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Mutants & Masterminds: Future Imperfect - [Fic] Missing [Complete]

z-Ronnie Collins

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December 17, 2010, Ronnie’s apartment, Las Vegas

Ronnie walked into her apartment. She closed the door, the click loud in the room. For a long moment, she wasn’t sure what to do. Nothing was different in here; the place was just as she’d left it. Her apartment was still the same neutral-toned room as before. Her pool table even had the same balls on it, the leftovers of the last game.

But the silence was oppressive and the room pushed in on her. Ronnie walked into her dining area, dropping her keys on the table. The bottle of Midleton Very Rare, an Irish whiskey so pretentious it told you why it cost $110 in the name, vibrated as the keys bounced off it. Ronnie stared at the bottle before her eyes slid to the gift bag and tissue paper behind it. Travis’s Christmas gift. As predictable as he was.

He was dead.

Something slipped through her lips; maybe a sob, maybe the start of a wail. Whatever it was, Ronnie clamped down on it. “I’m not doing this,” she growled. Her plane left for Goa tomorrow. Thanks to India’s tolerant attitude toward mutants, the Goa beaches were the place for mutants to go on vacation. Tyler had a secret beach house down there, but Ronnie wasn’t going there. She was getting a vacation on UNISON’s dime. Or maybe just on Raven’s. Her handler hadn’t been clear on that. The only thing she had been clear on was that Ronnie didn’t have a choice.

Mandatory vacation. What a joke. I was supposed to be getting laid. She was supposed to be telling Travis right now, “Sure, come on vacation with me. I’ll wear a bikini.” And when he made a lewd comment, she was going to look him in the eye and say, “Sure. Let’s do it.” And then she’d find out if his claims and boasts over the years had been real or bullshit.

Ronnie snarled and shook away the daydream. “Fuck this!” she snapped and marched over to the table. Before she could rethink her plan, she snatched up the bottle and ripped the seal way. The cap came off with a few twists and Ronnie put the 750 ml of golden liquid to her lips. Three strong gulps lowered the milliliters appreciably and Ronnie stopped before she choked. Normally she could have chugged this without effort, but her throat was raw and tight.

The alcohol was burning into her gut as she wandered over to her pool table. The balls were where they’d left them, after their last game. Ronnie leaned against the table, staring at the solids that Travis had left on the felt. Suddenly, she was angry. “God damnit, why did you tell me to go! We were partners! We should have both gotten out!” She picked up the 6 and threw it, watching it disappear into the wall and rattle back and forth between the studs. Ronnie threw a few more balls, not caring about the mess she was making. It felt good to destroy something, even if it was her apartment.

An hour later, her couches were turned over, her bed pulled apart and her countertops had been cleaned with sweeps of her arm. Only her pool table, her beautiful slate pool table, was left unmolested. She was out of Midleton but that didn’t matter, because it had done the job. Ronnie was leaning against her twisted couch, her face buried in her arms, weeping like a baby.

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December 20, 2010, Vasco da Gama, Goa, India

Ronnie stood on the crowded beach and tried not to feel like she was being stared at by all the people around her. Her bikini wasn’t revealing as bikinis go; it was just more skin than she was used to showing. She’d never been one for public displays of flesh.

Travis was probably spinning in his Algiers grave because he was missing this.

Stop it. He’s dead, he’s gone, just like your family. So just stop it.

Honestly, most of the crowd was probably watching the two water-weaving mutants playing in the ocean. Ronnie was getting queasy from the sight. All she could see where the waves of stone rolling up to smash her into the rock wall. Turning away, she headed back for the hotel, her head down, feeling lonely and sentimental and stupid.

December 25, 2010, Vasco da Gama, Goa, India

Ronnie lay in her hotel room, trashed out of her mind. Murky memories of Christmases past slipped by behind her eyelids: her meager gift the year Dad got laid off; the year after grandma had died when Dad had bought her a hunting rifle; the year Mom had tried to give her a dress; the first time she’d tossed a gift bag at Travis, her expression daring him to make a smart ass comment. Of course he had… The copious amounts of alcohol in her system insulated her from most of the pain.

The day slipped by without a phone call or gift, unlike the previous two, and the purple-haired mutant just wanted it to end. It was better than trying to struggle through it.

December 31, 2010, Vasco da Gama, Goa, India

Around her, the crowd chanted, counting down. Helpful numbers flashed up on the billboard over the crowd, aiding even foreigners in ringing in the new year. The ball went down, and Ronnie was in the heart of a resounding cheer.

Someone grabbed her and pulled her close; Ronnie might have hit him save that she was already deep in her cups and her reflexes were slowed. The young British man was someone she’d seen around the hotel and beach; he gave her a quick kiss and shouted, “Happy New Year!” Then it was someone else, but this woman only hugged her before turning to the next person. Around and around it went, and for a moment, Ronnie wasn’t alone. She was still among strangers, but she was part of a communal celebration of life and laughter.

Then the moment was over; everyone went back to their groups, and Ronnie was abandoned again.

January 3, 2011, Vasco da Gama, Goa, India

“You never realize what you want until it’s gone,” Ronnie sighed, alcohol making her tone contemplative. “I mean… he wassa asshole. I shoul’ be happy he’s gone.”

Her companion gazed at her with soulful brown eyes and said nothing.

“I know! It waz’nt that he didn’t wanna girlfriend, he couldna keep one,” she said, taking another hit on the bottle. “I mean, I was assigned to him. I knew him. Knew how annin… annoyin’ he could be. He was single ‘cause no’ne woul’ hav’im.”

Her companion remained silent, watching her.

“Yea, I though’ I loved ‘im,” Ronnie retorted defensively, reading recrimination in her confidant’s face. Her hands waved around, sloshing the contents of her drink into a frenzy inside the bottle. “But that was wrong ‘cause he’s an asshole and I’m built wrong. Geddit? I’m the only one that could love him because a real woman wouldn’t love ‘im.”

Her companion turned away from her.

“You,” Ronnie said, poking the cow in the nose with a finger, “arra lousy drinking buddy. Jus’ lousy. Ew. Yer nose is wet n’ gooey.”

January 3, 2011, Ronnie’s apartment, Los Vegas

Her apartment was still too quiet, but it was better now. The silence wasn’t a terrible pressure as much as a constant push against her. Ronnie stared at the mess she’d left for herself. Nice metaphor for my life, she thought, wondering why she was being so introspective. Really nice metaphor for my love life. I just trashed it and walked away. Or some shit.

Still, it wasn’t too late to start to fix things. Ronnie squared her shoulders, grabbed her couch and flipped it over. Time to put her life back in order. Travis was dead but she wasn’t.

She really thought that getting back to normal would be as simple as cleaning up her apartment.

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“… Pranger, also known as Max Might, we’re not sure why yet. His skills and class are a total blank to us, so any information you can gather from or about him is important…”

I wish Travis were here.

“… aside from her more obvious assets, this mutant has the ability to enchant with her voice. We think she’s called Siren, which is oh-so clever…”

He’d make a sexual crack there. I wonder if I’d feel better if I could think of a sex joke.

I suck at those kind of jokes.

“… Elias Garbino, also called C4K. He’s one we really need data on how to neutralize – he can create bombs by changing an object into white phosphorous α. Alone, it’s bad, but worse when you consider that white phosphorous α is used to ignite napalm. In fact, there’s been one case where he…”

I am really this lame, aren’t I? I can’t even think of a good crass comment.

“Ronnie!” The purple-haired mutant’s eyes jerked from the file before her to her handler. Beautiful Raven was staring at her, one onyx eyebrow arching high on her face. “Ronnie, have you been listening to the briefing? At all?”

“Ah… there was… uh, no. No, not really.” Ronnie blushed and dropped her gaze to the folder again. She hadn’t been paying attention to that either, and most of the information she saw in her glance was new to her.

Raven sighed and dropped the laser pointer on the table. Her face was sympathetic as she walked around the table and took the chair next to Ronnie. Her handler took one of Ronnie’s larger hands in her petite ones and said, “If you’re not ready-”

“It’s been a month,” Ronnie said harshly. “That’s enough time.”

“A month. Hon, I think you’re the only one who thinks that’s enough time after losing a partner,” Raven said, her voice gentle. Of all of her handlers, Raven was the best, treating each personality as a person. In Ronnie’s case, it meant dealing with her bursts of anger. “You were together for three years, which you were dominant for most of. If you need more time, we can send someone else in. Rebecca-”

“Is too sweet. C’mon, you know I’m our best shot. Look, they are soft for people who can’t totally pass for human. It plays off their sympathies. I’m the closest we have.”

