New Orleans, Tuesday Night

The mist and rain had cleared by evening and now the sky was clear. Jubilee wore a dark red body suit, with a small belt slung round her waist, and sat on an air conditioning extractor fan on a rooftop, swinging her legs and watching her companion. Ben Reilly was dressed in a black body suit, his blonde hair hidden below a black fitted cap. Jubilee had to admit he cut an impressive figure, and she caught herself trying to imagine him in red and blue, swinging over the city. Yeah, wait ’til Angelo hears this, I’m sitting on a roof with Spider-man…well, sorta…She smiled at the thought. Ben was crouched at the edge of the roof, looking across the street to the warehouse where Belladonna had set up the bait. The scene was quiet and Ben hadn’t had as much as a twitch from his spider-sense.

Jubilee whispered to her friend, “Hey, you should think about keeping the black look, suits you.”

“Nah,” Ben whispered back, “Never was one for dark colours, bright red and blue seems to be my limit…”

The stakeout continued for another two hours. Every so often, Jubilee and Ben would have a quiet exchange of words, more to break the tension than any other reason. Jubilee marvelled at the way that Ben fidgeted from time to time, so unlike her mentor, Wolverine, who could sit stock still for hours without the slightest hint of movement. Could he actually be as hyperactive as I am? She thought, as she popped another wad of bubblegum into her mouth. She chewed on the gum thoughtfully, admittedly she was worried about the argument with Kitty but at the same time, Jubilee conceded that Kitty might be right. The Guild wasn’t evil by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t exactly moral. Still, Jubilee had been orphaned young, had carved an existence for three years on the streets of Los Angeles, stealing and foraging just to survive.

Loving parents on the other hand had brought up Kitty, even if they didn’t exactly love each other. Kitty’s life was more stable during her formative years, although she tended to view things in black and white, but there were grey areas, there always are. Jubilee excepted that to do something right, you had to bend or break a few rules along the way. What puzzled her was Ben; he was a straight arrow yet here he was, risking his neck for an illegal organisation. How is it that someone as scruffy as Remy LeBeau can inspire such loyalty in people?

She felt a whisper of movement and realised Ben had stood up. “Let’s go,” he said quietly.

“Getting that buzzy feeling?” Jubilee asked.

“Yep, someone in there has tripped the silent alarm.” Ben had set up several motion sensitive alarms in the building earlier in the day. Instead of transmitting an audible alarm, they emitted a signal that was keyed directly into the frequency of Ben’s spider-sense, so only he was aware when the alarm was tripped. Ben and Jubilee quickly picked up the grapple guns they had borrowed and carefully taking aim, they fired the hook-ended arrows towards the adjacent rooftop. Taking a moment to secure the rope lines, Jubilee went first, sliding down the line and landing on the roof. Ben was more careful; he hopped onto the top of the line and sauntered down it with the grace and ease of a tightrope walker. His touchdown was perfectly silent.

“Show off,” Jubilee muttered.

Unknown to both of them, someone had been watching them on the roof. A shadow detached itself from a wall and went to follow them down. On the adjacent roof, Ben and Jubilee made their way down the stairwell and into the building.

“Which way?” Jubilee asked.

Ben turned his head, trying to gauge which alarms had been set off, and which direction the intruder was heading. “This way,” he said, jerking his thumb to the right. “Although, this is strange, I’m getting a signal from the interior alarms but the exterior ones are still silent.”

“You mean they didn’t use the front door?” Jubilee replied.

“Exactly, must have got in one of the windows instead.” Ben shrugged and set off down the corridor to the right, they came to another set of stairs, which they both followed down.

Elsewhere in the building, a lone girl made her way silently through the corridors, unaware that she had unwittingly set off several alarms. She was dressed in black, although the drab clothing did little to hide her distinguishing looks. What was most noticeable was her skin, which was a light shade of pink. Around her eyes were dark purple markings, like upward slashes across her eyes. One purple diamond adorned the space between her eyebrows. She was quite tall and very slim, the figure and poise of someone who was an acrobat. She had a long mane of purple pink hair that hung in a ponytail behind the back of her head.

