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"A Prize for Three Empires"

A Prize for Three Empires

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28

This story is in progress.

Carol was never, ever, ever going to be close to Rogue. She was never, a zillion times over, going to forget the terrible thing Rogue had done to her.

Despite all of that, she had made time to talk with Rogue.

It was an opportunity to visit her lost memories. No matter what she thought of the bitch, she didn't want to pass that up. So she and Rogue had talked of what the vampiric mutant remembered of Carol's childhood. Rogue sometimes closed her eyes and tried to remember what Carol's emotions had felt like back then. At times, she succeeded. At times, she was less than successful. Sometimes, she made a halfway-decent job of it.

"Yeah, Ah remember that," Rogue said, sitting crosslegged on her bed while Carol sat in a plastic-and-steel chair, facing the back of it and supporting her head on her crossed arms. "The basket you sunk in the last second...after the buzzer, really. Won that ol' game 89-88. Y'all just about bunny-hopped out of your tennies after that one, didn't ya?"

"I imagine we did," murmured Carol. "God, I remember what happened. Just wish the Prof had hooked me up will all of those feelings...but there's only so much even he could do."

Carol was about to ask for another blast from the past when she noticed the clenching of Rogue's jaw muscles. The woman's body was tense as hell. "Uh, Rogue, that's enough. You don't have to do anymore. Thanks." She kept her voice neutral.

Rogue still sat closed-eyed and cross-legged.

"Rogue, that's enough. Come on, snap out of it."

(What the hell are you doing feeling sorry for her, girl? She's the one who stole everything but a non-controlling interest in your life. You ought to be glad to see her getting the whim-whams...)

(Shut up.)

Carol, despite her better judgment, shook Rogue's shoulders. The girl-mutant's eyes snapped open and she looked confused, frightened. Then she looked at Carol. "Oh, gawd, honey, Ah'm sorry. Ah'm sorry. Ah was scared. Ah--can we put this off till another time, darlin'? Ah'm feelin' like a cat dropped on a hot griddle."

"What happened? You get so far in you forgot your way out?"

"Kinda," said Rogue. She wiped the back of her hand against her brow. "Sometimes it gets like it was when...she was takin me ovah. Ah ain't kiddin' about bein' possessed, Carol. It's a scary, scary thing not t'be in control of your own body."

Carol said nothing. She wasn't sympathetic enough to Rogue to offer comfort openly, but she didn't like the idea of her persona doing a William Peter Blatty number on somebody. Still, Rogue had asked for it.

"Tell me how she died," said Carol.

Rogue sighed. "It was a helluva thing, Carol. A helluva thing. It was just after Ah heard that Mystique and Destiny were--that they were dead."

Carol's eyes widened a bit.

"Don't feel too cheered up," said Rogue, sourly. "Mystique ain't dead, the newsies got that 'un wrong. But Des, she was. Please don't say anything against 'em. T'me, they were family. Please, just for mah sake."

"I'm not saying a thing about them," said Carol.

"It was when we was in that Siege Perilous thing," Rogue said. "Ah didn't have powers at the time. The Reavers'd found me, and they had standin' orders t' kill X-Men. Ah had a big gun pointin' at my face. But before they could get t'pullin' the trigger, body just kinda divided in two. Like Ah was some big amoeba or somethin'. An' the other me...that was you. As Ms. Marvel. She charged in 'n' busted their chops, an' we was both out of danger for while.

"That is, we was outta danger from the Reavers. She still wanted to throw down on me, just like you wanted to, only she wanted to kill me."

Carol said, "Don't worry. Back then, I wanted to kill you, too."

Rogue said, "Look, Ah said Ah'm sorry. What else d'you want me to say?"

"Nothing, Rogue. Go ahead. What happened?"

Rogue sighed, massaged her own feet. "Ah ran from her. She caught up t'me. In between then 'n' there, she'd gotten taken over by the Shadow King, an' when she found me, she looked like somethin' outta a zombie movie. But she still hit just as hard as you evah did. Ah was lucky, in a way...Ah got my powers back when she was around. But...Ah was turnin' into a corpse, just like her, when she made contact with me."

Carol didn't trust herself to speak. In a way, she had gotten revenge on Rogue. Maybe she'd been getting it ever since the day her memories started tormenting the woman. Part of her, she had to admit, was cruelly satisfied.