“Ronnie, if you’re not up for this mission, then you need to not go. Worse than having the wrong person go is having someone whose compromised go,” Raven insisted. Her fingers tightened around Ronnie’s, strong and supportive. “I’m going to believe what you tell me. So I’m asking: are you compromised by Travis’s death?”

His name tore at her heart but Ronnie shoved the pain down and replied, “I’m ready to go back to work, Raven. I swear.”

When she said that, she believed it.

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January 20, 2011, Akron, Ohio

The stone winged out of the darkness with no warning, catching Ronnie in the back of the head. She’d been expecting this, but she still hit her knees reflexively. It’d also hurt and she clapped a hand to her head, protecting the sore spot. Another missile – this one a brick – sailed past her shoulder to shatter on the pavement in front of her. “Mutie scum!” she heard Agent Rockchester shout over the ringing in her skull.

Fuck – did the agent with the good arm have to be the one throwing shit? Ronnie was tough but she did best when she had some warning. This had come from nowhere.

Truly angry, Ronnie turned and stood, only to freeze. The shotgun pointed at her wouldn’t kill her – not with the first round, or likely even the second – but she still had a healthy respect for the gun. The two rifles pointed at her added to her reaction. “I just want to go to my hotel room,” she said clearly, holding her hands up. “I’m not looking for trouble.”

“Well trouble’s here anyway,” Rockchester sneered. “We don’t like mutants in our town.”

“Yeah, so get walking,” Higgins said, gesturing toward the dark lot across the street. It was bordered by industrial buildings; with the isolation, lack of light and tall grass, it practically invited people to use it as a place to dump a body.

“Yeah, no way. Seen that movie, monkey,” Ronnie said clenching her hands into fists. This was probably going to hurt. Verisimilitude was the name of the game.

“Fine, we can drag your body over there,” Rockchester said and fired. The two rifles followed in a dreadful echo, but Ronnie wasn’t worried about that. By agreement, Rockchester was the only one aiming to hit her, but at ten feet, the blast still bowled her over.

Ronnie found herself lying on the street, trying to remember how to breathe. The front of her clothing had developed holes; each was filling with blood. She heard Rockchester pump the shotgun and silently begged, C’mon assholes, take the bait… I don’t wanna get shot for nothing. Surveillance had said that a couple of the suspected mutants from the group were in the bar just up the block. An agent would be tipping them off to Ronnie’s assault. Everything was in place, so long as these guys responded the way they were supposed to!

“Hold up, guys. This one’s mine. Always wanted to kill me a mutant,” Rockchester said; Ronnie struggled to focus on the confusing blur looming over her. It was Rockchester aiming the shotgun at her. They locked eyes and Ronnie saw the struggle there. At least neither one of them was enjoying this charade.

He was taking too long. Do it, do it… you hafta do it… Ronnie tried to communicate to him with her eyes, cursing that she wasn’t a telepath. Of course, that would be Rebecca’s purview, and if Rockchester was having a hard time shooting her, he’d had worse trying to put buckshot into a seventeen year old girl. Ronnie wasn’t particularly sentimental, but she had a hard time being mean to ‘Becca.

Rockchester’s finger twitched, pulling the gun to the side as he fired. It saved Ronnie from some of the blast, but she still screamed as the force tore into her. “Ah fuck, you fucks!” she shouted before her voice dropped into pathetic whimpers.

Higgins lost his nerve first. “C’mon, she’s had enough, let’s go,” he said, his eyes darting around nervously.

“No, I’m gonna kill the dirty, filthy-”

Ronnie blinked. Where had he gone? One moment he’d been there; the next he had vanished. “’he fuck?” she mumbled, pushing herself up onto her elbows.

“Whoa, lady, just relax. The humans are gone,” a male voice said to her left. A hand pressed into her shoulder, pushing her down. Even in her weakened state, Ronnie thought she could have taken him. But, she reflected grimly as she felt the power in his gentle hands, it’d be close.

It was confirmation that at least one of these people wasn’t a screaming weenie.

“D-d-d-ead?” Ronnie gasped. Please, no… They’d known this could be an outcome and all three had accepted that going into the mission. But since it was just a couple of the mutants in the bar, they’d hoped to avoid an agent’s death.

“They should be,” a woman’s voice grumbled to her right.

“We’re a little more worried about you,” the guy told Ronnie. Strong arms slid under her knees and back; Ronnie tried to protest being lifted, but all that come out was a groan of pain. “Sorry about this. We have someone who can patch you up.”

“Regen,” Ronnie gasped. She was already starting to feel better.

“Still, we’ll have our doc look at you,” she was assured. Ronnie didn’t argue. She’d be healed before the doc saw her. Instead, she shifted she that she could drop her head on top of her ‘rescuer’s’ shoulder. She was too tall to huddle against his chest, but he was tall enough that she could at least rest her head. That would put him at over six and a half feet, she mused, at least. She wondered which one of the mutants he was; whose name she’d be putting to the feeling of be cradled in strong, warm arms.

Anything to not think about how the only other person to carry her like this, to care for her when she was injured, was dead.

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“Jesus, lady, you weren’t kidding.”

“Like a damned cartoon,” Ronnie said, then wished she hadn’t used Travis’s description for her abilities. “And I’m not a lady.”

“Then what’s your name, huh?” The big guy had to be her rescuer; he was approaching seven feet tall, with a build like he put steroids in all his food. He was leaning on the exam table – or the former dining room table that apparently doubled as such – his massive hands wrapped around the edges as he smiled at her good-naturedly. His blue eyes were bright with the same humor and his long sandy-blonde hair hung around his face in a wavy mass.


“No last?” The woman in the room wasn’t smiling; she was staring hard at Ronnie. She was an older woman with graying hair and stern eyes. She was a mutant; her fingers were long and flexible, more like tentacles than digits.

“Coleman,” Ronnie said, supplying the cover name for this op. Trying to distract the woman from her suspicion, she slid her finger through a new hole on her shirt and asked, “Do you guys have some clothing? Something… decent?”

Travis would have said he preferred me with the shredded clothes.

Shut up about him.

“You can borrow mine,” the Big Guy said.

“Usually, men introduce themselves to me before offering the shirt off their back,” Ronnie said, letting her lip curl in a grin.

“Oh, uh, yeah, I’m Elias Garbino,” the guy said, extending his hand. “Call me Garb.”

“Sure,” Ronnie said, taking his hand. This is C4K? I thought he’d be… more Unabomber. Less Schwarzenegger. She turned her purple gaze to the woman. “And you?”

“Cathy Wilthem,” the woman replied. She still wasn’t very friendly.

That name hadn’t been in the briefing. “Thanks for getting me out of that,” Ronnie said, looking between the two of them.

“Don’t thank me,” Cathy said, pushing off the wall she’d been leaning against. “Once I found out you regenned, I would have left you there.” In the silence that followed, she stalked out of the room.

“Did I… kill her cat or something?” Ronnie asked, frowning.

“Ah,” Garb said, rubbing his neck and looking awkward. “She’s not sure you’re to be trusted.”

“To be fair, I’m not sure I can trust you guys,” Ronnie rejoined. “All I know is that you saved my ass.”

“That’s not enough?” Garb asked.

Ronnie shrugged. “It goes a long way but in these times, who can you trust?”

“We’re not your enemy,” Garb insisted. “The humans are.”

Ronnie drew back a little, but kept her expression intrigued. “They were last night.”

“Did you know those guys?” Garb asked. “Did they have a reason to target you?”

“Their reasoning seemed to start and stop at ‘mutant scum’,” Ronnie said, crossing her arms. Flesh touched flesh, remaining her of the state of her clothing. “Um, could I have those clothes now?”

“Sure, wait right here,” Garb said, stepping out of the room. In the movies, that was the cue to go snooping. But Ronnie didn’t want to risk it at this point so she remained where she was. Besides, she was in what passed for their medical wing; they would hardly have anything incriminating in here. Less than five minutes later, her rescuer was back with a handful of clothing. Ronnie blinked at the faded Knicks jersey and the sweat pants but didn’t turn them down. Garb stepped out while she changed. Travis would have whined and begged to stay, Ronnie thought sadly, balling up her damaged clothing. When she was done, she opened the door and joined him.