Once she had been loved, the daughter of devoted parents, who adored her despite her unusual physical appearance. Then she had found friends and a possible purpose in life, and that was when the Phalanx came.

The Phalanx were an alien race, techno-organic in nature, who combined flesh and bone with circuits and wiring, in an attempt to achieve a state of perfection. They came to earth as an invasion force, determined to assimilate the populace of the world but they encountered one significant problem, a small percentage of earth’s population were Homo Sapiens Superior, mutants. The Phalanx Convenant discovered that they could not effectively assimilate mutants. To circumvent this hindrance, they sought out a small group of young mutants, boys and girls who had only just manifested their gifts. The Phalanx hoped that through their attempts to assimilate the young, they would learn how to defeat the older generation of mutants.

One of those mutants was Clarice Ferguson. She remembered the other children she had been held with, Monet, Paige, Angelo, and their rescuers, Everett, Creed, Sean, and Jubilee. They faced a grave threat that stormy night, the monstrous Harvest, who Clarice defeated single-handedly, tearing the Phalanx apart with her burgeoning mutant powers. But her battle had a high cost; she had been caught in the wake of her own abilities and had seemingly died.

She remembered waking up with no idea where she was or who she had been, her memory shattered by that fateful confrontation. She was found and taken in, nursed back to health. Then she discovered that the people who had found her were a group of thieves. Clarice felt indebted to them and helped them on their jobs but as time continued, she realised the true nature of that gang. Thieves live by a code of honour, they steal but they never kill, this group was different, brutal, with no regard for human life. By now, Clarice had regained her memory, but when she tried to leave, she couldn’t. They threatened her family, her friends, they had promised that if they were betrayed; she would be turned over to the Friends of Humanity, a terrorist group with anti-mutant sentiments. Clarice was trapped in a web of deceit and fear.

Lost in thought, a glint of metal caught her eye. She bent down and examined the small device attached to the wall and then swore when she recognised that it was a motion detector. How many have I set off? Stupid, stupid, stupid…Johansonn, her “boss” had told her that all she had to do was grab some stuff from this building, nothing important, just infiltrate the security, anything to help Johansonn’s plan to destabilise the Thieves Guild that operated in the city. Clarice then realised that she had been set up, she hadn’t encountered a single guard and if this little complex was so important to the Guild, where the hell were they?

On the floor above Clarice, Ben and Jubilee stopped. Ben stood stock still, trying to judge where his spider-sense was leading him. He turned to Jubilee “Down,” he said, “Directly below us. Will you do the honours?”

“The honours?” Jubilee asked. “You want me to blow a hole in the floor?”

“Yeah, I do,” said Ben sheepishly.

Below them, Clarice heard the voices and swore once again. She activated her powers as a magenta swirl of energy surrounded her hands. In seconds, the energy had solidified into two short crystal shards. Clarice paused a moment to tap the shards together and ensure they were solid, then she reached out with her mind and opened a portal. With a quiet “pop”, an oval shaped black hole opened in front of her. The portal was ringed by a purple aura, which trailed away from the event horizon like mist.

Taking a deep breath, she plunged into the portal and almost immediately crashed out the other end. The portal opened in the ceiling behind Ben and Jubilee as Clarice dropped silently to the floor. Before her feet had touched the ground, she launched the two shards at the blonde man the dark haired woman in front of her.

Ben’s spider-sense screamed at him and he reacted within a split second. Jubilee had only just started to turn around when the shard of crystal slammed into her and exploded. Jubilee fell to the floor dazed, as her body tried to recover from the shock. Ben was horrified and finally spotted their assailant.

