"It's not your fault, chere. You don' have x-ray vision, no?" He smiled, eyes burning in a swirling mist of black and red. "We go back an' get Betsy to track her down for us."
"Ah guess… It was just mighty strange o' her. Ah'm worried." Rogue looked out over the city and sighed. New York at night… It was almost romantic. She gritted her teeth and berated herself for thinking that, especially alone with him. Thoughts like that were dangerous. She turned around and said, "Well, ah guess we'd better go, shugah, or Bishop and Betsy'll be gettin' anxious."
"Those two be anxious from de moment they wake up in de mornin' to de moment they go t'sleep at night, Roguey. No need to be hurryin'," he replied. Remy strode smoothly toward her, gazing at New York beneath them. "Belle nuit, belle dame… I'm a lucky man, mon chere."
"Remy… Ah…" she stumbled over her words, nervously backing away. It was either back or forward, and she knew she couldn't go that way. Gambit smiled at her, warmly, she thought, but she could never really tell what he was thinking.
There was a flash of light, and a crackle of energy, and Gambit was flying towards her, the back of his long trench coat blackened and burned. She cried his name, and set him gently on the ground. Rogue looked up and saw Bishop towering over her, his plasma rifle still smoking.
"LeBeau…" he growled, raising his weapon for a second shot. Rogue stood, blocking his aim to Remy. "Out of the way, girl. I do this for your future!" he cried, and fired several times over her shoulder. She turned to see a large smoke stack begin to topple towards Gambit's unconscious form. As she turned to catch it, she felt another three blasts in her back. Rogue was nearly invulnerable, and the bolts hit her like minor annoyances while she saved Gambit.
"Heh." Rogue turned and saw Bishop grinning. Bishop never grinned. Something was very wrong. "I suppose a change of tactics is in order, eh, Rogue? Ah, well." He smiled and stood still.
"Ah'll change your tactics, you sonuva.." began Rogue, and she was cut off by a blow to the back of her head. She glanced upwards and saw herself diving down at her. Gambit and Psylocke were picking up Gambit, and Shadowcat and Bishop appeared to be moving in to assist herself with her. She had no time to wonder what was going on before her double was upon her. A flip sent Horde sprawling, but given Rogue's power of flight, it did little but buy her time. Rogue herself shot immediately into the air. Bishop's plasma rifle fired at her, but she dodged most of the bolts, and what hit her did little damage. She was more concerned with Psylocke and Gambit's duplicates hauling away Remy.
Suddenly he was moving, his staff extended, and he struck Psylocke's face hard enough to knock her down. Before Gambit-Horde could react, Remy had side-kicked him in the stomach, and hurled three of a kind at Bishop. Bishop was blown back, but Rogue knew Remy's element of surprise wouldn't last long. None of hiss opponents were out yet, and while playing possum could get you a momentary advantage, against those numbers Gambit couldn't hold out. She wanted desperately to help him, but she had her own problems, as a yellow and green missile proved when it knocked her through the fourteenth floor of the apartment building to her right.
"Don't let your boyfriend distract you, 'Sugar'," said Keretos. He smiled, and knocked her through a wall. "You're both mine."
Shadowcat, Psylocke, and Bishop heard the sounds of battle, and desperately made their way to the top of the building. Thanks to Shadowcat's intangibility, extended to her companions, the going was easy, but not quick enough for their tastes. As they plunged through the ceiling to the roof they saw Gambit being overwhelmed by another Gambit and a second Psylocke, with Bishop's double picking himself up off the ground and the false Shadowcat running to join them. Rematerializing, Bishop began firing at Keretos's Psylocke, who fell to the ground, but Remy was decked by his doppelganger. As Horde-Bishop picked himself up, he attacked Shadowcat. Kitty phased, but was set up for her own double, as Psylocke attacked the triumphant Gambit duplicate. Confusion and chaos ruled the battlefield.
Slightly over a mile away Phoenix watched the screens, felt the battle in her head, and stood. "We're going to help them, they're in trouble."
Storm nodded, rising. "Jean it is best that you stay behind to coordinate. Your telepathic powers will serve us best when you are not under fire."
"I'm going, Ororo, I'm not incapable." It was true; Phoenix was perhaps the most powerful of them all. Baby or not, her telekinetic power could be a vital asset in battle, and by the looks of things they could use all the help they could get. Storm sighed at her, and nodded, smiling.
"Logan always said you were the only one of us who could match his fire… I suppose trying to stifle it would only make matters worse." She punched a button and the Blackbird's door opened. "I will aid those on the rooftop. Jean, you and Robert will help Cyclops's team. Good luck." She nodded to them both, and rode out of the jet on a gust of wind. Iceman followed, his body converting to a form of solid ice as he rode out the window on an elaborate slide of frozen moisture. Phoenix brought up the rear, held aloft on telekinetic power, and the Blackbird, now empty, hid itself in the New York night.
"My, my… someone's impersonation of the fierce and feral Wolverine could use some work," said the Beast, knocking away a clawed hand without much effort, "I realized you were an imposter from your first weak attempt at a growl." He leapt back, avoiding another swipe from the claws.
