Lightning Never Strikes Twice
by Karen Galarneault
Disclaimer: Cannonball and all related X-Force characters, the Friends of Humanity,and all events, themes, and concepts are the property of Marvel Comics. I am simply borrowing them for entertainment reasons. Highlander the Series, Immortals, the Quickening, the Gathering, and all themes, events are the property of William Panzer Productions. Highlander belongs to Rysher. The germ of the idea for the OTHER RULE is borrowed from the story by Ryan Leary and Lee Barnett, who inspired the additonal twist to Cannonball's being Immortal. Fenris Cullen is my creation, I liked the name. Jeri/Gerladine Mckenna is mine. She appears in my two Highlander/Star Trek:The Next Generation crossover stories "Footsteps in the Sand" and "Games Without Frontiers" This can stand alone without having to read the others.
Jeri Mckenna clenched her fists tightly over the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip. Sweat trickled down her back and she could physically feel eyes watching her every move. She started merging into the left lane before turning into a cross street. The silver Saturn and its lone occupant subjected to a downpour, even late February in the Twin Cities was bound to be slushy, and snow-melt didn't make it any easier.
Waiting for the traffic light to turn green, she glanced into her rearview mirror. She noted that the black mini-van was still tailing her. It had picked up her trail after she rented a car at the airport after the flight from Europe. It made her her distinctly uncomfortable. It wasn't her Watcher, that man was persistent. Then again, if it was another Immortal,. and if it was who she suspected, she was in serious trouble.
The light changed and Jeri maneuvered the car in between two city buses, then into a parking lot, slid into a free spot, and turned off the ignition.
"Better safe than sorry."
Exiting, she pulled back on the lever that popped the trunk and walked around to the rear. She pulled out three bags: one was about four feet long and slender, slightly longer than your average duffel bag. She'd had a devil of a time getting it through customs. They'd wanted to open it, of course. And it had set off every alarm in the place. She'd told them she was transporting museum exhibits from London. They'd given her funny looks, but they'd bought it. The bag held her sword. The smaller was her backpack that contained her necessities: cosmetics, passports, ID, credentials, credit cards, and sundry items. The most important at the moment, a cellular phone. The last was a wheeled suitcase with a change of outfits. Slamming the trunk, Jeri walked slowly and purposefully toward the church's double doors. It was holy ground, she'd be safe there.
Swinging back the doors, Jeri absently noted that it had undergone some impressive renovations since the last time she'd been there. "Not surprising, since the last time I was here was almost half a century ago." The dome was no longer tarnished green from exposure, instead the copper shone as rich and dark as ale. The place brought back bittersweet memories of another time and place.
Flashback, London 1557
Gerladine Mckenna leaned up against the wall of the anteroom of the Tower of London, peering out into the city. A wagon trundled along a concrete causeway spanning the Thames. In the wagon bed sat two figures: a man and a woman, both heavily cloaked. Chains bound their hands and feet, a set that matched the ones on her own hands. Drawing closer, she could see their features: Lady Jane Grey and her husband, Lord John Dudley. She heaved a sigh that came up from the soles of her black boots and ended at the roots of her brown hair.
"They'd hadn't managed to escape after all." The ship she'd commissioned and booked passage for them must've been waylaid enroute to Calais or commandeered by Queen Mary's royal navy. She knew what would happen once they reached the Tower Green. They'd be executed. Both had their hair shorn close to their scalp as a mark of their crimes and to make it easier for the headsman to perform his duties. It also meant she'd join in the public display of justice. She was sentenced to a trial by water for the crime of being a witch and aiding and abetting an enemy of the crown.
Approaching the drawbridge, the portcullis lowered, the hinges creaking as they rubbed against centuried brick and mortar. The wagon rumbled inside and its passengers were unloaded by a tall man wearing a black hood, with an axe over one shoulder. His arrival triggered the tell-tale buzz that signaled the presence of another Immortal. However, the man did not turn around or acknowledge that he sensed her presence.
"End of the line, folks," the man growled.
"Cullen!" Jeri exclaimed, "He knows what its like to be the object of witch hunts, why would he...." she whispered.
