The world has been ravaged by the Legacy Virus. Over 300 million people are dead. Civilization came painfully close to the brink. Then in the darkest of hours, the X-men pulled through. They stopped the virus and the madman behind it. Now a long and bittersweet recovery can begin.
In the midst of the destruction wrought by the Legacy Virus, an embittered Mystique confronted a painful revelations. Her world was forever changed when Sinister revealed that her real name isn’t Raven Darkholm. It’s Rose. She once had an identity to call her own even when she was deceiving others. She was also the woman who once saved a pre-Weapon X Logan from turning into a monster. As someone who has lived a life full of lies, this singular truth has reshaped her perceptions.
After the events of the Legacy Virus, Mystique left Wolverine and the X-men behind. Her missions surrounding Irene, Azazel, and her family have been put on hold. She remains in seclusion while the world around her recovered. She now must come to grip with a new reality. The question remains whether she’ll face it as Mystique or as Rose.
Chicago – Mariott Hotel
Identity is a difficult concept to grasp. It’s easy to take it for granted. Most people don’t have to worry about the things that constitute their identity. Mystique used to brush such worries aside because her identity was fluid. She could literally become anybody she wanted. Yet at the end of the day she still had her basil blue-skinned, yellow-eyed form. It wasn’t an identity as much it was a transition form.
That all changed when Sinister revealed the truth about who she was. It turns out she did have an identity. It was Rose, a red-haired woman who seemed to have a heart on top of the battle-hardened survivor that made her who she was. Ever since she learned of this identity, Mystique had been struggling to make sense of it.
‘Who am I really? Raven? Rose? Both? Why can’t I figure it out?!’
This struggle lasted longer than she anticipated. It had been over a month since she left Wolverine and the X-men. In that time she hadn’t contacted anybody. She didn’t get in touch with her kids or call Irene. Right now, she needed clarity. So for a while she just traveled about, trying to find some sense of being. Somehow she ended up in Chicago where she had been living out of a hotel suite for the past four days. Much of her time was spent standing naked in front of a mirror, going back and forth between Raven and Rose.
‘Does it make a difference? Am I really the same arrogant bitch whether I walk down the street as Rose or Raven?’
She wasn’t getting anywhere. Just wallowing over her uncertain identity was only making her more bitter. Closing her eyes, she clenched her fists in frustration. When she opened them again she found that her form had settled on Rose.
“It could be worse I suppose,” she sighed.
It was not an unflattering form. Rose was a beautiful woman. She had a strong, mature poise in addition to a fit, shapely body. This was how she looked on that fateful night in the cabin where she and Logan were attacked. She had not lived in this body in a long time. Now that she remembered, the elements of that life were coming back to her. But so far, she hadn’t embraced them.
“Guess there’s only one way to find out which works best.”
Mystique shifted some clothes over Rose’s body. She kept is simple, forming a pair of dark blue jeans and a tight-fitting black shirt that showed off her mid-drift. It was not unlike what she wore in her blue form, but this was more casual. This was something she could walk down the street in and not turn heads. Once dressed she put on a pair of boots and stepped out of her room. For the first time, she was going to venture out into the world as Rose instead of Raven.
“Here goes nothing.”
Hotel Ground Floor
Mystique stepped out of the elevator as Rose for her first round of human interaction. It was the middle of a sunny day so there was some activity in the lobby. Life was slowly getting back on track after the Legacy Virus and the hotel seemed moderately busyy. Usually when Mystique was walking through crowds, she had to be tactful. That’s because she often had to take the shape of someone else and maintain that identity. In this form she looked as normal as any other middle-aged woman and for once, that identity belonged to her.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. How are you today?” said one of the bell-hops.
Mystique was startled by this innocent comment. It was jarring, hearing something so friendly in an identity she hadn’t stolen. She tried not to come off as too awkward when she responded.
“I…I’m fine,” she said with a slight stammer.
“You sure? You look like a snake just jumped out at you,” he said in a humored tone.
“It’s nothing. Just…restless, that’s all.”
Mystique walked passed the man, who shrugged her response off and went back to work. She made her way through a lounge, which was occupied by some people sitting at a bar watching TV. She didn’t turn any heads or start a commotion. She didn’t try to deceive them either. She just acted like herself for once and that was enough.
She walked a bit faster towards the lobby, hoping fresh air might do her some good. She passed by a line near the front desk and turned around a corner that led to the front doors. As she did she ran right into a middle-aged man trying to carry three heavy suitcases. He ended up dropping all of them with one popping open and spilling his clothes all over the floor.
“Umf! Watch where you’re…” began Mystique.
“Sorry! Sorry! My fault!” said the man quickly as he bent over to pick up his stuff, “I knew I shouldn’t have been cheap and tried to carry this stuff up on my own!”
Mystique fumed with her usual irritability, but the man was too sincere to get mad at. She watched for a moment as he stuffed his clothes back into his overstuffed suitcase. While she usually didn’t linger, Mystique rolled her eyes and lent a hand. For once, she wasn’t on a mission. She could afford to be less of a bitch.
“It’s bound to happen every time you over-pack, huh? You realize just how cluttered your life really is,” said the man in good humor.
“So it would seem,” said Mystique flatly.
“Thanks for not holding it against me. I don’t travel often as you can see,” he said as he stuffed several pairs of underwear back in his case.
“Consider yourself lucky. It’s quite overrated,” she replied as she helped him up.
“Again, sorry you had to handle my unmentionables. Can I uh…make it up to you? Maybe a drink or two?”
Mystique looked at the man strangely. Was he flirting with her? He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring so she assumed he was single. It wasn’t like she hadn’t garnered that kind of attention before. But most of those other times involved deception. This was different. The shape shifter actually felt awkward, cracking a bit of a smile before responding.
“That’s not necessary,” she told him, “I need to get going anyways.”
“Fair enough,” he shrugged, “I’ll try not to run into you again. At least not with three overstuffed bags in my arms.”
“I appreciate that.”
The man left with all his bulky bags in hand. Mystique remained still, processing what just happened. It was such a menial exchange, but it felt so raw. There was no deception this time. Everything was completely honest. Two people were totally nice to her without her having to deceive them. Even for a bitter woman like her, it was pretty jarring.
‘Interesting…I don’t feel the urge to curse the human race. I need to find out if this is a trend or just luck.’
Mystique made her leave from the hotel. She had no direction in mind. This was just a simple stroll through the city. She was going to be herself for once and see where it took her, hoping that she would find the answers she was looking for along the way.
Upon walking through the front doors, a lone figure who had been sitting at the lounge looked up from his paper. He was wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap, light khakis, a white shirt, and a dark jacket. There was no expression on his face. He set aside the paper and rose up, moving mechanically as if every step was ordered by a computer. As he made his way towards the front door, he took out a cell phone and made a call.
“She’s on the move again. I’ll keep tracking her. If I see an opportunity, I’ll take it.”
“Be sure that you do, Agent Zero. Proceed with caution. This target has a reputation for being devious.”
The city was fairly lively in the early afternoon hours of a typical weekday. The weather was nice so there were plenty of people out and about, walking the busy streets and weaving through traffic. It was remarkable how things could get back to normal after an event as devastating as the Legacy Virus. While over 300 million people were dead, there were still several billion perfectly healthy souls utterly consumed with matters of everyday life.
Mystique navigated this crowd, still feeling a bit exposed. She was so used to treating crowds as an obstacle. Even a casual stroll had to be done with tact so she wouldn’t arouse suspicion. Being Rose made her just another face in a sea of people. Within this chaos she wasn’t a mutant, a mercenary, an or assassin. She was almost painfully normal.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!”
“Taxi! Damn it, I know you can hear me!”
“Anybody got a buck they can spare?”
These were all the normal sounds of the city. Mystique never took time to appreciate them. She was always too focused on her next mission or maintaining her cover. But as Rose she could walk down the street, be at peace, and not have to deceive anyone. It was a feeling that took some getting used to.
She kept on walking, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. It was hard to imagine that not long ago this city, like every other, was a war zone. The Legacy Virus brought everyone to the brink and much to her dismay, she helped the man behind it. While she also helped the X-men stop him, it was a heavy burden among many weighing her down. Old habits would have her become more embittered and angry. So for the sake of her sanity, she tried a new approach.