“Thanks again,” Ronnie said, waving her wad of cloth. “I’m racking up a huge debt.”

“No way, not for this,” Garb told her, waving a hand in negation. “No way I’m letting a mutant get killed, or leaving her bleeding in the streets.”

Ronnie nodded. “And I’m really appreciative of that.” They were in a concrete hallway; it had the feel of an underground base of some sort. “So… where am I?”

“I can’t tell you that,” Garb said, looking a little sheepish.

“Or what, you kill me?” Ronnie snorted. “Cliché much?”

“Well, I and my friends engage in illegal activities,” Garb said, crossing his thick arms. “They’re morally defensible, but the corrupt US government still treats us like criminals.”

You are criminals. Ronnie didn’t voice this fact; in fact she nodded as if in agreement. “And then their citizens think that they can just shoot at you and get away with it.”

“Garb. Who’s this again?” The newcomer was dressed in goth gear, her skin naturally pale. Spiky hair was dyed magenta and black; Ronnie could see the sliver of natural brown right at the edge of her hairline.

“Ronnie Coleman.” The purple-haired mutant introduced herself. She hated it when people talked about her like she wasn’t there.

The chick gave Ronnie a once-over and her expression said that she wasn’t impressed. “Right, uh, nice to meet you. Who the fuck are you again?”

“Ronnie Coleman.” The tall mutant intentionally gave only her name and she didn’t back down from the aggressive stance of the other woman.

“Some monkeys were trying to kill her,” Garb butted into the pissing match. “We saved her. Mag, they were gunning her down outside the bar.”

Mag’s expression softened a touch as she looked up at the massive man. Her dark eyes turned to Ronnie, studying her. “Give her a place for now. We’ll figure out what to do with her later.”

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Garb walked Ronnie down another concrete hallway. “So we have some nice monastic cells,” Garb told her with a smile. “I’m afraid they aren’t very homey, at least not until you have some time to decorate them.”

Ronnie smiled. “So it’s bunker décor at its best?”

“Yeah, some throw rugs and a couple of posters and you can almost forget you’re living in a cinder block,” Garb laughed. He paused by a door. “This is actually mine. Wanna see it?”

Ronnie realized, in a sudden rush, that Garb was coming onto her. His smile was warm but a little reserved, concerned about her reply. She’d had Travis leering at her for so long that she almost didn’t recognize other signs of attraction. “Sure,” she said, smiling at him. “Love to.”

Garb opened the door to reveal a small cinder block room. A long twin bed took up most of the room on the far wall; a couple of overlapped throw rugs covered the floor. A battered metal cabinet and equally abused dresser were the only other pieces of furniture, but they had been painted to match the bedframe. Several posters, everything from a Steelers Championship poster to a Disturbed “Music as a Weapon” tour, decorated the walls. “You’re right, you can almost forget you’re living in a cinder block,” Ronnie said with a grin.

“Home, concrete home,” Garb replied, crossing his arms and leaning against a wall. “I know it doesn’t seem like much, but I like it here. I’m with a good group, fighting the good fight.”

“The fight against the humans keeping us down?” Ronnie asked and her tone broadcast that she was expecting that to be the answer.

“No,” Garb said softly, “the fight to have a life. You might think that it’s easy to break it down like that, make it some quip from the seventies, but it’s my life, it’s your life and it’s ours kids’ lives. I thought tonight would have shown you that. They’re not going to be happy until we’re all gone.”

“Not all of them,” Ronnie replied softly. “There are people who don’t agree with what’s being done to us.”

“You’re right,” Garb told her. “You see them out there protesting, or just living their lives. You see them living and enjoying life and just living… You don’t see them suffering. They tell us to be patient. That the law will protect us or that it will change. We just have to hang in there and hope we don’t die before things get fixed, before they shut down the camps and cure the virus. And that’s in the US, the land of the free. Half of them are killing us, and the other half are telling us that if we just wait for them to get off their asses, they’ll save us.”

Ronnie stared at him; his vehemence was at odds with the casual, smiling man she’d seen to this point. “So, you feel strongly about this huh?” It was the first thing that popped into her head that wasn’t along the lines of “Take a chill pill already.”

“I do. Sorry to rant there for a moment, but this stuff… I don’t know why it doesn’t bother more mutants.” Garb looked at her, then glanced away, muttering, “Why it doesn’t bother you.”

“I didn’t say it didn’t bother me,” Ronnie said, letting her voice get defensive. “I just… I just want to live my life and do my thing. I don’t want to fight or break the law.”

“‘An association of men who will not quarrel with one another is a thing which has never yet existed, from the greatest confederacy of nations down to a town meeting or a vestry.’ Thomas Jefferson,” Garb replied, meeting her eyes. “He also said, ‘Force is the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism.’”

Ronnie narrowed her eyes. “You think our government is that of a despot?”

“I think that only despots and tyrants lock their citizens up in camps just because they have a disease that only affects and kills them,” Garb answered. “It’s like AIDS in the eighties, only the gays had less power to start. They were still deviants and not fallen heroes. That’s part of it, Ronnie, part of what burns me so hard about it. Mutants were once adored, and with one simple little change, something that can’t even be transmitted to humans, we’re suddenly pariahs. It’s because the jealous humans saw a chance to drag us down, and the other humans don’t have the balls to make them stop. So while we’re down, they’re kicking us, and we don’t have the strength to stop them anymore.”

“So we’ll kill them until they’re not on top?” Ronnie asked.

Garb shook his head. “Stop dumbing it down. The answer isn’t ‘kill them until they stop’. What we do to them isn’t about killing them, it’s about stopping them from thinking that it’s easy to kill us. And right now, with the Virus eating us, it is all too easy for them kill us. We’re defending ourselves – our basic right to live.”

Ronnie remained silent for a moment; he waited until she said, “I don’t know. Some of the humans getting killed haven’t done anything to a mutant.”

“And some of the mutants getting killed haven’t done anything to a human,” Garb said. “What about you? What’d you do to those guys?”

Ronnie frowned. “Nothing,” she said softly. “I’d never done anything to them.”

“And that’s why we’re in a war,” Garb told her, his blue eyes boring on her. “That’s why it’s us against them. I don’t like what I do, but I’ll do it until they kill me or they stop. Because I won’t die on my knees.”

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His words stuck with her as she went to sleep. The thing was that he was right, but only to a point. Had his actions actually helped, Ronnie would be right there with him. But this kind of activity never really resolved things in the long run. It only increased the negative sentiment and got people killed. She drifted off debating ends justifying the means with herself.

Ronnie came awake instantly at the knock on the door. She had a second of disorientation before she remembered where she was; groggily she sat up and pulled on the shirt Garb had loaned her before she pulled open the door. It just covered her underwear so it qualified as decent. Garb and a wiry kid in ratty black clothing were waiting for her. “Yeah?”

“Ronnie, I’m sorry to wake you,” Garb said apologetically, “but this morning, Paulo noticed some police around your hotel. So we asked around and it looks like those guys trashed it.” His eyes went down to her bare legs, then back up to her face.

“Fuck!” Ronnie hissed, looking pissed. The guys had said that they’d do something after to help her, but not what. She was more than a little angry at what they’d decided to do; she knew that they’d replace what they broke or stole but it still felt personal. Which was the point, but it still sucked, damn it. “Is there any of my stuff left?”

“Nah,” the wiry kid next to Garb said, shaking his head, “not that the cops aren’t bagging and tagging. I heard rumors that they’re saying you attacked them.”

“Of course they are,” Ronnie sighed. “At least I had my wallet and keys on me.” She looked at Garb. “I had my car there. Did they trash it, too?”

The kid shook his head. “I didn’t see any of the vehicles damaged. They probably weren’t sure which one was yours. Give me your keys and we’ll send someone to go get it when it’s safe.”

“Uh… I’m sorry, but why can’t I go get it?” Ronnie asked. She knew it was a stupid reply, but it was as a good one; someone who had just lost all their stuff wasn’t likely to let strangers have access to the one thing of value they had left.

“Because they’re looking for you,” the kid replied. He had to be Paulo, or at least that was who Ronnie was starting to think of him as. “And now that you’ve been here, we can’t let you leave.”

Whoa, what?!” Ronnie blurted. Again, she’d been half-expecting this but it still sucked. “What the fuck do you mean, can’t leave?”