"She said we didn't have enough life-force to sustain us both. So only one of us could live. She was gettin' the better of me, chokin' the life outta me. Ah mean, Ah was seein' black and purple and green, an' what little of her Ah could see, Ah saw she was...turnin' human. And Ah was turnin' into the corpse. Only Ah knew once she was done chokin' me, I wasn't gonna be doin' no walkin' around. She was drainin' me, usin' my power against me. She was killin' me, Carol. You were killin' me."

Carol didn't say anything for some time, but, after awhile, realized Rogue wanted her to break the silence. "So what happened?"

"Magneto. He found us both, 'n' he killed her. Said he knew only one'a us was gonna come through that fight, and he needed me, so he killed her. In a way, Ah guess he killed you."

Killed my memories, thought Carol. Now I'll never get 'em back. Not that I expected to. But I hoped...ah, what the hell.

"I guess he did," Carol said.

"Evah since then, Ah can't get taken over by her," said Rogue. "She's dead. She's out of my head. But that doesn't stop me from worryin' 'bout her comin' back...'bout her takin' over my body, 'bout her stranglin' me an' suckin' my life out and turnin' pink-skinned while Ah'm turnin' into somethin' like a slug. It scares the hell outta me, Carol."

Carol stood up. "Rogue, dammitall. I wish I could sympathize with you. But you know what you did to me. I can't overlook that."

"Ah don't expect you to," said Rogue, hiding her face against her knees. "But Carol, Ah'm so tired. And Ah'm so scared. Ah always end up turnin' to the ones I hurt the most, an' tryin' to put the pieces back together. Ah just wish t' the Lord above that I didn't bust people up in the first place so that I had to put 'em together again.   Can Ah talk to you, Carol?" She looked up at her.

Yeah, right. Everybody wants to talk to me. The Dear Abby of the superhero world. Tell this bitch to walk it off a short pier, Carol.  Preferably over the Marianas Trench.

"Well, can Ah?"

Carol shook her head. "Why the hell not? Everybody else does? Just get me some coffee before you do."

Rogue jumped up and ran to her Mr. Coffee machine, turning the tap on her sink on as she passed it.

"Sugar and cream," said Carol. "If it goes over an hour, I start charging."

It was more than an hour later that they emerged, but Carol didn't charge.

Rogue had told her of her own childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Carol hadn't said much, but Rogue was glad to get rid of the baggage, and the mutant's eyes were wet by the end of it. And after it, she thanked Carol for what she had given, which was nothing more nor less than a chance to try and make herself understood, and to put in a bid at least for forgiveness.

Carol wasn't saying anything about that possibility yet. Even to herself. She wanted to believe Rogue had changed, but a reformed rattlesnake is still a rattlesnake.

Later, she had caught Scott after lunch alone and didn't mince words with him. "You set me up, Summers. Why?"

Scott had looked at her neutrally. "You've got entirely too suspicious a nature, Carol. Rogue's just part of our team, that's why she's here."

"Bull," snapped the blonde in the yellow pantsuit. "With all the mutants you've got hanging around all your X-groups, you could've put together more teams than you can get poker hands out of a deck of cards. You set us both up, Scott. Rogue just as much as me. Why?"

He looked her up and down for a moment, and leaned against a table. "Because it had to be, Carol."


"No, it's not. And you know it's not, too. If it was crap, would you have spent two hours together in her room playing mumblety-peg?" Cyclops looked at her, not flinching.

Carol came closer, getting in his face. "I've gotten tired of being manipulated, Scott. Really tired."

Scott replied, "I did it because it had to be, Carol."


"Because sooner or later, you two were going to meet again. On the same side. I can't keep her out of every single solitary matter that you have to be called in on. If Thanos pulls into town with that hot little gauntlet on his hand, do you think I can afford to say, 'Now, Rogue, you can't come with us because there's a chance Carol might be there, and she wouldn't like it'? Sooner or later, Carol, you and Rogue were going to be thrown together. If it was in a crisis situation, your lives and the lives of others might depend on you working together. Do you think I could afford to know that you or she might blow it, because of bad blood?"

"That situation's pretty hypothetical, Scott," she said, breathing heavily. "There's lots of heroes around. And I'm not really part of your team."

"No," he said. "You're not. But this was going to happen, whether we liked it or not. Therefore, it was better for it to happen in a place and at a time in which we had a degree of control over the outcome."