At one point Mystique felt a rumble in her stomach. Her mind had been racing so much she forgot she hadn’t eaten today. Looking around, the closest source of food was a small hot-dog stand parked along the side of the street. Without really thinking, she walked up to it and was greeted by a friendly vendor.
“What’ll you have, missy?” he asked her.
“Two please. With extra relish,” said Mystique as she retrieved some bills from her pocket.
“Ah, you got good tastes!” grinned the vendor, “I make my own relish every day. I dare you to find some that’s as good as this!”
Mystique only offered a half-grin to the man as he assembled two hot dogs. He scooped on extra relish as requested before proudly presenting them to her. It was the third time someone was friendly with her. This was going beyond surreal and entering the realm of the bizarre.
While these conflicts were swirling around in her head, Mystique bit into one of the hot dogs. To her surprise, the man wasn’t boasting. The relish was pretty good. It definitely didn’t come pre-packaged. It wasn’t like she hadn’t had cheap food like this before. However, this was the first time she really enjoyed it on her own accord.
“I take it by that look on your face it’s pretty damn good,” said the vendor proudly.
“Yes…it is,” Mystique responded, “Thank you.”
“Anytime!” said the man, “Tell your friends! They want good relish, they gotta come to me!”
Mystique smiled, avoiding her usual inclination to make a crass remark. There was nothing to be cynical about this time. These were just honest, friendly exchanges. Being so friendly was a new feeling and already it was growing on her.
She resumed her walk through the downtown area, eating both her hot dogs along the way. She still had no destination in mind and it seemed to be working for her. She wasn’t picking fights or making enemies. She was being herself and it was bringing unexpected yet pleasant results.
‘If this keeps up I may just have some faith in humanity again. I probably shouldn’t get ahead of myself. There are any number of ways this can go horribly wrong. But until that happens, I might as well enjoy it.’
The shape-shifter kept walking, heading away from the business area and towards one of the high end shopping districts. If she was going to combat her innate bitterness at the world, it couldn’t hurt to spoil herself somewhat.
About half a block away, the innocuously dressed Agent Zero continued tracking her. He kept his distance, making sure that he didn’t drop any hints to the battle-hardened Mystique. He followed his mission protocols precisely, weaving through the crowds in a mechanical manner. It was so mechanical at times that he bumped into people.
“Hey! Watch it, pal!” said one disgruntled old man who he nearly shoved aside.
Agent Zero kept walking, only to bump into someone else. This time it was a young man and his girlfriend. He caused the woman to drop her shopping bags.
“Ow! What’s your problem, jackass?!” said the woman as she picked up her bags.
Agent Zero still didn’t respond, his expression remaining as stoic as a statue.
“Hey buddy! The lady asked you a question!” said the man as he grabbed Zero’s arm.
“Please leave,” said Zero in a voice that sounded like it came from a computer.
“I’ll leave when you show some common courtesy and apologize to my lady friend here!”
Zero tried to shake off the man’s grip. He wasn’t moving. With his target still on the move, he didn’t have time for this. Agent Zero initiated one of his backup protocols and forcefully shove the man away with enhanced strength.
“Ow! Who do you think you…” began the man.
Then Agent Zero silenced him by lightly opening his jacked to reveal one of his guns. As soon as the man saw this, he froze and so did the girlfriend.
“Please leave,” said Zero in the same flat tone.
“Okay…okay, I get it. We’ll go,” said the man.
“Creep,” the woman said under her breath.
The man scorned his girlfriend, but Zero barely heard her. As soon as the man and his girlfriend backed off, he resumed his primary mission protocols. Mystique wasn’t out of sight yet. She also wasn’t in a position for him to make a move. His orders were strict. He would track Mystique for as long as it took. When all the right parameters were in place, he would strike.
Downtown Chicago – Macy’s
Mystique walked for another half-hour through the downtown area. She eventually found herself in a store, browsing merchandise like any ordinary person. She didn’t plan on doing any shopping. For her, it was somewhat redundant because she could shift whatever clothes she needed. However, if she was going to practice being normal she might as well do normal things.
She wandered aimlessly through the store. It was as crowded as one would expect for the middle of the day. She lingered around the perfume and cosmetic section. Then she made her way to the shoe section. While she could shift clothes, shoes were a bit more difficult. It had been a while since she just went out and shopped for herself. She forgot how good it felt.
‘I’m a woman who can’t find peace shopping. This must be a first.’
Growing frustrated, Mystique walked past the shoe section and towards the area where some of the nicer dresses were on display. She usually didn’t wear dresses unless she was undercover. That often took the thrill out of dressing up so she started browsing some of the clothes on display.
One was a nice, elegant blue dress that was very close to the shade of her blue skin. Another was a shorter dark dress that looked a bit snug, but still quite stunning and not obscenely overpriced. This was the kind of stuff normal women with some disposable income wore. She had taken her share of chances since she began this little experiment as Rose. It couldn’t hurt to take another. While she was looking through the racks, a young sales woman couldn’t have been older than Rogue walked up to her.
“Hi there! Need any help, Miss?” she said in an overly chipper voice, “I see you’ve found some of our latest imports and I must say I like your tastes!”
Mystique was about to shoe the girl away, but then remembered her previous encounters with random strangers. Instead of pushing people aside, she decided to humor this girl and see where it went.
“Um…thanks,” said the shape shifter, once again trying to be casual, “I guess I could use some help. It’s actually been a while since I bought myself a nice dress.”
“Great! You’re in luck! Dress is where I’m at my best!” she said proudly, “I’m Louise, by the way. What’s your name?”
Mystique hesitated a bit. It was such a simple question, but the answer or lack thereof was the whole point of this little test. Without coming off as too awkward, she blurted out the name that felt most appropriate.
“Rose,” she said.
“Nice to meet you, Rose! That’s a nice name. And I think I know just the dress to go along with it!”
With energy that surprised the shape-shifter, Louise led her to a nearby rack where she started sifting through racks of merchandise. She was pretty enthusiastic over something as basic as clothes. But if nothing else, this girl could provide some nice insight.
“Now if you don’t mind me asking, what sort of use do you hope to get out of a new dress?” asked Louise.
“Use?” questioned Mystique.
“Like what do you want to get out of it? Is it for a party? Is it for business? Or is it just one of those buying-for-the-sake-of-buying occasions?”
“Well when you put it like that, I’m not entirely sure,” the shape-shifter replied, “I’m not the partying type and I’ve done enough business-related shopping for several lifetimes.”
“Really? What kind of business would that be?”
Mystique had to hold her tongue again. She could have easily lied, but part of this ordeal was to avoid deception. So instead she opted for a half-truth.
“The kind that requires a lot of traveling and little room for anything casual,” she answered.
“Ah, say no more! My best friend’s mom has a job like that. She has to have a dress for every country and every time zone. It’s nice to see the world, but it’s a total drag if you wanna enjoy your own sense of style.”
“Maybe she’s also a highly trained mercenary,” said Mystique under her breath.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” said the shape shifter quickly, hoping to avoid an awkward moment, “So what is this dress you say is so perfect?”
Louise sifted through a few more rows before finally locating what she had been looking for. With an enthused grin, she pulled it off the rack and held it up for Mystique to see.
“Here it is!” she said proudly, “I personally unpacked this little number a few hours ago. It has the perfect cotton-silk blend and the design is to die for!”
“Sounds fancy,” said Mystique somewhat skeptically.
“That’s why it’s so great! It sounds fancy, but it’s not some overpriced import. It’s still casual enough to buy at a place like Macy’s and still look fabulous!”
Mystique looked the dress over. While she didn’t share Louis’s enthusiasm, she did see some merit to her claim. It really was a nice dress. It was dark red, not unlike her hair. It didn’t appear to light or wavy. There were some nice embroiders around the chest area that helped make it look more upscale than it really was. It was a far cry from the more extreme dresses she wore in the past. Yet in some ways that was part of what made it so appealing.
“Hmm…it does look quite nice,” she said.
“So why don’t you try it on? Come with me! I’ll help you!”