“Ronnie, stay calm, please,” Garb interjected, holding his hands up. “We’re protecting ourselves. You know who and where we are. We can’t just let you go. So… I’m afraid you’re going to be our guest for a while. Hey, I know it’s not ideal, but you’ll have me keeping you company.” He gave her a winning smile.

I miss Travis’s smile.

Shut up!

“How long?” She balled her hands into fists, resisting the urge to punch something.

“We switch headquarters periodically; we’ll cut you loose before we move, when you can’t lead someone back to us.” His smile became apologetic. “I’m sorry but I’m sure you see our point.”

“I don’t seem to have a choice. So are there anymore clothes I could borrow?” Ronnie crossed her arms. “Since I’m not allowed to go get more of my own?”

“Yeah, we’ll take care of you,” Garb promised. He put a warm hand on her arm. “You’re one of us and I’m sure this is just a temporary measure.”

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Over the next four days, Ronnie worked to gain their trust. She did whatever was asked of her, making herself as comfortable as possible in her borrowed clothing. Garb had done his best to get stuff that fit her; it just wasn’t her style. She felt stupid in the second-hand t-shirts and jeans he’d gotten her. The only thing she had left were her boots and the socks she’d been wearing.

There was little for her to do beyond talk to people; she found a few small chores to help around the compound, but for the most part, she was bored. Garb talked to her whenever he was free, but most of the time she was talking to strangers – suspicious strangers at that. She came to actually enjoy her time spent with Garb.

Ronnie worked on everyone she talked to, regardless of whether they were pleasant or not. Most of the time, ‘working on’ involved not pissing people off, but whenever they took the time to try to convert her to their way of thinking, she let them talk at her and she relented a little each day. She had to take it slow, make it seem real or they’d never buy it. Taking her time on this was crucial; they had to come to trust her, and these guys didn’t trust easily.

She just didn’t expect to get a boost from her dead partner.


"Ronnie! Now!" Travis screamed. Ronnie bounded up the stairs on legs of spring steel as the stairs doubled and redoubled. Travis screamed, "Run damn it! Run for the exit I'll be right behind you!" Ronnie nodded, seeing the blood now oozing from not only his nose but his ears and his eyes. So much blood…

Ronnie’s legs ate up distance easily. Behind her, Travis was fighting, straining to keep the roof up. Ronnie raced for the exit as the elevator door stretched away before her. Then the rocks poured down behind her. She turned to see Travis disappear under an avalanche of stone, his bloody grimace of pain clear even at this distance.

She began to dig him out, moving rocks with her prodigious strength. She’d save him. They always saved each other. It was how it happened. It was how it always happened. He didn’t get to die and leave her alone. Her fingers closed around cloth and she heaved, pulling him with all her might. He came part-way loose, up to his waist. “Ronnie…” he rasped, his handsome face bloody and bruised. He was clutching at her weakly, his blue eyes begging her to help where his voice couldn’t.

“I’ve gotcha, I’ve gotcha!” Ronnie cried, grinning. The grin disappeared as he was sucked back into the rock. “No!” She dug for him, but no matter how fast she was or how far she went, he remained just ahead of her. She could hear him begging and pleading for her to save him, to not leave him, but she couldn’t reach him.

The alarm went off, slamming through her brain like a bullet. Moaning, Ronnie sat up, hand to her head. Her face was wet, and the mutant grimaced as she realized she’d been weeping in her sleep. God damn it… She scrubbed at her cheeks until they were dry, but she already knew from the swollen feeling around her eyes that they were puffy. She was going to look like she’d been crying. “Fuck!”

Ronnie hoped that a shower would ease some of the signs of blubbering, but it wasn’t really successful. She thought about hiding in her room until the puffiness was gone, but Max had actually asked for some help today. It was the first time anyone had reached out to her and she wasn’t going to fuck it up by declining. She’d already said yes; she’d look like a douchebag if she backed out now. And she was here to build trust, not look like a jackass.

She dragged herself to the garage, feeling like shit. Max turned as she came in, his eyebrows rising. He had been cool with her before but now his expression settled into something a little more relaxed. “Wow, ya look like shit,” he assessed.

Ronnie rolled her eyes. “Astute,” she said, grimacing.

“Now why ya gotta throw the big words around?” Max asked, but his tone was teasing. Ronnie felt a bit of hope; this was a pleasant change from the usual polite wariness she encountered.

“I get fancy when I sleep for shit,” Ronnie replied, her eyes falling on the battered Impala in front of her. “This the car?”

“Dis da car,” Max said, rolling his shoulders. “Ya gonna ta be able ta lift it?”

Ronnie nodded. “Probably.” She dropped onto her back and wiggled under the car. She located the frame, positioned her hands and pushed. With a grunt, the car rose into the air as she extended her arms. It was heavy; she could feel its weight, but she wasn’t even straining. “Yeah, I can hold it.”

“Awesome,” he said. “Thanks for dis – my jack is all busted and no one’s goin’ out for stuff right now.”

“We on a lockdown?” Ronnie asked.

“Yep,” Max said absently. “We always are before a mission.”

“Ah,” Ronnie grunted. She didn’t push about the mission; it wouldn’t do to be too curious. It wasn’t easy but she kept it to that single word.

After a few minutes of silence, Max said, “Ya ain’t gonna axe ‘bout da mission?”

“Not my business,” Ronnie answered. “Ya, I’m curious, but it ain’t my business.”

“Cool,” Max said softly. “Jus’ like it ain’t my bidness you look like twenty miles of hard road.”

“Yep,” Ronnie replied, “but I don’t mind saying. Nightmares.”

“Dat shit sucks,” Max assessed. There was another long moment of silence, then the conversation started again. They didn’t talk about missions or nightmares, but about cars. Ronnie talked about her first car, a 1964 Dodge Dart Station Wagon which she fixed up with her dad. Max went on and on about his first 1978 Firebird Trans Am.

It was the most promising sign of her success yet.

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“So Max said you had a shitty night.”

Ronnie looked up from the book she was reading. Travis would have laughed his ass off to see her sitting around, reading because she was bored. He would have laughed harder to see it was a bodice-ripper. Her options had been limited, and she’d already read the Clive Cussler book she’d found. And she was really, really bored.

Garb was leaning against the door, his expression sympathetic. Ronnie frowned at him. “Did he?”

“Don’t look pissed. He didn’t say anything other than that,” Garb replied, leaning his head forward a little. “Can I come in? I have something for you.”

“Well, if you’re bearing gifts, then sure, get in here,” Ronnie said, dropping the book on the floor next to the bed. She patted the mattress next to her as she pulled up her legs and crossed them.

“Actually, I need you to lay on your stomach,” Garb said. He held out his hands and added, “I came to offer a back rub.”

“That’s your gift?” Ronnie blurted, her brow furrowing in consternation. “A back rub?”

“Do not mock until you’ve felt the power of my fingers.” Garb grinned at her, wiggling said fingers. “C’mon, trust me, Ronnie.”

He’d said the magic word: trust. Despite the misgivings she was feeling, she nodded and said, “You’d better deliver, Garb.”

“Oh, I will.” He cracked his knuckles and flexed his hands. “I’m a massage master.”

As she lowered herself onto the bed, he moved behind her only to straddle her legs. Ronnie stiffened and pushed up. “What the hell?”

Garb leaned forward, pressing on her back lightly. “Ronnie, just relax. Trust me.” Swallowing against the knot in her throat, Ronnie ignored the sensation of being trapped under a terrorist. She lay down, moving her arms to her sides and trying to loosen up her muscles. She jumped when Garb’s hands smoothed down the back of her shirt. “You don’t get touched much like this, do you?”

“No.” Ronnie tried to make the word casual, but she heard the tension in the word.

“I can tell,” Garb murmured, the softening of his voice lending it intimacy. His fingers stroked lightly over her shirt; then he began in earnest. For a moment, Ronnie fought his soothing touch but he was good; his strong but gentle kneading pressed her muscles into submission. His fingers flowed over her back, finding knotted muscles and coaxing them into rest. First he focused on her spine, working up and down until he’d released all the tension there. From there, he spread out across her back, up her shoulders, over her neck and finally into her hair. By that time, Ronnie was half-asleep from the bliss in her muscles; even his weight trapping her lower body was oddly pleasant. It felt good – so good – to be touched.

Finally, Garb leaned back. “How was that?” he murmured. He slid off to the side, so he wasn’t sitting on her anymore.