She gave him a look of rage. "You didn't know but what we'd kill each other. I wanted to."

"Did you?" said Cyclops, leaning forward until their foreheads almost touched. "If you did, why didn't you?"

"Because I'm not a murderer," she said.

"You've killed enemies before, Carol. I've seen your file. What made Rogue different? The fact that we were around there, and might tell on you to teacher?"

"No," she said. "You know damn well why I didn't."

"Tell me. Don't assume I know. Jean and Prof are the mind-readers."

"Because," she said. "Because...I..."

"Say it," said Cyclops, not giving a micron.

"...Because she wasn't...wasn't that kind of enemy," Carol stumbled. "Because...she wasn't trying to kill me, or even to hurt me all that badly. Not like...not like the last time, when she wanted to kill me."

Cyclops nodded, leaned back, folded his arms. "So what now? Are you going to be able to work with her?"

Carol looked away for a moment, then looked at him, and, finally mustering some defiance, nodded.

"Knowing what she did to you, you can look me in the eye and say you can work with her?"

"Yes," said Carol. "Yes, I can."

Cyclops said, "Then there must be something different about her. She must have changed. Is that it?"

"Don't put words in my mouth."

"Wouldn't think of it."

Carol said, looking at the carpet, "Don't ask me to bond with her. Ever."

"I'm not even asking you to bond with us. All I'm asking you to do is work with us. And with her. Just like you said you would. Will you do that, Carol?"

"Oh, hell, yes, Scott. You know I will. Just tell me one thing?"

"I'll try."

"You and Xavier," she said. "Both leaders. And you've both turned out to be manipulative bastards, when you needed to. Why? Why is that?"

He gave her a long look before answering.

"It comes with the territory," he said.

The next day the six of them--Phoenix, Cyke, Beast, Bishop, Rogue, and Carol herself as Binary--had taken a shuttlecraft up to the Starcore orbital station. She'd shaken hands with Peter Corbeau and his two flunkies, and gotten prepped, along with Jean, to do the power-charging job. Bishop was there to channel their energies properly into the station's systems.

As usual, the worst thing that could possibly happen to her happened.

A mysterious force had taken hold of her, caused her powers to surge out of control. Starcore was in danger of destruction.

On top of that, a Shi'ar representative had materialized, and told them all that Deathbird had declared her a threat to all life forms in that sector of space and that she had to be stopped.

But he was going to have to wait in line, because she was teleported in one direction and the X-Men and the Shi'ar guy in another.

Starcore had lucked out. It was charged up, and still in one piece.

Binary was thrown through a spacewarp, and, after resisting for a bit, decided to go with the flow and see where it took her. After all, she had power enough to defend herself against even a regulation-class warship. So she followed the force that drew her on, and found its ultimate source.

A white hole that was ripping up a sector of space.

A white hole of her own construction.

The X-Men had their own row to hoe, and so did the Silver Surfer, who ended up getting involved in the incident. At the time, she was oblivious to their conflict with the Shi'ar, and really couldn't have given a damn. The white hole star she had originally constructed to save the Earth was in danger of going supernova. She was trying to fight it, with her powers which were fluctuating up and down the scale, and she was losing the struggle. The star was going to blow, taking Carol, and a good number of inhabited planets, with it.

But she had learned that the hole's instability was not something she had caused. It had been destabilized by a group of cosmic agitators known as the Inciters, and they had left their signature in the doing. This much, from "reading" the star, Carol was able to understand.

She was well-nigh helpless, crucified without motion within the hole's effective range, when Phoenix came to the rescue.

Following a scenario laid out by Hank McCoy, Phoenix had engulfed Binary in a psionic field, helped her cut herself off from the star, and guided her in powering down. She was repeating words to Jean in the Kree language, except for one, which she was able to say in English: "Inciter".

The Surfer, elsewhere in space, had destroyed an Inciters installation and, with the aid of the X-Men, stabilized the white hole Carol was struggling with and two others besides. It had been a plot cosmic in scope, and some lives were indeed lost before the affair was concluded. But it had been finished, and Binary opened her eyes inside a psi-force bubble in space with Phoenix.

"Carol," said Jean, looking at her with conern. "Are you all right?"

"I," Carol had started. Then: "Yes, I think so. It's been a heckuva couple of hours--but yeah, I'm myself again, Jean, thanks."