Louise wasn’t going to take no for an answer with this level of enthusiasm. So Mystique didn’t bother resisting and followed her to the dressing room. This girl was making a big deal out of something as simple as a dress. Given the overly serious issues she dealt with on a regular basis, it seemed obnoxious. It was also a reprieve of sorts, focusing on more trivial matters than the life-and-death struggles of a shape-shifting mercenary.
“If you need a different size, let me know! I’m sure we have others in the back,” said Louise as she rushed Mystique into a dressing room.
“This should be okay,” assured Mystique.
“You sure? I’m usually pretty good at eyeballing someone’s size, but my record isn’t perfect.”
“That’s okay. I trust your judgment.”
The shape-shifter almost laughed upon hearing those words come from her mouth. She hardly trusted anybody, even when it came to the littlest of things. It was part of what made her such so anti-social and bitter. Her own children could certainly attest to that. Another part of this process was learning to trust again now that she had an identity. Trust from her kids was something that would take time. She might as well start with something small and trusting a total stranger at a clothing store seemed as good a place as any.
Once in the dressing room, Mystique slipped into a booth so she could put on the dress. As soon as she was certain that Louise wasn’t looking, she shifted out of her shirt and pants so that she was only in a simple pair of bra and panties. She then carefully slipped into the dress. Her trust in Louise’s judgment seemed to be well-placed. Not only did she get her size right, but it looked quite nice on her. She smoothed out the wrinkles and adjusted it a bit so that it was more comfortable.
‘Hmm…that girl was right. This actually looks pretty nice.’
Looking at herself in the mirror, she smiled. She looked normal without the use of deception. There was something very liberating about that feeling. It was true beauty, something she hadn’t experienced in a long time. When she walked out of the dressing room to show Louise, she beamed with even more enthusiasm.
“I think that’s a fitting assessment,” said Mystique as she posed for the mirrors a bit, “You were right. This is perfect. It feels casual without being cheap.”
“And you fill it so perfectly!” said Louise as she helped smooth out a few more wrinkles, “Definitely goes with your style. You’ve got a very mature and tough poise. Sometimes it’s hard to find something that fit that style.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” said the shape-shifter tactfully, “I must say you have a knack for perception.”
“It’s why I’m so passionate about my job,” said Louise with a confident smile, “I’m actually studying to become a fashion designer. This job doesn’t pay as much as waiting tables at the restaurant across the street, but it gives me some real world practice!”
“It’s good to be around the things you love,” said Mystique somewhat distantly, “Wish I had more time for that.”
“Well with a dress like this maybe you can make some time! Perhaps you have a significant other you could show this off to?” she asked coyly.
That was another seemingly simple question with an overly complicated answer. As Raven Darkholme, her significant others weren’t much more than cons or casual lovers. As Rose, however, she had someone for who she felt genuine emotion. She met him as James Howlett. Now he went by Logan. Whatever his name, he was still the man she felt very strongly for. Even though she was still making sense of her emotions, he was someone she couldn’t stop thinking about.
“At the moment I don’t have someone who fills that role, but let’s just say there’s a strong candidate,” she answered cryptically.
“Ooh, even better!” chirped Louise, “In my experience, men have pretty thick skulls. Sometimes you need to do a little extra to get their attention! This dress should help!”
“I hope it does,” Mystique sighed as she turned away from the mirror, “But sometimes it’s not just thick skulls that get in the way. Circumstances are rarely on your side. My kids sure don’t make it easy on me and it’s not entirely their fault.”
“You have kids?” said Louis in a somewhat surprised tone.
“Yeah, two of them,” she replied, feeling awkward at having blurted this out to a total stranger, “They’re both around your age actually.”
“Really? That’s like…wow!”
“Sorry, I don’t mean to spaz out or anything. You just look young that’s all. Not like that’s a bad thing or something!”
Mystique smiled again. It was easy to forget that she was a lot older than her appearance let on. Her powers kept her from aging so it was an easy mistake to make. But by looking middle-aged, she avoided coming off as too unusual.
“I’m actually older than I look,” she told her, “Let’s just say my kind of business requires that I take care of myself.”
“Really? Then I hope I can look as good as you at your age!” said Louise, “If you have a secret I’d be willing to give you a discount on this dress for sharing it!”
“Thanks, but unfortunately part of that secret requires a certain amount of luck,” said the shape-shifter, choosing her words carefully, “Just stay active and you’ll be fine.”
Louise smiled, not too disappointed by Mystique’s advice. She was a good sport, especially for a teenage girl. Given Mystique’s experience with teenage girls, it was a pleasant shift. If she could get along with a total stranger like this then maybe there was hope for her kids after all.
“If it helps, I’m sold on the dress,” said Mystique, “I doubt I’ll find anything better on my own.”
“Great! I’ll ring you up while you change,” said Louise, “I’ll throw in the discount anyways just because you’re such a good sport!”
“I appreciate that, Louise. More than you know.”
Mystique slipped back into the dressing room while Louise ran off. She continued smiling as she slipped out of the dress and shifted back into her normal clothes. It was finally starting to dawn on her. This wasn’t a fluke. People actually could be decent. She got along with a handful of total strangers without having to put on a disguise. By just being Rose, she saw a different side to humanity. It was a side she had been too bitter to see. Now the shape shifter was forced to rethink old assumptions.
Upon walking out of the dressing room, she met up with Louise at the cash register. She rang her up and Mystique paid with few bills. She didn’t have a credit card under her name, Rose, so cash was her only option. It didn’t seem to bother Louise. She packaged the dress and happily handed it over in a bag.
“Here you go!” said Louise, “It was nice meeting you, Rose!”
“The feeling is mutual, Louise,” said Mystique, “Thank you for your help. You really made my day.”
“My pleasure! You’ve made the wait for my lunch break that much more bearable!” she replied, “If you’re ever in town and need a new dress, just look me up! I’ll help you out!”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The shape shifter made a final gesture to Louise. She was a nice young woman with a cheerful personality. And with the devastation of the Legacy Virus still fresh in everybody’s mind, that was no small feat. It was precious in a ways. Mystique was so used to seeing the ugly side of humanity. It was easy to miss all the good people that were just trying to live their lives. She used to think that only deception brought out the good in people. By just being Rose, she was proving herself wrong on multiple levels.
Mystique left the store and entered the main mall with a rare sense of optimism. Her day seemed to be going well. To most casual onlookers, she was a normal woman enjoying her day. For two figures dressed in heavy clothing, she was still a deceiver and a target.
“Are you sure that’s her, Caliban?” said a young woman wearing sun-glasses and dark clothes.
“I am sure, Callisto. That is Mystique. Toad says she can be of great value to us,” said a shady man wearing a hat and coat that completely obscured his appearance.
Callisto looked harder at the redheaded woman closely. It was hard to tell if this was who they were after. She had met Mystique before. She was the one that tried to set up a partnership between the Morlocks and Magneto. She was also supposed to be highly skilled. The Mutant Liberation Front needed people like her if they were to succeed.
“She doesn’t look nearly as menacing as I remember,” commented Callisto.
“What makes you say that?” asked Caliban in a raspy voice.
“For one, she’s smiling,” she pointed out, “You don’t smile if you’re on a mission.”
“Perhaps she’s not on a mission. Perhaps she’s just taking a stroll.”
“You really didn’t pay attention when I told you about her, did you?” said Callisto dryly, “This is Mystique. She’s a superstar in the mercenary world. She’s worked for Magneto and some shady group called the Azazel. If no one has a gun to her head, then we can assume she’s working an angle of sort. We need to find out what it is before we approach her.”
Caliban had no choice but to trust Callisto’s instincts. She was more experienced in these matters. It’s why he followed her to the Mutant Liberation Front after the Morlocks disbanded. While others sought refuge in places like District X, he and a handful of others weren’t done fighting the surface world. He was already proving himself to be a vital asset by using his mutant ability to track the psionic signatures of other mutants. However, something seemed different. Finding her was too easy. If Mystique was so devious, then other forces had to be at work.
This worried Callisto as she watched Mystique from afar. She and Caliban were taking a chance. Going undercover like this wasn’t their style. Having to dress up in heavy clothes to conceal their appearance was a real pain. However, Caliban was the only one who could track Mystique and she was the only one he trusted enough to work with. Toad, Stryfe, and Sauron didn’t give too many specifics. They were just supposed to recruit Mystique. The challenge was getting through her layers of deception.