"I never claimed to be an actor. Unfortunately for you, while I may not have gotten your friend's mastery of the threatening 'Grrr', I did get his skill, his experience…" he was cut off by a blue-furred foot to the jaw.
"But apparently not his appreciation for blessed silence." McCoy grinned, and followed up the kick with a backhand that spun Keretos like a top. "I can hardly cast aspersions, of course, I've been known to indulge my loquacity during battle from time to time." Diving forward, he grasped both of Horde's wrists, preventing the use of his claws. Given Logan's form, Keretos was strong, very strong, but the Beast had a grip as unyielding as a titanium mule. His fists didn't save him from a kick to the stomach, though. With a grunt Beast picked Horde up, dangling him from his wrists, and stared him harshly in the eye. "I would greatly appreciate it if you would refrain from doing that again. It is impolite, and, frankly, the good will I've granted you thus far is wearing thin." His face suddenly went from grim to grinning. "If you'd prefer, I could hand you to Kurt. He's juggling 'Cyclops' right now."
"No thanks, I'll make do with what I have." He brought a knee up into Hank's face, and fell to the ground as Beast recoiled. He lashed out with his claws, grazing the swiftly moving Beast's skin and drawing a trickle of blood.
Hank grimaced, dodging the next blow, and sighed audibly. "Well, sweet mercy must give way to bitter expedience at some point, I suppose." He back-flipped to a wall, barely aware of the scratches on his chest. "Forgive my imminent brutish behavior in advance, if you would." Bouncing off, he landed behind his opponent. Keretos turned, and as he whirled his claws around, Beast ducked, and brought his fist up in an uppercut that sent Horde flying fifteen feet skyward, stopped only by hitting the wall behind him. He fell to the ground, cracked pieces of brick showering down on him, and was still.
Behind McCoy, the true Wolverine was facing almost as much difficulty as his double. NightCrawler's duplicate was infuriatingly hard to tag, flipping out of the way or teleporting every time he made the slightest attack. At least, though, "Kurt" had learned that you couldn't stop adamantium claws with a steel sword. He glanced down at the neatly cut pieces of Kurt's first blade that lay on the ground, as he searched for his elusive quarry.
"Tag!" cried Keretos, slicing into Logan's arm with his remaining sword, and teleporting away. He called from the distance. "Get it? Tag? German for hello? While I tagged you?" He suddenly got a blank look on his face, "Lord, do I have to inherit his sense of humor as well?" He teleported around Logan, slashing at him again. The wounds hurt, and they slowed him down, but Wolverine was not one to be stopped by anything short of unconsciousness. His healing factor began knitting his flesh together, stopping the blood flow in seconds and beginning to fully close the wounds. In minutes he would be fine… If he had minutes.
As Keretos came around for another attack, organic metal darts pierced him, cutting him down like wheat before a thresher. Logan looked up, and saw Archangel hovering above him. If Logan's battle hadn't been going well, and from the state of his costume, bloodied and nearly shredded, it hadn't, Warren's had gone worse. He was unsteady in the air, as though only half awake, and one side of his face was a mask of bruises, one arm hung limp, there were four parallel gashes along his side… And there was blood on his wings.
"What the flaming hell happened to you?" asked Wolverine. He winced as Archangel spoke, blood from a burst lip trickling down his chin.
"Hank's duplicate wasn't easy quarry, Logan. I might've been finished if the real McCoy hadn't stepped in. Kurt… Kurt's down, he's hurt, I don't know how badly. Keretos finally managed to blast him." A beam of crimson energy struck Wolverine down where he stood.
"Guess who's next?" came Scott's voice from the darkness. Logan slowly got to his feet, even as Warren unleashed his flechettes on the emerging Horde. They were blasted from the sky, and Archangel very nearly went with them. Logan ran forward, snarling, and was blown back. "I'll offer you both one chance to surrender, I would much prefer to take you alive."
Logan roared, and Warren screamed defiance, but both were drowned by a sudden roll of thunder. On the battlefield, seven men looked to the sky, and three others began to stir as rain splashed on their faces.
Clouds blotted out the moon and the stars, darkening the already near blackness of the early morning hours. Rain fell in unbroken veils of water, and lightning lit the sky like a fireworks display. The wind howled like an invisible wolf, nearly lifting Horde and X-Man alike off their feet. Storm had arrived, and no man would stand against her power.
Elsewhere, rain turned to hail, pelting Keretos to the ground. While he had adopted Bishop's ability to absorb energy, that did little to protect him from the needle-like ice that he found himself bombarded with. His Gambit form was doing no better, encased in solid ice from the neck down… And neither had ever gotten the chance to touch Iceman before they were stopped. Psylocke had been easily contained by Phoenix, her ninjitsu no match for telekinesis, and any telepathic battle that may have taken place was won so quickly by Phoenix that it barely seemed to have happened at all. If they had any hope remaining of matching the X-Men's power, it was in ShadowCat.
The two Kitty Prydes fought, even as the other Hordes were brought under rein. Neither Iceman nor Phoenix could touch a phased person, they were more or less helpless to aid their friend. Bishop stood, grimly watching the three prisoners, plasma rifle raised in readiness, while Psylocke tended to the wounded Gambit.