And they had linked back up with the X-Men and gone home again.

She thought that was the last of it.

In her thinking, once again, she was proven hideously wrong.

In the days that followed, Carol went to work on her next book, a thriller in which a CIA agent found herself working with a Kree against other aliens. She had no idea if she could write salable fiction, but was willing to give it a helluva try.

In between efforts on that, she visited her parents and, occasionally, the X-Men and Avengers. Whether she liked to admit it to herself or not, Carol realized that most of the people she had for friends were super-heroes. Outside of them and her parents, she had lost touch with most other people.

Maybe, like Scott said, it went with the territory.

She wasn't with either team when the Apocalypse thing went down. She didn't know if she was glad or sad about that. All she knew at the time was that the X-Men and Avengers had gone in, and a whole bunch of Avengers didn't come out. Many of whom were her friends. Perhaps it took their deaths to make her realize that, but she admitted it nonetheless, went to their memorial service, and cried for them, and for herself.

They hadn't died, but she had no way of knowing that.

She was with the X-Men when the Silver Surfer blew into town, figuratively, from deep space. Binary and the X-Men had been on Starcore again, saw his entry, and got a group of USAF jets to break off their attack on the silvery sentinel. They hadn't had to give battle during that incident, and that suited Carol just fine.

The apparent deaths of the Avengers made Carol feel bad enough to want companionship, and she asked to move back in with her parents for awhile. Joe and Marie always said yes to a thing like that, so back she went, her computer in the back of her rental car. There were the usual hugs and conversations and questions and good food.

Best yet, when she entered her bedroom, she found a big box Joe had dragged down from the attic. It had been so long since she'd placed it up there that she'd forgotten what was in it. When she opened it, a tunnel of nostalgia opened with it.

There inside the box lay all the model airplanes she'd built when she was a child.

The Grumman Skyrocket. The Pantherjet. The five other minature examples of the airborne weapons of war, in a couple of which she had logged fight time (in their bigger, metallic versions, of course).

Best of all, the Warbird.

There they all were, the products of Uncle Sam's best Revell technology, still bearing the globs of glue and the just-slightly-off-kilter decals she had applied to them so many years ago.

A few seconds later, she had opened the door and called out, "Mom, you got any string and picture hooks left?"

By the end of the afternoon, the entire fleet of them was aloft, hanging from Carol's ceiling in perfect formation. She wondered if a string might break some night and cause a plane to bop her on the head while she was sleeping. Then again, she shrugged and figured she'd been through worse stuff.

Within a week, she'd added some Air Force posters to the decor and felt like a kid again. Joe Danvers had come in, saw her big smile when she looked up from her keyboard, and hugged her. "This Air Force stuff, you really loved it, didn't you?"

"Sure, Dad," she confessed, reaching up to kiss his cheek. "Ain't nothing like hotdogging it in one of the finest fighter planes on Earth." She was about to add, Or flying in space under your own power, but thought better of it.

Joe was satisfied, and so was Marie. Especially when her mother knew that she wasn't out on dangerous missions to save the sun or the moon or the rainbow or some such. So Carol passed her time, got some article assignments, researched, wrote them, and worked on her book.

Once every few nights, she drove the car out to fairly secluded spots and cut loose as Binary. She didn't even care if the locals who saw her reported a shooting star, or maybe the Human Torch flying over their town. She could fly, she had the power, and she was going to use it. And it felt damned good.

Then something changed.

Binary was pushing it all the way out of the lower atmosphere, to the outskirts of space, into space shuttle territory. No big thing for her. She'd been in deep space in her fire-form, and hadn't so much as gotten numbed hands.

This time it was different.

It was almost as though she were piloting a jet, and she'd had a flameout.

The surge of thrust-power propelling her away from Earth had seemed to falter. She noted it immediately, did a mental power-up, and restored her forward motion. Below her, the big blue marble turned, in the same manner as every astronaut from Yuri Gagarin on up had seen it.

Then her thrust lessened again. It slacked, as if she were driving a car and someone had watered down a load of gasoline in her tank.

Carol's ability to survive in space was, thankfully, unimpaired. But if her flight-power were dulled, it would make reentry a bit more hazardous, to put it lightly. She made a decision and, jackknifing her body like a high-diver, proceeded back towards Earth.