“So how do we find out what she’s up to?” asked Caliban.
“Let’s track her for a bit longer,” said Callisto, adjusting her sunglasses to hide her eye-patch, “That overcoat isn’t too hot for you, is it?”
“I’ve already lost a pound in sweat. I could stand to lose a few more, but if this goes on much longer I’ll be grayer than I already am.”
“You’ve lived in a sewer for most of your life. You’ll live,” said Callisto firmly as she urged him along, “Now let’s get moving! We need to be ready when our shape-shifting friend makes her move!”
“And if she doesn’t?” questioned Caliban.
“Then we’ll make it for her!”
Galleria Mall – Near Food Court
Mystique wandered for another half-hour. Her aimless journey led her to a few other stores where she met more ordinary people. They were so ordinary it was overwhelming at times. She stopped by an electronics store and had a nice conversation with an 18-year-old boy who sold her a new Ipod. She sampled some nice perfume at a cosmetics shop where an older woman was nice enough to give her some free samples. She also met a nice older man in a book store who ended up talking for twenty minutes about a book she happened to be looking at. Overall, she met more nice people in the span of a day than she had in decades.
‘Who knew people outside the mercenary world could be so…pleasant. Guess I’ve surrounded myself with all the wrong influences for too long. That or the constant deception blinded me. As much as I despise Sinister, he was right about one thing. One truth is stronger than a hundred lies.’
The shape shifter was actually in a good mood. This outing had been therapeutic. Being Rose felt right. All that time she spent agonizing over who she was didn’t matter as much. Just spending some time as her true self helped put everything in perspective.
She made a stop by the food court for a quick bite before continuing. She bought herself a burrito and a drink from one of the concession stands. It was around lunch so it was pretty crowded. She looked around to see where she would go next. Just going wherever fate took her seemed to be working so far. There was little reason why she shouldn’t continue.
Then as she stood near the south end of the food court, a strange feeling came over her. Being a hardened mercenary, she had instincts that were hard to match. Those instincts were telling her that she was being watched. It was a distressing feeling and it wasn’t because of the potential danger.
“No…not now,” she groaned to herself, “Not when my day has been going so well!”
Within moments of saying these words, a figure approached her from behind.
“Mystique…we need to talk,” he said.
When Mystique heard that voice she tensed. She turned around to see a man in street clothes wearing a thick coat. It didn’t take hardened instincts to know that he was packing heat inside. She had not seen him in a long time, yet because of the memories that Sinister revealed she was able to recognize him.
“Christopher Nord?” she said.
“I have a message to deliver,” said Agent Zero.
“A message, you say? Why is my first instinct to say return to sender and fuck off?”
Agent Zero didn’t flinch in the slightest. He was like a machine. When Mystique saw that cold look in his eyes, another round of instincts took over.
In lightning-fast move, she threw her half-finished drink right into Zero’s face. The moment it hit, she struck him with a kick to the gut. This stunned him for a split second. That was all the time Mystique needed to get away and slip into the crowded food court.
“Target is resisting,” he said flatly, not even wiping Mystique’s drink from his face, “Initiating secondary protocol.”
Agent Zero went into action, reaching into his coat and pulling out two Colt 45 pistols. He fired off two shots in Mystique’s direction. The echoes of gunfire reverberated throughout the area, quickly causing panic among the crowded food court.
“Whoa! What was that?!” exclaimed a young mother with two kids.
“Holy shit! That guy has a gun!” yelled an older man standing nearby.
“Must have missed a sale or something!” said a teenage girl.
This sentiment quickly spread and everyone who heard the shots dashed towards the nearest exit. Those operating the food courts took cover and ducked out behind the back. It was pandemonium, the crowds pushing and shoving to get as far away from the danger as possible. Agent Zero used the new clearing to head in Mystique’s direction. The shape shifter hadn’t gotten more than fifteen feet. She was still in his sights and weaving through the tables in the central area.
While Zero pursued her, three mall cops came rushing into the area. As soon as they saw Zero, they drew their weapons and approached him.
“You there! Drop the guns and get your hands in the air!” said one of the officers.
“I must not fail,” said Zero flatly.
With terrified crowds still running around, Zero fired off several well-aimed shots that struck the three mall cops. One was shot through the head and killed instantly. The others were hit in the chest and quickly bled to death. No one was going to get in Zero’s way. When Mystique looked back towards him, he saw her turn his guns in her direction.
“Time to be Raven again!” she grunted.
Just as more shots rang out, Mystique kicked over one of the tables and ducked behind it. This provided a rudimentary shield that protected her from the bullets. More terrified screams echoed through the food court. Mystique could feel the bullets whizzing by, making serious dents in the heavy table. It still held up, leaving her unscathed. Then one of the bullets that passed by her hit someone and a body fell right across from her. When Mystique looked to see who it was, she gasped in horror.
“No…Louise!” she gasped.
The victim of these bullets that were meant for her was the upbeat young woman who just sold her that nice dress. Now she was no longer brimming with energy. Now she had a bullet hole right in the center of her forehead, leaving her face blank and lifeless. Mystique had seen her share of collateral damage in her line of work. When she saw this, it affected her in a profound way.
“Some things never change,” she said coldly, “Other things…I can’t let stand!”
Zero was closing in, still firing his guns towards Mystique. She waited until he ran out of ammo. In that brief window, she shot up and kicked the table she was hiding behind towards him. This caused Zero to stumble, delaying his ability to reload. While he recovered, Mystique ran full speed towards the three downed mall cops that Zero shot. She quickly retrieved their guns and checked them to make sure that they were loaded. Once armed, she set her sights on Zero.
“You want me, Nord? You’re welcome to try!” yelled Mystique.
She unloaded a half-dozen bullets in Zero’s direction, but Zero demonstrated super-human reflexes, avoiding the assault and getting down low. Using the tables as cover, he maneuvered through the central area. Mystique went on the move as well, making her way towards the south end where the vendor booths had been cleared out. She was low on ammunition so she tried to conserve ammo, firing only one shot at a time. Zero started returning fire, his bullets coming within inches of Mystique.
This was bringing back all sorts of fuzzy memories for the shape-shifter. She knew this man, but her recollection of him was obscured. Christopher Nord was part of Team X. That much she was sure of. But she didn’t recall him being so mechanical in his movements. It was as if he was more machine than man. It left her with an ominous feeling. Someone was going to great lengths to get her attention and so far it was working.
“I will deliver my message!” Zero called out.
“Here’s what you can do with your message!” spat Mystique.
The shape-shifter emptied the last half of her ammo clip for one of her guns. She managed get one shot on Zero that hit. It went right into the lower right half of his abdomen. It formed a bloody wound, but it barely slowed him down. He kept making his way towards her, reloading his guns in the process. Sensing that Mystique was low on ammo he unleashed another round of gunfire on his target.
“I must not fail,” he said again.
“I heard you the first time!” grunted Mystique.
With the bullets getting uncomfortably close, Mystique dove behind the counter of a burger stand. Two bullets closely grazed her, forming some nasty wounds on her skin. They hurt, but Mystique blocked out the pain. Once behind the counter, she checked her guns. She had only four bullets left in one of her guns. The mall cops didn’t have any spare clips on them and it didn’t look as though Zero would run out anytime soon.
By now the entire area had been cleared out. There were no more civilians in sight. It was just Mystique and Zero. There was nowhere for the shape shifter to run. Zero had her trapped behind the counter. He closed in on her position until he was close enough to complete his task. He didn’t need to shoot her to carry out the next step.
“I could have killed you with the first shot. I did not,” he said to her as if he were reading from a script, “My mission is not to kill you. My mission is inform you.”
“Right…your so-called message!” said Mystique, gripping her gun tightly in preparation for her next move, “Tell me something, Nord! What happened to your personality? Do you leave it behind in all your missions?”
“My mission is not to kill you,” he said again.
“I heard you, damn it! What did they do to you? Did they lobotomize you or something?”
