slumping forward into the technicians' arms, and lowered gingerly onto the black stretcher, his arms and legs strapped in. Steve took the front holds, a tech the rear, and they hoisted Thaddeus Ross off the floor, and out of the cold, mildewed cellar still ripe with the smell of pain and blood.

The silence in the Director's car was suffocating, with Max tensing his fingers in anticipation of some grand ambush or trap. It wasn't until they had crossed the George Washington Bridge out of the city that he felt he could relax. If the Fantastic Four were going to kill him, they would have done it in the city, make a big spectacle of it to show the world who was really winning the Presidents war against the big, scary exotics.
“You know, we're going to be on the road for a while; this might go easier if we talk to each other, don't you think?”
Max eased his fingers out of the ironclad fist he had balled them into, and sighed, finally exhaling.
“So now will you tell me what the hell is going on?”

The Director grinned. “Damn, Charlie really didn't tell you anything, did he? I was sure he had mentioned me. Us.”

“I hadn't heard from Charles Xavier in over a decade, Director.”

Fred turned his head to Max, stunned. “What? Then how the hell did you get dragged into his Crusade?”

“I read about his death in the paper. They didn't mention him by name, but 'radical exotic terror cell found in Westchester' spelled it out for me. I..I came here to learn for myself if it was true, and...I found a message he had left for me. Asking me to finish his work. To protect what exotics I could and make the world a better place. To show humanity that we're not the monsters they've been told we are.”

The Director shook his head. “Dammit, Chuck. That was him, wasn't it? Always only telling you half the story. I swear, sometimes that man kept secrets just to screw with people.”

Max leaned his head back, staring out the window, watching Fort Lee Park come into view as they crossed the bridge.

“So who are you, Director? How does the Fantastic Four's FBI liason know Charles Xavier?”

“Mutual friends. John and Elaine Grey. Their little girl had a problem; there was a hit-and-run, a young girl died, and their daughter Jeannie saw the whole thing. Poor kid just...I don't know, retreated into herself. I went to give my moral support, and there was this bald guy touching her forehead, like Leonard Nimoy on 'Star Trek.' Damned oddest thing I had ever seen, but Ellie insisted he stay. Not ten minutes later, Jeannie gets up, like nothing's happened, asks for some juice, and curls up in her Daddy's lap, crying.”

Max let a slight smile cross his lips, wiping a small tear from his eye.
“Yeah...that was Charles. That was...god, that was the most-Charles thing he could have done.”

“This was a few years ago, before President Gyrich made it a capital offense to be different. Back when nobody cared if you had powers or not. So, while Ellie is putting Jeannie to bed, we menfolk sit and jaw for a bit, right? And John, he's so grateful he's trying to get Charles to accept a cheque. The Greys, you know, they're not blue-collar like we are, they're old Conneticut money. So John's cheques tend to go overboard on the zeroes. But Charles won't accept it. Says he has enough money. We get to talking, and the subject of politics comes up. Senator Gyrich comes up. All his talk about the 'exotic menace,' about how, 'humanity is being diluted and diminished' just because some folks have powers. Charles sees a problem down the road, if Gyrich ever gets it in his head to make a bid for the White House. So he tells us his plan to build a sanctuary for mutants, with a plan to expand to other exotics if the need arises.”

The Director took a deep breath.

“And that was the first meeting of the Xavier Underground.”

Max sat up, his interest piqued.

“The what?”

“That's what we called our little group. We'd add a few members in the following months, people who saw what Charles did, saw how a demogogue was riling up people against a minority group, saw how people were eating up Gyrich's bullshit. We had doctors, lawyers, tech people. Even a few foreign dignitaries committed to the project. The idea was to build a school where young exotics could learn to control their abilities, with a second function of forming a sort of...well, if I say vigilance committee, it sounds like they were forming a white-hoods-and-tiki-torches hate posse, but the idea was a group of heroes who would protect exotics from normal humans, normal humans from exotics, and basically be a unifying force.”