"YOU!" he gestured brusquely to Mckenna, "You are sentenced to trial by water, this way," was all she the reaction she'd gotten out of him.
Jeri watched as her two friends were led up to a hastily built scaffold, and made to lay down on the wooden surface. Cullen raised the ax above his head, with ringing arc, he brought it down upon Jane's neck, spraying blood everywhere, and then brought it down on John's neck. The watching crowd had mixed moods about the entire proceedings, some cheered. Cullen flung his left arm behind him and snagged her around the waist, then flung her bodily into a waiting tub of water, hoping she'd sink like a rock. The shock of freezing water hitting her body woke her from her numb state of disassociation of the situation. She felt herself sink and her lungs struggle to gasp for breath. The chains on her arms preventing her from flailing to come back up to the surface for air. Then everything went black.
Seating herself in a shadowed nook, she picked up the phone, removing the address book, Jeri dialed the number in San Francisco. If Sam Guthrie hadn't mailed her a postcard from X-Force's vacataion in Hawaii, she wouldn't have known where to find him.
Sam Guthrie and Dani Moonstar pulled up in front of X-Force's current base of operations: a glorified warehouse leased to their teammate, Roberto Dacosta from his father's international business. They'd just returned from a run along Venice Beach, and parked the cherry red 58' ElDorado in front of the building. "The problem with this town is that the streets are either too up or too down!"
Entering, the first thing they heard was the blare of the TV. Tabitha , her blond hair covering her eyes, lay on the sofa, zapping through channels. Bobby slept on the floor, having long ago given up the fight for the remote.
"Yo! Mason-Dixon! You've got a phone call," she yelled from the center of the room, loudly, but Bobby never stirred.
"Y'all going to be okay, Dani?" Sam asked, referring to to their talk on the beach about Dani's waning psionic powers.
"I'm fine, Sam. Go take your call," Dani said, brushing back a lock of black hair. "There's nothing wrong with me that a good night's sleep won't cure. End of discussion."
"Kay. Give me the phone, Tab. It might be Paige again."
"Sure," Tabitha yawned and handed him the cordless phone.
Placing the receiver to his ear, he flopped down on the couch next to Tabitha, absently noting that she was now watching CNN.
"Paige, is that you? Is Ma okay? She's getting better with the treatment at that facility in Louisville, right?" Sam asked, worried. It had been only a couple of months since he'd learned that his mother had come down with some obscure syndrome. It wasn't fatal, it required treatment and a lengthy hospital stay.
"Sam, it's not your sister," a woman with a Scottish burr, said on the other end of the line.
"You sound awfully familiar. Who is this?"
"Sam, I'm sorry to hear about your mother. It's Jeri Mckenna."
"OH MY GOD! Jeri, where y'all been hiding yourself, girl?"
"It's a long story, Sam."
"Coming from you, ah'd believe it. What's up?"
"I have a situation that involves you. I can't say how or why....."
"You sound like you've seen a ghost. We've been friends too long, don't hedge your bets with me, Jeri."
"Sam, there's a man. His name is Fenris Cullen. He knows all about you, all about your family, your sister Paige."
"Does he know about X-Force?" Sam asked, a tone of suspicion and worry creeping into his voice, making his Kentucky drawl even more pronounced.
"No. He doesn't care about X-Force. At least I don't believe he does. It's you he wants. He knows everything that happened when you died and came back to life."
"Were the Externals mentioned?"
"No. He thinks you're one of the Immortals, like Macleod, Methos, and myself."
"He thinks I'm Immortal participating in that ol' cosmic Game of yours?" Sam almost choked on the irony and absurdity of it all. Jeri Mckenna wouldn't have called with a story like that for the sake of a practical joke.
"Yes. Sam. I'm sorry. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't necessary. Please, believe me."
"What do you need?"
"I need you to come meet me in Minneapolis by the cherry and the spoon."
"That some kind of Immortal code?"
" NO. It's an actual sculpture at the Walker Art Center."
"I understand that your first loyalty is to X-Force, and the cause you're fighting for.. What do you know about a group calling itself the "Friends of Humanity?"
"They're bad news, anti-mutant vigilantes. Stay away from them, Jeri."