Agent Zero’s focus faltered. A series of memories flashed through his mind. Mystique’s words were not that far off. He recalled being strapped to a table, staring up at a horrifying machine, and having a needle plunged right into his brain. But those memories quickly faded, as if blocked by a firewall in a computer. It left him to only focus on the task at hand. So without further contemplation, he delivered the message.
“This is the message I was instructed to deliver,” he said, now no longer shooting, “Rose, we know who you are. We’ve been watching you since you got your memories back.”
“And just who the hell is we?” shouted Mystique from behind the counter.
“There are still parts of your past that you do not recall,” said Zero, as if he hadn’t even heard Mystique’s remark, “Important parts that link your life as Rose to your life as Raven Darkholme. We are not Team X. We are not Weapon X. We are not Sinister. We are the reason why each of these organizations took such interest in you. We are also the reason why the ones you call Wolverine and Sabretooth are tied to your past.”
“Logan…again you can’t stay out of my life?” the shape-shifter groaned.
“Who we are is dictated by one man,” Zero continued, “You know this man, but you do not yet recall him. He is the man who made you who you are. He made all of us who we are.”
“Does this mystery man have a name?” asked Mystique, breathing heavily as she contemplated her next move.
“If you wish to know the truth, you’ll surrender and come with me. My mission is to bring you before this man. He wishes to deliver the rest of this message in person. You will either come voluntarily or I will subdue you and take you to him.”
“I knew there was a catch,” she muttered.
“The choice is yours, Rose. How do you wish to proceed?”
Mystique remained still, sitting with her back against the wall behind the counter. Zero still had his guns aimed at her. She could feel it. He wasn’t going to let her escape. Even if she could, this may be a situation where escape wouldn’t serve her.
This man was among the few who knew her as Rose. Given his robotic disposition, he may not know anything and was just a messenger. Yet as she learned in her experience with Sinister, the truth had a way of radically changing her perceptions. Even though she now remembered her life as Rose, there were still some fuzzy details she did not yet understand. Agent Zero may have these answers. However, they may come at a price. Serving Sinister led to the Legacy Virus. Whoever sent this message may have equally devious intent. Was such a price worth the truth?
“Choose, he says,” she groaned, “And me with a history of choosing poorly.”
“Time is of the essence, Rose. Choose now or the choice will be made for you,” said Zero.
Mystique remained huddled behind the counter. Zero didn’t take his eyes off her position. If he didn’t get a response in the next five seconds, he was obligated to proceed with a secondary protocol. And in nearly every mission his secondary protocols got very messy.
Zero was within ten feet of the vendor. He was prepared to confront his target. In his laser-like focus, he didn’t realize two figures entering the food court.
“You there! Leave our fellow mutant alone!” yelled Callisto as she charged towards him.
“Be careful, Callisto! His signature is peculiar!” warned Caliban, who was right behind her.
“I can take him!” said Callisto confidently.
Agent Zero had not accounted for such obstructions in his mission. So when he saw Callisto and Caliban closing in, he hesitated to formulate a counter-move. But this hesitation was a second too long. As soon as Callisto reached his position, she disarmed him with a kick to the hand and a punch to the gut. She was extra rough as well, striking him so hard that he flew back fifteen feet into a taco stand.
“He’s clumsier than he looks!” she said.
“Keep him occupied! I shall retrieve Mystique!” said Caliban.
Callisto kept an eye on Agent Zero while Caliban went for Mystique. As soon as he reached the counter, the shape-shifter shot up and pointed her gun right at Caliban’s head. She had heard the commotion. She didn’t interpret it as a rescue of sorts.
“Who are you? Explain yourself!” the shape shifter demanded.
“Please Mystique. There’s no need for that,” he said, holding his hands up peacefully, “We’ve met before. I am Caliban of the Morlocks.”
“There are no more Morlocks! I heard the Legacy Virus forced them to dissolve!”
“You heard correctly. I am not here to request your assistance as a Morlock. Callisto and I are here on behalf of the Mutant Liberation Front.”
“I like the Morlocks better. It’s a less tedious-sounding name,” said Mystique, still pointing her gun at Caliban’s head.
“There’s nothing tedious about what we have to offer. You see, I have a mutant ability that allows me to detect the unique bio-signature of other mutants. It used to help me locate other Morlocks. Now I’m using it to locate allies for the Mutant Liberation Front. We know of your exploits. Your reputation is quite remarkable. That’s why we want you to help us! Our plans require one with skills such as yours and we’re permitted to offer you a high position in our ranks.”
Mystique looked at the former Morlock with a raised eyebrow. She hadn’t heard of the Mutant Liberation Front. Being in the mercenary world, she kept up with the latest in terms of who was trying to make their mark and/or do some damage. Her struggle with her new identity caused her to fall behind it seemed. She knew the Morlocks well and they were not a trusting people. Even in wake of their destruction, their disdain for the surface world was a major constant. Between this new offer and the choice Agent Zero gave her, she was in a difficult position.
While Caliban was confronting Mystique, Callisto stood over Agent Zero cautiously. Before he got up, she placed her foot on his chest to keep him down. Without his guns he didn’t seem to pose much danger.
“Stay down! Don’t test someone who recently watched her entire society crumble!” warned Callisto.
Agent Zero’s expression remained completely emotionless. Undaunted by Callisto’s warning, he finally formulated a revised mission protocol.
“You are unforeseen mission obstacle. You will cease or you will die,” he said flatly.
Reaching to his left, Zero grabbed a nearby bottle of hot sauce from the taco stand. With the same precision as he utilized with his guns, he shot a stream of the dark-red sauce right into Callisto’s eyes. The moment it struck, her eyes were filled with an agonizing sting.
“Ahhhhhhh! My eyes!” she cried out.
“Consider this your first and final warning,” said Zero.
With strength that surprised Callisto, Agent Zero shoved the former Morlock off him. Despite being covered in taco condiments, he hit her with a triple-punch combo that was capped off with a sweep kick. Callisto fell flat on her back, still unable to open her eyes.
Her pained cries didn’t go unnoticed by Mystique and Caliban. First they looked towards Zero, who was back on his feet. Then they looked towards one of his guns, which was about twelve feet away from him. Zero saw it too and with his superhuman agility, he went for it.
“You should have struck harder, Callisto,” lamented Caliban.
Ignoring the gun Mystique still had pointed at his head, Caliban reached for a couple of nearby chairs, demonstrating enhanced strength in addition to his mutant sensing abilities. He then threw them right at Zero, who dodged them with lightning-fast reflexes. He was able to retrieve his gun and as soon as it was in his grasp, he took aim at Mystique.
“Here we go again,” groaned the shape shifter.
Mystique jumped out from behind the counter and went on the move again, refusing to be trapped any longer. She fired one of her four remaining rounds towards Zero, forcing him to go on the move as well. While doing this she shoved Caliban aside, which took him out of the line of fire and knocked him over. He was not Zero’s target. He was just an obstruction. Mystique remained on the move, going around the central area and taking cover behind whatever she could to avoid Zero’s shots.
“Wait Mystique! Let us help you!” Caliban called out.
“So you can guilt me into joining your team? No thanks!” said the shape-shifter, “This is my problem! I’ll deal with it!”
“For that, you are ill-equipped. Allow me to demonstrate the benefit of joining the Mutant Liberation Front!”
Caliban did not shy away from the danger. Even with bullets flying around them, he set his sights on Agent Zero. As far as he was concerned, he was an aggressor looking to do harm to a fellow mutant. If Mystique was skeptical of their sincerity, he would give her reasons to take them seriously.
The former Morlock ran into the heart of the food court where there were still rows of tables lining the area. He then lifted up the heavy tables with ease and threw them towards Zero. This time he threw a lot harder. This forced Zero to evade again. It also forced him to stop shooting towards Mystique, giving her more room to maneuver.
“You have failed to heed my warning. Now you will die,” announced Agent Zero.
“I’m not sure if you’re a mutant or a human who allowed himself to be tamed like a dog. If you are more dog than man, I say you need to be put down!” said an undaunted Caliban.
“Or neutered,” muttered Mystique, now looking to use Caliban’s distraction to her advantage.
Caliban used the tables and a few trash cans as cover for when Zero fired his way. He continued using his strength to pick up any heavy object and throw it at Zero to further disrupt his mission. It seemed to work, causing him to stumble and hesitate in his maneuvers. Mystique was able to fire off another shot that grazed Zero, leaving her with only two bullets left. If the man wasn’t already devoid of emotion, he would be showing frustration.