“Build a wall of us, and they can never tear us down.” Max' voice was small and quiet, and the Director had barely heard him.

“Hm? What was that?”

“Something Charles said to me. In his message. 'Build a wall of us, and they can never tear us down.'”

Fred nodded. “Right. It's still one exotic for every fifty-thousand humans or so. We wanted to create a unified community of mutants, mutates and exotics for defense and support, and a public face to improve exotic-human relations. If people could see exotics doing good, even risking their lives for normal people, they'd at least question Gyrich's racist crap, and that would go a long way to disarming him.”

“In my experience, Director, men like Henry Peter Gyrich do not change their prejudices simply when they are exposed to reason and rationality.”

“The point isn't to change Gyrich, it's to make it harder for him to be an asshole. He's already year two into his first term. If we can just hold out another two years, and if the opposition takes the House in November and lames his duck a bit, someone else can get in, and hopefully start to reverse some of the damage he's done. That's all we have to do.”

Max scoffed. “Right. That's all. In the meantime, how many people will be killed? How many people will your FBI, your friends in SHIELD, hunt down and exterminate?”

The Director gave Max the side-eye, his face stony and grim. “I won't lie, Max, it'll be hard. It's been a hard few years so far. Sometimes I can't believe that Robert Kelly was the moderate.. But that's what the Underground has been doing. You're not the only horse we've been betting on. We've got safehouses around the country. And we had a man in Canada who could get people out to Genosha or Wakanda, until some German lawyer poached him down to New York.”

“Jimmy was one of yours? He never mentioned it. Nobody mentions anything, it seems.”

“He never knew. He was Charles' man, not ours, but he did good work, so we were more than willing to trust him. As far as we know, he's never heard of the Xavier Underground. We just pointed people to him, and he did the rest. We have other people, important people who can help. Hell, Moira was supposed to give you their names, so you wouldn't have to go this mad road alone. Starting a school with your own funds? You do know the government keeps track of all it's schools, how did you expect to open one without them knowing?”

“I-I don't know. I was just...damn, how do they not know already?”

“Because we've been keeping you off their radar. Do you really think they don't have the names of Charles' friends somewhere? You, Moira, his brother?”


“No, not me. I'm an acquaintance of the Greys, and they were referred to a child specialist to treat their daughter for a psychotic episode. Never saw the guy again. And that is true. Any contact Charles and I had was through the Greys. I mean, he had to keep tabs on Jeannie, make sure she didn't have a relapse or anything. My point is, they would have nailed you the minute you touched ground at JFK if it weren't for us.”

“LaGuardia. I landed at LaGuardia. So, who else has been helping me without my knowing? When will I meet them?”

“You'll meet some of them in the next few weeks. As for who they are, it's safer I don't say. But suffice, you'll be changing construction companies. We have a sympathetic company that helped Charles build up that secret facility under his mansion. We're working with some foreign governments to secure funding and technology, too. And we'll be sending recommendations for faculty your way. So, no more travelling for you, you can relax and work on your curriculum.”

“So that's it? I just sit back and let Daddy Warbucks form the Resistance around me?”

“You've got more important things to do than wrestle with Canadian HYDRA agents, Max. Did you hear about Niganda?”

“I've been a bit busy, but I've caught a few snippets here and there. Warlords on the march or something, wasn't it?”

“Warlord, singular. One man. Maybe one man, he might have others, but one man we're certain of. Moses Magnum. Exotic. A walking seismic event. And SHIELD thinks you're working for him. You picked the wrong day to rob the Baxter Building.”

“What? Why would they think something insane like that?”

“Oh, I don't know, maybe because the same day Magnum shit-kicked seventy-five percent of the Fantastic Four, you were busy curb-stomping the other twenty-five? You've got twitchy little geniuses like Henry Pym and Obidiah Stane and Victor von Doom, they see patterns everywhere. They're paid to see patterns everywhere. And your little shopping trip coinciding with their African adventure put you in their pattern. So now they're looking for the magnetic silver fox. They don't have a name, except they're calling you Magneto. Was that you? You came up with that?”