"Fenris Cullen is one of them."
"An Immortal is one of their bloodhounds?"
"Look, I can't say anymore over the phone, just trust me. Fenris may have followed me here. He wants you."
"I'll be there. I'll figure out something to tell the others. Jeri, stay put, and be careful."
"Thanks, Sam. Thanks a million. Bye," Jeri hung up and the phone on the other end clicked with a dull chime.
"What was that all about, Sam?" Tabitha asked. "Your sister, okay?"
"Yes, Paige is fine. She sends her's and Ma's love," Sam fudged. "You think the guys will miss me for a few days if I went back to Kentucky for a visit?"
"Why not? It's not like you're the life of the party." Tabitha said, picking up a copy of Reader's Digest.
"Tab, you keep that up and people might think you have a a brain," Sam warned.
"Very funny," she growled and went back to reading before her head hit the couch cushions.
"That was simple enough, might as well take a deep breath and jump right in. It was bad enough being an Immortal mutant, but now...." he muttered and trundled off to bed.
The Next Afternoon
"Being a mutant has its advantages, being able to fly with the wind in his face, was definitely one of them," Sam thought. Igniting his kinetic blast field, he launched himself into the sky. He adjusted his speed slightly to pace himself. He figured he'd make he Midwest in about three hours.
Walker Art Center
Sam and Jeri met in the Sculpture Garden.
"Jeri, you here?" Sam said, turning off his blast field and drifting down to a landing on the tiled pathway. He never thought about the fact that his powers seemed to insulate him from temperature extremes. Northern California in February was like spring here. Taking stock of his surroundings, he noticed that Mckenna hadn't been kidding when she'd said "meet at the cherry and the spoon." It was a sculpture, about the size of a house. A silver implement, gleaming in the brittle winter sunlight. It arched like some medieval catapult primed to launch boulders at some castle. Instead of a boulder, perched on the rounded end of the spoon, was a large red, cherry, threatening to topple at any moment.
Jeri's Scottish drawl echoed as she came around from the mounted portion of the sculpture. Her brown hair was swept up into a braid. She was dressed in a black, knee-length outfit with black boots, with her sword strapped to her back.
Giving his friend a quick glance that took in everything, Sam would have said she resembled a tail-twitching panther about to pounce.
"Kinda an odd place for a clandestine meeting," Sam joked, trying to lighten the tense atmosphere.
"You were expecting a romantic rendezvous?" Jeri managed to grin, picking up on Sam's lead and gliding over to give the Kentucky-born mutant a hug and a peck on the cheek. "You're looking good, Sam. Blue suits you."
"So where is this guy, anyway? And just how much does he know about me?" Sam asked, getting back to serious business.
"Everything, Sam. His dossier file on you is probably as complete as the Watcher database on Immortals. He's had two hundred and fifty years to compile it. He's recently hacked into the Xavier files."
"Why is he interested in me? Why not other mutants if he's the bloodhound for the Friends of Humanity?"
"He may become interested in other mutants, I'm not really sure. The others Externals, as you call them, are for all practical purposes, defunct. With them out of the way..."
"Other than the black-sheep, Selene, I'm the only one left. How do you know she iced the others?"
"Bad news travels fast. It was in the papers. Plus the throwdown with the Externals was pretty obvious, since it took place in Rockfeller Center. Plus, my curiosity was piqued by the fact that the police files from the NYPD precinct disappeared almost immediately after X-Force's bail was posted."
"Okay, I'll buy that. Now what?"
"Let's go the to the conservatory."
"Is he coming?" Sam asked anxiously, rocking back and forth on his heels. Sam suddenly winced in pain as a dull throbbing buzz began at the base of his spine and worked its way up behind his skull. He could sense that someone was there, but he couldn't put his finger on exactly where they were. Yet, he could feel eyes watching him. Jeri reacted in a similar manner, drawing her sword, she began pacing the length of the building. She turned her head, staring into shadowed corners, checking all exits and entrances.
"Who's there?" Sam demanded.
"Guess that answers that question, boyo?" a man gravely voice said. A figure emerged from the shadows, leveling open a pane in the glass walls, and stepped into the light.