Clarice was surprised, she was an excellent marksman and although she had hit the girl, the man remained unscathed. She generated two more shards and threw one directly in Ben’s path. To her utter amazement, the blonde man did an aerial cartwheel and made contact with the opposite wall of the corridor. He then began to run at her, along the wall.

Clarice took a step back, momentarily shocked by the sight. She also realised that the blonde man was deliberately shielding his fallen companion. Clarice threw the second shard as the man flipped off the wall and over her head, landing behind her. Clarice pivoted on her left foot and swung her right leg round in a high kick where the man should have been. With impossible speed and grace, as if she was moving in slow motion, her opponent ducked beneath the kick and proceeded to knock her other leg out from under her.

Before she could even finish her kick, she was flat on her back, looking up into a handsome face. Clarice rolled backwards and got to her feet. The blonde man was tense, waiting for her next move. A small voice issued from behind her.

“Clarice? Is that you?” The speaker had been the dark-haired woman, a face that Clarice instantly recognised as Jubilation Lee, one of the young mutants she had encountered during the Phalanx Covenant.

“Jubilee,” she said hesitantly. “What are you doing here?”

“We could ask the same question,” said Ben. “Didn’t realise you two were acquainted. Seriously, Jubes, you have to do a list, y’know, of all the people you actually know. Okay, scratch that, you’d probably take forever to complete a task of that magnitude.”

Jubilee got to her feet tentatively, “What did you do to me?”

“Sorry, I simply displaced you about a second out of time, really messes up the body clock.” Clarice grinned, happy to see a familiar face again. Her face became grim when she remembered that they were here to stop her, no doubt drafted in by the Guild. She waved her hand and went to open a portal, until Ben laid a hand on her arm.

“No running,” he said with a quiet intensity in his eyes. “So, you’re the big bad thief?”

Clarice felt her face prickling with heat, and shame, “You have to help me,” she croaked through a suddenly dry throat, “I don’t want to do this but they are forcing me…”

“Who?” Jubilee asked.

“A man named Johansonn found me after I fought Harvest, my memory was gone and he took me in, he helped me.” A single tear ran down her cheek, “Then he used me for his jobs, along with the rest of his little group. Threatened my parents, he has me trapped.”

“Not any more,” Ben said. “Jubilee, can we believe her? I’m not getting any vibe from her.”

Jubilee looked Clarice up and down, “I think she’s safe.”

“Only one more person to ask then.” Ben turned round and searched the shadows. “Kitty, you want to stop sneaking around and come out now?”

“How did you…” Kitty began.

Ben interrupted. “You may be a good sneak, but I’ve been a loner too long, I know when other people are around.”

Kitty gave Ben a stern look and focused her attention on the purple skinned girl in front of her, “So, the great martyr, Clarice Ferguson…”

Clarice was in two minds. On one hand, she was scared, she had been effectively captured, caught in the act as it were. The other reaction was one of hope, of relief; these people might just be able to help her escape the clutches of Johansonn and his henchmen.

“Please, I don’t want to hurt anyone, I just want some peace, y’know, had enough of this life…” She was trying hard to be strong, she was eighteen now, nearly an adult, she couldn’t afford to go to pieces.

Ben spoke softly to her, “Have you got any back-up, any support for this job tonight?”

“No,” was her simple reply, “This was supposed to be a straightforward grab and run, nothing more.”

Jubilee looked into Clarice’s eyes; “We’ll help you if you need us, no questions.”

“I know, but I can’t risk it, if Johansonn finds out, he’ll…” Clarice couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“We’ll protect you,” said Ben. Then an idea struck him. “The Guild can protect you.”

Kitty gave Ben a warning look, “No, that’s out of the question, no more deals with the Guild.”

Ben ignored Kitty’s comments and continued, “If this Johansonn guy is threatening you and your family, the Guild can deal with him, shut him down. I’ll make sure your parents will be safe, I promise.”

Clarice looked gratefully at the trio before her, “Okay, I just want all this to stop.”

“It will,” Jubilee added, “It certainly will…”

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