"Hold on," said Iceman, glancing around. "Where's Rogue? She was with you?"
A scream of rage and the sound of smashing concrete answered his question, and the two Rogues battled over the New York skyline. Of all the battles, theirs had been the most obvious, and the most destructive; the police had to be on their way by now. Iceman raced towards them, his ice slide arcing high over the towering buildings, but a stray blow form Keretos reduced his slide to so many ice-cubes, and it was all he could do to save himself from the same fate. Rogue gaped, breathing only when she saw Drake had created another slide, and was retreating to safety. Gritting her teeth, she redoubled her efforts, pushing Horde back, landing blow after blow to her startled opponent. She teetered just on the edge of victory.
Keretos sighed. "Remember you made me do this," he said, and took off a glove.
A mile away, Storm watched five figures scream and wondered why… She hadn't done anything to them yet.
On the rooftop, Phoenix felt a wave of pain and fury emanate from her captives as they wailed at the top of their lungs.
Standing atop a skyscraper, Keretos felt his life drain from his body, and collapsed in an unconscious heap.
In the air, Horde touched Rogue, their powers creating an unending circuit, each one taking the memories, the minds, the wills of the other, draining them dry. They screamed in unison… and abruptly stopped. Keretos disappeared, and Rogue plunged to the pavement.
Phoenix found herself watching empty blocks of ice, and she saw Gambit leap up.
"Rogue…" he breathed, still disoriented. "ROGUE!" He leaped over the side of the building, climbing down a fire escape as quickly as he could without killing himself at the bottom. In seconds he was at Rogue's side, picking her up out of a small crater in the street. He felt her pulse, and checked her breathing, but whatever the results his expression didn't change.
"Remy..?" said Iceman, the next to reach the street.
"She breathin', Bobby… Get us to de Blackbird." Gambit held her gently, head bowed. Bobby heard him mumble something he thought might be a prayer, and started sliding them swiftly towards the plane.
"Cliché as it is," said Beast, "There is nothing medically wrong with her." It was the next afternoon, and all the X-Men were waiting anxiously to hear of Rogue's condition. They were grouped together just outside his medical lab, everyone sitting or standing in a semicircle around the door. The space was cramped, but they managed. McCoy put his glasses in his lab coat… He didn't need them, after all, he just liked the effect. "This is purely a problem of the mind. To that end, I now release the patient to examination by the beautiful Ms. Grey-Summers." He smiled, trying to keep everyone's spirits higher than they had any right to be.
"I- I've tried, Hank…" Jean's pain showed in her face, "I don't know what it is… She's there, somewhere, but everything is mixed, jumbled. Her psyche is churned up, and I don't even know how much of it is hers and how much of it is Keretos's." Horde had been found hours earlier by NYC police. He was currently in transport to the vault, as comatose as Rogue was. "I'm going to need time to know what I can do for her. Because of that, and for other reasons…" her hand unconsciously went to her stomach, "I'm going to be withdrawing from field duty." She sighed. She was still useful, she knew that, but with Rogue…
"Jean, I have something I'd like to say," interjected Cyclops. He strode to the front of the room, and looked at his team.
"We had problems last night. That was a shambles. I tried to take too much on myself, commanding thirteen X-Men into battle… There were just too many of us, and we all suffered for it. No organization, no teamwork, all because of no real leadership."
Sitting with Kitty, Ororo breathed a sigh of relief. Talking to Scott might not be so hard after all. If he recognized the problems, it was just a matter of fixing them.
"There's only one thing we can do. We have to pare down the team, I want to bring the field roster down to seven. One cohesive team… One I can lead without the mistakes of last night."
Storm's jaw dropped. One HE could lead? She could not believe it… But she remained silent. It was his team; the X-Men were his… but that did not mean he was right. Ororo shut her mouth with a snap, and considered this.
"Jean, Hank, if I could talk to you in the War Room in five minutes..? We have things to discuss."
Scott marched out of the room, Jean following directly, while Hank took a minute to talk to Bobby and Warren before going. The rest filed out one by one… leaving Storm sitting alone. She stood, infuriated by the arrogance of that man, not even inviting her along with Jean and Hank. "Goddess…" she whispered, "I will not be shuffled to the side, not even by Scott." Regal even in her anger, Ororo strode out of the room to think in her garden.
On the other side of the continent there was a city. A city of neon lights and rolling dice, a city where you could find high paying work in all the professions there were laws against. The one that appealed to the small, red-haired young man standing just inside the doors of the Luxor was assassination. His white suit stood out, even in the brightly lighted entrance room, as did the manic grin on his face. Another man approached, taller, and older.
"Do you care to gamble?" the tall man asked casually as he looked out onto the street. The words had been chosen carefully, and whispered over a secured phone line two days before.
"Nope," replied the smaller figure, "I prefer pinball." The tall man smiled, and nodded in comprehension.
"This way, sir," he said, and turned to lead the little man through the casino. They came to a set of stairs, leading to a tunnel of bright lights, odd shapes, and eerie sounds. Without another word, they stepped into the Arcade.