"Fenris Cullen, I presume?" Sam said.
"Geraldine Mckenna." Jeri said.
"Ah guess you already know who I am."
"Samuel Guthrie. YOU, ME, NOW. Guthrie, I assume you're up to it, boyo." Cullen laughed, which sounded like nails being run down a chalkboard.
"Any time, pal," Sam growled, a heartbeat away from igniting his blast field, it had been a long time since anyone could get away with calling him a 'boy.' This Cullen fellow was definitely raising his hackles.
"Hold It! I want to evoke the Other Rule!" Jeri yelled.
"What the bloody hell are you talking about, woman>" Cullen growled.
"There's an obscure rule among Immortals. Marvel's are exempt from participating in the Game because Immortals aren't allowed to challenge them, because of the unpredictable nature of the X-Factor tipping the scales during a fight," Jeri explained.
"Who cares? I challenged him, he accepted." Cullen said, pulling a saber out.
"As his teacher, this fight is mine."
"You're his teacher?" Cullen asked as if he didn't quite believe her. His eyes narrowed in concentration, trying to assimilate this bit of information, and if it worked out in his favor. Evidently the answer ended up in the plus column because he turned back to her, and grunted with an affirmative nod. "Agreed. Okay, Mckenna. I've heard of you. This time you're not walking away from me."
"Jeri, I don't need you to protect me," Sam whispered.
"I know. Keep the Friends of Humanity off our backs, and you'll be doing both of us a favor."
Sam didn't have to wait long, for as soon as he appeared outside, six men with guns, knifes and other weapons, moved into formation. They surrounded him in a tightly closing ring. An even half-dozen, all dressed alike, jeans and cotton shirts with a crimson armband tightly bound across their upper arms; the stark black letters: F.O.H printed big as life on the white cloth. The last time he'd seen those letters had been when X-Force had intercepted a federal transport, when they'd been set on kidnapping its passenger, Lucia Callasantos, sister to their former teammate, Feral. She was being transported to Rkyer's Prison in upstate New York. That mission had gone somewhat smoothly, until they reached the house where both sisters had grown up.
Sam shook his head, "What a mess that was." Feral had been completely unremorseful about the murders that had gone down in that house. That incident had bothered him more than he cared to admit. That she'd defected was bad enough, but the truth about her family's murder, that came out that dingy two-story house, was a painful memory.
Sam blinked away tears of regret: "Ah gotta focus on the here and now. Can't let old memories get in the way. Better ignite mah blast field and get this show on the road." taking up a battle-ready stance.
The men closed in, some chanting 'mutie-scum, mutie-scum, over and over, others were eerily silent, as they opened fire, salvos and high octane energy hit his blast field caroming off it like billiard balls after the opening break. The thud of impact causing tiles, dirt and concrete to explode.
"Idiots," Sam thought, deliberately colliding with his opponents, causing their weapons to explode as they made contact with his blast field. Taking advantage of the momentarily shock, he effectively took them out of the fight with a couple of solid left hooks to their jaws. He watched them drop to the crowd with a satisfying thud.
"End of the line, boys. Hope Jeri's doing okay up there." Sam glanced towards the glass-enclosed building. Spotting the black minivan these folks arrived in, Sam dragged the men one by one, by the heels and unceremoniously dumped their limp forms inside, then slammed the doors.
Heading back towards the conservatory, he heard the distinctive clang of blade on blade, Jeri's soft breathing and Cullen's ursine growling. "At least she's still alive. You go, girl. Give'em as good as you get."
Of all the rules governing Immortals, the one he knew by heart, was that during a battle running interference by another wasn't allowed. "Stupid rule," he muttered, sitting down on a nearby bench, silently cheering his friend on.
Both opponents brought up the hilts of their swords in the time-honored salute of swordfighters throughout history. They lowered them with the points horizontally about five feet above the ground. Rocking back on her heels, Jeri assumed a battle ready stance, poised to either strike or defend. She watched as Cullen ponderously circled her. She imitated him, but circled counter clockwise. Both were looking for an opening in the other's defense. Suddenly Cullen let out a bear-like growl and leveled his sword until it was even with her shoulderblades, charging like an angry bear from its den.