“It was stupid, I panicked, and I couldn't very well give Iron Man my real name.”

“No, it was smart. That's how this war is going to be fought. Give the people symbols, names they can rally around. Do you really think the Fantastic Four would be as popular as they are if people thought of them as Steve, Hank, Vic and Obediah? And the names will give your people something to use when they're in the field, so they don't use they're real names and give away the game.”

“Field? You think I'm going to send children into warzones? I saw what they did to Charles' students. I tripped over their bones. I'm not building an army, Director, I'm building a safe haven.”

“The kids will have to learn how to survive sooner or later, Max. But I do agree. I think Charles rushed ahead, putting his kids in harms way like he did. If he had waited until he had a full staff, adult faculty who could do the field missions, perhaps things would have turned out differently.”

Max stared out the window, watching the trees blur past. The sun had started to set by now, the sky painted a lavender-pink.

It was dark by the time Fred Duncan's town car pulled up to the gutted hospital. It came to a halt in the driveway with a rolling crunch on the loose gravel. Max stared at the lights in the window, numb to his homecoming. Fred killed the engine, and stepped out, just as Moira shot through the front door, down the steps and wrapped her arms around Max' neck, much to his discomfort,

“Where the hell were you? You go off on your own again, you don't call, and I hear there's a bloody bank robbery in town? Where you there, you daft bastard?”

Max stammered for a second when Duncan cleared his throat. Moira turned in his direction, and blinked through the darkness as the headlights to his town car finally died down. Squinting, furrowing her brow, then gasping in realization, she stepped back from Max.

“Fred? Fred Duncan?”

Fred smiled, nodding to her. “Hello, Moira. It's nice to see you again. May I come inside?”

Lavender steam rose up from Fred's mug as Moira poured in the hot water, the tea spoon shifting against the thick ceramic. He thanked her, and stirred in a sugar cube, adding a bit of lemon and leaning back on the white plastic chair in the makeshift office. Camping lanterns lit the room, casting wild and translucent shapes around the room.

“Moira, tell me you're not actually all living here. This place is a construction zone, it can't be safe.”

Moira set her jaw and pursed her lips, trying to hide her anger.

“Aye, well we've had little alternative lately.”

Fred set his cup down, resting his hands in his lap. “You could have called. We're still out there, willing to help out.”

Moira coughed derisively, and replaced the teapot on the camp stove nearby. “You weren't too keen on helping Charles not be murdered.”

“That's hardly fair, Moira. We all mourned Charles and those kids. But the cause is bigger than any one of us. If we had said anything, we'd all be in trouble, and then what happens?”

“You still should have done something. I don't know what, but something. Instead, you prove how bloody useless you lot are. No thank you, Fred, we don't need your brand of 'help' after all.”

Max only stood silent sentry by the window, watching the moon come up over the treeline.

“Yes we do.”

Moira looked up at Max. Something moved in her periphery, and she turned to see Kayla Howlett, Jimmy's wife, leaning against the doorframe, a cup of coffee in her hand.

“Sorry, don't mind me. I just figured, if this is something concerning the school, shouldn't all the faculty be here for this?”

Max turned his head, nodding in agreement. “Where's Jimmy?”

“Out back, chopping wood. I know we don't need it, he knows we don't need it, but it's his zen thing. I don't ask too much about it.”

Moira turned back to Max, maneuvering around the makeshift coffeetable to his side.

“What do you mean, we need his help? Max?”

Max took a deep breath, and hung his head low, brushing his fingers through his hair roughly.

“The Hungarian government killed my account. I should have known something like this would happen, I don't know why I thought...” He sighed, massaging his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
“I didn't think. That's been the problem this whole time. How the hell do you start a school? I have no idea. Is there a book for something like this? A manual somewhere? Moira, I had, at best, a bit over ten grand in my old account. That would have bought, what, one new window? Maybe two? And it doesn't even matter, because Max Eisenhardt was killed in an apartment fire along with his wife and children over a decade ago, as far as the government's concerned.”