The purple-haired mutant remained on her stomach; she felt too awesome to move. “Good,” Ronnie admitted. There was a definite note of satisfaction to her voice, which sounded weird to her. She’d never really heard herself make a noise quite like that before. It was odd.

“Would you like me to keep going?” There was something husky and rather heated about that request. It tightened Ronnie’s stomach and made her breath come faster.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “I mean, go where?”

“Your legs, your feet, your ass,” Garb said softly. His gaze was intense as he added, “Or your front.”

“Are you coming onto me?” Ronnie asked, letting a grin curl up the side of her face. He was cute-

He’s not Travis.

Are you seriously thinking that’s a problem?

I want Travis.

He’s dead. Get over him.

“Is that a problem?”

“You going to answer all my questions with a question?”

“I am until I know whether you’re interested in sex?”

“That wasn’t a question,” Ronnie pointed out, smirking.

“Yes it was, didn’t you hear that upturn in my tone at the end?” Garb asked with a grin.

“So are you coming onto me?”

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Garb tilted his head, his hair sweeping over his shoulder. “Is that something you want?” Ronnie fell silent. She was a mediocre liar at best, a fact that her ex-partner had used against her often. The inability to lie was considered a liability in her field, but it had never hampered Ronnie. She had gotten decent at telling people half-a-truth and then letting them fill in the rest of the blanks. The fact was that she didn’t really want this, not from Garb, but she couldn’t afford to alienate him. He started to get up. “That’s an ominous silence. I think I should go-”

“No, wait,” Ronnie said, reaching out and catching his arm. He stopped, his blue eyes not quite meeting hers. “Wait.” She’d never been able to really open up to others before and it didn’t get any easier now, when her throat was tightening just thinking about Travis. “I am… It’s not that I don’t want you.”

Garb looked at her, and Ronnie saw the hesitation, the fear in his eyes. He might have been a mutant; he might have been as strong as she and probably as tough, but she could hurt him. Just as Travis hurt you everyday. “Soooo…” Garb drawled, unable to take the silence. “Is it someone else?”

Ronnie looked down, licking her lips and nervous. “It was. He’s dead. He died just before Christmas.”

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” Garb said, turning back to her. One of his massive hands rested on her shoulder, squeezing gently. “I wish I’d known. I wouldn’t have made an ass of myself.”

Ronnie shook her head, her gaze trapped on her nails. She began to pick doggedly at a cuticle as she made herself say, “It’s not your fault. It’s fine. You weren’t an ass.”

“Sure, I still feel like it,” Garb said. He was quiet for a long moment. “Look, I know you barely know me, but if you wanna talk about him, I’m happy to listen.”

I’m sure you are. Ronnie slid back on the bed until she was leaning against the wall. She didn’t want to talk about Travis, but she also knew she needed to make inroads with these guys. She needed their confidence and trust. Hell, she’d done worse before. She opened her mouth to speak, and nothing came. “I can’t,” she finally admitted. “It’s too painful.”

“You don’t have to,” Garb said, settling back until he was sitting against the wall, next to her. “We can talk about other stuff, or I can work on your back some more.”

Ronnie gave him a sly look. “You aren’t interested in my back, buddy,” she said, her voice joking rather than accusing.

“True,” Garb admitted, grinning at her. “You’re a beautiful woman.”

Ronnie blushed and looked away. Compliments were hard to take; she was too used to them coming from Travis. She tried and failed to stop her smile. “If you like them big,” she muttered, trying to downplay her discomfort with the flattery.

Garb caught her chin with a finger, turning her face to his. “I like you,” he told her softly.

“Why?” Ronnie asked before she could stop it. The word left her squirming at how pathetic she sounded.

The big mutant didn’t seem to notice or care. “You’re strong and tough, and you have the prettiest eyes I’ve ever seen,” he said. “When you were laying there bleeding, that was the first thing I noticed.”

“My eyes before my gaping wounds?” Ronnie asked, laughing a little. “I think those would have taken precedence.” She pulled her chin away from his finger, but kept her eyes on him.

“They just popped out at me,” he said, sounding a little abashed. “Why can’t you just take the compliment? You one of those girls who is determined to be called ugly?”

“Not ugly,” Ronnie said defensively. “Just not beautiful.”

“I think you are,” he said. His blue eyes were full of honesty, and Ronnie blinked at the frank appreciation in them. “I think you’re gorgeous.” He leaned in a little closer; Ronnie could tell he was leaning in for a kiss. She had a second to decide what to do but there was no actual thought behind her pulling back. It was instinctive. Garb nodded. “Sorry. Too soon?”

“I think so,” Ronnie sighed. But some part of her wished she hadn’t pulled back. His touches had been so good; it had been too long since she’d had human contact beyond a fleeting touch. Her libido, long stirred awake by constant exposure to Travis and now inflamed by the massage, was screaming for a release. She wasn’t sure a kiss qualified, but there was a large part of her that wanted to see if it would help.

“Alright.” He was quiet for a moment, his large hands clasped before him. “Well… do you want me to stay or go?”

Ronnie ran her hands through her hair. “I don’t know,” she admitted, torn in a couple of directions.

Garb nodded, bemused. “How about I stay, and we just talk?”


“What kind of music do you like?”


The shrill blast of an alarm jerked Ronnie awake. She was leaning against something warm – something that shifted and groaned as well. “Travis?” she mumbled, caught somewhere between her dreams and hope.

“Who’s tha’?” a familiar voice murmured, realigning her memories with reality and putting things in their place. And in that place, Travis was still dead while she was snuggling with another man.

“That was my friend,” Ronnie admitted, pushing away from him. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep talking to him but they’d sat up late talking and she had just drifted off.

“Were you guys more than friends?” Garb asked, clambering off her bed and stretching to his full height. He tried to be casual, but Ronnie caught the intensity in his voice.

“No,” Ronnie said softly and even she could hear the bitter regret. Garb’s expression was sympathetic as she sought a new subject. “Why the fuck are you getting up at four, anyway?”

“I uh, have somewhere to be,” he told her as he raked his fingers though his hair.

“Mission?” At his look, Ronnie admitted, “Max said something about there being one, but that’s all I know.”

“Mmm,” he grunted. “I have to go get ready. I should be back tonight.” His expression became hopeful as she nodded. “Would you like another back rub?”

“Uh, yeah,” Ronnie said, smiling a little. That actually sounded wonderful to her. He smiled at her, and the purple-eyed mutant added, “Be careful, ok?”

The smile she got was warm. “I will,” he told her, then held up a hand, fingers extended. “You’d be disappointed if I lost one of these.”

“Damn straight,” Ronnie told him with a laugh. With a final farewell, he was gone, leaving her alone in her room. It always seemed to come back to this: her alone. Fighting self-pity, she rose and went to find something to occupy her time.

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Her new goal was to start finding about these missions. She was sure there were plurals, though she’d only seen the evidence of the one Max had let slip. This kind of thing took hard work and patience. The latter wasn’t really Ronnie’s strong point, but she could do it. She could twist being stubborn to her favor.

She truly wasn’t expecting to get lucky that day. “So, Paulo cleared you.” Ronnie glanced up to see Magnetic standing in the door to her room. Circulation wasn’t the best in the old bunker, so most people left their doors open as much as possible. That led to a lot of conversations starting like this.

“Kinda,” Paulo grumbled.

“Kinda?” Ronnie echoed.

“He can’t find anything wrong with you,” Magnetic said, pushing a strand of magenta hair behind her ear. “So that opens up a few options and we need to talk.”

“Sure, come on in,” Ronnie said, sweeping her arm around the room. “I’d offer you a seat, but…” Her lack of seating or even room for seating was obvious.

Magnetic gave her a crooked smile. Ronnie sensed that the woman still wasn’t fond of her, but her attitude was business-like as she spoke. “So option one,” she said as she leaned against the wall opposite the bed, “is to blindfold you and let you go.”

“You will remove the blindfold eventually, right?” Ronnie asked, smirking.

“Nah, we’re into that kinky stuff,” Magnetic replied, her lips twisting with sarcasm. “Option two, we consider you for membership in the Freedom Storm.”

“The… is that…” Ronnie managed to swallow her comments about the name. “So, do I get hazed? What’s involved in that, and why should I become a criminal?” She knew she’d used the wrong word when their expressions shifted.

“She’s not interested,” Paulo snapped, already turning toward the door.

“I didn’t say that,” Ronnie protested, regretting her choice of words. She ran her hands through her hair and said, “Look, I know that we don’t always get fair treatment. But I’ve tried to work within the system to accomplish our ends, to live my life.”