While this was unfolding, Callisto finally cleared her eyes of the hot sauce. Her vision was still obscured, but she was able to make out what was going on with Zero and Mystique. That wasn’t all she saw when her vision returned to her. When she looked around, something behind the taco stand caught her eye. It was a large pipe running behind the food vendors that seemed to encircle the area. It was labeled “Danger: Gas.” This gave her a bold idea.
“Okay Mystique…you don’t want to cooperate? Let’s raise the stakes!” said Callisto with renewed determination.
The former Morlock juumpte behind the counter for the vendor and went for the pipe. She quickly located the release valve and rather than just turn it, she used her strength to punch it right off. This caused a sizable hole to form in the pipe, releasing more gas. From there she started running around the areas behind other vendors, locating other valves on the pipe and forcibly opening them. She ended up doing this seven times for seven vendors. All the while the battle against Agent Zero continued to unfold.
Caliban kept Agent Zero distracted. He couldn’t stay focused on Mystique because he kept having to dodge incoming tables and chairs. He tried to maneuver back towards the east end. This only caused him to lose track of Mystique. He kept on firing, going through another full clip of ammo. He quickly reloaded, noting that he was running low. He could not complete his mission if was rendered defenseless.
“You’ll run out of bullets before I run out of things to throw!” said Caliban.
“Your obstruction will no longer be tolerated,” replied Zero.
Turning his attention away from Mystique, Agent Zero focused on Caliban. He waited until the former Morlock grabbed another large table and threw it at him. This time he was ready. With more super-human agility, he jumped up over the incoming table. He even managed to stand on it briefly. This gave him a clear shot at Caliban. With it, he fired a single round. Caliban saw it coming and tried to get out of the way. He wasn’t fast enough and the bullet tore right into his left bicep.
“Ahhhhhhh!” he cried out.
“Now you will die,” said Zero, taking aim right at the wounded mutant’s head.
Caliban clutched his arm and stumbled to his side. There was no way he would avoid another shot. He braced himself while ignoring the stabbing pain.
“Hey Nord! Forgetting something?” came a voice from behind Zero.
Agent Zero turned around just in time to see Mystique standing beside him. In focusing on Caliban, he gave the shape shifter just enough time to sneak up on him. She made good use of it as well. Zero didn’t even get to aim his gun at her. Mystique shot him with the next to last bullet in her gun, hitting him right in the chest.
This blow was too much for Agent Zero to avoid. His movements may have been robotic, but he was still human. He couldn’t endure another a bullet to the chest. The skilled mercenary dropped his gun and fell to the floor. Blood quickly poured from the wound. Mystique purposefully missed his heart, ensuring that Zero remained alive. He was clearly acting on someone else’s orders. Even with a lethal chest wound, his face didn’t contort in pain. Someone took this man’s ability to feel. It had to be someone as resourceful as they were sick.
“I’ve got one bullet left. It’s going right through your head if you don’t provide something useful,” said Mystique as she stood over the wounded man, “I remember you, Nord. Well, I remember the old you. It’s coming back to me. You were part of Team X, weren’t you?”
Agent Zero coughed up a round of blood. His memories were as clear as hers. They just didn’t mean anything to him.
“They did something to you. I’m not sure if it was Team X, Weapon X, or Santa Clause. You were once a cold-hearted assassin, but you retired. You tried to put it behind you. You lived a quiet life. You even had a family. I’ve tried that too. So you and I both know it always comes back to bite you. Looks like it bit you more than it did me.”
“I must…not fail,” he said in between more bloody coughs.
“Correction…it bit you a lot more than it did me,” Mystique went on, “But that was decades ago. Your family is probably long dead. The man you were is dead too. All I see is a shell of a man…one who killed an innocent girl named Louise today. She was a nice girl who aspired to be a fashion designer. She got caught in your crossfire and you probably didn’t feel a thing, did you?”
“I must…” Zero said before choking on more blood.
“Damn, it’s like talking to an answering machine!” the shape shifter grunted, “You know, in another life that sort of collateral damage wouldn’t bother me. That life ended when I learned the truth. Now you say you know someone who can fill in more blanks. I don’t doubt that they can. But this time, I doubt I can pay their price.”
The memories of Sinister were still fresh in her mind. She had been willing to go to any length to learn the truth and that ended up costing her dearly. With the body of Louise still within sight, she was reminded of that cost. Raven Darkholm may have been willing to listen to Zero, but Rose would not.
“You’ve delivered your message, Nord. I’ll be sure to etch my response in your corpse,” said Mystique, now pointing the gun directly at Zero’s head.
She prepared to end this man or whatever was left of him. Then she was struck by a noxious smell that had inundated the area. It wasn’t the smell of blood or cheap food either. It was gas. That’s when she remembered that Nord wasn’t the only one she had been dealing with.
“I take it you smell it now, Mystique,” said Callisto, who had emerged from the vendors and was now standing next to Caliban, “It’s not the lousy food either. It’s gas.”
“What kind of outrageous stunts involves leaking gas?!” demanded Mystique.
“It’s our way of getting your attention without using guns. You obviously didn’t give much respect to that pistol-packing friend of yours. I assume we have at least some of your respect now.”
“Not as much as you think,” said the shape-shifter.
Mystique was in yet another unpleasant position. Callisto was limiting her choices. She was dead serious as she helped Caliban back to his feet. He was still clutching his arm and in no condition to negotiate. He tried to reason with the shape-shifter. She wouldn’t listen. Now Callisto was forcing her to listen. With Caliban leaning on her for support, she took out a small cigarette lighter and held it up.
“You’re a smart woman, Mystique. You know what will happen if I light this,” said Callisto.
“What are you going to do? Blow us all up if I don’t agree to join your little time?” asked Mystique dryly.
“Who says we’re blowing up with you? Unlike you, we have an escape plan. I signaled it the moment Caliban was shot.”
As soon as she said this, a strange dark portal formed behind them. It gave off a mysterious humming sound, indicating that some potent powers were at work. From this portal,Gateway emerged. He lent further support to Caliban, allowing Callisto to address Mystique directly.
“We can be here and on the top of Mount Everest before you can take a single step,” said Callisto, “That’s not a threat. That’s a friendly tidbit from me to you.”
“Friendly you say? I consider a hungry wolf more friendly,” quipped Mystique.
“When dealing with unreasonable people, it’s necessary to put them in unreasonable situations. Caliban already told you who we are. Now I’m going to tell you what we do. The human race has never been more vulnerable. The Legacy Virus that destroyed the Morlock society also weakened humanity. And the Mutant Liberation Front plans to act before this window closes.”
“By act do you mean conquer?” said Mystique dryly, “Because Magneto tried that more than once and it never panned out.”
“Conquering is tedious and outdated. Why conquer when you can let natural forces and human stupidity do the work for you?” said Callisto ominously, “You’re a survivor, Mystique…you and every other mutant that dared to assert their place in this cruel world. Before Legacy, the humans were too strong for us to keep that place. Now we’re in a position to take a stand! Do you want to be part of it? Or do you want to be left behind?”
Mystique stared down Callisto without fear or reservation. She had been in this position before. When in a vulnerable state, she clung to any opportunity that came her way. Today when she was at her most vulnerable, two had found her. One was Agent Zero, claiming more truth from her past. One was the Mutant Liberation Front, offering her a new mission.
It was tempting. History was working against her. She rarely made it far on her own, which was why she often ended up with men like Magneto and Sinister. However, that was until today. By just being herself, she went further than she could have with any mission. It would have been easy to fall back into old habits as she so often did. As Raven Darkholm, she was willing to take that chance. But as Rose, she was willing to make the hardest possible choice.
“I choose…neither,” Mystique answered.
“Neither? I don’t remember that being an option,” said Callisto dryly.
“It’s always an option. One you and your Morlock friends fail to grasp. Take it from someone who has been down that road many times before. You will fail.”
“What is this? A moral lecture?” scoffed Callisto.
“No…not morality. Truth,” said Mystique strongly, “And if it’s all the same to you, I can find it on my own this time.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“Nothing else has worked to this point. You’re young. You’ll see for yourself one day.”