He slumped against the wall, staring up at the ceiling for a long while.

“What the hell am I doing?”

Fred drained his tea and stood up.

“Don't go feeling sorry for yourself now, old man. Despite what Moira said, we are here to help. We've got a few investors and charities we can use to help fund the school. As for the rest...we may be able to pull something. Just give it a few weeks. In the meantime, let our company take over the renovations, you get what staff and kids you have already into a hotel or something, and destress. No more bank robberies, no more confrontations with the Fantastic Four, none of that. We'll take care of the heavy lifting for now. You've done enough. More than, I think.”

Max pressed his head against his knees, letting out an exhausted sigh. “So that's it? I do all this, and now I just sit back and let Uncle Moneybags wave his magic wand and finish the race for me?”

“That's just it, Max. You're not running the race. We are. All of us. This isn't your school, it's ours. Everyone's. It's time for us to start carrying our weight, too.”

Max lifted his head, and forced a weak smile. “Yeah...okay, yeah. I think I could use the break, honestly.”

Moira helped Max to his feet, straightening out his shirt. Max took a deep breath, and exhaled through his nose, centering himself. He slowly nodded, and placed his hand on Moira's shoulder. “Okay then. I suppose there's some sort of handshake for me to learn, then? Maybe a secret password to get into the Xavier Underground's clubhouse?”

Duncan chuckled, and offered his hand to Max. “We never got around to that, I'm afraid. You'll just have to settle for a regular handshake for now.”

Max took the proffered hand, and wrung a few good shakes out of it, before breaking contact and slumping sleepily against Moira. “Thank you, Fred. For more than you know.”

“Eh, it's nothing, Max. I'll be by in the morning to introduce you to Dirk and his crew, they'll be fixing the place up for you. And I'll want to meet these kids you have. Peter and John, right? Amazing. Boy survives a space flight. It's an exciting time, Max. An exciting time.”

Kayla offered to escort Fred to his car, and Moira helped the drained Max into his office, where a small cot had been set up. In the morning, he'd start looking for an affordable hotel he could get the boys into. The Howletts would probably prefer to be off on their own for now, but the boys could use some actual beds, and definitely a shower or three, he thought. He drifted off to sleep thinking about just soaking in a tub, letting the water seep all the trouble from his body.

Fred pressed the alarm release on his key fob, and the interior lights of his town car went on, the locking mechanism releasing with an audible 'thunk!' As his fingers hooked into the door latch, Kayla made a small murmuring noise to draw his attention.

“Um...sir, I didn't want to bring this up in front of Max or Moira – they've been good to Jimmy and me so far, and I wouldn't feel right burdening them with our problems. And, I don't know if you heard about Jimmy and me, or our problem, but--”

Fred smiled at her, his eyes wrinkling up like a wizened old turtle. “My dear, I could recite what I know about you and Jimmy, but I fear it may disconcert you how thorough our files are. It's about your daughter, isn't it? Laurie, is her name?”

Kayla was dumbstruck for a second, and an icy shiver shot down her spine. She caughter herself slack-jawed, and swallowed a load of air before continuing. “Laura, sir, yes. She....she was taken. By HYDRA. They tried to force Jimmy to join them, and when he refused, they took her, and did...something to her. Something horrible. She's out there now, all alone, and...”

Fred raised his hand gently, his smile never faltering. “Say no more, my dear. I think I can arrange for some friends to look out for her, maybe steer her this way if they can. HYDRA, hm? Nasty bunch. I always thought Nick should have just nuked that little banana republic they called home.”
Kayla smiled, daubing at the tears in her eyes, and skipped forward to pull Fred into a tight hug.
“Thank you, Mister Duncan.” She pulled away, leaving Fred looking beet red in the face. “Please, though, don't tell Jimmy anything about this. He...he'd insist on getting involved, and as much as I love him, I know him too well. He's reckless when he gets emotional, and he might do something stupid to get himself or Laura hurt.”