“Was getting jumped by those guys really the first violence you’ve experienced?” Magnetic seemed more open than Paulo.

Ronnie licked her lips. “Kinda… directly experienced. I mean, you hear stories but they’d never happened to me,” she said softly. “Look, things have been confusing for me since my friend died.”


“Yeah, he and I traveled around together, did jobs wherever we could find them,” Ronnie said, skirting the truth like a mother fucker. “He was a mutant, but he could pass, ya know? He was the closest I had left to family. We were exploring a cave together and there was a cave in.” Ronnie stopped, closing her eyes against the memory of Travis dying. “It wasn’t an accident.”

“Who did it?” Magnetic asked. Even Paulo’s face had softened a bit – only a bit.

“I don’t know,” Ronnie said, and her voice was angry. She opened her eyes, blazing with her anger and said, “If I find out, I’m going to kill them.”

“There was no record of that,” Paulo told her.

“I reported it, but they…” Ronnie closed her eyes again. “To say that the officials were dismissive and impotent is an understatement.” She was walking the edge of falsehood - about to trip over into full-on lying – but she knew that this crowd wanted to believe that shit like this happened. “They didn’t care. I was almost arrested for trespassing. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they never did anything with it.

“I’ve been taunted, mocked, harassed,” Ronnie went on, clenching her hands. “No one’s tried to hurt me before. That night, those guys… that was the first time I’ve really felt hated. Not just feared or despised or disliked but hated.”

“That’s what we’re fighting, and what we’d like to have your support on,” Magnetic replied. She sat down on the bed, her eyes on Ronnie as she said, “Every day, mutants die, like your friend. Do you want to stop that?

“Of course,” Ronnie murmured immediately. “Of course I do.”

“Will you help us? You might feel you’re a criminal, but that’s what the founders of the US were called, and any group that has worked to liberate their people. Criminals. Traitors. I take those names as a badge of honor. If I’m offending them that much, I’m doing something right.”

“Alright, so what are we talking here?” Ronnie asked. “What do you want me to do?”

“You’re joining us?” Magnetic asked.

“That fast?” Paulo asked.

“For years, I’ve had people treat me like shit,” Ronnie said. “And then Travis died, and even if they weren’t responsible, they can’t even give him the decency of trying to find out what happened. And some of what Garb’s been saying has been hitting home as well. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. What you guys say makes sense… so yeah. I am.”

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Garb was elated when he returned. They had a big meal to celebrate her joining; it was all take out from various restaurants, but it was good. Alcohol was brought as well and someone was cycling music through the stereo. Ronnie formally met everyone and was introduced as a member. It was a hell of a welcoming party.

Not everyone was happy to see her included. Paulo seemed suspicious of her but Garb dismissed it. “He’s always like that,” he told her when she mentioned it. “He’ll grow to like you.”

“Like you do?”

“Since him and Magnetic are dating, I hope not like I do. But just to make it clear, I really do like you,” Garb said, and took her hand. Ronnie blushed and smiled and let him keep it. It felt nice, his big fingers lacing with hers.

She drank perhaps a little too much, which meant that she drunk more than anyone else. But she was caught up in the party mood and enjoying herself. There was a hint of underlying guilt; as she got to know these people, she understood that they weren’t bad, just wrong. Their cause had merit, even if their methods were wrong. And she was going to put them in jail for it. She was really starting to wish they’d eat a baby or something, just to merit what she was going to do to them.

Garb walked her back to her room, still holding her hand. He’d had her hand on or an arm around her all night and she allowed it. Since her induction, she’d been more or less accepted by everyone and no one seemed surprised when they saw the PDA. At her door, Garb squeezed her hand and asked, “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” Ronnie said, as something hot coiled in her stomach. The mutant thought it was anger, but soon realized it was excitement – the same kind of excitement Travis used to stoke in her belly all the time. It was unexpected, and the purple-eyed woman was little startled to feel this while with another man. “So…” she drawled, feeling the lassitude of the alcohol, “what can I expect next?”

“We’ll give you some training, see what you can do and then start assigning you missions,” Garb told her, but she could tell that his mind wasn’t on the mission. The big man confirmed it a moment later. “Unless you stop me, I’m going to kiss you,” he warned, leaning into her and catching her between the wall and his arms.

Ronnie’s breath caught. “Do you always warn women like that?” she asked, hearing the throaty tone in her voice.

“Only ones that I’m not sure if they want me to kiss them,” Garb murmured, leaning closer still. His slightly-glazed eyes were on her lips. One hand slipped up behind her head, kneading her skull and playing with her unusual hair. “Last chance.”

“Aren’t I supposed to come the last ten?” Ronnie asked before closing the distance. Some part of her was aware that she’d made a mistake, even as she kissed him ardently. Garb groaned as their mouths opened to each other, a hungry, happy sound that twisted her stomach up tighter still. His hand joined his first in her hair, holding her head as her hands came to rest on his waist. His weight rested against her, gently trapping her against the wall as he overwhelmed her with his size. She’d never felt small compared to a man before and the sensation was both titillating and terrifying.

Ronnie became aware of the physical expression of his arousal just before he broke the kiss. “I’d ask for more,” Garb whispered to her, “but I know you want to take this slow. Besides,” he said, giving her another light kiss, “we’ve been drinking. So I’ll ask you for more later.”

“It feels like you want more,” Ronnie replied, her kiss-swollen lips still tingling from his touch.

“I do,” the burly mutant told her, his blue eyes gentle and slightly unfocused. “But you said you didn’t when you weren’t drunk, so I’m going to wait for you to say you do when you aren’t drunk.”

Impulsively, Ronnie put her arms around his neck in a hug. “Thank you,” she said, her voice soft. “Remind me you did this if I’ve forgotten tomorrow.”

“Oh, I will.” He paused and slipped his arms around her waist. “If I remember.” They both giggled as he gently used his grip on her to carry her to the bed. Setting her down, he kissed her forehead. “Night, Ronnie.”

“Night, Garb.” The moment he was gone, Ronnie shucked out of her clothing and went to sleep. This time, the nightmares didn’t bother her.

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The next week was a frantic dash from training to training. Ronnie carefully selected what to be familiar with and what to not have a clue about. She also became aware that these guys were damned serious; they took their training as seriously as any professional army and their training wasn’t bad. Though some of them were amateurs, some of them were former military of one flavor or another. In particular, one man named Alex Garm, a British mutant who had heightened senses. Like her, he was new, but because he’d come to them from a trusted source, he wasn’t under the same suspicion.

Unlike the others, she had trouble getting a solid bead on the quiet Brit, which was unnerving enough. He was polite and might have just been naturally reticent to talk about himself. Ronnie wasn’t sure. Everyone liked to talk about themselves – everyone but him.

Almost everyone else accepted her without reservation. Ronnie was extended every curtsey, including access to rugs and accessories to try to brighten her room. She was treated like one of the gang, albeit one under training. As such, she was pushed to her limit and even hazed a little. It took her right back to her false memories of being the new guy in the marines.

Her nights with Garb were more like reliving her implanted memories of high school. She knew how to do everything they did together, but it felt new and awkward to her. Garb seemed delighted that she was ‘out of practice’ and enjoyed her reactions to his actions. He let her set the pace to their actions, following her lead and accepting her requests to stop with a smile and a gentle kiss.

Her new suitor was far more patient than Travis. Hell, he was way more patient than Ronnie could manage, even on her best days. It was a strange trait and oddly emboldening. It gave her the room to start and stop as she felt comfortable, or not to start at all.

On the last day of the week, Magnetic came to Ronnie and sat her down. After a long, frank discussion about her skills and shortcomings, Magnetic said, “As we said, after we assessed you, we’ll send you on a mission. We have one in mind. Because it’s your first one, we’re going to have you go in as an observer.”

“Uh… okay,” Ronnie said, frowning. “Whatever you want.”

“You were hoping for something with action?” Magnetic asked.

“No, Garb warned me that you might not put me in the thick of things immediately,” Ronnie replied. “And while I want to help, I also don’t want to make waves. So I’ll do as I’m told.”

“Good,” Magnetic said. “We have our briefing in an hour in the main hall.”