She felt the atmosphere thicken as she passed through various stages of it, calculated the flight-path she would need to follow to rezendevous with the continent of North America as it rotated by on Earth's surface, and gave herself a mental checkout.

It was subtle, but very definitely there.

Her power was not what it had been a few weeks ago.

A fighter pilot puts nervousness or fear into a back compartment of his or her mind while on the job. Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, had told the tale of a pilot who muffed a landing in a jet that was being turned into a ball of aluminum around him, and his last recorded words were the codes for various righting maneuvers that he was attempting. No last words for the wife and kids, no screams of terror or pain. Just what he was doing to try and pull what he could out of the mess, before he died.

Carol's frame of mind was like that. Luckily.

The planet's gravity increased, dragged her down into what would have been a deadly fall had she not had the natural power to counter it. But it took so damned much out of her now. She was actually sweating as she drew on more and more broadcast power from her stellar sources, and flew towards the big blue and green wall looming below her.

That part of her mind which was analyzing the causes for her power-loss suggested a reason for it. The recent experience with the X-Men. The sojourn in the white hole. The Inciters' mechanism. Phoenix mentally cutting her off from the rampant star with a psychic force-field. The stabilization of that white hole and two others.

Had it cut her off from her power source?

It was a possibility, and a good one. But the problem at hand was getting back home without becoming part of the landscape.

She descended as quickly as possible, but knew the Earth's rotation had already brought day to pass since the time of her leaving. She didn't even know if she could properly pace the Earth's spinning, in her present condition. But she marshalled the concentration that had enabled her once to save the sun, and then to endure a white hole's wrath, and drew what power she could from the reaches of the universe.

Mile after mile she descended. The stars faded from sight, the sky became blue with refracted sunlight. A few high-flying jets took note of her, noted that her Avengers ID transmitter identified her as a friendly, and moved on.

By the time she pulled up into horizontal flight, a couple of miles above the ground, she was over California. It took a lot more time, and a lot more effort, than she would have liked to make it back to Boston.

But at last she did make it. It was 11:25 in the morning, the day after she had left on what was to have been a short space-hop of a couple of hours. Wearily, Carol checked out the area around the roadside park where she'd left the car, judged there was no one nearby to take notice, and descended.

A few minutes later, her heels touched ground beside her car. For a few moments she leaned against it and panted, coming back to herself. Then she took a key from a hidden pocket, unlocked the door, and lurched inside, fumbling under the seat for the windbreaker jacket and purple jumpsuit pants she had stashed there. Carol donned them over her Binary costume and, after a few more moments of deep breaths, put the key in the ignition, started the engine, and drove home.

As soon as she pulled up, Marie, who had been looking hopefully out the screen door, emerged from the house and was there to hug her when she arrived. "Carol, where've you been?" she exclaimed. "You were out so late last night, we were both worried. I'm going to call Joe and tell him. We were just about ready to call the cops."

"I'm fine, Mom, I'm fine," Carol had said, and knew she didn't sound it.

Her mother gave her a suspicious look. "Carol, you haven't been out know...doing what you do?"

"No, Mom, I just pushed myself a little over capacity," said Carol, trudging up the front porch steps. "I'll be all right, really."

"You got a call last night," said Marie. "It was from a woman. She gave you a number to call, said it was important."

"Did she give a name?" Carol pushed open the screen door and entered the house. She was in favor of an hour's worth of soaking in the tub and an afternoon nap. To hell with the book for today.

"No," Marie answered, right behind her. She went to the table where the phone sat and picked up a piece of paper she had stuck under it.  "Here."

Carol took it. The number was an unlisted number for Avengers Mansion.

"Thanks," she said. "I'll take it in my room."

"Don't you want any lunch?"

"Not right yet, Mom." Carol lumbered to her room, shut the door behind her, and locked it. Then she flopped down in the chair in front of her computer, threw back her head, and sighed.

Before she called the Mansion, she opted to check her e-mail. When the Avengers had something for her, they usually used both methods to reach her. Bingo. One message had a sender's address which was one of their cover names.

She opened it.

Team is back together. Lost birds have returned to coop. Details face-to-face. Major meeting Wednesday. Please make it, would love to see you.

"Great," said Carol, throwing off her windbreaker and draping it over the back of the chair. "Just great."

She dialed the Avengers' answering service, left a message saying that she'd be there, and then went in, filled up the tub, and tried not to fall asleep in it.


Continued in Chapter 11.


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