Callisto cast the shape-shifter a look of disappointment. They really could have used Mystique. She was not the same hardened fighter she remembered. She had gone soft.
“I didn’t want to do this, Mystique. But you’ve made your choice. So here’s mine,” said Callisto.
With the thick smell of gas now inundating the area, Callisto sparked her lighter and threw it right at the pipe that was closest to Mystique and Agent Zero. Time slowed as Mystique watched it swirl through the air. She instinctively turned her gun towards Callisto and fired at her. That was her last shot and it missed. Callisto disappeared into the portal with Caliban and Gateway, leaving just in time for the gas to be ignited.
It happened in a bright fiery flash. Flames erupted around and within the pipe. They spread all around the food court within the span of a few seconds. These flames quickly spread outward, threatening to consume Mystique and Agent Zero. The shape shifter left Zero to fry, running full speed towards the central area where she took cover inside a trash bin. In order to fit she shifted into a small cat with blue fur. She barely made it inside, feeling the flames lightly scorch her. It got so hot that and the air got so noxious that she had to hold her breath. She held it for a good thirty seconds until the flames outside died down.
When it was all over, much of the food court was in ruin. A series of small fires broke out around the food vendors, fueled by the remnants of the gas. The tables, booths, and surrounding area had been scorched. So too had Agent Zero, who was now lifeless and unmoving. Mystique emerged from the trash can covered in garbage. She shifted back to her blue-skinned form, taking in the destruction as she cleaned herself off.
“So much for having a normal day as a normal woman,” she sighed.
Still half-covered in garbage, the shape shifter walked through the scorched destruction. Along the way she found the bags she had been carrying. They had been torched as well. This included the dress Louise helped her buy. She reached in and retrieved it, holding it up to see how little of it remained.
“Guess I can never be normal. Not as Rose. Not as Raven,” said Mystique in a low tone.
With a solemn sigh, she tossed the dress aside. Then she turned her attention back to the body of Louise, who was still lying motionless in the center of the food court. She was the only other victim besides the mall cops. Mystique walked up to her and knelt down, lightly caressing her face which had somehow avoided being charred.
She was a total stranger, the kind she used to completely ignore. In talking to her as Rose she saw a stranger whose life suddenly had value to her. She was a good person who got caught in the crossfire of her conflict and for once Mystique felt guilty about it. That was a defining element of Rose’s persona. She felt guilt where Raven felt bitterness. It was a feeling that Mystique wasn’t used to. It was also a feeling she dared not avoid.
“I’m sorry, Louise. You didn’t deserve this,” she said, closing the girl’s eyes so she could rest in peace, “Thanks for the dress. Thanks for being a decent human being. I needed to meet someone like you. Now I know what I must do.”
As the shape shifter hovered over the body of the young woman, she heard voices from both wings that led to the food court. Between the gunfire and the gas explosion, the authorities were bound to show up sooner or later.
“Down here! Proceed with caution!” said an officer.
“All fire personnel be ready! That blast may have triggered more gas leaks!” said one of the fire fighters.
“Looks like I’ll have to find somewhere new to eat lunch every day,” groaned one of the mall cops.
They were closing in fast and Mystique couldn’t afford to be around when they showed up. She didn’t have time to get arrested or answer questions from police so she turned into a black raven and flew out through one of the rear exits behind one of the food booths. She had a new mission. For once, it wasn’t a mission that involved working for some madman in exchange for empty promises. This was her mission and she was going to do it her way.
“Well that was a nice waste of time,” said a beleaguered Callisto.
These were her first words as she emerged from Gatway’s portal at the central base for the Mutant Liberation Front. On the remote island that Toad had turned into their new home, there was plenty of activity. Their ranks had swelled in wake of the Legacy Virus. The dense jungle that once surrounded the island was also shared with small town-like developments, all built from stolen materials.
Callisto, Caliban, and Gateway arrived in the largest dwelling on the island. It was only about as big as a normal house. And the moment they appeared they were confronted with a less-than-welcoming Stryfe.
“I don’t see a blue-skinned woman with you. I’m assuming your mission was a bust,” he said to her.
“Don’t start with me, Stryfe,” said Callisto menacingly, “In case you haven’t noticed, we have a wounded teammate.”
“If it isn’t a head wound, he’ll be fine. Take him to the medical hut so that mutant healer we recruited can take care of it,” said Stryfe callously, “Now explain to me how you weren’t able to convince Mystique to help us. Need I remind you of how much we need her skills at the moment?”
“My memory is just fine. The problem was Mystique,” said Callisto bitterly as she handed Caliban off to Gateway, “She seems to have gone soft. She rejected our mission and wasn’t subtle about it either.”
“And that somehow led to Caliban getting shot?” said Stryfe with a raised eyebrow, “Perhaps you need to work on your sales pitch.”
“That was someone else! We weren’t the only ones trailing that bitch! She seems to attract more trouble than she’s worth!”
“It sounds like you’re giving explanations. Yet all I hear are excuses.”
“Are you trying to provoke me, Stryfe? Or is this more of your unusual flirting techniques?” retorted Callisto, inching her way closer to him so that their faces were inches apart, “It didn’t work on Inauguration Day. It won’t work now…not entirely.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I’m not in the mood for your colorful commentary.”
“Neither am I,” came a new voice.
Callisto and Stryfe were on the verge of tearing into one another or making out depending on certain perspectives. An imposing figure emerged to break them apart. That figure brought with him a team of poisonous snakes, half of which slithered around their feet while they were arguing. They looked down to see that they were surrounded. Then they looked to their right and saw Toad with two oversized crocodiles by his side.
“You guys are like an episode of Jersey Shore, minus the vomit. So much tension and me with so little tolerance for bullshit,” said the amphibious mutant in his deep tone.
“Don’t push this on me, Toad. It was your idea to recruit Mystique!” Stryfe pointed out, “It’s not my fault it backfired horribly.”
“I’d watch your choice of words, Stryfe. Otherwise the tension in this room is gonna get messy,” said Toad in a menacing voice.
To add weight to his words, Toad had every snake surrounding them rise up and show their venomous fangs. The two large crocodiles showed their teeth as well, making it clear to Stryfe that he was not in a position to complain and neither was Callisto. Messing with Stryfe was one thing. Messing with Toad in his enhanced form was foolish even for someone of her power.
“Now tell the truth, Callisto. Did you give Mystique a chance? Even after I warned you how difficult she could be?” asked Toad in a more reasonable tone.
“Caliban tried the friendly approach. I tried more persuasive means. She rejected them both,” said Callisto, “Caliban will back me up. You can even get one of those psychics you recruited to read our minds. It’ll confirm that some gun-toting asshole got in our way.”
“I’d rather not waste time and energy confirming your story. For now, I’ll take your word for it and assume Mystique isn’t on board with us,” said Toad, “Although without her, it’s gonna be a bit tougher doing what we gotta do.”
“Is this going to earn me a series of snake-bites as punishment?” asked Callisto boldly, “If so can you make it quick?”
“Oh Callisto, you wound me,” said Toad in a humored tone, “Do I look like Magneto? I’m not the kind of guy who will go on some long-winded speech about how failure won’t be tolerated. I’m okay with people making mistakes so long as they make up for them.”
“So how am I supposed to make up for them?” asked Callisto, “Do you want me to find another shape-shifter who can do the job you mentioned earlier?”
“Nah, that’ll take too long. We need to make our move soon and since you didn’t get Mystique on our side, I’m putting you in charge of pulling it off.”
“Me?” she questioned, “You expect me to do what you yourself said only a shape-shifter could accomplish?”
“It has to be done,” said Toad, “Shape-shifter or no shape-shifter, our plan is going to move forward. What we’re doing requires us to strike while we have the chance.”
“What we’re doing seems…underhanded, for lack of a better word,” said Stryfe.
“You don’t like it, Stryfe? My pets here can throw you off the island. Although I must warn you it’s a long swim back home,” warned Toad.
The snakes and crocodiles hissed menacingly, causing Strfye to shutter somewhat. He was clearly not used to being ordered around. For Callisto, it was a satisfying sight. It almost made up for failing her mission. Toad may have been unbalanced, but he was no fool. He commanded respect as well as fear. It wasn’t just because his body had changed. His entire persona was very different from the degenerate thug he once was.