Ronnie was there with the others, nodding as each person greeted her. Most of them looked happy or excited to see her; none of them seemed surprised. She’d probably been the last to know about her inclusion in this outing. Garm wasn’t there, a fact she noted with interest. He had seemed to be slow about accepting their offer of membership and she wondered if he were AEGIS. That group was known for their infiltrations as well and it wouldn’t surprise her if he were some kind of mole. He wouldn’t be UNISON; this was her op, which left AEGIS. Ronnie wondered sourly if he were here to do a bit of precise wetwork. As she sat down, Garb winked at her from his position at the front of the room.

“Alright, here’s the deal,” Garb said, turning to the white board behind him. There were pictures and a rough-drawn map on it already, and Garb began to spotlight points with a laser-pointer. “This is ABC Labs outside of Columbia, Missouri. To outside appearances, this is a place that does verification tests for larger firms that don’t want to have to rerun tests. However, last year the Mutant Underground got word that they might be doing more. Turns out they’re working on a mutant sterilization program.”


“The fuck?” someone, maybe Max, said. Ronnie was struggling too much with her shock and outrage to be sure. Chemical sterilization was like a salt in the wound that was the Virus.

Garb nodded grimly. “As I understand the science, they are attempting to bind a gene that shuts down the gametes of the victim to a certain gene sequence. And in this case, it’s our genes. Let me say this and be clear: they have not succeeded. But we’re going to knock their goddamned teeth in for even trying.” A roar of agreement rose, the mood of the room going from professional to savage.

It took Garb several minutes to restore order. As he waved his hands and tried to shout people down, Ronnie was thinking. She needed to report this up the chain to UNISON. She debated risking her cover but quickly dismissed it. She’d likely have a window tomorrow during the mission to make a call. “Folks, calm down,” he finally said when the roar had become a muted murmur. “We have the chance to stop this now. I need everyone to focus.” When Garb had the room’s full attention again, he continued. “This is a private experiment-”

“Unlike the government creating the Virus,” someone blurted.

Ronnie didn’t roll her eyes, but it was close. That rumor was popular in a certain paranoid subset of the mutant population. Garb pushed on as she nodded with everyone else, keeping up the act. “This is a private endeavor, as far as we can see,” he said. “So they’re relying on secrecy rather than brute force to protect thems-”

“Mistake!” Desiree piped up. The gorgeous red-head’s comment drew laughter.

“People! Focus!” Garb snapped. The room remained silent as he laid out the plan and assigned duties. Ronnie accepted her assignment as a driver and truck-sitter with a mere nod. They’d told her they’d be easing her into it, and it didn’t get easier than sitting on your ass in a truck, waiting on everyone else. It’d also give her the time to make the call to UNISON and report what they were doing. If nothing else, UNISON was going to want to come into the aftermath and see what these guys had really been up to. If it was a mutant sterility program, UNISON would clean it up. More importantly, just from what Ronnie could see, this was a relatively small lab. They might be working on this with other groups and UNISON was better equipped to find them than ‘Freedom’s Storm’.

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“Nervous?” Garb’s voice was gentle as he stroked his hands up and down her back. His voice was a gentle intrusion on the soft music playing on the laptop.

“About the mission?” Ronnie asked, her voice a pleased purr. She’d gotten used to that content noise coming from her throat, especially when Garb worked his magic fingers on her. “Nah, I’m in the truck. Honestly, if anything, I’m pissed.”

The fingers stilled. “Pissed?” he asked.

“Pissed that someone is even trying this,” Ronnie said, twisting to look at him. The warm glow of the candles was more than enough to light up the small room; the smell of their burning wax and wicks was strong in the room. Garb shifted enough to let her finish rolling over, though he remained straddling her legs.

“It’s pretty much sysop, for these bastards,” Garb replied, but instead of looking angry, he just looked sad. “They won’t be happy until we’re dead.” He smiled. “I don’t want to think about it tonight, though.”

Catching the look in his eye, Ronnie felt herself smile. It was a confident smile; she’d gotten used to the fact that he was attracted to her. She was even attracted to him, she could admit. He was no Travis but he wasn’t ugly. “What do you want to talk about?” she asked, her voice taking on a sexy timbre.

“How beautiful you look… how much I want to touch you,” Garb murmured. His tone twisted Ronnie’s gut in a familiar way.

“I think we can arrange for you to touch me,” Ronnie replied, tucking her hands behind her head.

“Can we?” Garb asked, leaning down to slide a hand up the inside of her shirt. His bold touch on her skin knocked the breath right out of her.

“Oh, we can,” Ronnie assured him as he leaned lower and kissed her exposed collarbone. She pushed his shoulder and he got off of her, lying down so that she could straddle him. One hand pushed her purple hair back from her face; she nipped at his thumb with her teeth as she settled her clothed groin against his.

His other hand tugged at her shirt, trying to pull it up. With a smile, Ronnie helped, seizing the hem and drawing it over her head. The big blond shifted his hands to her breasts, his thumbs and fingers gravitating toward her nipples. Even through her bra, it sent delicious shivers through Ronnie’s body. Leaning down, she kissed the man deeply, enjoying the feel of his bare chest against her naked stomach. His hands slipped her back, rubbing her nude skin.

Garb’s blue eyes were dark and hazy with sexual desire; for a moment, Ronnie remembered other blue eyes-

He’s dead!

-before thrusting the memory away forcibly and nipping at his chin.

“Can I stay tonight?” he asked as she lifted her head, his hands slipping down to her ass. “We don’t have to have sex.”

“We don’t?” Ronnie murmured playfully before gently biting his ear. Garb’s eyes lit up at her question and he growled softly as his fingers went to her bra, pulling at the clasps. Ronnie helped him pull it off her body, even as her stomach bottomed out in the most pleasurable way.

Garb picked her up and put him under her, slipping between her legs as he bent his head to her breasts. Ronnie moaned as his lips found one nipple, then the other. She wrapped a leg around him, using it to press his lower body to hers. As the fire built between them, Ronnie felt a sudden certainty, something she knew as well as she knew her face in the mirror – she was going to sleep with this man. She’d denied herself too long – it had cost her this experience with Travis. She wasn’t going to let another man she was attracted to, and who wanted her, just walk away.

In the moment, she forgot who he was. She forgot who she was, and who she wasn’t.

Garb’s hand pressed into her pants, his fingers working their way under her panties. Ronnie’s breath came in short gasps as she anticipated the pleasure soon to come-

The knocking at the door shattered the moment. Garb cursed and dropped his head lightly onto her chest. Ronnie moaned unhappily as his long hair tickled over her bare chest. “Garb?” they heard Garm call. “Mag wants to see you.”

“Be there shortly!” he shouted before frowning at Ronnie. “I’ve got to go. Pick this up when I get back?”

“Sure,” Ronnie promised, catching his face in her hands and giving him a light kiss. But after he left, she had time to think about what was happening. More importantly, she had time to remember who she was, and who she wasn’t.

When Garb got back, she pretended to be asleep. He was kind enough to let her alone and go to his room. It just reminded her that he was always too kind to her.

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They met for the mission at three p.m. It was a ten-hour drive straight through, which they lengthened to twelve due to pit stops. The cargo van held the team easily. They didn’t anticipate bringing much back with them, but had plans in case they needed to bring goods back to the base. Ronnie drove much of the time; she didn’t mind doing it and since Garb rode shotgun, it made him happy. Her less so, but that was less about Garb and more about her internal conflicts.

Their goals were noble; their goals were roughly the same as Ronnie’s. But their methods for doing it weren’t. Then there was Garb: hot and interested in her and extremely good with his hands and lips. Add in that Garb was a truly nice guy and Ronnie was more troubled than usual. Still, she held to her mission. She’d sort it out later.

They arrived at three in the morning. It was decided that a nighttime op would cause fewer problems and casualties. While they were eager to kill scientists who were involved in this despicable act, Ronnie was quietly grateful that they were less eager to kill the janitorial staff. She parked on the access road, blocking the way in and waited while the team went in to do the actual work.

The moment she was alone, she whipped out her phone and sent off a quick text to Raven: FYI – ABC Lab, Col, MO – raid on mut sterilization proj Feeling better, she snapped the phone shut and settled back to wait. The plan called for a thirty minute window.

At the twenty-four minute mark, it went pear-shaped. The sound of shit hitting the fan was an explosion; grumbling about the longevity of plans after meeting with the enemy, Ronnie put the van in gear and waited. It wasn’t long before the team came high-tailing it out of the dark. “Trouble?” Ronnie asked as the entire team piled into the vehicle. She didn’t see any injuries; by all appearances, things had gone exactly to plan.