“I don't see why that's a problem. I thought your family were all good healers?”

“Not that kind of hurt, I'm afraid.”

Fred nodded, and opened the car door. “You can trust me, my dear, he'll hear nothing from me. But you take care of yourselves, won't you?”

Kayla nodded, and waved as Fred's car backed out and vanished into the darkness of the wooded road. She turned back into the hospital, closed the door behind her, and switched off the front lights.

And within the next ninety seconds, the hospital was dark, it's inhabitants curled into their makeshift beds, giving into dreams of safety and comfort.

General Ross' eyes felt like lead curtains had been drawn over them, his attempts to open them stymied by a soft, warm weight upon his face. He inhaled wetly, feeling the recycled hospital air sting his lungs, and cranked a rusty arm up to his cheeks, fumbling for the gauze tape pulling at his skin. His rough fingers scrabbled at the bandages on his eyes, and he grunted in a panic, forcing himself to sit up like a bolt. He immediately regretted that, as a hot pain ran through his chest, and he spat out a quick moan of pain. He felt around his side, feeling the softness of his ribs, and let out another pained noise. He felt along the back of his hand, to the sharp soreness of the IV line, to his face, the numbness of his lip, the crack in his teeth. He ran his tongue along his gums, and pulled it back when he felt an electric shock, the nerves in his mouth screaming at him as he found the vacant sockets where five teeth used to be.
A nurse, apparently, had heard the anguished sounds from the General's room, and ran to fetch not only the doctor, but the Captain as well. Well, Ross assumed it was the Captain, there were few people who had a voice like Bud Collyer's in this day and age.
“General Ross.” Ross startled and turned his head. An unfamiliar voice. A woman's. French, or Swiss, or...something. “My name is Doctor Karla Sofen. You're safe now. You're in a SHIELD medical facility just outside Utica.”
Ross slumped back into his pillow, exhaling as the pain in his side made itself known again.
“Fuck,” he wheezed, “why the hell in Utica?”
“General, sir, do you remember what happened?”
Ross opened his mouth to speak, and only a cracked whistle came out. Someone fumbled for something, and a smooth, waxy object was brought to his lip. A tickle of wetness fell against his lips, and with a quick dash of his tongue, he determined that it was a paper cup of water. He drained the cup, and it vanished from his presence, disappearing into a metallic echo as he presumed the nurse tossed it in the trash. He rolled the soothing water around his mouth, only to sharply swallow it when it lit his empty gums on fire. It tasted like copper as it went down, and he sputtered out a moist cough, fighting for his composure.
“Yes,” he finally croaked out. “It driver. He, and another man, and...oh god, some sort of freakish thing...d-did you find them?”
“We will, General. You just focus on your recovery. The Director and the President will have some questions for you later, once you're able.”
“Shit. Captain, I didn't tell them anything. They tried. They....those bastards hurt me so badly. But I didn't. I couldn't.”
The Captain rested a hand on the General's arm, and Ross eased back into his pillow, exhaling. “I know, General.”
“Did-did someone call my daughter? She has to know, I'm alright.”
“We'll let her know how you're doing, General. You just get some rest.”
Some heavy footsteps, and the rustling of clothes against skin as the doctor or nurse or both checked Ross' vitals, the scratching of a pen against paper as they made notes for the record. Ross just ignored the sounds, and the prodding, and the invasive use of tools to gauge his heartrate and BP and respiration and various other motes of medical jargon he didn't understand and didn't care to regard, and slipped back to sleep as a fresh shot of sedative ran through his IV line.

Just before the warm, heavy darkness took her, underneath the ghostly memories of the military, of losing his wife and finding strength in his daughter, underneath the thoughts and quirks of what made Thaddeus Ross, Thaddeus Ross, Raven Darkholme laughed.

Next time: Construction on the school finally begins in earnest, if an unexpected visitor doesn't demolish the hospital in the meantime; Max finally starts to see to his true responsibilities; and Magnum's plans begin to come into focus.
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