"You might as well get on your knees, and let me take your head, woman," Cullen growled.
"You'd spoil my fun," Jeri replied.
"I don't think it's going to be that easy."
Jeri handled her sword right-handed, using her center of balance to draw tighter, a white-knuckled grip on the hilt, employing a series of thrusts, using its length to dart in for arcing cuts at Cullen while dancing back to stay out of his range. His longer, more powerful arms enabled him to basically hammer away at her sword. For all his ponderous bulk, the man could move rather quickly. Jeri parried with the flat of her blade, the cross-guard to block, and on brief occasions to lock up her opponents.
She hacked at his torso, tearing a long gash through fabric and flesh, using the opposite edge of her sword, protecting her hand from slamming into Cullen's. Pivoting on her heel, she narrowly avoided a darting thrust at level with the back of her knees intended to hamstring her, making it easier for him to take her head.
She narrowly missed another slash at her lower ribs and spun around with a technique learned in judo class. Cullen may have been bigger and stronger, but she'd learned that most opponents she eventually face would be, therefore she had to be smarter and faster. She had one advantage that way, she could get in under his guard.
Darting into range, Jeri locked up Cullen's weapon and swiveling around her sword, she swiped it across his throat, as he instinctively brought up his sword-hand to stem the flow of blood, dropping his weapon. Spinning around, Jeri raised her sword above her head, thinking even as she did so, that during their last meeting he'd been on the opposite of this very scenario, when he'd executed her friends, Jane Grey and John Dudley.
"Finish it, Mckenna," Fenris Cullen growled, defiant until the end.
"There can be only one," Jeri said and separated Cullen's head from his body. After she did so, a white fog rolled up out of nowhere, smothering her.
The magic contained the memories of all the talents of its previous owner. His every move. It was all there for her to tap into, both the good and the bad, and all that entailed, bound into the power of the Quickening. Floating in the storm wind, the essence flooded into her and through her with all her barriers down. As much as a rush as experiencing the Quickening was; in a corner of Jeri's mind, she was glad she'd taken the fight with Cullen on herself. Sam Guthrie, Cannonball, had spent most of his adult life learning how to control his powers, learning how to fight, to survive in a world where mutants were feared and hated. But Immortals, and their cosmic Game of good versus evil, preparing for the Gathering. That was drastically different. He wasn't ready.
Then all rational thought was swept away. The coruscating energy swept over her entire body, sparkling crackles of lightning hitting her at her ribs, her upper arms, and down her legs. She tried to hold her sword upright in the ground, but she lost her grip, and stumbled to her knees, letting out a primal scream as the energy coursed through her. It could have been ages, but it was only a matter of minute before the Quickening transference ran its course.
Lightning lanced down out of a clear sky, imploding the glass panels of the conservatory. It set the double row of pine trees on fire, enough for several weeks worth of firewood. Sam watched as the black van drove away, and glimpsed Jeri stagger down the steps.
"Sam, you don't know how much I appreciate you coming all this way to help me."
"Don't sweat it, Jeri. That's what friends are for," Sam said, letting her lean up against him as he led her over to a bench. He lowered her so she was resting comfortably. "You look like hell. Does the Quickening always do this?"
"Pretty much. It's like coming down from a incredible height."
"You didn't take the fight on yourself for me."
"Sam, I meant that..."
"But you had some sort of history with that Cullen guy."
"It's ancient history, but I've left it too long unresolved."
"It's over now?"
"Cullen won't be coming back. Ever."
"You beat him."
"It took some doing. It was touch and go most of the way."
"Not that I'm sorry he's dead, but I'm glad you beat him."
"How long you planning on staying?"
"Well, now that the emergency is over..."
"Unless you've got some pressing X-Force business, why don't you stay with me, I'll show you around town."
"Sure thing." Sam replied, as Jeri tilted forward and fell asleep. Since she was obviously exhausted, he didn't think it was that much trouble to let her stay there. The funny thing was, Immortal or not, she reminded him of his sister, and in odd way, he often thought as their friendship in that way.
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