He had a vision. It was different than the vision offered by Magneto, Professor Xavier, and the Morlocks. He was sharing that vision with anyone who was willing to fight for him. It was a new route to the same goal. Mutants were still under humanity’s thumb. The Mutant Liberation Front was going to change that.
“I prefer to stay dry, thank you,” said Stryfe bitterly, “I haven’t left yet so assume I’ll see this through despite my reservations.”
“I appreciate the honesty. In the future, try to be more tactful,” grinned Toad as he recalled his swamp minions, “You better kiss and make up with Callisto while you’re at it. Since you two can’t stay away from each other, I’m making you in charge of the mission I was going to give Mystique.”
“And there goes my appetite for the next two weeks,” groaned Callisto.
“Buck up, Callie! You may end up enjoying this. It’s gonna put the Mutant Liberation Front in position to make a hell of a statement!”
West Chicago – Uptown Apartment Complex
Irene Adler had been keeping a low profile. It was the only way to live after the destruction of the Azazel. There were always going to be enemies that came after her. It wasn’t too stressful for her because she could see the future. She knew ahead of time whenever someone was going to come after her so she was always prepared. That didn’t make all this waiting any easier.
She had been in a constant state of distress long before the Legacy Virus. After Rogue ran off the join the X-men, her only recourse was to stay under the radar. That’s what led her to Chicago where she had been living under one of her many aliases. She was living off her vast savings from all the years she spent serving the Azazel with her pre-cognition talents. It was a dull yet agonizing existence. She foresaw many terrible events like the asteroid incident with Magneto, Nova Roma, the election of Robert Kelly, the Cambrian, and the Legacy Virus. As difficult as those visions had been, none disturbed her more than the ones surrounding her closest friend, Raven Darkholm.
She had always been an unstable woman, never heeding her warnings or thinking things through. It turned her into a cold, bitter woman that overpowered the good she knew was in her. When she went off to join Sinister, Irene remembered having some very vivid dreams at how much this would hurt her. If ever there was a time for Raven to listen to her, it was that fateful moment. Again, she didn’t heed her warning and she hadn’t heard from Raven since.
The days passed in a blur, especially since the Legacy Virus. Irene lived day-to-day, sheltered in her apartment and doing whatever she could to pass the time. She was just returning from some light grocery shopping. She stepped out of the elevator with a bag of groceries in hand. Then as she navigated towards her apartment through the route she memorized, something came to her. It wasn’t a full-blown vision. It was more an intuition of sorts and one that brought a smile to her face.
“This better not be another false alarm,” she said to herself.
As soon as Irene approached her door, she found that it was already opened. She already knew who was inside so she entered and greeted a familiar presence.
“I knew it was you, Raven,” said Irene wryly.
“Of course you knew. You’re never surprised by anything, are you?” said Mystique, who was casually sitting on the couch when Irene entered.
“This may be the first. I’ve had a lot of conflicting visions about you, old friend. Not many of them ended with you returning to me in one piece.”
“I’m good at defying the odds. I always have been.”
Irene smiled again, closing her door and setting her groceries aside. Mystique rose up to greet her. It had been a while and their last conversation wasn’t exactly pleasant. The shape shifter had a lot to make up for. Unfortunately, there was work to be done.
“We’ll have to skip the pleasantries,” said Mystique, “A lot has changed. I’ve been going through a rough transition period to say the least.”
“I prefer not to know the details. I imagine it gave you plenty to think about,” said Irene.
“More than I’m equipped to deal with,” said the shape-shifter, “Which is part of why I’m here. I’ve been stuck in an ugly cycle for decades. I get bitter and desperate, I come across an opportunity I hope can bail me out, and I end up making things worse.”
“Never mind the fact I’ve reminded you constantly of this for many of those decades.”
“You can gloat about it later. For once, I’m carrying out my own mission. There’s a missing bit of truth that ties what I’ve learned about myself recently and my ordeal surrounding Azazel. I need to uncover that truth.”
“Is this personal or part of something bigger?” asked Irene.
“I don’t know yet. All I know is I can’t succeed without your help.”
There was a special kind of sincerity in her voice. It was a sincerity Irene hadn’t heard from Raven before. Whatever truth she uncovered, it shook her to the core. For once, she didn’t sound embittered and angry. There was hope in her tone. Even for someone who could see the future, Irene never could have foresaw something like this. It was the turning point they both needed.
“All these years and I’ve never heard you sound so honest,” said Irene, “I’m not sure if I should be relieved or worried.”
“Let’s just say I have a new appreciation for the truth,” said Mystique with a half-grin.
“Coming from a shape-shifter, I find that mildly ironic.”
“You’re not the first one to point that out and if it’s all the same to you, I would prefer that you be the last.”
“Fair enough,” said Irene, “Now tell me about this latest endeavor. What does it entail?”
Mystique sat down with Irene on the couch. She was still a bit conflicted after the chaos at the galleria mall. She had pulled herself together as Raven and as Rose. With this new sense of clarity, she was going to dig deeper into the past. That may mean more unpleasant revelations that would leave her even more conflicted. But that was the price of truth.
“I need you to help me investigate a man named Christopher Nord. I believe he can lead us to answers that are vital to me and my family.”
Chicago Union Medical Center – Morgue
It was a messy scene at the galleria mall. Police and fire crews spent the rest of the afternoon putting out the fires, cleaning up the mess, and getting statements from the witnesses. There wasn’t much information to gather. Near as anyone could tell, some crazed gun-man just randomly opened fire in a crowd. It killed a couple of mall cops and a teenaged girl. Somehow the gas was leaked and ignited, but no one was around to witness that. By the time the authorities arrived, all they saw were dead bodies. One of them was the lone gunman.
While the media descended upon the area, police and EMTs cleared the area. The bodies of the victims and the shooter was transferred to a nearby hospital for processing. The police kept a lid on the area, keeping the media out of the loop until they could figure out who the gunman was. At the moment his body was in the morgue along with the other victims. His clothes had been removed and there was only a sheet covering his pale form. Yet while he seemed lifeless, there was a powerful voice in his mind that penetrated the layers of death.
‘Agent Zero…wake up. You are not dead yet. You cannot die until your mission is complete.’
As these words echoed through the lifeless mind of Agent Zero, his body was kick started by an unknown force. His heart started beating again. Color started returning to his skin. In a ragged gasp, he stared breathing again. It was laborious, as if even the most basic life processes were a struggle.
‘You failed to bring Mystique to me. You have now tipped her off to my presence and now she will likely come after me. This is a critical moment for us and I cannot have her obstructing my plans. I retrieved you from Weapon X’s clutches. Now you must repay your debt in another way. Return to me and receive your new mission. There is still much work ahead of us.’
Agent Zero’s eyes popped open as his breathing became more steady. Life had been forcibly returned to the stoic figure. His body quickly healed from the wounds he suffered earlier. They left scars on his torso and chest, acting as reminders of his failure. It was a failure that his superior would not tolerate.
While Agent Zero was coming back to life, the lead mortician entered the room looking over a clip board. He didn’t even notice that one of his corpses was no longer dead.
“Okay, let’s get this over with guys,” he said to the corpses, “The police want a full report starting with our friendly gunman here. I’m working overtime so why don’t we…”
The mortician was cut off when Agent Zero shot up from the rack and grabbed the man by the throat. The mortician dropped his clip board. He was so terrified that he wasn’t able to scream. His eyes remained wide with terror as Zero proceeded to choke the life out of him. With no expression or compuncture, he waited until the man expired. Once Zero was certain the man was dead, he let his body fall lifelessly to the ground.
“I must not fail my mission,” he said flatly.
Zero engaged his death protocols. He took the lifeless body of the mortician and removed his clothes. He then put them on and laid the mortician down on the rack where he had been lying. He pushed the body back into the cooling unit, ensuring nobody would see him until it was too late.
Now in a fresh disguise, Agent Zero casually walked out of the morgue. His mission was not over yet. Mystique was just a setback. There would be plenty of opportunities for him to make amends. This was only the beginning of a much greater conflict.
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