“Nope,” Garb said, his expression grim. “Just wanted to be sure they’ll be picking up the pieces for a while.”

“Cool,” Ronnie said, instead of what she really wanted to say. She verified that everyone was in before she put the van into motion. “Heard the boom and thought there’d been a problem.”

“Not for us,” Max said with a grin.

“Take us home, Ronnie,” Garb said, reaching over and putting a hand on her leg. She glanced at him and saw his eager, tired smile. And despite all her conflicts regarding him, Ronnie’s return smile was filled with at least as much lust. Sleeping with him was going to complicate things but at least it wouldn’t cost her the only friend in the world. Garb wasn’t her friend.

She didn’t like herself very much for thinking that, but she knew she wasn’t going to stop herself.

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It was four a.m. before they got home. Ronnie was actually tired. She couldn’t sleep in the van, even when she wasn’t driving. Like all of the Et als, she needed less sleep, but a full day without rest was pushing it. She clambered out of the backseat of the van, accepting Garb’s hand with a grin.

“I need to go talk to Magnetic,” he told her, as one of his big arms encircled her. “I’ll catch up with you later.” The heated glance in his eyes told her exactly what he meant to do when he caught her.

Ronnie smiled up at him, marveling that he again made her feel small, almost petite. “Alright,” she agreed. “I’ll see you later.” Turning, she walked away from him, putting a little sway into her hips for him. A quick glance back proved that he was enjoying the show.

Feeling good about her sex appeal if not her morals, Ronnie strutted into the compound. This was good, really good. Even if she had to blow her cover and am-sckray, she knew where they were and everyone’s names and faces. Now that she was in, she was good to start digging up intel on other groups, ferret them out and go some real good.

It was pure luck that she found him before he found anyone else. Ronnie was walking past Paulo’s room when she happened to see her image on her computer. Stopping, she took a step back and peered a little closer. It was her driver’s license photo – her real Nevada license.

She must have said something or made a noise, for Paulo spun in his chair. “You!” he snapped, pointing a finger at her. “Your name isn’t Coleman.”

“So I have an assumed name, so do a lot of mutants,” Ronnie said as she entered, her mind going into overdrive as she made a stab at damage control. The door was pushed to with her foot. She stepped further into the room, only to stop when Paulo pulled a gun. “Easy, there.”

“No way. You’re a former Marine,” Paulo said. “You’re going to back up and leave the room.”

“No, Paulo, I’m not,” Ronnie said, keeping her hands up and visible. “We’re going to talk about this. I’m running from my past, true. I should have been honest, I admit that. But I’m one of you now.”

The gun didn’t waver. “Bullshit.” Paulo shook his head. “Total bullshit. You’re lying to me… You’re lying to all of us, including Garb.”

“I’m not ly-”

“Bullshit!” Paulo’s fervent exclamation was what she’d needed. When he shouted he’d also jerked his body and there was a moment when she hadn’t been looking up the barrel. Snarling, she lunged and grabbed for the gun. Her fingers closed around it, but slipped before she could solidify her hold. Paulo kicked out and her legs were knocked away. Ronnie went down but held onto the gun, keeping it pointed away from her.

“Paulo, I don’t want to hurt you,” Ronnie said evenly, “but if I have to take the gun from you I’m probably going to break a finger. Let go, and let’s talk-”

He kicked her. “Fucking bitch, shut-!”

There was a blur of movement and Paulo collapsed. Garb was behind him, reaching down for Ronnie. She was hauled to her feet as easily as if he were picking up a towel. “Jesus Christ, what is going on!” Her erstwhile lover put his arms around her, frowning down at her. “Are you alright?” Beyond his shoulder, she saw the open laptop with the guilty information spread over the screen.

Ronnie staggered to the table; as she brought her hands down and ‘accidently’ closed the lid. Turning, she leaned against the level surface and stared at Garb, forcing shivers. He followed, putting his hands on her shoulders to steady her. “He came at me with a gun,” she whispered. Her eyes flickered down and widened when she saw the spreading pool of blood. But she didn’t need to ask if he were dead; it was apparent just from the shape of his skull. “Paulo…”

Garb looked at him then and paled. “Oh fuck,” he said, releasing her and running his hands over his hair. “Oh, my god…”

“Oh, god… ohgod, ohgod, ohgod,” Ronnie chanted. She let herself start to curl in on her body, as if she were on the brink of falling. She was, a little. In less than five minutes, a great op had gone to hell, and someone had died. Ronnie killed when she had to, and regretted the need. This had been so unnecessary, such a waste. “Magnetic…” A burst of pure sympathy stabbed through her. Ronnie knew what it was to lose someone you loved.

“Shit… shit!” Garb put his arms around her and pulled her close. “Look… I’m going to handle this. You go…”

“Go?” Ronnie asked, but it was so clear to her that she needed to get out. She was just amazed that Garb was telling her to leave.

“Yeah, Ronnie, here,” he said, handing her a set of keys. “Take the red pickup, that’s my truck. Look I don’t want to scare you, but everyone knows you and Paulo didn’t get along. Let me smooth things over here. I’ll call you when it’s taken care of. It should only take a few hours.”

Garb was trying to protect her. Ronnie stared at him and truly regretted that she wasn’t who he thought she was. She put her arms around his neck and gave him an ardent kiss – the last one she’d give him. “I’m sorry,” she told him sincerely softly when their lips parted.

“Don’t worry,” he told her, kissing her on the forehead, “I’ll take care of it.”

“Thanks,” Ronnie murmured, giving him one last hug before she left – left the room, left the mess and left her mission far behind her.

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“I drove out a ways, dumped the truck and had Tyler jump us back here,” Ronnie finished, leaning back in her chair. Hours after leaving, she felt oddly disconnected from everything that had happened. It was like she’d lived another life and then come back to this one. What is wrong with me?

“Alright,” Raven said, pausing her typing. “Closing thoughts?”

Ronnie paused and then shocked even herself when she said, “I need some time.”

Raven looked at her sharply, her lovely green eyes narrowing. She stared at Ronnie for a second, then pushed her laptop away and shut the lid with a plastic click. “Talk to me.” Her tone had changed, from business-like to a more friendly tone.

Ronnie swallowed. “I got through the mission,” she said, her voice soft, “but I wasn’t… I didn’t…” She stopped, clasping her hands tightly. She’d never been able to voice her own weaknesses well; she could accept them when pointed out, but admitting them was something else. “Raven, I was careless. Looking back, I see that. I was… I wasn’t ready to go back.”

Raven reached out and clasped Ronnie’s folded hands. “I’m glad to hear you say that.”

Ronnie blinked up at her. “What?” she asked, feeling anger burn in her stomach.

“Don’t get pissed like that,” Raven stated firmly, gripping her hands tightly. “The reason I’m glad is because of all the Et als, you push yourself the hardest. You’ve never shown that you know when you’re in over your head. And it is a good thing to have your limits. It means you’re paying attention to yourself and you need that for your job.”

“So… it’s alright to have some time off? I mean… just some time to just be me?” Ronnie felt bad for asking, but she had never asked for anything like this before.

“We have a mission lined up for you,” Raven said, then backtracked, “well, for Lena anyway. But I’ll see what we can do about getting you some more downtime. Perhaps some more time for everyone, overall. We do push you hard.”

“Thanks,” Ronnie said, her mouth curling up in a slight smile.

“We have to look out for your wellbeing,” Raven told her with a smile.


February 12, 2011, Ronnie’s apartment, Las Vegas

Ronnie walked into her apartment. Lena’s mission was behind them, and Ronnie had three days off before she had to turn things over to Celeste for another mission. After that, she wasn’t sure when she’d have another break. Raven had said they’d all get more, so it’d probably be someone else’s turn next.

Sighing, she dropped her keys on the table and looked around the room. It felt empty to her; after so long in the bunker, she’d gotten used to always hearing people around her. It was so quiet here. Frowning, she tried to decide how she’d spend her free time. She came up blank.

Ronnie started to laugh. It started quietly at first, just a chuckle or two; then grew into a loud, gut-clutching laugh. It was too funny: Travis had been right all along. She had no idea what to do on a real vacation.

Fuck, I miss him. Even when he was a smug, know-it-all bastard.

I think... I think I'll always miss him. Her laughter stopped, and almost turned to tears. But she'd done enough crying; it was time to move on.

She had a life - one without Travis in it - to live.

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